Friday, March 25, 2011

'Sucker Punch' Movie Review

Watching “Sucker Punch” is like watching some creepy old dude’s rape fantasy masquerading as a female empowerment story for young women. Apparently all teenage-looking girls need to do to transcend sexual assault is to do a seductive (read awkward) dance to hypnotize their would-be attackers and flee into their imaginations. One of the five female leads is almost raped every few minutes. People are going to describe “Sucker Punch” with words like “hot”, “sexy”, and “sensual”, but more accurate words are gross and skeevy, not to mention painfully long and repetitious.

“Sucker Punch” begins by raining shit down on Baby Doll (Emily Browning), who does actually look like she’s made out of plastic. Her mother dies, her evil stepfather tries to get at her, but goes after her little sister instead. When the little sister winds up dead, evil stepfather blames it on the already traumatized Baby Doll, and has her committed to a sinister, old school, electro-shock-therapy style mental hospital. There he pays an unscrupulous orderly, Blue (Oscar Isaac), to arrange an unnecessary lobotomy for his wayward stepdaughter.

Inside the asylum, Baby Doll meets fellow inmates Rocket (Jenna Malone), Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung), who all wear an absurd amount of eye makeup for being mental patients. Through the sheer power of imagination (you assume, since the subject is never dealt with in this level of reality) the hospital is transformed into a burlesque brothel, where the inmates are enslaved prostitutes who dance for wealthy clients. Carla Gugino chews on the scenery as a Polish psychiatrist in the real world, and a Polish madam/choreographer in the alternate universe, and Blue turns up as the mustachioed club owner/pimp.

Baby Doll bonds with Rocket by saving her from being raped by the morbidly obese, possibly mentally handicapped chef, which is really the best basis for a friendship. When Baby Doll is forced to dance, her moves are so entrancing that everyone who lays eyes on her falls under her spell for the duration of a song. Baby Doll not only enraptures her audiences, but she also dances herself into yet another layer of imagination, one where she encounters Wiseman (Scott Glenn), who gives her five things she and her friends must find in order to be free. That’s how subtle “Sucker Punch” is, the wise man is fucking named Wiseman. You may as well have called him Mr. Smartypants, or Tourguide.

You watch this pseudo-steampunk tale unfold as awful covers of great songs play at eardrum-crushing volumes, waiting for the action. Most people aren’t going into “Sucker Punch” in search of a great story. After all, writer/director Zack Snyder is known primarily as a visual stylist (the most engaging characters in any of his films to date are cartoon owls), not a great storyteller. And, admittedly, the action is the only thing “Sucker Punch” has going for it. Here’s the problem: the action scenes are super repetitive. They all begin with Baby Doll swaying uncomfortably to start her dance (Browning never looks at ease once in this entire movie), and distracting the lecherous Johns while her friends steal the tools they need to secure their freedom. Baby Doll’s homies accompany her to the third layer of reality, where they are all super badass and have guns and fight ninjas, zombies, giant Japanese-style statues, fire-breathing dragons, and the orcs from “Lord of the Rings”. Each one of these scenes, and you know exactly how many there will be because they tell you up front, play out almost exactly the same. It looks cool for a while, but you want something interesting to happen, which it never does. The movie takes all of this time getting to the action, only to have that action get boring and tedious.

I know I’m totally going to be accused of hating fun because I don’t like “Sucker Punch,” but it’s like an idiot “Wizard of Oz”, only with more molestation (I’m not kidding, someone is almost raped every few minutes) and an ending that shamelessly apes “Brazil”. It’s one of those movies that is smug and self-important, despite the fact that it is nothing but empty stylistics, visual bells and whistles, and completely devoid of any content at all. “Sucker Punch” basically spends two hours telling you how significant and game changing it is.

The thing I hate most of all, and if you didn’t get this point already, I hate pretty much everything about “Sucker Punch”, is that I know far too many people are going to embrace this as a feminist story full of strong young female characters fighting back against oppression, but it’s not at all (and no, the irony that I am in fact a man is not lost on me). “Sucker Punch” parades itself at that while it is nothing more than an excuse for guys to infantilize young girls in pig tails and check out their underwear. As a film, “Sucker Punch” is not only dumb, it’s creepy and gross.

And why the hell is John Hamm in this movie? He has like three lines and is completely wasted (squandered wasted, not drunk wasted).

Friday, March 18, 2011

'Paul' Movie Review

As a concept, “Paul” has more potential than any film to come around the bend in a long, long time. First and foremost the film stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who also handled the scripting duties, and since Pegg is largely responsible for movies like “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”, you can’t be blamed for expecting big things. Add Greg Mottola (“Superbad”, “Adventureland”) to this mix, and you seem like you’re well on your way to something wonderful.

Even the premise of “Paul” is almost perfect. Lifelong friends and super nerds Graeme Willy (Pegg) and The Author Clive Gollings (Frost) make a pilgrimage to America for that Mecca of geekiness, the San Diego Comicon. After wallowing in their own nerdgasmic crapulence, the pair sets off in a rented RV on a tour of iconic UFO hotspots in the Southwestern US. Along the way they meet colorful locals, run afoul of stereotypical rednecks (like SNL alum David Koechner), meet and fall in love with cycloptic-religious-nut-job Ruth (Kristin Wiig—who I can’t stand, but who wears a t-shirt with a cartoon of Jesus shooting Charles Darwin in the face), and, perhaps most importantly, meet a chain-smoking space alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogan), who escaped form a top-secret facility and is on the run from the government.

All of this should add up to one hell of a movie. Just thinking about this idea brightens my day, but, despite a few chuckles, “Paul” falls almost completely flat. Here’s a caveat, or qualification, or whatever you want to call it. It’s difficult to tell whether “Paul” is disappointing because it isn’t all that good, or if it’s because it’s disappointing because it isn’t great? Were there unreasonable expectations in play? I feel like I’m usually pretty good about keeping my hope in check, but I was, admittedly, excited to for this movie. Rationally, I feel like I went in with as open a mind as I could, ready for whatever the screen held in store for me. But can you ever fully clear your head of preconceptions, biases, and expectations?

It’s not that “Paul” is a bad movie, it is pleasant enough. But at the same time, it just isn’t particularly good. Like I said, the set up is good, and Pegg and Frost are a great comedy team. It is their charm and chemistry that carry the film as far as it can go. Without them, it wouldn’t even be worth watching. There are some fun nerd bits, like a redneck re-creation of the cantina scene from “Star Wars”, and a swarm of faux-Princess Leia’s. The best parts, the biggest, most sincere laughs, all stem from the clash of British culture with the American way of life, like when a small town sheriff questions Graeme and Clive about how cops in the UK are supposed to shoot anyone without guns?

For every high point, there are seemingly endless, and tiresome dick jokes, gay jokes, and Clive-has-a-child’s-bladder jokes. I’m a guy who loves a good dick joke, but the humor was so run-of-the-mill, so generic (you’ve seen it all many times before), that it doesn’t move you. There is an initial, ha, then you shrug it off and move on. A good point of comparison is how I felt about “MacGruber”. In the theater it was mildly entertaining, but walking out I knew I would never have to think about it again, and in fact, it was so bland and vanilla that it was actually difficult to remember anything about it. “Paul” is like mild salsa, it may taste okay, but really, what’s the point?

The script feels lazy, like Pegg and Frost weren’t even trying. “Paul” is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. Every time you can tell there is a gag locked, loaded, and coming down the chute, they make the most obvious joke, like Paul sticking his finger through the hole in a bagel while they talk about anal probing. The bad guys are tired clich├ęs. Jason Bateman is an ultra-serious government agent saddled with a pair of slacker rookies (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) who would rather play hide-and-seek behind a giant cactus than man a roadblock.

For all of it’s pop culture references, including, but not limited to, “ET”, “Star Wars”, “Star Trek”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Alien/s”, “Police Academy”, “Blues Brothers”, and tons more, “Paul” never becomes anything more than a mediocre road trip movie with a smart-alek alien who likes to smoke and drink beer. There is a world of potential, fun characters, and a great set up, but, like the parade of awesome cameos (including Jane Lynch, Jeffry Tambor, Jane Lynch, and Sigourney Weaver) that are completely wasted, it is squandered on ordinary jokes, and a series of toothless running gags that don’t even work the first time.

You can’t be blamed for expecting more from “Paul”, but you should also expect a let down. It feels like a movie aimed at a teenage audience. Who else would appreciate a CGI alien mooning his pals from the window of an RV? But the R rating, which primarily stems from Kristen Wiig stringing together random naughty words (another dead horse that is mercilessly flogged), will prevent all but the most industrious teens, and those with passable fake IDs, from seeing “Paul”. Last year “Scott Pilgrim” and “Let Me In” proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that movie nerds alone can’t open a movie. I’m normally the first to decry a movie for castrating itself in a quest for a lower rating, but in the case of “Paul”, already toothless and mild, that may have been a smart business idea, because even though every geek out there is going to see this, that won’t be enough.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

'Fubar: Balls to the Wall' Movie Review

If you haven’t seen “Fubar” I only have one question for you. What the hell, man, are you serious? I’m not kidding around when I say these words, drop whatever you’re doing (and lets be honest, if you’re reading this, whatever you were doing wasn’t very important to begin with) and go rent it immediately. It’s one of those movies that as soon as I saw it for the first time I sat down everyone I encountered for the next week and forced them to watch it. And then they made everyone watch it, and they made everyone watch it, and it was like a giant pyramid scheme, only so, so good. One friend spent the entire movie gawking at the screen, giggling like a simple-minded idiot-boy, which in my book counts as glowing praise.

For those uninitiated viewers out there, “Fubar” is a mockumentary following Terry and Dean, a pair of Canadian heshers as they headbang, party, and generally kick-ass their way through life. Highlights include the lines “turn down the suck, turn up the good”, and “I suggest you take up another sport, like knitting”, and the epic poem/song, “Woman is a Danger Cat”. Why “Fubar” isn’t legendary and celebrated by a minor holiday remains a mystery to me. If there were any justice in the world it would be as revered and quoted as “The Big Lebowski”.

Well now Terry and Deaner are back, in “Fubar: Balls to the Wall”, a shockingly appropriate title. Five years after Dean lost a nut to testicular cancer, little has changed, and the movie dives right in to one rager of an eviction party. Tron (Andrew Sparacino) shows up to freestyle rap in the kitchen, there is a palate of beer (which Dean accosts sexually), and Dean, having swallowed a handful of LSD, descends into a full blown bad trip that climaxes in him crying, screaming, and worshiping a poster of Ronnie James Dio while wearing a jock strap with a burning candle stuffed down the front. Shit gets pretty real. The evening culminates with the house engulfed in flames, and Tron and Terry chainsawing through walls to save Dean, who by that point is a drooling, gibbering wreck. They don’t waste any time cranking things up a notch, that’s the good stuff right there.

After sobering up, and realizing that they’re running out of options (they now live in Terry’s car), the pair head north to Fort McMurray, Alberta, where Tron drunkenly promised them jobs working on an oil pipeline. Along the way they steal a hitchhiker’s weed then ditch him on the side of the road. Terry actually becomes a productive member of the work crew, but Dean “fucks the dog”, and spends most of his time pelvic thrusting a blowtorch and trying to scam workman’s comp.

In keeping with classic storytelling tradition, a woman comes between the lifelong friends when Terry begins seeing Trish (Terra Hazleton), the town doorknob (get it, because everybody gets a turn, hee hee, I amuse myself). Terry blows all of his money on his increasingly domestic lifestyle, and has less and less time for things like snowmobile hunting with Dean. (What could possibly go wrong with that?) But they still manage a sweet “at the mall” montage that features Dean hooting and hollering down a massive waterslide.

Though much of the dialogue in “Balls to the Wall” was improvised, it is way more staged than “Fubar”. Gone are the first-person mockumentary framework, as well as the scenes where cast and crew roam free and infiltrate groups of civilians, engaging them in impromptu, off the cuff mayhem. Watching real people on the street react to the lunatic antics of Dean and Terry is one of the true joys of the first film. You feel for these citizens because you’ve all encountered insane wingnuts on the street and been both wildly entertained, but also a little bit concerned about your physical well being.

“Balls to the Wall” is funny for the same reasons and the first movie, but it also shares the same weaknesses. When the story takes a serious turn, with cancer and Dean’s daughter and domestic issues all rearing their ugly heads, the momentum stumbles and the film falters. And while there are some memorable lines, like “A bow is a just way of murdering an animal”, and “We’ll feed the baby, they just eat crackers for the first six months”, “Balls to the Wall” lacks the instant quotability of the first.

None of this is to say that “Balls to the Wall” isn’t completely awesome, because it is. The movie is fucking hilarious, and is another thing you’ll force your friends to watch over and over. Fortunately the filmmakers know enough not to dwell too long in the melancholy doldrums, kicking things back into gear with a Christmastime robbery and rocking karaoke jam that includes a sweet rendition of “More Than a Feeling”. I’m not going to say that this is just as funny and the first, because it’s not. Then again, nothing else created by mere mortals is. “Balls to the Wall” is an admirable follow up to a film that I consider a modern classic, of course it will lose a little in comparison, but it holds up, and is funnier than anything else you were going to watch instead. Do yourself a favor, find “Fubar: Balls to the Wall” wherever you can, in a theater or on DVD, and get in there and fucking giv’r. Much like the original, this shit is pure gold.

Friday, March 11, 2011

'Red Riding Hood' Movie Review

Here is all you really need to know about “Red Riding Hood”—Gary Oldman tortures a retarded boy in what is best described as a giant metal torture elephant. You may need a moment to digest this information, but rest assured, Gary Oldman does in fact torture a retarded boy in a giant metal torture elephant. Here’s how the device works. The intended torture victim, retarded or not, is locked inside a hollow metal elephant. A fire is then lit underneath to heat up the metal, and, in this case, broil the young, screaming boy inside. Perhaps this contraption has other applications, but this is the only one you see in the film.

“Red Riding Hood” is a teen melodrama that is so overly serious it borders on caricature. There are times when you’re laughing, when everyone in the theater is laughing right along with you, but then you stop and think to yourself, “oh wait, they’re not joking.” The movie is essentially a high school romance novel superimposed on a classic fairy tale. If you can accept the inherently ridiculous nature of the film, coupled with a ludicrous number of rapid zoom-into-close-up shots of trembling teenage eyes (something that comprises roughly half to two-thirds of the film), then “Red Riding Hood” is actually pretty damn funny, and if you watch it with a group of people, it is entertaining as hell. However, if you take everything at face value, “Red Riding Hood” is terrible, just awful.

It’s easy to see why Amanda Seyfried was cast in the role of Valerie, aka Red Riding Hood, her eyes are fucking enormous. No joke, her face is mostly eyeball. She lives in a small village on the edge of a dark wood, and in the opening voiceover she tells you that “the name has been forgotten by most”, but somewhere around the halfway mark people start referring to the town by name, so apparently it’s not that forgotten. Valerie is in love with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), a pasty Robert Pattinson look-a-like with dark, brooding eyes. These two have been in love since childhood when they trapped and killed a bunny. Spilling blood together does create a hefty bond. Unfortunately for Valerie, Peter is just a woodsman, and she is betrothed, against her will, to Henry (Max Irons), a blacksmith, which must be a much more lucrative trade than woodsman, because everyone keeps talking about how rich he is. Henry is a wee bit cross-eyed and looks kind of dim, like most everyone else “Red Riding Hood”. Valerie is understandably sad about being sold off, especially to a cold fish like Henry, and she conspires to run away with Peter.

So there’s all this angst-filled drama going on, but to make matters worse, the nameless-village-that-actually-does-have-a-name has a bigger problem, one seriously badass werewolf. Every full moon the villagers sacrifice livestock to their local monster. Over time an uneasy peace has been established, and the beast hasn’t killed anyone in twenty years. Just as Valerie and Peter are about to abscond, however, it mauls Valerie’s sister to death (don’t worry, Valerie is “the pretty one”, and no one seems too broken up that the ugly sister is dead). Nasally priest Father Auguste (Lukas Haas) spazzes out, and calls in reinforcements in the form of Father Solomon (Oldman), a legendary werewolf killer, and also quite the little fascist, as illustrated by his use of the aforementioned torture elephant. Oldman is completely over the top. He keeps his two young daughters locked up, and travels around with an odd assortment of men of different ethnicities who are more or less werewolf fighting slaves.

Father Solomon’s arrival is when the shit really hits the fan, with Valerie smack in the middle. Not only is her sister dead, but her dad (Billy Burke) is an alcoholic, her mom (Virginia Madsen) admits that Valerie’s father is not her sister’s father, Valerie is torn between two sickly looking bros (this village may never have actually seen the sun) who want to do it to her, her grandmother (a dreadlocked Julie Christie) is a stoner hippie traipsing around in the woods, and on top of all of that, there’s a god-damned werewolf on the loose. Valerie is not having the best day, trapped in this world of adultery, monsters, religious zealots, and those sexy scowls that are so popular with the kids these days.

“Red Riding Hood” is all the crazy of a soap opera, skin grafted onto a horror movie, and crammed into 90 minutes. There is a disproportionate amount of time spent on long, empty stares between Valerie and Peter, Valerie and Grandmother, Valerie and Mom, Valerie and Henry, Valerie and, well, you get the picture. Paranoia sets in and she thinks everyone around her might be the werewolf, which leads to even more open-mouthed gawking. None of these long, supposedly subtext-filled looks carry any weight, they’re completely devoid of substance and meaning. Even the worst CGI werewolf you’ve ever seen gets an extreme eye close up.

There are times when “Red Riding Hood” feels like it must be a joke, like at the end director Catherine Hardwicke and writer David Johnson are going to pop out and openly mock you and tell you that the whole thing is some sort of elaborate, post-modern prank. But then you remember that Hardwicke also directed “Twilight”, and you know such sweet relief is nowhere to be found. You can’t be blamed for being at least a little bit suspicious, after all there is a primal rave in the middle of the movie that just won’t end. You think it’s over a couple of times, but then it starts right back up again. And yes, there is fire walking, don’t worry. Finally it ends with a werewolf attack, where you find out that the beast can talk to Valerie. Watching this scene you can’t help thinking, “they can’t be serious”, but rest assured, friend, they are, they are.

'Battle: Los Angeles' Movie Review

Over the years movies have taught many important lessons, chief among these are don’t retire, never retire, nothing good will come of it. Everyone knows that the moment you announce you’re about to retire is the moment when the universe starts trying to kill you with gusto. Danny Glover learned this the hard way many times over in the “Lethal Weapon” franchise. Aaron Eckhart should have learned from Danny Glover, for the Glover is wise, but alas, he did not, and when he tries to retire aliens invade the earth and wreck up the joint in the badass new sci-fi actioner “Battle: Los Angeles”. He should have known better.

Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Eckhart) is a Staff Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. He’s been in the Corps for twenty years, seen all sorts of combat action, and is sick and tired of all the uppity young whipper snappers these days. There are also all sorts of rumors about how he got some of his squad killed on his last mission, which also plays into his increasing disillusionment. So he turns in his papers and is about to walk away from everything he’s ever known. Unfortunately for Nantz, and the rest of the world, a surprise meteor shower turns out to be a surprise alien attack instead. It’s a little like that scene in “Bones” when Snoop Dogg pops up behind the guy and goes “surprise” then kills him. Imagine that in extraterrestrial invasion form and you get the general idea.

“Battle: Los Angeles” is a pretty simple story, it is also a pretty standard war movie. The first few minutes are spent introducing a group of characters. Each one has a unique identifying characteristic. Nantz is the one who is about to retire and gets slightly more personality than the others, but there is also the one about to get married, the one about to have a baby, the virgin, the one with post traumatic stress disorder, and some others. They’re all typical war movie types, and as they’re introduced you can pretty much pick out which ones are doomed. They’re at least mildly interesting, enough so that there is a minor pang of sadness when they get crushed, burned, blown up, or dead in any of a variety of ways.

Fortunately for you, me, and everyone else, people are not what “Battle: Los Angeles” is all about. Story and character are secondary concerns. What “Battle: Los Angeles” is all about is shit blowing up and crazy alien killing machines. And isn’t that what you really wanted out of this movie anyway? After the initial introductions things spiral out of control quickly as the invaders blow the crap out of LA, and they don’t slow down for more than a moment. These asides are used to show the grim reality of a violent alien attack, and amplify the tension by illustrating exactly how fucked the entire world is.

“Battle: Los Angeles” belongs to the same class of movie as “Black Hawk Down” (think the illegitimate childe of “Black Hawk Down” and “District 9”). The soldiers go on a mission to rescue civilians from an area that is about to be bombed into rubble, and moments of quiet suspense serve as a contrast to sudden, disorienting explosions of violence. The look of the film is that blanched, hyper-real look usually associated with war films set in the desert. Bouncy hand held cameras follow the troops down smoke shrouded streets where gun battles and ambushes lurk around every corner. It’s that “you’re in the shit with them” style of filmmaking, and is a strategy that serves the movie well. Like the Marines, you only see vague outlines of their enemies at first, which makes them all the more sinister, and as Nantz and company learn about their opponents, so do you. When the action kicks in, fire coming from all directions, you feel their confusion, panic, and desperation. These are young men under great stress, and they are frightened.

You’re not going to be surprised by anything that happens in “Battle: Los Angeles”. Nantz is the hero. There is a noble sacrifice at the appropriate moment for a noble sacrifice. A civilian steps up and contributes just when you expect it. There is a big speech with swelling music exactly where it is supposed to go. As a story “Battle: Los Angeles” is shamelessly formulaic, but there is so much action, so many explosions coming at you from every direction, that you can forgive these shortcomings and bask in the glory of 116 minutes of frantic kick ass urban warfare set in the streets of southern California.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

'The Walking Dead Season One' DVD Review

The Show:

Robert Kirkman's “The Walking Dead” is one of the best monthly comics in recent memory. Though it may be about zombies on the surface, like the best of the genre, the heart of the story is the human element. Kirkman uses the plague of the undead to heighten and intensify the emotions and personalities of his characters. When faced with the destruction of everything you know, you find out who people really are, and what is really important. Frank Darabont’s adaptation of “The Walking Dead” for AMC shares this outlook, was an enormous popular and critical success, and Season One has just hit DVD/Blu-ray.

One of the cool things about the series, both the comic and the TV show, is that it takes the zombie story further than you’re used to. With an ongoing series it is possible to explore the day-to-day life and struggles of survivors. You get a wider spectrum in a season of a show than you do in a 90-minute motion picture. That’s a big reason why I’m behind the idea of turning comics into TV shows. The episodic natures of the mediums mesh well. There is more spatial freedom to tell stories that often sprawl in many directions. That's a big reason why so many comic book movies suck, there simply isn't enough room to tell the entire story, and tell it properly. And that’s exactly what “The Walking Dead” delivers.

The first thing you see in the entire series is a man dressed as a sheriff wandering through a sea of abandoned cars looking for gasoline. He spies a little girl walking away from him. When he calls out to her she turns around. Her face is a mangled, bloody mess. She snarls at him. A look of pain and heartbreak crosses his face. He shoots her in the head. This moment sets the tone for the entire series, and captures the mood and feel of the comic. This is not going to be a happy story; this isn't going to be pleasant or easy to watch.

Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is the sheriff you just met. While hunting down a car full of outlaws, he is shot and winds up in coma. In the hospital he sees bits of things, hints of what is going on around him, images of his best friend and partner, Shane (Jon Bernthal), visiting him every day, bringing him a vase full of flowers from everyone in the office. However, when Rick wakes up he turns his head only to see the flowers, now wilted and brittle. Dehydrated and disoriented, he staggers around the hospital and out into the world. Only the world isn't what it used to be.

As it turns out Rick has woken up into a real life nightmare. No one is around. Hundreds of bodies, all shot in the head, are piled outside of the hospital. A wasted, desiccated torso of a woman howls and drags itself across the lawn, entrails and spine trailing behind, somehow still alive. He does the only thing he can think of, goes home, only to find it abandoned, his wife and young son nowhere to be found. Rick heads to Atlanta, hoping against hope that his family made it to the rumored safe zone there. Atlanta is overwhelmed by the dead, but against all odds his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs) are alive, and have fallen in with a rag tag band of survivors, and the bulk of the season follows their attempts to carve out something that resembles a life amidst the post-apocalyptic chaos. Rick isn’t a traditional hero. Every decision he makes costs him dearly, but the group looks to him precisely because he is willing and able to make these hard choices.

The story and the characters are the strength of “The Walking Dead”, and while there is enough zombie action to satisfy, the focus is the people. How would you react to seeing the person you love most in the world turned into a monster, trying to kill you? “The Walking Dead” is grim, the kind of grim where people often say things like, “The only reason I got away is because the dead were too busy eating my family,” and where a character is forced to shoot a family member in the head on her birthday. Who is right and who is wrong in a situation that no one can comprehend? What are the rules when there are none?

Don't go in to “The Walking Dead” expecting an action movie. If you do you'll be sorely disappointed. I like movies like the “Dawn of the Dead” remake, and “28 Days Later”, but I don't consider them zombie movies in the traditional sense (okay, here is where my zombie/horror purist streak comes out). Traditional zombie films are suspense based, having more in common with Hitchcock than Michael Bay. Sure, a fast zombie may lead to a good chase scene, or jump out of a doorway and provide a quick fright, but I prefer slow zombies. Slow zombies are frightening despite being slow. As Morgan (Lennie James) says to Rick, one at a time they aren't much, but together, watch out. They are inevitable, glacial. You can shoot one in the head, or two, or three, but ten? Twenty? Thirty? You'll run out of bullets, they'll keep coming, and as episode 2 shows, the doors won't hold forever. Watching them is like watching the timer on a bomb tick down. That's my rant for today.

I’ve encountered a ton of people who absolutely despise “The Walking Dead”. Like no other show it polarizes horror fans. It seems like a love it or hate it proposition. I’m not a huge fan of the last episode, there’s too much blatant explanation, and would have liked to see more elements from the comic in the show (they have a perfectly serviceable set of characters and story lines, so I didn’t see any need to introduce new ones and abandon the ones fans already love, but hey, no one asked me), but for me, the biggest problem with Season One is that there are only six episodes. It’s kind of a tease, but at least that means there isn’t much of a time investment if you get three episodes deep and abandon ship. What you can expect from “The Walking Dead” is a boatload of tension, a bleak outlook, tough decisions, and humanity after all of the niceties and superfluous noise have been stripped away.

The DVD/Blu-ray:

If the show alone isn’t enough, the DVD/Blu-ray release of “The Walking Dead” comes with a crap ton of bonus material to sweeten the pot. In the “Featurette” section of the special features you will find a 30 minute behind-the-scenes documentary, and all six episodes are given their own five minute piece where the cast and crew discuss the themes, issues, and challenges presented by that specific installment.

On the “Extra Footage” side of things are six additional short features that each explore a different aspect of the series.

“Zombie School”: In a show as zombie heavy as “The Walking Dead” you’re going to need a surplus of undead extras, so the producers had a “zombie camp” to train them in the proper way to act and move like a reanimated corpse.

“Bicycle Girl”: One of the most iconic images in the early issues of the comic is the zombie that became known as “Bicycle Girl”, the torso of a woman, left legless and crawling along the ground. This explores the process of creating that figure, which took a mix of practical and digital effects work.

“On Set With Robert Kirkman”: Kirkman takes you on a tour of the set of the first episode. Since, as he points out, comics are generally written by one person, alone in a room, the set of a major is production is a bit of a culture shock. His humor and perspective makes this the most entertaining of the bonus features.

“Hanging With Steven Yuen”: The guy who plays Glen gives you a tour of a set. Highlights include the improvised shower in the survivor’s camp.

“Inside Dale’s RV”: Dale’s (Jeffrey DeMunn) RV is a constant presence in both the show and the comic, and DeMunn gives you a peek into the innards of his mobile home, a real life 1977 Winnebago, which, from appearances, served as a de facto hangout for the cast on set.

“On Set With Andrew Lincoln”: The star and central figure, on a rare break from shooting, sits down with the cameras and talks about his character and the series in general.

Friday, March 4, 2011

'The Adjustment Bureau' Movie Review

Spooky little dudes in fedoras secretly run the world. Didn’t know that, did you? At least if George Nolfi’s “The Adjustment Bureau”, and adaptation of a short story by Philip K. Dick, is to be believed. They may be angels; they’ve apparently been called a lot of things. But whatever else they may be, they are little more than mid-level bureaucrats, middle management suck ups who operate behind the scenes, subtly tweaking the destinies of the unsuspecting populous to make sure everything happens according to “the plan” written by “the Chairman”.

When bad boy political wunderkind David Norris (Matt Damon), fresh of tanking a New York senatorial election, largely because he mooned some bros at a college reunion (the New York Post publishes a picture), discovers these shady goings on, he is confronted with a decision. He can go on about his day to day business and pretend he saw nothing, or he can blab, in which case he will be “wiped”, which is exactly what it sounds like. They will erase his memory and personality, and everyone he knows will think he’s lost his marbles.

Though it contains elements of science fiction, metaphysical drama, noir, and political thriller, at its core “The Adjustment Bureau” is romance. David is destined to meet Elise (Emily Blunt) in that most obvious of places, an empty men’s room, so that she can inspire him to give a career defining concession speech. He is also destined never to see her again. That’s the plan anyway. When Harry (Anthony Mackie), David’s handler, or guardian angel, or whatever the hell he is, falls asleep on a park bench (hey, even Adjusters get sleepy), David happens across Elise on a bus. As you can imagine, everything goes wonky. No matter how hard Richardson (John Slattery) and the others try to keep them apart, David and Elise share an undeniable, unforgettable connection that neither can ignore. And perhaps most maddening, despite the plan, chance keeps throwing them together.

What keeps “The Adjustment Bureau” moving is the tension, but the tension doesn’t come from the most obvious sources. The conflict isn’t whether or not David and Elise will end up together, it isn’t whether or not David will get his brain zapped with one of those blinky “Men In Black” wands, or even whether or not the Adjusters will catch David when he goes off script. There are chase scenes, but first time director Nolfi stages them in a manner reminiscent of snappy caper movies (this is the man who wrote “Oceans Twelve”), rather than like a straight up action movie. These pursuits are more witty than action. The real tension springs from the choices presented to David. He can chose one way and end up with the girl. He can chose another and realize his lifelong dream. For him the choice seems clear. The only problem is that his choices not only impact his life, and his goals, but they impact Elise’s as well, and forever alter her destiny. David thinks he made the right call, but he constantly questions his choice. Is his fate really as written in stone? The more he bucks against his constraints, the more things start to go off the rails, until they have to call in the big guns, Thompson (Terrence Stamp), aka “The Hammer”. He’s the one who fixes things no one else can fix.

What is real, what is not, how can something that feels as right as David and Elise be wrong? What if the plan is wrong? That’s the underlying question of “The Adjustment Bureau”, what if God’s plan is wrong? It never asks this directly, or even overtly states this, but when all is said and done, that is the bottom line. The Adjusters blindly follow the plan, not because it is true, not even because they believe in it, but simply because it’s there in black and white. Do you really have free will, or just the appearance? Is the great and powerful OZ behind the curtain, orchestrating it all? Is your path already set, or is who you are the sum of the decisions you make? A subtle, prodding subversion motivates “The Adjustment Bureau”, but it is never quite as tense as it could be. You’re curious about how things will unfold, and you hope for the best, but even though there are serious concerns that everything might end badly for the protagonists, the situation never feels that dire. For a clandestine group that skulks in the shadows and wields an incredible deal of power, the bad guys are never as ominous or threatening as they could be. As earlier stated, they come across more as ineffectual administrators more than real villains. That adds an element of charm to the film, but also leaves a bit of a void.

Damon and Blunt are great together as the lovers willing to go up against any and all obstacles in front of them, including, but not limited to, God and his minions. They have an effortless chemistry, and a nice connection that makes them easy to root for. “The Adjustment Bureau” is visually interesting without it being intrusive or detracting from the central story. The hip comparison seems to be “Inception”, and the two films do share certain similarities, chiefly quirky visual craftsmanship and posing questions of what is and isn’t reality, and that sort of thing. But even more than “Inception”, an apt reference point is Alex Proyas’s “Dark City” (which never seems to get as much love as it should, that movie is awesome). “The Adjustment Bureau” is not nearly as dark, tense, or as expressionistic as that film, but thematically the two are closely linked by the idea of an entire world at work behind the scenes, pulling strings and rearranging lives.

“The Adjustment Bureau” isn’t a great movie, but honestly, it’s probably one of, if not the best big Hollywood movie that’s come out so far this year. One thing the film does do is it captures the feel of Philip K. Dick, at least in part. I haven’t read the specific story that it’s based on, but it bears many of the hallmarks of his work, including feelings of paranoia, a looming, faceless authority, religion, and the true nature of individual identity, among others.

'Beastly' Movie Review

There are certain stories that are told and retold on screen, generation after generation. “Cinderella” is one, and “Romeo and Juliet” is another. “Beauty and the Beast” also belongs to this club. My personal favorite version is the Ron Perlman/Linda Hamilton TV joint from the mid 80s, but much of my generation is enamored with the animated Disney rendition, and has a special place set aside in their collective hearts for that film. Now I have love for Angela Lansbury, and who can forget Jerry Orbach (RIP), and who am I to tell an entire generation that they’re wrong, so I’ll chalk this up to individual preferences. I firmly believe that time will prove me right.

“Beastly” is the latest adaption of this classic story, and, much like Baz Luhrman’s “Romeo & Juliet”, it is all sorts of updated and hipped up for today’s youths. My initial reaction is that I am not the target audience for “Beastly”. That seems like a logical assumption, right? I’m bearded, crotchety, and covered in tattoos of various monsters. And perhaps most glaring, I am not a teenage girl. It stands to reason that a movie starring Vanessa Hudgens, and revolves around high school, is probably not directed at me. Seeing the line outside the screening only reaffirmed these suppositions. There was a great deal of texting and glitter. I was wearing an “Evil Dead” t-shirt with holes in the armpits. Then the movie started, and for a third time, I thought to myself, this movie is most definitely not aimed at me and my particular tastes, and I’m willing to bet, it was not made for you and yours either. That might be a bit of an assumption, I don’t know you from Adam, but it’s a working theory.

Here’s the kicker. I look vaguely homeless and frighten an astounding number of children who see me on the street, but I’m also apparently a huge, sappy, sissy baby, because I like “Beastly”. It’s dumb and obvious and cheesy and hackneyed and everything a good movie shouldn’t be, but it’s adorable. The Hudgens is adorable, the whole thing goddamned adorable. I feel like I need to go home and watch a Steven Seagal movie just to prove I’m still a man and that I’ve actually gone through puberty. Okay, I always feel like watching a Steven Seagal movie, but that’s beside the point.

When “Beastly” started I couldn’t help but think this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. And it is. It’s not good. That fact should be crystal clear. However, somewhere in the middle I came to a horrifying, undeniable realization…I like “Beastly”.

You know the story. Of course you know the story, it’s “Beauty and the Beast”. Kyle (Alex Pettyfer) is pretty. And rich. And has the world by short and curlies. And he knows all of this. He rules the school and he says things like “Frankenskank”. One of the Olsen Twins (does it really matter which?) is a gothed out teenwitch who puts a curse on Kyle and he turns ugly. Like reject from a pre-fab-major-label-Slipknot-knockoff-band ugly. He’s got tribal looking tattoos on his face, big gashes on his neck (which seem to have flecks of glitter in them), and, gasp, he’s bald, and we all know bald people are ugly. He also has a tattoo of tree that changes with the seasons. When the tree blooms in spring, if no one has told him they love him despite his ugliness, he will be stuck ugly forever. Too bad he was such an ass that no one who knows him actually likes him.

Enter Lindy (the Hudgens). Right away you can tell she’s a good person because she helps the homeless and actually cares about the environment and stuff. She also a free spirit, who sings while wearing headphones, eats Jujyfruits with deli coffee, and her dad is a junkie, and you know she’s poor because her neighborhood is covered in graffiti. After Kyle gets all stalkery for a while, he saves Lindy from some thugs and convincers her dad that she’ll only be safe in the brownstone where Kyle’s news-anchor dad hides him from public view. So, he essentially keeps her captive in his castle. This time around Neil Patrick Harris and Lisa Gay Hamilton take the parts that belonged to singing kitchen implements in the Disney version. NPH plays a blind tutor who seems like he’s the only one in the movie who is in on the joke. His whole portrayal of a blind man is basically just walking around cross-eyed (and he still plays a mean game of darts). You can almost hear him not give a fuck, which is pretty entertaining. He’s full of wisdom like, “Chicks did blind guys”. LGH plays a Jamaican maid who is a target for Kyle’s early racism, but who, after he gets all ugly (look closely at his eyebrows, one of them actually spells out the word ‘suck’), he begins to care about. She gives him advise, like telling him to think about Lindy and what she likes instead of just buying her expensive baubles she hates. His response when paying attention to the like and dislikes of a romantic interest actually pays dividends is, “That thinking thing killed. Killed.”

The story is so contrived it’s almost physically painful. Everything is laughably bad, everything. There’s even an email/twitter/facebook montage. Seriously. I’m sure the Nickelodeon crowd will find this whole set up mind-blowingly deep and moving—of course Kyle learns some important life lessons in the end—but you know better. And so should I. But somewhere along the line, I found myself emotionally invested in this syrupy nonsense on the screen. My taste is questionable, I know this, and for the most part this is something I embrace, but “Beastly”? I’m legitimately upset, not to mention perplexed, that I really like “Beastly”. I don’t expect you to enjoy “Beastly”, hell, we’ve already established that I shouldn’t like it, but I do, so maybe you will, too, but I doubt it, you’re smarter than me. Maybe I am a teenage girl after all.

'Take Me Home Tonight' Movie Review

The old adage that everything is cyclical is especially apt in the case of “Take Me Home Tonight”, the new film from director Michael Dowse (“Fubar”). Not only is it an 80s nostalgia film, a genre that just won’t die, but it is also a throwback to raunchy, drug-addled, “one crazy night that changes everything” movies that, until “The Hangover” jumpstarted a revival, weren’t as prominent as they once were. It’s funny to compare “Take Me Home Tonight” to “The Hangover” because it actually predates Todd Phillips’s film by a couple of years. Originally shot in 2007, and titled “Kids In America”, “Take Me Home Tonight” sat on the shelf for a long time while the studio tried to figure out how to market a film that featured young people ingesting large amounts of the decade’s drug of choice, blow.

“Take Me Home Tonight” isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, in fact if you watched any movies made in the 1980s, especially anything John Hughes made involving teenagers, you know exactly what is going to happen. However, that doesn’t stop the movie from having some really big laughs, and a certain charm that does actually make you nostalgic for this kind of film. At first you’re afraid that the story, by a pair of writers from “That 70s Show” (remember the attempted spin off, “That 80s Show”, and what a miserable failure that was on every level?), is going to murder the premise within a few minutes with a faux “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” credits sequence, and forced catch phrases. It’s hard not to cringe when one character tells another that he’s “whipping it real good”. It’s worrisome to say the least. No one wants to sit through 90 minutes of Wang Chung jokes. Thankfully they drop this shtick after a few minutes.

Matt Franklin (Topher Grace) should be on his way to living his 80s yuppie, cocaine and big hair, Patrick Bateman “American Psycho” wet dream. He was the smart kid in high school, he went to MIT, and everyone, his family and himself included, expected big things. Instead, after college Matt works at a Suncoast Video at the mall, lives with his parents, and desperately hopes to run into Tori Frederking (Teresa Palmer), his high school crush who he never had the balls to ask out. She’s his white whale, his unicorn, and when this mythological beast wanders into his video store, Matt does what anyone in his situation would, he lies his ass off. She’s an investment banker, so he says he’s an investment banker, after ditching his Suncoast vest and nametag, of course. (By the way, they all went to Shermer High School, which is the name of the fictional town in Illinois where John Hughes set all of movies.)

With his chubby, curly-haired best buddy Barry (Dan Fogler), and his twin sister Wendy (Anna Faris), in tow, Matt sets out on the craziest night of his life. Over the course of the evening, your team steals a car, gets laid, has a dance off, gets into a fight, does some blow, wrecks the stolen car, and says things like “I’d really rather not spend tonight in L.A. County Jail giving some white supremacist a crying blowjob.” There are shenanigans aplenty. And if you’re familiar with the kind of movie they’re making here, the plot is pretty standard. Matt connects with Tori then offends her, and has to do something stupid and bold to prove to her, and to himself, that he’s a worthy mate; Barry, having just been fired from a job he hates, will have highs and lows, but ultimately wind up having the traditional “greatest night of my life”; and Wendy has her own life-changing revelation about her douchey, rich, popped-collar wearing boyfriend and her own future. Crazy, right?

Michael Biehn shows up as Matt’s cop father, and Angie Everhart has a small part a cougar who seduces Barry while her creepy, leather suit wearing, Eurotrash pal watches and giggles. While these two are awesome, there are a couple of wasted opportunities in the cameo department. Bob Odenkirk is Barry’s boss, but doesn’t say a word. His entire part consists of scowling once at Barry and drawing his finger across his throat menacingly. Michael Ian Black plays Tori’s skeevy, sexually harassing boss, but is really unused. He looks like a pompous jackass in his spectacles and bowtie, but that’s it.

Despite the predictability, “Take Me Home Tonight” winds up being a blast. The 80s theme is a little weary initially, but the characters, though familiar, are personable enough to keep you engaged, and again, did you read that white supremacist line? That kind of shit is all over the place. “Take Me Home Tonight” is raunchy and foul in all the right places, and cute and charming exactly where it should be. There is a discussion of “boob power”, important life lessons learned, and, as you can imagine, lives permanently altered.