Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Die Hard (1988)

If you've read any of the reviews I've posted on Christmas over the last few years, you've probably noticed that my taste in Christmas movies leans more towards the wacky and weird than to the traditional. Why would I watch It's a Wonderful Life when Gremlins and Silent Night, Deadly Night are right there? But of all the off-kilter holiday-themed movies I've seen over the years, not one of them can come close to topping the pure unbridled awesomeness that is Die Hard. I know Die Hard probably isn't the first or even second movie that comes to mind when you think of Christmas movies. (That is, unless you're a total kook like me.) But if you've seen it, you'll know that Christmas is at least involved in the movie's premise, so I'm counting it.

Meet Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis), an off-duty New York City cop who's arrived in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. Hoping to spend the holiday with his kids and try smoothing out the problems that have hurt his marriage with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), all John wants is a nice, quiet Christmas with his family. But things never work out like we expect them to, do they?

Upon his arrival in Los Angeles, John heads for Nakatomi Plaza, the massive office building where Holly works, to surprise her. His arrival is not the only surprise of the evening, as a group of terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) barge into the building's Christmas party and take everyone hostage. While Gruber's plan is to steal the 640 million dollars worth of bearer bonds in the building's vault, John ― who managed to elude Gruber's henchmen during their initial sweep of the building ― intends to throw a wrench into the mix and protect Holly and the other hostages.

Die Hard is one of those rare movies that has managed to withstand the test of time. Twenty-five years since it was unleashed upon the world, it has steadily built a reputation as one of the greatest action movies ever made. As big as Schwarzenegger and Stallone's action movies were during their heyday, I dare say that only Terminator 2 and First Blood even come close to matching how freaking good Die Hard is. It is a movie that absolutely must be seen if you even remotely consider yourself a fan of the genre.

The movie was directed by John McTiernan, who had previously made a name for himself with Predator a year earlier. Much like Predator, his work with Die Hard is fabulous. Each scene is filled with a tension and excitement that many of the movie's subsequent knockoffs and wannabes (and to a certain extent, its sequels too) never came close to duplicating. McTiernan keeps the movie rolling at a hundred miles an hour even during its slower, more understated moments, and even at 132 minutes in length, the movie never once lags or wears out its welcome. McTiernan knows exactly which buttons to push to keep the audience's attention and make sure they're having a blast watching the movie. He keeps the pace fast and the entertainment value high, with every gunshot, broken window, chase sequence, and explosion orchestrated to be as energetic and thrilling as possible. McTiernan went above and beyond the call of duty and crafted an action movie that's not just a great genre flick, but a great movie in general to boot.

It also helps he's working from a surprisingly strong script penned by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza. I haven't read the source material ― Roderick Thorp's 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever ― so I honestly can't compare just how good an adaptation it is. But twenty-five years after its release, I wouldn't doubt that Die Hard has completely overshadowed Nothing Lasts Forever by a considerable margin. At this point, most people probably wouldn't even know it was based on a book at all if it weren't for Thorp's name appearing in the credits. But we're here to talk about a movie and not a book, and Stuart and de Souza's script for this movie is something else. The whole terrorist plot is stock action movie fodder, but where Stuart and de Souza's writing succeeds is with its witty dialogue and intelligent characters. The banter between John and the other characters is fantastically written, each line having a sense of urgency that makes even the tiniest thing feel important. And you can't have an '80s action movie without a fair share of one-liners, and all of Die Hard's are pretty great.

The characters are fantastic too, but they're made better by the excellent group of actors assembled in front of the camera. Amongst the minor supporting cast, Reginald VelJohnson (who plays an LAPD cop on the outside John manages to contact) and Bonnie Bedelia are likable in their roles, while William Atherton is fun as a slimeball tabloid TV reporter who continually irritates the police who've congregated outside Nakatomi Plaza and Paul Gleason also does a fine job as the LAPD's deputy chief and head of the negotiations with Gruber's gang. But the stars of the movie are where the best acting comes.

As the villainous Hans Gruber, Alan Rickman is absolutely wonderful. He practically steals the entire movie with by playing Gruber as suave, sophisticated, yet utterly vile. Rickman redefined the action movie villain with this performance, as his Gruber is an intelligent and well-composed gentleman that still has no qualms with putting a bullet between someone's eyes if they don't cooperate to his liking.

Our hero, meanwhile, is nothing short of stellar as well. Prior to Die Hard's release in 1988, Bruce Willis was known mostly as a comedic TV actor thanks to his starring role on Moonlighting. This movie helped change the public's perception of Willis from TV joker to action hero and bona fide movie star. John McClane is unique among action heroes in that he's not some brawny superhuman or a military-trained killing machine, but just a regular NYPD cop stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time. Willis approaches it appropriately, playing John as a normal guy with a normal life that's ended up out of his element. He gets bruised and bloodied, beats himself up because he failed to stop Gruber from killing a hostage, tries desperately to save the life of a hostage that he didn't even like just because it was the right thing to do. He knows he's in way over his head and that any wrong move could possibly get him and the hostages killed, and Willis plays it with absolute perfection. He's charismatic and very believable, and I honestly don't know if any of the other actors who I've heard were up for the role could have pulled it off quite as well.

People have been singing Die Hard's praises for twenty-five years, and this review is just one more for that massive pile of positive ones. The movie not only blows a lot of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone's output from the '80s out of the water, but it still hols up to this day as one of the best American action movies ever made. Anyone who even remotely considers themselves a fan of the genre and has yet to see Die Hard is doing themselves a great disservice. And while it might not be the most traditional Christmas movie, I'd much rather spend the yuletide season with John McClane than George Bailey and Clarence the angel. Yippee-ki-yay, indeed.

Final Rating: ****½

Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)

After the success of the original Friday the 13th in 1980, anybody with access to the right equipment started cranking out their own slasher movies. And Paramount Pictures, seeing dollar signs, started ordering one Friday the 13th sequel after another. But by the middle part of the decade, Paramount began having second thoughts. Slasher movies were nearly always met with nearly universal scorn and derision from critics, and though they were largely profitable from a financial standpoint, Paramount wanted to be known for their serious Oscar contenders rather than some lowly slasher flicks. That's why, in 1984, the studio chose to end the Friday the 13th franchise with its fourth entry. The series would end up continuing long past this one, but this so-called "final chapter" was indeed intended to bring the franchise to an end. And if it had indeed concluded, the saga of Jason Voorhees would have ended with a bang.

After the bloody ending of Part III, Jason Voorhees (Ted White) was apparently dead via an axe to the noggin. But you just can't keep a good horror villain down. He awakens in the county morgue, killing a morgue attendant and a nurse before making his way back to Crystal Lake.

And I'm sure Jason will be happy to find that he'll have a whole new crop of victims waiting for him. A group of horny teenagers have rented a lakefront cottage, expecting a few days of fun and debauchery. Their cottage just happens to be next door to the home of the Jarvis family. Twelve-year-old Tommy (Corey Feldman) kinda likes the idea of cute, nubile young women hanging out next door, but his sister Trish (Kimberly Beck) is more drawn to Rob (E. Erich Anderson), a mysterious hiker who claims to be in the woods hunting bears. It's soon revealed, however, that he's really there hunting Jason, who killed his sister in one of the previous movies. He'd better make damn sure he knows what he's in for, because this is Jason's "final chapter," and he's going out in a blaze of glory. (Until the next sequel, that is.)

It took half a decade and a couple of sequels to do it, but Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter represents what I feel is the first truly awesome Friday the 13th movie. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the first three, but The Final Chapter is where the franchise really hit its stride. It's funny that a movie that was supposed to be the last in its franchise ends up being the one that fully perfects the formula for future sequels. But that's exactly what The Final Chapter is. It's regarded by many fans as one of the best (if not the best) in the series, a status that is not undeserved.

The movie was directed by Joseph Zito, who was hired based on the strength of his prior directorial effort, the 1981 slasher flick The Prowler. The Friday the 13th movies ― and slasher movies in general ― have almost always based around the various set pieces that build to each kill. Much of the suspense and the scares often come from the anticipation of when, where, and how the killer might strike. Zito approaches The Final Chapter with his experience from The Prowler and uses that to craft these set pieces well. He builds upon what the first three movies did and creates an atmosphere that makes one feel that Jason could be anywhere at any time, ready to pounce upon an unsuspecting victim. He works in the occasional cheap "boo!" scare, but allowes some scenes to creep up on the viewer. Slasher movies are an odd beast in the realm of horror, but Zito has made one of the best ones.

The movie also benefits from some fantastic gore effects courtesy of Tom Savini, who had earlier worked with Zito on The Prowler. Savini returns to the franchise after his work on the first movie and sends Jason out in a bloody blaze of glory by giving us some of the best cinematic gore on his résumé. The way Jason is defeated alone is worthy the price of admission, but the way his victims are dispatched are all really cool. Granted, I'm sure a lot of the best stuff had to be trimmed or edited out to make sure the movie got an R-rating, but Savini's work here is just more proof why the best slasher movies of the early '80s hired him.

And like with most slasher movies, the script is mostly unimportant. It's just there so the characters have something to do between death scenes. But honestly, the movie's script, credited to Barney Cohen from a story by Bruce Hidemi Sakow, isn't really all that bad. Parts of it seems like it owes a debt to the glut of sex comedies that came out during the early '80s, as far as the tone of the early parts of the movie go. Some of the characters seemed like they escaped from a cheesy knockoff of Porky's. But it actually feels like a natural part of the movie, and the characters are likable and fun.

I actually really liked the subplot with the Rob character too. The idea of a guy roaming around the woods tracking Jason like he were big game is a pretty cool idea (one that the franchise would revisit nearly a decade later with Jason Goes to Hell), and tying it into the other movies by making Rob the brother of a victim from Part 2 is a good touch. The catch is, though, that it feels like he's been hunting Jason for months when the timeline of the sequels are spread out over just a few days. The continuity is a little screwy, but I still thought the concept was a neat enough idea that I'm surprised they waited until the ninth movie to try it again.

Even the cast is pretty good here. None of them were hired to give Oscar-caliber performances considering that nearly everyone is cannon fodder, but the majority of them weren't bad at all. I thought Crispin Glover (yes, George McFly himself) and Lawrence Monoson were funny in their parts as the two dorky goofballs amongst the teens at the cabin, while Judie Aronson and Barbara Howard have a few cute moments as well. Kimberly Beck, while not one of the best or more memorable Friday the 13th heroines, does prove to be a capable "Final Girl" and holds her own when necessary. E. Erich Anderson also does a great job as the mysterious Jason hunter, giving the character a sense of intrigue and a somewhat sympathetic nature as well. His final scene, though, is so goofy that I can't so much as think about it without wanting to laugh.

But the real stars among the cast are Corey Feldman and Ted White. Only twelve years old when the movie was released, Feldman had yet to be propelled into stardom by The Goonies. He shows a lot of the charm and charisma he would bring to future roles, though, and does a lot to make himself stand out from the pack. It's one of those cases where you watch an actor's pre-fame work and say to yourself, "Yeah, he'll be a star one day." White, meanwhile, makes for a damn fine Jason. He approaches the role in a way that makes Jason seem sleeker and meaner, casting an intimidating presence that makes Jason feel more unstoppable than before. The movie's got a lot going for it, but White's portrayal is the icing on the cake.

Thirsty years and eight more sequels later, it's obvious that Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter wasn't the final chapter after all. If it had been the franchise's actual swan song, it would have ended on a high note. With some inventive kills, decent acting, and some good scares, The Final Chapter is not just one of the best in the series, but one of the best the slasher sub-genre of horror has to offer. It's definitely worth the time and effort to check out. But now that the final chapter is out of the way, there's only one place to go from here: a new beginning.

Final Rating: ***½

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn ― Part 2 (2012)

The saying goes that all good things must come to an end. But what they don't say is that bad things end as well. Case in point: the series of movies based on Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels. I'd never heard of the Twilight books prior to the first movie's release in 2008, but the media blitz surrounding the movies, along with the offensively bad quality of these cinematic adaptations, have made me vow to never read the books. All of the Twilight movies have been piss-poor, but after this review, I'll never have to watch or even think about them ever again. So let's jump into The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn ― Part 2 and get this mess over with as soon as possible.

Our movie begins where the previous one ended, with Bella Cullen (Kristen Stewart) awaking as a newborn vampire, having been turned by her new husband Edward (Robert Pattinson) in a desperate attempt to save her from death during childbirth. She quickly masters many of the new gifts and abilities that come with being a vampire, her only struggle coming in controlling the bloodlust that is natural to those of the undead persuasion. And she's far from thrilled when she learns that Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) has "imprinted" upon her days-old daughter, an involuntary reflex in which werewolves find their soulmate.

But as time passes, Bella comes to accept and overcome these problems, while her and Edward's daughter Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy) quickly matures thanks to her hybrid human/vampire heritage. Things will get a wee bit rougher for the happy Cullen family, though, as word of Renesmee's birth reaches Aro (Michael Sheen), the leader of the Volturi. Erroneously led to believe that Renesmee is an immortal child, something prohibited in vampire culture, the Volturi venture to Forks to eliminate the Cullens. Fearing a war and desperate to prove Renesmee is not who they think she is, the Cullens band together with a number of other vampire covens and the members of Jacob's werewolf clan to combat the Volturi.

It's like the brain trust behind this insipid franchise only wanted to prolong the torture of non-fans. Because instead of adapting Stephenie Meyer's final Twilight novel into one movie and getting it over and done with, they split it in half and made two. I guess they figured that if Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows can be made into two separate movies that each made a billion dollars worldwide, Breaking Dawn could try doing the same thing. I'm actually surprised they didn't take the full leap and convert the second Breaking Dawn into 3D to shake a little more money out of the audience. And it wouldn't have been so bad if either of the Breaking Dawn movies had been good. This one is a definite step-up from Part 1, but it's just so unbelievably dull that even the moments that aren't totally bad will have you wishing they'd hurry up and get along with it.

Director Bill Condon returns to for the second half of Breaking Dawn, and once again, he's making a respectable effort. He's made what is arguably the least worst out of the Twilight saga with this one, with some of the sequences actually being pretty decent. The climactic fight scene is really good too, but I'll get more into that later. Condon still still falls into some of the same traps that the rest of the movies have fallen into, however. There are quite a few sections that are boring and overlong, others are so hackneyed that one can't believe that someone would allow them to be in the finished product.

But then there's only so much Condon could do with the mediocre script and actors, and the CGI is so atrociously bad that I'm flabbergasted that anybody would allow the movie to be released with it looking the way it does. The CGI baby is especially awful, looking creepy rather than cute. I've seen behind-the-scenes pictures from the movie where baby Renesmee was represented by an ugly animatronic puppet, so the awful CGI is, in retrospect, the lesser of two evils. But the CGI baby is still really off-putting, with my first thought upon seeing it honestly being, "Oh my God, what the hell is this thing?" The one saving grace is that it didn't stick around for long.

The movie has some good elements, sure, but it's weighed down by so many of the bad ones. I find it amazing that Condon can come so close to directing what could have been the lone good entry in the Twilight saga, only to stumble over the same problems that befell three directors before him. It's like the franchise himself was daring Condon to try and make a good movie before pulling the rug out from under him as if it were Lucy Van Pelt holding a football for Charlie Brown.

But again, you can't polish a turd, and with Melissa Rosenberg once again writing the movie, that turd is pretty substantial. Thanks to Breaking Dawn being split into two movies, the material here is thinner than usual. It honestly feels like half a movie stretched out over two hours, with quite a bit of it (particularly the scenes where the Cullens start recruiting other vampires to help them fight) coming off like so much padding.

And then there's only one scene where they ever address just how weird the whole "Jacob imprinting on Renesmee" thing is. It feels rather pedophilic, and I'm not surprised that Bella would be righteously pissed off when she finds out about it. The problem is, though, that any drama that could come from it is diffused when the whole thing is dropped like a hot potato almost as soon as it happens. Jacob is pretty much treated like Renesmee's bodyguard after that and that's it. Rosenberg never delves into it or goes anywhere with it, and all it does is allow Rosenberg to resolve the Edward/Bella/Jacob love triangle in the quickest "let's sweep this under the rug" way possible.

And then there's the climax. That awful, awful climax. (Be warned, here be SPOILERS.) The movie ends with a truly awesome 10-minute brawl pitting the Cullens and Jacob's werewolves against the Volturi, and it's a sight to behold. It's the best thing to happen in all five movies, a climax that made slogging through all these movies absolutely worth it. I'm not joking, I actually did really like this sequence. But then comes the revelation that the whole thing was just a vision implanted in Aro's head. You know how mentioned Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football earlier? That applies to the climax too. It's frustrating to see that Rosenberg wrote a movie that spends two hours establishing that the Cullens were building a gang of vampires with superpowers to fight the Volturi like they were the X-Men, only to find out that the big epic fight scene technically never happened and that the whole movie was for nothing. It's just one great big cheat that slaps everyone that watches this movie in the face. But then I've come to expect disappointment from Rosenberg, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

I'm also not surprised by how weak the cast is. For starters, Robert Pattinson seems like he's just there because of a contractual obligation. You really get the feeling that he doesn't care at all, but is happy that this is the last time he'll have to play Edward Cullen just he can get on with his life. Kristen Stewart, meanwhile, once again proves just how terrible an actress she is. Even when she's showing emotion, it feels like it's beyond her meager abilities. But then, considering how awful a character Bella is, I guess it makes sense that they'd keep an awful actress around to play her for five movies.

It's not all bad, though. Billy Burke and Michael Sheen are great, and many members of the supporting cast are decent despite not being very memorable. And while Taylor Lautner still isn't the most talented actor in the world, he's still the finest of the three leads. The guy does a decent enough job as Jacob, and he's likable despite how weird the whole "Jacob imprinting on Renesmee" thing is. Lautner's not awful, and has just enough charisma and charm to stand out from Pattinson and Stewart here. And with a little luck, he could end up becoming much better down the road. I hope that happens for his sake, because I don't think he wants any more repeats of his poorly-received 2011 flick Abduction in his future.

With this review coming to a close, I can now finally wash my hands of the Twilight saga. And it end not with a bang, but with a limp across the finish line. I've spent the last five years dreading the release of each chapter in this franchise, knowing that my masochism would kick in and I'd have to sit through them. Sure, I afforded myself the luxury of watching them on cable or downloading bootlegs off the Internet so I wouldn't have to spend any actual money on them. I just can't shake the feeling, however, that I was cheated out of something. Precious brain cells, maybe. My free time, certainly. But now that it's all over and done with, I can go back to pretending these movies never existed and I can return to watching bad movies that are actually fun, like The Room or Troll 2. Goodbye, Twilight, and good riddance.

Final Rating: **½

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

When The Hunger Games hit theaters last year, I'll admit that I wasn't expecting much out of it. I thought it would be just another movie in the vein of the Twilight franchise, a lame piece of crap made solely for the tweens who'd read and adored the books that inspired it. The fact that one of the constant criticisms was a negative comparison to Battle Royale, a movie that I absolutely love, didn't help my initial perceptions either. But then I actually saw The Hunger Games, and was blown away by just how good it was. I left the theater excited to see the sequels, and hoping they would come sooner rather than later. So the second chapter in the franchise was released, I was the odd man out, the adult man surrounded by an army of teenage girls that had been camping out at the theater all day in anticipating of the movie's first showing. But it was totally worth it, because The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a legitimately fantastic movie.

For the first time in its history, two people have emerged victorious from the Hunger Games. But for Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), winning the Games is only the beginning. As they prepare for their upcoming "Victors' Tour" of Panem's twelve districts, President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) confronts Katniss in secret. He explains that while many viewed Katniss and Peeta's attempted suicide pact at the end of the Games have made fools of the Capitol and sown the seeds of rebellion amongst the districts. And unless she and Peeta want their loved ones to be killed, they'll have to use the Victors' Tour convince the nation and Snow himself that the whole suicide idea was not an act of defiance against the Capitol, but of two young people madly in love with one another.

It doesn't exactly work that way, though, as uprisings continue to gain steam despite Katniss and Peeta's attempts to publicly play a happy, loving couple. Realizing that Katniss is developing a reputation a symbol of the rebellion, Snow decides that she has to be eliminated. Most attempts would just turn Katniss into a martyr and make her a greater symbol than she already is, but an opportunity presents itself in the form of the third Quarter Quell, a special version of the Hunger Games that occurs every twenty-five years and boasts a major twist to shake things up.

With the Quarter Quell approaching, President Snow announces that this year's twist will be that its Tributes will be selected from all living Hunger Games winners. And since Katniss is District 12's only female victor, she realizes that Snow has essentially written her death sentence. As this new game begins, she and Peeta quickly align themselves with the handful of fellow Tributes they feel that can actually trust. Survival is not their only plan, though, as some of the Tributes ― among them cocky pretty boy Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), scientifically-minded Beetee Latier (Jeffrey Wright), and bitterly sarcastic Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) ― have devised a way to give the Capital the finger even if it costs them their own lives.

I'll admit that I approached Catching Fire differently than I did the first movie. While I went into the first movie with a bit of trepidation because of my inexperience with the source material and a general distrust of movies based on young adult novels (a distrust that was caused solely by Twilight), I was excited to see Catching Fire. I couldn't wait to step into that theater and see what would happen next in the world of Panem, and Catching Fire didn't disappoint either. It's one of those seemingly rare sequels that completely outdoes its progenitor.

With Gary Ross unable to return to the franchise due to scheduling conflicts, Francis Lawrence replaces him in the director's chair and does a fine job with it. Seeing Lawrence attached to the movie didn't really fill me with a lot of hope, since my past experiences with his body of work ― I Am Legend and Constantine ― weren't exactly all that great. But I did, however, really like his efforts with Catching Fire. Much of the movie is dedicated to how the characters must deal with the emotional and sociopolitical fallout from the Hunger Games, material that Lawrence handles delicately. He doesn't rush anything, instead allowing it to simmer until it finally boils over in the climax.

The Quarter Quell makes up the movie's third act, and Lawrence makes sure these games feel like a far different beast than the ones we saw in the first movie. There's something deeper to it; it isn't children being forced to die for a government's amusement, but that government using it as a weapon to throw water on a fire of rebellion that threatens to burn out of control. The delicacy Lawrence used with the rest of the movie is there, but it feels meaner, more rough and intense. These aren't frightened kids in the arena, but experienced killers with a bucket of psychological issues, and Lawrence builds this accordingly. With the trendy shaky-cam used sparingly and only when it work in the movie's favor, Lawrence crafts the Quarter Quell in a way that makes it feel even more dangerous. Certain moments, like the swarm of screaming "jabberjay" birds and the scene where the center of the arena is spun like a top while the Tributes fight atop it, are particularly intense. But Lawrence never forgets that the characters are bigger than the games and he makes sure it stays about them.

While Lawrence's direction is very good, Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt's script might actually be better. I've only read a few bits and pieces of Suzanne Collins's novel, so I can't truly speak for how faithful Beaufoy and Arndt were to it. What they bring to the movie, though, is a deptyh and intelligence that many of these movie based on young adult novels wish they had. The material could lend itself to schlocky melodrama if handled wrong, but Beaufoy and Arndt approach it maturely. Their script doesn't treat the audience like idiots, nor does it shy away from the psychological and political repercussions of the Hunger Games. Katniss has constant nightmares about the horrors she saw and constant guilt over the horrors she was forced to commit, while the downtrodden citizens of the Districts see her as a symbol of hope following her acts of compassion and bravery in the Games, realizing that if a teenage girl can stand up to the Capital's oppression, they can too. Beaufoy and Arndt obviously wrote the movie with a audience full of young women in mind, but they treat it in a way that allows it to be greater than the trappings of the substandard claptrap foisted upon today's youth by much of Hollywood.

Meanwhile, the acting will bring up the rear of this review, and it's just as fantastic as the rest of the movie. Nearly everyone makes some kind of memorable contribution, no matter how major or minor their role. Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks are funny and sweet as Katniss and Peeta's mentor and Capitol-assigned chaperone respectively, while Jena Malone and Philip Seymour Hoffman are in top form in their roles. Jeffrey Wright and Sam Claflin are also very likable as well, with Claflin in particular standing out with his confident, charismatic performance.

Among the more major players, I really liked Josh Hutcherson here. He has a certain "nice guy" vibe going that makes you want to root for him. I can't really say the same for Liam Hemsworth, though. The movie tries setting up a love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Hemsworth's character, but Hemsworth has so little screen time and that you never really get a chance to feel anything other than ambivalence towards him. It doesn't help that he's dull as dishwater and doesn't have much in the way of on-screen chemistry with Jennifer Lawrence, either. All he does is just make the love triangle element feel tacked on.

But Hemsworth's shortcomings are made up for not only by the strength of the rest of the movie, but by its villain and heroine as well. Donald Sutherland makes for a damn fine bad guy, playing President Snow as calm and cool but delivering every line of dialogue as if his words were the auditory equivalent of rattlesnake venom. Snow is smarmy, vindictive, power-hungry, and absolutely heartless, and Sutherland plays it perfectly.

But above all else, the movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence. She's an insanely talented actress, and she uses those talents to make Katniss a character worth following. Lawrence imbues her character with heartbreak and anguish and rage, simultaneously terrified yet daring to fight and potentially die to protect those she loves. Katniss is a very complex, very deep character, and Lawrence makes her one you absolutely cannot take your eyes off of.

I can actually say the same about Catching Fire as a whole. It's an impressive movie, one whose complexities are deceptively hidden beneath the glossy sheen of a teen-oriented Hollywood blockbuster. Catching Fire also defies the notion that the middle chapter of a trilogy is the weakest by being a fascinating, exciting watch. It commands your attention and refuses to let go once it has it. I hear that they'll be following in the footsteps of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises by splitting the third Hunger Games book into two movies, a decision that I'm not one hundred percent sure I agree with. I don't know why the producers would feel the need to really do that other than to milk the franchise for all they can get, but either way, Catching Fire is such a fantastic movie that it's made me excited to see both of them. This is that kind of movie.

Final Rating: ****

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

When the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" seemingly climaxed with The Avengers last summer, the movie's billion-dollar success all but guaranteed that the franchise would continue. And continue it did, both with the release of Iron Man 3 this past May and the debut of the TV series Marvel's Agents of SHIELD on ABC two months ago. This brings us to the next entry in the saga, Thor: The Dark World. The first Thor movie was actually pretty surprising, as I've never really been the biggest fan of out-of-this-world fantasies yet I thoroughly enjoyed it. The idea of a sequel was enough to get me excited even before the release of The Avengers, and now that the franchise is in its post-Avengers state, I was intrigued to see where things were in Asgard. Nut enough chit-chat, let's dive in.

With the Chitauri invasion of Earth successfully repelled, the mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in custody. Their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) angrily sentences Loki to spend the rest of his existence in the palace's dungeon, while Thor and his warrior compatriots travel across the Nine Realms diffusing the tensions raised by the Bifrost Bridge's destruction at the end of the first movie.

Back on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her crew tour England, investigating bizarre gravitational anomalies similar to the ones encountered when she first met Thor. One of these pulls Jane into another realm where she inadvertently absorbs a liquid-like energy field that attacks anyone who touches her. This draws Thor's attention, and he whisks Jane away to Asgard to figure out how to separate her from it.

This energy, they discover, is "the Aether," a weapon of mass destruction unleashed eons ago by the dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). Malekith and his armies were eventually defeated in battle by Odin's father, who hid the Aether away where it was believed no one would ever find it. But it has indeed been found, and it has awakened Malekith and the dark elves from thousands of years of slumber. And as the Nine Realms approach a rare convergence, acquiring the Aether will allow Malekith to achieve his goal of throwing the universe into darkness. Forced to disobey his father's direct orders in order to protect both Jane and Asgard, Thor must forge an uneasy alliance with Loki if he is to combat Malekith.

I honestly didn't think Thor: The Dark World was one of the strongest entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has one too many flaws keeping it from being more than the sum of its parts. But I will say that the movie is a genuinely fun ride in spite of those flaws. The movie gets off to a fine start and doesn't let up for more than a few moments at a time, keeping the audience continually intrigued in the adventure. And really, that's all I could want from a movie like this.

Director Alan Taylor's body of work doesn't exactly make him sound like the type of filmmaker who would make something like this, but he does a very good job with it. Not only does he put some lovely cinematography to good use, but Taylor builds the movie in a way that makes it feel like it were some kind grand fantasy. Much like what Kenneth Branagh did with the first Thor, Taylor makes Asgard's scenes feel epic, while Earths seem like there's always something going on beneath the surface that we just can't grasp yet. He also crafts the action sequences in as exciting a way as possible, making them as big and boisterous as a movie like this needs.

I was mildly disappointed, though, with the movie's 3D effects. The problem with it is that it suffered from the same woes that most movies converted into 3D in post-production suffer from. It works really well some of the time, like during the scenes in Asgard and others that are heavy on CGI, but looks flat the rest of the time. It's not a particularly successful transfer, but I just don't see why a movie with a budget of 170 million dollars couldn't afford to spend at least a little cash on cameras that would allow its crew to shoot it natively in 3D.

But in the grand scheme of things, I did think the movie's 3D worked slightly better than its script. Written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely from a story by Dan Payne and Robert Rodat, the script is very weak in more than a few spots. The story is kinda there, mostly serving as a series of setups for each action sequence. I can overlook that, considering that this is a superhero movie, but it gets worse from there, primarily in regards to the characters. I'm specifically referring to the movie's villain, who is so badly written that I'm just flabbergasted. Malekith barely exists here, a one-note villain who's actually missing the one note. He barely has enough screen time to justify even being in the movie at all, and does so little that the movie might have been better off making Loki the villain again.

Malekith is quite simply an empty slate, a villain who's only in the movie because the movie needed a villain. His motivations are beyond simple, and he comes across as a generic pseudo-villain. I've made references in the past to movies having what felt like placeholders for characters, and Thor: The Dark World does this with Malekith. There are five credited writers, and this is the best they could do?

But at least the movie has a decent enough collection of actors to work with. Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo are fine as the king and queen of Asgard, though Hopkins does get a little hammy at times. I also enjoyed Kat Dennings,w ho reprises her role as Jane Foster's sidekick. While I understand why people might find her annoying, I thought Dennings added some humor and levity to her scenes.

The movie is owned, however, by the great performances of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. Hemsworth is charming and likable as Thor, playing him with both a wisdom and bravado that makes the character so much fun. Hiddleston, meanwhile, once again shines as Loki. He doesn't go for the scenery-chewing overacting he brought to The Avengers and the first Thor movie, but Hiddleston still approaches Loki in a way that makes it hard to dislike him.

Unfortunately, not everyone in this movie does so well. Natalie Portman, for example, is incredibly dull here. She has a few moments that I thought were cute, but it feels like she's going through the motions, as if she'd rather be in any other movie but this one. Christopher Eccleston, on the other hand, fails to leave an impression simply because he's never given anything to work with/ The character of Malekith is so undercooked and so underdeveloped that they could have brought any actor to play the part and nobody would have noticed. I honestly think they could have stopped some random person that happened to be walking by the set on any given day, slapped Malekith's makeup and costume on them, and it wouldn't have affected the movie in the slightest.

But all flaws aside, I did enjoy Thor: The Dark World. I can forgive flaws so long as the movie is entertaining, and that's exactly what this movie is. Much like the first Thor movie, I left the theater satisfied and looking forward to seeing where the Marvel Cinematic Universe would go next. So if the preview of Captain America: The Winter Soldier before the movie and the mid-credits scene featuring Benicio del Toro's character from Guardians of the Galaxy are any indication, then 2014 will be a good year for fans of Marvel Comics movies. And if being a fun movie and wanting to see more are signs of success, then Thor: The Dark World hits the bullseye.

Final Rating: ***

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Carrie (2013)

When Stephen King's first novel, Carrie, was published in 1974, King couldn't have possibly imagined where his career would go after that. And I'm sure he never envisioned that Brian De Palma would turn that first book into one of the most beloved horror movies of the '70s. De Palma's Carrie is a movie that horror fans have watched and loved over and over for nearly forty years, which naturally means that Hollywood had to do a remake of it sooner or later.

But Carrie wasn't the typical "classic movie, and then a remake decades later" story. It was actually turned into an ill-fated Broadway musical in 1988, spawned a crappy sequel in 1999, and was first remade as a mediocre made-for-TV movie in 2002. But unless you've been living under a rock for the last few weeks, you've probably seen the advertisements for the new remake. Because of my affection for De Palma's Carrie, I was hesitant to see this new remake yet curious and excited to see how it would turn out. And it turns out that, despite a few very good elements, it's another remake plagued by a "been there, done that" feeling.

It's hard not to feel sorry for poor Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz). The daughter of an abusive religious fanatic (Julianne Moore), Carrie's social awkwardness makes her a target for merciless teasing and abuse from her classmates. But just when Carrie thinks life can't get much worse, she gets her first period while showering after gym class. Thanks to her strict, sheltered upbringing, Carrie has no idea what's happening and believes she's bleeding to death. Her classmates take great humor from Carrie's panicked cries for help, throwing tampons and heaping insults upon her. The scene is only broken up when Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer), the gym teacher, intervenes.

Feeling guilty for her part in what happened, Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) tries to make amends with Carrie by convincing her boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom and show her a good time. But they are unaware of the plans of Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday), whose extreme lack of remorse for having teased Carrie ― including having posted a video of the shower incident on YouTube ― gets her banned from the prom by Miss Desjardin. Rather than try apologizing to Carrie, Chris instead wants revenge for being punished. She rigs the ballot to get Carrie elected prom queen, and dumps a bucket of pig blood over her head during the coronation. No one could have predicted, though, that this prank would fully trigger Carrie's burgeoning telekinetic powers, an ability that sparks a violent, bloody rampage.

In my review of the Carrie remake from 2002, I argued that it was a remake fit the times due to the seemingly frequent school shootings at the end of the '90s. This new remake could be considered even more timely. With bullying being a serious hot-button issue and more and more teenagers committing suicide because they didn't know how to overcome the mental and physical anguish their tormentors inflicted upon them, it seems as good a time as any to make a horror movie about a bullied misfit. But all this new remake really does is include a few coy references to social media. It doesn't tread any new ground, nothing we haven't seen before. The original movie is timeless, with the ugly fashion of the '70s being the only part that hasn't aged well, and this new remake doesn't do anything to make itself stand as anything close to equal with it.

But that's not to say it it's a bad movie. I actually thought it was rather well done in spots. This was in part due to the fine direction of Kimberly Peirce, who builds actually builds a fair amount of tension in a few sequences, especially the scenes where Carrie and her mother are together and the movie's climax. Carrie's massacre at the prom is one of the entire horror genre's most classic moments, and Peirce handles it excellently. The overdone CGI doesn't help, but I felt that the whole scene ― from the moment Tommy and Carrie's limousine arrives at the prom to when a blood-drenched Carrie arrives home after causing so much carnage ― is spectacularly done. Granted, it's a little weird seeing Carrie using her telekinesis to actually fly across the room to avoid being electrocuted on the wet gym floor (I felt the 2002 remake did this a lot more effectively by having Carrie push the water away from her feet with her powers), but I still felt the sequence was amazingly done and actually pretty satisfying.

The only really bad part is that a lot of the time, the movie feels like a typical post-Scream teen horror movie from the end of the '90s. It's slick and glossy, full of pretty people and mediocre actors. This remake of Carrie could have fit right in with movies like Urban Legend or I Know What You Did Last Summer (or even The Rage: Carrie 2, for that matter). It doesn't help anything that this is the third time the story of Carrie White has been told (or fourth if you want to count Carrie 2), which can leave you with a legitimate feeling that you've seen it all before. Pierce doesn't tackle the material with any sort of unique perspective or approach, and much like the sequel and the other remake, all this new movie accomplished is leaving me wanting to watch the original movie instead. The only thing she really improves upon is adding a greater level of sheer chaos to the prom sequence, and that's it.

I was also really disappointed with the movie's lackluster script. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa doesn't give is the fleshed-out, three-dimensional characters that a movie like this needs. Instead, he gives us a tiny step above the most basic character archetypes. Chris Hargensen is a foul-mouthed bitch, Miss Desjardin is the one nice teacher, and so on. There's not much to say about the characters beyond their simplest descriptions. They're dull, lifeless placeholders for where characters were supposed to go.

It's especially bad with Sue Snell, who is so terribly written that I was almost offended. The character of Sue as written by Aguirre-Sacasa is flat and completely devoid of any real personality. Sue's just there because the story dictates she has to be. One almost gets the feeling that she could have been left out without it affecting the story much. And that's particularly frustrating because Sue is nearly as important to the story as Carrie herself. Sue being written so poorly is nothing short of a shame.

Aguirre-Sacasa does get close to doing some good, though, pprimarily through Carrie and Margaret White. I did think he handled their relationship well, though I did believe he could have elaborated on some things. For example, the movie depicts Margaret as being prone to hurting herself. She bashes her head against a wall, jabs herself in the arms and legs with sewing implements, and so on. I know people who engage in self-harm have a variety of psychological reasons that lead them to do it, but why Margaret White? Is it because she's full-blown crazy? Is it because her insane religious beliefs have led her to add variants of self-flagellation and the old "mortification of the flesh" practices? It certainly makes Margaret creepier, but it actually left me more curious than anything else.

The relationship between Margaret and Carrie could have used a little touching up, but for the most part, I thought Aguirre-Sacasa did an okay job with it. You really got the impression that Carrie truly loves and cares for her mother despite all the beatings and abuse and torture, though whether that's due to compassion or feeling it's her duty as her daughter isn't ever made clear. But either way, I honestly got why Carrie would be a bit weird. If my mother were a crazy person that regularly beat me, insulted me, and locked me in a closet for no reason, I'd probably be messed up too.

But as much as the movie disappointed me, I was especially let down by how frustratingly mediocre and forgettable much of the cast is. If I hadn't made a habit of scribbling down some notes in the parking lot after I leave the theater, I'd have forgotten about most of the cast by now. Gabriella Wilde is practically a blank slate as Sue Snell, never once actually doing anything to make me care. Portia Doubleday, meanwhile, effortlessly plays her character into a vicious, loathsome villain, but comes dangerously close to turning the character into an over-the-top caricature of a more vile version of a character from Mean Girls.

But I will say this about the cast: hiring Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore was a fantastic decision. Moore is absolutely terrifying, playing the part as a mentally ill woman who would fit better in a cult than in everyday society. Her intensity is scary enough, but the fact that every twitch of her face is practically screaming "kill Carrie!" makes it worse.

Moretz, meanwhile, is fabulous as our title character. She's perhaps too pretty to play the mousy Carrie, but she still plays the role to perfection. Moretz is an immensely talented young actress and she brings that telent to the movie. She gives Carrie a shy sweetness and sympathetic nature, making it easy to like her and feel awful for her while she's on the receiving end of abuse. It also makes Carrie's loss of control at the prom satisfying on a visceral level too. And as disappointing as much of this movie is, it's still worth seeing for both Moretz and Moore.

I don't have a problem with remakes. I've actually seen a few remakes that I genuinely love. But this new version of Carrie is not one of them. I've said it before, most recently in my review of the other Carrie remake, but if it isn't broken, don't fix it. Updating Carrie for modern audiences and modern sensibilities isn't a bad idea, but if you aren't going to make your movie stand out and be something special, why bother? There are some elements of this movie that I did like, but the whole package is one big letdown. His version might have some flaws here and there, but Brian De Palma got it right the first time. I'll just stick with that one.

Final Rating: **

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Every long-running movie franchise has at least one chapter that's viewed as the redheaded stepchild. It's the one that doesn't quite fit in, the one that doesn't quite belong. And if you're a fan of slasher movies or '80s horror in general, the first movie that comes to mind would probably be Halloween III: Season of the Witch. If you're even remotely familiar with the Halloween franchise, you'll automatically associate it with its recurring antagonist, the homicidal Michael Myers. But Halloween III stands out as the most unique one, for the simple fact that that nothing connects it to the franchise at large outside of the name. No Michael Myers, no Dr. Loomis, no Haddonfield. But you know what? The movie is still pretty great.

A man named Harry Grimbridge (Al Berry) is brought into a hospital emergency room, clutching a Halloween mask and ranting about someone who will "kill us all." He's admitted to the hospital and placed in the care of Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins). But he isn't there long before another man enters Harry's room and crushes his skull before walking out to the parking lot and setting himself on fire. The police rule it a drug-related incident, but Dr. Challis doesn't believe that.

He and Harry's daughter, Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), start investigating just what was going on, following a trail of clues that lead them to the small town of Santa Mira, California. Santa Mira is pretty much owned by Silver Shamrock Novelties, the makers of a popular line of Halloween masks similar to the one Harry had with him. It is through these masks that Silver Shamrock's director, Conal Cochrane (Dan O'Herlihy), plans to cause untold scores of mayhem on Halloween night.

Halloween III has always been one of the real curiosities of horror movies from the '80s. The lack of Michael Myers despite bearing the Halloween name has always thrown people off. But it makes the movie a unique experience that I honestly would have liked seeing the fruits of. The movie was conceived by producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill, who wanted to take the name and create an anthology series where a new Halloween movie would be released annually, each of them focusing on some element of the Halloween season. That idea obviously didn't go anywhere, as the negativity from fans and critics at the time led to the franchise going back to its roots a few years later with the release of the fourth movie. But Halloween III is a brave experiment that I thought was a lot better than its reputation would lead one to believe.

Franchise creator Carpenter relegates himself to the role of producer for this movie, handing the reins over to his frequent collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace, who pulls double duty here as both writer and director. Wallace's script isn't exactly the movie's biggest selling point, considering its thin plot and characters that no one would ever accuse of being well-developed. But where Wallace does succeed, however, is his direction. Setting the movie in California doesn't really instill a lush autumn atmosphere that one might generally associate with Halloween, but Wallace still manages to infuse the movie with plenty of suspense, scares, and an overarching sense of dread. It's a legitimately tense movie at times due to how well Wallace crafts it. The cinematography and lighting work well in the movie's favor, building a feeling that nothing is really ever just quite right. And in this movie, nothing ever is.

The movie also features some impressive acting too. While most of the supporting cast aren't memorable and Stacey Nelkin is actually pretty forgettable, the movie is deftly carried by Tom Atkins and Dan O'Herlihy. Atkins is a cult icon among fans of '80s horror movies, and his performance here is possibly second only to Night of the Creeps in helping solidify his status among the genre devoted. He spends the early parts of the movie blowing off his kids and ex-wife before downing a six-pack of Miller High Life and seducing a lovely young woman nearly twenty-five years his junior in a seedy motel room. Between this and Night of the Creeps, Atkins was the manliest man alive for a legion of horror fans growing up in the '80s.

When it all hits the fan in the third act, though, Atkins kicks things into high gear. He makes for a decent enough hero even if the character isn't the nicest guy in the world, and you genuinely want to see him succeed in stopping Cochrane's plans. It makes for an intriguing dichotomy with the movie's villain. Dan O'Herlihy plays Conal Cochrane with a friendliness and joviality that makes him immediately likable. But once Atkins's character discovers what he's up to and the third act begins, he becomes a vicious snake of a man. O'Herlihy plays the role perfectly, with just the right amount of both disarming amiability and simmering evil. I'm used to picturing O'Herlihy in my head as the chairman of OCP in RoboCop, a character that wasn't really much more than a coldhearted businessman. But seeing him here in Halloween III, seeing him as this unabashedly villainous but still somehow likable character, is how I'd like to picture OCP's head honcho from now on.

It's been over thirty years since Halloween III was released, and in that time, more people have started warming up to it. But there are still people out there who refuse to give it a chance simply because it can't be a true Halloween movie if Michael Myers isn't in it. And that's a real shame, because Halloween III is a great flick. Any scary movie marathon you might be attending on any given October 31st would benefit from including it. I don't have a problem with the franchise bringing back Michael for Halloween 4, but I just wish we could have seen where the franchise could have gone if Halloween III had been successful.

Final Rating: ***½

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013)

Believe it or not, but it's actually been thirteen years since Jackass first debuted on MTV. The show lasted only twenty-five episodes between 2000 and 2002, but it spawned a video game, three movies, some spinoffs, and numerous imitators and wannabes. I don't know why, but I keep getting it in my head that each movie will be the last we'll see of the Jackass franchise, each of them serving as some kind of grand sendoff. Instead, we've now got ourselves a new movie spinning itself from one of the trilogy's running gags. A Candid Camera-inspired flick titled Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, this spinoff isn't exactly the side-splitting cavalcade of insanity I've come to expect from the Jackass name. It actually feels like a great big letdown, honestly.

Believe it or not, Bad Grandpa marks the first entry into the Jackass franchise that features an actual story. Faced with the death of his wife after nearly five decades of marriage, 86-year-old Irving Zisman (Johnny Knoxville) reacts like anyone would: he's ecstatic. He's finally free to go out and tomcat around like he's always wanted. A monkey wrench gets thrown into his plans, though, when his daughter gets sent to prison on drug charges and ditches her young son Billy (Jackson Nicoll) with his grandfather despite Irving's protests. He doesn't want some kid keeping him from having the time of his life even if they're family, so Irving gets the wild idea to pawn Billy off on his father. Billy's father (Greg Harris) is a deadbeat and doesn't want him either, only agreeing when he hears that he can get $600 a month from the government in child support. And thus begins a road trip from Nebraska to North Carolina that sees Irving and Billy causing trouble everywhere they go and bonding a little along the way.

I've been a fan of the Jackass franchise ever since the show began. I enjoyed the show and loved the three movies it inspired, so I was totally looking forward to Bad Grandpa. But to tell you the truth, I left the theater disappointed. I'm not really sure what I was expecting, though. The advertising promised a movie about Johnny Knoxville's old man character from the other Jackass movies, and that's exactly what Bad Grandpa is. I didn't even really like those skits from the other movies, so why would I go into another movie that's expanded the character form three-minute skits to a 90-minute feature film?

Honestly, I thought the entire premise wore itself out in the first fifteen minutes. There are a few genuine laughs to be found here, but most of them are in the commercials. The majority of the movie is corny setup after corny setup. It feels like an entire movie of deleted scenes from the Jackass movies that got cut for not being funny enough. I will give longtime Jackass director Jeff Tremaine credit for at least trying to keep the movie from getting tiresome and keeping each individual scene from wearing out their welcome, but it's a shame that the premise itself does that so quickly.

But the movie does have its ringleaders going for it, right? Well, sorta. Johnny Knoxville commits to his character and the "dirty old man" routine, but despite how funny he is, I had a hard time accepting him as anything other than Knoxville in a ton of makeup. The bloopers that run under the movie's credits even include a moment where Knoxville's young costar tells him, "You still look and sound like Johnny Knoxville." And that pretty much sums that up. The fact that the Jackass show and movies have never had any sort of plot makes it hard to see the movie as something other than a montage of pranks and stunts, so Bad Grandpa adding a plot to it just makes it feel odd.

Knoxville is still really funny, but I don't know if I can say the same for his sidekick. I'm aware that Jackson Nicoll has been getting some praise for his performance here, but for the life of me, I can't see why. He struck me as being way too aware of the cameras, and he doesn't feel like a natural part of the shenanigans. He and Knoxville do have a decent chemistry together, I'll give them that, but Nicoll just didn't come off as being anywhere near as funny as I'd heard he was supposed to be.

And that line could be used to summarize the movie as a whole. It's not as funny as I'd heard it was. But perhaps that's my fault. I went in expecting an ersatz Jackass 4, not realizing that I'd really be getting Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa instead. I wanted to like the movie, I really did. Unfortunately, the movie is just so damn dull that I was more bored than entertained. I often found myself laughing at things that weren't really that funny simply because I wanted something to laugh at. Call me crazy, but I'd rather see Knoxville and his lunatic friends play tetherball with a beehive or zapping each other with stun guns than see a mediocre knockoff of Borat and Brüno starring Irving Zisman and a little boy. More importantly, I just wish Bad Grandpa had been a better movie.

Final Rating: **

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Machete Kills (2013)

While Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's throwback to the B-movie double features of the 1970s, might have flopped during its theatrical run in 2007, it still proved popular with those who actually saw it. And while its fans are still divided over whether Rodriguez's Planet Terror or Tarantino's Death Proof was Grindhouse's better segment, one thing everyone agreed upon is that the fake trailers during Grindhouse were all awesome.

Those who loved Grindhouse have been clamoring for these trailers to be turned into feature-length movies, and while we're still waiting to see if anything will ever be done with Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the S.S., Edgar Wright's Don't, and Eli Roth's Thanksgiving, Rodriguez had no problem indulging fans with an expanded version of his trailer for Machete in 2010. I had mixed feelings about the movie, but when its ending promised two sequels ― Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again ― I knew I'd have to see them. So now that Machete Kills has actually been released, I was front row center and loved every second of it.

Since the end of the first movie, notorious warrior Machete Cortez (Danny Trejo) has fought the good fight, helping his government agent partner Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba) combat the meanest criminals they can find. The movie begins with Machete and Sartana attempting to break up an illegal gun trade between the military and a drug cartel, but things go sour when a band of mercenaries arrive and seize the guns for themselves, killing Sartana in the process.

A devastated Machete is taken into custody by the police, but is set free when he's contacted by the President of the United States. President Rathcock (Charlie Sheen) needs Machete to eliminate Marcos Mendez (Demián Bichir), a Mexican revolutionary who's somehow acquired a nuclear warhead and has it pointed directly at the White House. Though his heart is still broken after Sartana's death, Machete accepts and is dropped into Acapulco.

He eventually finds his way to Mendez, but discovers that his quarry has wired the warhead's trigger to his own heartbeat. If he dies, the missile the warhead is attached to will fire. This forces Machete to improvise and kidnap Mendez rather than kill him as ordered, making a mad dash to the Mexican/American border so he can find the one person who can deactivate the trigger. Mendez throws a wrench into the mix, however, by sending out word that he's placed a multimillion-dollar bounty on both their heads.

With news of the bounty spreading across Mexico and parts of Texas, Machete and Mendez find themselves being chased by cops, a man-hating madam (Sofia Vergara) and her band of gun-toting prostitutes, and a shapeshifting hitman called El Camaléon (played by Walter Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, and Antonio Banderas at various points). As Machete frantically races them towards the border, they're intercepted by Luther Voz (Mel Gibson), a psychotic arms manufacturer who's been secretly sponsoring Mendez's activities. Mendez was only one small part of his big picture, as Voz has plans for nuclear weapons to be detonated around the world and eliminate the human race, while he and a few wealthy survivors find safety upon an orbiting space station. And nuking Earth is simply not something Machete will tolerate.

Machete Kills is a silly, silly movie. It's absolutely jam-packed with a camp lunacy that makes the movie impossibly hard to take seriously. And it is, without a doubt, some of the most fun I've had in a theater this year. Machete Kills eschews all the dull political commentary from the first movie and instead focuses on just being entertaining. And while the movie may have bombed at the box office, it's still totally worth checking out.

Robert Rodriguez returns to once again direct Machete into battle, and I thought he did an awesome job with it. The movie is fast-paced and exciting, never slowing down or allowing the audience any chance to get bored. Rodriguez also aims to make the movie as campy as it is action-packed, and this tongue-in-cheek tone makes it easy to forgive some of the movie's shortcomings. Some of the special effects look a little fake and there are a handful of shots where the actors are obviously in front of a green screen, but Machete Kills is so goofy that there's no way it can't be intentional. Rodriguez knows exactly what kind of movie he's making here, and those who aren't on the same wavelength sadly won't get the joke.

The script, meanwhile, is just as silly. Credited to Kyle Ward from a story by Robert and Marcel Rodriguez, the script is full of goofy dialogue, ludicrous scenes and setups, and a tone that dares you to try and not have fun. I got the feeling, though, that Ward and the Rodriguezes have kinda lost sight of the whole concept of homaging and paying tribute to '70s action exploitation movies, having ventured into some bizarre form of parody. There's nothing wrong with that, especially since Machete Kills is all kinds of awesome, but I do wonder how the movie turned out had it actually been serious.

However, the overall comedic nature of the movie allows the cast to contribute some entertaining performances. Everyone gets the chance to overact and ham it up like they might never be able to again. Michelle Rodriguez reprises her role from the first movie and plays it like a total badass (which honestly isn't much of a stretch for Rodriguez anymore, since it seems like the only kind of character she ever plays), while Amber Heard does a fine job in her role as a bitchy secret agent undercover as a beauty queen. Of the four different actors playing El Camaléon, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Antonio Banderas make the biggest impressions with their hilarious appearances. I was also a bit worried about how Lady Gaga would turn out, considering that she's not an actress and I'm not a big fan of hers anyway, but she turned out fine. She didn't ruin the movie and the material wasn't anything beyond her capabilities, so I can't complain.

Demián Bichir, however, actually ended up being kinda forgettable. His character has a split personality, allowing him to simultaneously play an insane megalomaniac and a peaceful freedom fighter, and Bichir plays both parts well enough. He just didn't really make that big an impact. At least he was better than Sofia Vergara here. Vergara's character is pretty much useless, and her performance ― which basically amounts to her screaming her dialogue with either anger or annoyance ― is just plain awful. And to contribute a truly crappy bit of acting in a movie like this is really saying something.

There are a few very positive standouts here, though. One is Charlie Sheen, who is humorously credited as his real name, Carlos Estevez. Sheen has spent the last few years essentially parodying himself in light of his whole cocaine-fueled "winning" meltdown in 2011, and his performance in Machete Kills doesn't seem to be very different. If the character's campaign ad during the movie or the scene where it's revealed that he's sharing a bed with half a dozen scantly-clad women don't convince you of that, nothing will. But Sheen can be a very funny actor when he wants to be, and Machete Kills allows him to cut loose and have some fun. Both the character and the movie are actually better for it.

I can almost say the same thing about Mel Gibson, who (much like Sheen) practically flushed his career down the toilet thanks to some embarrassing mistakes a few years ago. I don't know if Machete Kills is really the way he'll be able to redeem himself, but he does do some fine work as the movie's resident supervillain. Gibson approaches it seriously at times and overacts like crazy at others, but it suits the role well. Gibson is quite good here, and makes a decent foil for our hero.

Speaking of our hero, I could theoretically copy and paste my thoughts regarding Danny Trejo from the first movie into this review, but that would just be lazy on my part. Trejo hands in what is basically the same thing he did the first time around, but he doesn't really need to change anything. Trejo is a fantastic tough guy, playing Machete with just the right amount of testosterone and attitude. There's really no other actor who I believe could pull off the role this well, simply because Trejo is that good.

Judging by its piss-poor box office numbers, you probably haven't seen Machete Kills. That's a real shame, because I was hoping the movie would have been a big enough hit to inspire more like it. But regardless of how much money it makes or loses, Machete Kills is still a tremendously entertaining movie that's worth seeing. Movies like this are not for everybody, and it honestly might not appeal to you. It's right up my alley, though, and I sincerely hope that Rodriguez makes that third Machete movie. Because if they don't make Machete Kills Again based off that fake trailer at the beginning of the movie, I'll be very upset.

Final Rating: ***½

Friday, October 18, 2013

Carrie (2002)

Unless you've somehow completely missed the trailers, commercials on TV, posters and banners in your local theaters, and the rest of its advertising campaign, you've probably noticed that a remake of the classic 1976 horror movie Carrie is being released. While Brian De Palma's original cinematic adaptation of Stephen King's novel is a great flick that still holds up very well nearly forty years after its initial release, I guess it was time for Hollywood to tell the story again.

But what you're probably unaware of is that this is actually the second time that Carrie has been remade. All is forgiven if you haven't heard of that other one, however. It actually almost immediately fell into obscurity, but that's probably because it was never released theatrically to begin with.

No, the earlier remake of Carrie was instead a made-for-TV movie. Originally broadcast on NBC on November 4, 2002, the movie was intended to be the pilot for a potential Carrie television show in the same vein as The Dead Zone. But thanks to poor ratings, the proposed series was scrapped. And while I wonder how the show would have went, I'm glad it didn't get picked up, because this pilot is about as mediocre as you can get.

It's hard not to feel sorry for poor Carrie White (Angela Bettis). The daughter of an abusive religious fanatic (Patricia Clarkson), Carrie's social awkwardness makes her a target for merciless teasing from her classmates. But just when Carrie thinks life can't get much worse than it already is, she gets her first period while showering after gym class. Thanks to her strict, sheltered upbringing, Carrie has no idea what's happening and believes she's bleeding to death.

Her classmates take great humor from Carrie's situation, happily mocking and laughing at her. The scene is only broken up when Miss Desjardin (Rena Sofer), the gym teacher, intervenes. That doesn't stop the bullying, though, as that same day Carrie finds her locker vandalized and stuffed full of tampons. Feeling guilty for her part in what happened, Sue Snell (Kandyse McClure) tries to make amends with Carrie by convincing her boyfriend Tommy (Robias Mehler) to show Carrie a good time by taking her to the prom.

But they are unaware of the plans of Chris Hargensen (Emilie De Ravin), whose extreme lack of remorse for having teased Carrie gets her banned from the prom by Miss Desjardin. Instead of trying to apologize to Carrie, Chris instead wants revenge for being punished. She rigs the ballot to get Carrie elected prom queen, and arranges for a bucket of pig blood to be dumped over her head during the coronation. No one could have predicted, though, that this prank would fully trigger Carrie's burgeoning telekinetic powers, an ability that sparks a violent, bloody rampage.

The tragic story of Carrie White is a timeless one. The only parts of the original movie that have aged badly are the fashion and hairstyles. But updating it for modern audiences, however, is not something I have a problem with. When this movie was first broadcast, it came just a few years after a batch of high-profile school shootings throughout the United States. So even after the September 11th terrorist attacks and George W. Bush's "war on terror" took over the headlines of the time, a movie about a teenage misfit's prom night rampage was still somewhat timely. It's too bad, though, that this remake is a disappointment through and through. It ends up proving that old saying, "Don't fix what isn't broken."

At the helm is David Carson, a veteran television director primarily known for his work with the Star Trek franchise. And for some odd reason, Carson films nearly the entire movie with the camera tilted at an odd angle. It's all very weird and disorienting, never once doing anything to benefit the movie. I just kept thinking to myself that I'd be much happier if the camera had actually sat naturally for a change. It also doesn't help that despite this ostensibly being a horror movie, there's nothing scary about it. The climactic prom scene and the chaos that follows could have been a tense, unnerving experience, but it's instead brought down by unconvincing CGI, a hilariously goofy soundtrack, and no tension whatsoever.

The biggest problem with the movie, though, is that it's too long and bloated, running three hours if you're watching it with commercials. Or if you're watching the DVD without commercials, it clocks in at roughly two hours and fifteen minutes, which is a small bit of mercy. Either way, that is still way too long. There's still an hour left in the movie when Carrie and Tommy arrive at the prom, for crying out loud. Carson must have been under contract to deliver the movie at a certain length, because he honestly could have stood to chop out at least a half-hour of the extraneous fluff that populates the movie. He honestly could have brought this thing in at an hour and a half without commercials, and it would have been a far sleeker, less boring movie because of it.

But it doesn't help that he's working with a disappointingly dull script written by Bryan Fuller. I say that because the largest part of the script is padding, padding, and more padding. It causes the movie to move at a snail's pace, along an uneven path that takes us nowhere for much of the movie. While a lot of the fluff and padding does shed some light on the other characters and the world that surrounds Carrie, it ultimately serves to take away from Carrie herself. Granted, some time should be given to Sue, Chris, and Mrs. White, but Carrie is the movie's central character and it occasionally feels like Fuller loses focus of that.

Fuller does take a different approach than expected by keeping the narrative somewhat closer to King's novel. While the book is constructed in part from eyewitness statements, police reports, and letter excerpts, the movie is told mostly in flashback, with Sue Snell and various others telling their sides of the story to the curious Detective Mulchaey (played here by David Keith). He also throws in some scenes left out of the original movie, like a scene where a young Carrie causes a meteor shower while being abused by her mother. It's a unique way to approach it, but all it really did was just remind me of Blair Witch 2. And if there's one thing I don't want a movie to do, it's remind me of Blair Witch 2.

Being made for network television does not help the movie at all, either. It forces Fuller and Carson to tone things down, to tame them to fit NBC's sensibilities and keep the FCC and watchdog groups from breathing down their necks. The bullies don't seem as particularly vicious as you'd imagine they would be. One character simply whispering "you suck" in Carrie's ear after she strikes out in a softball game feels more lame than mean, and the shower scene at the beginning is nowhere near as hellish as Brian De Palma depicted it in 1976. De Palma made you honestly felt Carrie's helplessness and desperation, but that's nowhere to be found here. The whole thing sadly seems neutered and watered down.

The movie's open ending has also been a point of contention for some people. Since it was supposed to lead to a TV show, I can understand the reasoning behind ending the pilot in such a way. But that TV show never came thanks to the low ratings the pilot got, so we're left with an ending that feels weird and out of place. I do wonder how a Carrie TV show would have gone, though. I imagine it would have been similar to The Incredible Hulk, with Carrie wandering from town to town, helping people and having the occasional telekinetic freakout that leaves a trail for Detective Mulchaey to follow. The show probably would have been awful and found itself cancelled after six episodes, but it could have made for great material to mock.

And last but not least, the cast has its ups and downs. Among the supporting cast, Emilie De Ravin's character is written as a mean, hateful bitch, but her dialogue is often so lame that you end up rolling her eyes at her. It doesn't help anything that De Ravin plays the role like she's auditioning for some awful high school melodrama produced for Lifetime. Patricia Clarkson, meanwhile, is no Piper Laurie. She's on autopilot through the whole thing, almost as if she's doing the movie because she lost a bet and is disappointed because of it.

Kandyse McClure tries her hardest and come off as very warm and likable, while Rena Sofer is awesome as the gym teacher sympathetic to Carrie's plight. But as you might expect, the movie belongs to Angela Bettis. If you've seen her in May, then you're not alone if you thought the role of Carrie White would be tailor-made for Bettis. And while she's unfortunately stuck in the shadow of Sissy Spacek, Bettis is fantastic in the role. She brings a complexity to Carrie; you can sense shyness, sadness, loneliness, and fear all at once. Her Carrie would love to belong and live a normal life, but the abuse heaped upon her by her mother and classmates for years has turned her into a perpetually frightened ball of nerves. It's a very good performance that Bettis should be proud of, even if it's wasted in a movie as mediocre as this.

Much like The Rage: Carrie 2, the original's maligned sequel, this remake exists today as something of a curiosity. Many have either forgotten or are simply unaware of its existence, and those who have seen it were often left unimpressed. I will give those behind the remake credit for at least trying to make the best movie they could. But try as they might, all they've done is remind me that somebody else did it better nearly forty years ago. I've never had a problem with the concept of remakes in general, but should they make me wish I was watching the original instead? I have high hopes for this new remake, so here's hoping it turned out better than this other one.

Final Rating: **

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Gravity (2013)

Outer space can be terrifying if you think about it. The vast empty void that lay beyond our atmosphere, the enormity of the nothingness that separates Earth from the rest of the universe, can cause some serious existential dread if you let it. And that's why there exist movies about people being marooned in space. The most famous of them is the acclaimed "based on a true story" flick Apollo 13, but if the reviews are any indication the new movie Gravity could give it a run for its money. The trailers looked fantastic and critics are calling it one of the best movies of the year, and now that I've seen it, I have to agree. Gravity is a friggin' amazing movie.

The movie quickly introduces us to Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a rookie astronaut tasked with repairing the Hubble telescope on her first mission into space. But while veteran crew member Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) tries calming her nerves with silly tales of his ribald youth, being outside the shuttle has turned Dr. Stone into a bundle of nerves.

Her situation quickly gets worse when they're informed a growing debris field from a destroyed Russian satellite is heading their way at a high rate of speed. Kowalski and Stone are unable to get back to their shuttle in time and are caught up in a storm of wreckage, with Stone getting separated from her safety rigging and thrown into deep space. Kowalski is just barely able to catch up with her, but with their shuttle damaged and their crew dead, Kowalski and a panicky Dr. Stone are forced to float sixty miles to the evacuated International Space Station and find a way back to Earth before their dwindling oxygen reserves completely give out.

I entered the theater thinking that Gravity would be just a simple thriller with a pair of A-list actors and too much hype. However, I left it feeling that I'd honestly seen one of the best movies of 2013. It's beautifully crafted and unbearably tense, the stillness and silence of space contrasting with the destruction and the soul-crushing terror that consumes the characters as they're faced with the idea of dying out in that endless emptiness. Gravity is a captivating movie that I just couldn't turn away from.

Gravity ends the seven-year hiatus of filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, and if he'd gotten rusty in that time, this movie shows no signs of it. He's crafted the movie beautifully, using the backdrop of Earth and an endless sea of stars to build something that is equal parts exquisite and frightening, Cuarón makes excellent use of long, unbroken shots that allow things to build and draw the viewer into the vastness of where we are and what's happening, which when combined with the movie's wonderful cinematography and excellent special effects allow the movie's tension to be really ramped up. The occasional instance of first-person camera angles that put us in the shoes of Sandra Bullock's character make things even more harrowing, as it puts us in her shoes and makes us see this nightmare from her eyes.

Cuarón matches his excellent visual with some absolutely astounding sound design. Sound design isn't really something I talk about much in my reviews, but it's worth noting in regards to Gravity. For much of the movie, there is practically no sound, just dialogue and Steven Price's fantastic music. This sound deprivation hammers home the isolation of outer space, how off-putting this territory is, and when combined with Cuarón's direction, it makes Gravity that much more effective.

Speaking of effective, any discussion about Gravity certainly must mention the movie's 3D effects. Many people, including myself, have often said that 3D is just a gimmick, a fun little thing that only really serves as a way of throwing things at the audience and making a few extra bucks with premiums added to box office ticket prices. I prefer my 3D as the silly "throw stuff at the audience" stuff and have always thought the idea of filmmakers using it as some kind of storytelling tool was something pretentious at best. But Gravity actually adds a little weight to that idea by boasting some of the most immersive 3D I've seen in a long time.

The year that's been 2013 has seen one lackluster usage of 3D after another, but Gravity is their polar opposite. It adds to the immenseness of their surroundings and the scope of the emptiness around the characters. Things feel larger than life, like Cuarón has actually collected the audience and sent them into orbit with the characters. It's a rare movie that can honestly say that 3D makes the movie better, but Gravity is one of them.

The movie is also helped by the great performances from its two actors. George Clooney is charming and likable in his role, playing it with a confidence that befits his character. However, and this is where I'll briefly venture into spoiler territory, Clooney is only around for the first half hour of the movie and one scene near the end. This leaves Sandra Bullock alone for much of the movie, a task that some actors and actresses might not be up to. Not everybody could do a movie where they're by themselves for the majority of the movie and be successful in doing so, but Bullock more than succeeds in carrying things.

A lot of critics have gone as far as to say Bullock might win or at least be nominated for her second Oscar for Gravity, and it wouldn't surprise me one bit of that happened. Bullock puts forth a commanding performance here, approaching the character believably. She acts the same way I probably would if I were in the same predicament, running the gamut of emotions from panicky to outright terrified to nearly suicidal and all points in between. The story goes that Angelina Jolie was up for the role in 2010 while the movie was being developed, with Marion Cotillard, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johannson, and Blake Lively all supposedly in talks after Jolie left the project to write and direct her movie In the Land of Blood and Honey. I'm glad Bullock ended up being hired, though, because I honestly couldn't imagine those other actresses playing the part quite as well as her. As good as Cuarón's direction is, Bullock elevates the movie just that much more.

And since I usually end up talking about a movie's writing, I'll just come out and say that the script for Gravity does not matter in the slightest. Written by Cuarón and his son Jonás, the script is secondary to everything else in the movie. I'm not saying the Cuaróns' writing is awful, since there are a handful of quiet, more serene moments where the writing is superb; I'm just saying that story doesn't always matter when the majority of your movie is about one astronaut stuck in orbit. The Cuaróns could have just rewritten the movie Open Water, changing the sharks to orbital wreckage and the sea to outer space, and I don't know if anyone would have noticed.

But that's really the only drawback to an otherwise fantastic movie. I haven't seen many movies this year that I would call truly awesome, but Gravity is definitely on that short list. It's one of those rare flicks that work on multiple levels, and is brilliant on all of them. So if you're one of those poor souls that have yet to see Gravity, please take the time to see it theatrically and in 3D because it's worth it. And to tell you the truth, I'm almost glad there are no IMAX theaters near me. If I'd seen this movie in IMAX 3D, my head probably would have exploded.

Final Rating: ****½

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Don Jon (2013)

Movies about love and romance have never really appealed to me. Maybe it's because I'm a man, I don't know. But the majority of the ones I've seen, even the rare few I actually enjoy, come off as trite, formulaic, and clichéd. (Those three words could actually describe a lot of the horror movies I love, but that's a different story.) But despite my personal distaste for so-called "chick flicks," I was drawn to the new movie Don Jon. The trailers actually caught my attention and convinced me that I had to see it. And when I actually did see it, I was surprised to learn that it was absolutely nothing like I expected. And yes, that's a very good thing.

Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the consummate ladies' man, nicknamed "Don Jon" by his friends due to his Don Juan-like ability to land a one night stand with any woman he wants. But despite his incredible success getting women into bed, he finds himself unfulfilled with these sexual interludes, instead turning to online pornography for satisfaction. His addiction to porn has made his love life hollow, since no woman can live up to the unattainable fantasy world that exists on his computer screen.

But his world gets shaken up when he meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johannson) while out on the town with his buddies. Jon knows as soon as he lays eyes on her that he has to have her, but finds himself disarmed by her teasing. Barbara proves herself to be unlike the women Jon usually takes home, as she has no qualms with stringing him along and making him work for her affection.

Jon commits himself to the long haul with Barbara, but she quickly stars leaving clues that she's using him as much as he'd like to use her. Using sex as leverage, she begins molding him into the fantasy boyfriend she longs to have. Barbara tries forcing him to quit watching porn, argues that cleaning his own apartment ― an activity that Jon truly enjoys ― isn't masculine, and talks him into going to night school to find something better than his supposedly demeaning job as a bartender.

It's at his night school classes that he has a series of odd encounters with a fellow student named Esther (Julianne Moore). Jon initially wants nothing to do with her after she accidentally interrupts one of his stealthy attempts at watching porn on his iPhone, away from Barbara's judgmental eyes. But when he finds himself unable to avoid her, they end up forming something of a friendship that forces him to start examining his own views on life and love.

When I first saw the trailers for Don Jon in front of other movies, I was taken aback at first. It didn't come off like any other romance-oriented movie I was familiar with. I was still unsure how I'd feel when I entered that theater a few days ago to see it, fearing that would just be another in the long line of piss-poor Hollywood chick flicks. But Don Jon proved to be something unique. It's an intelligent movie that approaches the idea of two people dating differently than one might expect. It's smartly made, well acted, and funny to boot.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not only the movie's star, but makes his debut as both a writer and director here. It's understandable to be unsure of how an actor's first ventures into something other than acting will turn out, since talents in front of the camera don't always translate to talents behind it. But as far as his directorial work goes, it's solid. Gordon-Levitt proves himself to be a very capable filmmaker, building a movie that is fun to watch from start to finish. He crafts scenes in a way that pulls the viewer into each scene, especially in the moments where Jon goes into detail about his usual routine. It's a lively production that will hopefully be the start of something good if Gordon-Levitt chooses to add more to his résumé as a director.

But as good as his direction is, it's overshadowed by the script he's written. Gordon-Levitt uses Don Jon to create a character study between two people whose views on love, romance, and sex have been shaped by movies. Jon's addiction to porn has molded him into a man who thinks that's how sex should be. Because of that, he's left disappointed by every woman he beds because there's absolutely no way they can live up to his lofty, unattainable standards.

Barbara finds herself in a similar boat without even realizing it. The character is established as loving romantic movies, and it's practically stated outright that her ideal relationship is based on them. On more than one occasion, Barbara comes off as shallow and manipulative, trying to twist Jon into something like the men from her cinematic fantasies rather than love and care about him for who he is. This dichotomy between Jon and Barbara proves to be genuinely intriguing, and Gordon-Levitt handles it delicately and smartly.

The only real flaw is that the movie's narrative seems to taper off at the end rather than build to a real climax. It feels like Gordon-Levitt ran out of steam when he got to the ending, and it just cruises to a stop rather than having a truly satisfying ending. And as I write this, I've realized that maybe that could have been Gordon-Levitt's intention all along. The movie is going great and I'm having a blast watching it but then it just kinda slows to a crawl during the last ten minutes and limps across the finish line, which could be some kind of reflection of the story itself, much like how Jon was never satisfied with his one night stands when it was all said and done. Then again, I could be putting too much thought into it, couldn't I?

And last but most certainly not least is perhaps the movie's strongest element, its cast. While the majority of the supporting cast blends in with the background for the most part, Tony Danza makes his presence known with his hilarious, boisterous performance as Jon's father. Each scene he's in is a real treat, to the point that I almost wish the movie had been a buddy comedy starring Danza and Gordon-Levitt.

As we move towards the main characters, Julianne Moore works well with what she's given. Her role isn't as big as it could be, since it doesn't feel like she really has much to do until the third act gets rolling, but it's mysterious enough that it allows Moore to be warm yet simultaneously flighty. Scarlett Johannson, meanwhile, plays her role incredibly well. You know almost immediately that her character is a manipulative bitch (and really, what woman would get pissed off because her boyfriend likes cleaning his apartment?) and Johannson jumps into this headfirst. With an unfaltering Jersey accent, she serves as a great foil for Gordon-Levitt's Jon, two sides of the same coin that are very much alike yet fail to notice it.

But I felt it was Gordon-Levitt who made the movie worth seeing. He's a charismatic, likable actor and his performance is quite charming. Yeah, he might come off as just another guido who was rejected by a Jersey Shore casting director, but Gordon-Levitt puts a lot of heart into the performance. By the end of the movie, one finds themselves really liking Jon in spite of his flaws, hoping for the best as his life goes in a new direction. This is a credit to how well Gordon-Levitt is able to capture the audience, as he does a fantastic job with it.

Don Jon, as I said earlier, is a unique movie. It defied all the expectations and preconceived notions I had about the genre and ventured down a path which I was happy to follow. It's not the same kind of romantic movie one might anticipate, not the sappy "based on a Nicholas Sparks novel" schmaltz one usually sees. Don Jon is the exact opposite of that, an almost subversive effort that I enjoyed a lot. So make sure to check out Don Jon when you get the chance, and make sure you bring a date along with you.

Final Rating: ***½