Archive for the '2.5' Category

After Earth

Friday, May 31st, 2013

**½

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (2 People gave this 2.00 out of 5)
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M. Night Shyamalan is back… for better or worse.

After Earth

The H-Bomb: 1,000 years from now, long after humanity was forced to evacuate Earth and relocate to a new planet, teenage Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) is accompanying his father, General Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a decorated war hero, on an off world training exercise. Cypher has been away from home for quite some time, and his relationship with his son is strained over a family tragedy in the past, a tragedy he blames Kitai for. While en route to the training exercise, the space ship is severely damaged by an asteroid. Moments away from breaking apart completely, the ship has no choice but to set down on the closest possible planet . . . Earth.

The ship is torn to shreds right after entering the atmosphere, with bits and pieces of it being scattered all over creation. By the time the dust has settled from the crash, Kitai and Cypher are the only survivors, with both of Cypher’s legs being busted to shit, rendering him completely immobile. That leaves it up to Kitai to get to the tail of the ship, find the distress beacon that’s inside of it, and turn it on. The only trouble is, the tail end of the ship is about 100 kilometers away . . . 100 kilometers of hostile forest terrain and even more hostile animals which have, as the trailer tells us, evolved to kill human beings.

There is; however, a threat out there that’s far more dangerous than the giant birds and the angry monkeys . . . an alien creature that was designed to hunt humans by smelling their fear. Cypher, who has no sense of fear, is famous for being able to sneak up on these creatures and kill them. But, again, Cypher ain’t exactly in fightin’ shape, which means Kitai will have to face down this beast himself, and Kitai most definitely does feel fear. Cypher will be able to guide his son over the radio, but when contact is lost, Kitai will be left entirely on his own to survive the elements and retrieve the beacon. Will he be able to live up to his father’s heroic name? Or will he be overcome by his inexperience and . . . his fear?

After Earth is co-written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, a fact that has been hidden from us in the marketing, as his name is nowhere to be found on any of the posters or trailers. It’s kind of fascinating to see how, over the course of the last decade, his name has gone from box office gold to box office poison, as his films became sillier and sillier, made less and less sense, to the point where he finally vanished up his own ass with The Happening, and studios have figured out that they’re better off just not mentioning his name. It’s kind of sad, really.

Instead, After Earth is being sold as a Will and Jaden Smith vehicle, and it certainly is that, in that Will Smith is credited with writing the story, and that this is very much a father/son tale, with Will playing the old, wise mentor, and passing the “action hero” torch to Jaden. This is certainly a Smith family production through and through. It’s also an M. Night Shyamalan film, and as such, it inherits all the good and bad things that come with most of M. Night Shyamalan’s films.

For the good, like any Shyamalan flick, it is beautifully photographed (this time by Peter Suschitzky), and since this is his first full blown science fiction flick, the images are awesomely epic and breathtaking on the big screen. Shyamalan also has a talent for staging some incredible suspense sequences, and two that stand out here are when Kitai is being chased mid-air by a giant hawk, and later when he’s being stalked through the inside of a cave. There are also some clever sci-fi elements here and there, like the notion of the “smart suit” which changes colors to alert whoever is wearing it to certain impending dangers.

Unfortunately, like I said, After Earth also comes with much of the bad that has tainted much of Shyamaln’s more recent work, like some laughably stilted dialogue, wooden performances (more on that in a moment), nonsensical story turns (a person can survive freezing temperatures by being placed in a shallow hole and covered with some leaves and twigs . . . what?!), and ultimately, tremendously piss poor pacing. This is a survival story, one that should be brimming with thrills and suspense (like last year’s The Grey), but the pace is lethargic, lumbering, and the tension, aside from some moments here and there, is lacking completely. While this didn’t kill the movie for me entirely, there were stretches that were pretty damn boring, to be perfectly honest.

As for the performances, I was quite impressed with Jaden. I liked him in the Karate Kid remake, and I thought he was excellent here. He has inherited his father’s presence and charisma, and he handles the physical aspect of the role convincingly, as well. He does have a big emotional “break down” scene that doesn’t quite work, but that’s more the fault of awkward scripting than anything he did. Overall, I think it will be interesting to see him develop and come into his own as an actor over the next ten years, as he shows real potential here.

Then there’s his dad, and… oh dear… let me preface what’s about to follow by stating that I am a fan of Will Smith. I find him very charismatic, and I believe he has real chops as an actor. That said, if you ever wanted to see a Will Smith performance in which he’s stripped of all his charisma, and charm, and energy, then, by all means, see this movie! Again, this is more the fault of the writing, and Will is supposed to be playing an aloof, taciturn military type, but he comes across so shockingly stiff, like he’s playing a wooden robot. He is distressingly lifeless here, and I’m fairly certain I have M. Night to thank for that.

Anyhow, for as much guff as I’ve given After Earth, it’s not all that bad a film. Hell, this is easily Shyamalan’s best film since Signs, and it’s certainly not the train wreck that was Lady in the Water, though I acknowledge that both statements are less than ringing endorsements. For all of its cool, sci-fi elements, it’s overall rather sluggish and bland, which is probably why Columbia is not releasing it in July, despite it starring Will Smith. It’s a rather “meh” summer movie that’s worth seeing After Theaters, when it crash lands in a Redbox near you. Goodnight, Mr. Shyamalan, goodnight.

Stolen

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

**½

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Fun-ish, but forgettable.

Stolen

The H-Bomb: Master thief Will Montgomery (Nicolas Cage) is pulling a late night heist in New Orleans with his crew, including hothead Vincent (Josh Lucas) and the sultry Riley (Malin Akerman). It’s a ten million dollar job, the big retirement score for all involved. Everything seems to be going smoothly, but there’s just one teeny, tiny problem; the FBI, led by dogged agent Harlend (Danny Huston, rocking a Popeye Doyle porkpie hat), are lying in wait, ready to take Will and his team down. The feds make their move, things go terribly awry, and while the members of Will’s crew manage to escape, he himself is captured and sent away for eight years.

Upon his release, Will decides he’s going to go on the straight and narrow and leave his life of crime behind him for good. His first order of business is to try and reconnect with his teenage daughter, Alison (Sami Gayle) who he hasn’t seen since he was incarcerated. When he approaches her, he finds, much to his surprise and no one else’s, that she wants nothing to do with him or the stuffed animal he brought her. This disappointment, unfortunately, is soon going to be the very least of Will’s problems, as he is about to be contacted by his old associate, Vincent.

The years have not been kind to Vincent, as he now has a steel leg, due to something that happened during the heist, and is now driving a cab in order to make ends meet. He pretty much blames Will for how his life went to shit, and now that Will’s out of prison, Vincent figures it’s high time he collect his cut of the ten million that he thinks Will had stashed away before his capture. Only trouble is, Will didn’t stash the cash, he burned it to avoid a longer prison sentence, so there is no money to divide.

Understandably, Vincent has been hobbling around on a peg-leg for eight years and isn’t interested in Will’s excuses. So, pushed to desperate measures, he kidnaps Alison and sticks her in the trunk of his cab, then tells Will he has twelve hours to come up with the money, or else… Will knows what this psycho Vincent is capable of, and that if he ever wants to see his daughter again, he’ll have to put a big score together, and fast. As if that in and of itself isn’t difficult enough, he’ll have to pull it off under the watchful eye of his old FBI buddy, Harlend, all while the city of New Orleans celebrates Mardi Gras in the streets.

Before I get into my thoughts on Stolen, I should mention that aside from the title, and the basic premise of the lead character’s teenage daughter being kidnapped, this movie has jack diddly-dick to do with Taken. I’m aware that much has been said to the contrary, but trust me on this, the two films couldn’t be more different. While Taken was a surprisingly solid and stylized action flick, Stolen is much more of a routine, formulaic time killer, with a rather lazy, cliché ridden script, filled to the brim with one dimensional characters and reasonably absurd plot turns.

All that said, Stolen is not a bad film… well, not entirely. Sure, it is stupid as hell at times, but at a scant 96 minutes, the movie clips along at a brisk pace, features a somewhat inspired car chase through the crowded streets of New Orleans, and a handful of decent performances from its game cast.

Cage, who will pretty much do anything that’s sent his way these days, plays Will with a sense of conviction that actually got me to care about him as a character. Even though Cage, for financial reasons, has to whore himself out and take whatever he can get, I have yet to see him phone in a performance. Even in the stinkiest of stinkers, I can see that the guy is always trying, and here, like I said, he made me feel Will’s desperation and got me invested in him, even though the lame brained script seemed to be trying to do the exact opposite.

Another performer who manages to rise above the muck of this flimsy material is Lucas, who chews the scenery with psychotic glee as the unhinged Vincent. Looking like a deranged hippie who hasn’t bathed in about six years, Lucas brings a crazy-eyed intensity to the role that made him legitimately scary, with a real rage simmering under his scruffy surface. He truly gives a much better performance than this flick deserves.  As for other cast members, Huston does okay, but is more or less wasted as the cliched antagonistic cop character, as is Akerman, in an underwritten role as Will’s other old accomplice who comes to his aid late in the story.

Speaking of the story, you may have noticed I’ve taken some potshots at David Guggenheim’s screenplay, and with reason, because when it isn’t simply being a bland thriller that’s generic in the extreme, it’s just downright dumb, such as the contrived sequence when Alison gets away from her kidnapper and comes upon a large crowd of Mardi Gras party goers, only to get recaptured again because they all had their backs to her and couldn’t hear her cries for help. Then we’re supposed to swallow the notion that Will could actually plan and execute a multimillion dollar robbery in the span of a couple of hours. Poppycock. Pure, unbelievable poppycock.

Sometimes, with a script this lacking, a talented director can come along and give it a little extra oomph, like Brad Anderson with The Call. Sadly, Stolen is saddled with Simon West, of Con Air and Tomb Raider fame, a director I’ve always regarded as a hack, and his work here has done little to sway my opinion of him. It’s not that he does a bad job, per se, it’s just that aside from the car chase I’ve already mentioned, the action scenes are rather flat and unremarkable… kind of like the film itself.

And that really sums up how I feel about Stolen as a whole, it was watchable, even enjoyable in spots. But overall, it’s just incredibly meh. It made no dent whatsoever at the box office, and it doesn’t take a mastermind, criminal or otherwise, to understand why. Aside from a couple of stellar turns by Cage and Lucas, it’s a pretty mediocre flick that, unless you’re some kind of Nic Cage superfan, just isn’t really worth going out of your way to see. Although, thanks to the fine folks at Netflix, you don’t have to go out of your way to see it, as it is available via streaming, so if you are a Cage fan, or a connoisseur of dopey, goofy thrillers, then by all means, give it a go, you won’t be sorry… hell, in all likelihood, you won’t even remember it the day after you see it.

Hitchcock

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

**½

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“You may call me Hitch, hold the cock.”

hitchcock

The H-Bomb: I should confess right off the cuff, I’m a sucker for movies about movie making. From 8 1/2, to Living in Oblivion, to Bowfinger, to one of my all time personal favorites, Ed Wood, I’ve always had a great interest in stories about the struggles of getting a film made. I also, like any true cinema aficionado, am an enormous admirer of the work of Alfred Hitchcock, in particular, his seminal 1960 masterpiece, Psycho. So naturally, when I caught wind that there was a film in the works on the making of Psycho, starring Anthony Hopkins as the master himself, my interest was piqued. It went right to the top of my must see list.

Then I began to hear the very mixed word of mouth about the film, with its detractors absolutely hating it, and my interest waned. Add to that the fact that it barely got a release, and failed to garner much notice during the awards season, and whatever hopes I had for this movie had pretty much eroded. They fucked it up. Somehow, they managed to fuck it up, although that no “No Talking, No Texting” PSA with Hopkins in his full Hitch get-up was pretty damn funny.

Anyhow, bearing the film’s buzz in mind, I, unenthusiastically, finally sat down to give Hitchcock a look, more or less to see how much of a train wreck it actually is, and as it happens, it’s not a train wreck at all. It’s certainly not as good as it could, or should, have been, and it’s easy to understand why many were underwhelmed by it, but it is far from being the absolute stink bomb that some have made it out to be.

Based on the book by Stephen Rebello, Hitchcock begins with the release of North by Northwest, which is met with mostly lukewarm reviews, and with people suggesting that Hitch, who is 60, has lost his touch. Determined to prove that he still possesses the power to shock and terrify, Hitch becomes obsessed with a novel that is loosely inspired by real-life mama’s boy-turned-killer, Ed Gein, and decides that will be his next project. That project is, of course, Psycho, and getting it made will be considerably more difficult than Hitch anticipates, as the bosses at Paramount see it as nothing more than a trashy horror flick, and refuse to back it.

Not one to be easily deterred, Hitch goes to his wife and number one collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren, in the film’s best performance), and talks her into mortgaging their home in order to fund the film himself. But money isn’t the only thing troubling Hitch, he also has to deal with the censor’s board (the head of which is played by a hilariously stuffy Kurtwood Smith) who make it clear that no nudity or graphic violence will fly with them. Needless to say, this master of suspense will have to be a bit creative when it comes to filming a certain scene set in a shower.

As if the hassles of bringing Psycho to the screen aren’t enough, Hitch also has to contend with his personal troubles with Alma. The burden of funding the film themselves has put a strain on the marriage, as they’ve grown distant from each other, and her once playful barbs towards him are now sounding more and more malicious. Worst of all is a new writing project Alma has started with writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), with whom she is spending a great deal of time with at a secluded beach house, where Hitch suspects they’re up to a lot more than just writing.

When things become too much for Hitch to handle, he turns to the company and advice of his new imaginary friend… Ed Gein (Michael Wincott). Will our director, plagued by insecurity and self-doubt, be able to complete his film with his marriage, career, and sanity intact? Or will he go completely psycho? Unfortunately, we already know the answers to those questions.

And therein lies the rub; we know how Psycho is going to turn out, we know how everything will turn out… and that kinda, sorta kills whatever suspense, or uncertainty, that the film hopes to build. This issue is compounded by John J. McLaughlin’s script, and Sacha Gervasi’s stylish-but-breezy direction, which lack any kind of dramatic momentum. Sure, there’s behind-the-scenes shenanigans and scene recreations from Psycho to amuse film nerds, and we do get to see some of Hitch’s obsessive, perfectionist quirks emerge as he makes a movie, but dramatically speaking, there’s nothing here to really make us care.

The conflict between Hitch and his wife over whether or not she’s having an affair is obviously meant to be the film’s dramatic crux, but since the film makes the answer to that question clear early on, without a shadow of a doubt, it’s ineffective. Perhaps if the filmmakers handled it with a little more ambiguity, some actual tension could have been wrung from it, but alas, there is none. This is also the case when we see Hitchcock fretting over how Psycho will turn out, because, again, we all know how it turns out.

The overall lack of dramatic weight aside, my other major issue is with the performances. Not that they were bad, per se, it’s simply that, for me, most of the actors never became the people they were supposed to be. When I looked at Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, I didn’t see Janet Leigh, I saw Scarlett Johansson made up to look like her. And when I looked at Anthony Hopkins, I didn’t see Alfred Hitchcock, I merely saw Anthony Hopkins in a fat suit and facial prosthesis. What’s worse is that his performance didn’t seem like a performance so much as merely a shallow impersonation. From an actor of Hopkins’ stature, I really expected more.

Perhaps I’m not being fair, as I’m so used to watching the real people that I just can’t accept these impersonators. No matter, this is still a very flawed film. That’s not to say, though, that it’s a bad one, as it is light as a feather and goes down pretty easy. As a movie buff, I was fairly entertained by all the cutesy little references and in-jokes contained in the film. But that’s the problem, it’s a movie for movie buffs, and movie buffs only. It’s full of winks, nods, homages, and little more. There’s no compelling drama to speak of, nor is there even any real insight into Alfred Hitchcock, the man, the myth, or the legend. Because of that, Hitchcock, as a whole, comes off as flat, superficial, and inconsequential.

Dead Man Down

Friday, March 15th, 2013

**½

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Dead Man Down

Directed by: Niels Arden Oplev
Script By: J.H.Wyman
Cast: Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Dominic Cooper, Terrence Howard

I have to admit I had trouble understanding the title. After the film ended I still didn’t get it. But then again, after the film ended, I didn’t really get the film either. What we seem to have here is a revenge thriller that aspires to be more than your average revenge thriller. Unfortunately the film never jells into anything but a big moody shoot’um up with one of the most convoluted plots I’ve seen in years.

Does that mean I hated the film? No, I didn’t, and I’ll tell you why in one name, Colin Farrell. I first became aware of Mr. Farrell in Steven Spielberg’s film “Minority Report”. Thought his performance in that film was terrific and I was looking forward to seeing more work from him. It wasn’t forthcoming; he drifted into mediocre roles that he appeared to be just walking through and aside from his wonderfully strange turn last year as one of the “Horrible Bosses” he just wasn’t worth my time to watch. Now up he pops in DEAD MAN DOWN, and his performance makes the film work for me. Subdued, believable, haunting, and vulnerable, his Victor is a tortured shell of a person trying to make sense of his life through revenge. It’s everything I always thought he could pull off as an actor and more.

Here’s The Storyline:

Victor (Farrell), appears to be a rising gangland hood, he has infiltrated the crime empire run by ruthless kingpin Alphonse (Howard), with the sole purpose of making him pay for destroying his wife and daughter. As he meticulously orchestrates his vengeance from his high-rise apartment, he watches and is watched by Beatrice (Rapace), a disfigured young woman who lives in the apartment across from his. When she uncovers Victor’s dark secrets from afar, she threatens to expose him unless he helps her carry out her own retribution. Together, they begin to carry out their intricate plans, but the odds are stacked against them.

Danish director Niels Arden Oplev, who created the original “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, makes his American theatrical debut with this film. That debut is the problem here; his wonderful Scandinavian sensibility does not work in his favor inside a big American Film. Had this movie been made away from the Hollywood machine, say in Europe for instance, it would have been better, easier to believe, less confusing. Along with Oplev on this journey is the brilliant Swedish actress Noomi Rapace he used in “Dragon”. Usually a sure performance, this time she lacks the story and character to let her talent fly. Hard to believe that Farrell is able to upstage her at every turn, but there it is.

The film is a strange brew of violent vengeance and deep felt heartache, located in a place where death is constantly at hand and love is a hard commodity to come by. Wait for the DVD.

Rated R for violence, language throughout and a scene of sexuality – 110 minutes

Bullet to the Head

Monday, February 4th, 2013

**½

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“You had me at ‘Fuck you.'”

BULLETTOTHEHEAD

The H-Bomb:  James Bonomo (Sylvester Stallone) is a hit-man based in New Orleans who, along with his partner of six years, carries out a hit on some coked up no-neck in a swanky hotel suite.  Things get a bit messy, but, at the end of day, the job gets done and they hit a nearby watering hole to unwind.  When Bonomo heads to the john to relieve himself, his partner gets knifed the fuck up, professional style, by some gigantic pony-tailed thug-for-hire, Keegan (Jason Momoa), who looks like he stepped right out of a 1980’s Steven Seagal flick.  This ginormous goon then heads to the toilet to take out Bonomo, not realizing that he’s fuckin’ with both Rocky and Rambo.

A few punches and one destroyed restroom later, Bonomo just barely slips away with his life intact, and comes to the realization that he and his partner were double-crossed by whoever hired them to kill the guy in the hotel.  The guy in the hotel, as it turns out, was an ex-cop from D.C. who was apparently into all sorts of shady shite.  His old partner, Detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), a squeaky clean honest cop, arrives in New Orleans to investigate his death.  After the local cops make it perfectly clear that he’s not welcome in their city and have no intention of helping him, Kwon traces the hotel hit to Bonomo, who he tracks down and makes the oh-so-likely proposition that they work together in order to find out who’s behind this mess.

Bonomo, after giving the matter some serious thought, reluctantly agrees, because hey, it’s not like he has anything better to do… ya know, like get the fuck outta town!  So, after a bit of leg work, this mismatched duo traces the whole bloody affair to some escaped African war criminal guy (Adewale Akinnouve-Agbaje) and his slimy, real estate lawyer (Christian Slater, reminding the world he’s still alive).  What ensues from there is undeniably the most amazing, awesome action movie EVAR!

Okay… not really.  Bullet to the Head is exactly the kind of movie that is typically released during this time of year, Hollywood’s slow season, if you will.  It’s the kind of unremarkable, mildly diverting action flick that you’ll probably get a kick out of while watching it, but that you immediately start to forget the second it’s over.  It’s a movie you catch a matinee showing of if you’re bored and you’ve already seen everything else that’s playing, one that you might rent if there’s absolutely nothing else on the video store shelves that looks even remotely interesting (an outdated example, I know, but I’m making a point).  It’s a totally generic shoot ’em up, one that, in a few years time, even the people who made it will have forgotten that it exists.

That said, it is moderately entertaining, and fans of bloody, foul-mouthed action romps from the 80’s will get their money’s worth out of it… provided they don’t pay full ticket price.  Directed by the hit-or-miss, tough guy movie maker Walter Hill (48 Hours, The Warriors), Bullet to the Head is essentially 90 minutes of Sly Stallone putting bullets into people’s heads (if nothing else, the movie is appropriately titled), and given its modest aims, it does succeed.  Stallone certainly looks great, and he can still convincingly kick the crap out of guys half his age (steroids, an aging action star’s best friend).  He’s completely playing off his image, which is perfectly fine, and his constant wisecracks will keep you chuckling throughout.  In short, the guy’s still got it.

Kang, as the cop companion, doesn’t fair as well, mainly because his role is pretty terribly written.  I’d be surprised to find out that screenwriter Alessandro Camon didn’t set out to make Kwon the most inept, bone-headed cop in cinematic history, because that’s essentially what he did. His fuck-ups in this flick are so numerous I could do a lengthy write-up entirely about them.  He constantly puts his trust in the local cops, even though they prove time and time again they can’t be trusted.  He’s constantly not trusting Bonomo, even though Bonomo proves time and time again he can be trusted, and if you made a drinking game where you take a shot every time he uses his cell phone to look up background information on a character (clunky exposition alert), you’d be dead by the time the movie’s over.

But, picking apart the characters and plot mechanics in a movie like Bullet to the Head is kind of pointless.  This movie isn’t about richly defined characters or great acting (though I will give props to Momoa as the chief heavy, he actually is a lot of fun), it’s about watching some impossibly old codger improbably kicking people’s asses for an hour and a half.  That’s it.  If you’re a hardcore Stallone fan and that sounds like your thing, then by all means, treat yourself, you won’t be disappointed.  For the rest of us, though, this one is not exactly screaming to be seen on the big screen.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (3D)

Friday, January 25th, 2013

**½

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Witchin’!

HanselGretel

Swift shot:  The Brothers Grimm version . . . this a’int!  Gatling guns, grenades, all manner of technological marvels of malevolence are introduced into this goretastic version of the classic tale of the brother and sister who bested and baked a witch in her own oven. There is ill-placed profanity, some mild nudity and countless graphic, special effects for the action lovers out there.  If you turn off your internal critic and opt to be simply entertained, you will enjoy it more.  Sadly though, I couldn’t kill the critic in me.

I never really pegged down what this movie was shooting for, and to be sure it wasn’t from lack of shooting.  There were countless lead-filled scenes, and I likened this whole film to Legion, where machine guns were being used on Angels.  Unlike Legion, though, Hansel and Gretel just didn’t do anything for me anywhere else.  Sure, it had Famke Janssen and Gemma Arterton, and yes, Jeremy Renner.  But I never felt like I was laughing with any of the characters, I was always laughing at the actors, and that isn’t good.

The story does offer a nice little twist on the classic tale, with a nice way of tying up all the loose ends that are initially presented in this version.  Director Tommy Wirkola really impressed me with his Zombie-Nazi fun flick, Dead Snow, but this one never had near the excellent dialog, humor or incredibly noteworthy death scenes and NO, as in zero, horror.  There weren’t even any decent jump-scares or anything that I will lose sleep over tonight.  I read that Wirkola was terrified of the Hansel and Gretel story, and this film was supposed to be a release from that.  But, it’s almost like he made a mockery of something that scared him, to overcome that fear.  Because, he clearly has fun with this film . . . but it seems like a personal joke.

He ratchets up the steampunk in this “what happened next” story after Hansel and Gretel got their fame for serving up a nasty witch.  I will give Wirkola credit for tackling his demons on screen, but this one is hardly one I would recommend to all but die-hard Renner and Janssen fans.  I did catch this one in IMAX 3D, and there were some decent action-intense shots which played out well in that format.

If you love your action flicks with lots of guts and little dialog, this one is probably for you.  If you like your action flicks to have a little more personality, I would say you will be pretty disappointed.  I still think Dead Snow is Wirkola’s best work.  But, kudos to him for making a mockery of something that used to terrify him.  Wish I could say Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters fired on all cylinders for me, but it just wasn’t there.

This article is also available on NerdSpanMovie Review: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

 

Promised Land

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

**½

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frack

Promised Land is a slow and un-affecting film. The acting is decent, the direction is good enough, but as a whole the film leaves no impression.

Promised Land follows the plight of Steve Butler, played by Matt Damon. Steve works for a natural gas company and travels to farming towns to lease land for fracking. The film isn’t too preachy, but the emphasis on “fracking is bad” is obvious.

Fracking, for those that don’t know, is a method for drilling and obtaining natural gas that lies miles deep. Its a controversial subject, one that many in Hollywood have taken a public stance against. There are many other social and political subjects the film could have used as its backdrop and be far more entertaining. Whether or not fracking is the next big environmental controversy, the fact is its just not a thrilling topic. Even something cliche, such as global warming or the economy, would have been far more engaging.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, screenwriter and star of Promised Land John Krasinski (The Office) said himself that when he was planning to write his first film he wanted it to be about an American struggle. There are many more prevalent subjects, in my opinion, that better exemplify the current American struggle. The intention was good, the execution falls flat.

Promised Land isn’t without its moments. There are a few laughs here and there for which you can thank Frances McDormand (Fargo, Burn After Reading). Her great comedic timing and lovable portrayal of Sue Thomason, Damon’s coworker, helps keep this film above water. McDormand and Damon have great chemistry and play off each other in a very natural way. Their character’s relationship is the most honest and real-to-life feeling aspect of this film.

Damon and McDormand’s characters each have an odd, half-baked love story worked in. Damon falls for a local farm girl named Alice, played by Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married). It is hard to even call them love stories, because there is no sense of relationship building. It could be argued that McDormand’s “love interest” was never meant to be much of anything, but the time spent on the relationship development does suggest otherwise. The film gives and takes in a way that is supposed to build the tension, but ultimately does nothing. Not for one instance did I feel any kind of emotional weight for either of these characters. The relationship between Damon’s Steve and Rosemarie DeWitt’s Alice was so unbelievable that it just felt like an anchor dragging down the film as a whole.

The script for this movie was it’s greatest downfall. For a movie that is 1hr 46mins, not much really happens. The film doesn’t feel excruciatingly slow, but it definitely drags its feet the whole way through, ironically.  There is never enough time spent on character development to make me feel significantly attached to anyone. The film doesn’t reach for very high emotions, but never even grips me to the point of interest in where the characters may end up.

All in all, I’d skip this one. Redbox it maybe. Just maybe. There are even better lazy Sunday alternatives than this.

The Details

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

**½

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That’s where evil dwells, in the details

Swift shot: This little slice of American blueberry pie comes to us seemingly out of nowhere.  It’s a film that didn’t demand to be made nor seen, but it offers an interesting glimpse into a “perfect family” and reflects on the fact, maybe a perfect family is only a myth.  The Details features a quirky style that some may not agree with right away, but it doesn’t ultimately detract from the delivery of the story, which is enough to keep your attention. It is just that the story, while handled well, features some “convenient” characters.  What I mean is, I had a hard time swallowing a lot of the characters’ actions.  Particularly the Allstate Insurance spokesman, Dennis Haysbert who plays Lincoln, a “Christian” family man with a perfect family of his own, but when he is challenged morally, he doesn’t make a choice I think fits with his character.  If character matters, then I expect the characters to be more genuine, not just when it suits the film makers.  That goes for any film, and that is why I can’t love this one.

Tobey Maguire (remember him? when he was Spider-Man) plays Dr. Jeff Lang, an OBGYN who wants an expansion to his home, so that he and his wife of ten years, Nealy (Elizabeth Banks) can have a new child.  Thing is, Jeff has some problems with the zoning commission and decides to have the work done anyway.  He knows it is a risk, but as long as he can keep his neighbors happy, all is well.

Now is when it starts to get fun.  Because we are introduced to the one character that kept me fascinated the entire film played by Laura Linney.  She clearly brought her best work to the nutjob next door role of Lila, and even though she only has ONE cat (named Matthew), she gives a whole new level of shitbat insane to the “crazy cat lady” archetype.  It isn’t the number of cats you have that makes you nuts, it’s the number of cats scratching inside your head that really matters.

Rounding out the cast that makes up the details of how we get to the end of our story is Ray Liotta’s character, Peter Mazzoni, who plays an Italian from New Jersey who owns a few restaurants (wink), but while his character was almost an after-thought to the story, he plays an important role in getting us to the conclusion.  Also, he has a few surprises that come out of nowhere but made him far more interesting than you might first think.

The Details isn’t fast-paced, but it doesn’t bore you at any point.  Many of you will be able to relate to some of the “hard” times in the Doc’s life as he has to choose what will define his character.  Also, when the raccoons are introduced in the film, I took that as a metaphor for God . . . giving him one last wake-up call that he needed to rethink his decision.  Others may think they were just thrown in to mix up the sod, maybe so.  Either way, if you like stories that dig up the dirt (another metaphor) on American white bread families, this is your film.  If that isn’t your thing, avoid this at all costs, as it will just piss you off.  And, for the love of God, make sure you get those new additions approved by the zoning board!

Fear and Desire

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

**½

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The genesis of a genius.

The H-Bomb:  Whenever someone compiles a list of the all time greatest filmmakers, there are certain names that absolutely must appear on said list for it to have any credibility with serious film buffs.  Names the likes of Orson Wells, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, so on and so forth.  These aren’t simply directors who have made good films, they are artists with a style so distinct, that, to the initiated, their work is immediately recognizable.  What also sets these filmmakers apart is that their films are highly influential, not only to their contemporaries, but to the generations of movie makers who come after them.

Of all the auteurs, living or dead, who have made a substantial impact on the medium, the one who has been the most stylistically distinctive, and perhaps the most influential, is Stanley Kubrick.  In fact, in my ever humble opinion, I believe Kubrick is the greatest artist to have ever picked up a film camera.  The man didn’t just work in cinema, he was cinema.  He made films in just about every genre in existence, and to one degree or another, mastered each one with a level of skill that us mortals can only admire and envy.  With his heist thriller The Killing, he utilized the cyclical, Tarantino-esque non-linear story structure years before Tarantino was even born.  With The Shining, he made one of the greatest horror films ever.  With 2001: A Space Odyssey, he made the greatest science fiction film ever.  I could keep going, but you’re probably anxious for me to get to the point.

Why am I prattling on about the late, great Stanley Kubrick?  Because this past week was an important one for his admirers and film enthusiasts in general, as it saw the Blu-Ray release of his up-until-now very elusive debut feature, Fear and Desire.  How elusive was it?  Well, it had never been available in any home viewing format, and I had never met anyone who had actually seen it.  Why was it so difficult to come by?  The answer to that is simple, Kubrick absolutely hated it.  He loathed it, he was ashamed of it, he was embarrassed by it, and he made every effort imaginable to track down and destroy all known prints of it in existence.

His efforts in suppressing it were effective, as for a period of time, the film was believed to be lost forever.  However, there was at least one print that eluded him, and now Fear and Desire has been restored by the Library of Congress and is available in a pristine High Def presentation.  So, how is it?  Well, it’s certainly not an awful film, though I can see why Kubrick would feel otherwise, but it isn’t a particularly good one, either.  I would say that Fear and Desire is, more than anything else, strictly a curiosity.

A kind of surreal, allegorical war film, it tells the story of four soldiers stranded in a forest, behind enemy lines in an un-named country (San Gabriel Mountains, California).  There’s the square-jawed, by-the-book commanding officer, Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp), the crass smart-ass Sgt. Mac (Frank Silvera), the nervous young Pvt. Sidney (Paul Mazursky), and the underwritten Pvt. Fletcher (Stephen Coit).

The soldiers plan to escape by following a river that will take them back to their own company.  So, they build a raft and decide to wait until after dark to go out on the river.  In the meantime, they discover a house by the river that’s occupied by an Enemy General (also played by Kenneth Harp), as well as his top Officer (also played by Stephen Coit).  Sgt. Mac is struck with a strong urge to assassinate this General, as he feels it’s the only chance he will ever have to do something important in his life– a not entirely credible motivation that represents just one of many Fear and Desire’s script problems.

The General’s house is well guarded, so killing him will take planning.  But before the soldiers can map out a strategy for that, they encounter a local peasant girl who’s apparently a mute.  Figuring she could come in handy should they have any run-ins with enemy forces, the men take her prisoner and tie her to a tree.  They then head back to the river to hide the raft until nightfall, leaving the jittery Pvt. Sidney to guard the woman, which could be a mistake, as the young Sidney is becoming increasingly unhinged.

In fact, being this deep behind enemy lines is taking a psychological toll on all four of the men.  Will they be able to keep their shit together long enough to whack the General and hightail it up the river, or will they be overtaken by their own fears and desires?

Shot in stark Black & White, which looks absolutely gorgeous in High Def, Fear and Desire does work as an early showcase for Kubrick’s incredible visual style.  Working as his own cinematographer, Kubrick composed every single shot meticulously, and his ability at creating striking images is undeniable.  I think anyone would agree, the man had a remarkable eye from the outset.

Where Kubrick stumbles with Fear and Desire, is with the story.  Now, many elements that are prevalent in his future films are present here; the cynicism, the irony, the muted emotions, and the lack of sentimentality.  What Kubrick also demonstrated in his later projects was a firm grasp of the story he was telling and a clear idea of what he was saying with it.  Sadly, with his debut, he didn‘t seem to know what he was saying or why.

Clearly, the film is attempting to convey an antiwar message, but the narrative is so muddled and abstract that it has no impact whatsoever.  I remember, by the end of Paths of Glory, feeling like I had been slammed in the gut with a rifle butt.  But when Fear and Desire came to the end of its scant 60 minutes, I just shrugged my shoulders and thought to myself, “So… war is bad… I guess…”

Kubrick confuses the film’s theme even more with the odd surreal touches, like having Harp play both Lt. Corby and the Enemy General, and Coit playing Pvt. Fletcher and the Enemy General’s Officer.  I’m guessing it’s meant to be some kind of metaphor about how all men are, deep down, all the same, regardless of where they‘re from or what side of a conflict they‘re on… or something… whatever the intended “meaning” might have been, the execution is clumsy and it doesn’t come off as thoughtful or profound.  Instead, it merely comes across as gimmicky and a tad silly.

This brings me back to something I brought up earlier, the screenplay, by future Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Howard Sackler (The Great White Hope), is a ponderous, meandering mess that is often laughable.  The narration that opens the film just slapped me across the face with its utter pretentiousness and almost lost me from the get-go.  Here’s a sample:  “There is war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, or one that will be, but any war. And the enemies who struggle here do not exist, unless we call them into being.”  Ugh, makes you want to take a bayonet to yourself,  doesn’t it?  These philosophical jibber-jabberings pop up throughout, and while they don’t ruin the picture entirely, you will be tempted to hit the mute button whenever they surface.

Sadly, the horrendous voiceovers are not the only flaws plaguing this script.  There’s also the sequence in which Pvt. Sidney is guarding the peasant girl they’ve taken captive.  I won’t say what goes on in this scene, just that it’s very bizarre, and Mazursky’s performance is so manically over-the-top I’d swear he’s playing it for laughs.  However, the music score that plays over the scene is dead serious and dramatic, suggesting that the scene itself should be taken as such.

Another sequence where I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be laughing or not, was when the Enemy General is gravely warning his pet Doberman about the evil spirits in the forest that might try to possess him.  Then the General goes on to suggest that the dog is already possessed by these spirits and is possibly a spy.  Again, I would assume this is an attempt at humor on the parts of Kubrick and Sackler, but the actor plays it so straight, that it seems like they‘re once again trying (and failing) to achieve some level of profundity with this portentous drivel.

While I’m on the subject of the actors, I should point out that they do okay, given the circumstances under which they had to perform, which were less than ideal.  See, Kubrick fired the sound man early in the shoot, so the actors actually had to record all of their dialogue during post-production, where they not only had to concentrate on their line deliveries, but also on matching their words to their lip movements on screen. So, while the performances are passable (Silvera and Mazursky come off best), they most likely were somewhat compromised by the situation.

And if I were to sum up Fear and Desire with one word, compromised would be as good a word as any.  Compromised by a script that tries way too hard to be “deep,” and by a budget that‘s too low for the film‘s ambition.  However, while Kubrick’s debut may have been compromised, I wouldn’t consider it a failure.  It’s not quite a good film, but it is an important one, and a definite must see.  Kubrick was merely a genius-in-progress when he made it, and while it does have its share of flaws, it is, like every Kubrick film that came after it, a very unique, one-of-a-kind picture with a very unique, one-of-a-kind vision.  As a piece of cinematic history, Fear and Desire is very much worth giving a curious look, just remember to keep your expectations in check when you do.