Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Last Stand Review

I'm a big fan of Kim Ji-woon, who is among the recent slew of great directors to have come out of Korea in the past ten or so years.  With The Last Stand he makes his American movie debut, which is also the film that finally puts the governator back in the spotlight.  Not since Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines has Arnold Schwarzenegger headlined an action picture, but the question is: did we ever really want him back?  The Expendables is a showcase of how incomprehensibly bad has-been action stars can make a movie, so going into this I was pretty weary despite the director having some amazing films under his belt (and judging by the abysmally low box office - $7 mil on a ~$35 mil budget - audiences weren't excited either).  But even though this was as brainless as entertainment gets, I have to say it does have its moments and the final 20 minutes is just a lot of pure fun action.

Schwarzenegger is not a good actor.  He never was; his best role was in The Terminator where his objective was to not emote whatsoever.  That being said there was always a certain silly charm he brought to his films, and though his age really shows here, this is kind of a nice return-to-form for Arnold.  He plays the sheriff of a small town on the border of Texas, which is soon to be under siege by a group of Mexican gangsters on the run.  The plot doesn't matter too much, but I sort of found myself liking and rooting for the quirky characters in this town.  Luis Guzman and Johnny Knoxville in particular are great, and the movie takes the time to give them their little moments so when the climactic action scene happens, you actually care about what happens to them.

I do think the best thing this film had going for it was Kim Ji-woon, who knows how to shoot a damn movie.  In incapable hands this could have been a train wreck, but the action here is really well-done, and during car chases and shootouts you clearly understand the geography of all the craziness (unlike Taken it isn't just frenetic cuts and close-ups).  There's one sequence with a cat-and-mouse chase between two cars in a corn field that particularly took me by surprise in how good it was.  Besides a lot of CGI blood, I appreciated that the movie heavily focused on real, practical effects.  Especially during the car chases, there's just something missing when you know it's not real; here it is, and it's glorious.

This movie gets the little things right, but the script wasn't too hot.  There's a major subplot involving Forest Whitaker as an FBI agent tracking down these criminals that doesn't work at all.  He's probably one of the least competent non-comcial FBI agents I've ever seen in a film.  And Arnold, even though he's not "worse" than he used to be, shows his age in a negative way here. It's hard not to watch this without thinking about it; simply running up stairs seems to wind him.  At least his limited physicality opened up the action for the minor characters to have their moments.  There are some boring, half-assed characters and plots in here (like the villain and a thrown-in love interest between two deputies), but all in all it was an entertaining, non-challenging, campy b-movie that I couldn't help but enjoy despite its problems.

Rating: B-

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Mama, Broken City


Based off of the Spanish-language short film (real short at under five minutes) of the same title and director, this Guillermo del Toro-produced horror picture from first time feature director Andres Muschietti  couldn't have been released at a better time, where Jessica Chastain is hot off her success in Zero Dark Thirty.  The film is about a couple little girls, who after a horrible and gripping series of events are left alone in a cabin by their father.  After five years of their disappearance, the girls' uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) finally tracks them down, but they've basically devolved into feral children.  Him and his rocker girlfriend (Chastain), who has her reservations about becoming an aunt, adopt the kids and try to help them re-integrate into a normal life.  But those kids didn't live in that cabin alone - they were mothered by a malevolent ghost which came home with them.

The first half hour of the movie is grade-A magnificence.  It plays as a pure psychological drama and both the leads and the girls give the material a huge boost in believability.  Through a chilling but simple opening credits sequence you understand how the girls lived in the cabin without wasting any time.  The movie gets the tone completely right and there's enough doing on dramatically to recommend this to any fan of the genre.

That being said, this film does lose some steam after a while.  There's a lot of untapped potential from the 'parent' angle, and due to certain elements of the story, it focuses mostly on Chastain's character (we never really see how the uncle has to deal with being a new parent).  At a point the plot becomes all about jump scares and the creepy ghost (which is an actually scary design for a creature), but the most interesting stuff was happening in "reality."  If this was only about feral children, or if the ghost stuff was left more ambiguous, this could have been a classic.  As it is it's a very well-done, but flawed first feature.

Rating: B-

Broken City:

This film has been in limbo since 2008.  Having been one of many blacklisted scripts in Hollywood, the project finally got off the ground when Alan Hughes (who co-directed The Book of Eli with his brother) got a hold of it.  Pretty much the opposite of a "passion project," this destined-for-the-bargain-bin title is not worth your time.

Mark Wahlberg plays a private eye working for the mayor of NYC (Russell Crowe) to find out who is cheating on his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones).  But is the mayor really doing that, or does he have something up his sleeve, trying to set Marky Mark up in a confusing, convoluted manner?  The answer is yes, and this is possibly the most mediocre, boring film I've seen in a long time.  I don't even know what to say about it.  My strongest memory about this movie is sitting in the theater having to listen to the old lady in front of me, eating both a cheese stick and a stalk of celery, repeat almost every line of dialogue to her equally-withered friend.  Broken City is a broken movie, and I can't even think of a single positive thing about it.  There was unanimous grumbling coming from my audience once it was over.  Besides the actors giving it their all, on a fundamental script level this is a poor excuse of a film.

Rating: D-

Monday, January 14, 2013

Gangster Squad Review

Gangster Squad is the latest picture from Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less) that's had a lot of problems along the way.  Originally slated for a September release, the film was pushed back to account for the tragedy in Aurora.  There was a shootout in the film that took place in the famous Grauman's Chinese Theatre, which the cast and crew decided would be distasteful towards the victims, so they had to reshoot it.  Then flash-forward to today, this finally released "passion project" that Fleischer had a difficult time convincing the stars and producers to make ended up not doing so well at the box office, performing third under the mature award-buzz flick Zero Dark Thirty and the Paranormal Activity spoof from Marlon Wayans, A Haunted House.  Plus, the actual movie kind of sucks too.

The story is about real-life gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who basically owns all of Los Angeles.  Josh Brolin plays a police officer summoned by Nick Nolte to create a squad of officers to stop him (including Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Peña, and Robert Patrick).

I think this film should have been retitled "Film Noir for Dummies."  If it weren't for the excess amount of blood and gore, I think this cleaned-up version of 1940's Los Angeles looks like it was made for children.  Everything about this film falls flat.  The plot lacks any tension whatsoever, and the stakes aren't clear.  Sean Penn is going all-out as a cartoonish Rocky and Bullwinkle-styled villain that's hard to take seriously.  Ryan Gosling is doing some high-pitched thing with his voice that doesn't fit at all with the character.  His relationship with Emma Stone lacks any of the chemistry they shared in Crazy, Stupid, Love.

There is so much wasted talent and potential in Gangster Squad.  Before his film career, Fleischer was a music video director, which is easy to tell for he uses the worst techniques imaginable here.  Slo-mo bullets, over-use of effects, and a too-polished-for-real-life look really hinder the film.  It's a shame because his first film Zombieland, featured some of the best uses of slow motion I've seen in a long time (especially during its amazing opening credits sequence); it's too bad he couldn't have found new ways to show off his techniques here, where he often resorts to the standard bullet shells flying.  Film noir is supposed to be dark and gritty (the actual term literally means "black film"), so something just felt bland about this movie to me.  It felt more like an exercise for Fleischer than a film with any kind of meaning behind it. It's not necessarily a poorly put together film (you'd have no idea scenes were cut and re-shot), but it's incredibly mediocre considering the talent involved. Disappointing on every level.

Rating: C-

Thursday, January 10, 2013

10 Biggest Oscar Snubs of 2013

Wow, I really don't understand the Academy sometimes.  Here are some of the biggest snubs/unwanted surprises from this year's slew of nominees.

10.  Leonardo DiCaprio snubbed for Django Unchained

Well, I wasn't expecting Tarantino's film to get much in the way of nominations, and I'm happy to see that it's up for Best Picture, but I guess it wasn't Dicaprio's year.  Having never won before, I thought he could've taken it home, but nope. Alan Arkin's performance was just so powerful and moving.

9.  Jack Black snubbed for Bernie

OK, maybe this was never going to happen, but it saddens me.  Just like how Moneyball legitimized Jonah Hill, I think a nomination would've given Jack Black the extra credit he deserves.  He may not be getting the best roles lately, but he's a hugely talented guy with a lot of potential.

8.  Tarantino snubbed

This year's directors category is the biggest snub-fest there is.  While I'm glad to see a couple unexpected entries like Ben Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild and Haneke for Amour, it just seems like a popularity contest.  Tarantino will never win, but us fans can just cross our fingers that he might be redeemed for his awful Inglourious Basterds snubbing with a win for best original screenplay (though it's unlikely).

7. The Imposter for Best Documentary Feature

OK, I haven't seen the other nominees yet, but I loved this movie too much to not include it on the snub list.

6.  Ann Dowd for Best (not-sure-if-supporting) Actress

I mean, if Christoph Waltz is a supporting character in Django (even though he probably is as equal to Django as a main character) then I think Dowd is "supporting" as well in Compliance, and if that's the case, what the hell is Jacki Weaver doing on the nominee list.  I barely even remember her character in Silver Linings Playbook!

5.  Tom Hooper snubbed

Big surprise here - I thought Les Mis would be an Academy darling, but guess not.  The close-ups must have disoriented the old Academy voters.

4.  NOTHING for The Dark Knight Rises

Think what you want about it, but TDKR should've been up for some technical awards. I may not have a full understanding of the smaller categories, but I'm pretty sure that The Dark Knight Rises had better sound mixing than Lincoln.

3.  Kathryn Bigelow snubbed

While I wasn't as big a fan of Zero Dark Thirty as many, I sure as hell wasn't expecting this.  Some people believe it may have had to do with the politics she used in the film and how it depicts torture. Yup, that's why "safe" fare like Lincoln and The Artist will continue to win, while more mature flicks like this get left to dry.

2.  John Hawkes in The Sessions

If you look me in the eye and tell me in all seriousness that Bradley Cooper deserves a nomination more than John Hawkes, I will hunt you like wild game and brandish your head on a golden plate to hang above my fireplace.

1.  Ben Affleck snubbed

This is the biggest shock of all.  Before today I thought for sure that Argo would win Best Picture, but it looks like Lincoln might come out on top.  The only positive I can think that will come of this is that Affleck may no longer be interested in these Oscar-type films and will run towards the Justice League movie like a fly on a rib roast.


That's all I could think of off the top of my head -- did you have a personal snub that upset you?  At least I can sleep at night knowing Paranorman wasn't snubbed in the animated category.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Chainsaws, a tsunami, and cows

Texas Chainsaw 3D:

I'm a big horror movie nut, and as every horror fan will attest to, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a masterpiece of the genre.  It combined a gritty documentary feel with a heap of tension and perhaps the scariest degenerate hillbilly family ever depicted on film.  A lot of people gave the 2003 remake a lot of crap, but I thought it was appropriately creepy, with an amazing performance by R. Lee Ermey (aka, the army sergeant from Full Metal Jacket).  I'll even give the remake's prequel Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning a pass.  But Texas Chainsaw 3D is beyond comparability in its shittiness.  I cannot defend this film in any way.

The film starts out with clips from the original 1973 film, as if reminding us what a good horror movie was, before plunging us into a shameless rip-off of the opening scene from The Devil's Rejects, only lacking any of its grittiness or style.  It also supposedly takes place right after the original ends, but there are so many things they get wrong that all continuity is thrown out the window.  First off, in the original, there were only four members of the family living in the house - but here there seems to be a congregation of bearded fat guys in the house as well, along with a mother and a baby, with no explanation as to who they are or what roles they played in the murders.  The film adds in extraneous family ties in order to add "depth" to Leatherface later on, but none of it works or makes sense.  They also try to add an "anti-hero" layer to him that works against the character in every way, making him neither scary or interesting.  The same problem existed (to a far lesser extent) in Rob Zombie's Halloween.  Seriously - we don't need to know the psychological reasons why these villains are killing people.

The acting is atrocious, the script is even worse, there's absolutely no suspense whatsoever, the kills aren't even clever or visually interesting, it doesn't feel "brutal," and it makes me upset as a horror fan.  Other than a few fun moments where the chainsaw is in-yo'-face with the 3D, this not only has nothing going for it, but it actively tries to ruin a mythology.

Rating: D-

The Impossible:

Whew.  Now that I vented about that piece of crap, how about a movie that was pretty good; The Impossible tells the story of a family separated by the massive 2004 tsunami in Thailand and through their single journey you get this very broad sense of what it must have been like to go through this disaster.  I thought J.A. Bayona (director of the cult horror flick The Orphanage) really made this potentially sappy story into something very gritty, realistic, and yet hopeful.

Naomi Watts is on fire here (or I guess in this case she's on water), and let's just say that at times her performance can be hard to watch.  The other members of her family include her three sons and her husband, played by Ewan McGregor.  McGregor is similarly intense and great as his on screen wife, and the kids are surprisingly good as well.  It's really distasteful, but it's been said that the studio heads pressured Bayona to essentially re-cast the picture with white actors (the real family this tale is based on is Mexican), and although I'm disgusted that that's how movie corporations operate, I can say the casting department did not disappoint despite it being whitewashed.

While I did have some issues with the film, many of which are spoilers about the ending, I think this is a very intense, well put-together look at this large-scale tragedy.  By the end of it you will feel as though you were pulled through this ordeal alongside these people.  It's hard to watch and troubling, but artfully done.

Rating: B+

Promised Land:

The Office's John Krasinski and Matt Damon both co-wrote and star in Promised Land, the latest picture from Gus Van Sant.  Damon and Frances McDormand play two corporate salespeople travelling to a small town to offer them the "chance of a lifetime."  They plan to drill for gas on their property, which in turn will make this economically declining farm town into a prosperous community.  They have a lot on the line on whether or not the town agrees, but things get complicated when a schoolteacher (played by the aging but still great Hal Holbrook) and an environmental group spokesperson (Krasinski) speak out against the drilling, believing it unsafe and that it could potentially pollute the town water supply with chemicals.

There were a lot of things to like about this film.  The relationship between Damon and McDormand was refreshingly non-flirtacious and as I'm a sucker for small-town movies, I enjoyed the isolated nature of the town and all the local yokels.  Of course the story is all too relevant with today's economy, and I loved the moral dilemma of money vs. morals (one of my favorite scenes in the film deals with this idea on the smallest scale possible: a little girl's lemonade stand).  I also liked that both sides of the debate were given fair and balanced viewpoints, never leaning towards one side or the other, just focusing on the characters.

There were also a lot of things here that pissed me off.  Rosemarie DeWitt plays some chick Damon meets at a bar, and her one function in the plot is to smile at him.  We also get a similar situation with McDormand and some guy that works in the grocery store (you Lost fans will recognize him).  These half-hearted characters really feel out of place and would've cut down the run time - not that this is a particularly long movie, but at times it doesn't go anywhere.  There's also a twist ending (I guess M. Night was brought in), but it's a god-awful place to end up, and upon reflection doesn't make a lot of sense.  It's worth watching once, but ultimately Promised Land seems like a promising movie that could have been great.

Rating: C+
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