Review – Django Unchained

Originally posted at aintitcool.com, December 19th 2012

Pardon me the inarticulate nature of the following critique, but I believe it will prove to be as appropriate a summation of the film’s qualities as I can muster:

Django Unchained is a motherfucker.

It sounds like David Milch, stoned out of his gourd. It looks like a Bierstadt, except for when it looks like a Bosch. It is an ambling, mild-mannered nightmare; a bloody, mean-spirited, exhilarating wet mess of a movie.

Quentin Tarantino’s western plays much like Quentin Tarantino’s war film: It pulps America’s mythologizing of its own past. Django is set in a pre-Civil War South that is equal parts lurid and goofy. The star of this painterly cartoon of a western is Django (Jamie Foxx) a slave who is purchased and then set free by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), an ex-dentist-turned-bounty-hunter, who needs Django’s help to collect on a bounty. Thus sets in motion the first third of the film: A buddy comedy about killing white folks and selling their corpses back to the government.

Once Django’s freedom is secured, he and Waltz hatch a plan to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from her owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who is a major player in the Mandingo Fight Game. Thus sets in motion the middle of the film: A con-movie about earning the good graces of a hopped-up rube so as to take from him things he doesn’t deserve.

Once Django and Schultz make it to Calvin’s plantation, “Candyland,” they run into Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) a toad of a man who throws a wrench into our heroes’ plans. Thus sets in motion the last third of the film: A revenge epic of head-spinning violence and depravity. It is this last third where the film thoroughly earns its status as a complete, total, unrelenting, unimaginable motherfucker of a movie.

You may ask “But is being a motherfucker a good thing or a bad thing?” The answer is “Yes.”

This is Tarantino at his most self-indulgent. But not in the annoying, eye-roll inducing way Death Proof was. While many seem to know him for his violence, Tarantino has always, first and foremost, loved the words that fall out of his giant noggin, and the salty-sweet syllables he puts in Waltz’s mouth are delivered so melodiously, it’s easy to forgive Django Unchained for spending much of its runtime pleasantly shooting the shit instead of shooting up hillbillies.

Django isn’t much of a protagonist for most of his own movie. He spends a lot of it with a wide-eyed, inquisitive look on his face, alternately curious and bemused about the world he finds himself inhabiting. It’s a smart choice – when you’ve got a tour guide as good, as charming as Waltz is, you don’t mind just letting him lead, and I’d imagine many in the audience will spend a lot of time goggling at the movie with a similar look on their face for most of the first hour. The reasons are two:

1) Robert Richardson is one of the best cinematographers that ever lived, and this movie is goddamned gorgeous thanks to his work on the film.

2) Quentin really indulges his second-favorite fetish, the one that puts racial slurs in his actor’s mouths; One slur in particular.

I know its period appropriate, but the experience of hearing that word casually fall out of 98% of the white cast’s face is jarring at first. Except for Walton Goggins, who as Hollywood’s current reigning King of the Peckerwoods I sort of just expect to utter that word at least once or twice. But Tom Wopat is in this fucking movie and considering how old you are, hearing Luke Duke utter the word his backwoods moonshinin’ ass never got to say on television is a bit of a jolt.

Don’t take this as an expression of dissatisfaction with the film; Django Unchained is almost constantly entertaining, even as its all sorts of sprawled out and irresponsible. Hell, that’s part of the charm, really. But its pleasures are edged. There’s a blend of unease and delight in things like Don Johnson as a dandified Colonel Sanders, succumbing to frustration as his carefully planned lynching turns into a whiny kvetch-fest; the oily, greasy way Leonardo DiCaprio pushes Tarantino’s words out between his browned teeth; the willingness of Samuel L. Jackson to nakedly wallow in total debasement. The character he’s playing might be named Stephen, but he’s channeling Uncle Ruckus from Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks so completely, you’d swear the wetness slicking up his protruding lower lip was made of pure, liquefied self-hate.

When Tarantino does get on with it, the violence is gaudy as hell, blood leaving bullet-riddled bodies via squibs that seem to work by dropping a firecracker into a jar of Smuckers strawberry jam. The cruelty of the South is never softpedaled in Django Unchained: You will see frequent, disturbing acts perpetrated on slaves. You will see that violence repaid in kind, often with that same queasy delight buzzing under the visceral thrills.

DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie is some repugnant shit, and his performance is kind of amazing. At one point he lacerates the hell out of his hand by smashing a glass for emphasis, and he doesn’t break character, or even acknowledge that he’s badly bleeding, not until he has a chance to use that blood as a means to prove how deranged Candie is, smearing that blood all over Kerry Washington’s shocked face.

Washington is one of the more problematic parts of the movie, in that she doesn’t do shit but cry, look pretty, or look scared. In fact, most of the black people in this movie aside from Django and Stephen, don’t do shit but cry or look scared, ineffectually goggling at the audacity of Django the way Django goggled at the world upon being set free in it. It could have been worse for Broomhilda; Tarantino decided to cut two scenes in which she is raped. A scene in which a man burns off another man’s nipples was also deleted. This is what restraint looks like in Tarantino-land, and the movie is better for it. Django Unchained already spends long stretches of its movie doing a delicate balancing act, smudging the pencil-thin line between outrageous and tasteless as it is.

But when Django fully comes into his own with about a half-hour to go, the fresh hell he justifiably unleashes is probably the most adrenaline-infused thing Tarantino’s ever done. Bullets flying, blood splashing, Tupac and James Brown screaming on the soundtrack at the enemies Django is cutting down with no remorse. Jamie Foxx’s performance is underplayed and understated. He is maybe the most traditionally western thing about the movie, his Django a jut-jawed, squinting blend of Franco Nero and Clint Eastwood, delivering most of his lines through gritted teeth in a low, growling whisper, a triumphant portrait of stoic bad-assery.

The film doesn’t really ask too many questions of its viewers. There will be moments when large chunks of the audience find themselves laughing with clownish buffoonery instead of laughing at it, missing out on the moments of commentary Tarantino too rarely allows himself. In a film that is probably too long by 30 minutes, I wish he’d chosen to indulge his thoughtful side just a little bit more.

But Tarantino is most effective when he gives into his passion to share with you the things he thinks are really, really cool. Even after decades of success and acclaim, down deep, Tarantino is still an excited video store clerk who wants you to take a risk on something awesome you might not check out otherwise, and reap the rewards contained within. Django Unchained is full of rich, dirty, bloody bounties that sometimes cost just a mite too much to enjoy unreservedly.

Published in: on 12/23/2012 at 1:19 pm  Comments Off on Review – Django Unchained  

Review – Captain America: The First Avenger

Originally posted June 24th, 2011 at nerdpuddle.com

This was the year that JJ Abrams was supposed to inherit the crown: Spielberg’s crown, specifically. This was to be the year he harnessed the power of the beard, channeled his essence, and transported audiences back to the early 80’s. And most of the viewing public clambered on the S.S. Super 8 happily, leaving me on the dock to wave as they pulled away, jealous at their ability to take a ride I just wasn’t feeling.

This is not the year Abrams gets that crown.

Not while Joe Johnston is around. Not when he makes a Captain America movie like the one he just made. And if people liked the shot of nostalgia and emotion that JJ microwaved up in his mystery box, they’re going to lose their minds at how well Johnston upped the ante. Because this isn’t just a great set-up for The Avengers. It’s the best film to come out of Marvel Productions.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Johnston might have a more direct line to Spielberg’s brand of magic – he helped the man make that magic in the early 80’s as a member of ILM. Johnston helped storyboard Raiders of the Lost Ark, after all. A cursory look over his filmography (outside of Rocketeer and maybe parts of Jurassic Park III) doesn’t necessarily call attention to his ability to put on an adventure of that caliber.

But when asked to not only evoke the same mood and tap that same energy, all while adapting to film the real first adventure of an American icon, and while making that adaptation work as a de-facto prequel to next summer’s blockbuster tentpole? Johnston delivered the goods.

Like X-Men: First Class, the film is helped tremendously by the choice to make it a period piece. There’s an innocence and gee-golly-shucks-mister vibe to the period that Johnston and Chris Evans both nail perfectly. Evans begins the film as Steve Rogers, a 90 lb. weakling who just wants to join the Army and knock hell out of Hitler. Unfortunately for Steve, he looks like a mousefart would knock him over, and he’s lied on 5 different applications in the hopes someone will give him a break.

Professor Erskine (Stanley Tucci) overhears Rogers at a World’s Fair type expo, arguing with his best friend Bucky Barnes, (Sebastian Stan) about whether its time to just give this dream up. The passion in Steve’s voice causes Erskine to intervene, declare the kid 1A, and send him to boot camp for training at the hands of Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) a crusty, smartassed sack of wrinkles and stinkeye.

What Rogers doesn’t know is that the bootcamp experience is merely a test to see if he has the heart to become part of the Super Soldier experiment, Erskine’s attempt to create an army of superheroes with the help of Howard Stark, Tony’s dad, played with echoes of Robert Downey Jr’s slick-talking ease by Dominic Cooper.

Erskine’s serum is responsible for the creation of the film’s villain, The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) a psychotic Nazi who believes so firmly in the idea of harnessing the power of religious artifacts with which to rule the world, that he not only looks down on Hitler for digging holes in Egypt while chasing biblical rumors, he’s looking to murder and replace Hitler to create his own reich: Hydra. Weaving is essentially doing a lighter version of Christoph Waltz’s character from Inglorious Basterds, and he’s helped by Toby Jones as Dr. Zola, a bug-eyed toady who has his doubts about Skull’s abilities.

Rogers, now jacked to the eyeballs with 150cc’s of pure beefcake, still isn’t taken seriously in the slightest by Colonel Phillips, and is relegated to USO duty. He puts on a goofy (but pretty damned comics-accurate) flannel costume and tours the country trying to sell bonds. He feels he’s being wasted, but settles into his role and gains some swagger, so much so that I caught myself kinda hoping Evans would end up just rocking that flannel for the rest of the movie. Not since Christopher Reeve wore his spandex, has an actor so thoroughly made me forget how silly the costume was, totally selling the iconography through sheer confidence.

But after getting (rightfully) booed by actual soldiers during a stop in Europe, Rogers, supported by superior officer – and adorable love interest – Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) decides that its time to stop fronting at being a hero, and after learning of Hydra keeping American prisoners (including Bucky, and Dum-Dum Dugan’s Howling Commandos) 30 miles away from his location, he puts on a helmet, straps on his shield and goes to work.

Captain America is not a superhero film in the mold of most superhero films, which is to say, it doesn’t try to carbon copy Christopher Nolan’s approach on Batman Begins. Which, admittedly, worked great…on Batman. Captain America has more in common with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man: a hero who enjoys what he does, who has fun with his powers, and earns the goodwill of the audience via a charismatic lead performance, a performance that realizes the potential of a likable actor who never quite broke out the way he should have.

Except Captain America not only does all that origin story stuff better than Iron Man did it, but in half the time, leaving a full hour or so of Captain America getting to be Captain America, and save the world accordingly. And Chris Evans turns in a great performance. He tones down his smartass tendencies, and turns up the earnestness. He juts his jaw like a hero when he fights, and he grins like a little boy when he gets the win.

The film’s production design is nostalgic beauty; Plenty of warm sepia tones and vibrant colors laid over what appears to be a mostly CG-free film. Sure, there are moments here and there that can’t hide a more digital nature, but mostly, the film has a hand-painted, knocked-together charm that feels authentically retro. Alan Silvestri’s score, while missing a memorable theme, still manages to charge the film with that extra bit of “Hell Yeah,” pushing Johnston’s action scenes from “pretty decent” to “genuinely exciting”

That action rarely pulls punches, either. Cap doesn’t want to kill anybody, but when left with no option, neither side of the fight will hesitate to dust the opposition. And that’s not a euphemism: The Red Skull is harnessing alien power to create weapons that cause human beings in this film to explode, War of the Worlds style, into a pile of tattered clothes and ashes.

Johnston strikes a balance of beauty and kineticism, melded with a combination of melancholy longing and rousing heroism in the main character that leads to an ending that doesn’t go for the big crashing explosion of brass and low-angled iconography, but instead highlights the humanity of Steve Rogers. Captain America saves the day, but he had to sacrifice a lot to do so, and it’s that heart at the center of the film that transforms Captain America from just another superhero movie, to something other superhero movies will strain to measure against.

Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 2:32 pm  Comments Off on Review – Captain America: The First Avenger  

Review – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I

Originally Posted at Aint It Cool News 11/16/10

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I: Wherein Mr. Potter finally earns his comparisons to Tolkien and Lucas.

(Or, as the recently departed Dino DeLaurentiis might have said, “When the elf die, everybody cry.”)

I’ve grown to both love and loathe “The Empire Strikes Back.” It’s a beautiful movie, the film that, for many a fan of genre cinema, proved a combination of emotional honesty from the actors and deft enough touch from the director could transcend a genre’s percieved limitations and achieve legitimate greatness. For all the eye-candy on display, it’s the performances people remember; The tightening of tired eyes, the slight lift of a smirk, the way foam-rubber ears waggle in disappointment and the sound of black leather crinkling into a fist.

“Empire” is also the unattainable ideal for a lot of those same genre fans, a cruel measuring stick pulled down from a shelf, for decades worth of gangly, eager younger siblings in cinema to stand next to, critical greasepencils marking them all as many inches too short. Even more unfair, the stick itself keeps growing taller with time, and people keep learning the wrong lessons from the film, slouching against the wall in a poseur’s attempt to be grimdark and badass. Some, punched in the gut by “Empire’s” power dragged their toybox selfishly behind them into adulthood, not only denying further generations a chance to play with those figures, but hot-gluing clay to their feet and making them rape and murder each other for 3.99 a 22-page issue.

Young Mr. Potter has not only found himself on the short end of that stick for 5 straight films, he had to simultaneously deal with literary critics constantly bringing up one of Lucas’ biggest theft victims inspirations, “The Lord of the Rings.” And of course Potter is compared to Tolkien; it’s a fantasy, it’s printed on paper, bound, and sold in bookstores. It’s a hard comparison to duck when about 75% of the paperbacks on the shelves have his name printed somewhere in a blurb on the back.

But then, with Peter Jackson’s masterful adaptation of those books, Harry Potter found himself squinting into the sky at two cinematic giants. And even with help from filmmakers like Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell, it seemed Potter was doomed to finish his time at Hogwarts as yet another student of fantasy who couldn’t quite make it out from under that shadow, never earning those comparisons, in the same way many readers felt Harry never really earned the victories that Rowling wrote him.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” is the truth to that lie, and the first complete realization of the series’ potential. It synthesizes the best parts of “The Two Towers” and “Empire Strikes Back,” and while it can (and should) be argued that it doesn’t stand as tall (it just doesn’t have the same scale or weight) it has definitely earned a place in the discussion, by taking the first half of a book many of its defenders acknowledge can be rightfully titled “Harry Potter Goes Camping For A Couple Hundred Fucking Pages Ugh” and from that, crafting a deliberate, beautifully desolate journey of self-discovery.

The story continues from the last film with no reset, recap or hint of hand-holding. Harry, Ron and Hermione aren’t joyfully bumbling about their homes waiting to take the train to Hogwarts anymore. Voldemort has made his move, Dumbledore fell, the world has gone to shit, and large amounts of what’s left of that world is actively trying to murder Harry. With the help of his friends, he must find the remaining horcruxes Voldemort has hidden, and destroy them before finally facing the Dark Lord himself in a battle to the death. Unfortunately, Harry has not the first damn clue how to do any of this, and Dumbledore’s needlessly cryptic ass died before he could spell it out.

As an adaptation, the film is probably the best translation from book to screen. There’s a balance between Chris Columbus’ dry adherence to the text and Alfonso Cuaron’s faithfulness-be-damned success of tone. And, it cannot be undersold, that transformation of what felt like interminable years worth of feet-dragging prose, sludging through the woods, into something that attains legimately haunting – and yes, dark – beauty.

As a film, divorced from the source material, it plays a lot more like a penultimate episode of a long running TV series. That’s not to say it isn’t properly cinematic in scope – Eduardo Serra’s cinematography is striking. Nor do I think it is necessarily a negative; Consider the successes on television in the last decade, how thoroughly those successes have dwarfed the narrative ability of all but a handful of filmmakers working theatrically, and how viewers patience has been limbered up by weekends’ worth of powerloading series via downloads and DVD. The abrupt conclusion of Part 1 feels a lot like hitting a mid-season cliffhanger on disc 1, and finding out disc 2 hasn’t come in the mail yet.

And while the action is good (particularly Harry’s escape from his Uncle’s House, a quick shootout in a coffeeshop, and a mission to the Ministry of Magic that feels like Terry Gilliam took over David Yates’ chair,) and the atmosphere is great, it’s the acting that puts this film beyond the others. The supporting cast has always been reliable in these movies, and with a list that includes Brendan Gleeson, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, Ralph Fiennes and Peter Mullan, the only real complaint is that I didn’t see enough of them. I saw just enough of Helena Bonham Carter’s brand of bug-eyed overacting, though, and I guess I’ll just have to wait until Part 2 to finally get a substantial piece of work from Alan Rickman as Severus Snape.

What used to heighten that annoyance were the kids. They always tried hard, but the earnestness of that attempt would often overwrite the emotions they were supposed to be conveying in the scene. They were not only growing up in front of hundreds of millions of people, burdened with the weight of essaying modern-day heroes, they were learning their craft, one blockbuster movie at a time, throughout their adolescence.

They pay off that effort in this film: Daniel Radcliffe, who figured this shit out before his co-stars, exudes a guarded confidence in his performance. Rupert Grint has toned down his alternating between broad mugging and dour pouting, giving his comedy a lighter touch and his serious moments some real anger. And Emma Watson, owner of the most self-conscious eyebrows on earth, has finally tamed those jumpy little fuckers. But, in what I’m sure is a bit of a “bite me” to the complainers, one of the better scenes in the film ends with an eyebrow lift so perfectly exaggerated even Spock would have to grin.

The performances lend this film the weight that made the imaginary quote I attributed to DeLaurentiis a reality for some. It’s hard to watch Chamber of Secrets now (I could probably end that sentence right there) and see Dobby as anything but an annoying exercise in R&D for ILM. Sure, having Toby Jones do the voice lends the little shit some pedigree, but there is no way, before walking into that theater, that I believed a performance evoking real emotion could have come out of that floppy eared sack of wrinkles.

But then again, I’m sure there were plenty in 1980 who said the same thing about Yoda before watching him. I’m sure they were happy to have been proven wrong as they left the theater. Just as I’m happy that I don’t have to reflexively roll my eyes at the next fan I hear calling the newest Harry Potter movie “The Empire Strikes Back” of the series, because this time they’re right: It may not be “Empire’s” equal, but this is definitely the Potter standing tallest against that measuring stick.

Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 1:37 am  Comments Off on Review – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I  

Review – Four Lions

Originally Printed in The Portland Mercury 11/11/10

FOUR LIONS humanizes terrorism.

Don’t misunderstand: This is a very different statement than “Four Lions makes terrorism understandable and sympathetic.” I mean to say that Four Lions does, in fact, humanize terrorism, by reminding the audience that human beings can be incomprehensibly dumb and clumsy animals. One has to be a special sort of idiot to think dressing in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume to suicide bomb a charity fun-run is going to win you any sort of heavenly reward, but this is the humanity Four Lions concerns itself with, and those are the sorts of terrorist plots incompetently employed, and these are the confused, chucklefucked faces of terrorism.

The Three Stooges seem to be a big influence on writer/director Christopher Morris’ film—along with British comedies like The Thick of It and The Office—and like those old Stooges shorts, Four Lions’ plot is just a skeleton to hold up numerous and brilliant gags. Omar (Riz Ahmed) is disillusioned about Western influence on Muslim culture; to combat it, he becomes the mujahideen equivalent of a Juggalo, a wannabe who can’t spare the time or the thought it would take to understand why he does the things he does. Omar gathers a group of his friends, and together, they try to strike a blow against the West on their own turf. They suck at it. Hard.

There is, of course, a political element to the movie, but the film isn’t too concerned with that, nor is it concerned with stepping down to focus on message moments, à la Matt Stone and Trey Parker. That would detract from the joyous reveling Morris takes in punishing the stupid for their sins against intelligence.  Every “threatening” video is rendered inert by innate buffoonery, every passionate piece of rhetoric is riddled with multiple “bro”s and “buddy”s. Imagine the Situation and Tucker Max as chavs, pretending to be Al-Qaeda for spring break, and getting their nuts stomped for it at every turn.

There is no sympathy to be found in Morris’ ruthless little farce, and the comedy benefits all the more for it. Almost every minute of this film is dedicated to subversion: Plots, expectations, and hopes are all kneecapped in a progression of toweringly stupid fuckups, strung together by slapstick set pieces that are jarringly funny. Four Lions is a rare beast: an understatedly absurdist feel-good satire about terrorists.

Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 1:36 am  Comments Off on Review – Four Lions  

Review – Monsters

Originally Printed in The Portland Mercury 11/11/10

THANKS TO ITS misleading title, Monsters is going to piss off a lot of unsuspecting viewers. Let’s be clear: This is not a movie about monsters, nor are there lots of monsters in it. It’s the anti-Cloverfield: The camera isn’t shaking, and there’s almost nothing interesting happening in front of it.

Here’s the one-sentence premise: A snotty photographer (Scoot McNairy) is under orders from his newspaper to retrieve the boss’ daughter (Whitney Able) from the “Infected Zone”—a decimated, largely abandoned strip of Mexico settled by giant interplanetary octo-crabs after a space probe crashed six years previous.

Now take that one-sentence premise, stretch it over 94 minutes, and subtract pacing, acting, tension, atmosphere, and almost all the monsters. What’s left is a film that moves with all the passion and energy of a stifled yawn.

Some will forgive Monsters’ many flaws by pointing to its price tag of $15,000. (I didn’t leave off a zero or two—this film cost less than a Toyota Prius.) And visually, writer/director Gareth Edwards pulls off a minor miracle; when the octo-crabs eventually do make their scant appearances, they’re convincingly Lovecraftian.

But Edwards doesn’t do poor Scoot and Whitney any favors: If you thought the privileged twentysomethings of Cloverfield were annoying wastes, you’re going to hate these vapid mannequins. Whenever garbage dialogue isn’t spilling from their heads, they’re hoovering the film’s remaining sense of wonder through their slack jaws, trying for “dumbfounded” and only getting the first part.

By the time its end credits roll, Monsters feels like nothing so much as a Blu-ray special feature—one in which we follow a couple of pretty idiots around for a 90-minute look at the sets of a monster movie, one where things will, eventually, actually happen. Now all Edwards needs to do is make a real movie to go along with it.

Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 1:35 am  Comments Off on Review – Monsters  

Review – Jackass 3D

Originally Printed in The Portland Mercury 10/14/10

REVIEWING JACKASS 3D isn’t only a seemingly pointless exercise—it’s a hard one. There’s no plot, but that doesn’t mean there’s no structure; the Jackass movies are built like grandiose symphonies of stupidity. It’s what makes them the dumb entertainment that smart people find safe to enjoy. Contrary to their critics assertions, the Jackass films are not evidence of society’s slow slouch toward idiocracy—being this fucking moronic requires way too much thought for that to be the case, and director Jeff Tremaine strings these skits together with a cartoon logic that Chuck Jones himself would applaud.

There’s no way to spoil Jackass, either: The introduction of every skit shows what it’s going to do, then it tells you what it’s going to do, and then it does it. I can tell you, for example, that Ehren McGhehey has dental floss tied around one of his teeth, and that the other end of that floss is tied to the bumper of Bam Margera’s Lamborghini; you can deduce the rest. It’s not about knowing what’s gonna happen, it’s about watching the shit go down. And I haven’t seen anything this year funnier than “Poo Cocktail Supreme,” “The Field Goal,” “Pin the Tail on the Donkey,” and about 10 other skits I won’t even name.

There is a genuine surprise that opens the film, a nice nod to MTV’s past that sets the tone for a (respectively) cuddlier Jackass. Endearing, even. The original felt like a high school graduation gone out of control, almost surprised at the sublime heights of idiocy it was achieving. Jackass Number Two felt like a college kegger about three seconds from a frothing overdose on the kitchen floor—equal parts laughs, uneasy squirms, and tooth-grinding discomfort. Jackass 3D, then, is a mildly inebriated 10-year reunion, the good old days reenacted with aging, sloppy bodies, captured in 3D. (The 3D is cool, by the way, though it’s nothing compared to the amounts of slow motion used here—there’s enough to make even Zack Snyder gag.)

Speaking of which: There’s a lot of puke. And poop. And a lot of penises. Someone dumps a bucket of snakes on Bam, and Ryan Dunn reenacts a Maxell ad nobody in the film’s intended audience could possibly remember. And then the reunion ends with a cute look at some yearbook photos cut amid some of your favorite nut-shots and projectile vomiting, as Dickhouse Productions turns the lights out on what seems to be the final adventures of Johnny Knoxville. It’s actually kinda sweet.

Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 1:34 am  Comments Off on Review – Jackass 3D  

Review – Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

Originally Posted at Aint It Cool News 09/21/10

My Attempt to Make Sense of The Trailer for Zack Snyder’s Owl Movie:

1)     Jesus Christ, owls are fucking creepy.

2)     They’re armed? Who is arming these owls? Why would you do this?

3)     Is this a joke? It looks like a Zack Snyder movie.

4)     Holy shit, it IS a Zack Snyder movie. Owls with abs. Why not.

5)     And why wouldn’t it be called The Something-Something of Gurfle-Hurf or whatever? That’s catchy as hell.

6)     Sure, I’ll watch it. It’s a 3-D Animated Cockfight! For kids!

My Review of “Slow-Motion 3-D Australian Cockfight With Owls: The Movie” Directed By Zack Snyder.

Dude does not make it easy for himself, does he? “Dawn of the Dead,” “Watchmen,” Frank Miller’s nonexistent storytelling abilities; He has yet to tackle a project that doesn’t have an amazing amount of baggage attached to it. This time, that baggage includes things like “The expectations of millions of kids who buy these books,” and “The pure befuddlement of everyone else.”

That ballsiness, more than anything else, defines Snyder’s career, even more than his brilliant visual sense. He makes movies that simply shouldn’t be. And it’s one thing for kids to imagine a world where owl kids join the boy scouts, grow up and go to war with other owls while wearing pseudo-roman armor. It’s another to take that imagery out of the kids’ head and put it on a couple thousand theater screens in as photorealistic a manner as possible. Other directors aim for suspension of disbelief. Snyder tries to suspend sheer incredulosity.

“The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” is the movie where Snyder finally descends, slow-motion and screaming, into total self-parody. Some would argue this happened halfway through “300,” but I disagree.  What with the stylized action and the speed-ramping, “300” established the Snyder style, for better or worse, and he used those tools judiciously, bringing them out only when needed, maximizing their impact. Whatever problems there were with “Watchmen,” he (mostly) exercised similar restraint in his valiant attempt to adapt what many consider the best graphic novel ever written.

With this movie, he’s not so much choosing his tools as he is kicking the whole toolbox into a computer, and then kicking over the computer.  It’s a tone-deaf slog through near-total incoherency, its only hope of success completely dependent on frequent – and frequently desperate – attempts at beautiful iconography.

The choice to make this as photorealistic as possible is a terrible one. Sure, it’s pretty as hell, and the 3D is mostly immersive, succumbing to gimmick only once or twice. But it’s hard to empathize for these creepy-looking things, and though the voice actors are trying to anchor the movie in real emotion, there’s only so much expression an owl can give.  Then there is the rote story, notable only for the incomprehensible way in which its details are relayed to the audience. The first 15 minutes are an impenetrable wall built from out-of-context details and stupid sounding names.

Soren is a wide-eyed dreamer, all too willing to get caught up in the fairy tales his father tells him about the legendary Guardians of Ga’Hoole, a band of owls that fight for justice and freedom against the evil Metalbeak, an owl fascist plotting the domination of owlkind. Soren’s older brother, Kludd, is resentful of Soran’s optimism, and his natural talent for flight. One day, while practicing their skills, they are kidnapped by mysterious owls and taken to what they’re told is an orphanage where they will be taught how to become the best owls they can be.

In actuality, the school is a training ground for Metalbeak’s army, where weaker students are brainwashed into owlish zombies, forced to spend their waking hours picking through a massive owl pellet collection to find metal flecks that, when pieced together by Metalbeak’s elite force of bat-minions, form a weapon that will be used to destroy the Guardians once and for all.

Soren and fellow prisoner Otulissa decide to make a break for it, to warn the Guardians and save their respective owl kingdoms. Kludd betrays his little brother, and thus, the sides are chosen, the outcome inevitable: The Guardians will war with Metalbeak one more time, and the fate of all Owlkind rides on their wings. Will Soren rise to the challenge and realize his potential? Does he have the strength to face his brother, and save not only his family, but seriously WHAT THE FUCK AM I WATCHING.

This is an astoundingly bad movie. That isn’t to say it’s not entertaining. It is, in fact, very beautiful to look at, and fucking hilarious in all the wrong ways. Snyder’s never been known for subtlety, but at one point in the movie, he has Owl City sing a song about owls while owls learn how to be owls during an owl montage. I could not. Stop. Laughing. I was waiting for Xzibit to pop his head out of the bottom of the screen and shout “Yo dawg, I heard you like Owls!” The movie isn’t thoughtless. It has things it wants to say to the kids. Snyder just isn’t paying attention to what he’s saying. Subtext is beyond this man, I think. A shocking charge, I know, but here’s a couple examples:

During one of the scenes of lighthearted levity sprinkled throughout the film with all the grace and precision of a scud missile, a baby owl spends a good 15 seconds of screentime horking up an owl pellet. After the laughs subside, the owl is told by her nursemaid, a matronly pink snake, (obvious choice, really) why she just puked up an owl turd, in a way that sounds, to anyone paying a modicum of attention to subtext, like a mother explaining to her daughter what a menstrual cycle is.

This is weird and unintentionally hilarious as it is, until the snake mentions that she is going to save this pellet as a keepsake, just like she’s done for all the owls she’s cared for. And then the scene ends, leaving us to contemplate a world in which a motherly snake keeps a collection of owl periods in mason jars. And this snake is the emotional heart of the movie. We know this because the character inhabiting the role of oracle, a soothsaying echidna, (of course it’s an echidna, duh) says so to the snake, and the viewing audience.

And then, at about the midway point, Soren re-caps the movie to the Guardians themselves. The response to his tale sounds like script notes that Snyder mistook for actual pages: A haughty, snooty owl calmly tells Soren that his story is beyond unbelievable, that it occupies a realm so ridiculous that nobody could possibly be expected to understand it, much less go along with it. To his credit, Snyder did not name the owl “Movie Critic,” probably because that name doesn’t sound like an owl pellet being coughed up, and therefore doesn’t fit in this universe.

How did Snyder not catch these things? Was he too focused on mining every possibly iconic moment for their last ounce of majesty, unaware he had failed to make anything, yunno, matter?  It is, essentially, a kids film about ethnic cleansing, starring a shitload of Campbellian clichés dressed as armed barn owls, and there is no resonance to any of it.

But will kids like it? Maybe. I’m sure there are kids who liked Planet 51 and Alpha & Omega, too. Kids like a lot of shitty things, but they’re kids, they have a good excuse. Snyder doesn’t. With this film, he has finally stacked the deck against himself far too harshly to come out the other side with a win.

Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 1:33 am  Comments Off on Review – Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole  

Review – The Town

Originally Posted at Aint it Cool News 09/14/10

IMAGINARY CONVERSATION BETWEEN BEN AFFLECK AND HIS WIFE IN THE KITCHEN OF THEIR LOVELY HOME.

Ben: You see that trailer?

Jen: Yes, dear.

Ben: You saw that shit?

Jen: They put it in front of Inception, Ben. A lot of people saw that trailer.

Ben: So they’ll let me make the movie, they’ll let me star in the movie, but they can’t let anyone know I directed the movie, because then it’s a joke, right? The trailer literally has the words ‘From the acclaimed director of Gone Baby Gone’ come up on screen…and then nothing. It’s an unfinished sentence. Who’s the acclaimed director of Gone Baby Gone? I am. Ben Fucking Affleck.

Jen: Ben. Fucking. Affleck.

Ben: But not according to the trailer. According to the trailer, some nameless ghost farted that picture into existence. Fucking NOT ME from the Family Circus ran over a dotted line through a couple mulberry bushes and kicked over a dog dish on his way to my camera to shoot my critically acclaimed movie.

Jen: Shameful. It’s shameful how they treat you.

Ben: What do I have to do, huh? I gotta channel Michael Mann? Fine. I’ll channel Michael Mann. I’ll remake Heat for Warner Bros, and I’ll do it without cheating and putting the goddamned Batman into my remake like that bastard Nolan did. I’ll get Don Draper, and that pug-nosed kid from the bomb movie that won all the Oscars last year, and I’ll get back into Daredevil shape, and we’ll wear nuns habits and shoot a ton of guns and crash a shitload of cars and the world will know That BEN FUCKING AFFLECK directed a goddamn great crime movie. Put that shit in the trailer. 80 point font. Helvetica. Bold.

Jen: Ben Fucking Affleck.

Ben: You’re goddamn right.

THE TOWN, or GODDAMMIT I’M BEN AFFLECK AND YOU WILL TAKE ME SERIOUSLY AS A FILMMAKER.

For myriad, mostly superficial reasons, people have a hard time taking Ben Affleck seriously. He’s got an Oscar for Best Screenplay, but everyone either assumes a) William Goldman did it for him or b) He smoked weed on the couch while Matt Damon wrote everything. He directed Gone Baby Gone, a filthy little powderkeg of a movie, and yet people still paint him as a lunkheaded prettyboy who needs his hand held. More people believed there was good in Anakin Skywalker than believe in Ben Affleck.

People need to come off that old bullshit.

That’s not to say The Town is everything Ben was angrily proclaiming in my imaginary kitchen rant. It’s not Heat, and he’s not Michael Mann. But he fits into John Frankenheimer’s clothes pretty well. I mean, if Frankenheimer was directing Point Break. That sounds like I’m knocking The Town, but Frankenheimer was a solid director, Point Break was a solid actioner, and The Town sports a solid cast working at a deliberate pace.

And I’m not using “deliberate” as shitty movie-critic code for “slow.” Lotta people say “deliberate” when they’re looking for a flowery way to say “I checked my watch a couple times.” I mean deliberate in that Affleck knows just how long to let his camera linger, how long to let a scene breathe, and whether they should be slow, calming breaths or ragged, hitching gasps. It’s easy to blow shit up and scream, and there’s plenty of mayhem to go around in the film. It’s the confidence in the quiet moments where characters become people, and The Town is a confidently directed follow-up to Gone Baby Gone.

Like its predecessor, The Town deals with the seedier side of Boston; Affleck plays Doug McRay, a once-promising hockey player who had his dream shattered in college, and returned back to Charlestown, a mile-long strip of Boston that does nothing but breed townie thugs and their drug-addicted baby mamas. He chose to follow in his jailed father’s (Chris Cooper) crooked footsteps, and is now the point man for a team of bank-robbers, including childhood friend Jem (Jeremy Renner.) They’re working for Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite,) a low-level crime boss who runs his operation out of a dingy flower shop.

In the film’s opening robbery, Doug and Jem take bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) hostage as insurance against any possible police interference. When the cops don’t give chase, they dump her off at the beach after taking her ID. Unfortunately for them, it turns out she lives 4 blocks away from their apartment complex. On any given day she could spot them doing something as simple as walking to the store to get some Cheerios and they’re all going to prison. Jem, the team’s resident psychopath, wants her “Taken care of.”

Doug chooses to take care of it by dating Claire, seeing in her a chance to leave behind a shitty life he’s long since outgrown. But Jem won’t let him leave, claiming Doug has yet to pay off his debts to his liking.  Fergie won’t let him go because he has banks and armored cars he wants robbed and Doug’s the only person he wants doing it. And a highly determined FBI Agent named Frawley (Jon Hamm) is pulling the noose tighter and tighter around Doug’s neck with his investigation into his crew, and Claire too.

This is a film about choking to death on dreams deferred. And like Gone Baby Gone, the film features no shortage of short, sharp rabbit punches to the kidneys, along with one particularly wince-inducing low-blow. There is pain to be felt in The Town, and not just the physical and visceral kind found in the finely choreographed robbery sequences. In Charlestown, people are a nothing more than a commodity, just another thing to be used up. Most of the film’s tension comes from quiet, increasingly desperate attempts to maneuver out of this mile-long strip of hell without succumbing to its ways.

But where Gone Baby Gone felt like a vicious fight that ended with a headbutt DQ, The Town goes the distance and ends in a lazy clinch. Affleck earns a lot of the emotion in the film honestly, with good turns from Hamm and Hall, and a great performance from Renner, full of dead-eyed, wiry rage.  He does not earn the gauzy, candy-coated ending he gives himself. I’m unfamiliar with the story Affleck adapted along with co-writers Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, so maybe the ending is faithful, but it feels hollow. If anything, up until the last 5 minutes, the film seems to be reinforcing Jem’s outlook on the situation: Doug thinks he’s better than everyone in Charlestown, but he’s not, and he can’t leave because he doesn’t deserve to. The debt is too steep, and in the end, everyone but Doug seems to be paying their share.

But even if the ending is a cheat, I’m willing to cede Affleck the self-congratulatory back-patting that closes his film like a sunny day melting the icy integrity of the 90 preceding minutes. It’s not as potent as his debut, but the surety he directs with should erase lingering skepticism from those paying attention. The Town may not have earned its happy ending, but Affleck has, at the least, earned the right to have his name mentioned as a director of note without an ironic giggle punctuating the statement.

Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 1:31 am  Comments Off on Review – The Town  

Review – Machete

Originally Posted at Aint It Cool News 8/31/10

Machete, co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis, is everything Stallone was trying to do with The Expendables, but done correctly. Well, okay, “correctly” is kind of a strange word to use when describing something as sloppy and reckless as this film. Nothing about the film is technically “correct.” Much of what happens in the film falls under the category of “That shit ain’t right.” Machete is a hard film to describe.

At its core, Machete is a left-wing exploitation sleaze-fest, something I’ve not seen since John Carpenter pulled it off in “They Live” – and that’s not a comparison I make lightly. Once again, as with “Planet Terror,” Rodriguez is aiming for Grindhouse, but has skidded sideways off the target, indulging in the type of irresponsible cinematic joyriding that earned Carpenter a home in the hearts of genre fanboys. Maybe he’s doing it on accident, maybe not. Either way, I’m glad he’s doing it, because Carpenter sure as hell ain’t.

Irresponsible is maybe the best way to encapsulate the Machete experience. Brutal is a good word, too. Thuddingly corny is pretty apt. Gleefully gross, blithely blasphemous, stupidly satirical, sledgehammer subtle, all of them fit the film as snugly as the vest full of knives that BadAss Hall-Of-Famer Danny Trejo wears in the final act.

By the way, how the hell do we get to 2010 before someone thinks to cast Trejo as the lead in a theatrical release? We’ve been without a Charles Bronson heir since that squinty sonofabitch shuffled off this mortal coil in 2003. Hollywood’s spent too many years fruitlessly chasing the ghosts of Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Trejo’s time is long past due. He’s a real hardass, all crags and scowls, tats and steely sneers. Not like these aged, half-plastic HGH monsters who have to inject so much hormone they piss ground beef, who have to enlist squads of makeup-artists to hand-paint fake, meaningless “tribal” body-art on their bodies, just to vainly fail at approximating the authenticity of Trejo’s badassery.

I invoke the name of Bronson because that’s who Trejo is channeling here, and he pulls it off with Chuck’s closed-mouthed panache. He doesn’t have many lines, but he doesn’t need ‘em. He’s got presence. Fuckin’ loads of it. You know what else there’s loads of? Blood. Tits. Inventive action sequences, executed ruthlessly, and breathlessly, even if this film, like “The Expendables,” uses way too many CGI blades n’ blood. Maybe it can be chalked up to Rodriguez’s experience with cheap digital FX (he’s also the VFX Supervisor on the film) that the artificial gore doesn’t feel as lazy. There’s an impact to the cartoonish violence on display, even if there’s no ACTUAL impact.

I know I’ve beat up on “The Expendables,” but I do appreciate the film, in that it helps highlight all the things that Rodriguez/Maniquis have done right in comparison. Instead of 2 scene-chewing villains, Machete has 4, played by Jeff Fahey, Don Johnson, Robert DeNiro and Steven Seagal. I listed them in ascending order according to their level of slimy turdage. Fahey is slick and conniving, a mulleted equal-opportunity fucker. Johnson is the Sheriff Joe Arpaio stand-in, calmly sociopathic, a leathery shark in silver sideburns. DeNiro is a cross between Dubya and Charlie Crist – an opportunistic play-acting buffoon. And Seagal? He plays himself: A fat, despicable, pretentious bag of shit appropriating other people’s cultures with a greasy, covetous zeal he apparently reserves for only one other thing: Donuts.

The whole lineup of actors is, like in Stallone’s recent try-too-hard, ADD epic, a triumph of self-referential stunt casting; Cheech Marin as a weed-smoking priest with hidden cameras in the confessional, Michelle Rodriguez as a sweaty, bad-ass bitch, Jessica Alba as the over-earnest hot lady cop hiding her soft nature behind a tough facade. The only real misstep is Lindsay Lohan, who spends most of the movie literally just fucking laying there. And even that sorta works, as she’s been cast as a degenerate rich-girl party-whore.

The story is exactly what we were sold in the Grindhouse trailer. Fahey hires Trejo to kill the senator. Trejo is doublecrossed. He enlists the help of his brother and other day laborers and sympathetics to enact his revenge, which involves a metric fuckton of stabbings, an homage to Die Hard that replaces the firehose with a goon’s intestines, a Cheechifixion, and yes, a chopper with a minigun mounted to the handlebars. All of this leads to a finale on Johnson’s militia compound, between corn-fed, border patrolling rednecks, and a collection of angry landscapers, dishwashers and an ice cream man, led by Machete and a 20-car convoy of tricked out, DeathRace-style reinforced Cutlass Supremes, Impalas and Monte Carlos.

There are a couple surprises. 1) Rodriguez keeps a firm grip on his often slippery pacing, at least until the very end, when the film overreaches for epic and grabs a big fistful of anti-climactic 2) It’s pretty political, albeit in a very ham-fisted way. People who believe that illegal immigration is tantamount to terrorism will likely get all sorts of pissed off, because Rodriguez makes those people out to be cartoonishly vile, racist degenerates worthy of a wide variety of grisly retributions.

But to get worked up about the politics is to miss the point. This is not a film people are going to rally around, or point to as a defining moment in their political awakening. The politics are here work solely as a means to introduce more ridiculous violence and goofy set-pieces. Same way right-wing, pro-facism propaganda made for legitimately great 80’s junk cinema. You could put stock in the ridiculously simplistic sloganeering on display, but then you’d be just as silly as the movie is. Best to just enjoy the speechifying done by Alba and Michelle Rodriguez the same way we enjoyed the uplifting mouthfuls of cheese spewed by Rocky and Rambo and Red Dawn.

You really want an 80’s throwback? Machete is that film. This is the winking, snickering, self-aware but still seriously asskicking concoction of explosions and mayhem, full of the giddy, one-liner laden, character rich treasures that the best 80’s junk cinema had to offer. That’s not to say Machete is a great movie. It’s much too messy for that. But it is a playfully infectious, irresponsibly fun piece of wetwork.

Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 1:29 am  Comments Off on Review – Machete  

Review – The Expendables

Originally Posted at Aint It Cool News 08/11/10

I love action movies. Not in the safe way that a lot of people love them; distanced, ironic, stashing their pleasure behind the descriptor “guilty,” and laughing at the movie as often as they laugh with it. When I say I love “The Rock,” I love it un-ironically. When I put 2008’s “Rambo” on that year’s 10-best list, I meant that shit. The kineticism, the viscera, the speed, the weight – these are things action cinema can offer in ways no other genre of film can, and it’s why many are willing to forgive genre classics like “Commando” for shortcomings like perfunctory plot, hammy acting and razor thin characterization. Those things are all secondary, even tertiary, to the thrill of watching people get utterly ruined in ridiculiciously brutal ways. I love a good action movie, man.

The Expendables is a big piece of shit. It couldn’t be a bigger piece of shit if its name was Womack. And it’s not like it had a particularly high bar to reach. I’m referencing “The Rock,” but I’m not using that as the measuring stick. I’m not even using Stallone’s last film, although that’s a very fair comparison point. For me, personally, all this movie had to do was improve on “The Losers,” Sylvain White’s braindead mercs-on-a-mission film from the beginning of the summer. With that criteria? Forget generous, I was being goddamned charitable to “The Expendables,” considering I thought “The Losers” sounded like a script written by a 15 year old’s boner, and looked like it was directed by Tony Scott with a massive headwound. And yet “The Expendables” still falls short.

You know what’s really disappointing? It’s not the plotting, or the acting, or the characterization. As an action fan, I can forgive those things their absence, if the action is done properly. Well, those things are sure as shit absent from this movie, and the action is bad. Not “okay,” not “serviceable.” It’s bad. I mentioned “Commando” earlier; this movie is like if “Commando” got sloppy drunk and started oversharing with strangers at the bar, and all you want to do is slowly slink away before something unfortunate happens. By “unfortunate,” I mean the story.

Bruce Willis plays The Plot. He sends a message to Mickey Rourke, who plays Leather Gandalf, a pipe-smoking tattoo artist. Leather Gandalf passes the tip on to Sylvester Stallone, who plays Barney, the bored leader of the titular mercenary group. Stallone and Statham go scout out the mission – the assassination of a general neck-deep in the drug trade – and are met by a woman who captures Barney’s heart. From there, complications in the form of Eric Roberts, Dolph Lundgren and Steve Austin arise, and we can stop talking about the story here because nobody watching will care, nobody in it cares, and it seems nobody writing it cared. It does its one real job – to provide a framework for action scenes to ripple and glisten and explode all over the screen.

Eric Roberts is okay. Jet Li very ably plays “Walking Short Joke.” Randy Couture is decent as “Guy in Funny Hat Who Reads.” Terry Crews gets a couple laughs as “Guy with Gun That Makes Cool Poom-Poom Noise,” and splatters a few people very satisfactorily. Everyone else in the movie is pretty terrible, especially Leather Gandalf, who gets what’s supposed to be a touching, heartfelt monologue about the sanctity of life, while Stallone points the camera straight at Rourke’s lower lip, which is covered with more goo than a xenomorph. I guess it helps distract from the fact his story is making no fucking sense, and continues that way for what feels like 15 minutes.

But again, I’m measuring this film against stuff like “The Losers,” and “Commando,” not “Inception.” Most of the film is incomprehensibly edited. There is none of the surety with which Stallone staged his “Rambo” set-pieces, and the movie is splattered with shiny, shitty digital gore. The best action sequence in the film was given away for free on the internet weeks before release, wherein Jason Statham mans the guns of a plane from inside the nose-cone, and lays waste to a pier full of bad guys. Nothing else in the movie works from an action standpoint, especially the fight scenes. Hell, there isn’t a single fight in this movie that packs the punch Hit-Girl does in “Kick-Ass.”

I guess that’s the most disappointing thing about this movie. It’s been trading on its inherent masculinity for years now, promising a throwback to the days of muscled brawlers, bludgeoning action fans into a state of bruised bliss, scored by bullets and lots of shit going boom. “The Expendables” is a sweaty, squinty, glistening cannonball of pure testosterone, shaped like a fist and shot directly at the audience, and I can’t even say it hits like a girl, because I’ve seen 12 year old girls that hit harder than this.

Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 1:28 am  Comments Off on Review – The Expendables