Quickie Movie Reviews

I've watched a handful of flicks recently, and instead of staggering out a bunch of longer reviews, I figure it's better to just buckshot out some quick, in-a-nutshell blurbs. Why dick around, you know?

First up: "You're Next" (2011)

Think you've seen this movie before?... Well... you kinda have. 90% of it, anyway.

Think you've seen this movie before?... Well... you kinda have. 90% of it, anyway.

This seemingly by-the-numbers horror flick has been lauded as one of the most subversive examples of the genre not called "Cabin in the Woods" to come out in the last decade. I was excited to see it, given that high reputation. Imagine my grim surprise when all I found was a needlessly misogynistic, exhausting cavalcade of stupid decisions and terribly annoying one-note characters. There's about ten minutes in the third act that I think redeems the rest of it in everyone else's eyes, but, to me, there's just no excuse for making me sit through seventy minutes of boring, insulting garbage just to get to the good parts. Pass.

Upstream Color (2013)

Shane Carruth's spellbinding time-travel debut, 2004's "Primer," is one of my favorite movies, but it has its faults, namely the borderline incomprehensible plot hidden in the thick, hard-to-digest dialogue and exposition. His sophomore effort is even more difficult to follow, abandoning exposition almost altogether. I've never seen a film less interested in whether or not I knew what was going on. That being said, the little plot you can understand is fascinating, the performances weird and compelling, and the photography is GORGEOUS. There's more than a little Terrence Malick influence here, with long, slow images of nature taking the place of developmental dialogue. In a world of cookie-cutter sci-fi, this is a worthy, if esoteric endeavor. Worth watching if you've got the brain-space.

Cheap Thrills (2013)

If this poster makes you want to see the movie, congrats, you might be one of the few who genuinely enjoys it.

If this poster makes you want to see the movie, congrats, you might be one of the few who genuinely enjoys it.

This is a hard movie to review. There are ways in which this story, about two friends (kinda) spending a drunken night with an ultra-wealthy couple paying them ever increasing amounts of cash to fulfill increasingly unsavory dares, could have been truly interesting. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the movie to be anything more than a brutal, bloody, on-the-nose morality tale about "haves" and "have-nots" and what people will do for money, and the freedom it brings. But, alas, that's really all there is. Occasionally funny in the darkest way possible, the film does feature a damn good, occasionally unsettling performance from funny-man David Koechner, but it's probably just a tad bit too pointless and predictable for any but the more bloodthirsty of viewers.

R.E.D. 2 (2013)

Bruce Willis continues to sleepwalk through the new millennium. The action is silly, the jokes aren't, and in the end you forget you even watched it. Helen Mirren shoots a rifle. Catch it on cable.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Potential Spoilers)

You never quite know what to expect from an X-Men movie. What started out as the first so-so entry into the era of superhero movies created by people without absolute disdain for their source material has since meandered back and forth between bottom of the barrel, borderline-unwatchable garbage and, with the addition of Matthew Vaughn's First Class, almost great. So go figure that I walk out of the most recent edition of the franchise unsure how I feel about it.

Every actor featured above has performed as Shakespeare's Macbeth. And also as super-powered civil-rights allegories. What a time to be alive.

Every actor featured above has performed as Shakespeare's Macbeth. And also as super-powered civil-rights allegories. What a time to be alive.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't a bad movie. At worst, it's the third best of the series, after the aforementioned FC and the also good, but not quite great, X2: X-men United. But these days, smack dab in the middle of what feels like the golden age of superhero geekdom, I might be getting a little spoiled. I got all the action, all the easter-egg winks and nods, and all the spectacular special effects I could have asked  for, but for whatever the reason, I'm a little disappointed.

Some issues that crop of are typical of a project of this scale. The lauded coming together of the two primary casts from the franchise's previous iterations, for example, doesn't amount to much on screen, with the original trilogy's actors relegated mostly to brief cameos, or, I have a feeling, the cutting room floor. Anna Paquin was all but excised from the film prior to release, and I have a feeling a director's cut with her scenes intact might make it feel more like the characters in the bleak future have something to do. Regardless, the movie is firmly set in the FIrst Class chronology, with the future scenes feeling more like an excuse for (admittedly awesome) CGI action, a sense only exacerbated by the fact that the mutants doing the actual fighting are, generally, brand new, so we don't give a damn about what happens to them.

Recognize her? No? Well she's important. I know you've never seen her before, but just take our word for it.

Recognize her? No? Well she's important. I know you've never seen her before, but just take our word for it.

The script has a hard time balancing the many spinning plates it sets. Hugh Jackman's Wolverine is still smarmy and fun to watch, but once he's gone to the past to relay his message of warning, he doesn't have much of a direct impact on the proceedings, enough so that I found myself wondering how things would have been any different if he returned to the future after the first act, or the second, or even right away. The plot itself is somewhat loose, without the cohesion of a simple, central villain as in the previous film's Sabastian Shaw, so much of the action feels a bit forced. 

But, again, all of these things are forgivable. The characters that do get our time are all worthy of attention. Fassbender is just as good as the first go around as Magneto, and while he's a bit sulky, James McAvoy continues to bring more character and depth to the character of Charles Xavier than (the admittedly great elsewhere) Patrick Stewart ever did. The real standout this time is actually Jennifer Lawrence's turn as Mystique, who probably comes off the most favorably in the badass department with a slew of impressive, balletic fight sequences and a convincing, subtle level of psychological scarring. Fox has done a good job with the last three films of the series bringing their characters back to places of more realistic emotional truth, away from the cartoon ridiculousness of X-Men Origins, and that's still true here.

We all let this happen. Never forget.

We all let this happen. Never forget.

And yet, there are things here that really bother me. Things that go beyond this movie and into the state of the business as it stands right now. Marvel Studios has found themselves in an incredibly sweet spot where their financial motives line up with the creative ones. So, while it's ultimately just an excuse to print money, the films we've been getting out of them have had heart, and been of a higher quality than we've ever had any reason to expect before now. But where there's success, there will be imitators, and you can see the groundwork being laid here to, as some might grotesquely put it, "expand the brand."

You can see it happening over at Warner Bros., where DC is in such a rush to catch up to their rivals that they're willing to ignore the fact that Man of Steel was an irredeemable slog and force it open into an entire cinematic universe, shoving every character they've got into their cupboard into a Justice League prequel that sounds worse every day. You can see it at Sony, where they managed to sneak a two-hour trailer for a Sinister Six movie into theaters by calling it The Amazing Spiderman 2. Everyone else is seeing what Marvel has, and instead of copying their earnestness, the thing that makes the movies work, they copy the formula, only speeding the whole thing up as fast as they can. It's like trying to bake your grandma's delicious chocolate cake recipe in the microwave.

This film's not so much forcing a cinematic universe, mostly because it doesn't have to, as it already exists, but the same soulless tone is seeping in. Characters are forced into the script for no reason, like Havok, who returns for a single scene and never returns, or the incessant nodding towards the returning William Stryker, whose presence, like much of the film, serves only to (SPOILER ALERT) "undo" one of the two films universally loathed by the fan-base. The character of Quicksilver, whose pivotal scene is absolutely spectacular, is at best wedged in as a nod to fans, and at worst exists solely as a middle finger to Marvel Studios, who will feature the same character, but not referred to as a mutant, in their upcoming Avengers sequel. There just seems to be a lot of cogs turning in the creators' heads, different agendas besides just telling a story, and that bugs me.

Should you see it? Yes. Absolutely. As far as superhero movies go, it is certainly up to par, and has some of the best action I've seen this year. But it's not the revelation some of us might have been expecting, what with it's astronomical budget (over $200 million) and star power, and don't be surprised if you come away with the nagging feeling that something's not quite right at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters.

Oh, and stay through the credits... Goosebumps. (Yeah. They got me.)

Movie Review: The Borderlands (2013)

Most "Found Footage" movies are crap. It's not really a knock on the genre; it's a sheer numbers game. These days, they come out more often than a James Patterson novel, especially if you're apt to watch the seemingly endless supply of obscurity Netflix has to offer, the stuff we used to call "straight-to-dvd," and when everybody and your mama's trying to cash in on the not-at-all-coincidentally low-budget trend, you're gonna find a good pile of movies not worth anyone's time.

So watching The Borderlands was a nice, slow, dreadful treat, even if it isn't a perfect movie.

Huh. Somewhere, there's a one-sheet designer who really, really liked "Cabin in the Woods."

Huh. Somewhere, there's a one-sheet designer who really, really liked "Cabin in the Woods."

Our set up? Typical. There's been a "happening" at a rural English church, an small, barely tended building in the ominous hills of the countryside. The Vatican has sent a team of investigators to ascertain whether or not it should be considered a miracle. Obviously things proceed spookily from there, or there wouldn't be much of a film.

It's a slow movie, but having watched a lot of similar set-ups verve into complete and utter dullness as characters prattle on in obviously ad-libbed conversations about nothing for half their run time, I never found myself bored. It's a lot of little things, really. There's not a lot of set-up, and Eliot Goldner, writer and director, trusts the viewer to put the obvious pieces together and understand the situation where the typical film would dump exposition in completely unnatural dialogue. The clever use of wearable cameras stepped around any moment where we'd ask the natural "Why are they still filming this?" questions when the third act rolls around, and Goldner has a good understanding of how to use the tropes of the genre, the first-person shots, the static shots of empty rooms, to build tension without leaning on them to simply fill time.

It also really, really helps that the acting is strong. Robin Hill and Gordon Kennedy, who play Gray the camera-expert and Deacon the hard-drinking believer with a dark past respectively, hold the movie together with their evolving relationship, as the growing report between them is what makes those developmental scenes, the obligatory setting up of the static cameras, the sharing of personal histories over drinks, all of the moments where your pedestrian flick of this ilk would turn into a complete slog, instead, entertaining and believable. There's good chemistry there, and both put in authentic performances.

Apparently, if I was British, I'd already know who this guy is. Sorry, guys. Just never been into all that wibbly wobbly, timey wimey business. Cheerio.

Apparently, if I was British, I'd already know who this guy is. Sorry, guys. Just never been into all that wibbly wobbly, timey wimey business. Cheerio.

There's not a great deal of violence. It's not that kind of horror. Instead it's about dread. Lovers of H.P. Lovecraft will find a lot to like here, especially when the old, forgotten journals with ancient, unknown symbols pop up, but if you need more energy, more running-through-the-woods vigor, it's probably not your speed. There's a recurring "glitch" effect that, frankly, did nothing but annoy me, and the proverbial bumps in the night get a tad bit repetitive before the last turn kicks the movie into high-gear, but it's certainly creepy, and subtle, and shows a great deal of polish, all things you tend not to get from a found-footage flick.

I've sat through much worse and felt like I'd gotten my money's worth. If you like the genre, and the description doesn't scare you away, you'll like it.

Movie Review: Now You See Me (2013)

I like magic, but maybe not the magic you're thinking of. There are really two kinds, you see. There's the theatrical, persona-driven stuff everyone knows and derides, David Blaine, Criss Angel, David Copperfield. These guys want you to believe in them. That's their whole hook. They want you walking away thinking they just might have real magical powers. But there's another kind of magic act, growing in popularity and relevance, where the performers are honest, up front. They tell you it's a trick and then dare you to figure out how they did it.

"Now You See Me" is a film that thinks it's the latter, but is, instead, the epitome of the former.

A quick run-down: Four street magicians, all skilled in their own particular variety of magic act, are all drawn to the same apartment where... something happens. Cut to a year later, they're headlining the Aria in Las Vegas, together, performing in front of a sold out crowd... for their first show? I'll be honest, I'm not entirely clear on what could have actually gone down over that last year, but the movie isn't the least bit interested so it's best to just move on. The center piece of their performance is a magical bank-heist, the fallout of which lands them on the radar of an incompetent FBI and one lone, French, gorgeous female red herring, I mean, Interpol agent. They dick around back and forth, there are twists, and ninety minutes later the movie's over and you get to move on with your life like it never happened.

It's all very competently put together, of course. The actors, even though they all seem to realize how ridiculous their roles are, Jesse Eisenberg's irredeemably smug "leader" of the magician gang in particular, earn their paychecks, and the visual effects aren't bad, one completely unnecessary CGI tarp flourishing not withstanding. There's a standout action sequence in there towards the end of the second act that actually manages to be exciting. But under all that, you find a particularly soulless, and above all else mindless endeavor.

This movie isn't interested in magic. Lip service "explanation sequences" are forced into the narrative, as if to assure us, the viewer, that everything we see will be above board, but these are completely undercut by literally impossible tricks that go unexplained, achieved only through the magic of visual effects. The planning of the "heist" scenes relies on such specific details that they'd rely on borderline precognition to be possible. And then there's the final twist, a stupid, literally impossible turn that's supposed to make us reevaluate the entire picture, but instead isn't even a surprise, made predictable by its sheer stupidity, which as you watch, you realize fits perfectly into the film as a whole, a tapestry of stupidity.

So it sounds like we're gonna get another one of these, which I simply can't understand. There's not one likable character in the movie, and it's not as if that's the point of the film, like Killer Joe or anything else with brains. It's hard to even say there's a protagonist, taking a step back and looking at the film as a whole. It's simply a string of impossible sight gags, without any investment in the outcomes, that wraps itself in something that should endeavor to make their ridiculous antics more believable, but instead simply make them more absurd.

"Now You See Me" isn't a terrible movie, but it's close. It aims low, and it hits even lower, serving only to divert your attention for a few mindless hours. Anyone with a real interest in magic, in particular the more modern, educational variety practiced by the likes of Penn and Teller or James Randi (Who is the obvious basis for Morgan Freeman's character, a fact which should make obvious, without seeing the film, how misguided that casting decision was.) will probably find the stupidity overwhelming and kill it after about twenty minutes. I would blame no one.

Something interesting is going on over at "Agents of Shield."

I continue to be impressed with the massive turn around in quality on display lately in regards to Marvel's "Agents of Shield." What began as a plotless, unbalanced weekly commercial for Thor 2 and meandered around aimlessly for half a season has, suddenly become the show I most look forward to watching every week. Not because it's the best show on TV; it is very far from it, but because of the sudden feeling that, indeed, what is happening on the small screen is relevant to what happens, a few times a year, on the large one.

For those who care, THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD, both for Agents and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If you haven't seen all of the former thus far or the latter, then DO NOT READ FURTHER...

Still here? Okay.

CA:WS was good. It wasn't great, ending up a bit more nonsensical than anyone is willing to let on, but it was entertaining, and the actors were all in a groove, the writing was snappy, and the action was visceral and as real as you can get for a movie about an Encino Man style supersoldier from World War II. The big thing, the bold thing, was the central reveal: HYDRA, the villainous Nazi organization from the first Captain America, has been hiding inside SHIELD since the very beginning. It's an interesting step, as far as the franchise is concerned, changing the landscape in a big way. But the interesting parts were going on over at ABC, four days after Winter Soldier's release, when the film's ending was spoiled at the conclusion of that weeks episode of AOS. It's as if the movie was an episode of the show, essential viewing, dramatically changing the course of the series.

This is unprecedented. And, the effect is that now, every episode of AOS feels like a continuation of the movie. It feels like I don't have to wait for the sequel. I get to watch it every week. The immediate fallout of the film is being directly handled on television, literally the week it premiered. I think that's pretty cool.

It helps that it's also given the show all the form, character depth, and weight it was lacking before. The HYDRA reveal finally gives the show the big-bad antagonist it so desperately needed, albeit one that's a bit nebulous at the moment, made their least interesting character, Agent Ward, suddenly the most deserving of my attention. I even don't hate Skye anymore. As much. But, it also means something about the show's production.

This is why the show was terrible. They had to wait for the movie for the show, proper, to begin, and that was a dozen episodes in. They were spinning their wheels. Which makes the early parts of the season seem like even more of a cash grab, inflating their movies with a cheap, unnecessary show. Now it feels necessary, but I'm left wondering why they wasted everyone's time with everything that preceded this turn. Surely they could have made a better show, one not in danger of being cancelled (Although not really. Disney pays the bills over at ABC.), if they didn't have to write around a distinct product written and created by entirely different people.

This is a really cool experiment in multi-platform storytelling. If it goes on another year, it will be fascinating to see if they continue to blur the line between essential and non-essential viewing, further mimicking the world of Comics from which all these IP's spring. Remember, there are four limited run series coming to Netflix starting next year, featuring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, before having them all join up a-la the Avengers for a limited run team up called The Defenders. How long will it be before only us nerds can keep track? Are we already there?

Can't wait for Guardians of the Galaxy. Talking space raccoons and sentient alien trees. That's entertainment.

Fake Newscast Goodness

So, in the early nineties, the BBC performed a special "live" show on Halloween. A bunch of real reporters, people viewers would recognize like Michael Parkinson, participated in a news special investigation of a haunted house. The home was shared by a mother and her two little girls, and had been the location of a series of frightening occurrences, some of which were caught on film. So they set up cameras, perform seances, all while the camera is rolling. All good holiday fun, until the shiz hits the fan and people start getting hurt, and the studio gets call after call of strange things happening in their own homes, the ghostly activity being spread by the broadcast.

It's all great stuff. Slow, but convincing in the right context. And it would seem that many viewers agreed, because within the day the BBC had themselves a War of the World's level ordeal on their hands. Real, earnest viewers were convinced that the ghosts were real, a newsperson they knew and were familiar with had been killed, and another had been possessed by a demonic force, all while said force terrorized all of Britain.

Seriously. How awesome is that.

I love events like this, because they never do them anymore. You'd think the fake-news format would be exactly what networks are looking for, with how popular  found footage and mockumentary styles are getting, their costs so low and their payoffs so real. But the "event show" isn't a common thing anymore. And it's a shame.

You can find Ghost Watch online for free. It's on Vimeo, divided up into sections, the first of which can be viewed here, if you have some free time and are into this silly stuff like I am.

Even better is the U.S. production Special Bulletin, a much more realistic and, I think, chilling demonstration of the same gag, this one dealing with a nuclear threat, presented as a "breaking news" interruption to regular programming. It's free on youtube here.

And last but not least, the creepy-awesome asteroid disaster piece "Without Warning" is a lot of fun, and even features Jane Kaczmarek, the mom from Malcom in the Middle. Watch it! It's free!