Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Conjuring (2013)

"Welcome to our sanguinary sect of worship. Feel at home in our black conventicle as we anathematize all of those who oppose us."

Okay I got that out of the way. Man, I hope you guys really like 80's speed metal or that's going to be quite the cryptic introduction.

You know, it's a funny thing. I'm not exactly sure why certain movies get critically fawned over while others which are just like it are relatively dismissed as "okay" by the masses. In this particular case I'm talking about "The Conjuring" and "Insidious," which were both by James Wan, a very skilled director who has a knack for twisting around the cliches of the horror genre and giving us something blessedly innovate on a fairly regular basis. I think the fact that the man made what is arguably the only great PG-13 horror movie ever is testament enough to his skill. Hell, I put it as the tenth best film I saw in 2011.

"Insidious" was a obscenely good film that was scary as hell, but it was only met with lukewarm reaction. Then a few years later Wan makes "The Conjuring," which was also a good movie. But unlike "Insidious," it got rave reviews and was being praised fairly roundly as a tour de force in horror. And while I'll be the first to agree that "The Conjuring" was indeed quite a good little retro-vibe horror flick, there remains one burning question for me: Why this and not "Insidious?"


Although from a story perspective the two films are obviously nothing alike apart from a spirit there is no escape from tormenting a family and possessing one of them (okay I guess there are striking similarities), from a tone and style standpoint it's very familiar territory. If one of them scared you the other one will, too, because it's the same style of horror in each case. Only with "The Conjuring" it's rated R for some unknown, unexplainable reason. I don't know. Whatever. The world is weird, I guess.

"The Conjuring" is very much a horror film in the style an old-school 70's chiller. It's got a deliberate pace to it, the camera conceals more than it shows, and it makes you work a bit for the payoff. Many modern horror films of the last few decades are horrified themselves of the thought of the audience getting bored, which is why you get that annoying phenomenon of abundant fake-out scares trying to frighten us with somebody tapping someone else's shoulder and the like. "The Conjuring," much like every other James Wan film I've seen, has mercifully abolished this practice and requires jump scares to involve something that is actually scary jumping out at you.

Like Ron Livingston's hair.

And, much like you'd expect, plenty of scary things do indeed jump out at you in this familiar tale of a family moving into a creepy old place that you could not pay me nor I'm guessing the vast majority of people enough money to live in, because it's clearly packed to the brim with evil. I thought that was clear from the get-go, but then again I'm pretty much conditioned at this point to assume any house in the country possessing of a basement and a screen door that creaks to be the realm of Satan.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play the paranormal investigative team of Ed and Lorraine Warren, who were later famously involved in "The Amityville Horror." They assist the Perron family of Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters after something in their house decides that it's going to torment the crap out of them. You all know the drill by now: Things grab people in the middle of the night, animals die, doors slam, voices are heard, messed up things are seen, an impossibly sordid backstory for the house is uncovered, and all that other good stuff.

Oh no! He's asking her to join him in his infernal depths! Mephisto's Hall of Fame!

All of this is very well done, with stretches of truly hair-raising situations which approach torturous with how intensely uncomfortable and creepy they are to sit through. That's subjective for everyone, I know, but I have a hard time anyone could watch the "clap clap" scene that was so prominent in the trailer, or a later scene when Lili Taylor is trapped in the basement to be anything other than supremely creepy. It's those moments, and there are a number of them, that just hold you down and pummel you with the tension that makes "The Conjuring" worth it.

The whole cast was great but I'd like to call out the girls that played the daughters because they were all fantastic. A few of them got lost in the fold, so to speak, since there were five of them and there wasn't time to give them all very well defined personalities, but Shanley Caswell as the oldest daughter, Andrea, and Joey King as Christine, one of the younger girls stood out among the rest. In particular I loved the scene where Christine sees something in the black corner of her bedroom. That was probably one of the scariest bits of the whole movie, actually, and it was completely sold on Joey's performance, which she knocked out of the park.

Oh relax. It's just the Devil's advocate. A salesman, if you will.

The only weak link I found in "The Conjuring" was a very silly introductory scene involving a doll that in no dimension anywhere close to our own would ever, EVER be made considering how cartoonishly evil it looks. Other than that I really don't have anything negative to say about it. This is a really solid horror flick. I still like "Insidious" a little bit better, but that's only because "Insidious" was a little more creative with the plot. "The Conjuring" does what it does extremely well, but let's be honest with ourselves: You always know where it's going.

I guess for a good scary movie, one need not summon the Devil or call a priest. If you need the strength, "The Conjuring!"

Okay that was pretty tortured on a Gene Shallot level. But hey, I got that last reference in. \m/


Man, this trailer is awesome.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "The Conjuring" is a great film. Like all of James Wan's horror flicks, it defines some conventions of the genre to give a fresh yet familiar spin to what it well-trodden ground, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Crawlspace (2012)

Dang. Looking at my posts, I realize that I haven't seen a good IFC Midnight film since last August. "Kill List," the first film from that distributor that I wrote about for this blog, was a fantastically intense drop down a rabbit hole of madness, but everything I've watched since then has been middling at best to outright horrendous at worst. And I really like IFC Midnight stuff usually, so it's time for them to step up to the damn plate here.

Australia's "Crawlspace" isn't going to bring glory back to IFC Midnight single-handed like it was Conan hoisting the severed head of Thulsa Doom into the air or anything, but at the very least it is a life preserver to keep it above water, so to speak. It probably won't be finding its way into my collection, unless I need to round out a "5 for 10" deal or something, but at the very least it didn't offend me. And after seeing something like "Rites of Spring," that's such a relief that it almost makes the whole thing worth it on that fact alone.

The story starts us off cold with a woman waking up to find herself laying in one of those giant "only exists in movies" air shafts, with a giant surgical scar on her head and mutilated bodies all around her. From her reaction it's pretty clear this is not something she was expecting to wake up to. Looking at her wrist she sees a metal doohickey that says "EVE" on it. Now, Eve is clearly supposed to be her name, but given the fact that she's dressed just like her I'm choosing to believe that it's really Chell from "Portal" and that GLaDOS has had a particularly fun afternoon.

"Well done. Here come the test results: 'You are a horrible person.' That's what it says. 'A horrible person.' We weren't even testing for that."

Now, anybody worth two braincells would instantly put several things together here from the first 40 seconds. First is that Eve is obviously an experiment given the brain surgery scar. Second is that given her name, she's the first of a new line of most likely weaponized humans, probably created by a shady government. Third is that she clearly killed those people in the vent with her, and she's got some kind of amnesia. It's all pretty obvious, and yeah that's pretty much what's going on. I don't feel bad about spoiling that. If you didn't pick up on it, clearly you aren't a big consumer of science fiction, and I feel bad for you.

The point I'm trying to illustrate here is that there isn't a whole lot of innovation going on with the story of "Crawlspace." That's not to say it's bad, though. Despite the fact that we may have seen stories very similar to this before (in fact it's very similar to a plot you'd see in a video game), it's got enough style and intrigue to keep our attention throughout. And dare I say, this is probably close to what you would have gotten had the "Resident Evil" franchise been given a proper adaptation.

You know, despite not having a plot anything like "Resident Evil." And stuff. SHUT UP I WATCHED THIS AND YOU DIDN'T SO YOU HAVE TO TAKE MY WORD FOR IT.

The majority of the film is following around a squad of soldiers who have been sent into the facility to wipe out the population after things go very, very bad inside. As per the course for situations like this, the soldiers come across people they can't bring themselves to kill despite the fact they are trained for that very purpose. That crap usually bugs me, and yeah it bugged me at first here, too, but at least by the end an entirely plausible explanation is given to us. So I can't really be that mad. Besides, there's no movie if they capped Eve in the dome the second they met her, so I guess they've got me there.

Along the way they met some crazy experiments, crazy people, and crazy people who have had experiments done on them. Lots of things get shot, people get torn to shreds, minds are literally blown, and some surgical saws are taken to the face. All in all, it's quite the eventful afternoon.

"For my next trick, I'm going to make the audience very uncomfortable!"

I think there were three reasons why "Crawlspace" worked fairly well for me. The first was that it was subtle enough in its revealing of the plot that, despite the cliches which worked their way into the story, there was a great sense of mystery to it which kept me invested and curious throughout. And to be honest there were some things they threw in which I was not expecting, including a very well done framing device at the end which left a nice aftertaste once the credits started rolling.

Secondly, the film is claustrophobic and cramped enough to be fairly intense from the setting alone, and the Fincher-esque color palette gives it a great sleazy sheen that reminds me of "Alien 3," which love it or hate it is a gorgeous movie. It's also nice to see a film that is mostly very dark but is still discernible as to what's going on. The lighting in "Crawlspace" is doing a lot of legwork for the mood, and deserves a lot of credit.

Lastly the cast is strong enough to make you really care about the characters, again, as stock as they may be. You really don't want to see bad things happen to them, as much as that is a guaranteed certainty. It's surprising how often movies forget to have likable characters, but here they are all pretty likeable even if they're jerks. Amber Clayton as Eve was mysterious and fun to watch, as was Peta Sergeant as the not-Vasquez of the squad of soldiers. My favorite though was Eddie Baroo as the soldier named "Fourpack." Because he's a couple cans short of a six, see?

"C'mon daan ta Sydney. We'll geet tageetha, have a few laughs..."

You know, I've seen a lot of movies like this in my time. A lot. A hell of a lot. But that doesn't mean that I can't enjoy one that comes along and does it well. It's frankly a minor miracle when they're not terrible. And "Crawlspace" mostly certainly is not terrible. In fact, had it been a video game movie, it probably would have been one of the better ones ever made. It certainly feels like one. So take that for what it's worth.

I actually really like this trailer.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "Crawlspace" is a fun, bloody action flick with a dash of science fiction to give it a slight "X-Files" vibe. Granted it's a hyper violent episode of it, but Scully and Mulder would be right at home. If an action packed, R-rated "X-Files" episode sounds like a good time to go, have at it, hoss. You could much worse than this.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Stoker (2013)

I was told that "Stoker" was a work of some impressive skill, which was something I found no cause to doubt given that the directer, Chan-wook Park is a man whose works I have greatly enjoyed in the past, particularly "Oldboy" and "Thirst." Comparisons to Hitchcock were rampant and thrown around so much when discussing "Stoker" that I felt like ducking lest I be struck by a fat man flying through the air. With all the praise, I was expecting something pretty solid.

Man was I not on board for this one. I hated "Stoker." I hated it hard. I hated it nearly worse than any other film I've seen this year, and it almost made the very exclusive "I hit the STOP button club." This film was insufferable.

The best way I can describe "Stoker" is that it's what would happen if Terrence Malick made a thriller and was forced to include a plot, I"m sure against his will and kicking and screaming the entire time. Like Malick's films it has similar flowery prose, glacial pace, cryptic storyline, baffling performances, and ham-fisted symbolism that would be a bit more effective if it weren't so overt. I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it pretentious, as that's probably too harsh of a word, but it most definitely is obtuse and quite pleased with itself. So it's parked down the street just a couple doors down from pretentious.

Holy crap! Uncle Charlie is the kid's mother!?

I'm not saying it's terrible, though. It's just not my kind of movie. I suppose this is one enjoyed by people who like to throw out to phrase "I like movies that make me think," whatever that's supposed to mean. Personally I don't need a movie to be pretentious or artsy to get my brain fired up because I always think about whatever it is that I'm watching, often to my own detriment. Those that are artsy I usually find to be obnoxious because they're trying too hard. Again, that's just me.


"Stoker" is about an 18-year old girl named India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), whose father has just died in a car crash. At the funeral, she meets her uncle Charles (Matthew Goode), who then proceeds to stay with India and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). Charles is a man of the "I am obviously a psychopath" variety, which is most telling because he comes across like a mash-up of a Killbot from Omicron Persei 8, Dracula and Norman Bates. Actually there's not a small amount of Anthony Perkins in Goode's performance, something I'm sure wasn't unintentional.

As with every movie with the same kind of "The Stepfather"-ish setup, I am always intensely annoyed by the fact that nobody seems to be concerned that the clearly crazy person is crazy. Most of the problems presented could easily be solved by someone noticing that Charles is a creepy whack-job. But "Stoker" addresses this by basically having everyone be crazy, so Charles' weirdness gets a bit lost in the fold. Touche, I suppose.

"Oh hey, India. What's up? I'm just going to tap on the glass with these here pruning shears and then open and close them really quickly in your face while staring straight at you and smirking like "OH MAN I'M GOING TO DICE YOU UP WITH THESE LOL." That's what people do, right? I'm acting normal right now, aren't I? Hey where are you going?"

We learn in a twist that India is also insane, and that the arrival of Charles essentially coxed her inner psycho out, which is the lynchpin of the film. I guess crazy runs in the family. This would have been somewhat shocking had Mia Wasikowska not also played her part as an alien who learned human behavior by observing mannequins and Damion from "The Omen." I really don't know why I'm supposed to be surprised by India pleasuring herself in the shower after snapping a guy's neck. Hell, I was waiting for her to rip out a random passerby's entrails with her teeth and play jump-rope with them at any minute from the start of the damn movie.

No, I don't feel bad for not posting "Spoiler Alert" for that. She is clearly psychopathic.

And that's about it. Clearly crazy uncle shows up, rich white people problems happen, clearly crazy main character becomes more crazy, people die, nobody is surprised. I really don't know what the whole point of the damn thing was. To be honest I'm not a huge fan of Hitchcock, but there's no way "Stoker" is worthy of comparisons to his work. And that's taking into consideration that "Stoker" is a rip-off of "Shadow of a Doubt."

The trailer makes this film look far more thrilling than it really is.

THE BOTTOM LINE - It may have pretty things to look at, including some creative transitions between scenes, but the fact that "Stoker" is admittedly stylistically pleasant doesn't change the fact that it's dull and plodding with performances too weird for it's own good. I can see someone liking it but I very nearly couldn't finish the damn thing.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Suicide Girls Must Die! (2010)

Seeing as I honestly had little to no idea whatsoever as to what to expect from "Suicide Girls Must Die!," I went into it with a fairly open mind. I thought the concept was a fascinating one, and perhaps at the very least it might be shockingly difficult to watch as these poor girls are put through this situation where they actually think they're being killed off one by one. Maybe it would be a borderline tasteless exercise in exploitation that would provide some discussion afterwards or produce a sense of dirtiness which would be unpleasant yet would still be an effective emotional response. Or on the other hand it could simply be really bad.

I'll give you a guess which one it was, but the answer is fairly obvious.

Yeah, it was pretty bad. There may have been an effective movie in here somewhere, or a decent social experiment to be found and documented, but "Suicide Girls Must Die!" is not it. What it is in truth is simply an episode of any random crappy faux-reality TV show with a lot of female nudity injected into it. So I don't know, maybe someone could enjoy that. At least the nudity anyway.

I must admit that aspect was well-executed and abundant.

The way "Suicide Girls Must Die!" was marketed was that of the "world's first reality horror movie." Twelve models from SuicideGirls.com go to a cabin in the woods for a photo-shoot, only to start disappearing in mysterious ways that imply death. It's pretty clear to us that it's a setup and that nobody is actually dying, but the rest of the girls that are left don't know that. So eventually there's only a few girls remaining, and in between getting naked they freak out a lot before running around in the woods like idiots and thinking everyone is dead before the reveal at the end of "Hey, everyone is alright, ha ha ha you guys are assholes, let's go home."

"Damn this unholy acting talent!!!"

That may sound intriguing but honestly it's just boring. The film is essentially an endless cycle of girls bitching about how much the other girls annoy them, then going through several stages of undress and then doing photo-shoots where they just dispense of clothes all together, then the one that just did the shoot disappears, the others bitch about the fact that the boss doesn't seem worried about finding her, they bitch some more and then the circle continues unbroken. It's like looking at a Playboy that yells at you every time you turn the page while it takes pulls of Captain Morgan straight out of the bottle.

It's also more than a bit confusing. I, being the idiot that I am, kept trying to determine whether or not the girls knew what was happening. At first it's just slightly plausible that it's for real, but while I'm positive there was never any actual script to be found here it's clear by the end that there's no way everyone didn't know what was going on. Although some of the acting is surprisingly good for the subject matter, it's clear that's all it is: an act. The biggest tell was the fact that nobody ever acknowledges the cameras following them around, including when they're running for their lives or stranded in a boat.

"Damn. If only there were somebody standing on the shore filming us, we could ask them for help."

I know it's a silly thing to ask for any kind of actual innovation or boundary pushing when it comes to what is essentially an hour and a half long promo for a borderline soft-core porn website, but "Suicide Girls Must Die!" can't seem to decide if it wants to be a horror movie or just lite spank material. There are horror elements, but none are followed through with. We get several setups including desecrated graves, a crazy man in the woods, a potentially murderous hillbilly and even a sheriff who doesn't like them much. Each one of these possible causes is given a single scene and then never mentioned again. There's never a clear cut villain or causation as to the setup of the girls disappearing.

And even when the girls are seen "dead," it's for we the viewers, and not the remaining girls. The bodies are always out in the middle of the woods away from everyone else, never to be seen, which begs the question: "If this is supposed to be a setup then why did they go to all that trouble of lynching that one girl up in a tree and filming it if none of the girls being messed with ever see it?"

All that just kills whatever premise or suspension of disbelief that this film attempted to have. Whatever. I'm thinking about it too hard. Just look at the boobs. It's what this thing exists for. I guess I can accept that. And I must admit..."Suicide Girls Must Die!" is spectacular at showing us boobs.

Wait. There's an actual trailer for this thing? That...honestly surprises me.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "Suicide Girls Must Die!" is a boring collection of admittedly very attractive tattooed and pierced girls getting naked in the format of a bad reality TV show. If you're a 13-year old boy this will be like a religious experience, I'm sure. No judgement, we've all been there. But for the rest of us, if you just want to see boobs, there are better and less time-consuming ways to do so.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Pacific Rim (2013)

Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable.

I know I've spoken at great, most likely annoying lengths throughout the course of this blog about my dislike of Michael Bay. I could probably start a glue factory what with all the horse corpses I have laying around to pummel as a result of it. I give him credit where credit is due, as my shockingly glowing review of "Pain & Gain" proves, but that is the rare exception to the norm. Overwhelmingly Bay is a hack to rival anyone rated among the most notorious, and his money-factory juggernaut films represent nearly everything that is evil and wrong with the lowest-common-denominator-seeking industry that we find ourselves saddled with.

And Guillermo del Toro just gave him the biggest, most thunderous and glorious pimp-slap that has ever been recorded in human history.

Michael Bay needs to be strapped into a chair a la "A Clockwork Orange" and forced to watch "Pacific Rim" 47,000 times in a row. In between each repeat of the film, for 10 minutes the screen will flash the words "THIS IS HOW YOU DO GIANT ROBOTS FIGHTING, YOU ASS!!!" After he's done those words will be tattooed on the inside of his eyelids in florescent paint so he will forever see it when he closes his eyes in a constant reminder of how much his "Transformers" series sucks in comparison, and how to make the inevitable sequels better.

Lots of this is a good start. Honestly it's not that complicated.

What Guillermo del Toro has managed to accomplish with "Pacific Rim" is creating one of the most entertaining, thoroughly rousing and consistently surprising action films I've seen since...I can't even recall off the top of my head. Nothing has really ever come close with the obvious exception of some of the Millennial "Godzilla" films, and even they didn't have moves like "Pacific Rim" has.

"Pacific Rim" is a musclebound madman who throws you in his truck, starts flying down the highway at 193 mph and then, while still driving, sticks your head out the door and grinds your face off with the pavement like the world's most insane belt-sander until all that's left is a gleaming skull, but you're still alive but can only communicate by growling Opeth lyrics. Then he takes you to a garage where they chrome your head, strap you to the nose of a spaceship like you're a hood ornament and launches you into the sun while a crew of vikings do battle with space-axes on the outer hull of the ship. That's how hardcore "Pacific Rim" is: It should have space vikings.

Hell yes.

Like all of del Toro's works, "Pacific Rim" is a love letter to the genre it occupies. In this case the genre is in line with the Japanese "Kaiju" monster movies, of which the likes of "Godzilla" and "Gamera" and whatnot are the most famous. It's a bit of a niche genre, for sure, but few can argue as to the inherent awesome factor of seeing giant monsters beating the crap out of each other.
What "Pacific Rim" does is to take those movies, which were infamous for guys in rubber suits and corny special effects and give them a high-tech, flashy, steroided up shot in the arm that looks stunningly gorgeous and is essentially a dream come true for anybody who is a fan of the genre. But I have a hard time imagining someone not having a great time at "Pacific Rim," even if they don't know Barugon from an unusually large honey badger.

But if you catch that this shot is a direct reference to another film, "Pacific Rim" is for you.

The story flies by quick and dirty in the opening scene as we are told how giant monsters came to be here. Basically, a dimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific ocean opened up, giant monsters we call Kaiju came through and started leveling cities, we built giant robots called Jaegers to fight them, the fight isn't going so great, and beyond that don't worry about it. That's all you need to know.
Blissfully "Pacific Rim" doesn't try to make the story more complex than it needs to be. And while some snobs may call "simplistic" on that setup, it makes perfect sense since the whole point is that nobody knows what the Kaiju are, where they actually come from or why they're attacking us. The reveal of that mystery is one of the driving elements of the plot. So call it "simple" if you want, but it's only that way because you only know as much as the characters do. Makes sense to me.

Um, excuse me? I expect deep characterization in my movie about giant monsters trampling Tokyo. Boo. Zero stars.

Our protagonist is Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), a Jaeger pilot who experienced a horrific loss years earlier during a nasty Kaiju attack, and has since retired from the fighting. Now, as the Jaeger program has essentially been scrapped and the world is curling up on itself in defeat like you've just lost a game of "X-Com," Raleigh finds himself drawn back into the fight by Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), his old commander. He and what's left of the Jaeger program gear up for one last effort to close the portal and stop the Kaiju permanently.

Raleigh is a typical action hero who would rather not be doing this and plays by his own rules, but Hunnam plays him well enough so as to make him a believable and likeable character. It's true that his character may be a bit of a trope, but what do you want from a hero in a giant robot movie? A wuss who meekly follows orders but complains the whole time? Guess what? That would give you Shinji from "Neon Genesis Evangelion." And screw that.

Yeah, dissenters of "Pacific Rim." You're right. It's not the same unless Raleigh is crying to himself and whacking off over her while she's in a coma. Because that's what I signed on for.

The one who really got my attention though was Rinko Kikuchi as Mako, Raleigh's eventual co-pilot whose only goal in life is to drive a Jaeger. Rinko is an absolutely dynamite actresses, and she played vulnerable and tough-as-nails at the same time better than anyone I've seen in a really, really long time. The child version of Mako we see in a flashback, played by young actress Mana Ashida in a performance which was so realistically heartrending that it was pretty tough to watch, only strengthened her character and made me like her even more. She might be one of my new favorite female sci-fi characters.

Did I mention she's also really, really hot? I should mention that at some point.

The whole cast is solid all around, with Idris Elba being the face of seriousness to ground us in the drama, and Clifton Collins Jr. as one of the Jaeger techs and Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as the two head-butting scientists lending some non-distracting and actually humorous comic relief. Normally I'm against comic relief as I feel it's usually unnecessary, but since these guys are actually funny without trying too hard, it works just fine. And I say that while not being a fan of Charlie Day, so that's pretty high praise coming from me. (I know, I know. Charlie Day is the greatest thing ever. I know. I've been told. I just can't stand listening to him. His voice is like an aural root canal.)

There are some characters who aren't that spectacular, not because they did a bad job or are poorly written, but the movie doesn't get quite enough time spent with them. Foremost amongst those is Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky), one of the Australian Jaeger pilots who immediately butts heads with Raleigh and seemed like he was an interesting character, but because there's simply too much else going on, we're left with him simply being an "Iceman from Top Gun" type figure who's kind of a big jerk who is somewhat justified in his jerkiness. That's about it. I feel like there must have been a scene left on the cutting room floor that would have wrapped his character up a bit better.

But Chuck wasn't the worst. An issue I have in movies like this is when we're shown this collection of soldiers or awesome characters and whatnot, and before they really have a chance to do much, nearly all of them are wiped out nearly instantly once the fighting starts. I'm reminded of "Aliens," actually. Despite that being one of my favorite movies, the marines in that movie get like 70% annihilated roughly 2 minutes into their first fight. Those were awesome characters but they get slaughtered before they can do much of anything. Without getting too into spoilers, "Pacific Rim" is guilty of this, too. And yeah it kind of bugged me.

Then again...any movie that has Ron Perlman looking like a steampunk pimp out of an anime is automatically amazing.

What is amazing to me is that the action in "Pacific Rim" is compreshensible and gorgeous to look at while using barely if any slow-motion and taking place almost exclusively in the dark, often in the ocean and sometimes in the rain. It's so well framed and edited that there wasn't a single point in any of the fights that I didn't have a clear idea of what was going on, and that's including the moments when tentacles and smoke and debris and water are flying all over the place. It's a stunning example of how "Pacific Rim" got it right whereas "Transformers," even with it's slow-motion-in-broad-daylight handicap failed miserably. Guess that's what happens when you get a good director.

By the way, don't bother seeing "Pacific Rim" in 3D. I've seen it both ways, and the normal 2D version is (unsurprisingly) better. It's not that the 3D was bad, but it tended to make the action more difficult to make out, detracting from the normally fantastic action. The glasses making an already dark movie more so didn't help matters, either.

This NEEDS to become a franchise. Del Toro has mentioned that he has ideas if sequels were to be green-lit. I would pre-order my tickets today if that we the case. I don't care. Hell, I'll take three. Whatever it takes to make more of these. Del Toro, you crafty bastard. You've done it again. Make sure to swing by Michael Bay's house to deliver that flying elbow drop off the top turnbuckle that you owe him.

(Dramatic Reenactment)

Check out the trailer for "Pacific Rim!" And yes, that is the same woman who did GLaDOS as the voice of the Jaeger. Nerds, you're welcome.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "Pacific Rim" is a perpetual buffet line of awesomeness. It will chisel a smile into the faces of anyone watching who possesses a pulse and a desire to have a good time. Apart from that, it's an expertly crafted action film which looks gorgeous, is exciting, and is a love letter to those monster movies that awaken the gleeful 10-year-old lurking somewhere in all but the most jaded of us. Probably the most fun I've had at the theater this year to date. It's an amazing movie, and Top 10 of 2013 nearly guaranteed.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Phantom (2013)

It occurs to me as I write this entry that there really haven't been many movies about submarines that I haven't liked. At least, I can't think of a submarine movie that I haven't at least found passable. I've never seen one that made me mad at it.

I mean you've got "Das Boot," "The Hunt for Red October," and "Crimson Tide" which gives the genre pedigree by themselves, but don't forget about "Down Periscope" either. That's actually one of my favorite comedies, as strange as they may sound. Even the low-budget Rutger Hauer vehicle "Hostile Waters" I found to be decent. I think the worst I've seen was probably "U-571" and "K-19," and those weren't really bad, they were just okay.

Submarines are just an interesting setting for a film. It's inherently tense without really even trying, what with being in a tin can below the water, where one mistake could leave you crushed in an instant. All it takes is good direction and half-way decent writing and acting and you've got most of the work done for you as far as suspense goes. Like I said, I like these kinds of movies.

This brings me to "Phantom," a film about a Russian submarine during the Cold War starring Ed Harris and David Duchovney. That premise alone gets a hardy "Hell Yes" from me. Ya'll know I loves me the Duchovney. I remember it got a small theatrical release in March, but it wasn't playing anywhere near me, which ticked me off because I would have seen it even if it was only rocking a 25% on Rotten Tomatoes, which it was. But that website isn't very trustworthy most of the time, anyway, so my interest in it was still firmly in the "very" category.

Archeologists could probably find ruins of ancient civilizations in those valleys and crags on his face.

After seeing it I honestly have no earthly idea what it's doing at a 25% on Rotten Tomatoes. "Phantom" isn't a mind-blowing epic or anything, and its tin-foil hat may be showing ever so slightly, but it's a solid submarine movie that hits nearly every note which makes the genre work, and it's headed by a really solid cast that sells what they're doing quite well. I hate to use phrases that would normally get slapped on a DVD case, but "Phantom" is a pretty rousing thriller, and I enjoyed myself.

Based on true events in the same way "A Perfect Storm" was (in that the filmmakers actually have no idea what really happened but hey this scenario would not have been physically impossible), "Phantom" follows the final voyage of a Russian submarine which was hijacked by members of an extremist branch of the KGB and turned into a vessel for starting a war between China and the US. The eponymous "Phantom" is a device the KGB has installed on the ship which makes it essentially invisible, and is the lynchpin in their plan. So yes, notes of "The Hunt for Red October" are present, but that movie is awesome, so shut up.

Pssh. A submarine in the water. Seen it before. Boo. Zero Stars.

Everything past that is standard submarine movie fare, which isn't to say it's bad or boring, but it is a fairly by-the-book story. Of course we know that World War III didn't happen, so we know the KGB don't succeed in their plan, but it's still tense to see how or if the men on the boat are going to get out of the situation, because the film is made with very competent direction and pacing by director Todd Robinson.

The cast is a solid mix of big names like Harris and Duchovny who both tear it up, and a collection of "that one guy from that one movie" actors like William Fichtner and Sean Patrick Flanery. It's even got Lance Henriksen showing up for 3 minutes in the beginning for a scene they can put in the trailers to drop some quick exposition. I was particularly a fan of Jason Gray-Stanford, who plays one of the boat's officers, because he looks exactly look Goose in "Top Gun." So that's pretty awesome.

I must say that I really, really enjoyed Duchovny's role in "Phantom." I've never seen him play a villain, but after this I think it would be a real missed opportunity if he didn't do it more often. On top of his character, Bruni, being a very well-written role because he's one of those great villains who doesn't think he's a villain at all, Duchovny's trademark deadpan delivery and fantastic cold eyes makes him a lot of fun to watch.

What? David Duchovny playing a member of a shadowy, fringe, paranoid government organization who goes off and does his own thing regardless of what his superiors want? What a twist.

My favorite dialogue from the film was in a scene where Harris asks Duchovny why he's doing what he's doing, to which Duchovny explains that the US now has first-strike capabilities. That means that Russia must strike first because America now has their finger on the button. Harris asks the obvious question, "What makes you think they'd attack us first?" Duchovny replies in a very calm, logical, why-do-you-even-ask tone of voice, "We would." That was straight up chilling. Props to Duchovny.

There is one big thing about "Phantom" that didn't work, and was pretty weird despite the fact that by the end I had accepted it, and that is the fact that nobody here even attempts to have a Russian accent. Not one single cast member. In fact I'm pretty sure the navigator had a Texas drawl going on. And while it's probably best to either go all or nothing with that kind of thing, the "nothing" approach did make itself a constant distraction. At least Sean Connery was surrounded by guys doing Russian accents, and Connery himself has an accent, even though it's Scottish. "Phantom" sounds like they filled the sub with the cast of "Field of Dreams."

Oh hey. It's...you. I remember you from...oh geez what was the freaking movie? You know...the one with that other guy. The guy with the face? That movie. You were in that, too, I think. Are you sure you're not Sig Hansen?

Apart from that I heard some people complain about the end of the film being silly, but I disagree. Yes, it does get a bit (okay a lot) metaphysical and artsy, but it actually didn't take me out of the movie at all. Honestly I thought it was quite poetic and rather moving. It gives some closure to a film that by all accounts really couldn't have much of one had they simply left it where it normally would have ended.

So why did this movie get panned? I have no idea. I guess you either like these kinds of movies or you don't. I think people can expect a bit too much from films sometimes, particularly when the premise is fairly simple. I mean, there's only so much you can do in a submarine movie. It's about guys crammed in a metal cigar box underwater. Their options are limited. But as long as the tension is there, what more do you want from a submarine movie?

Check out the trailer for "Phantom."

THE BOTTOM LINE - "Phantom" is a solid entry in the submarine movie genre. It's not doing anything overly original besides casting David Duchovny as a villain (which makes it worth seeing by itself), but the skill with which it's made makes it a fun, intense ride. I was invested beginning to end, despite the story being most likely ridiculous, although the behind the scenes features on the DVD offering a defense of the story is admittedly interesting and oddly compelling. If you're a submarine movie fan, this is definitely one to check out.

Monday, July 8, 2013

My Litte Pony: Equestria Girls (2013)

Yeah, that's right. I'm a brony. Normally I'd preface that by wording some kind of apology, like I'm ashamed to admit it but my hands are tied since my own rules for this thing require me to write about everything I see. But this time that's not happening, because there's nothing for me to apologize for. I feel no shame. I am a proud brony, and have been since 2011.

Most people have an opinion at this point about "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" whether they've seen the show or not, so allow me to throw my two cents into the ring as well. For me, MLP:FiM is darn near one of the best animated shows I've ever seen in my life. I love basically everything about it. The characters are incredible, the animation is colorful and pleasant to look at, the setting is fun, the levels of cuteness approach mythical proportions, and the stories harken back to the age when children's programming didn't treat kids like idiots, and actually tried to teach them something while being entertaining all at the same time. And the humor is borderline genius, injecting enough innocent G-rated kid friendly jokes with the more advanced humor that ranges from non-sequitur randomness to sneakily inserted PG-13 stuff for the adults to catch.

Seriously. Those little animals are going to straight up eat her. In "My Little Pony." That's awesome.

When I first heard about "Equestria Girls," I have to say I was a bit skeptical. While I was confident that the writing would be as strong as usual given that the script was penned by series powerhouse Meghan McCarthy, the very concept of taking these characters and turning them human seemed almost blasphemous. And honestly, I was just afraid that it would get too...I don't know...shallow somehow.

I really didn't want to see Twilight Sparkle need a date to prom or need to pass chemistry or deal with a bully picking on her in the locker room, you know? There is such an abundance of that kind of material that you can probably hit a show like it at random by just flipping through channels at any given time of day. One of the best things about MLP is that there are some of those aspects, but it's in a whole new setting with characters that aren't people, so it seems unique. It's familiar problems in a fantastical world, and I was afraid that actually turning the characters into girls in school would change that.

And let's not kid ourselves. The internet has already made it FAR too dangerous to humanize ponies. Crom help you if you do a Google image search for the characters with the filters off. Even with the filters on you normally hit some Rule 34 within the first 5 rows of results.

My fears were blissfully placated. "Equestria Girls" may be more like a typical 'awkward tweenger' movie than the more fantasy based TV series is, but the fantastic writing, the strength of the characterization, the endless charm, and most importantly the humor is all still present with the quality fans have come to expect from MLP:FiM.


The story picks up after the finale of season 3, with Twilight getting adjusted to having wings now. While staying in Canterlot, events transpire to send her through a magic mirror into another world, in order to retrieve her stolen Element of Harmony. This other world ends up being a place filled with humans, and Twilight is turned into one herself, and Spike becomes a dog. All of this is understandably a big shock to her, and makes for some great comedy. The scenes where she is acclimating herself to walking on two legs and figuring out how hands work, along with basically acting like a person instead of a pony provided some of the biggest laughs for me. There are some truly hysterical gags to be found here, and it's a constant throughout the film, as she never really gets 100% comfortable with the whole 'human' thing.


For some reason that's never fully explained (actually that's the biggest issue with the story), there are human versions of nearly every pony in Ponyville. Of course that includes the rest of the Mane 6, whom Twilight naturally recognizes. Although that's kind of confusing from a story perspective, part of the fun of "Equestria Girls" is spotting the human versions of all the characters. Even if they only have one scene, "Equestria Girls" does throw in a whole lot of fan favorites like Granny Smith, The Great and Powerful Trixie, Vinyl Scratch, and of course Derpy.

Twilight finds the rest of the Mane 6 at odds with each other, as they used to be friends but have recently drifted apart for reasons that obviously have something to do with the villain's shenanigans. In classic MLP fashion, through the power of friendship and all that good stuff, they learn to work together and become friends again. It's a plot that's very familiar to the show, and plays to its strengths. It's nothing overly special from a plot perspective, but the characters are always what drove MLP in the first place. And little to nothing about them is different besides their looks. The writing on them is still as strong as ever.

The villain of the film is a new character named Sunset Shimmer, a pony who has been hiding in the human world while doing all kinds of nefarious stuff to take over Equestria somehow. In the human world she takes the part of the school bully, and for most of the movie she is kind of a stock villain of the "Mean Girls" variety. That is until the end when it gets certifiably insane and Sunset Shimmer goes (literally) demonic. So while one could call stock on her for most of the movie, that complaint is outright obliterated by the last 10 minutes.

"Please, Twilight. This isn't even my final form."

Some might call the climax out-of-nowhere and bonkers, and they may be right, but I thought it was genius. I mentioned before that one of the reasons I love MLP is because it's a show that reminds me of great cartoons from back in the day which weren't afraid to NOT treat children like idiots. You'd find some really dark stuff in older cartoons, which made them actually memorable. "Equestria Girls" has an ending which is, dare I say, kind of freaky. Like, it gets kind of scary and intense there at the end, and I could see a little kid getting freaked out by that. But that's what makes movies like that memorable.

Like they've consistently done since the show got widely popular, the creators of MLP have kept "Equestria Girls" extremely self-aware of itself and its fanbase. There are forth-wall breaking gags and callbacks to earlier episodes in the series, as well as a slew of shout-outs to the internet community which drives the popularity of the show all throughout "Equestria Girls." This makes sense since MLP is a show that listens to and embraces its fans online, and tosses us little bones all the time like they're constantly saying "Thank you!" I've always really appreciated it.

"If only I had some kind of party cannon that could decorate everything really quickly..."

No discussion of anything related to MLP would be complete without mentioning the unsung hero of the show, composer Daniel Ingram. Ingram is nothing sort of a musical genius, and writes what has to be the most complex, way-more-sophisticated-than-you'd-expect music and songs for a children's TV show since Richard Stone and his team did "Animaniacs." For "Equestria Girls" he has kept the featured songs (of which there's only a couple) sounding like a combination of modern pop a-la Katy Perry and what you'd hear from the vastly popular MLP remix community online. Personally, I liked it. It was no "Becoming Popular" or "Smile" but it was catchy and fit the setting quite nicely.

I don't think I need to say too much about the stellar cast which hasn't been said before, but I feel it necessary to point out that Tara Strong as Twilight Sparkle is probably one of the best voice actresses working today. All of the cast is phenomenal, but she absolutely kills it here, even more so than usual. Tara does "panicked and stressed" better than nearly anyone else I've ever heard, and it's a hilarious delight to listen to her. But I also feel the need to mention that Tabitha St. Germain's performance as Rarity is just as good, and provides some of the film's funniest moments.


The only thing that I found to be slightly distracting was the presence of the pseudo-love interest for Twilight Sparkle, a new character named Flash Sentry, which is an exceedingly stupid name not only to hear but even more so to say. He's one of Celestia's royal guards, but in the human world he's just a normal teenager who happens to be the villain's ex-boyfriend. Why he has a name like Flash Sentry when he's just a kid in school is an utter mystery to me, but then again it's just a byproduct of the premise of the show. But they didn't even go so far as to make him a hall monitor. That would at least have made a little sense given his name. Make him a lifeguard. Heck, make him an offensive tackle on the football team, I don't know. At least he's guarding the quarterback at that point. Actually that would be have pretty clever.

The issue I had with him was that this is the first time Twilight has ever had something close to a love interest. And if you ask me, it's a bit out of line with the rest of the show. While it's fine to explore things like that, because it does happen and it's good for kid's shows to address it, it's just something that feels like it doesn't belong, and it's not even very well handled unfortunately. Even though barely anything of substance ended up happening besides awkward flirting and squeals of "Ooooooo Twilight has a crush!" from her friends, Flash Sentry is a character I'd rather not see make an appearance in season 4. Aside from not being an interesting character because he's boring with no personality while being saddled with a dumb name and the weakest voice actor in the cast, he just doesn't fit the tone of the show.

Wait. Twilight's a pony. But she's attracted to a human? If they become an item, will she have to struggle with the fact that she first fell for him in human form? This is so weird to even contemplate.

I know that there's a very vocal percentage of MLP fans that absolutely, 100% despises the very notion of "Equestria Girls" like it's the animated version of Ebola mixed with root canals and ethnic cleansing. I'm guessing most of those people didn't even watch the dang movie. Knowing the type to instantly write something off like that, they probably never will. But they'll be content with calling it terrible. And that's just a lame thing to do. I hate Michael Bay, but I sat through the "Transformers" movies even though I knew I'd loathe them. Because hey, maybe the next one might surprise me. (It didn't, but still.) Maybe if they un-waded their collective panties they'd discover that "Equestria Girls" is merely MLP in human form. That's it. It's the same show. If you like MLP, there's no reason you wouldn't like this besides firmly making up your mind beforehand that you won't.

Whether or not I'd want to see "Equestria Girls" spin off as its own thing, I've not decided yet. I'd watch it for sure given my positive reaction towards the movie. I'm not sure how well it would work, though. But hey, if it happens I'm going to actually trust the creative forces at work, who so far have given me nothing but an incredible show that leaves a smile on my face and makes me happy. At this point I think they've earned at least that.

This trailer is WAY better than the first one you may have seen. It's still not a great representation of the film, but it's way closer.

THE BOTTOM LINE - My love for MLP meant that I enjoyed the heck out of "Equestria Girls." It is not for the uninitiated by any means, as any non-herd member would be utterly lost and probably bored because they wouldn't get the slew of running gags. But for fans with open minds who didn't immediately write it off based on the mere concept, "Equestria Girls" is a surprisingly solid entry in the annals of MLP. Celestia help me, this might make my Top 10 of 2013 based on my enjoyment of it alone.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Dark Skies (2013)

"Dark Skies" was looking pretty shaky from the trailer, and if my experience was anything close to the average movie-goer's, nobody was buying it from the best-go. I first caught it in front of "Django Unchained," and perhaps it was because I was in a crowd of people ready to have a great time, but the trailer for "Dark Skies," which I remind you is supposed to be a horror film, got riotous laughter from the audience. I should know. I was one of the people laughing till my guts were fit to burst.

It would take a Brobdingnagian amount of talent to make scenes such as Keri Russell heartily banging her forehead on a glass door while wearing a face like she's the T-1000 after John Connor anything but laughable, let's not even talk about scary. And when the trailer hit us with the big shock of Josh Hamilton standing out in the yard with his mouth agape like he's a Big Mouth Billy Bass, it was clear that "Dark Skies" was made by people who have a very strange concept of what constitutes terror. And every single person in that theater did nothing but laugh and jeer at the trailer for it.

What we finally received was pretty much as silly as the trailer made it out to be, although it wasn't nearly as hilarious. Actually I think had that been the case it would have made for a far more entertaining film considering that the majority of "Dark Skies" is honestly kind of boring. This isn't something to be laughed at and lampooned like "The Happening" or some other ill-conceived train wreck. It's just kind of "there." It does what it does, and is not interested in anything other than existing, because the film industry needed a sci-fi horror flick to throw in theaters during the slow winter months. Enjoy.

So you thought that boarding up your windows would keep highly advanced, intergalactic traveling aliens out? This isn't "Signs."

The story is the very well-trodden alien abduction plot that you'd see in any random episode of "The X-Files," although in "The X-Files" the characters were seldom as dumb, annoying, or such terrible actors as they were in "Dark Skies." The film follows the Barrett family as they are being tormented by strange occurrences which are clearly not-of-this-realm-of-reality, but like most movies like this it takes them an absurd amount of time to come to the conclusion that this weird stuff isn't normal, and it isn't "because they're stressed" or some other contrived, tired cliche. And naturally, once they finally come to terms with the situation and decide to do something about it, they instantly do the exact opposite of what they were told to do by the one person who knew what was going on, and at the end of the movie they wind up losing one of their sons by alien abduction because they're all stupid. Good job. I'm glad they were my main characters.

Since there's barely anything worth talking about besides the ending, as the rest of the movie can be explained away as "Stupid stuff happens until they talk to someone about UFOs," I'll just talk about the end. Dan (Josh Hamilton) and Lacy (Keri Russell) are told by the alien abduction expert they see (J.K. Simmons in his only scene) that there's probably little they can do to prevent the abduction of their son. They believe it's the youngest son, Sam (Kadan Rockett) who is the target of the aliens. It turns out that it's the older son, Jesse (Dakota Goyo) who is the real target, which they release only after he gets abducted, even though based on the evidence the parents had in front of them, it should have been as obvious as a mace to the back of the skull.

But despite which child the aliens were after, it didn't matter because they would both be equally screwed when their protectors are Dan and Lacy. They were told to do one thing: Stick together. They simply had to do that ONE THING. A single task. But what do they do when the aliens show up? They immediately split the party. And they do it not once, but twice. They split a party of 4 people twice. For those keeping score, that leaves 2 family members completely alone. And as any self-respecting D&D player will tell you: You never split the party. Ever.

Damn it, Dan. You had one job. ONE JOB.

So of course their kid gets abducted. They're all idiots. And the kicker of it is that Dan and Lacy actually had the balls to be shocked by this development.

But that whole abduction thing is a rather odd endgame considering the process leading up to it. The aliens torment this family so much and in such weirdly pranksterish ways that I honestly have no clue as to the purpose behind any of it. If I was an alien, I can dig abducting someone, but why would I be rooting through people's garbage, stacking chairs in their kitchen, making birds fly into their house, and stealing all their pictures out of frames? None of that makes any sense as to what the aliens are actually attempting to do. Unless of course it's some kind of bizarre fourth-wall shattering creature with the power to know that it's in a horror movie, so they need to make weird, creepy stuff like that happen. Just abduct the damn kid and call it a day. Why all the shenanigans?

"Some photo-dude is gonna see all the photos gone, and it's gonna blow his mind!"

And this is just me, but I can't stand it when stuff like that goes down. Since I know that it's an alien abduction movie there's no mystery in it for me, so I don't have the luxury of ignorance that the characters do. So when I see what I know to be aliens pulling stupid pranks I am forced to ask myself what the purpose of all of it is. "Dark Skies" never gives us an answer. They just do it because.

The cast is nearly all terrible. Josh Hamilton and Keri Russell's characters would be grating to begin with, but they're played so low-key and clueless that it's nearly impossible to even root for them to be okay, and the chemistry between them and their on-screen children is equal to mold on bread. Although they aren't the worst here. The award for "Worst Child Actor since Jake Lloyd in 'The Phantom Menance'" has to be given to Kadan Rockett. I'm actually throwing out the possibility that Rockett might actually be worse. I'm not joking because this kid is atrociously bad. I never thought I'd see an actor of any age group read every line like he was both asleep and brain damaged at the same time. But I have now.

The only exceptions to the bad acting are J.K. Simmons, L.J. Benet and Dakota Goyo. Simmons is fine in his one scene despite not having much to work with. L.J. Benet plays Jesse's stoner friend Ratner, who is admittedly really obnoxious in his dumbass 15-year old wanksterness. But he's probably the most believable actor in the whole damn movie.

Dakota Goyo I find to be a pretty solid young actor, having been quite good in "Real Steel." And he's good in "Dark Skies," too. At the very least he's way ahead of the rest of the actors portraying his family. And that's despite being the centerpiece of a horrendously awkward scene of attempted heavy-petting, which basically implies that young girls totally like being fed terrible pick up lines from a porno and then being felt-up in an aggressive, potentially rapey way, as long as the act is performed knowledgeably and with confidence. So take a note, boys: Grab those teenage boobs with gusto! The ladies love it, and if you do it they'll even offer to show you how to kiss better!

Trust me, despite all that he's still light years ahead of pretty much everyone else.

The one positive thing I can say about "Dark Skies" is that whenever the aliens are actually on screen, which isn't often, it's actually pretty well done. There's one or two really good scares, and one moment that I found to be genuinely scary, when Keri Russell is being followed down the hallway by an alien that she doesn't know is behind her, and it's just checking her out. That was good. But I spent an hour and a half getting there, and it wasn't worth it.

And the ending is crap, too.

Want a laugh? Here you go! I've seen comedies less funny than this trailer.

THE BOTTOM LINE - "Dark Skies" is one of the few movies I can say would have benefited from actually being worse. The fact that it's not as outwardly hilarious as the trailer would have us believe makes it boring. It's a by the numbers alien abduction feature that makes less sense than usual and, apart from about 5 total minutes of decent scenes, leaves you asking what the point of the whole damn mess is.