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Pacific Rim is a film that doesn't try to hide what it is. An updating
of Japanese giant monster movies that first were all the rage in the
1950s, Pacific Rim tells a similar story with the benefit of much
higher-end visual effects than was possible on the lower budgeted
events of eras past. However, Pacific Rim, unlike many Hollywood summer
blockbusters, doesn't really skimp on other elements that make for a
good film, with attention to character and story along the way. No one
will mistake Pacific Rim as a masterpiece, but no one ever said being a
blockbuster meant you had to be a bad film.
Set in the near future, the Earth has been under constant attack by giant monsters, named Kaiju, that are emerging from a dimensional rift on the floor of the Pacific ocean. To combat the Kaiju, the governments of the world have built the Jaegers, giant, multi-story robots, controlled by two pilots who have melded their minds to prevent the mental strain of manning the Jaegers from turning their brains to mush. One Jaeger pilot, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) gave up the program years earlier when his brother, who was his Jaeger co-pilot, had been killed in a confrontation with a Kaiju. However, since then, the Kaiju have become more dangerous, and the various world leaders have decided to put all their energy into building a giant wall to surround the coastlines of the Pacific from the Kaiju. Marshall Pentecost (Idris Elba) does not believe that will prevent the Kaiju from destroying the planet, so he and the four remaining Jaegers are assembled at Hong Kong to lead a final charge against the Kaiju to stop them once and for all. To man one of the Jaegers, Pentecost has brought Raleigh back into the fold, teaming him up with Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) to help lead the battle, but Raleigh's troubled past, and emotional scars of Mako's own, make the success of the mission seem dubious.
Pacific Rim's screenplay written by Travis Beacham and the film's director, Guillermo del Toro, assembles elements that have been well worn in countless other movies. The earth under attack from menacing alien forces, the reluctant hero, the final desperate charge of a rag tag band of survivors, there isn't hardly any aspect that hasn't been lifted from somewhere else. So, while Pacific Rim won't get an A for originality, del Toro and Beacham do an impressive job of assembling the pieces into an entertaining, engaging whole. One key thing del Toro does right is to not transform Pacific Rim into an action orgy, like the recent Transformers films. While you can't accuse Pacific Rim of being without action, the film isn't a constant slog through an endless cycle of action sequences. There is attention given to setting up the plot, and also to establishing the characters and their relationships to one another. Pacific Rim's strongest example of this is the development of Raleigh and Mako's partnership, with more than a hint of romance lurking beneath. The two actors have a distinct chemistry, and that comes across in their scenes together. Like most good movies, Pacific Rim knows that without strong characters, everything else is just a lot of empty sound and images.
When the film does provide its action sequences, Pacific Rim largely delivers. It's prime set piece is a large scene about half-way through set in Hong Kong and the surrounding bay. The action is exciting, well staged, and full of energy. del Toro crafts this sequence to maximum effect, getting the adrenaline pumping. Filmmakers that want to see how to stage large scale action should look no further than this major scene. Pacific Rim isn't exactly perfect, though. Two scientist characters, portrayed by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, are intended to be comic relief, but their performances are so shrill and over the top, they quickly become annoying and off putting. del Toro also gives a small role to one of his regulars, Ron Perlman, as a Kaiju organ black marketeer, and while I always enjoy seeing Perlman pop up in anything, here he is largely filer, his character producing a smile at first, but, in the long run, not a very interesting role. Pacific Rim's ending is a bit underwhelming also, as the obvious parallels to other films robs the end of some of its energy. It doesn't ruin the movie, but a fresher conclusion would have been beneficial.
Pacific Rim is the blockbuster Summer popcorn film that you generally wish more summer blockbusters would emulate rather than brain dead junk such as Transformers. By working in some nice character material, and allowing the film to breathe between action sequences, Pacific Rim manages to deliver a generally entertaining two hours at the movies. Its not groundbreaking or particularly deep, but for what it is, it delivers the goods.
There are two things for certain regarding the 2013 remake of 1981's
The Evil Dead. First, the film's advertising tagline "The Most
Terrifying Film You Will Ever Experience." is, not surprisingly, a lie.
Second, if you have no tolerance for blood, gore and accompanying
viscera, then you would do well to avoid Evil Dead. That being said,
Evil Dead is not a horror film to be trifled with, that's for sure,
although while it has it's moments of unease and shock, the underlying
sense of terror and suspense is largely missing. Evil Dead is designed
as an endurance test, can you make it past the next major set piece
without turning it off, and on that front Evil Dead certainly makes an
Five friends, Mia (Jane Levy), her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), Olivia (Jessica Lucas), Eric (Lou Pucci) and Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) are at David's family cabin in the woods to engage in an intervention for Mia who is a recovering heroin addict. In the basement of the cabin, the group discovers a book that is full of satanic imagery and Eric reads a passage from the book, resulting in demon spirits being unleashed. The spirits possess Mia and one by one the possession begins to spread to the others who then engage in attempts to dispatch the still human survivors in rather violent, gruesome ways. Trapped by a washed out bridge, the group must try to find a way to stop the onslaught from the possessed souls, even as their number dwindles.
The original Evil Dead has earned a place in the popular zeitgeist, partially for introducing the character of Ash, portrayed by Bruce Campbell, to the general American audience, and for spawning a number of increasingly comedy oriented sequels. But, it's easy to forget that the first Evil Dead was largely a straightforward horror film, and a fairly scary one, in my opinion. There is certainly no trace of goofiness in the remake. It is a solid, no holds barred serious horror film, although there is a moment or two that does elicit a chuckle every now and then. Directed by first time filmmaker Fede Alvarez and co-written by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, Evil Dead pulls no punches in it's attempts to shock. From copious vomiting, people being attacked by nail guns, crow bars, shards of mirror and various electrical power tools, Evil Dead is intent on pushing the envelope of violence, leaving no stone unturned in its search for gory scenes intended to test the audience's willingness to keep watching.
However, the reliance on violence proves one of the film's downfalls. It is so wrapped up in assaulting us with its gore that it doesn't put enough effort into the other elements of what makes a good horror film, such as suspense. Evil Dead isn't without it's moments of making us feel uncomfortable or uncertain of what comes next, but those are fewer and far between than the gore. Evil Dead is trying to make us feel terrified, but it succeeds more often in just making us feel uncomfortable as limbs and other body parts are hacked off.
This remake does not directly rehash characters from the original film and manages to provide a slightly different setup for the story. The character of Mia takes on an unusual position of serving as, at times, both protagonist and antagonist, being both the lead character and the first to be possessed by the demon's of the title. By introducing the plot thread that Mia is a recovering heroin addict going through withdrawal, the screenplay attempts to play with the idea that the things Mia sees at first are all in her head, but that is quickly dropped because you can only explain so much from the concept that she is going through a bad withdrawal, and speaking in demonic voices and causing your housemates to start slicing off their own flesh doesn't really fall into that category. Lead actress Jane Levy provides a good performance as Mia, both as the tortured former addict trying to get herself clean, and then as the chilling demonic version, taunting the others both physically and verbally. Shiloh Fernandez is solid as her brother, trying to make sense of the world that is rapid crashing around him as strange things keep happening. Lou Pucci gives a bit of comic relief and also serves as the film's token "geek" who seems to be the only one understanding what is going on and coming up with answers on how to escape. The other two female roles are fairly underdeveloped and the characters fail to register much with us.
Evil Dead missteps in it's last act, with an ending that fails to really provide any significant payoff to what has come before and that also seems to be something of a head scratcher in terms of the film's internal logic. Needless to say, being a remake of a horror film that launched a franchise, there is room left open for a sequel (look, its the Evil Dead, you can more or less count on them being available for another round, right). So, when all is said and done, is this Evil Dead remake successful? Yes and no. The filmmakers were certainly trying their best to take the series back to its horror roots, and if you are looking for a hard core gore fest, you can't do much better than this. Where Evil Dead falls a bit flat is in making the whole experience scary and affecting. It gives it a shot, but doesn't quite grasp the brass ring. You can do worse for remakes, but you can also do better.
When a formerly straight, serious horror film franchise begins turning
to camp, it is typically a sign that the creators are running out of
gas. That would seem to be the case with the Child's Play series based
on the fourth entry, Bride of Chucky. After 3 previously
straightforward films, Bride of Chucky disposes of any pretense that
you should find anything here, well, horrific. Instead, we are treated
to black comedy, one that isn't without it's moments, but on the whole
a sign that perhaps it's time, like toys we have outgrown, Chucky
should be put away.
Set years after the previous entry, Chucky's damaged remains are rescued from an evidence room by Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly), who had been the girlfriend of Chucky's original human form, Charles Lee Ray. After performing a voodoo ritual, Chucky (voiced by Brad Dourif) returns to life, but Tiffany quickly realizes that her hopes of the two of them settling down seem iffy. Chucky doesn't take kindly to being treated like a plaything, so he offs Tiffany and transfers her soul into a female doll. Both then decide to return themselves to their human bodies, so they hitch a ride with eloping lovers Jesse (Nick Stabile) and Jade (a pre-Grey's Anatomy Katherine Heigl) who are headed to New Jersey, where Chucky and Tiffany have plans for the young couple.
Bride of Chucky, written by series creator Don Mancini, realizes that Chucky as a typical horror icon has past his sell by date, so instead elects to, a la Freddy Kruger, transform him into something of an anti- hero here, giving him, and Tiffany, a cadre of one liners to make him the star attraction of this entry. It wouldn't really take much, the plot involving the human characters of Jesse and Jade is about as limp and tacked on as you can get. Their framing device, and the ongoing plot thread that the killings being perpetrated by Chucky and Tiffany are believed to be performed by Jesse and Jade, are here because the filmmakers felt that they needed some kind of normal protagonists to play off Chucky. Stabile and Heigl get the job done, but nothing about Jesse or Jade is interesting, involving or memorable. When the film chooses to focus on them, it more or less grinds to a halt. All the good stuff is reserved for Chucky and Tiffany.
The film contains the usual material you would expect from a slasher film, with a host of gruesome, creative deaths that are fairly graphic. That doesn't translate to anything being scary, however. There isn't much in the way of suspense in Bride of Chucky, and because the lead human characters are so lifeless, we aren't really finding ourselves biting our nails as to what is going to happen to them next. The screenplay also surrounds the leads with some enormously goofy characters, from Jade's overprotective police officer uncle, played by John Ritter as if he was in one of his many sitcom roles, to a Marilyn Manson look-a-like with the rather tongue-in-cheek moniker Damien (Alexis Arquette) who lusts after Tiffany.
Bride of Chucky isn't exactly unenjoyable. Many of the moments involving Chucky and Tiffany are funny, and the film pokes fun both at itself and other horror films more than once. Mancini obviously knew what he was doing when he wrote Bride of Chucky, nothing here seems unintentional, so on the one hand I have to give him a degree of credit for going for the gusto with some of the humorous elements of Bride of Chucky. That doesn't translate to good movie, horror, comedy, or otherwise, perhaps a passable one, but nothing I would see myself revisiting in the future. While Hollywood is always good at continuously mining properties, Chucky is one that, this time, should probably stay buried.
With box-office success and near universal acclaim of the recent Dark
Knight reboot trilogy of films featuring Batman, it's not surprising
that Warner Bros. would hand the reins of their other major tentpole
superhero, Superman, to Christopher Nolan, the co-writer and director
of the Dark Knight films. Nolan elected to serve as a producer and
story writer, not director, for the film that has emerged, Man of
Steel, and it's uncertain how much involvement he had, but one thing is
certain, Man of Steel will most likely not have the lasting impact of
the Dark Knight films. Directed by Zack Snyder and written by David
Goyer, Man of Steel is very much a mixed bag, dealing in some
interesting material concerning Superman's place in the modern world
and in America today, but a lot of the film's strength is undercut by
its later section, where it devolves into a seemingly endless string of
overwrought action sequences that sap most of the entertainment out of
The film revisits Superman's origin in it's opening scenes: Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zuer) give birth to Kal-El, the first natural birth the planet of Krypton has seen in over a millenia, where the population is engineered, not born through standard procreation. Kal-El's birth comes on the cusp of Krypton being destroyed by it's population over harvesting the planet's natural resources. At the same time, Krypton's military leader, General Zod (Michael Shannon), has decided to engage in a coup to wrestle control of the planet from it's leaders that Zod views as inept. Zod is put down, but not before Jor-El launches his son for Earth to escape Krypton's fate.
On Earth, Kal-El is raised by a Kansas farmer and his wife, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, respectively). Jonathan tries to convince Kal-El, named Clark Kent, to keep his powers hidden from the world for fear of how the populace of Earth would react to knowing that an alien was in their midst. Clark grows up (portrayed by Henry Cavill as an adult) and begins wandering the world, uncertain of his place, but also managing to occasionally tip his hard regarding his abilities. Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) begins investigating the stories of Clark following an encounter with him at a dig site of an ancient alien ship that had arrived from Krypton many centuries earlier. On board that ship, Clark discovers the truth about his past from a projection of his father, and he dons his familiar blue and red suit. As Lois begins to close in on Clark's identity, an alien object appears in orbit and turns out to be General Zod and his followers who have managed to survive Krypton's destruction and come to Earth with plans to change the planet, plans that Clark has every intention of stopping.
While Man of Steel does find itself in the unenviable position of revisiting the origin of Superman, Goyer and Snyder do a decent job of not repeating the same path as the original 1978 Superman film. Instead, following the prologue on Krypton, much of the material of Superman's formative years is presented in flashback after Clark has already reached maturity. To their credit, this decision makes the narrative a little more unpredictable. The flashbacks actually provide some of Man of Steel's best moments, as the characters of Jonathan and Martha Kent are given some of the strongest emotional material to work with for the film. Several of the scenes in which Clark finally discovers more about his past from the projection of his father are also engaging as we see Clark learn his past and begin to try to embrace who he is.
However, as Man of Steel progresses, it fails to really dive into it's most interesting aspects with any depth. The film introduces the concept that, unlike most previous versions of the Superman story, the revelation of an otherworldly being living amongst us with super powers would not be welcomed with open arms, but distrust and fear. This approach, and Clark's isolation because of it, are ideas pregnant with possibility, but Man of Steel doesn't do a lot with them. Instead, once Zod and his minions are on Earth, Man of Steel transforms into wall to wall carnage, as we witness Clark and Zod face off in a number of environs where cities, trains, small towns, vehicles, you name it are decimated in an unending orgy of action that quickly wears out it's welcome. No one expects a super hero film to be without action, but Man of Steel cranks everything up to 11 and squelches the narrative underneath.
Most of the characters suffer as a result of Man of Steel's transition to full-bore action film. Lois Lane is presented as a modern investigative reporter who begins to develop some affection for Clark as she unravels his past, but her relationship with him is largely stillborn, resulting in little emotional involvement to their growing affection. Michael Shannon's Zod has some interesting elements to his backstory, but he isn't fleshed out enough for us to really work up any significant distaste for him. Henry Cavill gives a good performance as Clark, and if given more opportunity to delve into the character in future films, he may prove a strong presence, but here there are only hints to some of the potential of this version of Superman. Almost all the other supporting characters aren't given enough screen time to be anything more than passing faces for the most part.
It would be inaccurate to describe Man of Steel as a failure, there is good material here, the film simply transforms into too much action and not enough of anything else to truly soar. If Man of Steel is successful enough for a second film, with any luck the filmmakers will learn from their mistakes and create a truly stellar Superman film.
Now You See Me is a film that is all about obfuscation. Focusing on
four magicians that perform feats of wonder first separately and later
together, from the first frame on, the film engages in cinematic
sleight of hand. However, that formula backfires on the film: by
constantly trying to engage in trickery, the audience finds itself
always on the lookout for it, and by the time it starts winding down,
most of the potential surprises are rendered moot by the fact that we
were looking for and expecting said surprises. Thus, while Now You See
Me is fun and engaging at times, as a twist-filled surprise machine, it
falls flat on it's face.
As the film opens, we are introduced to four illusionists: fast talking street-level card sharp Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), "mentalist" and small-time con man Merrit McKinney (Woody Harrelson), spoon-bending junior magician Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) and show-stopping high-thrills Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher). All of them are given a special card with an address and time on it, and when they all show up at the prescribed time and place, a small apartment in New York, they discover what appears to be a quite elaborate set of plans. Flash forward one year later, and the four magicians are performing as a single act under the moniker The Four Horsemen and are being bankrolled by millionaire Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) During their debut performance in Las Vegas, they close their act with a rather spectacular accomplishment: they transport a French audience member to his bank in France and proceed to steal several billion dollars from it and magically transport it back to the Las Vegas auditorium where they pour it onto the audience.
Unsurprisingly, this gets the attention of the FBI, and agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is assigned to the case. He teams up with Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) and interrogates the Four Horsemen, but with nothing to pin on them, is forced to let them walk. Rhodes seeks the counsel of former magician Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) who now spends his time debunking magicians, revealing what is "behind the curtain". With Bradley's help, Rhodes is able to unravel what happened at the first performance, but the Four Horsemen are already moving on to New Orleans for their next show and Rhodes and Dray are trying to stay one step ahead of them.
Now You See Me is a film that is intended to keep us on our toes, to leave the audience guessing and wondering what the next revelation is going to be. Sometimes these kind of films can work well, engaging in misdirection and providing red herrings and dead ends for us to believe in before showing us what is really going on. Where Now You See Me missteps is that, from very early in the proceedings, the film telegraphs its intentions so loudly that most of the enjoyment of being caught up in twists is lost. That the twists are such a central part of the film is obvious from the start and makes them less engaging than if they evolved more naturally out of the narrative. Now You See Me is designed and built almost exclusively to keep us guessing but by focusing almost exclusively on that, it overreaches.
Now You See Me isn't helped by the fact that the main characters are, save for some quickly introduced character moments and a few exchanges of witty dialogue, almost completely ciphers. Atlas, McKinnney, Wilder and Reeves are barely developed at all, and frankly, excepting for the moments they are performing their stage acts, are not even afforded that much screen time. The screenplay does play a bit with the intentions of the characters, but it is obvious that we are supposed to be rooting for them at times, and it makes it difficult to work up much enthusiasm for them when we barely know them. More screen time is afforded to Rhodes and Dray, and the two develop a romantic chemistry that is palpable at times, but, much like the other characters, they are largely pawns of the screenplay, but they are at least given more to work with than the magicians.
Director Louis Leterrier films Now You See Me in Michael Bay mode: the camera rarely stops moving for more than a few seconds. During the magic acts, especially the first one in Vegas, this does bring a degree of style to the proceedings but at times the over reliance on an endlessly moving camera can prove distracting. However, Leterrier does keep the pace brisk and the energy level high. Now You See Me certainly can't be called boring.
If Now You See Me succeeds anywhere, it is in the casting. Leterrier has pulled together a strong set of performers and, especially regarding the Four Horsemen, what is sometimes lacking in the screenplay is made up for by likable actors. Eisenberg makes Atlas a fast talking smart alec with a nice streak of charisma, Harrelson gives some fun wisecracks and Fisher is, once again, a strong sensual presence with a degree of toughness. Morgan Freeman can't help but class up anything he appears in and his turn here is no different, his Bradley is nice mix of arrogance and charm. Ruffalo is also at his dependable best, a man fighting to stay with his fugitives while barely managing to stay on top of their capers.
It may sound like I am down on Now You See Me, but that isn't completely true. By the time the film was over, I found myself pleasantly engaged and entertained at times, but so much is wrapped up in the film's obvious Rube Goldberg plotting that you can't but help feel disappointed when the film doesn't really deviate from where you expect. Now You See Me is like sneaking a peek at your Christmas gifts: knowing what is coming isn't as much fun as not knowing.
The "Bang-Bang Club" was a moniker given to a group of primarily four
South African photographers who gained notoriety for consistently
putting themselves in harm's way to obtain photographs of the "silent
war" between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha that
raged from 1990 to 1994, leading up to the first free elections in
South Africa that resulted in Nelson Mandela becoming President. The
Bang Bang Club is a film version of those years, focusing on the
primary members of this group, Greg Marinovich, Kevin Carter, Ken
Oosterbroek and Joao Silva. Unfortunately, after watching The Bang Bang
Club, the viewer will walk away from the film with a small degree of
empathy for some of the people caught in the conflict, but mostly
boredom and apathy towards the photographers as The Bang Bang Club
fails to tell a compelling and involving story.
As the film opens, we are introduced to Greg (Ryan Phillippe), a freelance photographer who shows up at a skirmish between the ANC and Inkatha where Kevin (Taylor Kitsch), Ken (Frank Rautenbach) and Joao (Neels Van Jaarsveld) are already in the midst of the action. Greg enters a nearby village, considered a foolhardy move by the other photographers, and manages to get some good photos and talks with the Inkatha warriors. Visiting the local newspaper, The Star, Greg impresses the others with this feat of daring and also manages to catch the eye of the photo editor of the paper, Robin (Malin Akerman). Greg starts joining the others as they go out each day, hoping to find action to photograph, constantly embroiling themselves in harrowing circumstances, surrounded by gunfire and potential bodily harm as the two warring sides face off. In the evenings, the members of the "Bang- Bang Club" drown their adrenaline in drink and engage in trysts with women. However, as the conflict carries on over the years, the members of the Club are finding themselves becoming more detached and desensitized to the ongoing stream of violence and this also leads to breakdowns in their relationships with others who aren't there to witness the acts that they face daily.
The Bang Bang Club deals in some heady material: the waning days of apartheid in South Africa, and how one side, the Inkatha, had a different, more complicated point of view of the situation in the country than the simple argument of wrong vs right. When The Bang Bang Club addresses these issues, it manages to provide some stimulating moments. However, the problem is that, for the most part, The Bang Bang Club doesn't direct its attention on those aspects of the story. Instead, it largely focuses on the photographers who make up the Bang Bang Club and that proves to be very shallow, conventional material too often. There is the potential of a terrific movie in the story of these men jumping into the fight to documenting it, but what is on display here falls short of delivering a powerful story.
The Bang Bang Club puts Marinovich and Carter at the forefront of the narrative, with Oosterbroek and Silva largely in the background as supporting characters, but the film fails to make any of these men tremendously interesting. We see them dodging bullets on the battlefield, but there isn't any significant depth to them. They shoot photos, they drink, they sleep with women, and for much of the running time, that is about it. The only romantic relationship that gets any significant screen time is the one between Marinovich and Robin, but it is lacking in any interest or passion. There is no chemistry between the two, they get together because the screenplay wants them to, not because we feel any attraction between the two. An element of the plot that is given some exploration is the idea that these men are losing their humanity to the constant chase of the next great shot, and in one scene, in which Marinovich is called to a man's home after his wife and son have been killed by police officials to document the events does give a strong emotional undercurrent to how Marinovich has put aside his involvement in the events around him to make sure the photos are good. However, another scene in which Carter is confronted by journalists after a photo he took of a vulture stalking a small child outside a feeding station wins a Pulitzer Prize comes across as forced and obvious. Carter tries to answer questions about why he only took the photo and not help the child, and it is a considerable issue to confront, but it is handled in such a manipulative way that the scene loses its power.
Phillipe and Kitsch, in the roles of Marinovich and Carter, are both OK in their parts, but neither are delivering stellar work. Of the two, Kitsch receives a juicier role as Carter, who is the more psychologically unstable of them, and at times manages to tap into some of the mental anguish that Carter experiences, but still, he proves a limited character. Phillipe does a good job of showing us how detached Marinovich is from the basic human emotions being stirred by those around him as he focuses on getting the right framing or lighting, but Marinovich is still often a blank slate. Akerman gets the thankless role of love interest, as the film doesn't give her much depth beyond that. She's easy on the eyes, but there isn't a lot for her to do.
The Bang Bang Club was directed by Steven Silver, who has a background in documentary filmmaking, and it shows at times. Many of the scenes are filmed in a hand-held "you are there" style which can make the audience feel it is part of the proceedings, but style isn't really The Bang Bang Club's problems. It's inability to make these men's situation involving and to not give the greater conflict its due at times is ultimately The Bang Bang Club's undoing.
When he entered the California Governor's mansion a decade ago, I
frankly expected that was the end of the acting career of Arnold
Schwarzenegger. Considering most of his biggest successes were action
films, and he was moving past the years that it would be reasonable to
expect him to land leading man action roles, it wouldn't have surprised
anyone if he hung up his acting duds permanently. However, with his
stint in California politics over, Arnold Schwarzenegger is right back
in the acting saddle, complete with an action film, The Last Stand.
While trailers and synopses make The Last Stand seem like nothing
special, which, deep down, it really isn't, it still manages to be a
fun and energetic throw back to the 80s actioners that Schwarzenegger
made his name with.
The plot of The Last Stand is hardly involved: drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noreiga) has been busted out of federal custody in Las Vegas and is now driving a souped up Corvette at high speed to the U.S.-Mexico border, where he plans to cross within a few miles of the town of Sommerton, assisted by hired thug Burrell (Peter Stormare). However, what Cortez doesn't know is that Sommerton's sheriff is former L.A. drug task force officer Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) who fled the big city for the sleepy environs of Sommerton after some particularly nasty experiences in L.A. With his deputies Mike Figuerola (Luis Guzman), Sarah Torrence (Jaimie Alexander), Jerry Bailey (Zach Gilford), local gun collector Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) and former soldier Frank Martinez (Rodrigo Santoro) to assist, Ray is determined to stop Cortez from reaching Mexico, even as federal agent John Bannister (Forest Whittaker) tries to disuade him from taking on Cortez from afar.
The Last Stand isn't really going to tax anyone's brain power throughout it's running time. It is a straightforward affair, there aren't much in the way of any twists and turns to the narrative, no serious moral or ethical quandaries (unless you consider the age old movie battle of good vs evil in about as uncomplicated a form as it gets) and just enough character development for you to get an inkling as to who the players are and a little of their background. The Last Stand isn't setting it's sights high, but frankly, that's not a bad thing. Like so many B-movies of old, The Last Stand knows what it is and doesn't ascribe to be much else.
The Last Stand has more than a few well-shot and edited action sequences, from the villain's escape from custody near the opening of the film, to the eventual battle of good guys against bad guys as the film winds down, The Last Stand delivers the action film goods. This is nothing revolutionary, but it is assembled into a slick, engaging package that keeps the pace moving along briskly without resorting to the over-edited, shaky cam action messes we have been exposed to in recent years. Korean director Jee-woon Kim knows how to put his action set-pieces together to keep you involved.
The Last Stand has some of the typical low-key comedy that was often the stable of Schwarzenegger's earlier films. There are a few nice one- liners here and there for him to chew on, and it's obvious that Knoxville has been retained to bring some levity to the proceedings. While The Last Stand has it's serious moments, one of the things that makes it enjoyable to watch is the lighter touch the film has. Yes, it hits many of the staples of this kind of film, the underdog heroes banding together to fight off the bad guy, complete with a montage sequence showing them readying for battle, but it still proves to be like a cinematic warm blanket: comfortable enough for you to enjoy the familiarity.
The Last Stand also recognizes that Schwarzenegger is a little older than your typical action film star and mines some decent moments here and there. Several scenes relate the typical "getting old" jokes you expect from this type of material, so the filmmakers and Schwarzenegger are approaching that aspect of the film dead on, while still providing what we expect from an action film. At time credulity is strained that the average man in his mid 60s would be able to pull off some of the things that Ray does in the film, but I wasn't expecting a true to life experience from The Last Stand when I walked in.
Schwarzenegger won't win any particular accolades for his performance in The Last Stand, but he is back in his usual, dependable form in this first starring role in a decade. His character has been tempered to match the actor's age. Ray seems interested in keeping things quiet and easy in his life, but knows how to kick-ass when the time comes. Luis Guzman delivers a nice mix of charm and light comic relief as his top deputy, Knoxville does his usual schtick but doesn't really wear out his welcome. As the villain, Noriega is appropriately dastardly, shooting a cop early in the proceedings after reminding him of his family, and he wants to drive the Corvette to freedom because, well, its just sounds like fun. Stormare is also appropriately seedy as Burrell, Noriega's henchman, giving us a reasonably hissable foe to root against. Whittaker does the best he can with a mostly thankless role, but provides his usual capable performance.
The Last Stand won't go down as something people will remember fondly as any kind of ground-breaking film achievement, but it is hardly one that will leave you walking out of the theater hanging your head in disappointment. The Last Stand does what it was designed to do, does it well, and provides a nice slice of popcorn munching movie entertainment. As Schwarzenegger's vehicle to return to Hollywood stardom, he could have done a lot worse.
With the success of 2008's Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker under their
belts, it shouldn't have been tremendously surprising that director
Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal would chose to make a film
chronicling the decade long search for Osama Bin Laden that culminated
in his death at the hands of Navy Seals in May of 2011. The resulting
production, Zero Dark Thirty, is a strong, at times involving, story of
obsession and the, at times, monotonous and detail oriented search for
Bin Laden that largely revolves around a single, dedicated individual.
Zero Dark Thirty begins with audio clips of the assault on the Twin Towers of September 11, 2001 and then jumps forward a few years later, where we see the rough interrogation techniques being applied by the CIA to Al Qaeda members to attempt to glean the location of Bin Laden. The early scenes largely focus on fresh CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Dan (Jason Clarke) a more grizzled veteran of relentless torture of the various detainees. The two of them, overseen by the Pakistan chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), utilize a wide variety of approaches to break the men down, getting various references to a shadowy courier of information for Bin Laden, Abu Ahmed. As the years stretch on, various incidents of bombings, including one in London, another in Pakistan, and a devastating attack on a U.S. base in Afghanistan, lead the various CIA superiors to begin questioning the search for Bin Laden, but Maya, who has devoted her every waking moment to the hunt, refuses to give in. When a happenstance of information crosses her attention, she is able to eventually determine, with the help of a military operative, Larry (Edgar Ramirez), what she believes is the location of Bin Laden at a heavily fortified compound in Pakistan. She must then convince the CIA that Bin Laden is there so they can move forward with a plan to take him out.
Zero Dark Thirty is a film that is driven almost exclusively by plot, recounting the various major events of the years since 2001 to the eventual raid on Bin Laden's compound in 2011. Various characters come and go in the course of the story, but few are given much of an opportunity to grow beyond the technical dialogue they are given to recite. The exception, for the most part, is Jessica Chastain's Maya. We still learn very little about her beyond a few details here and there, but some of that is one of the film's central points: Maya has allowed herself to be all consumed by the search for Bin Laden that she has let it subsume the rest of her life. In one scene, a co-worker of Maya asks her about her friends and a boyfriend, and she cannot respond in the positive to either question. What character driven aspects there are to Zero Dark Thirty are almost exclusively derived from Maya's story.
The early scenes of Zero Dark Thirty can prove a bit disorienting to watch at times. The filmmakers throw a lot of acronyms, technical jargon and half explained dialogue at the audience, and it is up to us to try and see if we can keep up. On the one hand, I appreciate the filmmaker's willingness to not dumb down the material to keep it extra accessible for the general movie-going public, but on the other hand, by constantly trying to scratch out some semblance of what is going on, the film does lose of some of it's draw. Eventually, the details begin to coalesce into a story you can generally follow, but at times it feels like we are one step behind the details being unspooled on the screen.
Some have criticized Zero Dark Thirty's depiction of torture by the CIA operatives on the various Al Qaeda members, and it even seems to take a neutral stance on the use of those techniques. Many of the torture scenes are harrowing to watch, as human beings are treated as animals by the agents trying to glean information from their prisoners. Zero Dark Thirty isn't a meditation on the ethics and morality of the use of torture, however, it is simply telling a story of what happened, and the filmmakers choose not to shy away from the darker aspects of that hunt.
Bigelow and Boal do an exceptional job of building suspense at key moments in the film. More than once, the film will jump to a specific moment in time to correspond to a particular event that occurred over the course of the last 10 years, and the build of tension until a seemingly unavoidable moment of violence unfolds is effective and palpable. Other moments are without warning, as the films forward momentum is suddenly punctuated by an unexpected jolt. Both techniques work well and keep you riveted and involved in the film. The only time this fails to deliver is a late action scene involving Maya outside her home in Pakistan as the film careens towards a rather expected development. It doesn't rob it of power, but it still seems more and more certain before it arrives.
Zero Dark Thirty's cornerstone is the final raid on the Bin Laden compound. It unfolds without music, in a very matter of fact fashion, lacking the sensationalism of most thrillers or action films. Zero Dark Thirty lives up to its perception of being true to events as they happened. Nevertheless, this sequence provides an at times moving climax as the events of the previous two hours finally lead to a resolution.
Zero Dark Thirty isn't perfect, its early scenes can prove disorienting, and the film's lack of emotional depth can keep us at arm's lengths to the proceedings on the screen at times, but nonetheless, it is an effective thriller that delivers an at times powerful tale of one woman's unwavering dedication to complete her mission, moving all obstacles in her path.
If you have a fetishistic love of gore or weird sexuality, then Faust:
Love of the Damned is the movie for you. If, however, you appreciate
coherent plotting, passable acting and some semblance of purpose other
than to showcase gore and weird sexuality, then Faust: Love of the
Damned may not be your cup of tea. I find I generally fall in the
latter camp, as Faust: Love of the Damned proved a rather wearisome
viewing experience for me.
I could explain the plot for Faust: Love of the Damned, but that would require the film to have much of a plot and for me to understand it, and, frankly, Faust comes up short on both fronts. Theoretically, Faust is the story of John Jaspers (Mark Frost), a painter who watches his girlfriend savagely murdered by some local toughs she owes money too, who is so consumed with revenge that he makes a deal with M (Andrew Divoff) for the power to exact his revenge in return for John's eternal soul. As far as the film shows us, though, he made a rather lousy deal, because M just puts some fancy razors on John's arms, and then he proceeds to slice up the responsible parties with them, failing to realize that, well, he didn't really need M's deal to do that. No matter, there wouldn't be a film without said deal, and in addition to signing over his soul, M uses John as his tool to lay waste to a Chinese consulate because, well, the film isn't very clear on that. After the scene at the consulate, John is sentenced to a mental ward, where the fetching Jade de Camp (Isabel Brook) tries to get through to him with her "music therapy". Meanwhile, police Lieutenant Margolies (Jeffery Combs) thinks something is fishy with the whole consulate killings, and begins an investigation.
After the above, Faust devolves into a meandering mess that is one part horror film, one part offbeat comedy and one part superhero film. However, nothing in the film really makes sense. M is trapped in a human body he wants to escape from, and is trying to resurrect Hommunculus, an ancient demon, for which a ritual is fast approaching. Who is M, really, you ask? The devil? Maybe, maybe Hommunculus is, I'm not sure. What did signing over John's soul and giving him powers do? I'm also not sure, but it turns out to be a bad move, because John manages to start using his new powers to attempt to thwart M by transforming into a creature that looks like a demon, but with a webby membrane of wings that looks suspiciously like a cape. Meanwhile, one of M's henchmen, Claire (Monica Van Campen) seduces John and most every other character she comes in contact with and engages in rough sex with them, often culminating in some bloody display of murder or torture after that. And Margolies is searching for some information about what is going on, but I'm not entirely sure what that information is, or what he plans to do with it.
Basically, Faust is a mess, scenes punctuated by vicious bloodletting or kinky sex, including one rather amusing, and head scratching, scene in which M tortures Claire for plotting against him by making her breasts and buttocks expand exponentially until she basically is a blob of over-sized flesh on the floor. The moments when John transforms into his demon/superhero alter-ego are rather ridiculous, thanks in part to the silly make-up effects for the demon, complete with the aforementioned cape that just flops around when it looks like it should be taut wings. It also doesn't help that most of those scenes are scored by an annoying heavy metal soundtrack that robs the film of any creepy atmosphere. The acting ranges from acceptable, in the form of Combs and Divoff, to astonishingly bad with Frost. Most of the scenes where is supposed to be displaying rage are just him pursing his lips and pouting at camera. Isabel Brook is somewhere in the middle, and Van Campen is just over the top silliness all the time. Most of the actors are probably doing the best they can considering they are delivering inane dialogue to support a nonsensical plot.
Faust is directed by Brian Yuzna, a longtime producer/director of low- budget horror films that started off with him producing some of the seminal mid-80s movies of Stuart Gordon, including Re-Animator and From Beyond. Those films, along with the productions Yuzna would later start directing himself, were often weird affairs, displaying a mix of humor, horror and sexuality, so Faust isn't really that far off from Yuzna's typical material, but many of those earlier films had some degree of story and purpose, and also contained some good humor or scares. Faust does have the sex and the blood, but it lacks almost anything else you would expect from a good film, even a low-budget genre piece such as this. Faust is just out and out bad, occasionally amusing or titillating, yes, but nothing more than that.
There was a time when Clint Eastwood was almost exclusively known as a
Western star. From his first major success, the TV series Rawhide, to
the Sergio Leone directed Man With No Name trilogy of films, the
Western genre was Eastwood's bread and butter into the 1970s. With his
marquee name, well respected director John Sturges at the helm, and
novelist Elmore Leonard scripting, the 1972 release Joe Kidd would seem
likely to be another feather in Eastwood's Western cap. However, even
with the best cooks in the kitchen, sometimes you can't quite make a
top caliber meal, and that sums up Joe Kidd well, falling short of
being a great, or frankly, even good Western.
As Joe Kidd opens, the titular hero (Eastwood), is sleeping off a drunk and disorderly arrest in the town jail. When he is hauled in front of the Judge to have sentence passed the proceedings are interrupted by the arrival of Luis Chalma (John Saxon), a Mexican landowner who is fed up with the U.S. government failing to recognize his and his compatriots land claims from when the Spanish ruled the land. Chalma attempts to kidnapped the Judge but Joe foils the plot. Soon, land baron Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) arrives and offers Kidd a deal: he will pay him $500 to help him hunt down and kill Chalma to stop him from raising questions about the land. At first Joe declines, but when he returns home to find friends assaulted by Chalma as he left the area, Joe changes his find and joins the hunt for Chalma with Harlan and his henchmen, but Joe soon realizes that may have been a mistake.
Joe Kidd is the Western genre largely on autopilot. Many elements from countless other westerns are there with little deviation from the norm: a small, one street town, a gruff hero with little penchant for words and a ruthless, money grubbing villain interested in keeping the small man down. As the film unfolds, there is little about the proceedings that stretch the genre much at all. Leonard tries to introduce a small variation by suggesting the possibility that Chalma, who more or less fills the standard role of the heavy early on, is actually in the right with his desire to have his land claims observed, but Joe Kidd does little to flesh this out, it merely serves as a plot device when the script requires one. Joe Kidd doesn't push any boundaries or stretch any horizons, staying very firmly on well tread territory.
Eastwood portrays his rather typical role as Joe Kidd, a man of few words. Eastwood could essay this role in his sleep by this point in his career, and there is little in Joe Kidd that would cause him to move beyond his comfort zone. Robert Duvall plays a at times slimy villain, but there is really little about Harlan that makes him stand out from the normal pack of Western villains. He's greedy, mean and nasty, but that is about all we learn about him. John Saxon takes on a similar type of role that other actors such as Eli Wallach had realized before: a white American actor cast in the role of a Hispanic Mexican. He gives a capable performance as Chalma, but nothing exemplary. Like the other leads, Saxon is held back by the thin script, there isn't a lot of meat on the bones of Chalma for him to sink his teeth into.
Standardized genre films can sometimes provide reasonably entertaining vehicles, but Joe Kidd is so lackluster and rote, and also lacking much in the way of suspense or action, that it can't really manage to summon up enough entertainment value to help transcend it's boilerplate plotting and characters to make it stand out. It is unfortunate with such a roster of talent behind and in front of the camera that something better couldn't have been created, but alas Joe Kidd is a much lesser entry in Eastwood's Western canon.
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