Wednesday, December 22, 2010

'Tron: Legacy' Movie Review

“Tron: Legacy”, Joseph Kosinski’s sequel to the 1982 cult fave “Tron”, starts out promisingly enough. Okay, that’s not entirely true, it starts out idiotic, but idiotic in a way you can cope with. Sam Flynn (Garett Hedlund) is an orphan. His father, cyber-visionary/digital freedom fighter Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), disappeared in 1989 immediately after telling his young son about a “miracle” he experienced. In 2010, the elder Flynn’s videogame company, Encom, has transformed into a global technology juggernaut. While Sam has controlling interest in Encom, he prefers to the board of directors run the company, choosing instead to live the life of a bored, motorcycle riding twenty-something that has never worked a day in his life. And he plays yearly pranks his own company, like putting their new operating system on the internet for free, then base jumping off of the Encom Tower.

Through a series of improbable events, and entirely unexplained technology, Sam finds himself sucked into “The Grid”, a three-dimensional world that exists inside a computer, or a chip, or maybe just the “Tron” videogame at ye olde family arcade. In “The Grid” programs take human form, and Sam has to fight for his life against guys in helmets and tight black suits with neon piping, while a bass heavy score by Daft Punk rumbles around.

Sam discovers that the overlord of this world is a guy named CLU, a program his father created in his own image, and charged with building the perfect system. Only CLU has been corrupted, and rules like a fascist dictator, putting on gladiatorial games to appease the masses. Just in time, Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a badass rogue warrior program, or something like that, rescues Sam from this high-tech Thunderdome.

Up until this point “Tron: Legacy” is stupid, but in a flashy, entertaining way. There are some decent chase scenes, ample action, and the world of “The Grid”, especially the light cycle sequence, looks pretty awesome. The whole thing is set up like an epic scale videogame, which is exactly what you want it look like. Pace wise the story moves fast enough that you can ignore all of the gaping plot holes and dumb shit, and just gawk at the eye candy. In reality the best parts are little more than updated elements from the original “Tron”, but it is fun to watch.

After Quorra rescues Sam, however, the movie takes a giant crap. Quorra takes Sam to his father, who lives “off the grid”, which basically means out in the wilderness where you need something like a cyber Jeep to get to. Bridges plays Kevin like a watered-down version of The Dude from “The Big Lebowski”. He’s a Zen programmer who meditates, reads philosophy, and says things like, “Dogs are cool, man”. His shtick gets old real quick.

All of the action stops for what feels like an hour, and the movie becomes a series of awkward flashbacks as the script attempts to explain everything that happened in the two decades since Kevin disappeared, and half-hearted emotion between Kevin and Sam. It’s tedious, and kills any momentum there was. Without all of the bells and whistles to prop up the weak ass story, you realize how paper-thin it really is, and “Tron: Legacy” begins a sharp downward spiral that lasts for the rest of the film. What plot there was grinds to a screeching halt, and you get bored for a while. By the time things actually start to happen again, you’re too disinterested to care. And what does happen involves Michael Sheen doing what amounts to an obnoxious, over the top David Bowie impression. In a stupid movie full of stupid shit, this is by far the stupidest.

The overall effect is something like a science fiction soap opera where you’re never quite sure what is at stake. CLU plans to lead some sort of army from “The Grid” into the real world, and apparently that will be bad, but it’s unclear how, or why, or what it will actually entail. “Tron: Legacy” is full of vain attempts to make some obscure point about striving for perfection at the cost destroying the perfect things that are right in front of you, and selflessness and sacrifice. It really, really wants to mean something, anything, but ultimately it has nothing to say.

You can forgive a movie with no story if there are at least characters to latch on to, but there aren’t any of those either. There is no emotional core whatsoever. Sure, Olivia Wilde is nice to look at, but outside of that, don’t expect to care much about anyone since the characters are as empty as the rest of the movie. The only consequential decision Sam makes is to go looking for his father, and then winds up getting sucked into cyber space, which doesn’t seem to surprise him at all. In fact, he takes all of the crazy stuff that happens to him in stride, and accepts things like doing gladiatorial battle in a digital arena as a matter of course. Maybe the life of young Sam Flynn is just so exciting that this is on par with an average Tuesday night. When he tries to explain to Kevin what the world is like now, it is painful. And CLU (as well as the young version of Jeff Bridges that appears in the first scene) is a plasticine, stone-faced CGI representation of, well, a young Jeff Bridges. He looks like a cutting room floor leftover from “The Polar Express”.

If “Tron: Legacy” was 40 shorter it would still be stupid and pointless, but it would at least be pretty to look at. But alas, the damn thing clocks in at an unnecessarily long two plus hours. There are a few laugh-out-loud moments, but the laughs aren’t intentional. Whenever Kevin says pretty much anything get ready to chuckle. After the first half of the movie, “Tron: Legacy” is dull, to the point of being excruciating. There is one tent pole action sequence later in the movie, but you’ve already scene it, and scene it done better, in “Star Wars”.

Maybe, just maybe, if you can get past the glaring story problems and bland characters, and don’t ask too many questions (like how the hell do these people get sucked into “The Grid”? Where do their bodies go? At least “The Matrix” deals with that.), then you might be able to enjoy “Tron: Legacy”, but don’t count on it. Which is too bad, because the movie started out looking like it might be dumb, but at least entertaining, and wound up completely vanilla and toothless instead. The word disappointment springs readily to mind.

Monday, December 20, 2010

'2012' Movie Review

How has it taken me so long to watch “2012”? It’s like Roland Emmerich made a movie out of what constantly plays in my head when I close my eyes. This is the most amazing movie I’ve ever seen, and that statement is only partial hyperbole.

As the apocalypse hits, John Cusack drives a shit-covered limousine—full of his ex, their two kids, and her new man—through a downtown Los Angeles skyscraper as it topples around them. Not only do the heroes drive away from this cataclysmic earthquake, they fly a twin-engine plane through a city as it collapses, drive and then fly away from a volcano, race a hot cloud of ash in a jumbo jet, and ride a tidal wave to Mt. Everest in a modern day Noah’s Ark.

The funniest movie since “Pearl Harbor”, “2012” is pure, ridiculous insanity. They crammed all of the awesome bits from every disaster movie into a single, incredible cinematic achievement. Do yourself a favor, watch “2012” and feel the circuitry of your brain melt into a steaming ball of flaming wreckage. Life changing and paradigm shifting are phrases that spring readily to mind.

Friday, December 17, 2010

'How Do You Know' Movie Review

Yeah, I love a good romantic comedy, and I’m not too proud to admit that. I’m also secure enough to say that I find Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, and Owen Wilson quite charming, so throw them all into the same movie, and I’m sold. If you feel otherwise, and I’m willing to bet that if you frequent this site you probably do, you’ll want stop reading now.

Romantic comedies tend to work best with a strong female lead, and in “How Do You Know”, the latest offering from James L. Brooks, you get just that. Witherspoon plays Lisa, a sporty girl pro softball player and lifelong jock. All she knows is the game. All she’s ever known is the game. She is so immersed in the lifestyle that she’s only ever dated athletes, including Matty (Wilson), a hotshot major league pitcher. Matty’s a goofy man-child, bounding around like a big, stupid dog, who also happens to have an adorable penchant for one-night stands. In his penthouse he keeps a closet full of women’s sweat suits in various sizes, and a drawer full of new toothbrushes, both as a courtesy to his temporary sleepover companions. Lisa and Matty’s relationship is based on physical attraction and Lisa’s need for something uncomplicated. George (Rudd) is a high-ranking businessman in his father’s (Jack Nicholson) company. In reality, George is so painfully nice that he, well, has no business being in business. He is sweet, good-natured, gets along with everybody (including the anxious corporate lawyer played by Mark Linn-Baker, better known as Cousin Larry from “Perfect Strangers”), and has an uptight, analytical, math professor girlfriend.

A similar problem arises for both Lisa and George in that both of their lives change suddenly, drastically, and necessarily for the better. Lisa gets cut from her softball team for being .3 seconds slower than she used to be. Now all of her jock friends look at her funny and aren’t sure how to interact with her. Overnight she becomes an outsider in her own world. George is indicted for some vague sort of business fraud that, while not his doing, is ultimately his responsibility. His girlfriend leaves him in his moment of need, though she says she’ll be waiting for him at the end, everyone in his life is legally barred from talking to him, and he has to move into a small apartment above some sort of Balkan deli. Fate, or destiny, or whatever you want to call it, brings Lisa and George together, but circumstances conspire to keep them apart.

“How Do You Know” doesn’t blaze any new trails, not even close. If you’re familiar at all with romantic comedies at all, you know exactly how everything will tie up. The true upside of the film is the cast. Witherspoon manages to be both perky and tough as a woman forced to figure out what she wants out of life. Rudd is charming and amiable as ever (is he capable of playing an asshole?), and he plays George with a Charlie Chaplain kind of slapstick flair.

One unique thing about “How Do You Know” is that there is no typical “bad guy”. Matty isn’t the callous, insensitive jackass that the hero has to rescue the heroine from, like in most films of this ilk. He’s earnest and well meaning, but also completely and utterly clueless. All of the main players are likeable, more or less, even George’s father, who, in typical Nicholson fashion these days, likes to get blustery and yell a lot every time he speaks. He may compel a pregnant woman to take a swing at him, but at the core, he’s not a bad dude and he loves his son.

“How Do You Know” has a definite James L. Brooks feel, though it’s like “As Good As It Gets” light, or “As Good As It Gets” without the character depth and emotional weight. It’s entertaining and watchable, and there are some incredibly funny moments, but in the end, it isn’t anything more than that. If you’re a fan of the genre, this is a good time and worth a look, but if not, and I assume that most of you reading this site are not, you’ll probably want to stay away and watch something with explosions, gunfire, or superheroes instead.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

'The Fighter' Movie Review

“The Fighter” is a story of comebacks, in life, love, family, and boxing. Directed by David O. Russell, this what he does best, creating a world full of real, flawed people in a tough situation, and everything that goes along with that. Moments of laughter and levity mix with cruelly painful realizations. Uplifting triumphs are juxtaposed with crushing defeats. At times it can be kind of a mess, where you’re not entirely sure what the real story is, but the strength of the acting carries you through the rough patches.

Mark Wahlberg plays “Irish” Micky Ward, a real life boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts. A solid fighter with heart for days, Micky has become a stepping stone for younger fighters on their way up, though knows he is more than that. Micky’s older brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), once fought, and knocked down, Sugar Ray Leonard, but that was 14 years ago. Dicky clings to his one shining moment in his past like a drowning man with a life vest, constantly jabbering about it even when no one will listen. An HBO camera crew follows him around, and he tells people they are detailing the story of his comeback, but in reality they are filming a documentary about crack addiction in America.

Dicky was once Micky’s hero, and is supposed to be training his younger brother, but shows up to the gym hours late, strung out from partying all night. At one point the family has track him down at a crack house when everyone is supposed to at the airport on the way to Micky’s next fight. Dicky is a fast-talking charmer who looks like a stressed out ostrich, and his entire family is on his hook. Their mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), coddles him, and clings to the Sugar Ray fight as much her son, turning a blind eye to his obvious problems. There are like 50 sisters, all with giant hair, stretch pants, and crazy ass New England accents, who are basically mini versions of Alice. The sisters are the least real element of “The Fighter”. They’re cartoony and over the top in every way, which would normally be a strike against a film, but they are so damn funny that it is easy to forgive.

When Micky meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a college drop out and bartender, things finally begin to look up for him, and he reevaluates what is really important in his life. For years everything he did was for family. He’s been dragged along in Dicky’s shadow. Alice sets up bad fights for him, just so they can get paid. Dicky makes everything about himself, neglecting Micky’s training, and even slacking off at their day job on a road crew, repaving streets. At every turn Micky plays the dutiful son and the loyal brother, and this devotion blinds him to the crippling dysfunction surrounding him, until Charlene makes him see the harm they cause. She is the first person who ever wants Micky to do what is best for Micky, while his family was content to flush his life down the crapper. While the relationship between Micky and Charlene is well done, there is not quite enough of it to fully believe that he would go against a lifetime of “doing it for the family”. That shift happens to quickly, and the film takes for granted that Micky would automatically side with his new girlfriend against his own people.

End to end the cast of “The Fighter” does an incredible job, and the acting is the real strength of the movie. Bale definitely takes center stage when he’s on the screen. Much like Dicky, he makes himself the center of attention with a nonstop stream of manic chatter. Wahlberg turns in a quiet performance that sneaks really sneaks up on you. At first you think he’s just a mook punching bag, but the scene where the documentary about Dicky airs, and Micky calls his ex, pleading with her not to let their daughter watch her uncle smoke crack on television, is absolutely brutal. Adams, who usually comes off as the cutesy, perky young girl, steps up her game and shows some acting chops as the feisty Charlene, even beating down one of Micky’s sisters on the front porch. She wants Micky to get away from his family, but at the same time, she is in imminent danger of becoming just as controlling and manipulative as they are. Leo is perfect as the harried, delusional mother, full of persecution fantasies.

The focus of “The Fighter” is less on the fighting than the dysfunctional family drama that plays out. In fact, the boxing matches are the weakest element of the film, but for the most part, Russell and writers Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson, keep you out of the ring, except for quick little hits, until later in the film. In their defense, it is hard to tell a sports story without the “big game” moment.

While “The Fighter” is definitely one of the best films of 2010, the acting alone is enough to secure it a spot in the upper echelons, and probably garner a nice collection of award nominations as well, but in the end the story lacks focus that prevents it from being truly great. Is it Micky’s story, Dicky’s story, or the family’s story? It is certainly more of a family drama than a triumphant sports movie, but in the end, it tries to be both. One minute the focus is on Micky’s fight career, the next it’s on Dicky smoking crack. Then you move on to the romance between Micky and Charlene, and after that there is familial tension to deal with. For the majority of the film, this collage effect works fine, but by the end you want there to be a point, you want all of these threads to come together, but they simply don’t quite get there. It’s difficult when dealing with real subjects, because life isn’t always so tidy, but this is a movie that tries to be too many different things, and as a result, isn’t really any of them.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

'And Soon The Darkness' Review

The first thing you see in writer/director Marcos Efron’s new thriller, “And Soon the Darkness”, a remake of a 1970 British film of the same name, is a young, scantly clad woman, chained to a wall, get electrocuted by some unseen villain. This gives you the immediate impression that the film is going to be another torture porn. So it is a pleasant surprise when “And Soon the Darkness” instead turns out to be a tight, well-executed suspense film. It isn’t exploring any new territory, but for what it is, it is well done.

Stephanie (Amber Heard, who also serves as co-producer) and Ellie (Odette Yustman) are nearing the end of a once-in-a-lifetime bicycle trip through Argentina. Steph is the low key, almost prudish girl, while Ellie is the wild, free-spirited part of the duo. On their last day they come to a remote mountain village, and after a shower, decide to go out for a night on the town. You’ve seen enough horror movies to know that flaunting your sexy Americanness while in a foreign country never ends well. Ellie gets wasted, flirts with a local, and has to be rescued from unwanted sexual advances in the wee hours of the morning by Michael (Karl Urban with some sweet highlights in his hair), a mysterious American who is staying at the same hotel as the girls.

The next morning, Ellie’s raging hangover causes the girls to miss the only bus out of town that day. Since they’re stuck anyway the girls decide to go exploring, but while at a scenic waterfall they have a fight, and Steph leaves Ellie and rides off on her bike. Eventually Steph cools down, but when she returns to the falls to retrieve Ellie, there are signs of a struggle, but no signs of Ellie. The local authorities are no help, and none of the villagers will talk to her, so, desperate and with nowhere else to turn, Steph enlists Michael to help. But Michael has some secretes of his own, and may not everything he seems. As the sheriff tells Steph, “just because he speaks English, doesn’t mean you should trust him.”

You’ve seen this set up before—pretty girls in trouble, picturesque surroundings that hide a sinister underbelly, frustratingly unhelpful provincial police, a helpful stranger who may not be trustworthy, and of course the if-only-they’d-caught-that-bus-everything-would-be-okay moment. The main question is, even though “And Soon the Darkness” is full of standard horror-thriller elements, will the film deliver something unique or compelling? The answer to that is yes, it does.

The story is tense and convincing. You feel Steph’s rising panic as she frantically searches for her kidnapped BFF. The plot has ample twists and turns, taking you in some unexpected directions, but these shifts are never forced, arising instead as a natural part of the narrative, as opposed to jumping out of thin air and trying to shock you. MINOR SPOILER—you’re watching “And Soon the Darkness”, waiting for them to screw everything up with some sort of hideous attempt to blow your mind, like “it was all a dream” or something on par with that, but it never happens. There is no twist ending. Instead of going in for cheap tricks and scares, Efron, and co-writer Jennifer Derwingson, rely on good storytelling to construct an effective, suspenseful movie.

“And Soon the Darkness” also looks great. Sweeping shots of Argentine mountains are scenic and impressive, and add to the isolated tone and atmosphere of the film. The climactic scene takes place in a gray, windswept wasteland that look like the desiccated skeleton of what used to be a luxury resort. It could be an unused location from “Cyborg”, or some other post-apocalyptic tale. Turns out it is actually the ruins of a town that flooded years ago and was abandoned.

While not terribly original, “And Soon the Darkness” is an entertaining film that, within genre confines, delivers exactly what it promises—tension, suspense, and a story that catches and holds your attention throughout. Check it out, it’s worth a look. It is also worth noting that this is Efron’s first time out as a feature director, and if this is any indication, good things will come in the future.

“And Soon the Darkness” opens on December 17th in a limited theatrical run, with the DVD/Blu-ray release to follow shortly on December 28th.

The DVD comes with a collection of deleted scenes, and an excerpt from Efron’s video diary that serves as a behind the scenes feature narrated by the director. A commentary track with Efron, editor Todd Miller, and cinematographer Gabriel Berinstain, has a lot of information about the trials and tribulations of shooting a low-budget, independent movie in a remote, foreign location.

Monday, November 29, 2010

'Due Date' Review

You know what’s funny? Masturbating dogs. Masturbating dogs are funny. At least I think so, and so do the folks behind “Due Date”, the new comedy from director Todd Phillips. This is Phillips’ latest take on a road-trip comedy, something he already tackled ten years ago with the aptly titled “Road Trip”. “Due Date” is certainly the funnier of the two, though it falls far short of Phillips’ last film, “The Hangover”. That’s probably an unfair comparison, since they’re two very different movies. While the humor in “Due Date” is juvenile in nature, it is not nearly as raunchy or puerile as in “The Hangover”.

While “The Hangover” basks in it’s over the top ridiculousness, “Due Date” plays everything pretty straight. Robert Downey Jr. does what he does best, play an affluent, smarmy, asshole, this time named Peter Highman. Peter is an architect in Atlanta on business. His plan is to fly home, where his very pregnant wife (Michelle Monaghan) is about to give birth to their first child. That’s his plan, at least until an airport encounter with Ethan Tremblay, played by Zach Galifianakis, doing what he does best, playing the awkward, oblivious guy with zero social skills, though it’s more tolerable than usual this time around. Ethan is close to Galifianakis’ characters in everything else, but in “Due Date” he is more of a real person, rather than a cartoon, and actually carries some emotional weight instead of simply being an absurd buffoon.

Ethan is infuriatingly clueless, and through a series of mishaps, gets both he and Peter kicked off their plane and placed on the no-fly list. All of Peter’s belongings are still on the plane, including his wallet and ID, so, with no other options, he begrudgingly accepts a cross-country ride with Ethan, his French Bulldog, Sonny (the aforementioned masturbating dog), and the remains of Ethan’s father in a coffee can. As you can imagine, hilarity ensues as this incarnation of the “Odd Couple” makes their way across the country. Ethan gets Peter shot, arrested, and pummeled, among other things.

There are some really, really funny moments in “Due Date”, and Phillips and the writers do a solid job of balancing the laughs with weightier moments that make you actually care about these characters. Peter has anger management issues that manifest themselves in a variety of uniquely hilarious ways. He’s not afraid to punch an annoying child in the stomach, fight a guy in a wheelchair, or spit on a small dog. While most of the comedy is pretty original, you’ll see some things coming. Use your imagination, and you can figure out exactly what is going to happen with the ashes in the coffee can.

One of the great things about road trip movies is that you along the way you get to stop and have encounters with all sorts of interesting characters, and Phillips and company make full use of these possibilities, providing some fun cameos. Matt Walsh and Rza show up as TSA agents, Juliette Lewis is hippy-dippy medical marijuana distributor, Danny McBride is the wheelchair bound Iraq veteran, and Jamie Foxx plays an old friend of Peter, who may or may not be fucking his wife. These actors show up for a scene, have a good time, and disappear into the rearview mirror, leaving Peter and Ethan alone in the confines of their rented Subaru Impreza.

“Due Date” doesn’t blaze any new trails, and the story is definitely the weak spot. It’s “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” light. Downey Jr. and Galifianakis have a decent chemistry, but it could be developed further—the tender moments come too easily and without merit. While it is funnier than most movies, especially most of those in theaters right now, “Due Date” doesn’t have a lot of staying power. Sure, it’s already made a crap load of money, and it is worth seeing, but you’re not going to quote lines for the next six months like you were with “The Hangover”, and it isn’t something you’ll feel the need to watch over and over until you can recite it verbatim.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

'Faster' Review

While there are parts of “Faster” that are wonderful, there is so much unfulfilled potential that the film ultimately fails to deliver. The set up is so promising—a convict known only as Driver (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, again proving himself to be a competent movie badass) gets out of prison after ten years, accompanied by one of the best theme songs of all time, “Good-bye My Friend” by Guido and Maurizio De Angeles (the song is the main theme from “Street Law”, a 70s Italian crime starring Franco Nero). He picks up a sweet muscle car, a big gun with big bullets, and a list of names of people to kill. Immediately, he walks into a building and blasts a hole in the head of that ginger guy who played a Crip in “Colors” (Courtney Gaines). Billy Bob Thornton is the grizzled, beaten down, ten-days-from-retirement cop who, along with Carla Gugino, tries to track down and stop Driver.

Who doesn’t want to watch that movie? Sure it has a silly name, and sure, there are some tough guy lines, like “God can’t save you from me”, that will illicit a theater wide chuckle, but if director George Tillman Jr., and screenwriters Joe and Tony Gayton, had stuck with this main set up, “Faster” would have been one of the best action movies in recent memory. Think “Death Wish” got drunk and had a baby with “Vanishing Point”—revenge and fast cars. It wouldn’t have broken any new ground, but it would have been exactly what you want a throwback action/revenge movie to be.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. Instead of staying with the core of the film, The Rock scowling and unleashing an angry stream of white hot vengeance, there are a number poorly executed subplots. Apparently being a corrupt, junkie cop isn’t enough, as Billy Bob also has an estranged ex-wife (Moon Bloodgood), an ex-junkie herself, that he is trying to reconcile with, and a chubby son who sucks at baseball (this dynamic is an awkward recreation of his role in “Bad Santa”). And that’s not all. If that was it, you could deal with it, and “Faster” would still rule. But it doesn’t stop there. There’s also the story of a neurotic killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), known only as Killer, and his girlfriend (Maggie Grace). Killer is an adrenalin junkie who kills for the thrill not the money, and brags about things like “conquering” yoga. Some shadowy mystery voice on the other end of the phone hires him to stop Driver.

These asides completely derail the momentum of the film. When “Faster” remains with The Rock, it is a magnificent mix of gunplay, car chases, and a nice ice-pick fight in a stripclub bathroom. You get a few glimpses into Driver’s past, moments that could have added some emotional weight to his actions and his quest for revenge, but instead time is squandered on listening to Killer talk to his therapist on his Blue Tooth, or Billy Bob telling his son that he sucks at baseball, too. You think the filmmakers are setting these three men on a collision course, but that, also, fails to deliver, and the entire movie unravels at the end.

The people involved with “Faster” are obviously fans of the genre, and set out to create a badass homage to 70s revenge and action films, but there is too much wasted time wasted on unnecessary subplots that just don’t fit or add anything to the movie. The frustrating thing is that this movie is so close to being incredible in many ways, though ultimately there are too many misspent opportunities for “Faster” to achieve it’s full potential.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

'The Disappearance of Alice Creed' Review

The plot of “The Disappearance of Alice Creed” is simple. Two ex-cons, Vic (Eddie Marsan) and Danny (Martin Compston), kidnap a young woman named Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton), the estranged daughter of a wealthy man. They hold her in a nondescript apartment that they soundproofed and set up to serve as a makeshift prison cell while they wait for their ransom. They have an airtight plan, and are meticulous down to every last detail, even devising a set of hand signals so Alice can tell them when her bladder is full.

Everything about the film screams minimalism. There are only three actors in the film, and only a small handful of sets. Most of the action takes place in a single, sparsely furnished room. Hell, for the first ten minutes of the movie there is only one word of dialogue, and that word is “okay.” This bare bones approach benefits the film. It forces the weight to rest on the actors, which in this case is a good thing. All of these characters could easily have descended into cliché, but excellent performances, coupled with writer/director J Blakeson’s deft approach, save you from something you’ve already seen. Marsan’s Vic, a seasoned, detail oriented alpha male criminal, meshes well with Compston’s Danny, young and handsome, who is seemingly overwhelmed by their situation, but in reality is playing an angle. Arterton does a nice turn in a part that could have easily been nothing more than a crying, damsel in distress, and she displays an expansive range, appropriate to her dire, confusing, situation.

Like with any good crime story, there is so much more going on than just the surface kidnapping. There are twisted, behind the scenes histories between the three characters, which Blakeson carefully doles out. Everyone has an ulterior motive, and everyone has something extra that they are trying to weasel out of the situation. Escalating tensions and heightened emotions breed conflict and discord, which ultimately drive the plot forward.

There are two large twists in “The Disappearance of Alice Creed”, two places where the story takes drastic turns. The first one works well. It happens organically and is believable. Blakeson is careful not to simply dump an “aha” moment on you and leave it at that. When he reveals the wrinkle he spends time to fully justify it, both to viewers and the characters. He convinces you, and wins you over. Now the second twist, that’s a different story. Unnecessary and awkward, it doesn’t work at all, feels contrived, and will likely leave you yelling, “oh, come on”, at the screen. They should have just let the story play out as it was.

The good thing is that, as the film builds towards the climax, if you can just accept it and move on, the second twist will fade into the background and become part of landscape. It is all too rare for a film that postures as a suspenseful thriller to actually be either of those things, but again, Blakeson delivers. Watching the characters thrash around in the twisted mess they’ve created for themselves, you actually wonder how everything is going to work out. Who is lying to whom? Who knows the other one is lying? Who’s plotting something of their own? What are they going to do? What are these individuals actually capable of?

“The Disappearance of Alice Creed” isn’t a perfect movie, there are some obvious problems and things that don’t work, and it is over plotted, but for the most part, Blakeson does a lot with a little. The performances are good, and despite the limited settings, the movie never feels stale or stagnant. He squeezes every last drop out of everything he has, and the end result is an entertaining, suspenseful, thriller.

The DVD comes with a nice collection of bonus material, and includes a reel of outtakes, the theatrical trailer, and a comparison between the storyboards and a finished scene. There is a deleted scene, with optional director commentary, an extended scene, with optional director commentary, and a feature length commentary track. The commentary with the deleted and extended scenes is actually interesting. Not only does Blakeson go into why the scenes were cut, but he also talks about his choices he made visually, about how the camera work changes along with the scene as it builds and intensifies.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

'Hunt to Kill' Review

Director Keoni Waxman has carved out quite a niche for himself in the direct-to-video action movie market, working with such genre luminaries as Steven Seagal and Dolph Lundgren. He’s not trying to make great art, he’s trying to make entertaining action films that kick a little ass. His latest, “Hunt to Kill”, is almost there.

This time around, Waxman teams up with former professional wrestler turned movie tough guy, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Austin is great at one thing, being hard and scary. In movies like “The Expendables” and “Damage” he pulls off a pretty awesome, believable, badass. He has the size and the don’t-fuck-with-me scowl, and though he’s not a slick, highly trained fighter, his I’m-bigger-stronger-and-badder-than-you style harkens back to a time when an action hero could get away with being just a brawler. That’s what Austin’s good at. What he still needs to work on is the whole acting thing. His icy glare and gravel-throated fuck-you’s can only carry a film so far. If used correctly it can work, or in a supporting role he can be a nice fit, but when asked to carry the emotional weight of a movie, even a movie like “Hunt to Kill” that’s a little light in that department, he leaves something to be desired.

Austin plays Jim Rhodes, a Texas border patrol agent. When his partner (Eric Roberts) is killed during a meth lab explosion, Rhodes and his daughter Kim (Marie Avgeropoulos) move to Montana. At the same time this is happening, a group of criminals, led by Banks (Gil Bellows) robs a casino in Reno. One of their group, Lawson (Michael Hogan, “Battlestar Galactica”), double crosses them, tries to blow up their hideout, and steals the untraceable bonds that they just stole. What a dick. But it doesn’t work. The bomb doesn’t go off, and he makes a run for the Canadian border with Banks and company hot on his heels.

Now, Rhodes and Kim have a troubled relationship. She hates the woods and her redneck father, and acts out by shoplifting in town. Rhodes goes to pick her up at the sheriff’s office after she gets arrested, but guess who is already there, looking for someone to guide them into the woods? That’s right, Banks. They kill the sheriff, kidnap Kim, and force Rhodes to guide them into the woods after Lawson.

“Hunt to Kill” is a little bit “Cliffhanger”, and a little bit “Commando”. Frank Hannah’s (who wrote “Damage”) script tries to make Austin into Schwarzenegger by giving him quippy little one-liners akin to Arnold’s “Stick around” from “Predator”. Most of these don’t work, but when Rhodes says, “Catch”, then shoots a guy with an arrow, it is pretty damn funny. The plot is flimsy at best, and a lot of awkward, illogical things happen. For instance, soaking wet, in the middle of the woods, dehydrated, hungry, and freezing, Crab (Adrian Holmes of “Supervolcano” and “Stonehenge Apocalypse” fame), one of the bad guys, knocks a member of his own team then tries to rape Kim while everyone else is like ten feet away.

Much like the characters, the movie stumbles around in the woods for a while. Austin is out of his element trying to play the concerned father, Bellows’ performance is overwrought to the point of being laughable, and the rest of the acting is questionable at best. Former kickboxer Gary Daniels is another one of the villains, and the third “Expendables” alum in the film. He and Austin have a good brawl in the middle, but overall it takes some intestinal fortitude to get through.

That said, while it may take a while to get there, and take a few questionable turns along the way, the last third of the film is fully worth waiting for. Once Austin has a crossbow, and goes through a sweet, “Predator”-like preparing-for-battle-in-the-woods montage, things move quickly in the right direction. By the time he starts in on the proper level or vengeance, you’ve thankfully forgotten the first two-thirds of “Hunt to Kill”. Everything you want is here, homemade spears, an abandoned warehouse final showdown, an axe/shovel fight, falling down a comically long flight of stairs, and many other gems. Over the course of the film Austin is shot, stabbed, beaten, thrown off a cliff, almost drowned, almost blown up, kicked in the nards, and generally abused in every conceivable way, like a true action movie badass should be.

One question I have that is only sort of related: Is there really such a thing as untraceable bonds? They pop up fairly often in movies as something to steal, “Die Hard” is a prime example, and it seems like a bad idea to make something with that much value that can’t be tracked. So, if you lose them you’re just screwed? If you can’t trace them or link them to anything, how do you gain access to the money they represent after you’ve stolen them? Does part of high-level-thief-training cover that? This is an important question to ask, something I’ve always wondered throughout my movie viewing life.

The “Hunt to Kill” DVD comes with a making of feature that is notable chiefly because Gil Bellows seems like he’s high during his interview. He’s smiley and mellow and talks kind of slow, and he hugs two other cast members at one point. It’s amusing. The commentary track with Waxman and actor Michael Eklund is pretty decent, better than most. They definitely have a good time talking about the film, which makes it engaging to watch and listen to.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

RED

Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is retired. He lives on a quiet street in Ohio where all the houses look the same, and where all his neighbors say hello and make sure that their garbage cans line up perfectly with the curb. On the surface everything is idyllic, but in reality he is bored as hell. The only pleasure he gets in life are the regular phone calls to Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), who answers the phone at the pension office. Frank rips up his checks and pretends they didn’t arrive so he has an excuse to talk to her. Both are lonely individuals who rely on their truncated conversations to brighten up their respective days.

When a heavily armed hit squad busts into Frank’s home in the middle of the night, and he easily dispatches them, you start to wonder, what exactly did Frank Moses retire from? Turns out he was a CIA operative. And from the looks of things, he was pretty damn good at his job. His duties included assassinations, toppling governments, starting wars, ending wars, and all manner of shady black-ops. His file is a foot thick, and more is blacked out than visible.

Someone, somewhere has designated Frank “RED”, or “Retired Extremely Dangerous”, which is where the movie gets its name, and slated him for execution. Frank begins what amounts to a cross-country road trip where he picks up Sarah, and reassembles his old team that includes Joe (Morgan Freeman), Marvin (John Malkovich), and Victoria (Helen Mirren). Together they try to unravel the tangled web of lies and misinformation, and discover who exactly wants them dead and why, doing battle with Agent Cooper (Karl Urban) the entire time.

While the basic plot to “RED” is pretty standard espionage movie fare, with all the usual bells and whistles and plot twists, two things set it apart. The first is the humor. A dry, gallows humor runs throughout. The characters crack jokes and make light of their situation, but it is the sad comedy of people well aware that they’ll likely die horribly, and very soon. “RED” is funny, but with an air of tragedy at the same time.

What really drives the movie, what really makes it a lot of fun, isn’t the action. There is plenty of that, and it is good enough, but at the heart of the movie are the characters and their shared chemistry. Willis is perfect as Frank. This is the type of part that he is the best at, smart-ass tough guys with a good heart and a soft spot, the kind of guy who can take apart a team of trained assassins, crack a joke, and fall in love with a pretty girl all at the same time. Freeman is always good, and brings a wry smoothness to Joe. He may be 80, and have terminal cancer, but he’ll put a bullet in you with a smile on his face.

Watching Mirren, with her elevated civility and British charm, fire an enormous, belt-fed machine gun, is one of the true joys of “RED”. Malkovich steals every scene he’s in, and plays the severely paranoid Marvin, who isn’t really paranoid at all (they are after him), like a manic, sociopathic child. He lugs around a stuffed pink pig, pouts in the background when scolded, and takes a giddy, infantile pleasure in his violence.

You couldn’t imagine a better cast if you tried. From top to bottom everyone is top notch, even the supporting players. Parker is a bored, friendless woman swept up in the romantic adventure of it all; Urban is great as the conflicted company man; the perpetually phenomenal Brian Cox shows up as a Russian agent, who happens to be a hopeless romantic; Ernest Borgnine is a riot as the keeper of the CIA’s most secret secrets; and Richard Dreyfuss plays a scheming arms dealer.

Director Robert Schwentke doesn’t interfere much, and lets the ensemble do their thing, which is the right approach. At times “RED” is similar in feel to the “Oceans” movies, where the star power of the cast takes center stage, and the film is more about that rather than the actual plot. At other times it takes on the personality of a confrontational, high noon western.

“RED” is based on the Warren Ellis comic of the same name, and while the film retains a few of the key story elements, it has evolved into something entirely different. Ellis’ story a straight-ahead revenge tale where Frank kills everyone who knows of his existence in order to stay hidden and retired. It is dark and brutal. Sarah exists in the comic, but Joe, Marvin, and Victoria are nowhere to be found. However, Wildstorm did put out four single-issue, self-contained stories, one for each of the four main characters, that serve as prequels to the movie.

Writer’s Jon and Erich Hoeber definitely cartooned things up for the film, adding levity that isn’t there in the comic. Their approach works well, it is just different. You don’t need to be familiar with “RED” the comic to enjoy “RED” the movie. In fact, if they called it something different, and maybe changed Frank’s name, you probably wouldn’t even realize they originated in the same place.

“RED” isn’t a perfect movie, but it is pretty awesome, and thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. There are enough bullets to wage a small war, frantic hand-to-hand combat, and a ton of explosions. While those are all good enough reasons to see it, the real fun occurs between Frank, Sarah, Joe, Victoria, and Marvin, especially Marvin.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Wrong Turn at Tahoe

In his first movie, “P2”, Franck Khalfoun created a decently crafted, low-budget, direct-to-video thriller that caught some people’s attention, at least enough attention to land names like Cuba Gooding Jr., Harvey Keitel, and Miguel Ferrar for his second movie “Wrong Turn at Tahoe”. Okay, Miguel Ferrer may not be a huge catch, but he’s still rad.

Joshua (Gooding Jr.) collects outstanding debts for the mob, and tells you early on that all he has to live for is revenge. He is calm and level headed about his duties, while his partner Mickey (Johnny Messner) prefers to slap his victims around. Joshua, in his surface tranquility, winds up being the most intimidating of the two. He isn’t going to scream at you or rough you up, and he won’t enjoy fucking you up. This isn’t personal, this is business, this is his job. But that won’t stop him from burning the bottom of your feet with a hotplate.

Joshua works for Vincent (Ferrer), a middle-tier gangster. The two have been together for years. Vincent trusts Joshua implicitly, and Joshua in turn, is fiercely loyal to his boss. When word comes down that Frankie Tahoe (Noel G.), a local drug dealer, wants Vincent dead, they pay him a visit and take care of him that time tested way that gangsters have, by throwing him in a deep hole in the middle of nowhere.

You start to wonder about the accuracy of Joshua’s revenge statement when he talks to his kid, who lives in some undisclosed place, on the phone. Obviously he has motivations beyond simple revenge, though they are never fully explored, and he even tries to quit his job so he can be with his son, a move that doesn’t exactly work out.

Unfortunately for Joshua and Vincent, Frankie Tahoe wasn’t an independent operator. He worked for Nino (Keitel), who just happens to be the biggest damn crime kingpin around. Vincent tries to cut Joshua loose and deal with the situation on his own, but Joshua, ever devoted, insists on accompanying him on one last ride.

“Wrong Turn at Tahoe” is built on secrets and lies, like a good crime movie should be, and the real story is how the players deal with the consequences of these deceptions. A quiet tension hovers over the story and the characters, and is matched by the dark, grimy feel and style. The main characters are interesting and well drawn, and it is worth watching for the cryptic back and forth between Ferrer and Keitel, two different brands of badass, where they compare their situation and themselves to various aspects of “Jaws”. And a guy gets choked to death with an American flag, that’s a nice touch.

This is a well-acted movie, and the construction and camera movement are meticulous and interesting. The muted color palate of cold blues, sickly greens, and monochromatic grays may be standard for a crime movie these days, but everything about the film is put together very well. While that may be the case, there are issues that hold “Wrong Turn at Tahoe” back, all of which are connected to first-time writer Eddie Nickerson’s script.

Quirky characters are fine, personality ticks make can make someone interesting and set them apart, but everyone in Nickerson’s script has a cute little twitch to them. For example, it’s not enough that Jeff (Michael Sean Tighe) be a sketchy junkie who has been friends with Vincent since they were kids, he has to be convinced that aliens abducted him. Of course the wingnut believes in extraterrestrials. On top of being forced and omnipresent, the idiosyncrasies aren’t unique enough to make them remarkable at all. The alien thing is bland and groan inducing.

In a similar vein, the dialogue is too clever for its own good. If one or two, or hell, even all three central characters, talked like they talk, it would be fine. You spend enough time with all of them that each has their own manner of speech, their own cadence, and all of them are intelligent, so it makes sense that what they say is quick and cunning. The banter between the main guys even works in moments when it probably shouldn’t, like when Keitel and Ferrer are shooting at each other in the kitchen and talking about protein shakes.

But like the quirks, the script piles it on too thick, and everyone in the entire film is always on point, full of wit, sarcasm, and adroit turns of phrase. That means everyone from the thuggish guard at Frankie Tahoe’s club, to the quartet of thick-necked goons playing Scrabble, who only exist to be slaughtered, are full of razor-edged quips and jaunty repartee. After a while everyone sounds the same.

“Wrong Turn at Tahoe” is a decent enough movie, especially amidst the throngs of low-budget DTV crime flicks. It isn’t at the top of the heap, especially given the steadily increasing quality of films in the DTV market, but if his first two films are any indication, Khalfoun is going to make some very badass films in the near future.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

As an actor, what do you say when your agent tells you that you’re up for a part, but that the part involves your face being attached to another actor’s ass for most of the movie? That probably doesn’t come up often, but it must have when writer/director Tom Six was casting his horror film “The Human Centipede (First Sequence)”.

“The Human Centipede (First Sequence)” is the “the most fucked up movie ever” of the moment. The movie has become so much of a pop culture phenomenon that it has its very own porno spoof. That’s a good way to judge if a film has truly hit the mainstream or not, that and if they spoof it at some MTV awards show.

The movie begins with a creepy guy in a trench coat and sunglasses shooting a trucker who is trying to drop a deuce in the woods. Then you meet two sorority girls who are clubbing their way across Europe. They’re obnoxious, vapid, and arrogantly American, the type of people who think speaking English loud and slow makes it understandable to people who don’t speak English. They’re the female equivalent of the bros from “Hostel”. Right away you want something awful to happen to them. You’ll feel bad about that later.

The set up is pretty standard horror movie fare. On their way to meet a cute German waiter, Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jennie (Ashlynn Yennie) get a flat tire on a lonely stretch of desolate road in the middle of rainstorm. Of course their cell phones don’t work, cell phones never work in horror movies. The propagation of mobile devices has indelibly altered the landscape of horror cinema. Now every film has to have a scene that explains why the characters don’t just get on their phones and call for help or tell someone where they are. These moments are now almost obligatory.

After wandering around in the woods for a while, Lindsay and Jennie have the horrible luck to knock on the door of Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser, who looks like Christopher Walken’s emaciated cousin), a Nazi-esque mad scientist, who drugs them and straps them to hospital beds in his basement. Heiter also happens to be the creepy trench coat guy from earlier, and the trucker, who wanted nothing more than to crap in peace, is tied up next to them. Before long the trucker is killed and replaced with a Japanese man (Akihiro Kitamura).

Heiter made a reputation and fortune separating Siamese twins, but now he has different aspirations. His god complex has grown so out of control that now he dreams of creating a human centipede by sewing people together, mouth to ass. Though he claims to be a famous surgeon his surgery skills are somewhat suspect since every time they show him slicing human flesh it is obvious his cuts aren’t all that smooth.

Here is the main problem with “The Human Centipede”. It claims to be sick and perverse, it pretends to be psychologically horrifying, but in reality, it’s just a silly, middle of the road horror movie. Heiter is a cartoonish villain, much more ridiculous than frightening. Seriously, he’s got an overhead projector and gives a detailed presentation about how he’s going to stitch his victims together. There are a lot more laughs than you would think, but they’re not all intentional. If you have much experience with horror as a genre, you’re probably going to laugh every time Heiter pauses to flare his nostrils and glare, which happens every few minutes.

The movie isn’t even as twisted as it wants to be, which is saying something about a movie where the main plot point is a bunch of people who’ve had their lips stitched to another person’s rectum. There is little blood and gore, and Six does a decent job of implying things rather than overtly showing everything, which is what keeps this from being torture porn. The most disgusting thing in the movie is actually a close up of a steak.

The movie is the most tense and suspenseful when Lindsay is trying to escape, but that is a five-minute sequence in the middle of the movie, and it is over too quickly. This is where you start to feel sympathy for the heroines. Sure they may be intolerable and abrasive as people, but you can’t help but feel bad for them, kidnapped, tortured, and sewn together with a stranger.

Honestly, the movie feels over after about an hour. After that the centipede is complete, and most of what follows feels tacked on and forced, like the filmmakers weren’t sure what to do next.

For a few minutes, right near the end, “The Human Centipede” does verge on completely amazing. So much so that it almost makes up for having to wait through the mediocre film that precedes it. But before it can redeem the film, before it can make the movie awesome, they totally fuck it up. It is so awesome for just a moment then they waste it. The moment creeps right up to the precipice of being incredible, but then blows the opportunity with some nonsense that comes out of nowhere. Telling you what happens would give away too much, but they ruin what could have and should have been the best part of the movie.

In the end, “The Human Centipede” is decent, but it didn’t blow me away. The idea is cool, and there are moments where Six almost pulls it off, but it isn’t nearly as horrifying, grotesque, or shocking as people make it out to be. Though it isn’t horrible, it is also is far from great. It is just okay and doesn’t seem worthy of all of the buzz and hype.

The DVD comes with a deleted scene that is deleted because it is idiotic. It involves Heiter dancing around like a jackass as the Human Centipede cries behind him. If the scene had been in the finished film it would have sent the whole thing tumbling down into a pit of absurdity. The collection of behind the scenes footage is just that, a reel of out of context video from the set that doesn’t add much. Film of a Foley session is interesting if you’ve never seen that sort of thing, and some casting tapes are included.

The best bonus features are an interview and feature-length commentary with Six. He has an obvious affection for his film, and doesn’t take it too seriously. Nothing would have been more off-putting than had he sat there for 90-minutes talking about how great the movie is and how it is the sickest thing ever. Listening to him is both engaging and entertaining, and it makes me want to watch the sequel, which he promises will be so over the top even the most misshapen, jaded viewers will have trouble watching it. Supposedly there will be a twelve-person centipede.

A lot of hardcore horror fans are probably going to love this, while novices will find it stomach churning and repulsive. It is better than most recent American horror, but I still think it is just okay.


Sunday, October 3, 2010

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

How come the most genuinely affecting, emotional movies I’ve seen this year have been animated kids movies? First it was “How To Train Your Dragon”, and now we’ve got Zack Snyder’s “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole”.

Snyder should stick to this genre. Before he was down with owls, “Dawn of the Dead” was by far his best movie, but it is nothing more than a decent spin on a classic that is exponentially better. “300” is overrated and annoying (at least in my humble opinion, I know there are a lot of fans out there). And “Watchmen” looks good, but is ultimately an empty adaptation of the comic.

With “Legends”, despite the generic title they came up with, Snyder crafts a story with moving characters, tension, drama, action, adventure, highs, lows, and a surprisingly dark tone. Even though it is intended for kids, the film has a predominantly sinister feel. There is danger and death all over the place. The villains are frightening, the threats are very real, and it reminded me of films like “The Dark Crystal”, in that there is the definite possibility that everything might not work out in the end.

Soren (Jim Sturgess) is a young owl. He lives in a tree with his parents, his brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), and his baby sister. His father, voiced by Hugo Weaving, tells the boys the epic tales about the Guardians of Ga’Hoole, a cadre of noble owls who protect the owl kingdom, and once defeated and banished an evil king who was trying to wreck up the joint.

Soren is a dreamer. He latches onto his father’s stories, accepts them as absolute truth, and longs to do something great and epic. Kludd is a more skeptical. You can tell right away he’s a dick. He’s one of those spoiled brats who thinks the whole world is against him and his life is so hard even though he has it easy.

The boys are too young to fly for real, but one night they sneak out to practice gliding from branch to branch, and because Kludd is a tool, they wind up plummeting to ground and almost get eaten by some sort of red-eyed, rat-monkey-badger creature. Because Soren is the noble one who believes in things like honor, he saves Kludd while Kludd leaves his brother in harms way. Told you he was a dick.

Before they get torn to shreds, two big owls swoop down out of nowhere and scoop them up. For minute you think everything is going to be okay, but things don’t work out like that in this movie, and it turns out that the young owls have just been kidnapped and are about to become slaves.

The kidnapping owls work for Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton), the evil king from the Guardian myths, and his mate Nyra (Helen Mirren). He is the leader of what amount to a gang of white-supremacist owls, and spouts Nazi-like rhetoric while wearing a creepy metal mask. One thing this movie teaches you about owls is how skilled they are at metallurgy. Hell, the group is called “The Pure Ones”. Before they can be brainwashed, Soren and his new friend Gylfie (Emily Barclay) learn to fly and are able to escape to search for the Guardians. Kludd, however, is seduced by the power offered by these racists, and chooses to stay and become the equivalent of a storm trooper, and I don’t mean that in the “Star Wars” sense.

On their journey Soren and Gylfie assemble an unlikely collection of fellow travelers, including a burrow owl, a snake, and warrior-poet owl with a lute. After an arduous flight, and an encounter with a psychedelic echidna, they finally locate the Guardians, and the ultimate confrontation is set in motion.

The story is full of intrigue, betrayal, and deceit, and the overwhelming point is that war is hell, no matter what you’re fighting for. When Soren meets his hero, the legendary Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush), he discovers a broken down old owl covered in scars and disfigured by battle. You don’t fight, he says, because it is glamorous, you fight because it is right.

The animation is beautiful, and Snyder’s shtick, the excessive, painful slow motion that he is so fond of, actually serves to accentuate that. When Soren flies through a raging storm, the film slows down so you can see every single feather ruffle, and every single one of the swirling raindrops. There are obvious parallels with the look of “Avatar”, but “Legend of the Guardians” actually has a good story to support the incredible visuals.

There are two serious problems with the film, and the first is the biggest. “The Guardians of Ga’Hoole” is a series of children’s books by Kathryn Lasky. The film is based on the first three of those books, and the action is obviously very compressed to fit into 90 minutes. On one hand, this means that the plot is always going going going, which helps keep younger crowds engaged, but on the other hand, it means that there are a lot of things that are glossed over quickly.

Snyder gives you what you need to care about the main characters and keep you interested on a surface level, but there are moments where it would have been nice to have things developed, and where you can tell that, in the books, there is much more time spent. Because of this, the story never goes as deep as it could have, and, as is a trend with Snyder’s movies, it feels a little light in the end. That is a shame because there is a world of potential here. “Legends” is still really good, and still a movie you should see, but it could have been even better.

Most of the movie has this wonderful, epic score, full of orchestral instrumentation that completely fits the epic nature of the film. Then, right smack in the middle, is one of the worst songs ever written by some douche bag with a synthesizer who calls himself Owl City. It’s awful. Jesus fucking Christ, it’s the most vapid, watered down Death Cab For Cutie (which is already pretty watered down to begin with) knock off, and it clashes with everything else in the movie, which is well done and classy.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Resident Evil: Afterlife

I finally got around to seeing “Resident Evil: Afterlife” the other day, but to be quite honest, it’s taken me a while to write about it because I kind of forgot about it. It wasn’t very good. Not that the other installments in the series were mind-blowing or anything, but this new chapter is the weakest, even though it is by far the most popular and most three-dimensional to date. The whole thing is pretty forgettable.

The movie starts with Alice (Mila Jovovich) wreaking havoc on the underground Tokyo headquarters of the Umbrella Corporation. This is the vengeance she promised at the end of the last film. To be more precise, it is a whole bunch of Alices in black spandex and swords hacking Japanese security guards to bits while director Paul W.S. Anderson throws things at your face. Again, at the end of the last movie she found a bunch of Alice clones to use as her own private army. There are explosions, gunfire, slo-mo, and all the usual bells and whistles.

The real Alice blows up Umbrella HQ, and we jump ahead six months. Alice is flying around in a little World War II era plane, looking for her friends, one of whom is named K-Mart (again, from the previous film) in Alaska. Supposedly there is a city called Arcadia where there is no zombie plague and everything is all hunky dory. When she arrives at the coordinates she finds the helicopter her friends took off in, but no sign of anyone. Actually, that’s not true, she does find Claire (Ali Larter), but she’s been given some drug that makes her forget everything. Disheartened, the two make their way down the west coast, looking for survivors.

In LA a handful of survivors holed up in a prison, surrounded by legions of the undead. Somehow Alice is able to land the plane on the roof. And I’m going to stop writing about this because I’m bored. The story is really generic and bland. They have to find a way to escape, and like any good zombie movie, the zombies aren’t the only monsters they have to worry about. Who saw that coming?

Like I said, I didn’t expect much, but I thought there would be some cool 3D at least. This is the type of movie that I usually enjoy the most in 3D, schlocky, fun horror where random things fly out of the screen for no apparent reason. And there are a couple of cool things, like when Alice sticks her shotgun through a curtain of falling water, but they are few and far between. Roughly half of the movie is in slow motion, which ruins things suddenly shooting at you. It’s just not the same when the axe flying out of the screen is moving really, really slow. You know in cartoons when Bugs Bunny is looking at his watch, tapping his foot, waiting for something to happen? It’s like that.

“Resident Evil: Afterlife” is like MacGruber in that as soon as I walked out of the theater it was completely gone from my consciousness. I felt no need to say anything about it or ever actually think about it again, and I feel like devoting any more of my time to writing about it would be an egregious waste. Hell, I might not even go back and proofread this, so I apologize for any typos and obvious grammatical errors.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hawaii Five-0 (2010)

“Hawaii Five-0” was actually kind of good. Not like “Justified” good, but given the incredibly low expectations I had going in, the first episode was a pleasant surprise.

Len Wiseman, who is responsible for most of the “Underworld” movies, as well as “Live Free or Die Hard”, directed the pilot episode, and it definitely has that big-budget action movie feel. Creators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman of “Fringe” fame, along with other creator Peter M. Lenkov (who wrote “Demolition Man”!) know what their audience wants, and don’t waste any time getting there. Within the first four minutes there are helicopters, terrorists, explosions, gun battles, torture, AND William Sadler. I was hooked before the credits even rolled. I’m simple folk.

Steve McGarrett (Alex O’Loughlin) is a military specialist who hunts down terrorists and other bad guys. When you meet him he’s just captured one (Norman Reedus), a major arms dealer. He gets a phone call from the bad guy’s brother, also a bad guy, who is holding McGarrett’s father (William Sadler) hostage. There is an ambush and Terrorist One winds up dead. Consequently Terrorist Two shoots William Sadler in the head. So much for my hopes that he would be a regular character.

McGarrett goes to Hawaii to bury his father, who was a decorated cop, and the governor of the state (Jean Smart) makes him an offer he can’t refuse. She will essentially give him carte blanche to head up a special task force to hunt down his father’s murderer and others of his ilk. She wants the terrorist scum out of her little island paradise.

Detective Danny “Dano” Williams (Scott Caan) just transferred to Hawaii from New Jersey. He hates the beach and sun, and likes cities with skyscrapers, but he moved to be close to his daughter. His ex-wife (when she calls Dano’s phone the ringtone is the music from “Psycho”) married some rich asshole. He’s the type of guy who always has to one-up the actual father. For example, the kid likes rabbits, so Dano buys her a giant stuffed rabbit, but before he can give it to her, step dad gives her a real bunny, which of course trumps any stuffed creature. It’s that kind of situation. If you’ve watched many movies you’re well aware of the type.

Dano is new to the island, an outsider with no hope of solving anything, and he is the one assigned to the McGarrett murder, a clear indication that someone is not interested in seeing this case cleared.

McGarrett and Dano reluctantly team up, and through their head butting banter develop a begrudging respect for each other. No matter what they think of the other on a personal level, they’re both good at their job. Joining them on their merry way is Chin Ho Kelly (Daniel Dae Kim), a disgraced ex-cop who was accused of taking bribes, though McGarrett’s father always had his back, and his cousin Kona (Grace Park, who spends most of her time on screen in a bikini or her underwear), a rookie, who is a feminized version of Kono from the original series.

There is a ton of action, some good back and forth, and even with all of the exposition and back-story necessary in a pilot, the dialogue never gets too out of control. O’Loughlin isn’t much of an actor, which will probably become an issue as the show progresses, but for now you can overlook that, and Caan, Park, and Kim are all solid. Caan is most likely going to run away with the spotlight. The chemistry between the main cadre of actors works well, and you can see how it will drive the story further down the line. And even if something is bothersome, you never have to wait long for another moment of action or eye candy. In this single episode there are multiple gunfights, both of the protagonists get pretty fucked up, and there is some quality hand-to-hand combat. Not to mention a few solid tough guy lines that I won’t ruin for you.

After a single episode the show has promise, and, for now at least, I’ll keep watching.

One thing that I appreciate is that the creators help onto the distinctive, original theme song. They kept it simple, cashing in some nostalgia points to be sure, but I appreciate that nod to the source material.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Town

Ben Affleck has made some questionable career choices. “Pearl Harbor” is the funniest movie ever made, though not intended to be; he completely destroyed “Daredevil”; and then came “Gigli” and “Jersey Girl”. The whole J-Lo thing is where public opinion really began to desert him. I’m sure they all sounded like good ideas at the time, but in retrospect I’ll bet he’d like a few of those back. But he was on “Voyage of the Mimi”. So even in the dark days I secretly rooted for him.

He’s got an Oscar for the “Good Will Hunting” script, but I’ll admit that when he moved to start directing movies I was surprised, and skeptical. As it turns out, he’s not bad at it. His new movie, “The Town” is a solid outing for a second film.

The cast is full of hot right now actors, including Jeremy Renner, who is everywhere, Jon Hamm, who is equally good on “Mad Men” and “30 Rock”, Blake Lively, and Rebecca Hall. And if you add Pete Postlethwaite to the mix, you’ve automatically got my attention. The performances are as good as you would expect given the caliber of talent involved.

The film looks great. It obviously owes a lot to movies like “Mystic River” and “The Departed”, but if you’re going to bite someone’s directorial style, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese aren’t bad places to start.

“The Town” has a nice feel and atmosphere, and Affleck, who also adapted Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince of Thieves” with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, makes full use of Boston as a setting. There are a lot of aerial shots of the labyrinthine streets, the twisting, claustrophobic avenues, and Fenway Park even gets some face time. Now don’t get me wrong, “The Town” is a good movie, I can’t say that it isn’t, but it isn’t anything special, it isn’t anything beyond just good. It is gritty and violent, and the building blocks for something awesome are there, but the story trips it up.

Apparently the Boston neighborhood Charlestown breeds bank robbers, it’s a family trade passed down from generation to generation. Doug MacRay (Affleck) is one of them. He tried to play professional hockey, but pissed all of his chances away on drugs and fighting. Now he and his crew, including childhood friend Gem (Renner), knock over armored cars for Fergie the Florist (Postlethwaite), a local gangster.

In the process of taking down a bank, they pick up Claire (Hall) as hostage. They release her, but take her ID in case she talks to the cops. Problems arise when they discover that Claire is from the neighborhood, so Doug decides to look in on her to make sure that she can’t identify them. She is traumatized by the ordeal, and, true to form, Doug falls for her, much to the chagrin of his boys. Adam Frawley (Hamm) is the FBI agent who is driven almost fanatically by his desire to take these guys down. It becomes a twisted world of lies, crime, and betrayal.

It isn’t a bad plot, but it is completely predictable. If you’ve seen the trailers and have even a vague idea of what it is about, they you’ll know what is going to happen. The story unfolds exactly as you expect.

“The Town” is disappointing because you know it could have been so much better. It could have been something you’d rave to your friends about. There is tension, drama, emotion, and action (there is a nice chase scene in the middle), and the frequent use of spooky masks. When Doug goes to Gem and says, “I need you to come with me, you can’t ever ask me why, and we’re going to hurt some people,” the moment is up there with the most badass things I’ve seen on screen in recent days. All the elements are in place, but it just never quite gets there. It is frustrating because it is so close to being incredible.

“The Town” could have soared alongside the best modern crime thrillers, but the story is too banal to distinguish it. Still, it is good, and definitely worth a watch, though I wouldn’t rush out to the theater to see it, but good—one syllable, flat, no inflection—is the best I can say about it. However, if this is a sign of things to come, Affleck is going to be responsible for some awesome movies before too long.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Spartacus: Blood and Sand

So much screaming and stabbing. That is the basic premise behind the first season of “Spartacus: Blood and Sand”. The parts that involve neither stabbing nor screaming are built around naked breasts, beheadings, eruptions of blood, and intrigue.

The R-Rated Starz series is a retelling of the tale of Spartacus, a gladiator who led a slave rebellion in ancient Rome. Aside from the actual war, little is known about Spartacus the man, a detail that works in the producers favor and allows them to play fast and loose with the facts. The result is a ridiculous, violent melodrama. Imagine if “Gladiator” somehow had a baby with “300”, and the child was raised in “Melrose Place”. From the very beginning the series is nonstop, limb severing, backstabbing mayhem.

Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) is a Thracian who loves the hell out of his wife, Sura (Erin Cummings). In order to get the Romans to help them kill their enemies, the Thracians agree to suit up and go a-warring with them. Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker), the leader of the Roman Troops, betrays them, and their village is left defenseless. Spartacus incites his countrymen to desert in order to save their families from rape and pillage. He saves his wife, but their reunion is cut short when Glaber apprehends him. Sura is sold into slavery, and Spartacus is sentenced to death in the arena of Capua. Instead of dying like he was supposed to, Spartacus hacks his would be executioners to bits in front of a ravenous crowd.

Batiatus (John Hannah) runs a Ludus, which is where gladiators are trained, that has fallen on hard times. Driven by greed and an unquenchable thirst for power, fed by his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless), he sees an opportunity to make some cash. He buys Spartacus to capitalize on his sudden popularity, and tries to turn him into a legitimate gladiator.

Spartacus wants nothing more than to reunite with his wife, but the only way for him to accomplish this is to fight and win. In his way are Crixus (Manu Bennett), the current champion, and Doctore (Peter Mensah), a slave and former gladiator who trains the men.

Sex and violence fuel “Spartacus”. It is stuffed full of ripped dudes, women willing to take their tops off, and cascading waves of blood. At one point it rains blood. Everyone has an ulterior motive, everyone is out for number one, and it turns into a tangled web. This is the bloodiest soap opera you’ll ever see. Everything is a matter of life, death, love, lust, and betrayal.

The whole show is shot on greenscreen, and instead of trying to make everything look realistic, the filmmakers use the enhanced backdrops to augment the already heightened melodrama. Sunsets are more than red, the Ludus clings to the side of a massive cliff overlooking Capua, and the zealous crowds are epic in scope. The fights are full of slow motion leaping, where the combatants float through the air with swords drawn and battle cries on their lips. When some poor fool’s head is lopped off, blood spews over the camera. Everything element of “Spartacus” is over the top.

Initially the absurdity can be overwhelming and make the show difficult to watch. You get it. You’ve seen “300”. They’ve seen “300”. And they liked “300” a lot. Over time it does get better, and there is an honest-to-god story between moments of sex and violence. But until then the fight scenes are plentiful, and though completely preposterous, are fun to watch.

Creator and head writer Steven S. DeKnight does a decent job making the characters more than just caricatures. It takes some time, but they do get there. Despite a singularity of purpose, Spartacus is more complex than that. Crixus may be a jackass, but he is also capable of tenderness. Doctore carries the mental wounds of his only defeat, and driven by a sense of honor and duty, he longs to return the once great Ludus to its former glory. Even Batiatus and Lucretia aren’t completely without redemption. Hannah tries to bring some dignity to the series, but you can tell that he gave up after a while. No show with this many boobs can be classy. There is an almost “Showgirls” level of nudity. And what the hell, you get to see a slave jerk off Lucy Lawless, so that’s something.

One high point is the episode “The Thing In The Pit”, where, desperate for money, Batiatus enters Spartacus in a series of underground fights. There are no rules, no honor, and no glory in victory, only survival and money. One combatant cuts off the faces of his victims, who he kills with a giant hammer, and wears them like masks. The climactic scene is also pretty incredible. By that point you don’t think there is anything else they can do, but then they go completely nuts and pull out all the stops.

“Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is ludicrous and vulgar. There are many slights against men’s genitals (the phrase “Jupiter’s cock” is a common profanity), lots of sex, tons of brutal fights, and multiple scenes of guys shaving every part of their body. At times it is almost unwatchable, but at others it is a great deal of fun. The more you watch, the more twisted the plot gets, and as a result it becomes more entertaining. Sex is imminent, treachery lurks around every corner, and a violent death awaits everyone.

The DVD comes in a slick package, and in addition to the thirteen episodes there is a glut of bonus material. A number of episodes have commentary tracks, and one nice thing is that it is not always the same people. It is a good mix of behind the scenes voices, like writers, producers, and directors, as well as a cross section of the cast. There are a lot of different dynamics and perspectives, which makes the tracks interesting.

Also included are nine featurettes. They range from three to fifteen minutes long, and cover everything from general behind the scenes stuff, to the “Gladiator Camp” that the primary actors attended in order to learn how to fight and get huge. There are looks at various aspects of the special effects, and another where the producers talk about how, while they wanted to tell a historical story, they didn’t let pesky little things like facts get in their way. One extra that is nothing more than all of the most violent moments edited together, condensed into a single, greatest hits collection of brutality.

Filming of the second season was delayed due to star Andy Whitfield’s battle with lymphoma.