Reel Opinions


Sunday, January 27, 2013

Movie 43

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We will probably never see a film like Movie 43 ever again.  And yes, that is a very good thing.  It's not so much that it's bad at the acting or even the filmmaking level.  Its failure goes much deeper than that, right to the concept.  The film is a collection of skits, and so many of them are just so fundamentally not funny, that it doesn't matter if talented people are involved.  It doesn't matter what the actors do, because they're trapped in an awful idea to begin with.

picMovie 43 is a comedic anthology film, along the lines of The Kentucky Fried Movie or Amazon Women on the Moon.  It's made up of 14 short films, roughly 5 or 7 minutes long.  It has 12 different directors, 9 writers, and a literal cast of thousands, including the likes of Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Dennis Quaid, Naomi Watts, and Richard Gere, just to name but a small few.  Seriously, a good chunk of Hollywood must have been involved with this project at one point or another.  I won't bother asking why any of these actors signed up to appear in something like this.  I'm sure many favors were handed out.  Instead, I'll focus on the core problem of this movie - It mistakes being gross for being funny.  Now, my sense of humor can be just as juvenile as anyone else.  If you need proof, I actually laughed a few times at the film's opening sketch, which concerns Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet on a dinner date.  The skit's sole gag is that Jackman has a small scrotum hanging from his neck, and nobody seems to notice.  I laughed at Winslet's attempts to appear proper and poised in the face of this, and to try to work the conversation toward the fact.  I laughed less so when Jackman started dipping his neck abnormality in the butter, or rubbing it on a baby's head.

picBelieve it or not, this is one of the more subtle films in the collection we get.  The sketch that follows is an example of a potentially funny idea done wrong, so that the laughs never come.  Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts play a suburban couple who homeschool their teenage son, but go out of their way to give their kid the "full high school experience".  In other words, they humiliate him, taunt him, publicly ridicule him, and make sure he has all the emotional scars that most outcast teenagers have during that time.  The sketch goes overboard in its cruelty, and just becomes pathetic instead of funny.  Another sketch idea that never lives up to the promise it holds is the one titled "Superhero Speed Dating", in which we find the Boy Wonder Robin (Justin Long) trying to date various women, only to have his efforts constantly foiled by a very nosy Batman (Jason Sudeikis), who keeps on embarrassing him.  Other comic book figures appear, such as Lois Lane (Uma Thurman), Supergirl (Kristen Bell), and Wonder Woman (Leslie Bibb), but the skit misses ample opportunities for satire.

picThese two films show potential, but are just so badly handled, they deliver no laughs whatsoever.  Other sketches are just simply bad ideas that never could have worked, no matter who was behind them.  Such examples include a romantic story involving a young couple (Anna Farris and Chris Pratt) who are put to the test when the woman asks her boyfriend that she wants him to poop on her after they have sex.  In another, Kieran Culkin and Emma Stone have a very explicit argument about their sex life in front of a bunch of elderly people at a grocery store.  In yet another, two best friends (Seann William Scott and Johnny Knoxville) manage to capture a leprechaun (Gerard Butler), and try to force it to give them its pot of gold, only to have the little wee man turn out to be a foul-mouthed psychopath.  For those of you who have long wished for the two lead stars of The Dukes of Hazzard movie to appear in a remake of the 1993 camp horror film, Leprechaun, I have good news - your deranged desire has been granted.

picBelieve it or not, the movie does pretend there's a connection between all of these films.  That comes from the movie's main repeating segment, which revolves around a deranged wannabe screenwriter (Dennis Quaid) holding a Hollywood agent (Greg Kinnear) hostage, and forcing him to listen to his various movie pitches.  Just like everything else about this movie, it doesn't generate any laughs, and it doesn't go anywhere.  And when the skit tries to go even further over the top, by having the agent start gunning after the head of the studio (Common) for the disrespect he's been shown all these years, it somehow generates even less laughs.  That kind of describes this movie's whole problem.  The further it goes, the less funny it becomes.  It seems to think that the idea of Halle Berry doing disgusting things while involved in a game of Truth or Dare that goes way too far alone is funny enough.  Comedy needs to build, and it needs a starting point to begin with.  We need to build to the humiliation.  Movie 43 is all humiliation all the time.

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So, I'm not going to ask what Richard Gere is doing in this movie, playing the CEO of a company that makes iPod players that are modeled like naked women.  I won't even ask if Elizabeth Banks was thinking straight when she signed on to play a woman whose relationship to the man she loves is threatened by the guy's pet cartoon cat, who has a sick sexual relationship with its owner, and sees Banks as being in the way.  Everybody who agreed to do this movie most likely did it as a lark, anyway.  I hope they had fun making it.  I just wish they would have taken the audience into consideration. After all, we're the ones who end up paying in the end.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

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Originally set to be released last Spring, and sitting on the studio shelf until being released this weekend, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is a high concept movie dumbed down considerably.  It has dopey dialogue, a murky look, characters who drift in and out of the narrative without rhyme or reason, and a chainsaw editing style that comes across like large chunks of the film were left on the editing room floor.  If this movie does inspire a franchise, as the ending seems to suggest, I will be very surprised.

picAs the film opens, we get a recreation of the classic Hansel and Gretel story, as the two children are abandoned in the middle of the woods by their parents.  The movie forgets about the trail of breadcrumbs, but it does have the gingerbread house, and the evil witch within who tries to cook the little tykes in her massive oven.  The kids turn the tables on her, and in a voice over narration, we learn that the fateful moment of pushing the old hag into the oven was a life-changing moment for young Hansel and Gretel.  They grow up to become professional witch hunters, and are now played by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, respectively.  The movie is set in a medieval fantasy land, where everyone dresses like old beggars and peasants, except for Hansel and Gretel, who dress in body-fitting black leather outfits that make it look like they're heading for a medieval S&M bar.

picThe witch hunters ride into a town that is having a lot of problems.  Children from the village are disappearing, and there's rumors that the grand witch, Muriel (Famke Janssen), has set up base in the forest outside the village, and is planning to perform an ancient ritual that will make witches immune to fire (their main weakness, supposedly).  The frightened Mayor Engleman (Rainer Bock) has called upon Hansel and Gretel to see if there is a connection.  It does not take long for the evil Muriel to attack the town, and reveal her evil intentions.  In fact, from that point on, the movie basically rushes head-first through a series of incomprehensible action and special effects sequences.  Hansel and Gretel make some allies in their battle, revisit their childhood home and learn some secrets of the past, and then they're off to the final showdown.  The movie feels so truncated and sped up, it's almost laughable.

picHansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters obviously wants to be a campy and tongue-in-cheek horror action flick, along the lines of the Evil Dead movies.  But, it takes so much more than over the top blood and gore and silly one liners to pull that off.  We also need to get a feel for these characters, and this movie is in such a major rush, we barely have any time to get to know them.  There are hints at the deep sibling relationship that Hansel and Gretel share, but it's over almost as soon as it starts, and the two are back to trading mindless one liners with each other before too long.  The side characters are also essentially brushed aside in terms of development.  There's a kid in the village (Thomas Mann) who idolizes the witch hunting duo, and wants to join them in their adventures.  That's pretty much all we learn about him.  There's a potential love interest for Hansel in the form of a young woman he saves from being wrongfully tried as a dark witch early on (Pihla Viitala), but very little is done with her character.  There's even a CG troll who joins in on their adventures, but the movie forgets to give him a personality, or even much of a reason for him to join up with the heroes.

picThe movie is not much to look at either, despite reportedly costing around $60 million.  For some reason, director and co-writer Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow) and cinematographer Michael Bonvillain have decided to shoot the movie in murky and washed out tones.  It constantly looks like you're watching the movie through a dirty window.  And this was the traditional 2D film.  Yes, the film is being released in 3D on select screens, and I can only imagine that the movie looks even bleaker with those stupid glasses on.  If you insist upon seeing blood and witch parts fly off the screen whenever Hansel and Gretel kill one of their enemies, then by all means, go.  Just keep in mind that this is a dark enough looking movie already, and the glasses probably won't improve things.

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Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters lacks the wit and imagination to carry through with its initial promise.  And yet, I have the feeling that the original script was much smarter than what ended up on the screen.  The movie has that stench of studio interference, and its 88 minute running time is a tell-tale sign that this movie was probably hacked and edited to pieces before being released.  Whoever had the bright idea to do this only have themselves to blame.  They ruined a perfectly good idea for a fun little film.

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Parker

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There's a very good 90 minute movie in the two hours or so that Parker runs.  The movie is well made, has some impressive action, and Jason Statham continues to prove himself as being one of the few current action stars worth watching.  The only things holding it back are the sometimes uneven pacing, and the overlong running time.  It's a serviceable revenge/heist story that starts out being a lot of fun, but seems to be dragging its feet a little when it should be picking up speed.

picThe character of Parker originated in the crime novels of author Donald Westlake.  I was surprised to learn that this is not the first time the character has been adapted.  Mel Gibson's 1999 film, Payback, was also based on one of Westlake's Parker stories, although in that film, the character's name was changed to "Porter" for some reason.  Statham assumes the role of Parker this time around, a criminal who lives by a few simple rules.  Basically, he doesn't steal from anyone who can't afford to lose what he's stealing from them.  Also, he doesn't hurt people, as long as they do as he says.  Naturally, we pretty much know the movie will be filled with people who will be willing to test that second rule, and pay the price for it.  In fact, a group of people testing that rule is what kicks the plot off.

picAs the film opens, Parker leads a team of five criminals in stealing one million dollars from the Ohio State Fair.  The plan goes off fairly smoothly (except some innocent people get hurt, which angers Parker, obviously), and with the job done, one of the thugs (Michael Chiklis) immediately starts talking about their next heist.  Parker wants nothing to do with it, so the other members of the team turn on him, and leave him bloodied and presumed dead on the side of a country road.  He survives the attack, breaks out of the hospital, and then turns to his mentor (Nick Nolte) and girlfriend, Claire (Emma Booth) to track down the men he once worked for, and seek revenge.  The search leads him to Palm Beach, Florida, where his former partners in crime are planning a jewelry heist.  During his search for revenge, he gets involved with a local realtor named Leslie (Jennifer Lopez), who quickly figures out Parker's past, and wants in on his job so she can get some money, and move out of her obnoxious mother's house.

picIt is the introduction of Jennifer Lopez's character where Parker begins to sputter somewhat.  Her motivations are sketchy at best, her character's not that interesting, and worst of all, there's really no point to her being in the film in the first place.  Parker already has a loyal girlfriend, so she doesn't get to be his love interest.  She often seems shoehorned into certain scenes, especially the climax, where she really was not needed.  There's nothing particularly wrong with Lopez's performance, mind you.  I was, however, greatly annoyed by her overbearing and stereotyped mother, who exists solely for obnoxious comic relief.  Well, she gets the obnoxious part right, at least.  The whole plot concerning Leslie and her mother could have easily been shortened with little consequence, thereby shortening the length of the film, and tightening it in the long run.

picFortunately, a lot of what goes on outside of Lopez's plot does work.  It could be argued that Jason Statham pretty much gives the same performance in every movie.  It can also be argued that it's one I haven't yet grown weary of.  He's intimidating, he pulls off the violent fight scenes incredibly well, and he has a sly sense of dark humor without losing any of his edge.  He makes Parker into an interesting antihero.  Less interesting are his former teammates who serve as the film's villains after they turn on him.  They're a rather faceless bunch of criminals, who don't possess much personality, nor does the script allow them to be all that threatening.  We know that Parker is pretty much one step ahead of them the whole time, so there's not a whole lot of tension to start with.  Statham's screen presence can only carry the film so far.  After that, there's not much for us to grab onto.

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As an action film, I personally had more fun with last weekend's The Last Stand, but Parker is still able to deliver enough well-executed action.  It simply gets bogged down by stuff that either doesn't work, or shouldn't be there to begin with.  It's an uneven film, but I'm ultimately glad I saw it.  Give it a few extra bonus points if you're already a big fan of Statham.  If you're not, this one probably won't change your mind.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

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You can blame it on inflated expectations due to its numerous Oscar nominations, but while I did enjoy Silver Linings Playbook, I also kind of found myself somewhat underwhelmed.  Oh, don't get me wrong, the movie is smart, and the two lead performances by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are top flight.  I guess I was expecting something a little less conventional, given its premise.  Take away the two flawed and emotionally damaged lead characters, and you have a likable, but completely conventional romantic comedy that's nice and all, but certainly not great.

picBradley Cooper plays Pat Solatano, a man who has just spent eight months in a psychiatric treatment center after he came home one fateful day, saw his wife in the shower with another man, and nearly beat the man to death right there.  Pat's now living with his parents, Pat, Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver), and trying to get his life back together.  Although he's out of the treatment center, Pat still has a long way to go.  He's prone to fits of uncontrollable violence, especially whenever he hears the song that was played the day of his wedding.  Pat is trying to rebuild himself, and constantly reminds himself that there is always a silver lining.  He even believes there's a way he can get back with his wife, despite the restraining order she has against him.

picOne night, Pat is invited to dinner by his friend, Ronnie (John Ortiz).  This is where he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) for the first time.  Tiffany's been having a hard time as well lately, ever since her husband died.  The fact that they are both treated as outcasts in social circles because of their own individual tragic pasts is perhaps what brings them together.  As they spend more time together, it's obvious they're meant to be together, but Pat is so hung up on getting back together with his wife, he just can't see it.  He does, however, enter a dancing competition with Tiffany, an experience that brings them even closer together.  Were it not for the intriguing personalities of Pat and Tiffany, as well as the wonderful performances by both Cooper and Lawrence, this would be a fairly standard romantic comedy, where the guy is so wrapped up in getting an unobtainable woman, that he doesn't see the happiness right in front of him that another woman is offering him.  Many an Idiot Plot has been built around this idea, but fortunately, Silver Linings Playbook does not sink that low.

picInstead, we get some very smart and funny people who are stuck in a very conventional plot.  It is their personalities that lift this material.  Pat comes across as someone very vulnerable.  He wants to fix his life, but his anger and temper flair ups usually get in the way.  In Tiffany, he finds someone who may not understand exactly where he is coming from, but knows how it feels to not fit in anywhere.  Given her past and her sometimes confrontational nature, she can come across as being very guarded.  Yet, she is just as vulnerable and as lonely as Pat.  The performances by both Cooper and Lawrence are sensational, and are worthy of the acclaim and nominations they've received.  In Cooper's case, I've never seen him this good in a movie before.  Even the age difference between the two actors does not affect the chemistry they have on screen.  For Lawrence, this is probably her most adult role yet, and hints at a very long and promising career as she grows into older characters.

picThese two characters (and the overall intelligence of the screenplay by writer-director David O. Russell) are great, but they can't completely hide the fact that this is essentially a conventional romantic comedy.  Even though the characters and the dialogue are smarter than what we usually get, the situations, "meet cutes" misunderstandings, and plot contrivances are strictly old hat.  This is what held back my enthusiasm, I think.  If the plot itself was as smart as the characters inhabiting it, we'd really have something.  Instead, we get a movie that runs a little too long, thanks to some unnecessary subplots concerning gambling on pro football.  The climax at the dance competition also looks like it came from another movie.  It's cute and all, but it's just so conventional and pat, right down to the forced misunderstanding, and the last minute chase down the street after the lover who's walking away, so the other person can confess their feelings at last.  Maybe I expected better, or maybe I just wanted better for these characters than standard cliches.

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Silver Linings Playbook has a lot to recommend, but I can't help but feel it's a bit overrated in the Awards race, especially up against such strong competition like Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty.  This is a charming, sweet, and funny film, but it is not a great one to me.  The performances are certainly great, but the movie, likable as it is, just felt a little too familiar at times.

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Last Stand

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It almost seems like we expect our action heroes in today's movies to be over the hill these days.  Sylvester Stallone has pretty much built the later half of his career by cashing in on his former legacy, and refusing to move beyond the movies from the 80s that made him one of the bigger celebrities of that time.  Heck, even the latest James Bond adventure, Skyfall, was pretty much built around the fact that old Bond just wasn't as young as he used to be.  Now we get The Last Stand, Arnold Schwarzenegger's first starring role in about 10 years.  He looks a little weathered now, a little slower, and now he has to rely on Johnny Knoxville from Jackass for support in taking out the bad guys, when in the past, he probably could have taken them all out by himself.  Signs of aging, or sign of the times?

picThe Last Stand is corny, relentlessly violent, and quite comical at times.  In other words, it's a Schwarzenegger vehicle.  By those standards, the movie works.  It marks the Hollywood directing debut of South Korean filmmaker, Jee-woon Kim, and in all honesty, he does bring some style to the gunplay.  But, let's be honest, it's Arnold we're here to see.  Does he still have it after years of being the "Govern-ator"?  In all honesty, I say yes.  Here, he reminds me a little of Clint Eastwood, in that he is still intimidating, but is not afraid to let the toll of age show.  When he smashes through a window or falls from a high drop, he limps a little, or struggles to get back up again.  But, you can tell that he could probably smash through another few windows, and still be okay.  His acting hasn't improved much, but since when have people gone to a Schwarzenegger picture for the emotion and the performances?  In this movie, you get a lot of stuff getting blown up impressively, a lot of one-liners that are actually kind of funny, and Arnold being Arnold.  Oh, you also get to see a little old lady blow away a thug with a shotgun.  What more could you want?

picSchwarzenegger plays Ray Owens, the sheriff of the small little town of Sommerton, which lies on the Arizona and Mexico border.  Ray is expecting a quiet weekend.  Most of the town has left to cheer on the local high school football team at a championship game, leaving just a few of the town weirdos and one or two law officials behind.  Meanwhile, over in Las Vegas, a Mexican drug lord by the name of Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) escapes from the transport vehicle carrying him to maximum security prison, and promptly gets behind the wheel of a souped up Corvette, where he immediately brings chaos and destruction to the streets, and any law enforcement that tries to stop him.  The FBI agent pursuing him (Forest Whitaker) soon discovers that Gabriel is heading toward Sommerton, and is going to try to cross over into Mexico.

picThe FBI gets a hold of Ray to try to warn him, but it seems they are too late.  Cortez's army of thugs have already shown up in the sleepy little town, and are preparing for his arrival.  They murder a local farmer, and kill one of Ray's officers.  That's enough to send Ray on the warpath, and convince him to fight to protect his town.  He gathers up a large arsenal provided by the town wacko and gun enthusiast (Johnny Knoxville), puts together a small band of heroes to fight alongside him, and stages an all out war against Cortez's goons.  Cue the violent gun fights, big explosions, and over the top brutal (and sometimes comical) ends for anyone who tries to get in Ray's way.  To be fair, The Last Stand is more than just gratuitous violence.  There's a lot of humor provided by Schwarzenegger's co-stars, including Knoxville and Luis Guzman, and the villains are slimy and easy to hate.  Everybody does their jobs very well here.

picI also liked it how the movie almost parodies the fact that whenever there's a big action sequence in a populated street or area, nobody ever seems to notice.  This movie is smart enough to at least acknowledge it, by having Ray run into a local diner before the bad guys arrive, and try to get everyone to safety.  The locals won't budge, however, until they finish their omelets.  Realizing they won't leave, Ray just advises them to stay inside.  Sure enough, later on during the climactic fight, when Ray is tossed through the window of that same diner, the locals are still inside, acting like nothing's going on outside, and casually ask the sheriff how he's feeling.  This only adds to the fun of the movie.  Yes, it works as an action thrill ride.  But it's also smart enough to poke fun at itself at the same time.

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If weekend box office reports are to be believed, The Last Stand is underperforming with audiences.  That means it likely won't stand a chance, as studios usually only look at the opening weekend grosses, then move on to their next release.  It's too bad, really, because I found this to be a lot more fun and energetic than some other recent examples of old school action films, such as The Expendables and its sequel.  I don't think it will derail Schwarzenegger's attempt at a comeback, but it might make studios take pause a little.

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Broken City

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Allen Hughes' Broken City is pretty much everything you think of a movie being released in January.  It's not all that original, it's not very exciting, and it features some highly paid actors who obviously should have known better.  To be fair, there is a workable idea for a political thriller here.  It's simply lost amongst the murkiness of the screenplay, which includes subplots being dropped without warning, and characters popping in and out of the narrative seemingly at random.  All in all, this has all the makings of something that was at one time a fairly hot studio project at one time that got diluted little by little into a generic and forgettable film.

picThe usually likable Mark Wahlberg is seemingly stripped of all charisma here as police detective Billy Taggart who, as the film opens, is on trial for killing a man who is believed to have a history of rape charges, although he was never formally prosecuted, due to a lack of evidence.  The city is seemingly in an uproar over Billy's decision to take the law into his own hands.  However, does have a few vocal supporters, chief amongst them being New York Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe), who considers him a hero.  Billy is exonerated of his crimes, but due to the fact some key evidence had to be covered up during the trial, he must give up his position with the police.  We catch up with Billy seven years later, where he's now a private investigator for hire.  He's struggling to overcome a drinking addiction, is trying to make life work with his live-in girlfriend, an aspiring movie actress named Natalie (Natalie Martinez), and basically is just trying to keep his business afloat.

picIt's about this time that Hostetler calls Billy in for a private meeting in his office.  He wants Billy to follow his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whom he suspects is having an affair.  He offers Billy payment of $50,000 for photos of his wife's lover, so he can keep the story under control, and make sure it doesn't blow up in his face during the upcoming Mayoral election, which is only days away.  Billy starts to follow Cathleen's every move, and thinks he has come across the man she is seeing behind her husband's back.  Naturally, things are not what they seem, and Billy is soon drawn into something much bigger and more corrupt than he imagined.  In a normal film, this is where the plot would start to thicken, but Broken City is so strangely muted in its suspense and tension, we find that we could possibly care less.

picI already talked briefly about Wahlberg, and how he just feels off with his performance.  There's no anger or intensity, not even when he begins to realize what he's up against.  Sadly, he's not the only big name in the cast who, for one reason or another, decided to leave their talent at home.  Russell Crowe fairs better as the very cool and calculating Mayor Hostetler, but it's a fairly one-note performance.  He's all cool and all calculating all the time, so we immediately know that something's up as soon as he appears on camera.  He could have been interesting, but the movie keeps him off camera oddly for most of its running time.  Equally put to very little use is Catherine Zeta-Jones, in the fairly thankless role as his wife.  Despite the stormy relationship that is supposed to be building between her and her husband, she oddly has no big dramatic scene with Crowe, and is usually kept in the background for most of her scenes.

picThe one performance that does manage to stand out belongs to Alona Tal, who plays Billy's smart-mouthed and loyal assistant.  She brings life whenever she's on the screen, due to the fact she's the only person on screen with a personality and a sense of humor.  Everyone else is forced to act like they know they're in a thriller.  They play by the rules.  They exist simply to step in and out of the shadows, deposit some exposition, and then slink away.  There are some throwaway characters, such as Billy's girlfriend, Natalie, who mainly exists simply so Wahlberg can have a breakdown that leads him back to drinking (a plot that's never really resolved, and holds no bearing).  Everybody's a slave to this plot, and exist solely to be manipulated by it.  This is thriller writing at its most basic level, because the writer isn't smart enough to give these characters real lives or motivations, other than to pull us, the audience, in various directions.

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Broken City covers no new ground when it comes to corrupt politics, but that would not even be a problem if the script had anything interesting to say, or some characters we could relate to.  Maybe this project started with very good intentions.  Actually, I'm positive it did.  But, somewhere along the line, whether it be in the script or in the editing room, all character and life was removed.  Because of this, we're left with a very generic film that most likely had way too much money thrown at it.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Mama

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Whenever an actor or actress currently up for an Oscar appears in a horror film, it's usually a sure sign that said actor is "slumming it" or "cashing a paycheck".  This would appear to be doubly true if said horror film is released in the usually dreary month of January.  But in the case of Jessica Chastain (currently winning acclaim and, yes, awards for her starring turn in Zero Dark Thirty), she treats her role here with respect.  She's giving a real performance here, and it's a good one.  It also helps a lot that Mama is much better than the kind of horror we usually get this time of year.  It's genuinely creepy, kind of suspenseful, and a hell of a lot of fun.

picMama grabs our attention right from the start with a great prologue, concerning a father and businessman (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) having a mental breakdown in the brink of a financial meltdown.  He's murdered two of his co-workers, and as the film opens, has just arrived home to murder his estranged wife.  With the job done, he grabs his two young daughters, Victoria (age 3) and Lilly (age 1), and drives off with them.  He doesn't seem to have a plan as to where he's running off to with the girls, and in his haste, the car slides off the icy roads, landing in the middle of the woods below.  Everyone manages to survive, and make their way to a seemingly-abandoned cabin in the middle of the woods.  As is frequently the case with cabins in horror movies, it is inhabited by an evil and shadowy entity who immediately kills the father, but takes pity on the two young girls.

picFlash forward five years later, and we're introduced to Lucas, the brother of the ill-fated man in the opening scenes, who is also played by Coster-Waldau in a dual role.  He's a struggling artist, living with his punk rocker girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain) in a small apartment.  For the past five years, he's organized searching parties for the two missing girls, and for information on what happened to his brother after the violent rampage.  Word finally comes that the two girls have been found.  They're still in the cabin where we left them, only now, they have grown feral, having lived mostly on their own in the wilderness all this time.  Young Victoria is now played by Megan Charpentier, while her little sister Lilly is played by Isabelle Nelisse.  Both give extremely effective performances, as they manage to be sympathetic, as well as somewhat alien and terrifying, given their very unnatural and inhuman way of moving and acting when they are in their "feral" states during the first half of the film.  The children are placed in a psych hospital under the care of the shady Dr. Dreyfus (Daniel Kash), who seems particularly fascinated in the story the girls tell of "mama", a shadowy figure who lived in the walls of the cabin, and took care of them during the years they were alone.

picEventually, Victoria and Lily are well enough to leave the care of the hospital, and are sent to live with Lucas and Annabel.  For Annabel, this is not the ideal situation, as she is not interested in being a mother in the first place.  She wants to make music, and is only doing this, because it's important to Lucas.  Shortly after the girls move into the new home that Lucas has provided for them, ominous things begin to happen.  They are somewhat innocent at first, which is one of the strengths of the screenplay, in how it can creep us out in subtle ways.  In one particularly memorable scene, we see little Lilly playing with someone (who remains off camera) in her bedroom, which should be impossible, since we see everyone else in the house outside the bedroom, going about their daily lives, oblivious to what's going on just around the corner.  It's a scene that brings to mind the playfulness of Spielberg when he built suspense in films like Close Encounters or Poltergeist.  Of course, we know that "mama" has followed the girls to their new home, and is not happy that they now have new parents looking after them.

picMama (which started life as a three minute short film) is a horror movie that's just as interested in having us grow attached to its characters, as much as it is in scaring us.  The fact that it is successful on both fronts is no small feat.  The movie takes its time, letting us get to know these characters and their situations, while all the while, we know that something is wrong.  It's a skillful blend of human drama (Annabel learning to accept her position as guardian of these two girls, while the children are trying to re-adapt to society) and a first-rate supernatural thriller that, yes, does borrow a lot of ideas from other films (there seem to be a lot of nods to Japanese horror), but does so in an effective way.  It doesn't reinvent the haunted house movie, but it doesn't have to, since it proves that the old standbys can still work if they are done masterfully, as is the case here. 

picFor most of its running time, "mama" chooses to stay mostly in the background, emerging briefly as a swirling black, shadowy mass, or a substance growing on the walls.  During the third act, she reveals herself through CG and a performance by Spanish actor Javier Botet.  Quite frankly, she's scarier when she stays in the shadows.  In fact, the last 15 minutes fall apart, because we see too much of her.  Up until then, this had been a subtle, intelligent, and creepy thriller.  Then, it all explodes in a rushed climax of special effects and half-baked plot developments.  Before all that does happen, however, I loved every minute of this film.  And even the ending, flawed as it is, isn't enough to drag down what works.  The performances, the atmosphere, and the unusual amount of intelligence rarely seen in a Hollywood horror film all outweighs any negatives.  Director and co-writer Andy Muschietti, his team of writers, and producer Guillermo del Toro have set out to create an effective and smart little ghost story, and have strongly succeeded.

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Speaking of del Toro, the movie reminded me of another film he did a few years ago called The Orphanage.  Both are classically-styled and atmospheric ghost stories surrounding troubled children.  The Orphanage was widely looked over in the U.S., due to the fact it was a foreign film with subtitles.  Given that Mama is a full-scale Hollywood production, it hopefully will be greeted much more warmly by audiences, as it deserves.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Haunted House

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Watching A Haunted House, I kept on finding myself wishing I was having as much fun as the cast up on the screen seemed to be having.  The movie is energetically made, with the cast willingly throwing themselves into the movie's often very silly material.  I just didn't find myself laughing.  Maybe it's just me.  Maybe you'll enjoy it.  If you like loud, thunderous farts blasting on the soundtrack, and find jokes involving homophobia and child abuse funny, you must certainly will.

picThe movie stars and was co-written by Marlon Wayans, who had some success parodying horror films back with 2000's Scary Movie.  He had less success a year later when the studio forced him to pump out the uninspired Scary Movie 2 exactly one year later.  Fans will obviously walk in, hoping for a similar experience to the original Scary Movie, but what they'll get is something closer to its sequel.  Interestingly enough, both this movie and Scary Movie 2 are based around spoofing ghost movies.  Maybe that particular genre of horror does not lend itself to parody very well.  This time, Wayans is targeting the "found footage" horror film with his satire, specifically the Paranormal Activity films.  He also throws in a few references to The Devil Inside, The Blair Witch Project, and I Know What You Did Last Summer.  But since those last two films were already spoofed back in the first Scary Movie, isn't he just repeating himself?

picWayans plays Malcolm, who has decided to videotape every aspect of his life around the same time his girlfriend of two years, Kisha (Essence Atkins), moves in to his home.  Things do not start on the right foot, as Kisha runs over Malcolm's dog as she pulls into the driveway.  She moves in, regardless, and almost immediately, the camera and the home security system start picking up ominous and unexplained events happening in the middle of the night while they sleep.  They hire a gay psychic (Nick Swardson) who seems more interested in getting in bed with Malcolm, than helping with their paranormal problem, but he eventually does state that he senses an evil presence in the house.  It's right about this time that Kisha has to confess that she made a deal with the devil once for a pair of shoes, and ever since then, she's been haunted by an invisible and malevolent spirit named Tony who wants to possess her.

picA Haunted House follows the trend of a lot of recent spoof films, in that it essentially borrows the plot and famous scenes of the movie it is imitating, and then throws in a lot of crass jokes about farting, sex, sexual diseases, and other subjects that are supposed to be shocking, but usually come off as being desperate.  There are a few scenes where the movie actually does try to make fun of the cliches of the film it is supposed to be poking fun at, but it never goes far enough.  For example, early on, there is a running gag about how Malcolm's Latino housekeeper (Marlene Forte) can suddenly pop up in front of the camera at random, as unnecessary side characters are likely to do in a horror film.  But, the movie doesn't take this joke any further than this basic level, and forgets about it soon after.  Another scene that could have possibly delivered some laughs is a scene where Malcolm and Keisha are surrounded by paranormal activity, yet pretend that nothing is wrong, poking fun at the clueless heroes who usually inhabit these films.  Once again, the idea is funnier than the execution.

picIn the great classic spoof films like Airplane! or The Naked Gun, they would usually take cliches and scenes from different film genres, and then string them together with a thin plot.  A Haunted House is more or less a series of blackout gags, with very little connecting them.  It's simply recreating familiar scenes and images at random, and usually turning it into a joke about oral sex or herpes.  Some scenes simply mystified me, and made me wonder why the filmmakers thought they were funny in the first place.  Why are we supposed to be laughing when Malcolm suddenly starts having sex with and violating various stuffed animals for no reason while he waits for Keisha to come to bed?  And why does the movie linger on this for what seems like almost two minutes?  What are we supposed to find funny about the videotape of Keisha's eighth birthday party, which ends with her father abusing her?  Maybe I'm better off not knowing.

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So yeah, the movie is obviously junk, but it doesn't have the decency to even be memorably bad junk.  Marlon Wayans was obviously trying to push the boundaries of good taste, but the movie comes off being mostly flat and uninspired.  This seems to be a trend this year, as there were trailers for two other films before this one that both promised to be the most shocking and sickening comedies to hit theaters.  Those films would be Movie 43 and InAPPropriate Comedy.  I have no doubt that these movies will leave good taste behind.  Whether or not they will actually be funny is another question.  I don't know about you, but I find being funny harder than grossing someone out.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com! 

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

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Even though it is never quite as intense as director Kathryn Bigelow's last film, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty is no less compelling.  The movie is being advertised as a dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and while that is true, what I think will grab audiences' attention more is the story of the woman behind it all.  For CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain, giving an award-worthy performance), the search for bin Laden becomes an all-consuming obsession, and that is where the fascination in the film lies.

picMaya is a hard character to figure out, because we know so little about her.  We don't really learn about her past, or who she is.  However, I don't blame this as a fault on the screenplay credited to Mark Boal.  Her obsession becomes so strong, it literally defines her.  The mission becomes all the more personal to her as the film goes on.  When Maya is sent overseas to an undisclosed CIA "Black Site" at the beginning of the film, she seems in over her head as she is forced to watch her superior, Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogate and torture a suspected al-Qaeda prisoner.  At first, she can hardly seem to look at the pathetic prisoner chained by his arms to the ceiling, as American operatives try to get information from him.  But, during the course of the film, her demeanor hardens, and we see how her mission and her job essentially takes over her entire life.

picZero Dark Thirty opens with a brilliant sequence that comprises simply of actual 911 calls on September 11th, 2001 over a black screen.  In a way, this helps put us into a similar mindset as the lead heroine.  Who did not want to see justice done on that day?  For Maya, her desire for justice is fueled by the various attacks that happened during the eight years she spent on the job.  We witness dramatic recreations of some dark moments, including the U.K. bombings, the destruction of a Marriott Hotel in Pakistan, and the Camp Chapman attack which occurred on December 30th, 2009.  This moment in particular seems to be the breaking point for Maya, and becomes the moment where the obsession consumes her.  This woman, who once seemed out of place amongst her superiors, now finds the strength to stand up to her boss, Special Agent Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), when he threatens to shut down her operation.

picMaya is quite simply the strongest female lead we've had in a movie in a while.  She is strong and determined, and yet quite likable and sympathetic.  She knows how to use all of her resources, as well as how to make herself stand out in a largely male-dominated field.  The movie doesn't really play up this aspect all that much.  We admire her simply for who she is and what she is doing, not just because she just happens to be a woman who is doing these things.  This is also a movie that's obviously been researched quite meticulously.  It really does give you the feeling that you are watching these events unfold, rather than a dramatization.  In this regard, the movie somewhat resembles Ben Affleck's Argo - Both films are able to draw so much tension and drama out of a situation we're already familiar with before we walk into the theater.  In the case of this film, it's covering a much more recent moment of history, so it's probably more admirable that Bigelow is able to keep things interesting.

picThe last half hour of the film is devoted to the assault on bin Laden's compound.  Even then, the movie does not allow us to forget about Maya's involvement, even though she was not there that night.  The script expertly balances the tension of the actual raid, and the tension that must have been felt back home as they were waiting for word.  The fact that we get to witness many of the steps that led to the assault makes it all the more nerve-wracking.  We realize how hard it was to get the information, and even though we already know the outcome, we can feel the pressure of these people not knowing how things would turn out.  If everything turned out to be in vain, or if the mission failed (which it comes dangerously close to before the assault can even begin), all the work would have been for nothing.  This film makes us feel closer to the events that unfolded behind the scenes in a way that only a documentary could match.

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Zero Dark Thirty deserves all the hype and award talk, and is easily one of 2012's finer films.  As for the controversial issue as to whether or not the film "glorifies torture" by depicting how information was uncovered from prisoners, I found it to be a necessary part of the story, rather than glorifying or exploitation.  This is a harsh, uncompromising film, and is definitely all the better for it.  All things considered, this movie is masterful in just about every way.

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