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Monthly Archives: May 2012


Ten Word or Less Review: Harry Potter and the Haunted House

Reborn British film production company Hammer looks to be raiding its vaults for inspiration instead of outright thievery.  The Woman in Black harkens back to Hammer’s glory days of the 1960’s without being a straight up remake of any film in particular.  All the staples and turns of the haunted house movie are present and checked for with little to no deviation, but that isn’t to say it isn’t a crackling good spook flick of high quality and creepy demeanor.  Black is totally conventional in just about every way people know these movies to be, but an enjoyable and atmospheric horror film all the same.

Daniel Radcliffe stars as a guy who isn’t Harry Potter.  His name eludes me because once you’ve played the most important fictional character of an entire generation for a decade straight, your character’s name is completely pointless.  You’re Harry Potter.  So Mr. Potter is a near destitute lawyer with a young son and who pines for his deceased wife who died in childbirth.  With his job on the line he’s sent to a small village to sort out the affairs of a large, mysterious estate in a foggy little village.  It’s the type of village where everyone basically says ‘Get the Hell out of this village!’ with every crooked look and gesture.  Mr. Potter, being a bit oblivious to their not so subtle warnings, stays on to visit the big spooky mansion in question so he can go through paperwork.  There all of 5 minutes the creepy begins to crawl out of every squeaky door and shadow.  Anything with a reflective surface is an instrument of terror.  The plot is simple, the scenario routine, but the all around effort so well executed that viewers shouldn’t begrudge the filmmakers for not leaving the comfort zones of movies like this.

Daniel Radcliffe makes a fine lead for a distinctly British effort such as this.  The man who will forever be Potter looks to be attempting to establish himself as an actor away from the Potterverse but Black feels not too removed from the tropes of a Potter yarn.  A lead character who takes a train ride to get to a big spooky castle full of paintings and ghosts?  It all sounds a bit familiar.  One can see this as a baby step away from Radcliff’s wheelhouse and as such he acquits himself quite well as ghost story fodder.  He’s ably backed by a supporting cast which includes Cirian Hines, Janet McTeer and that spooky woman in the black dress who knows how to perfectly time her appearances in mirrors and windows.

The Woman in Black is 90 minutes of dread and anxiety that should tense up susceptible viewers, even though they know exactly what’s behind each door and every shadow.  It may break no barriers or take no turn the audience can’t see, but a good time it is and it’s old fashioned qualities are to be admired.


Ten Word or Less Review – Someone save Mel.  He’s too interesting a performer to destroy.

Mel Gibson being insane or not, The Beaver never had a chance with audiences.  It’s a movie with an odd, off-center concept starring an aging actor with a propensity for losing his shit on camera and degrading religions and minorities when recording devices are within earshot.  I have no idea why Mel Gibson picks up the phone and doesn’t assume the conversation isn’t being steamed straight to TMZ.  And the movie is titled The Beaver.  The ‘Huh huh’ crowd still sniggering to itself.  It’s a shame because The Beaver is a nearly top-notch drama about psychological despair and depression, with a stuffed animal for a lead character.  Gibson’s performance is a highlight in a career peppered with award worthy work.  It’s a damn shame to see his barbaric temperament and hate laden rants derail the fact that the one time mega-star is still an awesome screen presence.

Gibson plays Walter, a man at the end of depressions ravages.  So complete is his despondency he is about to end his life.  His wife (Jodie Foster) has lost hope and thrown him out of the house.  His older son (Anton Yelchin) despises him for his weaknesses, cataloging them in an attempt to avoid them.  His younger son doesn’t know what’s wrong with Daddy.  The toy company he owns is spiraling towards bankruptcy.  On his way home from picking up a liver killing sized purchase of alcohol he finds a beaver puppet in the dumpster and plucks it out.  That night while trying to snuff himself out he dons the puppet in a drunken fit.  Right before plunging head first off the balcony toward sweet oblivion, the puppet speaks to him.  Waking up the next morning Walter finds two personalities living in his head.  There’s the despondent, wrecked, hopelessly craven middle aged washout seeking suicide.  There is also the Beaver, a no-nonsense personality who acts as the voice Walter no longer has the ability to speak with on his own.  The Beaver slaps Walter around, picks him up, dusts him off and before Walter knows it, he’s using this furry appendage as an ambassador for life repair.  But touchy questions remain such as, with Beaver speaking more and more for Walter, where is Walter’s real personality?  Is he going to return?  If so, when

Directed by Jodie Foster, The Beaver was sold as a quirky melodrama about a sad man solving his problems with a funny puppet.  And it is that, to a point.  The Beaver is more compelling than expected, fully embracing it’s peculiar story by not shying away from harder moments.  Really making the movie though is Gibson.  The 56 year old actor still has all the smoldering vigor and flare as a performer that helped define him, solidifying the crazy bastard as an iconic movie star.  Which if you stress your brain, or consult IMDB, you will realize was not that long ago.  Walter is a complete portrait of a man lost in a hopeless spiral from which he can’t escape.  His transformation into the Beaver could easily have turned into over complicated gimmicks and ticks, but Gibson simply changes his voice a notch to find the character.  Sounding eerily like Ray Winstone, The Beaver smacks of confidence and wisdom, channeling Walter’s lost insight and perception into a winning personality.  But as success and family life begin to right themselves, Walter slips further and further away, leaving his family to talk to an increasingly pushy puppet.

The Beaver is a strong effort by everyone involved but it has some shortcomings.  Walter is introduced to the audience at the end of his rope and we aren’t given much in the way of a reason as to why he’s so despondent.  He has a great wife, loving family, great job, so the audience is left to grab at straws as to why Walter isn’t happy.  Beaver articulates as much but something never quite lines up.  Helping overcome the lack of convincing setup is a cast who completely gels with Gibson.  Anton Yelchin (Like Crazy, Star Trek) notches another great supporting role as Walter’s smart, ambitious and misguided son.  A student who writes other kids papers for money he’s remarkably overconfident in himself.  Jodie Foster pretty much delegates herself to concerned wife but she does it well enough.  Jennifer Lawrence gets a nice supporting role as Yelchin’s cheerleader classmate, the kind she’ll never touch again thanks to Hunger Games.  The movie does right by its supporting stories and characters, not making them feel superfluous or phoned in.

The Beaver will eventually shock viewers with the unorthodox places it wonders into towards its final act.  There is worthy uplift and justified resolution to be found but at a cost I seriously doubt any viewer would see coming.  In an age where movies frequently take a soft left The Beaver takes a hard right and slams its audience around just enough to jar, but not throw out of the car.  When it’s over the viewer is left to wonder what kind of career the supremely talented Gibson has left as a performer.  Perhaps if he could go just a few years without threatening to kill a girlfriend on the phone, degrade the Jewish nation or otherwise seem like a disgusting human being, we might get to find out.  He’s  a man riddled with paranoia, demons and unabashed intolerance, and all of that wretched baggage has made him an unapologetically riveting actor.  I don’t know if it’s wise to applaud this  twisted actor, but boring is something I don’t think he’s any longer capable of being.

Ten Word or Less Review: A movie made with dead animals.

This Czechoslovakian adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a truly bizarre creation.  Not so much a movie than a stop motion experiment seemingly put together by a taxidermist.  The bones of Carroll’s story are on view but traditional narrative is nowhere and what you mostly get are bones, literally.  Creator Jan Svankmajer populates his fairy tale with stop motion critters made up of a taxidermied animals and animal bones, all freakishly adorned with large glass eyes.  It’s all vaguely disturbing and entrancing  for about 20 or 30 minutes.  But unexpectedly, boredom starts to set in after 20 or 30 minutes.  There’s nothing to invest in beyond gawking at the oddness of it all.  That’s pretty much what lone cast member Kristýna Kohoutová does as the title character.

Tim Burton got savaged by Carroll admirers not long ago for his insufferable adaptation of Wonderland.  He threw out Carroll’s beloved dialogue and lathered a monstrosity of CGI all over the story in their place, creating a loathsome movie in the process.  Stylistically this is completely different and nowhere near as bad, but on a fundamental level, it’s very similar.  A strange guy has grabbed Alice in Wonderland, discarded the very thing which defined it, and used it as a device for creating strange images which eventually add up to nothing.

Ten Word or Less Review – Still a fun mess.  To a point.

Fishtar.  Kevin’s Gate.  Leonard Part 6 on a Jet Ski.  Two of these were the derogatory labels eager journalist threw around in 1995 as Waterworld lumbered through its much derided production.  I made up the last one.  All of Hollywood tittered with anticipation at the idea of watching the mighty Kevin Costner be crushed under the weight of his out of control ego project, action movie.  With a budget ballooning to near record heights, behind the scenes bickering which pitted star against director (Kevin Reynolds) and the public anticipating a train wreck of record proportions, Waterworld ultimately landed with more of an ‘Eh’ than an outright thud.  If the Hollywood press had not run so vigorously with things, and the production needlessly spent so much scratch, Waterworld would be nothing more than a vaguely agreeable but disjointed action movie.  As it stands, Waterworld was the beginning of the end to the then mostly unsullied career of Costner and a nail in the coffin of big budget, star vanity projects.

Waterworld’s opening scene clues the audience in that something has been over thought.  The classic Universal logo appears and in a clever bit of narrative intro, we watch the icecaps melt and subsequently flood the Earth.  The whole concept of the picture has been ingeniously explained to us in less than 30 seconds.  Only a moron wouldn’t get it.  Then movie trailer voice guy Don LeFontain pipes in and tells us the world has flooded.  It’s a Hell of a duh moment.  Moving on, we jump into the film and are introduced to Costner’s character, The Mariner.  Riding the high seas in his badass Batmobile of a boat, Waterworld’s first sequence is perfect setup.  While diving under water, Mariner’s boat is boarded by a passerby who steals his precious limes.  At the same time a a pack of Smokers, water bound ruffians transplanted directly over from Mad Max, show up to pursue the two boats.  Mariner kicks his ship into high gear, gets away from the Smokers and disables the lime thief’s boat in the process.  The lime thief gets overrun and killed by the Smokers.  Essentially, Mariner let this guy get killed because he took his limes.  Waterworld is a rough, harsh and unforgiving place and so is the Mariner.

Waterworld’s first act is a model of proficiency and build up.  The Mariner arrives at the atoll, a huge man-made island where a small cluster of humanity eeks out existence.  We meet the plucky heroine of the piece, Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), and the kid with the map to dry land on her back , Enola, who will quickly become the McGuffin everyone one is chasing.  We also discover Costner’s Mariner is an undesired and feared mutation, he has gills and webbed feet, and is quickly locked up and scheduled for recycling, I.E. drowned in a pool of sludge eventually to be used as fertilizer.  Things are pretty okay for Waterworld so far, but then riding a wave of lousy screenwriting comes Dennis Hopper.  Hopper plays The Deacon, a man with a ragtag, jet ski riding army at his disposal who trolls around the ocean in an oil tanker.  He knows there’s a girl with a map which supposedly leads to dry land in the atoll so he rides in like a water bound Apocalypse Now Appreciation Society and commences to blow the atoll to pieces and kill everyone there.  As a set piece it’s well put together and uses a lot of ambitious physical effects and stunt work, but as story it’s just dumb.  Wouldn’t you be risking killing the girl you so desperately want or someone there who knows how to read her map?  The sequence exist because this is a big budget action movie and our enormous, costly set must be blown to bits.  Hopper immediately sets a tone of cartoonish villainy, riding high on his fresh success from Speed I don’t think anyone thought to suggest otherwise.  Nothing in this sequence is a deal breaker but it sets in motion a straight forward plot that star, director, producers and writers would not just fail to execute, but eventually edit into a fine mush of movie paste.

Waterworld skates along for a while longer without chaffing to badly.  Costner’s decision to play his Mariner as an anti-hero is kind of fascinating because his Mariner isn’t just gruff and cranky, he’s a straight up prick.  His tenacious relationship with his two stowaways doesn’t endear him to a viewer at all.  He throws the little girl overboard for drawing on his boat with crayons, hacks off their hair for damaging his ship and even considers prostituting Helen out to a passing nutcase for a few pieces of paper.  He changes his mind but it’s still a dick move all the way.  Of course he grows to like these two, and they him, but an audience would be hard pressed to ever take to this asshole.  It was brave of Costner to go this unflattering route, but it doesn’t matter because the third act is a disaster.

Everything goes to shit as Waterworld begins it’s final act.  After another narrow get away from a blustering Dennis Hopper, Mariner, tired of Helen’s endless nagging about dry land, decides to show it to her.  He puts her in a diving bubble and takes her under water to show her the wreckage of mankind.  We see a crumbling city, a submarine lodged in the side of a building, a donut shop.  This is all fine but it’s the timing that makes no sense.  Our heroes have literally just escaped from Hopper and his goons and not more than a minute later we’re stopping to go for a prolonged swim.  Of course, as they were checking out humanities ruins Hopper and the boys capture the ship.  Another senseless scene takes place involving Hopper’s Deacon not wanting to search Costner’s boat to look for the girl.  Why not?  It’s a tiny frickin’ boat.  How long would it possibly take to search?  Two or three minutes?  The Mariner escapes underwater with Helen but the Smokers torch his boat and take the girl.  When they come back up the boat is floating wreckage.  What do they do now that all hope is lost?  Screw!  That’s right.  On a flaming chunk of floating wreckage in the middle of an endless ocean with nowhere to go, they have a shag.  Maybe that’s not so dumb.  Regardless, Waterworld becomes more haphazard and senseless with each passing scene.  The Mariner was going to pimp Helen out for a few pieces of paper but he’s got a whole chest full of National Geographic?  Anything resembling cohesion is simply let go.  It’s as if all the battles in the editing room wore everyone to the nub and with no end in sight they just threw the last act together to get it over with.  This goofy but enjoyable action picture is abandoned and treated like scrap.   TV broadcast have shown up with varying amounts of deleted scenes, 20 – 40 minutes worth, which fill in some of the more egregious narrative holes floating around but no official director’s cut has ever been assembled.  Waterworld reaches a merciful and disappointing conclusion that we ceased to care about 30 minutes before we got there.

In 1995 there were few movie stars as powerful, or ego driven, as Kevin Costner.  Coming off a decade of success paralleled by few in all of movie history, Costner’s decision to throw himself into a movie which is basically Mad Max in a wet suit still stands as one of the more baffling ego projects ever executed.  The decision to go with Costner friend Kevin Reynolds as director stuck many like a bad idea from the outset.  The two had a rocky time making Robin Hood just a few years before but none the less they tried again, and again Costner looks to have bullied his friend around to everyone’s detriment.  But the worst decision of all was to spend $175 million on this movie.  That was the central mistake of everything.  That dollar amount threw the Hollywood press into a tizzy and sent everyone scrambling for blood and bad press.  While the movie looks like it cost a fair share of coin, that amount of money is crazy for what is no more than what aims to be a rollicking, post apocalyptic B-movie.  If someone had mounted this production just a few years later no doubt CGI could have shaved millions from the budget and we’d be talking about something else.  Though it made enough change to warrant its existence, the dye was cast and the damage done.

More far reaching than all of these particulars, Waterworld was the signal flare to Hollywood that Costner was now on the other side of his career as a leading man.  His run of success had hit a road bump the year before when Wyatt Earp had tanked, but everyone gets to fail once.  Though he isn’t credited as director on Waterworld he bears the burden of creation for this ballyhooed mishap.  No Costner, no Waterworld.  He would make things much worse on himself just three years later when in an act of senseless defiance he went back to the post-apocalyptic well one more time, this time officially directing, for The Postman.  Though a more complete failure and far more savaged by critics than Waterworld, few recognize this as the place where Costner officially lost his clout.  Everyone points to the soggy opus as his falling from grace.

Waterworld will always have a notorious spot in Hollywood history.  It stands as a oft learned lesson to studios and actors alike that passion projects in the hands of unchecked creators can nearly ruin everyone involved.  Costner did direct one more good movie, Open Range, and he has turned in good performances from time to time over the years, but his slow descent from the top of Mt. Hollywood can all be traced back to this movie.  At the height of his power and influence he made a movie about a fishman running from a one-eyed Dennis Hopper giving chase on the Exxon-Valdez.  Maybe if someone had said it to him like this he would have thought better of it.


Ten Word or Less Review – Hot chick wanted for face punching.

Not every movie needs a 1000 word critique but when Steven Soderbergh is the director you expect to be able to invest at least a few paragraphs of prose to the endeavor.  That’s a hard task on this one.  Steve sat down one afternoon and said to himself, ‘Self, I want to make a movie where a badass woman MERC beats the shit out of top tier actors but without any of that zany Bourne editing or plot.’  So he explained his idea to occasional screenwriting collaborator Lem Dobbs (The Limey) who wrote out a plot that couldn’t have taken more than 15 minutes and two beers to polish off.  Soderbergh hired MMA fighter/hottie Gina Carano as his star, then used his Oscar winning clout to get Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender and even the mighty Bill Paxton to come on board as Carano’s punching bags.  The fight scenes are furious and fierce.  There’s no CGI accentuation or razzy dazzy editing, ala Beckinsale or Jovovich, just good old fashioned knuckle to face, foot to ball, knife to throat brutality.  Soderbergh clearly has a hard on for watching Carano beat the life out of any and all comers.  If straight up, bone breaking fights are all you want, that’s all that’s here.  Anyone seeking an actual movie with an actual story need not linger.  Am I the only person who thinks Soderbergh is bored with making movies?

Ten Word or Less Review: To condense this 1200 word review for you: it’s okay.

Marvel has spent 4 years and 5 movies worth of effort to prep a worldwide audience for the experience that is The Avengers.  Iron ManThe Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America were all ground work leading to this.  It has taken the combined efforts of these five movies, which when you lump them together equal one big average blur, to lead us into a movie which amounts to a  slightly above average blur.  I fondly remember summers past when audiences could expect average, non blurry entertainments week in and week out, and not have to have taken in 10 hours of preemptive cinematic homework to enjoy themselves.

For comic book nerds this is a holy movie moment.  A cinematic dream come true that no geek could have imagined materializing just a few short years ago.  To see this costumed dream team strut across the screen in such high fashion will for some rank up there with losing virginity or getting high the first time.  Or for the less fortunate it will come as close to either as they’ll ever get.  To more passive fans through out the world this movie should amount to a lot of flashy noise and questions if they didn’t bother with all the previous films.  If you haven’t diligently done your Marvel homework then The Avengers isn’t much more than the patented summer blockbuster at its most adequate.  It is 140 minutes of stuff consistently happening, some of it fun, some less so.  For all the effort and prepping that the audience has been through since the first Iron Man, The Avengers manages to be occasionally enjoyablebut still feel fundamentally half-hearted in frustrating ways, the most important being that there is barely a story running this giant machine.  I’m not sure why they left that part out.

In a dubious decision of plotting, the only one of Marvel’s five previous movies that leads directly to the situation at hand is last summer’s mediocre Thor.  That barely adequate experience contains most of the groundwork which gets us to where this feature begins.  Last left floating in the cosmos on his way to nowhere, Thor’s villainous and whiny brother Loki has been rescued by some kind of cosmic Skeletor who gives him an alien army with which to invade Earth.  It’s a painfully simplistic plot to say the least.  He materializes in S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters with a magic staff and commences to enslave and kill those around him.  He steals a magic blue Lego which looks like a really awesome gazing cube that which would sell like gangbusters at Hobby Lobby.  With the magic blue Lego Loki plans to open a doorway for his marauding CGI army to come pouring through.  What they plan to do with Earth or why they want it is barely hinted at.  Maybe they like our mini malls, awesome snack food and stadium seat theaters.  No matter.  Our multi-billion dollar national defense system is never once consulted because the ace up our sleeve is four strong dudes with personality disorders and two assassins in black leather.  And Sam Jackson.  Begrudgingly agreeing to work together, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk, and the other two, combine strength and wits to combat the generic alien terror.  Why that took 5 other movies to build into I have no idea.

The Marvel efforts to date have been dogged by a lack of visual and story imagination.  They mostly follow the same arcs, end on the same notes (I.E. a big fist fight) and feel as if a larger, more complicated world is being kept far, far away.  The Avengers finally opens up the world a bit and we don’t feel as if we’re trapped on a tiny narrative bubble.  We now merely feel trapped in the ropes of an under plotted summer blockbuster which cost a ton.  The one thing which has kept these efforts working has been spot on casting of the leads and that strength carries The Avengers to the finish line without a lot of fuss and muss.  Downey Jr’s patented Stark snark plays nice against the rigidly virtuous Chis Evans and his Captain America.  Chris Hemsworth is still a charming Thor but his character shows up late and mostly just bickers with Loki and swings his hammer.  I can’t think of what one is supposed to do with Thor besides this so I can’t really complain.  Neatly folding up scenes and putting them in his purple pockets is Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk.  Somewhere Ed Norton is probably hulking out on this missed opportunity.  Ruffalo brings a real level of credibility to a part that’s been often misguided and could have easily been little more than a forced character presence.  Ruffalo gets the best character beats and his CGI rendered alter ego provides the most fun of anything in the film.  When Banner and Stark ride off together at movie’s end one hopes they find their own adventure to have as the two seem an unlikely match made in heaven.  Scarlett Johansen and Jeremy Renner play Black Widow and Hawkeye.  They mostly take up space.

Tasked with bringing all this narritive minutia together into a cohesive whole is fanboy favorite Joss Whedon.  Despite many accolades with a long career as a writer and TV producer (Buffy & Angel), Whedon has exactly one feature film directorial credit to his name, the Firefly feature Serenity.  He shows to have some decent abilities when left to play in the big sandbox that Marvel is letting him tinker around.  Though facing an over abundance of characters dancing around a painfully thin narrative, Whedon juggles everything just enough.  He can’t do much with his boring villain and the army of generic monster people but he knows his strength lies in his principles, so he wisely puts them front and center and lets their personalities carry the movie along.  He gives everyone the character beats they need and then lets the movie unfold the way he’s been tasked to do.  He follows the age old principle of wow them in the end so Avengers ends on an epic battle that previous Marvel efforts haven’t dared to mount.  While it does bear too many similarities to last year’s Transformers movie finale, aliens invading major metropolitan area, Whedon maintains momentum and has fun with all the chaos he’s unleashing.  If he had been given the leeway to craft a less bloated effort, and given a real foil for his heroes, I think he may have wound up with something really worthwhile.

It’s pretty clear that an eager audience is eating this Marvelverse stuff up.  It’s all been perfectly built and marketed, which is where I think the real genius in this series of movies lie.  It wasn’t that long ago that none of these characters had the least bit of mass cultural awareness, now people are filling theaters to capacity to watch the lot of them punch each other in the face.   Later in the afternoon while at an ice cream joint I saw a 6 year old kid sporting a Thor helmet.  His parents demonstrated no sense of shame or disappointment.  Something tells me that while I’m not wrapped up in the comings and goings of these bickering superheroes and their antics, an entire generation is growing up absolutely enthralled.  For them, these are the narratives they will love and grow up with.  For me, this is just another passable comic flick that I’ll mostly forget within a week or two.  See it, like it, then wait for Batman.

BTW, stay through the first credit sequence, watch the extra scene then ask a comic book geek what it means.  Stay for the scene at the end of all the credits and get yourself an extra giggle.