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