Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Hitcher (2007)

Platinum Dunes, hot off their successful (but creatively bankrupt) threepeat of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, kept the remake ball rolling by optioning the 1986 cult thriller The Hitcher. The casting of Sean Bean as the title character, originally played by an awesomely creepy Rutger Hauer, was brilliant. The changing of the protagonist from a wimpy emo teenager (C. Thomas Howell) to a sassy young lady (Sophia Bush) was welcome as well since the helpless damsel in distress cliché was worn out decades prior.

Too bad the end result was a big mess.

Young couple Jim (Zachary Knighton) and Grace (Sophia Bush) take a road trip for spring break and come across psychotic hitchhiker John Ryder (Sean Bean), who becomes obsessed with making them say aloud “I want to die”.
The fact that in this remake there really is no motivation for John Ryder’s madness other than the fact that he’s a fucking nutjob really takes something frightening away from the character. In the original it’s hinted at that Ryder wants to die and has been searching for someone worthy of ending his life and kills those he feels aren’t up to the task. When he meets Jim Halsey (Howell) he sees someone who isn’t as weak as he appears to be and becomes obsessed with bringing the boy’s natural survival instincts out from within so that he can finally be put down like the rabid dog he is. It made Ryder interesting and terrifying at the same time. Not so here. Here he’s just a crazy man on a killing spree that for some reason is intent on breaking Grace’s spirit before he kills her. This version of Ryder isn’t scary, he’s Jason Voorhees.

The acting from everyone is pretty bad. Sean Bean seems to be trying his damnedest to give his character some sort of dimensionality but either the putrid script or inanity of director Dave Myers prevents him from doing so at every turn. Sophia Bush is doing her best Ripley impersonation and fails miserably. The less said about Zachary Knighton the better. The only person who comes out unscathed is Neal McDonough as Lt. Esteridge. He has a cool calm that does wonders for his character. I just wish he was in a different movie.
Director Dave Myers is a hack, and there are really no positives to be said about this flick or his talent. Sure he can make a shot look interesting when the need arises, but I’d rather give the credit to cinematographer James Hawkinson. A pretty cool car chase set to “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails is the only part of the movie I will admit that I enjoyed. Events play out basically the same as in the original, only slightly tweaked (Jim is the person ripped in half by the two trucks, Ryder is shot multiple times in the finale instead of just once, etc.), thus making me wonder what the point of retelling this story was if they weren’t going to make any major changes other than the sex of the lead character.

There’s not much else to say. This was a bad remake of yet another movie that didn’t need one and at this point I was going to swear off all future Platinum Dunes films, remakes or not. Unfortunately they chose two properties that I couldn’t resist for their next endeavors… Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Someone shoot me in the face. Please.

1 out of 5

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

Due to the forthcoming redux of The Evil Dead I feel the need to address the remake craze of classic horror films of the 70s and 80s that has plagued Hollywood since the early/mid 2000s. There were many floating around out there of varying types and of various qualities. Some I felt were warranted and others not so much. I mean, the point of remakes back in the day was to take a film that featured a great concept, character or story, but failed at making a good film and attempt to improve it. For the most part this was due to lack of talent behind the camera, the budget was too small, writers came up with a new spin on the material or the technology needed to tell the tale properly wasn’t in existence yet.

For example: the original The Amityville Horror featured a great central concept, but the film itself was trash. Therefore I didn’t balk when I heard that a remake was in the works for release in 2005. Sometimes the remakes don’t work out either, which is what happened in this case since it was just as crappy (to read my review click here).
Platinum Dunes, a production company run by Michael Bay that mainly focuses on remaking horror films and are primarily responsible for all the endless horror remakes we’ve seen for nearly a decade, has made a shit ton of these that began in 2003 with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and continues to this day.

Just like the original from 1974, the story deals with a group of friends on a road trip through the Texas countryside that clash with a crazy family of cannibals, one of which wears a mask of human flesh and wields a chainsaw… Leatherface.

The story is basically the same, only the bloodletting has been amped up considerably and intelligent storytelling has been kicked to the curb. Tobe Hooper’s original film was terrifying due to the fact that it featured no named actors to identify with and that it was violent without showing any gore. It was also a simple story that had a slight satirical edge along with the horror. The dinner scene remains burned into my memory due to how creepy and insane it was without having to resort to covering the table with bloody entrails and such.
That is not the case here. From the moment the movie starts we are shown nasty holes blown through people’s heads, bodies cut in half, limbs severed and guts and bone flying everywhere covered in generous amounts of blood. There is nothing scary going on here at all since it is all about going for the gross out and that is all. I’m sorry, but that does not make a movie for me. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy gory horror movies. When it’s the only reason for the film’s existence is where I draw the line (don’t even get me started on the prequel made a couple of years later).

There’s also a stupidity streak running through this flick a mile wide. Case in point: One victim is fleeing from Leatherface through his backyard which is filled with drying sheets fluttering in the breeze. This guy runs right into the villain’s chainsaw, which cuts his leg off in one swipe as if it were made out of butter. For starters, chainsaws are not fucking katanas. They are not razor sharp slicing devices. I can see Leatherface cutting into the dude’s leg initially and finishing the job once he falls to the ground, but when I saw him take the limb off in one swing I literally screamed “Fucking bullshit!” On top of that this poor sap couldn’t hear the chainsaw running from behind the laundry? Last time I checked those things were pretty damned loud even when they are just idling. Double bullshit.
The acting is pretty bad and I’m surprised Jessica Biel was given leading roles after this was released. She can’t even scream effectively. Her co-stars, especially Eric Balfour, are just as bad if not worse. The fact that Balfour (who was dating Biel at the time) still gets work baffles the mind; just check out his performance in Skyline. ‘Nuff said.

The only actor I give total props to in this travesty is R. Lee Ermey as the “Sheriff”. He is a blast to watch and looks like he’s enjoying every minute of being a villain. His co-evildoer, Andrew Bryniarski, gives an imposing physicality to the role of Leatherface but zero personality. I know it’s hard to do when you have no dialogue, but just look at what Kane Hodder did for Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood. His body language did wonders for the character and the fans ate it up. The filmmakers realized this and brought him back to play the part three more times.
The film has a cool look and atmosphere, but that’s pretty much the only aspect of the filmmaking process that director Marcus Nispel ever gets right. All the other movies he’s made suffer the same fate, be it Pathfinder or the remakes of Friday the 13th and Conan the Barbarian. He’s a talented visual stylist and as far as I can tell started the whole super contrasty look craze, but that’s all. He never seems to be able to coax good performances from his actors, film an action scene in a coherent way or even tell a story for the most part.

It’s a bad movie and a perfect example of a remake that was not even necessary. The original was a perfectly capable fright flick back in the day and still is despite being severely dated. They improved nothing and as far as I am concerned made the franchise even more of a joke than it had already become (ever see Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation?). The prequel that followed is even worse (why would you ever show Leatherface unmasked?!). Unfortunately it made a tidy profit and Platinum Dunes was given full reign to remake whatever film they saw fit… and they picked some doozies.

1.5 out of 5

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Ever since it was released theatrically back in October 2012 I have been hearing nothing but glowing reviews of Argo. At one point I was going to check it out but the showing was too late and I gave it a pass. Still, people continued to gush over it endlessly. In December my brother told me he had seen it three times already! I think it was around then that I stopped caring and figured I’d see it when it was released on video via Redbox. It turns out that my father had purchased a BluRay copy on day one (he proclaims it was the best movie of 2012 and that it “wuz robbed of an Oscar!”) so I just borrowed his.

I now realize that I should have seen that late show back in October. Argo is a fantastic movie.

Based on true events from 1980, Argo focuses on a group of six diplomats trapped in Iran during a revolution. The CIA needs to come up with a plan to extract them, and their best chance for infiltration is by sending in an agent (Ben Affleck) to help them pretend to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a low budget science fiction movie.
Ben Affleck. The guy has done a complete 180° on me. Back in the day when he was Kevin Smith’s golden boy I thought he was a decent actor. I especially liked him in Chasing Amy and Good Will Hunting. While I do enjoy the Armageddon on a guilty pleasure level I feel like his acting ability began to steadily decline from that point on. Flash forward to 2008 and I rented Gone Baby Gone on a whim. That flick blew me away, even more so when I saw him listed in the credits as director. This guy had some serious talent! The Town, while being way too long for its own good, was great as well. The thing is that he also starred as the lead and gave an amazing performance. So you can imagine that I had some pretty high expectations when I finally got around to seeing Argo.

For starters Affleck, as an actor, is great here. I do wish he’d just concentrate on being either an actor or a director and not both at the same time, but he gives a very grounded performance as the CIA operative who comes up with the Canadian film crew extraction idea.
His direction is spot on and he never gets the urge to go all arty or overly sentimental. He keeps the events grounded in reality (for the most part) and managed to create a very tense and suspenseful film that also has a surprising amount of humor at Hollywood’s expense. He also can direct one hell of an action scene. The opening scene where angry protesters jump the gates of the American Embassy in Iran and rampage through the facility is both exciting and horrifying. I am also thankful that he didn’t go The Town route and make this epically long. Argo clocks in at just under two hours.

All the supporting players, which incidentally are a who’s who of recognizable faces, are equally fantastic, if not more so. I especially liked Bryan Cranston as Affleck’s boss, Alan Arkin as a has been film director who helps out with the plan and John Goodman as a make-up effects man who is thrilled to be a part of history. All three give provide some of the lighter moments in the film (“Argo fuck yourself!” and “These guys are like the two old fucks from The Muppets.”) and are really fun to watch.
All the major bases are universally awesome. The cinematography is nice as well. My main issue is that there are a lot of conveniently stupid incidences that bring the film down a few notches. My main gripe is the finale at the airport. If the guards really wanted to stop the plane from taking off with the Americans… WHY THE FUCK DIDN’T THEY CALL THE CONTROL TOWER AND TELL THEM TO NOT ALLOW THE PLANE TO LEAVE!!! Instead all the crazed guards run all over the place screaming and shooting at bulletproof windows and chase after the plane in police cars which we all know will do no good. It’s a lot of useless histrionics that were created to create a suspenseful action scene out of nothing. I’m pretty sure that when all this went down in reality the plane got off the ground with no issues, and definitely no last second phone call from an anonymous soldier telling the guards to stop the plane when they wouldn’t know that these people had planned to leave that day. It’s all a little ridiculous and took me out of the movie.

The same goes for the one diplomat who constantly bickered with Affleck about his plan being foolish. Dude, there is no other plan. Just shut up because you are going to be captured even if you don’t go along with it. It’s drama for the sake of drama, and a payoff that rings false when he randomly embraces the plan because he absolutely has no other choice during the finale.
The sweat shop children reassembling shredded documents was also a little ludicrous, but that’s just me.

Outside of these issues Argo is a damned good flick. Is it the best film of 2012? Not in my eyes. I like it a lot, but I still stand by my choice of The Cabin in the Woods being my fave from last year. It’s definitely in the top fifteen.

4 out of 5

p.s. I would be extremely excited if the rumor was true that Affleck took on the role of directing the Justice League movie. Like Joss Whedon, Affleck is great with ensembles. Too bad it’s was only a rumor.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

I missed Zero Dark Thirty when it hit theaters even though pretty much every single film person I knew was telling me to get off my ass and check it out. I am a fan of director Katherine Bigelow, and her last film, The Hurt Locker, was pretty amazing even though I have no desire to watch it ever again. After seeing it on video I have to say that I’m plenty annoyed with myself for not making more of an effort to see it on the big screen.

The film chronicles the decade long hunt for Osama bin Laden that culminates with his death at the hands of a Navy SEALS team in 2011.
There are so many characters to keep track of at times that it made my brain hurt. Fortunately we have one main character to follow around for the entire runtime, and that would be Jessica Chastain’s Maya. Chastain gives a quiet confidence to her character that is ruined just about every time she speaks. She’s a great actress and all, but she is given some horrendous dialogue (“I’m the motherfucker that found the house, sir.”) and her character isn’t very likable. I found Jason Clarke’s character of Dan more compelling. We first meet him as he is interrogating one of bin Laden’s accountants, and even though terrible things are being done to this terrorist accomplice Dan manages to keep cool and calm the entire time. He talks in a measured voice and acts in a way that’s contrary to the scene. I found that approach to be mesmerizing, while Chastain’s Maya is given the typical behavior of a woman flinching and cowering in the corner. If she’s supposed to be this “mankiller” that the other characters constantly refer to her as being she sure isn’t written that way, at least not at the start. If Maya had been developed a little bit better I would have liked the character a lot more. As it is she’s not my favorite character in this movie. I ended up liking the group of barely developed Navy SEALS from the last 45 minutes of the movie more than her. That is this flick’s one major misstep. If you can’t make the main character relatable or even likable you know you’re in for some rough weather. Fortunately that was the only boo boo.
Director Kathryn Bigelow is no stranger to action/thriller aficionados. Back in the 80s and 90s she made some great ones like Point Break, Blue Steel and Strange Days. She even made one of my all-time favorite vampire movies – Near Dark. I am a lifelong fan, regardless of her craptastic K-19: The Widowmaker misstep in 2002. She became one of the elite when she won the Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker in 2010 (I attended a presentation writer Mark Boal gave on screenwriting at a local college right after his Oscar win for Best Screenplay as well). While I found her award winning film amazing, I really have no interest in watching it again anytime soon due to its intense, bleak tone. However, Zero Dark Thirty proves that all she learned from making The Hurt Locker has helped her step up her game in a big way. This is a HUGE story that encompasses ten years in the life of one character. It’s epic, yet there isn’t a whole lot of action to be found within. I’m not complaining as she keeps the film pushing forward at a brisk pace, and when the shit does down during the thirty minute incursion scene in the finale she reels it in and keeps it low key and ultra suspenseful. And the scene where Jennifer Ehle’s character of Jessica is waiting for her contact at that military compound… talk about an awesomely suspenseful and emotionally harrowing scene. Kudos! Regardless of the violence and horrifying events that take place in Zero Dark Thirty, unlike The Hurt Locker I can definitely see myself watching this a few more times.
I will also give composer Alexandre Desplat a shout out for his amazing musical score. I am not a fan of him normally since he tends to gravitate toward more dramatic fare (Moonrise Kingdom, The Tree of Life, The King’s Speech), but his dark strings and bassy electronic work here is pretty damned cool. It’s sometimes reminiscent of Howard Shore’s Se7en score, but this gets the edge due to the multiple theme variations. Other than his Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II work, this is one of the only soundtracks of his I can honestly say I enjoyed.

An interesting character study during an extremely intense military operation doesn’t sound like it would make for a very entertaining movie. I know because this is exactly what I said back when I heard about this film. I stand corrected. I enjoyed the hell out of this movie regardless of its main character. All of the supporting players make up for that error in ways you cannot imagine. I highly recommend this flick if you are a fan of military films or just great films in general. Was it the best movie of 2012 like most people have proclaimed? Not really. I still stand by The Cabin in the Woods as being more entertaining. But this is definitely in the top 10.

4 out of 5

Friday, March 22, 2013

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Parts 1 & 2

Back in high school I was a comic book fan, but I shied away from the major titles for some reason. I never really read “Spider-Man”, “Superman”, “Green Lantern”, “X-Men” or any other DC/Marvel property until much later in my twenties (I mostly read manga or titles based off movies or video games). There was one exception - my father had purchased a trade paperback of Frank Miller’s 1986 opus “The Dark Knight Returns” for a few measly dollars at a library overstock sale, and after flipping through it I decided to give it a read. It blew my fucking mind! I had never read anything so gritty, violent or engrossing before in my life. I think I read it cover to cover within the space of a day during various study hall and common periods. It remains a personal favorite of mine to this day.

Nearly 26 years after its initial release the folks at Warner Premiere and DC Animation decided to finally adapt the book into a 2-part direct-to-video animated event. I was super excited to see if the story held up after all these years, but waited until both were available so I could watch them back-to-back (Part 1 was released on September 25, 2012 and Part 2 was released on January 29, 2013). I finally got around to seeing them a few weekends ago. The combined result is one of the most amazing animated films I’ve ever seen. I will be reviewing the two parts together.
The story takes place in a future where superheroes have been barred from dispensing vigilante justice by the government, and in the ten years since Gotham City has become a cesspool of crime due to a violent street gang called The Mutants. The majority of Batman’s foes have either been killed or have been institutionalized in Arkham Asylum (Two-Face and The Joker).

Part 1: 55-year old Bruce Wayne (voiced by Peter Weller) decides to bring the Batman out of retirement when Harvey Dent (Wade Williams) begins a new crime spree after being released from Arkham Asylum. He also has to contend with The Mutants, training a new Robin (Ariel Winter) and proving to the world that it cannot survive without the protection of superheroes like him.

Part 2: The Joker (Michael Emerson) manages to stage an elaborate escape from incarceration in order to have one final confrontation with his nemesis. At the same time tensions escalate in Corto Maltese between the U.S. and the Soviets, and The President convinces his superhuman puppet, Superman (Mark Valley), to step in and deal with that situation as well as put an end to Batman’s vigilante ways once and for all.
I’ve watched plenty of movie adaptations based on comic books I’ve read and adored over the years, some successful and others not so much. I am going to go on the record and say that this is the most accurate recreation of the source material I have ever seen. I mean that quite literally as it takes the comic books and adapts them frame for frame with the exact same dialogue. I never knew it could be done (Sin City came pretty close to doing this a few years back), but it was and I am one ecstatic fanboy due to it.

The plot is intricate and epic. Not only do we get to see Batman go up against his greatest enemies, we are also given a massive Batman vs. Superman fight that truly is a battle of brawn against brains. It flows effortlessly from one subplot to the next, and though it does feel a little episodic now and then it all works together as a whole. I was surprised that the filmmakers decided to keep the 80s angle intact, especially the fact that Ronald Reagan is President in the original story. It gives the story a strange, alternate version of the past, not unlike “Watchmen”, that is a lot of fun and offers some decent commentary on the politics of the time.
There is also the media angle that was quite prophetic. It seems that the world within this story is hooked on television, believes everything they are told by the media and is obsessed with celebrity. Even the villains that Batman has put away are looked upon as minor celebrities, which is plainly obvious when The Joker decides to be interviewed on a talk show. We all know it’s going to be a disastrous affair, and I’m sure the audience at the show does as well, but they still turn up in droves to see this mass murderer in person. It’s kind of pathetic and extremely interesting due to the current state of paparazzi culture.

The casting is perfect for the most part. I’m glad that the filmmakers decided to focus on doing the source material justice and not hiring as many celebrities as they possibly could to provide voices for the characters. Peter Weller as Batman, while seeming a little out of place at first, turned out to be a great choice. He puts his deep and gravelly voice into overtime to sell the character as an old, bitter man who feels that he absolutely must do whatever it takes to make sure Gotham City survives. There was never a moment where I got distracted by saying to myself “He sounds like Robocop”, so that’s a good thing. There are times where the contrast between his voice and the bubbly girlishness of Ariel Winter’s Robin works comic wonders and provides most of the lighthearted moments within the story (“Am I fired?”). When it comes to the villains it was a brilliant choice to cast Michael Emerson (Lost, Person of Interest, Saw) as The Joker. In this story the character is a lot more demented and scary than we’re used to, and Emerson pulls it off. He’s no Mark Hamill, but he’s a close second.
The action, where there is some, is intense. Everything is animated extremely well and the character designs are pretty spot on when compared the comic book. Director Jay Oliva knew to leave well enough alone and allowed the comic book to speak for itself. It was probably the easiest and hardest job he’s ever had.

One of my favorite aspects of the comic was how it tied in other DC Universe characters and updated them. We see Catwoman/Selina Kyle as an old, overweight and supremely wealthy entrepreneur. We also see Oliver Queen/Green Arrow as a rundown invalid (he lost one arm) who is still eager to use his skills for good. And last but not least is Superman, who has become an enforcer for the U.S. government and answers to The President. It’s extremely interesting as it also expands the story beyond the walls of Gotham.
I also have to give props to Christopher Drake and his superawesomeamazeballs musical score. It’s like he took what Hans Zimmer did in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises and made it his own. Gone is the ultra-heavy bombast of those works, but the electronic elements remain. The pulsing rhythm that accompanies the action scenes gave me goose bumps. I WANT THE SOUNDTRACK!

As of writing this I declare that the complete Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is now my favorite animated superhero film. The reigning champion has been Batman: Mask of the Phantasm for the past 20 years with Justice League: The New Frontier a close second. It is exciting, violent, thought provoking, horrifying and immensely entertaining. When it was over I wished it would keep on going because the world within the story is so damned interesting… but that would mean that we’d have to watch an adaptation of “The Dark Knight Strikes Again”, and no one wants that. Do they?

5 out of 5