Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Tooting my own horn

I have to crow a little about this awesome thing that happened Monday night.  I wrote a review for the WWE Studios film Barricade (below), and they actually pulled a quote from the review and used it in a televised promo for the DVD (above)! The promo aired on the USA Network Monday, October 15 during WWE Monday Night Raw. This is almost as good as winning an Oscar!

Erik McCormack gets cabin fever in Barricade
After playing Will Truman on Will & Grace for nine seasons, Eric McCormack has stepped as far away from the sitcom genre as he could over the last few years, most recently headlining the new TV drama Perception. Now, McCormack has gone even further out of his comfort zone with his starring role in the new psychological horror film Barricade, produced by WWE Studios and now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Barricade tells the story of Terence Shade, a psychologist who doesn't have enough time in the day to spend with his kids. His wife wants them all to go to her old family cabin way, way, way up in the mountains to give the kids a white Christmas. The story jumps to a year later, and Shade's wife has died under mysterious circumstances (mysterious, at least, until the climax of the movie), but he wants to honor her wishes and takes their two kids to the cabin. Once there, strange noises and shadows begin to terrorize the family … or has madness overtaken them?

You have to hand it to the producers of Barricade for really committing to the psychological horror of the story and not going for the over-the-top blood and guts you might expect … especially coming from WWE Studios. Yes, that WWE. In fact, this is the first WWE production that does not feature any of its stable of wrestling stars. Besides the wife and the old man, who are only in the film briefly, this really is a story about three characters confined to a single location. You almost get a The Shining vibe as the story progresses, although you don't know if Terence has actually gone mad, if the cabin is haunted (since we don't know how the wife died), or if something else is affecting his behavior. The story keeps the viewer nicely off-balance, never knowing if what Terence is seeing and experiencing is real or imagined.

That's not to say that some of the scare aren't cheap ones. Early on, the filmmakers rely way to much on the LOUD MUSIC CUE to make you jump, when it's not really necessary. At one point, Terence looks out the window and the grotesque face of his dead wife is peering in at them. A quick cut to that would have been sufficiently creepy, so it really didn't need that extra OOMPH of the music to make you jump. It actually distracted me from seeing the face in the window because I did jump. So, yeah, it works but for all the wrong reasons.

While the film works hard to keep you guessing, McCormack gets kudos for his off-balance performance as well. He has to walk that fine edge of sanity and madness without ever teetering off to either side. We know as the story progresses that Terence is severely over-medicating himself (presumably to deal with his wife's death), so that may have something to do with his behavior. He, and perhaps the kids, come down with the flu as well, so that may also have something to do with the delirium. But you're never sure if anything Terence is doing is actually happening or all in his head because things can change in an instant within a scene, and McCormack has to go from madness to rational adult in the blink of an eye and he always pulls it off.

Barricade may not be a great thriller, but it's good enough to warrant a look for McCormack's performance and the terrific production design (be sure to check out the informative extras on the DVD to see how they built the cabin interiors and created the snowy exteriors). The ending may be a bit too tidy – it's certainly not an M. Night Shyamalan twist – but at least we know what happened to the wife, and if Terence is sane, mad or just a little under the weather. If you're looking for something that will send chills down your spine without a lot of blood, gore, masked killers or scary monsters, then this just might be the movie for you.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Argo brings history to
gripping life

We always talk about how Madonna has reinvented herself over the years, but her popularity has never really been in question. Ben Affleck, on the other hand, has become the master of reinvention after his Hollywood golden boy status was tarnished by more than a few stinkers: Gigli, Daredevil, Surviving Christmas, to name a few. But after winning an Oscar for his screenplay for Good Will Hunting (with pal Matt Damon), Affleck has now turned his attention to directing. His major screen debut, Gone Baby Gone, was a gripping tale of a child's kidnapping that nabbed Oscar, Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations for Amy Adams. His follow-up was the critically acclaimed The Town, in which he also acted and which scored an Oscar nomination for Jeremy Renner.

Now Affleck is back in the director's chair – successfully – and on screen in the new real life thriller Argo. Argo tells the formerly classified story of six Americans who escaped the US embassy in Iran during the hostage crisis in 1979. The Americans managed to slip out of the embassy and after trying to find sanctuary at several different embassies, the Canadian ambassador and his wife took them in at great risk to their own lives. The US government went through several scenarios to try to get them out, but hostage extraction expert Tony Mendez said none of the ideas would work because none of them made sense (for example, providing them with fake teacher visas when there were no US teachers in the country). Mendez, who had worked with some Hollywood connections including makeup artist John Chambers (the original Planet of the Apes) and other Hollywood contacts, came up with the idea to make the six Americans members of a film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi flick called "Argo." The government wasn't thrilled with the idea, but it was the "best bad idea" they had. And it worked!

That's not to say the plan was foolproof or without peril, but even though we know the outcome – they were returned home safely – Affleck manages to ramp up the tension as they attempt to get through the military security at the airport as a sweatshop of workers try to piece together shredded images of the six missing Americans. You really are on the edge of your seat and holding your breath until that plane clears Iranian air space. Affleck not only nails the story and the tension, but the period as well. The fashion, the hair, the porn 'staches, the décor, everything is done to perfection. And the proof is in the pudding as the end credits juxtaposes actual photos of the people and key events with the recreations in the film.

Aside from a few familiar faces like Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, and Alan Arkin, the six Americans are played by mostly unfamiliar actors (or those with faces you know but can't place the name … and they're almost unrecognizable anyway under the period hair styles) which gives the film an even stronger sense of realism. Casting BIG names in those roles would have been too distracting, so the right decision was made to go with less well-known faces.

As a historical drama – and there is a brief but crucial introduction of Iranian history to put the whole conflict in perspective – Argo is a movie that could probably be shown in classrooms. Some of the incidentals have been changed for dramatic purposes, but it still tells a compelling story from an important moment in American and world history. That's not to say it's just as dry as the desert sands either. Argo is suspenseful and gripping, with just the right amount of humor (mostly provided by Goodman and Arkin as they try to get their fake movie financed without revealing that the entire operation is a farce) to make this a crackling piece of entertainment. I don't think I'm going too far off base here by saying that the film is almost sure to get a Best Picture nomination at next year's Oscars, and if Affleck doesn't get a director nomination as well, there is no justice in Hollywood. As it is in the here and now, Argo should be on your must-see list.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Total Recall - Memories can be

Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1990 version of Total Recall is something of a cult classic at this point in time, with a legion of fans who are approaching the 2012 version, with Colin Farrell, with a huge sense of dread. Are they right? After seeing the new Total Recall, I have to say it's like comparing apples and oranges.

In the original, which is based on Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," Douglas Quaid (Quail in the book) wants to have memories of a trip to Mars implanted into his mind to make his life feel a bit more exciting. The problem is, Quaid has been to Mars and he's a government assassin with a head full of dangerous secrets. Quaid goes to Mars to try to find out what's real and what's not and gets a lot more than he bargained for. In the new version, Mars is only mentioned in passing as the story stays firmly grounded on planet earth … or what's left of it, which is the United Federation of Britain and The Colony (formerly Australia). The rest of the planet is uninhabitable due to chemical warfare. The only way to get from one side of the world to the other is by a transport known as The Fall (think the English Channel Tunnel, except this tube goes straight through the planet). The UFB is terribly overpopulated (and looks like something out of Blade Runner), and workers from The Colony travel to the UFB to work in robotics factories that produce a mechanical police force. Quaid works in such a factory, but he feels his life is missing something, especially after having a series of dreams in which he fancies himself some sort of super secret agent. Not even his extremely hot wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) can bring him out of his funk. So what to do but head to Rekall, an organization that promises to give you the best memories of your life. When Quaid selects "secret agent" as his fantasy, things go terribly wrong when it's discovered the memory he's chosen is already in his head because it's real, and he is a double agent that works with the government – which is planning to invade the Colony, wipe out everyone and send the excess population of the UFB "down under" – as well as the Resistance, headed up by the mysterious Matthias (Bill Nighy). So who is Quaid? Who is Lori? And who is the mysterious other woman in his memories? And can Quaid even trust his friends?

It's been quite a while since I've seen the original Total Recall, so my own memories of the film are a bit fuzzy. The things I do remember are actually incorporated into the new film as little homages to the original. The original was a sci-fi action film with plenty of fight scenes – and one between then-newcomer Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin is a fanboy favorite – but it always played with your mind as well as with Quaid's, leaving you to guess if any of it was real or just an implanted memory. The new film, probably to the consternation of the fans, pretty much dispenses with any mystery right off the bat and even in one scene where Lori and her forces try to play mind games with Quaid, you still know by the end of the scene that everything is real.

And without that ambiguity, there's very little actual story in this one, with one major action set-piece after another. And they are some fantastic action sequences that take place on a mag-lev highway, an elevator system that may have been designed by M.C. Escher, and in and on The Fall itself. I know a lot of people are simply going to hate the movie because it's all action and little story, but I was totally entertained by all of the amazing eye candy and fight choreography. Of course, with a slim plot, Colin Farrell doesn't have to emote very much, but he looks pretty and he can fight with the best of them. I love Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel, and they can both kick some ass as well (and yes, they do have a fight scene, but it still doesn't top the one from the original). There's not really much more to say about a film that's so visual except that if you go in expecting a faithful adaptation of the original movie, you're going to be very disappointed. But, if you're just looking for some escapist, sci-fi action, then this is the movie for you. I had a great time.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises –
An Epic Conclusion

I was fortunate enough to see The Dark Knight Rises just hours before the senseless tragedy in Colorado, but it seems a little frivolous to even try to sit down a critique the movie only days afterward. I want to send my thoughts and prayers to those who have been affected by this violent act.

Eight years have passed (in movie time) since the events of The Dark Knight, Gotham City is crime free thanks to the Batman (although he and Commissioner Gordon decided to give the late Harvey Dent all the credit so as not to smear his name), but a new menace has come to town in the form of Bane, a muscle-bound mask-wearing thug bent on reducing the city to ashes and giving the 99% what they deserve. What's a retired superhero to do, especially when the man inside the costume is himself a broken down husk living the life of a recluse inside his gigantic mansion? When Bane and his men manage to acquire a copy of Bruce Wayne's fingerprints (courtesy of cat burglar Selina Kyle) and wipe out his fortune on a bad investment and then set off a series of bombs beneath Gotham City that cuts them off from the rest of the world, Wayne has no choice but to don the cape and cowl yet again.

The Dark Knight Rises is Christopher Nolan's epic conclusion to his Dark Knight trilogy that started with Batman Begins back in 2005. The new film actually closes out the story introduced in that film, virtually ignoring the events of The Dark Knight (Nolan preferred not to have any references to The Joker out of respect for the late Heath Ledger), so a refresher view of that film may be in order before tackling the new one. The introduction of the villain Bane, played by Tom Hardy (unrecognizable under his mask, with his face only being seen once in a fleeting flashback), brings us back to the first film in the trilogy because his reason for coming to Gotham is to finish what Wayne's mentor-turned-bad guy Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson) started – get rid of the corruption and return the city to the people. Bane wants to steal a device created by Wayne Industries that was intended to produce free, unlimited, green energy, but of course it's a device that can also be turned into a bomb with a little tinkering (which is why the device was never publicly revealed). The question is: How does Bane even know about this device? He's obviously got someone on the inside of the corporation helping him, but who?

We're also introduced to Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), the sexy cat burglar (never referred to as Catwoman) who is tied in to Bane's plan, and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), the partner on the green energy project who lost a lot of money when it was tabled, but becomes Wayne's ally after the failed takeover of Wayne Industries. It's up to her and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to keep the city safe once they discover what Bane is up to. And there's also John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the idealistic young police officer who learns what really happened to Harvey Dent and the sacrifice the Batman made to save the city. But with all of these characters either trying to save or destroy the city, not everything is as it seems and there is one major plot twist in the third act of the movie that completely changes everything you thought you knew was going on (and anyone familiar with Batman lore probably already knows the big twist and the true identity of one of the characters).

So with all of this action, not to mention the psychological aspects of Bruce Wayne and Batman, is the movie all its been expected to be? I say yes, even with its various problems. I've seen plenty of griping from the hardcore Bat-fans about the plot,the ending, and inconsistencies … and the fact that for a Batman movie, there is actually very little Batman (or Bruce Wayne for that matter). Yeah, it is odd to conclude a story with the title character barely there, but does that make it a terrible movie? Not at all. I was engrossed by the story and shocked by the reveal of the villain's true identity (no, I don't follow the comics or graphic novels), and Nolan's staging of the action is masterful, especially when you know that most of it was done on set and not with CGI effects.

Are there problems with the storytelling? Definitely. Sometimes it doesn't make a lick of sense and the twist pretty much undoes everything you believed up to that point. Yes, there is a shocking lack of Batman, and the movie actually gives Bane the bulk of the screen time. But none of that mattered to me. The only thing that really bugged me was Bane's ridiculous voice. When the first trailer hit, everyone complained that you couldn't understand a word he said through the mask. Apparently that's been fixed, but now it's just too clear and … bizarre. He sounds like Christopher Plummer in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country! It's very odd to see this huge, muscular guy talk like a 70-year-old Englishman (and in the graphic novel, Bane is actually from South America!). The voice was off-putting, and anyone could have been under that mask (which reminded me of the Tusken Raiders of Star Wars). The pluses, though, outweigh the negatives. Despite the original scoffing, Anne Hathaway was excellent as Selina Kyle. She was sexy, alluring, and could really kick ass. Plus she brought the film most of its lighter moments when things were starting to get a little too dark and depressing. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was also an excellent choice for Blake. He was totally believable in some pretty unbelievable situations, and he gets a nice character arc that runs through to the end of the movie. And I have to give props to Michael Caine, returning as Alfred. He has a terrific scene with Bale as Alfred has had enough of Wayne dressing up as the Batman that left me in tears.

Overall, The Dark Knight Rises may not be a perfect film, and it certainly can never live up to the extremely high expectations some people had placed on it before it opened, but it was still an epic (nearly three hours) film with some terrific performances that fittingly brought to a close Christopher Nolan's version of the Batman story. And that is certainly the key thing to remember – this is Christopher Nolan's vision of the Batman story. He says he's done with it now, but the ending suggests the story could continue. I'm certain it will in one way or another, but for now, this version of the Batman saga is done and it's been a great ride.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man
swings back into action

Stop me if you've heard this one before: Put upon high-school kid Peter Parker wanders into a lab where he doesn't belong and gets bitten by some kind of mutated spider. He suddenly develops the ability to sense when things are going to happen, he has super-human strength, and he can climb walls and hang from ceilings (alas, he cannot actually shoot webs from his wrists; he has to create a device to accomplish that feat). His new-found powers also seem to be the direct cause of creating another human-animal mutation that wants to take over the world with its new-found powers, so Parker breaks out his new-found sewing skills, creates himself a snazzy/sexy skintight costume complete with mask, and takes to the streets of Manhattan as the amazing Spider-Man. Oh, yeah, he's also crushing on a girl in his class who seems to be intrigued by him as well.

You have heard this story? Of course you have! Way, way, way back in 2002, Toby Maguire donned the skintight red and blue costume to battle a scientific genius (who only wore a green mask instead of turning into a monster), and fall in love with Mary Jane Watson, played by Kirsten Dunst. The movie was a smash, which was followed in 2004 by an even better sequel which was followed by a far inferior sequel in 2007 that brought the trilogy to a close. But Sony, always looking for new ways to make a buck, decided that all they really needed to do was recast the main roles and produce a new film. It's certainly not unheard of (i.e. Bond, Batman), but fans we weary of a new film after the last mess, and the notion that no one could fill out the suit quite like Maguire.

So the solution was to basically pretend the previous trilogy didn't exist and start from scratch. Which is probably the biggest problem with The Amazing Spider-Man. Unless you're taking very young kids who have never seen any of the previous films, have never seen a cartoon or read a comic book, then the origin story of Peter Parker is pretty well-known by everyone who goes to see this movie. And it takes about an hour to tell that story, which borders on tedium for those in the know. We really just want some Spider-Man action to kick the movie into gear. The other problem with the movie is that it's all over the place. Peter (Andrew Garfield) wants to use his new powers to track down the guy who killed his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), so he scans the police radio frequencies for any hint of an assailant that matches the description of the killer. This whole plot, however, gets completely sidetracked once Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) becomes The Lizard (a result of his own scientific experiments to help people regenerate their own lost limbs), but at least this finally brings some much needed action to the movie.

I know there are people out there who hated the movie from beginning to end, but I'm not one of them. It was okay in places, you could see glimmers of what the movie could have been, but that origin story set-up just takes way too long. The big question is: Why even reboot the franchise? Why not just pick up where the last movie left off (or ignore Spider-Man III and pick up where the second left off like Warner Brothers did with Superman Returns)? I think the clue lies in a specific name that keeps being mentioned throughout the movie – Norman Osbourne. Sound familiar? Yes, Norman Osbourne was The Green Goblin, Spider-Man's nemesis in the first movie. Osbourne also died, with son Harry picking up the slack, but his issues with Peter were resolved by the end of the trilogy. But The Green Goblin is Spider-Man's most well-known adversary, so the only way to reintroduce the character back into the mythology is to completely restart the story (which means Doctor Octopus can also return). I don't know that The Lizard was the best way to go as far as a villain though, because for a movie with a ginormous budget, I was not all that impressed with the CGI or the look of the creature, especially the face. Something about it was just … off.

Besides the meandering plot, there are also things that are introduced and never followed through like the Spider-Man perspective shots. This was something director Andrew Webb (no pun intended) wanted to give the audience throughout the movie, but I can really only recall two times when this was used correctly. Also, Peter's high school nemesis, Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka), suddenly becomes Peter's best bud after Uncle Ben's untimely demise. It seems totally out of character and comes completely out of left field. I could see Flash maybe going easy on Peter right after the death, but for the character to do a complete 180 like that made absolutely no sense. And then there's the hunt for Uncle Ben's killer. It seems that every crook in New York has stringy blond hair, but only one of them has a tattoo on his wrist, and Peter never finds him (of course, they had to rewrite history in the original trilogy for Peter to find out who Uncle Ben's real killer was in the third movie (I think), so I suspect this plot thread will weave its way into the next film as well). And will Peter's missing (dead?) parents figure into the story at some point?

But with all that is wrong with the movie, they do get the important things right, namely the casting. Any doubts that no one could play Peter Parker after Maguire will be laid to rest after seeing Andrew Garfield's performance. He's perfect with what he's given, he plays the tortured soul extremely well, he looks fantastic in the suit, but I just wish they'd stuck to the character of the comics and let Peter/Spidey lighten up a bit. The comic character is well-known for his wisecracks while battling his foes, and there is none of that humor in this role. This isn't The Dark Knight! If the series is going to be successful, it really needs more humor. About the only times the film did lighten up was when Peter interacted with Gwen Stacy, the perfectly cast Emma Stone. Stone can do no wrong, and she has great chemistry with Garfield (better than anything Maguire and Dunst had) which brings a nice playfulness to their scenes together. Sally Field doesn't get to do much as Aunt May, but neither did Rosemary Harris in the first movie. Hopefully she'll get an expanded role in the next movie and get to do more than fret about Peter being out late at night. Martin Sheen and Denis Leary also give solid performances, but, well … don't count on seeing them in future entries in the series.

The film's biggest drawback is director Webb (500 Days of Summer), who has never helmed a film of this scope, and a script that seems cobbled together, passed from one hand to another, resulting in the tonal shifts that just throw the film into chaos. The effects, however (save for The Lizard) are spectacular and the scenes of Spidey swooping through the skyscraper canyons of New York City give you quite a rush (and there is a great 3D moment when Spider-Man literally flies off the screen just above the heads of the audience). I just wish that exuberance carried over into the rest of the movie. So is it worth seeing? I'd say yes, once in IMAX 3D. It's certainly not the worst superhero movie ever made, but it should have and could have been a lot better. At least it has probably the best Stan Lee cameo to date! And if you're one of those who sits through the credits for the sequel tease, you won't have to wait all the way to the end.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Battleship - A hit and a miss

One of the most derided films of the year – simply because of its title and lineage – finally hits the big screen, and you know what? It's not as bad as everyone assumed it would be. Yes, Peter Berg's Battleship, based on the classic (and classically simple Hasbro board game), has sailed into theaters and it's the big, noisy, special effects-filled, summer spectacle that everyone dreaded/hoped for.

Here's the story: Rebellious ne'er-do-well Alex Hopper (John Carter's Taylor Kitsch) finds himself in a world of trouble after a small breaking and entering incident that was meant to impress a pretty girl (Brooklyn Decker). The incident embarrasses Alex's Naval officer brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgård), especially when he's made aware that the girl is the daughter of his Commanding Officer (Liam Neeson), and he gives Alex one option before throwing him off the living room couch he's been living on … join the Navy. Flash forward to the present, and Alex has earned the rank of Lieutenant even though he's still a major screw up. During a soccer game between the US and Japanese teams (taking place just before RIMPAC, the Naval war games event), Alex and Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) butt heads, literally (well, Nagata's foot connects with Alex's face), which causes friction between them that leads to a fight later which leads to Alex learning he's going to be discharged after RIMPAC. Ah, but fate intervenes when a signal sent to an earth-like planet in some distant galaxy gets a response, and not just a returned phone call. A squadron of alien ships have come to earth, one crashes in Hong Kong (with debris scattered around the world) while the others end up in the Pacific in the vicinity of the RIMPAC activities, Alex and some of his officers get close enough to set off some kind of force field that traps their ship, his brother's and Nagata's inside with the rest of the fleet cut off outside, and some of the alien visitors have made their way to the island to boost the signal to their world for … well, we never know what reason.

And that's the biggest problem with Battleship. Besides just the basics in character development with the humans (and most of the officers, including Rihanna's Petty Officer Raikes) are just figures to be moved around the game board. We're never given much information about the signal to the other planet (although one of the scientists played by Hamish Linklater tries to warn the folks at NASA that any response they get will be more like the Spanish and the Indians, with us being the Indians), other than it looks like a giant death ray similar to the one from Darth Vader's Death Star. Perhaps it's just like that for the visual (because audiences have to see the radio waves to know it's working), but it leaves us with the impression that if you were on the receiving end of that burst of energy, you'd be mighty pissed. And the aliens certainly are, but there also seems to be no rhyme or reason to their actions. They can scan any object for a threat, and seem to spare any living creature, but anything else that could be destructive is attacked and the poor ships trapped inside the dome are no match for them. We also don't know why the aliens are trying to boost the signal to send their own transmission. Is it an S.O.S.? Is it a “come on down and let's take over this place” message? We never know, although that is what's assumed.

Another problem is the character of Alex. Not that he's a problem to figure out, but his whole story is a cliché. When the aliens attack, you know that he's going to have to align with Nagata and the two will eventually come to respect each other, and by the end he will also be respected by the Navy, so there is no complexity to his arc. All that being said, I still enjoyed the heck out of the movie because it was exactly what I expected: a summer popcorn flick with some astounding special effects and a pretty cast. (And I did appreciate the way the actual game element was woven into one major set-piece of the movie.) Even if the alien ships are reminiscent of Transformers (and the movie is still better than Transformers 2) and the aliens themselves look like they just stepped out of the Halo video game, I was entertained from start to finish (and you have to stick around through the credits for a final “gotcha” moment) simply by the spectacle of it all. It's ridiculous for critics to complain too loudly about this type of movie because it's mission is to do one thing – entertain the masses. It's also got a lot of patriotism behind it as well, for despite the inclusion of a Japanese ship in the midst of the action, the focus is on the U.S.A., especially when some WW II vets are enlisted once again to save their country and the world (and one of them gets to utter a line as close to the classic game's slogan as you can get) which had the audience at my screening cheering (and which may also hurt the film's box office chances overseas more than the lack of plot and character development).

So, if you're going to see a movie called Battleship, I think you pretty much know what you're going to get, and the movie delivers. Yes, it makes the character development in Marvel's The Avengers look like Citizen Kane in comparison, but the action scenes and special effects are on par with the best of the summer blockbusters. So go, check your brain at the door, and just let yourself be awed by the spectacle of it all.

Friday, April 13, 2012

In Defense of
The Three Stooges

As you know by now, there is a new movie out called The Three Stooges. For some, this is one of the greatest travesties ever foisted upon the film-going public. How can anyone make a movie called The Three Stooges without the Three Stooges?!? I can certainly understand the outrage as I would probably have the same reaction if someone decided to remake I Love Lucy with imposters in the roles created by Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance and Bill Frawley (and recent attempts to "reimagine" Bewitched and The Honeymooners are best left unspoken). So I get the ethical issues surrounding dressing up actors Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes and Will Sasso as Moe, Larry and Curly – real people with those names playing characters with those names in a total of 220 films. Of course, there were other Stooges who came in and replaced Curly (and, by the way, Shemp was in the original trio before Curly!) and Larry during their fifty year run. But the trio of Larry, Moe and Curly are regarded as the best Stooges.

So how can anyone, particularly the Farrelly Brothers, have the audacity to make a new Three Stooges movie without the real Stooges (who are long dead anyways)? And it's not even a biopic with actors playing the actors while recreating some of their most famous bits! This is a full-fledged Three Stooges movie and it makes no apologies for being what it is. And you know what?

It's hilarious! Seriously, it is. I went into the film expecting a complete train wreck because I was simply baffled by the previews I had seen out of context, but the story goes something like this: three boys of undetermined relationship are dropped off (more like tossed out of a car in a duffel bag) at an orphanage to be raised by the nuns (who never age!) and adopted out. Except the boys are such troublemakers that they are pretty much un-adoptable. When a couple decides to take Moe, he asks them to turn around and bring his two friends along as well, and they end up leaving him behind and taking another kid instead, the adorable Teddy. Years, later the adult Moe, Larry and Curly are still at the orphanage working as handymen, but their accident prone behavior has cost the orphanage to lose its insurance and the Archdiocese is closing them down unless they can come up with $830,000 in thirty days. Stooges to the rescue … or not.

Now, your tolerance for the Stooges will determine how well you like this movie. The original films were mostly shorts because a little eye-poking, gut punching, hammer to the head mayhem can only go so far, so sitting through 90 minutes of this can be a bit tiring. The Farrelly Brothers have ingeniously crafted the film as three 30-minute shorts, but the story still runs the length of the entire film and there's no real breather between each episode (so this is like sitting through a marathon on TV without the commercials). While some may find this tiring, my level of enjoyment was sustained throughout the movie. I didn't laugh so much at the acts of violence the Stooges perpetrated on each other (although some of the things they did were quite elaborate), but the sound effects that accompany each punch, whomp and poke were hilarious (like the TV show Wipeout, this probably wouldn't have been half as funny without the sound effects). The story takes a couple of turns when the guys are hired to kill a dying man (it's a set-up!), and when Moe somehow gets himself cast on Jersey Shore – which seems like a stretch, but it actually works (and who can't get some enjoyment out of the juice heads and pickle lovers getting smacked around a bit?).

The cast acquits themselves nicely and look like they're having a great time, from Jane Lynch to Sofia Vergara and Craig Bierko to Stephen Collins. And you just can't help but laugh at Larry David as Sister Mary-Mengele, the Jewish nun who gets the brunt of the Stooges' violence over the years. But what about the guys playing the Stooges? I have to say the resemblance is eerie. Sasso, in my mind, seems a little too tall for Curly but he's got the voice and the mannerisms down perfectly. Diamantopoulos sounds exactly like the real Moe and has obviously done his homework to get the physicality of the man down to perfection. But the standout is Sean Hayes as Larry. Hayes completely loses himself in the role, and any questions that he can play anything but a flamboyant gay man should finally be put to rest. Moe is the ostensible leader of the Stooges, but with Hayes being the most well-known of the actors, Larry is the real stand-out of the group. I really could not take my eyes off of him whenever he was on screen. And let's not forget the kids who play the young Moe, Larry and Curly. All of them are outstanding.

The Farrelly Brothers, who have made a career out of envelope pushing comedies, really haven't made a consistently funny (or good) movie since There's Something About Mary way back in 1998. The Three Stooges has been a passion project for them for years, going through at least one false start with Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro cast as Larry and Moe (and one can only imagine what a real disaster that may have been), and they obviously love the Stooges. They've certainly done their homework, incorporating all of the Stooges' most famous bits into the film along with those classic sound effects, and for me, at least, I think they've succeeded in bringing the Three Stooges back to life for a new generation who may now go back and look at the classic Stooges for the first time. Yes, it is a little odd having actors playing these real people who created the Stooges in the first place, but they've kept the film in the spirit of the classics (the boys are eternally stuck in their 1940s era even though the film takes place in the present), never doing anything to besmirch the good name of the originators (which can't be said for a lot of modern remakes of classic properties). I know there are folks who are adamantly against this film and they will probably never see it or, if they do, never be able to crack a smile or chuckle even if they do see it because there's already too much resentment built up against the idea. I'm no devotee of the Three Stooges, but I am familiar enough with them to say that while I expected the worst going in, I came out a much happier person afterwards. The Farrelly Brother and their cast have done the impossible and made a terrifically funny movie – and it's extremely kid friendly (make sure to stay in your seats for the "Don't try this at home" message from the "Farrelly Brothers"). All I can say to the naysayers is try to have an open mind.

The Cabin in the Woods -
Don't Spoil It!

Stop me if you've seen this one before … five friends decide to go spend a weekend at some remote cabin in the middle of nowhere, only to find themselves at the mercy of some sadistic killer(s). And that's about it. By now, you know who lives and who dies – they all die except the most pure and virginal of the bunch. The foundation for this genre of horror, the "Dead Teenager Movie," can be traced back to John Carpenter's classic Halloween. Of course, there was no cabin in the woods but you can see the groundwork. That was followed by Friday the 13th, which did feature a cabin or two in the woods and lots of dead teens. And just like Halloween's Laurie Strode and F13's Alice Hardy, the purest of the horny bunch lived to see the credits roll. These movies also established the "types" that would get knocked off, one-by-one: the dumb jock, the slutty girl, the nerd, and the stoner. Wes Craven used these archetypes to great, ironic effect in the Scream series, which let audiences already in on the joke have a few laughs at the expense of the expendable characters.

And now we have The Cabin in the Woods, which includes all of the required types and the requisite, desolate location. But … there are many new twists and turns to this old story. First of all, the "dumb jock" is not so dumb, the "slutty girl" really isn't, the "nerd" is more-than-kinda hot, the "virgin" maybe isn't, and the "stoner" is more aware than usual … at least until they all get to the cabin. (They've even got the "Crazy Ralph" character – the old coot who shows up to tell everyone they're doomed!) But there's something else going on too, something in a governmental-looking facility deep below ground where the workers seem to be controlling everything going on above ground and taking bets on how the friends die and in what order. On the other hand, they may not be controlling everything and they may not be working for the government and they may not be conducting some kind of strange experiment that ends up with everyone living happily ever after by the end. Make no mistake, there will be blood … and plenty of it.

If this review sounds a little all over the place, it's because The Cabin in the Woods is really an unreviewable movie, at least at this point in time. Think The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game. As a critic and as a movie lover, I just can't in good conscience give away any of the film's major plot points without ruining the experience for the uninitiated viewer. I went in knowing only what I saw in the previews (that have unfortunately started giving away too much information), and the less you know going in, the better.

What I can say is that this is one of the most original horror films to come along in quite some time (and it's a shame the film had to sit in MGM's vaults for two years while they were trying to deal with their own financial woes). It takes everything you think you know about the genre and flips it on its ear. The design of the situation is certainly no accident, and there are reasons that the five specific types are going to that particular cabin. The unwitting victims have been extremely well-cast, and you may recognize the jock from a little film he made after this one – Thor. Yep, they nabbed Chris Hemsworth before he was cast as the demi-god, so perhaps the delay in the release will help draw more people to the movie now that everyone knows who he is. While the college students are spot on, the people working down below are also worth mentioning, particularly Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins as the men who may or may not be controlling the students' destinies. Whitford and Jenkins are so good together that someone should give them their own TV show right this minute!

But, there's not much more I can say about the movie except that if you're a fan or horror and movies with twisting, turning plots that will keep you guessing until the very end, then The Cabin in the Woods is definitely worth seeing. It's that good. And you really should see it before someone ruins it for you.