Thursday, February 28, 2013

Quartet (2012) - Movie Review

It's kind of like Grumpy Old Men meets Opera.  Well, maybe not quite as grumpy...

That's how I described Quartet right after seeing it.  I'm probably overstating it a bit, as it's not the same kind of movie, nor is it as funny as Grumpy Old Men, but it was a pleasant surprise to watch.  I really wasn't interested in seeing yet another movie featuring Maggie Smith in a retirement community.  I just watched Best Exotic Marigold Hotel recently, and I was in the minority in not being a big fan of that film, despite the great cast.

Even as Quartet began, I had to wrap my head around the premise of people living in a retirement home for musicians.  Such a thing exists?  I had to do some searching and it appears that there are niche retirement communities popping up.  Many believe it's the future of retirement.  It's actually not a bad idea, and then I thought about other niche communities that might be desirable, like ones for fitness enthusiasts, movie aficionados, gamers, or sex addicts.  Okay, maybe not that last one.  I just gave myself the willies thinking about it.

Actually, that's related to one of the aspects of the film that I enjoyed the most.  The movie's focus is on quartet of opera singers, but the biggest personality of them belongs to Wilf (Billy Connolly), who's basically a walking hard-on, hitting on all the women in the community, always looking to sneak in a drink, or trying to get high.  I'm not exactly looking forward to getting old, but when I do, I want to be just like Wilf.  Some might find his antics in the film a little too cute, but without him, I don't think Quartet would have been nearly as enjoyable.  Besides, if more old people acted like Wilf, I think we'd all have a little more fun.

Tension builds in their community, when the last, and most famous member, of their quartet moves in.  Jean (Maggie Smith) isn't wild about living there, but her ex-husband Reg (Tom Courtenay) is even less thrilled when he finds out.

Meanwhile, we learn that the retirement community isn't doing all that great financially, but if the quartet can be convinced to put aside their differences and perform their famous song from Rigoletto at an annual concert,  this will help raise enough money to keep the place afloat.

The plot itself is pretty light, and there's not a lot of time spent on the details, which was fine with me.  The real focus of the film are on characters and their history.  Quartet was based on a play by Ronald Harwood, who also wrote the screenplay. What's getting more attention is the fact that this is Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut.  I don't know what took him so long to direct, but I think Hoffman did a good job with all the actors and getting us to care about them, while keeping the story breezy enough that it never feels too heavy handed. The drama between the quartet and story plays out pretty predictably, so I didn't get much emotionally from it, but much of this was played for light laughs.

This is helped by the rest of the cast.  Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is the director of the concert, who takes things way too seriously, and Wilf loves to give him hell at every opportunity.  Pauline Collins plays the funny and sweet fourth member of the quartet who's struggles the most with her memory, but you somehow get the feeling she might not have been the brightest of the four in the first place.  Sheridan Smith also had nice chemistry with Wilf as Dr. Cogan.  Wilf hits on Dr. Cogan constantly, and I took great delight in watching his various attempts to seduce her.

Quartet is a sweet and charming film that might not be for everyone, but I found it funny and enjoyable to watch.  Much like how some kids films have elements hat will will appeal to adults, this is the film you could take your grandparents to and still enjoy yourself.  It's nothing you need to rush out and see, but a good rental or a nice matinee.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Monday, February 25, 2013

Dark Skies (2013) - Movie Review

I think this is the alien version of an atomic wedgie...

I really don't have much to say about Dark Skies, so I'll try to keep this short.  I wasn't even sure what kind of 'horror' film this was going to be based on the commercials.  Was this going to be supernatural themed or alien themed?  The opening credits ends that suspense, but when watching Dark Skies, I became convinced that even writer/director Scott Stewart wasn't sure what kind of film he wanted to make.  When you see how the end plays out, I believe that a lot of what was in the film felt like reshoots done after initial test screenings didn't go well. It doesn't help that it borrows heavily from movies like Poltergeist and Close Encounters either.  I get that a horror film these days is going to have a lot of familiar elements, but the problem with Dark Skies is that it doesn't fully commit to either angle, so we're left with a muddled and uninteresting flick.

I thought the film might actually have a chance at first was because of the cast.  I've always liked Keri Russell, but I would think she's at a point in her career where she doesn't need to be in such a generic horror film.  She seemed like she was really trying, too.  Her older son (Dakota Goyo), has kind of a funny arc about trying to get his first kiss and grab a boob, which I felt was one of the better parts of the film.  It made me think I was watching real people for a change.  The entire family felt pretty realistic in the first half of the film.  I really perked up when I saw J.K. Simmons name in the opening credits, because it's rare when he's in something I don't like. Unfortunately, when he finally does show up as 'the alien expert', it's so late in the film that I had actually forgot he was supposed to be in it.  His scenes are pretty disconnected from the rest of the film, as they only occur in his apartment (in an undisclosed location), which further added to the feeling that his entire presence in the film was added as afterthought.

Another reason why I think this wasn't always supposed to be an alien flick is due to the fact that when they are first revealed, the alien has a different look than the ones you see at the end of the film.  There's a good hour in-between their appearances. Also, what's up with aliens always being naked?  When going to another planet, don't you think some kind of uniform or environmental protection might be important?  They've created the advanced technology to travel millions of light years and abduct people and experiment on them without detection, but they've evolved past the point of needing clothes? They don't need pockets?

So, Dark Skies decides to go with aliens, but what do they want?  They just want to bully and screw with you.  First, it's a mess being made in the kitchen (one time was a pretty obvious ripoff of Poltergeist).  Then, all of the pictures in their house are stolen, but they leave the frames behind.  At one point we see a bazillion birds kamikaze into their house, and nobody knows why.  Things escalate to the entire family hearing weird ringing in their ears, bruises and marks show up on their bodies, and they even have black outs, losing hours at a time.  Again, there's not a lot about what's happening that is specific to aliens, versus something supernatural.  Markings do appear that seem to be of alien origin, but when other parents notice them on the kids, people think they are being abused.  That's actually an area of the film that could have been really interesting if they had used that more.  Do something like have Child Protective Services take the kids away, and then the parents struggle to convince others they aren't responsible and prevent their abduction by aliens at the same time.

One thing that's always bugged me about these kinds of films is that regardless of whether it's aliens, demons, or whatever, why are they selecting someone that isn't all that important in the grand scheme of things?  If you're gonna possess or abduct someone, why not chose a world leader or someone like that?  Why is it always a pre-teen or suburban family that's the target?  It's not like these people have any ability to stop what's happening, and would anyone even notice they're missing for a while?  I guess there's something to be said for going after an easy target.  Well, the explanation for this provided by Dark Skies is that there is no reason.  No reason at all.  When the parents finally talk to J.K. Simmons, he tells them that it's just what the aliens do, and they've been doing it this way for a long time.  When they ask why they're being experimented on, they are basically told, "Do doctors explain to lab rats why they do the things they do?  Would you even understand if they did?" So, I came away from Dark Skies thinking the aliens were like a cat playing with a mouse before eating it, or sadistic kids torturing small animals.

The thing is that it still would have been a passable movie if it wasn't so boring.  It honestly felt well over two hours long, and I was shocked to find it was only 95 minutes.  Part of why it's so boring is that Dark Skies is not scary at all.  There are a few cheap jump scares, and even those are telegraphed.  Some of the stuff that happens would have been creepy if the movie wasn't so slowly paced.

Dark Skies is a snoozefest that even fans of horror will have a tough time getting though.  It had potential, but it's lost with its lack of consistent direction and borrowing too heavily from better films.  There's not much I can recommend about it, and advise you to give this one a pass.

1 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, February 22, 2013

Snitch (2013) - Movie Review

Well, at least it's not another The Tooth Fairy...

Don't worry, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's latest movie Snitch isn't some cheesy family movie.  Snitch is actually much closer to what I envisioned for The Rock when he first moved from wrestling to doing movies.  While a little smarter than you might expect, Snitch is far from being a great action film.  In fact, I really can't this a much of an action flick at all.  If you go into this expecting a action packed film filled with car chases and gun play, you're going to be really disappointed.  This is the first of at least four Dwayne Johnson movies coming out this year, so hopefully one of these will hit.  The guy deserves it.

It's another movie based on 'true events', and many of you know how I cringe whenever I see that in the opening credits.  Johnson plays John Matthews, the owner of a construction company.  Matthews' son, Jason (Rafi Gavron), is busted for accepting a box of drugs shipped by his friend.  Unfortunately for Jason, it's a large enough amount that it's considered intent to distribute.  Due to tougher mandatory minimum sentencing, he's going away for 10 years if convicted.  The whole thing is basically a setup to get first time offenders and lower level people to rat out others in up the ladder in exchange for reduced sentencing.  The problem for Jason is that his friend already snitched on him, leaving nobody for him to rat out.  John doesn't want to see his son rot away in prison for what his family believes was just a dumb mistake, so he makes a deal with a local politician (Susan Sarandon) to go undercover and help bring some drug dealers down.

Now, I had to look it up, and I guess you could say the "based on true events" part relates to that there are very strict minimum sentencing laws, even for first time offenders.  The funny thing is that there's actually a scene of The Rock looking this stuff up on Wikipedia.  It's if they're saying, "Don't worry, we actually did our research."  Or maybe they are daring us to look into it ourselves.  I did see that one of the criticisms of the minimum sentencing is that it takes the power away from the judges, not allowing them to issue sentences on a case by case basis.  I thought one of the themes of Snitch was how unfair this all seemed to be.  Jason didn't have any priors, and you can't help but wonder why they throw the book at him, when you can see that he wasn't a drug trafficker.

Sarandon's character (I don't recall her being mentioned by name, but The Rock would say, "It doesn't matter what your name is!") believes in the minimum laws, regardless of the situation.  She sees John's willingness to go undercover as a no risk play for her to get more drug dealers off the street and help her re-election.  Even the law enforcement agent (Barry Pepper) they are working with thinks she may be going too far in risking a citizen's life and family.  You start to wonder who the real bad guy is.  That's where I thought Snitch had a little more going for it than just a simple crime drama.  The issue with the story by Justin Haythe and Ric Roman Waugh (who also directed) was that it only scratches the surface of some of these underlying themes.  The movie could have taken more of a stronger stance or showed more of the behind-the-scenes political motivations, but it's not that deep.

The main problem with Waugh's direction is that he really drags the film out, where if it had gone deeper into some of these themes, you wouldn't have noticed the length as it would have been more compelling overall.  When a movie is this long (almost two hours), you hope there's going to be a good payoff at the end, but that's where Snitch really falls apart.  While the action picks up, it devolves into a big car chase with explosions and cars flipping everywhere.  It doesn't help the Matthews' plan had too many parts with a very small margin for error for it to have possibly worked.  It all ties up a little too neatly.

Plus, and this is one of the same issues I had with Identity Thief, is it normal for law enforcement agents and politicians to sign off on letting private citizens take the law into their own hands or go undercover on their behalf?  You look at John Matthews and he looks like a guy that can handle himself, but that doesn't mean he has the training needed to survive. Aren't they opening themselves up to huge liability if things go wrong?

Another issue I had was the use of too much handheld camera work, even in regular scenes.  There's a simple meeting that happens in the film and the camera just jittery and jumping around all the place for no reason.  I shouldn't get motion sickness watching people talk.

Ever since The Rundown, I've been waiting for Dwayne Johnson to have that hit that puts him up there with the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, but it just hasn't worked out that way yet.  The irony is that he's a better actor than either of them, has just as much charisma, and is infinitely more articulate. I also hear he's a pretty good cook, too.  Johnson stretches a bit out of his comfort zone and gets a chance to show some emotional range here.  It's definitely his most serious work so far. Another thing that stands out about him is, well, how much he stands out.  He really is a beast compared to the average guy. Even when he casually walks around he looks like he can knock down a wall if he's not careful.

The rest of the supporting cast does a good job.  Barry Pepper looks like he's auditioning for a role in Justified, and I think he'd fit in pretty well actually.  Susan Sarandon is always a welcome sight on screen, who automatically adds class and hotness to anything she's in.  Now that Shane is dead on The Walking Dead (spoiler!), Jon Bernthal gets to play an ex-con that introduces The Rock to Omar Little from The Wire (Michael Kenneth Williams).  Bernthal and Williams get a decent amount screen time, but again, it seems like there was more to their characters hinted at by the story, but not delved into enough.

Snitch has a few good things going for it, mainly Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and a smarter than expected setup, but in the end it's undercut by a plodding pace and tonally inconsistent ending.  It's a shame because there was some potential here for it to be a much better film, and a few tweaks here and there would have made this above average.  Snitch is ultimately a very average, and somewhat forgettable, film that will make for a good rental in a few months.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Sunday, February 17, 2013

AngryVader's favorites of 2012

Okay, I've been putting off this post for weeks!  It's time for my token 'best of 2012' list, but I'm such a rebel (scum) that this isn't actually a 'best of' list, nor is it a top ten.  This is simply a list of my 13 favorite films from 2012.  Why 13?  I like 13.  Well, and I had a hard time getting the list down from 25.  It might be even longer if I wanted to mention every film I really enjoyed this year.

Also, the films on my list aren't even films that I would necessarily consider the best of the year.  Best of lists are kind of boring when you think about it.  You generally see a lot of overlap, and how many times do you need to hear that Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, or Les Misrables are the best films of 2012 (not that I 100 percent agree with those choices anyway).  It's not very interesting if we all agreed on the same ten films.

When I think of my favorite films of the year, it's not so much about 'greatness', but more about films that I wouldn't have any problem watching again.  Zero Dark Thirty is a perfect example of this.  Sure, it's a great film, but if I'm ever compelled to watch it again, it would be just for the last 30 minutes or so.  I'd probably skip the first two hours.  The Impossible is another example of a movie that I thought was great, but I'm probably never going to watch it again.  I'm even rooting for Naomi Watts to win the Oscar for her role in it.  As good as the performances were from something like The Master, I have no desire to ever see that again either.  Many of those films will be in my honorable mention section at the end though.

There's still going to be Oscar contender overlap, but I wanted to throw some love out there to a few smaller films that you may not have heard about or didn't get a chance to see.

One of the things I noticed when going over my previous reviews was that this was a real weak year for comedies.  Most of the mainstream comedies didn't live up to the hype, or were just outright bad, and many of the films I found funny weren't pure comedies.

The good news is that a lot of these are either on DVD now or releasing in the next few weeks, so you can give them a watch and then tell me why I'm wrong.  Just about every film on this list I've seen more than once and felt they held up to repeat viewings, which helped them make the list.

In no particular order:

Robot and Frank - If you think it's an odd title for a movie, I'm in agreement with you there.  I actually thought this was a documentary about modern robots considering it starred Frank Langella as 'Frank', and the design of the robot looked like robots you see in current electronic shows.  Once I realized this was fiction, I was still surprised by it.  Set in the near future, Frank's age is catching up to him and is losing the ability to take care of himself.  Growing tired of the long drives out to his house, his kids get him a robot caretaker.  Frank doesn't like this robot at first, but finds out it's much more useful that he initially believed.  As you may have guessed, Frank eventually bonds with the robot, and we get a funny and sweet buddy movie that I loved the hell out of.

4.5 Death Stars

Argo - This is a twofer in that it's one of the best films of the year, and one I enjoyed from beginning to end.  I've actually heard complaints that it paints the US in a positive light (that's a bad thing?), or that the events were arranged in the film to create more drama than actually happened.  Do these people understand what it takes to make an entertaining movie?  Well, Ben Affleck does, which is why he's the director, and his critics aren't.  If you're upset he cast himself as the lead, especially after seeing what the real Tony Mendez really looks like, would you have liked the film more if it had starred Luis Guzman (nothing against Mr. Guzman)?  Sorry guys, but when you direct and produce a film, it's your prerogative to cast yourself in the lead.  If it's a good movie, then that's more to your credit, not the opposite.  Anyway, Argo was exciting and much more fun that I was expecting.  If you haven't seen it yet, put it at the top of your list.

5 Death Stars

Silver Linings Playbook - Let me get my other twofer out of the way.  I think one of the things I really liked about SLP was that I spent the first 20 minutes or so not really liking any of the characters, and I wasn't buying into all the hype I heard about the film, but it grew on me.  I tend to give extra points to something that can win me over after a rough start.  I also like movies subvert the tropes of their genre (it's a romantic comedy at it's heart, but until the end never feels like one).  While both Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence were nominated for Oscars, I was more impressed with Cooper, who I haven't always been the biggest fan of.  It's unfortunate he's up against Daniel-Day Lewis this year.  I think they dropped the ball with the Jackie Weaver nomination though.  I thought she was good, but there were more deserving performances this year.  It might have been a makeup nomination for 2010's Animal Kingdom.

4.5 Death Stars

The Avengers - I'm going with this over The Dark Knight Rises, and while I liked TDKR, I didn't think it lived up to The Dark Knight. Plus, I actually had some plot issues with TDKR that kind prevented me from enjoying it more.  The Avengers, however, is that summer film that made me feel like a kid again.  It's already an accomplishment that after four years of hype it wasn't an unwatchable mess.  Not only was it not a mess, it was one of the most fun blockbusters in years.  It was so fun that it actually kind of ruined the summer for me, because as soon I watched it, I already knew that none of the other big summer releases or superhero films were going to be able to live up to it.  I've honestly watched it five times already, and it just geeks me up for more Marvel movies.

5 Death Stars

The Cabin in the Woods - Joss Whedon had a great year.  As a lover of slasher flicks (despite my usual trashing of them), I found this to be exactly the perfect send-up of the genre.  This movie was such a pleasant surprise that I still get excited when I get a chance to recommend it to someone that still hasn't seen it yet.  Just a few weeks ago, I was able to set this up for someone that still thought it was just a standard slasher flick, and I envied that they were going to experience that same feeling I got the first time I watched it.

If you still haven't seen The Cabin in the Woods yet and you have any kind of love for horror/slasher films, then this is an absolute must see.

4.75 Death Stars

Safety Not Guaranteed - Even when I saw this back in June, I predicted it was going to make my top yen list, and here it is.  This wasn't out in the theaters very long and didn't get a lot of press, despite that it stars three actors from popular shows (The League, New Girl and Parks and Rec).  While the plot actually revolves around an attempt at time travel, it never really feels like a sci-fi film.  What works for the film is its funny dialog, interesting story, and that no character feels wasted.  This is one of the few films I can recall where they'd cut to a subplot or secondary character, and you didn't lose interest in the film or feel like the movie slowed down as a result.

4.5 Death Stars

Looper - Speaking of time travel, Looper is one of the few films about it that didn't make my head hurt thinking of paradoxes and stuff.  Director Rian Johnson did a smart thing just using time travel as a plot device, and even he said in interviews that it's best if you don't think about it too much.  It's too easy to poke holes in time travel plots if you want to be a stickler about it.  What we end up with is a sci-fi film that's more character driven, and appeals to a broader audience.  One of my favorite things about it is that without even trying, there's a better origin story for Darth Vader in Looper than there was in the Star Wars prequels.

4.5 Death Stars

Seven Psychopaths - I'm biased on this one considering my love of writer/director Martin McDonaugh, who also did In Bruges.  Both films share that same violent, offbeat style, but with Seven Psychopaths, you get even better performances (Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken are fantastic), zanier characters, and a lot of self-referential humor.  McDonaugh kind of reminds me Tarantino a little bit.  I do think this is the kind of movie that you're either going to love it, or just not be into it at all.  I loved it from beginning to end though.

5 Death Stars

The Perks of Being a Wallflower - If you've ever felt awkward or out of place in high school, you'll identify with this one big time.  Perks is another movie that quickly won me over when I realized that it wasn't some kind of quirky, indie film.  You don't even realize it at first, but the movie takes place in the late 80's or 90's, which just illustrates how the themes of this movie are timeless.  As good as Stephen Chbosky's story is (and his direction), the real breakout of the film is Ezra Miller's and his funny performance.  The whole cast is great though, including Logan Lerman and Emma Watson (nice to see her moving on from Harry Potter).  I think you'll be really surprised at the heart in Perks.

4.5 Death Stars

Jack Reacher - I know fans of the books have been really critical of the decision to cast Tom Cruise, with some outright refusing to see the movie, but I'm one of the few folks that was completely unaware going in that this was based off a series of books (a running theme with me).  As a result, I didn't have any hangups about the casting going in.  In fact, I was more hesitant to see Jack Reacher because it looked like a yet another disposable action flick.  The story could have been tightened up a bit, and there were a few weak parts in the plot, but overall I really enjoyed it.  I was surprised at its humor, and had way more thrills than I was expecting.

4.5 Death Stars

Ruby Sparks - While I only gave this 4 Death Stars, it's an example of a movie that has been stuck in my head since seeing it.  It's kind of haunting.  It's also another film where you shouldn't dwell too much on the how or why, but just go with the premise.  If you do, then there's a lot of fun to be had.  The biggest flaw of the film is the final scene, which really undercut what had been a realistic (and dark) look at romance and relationships.  That's probably main reason why I dropped this down a half point or so.

4 Death Stars

Moonrise Kingdom - I haven't always been the biggest Wes Anderson fan.  Sometimes I'm just not able to get into how odd his films are, or think they are too quirky.  Moonrise is one of the times where all of the cuteness is a strength, and didn't feel as forced.  If you aren't familiar with Wes Anderson, Moonrise is a great starting point.  It's basically the story of young love, but fleshed out with unusual characters, situations and dialog.  In a lot of ways it feels like a modern day fairy tale.  There are more great performances and writing here (was nominated for best original screenplay, but I think it's Tarantino's year) as well.

4.5 Death Stars

The Raid: Redemption - Sometimes you want to see something that's a little light on story, but filled with action.  That's The Raid: Redemption in a nutshell.  There are plot similarities to Dredd, but The Raid is the closest thing to a live action video game that I've seen, except that it's actually a good action film, where most video game based movies are total shit.  It's Indonesian, but don't be put off by the fact that it's subtitled.  You won't even notice due to all of the awesome action.

There's an American remake on the way (that will make for an interesting comparison), as well as a sequel, so now's a good time to catch up with The Raid: Redemption.

4 Death Stars

Here's a small list of other films I really enjoyed this year.  You should give them a shot if you haven't seen them yet.  What were some of your favorites?

Honorable Mention:  Chronicle, Magic Mike, Ted, The Sessions, Hysteria, Bernie, Haywire, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Life of Pi, The Hobbit, Django Unchained, Dredd 3D, Skyfall, Dark Knight Rises, End of Watch, Sleepwalk with Me, For a Good Time Call..., ParaNorman, Brave, The Five-Year Engagement, Goon, 21 Jump Street, The Master, Killing them Softly, Wreck-it Ralph, Flight, Sinister, Pitch Perfect, 10 Years, Celeste and Jesse Forever.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Beautiful Creatures (2013) - Movie Review

I'm already tired this year of using "Twilight" as a blanket comparison to any teen romance, but I'm gonna do it again...

Beautiful Creatures is naturally going to draw those comparisons, as it has familiar elements, a teen romance, supernatural elements, but that's about where it ends.  For one, when dealing with magic, you have a mythology that has a little more room for leeway, so you automatically don't have the irritation of sparkly vampires. Second, you cast two young actors that have way more chemistry and acting chops. Third, you round out your cast with Oscar-caliber actors.

I'll admit that I really wasn't looking forward Beautiful Creatures.  The trailer looked terrible, and appeared to be yet another Twilight clone with bad southern accents. Much like Warm Bodies, it quickly won me over.  When Beautiful Creatures starts though, I'm still on the defensive because the narration from Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), is delivered with a pretty over-the-top accent.  Once you realize that he's actually an intelligent kid, it's easier to get past that.  He lives in the very small town of Gatlin, South Carolina, and longs for the day he can get out.  It's the kind of small town that still bans (maybe even burns) books, where he's an avid reader, so he doesn't feel like he fits in.  Ethan explains that he's had this recurring dream about a girl, but doesn't understand the meaning or why he keeps having it.  The school year starts and Ethan is intrigued by the new girl Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), and believes she may be the girl from those dreams.  Lena's from a notorious family that most people in town believe are Satanists, so she's rejected by her new classmates.  There's a lot of bible thumping and veiled slams on southern or Christian values, but I didn't think that was too over the top.  I tend to have a blind spot regarding political or religious undertones in movies, so I didn't focus on that much, but it's definitely there.

Ethan and Lena start hanging out and their love slowly blossoms.  However, Lena reveals that she's actually a witch (they prefer the term 'Caster') and that on her 16th birthday she's either going to be claimed for the Light or Dark.  Lena's concerned that she's going to be taken for the Dark (it runs in her family), so she tries to keep Ethan at a distance.  She's actually forbidden by her family to have a love, especially with a normal guy, but Ethan won't let up, and doesn't believe she's capable of being Dark.

Then the movie takes a turn for the awesome when Jeremy Irons shows up as Macon, Lena's uncle.  I hear the name Macon and can't stop thinking about bacon.  Mmmmm...bacon.  Sorry.  Irons has a pretty awesome opening scene, and generally classes the place up.  Just about any time Jeremy Irons appears he raises the level of the film and his scenes are some of the highlights.  One of the better qualities to Beautiful Creatures is that the adult characters actually have things to do, and are more than just parents there to warn their kids about danger.  Emma Thompson also really excels in her role as Mrs. Lincoln. There's more to her character than meets the eye and when this is revealed, Thompson is a blast to watch.  The same can be said for Viola Davis as Amma, who's a comforting presence when on screen.

When I looked at the cast, I thought of a basketball team where you have two rookies as your starting point guard and shooting guard, but then you have a team of experienced all-stars as your center (Irons), power forward (Thompson) and small forward (Davis).  If everyone knows their role and plays their part right, then you've got a really great team.

The movie works because you do like Ethan and Lena and they feel like normal kids.  That's to the credit of Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert.  Their performances are why this feels like the anti-Twilight, as they can act circles around Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart.  Englert starts out a little cold, but she warms up as the movie goes on and shows just enough personality for you to understand why Ethan is still pursing Lena so hard.  There were a few times where Alice's native New Zealand/Australian accent would creep in over her southern accent from time to time, but that's forgivable.  Ehrenreich really impressed me though.  While his southern accent was a little too jokey at first, he reigned it in a bit and he shows a lot of charm in his performance.  There's great chemistry between the two, and it's helped by the natural and sometimes clever dialog.

Another thing I liked about Beautiful Creatures is that it does pretty decent job with explaining it's own mythology.  It get's a little convoluted towards the end, but I never found myself lost, confused, or questioning it.  It helps that much of the exposition is taken care of by the veteran actors, and Ethan's character stands in for the audience in many of these scenes.

The effects weren't that bad either.  I don't know what the production budget was, but I'm guessing it wasn't huge.  There were few things here and there that looked a little cheap, but they did a good job for the most part.

The only real problem I had with the film is that once it gets going there's a little too much going on, and the film drags on just a tad longer than it probably should.  Emmy Rossum appears as Lena's cousin, Ridley, who's witch powers were to make her super hot and sexy, but it didn't feel like there was much for her to do otherwise.  I enjoyed her performance, so I don't want to say they should have gotten rid of her character, but I'm wondering if Ridley was more substantial in the book.

Director/writer Richard LaGravenese, adapted Beautiful Creatures from the book of the same name by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.  It's interesting to note that some of the criticisms of their book (i.e. protracted climax, overall length could have been tightened up) apply to the movie as well, so I'm guessing it's a pretty faithful adaptation.  I think LaGravenese understood how to keep the dialog natural and smart between the leads, and then got out of the way of Irons and Thompson and just let them do their thing.  Overall, I thought he did a good job from someone who's previous films I haven't been crazy about.

Beautiful Creatures is a supernatural teen romance that's smarter than it lets on.  It does a good job of setting up a rich magic universe, and then populating it with fun and natural characters.  It's strengthened by good performances from the leads and an awesome supporting cast.  It caught me be surprise and I recommend checking it out.  It's worth a matinee.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) - Movie Review

I'm not even going to sugar coat it.  A Good Day to Die Hard is easily the worst film in the Die Hard franchise.  That's all there is to it.  It barely even qualifies as something resembling a Die Hard movie.  Here, I'll break it down for you as easily as I can.

The Good:
- There are some fairly entertaining, albeit completely ridiculous action scenes.
- There are several moments of unintentional hilarity.
- Mary Elizabeth Winstead had the good sense have barely a cameo appearance, so she comes out of this relatively unscathed.

The Bad:
- It's really freaking loud!
- Everything else!

I usually don't care that a film has loud gunfire or explosions.  Most of the time I like that about a film, but this was honestly so loud that I couldn't even hear the sound of my own laughter at certain points of the film.  It's the kind of loud where I think they were trying to drum out any kind of thought in your brain.  That had to have been the strategy, as this is one the dumbest plots (if you even want to call it a plot) that I've seen in a while.

There's very little about the film that makes sense, and I don't even think they knew what kind of film they were making.  We begin in Russia, and immediately it feels more like an international, 007 spy story.  There's nothing about the opening of the film makes you think you're watching Die Hard.  John McClane is always hanging around in Russia.

Spoilers ahead...

When we finally do see John McClane (Bruce Willis), he's back in the states, and has already tracked down his son, Jack (Jai Courtney), who's in a Russian prison for assassinating some guy we saw earlier.  John heads off to Russia, thinking he can somehow help him, even though they haven't spoken for years and John can't speak Russian.  Jack is put on trial along with Yuri (Sebastian Koch), an apparent political prisoner that has some incriminating 'file' (there's lots of talk about a 'file') that some other Russian official needs.  The bad guys blow up the courthouse, and Jack and Yuri are able to escape.  John just happens bump into them during their getaway, which is totally convenient for everyone, right?  Unfortunately, this distraction causes Jack problems, so he yells at John and threatens to shoot him.  He also calls him John instead of Dad, so we know they have issues, but we're never clear on what's the beef between the two.  I think it was something along the lines of daddy worked too much (frigging dads and their jobs), so he probably missed all of Jack's little league games or something.  John steals a truck and chases after him, despite have no effing idea what's going or knowing where he's going.  He then proceeds to cause major damage to the vehicles of hundreds of innocent citizens while keeping up with them.  I will admit it's one of the car cases that's fun to watch, but it's fun because it's so ludicrous.

They all get away, and John finally realizes that Jack is a CIA agent.  Now the movie has already made it clear to the audience before John even left for Moscow that Jack was clearly some kind of agent/spy, which then made me wonder, how was John able to find him so easily?  What kind of CIA agent in Moscow kills a Russian citizen under his normal name, rather than an alias?  It makes no sense at all.  Even after John finds out his son has been a CIA agent all long, he yells at him for never calling and letting him know where he was.   You know, because CIA agents should always keep their family in the loop.  No need to worry about blowing your cover or anything like that.  How is it that a detective and a CIA agent have no clue about the demands of either's work?

Anyway, they need to get this file that Yuri has, so he calls his daughter (Yuliya Snigir) to meet up with him to collect some key.  She shows up and John is immediately suspicious of her, but once again, the audience already knows why, because we see his daughter in the opening scene of the film with one of the bad guys.  If you're wondering, it's the scene from the trailer where you see the hot chick on the motorcycle unzip her leather suit.  That scene is even edited down to less than what you see in the trailer, so it's not even as titillating in the film, and it made no sense from a narrative standpoint either.

So the ridiculous, Russian villain has John and Jack captured and even though his orders are to kill them, he (literally) tap dances for them, and tells them that he hates everything about Americans, but gives no reasons why.  The movie should be over at this point.  The stupid villain should have just shot both of them and been done with it, but you know the McClanes are going to use this obvious opening to plot their escape, despite being surrounded by several armed men.  At least at this point, you'd think that John would have some smart ass retorts to all the dumb things the idiot villain is saying, but all John can do is force an awkward laugh.  This is because the dialog in A Good Day to Die Hard sucks!

This does not surprise me as this was penned by Skip Woods, who has written screen gems like The A-Team, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Hitman.  This is the guy you give a franchise like Die Hard to?  Again, I don't even think he was actually writing a Die Hard movie.  I'm guessing he was writing something called "A Good Day for Daddy Issues", but then someone suggested changing it to Die Hard.  It really is some of the worst dialog I've seen in a while.  There's not an ounce of wit to it (a running 'gag' is for McClane to declare he's on vacation), and even when John finally says his trademarked line it felt totally forced.  You can always tell when you're hearing bad dialog when characters overuse a person's name or constantly mention their relationship to other characters even when it's already clear.  John says something along of the lines of "I'm your father" at least 15 times.  The villains say things that don't follow at all from what's happening, and switch between Russian and English even when there's nobody around that speaks English.  It's not just the dialog that sucks, the story is awful, too.  You never care about anything that's going on, and there are all of these forced father/son bonding moments, which may have meant something if had we had known at any point in the Die Hard franchise that John McClane had a son.

Oh, and here's the best part.  After their miraculous escape from the clutches of the incompetent bad guys, instead of contacting the CIA, they decide that just the two of them should stop their plan.  This is one of those times where they clearly don't have time for backup, but it doesn't matter when you're the effing McClanes!  They track them to Chernobyl in a stolen car that fortunately happened to have an arsenal of weapons in the trunk.  Jack scolds John for stealing, even though Jack was attempting to pick the lock of the same car.  So once they get to Chernobyl, even though you see all of the important villains in radiation suits (some of the lowly henchmen were not given any kind of protective gear), the McClanes decide to go in after them.  McClanes don't have to worry about radiation sickness.  To ease our concerns though, the Russians wave these magic wands all over the place, which instantly neutralized the radiation.

I wish I was making all of this up, but this is really what we're dealing with folks.  It's sad that director John Moore seems to know nothing about what made the earlier Die Hard films fun.  I had complained after Live Free or Die Hard that John McClane was no longer a cop, but now a full fledged superhero.  In the first Die Hard, John McClane was just a normal cop that got caught up in this crazy plan, but it was still somewhat grounded and you could relate to McClane.  Now he can do things that should kill a normal man.  As ridiculous as you might have thought Live Free or Die Hard was, at least it was still fun. A Good Day... takes it to a whole new level, and the franchise is completely off the rails.  This is simply incompetent film making.

I remember remarking to a friend before this even came out that just from the trailer it looked like Bruce Willis was totally not interested in the film, and completely phoning it in.  I have to say that I still feel that way after actually seeing it.  I love Bruce Willis as much as the next guy, but he didn't look like he was having fun at all.  When you contrast this with something like Bullet to the Head, Stallone at least looks like he's having a great time, and there's was some bite to the dialog.  I can't say I blame Willis, or even co-star Jai Courtney, having to recite this terrible dialog.  I'm sure they figured they were making crap while on set.

It is definitely not "a good day to die hard", but it is a good day for the makers of the film to kiss my ass!  I am genuinely angry this has anything to do with the Die Hard franchise.  A Good Day to Die Hard is easily the worst of the series.  It forgets everything we all loved about them, and mutated it into something that's just really loud and and super dumb.  Even if you're a "die hard" fan of the series, it's barely worth a rental.

1 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Side Effects (2013) - Movie Review

You're going to want to make sure you're sufficiently caffeinated before seeing Side Effects.

That's not to say that Side Effects will make you sleepy, but while it does have a slow build up, if you aren't paying attention, especially in the second half, you might find yourself a little lost.  There are so many twists and layers to Side Effects you may need another viewing to capture them all.  In fact, I just watched a clip of the film again that has a totally different subtext to it now that I've seen the whole film.

Emily (Rooney Mara) has been anxiously awaiting the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum), who's been in prison several years for insider trading.  One thing I appreciated right away was that it didn't go into too many details about what Martin did or setting him up as good or bad.  He did what he did, and now he's just interested in getting back to his life and working again.  Bogging the plot down with a bunch of financial mumbo-jumbo probably wouldn't have been the best way to start your film.

It turns out that Emily has been a long sufferer of depression, and with all the stress of her husband's release and concern about their financial future, it triggers again and she attempts to kill herself.  She sees a psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who in the process of helping her prescribes a series of anti-depressants, but none seem to work.  In fact, most of them make her feel worse.  After seeing Emily's original psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones), she suggests he prescribes a newer, experimental drug.  This is the drug that finally works for Emily, but there's a side effect, she begins to have bizarre sleepwalking episodes.  Something happens, and I won't spoil it, but it is setup by the opening scene of the film.

I was thinking about why the opening telegraphs such a big event in the film, but then I thought without that opening, would you have kept watching?  Normally, I'd be upset at the spoiler, but I think it worked here.  Otherwise, you'd just be watching kind of a drab, but well acted, story about a couple dealing with depression.  Even knowing that something's on the way, it still catches you by surprise and there was a collective gasp from the audience.

Due to the publicity surrounding these events, Jonathan's life is in turmoil and many aren't convinced he prescribed the right treatment to Emily.  Even he has his doubts, so he does his own investigation and what he finds leads him down a completely different path.  That's part of the fun of Side Effects.  It beautifully sets up many things, and has you going in one direction, but then smacks you in the face from another.  There were a few times where I thought the movie was going to play out much differently, only be surprised by what happened next.  It isn't too twisty for its own good though, or gets confusing.  The twists play out very linearly, as opposed to stuff you see in the Ocean's films where it jumps around a little.  However, lose focus for a scene or two, or pick the wrong time to go to the bathroom, and you can miss something pretty vital to how it concludes. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns seems to have a knack for writing smart, complex stories, as shown in his previous Steven Soderbergh collaborations, Contagion and The Informant!  Side Effects is his best work yet.

It's not just the writing that's smart either, Soderbergh's way of setting up scenes through use of music or the way a scene is framed it what really makes this stand out from just being a standard thriller.  These small details are why multiple viewings may be necessary.

What is it about Steven Soderbergh and how he manages to release great films at typically slow times of the year?  Maybe that's been part of his strategy to make his films look even better by comparison (I'm kidding).  The timing of the release is a double edged sword, as it's finally the first really good film of 2013, but was it released too early in the year to still get any Oscar consideration?  If this has been released in December, I can imagine there'd be a huge amount of buzz around it. There's also lots of talk going around that this may be Soderbergh's last theatrical film, while others are saying he may just be taking a sabbatical.   If this is really Steven Soderbergh's last film, all I can say is that at least he's going out on a high note. As I fan, I have to plead with Mr. Soderbergh to please not retire.  He's been one of the most consistently good directors in the past 25 years, tackling many different genres and almost never disappointing.  Hell, he was the reason I actually wasn't dreading watching Magic Mike, and I ended up enjoying that film.

Speaking of Channing Tatum, Soderbergh seems to always get the most out of his actors, and Tatum wasn't bad again.  It's a smaller role, so he's not asked to do much, and I even noticed he seems to have cut back on his 'twang' a bit.  Catherine Zeta-Jones is also fine in her role, but Side Effects was really a two-man game between Jude Law and Rooney Mara.  I had once written off Jude Law as just another generic, pretty-boy from the UK, but he really has evolved into an good character actor, and this may be his finest performance to date.  You genuinely root for his character, and that's a credit to Law's performance. Rooney Mara in her short career has proven to be a bright actress with a brighter future.  As much as I liked her in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I think she was even better here.  There's more nuance to her performance, but I can't say too much about it without spoiling her character arc.

It's only February, but Side Effects is easily the best film of 2013 so far.  Smart, complex, thrilling and carried by two great performances.  It may not be Steven Soderbergh's best film, but it's still a very good one, and I really hope it's not his last.  I highly recommend seeing this as soon as you can, but again, you might want to down some caffeine beforehand.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2013) - Movie Review

I was really disappointed when I realized this wasn't about the rock bands Sorcerer and Whitesnake.  Two dueling bands fight for supremacy!

If I sound like more of a blithering idiot than usual, check out the plot synopsis I read going into the film:

When an herbalist falls for a dangerous snake disguised as a woman, a sorcerer tries to discover the true identity of the White Snake and take her down.

Have you ever read a blurb about a film and thought, "There's no way the film could be weirder than it's short description?"  The Sorcerer and the White Snake manages this feat.  If you're wondering why in the hell I bothered watching the film based on that, it's because the sorcerer was played by Jet Li.  I figured what the hell, the plot may be weird, but at least I'll be in for some good martial arts action, right? Wrong!

Once again, super spoiler-filled review ahead, but I'm advising you not to watch this, so screw it.

Word to the makers of this film (but not word to your mothers), when your movie starts on a snow covered plain, and your star is wearing white robes, don't also subtitle your film in small white lettering.  We weren't two minutes into the film, and I was already getting eye strain trying to read the subtitles.  Normally I can get used to reading subtitles after a few minutes, but I completely gave up.  They continued with light background colors and really small print for the subtitles.  Not that reading the subtitles would have made the story any easier to understand though.  What's more disturbing about this is was to learn that this was released in China back in 2011, so despite having almost two years, they didn't bother to fix it.  Why not dub it in English?  Jet Li could have even done his own dialog.

This wouldn't have mattered so much if the film brought the action, and we do open with a fight scene.  Unfortunately it was a really awful looking wire-fight, coupled with special effects that looked worse than low-budget TV shows.  I'd like to say this got better as the movie went on, but it didn't.  Most of the effects throughout The Sorcerer and the White Snake looked like really dated video game graphics.  I can understand the budget not being that high, but when it's so bad that it becomes distracting or laughable, then what's the point?  It's not enhancing your story, and instead making it harder to watch.

You might wonder why they didn't just use practical effects, but the few they did use were even worse looking than the CG effects.  Early in the film, Jet Li's underling (Zhang Wen) is bitten by a 'bat-demon', which was basically a vampire, but they never just simply called them vampires, and then turns into one himself.  It looked like a cross between a pointy-eared pig with fangs and what Emil looked like at the end of Robocop after getting covered in toxic waste.  I genuinely laughed out loud every time he appeared.

At least this was done for laughs...
...and this is unintentionally funny
From what I understood of the story, the silliness wasn't strictly confined to the visuals either.  Jet Li and his assistant are demon hunting monks. I'm not sure why they are hunting them, but they were pretty driven about it, going from town to town and killing or imprisoning all demons they find.  The demons of their world could take all sorts of forms, making them harder to track.  One group they encounter turned into cute, white fox cubs.  You see them and go, "Aw, they're so cute.  They couldn't be that bad could they?"  Well, Jet Li didn't think they were too cute, so into the demon prison they went.

Meanwhile the White Snake (Shengyi Huang) and the Green Snake (Charlene Choi), who are also demons, are just hanging around, and they spot an herbalist (Raymond Lam) collecting herbs.  The Green Snake plays a 'prank' on the herbalist, causing him to fall off a cliff and sink to the bottom of a lake.  Hilarious prank, eh?  That Green Snake is a real cut up. Anyway, the White Snake (again, not the band), saves him by kissing him, transferring some life essence to him.  Now this herbalist has some new essence, and is inspired to invent Herbal Essence shampoo.  That last part might have been a figment of my imagination.

Later, the White Snake can't get the herbalist out of her mind, decides to track him down and hook up with him.  Taking on human form, she goes by the name Susu, and now I have to fight the temptation to call her Sussudio for the rest of the film. Susu catches up with the herbalist, but knocks him into another body of water, where she must save him again.  I could only assume that this herbalist, despite always around water, never bothered learning how to swim since he sinks like a stone anytime he's submerged. They get married, even though I don't recall any ceremony or even proposal.  Since the movie is mercifully only 90 minutes long, I'll let them slide for cutting a few corners.  Susu and the herbalist appear to be happy.

Even though this White Snake's only real crime is to fall in love with a human, Jet Li cannot let this stand.  We haven't even seen her do any harm to anyone, but he's bent on taking her down.  In fact, she gives part of her life essence to help the sick people in the town they live in.  I heard in a deleted scene you even see her reading and doing math: BURN HER!!  The White Snake is more Disney princess than anything.  She even has a talking mouse, rabbit and turtle as friends, and we all know that a trio of cute, talking animals are the axis of evil.

Jet Li and his monks attack her and force her to reveal her true form, but the herbalist doesn't know that she's the White Snake.  Worse yet, Jet Li tricks him into stabbing her with some mystic knife.  At this point it's clear that Jet Li's character is a dick.

The herbalist realizes his wife is the White Snake, but doesn't care, you know, cause true love and stuff.  He finds some magic herb to heal her, but it possesses him, so the monks kidnap him and perform some ritual on him.  White Snake and Green Snake come to rescue him and threaten to flood their city if they don't.   Jet Li refuses and accuses them of being selfish since they are willing to risk so much for just one man.  I think you could argue that maybe it's just as selfish to, I dunno, trick a unsuspecting human to stab his demon wife, and then refuse to release him from captivity when she comes for him.  So now you're risking your entire brotherhood for one man?  That's not selfish behavior?  Ok.

So, they fight it out and both the sorcerer and demon snakes seem to have unlimited powers of bending reality, and can pretty much making anything they want out of nothing.  Speaking of bending reality, as the city is flooded, the monks inside are all fine, just holding their breath forever I guess.  At that moment an army of talking mice swims in to rescue the herbalist.  They collectively yell "Charge!" as they do this...underwater.  Maybe it's special oxygen water or something.

This is the only Whitesnake aI want to hear from.

Back on the surface, each attack is effortlessly countered by the other, and at a certain point, you wonder why these guys don't just stop fighting for a second and talk.  All they do is cause mass destruction, and you know there's not going to be a winner. Jet Li ponders at one point during the carnage that maybe he's been too stubborn, and you can't help but answer, "Yes!  You are totally being too stubborn!"  This whole last sequence of the film is just a mess of computer generated madness that looked terrible and you didn't care about anything that was going on.  Then during this climatic battle, there's an attempt at emotional climax, and I almost forgot that there was a love story at the heart of this film, but it's completely lost in a jumble of CG nonsense.

What surprised me about how awful the action was, was that the director Siu-Tung Ching is an experienced director, and worked as the action director on superior martial arts movies like Hero and The House of Flying Daggers.  I'm baffled that he thought using lots of CG was the way to go here, or that he didn't notice that the finished product was a mess.  Even the music used was silly.

The only thing I took from the film is that it's two stars, Shengyi Huang and Charlene Choi, are both extremely attractive.  Not that I could understand what was being said, but it did seem like Huang was emotionally invested in her role.  Jet Li seemed to be phoning it in for the most part, both performance-wise and physically.  He looked bored.

Even if you're a fan of this type of fantasy or wire-fu, there's just nothing worth watching about The Sorceror and the White Snake.  The CG is a mess, the action is uninspired, and the story matches the visuals.  There's no reason to ever watch this.

.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, February 8, 2013

Identity Thief (2013) - Movie Review

The real thievery is the money the filmmakers try to take from your wallet.

As someone that's had his identity stolen at least three times and used for some kind of credit card fraud (that's not an exaggeration), I can tell you that it's certainly no fun to deal with.  I've been fortunate that every time it's been something I've been able to clear up with a few phone calls, and I've never once had to involve the authorities.  You'd be surprised at how much the stores, banks and credit card companies will take care of for you. Granted, I didn't have the same extremes and nightmare stories that some of you have heard about, or like what the 'fake' Sandy Bigelow Patterson (Melissa McCarthy) does here in Identity Thief.

Lots of spoilers ahead, but it's hard to spoil a film that's so predictable.

We aren't just talking about some fake credit cards and running up some charges either. She's getting arrested and making large purchases (like cars), too.  Meanwhile the real Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman), is a hard working accountant, with a wife (Amanda Peet), two cute kids (real-life sisters Mary-Charles and Maggie Elizabeth Jones), and a baby on the way.  He has a horrible boss (Jon Favreau), but gets some good news when a co-worker (John Cho) offers him a fat new job at a new company he's starting.  The good news is short-lived though, as the Denver authorities (led by Morris Chestnut) inform him that he's under investigation for fraud and skipping out on court dates in Florida.

Identity Thief already takes a bad turn at this point with this contrived, implausible setup.  Even though they pull the mug shot, and see that it's clearly not him that's committed these crimes, he's still under investigation.  Also, for some reason, his boss says he has to fire him unless he can clear up the charges.  Again, remember it's clear to everyone at this point that the 'real' Sandy Patterson is not the one that did these things.  'Real' Sandy is aware of 'fake' Sandy's whereabouts, but the Denver police say there's nothing they can do, which is absolutely not true in reality.  They also say they can't even call the Winter Park, Florida authorities to pick her up (also totally not true).  Huh?  So, 'real' Sandy says he'll fly down to Florida, pick up the 'fake' Sandy and bring her back to Denver.  The cops actually agree this is a good idea.  What?  Yes, send an accountant to act as a bounty hunter.  Makes perfect sense, right?

What's funny about the how the little the police are able to do here, is that later in the film, the Sandy's are forced to steal another person's identity (but it's okay because it's an asshole, one-percenter, so he deserves it), as part of their bonding adventures. Yet, just a few hours later the St. Louis police are arresting them for fraud.  So, the Denver and Winter Park police can't do anything despite multiple offenses, but the St. Louis police are on them after just one?  Is Identity Thief saying that the St. Louis police are just that much better, or were they so quick to respond because this time the stole from a one-percenter? Wait a second, I'm giving the film way too much credit for trying to say something.

A lot of times I talk about shutting off your brain and just enjoying a film, but Identity Thief is the type of film where the filmmakers have to assume your brain is already shut off to accept anything that happens.  The movie contradicts itself all over the place, and people don't react to things like normal people do.  This wouldn't have been so bad if the movie had actually been funny.  I was surprised at how few laughs there were.  If you've seen the trailer, then you've already seen every funny scene in the film, and they play out even less funny in the film.  If you've seen the trailer twice, then you've now laughed more times than you will when actually watching Identity Thief.  The humor is mean-spirited, one-note (how many times can you make the joke that Sandy is a 'girls name'), and much of it felt like bad improv.

One of the biggest fails of the movie is that they actually try to make Melissa McCarthy's character a likable person.  There's even a makeover scene where she walks into the room in slow motion and Jason Bateman is like, "Wow!"  Then, they make 'real' Sandy conflicted as to whether or not to still turn her in, and says she's not a bad person.  Sandy, can I talk to you for a second?  I can safely tell you that she is a terrible person.  She's a violent sociopath that ruins people's lives.  Are you already forgetting that her ruining of your life is why you're on this ridiculous adventure in the first place or that she's physically attacked you multiple times?  You've only been with her a few days, so you couldn't have possibly bonded that much.  Even taking the bonding out of the equation, do you really think she's reformed and truly remorseful after a just few days when she's clearly a career criminal with no conscience up to this point?

Did I mention yet that Identity Thief is almost two hours?  The length really hammers home how few genuine laughs there are. It could have easily been edited down to 90 minutes without difficulty due to all of the extraneous characters and subplots that didn't add anything to the story.  For example, you've got a duo of lousy hitmen (Genesis Rodriguez and T.I.) after 'fake' Sandy because of some fake credit cards she sold to a mobster, and now he's in jail.  It's interesting to note that this mobster is in jail because of her fake credit cards, but they can't seem to track down the 'elusive' Sandy for the same thing.  Plus, now her list of offences includes selling fake credit cards to the mob.  Then, there's a bounty hunter (Robert Patrick) after her that's portrayed as a bad guy, but he really isn't considering who he's after.  There's also a silly detour involving Sandy hooking up with a cowboy (Eric Stonestreet).  It's all supposed to add to the hi-jinx, but it just drags the movie down.  It's sad because I like the supporting cast, but removing all these extra characters and subplots might have actually helped you buy into 'fake' Sandy's redemption and their bonding on this road trip.

This time? YES!
Speaking of liking the cast.  I've always liked Jason Bateman, but once again he plays the same, ineffectual character that lets people walk over him and can't get shit done.  As the movie went on, I actually started to dislike his character more and more.  I just couldn't buy into the fact that he started to sympathize with her in any way.  While this felt like a vehicle for Melissa McCarthy to show off her comedy chops, I don't think she did herself any favors here either.  However, I do think both of these two will come out of this relatively unscathed since we all like them.  It's not even an issue with either of their performances, it's more that they wasted two talented people with a terrible script and poorly written characters.  Also, because I like Bateman and McCarthy so much, I kept trying to give the film a pass.  Then I thought, what if this film starred Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler?  Would I be so forgiving then?

There's nothing original about Craig Mazin's screenplay, and the story itself is extremely predicable. The lack of originality and meanness of the script isn't a surprise since Mazin co-wrote on films like The Hangover Part II (which was basically the same story The Hangover with small substitutions), Scary Movie 3 and 4 and Superhero Movie.  So much is recycled that they use the same M.I.A. song twice in the movie. That same song that also appears in the trailer for the other Melissa McCarthy movie with Sandra Bullock coming out this summer (and that looks just as bad as this).  Anyway, I'm more surprised that Identity Thief was directed by Seth Gordon, who directed the much funnier Horrible Bosses, as well as several episodes of funny shows like Modern Family, The Office, Community and Parks and Recreation.  I don't understand how he didn't see that the comedy in this didn't measure up to other work he's done and how much of the story was so unnecessary.  He couldn't have brought in some of the Horrible Bosses writers to punch up the script or something?

It's early in the year, but Identity Thief has a lock on one of the worst films of 2013.  It wastes a talented cast with an implausible setup, predictable story, and lame, recycled humor.  It's dull and a real chore to watch, and I found myself growing angry with it the longer it dragged on.  I advise you to pass on Identity Thief, but I know that based on people involved some of you still want to see this.  If you really can't resist, please save it for rental.

1 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, February 1, 2013

Warm Bodies (2013) - Movie Review

Teresa Palmer could bring me back from the dead, too.  I'm telling you, blonde chicks from Australia are my weakness.

If you've seen the trailer for Warm Bodies, I already know what some of you are thinking, "Oh that's just great!  They Twilight-ified zombies now, too!  What's next? ManBearPig?  The Loch Ness Monster?"  I'll be honest, I also had this concern, and I went in thinking there was a good chance I wasn't going to like this at all.  While Warm Bodies does skew toward that audience, I have to give director Jonathan Levine (50/50) credit.  He managed to balance the humor and young romance elements really well.  Warm Bodies could have been a cheesy, pandering film for tweens, but its humor actually makes it something that works for most audiences.

My concerns went away in the opening moments, when we hear the inner monologue of a zombie (Nicholas Hoult), who has more going on his head than his appearance would indicate.  He's been a zombie so long he remembers nothing of his old life or even how he became a zombie.  He doesn't even remember his name, other than it started with an "R".  This monologue gave the film a Zombieland feel to it, and I was surprised at the humor.  I laughed out loud a few times.

R is conflicted about being a zombie and wished he could communicate or have some kind of connection with someone. When zombies become too far gone and completely give up, they become 'bonies', which are little more than skeletons that will kill anything with a heartbeat.  He does have a best friend "M" (Rob Corddry), but their interaction consists of looks and grunts, but sometimes one of them can manage to say something like "hungry".  While out on a hunt for brains, R sees Julie (Teresa Palmer) and something sparks in him.  Not wanting her to be killed by his fellow zombies, he takes her to safety.  The more time they spend together, the more R regains his humanity.  Eventually, other zombies notice this connection and something triggers in them, as well.

Warm Bodies evolves into what is a surprisingly sweet romantic story.  Yes, the Twilight comparisons are inevitable, but the big difference between the two is that the lack of meaningful dialog is intentional as zombies can't speak all that much.  Plus, there still managed to be way more chemistry between R and Julie despite that lack of dialog.  Nicholas Hoult did a good job of physical acting and saying a lot with his eyes and facial expressions.  It also helps that Teresa Palmer has a lot more charisma about her than Kristen Stewart.  I've always liked Teresa Palmer though, and I don't understand why she hasn't broken out more.  She's been the best thing about several movies I've seen her in like Bedtime Stories, The Sorcerer's Apprentice and I Am Number Four, but for some reason it hasn't translated to bigger films.  I think this might be the one that finally gets her more exposure.

I was surprised to see John Malkovich in this as Julie's father, and he walks that line between wondering if he's evil, or just a protective father in desperate times.  Rob Corddry was great as M, and managed to steal just about every scene he's in despite that you can count the number of words he says on all your fingers and toes.  I think without Corddry for comedy relief the movie wouldn't have been as strong.

I think I might need to cut back on the late night showings for some of these movies, as I was in a bit of a zombie-like mental state to not even realize the Romeo and Juliet angle of Warm Bodies until someone else pointed it out to me.  I was so oblivious to it, that I didn't even notice that the main characters were R and Julie.  I won't go into the parallels too much, since I didn't even make the connection on my own, but there are definitely some familiar elements here.

Warm Bodies isn't perfect.  It definitely has flaws, but they were forgivable.  After a strong opening, it does falter a bit with the tone and pacing.  I'd like to say that Levine's script (based off a book by Isaac Marion), could have used some punch-up, but considering the circumstances, there's not much he could have done without making the zombies start talking a lot, and that wouldn't have worked.  There's some obvious product placement from Corona and BMW, but someone had to help pay for the film.  I enjoyed the soundtrack, but I think it tried too hard to be cute with its choice of music, and some of the songs I think would have worked better had they been used in different parts of the movie.

Another thing you see is that when a zombie eats a brain, they absorb the memories from them.  I actually thought that was a cool aspect, but when you're watching R recount the memories of one of his victims, they were in the third person.  Wouldn't any memory you've absorbed, still be in first person perspective?  When I remember events in my life, I don't actually see myself in them.  At least it gave Dave Franco more screen time.  I know some may get upset with how they treat zombie mythology, but I was never bothered by it, and if you start talking about the 'science of zombies', then I'm gonna have to remind you that zombies aren't real.

I also found it kind of funny that even though R is a zombie, with all the scars and grime, he's still looks like a frigging model.  I can see why this movie could be an ultimate fantasy for women.  You've got a model-looking boyfriend that doesn't speak much, hangs on your every word, protects and does all of these sweet things for you.  Pretty good deal, right ladies?

These are all mainly nitpicks, but  I still can't help but think the film missed a few opportunities to really be great.  It didn't ruin my overall enjoyment of the film.

Warm Bodies isn't perfect, but it's a sweet romantic story with a likable cast.  It doesn't quite cash in on its premise, but there are enough clever and funny moments to still make this stand out in the zombie genre and I found it very entertaining.  I recommend checking it out.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars