Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Last Stand (2013)

If you've followed this blog for any serious length of time, then you'll know how much I love horror movies and superheroes. Don't believe me? Have a look through my archives and find out for yourself. But what isn't as obvious is my affection for action movies. And when I was a kid, there was no greater action hero than Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was the absolute king of the badasses, his movies during the '80s and early-'90s still standing out as some of the action genre's true classics.

But Hollywood has a thing about changing over the years. The heyday of guys like Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone eventually came to an end during the '90s after a string of mediocre and just plain bad movies, and Schwarzenegger began his well-known stint as the Governor of California in 2003. But I guess the successful release of The Expendables and Stallone's revivals of both Rambo and Rocky started people on a nostalgia kick, because Schwarzenegger's jumped back into the action movie game with The Last Stand, his first starring role in a decade. The movie sadly tanked at the box office, which is a real shame because it's a really entertaining flick despite a couple of flaws.

Feared drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) is sprung from police custody during a prison transfer, and makes a quick rush for the Mexican border in a modified Chevrolet Corvette ZR1. As FBI agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) scrambles to find a way to stop him, Cortez consistently manages to avoid every roadblock and SWAT team in his way. But his path to Mexico will take him through the tiny border town of Sommerton Junction, Arizona, which you wouldn't think would stand a chance. However, Sommerton Junction's dedicated lawman, Sheriff Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and his deputies will not let Cortez escape without putting up a fight.

You won't believe how excited I was to see The Last Stand. I grew up loving Arnold Schwarzenegger's action movies, so seeing him starring in his first lead role in a decade got me so jazzed I couldn't stand it. But perhaps I got a little too excited, because The Last Stand is merely okay at best. There are far worse Schwarzenegger movies out there, but I can't really say that I thought it was on the same level as the ones that made him a star either. It's perfectly acceptable entertainment that is fun yet superficial.

The movie is the American directorial debut of South Korean filmmaker Kim Ji-woon, and he does a decent enough job here. A lot of the action is exciting, and Kim films everything in a way that makes the viewer feel like they're along for the ride. It's not a flawless effort, though, as there are a few moments where Kim resorts to that damnable fast-edited shaky-cam style that permeates so many modern action movies nowadays. I'm just so tired of seeing filmmakers craft scenes where they fall back on that as if it would make their movies more intense. It just doesn't work for me, because I actually like being able to see what's happening.

Kim isn't exactly working from a great script, either. The movie was written by Andrew Knauer, whose script is thoroughly disappointing. The characters are one-dimensional shells, which causes attempts at drama to fall flat because we have a hard time caring about the characters. They're only there because it would just look weird staging action scenes with no people. The dialogue is forgettable, and the villain... holy crap. I can say without a doubt that the worst part of The Last Stand is its villain. He never once feels like a threat or a criminal mastermind or anything like that. All the best action movie villains have an air of menace or perceived superiority to them, but the villain in this movie completely lacks that. He's just a guy in a muscle car, that's all. Nothing more, nothing less.

But at least the cast isn't so bad. Johnny Knoxville and Luis Guzmán, are amusing, and I thought Jaimie Alexander did an admirable job as well. Forest Whitaker also contributes a passable performance, but his character occasionally feels useless despite dominating a lot of the first half of the movie. Also useless is Eduardo Noriega as our villain. He has nothing to do outside of the movie's climactic fight scene, and thus Noriega is left unable to make any impression.

Last but not least is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who I really liked a lot. Schwarzenegger is a lot of fun in his role, and his self-awareness, which demonstrates itself in a willingness to crack jokes about his age, actually made it more humorous than it could have been otherwise. He's not the young man he was at his peak, but he still has some of that action hero fire that made him famous to begin with. Schwarzenegger is the strongest part of this movie, and I think The Last Stand would have been worse off without him.

I'm still bummed that the movie was a box office failure, because I thought it was worth seeing even though it had its share of missteps. You'd think that it would have at least gotten the nostalgia crowd that was part of the reason why both Expendables movies were so successful. I mean, I'm not saying I thought The Last Stand should have been a billion-dollar blockbuster, but it could have done a lot better. I hope it will find an audience on DVD, because it would make for a fun Saturday afternoon time-killer. If it's still playing near you, go check it out. It might be flawed, but The Last Stand is well worth your time.

Final Rating: ***

Sunday, January 27, 2013

8MM (1999)

I've been fascinated with urban legends since I was a kid. The whimsical and scary ones are the ones that always captured my attention, but the one that's terrified me most of all is the concept of "snuff films." The idea that someone's videotaped a murder and sold the video for profit just sends shivers up my spine. Granted, footage of actual deaths does exist; you can find R. Budd Dwyer's televised suicide on YouTube, for crying out loud. But for the most part, snuff films are generally classified as being as much an urban legend as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.

But snuff films have long been fodder for horror filmmakers. Movies like A Serbian Film and Vacancy have had characters fall prey to snuff film producers, while the infamous Faces of Death (and its various sequels and knockoffs) actually spliced real footage of atrocities in with dramatized, fictional footage. This brings us to the movie I'm reviewing now, the simply-titled 8MM. I've actually wanted to see 8MM for quite a while, mainly because I'm a fan of its star and because its concept intrigued me. But I've been putting off watching it for years, so I might as well go ahead and dive in now.

Meet private investigator Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage), who as the movie begins is contacted by Mrs. Christian (Myra Carter), the widow of a recently deceased millionaire. Mrs. Christian discovered a reel of eight-millimeter film that appears to depict the torture and murder of a teenage girl while cleaning out her late husband's safe, and she wants to hire Welles to determine whether the film is authentic or just a very convincing fake.

Welles's investigation is quickly fruitful, as he manages to identify the girl in the snuff film as a missing girl from Ohio. A trail of clues leads him to the seedier side of Hollywood, where he's befriended by an adult bookstore clerk calling himself Max California (Joaquin Phoenix). But as Welles and Max descend into the underground porn industry and delve deeper into the mystery surrounding the snuff film's origin, they discover a dark world from which they may not be able to emerge.

I approached 8MM knowing that it hadn't been met with very many positive reviews during its theatrical run, but with a hope that it wouldn't really be that bad. I've disagreed with a movie's Rotten Tomatoes rating on more than one occasion in the past. But all truth be told, 8MM is just a mediocre effort all the way through. Considering some of the elements it had to work with, this is a movie that could have been awesome had it been crafted properly. But the final result is a barely adequate movie that's not much more than the sum of its parts.

At the helm of this little adventure is Joel Schumacher, this being his first directorial effort following the disaster that was Batman & Robin. And while I didn't think his work on 8MM was that bad, it feels more like a generic, run-of-the-mill thriller than anything else. The score composed by Mychael Danne is actually pretty good and there's some decent noir-like camerawork from cinematographer Robert Elswit, but Schumacher never really builds any serious atmosphere or tension. He's trying, I'll give him that. You really get the feeling that he was trying to make some kind of weird amalgam of Twin Peaks (only with perverts instead of weirdos) and The Silence of the Lambs with a touch of Michael Mann's Manhunter thrown in for seasoning. But Schumacher sadly never gets above mediocrity, which is rather unfortunate.

A big part of why it's unfortunate is because the movie was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, who had previously written the thoroughly awesome Seven a few years earlier. The script features a concept and a number of moments that would have been a lot more fascinating in a better-made movie, but that's not to say that the script is devoid of flaws. The dialogue gets trite at times, the story starts feeling very formulaic, and some of the characters could have stood to be better developed.

But these flaws can't all be blamed on Walker. The story I heard goes that Walker refused to tone down the script at the studio's request, so Schumacher took it and retooled it himself. I don't know why they couldn't have simply trusted Walker, because Seven more than proved he knew what he was doing. I'm honestly not sure if the problems with the script were due to Schumacher's retooling or if it was just one of Walker's lesser efforts. But I do know that the script could have been much more intense and provocative. Instead, we're left with a movie that tries to shock yet is rarely successful in doing so. It's simply another case where something with a metric ton of potential is wasted.

I can say the same thing about the cast, too. There are some talented actors in this movie, yet none of them really knock it out of the park. Take, for example, our leading actor. Nicolas Cage has a few moments where he shines here, but for the most part, he just seems a little... I don't know, flat, I guess. It's not a particularly bad performance, but he doesn't do anything that couldn't have been done by a dozen other actors. Cage is a good actor in good movies and hilarious in bad ones, but in movies like 8MM, he's sadly forgettable.

There are some performances among the supporting cast that aren't bad, though. Catherine Keener is sympathetic in her tiny, thankless role as Cage's character's wife, while Peter Stormare plays his role, that of a producer of extreme bondage porn, with a sleazy gusto. James Gandolfini is okay but also forgettable as another porn producer, but everyone in the movie is outshined by Joaquin Phoenix. His character is a smartass who thinks he's seen it all, yet approaches everything with a sort-of wide-eyed fascination. It's a fun, charming bit of acting from Phoenix that, while it might not be on his career highlight reel, is still worth checking out.

That actually sums up the whole movie. It's not a great movie, nor is it actually really bad either. But it's worth checking out on a boring Saturday night if you're into the thriller genre. It never drags, and there are a few scenes that are certainly effective. But if you choose to avoid 8MM, you aren't missing out on anything either. It's a decent enough movie that could have been so much better with a little spit and polish. And to its credit, it's at least better than that direct-to-video sequel that came out a few years ago. So it's got that going for it, I guess.

Final Rating: **½

Monday, January 7, 2013

Texas Chainsaw (2013)

As a fan of horror movies since adolescence, I've seen and heard of my fair share of classic genre movies. But few have quite the same reputation as Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Just its name alone is a conversation starter, and the movie has spent nearly forty years developing a reputation as one of the most visceral, gut-wrenching horror movies of the '70s.

The movie inspired three sequels of varying quality over the years, and was famously reimagined in 2003 by New Line Cinema and Michael Bay's production company, Platinum Dunes. But after the lukewarm reception to the remake's prequel, the franchise went dormant. Fast forward to this past weekend, and Lions Gate's resurrection of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre name. Titled simply Texas Chainsaw, the producers took the brave step of not following in the continuity established by Platinum Dunes's remake or even the continuity of the earlier sequels, but instead created a direct sequel to the original movie from 1974. And it's in 3D, to boot. Each of the movies in the franchise have run the gamut from good to bad, so I was curious to see where this one fit in. And you know what? It's pretty friggin' terrible.

The movie picks up immediately following the events of the original movie, and Sally Hardesty's escape from the Sawyer clan has made their murderous activities public knowledge. But before the police can move in and arrest them, a vigilante mob arrives and torches their house. The Sawyer family is presumed dead, but a surviving infant is found by one of the vigilantes and is adopted by him and his wife.

Fast forward to 2012, and the baby is a grown woman named Heather (Alexandra Daddario). She's spent her life being blissfully unaware of the fact that she was adopted, but this illusion is shattered when she learns she's been left an inheritance by her biological grandmother. This grandmother, one of the lone remaining members of the Sawyer family, has left her entire estate to Heather. She and her friends take a detour on their road trip to New Orleans to visit the gigantic house that Heather now owns, but they're in for a surprise when they arrive. The basement of the house is coincidentally occupied by Heather's long-lost cousin Leatherface (Dan Yeager), and he's not exactly happy to see strangers on his property.

I guess the moral of the story is to never get your hopes up. I'd gotten my hopes up and Texas Chainsaw showed up and pooped all over those hopes. It's an unabashedly awful movie that gives off the impression that it was only made because somebody got the rights to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre name and decided to make a little money. There's no passion, no spark to this movie. Had it not been for the presence of Leatherface, it would have been easily mistaken for any one of a million random direct-to-video movies that would premiere on Syfy on any random weekend. And all truth be told, those Syfy movies would probably be more entertaining than this.

The movie was directed by John Luessenhop, and if Texas Chainsaw is any indicator, then I'm not really going to rush to see any of Luessenhop's other movies. You would think that a horror movie would want to be suspenseful or scary, but nope, none of that is here. More than a few attempts at jump scares were just taken directly from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so the only way they would be effective at all is if this is the only movie in the franchise you've actually seen. It's not just scares that Luessenhop steals liberally, but he borrows certain camera angles as well in what I'm guessing was his attempt to pay homage to the first movie. But just because Tobe Hooper had Leatherface drop somebody on a meat hook, or had a girl pop out of a freezer, or had a low-angle tracking shot where some girl's butt took up a lot of the frame doesn't mean that your Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie should have those too.

The movie doesn't even really look that appealing, either. I said before that it felt like it would have gone direct-to-video or been produced exclusively for Syfy, and a lot of that is because the movie looks like those kinds of movies. It has this weird veneer to it that makes it look like it doesn't belong anywhere near a movie theater screen. I've read that the movie had a budget of eight million dollars, but it honestly looks like it was half that. Everything has a "blah" look to it, like the production designers just couldn't be bothered to care. And if the people making the movie don't care, I really can't be bothered to care either.

And you know who else doesn't care? The writers. The script is credited to Adam Marcus, Debra Sullivan, and Kirsten Elms, and not one of the three contributed anything worthwhile. There are no likable characters whatsoever, thus providing no emotional anchor point for viewers to latch onto. There's not even enough to get me to root for Leatherface to kill everybody. There is absolutely nothing going on to get me to feel anything about the movie other than "is it over yet?"

The whole script is just a mess, full of inconsistencies, wasted opportunities, and overall stupidity. Take, for example, the scene where Leatherface chases Heather into a local carnival. The scene only goes two or three minutes and they barely do anything with it. You're writing a 3D slasher movie with a scene in a carnival and you can't come up with some worthwhile gags? That's as much Lussenberg's fault as it is the writers, but you'd think that they would so something with it.

There's also a subplot where Heather's boyfriend is cheating on her with her best friend, and it goes nowhere and contributes nothing to the movie outside of a chance to see Tania Raymond ― the actress who plays the best friend ― in her underwear. The subplot isn't played for any "oh no, will Heather find out?" drama and it isn't even referenced beyond one or two scenes, which just renders the whole thing pointless.

And how about the whole "blood is thicker than water" thing? The final act of the movie sees members of the vigilante mob that killed the Sawyers now trying to kill Heather just because she was born a Sawyer. Never mind the fact that she was a baby when it all happened and didn't even know the Sawyers existed until the beginning of the movie (and didn't know any of the gory details until much later). I guess we're supposed to view them as the bad guys because Heather didn't really do anything wrong, which I understand. But then Heather decides to show Leatherface a little sympathy and starts helping him. Yes, he's a psychotic cannibal that butchered all her friends and spent much of the movie trying to kill her, but they're cousins so all is forgiven? That is stupid.

And the biggest thing of all is that the movie's time frame is all over the place. The movie establishes that the "modern day" stuff takes place in 2012, but considering that the original movie explicitly states it takes place in the summer of 1973, that would put Heather at nearly 40 years old. It wouldn't be a big deal if the character (and the actress herself) wasn't depicted as being in her mid-twenties. Are we supposed to assume that the original movie takes place in the '90s? You can't argue that this movie takes place in the '90s, because they didn't have iPhones back then (plus the movie says outright that it's 2012, to boot). I'm sure Lussenhop considered that, because the year is obscured every time the date of the first movie is mentioned. But the whole thing just feels like they couldn't be bothered to put forth any effort at all.

I can actually say the same thing about the cast too. The ones that are trying just aren't very good at all. R&B singer Trey Songz is particularly bad, as he's so stiff and wooden that it seems like just standing there is beyond his abilities. I was also disappointed by Dan Yeager as Leatherface,. He honestly doesn't have much screen presence at all. Yeager didn't feel all that monstrous or intimidating, which is saying something considering he's playing a 6'6" cannibal swinging a chainsaw and wearing somebody's face as a mask. I will say, though that I liked Alexandra Daddario's performance. She was better than this movie deserves, playing her part with enough strength and conviction to make it work. It's just a shame she didn't have better material to work with, though.

Not even the movie's much-promoted 3D effects are really worth talking about either. There are only a few instances where the 3D works well, mainly the bits where Leatherface points his chainsaw right at the camera. But outside of the occasional "push stuff at the audience" moment, nothing is added outside of an extra surcharge onto the ticket. There's so little depth added that you could honestly watch the movie in 2D and barely notice any difference. If a 3D Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie was something that really needed to exist, why not just do a conversion of the original or the remake and re-release it in theaters? I'd have much rather seen one of those instead of this piece of crap.

So yeah, I guess you can tell I thought Texas Chainsaw sucked. It still doesn't top Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation as the worst movie in the series, but at least that one had Matthew McConaughey's hilarious overacting to make it worthwhile. This movie didn't even have that. I'd heard that it was supposed to have been released in October but was ultimately postponed to this month, and considering January's reputation as a dumping ground for Hollywood's less-than-stellar genre movies, I can't say I'm really all that surprised. Believe me, Texas Chainsaw is less than stellar, alright. Long story short, this movie sucks and you'd be wise to avoid it. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to watch one of the other Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies and get this nasty taste out of my mouth.

Final Rating: