Friday, December 23, 2011

'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' Movie Review

Based on John le Carre’s 1974 spy novel of the same name, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” has a lot going for it. Chief on this list is the cast, led by Gary Oldman, who gives an intense but understated performance as George Smiley, a Cold War era British intelligence operative. As opposite as he can be from that other famous Brit spy, Smiley is tasked with exposing a high-ranking mole in the organization. With a supporting cast that includes Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and Benedict Cumberbatch—which may be the best name in cinema—Smiley cautiously roots out the informant using crafty tricks he’s acquired through a lifetime of playing the spy game.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' Movie Review

I’m not a fan of Steig Larsen’s ludicrously popular (I say that selling more than 27 million copies counts as ludicrous) “Millennium” trilogy—which kicks off with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. In fact, I dislike them immensely. I find the books tedious, poorly written, in desperate need of an editor’s sword, and, perhaps worst of all, boring as all hell. I have similar feelings about the Swedish film adaptations of these same novels. As a result, I’ve been rather indifferent to the build up for the American remake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, the self-proclaimed “feel bad movie of Christmas”. Still, I feel like somewhere, buried deep down inside, there is the potential for a decent movie based on these books. The set up, story, and characters are all interesting, and if anyone can salvage the remains and fashion them into an entertaining film, it may very well be David Fincher, a director with a knack for infusing left-of-center projects with a pop sensibility.

Monday, December 12, 2011

'Tyrannosaur' Movie Review

Paddy Considine is known primarily as a character actor, with some small parts in some big movies, like “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Cinderella Man”, some bigger parts in smaller films. He also has a few writing credits to his name, most notably 2004’s “Dead Man’s Shoes”, which he also starred in. This year he added to his resume, making his feature film directorial debut with the bleak, violent drama, “Tyrannosaur”.

Friday, December 9, 2011

'Shame' Movie Review

Sitting in the theater watching Steve McQueen’s (“Hunger”) new film, the sexually charged “Shame”, I enjoyed it quite a bit.  Outside after the screening, another reviewer asked what I thought.  Seems like a straightforward enough question, but in trying to quantify my experience I froze, mouth open like a slack-jawed idiot.  He took my hesitation to mean that I didn’t like “Shame”.  He said he liked it a great deal, and we wandered down the escalator and out into the harsh light of day. 

'The Weird World of Blowfly' Movie Review

Do you want to watch a 66 year old man dressed like a superhero lay down some of the filthiest rhymes you’ve heard this side of a 2 Live Crew record? If you answered yes to this question, then you’ll probably want to check out Jonathan Furmanski’s new documentary, “The Weird World of Blowfly”. The film follows Clarence Reid, AKA Blowfly, a purple-sequin-suit-wearing MC with a dirty, dirty mouth, and an even dirtier mind. This is an artist with songs titles like “Big Fat Ho” and “Rap Dirty”, albums called “Porno Freak”, and who does a rendition of “Do the Twist” entitled “Suck MY Dick”. Dropping albums since 1971, some people consider Blowfly one of the first rappers ever. That is the point that “Weird World” tries to drive home, with mixed results, and notable personalities like Chuck D, Ice T, and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, will try to convince you. Given the timelines, they very well may be right.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Blu-ray/DVD Review: 'Horror Express'

Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Telly Savalas in a Spanish horror film from the writers of “Psychomania”? Thank you, Severin Films, you always know just what I want. This time I’m talking about the new Blu-ray release of Eugenio Martin’s 1972 genre jaunt, “Horror Express”. There’s a droning, discordant score; major, highly questionable plot points that are simply glossed over and pushed aside with a wave of the hand; and, most importantly, a brain-sucking monster loose on a trans-Siberian train. What’s not to like about that? “Horror Express” is classic, grainy, low-budget horror. It is weird and gory, the plot goes in unexpected directions and there are eyeballs and blood and brains and scalpels, and is just as much fun as all of that sounds.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

'Faces In The Crowd' Movie Review

With a title as generic as “Faces in the Crowd”, and a generic poster that you’ve seen a dozen times—yeah, no movie has ever had a poster with a picture of a face in a broken mirror—it is no wonder that the finished product is, you guessed it, generic. One thing that “Faces in the Crowd” does have going for it that most terrible thrillers don’t, is that it is really goddamn funny. I’m not kidding, it’s super hilarious, one of the funnier movies I’ve seen in a while, and takes itself so seriously that you can’t help but burst out laughing in moments of supposedly heightened tension.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

'Jack and Jill' Movie Review

To be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing this. I feel like there are two groups of people in the world with regards to Adam Sandler’s latest film, “Jack and Jill”. First are those who anticipate one of the biggest piles of crap of the year, which, given the previews, seems like the safe bet. The others are those who don’t give a damn how it looks or what you think, they’re going to see this regardless. Either way, minds are made up, and I doubt anything I have to say on the subject will hold much sway. That said, if I can convince just one person, any person, not to see “Jack and Jill”, I’ll have done a good deed. And I’m not saying this because I’m anti-Adam Sandler, I’m saying this as someone who enjoys “Don’t Mess With The Zohan” more than he is proud to admit. That’s where I’m coming from.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

'The Son of No One' Movie Review

For a movie that has garnered little to no fanfare, and one that you probably shouldn’t even bother watching, “The Son of No One” has a lot of names that you’ll recognize. You’ve got Channing Tatum in the lead; Katie Holmes as his wife; Al Pacino as, you’ll never guess this, a New York cop; Ray Liotta as, you’ll never guess this either, a corrupt New York cop; and Tracy Morgan in a role that is what I imagine is similar to the part his character from “30 Rock” played when he went after an Oscar. And Juliette Binoche shows up as a crusading journalist, forgot to mention that one.

Friday, November 4, 2011

'Tower Heist' Movie Review

“Tower Heist” is the idiot brother of “Ocean’s Eleven”. While that movie is quick, clever, and fun, “Tower Heist” is empty, plodding, and unencumbered by wit. The movie is an uninspired rehash of caper movie tropes that tries to be quirky only to fail miserably. It is a completely vacuous exercise. You don’t care about any of the characters, the action isn’t particularly interesting, and I spent most of the movie waiting for it to finally be over.

Friday, October 28, 2011

'Martha Marcy May Marlene' Movie Review

The haunting string arrangement over the opening credits of Sean Durkin’s thriller “Martha Marcy May Marlene” stirs definite echoes Hitchcock. In this case it makes a certain amount of sense to evoke the master of cinematic tension. The film is a long, slow build, where the pressure and apprehension grows and increases steadily throughout, wrapping you in a tight squeezing grip.

Friday, October 14, 2011

'The Thing' Movie Review

Antarctica is a great setting for a horror movie. You’re in the most remote, desolate, deadly corner of the planet, where the weather can change moods at the drop of a hat, where you can freeze to death before you know it, and where if something goes wrong you’re just screwed, simple as that. When you see footage of the barren, wind swept landscape it’s easy to imagine why Lovecraft set “At the Mountains of Madness” in such a spot, it’s like an entire continent trying to drive you crazy and murder every living thing besides penguins. It is a landscape rife with an inherent tension, a tension that is largely underused by “The Thing”, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s new prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 film, oddly enough, also called “The Thing”.

Friday, September 23, 2011

'Moneyball' Movie Review

“Peace to Oakland, I’ve never been a fan of the A’s”
—Blue Scholars

At the heart of Bennett Miller’s new film “Moneyball” is the story of a little guy going against the grain, challenging established norms and mores, and trying to indelibly alter the world around him. “Moneyball” is the story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, who, in the early 2000s, turned his back on 150 years of traditional baseball wisdom, and adopted a radically new approach to assembling a team.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

MIFFF Review: The Short Films

One of the coolest things about the Maelstrom International Fantastic Movie Festival is the shorts program. There were an absurd number of them, almost fifty, broken up into genre-specific chunks—a fantasy, animation, horror, and science fiction block. These are films that you’re not likely to see many other places. In a general sense shorts are wildly hit and miss—there are some great ones, but to get to them you have to sift through a crap load of garbage.

MIFFF Review: 'Boy Wonder'

Do yourself a favor, go out and find a way to watch “Boy Wonder”. It’ll be totally worth it, promise. A near perfect combination of grim revenge movie and dark super hero origin story, it is good enough to make you completely forgive a questionable choice of title. To lump it in with the likes of “Kick-Ass”, “Defendor”, and “Super”, may be a natural inclination, but at the same time it does the film a great disservice because it is markedly different from all of those films. “Boy Wonder” doesn’t aspire to be the first chapter in an ongoing saga, it doesn’t directly reference comic book lore and culture, and the main character doesn’t try to become an iconic superhero or mimic heroic acts from the funny books. He wants revenge, plain, simple, brutal revenge, and this is the grim, gritty, ultraviolent story of how he goes about his quest.

Monday, September 19, 2011

MIFFF Review: 'The Selling'

A big problem with films that present themselves as horror-comedies is that, all too often, they are neither frightening nor funny. In direct opposition to this trend, Emily Lou’s new film “The Selling” succeeds on both of these fronts—it is strong low-budget comedy and strong low-budget horror. There are consistent, legitimate laughs throughout, and, especially as the movie builds and progresses towards the climax, some solid ghost story action in the midst of all the humor.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

MIFFF Review: 'Midnight Son'

Almost immediately director Scott Leberecht’s new horror film “Midnight Son” calls to mind George Romero’s 1976 movie “Martin”. Both are ostensibly vampire movies, but vampire movies that tweak the formula and refuse to follow conventions. Gone are the gothic, overdramatic affectations that have permeated the genre for years, and let’s put it this way, this vampire certainly doesn’t sparkle or glint like a diamond in the sun.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

DVD Review: 'Spartacus: Gods of the Arena'

It feels strange to write a review of “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” right now, just a short few days after the untimely passing of actor Andy Whitfield, who played the titular gladiator in “Spartacus: Blood and Sand”, the series that preceded “Gods of the Arena”. Despite the absence of Spartacus, and Whitfield, in “Gods of the Arena”, he looms in the background, largely because if not for Whitfield’s well-publicized battle with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, the six-episode mini-series likely wouldn’t have happened. When Whitfield was originally diagnosed he stepped down from the show, a huge hit for the Starz network. While producers of the show frantically searched for a new leading man, eventually selecting Liam McIntyre, the idea for “Gods of the Arena” first came about. It will be curious how the series carries on without Whitfield. The more I watched “Blood and Sand”, the more he carried the bulk of the workload, and he will be missed.

Friday, September 9, 2011

'Contagion' Movie Review

If you’re not already freaked the hell out by the idea of a global pandemic—some heretofore unknown and untreatable disease sweeping across the face of the Earth, leaving a trail of devastation and death—Steven Soderbergh’s (“Traffic”) latest movie, “Contagion”, might just do the trick. The film is a cold, almost clinical presentation of a virus that quickly mushrooms out of control, to the point that when you hear someone cough three rows behind you, you’ll want to bolt from the theater, douse yourself in hand sanitizer, and make a beeline for the hills.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

'The Debt' Movie Review

“The Debt” had me for two-thirds of the movie—maybe it was even three-quarters, I wasn’t wearing a watch. John Madden’s (director of “Shakespeare In Love” John Madden, not the senile, football-spouting loudmouth with the same name) crafts a tense thriller about Israeli Nazi hunters that grips you and has you on the edge of your seat and all of that other stuff that a thriller is supposed to do. Even in moments of down time you’re still engrossed, leaning slightly forward, hanging on every frame. The film is expertly paced, flawlessly acted, and has a unique, intricate structure that is executed with pinpoint accuracy.

Friday, August 26, 2011

'Colombiana' Movie Review

After witnessing the brutal murder of her parents at the hands of Colombian drug lords, Cataleya (Zoe Saldana) grows up to become a ruthless assassin bent on revenge. That’s the plot of “Colombiana” in a nutshell, and to be honest, there isn’t much more substance than that to the story. At the core the story is like “Leon” light, essentially an empty version of the same plot carried further. Lucky for you there is some solid ass kicking action to back up what the script by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen lacks.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

'Target Practice' Movie Review

“Target Practice” looks a lot like a movie that some of your more enterprising buddies made—shooting on weekends, using the props and locations available to them, full of questionable acting, and that sort of thing. And if you approach the film from this direction, it’s not bad. The action sequences are surprisingly solid, and the story, while not pulled off particularly well, is interesting enough that it could have been good. So “Target Practice” has these two things potentially working towards its favor, but not much else.

Friday, August 19, 2011

'Fright Night' Movie Review

I’m going to try not to waste a bunch of time with a pointless how-dare-they-remake-a-classic-like-“Fright Night” rants. We all know that well trod territory is completely pointless, and they’re going to keep coming, like it or not. Besides, I’ve seen the original—though it’s been at least 15 years, probably more—and while I remember enjoying it, I also remember that it wasn’t any sort of masterpiece to begin with. Sorry to all of you hardcore fans out there, you can send me hate mail if you want. I’m here to say that “Fright Night 3D”—director Craig Gillespie’s remake of the horror comedy—isn’t all bad, but it is mostly bad.

'The Last Circus' Movie Review

Okay boys and girls, it’s time to put on our bat-shit-crazy-pants and get a little bit nuts. And by a little bit nuts, I mean a lot bit nuts. This is really the only way to prepare you for the onslaught of Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia’s (“Accion Mutante”, “800 Bullets”) latest film, “The Last Circus” (“Balada triste de Trompeta”). It is one of the most bizarre and wonderful movies I’ve seen in a long, long time. Any movie that starts with a clown wielding a machete is on the right track. Circus performers conscripted against their will to fight a war they neither believe in, nor have any interest in participating in. How can you go wrong?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Blu-ray Review: 'The Big Lebowski: Limited Edition'

Fuck it, Dude, let’s go bowling.

I didn’t love “The Big Lebowski” the first time I saw it. It feels good to finally admit that. By the time 1998 rolled around I’d been a big Coen Brothers fan since first watching “Raising Arizona” in 1987, and had seen everything they’d put on film. “Fargo” only solidified my affection, so when their next film, “Lebowski”, came out, I went to a Sunday afternoon matinee that first weekend. Walking out into a drizzly March afternoon in the Pacific Northwest, I’d enjoyed myself well enough, but it wasn’t anything that blew my hair back. I wasn’t the only one with a less-than-enthusiastic reaction, and the film was neither a critical nor commercial success.

Home video is where “The Big Lebowski” really hit its stride and found an audience. This film makes a definite case for repeated viewings. With the ability to watch and re-watch you are afforded the opportunity to drink in and truly appreciate the subtle jokes, Walter’s priceless rants, and the random weirdness that makes “The Big Lebowski” so great. Watching it now I can’t see how I had such a tepid reaction my first time, and the film has blossomed into a full-blown cultural phenomenon. There are constant midnight screenings, t-shirts and bumper stickers printed with quips of dialogue, websites, chatrooms, and even regular festivals and conventions. Hell, at work we have three phones, each with a name. One is “Walter”, another “The Dude”, and we call the third “The Jesus”. (Let it be known that I had nothing to do with this.) “The Big Lebowski” isn’t “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” or “Rocky Horror” in terms of nerdy fan obsession, but it isn’t far off.

It seems fitting that since the home video market is so responsible for the popularity of “The Big Lebowski”, now it is getting special edition Blu-ray Book release. I’ll try not to waste too much of your time with plot details, as I’m going to assume that most of you are at least marginally familiar with the movie. It is essentially the Coen Brothers’ loose retelling of Raymond Chandler’s 1939 detective novel, “The Big Sleep”. Remember the use of the word “loose”. There are distinct similarities between the two works, but they are, obviously, vastly different entities.

Instead of Chandler’s hardboiled private investigator, Philip Marlowe, the story centers around a burn-out, ex-hippie stoner named Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), know as “The Dude” to his many friends and well-wishers. Floating through life on a cloud of smoke, his daily routine consists primarily of getting high and bowling with his buddies, Walter (John Goodman), an easily agitated Vietnam vet, and Donny (Steve Buscemi), a naïve milquetoast who often unwittingly walks right into Walter’s rage. After being mistaken for another Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston), a wheelchair-bound millionaire no less, the Dude is compelled to navigate a seedy criminal underworld that includes kidnapping, blackmail, murder, and modern feminist art, among other things.

At a basic level, what the Coens did is drop a laid-back slacker into the middle of a tense, twisted detective story, just to see what would happen. The result is a frantic mish-mash of comedy, mystery, and cinematic trickery that, while it can be overwhelming at first glance, is one of the most unique and entertaining films in a generation. Endlessly quotable, the re-watch potential for “The Big Lebowski” is through the roof. Like I said, it is one of those films that gets better with age, and no matter how many times you’ve seen it, you can pop it into your disc playing machine, and watch it again and again.

You are entering a world of pain.

Besides a sharp, clean picture, “The Big Lebowski” Limited Edition Blu-ray Book comes with a ridiculous number of extras, a list that it is truly worthy of the “Special Edition” tag. With the package you get a digital copy of the film, as well as a 28-page booklet that features exclusive interviews, trivia, and photos from the movie. But wait, there is so much more:

There are a trio of interactive “U-Control” features; “Mark It, Dude”—an on-screen counter that keeps track of the “dudes”, “Lebowski-isms”, and “f-bombs” throughout the movie—think the “Carnage Counter” on the “Red Dawn” DVD; “Scene Companion”—which lets you watch behind the scenes footage, interviews, and assorted other extras while you watch; and “The Music of ‘The Big Lebowski’”—a feature that identifies the songs on the soundtrack and lets you build a custom playlist.

“An Introduction”—This is the least entertaining of the bonus features. It is a faux intro from a faux film industry type that just doesn’t hit the mark and is tired rather than entertaining. It is only four minutes, but feels much longer.

“Worthy Adversaries: What’s my Line Trivia”—This is exactly what it sounds like a “Lebowski” trivia challenge. The kicker is that you can play solo, or test your knowledge head-to-head with a buddy. Won’t that sound like fun after a couple of hearty bong rips.

“The Dudes Life”—This 10-minute featurette is taken up mostly by Bridges discussing his process as an actor, and some specific preparations he employed to get ready for his role as The Dude.

“The Dude Abides: ‘The Big Lebowski’ Ten Years Later”—After a full decade has elapsed, members of the cast and crew are interviewed about the legacy of “The Big Lebowski”, with a large emphasis placed on the Coen’s and the unique way in which the brothers work.

“Making of ‘The Big Lebowski’”—An older inclusion, this is a pretty standard making-of feature, though it is interesting to hear the characters discuss their roles and the film not only before it was released, but before it became a true cult phenomenon.

“The Lebowski Fest: An Achiever’s Story”—Features clips from Eddie Chung’s film “The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans”, a documentary about the people behind “Lebowski Fest”, an event that has since become an annual gathering of like minded Dude devotees.

“Flying Carpets and Bowling Pin Dreams: The Dream Sequences of The Dude”—Exactly what it sounds like, this extra explores the “Kafka Moments”—as the Coens call them—where “The Big Lebowski” flies off on surrealist tangents. Don’t ask me how I know, but these interludes are the closest thing to a glue-sniffing hallucination that I’ve ever seen captured in a movie.

“Interactive Map”—Flip around and choose between significant locations from “The Big Lebowski”. Each entry comes with a brief, usually less than a minute, glimpse at the places where the movie was filmed, and a bit of trivia about each spot in the greater Los Angeles area.

“Jeff Bridges Photo Book” and “Photo Gallery”—This is exactly what it sounds like.

And to top off the whole thing there are a handful of online Blu-ray features for you to explore. All in all this is a great package, especially for die-hard fans of “The Big Lebowski”.

Friday, August 12, 2011

'Final Destination 5' Movie Review

There were a lot of things I didn’t expect from “Final Destination 5”. First off, I didn’t really expect it to happen, but it did, so right out of the gate it defied my expectations. Was there really such a big audience just clamoring for a fifth chapter that they had to make this film? The second thing I didn’t expect was that I would enjoy “Final Destination 5”, but I sure as hell did. I guess that’s what I get for making assumptions—I made an ass out of u, me, and umption. “Final Destination 5” is not a good movie by any means, in fact in many ways it is barely competent, but goddamn it is a lot of fun.

'30 Minutes or Less' Movie Review

“30 Minutes or Less” is a breath of fresh air in what has overall been a stale summer. Director Ruben Fleischer’s follow-up to “Zombieland” is one of the few comedies this season that isn’t trying to be an edgy, raunchy, gross-out fest; and it doesn’t end with some heavy-handed, overly-simplified moralizing that even an idiot boy-child can see through. “30 Minutes or Less” is fun, funny, but also manages to tell a good, surprisingly tense story with solid characters. Who would’ve thought to do that?

Monday, August 8, 2011

DVD Review: 'Clash' (AKA 'Bay Rong')

We’ve been writing about Vietnamese actioner “Clash” (AKA “Bay Rong”) on this site for some time. So long, in fact, that you might notice that the box for the region one DVD that just came out bears a quote from us on the bottom left-hand corner. While “Clash” isn’t blazing any new trails or breaking any new ground, it is pretty much right up our alley. And by that I mean it is a badass crime film full of all out ass-kicking and large-scale gun battles. If that doesn’t sound like a damn fine way to spend a couple of hours, you and I certainly have different tastes, my friend.

Friday, August 5, 2011

'The Guard' Movie Review

What do you get when you throw together a crotchety Irish cop and a straight shooting, by-the-book FBI agent? You get a damn good time, that’s what. And director John Michael McDonagh’s new film “The Guard” is just that, a blast from start to finish. The movie works as a 70s throwback crime flick, while at the same time taking the piss out of the genre. “The Guard” is raucous and depraved, but also one of the most entertaining, darkly comic detective movies in recent memory.

'The Change-Up' Movie Review

It’s about damn time. All my life I’ve watched movies like “Freaky Friday”, “Freaky Friday” remakes, and “Freaky Friday” knock-offs, screaming, “When? When, God, will bros finally get their turn?” And I am pleased to finally be able to say that today, August 5th , 2011 (unless you’re reading this later), the bros finally get their due, thanks to director David Dobkins’s (“Wedding Crasher”) new body-swap comedy “The Change-Up”. Because of Dobkins, and writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (“The Hangover”), no longer will we have to wonder what it would be like if two dudes, two dudes with polar opposite personalities and lives, switched places with each other for a short time. No longer will we have to theorize how this scenario would play out, we have concrete cinematic proof of the wackiness that will ensue.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

'Another Earth' Movie Review

“Another Earth” starts off with an interesting enough, if completely ridiculous premise. Scientists have found a heretofore-unnoticed planet, an exact replica of Earth to be exact, hiding behind the moon, and the movie attempts to explore the impact this discovery has on the people of “Earth One”. What it actually does is meander around for a while, trying to be moody, but succeeding only at boring the ever loving crap out of you. At times it is painfully indie, full of long, static shots of characters walking from one side of the frame to the other. Once in a while that device is okay to use, but it comprises roughly half of “Another Earth”. You just want something interesting to happen, but it never does.

Friday, July 29, 2011

'Attack the Block' Movie Review

What would happen if aliens invaded a tough London neighborhood populated by rough and tumble street kids who are used to scrapping and fighting for everything they have? The answer, at least in Joe Cornish’s badass feature film debut “Attack the Block”, is that these trespassers would be in for one hell of brawl. In my mind “Attack the Block” is in the running for my favorite movie this year. It works as a straight-up genre film, and those of you looking for your monster fix will get all that you can handle. But it is also tightly executed in almost every capacity. The pacing is spot on, it is tense as hell, you can feel the energy on screen, and though it isn’t an overtly political story, there is an underlying social commentary that you find in the best science fiction.

'The Smurfs' Movie Review

“The Smurfs” is so smurfing sweet that you’ll want to smurfing puke all over the smurfing place. I’m not going to make excuses, I knew exactly what I was getting myself into when I made the conscious decision to go see “The Smurfs”. Somehow I deluded myself into thinking that it might be fun, and even kind of subversive if handled right. After all, I loved the Smurfs as a child. I watched the cartoon, I had this sing-a-long record that I absolutely adored called “The Smurfs All-Star Show”, and I’m pretty sure that I had a Smurfs pillowcase.

'Cowboys and Aliens' Movie Review

Cowboys & Aliens isn’t a bad movie, it just isn’t particularly good. You knew going in that it was going to be ridiculous, and possibly a little bit silly—it is called Cowboys & Aliens after all—but it commits the one cardinal sin that a movie like this absolutely cannot commit; it’s boring. This should be a wild, raucous, hootin’ an’ hollerin’ good time, but it comes across as tepid and uninspired.

'Crazy, Stupid, Love' Movie Review

If nothing else, “Crazy, Stupid, Love” is about being kicked in the nuts by love, and all of the fucked up things people do in the pursuit—how they go after it, how they try to keep it, and how they cope when it crumbles into shit at their feet. It’s not quite a comedy, not quite a drama, not quite a romance, and the story can be convoluted and is full of unearned coincidences and pseudo-shocking reveals at moments of heightened dramatic tension. What carries it through, however, keeping it from falling into tedious mediocrity, is the intelligence of the script, the strong, distinctive characters, and the cast. This is an earnest look at a man doing his level best to pick up the shards of his ruined life. Even when the characters are doing horrible, horrible things to each other, the actors have a charisma and an onscreen chemistry that makes it watchable.

Friday, July 15, 2011

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2' Movie Review

It’s over. After seven books, eight movies, and more than a decade, the saga of teenage wizard Harry Potter has finally concluded. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” is the long-awaited finale to the much beloved franchise, and delivers on the promise of the previous seven movies. While a fitting end, “Deathly Hallows: Part 2” is not perfect. There are some issues, but there were issues with the final book as well, so a few bumps are to be expected. And in the end, the problems are relatively minor and easily ignored. Overall the film is appropriately gloomy, as dark and creepy as you want it to be, and action-packed for the vast majority of its two-hour-plus run time, and fans of the series should be more than satisfied. What I’m trying to say is that it is pretty damn great.

Monday, July 11, 2011

DVD Review: 'Things'

“Things” makes it feel like you’ve been magically transported back to your youth. It’s a crisp Friday night in fall, and you’re sleeping over at your buddy’s place. Your buddy who just so happens to have cable. The plan is to drink a two-liter of cherry soda, each, and stay up all night watching scary movies. There’ll be plenty of time to sleep all day Saturday, especially since your parents won’t let you play football like you wanted to. So you down your soda, much on some red vines, and hunker down on the couch, promising your pal’s mom that you, “won’t stay up too late.” Somewhere around two or three in the morning, later than your adolescent self has ever stayed awake before, “Things”, or a movie like it, would come on an obscure channel, and it was like Christmas morning for your sugar-addled, sleep-deprived little mind. Like it or not, that film was seared into your consciousness forever.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

DVD Review: 'Bloody Birthday', 'Nightmares', and 'The Baby'

Severin Films kicks this summer season off right, releasing a trio of obscure, little-seen horror films from the 1970s and early 80s, or as I like to call them, three more reasons not to go out in the sun. We get two entries into the slasher movie sweepstakes, “Bloody Birthday” and “Nightmares”, and one, what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-people flick, “The Baby”.

Friday, June 24, 2011

'Bad Teacher' Movie Review

“Bad Teacher” is mediocre. I could stop there, and that sentence alone would more than likely be enough. But I’m not going to stop there, because that’s just the kind of dude I am. However, if you want to stop reading there, I doubt I’m going to say anything more insightful than “Bad Teacher” is mediocre, because that’s about all it is, a middle of the road comedy. There are highs, and there are lows, but for the most part, the movie hovers between these two extremes, not particularly great, but not particularly awful. To paraphrase Lisa Simpson, “Bad Teacher” is meh, M-E-H, meh.

Friday, June 17, 2011

'The Tree of Life' Movie Review

When you consider the career of a filmmaker like Terrence Malick you have to mention the fact that in his career, now spanning more than forty years, the guy has only directed five films. Sure he’s written a bunch of others, and produced a few more, so it’s not like he’s resting on his laurels, but no matter how you look at it, the man takes his time. So it’s understandable that each of his movies is a bit of an event, and his latest, “The Tree of Life”, is no exception. The whole thing has been shrouded in mystery from the get go. We knew Brad Pitt and Sean Penn were in the movie, but additional details have been sparse at best.

'Green Lantern' Movie Review

So far this summer movie season has been a pretty good time for comic book adaptations. “Thor” was far better than I expected, and, though I haven’t managed to drag my sorry ass to the theater yet, “X-Men: First Class” is getting thumbs-up reviews from all over the place. With “Captain America” still to come, it seemed that the summer was destined to be dominated by Marvel, but not entirely. DC gets into the act this weekend with their big-budget big-screen version of “Green Lantern”. With it, we have another worthy, entertaining superhero flick with which to while away our precious summer hours. Just a heads up, I’m not particularly familiar with the source material, so I can’t comment on how closely the story sticks to comics, or how many little in jokes there are, but even from my removed perspective it is a damn blast.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

DVD/Blu-ray Review: 'Kill the Irishman'

The Movie:

“Kill the Irishman” tells the true-life story of Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson), a legendary Cleveland gangster and folk hero. In the 1970s Greene and a rag tag group of modern day Celtic warriors waged war against the Italian mob in Northern Ohio. The most obvious comparison for “Irishman” is “Goodfellas”, another film that traces the rise of a figure in organized crime from childhood, through the early stages of his criminal career, into the glory days, and his ultimate downfall. Green was most notable for being the man the mob couldn’t kill. Seriously, the guy was like a freaking cat he had so many lives. At one point a house falls on him and he walks away unscathed. He survives bullets, stabbings, and car bombs. Bombs are the apparent weapon of choice in this particular region, and in one summer, no less than 36 go off. There is a pretty amazing montage of exploding automobiles.

Greene grew up in a troubled, predominantly Italian neighborhood. He’s a tough kid, who, despite a voracious appetite for books and learning, had little use for school. After a stint in the military, Greene works on the docks as a stevedore, but he has bigger ambitions, taking over the union, and using it to one, empower the largely Irish work force, and two, for his own financial benefit. When that takes an abrupt turn for the worse, he moves on, hooking up with various gangsters like local big shot John Nardi (Vincent D’Onofrio), and Shondor Birns (Christopher Walken), a notorious loan shark. With the help of childhood friends like Billy McComber (Marcus Thomas), and former boxer Keith Ritson (Vinnie Jones), Greene muscles his way into the lucrative garbage-hauling racket, and so on and so forth.

Greene has balls like nobody’s business, even going on the news, daring his enemies to come after him, telling them exactly where to find him. Stevenson channels this cockiness and charm, making it his own with a charisma and larger than life personality that made Greene local celebrity. While not afraid to strike back at anyone who came after him, Greene is also a Robin Hood type figure in Cleveland. He gives back to his community, helping out those in need, feeding the hungry, keeping the neighborhood safe for the civilians—he runs off a group of Hell’s Angels who cause a ruckus—and all that noise.

“Kill the Irishman” is executed well enough, and while it is middle of the road entertaining, it’s ultimately empty. It has all of the bells and whistles of an underworld biopic, but it never goes beyond the surface, and the whole film watches like a caricature of a gangster movie, where everything that happens, happens because that is what is supposed to come next. There’s no real struggle, conflict, causality, or motivation, and things simply happen too easily. Instead of showing why things happen, they just sort of happen. One prime example is with the Greene’s home life. There is supposed to be strife between Danny and his wife, Joan (Linda Cardellini), but you never see any of it, and when she leaves him in the middle of the movie, that’s just it, there is nothing more to it. There’s no build up to that moment, nor is there any fallout following it. The topic never comes up again, and doesn’t impact Greene, or the film, ever again.

“Kill the Irishman” is like a history book, where this and that and this other thing all happen at the appropriate moments, but there is little in the way of character development or emotional connection. You see Danny Greene do things and go through the motions, but you never know what he feels about any of it. It isn’t a bad movie, and there are admirable things about it, but at the end of the day, it isn’t anything special, and comes across as “Goodfellas” lite.

The Disc:

Out on DVD and Blu-ray today from Anchor Bay, “Kill the Irishman” only has one bonus feature, but it’s a doozy, an in depth, hour-long documentary about the real Danny Greene. There are interviews with his wife and daughter, retired figures from the Cleveland underworld, and assorted others who knew, or at least knew of Greene and his exploits.

Like the movie, the documentary traces Greene’s life from his humble beginnings, through his rise and fall. They explore his role as a Robin Hood, but never shy away from his darker, more violent side, which the film does. In fact, you get a much more rounded, complete picture of the man from this extra than from the actual movie, and they establish some of the depth that the fictional portrayal lacks. One thing you realize from watching the documentary is that, at least as far as the details are concerned, “Kill the Irishman” is factually quite accurate, something of a rarity among biographic films. At the same time, you can’t help but wonder, did this rigid adherence to the facts negatively impact the film from a narrative and character perspective? If they had played a little looser with the details, would it have been a better movie?

'The Catechism Cataclysm' Movie Review

When a movie starts with flames and blackmetal, you know you’re onto something. That’s exactly how “The Catechism Cataclysm”, the latest, crazy-ass indie comedy from director Todd Rohal, starts out, and it only builds from there. The film is kind of a road trip, kind of a voyage of self-discovery, and kind of an “Apocalypse Now” style journey into a chaotic, surreal hell. It is a tribute to Rohal, who also wrote the script, that despite being absurd, irrational, and at first glance, unsound, that “Catechism” is ultimately an entertaining, surprisingly watchable movie.

Father William Smoorster (Steve Little, “Eastbound & Down”), Father Billy to his friends, is a priest, only he’s become bored and indifferent with his path. Instead of providing guidance to his flock, he tells his Bible study group funny stories that have nothing to do with God, watches amusing videos on the internet, and uses his great-grandfather’s Bible as an autograph book. When the higher ups—other priests, not God, not that high up—make Father Billy take a semi-forced vacation, he tracks down Robbie Shoemaker (Robert Longstreet). Back in the day Robbie was in a sweet, sweet metal band, dated Billy’s sister, and, unbeknownst to him, was Billy’s first hero in life. At Billy’s insistence, the two reunite for a canoe trip through the wilderness. Robbie is not who Billy thinks he is, and you can imagine things don’t go quite as planned as the journey leads them in directions they never imagined, including an encounter with two Japanese maybe-prostitutes named Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and their nearly mute male companion.

There isn’t a whole lot of plot to “The Catechism Cataclysm”, and the film is really just an excuse to let Little off of his leash for 87 minutes. Despite Rohal’s insistence that everything in the film was actually in the script, the whole thing has a loose, improvised feel. Little’s spastic, sheltered, clueless, and gullible Father Billy carries the film. He’s like an ADD riddled child who found where his parents keep their stash of soda, and he bounces through every bizarre, sacrilegious scene with a giddy energy. After a while you start to wonder if he’s mentally handicapped or just a lunatic. Initially I expected to get really pissed off at Little’s tomfoolery, you just know that eventually he’s going to cross that line between endearing into full on obnoxious, but, while he comes close, he never quite gets to the point of no return.

Rohal does a good job of reining the story in before it falls off the rails completely. He keeps things short and to the point, in a manner of speaking. “Catechism” is a rambling, directionless story that, though it builds to a twisted, nightmare of a finale full of exploding heads and a throbbing Japanese techno assault, there is little in the way of concrete conclusions. If you get a chance you should definitely watch “The Catechism Cataclysm”, it is a lot of fun, but don’t go in expecting a lot of story, character development, and the usual cinematic affectations. If you can look past it’s limitations in these areas, you’ll have a damn good time.

DVD/Blu-ray Review: '36th Precinct'

Originally released in 2004, French cop drama “36th Precinct” is hitting region 1 DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of Palisades Tartan. The film starts strong out of the gate, and the first half favorably compares to crime films like “Heat”. There is action, drama, flawed characters, cops who play by their own rules as they dispense their own brand of justice, and a general level of badassness. It is tense, packed with violence, and kicks some serious ass. That is until it falls completely apart halfway through.

Somewhere in the middle “36th Precinct” shifts from an admirable action yarn to a melodrama about the internal politics and power struggles of a police force. It’s like a soap opera about cops, or an episode of “Law & Order”. Either way, out of nowhere all the momentum stops and the pace comes to a total, grinding halt. You keep thinking it is going to pick up again as it nears the end, you keep hoping for some redemption, but, sadly, that is a waste of your time, as things never get back to where they were, and you’re left wondering what the hell happened.

A Parisian gang outlaws has pulled off seven armored car robberies in the last year, killing everyone, leaving no witnesses. Leo Vrinks (Daniel Auteuil) is the head of the “Mob Squad”, and Denis Klein (Gerard Depardeiu) is the head of the Bureau of Detectives. The two are bitter rivals, though they were once close friends, until a woman, Valeria Golina, came between them. Now, whichever one manages to bring in these criminals before they strike again will be promoted to the senior position in their precinct. Vrinks is an old school cop, one who is not above roughing up a couple of thugs who raped a prostitute, or helping cover up a stool pigeon’s crime in order to get information on an even bigger crime. Klein is career driven and power hungry, only in the game to benefit himself and gain control. He wants to climb to the top, and will do anything necessary to get there.

When “36th Precinct” deals with the pursuit of the robbers, it is awesome, and if it had continuted on like this, it would rank among the best crime films in recent memory. The grim, grizzled cops chase down leads, exploit their underworld contacts, and hunt down their quarry until they are nearly indistinguishable from the criminals they’re after. You hang on every scene, on every twist and turn. Auteil and Depardeau are perfect in their mutually antagonistic roles. Right in the middle there is a huge, epic shootout, and you’re stoked. Life is good. You’re excited that the choices you’ve made in your life led you to the moment where you put this disc in your DVD machine.

But then something goes horribly awry and all of the action comes to a screeching halt. It is such a letdown, such a crushing disappointment. There are betrayals and backstabbing and treachery, but it’s all done with such an overly theatric approach that it is groan inducing. Nothing happens. In the first portion of the film there are regular action scenes and badass moments, like the cops shooting a guy, but not killing him, and leaving him naked in a shallow grave in the middle of the woods just to teach him a lesson about fucking with them. But all of that stops, and instead all you are left with is tepid histrionics and false sentimentality that never amounts to anything.

The DVD/Blu-ray of “36th Precinct” comes stacked with a nice collection of bonus material. A 30-minute making-of featurette kicks things off with a look behind the scenes of filming. Topics run the gamut from the genesis of the script, to discussions of shooting, and watching director Olivier Marchal work with his actors. In another extra you get an in depth look at how the crew selected the ample supply of guns featured in the film. They take into account the character and actor, their size, style, attitude, and match the appropriate style of weapon to each personality. It is an interesting glimpse into the process, into a significant choice that most of us take for granted when we watch action films.

A recent 10-minute interview with Marchal is, in my opinion, the best of the bonus features. An ex-cop who spent time on the anti-terrorist squad, much of the script is based on his own experiences, or on stories he heard and things that happened when he was on the force. He used his history to try to lend the film an authenticity, which carried over into the way he filmed the action sequences, close up and over the shoulder in order to make them feel real. Rounding out the bonus features are a couple of trailers, and a compilation of footage from a wardrobe run through that is notable chiefly for documenting the back and forth banter between Marchal and his actors, which gives a good feel for the atmosphere on set.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

'The Yellow Sea' Movie Review

After his debut film, 2008’s “The Chaser”, Korean director Na Hong-jin was definitely on a lot of people’s radars, mine included, and many of us have eagerly been waiting for his newest crime thriller, “The Yellow Sea”. Fresh from Cannes, “The Yellow Sea” just made its North American premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival. Be warned, there is an absurd amount of hatchet fighting and stabbing, not to mention people getting beaten to death with a large bone. If that sounds like a good time to you, it certainly does to me, then this movie is right up your alley. “.

The region where the borders of North Korea, China, and Russia come together, forms a sort of modern day wild west, where more than half of the population relies on illegal activity in order to survive. In Yanbian, on the Chinese side of the border, Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) wiles away his days driving a cab, and spends his nights getting drunk and gambling, and losing horribly. In fact he’s so bad at mahjong that he has built up a sizeable debt to some small-scale hoods. His wife went to Seoul to work and send back money, but it’s been months since he has heard from her, and he’s tortured by visions of her wild, passionate, imagined affairs. So he’s broke and crazy and unraveling at the seams. When local crime lord Myun (Kim Yun-seok) offers to erase Gu-nam’s debt in exchange for a contract killing in Seoul, Gu-nam, at the end of his rope, reluctantly accepts.

Gu-nam is smuggled into South Korea by what is best described as the Korean equivalent of a coyote, in the claustrophobic, nightmarish belly of a creaky ship. While scoping out his target, he gets distracted by looking for his wife, who has mysteriously disappeared from her new life as well as her old. With time running down, and Gu-nam about to act, he finds himself in the middle of a series of unexpected events, and the situation spirals quickly out of his control. Before long Gu-nam is running from Korean gangsters, the Chinese mafia, and the local police, all the while looking for answers and side of stone cold revenge.

“The Yellow Sea” starts off with a deliberate, calculated pace that builds exponentially. Poor choices, lies, deceit, and deception pile on top of one another, and Gu-nam’s predicament escalates into a crazy, violent mess. Over time the tension, action, and savagery of the film gather speed, like a stone rolling down hill, bouncing and careening and crashing through everything. The plot twists and turns and circles back on itself; just when you think the story is going in one direction, Na, who also wrote “The Yellow Sea”, spins the action on its head, defying your expectations. You think one group is going to hunt down another, only to discover that the opposite is true; when it looks like Gu-nam is going left he breaks right. At first you think Myun and his crew are little more than rough-around-the-edges pseudo-rednecks who are going to be eaten alive by the big city gangsters, but Myun is a madman, and not afraid to take down a whole crew with a hatchet, wearing only his underwear. No matter which way you look at it, Gu-nam is totally fucked. He is on the run from everyone, he gets shot, beaten, kidnapped, tormented, and just generally besieged from all sides. As the story escalates, so does the level of hell he’s put through.

Despite the serious level of violence and ample action, including a handful of great chase scenes and insane car crashes, there are no guns in “The Yellow Sea”. The brutality is perpetrated almost exclusively with knives and axes. It is a much more personal and savage style of violence, the kind that results in a person being covered head to toe in blood spatter. The film is bleak and grim, but there is also way more humor than you expect, though it is definitely of the darker, gallows type. A good point of reference is “Reservoir Dogs”, which “The Yellow Sea” overtly references at one point. It has that sensibility where the violence and savagery is so heavy and brutal that all you can do is laugh at it.

“The Yellow Sea” is full of great performance, stunning, gore-soaked fight scenes, and frantic action pieces, like when Gu-nam takes out half of Seoul driving a delivery truck. It fits in with other Korean films, like “A Bittersweet Life” and “Oldboy”, where a lone, tragic figure goes up against staggering opposition, but Gu-nam is cut from a different cloth. He’s not an outlaw, a gangster, or any sort of real criminal at all; he’s just a desperate man in dire straights. The film is a nice, controlled burn, and you feel Na’s steady hand on the controls.

Released in Korea in December 2010, “The Yellow Sea” was an enormous box office smash. Now that it has been making the international festival rounds, I can’t imagine a distributor won’t pick this up for a domestic release, and hopefully you’ll all get a chance to see it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

'Burke and Hare' Movie Review

What’s not to like about a black comedy about grave robbers starring Simon Pegg and directed by John Landis? Nothing, that’s what. Throw in Jessica Hynes and you’ve got a miniature “Spaced” reunion. And what the hell, why not add Gollum himself, Andy Serkis, into the mix just to up the creepy factor? You get all of this and more from the new film “Burke and Hare”. While not earth shattering, this is Landis’ best feature film since “Beverly Hills Cop III”—though he did helm a couple of episodes of “Psych”, which I have to give him credit for.

It’s 1828, and apparently Scotland is a grim place to be. The citizens live in abject squalor, everyone is grubby and unemployed and broke, and the best way to get rid of your own poo is to dump it out of a window, which leads to some disgusting situations. In fact, the only thing the city of Edinburgh has going for it is a dueling pair of world renowned medical schools, one led by Dr. Monro (Tim Curry, creepy as ever), the other by Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson). The best way to teach medicine to new students is by dissecting human cadavers, but when Monro’s school bogarts all the fresh corpses, a new growth industry springs up in the Scottish underground.

William Burke (Pegg) and William Hare (Serkis) are small time con men without much game to speak of. Their best scam to date is selling cheese mold as a magical cure-all. Hare is married to Lucky (Hynes), a saucy alcoholic who runs a seedy boarding house, and when one of the lodgers dies, the enterprising friends stumble upon a lucrative new business venture. But how many random dead bodies do you just happen upon in a given week? Not many, even in Edinburgh in 1828. Grave robbery is a dangerous, not to mention gross, endeavor, and before long they’re killing random folk in the streets. Their shady dealings lead them afoul of the law, and local a local crime boss who wants his cut. But those aren’t the only troubles. Burke, with his newfound wealth, takes a shine to Ginny Hawkins (Isla Fisher), an actress turned prostitute, who wants to stage an all female production of “Macbeth”. Smitten as all hell, Burke promises to fully fund the production, thus kicking his need to continue on with this unpleasant business into high gear. Talk about more money, more problems.

Based on a series of real life killings, there is a dark absurdity to “Burke and Hare”, one which makes you implicit in their crimes. Like watching an episode of “Dexter”, where you root for the serial killer to kill in order to get his mojo back, you actively cheer the protagonists on towards murder. As the stakes increase, so does the moral tension. Burke and Hare aren’t bad men, even though they kill people just to pawn the corpses. They don’t necessarily like what they do, but they’re driven forward by dire, desperate circumstances. Hare’s newfound go-getter attitude saves his marriage, while if not for their new trade, Burke would never be able to land the love of a nice looking lady like Ginny.

This duality is represented visually through a series of shots of mirrors and other reflective surfaces, but it is not the only double-sided coin in the film. The main subplot of “Burke and Hare” is about old versus new, about stasis versus progress. Monro’s medical school is firmly rooted in the medical tradition where doctors were little more than skilled butchers, hacking off limbs willy-nilly. On the other hand, Knox is at the forefront of medical advancement, pushing the boundaries in order to save hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of lives.

“Burke and Hare” is funny and dark, and full of the quick, clever humor that you’d expect from two alums of “Spaced”. Pegg is charming and personable as the love struck Burke, and Serkis runs through his scenes with a maniacal glee. Hynes is good, though totally underused here, but Fisher does her thing as the chipper, sexy, aloof thespian. Like I said earlier, you won’t be blown away, but “Burke and Hare” is definitely worth watching, and is far better than most comedies floating around out there these days. Hell, it’s better than “Paul”.

Monday, June 6, 2011

'Detention' Movie Review

Is it time to start wistfully longing for the 1990s already? Since “Take Me Home Tonight”—which oddly enough I did enjoy—was pretty much the last nail in the 80s nostalgia coffin, it makes sense that things would start moving in that direction. That’s the definite impression that you get from “Detention”, Joseph Kahn’s first feature film since 2004’s “Torque”, though he’s stayed busy working music videos for high profile pop artists. The movie is a mash up of horror, time travel, and teenybopper comedy, and doesn’t so much have plot as a lot of excuses to reference earlier days of music, fashion, and popular culture. You’ve never seen so many nods to the Backstreet Boys.

Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell) hates her life and wants to die. She hates her suburban high school, her 90s obsessed bff, Ione (Spencer Locke), suddenly started hating on her, and her dream boy, the ironically clad, skateboard riding Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson), doesn’t know she’s alive. To make matters worse, there’s a masked killer on the loose, and even though he’s targeting Riley, no one believes her because she’s not popular enough to be killed. So she has to find out who wants her dead, solve her romantic woes, and figure out something do about prom. That is, until Principle Verge (Dane Cook), throws all the potential murder suspects into a “Breakfast Club” style Saturday detention. Then there is a time traveling bear, which I have to say is a nice touch.

“Detention” is a fun little romp at first, but the kitsch wears thin before long, especially when you realize that it is just a shield for nonsensical oversimplification of a generation and an excuse to pretend that empty stereotypes are something more. It is a little bit “Heathers”, a little bit “Scream”, and a little bit “Mean Girls”, all thrown in a blender and poured in a “Donnie Darko” mold. A good comparison might be a less nerdy “Scott Pilgrim”. It is a cheeky, self-aware film that attempts to lampoon other cheeky, self-aware films, only to cover well-worn territory, poking fun at things that have already been poked and prodded and parodied and sent up time and time again. Riley is a caricature of the overly serious high school girl—she’s a vegetarian who wears a homemade “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt. That’s teen movie code for “this girl cares about important things”. Essentially she’s the exact same character as Janey Briggs (Chyler Leigh) from “Not Another Teen Movie”—you know, the cute girl who is supposed to be ugly and unpopular—only ten years after the fact.

The script is not as clever as it thinks it is, and does things like compare “Avatar” to “the Smurfs”, something “South Park” already did a couple of years ago. The random antics and constant asides, like a football player who pukes acid and has fly blood, can’t distract from the fact that the plot never really goes anywhere or does anything, and that most of the movie is a bunch of hollow theatrics that amount to very little. In reality it is just as shallow as it wants to be deep.

After having a trying, to say the least, experience with the studio on “Torque”, Kahn financed “Detention” independently for a proverbial song. It feels like an ADD riddled mess, where Kahn and writing partner Mark Palermo toss in every joke, gag, and bit that they can think of, regardless of how it will impact the larger flow and structure of the movie. Occasionally this benefits the film. Some of the bits work, and are a lot of fun, like the story of Elliot Fink (Walter Perez), a mysterious student that shows up out of nowhere and has been in detention every day for 19 years. And again, there is a time travelling bear! That’s always a good idea. But for every up there is a down, for every peak there is a valley where the movie falters and falls flat on its face.

You can tell that Kahn intends “Detention” to be a big middle finger to critics and movie industry folk. When he came out to introduce it at SIFF, he made sure to note that anyone in the audience taking notes shouldn’t bother, that they would just hurt themselves, and that undercurrent of antagonism informs the whole movie. Some people are going to love “Detention”, and I’m sure it will spawn many a late-night screening. On the other side of that coin, there are people who are going to hate the crap out of it. I’m not fully committed to either pole. I like the blatant antipathy and combativeness, but in the end I find myself leaning towards the latter camp. After a strong start, the 90s obsession, preciousness, and air of pretentiousness get irritating, and ultimately infuriating. Then again, I’ve been known to be wrong.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

'Black Bread' Movie Review

“Black Bread” starts of with a scene of such stunning violence—without giving too much away, it involves a sledgehammer and a horse, among a slew of other very nasty things—that it casts a shadow over the rest of the movie. Set in post-Spanish Civil War Catalonia, the film creates an atmosphere where the potential for death and hostility to erupt exists around every corner, in every situation. From the outset you learn that no place is safe; not the family hearth, government offices, and certainly not the multitude of caves, woods, and fields where the 11-year-old Andreu (Francesc Colomer) grows up.

Andreu witnesses the final moments of his best friend, and the dying child gurgles the name Pitorliua, the name of a ghost said to haunt their village. His father, Farriol (Roger Casamajor), is accused of the murder, and must go into hiding. Since the boy’s mother, Florencia (Nora Navas), works ridiculous shifts in a sweatshop yarn factory, she sends Andreu to live with his grandmother, aunts, and a collection of cousins, including Nuria (Marina Comas), who had one hand blown off by a bomb. The two wounded children form close bond, and are forced into the grown-up world of secrets, lies, jealousies, rumors, politics, and redemption. Ultimately Andreu is forced to make arduous, soul-rending choices about his dreams, family, and loyalties, decisions that are difficult—at best—for adults, let alone a child trying to come to terms with the world.

Andreu begins as a kind, wide-eyed innocent—sneaking bread to a consumptive, contagious inmate at a monastery, a young man who may or may not be an angel—and he believes the best in people, until little by little it is revealed to him that what his father tells him is true, that people are capable of extreme acts of evil. Andreu and his cousins still believe in magic and curses and hope and dreams, but when faced with the devastating press of reality, they can’t escape into fantasy for long, and are compelled to adapt and come to terms with the harsh world they inhabit. Nuria serves as a guide for Andreu through these treacherous waters. Most of the idealism she had disappeared with her hand, and what remnants lingered after that vanished when she discovered her father’s body hanging from the rafters, a suicide. She is pragmatic, and uses what she has to get through and better her situation—doling out sexual favors for benefits. She’ll show you hers, for a price. It speaks well of their talent that two such young actors can carry parts with this much depth and weight, roles that would crush most adult actors into flattened, mushy little pancakes. Colomer and Comas both deliver subtle, nuanced, and at times heartbreaking performances.

There are definitely supernatural elements at play in “Black Bread”, enough to earn it comparisons to other Spanish-language films like “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”, but it is cut from a different cloth. Atmospherically and tonally it resembles those films, and definitely belongs in that discussion, but for all the talk of ghosts and monsters, and grandma’s fireside horror tales, the world of “Black Bread” is firmly rooted in the physical, corporeal realm. The characters are certainly haunted, all of them to some degree, but not by ghosts, by decisions and actions that they cannot take back, and pasts they cannot escape. And monsters and horrors abound, but not the kind of myth and legend, these are the much more human, much more frightening variety, the ones that can actually reach out, touch you, and do you harm.

As the film progresses Andreu slowly unravels the truth about his father, his mother, Nuria, Pitorliua, the twisted nature of their town and their story, and the part he is to play in everything. Anchored by skillfully executed cinematography that lends an air of urgency to each scene, “Black Bread” is a cynical, almost callously realistic, meditation on defeat—as the alcoholic school teacher says, “woe the vanquished”—and what it means to win or lose, and the lingering effects of ideals and politics in war, even after the war has supposedly come to a conclusion. Based on the acclaimed novel by Emili Teixidor, the film nearly swept the Goya Awards—think the Spanish Oscars—and is making the festival rounds, screening at the Seattle International Film Festival, and will hopefully find a distributor.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

'Red Eagle' Movie Review

If movies like “RoboCop” are to be believed, the near future is going to be a festering cesspool of violence and corruption. It must be true, because no matter what era “near future” we’re talking about, the prediction is roughly the same. So, you should probably be on the look out in the next few years and be prepared. Thai director Wisit Sasanatieng’s (“Tears of the Black Tiger”) new superhero film, “Red Eagle”, a remake/homage to a 1960s action series, holds to this bleak vision. When the world is going to hell, and in desperate need of a savior, up steps Red Eagle.

As a movie, “Red Eagle” is about thirty minutes too long, and while the story is standard superhero fare and feels very comic booky—in both a positive and negative light—it makes up for its shortcomings in the best possible way, by delivering absurd amounts of ridiculous, over-the-top action. We’re talking a “Bad Boys II” level of overkill here. There is one fight scene that goes on for nearly twenty-minutes; it stops and starts, and constantly builds to a point where the two combatants are fighting on a falling elevator. That’s the kind of movie we’re talking about here, where the story and characters are secondary concerns.

After a James Bond style intro—a scene of fast-paced action with little or no context, followed by a credits sequence full of swimming colors—you’re informed that the year is 2016. A liberal politician, Direk Damrongprapa (Pornwut Sarasin), whose campaign platform was based on stopping the shoddy construction of a nuclear power plant, has been elected Prime Minister. No sooner than he is elected all of his high-minded moralizing and principles go out the window, and he becomes just as corrupt at the politicos he once opposed. Of course Direk’s ex-fiancé, Vasana (Yarinda Bunnag), ditches him as soon as he sells out their shared cause. A shadowy underground crime syndicate called Matulee secretly runs things through a combination of secrecy, intimidation, and violence. They wear eerie metal masks, literally faceless villains. They own politicians, businesses, the media, cops, and anyone else that can be bought, which is everyone.

Everyone, that is, except Red Eagle (Ananda Everingham, “Legend of the Tsunami Warrior”). He wears a red mask (duh) and a sleek black leather jumpsuit, and is a total badass. Because no one else will stand up to the corruption and sleaze, he steps in and wrecks things up. Where no one else can, he cleans things up, dispensing his own brutal and bloody form of justice, like Batman only more vicious. Within the first few scenes he tortures and forcibly overdoses a drug dealer, and takes a particularly nasty retribution on a crooked senator with a penchant for molesting young children. It suffices to say he does not meet a pleasant end. Red Eagle can also kill like 80 dudes and leap high walls from a stand still. There is one honest man left, Detective Chart Wuttikrai (Wannasingh Prasertkul), and he has been assigned to track down and bring in the renegade vigilante. Matluee is also after Red Eagle, employing the notorious masked (you’ll notice a trend developing) assassin known as the Black Devil, to take him out.

The movie is full of coincidental connections, cheesy dialogue, and overacting bad guys, but it is gleefully self-aware, never takes itself too seriously, and has its tongue firmly planted in cheek. That helps save the film, making it a great deal of fun. And when the plot does falter, you never have to wait too long for the action to kick in. There are motorcycle chases, hand-to-hand combat, sword fights, shootouts, and explosions out the wazzu, and like most tales of this ilk, there is the constant moral debate about whether Red Eagle is a hero or a menace, a champion for justice or a psychotic murdering madman. Red Eagle—and Rome, his civilian alter ego—is the typically flawed protagonist, with a suitable, if a little too convenient background to explain his skill set. He is addicted to morphine—in the original incarnation the character was an alcoholic—and pines for a lost, impossible love.

“Red Eagle” does fall into a romantic lull near the conclusion, and slows down just when the pace should pick up. It is silly, goes on for too long, and, not to give anything away, ends with one of the biggest bullshit moves you’ll ever see. The fight scenes could have been better if they showed the actors actually fighting instead of relying on quick, western action style quick edits; shots of punches being thrown cut with reaction shots of people pretending to be hit in the face. Though it makes up for this with sheer bloody brutality—beheadings abound. For all of “Red Eagle’s” faults, the movie is entertaining as hell. It made its North American premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival, and I could easily see someone like Magnet picking up the rights to this one. It is the type of movie that is right in their wheelhouse, and hell, it’s way better than “Vanquisher”.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

'The Hangover 2' Movie Review

You may or may not know this—depending on how much of the advertising blitz for “The Hangover Part 2” you’ve absorbed in recent days—but it seems that the Wolfpack is in fact back. The most common cry across the landscape of the internet has been that the sequel looks exactly like the first film. On a recent episode of “Ellen”—yes, I watch “Ellen” from time to time—Bradley Cooper confirmed as much, and he is entirely correct. Director Todd Phillips and company employ the same “lost night” story-telling technique that worked so well in the original, and “The Hangover 2” is a really little more rehash of “The Hangover”. Which means that it is still pretty damn funny.

There are a few minor tweaks to the formula this time around—there is a bit more set up; the role of Las Vegas is played by Thailand; Stu (Ed Helms), the uptight dentist, is the one about to get married; there is a monkey instead of a baby; and at times they take the raunchy humor up a few notches past anything that resembles good taste, which is nice. But the story is so similarly structured that there are times you feel like you’re watching the same movie. We get it; Ken Jeong’s penis makes us laugh. You don’t have to tell us that, some things we just know at a genetic level.

Stu is set to marry Lauren (Jamie Chung). Her traditionalist Thai father hates Stu, going so far to compare him to a tasteless white-rice-paste that is fed to babies and the elderly; it serves a purpose, but is bland and no one really likes it. Lauren’s little brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), is a 16-year-old Doogie Howser-style med student, who is also a cello prodigy. When the guys, Phil (Cooper), Alan (Zach Galifianakis), and Stu, wake up in a seedy Bangkok hotel room, they discover two things. One, Stu has a very real replica of Mike Tyson’s face tattoo tattooed on his own face, and two, the only trace of Teddy is his severed finger. Also, where the hell did that monkey in the Rolling Stones vest come from? The gang has to piece together fragments of the previous evening in order to find Teddy before the wedding is ruined. Their quest takes them through the deepest bowels of the Bangkok underworld, including, but not limited to, brothels, monasteries, hermaphrodites, Russian gangsters, and a violent street riot.

While it pales in comparison to the first movie—whether this is due to inflated expectations, all of the subsequent knock offs, because the two films are so similar, or that it is just not at good, is unclear—but “The Hangover 2” is decently entertaining. If nothing else, it’s worth watching to see a monkey smoke cigarettes. Something about that is inherently funny. Not to give anything away, but there are some moments of near-shocking vulgarity—which is saying something when you consider how jaded most of us have become—including a few things I’m surprised they slipped past the censors. I think they got away with a couple, especially considering how a movie like “Blue Valentine” initially wound up with an NC-17 rating.

There are some masterful strokes of inspired madness, but overall “The Hangover 2” comes close to meeting expectations. The comedy is never as consistent or as intense as the first film, and you simply never get past the feeling that it is just a quick retread, a sensation that is most apparent than when Galifianakis is on screen. He’s got one trick, and I’m already exhausted by it. In “The Hangover”, Alan’s vapid lunacy fits organically into the scheme of things, but this time around his parts are forced and awkward, not in the intended way (maybe clunky or cumbersome are better words), and he is largely responsible for the staleness of the film. Everything he does is like they sat down around a table and tried to figure out something wacky for him to do in every given situation, and it’s tedious. Granted, Alan’s meditative flashback is genius, and is probably the best moment of the film, though outside of that, he made me mad more than he made me laugh. And seriously, they even manage to wear out a running monkey-puts-his-mouth-on-a-penis gag. That should always, always be funny, but I’ll be damned, they do it so often that that by the last time all you can do is sit back, throw up your hands, and say, “I never thought I’d see the day where a monkey touching a dude’s schlong didn’t make me laugh, but here we are.” It made me question my worldview a little. And every time one of the “Pack” mentions, “I can’t believe this is happening again”, you’ll want to gouge someone’s eyes out.

For all of the film’s faults, “The Hangover 2” is worth a look—especially to fans of raunchy humor, and especially if you can temper any expectations—but it is inconsistent, repetitive, and simply doesn’t quite measure up. It’s going to be a hit, there’s no question about that, it’s exactly what people want it to be, the first movie all over again. I loved “The Hangover”, I thought it was brilliant, but while the sequel is better than I feared it might be, it’s played out, and nothing to write home about.