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Year of the Living Dead (2013)
A DVD Featurette unholy expanded
Like it or not, George A. Romero truly is the father of today's horror cinema. The original "Dead" trilogy NIGHT, DAWN, and DAY accomplish that simple truth in unveiling a very human metaphor wrapped in the grisly package of blood-letting entertainment. And why not celebrate the man and his accomplishments? Perhaps dig deep into the motives and industry tales of movie-making. Perhaps that is what Rob Kuhns set out to do with his BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD documentary. Unfortunately, the data unearthed in BIRTH OF THE LIVING DEAD could have been a solid DVD featurette. Instead, an additional 40 minutes of repetitiveness was added, dragging the film down as a lumbering, undead walker.
To its credit, BIRTH sets the stage of 1968 America, when NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was released, quite well providing key insights to the civil rights movement as well as to the fact that NIGHT stars an African American. Likewise, the documentary gets right into how and why the film was made and some of the issues and trickery Romero and his crew employed during production and editing; Romero himself is presented as both jolly and candid.
Then the film rinses and repeats. And repeats. And, oh, did you forget that NIGHT starred an African American? Well hold on tight, you'll be reminded in just a few short minutes as horror film director Larry Fessenden will tell you how great the original film is and repeat the lines verbatim for the camera.
Granted, the docu's subject is NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but that topic alone screams out for accompaniment. There was absolutely no mention of the 1990 remake, nor the 2004 remake of DAWN. And obviously the most apparent of Romero's offspring THE WALKING DEAD is only shown as a background image.
Kuhns showed the historical relevance of NIGHT, but only provided the merest taste of its social impact, a taste that was sorely missed.
The awful TOOTH about TUSK
Amusing and certainly original, TUSK makes a nice mockery of the horror-torture clique without becoming an all-out parody. Unfortunately, when the film obligingly reaches into the realm of the complete ridiculous, the cleverness of it all falls apart. What TUSK does to correctly, and does well, is rely on the one strength of writer/director Kevin Smith: fantastic situational dialogue.
Smith is, when he wants to rise from his all-too easy reliance of mediocre potty humor, a good story-teller. He knows how to sculpt and pace dialogue, to craft an engaging tale, and how to mix in well-timed humor. Examples of such are immediately evident in three scenes: Wallace (Justin Long) in the Canadian convenience store, Howard Howe's (Michael Parks) introduction, and Guy Lapoint's flashback tale. The story itself is both comical and disturbing in a self-deprecating way, but a messy third act is ambiguous in deciding which swim lane to take deadpan horrific or goofy schlock. The straddle ultimately presented leaves the film unfulfilled.
Smith being Smith, is an equally-opportunity offender making fun of Canadians, podcasters, mustaches, and Latino accents. Regrettably, a majority of the film's blatant third-act humor comes as the result of the ridiculousness of the "guest-star," setting the final focus of the film as murky as aquarium pool water drastically deviating away from any self-righteous statements on horror-torture films but also of any clever wittiness.
Suspenseful. Alluring. Slow.
STOKER is a surprisingly decent indie film written by an American television actor, directed by a Korean known for violent action flicks, all told in a suspenseful vein that Alfred Hitchcock would find suitably satisfactory, especially with the themes presented within: loner child, daddy issues, ignorant mother, suspicious uncle and death, death, death.
Mia Wasikowska is India, the likeably-cliché intelligent teen who turns her focus from the ridicule suffered at school and the inattention of her depressed mother the un-aging Nicole Kidman to that of her mysteriously-alluring uncle, who may have clues regarding her father's death from when she was a child. Uncle Charles, played straight faced-creepy by Matthew Goode, offers India freedom, knowledge and empowerment as well as a few lessons that aren't always part of the standard learning curve.
Chan-wook Park constructs a visually beautiful movie that perfectly reflects the images, dreams and even memories that would belong to a solitary young woman, all which provide visual clues to the mystery at large. The excellent score by Clint Mansell completes the imagery. However, the first act of the film is terribly slow as the images alone don't move the narrative forward. Likewise, India's journey becomes too forced in order to reach the film's resolution. Park appears to be more interested in the look of the mystery than getting into the actual character impetus behind that mystery.
STOKER is an enjoyable film to watch. The film is also a killer to get frustrated over.
Cool but forgettable
Danny Boyle's latest, TRANCE, contains many elements that made his previous films so successful: kinetic photography, slick editing, a killer electronic soundtrack, hip dialogue, and a heist too good to be true. By those standards alone, Boyle's TRANCE is a fun, twisty ride. Unfortunately, the film is also derivative, shallow and frustrating.
An art heist gone wrong requires Simon (James McAvoy) to seek the council of Dr. Lamb, a hypnotist (Rosario Dawson), in order to recover stolen, and now forgotten, artwork in order to pay off his debits to underworld baddie Franck, played by the always-cool Vincent Cassel. A fun play on the typical whodunit motif kicks in as the viewer is drawn into Simon's sympathetic plight and intrigued by Lamb's involvement as her trances procures more and more information from Simon's damaged mind.
Unfortunately, the film devolves into trickery previously seen and better played at in INCEPTION as the twist oh yes, of course there is a big twist is unsubtly thrown into the criminal mix coming as a surprise to only those, like Simon, with brain damage. McAvoy's character rapidly deteriorates into an anti-hero that no one would care about while Franck is nearly elevated into the heroic role, but at a point way too late in the story to capture the viewer's emotional buy- in. Dawson's Lamb, also goes through monumental changes, but for most of the film she is simply presented as eye candy, which simply relegates her character to a boring cliché of the femme fatale role.
TRANCE does entertain and is fun to watch and be carried away with. Of course, this would all be better if it could also be forgotten with the snapping of fingers.
SUPERHEROES. Fighting for Truth, Justice and their own Comicbook.
Hollywood has perhaps reached its saturation point with comic book and superhero movies with every film now becoming more of an event: a-list stars, groundbreaking f/x, tie-ins, lead-ins and hints at a larger universe packed with even more superheroes. Maybe it's time to take a step back. Show a real hero, totally DIY. Mike Barnett has attempted this.
The WATCHMEN Blu-ray set contains a featurette interviewing "real life" superheroes. Mostly these were young men wearing bulky costumes of sewn together sports equipment and pronounced delusions of grandeur; although one interviewee was ex-military and simply patrolled as a concerned citizen in fatigues and a buzz cut. The HBO documentary SUPERHEROES amps this idea into a feature-length spectacle.
Mike Barnett presents a typical day-in-the-life perspective of the non- typical man-in-tights. Or clunky plastic armor. With names, among others, like Mr. Xtreme, Zimmer and, ahem, Master Legend. Although their hearts are in the right place, a food-and-clothing drive conducted and distributed to and for the homeless of San Diego being a very worthy effort, their heads most definitely are not. Barnett shows these heroes as misguided - Mr. Xtreme possess no guide in life other than comicbooks, which he reads obsessively in his van publicity-seeking an unintentionally-hilarious Master Legend drinks and cavorts with college girls in that crime-ridden gotham of Orlando or thrill-seeking the NYC-based Zimmer who patrols dark streets just looking for a head to bash in.
Unfortunately, Barnett's docu never presents a clear viewpoint. Are these losers real and sympathetic, slaves to a worthy ideal? Or are they to be mocked at? Severely. Throughout the film the viewer does both. But they shouldn't. At times, the film appears to be as just as a rambling mess as Mr. Xtreme on patrol: sometimes boring, at times embarrassingly cringe-worthy. Also unfortunately, the preventing of crimes, or exacting flying fists of justice as Zimmer so obviously wants, never occurs. Giant aliens don't attack. There are no criminal masterminds' plans to foil. Not even a simple grab-and-run from the local 7-Eleven. This exacerbates the question running through the whole film: so what?
Hey, if anything, the film invites you to grab a drink with Master Legend. He has a Facebook page.
A most excellent look at a personage of historical significance
Daniel Day-Lewis steals the show as the title character in LINCOLN, but by all rights, the film itself could have been named "AMENDMENT XIII" as the second act's energy, as well as most of the third, is focused on the debate in the House to abolish slavery nearly leaving Lincoln himself as just a witness to history while a cast of character actors from screens both big and small pound tables and chests alike in a grandiose fashion.
Director Steven Spielberg, and his long-time cinematic director of photography Janusz Kaminski, created a gorgeous movie where they carefully and beautifully frame each shot allowing the audience to play historical witness. Similar to Spielberg's work in MUNICH, the camera is expertly placed, rarely moving, allowing for a perfect spectacle of a scene: be it the aftermath of a bloody battle, the always-smoky rooms where speech itself has somewhere to hide, a rocking chair on a rickety floor that looks ancient even for 1865, or the bright, winter sunlight filtered through the gauze of a window furnishing or a washed-out flag. Likewise, Day-Lewis himself is always framed, the camera accenting on his height, catching the lines in the gray of his face as he bears the weight of a nation divided playing equal parts father, preacher, lawyer and, most of all, grand storyteller.
The film, however, keenly focuses on those individual glances but the overall story itself is not as put-together. A series of poignant, incredibly-acted, well-constructed scenes are displayed; each scene a marvelous production complete with conflict, character exposition and beautiful dialogue. Yet these scenes are nearly staged as free-standing productions by themselves and, other than the overarching story detailing the end of Civil War and the proposition of Amendment XIII, miss any flow connecting them and strengthening that overall narrative.
Again, it is the presence of Day-Lewis who provides the human touch to the drama of politics. Amidst the yelling and the smoke and the death that incorporates nearly every scene, Day-Lewis' Abraham Lincoln has the ability to smile and, in a move completely foreign to modern-day presidents, sit and speak with the everyday man. He knows this is who is fighting his war and also knows that these very same people will find their own strength to rebuild America. Like a grandfather, he has stories to tell bringing relevance and peace to the chaos of the day, just not his with own family where a slightly-miscast Sally Field, playing Mrs. Lincoln, adds embarrassment and strife while Joseph Gordon- Levitt, as Lincoln's eldest, wants to be the attention-grabbing rebellious son but at least maintains his nobility, even when being ignored.
Spielberg elevates the spirit of the man, in a similar manner to what he accomplished with Oskar Schindler, by bringing relevance and importance to that man's place in history. Spielberg shows a man who was able to work both with and around Congress, wanted peace badly enough to fight for it and was taken much too abruptly leaving any future potential into the smoke of history.
Spirit of Vengeance: charred, but not hot
The fact that Ghost Rider is a b-comicbook character at best should bring no surprise that a movie of said character would be of similar ilk. GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE is the ultimate b-movie complete with b-grade actors (welcome back to the silver screen Christopher Lambert), a generic plot (the only way for the devil's power to survive is by taking over the young body of his progeny), lots of guns, a villainous threat whose true evil power is the insane amount of cliché dialogue, and a feisty damsel in distress. Yet movies like these always have a way of capturing a little of that comicbook magic empowering their young-ish fanboy fanbase with elements of cool.
This sequel finds Nic Cage hiding out from the world and his curse in Eastern Europe where he rambles about evil as his eyeballs bug out of their sockets. When not being a true-to-life documentary showcase, Cage reprises his role as the quirky and sometimes-demonic Johnny Blaze who gets thrown into action alongside the always-hip Idris Elba, who is apparently the go-to guy for comicbook actions films this being his third.
Gone is the forced romance from the first film. Instead, directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor focus on Blaze's anguish and a cure for his curse. The directors also get clever with the Rider's look giving him a simple, charred look like he's been on the grill for a week too long, adding to the anguish. Their choppy editing and shaky camera work lend to the Nu Metal look that is very chic in Hot Topic.
Unfortunately, the film's simplistic plot gets too convoluted degrading further into the typical you've-seen-it-a-million-times-before shoot 'em up and highway chase scene. Ghost Rider's dialogue is kept to a minimum as much as Cage's is not but he never gets to truly cut loose into a- quality action, even though it appeared that the f/x budget would allow such, and, surprisingly, doesn't get a lot of face time. And a Ghost Rider film without Ghost Rider, is just another bravura performance of Cage's body language.
GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE offers a fun, but not all-together great, look at property that has the potential to be so much hotter.
The "Fake Picture" becomes a real hit
In the film ARGO, producer Lester Siegel, played by Academy Award winner Alan Arkin, puts forth real effort into making a fake film a success as a perfect ruse to rescue six wanted Americans hiding at the Canadian Ambassador's residence during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. The triple-threat of Ben Affleck (ARGO's Producer-Director-Star) must have channeled the spirit of Siegel (the character for the film was the amalgamation of real-life f/x coordinator Bob Sidell and producer Barry Gellar) as he, along with fellow producers and Hollywood heavies George Clooney and Grant Heslov, created a very real, very memorable film crafted with the utmost of professionalism in detailing the story's plight and rescue.
Affleck ups his game with his third directorial stint and moves away not only from his usual Boston locales but also from the present day. In doing so, he completely immerses the viewer into the period of the film. Alongside the requisite horror show that was the 70s fashion style as well as carefully-placed Star Wars memorabilia that no doubt brought a tear to the eyes of fanboy friend Kevin Smith Affleck restaged the storming of the US embassy with the all-too real documentary feel and cast lesser-known actors into the roles of the Americans allowing their performance, not their celebrity status, to carry the show.
Interchanged with this, is the flawless, and at times welcoming, editing of the situation in LA as Affleck's character, CIA operative Tony Mendez, wheels and deals with Hollywood to create a tight cover story, the kind that only Tinseltown can. Affleck portrays LA as an open, bright and aloof place, contrasting the tight, grainy and oppressive situation in Tehran. Modern-day Hollywood itself makes the most subtle of appearances during the film's climax through some of the drama during the airport escape including an almost-forced chase scene.
Backed with John Goodman's smile and Bryan Cranston barking orders like he's on the set of a Glen Larson TV show, Affleck delicately builds the tension leading up to the escape. Much like Cameron's TITANTIC, the ending of the film is known, but the wielding of the personal dynamics, which is just one of reasons that made THE TOWN so incredibly good, proves Affleck's acumen. Affleck provides a fast-paced, suspenseful and, at times, humorous film that makes for great storytelling. Even more importantly, ARGO furthers solidifies Affleck's talent as writer/director and distancing himself from his roles in a host of truly-poor rom-coms and actioneers from the early 2000's.
The Town (2010)
A great spotlight for Affleck's talents
Let's admit to a solemn truth here: heist flicks are as formulaic as any other genre film. One grand heist leads to another, more often than not there is at least one car chase, the alpha male falls for a woman, said male decides to leave his life of crime, which leads to his final escape, be that successful or not.
Let's now subscribe to another truth, this one more recent: Ben Affleck has matured well beyond his Armageddon and PEARL HARBOR foibles both in front of and, perhaps even more importantly, behind the camera. THE TOWN, then, is beautiful example of the craft of the heist formula executed perfectly and proves that Affleck, his second outing as a director, is one helluva storyteller.
Based on the Chuck Hogan novel "Prince Of Thieves", THE TOWN follows a bank robbing troupe led by Affleck with Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner along for the ride and overseen by the late, great Pete Postlethwaite all while being pursued by Jon Hamm's G-Man. Aside from the life-as-a-criminal angle, significant insight is given to Affleck and Renner's relationship, complete with daddy-issues performed in a killer scene by Chris Cooper and the budding romance with Rebecca Hall. The drama in these characters' lives proves to be just as strong and important as that of the robberies themselves.
And that grand heist? None other than the theft of ticket sales from Fenway Stadium and Affleck even films inside the holy internal works of the Green Monster. Affleck's direction throughout the film is meticulous and tight showing the audience his exact view on the story itself.
THE TOWN is an entertaining, well-executed movie and a great vehicle for spotlighting Affleck's talents. Also, it should be noted, this is the film that got Renner his recent super-hero and spy gigs and, more importantly, should have brought him an Oscar as well, the absence of which is the true crime here.
State of Play (2009)
A Great Newspaper Story
STATE OF PLAY, the film from director Kevin McDonald (LAST KING OF Scotland, TOUCHING THE VOID) and screenwriter Tony Gilroy (BOURNE trilogy, DUPLICITY), successfully incorporates the high points from the successful BBC miniseries of the same name but does something the series could not, which is the incorporation of the near-irrelevance of print media into a much-better-than-standard conspiracy thriller.
In the film, seasoned newspaper writer Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is led into story involving assassins, military contractors, a U.S. Congressman (Ben Affleck), his wife (Robin Wright Penn), an affair and even a few murders, just for emphasis. Affleck's Stephen Collins, a friend of McAffrey's, is caught in an affair with his aide after she is found dead, and then pronounced murdered. McAffrey helps his friend, and Collins' wife, but is truly committed to the story, as well as any truths that might be associated along with that.
The "quest for the story" element is how the film differs from the mini- series, which was more involved in the personal relations of the key characters. Set in the end of the 21st Century's first decade, Crowe's McAffrey is dedicated to the dying art of investigative journalism, which is quickly being replaced with up-to-second blogs, represented in the film by young writer Della Frye (Rachel McAdams). Overseeing, and adding to, this tension is the editor-in-chief Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), who is giving both reporters a short-leash leeway with their respective styles but is ultimately concerned with circulation, satisfying a corporate buy-out and keeping her staff employed.
Cal and Della work and work well both as independent rogues as well as uneasy partners in a pseudo-traditional mentor/apprentice relationship as they deal with both the story and the future of the newspaper biz. The conspiracy elements of the film are good with plenty of keep-the-audience-guessing moments along with a few comedic bits from Jason Bateman, whose character has had dealings with the murdered aide. However even more interesting is how STATE OF PLAY comes across as a love letter to the dying newspaper breed with Cal passing the pen-and- paper torch off to Della's blogs and tweets.