Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Double Feature: 'Here Comes the Boom' and 'Hotel Transylvania'

Looking at what I'm reviewing, you might think that today was Kevin James Day. After all, I'm tackling two of his films in this Double Feature review; one stars James himself, while the other features James supporting his Happy Madison running buddy Adam Sandler. The first is Here Comes the Boom, which features James as a high school science teacher who becomes a Mixed Martial Arts combatant. If that sounds familiar to you, don't worry; it just means you were one of the few people who actually watched 2011's highly-underrated Warrior, half of whose plot followed an extremely similar situation. So, okay, it's nowhere near a unique idea. But what most impressed me going in to see this film was how much weight the usually-hefty James dropped in preparation for this role, revealing a level of commitment usually not seen in a comedic actor.

Scott Voss (James) is a high school biology teacher who at one point won a Teacher of the Year award, but ten years later has become frustrated with a school system that cares less about the kids it is supposed to be educating than it does pushing them through like cattle. Despite his now-lazy attitude when it comes to teaching, he cannot sit still when he learns that a budget deficit will force his school to eliminate the Music program and fire his fellow teacher and friend Marty Streb (Henry Winkler). Determined to help the school make up the necessary $48,000 to keep their programs, Scott trains to become an MMA fighter. In his early 40's and not in the best shape, he doesn't have the best shot in the world of making it work; still, he doesn't have any real alternatives, and the grueling process might just force him to see the world in a different way than he ever expected.

Seriously, the best he's ever looked.
Yes, the whole story is a big cliche, but that can be okay when the cast and crew are at least genuine in their portrayal of the story. Director Frank Coraci (Who helmed Sandler flicks The Wedding Planner and The Waterboy) keeps the story going forward while using appropriate filler whenever necessary. I'm actually surprised he hasn't had many directing jobs up to now; in a career that has lasted over fifteen years, this is only his seventh motion picture. It's not that he is necessarily that great, but he certainly seems to be able to handle the pacing of a comedy project. The presence of Kevin James is also an asset, as the actor has always managed a refreshingly honest take on his everyman characters. He worked for almost a year to get into the shape required for this role, possibly the most impressive physical transformation I've seen from any comedian..

That's gotta hurt.
But that's where the good comes to a halt. It's bad enough that as a comedy, the movie simply isn't that funny. There are laughs here and there, mostly involving James' physical training. But most of the film is surprisingly laugh-free, especially the unnecessarily-dramatic (though surprisingly somewhat effective) final fight. But most of the side stories don't really go anywhere, short scenes feel out of continuity, and side character don't do a whole lot of growing beyond their preset limits. The participation of Salma Hayek, former MMA fighter Bas Rutten, pop singer Charice and Gary Valentine all feel forced, but it is the over-saturation of Henry Winkler that is the film's biggest flaw. I love the former Happy Days and Arrested Development actor normally, but his character feels increasingly unnecessary the further the film runs, and is completely annoying by the end of the 105 minute run time.

The Fonz got OLD.
Sooner or later, you're going to get bored by Here Comes the Boom, despite arguably being one of Kevin James' better movies as a leading man. In the past, James has fared better as a supporting actor or as part of an ensemble group. Boom shows him able to take the lead spot by himself, so that's at least a minor victory. Unfortunately, it's not the heavy-laughs film the first half aspires to nor the inspirational journey the second half wants to be. You'd be better off picking any comedy film from your home DVD shelf, as only true James fans need apply.

Surprisingly better is the animated Hotel Transylvania, the film from Sony Pictures Animation featuring the voice of Adam Sandler. In the world of 3D animation, it used to be that the genre was under a constant land war between Pixar and Dreamworks. Now other studios are finally catching up. Besides Disney (who seems to have finally adapted to the new milennium), studios such as Blue Sky (Rio), Aardman Animations (Arthur Christmas, Pirates!), Illumination Entertainment (Despicable Me), LAIKA (Coraline, ParaNorman) and Industrial Light and Magic (Rango) have all made forays into the 3D market, with much success. Sony's animated hit is the latest entry to that rapidly-growing competition, and I was honestly surprised how much heart Sandler and company brought to the big screen.

To help protect his daughter and the other "creatures of the night", Dracula (Sandler) has designed and constructed a hotel in the Transylvania wilds to be used as a safe haven for monsters around the world. When his "teenage" daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) turns 118, she wants to explore the outside world, but Dracula, worrying for her safety, wants her to stay with him at the hotel. When a human named Johnny (Andy Samberg) accidentally arrives at the hotel, Dracula doesn't know what to do. He has worked hard to keep humans away from the hotel and his guests, but Johnny threatens to undo all his efforts in one fell swoop. But could that be for the better?

It wouldn't be an Adam Sandler movie if he didn't sing.
Naturally, this film has all the issues of a typical Adam Sandler film. Most of the animated films I mentioned before can be enjoyed both by children and their parents because the scripts include jokes and gags that appeal to a variety of ages. Hotel Transylvania shifts to the lower age scale, and while that's definitely Sandler's strength (he tends to struggle with R-rated fare Jack and Jill and That's My Boy), it means that parents taking their children will quickly tire of toilet humor that drives the kids wild. The acting is also mixed bag; while Sandler, Samberg and Steve Buscemi stand out nicely, most of the secondary characters don't get their due, and the ones that get pushed forward (like Kevin James as Frankenstein, and Gomez) aren't nearly as interesting as they ought to be. More input from the likes of Fran Drescher, Molly Shannon, Jon Lovitz and Cee Lo Green would have been appreciated, as more growth in this area would have been to the film's benefit.

Vampires; the only "normal" monsters out there...
But director Genndy Tartakovsky manages to surprise the audience with a shocking amount of heart and depth in the backstory he provides. The plot - that of a father struggling to accept his the fact that his daughter is growing up - is a fairly universal theme, and told in a touching manner that might illicit more than a few tears. In his first feature film, Tartakovsky also shows an excellent eye for character design, in which he manages to capture the best elements of his subjects and translate them to the big screen with ease. While the story does at times stretch believability even more than you would normally see in a monster movie, his direction means that you will stick around for the grand finale, even if it is a bad music video.

"I KNEW I should have turned left at Bulgaria!
Halloween themes have been dominating the animation scene in 2012, with ParaNorman and Frankenweenie tackling similar monster showcases this year. Hotel Transylvania is not up to the level of those modern classics, but it's still a solid, surprising effort from a rookie director and a talented cast and crew. It's more for the kids set, so adults without should partake in the former options instead. Still, for a film you can take your kids to without worrying about scaring them too much, this is a title well worth their time.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Open Letters Monthly: Cloud Atlas

It's the film that launched a thousand differing opinions. If there's one thing people can agree on when it comes to Cloud Atlas, it's that it is something different to everyone who watches it. Based on the similarly-polarizing novel by David Mitchell, the movie uses actors in multiple roles thanks to unhealthy amounts of makeup and prosthetics, telling an expansive story throughout time.

In six different eras of human history (and future), mankind is striving to redefine itself. Cloud Atlas takes us from a sailing vessel in the 1850's to a post apocalyptic future where there are staggeringly few of us left. In each time, we are introduced to amazing people - from a young composer to an investigative reporter to a cloned slave - destined to amazing events, connected in unique ways through the timeline. Do they have the strength to overcome their obstacles? Will they be able to influence the coming era?

Cloud Atlas is directed by Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski, and stars and ensemble cast of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Bae Doona, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, James D'Arcy, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, Zhou Xun and David Gyasi.

Click here to read the complete review at Open Letters Monthly.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Double Feature: Tai Chi 0 and The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Another double feature review, and I have to say that the selections here could not be more different from one another, what with Tai Chi 0 and The Perks of Being a Wallflower possessing as completely different target audiences as humanly possible.

Okay, I admit it; they had me at "steampunk kung fu throwdown." Kung fu and martial arts I'm sure everybody gets (if not, your assignment is to see The Raid: Redemption right now). For those unfamiliar with steampunk, it's a sub-genre of science fiction that focuses on steam-powered technology. Often the tech is mixed with the worlds of the Victorian era and early Western civilizations, but in the case of Tai Chi 0 the setting is China during the early era of Western influence. It's a perfect setting, blending more advanced steampunk designs with the relatively simple ones actually being built, like the locomotive. With more than a few martial arts movies coming out lately, one that allowed for a fundamentally different environment I thought deserved a look. Directed by Hong Kong veteran Stephen Fung, this had the chance to be a solid ton of offbeat fun.

That's gonna hurt tomorrow.
Unfortunately, all that potential goes to waste with a story that never feels as focused as it should be. In his acting debut, martial arts champion Yuan Xiaochao plays "The Freak", an already-talented warrior born with a genetic deformity on his head that somehow turns him into an unstoppable fighting machine when struck. With such power comes cost, however, as the combat drains his life at the same time. Not wanting to die, he journeys to legendary Chen Village to learn their secret, powerful form of Tai Chi to heal himself. Unfortunately, it's a style forbidden to outsiders, and The Freak seems out of luck. But when Imperialist China arrives on their doorstep wanting to introduces their new steam engine, he and a few rebellious souls might be all that stands between the village's sacred traditions and the influence of Western society.

My, what big shovels you have.
I really wanted to like Tai Chi 0, but I kept feeling as though the movie was trying to be too clever for its own good. Whenever a new major character would be introduced, graphics would pop up on the screen to point out what an IMPORTANT performer it was, and a little blurb about why (though this would have little effect on American audiences). Fight scenes would often get cartoony in their meticulous displays of the martial arts stances and motions. These bits often feel as if they would be more at home in a video game than in a major film, although they at least fit in somewhat with the steampunk elements. The story is also a haphazard blend of The Freak's journey to redemption with a love triangle between the characters of Hong Kong performers Eddie Feng, Angelababy and Mandy Lieu. Unfortunately, none of the characters are as interesting as those if some of the older vets, especially icon Tony Leung Ka-Fai as the village elder. Some interesting side bits and a few impressive fight scenes pick up some of the slack, but it's not nearly enough for a title that relies far too much on its premise to get by.

Scarier than anything in The House at the End of the Street.
Still, Tai Chi 0 had a ton of promise, and I can certainly see this title reimagined as a television show or Saturday morning cartoon, more formally matching its anime-inspired content. Director Fung will get another chance to prove himself when built-in sequel Tai Chi Hero is released next year (it was previewed in the closing credits), and as the end of Tai Chi 0 was something of a convoluted mess, the next chapter will definitely have to improve in the storytelling if it wants to be taken seriously by the international community. There are a few things to really like about this film, just not a whole lot.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, on the other hand, easily carries a story worthy of praise. The novel has been a cultural mainstay for high-schoolers for about as long as I can remember, which of course is why I've never picked it up. That's the thing with me; I tend to rebel against extremely popular trends, so if everyone has read it, there's a very good chance that I ignored it. It's partly why I've read only the first four Harry Potter books and have successfully avoided the Twilight series (although am I crazy or does Breaking Dawn Part 2 look pretty bad-ass?). It's also why I ignored Pixar films for so long. But after seeing this film, I might have to revise my avoidance of the book by Stephen Chbosky (who also directed the adaptation), as his final product was nowhere near what I was expecting.

When the perpetually-nervous Charlie (Logan Lerman) enters high school, he's most concerned with having a normal experience, and meeting friends he can get along with. He soon meets seniors Sam (Emma Watson) and her gay half-brother Patrick (Ezra Miller), who take him under their wing and introduce them to a world of great music, parties and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. For the first time in a long time, he has friends with whom he can connect after the tragedies in his life. But the one thing he really wants - a relationship with Sam - seems out of reach, and with his friends graduating at the year's end, his earlier traumas threaten to re-emerge and take over his psyche for the worse.

For Lerman, playing a nervous high school student  is hardly a stretch.
Perks was a good time for a number of reasons, though I think it was partially thanks to the fact that I hadn't read the novel beforehand. While I was certainly expecting some of the emotional drama that is consistent with high school dramas, I was utterly unprepared for the levels that the film actually put forth. I've never seen a fictional film that simultaneously deals with the subjects of homophobia, bullying, suicide, bad relationships, abusive relationships, child abuse, child neglect... the list goes on. I think I now understand why this book has become such a hit with the current generation of young men and women; it's essentially the modern Catcher in the Rye, existing as a microcosm of the high school experience and, to a lesser degree, life itself. The movie does an amazing job of capturing that feeling of legitimacy without resorting to coming off like an after-school special, and every character serves a purpose in contributing to it.

He's much happier here than he was in We Need to Talk About Kevin...
A great cast was also a major reason the film is so enjoyable, as Perks not only gathers some of the year's best characters under one roof but filled them with some of the better faces dotting the Hollywood landscape. Emma Watson especially stands out, the former Harry Potter starlet showing that she can soar without a broomstick, easily dominating all of her scenes. She could have played a cliche, damaged young woman, but Watson's fire succeeds in bringing out the unique qualities that make Sam such a desirable companion. Lerman and Miller admirably make their presences felt as well, though to compare them to Watson would be a trifle unfair, and while neither of them has as much natural charm as Watson, they have more than a few chances to stretch outside their comfort zones. An excellent support cast includes Nina Dobrev, Mae Whitman, Kate Walsh, Dylan McDermott, Johnny Simmons and a very short, extra-powerful performance by Melanie Lynskey. It says a lot that a woman with barely a half-dozen appearances leaves one of the film's most powerful impressions, but Lynskey did that last year with Win Win as well. Hey, the movie even has Paul Rudd as a caring English teacher named - wait for it - Mr. Anderson. I'm honestly touched. I didn't think Chbosky really cared.

Seriously, what school has white graduation gowns?
There were a few things I definitely noticed were pushed out of the film due to time constraints, but in the end they didn't matter all that much. I thought I knew what I was getting into with The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and I honestly though it wasn't going to be that big a deal. Chbosky and his team surprised me by putting together a startlingly honest and heartfelt look at life, far outside the realm of anything I had been expecting. I won't make that mistake again, and while Perks doesn't quite make it into my Top 10, it was still a VERY good time spent at the theater. It's not a feel-good comedy like Pitch Perfect, but if you're willing to see a darker-than-average high school drama, or if you're just a fan of the book, then this is absolutely the movie you should see.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Double Feature: 'Paranormal Activity 4' & 'Sleepwalk with Me'

As some of my readers may know, I'm on vacation all this week. The reason I mention this is not because I'll be cutting back on the writing, but because my goal this week is to see at least nine movies in the theaters that until now I haven't seen. That's right, NINE. More than eight, less than ten. It's an ambitious undertaking, and one I think I can achieve without too much effort. But that also means that in order to get out timely reviews, I'm going to have to churn out these "Double Features" mini reviews until next week at least. They're not my favorite; I always feel like I'm screwing over a good movie by not giving it a full-length write-up, but there you have it. Movies gotta get seen. Reviews gotta get posted. So say we all.


First up is Paranormal Activity 4, the latest in the long-running horror franchise. While The Blair Witch Project introduced most modern audiences to the "Found Footage" genre, it was the Paranormal Activity series that popularized it to an insane degree, inspiring dozens of filmmakers to design their movies to be shot on hand-held camcorders and conveniently-placed security cams. The genre is cheap to produce and creates all but automatic moneymakers, but with all the lame copycats that have been released, only a few are really worth seeing. Until recently, the PA series was firmly in that group, especially after a very good prequel Paranormal Activity 3, by Catfish directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. With both returning to direct the sequel, Paranormal Activity 4 had to do little more than promises of the same to meet my expectations.

Paranormal Activity's first blond?
Unfortunately, this latest offering lacks much of the punch and originality that made number three such a good time. While there were parts of the story - which focused on teenager Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her family reacting to strange happenings around their house - that were honestly nerve-wracking and scary (stuff moving around your house without reason is STILL freaky), the directors just didn't have the strong story that they possessed the first time around. Characters never really react logically, and the connections to the previous films are tenuous at best. Worst is the lack of innovation; using Skype and laptop cameras to capture visuals around the house might have seemed inspired at the time, but it ends up looking like just another camera, unlike the infamous "fan-cam" from PA3. And on top of that, I think it's funny that series villain Katie (Katie Featherton) keeps ending up caught on candid camera throughout the entirety of her life. At this point you could stop including her in every PA flick and I doubt people would notice  the difference.

She's 15, so there's only so far I'll go with the sexual innuendo.
Newton is solid, and she's got a decent supporting cast behind her including Matt Shively as Alex's boyfriend, real life married couple Alexondra Lee and Stephen Dunham as her parents and Brady Allen and Aiden Lovekamp as requisite creepy kids. But they can't overcome an overlong, not-all-that-scary horror flick that ramps up at the end (it's actually got a better ending than its predecessor) but really makes you wait through what feels like hours of slog for it. While a sequel is all but guaranteed at this point, you have to wonder whether this is a signal that the end is coming, or if Paranormal Activity 4 is just a weak offering from a still-viable franchise. Either way I won't tell you not to see this latest installment, as it does answer some questions left over from the previous trilogy. But you might want to go back and see the originals first, or maybe even wait for the DVD release. Either way, definitely skip any of the IMAX showings out there, as there is just no need to see this movie with that level of screen and audio definition. Your standard cineplex will work just fine.

The other half of this review belongs to Sleepwalk with Me. Never heard of it? Neither had I, but this gem was brought to my attention by Todd, who had heard of it off of one of her hometown radio stations. Formerly a one-man show by Massachusetts comedian Mike Birbiglia, Sleepwalk with Me is the truth-based story of Mike's struggles with becoming a successful stand-up comic, his relationship with his girlfriend, and a debilitating sleep condition that causes him to act out his dreams, often to his own detriment. Mike gradually manages to improve his conditions on all three fronts, and the film chronicles his journey towards success and happiness with hilarious results.

Probably the most shocking aspect of Birbiglia's tale is that the most outrageous details of the story are based on truth; Birbiglia really does suffer from rapid eye movement behavior disorder, which once caused him - in his sleep - to jump out of the second story of a motel while on a comedy tour (a leap which is chronicled in the film). Birbiglia's brutal honesty about his condition, as well as his self-depreciating approach to himself as a subject, is a main factor that the whole thing works so well. His inability to put himself on a pedestal connects him to the audience with ease, and it is this connection that allows him to be frank about the troubles he was getting into as a younger man.

Is this the face of a sleepwalker?
If there's one thing Sleepwalk with Me has in spades, it's heart. Thanks to the easy connection to its protagonist, you can sympathize with Mike in times good or bad ("Now, when I get to this next bit, remember; you're on my side."). Birbiglia is not a great or an evil man; he's human, prone to both mistakes and insights, and that's what makes him so compelling as a film lead. His willingness to expose his weaknesses to scrutiny is a trait that all people should be able to share. That said, he has some solid friends, most notably Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose as his long-suffering girlfriend Abby. There are also a number of well-known stand-up comedians who make their presence felt, even if they're relegated to small roles. Birbiglia - who also directed - really keeps this story about stand-up comedy within the family, so to speak, and makes it feel as though we are outsiders getting a peek inside this difficult, why-would-anyone-want-this lifestyle.

Something bad is about to happen...
Needless to say, if you can you should catch a showing of Sleepwalk with Me if at all possible. Never has there been a better movie about stand-up comedy, and there are enough elements throughout to ensure it is no one-trick pony. The film has begun to wind down its theatrical run, as at this point it's only showing in a few dozen theaters around the country (it's high had been 135). That means if you're REALLY lucky, it MIGHT be playing within 100 miles of you. If it's anywhere close, you should absolutely do yourself and Birbiglia a favor and see this on the big screen. If not, then the eventual DVD release will have to suffice. Both Todd and I are thrilled we went, and I just want to make sure this excellent little film gets its due.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Open Letters Monthly: Alex Cross

Let's go down the checklist, shall we? Film adapted from a popular book series? Check. Popular second-tier actor in the lead role? Check. Excessively-talented man parading as the villain? Check. Murder, revenge, violence; check, check, and check. Story and budget? Hmmm, maybe Alex Cross will be okay without.

Dr. Alex Cross and his team of Detroit Police Department detectives are among the best the city has to protect its innocents from the madness of the world. When they are tasked with solving a violent multiple murder in an upscale neighborhood, Cross quickly uncovers a conspiracy to kill the high-ranking members of an international corporation with offices in Detroit. But when he interrupts an attack in progress, the assassin turns his attentions to Cross and his team. To protect his family and his friends, our hero will have to straddle the line between the law he is bound to uphold and doing whatever he must to catch a cold-hearted killer.

Alex Cross is directed by Rob Cohen and stars Tyler Perry, Matthew Fox, Edward Burns, Rachel Nichols, Cicely Tyson, Carmen Ejogo, Giancarlo Esposito, John C. McGinley and Jean Reno.

Click here to read the fill review at Open Letters Monthly.

Friday, October 19, 2012

True Crime Spree

There are few certainties in life but I know at least one thing; if there's a new horror movie coming out, Todd will invariably want to go see it. There are exceptions, of course (she has no interest in the new Paranormal Activity flick), but for the most part if something involving ghosts, demons or poltergeists is on the way, Todd's all in. It's also the main reason Sinister popped up on both of our radars, as a film from the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the producer of Insidious was bound to attract our attention. While the horror genre has seen some love thanks to the animated ParaNorman, nothing else in 2012 has stood out thanks to a sea of mediocre or worse releases thus far. While I AM looking forward to seeing Paranormal Activity 4 this weekend and Silent Hill: Revelation the next, Sinister likely represented the best option for a new, original scary movie this year. I'm quickly learning that I LIKE to be scared, and I'm constantly hoping that this next release is going all out to succeed.

CSI: Middle of Freaking Nowhere.
Author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is desperate. In the ten years since his breakthrough success true crime book Kentucky Blood hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, he has struggled both creatively and financially, with one of his books actually allowing a known criminal to walk out of prison. In an effort to redeem himself and his work, he and his family move into the home of his latest subjects, a family who were found hanged from a tree in the backyard, the youngest daughter gone missing. With the police unable to solve the mystery as to who murdered the family, Ellison hopes to find something to crack open the case and perhaps even locate the missing family member. But a box of 8mm tapes found in the attic forces him to admit that things are not as that at first appear, and that the mysterious force that has been killing families for decades may have found its next victims.

Nothing good comes out of 8mm tape.
This is very much a one-man show. When Ellison is wandering his new home at night, hearing this or that creepy noise, Sinister is at its spine-tingling best. Director Scott Derrickson knows how to use his environments to create mood, and he constantly raises the tension to nearly breaking points throughout the movie, which largely takes place at night within the Oswalt home. While Hawke himself stumbles a few times, he also does more than his fair share in conveying the terror his character goes through and carries the movie's limited story forward. He has a believable relationship with his wife and children, fraught with good and bad moments, and the scenes in which he reflects upon his earlier success (back when he didn't care about success) are charmingly believable and more in-depth than most horror films get with their subjects. It's easy to see how Ellison can get sucked into the horrific nature of his subjects when they are the only things that don't make him feel like a failure.

Checking out his "Best Of"'s not long.
Unfortunately, Ellison's portrayal is about the only thing that feels polished in Sinister. While the film has scares-a-plenty - and even when you know they're coming, they're still effective - just about all of them are in the trailer. The few that aren't might frighten you for a minute, but at one time I turned to my companion and muttered "They're STILL doing this?" One major exception relates to the 8mm tapes, each of which depicts a grisly scene (and one in particular that will freak you out), and are definitely Sinister's highlights. It's been a while since Derrickson made The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and perhaps his definition of scary is different than mine. But while I found the whole thing creepy, I almost never got to the payoff of being actually terrified by a movie that was painfully predictable in its execution.

"Why 8mm?"
Sinister's biggest problem is its complete lack of lore. We eventually learn that the force behind this mess is a pagan demon named Bagul. But while the child-consuming, trapped-in-pictures (and completely fictional) monster has the basis of a good movie in it, Derrickson chooses to completely ignore anything in that vein to focus on Ellison's story. I get the decision, but I believed the movie could have been big enough for both of them, and that by not going deeper in characterizing Bagul (or the just silly Mr. Boogie, as he's occasionally called), or even basic information about his past victims, the director left a lot of opened doors that don't connect to anything. I don't need ALL my questions answered, but how is it that Bagul is trapped in photos, but can manifest a box in his victim's homes? How did his spree get started (the tapes stretch back to the sixties but there's no indication of how it all began)? How does he control or coerce his victims? Why does he abduct the children? What does he get out of the family slayings? Why would anyone ELSE keep watching the tapes? Why wouldn't any of THEM go to the authorities with what they found? There are simply too many open questions, and you get the feeling that some things (like the demon's reliance on an out-of-date film type) were used not because they actually made sense, but because they made the movie as a whole creepier. That's lazy filmmakeing, the type of thing that made The Apparition one of the year's worst.

By far the creepiest kids of the year.
Still, with the emphasis on Hawke and his reaction to the story's elements, Sinister at least manages to slip its way into the realm of "not bad" horror films. It's far too similar to modern (and classic) haunted house fare, and the twists are projected too far ahead and too easy to discern quickly. This was one that demanded a more intricate telling, though at least Hawke gets some acting support from Vincent D'Onofrio, theatrical actress Juliet Rylance, Law & Order's Fred Thompson and The Wire's James Ranzone, not to mention creepily talented child actors Claire Foley and Michael Hall D'Addario. Still, the scares are far too infrequent to be an effective horror movie and the story is far too light to make for a deep character study. Sinister lingers far too long in mediocrity to stand out, and I'm left hoping that the next of its ilk will be more conscious of its narrative, rather than focusing solely on mood just to keep things going.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


One movie I sometimes hear mentioned is 2008's In Bruges, the black comedy from director and screenwriter Martin McDonagh. The film, which has quickly become a cult classic, combined an interesting premise with a violent story, earning star Colin Farrell a Golden Globe for his performance and In Bruges itself a Golden Globe nomination for best screenplay. It was McDonagh's first feature film, and set him up as a director to watch in the future.

The future is here now, and his sophomore effort Seven Psychopaths seems to have it all; a high-caliber cast, an overdose of inappropriate humor and more than enough violence to keep you on your toes. I mean, come on; how can you not get excited about a film called "Seven Psychopaths"? In a weekend of four major interesting releases (the others being Argo, Sinister and Here Comes the Boom), McDonagh's was the most original and intelligent option. That's what Todd and I agreed, and what several of our friends and cohorts affirmed was the title to see.

They won't take any Shih Tzu
Marty (Farrell) is a struggling screenwriter depressed over his current state of writer's block. He's got a title in mind - Seven Psychopaths - but is having a hard time coming up with ides for the seven. He is assisted by his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), an out of work actor and part-time dog-napper who alongside the non-violent Hans (Christopher Walken) steal dogs from their owners and then return them for the reward money. The business is going well until Billy steals the Shih Tzu (the breed was picked I'm sure so the characters could purposely err in pronunciation) of violent crime lord Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson). Marty gets caught up in the mess, and soon the three men are on the lam, with Marty hoping he can finish writing his movie before he becomes the victim of one of his Psychopaths.

This dog needs more cowbell!
There's one guarantee I will make about this movie; you will NEVER be able to predict what will happen next. From the intense violence of the very first scene, Seven Psychopaths follows its own individual path. Unlike every title out there. it doesn't follow the same trodden paths to the same boring conclusions, and refuses to confine itself to any particular genre. At some moments it's light-hearted comedy, at others Quentin Tarantino's wet dream. The characters, especially the eponymous Psychopaths (who are gradually introduced throughout), are so incredibly unpredictable that you will never see the next action coming, and the resulting surprise makes Seven Psychopaths unlike anything you have seen to this point.

"Fire Danger" is right!
The Psychopaths themselves are a varied bunch, whether they originate from real life or Marty's imagination. They range from simply bizarre (the Quaker Psychopath, for instance) to the intensely violent Charlie Costello. Each has their own quirks and back-story, and even if they appear only for a few minutes they make lasting impressions on the film. My personal favorite was the masked Jack O'Diamonds, whose gimmick was killing mid-to-high-ranking members of organized crime syndicates and leaves playing cards on their bodies. You never knew when he was going to show up, and you found yourself relishing every moment he did. But none of the psychos is unforgettable, and you'll find yourself following the bread trail as each is reluctantly brought to light and developed.

Move over, Uggie.
Surprisingly central to the story was the the interplay between Marty, Billy and Hans as they work on Marty's script. It's quite the mix of methodologies as each wishes to make their mark on the budding screenplay. Marty doesn't want to go down the cliched, violent road that you would expect from a film called Seven Psychopaths, while Billy practically demands the big shoot-out to take place at the end. Hans meanwhile, being a Buddhist by nature, wants a more peaceful conclusion to things. What's funny is that they're fighting about the ending of the movie they end up being in, and I thought it made for an interesting mix of Tarantino and Spike Jonze's 2002 gem Adaptation. The final act is especially well-woven, and makes for a fine and appropriate conclusion to a wickedly funny and insane narrative.

Abbie Cornish's five minutes are about up...
The film also takes advantage of an excellent, underrated cast that delivers both laughs and heart in a script that doesn't broker any weak performances. Farrell doesn't always get the best scripts, but he always puts everything he has on the table. Though playing an alcoholic Irishman wouldn't seem like much of a stretch, it's hilarious to see him get berated (even by the Psychopaths) for his excessive drinking. He always puts everything on the table in his performances, even when he isn't given the best scripts, and so on this screen his performance is genius. Rockwell, another supremely-talented actor, balances that dynamic by playing up Billy's zany antics and manic tendencies. What's great about Billy is his ability to do the absolute wrong things for the right reasons, and I can't imagine anyone besides Rockwell pulling it off.  It would have been interesting to see what Mickey Rourke could have done with the role, but I'm glad Harrelson eventually got to play of Charlie Costello. Continually proving that he has broadened as an actor since his Cheers days, Woody Harrelson has the right look and is as perfectly cast as one can get. So surprisingly is musician Tom Waits as a bunny-carrying Psychopath in a minor role. The ladies are sadly underutilized; with high-profile castings of Quantum of Solace's Olga Kurylenko and Sucker Punch's Abbie Cornish, and their appearances in the trailers, I was expecting more. Marty and crew do somewhat make up for it by joking about it later, but the only thing not making it a deal breaker is that this movie is really about the guys anyway.

"Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio."
And the guy of the hour is most definitely Christopher Walken. Despite how much I loved the rest of this flick, there's no way I'd have enjoyed it half as much if not for his mere presence. There have been plenty of impersonators over the years, but the best continues to be Walken himself, who gladly uses his offbeat speech rhythm and deadpan facade to great effect. Whatever he's talking about automatically becomes comic gold, and when the subjects turn to the completely insane topics the film addresses, he reaches a whole other level. You could easily see this movie for him alone and walk away satisfied. Like John Malkovich, he is one of Hollywood's most unique actors, and it almost always worth watching.

"But where has all the RUM gone??"
But Seven Psychopaths is no mere one-man show. It's one of the best times you'll spend at the theater this year, and appropriately steps in at #7 for 2012. It will probably be little remembered by audiences who don't want a new experience when they visit the theater, but for anyone wanting something NEW and FRESH with their cinema experience, this one becomes a must-see. Get to it before Paranormal Activity 4 knocks it from theaters for good.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Open Letters Monthly: Argo

Ben Affleck has become a renowned Hollywood director thanks to contributions from his hometown, specifically the Boston-based crime dramas Gone Baby Gone and The Town. But while Boston has done a lot for Affleck, he needed to take a step away from the overly familiar backdrop and tackle something completely out of his comfort zone.

Enter Argo, a very real Hollywood film about a very fake Hollywood sci-fi flick that entered production as a CIA cover story. At the height of the Iran hostage crisis, six American diplomats manage to escape the hostile takeover of the American embassy and find shelter at the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. While they are temporarily safe, there seems to be no way to smuggle them out out of the country to safety, and the Iranian students are quickly becoming aware that they have not captured every diplomat in the country. It's up to one CIA specialist to convince an entire country that the six people are a Canadian film crew, and get them on a plane out of there.

Argo is directed by Ben Affleck and stars Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Victor Garber, Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan and Scoot McNairy.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Please Don't Stop the Music

How many times in the past year have we been subjected to attempts to recapture the magic that was Bridesmaids? The fem-semble take of a Judd Apatow production was not just a great film, but also an extremely popular one, grossing (and that is the right word) $288 million and earning itself a ton of Oscar buzz in the process. Since then, we've seen some decent stories that have tried to match that movie's blend of feminine camaraderie and raunchy humor, but neither Bachelorette nor Friends with Kids had much mainstream appeal, and Bridesmaids now threatens to be an exception of fem-first comedies rather than a rule.

On the surface, it doesn't appear that Pitch Perfect would be the type of movie to talk about as a spiritual successor to last summer's blockbuster, considering how much their promotional material is a blatant copy. But I think this one has the chance to surprise you. For example, preconceived notions of the film's goody-two-shoes nature last about five minutes, after which you will see exactly how I drew this comparison. Pitch Perfect takes a seemingly innocent topic - the rise of a capella (non-instrumental vocal music) as competition and community in college - and absolutely goes crazy with it, resulting in a movie you likely will never see coming.

Surrounded by women is not a bad way to go through college.
Socially-withdrawn Beca (Anna Kendrick) doesn't want to go to college. The aspiring music producer and talented sound mixer knows exactly what she wants to do with her life: move to Los Angeles and begin paying her dues as a producer. Her father insists she get a college education however, and gets her admitted to the school at which he teaches, hoping that she will find something in her peers that inspires her. Beca at first rejects the idea that campus life holds anything of value for her, as boys and classes have nowhere near the draw for her that music does. Things change when she is heard singing and begged to join a capella group "The Bellas", who are desperate to win the regional championships after an embarrassing end to the previous season. Beca's contemporary beats and the traditional style of senior member Aubrey (Anna Camp) fail to mesh, and the other young ladies chafe under Aubrey's strict leadership, but the Bellas still manage to put together a competitive group that is on the road to reach the finals. But will the tension break the group - and everyone's musical aspirations - before the final curtain is drawn?

Oh, no it's Mormons... look the other way, look the other way...
I don' t know about you, but my experience with a capella growing up was restricted to PBS's Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, whose theme song was performed by quartet Rockapella and for the longest time was my only connection to the music style. What Pitch Perfect re-introduced to me was not just a capella itself, but how good an ELITE team could be in performance. And this movie does well by it's soundtrack, from the all-vocal rendition of Universal Pictures' opening credits to wonderful performances of classic tunes to excellent mash-ups including one of Bruno Mars' 'Just the Way You Are' and Nelly's 'Just a Dream'. These represent some of the best the film has to offer, as the emotional and professionally-done performances draw you in and force you to discover the glee (no pun intended) you get from watching.

As if with a name like 'Treblemakers' they could be any less than rivals.
I remember being told that in order to make it as an actor, you have to be a lot more than just an actor. Often the best actors have a multitude of secondary talents, whether they be singing, dancing or juggling. Often these talents can lend themselves to aspects of their performances, and multifaceted performers can simply do more. For instance, I never knew that Anna Kendrick was the third-youngest Tony award nominee at age 12 for her work in Broadway musical High Society. The Up in the Air and 50/50 actress was already among the best up-and-coming performers of the past few years, and her multi-tiered role here is a a strangely perfect compliment to her career so far. But beyond Kendrick is a surprisingly deep pool of talent. Promotions may have focused almost exclusively on "Fat Amy", played by Bridesmaids' Rebel Wilson, and the Australian actress certainly does her part in sowing chaos as the brutally honest, free-thinking international vocalist. But while Wilson is perfect, the film's heart is not unjustly heaped on her shoulders. There is also Brittany Snow as Chloe, the Bellas' other senior member who tries to mitigate Aubrey's iron fist. Skylar Astin, Alexis Knapp, Ben Platt, musician Ester Dean and Hana Mae Lee provide tons of entertainment, with Lee perhaps the sleeper of the bunch. Adam DeVine provides an effective - albeit unnecessary - face to the Bellas' problems as a rival group leader. And duo John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks (who was also a co-producer) provide hilarious commentary during the competition scenes; Higgins is a hilariously misogynistic Regis Philbin while Banks is... well... Kathy Lee. In a comedic sense, it works perfectly; both are immensely well-used, but thankfully don't play any larger a role in the film than they need to.

The biggest thing to come out of Twilight?
Great music, good acting, great heart... it might seem like a cliche, but Pitch Perfect actually does turn out to be the feel-good film of the year. It's not without minor glitches; rookie director Jason Moore and screenwriter Kay Cannon try a little too hard to work the words "pitch" and "a capella" into jokes and puns that are far less entertaining than the bulk of the film's humor. Still, Moore's amateur style actually works better for this type of film than a more polished effort, and makes Pitch Perfect feel scrappy and earnest. Cannon also shows some potential, and might inspire me to start watching her TV series New Girl as a result. If you even remotely like musicals, college comedies, and a humor range that spans the gap between gross-out and brilliant, then this is most definitely your jam. If you're even remotely on the fence, do yourself a favor and give this one a try. I promise it won't be quite what you expect.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sweet Revenge

It's really not rare for a studio to create a sequel to a popular movie. It's also not rare for said sequel to change little in what made the dynamic of the first movie work so well. It IS however rare for that sequel to then match the actual quality of the original, without feeling like more of the same. Expendables 2, anyone? The Hangover: Part 2? Ghostbusters 2, Home Alone 2, Rocky II, the list goes on. And on, and on, and on. With few exceptions, these sequels changed only cosmetic details of the plot, resulting in the exact same tale all over again. And almost all of them were of lesser quality than their predecessors, to boot. So when you see the trailers for Taken 2, with all the violence and action of Pierre Morel's Taken but with none of lead actor Liam Neeson's patented "certain set of skills" speech, you have to wonder if this sequel was just going to be a poorly-made copy. On the other hand, with Taken hardly holding a complicated premise, perhaps more of the same wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.

Just turned 60: can still kick ass.
Taken 2 plays straight out of a classic revenge tale; former CIA agent Bryan Mills (Neeson) has reunited with his family after the events of Taken, and continued with his bodyguard work. With ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) split from her new husband and daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) still recovering from the shock of her kidnapping in Paris, Bryan invites them to Istanbul, where he has just completed a security contract, to help take their minds off of their troubles. But while they think the evils of the world are long gone, they don't realize that Bryan is a hunted man. The families of the men he killed in France have sworn revenge, and now an Albanian hit squad has infiltrated Istanbul. Their mission? To kidnap Bryan and his family, and to make him suffer for their losses. Our hero will have to fall back on all his "special skills" to neutralize the threat and keep his family out of danger and get them back home safely.

Talking on the phone while committing mass murder may soon be against the law.
Yes, it's clearly the same plot as the first movie; hell, for a few minor details, it's EXACTLY the same thing. Director Olivier Megaton picks up everything Morel did the first time around and ran with it, but while the man behind the fun Colombiana  has possibly the best name for an action director, he doesn't have the cajones to let the action carry the movie as much as it should. Besides filming way too many establishing shots, Megaton's idea of fight choreography is to zoom the camera in as closely as he can to disguise what is actually happening. There might be a good reason to do so (Neeson was 59 at the time of filming and is potentially on his last legs as an action star), but it doesn't change the fact that closeup cams are one of the worse crimes Hollywood perpetrates, especially when compared to the expertly captured work of something like Raid: The Redemption (Jeez, I keep referencing this one; maybe I should just own it). When Megaton isn't half-assing fight scenes, he's pitting Bryan Mills against such high odds that what happens on the screen runs the gamut of "Mildly Unbelievable" to "No way in Hell", for instance when he and Kim survive an assault from a heavy machine gun in what must be an armored taxi (well, it IS Turkey...). While I liked the idea that the deaths of all those faceless goons in Taken had consequences in the production of this sequel, it's a concept they barely take so far as to point out that killing all the faceless goons HERE might have a similar effect. Action movies always have to be taken with a grain of salt, but the list of things Bryan manages to survive with barely a scratch gets more and more ridiculous as the story progresses.

Don't worry, she's not in this one much.
Of course, there was really only one good reason to see Taken 2, and that was Neeson himself. Despite treading this ground frequently the past few years (not only in Taken but also Unknown and The Grey), the Irish thespian never fails to make you believe that, given the opportunity, he could and would use your skull as a target and your spine as a punching bag should you piss him off. While he doesn't get a chance to offer up any chilling monologues, Bryan's characterization becomes a "less is more" endeavor, playing up Neeson's pure screen presence. Besides his menacing profile, Neeson does a great job in the investigative side of his character, showing us almost effortlessly why Bryan is so good at his job. He absolutely MAKES Taken 2, and I have no doubt that without his talent as part of the package, this would have just been another mediocre Jason Statham flick.

Putting a face to all the Eastern European criminals out there.
The rest of the cast is, how shall we say it, a mixed bag. You will quickly become tired of Grace and Janssen, the former of which is barely a step up from the simpering mess that was her role in Taken, while the latter not benefiting at all from the extended screen time. Grace, who is following up a VERY similar job in April's Lockout, either doesn't have what it takes to make it as an actress or just doesn't care about the roles she takes. Either way ought to see her doing bad teen slasher flicks in a few years, which might actually force her to emote, so that would be an improvement. And I couldn't get out of my mind that Janssen once was one of Hollywood's darlings, especially in her recurring role as Jean Grey in the X-Men films. Here her emotions are visibly forced, and she is simply out of her element as a performer. The one major cast addition also turns out to be the best: Rade Serbedzija's role as the main baddie might seem like a transparent attempt to put a face to all the corruption and crime in places like Albania, but he does an amazing job chewing scenery, rattling off excellent dialogue and holding his own in the few scenes opposite Neeson. Serbedzija has recently made American audiences aware of his presence, with roles in 24 and Harry Potter, so hopefully this will translate to more Hollywood roles in his future.

Killing folks makes him sad... that doesn't mean he won't do it.
Despite being a carbon copy of the original and featuring more logic holes than an unfinished puzzle book, seeing Bryan Mills (and by extension, Neeson) out for another round of bad-assery will be well worth your time if you enjoyed Taken, and I know that a lot of people did. I went to see this over the weekend with Todd and a few of her co-workers, and we all agreed that while this was one of the stupider movies released in 2012 (the year of Battleship, mind you), it was still a lot of fun if you don't expect too much. This is one of those movies that delivers exactly what it promises, and to be fair if you thought you were getting something more then you don't really understand what Taken is all about. Another sequel would certainly be too much, but for now Neeson and company satisfy your desire for that good action flick you might have been waiting months for, and manages to at least get close to the majesty that was its progenitor. Just turn your brain off, ignore all those silly inconsistencies, and enjoy.

All reviews should end with milkshakes.