The Cicada Invasion of 2013! They Waited 17 Years…for Revenge!!
Pain & Gain answers the question, “does a film’s protagonist have to be a hero?” Answer: Nope. No heroic traits are evident (or even hinted at) in the trio of muscular sociopaths who are the protagonists of Michael Bay’s “based on a true story” movie. Nobody else seems very heroic, either, with the exception of Ed Harris as a retired detective, but he’s hardly the central character of this black comedy-caper film. This isn’t a complaint; unlike the “heroic” protagonists of some films, which seem to promote various noxious behaviours and attitudes, the greedy and dim-witted trio at the center of Pain & Gain is obviously intended to receive the full and complete disdain of the audience. No redeeming features in this bunch. Alright, Adrian (Anthony Mackie) is less offensive than Daniel (Mark Wahlberg) and Paul (Dwayne THE ROCK Johnson), but he’s still a selfish doofus.
Still, the film has engendered some controversy for making a gang of murderers amusing and at least slightly sympathetic. If not heroes, they’re portrayed as something less than outright villains—or perhaps it’s the absence of a hero that makes them seem less villainous? The viewer doesn’t want to see them succeed, their crimes aren’t harmless little pranks, and their motivations aren’t altruistic, but the Three Muscular Stooges have a veneer of goofy likeability that makes Pain & Gain a comedy rather than a serious crime drama. Unfair to the real-life victims of the real-life crime? Maybe, but this isn’t a documentary, and the details of the actual case are not exactly faithfully recreated here, even if the “based on a true story” tag is displayed several times on-screen.
In 1990s Miami, convicted swindler Daniel Lugo is now a personal trainer at the Sun Gym. Desirous of a better life, he schemes to strip a client, businessman Victor Kershaw, of his house, business, and fortune. Daniel brings in two accomplices, fellow body-builders Adrian—who works in a taco shop and needs money for medication to restore his virility—and Paul, an ex-con/addict who was “born again” in prison. They abduct Kershaw and torture him until he signs over his worldly goods, then attempt to murder him, only to discover Kershaw has a Rasputin-like ability to survive grievous bodily harm. But Kershaw’s story of his ordeal is so outrageous that the police refuse to investigate (this is extremely difficult to believe, but if the movie is “based on a true story,” it must be accurate, right?). Daniel, Adrian, and Paul appear to have it made: Daniel moves into Kershaw’s house and becomes a respected member of the community; Adrian marries his girlfriend, moves into a house, and has sex; and Paul gets Daniel’s cast-off stripper girlfriend and all the coke he can snort. But it’s never enough, is it? Kershaw convinces retired private detective DuBois to take the case, and between this and the pumped-up trio’s horrific slapstick quest for mo’ money, things fall apart.
Pain & Gain has been viewed by some as a caustic critique of the American Dream. Daniel, Adrian, and Paul are misguided in their method but sincere in their goal: Daniel wants to be a solid citizen, Adrian wants a house and a wife, Paul is God-fearing and repentant. Kershaw keeps money offshore to avoid taxes (and is an obnoxious human being to boot), gym owner Mese turns a blind eye to the scheme in order to finance his business goals, motivational speaker Johnny Wu is unashamedly materialistic, the police have bigger fish to fry and ignore Kershaw and DuBois, allowing the trio to roam free and ultimately murder two people …aren’t these further examples of the selfish, greedy character of America today? (or in 1995?) Perhaps, but Pain & Gain, as noted above, doesn’t really glamourise these people or attempt to justify their actions. They’re perverting the American Dream, taking a criminal short-cut simply because they’re not willing to invest time and effort in honest work (it’s not as if “the Man” is keeping them down) to get ahead in life. So there’s ammunition on both sides of the ideological question, one attribute of a decent screenplay.
The performances are all quite good. I’ve seen Dwayne Johnson in 3 films so far this year and he continues to impress me with his acting—of course he’s going to be type-cast because of his physical appearance, but within a particular range, he’s really very watchable. Wahlberg, Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, and Bar Paly (as a gullible, immigrant stripper) are also fine; Rebel Wilson is adequate as Adrian’s plus-size wife, and Ken Jeong is surprisingly restrained in what amounts to a cameo appearance.
Michael Bay is much-maligned for his “more explosions!” approach to filmmaking, but his slick directorial style (even sans explosions) is appropriate here. Production values are good; although set in the mid-1990s, Pain & Gain doesn’t make a big deal of this. It’s interesting that while the world has changed considerably in the almost 20 intervening years, nothing really stands out as old-fashioned, largely because the film’s plot is character-driven rather than technology-driven.
Pain & Gain is paced effectively and its 129 minutes pass smoothly. For a film about 3 unpleasant characters and their criminal activities, it’s surprisingly funny and entertaining.
Not exactly an “Iron Man” aficionado, I didn’t see Iron Man, was underwhelmed by Iron Man 2, but my goodness, Iron Man 3 is a very good film. It’s not great, it didn’t move me profoundly, and it won’t provoke intense intellectual, philosophical, or emotional discussions, but it is extremely well-made, actually has characters who change and evolve, spices up a clever script with numerous witty lines…I thought it was quite good.
Mysterious terrorist The Mandarin is randomly blowing up stuff around the world; after one explosion puts his pal Happy in a coma, Tony “Iron Man” Stark challenges the villain openly. The result: Tony’s cliffside mansion is destroyed by Mandarin minions. Stark, who’s been suffering from panic attacks and other signs of psychological distress since “the events in New York” (i.e., what happened in last year’s The Avengers), winds up in a small southern town with one battered Iron Man suit. His main squeeze, Pepper, is a prisoner of the Mandarin. Can Tony foil the terrorist’s plan and rescue his girlfriend?
The overall plot of Iron Man 3 is simultaneously simple, twisted, vague, and puzzling. To reveal too much would be to spoil some of the fun for viewers, but I will admit I was completely fooled about one big thing, slightly confused about others, and yet I—yes, I, the one who repeatedly rants about crappy, illogical scripts—didn’t much care, everything else is good enough elide these minor flaws.
If we’re pointing out some very inconsequential problems, the fact that this is the third Iron Man (plus The Avengers) means the filmmakers felt little or no compulsion to give the viewer any backstory at all. If you’ve never heard of Tony Stark, Iron Man, Pepper Potts, Happy, or Rhodes, well…you won’t get any particular introduction to them. Iron Man 3 knows it’s part of a multi-film arc and assumes the audience has prior knowledge of the characters and set-up. This isn’t a big issue, because I’d wager most people who see the movie do know the premise before they get to the cinema, and the actual plot is a “standalone” that doesn’t require any viewer pre-work.
Iron Man 3 contains a lot of footage of Tony Stark and parcels out the Iron Man scenes sparingly, which has two consequences: Tony’s character becomes more detailed and more sympathetic, and the super-armour-suit has a greater impact when it does appear. In fact, the opportunity to showcase multiple Iron Man costumes, each with a distinctive design and abilities, is almost completely ignored, which must have frustrated the merchandising team. The final action sequence does feature a score of Iron Men—and Rhodes also has his Iron Man suit—but one can imagine a completely different (and certainly inferior) movie in which Tony wears a different costume every 5 minutes. As it is, much of Iron Man 3 has Tony in plainclothes, what one might call MacGyver Mode.
Iron Man 3 is about Tony Stark the man, not about superhero “Iron Man.” This is reinforced by the constant suit-switching: at various times in the movie, in addition to Tony Stark, Iron Man suits are worn by (a) no one (remote-controlled suits), (b) Rhodes, (c) various villains, (d) Pepper, and (e) the President of the United States!
The performances are excellent overall. Robert Downey Jr. is quite good, Guy Pearce is eeevvvillll, Ben Kingsley is hilarious, even Gwyneth Paltrow—who’s not very visible for the majority of the picture—gets a brief scene at the end where she shows some emotion (hard to believe, I know). I can’t even complain about the stereotypically-precocious kid played by Ty Simpkins (whom I didn’t recognise, but have also seen in Insidious and The Next Three Days), because the script and performance work together to make him tolerable.
The production values are, as one might expect, excellent. I didn’t see this in IMAX 3D, but even “flat,” this is a good-looking movie with a number of spectacular action sequences. The only one which seemed slightly prolonged and suffered a bit from “obvious” CGI was the “attack on Air Force One,” and even that wasn’t a deal breaker.
This review may seem a bit short, but it’s not because Iron Man 3 isn’t a fine film (it is). A fair amount could be written about specific details of the plot and characterisations, but this would require spoilers, and we don’t want to go there right now. Also, unlike Iron Man 2 (and possibly the first one, which—as I confessed—I’ve never seen), there isn’t a lot of socio-political content to analyse. Alright, there is some, including re-painting Rhodes’ Iron Man suit in red-white-and-blue and dubbing him “Iron Patriot,” which emphasizes the fact that he’s in the service of the U.S. government, rather than a more altruistic, globally-oriented superhero. There are also several bits which seem to poke fun at the United States’ fixation on threats from the Third World, including a scene in which Tony queries his computer “butler” Jarvis about the location of the Mandarin: Tony guesses the Middle East, Africa, etc. but is told the villain is in… “Miami.”
Iron Man 3 is really, really good…for what it is: a fun (and funny) comic-book-derived, action spectacle, with a rather surprising amount of character development, a witty script, solid performances, and excellent production values.
To paraphrase Queen Victoria: We were amused and entertained.
Essentially a pastiche of Rosemary’s Baby, The Lords of Salem is visually impressive but lacks a strong narrative. The result is oddly uncompelling, not “scary,” and narratively superficial, but never dull and not unpleasant to watch, go figure.
Heidi (director’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie, which sounds like the name of a Nickolodeon animated series) is a late-night radio host in Salem, Massachusetts (the WITCH town, ooooeeeeoooo). She’s a recovering addict and lives alone with her golden retriever. One day, a mysterious vinyl record by “The Lords” is delivered to the radio station. No, it’s not a doo-wop group hoping to break into the big time, it’s what TheSirensSound might call “post-apocalyptic drone” music, and when played over the radio has a strange effect on women listeners (a creepy bit which is not pursued), as well as on in-studio Heidi. Witchcraft expert Francis Matthias is intrigued and begins to investigate. Heidi begins to experience strange events, and her downstairs neighbours—senior citizens Lacy, Megan, and Sonny—start getting a little too friendly and concerned about Heidi’s welfare, if you know what I mean. It seems dead witch Margaret Morgan wants revenge on those who burned her at the stake during the colonial era, and Heidi just happens to be a direct descendant of chief witch-burner Reverend Hawthorne. Uh-oh…
Commentary on The Lords of Salem is divided: many seem to feel (as do I) that the story is far too thin but the film looks good, while others buy into the overall experience more fully. There are literally no surprises in the plot, which advances inexorably and without deviation from point A to B to C and, finally, to a predictable conclusion. There are few nuances or sub-plots. As I noted above, the idea of the Lords’ music casting a spell over (female) radio listeners is only briefly touched upon, there is no particular mystery to be solved (even the research of Francis merely informs him about things we’ve already been privileged to see in flashbacks), and there are loose-ends-a-plenty. Ironically, aside from the de rigeur “Salem = historical witch trials” link, very little use is made of Salem as a location (some footage was shot there, but much of the movie was filmed in California): we don’t get any sort of feel for the town itself, or the characters aside from those directly involved in the plot.
A good deal of horror-fan pre-release buzz revolved around the numerous genre-veteran performers recruited for supporting roles and cameos, and it’s nice—if a bit disconcerting—to see ‘70s and ‘80s actors like Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace, Meg Foster, Bruce Davison, and María Conchita Alonso as more…ahem…mature characters. Davison and Wallace are probably the least-changed, at least in physical appearance, but everyone still gives it the old college try and generally succeed in being entertaining in their roles. Other “names” who appear in the credits but show up only briefly on-screen are Andrew Prine, Sid Haig, and Michael Berryman.
Sheri Moon Zombie delivers a satisfactory performance as the tattooed, dreadlocked disc jockey, although the script does her no particular favours. Heidi spends the latter half of the film more or less comatose, but prior to that she’s actually a fairly interesting, sympathetic character. Her relationship with on-air partner Herman “Whitey” Salvador (as opposed to Herman “Munster” Jackson, the third member of the team) is nuanced, and Jeff Daniel Phillips elicits a certain amount of viewer sympathy in the part of Whitey.
The Lords of Salem has a few impressively-loony moments in its first hour, before going completely off the rails for the final third of its running time. The latter section is essentially a long music video filled with bizarre imagery, and while I applaud director Rob Zombie’s visual sense—as well as the work of his cinematographer and other technicians—weird pictures alone do not a satisfactory motion picture make. I think David Lynch said that (= joke).
Surprisingly, I didn’t dislike The Lords of Salem even though I ultimately felt it was all show and no go. The characters are likeable (as in, I didn’t mind spending time with them, not that I necessarily “liked” them as “people”), the images were interesting, the technical aspects were quite good, and even though the script was very superficial and predictable, it didn’t infuriate me as some poorly-written movies do. I didn’t feel the filmmakers were pandering to me, or cheating me. I have no particular desire to see this again, but I don’t regret having watched it once. So…slightly on the positive side of “meh.”
note: Iron Man 3 review coming soon!
Do audiences really care about the technical aspects of films? Does anyone make a decision to see or not see a film based on IMAX, 3D, 48 fps, etc., or are these just gimmicks to justify inflated ticket prices? (And/or self-indulgence on the part of filmmakers?) Many reviews of Oblivion (2013) comment on how marvelous it looks, “but…”
I’m not even sure I think Oblivion looks that marvelous—I didn’t see it in IMAX, perhaps that’s the reason—however, I agree with the but-sayers. This is entertaining but a little empty (even the “marvelous” visuals are mostly empty deserts and canyons, maybe an unintended metaphor for the script?). Oblivion is fun and well-made, but not really thought-provoking or profound or even emotionally affecting, and no amount of technical wizardry or special effects eye candy could make it so.
Jack and Victoria are an “effective” team labouring on a shattered Earth, decades after a devastating war with invading aliens has left the planet all but uninhabitable. Their job is to repair the globular flying drones (which resemble evil metal Pac-Men) that guard the machines that are extracting the last of Earth’s natural resources (including water, as in Battle: Los Angeles), and to watch out for trouble-making remnants of the pesky, albeit long-defeated, alien “Scavs.” In two weeks, the team will be evacuated to the giant orbiting space station where the rest of humanity lives, in preparation for their ultimate relocation to a new planet. For reasons unclear, Jack and Victoria have had their memories erased, but Jack experiences flashbacks of a pre-war relationship with another woman, and also sneaks off periodically to a secret Garden of Eden where he plays old vinyl records and sun-bathes. Ah, but all is not as it seems to the amnesiac Jack and Victoria. A space shuttle crashes nearby, some previously-undetected humans emerge from a subterranean hideout, and suddenly (after about half the film has gone by), the plot kicks into high gear.
The plot twists are rather interesting and not entirely predictable, so I won’t reveal any of them here, except to comment that there is one verbal mention of an entire army of Jack clones arriving on Earth in the past—I can’t understand how the filmmakers were able to resist the temptation to depict a horde of thousands of identical Tom Cruises disembarking from a fleet of space ships. What a sight that would have been!
Since I can’t discuss plot twists for fear of spoilers, it’s difficult to effectively criticise the script. Suffice it to say that Oblivion borrows some basic themes and premises from numerous prior works of science fiction, but does a fairly good job of melding them into a seamless whole. The plot itself is no great shakes, with some enormous, gaping logical fallacies, but the film works nonetheless, for several reasons. First, the manner in which the story is constructed, with the gradual revelation of additional information, delays the viewers’ judgement. How can one say “this is stupid!” if one knows a new plot twist is coming—maybe we are stupid because we’ve been gulled into believing what we’ve been told and shown. For example, I might say, “it only takes 2 people to service all the drones on Earth?” (And those two include Victoria, who never drags her butt out of their headquarters, as far as we see). Well, later we learn this isn’t the case. So there.
Additionally, the film is well-made, paced effectively, and consistently interesting, so the audience won’t be bored enough to start analysing the basic premise or specific details during the movie. Save that for afterwards…except Oblivion isn’t necessarily the sort of film which inspires a lot of post-viewing discussion. It has a happy-ish ending, the loose ends are (sort of) tied up, and by the time you’ve gotten home from the cinema, you’ve forgotten the details.
Oblivion’s script also has to deal with the curious juxtaposition of small, personal stories (first, Jack and Victoria, then Jack and Julia) with the “we’re saving the Earth!” plot of the second half. These two never quite mesh, so the global scope of the latter sections feels slightly incongruous: “Wait, weren’t we just in the middle of a romantic triangle or something?” It’s not a major fail, but there is a bit of dissonance there. I think this may work against the film’s popularity to an extent, but I could be wrong.
The screenplay does an intermittently good job in the characterisation of Jack and Victoria (the other two major roles, Julia and Beech, arrive in the plot-heavy second half and not as much time is spent building their characters). Jack personalises his environment, wearing a Yankees baseball cap and sticking a bobble-head figure (presumably Elvis) on the dashboard of his futuristic helicopter. He also, as noted earlier, has set up a retro-hideaway in a hidden valley filled with lush vegetation, a far cry from the arid and barren Earth that seems to exist everywhere else. His little hut is filled with relics of pre-war civilisation, including classic rock LPs and the Andrew Wyeth painting “Christina’s World.” He’s a regular guy, you see, works with his hands, likes rock and roll and baseball and stuff. In a romantic gesture, he even brings Victoria a real flower one day; she callously tosses it away, saying something like “you don’t know where that’s been.”
But Victoria’s not all bad, she’s just less of a free spirit than Jack. Even in the end, it’s unclear why Jack is the one who has the human feelings and memories (fragmented though they may be) and Victoria remains the perfect corporate employee. Maybe it’s because she stays “home” all day, while he gets to go out into the world. She’s the one who communicates with their controller in the sky, cheerfully reporting on the team’s daily achievements. Jack and Victoria are a team, in fact they’re a “couple,” and know each other’s strengths and foibles. Victoria cares about Jack, giving in to jealous feelings when another woman enters the picture.
The performances are all fine, although as just mentioned, Cruise and Andrea Riseborough get the bulk of the non-action footage. Cruise is a likeable actor when he’s cast effectively, and Oblivion is a good fit for his particular set of skills. Riseborough is very attractive and conveys some touching shadings of emotion. Olga Kurylenko is adequate as Jack’s long-lost wife, and Morgan Freeman is his usual solid self in a brief role.
The overall design of Oblivion is quite good, as are the effects. There are a few scenes where the mix of CGI and live-action simply doesn’t look…right, but in general the film’s vision of the future is believably realised.
Oblivion isn’t any sort of classic but it’s decent entertainment.
Wow, I really didn’t like this one. Since I tend to avoid films I feel I won’t enjoy, I don’t often write negative reviews, but Evil Dead (2013) wasted my time and that’s a sin which cannot be easily forgiven.
Evil Dead is a remake of The Evil Dead, a cult classic from 1981. The premise is the same: a small group of young people visit a remote cabin, find an old book, unleash demonic forces by reading the book, and are (mostly) killed by said demons. Evil Dead repopulates the film with different “characters” (and I use that term loosely, since—as we shall see—these are perhaps the least-developed characters in cinema history) and changes the particular circumstances (= the characters’ deaths, since not much else happens in the movie), so it’s not so much a remake as a different version of the same basic plot (although there are homages to the original film, for the fans).
It’s been years and years since I saw the ED trilogy—The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II, and Army of Darkness—and while I have a generally positive attitude about these films, I have very little recall of any specific parts (Army of Darkness is the freshest in my mind, possibly because I saw it “only” 20 years ago). My criticism of Evil Dead (2013) is not based on a comparison of original and remake, but rather on the new picture’s inherent flaws. Evil Dead is not a bad remake, it’s a bad film. [Perhaps, upon re-viewing The Evil Dead (1981), I might not enjoy it, who knows? But this is a review of the current movie based on abstract film-worthiness values.]
Hmmm, where to start? The script? Even with a skimpy, pre-existing premise that must be used (in order to tie in to the 1981 movie), a witty, interesting story could have been devised. Plot twists, clever characters, decent dialogue? We get none of these. Evil Dead (2013) is essentially a 90-minute effects/makeup reel, as if the technicians were auditioning for work on an actual feature film. There are 5 characters: Mia, her brother Dave, bearded hippie Eric, Attractive Blonde Natalie, Attractive Brunette Olivia. Mia is a drug addict (allegedly, not that we are shown any of her personal story), and is at the cabin in an attempt to kick the habit (again): the others are her friends and (in the case of Dave) family, there to support her. Literally the only character-building moment of the entire movie comes towards the end, when the possessed Mia accuses Dave of abandoning her and their terminally-ill mother. Huzzah, 30 seconds of characterisation! Otherwise, no one is anything other than (to quote Futurama’s Bender) a “Meat Bag.”
A good film must have characters who inspire some feeling (negative or positive) on the part of the audience. If viewers don’t care about the people on the screen, it’s difficult to give a tinker’s damn about what’s happened to them, what is happening to them, or what might happen to them. None of the 5 people in Evil Dead (2013) are appealing (or annoying) enough for us to feel sorry (or glad) when they’re supernaturally abused. Strike one.
A few critics have praised Evil Dead for not utilising the standard genre archetypes—jock, nerd, bimbo, virgin—but in the absence of any other character development, even a variation of these hoary, overly-familiar roles would have been welcome. Instead, we’re presented with anodynes who inspire no sympathy, empathy or antipathy.
Nor are these characters given much to do other than suffer, struggle, and die. The film is little more than a series of tag-team face-offs between two (occasionally 3) characters: A is possessed and attacks B; B is possessed and attacks C; C is possessed and attacks D, and so on. Several of the characters are dispatched so quickly that they have hardly any time to make an impression, but even those who survive past the first half of the movie are still sketchily drawn. The idea that the demonic book foreshadows each of the gruesome deaths is lazy, and yet no one appears to be capable of looking at the book’s illustrations and thinking ahead in the slightest (until it’s…dun dun DUN…too late!). These aren’t people, they’re puppets being manipulated by the filmmakers on the most superficial level. They fill up space on the screen, they’re targets.
This emotional estrangement on the part of the audience reduces the viewer to disinterested voyeurism. “Body horror,” often associated with filmmakers like David Cronenberg, generates horrific feelings via depictions of mutilation or mutation of the human body. Part of this viewer-reaction can come simply from the effectiveness of the special effects: just watching someone’s eyes being gouged out is viscerally disturbing. But how much more effective is it when the victim (or threatened victim) is a character we “know” and for whom we have feelings? Multiple hands are chopped off in Evil Dead, but there’s nothing beyond the basic “echh!” factor present. Whereas in films such as The Hands of Orlac or Hands of a Stranger or The Hand, characters who lose their hands are pianists and an artist, i.e., losing their hands is more than just a catastrophic amputation: it also represents a loss of the person’s livelihood and an injury to their soul. In The Human Monster (1940), the villain deliberately destroys the hearing of a blind man, a terribly cruel and affecting scene. But such violence doesn’t even have to be so overtly symbolic: as long as the character is real to us, we don’t want them to have their jaw ripped off (or, if we hate them, we do), and if such a trauma occurs, we wince not only because of the gory imagery, but also because of who is suffering. What’s one of the most “horrible” scenes of The Exorcist? Regan’s spinal tap, of course. It’s the combination of what is shown and the viewer’s previously-established relationship with the character that produces a profound impact.
Evil Dead (2013) bypasses all of this subsidiary-horror potential, retaining only the gross-out visuals. These effects are “realistic” and effective on a technical level, but nothing more than that. “Oh, she cut off her own face, yuck. Pass the popcorn.” The horror doesn’t stay with you. Frankly, it’s not even as emotionally involving as so-called torture porn like the Saw films or Hostel, because there’s no build-up or suspense (note to filmmakers: screaming, jump cuts, shaky-cam shots, more screaming, and loud music/sound effects do not equal “build-up” or “suspense”). To make matters worse, there aren’t even many jump-scares. People who think Evil Dead (2013) is “scary” need to meet Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Alright, to give credit where it’s due, Evil Dead is satisfactory in a technical sense, but I think I’d prefer a film with less polished effects and photography, if in exchange I got a better plot, characters, and dialogue, more suspense and thrills, and a sense that the filmmakers were trying to induce more than knee-jerk squeamish squeals from the audience.
Based on the box-office numbers, I seem to be in the minority this time, but I don’t care. I’m standing my ground: Evil Dead (2013) offended me—not by its single-minded fixation on gory effects, but the way in which it ignored every other possible aspect that makes any particular movie worth watching. This is an extremely superficial film and while I wasn’t revolted by it, I was bored.
As a boy, I never owned a “G.I. Joe” action figure. It perhaps says something about my warped youthful self that I did have a “Dr. Evil” figure—he was a super-villain with blue skin and an exposed brain, who wore a shiny nehru jacket and sandals (I wonder where that thing is now? For that matter, I wonder where my yellow-plaid nehru shirt is—I was quite the fashion plate in 7th grade). I never watched the Eighties’ G.I. Joe cartoon show (consequently, I didn’t “know,” and thus lost “half the battle” right away), and I didn’t see G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009). So I don’t have a significant background of G.I. Joe lore to allow me to place G.I. Joe: Retaliation in context.
The new film does presuppose some knowledge of the Joe-niverse, and is in fact a direct sequel to the earlier movie. I’m not sure why the scripters didn’t take the relatively simple step of providing some back-story: after all, The Rise of Cobra was released 4 years ago, which is a long time for the public to remember what happened, and to maintain an interest in the characters and plot. Framing this as a sequel feels slightly unnecessary. On the other hand, I wasn’t seriously perplexed by my lack of previous knowledge of the plot and characters of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and apparently no one else was either, given the box-office success of the picture.
The G.I. Joe team extracts a defector from North Korea. This has no real bearing on the plot, it just shows how bad-ass they are, and provides yet another recent example of Hollywood bashing Kim Jong Un’s boys. Then, the president of Pakistan is assassinated and the whole country plunges into chaos. Seriously, he was apparently the only person who kept his people from turning into crazed rioters. So, because the Pakistanis obviously can’t be trusted to keep their hats on straight, the Joes (who are so tough that they don’t even wear helmets) are sent in to “secure” (= confiscate) that nation’s nuclear arsenal. However, the President of the USA (actually a Cobra double, as seen at the end of the previous movie IF ANYONE REMEMBERS) brands the Joes as terrorists and orders their elimination. Oh, and by the way, we now have a new super-secret branch of the U.S. government called “Cobra,” and everyone should trust them.
The rest of the film depicts the efforts of the remaining Joes—Roadblock, Lady Jaye, and Flint—in their battle against Cobra Commander, curiously-accented Firefly and Mr. faux-President. The Cobras have a master plan for world domination (because of course they do). No one would accuse the writers of G.I. Joe: Retaliation of penning a simplistic screenplay. There are multiple sub-plots—including one involving Asian martial artists Snake Eyes and Jade (Jade! That’s not a stereotypical Asian-female name, is it?) on the Joe-side, and Asian martial artist Storm Shadow on the Cobra-team—which tend to diffuse the focus of the movie. And there are numerous, incredibly complex schemes which all need to mesh perfectly in the end, logic be damned. I didn’t say the script was especially good (because it isn’t), but it’s not simplistic.
The characters as written and performed are satisfactory, with a few exceptions. Retired General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis, earning another quick paycheck) is a cartoonish figure, and Cobra Commander has zero personality. On the other hand, Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), the Presidential impostor/real President (Jonathan Pryce in a dual role) , and the snarky warden of Super-Jail (Walton Goggins) are all reasonably distinctive and spout some clever dialogue at times, even though character development clearly wasn’t a priority here.
I will mention that “Lady” Jaye (why aren’t Roadlock and Flint called “Lord Roadblock” and “Lord Flint”?) is blatantly sexualised, although whether this is truly demeaning or not is up to your individual point of view: she’s competent and assertive and treated as an equal member of the team, but she’s also used as scantily-clad bait twice and in a third scene she’s covertly ogled by Flint as she undresses. This is both expected and somehow disappointing.
The production values of G.I. Joe: Retaliation are fine. Perhaps the most visually interesting sequence is a long fight scene between Snake Eyes and Jade and an endless horder of Cobra ninjas, which unfolds as they rappel down the Himalayas or something. Wholly unbelievable but quite watchable, and I would imagine this looks pretty darn good in 3-D.
As noted above, I haven’t seen any previous incarnations of G.I. Joe media, but I believe the original concept of the Joes as members of the U.S. military was later downplayed in favour of a sort of “Man from U.N.C.L.E.”-style international do-gooder group (I could be wrong, though). G.I. Joe: Retaliation swings back in the other direction, with the Joes operating as a semi-detached unit of the American armed forces and thus apparently operating in the furtherance of U.S. foreign policy goals. Yes, with the exception of the opening North Korea sequence, these “goals” have all been undermined by President Cobra-Dupe (this doesn’t say much for the American political system, if a renegade President can bypass the rest of the government and the population at large to do whatever the hell he personally wants to do), but the film still tosses in some minor digs at France, China, the UK, Israel, France, and India, along with the aforementioned burn on Pakistan’s national irrationality and two instances of North Korea-bashing. Oh, and London gets destroyed by a Cobra super-weapon, just to make a point.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation is an adequate piece of action cinema, with a decent explosion-shoot-punch/kick quotient and a certain stylistic flare, but it’s not especially memorable.
Animated films—aside from the very few which are aimed at teens or adults—fall into two categories: movies made for children, and movies appropriate for children but made for a general audience (which the studios naturally prefer, since it expands their ticket base). I was afraid The Croods would fall into the former category, but a positive review convinced me to take a chance and I hereby affirm that this film is reasonably entertaining even if one has passed the first decade of their life.
A cross between The Flintstones and Ice Age, The Croods is a fairly simplistic Stone Age tale: Grug, his wife, aged mother-in-law, and three children (teen girl Eep, adolescent boy Thunk, animalistic toddler Sandy) are cave-dwellers forced out of their homeland by global upheaval. Fortunately for them (especially Eep), they meet handsome and resourceful teen Guy, who’s heading for the sunny side of the street (or the prehistoric world, whatever).
I say “fortunately for Eep,” because there’s no indication about what happened to everyone else in the world (we certainly don’t see any other cave people), and—before Guy’s arrival—the propagation of the species would apparently require…how shall we put it…a “marriage” between Eep and her younger brother Thunk (who is as intelligent and handsome as his name suggests, which is to say, not at all). This might result in future Croods being even more hillbilly-esque than the current generation, already afflicted with beetle brows and tombstone teeth. In-breeding would not bode well for evolutionary advancement, methinks. Fortunately, Guy shows up to deepen the gene pool a bit.
The Croods is a “journey film,” in which a literal journey also becomes a journey of personal discovery and change for the travelers. Especially patriarch Grug Crood, who has the farthest to go—his family readily adapts to their new situation, once they’re freed from Grug’s well-meaning but isolationist, fear-based world-view, but Grug resists, not only worried about actual danger for himself and his family, but also sensing a loss of status as he’s repeatedly shown up by the younger, smarter Guy. Naturally, Grug redeems himself at the conclusion, and in an interesting way: rather than exposing Guy as a fraud, immature, or merely mistaken, the film allows him to be correct (he is, after all, the only existing love interest for Eep, so it’d be awkward if he turned out to be a numbskull or scheming villain) but also allows Grug to utilise his strengths (e.g., his literal strength, as well as his love for his family) to ultimately save the day.
This is all done within the context of a rather simplistic, linear narrative: the Croods leave here, and go there. Journey films, depending upon their setting, may depict interactions with others (for example, movies about people driving across the USA, meeting various eccentric individuals at each stop), or focus on the protagonist(s) and the obstacles they encounter in the environment (in jungle- or desert-journey movies, for instance). Although it depends upon one’s point of view—and the quality of the direction, script, characters, acting, and so forth—the first type of journey seems intrinsically more “interesting,” simply because there are more characters on the screen. The Croods isn’t boring, but it seems slightly…thin. The landscapes they pass through are colourful, the creatures they meet are moderately interesting, but—since it’s fairly obvious no one is going to get killed—the thrills and dangers are muted, and the movie feels like it’s marking time until the Big Finish.
Earlier, I alluded to The Flintstones and Ice Age, and while The Croods is more “realistic” than either of these—eschewing the faux-technical anachronisms of Fred Flintstone and his compatriots, and minimising (although not eliminating) the talking-animal aspects of the latter series. We don’t have Grug operating a dinosaur-powered excavator (indeed, his “job” is simply gathering enough food from a hostile environment to avert his family’s imminent starvation)—indeed, we don’t see any dinosaurs at all, which might please the archeological purists. There are anachronistic jokes, of course: Guy invents shoes, the concept of a “pet,” and so forth, while Grug creates (in one of the funniest bits) the “snapshot.” But as such things go, the film stays “in character” most of the time.
The overall design and animation are generally satisfactory. I don’t think Dreamworks could produce something sub-par, but The Croods still looks good, even compared to other recent animated features. There’s a lot of jumping, leaping, swinging, flying (yep, every 3-D movie has to have flying) action. I might quibble with some of the character designs (the giant sabre-tooth tiger, for instance), but nothing stands out in a seriously negative way.
Voice-acting is difficult to evaluate. Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, and Ryan Reynolds are the “name” performers (alright, I know who Cloris Leachman is). They’re all fine (as are the lesser-known actors), but to save my life I don’t think I could have identified Stone or Reynolds just by their voices. Do the producers think anyone goes to see these movies based on celebrity voice-actors? I don’t know, maybe some people (weird people) do…
The Croods was pleasant enough. It’s not in the top tier of animated features of the decade, but it’s not at the bottom of the heap either. As an adult with (more or less) adult taste, I was entertained, I laughed once or twice, and I appreciated the fairly deft way the film’s “message”—about parents, children, change, risk, and so forth—was handled.
I enjoy action films, and while Olympus Has Fallen isn’t a classic action film, it’s at least an adequately entertaining imitation of a classic (Die Hard), albeit with a vague geopolitical veneer. Lots and lots of people get shot, many, many things blow up real good, and—despite its somewhat excessive length (2 hours)—the pacing is brisk.
Korean terrorists assault the White House and capture the President and various officials, demanding the withdrawal of American forces from South Korea; terrorist leader Kang (KANG!) also tortures his captives to obtain self-destruct codes for America’s nuclear arsenal. Secret Service agent Mike Banning, a former member of the presidential protection unit demoted after failing to save the President’s wife some time before, dashes out of his office, runs down the street (dodging bullets and explosions), and sneaks into the White House to save his leader and foil the terrorists’ plot. Fortunately, he has a Magical Pistol with unlimited ammunition (seriously—let’s say for the sake of argument he was carrying extra clips: he’d have needed so many of them to account for all of the bullets he shoots that he’d have been clanking as he walked like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz) and is a Trained Killer, so the scores of heavily-armed terrorists are no match for him.
Things That Bothered Me…I’d never seen a Gerard Butler film or TV show before, so I was only familiar with him as a guy whose name has been romantically linked with a seemingly endless list of actresses. He’s like the John Mayer of actors! Butler is satisfactory in Olympus Has Fallen, not especially dynamic or distinctive, but adequate. Bruce Willis was better in Die Hard, but that’s a high bar for anybody to leap (Willis himself hasn’t managed to do it again). However, for almost the entire film, I was trying to figure out who Butler resembled…somebody sort of goofy, perhaps an old-time performer…then, about 10 minutes before the end, it struck me. Gerard Butler looks like Soupy Sales. This isn’t an original observation on my part (although if I’d known about it earlier, I wouldn’t have strained my brain for an hour and a half), just Google “Soupy Sales Gerard Butler” and you’ll see what I mean. This resemblance doesn’t seem to have harmed Butler’s career (or his real-life romantic liaisons), and probably only occurs to superannuated cinema spectators such as I, but it’s like that meme: “When you see it, you’ll sh*t bricks.”
Olympus Has Fallen also contains some truly horrible CGI effects, especially in the early scenes as an enemy aircraft approaches Washington, D.C., and is challenged by Air Force fighters. These are video-game level graphics, and not convincing in the least. To add insult to injury (or brain-offensiveness to eye-offensiveness), the giant airplane takes the time to strafe people on the street before smashing into the Washington Monument and crashing on the White House grounds. I’m only surprised they didn’t shout “Die, American dogs!” as they were doing this. And all of this cheap-jack CGI for what? A diversionary tactic! (And to provide some spectacular footage for the trailer) Similarly hokey special effects mar a later sequence featuring military helicopters attempting to drop commandos on the White House roof, only to run afoul of an automated self-defense system (irony! Terrorists use a weapon meant to kill them to kill our soldiers.).
It’s pointless to criticise the derivative plot, outrageous plot holes, and other dumb or annoying things about Olympus Has Fallen, because—for the most part—these don’t hamper one’s enjoyment of the film. The movie races along so quickly and is absolutely jam-packed with action, so one hardly has the time to focus on a particularly egregious bit of stupidity before it’s whirled away like flotsam in a flash flood. Aside from the cringe-inducing CGI mentioned above—which did take me out of the moment, it was so bad—my appetite for action was satiated by the movie.
The political content of Olympus Has Fallen bears brief discussion. The history of post-WWII cinematic villainy in Hollywood productions is an interesting one, with the Soviet Union and Communist China initially filling the Evil Empire roles vacated by the Nazis and Japanese. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union mostly eliminated that nation from consideration (although on a non-political level, the Russia Mafia was then elevated to Major Crime Threat status), and while the People’s Republic of China took over first place in the Bad Country sweepstakes for a while, economic considerations have forced Hollywood to stop portraying the “Red Chinese” as an enemy.
In terms of national enemies (as opposed to terrorists, gangsters, and so on), who’s left? North Korea, apparently. They don’t buy a lot of tickets to Hollywood movies there, so there’s no box-office threat in making them villains. And the North Koreans themselves almost seem to be in league with Hollywood, making outrageous threats against the USA (among other countries) on a regular basis. In reality, of course, a North Korean invasion of the USA (as in the remake of Red Dawn—although the North Korean identity was retro-fitted in post-production, replacing China) is highly unlikely, and even any sort of actual, sustained attack on America or its forces (or even South Korea) would be little short of national suicide for North Korea (not to say it wouldn’t happen). Still, they’re crazily belligerent, so it’s easy to label them as our “enemy,” logic aside. (And since North Korea isn’t exactly cozy with many other nations in the world, the international film market isn’t significantly threatened by North Korea-bashing.)
Olympus Has Fallen hedges its bets slightly, nonetheless. Kang says he’s “Korean,” not “North Korean” or “South Korean” (he and his mother fled North Korea for the South, but she was killed by an American land-mine, which explains his hatred of the USA). At one point, someone says “North Korean denies any involvement” in the attack, and Kang is therefore allegedly a “free-lance” terrorist following his own agenda. Of course, setting aside the enormous financial and logistical requirements of the attack—which would have been virtually impossible for a private individual to handle—Kang’s first goal is the reunification of Korea, which—if his plan succeeds—would be carried out by North Korea conquering South Korea. That’s why he demands the withdrawal of American troops and naval units, so North Korea can invade, right? If North Korea and South Korea wanted to peacefully reunify, American troops certainly wouldn’t stop them from doing so.
Consequently, the argument that Kang is operating on his own initiative seems suspect. He does have a personal agenda and a grudge against the USA, and his second goal addresses that (it’s not a real spoiler, but I won’t go into detail here), but to suggest North Korea was “shocked, shocked” to learn of Kang’s plot is rather ridiculous.
A related issue is the rather forced “patriotic” aspect of the picture. I am as sentimental and patriotic as the next person, and have been known to tear up while watching war films or even reading about gallantry, sacrifice, and patriotism during wartime. But Olympus Has Fallen tries to create this sort of emotion in audiences (as well as non-patriotic emotion), with shots of the tattered American flag and so forth. This is a fictional film and doesn’t even deal with an actual conflict or realistic issues (yes, there is a North Korea and South Koreans have a right to be nervous about the erratic behaviour of their neighbour, but Olympus Has Fallen is not a serious examination of those issues), so trying to gin up some patriotic viewer response seems calculated and insincere.
The performances in Olympus Has Fallen are generally pretty solid. Gerard “Soupy” Butler’s Mike Banning is sort of a dull fellow overall, but he is likeable enough and kills the bad guys efficiently. Rick Yune is flamboyantly sinister as Kang, while Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, and a raft of lesser names are satisfactory in support. Special mention might be made of Melissa Leo, who gets the crap beaten out of her as the Secretary of Defense, another White House hostage, and Robert Forster as Stereotypical Army General Clegg.
Olympus Has Fallen is a noisy, fast-paced, generally entertaining action film that doesn’t waste much time of characterisation or plot. For what it is, it’s fine. Not as good as its model Die Hard, but not bad.
Very, very rarely, my expectations for a film are exceeded, but Oz the Great and Powerful managed to do it. This isn’t a timeless cinema classic and it didn’t change my life, but I was pleasantly surprised at the relatively satisfactory overall viewing experience. [Except for the 3-D crap, of course. Yes, we get the de rigueur flying scene, spears and other stuff zooming at the camera, and so forth. Blergh.]
The Wizard of Oz (1939) is, of course, a wonderful movie, one that makes most of the “100 Best Film” lists, and while Hollywood is not necessarily reluctant to remake “great” pictures (there have been multiple versions of King Kong, Stagecoach, Psycho, etc.), most of the post-1939 versions of the Oz epic have been drastically altered (eg, The Wiz, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz) to avoid direct comparison, sequels (Return to Oz), or—in the case of Oz the Great and Powerful—a prequel. The plot of Oz doesn’t perfectly mesh with that of Wizard—there’s no indication in the latter film that the Wizard and Glinda have had a romance, for instance—but the general premise of Wizard is respected.
The Oz filmmakers pay homage to Wizard (and L. Frank Baum’s original novels) in various ways, visually and thematically. You’ve got your Emerald City, Yellow Brick Road, Munchkins, green-faced Wicked Witch, flying simians (two kinds!), soporific poppy field, etc. The film opens in black-and-white (as opposed to sepia, but still…) then converts to glorious colour (the aspect ratio also changes to wide-screen). There are some clever in-jokes, such as a scene in which the Munchkins break into song but are shushed by an impatient Oscar “Oz” Diggs. Oz even includes a reference to a non-Wizard (even a non-Raimi) movie, when Oscar tells Glinda, “I know I’m not the wizard you expected, but I might just be the wizard you need,” which sounds sort of Dark Knight-y to me.
Small-time magician Oscar Diggs escapes the wrath of a jealous husband by flying away from Kansas in a hot-air balloon, only to be swept up in a tornado and deposited in the world of Oz. He’s greeted by Theodora, an attractive young witch who says a prophecy foretold the arrival of a wizard to defeat an evil witch who’s bringing darkness on the formerly happy land. Although possessed of no real magical powers, Oz decides to go with the flow and accept the challenge, especially after making a Scrooge McDuck-like dive into a hill of gold coins which will become his property after he’s named King of Oz. Unfortunately, he also trifles romantically with Theodora and her seductive, British-accented witch sister Evanora, with disastrous results. Oz, aided by good witch Glinda, flying-monkey Finley, and porcelain doll China Girl (who isn’t Chinese, by the way), schemes to liberate the land of Oz.
As Oz, James Franco turns in an adequate performance, although the script is a bit too muddled and ambivalent to make his conversion from conniving, womanising weasel to hero wholly convincing. However, I can’t really think of another contemporary actor who’d have been better in the role, so I suppose that’s a tribute to shifty-weasel specialist Franco. The 3 witches are all satisfactory, although Michelle Williams isn’t exactly my cup of tea and Mila Kunis as Theodora has to wrestle with an ill-defined role in the first half of the movie, before crossing over to the dark side (at which point she can chew the scenery to her heart’s content). I wasn’t pleased with the design of CGI-monkey Finley (too much monkey and not enough Braff), but Zach Braff does a good job voicing the character, as does Joey King on China Girl. Tony Cox and Bill Cobbs handle their supporting roles professionally, and it’s amusing to see Bruce Campbell in a cameo role.
The script is actually better than I thought it would be (my comments in the previous paragraph about character development to the contrary), with a number of snappy lines (only a few of which seem forced) and a well-defined narrative. Did it need to be over 2 hours long? Probably not, but today’s filmmakers have no sense of restraint in this area, and while Oz drags a bit at times, it’s not horribly padded. The moral of the story isn’t hammered home bluntly, and some ambiguity remains even at the conclusion, particularly with regards to the character of Oz himself: it’s not a spoiler to say that he (with much help from his friends and the citizens of Oz) saves the day, but it’s not as if he had much choice in the matter (he doesn’t, for example, give up a clear chance to save himself to stay and help the Oz-ians). Oz (the man) doesn’t so much change his self-centered ways as use his expertise at trickery and deceit for self-preservation (which, not incidentally, saves Oz from the evil witches, but as noted above, he didn’t have many other viable options at the time).
I am conflicted a bit about the production values. The picture’s design is very nice, reminiscent but not entirely derivative of The Wizard of Oz. The special effects are adequately done for the most part, but there are a few botched sequences. For example, a scene of Oz and his friends strolling down the Yellow Brick Road through a field of sunflowers is horribly fake-looking (clearly green-screen background), various long-shots of a fog-shrouded battlefield are also far too artificial in appearance, and while the CGI of Finley is excellent, the evil flying baboons are too cartoonish to truly be menacing (they’re scarier when only their shadows are seen). On the whole, however, the sets, costumes, cinematography, and effects are professionally impressive and provide sturdy support for the film’s sense of wonder.
Oz the Great and Powerful doesn’t set out to replace The Wizard of Oz in the pantheon of classic cinema—at least I can’t imagine Sam Raimi and the others believed they were making a great movie—and this lack of pretension is laudable. Instead, the film is, first of all, solid entertainment. It’s also respectful of its predecessor, while avoiding direct comparison—Oz isn’t a musical, its protagonist is a grown man rather than an adolescent girl, and the main characters from Wizard are mostly absent or appear in different forms.
As I wrote at the outset, I didn’t go in to Oz the Great and Powerful expecting much. I thought I’d do my usual snarky, elitist, iconoclastic criticism of a sloppy, audience-pandering, CGI-loaded “re-visioning” of a classic film that was hoping to rake in both nostalgia-bucks and the disposable income of the juvenile-fantasy audience. Well, I’m a big enough man to say it: I was wrong. Oz the Great and Powerful isn’t bad at all. It’s not profound or awe-inspiring, but I had fun watching it.
Jokes about the oxymoronic title aside, The Last Exorcism Part II still isn’t a very good movie. The filmmakers got two things right: they discarded the “found footage” gimmick and brought back Ashley Bell (though I’ll admit she didn’t really stand out in The Last Exorcism—in my memory, at least—but she’s pretty darn good here). But otherwise, while this film isn’t horrible, it’s boring and predictable. Nothing of consequence happens until the very end, and precious little even then.
Nell, victim of demonic possession and demonic impregnation in the first movie, survives her ordeal and—appropriately cleaned up and de-Satanised—moves into a group home for wayward young women in New Orleans. [I’m surprised that house wasn’t way more crowded. Zing!] She is hired as a motel housekeeper, and even gets a clean-cut young beau, Chris. But in the background (far, far in the background), danger lurks.
Nell has the usual clichéd horror-movie experiences. She glimpses her father across the street, only to have a truck drive by and then…shock!…he’s vanished! She gets a crank phone call…ooh, spooky. Shadowy figures seem to be watching her (cue Rockwell’s hit song). Her father shows up again but is (probably) killed by Nell’s heavy-metal-fan friend Gwen. While cleaning a motel room, Nell hears the sounds of passion from another room (now that’s odd). Somehow, the video of her possessed antics from the first movie is uploaded to YouTube (weird, considering the whole film crew was supposedly murdered) and Nell’s housemates find this amusing (I’d find it creepy, but maybe that’s just me). An obnoxious guy on the street collapses after annoying Nell. This latter experience serves to introduce Nell to Cecile, a Good Samaritan who can spot a demonically-stalked young woman a mile away. Yes, it appears the demon “Abalam” (not to be confused with “Alabam,” a demon from one of Louisiana’s neighbouring states) is romantically obsessed with Nell. Time for an exorcism! Past time, actually, since the film is entitled The Last Exorcism Part II and it would be nice if we got to see some exorcism action at some point.
It’s a shame The Last Exorcism Part II is so bland, because the first half of the film engenders a lot of audience good will, and a decent script and more suspenseful direction would have cashed in on this. Nell is an extremely likeable character, and we are rooting for her to overcome her abused past and live a normal life. But just when you think you’re out, the Devil pulls you back in… Except, in this movie he waits an awfully long time before actually doing anything. First he (OK, demon Abalam as opposed to Satan himself, as if that matters; although it would be funny if one of these films focused on Satan’s relationship with his demonic minions, who constantly cause trouble on Earth despite his attempts to keep them in line) has to mince around dropping vague hints for two-thirds of the movie’s running time. It’s not like he’s a high school nerd trying to get up the nerve to ask Nell out on a date, he’s a demon from Hell with supernatural powers: just possess her and get on with it. Maybe then we can have an exorcism? I didn’t especially like the movie’s conclusion (which I won’t spoil for you, but it’s hardly an earth-shaking surprise twist, trust me), but at least something was going on, after more than an hour of tip-toeing around.
The Last Exorcism Part II is filmmaking by the numbers. It’s professionally shot, uses its New Orleans locations in a reasonably effective manner, features competent performers, but is missing that spark of originality and distinctiveness which would have elevated this to be anything more than a tame, un-scary, routine horror movie. Which face it, is what it is. I didn’t hate The Last Exorcism Part II, but it was slow and sort of disappointing. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
If every comedian wants to play Hamlet, does every action star want to become a dramatic AC-TOR? I suppose that’s a bit unfair, since even action movies require a certain level of acting prowess, and I don’t want to suggest otherwise (for fear that Dwayne Johnson, the artist formerly known as “The Rock,” will crush me like a bug). No, seriously, I understand it does take more than physical ability and a certain “look” to become (and remain) successful in films. You have to be able to act, at least somewhat.
On the other hand, if one is typecast as a certain type of performer, breaking out of such a career straitjacket isn’t easy. Snitch is not exactly a quantum leap from Johnson’s previous movies, in terms of his role and performance. Face it, there isn’t a wide range of leading roles available for a hyper-muscular guy with a shaved head (and the whitest teeth). It’s as if someone said, “let’s make Snitch just a teensy bit different than usual, add some more dialogue, a tad less action; but don’t go crazy and cast The Rock in a rom-com as a quirky hipster blogger barista-novelist or anything.” So while Johnson is perfectly fine and doesn’t embarrass himself, just because he has less punching and shooting and fast-driving (well, he does some fast-driving) than usual, he didn’t have to stretch his acting muscles that much.
John Matthews (The ROCK) is the hard-working owner of a construction company (although it seems more like a trucking company) who’s on his second family (sexy younger wife, cute little daughter), but remains on speaking terms with his ex-wife Sylvie and teen-age son Jason. Jason is sent a package of drugs by a friend (who, as it turns out, did it in order to curry favour with the authorities who arrested him on narcotics charges). Harsh mandatory-sentencing guidelines mean Jason will spend many years in the stoney lonesome (for you city slickers, that means prison). Politically ambitious federal prosecutor Keegan (Susan Sarandon, channeling Sigourney Weaver) says her hands are tied unless Jason agrees to set up one of his friends (it’s sort of like a drug-dealing chain letter), but he refuses. John, who has the usual “I should have been there for my kids, but I was too busy earning money” guilt, offers to bring in a drug dealer by his very own self in exchange for Jason’s early release.
However, since John is a straight-arrow sort of guy, he’s got no way to find and catch a (dis)honest to goodness criminal. Luckily, John employs hard-working ex-con Daniel, who’s got a wife and kid of his own, and reluctantly accepts $20K to introduce his boss to one of his former narco-distributing associates (unaware of John’s real plan). Naturally, screw-ups, double-crosses, and plot twists follow.
If you read the synopsis of Snitch, there is a lot of stuff about moral ambiguity, difficult decisions, breaking eggs to make an omelet, and such-like. John wants to help his son, but in doing so he puts his new family at risk; he also deceives and uses Daniel, who’s a hard worker and seems determined to live an honest life, but is tempted by John’s money because he wants to move his family to a better neighbourhood. Keegan wants to burnish her record of convictions to help her in her campaign for elected office; she uses dubious tactics like the bogus “sting” operation that ensnares the innocent Jason; but she is to some extent hamstrung by mandatory sentencing guidelines; and—after all—she is prosecuting drug dealers, which everybody agrees is good, right? The end justifies the means…OR DOES IT? Well, does it? Yeah, I suppose…
The problem is that Snitch has almost too many points to make, and as a consequence makes none of them very clearly or convincingly. Are we supposed to come out of the movie believing the government’s war on drugs is being waged in an inefficient and wrong-headed manner, but the drug dealers themselves are a scourge that need to be wiped out even if some innocent people suffer as a result? I simply don’t know what Snitch wants me to think…my head hurts when I try to reconcile all of these conflicting ideas.
Actually, the clearest theme of the picture is “family is important.” Shocking, huh. John has two families, and while no one would (well, I wouldn’t) blame him if he cut whiny Jason loose, he won’t do it, even though he endangers himself (directly), and his new family (indirectly—what if he gets killed?—and directly, since they’re also in peril once his undercover activities are exposed). Daniel, as mentioned above, risks his freedom and his life in hopes of giving his young son a better life. Even druglord El Topo backs down at the climax because he’s accompanied by his son.
Snitch is a fairly entertaining film, although it consists mostly of two types of scenes: people discussing (obliquely and overtly) the aforementioned issues, and “suspense” scenes of John engaging in his undercover work. There are two major action sequences that are effectively done. Overall, the production values are satisfactory: this is a slick, professional-looking picture. The performances are also fine.
So there’s nothing especially wrong with Snitch, but it feels ever so slightly…superficial or empty. It’s neither a full-on action film, nor a completely “serious” drama. Still, it’s a fairly painless watch. I’ve seen worse.
Steven Soderbergh is one of the more interesting “mid-level” directors of the past several decades (has it been that long since Sex, Lies, and Videotape? Yes, that was way back in 1989…argh). While I don’t actively seek out his films, when I do stumble across one—most recently, Side Effects, and Contagion before that—I generally feel reassured that I’ll be seeing a well-made, thoughtful picture.
One of the interesting things about Contagion was the fragmented points of view: given the multiple story-lines, who was the “main” protagonist? This isn’t exactly the same as an ensemble film, where a group of people functions as the star—think of Altman’s Nashville, or Polanski’s Carnage—but rather a film that alternates between sub-plots that are linked but distinct, and gives more or less equal time to the various characters. Side Effects doesn’t do this, but Soderbergh manages to confound audience expectations by rather abruptly, albeit cleverly, changing protagonists in mid-stream.
The film begins with the story of Emily, a young woman whose husband has just been released from prison after serving a sentence for stock market manipulation. The couple tries to rebuild their life together, but Emily exhibits symptoms of depression. When she deliberately rams her car into a brick wall, she is taken to a hospital and she meets psychiatrist Jonathan Banks. Banks accepts her as his patient, and prescribes various anti-depressant drugs, none with much success. Emily finally seems to respond to a new pill—“Ablixa”—although it has some side effects, including the promotion of sleep-walking. While apparently in a somnambulistic state, Emily stabs her husband to death.
Up to this point, Side Effects is told mostly from Emily’s point of view, although we do get some footage of Banks’ wife and child, his professional colleagues, and so on. But the general thrust of the movie seems to be Emily’s struggle with depression, the tendency of psychiatrists to perhaps over-prescribe medication, and the death of her husband. This is fairly interesting, and (having read nothing specific about the plot), I assumed the picture would continue in the same vein, something like Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life with James Mason as a middle-class husband and father whose personality is drastically altered by prescription-drug side effects.
But no, Side Effects switches sides as it were, and becomes a movie about Dr. Banks’ struggle to preserve his career in the face of (slightly) veiled accusations of malpractice. Gradually, he comes to the conclusion that he’s been the victim of a convoluted plot, and suspects Emily and her former psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert . [I don’t know if this was intentional, but I kept thinking “Victoria’s Secret,” and yes, Victoria does have a secret. Several, in fact.] Thus the film morphs from a medical drama-domestic tragedy into a detective thriller (albeit one without the usual car chases or shoot-outs). Sort of a reverse-Psycho, which began as a crime film and turned into a psychological horror movie. Psycho also changed protagonists midway through its running time, killing off Marion Crane in the notorious shower scene. Emily in Side Effects doesn’t die, but she’s effectively demoted from central figure to supporting character in the film’s second half.
Does this tactic work? Surprisingly, it does. In fact, viewers may empathise with Dr. Banks because we, too, were taken in by Emily’s behaviour in the first part. If the plot doesn’t quite work perfectly, it’s not because the film is bifurcated, it’s because the script gets a bit too dense for its own good at the end. Too much goes on in a very compressed period of time and some of the twists aren’t perfectly aligned.
But on the whole, Side Effects is a clever, entertaining movie. Like some (but not all) of Soderbergh’s previous films, there is a touch of social relevance. Enough to make you pause for a moment, but not enough to qualify as didactic. In Side Effects, the “big drug” business is portrayed as an insular, you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours world, with doctors and pharmaceutical company representatives cooperating to promote their latest product. Similarly, there is little suggestion that psychiatrists do much of anything other than push pills on their patients, swapping one drug for another when the first one fails to produce an immediate response. The film isn’t about this culture exactly, but it scores a few points in its depiction of a society where mood-altering drugs are readily available and eagerly consumed.
Side Effects is one of those everyone-is-amoral films, with a “hero” (if we want to elevate Dr. Banks to that role) who seems to be a decent person but who puts his family, medical practice, and financial well-being above professional ethics. One might say he’s only fighting back against those who’ve virtually ruined his life, but even before he twigs to the fact that he’s been had, he isn’t exactly Marcus Welby (very dated reference, sorry—Welby was an altruistic, caring physician on an old television series). Dr. Siebert, suffice it to say, is worse, as are Emily, the local prosecuting attorney, etc., etc.
The performances are satisfactory. I was only familiar with Rooney Mara from the U.S. version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and she’s completely unrecognisable here, compared to that. I guess that makes her a good actress, no? She’s adequate in Side Effects, although I was more convinced by her apparently-fake innocence than her subsequent heel-turn (to use a professional wrestling term). Jude Law is fine, as is Catherine Zeta-Jones. Channing Tatum, as Emily’s ill-fated husband, hardly deserves his billing and the huge portrait of his face on the poster, but I suppose the box-office cannot be denied.
Speaking of which, Side Effects hasn’t fared too well in cinemas in the USA. I believe I mentioned this before in reference to Broken City, another slick, contemporary drama-thriller with well-known actors (Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones again) that faded away without finding an audience. Smaller films, especially those without an exploitable hook, are at a real disadvantage these days. Which is too bad, because Side Effects is a reasonably satisfying, moderately intelligent film that too few people will see in cinemas. On the other hand, there’s nothing especially “cinema-worthy” about Side Effects, so watching it on DVD would be fine, too (assuming you’re not one of the film’s investors).
Maybe it’s simply a coincidence that new action movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis all appeared in the first two months of 2013. Of course, while Schwarzenegger was otherwise occupied for the past few years, Stallone had already made a comeback of sorts with The Expendables I and II, and Willis has been extremely active—albeit frequently as part of an ensemble cast, rather than as the sole star of his recent pictures.
Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand and Stallone’s Bullet to the Head were critical and popular failures, but A Good Day to Die Hard has done slightly better (although it’ll need a good showing overseas to turn a profit). Predicting and explaining box-office results is hardly an exact science: did the Willis vehicle make more money because Willis is a (somewhat) younger, more familiar film-face, and A Good Day to Die Hard is an entry in an established action-movie franchise? Or is it simply a better movie than the other two? All of the above? None of the above? A combination of some but not all of the above?
I don’t know, I’m asking you. (I haven’t seen Bullet to the Head and probably won’t, at least not in the foreseeable future).
So, having tossed out that unanswerable rhetorical question, I’ll now move on to one which can be answered, to wit: is A Good Day to Die Hard any good?
First, the good things. Set in Russia but shot in Hungary, A Good Day to Die Hard looks good, in overall production terms. It has some spectacular action sequences which aren’t too obviously CGI. The film moves along briskly. Stuff blows up real good. The performances are adequate. There are a few witty lines (although about half of them seem forced and clumsy, I did appreciate a couple of them). The film doesn’t take itself seriously, doesn’t manipulate the audience, and delivers more or less what it promises.
Now, the bad things (for every yin there is a yang, grasshopper). The characters are not really characters, if “characterisation” is what makes characters. Bruce Willis uses the John McClane name from the previous Die Hard movies, but he might as well be called “Frank Moses” or “John Smith” or “Butch Coolidge.” There is a little banter between McClane and his son—“why weren’t you there for me, dad” and “I thought it was enough to be a good provider,” yadda yadda—but the total amount of “bonding” dialogue that goes on could have been written on one side of a 3x5 card. I’m conflicted about this: on the one hand, “drama!” scenes would have slowed down the breakneck pace of the picture; on the other hand, A Good Day to Die Hard is one of the most superficial films ever made. There are video games that have better-developed characters than this movie.
A Good Day to Die Hard also pushes the envelope in terms of believable action-movie physics. As viewers, we must willingly suspend our disbelief while watching even the simplest, most innocuous of films, or else be constantly frustrated by patently “unreal” things on the screen. Many of these bits are simply streamline the action—ever-available parking spaces for the protagonists, to name just one—while others fall into the category of “movie physics” and “movie physiology.” Cars, trucks, planes, buildings, etc. behave in ways which defy the laws of science. Stresses, collisions, blows, leaps, and injuries that would disable or kill a normal person in real life are shrugged off by characters in films.
A Good Day to Die Hard is especially egregious in this regard. The action set-pieces are outrageous and overblown, which is deliberate and therefore acceptable, I suppose. Movies are bigger-than-life and honestly, who wants to see a slow-speed car chase that ends after 30 seconds because one of the vehicles runs up over a curb and gets a flat tire? On the other hand, isn’t there a difference between The Avengers—featuring superheroes and aliens, who aren’t necessarily subject to human frailties (and even in The Avengers, it irritated me that Hawkeye and the Black Widow were portrayed as essentially invulnerable as the Hulk and Iron Man)—and A Good Day to Die Hard, whose protagonists are normal human beings, one of them well into middle-age? Should these people (and the villains, too), be impervious to explosive concussion, bullet wounds, shrapnel injuries, radiation, burns, and so on? Are they not men, or are they Daffy Duck? John McClane, sometime in the 6 years between Live Free or Die Hard and this movie, apparently underwent “Steve Austin” surgery and became a bionic man. And let’s not even discuss the flying trucks.
I’m not necessarily condemning A Good Day to Die Hard for its comic book sensibility, I’m just sayin’…it bothered me a little.
The script pays slightly more attention to the plot than it does to the characterisation. There are a few twists and turns, but they’re actually sort of pointless, since the plot is only a “delivery system” for the action sequences. It hardly matters who’s the villain in this scene, or that X betrays the heroes, or that the MacGuffin changes 3 or 4 times. Because, after all, it is just a MacGuffin.
One mildly interesting aspect of the picture is the Russian setting. Without going into great detail, the Hollywood image of Russia has never been too favourable (except for a very brief period during WWII, and those pro-Soviet films came back to bite their makers on the arse within a few short years). There was a bit of a glastnost thaw, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union some of the Cold War animosity evaporated, but the ubiquitous Russia mafia villains soon moved into Hollywood’s rogues gallery (although generic East European gangsters are also rather prevalent). A Good Day to Die Hard takes a few mild shots at contemporary Russia—corrupt leaders, political prisoners, Chechnyan mobsters, environmental disaster—but it’s not too ideological. Indeed, substitute “Chernobyl” with another MacGuffin, and the film could have been set in any one of scores of other countries (or even a fake or deliberately unspecified nation). [As noted earlier, the movie was actually shot in Hungary.]
A Good Day to Die Hard is an adequate action movie, with special emphasis on “action” (at the expense of just about everything else). I was moderately entertained, but I wish the film was more like Die Hard and less like Transformers. While my standards—re: the amount of non-action content of action films—are fairly low, apparently I do have some.