LOOPER (2012) ***1/2 out of 4
Writer/director Rian Johnson's LOOPER is one of those films that are made up of pieces of several other movies, films that flash into your mind the whole time you're watching it, but the particular way those influences are combined has simply never been done before. It is an amazingly exciting, audacious film, and one of the year's very best.
In the year 2044, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a kind of hit man known as a "looper," who specializes in murdering people sent back in time from 30 years in the future, and then disposing of them like they never existed. Sometime a looper has to "close the loop" by killing their own future self, and this is what happens to Joe one day when older Joe (Bruce Willis) comes down the pipeline and has no intention of going down easy.
That's just the thinnest of descriptions for a movie that is just about bursting at the seams with creativity. In addition to being a highly unique chase movie, it's a dystopian action adventure, forward-thinking science-fiction, and even flirts at times with vaguely Cronenberg-ian horror. Oh, and it's funny, well-acted and incredibly stylish in its cinematography (especially during those action sequences).
I can also honestly say that as it steamrolls toward its climax, I had absolutely no idea how it was going to end, and that level of unpredictablility is a rare occurence, especially in the multiplex world.
END OF WATCH (2012) ***1/2 out of 4
A ferocious, absolutely brutal cop saga starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena (both excellent) as LAPD partners and close friends who in their daily travels raise the ire of the L.A. extension of a vicious Mexican cartel.
Given a huge amount of immediacy by its visual style (roughly half the film is POV, "found footage"-style, taking the form of a video project Gyllenhaal is putting together, and the other half gritty and hand-held), it plunges you into the daily triumphs and terrors of LAPD beat cops in a way I'm not likely to forget.
Well-acted, gripping, thoughtfully conceived (the film manages to salute the heroism of the police force without sugar-coating anything or cheesing it up), and often unbearably suspenseful (I don't think I've been that physically tensed up in quite a while), END OF WATCH is one of the year's best films.
DREDD (2012) ***1/2 out of 4
Of all the films that have tried to remake ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK in the last 30 years, DREDD is almost undoubtedly the best.
Set in a dystopian future where law enforcement officers called "judges" function not only as police officers but also judge, jury, and (when necessary) executioner, the film takes place during a single day in which Judge Dredd (Karl Urban, whose full face is never seen), accompanied by a psychic rookie (intriguingly cast Olivia Thirlby), enters a cavernous 200-story apartment building known as the "Peach Trees" to investigate a triple homicide and winds up trapped inside and pit against an entire drug empire, led by the ruthless ex-hooker Ma-Ma (a phenomenally scary Lena Headey).
The film is little more than 90 minutes of stylized violence, but this is one of the most purely exciting, audacious, and fascinatingly stylized action films I've seen in many years. It's like THE RAID: REDEMPTION, but with a stronger story, better characters, and a fantastic visual sense. Just when you think it can't possibly get any more intense, it does. And the way that Headey's comeuppance is handled is pure cinematic gold.
I'm so glad I caught this before it disappeared from theatres. If you haven't, and have a pretty strong stomach for nearly non-stop gory violence (that never gets monotonous the way THE RAID sometimes did), get out there and catch it!
FRANKENWEENIE (2012) ***1/2 out of 4
Easily my favorite Tim Burton movie since 1996's awesomely bizarre alien invasion farce MARS ATTACKS!
A stop-motion animated remake of his stellar 30-minute live action 1984 short film of the same name, FRANKENWEENIE is about a sweet, morbid little boy named Victor who resurrects his beloved pet dog Sparky, much to the chagrin of his close-minded suburban neighbors.
Like FRANKENSTEIN before it, both FRANKWEENIEs are essentially pretty serious-minded fables about intolerance, but here it is given a darkly whimsical spin and the black & white stop-motion animation is gorgeous and unmistakably Tim Burton. It's also very funny, and the additions to the story in order to stretch it out to feature length are suitably inventive.
A big added bonus is that this is, in my opinion, the first film in years to actively recall the quality and spirit of the great Burton films of old such as ED WOOD, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and BEETLEJUICE.
V/H/S (2012) ***1/2 out of 4
I'm a total sucker for horror anthologies like CREEPSHOW, BLACK SABBATH and the original TALES FROM THE CRYPT film, with all their peaks and valleys. Something about short horror stories and the promise that each new one holds when you watch them the first time just automatically reels me in. I love comparing notes with friends afterwards about what our favorites/least favorites were, etc...
V/H/S is the first film like that in a very long time, and it's pretty darn awesome. It proves there's still a place out there for anthologies, and at the same time demonstrates that there's still life in the found-footage style of moviemaking.
The wraparound story (which I would give a solid B) is called "Tape 56" and concerns a gang of 4 hoodlums who like to videotape themselves vandalizing empty houses, assaulting women on the street, and other generally awful behavior. They are hired by an unseen third party to break into a house to retrieve a certain videotape. When they arrive, they find a dark, old house, the dead body of an old man in a recliner, several TV screens showing static, and piles and piles of VHS tapes. Which tape is the one they're after? They don't know, but each tape they pop into the VCR becomes one of our five stories. They are as follows:
"Amateur Night" is about three horndog frat boy types who head out into the night, intent on bringing some women home and producing some amateur porn via a hidden camera. The woman they bring home, however, has a different agenda. Relatively simple but still manages to shock and surprise. Grade: B+
"Second Honeymoon" is directed by Ti West (THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, THE INNKEEPERS), and concerns a nice couple on a romantic road trip who cross paths with a malevolent hitchhiker. It ends with a very abrupt twist that I found disappointing at first, but grows more interesting the more I think about it. Grade: B+
"Tuesday the 17th" is about a group of 4 young people who go camping in the same area where a brutal murder once took place, and one of them seems to know more about the massacre than she is letting on. It's a very weird supernatural deconstruction of "dead teenager" movies, but is marred by confused plotting and some weak acting. Some interesting ideas, though. Grade: C+
"The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger" is a very eerie, very entertaining story that takes place entirely through Skype conversations between a man and his long-distance girlfriend who is convinced that her apartment is haunted. She's right. To say more would spoil one of the very best stories in the collection. Grade: A-
"10/31/98" is the last story and my personal favorite. A group of friends head out on Halloween night to a house party only to find the house seemingly deserted except for some noises in the attic... This segment is very thin plot-wise, but as an example of effective POV horror it is a total blast. As the characters explore the house and things get creepier and creepier until it reaches a nightmarish fever pitch, it will appeal strongly to anyone who relishes the sensation of touring themed haunted houses around Halloween (even a bad one at the mall), and never knowing what is around the next corner. Grade: A
So, as with nearly all horror athologies, there are highs and lows. But overall it is a really, really enjoyable film for those who have strong stomachs (both for the chaotic hand-held camera motion as well as the gore).
ARBITRAGE (2012) *** out of 4
Richard Gere is excellent in this intense drama (with the stakes and pacing of a thriller) inspired by the financial meltdown of 2008. He plays Robert Miller, a hedge fund magnate who is already in potentially hot legal water because of his business dealings when he causes the accidental death of his mistress and decides to try and cover it up (always a bad idea in movies like this).
Miller is a man decidedly lacking in scruples but he isn't evil, and demands our sympathy and pity despite his misdeeds. Richard Gere was born to play this kind of role, and he knocks it out of the park. Brit Marling (SOUND OF MY VOICE, ANOTHER EARTH) is also memorable as Miller's much more ethical daughter and business parter.
THE HOLE (2009) *** out of 4
Joe Dante's long-delayed 3D film is finally available on Blu-Ray and DVD in the States, where it unfortunately never got the wide theatrical release it deserved, reportedly due to technological issues. (It seems to have been officially released just about everywhere else, though!)
Dante, one of the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genre's finest underdogs (he directed both GREMLINS films, THE HOWLING, MATINEE, THE 'BURBS, SMALL SOLDIERS, INNERSPACE, EXPLORERS and the best segment of the TWILIGHT ZONE movie, yet is not a household name) is working very much in his comfort zone in this modest, entertaining, teen-oriented film about two brothers who find a hole into another dimension (one that reflects your worst fears back at you) in the basement of their new suburban home.
It's no masterpiece and it drags a bit in the middle, but its first and final thirds are a great deal of fun. It recalls the youth-oriented fantasy films of the '80s in the same way that SUPER 8 did, and is actually the slightly better film in my opinion.
SINISTER (2012) *** out of 4
THE RING meets THE SHINING, with a pinch of INSIDIOUS.
Ethan Hawke stars in this new film from EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE director Scott Derrickson, as a floundering true crime writer eager to repeat the success of his early books. After moving his family into a house where a grisly multiple murder took place, he stumbles into a mystery involving several unsolved murdered family cases and an ancient children's-soul-sucking demon.
Pretty silly and illogical at times, but also quite atmospheric and spooky, and it's bolstered by a very solid performance from Hawke. It also has some of the most well-orchestrated jump scares I've encountered in a while, and that's an important skill for a horror film director to master. Also must admit that while I unfortunately guessed one of the biggest twists (because of having seen the trailer one too many times) the toughness of the ending really took me by surprise.
HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA (2012) *** out of 4
While it definitely ranks third in this year's interesting abundance of spooky family films (behind PARANORMAN and FRANKENWEENIE), HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA is a genuinely sweet, frequently funny film, with some fantastic and beautiful visuals and some very nifty character design.
Recently widowed Count Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler, in an exagerrated, I-vant-to-drink-your-blood accent that could have easily gotten annoying but never did) opens his castle as a hotel getaway for monsters, while maintaining a strict avoidance of human society. Naturally, his rebellious 18 year-old daughter (make that 118 year-old) is curious about human society, especially when she falls in puppy love with a wayward American backpacker (Andy Samberg) who drops in for a stay, much to the consternation of the Count.
The plot and its resolution will surprise absolutely no one who is older than 10, but it's perfect for kids and quite a lot of fun for any adults who cherish Halloween-time and all its assorted monsters.
THE WARD (2010) **1/2 out of 4
While it is putting it mildly to say that THE WARD is in no way comparable to John Carpenter in his prime, it is not the disaster I had been expecting. It's basically GIRL, INTERRUPTED with ghosts!
The film stars Amber Heard as Kristen, a young woman missing most of her memory who has recently been committed to an asylum for burning down an empty farmhouse (she can't remember why). Once she meets her fellow patients (a predictably but entertainingly varied group) she finds herself knee-deep in a mystery involving several missing former patients and the creepy, zombie-faced ghost girl who roams the halls at night.
For most of its running time, THE WARD is an agreeably silly haunted house story. It's beautifully shot, suspenseful, has some effective shocks, and despite neverending lapses in logic and plausibility, I was able to roll with it because I was having fun.
But then THE BIG TWIST hits, and it's awful, mostly because it was ripped off wholesale from another movie that was a lot better than THE WARD. Sigh. Couldn't this have just been a simple, no-B.S. ghost story? Nope, they just had to M.-Night-Shyamalan it up.
Still worth seeing for the well-done first 3/4. Amber Heard is a pretty good heroine and her action scenes have real physicality to them.
KILL LIST (2012) *1/2 out of 4
Uncategorizable, unique, and quite disturbing, but also totally nonsensical, ridiculous, and peopled with largely opaque and repugnant characters.
KILL LIST is about Jay, a hitman who is afraid of going back to work after a violently bungled assignment 8 months prior. In order to provide for his family, he decides to take a new assignment to kill three people that offers a hefty paycheck. Together with his partner and best friend Gal (Michael Smiley, playing the only character who is even partially sympathetic) he embarks on the mission. The job gets stranger and stranger with each kill, as Jay and Gal find themselves burrowing into a bizarre mystery involving a secret society.
Sounds pretty cool, right? Yeah, I thought so too. Parts of the film intrigue, but by the end it's become a big, rather silly mess, all leading to an ending that admittedly shocked me, but also makes little sense. I like left-field twist endings as much as the next guy, but KILL LIST didn't give me reason to care, and director Ben Wheatley seems content to sacrifice depth for shock, seemingly unaware that it's possible to have both.
VANISHING ON 7TH STREET (2010) * out of 4
Is this really the same Brad Anderson who made SESSION 9 and THE MACHINIST? Because this film feels like nothing more than a SyFy Channel movie, or at best a really long, mediocre episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. (And this is coming from someone who often loves movies that are dismissively described that very same way, like THE BOX and DEVIL.)
VANISHING ON 7TH STREET begins with a halfway interesting premise. One evening, seemingly almost everyone on the entire planet simply disappears, leaving behind (unintentionally amusing) piles of clothes, jewelry, glasses, pacemakers, etc...everywhere. A small group of survivors (played by the strangely good cast of Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, and John Leguizamo) find each other and try to survive the nights, since it's soon revealed that a mysterious creeping darkness is what's stealing people away. That's right: killer shadows!!! Before you can say "Croatoan," we're treated to the un-thrilling sight of Christensen, Newton and Leguizamo warding off CGI smudges with Glo-Sticks, like some direct-to-video rip-off of PITCH BLACK.
That borderline-silly premise could have worked in a better film, but this one is saddled with dull characters and sloppy performances (with the exception of Leguizamo, who gives his lonely projectionist a modicum of feeling), forced and unnatural-sounding dialogue, an utter lack of suspense, and unintentional chuckles. In fact, the movie this reminded me of the most is M. Night Shyamalan's nadir, THE HAPPENING, and we all know that ain't a good thing.
THE MASTER (2012) **** out of 4
Paul Thomas Anderson delivers yet another dizzyingly ambitious American epic with THE MASTER, a film of so many intriguing ambiguities and fascinating mysteries that I can't wait to watch it again to see what layers reveal themselves.
Joaquin Phoenix (Hand him the Oscar now. Right now.) plays Freddie Quell, a war veteran from a broken home who returns from the war adrift, with no future and few prospects, and almost certainly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He finds shleter, both literally and figuratively, in the Scientology-like religion presided over by the charismatic, L. Ron Hubbard-like Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The push/pull relationship between these two complementary characters over the course of (months? years?) form the basis of THE MASTER.
Both Phoenix and Hoffman are absolutely spellbinding, and worth the price of admission all by themselves. But as with all P.T. Anderson movies, there is so much more as well. The cinematography. The score. The editing. The elaborate set-pieces. The plentiful surprises in the narrative. Like all the best movies, there is so much to explore here, and I have a feeling that won't change no matter how many times I watch it.
PEEPING TOM (1960) ***1/2 out of 4
Thoroughly disturbing classic film about a serial killer (eerily serene Karlheinz Bohm) who films himself murdering women. It's a fascinating and hugely influential film, especially in its deconstructive exploration of how the camera eye can function as a distancing effect and can desensitize one to violence.
PEEPING TOM came out the same year as PSYCHO, and it's pretty interesting to see how they complement each other in many ways. Both are about reclusive loners with severe parental issues and sexual hang-ups (here, it's pretty strongly implied that he masturbates while watching the footage of his murders and his camera is frequently used as a phallic symbol) who are helpless against their murderous urges. What is different about this film, however, (besides all the British accents) is that instead of Hitchcock's smooth B&W photography, it is shot in true Michael (THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, BLACK NARCISSUS) Powell style, meaning lots of luscious colors and elaborate sets, which makes for an interesting counterpoint to the tawdry subject matter.
I had never seen PEEPING TOM before, but it was pretty suspenseful and unsettling to me even now, so I can hardly imagine how it must have rocked peoples' boats back in 1960.
HOPE SPRINGS (2012) ***1/2 out of 4
Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are wonderful as Kay and Arnold, a couple married for 31 years who have let the intimacy drain out of their relationship. Spurred on by Kay, the two of them head to a tiny Maine town for a week for intensive couples' therapy with self-help author Dr. Feld (Steve Carrell).
What could have been either crude or cheesy is actually something quite special in the genre of romantic comedies: a film that treats the sex lives of older couples with respect and honesty. Both Streep and Jones are, as previously mentioned, fantastic. Not a single false note from either of them, and Steve Carrell is a welcome presence as their mediator. The script is insightful, bracing, and pulls few punches, and the film is warm, funny, and finally very moving.
KILLER JOE (2012) *** out of 4
In KILLER JOE, Matthew McConaughey finishes out a very strong year with a show-stopping role as a very scary hit man. The movie itself is a reasonably solid, sleazy, white trash thriller, but he's by far the best thing in it (and it tends to go a tad flat whenever he's NOT on screen).
Thomas Haden Church and Emile Hirsch play a dumb-and-dumber father and son team who hatch a scheme to have Hirsch's mother killed for her $50,000 life insurance policy. As always happens in movies like this (blessedly so), things don't go according to plan and "Killer Joe" (McConaughey) is unhappy and looking to cause some pain for this family. Juno Temple is also on hand as Hirsch's sister (whom Killer Joe takes an unsettling liking to) and Gina Gershon (I've missed her!) as Church's morally duplicitous new wife.
There's no real depth here to speak of, but it has a snappy pace, a couple good twists, and one of the scariest climactic dinner scenes since THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE.
DARK HORSE (2012) *** out of 4
After the disappointing PALINDROMES and the flat-out-bad LIFE DURING WARTIME, I'm happy to say that DARK HORSE is a solid step back in the right direction for Todd Solondz. It's no HAPPINESS or WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, but it might be a STORYTELLING.
Jordan Gelber is fantastic as Abe, an overweight, socially-awkward loser who still lives with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) and collects action figures.
Ever since THE 40 YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, this person has become something of a stock character, but Solondz and Gelber discover surprising new depths to explore and as a result, DARK HORSE is a rather moving film about detachment, loneliness and arrested development. Even though Abe can be a huge jerk at times, he remains throughout a fiercely sympathetic character, and for once, Solondz actually doesn't seem to be making fun of him or any of the other characters. Perhaps because of this, DARK HORSE isn't as funny as Solondz's more brutal films, instead radiating a genuinely affecting sadness much of the time.
The film goes tumbling down a bit of a rabbit hole in the last half hour thanks to Abe's penchant for escaping into his imagination to cope with his endlessly dashed expectations, but it wraps itself up with a fascinatingly ambiguous ending.
RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION (2012) *** out of 4
The best film in the RESIDENT EVIL franchise since 2002's terrific (and terribly underrated by critics) original finds super bad-ass Alice (the always game Milla Jovovich) escaping a massive underground Russian fortress. To get top side, she must first cross through several giant, TRUMAN SHOW-like simulation zones (one resembling New York City, one Tokyo, one Moscow, etc...), each crawling with zombies and mutants and monsters. Sound like a really fun video game? Exactly.
The ambitious plot pays off in a number of great visuals and kinetic action sequences, and the thunderous futuristic score by Tomandandy fits in perfectly. Michelle Rodriguez makes a return to the series in style. And Milla Jovovich is as confident and cool as action heroes come; she simply looks great kicking slo-mo zombie ass. Sometimes that's all you need to kill 90 minutes, especially when it's combined with a film that looks and sounds as good as this one does.
RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE (2010) *** out of 4
After enjoying the recent RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION much more than anticipated, I decided to double back and catch the only one I never saw. I'm glad I did, because 2010's AFTERLIFE may not be quite on the same level as the first or most recent film in the franchise, but it's a solid entry in the slo-mo-two-fisted-let's-just-keep-riffing-on-THE-MATRIX sweepstakes. I'll take it over any of the UNDERWORLD films, that's for sure.
Underrated master craftsman Paul W.S. Anderson, directing for the first time since the original film, conjures some nice apocalyptic atmosphere, and there are several great visuals of desolate landscapes and locations. A huge abandoned prison complex, where much of the film takes place, functions much the same as the mall in DAWN OF THE DEAD or the cellar in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD; an excellent place to barricade oneself, but only until it's breached, and then there's almost no way out. Anderson exploits this angle well, and there are some choice action scenes set within its corridors and on the rooftop.
Milla Jovovich is, as ever, a sexy ass-kicker, and even lets a little bit of a softer side show every once in a while. This is no classic, of course, but it was the first film since the original to get at some of that ALIEN/ALIENS-style of claustrophobic, militaristic action.
SUCK (2009) *** out of 4
It doesn't, surprisingly enough!
MAD MEN's Jessica Pare stars in this amusingly silly Canadian musical horror/comedy from 2009 about a floundering rock band who only become successful when they're turned into vampires. There are some good laughs, fun small roles for Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Henry Rollins, and RUSH's Alex Lifeson, and Malcolm McDowell plays a vampire hunter named Eddie Van Helsing.
It's a long, long way from being the new ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (which is what it very clearly wants to be), but it's so much better than it could have been.
THE POSSESSION (2012) *** out of 4
An unexceptional but satisfying horror flick about a young girl named Em (an impressive Natasha Calis) who urges her father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to buy her a mysterious sealed box at a yard sale. Unbeknownst to them, the box houses a cursed, demonic spirit that is only too happy to escape into the nearest warm body once Em manages to open it.
The first half of THE POSSESSION is pretty excellent. It does a terrific job of building a thick atmosphere of dread and gradually upping the ante. The performances are all solid, as is the cinematography and score. The second half is more conventional, but still packs a little punch, especially the obligatory, climactic exorcism scene, which is creatively (and scarily) rendered. THE POSSESSION doesn't break any moulds and is no classic, but it's a well-made and atmospheric film with some spooky imagery and a handful of very effective scenes. That alone makes it better than a lot of horror films released these days.
NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE AND BLUE (2009) *** out of 4
Of course, any documentary that actually tries to encompass the entire history of American horror films and their connections to American culture in general (in 90 minutes!) isn't really going to be able to include any in-depth analysis, but as a broad overview of the genre's history and the way important themes have mutated and evolved over the decades, it's pretty entertaining.
Primarily worth watching as just a fun clip show, as there are hundreds of juicy film clips from everything from FREAKS to SAW, and loads of entertaining interview snippets from the likes of John Carpenter, George Romero, Joe Dante, Roger Corman, and dozens of others. As such, it's not a bad way to spend an hour and a half.
PARTY GIRL (1995) *** out of 4 Though Parker Posey first made an impression with a brief (but very memorable) part in Richard Linklater's 1993 last-day-of-school comedy Dazed and Confused, this film was her true breakthrough as a unique comic actress capable of carrying a film all by herself. Too bad the film itself is so threadbare in this case.
Posey plays Mary, an unemployed 24 year-old who pays the rent by charging for admittance to parties she throws in her own apartment. When she's busted for this, she reluctantly finds employment in her godmother's library and discovers a surprising fondness for it, maturing somewhat in the process.
While the oddball combination of the vibrant, omnisexual NYC club scene and a genuine affection for the Dewey Decimal system (dated then, downright prehistoric now) is pretty original, the film is predictable in every other respect and there's not much style in Daisy von Scherler Mayer's flat direction (though the script she co-wrote has some clever dialogue).
Ultimately, it's likeable, reasonably entertaining, and worthwhile as a springboard for Parker Posey, but pretty forgettable otherwise.
PURE (2002) *** out of 4 A bleak, compelling, British coming-of-age story about a little boy named Paul (the astonishing Harry Eden) forced to look after himself and his little brother because of his mother's (Molly Parker) crippling heroin addiction.
Director Gillies MacKinnon and cinematographer John de Borman capture slum life with vivid intensity and the performances by Parker and a thoroughly de-glamorized Keira Knightley (as a heroin-smoking, pregnant teenager with whom Paul strikes up a curious big-sister/little-brother friendship) are excellent, but it's 12 year-old Harry Eden's picture to carry and he does an exceptional job.
The score is unfortunately cheesy (sounds more like a Kleenex commercial at times), but the raw power of the story and the performances compensate.
THE SENTINEL (1977) **1/2 out of 4
For about the first 30 minutes, I thought I had this pegged as the world's biggest ROSEMARY'S BABY rip-off. But then it gets weird. Really, really weird.
A successful but emotionally unstable model named Alison (a very good Cristina Raines) moves into a beautiful and spacious Brooklyn apartment for a suspiciously low monthly bill. Her neighbors are kooky and slightly menacing. Can her morally dubious boyfriend (a strangely stiff Chris Sarandon) be trusted? So far, so ROSEMARY'S BABY, right? Then Beverly D'Angelo masturbates to climax on a couch right in front of Alison for no good reason and we're off to the nuthouse for the rest of the film.
While the film boasts some highly memorable and disturbing surreal imagery (especially the controversial use of actual disfigured and handicapped humans in the climactic sequence), the story is a big mess, character motivations often make no sense, and the ending can be seen about 100 miles out.
Still, you could do far worse, and the weird cast (studded with past and future stars) is fun too. In addition to Beverly D'Angelo, there's Ava Gardner, Burgess Meredith, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum and Jerry Orbach in small roles of varying importance.
KING OF THE ANTS (2003) ** out of 4
A not-very-bright drifter named Sean (Chris McKenna) is duped by a crooked construction magnate (Daniel Baldwin) and his assistant (George Wendt) into murdering an accountant (Ron Livingston) in Stuart Gordon's disappointing thriller. Once the job is done, Baldwin and Wendt try to stiff Sean and kill him instead of paying, which turns out to be a big mistake.
There are some really interesting ideas floating around inside KING OF THE ANTS, but the script (by Charlie Higson, based on his own novel) is surprisingly poorly written, full of far too many contrivances and lapses in logic to be taken seriously. There's a very powerful sequence in the film where the bad guys torture Sean to the point of madness, and for a fleeting moment the film flirts with some very interesting ideas about the animalistic nature of violence, its consequences, and the fragility of the human mind, but those ideas are dropped instead, in favor of a more predictable finale.
Most frustrating is the film's inability to make up its mind just what kind of person the protagonist is; not in a cool, ambiguous kind of way, but a screenwriter-couldn't-make-up-his-mind kinda way. Is Sean a tragic anti-hero? A dormant psychopath just waiting to be given a chance to act on his nature? Both? Neither? No clue, and McKenna's just-competent performance doesn't offer much help in that department.
Gordon is a great cult director who has made some terrific films, but here he's hog-tied with sub-standard material, and can only do so much with it.
THE VIDEO DEAD (1987) * out of 4
Pretty lame '80s horror film about a mysterious TV set that zombies come out of. That's about all there is to it, so once the zombies are out of the TV set (about 5 minutes in), the film scrambles like crazy to entertainingly pad the 90-minute running time, to no avail.
Pretty much everything about this movie is bad. When it's trying to be funny, it isn't funny. When it's trying to be scary, it's not scary. When it's trying to be exciting, it isn't exciting. The acting, writing, direction, zombie make-up, and special effects are horrendous. It's boring and grating. The attempt at being creative by giving the zombies vampire-like "rules" (e.g. when they're approaching, bells literally start to ring. Huh?) is a resounding failure. We're talking almost TROLL 2 levels of ineptness here, but without that film's distinct, surreal charm and odd sense of purpose.
All of this is a shame because the premise (bare-bones as it is) could have made for a fun and clever film instead of the lazy, witless one this is.
A genuine bummer for me, since I've wanted to see this ever since I was a little kid because of that awesome cover art. Unfortunately, that's truly the only thing that's awesome about it.
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966) **** out of 4 Mike Nichols' stunningly powerful adaptation of Edward Albee's 4-character play, in which we witness one long, alcohol-drenched, profanity-strewn night in the life of Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and George (Richard Burton), while their marriage crumbles right before our eyes. To say both performances are brilliant is an understatement, and the dialogue is perceptive, realistic, and absolutely wounding. Glengarry Glen Ross ain't got nothing on this.
LAWLESS (2012) ***1/2 out of 4 Lawless may be somewhat lacking in the character development department, but as a tough, bloody gangster thriller, it is simply cooler than cool.
Set in Prohibition-era Virginia and concerning the exploits of the infamous bootlegging Bondurant brothers (Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, and Jason Clarke), the film offers nice backwoods atmosphere, solid performances, and tremendously well choreographed and suspenseful violence. There is certainly no doubt that this is the same director who made the exceptional and gory Australian western The Proposition back in 2005.
Hardy and LaBeouf carry the movie quite well, but they are well supported by Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman, and especially a remarkably creepy and psychotic Guy Pearce as the film's central villain. A movie like this needs a villain you truly hate and root for them to get what's coming, and he is certainly that.
COSMOPOLIS (2012) ***1/2 out of 4 Robert Pattinson plays a cocky young millionaire named Eric, making his way via stretch limo across an increasingly apocalyptic cityscape (all that way to get a haircut) in David Cronenberg's surreal science-fiction drama, which is practically bursting at the seams with topical social and political commentary.
The film feels more like a play than the novel it was based on (by Don DeLillo), as Eric engages in mostly one-on-one conversations with an array of underlings, lovers, and business associates (played by a star-studded cast that includes Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, Jay Baruchel and several more), as the limo makes its way ever so slowly across the city, and the images seen through the windows become more and more chaotic and unsettling.
Cosmopolis is as pretentious as all get-out, but it also offers lots to chew on if you choose to consider its indictments of a world where class differences and inequality threaten to tilt over into riots and anarchy at any moment, while millionaires like Eric are able to glide through, untouched and (almost) unnoticed.
All the performances are fine (especially Paul Giamatti as an unbalanced assassin), and Pattinson successfully eliminates any Twiligh residue clinging to his persona with his performance as an enigmatic lost soul, who is becoming increasingly unhinged and affected by what's going on outside his windows as the long day wears on.
ROBOT & FRANK (2012) *** out of 4 With the unique little sci-fi drama Robot & Frank, Frank Langella can add yet another outstanding performance to his resume. Here he plays a lonely old man in the middle stages of senility whose son (James Marsden) buys him a robot to act as his caretaker and companion. This could have been the set-up for a schmaltzy, sappy slog of a film, but it bypasses easy sentiment and actually boasts a fair number of genuine surprises in its storytelling.
Langella is ably supported by Marsden, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon, and by the smooth, friendly robotic voice of Peter Sarsgaard (who lends his voice to Frank's robot). Slight but interesting and well-done.
2 DAYS IN NEW YORK (2012) ***1/2 out of 4 One of the year's best films, Julie Delpy's hilarious and heartfelt sequel to her 2007 film 2 Days in Paris is a better, fuller film is just about every way. Marion (Delpy) has separated from Adam Goldberg's character in the previous film and married a laid-back journalist/radio DJ named Mingus (Chris Rock), and her chemistry with him is far more engaging and interesting than the crabby/more-crabby dynamic she had with Goldberg.
The film covers two days during which Marion's family (including Delpy's infectiously jolly real-life father) come to visit, putting much strain on her relationship with Mingus. The film is extremely funny, filled with clever and sharply-observed dialogue and an ensemble of fine performances, not to mention lots of fine New York atmosphere and a surprising amount of heart at just the right moments.
PREMIUM RUSH (2012) ***1/2 out of 4 An exhilaratingly entertaining, fast-moving action thriller about a bike messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in trim and fit Keanu Reeves Speed shape) and his dangerous trip across NYC bearing a mysterious package and being chased by a psycho corrupt cop (the great Michael Shannon in full-on scenery chomping villain mode). 90 minutes of pure fun, and some good laughs thrown in too!
THE BEALES OF GREY GARDENS (2006) ***1/2 out of 4 The Maysles Bros.' singularly strange 1975 documentary Grey Gardens (about the bizarre lives of eccentric Big and Little Edie, old-money relatives of Jacqueline Onassis, who wile away their days in the titular decrepit estate), amassed a fervent enough cult following over the years that in 2006 they assembled this "sequel" from the many hours of extra footage they had. While it doesn't quite have the surreal charge of the original, there is still a lot to savor here.
AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY (2012) *** out of 4 Solid documentary about the controversial Chinese artist and social critic Ai Weiwei, and the battles he wages with the repressive Chinese government. I have some issues with the hasty way it concludes itself, but overall it's a thought-provoking and intimate portrait.
MARGARET (2011) ***1/2 out of 4, will most likely move up to **** at some point. A huge, sprawling, multi-character epic (reminiscent of films like Magnolia and Short Cuts) about a guilt-ridden teenage girl (Anna Paquin) and the increasingly destructive effect she has on the people in her life, Margaret has one of the most fascinatingly ambiguous protagonists I've ever seen. The cast also includes big names like Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno, but it's Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron (as her beleaguered mother) and Jeannie Berlin who shine the brightest. Now I've gotta see the much-discussed (even longer) Director's Cut.
WE WERE HERE (2011) ***1/2 out of 4 Powerful documentary about the terrifying onset of the AIDS virus in the 1970s and '80s, focusing on the Castro area of San Francisco. The film effectively shows how a flourishing community was dealt a horrifyingly tragic hand, and how the gay community banded together to care for the sick and fight for treatment and recognition. Profoundly sad, but hopeful and inspiring as well.
THE SKIN I LIVE IN (2011) ***1/2 out of 4 Elegantly made and thoroughly icky "body horror" film from Pedro Almodovar that plays like a meeting of the minds between Alfred Hitchcock and David Cronenberg. Antonio Banderas is excellent as a mad scientist who is obsessed with perfecting human skin that it impervious to injury, performing experiments on a beautiful woman (Elena Anaya) he holds captive in his home. Totally twisted and unpredictable (with an absolute whopper of a twist in the second half), try going into this one without researching it much beforehand.
PARANORMAN (2012) ***1/2 out of 4 Very, very fun film about a young outcast and horror movie fan named Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who gets the chance to save his town from a zombie invasion. The (primarily) stop-motion animation is jaw-droppingly awesome and it's just scary and morbid enough to merit its PG rating (which will garner it major cool points with kids who are looking for something a bit more grown up than simple "kids' stuff"). I like to think that ParaNorman will be this generation's Monster Squad.
THE IMPOSTER (2012) ***1/2 out of 4 A riveting, creepy page-turner of a documentary, about a true story so nuts that if it were part of a fiction screenplay, many would write it off as too far-fetched. Best to go in knowing as little as possible, and see for yourself how the lives of a sinister French con man and a Texas family mourning their missing 13 year-old son intertwine.
GET THE GRINGO (2012) *** out of 4 Really damn good Mexico-set prison thriller, with a definite Tarantino/Rodriguez flavor but also something quite unique. It's a shame it got buried thanks to Gibson's embarrassing PR meltdown, because it's actually one of his best performances and one of his best films. I recommend it strongly for fans of gritty action, and it might remind you why you used to like Mad Mel in the first place.
CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER (2012) *** out of 4 A lovely indie falling-out-of-love story, starring Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg as the titular couple. The hugely talented (not to mention stunningly beautiful and charming) Jones co-wrote the screenplay in addition to her starring role, and in both stations she delivers. A winningly subdued and soulful Andy Samberg (!) is nearly her match. It's fluff, but it's funny and occasionally insightful and moving fluff.
MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED! (2010) *** out of 4 Fun documentary about the booming exploitation film market in the Philippines in the '70s. The larger, not-so-fun questions about possible cultural exploitation (how American film producers would make movies in the Philippines largely because of the cheap labor) are mostly skirted, and the film doesn't reach the heights of Not Quite Hollywood or Corman's World (though Roger Corman is featured here quite a bit), it's an engaging 80 minutes that include lots of hilarious clips from Philippino-made B-movies like The Big Doll House, Vampire Hookers and TNT Jackson.
AFTERSCHOOL (2008) *** out of 4 Alternately fascinating and frustrating, this willfully disturbing drama is about the moral uncertainty that envelops an elite prep school when a student (We Need to Talk about Kevin's Ezra Miller) accidentally records two popular girls overdosing on cocaine and keeps filming rather than going for help. There are many great (if underdeveloped) ideas here about a generation numbed by YouTube, and director Antonio Campos is obviously a big fan of Michael Haneke. It doesn't quite all hang together, but Campos is certainly one to watch.
THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012) *** out of 4 Somewhat strangely, the sequel is a more accomplished, better directed film than its predecessor, but slightly less fun. Nevertheless, I have a feeling this one will play better on repeat viewings than the first film.
THE CAT O' NINE TAILS (1971) *** out of 4 Dario Argento's follow-up to his exquisite debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was this utterly goofy but highly entertaining murder mystery, about a friendly old blind man (Karl Malden) and a hunky reporter (James Franciscus) who team up to stop a mysterious murderer who is targeting genetics researchers. Nothing to write home about overall, but there are some great, stylish sequences throughout and a moderately engaging story.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HANK GREENBERG (1998) *** out of 4 Heartfelt documentary about Hank Greenberg, the first Jewish baseball star, who prospered despite prominent anti-Semitism in the American culture of his day. Decidedly non-flashy in its style, but it does just what a documentary should do: teach me about something (or someone) I previously knew very little about.
SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2009) *** out of 4 Though hampered by some bad acting and worse special effects, this film shows that George Romero still has some interesting ideas when it comes to zombies. Like the underrated Diary of the Dead, it's endearingly silly and almost lighthearted much of the time, building to a climax that has surprising punch.
THE CAMPAIGN (2012) **1/2 out of 4 After a very strong start it falters somewhat in the second half when the humor moves from broad into really-really-broad, but it's a likeable and often very funny film overall.
TOTAL RECALL (2012) ** out of 4 It has a cool look (minus all the annoying fake lens flares) and some good action sequences, but overall it's pretty forgettable. Also, without spoiling anything, there are some really key themes from the original that are completely mishandled here, in my opinion.
RUBY SPARKS (2012) *1/2 out of 4 The makers of Ruby Sparks couldn't decide whether they wanted their movie (about an author whose character magically comes to life) to be a light, romantic fantasy in the style of Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo or something much darker, and the way it changes on a dime between those two extremes renders it a profoundly frustrating mess. When it finally gets interesting in the last 20 minutes or so, it's too late to make much of a difference. Plus, it's just really fucking annoying.