Thursday, February 23, 2012

OSCAR 2012 - Pre-Show Thoughts & Predictions & Rants


It's silly to bag on all of the Oscar-nominated movies just because they're Oscar-nominated. Yes, there are plenty of great films that got snubbed this year, but that doesn't take away from the fact that plenty of the movies and performances in the spotlight this year are, legitimately, amazing. From The Artist, to Demian Bichir in A Better Life, to Christopher Plummer in Beginners, to Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, to Martin Scorsese's direction of Hugo.

That said ...

This year's Oscar nominees exclude so many of last year's best films and performances, it's mind-boggling. So let me get this out of the way, before talking about the actual nominees:


1.) Drive for Best Picture
2.) Charlize Theron for Best Actress (Young Adult)
3.) The Adventures of Tintin for Best Animated Film
4.) Nicholas Winding Refn for Best Director (Drive)
5.) Martha Marcy May Marlene for Best Picture
6.) Young Adult for Best Picture
7.) Young Adult for Best Original Screenplay
8.) Warrior for Best Picture
9.) Elizabeth Olsen for Best Actress (Martha Marcy May Marlene)
10.) Rise of the Planet of the Apes for Best Picture
11.) anything for The Debt (was Jessica Chastain really better in The Help than The Debt?!)
12.) A Better Life for Best Picture
13.) Ben Kingsley for Best Supporting Actor (Hugo)
14.) Sean Durkin for Best Director (Martha Marcy May Marlene)
15.) Chris Weitz for Best Director (A Better Life)

So yes, a lot of my annoyance stems from the fact that Drive, Young Adult, The Adventures of Tintin, and Martha Marcy May Marlene were completely snubbed, and that A Better Life, The Ides of March, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes were given only token nominations. As we all know by now, The Academy is comprised mostly of middle-aged / elderly white men, and the picks tend to reflect that. And yet ... in recent years, we've seen exciting pieces of innovative cinema honored - movies like The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, and No Country For Old Men. With one or two exceptions, I don't know that this years pack of featured nominees are anywhere close to that level.

Now, the one exception I will point to in particular is THE ARTIST. The Artist was a phenomenal film, and its the only one of the Best Picture nominees that I gave a flat-out "A" grade to when I reviewed it a few months back. And this is exactly the movie I'm talking about when I ask people not to dismiss all the nominees just on principle. So please, don't get caught up in backlash hype and hate on The Artist. Of the other Best Picture picks, I'm also a huge fan of HUGO. I wouldn't mind seeing it win. My only qualm with Hugo is that it had moments of absolute brilliance, but it also dragged and meandered in parts. I graded it an A-, and to me, Best Picture should be an "A." I feel similarly about The Descendents - a fantastic film, but it had enough issues to keep it from being truly transcendent. Of the nominees, to me, only The Artist reached that level.

But here's where the Academy just makes itself look foolish. How in the blue hell are War Horse, Moneyball, Midnight in Paris, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close all Best Picture nominees? I haven't seen Extremely Loud, but the rest of those films are B+ level at best. To think that those films made the cut when Drive, Young Adult, A Better Life, etc. were excluded? Ugh. Tree of Life, I sort of get. I didn't personally love it, but you can't deny its ambition. The Help - okay, it's a shoe-in. But all in all, this is not a Best Picture lineup for the ages.

In any case, here's my list of who *should* win, and prediction for who *will* win. What do you think?



Should Win: The Artist
Will Win: The Artist

- Like I said ... The Artist was by far the best of the nominated pictures this year. It's my personal pick to win, but I also think that Oscar voters will be won over by its homage to classic Hollywood. This is a great movie *about* the movies. So is Hugo, but where Hugo uses 3D and CGI to evoke a storybook fantasy world, The Artist has the sort of back-to-basics classicism that Oscar voters can't resist.


Should Win: Demian Bichir
Will Win: Jean Dujardin

- Demian Bichir is badass and awesome and absolutely riveting in A Better Life. He deserves a win (and the movie deserved a Best Picture nod), and more people need to see A Better Life. Now, Bichir is an underdog, but I do think he has a slight chance of being a spoiler, as more and more Oscar voters caught the film late in the game. I also think George Clooney's got a shot for The Descendants. But I also think he is very good in that film, but not great per se. Now, Jean Dujardin is phenomenal in The Artist, and it's the kind of leading man performance that Oscar voters love - he emotes, he dances - it's a role with humor, heart, and romance. Personally I think Bichir was better, but I think Dujardin may have the edge with voters.


Should Win: Michelle Williams
Will Win: Viola Davis

- Okay, this is a tough one. It may honestly come down to the fact that, perhaps, Michelle Williams peaked too early in terms of Oscar hype. I also wonder if perhaps voters might reject her Marilyn as great, but still not as good as the real thing. To me, Williams delivered an amazing performance, but I think Viola Davis may have the most overall goodwill and least amount of controversy around her turn in The Help. I will add though - Rooney Mara is so good in Dragon Tattoo ... I don't know if she's got a shot, but I wouldn't mind seeing her play spoiler. There is certainly a lot of room for a surprise here, and I guess you can never count out Meryl Streep ... but come on, The Iron Lady received lukewarm reviews - it doesn't seem like *this* was a movie that would win it for Streep. And finally ... how is Charlize Theron not nominated here? And Elizabeth Olsen?! Two HUGE omissions.


Should Win: Christopher Plummer
Will Win: Christopher Plummer

- Part of me wants to root for Nick Nolte in Warrior, just to show some love to that underrated film. But at the end of the day, Plummer was fantastic in Beginners, and this is likely one of the few no-brainers of the night. I mean come on - the part of a 75 year old man who comes out of the closet in old age, only to find out that he's dying just as he begins to truly live? That's Oscar material if ever there was Oscar material. But if / when he wins, it won't be undeserved.


Should Win: Berenice Bejo
Will Win: Octavia Spencer

- Berenice Bejo was magnetic and electric in The Artist. But I think a lot of the attention will be on Jean Dujardin, and that The Help will clean up in the Actress category - as there's just so much goodwill and momentum around both Octavia and Viola. I'd like to see The Artist duo win in both categories, but again, I think The Help has the momentum.


Should Win: Kung Fu Panda 2
Will Win: Chico & Rita

- I haven't seen Chico & Rita, but would like to. But I think it may win just due to lack of a unanimously loved family feature in the category. Me, I thought Kung Fu Panda 2 was amazing - one of the best Dreamworks animated films yet. But will a movie called Kung Fu Panda 2 really win an Oscar? Unlikely. Rango was very good but pretty out-there and received some mixed reviews. Therefore, I go with the underdog adult animated film as the winner.


Should Win: Michael Hazanavicius
Will Win: Michael Hazanavicius

- This is another somewhat tough category to predict, and another one where some of the nominees boggle my mind. I think it comes down, personally and prediction-wise, to Scorsese and Hazanavicius. But I look at it this way: it took Scorsese decades to win one Oscar. He didn't win for Goodfellas, or Raging Bull, or Taxi Driver. He deservedly won for The Departed. And Hugo, while great, just feels weird to me as a Scorsese win. The direction of the movie is phenomenal - in fact, the highlight of the film is the incredible direction. But with The Artist ... Hazanavicius did the seemingly impossible: he crafted a *silent movie* that was engaging and captivating and that completely held your emotions in the palm of its hand. That's an amazing directorial achievement. So personally, I give him the edge. And I think Oscar voters will feel similarly.


Should Win: don't love any of these choices - where is Young Adult?
Will Win: Midnight In Paris

- This will be the bone thrown to Woody Allen. And this category is so weak to begin with, I guess why not give it to him? Midnight is, at least, a dialogue-driven movie, so there's that. And it's a good script - one of Woody's better ones in years. I wouldn't call it mind-blowing, but I wouldn't begrudge it a win. If only Woody could write characters that seem like they live in 2012 instead of 1975.


Should Win: The Ides of March
Will Win: The Descendants

- I really liked the Ides of March script - tightly-constructed, pointed, edgy, and relevant. The Descendants is also a very good script, and I think it is probably the favorite to win - if only because Alexander Payne movies tend to be thought of as very "writerly." And yes, I'd get a kick out of seeing Community's Dean Pelton, aka Jim Rash, accepting an Oscar.


Should Win: no opinion
Will Win: A Separation

- I've been meaning to check out A Separation, and of all the nominated films, it definitely feels like this is the one with the most buzz around it. Plus, it's a great story - an Iranian film winning, given what's happening in that country? Very compelling.


Should Win: Hugo
Will Win: Hugo

- Hugo looks awesome. I could just sit and stare at the movie. I think (and hope) that the Academy recognizes its incredible visual richness with a nod here.


Should Win: The Artist
Will Win: The Artist

- This one is kind of tough, but I think The Artist has got to win for just how amazingly it evokes the Silent Film era, from the hair to the mannerisms and yes, to the costumes.


Should Win: "Man or Muppet"
Will Win: "Man or Muppet"

- First off, this category is pathetic for picking only two nominees. That said, Man or Muppet is fantastic, and a win for it would mean a win for the great Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame - and it would be awesome to see him get an Oscar.


Should Win: War Horse
Will Win: War Horse

- I liked War Horse, but felt it was super-schmaltzy to the point where it was a little eye-rolling at times. That said, the John Williams score is fantastic. Yes, some might call it overly bombastic, but good god, is it epic and memorable. Certainly, it's the more memorable score as compared to Williams' Tintin score.


Should Win: no opinion
Will Win: Pina

Haven't seen any of the nominees, unfortunately ... but I think Pina is the kind of inspirational story that could win over voters. The West Memphis 3 doc, though a critical favorite, might be a little too rock n' roll for the Academy.


Should win: Hugo
Will Win: Hugo

- Again, I thought Hugo just looked awesome. The camera spiraled and glided through the storybook version of Paris, with some absolutely phenomenal shots of the cityscape. This one should and - I think - will win.


Should Win: The Artist
Will Win: The Artist

- I give this one to The Artist simply because as you watch it, you realize what a remarkable achievement it is to craft a movie like this, splicing together wordless scenes with title cards to create a story that's engaging and emotional. Sure, the editing here isn't amazing in a conventional manner, but it's such a unique endeavor that you've got to give it up.


Should Win: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Will Win: The Iron Lady

- Personally, I always get annoyed when the Oscars ignore the big fantasy or sci-fi movies in favor of subtler makeup and f/x jobs. Once in a while it's warranted, but mostly, you look at something like Harry Potter - and the way in which fantastical characters like Voldermort were brought to life through makeup, and it's pretty remarkable. Still, Oscar voters love f/x and makeup that transforms actors (unless it's motion capture, which they hate). So I wouldn't be surprised if The Iron Lady gets a nod.


Should Win: Drive
Will Win: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

- So, could DRIVE win ... something?! I'll be rooting for it, and in all honesty, the film is a sonic masterpiece, from the music to the sound f/x to way it all comes together in this masterpiece of pure cinema. Still, I could see this one going to Dragon Tattoo, just because it's a Fincher film and he always creates fantastic audio/visual experiences.


Should Win: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Will Win: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

- Again, I feel like this could and probably should go to Tattoo just for the combined greatness of its sonics. From the great Reznor soundtrack to the smart and creative use of other music (Enya, anyone?) - this feels like the right pick to me.


Should Win: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Will Win: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

- Okay, RISE should have been nominated for a lot more than this, and it's even arguable that Andy Serkis was deserving of a Best Actor nom. I do think the Academy will eventually have to create some sort of mo-cap/augmented performance category to acknowledge this sort of thing. But man, if F/X are judged by the extent to which they aid in character and storytelling, then APES has got to take the prize. The movie made Ceaser into one of 2011's most memorable characters - human, simian, real, fake, or otherwise. It delivered fully-formed animal characters, and also delivered 100% awesome ape-on-human carnage. Hail Ceaser!


Should Win: ???
Will Win: La Luna


Should Win: ???
Will Win: The Shore


Should Win: ???
Will Win: Incident in New Baghdad

- And there you have it. Any thoughts on my predictions? Any picks of your own? Just annoyed, like me, that Drive wasn't nominated for Best Picture? Well, that's why The Oscars - while fun to speculate and complain about - are not and will likely never be a definitive measure of quality or merit for any true film fan.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Rock n' Roll Returns! THE DARKNESS and FOXY SHAZAM Concert Review!

The Return of THE DARKNESS: The Darkness and Foxy Shazam - Live at the House of Blues!

- When I was in college, a song called "I Believe In a Thing Called Love," by an up-and-coming band called The Darkness, took over the local airwaves and seemingly became the biggest thing since sliced bread. In Boston at that time, you'd hear it on rock radio, at cool establishments like Newbury Comics, blasted from dorm rooms - and suddenly, in a rock n' roll landscape dominated by nu-metal, classic rock had returned.

I loved the bombastic stylings of "I Believe In a Thing Called Love," and quickly purchased the band's debut CD - Permission to Land. I was blown away. From top to bottom, the album was loaded up with rock n' roll goodness. Just about every song was great, and I was somewhat amazed by the fact that this sort of music was alive and kicking in the era of Limp Bizkit and Staind.

Of course, The Darkness performed their operatic rock with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor. The lyrics to their songs were occasionally sincere, but more often would get completely over-the-top, laced with scandalous double meanings and jokey homages to the excesses of glam-rock glory. The band's music videos didn't help the perception that The Darkness was some kind of elaborate inside joke - they were totally insane and undeniably goofy. But to many, like me, who loved the craziness of 80's arena rock, The Darkness were a glorious, semi-self-aware throwback.

However, the band's meteoric rise ended all too early. They came out with only two albums (their second, One Way Ticket To Hell ... And Back, was just as good if not better than their debut), and then broke up due to infighting, drug use, and creative disagreements. In short, The Darkness were now living through a Spinal Tap-like parody of the classic rock bands they paid homage to - rise, fall, and all. But man, I kept hoping that the band would get back together. Even though they could be jokey and over-the-top, The Darkness had legit classic rock chops - and their second album seemed to mark a slight shift to less satirical homage and more of an original sound and serious tone. They seemed to have what it took to be the modern-day torchbearers of rock n' roll.

And now, several years after prematurely fading into the sunset ... THE DARKNESS have returned, and are having one more moment in the sun. The band is back together, a new album is in the works, and "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" hit #1 on the iTunes rock charts after being featured in a popular Superbowl commercial starring the members of The Darkness. Best of all, the band returned to America on their first tour in years, finally giving fans like me a chance to see the band live in concert.

So this past Sunday, I journeyed to the hallowed halls of the House of Blues Hollywood to - finally! - see The Darkness live. My parents were in town visiting for the long holiday weekend, so my brother and I had to ditch them for the night in order to fulfill our unholy duty and worship at the altar of rock and roll. Now, I had been to the House of Blues before but never for a concert. In many ways, it's a great venue - great atmosphere, a cool setup with a balcony circling the main stage, and decent visibility from most angles. The one downside is just that it's a standing room only venue and it got absolutely *packed* once The Darkness took the stage, as people flooded into the lower stage area where we had staked out a spot. So yeah, there were some uncomfortable moments where we were completely sandwiched by the people in front of us and behind us. Ultimately, though, it was awesome being part of such an energetic, packed house that was electric with excitement over the long-awaited return of The Darkness. And who knows, maybe one day I'll get to see the band in a huge arena. They've got plenty of stadium-friendly rock anthems, that's for sure.

Anyways, the show opened with a band called Crown Jewel Defense that was pretty decent. They seemed like a bunch of guys who really, really loved 80's rock and decided to do a tribute band of sorts. They could shred pretty hard, and the singer had a melodic growl of a voice that reminded me of the singer from Faith No More. They just needed some catchier songs and a bit more stage presence.

But then ... holy lord ... my mind was completely blown by the awesomeness that was FOXY SHAZAM. I knew basically nothing about the band before this show, except that a pretty large number of fans in attendance seemed to be there to see 'em - and as I realized that, my expectations began to rise. But good god - when Foxy took the stage, my jaw hit the floor about 5 seconds in and stayed there for the duration of their 40 minute set. Singer Eric Sean Nally set the tone early. He strode onstage looking like a mix of Freddie Mercury, Iggy Pop, and Joey Ramone, and he said something like: "I know that you guys in LA aren't shocked by much, you've seen it all. You aren't shocked by much, but let me just say this: I used to be a woman, and now ... I'm a man!" And at that, the band launched into a whirlwind rendition of "The Church of Rock n' Roll." It was amazing. Eric Nally bounced around the stage like a man possessed, somersaulting, leaping, karate-kicking, doing the worm. Keyboardist Schuyler White pounded on the ivories as if in a rock n' roll trance. He vaulted his instrument into the crowd. He juked, jived, and shimmied from side to side. He played the keyboard with his feet, stomping up and down. Top to bottom, every member of Foxy Shazam seemed to just explode in an orgy of barely-controlled chaos. Nally was the strange but charismatic ringleader of this rock n' roll circus - telling rambling stories, jokes, dancing like a madman, and even smoking eleven lit cigarettes at once before *eating them*, in a stunt he half-jokingly claimed he hated to do, but felt he had to now that audiences expected it of him. The whole thing was surreal and hypnotic and awesome. I've never seen a rock performance this energetic or insane.

But Foxy Shazam's music was kickass even regardless of the theatrics and stagemanship. They combine rock guitar with horns and keyboards for a rich, full sound that sounds like Queen on speed. But Eric Nally has pipes that would give Freddie Mercury a run for his money. His speaking voice is a high-pitched squeak, but when the man sings (and I guess the woman thing was a joke?), he belts out his tunes with a Meatloaf-like intensity and theatricality. And the songs are great - many are catchy as hell and just great, instant-classic rock anthems. I've had songs like "Killin' It," "Holy Touch," "The Temple," and "I Like It" in my head since Sunday.

Suffice it to say, FOXY SHAZAM was the big surprise of the night, and I became an instant fan. This is just an awesome rock n' roll band that deserves to be the biggest band in the world. And who knows, maybe they will be.

And then, after a lengthy intermission ... Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town" hit the HoB's sound system, and the crowd knew that the main attraction was imminent. Finally, The Darkness stormed onto the stage - singer Justin Hawkins in his trademark red, white, and blue leather ensemble - and blasted the doors down with Black Shuck, the first song off of Permission to Land. As the crowd pumped their fists and chanted the chorus in unison, it was clear - The Darkness - and maybe, by extension, rock n' roll - was back, baby!

The band performed just about every song off of Permission to Land, and several from One Way Ticket to Hell. They also did a couple of B-sides and also a new song - Nothing's Gonna Stop Us, aka the first single off of their upcoming all-new album. They tore the house down with songs like Growing On Me, the gloriously profane Get Your Hands Off of My Woman, Hazel Eyes, Givin' Up, Love Is Only a Feeling, and one of my favorites, second album title-track One Way Ticket. Hawkins did a soulful, acoustic version of ballad Holding My Own. He also trotted out a Radiohead cover, Street Spirit. After several costume changes (including a leopard-print unitard and a leather-pants / cowboy hat ensemble), Hawkins closed out the regular set with I Believe In a Thing Called Love, which had the crowd going bananas, jumping up and down and singing every lyric in unison.

Hawkins was in top form - he reached his trademark high notes with ease, and was energetic and just plain exuberant to be up on stage. The whole band seemed on-point, even despite a couple of tech issues with the sound system. But mostly, The Darkness seemed like they hadn't missed a beat.

For an encore, the band jammed to the instrumental tune Bareback, and then finished with an epic, extended edition of Love on the Rocks With No Ice, during which Hawkins, on the shoulders of a security guy, navigated through the crowd as the band wailed. It was a triumphant moment for a band and a frontman that could very easily have slid into obscurity after a breakup and numerous personal issues. But here they were, very close to the top of the world, rocking a sold-out venue in front of thousands of rabid fans.

Between The Darkness and Foxy Shazam, it was a night of true rock n' roll glory. Even Eric Nally of Foxy remarked that he'd heard the rumors of rock n' roll's death, but didn't believe 'em. And how could you, on a night like this one? It felt like the spirits of the legends - the spirit of Queen, Bowie, The Ramones, and more - was alive and well at the House of Blues.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Does SAFE HOUSE Bring the House Down?


- Safe House is a very solid, very entertaining early-in-the-year action flick. It's fairly straightforward and not exactly genre-busting, but it maintains a breakneck pace, is packed with great chases and shoot-outs, and has a reliably badass turn from Denzel Washington. I don't know, I felt like some of the critics were overly harsh on this one. I know for me, after seeing some anemic actioners of late (Contraband, anyone?) it was nice to see a movie that delivered both riveting action and some genuine starpower. Denzel rarely fails to deliver in these sorts of roles, and even if, at this point, he tends to fall back on a lot of classic Denzel-isms, well, it was still pretty great to see him kicking ass left and right in Safe House.

Denzel plays the aptly-named Tobin Frost, an ex-CIA super-agent who, years ago, turned his back on his country and went rogue - selling state secrets to the highest bidders, and quickly rising to the top of the Most Wanted list. However, when Frost gets a hold of a chip containing extremely valuable, extremely classified info, he very quickly makes himself an even bigger target than before. While Frost had previously been able to keep to the shadows, he's now got a squad of trained assassins after him. In order to protect his own life (and possibly for other reasons ...), Frost turns himself in at the American Embassy in South Africa. As the CIA gets word of this stunning turn of events, they now face the task of transporting Frost to a CIA safe house in a relatively quiet and remote part of the world. A CIA team is dispatched to assist with the transfer, but ultimately, the man tasked with safeguarding this high-profile prisoner is a young CIA safe house keeper, Matt Weston - played by Ryan Reynolds. Weston isn't used to much action at work - mostly, he sits around at an empty facility, biding his time and hoping for a promotion to a more exciting role. Eventually though, all hell breaks loose at the safe house, and suddenly, Frost - one of the world's most dangerous men, and a master manipulator - is the sole responsibility of an out-of-his-league (or is he?) Weston. And thus Safe House becomes a violent game of cat and mouse between the wily, experienced, ruthless Frost and the dogged, determined, but wet-behind-the-ears Weston.

Denzel brings a huge amount of charisma and effortless badassery to Frost. He molds Frost into a cool, collected, yet incredibly dangerous man who's seen and done it all. And yet, Frost's icy exterior helps to hide the fact that he's in many ways a broken man - a man who's lost all faith in his country and in the system, and who's adopted a sort of nihilistic, let-'em-burn attitude, even as he remains partly motivated by a sense of justice - a desire to expose the corruption that runs rampant in the same institutions that want him crucified. The whole cool-yet-deadly thing is a schtick that, yes, Denzel has employed many times over the years. And he isn't necessarily bringing a lot new to the table in Safe House. But he does give Frost enough flourish that you can't take your eyes off of him, and it's the little details that make the character pop. As for Reynolds, this is a good role for him. It capitalizes on his natural intensity, but it's also not just him wise-cracking and acting goofy. Reynolds mixes it up in some absolutely brutal action scenes, and keeps the smirking to a minimum. His character in Safe House is nervous, shaky, but persistent - it's a different sort of character for Reynolds, but one he takes to well.

The movie is also filled with great actors in supporting turns. Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Robert Patrick ... all are good here, though yeah, all play roles that they could pretty much do in their sleep. It's funny, because Farmiga played almost exactly the same role less than a year ago in Source Code. I enjoy all three actors though, and I think they help elevate and lend some gravitas to parts that might not have worked as well in less capable hands.

Now, one thing I will say about Safe House: I was really impressed with the action scenes. The film adopts a very Bourne-esque, fast-cutting style, which is almost always a bad sign in my book. But director Daniel Espinosa is one of the few I've seen who approaches the level of a Paul Greengrass in terms of making the style work for them. Even though there are some rapid edits and shaky cam, the action flows very well, and there are some killer car chases, foot chases, brawls, and gun fights. One car chase in particular midway through the film really floored me - it kept teasing a finish only to keep on going, creating a really fun thrill-ride effect.

Between the strong lead performances and the fast-paced action, Safe House is never boring. Its main problem is simply that the plot and script are nothing special. The various twists and turns don't have as much impact as they should, because the supporting characters are not well-fleshed out, and too much of Frost's past is left ambiguous, leaving us unable to connect the dots as to what, exactly, motivates his actions behind some vague explanations. Furthermore, there is a pretty useless romance angle with Reynolds and his exotic, French girlfriend. For some reason, in the middle of Weston running around trying to contain a dangerous guy like Frost, the plot focuses on how he hasn't called his special ladyfriend to tell her where he is. Don't get me wrong, the general premise of Safe House is interesting and has a lot of potential. But the movie doesn't give the plot or characters enough depth to keep that premise from feeling generic. The film's ending only emphasizes the plotline's failings, as a final twist meant to wow us instead elicits a much more "meh" reaction.

So yes, there are some pretty unremarkable, run-of-the-mill elements to Safe House, but I still liked it a lot. It just has an overall vibe of badassery - a gritty look and feel, stylishly brutal action, and a scene-stealing performance from Denzel Washington. An all-time action classic? No. But a satisfying flick to satiate your action-movie needs? It's a safe bet.

My Grade: B+

Thursday, February 09, 2012

CHRONICLE Is Comic Books For Real


- Why do a found-footage movie? I think the reason is that the style of filmmaking instantly serves to ground a story in "our" reality. We get the sense that we're not watching some stylized, Hollywood version of the world, but our world. And that stylistic conceit, in theory, makes anything crazy or out of the ordinary that happens that much more striking and shocking - because it's as if it's happening here, to us or people just like us, in the real world. Now, when The Blair Witch Project first came out, the conceit worked wonderfully. And movies like the Paranormal Activity flicks have been highly effective by playing off of the fact that what we're watching is, supposedly, real. But those movies keep things (relatively) low-key. That's part of why they work so well - nothing happens that's *so* insane that it crosses the uncanny valley, where we're taken out of the movies' real-world settings. That said, there's always been this holy-grail sort of idea floating out there, this concept of: "What if you could shoot a crazy-ass sci-fi story, but do it found-footage style? What if you could make the absolutely impossible feel not just possible, but plausible?"

A few years back, Cloverfield had varying degrees of success with this concept. What if a giant monster movie happened, but here, in our world, and the people witnessing it were just normal, everyday shmoes like us? But now, CHRONICLE comes along, and it raises the bar for what is possible with found-footage.Whereas Cloverfield tended to play coy with its sci-fi elements, only showing the monster in small glimpses, Chronicle starts out smaller-scale, but then escalates to crazy levels of sci-fi, superhero action - all the while (mostly) keeping the you-are-there tone set in its early scenes. That alone is pretty damn impressive.

Chronicle starts off low-key. At first, it's really the story of three high-schoolers who come together under unlikely circumstances. Our main character is Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a sullen outcast who comes from a broken home, with a sickly mom and a drunk, abusive dad. Andrew's only real friend is his cousin, Matt (Alex Russsell), and even he has a low tolerance lately for Andrew's anti-social tendencies and increasingly weirdo behavior. You get the impression that Matt was once more of a free spirit, but he's riding a high of high school popularity, and is more and more reluctant to let his cousin get in the way of that. And then there's Steve (Michael. B. Jordan), a popular, well-liked kid who seems to be a future politician in the making. Outgoing, sociable, and charismatic, posters of Steve are plastered all over school thanks to his bid for Class President.

When the movie starts out, Andrew's just bought a new video camera. He wants to use it as a sort of defense tactic against his asshole dad. His plan is to film his dad's drunken outbursts, and use that as a deterrent. Soon enough though, he starts filming everything, and it becomes a sort of obsessive compulsion for him (and works nicely to explain the found-footage conceit of the film). One night, Matt drags Andrew to a party, which turns out to be a full-fledged rave in an abandoned warehouse. Andrew leaves and goes to sulk outside, when Steve runs into him. It turns out that Steve and Matt found something crazy out in the woods by the party, and they want to get it on film. The three teens go to explore, and what they find is a hole in the ground that leads to a giant tunnel. Inside the tunnel, well ... things happen. And from that day on, Andrew, Matt, and Steve will never be the same again.

Chronicle is probably best watched with a minimum of info going in, so I'll stop there. But one thing I will say is that the movie works as well as it does because of the strength of the three main characters. All three leads do a great job of making their characters both naturalistic and well-defined. And all seem like regular teens. Even Andrew, with his emo-ish, slightly depressed demeanor, feels very real and relatable to some extent. And that relatability makes the journey that these characters go on all the more emotionally impactful. It also helps to have a good script from Max Landis (son of the legendary John Landis!), who seems to really relish the opportunity to take these teens and put them into the middle of a real-life comic book origin story.

And I guess that's one of the big knocks against Chronicle. In essence, it's the classic hero/villain comic book story as found-footage. The brilliance is in the mash-up of the two genres, of the mundane with the fantastic. But the broad strokes of the plot itself, well, the movie hits beats that we've seen many, many times before in film, comic books, etc.

The other inherent problem here is that the movie has to cram a ton of character development into a small amount of time. And because the found-footage style gives everything a very linear, very immediate progression - it feels like a lot of key beats are very rushed. It makes you wonder how this story might have played out in more serialized form, and I couldn't help but think of shows like Breaking Bad as a point of comparison. BB is able to slowly but surely morph it's protagonist over the course of many episodes and seasons. In Chronicle, major personality shifts have to happen within the span of an hour - and since it's found footage, you can't really make those transitions feel filled out with flashbacks or time-shifts or montages. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that we're forced to accept some pretty seismic shifts in Andrew's behavior and morality over the course of an hour and a half.

One other area where I went back and forth a bit is around the way in which the movie plays with superhero convention. Part of me likes the restraint the movie shows in never going too comic-booky. And yet, if the whole conceit of the film is real-life people with superpowers, the logical extension of that would be that the endgame is real-life superheroes (and reportedly, that is in fact where the original script ended up). As it is, there are small allusions to classic comic book iconography (masks, costumes/uniforms, arch-enemies, etc.) - and certainly, the action ultimately ramps up to full-on comic book levels of explosiveness. But I also never quite got that final exclamation point of "wow, so *that's* how a real-world superhero/supervillain could happen." I know not everyone will agree, but to me, that kind of reveal could have been the tipping point in making this movie go from very good to *great.*

But to Chronicle's credit, it really does escalate to levels previously unimagined in a found-footage movie. And that gives it an awesome feeling of uniqueness and unpredictability - as you're watching, you just keep thinking "man, how far are they going to *go* with this?" And they do go far indeed. The other thing that makes the movie sizzle is just how dark and intense it is. Again, you keep wondering how far they're going to go, and as the movie keeps getting darker and crazier, it gets *really* intense. It's one thing to see crazy stuff like this happen to Clark Kent or Steve Rogers, but to see these characters - so effectively built up as ordinary teenagers - get put into such larger-than-life situations - it really becomes both exhilerating and unsettling. When the kids fly - whoah! The sensation is crazy because you share in the sensation of ordinary kids doing something impossible and unheard of. And Chronicle really makes the most of that heightened sense of reality - and then of reality breaking down - that comes from the found footage conceit.

The movie is also just a total showpiece for director Josh Trank. The guy got immediately snatched up to helm the next Fantastic Four movie, and you can see why. He absolutely nails it in Chronicle, and his ability to ratchet things up from zero to eleven over the course of the film is uber-impressive. When the action does ramp up, Trank delivers some of the most visceral and intense super-powered action we've seen in a movie to date - this is some huge, epic, Superman-level stuff. But again, the fact that he's able to save the big stuff for key points in the film, and otherwise so seamlessly integrate smaller, more subtle sci-fi moments into a believable, real-world setting - it's a credit to Trank's sense of storytelling and world-building. Do I wish that he had a slightly deeper and more interesting mythology to play around with? Sure. Do I wish that Trank and Landis had found a slightly more organic way to get some of the shots without having to introduce a female blogger character who *also* films everything? Yeah, that was a bit lame. But overall, wow - as a coming out party for Trank - this is one hell of a debut, and Trank has now instantly shot up onto the list of directors where I can't wait to see what they do next.

Chronicle is one of those movies where you just can't help but admire its ambition, and give credit for the fact that it pulls something off we've never seen before. This is the best high-concept, sci-fi found footage movie we've yet seen, and it really expands the possibilities of what can be done in that subgenre. Do I love found-footage as a whole? Not really - I still wonder if Chronicle wouldn't have been as good or better if shot traditionally or in a less-restricted-but-still-realistic docu-style. And from a strictly narrative perspective, Chronicle doesn't do anything too jaw-dropping or textured. But it's still a must-see - a sort of demo for how the same-old stories can be made to feel new and fresh when you just try something different and unique with tone and storytelling-style.

My Grade: B+

Monday, February 06, 2012

THE WOMAN IN BLACK - Hammer Horror Returns


- The Woman In Black is a cool, creepy little horror movie. It showed me that Daniel Radcliffe is going to be very viable as an actor in his post-Harry Potter career. And it also served as a nice debut film for the reborn Hammer films. After a long hiatus following a legendary run of horror flicks back in the 60's and 70's, Hammer is back, and that in and of itself is good to see. That said, this film also feels like a somewhat-awkward compromise between the old-school and the modern. This is a movie that could have made a strong impression on the basis of its solid cast, creepy atmosphere, and classic ghost-story plotline. Instead, the film doesn't seem confident that those elements are enough to win over an audience in 2012. So what we get is a film that sort of undermines its own strengths by adding numerous jump-scares to the mix, leaving us with a movie that at times feels less like classic gothic horror, and more like a version of Paranormal Activity set 100 years in the past.

In The Woman In Black, Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer who travels to a remote village to settle the affairs of a long-abandoned house, so that it can finally be put back on the market. As it turns out, the locals know all too well that not only should no one live in the house, but no one should even visit or go near. Why? Because it's haunted by a vengeful ghost - the specter of its former owner. To give any more detail would be saying too much, suffice it to say that it soon becomes clear just *why* this ghost is haunting the town, and why it seems to do bad things to children in particular. To that end though, the ghost's M.O. is a particularly chilling one for Kipps. He's a widower who's now the sole caretaker of his young son (his wife died in childbirth), and so he's got a very personal stake in the action.

Radcliffe does a nice job here. At first, it's a little jarring to see the actor best known for playing a boy wizard as a widowed father. But, Radcliffe pulls it off, bringing a confident maturity to the part, and doing a nice job of conveying the character's escalating sense of urgency and dread. At first, Kipps is almost comically unfazed by all the weirdness going on around him - but eventually, he understandably becomes desperate to rid himself and the town of the ghost that plagues them. Seriously, one can't underestimate how good Radcliffe has become at playing a character who makes the fantastical seem believable. By this point, he's old hat at talking about ghosts and magic and curses without sounding silly, and that is something that really comes in handy with The Woman In Black. The movie also wisely surrounds Radcliffe with a number of talented character actors who fill out the supporting cast, and lend a lot of local color to the dank, mist-filled village.

Now, where I take issue with the film is the way in which it tries to get a lot of its scares. Rather than going for the kind of memorable scenes that will stick with you long after the movie's over, the film is riddled with "jump scares" - loud noises, quick cuts, and other tricks to get you to jump out of your seat. People quickly pop into the frame, the camera randomly cuts to creepy dolls and other such things in the ghost house, and musical cues slash and soar with the sole purpose of getting you to gasp. On one hand, there's no denying that the movie does an effective job of eliciting scares. The audience I saw the film with was on the edge of their seats - and so was I. But as the movie went on, I began getting a bit frustrated that so many of the scares seemed to come from the Paranormal Activity playbook - a quickly-glimpsed figure at the edge of the screen, objects moving by themselves, etc. But the problem with these sorts of moments is that everything is super quick - it makes it so that it's really hard to have truly memorable visuals or prolonged scenes of ghostly shenanigans. And in a movie like this - a film with lush, gothic art design and a classic, old-school haunted mansion at the center of the plot - it seems like there is potential for a lot more than just quick shocks. Occasionally, the jump-scares do build to a satisfying degree, recreating the feeling of actually being in a haunted house amusement park ride. The extended scene in which Radcliffe spends a night at the haunted manor is pretty deviously clever in the way it just doesn't let up, throwing one scare at you after another. At the same time, that sort of thing seems to lend itself to a different kind of horror movie - because the other half of The Woman In Black is all about gloomy atmosphere, creeping dread, and classic gothic horror. It's that odd juxtaposition of styles that makes this feel more like a somewhat confused horror movie mash-up and less like a singular vision.

And that same sense of dueling tones is especially evident in the film's already-controversial ending. I won't go into any of the details, except to say that I thought the movie had a pretty good final act that was then almost utterly decimated by a really lame ending. It's an ending that goes from delightfully grim to ridiculously cheesy in a matter of minutes, and it felt like a cop-out and a tonal clash to what had come before. In short - it didn't feel like a proper ending to a ghost story.

All in all though, The Woman In Black is plenty entertaining and a good amount of fun. It's a solid way to kick off this new chapter in the life of Hammer horror, and it's a nice little showcase for Radcliffe as an all-grown-up film star. But, where the movie could have been something really special, it instead seems to lack confidence in its own story. Rather than being a self-assured revival of real gothic horror, the movie takes the familiar gothic setting and story tropes and uses them to frame a somewhat ADD, amusement-park-style funhouse horror movie. If anything, it made me dream of what that Guillermo del Toro Haunted Mansion movie might end up being like.

My Grade: B

Friday, February 03, 2012

Into the Fray with THE GREY ...!

THE GREY Review:

- The Grey is one incredibly badass movie. I mean, holy crap. Typically, January brings us - if we're lucky - a fun cult movie or two. Maybe a decent horror flick, or a memorable B-movie. In recent years, Liam Neeson has become an unlikely staple of early-in-the-year action flicks. He starred in the awesome Taken a few years back, but has since followed that one up with underwhelming thrillers like last year's Unknown. Well, with THE GREY, we're once again seeing Liam Neeson at the height of his powers. He is awesome in this movie - badass as all hell, yet putting on an acting clinic with a performance so overflowing with gravitas that it will knock you flat. Liam is phenomenal in this film, and the movie as a whole elegantly mixes over-the-top man vs. nature tropes with some genuinely poetic and contemplative moments. But at the end of the day, The Grey is quite simply an instant-classic survival horror movie - a movie that will be passed down from father to son, in dorm rooms and at midnight screenings - years from now, men will gather to watch to get the ol' adrenaline flowing. People will (and already have!) gotten the epic poem at the center of the film inscribed on their skin. The Grey is a movie about never saying die, about fighting until your last breath even if it means - literally - clawing your way through a den of wolves. This is a movie that will, as they say, put some hair on your chest.

In the film, Liam plays John Ottway, a solemn, solitary man who works at a remote Alaskan oil rig. In a place filled with rough n' tumble, man's-men sort of dudes, Ottway might be the manliest of all. Why? Because his job is literally to keep watch outside the base and KILL ANY WOLVES that he spots approaching. For that reason, Ottway has become a bit of an expert on all things lupine. At the same time, he seems to have a bit of a death wish. In flashback, we get vague hints of a life - and a wife - left behind, somewhere far away. And we see that Ottway, perhaps, has contemplated turning the barrel of his gun on himself, and putting an end to his lonely existence.

But when disaster strikes, Ottway's survival instinct kicks in. On a plane ride meant to escort the oil drilling team back to civilization, rocky weather causes a violent and deadly crash. Most of the passengers are killed, but Ottway and several others survive - stranded in the middle of the Alaskan tundra. Immediate concerns include food, water, shelter, and fighting off the all-encompassing cold and harsh weather conditions. Soon, an even bigger concern becomes the ravenous packs of wolves that roam the area. The wolves aren't used to humans stepping on their turf, and so they're more aggressive than usual - actively hunting the men and trying to drive them out of their domain. Given his background, brains, and his stoic, grimly determined demeanor, Ottway becomes the defacto leader of the group, using every trick up his sleeve to ensure that he and his compatriots avoid starving, freezing, or becoming wolf food.

Director Joe Carnahan does a fantastic job here, and I think The Grey is easily his best behind-the-camera effort to date. The movie has plenty of sweeping, epic shots showcasing the film's sprawling Alaskan landscapes, but it's also got a sense of claustrophobic dread that reminded me of movies like John Carpenter's The Thing. There is just this crazy sense of looming, omnipresent dread - you know the wolves are closing in on the characters, and no matter what they do or what direction they turn, escape seems nearly impossible.

But beneath the surface of the classic horror movie-esque plot structure, there's a sort of existential message at the core of The Grey, and I was quite frankly stunned at how well Carnahan and co. pull it off. What I mean is, this is a movie in which the wolves are clearly a metaphor for all of the challenges and obstacles we have to face in our life. And how each of the survivors deals with the wolves reflects on their own attitudes towards life and death, their own ability to give in to fear or to find courage in the darkness. The broader themes of the film come into play in the interactions between Ottway and his fellow survivors, and also in flashback, when we see glimpses of Ottways father and wife. In particular, a poem composed by Ottway's father is of central importance to the film, and in determining Ottway's course of action throughout - and while that could have been cheesy, the way it's used is freaking awesome and quite frankly gave me chills.

Neeson is superb here, to the point where, if this film had been released in 2011, I think there'd be serious talk of Oscar-worthiness. And maybe that talk will resurface by the end of 2012, who knows. But certainly, even though Neeson has in recent years become sort of typecast as the aging, stoic, badass, this still stands as a Neeson performance for the ages. And there are moments here - particularly towards the end of the film, where Neeson breaks out of that stoicism and really and truly goes to some spine-tingling places. What's more, there is undoubtedly an element here of fiction-reflecting-reality. As Ottway's backstory unfolds, and you see the unmistakable parallels to Neeson's own life and some of the tragedies he's faced, his performance becomes that much more powerful and haunting. You can only hope that there was some level of catharsis for Neeson in making this film, but it's clear he had to go to some very dark places to make this performance possible. It's a bit awe-inspiring, really. I mean, damn, Neeson is quite simply the man, and he proves it again, more so than ever, in The Grey.

The rest of the cast is uniformly very good. I think some might take issue with a couple of the supporting performances feeling a bit over the top or cartoonish, but to me that ultimately added to the slight B-movie quality of the film, and felt strongly in the tradition of the films of John Carpenter and others. Frank Grillo's Diaz is the character who plays the cliched asshole of the group at least at first - the one who defies Ottway at every turn. But eventually, the character is fleshed out to the point where he becomes multidimensional. Mostly though, I thought the characters were all well-defined and interesting, and there was a great mix of personalities despite all of the guys being varying degrees of badass.

Other than the somewhat cliched moments of infighting in the group, the only other real issue I had with The Grey was a couple of key moments that just seemed to lack logic. Given that Ottway is supposed to be a survivalist of sorts, there seemed to be more than one occasion where his decisions seemed all too likely to get he and his companions killed. In particular, one scene in which Ottway is convinced that the group must climb hand-over-hand via a loosely-fastened rope, over a deep canyon, to get to the shelter of the trees on the other side - well, it just felt like the kind of thing that no man in their right mind - especially one pushing 60 - would do unless there were absolutely no other options. A couple of questionable moments like that tended to briefly take me out of the movie.

Overall though - holy lord - The Grey is one of the most purely badass and downright awesome movies I've seen in ages. It's a stunning, stirring tale of man vs. nature - more specifically, Liam Neeson vs. hordes of giant, merciless WOLVES. But it's a tale told with style and a surprising amount of substance, ultimately becoming a more-epic-than-expected rumination on life, death, and finding the will to fight on no matter the cost. This is a movie that caused me to raise my fist in triumph as the credits rolled, after one of the more memorable endings you'll likely see in a film all year. This is a movie that's stuck with me, that I'll likely revisit when I need a boost. This is a film that should be remembered come awards season. All that's left to say is: "Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I'll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day." If you don't know what I'm talking about, go see The Grey, and prepare thyself for epicness.

My Grade: A-