Wednesday, October 31, 2012

My thoughts on Disney's purchase of Star Wars.

I'm sure by now you've heard the news of Disney's $4 billion purchase of LucasFilm and their plans on making several new Star Wars films.  Once this news was announced, I received a blitz of texts and messages about it.  I guess when you're internet persona has "Vader" in the name, or if you've ever seen the inside of my place, it's not difficult to assume I would be heavily invested in the Star Wars Universe.

From strictly a fanboy perspective, I'm all for more Star Wars films.  I'm glad the franchise isn't going fade away, and will be allowed to continue on past George Lucas. Hopefully the universe will continue similar to the way Star Trek's did even after Gene Roddenberry's passing. Maybe we'll get Star Wars: The Next Generation.

I posted this on Twitter yesterday, but for those of you that think that Disney is somehow going to ruin Star Wars, you do realize that Lucas already did that over a decade ago, right?  Unless you're one of the people out there that actually think the prequels were good films and are even in the same league as the original trilogy.  If you are one of those people, then you're either under the age of 15, or should I put this...dumb.  Either way you need to be educated.  Please start with the fantastic Plinkett/RedLetterMedia reviews of the prequel films.  Yeah, they're a little long, but if you want a detailed explanation of why the prequels are flawed (and that's putting it mildly), you're not going to find anything better.

It looks like some of the videos aren't working, so you can try to view them on Youtube.

Episode I:

Episode II:

They don't seem to have a Episode III playlist on their YouTube page, but if you do a search for 'redlettermedia revenge of the sith', you'll find them.

There's a part of me that wishes they could take this opportunity to remake the prequel trilogy, but that might be too much of a slap in the face to Lucas.  Maybe this also might get that us that un-altered version of the original trilogy on Blu-Ray us purists have been asking for.  I imagine there are certain things as part of the deal that Disney may not be allow to touch or contradict, so who knows what we'll see down the line.

Oh, and another point about Disney.  A lot of people had the same complaint about Disney purchasing Marvel and ruining them, too, but then we got this little film called The Avengers.  Maybe you heard of it?  Disney's involvement with Marvel has shown that as long as you get passionate and knowledgeable people involved, you're going to be okay.

All kidding aside, I love George Lucas.  He gave us Star Wars and the universe I've enjoyed for over 30 years.  However, as a filmmaker, he has his limitations, particularly when it comes to screenwriting and directing.  The strongest films in the series are the ones where he didn't have full control, and more people were involved.  I hope that now under the Disney umbrella this opens up involvement with some of their related studios.  Could you imagine a joint Pixar/LucasFilm collaboration?  Or, someone like Brad Bird directing a Star Wars film?  Maybe this even opens up the universe to letting someone like Kevin Smith take a crack at it.

Plus, you have a very rich Expanded Universe to draw from.  Not everything in the Star Wars universe has to be about the Skywalkers or the Solos.  There are hundreds of books, comics and characters to draw from.  Rogue Squadron anyone?  A group of elite X-Wing pilots doing the dirty work?  How about some movies set in the Knights of the Old Republic timeframe?  If you've played the first Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) game, you know what a fun story that was.  Check out these scenes from The Old Republic MMO.

After watching those videos, do you really not think that this is a universe just waiting to be expanded on the big screen, or there aren't new characters that people will care about?  If you must have some link to the original trilogy, you could fast forward and deal with the descendants of Luke, Leia and Han.  There are dozens of books about their children.  You could even have some cameos from the original cast, like Mark Hamill appearing as the elder statesman - the new Yoda - of the new Jedi Order.

There's been talk for years about a Star Wars TV show, and this seems like something that's much more of a possibility now, especially with Disney owning ABC.  How about the adventures of a young Han Solo, told Firefly-style detailing his early years in the Imperial Navy, meeting Chewbacca and then transitioning to the smuggler we all know and love.  You can interweave this showing the rise of Boba Fett as the galaxy's top bounty hunter, his competition with other bounty hunters, and run-ins with Han Solo over the years.  With an ongoing series this also allows for one-shot episodes catching us up with Obi-Wan hiding out on Tatooine, showing the Emperor tightening his grip on the galaxy, or even having an occasional episode featuring Darth Vader hunting down a Jedi in hiding.  The possibilities are endless.

I'm sure many of you are thinking, "What about Timothy Zahn's 'Thrawn Trilogy'?"  While I love those stories, and I highly recommend reading them if you haven't yet, they'd be difficult to pull off given the age of the current cast.  I don't want to see a 70+ Harrison Ford as Han Solo still trying to continue his adventures.  I wouldn't be opposed to casting age-appropriate actors to take over the roles, but I can see how that might be hard to take for some fans.  As a matter of fact, this opens up the possibility of allowing me to play Han Solo, or any other new character they want to introduce.  I'm kidding, but not really.

The Thrawn Trilogy also introduced us to Mara Jade, a character Star Wars fans have loved and been hoping to see in some form outside of games or books.  If you're looking for a strong female character, look no further.  A former assassin known as "The Emperor's Hand", who then becomes a smuggler, and eventually a Jedi Master.

So much like the title of the very first Star Wars film, I feel like we get a chance to start over; a new hope, if you will.  This is a chance to redeem the franchise, and infuse some new thoughts and energy that it desperately needs.  It was killing me that that last time Star Wars was on the big screen was a converted 3D version of The Phantom Menace.  I'm very excited about this!  I think if you're a fan, you should be, too.

Oh, and since I'm in shameless plug mode, if you need to buy something on Amazon, please click through one of the links on my page here.  It takes you to Amazon like normal, and then I get a kickback if you purchase anything.  There's also a Donate button on the right if you'd just like to support me directly.

Cloud Atlas (2012) - Movie Review

As the poster says, "Everything is Connected."  Well, the good news is that at least this isn't connected to the Matrix sequels.

Cloud Atlas is based on a book by David Mitchell.  It features six interlinked and complex stories, ranging from the 19th century, to a post-apocalyptic future.  It's been said by many that this was an unfilmable book, and I can see why.  It's incredibly ambitious and I give the writing/directing team of Tom Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachowski credit for taking a shot at something this huge.

If you can't tell already I wasn't in love with Cloud Atlas.  I'm not going to recap all six stores (you can see a brief outline here or here), but many of them will make you think of other films.  I was reminded of stuff like Blade Runner, Amistad or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  In the film, these six stories are told in a very choppy manner.  This kind of story telling is usually problematic for me.  Just when you'd get into one story, they'd switch to another.  The problem for me was that the stories had varying levels of interest.  There were some I wished the whole movie would have been about, and others I could have done without entirely.

When you're dealing with a marathon of a movie like this, you really have to keep the audience's attention.  The good part is that I was never really bored, and it managed to keep my interest.  I wanted to see how it all played out.  That doesn't mean I didn't start to squirm in my seat a bit as we approached the end though.  I checked my watch at one point thinking we were at least two hours into the film only to find that we were just barely at the halfway point.  Plus, with all the jumping around, there's never a good moment to take a pee break.  Based on that alone, this is a tough movie for me to recommend seeing in the theater.  It's better suited for watching at home.  I saw this on IMAX, and despite the impressive visuals, I didn't feel like there was anything I would have missed by seeing this at home.  Plus, it may even take multiple viewings before you really form a final opinion about it.  I feel like I need to see this again just to be sure, but I'm certainly not going to do that in the theater.

I have a general rule about movies based off books: if the movie is done well, it should make you want to go back and read it.  I didn't feel that here.  Even a bad movie like Alex Cross made me think there was something to get out of the novels based on the character.  The point I'm making here is that after Cloud Atlas, I felt kind of empty.  I didn't get anything out of it emotionally.

The overall look of the film is fantastic.  The older parts of the story felt authentic, and the futuristic ones were stunning at times.  There were a few parts where it felt there was a little too much CG, but overall it was well done.  The one issue I had with the look of the film was the makeup used for the actors.  While some of it was great and made some of the actors unrecognizable, at times it was absolutely terrible and took me out of the film with how bad it was.  It's that distracting.  Also, you may have heard the complaints regarding the use of non-Asian actors playing Asians, using makeup and CG to make them look Asian.  While I understand the complaint, I also understand the need to do things the way they did.  When moving between all of these stories, you're trying to show how these people are linked, or are even the souls of previous characters.  It's really hard to visually convey that using different actors.  Plus, if you think about it, in the future I would expect to see more people of mixed-ethnicity, and the line would be really blurred as far as that goes.  Having said that, it looked laughably bad at times.

One of the strengths of the film is the cast.  You need actors with range to be able to play all the various roles.  However, some of the actors are playing the opposite sex at times, and again, some of it was either jarring or just plain silly.  The one time I thought it was effective was when Hugo Weaving played a nurse in the only story set in present time.  I also thought it was funny that Weaving played an evil character in every story.  That guy is just doomed to be a villain.  I'm fully expecting him to pull out a sword in The Hobbit and chase after Bilbo at some point.

There were a few times where you can't help but look at him and go, "Oh that's Tom Hanks in bad makeup", but many of the roles allowed him to stretch all over the place, and I thought it was a great overall performance on his part(s).  I was also really impressed with Halle Berry, who needed a movie like this to remind us why she was an Oscar winner.  I was also surprised with Jim Sturgess, who is an actor I haven't thought too much of based on his prior films.  He has a role in one of the future stories that might have been my favorite of the whole film.  Jim Broadbent was great, as he always is, but I love seeing him played those crazy-eyed, crazy-haired characters he does so well with.  I also enjoyed when Keith David or Hugh Grant would show up, but both suffered from some of the bad makeup mentioned previously.

Once again I have to give credit to Tykwer and the Wachowskis for taking a shot. The fact that it's not a complete disaster is an accomplishment.  Even if Cloud Atlas had been a huge mess, we need people to keep taking chances and make films like this.  Otherwise, we doomed to a future of endless Paranormal Activity and Adam Sandler movies.

I think for most, Cloud Atlas is one of those films that people are going to either think is genius or not get it at all.  I come somewhere in the middle of that.  It's an ambitious, but flawed film.  There are impressive visuals, and some interesting stories, but it's a mixed bag.  It's length and disjointed storytelling might put off casual viewers, but I do think there's a lot here to enjoy.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Monday, October 29, 2012

Alex Cross (2012) - Movie Review

I have to confess some ignorance up front.  Even though I saw both Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, I didn't realize that Morgan Freeman was playing Alex Cross in both movies.  You can imagine my surprise when I heard that Alex Cross is a reboot of the series that's based on a popular book series (20 frigging books!).  The current film is loosely based off the novel "Cross", the 12th in the series.

What I did know was that a lot of people were in a bit of an uproar when it was announced that Tyler Perry would be playing Alex Cross.  Even though this is a reboot, how do you replace someone of the caliber of Morgan Freeman with Tyler Perry?  Plus, I think it stings the fans even more when you hear that Idris Elba was originally attached to the role.  He would have been perfect.  Go watch Luther on Netflix/DVD if you haven't yet, by the way.  In all fairness to the man, Perry is only like the tenth worse thing about the film.  I'm not sure Elba, or anyone else, would have been able to save it.

Anyway, for those unfamiliar, Alex Cross (Perry) is a detective and psychologist.  Think of him as like a Sherlock Holmes type that can pick up on minutia instantly and profile the suspect.  He lives in Detroit with his family, and is considering a move to D.C. to take a job as an FBI profiler.  He's also learned that he's expecting his third child.  It sets up like many other detective movies.  At least he's not gearing up for retirement and announcing that he's getting too old for this shit.

Juxtaposed with this is an assassin that goes by "Picasso" (Matthew Fox).  Picasso is a bit of an enigma, brutally beating a man in an MMA fight at the beginning of the film, leaving charcoal sketches at the scene of his crimes, but then he's the kind of guy that takes pleasure in the torture and killing of his victims.  After killing a businesswoman, Cross and his team are brought in to investigate. They figure out who Picasso's next target is going to be, and after a close call, Picasso decides to makes things personal.

This is where the movie could have become really tense, but it instead it seems to take on a somber note and fizzles out. Picasso does something that should motivate both Cross and his partner Tommy Kane (Edward Burns), and while Cross initially seems to be going down that revenge path, Kane is almost completely forgotten in the mix.  Neither seem all that angry and are just kind of going through the motions.  There's very little in Alex Cross that gets you invested emotionally.

This is one of the main things that bugged me about Alex Cross.  It's simply not a well written story.  Nobody's developed all that well, and there's some really clunky exposition and dialog throughout.  It's always bugged me when a film goes out of it's way to explain relationships between characters, when it should be implied.  Here, you have relationships defined multiple times by the dialog.  This is all a shame, because when I read the synoposis of "Cross", even that reads more interesting than anything that happens in the movie.  Maybe the screenwriters should have stuck closer to the novel.

Picasso's character was all over the place: over-the-top psychotic in some scenes, but in others acting like a cheap Hannibal Lecter knock-off.  You have a paid assassin that seems more interested in screwing around with Cross, rather than the work he's contracted for.  It was really inconsistent.  I want to blame the performance of Matthew Fox, but I can't.  Fox has been fine in many other films and TV, so I can only blame his direction and the script.  I feel bad for him too, because it looks like he got in ridiculous shape for the role and tried his hardest.  I liked seeing him playing a bad guy; I just wish it was in a better film.

I feel that way about the whole cast really.  While I do think Tyler Perry was miscast, I didn't think he did that bad of a job, and it's one of the few times he came across as likable to me.  Edward Burns seemed to hit the right notes, even though this isn't anything new for him, but his character was underwritten.  Same with Rachel Nichols, who just can't seem to catch a break landing a larger role in a good film.  Giancarlo Esposito shows up for a scene and shines, which just made me wonder why he wasn't considered for Alex Cross, or why they didn't make him the villian instead.  John C. McGinley is wasted here as well as the Police Captain.  Why hasn't McGinley gotten better roles after being awesome on Scrubs for so many years?  Cicely Tyson was probably the strongest performance as Cross' mother, but again, she isn't given much screen time or much to do.  Jean Reno also has a small role, but the conclusion of his story, and the movie, is really ham-fisted.

I haven't been the biggest fan of Rob Cohen's other films (xXx, The Fast and the Furious, Steath), but as far as action goes, he's a capabale director.  Alex Cross desperately needed something to bring some excitement into the film, but it's just devoid of life.  It's bizarre that even the few action scenes aren't shot well.  You'd think this would be the strength.  When we get to the ultimate showdown, it's set up by a totally convenient collision that forces the confrontation, and then we have one of the worst shaky-cam fight scenes in cinema to date.  Shaky-cam scenes are usually a cover for bad fight choreography or actors that can't fight, but how do you have a scene like this in the film, when you open it showing us that Picasso is an MMA badass?  Now he gets beaten up by older man not known for his physicality?  Just once I'd like to see a fight in a movie go down realistically.

Alex Cross isn't a good way to reboot a franchise.  It's totally lazy, uninspired and lacks anything to make you care about the characters or invested in what's going on.  There's nothing here that's new, and even TV shows pack more punch and originality.  It's not insultingly bad, but there's nothing about it to recommend.  Remember how I said to watch Idris Elba in Luthor?  That's my recommendation.  Don't watch Alex Cross, watch Luther instead.

1.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, October 26, 2012

Silent Hill: Revelation 3D (2012) - Movie Review

Welcome to another round of Video Game: Random Noun - The Movie.

You have to love when a movie contains 3D in the title.  It helps you understand what the marketing focus of the film is.  Unfortunately, the highlight of the 3D takes place in the opening credits, and then it's all downhill from there. It's safe to say you can skip the 3D version of Silent Hill: Revelation.

I don't actually have much to say about Silent Hill: Revelation.  It's largely a mess of a film, and there just wasn't much to care about.  Apparently this was based off the game Silent Hill 3, which I haven't played, or any game of the series, so I can't comment on how faithful it is.  I have a feeling that playing the game with the lights off would be a scarier experience than watching Silent Hill: Revelation was.  This movie is scare-free. At least the first Silent Hill had some creepy atmosphere and some imagery that stuck with you.

Anyway, we catch up with Heather (Adelaide Clemens) and Harry (Sean Bean), and find they've been moving around a lot and changing their identities.  Heather has dreams about Silent HillI, despite not having any memory of the place, and Harry warns her to never go there.  Note that even the characters in the movie warn to not go to Silent Hill.  Heather also starts her first day at a new school, where she's immediately made fun of by a fellow student when asked to introduce herself (an example of some of the terrible dialog throughout).  Way to welcome the new girl, bitch. But then Heather one-ups her by basically telling the entire class, "I don't want to know you, and I don't care about any of you."  Nice girl, huh?  Really gets you behind her character.  In an amazing coincidence, another new student starts the same day (Kit Harrington), and takes an unusual interest in Heather despite her "piss off" speech.  His interest in her, and that fact that he's clearly in his mid 20's, should factor into the plot later.

Harry disappears and Heather knows she must go to Silent Hill to find him.  I'm a little confused about the rules of Silent Hill.  We're reminded that Rose (Radha Mitchell) from the first film is still trapped in Silent Hill and cannot get out.  Yet throughout the film nobody else seems to any difficulty with this.  Early in the film, a creature from Silent Hill attacks Heather and a private investigator (Martin Donovan) that warns her about a cult that's after her.  When Heather arrives later, she finds a few captured women that I guess randomly wandered into town.  If creatures and people can get in and out at will, what's so special about Silent Hill then?    

There's lots of exposition and long stretches where nothing happens.  It's actually quite boring and felt like a much longer movie.  You're just waiting for the next creature effect or Pyramid Head to show up again.  While there are some interesting visuals, I never felt any impact with what I saw. It's the same problem I have with the Star Wars prequels.  With nothing but greenscreen to act against, the actors don't convey any sense of threat or urgency.  When there's the big showdown at the end, you're basically watching two creatures from a Hellraiser film that you know nothing about duke it out.  I didn't care who won.

Despite bringing back a lot of the actors from the first film, and it's actually a pretty strong cast overall, much of Silent Hill: Revelation felt very amateurish.  Carrie-Anne Moss shows up looking like one of those albino twins from The Matrix, and then you've got Malcolm McDowell playing yet another role that seems beneath him.  I really can't blame the actors though, as the dialog they are forced to say is just awful.  Plus, the direction is all over the place.  For example, at one point Sean Bean loses his accent for a few lines, and they didn't bother to do another take?  Fix it in post?  Did anyone even notice or care?  Writer/director Michael J. Bassett seemed to miss a lot of what worked about the first film.  Not that first film was a masterpiece, but at least I got more out of it.

Oh, and spoiler alert - no Sean Beans died in the making of the film.

Silent Hill: Revelation 3D is a bad movie.  It's a decent looking film, but devoid of any substance or fun. The story is a mess, the dialog is terrible, and a waste of actors capable of better.  Stay away from this one.

1 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, October 19, 2012

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) - Movie Review

I think the real title for this movie should have been Paranormal Product Placement.  Then you could shorten it to PPP or P3.  When watching Paranormal Activity 4, I couldn't help but feel like I was watching an extended commercial for Microsoft Kinect.  Corona and Metro bottled water also make appearances.

The movie's prologue recalls the events at the end of PA2.  You see Katie (Katie Featherston) attacking her sister and stealing their son, Hunter.  It helps a little if you've seen the previous PA films, but ultimately it doesn't matter, as the movie makes less and less sense as it goes on.

We fast forward a few years, and are introduced to a new family.  The surprising thing is that you actually like this family, in particular Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively).  They actually have some pretty funny banter between them, and it the first time I've actually cared anything for the characters in a PA movie.  That's actually the highlight of the film, and I was surprised at the humor in it.

Anyway, an unknown woman and weird child live across the street.  The woman is revealed later, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out who it's going to be.  The weird child, Robbie (Brady Allen), likes to randomly wander into their yard.  One night, the mystery woman is rushed off to the hospital, and the family agrees to watch Robbie while she's away.  While strange, Robbie initially is still kind of endearing.  As you'd expect though, weird things begin to happen.  To track this, Ben helps Alex setup laptops all around the house to record everything.  This is basically the film's excuse to have multiple cameras, but it also felt like a huge plot hole to me.  First, these cameras seemed to be recording 24 x 7, and didn't seem to be triggered by any kind of motion detection.  Do these computers have infinite hard drive space to be recording as much as they are?  Then I wondered why nobody else in the house, like the parents, ever noticed an unused computer and bothered to turn it off or shut the screen?  How many laptops does a family need anyway?  The producers of the film would like to thank Apple for all of the free laptops and iPhones used in the making of Paranormal Activity 4.

Early on, they would go back and look at the footage and notice some of the weird things happening.  However, later in the film they conveniently don't do this when even weirder things happen.  If they had, there would have been good reason to get out of the house or contact the authorities.

How come a movie with 'Activity' in the title features very little actual activity.  Once again we are treated to a seemingly endless number of shots of empty rooms or people sleeping.  Can you stand all of this activity?  It irritates me that most of the scares come out of long stretches of silence or nothing happening being broken up by a noise or something jumping around the screen. This movie uses a book, a cat, a shadow, and several other things all used as cheap jump scares. It even tries to scare you with abrupt editing.  The longer the movie goes on, the more the scares are telegraphed.  Anytime you see an extended shot of a room, you know they are only showing it to you because something is going to happen soon, so you're looking for it.  When it happens, there's no impact.  I found it all to be very lazy.

Whatever this thing is that's terrorizing them is kind of a jerk that just likes to annoy or inconvenience people.  You see things like littered toys, a basketball bouncing down the stairs, and a chair moving on it's own.  One of the few times something freaky happens to Alex, they setup the scene by telling you she took a sleeping pill, so now you know she won't wake up for what's about to happen.  If she doesn't wake up, she has nothing to fear or freak out about, and also has no reason to watch the footage the next day.  It's pointlessly messing with someone.

The conclusion of the film, which is basically a recall to PA3, is very abrupt.  It's just a few minutes of more cheap scares taken in night vision.  Based on what was setup in the last film, they could have explored that more here, but didn't take the opportunity.  There's a point in the plot where something is revealed that made absolutely no sense to me.  There's just no setup to what they are doing.  It really feels like writers Chad Feehan and Christopher Landon are making this up as they go along, and then realized didn't have an ending yet, so they just said, "Screw it.  Let's just throw as much stuff as we can at them in the last few minutes."

This still has the same issue that other found footage films have.  When shit hits the fan, why are you still filming?  Wouldn't you run like a normal person or put the camera down?  If you're filming on an iPhone, why aren't you calling 911 instead?  Plus, since when does an iPhone have a night vision option?  Who puts together all this 'found footage' anyway?  The footage is pretty strong evidence against the people in it, so are the authorities looking for them?  Are they that hard to find after so many years?  Okay, here I go again looking for this stuff to make sense when it's clearly not meant to.  Silly me.

I already hear they are going to make yet another one of these movies, and I can't imagine what it would be about.  I suppose it doesn't matter though, as I'm sure they'll make it for dirt cheap and it will make a huge profit.  This is probably going to sound condescending, and I generally don't like to insult the audience that likes a particular film (except for Twilight fans), but sitting in the theater made me realize who this franchise's audience is: young teens that haven't watched a lot of horror. This stuff can only be scary to people that just don't have a lot of experience with the genre. There's nothing about the scares in this film that are creative or inventive.  It's just more of the same cheap jump scares and loud noises that have been done a million times before.  But hey, who am I tell people they can't have fun with this?  I just wish they wouldn't, so they'd stop making them.

The directors of Paranormal Activity 3 (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman) are back to direct this, and I still can't figure out what they are directing.  It's the same shots repeated in a loop featuring mostly bad acting.  Plus, I can't believe boring this film got the longer it went on.  It's paced terribly, and I'm shocked to find this is only 95 minutes.  I thought it was at least two hours long.  I couldn't stop yawning.

Paranormal Activity 4 is another weak entry in the series featuring the same lame jump scares, lack of activity and nonsensical plot.  The only redeeming thing is that you actually like some of the characters this time around.  Overall, it's just boring and stupid.  I advise you to skip it.  Go see Sinister if you haven't seen it yet.  That deserves your money more than Paranormal Activity 4 does.

1 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Sessions (2012) - Movie Review

And you thought the 40-Year-Old Virgin had trouble getting laid...

Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) is a writer and poet living in Berkeley, CA back in the late 1980's.  Mark was stricken with polio back when he was six, and is paralyzed from the neck down, needing use of an iron lung for most of the day.  After writing an article about sex with the disabled, Mark decides at the age of 38 that it's time to lose his virginity.  As a deeply religious man, he first seeks the blessing of a Catholic priest (William H. Macy).  He's a little put off by the request at first, but says to Mark, "I know in my heart that God will give you a free pass on this one."

Mark still has sensation and his equipment works, so it's just a matter of finding someone.  He contacts a sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), to help him explore his sexulalty.  I've never been able to quite wrap my head around the concept of a sex surrogate, and The Sessions didn't really do anything to help me understand it any better.    You do see a little bit of Cheryl's home life and that she's married, but her husband doesn't seem to have any issue with it either.  Cheryl takes a very clinical approach, rather than a sexual one, so she clearly has the ability to detach herself from the feelings that many have about sex.  Cheryl does say that to prevent attachment, they can only have a maximum of, I mean six sessions.  This gives you an idea of where things are going to go, but it doesn't turn out quite like you'd expect.

You might think with that kind of premise The Sessions would be very heavy-handed.  While there's some uncomfortably frank discussion of sex, and a surprising amount of nudity from Helen Hunt, the overall tone of the movie is very lighthearted.  This is primarily due to the wicked wit and charm of Mark; it's like his superpower.  He always seems to be able to say the right thing at uncomfortable moments to get everyone laughing.  You see this with nearly everyone he interacts with, from his newest caretaker (Moon Bloodgood) that initially seems very standoffish, to Father Brendan (Macy), who becomes so invested in Mark's adventures that he begins to visit him outside of the church just to get updates.  You get invested in Mark's story, too.  It's impossible not to like him.

The Sessions is an extremely funny movie.  Some of this is born out of all of the uncomfortable situations, but mainly because how funny Mark is and watching his interactions with everyone. John Hawkes is almost unrecognizable as Mark. I can't really call it a physical transformation, like Christian Bale's in The Mechanic, as he's always been a skinny, veiny bastard, but it was an impressive bit of physical acting.  He could only move his head small amounts, and had to use a pencil to do things like dial a phone and flip the pages of a book.  Hawkes has always been one of the best actors that most people haven't heard of, and this is an extremely sincere and sympathetic performance.  Your heart just breaks for the guy.  You get so much out of his performance, despite it all being from the neck up.  I know I'm going to be saying this a lot over the next few months, but it's another Oscar worthy performance from Hawkes.

William H. Macy is also great. He's primarily the straight man to Mark, but he mines a lot of humor out of his performance, and his interaction with Hawkes as their friendship builds are some of the more enjoyable parts of the film.  Helen Hunt's performance is also very brave.  With all of of the nudity the role required, you'd think maybe she would have shied away from the camera.  Hunt goes for it and very much seems like a therapist that is completely comfortable with her body. She really puts herself out there emotionally as well.

Writer/director Ben Lewin, who's also a polio survivor, based this off the real life experiences of Mark O'Brien after reading an article he wrote about seeing a sex surrogate.  He then worked closely with a few people in O'Brien's life.  I think he did a great job balancing all of the elements of the story, and treating the subject matter with respect and perspective.  It's funny without being silly, and emotional without being melodramatic.  This feels like a tribute to the man.

The Sessions wasn't what I was expecting and that's a good thing.  Despite the uncomfortable nature of the subject matter, it's a sweet and funny tale of a brave man exploring his sexuality and trying to find love.  It's an emotional film but worth the ride.  I strongly recommend checking it out.

4.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Argo (2012) - Movie Review

Argo is one of those stories that sounds so unbelievable that I guess it had to be true, and features a plan so crazy that it had to work.

Set during the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the U.S. Embassy is overrun and most of it's staff are taken hostage.  A small group escapes and hides in the home of the Canadian ambassador.  Due all the chaos and shredding of the records, it's not noticed that six people are unaccounted for.  However, time is running out and if they are found in the ambassador's home, it will be bad for Canada's status in Iran and likely death for the Americans.  One thing that was nice about the opening of the film is that it gives you a quick history lesson about the events leading up to this revolution.  This is a nice touch for those of you not up on your history, or too young to recall the events as they happened.

CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is brought in to evaluate the existing plans to extract them.  The flaws in all plans are quickly pointed out by Mendez, but can't think of a better plan himself.  He's later inspired when watching a sci-fi movie on TV with his son.  He'll go into Iran posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations, meet up with Americans, train them, and then fly them all out together.

The plan is only as good as the details, so Mendez contacts a Hollywood make-up specialist John Chambers (John Goodman) to help with the cover story.  Chambers brings in successful producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who says that nobody will buy the cover unless there's a script and Hollywood actually believes the movie is being made.  You need to generate buzz.  They find a script for a sci-fi called Argo, a Star Wars ripoff.

You'd think they could gloss over this part, but this is practically a movie all to itself.  Storyboards are created, actors are hired, awful costumes are made, Hollywood parties are thrown and script readings are done.  Ads for Argo show up in Variety, and a fake movie is born.  This is also where a lot of the humor and surprising amount of fun comes from.  Alan Arkin and John Goodman are both great in their roles and are clearly having a lot of fun with it.  I finished watching Argo wanting to know more about these two and wishing they could come up with a way to give them a spin-off movie of their own.

The cast is stacked and everyone is so good that it's really hard to say that anyone stands out.  It reminded me of recent Steven Soderbergh films where you have guys that could be the leads in other films (like Bryan Cranston or Kyle Chandler) playing small roles as part of this large ensemble.  Ben Affleck seems to have that same ability to work with actors that Soderbergh has.  There aren't any throwaway characters or performances, and you manage to care about everyone despite not spending very much time with them.

Speaking of Ben Affleck, how does a guy go from being someone that most everyone barely took seriously not even ten years ago, to one of the best directors out there?  He's managed to do this in just three films, with each better than the last.  Argo is his best effort yet.  There's so much attention to detail, and you'll notice this from the outfits, the makeup, and even the overall look of the film.  It looks like something actually made back in the 70's.  Even the old Warner Brothers logo is used as the movie begins.  As the credits roll, you see side-by-side pictures of the real-life person and the actor playing them, and the resemblance between all of them is uncanny. Ironically, the one person that really didn't look at all like his real-life counterpart was Ben Affleck. It's kind of a surprise when he gets the details right in so many other areas that he didn't consider a different actor.  There's nothing wrong with the performance though, and I think he helps having a bigger name in the lead role.  Besides, Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms, yo!

Another impressive thing about the movie is how much tension there is in the film, despite knowing the outcome before the movie even starts.  I was on the edge of my seat as we reached the conclusion and there's a satisfying emotional payoff.  Members of the audience applauded even before the movie ended.

I know it's early in the Oscar season, and I'm sure I'm going to say this a few more times this year, but Argo really is an Oscar worthy film and Affleck should be nominated for his direction as well.

Argo is a truly great film that's nail-biting, exciting and is a blast to watch.  It proves the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction.  Ben Affleck also solidifies himself as one of the best directors working today.  This is one of the best movies of the year and one you shouldn't miss.

5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, October 12, 2012

Sinister (2012) - Movie Review

Has anything good ever come from watching old home movies?

I don't know if you've watched the trailers for Sinister, but I advise against it.  The less you know about it, the more effective it will be.  I'll try to keep this short.

Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a true-crime novelist that has moved his family to a old house to investigate another unsolved crime for his next book.  His writing hasn't made him very popular with certain law enforcement types, which is something the local sheriff (former U.S. Senator Fred Dalton Thompson) makes very clear as he's moving in.  It's not so much a welcome to the neighborhood as it is a "Hey, I don't like you and I'd wish you'd leave."

As he's unpacking Ellison finds a mysterious box in the attic filled with old Super 8 reels.  I know what you're thinking, "Great, another found footage film."  The twist is that this is a film about the guy that actually finds the footage.  He watches the films and they all depict grisly murders of several families, and one happens to be the very family murder he came to write about.

The more he watches these videos, the more weird things happen in the house.  He starts seeing things and hearing sounds in the attic.  Is Ellison's mind playing tricks on him?  It's not just him though, as it appears to be having an effect on his kids (Clare Foley and Michael Hall D'Addario) as well.  You wonder why he doesn't just get his family out of there, and that's one of the flaws of Sinister.  It has a lot of the same conventions and bad decision making that plagues other films in the genre.  It bugged me a little less here than in other films though.  However, there are many times where he's investigating a sound late at night, and I'm wondering why doesn't he just turn the frigging lights on.

Ellison enlists the aid of a local deputy (James Ransone) and a college professor (Vincent D'Onofrio) to find out more about symbols involved in these murders and how they are all related.  When they first introduce the deputy, actually referred to as "Deputy So and So", he starts as a bumbling fan-boy of Ellison's, but develops into a bigger part of Ellison's investigation as the movie goes on and doesn't feel like a throwaway character.

The middle third of the film is where movie really shines as far scares.  Normally, I am not fan of jump scares in horror films, as I think they're cheap.  Lesser horror films don't do a good job of building tension or setting up its story, so it has to rely on bang moments to scare you. Sinister does a good job of creating a creepy atmosphere and a sense of mystery, which makes those scares more effective.  Even when I knew a scare was coming, I still jumped a little in my seat and laughed that the movie was able to get me.  There are lots of lingering images that gave me the chills, and sometimes the scariest stuff is when your imagination gets the better of you.

However, whether it was that the movie lost steam or you get desensitized to all the scares after a bit, I found myself less scared as we built towards the conclusion. The pacing could have been tightened up a little bit, which would have helped.  I liked how it ended, but was still kind of disappointed that it didn't quite have the impact it should have.

Another strength of Sinister is that the performances are strong and the dialog and characters are well-written.  Ethan Hawke does a good job as Ellison, and you understand his motivation, even once it's clear his family is at risk.  He thinks this book will be a big hit that will allow his family to live comfortably, but his wife (Juliet Rylance) just wishes he'd drop all this so they could live normal lives.  It's a character that normally you wouldn't like, but you still manage to root for him.

It also has some unexpected moments of humor that were a welcome break in the tension.  I gotta give it to writer C. Robert Cargill.  Some of you may know Cargill as "Carlyle" from  I was really interested to see what kind of movie a film critic would create.  Would he stay away from convention, and the types of things he would normally be critical of?  While there are some typical horror elements here and the third act was a little weak, overall I still think it's a strong effort and definitely better than most horror films I've seen recently.

Director Scott Derrickson (who also wrote the screenplay) hasn't had the best track record so far with movies, the recent The Day the Earth Stood Still remake and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but this is a much better effort this time around.  He keeps the tension up for most of the film, and even the soundtrack adds to the ominous and eerie tone.

Sinister is the first genuinely scary movie I've seen in while, and this is coming from someone that watches a lot of horror movies.  It's has it's flaws, but if you're someone that likes getting the shit scared out of you, there's definitely some fun to be had here.  It's worth a matinee if you like horror.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Seven Psychopaths (2012) - Movie Review

When it comes to movies, psychopaths are just more interesting, and this movie has seven of them.  Seven for the price of one!  But, wait, there's more...

Marty (Colin Farrell) is a writer that's struggling to finish a screenplay titled "Seven Psychopaths".  It's an example of coming up with a great title before you've figured out what the story is.  He hasn't even figured out who all of the seven psychopaths are going to be.  His best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) desperately wants to help Marty write the screenplay and tries to inspire him any way he can.  Billy also runs a dognapping scam with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken).  Hans is using the money to pay his sick wife's hospital bills.

Things escalate when they kidnap the Shih Tzu of a local mob boss, Charlie (Woody Harrelson).  Charlie will stop at nothing to get his dog back and goes on the warpath tracking them down.  It doesn't take too long before he figures out who's behind the kidnapping, but finding them is a different story.

Seven Psychopaths is a good example of when the trailer does a good job of not revealing too much about the movie or even cluing you in as to what kind of movie it is.  I'll try not to spoil it for you, but forgive me if I give too much away.  The movie has a very meta quality to it.  As it's a movie about a guy writing a screenplay for a movie of the same name, you get that whole movie within a movie thing.  There's lots of discussion between the characters about the movie, and you think that Marty should be able to draw inspiration from all the craziness around him.  You may wonder by the end if you're watching the actual movie Marty has written, or is the movie just about him writing it.  I'm more in line with the second, but the movie has enough ambiguity to allow you to make your own decision about it.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, who also did In Bruges. It shares that same offbeat, violent style.  It even has a bit of a noir feel to it.  The dialog is extremly funny, zany and clever. With it's darkly hilarious and bloody, hyper-violence it evokes similarities to Tarantino films. Martin McDonagh is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers and directors, and hope we don't have to wait another 4 years for his next film.

Sam Rockwell has long been a favorite actor of mine, and this is one of his finest performances.  He's brilliantly nutty.  I know comedic roles don't generally get a lot of love at Oscar time, but I think it's worthy of consideration.  I would not be surprised at all to see him get some Oscar or Golden Globe love soon.  Every scene he's in he's just so energetic and commanding.

Colin Ferrell gives another great performance in another McDonagh movie, and is mainly the counterpoint to Rockwell throughout the movie.  It's interesting that the trailer calls Marty 'the seemingly normal one'; keyword there being 'seemingly'.  He's an alcoholic and often does not remember things he did the night before.  Even Billy thinks he needs to quit drinking, but like all alcoholics, Marty doesn't think there's an issue.  He's normal relative to the others in the movie, but not normal compared to 'normal'.

I've always loved Christopher Walken and his deadpan delivery, and this is him at his Walkeniest. What else can I say about him.  Walken is the man!  As the movie progress, you learn more about his dark past and why he's now the 'non-violent' one.  His character is the most sympathetic.

Woody Harrelson also very funny as the mob boss.  He's another actor that seems to be enjoying a career renaissance lately, and he gets to play a character that initially starts out as extremely violent, but then seems shocked by the psychotic actions of those he's dealing with.

Tom Waits also has a great thread as one of the psychopaths.  He answers an add placed by Billy looking for stories for Marty's screen play.  His story doesn't really play a part in the main plot, but it's a great little short story.  There are lots of little short stories throughout the movie that just kind of keep the movie interesting, and gives it an unusual pace.

Although they are listed as two of the psychopaths, Abbie Cornish (who I effing LOVE) and Olga Kurylenko are barely in it, and didn't really fit into the mold of a psychopath.  However, there's another meta part in the movie that explains their roles to a T.

I was a big fan of In Bruges, and McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths is an even better follow up.  It's dark, violent, insane, hilarious and features some of the better performances I've seen this year. This is one of my favorite films of the year and one that I think you'll want to watch multiple times.

5 (out of 5) Death Stars

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) - Movie Review

This one is for the misfits...

Charlie (Logan Lerman) is beginning his first day of high school.  He narrates the film through a series of letters written to an anonymous friend.  Despite his sister being a senior, and his older brother being a popular football player, Charlie doesn't expect that he's going to fit in very well and dreads it.  He goes as far as to have already counted out the number of days left until he's done with high school.

On the outside, there's really nothing wrong with Charlie. He's smart, but introverted, kid.  Even he thinks it's pretty sad that his only friend is his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd).  Mr. Anderson has more of a mentorship role with Charlie, who encourages his reading and to become a writer.  One day, he meets seniors Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), who he initially mistakes for a couple, but learns there are really step-siblings.  Patrick is an eccentric class clown who is called "Nothing" by his classmates after an old joke, but still embraces his outsider status.  Patrick and Sam introduce Charlie to their circle of friends, and take a liking to him once they realize there's more to him. Sam accepts him into the group by saying, "Welcome to the island of misfit toys."

As Charlie hangs out with the group he comes out of his shell and his confidence grows.  The world kind of opens up for him, going to parties and experimenting with drugs, among other things. This isn't a wild party movie though, it's a realistic look at high school.  It captures all those feelings and events that you remember: being awkward, first love/crushes, being picked on, going to dances and football games.

One thing that caught me off guard was the movie's setting.  You see many exchanges of mixed tapes throughout the film and I thought at first that this was some sort of hipster thing.  I realized as the movie went on that it's actually set in late 80's or early 90's.  Nobody has cell phones and they drive older cars that you'd expect a high school student without a lot of money to drive.  It's done well and doesn't slap you in the face with it's time period.  Plus, I was never bothered that the exact time wasn't clear.  It didn't really matter, as a movie like this feels timeless.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a familiar story, yet still told in a way that feels fresh and authentic.  That's due in large part to the great performances.  Everyone in the cast is sympathetic, likable, and not a bunch of high school stereotypes.  There are many things that all of the characters go through that will feel familiar to you.

I've never really paid much attention to Logan Lerman before, but I really enjoyed him here.  He plays the shy, quiet kid so well that you're in his corner right from the beginning.  When you see people be mean to him it makes you mad.  You get excited about his first crush, and when he goes to prom.  You really are along for the ride with him.

While the story is about Charlie, the breakout star of the film is Ezra Miller as Patrick.  If you remember his creepy performance in We Need to Talk About Kevin, this is a complete 180 for him.  As you'd expect as the class clown, he's very funny, but there's more to Patrick than being the clown.  The movie explores that, as well, without it feeling like a thrown in plot point.

It's nice to see Emma Watson moving on from Harry Potter.  She had a small, almost forgotten, role in My Week with Marilyn last year, but has a more substantial role this time around.  Sam is a sensitive, yet damaged young woman who admits her issues with picking the wrong men, and you really feel the vulnerability in Emma's performance.  Plus, I almost forgot Emma Watson was British, as she pulls off a pretty good American accent.

Adapted from his novel of the same name, writer/director Stephen Chbosky wrote a wonderful story.  I can't think of too many times where the writer of a novel ended up writing and directing the movie as well, but it worked here.  Obviously, it's a faithful adaptation, but it doesn't feel indulgent. The movie isn't melodramatic or cheesy, but rather very sincere and realistic.  It's also much funnier that I was expecting without being too indie or quirky.  Just when you think it's going to end, it takes a darker turn and gives you more insight into Charlie's past that makes it all that much more poignant.  I heard many sniffles in the audience in the third act and it was earned, rather than something that was contrived.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a very heartfelt and honest look at friendship, first love and finding yourself.  "Perks" is well written, directed and acted.  It's a very nostalgic look at high school, and if you've ever felt shy or out of place I think this will really speak to you.  I strongly recommend checking it out.

4.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, October 5, 2012

Taken 2 (2012) - Movie Review

Maybe Liam Neeson should stay home for a while...

Seriously he shouldn't go anywhere.  He either gets in a plane crash or someone gets kidnapped.

Spoilers ahead...

It's been a year since the events of Taken and things seems to be looking up for Bryan Mills.  He has a much better relationship with his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), and things are going well with his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace).  In the past he'd be gone after a few weeks, but is now present in their lives, even taking time to teach Kim how to drive.  Why a college student living in LA doesn't know how to drive yet I'll never understand.

Anyway, there's not much to the plot.  You learn that the father of Kim's kidnapper from the first film wants revenge. He then attempts to kidnap the Mills family while they are vacationing in Istanbul.  Mills fights back.  That's it.  That's the entire plot.  There aren't any surprises here and it's pretty predictable.

What made Taken so much fun was that it really caught everyone by surprise.  Nobody was expecting much from it, but it was tension filled and had all these great moments of impact.  They captured lightning in a bottle, and ended up with a hit.  Naturally, a sequel was coming, but unfortunately, Taken 2 is a step back in quality.  There's so many silly and convenient things done with the plot that it feels amateurish at times.  Here's a few examples:
  • Early in the film, Kim steals some clothes from a random locker, and they appeared to be men's clothing, but they happen to fit her perfectly.
  • Mills has Kim throw several grenades around the city and nobody ever seems to mind or notice.
  • Naturally, Kim is forced to drive in a high speed chase, and is suddenly now an expert driver, even though she failed her previous drivers test.  Quick learning curve, eh?  
  • During this scene Mills basically says to Kim that since she can't shoot a gun, then she needs to drive.  This made me wonder that considering Mills 'particular set of skills', and what happened to his daughter in the previous film, how come he hasn't bothered teaching her self defense or how to use a gun?  Wouldn't that be something a person like Mills would be concerned with in case someone attempted to kidnap her again?
  • Midway through the film, Mills and Kim crash through the US embassy, and their car gets all shot up in the process.  You see soldiers converging on the car, yet in the very next scene Mills is walking around town again hot on the heels of the kidnappers without any explanation of how he got out of the embassy.  It seems like a really important step was skipped there.
  • The first time Mills escapes from the kidnappers, he leaves his ex-wife behind without having her hide or securing her somewhere, allowing her to immediately be kidnapped again.
The bad guys were pretty stupid, too.  It was like how when a Bond villain tells him his entire plan, but then leaves the room allowing him plenty of time to escape.  What's the deal with the main bad guy (Rade Serbedzija) anyway?.  His son kidnaps Mills' daughter, among many others, Mills gets his daughter back killing the son in the process, but the father thinks he's the one that needs revenge.  Seems like you're pretty much in the even column at this point.  Mills even get the opportunity to explain this to the guy, and he just didn't care.  He was about as cookie cutter and single minded as a villain can get.

Yeah, I get it.  Taken 2 isn't a movie meant to be steeped in realism or worrying about things like logic.

There's some really awful dialog, and it's not just with the bad guys.  I even thought some of the dialog between Mills and Kim was very uncomfortable.  He's asking her things like if she loves her boyfriend, and if she's ever been in love before.  That just seemed weird to me.  The script by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen badly needed some punch up.  There were many missed opportunities to inject some humor or one liners that would have put some fun in the film.

Taken 2 was directed by Luc Besson's current go-to guy, Olivier Megaton (Transporter 3, Columbiana), which is a great name for an action director.  Megaton does a good job with keeping the pace of the film tight, and it doesn't really suffer from any slow down in the action, but it's just too one-dimensional.  That's as much to blame on Besson and Kamen though.  It also has a pretty unsatisfying ending.  

The action isn't bad, but it's still a step back from the first film.  In early fight, it was nearly impossible to tell what was going on due to all the quick cuts and rapid moving camera work.  The only time you seemed to get a real good shot of the hand-to-hand action was towards the end when he fights a guy in a track suit that's roughly the same age as Liam Neeson.  He also seems to kill several guys in the movie without really doing much to the guy other than hitting them, which I thought only Chuck Norris could do.  Neeson was at his best once he had a gun.

Liam Neeson wasn't bad, but he can play this role in his sleep.  He didn't seem as invested this time around.  There's one cool thing that they did where they show you a little insight into the thought process once he's kidnapped, and you see how he's taking in details, so he knows where and what the situation is, but it gets abandoned shortly after.  Maggie Grace got a little more to do this time around and actually got to take part in the action and rescuing.  I do think it's kind of funny that she's almost 30 and still passing for much younger.  I think we'd all like to know her anti-aging secrets.  I love Famke Janssen, but it only seemed like she was in the movie only to be consistent with the first film.  Her role this time around consisted of either crying, or waking up from being unconscious.  It's not her fault, the script just didn't give her much to do.

I didn't hate Taken 2, and it's not the worst thing I've ever seen, but it's another case of sequelitis striking again.  It's just more of the same, except it's missing the tension and thrills of the first film. This felt like they were making it up as they went along, and it's about as lazy as a sequel gets.  I can't recommend this as anything more than a rental.  You'd be better off just watching the first Taken again this weekend on DVD and save yourself some money.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars.

V/H/S (2012) - Movie Review

How can a movie simultaneously revive one type of horror film and kill another?  That's the conundrum of V/H/S.

As a kid I always loved horror anthologies like Creepshow, Cat's Eye or Tales from the Crypt.  Sure, they were a mixed bag, but there was usually at least one story that really stuck with you and were fun to watch overall.  When I heard that V/H/S was a compilation of several shorter stores, and that they were all directed by several up-and-coming horror directors, I was really excited to see it.  Plus, I'm the guy that usually criticizes horror films for stretching an idea to a feature length film that would work much better as a shorter story.

The main story begins by following a bunch of of douchebag punks filming themselves bust up abandoned houses and assaulting women, forcing them to show their boobs.  Right away you don't like these kids, and hope they die by the end.  They are hired by an unknown person to break into a house and steal a particular video tape.  They break in and find the occupant has died in his chair.  All of the video tapes are unlabeled though, so while the others explore the house, one of the guys watches a few of the tapes, which sets up how they move from story to story.

Unfortunately, they are all shot in handheld, found-footage style.  As a result, they look even worse than just watching a worn out VHS tape.  If you're someone that's already bothered by found-footage movies or shaky video camera work, then this movie will really bug you as it takes that concept to the extreme.  Another huge complaint I have about the movie is that in several of the stories they are using cameras or technology that is very modern compared to VHS.  You'll see very small hidden cameras, fairly modern handhelds, and even Skype chatting.  Yet somehow these stories got converted back to old VHS tapes?  It's very inconsistent use of technology, and something we're starting to see more and more in found-footage films lately.  Lack of attention to detail reeks of laziness.

It's not all bad though.  Some of the stories work well, the first and last story in particular, and there are a few genuine scary and freaky moments.  I'll briefly talk about each story, so there will be minor spoilers ahead.

The first story, written and directed by David Bruckner follows a bunch of 'bros' going out and trying to pick up a few chicks and taking them back to their hotel room.  One of the women they bring back is clearly a little off, and red flags should have been raised before they even got her back to their place.  Her behavior becomes stranger as the night goes on and builds to a climax.  It's one of those times where the anticipation of what's going to happen is scarier than what actually happens.  This was one of the more effective stories though, as the girl was creepy and you're interested to see how it plays out.  It was a good story to kick off the anthology.

The second story, by Ti West, follows a couple on their second honeymoon.  They meet a strange girl that asks for a ride, but they decide not to.  The mystery girl somehow breaks into their room as they are sleeping and messes with their stuff.  Then, the story takes a bizarre turn that really doesn't make much sense.  This was the weakest story of the film.  One thing that bugged me was that while the girl was 'sneaking' around in their room, she was turning lights on and shining the camera light on their faces as they slept.  These guys must be the heaviest sleepers in the world, not waking up even when someone shines a bright light in their face.  I was also surprised after to see that this was Ti West's story, as I've liked his movies.  In fact, I actually thought he had directed a different story, because it fit more with the films he's done.  It seems like a wasted opportunity for West, because I know he's capable of better.

The third, by Glenn McQuaid, called "Tuesday the 17th", is a play on the slasher in the woods story.  It follows a group of teens that head to a lake.  They start getting killed by an unseen person, and by unseen, I mean it looked like the Predator.  For some reason the killer shows up only as a static blur, and this is never explained.  Additionally, you find that the motivation for them going to the lake didn't make a lot of sense considering the outcome.  This one was at least gory.

The fourth, by Joe Swanberg, features a couple having a Skype chat (again, I'm curious as to how a Skype chat ended up on a VHS tape).  The girl is complaining about a weird bump in her arm, and that she believes her apartment is haunted.  You'll see that something is going on in her place, but it's not what it seems.  There were a few scares in this one, but this was another story that when you get to the conclusion it's not explained at all and didn't make any sense.  I will say that this was the one story where I sympathized with the victim.

The last, by Radio Silence, is about a group a guys heading out for a Halloween party.  They get to the party house only to find that nobody is there.  The let themselves in and explore the house, eventually discovering something happening in the attic.  At this point, it actually got really creative with the effects they use in the house to make it appear haunted.  This was the best story of the five, and it's interesting to note that it appears the movie was edited to put this as the last story, since it's the strongest.

You'll notice the editing, as the resolution to the main, containing story happens before they show you the last short story.  Spoiler: they all die.  Nearly everyone in the movie dies.  With everyone dead, who was around to put the tape in the VCR and watch the last story?  The main story was directed by Adam Wingard, and I think the editing of the final segment of the film really undermined his part of the story, but you didn't care about them anyway.

That's the other big problem with the movie as a whole.  There's no reason to care about any of the characters in any of the stories.  In some cases, not only do you not care, you're actually glad when they die.  As with other found-footage movies, the segments feature all unknown actors, so the acting is all over the place, which makes some harder to watch.

Overall, it's just not all that scary  I always watch horror movies in the dark, and when I'm genuinely creeped out by one, I'll have difficulty sleeping or turn all the lights on after.  The few scares were cheap jump scares, and they only worked because the pacing practically lulls you to sleep.  V/H/S is two hours long, and the only reason why it's easy to get through is that you know each story is only about 20-25 minutes, so you can take a break and know that you don't need to remember anything that happened earlier.  It is gory and there was a surprising amount of nudity, so at least it's a horror film that satisfies the gore and horror movie boob quota.

V/H/S bummed me out.  It's a good concept and had a few moments, but overall it's way too uneven and most of the stories were poorly written and acted.  Plus, the found-footage aspect is really played out, and it looks worse here than in other films shot in the same style.  If you really like horror films, I think you'll get something out of a few of the stories, but this isn't something to rush out and see.  Since only 2 out of the 5 stories worked for me, that's the rating I'm gonna give it.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Pitch Perfect (2012) - Movie Review

Who knew the world of a cappella singing was so competitive?  It would have been great to find out there was a seedy underbelly to this scene with back door deals, performance enhancing drug use, and betting on competitions.  I also didn't realize how many different spellings for a cappella there are.  Do a search and you'll see a capella, a cappella, acapella, acappella.  All seem to be acceptable.  Can someone make a definitive ruling on this?

First off, I have to confess that I really don't like Glee, and I'm not the biggest fan of karaoke.  Fortunately, Pitch Perfect has more in common with movies like Bring it On, than it does to Glee.

I normally warn about spoilers, and that applies here, but the main knock I have against Pitch Perfect is that it follows the same, extremely predictable formula you've seen a billion times before.  It's kind of hard to truly spoil the film, because you know exactly how it's going to turn out.  You can apply the formula to almost any teen/school/competition film.  The formula is:

  • New person arrives at school and is a bit of an outsider/rebel.
  • They are approached by a group, but has no interest in joining.
  • Reluctantly tries out for group anyway and shows extreme talent.
  • Butts heads with existing leader over the direction of the group.
  • Leaves group over disagreement.  This usually coincides with a getting in trouble and screwing up with their love interest.  The love interest is usually someone they initially do not like, but realize later that they do.
  • Makes up with group just in time to win the big event.
  • Makes up with love interest.
  • The End!

It's kind of ironic that it follows such a predictable format, as about halfway through a character states that she never finishes movies, because she gets bored and the endings are predictable.  I thought that maybe, just maybe, Pitch Perfect might do something really creative and have this killer ending that sets it apart.  Unfortunately, this didn't happen.

The outsider, Beca, is played by Anna Kendrick. You know she's a rebel, because she has tattoos and wants to be a DJ instead of going to school.  It's still kind of a tough sell with Anna Kendrick as she has the whitest and straightest teeth in the world, and she's just too damn cute to see her as an outsider.  It's interesting that Beca was difficult to root for at first.  Her goal in life is to drop out of college, even though she's going for free, so she can move to LA to become a famous DJ.  She's standoffish with just about everyone and pushes people away.  She fights with her Dad, who actually seemed like a fairly reasonable person, rather than some overbearing parent stereotype   He even makes a deal with her that he'll help her move to LA if she promises to give college a shot for a year.  Having said that, you eventually do come around to liking Beca, and I think that's due to the inherent appeal of Anna Kendrick.  She's just one of those actresses that's impossible not to like, but I would like to see her try something against type at some point.  I'm not sure if the actresses did all the singing in the movie, but if so, Kendrick has a nice voice and showed some talent beyond her acting chops.

The Bellas, an all female group, are recruiting new signers after a famous flame-out in a previous competition.  It doesn't seem that many people are interested in trying out, so they are basically stuck with a motley group of girls.  Again, it's a little cliched as they all have common sterotypes you've seen: the fat one, the sexpot, the lesbian, the super quiet one.  Even though they are tired cliches, they are at least likable characters and show some personality.

The Bellas primary competition are the Treble Makers, an all male group, led by a chewing-up-the-scenery Adam DeVine.  As they are The Bellas sworn enemy, romancing between the groups is forbidden by Aubrey (Anna Camp), the leader of The Bellas.  You know that forbidden romance will come into play later.  I enjoyed Anna Camp (from Season Two of True Blood) in the role.  She has a stubbornness that intimidates the rest of the group, even when they all know she's wrong.

The funny dialog and charming cast is what saves the movie from it's predictability.  It's consistenly funny, and they still manage to take some shots at the genre and have some fun with it.  Pitch Perfect is campy and doesn't take itself too seriously.  I even got a bit of a Clueless vibe from the movie, but that might have been because Donald Faison has a brief cameo (along with Joe Lo Truglio).  The script by Kay Cannon is snappy and witty, and it also reminded me of movies like Heathers or Mean Girls.  It's interesting to note that Cannon writes for 30 Rock, which is also written by Tina Fey, who wrote Mean Girls.  

Rebel Wilson really shines as "Fat Amy".  She steals nearly every scene she's in and looked like she was having a blast.  She isn't made fun of for cheap laughs, and her character actually preempts attempts to make fun of her weight, so it ends up being a stronger character.  Another highlight of the film are John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks (who also produced) as the commentators for the a cappella competitions  It's a little reminiscent of Fred Willard from Best in Show, but they have some great banter between them.  Hana Mae Lee also has her moments as Lilly, a girl who speaks with a voice so soft that you have to be standing inches from her to hear, but you'd be shocked at the stuff that comes out of her mouth.  The entire cast comes off well, without any real weak link.

The singing itself wasn't bad either.  I appreciate a cappella a little more than karaoke, as there's at least some arrangement of the music and choreography that goes into it.  I was worried that were just going to get a bunch of bad remixes of tired songs, but some of it was catchy.  Pitch Perfect was based on a novel by Mickey Rapkin, who spent time following competitive a cappella competitions.  A few people from the a cappella community were brought in to assist with the song arrangements, so I think that helped with the authenticity.

Pitch Perfect was director Jason Moore's first feature and he did a good job with balancing the cast and keeping the pace of the movie consistent with it's almost two hour runtime.  I'd like to see Moore and Kay Cannon collaborate again on another teen/college comedy and mix things up a bit more next time.  It's a good first effort by both, but just a tad too formulaic.

I was actually dreading watching Pitch Perfect, but I ended up having some fun with it due to it's strong cast, entertaining performances, and smart dialog.  It's a light, but predictable, comedy that doesn't take itself too seriously and should appeal to a wide audience.  Give it a shot.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars