Saturday, February 23, 2013

OSCAR 2013 - Pre-Show Thoughts & Predictions & Rants

"Why yes, that Anne Hathaway was quite good. But Daniel Day Lewis, now there's a *real* actor. Also, Kathryn Bigelow was snubbed. Oh, and why didn't Spielberg put any vampires into his movie about me?" - Abraham Lincoln


- Well, it's once again almost Oscar time, and as usual all anyone can talk about is the politics behind the awards, rather than the actual merit of the films, actors, and directors that are nominated. Personally, I found this year's nominees an odd mix of deserving talent peppered with some truly jaw-dropping omissions. The reason I say jaw-dropping is that you would think that Kathryn Bigelow getting a Best Director nomination, for example, would be a no-brainer - not just as a movie fan, but also if you're going by the Academy's usual tendencies. Sure, last year, many of my favorite films like Drive and Young Adult were snubbed altogether from the Oscar race. But that, at least, was somewhat expected (and it was similarly but sadly expected that some of 2012's most incredible movies - like CLOUD ATLAS - would get excluded). But this year, the Oscars don't even necessarily seem to follow any sort of internal logic. Zero Dark Thirty up for Best Picture, but no Bigelow for Best Director (despite the film's incredible direction)? Okay ...

Again, it comes down more to politics and cult of personality - in terms of nominations, winners, and in the public discourse. Example #1: Ben Affleck. Look, Argo was a fantastic film, and Ben Affleck's transition from actor-in-bad-movies to director-of-awesome-movies has been really cool to watch. But is it reasonable to say that there were at least five other films in 2012 that were better-directed than Argo? Yes, very reasonable in my estimation. Is it also reasonable to say that there were several films in 2012 that were, overall, even better and more impactful than Argo? Yes, also reasonable. So, people, stop talking about Ben Affleck. The man will get his due in due time.

Of course, there are many great films and great performances that I would have loved to have seen recognized at this year's Oscars. To that end ...


1.) Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director (Zero Dark Thirty)
2.) Moonrise Kingdom for Best Picture
3.) Wes Anderson for Best Director (Moonrise Kingdom)
4.) Quentin Tarantino for Best Director (Django Unchained)
5.) Dwight Henry for Best Supporting Actor (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
6.) Frank Langella for Best Actor (Robot & Frank)
7.) Jim Broadbent for Best Supporting Actor (Cloud Atlas)
8.) Tom Tywer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski for Best Director (Cloud Atlas)
9.) Doona Bae for Best Supporting Actress (Cloud Atlas)
10.) Safety Not Guaranteed for Best Picture or Best Original Screenplay
11.) Rian Johnson for Best Director (Looper)
12.) Liam Neeson for Best Actor (The Grey)
13.) The Grey for Best Picture
14.) Jason Clarke for Best Supporting Actor (Zero Dark Thirty)
15.) Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Supporting Actor (Django Unchained)

No doubt, many of the Academy's picks this year are "safe." Even a movie like Zero Dark Thirty, which in past years would be a shoe-in, may end up getting penalized for the political controversy surrounding it. And of course, despite efforts to make the Oscars feel a little younger and fresher, with indie picks like the very-much-deserving Beasts of the Southern Wild, there is still a pretty wide gulf between what is and isn't considered an "Oscar movie." Suffice it to say, the big exclusion this year in that regard was clearly Moonrise Kingdom - one of Wes Anderson's best-ever. But several other notable indies with quirky sensibilities - Safety Not Guaranteed and Robot & Frank, for example, were also left off the list completely. So too goes it for 2012's big action flicks that were deserving of consideration. Movies like The Avengers, The Grey, and The Raid: Redemption were all pulpy and over-the-top in their own way, sure - but all were also absolutely impeccably-made and deserving of awards consideration (The Grey, in particular, was really overlooked by critics in general - it's a future cult classic, no question). Similar sentiments could be shared about the superlative Cloud Atlas. It's a big, epic, sweeping, emotionally-charged movie - with Oscar-friendly actors like Tom Hanks and Halle Barry and Jim Broadbent. But I suppose that the future-shock sensibilities of the Wachowskis are still a bit too much for most people (especially when removed from the confines of hard sci-fi a la The Matrix), most especially Oscar voters. I know that opinion was divided on Cloud Atlas, but man, to me it was the year's most epic cinematic tour de force.

With all that said ... that still doesn't make it cool to hate on great films just because they *were* showered with golden Oscar love (hmm, that sounded wrong -- oh well). Chief example - LINCOLN. Okay, so perhaps Spielberg flubbed the ending a little bit, but still - this was a phenomenal film, and certainly one of the year's most towering cinematic achievements. I'll be very happy for actor-supreme Daniel Day Lewis should he win Best Actor, and for living legend Spielberg if he were to win for Best Director. Honestly, after the disappointing War Horse, Lincoln was a great return to form for him. Silver Linings Playbook is another one that certain people have been hating on. I'll defend the movie to anyone - it's just a fantastic film, and it's got everything - amazing lead performances, knockout direction from David O. Russell ... And trust me, it's such a well-done, fell-good movie - part of me really *wants* to hate on it, just because. But again, forget the cult of personality stuff, forget misgivings about anything labeled as a romantic comedy, and just watch the movie with an open mind. I did, and I loved it. Has part of me loved it not-as-much after it seemed to inspire hundreds of annoying Facebook posts stating stuff to the effect of "ZOMG NEW FAV MOVIE EVS!". Yes. Ugh. Please, go away. And was Jackie Weaver's part really substantial enough to deserve an Oscar nom? Probably not. But my point is: don't hate on Lincoln just because it seems ready-made for Oscar love, don't hate on Silver Linings just because you find Bradley Cooper annoying from making the godawful Hangover movies (it's a hurdle to get over, I know), and hey, don't even hate on Amour because you haven't seen it yet and/or the idea of a movie about two old people slowly dying makes you want to run and hide and cry.

So here we go, here are my picks:



Should Win: Zero Dark Thirty
Will Win: Argo

- This one annoys me, because I feel like an Argo win is going to have more to do with politics than anything else. No question in my mind: Zero Dark Thirty was the better film of the two. Whereas Argo simplified its story by packaging it as a Hollywood-style thriller, Zero Dark Thirty had zero pandering - it was challenging, smart, and thematically ambitious. But Argo is a story about how Hollywood saved the world. Therefore, there's probably no beating it.


Should Win: Daniel Day Lewis
Will Win: Daniel Day Lewis

- There are few things that movie fans of all stripes can agree on, but one of them is this: Daniel Day Lewis is a beast. The man can do no wrong, and when he's got a role this good, this iconic, this well-written (kudos, Tony Kushner) ... there's no stopping him.


Should Win: Jessica Chastain
Will Win: Jessica Lawrence

- I'm actually a huge fan of both Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty and of Lawrence in Sliver Linings. Personally, I give the slight edge to Chastain, because her role in that film was subtler, more nuanced, and ultimately more powerful and iconic. But Lawrence was also fantastic - both very funny and very fearless - and she'll probably be rewarded for it. This was one of those "I just made America fall in love with me" roles - and Lawrence's real-life lovability probably also doesn't hurt her chances.


Should Win: Tommy Lee Jones
Will Win: Tommy Lee Jones

- TLJ was just a firecracker in Lincoln, and it's one of those incredible roles that quite simply brings the house down. It was a reminder of why Tommy Lee is such a damn fine actor - I mean, he steals the show in a movie that's basically bursting at the seams with A-level actors. My only regret is that this award will come at the expense of the always-awesome Christoph Waltz. But the weird thing about his role in Django is that it's really the lead role. Same goes for Philip Seymour-Hoffman in The Master (and that movie's mixed reactions will hurt it - justifiably so in my opinion - despite its two incredible lead performances)


Should Win: Anne Hathaway
Will Win: Anne Hathaway

- Hmm ... I don't really like the nominees in this category, which is quite weak this year overall. That said, Anne Hathaway unquestionably tore the house down in her part in Les Mis. But my feelings about the film as a whole were very mixed, and it makes you wonder about how Oscar votes should be considered. It's like picking the NBA MVP ... can you really give it to the player with the best points-per-game average if his team has a losing record? Not really. So, personally, I don't like giving Hathaway a prize if the film as a whole was only okay (though, somehow, it's nominated for Best Picture). But Hathaway will win, and unfortunately, there are no other nominees who make a strong enough of a case to knock her out.


Should Win: Frankenweenie
Will Win: Wreck-It Ralph

- Man ... Frankenweenie was one of my favorite films of 2012, and in my opinion one of the most unfairly overlooked. People have apparently so soured on Tim Burton that they decided not to pay attention to a film that was a true return-to-form for him. No question in my mind, Frankenweenie should win. But what movie did Oscar voters' kids and grandkids love most this year? No question on that one either - Wreck-It Ralph FTW.


Should Win: toss-up
Will Win: David O. Russell

- This is easily the hardest major category to call and in which to pick a favorite. Spielberg may be the favorite in some respects, but Lincoln is also not really a director showpiece (it's an actor showpiece). Spielberg could still win, but I think ultimately David O. Russell will take it for the way he skillfully framed Silver Linings Playbook, to get the most out of his actors, and to really take the audience on an emotional roller-coaster ride. I also really like Ang Lee's work on Life of Pi. But I wonder if some of the more controversial creative choices he made on the film (the sometimes-awkward framing device, for example) will hurt him. And ... I also give incredible props to Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild. In some ways he might be my personal pick here for what he accomplished on a low budget and with a cast of mostly untrained actors. The whole category feels off without Kathryn Bigelow though - she was my clear #1 pick as Best Director of 2012 ... how is she not here? But ultimately, Russell, I think, takes it (and if he does, I expect a huge backlash from film geeks, to whom I say in advance "stay calm").


Should Win: Zero Dark Thirty
Will Win: Zero Dark Thirty

- I have a feeling that ZDT will win this category as a sort of "we really did love ya', but hey, our hands were tied" sort of make-up prize. It also helps that writer Mark Boal has a great reputation, and is known as the rare screenwriter who does true journalistic-style research while crafting his scripts. I will say, this is a loaded category. Tarantino and Wes Anderson are two heavyweights and personal favorites, and would be more-than-deserving winners.


Should Win: Lincoln
Will Win: Lincoln

- Lincoln had a phenomenal screenplay, packed with memorable moments and quotable lines. Tony Kushner nearly topped his previous collaboration with Spielberg, Munich, and delivered a definitive account of Lincoln's presidency and the passage of the 13th amendment.


Should Win: no opinion
Will Win: Amour

- Amour - also nominated for Best Picture, making it a seeming shoe-in for this award. Have also heard great things about films like Kon-Tiki, but seems like Amour's got this one locked.


Should Win: Life of Pi
Will Win: Les Mis

- To me, Life of Pi was the most visually-beautiful film of the year. But Oscar loves a period piece, and Les Mis is likely this year's winner in many of these categories.


Should Win: Lincoln
Will Win: Les Mis

- See above.


Should Win: "Skyfall"
Will Win: "Skyfall"

- Come on now, "Skyfall" is the only legit song in this category - and it's a pretty excellent song too from no less than beloved songstress Adele. Plus, it's an acknowledgement of the quite-good latest Bond flick, which many feel was snubbed from other categories.


Should Win: Lincoln
Will Win: Lincoln

- John Williams ... the man is a legend and an institution, to the point where you almost want to discount him just because, well, been-there, done-that. But let's be honest, the score for Lincoln literally gave me chills ... DURING THE TRAILER. On a sidenote though, how in the heck was Cloud Atlas not nominated here?! Whatever else you think of the film, its score was incredible. Damn you, Oscars.


Should Win: no opinion
Will Win: Searching for Sugar Man

- Man, there are a couple of films on this list that I've been dying to see - most of all The Gatekeepers and Searching for Sugar Man, which I've heard universally great things about. It seems like this story about a long-forgotten musician who finds he has a following across the globe is the one to beat.


Should win: Life of Pi
Will Win: Life of Pi

- Life of Pi, again, looked stunning. I've got to go with it here. Skyfall is perhaps a close second, and a Skyfall win would mean a win for the great Roger Deakins, who's somehow never won an Oscar. But still, Life of Pi is my pick. I mean, come on - that flying-fish scene? Incredible.


Should Win: Argo
Will Win: Argo

- Here's one where I give it up for Argo - the film was impeccably edited. The way the movie creates tension and builds up to its harrowing finale is incredible, and deserves to be rewarded (and also, for its amazing opening sequence with the raid on the U.S. embassy).


Should Win: The Hobbit
Will Win: Les Mis

- The Hobbit has Gandalf and Bilbo and Orcs. That, to me, makes it worthy (even if the movie does use too much CGI, in places it should have stuck to practical f/x). But Les Mis will take it.


Should Win: Argo
Will Win: Argo

- Argo wins this, and deservedly so. On a technical level, the movie is top-notch - and its mixture of real-life news footage with new footage (particularly in terms of audio) is also aces.


Should Win: Les Mis
Will Win: Les Mis

- Here's where I do give Les Mis props - the way they captured live singing and somehow made it work in the context of a film is actually a pretty amazing trick.


Should Win: Life of Pi
Will Win: Life of Pi

- Part of me wants to give at least a shout-out to Prometheus. Script issues aside, it was one of the most visually-stunning films I've seen, well, ever. That said, Life of Pi creates a CGI tiger (as well as an entire menagerie of wild animals) that are utterly convincing. That tiger becomes not just one of the year's most impressive visual effects, but also one of the year's most compelling characters. Now that's award-worthy.


Should Win: Paperman
Will Win: Paperman

- There is a SIMPSONS short nominated here. The Simpsons could win Oscar gold, and hey, that would be sort of awesome. But Paperman ... I mean, it's incredible. I think it got a round of applause in the theater when I saw it. It's one of those pieces that makes you just smile and think "wow, animation kicks ass."


Should Win: ???
Will Win: Asad


Should Win: ???
Will Win: Redemption

- And that's it for now. Feel free to leave comments or picks of your own. Or just go watch Cloud Atlas and cry about it not getting any nominations. Or watch The Grey, and be awesome. But hey, no matter who wins or loses, just, you know, don't be mean. Because as Lincoln said ..."shall we stop this bleeding?" Yes, Mr. President ... we shall.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

SIDE EFFECTS Is A Twisty, Hitchcock-Esque Thriller


- The less you know about Side Effects, the better. Well, to some extent. The marketing for the film - purportedly director Steven Soderbergh's final directorial effort - led me to believe that this would be a socio-political thriller in the vein of his earlier Contagion. But actually, this is something much different. Yes, elements of the film do offer a chilling look at the Big Pharma industry and our society's over-reliance on mood-altering prescription drugs. But Soderbergh isn't content to just create some sort of industry expose. What he does seem interested in is crafting a suspenseful, twist-filled thriller that calls to mind the films of Hitchcock and other masters of the genre. And so I say go into SIDE EFFECTS with an open-mind, and simply be aware that all is not as it seems.

The events that kick off the plot barely hint at what's to come, and Soderbergh is clearly enjoying toying with us and leading us down a particular narrative path, only to take some sharp right turns. As the movie begins, we meet Emily (Rooney Mara), a young woman soon to be reunited with her husband Martin (Channing Tatum), now that he's finished a four-year stint in jail for insider trading. Emily is doing her best to re-acclimate to married life, but she is struggling. She's had a hard go of it over the last few years, and has struggled with depression and anxiety. When her husband returns, she is despondent and distant. And so, Emily begins seeing a well-regarded psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Jude Law) to try to improve her mental health. Banks is a good shrink, but he's also very much in bed with the Big Pharma companies that recruit people like him to distribute their latest anti-depression drugs. With a big payday coming his way from its manufacturers, Banks puts Emily on the new drug - called Ablixa. And, well ... that's where things start to get weird.

To say anymore about the plot would be to give too much away. But I got a lot of enjoyment from watching that rare film where I really had no idea what was coming - where the director seemed intent on pulling the rug from under us and subverting our expectations. It helps that Soderbergh does such a masterful job at ratcheting up the tension. The movie brims with an edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting intensity that rarely lets up. And Soderbergh keeps things chugging along at a solid clip - mixing the muted colors and windy-city urban environments of 70's thrillers with the claustrophobic, boxed-in vibe of old film noirs. What I also really liked was that the script by Scott Z. Burns keeps you guessing. For much of the film, even as new information is released, you're still not 100% sure who's lying, who we can trust, and who may just be out-of-their-mind. The movie, as it goes, invites theorizing and guessing games, and half the fun is trying to stay a step ahead of the film.

What does eventually derail things a bit is the sheer heights of craziness that the plot goes to. What starts out as a more straightforward film ends up going to some pretty weird, out-there places. And to accept some of the movie's more far-out turns requires some major, major suspension of disbelief. Suffice it to say, this is one where you'll be actively wondering just *how* everything fits together, and why certain things unfolded the way they did, or why certain characters acted in a certain way if it turns out that ________ was actually the case. All of the craziness does sort of stay in the tradition of the kind of left-field twists that Hitchcock was known for, but still ... it can all be a lot to swallow.

But what makes the film so eminently watchable are the rock-solid performances. Rooney Mara is the show-stealer as Emily. I'm not sure that many other actresses could have pulled off what Mara does here - playing a dark, multi-layered character who constantly keeps you guessing. Jude Law, on the other hand, really anchors the film. Although his character is, in some ways, unsympathetic, his maddening quest for the truth about Emily is what propels the movie forward. We're with him every step of the way. Law is one of those great actors who rarely seems to get a part of the quality he deserves - but here, he's got it. A really impressive, memorable performance - and the cat and mouse game that unfolds between him and Mara is uber-compelling - in large part thanks to these two talented actors. Those two carry the film, although Tatum is also quite good, as is Catherine Zeta-Jones - who is sort of a fun x-factor, as an enigmatic psychiatrist who Emily had consulted with prior to meeting Dr. Banks.

The movie is all tension and atmosphere - with Soderbergh delivering a real pot-boiler, made even better thanks to a couple of stellar performances. From the look and feel of the film, to the great, moody score, I really dug the movie's aesthetics. At times, it does walk a line between delivering great twists and going a bit too far for the sake of shock value. But mostly - if this is Soderbergh's final film - it's a testament to the director's mastery of genre and pacing, and his constant willingness to experiment and subvert audience expectations. For me, SIDE EFFECTS was a really cool surprise.

My Grade: B+

IDENTITY THIEF Struggles for Laughs


- I like Jason Bateman. I like Melissa McCarthy. And I remain a fan of director Seth Gordon, who gets a near-lifetime pass from me after making one of my favorite films of the last decade, The King of Kong. But IDENTITY THIEF is not worthy of the talents of any of those three. It's a comedy that aims only for the most obvious targets, with a story that barely holds together, and jokes that almost universally fall flat. It's a movie that, at times, is so dire that it actually made me feel sorry for those involved - McCarthy in particular. McCarthy is a talented and funny woman. She does not need to be doing this sort of bottom-of-the-barrel stuff. She doesn't need to do a movie where nearly every joke is about how she's fat/ugly/gross. In the last couple of weeks, there's been a lot of controversy about criticisms of the actress and her work. I wholeheartedly agree that derogatory comments directed at the actress are unwarranted and uncalled for. But what's sad is that this is a film that almost invites those kind of comments. That said, sometimes a movie can transcend a basic or uninspired premise if the jokes hit. In Identity Thief, they do not. They land with a thud.

The film has one of those only-in-Hollywood premises in which Bateman, as struggling financial analyst Sandy Bigelow Patterson, has his identity stolen from him by McCarthy's trailer-trash crook Diana. Bateman is on shaky ground at his job and in some financial trouble already, so he is desperate to reclaim his ID from McCarthy. And so a plan is arranged in which he'll track her down himself, and somehow force her to come back with him and confess her crimes to the police, thus exonerating him of all of the various things done in his name and with his bank account.

The film is structured very much like any given 80's-era roadtrip film, with the unlikely duo of Sandy and Diana chasing each other, being chased (they run afoul of a couple of shady characters who Diana has gotten mixed up with), and getting into trouble as they journey cross-country.

To that end, the film gets a boost from a few fun actors like Robert Patrick and Jonathan Banks (of Breaking Bad) showing up as criminal heavies. But they also feel underutilized (Banks, especially), and they - like almost everything else in the movie - feel like distractions to give Bateman and McCarthy something to keep them occupied. Plenty of great comedies have gotten laughs by placing their clueless main characters into these sorts of everyone-is-after-'em situations, but Identity Thief never really has fun with that concept. Again, all of the shenanigans just feel like filler. Another great example is Eric Stonestreet's appearance as a southern-fried horndog who takes a liking to McCarthy. There is literally no point to the character except to say: isn't it funny to watch two fat people get it on? Actually, it's not that funny, especially given that the movie delivers the extended scenes of plus-sized lovin' with barely any boundary-pushing. What I'm getting at is - I don't mind a good gross-out gag as long as it's suitably shocking and unexpected. But everything in Identity Thief is *exactly* what you would expect.

Aside from some sparks of life from Patrick, other cast members like Amanda Peet, John Cho, and Jon Favreau seem to be simply going through the motions. Bateman could play this part in his sleep, and he basically does. Okay, I'll give him credit - he gives it the old college try. But even a guy with his expert comic timing just can't do much with such a dud of a script. It's no surprise then that the movie's few chuckle-worthy moments are the ones that feel at least semi-improvised. McCarthy had some scene-stealing moments just recently in the improv-friendly Judd Apatow's This Is 40, and she gets in a couple of off-script-seeming lines here and there in this one that are, easily, the highlights of the film. But those moments are few and far between. Most of the dialogue is just painfully by-the-numbers.

Now, perhaps this movie could have been a harmless-if-not-hilarious film if it didn't try to accentuate its comedy with some absolutely grating moralizing. What made me actively irritated with the film was its insistence that, after an hour and a half of convincing us that Diana was a gross, horrible, selfish person - all of a sudden we're supposed to buy her as a character that we should care for and root for. We're supposed to buy that Jason Bateman would befriend and care for this woman after she just ruined his life. We're supposed to believe that after a quick makeover and a new dress, Diana is no longer an ugly beast, but a beautiful woman who is also, really, beautiful on the inside. The movie goes for pure sentimentality that is totally unearned. And the movie feels hypocritical for trying to make us laugh at the expense of Diane - to make her the monstrous villain of the film - only to quickly try to turn the tables and make her likable. It all feels pretty cheap, and it really soured me even further on the movie. What gets me is that the movie could have told the story of Diana's personal journey from selfish criminal to good and selfless person. But it never really tells that story. It milks McCarthy for every pratfall and gross-out moment it can, and then suddenly flips a switch and says no, we the audience - like Bateman - had her all wrong. And so I cringed at that moment when McCarthy presents herself to Bateman done-up and in a nice dress, and he smiles at the woman who ruined his life and says "you look beautiful." McCarthy's looks had never been a plot-point until then - so it feels like a half-hearted apology for everything that came before at her expense. Finally, there's some sort of explanation that McCarthy steals identities because she herself never had a real identity. All info-dumped at the end of the movie. All contrived because the movie couldn't stand by having McCarthy simply play a badguy. I'm trying to verbalize why the movie so rubbed me the wrong way, and it might be this: on paper, the movie was about a woman who steals someone's identity to comedic effect, but in practice, it ends up - for no good reason - being a movie about how a fat, weird, ugly, and misunderstood person may also be a good (and maybe even not-so-ugly!) person deep down inside. I hate that that's a movie. It's 2013, we shouldn't need a movie to tell us this. And I'm not pulling the fat thing out of thin air. Like I said, a good portion of the movie's jokes are about McCarthy's size and the way she looks. Except when the movie is about how we shouldn't judge her for the very qualities it mocks. In my book, that's not necessarily a recipe for great comedy.

My Grade: C-

Monday, February 11, 2013



- Bullet to the Head probably could not have been released at a worse time. It's a violent, dark action film that's a throwback to the 80's when these sorts of grimy, un-PC splatterfests were the norm at the cinema, often starring Sylvester Stallone, and often directed by guys like Walter Hill, who returns from a lengthy hiatus to helm this one. In the wake of serious questions about violence in the entertainment industry, it's no wonder that an old-school shoot-'em-up titled Bullet to the Head bombed at the box-office. To that end, there's a whole generation that frowns upon the old-school, testosterone-driven style of filmmaking that is the bread and butter of guys like Stallone. Coming hot off the heels of Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Last Stand biting the box-office dust, it is no surprise that the darker, grittier Bullet to the Head also tanked badly. Still, if you're an old-school action fan, I think the film is worth a look. It's not a genius movie by any means, but I found it a refreshing throwback that oozed Walter Hill's trademark neo-noir atmosphere. This is the kind of R-rated forbidden fruit that kids of the 80's will be able to appreciate - the kind of no-holds-barred badassery that you rarely see anymore.

Again, that's not to say that Bullet to the Head is a fantastic film. It suffers from a very uneven script that lacks the kind of wit and cleverness that could have made this one truly memorable. Hill does his best to polish things up with some decent one-liners, some hard-hitting narration from Stallone's world-weary hitman character, and some atmospheric direction that recalls classic 80's action. But it's not quite enough to ensure that the film 100% clicks. A lot of it is the script, which falls flat in places (for every decent zinger, there are probably two clunkers), and never really finds its through-line. Essentially, this is the story of a hard-boiled hitman (Stallone), forced to team with a dogged but fresh-faced cop (Sung Kang), to take down a cabal of corrupt businessmen. The recurring theme is that both Stallone and Kang have their own moral codes that come into conflict, but they've got to find a middle ground in order to work together. To that end, there's an urban Western-ish vibe to the film ... something that is definitely familiar ground to Hill, best known for films like The Warriors and The Driver. But nothing really clever or novel is done with the premise - with the rift between the two characters - except to emphasize that it exists. Kang also doesn't have any particularly great chemistry with Stallone, and you do wonder if the overall movie might have been elevated with a stronger presence in that role. It's not 100% his fault though ... some of the weakest moments of the film are those in which Kang is supposed to look like this new-school techie just because he (wait for it) uses his smart phone to look up information (made more amusing by the fact that his smart phone is a clunky-looking Blackberry). They could have found more novel ways to play up the differences between Kang and Stallone ... that's for sure.

To that end, an overarching issue is that too many of the film's characters are just utterly generic. Sure, on one level it's fun to see Jason Mamoa (Game of Thrones, Conan) playing a sadistic heavy, or Christian Slater as a drugged-out corporate sleazebag, or Sarah Shahi (Fairly Legal) as Stallone's tattoo-artist daughter ... but you also wish there was at least a little more meat to these characters - something to make them pop. The converse of that, of course, is that the movie is quite well cast, and like I said, it's fun just seeing underutilized actors like Mamoa and Slater and the sultry Shahi in the film. There's even a decent cameo from Holt McCallany, the star of the much-missed cable drama Lights Out.

As for Stallone, he's in fine form here. Sure, he looks a little strange - his face now an odd mesh of grizzled middle age and plastic-y smoothness ... but hey, there are few action icons more charismatic or great at playing the badass than Sly. And it's great to see him in such a dark, hard-boiled role - something we haven't seen him do in quite a while. Stallone puts a lot into this one - and mixes up the character's stoicism with moments of rage, sadness, and sardonic humor.

And then there's Hill. I love the starkness, the coldness, the steely, urban jungle sort of vibe that Hill brings to the film. There's a great economy of storytelling that many other directors could learn from. And ... when the action does ramp up, it's brutal and hard-hitting. That axe-fight teased in the trailers, between Sly and Mamoa? It's even more kickass in the film than I hoped.

I'll also give a special shout-out to the film's score -a great blues/rock medley that screams "old-school action," reminding me of classics like They Live and Hill's own The Warriors. Again, the movie never lacks for atmosphere - it looks, feels, and bleeds badassery on a visual and sonic level.

For me, BULLET TO THE HEAD was an enjoyable film, and a nice reminder of the days when R-rated action flicks from guys like Hill, Carpenter, and others delivered low-budget - but uniquely memorable - thrills. This is not one for the weak of heart. This is old-school. And yeah, the movie has its share of issues ... but sometimes - especially in this world of ultra-slick, decidedly nonthreatening blockbusters - something a little unpolished, a little clunky, a little ugly, a little rough around the edges, a little unsettling ... is just what the doctor ordered.

My Grade: B

Friday, February 8, 2013

WARM BODIES Is a Zombie Movie With Brains (!) and Heart


- Don't be fooled by the marketing push - WARM BODIES is most definitely not just "Twilight with zombies." In fact, this is a dark, funny, satirical film that is both reverent of classic zombie films, but also intent on introducing a lot of new, original ideas into the zombie cannon. That said, this is in fact a film about zombie romance. And yes, that's an idea that sounds cheesy or even off-putting on paper - I mean, zombies are heartless undead monsters whose only desire is to feed on human flesh ... right? Well, to Warm Bodies' credit, the romance is handled in a clever manner that has a loose but fairly simple internal logic to it. And against all odds, there's actually some real heart to the film. A zombie film with both brains and heart? Tasty.

Based on a novel, Warm Bodies puts us inside the head of a young zombie ... as it turns out, zombies still have very human-esque inner-thoughts - there's just a vast disconnect between what they are thinking, and what they're actually able to articulate through speech and movement. Their memories of their past lives are fragmented and mostly lost. Our protagonist (Nicholas Hoult) doesn't remember his name, except that it started with "R." But in between his primal drive to feast on humans, he's got a surprisingly complex inner monologue going on. It gets even more complex when, while attacking some humans, R eats the brain of a young guy named Perry (Dave Franco). As it turns out, brains are like a drug for zombies, because eating a brain floods a zombie with memories and feelings from the brain's owner. And so, as he devours Perry's brain in front of his terrified friends, R is flooded with memories and sudden feelings for Perry's girlfriend, Julie (Teresa Palmer). So instead of attacking her, R kidnaps her - in true monster movie fashion - and takes her back to his zombie lair, housed in an airport that's become overrun with the walking dead. There, R tries to maintain some semblance of a human life - he collects old rock records and DVD's (he's amusingly got a copy of the classic "Zombie" in his collection). And as R spends more time with Julie, something strange happens ... he begins to evolve, slowly, and become increasingly less zombie and more human.

Unfortunately for R, he's got some major problems to contend with, even as his humanity slowly begins to return. For one thing, it so happens that Julie's dad (John Malkovich) is the militant leader of what's-left-of- humanity's anti-zombie forces - and he's determined to rescue his daughter and kill all zombies in his way. Secondly, there's a breed of uber-evil skeleton zombies called Bonies - longtime zombies who've devolved into skeletal creatures who kill both humans and regular zombies with equal vigor. The Bonies' numbers have been growing, and they're now becoming a massive threat to everyone, zombies included.

Director Jonathan Levine (50/50) skillfully weaves these threads together. While the heart of the story revolves around the relationship between R and Julie, there's some pretty epic stuff going on in the background, and the movie's got some exciting, visceral action scenes and some uber-cool moments of creature horror. And yet, Levine films a lot of the film in a very straightforward, non-showy style that grounds it in a quirky, left-of-center reality. The action really ramps up in the third act, but before that, there's a major emphasis on comedy and satire. A few movies (think Shaun of the Dead) have done the humans-are-already-basically-zombies angle, but Warm Bodies does it very well and in its own unique manner. R is sort of a great proxy for every smitten guy who can't quite articulate his thoughts and feelings to the girl he's digging. Similarly great is the relationship between R and Rob Cordry's M. Their zombie-bro friendship is hilarious, because their supportive zombie grunts and uncommunicative hang-out sessions are, let's face it, not all that different from the way most dudes act around each other. Cordry is easily one of the film's highlights though - he has some gut-bustingly funny, laugh-out loud lines - but most of the time, he's just slyly funny.

Meanwhile, I give a ton of credit to Hoult for his performance here. The way he's able to create a fully fleshed-out (no pun intended) performance while playing a zombie - it's pretty crazy. Hoult is given the leeway to inject some humanity into the character - especially as R begins his transformation - but the way he mixes zombie mannerisms with real human emotion is well done. Meanwhile, Teresa Palmer shows some real promise as Julie. A cut above other young actresses I've seen, she does a nice job working with Hoult, and the two have a nice chemistry. Also very good is Analeigh Tipton as Julie's best friend Nora - a spunky doctor keen on studying R and his evolving physiology.

If there's one casting complaint, it's probably just that John Malkovich feels underused, and his character underserved. It feels like if you get an actor like Malkovich, it's worth it to give him some scenes to really chew on, and make sure he's got at least a couple of standout moments. Mostly though, he's a non-factor until close to the end of the movie. But I will say, he does make the character into more than he might have been otherwise, and he shines during some key moments of the film.

To that end, the movie's biggest fault is probably that a lot of the details, and the overall mythology, of the film feel glossed over, and in some instances rushed. From little inconsistencies that nag at you (like the zombies being slow moving in some instances, but fast in others), to a lack of overall context for this world and the status and numbers of the human survivors. Some of that detail and world-building does seem to take a major backseat to the central relationship of R and Julie, and all of the various fun/awkward/cutesy moments between them. But hey, the fact that Warm Bodies *does* have so much humor, action, and satire in addition to the romance was, to me, a really cool and welcome surprise.

So, sure, WARM BODIES has a bit of teen angst and young romance, but it works surprisingly well, and in a way where, from the get-go, it's clear that this is in another universe from Twilight and the like. If anything, the film's heart is genuine - there's sweetness and schmaltz, but - who knew? - the film mines some real feel-good vibes from a zombie apocalypse setting. These days, shows like The Walking Dead mire their characters in a never-ending, nihilistic hell that never gets better. Warm Bodies turns the zombie genre on its head by showing that, hey, maybe even in a zombie apocalypse, there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

My Grade: B+

Tuesday, February 5, 2013



- I'm all for a great B-movie. But what I don't like is a bad movie trying to salvage itself by throwing in random edginess, by turning the tables and trying to make the audience think it's in on the joke - when that likely wasn't even the original intention. It can be a fine line. This past summer, for example, a lot of people dismissed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, thinking that its over-the-top title and genre mash-up stylings automatically meant it was a bad movie. And yet, I found it to be a lot of fun - a movie that knew exactly what it was doing, and skillfully walked the line between legitimate action/horror film and self-aware pulp fiction. However, Hansel and Gretel has little of that same finesse. It's violent and gory for the sake of being violent and gory, and its main running gag is to have fairy tale characters drop f-bombs like they're in a Tarantino flick. Furthermore, it all seems fairly tacked-on ... not integral to the plot, and not consistent with the overall tone of the film - which more often than not, is whimsical and cutesy. This makes HANSEL & GRETEL feel like a bit of a mess, unsure if it wants to imitate the Disney-with-a-twist modern fairy tale feel of Once Upon a Time, or to be a B-movie grindhouse flick catering to the midnight movie crowd.

The premise of the film is at once bare-bones and yet overly convoluted. Basically, the Hansel and Gretel of fairy tale fame, following their initial encounter with and disposal of the famous witch who lived in the house-made-of-candy, grow up to become badass, leather-clad witch-hunters in a world that is apparently overrun with witches. That's the simple part. But the movie takes some kind of sadistic pleasure in casually tossing out bits of mythology that we're led to believe are big and important, but that ultimately add up to, well, not much. There's something about Hansel having candy-poisoning, and needing to take a regular injection to keep him healthy and alive (yep, seriously). There's something else about Gretel herself being a witch (because her mother was one?), and therefore being some sort of chosen one - a good witch whose blood contains magical properties. There's a Big Bad - a particularly nasty witch played by Famke Janssen, who has some sort of uber-scheme involving the aforementioned magical witch blood. There's a troll, who is the standard-issue monster-with-a-heart-of-gold. And there's a sort of stock nerdy/fanboy-type character who worships Hansel and Gretel and who joins up with them on their adventures. All of this leads to total brain shut-off about half way through the movie. I wasn't sure what the characters were doing, or why. I pretty much got to the point where I was just in it to see some decent pyrotechnics.

And there are some pretty decent pyrotechnics in the film. The movie doesn't skimp on over-the-top violence, and so there's a lot of dumb-but-fun action that keeps things moving at a decent clip. The film does this whole steampunk thing where the characters all have anachronistic fantasy weapons that are the medieval equivalents of every crazy-ass videogame gun ever imagined. This too translates into the characters' wardrobe - they all look less like fairy tale characters and more like they just dropped in from the Matrix movies. Or probably more accurately, the Underworld movies.

The movie tries way too hard to be badass, but the badassery is virtually all surface-level. Take Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter ... the reason that movie worked so well is because the character of Abe Lincoln is so fully-drawn, and it becomes this great juxtaposition of a well-mannered, soft-spoken, determined U.S. president using his famously steely will to purge his nation of the undead. But Hansel and Gretel ... well, they're pretty much devoid of defining personality traits. Hansel is Jeremy Renner being very Jeremy Renner-esque ... stern, serious, humorless, etc. That's really all there is to the character. And Gemma Arterton's Gretel is similar - perhaps a tad bit spunkier and more carefree, but mostly, it's just Gemma Arterton in form-fitting leather. Not that there's anything wrong with that ... except the movie doesn't even have her do anything particularly sexy or interesting. That's what makes the excessive use of profanity more jarring than novel - it'd be one thing if it somehow fit with the characters' personalities, but since they have such little personality in the first place, it feels very, very forced.

Renner and Arterton both seem only partially-invested in the film, and I don't blame them. They're given very little to sink their teeth into. Luckily, there are some good supporting players in the mix, like a Peter Stormare, a guy who really needs no reason to go all-out and act crazy - he just does, and it helps inject some life into the film. Same goes for Janssen, who if nothing else, seems to have some fun playing the queen-bitch of the witches. The other thing I'll say for the movie is that it does have some fun sets (i.e. the Candy House) and some really nice f/x. In particular, I dug the design and execution of the troll character - who had a Jim Henson-esque look that reminded me of something out of old-school fantasy films.

If only more of the movie dared to go old-school and embrace straight-up fantasy storytelling. The direction mixed quick-cutting new-school chaos with locations that often look less fantastical and more like someone's backyard. The movie features lots of generic-looking fields and forests, and the movie tends to look drab and bland in a way that makes it feel small-scale and low-budget. And rarely have I seen a movie that has such a lack of geography. Hansel and Gretel seem to just wander and stumble from place to place, ending up in a strange village one minute, and in their childhood home the next. Sadly, the one time the movie really grabs you and takes on an epic, imaginative feel is in the animated opening credits, which are quite well done.

I was not one of the haters who prematurely bagged on this flick. In fact, I was pretty excited going in, and eager to see what I hoped would be a fun, delightfully over-the-top genre-bender. The movie was indeed over-the-top, but a couple of good witch-slayings is not enough to create a great movie or even a great B-movie. Ultimately, I had to do my best to enjoy myself by laughing at the movie and its absurdities, but that only got me so far. I suppose there's some enjoyment to be had in watching this ironically - but not much. This isn't a gloriously bad movie - just a mediocre one.

My Grade: C-