Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Trailer Trash: GI Joe Retaliation

I only saw the first GI Joe because I heard so many reviews saying "Its so bad its good" or "Its the next best MST3K movie". Actually, it was a very milquetoast action movie, and nowhere near as outrageously stupid or as "in your face" as something like the Transformers series. The original's fundamental flaw in my opinion was just how it felt like it was poorly put together by an amateur novice, and I think a lot of that blame rests on the shoulders of the first film's director. It was a very typical of a mid August action movie, and I can't really pick on it any more than that because I can't really get mad at a movie when the project is already so defective from the start (ex: Twilight).

However, I guess it made enough money to warrant a sequel, but the producers wanted to protect their investment. Given that they knew they were going up against a summer destined to be ruled by "The Dark Knight Rises" they brought out the syringes of Adrenaline and Testosterone and pumped this movie up!

Dwayne Johnson is leading this time, and thank God. Dwayne has a more experience with action cheese and better screen presence. By which I mean he takes up most of the screen. It makes you wonder how the Cobra troops were able to miss a target that big when he was sitting completely still in the water. The power of badassery! Thats how!

Jonathan Pryce apparently didn't get enough of playing the villain in "Tomorrow Never Dies" because hes back at it again.

We've got an "A-Team" kind of set up (they should thankful this wasn't released last summer!) and these build up knowing that its our small little band versus the world. It was shocking to see a break-out character like Snake Eyes being incarcerated. But then the Cobra flag is raised at the White House and banners form the Cobra eyes. The impact of that hit like a punch to the gut. Its a sequence that is simple, iconic and powerful, and sets a stage of hopelessness for this "Empire Strikes Back" vibe they have going on.

There are plenty of unique action scenes on display. My favorite is the mountainside sword fight.

Bruce Willis' apperance at the end is akin to Josh Brolin's apperance at the end of the Men in Black 3 Trailer. If the action was the icing on the cake, Bruce is the sprinkles on top.

Trailer Grade: B+

Trailer Trash: Men In Black 3

Ah, Men in Black.  I loved it as a kid and I was actually surprised how much I enjoyed it as an adult. I'd argue that it with the possible exception of "Jurassic Park" that this was the most creative and enjoyable "popcorn" movie of the 1990s.

When I was younger, I was certain this would become the next "Adventure Trilogy" series in the vein of Indiana Jones. Sadly, such was not the case because Men In Black 2 was an abysmal disappointment, so I was surprised when I saw set photos for a third movie. After all it had been ten years since "2" and a decade is usually around the time a film franchise gets a reboot rather than a sequel.

As for the trailer itself, I think it shows us a bit too much. The fade to black/ fade in edit in trailers has become a big pet peeve of mine as it treats the audience like it doesn't have any attention span. "This image has been on screen for five seconds! Quick, cut to something new before they get bored!"

The "hook", and really all we need to establish in this trailer is the "save the future" plot and Josh Brolin as Young K. Incidentally, that is a brilliant casting choice and it sets up for some potential role reversal with J as the seen it all mentor and K as the new kid. Not the mention possibilities presented in the '60s setting. I guess the producers have been doing their homework by watching "Mad Men".

Bottom line, I think you could have cut thirty seconds worth of establishing shots, and put more attention on setting up the characters, the establishing the humorous tone that were the heart of the original rather than close up shots of gadgets. I suspect that the trailer is loaded with some many dramatic pauses to build this "mystery" and hide the fact that Tommy Lee Jones will likely have a smaller role. If it the trailer had shown more scenes of the two them together I think that it might have packed a bigger punch. But if Tommy's part is small like I suspect with an appearance at the beginning and the end with Brolin in the bulk of it in the middle, then you would just get people complaining about false advertising. 

Trailer Grade: B

Trailer Trash: The Three Stooges

Theres no denying that in today's media, brand recognition is everything. In a world were we have seven different ways in instanteously send ideas to a dozen other people at the same time, you need something distinctly memorable to get peoples attention and hold on to it. Like it or not that means that remakes, reboots and revivals of older franchises are the front runners in entertainment, because they carry names that go back a ways in people's memories and make quick identification and easy marketing. As a result we get movies like "The Three Stooges".

I've got to admit I don't know what I was expecting. I had heard this was in development for a couple years, but I guess when I heard "Three Stooges Movie" I kept thinking back to that made for TV docudrama they about the guys who played the original stooges.

Having seen the trailer, I still don't know what to say. At first I was surprised that the film was taking place in the present rather than the Stooges original Great Depression setting, but then I remember that the Stooges had a C del trope That and Hollywood likes to have its cake and eat it too, mixing "classic" characters with modern styles and attitudes, often resulting in a mixed bag.

Best I can say is that the people behind the film did their homework, as the slapstick scenes feel like they're perfectly lifted right from the shorts, so its very much in the spirit of the original, for good and for bad. That and Moe gets to poke Snooki from Jersey Shore in the eyes. Bwhahaha! Yes, not since Curly dressed up as Hitler have the Stooges provided such biting, edgy humor that is relevant to our current culture!

Trailer Grade: C

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Trailer Trash: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The trailer begins with the establishment the disappearance of Peter’s parents , which may be another reason why we have a younger May and Ben.  Why May gets her hair done by Helena Bonham Carter I'll never know.

There are also and many scenes that show Peter as an awkward loner, which would be more characterization than he received in the original trilogy with Tobey Maguire just playing him as “Nice Guy”… with no money. Again we’re seeking alternatives.

Gwen Stacy shows up many times in the trailer even though she isn’t named. Based on this plus the pictures in Entertainment Weekly I’m thinking she’ll be a close friend who gradually becomes the love interest rather than Mary Jane, the seemingly unobtainable girl who later becomes the love interest. The writers are likely putting this Gwen in the role MJ had in Ultimate Spider-Man comics. Again, different in a good way.

It looks like Pete steps into a reactor at a lab and is bitten by the spider, it makes me wonder if Peter will show off some science skills this time.

The Lizard is the Big Bad of this film even though we don’t see him in the trailer. Given that this is Spidey’s origin story too, I wonder if they will have parallel themes of transformation, or perhaps draw their powers from the same source.

The trailer closes with a POV shot of swinging across the city, which looks fantastic. The swining scene in the original was easily the weakest portion of that film (effects wise) so this new offering is refreshing and dynamic. It  offers a satisfying big reveal for the costume reflected in the skyscraper. If they do this right, it will look amazing in 3D, and I never thought I’d say that.

Eagerly anticipating this Marvel movie moreso than the Avengers, who can get back to me when they've shot scenes of then the team in something other than a small room.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Trailer Trash: Fright Night (2011)

Some of my readers may recall my review of the 1985 horror film "Fright Night", and how I bad mouthed most of it. For as much as I didn't like the original, I do understand what the film makers were trying to do with it. It was a love letter to the Hammer Horror movies of the late 1950s with Roddy McDowell's character of Peter Vincent based heavily on Peter Cushing's Van Helsing Vampire Hunter. It was also an attempt to break away from the formulaic set up of the new and extraordinarily popular slasher films. Peter Vincent becomes the mouthpiece of the creators and makes no effort to disguise the disgust at this particular horror sub-genre that had over-saturated the market of the time. Hollywood is known as a land of copycats, so trying something fresh like this is something that I both commend and encourage, its just the execution, plus time, that I think is what prevented me from enjoying it more.

So now, like everything else, the film is being remade. I'm sure theres an executive somewhere in a Hollywood office with a catalog of properties that are already owned by his studio, biding time, waiting for the right moment to spring a remake on unsuspecting audiences. Likely this one was picked up in an attempt to ride the coattails of the sudden surge in vampires on screen over the past few years before the trend fades away completely. I'm not going to hold that against the new movie, I'm just pointing it out. It probably also helps that the film has a rhyming name, making easy for potential audiences to remember it during the fickle month of August when expectations for summer blockbusters have been severely diminished after all the razzle dazzle effects and explosions of the July releases. I can only hope that the makers of the new film don't see this as chance to rest on their laurels, but to put the same degree of passion on the screen that helped the original in order to break from the doldrums of tradition and expectation.

I'd like to touch briefly on the poster for the new movie before moving on the trailer because I saw the poster before the trailer and it helped form some of my attitudes towards this upcoming film.

This isn't a great movie poster. It reminds me a little too much of the poster for "No Country for Old Men". But there is at least one thing I like about it, and that is surprisingly, Anton Yelchin. The protagonist stands defiantly at a profile, facing left rather than facing straight on or looking to the right, this helps guide our eye past the angle of the supporting background houses, down the text which lets us know the all important what and when. The distinct axe also breaks the silhouette and sticks out in our minds. We don't need to see his face, we just need to know that our hero is a small person stands guard in front of a small pass, facing up against overwhelming odds, but that he is prepared for action!

The biggest problem is the biggest thing in the poster; Colin Ferrell's floating head. Sure he's got red tinted eyes, but that really isn't scary. If his nose is going to take up this much space, at least make that facial feature somewhat frightening! What I'd like to know is why we don't see fangs on Ferrell in the poster. Two pointed fangs are a classic feature of vampires and excellent for use in graphic design, hence why they're being used in the title's text. So why not show us a hint of any in the part of his mouth that we do see?

Then there's the tagline. "You can't run from evil when it lives next door." Wordy, but it does tell you the film's plot.

Quick comparison to the original poster:

The tagline: "There are good reasons to be afraid of the dark" is a bit generic, but the with image beneath, it works. A wide eyed pale face strikes boldly against a dark atmosphere bearing an inhumanly wide mouth full of cruel, sharp teeth and cackles menacingly while commanding the clouds, harnessing the forces of nature itself to assume the shapes of demons to assault a dwarfed house with no neighbors to allies to be seen, just two pine trees, both easily victimized by the blitzing breeze. There is but one light on in the house outlining a human silhouette, and whoever this lone person might be, they are residing in the last outpost against a devastating devil.

Okay, let's start the show

* Establish Anton Yelchin's Charlie as a typical teen with the good life in what we later see in the big city of Las Vegas.

* Charlie's peers, rather than nameless periphery females are the victims. This makes the disappearances distinct, even if we never see them because there are in the same peer group as the intended audience. Though one could argue that the fanservice victims of the original are more memorable because they were just there for gratuitous breast shots then be killed to drive the plot forward. I'm sure its no coincidence that the one victim we do see in this trailer is a pretty blonde, scantly clad woman.

* Speaking of which, theres a scene were Mom introduces us to Jerry, also provides Charlie's name, but only addresses his girlfriend as "His girlfriend". I guess that really is all we need to know about her, since the only things we see her do in the trailer is be threatened by Jerry and show off black lace bra , the latter being the official Hollywood code for "Let's Fuck". I'm going to go out on a limb a say she's going to be more of an archetype than an actual character.

* "Evil" Ed resumes his role as Mr. Exposition, but here he's the one to explain the connection in disappearances and go to Charlie about it rather than having Charlie be the one to figure everything out. He also looks more like a simple high school nerd archetype, rather than the original's big haired goofy spaz. This makes his role in the film more recognizable in the trailer and it looks like this version will be far less annoying.

* The shots in the last half focus on Charlie and Jerry going on the offensive, preparing for war and promising a greater level of violence and destruction than the original's "cry wolf" build up story.

* Sadly, there are no shots of David Tennant as Peter Vincent. The only reason I'm at all interested in this movie at all is to see The Doctor fight monsters on the big screen. If this is not delivered in a following trailer than I'm ready to write this off as a failure already.

It hits all the right notes for an action horror film, showcasing excitement and suspense, and catered to a young audience with a disposable income. Will it be any good? Well, we'll see soon enough.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Trailer Trash: Age of Dragons, Three Musketeers

Welcome to Trailer Trash, were I trash trailers of upcoming films.

Age of Dragons - 2011

I like the idea of taking the concept of Moby Dick and putting it into a different setting so that we can freshen it up and use the fantasy setting to revive certain elements that would seem over tread in a straightforward adaptation.

The idea of hunting dragons for their "fire" sounds cool, and there use in stories as dangerous predators make it sound more exciting then hunting whales, but this trailer doesn't scream "Excitement"

The setting looks so small, like we're on the location of wherever they shot "Stargate SG-1" in Vancouver. We don't get any wide angle shots of the supposed "harsh terrain", let alone the sky, you know, where the dragons are flying! Theres a scene in the end of the trailer were see them slowly climbing up a tiny hill (shot from a low angle to make it look bigger) in in fact they're walking slowly because they don't have that much hill to work with an have to fudge the shots to make it look epic.

Rachel with her perfect cheekbones and shiny hair looks too good to be a huntress and her lone one facial expression renders her completely unappealing. Then we get some cleavage shots and a long look at her bare back and she actually becomes less attractive because she's clearly teasing, but hasn't given me a reason to care at all.

Then theres Vinnie Jones, with his patchy beard to let us know that he's a tough, experienced outdoorsman who has braved the arctic chill. Oh please! My beard is thicker than that and its much warmer were I am than were he is supposed to be.

This also makes be wonder why dragons, cold blooded reptiles, would be flying around in this arctic circle of a place. Maybe there internal fire flips things around, I don't know.

I can hardly be excited about the actual dragon hunt when their harpoon and rope both have the thickness and durability of a toothpick. How to you expect to injure and pull down a creature that weighs as much as a semi, with something so flimsy? You'd probably have better luck using a freshly sharpened pencil. Come back to me when you've got a double coiled rope, or enough world building were you can't be out done my a children's movie like "How to Train Your Dragon."

Grade: Person Interest Zero, but my brother is a big fan of SyFy Channel Original Movies, and this certainly has that look and feel to it. Maybe I can use the Shakespearean speech of Danny Glover to introduce him to higher quality cinema.

The Three Musketeers - October 14th

The trailer starts with a Musketeer doing a James Bond Goldfinger-Ninja submersion stunt before killing someone with spring loaded 3-D shot weapon before jumping off the roof like Batman. Then we've got Milla doing her own action scenes and reminding us that corsets showcase cleavage.

Its clear producers are going the same route with the recent "Sherlock Holmes" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, trying to spice up a period piece with lots of action scenes that are cut just like modern blockbusters and raking in millions since young people with be attracted to fast moving stuff plus a recognizable name ever if they're never read the story before.

My problem with the trailer is that it seems to be selling three things: 3D shots, Lots of swordfighting, and a thin layer of sex. You might argue that theres humor, what with wisecracks about "Are you sure it wasn't 400" but that humor isn't very effective because I don't know the character or the situation. I think I only got one of the character's names and even less of what the actual story is about, which is kind of important if you want to make it endearing. Especially when you consider that many viewers will know the name and not much else.

What do were have of substance here? Um... Shot in 3D!!!! Might as well have called it "The Three-D Musketeers".
Grade: Originally I was going to say "Mild Interest", but then I learned Paul WS Anderson, director of Event Horizon, Alien Vs Predator and Resident Evil was behind this project, thus setting the bar at "Avoid like the Plague".

Trailer Trash: Thor, Captain America

Thor - May 6th

The first trailer for "Thor" showed Thor kicking ass and taking names before giving us his backstory about being exiled to Earth before cutting to action scenes in Asgard of Thor fighting monsters and it looked awesome!

This trailer, not so much.

Here we show more of Thor's arrival on Earth as opposed to before where Thor fighting soldiers was spliced with after the fact narration. Now that we can see things first hand, we're building up suspense, which is good.

What's bad, is the character of Darcy, and how whenever she opens her mouth, all that tension just deflates when she says stuff like, "What he was freakin' me out!" or "Oh this is going on Facebook!" Also, whenever she speaks the music comes to a halt, to let us know that the people whoever wrote the script thinks that line was funny.

Then we cut to the epic Lord of the Rings style action that I want to see, intercut with typical disaster movie footage of wrecking and running with "The Destroyer" rampaging through the city.

It seems the heads of marketing what this to blend  "epic action" with "contemporary and relatable" for wider appeal. Hey if you want to appeal to me, make Darcy the first victim of the Destroyer and I'll be there opening night.

Grade: Diminished Interest. I'll likely wait for the reviews to weigh in. It just feels so divided.

Captain America: The First Avenger - July 22nd

We are introduced to our underdog hero Steve Rogers, weak and frail, yet aspiring to greatness.

Personally I'm still a bit phased by the "Benjamin Button" technology used to put Chris Evans head on a scrawny body, but I should probably be grateful that at least they're showing some distinction in the Before and After of Steve Rogers unlike in the 70s and 90s Captain America movies were he was just as big and muscle bound before the super soldier program.

Despite the title "The First Avenger", I hoping the story won't be polluted with all manner of tie ins to other Marvel Films like "Iron Man 2" was. I'm a little nervous since we have a shot of a young Howard Stark, with the actor playing doing his best Robert Downey Jr. impression, and while that's a fun tip of the hat to other parts of the franchise, we've got enough going on here that we need to get too involved with sequel hooks already.

Other than that it looks like a fun, pulpy, two fisted, "stop Hitler's jetpack soldiers" adventure movie.

Grade: Elevated interest.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Megamind (2010)

Voices of Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, David Cross and Brad Pitt
Directed by Tom McGrath
Rated PG: Action Violence

The Story:

Megamind, the notorious blue skinned evil genius finally succeeds in defeating his archnemesis, the square jawed hero Metro Man, and now suffers an existential crisis about what to do with his life, inspiring him to create a new superhero to battle against.

My Thoughts:

Since there seems to be no diplomatic way of expressing this, I'll just say that I consider this movie to be better than “Despicable Me”. While the two films have an extremely similar story, "Megamind" is better structured.

I think the pivotal moment in reaching this decision comes at about the halfway point in both films. In “Despicable Me” Dr. Nefario, a mumbling old man who has so far been there solely for comic relief, suddenly gains lucidity in order to set up a very convenient obstacle when we really have no idea who he is in the first first. Conversely, Minion has been with Megamind since the very beginning and has been pressed with the mission to “watch out for him”, so when he thinks something is wrong with Megamind getting too involved in something outside of "The Big Plan", you can see his passion and determination in preventing it. Then followed with the loneliness when they truly are apart, making Minion’s return in the end all the stronger.

Also, this movie has an actual “world”, its built on archetypes sure, but that just shows that tropes are not bad as I can at least understand how this world works with its reversal of the classic Superman-Lois Lane-Lex Luthor dynamic. We see reactions to Megamind’s villainy, although things go back to normal after a while during his reigme this is likely due to Megamind’s pettiness being directed primarily at Metro Man and at causing mayhem. 

Getting back to judging the film on its own merits;

 I never know what to expect whenever I go into a Dreamworks Animated picture. The studio has made just as many movies that I've loved as I've hated or thought were only okay, so I didn't come into this film with high or low expectations which is something that is becoming rarer for me nowadays.

The movie starts off with the "Moments before my doom" scene were the protagonist talks about how he is about to die and then has a flashback to the proceeded events along with accompanying narration. This is starting to become a pet peeve of mine. The out of context image of a character we don't know about to die feels very exploitive and the direct narration towards the audience feels quite intrusive if not lazy. I understand that exposition is one of the most difficult challenges for a screenwriter, to have a voiceover infodump in the first third of a film only to never use or reference it again feels insulting to our intelligence.

I can't say I laughed much during the course of the movie, at best I got a handful of mild chuckles. Mispronouncing words; not funny, Code Obvivous; not funny, Obama Poster; its an overused gag now, The Marlon Brando impression; I get it, but its kind of annoying. The things that did get me going were things like Megamind and Minion wearing shower caps when neither of them have any hair, or Megamind in a giant robot suit playing with a car like a little kid. Subtle little sight gags like that, which were treated like the salt and pepper when they really should have been the bread and butter of the film.

The final battle between Megamind and the frightening homicidal man child "Tighten", is possibly the films greatest strength, causing mass destruction to the city and putting our leads in situations were we believe they could actually get hurt. There is also great back and forth use of deception with the hologram projection watch, which really engages the mind to pay strict attention. The movie ends with Megamind being proclaimed a hero by the city, for solving a problem he caused, and destroying half the city to do it. But hey, why worry about that when we can end on yet another Dreamworks Dance Number!!!

Final Score:

3 1/2 out 5. Respectable.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Seven Per-Cent Solution (1976)

Starring Alan Arkin, Nicol Williamson, Robert Duvall, Laurence Olivier
Directed by Herbert Ross
Rated PG
Based on the novel by Nicolas Meyer

Warning: These reviews are highly opinion based and will contain spoilers.

Doctor Watson returns to find Sherlock Holmes on a cocaine binge, raving about his arch nemesis Professor Moriarty, whom Watson learns is a well to do professor who is frightened by Holmes persecution. Watson plots a scheme to lure Holmes into the care of Dr. Sigmund Freud in order to cure Holmes of his addictive obbession.

The first act is well written and well filmed with some hallucinogenic POV shots to show Holmes struggling withdrawl, but its also painfully slow. The acting is great, Alan Arkin as Sigmund Freud steals the show with every scene he’s in. You can tell a lot of care was given to make his character feel authentic and historically accurate. Unfortunately he gets more character development than Holmes and serves Watson’s role for the later half the movie, sadly robbing Robert Duvall a chance to shine. Its odd that Freud is the one who has the heroic final confrontation with the villain and saves the lady, rather than Holmes. While Holmes isn’t especially known for these "action hero" traits, it only highlights how this isn't a really a Sherlock Holmes story.

Speaking of qualities associated with Holmes, the first half of the movie is about his recovery, we don’t actually get any sort of “mystery” until the one-hour mark, which also happens to be halfway through the film! There isn’t much suspense because the villain is established fairly early on, and his role as the bad guy couldn’t be more obvious. 

Things pick up in the third act. The railway chase is exciting because of the determination and ingenuity of the characters, but the final confrontation is a bit anticlimactic. Holmes has a sword fight on top of a moving train, which sounds good on paper, but with a dated rear projection effect, it looks a bit goofy. Freud is the one to who stares down the bad guy in a short, bloodless showdown that while efficient and in keeping with character, isn’t terribly exciting for the modern viewer.

Then comes the second conclusion. Freud puts Holmes into a trance and learns that everything about Holmes' life is do to his discovery that his mother was sleeping around with his tutor ,Professor Moriarty. Then Holmes witnessed his father shoot his mother out of revenge. This is why Holmes pursued a field that would allow him to “punish the wicked”, and is also why he thinks of Moriarty as his nemesis and views women as “untrustworthy creatures”.

This reveal bothers me for a number of reasons. The first of which being that the incident molded Holmes' life to “punish the wicked”. It seems that in Hollywood, your entire life, especially your career choice is shaped by a single traumatic childhood incident. If you're a doctor in Hollywood, its because someone close to you died when you were young. Apparently no one goes into a field simply because they’re interested in it, or talented in a certain area of study. I always saw Holmes as someone who pursued criminology for the intellectual challenge since in his time it was still a developing field of science, rather than for the sake of justice. He has a keen mind, but he isn’t Frank Miller’s "Goddamn Batman"

Then there’s Moriarty. If his affair with Mrs. Holmes was responsible for her death, why would he still be in London? Wouldn’t he be haunted by the memory of the incident assuming Holmes Senior didn’t try to hunt him down? Also wouldn’t have his reputation be ruined by the scandal of being involved in an extramarital affair and a homicide? If he really did get away from the scene scot free, he should have changed his name and left the country. 

Finally, and perhaps most irritating, Holmes distrust of women, rooted in his mother sleeping around. In this interpretation, Holmes seems to be distrusting of women as a whole. This is very much at odds with Holmes' nature: to observe and to never assume, and yet here he has a predisposition against half the population.

Bottom line, I like the way it is written with focus on character development as well as the depiction of historical figures such as Sigmund Freud as well as numerous references to other Holmes stories. I was not at all surprised to learn that this was adapted from a tribute novel because the pace lends itself better to a book than a motion picture. It is well researched, intelligently written and superbly acted, but the pace is glacial and the big reveal at the end unwound so much of the quality it had going for it.

Final Score: 
2 1/2 out of 5.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Trailer Trash: Super 8, The Smurfs and Conan

Welcome to a new segment called "Trailer Trash", were I'll be looking at trailers for upcoming attractions and giving my thoughts and grading how interested I am in seeing the full picture.

Super 8 - June 10th

I wasn’t too hyped up for “Super 8” when I saw the original teaser trailer which made it look like Cloverfield 2.0. This new trailer is a step up, introducing us a wide-eyed child protagonist (no name given) who, from the information we're given looks like he’s just lost his mother and has a rough relationship with his father. He has a close group of Goonies style friends and a budding young romance and a hobby of making movies. Then some mysterious stuff starts happening, fast paced images evoking suspense, horror, destruction, and intrigue are aided by the "impending wonder" music.

Steven Speilberg serves as producer and the movie feels like a project he would be involved in, the focus on children in the mid 1970s, their fascination with making movies, the "sight unseen" element with focus on people looking at "it",as well as the rocky relationship between father and son. Add to that the popular internet theory that aliens are somehow involved, and it feels like a loving homage to Speilberg's early work in the past brought to the present.

Grade: Interest Peaked.

The Smurfs- August 3rd

Looks like the marketers are following the same strategy as those of  “Alvin and the Chipmunks”, with animated creatures abusing our lead star. Neal Patrick Harris really needs to fire his agent. Being in “Beastly” was one thing, but this is just too much crap, even for him.

We follow that up with a sexual innuendo joke with Smurfette. You Know… For Kids!  Some dodging dangerous feet hijinks to give this movie some reason to be in 3D. Then we cut to the bad guy and his cat laughing before the music cuts off and he tells the cat that he’s overdoing the evil laugh, as if to look at the camera and say “See, we’re aware that our joke isn’t funny. 
Having the bad guy lampshade his own clichés came and went with Austin Powers, but at this point if you’re saying “We know this is cliché, but we’re going to reference it in an attempt to cover it up”,  that is just lazy.  We things up by saying “Smurf” in place of other words a couple of thing, and end with a gag were “Smart Smurf” gets thrown off a building screaming “Goodbye Blue World!”.

So in the span of less than two minutes you have a man being abused by creatures that he caused no harm, jokes that the film admits aren’t funny, and concludes someone diving off a rooftop to what is presumably their death. If I had to actually watch this movie, I’m pretty sure I’d be tempted to do the latter.

Grade: Avoid at all costs!

Conan The Barbarian - August 19th

Audio snippets mixed with faded images that barely establish anything and awkwardly stitched together with someone doing a terrible Don Lafontaine voice, (Sorry, but no one gets to say "In A World" other than the master)  This would be lousy even for a teaser, but this is a full minute trailer, throw us a bone or something! To quote Tom Servo, "Visuals for a movie? Who needs them!"

Grade: If the marketing department can't get excited about this movie, how can they expect me to be excited about it ?!

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Grace Card (2011)

Starring Michael Joiner, Michael Higgenbottom and Louis Gossett Jr.
Directed by David Evans
Rated PG-13: Violence, Some Thematic Elements

The film opens on a flashback to our protagonist, Bill “Mac” McDonald’s past, were we learn that a speeding car killed his son Tyler. We know his son’s name because he screams “Tyler!” after he bolts awake. Dreams are quite dangerous in the movies, aside of the risk of running into Freddy Kruger or Leonard DiCaprio in your subconscious, apparently having a nightmare generates enough adrenaline in your body to propel your torso at near lethal velocity the second you regain consciousness.

Well fifteen years later Mac is complete jerk, his morning conversation consisting of complaining how ethnics have moved into their neighborhood and yells at his living son Blake for being such a screw up and that Tyler never would have turned out like this. In fiction when your character is a jerk, it’s best to give them at least one redeeming trait so that we don’t completely detach from them. Mac is saddled with Dead Offspring Syndrome, so he gets a sympathy pass by association rather than by anything he does himself, as we see he’s a lousy husband and father, an outright racist, a bit of a sexist and a terrible police officer to boot.

We are then introduced to his new partner Sam Wright, whom the other police officers snidely call “Preacher”, due to his second job as a minister. Mac and Sam don’t get along, Sam getting the promotion to Sergeant over Mac, the latter convinced that the choice in candidates was due to race. Sam doesn’t really help matters by irritating his partner by signing verses from hymns during patrol. “A-MA-ZING G-RACE! Public domain we don’t have pay anyone! Hahaha.” We’ve already established that he’s the religious one of the duo so this is really just overkill.

The film also contains Louis Gossett Jr. as “Grandpa George”. Gossett is best known for his award winning roles such as Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley in “An Officer and A Gentleman”, Fiddler in “Roots”, and as Calvin Bouchard in “Jaws 3-D” (the latter of which had him nominated for the Golden Raspberry, which is an award of sorts). Despite his name on the poster with our two leads, he doesn’t really “star” in the movie since he only shows up in three short scenes, only two of them with dialogue and are just used to advance the spiritual side of the movie and serve as wised old mentor for Sam. By the end he hardly seems worth the mention.

Home life for Sam and Mac is lacking in subtlety. The Wrights live in a warmly lit earth toned house with a family dinner, light hearted banter and conflicts that are quickly and easily resolved. Contrast with the McDonald’s, who sit their cramped claustrophobic dining space that’s parked right up against a wall, and is lit by only one small overhead light. Apparently they’re broken in spirit as well as shins, stumbling around, banging into furniture in the dark.

Things pick up later, while on patrol Mac shoots a burglar fleeing a scene, only to discover that the thief his just shot was his own son! DUN-DUN-DUN! Mac’s reaction is so over the top that I nearly ruptured a lung laughing so hard. It turns out I’m not the only one to have grievous harm done, as Blake has been shot in the kidney and needs an urgent replacement.

Mac’s character arc comes to a head as we reach his big conversion scene, were, with Sam’s help he gives his life over to God. Not much to say here, its par for the course as far as Christian films are concerned and I’d best leave it at that.

Hope arrives just in the nick of time as it is revealed that Sam is an eligible donor for Blake’s needs and volunteers immediately, though he does take the time to have a flashback to all the moments he’s shared with Mac, that we’ve already seen in some poor attempt at pathos.

During the operation, Sam’s daughter asks her mother how they know a kidney from a black man will work in a white boy. Mom replies that while we’re different on the outside, but on the inside we’re all the same. It’s true all right; permit me to demonstrate by vomiting up rainbows. As far as a film about race relations goes, this isn’t exactly “In the Heat of the Night”, heck, this movie doesn’t even begin to break a sweat.

We cut ahead six months later so that we don’t have to see any of the gradual change to the characters after such a shocking ordeal, though this may have been done intentional, so that none of the actors have to actually “act”. The conclusion is at Sam’s church, which is now packed to the brim with new members including the McDonald family who are all happy and smiling and everything seems A-Okay. Then things suddenly become tense when the man who killed Tyler walks into the church, and in front of the whole congregation asks Mac for forgiveness. Wow. No pressure. It’s the kind of ending that would seem ridiculous even if it were on a daytime soap opera. Well as you expect, Mac extends his “Grace Card” to the man, as well as a hand to shake before we cut to the credits.


I know I’ll probably receive flack for coming down hard on a Christian film and for measuring by the same standards I would use for any mainsteam Hollywood film, especially given the theme of grace in this particular movie, but I can’t think of any reason why I should do otherwise. The problems I have with this film have nothing to do with its Christian message of forgiveness and mercy, both values that I can firmly attest to, but rather how the story is portrayed. When it all comes down this movie is intended to coddle viewers rather than convict them. The drama simplified for the sake of it evangelical sub culture target audience. The race relation element of the film in particular fails to deliver because it is incapable of branching beyond its simple depiction of racism, so that the finale can easily resolve all the bad blood. 

The direction relies heavily on communication through telling rather than showing in the actor’s performances because the characters really don’t have personalities. Instead the characters are used as blank slates to have problems projected onto them with no way of dealing with their situations on their own. They are written to have all their issues solved by giving themselves over to God, and presto change-o they are now completely different as a result! The filmmakers say “Take our word for it, and if you don’t believe, just look at the ending were Mac is backed into a situation were he can make no other choice except the one presented here.” There is no tension for them because they don’t feel like real people, especially when we don’t see them changed but are only told they have changed. The quality production values are really the movie’s only redeeming feature.

Final Score:
1 out of 5. Dull and Toothless.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Fright Night (1985)

Starring Chris Sarandon,William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse and Roddy McDowell
Directed by Tom Holland
Rated R: Violence, Brief Nudity

The Story:
Typical teen Charley Brewster suspects that his new neighbor may be a vampire in disguise, but no one believes him. He goes to Peter Vincent, an aging actor who once played a famous vampire killer in a series of movies for help, but he doesn't Charley either until the truth is final revealed and together Charley and Peter fight in monster in a haunted house showdown.

My Thoughts:
The first act has an absolutely terrible set up, Charley ignores the cheesy horror movie on TV as well as his girlfriend who has just admitted to being ready to “put out”, in favor of watching a coffin being moved into the house next door, which is somehow more interesting to him. We follow that up with some clunky TV News exposition at a place that looks like its supposed to be teen hangout from “Happy Days” and get to meet Ed “Evil” Thompson, Charley’s high pitched and highly annoying “friend”. Charley engages in “Rear Window” antics, monitoring his neighbor’s activities for some unknown motivation, alienating those around him with his strange superstitions.

He calls the police, when he has little to no evidence to support his theory and plays the “vampire” card way to early so that absolutely no authority figure will believe, on top of that now the vampire knows you know about him. What an idiot. By this point my sympathy is with the vampire, because he shows just how clever he is, getting an invitation into Charley's house and sneaking around when Charley least expects it. However, when he tries to kill Charley, idiot it not, it crosses the line. Maybe if Charley were more charismatic I might have latched on to him more. The setting also love to remind us that he’s a teenager with the previously mentioned 1950s teen hangout, brief reference to school and studying, and the discarded Playboy pin ups alongside crushed Coke cans (I guess crumpled tissues would have been too racy) Speaking of sex, we’re also reminded that this is a teen movie in the eighties, as twenty minutes in we get a brief shot of bare breasts as an enticement to stay for the rest of the movie, a hallmark of a pre internet age of cinema.

Speaking of the internet, the exposition is handled rather clumsily. In an internet era I can either Google, Wikipedia or TV Tropes my way for a complete list of tell tale vampire signs, weaknesses and counter measures. Well, since Charley can’t do that, he relies on “Evil” to tell him about vampires, which is strange given that we see Charley watching movies about vampires on the Fright Night TV show that we see is on his TV every night. You’d think he’d be parked on his bed with one eye on screen taking notes while keeping one eye on the window.

It is a very “Eighties” movie. The dance club scene really doesn’t belong in any other era and feels crow barred into the end of the second act. Skipping ahead, Amy is kidnapped by Count Vampire because as per the law of Immortal Monsters be it Mummies, Vampires or Ghosts, their lost love is reincarnated into the next generation and looks exactly the same. This bit is never really explained though and the two of them have a Cinemax style love scene without any actual sex but plenty of over the top synthesized music.

The third act really does pick it up for me. The best scene for me is when Peter has his showdown with Evil, who is now a werewolf. Peter falls and fains over a broken railing so that Evil can do the “run and land on the impalement” trope, but the animatronics, makeup and most of all the acting, is what sell this scene as we see Evil recognizing his final death as he shifts from werewolf back to boy, his eye show remorse for his demise and convey thanks to Peter for releasing him as he slowly crumbles away, as Peter is petrified, his eyes welling with tears. Wow. Its a scene that I really wish had been in a better movie. If this footage this been used for the conclusion of "An American Werewolf in London", I would bumped my rating there to five stars easily.

Charley and Peter make their last stand in the biggest dry ice production plant ever, by flashing crosses to ward off evil, but it has to be backed by faith, which Charley has in spades, but for some reason Peter doesn’t even though he got the cross to work on Evil before, and now in the last stand Peter when does believe and for some reason it doesn’t work. Also Amy is now a vampire with a Chelsea smile and rows of impossibly sharp teeth that are absolutely freighting (out of context they might have been comical) and they have to kill the vampire before dawn in order to save her. I never really understood how that works. It’d be like if your friend was choking on an olive, and you try and help by destroying the jar of olives that it came from rather than working to remove the offending olive itself. Either way the kill the head vampire at daybreak so I don’t really know if that counts as "before dawn". Plus that’d be a great sequel hook if Amy started showing sign of vampirism, the two of them slowly realizing it but not knowing what to do about it.

The film pays homage to its processors, namely the Hammer Horror series, but seems to revel in its clichés with a lack of genre savvyness. Its most redeemable elements are the parts rather than the whole. 

A remake is in development (no surprise), set for August 2011 and while Anton Yelcin as a teenager seems par for the course, but David Tennant as Peter Vincent makes this one a blip on my radar, an excellent actor returning as a returning action hero makes it all worth it.

"I'm going to be played by Doctor Who?"

Final Score: 
2 ½ out of 5. Tolerable. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (2010)

Voices of Jim Strugess, Hugo Weaving, Geoffrey Rush
Directed by Zack Snyder
Rated PG

The Story:
Young owl Soren and his brother Kludd, fall out of their tree and are abducted and forced into an into an army for an evil owl empire. Managing to escape Soren and his new friends seek out the ledgendary Guardians of Ga'Hoole for aid.

My Thoughts:
I cannot talk about this movie with stressing the beautiful animation and the astonishing level of detail. Each owl looks unique and each have their own expressive faces. The trouble is that it’s a bit hard to project yourself into an animal in a fully animated world built on fantasy world rules. Its also a little hard to swallow that the Guardians shrouded in myth so that none of the common owls are sure they exist, while conversely the Guardians believe that the evil Metalbeak is a myth too. Despite this, I really do like how they don’t sugarcoat or water down the situation for kids. Theres also a  spotlight on the dark Cain and Abel plot between Soren and Kludd. They make a big deal talking about how war isn’t glamourous hero stuff and shows signs of the consequences of conflict.  Only for our pretentious hero to receive glamourous rewards after an unlikely victory on the heels of a dizzying final fight with the big bad , which was only won because our protagonist "followed his heart". 

Very fast paced, but hard to process in a hurry. Zack Snyder shows great visual skills and incredible special effects, but a rather generic fantasy story that is so speedy is hard to attach itself to, isn’t going to make much of impact in my mind in the long run, no matter how great the effects, though their groundbreaking status will add at least another point the final score.

Final Score:
3 out of 5. Exceptionally Unexceptional.

The Omen (1976)

Starring Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner
Directed by Richard Donner
Rated R: Violence

The Story:

The last time I put on a scary movie, it was “Poltergeist”, a film that had a plot motivated by the love for a child. Here we have a plot that is motivated by fear of a child. Ambassador Robert Thorne uncovers a conspiracy and the haunting realization that his son is the Antichrist.

My Thoughts:

It is a bit difficult to accept our leads at first for not recognizing the unsettling events around them. Though as a jaded viewer I am all too aware of the genre conventions to watch out for, so I may be biassed, because the opening scenes following the growing family, really do put you off your guard. After a series of grizzly deaths, Gregory Peck and Daivd Warner travel the world on a quest for the truth about the boy, Damien. This is quite easily the best part of the movie as the tension heightens with each discovery and the frights in this part are subtle and subconscious. The exhuming of the graveyard ruin caused me to squirm in my seat more than any of the film's many graphic decapitation scenes. This makes the urgent conclusion, seem a bit meek by comparison as it involves more traditional set ups of a stretch of silence before something jumps out of the dark corner. I suppose I should be grateful such an old trope was limited and saved for the end.

By this time Gregory Peck is a weathered veteran, and tackles this part like the pro that he is, encompassing an uncertain hero with ease even after years of playing square jawed moral compass types. 

Director Richarad Donner sets the grim atmosphere perfectly, using a series of unique shots and camera angles to convey alienation and claustrophobia to staggering effect.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score is one that really puts him through his paces. The ominous Latin chanting probably being the most memorable, but can also bend emotions by starting off with a sentimental sound only slowly introduce untuned instruments to render the scene unsettling.

It that respect its a hard film to rate because it succeeds so well at being so displeasing and uncomfortable to the audience and I base my scores on the quality of the film, I also temper that with how much I enjoyed it as a whole.

Final Score: 
4 out of 5. Chilling.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Poltergeist (1982)

Starring Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’ Rourke
Directed by Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg (the latter uncredited)
Rated PG: Frightening Images and Peril

The Story:
The Freeling Family lives uneventfully in a quiet suburban neighborhood, until strange things start to happen. Lights flicker, furniture begins to move by itself and before malevolent spirits abduct their youngest daughter, Carol Anne. Driven to their whit’s end, the Freelings hire a team of paranormal investigators to bring her back.

My Thoughts:
The pacing is perfect. The film baits us with small feats to feed our paranoia before delivering the big thrills then giving us time to breathe in lighter, quieter scenes that contain Spielberg’s lighter “life force humanity” moments guided by Jerry Goldsmith’s kind and twinkling score, before elevating back to excitement. Each fright we are presented with escalates over the previous. Even though the movie has some very well known scares like the monster tree, the killer clown or the cadavers in the swimming pool, they are still quite startling. But despite all the amazing technical elements, the backbone of the story is the shock and grief at the unexplainable disappearance of Carol Anne and the desperate need to see her returned safely. The danger is ever present, as is the reason to stay, a perfect Catch-22.

Every element works like clockwork. The identifiable characters, the frightening situations, the precise music and special effects that still look amazing after twenty years.

Final Score:
5 out of 5. Superb.

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Starring Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch, Donald Pleasence
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Science Fiction
No Rating

The Story:

When a defector from “The Other Side” of the Cold War barely survives an assassination attempt, a special team is sent in a miniaturized submarine and injected into his body to repair the damage against a ticking clock.

My Thoughts:

It became clear very quickly that this film was about the setting and situations and not about characters. We only get brief glimpses at the people assigned to go on this dangerous mission, and not much beyond their role in the operation. Grant, serves as the squared jawed All American strapping hero we is reluctant to accept the call of adventure at first but quickly falls into line. He briefly hits on Cora, the token female whom the generals are against sending on the voyage, despite her implied technical expertise. While she has the deck stacked against her, really her primary purpose in the movie is to look good in a scuba suit, because she does little else. We have a surgeon and a sub pilot whose names have already escaped me because once again, they serve no purpose other than their assigned roles. Finally, theres Dr. Michaels, the claustrophobic navigator, whose character gets the most depth only because Donald Pleasence is the best actor of the lot and can contribute much to such a scantily written part. He also commits sudden yet inevitable betrayal by the end, which isn’t to surprising given his typecasting in villain roles combined with the fact that if you’d been paying attention at all you’d have seen right through him, so the saboteur subplot doesn’t have a lot of depth to it. In fact that’s one of the film’s biggest faults. There isn’t a whole lot of tension for when our characters are in danger, because we just don’t have any characters that we care about to be concerned over whether they live or die.

Because of the urgency of the scenario the crew don’t have time to be trained or familiarized with their equipment and have to have it explained and prepared for them as slowly as possible. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the teams of beautiful super geniuses from the CSI dramas. At least there I can get a healthy serving of competence, science speak and inside the body camera shots. (Hat Trick!)

Once things get going, the crew seems to the encounter one obstacle after another. Each setback reads like the rapid-fire cliffhanger of an exciting Dan Brown novel, but in practice feels like a series of pit stops toward the ultimate goal. Each problem is solved with quick and easy MacGyver engineering with only small and limited consequences, so you’re just waiting for the next hurdle for them to jump over and then move on to the next one. The only time I was really shocked or scared was when Cora is attacked by antibodies and couldn’t breath (as she repeated tells us), but it wore off quickly when I saw their solution was to have four guys lean over her and start groping her chest.

The film is all about the voyage, and it’s an imaginative one at that, just not very well executed. The effects and sets are well designed and constructed, but haven’t aged well. You can see the wires in some scenes, but are fine otherwise so long as they don’t have too many shots of the crew standing in front of the rear projection windows engaging in dull surprise.

Final Score:
3 out of 5.  Interesting, but sadly not fantastic.