Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Bullet to the Head (2013) - Movie Review

For the third consecutive week we have another movie from one of the Expendables. We had Schwarzenegger's The Last Stand, then Statham's Parker, and now Sylvester Stallone's Bullet to the Head.  As far action nostalgia goes, Stallone is in the lead.

The basic plot of Bullet to the Head isn't anything new, in fact it's not all that far from Parker when you think about it.  James Bonomo, not to be confused by a bonobo monkey, which is probably why he goes by "Jimmy Bobo", is a hitman in Louisiana. After a successful hit, he and his partner are ambushed by yet another hitman named Keegan (Jason Momoa).  Jimmy's partner is killed, and now he wants revenge on the people responsible for his partner's death.

Meanwhile, Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), a DC cop investigating the original hit is dismissed by local law enforcement.  He's not interested in the hitman though, he wants the guy that hired him.  Taylor reluctantly teams up with Jimmy, who believes he was double-crossed, and are basically after the same guy.  This is a tenuous alliance as they are obviously on opposite sides of the law.  There's also a pretty big personality conflict as Jimmy prefers to knock down doors and beat heads in to get what he wants, where Taylor does the majority of his investigation through his smartphone.

While it's a little clumsy, the use of the smartphone allows for most of the exposition to explain who they are going after next. It's still very paint by numbers, but it also illustrates what was wrong about Parker.  It doesn't take detours to develop needless characters, or have drastic shifts in tone.  In fact, the movie may have benefit from a little more character development, but it's also the type of movie where you really don't care.  We're just watching these guys get from point A to point B, disposing of over-the-top villains (Christian Slater, Brian Van Holt and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) along the way.

Once these guys team up, we're basically watching a buddy cop film, only much snarkier.  Jimmy Bobo doesn't screw around, both in action and word, and Stallone seemed like he was having a lot of fun with the role.  Even more fun than he was having in either of The Expendables movies.  Alessandro Camon's screenplay (based off a graphic novel by Alexis Nolent) has some pretty funny dialog, and while the tone was very caustic, it seemed like characters would shout and fly-off-the-handle for any reason.  It can be a little silly at times, but I wasn't expecting a smart, complex story.

I couldn't help but think that Jimmy Bobo is a cranky old man, but then I'm reminded that Stallone is a senior citizen (he's 66). He's also a senior citizen that's in better shape than people half his age (including myself), and can probably kick their asses as well. Stallone has veins on top of veins, and he made me want to hit the gym and go on a diet.  He's even in better shape than his rival hitman, Jason Momoa.  Momoa doesn't exactly expand his range here, but he's at least less grunty then he was in Conan or Game of Thrones.  His character is still very one dimensional, but he had a terminator-like insanity about him that was fun to watch.  It's not like you start to root for him, but it was just as entertaining to watch him run around shooting things up as it was to watch Stallone.

This may have been due to having to sit so close to the screen, but Bullet to the Head suffers from the same shaky, handheld camera work and quick cuts that many other action films these days are plagued by.  I don't get why the action was shot this way, and I wanted to punch the camera guy and editor at times.  You don't have to shoot everything so tight, and you don't need to cut after every punch.  Let it play out and let us see what's happening.  Even fights that took place in open areas had a lot of tight shots that made it difficult to see what was going on.  When I see this kid of editing, I usually think it's because they are covering for bad fight choreography or actors that don't have the physical ability to pull it off, but we're talking about Sylvester Stallone and Jason Momoa here.  Physicality shouldn't be a problem.  I know Stallone has had a few serious injuries lately, so maybe he had to pull back a bit, but it didn't look like wasn't capable.

The real star of the film was the sound team.  You hear and feel every slam and thud, and gunshots are loud as hell.  This helped the action feel a little more brutal than what you actually see on screen.  Veteran director Walter Hill kept the story going and it doesn't run too long.  There's a gritty style about the it, and it really reminded me of older action films.  Keep in mind that Walter Hill has directed movies like 48 Hours, Red Heat, as well as The Warriors and even Brewster's Millions, so he was the right guy for this.

Bullet to the Head brings the testosterone-fueled, balls-out action and smart ass dialog that fans of old-school, buddy-cop flicks crave.  It's brainless, but aren't most Sylvester Stallone movies?  If you're up for a fun action flick, then give Bullet to the Head a shot.  Do you see what I did there?

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Parker (2013) - Movie Review

Jason Statham really needs a trademark or catchphrase.  Arnold had, "I'll be back"; Stallone had, "Yo, Adrian"; Chuck Norris the roundhouse kick and his meme; Van Damage could do the splits; Steven Segal had girly running and being fat.  What's Statham's?  Being likable in mediocre movies?

Statham continues that trend in Parker.  Parker is a no-nonsense thief that has a code: he doesn't steal from people that can't afford it, and doesn't hurt people that don't deserve it.  That doesn't stop him from constantly stealing people's cars.  He even steals a minivan from a soccer mom.  That's stealing from someone that can afford it?  You don't know if she has insurance.  Anyway, after a job where his team robs an Ohio state fair, they double-cross him and leave him for dead.  The tone is set with the bad dialog and over-the-top sneering of the bad guys.  Really, Michael Chiklis?  You're better than this.  During the double-cross, Parker gets shot several times and throws himself from a speeding car.  They double back to finish him off, shoot him again, and leave him for dead.  Later in the film, when the guy that shot him finds out he's still alive he reacts with blind rage.  This is what you get for not shooting him in the head.  Typical, inept movie bad guys.

Parker has untold recovery abilities that rival Wolverine.  In just a few hours he seems to have completely recovered from his injuries, and is back to kicking everyone's ass as he's out for revenge.  This isn't any more silly or ridiculous than any classic, 80's action flick, and if that's all Parker was about, I probably would have enjoyed it.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Lopez stars in a completely different movie about a real estate agent that has money problems, and lives with her soap opera addicted mother.  I'm not kidding when I say it's a completely different movie.  The tone of her arc is the polar opposite of Parker's, and her scenes are in a completely different state with no awareness at all of Parker or what he's dealing with.

Eventually, the two of them are clumsily brought together in a totally contrived and convoluted plot that takes entirely too long to play out. Parker is now posing as a wealthy Texan looking to buy a house, but the way this is executed I honestly thought he was playing a completely different character, and the movie was going to have some weird mistaken identity plot with people confusing Parker with this Texan. I'm actually kind of disappointed that isn't what happened.

The scenes with Lopez weigh the movie down so much that you often forget you're watching an action movie.  In fact, it felt like her role was expanded simply to justify getting a big name like Jennifer Lopez.  They even give her an overly dramatic scene where she laments about how horrible her life is, how she can't meet a man (even though a cop played by Bobby Cannavale hits on her in every scene he's in), and doesn't care if she dies.  Parker makes her strip to check her for a wire, which felt like an opportunity for Lopez to show us she's still in really good shape.  There's no chemistry at all between her and Statham, and since Parker already has a girlfriend (also a totally unnecessary role) you know there's no chance they are going to hook up. Hell, the role didn't even need to be played by a woman.  It was completely unnecessary to the film, and if they had taken every scene of Lopez, and his girlfriend, out of the film, you would have had a much tighter and more entertaining action film.

What I didn't realize going in that Parker was based on the same character and series of novels by Donald Westlake (a.k.a Richard Stark).  This is the same character played by Mel Gibson in the far superior Payback (which I'm watching again on Netflix as I'm writing this).  It was interesting for me to learn this, because of the double cross and revenge angle of Parker, I constantly compared this to Payback.

What really confounds me is that this was directed by Taylor Hackford, who directed Ray and The Devil's Advocate, and the screenplay was written by John J. McLaughlin, who wrote Hitcock and Black Swan.  Something doesn't add up.  It has a decent setup, but is completely ruined with a predictable plot that gets worse the longer the movie goes on.  Parker is almost two hours long and it has no business being more than 90 minutes.

There isn't nearly enough action in the film, but when there is, that's the strength of the film.  Statham always brings it when it comes to fighting, and the fights here are brutal and entertaining. When there isn't action, Statham sleepwalks through his scenes as if even he was bored with the lack of action.  I did find it odd that once again, they used really bad CG blood and gunshots in a few places.  I don't get why films are doing this when it looks so awful.  Is it cheaper to use CG now?

The supporting cast is wasted as well.  They get guys like Michael Chiklis, Wendell Pierce and Clifton Collins Jr. to play the bad guys, but all they do is sneer and are about as generic as bad guys come.  Nick Nolte plays Parker's mentor, but he was clearly out of it.  In his introductory scene, he goes to shake the hand of Parker's girlfriend, who was his daughter!  They did one of those awkward handshakes that became a hug, and I couldn't understand why they just didn't do another take. "Remember Mr. Nolte, this character is your daughter.  You aren't meeting her for the first time."  Don't tell me this was the best take.

Parker has a contrived and convoluted plot bogged down with a completely unnecessary Jennifer Lopez, who appeared to be in another film entirely. Parker fans are likely to be disappointed in a very run of the mill action film that wastes a promising setup, and lacks enough action to be truly entertaining. It's a rental at best.

1.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, January 25, 2013

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) - Movie Review

If only the Will Ferrell connection could have morphed this into Hansel & Gretel: Bitch Hunter, then we really would have been onto something.

I'm referring to the 30 Rock "Bitch Hunter" joke, which featured Will Ferrell.  If you're wondering where the hell I'm going with this, I was surprised to see in the opening credits that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay co-produced Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. This immediately perked me up, thinking their involvement signaled that maybe I was in for a treat.  You see the names McKay and Ferrell on a movie and you think comedy, right?  Unfortunately, that's not what we got here.

The good thing I'll say for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is that is doesn't waste much time (it's not even 90 minutes) or have a particularly complex plot.  After a brief prologue that's basically a recap of the original folk tale, we fast forward several years later, and Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) are all grown up.  The siblings have become a well known duo of witch hunters, who are hired by the mayor of a small town to investigate the kidnapping of several of the town's children by witches. Eventually they cross paths with the dark witch Muriel (Famke Janssen), who need the children to complete a ritual involving the upcoming Blood Moon.  The ritual will give the witches immunity to fire, which is still the best way to kill a witch, so Hansel and Gretel can't let this happen.

Despite being famous for witch hunting and supposedly having a lot of experience, Hansel and Gretel seem pretty bad at it throughout the film.  They setup traps that are easily gotten out of, don't fare very well in hand-to-hand combat, and haven't learned that you should lead a target when shooting at something that's moving.  Seriously, you see that happen at least three times in the movie.  Awareness of their location wasn't a strength of theirs either, as they are surprised to find the town they are investigating is a stone's throw from the house they grew up in.  Their lack of skill is made up for by having a modern-day arsenal of high powered weapons at their disposal.  This was another thing that kind of distracted me at first, but then I wrote it off as a stylistic choice.  I had to remind myself that these stories are fantasies, so if they want to put their own spin on it and add to the mythology, then go for it.  It's more forgivable than something like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which tries to add mythology and fantasy around real events and people.

The main problem with H&S:WH is that it's pretty clear they couldn't decide what kind of film they were trying to make. It was originally scheduled to be released in March of 2012, so when you see an almost year long delay, you think reshoots and lots of edits trying to find something that worked.  Opens with more of a horror feel, but there's never a scary moment in the film. Then, one of the first lines of dialog Gretel has she drops the 'F bomb', and it totally took me out of the film.  It made me think of Your Highness, which had a lot of profanity for no good reason other than to be vulgar to get a cheap laugh. There's even a nude scene that felt out of place.  Don't get me wrong, I don't have an issue with swearing or nudity, but if they don't add anything to the film, then it's kind of pointless.  It's simply not in the same league as more recent horror-comedies like Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Zombieland or Cabin in the Woods.

It's also much gorier than I expected.  Again, it didn't seem they quite knew how they should use the gore though.  There's a great scene involving a troll that looked like Tito Ortiz (seriously though it was Derek Mears in a troll suit), but it's over in a flash and the movie doesn't surprise you like that again.  There's a mix of practical effects and CG effects, but you don't need to have a trained eye to tell the difference and know that the practical stuff worked better.  I didn't bother with seeing this in 3D, and while it was shot in 3D (and also available in IMAX), I didn't see anything about the visuals that 3D would have improved.

Poor Jeremy Renner.  After The Hurt Locker and then The Town, he seemed poised for super stardom, but then he ended up playing the least interesting superhero in The Avengers (something even he's expressed irritation over), a lackluster Bourne movie, and now this.  It's the same with Gemma Arterton.  I thought she'd be a bigger deal by now, but it just hasn't gone that way yet.  I really hope they are able to find some films that match the level of their talent.  I felt like both of them were trying here, and at times I thought they had good chemistry together, but the material really let them down.

It has a decent supporting cast that's also wasted.  Famke Janssen spends the majority of the film in unrecognizable makeup, and there's not much memorable about the role otherwise.  Peter Stormare is the town sheriff, and plays a weak bad guy that was simply a lazy character stereotype.  Thomas Mann has a small role as a huge fan/groupie of Hansel and Gretel, but while you can tell the character was meant to be comic relief, it just wasn't written that way.

Director Tommy Wirkola, who co-wrote this with Dante Harper, showed a lot of promise back in 2008 with Dead Snow.  Instead of building on that, he took a step back here with an unfunny script, and a story that's all over the place.  The thing that really made me notice this the most was that they introduce the fact that Hansel needs to take a shot every few hours or otherwise he spazzes out.  You think it might be some cool thing about how he's suppressing some witch disease or something like that, but then he says it's because he ate too much candy as a kid and now has a sugar disease.  Diabetes?  Really?  Why was this in the film?  To increase awareness of diabetes, but then never call it diabetes?  I'm surprised they didn't have a scene of Gretel massaging her breast and complaining about a lump.  Anyway, I think they should have totally gone wild with the gore, and then got someone to punch up the script.  The movie is treated way too seriously, and it should have gone for camp.  That's why I was so surprised to see Adam McKay and Will Ferrell as co-producers.  I figured they would have noticed that the film needed a lot more humor, and either added it themselves or brought in another writer to do so.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is an inconsistent mixed bag that never figures out what kind of movie it wants to be.  It wastes the few good things it had going for it with flat dialog that desperately needed a huge infusion of humor.  I really wanted to have more fun with the film than I did.  I can only recommend this as a rental.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Broken City (2013) - Movie Review

It might be a broken city, but it somehow feels like a lot of other cities.

Mark Wahlberg plays a Billy Taggart, a former cop (shocker, I know) turned private investigator in Broken City.  The prologue shows us that he beat a murder rap, but due to the circumstances of killing Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) and Chief of Police Faribanks (Jeffrey Wright) tell him he's still off the force.  Hostetler thinks Taggart is a hero though, as the person he murdered was a suspected rapist and murderer that got off on a technicality.

Seven years later, Taggart is barely getting by as a P.I.  He's too nice and letting people get away with not paying him in a timely manner, or just not paying him at all. Mayor Hostetler comes to the rescue when he offers Taggart $50,000 investigate his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whom he suspects is having an affair.  Hostetler is in the political fight of his life as the election looms around the corner, and if the affair is true it could be really damaging to his campaign.  Taggart investigates, things are discovered, and we learn there's a lot more going on than just a simple affair.

I think that all of that 'going on' is the problem with Broken City that prevents it from being a much better film.  The plot gets needlessly complex and twisty for it's own good.  There are lots of threads that drag the story down or don't have any kind of payoff.  It wants to be smarter than it is, but when you find out what's really going on, it's kind of let down.  This was writer Brian Tucker's first film, and it's not a bad effort. The story doesn't insult the intelligence or anything like that, but it only manages to be a very paint-by-the-numbers thriller. The other problem with the script is that there no snap to it at all.  It's not that it needed more humor, but considering all of the threats and politics involved, you'd think there'd be more bite.

I've often criticized Mark Wahlberg for not having a lot of range, and this is another role that doesn't challenge him at all, but I actually thought he was well cast here.  The role needed that tough, no nonsense guy, and that's pretty much exactly what he is.  One the unnecessary subplots involved Taggart's girlfriend (Natalie Martinez), and while it explains the murder at the beginning of the film, it only amounted to giving Taggart an excuse to go off the rails for a minute.  You see him hit rock bottom, but then he immediately bounces back, as if it was just something he needed to get out of his system.  This whole part could have been removed, and it would have tightened the movie up quite a bit.

I did enjoy Wahlberg's chemistry and relationship with his assistant (Alona Tal) though.  They have a few nice scenes where he's showing her the ropes, and I would have liked to see a little more of that in the film.  It doesn't hurt that Alona Tal is a looker either.

The strength of the film is the cast.  Russell Crowe does a good job here, and I this the first film in a while that I really enjoyed him in or I didn't think he was completely phoning it in.  The problem with the character is that he plays out very predictably, but that's not Crowe's fault.  Catherine Zeta-Jones is the adulterous wife, but there wasn't enough to her character to justify getting such a well known actor to play the role.  Jeffrey Wright is also good as the Police Chief that you don't like at first, but come around to.  Barry Pepper returns to the big screen as Jack Valliant, the man running against Hostetler, and Kyle Chandler also has a small role as his campaign manager.

Allen Hughes (of "The Hughes Brothers" that directed The Book of Eli) does a descent job with the direction.  It's capable work, but there aren't any surprises, and there's nothing distinctive about the visuals or style.

Broken City isn't a broken movie (I don't quite understand the hate on rottentomatoes for it), nor a bad one, but it's also not a particularly good one either.  It's well acted and moves along enough to be fairly entertaining, but doesn't have enough originality to stand out or be all that memorable.  This is the kind of film you'll enjoy enough when you're bored and need to kill some time.  Rent it on a rainy day.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, January 18, 2013

Mama (2013) - Movie Review

Yo Mama's so dumb's all I got.  This is why I'm not a stand-up comedian.

I know a lot of people really like Guillermo del Toro, but I'm starting to think his name attached to a movie is a sign that it's either going to be over-hyped, or it never sees the light of day.  Mama was only produced by del Toro, but he got behind the project after seeing a short film by Andrés and Barbara Muschietti.  For the feature film, Andrés directed and shared writing credit with Barbara and Neil Cross.  Neil Cross you may know as the writer and director of Luther, which is an awesome BBC that I highly recommend you all check out, especially if you like Idris Elba.  The fact Neil Cross was involved in the writing disappoints me all that much more with how this played out, but we'll get to that.

If you're interested, you can watch the original Mama short below.  Don't worry, it won't spoil anything about the movie to watch it.  It's mainly a version of a few things you saw in the trailer and doesn't have any of the story of the movie.

Mama has a tragic, effective setup.  A man kills his wife (along with some co-workers) and kidnaps their two daughters.  While speeding away on an icy road, they crash in the woods, and find small cabin.  I thought this abandoned cabin was a little unusual as it seemed to be in pretty good condition, and looked like it was decorated in the late 1960's or early 70's.  As the father is preparing to kill his kids, something intervenes and takes him away.  Right away, this kind of surprised me as the evil in the movie is already revealed, and you have a good idea of what it looks like and know it can interact physically with the outside world.

The kids are left to fend for their own, but we all know that this 'Mama' is watching over them.  Five years pass, and we meet Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) the twin brother of the man from the opening scene.  He's been spending every dime he has trying to find any trace of his brother or nieces.  I'm a little surprised it took five years to find them considering you'd think the police would have been looking for him, and his car couldn't have crashed that far from the road. Anyway, the kids are found in a feral state.  The older of the two, Victoria (Megan Charpentier), was old enough when abandoned that she at least had some speech skills and remembers her father.  However, the younger of the two, Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), was too young to remember her parents and was raised only by her older sister and Mama.

After a short time of being studied by a psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), the kids are sent home with Lucas and his rocker girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain).  This was another unusual part of the film for me as Lucas and Annabel didn't have the funds to watch over the kids, but Dr. Dreyfuss puts them up in a house with the condition that he's allowed to still study them.  It's not long before weird things happen around the house.  Lucas is actually knocked into a coma really early on into the film, which leaves Annabel to watch the kids on her own, and she's already established that having kids isn't high on her list of things she wants.

Jessica Chastain, fresh of her Golden Globe win, elevates the material, but I felt like her character was a little too cliched.  She plays bass in a band, all tatted up, and everything is dark about her.  The fact that she was a musician in no way played into the plot at all.  I did like the fact that her arc involved her getting over the fact she didn't want kids, but was forced to watch them and eventually bond and become a parental figure to them.

I also thought Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse were very good.  There's a nice contrast between watching Victoria slowly acclimate back to normal life, while you can tell that something isn't right about Lilly.  Lilly is eerie without having to say anything.  The interaction between the two was kind of heartbreaking, especially towards the end.

Is Mama scary?  Not really.  The setup works for a bit and there are some good jump-scares, but the movie starts to rely on those too much.  It's also a case of taking too long to get to the point.  The more they reveal, the less effective it comes.  The effects for Mama initially looked good, but it eventually turns into a really bad CG effect that took away anything that was scary about her.  Towards the end people were laughing out loud at the events that played out, rather than being scared.  These are the same people that were jumping early on.

It just all falls apart at the end.  There are a lot of plot holes, and character decisions that didn't make any sense.  They introduce things that aren't really followed up on, or would have resolved the movie sooner if they had been.  Plus, there are some conveniences at the end that make it tie up too neatly.  They try to explain why Mama was doing what she was doing, and it attempts to make her sympathetic, but I didn't feel that way.  I won't spoil the end, but it had this almost fairy tale quality to it that just didn't fit the tone of the film.  I also don't like it when a movie isn't consistent about it's mythology.  Sometimes Mama is real, other times she's intangible, and it's not like she's invisible or can't be heard.  Everyone is powerless to stop her, so why is there even a setup to what she's doing?  She can get what she wants at any time.

Mama has an effective setup and some creepy moments, but the more they reveal, the more it falls apart.  Sometimes it's better to leave things to the imagination, and that's probably Mama's biggest flaw.  What could have been an effective ghost story, ended up being a really uneven film with an ending that didn't fit.  It does have some strong performances, but that's about the most I can say about it.  This is a rental.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

The Last Stand (2013) - Movie Review

He's back, and he's really, really old!

Former Governor of California tries his stab at acting...wait a second, let me try this again.  Former action star, turned Governor, returns to the genre that made him famous in The Last Stand.  I have to admit that I was more than a little geeked up to see The Last Stand.  Come on, it's Arnold!  This guy was my idol for a large portion of my youth, and I still go back through his older films on a fairly regular basis.  I don't think I'm alone in saying it's exciting to see him back on the big screen.

Schwarzenegger plays Ray Owens, the sheriff of the small border town of Sommerton Junction, AZ.  He's a former LA cop, which was the movie's way of telling you that he must have been a badass before coming to AZ for a quieter life.  Some quick research showed that there is no actual Summerton Junction in Arizona, but there is a Somerton that's close to the border, so I'm not sure why they didn't just go with that.  Anyway, Sheriff Owens is enjoying a simple day with the goofy locals, like Johnny Knoxville. We learn a little about his deputies, and they appear inept for the most part.  Then again, if Luis Guzmán is one of your deputies, then you're not exactly working with the best of the best.  One wants to transfer because he wants more excitement (so you know he'll be the first to die), and his female deputy had a relationship with the guy that's currently locked up in their lone jail cell.  Whatever, none of it is really important.  Arnold notices a few guys that didn't look right to him (one of which was played by Peter Stormare), and they investigate.

We then meet FBI Agent Bannister (Forest Whitaker) who's overseeing the transfer of a drug kingpin Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega).  It takes almost no time before this transfer is hijacked by various henchmen and Cortez escapes in a fancy, modified sports car.  He's about as generic a bad guy as they come, and you never feel any threat from the guy at all.  He doesn't even carry a gun.  He just drives and offers people large sums of money as bribes.  Yet we're reminded that he's worse than Pablo Escobar, so we're supposed to be scared, I guess.

Speaking of the getaway car, they go out of their way to tell you it can go upwards of 200 mph and that it can outrun a helicopter, which is why they are driving rather than just fly over the border.  But in the very next scene, a helicopter is on the tail of the car and not having any trouble keeping up.  So how does he lose the helicopter?  Does he floor the one-of-a-kind sports car, leaving the helicopter in it's wake?  No, he slams on his breaks and turns his lights off, so the copter can't find them again on the dark, unlit road.  It's a good thing they spent all that time telling us how fast that car was, especially when they don't use that speed in the one situation where it would be useful.  This might be the kind of movie that will bug car enthusiasts, as there are lots of things done that don't make a lot of sense.  You see driving on the wrong side of the road against traffic for no real reason, and there's a 180 that transitions into the car speeding in reverse.  I've always wondered why such an abrupt transition in speed and direction never seems to hurt the car.  Also, don't movie guys know that cars can only go so fast in reverse?  There's no advantage to speeding in reverse, and we see it all too often in movies simply because it's cool looking.  There are some entertaining car chases though, so it's not all bad.  It's just the type of stuff I'm noticing more and more.

This actually has a pretty decent supporting cast, but there's nothing to any of the characters, which seemed like kind of a waste.  Johnny Knoxville isn't in the movie as much as the trailer would have you believe (which is probably a good thing), and Luis Guzmán didn't get many opportunities to provide the kind of comic relief we're used to seeing from him.  Sif from Thor (Jaimie Alexander) plays the only capable deputy at Arnold's disposal, but while there are flashes where you think she might get to be more of a badass, it doesn't play out that way.  Maybe we'll get to see more of her in Thor: The Dark World.  The movie also wastes Genesis Rodriguez as a FBI agent that's kidnapped by Cortez.  I'm anxiously awaiting the film that uses, their fullest.

The one stand out was Peter Stormare.  If you've been following his career, then you know he either plays a bad guy, a weird guy, or a weird, bad guy.  Here he plays a weird bad guy, and even adopts a bad southern accent (he's Swedish).  He seemed to be having fun with the role though, and managed to keep his accent, which is more than I can say for the Rodrigo Santoro, who played Frank.  We first hear him speaking with a forced sounding American accent (he's from Brazil), as we learn that he's an ex-Marine (they even put a Semper Fi tattoo on his forearm, so we wouldn't be confused about that).  He's some kind of screwup though, as he's in jail for some reason we never learn.  He yells at Sif early on, and his real accent bleeds through. From that point, it's like he said screw it and didn't bother hiding it anymore.

Then again, I'm complaining about realistic accents in a movie that stars a large Austrian man, who's never had the best command of the English language, playing the sheriff of a small town in Arizona.

There's not a lot of attention to detail, which is usually hard for me to overlook.  I'd fault director Jee-woon Kim for this, but he seemed to understand he wasn't making a smart movie here, and did a good job of making the kind of action film we've come to expect form Arnold.  The movie is paced well and when the action gets going, it's actually pretty fun.  The violence is sprinkled with humor, so you never take it too seriously and just go with it.

Arnold can still carry a movie, but I'd like to see him change pace a little.  There's the inevitable showdown at the end of the film, and I couldn't help but thinking that he looked like a top-heavy action figure that you just managed to finally balance, but could tip over for any reason.  I was curious to see how they'd edit the fight to cover for the fact that he's a 65-year-old man that's lost several steps, and doesn't have that same physicality that made him famous.  They actually did a good job with that final fight scene, and it kind of reminded me more of and old warrior or boxer that may not have his speed, but that power is still there when he needs it.

Despite everything I just said, I still had fun with The Last Stand.  At it's heart it's really no different from any other Schwarzenegger film, and it has all the things we love about them:  cheesy one-liners, silly humor, lots of guns and violence, and a simple story.  If that's your cup of tea (Arnold would say you need to drink beer), then I think you'll enjoy The Last Stand.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Hyde Park on Hudson (2012) - Movie Reivew

If I told you a movie begins with a former President getting a hand job, which President would you guess was receiving it?  Clinton?  JFK?

No, I'm not kidding.  In the opening moments of Hyde Park on Hudson we see a very awkward scene of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray) getting a hand job in his car from his fifth-cousin Daisy (Laura Linney).  You read that part right, too. His fifth-cousin, a distant relative.  I was initially kind of thrown off by the fact they were even keeping track that far.  Perhaps that's a thing of the past, but I usually don't hear of people mentioning any relation past the 2nd or 3rd cousin these days.  Maybe that's not a good thing we aren't keeping track anymore, or simply a reflection of how many more people there are, and how diverse the gene pool is getting.  Besides all of that, I though it was kind of sick that there was any relation between the two at all, as well as being kind of a disrespectful way to look at a former President.

Enough rambling.  Awkwardness abounds in Hyde Park on Hudson.  That really is the theme of the film.  You have an awkward beginning in a movie full of awkward humor and moments.  There's so much of it that I think it undercut the film.

While the movie begins with the affair between FDR and Daisy, the central, and more important, event of the film is that King George VI (Samuel West, who plays the same, stuttering King from The King's Speech) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) are coming to visit FDR at his family estate.  King George was the first reigning monarch to visit the United States, and it was presumed that he was going to ask for the US's aid leading up to WWII.  It's a pretty important event, but the movie divides it's focus between this and FDR's affairs.  The film is partially based on personal letters between Daisy and FDR found after her death, and the movie is also narrated by her character.

I wish I could tell you what kind of movie this was supposed to be.  It varied throughout between a light comedy, a historical drama, and then it would spend time as a character piece showing FDR's character flaws regarding women.  It's very choppy, and it suffers from really poor pacing.  I was shocked to see that the film was only 95 minutes, as it felt like it was well over two hours.  Director Roger Michell really couldn't decide on a tone or consistent direction.  His most recent credit was 2010's Morning Glory, another movie that I thought suffered from not knowing what kind of film it wanted to be.

There are some funny moments, but they primarily revolve around the cultural differences between the US and England, so you get a lot of those awkward, 'fish out of water' moments.  The humor fell pretty flat though, and I don't recall the movie getting more than just a light chuckle out of me once or twice.  Richard Nelson's script really needed some life to it, but I also think it was a mistake to base the screenplay off of Daisy's personal letters and diaries.  Outside of being someone FDR was having an affair with, there's really no significance to her character at all, and she has no impact on the outcome of the film.  Plus, if we're going to compare Presidential affairs to someone like JFK, then Daisy is certainly no Marilyn Monroe.

Even though Daisy narrates the film, she's not in it for large parts of the movie, or is relegated to a background role, as she doesn't have much to do with the larger events that are going on.  I've always liked Laura Linney, but I didn't think this was one of her stronger roles.  I don't think it's the fault of her performance necessarily, it's just not a very strong character.  Even Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams) is barely a side character in the film.

However, I thought Bill Murray was very charismatic as FDR, but when isn't Bill Murray charismatic?  He's the strength of the film and it really suffers when he's not on screen.  There's a scene that really made me take notice of this where King George and FDR are having a drink together and sharing stories.  They're just talking as men, and it's the kind of thing that made you wish the whole movie would have just been about their developing relationship and the historical impact of it.

While Hyde Park on Hudson has a charismatic performance from Bill Murray as FDR, it suffers from really inconsistent tone and very poor pacing.  It's a hard movie to recommend even for die-hard Murray fans or those that like historical biopics.  It's a rental at best.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Gangster Squad (2013) - Movie Review

Gangsters shoot about as well as Stormtroopers.

Here's an example of when a movie 'based off true events' misses the mark.  In Gangster Squad we follow a task force created to stop gangster Mickey Cohen's criminal organization.

Set back in the late 1940's, Cohen (Sean Penn) was a ruthless gangster that the LAPD was in danger of losing the city to.  It didn't help that many local police forces were on his payroll, and just as much a part of the problem as the gangsters were. Chief Bill Parker (a super gravelly Nick Nolte), puts John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) in charge of putting together a small, 'off the books' task force to stop Cohen.  O'Mara is an honest, but tough minded cop, and is told that he doesn't simply want Cohen killed, but he wants his organization destroyed to the point where any other gangster would be scared off from trying to swoop in after Cohen is gone.

Normally a movie like Gangster Squad is right up my alley.  It's slick looking, has a good cast, and I generally love stories about gangsters, especially when based off real people.  However, the whole time while I'm watching I can't quite figure out why it wasn't clicking for me.  After a bloody opening, I thought it was going to be the kind of violent crime drama that I enjoy, but it all felt very tame somehow.  Maybe because when I compare it to something like Django Unchained the violence didn't have the same kind of impact to it.

The story itself is also very thin and there's not a lot of depth to any of the characters.  They try to show that some of the squad members are conflicted over the level of violence they are using to stop the bad guys, and is there really any difference between the police and the gangsters, but they don't really go into it too much.  Will Beall's script was based off a book Tales from the Gangster Squad by Paul Lieberman, and neither he or the book have an entry on Wikipedia, so that ought to tell you something about how popular or critically acclaimed that book is.  If you're gonna base your 'based on true events' movie off a book, maybe you should go with one people have heard of.  I'm a little nervous now that Beall is attached to both the upcoming Justice League movie and the next Lethal Weapon.  I hope this isn't a sign of things to come.

There's also a love story between squad member Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) and Cohen's girlfriend Grace (Emma Stone). As much as I like Gosling and Stone, I felt they were both miscast here.  Stone seemed too young and innocent to play the kind of sexy the role needed, not that there was much to the role in the first place.  Gosling's voice had a weird affectation to it where it he sounded like he was sucking on helium in between takes, and his voice wasn't consistent through the film.  I think the biggest missed opportunity between these two was that the great chemistry they demonstrated in Crazy, Stupid, Love was all but gone here.

A movie is only as good as its bad guy, but Sean Penn's Cohen wasn't very effective.  It didn't help that they put him in ridiculous looking makeup and spoke with a overdone accent that made him feel more like a Dick Tracy villain than a real person.  It also doesn't help the realism that even with the makeup, Penn doesn't look anything like Mickey Cohen.

Mickey Cohen, 1949.  The resemblance
 to Sean Penn is uncanny, huh?
Looking at that picture, you'd think that someone like Joe Pesci or even Bob Hoskins would be a better fit.

Gangster Squad is another movie where the bad guys with automatic weapons can't hit shit, but the good guys are all crack shots.  It's like they all went to the Stormtrooper school of marksmanship.  This allows a group of just five people to take on and defeat a much larger force of gangsters.  It's not like they employed any kind of tactics to give them the upper hand either.  The bad guys even make it easy on them by refusing to take any kind of cover when being shot at or just run right up to them as they're being fired upon.

Between the over-the-top performance of Sean Penn and the silliness of his henchmen, I couldn't figure out if this was meant to be a serious drama, or if they were going for more of a humorous angle.  Confusing this further was that this was directed by Ruben Fleischer, who was on more of a comedic track with his previous films, Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less.  He's still one of my favorite up-and-coming directors, but he probably wasn't the best choice to direct if the intent was to make as serious crime drama.  I do think he did a good job with the look of the film, which was it's strength.

Gangster Squad is an example of a movie that's all style and no substance.  It's normally the type of film I eat up, but I didn't find it all that creative or original.  It wastes a talented cast with a very pedestrian story that can nobody can rise above.  It's ultimately pretty forgettable, but it's not a bad rental when you want to kill two hours.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Storage 24 (2013) - Movie Review

I'm at a disadvantage, as I haven't seen the previous 23 Storage films...

No, there aren't actually 23 other films in the series.  The über-creative title is in reference to the fact that this movie primarily takes place in a storage facility that's open for, you guessed it, 24-hours.  In keeping with creative names, the name of the storage place is also Storage 24.  I think a good name for an actual storage place would be Storage 25 just to mess with people.  They can even boast that their storage is so good that it feels like they are actually open an extra hour somehow.

Storage 24 is basically a story about an alien/monster that gets loose and wreaks havoc in the titular storage facility.  It could have been an interesting 'bottle episode', but we spend a good third of the film setting up the relationships between the four central characters.  This also wouldn't have been bad, but it was the type of melodrama you'd expect on a bad MTV or CW show.  I realize that saying a bad MTV or CW show is redundant.

We first begin with a plane crash that nobody reacts to like a normal person.  The plane literally crashes right outside of this storage facility, and you can hear the whine of the engines spinning down, yet they think it's a bomb or earthquake.  Maybe you could look outside the front window, a window that was somehow unaffected by the plane crash (that's some super strong glass there), rather than make wild guesses.

Then, we meet Charlie (Noel Clarke, who also co-wrote) who's going through a bad breakup.  He's headed to the storage facility to pick up some stuff.  While lamenting about his breakup, his 'best friend' (Colin O'Donoghue) basically yells at him to shut up because he can't hear a radio broadcast about the plane that crashed.  Nice friend, eh?  I'm sure his friend's overreaction couldn't be seeded by something else, could it?

They arrive at the storage facility where coincidentally his ex Shelley (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) and friends (notably Laura Haddock) are also picking up some stuff.  It seems to be everyone vs. Charlie at this point.  He just wants to understand why she broke up with him, and she confuses him further when she tells him he didn't do anything wrong.  This only makes Charlie press even harder for an explanation only to be told by everyone that he's being a dick and this isn't the time for this conversation.  Really?  You're a dick for asking why you're being broken up with after just being told you didn't do anything wrong?  She then tells him that he doesn't excite her and doesn't have any feelings for him.  Why she couldn't have just said that the first time is a mystery to me.  Also, telling someone you've been dating for a while that they don't excite you is a bullshit reason anyway.

In the very next scene we find out the real reason they broke up: she's been sleeping with Charlie's best friend.  You know, the same friend that yelled at him to shut up when he was upset about his breakup.  At least Shelley's friend takes Noel's side at this point, making her some somewhat reasonable.  This also sets up Charlie and Shelley's friend as the only two likable people in the movie.

Oh yeah, there's a monster on the loose.  It's a good thing we spent all that time with that relationship drama, huh?  I suppose that was to setup tension or something.  So, the monster finally starts attacking, and rest of the film is the group running from unit to unit trying to stay safe.  They try unsuccessfully to find weapons, and  finally decide they have to make a run for the exit.  They are trapped inside because of the crash, but there's a manual release if they can get to the exit.

The one thing I'll say for the film is that they actually used practical creature effects (a guy in a suit) for the majority of the film. It certainly made it seem creepier, and the threat more real.  However, the creature seemed to have super strength and oscillated between 8 and 12 ft tall.  It's the kind of movie where if it had played out in real life, they would have all been dead within minutes, as there no way without weapons they could have fought this thing off or found a place safe enough to hide where the creature couldn't have gotten to them.  It also had a 80's vibe about it and a soundtrack that reminded me a bit of Alien.  Those are about the only good things I can say about Johannes Roberts direction.  I'm also puzzled this had three writers, but I do think it's kind of funny that Noel Clarke co-wrote the film, yet plays the only the only character you're meant to root for. Not exactly a daring decision there.

Storage 24 would have found a better home on the SyFy channel, and there was no reason for it to have been stretched out to a 90-minute film.  This could have easily been cut down to something that would have made for a decent Twilight Zone episode (especially with the ending) or some 'creature of the week' show.  It also lacks the unintentional humor or campiness to put it in the same realm as stuff like Sharkopus, Birdemic: Shock and Terror or Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus.  It's not scary and needlessly melodramatic. There's no good reason to spend money to watch this, or to see it for free either.

1 (out of 5) Death Stars

Parental Guidance (2012) - Movie Review

If Billy Crystal had played this movie as Miracle Max then we might have been on to something.

I honestly don't have all that much to say about Parental Guidance.  The whole movie felt dated, as if it's been sitting on a shelf somewhere for a good decade or so. Perhaps it did sit on a shelf for a while, as it's so forgettable that I nearly forgot I watched this last week.  It's not an insulting or offensive film, but it totally wastes the comedic talents of Crystal and Bette Midler.  They are both better than this.

The weird thing is, much like The Guilt Trip, you might go into the movie thinking the parents are the bad guys, but it becomes clear very early on that they are the only sane ones in the film.  Their daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) and her husband need to take a trip for a work event, but are reluctant to call Artie and Diane (Crystal and Midler) to watch their kids.  Diane has issues with her parents, but it's never really clear what they are, other than she disapproves of their 'old school' parenting methods.  You know, crazy things like telling them 'no' or punishing them for bad behavior.

For a moment, you think the movie might be a strike against this new age, ineffectual parenting that has bred a generation of soft, neurotic kids that have entitlement issues and too much self esteem.  There's even a point in the movie where they attend a little league game where no outs are recorded and there's no score, so nobody's feelings are hurt.  They attend classes and therapy sessions where the instructors are either overbearing or don't actually work on the issue they are actually there for.  The movie doesn't have any teeth about, and it misses the opportunity to actually say something.

This missed opportunity wouldn't have been so bad if the movie was actually funny.  Everything about it is so tame and there's nothing witty about it.  I guess it's a little ironic that a movie named Parental Guidance doesn't actually require any.  With a PG-rated movie it's not like I was expecting edgy humor, but Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse's script desperately needed some punch-up.  What made my viewing experience so painful was that I was sitting in front of someone that thought nearly every line of the film was funny. Even casual lines of dialog that were not meant at all to be funny would still generate a laugh from this person.  I know this isn't the fault of the movie, but imagine my annoyance level rising with someone laughing in my ear at things that aren't funny.  That's really the audience of the movie, people that either laugh at everything or enjoy really light, toothless comedies.

One of the reasons why the movie felt dated was it had a theme about a family bonding over baseball.  Artie's job is a broadcaster for a minor league team, so there are lots of callbacks to old baseball games, references to playing catch, actually playing catch, and then there's Artie's reaction to the aforementioned little league game.  Billy Crystal is a huge baseball fan, so I almost wonder if he agreed to do this movie if they'd throw more baseball stuff in the movie.  I did actually enjoy the parts where he playing broadcaster though.  If Crystal hadn't gone into acting, you can see how his calling would have been to become a baseball broadcaster.

Another part of the movie the really bugged me was that Alice's husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) is getting some award for this home automation technology he's developed.  However, when you see it in action, it's just not something that exists yet, unless Phil has a Tony Stark level of intelligence and financial resources.  When I see something like this in a movie, I usually assume that the director of the film isn't actually all that in touch with current technology.  Then, I see this was directed by Andy Fickman, who directed the inane You Again, a movie that started by showing you a YouTube video created several years before it existed and taken with a camera that also didn't exist yet.  When you couple the lack of realism with regards to technology with characters that don't act like normal people (true in both these films), you have a lazy movie that just doesn't care.

I will give the film credit for having a few Star Wars references, which I always appreciate, so there's that at least.

Parental Guidance is a safe, run-of-the-mill family comedy that doesn't have a single joke or idea you haven't seen in a ton of other films before.  It wastes a good cast with material that's better suited for the ABC Family channel.  You could take both your grandparents and kids to this movie, but I think your grandparents will like it more.

1.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Impossible (2012) - Movie Review

It's interesting that such a simple, nondescript title like The Impossible works on multiple levels...

Just when I thought I was done with all of the 2012 Oscar contenders, here's another one that flew in under the radar.  I was a little leery when the film started, as it opens with the phrase I usually hate seeing, "This is based on a true story."  They even let the "true story" linger on the screen for a few extra seconds.  It's not that I don't like movies based on true stories, it's just that it seems like most films embellish so much on the original story that it doesn't resemble what it was really about by the end.  The Impossible doesn't seem like that type of film though. Well, except for one part, but we'll get to that later.

The Belon family takes a vacation to Thailand on Christmas.  You don't get to know much about them other than a general idea of what Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) do for a living, and that they seem like a fairly normal family.  Their vacation is interrupted the day after Christmas, when without any kind of warning a massive tsunami hits.  A weird part of my mind drifted for a moment, and I wondered why there wasn't any kind of warning like we get when we know a massive storm or hurricane is coming.  Is there something about the nature of tsunamis that makes them impossible to detect in advance?  It turns out that a Thai meteorologist actually did predict this tsunami, and advocated early warning systems, but wasn't taken seriously.  After this tsunami, they brought this guy out of retirement and put him in charge of development of a regional early warning system.  I wonder what this guy's 'I told you so' dance looked like?

Sorry about the side track there.  The tsunami is one of the most realistic and intense disasters sequences I've ever witnessed in a movie.  Much of what you see appeared to be practical effects, rather than relying too much on CG-effects.  It's definitely a sight to be seen, and heard, in the theater.  It doesn't glamorize the disaster either.  You really feel every painful moment and it's frightening to sit though.  Maria gets absolutely torn up by it and when you see the speed of tsunami it seems impossible that anyone could survive the initial wave, let alone being carried away by the current.

When the water finally recedes, Maria and her oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) are are separated from the rest of their family.  They need to get to safety, but Maria desperately needs medical care.  You wonder how she's even alive at this point, and I could only be impressed by her will to live.  We then catch back up to Henry, who was able to stick with his two youngest sons.  Henry has no way of contacting his family back home, and has no clue if Maria and Lucas have survived. He's driven to find them, to the point where he's willing to risk leaving his sons to go with another group to get to high ground.  This was a part that was hard for me to watch, as I just couldn't imagine letting your kids out of your sight at this point.

When I said the title of the movie worked on multiple levels, it's because it finally did something that I thought was impossible:  it made me cry.  I don't think I've cried watching a film in more than two years.  The Impossible didn't just make me cry once, but I broke down multiple times.  When you see the ordeal these people go through, you can't help but be moved by what happens on screen.  There's a scene were the simple act of lending a cell phone to a stranger got to me.

Naomi Watts gives her finest performance to date, and it was also an impressive amount of physical acting on her part.  It's impossible (see what I keep doing there?) to not feel the hell she goes through.  She's my sleeper pic for an Best Actress Oscar nomination.  Ewan McGregor also gives a great performance and shows a range we aren't used to seeing from him.  Normally we see him be charming or having fun, but this time he's extremely vulnerable.  The kids are also fantastic, especially Tom Holland as Lucas.  He has to carry stretches of the film, and you get to see him evolve.  At the beginning he seems like a whiny, selfish kid, but he grows before your very eyes, and the movie is as much about his maturity and the compassion he learns for others than it is about reuniting his family.

My only minor complaint is after watching all of this you are finally shown a picture of the actual family, and see that they white-washed the real, Spanish family, to Europeans.  I kind of figured this was going to be the case, as they tend to change the ethnicity or look of the real people involved to sell the film to a larger audience.  I just found it a little surprising considering the director, Juan Antonio Bayona, is Spanish.

Speaking of the director, this is Bayona's first film since 2007's The Orphanage, another movie that caught me off guard with the range of emotions it put me through.  The direction is impressive for the realism of the tsunami sequence, but he is able to get a lot out of the film without it being cloying or having a sweeping score that manipulates you.  Sergio G. Sánchez's screenplay is a little light, but it didn't need much to get the point across.  Sánchez also wrote The Orphange, so these two need to keep teaming up and making more movies.  It's interesting to note that the real survivor, María Belón, wrote the story.  Another thing I appreciated about the story is that while it focuses on the plight of the Belon's, you never lose sight of how it effected other people.  A few of the moments that moved me didn't even involve them.

The Impossible is emotionally exhausting, but uplifts you at the same time.  It reminds you to never give up hope, and of the will of people to survive.  I thank the film for also reminding me that I still have human emotions.  It's one of the best and most realistic disaster movies that I've ever seen, with impressive effects and even more impressive performances by the cast.  This is one of the best films of 2012, and I strongly recommend watching it.

The Impossible is in select theaters, but you can see it at The Vine in Livermore ( if you live in the Bay Area.

4.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) - Movie Review

Just when I thought I was done with all of the 2012 Oscar contenders another emerges...

I had almost forgot about Zero Dark Thirty despite the fact that it was one of the year's most anticipated films.  It probably didn't help that it wasn't given a wide release until 2013, and even that date was kicked around ( shows it as Jan 11th).  A friend of mine was surprised when I told him it didn't come out on Christmas, and I have friends that saw screenings of this weeks ago.  I just found it odd that a release like this would be so under the radar.

Zero Dark Thirty spans the ten years from 9/11 right up until the operation that found and killed Osama bin Laden.  The trailers for this film make it look like it's more of an action film and military focused, but it's definitely not.  Certainly not for the first two hours anyway.  The story mainly follows the work of Maya (Jessica Chastain), an extremely driven CIA officer focused on finding bin Laden.

A majority of the film revolves around chasing down leads and trying to find a courier that will lead them to bin Laden.  To be honest, I didn't really find this part of the film to be all that interesting. There are a lot of names and jargon being thrown around, and at times I had trouble keeping it all straight.  It's the kind of film you sometimes wish you had a flow chart to refer to while watching. Unfortunately, this is the majority of the film.

That's not to say that it doesn't have its intense moments.  We open with a really brutal and graphic scene of torture involving a man with ties to known terrorists.  I've heard there are complaints that the movie has a pro-torture stance, but I didn't come away from it thinking that or that it glorified torture.  I thought it was presented in more of a matter-of-fact way where the officers believed it was the best and quickest way to get the information they were looking for.  Once that gets shut down, their focus shifts to other methods, and those other methods are what gave them the leads that eventually led to Bin Laden.  You could almost argue the opposite, that if they had continued torturing prisoners, perhaps they never would have gotten to bin Laden.

Maya eventually uncovers enough information to believe she's found bin Laden, but her superiors are not convinced.  You see a lot of stand-offs between Maya and anyone that doubts her.  This is one of the areas where I thought Jessica Chastain shined.  When she'd square off with people, you never doubted that she wasn't going to get what she wanted.

The last 40 minutes or so is where the tension in Zero Dark Thirty ramps up.  I always find it impressive when a movie can still build tension despite knowing how the movie is going to end before even sitting down in the theater.  It reminds of Argo in that way.  Director Kathryn Bigelow seems to have a knack for keeping the tension high, even when things aren't necessarily happening, or always keeping the fear that something may explode at any moment.

Unlike Argo, the problem with Zero Dark Thirty is that it doesn't have the character development of that film.  Outside of Maya, I don't think I could tell you name of any other character in the film. Even with Maya, I couldn't tell you anything about her.  Was she married?  Did she have any kids? Did she even have time for a social life outside of co-workers?  There's a point in the movie where you briefly see a wallpaper on her computer screen of her and little girl, and I couldn't help but wonder if that was her daughter, a niece, or an actual picture of Jessica Chastain.  It makes the movie a little less relatable (and entertaining) when compared to something like Argo.

I also thought the movie could have been cut down a little.  Sure, when covering ten years of actual time you have to show a lot, but at the same time, I felt that a lot of scenes didn't really go anywhere or give you much information.  I credit writer Mark Boal for being thorough, but I don't think they needed to include everything.

I love Jessica Chastain, and I'm sure she'll get an Oscar nomination, but I didn't think this was her best performance.  I can think of a few movies last year where I thought she was much better (and I'm not even talking about her nomination for The Help).  Granted, I don't think it's necessarily her fault as it's just what she was given to work with as far as the character.  Many of her early scenes in the film involved standing off to the side and not saying anything or looking serious.  She does have those good scenes when she'd confront someone, but those aren't very frequent and I didn't come away from this blown away by her performance.

Like Lincoln, the supporting cast is stacked with many great actors in very small roles.  I'm sure it's another instance of taking any role to be in a sure Oscar contender, but it's also a shame when you see an actor you like a lot and they aren't given that much to do.  Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Mark Duplass and even James Gandolfini have small roles.  In the beginning of the film, I actually thought it focused more on Maya's partner Dan (Jason Clarke) than on Maya.  It's not until he takes a different role in the hunt for bin Laden does the movie focus more on her.  Not go get off on a rant, but how is Mark Duplass in everything these days?  The only person I've seen in more movies over the past year than Mark Duplass is Jessica Chastain.  I like him fine, but does even he lose track of all the films he's been in?

Zero Dark Thirty is a very good movie, but I didn't think it was a great one.  This isn't the type of movie you're going to watch over and over.  The lack of character development makes it more difficult to connect to, and the lull in the middle of the film could have been tightened up.  When you compare it to Kathryn Bigelow's last film (The Hurt Locker), or other Oscar contender's like Argo or Lincoln, I don't think it measures up to the story or performances of those films.  It's still worth watching for the intense beginning and ending though, so I still recommend it as a matinee.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, January 4, 2013

Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013) - Movie Review

Oh, Leatherface, how the mighty have fallen.  Is the real reason you wear the mask so nobody will recognize you after all of these terrible movies?

It disappointing for me when watching these newer Texas Chainsaw installments.  The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was one of the few slasher films in my adult life that actually scared me.  I remember renting it for the first time, watching it alone in the dark, and then being afraid to get up from the couch to go to bed.  I walked backwards up the stairs, so nobody would sneak up from behind me, but then realized that Leatherface could already be hiding upstairs, so I had to keep looking over my shoulder.  That's part of the fun of horror films for me. How you let you imagination get the better of you. Leatherface is such an icon in the horror genre, too.

So, after all that I'm sure you're thinking I hated the newest installment in the series, Texas Chainsaw 3D, right?  Well, you're wrong!  While far from a good movie, it's actually quite bad, I actually enjoyed this way more than I thought I was going to.  There were a few things about it that I actually liked.

The way the movie began was the first surprise.  It starts with showing you a brief recap of the original, 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and then picks up immediately after as a direct sequel, ignoring all other installments in the series (which isn't necessarily a bad thing).  There's actually a cameo from the original Leatherface in this scene (Gunnar Hansen).  If you've ever wondered how can some loony family and their mentally challenged, chainsaw wielding kin can run around unchecked in Texas killing people, well this actually addresses that.  A local policeman (Thom Barry) shows up asking the family to give up Jeb Sawyer.  Yes, you heard it, Leatherface's real name is Jeb.  They actually agree to this, but just as it's about to happen, a bunch of gun toting Texans show up to deliver some Texas justice.  All hell breaks loose and the house is burned down, with everyone in the house presumed dead.  You know how that's going to work out, right?

In the aftermath, an infant is found in their garage, and one of the members of this lynch mob take this child and raise her as their own.  The movie then fast forwards a good twenty years or so and we meet Heather (Alexandra Daddario).  She receives a note saying a grandmother she had no knowledge of has died, and then learns from her parents that she was adopted.  There's never any doubt from this point on whether or not she was the baby found all those years ago.  The thing you'll be asking yourself though is how the grandmother was able to track this baby down considering it was stolen from a garage (you do get a little explanation of this at the end). Anyway, Heather was left her grandmother's mansion, and she and a few friends take a road trip to check it out and handle the paperwork.

Once they arrive at the house, it's not too long before Leatherface (Dan Yeager) shows up and is back to his old antics.  From there it's the typical things seen in horror films.  You see a bunch of attractive, forgettable, and unlikable people making idiotic decisions that get them killed.  Like why would a person running from someone in an open field hide in a coffin in a freshly dug grave? Why not wear a flashing neon sign that says, "You can kill me right here!"  The deaths are bloody, but hugely unoriginal for the most part.  I wasn't expecting any kind of Rube Goldberg-esque kills that you see in the Final Destination or Saw films, but some creativity would have been nice.  Some of the kills you'll find yourself laughing at, which I think was why I wasn't as irritated by this as I normally would be.  It's not particularly scary either, with it mainly relying on predictable jump scares.

The problem is that this film is just lazy and inconsistent.  There's something that happens at the beginning of the film that if Heather would have listened to, then the whole movie wouldn't have played out like it did.  I guess that's how all these movies have to go these days.  It just really irritates me when a movie hinges around not doing things that any normal person would have done in the same situation.  It also takes way too long to get going.  It's not a particularly long movie, so it puzzles me that it would take as long to get to the killing.  Nobody sees a movie like Texas Chainsaw for the story.  I don't think directory John Luessenhop understood this.

However, there's this kind of dark twist to the film toward the end that actually piqued my interest. I won't spoil that twist here, but I got excited for a second that they were going to do something really different.  The problem is that they don't explore it enough.  Why put a good idea in a film if you're just going to be lazy about executing it?  It's a shame.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact that there were four different people credited with the writing.  How in the hell does it take four people to write a film about Leatherface?  No wonder there was a lot of inconsistency in the story.

Once again, the 3D is terrible and doesn't do anything for the movie.  You don't even have a choice to see it in regular 2D either, at least not at my theater.  There's no point in paying a premium to see bad 3D.  It seemed like it was primarily was used for lots of close-up, point-of-view shots of Tania Raymonde's (from Lost) ass.  She has a nice ass, so I'm not exactly complaining about that though.  However, I do have an issue with the ultimate tease they do at the end where Alexandra Daddario's shirt is torn down the middle, but somehow each side of shirt just manages to clings perfectly to her large boobs.  R-rated slasher films should not be teasing their audience with almost nudity.  What's the point?

If you're a fan of the Texas Chainsaw films, or slasher films in general, I didn't actually think this was the worst thing you could watch.  I had some fun with it since my expectations were so low. However, it's lazy, dumb, not scary, lacks any kind of creativity, and doesn't follow through enough on the one interesting thing they try to do.  This is a rental even if you're a fan.

1.5 (out of 5) Death Stars