Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Side Effects (2013) Review

“Side Effects”

Steven Soderbergh is not a filmmaker that likes to settle into a safe zone and follow a certain niche as some others do. With the exception of his “Ocean’s” sequels, just about each and every one of his movies is their own entity. Almost none of them fall into the same genres or styles, as in the last few years the man has leaped from the dry comedy of “The Informant” to the eerie dread in “Contagion” and recently to the experiences of male strippers in “Magic Mike.” With an output as diverse and experimental as his, his films don’t always strike a chord in me, but when they do they hit hard. His most recent effort, “Side Effects” decidedly falls into the latter category.

With her husband Martin recently released from a four-year prison sentence, Emily Taylor is looking to rebuild her life with him. Things remain difficult for her to cope with however when her depression begins to take over again in a failed suicide attempt. Her doctor, Jonathon Banks, prescribes her to an anti-depressant to ease her back into life, but this doesn’t work as well as they would hope. After speaking with her previous psychiatrist, Jonathon prescribes her to a newly tested and developed drug on the market. Things appear to be going fine at first, until a shocking event sends Emily and Jonathon’s lives spiraling out of control.

With a smart director like Soderbergh at the helm, along with frequent writing collaborator Scott Z. Burns, “Side Effects” is able to elevate itself above what could have been B-grade thriller material. The surprising turns that the plot takes reminded me of the frequent twists in the outrageous but fun “Wild Things,” though they are handled here with sharper precision and less trashy abandon. As with other Soderbergh works, the film has been filed down to its core elements. No shot is wasted and every scene counts. Him and Burns play the audience like a fiddle with skillful misdirection and manipulation, always keeping them on their toes and never settling into a predictable path.

It also helps to have a talented cast to guide them along, of which this film isn’t lacking. Despite not having too much screen time compared to his three costars, Channing Tatum continues to impress me recently as an actor. For someone who I used to dread seeing in a movie, his continuing experience with Soderbergh (he was also in “Haywire” and “Magic Mike”) has paid off very well in honing his skills. And after a seemingly long absence from movies, Catherine Zeta-Jones looks to relish having the more “fun” role of the bunch. As Emily’s previous doctor, she often gets the juiciest dialogue to spout, particularly in her exchanges with Jude Law.

The real meat of the story involves the relationship between Emily and her new doctor, who are played by Rooney Mara and Jude Law. Mara’s more internalized acting style (also put to great use in her breakout role in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) complements her character nicely, who usually appears to be in a different world than everyone else. She initially seems to be the protagonist, but soon the focus shifts to Banks, at which time Law takes command. His role is the most difficult, having to transition between caring, obsessive, frustrated and distraught often in the same scene. It is an impressive performance from an actor who is often, in my opinion, undervalued by some. Banks’ side of the story adds a timely and relevant edge to the movie that separates it from other thrillers made in the same vain. In a time where everyone is taking prescriptions or some other form of medication, and people are worried about how taking so many of those will affect their brain chemistry, this lends to the ominous and clinical style of the movie. In the grand scheme of things, the subject matter is mostly window dressing, although it definitely adds to the psychological elements of the thriller plot.

Whether or not everything totally adds up in the end hardly matters. Burns and Soderbergh have constructed a taut and tightly wound thriller that takes the audience on a suspenseful ride. I have heard some call the movie “Hitchcockian” in its twists and psychological underpinnings, and I would agree with that assessment too. Even with the clear influence from the master of suspense, “Side Effects” carves out its own course with the modern premise at its core and strive for smartly realized entertainment.


Warm Bodies (2013) Review

“Warm Bodies”

When we think of romanticized horror monsters, we mostly think of vampires. Whether it be “Twilight” or the Lestat novels by Anne Rice (the most famous being “Interview with the Vampire”), vampires have a long history of being romantic when they aren’t too preoccupied with being vicious blood-suckers. Zombies have not had the same luxury. Throughout their long history in film, zombies have been treated as mindless hordes that are oftentimes just plot devices to explore other themes. However, the new zombie movie “Warm Bodies” looks to shake up the zombie formula by showing a side of the flesh-eaters that we weren’t privy to.

Despite not remembering his name, R is a zombie with a pretty well adjusted life. In his spare time, he has taken up residence inside an abandoned airplane where he gathers possessions from a lost world to pass the time. See in this world, zombies aren’t totally mindless; they are just limited in their verbal communication skills and are shackled by the need to consume human flesh. When a group of humans venture out on a medicine run and the zombies fight with them in heated battle, R takes notice of tough girl Julie. After eating the brains of her boyfriend, R gains the memories of their relationship and manages to save Julie from being eaten by his friends. After taking her back to his place in order to keep her safe, he begins having feelings towards her, even with the obvious barriers keeping them apart.

As “Warm Bodies” continues on, the allusions to “Romeo and Juliet” become more obvious as the story moves forward. If you still did not catch them after the blatant homage to the famous balcony scene, then perhaps you should brush up on your Shakespeare. But the movie doesn’t slavishly devote itself to repeating the well-travelled beats of the classic story. Also, surprisingly for a zombie movie, it establishes a much more light and sweet tone. R’s internal monologue smoothly introduces us to this world with deadpan humor, and the combination of Nicholas Hoult’s performance and writer/director Jonathon Levine’s script gives the movie its own particular identity.

When separated from his inner thoughts, Hoult has to create an entire character out of mannerisms and facial expressions. The subtle touches he incorporates go a long way in helping the audience identify with him and his tragic existence. Despite barely being able to speak, the relationship and chemistry between him and Teresa Palmer is very believable. Palmer bares a more-than-passing resemblance to Kristen Stewart, but she is much more effective at creating an angst-ridden yet likable love interest than her more famous counterpart often is. Rob Corddry and Analeigh Tipton are also nice highlights as R and Julie’s best friends respectively, with Corddry even getting a couple unexpectedly touching scenes.

Even though this is a PG-13 zombie movie, which I would usually say is heresy, Levine is cleverly able to accomplish a decent amount of carnage without treading into the R rating that would restrict his target audience. The zombie attack scenes don’t feel too constrained and tamed by the rating (though they don’t reach the levels of gore you would expect from zombies) and the final battle with the “Bonies” (super decomposed zombies with only their hunger for flesh) is a well-constructed action set piece. Where Levine stumbles is in the plot developments he introduces once the other zombies learn of R and Julie’s relationship. Without spoiling anything, the ideas presented fit with the humorous and romantic tone, but their execution feels rushed and rather vague in the explanation, requiring some suspension of disbelief. Likewise, the concept of R gaining Julie’s boyfriend’s memories is intriguing yet underdeveloped. The movie makes it appear as if R is the only zombie with this ability, and pushes away the implications of all the other ones possessing this too. It would have been nice to see Corddry’s character experience this too.

Still, “Warm Bodies” hits the right targets it aims for, namely the dry humor, characters, and romantic bond between its two leads. If you were a fan of Levine’s previous movie, “50/50,” “Bodies” contains the same qualities that made that one such a treat too, just with more dead bodies and a more prevalent high concept hook. Valentine’s Day may have passed but its appeals can still be felt without a holiday to boost them up.


Mama (2013) Review


Guillermo del Toro is a man who genuinely loves horror movies. Even when he isn’t making horror movies of his own (such as “Pans Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone”), he is producing original horror works by newcomer directors. Even though not all of them have been of consistent quality (for every great “The Orphanage” there is an average “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”), there has been a constant theme of horror mixed with the dark fantasy that his directed work is known for. His new producing effort, “Mama,” is closer to the lower end of the spectrum, although it’s positive virtues are strong enough to counterbalance the many stumbles along the way.

Through a series of events that start with the 2008 financial crisis, a father kills his wife and coworkers and then takes off with his two daughters. The three of them mysteriously disappear and aren’t heard from for five years. During that time, the father’s twin brother has been tirelessly searching for them, to the irritation of his punk rocker girlfriend since the two of them are strapped for cash. When the girls are miraculously found alive, they are put under their uncle’s care in a house where they can be observed and reintegrated back into society. However, the ghostly being, who the girls call Mama, that looked after them all these years isn’t too keen on them being taken away, and begins terrorizing the couple.

Ironically, despite being ostensibly a horror movie, “Mama” is more successful and compelling when it comes to the characters and the initial premise than it is when it turns up the scares. The traditional trappings and beats of other ghost and haunted house movies are frequently hit, so there is a been-there-done-that vibe that has to be overcome. While director Andres Muschietti (adapting his own short film) doesn’t have a grasp on suspense like the best horror directors out there, he has verve to carry out these sequences to creepy enough effect, and conceives of a few creative bits. The one that stood out the most was a sly camera trick where it appears as if the two sisters are playing with a blanket, only for us to see the uncle’s girlfriend, Annabel, and the other sister in the opposite room.

Unfortunately, these scares are rather spaciously spread apart, which leaves some sections of the movie hanging with dead air. But thankfully, the acting and character development is uncharacteristically above average for a horror picture. The actresses playing sisters Victoria and Lilly, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse respectively, do a superb job of portraying both the feral and sweet sides of these girls. Their first appearance after the five-year gap is arguably scarier than any of Mama’s ghostly tricks, primarily due to the convincingly wild and animalistic acting on the part of these two girls. It also helps that the Oscar nominated Jessica Chastain is playing Annabel. Annabel’s contentious relationship with the girls and her unease about being shoved into a mother role she didn’t ask for provides a compelling backbone to latch onto. Annabel could have easily been unlikable and annoying in the hands of a lesser actress, but Chastain is able to walk that fine line by absolutely selling her character’s transformation.

While the core plot dynamics are solid, Muschietti is unsteady when it comes to exploring Mama herself. There are points where it seems like he did not know how to incorporate some background details or a necessary character action, so he awkwardly shoehorns in unexplained visions for an exposition dump. And when the plot arrives at its conclusion, the ideas behind this end point are certainly unique, although the execution could have been refined. The special effects become overly elaborate, and the tone shifts suddenly from out-and-out horror to something closer to one of del Toro’s dark fantasies. Had the presence of these fantasy elements been emphasized previously rather than rely on the usual ghost movie scares, this shift would have felt more natural.

Because of these deficiencies, I would not exactly call “Mama” a particularly good horror movie. With that said, I greatly appreciated Muschietti’s ability to create well-developed characters (a rarity in this genre) and inject some creativity even amid the more familiar parts. I would like to see what he could do in a future film, perhaps taking more time to refine the screenplay, since it looks like he has the talent to pull off something more noteworthy. “Mama” is not exactly a smash debut for the man, though it shows glimmers of promise for what he could possibly achieve, which is more than I can say for the hacks typically hired to churn out a fast and cheap studio horror movie.


Gangster Squad (2013) Review

“Gangster Squad”

There was a time when I was looking forward to “Gangster Squad”…and that time was September 2012. The movie was originally supposed to come out then, until the tragic Aurora theatre shooting occurred. This forced the filmmakers to reshoot and change a scene that involved the gangsters shooting up a movie theatre, an understandable decision, and then push the movie back to January. I thought this might hurt the movie, yet there are so many other problems going on here that perhaps the studio should have extended their reshoot schedule.

In 1940s Los Angeles, gangster Mickey Cohen has risen in the criminal underworld and tightened his grip over the city. With Cohen’s empire expanding every day, the LAPD has been at a loss in their side of the war. To counteract this, they have assigned Sgt. John O’Mara to put together an off-the-record strike team of cops to engage in sabotage and flat-out battle with Cohen’s thugs.

The core concept at the center of “Gangster Squad” is irresistible, prime material for a pulpy cops-and-robbers yarn with a sense of fun. The problem is that “Zombieland” director Ruben Fleischer can’t quite find the right balance in tone. There are flashes where Fleischer lets it rip and embraces the pulp, especially in the final shootout where both sides of the law engage guns blazing. A duel sequence between O’Mara and Cohen demonstrates the director’s skill with slow motion, and the visuals contain the deep contrast and flashy colors of an atmospheric comic book.

Too often though, Fleischer forgets to have fun, and treats the material with hard straight face. “Gangster Squad” frequently shows its violent side, yet it frequently treads on the side of grim and unpleasant rather than lively and colorful. The reason why the famous bat scene in “The Untouchables” (a movie that “Squad” is definitely using as a blueprint) works is because it is a shock to the audience. When your movie lingers on the details of a man getting a drill to the face or another having acid poured on his “lower parts,” it loses its effect on the viewer and numbs them to the glumness of it all. The overall result feels like an attempt to add gravitas to thin material that does not warrant it.

Screenwriter Will Beall wants to capture the feel of the classic ‘40s gangster pictures, but his horrendous ear for dialogue leaves a lot to be desired. Characters talk in cornball catchphrases half the time that would have felt too cheesy even 70 years ago, and during an action scene it is hard not to chortle at Cohen’s laughable exclamation, “Here comes Santy Claus!” It is a shame really, since Sean Penn, who plays Cohen, is the only actor here who seems to have understand the kind of movie this could have been. His larger than life and exaggerated performance breathes life into otherwise flat scenes, even as he has to wrestle with Beall’s clichéd words and some unnecessary facial makeup right out of “Dick Tracy.”

The rest of the actors are not as fun to watch, although they hold their own. Josh Brolin (O’Mara), Ryan Gosling, and Giovanni Ribisi are the only ones in the titular squad that get significant development, and the rest of the characters rely on the fact that they are played by recognizable faces like Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, and Robert Patrick. While the actors are fine in their roles, we don’t get to see them interact enough as a team with the exceptions of Brolin and Gosling. Likewise, Gosling’s relationship with Emma Stone, playing Cohen’s girl Grace, is pushed aside, and Stone is wasted in this slight role.

This sounds like I really hate “Gangster Squad,” but that wouldn’t be true. It held my interest for the most part and had enough entertaining pieces to keep me going. The movie is more one full of disappoint than outright badness (barring that terrible dialogue). With a couple rewrites and some fine-tuning on the tone, it could have been something more than the sum of its parts. The talent is there, it is just not being used to the fullest extent. Unfortunately, between this and his last movie, “30 Minutes or Less,” it looks as if the instant goodwill and promise that Ruben Fleischer displayed in “Zombieland” has dried up and left him a one-hit wonder.


The Last Stand (2013) Review

“The Last Stand”

Arnold Schwarzenegger has been off of the big screen for too long. I’m not counting his 10-minute appearances in the “Expendables” movies. I’m talking about lead roles, in which his last one was “Terminator 3” way back in 2003 before he became the governor of California. That is 10 years too many to wait for fans of Arnold’s unique screen presence. Well now the great Austrian is back in the new action film, “The Last Stand,” and while this comeback is not up to the man’s classics, it is an enjoyable romp for the time it lasts.

When a notorious criminal escapes from the F.B.I. and makes his way towards the Mexican border, the town of Sommerton is all that stands between him and the border. With only a few deputies and willful citizens to help out, Sheriff Ray Owens will have to hold out on his own without federal help if he is to stop this man from escaping justice.

While “The Last Stand” is most certainly Arnold’s show, the trailers have downplayed Forest Whitaker’s presence, despite him taking up a large portion of the first half of the plot. This section occasionally cuts to Arnold and the townsfolk of Sommerton to build them up, but Whitaker’s F.B.I. agent Bannister has to deal with the criminal Cortez for a while first. It is a fine setup with some entertaining action and creative escapes orchestrated by Cortez’s gang, however once Cortez rides off towards Sommerton, Bannister suddenly becomes a tertiary character with little to do. Even though Schwarzenegger is the real reason to see the movie, it felt slightly disingenuous to focus on another character for a time and then almost completely drop him until the very end.

Once the attention shifts more to Owens, the movie does get a greater jolt of life, both in the action sequences and in a newfound dose of humor. Arnold is not above a few jabs at his old age and less-than-Mr. Olympia physique, and there is a darkly comic streak that comes through in the action. When a hot director talent from Asia (i.e. John Woo) comes to Hollywood, the fear is that their wild style would be toned down to be generic and safe; not so for Jee-woon Kim. Although “The Last Stand” is nowhere near as ballsy as his “I Saw the Devil” or as loopy as “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” there is certainly evidence of Kim’s high-energy style that elevates it from the glut of throwaway action trash. His skill with orchestrating inventive and fluid action helps this out, and the flashes of lunacy he injects liven things up, notably when Johnny Knoxville’s gun nut uses a flare gun on one poor henchman. There is nothing in here that matches Schwarzenegger’s delirious rampage in “Commando,” but Arnold gets plenty of times to show he has still “got it,” even in a mano-a-mano fight with Cortez at the end.

It is a shame though that Cortez is a rather flat villain, partly due to Eduardo Noriega’s one-note sneering, mostly due to him being confined in his super-charged car 90 percent of the time. He is not given much to do, and does not stand out in the time given. Making up for this is Peter Storemare as his right-hand man. Storemare, who you may recognize from his other fun villain roles in “Fargo,” “Constantine” and “Bad Boys II,” brings personality and presence to what would otherwise be a faceless character. I almost wish he had played the main villain instead.

These setbacks hold back “The Last Stand” from being a totally triumphant return to the glory days of Schwarzenegger’s career (and based on the piss-poor box office returns, it looks like this is his real life last stand), but it is diverting and enjoyable enough to check out if you’re either an Arnold or action fan. The violence is unabashedly bloody and fun and the humor clicks more often than not. Also, it is probably better than Stallone’s upcoming non-Rocky/Rambo solo action movie “Bullet to the Head.”


The Impossible (2012) Review

the-impossible-001 poster - The Impossible (2012)
“The Impossible”

Disaster movies are more than often treated as giant spectacles made to show off groundbreaking special effects and large star-studded casts. When people think of a disaster movie, I would assume that images of “The Day After Tomorrow,” “2012,” and “The Poseidon Adventure” are the first that come to mind. The recent, Oscar-nominated film, “The Impossible,” provides a counterpoint to those massive productions, favoring the intimacy of a single family over creating an ensemble of megastars.

The year is 2004, and the Bennett family is trying to spend their Christmas vacation at a tropical resort in Thailand. However, while enjoying a day at the pool, a massive tsunami sweeps over the area, splitting mother Maria and son Lucas from father Henry and younger sons Thomas and Simon. In the aftermath of the tsunami, Maria and Lucas try to help some people along the way while Henry searches for them amongst the crowds and wreckage.

As you may have gathered, “The Impossible” uses the real life Thailand tsunami as its backdrop, and in fact the central family here is based on a real one that was vacationing. Qualms over the whitewashing of them in the film (the real family is Spanish) are certainly understandable, but the harrowing performances by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor work hard to forgive that creative decision. With the painful ordeals that Maria goes through, it is no surprise that Watts has been nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, and her chemistry with first-time actor Tom Holland carries the first half of the film. Despite being only 16 years old, Holland nearly steals the film from his seasoned co-stars as Lucas learns the importance of human connections over the course of the film.

Speaking of those painful ordeals, this is a disaster that doesn’t shy away from the little details that many forget to show. In a less distinguished film, the tsunami may have been shown as just a sweeping wave of destruction in wide shots, but director J.A. Bayona (“The Orphanage”) blends those with up-close-and-personal moments that will have some viewers cringing. A tsunami is not merely a wave of water, and will carry along anything it has hit previously such as branches, glass, and other sharp objects, meaning our protagonists do not walk away unscathed. The lack of extras diminishes the horror and scale of the main flood sequence, however I appreciate Bayona’s commitment to using practical effects whenever possible.

The film just about makes up for this by showing the enormity of the impact that the tsunami had on the residents and other vacationers. The family may have survived together (hard to spoil a true story), and yet the film does not forget the countless numbers of other families that were less fortunate. The story of one father that Henry comes across has a bittersweet vibe as he helps Henry locate his family, but at the same time is no closer to finding his own. This is counterbalanced by a subplot of Lucas bringing a father and son back together, showing that there is hope around all the distress.

As a film of this type, there are inevitably many scenes that try to work the tear ducts, and this film was less overwrought with those than most others although their was one particular sequence that felt too contrived. It is a classic case of camera positioning where characters looking for each other pass by without noticing them, and at first it works wonders at boiling your anxiety. But a couple of the character’s actions felt forced just to keep the scenario going, and it stood out after the more natural and reserved previous 90 minutes.

Even with those caveats, “The Impossible” is ultimately a better than average disaster film that does not resort to the preposterous and overblown idiocy that is usually associated with these films. I appreciated this immensely, and the raw, affecting performances from Watts, McGregor, and Holland are worth the price of admission alone. Compared to the buzz on many of the other Oscar-nominated films, “The Impossible” has been going under the radar, but it is worth checking out just like the rest of them.


Life of Pi (2012) Review

Life of Pi Movie Poster
“Life of Pi”

“Life of Pi” is a hard film to pin down in one concrete category. Is it an adventure, an emotional drama, a fantasy epic, or a claustrophobic thriller? In the grand scheme of things, it’s all of those things rolled into one, coming together to present a story that is unlike the majority of mainstream cinema out there. Less complex (at least in plot) than “Cloud Atlas” but almost as ambitious in scope, I feel that “Life of Pi” could also be just as divisive with audiences, with hard cynics possibly scoffing at the faith-based storytelling and more fantastical elements on display. Allow yourself to become absorbed in the story though, and “Pi” could end up being very rewarding.

On a cross-oceanic trip from India with all their zoo animals in storage, Pi and his family are moving to Canada because of the political climate. On the way there, a strong storm manages to throw Pi overboard while the ship sinks with his family and the other sailors still inside. He manages to bring himself back to the lifeboat and gather some supplies, but he is not alone as multiple animals fight for space on the boat too. Eventually, only Pi’s Bengal tiger named Richard Parker is left on the boat, and Pi now has to deal with survival in the middle of the ocean while contending with the wild tiger trying to get at him.

It would be impossible to start a talk about “Life of Pi” without discussing the stunning visuals created by director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”) and the 3D cinematography by Claudio Miranda. This is, I would say, the absolute best 3D I have ever seen, even more so than “Hugo” and “Avatar.” There are some parallels to “Avatar” with the often hallucinogenic imagery created here, most notably in a nighttime scene where a school of luminescent jellyfish cover the ocean surface around the boat, but these sequences are played more as heightened reality instead of outright fantasy. Breathtaking shots such as the one where Pi is floating underwater as the lighted ship slowly sinks are the reasons we go to see movies on the big screen.

Rather than leaning on them as pure eye candy, Lee utilizes the visuals in ways that augment the story and the characters’ struggle. The scene of the boat resting in perfectly still and flat water, looking like a desert of the sea, enhances the sense of isolation Pi (and Richard) is going through. I must also commend Lee for having the stones to craft a $100 million budget film where not much happens, without any big stars, and the two leads are an Indian actor making his debut along with a digitally created tiger. As the only (human) actor with any substantial screen time, Suraj Sharma handles himself incredibly well, nailing both the intense determination Pi has to keep up with and the occasional comedic moment for levity in an otherwise somber film. I am also in awe at how the film was able to convince me that an entirely computer-generated tiger was interacting with a flesh and blood human. Richard Parker doesn’t have the subtle facial expressions of other digital characters like Gollum and Caesar, but then again he doesn’t have to talk anyway. He’s a bloodthirsty tiger through and through that wants to eat Pi the first chance he gets, but the special effects artists are able to form Richard into a fleshed out character as strong and memorable as Pi himself.

The adventures of Pi and Richard aren’t the only things going on here, as an older Pi (played by Irrfan Khan of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame) is narrating this entire story to a writer looking to turn it into a novel. This is where the aspects of faith are introduced into the story, with Pi telling the writer, “This is a story that will make you believe in God.” In his early years, Pi would practice multiple religions at the same time, so it’s unclear exactly which God he is referring too. I wouldn’t call myself an expert on religion, although there are many scenes and other aspects of the plot definitely meant to be symbols/metaphors for the various religions at play.  The only issue I have with these scenes with old Pi is that they tend to over-explain themselves too much, as the film already did a fine job of establishing its more ambiguous qualities. It just felt a little frustrating to see a film that had greatly kept to the “show don’t tell” adage of film storytelling throughout only to take a step too far into spelling things out for confused viewers. The most egregious example of this is where the writer character pieces together a story Pi told the fishermen who eventually found him, leaving me to say to myself, “Yes I know I think we could put two and two together ourselves thank you very much.”

I won’t say “Life of Pi” is a film for everyone, although my screening was pretty packed the day after Thanksgiving. The deliberate pacing could turn away some and I can understand why others would be apprehensive about a film so upfront about religion, but I think the film goes beyond that. It’s the experience of going along with Pi on this existential journey and watching the relationship between him and Richard Parker mutually develop that gives “Life of Pi” its backbone, and at the very least you’ll be able to see some cool and astounding images to keep your senses alert.


Skyfall (2012) Review


Russian spies and soldiers aside, who doesn’t love James Bond? As the old saying goes, “Men want to be him and women want to be with him.” Even as the quality of the movies varied, the formula stayed the same: beautiful women, diabolical villains, cool gadgets, etc. Well, 2006’s “Casino Royale” threw a wrench in that formula by keeping many of those elements but tweaking them in ways that felt fresh. “Royale” was the adrenaline shot in the arm that the franchise needed, and it’s a shame that “Quantum of Solace,” which I still enjoyed, wasn’t nearly on the same level. With “Skyfall,” it looks like everyone involved has put their all into it, and as a result puts the film toe-to-toe with both “Royale” and the best of the Original 20, as I refer to them.

With the Bond origin and Vesper Lynd story wrapped up by the end of “Quantum,” “Skyfall” is free to run wild and combine the modern seriousness of Daniel Craig’s portrayal of the character with the more flamboyant aspects of old. The scope of the story is bigger and the villain more colorful, but the key here is balance. The best of the over-the-top Bond movies (“Goldfinger” and “GoldenEye” for me) achieve a great amount of fun fantasy while reigning in the crazier parts, and “Skyfall” achieves a similar tonal balance. The old fashioned and new freshness is blended to great effect here, leaving us with a Bond movie that is full of pure fun excitement as well as letting us know that the stakes are high on this mission.

Craig himself remains as compelling and charismatic as ever, a Bond who is headstrong, intimidating, and vulnerable at the same time and continues with each film to inch closer and closer to Sean Connery’s iconic version. Berenice Marlohe and Naomie Harris fill their roles as “Bond Girls” more than adequately, but Judi Dench’s M is the true Bond girl here, though not in the literal sense. With the villain’s scheme directed at MI6 and M herself, it gives the prickly boss her biggest role yet. One of the best accomplishments of the Craig films has been the more prominent relationship between Bond and M, and “Skyfall” puts that front and center in a way that is more affective and meaningful than ever.

That villain in question in Raoul Silva, played with fervent glee by Javier Bardem. Adorned with the blond hair of Christopher Walken’s Max Zorin (“A View to a Kill”) and the effeminate nature of the henchmen duo Wint and Kidd (“Diamonds are Forever”), Bardem is a menacing, and in one scene very creepy, villain in the classical sense. Complete with a personal vendetta, an island lair, and a requisite facial deformity, Silva pushes Bond (and M as well) to his physical limit.

What sets “Skyfall” apart from the majority of the series is that it the script by John Logan and franchise regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade really digs into the essence of the character. The final act brings Bond (literally and figuratively) back to his roots and the start of the plot sets out to bring Bond down to his lowest point before “resurrecting” him. Bringing “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes, someone who hadn’t made a big budget action picture before, was a gamble that paid off incredibly well. With Mendes at the helm, there’s a heightened sense of drama that brings the story to life in between the action scenes.

Any complaints I have about “Skyfall” are really only nitpicks in the long run, mostly boiling down to things “I would have done” and the like. I can see others taking issue with the middle section though, which hues really close to another insanely popular movie where a crazy villain dupes the heroes. I can’t jump to the conclusion that it is the best of the series as many are claiming, as I’ve only seen the film once and my top three are ones that I have seen too many times to count, but it’s right outside of them. Those who jumped into the series with Daniel Craig should find “Skyfall” to be a tightly wound and highly entertaining spy thriller, but fans who heartily consume the classic entries and are familiar with Ian Fleming’s Bond novels will find even more to savor and love here.


Sinister (2012) Review


Found footage horror movies are all the rage these days. “Paranormal Activity 4” just started its inevitably profitable run almost a week ago, and there have been several others released earlier in the year. One that slipped under the radar, which came out a few weeks back, was “Sinister,” although possibly that’s because it’s not your typical found footage movie. It has long sections of grainy home video playing out with creepy imagery, but that’s because the true main character is watching them, and the real story is about him and his family.

Ellison is a true crime writer who had his big break years ago with his first book, where he tracked down the real killer in a case and saved the innocent suspect being held accountable. However, in one of his follow-up books, he attempted a similar investigation, except in this case got the innocent man killed and the real killer set free. With his name disgraced and on the bad side of cops in local towns, he needs another hit bad in order to redeem himself. An opportunity comes up when an entire family is murdered and their daughter goes missing, so Ellison moves his family into their house and begins his research. Once he finds a box full of home videos with the murders on them though, weird things start happening around the house.

By blending elements of found footage, the supernatural, and even dashes of slasher movies sprinkled throughout, “Sinister” takes familiar facets of the genre and makes them work without feeling derivative. It even smartly sidesteps some of the frustrations that people have with horror genre (“Leave the house,” “Call the cops,” etc.) by providing rational explanations for why the family wouldn’t do these things. If anything, the family drama scenes are arguably the best ingredients in the plot. Too often, horror movies let the stock stereotypes define the characters and cost by on the throwaway banter between them, but “Sinister” manages to make you legitimately care about these people. The relationships between Ellison and his wife and kids are palpable, and the flawed characterization of Ellison makes him a much more interesting character to watch than most horror characters.

This strong characterizations and acting (courtesy of Ethan Hawke and Juliet Rylance) is important because they are able to sustain the film’s plot even when the horror parts don’t work as well as they could. Director Scott Derrickson, who also wrote the script with C. Robert Cargill (former film critic of Aint It Cool News and Spill.com), has created a whole mythology for the demon at the center of the film, Bughuul, a terrifying creation with his dark, angled eyes and pale visage. His appearances are very effective, lending an air of menace to the video footage, on top of the already chilling imagery of watching the original families being murdered. Derrickson understands the simple creepiness of little movements and sounds, establishing a strong sense of mood and atmosphere, as well as dolling out gruesome and disturbing blood moments without being gratuitous.

Where Derrickson stumbles is keeping the momentum and pace at the right pitch. The majority of the first two acts is Ellison watching the video footage; creepy enough on its own but less so in creating an air of danger to the main characters. To counteract this, jump scares are often applied to break up the tension, and some are well used while others are there just to give the audience a cheap jolt. At nearly two hours, the film could have used some editing trims and maybe even some script polish to compress events to create a more fluid plot momentum, as well as dialing back the cheaper scares that aren’t necessary.

Even with this overstretched buildup, by the time the final stretch rolls along, Derrickson and Cargill have concocted some clever tricks up their sleeve to make the experience worthwhile with a proper payoff. The climax isn’t a clichéd chase and fight for survival, but conceived as an event with more subtle and, yes, sinister intentions. I won’t be surprised if this ending polarizes audiences, as some will love it (as I do) while others will probably not jive well with it. For myself, even with the somewhat repetitive and slow beginning and middle (at least in terms of the horror), the outcome was worth it and because I cared about these characters, I remained invested in the story all throughout. For those that are perhaps tired of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise (of which I still haven’t seen the new one), “Sinister” is a worthwhile and very recommended horror alternative for Halloween time.


Frankenweenie (2012) Review


Tim Burton’s career is a story of contradictions. When he attempts adapting other people’s material (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Batman,” “Planet of the Apes”) he consistently finds immense financial success, although considerably less on the critical front. His more personal and original material (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Beetlejuice,” “Ed Wood”) find much more love in the people that see them, but are also less commercially popular than the adaptations. This is a shame, as these movies display his clear passion for filmmaking and the story that most of the adaptations don’t always show. “Frankenweenie” joins those movies of his that I will gladly encourage others to see because few seem to be taking notice of it.

The film is actually an animated, feature length remake of a live action short that Burton created before his filmic career took off. Science whiz Victor Frankenstein (the film is unashamed about taking names from classic horror characters) is a bit of a loner boy at his school whose best friend is his dog Sparky. When Sparky is accidently run over by a car, it deals a heavy blow to Victor. While watching his science teacher perform an experiment at school, Victor gets the idea to perform the same experiment on Sparky and bring him back to life. The procedure works and the two reunite, but now Victor has to deal with hiding his reanimated pet from jealous students and others who “wouldn’t understand.”

In a way, I don’t blame people who may have become weary of Burton. As a director with a career that spans over 25 years, he has never really stepped too far out of his bag of gothic tricks. The majority of his films have displayed a similar and consistent (some would say tired) visual style with dark art direction and actors often caked in white makeup. “Frankenweenie” most likely won’t deter the naysayers, as anyone who has seen “Corpse Bride” or the Burton-produced “Nightmare Before Christmas” will be familiar with the stop-motion animation being employed here. As someone who hasn’t become fatigued with his work (even though his recent work can be uneven in quality,) I thoroughly enjoyed “Frankenweenie” a lot. Much like the recent “Paranorman,” it is an animated film with an obvious love for the horror genre. But while “Paranorman” was an adoration for the zombie and slasher movies, “Frankenweenie” is more concerned with the lore of the more classic horror monsters. Much of the plot mirrors that of “Frankenstein,” and there are many other elements and nods throughout to “Dracula,” “The Mummy,” and “The Invisible Man.”

Not to be limited to just the old fashioned creatures, Burton goes all out in the finale and envisions a climax worthy of the giant monster movies like “Godzilla,” and he even sneaks in a “Gremlins” bit that had me cackling with laughter. The stop-motion work is absolutely stellar in this sequence with its flawlessly smooth movement and creative designs, and the fact that it’s done in black and white further fits it in with the old-school atmosphere that Burton wants to recreate.

All that technical work would be all for naught though if we didn’t feel attached the characters, and Burton’s care for them shines throughout. A criticism I often have of Burton’s adaptations is that his heart doesn’t seem all that in them (“Planet of the Apes” and “Alice in Wonderland” especially), and this is thankfully not the case here. The relationship between Victor and Sparky is heartfelt and genuine, and even the scenes with just Sparky wandering around on his own are effective thanks to the subtle animation expressions on his face and the playful sense of mischievous humor that Burton fans should be familiar with.

While I like “Frankenweenie” a great deal and think it’s really good, I think it just stops short of true greatness due to a couple factors. The biggest issue is the middle section of the story after Sparky is revived, where Burton and writer John August seem unsure of where to take the plot and let it meander around for a while until we build to the climatic confrontations. Also, and this isn’t so much of an issue with the film on its own as it is with comparisons to another, after seeing “Paranorman” be able to achieve so many creative avenues with its story and homages to horror, “Frankenweenie” plays it rather safe for the majority of the time until the last act arrives. Again, these comparisons are inevitable when two films with similar goals come out at the same time, so don’t take that last one too harshly. “Frankenweenie” is certainly a quality movie to check out for fans of dark family fare, and even more so if you’re a dog lover or enjoy Tim Burton’s unique vision.


The Loved Ones (2012) Review

“The Loved Ones”

Horror is a tough genre to work within. It’s hard just to make a good horror movie, and it seems like it’s even harder to get the good ones released. With the exceptions of “The Woman in Black” (which I thought was decent, not great) and “The Cabin in the Woods” (fantastic) this year, we have seen the releases of such lackluster efforts as “Chernobyl Diaries,” “The Devil Inside” and “The Silent House.” As those lesser ones were being put into theaters, I kept hearing word that “The Loved Ones,” which had been getting great reviews, wasn’t getting a theatrical showing. Now that I’ve had the chance to catch the movie on DVD, it’s even more maddening that such an effective thriller was dumped while studios thought something like the awful, generic “The Apparition” was worthy of a thousand theater screens.

The main story is rather simple. Prom is very near, and students are getting excited for the event. Lola asks Brent, our protagonist, to the prom, but he is already going with his girlfriend Holly. Lola doesn’t take too kindly to this, and she and her father kidnap Brent so they can have a prom of their own at her house. Beyond that, there are more character developments that come into play later on, so it’s best just to go in knowing only the basic premise. There’s no final twist or game-changing revelations, but there is more going on under-the-surface that enriches the plot.

What sets “The Loved Ones” apart from the usual horror crop is its relative avoidance of the clichés of the genre. Apart from a dumb decision or two on the part of the main character, the film doesn’t rely on unlikable stereotypes, predictable beats, or overplayed jump scares to carry itself along. The best of the genre doesn’t merely show horrific acts or calculate it’s suspenseful moments; it gets under your skin, finding the sweet spots that unnerve rather than disgust. Brent, acted by Xavier Samuel, earns a lot of sympathy from the audience early on, meaning that the ordeals he goes through later are even more effective and hard to watch.

This isn’t to say that “The Loved Ones” is light on the red stuff. There are certainly choice moments that are pretty gross, but director Sean Byrne doesn’t dwell on them longer than they need to be. While looking at the trailer gives the suggestion of a “Saw”-like series of tortures (which isn’t entirely untrue,) Byrne understands that the scariest parts are the ones we don’t see. Unlike other horror directors that try this but often feel like they’re holding back, Byrne knows precisely what to obscure and when to cut away at the right times.

In addition to that, there are some creepy elements to the life of Lola (played by Robin McLeavy, who is frighteningly effective at switching between sweet and menacing) that are insinuated to the audience. John Brumpton’s weird performance as her father suggests there’s something “more” between them just from the subtle facial expressions he shows, as well as there being a bizarre character named Bright Eyes, who may or may not be Lola’s mom (the movie only hints at who she is, rather than plainly stating.)

I don’t typically review video releases, although “The Loved Ones” is too good to ignore in light of the fact that it was denied a theatrical release and wasn’t paid the attention it so rightly deserves. While “Cabin in the Woods” was a creative and totally unique shot-in-the-arm to the horror genre, it was more of a “fun” type of horror movie. “The Loved Ones” is the flip side of that, satisfying audiences who crave for “pure” frights and scares rather than meta-jokes and gimmicks.


End of Watch (2012) Review

“End of Watch”

Cop movies, in general, especially the highly acclaimed ones, are much more predominantly about corruption in the police force. While there is of course truth in the major presence of corrupt officers, there is also a large amount of them who aren’t so, and do the job because they believe in the ideals it stands for. Buddy cop movies aside, the subgenre is notable more for the likes of “Serpico,” “The Departed,” and most notably “L.A. Confidential” than for movies such as the new “End of Watch.” Although our heroes in this movie aren’t portrayed as saints, it’s refreshing to be able to enjoy a cop movie where I don’t have to knock it down for not presenting the seedier side of them, particularly for the L.A.P.D.

“Watch” is a blend of conventionally shot scenes and the found footage style typically found in the horror genre.  Officer Brian Taylor (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is taking a film course at a local college, and he’s filming his experiences out in the wild with his partner Mike Zavala (Michael Pena.) Through the use of a handheld camcorder, the hood mounted camera, and hidden cameras on their lapels, director David Ayer (who wrote the Denzel classic “Training Day”) find all kinds of vantage points to really put the audience in the perspective of this duo out on the gritty streets.

Ayer’s not entirely successful in his implementation of the shaky camera stuff. Often times, it’s much too chaotic and incomprehensible to follow, especially during close encounters like a fight in a criminal’s apartment. It was a grievance during the first half of the film, although Ayer’s hand becomes steadier and more coherent as it proceeds forward. The climatic firefight is intense and turbulent in all the right ways, with many close calls and nail-biting moments to put you on the edge of your seat. To emphasize the terror of the situation, I believe Ayer should have kept our perspective completely focused on Brian and Mike instead of occasionally cutting to scenes of the gang members plotting their revenge on our duo. The film would have attained a greater sensation of suspense and unpredictability, as well as editing out scenes with cartoonish acting from the gang members.

The heart of the movie is truly with the pairing of Gyllenhaal and Pena, who have remarkable chemistry together. From their first scenes together, the film immediately conveys their friendship genuinely and the playful bickering naturally. Improv must surely have been used for many of the “riding in the car” scenes, as the pairing doesn’t feel scripted and forced, but believable and organic. Their girlfriends, played by Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez, also do a great service to humanize and relate the pair to the viewer, even if they don’t have much effect on the plot.

By the end, regardless of those flaws, “End of Watch” successfully manages to hit its emotional beats and leave its imprint. This would not have been possible without the two incredible lead performances, as well as Ayer’s immediate and personal approach to the material. With its in-your-face style, “End of Watch” captures the chaos and grit that television shows such as “Cops” achieve on a weekly basis, and then one-ups them by personifying the officers behind the camera and creating an emotional connection that those shows haven’t really achieved.