Wednesday, July 31, 2013

R.I.P.D. (2013)

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last fifteen years, you've surely noticed that movies based on comic books have proven to be huge for Hollywood. Well, movies based on superhero comics, anyway. Movies based on comics from other genres don't always turn out so well. Either they're good yet crash and burn at the box office or they end up being frustratingly mediocre. That's why I was intrigued to see how the new movie R.I.P.D. would turn out. Based on Peter M. Lenkov's four-issue comic book published by Dark Horse Comics in 2000, R.I.P.D.'s advertisements made it look like one of those movies that could either be really fun or really hokey. It still got my attention anyway, which is why I had to check it out.

Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds) and Bobby Hayes (Kevin Bacon) are two of the finest detective among the Boston Police Department's ranks. But everyone's got skeletons in their closets. For Nick, his skeleton is the pile of gold he and Bobby secretly stole from a crime scene. His conscience eating away at him, Nick mentions to Bobby that he's considering turning in his share. A call about a drug bust interrupts Nick before he can tell his superiors about the gold, and in the ensuing shootout, Bobby guns down his partner before he can rat them out.

But as his spirit ascends into the afterlife and approaches the light at the end of the tunnel, Nick is yanked into the office of Mildred Proctor (Mary-Louise Parker), the director of the Rest In Peace Department. A paranormal agency that recruits cops after they die, the R.I.P.D.'s officers are tasked with catching "Deados," monstrous ghosts that have returned to Earth. Proctor offers Nick two choices: join the R.I.P.D. for one hundred years, or face his eternal judgment.

Naturally, Nick accepts and is partnered with Roy Pulsipher (Jeff Bridges), a U.S. Marshall who died in the days of the Wild West. Returning to Boston for their first case together, Nick discovers the suspect they're after is in possession of gold similar to what he and Bobby stole. Nick and Roy investigate further and learn that numerous Deados have been using these gold pieces to assemble an ancient artifact that, once activated, would reverse the tunnel that transports the dead into the afterlife and allow Deados to run wild on Earth. And we can't have that, can we?

I noted earlier that non-superhero comic book movies usually tank at the box office. R.I.P.D. was no exception, and I can't really say I'm surprised. The movie is basically what would have happened if Men in Black ripped off Ghostbusters. I know that description has been thrown around quite a bit by film critics and reviewers, but it's the truth. R.I.P.D. is not a particularly bad movie, but it's not charming or creative enough to rise above mediocrity. Most of the things I liked about R.I.P.D. were things I'd already seen and enjoyed more in other movies. It's just an ultimately forgettable movie that does nearly nothing to stand out.

The movie was directed by Robert Schwentke, who actually does a decent enough job with the movie. His efforts were strong enough to hold the movie together relatively well, but the movie's trailers alone are proof enough that Schwentke wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel. He keeps the movie rolling and it's rarely dull, but if you've seen any movie with a similar premise, you've seen what Schwentke ultimately did with this movie. His direction is serviceable while you're watching the movie and not putting a lot of thought into it, but once the credits roll and you have a little time to reflect upon the movie, you realize just how generic it felt.

But Schwentke's direction is certainly better than the script deserves. Writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi have pretty much stolen the plot from Men in Black wholesale. Look at it this way: a hotshot cop is drafted into service for a secretive agency that polices otherworldly entities who walk among us in disguise. He's teamed with a cranky veteran and they uncover a diabolical plot that puts the whole world in danger. Can you tell which movie I just described? Seriously, watch the first Men in Black movie, swap out aliens for ghosts, and you have R.I.P.D.! The movie plays out in almost exactly the same way, and I got the feeling that this is how The Asylum would do their mockbusters if they had access to multimillion-dollar budgets and A-list talent.

Even the cast has some ups and downs. Ryan Reynolds is a good actor when he has material that compliments his strengths, but it just feels like he's on autopilot here. The fact that the character is poorly written doesn't help matters much, but Reynolds comes across like he just wanted to collect a paycheck. Kevin Bacon, meanwhile, does the best he can in his role, playing the character like Bacon is having a ton of fun just being there. Like Reynolds, Bacon's character isn't exactly well-written, but he does make a decent enough go of it.

Mary-Louise Parker and Devin Ratray also contribute some fun performances in their minor roles, but R.I.P.D. belongs to Jeff Bridges. He makes the movie worth seeing, playing his character as a comedic version of how he approached Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. Bridges is the best part of the movie,w ith every second he's on the screen leading to something funny. R.I.P.D. might not be much, but it at least has Bridges going for it.

That, and the 3D effects aren't that bad either. The movie went through a conversion into 3D during post-production, and while some scenes still look flat (like with most converted movies), the 3D actually looks pretty decent. There's a scene where Nick and Roy chase an overweight ghost through the streets of Boston, and the 3D adds a nice bit of depth. It's not the best conversion, but it isn't the worst either.

And truth be told, that's how I could sum up R.I.P.D. in general. It's not great, but I've seen worse too. The movie has a few fleeting flashes of brilliance, and I actually enjoyed it for the most part. It's biggest problem is its lack of originality, but to its credit, it's still a better Men in Black movie than either of the Men in Black sequels. So it has that going for it, right?

Final Rating: **½

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Lone Ranger (2013)

While many of the fictional heroes who've infiltrated American pop culture over the last several decades have come from comic books, one cannot overlook the influence of radio dramas from the pre-television era during the 1930s and 1940s. Believe it or not, Superman's notorious weakness, Kryptonite, was a product of the radio shows based on the Man of Steel. But radio dramas also gave us one of pop culture's most famous cowboys, the Lone Ranger.

Created by George W. Trendle and Fran Striker, the creators of the Green Hornet, the Lone Ranger debuted in 1933 in a radio play broadcast on Detroit's WXYZ. The show proved so popular that it was soon being syndicated nationwide. The Lone Ranger himself has endured since then, having appeared in comic books, film serials and feature-length movies, novels, and a TV show that ran on ABC from 1949 to 1957.

But the Lone Ranger's popularity hasn't been what it used to be lately. While there are comics starring the character still in publication, the Ranger's become something of a cultural footnote who'd left the spotlight by the time the '60s started. And similar to his contemporary, the Green Hornet, Hollywood tried reviving the character with a big-budget blockbuster that ― like the Green Hornet movie ― could have been better.

Let's go back in time to the year 1869, where lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) is taking a train to his hometown of Colby, Texas. Unbeknownst to him, also on the train is notorious outlaw and cannibal Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), who is being transported to face his execution after being arrested by John's Texas Ranger brother Dan (James Badge Dale). Before they can make it to Colby, though, Cavandish's gang hijacks the train and ultimately derails the train as they break out their leader.

Barely having survived the train wreck, John is deputized as a Texas Ranger by Dan and recruited into his posse as they try to track down Cavandish and bring him to justice. Things end up taking a deadly turn when the posse is ambushed and killed. John, however, manages to barely cling onto life, seemingly revived by a mystical white horse that roams the desert. He is nursed to health by Tonto (Johnny Depp), a Comanche outcast who explains that the horse brought him back from the dead because he is to be a great warrior. Both of them holding a grudge against Cavandish for different reasons, John and Tonto hit the trail to bring their quarry to justice.

The history of this movie is a complicated one. It spent years in development, suffered from numerous production delays and problems with its budget, was met with overwhelmingly negative reviews from critics upon its release, and has been classified as a flop after underperforming at the box office. And while one can make an argument that The Lone Ranger is a flawed, imperfect movie, I still thought it was a fun, entertaining flick that I actually really liked, Rotten Tomatoes score be damned.

I've seen the movie described as what would happen if the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were Westerns, and I can't say that's an inaccurate description. The movie feels an awful lot like one of the Pirates movies, due in large part to the fact that producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski, the writers, and the star have all reunited for this particular adventure. From a directorial standpoint, Verbinski's work is much in the same vein as his efforts on the first three Pirates movies, with a stylistic flair and an exciting energy that keeps the viewer engaged in even the silliest moments. The movie's faults aside, Verbinski does a fine job holding it all together.

My biggest complaint is that I wish Verbinski had spent a little more time in the editing room, jettisoning some of the useless fluff that populates the movie. The Lone Ranger didn't need to be two and a half hours long, and getting rid of some of the filler could have streamlined things a bit.

Though to tell you the truth, I'd blame the script for that just as much as I would Verbinski. Writers Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio have cobbled together a script that is bloated, unfocused, and overlong. Did we absolutely need that little subplot with a one-legged brothel madam played by Helena Bonham Carter? And was a cannibalistic outlaw not enough of a villain for them that they had to add some dumb conspiracy surrounding silver mines and the Transcontinental Railroad? Did they have to include a poorly-done love interest and a kid that don't contribute very much to the movie? If Haythe, Elliott, and Rossio had left out all this extraneous stuff, the movie might have been a little better. But all it does is show that Rossio and Elliott didn't learn their lesson after writing Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

Another problem I had with the script is how the Lone Ranger is depicted. For the first two hours of the movie, he's an ineffectual ninny who constantly needs to be saved or at the very least pointed in the right direction by Tonto. It isn't until the climax that he finally comes into his own and acts like the hero the Lone Ranger is supposed to be. I understand that this is an origin story and John Reid isn't necessarily going to be the Ranger right away, but you'd think that he'd be less of a wimp. Then again, the writers seem to be somewhat aware of this, considering how often Tonto and other characters mock his seeming ineptitude. It still doesn't change the fact that Tonto has to practically drag him into heroism kicking and screaming, though.

But at least the cast contributes some decent performances despite the flaws with the material. William Fichtner makes for a great bad guy, even though I wish his role had been written stronger. I'd have liked to see him be the movie's sole bad guy, since that might have given him a little more room to work with, but I guess it's too late to go back and change that now. And I can say the same for Tom Wilkinson, who plays a corrupt railroad tycoon. The character is dull as dishwater for much of the movie, but that's no fault of Wilkinson's. He does as good a job as he can with what he's given, weak as it may be.

And even though I've complained about how the character was a wuss for much of the movie, I thought Armie Hammer was still great as the Lone Ranger. He's funny and charming, and when he finally gets to engage in some heroics, Hammer does a fine job. The choice to cast Hammer as such an iconic character has been hotly debated in some of the other reviews I've read online. Not everybody thought he was the right fit for the role, but I actually thought he did the absolute best he could. And had the character been written more genuinely heroic for a longer portion of the movie than just the climax, Hammer's portrayal of the Lone Ranger could have possibly gotten more acclaim.

Everyone in the cast, however, is overshadowed by Johnny Depp as Tonto. Going into the movie, I thought it was somewhat perplexing that Depp got top billing even over Hammer, despite Hammer being the movie's title character. I figured it was just because Depp is more famous, similar to how Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman were billed higher than Christopher Reeve in Superman. But after seeing the movie, I'm guessing it's also because Depp stole the movie and ran away with it. He's basically playing Captain Jack Sparrow if he were a Native American, but that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. It makes his scenes more fun, more engaging. And getting to see even a little bit of Captain Jack in a movie that doesn't totally suck (I'm looking at you, On Stranger Tides) is okay by me.

The fact that The Lone Ranger tanked is disappointing, but not surprising. The movie was marketed towards younger audiences, but how many people under the age of 30 have even heard of the Lone Ranger and Tonto? It's a shame too, because the movie actually left me wanting to see a sequel, one that will probably never happen now. I enjoyed the movie a lot, warts and all, and if there's never another Lone Ranger movie, then I'm satisfied with this one. Hi-yo, Silver, away!

Final Rating: ***½

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

V/H/S/2 (2013)

Late last fall, I stumbled upon V/H/S, a horror anthology that used the "found footage" gimmick to craft a very unique premise. Not every segment was up my alley, but at the end of the day, I really dug the movie. That's why I got excited when I heard that a sequel would be coming sooner rather than later. That excitement only grew further with reports that V/H/S/2 was actually better than the original. So let's not drag this out any further and jump right into V/H/S/2.

Much like its predecessor, V/H/S/2's segments are all connected by one overarching story. Private investigators Larry (Lawrence Michael Levine) and Ayesha (Kelsy Abbott) have been hired to track down a missing college student, filming their every move as they conduct their search. They sneak into the student's seemingly empty house and, much like the first movie, discover a pile of TVs and an even bigger pile of VHS tapes. They also find a laptop with a recently-recorded video of the kid they're looking for, who rants about the tapes and how bizarre they are. Larry elects to continue investigating the house while Ayesha combs through the tapes for clues. But watching these tapes will expose her to a dark evil that neither she nor her partner are prepared to deal with.

The first tape, "Phase I Clinical Trials," features a young man named Herman (Adam Wingard), who lost one of his eyes in an accident. He has a camera implanted where his eye had been, trading a little bit of privacy for sight. But when he returns home, he begins experiencing what he believes are hallucinations where malevolent spirits are after him. Herman is contacted shortly thereafter by Clarissa (Hannah Hughes), another client of the doctor who installed Herman's eye implant. She explains that much in the same way her cochlear implant allows her to hear ghosts, his new eye allows him to see them. And as is always the case in horror movies, these supernatural entities are not only very real, but very mean.

In the second tape, "A Ride in the Park," a man (Jay Saunders) sets out for a fun round of biking in the local park, documenting his trip with a helmet-mounted camera. But a strange encounter with a hysterical woman leads him to some hungry zombies. Unable to escape them, the biker is quickly attacked and added to their ranks, joining them as they attack others in the area.

Tape number three, "Safe Haven," follows a documentary crew as they travel to a remote area of Indonesia to film a report on a cult that supposedly exploits the women and children of their congregation. While the crew bickers amongst themselves for petty reasons, they soon find that they're in deeper trouble when the cult's leader (Epy Kusnandar) begins a ceremony that starts with a mass suicide and sparks what appears to be Hell itself being brought into our world.

And in our final segment, "Slumber Party Alien Abduction," some adolescents have invited a bunch of their friends to their secluded lake house to have a good time while their parents are out of town. Much as the segment's title implies, however, their fun comes to an end when extraterrestrials make their presence known and start picking everyone off one by one. Yep, the setup is that simple and straightforward.

I noted earlier that I'd heard V/H/S/2 was better than the first movie. And believe it or not, it actually is in a few ways. It's by no means a perfect movie, but it still manages to be oddly satisfying with some legitimate spooks and scares amongst its segments. Like all anthology movies, some segments are stronger than others, but they all congeal together to make V/H/S/2 a solid whole.

The movie's first tape, Adam Wingard's "Phase I Clinical Trials," is basically The Eye but shorter and faster-paced. Wingard doesn't waste any time with character development, giving us only the briefest of exposition as he shoves the ghosts right in our faces. That's not a bad thing, though, as it gets us into the action right away. Wingard's direction makes for a segment that I thought was genuinely creepy, but because of how short it is and the breakneck speed at which it moves, it's already over by the time it really gets going.

Let's move along to "A Ride in the Park," directed by EdĂșardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale. Like I said in my World War Z review, I'm suffering from a little zombie burnout. But the segment approaches the whole zombie thing in a unique way, which I thought was really cool and I liked it a lot. It helps that Sanchez and Hale are no strangers to the "found footage" style, both having worked on The Blair Witch Project as co-director and producer respectively. They've created something that is equal parts gross, clever, and scary, doing more in thirteen minutes than most zombie movies in the last few years had in two hours.

But there's just no topping V/H/S/2's third segment. Every review I read beforehand, every critique I saw called "Safe House" the best of the bunch. Those reviews and critiques were absolutely right, because it's one of the best pieces of horror cinema I've seen in a while. Directors Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans build a real feeling of dread and foreboding throughout the entire segment, making it tense almost to the point of being oppressive. It all adds up to an insane climax, a blood-soaked attempt by the film crew to escape the cult's compound. It's a thrilling way to end a segment that was already as tense as it possibly could be and it makes V/H/S/2 worth checking out just to see "Safe Haven."

It's just a shame that it was followed by "Slumber Party Alien Abduction." Directed by Jason Eisener, it's definitely the weak link in the movie's chain. There are no real scares, no tension or suspense. And if you're epileptic or hate strobe lights, then you'll loathe "Slumber Party Alien Abduction." It's frustratingly difficult to tell what the hell is happening during the climactic alien abduction because of it being lit with strobe lights (which ends up causing the segment to look like it was edited with a chainsaw). The ultra-annoying characters don't help matters either, and really, the whole segment comes off as something of a waste.

If you're wondering why I haven't talked about the wraparound story, it's because there isn't much to talk about. Director Simon Barrett does a decent enough job using it to tie everything together, but it's pretty much the exact same story as the one that connected the stories in the first movie. It doesn't particularly add anything here, but the good news is that it doesn't eat up too much time.

So not everything about V/H/S/2 is great. But I thought it was a pleasant improvement on the "horror movie mixtape" idea the first movie brought us. The disappointing elements are easily drowned out by the stuff that works, leaving V/H/S/2 as a mixed bag that's good but not great. I'll definitely recommend it to the curious and people who liked the first V/H/S, so if you want to see it, check it out if you have the chance. And I'm honestly interested in what they'll do with a third V/H/S movie. They can only go up from here, right?

Final Rating: ***