Saturday, April 9, 2011

Tron: Legacy

It’s been a while since I reviewed a nice, big, loud, dumb action movie (I think the last I did was Prince of Persia, and that one was far from nice), so it was kind of fun to try to watch Tron and Tron: Legacy back to back earlier today (I say “try”, as I kind of fell asleep halfway through the original -- I don’t get to sleep much during the week). If they aren’t exactly “good” movies, per se, they’re at least modestly entertaining ones, and sometimes, that’s all you really need.

The film, directed by newbie filmmaker Joseph Kosinski, is every bit as video gamey as movies get. It keeps the plot both minimal and incomprehensible, and the action fast-paced and beautifully gaudy. Basically Jeff Bridges (the star of the original film) has been missing for over a decade, and his now-adult son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is a sort of directionless youth that indulges in screwing over his dad’s company Encom and parachuting off of skyscrapers. One day, however, he gets a page from his dad back at his abandoned arcade or whatever, and when he goes to investigate he finds a portal that sucks him into the Tron universe. There he quickly discovers the place is ruled by Clu, a program with his father’s face CG’d onto him, who has him fight in the various arena games. Just before he’s killed in one massive group race, however, he’s rescued by a mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde), who takes him to his father’s secret lair, where they can then plan out how to fix everything that’s gone wrong. Or at least on how to escape. Or at least on how one or two of them can escape.

As flimsy action movie plots go, this one is retarded but serviceable, and provides us with several action sequences, the best of which is the group race that I just gave away the ending to. There’s also a big climactic battle with a bunch of planes that starts off rather exciting, but drags on far too long, and has way too many cutaway scenes of Jeff Bridges saying things like “Yeah!” and “All right!”, which reminded me of nothing more than young Anakin during the equally lengthy pod race scene in Phantom Menace. A little goes a long way, people.

I also have to take some issues with the color scheme. It’s become almost a cliché that half the movies now just obsess over showing blue and orange color contrasts since they’re at opposite ends of the color wheel, so did we need an entire movie world that’s solely those two colors? It’s about as lazy a method of visual design as we can get in such a film. Though it is still a great deal better than the “All brown and gold all the time” color scheme used to such fugly effect in Prince of Persia.

I am, of course, being too unkind to the movie. For what it is, and what it tries to be, it succeeds moderately well. There may be no real soul to any of the characters, but you don’t go to a big effects-driven movie like this expecting really memorable characters and stories, do you? No, you go to these expecting some really flashy effects and a few cool action sequences, and that’s exactly what this movie delivers. It goes on a bit too long, and it never really excels at any point, but at least it’s never boring or tedious like so many movies of its kind. It’s a movie that’s just the right amount of idiotic, without making you feel like everyone involved fully believes you are an idiot for watching it, you know?

Rating: **


Saturday, April 2, 2011

Jackass 3D

For those wondering why there was no review last week, it's because I had placed the finishing touches on what is now this week's review, only to watch MS Word crash and delete everything when I tried to post it, and it's taken me this long to muster up the energy to rewrite it. Regardless, I should mention that I had originally intended to write a review of the first season of Walking Dead, only to find that I couldn't muster up the energy for it (for the record, it's a solid show so far, but hasn't really developed enough in the first six episodes for me to say for certain of its quality one way or the other), and wound up deciding to review Jackass 3D instead. I'm glad that I did too, because it was the funniest damn movie of last year, with the Jackass guys getting everything right that Todd Phillips got wrong with Due Date.

For those that are much more cultured than I, Jackass began as a show on MTV based around the likes of Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Steve-O and friends all getting together to perform a bunch of ridiculous stunts that mainly involved them hurting themselves in stupid, stupid ways. After a few seasons, I suppose they realized that it would be better for their health if they were to end the show and just do everything in movie format once every few years.

I admit, I was a tad bit disappointed with Jackass 2. While it was certainly funny, even just a couple months after watching it, the only bit I could remember was the four-way teeter totter in the middle of the rodeo. With this, however, I can absolutely affirm that the series is back on track, with a great many instances of incredibly stupid and dangerous stunts, such as when they test the theory that music can soothe the savage beast by going into a ram's pen armed with a tuba and trumpet, or when Knoxville decides to go rollerskating in the middle of some charging buffalo, or when they decide to see how well they can withstand the winds created by a jet plane. There's a notice in the end credits about how the ASPCA was around for several scenes to ensure no animals were harmed, though I have to assume they weren't there for the beehive tetherball.

Of course, there's also two segments that are a little more memorable than any in the previous two films. In one, they play a prank on Bam for his fear of snakes by letting him fall into a disguised pit and then dropping dozens of live snakes down in there with him, marking what might be the first time Bam has ever cried on camera. In the second, what's meant to be a bit of a goof involving Knoxville messing around with a bull almost leads to a very uncomfortable end to the series when the bull flips him around so that Knoxville lands hard right on his head, making sure to get in a kick to the head right as he's landing for good measure. It's the sort of fall that's designed to paralyze or kill a person, and while Knoxville was able to get up and awkwardly stagger away to safety, it's pretty telling that, while with most of the painful stunts in the film we get all the non-participants off to the sides laughing at their friends' pain, here they're all just immediately terrified that he might be crippled. It's a rather uncomfortable way to underpin the warnings at the beginning and ending of the film that viewers should never try any of these at home.

Now, having said all of this, should you watch this movie? All I can give you are the facts, and quite simply, I laughed more and harder during this film than at any other movie this past year. It's frequently disgusting and about as horribly offensive as any good-natured movie could be (I feel I have to put that in, because there are movies I find much more offensive in a rather mean-spirited, hateful way -- like Expelled, for a recently watched example), but if you can withstand watching several people vomiting one by one, or a man that goes bungee jumping inside a Port-A-Potty (with all that such a premise implies), then by all means, you should absolutely give this a view. Though please, don't try this at home, at least unless you have some solid friends that are ready to post it on Youtube even when you kill yourself.

Rating: *** 1/2


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Due Date

I guess director Todd Phillips was due to make another weak comedy, to get it out of his system before making The Hangover 2. This is a bit of an inconsistent mess, occasionally brilliant, but more frequently boring or just plain irritating, and unfortunately by it’s very nature one is forced to spend the entirety of the film thinking of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which it’s not even in the same league as.

See if you’ve heard this before. An uptight businessman (Robert Downey Jr.) is trying to fly home to his family for an important event, but is stymied in his efforts, and reduced to getting a ride with an overly sociable chubby fellow (Zach Galifianakis). The two then have a series of wacky misadventures together traveling across the country in a variety of vehicles, as Mr. Uptight grows to truly hate his companion before eventually deciding that he may in fact not be quite so bad after all. Sounds like the most original plot in the world, right?

But of course the overall originality of the plot doesn’t matter so much as how effectively done it was, and it’s really not that effective here. There are some big laughs -- I’m sure I laughed much more than is really healthy when Downey dealt with a misbehaving child by punching him in the gut and threatening to beat him further if he told anyone -- but overall it seems like Phillips was more interested in being mean-spirited and uncomfortable than funny, and the film suffers for it.

Take, for example, the character of Darryl (Jamie Foxx). A friend of Downey’s, he arrives in his car to rescue both of them after yet another ugly mishap, and when they reach his house Galifianakis immediately starts suggesting to Downey that Foxx is sleeping with Downey’s wife. Naturally Downey believes him and fires off a terse voice mail to his wife asking if he’s going to be dealing with a surprise when the baby is delivered, and that’s pretty much it. The next time it’s brought up, it’s when he’s hastily apologizing to his wife for being a headcase. There’s no real drive to it whatsoever, it’s just uncomfortableness for the sheer sake of uncomfortableness. And pretty half-hearted uncomfortableness, at that -- Danny DeVito would have made this material much nastier and funnier.

I think that’s really a large part of the problem. Comedies need to be really tightly wound in order to work: you don’t really need to look any further than the aforementioned Planes, Trains, and Automobiles for a perfect example. Due Date is simply too laid back and aloof, setting up several situations without giving them any proper follow-through. The only ones that are permitted to truly escalate are scenes involving lots of vehicular destruction, as if Phillips had just gotten done watching The Blues Brothers before storyboarding.

Phillips just got done making one of the best comedies in recent years with The Hangover before this, and with The Hangover 2 currently in post-production, I can only hope that he felt that he needed to get all of his bad ideas out of the way before doing his big money film. As for this one, you can definitely give it a pass. I’d say it was past it’s due date, but the very thought of saying such a thing makes my testicles want to shrivel up.

Rating: * ½


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Birdemic: Shock and Terror

I should probably explain, right before I go anywhere with this review, that despite the three star rating I’m giving this film, it’s actually a pretty terrible movie. It is, however, one of those blissfully, transcendentally awful movies that rises deep down below its limitations to give us a piece of truly inspired filmmaking. This should be viewed as part of a double feature with the likes of Battlefield Earth or Plan 9 for those that enjoy such fare.

But I get ahead of myself once again. This is the story of Rod (Alan Bagh) and Nathalie (Whitney Moore), two twentysomethings that run into each other and begin a whirlwind romance. He’s a rising young software salesman with impeccable business sense (at one point he’s on the phone with a client and offer’s them whatever his competitor did plus a 50% discount, and is quite proud of himself for making the sale even though with that kind of business acumen his company will soon be going under) and she’s a lingerie model who sadly never gets naked. After a really uncomfortable date (they enjoy each other’s company just fine, though there’s all the awkward pauses and stilted lines that one would expect from a movie where the cast is reading their lines from cue cards and there’s only one camera which needs to keep being turned off and repositioned instead of splicing footage together), they spend the night together and wake up to find a town in flames. It seems that the seagulls have gone crazy and begun waging war on humanity, and also now when they collide with anything they explode. Oh, and they can also spit acid at people, as birds do. It’s now up to them and a few other scattered survivors to try to fight their way out of town and to safety.

So, where to begin with the review proper? I suppose I almost have to start with the unique CG on display here. You know how in some Hollywood blockbusters, they have these big elaborate bits of CG that just seem slightly off somehow, like they look really impressive on their own but don’t quite seem to actually be sharing space with the non-CG stuff on the screen? Now imagine someone (someone in this case being writer/director/producer James Nguyen) using lots of CG, except the entire film has a budget of $10,000, and so no effort whatsoever is made to try to get the murderous birds to seem like they even exist in the same film. I want to talk about how no effort was made to shade them properly so they don’t look so much brighter than the actors they’re in the frame with, but that seems almost beside the point when half the time they don’t even interact in any way with the actors, instead just flying in place and slowly flapping their wings while the humans wave weapons frantically at the air (you can see this in the trailer below, by the way). It’s a truly inspired decision to make the CG this bad, and I for one cannot wait to see how Nguyen utilizes 3D for the sequel he’s currently filming.

Then there are of course the other problems with the movie, which comprise everything else. I’ve already touched on the general acting, and you can see easy examples of that in the trailer, so I won’t say much more here beyond that, while nobody gives anything close to a good performance in the film, our hero Rod is easily the worst, and I fully respect the decision-making process that led to him becoming the lead despite his obvious handicap. There’s also the curious musical choices, which tend toward the cheerful muzak end, leading me to assume Nguyen just grabbed the first pieces of public domain music he could find and called it a day. Then there’s the reasoning behind the bird attacks, which are the typical “Man is destroying the environment and that must be the reason!” explanation that we frequently get with killer animal movies. However much I may agree we need to combat global warming, I’m not certain the cause is really being helped by such as this, you know? There’s also the tremendous amounts of padding to help get the film up to 90 minutes. There’s the standard horror movie padding, of course, where every so often a new character will be introduced solely for the purposes of being swiftly killed, but we also get ponderously long bits where the camera just shows bits of scenery while the soothing muzak plays. You can see that better in the alternate trailer (not included below, but which is still on Youtube -- No, I‘m not doing all the work for you, you lazy slackers), which is literally just a minute straight of scenery shots with no people at all, and then a minute of crappy CG birds flying in place with no people at all. The opening title credits, in particular, give us five or six minutes of just someone driving around, like we finally got an American version of Solaris….wait…

So with all of that in mind, you should have a pretty solid idea by now as to whether this is the movie for you. After all, a substantial chunk (one might even call it the vast majority) of the general movie going audience has little patience for a film so blatantly inept and amateurish (note that I don’t say bad, as every year we get plenty examples of movies worse than this that become big hits), but I have to assume that there’s a few people out there that read the names Battlefield Earth and Plan 9 and want to check this out, and it is to those people that I give these stars for. It’s one of those rare brilliant terrible movies, and one that everyone should find time to see.

Rating: ***


Sunday, February 27, 2011


So I should probably explain what the hell happened to the blog last week. Basically, I got a new job, and while I’m in training, I have to make a three hour round trip drive to my classes, because why wouldn’t they be on the other end of the state, plus a good hour or so of homework each day. Therefore, until the training is finished, this blog’s going to go from being updated five times a week to once a week. It’s only for the next couple weeks, though, so have no fear. Also, thank you to the guys at Red Letter Media, who seem to give me hundreds of new readers each and every time I mention them. Also, thank you to the makers of Megamind, for making a pretty darn good movie to start the week off right.

The film stars Will Ferrell as Megamind, a brilliant alien supervillain who has had a lifelong rivalry with his heroic counterpart Metro Man (Brad Pitt). After one of his fiendish deathtraps turns out to be unexpectedly successful, he finds himself ruler of Metro City, and has no idea what to do with himself. He finds himself falling for plucky reporter Roxanne Ritchie (Tina Fey), but realizing she’d never go for him as Megamind, disguises himself as a Clark Kent-looking reporter and gets himself in tight as her new partner so that he can better woo her. Of course, his continued villainy seems strangely empty without a hero to challenge himself against, and so he decides to take some shlub (Jonah Hill) and give him all of Metro Man’s powers (begging the question, of course, of why he never used that on himself back when he was regularly fighting Metro Man) to have a new hero to pit himself against. Of course, things turn horribly awry when Hill decides to use his new powers to conquer the city rather than save it, and now it’s up to Megamind and Roxanne to stop him.

This film, by director Tom McGrath (whose previous efforts in the Madagascar films were not half as good as this), is much funnier and more clever than the trailers had made it out to be. There’s a lot of great little bits of humor (such as Megamind crash landing on Earth as an infant in a Prison For the Criminally Gifted, and the warden evidently deciding that he should just remain a prisoner there for no discernable reason), and the voice talents are all wonderful (Ferrell is particularly delightful, and shows that maybe he should be allowed to occasionally play a role where he’s not a complete moron). The visual design isn’t quite on par with Tangled or How to Train Your Dragon, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that by this point every animated movie that comes out of Disney or Dreamworks is going to look pretty darn impressive and colorful.

Now, I know it’s been getting compared a lot with Despicable Me, as it’s one of those awkward coincidences where two movies with similar premises (in this case, an animated film where the protagonist is a super villain) come out within a few months of each other, but the two are fairly different beasts. I mean, granted, they’re both animated, they both star supervillains voiced by famous comedic actors (Steve Carrell in Despicable Me), they both have their villainous leads start to imagine changing their villainous ways due to love of another (Roxanne here, and the three little girls in Despicable), they both dramatically show their villainous leads transforming into heroes by way of having them fight it out with other villains (Jonah Hill as Titan here and Russell Brand as Dr. Nefario there), and they both inexplicably end with everyone dancing, but…seriously, is there some secret website that just comes up with like a half dozen basic templates each year that every movie then gets patterned off of here? It’s ponderous, is what it is.

Still, that’s not to say either one is bad, or even that they necessarily had anything to do with each other (in fact, I‘d say it‘s pretty damn unlikely they were in any way connected). Both are pretty great films, though I’d say this one is the superior film. It’s funnier, more emotionally and intellectually satisfying, and it’s filled with some nice rock music from the likes of AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne. That Megamind’s got some good taste, yo.

Though, ugh, did they have to end the movie by having everyone dance to Michael Jackson?

Rating: *** ½


Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Willies

I’m not really sure what the intended audience for The Willies was, exactly. I would have to assume, from the incredibly juvenile humor and urban legends found within (and by how the film revolves around theoretically elementary school age children) that it’s a horror movie for the young ones. However, they then throw in just enough violence and blood to ensure themselves a PG-13 rating with such things as a woman getting her throat cut and some bloody, dismembered arms, as if they cynically decided that young children would refuse to watch any horror movies that were actually rated as suitable for children. Of course, the point is somewhat academic, as the film is so bad that its actual target audience is idiots that buy tons of cheap movies for review material for their blogs.

Anyway, the film is an anthology that uses the framing device of three kids (Sean Astin and two others that never developed actual careers) out in a tent in the woods telling each other urban legends to try to scare/gross out each other. They start with a few of the more famous ones, like a woman at a fast food place getting a fried rat mixed in with her bucket of chicken, and the haunted house ride that was originally so scary that a man actually died of fright so the operators had to tone it down (a sample of this film’s idea of humor: the ride’s obviously meant to be Disney’s Haunted Mansion, but I guess they couldn’t get the rights to that, so they just made allusions to other rides at the park like “It’s a Wee World” and “The Enchanting Wiki Hut” -- if you just threw up in your mouth a little, that’s only to be expected), before they get to the two main stories.

That’s right, two. While most anthology films go for three to five stories to accompany their wraparounds, this one just gives us two main stories (No, I am not counting the fried rat or the others as separate stories, not when all of them combined are maybe five minutes long), perhaps under the assumption that this would help them dodge the complaint that most anthologies wind up with one story that’s just not as good as all the others. Unfortunately, this just means that the two stories instead go on much longer than is justified, until you can almost feel the padding being added as they panic over having almost blown through the script and still having a lot more time to kill to reach 90 minutes.

Plus, it also still has that very problem I’m casually assuming was the intended reason for the dual stories, in that the second story is much worse than the first (Its also a good deal longer too, which may have something to do with it). The first is lame, but functional, and follows a kid that has to alternate between dealing with bullies and dealing with a horrid teacher (Kathleen Freeman of Gremlins 2 fame). While the school custodian reaches out to him a bit, his fortunes really change when he discovers a monster in the bathroom, which is obviously the custodian there to help the boy out by killing and eating all of his enemies. The second one, about a thoroughly loathsome boy obsessed with flies, rambles on for so long without anything approaching a point to it that our government could have used it to crack prisoners at Guantanamo. The boy, played by Donkeylips from Salute Your Shorts, is fat, has a lisp, constantly insults others, collects flies anywhere he can find them, and at one point even convinces a female classmate that he’s not really that bad, and all he needs is a friend, and when she takes him at his word and tries to befriend him he goes on to give her a cookie he made filled with dead flies. He of course gets his comeuppance at the end by the tragic irony of the very flies he was so obsessed with, but it’s pretty abrupt and unsatisfying.

I can only wish the movie itself had been so abrupt, as watching it I felt like it might have been twice as long as it actually wound up being. The humor was so lame I have a hard time even envisioning six year olds laughing at it (actually, strike that, I can easily see six year olds laughing at it, assuming their parents actually let them watch it), the film is so slow paced as to be coma inducing, there‘s a completely random cameo from Kirk Cameron and Tracey Gold as their Growing Pains characters (odd that Cameron didn‘t make it into Expelled as one of the ID experts) that goes nowhere, and presumably only exists due to writer/director Brian Peck having been a frequent actor on the show; this may be the worst horror anthology I’ve ever watched. If you ever take my advice on anything, let it be this: be very, very careful just which mostly forgotten children’s horror movies you seek out, because not all of them are awesome.

Rating: *

P.S. Also, notice in the trailer below (which is unfathomably in HD) how every last “scare” in the film is fully displayed without ever needing to watch the movie itself. Also, notice how awful all the acting is. Notice it, I say!


Thursday, February 17, 2011


It figures. Right when I take the time to craft a new word for Tony Scott to describe his over-directing, he goes ahead and tones himself down considerably, leaving me with a perfectly worthwhile runaway train movie that doesn’t have any of the big camera or CG flourishes that we’ve all slowly come to be annoyed by with him.

The film stars Denzel Washington and Chris Pine as two new partners working for the Pennsylvania railroads. Their first day together finds them with some problems, however, when a horrible screw-up far down the line leads to an unmanned train going full speed down their line. As one by one all the rail company’s plans to stop the train fail miserably, it becomes clear that the only way for disaster to be averted is for Captain Kirk and Malcolm X to stop it themselves.

One thing I was rather fond of with this film was just how the train got going through a perfect storm of fairly plausible mechanical errors and one tremendous bit of human error (before the end credits, when the film is giving us a textual account of where the various survivors are today, the guy that screwed up initially gets a particularly amusing outcome). Then, because it is of course an action movie and not a documentary, we have to ratchet up the tension by explaining how the train simply has too many cars -- and thus, far to much weight on it -- to be stopped by any ordinary runaway train means, and then we naturally also discover that eight of its cars are carrying a highly toxic and flammable substance, making sure that if the train derails when it reaches the tight curve in Bellaire, Ohio, the entire city will be destroyed.

The film works both in how it sets up its various crises and in how it solves them (or doesn’t, as the case may be). For instance, early on, before they realize just how fast the train is moving (they originally just think it’s drifting slowly, not realizing it’s plowing ahead at full speed), there’s a brief subplot with a train full of schoolchildren on the same track that winds up being diverted just in time. A less confident film might have spent a half hour or more on them even though everyone watching knows full well a damn train full of kids isn’t going to be wiped out. Here, they’re diverted almost immediately after the runaway train is reported, and though they get off the track just in time for the kids to all ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ as it whizzes past them, the film doesn’t try to insult us by spending any undue time pretending what’s going to happen.

I worry that I may be overhyping it to much here now. The problem arises in that, while it’s nothing particularly fantastic, there really isn’t anything appreciably wrong with it, either. The acting is solid down the line (if it‘s occasionally overdone, this is exactly the kind of movie that requires it), it’s nice and fast-paced, there’s good buddy cop-style banter between Washington and Pine, it doesn’t insult our intelligence, and it’s directed both competently and without any of Tony Scott’s excesses. The only real problem is that it never actually excels at anything; it’s unfortunately probably going to wind up one of those movies that you’ll watch whenever it happens to be on TV, and will simply drift out of your consciousness almost immediately afterward. Still, that hour and a half you’re watching it? Solid.

Rating: ***

P.S. The film is supposedly based on a true story. I have no choice but to assume, however, that it took a few more liberties with the facts than 127 Hours did


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

127 Hours

And I now narrow my list of Best Picture nominees I have yet to see down to just Black Swan and True Grit. Hey, it matters to me, alright? Anyway, this wasn’t really one of the better nominees, but it’s still a pretty solid if somewhat over-directed film.

James Franco stars as Aron Ralston, an energetic part time hiker that is spending yet another weekend canyoneering (See, movies can teach new words!) in Utah when, after meeting two cute girls and getting invited to a party they’re throwing that evening, he finds himself in a bit of a pickle. Specifically, he finds his arm trapped underneath a rock that came loose and fell on him during his adventure. We are then stuck with him for the next 127 hours (Hey, like the title!) as he tries every way available to free himself, before finally accepting that he’s going to need to use his knife to chip away at something other than the rock pinning him.

It’s a really interesting story, and is really well acted, but I found it being occasionally overdone pretty heavily. I know director Danny Boyle has a bit of a history of over-directing, but this is a story that screams for something a bit more low key. Instead, he directs chunks of it as though he were trying to make an extreme sports fan’s ultimate fantasy movie, very loud and in-your-face and more than slightly abrasive. Even when the story’s been reduced to just him stuck under a rock, Boyle throws in constant flashbacks and daydreams, complete with split screens, ugly fishbowl lens shots, and anything else Boyle can think of to keep from letting us just focus on the story at hand. It’s all very unnecessary and distracting, and weakens the film considerably.

This is not to say that it’s a bad movie. It’s one of the rather surprising number of films made in recent years about someone stuck in one location fighting nature for survival (putting it with the likes of Frozen and Buried, both of which also came out in 2010), and while it’s not the best in that genre I’ve seen (Frozen is my current favorite), it’s certainly one of the better ones. James Franco works his ass off here, managing an increasing amount of desperation and despair while keeping true to a core level of confidence and optimism. Not an easy task, and he definitely earns his Best Actor nomination, if nothing else.

Of course, that’s obviously not the only good part of the film, and to be fair, Boyle does manage to occasionally reign himself in and give us some scenes of quiet sadness as he stands there (because of his pinned arm, he’s unable to sit) quietly understanding that he’s almost certainly going to die. I wish the entire movie had been this calm and thoughtful, but the film still manages to get us into Ralston’s mind well enough despite Boyle’s Tony Scottization (I’m making that a term now, yes) of the visual scheme.

This is probably the weakest of the Best Picture nominees (though again, I still have two left to see), and that’s due almost entirely to Boyle going so overboard with the visual style as though he wasn’t confident enough in the material. It’s still really well acted and surprisingly fast-paced for a movie with so little action to it. If I wish it were better, it could easily have been so much worse as well.

Rating: ***


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Top Ten Horror Movies of 2010

So after having finally seen enough decent efforts to stretch out a real top ten list, and to write about something a bit happier than the dreary nonsense I’ve been subjecting myself to earlier this week, I bring you the ten best horror movies of last year. There’s two reasons it’s taken me until mid-February to finally write this up: I missed several of these when they were in the theater, and so had to wait for the DVDs to come out, and quite honestly there were so few good horror movies out last year that it was difficult to even come up with ten worthy efforts. Hopefully 2011 will be better. And in case you’re wondering, The Crazies was number 11.

10. Burning Bright

It’s a film with a fairly ridiculous premise (a woman and her autistic son are trapped in their boarded up house while a deadly Bengal tiger stalks them), and finds a way to make it work, giving us a tight, intelligent cat and mouse game (no pun intended). This didn’t make it into theaters outside of some horror festivals, making it just one more example of why most of the best horror movies nowadays can essentially only be seen in the comfort of your own home.

9. Hatchet 2

I’m not sure whether to say the same about this movie, as it did get a theatrical release, though since it was released uncensored and unrated it got yanked from most theaters after one day. Anyway, the original was possibly my favorite slasher movie of the last decade. This one isn’t as fun or silly (and it doesn’t have nearly as much nudity, sadly), but it does try to make up for it by greatly ratcheting up the violence. Seriously, it’s one of the goriest films I’ve ever seen, right up there with one of Miike’s nastier efforts. Anyone reading this should already know just from that whether they’re going to want to see this or not.

8. Devil

It’s been a surprisingly good year for horror movies set in confined spaces. First there was Burning Bright, now Devil, and later one there’s one more. Anyway, this was one of the rare widely-released horror movies of the year that didn’t suck, with a group of people trapped in an elevator, one of whom is secretly the devil. It’s a pretty smart, suspenseful film that was unfortunately torpedoed in theaters by the prominent inclusion of producer M. Night Shyamalan’s name in the trailers.

7. Splice

Another quality horror movie that got sunk by a bad marketing campaign that basically promised everyone it was going to be a straight ripoff of Species, when it was actually all about a scientist couple creating and raising a mutant baby, and raising rather interesting questions about the morality of what they were doing, and aren’t they being rather horrible parents here. It of course devolves into standard Hollywood horror at the end, but until then it’s actually a very surprising and unique film.

6. The Human Centipede (First Sequence

Probably the most infamous horror movie released last year, this underseen film follows the adventures of a charming German scientist who kidnaps three tourists and surgically attaches them mouth-to-anus to create a human centipede, which he believes to be the ultimate life form. There’s not a ton of action in the film, leaving us plenty of time to watch this surgical monstrosity in action, stamping all over the floor and wanting to curse the scientist out but not having enough free mouths to do so. So twisted, it’s a little surprising it wasn’t done by someone from Asia.

5. Let Me In

While there really wasn’t much of a reason for this remake to exist beyond appeasing people that cry when they see subtitles, it does manage to be probably the best vampire movie since the original (not that it had a ton of competition, admittedly). It’s slow paced and moody, more interested in developing its characters than on scares or gross-out scenes, and in general plays to the exact opposite sentiments of Hatchet 2. But yes, you should still watch both.

4. Piranha

While I missed this when it was in theaters and so didn’t get to enjoy the wonderfully garish 3-D they used, I did finally see it when it was released on DVD, and it is as delightfully trashy as anyone could have hoped for. It’s the rare remake that’s superior to the original (granted, the original wasn’t all that great, despite being helmed by Joe Dante), and continues director Alejandre Aja’s streak of good movies. It’s chock full of nudity, violence, and incredibly obvious and cheesy 3D shots, and is a ton of fun.

3. Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy

Some would call this cheating, since this is actually a documentary about a series of horror movies, but I don’t care. What we get here is an incredibly in-depth collection of interviews with virtually everyone among the cast and crew of every Nightmare on Elm Street film (aside from the remake, whose only mention is one person briefly mentioning that a remake was being made) to talk about every last aspect of each film that you could ask for. It’s incredibly informative, frequently really funny, and more than anything just makes you want to watch all of them all over again, even the bad ones.

2. Feeding Frenzy

Made by the people at Red Letter Media (who have been responsible for at least half of this site’s traffic since I posted my original review -- thanks guys!), this is a loving homage to all the small rubber monster movies of the 80s that came out in the wake of Gremlins. It’s visibly low budget, but works with that in creating one of the most laid back and funny films of the year, horror or otherwise. For those unfamiliar with these guys, they’re the ones that did those brilliant Star Wars reviews, and the narrator of those is in this film.

1. Frozen

Writer/director Adam Green had kind of a big year last year, releasing this and Hatchet 2. This was not only the superior film (and my pick for best of the year, obviously), but it was his greatest film to date. We follow the troubles of three friends on a skiing vacation as, due to a horrible mixup, wind up getting stuck on a ski lift as the place shuts down for the week as a blizzard gets ready to roll in. Now they have to find a way to make it off the lift to the ground a hundred or so feet below them before they all freeze to death. It’s scary, beautifully directed, and features some surprisingly touching character development. It’s everything you could want in a horror movie.

So there you have it. Not the best year for horror movies, but there were still enough to make a good list. You could certainly do a lot worse than making a week out of watching all of them, so get on that.


Monday, February 14, 2011

An American Carol

Oh, David Zucker, how far you have fallen. One of the three writer-directors involved in arguably my favorite movie of all time (The Naked Gun), you’ve now reduced yourself to making a “spoof” that is so focused on trashing anything liberal (or anything that’s opposed to the Bush administration, I should say) that most of its attempts at humor are half-hearted at best.

The film stars Kevin Farley as Michael Malone, a Michael Moore parody who’s trying to get funding for his next movie, which he intends to be a serious drama showcasing the overwhelming corruption and evil that is America, and which will hopefully get him out of the documentarian hole he’s found himself in. Enter Aziz (Robert Davi), Ahmed (Serdar Kalsin), and Mohammed (Geoffery Arend), two filmmakers and a terrorist who want him to make their big pro-terrorism opus, and give him the funding he needs while not telling him about their true purposes. However, Malone is “saved” from his wicked beliefs by the appearance of three ghosts -- General Patton (Kelsey Grammer), George Washington (Jon Voight), and the Angel of Death (Trace Adkins), who show him what the world would be like if all of his foolish liberal beliefs were actually enacted, in order that he learn that conservativism is the only proper outlook on life in time to stop the terrorists from enacting their dastardly plot.

I suppose I should first get out of the way why I’ve been watching these ridiculous conservative films this week. It just so happens that they finally released the trailer for Atlas Shrugged Part 1 (it was originally intended to be a miniseries before all the TV channels passed on it), and since so few movies get made from a hardline conservative viewpoint (well, aside from action movies), I thought it might be fun to watch a couple of the rare ones that actually did get made. I’ve since learned my lesson, and tomorrow you’ll be getting my list of the Top Ten Horror Movies of 2010.

Anyway, this film, unlike Expelled before it, manages to be slightly superior and harder to hate simply by virtue of the fact that it’s so incompetent that hating it would almost seem mean. The jokes are virtually all ponderously obvious and labored, as though Zucker is now getting his material from Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer of ___ Movie fame (sample joke: a kid asks “What’s a demonstration?”, to which Leslie Nielsen replies “It’s when students show how much they don’t know by repeating it loudly”, before of course cutting to Malone giving a speech while throngs of college students wielding large placards angrily chant everything he says). I’m not sure what magical spark it was when Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker worked together, but it sure isn’t there when they aren’t.

Then there’s the astonishing politics on display in the film. Obviously, given the plot, Muslims take a lot of hits in the film (indeed, there’s not a single Muslim in the entire film that’s not connected with terrorism -- JUST LIKE IN REAL LIFE, RIGHT GUYS?), as well as Michael Moore (the fat jokes come fast and furious), but they’re hardly alone. No, with this film, we learn that all documentary filmmakers are evil (at a documentary awards ceremony, they start off by honoring Leni Reifenstahl for being such a great inspiration with her beautiful portrayals of Hitler and the Nazi party), all professors are evil, pacifists are evil, separation of Church and State is evil, allowing inmates at Guantanamo access to lawyers is evil, obeying the Constitution is apparently evil, or at least it is if you try to apply it to everyone instead of just The Good Guys, the ACLU is evil, Cuba is evil, the Geneva Convention is evil, is evil, stem cell research is evil, Jimmy Carter is evil, and while I don’t recall the context, I wrote in my notes “ending world hunger”, so I can only assume that’s sick and wrong as well. So what’s good about America? Well, Bill O’Reilly (he’s in the film playing himself), country music (in addition to playing the Angel of Death, Trace Adkins also plays himself and puts on a concert to provide the setting for the climax -- we also get country music over all of the end credits), the Patriot Act, which the terrorists all bemoan as making their jobs harder, and apparently all that added TSA airline security, since Zucker seems to find it ridiculous that anyone would complain about having to take their shoes off, have toothpaste or baby bottles confiscated, or strip searched to use an airplane. Rather surprisingly, he’s also a fan of the Civil War, and argues in the film that it’s the only reason slavery no longer exists in the United States. It’s an interesting statement to make for someone trying to desperately to cozy up to conservatives, many of whom view the Civil War as an unprovoked act of Northern aggression and claim that slavery was on its way out with or without the war. Perhaps this is why the film didn’t do so well in the south. Or perhaps it’s because the movie is terrible, I don’t know.

David Zucker describes himself these days as a 9/11 Republican, which means that he threw away all of his old liberal views when the Twin Towers fell (or possibly when the Pentagon hit, but most people tend to focus more on the former). Now, I know that 9/11 was a traumatic event, but quite honestly, if all of your beliefs and views change when a traumatic world event occurs, then your old beliefs and views were very clearly not all that deeply held, and your new ones must not be either, since clearly all that’s needed is another traumatic event to change them all up again. The film is so rah-rah all things Bush that it almost feels like he’s trying way too hard to show off his new conservative bona fides, as though perhaps if he just trashes liberals that little extra bit more he’ll start getting invited to all the cool conservative parties. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs for someone that was once one of the greatest filmmakers around (Historical note: his very first movie after becoming a 9/11 Republican? My Boss’s Daughter, that awesome Ashton Kutcher/Tara Reid rom-com that swept the nation in 2003).

While one might assume upon reading all this that it’s quite easy to hate such a blatant propaganda piece, but it’s really more sad and embarrassing than anything else. Back in the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker days, they made such films as Airplane!, The Naked Gun, and Ruthless People, and now that he’s been on his own for a while this is the best he can manage? It’s like Michael Phelps missing the gun going off at the next Olympics because he has to finish his beer first. He hasn’t worked on anything since this came out in 2008, but I’m hoping he can turn himself around, as I don’t think anyone would want this to be the film their career ended with.

Rating: ½ *


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

What an astonishingly hateful and dishonest film this is. Watching Ben Stein traveling around, tossing out quips like he’s still hosting a game show and expressing constant fake astonishment each time an Intelligent Design proponent explains one of their basic talking points, nodding his head sagely as though he had never heard any of the arguments here before. The overt contempt he and his film show for science, scientists (except the ones that agree with him, of course), and simple reasoning skills would be amusing, sort of like watching some demented racist frothing at the mouth on Jerry Springer, if not for how he and his ilk comprise such a large part of the country, and have had such powerful influence over our nation’s scientific policies.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The film, for those who haven’t heard of it before, and haven’t guessed from the above, is a documentary by Stein that starts off by him pretending to champion the cause of college professors that have cruelly had their livelihoods ripped away from them for having dared to challenge the status quo and mentioning intelligent design in the classroom or in scientific papers, before gradually moving onto his real point: that evolution and Darwinism is actually just evil and vile, and in Stein’s mind is somehow directly responsible for the Holocaust. His original title for the film, that he strangely couldn’t find financial backing for, was From Darwin to Hitler, and is frankly much more honest in its hatred. That he finds no dichotomy at all in beginning the film condemning Darwinists for their supposed hatred of Intelligent Design proponents and then ending the film showing such relentless hatred of Darwinists that he outright accuses them of being responsible for the Nazi party is just one of the many games of Logic Twister on display here.

That it’s all so slick and polished is almost worse than if it had been the bottom-barrel church production it so desperately wishes to be. It’s every bit as well crafted as any documentary you can see being nominated for an Academy Award, with a good dose of humor (at one point Stein even quips that they “wouldn‘t win my money“ with their arguments), animation to explain some of the basic structure of cells (though obviously not going into any great detail, since his whole thesis is that the basic foundation of biology is a lie, and the more detail he goes into here the more the facts would turn against him), and dozens of interviews with various people on both sides of the issue (he does mention early in the film that it seems like a bad sign when he has to travel to Texas to meet many of the ID people, though he never actually follows up on such a seemingly crucial thread). I’ve seen documentaries that actually won at the Oscars for Best Documentary Feature that weren’t put together this well, and it’s all gone to waste on a completely poisoned mindset that loudly claims to champion intellectual honesty while actively campaigning against it.

Consider the following exchange. Stein is interviewing one of the ID proponents, David Berlinski* (who starts off rather ominously by rattling off about a dozen different universities he’s taught at, which I think was meant to establish his credentials instead of making us immediately wonder what’s wrong with him that he’s been forced to shuffle from place to place so much), who tries to simply ask, “Suppose we find, simply as a matter of fact, that our scientific inquiries point in one direction?” Stein: “Which is that there is an intelligent creator.” Berlinski: “Why should we eliminate that from discussion?” First, for me to point out that Berlinski uses each hand to point in completely opposite directions while posing the question about science pointing in one direction would be childish and immature, and I’m scandalized that any of you would even consider mentioning it. Second, to pose the idea that all of our scientific inquiries could wind up pointing in that direction would require for there to be a vast change in either the way we view scientific evidence, or the way we view an Intelligent Creator. If you’ll think back to your middle and high school science classes (or your college science classes, if you took any there), one of the key parts of the scientific method is that all of your hypotheses must be both testable and falsifiable. It’s simply physically impossible to test for God (Sorry, sorry, I meant an “Intelligent Designer”) in any way that can prove his/her/its existence or lack thereof. We couldn’t even try a basic series of tests to see if the various miracles in the Bible and other religious texts could have actually happened or not, simply due to how proponents of them would just argue that their respective deities transcend all natural laws of science and nature and so are impossible to test for anyway. For those wondering why ID can’t be taught in a classroom, that alone is reason enough.

By the way, it’s more than slightly suspicious how, for all the many proponents of Intelligent Design we encounter in this film, not a single one of them mentions in the film believing in a god. Indeed, several of them are mock outraged by the very idea that Darwinists would accuse them of trying to smuggle religion into the classroom by way of Intelligent Design, because it’s clearly nowhere near the same thing as Creationism, despite being identical in every way except for being cautious not to specifically name the Judeo-Christian God as the Intelligent Designer they’re proposing. Indeed, at one point Stein laughs at the very notion of life on Earth having been potentially caused by aliens, which is curiously dismissive of someone that’s convinced that someone somewhere must have created us, but doesn’t want to narrow things down to specific names. Later, he then mocks Dawkins for suggesting that life on Earth could have conceivably have been started by alien life, but that that alien life would still have to have at its source a basic natural process and not a god, sneeringly claiming that Dawkins is admitting here that he believes Intelligent Design is possible, just not all types. It should be noted, also, that despite Intelligent Design supposedly not in any way requiring a belief in a god (in fact, in the film's entire running time, we never get a clear definition of what exactly Intelligent Design is arguing, which I suppose is not surprising when it's so hard for its adherents everywhere to define it as anything that would separate it from Creationism), one of Stein's main bits of proof of the evils of Darwinism is in how it seems to turn its adherents into atheists. The amount of sheer unbridled intellectual dishonesty on display by everyone involved on the ID side here is staggering. Also, while above I made sure to include an all-encompassing set of deities in the paragraph above, I can’t offhandedly think of a single ID proponent that’s not a Christian, so I probably shouldn’t have bothered.

The film also goes down the wonderful path of politicizing science, as one of his ID interviewees complains that “liberal Christians have been fighting with conservative Christians for so long that they’ll side with anybody against the fundamentalists”. Now, I know that in the United States right now we’re very big on pretending science is about politics and not facts, but it really isn’t. As Roger Ebert put it (not in this film), “the Theory of Evolution is neither liberal nor conservative. It is simply provable or not.” When dealing with scientific evidence, anyone that claims the available evidence is either real or not real based on their political views is not someone you want to be taking your scientific knowledge from. I wouldn’t really expect anything different from people that believe Intelligent Design is every bit as viable a scientific theory as evolution, but it’s nice for them to briefly let slip part of their real issues with evolution. After all, if those godless liberals believe it’s true, it must be false!

I suppose I shouldn’t express too much hatred for the film, though, even if I did specifically choose to watch because I expected to hate it at least a little. After all, the continued cheery presence of Richard Dawkins as the main proponent of evolution in the film (despite being selectively edited in a desperate effort to make him seem like a buffoon with no real substance behind his Darwinism) did remind me just how much I liked his book The Blind Watchmaker, and got me to order another of his books (though I didn’t order his book The God Delusion, which was prominently displayed in the film as part of the general effort to frighten religious people into hating him and, by extension, evolution). The film itself is utterly without worth outside of Dawkins. It’s overwhelmingly dishonest and hateful, pretending to be something it’s very clearly not, and shows a gross misunderstanding of the scientific method, evolutionary theory, and even mathematics. Stein frequently throws in stock footage of Nazis and Russian soldiers as a visual comparison to Darwinists because they’re all so horrid and evil. Curious that they’d accuse Darwinism of such racism, when part of his decision to publish On the Origin of Species was to prove that humans are all one and the same in an effort to help end the practice of slavery, which was still alive and well in 1859. I would expect someone as well-read as Stein to know that, though whether he did or not I’m not surprised in the least that it didn’t make the film. After all, once you’ve made the commitment to actually include footage of Jews in concentration camps as part of showing how evil Darwinists are, it would hardly work to show any facts that might indicate you’re just using a major human tragedy in a massively inappropriate way, now would it?

Rating: Zero stars

* Berlinski, and a few of the other people (I’m not calling them scientists, sorry) at the Discovery Institute, were the ones that tutored Ann Coulter on science and evolution for her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism, if you want further proof of what the man’s like.

P.S. I’m not providing a link to his movie. If you really want to see it, go download it, don’t let him get any of your money. Instead, there’s a link to some Dawkins to feed your mind.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tamara Drewe

At a time when most of 2010’s heavy hitters and Oscar bait are coming out on DVD, it’s rather nice to get a little breather with this rather charming British comedy. It’s airy, fun, and while there’s a good amount of seriousness to the proceedings, it never comes close to being as grim as, say, The Fighter or Buried, and for that I’m grateful.

The film opens at a writers’ retreat in the English countryside hosted by Beth (Tamsin Greig of Black Books fame) and Nicholas (Roger Allam). They are having some difficulties, such as when they get into an argument over his infidelity in front of their fellow writers (By the way, to all of my married readers out there: if you catch your spouse cheating on you, and they claim that they only did it once and will never do it again, they are lying to you and you should leave them). Still, things remain relatively tranquil in Ewedown until the fateful return of fellow writer Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton, doing much better here than she did in Prince of Persia). Tamara had been a bit of an ugly duckling when she had previously lived in town, but now that she’s gotten a nose job and looks all sexy suddenly all the men are desperate to sleep with her, all the women hate her, and neither group takes her seriously intellectually anymore.

There’s a bit more to things than that, but it’s a good deal more fun watching how everything unfolds, and seeing all of the various quirky personalities bouncing off of each other. It’s the type of film you rarely get to see in American cinema, where humor is allowed to flow naturally out of the various characters, without any clumsy setups or forced set pieces that are the bread and butter of American comedies, perhaps because it’s surprisingly hard to make interesting characters by way of executive committee.

Indeed, while the choice to keep things simple and charming may be part of what keeps it from really reaching any great heights, it’s pretty much clever and interesting all the way through. The contrasting styles of the various writers are pretty entertaining (and while this may make me a huge nerd, I did love all the discussion of Thomas Hardy and how he’s so inscrutable that the author writing about him is already two years past his book deadline -- apparently the film is based on a graphic novel that was inspired by a Thomas Hardy novel, but I‘m hardly enough of an expert to say which), and the endless mix of hatred and optimism of the two teen girls whose names I never wrote down is a constant delight. Also, this has nothing to do with comedy, but I would be amiss if I didn’t mention how incredibly attractive Gemma Arterton is. I know I didn’t really like her in Prince of Persia, but really, I didn’t like much of anything about that terrible movie. Here she’s much more lively and interesting, and proves to be much more attractive when everything’s not color adjusted to look varying shades of brown and tan.

I should say that it’s not entirely a comedy, despite how casually amusing the film tends to be. The film does delve into some serious issues, such as Nicholas’s infidelity, and a bit of a relationship wrecking crisis caused by the spiteful mass e-mail sent out by someone pretending to be someone else. Still, for the most part, the serious issues aren’t all that massively serious, and where I’ve seen films where a cheating husband drove the entire film’s plot, here it’s dealt with without dragging things out too much, as the film is far too intent on winning us over than on making us sad.

Director Stephen Frears is pretty much batting 1.000 with me, having made such great movies as High Fidelity, The Queen, and Hero (the best Dustin Hoffman movie nobody seems to have ever seen). This isn’t really one of his best efforts, but I suspect he wouldn’t be able to make a bad movie if he tried. This isn’t one of the most vital films of the year to see, but it’s certainly nicer and more fun than a great deal of those that actually acquired an Academy Award nod.

Rating: ***



While this doesn’t really qualify as a horror movie despite the monsters alluded to in the title and so doesn’t qualify for the Top Ten Horror Movies of 2010 list I’m still considering doing for this blog, I’m quite glad I saw this, as it’s one of the more intelligent and subtle films of the year. I’m not sure whether to say the social commentary is blatant or subtle, as it’s rather blatant that they’re making social commentary, but somewhat subtle in what exactly it is they’re talking about.

The film is somewhat minimalist in its cast, mostly just following around two characters, Andrew (Scoot McNairy) and Samantha (Whitney Able). He’s a photographer that’s finally managed to get clearance to photograph the giant aliens that have taken up residence in Mexico (I could be wrong, but the map of the Infected Zone does seem to encompass that entire country), but finds himself stymied by having to first secure passage for his boss’s daughter back to the United States. They miss the ferry after being robbed the night before, and so he has no choice but to escort her all the way through the Infected Zone of Mexico.

The aliens, who came here on a NASA probe that was sent out in a search for extraterrestrial life, are pretty massive, though not quite on a Godzilla or Cloverfield scale. The United States has erected a wall around the Infected Zone (Subtextual Hint: Much like the border fences our government has put along the Mexico border) and frequently sends soldiers out to kill the monsters, though they seem to be fairly docile unless attacked first. The bulk of the movie is just the two of them, wandering through the forests of Mexico, learning about each other and the aliens, who he still hopes to photograph in hopes of defining his career.

There really isn’t much in the way of a story for the film, it’s mostly just a premise that gets the two leads talking and bouncing off of each other. For example, she asks him how it feels to do a job where he doesn’t make any money unless someone’s in pain, to which he replies “you mean like doctors?” Of course it goes a bit further than that, but it was a nice immediate rejoinder to her intentionally antagonistic bullshit. Point is, they have some great chemistry together, and they don’t shy away from uncomfortable topics, which is kind of essential for a film whose main purpose in existing is to quietly explore such issues under the guise of a sci-fi movie.

Of course, there are some problems with the film, if you’re a nitpicking asshole like myself. First, while I appreciate that it’s less a straightforward movie than it is an extended metaphor, it would be nice if there were still a bit more plot to the film. I don’t need action every minute, but when close to half the film is just two people walking through the jungle talking, it can get a bit taxing. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need a big gun fight every ten minutes or anything to be happy, but I do want something more to happen. Sure, they have to deal with occasional encounters with the aliens, and it does become rather tense when they reach the edge of the Infected Zone and call in the military to get evacuated out, but the majority of the film is just two people talking. It’s mostly interesting conversations, but come on.

Still, it is a mostly fascinating movie, and if there’s not enough going on, at least it’s more intelligent and thoughtful than most films that came out last year. This was writer/director Gareth Edwards’ directorial debut (aside from some TV work that I’m not counting), and it makes me pretty damn eager to see what he’s got up his sleeve next. He did a damn fine job with this film, and should hopefully have a nice long career ahead of him.

Rating: *** ½


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

My Soul To Take

I suppose it’s only fitting that, after watching one of last year’s best horror movies yesterday, today I watched one of the worst. For those that blinked and so missed this getting released and swiftly removed from theaters back in October, this was writer/director Wes Craven’s proud return to horror after a lengthy hiatus following 2005’s Cursed (though he’d probably rather you focused on 200’s Scream 3). Going by what a muddle this one is, however, I think it would have been fine if he had just waited until Scream 4.

The film opens in the past, as notorious serial killer the Riverton Ripper finally realizes, after a security camera takes some video of him, that one of his personalities (he’s schizophrenic) is the killer. He calls up his psychiatrist for advice, who quickly calls the police, but the personality that’s been killing everyone is pissed that he told anyone, and decides to take action against his family. The police arrive too late for his wife, but gun him down just before he kills his young daughter. And then they have to gun him down again when he revives, grabs a cop’s gun, and shoots the cop and the psychiatrist. And then he comes to again in the ambulance, killing a paramedic and somehow making the ambulance explode. AND THEY NEVER FOUND THE BODY….

We now cut forward sixteen years. At the same instant the ambulance exploded, seven kids were born prematurely at the hospital, one of which came from the murdered mother (not real sure how that worked), and they now celebrate their birthdays each year at midnight by one of them killing the Ripper in effigy. This year’s celebration goes awry, however, when the police show up before Bug (Max Thieriot, the son of the Ripper) can destroy this year’s effigy, and now the students are all afraid that this means the Ripper will return for real. Of course they’re right, as otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie, and the body count starts rising pretty rapidly.

Let’s start with the obvious good parts. First, the movie is pretty ridiculous at times, and I mean that in a good way. Bug and his best friend Alex (John Magaro) do a presentation on the Californian condor, and it’s not enough that Bug made Alex a creepy full-body costume, he also uses the opportunity to get back at the school bully by giving it an alleged condor defense mechanism of projectile vomiting on anyone that tries to touch one of its feathers, and then he gets back even further at said bully by giving it a secondary defense mechanism of having projectile diarrhea in case the vomiting just wasn’t enough. It’s the best scene in the movie, and it’s a shame it arrives so damn soon in the film because nothing that comes later can really live up to it.

Unfortunately, the film simply isn’t ridiculous enough to make up for its other problems. After the over the top nature of the prologue and the presentation, I was kind of hoping for an almost Argento-ish madness to the film, or at least a Drag Me To Hell-ish madness. Instead it soon devolves into fairly standard slasher fare, something made all the worse by the completely outlandish dialogue. The dialogue alone probably warrants its own paragraph, as listening to this movie, one could get the impression that Craven’s sole understanding of how teenagers speak comes from repeatedly watching Juno. He used to have a pretty good ear for this sort of thing, I have no idea what the hell happened to him here. Unlike many of the film’s detractors, I didn’t hate the dialogue so much as was amused and fascinated by it, as one might be fascinated by an alien culture trying to learn English but without understanding any of the basic syntax or grammar, but it’s certainly something pretty damn far from anything one would normally expect or want in a film.

There’s also the issue with the killer. It would be somewhat dishonest for me to accuse the film of cheating with the killer, when roughly half the slasher films ever made have done the same thing (the other half just made the killer some evil mutant/supernatural monster), but here are the basic facts. Our main character spends so much of the movie having sudden nightmares about each new victim being killed before anyone else knows about it, has a history of mental illness and blackouts, and is the son of the previous killer, and they spend so much time all but shouting from the rooftops that he’s the killer that it’s completely obvious that it’s not him. However, they spend absolutely zero time on trying to establish any other possible suspects (one character jokingly suggests the new principal might be the killer, but that thought is never mentioned again aside from the one line), so when the killer is finally revealed, it’s obviously just someone completely random that you can only identify because they’re just about the only other surviving cast member left. If it’s not outright cheating, it’s still pretty damn lame (My favorite, by the way, is probably in the slasher film Cutting Class, where they spend most of the movie trying desperately to convince you that one of the main characters, who used to be in a mental asylum, is the killer, to the point where you have to dismiss him because he’s too obvious, and then he turns out to be the killer after all).

And that’s how this film is: pretty damn lame. It’s appallingly paced (not only is it too long, at 107 minutes, but we’ll go about half an hour without a single kill, and then three characters die almost at once), fairly light on the blood (outside of the prologue, this probably could have gotten a PG-13 for violence), and an opening that promises sheer craziness but stops delivering anything really wild after the first act. It just might be the weakest film I’ve ever seen from Craven, and I say this as someone that’s a much bigger fan than he should be of all his ridiculous 80s horror movies that nobody in their right mind would watch. You should all definitely avoid this one.

Rating: * ½


Let Me In

I was a little torn about whether or not to watch this film at first. It had gotten rather mixed reviews, and there frankly didn’t seem to be much need to make a remake of a film that was released a mere two years earlier, particularly one that ranks as one of my favorite vampire movies of all time. Still, I was kind of curious to see the first new release of the revived Hammer Studios, and I’m glad I did. While this isn’t as good as the original, it still manages to be one of the best horror movies of 2010.

The film stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as Owen, a young boy that lives with his mother in an apartment complex in a small town in New Mexico. He’s continuously bullied at school, and only finds some measure of solace when he befriends a girl named Abby (Chloe Moretz) who lives next door to him. She doesn’t really behave like most girls her age, and Owen slowly comes to understand just how different she is (though it’s pointed out to us long before it is him). Yes, she’s a vampire, and one with her own problems, such as how she’s “twelve. But…I’ve been twelve for a very long time.” Indeed, she’s rapidly outliving the old man that’s been posing as her father, as he begins botching things when he kills to supply her with blood, as he’s sick of the mockery of life he’s living. The two children find solace with each other and draw the strength they need from each other to (mostly) help deal with their various problems.

Aside from a small and unfortunate flirtation with CG, co-writer/director Matt Reeves (whose previous film Cloverfield showed none of the skill he shows here) makes a subtle, powerful film, more concerned with exploring its characters and situation than with mindless scares (and thankfully no attempts at sexiness, a problem that plagues far too many vampire films). It’s also nice how the film focuses all its attention on our two young leads, to the point where other cast members have names like Owen’s Mother, The Father, and The Policeman. The pair give fantastic performances, showing all the hurt, confusion, and anger that people on the cusp of puberty go through, and which disturbingly few actors their age can manage. They are, of course, aided in conveying this mood by the gloomy winter coastline. Oh, how I’ve missed the sinister Hammer landscapes.

Of course, I can’t avoid the fact that I can make every last one of those bits of praise (slightly modified so far as the New Mexico landscape goes) for the original Swedish film as well. Indeed, for a film that claimed it was just starting from scratch in adapting the novel instead of being a straight remake of the original movie, it sure does hew pretty damn closely to its predecessor. Seriously, the first film skipped like half the novel, they could have easily made some significant changes here. That they claimed they were going to and then went ahead and just did a straight remake of a film that’s two years old is fairly insulting to everyone involved. It’s not exactly like the original was all that obscure, either, when it appeared on a great many critics’ Top Ten lists for 2008, so I can only assume that this was made specifically to appeal to people that wanted to see the original but suffer from illiteracy and so can’t read subtitles.

Still, while there really doesn’t seem to be a point to this film beyond that it’s in English instead of Swedish, I can’t deny that it’s a really effective effort. In a year filled with so few worthwhile horror movies, this stands out as one of the best. It’s good both as the first vampire movie of the new decade (well, the first released in theaters anyway, I’m sure there were dozens of the damn things that went straight to DVD) and as the debut release by the new Hammer. While it may not prove as iconic an effort as The Curse of Frankenstein (itself a remake) was, anytime we get a quality new British horror movie is just fine with me.

Rating: *** ½


Sunday, February 6, 2011


I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I have never read the actual comic this film was based on, despite being a huge comics nerd and a huge Warren Ellis fan. Still, I suppose it’s for the best, as I understand quite a lot was changed around, so it would have likely just led to me spending the whole movie annoyed at how different it was from the source material. However, given how what we wound up with was a piece of pleasant fluff that I’ll likely have difficulty remembering anything about in three months, maybe someone should indeed have been harping on writers Jon and Erich Hoebler or director Robert Schwentke to keep it closer than it wound up being.

Anyway, the film stars Bruce Willis as Frank Moses, a retired CIA operative (the film’s title comes from his designation: Retired, Extremely Dangerous) who has been targeted for assassination for one of his past jobs. He goes on the run, making sure to kidnap Mary-Louise Parker first (they’ve grown very close over the phone, and he doesn’t want his enemies kidnapping her to use against him), and starts to enlist a group of old friends to help figure out who’s got it in for him and how to stop them. Cue the run-ins by Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren as his old squad that likely doesn’t have a single original hip between them.

It’s a pretty fun, though curiously relaxed film. For a story where one mistake could easily kill the entire cast, everyone seems more interested in just light-heartedly bantering with each other, and showing off how they’re still cool even if they’re old. Even with everything that happens (and with Morgan Freeman not caring what happens because he has Stage IV cancer anyway), they’re just breezing through it all like nothing actually matters here. It couldn’t get any more whimsical if Gene Kelly started dancing partway through.

It’s a curious decision, and while it does make the movie moderately fun to watch, almost like a throwback to an 80s buddy cop movie, it also leaves us with no real suspense, nor does it allow the actors any kind of range. Malkovich spends the entire movie acting crazy, and Parker spends a little time looking frightened and panicked before joining the rest in casual smugness, but that’s about it. It’s almost a waste to have so many great actors in this film, as they’re all forced to turn in very one-note performances in a one-note film.

Schwentke does give us a very smooth and polished effort here, don’t get me wrong. Schwentke previously gave us Flightplan, which was a terrific thriller as long as you made sure not to even try to think about the plot once it was done. I’ve not seen The Time Traveler’s Wife, but based on the two I have seen it seems that his main area of expertise so far is to create very slick, fairly enjoyable action films that can’t quite go the distance. If you happen to catch this on TV sometime, it’s a perfectly fun way to kill an hour and a half, but I could name a whole lot of other action movies out there that do a better job than this. Hell, just in the range of action movies based on Vertigo comic books in which government gunmen are turned on by said government and have to hunt down the man who’s trying to kill them and which was released in theaters last year, we have The Losers, which had the benefit of being more fun, more exciting, and somewhat more dramatic. You should probably go watch that instead of this.

Rating: ** ½


Friday, February 4, 2011

Hatchet 2

I may have mentioned here before how the original Hatchet was, in my opinion, one of the best slasher movies to be made since the 1980s. Naturally, I was eager to see the sequel, particularly since it was being released in theaters unrated and uncensored, something fairly unheard of for a horror movie, and a trend that I really hope continues. Sadly, I wound up having to wait for the DVD, as there was so much outrage over the fact that such a gory, unrated movie could ever get a limited release that it was yanked out of theaters after one day. Naturally there was no hope of it living up to the kind of ridiculous build-up that put in my head, but now that I’ve finally seen it, I have to admit that while it’s not as much fun as the original, it’s definitely one of the most gruesome movies in my collection. And people, I own a large chunk of Miike films.

The films starts at the exact moment the first film ended, with our heroine (Danielle Harris of Halloween fame, replacing Tamara Feldman) on a boat getting attacked by the monstrous Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder). She fights him off, and after encountering a nearby woodsman to supply the opening kill, she makes her way through the swamp back to New Orleans, talks to voodoo tour guide Reverend Zombie (Tony Todd, who is by far the most fun character in the film), who gives her some added backstory on Crowley and assembles a team of yokels and idiots (including Harris’ uncle, who Zombie demands she bring along) to hunt Crowley down once and for all. Once that whirlwind bit of plot development and hasty character introductions is over with, it’s back to the swamp for everyone to die horribly.

And wow, do they ever die horribly. People get beheaded, shoved into spinning propellers, rubbed down into nothing with a sander, chainsawed in half, take hits to the crotch with an axe, chopped in half, curb stomped, and even skinned alive. What’s more, he spends several minutes on each victim -- not just chasing them down, but outright mutilating each one -- to the point where it eventually stops being fun and gross and starts being a little uncomfortable. I didn’t think I’d ever say this about a gory horror movie, but I think writer-director Adam Green could have dialed it back a tad here, and maybe give us a few more minutes of character development so we could have a reason to care when most of them die. While Crowley has an appropriately tragic back story (and in proper slasher movie fashion, his back story is made both larger, more ridiculous, and more muddled in this sequel), there’s no real reason given for him to be this ridiculously pissed off at everyone that he can’t just kill them, but has to beat them around, chop bits of them off, slap them around a bit, call their mother names, and then kill them. For instance, take one of the early kills. He springs out of the bushes onto the guy, knocking him on his back. Crowley has his hatchet in hand, but rather than using the blade, he instead decides to slam the blunt top of it into his victim’s mouth over and over and over and over and over again, until the poor guy’s face has been completely caved in and just looks like a pile of goo. What the hell, man?!? Calm down!

Really, the two main stars of the film are Hodder (well, I guess the violence is the real star there, but he’s the one dishing it all out) and Todd, in his best role since his star turn in Candyman. Yes, Candyman was a star turn for him, just ask any horror junkie. He completely hams things up as Reverend Zombie, trying to warm up his crowd of hillbillies with guns by waving his shaman staff around and shaking his hands frantically around their heads, and while we’re supposed to view him as a bit of a villain for his secret plans regarding Crowley, I have to say that I was rooting for him all the way to the end. He was a great deal more fun than Harris was. I don’t know what her deal was, but she was perfectly fine in Rob Zombie’s Halloween, so I have to assume she just made a terrible acting decision to appear miserable and lost the whole way through the movie. She’s such a killjoy, it seems almost necessary for Green to have made it so she shared most of her scenes with Todd so that he could keep the fun going.

I don’t mean to put the movie down like this. It is indeed a good, mostly fun modern slasher. If it’s not as good as the original film, well, sequels often aren’t (I’d say almost never are, but that’s not really the case with horror franchises). All I can really advise is that when Hatchet 3 comes around (and yes, I have to assume it will), Adam Green should spend a little less time on the gore effects and a little more time on character development, and perhaps get a more energetic lead. Also, bring Tony Todd back, he was all kinds of awesome. Also, given the quick reference, a Victor Crowley, Leslie Vernon team-up would be all kinds of sweet.

Rating: ***


Thursday, February 3, 2011


I hope I’m not revealing any trade secrets here when I mention that Japan is a pretty weird place. It’s something that permeates pretty much every aspect of their lives, from people paid to forcibly shove as many people as possible onto Tokyo subway trains, to vending machines that sell used panties (and I seem to recall reading about them having talking toilets too, which is just gross). Unfortunately, while the nation’s natural bizarreness is pretty endlessly fascinating, it can sometimes become much less so in their movies when they realize their inherent strangeness and decide to actively ham things up and go “Oh, look at how very strange and wacky we are here!” while jumping up and down and waving their arms around. That’s pretty much what we wind up with here.

I confess that I wasn’t paying the closest possible attention to the plot, what little there was of it, but here’s what I managed to piece together today while trying to recall last night: Yoshie is the largely unloved sister of famous geisha who, after showing off some impressive fighting skills, is recruited into the world of geisha assassins, led by Kageno, a big steel businessman. He’s a man with a plan, you see, a plan for raising up an army of geishas, replacing parts of them with machinery so they can be a deadly force to assassinate politicians, and then turning his castle into a giant robot to menace the city. Just your average Thursday in Japan.

Now, I do normally like when my movies get pretty over-the-top, don’t get me wrong. The thrill of craziness is kind of lost, however, when the film is constantly mugging at us as though writer/director Noboru Iguchi (who previously directed The Machine Girl, which I also thought was overrated) was some kind of Japanese Andy Dick. It isn’t enough, say, for a geisha girl to turn around in battle and start shooting shuriken out of her ass. No, we also have to get an over-the-top reaction shot from her victim screaming “From her ASS????” because we just wouldn’t have known this was crazy otherwise. The whole movie is like that too. It sets up a bunch of big moments that could potentially be fun and wild, and then oversells everything until they all just lie there dead.

There’s also a pretty big problem with the CG here. I don’t have a problem with huge blood sprays, obviously, but I do have a problem with CG blood that just looks like it might have come straight out of some mid-90s video game. There’s also the problem of the poor editing connected with it. You’ll get scenes of someone opening fire with a machine gun or a rifle or some such nonsense, then it’ll cut to whoever is getting shot to death as a massive spray of CG blood comes spurting off of them, and then the camera lingers just barely long enough for the blood to partially finish spurting so that we can see the victim’s shirt isn’t even torn, and then we cut back to the action. It happens several times in the movie, and it’s jarringly incompetent each time. I could almost think that it was done intentionally as a joke, except that it would be the most subtle joke in the film by far.

What we’re left with is something that could have been a fun, energetic film, if only it had been placed in the hands of a better director. Instead, we’ve got an incompetent mess, where all the jokes are oversold, all the action is slapdash, and all the special effects are so cheap they would have barely passed muster in a 50s B movie. Rich, I hope you’re happy with this review, because it absolutely justifies me having been too busy with Minecraft to update the past three days.

Rating: * ½


Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tekken 4

I’m at a bit of an impasse here, as I have made it my mission this year to automatically do a review of every video game I beat, and yet I’m fully aware that it’s largely missing the point to be playing a fighting game on single player mode only, particularly when over half a decade of avoidance (this is literally the first time I’ve played a fighting game since all of my college friends graduated before me in 2003 -- well, outside of Smash Brothers) has led to my fighting game skills very badly atrophying. Still, if nothing else I owe it to my own perverse sense of self-hatred, and so you can all enjoy what is no doubt going to be one of my more awkward reviews of the year.

For those that don’t play many video games, Tekken is a long-running series of semi-3D fighting games that features a fine blend of real martial arts styles and video gamey violence. It also, as tends to be the problem for a series with so many playable characters, has an increasingly convoluted and insane storyline, filled with robots and devil energy and there’s two bears that have their own storylines and several of the endings overlap and I don’t know what else is going on.

I made sure to play the game through once with each character, both to get a feel for everyone and to see all the endings, and Namco seems to have done a good job of making a character for pretty much anyone’s preferred fighting style. There’s the standard mix of strong-but-slow and fast-but-weak fighters, a Bruce Lee clone, a Jackie Chan clone, a robot that keeps switching to a different character’s fighting style with each new fight (one of the more frustrating characters to try to beat the game with), and Yoshimitsu, who has now added to his repertoire of swordplay and teleportation some freaking giant insect wings and a voice that makes him seem like he’s auditioning to be a new Protoss unit. He just wasn’t ponderous enough beforehand, I suppose.

While most of the characters from Tekken 3 have returned, there has been some replacement with different characters. Eddy’s gone, though he’s been replaced by his protégé Christie, who has the same capoeira fighting style while also dressing like a stripper, so it’s really an upgrade there. Gun Jack is also gone, but since Kuma and Panda both have the same moveset he was kind of redundant anyway. Really, the only thing I’m very much upset about so far as vanishing characters goes is the news that Armor King was killed in some lame bar room brawl by new character Marduk, who’s one of the stereotypical strong-and-slow guys (he towers over all the other characters), and isn’t very interesting at all. Somewhat better is Steve, a British boxer who doesn’t have much of a story line, but has a neat fighting style (he doesn’t kick, except when getting up off the ground -- instead, the kick buttons just have him duck his head to the left or right to set up more powerful punches).

The gameplay is largely the same as in the previous games, with a couple minor modifications. It’s still largely 2D with the ability to swerve into the foreground or background, which means that whenever I fought on higher difficulties any time I fought a faster opponent they’d just spin all around me whenever I tried to attack and made me look like a jerk. That stupid girl Xiaoyu was particularly annoying at this, as she’s such a small opponent to begin with that it was sometimes a struggle just to keep her from getting a Perfect on me. The levels now also have some barriers to them, so that you can sometimes deal extra damage to your opponent by smashing him into a statue or pillar or the wall. Of course, the same thing can just as easily happen to you, so you have to constantly watch where you are on the level.

I’m not sure what else there is to really say. It’s a very fun game, and there’s a lot of variety to the different fighting styles (though you can get pretty far on Easy with most characters just by doing basic kicks and grabs), though playing a fighting game by myself didn’t really give me the best possible experience the game could have offered. Still, if you happen to enjoy fighting games, it will make a fine addition to your library, though I suspect if you like fighting games and have a Playstation 2 then you’ve already picked this one up. Still, enjoy the confirmation of your good taste here!

Rating: *** ½