Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

One element of the Christmas season that I've always enjoyed is the glut of holiday specials that television studios crank out in that span between Thanksgiving and New Year's. A lot of these specials — the classic Rankin/Bass stuff and A Charlie Brown Christmas, for example — have achieved legendary status among Christmas lovers like me. But one special has gone beyond "legendary" and has become one of the most infamous television broadcasts of all time.

I'm speaking, of course, of the catastrophe known as The Star Wars Holiday Special.

If you haven't heard of it, then you've missed out on what many consider to be one of the biggest disasters in television history. Broadcast on CBS on November 17, 1978, just a year and a half after the hugely successful release of the original Star Wars movie, the special has done absolutely nothing but be a continuing embarrassment for everyone involved. The cast and crew either become angry or feign ignorance when asked about its existence. The story goes that even George Lucas himself once said that if he had the time and proper resources, he'd track down every bootleg copy he could and smash them with a hammer. But enough lollygagging; let's jump right into The Star Wars Holiday Special.

Keep in mind that this is a "holiday special," not a "Christmas special." That's important to know, because the holiday being celebrated in this glorious piece of trash is not Christmas, but "Life Day." And as the special begins, we're quickly dropped aboard the Millennium Falcon as Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) travel to the Wookie home planet of Kashyyyk to get Chewbacca home in time for his family's Life Day celebration. Their voyage is unfortunately impeded, however, when they discover that the Galactic Empire has initiated a security crackdown and their forces have established a blockade around the planet.

Down on Kashyyyk, Chewbacca's family prepares for his return. His wife Malla (Mickey Morton) struggles to prepare a big feast, while his son Lumpy (Patty Maloney) and father Itchy (Paul Gale) just try to stave off boredom through whatever entertainment they can find. But things get shaken up when their home is invaded by a squadron of Stormtroopers as the Imperial Army searches for members of the Rebel Alliance.

That's pretty much the entire plot. There's no way it could fill out an entire feature-length movie, so the special is pretty much presented in the form of a variety show. And as such, we're periodically presented with comedy sketches and musical numbers from such '70s pop culture luminaries as Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Bea Arthur, Art Carney, and Harvey Korman. And the whole thing is pretty much torture.

Of all the things to have had the Star Wars name slapped on it over the last thirty-four years, The Star Wars Holiday Special is perhaps the most bizarre. For starters, it's absolutely nothing like any of the six movies in the franchise. Sure, it's got some of the famous faces from the saga, but the production design and the overall tone and feel of the special come nowhere near matching the grand spectacle of the movies. And so awful was the reception to the special that it was broadcast only once, and has never seen any sort of official home video release. It exists today only in the form of bootlegs sold at fan conventions and digital copies uploaded to the Internet. If it hadn't been for that handful of people who owned VCRs in 1978 and had the forethought to press the "record" button, the special might have just vanished into obscurity forever. And that would have been a shame, because I'm sure Star Wars fans enjoy having something that makes those dreadful prequels look better by comparison.

This debacle was helmed by Steve Binder, whose entire directorial résumé consists of practically nothing but variety shows. I haven't seen anything else that Binder has worked on, since I'm not a fan of variety shows, but after seeing this piece of crap, I think I'll be staying far, far away from anything with his name on it. For starters, Binder must have had absolutely no budget at all to work with, because everything looks abysmally cheap. The sets and props look like they were slapped together with whatever they could find on the studio's backlots, and with the exception of Chewbacca, the Wookie costumes look like ten-dollar Halloween costumes. I know this was being made for TV in the '70s, but you'd think they could have given Binder and the crew more than 50 bucks and stock footage from Episode IV.

And then there are the different variety sequences, which range from not funny at all, to so saccharinely cute that they'll make you want to vomit, to just plain bizarre. The sequence where Harvey Korman appears in drag as a four-armed chef on a cooking show is so insanely manic that it'll probably have you screaming in hysterics at the screen. That's the tip of the iceberg, as it's definitely out-weirded by Diahann Carroll's segment. I honestly don't know where to begin describing this segment, but by God, I'm gonna try. The setup for the segment sees Itchy watching a performance by Carroll through a virtual reality helmet. The whole thing looks like it should be a bad LSD trip to begin with, but seeing Carroll in a hideous pink wig flirting with Itchy and making sexual innuendos while Itchy reacts like he's having the best sex of his life is all kinds of wrong. It's an incredibly creepy segment that goes on far past its welcome, and it's risqué enough that I'm surprised that they managed to get away with it in what I imagine was supposed to be a family show.

The only thing that comes close to rivaling the utter bizarreness of that segment is a portion near the beginning of the special where we see Malla, Lumpy, and Itchy going about their daily routine. What's so bad about that, you may ask? Malla, Lumpy, and Itchy are Wookies, and the Wookie language is basically roars and growls. It wouldn't be so bad if the segment was subtitled, but there's not a single intelligible word at all for nearly ten minutes. We have absolutely no idea what they're talking about, and maybe it's me, but if the actors were trying to communicate through body language, they did a really piss-poor job of it.

And when upon reflection, the special doesn't really feel like it has anything to do with Star Wars. Yeah, all of the big-name characters from the first movie are there (albeit they're mostly relegated to cameos) and the name is there. But in no way does it match the same sense of adventure or excitement that the original trilogy has going for it. If this was my first exposure to the Star Wars universe, there's no way in hell I'd want to watch any of the movies. It's like the producers just created a sci-fi variety show and slapped the Star Wars name on it. The truth is I blame the whole "variety show" garbage for making things that way, because if it hadn't been for that, they could have focused on silly things like a plot or making the special fun to watch. But no, we couldn't have that, could we?

The only part of the whole special that stands out as a positive is the animated sequence, which is really only notable for marking the debut of Boba Fett. Animated by Canadian entertainment company Nelvana, the segment is the closest the entire special comes to matching the feel of the movies. The animation isn't perfect and the characters look more like they belong in the opening credits of Grease rather than a Star Wars special, but it's still a fun little segment and I wish the entire special had followed its lead.

I understand why The Star Wars Holiday Special is the cult phenomenon that it has become. But having sat through it, I'm kinda sad that it even exists at all. I've never been a big Star Wars fan, but no franchise deserves to have something as bad as this be a part of it. The special is so horribly flawed that I can't say I blame George Lucas for trying to wish it out of existence. But then again, Lucas had no problem attaching his name to Howard the Duck, creating Jar Jar Binks, or making unnecessary edits to the original Star Wars trilogy, so what do I know? In any event, The Star Wars Holiday Special is an absolutely horrible mess, a train wreck of epic proportions. And though I may enjoy collecting bad movies, I actually feel kinda guilty for having spent ten bucks on a bootleg DVD-R of this piece of crap. So you'd better believe I'm going to give this awful thing one star. But I'll still totally recommend it to all the diehard Star Wars fans out there that have yet to see it. If you think Greedo shooting first and Jar Jar Binks are the worst parts of Star Wars, you haven't seen anything.

Final Rating: *

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

When it was announced that Guy Ritchie would be crafting a cinematic reinvention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic literary detective Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role, it was approached by some with great trepidation. It may not have pleased the diehard Holmes purists, but the movie was a tremendously fun action/adventure movie that made a boatload of money at the box office. And yeah, I personally enjoyed a lot. Because of that, I was really looking forward to its sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. It unfortunately falls into the same trap as most sequels — it's simply not as good as its predecessor — but I still found it to be an entertaining flick despite its flaws.

The wedding of Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) and his beloved fiancée Mary (Kelly Reilly) is soon approaching, and Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) is less than pleased. He tries to distract himself by burying himself in his latest investigation. At the center of this investigation is brilliant mathematician Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), whom Holmes has managed to connect to a series of seemingly unrelated murders and anarchistic bombings around the world.

Holmes discovers during his investigation that Moriarty has killed Holmes's romantic foil Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) and fully intends to do the same to Watson and his new bride should Holmes continue interfering with his grand scheme. A reluctant Watson is thus drawn away from his honeymoon into a new adventure with Holmes, an adventure that will see the duo try to thwart Moriarty from sparking World War I.

I said earlier that A Game of Shadows wasn't as good as the first movie. And I honestly think that's true. A Game of Shadows has a few flaws that I felt held it back from being the best movie it possibly could have been. That's not to say it's a bad movie, though. The movie is a fun ride from beginning to end, with plenty of exciting and entertaining moments that can definitely make the flaws forgivable.

Guy Ritchie returns to the director's chair for the sequel, and his efforts are absolutely fabulous. Ritchie's direction is actually one element that A Game of Shadows improved upon. And considering I loved Ritchie's work on the first movie, that's really saying something. He once again brings an edgy style and panache to the world of Sherlock Holmes, something that I thought was quite refreshing to see. I had no experience with Holmes prior to the first movie, and what little I knew about him put images in my mind of a stodgy, boring, Masterpiece Theatre type of thing. And that's not up my alley at all. But Ritchie made him cool, dangerous, fun.

Ritchie's depiction of Holmes is very stylish, thanks in part to the very slick camerawork courtesy of cinematographer Philippe Rousselot. That style adds a lot of flair to the movie, which makes some scenes a lot more awesome. Take, for example, the climactic fight between Holmes and Moriarty. Remember the fight scene in the first movie where Holmes uses his intellect to anticipate exactly what his opponent will do and ascertain an outcome before any punches are thrown? Ritchie reprises that here, only shaking it up a bit. Moriarty is capable of the same thing, and he and Holmes manage to have a full-blown fight with absolutely no physicality at all. It's a brilliant scene that actually goes a long way in showing that in the hands of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, intelligence is as powerful a weapon as any gun.

Ritchie also puts slow-motion and "bullet time" effects to use on multiple occasions, almost to the point of excess. But he uses it creatively, letting it be to each scene's benefit. The chase scene through the snowy forest is particularly noteworthy for this, primarily for the intensity Ritchie approaches it with. The scene is unrelenting, and although it borders on running too long after a while, it's still a fantastic bit of filmmaking.

And just like in the first movie, Ritchie benefits from having a great cast of actors in front of the camera. Everyone in A Game of Shadows makes a fantastic contribution to the movie; there really isn't a bad performance in the whole thing. Robert Downey Jr. returns to play the titular detective and completely owns the role. His portrayal of Holmes as an almost manic insufferable genius is a hell of a lot of fun. Downey plays the part like he was born to do so, and A Game of Shadows is a better movie for having him in the cast.

But that's not to knock the other actors in the movie. Jude Law is engaging and likable as Dr. Watson, essentially playing the straight man to Downey. Stephen Fry is also a great source of amusement in his minor role as Holmes's brother, and despite her character being superfluous to the point of feeling completely unnecessary beyond two or three scenes, Noomi Repace puts forth a fine performance as a gypsy fortune teller who gives Holmes and Watson some vital clues.

Perhaps the best performance among the supporting cast, though, came from Jared Harris as the villainous Professor Moriarty. Harris is superb in the role, playing Moriarty as a charming and charismatic yet completely coldhearted snake. Moriarty is Holmes's equal yet opposite, mirroring his intelligence and cunning yet being completely bankrupt of conscience; Harris portrays this perfectly, playing a perfect foil to Downey's Holmes. It's a captivating performance, one befitting Holmes's archenemy.

The only problem I had with A Game of Shadows was the same I had with the first movie, that being the script. Credited to the husband/wife duo of Kieran and Michele Mulroney, the script feels way too light on plot for a movie of this length. The movie is two hours and ten minutes, and there's only maybe an hour and a half worth of actual story. This was probably due to the need to set up each action sequence, and to the writers' credit, it allows for a lot of fun moments with the characters.

As I said, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows isn't quite as good as the first movie. It's still a very entertaining movie that I most certainly enjoyed a lot. The action is fun, the acting is stellar, and the movie itself is impressively produced. It's already been announced that Sherlock Holmes 3 is in the works, and if A Game of Shadows is any indication, we could be in for a great ongoing franchise. We'll have to wait and see how that one turns out, but as for now, I'm going to give A Game of Shadows three and a half stars and a hearty recommendation. There's a ton of movies out there for you to see this holiday season, but you wouldn't go wrong by seeing this one. It's well worth the time and money.

Final Rating: ***½

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)

In my review of Parts: The Clonus Horror, I posited that more than a few people have wondered what it would be like to have a clone of themselves. But I wouldn't be surprised if a larger number of people had imagined what they'd do if they could turn invisible. While I doubt people having the ability to become invisible will happen in any of our lifetimes, it's definitely something that can send the imagination running wild.

Invisible people have been a part of pop culture for seemingly forever. But the concept was perhaps most famously depicted in the 1933 movie The Invisible Man, starring Claude Rains. Based on the H.G. Wells novella from 1897, The Invisible Man was another entry into the batch of classic horror movies starring what's since been labeled the "Universal Monsters." The movie would inspire countless imitators, one of which I remember really enjoying when I was a kid. The movie in question was John Carpenter's Memoirs of an Invisible Man, itself based on a novel written in 1987 by H.F. Saint. I liked the movie a lot in my adolescent years, so when I saw it on HBO recently, I figured I would check it out and see if I liked it as much as I did back then. So what say we dig in, huh?

Meet Nick Halloway (Chevy Chase), a stock analyst so disenfranchised with his life and his job that he spends every waking second trying to avoid his responsibilities. Stuck attending a boring shareholders' meeting with a nasty hangover, Nick sneaks out and tries to catch a nap in an empty room. But thanks to a freak accident in one of the building's laboratories, Nick is caught in the ensuing blast and is rendered completely invisible.

His presence is discovered by the technicians responding to the accident, and word of an invisible man catches the attention of shady CIA operative David Jenkins (Sam Neill). Jenkins sees the potential military applications of an invisible secret agent, but fearing the possibility of being a lab rat for the rest of his life, Nick flees. His only help is Alice Monroe (Daryl Hannah), a woman Nick recently met through a mutual friend and quickly fell for. But her assistance may not be enough, as Jenkins and his goons keep moving in closer and closer.

When my family first got HBO in the middle of the '90s, I remember discovering Memoirs of an Invisible Man and thinking that it wasn't that bad a movie. It wasn't great, but I thought it was an okay little flick. Revisiting it as an adult almost twenty years after its release, the movie's mediocrity is more readily apparent. To its credit, it's a watchable movie that does show a few flashes of potential greatness. But there are so many things that it just doesn't get right, and that really hinders the whole project.

Sitting in the director's chair is legendary horror/sci-fi filmmaker John Carpenter. I enjoy a lot of Carpenter's work, but Memoirs of an Invisible Man marks a shift in his career. He'd reached what was arguably the peak of his creativity during the '70s and '80s, but once the '80s transitioned into the '90s and Memoirs was made, it all started going downhill. Sure, he came close to regaining his previous glory with In the Mouth of Madness, his criminally underrated homage to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but Carpenter's movies from the '90s on haven't really been all that great.

But we're here to talk about Memoirs of an Invisible Man, so let's stick with that. Though I rag on the movie, Carpenter's direction isn't that bad. His work is actually what makes the film watchable. Even when his movies aren't that good, there's no denying that Carpenter has boatloads of talent. And though Memoirs isn't among his best work, he's still obviously trying as best he can. Unfortunately, Carpenter seemingly can't keep the movie's tone consistent. The movie comes off like it's supposed to be a serious character study, but finds itself bouncing around with romantic and comedic scenes that muddles what I'm assuming was the movie's original identity. It feels like Carpenter was forced to deal with meddling studio executives who wanted a movie with a broader appeal.

I'll get more into that later, but I will say that for all of the movie's flaws, Carpenter at least tries to make things work. It helps that the invisibility effects are good. There are a few moments where they aren't 100% effective, but these instances are few and far between. The effects are really, really good, to the point that they're practically the star of the movie. Carpenter does cheat quite a bit by (more often than not) actually showing Chevy Chase and having everyone else on set pretending they can't see him, but I can forgive that. I imagine that it would be hard to form an emotional connection with a character if they're practically a disembodied voice.

But let's go back to that whole "executive meddling" discussion for a second, this time in regards to the script. Credited to Robert Collector, Dana Olsen, and William Goldman, the script seems like it could have made for one hell of a movie. I mean, I think the movie would have turned out for the better had things been done differently. Drop most of the comedy, rein in the romance, and make it simply a character study about a man who spent his whole life hiding from the world and has now been put in a situation where he desperately longs to be found. That would have been a great movie.

And in watching the movie that was eventually released, I can see that Collector, Olsen, and Goldman were trying to write the movie that I wanted to see. But the inconsistencies in its tone, the continued bouncing between drama to comedy to romance and back again, causes the movie to be unsure of its own identity. If the movie doesn't know what it wants to be, then the whole thing suffers.

It even causes the cast to suffer too. From everything I've read, the movie was intended to be a vanity project for Chevy Chase. The story I heard is that Chase had wanted to use it as a bridge into more serious acting jobs after spending his entire career working in comedy. And I'll confess that I did struggle to buy Chase in a serious role because of how long he's been a comedian. His performance here isn't perfect, but considering that this was his first real attempt at broadening his acting horizons, he's not bad either. In retrospect, I'm not sure if Chase was the right guy for the role, but I honestly can't say he was awful.

Daryl Hannah, on the other hand, didn't really do much to impress me. She seemed way too low-key for my tastes. And I can't say I thought she and Chase had a very believable romantic chemistry together, either. Their whole affair came off to me as being a bit tepid and dull. The way their story was written was lame enough to begin with, but Chase and Hannah simply didn't do anything to make me care.

And last but not least is Sam Neill, who I still enjoyed despite having the feeling that he was playing just another paint-by-numbers sleazeball government agent. It's a character that's been done a million times in a million movies, but Neill does just enough to make it work.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man is a movie that could have been awesome. It could have been one of the best sci-fi flicks of the '90s. But with less-than-impressive performances and a general inability to decide just what the hell it wants to do with itself, it ends up being disappointing and sadly rather forgettable. I wanted to like the movie, but it was too hard for me to overcome the huge mountain of mediocrity that it builds up. All in all, I'm going to have to give the movie two stars. I don't normally call for movies to remade, but I'd actually be okay if somebody wanted to do a remake of this particular little train wreck. Maybe then Memoirs of an Invisible Man could be awesome.

Final Rating: **

Saturday, December 10, 2011

DOA: Dead or Alive (2006)

Although it was not the first fighting game, Capcom's Street Fighter II revolutionized and redefined the entire genre when it arrived in arcades in 1991. Fighting games were big business for game developers in the years that followed, with imitators and wannabes all gunning for a share of the pie. While the most famous of these is the Mortal Kombat franchise, other games made name for themselves as well. Virtua Fighter and Tekken gained prominence through their then-groundbreaking use of 3D polygonal graphics, while the Dead or Alive franchise gained fans for... well, other reasons.

Since the franchise's debut in 1996, Tecmo's Dead or Alive games have become notable primarily for its extensive use of what's been dubbed "jiggle physics." That is, how much the bosoms of the female characters bounce during gameplay. Yeah. The jiggle physics became so prevalent that Tecmo even created a series of spinoffs titled Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball. This focus on sex appeal would even transition into the eventual live-action film adaptation of the franchise. Yeah, you may not know it if you're an American, but they actually made a Dead or Alive movie. It was only released to 505 theaters here, a full year after it was released in the rest of the world. It had pretty much no promotion, and it didn't even make back half of its budget. And yeah, it totally sucks. It really, really, really sucks.

A group of top fighters from around the world have been assembled at a private island for the prestigious "Dead or Alive" tournament. Among these fighters are skilled assassin and thief Christie Allen (Holly Valance), pro wrestler Tina Armstrong (Jamie Pressly), and ninja princess Kasumi (Devon Aoki). Overseen by the tournament's unscrupulous organizer, Victor Donovan (Eric Roberts), the three women start clawing their way up the tournament's rankings to accomplish their own personal goals. But it soon comes to light that Donovan has concocted a plan to harness the fighting prowess of each contestant for his own nefarious purposes. The fighters will have to unite and stop Donovan from fully orchestrating his evil scheme.

This is the part where I have to confess that I've never once played any of the Dead or Alive video games. I barely even knew they existed; I'd only vaguely heard of the Xtreme Beach Volleyball spinoffs prior to seeing the movie and doing my research for this review. So I can't judge how close the movie sticks to the game. But what I can tell you is that the Dead or Alive movie is one gigantic steaming turd. It's the kind of video game movie that's so bad that I could have sworn Uwe Boll had something to do with it. (So you can imagine my shock when not once did I see his name listed in the credits.) I just... wow.

DOA was directed by acclaimed fight choreographer Corey Yuen. Although he's directed tons of movies over the last three decades, the way he directs DOA makes it look like he was fresh out of film school. Yuen's direction is uninspiring, sub-generic, and just plain boring. There's a lot of stuff going on at all times, but none of it feels like it matters. It fails to capture one's attention to the point that I just couldn't be bothered to care. The fight scenes aren't all that exciting either; they're nothing that hasn't been seen in a hundred other karate movies. The CGI is ugly and unconvincing too, to the point that it looks like the effects had absolutely no budget at all.

However, I should give Yuen credit for trying to keep the movie close to its gaming rules. Disembodied voices boldly announce when knockouts occur, and surveillance footage of the fights feature life bars at the top of the screen. It's silly, goofy, and undeniably corny, but it's still a funny little element that does liven up the movie a little bit. But it still cannot save Yuen's work from being less than adequate.

And then there's the terrible script, credited to J.F. Lawton, Adam Gross, and Seth Gross. Seriously, this screenplay is really, really bad. I'm aware that most '90s fighting games had practically no plot at all beyond "pick a character and kick some ass," but the DOA movie's plot is friggin' preposterous. "The tournament being a cover for a mad scientist who wants to harvest fighting styles in order to create technology that would make its user the greatest fighter alive" is a phrase I never thought I'd ever have to write, ever. And I never would have, had it not been for this movie.

The real problem with the script, though, is that I just plain didn't give a crap about a single one of the characters. They're written so blandly, so one-dimensionally that I can't begin to even pretend I'm interested in anything they do. Maybe one could argue that Lawton and the Grosses were staying close to the source material, since in addition to not much plot, '90s fighting games had characters whose whole character could be summed up in one sentence (if that). It allowed the games to focus on what brought people to the party, specifically the fighting. I've seen and enjoyed some movies that were nothing but action set pieces, but the DOA movie simply doesn't pull it off.

Last but probably least is the cast, who simply aren't all that great. Jamie Pressly is okay and amusing in spots but still kinda bland, while I thought Devon Aoki's acting was a lot better in Sin City. And considering all that was required of her in Sin City was to stand around and look cute, that's saying something. Holly Valance's performance is stiff, while I didn't think Eric Roberts was even bothering to try. I'm convinced that Roberts just took the job because he needed a quick paycheck, but I can't prove that. The only performance in the entire movie that I liked at all was Kevin Nash, who has a small part as Jamie Pressly's character's father. His part isn't much, but he's funny, entertaining, and enjoyable. I wish I could say that about the rest of the cast, but everyone else is just kinda lame.

Upon reflection, I don't think the creative forces behind DOA: Dead or Alive were striving to make a good movie. I think they just wanted to make a movie that would appeal to 13-year-old boys. All there is to the whole thing is scantily-clad women and fight scenes. And there's even a scene where, while one of the male characters fights off a group of mooks, the female characters drop everything to play a round of beach volleyball. It's not only a cute little shoutout to the Xtreme Beach Volleyball games, but it pretty much sums up the entire movie: people fighting, babes in little clothing, and not much else. And really, the movie might have at least been entertaining had it not been so unbearably boring. But for all the fight scenes and for all the pretty ladies in bikinis, I could barely make it through. And I'm going to have to give DOA: Dead or Alive one and a half stars. Thanks for helping propagate the stereotype that video game movies suck, DOA! That was mighty nice of you.

Final Rating:

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

In the unbelievably slim case that you haven't noticed, most of the comic books that Hollywood has adapted into movies have been based on the superhero pantheons of DC and Marvel. But movies based on lesser-known comics from independent publishers haven't always been as successful as their DC/Marvel brethren. Dark Horse's Hellboy might have seen success at the box office, but most movies based on independent comics — the ones I've encountered, anyway — haven't done too hot.

Take Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, for example. Based on writer/illustrator Bryan Lee O'Malley's series of graphic novels published by Oni Press between 2004 and 2010, the movie was a box office bomb despite getting rave reviews from critics. Even I had initially dismissed it as "hipster crap" based on the commercials alone. But after being convinced to check it out on HBO by a friend of a friend, I was pleasantly surprised.

Meet Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a twenty-something slacker from Toronto who's trying to make it as the bassist for the band "Sex Bob-omb." Although he constantly faces criticism from his friends and bandmates for dating Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a teenager five years his junior, Scott is happy with her. That is, until he meets the girl of his dreams. And I don't mean that as a euphemism. She's literally appearing in his dreams.

The girl in question is Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a mysterious young woman who Scott quickly falls for. They end up starting something of a relationship, which is naturally complicated by Scott's seeming inability to dump Knives. But if Scott truly wants to be with Ramona, he must fight and defeat Ramona's seven evil exes, nearly all of whom have superpowers.

Okay, I'll admit it: I completely misjudged Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. I thought it was going to be lame, but it surprised me by being charming and downright funny. Scott Pilgrim is a unique flick; I haven't ever really seen anything like it. There's no real base of comparison that I know of. The movie exists in its own little world, one where it has no real equals. I've seen a lot of weird, wacky, silly movies over the years, but very few are quite like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The movie's a trip, and it's a hell of a lot of fun.

At the helm is Edgar Wright, the director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. But this is a much different beast than either of those other movies; it's more effects-driven, with a wackier sense of humor. Because of that, I wasn't quite sure how Scott Pilgrim would turn out under Wright's watch. Turns out the movie was placed in good hands. Wright's direction is fantastic, perfectly pulling us into what feels like a live-action video game. The way he paces the movie and his creative sight gags make the movie feel like a 21st-century version of Airplane! as far as its overall tone goes.

Wright crafts the material in such a way that I found it hard to not find at least something amusing about the movie. The fact that the movie is in no way constricted by a definitive style, choosing to let its imagination run free and wild rather than narrow itself down into something specific or restrictive, lets Wright go absolutely bonkers. There's so much energy, so much over-the-top zaniness that if your comedic sensibilities correspond with the movie's, you'll easily fall in love with it.

The visuals and sight gags are a huge part of Scott Pilgrim‘s silliness, but the script is as well. Written by Wright and Michael Bacall, the screenplay is full of so many great jokes and so much quotable dialogue that if it were any better, I don't believe I could bear it. Some of the humor is so absolutely random that there's no way it won't catch you off-guard. I mean, there's one short scene that parodies TV sitcoms, with a laugh track and the Seinfeld theme song added for effect. Why? Beats me. It doesn't make a single bit of sense at all. It's just there to be funny, but there's nothing wrong with that. And really, you can describe the whole movie like that. Not much of it makes sense, but it doesn't have to because it gets by with just being funny.

And this brings us to our cast, who are all big factors in making Scott Pilgrim work. Let's start with the actor in the title role, Michael Cera. Cera has pretty much made a career out of playing the same character over and over. Go watch Juno, Superbad, and Year One, and you'll see what I mean. That's actually one of the reasons I was hesitant to watch this movie to begin with, because I was absolutely sick to death of seeing Cera play awkward, dorky yet quick-witted twenty-somethings. I wanted to just avoid any movie he was in at all costs. But the guy's damn good at playing that part, so kudos to him for finding something that works and sticking with it. Of all the times he's played that type of character, though, the role of Scott Pilgrim gives him the chance to do his best at it. Cera gives Scott charm, making him enjoyable and fun.

But honestly, Cera is outshined by the rest of the cast. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Ramona with a sarcastic cynicism that provides a fun counterbalance to Cera, while Ellen Wong's bubbly, energetic performance is a real treat. Jason Schwartzman, Brandon Routh, and Chris Evans are great as members of "the League of Evil Exes," but the entire movie is pretty much stolen by Kieran Culkin. Culkin grabs the movie and runs away with it, making every single second he appears in the movie all the better through his absolutely hilarious performance.

If there are any negatives to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, it's that it seems to be aware that it's too cool for school. But by the time this becomes apparent, the movie's almost over so it ends up not being that big a deal. The honest truth is that it's a fun movie that never once stops being amusing. You'll find yourself chuckling at even the corniest jokes and enjoying the interactions the characters have with one another. I wish I had seen it during its theatrical run, because it probably would have completely blown my mind. And for being one of the most imaginative movies I've seen in a long while, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World gets four stars. If you haven't seen it yet, please check it out. It's totally worth your time.

Final Rating: ****

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ed Wood (1994)

Those bizarre people who consider themselves fans of bad movies have in recent years latched onto filmmakers like Uwe Boll and Tommy Wiseau. Though their respective outputs are pretty awful, you can at least enjoy them because of how amusingly laughable their faults are. But neither Boll or Wiseau can compare to Edward D. Wood, Jr. Often labeled the worst filmmaker ever, Wood made some of the most famous bad B-movies of all time. But despite how awful his movies are, Wood's passion and overall love of making movies make his flicks all the more charming. His movies have earned him a ton of fans among lovers of movies that are so bad, they're good.

Among those fans is Tim Burton, a filmmaker whose movies are actually good. So enamored with Wood's work was Burton that in 1994, he developed a movie about Wood's struggles to create his most famous movies. The movie — appropriately titled Ed Wood — recouped less than half of its budget upon its release, but it is a wonderful tribute to the creator of some of the most beloved bad movies of all time.

Meet Ed Wood (Johnny Depp), a wannabe filmmaker desperate to make his big break in Hollywood. After hearing that a movie studio intends to make a movie about Christine Jorgensen's successful sex change operation, Wood convinces the producer to hire him as the movie's writer and director by revealing that he's a transvestite. But due to legal complications, the movie is forced to become a fictionalized exploitation movie titled I Changed My Sex. With Wood in charge, however, the movie ends up becoming Glen or Glenda, a movie about a transvestite struggling with his identity. But Glen or Glenda is a critical and commercial failure, and is so comically inept that a few Hollywood bigwigs Wood wanted to impress with it initially believed he was pulling some kind of elaborate practical joke.

Wood remains undeterred, however. He meets and subsequently befriends legendary horror star Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), who is now nothing more than a washed-up morphine addict. With Bela and his own band of friends and hangers-on along for the ride, Wood moves onward to his next project, Bride of the Monster. The production is a chaotic one, with financial troubles, investors forcing unwanted casting changes upon Wood, and a climax where Bela is forced to pretend to wrestle a stolen mechanical octopus that has no engine. Wood's flustered girlfriend Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker) even dumps Ed during the wrap party in front of all his friends. Bride of the Monster ends up being another bomb for Wood, but his next movie is the one that will make him a superstar. That movie in question: the notorious Plan 9 from Outer Space.

As a self-professed fan of "so bad, they're good" movies, I'm actually a little disappointed with myself. The truth is I've never actually seen any of Ed Wood's movies. Not a single one. Mystery Science Theater 3000 even lampooned two of his directorial efforts, and I have yet to watch those episodes. And MST3K is my favorite TV show, too! But my failure to actually see any of his movies doesn't stop me from enjoying Ed Wood. It's exactly what you'd expect from a Tim Burton movie; it's kooky yet dramatic, full of fascinating characters and fun to watch from start to finish. And I absolutely loved every second of it.

I really couldn't imagine anyone else at the helm of this little adventure, because Burton handles it perfectly. He is obviously a student of the game, because the movie looks and feels exactly like those cheesy B-movies from the '50s. It's a lot more slick because of the bigger budget (and because Burton is actually talented), but the movie's fearless leader has effortlessly built an homage to not only Ed Wood himself, but the schlock he created.

He shows just as much passion in making Ed Wood as Wood is described as having had during the production of his movies. The intimate black-and-white cinematography and Howard Shore's score really help to set the proper tone, and Burton's ability to make us fall in love with the characters and pull us into the movie's world make the movie all the more fun to watch.

I also really enjoyed the script, penned by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Sure, they had to fictionalize a few things for the sake of drama, but they still tell a captivating story. Even if the movie had been about a fake director and not Ed Wood, Alexander and Karaszewski have built a tale of ambition trying to conquer ineptitude. They don't really seem to decide whether Wood is a deluded joke, a swindler with no other talents, or a folk hero, but they make him a fascinating person in any event.

But the best part of the entire movie is its cast. Everyone in the movie is absolutely perfect. But let's start with the leading man, Johnny Depp. Say what you will about the real Ed Wood, but Depp's portrayal of him is stellar. He plays Wood as a fast-talking huckster with more ambition than ability, and you simply cannot take your eyes off him.

Among the supporting cast, there are likable, entertaining performances from Bill Murray, Jeffrey Jones, and pro wrestler George "The Animal" Steele. I also thought Patricia Arquette was sweet and charming, and though I've never been a fan of hers, I also thought Sarah Jessica Parker played her part quite well.

But the real star of the show is Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi. Landau absolutely steals the show, playing Bela with an unflinching sense of sadness and self-loathing. His portrayal of Bela is deeply haunted by his dwindling fame, drowning in drug addiction and desperate to reclaim some semblance of his glory days. His performance is so amazing, so undeniably gripping, that it feels like someone let all of the air out of the movie's balloon once the movie reaches the point where Bela passes away. Landau's performance is perhaps his most acclaimed work, having earned him an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a SAG Award, and a ton of critics' group awards upon Ed Wood's release. That acclaim is 100% justified, because it's a performance for the ages.

While film critic Michael Medved might have deemed him "the worst director of all time" in 1980, I'm going to say Ed Wood couldn't have been all bad. I mean, he did give the world some of the film industry's most beloved cult classics, and it also led us to the biopic that shares his name. While I feel guilty I haven't seen any of the real Wood's movies, the movie about his life is a fantastic flick that I cannot recommend enough. It's a fun movie, with amazing performances from its cast (especially Landau's) and a nonstop energy that makes it engrossing from start to finish. It's a movie that people like me — those who love bad yet fun B-movies — should definitely sit down to watch. And thus, I'm going to give Ed Wood four and a half stars and a huge thumbs-up. And I really should go check out Plan 9 from Outer Space. What's been keeping me for so long?

Final Rating: ****½

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)

I often wonder why I continue to willingly suffer through bad movies and movies I know I'm not going to like. Many times it's pure masochism. Watching a terrible movie for the sake of having watched a terrible movie is nothing new for me. But other times, it's a case of pure morbid curiosity. I just have to know what the big deal with the movie is.

Such is the case with the Twilight franchise. I know that the Twilight movies are solely for tween girls and that I'll probably hate them as soon as the opening credits begin. But I'm compelled to watch them because I want to try and comprehend why the target audience loves these movies so much. And since I've already seen and reviewed both the first and second Twilight movies, I might as well aim for the third one. So join me as I try to figure out what The Twilight Saga: Eclipse is all about.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is faced with a conundrum. Her vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), has asked for her hand in marriage, a proposal that means she will have to be turned into a vampire should she accept. This doesn't sit well with Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), the hunky werewolf who hopes to woo Bella away from Edward. His insistence that he's the right guy for Bella puts the two male points of this love triangle at odds, especially when Bella realizes that she may be developing feelings for Jacob too.

But romance will be the least of their worries. A vampire named Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard), angry that her mate was killed by Edward and his family in the first movie, is hungry for revenge. To get it, she has created an army of powerful newborn vampires she plans to send after Bella and the Cullens. As the ever-growing vampire army raises hell in Seattle and begins moving closer to the town of Forks, the Cullens and Jacob's werewolf pack must put aside their long-standing animosity to protect Bella.

I've said in my reviews of both of the prior movies that I did not get the appeal of the Twilight franchise. And now, having sat through three of these damnable films, I still don't get it. What is there to like about this crap? Is it wish fulfillment? Do the devoted "Twihards" imagine themselves as the franchise's vapid heroine, being fought over by two exotic men? Are tweens so starved for entertainment that they're willing to accept and enjoy movies like these?

Eclipse shows a little promise, though, because it was directed by David Slade. I was actually a little excited to hear he'd directed the movie, as he'd previously helmed Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night, two flicks that I immensely enjoyed. And considering how well 30 Days of Night turned out, I entered Eclipse convinced that he knew how to make a vampire movie that didn't suck. However, the vampires of the Twilight universe are the polar opposites of those from 30 Days of Night. Comparing the Cullens to the 30 Days of Night vampires is like comparing the weakest kittens to the most vicious, blood-hungry beasts in the jungle. But Slade still manages to do as good a job as he can.

Slade's direction is not as flashy as what Chris Weitz tried with New Moon, nor is it as lifelessly gloomy as Catherine Hardwicke's work on the first movie. He makes the movie his own, however. And like Weitz's direction on New Moon, Slade's direction is way better than the material deserves. He benefits from some really good camerawork courtesy of cinematographer Javier Agirresarobe, and he keeps the movie's pace moving fluidly. Even when some of the secondary characters start having flashbacks about how their supernatural abilities came to be, Slade doesn't let that stop the flow of the movie. A lesser director would have let these flashbacks take the viewer right out of the movie, but Slade makes them feel like a natural part of the movie.

Unfortunately, Slade is still up against the flaws that have plagued the Twilight movies since the first movie's release. The first I'll mention is the screenplay, once again written by Melissa Rosenberg. While the story is a bit more solid, it suffers from some of the most pseudo-pretentious dialogue I've heard in a while. Rosenberg is trying so hard to make the movie sound deep, but the banality of it makes it painful to listen to. Seriously, do tween girls really buy into this? I honestly dreaded hearing every word, every syllable that the actors had to say. Part of that is the lame acting, sure, but Rosenberg's writing is just garbage.

And once again, the cast doesn't do much to rise above the material. While Ashley Greene and Billy Burke contribute likable, engaging performances, the rest of the cast fails to make a substantially positive impression. Robert Pattinson once again shows improvement in his role, but I really got the impression that he'd rather be playing any character other than Edward Cullen. I can tell that he's at least trying harder this time around, but it feels like he's just getting tired of the Twilight saga.

I can say the same for Kristen Stewart, who continues to be the worst actor in the Twilight movies. Like Pattinson, she does show some improvement. But she's still pretty bad, mostly due to her complete lack of charisma. There are some moments in the movie where it seems like she might break through and actually turn her performance into something good, but the disappointing moments far outweigh the good ones.

I will confess, though, that I did like Taylor Lautner. Nobody can accuse him of being the best actor in the world, but as far as Eclipse goes, I can't say that he's bad. Lautner is definitely trying his hardest, bringing a level of earnestness to the character that actually made his performance more impressive than I anticipated it being. One could make the argument that Lautner only stands out due to how middling the other actors in the movie are, but I still thought his contribution to the movie was a respectable one.

To Eclipse's credit, it's a substantially better movie than either Twilight or New Moon. It's still not that great, but it's a marked improvement over the first two entries in the franchise. Even at its absolute worst, it's still watchable, I guess. I mean, I didn't hate it as much as I did the first two movies, so it has that going for it. But really, Eclipse is only going to get two and a half stars on the scale. And with the first Breaking Dawn movie being released today and the second being released next year, does that mean we're almost done with all the Twilight frenzy? Because it's wearing me out, man.

Final Rating: **½

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tron: Legacy (2010)

Though it's now widely hailed for its groundbreaking special effects, Tron wasn't met with that same warmth when it was released in the summer of 1982. It barely broke even at the box office, the critical reaction was mixed at best, and it wasn't nominated for any Oscars because its use of CGI was viewed as "cheating." But time has been kind to Tron, though. While I will concede that the effects look incredibly dated now (since you could only do so much with computer effects in 1982), the movie is still a fun, ambitious piece of cinema that holds up in spite of how far technology has come over the years.

And because of that, Tron has spent the last three decades building status as a cult classic. It's spawned comic books, novels, the occasional video game, and was even part of an attraction at Disneyland until 1995. But it never had a cinematic follow-up until last winter. You'd think that with how much more prevalent remakes have become over the last decade or so, Walt Disney Pictures would have just "re-imagined" Tron for modern audiences. But nope, they gave it a full-fledged sequel titled Tron: Legacy. So just how did the sequel twenty-eight years in the making turn out?

It's been over twenty years since Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), the brilliant software engineer and CEO of ENCOM International, disappeared without a trace. In his absence, his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) has inherited his father's fortune and become ENCOM's controlling shareholder. Sam prefers to stay out of the business aspect of ENCOM, though, choosing to let the company's board of directors run things instead.

Sam spends his time partaking in daredevil activities and playing pranks on ENCOM's executives, but none of it has managed fill the hole that his father left. His unwavering hope that he would one day see Kevin again finally pays off when Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), an ENCOM executive and close friend of Kevin, tells Sam that he received a page from the long-abandoned Flynn's Arcade.

The arcade's phone number has been disconnected for years, so the curious Sam just has to investigate. His search leads him to a room full of computers hidden in the arcade's basement, where Sam accidentally triggers a device that teleports him to "The Grid," an advanced version of the digital world that Kevin himself had visited in the first movie.

Sam is taken prisoner upon his arrival and forced into gladiatorial combat. One of his opponents, however, sees Sam bleeding and realizes he's human, refusing to fight any further. He takes Sam to Clu (Bridges in a dual role), the Grid's dictatorial ruler. Sam is forced into another battle, this time against Clu, but is quickly rescued by Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a program that's been assisting his father for years. Quorra reunites a bewildered Sam with Kevin, who has been living a reclusive life in the wilderness just beyond the Grid's central hub.

Kevin reveals that he had been living in the Grid the whole time he was missing. He'd built the Grid from the ground up, having created Clu to assist him. But a fierce disagreement over a race of programs that had spontaneously appeared and evolved within the Grid led to Clu turning on Kevin and seizing control of the Grid. Clu became more megalomaniacal with time, desiring to acquire Kevin's "identity disc" — his master key to the Grid — so that he might escape into our world and amass more power. Fearing that Clu could actually succeed, Kevin chose to stay hidden and not return.

But Clu's power within the Grid has grown. Each passing moment makes it harder for Kevin and Quorra to avoid detection. Their only hope is to escape through an exit portal that has been dormant for years. But to do so, the Flynns and Quorra must fight their way through nearly all of Clu's army and try to survive.

The original Tron was the result of imagination triumphing over technological limitations. And in the nearly thirty years it took to make Tron: Legacy, filmmaking has evolved past those limitations. It puts Tron: Legacy in a position where it has nothing to overcome. Thanks to the advances made in not only filmmaking but technology in general, Tron: Legacy can't be even half as innovative as its predecessor. And without that, the movie doesn't feel like it lived up to its full potential. It's a visual dynamo, no doubt about it, but it came across as more style than substance.

Joseph Kosinski makes his feature-length directorial debut here, and I actually thought he did a pretty good job. His work is actually rather solid. I'm sure that working on a movie that's so heavy on effects is no easy task, especially when it's your first movie. But Kosinski does as good a job as he's able to. He definitely knows what he's doing, his slick visuals never ceasing to dazzle. He makes the movie fully engaging with fun action sequences and captivating character moments. There might not be a lot of ground for Tron: Legacy to break, but Kosinski makes sure it's still worth watching.

The effects are also spectacularly done. Even something as minor as the de-aging process that made Kurt Russell look like a younger version of himself is superb. But the entirety of the world inside the Grid is itself a sight to behold. It might be considered blasphemy by some for me to say this, but it kinda makes me wish that someone would follow in the footsteps of the original Star Trek's "remastered" episodes and redo the original Tron's special effects to look like Tron: Legacy's.

Those awesome effects are bolstered, though, by the awesome music by Daft Punk. I'm not normally into techno or electronica, but Daft Punk's music is quite possibly the best part of the entire movie. It suits the Tron world properly, really enhancing the movie by perfectly capturing the tone and mood of each scene. If I were a DJ, I'd totally add some of the Tron: Legacy score to my repertoire. It's exciting, with an epic feel that puts the whole production on another level.

And while we're here, I might as well talk about the movie's 3D presentation to boot. If you'll recall my Saw 3D review, I noted that it's a bit difficult to review a 3D movie after its home video release because the 2D version is the only one that's widely available. I don't have a 3DTV, so I can't say how Tron: Legacy's 3D Blu-ray release looks. I can, however, say that theatrical release's 3D effects were fantastic. I've noted in past reviews that I prefer the gimmicky "throw stuff at the screen" 3D over the Avatar-style atmospheric 3D, but this particular movie makes me want to rethink that. The movie is actually in 2D until Sam arrives in the Grid, similar to how The Wizard of Oz is in black-and-white until Dorothy realizes she's not in Kansas anymore. But when it does become 3D, it's subtle yet still immersive. It makes the Grid feel like a broad, glowing frontier, another world full of adventure waiting to be had. Most movies just use 3D to jack up the ticket prices and don't do anything with it, but Tron: Legacy actually benefited from its 3D.

Continuing onward, I thought the script by Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis was okay, but nothing special. Don't get me wrong, it's serviceable. But the problem is that while the Tron concept — one of an alternate, wholly digital world — was a fresh concept in 1982, other movies have done it better since then. It wouldn't have been so bad had Tron: Legacy brought something new to the idea. The plot isn't really anything that hasn't been seen before.

But I'll have to give credit where it's due, too. Horowitz and Kitsis's script is still engaging enough that you can actually end up becoming engrossed in the story. The characters are all well-written, and the parts where the movie slows down (so it can hammer home plot developments) never drag. For all that "we've seen this concept before" stuff I said earlier, Horowitz and Kitsis have still written a damn fine screenplay.

It's a script that's made better by the fabulous group of actors who've been assembled. In the lead role is Garrett Hedlund, whose performance suits the character perfectly. Hedlund effortlessly portrays Sam as a jaded, aimless young man who even in adulthood struggles with the emotional scars left by his father's absence. He makes his character's evolution into a strong, responsible young man ready to face a new future believable.

I also really liked Olivia Wilde. She plays her part with a doe-eyed wonder, as if she views everything around her with a childlike fascination and wonder. Wilde is very charming, very likable, and a lot of fun. Michael Sheen — who plays the proprietor of a popular bar on the Grid — is a lot of fun too, his hammy, over-the-top performance adding plenty of amusement to the movie. His flamboyance is really entertaining, and he practically steals each scene he's in.

But the best performance comes from Jeff Bridges. Though to be fair, I guess I should say "performances" since he's playing two separate characters. As Kevin Flynn, Bridges feels like he's channeling the spirit of his role from The Big Lebowski. It's a performance that's very much in the same vein as "The Dude," one that's very laid back and cool no matter what's happening around him. Bridges's take on Clu is the exact opposite of that, as he plays Clu as much more forceful, arrogant, and aggressive. Bridges makes Clu a great villain, and his work makes the movie that much better. But then I can't say I'm all that surprised. Bridges is an awesome actor, and he can make any movie better just by walking onto the set.

So just what did I think of Tron: Legacy? I dug it. It's a fun flick that's totally worth the two hours I invested in it. The movie's not a perfect one, and it doesn't have the same "ahead of its time" charm that the original Tron had. But it's totally worth a watch. It has awesome special effects and great acting, plus I'm all for movies that hearken back to the '80s. So me and Tron: Legacy are totally cool. The movie gets three and a half stars from yours truly, and I'll definitely recommend it. And I still want one of those light cycles. Who do I have to kill to get one?

Final Rating: ***½

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Thing (2011)

When John Carpenter remade The Thing From Another World in 1982, the resulting movie sadly didn't do too hot theatrically. My guess is that with E.T. coming out at roughly the same time, people would have rather seen a friendly little alien trying to get home instead of some interstellar monster killing a bunch of people. But time has been very kind to it, and The Thing has earned recognition as one of the best sci-fi movies to come out of the '80s.

So you'd think that somebody would have done a remake of the remake by now. That sort of thing is all the rage nowadays, right? But nope, Universal Studios figured they'd just do a prequel to it instead. That's actually something I can get on board with. With a prequel, you can style it like a remake and still tell a new story. I've been anticipating this prequel — oddly enough still titled just "The Thing" — ever since it was first announced. I was a bit concerned when Universal delayed its April release for a few months so reshoots could be done (which is never a good sign), but I still had to check out the movie on opening night. And I'm happy to report that this new Thing is a worthy follow-up to Carpenter's classic.

Befitting its "prequel" status, the movie picks up a few days before the events of the previous movie. As the story begins, paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is recruited by Dr. Sander Halversen (Ulrich Thomsen) to assist him and his team at a Norwegian scientific research outpost in Antarctica. She's shocked to learn upon her arrival that the Norwegians have discovered an alien spacecraft that has been buried deep beneath the ice for 100,000 years.

The team recovers the frozen body of the craft's pilot with the intent of studying it. But the creature they thought had died of exposure was only hibernating. It breaks free of its icy prison and begins causing all kinds of havoc around the camp. Kate discovers that the thing is capable of perfectly imitating a human being. Her paranoia that it could be anyone around her spreads to the others in the camp, putting everyone at each other's throats as a monster from another world eliminates them one by one.

While I will admit to approaching The Thing with some trepidation because of my affection for the 1982 movie, I'm happy to report that this new Thing isn't bad at all. I actually thought it was a fun piece of cinema. Unfortunately, the movie does have some flaws that hold it back from being as good as it could have been, but the 2011 Thing is still — even at its worst — a well-crafted love letter to Carpenter's movie.

The movie was directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., a Dutch filmmaker who I'd honestly never heard of prior to seeing The Thing. But I will say that I did enjoy his efforts here very much. His direction is very solid, creating a tense atmosphere that deftly invokes the same sort of paranoia caused by the previous Thing. Van Heijningen quickly establishes a claustrophobic feeling, no big feat considering how expansive Antarctica is. It perfectly conveys the sense that you're trapped with nowhere to go, and everything is out to get you.

My only problems were with some of the special effects, and the score composed by Marco Beltrami. Beltrami has done some great music in the past, but he really didn't do anything for me here. I barely even noticed any music in the movie at all, and what I did notice, I wasn't impressed with. I'd have probably been happier had Beltrami just recycled Ennio Morricone's music from the '80s Thing, but hey, you can't always get your way.

And my beef with the effects comes down to three little letters: CGI. Some of the CGI in the movie wasn't really all that convincing. It sure looked cool, and I understand that it was a necessity in order to pull off quite a bit of stuff. But you just can't top practical special effects. Couldn't they have just called in Rob Bottin and said, "Hey, can you give us a few pointers on how to make this stuff work for real?" I will admit that I'm actually not sure how much of the effects in the movie were practical and how much were digitally rendered, but some of the CGI is so obvious that I found it a bit distracting.

But let's move along to the screenplay, penned by Eric Heisserer and Ronald D. Moore. It's apparent that Heisserer and Moore love the prior movie as much as van Heijningen does, because their script echoes it a lot. They use that to their advantage, taking a few familiar setups and taking them in a different direction. For example, there's one scene where Kate rounds up everyone into one room and decides to test all of them to see who the thing is or isn't. Fans of the original movie immediately assume that she'll burn blood samples like Kurt Russell's MacReady did in the 1982 Thing, but Heisserer and Moore defy expectations and up with a completely different one instead. It's changes like that that make the movie feel fresh yet still somewhat familiar.

Heisserer and Moore also realize that if you're going to do an updated version of The Thing, you still need the element of paranoia. The thing's presence quickly turns everyone against one another, with some of the Norwegians letting their distrust of the Americans in their midst get the best of them. It's even more terrifying when you realize that since the audience, like the characters, doesn't know who the thing is until it reveals itself, it could be playing everyone against themselves. It could, and probably is, sowing the seeds of dissent amongst those who are still human to ensure its own survival. It's something subtle amongst all the violence and gore, and Heisserer and Moore pull it off very well.

Then there's the cast, who I thought were fantastic. A lot of the actors were just there to be cannon fodder for the thing, but they all did what was required of them with ease. Ultich Thomsen is great as the smug, self-assured lead scientist, while Eric Christian Olsen and Joel Edgerton are likable in their roles. The best performance, though, comes from Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She's a strong heroine, ready to take charge and jump right into the action as soon as possible. Winstead evokes memories of Sigourney Weaver's Oscar-nominated performance in Aliens, as she gives the character a gung-ho intensity that totally improves the movie.

I'll just come right out and say that the 2011 Thing sadly isn't as good as the 1982 Thing. But it's still a great flick that didn't let me down in the slightest. It's suspenseful and scary, and the less-than-convincing CGI can easily be overlooked if you really get into the movie's groove. As a prequel and love letter to (and perhaps remake of) Carpenter's movie, the movie couldn't be much better. And thus, the 2011 iteration of The Thing gets three and a half stars and a total recommendation from me. My only wish is that Universal Studios had released the movie as a double-feature with the '82 movie. But it'll still be fun to do when it comes out on DVD in a few months.

Final Rating: ***½

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

Found footage movies are rather polarizing, more so than other styles within in the horror genre. This is especially evident in the very successful ones; I know people who to this day will still argue whether or not The Blair Witch Project was good or bad. The same can be said for more recent fare like the Paranormal Activity movies.

When Paramount Pictures gave the first Paranormal Activity a wide theatrical release after its two-year stint on the film festival circuit, it was an unexpected hit. It was so successful, in fact, that one could argue that it's what killed the Saw franchise, its Halloween weekend competition.

But it's been the subject of a lot of heated debates since then. One side argues that the bulk of the movie is just some douchebag and his freaked-out girlfriend sitting around waiting for something to happen. The other argues that it's a suspenseful haunted house story that did the best it could with limited means. What do I think? I personally thought that both it and the sequel that followed it last year were, at the very least, really effective in establishing a dreadful, spooky atmosphere with some genuine scares.

In any event, the movies still proved to be financially successful and found an audience who actually enjoyed them. And that's what leads us to Paranormal Activity 3. Seemingly having fully supplanted Saw as the new annual Halloween tradition, the franchise borrows an idea from the second movie by taking another step back into the past to show us just where the demonic forces from the previous movies got its start. And even though it isn't quite as good as the first two, I still enjoyed the hell out of it.

Let me take you back to the year that was 1988. George H.W. Bush was elected into the White House, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's parents just didn't understand, and yours truly was only six years old. The sisters depicted in the first two Paranormal Activity movies are just kids themselves, too. Young Katie (Chloe Cserngey) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) have recently moved with their mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner), into the home of Julie's boyfriend Dennis (Chris Smith). It isn't long, however, before bizarre incidents start happening around the house.

It begins when, during an earthquake, Dennis notices some falling dust silhouetting what appears to be an invisible figure in he and Julie's bedroom. A wedding videographer by trade, he installs his cache of camcorders around the house as surveillance devices to keep an eye on what's happening. Furniture moves around the house, household objects start levitating, a babysitter is accosted by an unseen being. As these events escalate, everything seems to focus on Kristi's new imaginary friend, "Toby." But as these occurrences become much more sinister in nature, it quickly comes to light that Toby is neither as imaginary nor as friendly as originally perceived.

If you've read my reviews, you're aware that I absolutely loved the first two Paranormal Activity movies. So I was naturally pretty excited to see the third movie. And I walked out of the theater disappointed that practically none of what appears in the trailers and commercials is actually in the movie. That's really the only problem I had with it. It's like they were advertising a completely different version of the movie. I wanted to see the movie from the commercials, because it looked awesome. But the actual Paranormal Activity 3 is not the one that the advertising campaign is promising. That's kind of a shame, though I must say that I still enjoyed the movie a lot.

Sitting in the director's chair are Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the directors of the (allegedly fake) documentary Catfish. The way they put Catfish together made them a perfect fit for the "found footage" genre, and their work here is fantastic. Not a single frame of the movie is wasted. Everything is building to something, whether it's a scare of an advancement of the plot. This buildup fosters a level of suspense and dread that makes the frightening moments way more effective.

I especially liked their use of a camera that's ostensibly mounted on an oscillating fan. It pans back and forth across the living room and kitchen in twenty-second increments, allowing things to sneak up on us. It actually sets up two of the best scares in the movie. It was a novel idea on Joost and Schulman's part, a bit of creativity that really makes the movie that much scarier. I do think, though, that Joost and Schulman could have gotten away with stealing the split-screen concept from the Japanese Paranormal Activity. They could have pulled it off.

My only problem with their direction is that the movie looks way too crisp. For everything about the 1988 setting Joost and Schulman get right, the movie still looks like it was shot with high-definition digital cameras. My family used to own one of those big VHS camcorders, and none of the videos we shot ever looked half as good as this movie does. And I sincerely doubt that camcorders in the '80s recorded in 16:9 widescreen either. This whole paragraph, though, is basically just nitpicking. It's an incredibly minor gripe that doesn't even really matter in the grand scheme of things. Joost and Schulman did an otherwise great job, and they should be proud of themselves.

I also thought the script by Christopher Landon was very good. Both sequels have been about escalation; Paranormal Activity 2 escalated the scares, while this one escalates the scope of the franchise's mythology. The first two movies set up that Katie and Kristi have been haunted since their childhoods, and that one of their ancestors may have made some kind of deal with the devil. Without going into spoiler territory here, Landon expands upon this in a rather frightening way, one that could change how one would view the other two movies in retrospect.

While I will confess that part of the movie's concept — that we're watching VHS tapes the adult Katie gave to Kristi shortly before the events of the second movie — seems to only exist to shoehorn in cameos from Katie Featherston and Sprague Grayden, I thought Landon did an awesome job in expanding on the hauntings from the first two movies. Though the movie's status as a prequel means there was no forward movement in the franchise's overall arc, and we still don't know just where the hell things are going after Paranormal Activity 2's ending, Landon has still written a terrifying movie that both shakes up and adds to the franchise's ability to scare the pants off its fans.

London also manages to avoid a trap that a lot of found footage movies fall in by not having the characters argue over whether or not they should keep filming. More often than not, I've seen at least one scene in a found footage movie where someone will be justifiably pissed off at the cameraman and angrily demand that he stop filming. But not here! Everyone's pretty much cool with the cameras. And without those arguing scenes, the movie moves a lot smoother. It doesn't make any logical sense, since as in other found footage movies, the climax would make much more sense had whomever filming just dropped the camera and ran for the hills. But then the movie would just kinda stop and we'd have no ending, unless they started using footage from security cameras or even ditched the found footage gimmick and transitioned into a regular movie like in the climax of Behind the Mask.

He gives a group of characters that are all very likable as well. The first two movies both featured at least one character that you'd probably be justified in disliking. Pretty much everyone who saw the first movie thought Micah was an annoying douchebag and Brian Boland's character in the second one was kind of a prick. But everyone in Paranormal Activity 3 is someone you can root for, someone whose story you'll hope has a happy ending. It's a large part of what makes the movie so good. While it's certainly cathartic to see annoying characters face the monster's wrath in most horror movies, it can be just as scary to take a bunch of sympathetic characters and place them in peril. That's the kind of movie Landon has written, and I applaud his efforts.

It helps that the characters are all played by fantastic actors. Everyone in the movie puts forth their absolute best. Lauren Bittner gives us a credible, believable performance, while Dustin Ingram — who plays a friend of Dennis's and provides some of the movie's lighter moments — steals a lot of the scenes he's in. I got a real kick out of Chris Smith too. His performance is funny, enjoyable, and entertaining.

Of the child actors, Chloe Cserngey aces her role as the young Katie, but she's outshined by Jessica Tyler Brown. Brown alternates between sweet and spooky, giving us a lot of moments that are simultaneously cute and disturbing. She plays the role very mysteriously; you know that something is going on with her, but you're never quite sure what. In particular, the scenes where she wakes up in the middle of the night so she can have one-sided conversations with "Toby" are very creepy and foreboding. It's a great performance, one that actually helps add to the movie's feeling of dread.

Although I didn't like it as much as the first two, Paranormal Activity 3 is still a great flick. It's suspenseful and scary, and fills in some of the blanks in the overall story that may or may not have been created by the other two. But it raises just as many questions as it answers, more than likely just so they can have something to do in the next movie. (And if you think they aren't going to make Paranormal Activity 4, you're out of your mind.) That's something that can be overlooked, though, because it's still a damn find movie. You probably won't like the movie if you weren't a fan of the first two, but I am and I enjoyed it. So I'm going to give Paranormal Activity 3 three and a half stars on the scale. I do wonder, though, what they'll do with Paranormal Activity 4. Do they do another prequel? Do they follow up on the ending of the second one? I guess we'll have to wait a year and see.

Final Rating: ***½

Friday, October 21, 2011

Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night (2010)

Though its origins can be traced back to 1980 and entered the cultural mainstream in 1999, the "found footage" genre has only recently become fairly commonplace. And with the genre's surge in popularity over the years, one of its most talked-about entries has been Paranormal Activity. Premiering at film festivals in 2007 and released theatrically in 2009, the low-budget haunted house story was a surprise hit at the box office. It was so popular that a sequel was almost immediately approved.

I reviewed Paranormal Activity 2 shortly after its release last year, but I've only recently discovered the existence of another Paranormal Activity 2. It turns out that the Japanese film industry decided to cash in on the success of the original movie by making their own sequel, Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night. I'm used to Italy making sequels and spin-offs to American horror movies (the most famous being Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2, an unlicensed sequel to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead), but this is the first I've heard of that from Japan. And once I'd heard about it, I just had to see it. So let's dig into that other Paranormal Activity 2 and see if it was as good as the American one.

Our tale of terror follows a young woman named Haruka Yamano (Noriko Aoyama), who has just returned to her home in Tokyo after visiting the United States. Her return is not quite a happy one, unfortunately, as her trip to America had been cut short due to a car accident that broke both of her legs. With her father out of the country on a business trip, Haruka is left in the care of her teenage brother Koichi (Aoi Nakamura).

Haruka awakens one morning to discover that her wheelchair has moved on its own volition despite its wheels being locked. Initially believing that someone had broken into the house, Koichi sets up video cameras throughout the house to catch the burglar if they try it again. But when his cameras record footage of the wheelchair moving again, Koichi begins to suspect that a supernatural being is at play. This suspicion is further reinforced when a pile of salt he leaves in Haruka's bedroom is scattered by unseen forces.

But that will be the least of Haruka and Koichi's worries. The haunting begins to escalate beyond messing with wheelchairs and salt, as things around the house end up smashed and Haruka is dragged out of bed by her hair. An attempt to have a Shinto priest exorcise the house only serves to make the demon haunting them angrier. And if you've seen the American Paranormal Activity movies, you'll know that this story won't have a happy ending.

A few years ago, it seemed like every horror movie that Hollywood cranked out was based on a Japanese one. So I guess Japan finally decided to give a little tit for tat and copy an American horror movie. Granted, they did what Hollywood didn't and labeled their movie a sequel instead of a remake. But having watched this flick from start to finish, I can say that yeah, it's pretty much a Japanese remake of the first Paranormal Activity. It follows the exact same formula, right down to copying scenes from the original. You'd think they'd do more with a so-called "sequel" besides doing exactly what the prior movie did, but nope, you'd be wrong.

The movie was written and directed by Toshikazu Nagae, who doesn't really bring anything new to the table outside of a few tweaks for the benefit of Japanese audiences. A real "been there, done that" feeling permeates the movie. That isn't always a bad thing, since the American Paranormal Activity 2 liberally borrowed from the first one yet was still very effective. But this particular movie feels more mundane, like it's just going through the motions.

Nagae does shake things up a little bit, however, by making the two main character siblings instead of a couple. By putting them in different rooms during the nighttime scenes, it gives him the chance to make the movie more visually intriguing. He accomplishes this by utilizing a split-screen effect to show us how the haunting affects Haruka and Koichi both simultaneously and separately as they sleep. It's a unique idea, but Nagae unfortunately doesn't really do much with it. Most of the scenes that involve it usually end up with both characters in the same room anyway.

And while Nagae's script closely follows what Oren Peli wrote for the first movie, there were a few things I feel like I should mention. One was the scene where the unlucky siblings bring in a Shinto priest to perform an exorcism. I'll give Nagae credit for going beyond the demonologist who said "oh crap, there's evil here, I can't help you" in the original Paranormal Activity. I just wish they'd capitalized on it more, though. There's just one scene with a priest, that's it. I don't know how spirituality and demon-fighting work in Japan, but couldn't they have gotten a bit more proactive in trying to overcome their ghost problem?

The other scene I just have to talk about is where the movie explains just how it's connected to the first one. [Be forewarned that this paragraph will contain SPOILERS, so skip ahead if you want to avoid them.] So you know how I mentioned that Haruka was in a car accident in the United States? It turns out that she accidentally ran over and killed Katie Featherston moments after the events of the first movie, and the angry demon has followed Haruka back to Tokyo. Not only does that contradict all three endings of the first movie, but thanks to the American sequel, it doesn't even fit within the continuity. I couldn't even begin to guess what was going through Nagae's head when he came up with that, but I'm fairly certain it didn't involve simple fact checking.

But at least the acting is solid. Noriko Aoyama and Aoi Nakamura are sadly not as memorable as their American counterparts, but they still do the best they can and are quite likable in their roles. I was actually surprised that Nakamura's character isn't as quick to provoke the monsters (or as completely douchebaggy) as Micah Sloat from the first movie, since the movie copied the original so much, but that was actually an okay change with me. Nakamura's performance is still engaging, as was Aoyama's. The pair are believable, enjoyable, and really hold the movie together.

If I may summarize my thoughts into a few words, Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night is okay. It's one of those movies that's just there, a simple way to kill an hour and a half without feeling like you've had your time wasted. The movie is a mediocre wannabe at worst. But then again, its best isn't really that great either. There are a few good scares, and one especially creepy scene near the end, but the movie isn't anything that hasn't been done better by other filmmakers. So I'm going to give the movie two and a half stars. It does make me wonder, however, if there will be a Japanese Paranormal Activity 3. I'd actually like to see that.

Final Rating: **½

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Red State (2011)

When some people find a niche, they like staying there. That's probably why half of Kevin Smith's directorial efforts feature his beloved stoner duo, Jay and Silent Bob. The six movies Jay and Bob appear in are comedy gold, but unfortunately, Smith's efforts to make movies without them haven't really been accepted all that well. Jersey Girl and Zack and Miri Make a Porno underperformed at the box office, and Cop Out was brutally savaged by critics.

Perhaps that could be one reason why for his latest film, Smith chose to try something different and stray away from the comedy genre he's called home since the release of Clerks in 1994. His destination: a horror movie. Loosely inspired by Fred Phelps and his hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church, Red State is a stark departure from the nine comedies Smith has directed previously. It is different not only in tone and in content, but in how Smith approached it.

Instead of signing the distribution rights over to some big studio, he actually chose to distribute the movie himself, even taking the brave step to refuse to spend a dime on advertising. Smith's been taking the movie around the country as sort of a traveling road show, only recently teaming with Lions Gate to release it to DVD and video-on-demand services. But as much as Smith has talked up his movie on Twitter and his podcasts, is it worth the hoopla? I just have to find out.

The movie begins by introducing us to Travis (Michael Angarano), Jared (Kyle Gallner), and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), three Texas teenagers who just want to get laid. And thanks to that glorious tool known as the Internet, they think they've hit the jackpot. They've received an online invitation for sex from a woman (Melissa Leo) willing to take all three of them on. So yeah, of course they're gonna jump at a chance at that.

But what they don't know is that they've been drawn into something beyond their wildest nightmares. The lady who'd sent them the invitation had drugged their beers, and the three sex-starved teens wake up to find they've been kidnapped by the Five Points Trinity Church. An extreme religious cult led by Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), the church subscribes not to the idea of a forgiving, peaceful God, but one of hate and fear.

And believing himself and his church to be the vengeful wrath of an angry deity, Cooper plans to take his church's hatred for the world outside their chapel's walls to a new extreme. He fully intends to spark a violent crusade against not only the homosexuality that he's convinced is to blame for all of America's faults, but also against straight people engaging in what he deems "sexual deviancy." The church kills a gay man they'd also lured in under false pretenses, with Travis, Jared, and Billy Ray as their next targets.

But when a police officer passing through the area overhears gunshots, he reports back to Sheriff Wynan (Stephen Root). Members of the church kill the officer and to keep the law off their back, Cooper blackmails the sheriff by threatening to send his wife provocative pictures of the sheriff with another man. Sheriff Wynan retaliates by calling in a team of ATF agents led by Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) to bring down Cooper and his cult. What results is a standoff between the ATF and the Five Points Trinity Church that'll make the Waco siege in 1993 look like a friendly get-together.

Smith has tackled religion before, but Red State is a much more visceral, vicious movie than Dogma even thought about being. There is so much rage and anger in Red State that I'd have honestly never guessed he'd made it if I hadn't been aware of it beforehand. There's the occasional witty quip and one-liner, but beyond that, it's absolutely nothing like anything Smith has done in the past. It's almost like Red State was made by a different filmmaker who had the same name by coincidence.

I say that because I'm used to seeing Smith directing no-frills comedies. But Red State is a violent thriller, and the gritty, raw cinematography that Smith puts to use makes it definitely stand out visually from his prior efforts. And although the horror elements and influence are obvious, a thriller really is what Smith's made here. It doesn't completely work as horror beyond a certain point, but as a thriller, it totally works and Smith's direction helps Red State soar.

I also thought his screenplay was top notch despite some flaws I'll get into later. Again, the script doesn't really make itself evident as Kevin Smith's handiwork beyond a few jokes and clever jokes here and there. It's not loaded with references to hockey or pop culture, and the frank sexual discussions are kept to the first twenty minutes and then ditched altogether. Every scene in the movie is absolutely dead serious, the levity kept to a bare minimum.

But you can tell it's Smith's handiwork by the sheer amount of dialogue there is. Seriously, nobody ever stops talking. I don't think there's a single quiet moment whatsoever in this movie. The movie is so verbose, so talkative that you almost want the actors to shut up for a second and let the visuals take charge. (This complaint makes the very last line of the movie, someone yelling at a particular character to "shut the f—k up," funnier than it should be.) But hey, it's a Kevin Smith movie. A Kevin Smith movie without a ton of dialogue would be like a Quentin Tarantino movie without some woman's feet being front and center.

And as for those flaws with the script, I mentioned, there's really one that really stuck out seriously for me. I know most horror movies are supposed to have characters that are a bit on the stupid side, but this one had a character that was King of the Horror Movies Dummies. One of the kidnapped teenagers manages to secretly get free from his restraints and find a machine gun. And as he tries to escape, he ends up in the middle of the church's entire congregation. And just what does he do? Not a damn thing. He just charges straight for the door the first chance he gets. The dumbass kid doesn't fire a single shot. Yeah, there were kids in the room, but surely they'd have all hit the deck when he opened fire. As far as I could tell, he was the only one armed, so he could have taken out at least two or three before somebody managed to sneak up on him in the chaos. Yeah, the kid running out the door leads to a surprising twist, I'll give it that. But Smith could have had him try shooting and the gun jams, or he accidentally left the safety on and panicked, or something. Maybe this is me just nitpicking at little things, I don't know, but Smith could have had him at least try something.

The acting, though, totally makes up for the flaws. I will admit that I didn't like every actor — I thought the actors playing the three teen victims sucked and Melissa Leo's overacting was barely tolerable — but the majority of the performances are really good. Kerry Bishé makes a fine contribution to the movie, playing a young cult member who simply wants to get the children among them to safety. I also thought Stephen Root was great in his relatively short appearance in the movie, but then again, I usually enjoy his work anyway.

But Red State is carried by two performances in particular. One comes from John Goodman, whose performance is strong, credible, and quite effective. Goodman is fantastic in the role, effortlessly conveying all of the conflicting emotions his character is going through. It's an awesome bit of acting that I'd definitely call one of Goodman's best.

He's outshined, however, by Michael Parks. Parks is the best part of Red State, playing Reverend Cooper as a charismatic yet frightening monster. Every second he's on the screen is captivating. This is no more evident than in the monologue he has near the beginning of the movie, where he delivers a sermon to his congregation explaining just how homosexuality has supposedly destroyed America. Parks is fascinating to watch; he's terrifying yet you can't take your eyes off him. It's definitely one of the best performances I've seen in a while, for sure.

Red State is not a perfect movie. Truth be told, it's a mediocre thriller with two fantastic actors. But despite any complaints I have with it, the movie is worth watching just to see Smith step out of his typical comfort zone. Parks and Goodman are the biggest drawing points, sure. But the movie was a big risk on Smith's part, and I admire Red State for that. And while it is unfortunate that I can't give it more than two stars, I'm actually a little disappointed that Smith says his next movie — Hit Somebody, a sports comedy based on Warren Zevon's song of the same name — will be his last directorial effort. And the reason I'm disappointed is because I want to see where the bravery it took to make Red State would take him

Final Rating: **