Monday, December 31, 2012

Django Unchained (2012)

Anyone who even remotely considers themselves a film buff should by now be well aware of how cinema itself has influenced the output of Quentin Tarantino. His movies are chock full of references and homages to the movies he loves, even if his personal tastes aren't always within the scope of the mainstream. This affection has even led him to make his own movies akin to the ones he enjoys so much, as he's directed a crime drama influenced by blaxploitation movies, tributes to wuxia and samurai movies, and a war movie. And now Tarantino's brought us a full-blown spaghetti western in the form of Django Unchained. Drawing inspiration (and part of its title) from the 1966 Italian movie Django, Django Unchained is one of those movies that absolutely must be seen to be believed. I don't like having to use that clichéd line, but it's the truth. So allow me a few moments to gush over the movie and explain just why I loved it so much.

Our story begins in Texas circa 1858, where Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) ― a former dentist who's since found a calling as a bounty hunter ― is looking for a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx). Purchasing Django from his owners in a rather unorthodox fashion, Schultz reveals to Django that he tracked him down because only Django can identify the members of a gang whose bounty Schultz looks to recover.

Schultz successfully claims the bounty with Django's assistance, and is impressed enough with his new friend's abilities that he offers to train Django in the fine art of bounty hunting. Django agrees on the condition that Schultz helps reunite him with his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who he was separated from when they were put on the auction block.

After a successful winter, Schultz and Django find a lead on Broomhilda's whereabouts, learning that she was sold to a wealthy plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Candie has made a name for himself by training his male slaves to fight one another to the death, while the female slaves are forced into prostitution. Schultz and Django formulate a plan that would lead to them buying Broomhilda from him, but their plan may find itself foiled when Candie's butler Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) begins to notice cracks in their story.

I've been sitting here for a good while trying to come up with a way to properly encapsulate just how awesome Django Unchained is. But these words unfortunately escape me. What I can tell you, however, is that the movie is quite possibly the best movie I've seen all year. You have to see this movie because there's no way that I can do it justice. Whatever I write here doesn't matter, because you should be going to a theater right now to buy yourself a ticket for the next available screening of the movie. (You can come back and read this later if you want. Go ahead, I'll wait.)

From a directorial standpoint, I have no problem calling the movie one of Quentin Tarantino's absolute best efforts. Tarantino's work is masterful, showing a real artistic flair that I felt was very impressive. And when I say "artistic," I mean the movie looks like a genuine piece of art. Shots are composed and scenes are edited in such a way that you'll be blown away by the look of the movie.

Tarantino also crafts the movie in a way that it never really feels like it's almost three hours long. The running time is roughly two hours and 45 minutes, but Tarantino keeps the movie going so fast that you never once notice the length. It has the right kind of energy that it renders such a thing a complete non-factor. If more ultra-long movies could take a hint from Djamgo Unchained, that would be great.

It helps that his screenplay is just as good as his direction. The script is chock full of memorable characters, awesome moments, and cool dialogue. It's practically everything you could possibly hope for from a Quentin Tarantino screenplay. He writes his characters in such a way that even the unrepentantly vile ones draw the viewer in and makes us care about everyone in some form or fashion. The primary characters are all built on strong foundations, allowing them to each make their own indelible mark on the movie as a whole.

And with the way Tarantino has the movie plotted, it's immensely fun to go back and watch how the gears are turning during the story. Not a single moment is wasted or rendered useless; everything contributes to the big picture somehow. If you're like me, you'll watch this movie and be glued to the screen, watching with curious fascination to see just where Tarantino takes us next.

Last but most certainly not least on my list are the actors, all of whom are amazing no matter how big or small their roles are. Among the supporting cast, Don Johnson is a lot of fun in his small role as a plantation owner that looks an awful lot like Colonel Sanders, while Samuel L. Jackson is awesome in his role as Candie's most trusted slave. Jackson's performance alternates between funny and intense, which is helped by the fantastic chemistry he has with Leonardo DiCaprio. Their back-and-forth repartee is so much fun to watch because both actors are at the top of their games here.

And I honestly cannot praise DiCaprio enough. He plays Candie as a horrible yet charismatic villain. He's likable and gentlemanly for much of the movie even as he forces his slaves to beat one another to death for fun, feeds runaways to dogs, and uses that one special racial slur more times than one could count, yet you just cannot turn away. It's a great performance from a great actor, and he very nearly steals the whole movie.

But the honor of the movie's best performance goes to Christoph Waltz, who is just once step ahead of DiCaprio in the "stealing the movie" category. I thought Waltz couldn't top his work in Inglourious Basterds, but he did. He actually did it. Waltz is at his most likable here, making his character an intelligent smooth-talker that's a lot of fun and makes the movie a lot more fun to watch.

And how can I talk about Django Unchaiined without talking about Django himself? Even though he's arguably overshadowed by Waltz and DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx is very cool as the movie's title character. He plays the role with absolute conviction, like his performance would completely make or break the movie, as if its success hinged on every word he says and every move he makes. Foxx's nuanced, layered performance is incredibly convincing; you get the feeling that years of slavery may break his body but never his spirit, and that he would burn the whole world if it meant he could be with his beloved wife again.

If you haven't seen Django Unchained, or if you've instead chosen to see The Hobbit or Les Misérables over the last few weeks, then you're missing out. It's not a movie that will play to everyone's sensibilities, but it is nonetheless worth seeing. I'd actually call it the best Quentin Tarantino movie since Pulp Fiction. Sure, the movie has faced some controversy over its repeated use of the "N-word," but that doesn't take a way from the fact that it's an awesome movie. It's a cool experience that's well worth the time and effort to check it out. So I'll give it four and a half stars and proclaim one thing: Spike Lee can suck it.

Final Rating: ****½

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Jingle All The Way (1996)

It's no secret that Arnold Schwarzenegger's fame was built on his starring roles in some of the greatest action movies of all time. But it's also no secret that his occasional forays into comedy have never really turned out very well. They've ranged from either downright awful to no better than mediocre. But then you've got a movie like Jingle All The Way. It's far from the strongest entry on Schwarzenegger's résumé, but it's still oddly fun and charming in its own weird way. And hopefully, I can use this review to figure out why.

Howard Langston (Schwarzenegger) is a workaholic mattress salesman who adores his family yet can never seem to make time for them. When he disappoints his young son Jamie (Jake Lloyd) one too many times, Howard vows to make it up to him by finding Jamie the one thing he most wants for Christmas: an action figure of "Turbo-Man," his favorite TV superhero.

Doing so will not be easy, as it is Christmas Eve and Turbo-Man's toys are the hottest items on the market. So popular are they that the demand for them sparks brawls and near-riots at nearly every toy store in the city. As Howard scours the city, he finds himself repeatedly butting heads with Myron Larabee (Sinbad), a rival father similarly hunting for a Turbo-Man figure. They soon become bitter adversaries as the clock to Christmas counts down and Howard is faced with the very real possibility that he'll end up disappointing Jamie again.

I've heard a ton of things about Jingle All The Way over the last decade or so, primarily that it's the goofiest Schwarzenegger movie since Batman & Robin. I mean, one of the most notable things about the movie is the running gag on Late Night with Conan O'Brien that proclaimed the movie to be an "all-time holiday classic." But I'd never actually dared to see it until a few days ago. And I'm surprised at just how truly silly Jingle All The Way actually is. Not only are some of the jokes among the corniest ever captured on film, but the movie isn't even sure what exactly it wants to be. But I'll get into that in a second.

The movie was directed by Brian Levant, whose filmmaking career hasn't given us any remotely good movies. "So bad they're good," sure, but legitimately good? Far from it. But as awful as many of Levant's movies are, his work on Jingle All The Way actually isn't too bad at all. There are some spots where it feels like generic mid-'90s family movie fodder, but Levant actually succeeds in making much of the movie a lot of fun. There's some really good cinematography, and the movie generally feels to be at least half a step above the quality of other, similar movies.

Levant does stumble here and there, though the only truly distracting flaw I could find was the very hokey, fake-looking special effect work during the climax at the Christmas parade. And it also doesn't help that Levant is working from an incredibly lame script written by Randy Kornfeld (and rewritten by an uncredited Chris Columbus). The script does have a few moments that I'll admit I thought were really funny, but for the most part, the humor is so banal that it might only elicit awkward chuckles at best.

The primary problem I had with the script, though, is that it wasn't sure what kind of movie it wanted to be. It tries balancing between a lighthearted family-friendly comedy and a satire of ultra-consumerism at its yuletide worst, but it succeeds at neither. Had the movie picked one side or the other, it might have worked. But the script's attempts to have its cake and eat it too are sadly fruitless. I actually would have enjoyed the movie had it been a dark comedy lampooning the psychotic frenzies over "fad toys" like the Cabbage Patch Kids or Tickle Me Elmo, but instead, we ended up with what we got instead.

But let's keep this train rolling by moving onward to the cast. There's a number of reasons why Arnold Schwarzenegger is more recognizable as an action star than as a comedian, and Jingle All The Way is one of them. He's got his funny moments here, I'll give him that, but a comedy simply doesn't seem like it's the right vehicle for him. Far be it for me to say an actor should be typecast, but there are just some who do so good a job at filling a certain niche that they should stick with it. Schwarzenegger can work in comedies as long as they play to his strengths (which is why I enjoy Last Action Hero even in spite of its flaws), but Jingle All The Way unfortunately doesn't do that.

Meanwhile, Jake Lloyd ― who would go on to play young Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace before disappearing from Hollywood entirely ― fails to impress, while Rita Wilson is simply not good at all. I know the movie isn't much, but you'd think Wilson would have at least made an effort. But nope, no effort whatsoever. At least Sinbad put forth some effort as the closest thing the movie has to an antagonist. He's cheesy and over-the-top a lot of the time, but much like Schwarzenegger, I thought he had a few moments where he genuinely shined. In a better movie, Sinbad might have knocked it right out of the park.

The movie's best work, however, come from Jim Belushi and the late Phil Hartman. Belushi is a lot of fun in his extended cameo as a mall Santa operating a counterfeit toy ring on the side, while Hartman is awesome as the Langston family's annoying "super-dad" neighbor. He's the most annoying pain in the ass you've ever seen in your life and you want to reach into the movie and smack him, but Hartman plays it with such aplomb and glee that he's really enjoyable too.

Jingle All The Way is far from the "all-time holiday classic" that the characters from Conan O'Brien's old talk show would argue it was, but it isn't insufferably bad either. It's one of those movies that I thought was actually pretty entertaining even though it's very flawed. There's a ton of other Christmas movies I'd recommend watching before this one, but truthfully, you could do a lot worse than Jingle All The Way. So have a merry Christmas, a happy holiday season, and remember: Put that cookie down! Now!

Final Rating: **

Friday, December 21, 2012

2012 (2009)

Today is the big day. In the incredibly unlikely chance that the so-called Mayan predictions and those loony conspiracy theorists are correct, the world should be ending at any time now. And if it is ending, then thanks for reading this blog. But if you're one of those people with an abundance of common sense, you're not worried about the Mayan apocalypse at all. The people worried about this are probably the same folks who believed the Rapture was last year and that the Y2K bug would be the end of modern civilization.

And to be totally honest with you, I didn't even know this Mayan doomsday prophesy stuff even existed until the release of the appropriately-titled movie 2012. The movie hit theaters near the end of 2009 and (as far as I can tell, anyway) introduced the mainstream masses to the idea that the end of the world was foreseen by the Mayan calendar. And while I'm fairly certain that that idea is a great big pile of crap, I'm still unsure of how I feel about 2012.

The movie begins in 2009, as American geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discovers that, due to freak conditions caused by a massive solar flare, Earth's core is superheating. And as a result, the planet will be devastated by an insane amount of natural disasters sooner rather than later. Helmsley rushes this information to the White House, information that President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover) shares in secret with other countries so that a contingency plan can be constructed.

We then flash-forward to the year 2012, where we're introduced to Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a failed sci-fi novelist who's stuck driving limousines for a living. While on a camping trip with his kids (Liam James and Morgan Lily) at Yellowstone National Park, Jackson accidentally stumbles onto a cordoned-off site being used by Helmsley and a number of military scientists for a geological survey. He's soon pulled aside by Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), an eccentric crackpot who broadcasts a radio show dedicated to fringe science and conspiracy theories. Charlie explains to Jackson that horrible cataclysms are fast approaching, and that the governments of the world have secretly built massive lifeboats in order to save some of the human race.

Jackson naturally believes Charlie is just a kook at first. But as he and his kids return home to Los Angeles, he quickly realizes that Charlie was right. An unbelievably massive earthquake rocks Los Angeles, and Jackson just barely manages to get his kids, his ex-wife (Amanda Peet), and her new boyfriend (Thomas McCarthy) to safety before the entire state of California collapses into the ocean. They're soon joined by another group of survivors, and thanks to a map given to Jackson by Charlie, they trek to the Himalayas to find the hidden lifeboats. But their path to safety will not be an easy one, as earthquakes and giant tsunamis are wiping out nearly every landmass on the surface of the planet.

I'm actually conflicted about how I should feel about 2012. On one hand, it's got a ton of flaws. Only a handful of actors in the movie make anything resembling a memorable contribution, and the script is just plain awful. The movie does nothing to justify the bloated 157-minute running time, and most of the characters are either dull and boring or just plain unlikable. But on the other hand, the movie boasts some genuinely exciting sequences and a few moments of real drama. There are enough good moments to make 2012 worth watching once, but enough crappy elements to make it worth skipping as well.

The movie was directed by Roland Emmerich, who should know all about destroying global landmarks. He is the filmmaker who brought us Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, after all. And while I may have a problem with the movie's runtime ― two and a half hours is just too long ― I still thought Emmerich did a decent enough job crafting the movie. Say what you will about his body of work, but to Emmerich's credit, he can stage a cinematic disaster with the best of them. For starters, the scene where Jackson and his family haul ass through a crumbling Los Angeles in Jackson's limousine is genuinely exciting, and it just goes on from there.

The only really bad part of Emmerich's direction is that due to the movie's length, it wears itself out by the end. You can only see so many earthquakes, tsunamis, and explosions before you grow a little numb to them. I know that Emmerich was probably trying to build some kind of massive scope with all the worldwide chaos, but there's only so much one can take.

It doesn't help that the movie's screenplay is atrocious. Penned by Emmerich and Harold Kloser, the script falls into the same traps as nearly all of Emmerich's movies. There's no substance to any of the movie's style. The plot is threadbare, and among the metric ton of characters that appear in the movie, very few of them are worth caring about. Emmerich's movies have almost always focused more on spectacle, so I guess he and Kloser figured nobody would care about the characters as long as there was a ton of stuff going on.

And the fact that it's hard to care about the characters means that there's no emotional resonance when someone gets killed off. Even the characters themselves don't seem to care when those close to them die. There are one or two moments where someone is visibly bothered by the news a loved one has died, but outside of that, it's just, "Oh, they died, let's move on." And as banal as the characters are, the audience probably feels the same way.

It's actually pretty hard to care about the actors too. Most of the ensemble cast is either forgettable or simply not given time to shine. There were a few worth mentioning, a few small diamonds in a whole lot of rough. I thought John Cusack was great even though I don't really buy him as the right guy for the role, and I liked Chiwetel Ijiofor despite his character not being written all that well. Danny Glover and Oliver Platt are also really good, but my favorite performance came from Woody Harrelson. He has what seems like less than ten minutes of screen time, but Harrelson is so much fun that I wish Emmerich had found a way to work him into the entire movie.

So all in all, I thought 2012 was just okay. Not good nor bad, but simply there. It's one of those movies that you'll probably watch once, enjoy for a little while, and then forget all about once the credits role. And you're honestly not missing anything if you haven't seen it yet. And thus, I'll give the movie two and a half stars. And you know what? They've re-released Titanic, Star Wars: Episode 1, and some of Pixar's movies in 3D, but not 2012? They could have converted it into 3D and re-released it to coincide with today. This movie would have looked awesome in 3D! It would have still been mediocre, but it would have been an awesome experience.

Final Rating: **½

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

If one thing is true about Quentin Tarantino, it's that he is one of the most unique storytellers in Hollywood. Nobody approaches a movie like Tarantino does. He had a style and a voice that few, if any, are able to duplicate. That's why when Tarantino announced that he would be making a movie about a group of soldiers fighting in World War II, it got people buzzing. They had wanted to see just how he'd make a war movie. The resulting flick, Inglourious Basterds, is a very different look at a war that's been depicted hundred of times.

The year is 1944, and Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) has recruited eight Jewish commandos who've dedicated themselves to mutilating, killing, and ultimately scalping as many Nazis as possible. Nicknamed "the Basterds" by the Nazis, the group's brutality and viciousness have left even Hitler himself frustrated by the German military's inability to stop them.

The British have learned that the heads of Nazi Germany ― even the big bad Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) himself ― will be gathering at a small movie theater in Paris for the premiere of Nation's Pride, a propaganda movie celebrating the exploits of Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German sniper purported to have killed over sixty Allied soldiers. With everyone in charge in one place, it'd be the easiest opportunity to kill a whole bunch of birds with one stone. To that end, the Basterds are dispatched to infiltrate the premiere with the help of German actress and double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).

But what they don't know is that someone else is planning to ruin the premiere too. The theater hosting the premiere is owned by a young French Jew named Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Lauren), whose family was personally butchered by SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) a few years earlier. Living in Paris under an assumed name, Shosanna is rather perturbed by the fact that Zoller's developed a pretty major crush on her. Annoyance quickly turns to fury when she learns that not only has Zoeller convinced Joseph Goebbels to use the theater she owns to host the premiere of Nation's Pride, but that Landa will be the event's chief of security. Burning with rage, vowing to avenge her family's deaths, and unaware of the efforts of the Basterds, Shosanna formulates her own plan to eliminate the Nazis herself.

Unless you can dig up some obscure propaganda movie from the era, Inglourious Basterds is probably the most unique World War II movie you will ever see. And I doubt that anyone other than Quentin Tarantino could have created such a movie. I honestly don't believe that it's his best movie nor would I call it my personal favorite, but I do think that it's still an absolutely fantastic piece of work that everyone involved should be very proud of.

Even though Inglourious Basterds isn't my favorite Tarantino movie, it's still some of the best evidence regarding how much he's evolved from filmmaker to artist. His directorial efforts here are tremendous, boasting some gorgeous cinematography and a vibe that makes the movie feel bigger than it actually is. It's unfortunate, though, that a flaw or two creep into the movie.

The main flaw I'm referring to is that the movie suffers from the same flaw that plagued the movie Tarantino made before this one, Death Proof. The problem is that Tarantino occasionally seems so enamored with his own dialogue that he can't bear to trim down some scenes before they wear out their welcome. It's particularly bad in the scene in the bar where some undercover Allied soldiers play a party game with a couple of Nazis. It's a fun scene, but the scene honestly lasts twenty minutes before there's any payoff. The whole thing is drawn out to the point that I just wanted it to hurry up and move along.

As far as the screenplay for the movie goes, it's about as verbose as you would expect from Quentin Tarantino. But unlike the previously-mentioned Death Proof, there are very few scenes that don't add something to the movie. The first half of Death Proof was a sluggish bore with practically no forward progress, but with Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino constantly keeps the movie going. Practically every scene advances the plot, develops the characters, or provides something crucial to the overall movie. Yes, the script gets a little wordy at times, but it still keeps trucking along and I won't fault it for that.

It also helps that Tarantino's managed to assemble a fantastic cast to bring his movie to life. Brad Pitt is hilariously entertaining as the leader of the Basterds, bringing a sense of joviality to the character even as he has his commandos do things that would probably get them thrown out of the military (for starters). Pitt is a charismatic actor to begin with, which only makes Aldo Raine more fun to watch than if another actor had played the role.

Diane Kruger plays her role with conviction, while Mélanie Laurent does an excellent job conveying her total disgust and contempt for the Nazis that have overrun her theater. Among the other supporting cast, Eli Roth ― yes, the same Eli Roth that brought the world Cabin Fever and Hostel ― is actually really good as one of the Basterds. But every single member of the cast is completely overshadowed by the Oscar-winning performance of Christoph Waltz. Waltz is truly amazing as Hans Landa, playing the character as simultaneously charming and as an utterly reprehensible slimeball. If you haven't seen Inglourious Basterds at any point over the last three years and you need a reason to finally check it out, Waltz should be enough for you to watch the movie. This might sound like hyperbole, but I thought it was one of the best performances of the entire decade.

Before I watched it today in preparation for this review, I hadn't seen Inglourious Basterds since its theatrical run in 2009. Back then, I thought it was okay, but not great. But revisiting it now, I realized the movie is a lot better than I initially thought. The acting is amazing, the direction and writing are fantastic, and the whole package is a great watch. So if you're a fan of World War II movies or Quentin Tarantino and you haven't seen Inglourious Basterds, you're missing out on a great flick. And besides, it'd make a great primer if you're planning to see Django Unchained in two weeks. And I'm totally looking forward to that.

Final Rating: ****

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Darkman (1990)

As much as I (and horror fans in general) love the Evil Dead trilogy, I don't think there's much doubt that Sam Raimi's biggest claim to fame is his three movies based on Spider-Man. But Marvel's red and blue web-slinger was not the first superhero Raimi brought to the big screen. His unsuccessful attempts to secure the film rights to Batman and The Shadow at the tail end of the '80s led Raimi to create his own superhero in the form of a movie he titled Darkman. The movie was simply a modest success despite the mostly positive critical reviews, but it's developed a cult following over the years after finding a home on cable and home video. And over two decades since its release, Darkman continues to hold up as a fine movie.

Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a brilliant scientist on the verge of the next big medical breakthrough. He's developed a synthetic skin to assist burn victims during their healing process, but due to a flaw in its chemical structure, direct exposure to light causes the skin to dissolve after 99 minutes. But a monkey wrench soon gets thrown into the mix and will forever alter Westlake's life.

His girlfriend, an up-and-coming attorney named Julie (Frances McDormand), has just discovered an incriminating memorandum that connects corrupt real estate developer Louis Strack (Colin Friels) to a series of illegal business maneuvers involving the mob. And of course, the mob is looking for that memorandum. Ruthless crime lord Robert Durant (Larry Drake) breaks into Westlake's laboratory one night in search of it, and he and his goons completely wreck the place. They badly beat Westlake, leaving him to die as they burn the whole building down.

Believed dead by Durant and Julie, Westlake somehow managed to survive the blaze meant to kill him. It left him, however, horrifically scarred beyond recognition. The doctors who treat him are forced to subject him to a radical new treatment that cuts off his sense of touch and ability to feel pain, but it also causes his brain to overcompensate for these losses. It spurs an adrenal overload that gives him enhanced strength while leaving him mentally unstable and in a state of perpetual rage. Vowing revenge against his enemies, Westlake escapes from the hospital and returns to the burned-out husk of his former laboratory. He rebuilds to the best of his ability and begins using his synthetic skin to create various disguises that allow him to infiltrate Durant's crew and bring them down from the inside.

Nobody will ever put Darkman on the list of the best superhero movies ever made. But there's something about it that makes it inherently fun. The movie has a certain charm to it that makes it really entertaining in spite of its flaws. Okay, yeah, it has a few moments that are weird or kinda dumb. I'll give you that. But Darkman is still totally worth the time and effort to watch.

Sam Raimi was an unproven commodity in regards to mainstream movies, as he had only the cult successes of The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II under his belt at the time. But he proved to be well worth the gamble Universal Studios took on him. His direction is top-notch for the most part, as he approaches it with the kinetic flair that has become his trademark over the years. But Raimi is also guilty of a few weird little things that took me out of the movie, too. There were more than a few shots that were so obviously filmed in front of a green screen that they look hokey and fake, while the scenes where Darkman fully loses his temper ― depicted with harsh camera angles, wild colors, and shots of the firing of synapses in his brain ― are almost too cartoony to work. It didn't feel like those bits really fit with the tone of the rest of the movie. I get what Raimi was trying to do, but these bits (which honestly look like they were stolen from Creepshow) just felt like a bizarre creative choice to me.

But outside of that, Raimi actually made a damn good superhero flick. It delicately balances between fun, lighthearted adventure and a dark antihero story while staying engaging and entertaining throughout. The action sequences are especially good despite that bad green screen work I mentioned earlier, each of them being exciting in their own ways. The final showdown in the third act between Darkman and Durant's gang in particular is totally awesome, in large part to the way Raimi constructs it, but sadly, not everything could be that good.

I'm referring specifically to the script, credited to Raimi, his brother Ivan, Chuck Pearrer, and siblings Daniel and Joshua Goldin. To tell you the truth, the script isn't anything special. It's your typical '90s superhero origin story. If you've seen movies like Spawn or Steel, you know what kind of movie I'm talking about. And I don't know why they had to credit five different writers. Did they just cobble together the best bits and pieces from all the different drafts of the script that were written and slap everybody's namkes on the final product? (Considering how Hollywood works, I wouldn't be surprised if that were the truth.)

You get the feeling that there were too many chefs in the kitchen in regards to the script, as if Universal wanted a certain kind of movie and had some other writers do a little work on the script that the Raimi brothers had turned in. And because of that, the story doesn't seem quite as fluid as it probably could have been. While Raimi balanced grittiness and lightheartedness in his role as director, the script seems unfocused, as if it's unsure what kind of movie it wanted to be. Did it want to be a Batman-like story about a dark antihero? Or something different? Don't get me wrong, I didn't think the script was bad. It's actually somewhat serviceable. I just thought it could have been stronger, is all.

Though the screenplay might be a bit conflicted about itself, there are some good performances from the cast to make things better. But let's get the bad out of the way first. Colin Friels's character is just a one-note sleazebag villain, and he doesn't even try to be anything more than that. But at least he puts forth more of an effort than Frances McDormand, who I thought was the weakest link amongst the whole cast. She's just playing the token love interest with all the enthusiasm one would have for a wet dishrag.

It's not all bad, though. Larry Drake is a lot of fun as Durant, playing the role with absolute glee. It's like Drake approached the role as if it were a campier role of Kurtwood Smith's character from RoboCop, That isn't a bad thing at all, because Drake really was on his A-game throughout the entire movie. When he shows up and starts chopping some mook's fingers off with a cigar clipper, he does it in such a way that makes him look like an imposing villain yet makes him a ton of fun to watch.

Liam Neeson is also great as our titular superhero. His painfully anguished performance brings a real feeling of tragedy to the character, making one feel a ton of sympathy for him even when he's in the middle of what could only be described as manic episodes. The bit at the carnival with the pink elephant was a little on the laughable side though, just because of how bizarre the whole sequence is. But that isn't Neeson's fault, so I won't hold it against him.

Darkman is a flawed movie that is rough around the edges, but it's still good enough to be worth watching. Raimi's crafted not just a superhero movie, but a love letter to old school pulp heroes from the '30s and '40s. And had the movie worked out better, it could have sparked a full-blown franchise. Alas, all Darkman got was two direct-to-video sequels and a relegation to a footnote in the history of superhero cinema. That's a real shame, because it's not a bad flick at all. The character has a lot of potential, and I wouldn't be opposed to somebody doing a remake of it someday. But will that ever happen? Somehow I doubt it.

Final Rating: ***

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn ― Part 1 (2011)

Sometimes I don't know why I bother. I've been able to draw at least a little entertainment and amusement from a lot of the bad movies I've seen over the years, but I cannot say that about the Twilight movies. Each and every entry into this damnable franchise has been the equivalent of a turd in the punch bowl, yet they are still met with the adoration of a multitude of tween girls who wouldn't know a good vampire story (or a good romance story, at that) if it hit them in the face. Being a tremendous masochist, I've subjected myself to all of these movies in a (so far) fruitless attempt to understand why these stupid things are so popular. And with the final Twilight movie seeing its release today, I figure I might as well keep going and visit one more entry into this media juggernaut. So please bear with me as I try to talk about Breaking Dawn ― Part 1 without completely losing my mind.

The wedding of Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) goes off without a hitch, and the happy newlyweds fly off to an isolated island off the coast of Brazil on their honeymoon. It is not long after they first consummate their relationship, however, that Bella discovers she's pregnant. And not only is she pregnant, but the baby is growing at an accelerated rate. Bella and Edward rush back home, where even the idea of Bella being pregnant with a vampire/human hybrid horrifies Edward's family.

And while her health rapidly deteriorates, Bella refuses to have an abortion even though carrying the child will lead to her own painful demise. The baby could also have potentially devastating effects on the tenuous peace between the Cullens and the local werewolf clan, as the werewolves will declare war once the baby is born. But Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) breaks away from the clan, vowing to protect Bella and her unborn child from his werewolf brethren no matter what.

I'd heard stories about this movie, tales told by online movie reviewers who sought not to critique the movie, but to warn others of its existence. "Surely they're exaggerating," I thought. Some online critics will do that for comedic effect, or to drive up page views. Besides, the other Twilight movies were bad, but this one can't be that bad. But the rumors were true: Breaking Dawn ― Part 1 really is that bad. It takes this awful franchise to an all-new low, something that I have a hard time believing that even the most devoted "Twi-hards" can defend.

The movie was directed by Bill Condon, an odd choice to helm the movie because none of his past efforts ― especially his acclaimed films Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, and Dreamgirls ― would make him seem like the right guy to direct a Twilight movie. But then I thought the same thing about the directors of the other three movies in the franchise, so maybe that was what the producers were going for this whole time. I'll applaud Condon for doing the best job that he possibly can with Breaking Dawn, but because he's basically stuck attempting to polish the world's biggest turd thanks to the terrible actors and ludicrous script, the movie ends up being a two-hour train wreck.

I actually feel a little sorry for Condon, much in the same way I pity the directors of the first three Twilight movies. Condon's made some great movies in the past and he does everything he possibly can to try crafting something watchable. But such a thing is unfortunately beyond him. I'll give Condon credit for bringing some pretty cinematography and fluid editing to the table, but he's forced to water down a lot of things in order to get a PG-13 rating and avoid upsetting the tender sensibilities of the tween girl crowd. Everything I've heard about the Breaking Dawn novel implies that it's far more intense than the other books, but a lot of that supposed energy feels like it had been toned way down. There's no passion, no spark, no life. There are a few moments that come close, like the scene where the baby is born, but the rest of the movie feels content to just shrug its shoulders and say, "What can you do, huh?"

Things aren't helped by the fact that the movie was the fourth Twilight movie in a row to be written by Melissa Rosenberg. Even if you think Stephenie Meyer's books all suck, I'm of the opinion that a talented writer could have overcome any flaws in the source material. Rosenberg has shown time and time again that she's unable to do that, and this movie is further proof that she's incapable of writing a good movie. The characters are flat and dull as dishwater, and she completely bungles any sort of approach towards the subject matter.

A lot of people have brought up the "pro-life vs. pro-choice" aspect of Breaking Dawn, and Rosenberg handles it with all the delicacy of someone with advanced Parkinson's disease would have while performing brain surgery with a pipe wrench. This is a really touchy subject that really should be approached with some tact. But it's instead treated as Jacob, the Cullens, and the werewolves being all, "That baby's a monster and it has to die," and Bella's all "I'll do what I want even if it means I'll be just a broken pile of meat and bone at the end of the movie." The whole thing even ends up being contradictory and a little confusing, as Bella goes for the stock "my body, my choice" argument while still being pro-life. It's like the movie wants to have its cake and eat it too. It just doesn't work that way, and I can't really say I blame people for getting a little upset with this particular subtext.

But as bad as Rosenberg's writing is, it's actually rivaled by the utterly atrocious acting. Every single person in front of the camera (with the exception of Billy Burke, who I thought was better than the movie deserves) is straight-up bad. The supporting cast is forgettable at best, while the three main actors are the worst offenders. And while I've praised Taylor Lautner in the past and will praise him here for at least putting forth some kind of effort, his performance here is still pretty bad. Lautner's heart is in it, something I respect. But he's simply not a good enough actor to make it work. At least he's trying harder than Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. They would obviously prefer being anywhere else on the face of the planet, and you can tell that they resent the fact that Twilight is the only reason they're famous at all. Pattinson and Stewart barely bothering to go through the motions here, and if neither of them can be bothered to care, why should I?

Today marks the release of the second half of Breaking Dawn and hopefully the end of the Twilight saga as a whole. And after having sat through Breaking Dawn's first half, I'm not really eager to see the franchise's grand finale. Not one minute went by where I didn't want the movie to just end. The direction was bogged down to mediocrity, the writing and acting are bad beyond worlds, and it's full of laughably fake-looking CGI, a cocktail that results in one of the worst movies to be released during the entirety of 2011. But at least there's only one move of these movies to go, right? Stephenie Meyer doesn't have any more Twilight books up her sleeve, right?

Final Rating: *

Monday, November 5, 2012

V for Vendetta (2006)

Few comic book writers have managed to achieve the same level of respect that Alan Moore has developed over the years. It's a respect not given lightly, as Moore has most certainly earned it. He's created a very diverse body of work since he got his start in the industry, having breathed new life into Swamp Thing, written classic stories for Batman and Superman, and created original tales that are still cherished by comic book fans decades after their first publications.

Watchmen may arguably be Moore's most famous and popular original tale, but it is closely rivaled by V for Vendetta. Initially printed in black and white, V for Vendetta was published episodically beginning in 1982 in the Quality Comics anthology book Warrior. However, the story was left unfinished as a result of Warrior's cancellation in 1985. DC Comics eventually picked it up, allowing Moore and artist David Lloyd to craft the previously published chapters and new material into a colorized 10-issue limited series in 1988. The whole story was compiled into a trade paperback under DC's then-fledgling imprint Vertigo not long thereafter, and has remained in print ever since.

Moore and Lloyd's tale of the battle between fascism and anarchy in a dystopian future was met with high praise and acclaim, and nearly twenty-five years after the story began in the pages of Warrior #1, it was adapted into a movie. It even had Matrix creators Larry and Andy Wachowski on board as the writers and producers, too. But unlike the comic, it received mixed reviews upon its release, the main criticisms being for the changes the characters and overall themes underwent in its transition from printed page to silver screen. But really, the V for Vendetta movie isn't that bad at all.

By the year 2020, the world will have become a much different place. The United States government has collapsed, while the United Kingdom has fallen under the totalitarian rule of Adam Sutler (John Hurt) and his fascistic Norsefire party. Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), a production assistant at the state-run British Television Network, ventures out after curfew one night only to be accosted by members of Norsefire's secret police. But before they can force themselves upon her, Evey is rescued by a mysterious, mask-wearing vigilante dressed as the failed 17th-century British revolutionary Guy Fawkes.

Identifying himself as simply "V" (Hugo Weaving), the masked man leads Evey to a rooftop so she can bear witness as he detonates a series of bombs he'd planted within the Old Bailey courthouse. While Norsefire tries spinning the explosion as a controlled demolition, V hijacks BTN's signal and takes responsibility. He urges the people of Britain to rise up against their oppressive government by joining him in one year, on the fifth of November, at the Houses of Parliament, which he promises to destroy as he did Old Bailey.

V spends that year systematically killing various high-ranking members of Norsefire. He also lures Evey deeper into his world, something she initially resists. And that's understandable; her continued association with V comes with a heaping helping of suspicion from Scotland Yard. But while she becomes a greater target, Evey begins to see things from V's perspective and joins him in his crusade against Sutler and Norsefire.

I'll come right out and admit right now that I'm on the side of DC Comics in the great "DC vs. Marvel" war between comic book nerds. But I'm disappointed in knowing that when I go to a theater and see a movie based on a DC property, the movie's probably going to suck. I can only think of less than ten good DC Comics movies off the top of my head, and V for Vendetta is one of them. While it does indeed stray in some areas from its source material, it's still a thoroughly rousing action movie that stumbles in some areas yet never truly falters.

At the helm is James McTeigue, this being his directorial debut after working as an assistant director on the Matrix trilogy and Star Wars: Episode II. McTeigue clearly has a passion for the material, a passion that is evident in every passing second of the movie. Each frame of the movie that flickers on screen is filled with a desire to do right by the material to the best of his ability. A lot of comic book adaptations will toe the line between full-on seriousness and a sort of corny flair, but McTeigue plays it completely straight and the movie is better for it. His work is stylish yet slightly understated, keeping things moving and the energy high without ever letting things go over the top.

He also has a strong script written by the Wachowski brothers. V for Vendetta was the first movie written by the Wachowskis since the Matrix sequels, and those two movies had scripts so dreadful that I'm surprised Hollywood let them even think about letting them do anything other than direct. But believe it or not, their script for this particular movie is pretty good. It's an exciting, compelling story with characters that you actually want to watch and dialogue that tries to be profound yet doesn't approach pretentiousness. And if there's anything the Matrix sequels proved, it's that the Wachowskis can do pretentious dialogue.

The script was met with a little controversy when the movie was first released, with fans of the comic book up in arms over the shift in V's ideology. The comic's tale of total anarchy battling total anarchy was replaced with V becoming a freedom fighter overthrowing a dictatorial government. A lot of critics and bloggers wrote in great detail about how the changes were made to turn V for Vendetta into a left-wing fantasy, with Norsefire representing George W. Bush and the so-called "culture of fear" that was supposedly created and cultivated in the United States in the years following the September 11th attacks. I'll grant you that there may be some kind of veiled satire there, but sometimes a story is just a story. Nothing more, nothing less.

Regardless of any sort of political agenda or satire attempt, the fact remains that the Wachowskis still wrote a damn fine movie. And it's something to think about even beyond the vigilante in the Guy Fawkes mask killing British politicians. We only barely get to see the world beyond London, but one gets the feeling that there's a huge world to explore beyond our one setting. It's inspired just as much by George Orwell's 1984 as it is by that comic book; you don't know if what the Wachowskis have told you about the outside world is truth or propaganda. The characters are also handled extremely well. We care about all of them, even the villains and random citizens we see only brief glimpses of. It's a testament to just how well the Wachowskis can write if they really hunker down and do it for something more than just a paycheck. (I'm looking at you, Matrix sequels.)

But not only is the script strong, but so is the majority of the cast. Among the supporting cast, I enjoyed Stephen Fry in spite of his limited screen time, and Stephen Rea puts forth a solid performance as a detective investigating V's activities. John Hurt also does a great job as the movie's answer to Big Brother. He comes just short of chewing the scenery, and the role couldn't have been played better.

All that's left are the two leads, Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving. Portman is good, but it sounded like she needed to spend more time with her dialect coach working on her English accent. Her performance isn't bad, but her inconsistent accent really becomes distracting after a while. It makes her the one weak link in an otherwise strong chain.

Weaving, meanwhile, acts circles around everyone in the cast. He spends many scenes depicting V as something of a playful rogue, as if he were a swashbuckler straight out of an Errol Flynn movie. But in his serious moments, he brings forth more of an edge, along with a deep compassion as well. And he does the majority of it all with just his voice, making the whole thing that much more impressive. Weaving actually replaced James Purefoy during production, but I can't imagine anyone other than Weaving playing V. He's that good.

While I've sadly never read the comic book, I can honestly say that I enjoyed the cinematic adaptation of V for Vendetta. It's a daring tale to tell, and I'm of the opinion that McTeigue and the Wachowskis pulled it off successfully. Would I have preferred it had the movie stuck to the comic's "fascism vs. anarchy" theme? Maybe. It would have made for a really cool movie. But the movie we've got is still pretty cool, and it earns three and a half stars in my book. And if anything, at least the movie gave the "Anonymous" group a face. That's worth something, right?

Final Rating: ***½

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Silent Hill: Revelation (2012)

It goes without saying that movies based on video games have something of a bad reputation. Even the ones that don't suck will rarely rise any higher than mediocrity. Hollywood must have gotten the hint too, because outside of the Resident Evil movies, most video game adaptations in the last few years have gone direct to video.

But one that stands out is Silent Hill. Released in 2006, the movie was a fantastic attempt at translating the surreal world of the games into live action. But its modest box office performance and lackluster critical reception, combined with the passage of time, have caused the movie to be all but a footnote in the "video game adaptation" genre. That's why it was surprising to see a promotional campaign for Silent Hill: Revelation pop up. After six years in developmental hell, I thought a second Silent Hill movie was never going to happen. I was proven wrong in that regard, but after seeing it, perhaps they should have developed it a little further.

Many years have passed since the end of the first movie. During that time, young Sharon Da Silva (Adelaide Clemens) somehow managed to escape the hellish ghost town of Silent Hill. She has no memory of of the horrors she was a part of, having only the vaguest of recollections of the town itself. But the evil religious cult that calls Silent Hill home never forgot, continuing their hunt for the innocent Sharon. Her father (Sean Bean) knows just what they'd have in store for her, and has kept himself and his daughter on the road ever since. Changing their locations and identities whenever necessary, the Da Silvas seemingly never have a moment's peace.

We pick up on the eve of Sharon's eighteenth birthday. It unfortunately won't be a happy one for her, as she's plagued by violent nightmares in which she's stalked and killed by otherworldly monsters. Her nightmares are so vivid that they soon start bleeding over into the real world and lead to the murder of a private investigator hired by the cult to find her. And this private investigator didn't help matters much anyway, as he led the cult right to the Da Silvas. They kidnap Sharon's father, leaving the message "COME TO SILENT HILL" painted in blood on the living room wall. Faced with no other recourse, Sharon must return to the town of her nightmares and face unspeakable evils if she wants to save her father.

I really enjoyed the first Silent Hill movie, so much so that I was still highly anticipating the sequel despite the rather negative reviews it's been getting. But I unfortunately walked out of that theater not excited because I'd just seen an awesome follow-up to a movie I really like, but instead a movie that felt like kind of a letdown. There are so many elements of Silent Hill: Revelation that I really dug, that really made the movie work. But then there's some things that just plain hold it back from realizing its full potential. It's not a bad movie per se, but it could have been so much better.

The movie was written and directed by Michael J. Bassett, a British filmmaker whom I'd never actually heard of previously. But I was still curious to see how he would approach a Silent Hill sequel, as I really liked the surreal, almost dreamlike world that Christophe Gans crafted in the first movie. And while he doesn't bring Gans's truly artistic flair to the movie, Bassett still does an amazing job in building the world of Silent Hill. I'll admit that he struggles somewhat, mainly because the movie's budget was less than half of its predecessor's, but it's apparent that Bassett wanted to put as much effort as possible into making Silent Hill look and sound as if it had come to life.

The special effects are amazing, with each of the various monsters, beasts, and creatures looking like they'd stepped right out of the games. Some of the CGI is a little iffy at times, though it's never enough to take you out of the movie. Bassett also puts the 3D effects to good use too. He goes for the standard "things pop out of the screen at the audience" gimmick, but he also uses it for atmospheric effect at the same time. The world feels deeper and more encompassing, almost as if it would suck you in if you sat close enough to the screen.

And while it's obvious that Bassett loves the Silent Hill games, there's one thing he forgot to add: the overall sense of soul-crushing dread that permeates both the games and the first movie. My experience with the franchise is admittedly limited, but I've seen and played enough to know that Silent Hill is home to Hell's nightmares. But it's not just all the different monsters and creatures occupying the town that make things so terrifying. A vast majority of the Silent Hill titles I've encountered have all felt like there was something dark, something sinister lying just beneath the surface. Even when some monster with no face and a bunch of claws is trying to rip your heart out, you can never escape the notion that a far more horrifying beast is in the darkness ahead of you.

And this is probably my own opinion, but Silent Hill: Revelation was lacking in that department. It had its fair share of weird, bizarre, surreal moments, but it was missing that feeling that the movie itself was going to come to life and kill you. I could blame it on Bassett's direction or the smaller budget or any number of things, but I thought it really hurt the movie's effectiveness. It had some good scares, but it would have been a lot scarier if it had that same atmosphere.

I will say, though, that Bassett's direction is better than his script. This movie's script is all kinds of awful. There's the banal dialogue, plot threads that go nowhere and are never resolved, and poor characters that make it hard to care about them. Things will come to an absolute dead stop on more than one occasion so a character can deliver lengthy expository monologues that do nothing but kill the story's momentum. That sort of thing might work for video games, but the lack of interactivity in movies means that it just throws off the pacing more than anything else.

Another thing that bugged me was that Bassett began setting up what could have been an intriguing subplot (in which Heather was wanted by the police for questioning regarding a murder), only to drop it altogether without so much as a further mention after the first act. Did I miss the resolution? Did Bassett cut out most of the subplot and accidentally leave the first act stuff in the movie? I want to know what happened to the cops! There could be a whole alternate movie here, where the police end up in Silent Hill fighting their own batch of creatures. A resolution could make for a neat bonus feature on the DVD and Blu-ray release in a few months, but the fact that Bassett seemingly started something he never finished just makes the final product look rough.

But I will applaud him for going above and beyond the call of duty when it came to staying close to the source material. He actually took the story for the third Silent Hill game and tried spinning it as a continuation of the first movie. The only problem is that the whole thing got a little muddled along the way. The fact that he's trying to appease both fans of the first movie by introducing the plot from the Silent Hill 3 game while still trying to continue the original movie's story (right down to explaining that Sharon Da Silva has changed her name to Heather Mason, for example) is too much. It sets up plot holes and inconsistencies, and it's so poorly handled that it feels like he's simultaneously doing too much and not enough. It's a bloated mess, yet nothing seems to really matter at all in the long run. I appreciate Bassett's efforts, but I just wish he could have had a co-writer to help him streamline some things.

And this brings us to the cast, a group of actors who are give or take. Sean Bean is great yet sadly underused (much like in the first movie), Kit Harington is okay (but not fantastic) in his role as Sharon's love interest, and Carrie-Anne Moss is sadly just kinda there as the leader of Silent Hill's cult. She spends the whole movie on autopilot, like she showed up on set one day and decided to mosey in front of the camera to kill a little time until another movie came along for her.

There are some standout performances, though. For starters, Malcolm McDowell is an insane amount of fun in his unfortunately brief appearance in the movie. He's obviously doing everything he can to avoid taking the movie seriously, choosing instead to be as hammy as possible. McDowell can overact with the best of them, and he's one of the most entertaining parts of the whole movie. On the other hand, Adelaide Clemens actually is taking the movie seriously, and her performance is very strong because of it. The character suffers from the weak writing, but Clemens still makes every effort to rise above it. She's strong, brave, smart, and very likable, and I don't know if they could have gotten a better actress for the part.

Silent Hill: Revelation is a movie that I desperately wanted to love. I wanted to rub Paul W.S. Anderson's nose in it and tell him that this is how you turn a "survival horror" game into a movie, instead of that Resident Evil crap he's been putting out for the last decade. Alas, I had my heart broken instead. There was much I did like that I did enjoy, but there was just as much that I thought the movie could have improved upon. Maybe my opinion will change in a few months if I give it a second chance on DVD, but right now... meh. I do want to see another Silent Hill movie, though, but considering the overwhelming number of negative reviews and the lousy box office numbers, I'm pretty sure that this one will be the last one. And honestly, that's even more disappointing than the movie itself.

Final Rating: **

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween II (1981)

I doubt that John Carpenter realized he was crafting something iconic when he made Halloween back in 1978. It was probably one of those cases where the producers hired him to write and direct a horror movie so they could make a little cash, and that was it. But over three decades later, Halloween is viewed as one of horror cinema's true classics. And after its success and the success that the movie's most famous imitator, Friday the 13th, had in 1980, I guess it only made sense for Carpenter and crew to return to Haddonfield in 1981 for a sequel. Halloween II is one of the more popular sequels in the franchise, and for good reason. It's a great flick that I honestly can't recommend enough.

The movie begins as the previous one concludes, with Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) saving the woe-begotten Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) from certain death at the hands of Michael Myers (Dick Warlock). But despite having been shot in the chest six times, Michael gets up and walks away. As Dr. Loomis obsessively searches for Michael with the police, an injured Laurie is taken to the hospital for treatment. Little does she know that Michael has arrived at the hospital as well, murdering anyone and everyone as he searches the building for Laurie.

Although I like to call myself a fan of slasher movies, I never really got into the Halloween franchise. I didn't even know it existed until Halloween H20 came out in 1998. I've seen most of the movies since then, but never really paid much attention to them. This review was my first honest attempt at remedying that and giving the franchise a real shot. And I can tell you that Halloween II didn't let me down in the slightest.

Rather than direct it himself, John Carpenter chose to co-write and produce the movie. Taking the reins in Carpenter's stead was first-time filmmaker Rick Rosenthal. The way he handles things, you'd think that Rosenthal was an old pro or that Carpenter made the movie for him. The movie feels less similar to the original Halloween and more like an early Friday the 13th sequel, but Rosenthal still manages to retain some of the lingering dread that made the first one so frightening. It occasionally seems as if we're watching more of the same, yes, but Rosenthal still makes it work. There's a chase scene roughly an hour into the movie that is so tense and suspenseful that it should be added to the required viewing for anyone looking to make their own horror movie.

Then again, you could say that about the whole third act of the movie. The first hour of the movie is uneven in spots, with the scenes in the hospital moving at a far slower pace than the more intense scenes where Dr. Loomis and the police hunt for Michael. But that final thirty minutes are brilliantly done, some of the best horror filmmaking I've seen in quite a while. If the first hour was meant to be just buildup for that third act, then it was totally worth it.

It's unfortunate, though, that Rosenthal isn't working from a very strong script. Written by Carpenter and Debra Hill, it's a weak effort all the way around. It honestly feels that they were roped into doing it with promises of a nice paycheck. One gets the impression that Carpenter and Hill just figured, "What the hell, let's just do a Friday the 13th knockoff and be done with it." The worst element of the whole thing is the characters, many of whom come off as incredibly weak. A lot of them are just there for Michael to kill, while the intelligent Laurie of the first movie is instead replaced by a whimpering ball of nerves that seems afraid of her own shadow.

And poor Dr. Loomis is almost rendered a parody of himself. He spends most of the movie waving his gun around, arguing with the cops about how evil Michael Myers is. Dr. Loomis even manages to get some random guy killed just because he was wearing a mask that looked a little bit like Michael's. Okay, I understand that Loomis is pretty much the Captain Ahab to Michael's Moby Dick, but still...

The cast is also a bit of a mixed bag as well. Like the characters, a lot of the actors are just there. Many of them are dull and wooden, like they couldn't be bothered to put forth enough effort. It's also a bummer that Jamie Lee Curtis isn't given more to do than be practically comatose until the third act. Her performance in the original Halloween is great, but here? Not so much. Curtis does what she can, but it's primarily a case of not having enough to work with.

There are, however, some good performances to be had. One comes from Charles Cyphers, who plays Haddonfield's sheriff with conviction and believability. He sadly leaves the movie about halfway through, which is a real shame because they could have done so much more with his character, and I'm sure Cyphers would have aced it. The movie's other great performance comes from Donald Pleasence. Yeah, he gets a little hammy, but what's so bad about that? Pleasence is awesome here, and is a hell of a lot of fun to watch in not just this movie, but in each Halloween movie he appeared in.

And that's the best thing I can say about Halloween II it's a fun, fun movie. Despite every little gripe I've yammered on about, the movie is entertaining from start to finish. It might not be the legendary classic that the first movie is, but it's still totally worth checking out. And how many horror sequels can say that? So check it out if you get the chance, and I hope you have a happy Halloween.

Final Rating: ***

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)

I might as well come right out and lay all my cards out on the table from the start: I'm a fan of the Paranormal Activity movies. Yeah, the positive reviews I've given each chapter so far might be proof enough of that. But I'll admit that every Halloween, I await with baited breath each new entry into the "found footage" saga that killed the Saw franchise.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before a Paranormal Activity movie left me feeling disappointed. And that time is unfortunately now, because Paranormal Activity 4 was a tremendous letdown. The movie is almost like a parody of the franchise, or the big-budget studio equivalent of something The Asylum would do. And I hate saying that too, because I'm genuinely a fan of these movies. But if this one is any indication, them the franchise has finally run out of gas.

Instead of following in the footsteps of the other sequels, this one is a legit sequel instead of a prequel. It picks up five years after the first two, taking us to the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, Nevada. We're quickly introduced to Alex Nelson (Kathryn Newton), a plucky 15-year-old girl who seemingly has everything going for her. Things start getting a little odd for her, however, when her parents agree to look after their neighbor's son ― an odd little boy named Robbie (Brady Allen) ― for a few days while Robbie's mother deals with a medical emergency.

While Robbie quickly makes friends with Alex's little brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), Alex begins noticing strange disturbances around the house at night. She enlists her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) with the task of installing hidden webcams in different parts of the house, hoping to catch some evidence of these weird happenings. But over the course of the next month, it becomes apparent that not only has something supernatural moved into the Nelson home, but it seems fixated on Robbie and Wyatt.

I wanted to like Paranormal Activity 4. I really did. I wanted to walk out of that theater singing its praises, to write this review and tell you how awesome it is. But the movie's not awesome. It's not even good. Truth be told, the movie is just plain bad. I'd heard a lot of negative things about it beforehand, but I was shocked by just how little effort was put into it. Could anyone involved with this thing be bothered to care? Because it sure as hell didn't look like it if they did!

The brains behind this steaming pile are Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the filmmaking duo that had previously directed Paranormal Activity 3. But while I thought their work on that particular movie was great, their work here is surprisingly disappointing. It's like the producers hired two completely different people that coincidentally had the same names. There's no suspense to be had, no tension or even scares. Long stretches of the movie pass by where nothing happens. And that's really the movie's worst crime: it's boring.

Joost and Schulman at least try for some of the genre's stereotypical cheap jump scares. But not only are they not scary (more of a startle than a scare), but they're really cheap. They actually try to scare us by using scene transitions and bad editing! A character will walk into a closet for a few seconds, and BOOM! She's suddenly back in the center of the room. Some people sit on one side of the kitchen, and BANG! The refrigerator door is suddenly in our faces while someone rummages around for a snack. It's less-than-amateur horror filmmaking, the kind of crap that makes it seem like Joost and Schulman wanted to parody genre tropes and clichés but were too lazy to care.

The script also suffers from an almost offensive level of stupidity. Written by Christopher Landon (himself a veteran of the Paranormal Activity franchise, having written the second and third movies), the script is riddled with plot holes and questionable choices by its characters. Take, for example, the fact that nobody can be bothered to actually watch the footage that's being recorded. The cameras even being there at all are only acknowledged a handful of times, and watching them is only referenced twice near the beginning and once at the end. That's it. If I suspected I lived in a haunted house and set up a bunch of cameras in my house to prove it, I'd be glued to the screen watching the footage all the time.

They'd even captured two specific instances of the ghost proactively messing with Alex, during one of which she was trapped in the garage and almost killed. But is it ever referenced? Not once. Alex doesn't even try to showing it to her parents to defend herself when they confront her about why she felt compelled to crash the car through the garage door. Why even record all this footage at all if you're not going to bother watching or even referencing it? You might as well just have made a regular movie instead of using the "found footage" technique.

It doesn't help that Landon doesn't add anything at all to the mysterious mythology of the franchise. That weird scene after the credits makes no sense beyond being a blatant setup for a fifth movie, and the movie's twist regarding what happened to baby Hunter after the end of the second movie only raises a million more questions. I don't want to spoil it, but I will point out that the twist makes even less sense than the post-credits sequence. It's a confusing turn of events that made me feel like somebody edited out any sort of explanations the movie might have had. We don't know anything more about the mythology than we did at the end of the third movie, and it makes the twist come off as being there for the sake of throwing off the audience and giving them something to do in a future sequel.

At least this movie has some decent acting going for it. I thought Matt Shively provided some funny moments, basically playing a younger, less-douchey version of Micah from the first movie. He's outshined, however, by two other members of the cast. One is Brady Allen, whose turn as the weird neighbor kid is surprisingly good. Allen is creepy and off-putting, bringing a very subtle air of menace to the character. He's quite convincing, and I totally bought what he was bringing to the table.

But the real star of the show is Kathryn Newton. I've never seen her in any other movies, but I was impressed by how well Newton handled herself here. She's absolutely fantastic and had me convinced from the start. I totally bought that she was going through all this. And while the character has the occasional dumb moments (why not show the footage to anyone?), Newton plays the role with intelligence and aplomb. It's just a shame that the movie isn't as good as she is.

I'm still in shock over how much of a letdown this movie was. Remember how I thought V/H/S was just okay? It's a million miles ahead of Paranormal Activity 4. It's like they couldn't come up with anything but were stuck meeting a release date, so they slapped this thing together at the last minute. The movie will make a bunch of money and a fifth Paranormal Activity is probably a safe bet. But that doesn't stop the fourth one from getting my hopes up and then dashing them away. At least the first three are still pretty good, right?

Final Rating:

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sinister (2012)

While "found footage" movies are huge in the horror genre right now, I can't really think of many movies about the people who actually discover the footage to begin with. You could make the argument for Cannibal Holocaust, but outside of that, there aren't many I can come up with off the top of my head. But the newly-released Sinister comes close to something like that. Building upon that concept by adding elements of haunted houses and murder mysteries, Sinister is an amazing horror flick that deserves every bit of acclaim it's gotten lately.

Meet Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), an author of true-crime novels who, despite his best efforts, hasn't been able to produce a bestseller for the better part of a decade. Believing he's found the story that will provide his next big hit, Ellison uproots his family and moves into a house in rural Pennsylvania where an entire family ― save one child that seemingly disappeared off the face of the planet ― was found dead in the backyard.

As he starts his research into the tragedy that befell the house's previous owners, Ellison finds a box of old Super 8 film reels in the attic. The seemingly innocuous titles scrawled on each one lead him to initially believe that they're just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill home movies. But Ellison is horrified to learn that the movies are footage of numerous families being brutally murdered, including the family he's writing about. You read it right, folks; Ellison just stumbled onto a big box of snuff films.

As he watches and re-watches the movies, Ellison starts noticing that certain elements of each one are oddly similar. Each murder scene had a particular sigil painted somewhere nearby, and a child from all of the families vanished. And at the center of this mystery is a strange, demonic-looking figure that appears in all of the movies. What Ellison first thought was a serial killer is soon revealed to be a supernatural force that, as the matter is investigated further, puts Ellison and his family in jeopardy.

If you've never seen any of the trailers or TV commercials for Sinister, then you've had a lot of the mystery and a lot of the best scares ruined for you. But the weird thing is that the movie is so damn effective that even the stuff that you know is about to happen can still terrify you. Sinister is, without question, one of the scariest movies I've seen in a while. Beyond the tried and true "boo!" scares, the movie is filled with such a sense of menace and dread that you always have the feeling that something evil is lurking around the corner. And even if it doesn't strike, the sheer knowledge that it's there is enough.

It helps that the movie was directed by Scott Derrickson, who helmed the absolutely stellar Exorcism of Emily Rose back in 2005. This particular trip to the supernatural marks Derrickson's return to the horror genre after his short layover into science fiction with the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and he hits a grand slam with Sinister. Very few of the scares feel cheap, and Derrickson really goes out of his way to build up the prevalent feeling that the monster is lurking just out of sight, ready to pounce without warning. Derrickson pulls out all the stops in an effort to terrorize the audience, utilizing some amazing sound design, haunting music (both composer Christopher Young's score and the songs contributed by various avant-garde, experimental bands), and creepy cinematography to craft this excellent slice of horror.

But for all the scares during the movie, the most frightening parts are the Super 8 movies. Those things are friggin' terrifying! Between the authentic look and the spooky music, these scenes are really uncomfortable to watch. I'm getting the shivers just thinking about them. And the fact that the videos are given seemingly innocuous yet darkly ironic names (footage of a drowning is labeled "Pool Party '66," an arson is "BBQ '79," and so on) makes things even worse. The only thing scarier than a demonic orchestrating a series of murders is when the monster enjoys irony too.

I will say, though, that I thought the screenplay penned by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill was a little give or take. It's mainly due to the severe lack of character development. Outside of the lead character, there is precious little forward movement for anybody in the movie. The kids disappear halfway through the movie, Ellison's wife never gets beyond "doting yet upset with her husband's emotional distance," and two characters are in there strictly to deliver exposition and nothing more. It honestly feels like there was a ton of character-establishing moments edited out of the movie to keep it under two hours.

Despite that flaw, Derrickson and Cargill still wrote one heck of a scary movie. Yeah, a lot of it was spoiled by that damnable advertising campaign. But the writers (with plenty of assistance from Derrickson's direction) still manage to pull you in and make you wonder just what's going to happen next. Considering that it's Cargill's first credited movie, the fact that it was this successful, lack of character development notwithstanding, is pretty impressive.

And last but not least is the cast, who turn in decent performances across the board. I especially liked James Ransone as a local cop who looks into the source of the Super 8 movies for Ellison, and I thought Vincent D'Onofrio and Fred Dalton Thompson were great despite having what amounted to extended cameos. But Ethan Hawke absolutely owns the movie. The character is a bit of a selfish dick with no qualms about alienating his wife and children if it means regaining his past fame, and Hawke makes it believable. He plays the role in such a way that you'd totally buy why he'd be so fascinated with the case he's studying. And as the movie progresses, Hawke effortlessly conveys just how much his sanity has been affected. He's constantly jittery and stressed out, almost always holding a glass full of booze to try and calm his frayed nerves. If it were me, I'd probably be the same way.

As you've probably guessed by now, I really dug Sinister. It's a truly frightening movie that values suspense and atmosphere just as much as jump scares. And with Halloween right around the corner, now is the perfect time for a movie like this. It's well worth the effort to head out and see theatrically. So please do yourself a favor and go check out Sinister if you're even remotely interested in horror movies. I wish more scary movies were like this, because the genre could use them.

Final Rating: ****

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

V/H/S (2012)

Although they're seemingly nowhere near as common as they might have been in the past, there exists a type of movie called the "anthology film." If you're unfamiliar with the term, allow me to clue you in. An anthology film is what you get when you compile a number of short movies ― some by one director, some by a group of them ― into one feature-length movie, with scenes between each segment to serve as some kind of overarching theme to connect them. If you've seen Creepshow or Twilight Zone: The Movie, you'll know what I'm talking about.

Anthology films aren't exactly filling up the multiplexes at this point in time, but they do exist if you know where to find them. One that got a bit of attention in horror fan circles despite its tiny release was Chillerama, which brought four independent horror filmmakers together to give us a number of comedic tales of terror that lampooned drive-in creature features. I still haven't gotten around to watching Chillerama, but there was another recent anthology movie that I absolutely had to see as soon as I got the opportunity.

Titled V/H/S, the movie takes a turn away from Chillerama's humor and drives straight for the scares. And like almost all of the anthology movies that have preceded it, V/H/S also has its own gimmick: each segment is done in the "found footage" style. That particular type of filmmaking has its detractors, but I'm a fan when it's pulled off successfully. The "found footage" aspect is the big thing that drew me to V/H/S, and I'm really excited to see how it turned out. So join me as I fire up a dusty old VCR and give the movie a shot.

The overarching story, the one that connects all the other segments, is a simple one. A group of hooligans, dedicated to catching their random acts of vandalism and sexual assault on videotape, are hired by an anonymous benefactor to break into a house and steal a VHS tape with some particularly lurid footage on it. But when the gang gains entry into the house, they discover the body of the house's owner, who seemingly died watching a wall of TVs. And just their luck, he's surrounded by a huge stack of unlabelled VHS tapes. If they're going to fine the video they've been sent to retrieve, they'll need to hunker down and watch all of them first.

The first of these tapes (titled "Amateur Night") introduces us to Shane (Mike Donlan), Patrick (Joe Sykes), and Clint (Drew Sawyer), a trio of irresponsible frat boys who just want to get laid and record the whole thing on the miniature spy camera hidden in Clint's glasses. They think they've hit the jackpot when they convince two lovely young women, Lily (Hannah Fierman) and Lisa (Jas Sams), to follow them to their motel room. But the three drunken horndogs are not aware, however, that one of the girls is more predator than prey.

The next tape is "Second Honeymoon," which follows a young married couple named Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal) as they embark on, as you can expect from the segment's title, their second honeymoon. Their cross-country road trip takes them to an Old West themed tourist destination, where they're shadowed by a mysterious stalker (Kate Lyn Sheil). This stalker follows their every move, even breaking into their motel room as they sleep. At first the stalker plays a few mean-spirited pranks on them, and then moves on to stealing their things. This mysterious figure quickly grows tired of its games and escalates things to a much more dangerous and violent level.

The tape after that ("Thursday the 17th") sees a group of friends venturing out into the woods to have a little fun. Things get a little weird, though, when the camera starts capturing quick images of dead, mutilated bodies that aren't there from one second to the next. And then one of the friends, an odd young woman named Wendy (Norma C. Quinones), starts making bizarre comments about how they're all going to die. She's actually onto something, as a supernatural killer disguised within a patch of blurry technical glitches in the camera's viewfinder begins taking them out one by one. It soon comes down to Wendy versus the killer in a battle for survival.

Tape number four is "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger," a mouthful of a title if I ever heard one. It focuses on James (Daniel Kaufman) and the titular Emily (Helen Rogers), a couple in a long-distance relationship who bridge the distance between them via online video chats. Emily's recently moved into a new apartment, one that she is convinced is haunted. She sees odd visions of children running from room to room, and a strange bump has appeared on her arm. Of course, James is skeptical. Emily's webcam begins capturing some of the bizarre events that have been plaguing her, making it harder and harder to deny that something might be out to get her.

The movie's final tape ("10/31/98") sees a quartet of friends heading for a Halloween party. They arrive at what they think is the house hosting the party, but find it deserted. Letting themselves in through the back door, the four would-be partiers enter what they're initially led to believe is just a haunted house attraction that's closed for the evening. But when ghostly figures and strange noises lead them to the attic, they find some sort of cult in the process of performing some kind of ritual on a tied-up woman (Nicole Erb). But when they accidentally interrupt the ritual, the four men realize that something malevolent is in the house and all hell is about to break loose.

I was initially really excited to see V/H/S. The concept alone sounded awesome, and I thought the trailers looked tremendous. After reading some lukewarm reviews and opinions of the movie online, however, the enthusiasm I had going in was dulled somewhat. But after having finally sat down and watched it, I can honestly tell you that V/H/S is totally worth watching. It's not without its flaws, as there's plenty of room for improvement in some of the segments. But I'd still call it a must-see for fans of low-budget horror and the found footage genre.

Having never reviewed an anthology movie before, I was a little unsure of how I should handle it at first. But I figure it would be easier if I just broke it down segment by segment. Let's start with the wraparound story, a batch of segments titled "Tape 53" in the closing credits. Directed by Adam Wingard, "Tape 53" doesn't really add a lot to the movie beyond setting up the basic premise and concept. These interstitial segments are well-made and well-acted with the occasional spooky moment, but they end up becoming repetitive after a while. A lot of these bits just grow predictable, with nothing new added until the last one.

But "Tape 53" is only a small piece of the bigger puzzle. Things pick up in "Amateur Night," a fine piece of business directed by David Bruckner. Bruckner does a fantastic job setting things up, building a creepy, unsettling feeling as each second passes. It helps that Bruckner is working with some good actors as well, particularly Drew Sawyer and Hannah Fierman. Sawyer does a rather understated job, trying to develop a character that wasn't given much development in the script. You can tell his character is a decent enough guy who is really uncomfortable partaking in the evening's debauchery with his friends, and Sawyer makes it work.

But "Amateur Night" is totally stolen by Fierman, who is really creepy, really off-putting, and fascinating to watch. Her body language and great big doe eyes are expressive enough on their own, which allows Fierman say a ton with just a few words. It makes her transition from shy, weird girl to man-eating monster that much more scary.

Let's move along to "Second Honeymoon," written and directed by up-and-coming horror filmmaker Ti West. West made a name for himself with his critically acclaimed The House of the Devil in 2009, a movie that I have yet to actually watch despite it sitting in my DVD collection for a couple of years. I keep hearing West is a super-talented filmmaker, but "Second Honeymoon" doesn't show it. It takes a while to get rolling, and by the time it does, it's already over. It's dull, boring, and just a chore to watch. There are also the uninspired, unengaging performances from its two primary actors. I probably would have liked them a lot more had West given them more to do, but all they have is just some random couple's dull travelogue. "Second Honeymoon" is not scary, not suspenseful, and I wish it had just been edited out of V/H/S altogether.

The worst segment of V/H/S is oddly enough followed up by my favorite, writer/director Glenn McQuaid's "Tuesday the 17th." It's obviously a takeoff of Friday the 13th, but done in such a way that it's its own beast. It's one of the best throwbacks to '80s slasher movies I've ever seen, with an excellent twist on the style by McQuaid. It's not only unique, but scary, suspenseful, and downright entertaining. And when combined with the great performances from Norma C. Quinones and Jason Yachanin, "Tuesday the 17th" is definitely worth the price of admission.

I wish Tales from the Crypt or Masters of Horror were still around, because I'd have loved to see "Tuesday the 17th" expanded into something longer than this short little snippet of an anthology movie. A feature-length movie might have been too much, but had it been 45 minutes or an hour long, I wouldn't have complained at all.

And really, it's all downhill from here, even though the remaining segments are still really good. "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger," the segment contributed by director Joe Swanberg, is a really neat idea for a found footage movie. In a movie (and genre) full of stuff shot with high-end camcorders, something that takes place online with webcams is a neat spin on the style. It also helps make things really spooky to watch (and there are some definite scares to be had here), but it helps that the segment's actors are putting forth their best efforts. Daniel Kaufman does a fine job, but Helen Rogers ends up running laps around him. She's cute, likable, and very charming. She plays the role with an earnest believability that really sells the whole thing.

And this brings us to our final segment. Written and directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, and Chad Villella (a team of filmmakers collectively known as "Radio Silence"), "10/31/98" is a lot of fun with an intense climax. This is another segment that I could have lived with being longer. I wanted to see more of this madness. I haven't seen a really good haunted house movie in a while, and while "10/31/98" is great, I would have liked it even more had it been more fleshed out.

But to their credit, Radio Silence still did an amazing job building up to their big climax, the anticipation building to a payoff that is surprisingly well put together. The climax, which I don't want to spoil beyond what's in my plot synopsis, is both scary as hell and very entertaining. It's a payoff that's totally worth it, making the buildup just as good as what it's building to.

I enjoyed a lot of V/H/S, but the movie as a whole was not without its flaws. One problem is that none of the segments ever even make that first attempt to explain anything that's going on. Why is anything happening to anybody in V/H/S? I understand that none of the segments are really long enough to delve into the whys and hows of what's going on, but couldn't at least one of them throw the viewers a bone and explain something without us having to piece it together ourselves? And I'm cool with the whole "found footage anthology" concept, but who the hell collected all this footage onto a stack of VHS tapes? Screw "suspension of disbelief," I want to know!

It also falls victim to the classic found footage quandary, "Why does everyone keep filming when they should just drop the camera and run away?" Some of the segments can justify the constant filming, as the cameras are sewn into the clothing of characters in both "Amateur Night" and "10/31/98," and at least the cameraman in "Amateur Night" has the wise idea to try and get the hell out of there. But the fact that the characters in the other segments have practically no survival instinct whatsoever is baffling. It's especially bad in "Thursday the 17th," when the final character left alive pretty much shoves the camera right in the killer's face and bemoans her inability to capture a clear picture of him on tape. Because instead of making an escape attempt or trying to kill the monster, she gets worried about what he looks like on camera and gives him the opportunity to snatch said camera from her and bop her on the head with it.

But regardless, I'll still totally recommend V/H/S as a great way to spend Halloween. Put it on as a double feature with something like Trick 'r Treat, and sit back and have a blast. Yeah, it's got a few problems, but the good far, far outweighs the bad. V/H/S is definitely worth the time and effort, because it's a hell of a lot of fun.

Final Rating: ***