Monday, October 31, 2011

A HALLOWEEN TREAT: Danny's Ultimate Horror Movie Marathon!

Darkness falls across the land ... the midnight hour is close at hand ...

... and it's HALLOWEEN ...!

Hope everyone has had a great Halloween weekend and is primed and ready for a spooky All Hallow's Eve. Since Halloween is on a Monday this year, I'm sure many people will spend the night at home on the couch, possibly with a scary movie or two - or three - to set the proper mood for the evening. To that end, and because I am a veteran of several consecutive Halloween Horror Movie Marathons, I thought I'd share some of my favorite scary movies, divided into different categories for your convenience.



- EVIL DEAD 2 is, to me, the ultimate entry in this category - the perfect blend of scares, comedy, over-the-top insanity, and endlessly quotable dialogue. 2 is preferable to 1, as it's essentially a remake but with better visuals, better pacing, and sharper set pieces. And is there any better Halloween horror hero than Bruce Campbell's Ash? Nope - hail to the king, baby.

- DEAD ALIVE was a huge hit at this year's Horrorthon. It's Peter Jackson in full-on insane mode, creating jaw-dropping scenes of mass carnage coupled with Evil Dead-style wackiness and wit. the movie starts off a little slow, but just hold tight ... it soon escalates the mayhem and evolves into one of the craziest, most unbelievable massacres ever put to film.


- SPLICE has to be one of the most bat$#&% insane movies I've ever seen. A modern day Frankenstein fable of science-gone-wrong, the places this movie goes will have you in shock and disbelief.

- Many will claim that DONNIE DARKO is played out, but it's still an awesome Halloween-themed sci-fi mind-bender that's creepy as hell (guy in rabbit costume, anyone?). This is a great film to watch late at night and engage in some spirited post-film conversation.

- And of course, there's no better midnight movie than THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. Insanely entertaining and rewatchable, the movie is the very definition of cult classic. There's no better way to set the mood for Halloween mischief than by doing the Time Warp.


- Like peanut butter and chocolate, horror and comedy are two great genres that go together perfectly. I've already talked about Evil Dead above, but another film that's synonomous with the genre mashup is SHAWN OF THE DEAD. This whacked-out zom-com from Edgar Wright gives you hilarity, horror, and even a little pointed social commentary thrown in for good measure.

- To get a little more old-school though, you can't go wrong with GREMLINS, or even its sequel, GREMLINS 2. Both are darkly-funny 80's classics.

- Speaking of 80's classics, GHOSTBUSTERS anyone? You know who to call.

- For a slightly more overlooked 80's horror-comedy though, how about THE MONSTER SQUAD? An insanely fun kids vs. monsters romp, The Monster Squad is essentially Goonies with monsters, but is not to be missed.

- And while I'm talking about kid-friendly 80's cult-classics, I've got to mention THE LOST BOYS. Back when teenage vampires were less emo and more rock n' roll.

- YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is arguably Mel Brooks' funniest movie - a pitch-perfect parody of the old Universal horror film, with an astounding cast and more quotable quotes than you can shake a stick at.

- Finally, for inspired, possibly life-changing comedy, you must see TROLL 2. Sheer glory, this is indeed the Best Worst Movie. It's so bad, it's amazing. It must be seen to be believed. If you have not seen Troll 2, then please, watch it immediately.


- If you're feeling nostalgic for the 90's, then by all means, pop in THE CROW. This goth-avenger tale of an undead superhero is still badass, and Brandon Lee still owns it. It can't rain all the time, but The Crow, for me, never gets old.

- Prequels be damned, the 80's, John Carpenter version of THE THING is another movie that mixes horror with sheer badassery. It's creepy, sure, but it's also got Kurt Russell as a grizzled ass-kicker. And an awesome score to boot.

- The sequel really ratcheted up the action quotient, but I'll also throw the original ALIEN into this category. It's one of the all-time scariest movies, but it's also a great sci-fi thriller and one of the all-time genre-defining films.

- A few years back, DAYBREAKERS really suprised me with its sci-fi take on a society run by vampires. The film goes in some pretty insane directions, and by the time it ended, I was shocked at just how far it went with its dystopian premise.

- Finally, Zack Snyder's 00's remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD is kinetic, action-packed, and a surprisingly effective update of the classic zombie franchise.


- Of course, I've got to mention NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. The classic stop-motion film is essentially Halloween-in-a-box - a gleeful celebration of all things spooky and strange.

- Similarly creepy is the more recent CORALINE. A children's fable with surprisingly sinister undertones, the kid-friendly film with a hint of goth might just leave you a little unsettled.


- Scariest movie ever? There's a good argument to be made for THE EXCORCIST. It's just plain scary as hell, and still works wonders decades after its release date. I still remember watching this in college, where the sheer fear factor caused people to leave the room in terror!

- You've also got to love Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING. Sure, it's a departure from the source material, but Jack Nicholson is in fine form as a deranged killer. Heeeere's Johnny!

- ROSEMARY'S BABY is a little slow, sure, but it's also incredibly creepy. Still works at eliciting a sense of sheer dread.


- Few films get an audience tensed-up like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. If you still haven't gotten onboard with these films, start with part one and prepare to be creeped-the-freak-out.

- Neil Marshall's THE DESCENT is just astonishingly well-made and scary as hell. It elicited genuine screams of terror at this year's Horrorthon, and instantly entered my cannon of stone-cold horror classics. This story of scared spelunkers confronted with horrifying cave-monsters is crazy-good.

- HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is one of my personal faves. This instant cult-classic from director Ty West creates an insane amount of tension, until eventually, all hell breaks loose. And it's also an awesome homage to 80's horror movies, complete with funky soundtrack. But don't let the retro trappings lull you into thinking this is some cheesy throwback. Far from it, this film shall scare you silly.

- Finally, Sam Raimi's DRAG ME TO HELL takes his Evil Dead formula and gives it a great new twist. Mixing comedy with scares, Drag Me to Hell is one of the best horror movies of recent years.

So what are your personal favorites? Feel free to comment with picks of your own.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Once Again, The Blog Is Experiencing ... PARANORMAL ACTIVITY


- The Paranormal Activity movies, are, for my money, some of the most unsettling and genuinely creepy horror movies of the last decade. I'm at a point now where I'm slightly numb to the more over-the-top sort of stuff that scared the crap out of me as a kid. But, watching the PA flicks, it takes me back to that sense of dread and terror that I felt as a ten year old watching forbidden horror movies at friends' sleepover parties. With each new flick, I've gone home from the theater feeling just a little nervous about what's lurking at home in the shadows, about the strange sounds coming from outside. I've thought that maybe, just maybe, there are spirits and other forces haunting us all. I think it's because the PA movies just feel so damn plausible. Sure, it's fun to joke about the goofy characters and the believability of these people filming everything and always keeping the cameras on. But when you let yourself sit back and get immersed in what's going on onscreen ... I don't know that any other movies have created quite the same level of you-are-there-and-this-is-really-happening scares. Suffice it to say, I've never seen other movies that have produced the same sort of shared tension and jump-out-of-your-seat moments in an audience as these. Half the fun, to me, of Paranormal Activity is going to the theater and seeing people squirm, laugh, jump, and scream. If you watch the movies at home, I think you're missing a big part of the experience. So I give these movies a lot of credit - whatever else you think of them, the way that they're able to generate so much audience reaction with such minimal budget and flash - it's really pretty admirable. And this third film is no exception.

With all that said, I came away with slightly mixed feelings about Paranormal Activity 3. It's still a super-fun, super-creepy haunted house flick, but it's also very much more of the same. Plus, I'd say that overall, it's a step down from Parts 1 and 2 in terms of pacing and scares. A couple of the movie's biggest moments felt like retreads from the previous two films. And oddly, a couple of the creepiest-seeming moments from the trailer (most noticeably the two girls playing "Bloody Mary") are altered or absent in the final film. There are still several good twists on the PA formula, but overall, I came away from this one feeling like the franchise, as is, had probably run its course. If they make a fourth film that's just like the previous three, I'd definitely consider it a jump-the-shark moment.

As far as the plot of PA 3 goes, this is another prequel to the original. Whereas PA 2 jumped back only a couple of years, this one goes back to that glorious decade known as the 80's ... 1988, specifically, when the franchise's two starring sisters - Katie and Kristi - were just little girls. As it turns out, their mother's new boyfriend - now living with the family in their Carlsbad, CA home - runs a wedding-video business, which neatly explains why he's got access to multiple, old-school VHS video-cameras. In any case, the movie explores the girls' first encounter with the sinister spectral force that will go on to haunt them as adults. In turn, we get some additional tidbits around the series' overarching mythology, learning a bit about the roots of the curse that follows the girls around, learning some intriguing bits of family history along the way.

And in that respect, the movie hints at some pretty cool elements of the series' mythology, but stops short of revealing anything too substantial. Ultimately, I found that a bit frustrating - not because I needed all the answers spelled out, but because information is held back in such a way so as to leave things open for yet another sequel. I also think that the premise of this movie is such that it inherently sets the expectation of some major story developments. After all, why flash back to Katie and Kristi's childhoods if not to shed some serious light on the origins of their curse? It seemed like there was some potential to flesh out the backstory a lot more than they did here and flesh out the PA mythos. As it is, much of the movie just feels like Parts 1 and 2 with an 80's makeover (though it is admittedly pretty awesome that an old Teddy Ruxpin doll serves as an important prop in the movie - creepy!). And yet ... the last ten minutes or so of the film, while not quite as incredible as the ads would have you believe - are really well done, and a total shift from what we're used to seeing in the series. It made me wish that some of the story revelations in that last segment had been built up to a bit better, and perhaps taken up more of the film's running time. Instead, we get at least a couple of "fake-outs" (where a scare turns out to not be that scary) and then a lot of the typical PA-style night-time scenes, where things like a door swinging shut or a bed sheet moving of its own accord are played for maximum scare-factor. Again, it's too bad, because those last ten minutes introduce a whole other element to the film - but this, the film's most exciting segment by far, feels all too brief. In that respect, I thought the overall pacing of the movie felt slightly off. It seemed to take too long for things to really ramp up ... and I thought a couple of the gimmicks - like a camera set on a fan oscillator (so your view ominously sways, slowly, back and forth across the room) - lost some of their novelty after a while. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman - who made a name for themselves with the docu-thriller Catfish, capture a lot of the tricks and atmospherics that made PA 1 and 2 work so well, but again, the pacing lacks the great build-up and exclamation-point-endings of the previous films.

Look, at the end of the day, I had a ton of fun watching PA 3 in the theater, and if you enjoyed the first two films, definitely check this one out as well. On some level though, I felt like the series might be running out of gas a bit, especially when it's just on autopilot, recycling the same formulas that we've seen multiple times already. And yet, the last ten minutes or so of this one show that the series does, perhaps, have a few new tricks up its sleeve.

My Grade: B

Monday, October 24, 2011



- Why do we do the things we do? I mean, why do we let our lives play out in the ways that they do? Once we are adults, we - most of us - follow the usual patterns. Go to school, get a job, join the rat race. But who's to say that that is the "right" way to live? It may sound like a silly question, but it's a viable one. There's a certain sameness to the way we all go about our lives that can make anyone begin to wonder what else is out there. But those questions can lead to some pretty dark places, and there are those who would pray on the disaffected, the dienfranchised, the lost souls - and turn their doubt and sense of loneliness into something else that suits their own agenda, their own needs. This, of course, is how cults are formed. And a cult - one that is strange and manipulative and twisted - but one that's also eerily plausible in the way in which it lures in its members and brainwashes them into subservience - is the subject of the haunting psychological thriller MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE.

The film is, on the whole, pretty astounding - one of the most tense, nail-biting dramas I've seen in a long time. An atmosphere of sheer danger and paranoia envelops the movie, and it makes for a film that's absolutely creepy, disturbing, and thought-provoking. The film also features some outstanding performances, including a breakout role from star Elizabeth Olsen. Yes, she's the sister of the Olsen twins Mary Kate and Ashley. But the level of acting on display here is a world away from most of what we've seen from Elizabeth's older siblings. This is one of those cage-rattling, memorable performances where a star is very quickly born - similar in many ways to last year's turn from Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone. And I think Olsen will get a similar level of awards buzz and attention.

We first meet Olsen's character - real name Martha - as she is about to make one of the biggest and scariest decisions of her life. We don't yet know the details, but we know that she's been trapped in a backwoods cult for some time. And now, she's finally mustered up the will and the courage to make an attempt at escape. She casually walks outside of the group's ramshackle Catskills farmhouse, walks, walks, and then runs for the woods. Group members give chase, but Martha hides, eludes them, and then keeps running until she makes it into town. Eventually, shaking and traumatized, freed from her tether for the first time in years, she calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) from a payphone. The two haven't spoken in years, but Lucy detects the fear and desperation in her younger sister's quivering voice. Vacationing in Connecticut with her new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), Lucy is only a few hours drive from her sister. She picks her up, and brings the shaken, traumatized, and still semi-brainwashed Martha back to her lakeside vacation home.

From here on in, the film employs a Lost-style series of flashbacks, with things, people, events in the lakehouse triggering memories of her time in the cult. The flashbacks offer harrowing glimpses at what life was like in that remote Catskills farmhouse. We see how, two years prior, Martha came to meet the group's leader, Patrick (the great John Hawkes). Slowly, reluctantly, she becomes indoctrinated into the group, gradually accepting their odd rules and regulations and way of life. Martha - dubbed Marcy May by Patrick (Marlene is the stock name cult members use to answer the phone at the farmhouse), becomes a favorite of the charismatic but creepy leader, and eventually she herself becomes the one doing the indoctrination to new recruits. It's an incredibly eerie transformation - seeing the once-skeptical Martha fall increasingly deeper into the abyss, losing her sense of free will, of free thought along the way. Martha - already semi-broken by the early loss of her parents - becomes almost completely broken by the cult. A particularly traumatic event is eventually revealed to have been her breaking point - the trigger that snapped part of her back to reality, that caused her to feel the need to, finally, escape. But by the time Martha is back with Lucy in Connecticut, she's lost all sense of how to fit in, of how to socialize, of how to be a part of society and of a normal family.

That is perhaps the scariest part of this film ... part of the movie's tension comes from the everpresent fear that members of the cult are coming to take Martha back, or worse. But part of the tension comes from the fact that Martha herself feels a pull, almost a compulsion, to go back of her own accord. As soon as she detects hostility from her sister and her sister's husband, as soon as she begins to realize how little she fits in with ordinary people anymore, there is that question in her mind - was she better off with Patrick at the farmhouse? The fact that Martha has been brainwashed to that extent, that she'd go back even after we see what kinds of awful things go on there - well, it's disturbing.

But the movie also doesn't shy away from painting things in shades of gray. It would have been easy to make Lucy and Ted loving, caring family members who do their best to help Martha and figure out what's been going on with her. Initially, Paulson's Lucy seems concerned, protective, eager to make up for lost time with her estranged sister, whom she hasn't talked to in two years. But slowly, we see that Lucy, well, she has her own issues. She's distant, self-absorbed, and unable to truly connect with her sister. And Ted is, in many ways, exactly the kind of person that might cause someone to join a cult. He's career-obssessed, sort of cold ... he's more concerned about Martha finding a job and getting out of the house than he is with getting her help. Perhaps the most infuriating part of the whole film is how long it takes Lucy and Ted to wake up and realize that Martha - even though she just told them that she's been living with a boyfriend and that they had a bad breakup - has just been through a *major* trauma. At first I wondered if it was just illogical writing in the script, but then I realized that Lucy and Ted were set up as being likable, but that that was merely a facade. In reality, they are kind of douchey, and the fact that they almost drive a still-fragile and unstable Martha *back* to the cult is maddening, but again, makes this a much more complex movie than it might have been otherwise.

The flashback scenes to the Catskills though, like I said, are just creepy as hell. John Hawkes does a phenomenal job as Patrick - mixing the easygoing likability he displayed in Deadwood with the scary, sinewy intensity he had in Winter's Bone. And again, the whole plausibility of the thing is what makes it so disturbing. The way in which Patrick runs his group makes perfect sense in a twisted sort of way, and it's easy to see how he successfully attracts wayward souls to his flock and then keeps his members in line.

The way the movie is shot only adds to its creepiness factor. Director Sean Durkin gives the entire film a voyeuristic look that makes it feel like we, the viewers, are in constant danger of being found out by the characters in the film. There's a big emphasis on Olsen's sexuality as well, but it's emphasized in a way that is again, a tad unsettling - like she's become oblivious to her own sexuality, and how her openness and frankness will be perceived by others. It all adds up to a film that makes you squirm a little bit, but that is also utterly gripping. As mentioned, the overall sense of tension and creeping dread is off the charts. During one pivotal scene, the audience I saw the film with was captivated, holding their breath ... and when the big "holy $%#$!" moment came, there was a collective gasp. It takes a great storyteller to elicit that kind of tension and reaction from an audience, and in that regard, writer/director Durkin makes a huge impression.

What keeps the movie from achieving perfection though are the aforementioned scenes with Lucy and Ted. Again, I get what Durkin was going for, but in these sections I think the movie - so eerily plausible in the flashbacks, becomes slightly absurdist as we wait and wait for the married couple to acknowledge just how far gone Martha clearly is. They drink wine, go swimming and go about their vacation-induced idleness, but their under-reaction to Martha -their half-hearted concern and only mild, slightly-annoyed curiosity, is just too hard to swallow during certain sections of the film.

Overall, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a fascinating, nail-biting look at the prisons that all of us place ourselves in, and a statement on the sheer willpower and determination it can take to free ourselves. It shows us how individuals can prey on the weak and dispossessed with the promise of purpose and belonging. It shows how identity and sense of self can be warped by society and by others. And with the film's final, eerie scene, it shows us that sometimes, even when we try to be free, to escape - we can't. We're trapped, and it's too late, and there's no getting out. It's haunting, memorable ... and it adds up to one of the year's best films so far.

My Grade: A-

Thursday, October 20, 2011



- We are in an age where it's easy to get frustrated with our government. Legislation is affected more by lobbyists than by real lawmakers. Compromise gives way to hard-edged party politics. And over and over again, we see politicians who claim to know what's best for America reveal themselves to be fatally flawed as people and as leaders. And yet ... I think some of today's cynicism has more to do with just how open our society is today. It's hard to keep secrets. It's easy to be exposed if you say one thing on one talk show, but contradict yourself on another. A muttered aside could quickly become a YouTube sensation. And the media is relentless - in the post Watergate world, there's no scandal or potential scandal left untouched. So if a politician really screws up - as they often do - then really, it's only a matter of time before the other shoe drops. And that's what THE IDES OF MARCH is all about - the way in which a modern presidential campaign is run, and the compromises made in the quest to get a candidate elected. The contrast here is that the candidate in question is idealistic, liberal, and popular. But the backroom dealings, moral grey areas, and personal shortcomings that characterize the candidate and his campaign are a stain on an outwardly progressive run for office. Of course, this being 2011, it's only a matter of time, as I said, before the other shoe drops.

THE IDES OF MARCH is a really, really well done film - a crackling political drama that features some of today's best actors at the top of their games. Up until now, I had mixed feelings about George Clooney as a director, but this is certainly his best directorial effort to date, and has a confident pacing and sense of tension that makes the movie one of Clooney's best overall in quite some time. Acting-wise, Clooney is more of a supporting character here - as Democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris - and yet his shadow looms large on the entire plot and on all of the other characters who orbit around him. Governor Morris is portrayed as a new sort of candidate - straight-talking, pragmatic, non-idealistic, but with a staunchly liberal agenda: pro-environment, pro-technology, pro-gay-marriage. The glimpses we see of him in debates show why he's a frontrunner even with his rather porgressive views - in many ways, he's simply George Clooney as political candidate - well-spoken, articulate, to-the-point, airtight and logical in his arguments, and charismatic to the nth degree. The film is set as the Ohio Democratic Primary is fast-approaching, with Morris in a tight race for the state, that could very well be the difference maker in terms of selecting a Democratic candidate for president.

Despite Morris being the central, towering presence in the film, our true main character is Ryan Gosling's Stephen Myers - the second-in-command of Morris' campaign. Myers is a young, bright political prodigy who has quickly risen through the ranks and become a trusted strategist for Morris. And when we first meet Meyers, he very much believes in the promise of his candidate. Meyers is politically idealistic, and he really believes that Morris is the right man at the right time to be America's next president. Of course, Meyer's quick rise has led to some tension with his battle-tested boss, Paul Zara. Played by the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, Zara is sor the classic PSH character - world-weary, tightly-wound, and the kind of guy you don't want to piss off. Gosling and Hoffman are both great in this one. Coming off of his awesome turn in Drive, Gosling is officially on a hot streak. And Hoffman is given a lot more to chew on here than he gets in the recent Moneyball, even though he's playing a similar sort of character. It's also a blast to see Paul Giamatti in the mix as the slimy campaign manager for the rival Democratic candidate. Giamatti and Seymour-Hoffman in the same film, as political rivals? That's just a recipe for gravitas right there, and both actors deliver in spades.

There are a couple of excellent female performances in this one as well. The huge standout is Evan Rachel Wood as Molly, a young intern on the Morris campaign who, as political interns are prone to do, helps to set off some major trouble for Morris and Meyers. Wood is consistently great in her film and TV roles - I hope this is the start of her getting some increasingly high-profile parts. Suffice it to say, she and Gosling play off each other very well, and Wood brings a nice mixture of innocence and scandal to the picture. Also key to the plot is Marisa Tomei as an intrepid NY Times reporter covering the Morris campaign. Tomei is such a natural here that it's easy to overlook how good she is in the part. Definitely one of my favorite actresses, she's a scene-stealer in everything she does.

I don't want to go too much into the plot for fear of spoiling things, but I will say that the movie has a number of nicely-plotted twists and turns that take things further and further down the rabbit hole. And yet, as dark as things get, the disturbing thing is that there are at least a handful of recent, real-life political scandals that trump this fictional one. That said, I was surprised at just how unapologetically cynical and dark this movie gets - never in an over-the-top manner - but it's the plausibility of it all that makes the film so bleak. As I alluded to though, it's a very smart, very tension-filled script. For a story that keeps things well within the realm of reality, it's amazing how compelling and drama-filled things get.

One of my few complaints with the film is that the final act just feels too rushed. The shift that eventually happens in Ryan Gosling's character would make more sense if it was more of a slow build, but as is it's a big change that happens in a short time. My other small but nagging grievance is that somewhat sinister plan hatched by Paul Giamatti's character early in the film just struck me as a bit too convoluted, and yet one that worked to sabotage the Morris campaign all too easily. Without spoiling things, it just felt like it was far too easy for Giamatti to get Gosling in hot water with his colleagues and with the press, and that it was the sort of thing that a smart press agent on the Morris side could have easily deflected.

All in all though, I thoroughly enjoyed THE IDES OF MARCH. Just seeing this great cast working together was, in and of itself, a pleasure. But the script was very good - tense, gripping, and thought-provoking in its skewering of the modern political process. In this day and age, we don't need a lot of nudging to be cynical of politicians, but this is a film that has a timely reminder to be curious about the means that are required to get to the end of winning a modern election. As Clooney and co. point out, the truth behind the scenes, well ... it ain't always pretty.

My Grade: A-

Monday, October 17, 2011

Here's The Thing With THE THING ...


- For a certain period in the 80's, director John Carpenter could do no wrong. His movies were simple yet ambitious, dark yet grimly humorous, overflowing with moody atmosphere, cast with larger-than-life stars, scored with iconic, memorable soundtracks, and were, at the end of the day, just plain badass. That is why the flurry of proposed or in-development Carpenter remakes in the last several years has been so troubling for film fans. Sure, many of Carpenter's movies had a great premise or hook. But more so than that, they are beloved because of the director's unique style - something that can't be replicated in a remake or reboot. This is true of THE THING. In many ways, the new THE THING is a direct homage to the Carpenter version (itself a remake of a 50's sci-fi classic). The new version rips whole sequences directly from its 80's predecessor, and even functions as a prequel. Having this film be set in 1982 (the year that Carpenter's version was released) and lead directly into the events of that film at least show some respect for that movie, and works as a nice bonus for its fans. But this is a case study of how, without a visionary like Carpenter at the helm, a movie like The Thing can go from ultra-badass sci-fi horror film to generic, tone-deaf tedium. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate just a bit. The new THING isn't that bad. But when it's directly tied-in to such a badass, iconic horror film, well, it's just hard to get that excited about a movie that's so very much like the 80's version, just, you know, nowhere near as cool. This is like the cover version of a kickass rock song done by a lame pop band.

With that in mind, plot-wise, this new THING follows the exact template of the 80's version. A team of researchers heads to the arctic to examine a mysterious, possibly alien lifeform that's been excavated in the frozen tundra. The creature, preserved in ice, jumps (in this case, literally) at the chance for freedom and goes about its business of systematically dispatching with the various people stationed at the research base. The twist? The creature can - often in gruesome, horrific fashion - assume the form of any lifeform that it kills. So anyone on the remote station *could* be the creature in disguise, you just never know. And so the paranoia begins, with everyone suspecting that everyone else may, in fact, be the alien killer.

Now, what should ensue here is all kinds of nail-biting tension, as we and the characters try to figure out who's legit and who's a murderous alien that's assumed human form. And we do get some of that. The problem is that these characters, as written, are just not that great. The Carpenter version was populated with all sorts of uber-badass dudes, chief among them a Wolverine-esque Kurt Russell. Here, actor Joel Edgerton is tasked with a similar role, but he just isn't given much to work with. Edgerton absolutely wowed me in the recent Warrior, and his natural charisma is an asset here. But his character, the resident pilot, is rail-thin. The role did made me think that Edgerton would have been a great choice to play Green Lantern, but, well, I guess that shows how my mind was led to wander during the film. In a similar boat is Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the lead role of Kate Lloyd - a young researcher who gets recruited for the arctic mission. Winstead has so much potential, and honestly, she does a great job with what she has to work with, showing legit leading-lady chops. I'd love to see her star in more of these types of roles. That said, her character is another one that's basically formless, going from reluctant assistant to alpha female without much in the way of explanation. Eventually, the movie tries to morph her into a Ripley-esque badass, but it just seems a bit contrived. Winstead is great and makes it work, but from a plot perspective, we're not given much to lend credence to the idea that this meek-seeming scientist is actually an uber-resourceful survivor who can evade and take out aliens like a boss. Again though, the former Ms. Ramona Flowers has a natural screen presence and it-factor that allows her to elevate the role. She and Edgerton are always watchable, even if the script does their talents a disservice.

The rest of the cast is sprinkled with a couple of good character actor types, and some random Norwegian locals who, if nothing else, have some pretty crazy beard-action going on. But, there just aren't enough great characters or character arcs to really keep us invested in the action.

The lack of badass characters ultimately made me think - probably more than I should have - about the internal logic of the plot. And what I determined is that little of it makes any sort of sense. For example, the whole premise here is that The Thing can mimic people or animals in a physical sense. Okay, simple enough. But in the film, people possessed by the alien act *no different* than they would normally. How is it that the creature takes on not just the physical forms of its prey, but their memories, mannerisms, speaking patterns, etc? It makes no sense, and is never explained at all. Meanwhile, a huge deal is made of the fact that The Thing can replicate only organic matter, not inorganic. In that case, how is it replicating people's clothes? The movie takes place in 1982, I'm sure there were some polyester blends being worn here.

Aside from the almost total lack of science in the science fiction, the movie seems only half-invested in the whole concept of a creature that can mimic people. As if to say "yeah, we realize this doesn't make much sense," the movie mostly abandons the conceit for its third act, instead morphing into a more standard, Alien-esque scenario where our heroes are flat-out being chased by the monsterous creature in full-on monster form.

Now, I do think that critics have been piling on a bit too much on the film for its use of CG, comparing the f/x in unfavorable terms to the Carpenter flick's memorably grotesque practical ones. I thought the CG in the film looked pretty good, and even though it presented essentially more elaborate takes on the 80's version's weird-ass human-to-alien transformations, the result was still more weirdly creative than what you see in most horror or sci-fi films these days. I found some of the creature f/x in the film to be pretty pleasingly insane and memorably disturbing. I thought the film did a pretty decent job of using CGI to replicate the anything-goes feel of the original's nightmarish creatures.

Still, I do think that director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. relies on all that crazy CGI just a little too much. In doing so, he loses out on the creeping sensation of dread that permeated Carpenter's movie. This one has plenty of tense moments, but a lot of that tension is relieved via too-easy jump-scares. Carpenter's film just felt cold, desolate, dangerous. The unforgiving arctic wasteland felt as deadly if not moreso than The Thing. Here, there just isn't that same sense of atmosphere. It mimics the overall aesthetics of the 80's movie - even utilizing similar sets to maintain a visual continuity. But it misses the nuance, that intangible quality of dread and danger and foreboding.

Despite all of my complaints, I found The Thing to be decently entertaining and surprisingly watchable - largely thanks to Edgerton and Winstead, and also thanks to a couple of, admittedly, pretty exciting action sequences. It's not a bad film, just an unnecessary one. Like I said, it's an only-okay cover version of a great bit of rock n' roll - perhaps worth a listen, but not something you'd ever pick over the original classic. And the film's various homages and story references to Carpenter's classic - including that film's kickass theme over the closing credits - only serve as a reminder of how badass the 1982 version was. Personally, I'd much rather that we have new voices who put their own stamp on genre films as Carpenter did back in the day. Leave the guy's films alone, and create something new. Like the characters in The Thing, we can detect when we're dealing with the real deal, and when we're dealing with an imitation.

My Grade: C+

Friday, October 14, 2011

Danny Vs. TUCKER & DALE VS. EVIL ...!

- Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil is a very worthwhile horror/comedy that is currently making the rounds in limited theatrical release, and is also out on VOD and digital platforms. It's one of those buzzworthy gems that has loads of charm and plenty of laughs, and it's definitely worth a look if you enjoy your slasher flicks with a heavy dose of self-aware slapstick.

The movie basically mashes up two staples of horror: preppy college kids being brutally murdered by a mysterious attacker, and redneck hillbillies terrorizing out-of-their-element city slickers - and turns 'em on their head. See, the movie's would-be psycho-rednecks, the titular Tucker and Dale, are actually lovable, funny, well-meaning, and surprisingly smart, appearances not withstanding. Meanwhile, the group of preppy college kids run the gamut from clueless to obnoxious to just plain insane and sociopathic. So of course, what ensues is a comedy of misunderstanding, with Tucker and Dale being overly trusting of the college kids who are out camping in their backwoods 'hood, and the college kids being unnecessarilly terrified of the amiable hillbillies. As you might expect, one thing leads to another, and despite Tucker and Dale's best intentions, horror, violence, and death ensue (typically in over-the-top, hilarious fashion).

Although the movie's script is fairly basic, and doesn't do much to flesh out its characters, we still root for Tucker and Dale because the two leads, TV veterans Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, are so darn charismatic and naturally funny. Tudyk, as Tucker, is more of the straight man, and Labine, as Dale, is in the sort of Chris Farley role. In particular, he's got some great scenes with Katrina Bowden, as Allison - one of the college kids who gets rescued from drowning by Dale, even though her friends all assume that Dale actually kidnapped her. Bowden's time on 30 Rock, hanging with Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, has clearly paid off, as she's developed some excellent comic timing. She works very well with Labine, who I've liked since his stint on the flawed but likable TV show Reaper. The other standout is definitely Jesse Moss as Chad, the preppy ringleader of the group of college kids. Straight out of an 80's slasher film, Chad is just a fun character, and Moss does a great job of portraying his devolution from cocky kid to crazytown.

The movie is at its best when it's going balls-to-the-wall with over-the-top action and violence. That said, it never quite reaches the blissful heights of, say, Shawn of the Dead, and could surely have used an action maestro like Edgar Wright at the helm, to ensure maximum awesomeness. As is, the direction from Eli Craig is serviceable, but a bit bland given the craziness of the plotline. Speaking of Shawn of the Dead, Tucker & Dale stops short of reaching the overall heights of satire of that modern horror-comedy classic. The joke of Tucker & Dale is that its leads are not at all what they appear to be. But their personalities are only developed so far. We never 100% get a sense of who these guys are, what their daily lives are like, etc. I also thought that the movie became a little too one-note as it went on. The movie repeats variations on the same basic gag throughout its duration, and while it's a funny joke - that murder and mayhem ensue despite Tucker and Dale's best intentions - the whole thing plays out like one long Looney Tunes sketch and less like a fully-formed movie. That cartoonishness extends to the by-the-numbers happy ending, which seems to be begging for some final, darkly-comic twist.

Still, as an over-the-top romp filled with brutally-satisfying carnage, TUCKER & DALE VS. EVIL is surprisingly satisfying and endearing. With a clever premise, plenty of genuinely funny moments, and some talented actors in the lead roles, this is a welcome addition to the horror-comedy cannon.

My Grade: B+

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Here's the Deal on REAL STEEL ...


- Do you ever sit back, pop in a DVD of a cheesy-yet-beloved 80's classic like The Wizard or Over The Top, and wonder: "why don't they make movies like this anymore?" If yes, then REAL STEEL is the movie you've been waiting for. Unabashadly cheesy, sentimental, and (no pun intended ... oh hell, pun intended) over the top, Real Steel copies the formula of countless 80's underdog-competition movies and mixes it with a dash of sci-fi. The movie has a lot of issues, but it's hard to not be won over by its positive spirit and boundless energy. Real Steel is cinematic junkfood, but man, it sure is fun. If only it had an appropriately cheesy, 80's-style theme song ("You're the best! Around!") ... well, that would have been the icing on the cake.

Real Steel tells a classic underdog-boxing sort of story, but with a robotic twist. Interestingly, the script is actually a very loose adaptation of an old Richard Matheson story, that was at one point adapted into an episode of The Twilight Zone (then called simply "Steel"). But here, we're in the near future, where traditional mano e mano boxing has been outlawed, and in its place, fight fans gather to watch giant robots (remote-controlled by humans) bash the ever-loving crap out of each other inside the squared circle. Robot boxing is the name of the game. Enter ex-actual-boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman). He's a down-on-his-luck hustler who travels around to out-of-the-way carnivals and such, with his trusty robot in tow. Charlie is far from the big-time though - his robot is fighting in sketchy 'bot vs. animal fights and things like that (I was sort of shocked we actually saw an extended robot vs. bull fight in the movie's opening!). Charlie is living a carnie-sort-of-life on the road, only occasionally spending time with his on-again, off-again special lady friend, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly). Bailey owns and maintains her father's old gym, but has fallen on hard times - essentially operating a museum now that plain-old human fighters are an endangered species.

However, Charlie's vagabond lifestyle changes course when the mother of his estranged son dies in an accident. Suddenly left with custody of his young son, Max, Charlie is at first reluctant to care for the grieving boy. But as it turns out, Max is a huge robot-fight-fan (and really, what eleven year old boy wouldn't be?). As luck would have it, Max stumbles upon an old, junked-out fighter-bot one night, an outdated model sent to the scrapyard. However, Max sees some hidden potential in the old metalhead, especially with regards to the fact that it's got a mimic function, where it can emulate the movements of its human controller. So, like the ultimate game of Wii or Kinect, this bot gains a leg-up on the more advanced competition through Charlie's old boxing prowess being utilized. Of course, much father-son bonding occurs, and before you know it we're in a huge tournament, with Charlie and Max pitted against a fearsomely sleek Japanese bot for all the marbles.

It's all a bit ridiculous, and the movie never really delves in to how, exactly, Charlie and Max are able to compete against more advanced robots. If the mimic function is so effective when controlled by a human fighter, then why hadn't others tried it before? But this isn't really a movie about logic, strategy, or any sort of realism or plausibility. No, it's about an abrasive Hugh Jackman getting in touch with his inner fighting spirit, bonding with his young son, and overcoming the odds in classic cinematic fashion. The movie starts out a bit slow, and takes a while to rev up ... but once it gets to the big, Rocky-with-robots-esque fight scenes, it becomes so gloriously cheesy that you can't help but smile. Director Shawn Levy (of Night at the Museum fame) does a nice job of mixing straightforward, almost 80's-esque direction with bouts of slick action - and even some rather painterly, Spielbergian scenes of robot-and-boy bonding (perhaps that's the influence of exec-producer Spielberg shining through - and indeed, this feels like an 80's-era Speilberg-produced family flick).

The real standout here is young Dakota Goyo as Max. Dakota basically steals the movie, and plays one of the more entertaining kid characters in a movie of this sort in a long while. Dakota totally sells all the mushy stuff with his long-lost dad, but he also is so wildly enthusiastic and energetic during the big fight scenes that it's infectious. That said, Hugh Jackman also does a nice job as Charlie. He's appropiately gruff and short-tempered when we first meet him, but eventually evolves into the kind of born-again-good-dad that, dammit all, wins us jaded filmgoers over. Evangeline Lilly, meanwhile, doesn't have a ton to work with - we never quite understand the nature of her relationship with Jackman - but, she makes the most of the material. It's great seeing her again though post-Lost - she really should be in more movies.

I do think the movie fumbles a bit with its villains. Another Lost alum, Kevin Durand, is never used to his full potential as a smarmy rival to Jackman. Anthonie Mackie, so good in movies like The Hurt Locker, has a brief and somewhat forgettable role as a colorful robot-fight promoter. And the enigmatic robot-champion maestro, Tak Mashido, seems like he has a lot of potential for badassery, as played by Karl Yune. But, he doesn't get much depth, and so remains thoroughly one-dimensional.

That said, REAL STEEL is, at the end of the day, a pretty simple underdog story about a boy reconnecting with his father, and participating in a robot fighting championship. The movie doesn't really do a great job with all the other stuff it throws into the mix, but when it focuses in on the core theme and the core premise, it's incredibly fun and likable. For kids, I think this movie will become an instant and fondly remembered favorite. For adults, this will be a cheesy but fun nostalgia-trip to a simpler cinematic era. And for that reason, Real Steel can be considered, at least partly, a rock-'em, sock-'em success.

My Grade: B+

Monday, October 10, 2011

On The Indisputable Greatness of BREAKING BAD

- This Fall, I have to admit, I haven't been grabbed by many new TV shows. Some of the new crop of series have been decent, some good, but on some level - particularly for drama - I can't help but feel that the bar has simply been raised. BREAKING BAD, quite simply, makes just about every other show on TV look weak in comparison.

I've been wanting to write about Breaking Bad here for a long time. If you follow me on Facebook, you are well aware that I can't stop raving about the show. And I realize - it's one of those shows that, if you're not watching it, you may very well wonder what all of the fuss is about. At first glance, the premise might seem odd, perhaps even off-putting. And I know that for me, the potential of the show simply didn't register at first. Looking back though, I kick myself for not jumping onboard with the show from Day 1. Afterall, wasn't I always raving about Bryan Cranston on Malcolm In the Middle? Wasn't I already a fan of creator Vince Gilligan from his influential role on The X-Files? So, how did I miss Breaking Bad? Again, at first glance the premise sounds bleak to the point of being off-putting. A mild-mannered high-school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Strapped for money and desperate for a means to fund his treatment and support his family, the teacher takes a giant plunge - he decides to use his expertise with chemistry to become a meth cooker.

That is the one-line synopsis, but it isn't what Breaking Bad is about, really. Not at all. And indeed, the short, six-episode first season of the show only hints at the nature of what is to come. Because for our hero, Walter White, Breaking Bad isn't just some fish-out-of-water romp about a nerdy teacher who decides to cook meth. Oh no. This is about the journey of a man to the dark side. This is about one man's descent from good to evil. It is also alternately funny as hell and intense as hell. The tone is the Coen Bros. meets Tarantino meets 24. There is a quirkiness to the characters and the world of Breaking Bad, and a definite undercurrent of dark humor and irony that guides the series. But the story is told with such unpredictablility, with such intensity, with such care and nuance and style - that the end result is like nothing I've ever seen in movies, in TV, hell - in all of fiction.

Vince Gilligan and his team of writers and directors, along with the show's outstanding cast, have created a true work of art for our time. Bryan Cranston, as Walter White, is absolutely phenomenal. He deserves every Emmy awarded to him and more. I'd go so far as to say that in Walter, Cranston has helped to fashion one of the greatest, most fascinating, and most enduring fictional characters I've ever had the pleasure of getting to know. Cranston is so damn likable as Walter, that it only very slowly dawns on us to what extent he's gradually - but markedly - become a bad person.

And that brings me to the thing about Breaking Bad that keeps you thinking about it and discussing it throughout the week: it really is one of the most interesting and punishing examinations of morality I've ever encountered in fiction. Oftentimes, fiction - especially that which exists in a somewhat heightened reality, glosses over the moral implications of its characters' actions. And when the true morality of a character's M.O. is eventually looked at - say, in 24 or a Batman film - it often comes off as hokey. But Breaking Bad, from the get-go, has made examining its characters' underlying moral justifications a central focus of the show. I don't mean to sound too heady though - because the thing about Breaking Bad is that it's not working on some lofty level of intellectualism. This is a show about a man who is in many ways highly - and disturbingly - relatable. We, all of us, are Walter White. All of the moral comprimises we make on a daily basis. All of the things we do to get ahead personally and professionally. The ethics of our jobs, of the companies we work for, of the people we associate with, of the government we live under, of the society we participate in - how much in our lives is, even in some small way, morally suspect?

That's the problem of Walter White, the moral logic puzzle. Is cooking and selling meth - a poisonous, addictive, life-destroying drug - okay if it's the best option for supporting one's family? Is it, in any way, defensible? At first, many of Walter's actions are driven, seemingly, by absolute necessity. He does things because he has to. For his very survival. But slowly, slowly, the tide turns. Walt has ways, opportunities, to get out of his life of crime, but he doesn't. Pride, excitement, adrenaline, ego keep him in. And a very fine line becomes visible to us, the viewer, even if Walt often remains willingly oblivious - a line that Walt begins to cross - a line where Walt *chooses* to do bad things and be a bad person even when other options are available to him. The show makes you think, question, engage in these sorts of moral "what-if's." Would you steal to protect your family? Would you kill? Would it matter if the victim was a hardened criminal, a white-collar criminal, or a relative innocent? At what point do you cross a line that you can never come back from? At what point do you go from a good person forced to do some bad things to being someone who is, at their core, morally bankrupt? This is the journey of Walter White, this is the underlying theme of BREAKING BAD.

At the same time, Breaking Bad isn't just about moral philosophizing. The show is not a mere ethics lesson. It is a thriller, a comedy, and it is better-plotted than any other show on television, maybe ever. So many TV series are bogged down by formula and routine, but Breaking Bad might be one of the most unpredictable series of all time. So many episodes end on cliffhangers that leave you wondering ... "um, what the hell happens *now* ...?" The pacing of the series might be described as "controlled chaos." Slow builds lead to moments of ultra-intensity. Long-gestating plot points come back into play at unexpected moments. Characters who may have initially been written off end up playing major, key roles in the plot.

And no show this side of 24 in its heyday has ever had this many genuinely jaw-dropping "holy $#%&!" moments. If you haven't seen Breaking Bad, some of my above comments may make it seem slow or ponderous - but that couldn't be farther from the truth. This is one of the most intense viewing experiences I've ever had. Heart-pounding, fingernail-biting, jaw-on-the-floor stuff. The palpable tension permeates through most episodes, but then, like a thunderbolt, the show will - sometimes without warning - switch into a next-level gear of high-intensity that most shows will never, ever reach. Part of the intensity stems from the unpredictability. We don't know who will live, who will die. Any cast member is expendable. The show is *about* a man living on borrowed time, so even Walter White could be a goner at any time - we just don't know. That said, the intensity also comes from just how great these characters are. Aside from Walter, there's Aaron Paul's incredible portrayal of Jesse Pinkman, the young delinquent and former student of Walter who ends up as Walter's trusted partner-in-crime. Jesse is a perfect example of how the show plays with our sympathies. At first, Jesse was the bratty burnout who needed some serious life lessons hammered into his thick skull. Now, Jesse has become the heart and soul of Breaking Bad - and we are actively rooting for him to find some sort of moral center and achieve something for himself. The craziest part of that is that, to do so, Jesse may well find himself at direct odds with the increasingly unhinged Walter White. A similar role reversal has occured with Walt's brother-in-law, Hank - played amazingly by Dean Norris. At first, Hank came off as an obnoxious loudmouth - a DEA agent full of swagger and ego - a guy who was never going to be someone we actively rooted for on the show, particularly if rooting for him meant rooting against the amiable average-Joe that was Walt. Oh, how things have changed. Hank has evolved into a determined crusader - a tough, no-quit bastard who in many ways is the true hero of the show. Who would have ever suspected? It's a tribute to Dean Norris and to the creative minds behind Breaking Bad that Hank has been revealed as such a three-dimensional, fan-favorite character.

Indeed, the world of Breaking Bad is populated with all manner of interesting, quirky, scary characters. And man, the actors who portray them are just uniformly awesome. So many of these character started out as background players, and are now beloved members of the cast. Bob Odenkirk is fantastic and hilarious as Saul Goodman, the skeezy lawyer who becomes Walt and Jesse's confidante. Anna Gunn has been a scene stealer as Walt's wife, Skyler. Same goes for RJ Mitte as Walt's teenaged son, Walter Jr. Jonathan Banks as Mike "The Cleaner" is another guy who slowly but surely became one of the show's best characters - a badass enforcer who is getting up there in years, but who still packs a punch. Mark Margolis is one of the show's most improbably awesome characters - as the wheelchair-bound, immobilized former cartel leader, Tio Salamanca, he has become one of the most intriguing and memorable characters, well, ever on TV. And finally, these last two seasons have seen the emergence of Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring - aka on of the most interesting, memorable, sadistic villains in the history of television. Into the cannon that includes The Cigarette-Smoking Man, Ben Linus, and more, it is now safe to include the enigmatic Chilean drug lord (who poses as the civic-minded owner of the El Pollos Hermanos chicken chain) in that lineup.

Like many, I got to the breaking point, so to speak, prior to Season 4 of Breaking Bad, and decided to catch up on the show prior to the start of the new season. I picked up the blu-ray of Season 1 and blew through it, and soon afterwards, I found out that AMC was broadcasting the entirety of the series, in sequence, each week leading up to the Season 4 premiere - two episodes per week. For a few months this past summer, a weekly double-dose of Breaking Bad became a weekly tradition for my brother and I. And time and again, we were left with our jaws on the floor after some shocking new revelation or some ultra-intense, climactic sequence of sheer awesomeness. The show was nearly as addictive as Walter White's trademark blue meth, and being relegated to merely one episode per week during Season 4 felt, at first, like serious deprivation. As much as I could though, I tried to get others onboard. Breaking Bad is a show that needs to be watched, discussed, theorized about, speculated upon. It's open for analysis and interpretation like no show since Lost. And man, I wish more people watched - THIS is the kind of show that is made to be discussed over the proverbial water-cooler on a Monday morning. But I will say, it's been fascinating each week to read over comments and theories on sites like The AV Club and Hitfix. Not to be a huge nerd about it, but Breaking Bad, for all its thrills and humor and excitement, also has a literary quality ripe for analysis. People will be talking and thinking about this show for year and years to come.

And to that end, I say only this: last night was the Season 4 finale of Breaking Bad. It was fantastic - absolutely explosive. There will be a several month wait for the start of Season 5, which will be the show's final season (albeit broken up into two halves on AMC). But trust me, if you are a fan of great TV, of great characters, of great stories - you are going to want to be a part of this, part of the discussion. So while you have time, get the DVD's, watch on Netflix, download on iTunes - whatever you have to do. I want to be talking with all of you next year after each episode. When I update my Facebook status about Breaking Bad, I want dozens of comments. This show deserves it. And you deserve to see it. So go - watch - immediately, and prepare for an unprecedented level of awesome. Because, quite simply, Breaking Bad is one of the greatest TV shows ever made. And man, I can't wait to see what happens next.

THE DEBT - A Thriller With Depth

THE DEBT Review:

- The Debt is fictional, but it's a credit to the caliber of the writing and acting that it feels like a very real piece of historical fact. But even if the specific plotline of the film is made up, there is a very tangible element of Truth in this movie - in its characters, themes, and existential narrative. It picks up on a throughline that's been explored in some great films, like Steven Spielberg's Munich - the idea that, following the Holocaust, the Jewish people recreated themselves into a hard-edged nation, a nation determined to never again be victims to would-be oppressors. In doing so, there was a certain loss of innocence that accompanied Israel's aggressive defensive tactics. And that is what The Debt skillfully explores - a people still coming to grips with the mental scars inflicted on them by the Nazis, and still trying to figure out what sort of response that pain demanded.

The Debt is a great little film, packed to the brim with an all-star cast, and a gripping, taut pace. Though it deals with a lot of big, existential questions, the movie works perfectly well as a tension-packed international thriller. And the story is a good one. The film cuts between two principle time periods - 1997, and 1966. In 1997, we meet middle-aged Rachel Singer, a retired Mossad agent and a hero of sorts. Her daughter has recently written a book chronicling her adventures in the 60's, during which Rachel bravely helped to capture and kill the notorious Dieter Vogel, "The Surgeon of Birkeanu." Vogul was a Nazi doctor known for his inhumane medical experiments on captured Jews - including children - during WWII. After the war, he fled capture, masked his identity, and lived as a doctor - a gynocologist, no less - in Berlin. Rachel was part of a team of covert Mossad agents that went undercover in Germany to track down Vogel and bring him to Israel, to be tried as a war criminal. In 1997, the public has long believed that the operation was an iron-clad success, that Vogel was captured and killed when he resisted against the Mossad agents. But as the film flashes back to 1966, the year of the operation, we learn that things unfolded in a much messier and more complex fashion than the public was later led to believe. As the truth about the 1966 operation comes to light in 1997, Rachel must reunite her old team to finally put to rest their now-30-year-old mission.

The two-tiered narrative structure of The Debt means that we get young and old versions of our three principle leads, and in that group are a number of outstanding actors. The biggest standout is likely the pairing of Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren as the younger and older versions of Rachel Singer respectively. Chastain seemingly came out of nowhere this year to become Hollywood's defacto leading lady, but it's hard to find fault with that when she's been so good in everything she's been in. In The Debt, Chastain may just have her greatest film role to date - as Rachel, she's at times sullen, at times driven, but always possessing of an unflinching inner strength. Some of The Debt's strongest scenes take place when Chastain, posing as a German housewife, must visit the incognito Dr. Vogul as his gynocology patient. You can't help but squirm as you see Rachel placing herself in such a vulnerable position before such a terrifying man as Vogel. But when Rachel's big moment of action and vengeance finally comes, it's pretty darn badass - and a lot of that can be chalked up to Chastain's quiet intensity. Meanwhile, Helen Mirren has made a second career out of playing older women who still have a bit of mojo, and she plays the role quite well here. But Mirren isn't playing a cartoon character like she did in, say, Red. Here she's realistic and believable as a woman who's been out of the espionage game for a long time, who's now more brittle and more vulnerable, but who might still have a trick or two up her sleeve. Mirren also does a great job showing the older Rachel's guilt and inner conflict. Here is a woman who's been canonized as a national hero, but under false pretenses. Mirren does a fantastic job of showing Rachel's turmoil.

Rachel's two fellow Mossad agents, David and Stephan, are played with a lot of character by Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas. Worthington has gotten a bad rap before, but he really impressed me as David - a man whose entire family was killed in the concentration camps and who is now singlemindedly pursuing Vogel and other escaped Nazis. Stephan, as played by Csokas, is the cocky leader of the squad who is the most ambitious of the three. He sees the Vogel mission as his means to fame and fortune and a career in politics. His older self, as played by the great Tom Wilkinson, is similarly cagey and crafty - the man who wants the secrets of the 1966 mission kept as such no matter what. Meanwhile, it is the older version of David who's been unable to live with the truth, and it is his return to Israel, after years of globe-trotting and Nazi-hunting, that re-opens this long-thought-closed case.

Overall, even if the resemblances are somewhat minimal, there is a nice dichotomy and symmetry between the older and younger actors. That said, I did feel that there was a clear weak link, and that was CiarĂ¡n Hinds as the older David. Bearing almost zero resemblance to Worthington, Hinds' presence just feels off when he enters the picture, and his total dissimilarity to Worthington's version of David is a big distraction in the latter part of the film.

However, one other actor worth noting is Jesper Christensen as Vogel. He makes the Nazi doctor absolutely creepy and, at times, downright terrifying. Christensen has some crackling scenes with Chastain, Worthington, and Mirren, and he is just a great, memorable villain - a powerful reminder of the sheer evil and darkness inherent in the Nazi philosophy - manifesting most powerfully in their unbridled hatred of the Jewish people.

The Debt has a great mix of strong character moments and espionage action and intrigue. It's got a taut, intelligent script by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (yep, the same Matthew Vaughn who directed Kick-Ass and Stardust), and moody, tension-packed direction by John Madden (not he of football fame). I do think that the back-and-forth time jumps between 1966 and 1997 are occasionally a bit confusing and disorienting, and I wondered a bit if the film would have been more effective if the narrative was slightly more straightforward. Overall though, I found it fascinating to see the way in which the events of World War II reverberated so strongly throughout the decades, and how Israel, Mossad, and the Jewish people continued, for so long, to live in the shadow of the Holocaust. Just as Spielberg's Munich drew a shocking throughline from the terrorism of the 70's to the terrorism of today, The Debt draws an even longer arrow from World War II, to the 60's, to the 90's, and then even to today. Kids today may think of The Holocaust as ancient history, but The Debt reminds us just how recent it really was, and just how continuous its echoes remained. If you're just looking for a good espionage thriller, I'd say there's a lot to like about THE DEBT. But if you have an interest in the modern history of Israel, or in international politics in the wake of World War II, I'd say that The Debt is a fascinating and must-see look at some of the core existential forces that have shaped the modern world. I'd urge you to check it out.

My Grade: A-