Saturday, June 29, 2013

Welcome to the Zombie Apocalypse

They say that there's no such thing as bad press, because even negative actions mean that somebody is at least talking about it. And yet for over two years it seemed as though nothing positive was coming from the set of World War Z, the zombie apocalypse movie based on Max Brooks' novel of the same name. Rumors and stories of difficulties on set, ranging from going far over budget, to tension between director Marc Forster and star (and producer) Brad Pitt, to a Bulgarian police raid on a prop supply that turned up still-active firearms. Most famously was the hiring of first Damon Lindelof and then Drew Goddard to rewrite the entire third act, because otherwise the film would have no ending. All the images we were witness to painted a canvas of chaos and dissent, complicated further by trailers that made the zombies look more like swarming ants than the shuffling (or even more modern running) zeds that we've become familiar with. When all was said and done, just how mediocre could this particular adaptation turn out to be?
This is ALMOST as chaotic as July 4'th in Boston.
Actually, it turns out that World War Z isn't that bad. Sure, it's a straight disaster flick from the moment we see Philadelphia overrun by leaping, running, and definitely deadly virus carriers (Yes, my friends in Philly, yours is the first city to fall), but the story of former UN investigator Gerry Lane's (Pitt) mission to save the world at least makes the film a globe-trotting epic, leading the audience to South Korea, Israel and Cardiff (really?). Lane is a former UN investigator who is an expert at solving problems, and what government is left drafts him into leading a small team to uncover the start of this global pandemic so that it can be either cured or combated more effectively. In exchange, the government will keep his family safe. It's a race against time, and if he doesn't figure out where the virus started soon, Gerry may find himself with over six billion enemies wanting to take a bite out of him.
There's one thing that keeps running through my mind as I see the zombies move about in World War Z: "These aren't zombies." In fact, they're arguably closer to the monsters in the excellent 28 Days Later, who were really just rabies sufferers. The "zombies" here display almost all the same symptoms: near-instantaneous infection from bite, insane sensitivity to sound, and swift, animal-like movement when pursuing their prey. Anybody who has seen the trailers can see the result, as they mainly swarm in huge groups like an unstoppable tidal wave of disease and death. The story is similarly generic, playing to the summer movie crowd with action and adventure and even a little character drama, dropping almost all of the political undertones that were to have been adopted from Brooks' novel. Possibly worst is that this is a one-man show. Brad Pitt is a great actor, but even he can't carry a zombie epic all by his lonesome. The third act does see him accompanied by a tough Israeli soldier called Segen (an excellent Daniella Kertesz), but most of his companions in the movie are either uninteresting (Mireille Einos as Lane's wife, Fana Mokoena as his boss), or here-and-gone characters who pass on important information before getting out of dodge (James Badge Dale, David Morse, Ludi Boeken). Movies like this are usually BUILT on its supporting cast, but Forster decided that this would be the Pitt Show, and all others were just a bite away from going out of style.
But what the film certainly lacks in originality, it actually somewhat makes up for in style. The film's budget may have overshot original estimations at about $200 million, but that money was certainly put to good use visually, with fluidly-moving zombies, gorgeous environments and well-paced action scenes. The only downside to this is that you've already seen most of what happens in the trailer, with monstrous masses piling down every street in Jerusalem and through the corridors of a 747. The zeds are genuinely SCARY at times, though those scares seem relegated to jumping out of the shadows unexpectedly and not due to their bloody natures. Still, they're effective, if not quite what we've come to expect from the shuffling meat-eaters of The Walking Dead or other fare. Finally, the third act is a whole other ballgame, and despite trading the previous hour and a half of open world and adventure for a claustrophobic, Resident Evil-like biological mystery, it has at times the best parts of the whole movie experience. Turns out the rewriting by Lindelof and Goddard was just what the movie needed, they crafted a satisfying (if blandly closed) finale to World War Z.
That's it! Enjoy the fireworks!
Coming out of this film, you might find yourself believing that there's a ton of potential here spoiled by audience and regional pandering. Comparing it to Max Brooks' book does it no favors, as the single-voiced perspective of the film is adapted from the novel in mere name only (seriously, am I the only one who thinks a faux documentary about a zombie apocalypse with interviews and "found" footage would be AWESOME?). It's especially difficult to reconcile the story here with rumors of the original draft, which some outlets shouted was the closest a zombie film might get to the Academy Awards. That movie is not World War Z, a decent but unspectacular action movie that relies on its special effects to bring in the Summer movie watchers. This perhaps isn't surprising considering it's from a director whose good (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, Stranger than Fiction) has since given way to bad (Quantum of Solace, Machine Gun Preacher). Still, Forster manages to make it work as a summer event movie, though it'll never reach the iconic status of the all-time greats. It's a fun movie, though one for which you could safely await a DVD release.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Much Ado About Whedon

The film many die-hard Avengers fans have been waiting over a year for was not Iron Man 3. It was not even Man of Steel. No, many fans of last summer's blockbuster were waiting on director Joss Whedon's next movie. And what does an overnight sensation like Whedon do when he's given the keys to his parent's kingdom? The answer is: anything he wants, which in this case involves taking some of his favored actors and filming a modern-set, black-and-white adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, which he filmed at his Santa Monica residence in a span of twelve days. Just to set the record straight; the man behind legendary and cult favorite science fiction shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse, not to mention the most beloved superhero movie of all time, took time to create a stripped-down version of one of the Bard's best comedies for the big screen. I'm not sure what's more surprising: that the above is 100% true, or that over two hundred theaters are now playing a movie that likely wouldn't have made it into twenty just two years ago.

Hey, it's Fred from Angel!
For those unfamiliar with this particular Shakespeare play - it's not quite as well-known as Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar or Hamlet - it focuses on a villa in Messina, and on two pairs of lovers. When Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), the prince, visits the home of Governor Leonato (Clark Gregg), his companion Claudio (Franz Kranz) falls in love with Leonato's fair daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese). Meanwhile, they conspire to pair Leonato's foul-tempered niece Beatrice (Amy Acker) with the roguish lothario Benedick (Alexis Denisof), though the two can't stand each other's company. Just as things are beginning to look happily-ever-after for Claudio and Hero, however, Pedro's bastard brother Don John (Sean Maher) seeks to cause mischief that would cause the two houses to go to war. In between, there's a lot of drinking, music and dancing. I think Whedon might have added that last part.
Hey, it's Agent Coulson from The Avengers!
There's quite a bit to like about this newest rendition of a Shakespeare classic. Whedon almost word for word translates the original play into his film, and he also arranged the music to two songs Shakespeare had written for the play, performed by past contributors Maurissa Tancheon and Jed Whedon (Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog). His choice to film in black and white denotes the classical elements of the play, while the modern settings and set pieces succeed in creating an ultimately modern feel to the world he presents. Also, as the director (who also wrote the screenplay), Whedon infuses the tale with a theme of sexuality that goes hand in hand with the original love story. Doing so really helps modernize the play, and makes Much Ado more enticing to the audience as a whole, and not feel quite as old-fashioned as it could have. It's one of Whedon's few additions in a largely faithful screenplay, and alongside his penchant for physical humor (in absence of his usual clever dialogue, which is understandable), he makes a Shakespeare flick that everybody can get into.
Hey, it's Mal Reynolds! And that little guy from Buffy and Angel!
Whedon fans will also spend about 90% of the movie pointing out characters from several of the director's films or shows. With a few exceptions, just about everybody here has worked with Whedon, whether it was ten years ago or just last year, and you may experience intense bouts of nostalgia or just sudden outbursts ("Hey, that's the waitress from The Avengers!") while watching this in the theater. But beyond that, and while most of the actors here aren't particularly well known, there are a number of quality performances to be found from seemingly unlikely sources. Tops among them are The Cabin in the Woods star Franz Kranz, whose role as Claudio at first seems ill-fitting until you actually pay attention to him for a moment. If Cabin was the only thing you've seen him in, you might not expect Shakespeare to be his forte, but he works the audience beautifully, and has one of the best showings I've seen so far this year. Amy Acker is also excellent, proving her adeptness at switching between dramatic and comedic at will. Though nobody else quite reaches up to that level of quality, the film is positively full of good performances by the likes of Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Sean Maher and Ashley Johnson.
Hey, it's Wesley!
But for a movie filmed in a little under two weeks, there are bound to be some problems. One of the big ones is... it's Shakespeare. Yes, the Bard is arguably the most prolific storyteller of all time, but his use of the English language can be barely coherent to modern audiences in this day and age. Fortunately, viewers can get used to this after a short time and follow along well enough, but there's no hiding that some of the actors were just not cut out for reciting Shakespeare. There are a number of offenders, but the worst might easily be newcomer Jillian Morgese, who doesn't appear to be acting so much as she is reading off of cue cards. Poorly. This is why Kenneth Branagh brought in an all-star cast in his 1993 adaptation of the same play: Morgese is certainly no Kate Beckensale. There are moments where the film feels entirely amateurish, from (purposely?) missed lines to the camera lingering a bit long on a comedic bit. But that's also part of its charm, and what makes it so enjoyable to audiences in the first place.
Hey, it's Topher from Dollhouse!
And that's the word to describe Whedon's latest effort: charming. Not perfect in the least, and not quite up to the snuff of better indies released this year (The Place Beyond the Pines or Mud, for instance), but Much Ado About Nothing definitely has its charm, and is certainly impressive when you consider it was done on a lark during a vacation from the post-production of The Avengers. If anything, this film proves the kind of loyalty a great director can garner from his actors when he's concerned more with putting on the best story than he is at breaking box office records. It's a fun, funny, smart and sexy movie that all of Whedon's fans should see, and others should check out when they get the opportunity to do so. It won't be playing everywhere, but seeing a cool, modern adaptation of Shakespeare should not be a difficult choice to make if it does come to your theater. And Joss Whedon is most definitely a bonus.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Open Letters Monthly: Monsters University

Despite a few missteps the past few years, Pixar is still known as one of the most creative studios in Hollywood today. They just released their fourteenth feature film in Monsters University, a cross between their classic Monsters, Inc and an 80's screwball college movie. Will it be good enough to take your kids to, let alone win another Best Animated Feature award for its parent company?

Before they became the top team at power company Monsters, Inc, Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan were college rivals, both trying to become the top Scarers at their college, MU. But when their rivalry gets out of hand, getting them banned from following the major, the pair are forced to work together. Teaming up with a group of misfit monsters, they enter a competition to prove that they are the scariest group on campus. But will Mike and Sully stop fighting each other long enough to focus on winning and follow their dreams?

Monsters University is directed by Dan Scanlon and features the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Peter Sohn, Charlie Day, Nathan Fillion and Helen Mirren.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

It's the End of the World as We Know It

When did it suddenly become hip to make fun of the Apocalypse?

Just a little under seven months ago, we emerged from the year 2012 having somehow managed to avoid the predicted End of the World. This of course is in reference the oft-fanatical response to the end of the Mayan calendar, which found popularity in pop culture thanks to a Roland Emmerich movie, several New Age books and one particularly embarrassed Family Radio host who incorrectly proclaimed our doom not once, not twice, but THREE times (if you include his first error in 1994). Now that the prophesied Endtimes have officially passed and the world can get back to normal until the next time somebody predicts our downfall, Hollywood has decided to pop projects out of the woodwork to offer their takes on what was supposed to happen. This is the End isn’t the first apocalypse movie to be released this year. It’s not even the first one to feature actor Craig Robinson; that would be Rapture-Palooza, which ostensibly came out on June 7 (good luck finding a showing, though). It might not even be the funniest comedy of that vein or feature the greatest cast, with Edgar Wright’s August entry The World’s End featuring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan. But right here, right now, This is the End takes some of the industry's most beloved screwballs, throws them in a room together, and dares you not to laugh at the results.
Name those soon-to-be-dead celebrities!
It's the coming of the Apocalypse, and six professional actors - James Franco, Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Jay Baruchel - find themselves trapped inside Franco's new and lavish home as the Earth cracks and burns around them. At first simply believing that this is a tragedy they will be rescued from (because as famous actors they will always be saved first), they simply hunker down and await their salvation. But when it sinks in that there's no escaping the end of the planet, how will six self-absorbed Hollywood performers adjust to the endtimes? By taking drugs, making impromptu and low-budget sequels to their most popular movies, and just generally screwing around, apparently.
Yes, Michael Cera is here. And he's HILARIOUS.
For a movie directed by Superbad and Pineapple Express co-writers Rogen and Evan Goldberg, you would expect This is the End to be a marijuana-fueled, acid-trip through the tropes of the genre's fiction and film. Making their directorial debuts, you might also expect that the overall quality of their product would not match their previous efforts on camera or with a pen. As it happens, the first part is absolutely true (especially the acid trip, which results in a very strange montage set to the tune of Korean rapper Psy's Gangnam Style). Demon dongs, crass language and crude behavior were all but guaranteed from the start, and if you thought there was a line the pair wouldn't cross, you'd be grossly mistaken. But what's surprising is how good the movie actually is. Yes, Rogen and Goldberg make plenty of typical rookie mistakes - many scenes are there not because they move the tale forward one iota, but because they were "cool" or funny at the time of filming. In fact, there's very little story anywhere in here; with the exception of the first and last twenty minutes of the entire movie. In between are countless examples of the hijinks and inanities that come with the group trying to "rough it" and survive the nightmare. You could literally cut a full third of the film and still leave the plot mercifully intact.
These six vs. the Devil... I like Satan's chances.
But the hitches in the story can be overlooked when the film itself turns out to be this funny. The filmmakers did a grand job putting their minimalist script on the big screen, thanks especially to a cast that play morally questionable, fictional (hopefully) exaggerations of themselves. The story is also brave in giving the leading reigns not to Rogen or the film's two Oscar nominees (Franco add Hill, for those keeping track), but to Baruchel, the least-recognized and arguably most likable of the group. What narrative there is is moved by his dislike of Los Angeles and the struggle between his lifelong friendship with Rogen and the influences of Hollywoodland. The acting is mostly solid, with the six actors more or less sticking together quality-wise (the one surprisingly lacking is Hill ("...from Moneyball"), who unlike the others doesn't seem quite at home making fun of himself or his accomplishments), and they're supplemented by great cameos from Emma Watson, Michael Cera, and some other blink-and-you'll-miss-them show-ups. The cast and crew obviously had a lot of fun on the set, and while that at times holds up the rest of the production, it also results in gags that just wouldn't work if the cast and crew didn't let the whole thing get away from them once in a while.
And thus, the movie became awesome.
Yes, it's incredibly stupid. Yes, the plot is thin as a piece of rice paper, and the the low budget means that the film's use of CGI emphasizes the "special" in "special effects". Yes, I was sick of Danny McBride pretty much from moment one (though the script does afford him some great moments). And you know what? I'm okay with that. This is the End is exactly the kind of mindless fun you need on a hot summer day, and while it's drug-fused production won't appeal to everyone and is nothing close to a seamless effort, it makes up for its miscues by keeping you laughing and keeping you invested. Is it a lot of fun for a summer day lacking in decent comedic offerings? Hell yes! Sure, it might not even be the best Apocalypse movie when 2013 is said and done, but for everything that could have gone horribly wrong, it remains a perfect excuse to spend a hot day in an air-conditioned movie theater.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Don't Call Me Superman

What a turnaround it has been in recent years for both comic book movies and Marvel Studios. In the early years, they sold the film rights to their best-selling titles to studios such as Paramount, Sony and Fox. In doing so, Marvel often saw their franchises treated with disdain or indifference by major for decades. For every excellent X2 or Spider-Man, there was a Ghost Rider or a Fantastic Four that would ruin everything you might have liked about the characters. But while Marvel still doesn’t own the rights to some of their biggest comic titles, their perfectly-executed “Phase One” plan reversed their fortunes almost immediately. By taking several of their titles and placing them within the same overall universe and timeline, they created a force of nature that started with 2008’s Iron Man and finished with The Avengers, not only one of 2012’s best movies but the biggest blockbuster not directed by James Cameron (coming to a rest third on the worldwide box office behind Titanic and Avatar). Between that and Marvel’s purchase by Disney, the studio is locked in to deliver more greatness with their “Phase Two”, which began this summer with the extremely popular Iron Man 3.
What a day to not be wearing shorts!
DC Comics, meanwhile, would love that kind of success right now. Once seen as the creative superior to Marvel when it came to the film medium, their output the past decade has consisted of two-thirds of a great Batman trilogy (thanks to director Christopher Nolan) and a string of disappointments that includes Catwoman, Watchmen, Jonah Hex, Green Lantern and arguably the biggest bust, Superman Returns. A sequel to the first two Christopher Reeve classics (and ignoring Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), the Bryan Singer-directed Returns was in fact moderately successful. Unfortunately, moderately successful doesn’t cut it with a film that costs over $200 million to put together, and plans for two future sequels were scrapped as a result. Now DC (and their resident film studio Warner Brothers) has attempted to recreate the success they had in rebooting their Batman franchise with their other major comic superstar, giving Supes a grittier, more grounded origin and dripping the story in emotional layers in Man of Steel. In doing so, they want to build the DC film universe to the point where they can answer Marvel’s challenge and issue their own superhero-team flick with The Justice League. And while the director they assigned this task – Zack Snyder, of Watchmen and Sucker Punch infamy – wouldn’t seem like quite the right guy for that job, DC did good by getting Christopher Nolan to produce, placing the best director they’ve ever hired just behind the shoulder of the flashy, style-over-substance Snyder.
Is he getting jealous?
The result of this pairing? Well, it’s good, for the most part. Man of Steel has some great moments, especially the early flashbacks of a dying planet Krypton and scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) saving his infant son by placing him in a rocket and sending him to the distant planet Earth before his home can be destroyed. Growing up knowing he is different from the people around him, Clark Kent (The Tudors Henry Cavill) travels around the world, helping people through his actions (and enhanced strength and abilities), and trying to discover where he comes from and his purpose in life. In flashbacks, we see how Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) encouraged his adopted son to keep his powers a secret, feeling that the world would be unprepared to accept Clark’s abilities. These are beautifully captured moments, mixings of bittersweet emotion, artistic camerawork, and excellent CGI when required (not just when it would look cool). Looking back, with the exception of the fall of Krypton, there isn’t a real action sequence until almost the last act of the movie, and the fact that you can forget and forgive that transgression from a supposed Summer blockbuster is a testament to how invested we become with the characters themselves.
Absolutely terrifying.
Those characters are the backbone of the film and its greatest resource, and Snyder (with perhaps some cajoling from Nolan) does an excellent job of using them to the best effect. Cavill and Amy Adams (who plays tough-as-nails investigative reporter and intergalactic love interest Lois Lane) are excellent both together and apart, with Cavill showing (often without dialogue) that he is an actor on the rise. Adams has arguably never done a bad performance, and her veteran presence is not only the best-ever interpretation of Lane, but a stabilizing agent for the up-and-coming Cavill. As for the rest of the cast, both Crowe and Costner do excellent jobs as Clark’s biological and adoptive fathers, respectively. Crowe seems born to play Jor-El, and Costner’s homesy look and drawl make for an excellent Papa Kent (Diane Lane however is kind of boring as mother Martha). Michael Shannon takes up the Terence Stamp’s mantle when he plays the Kryptonian General Zod. To look at Shannon on paper, you wouldn’t expect him to be so frightening a character as someone with all of Superman’s strengths and none of his morals, but the veteran actor really carries Man of Steel in the second half. As a result, he’s definitely going to be a tough act to follow in any potential sequels. My only disappointments in the cast were located in the Daily Planet, Lois Lane’s newspaper. Lawrence Fishburne plays the first ever African-American version of Editor-in-Chief Perry White, while Rebecca Buller plays intern Jenny Olsen, obviously the adaptation of the comic books’ Jimmy Olsen. The problem I have is that these characters are largely pointless, taking part in some expository scenes but otherwise not contributing much to the overall movie. I don’t care if Perry White is black or if Jimmy Olsen is a woman; I just wish that wasn’t the beginning and end of their character development.
Lois Lane: Kicking ass and taking names since 1938.
But Man of Steel’s biggest problem is not its development of poorly-scripted secondary characters or even the strangely wide-open plot holes that are scattered about the script, but an abrupt change of pace in the final act. That’s when the action strikes, and while it contains beautiful imagery, excellent CGI and character-defining moments, it’s just not that much FUN. Snyder’s direction has always been visually-appealing, even when the product was the mind-numbing horror of Sucker Punch. I’ve said before that Snyder should direct music videos, as his ocular palette works wonders in spurts a few minutes at a time. By the time we’ve gotten through twenty minutes of action sequences involving bright beams of light, explosions, rescues, destroyed buildings and a ton of violent acts, we just want the whole thing to be over with. The filmmakers also make the questionable choice of changing a major aspect of the caped crusader – in other media, you’ll never see Superman put defeating the bad guys in a higher priority over protecting innocent bystanders in big fights. Here the term “bystander” appears all but ignored in the script, resulting in simplistic good-vs-evil battles that never break the mold, and feeling almost like a typical Jerry Bruckheimer production. The film never gets Great Gatsby boring, but there’s still no excuse for such beautiful action that is so generic that we almost don’t care about the outcome.
Maximum security just got an upgrade.
The limp finish is really the only major thing wrong with Man of Steel, but it’s still enough to turn a potentially great film into a merely good one. I’ll give credit where it’s due: Snyder, Nolan and their crew succeeded in creating a Superman movie more grounded and realistic than anything done before them, and it’s the next-best thing in the DC film universe to Nolan’s first two Batman projects in terms of quality. Obviously Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are high watermarks to cross, and expectations of the like from Man of Steel are definitely unwarranted, though you can still have a good time should you see this on the big screen. In the battle of Marvel vs. DC, Man of Steel is a long way away from being as iconic as The Avengers or Iron Man, and is probably closer to Marvel’s second-rate Captain America movie. That’s not a bad place to be, however, and if the folks at DC and Warner Brothers can build upon its early successes (and bypass its weaknesses), then this might just be the first step in its own “Phase One”. Can a Justice League movie be far in the future? Give me a Wonder Woman I can get behind, and that’ll be a step in the right direction. Just like Man of Steel

Friday, June 14, 2013

Double Feature: Frances Ha and The Purge

This weekend is going to be a great one, I can just feel it in my bones. This is the End has already come out. Man of Steel arrives today. And expanded showings of Before Midnight and Much Ado About Nothing, plus the inclusion of The Bling Ring mean that there will be no shortage of movies to watch in the coming weeks. But I'm still playing catch-up on the movies I've already seen, so here are two about which I just don't have much to say.

Frances Ha is a title that makes no sense until the last few moments of a movie that clocks in at 85 minutes but feels much, MUCH longer. It's the story of Frances (Greta Gerwig), a mid-twenties woman trying to make it in New York City as a modern dancer. In the beginning, she lives with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and everything is great. But when Sophie moves in with someone else, it throws Frances for a loop, and she spends the rest of the movie moving from place to place trying to find both a permanent residence and a secure life for herself.
Worst. Fight. Ever.
There is certainly a bit to appreciate here, but most of the movie is dragged down by a lack of momentum and the fact that Frances is almost unlikeable as a character. Let's be clear: Greta Gerwig is adorable, and her take on a not-so-young woman who still hasn't found her way in life is pretty much spot-on. Unfortunately, while Frances is at times impeccably introspective (when faced with the faux pas of not having a credit card, her revelatory response is "I'm not a real person"), she makes decisions that make you either hide your face behind your hands or want to reach into the screen and strangle her. The good news is that she's occasionally surrounded by very talented actors who make the waiting more bearable. Unfortunately, this is still a one-woman show that feels lazily directed by her boyfriend Noah Baumbach (Greenberg, The Squid and the Whale), and it seems to be willing to ignore any faults in our heroine while not really making her all that impressive in exchange.
Yeah, I need a drink too.
Frances Ha turns out to be one of those artsy-type films that plays great with reviewers (it's got a freaking 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) but most people won't really be able to get into. I can appreciate the sentiment of the movie, and the finale was definitely the happy ending that both Frances and the audience deserve. However, there's way too much boring stuff here to make it all that worthwhile, and so unless you watch nothing but independent movies, this is one you can safely skip.

The Purge, meanwhile, is another in the vein of "human vs. human" horror flicks. In the year 2022, our country has somehow been "reborn" and our new founding fathers have created a new plan to fight poverty and crime. Called "The Purge", it is one twelve hour evening in which all crime - including murder - is made legal, and all emergency services are suspended for that time, as an act of catharsis for the American public. It certainly seems to work; unemployment is at just 1%, and crime outside of the Purge period is at an all-time low. This year, the Sandin family's plan is to stay at home, lock the doors with the latest in home security, and get through the 12-hour period without attracting any attention. But one mistake results in them being targeted by a group of masked intruders, and when state-of-the-art security can't stand between them, the family discovers what they must do if they want to survive the night.
Killing rich whitey; this movie is like the 99%'s wet dream
Director James DeMonaco may have little feature film experience (his only other movie is 2009's little-seen Staten Island), but he definitely paints pretty imagery, especially when you take the idyllic gated community in which our family lives and compare it to bleak, dark nightmare of when the sun goes down. As a the man behind the camera, DeMonaco certainly seems to have an eye for imagery and how he wants to shoot a particular scene. His moods are energetic, and he definitely keeps The Purge at a quick pace on his way to telling of his intriguing concept.
Now I'm going to be seeing a ton of these masks come October.
Unfortunately that's all that's going for The Purge, a horror film that fails at scaring its audience even remotely. There are a few tense moments, but all in all the horrific bits are quick and painless, and never leave anything akin to a lasting impression. That's often because the characters themselves are irritating and unlikeable. Though there are a couple of recognizable B-listers here in Ethan Hawke and Game of Thrones' Lena Headey, the rest are unknowns and act like it, failing to improve upon the uninspired dialogue and ridiculous character designs. It's hard to feel bad for character who make the most ridiculous and idiotic decisions, and that's what happens here far too frequently. The social commentary is also extremely weak. The idea of 12-hours of illegality to battle crime is an inspired concept, especially in the argument it makes that the poor are still at a distinct disadvantage while the rich can hide behind bullet-proof windows, but it fails to hold up over the course of an entire feature. Combine that with a "WTF" ending that is more hilarious than it is frightening, and you can see why this wasn't released in the Fall with the more effective horror titles.
There really isn't much in the way of scary moves due out right now, with the better-looking ones (including Insidious: Chapter 2, the Carrie remake, and You're Next) not due out for at least a few months. The Purge's job was to fill that empty void until the new stuff came along, and from the box office receipts last weekend it looks like it served that purpose. It's just too bad that it's best recommendation is that it's the only game in town, as it had an idea that would have benefitted from a more polished script to tell its tale.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Open Letters Monthly: The Internship

With The Wedding Crashers still popular after almost eight years, filmmakers decided that the Vaughn/Wilson paradigm wasn't done cranking out big money for the industry. Well, turns out they were wrong, but while Google commercial The Internship is no box office juggernaut, it's still a somewhat enjoyable comedy that makes good use not just of it's main two stars, but the bevy of supporting actors helping out.

When watch salesmen Billy and Nick lose their jobs due to the world's increasing internet literacy, it seems their hopes and dreams go with them. But they find themselves with a second chance when the pair succeed at joining an internship program at Google. Now they find themselves in an extremely competetive environment against a hundred or so college hopefuls with only a handful of guaranteed jobs available when all is said and done. Teamed up with a likely band of misfits, and possessing no computer skills whatsoever, Billy and Nick will have to work harder than they ever have before so that they can succeed in grabbing their dreams.

The Internship is directed by Shawn Levy and stars Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Rose Byrne, Max Minghella, John Goodman, Jessica Szohr, Dylan O'Brien, Josh Brener, Tobit Raphael, Tiya Sircar, Aasif Mandvi, and Josh Gad.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

You Got Shyalaman-ed

It may be difficult, but remember when M. Night Shyamalan was actually considered a good director? With the release of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, the director was a shot of fresh air amid a sea of dry, unimaginative movies. His infamous and unpredictable twists became his staple, eagerly awaited by audiences around the world. It's uncertain where it all went wrong. People were strongly divided on his 2004 effort The Village and again in 2006's Lady in the Water. I don't know a single soul who will admit to liking his R-rated The Happening, and his adaptation of children's series The Last Airbender may go down as one of the most reviled movies of all time. But while he's certainly hit rock-bottom creatively, there's nothing saying that a director can't return to his early quality of production, and Shyamalan certainly hopes that After Earth will put him back in the upper echelon of crowd-pleasing directors once more. Helping him out are the father/son pairing of Will and Jaden Smith. Will, of course, is one of the top-grossing actors of the modern era, with such hits as Men in Black, Ali, and Independence Day being successful largely due to his presence. While Jaden does not (obviously) have the filmography of his legendary father, he did play major roles in The Day the Earth Stood Still and the Karate Kid remake, marking his place as one to keep an eye on. And of course both father and son starred in the acclaimed Pursuit of Happyness, whose success the filmmakers are trying to emulate in this science fiction tale.

Where are we, Kansas?
A thousand years after we destroyed our ecosystem, Earth has become a death-trap evolved to kill us. We responded by taking our people to a far-off colony and starting over. Now Earth is getting it's first human visitors in a long time, in the form of a crashed spaceship with two confirmed survivors: General Cypher Rage (Will Smith) and his teenage son Kitai (Jaden). They had been traveling to another planet for survival training when a meteor shower damaged their ship and forced them to crash-land in this inhospitable place, where the General suffers from two broken legs that leave him incapacitated. Worse, their emergency beacon was damaged in the crash, and with it almost all hope of being rescued. There is only one chance, as Kitai must journey to the broken tail section of the ship, a few days' journey, to find a second beacon there. He must face all kinds of impossible odds and unpredictable obstacles, but one thing he might not be able to handle is the cargo the ship had been carrying; a beast so fearsome that few if any could survive in the face of its rage.
Prescient about the future, or just being a dick?
Even with all the usual sci-fi trappings, After Earth is primarily a story about the bond between fathers and sons. It's obvious from moment one that Kitai feels inferior to his war hero father, and is doing anything in his power to make up for his presumed shortcomings. In turn, Cypher is a stern, military father who doesn't seem to be able to understand his emotionally-sensitive son. It's this VERY basic idea that forms the core of the story, and not the effects and situation surrounding it, a tale provided in turn with a screenplay by The Book of Eli scribe Gary Whitta and from a concept attributed to father Smith.. It's hardly original, but considering that almost all of Shyamalan's effort is focused on fostering this bond, it's nowhere near as bad as it could have been.

Um, you're not strapped into your safety harness. That's a big no-no.
Unfortunately, while the concept itself is admirable, the execution is far from it. Obviously, a large percentage of that blame belongs to Shyamalan, who is ultimately hampered when you take away his one major tool. That's right, there are absolutely NO twists in After Earth, unless you count the fact that the pair are, in-fact, on our current planet, a fact pushed in every trailer and on every poster for the film. It illustrates how little the director can do with a relatively straightforward script, and what could have been before becomes a pipe dream as little to any of the story has anything beyond "get from one place to the next", with a few forced moments of father/son bonding. And that doesn't even cover the scientific head-scratchers, such as how a planet could possible evolve to kill humans when they haven't been around for 1000 years. Note to anybody and everybody: even if you don't believe in the idea of evolution, it most definitely doesn't work that way. Or perhaps the moment when Cypher argues for Kitai to make his way to a mountaintop to send the distress signal, when the "mountain" in question is obviously an active volcano.
Taking a page from Tebow's book.
The filmmakers could have made up for the story transgressions if their efforts had excelled in either the special effects department or the acting corps, but both seem destined to disappoint their audiences. The SFX is almost cartoonish, with even basic creatures obvious CGI creations. The environments are certainly lush enough, but don't quite make up for the lackadaisical creature design. But worse is the acting, in which both Smiths adopt a dialect that's almost as harsh to the ear as fingernails across a chalkboard. Sophie Okonedo and Zoe Kravitz are better but are relegated to small doses due to the script. If that weren't enough, the film sidelines Will,  meaning that almost all of their scenes together are over a communication device. The film subsequently becomes focused on Jaden, a mistake as he doesn't yet have the natural charisma his father had at almost the same age. Kitai quickly becomes unwatchable, and as he takes central stage, so does he drag down After Earth with him.
Will Smith is giving me the stink eye for this review.
And drag it down he and everybody else does. This might have been a decent film with different actors, a different director, better special effects, a different story and an altered concept, but... well, that's just about everything, isn't it? It's rare when a film gets just about EVERYTHING wrong, even with the mediocre fare they've put out in 2013. It's still not the worst that I've seen this year (that's still the abysmal Movie 43) but it ought to be remembered among that pack when it's all done. Really, there's nothing to see here. This isn't the sci-fi fare you're looking for.

For God's sake, just RUN!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Open Letters Mothly: Now You See Me

All-star casts can be hit or miss. For every The Departed, The Expendables or Oceans 11, there is Mars Attacks or this year's absolutely horrid "comedy" Movie 43. To balance so many A-list personalities at once is a magic act in and of itself, and that is the perfect segue into Now You See Me, which has two former Oscar winners and three former nominees among its actors. It's magic act is nothing short of impossible, and that's what makes it so intriguing a premise for the big screen.

One year after four street magicians were plucked off the street by a mysterious benefactor, "The Four Horsemen" are headlining Las Vegas when they pull off the impossible: transporting a man across space and time to help them rob a bank in Paris. When the FBI gets involved and can find no way to see how they pulled it off other than "magic", the Horsemen are free to go. Now it's a race against time as the law tries to figure out how these seemingly harmless magicians are creating the impossible, and its a race against the clock to stop them from completing their final performance.

Now You See Me is directed by Louis Leterrier and stars Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Melanie Laurent, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.