Sunday, February 24, 2013


To paraphrase the title of a classic illustrated children's book, tonight's Academy Awards telecast was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad show. The proceedings were predictably over-long, so much so that I would gather one full hour could have been easily excised to great effect. But, aside from the painful length, it was the fact that the show felt to be so under-thought, so surprisingly sloppy and filled with so much superfluous, and at times bizarre, material from the very beginning that the show felt decidedly less like an Academy Awards program and more like those excruciating and awkwardly uncomfortable variety programs from the 1970's.

As host, Seth MacFarlane, I felt did present a wealth of charm and ease with his duties. He never seemed nervous to me but he always seemed to be aching to blow a hole in the proceedings that the ponderous nature of the Oscars will only allow to a point. Because of that, the show began with a sharp monologue which should have led into the first award of the night but for some reason led into an extremely and unfortunately lengthy (and mostly unfunny) opening section that had some intermittent funny moments (I liked "Flight" as performed by sock puppets.) but overall got the show started on the wrong foot. If you use 20 full minutes to open your show, then something has gone very wrong with the conception as far as I am concerned. Throughout the program, while MacFarlane did get off some good zingers here and there, most of what occurred fell completely flat upon its no funny face, most notably the lame "Von Trapp" gag which proceeded the arrival of Christopher Plummer to the stage. What was the point of that?

MacFarlane mentioned that tonight's broadcast would have the theme of "Music In Film." That's fine, but for a program that is designed to celebrate the art and artistry of the movies, I was just stunned with the complete lack of movie musical clips the program could have used to much more effectively celebrate music in film. What we did receive was what I felt to be one of the program's many padded sequences as live performances of selections from "Chicago," "Dreamgirls," and "Les Miserables" were performed, honoring the previous decade of movie musicals, a notably scant period for the genre. Yes, Jennifer Hudson brought the house down with a reprise of her Oscar Winning performance but even so, I could not understand why the producers just did not really bring the audience in the theater and at home to their collective feet by really celebrating the full history of the movie musical with a beautifully edited montage to make our spirits fly in song. This is not Broadway and I am not watching the Tony Awards! I'm watching the Academy Awards and we should be celebrating film, not wondering if Catherine Zeta-Jones is lip syncing to a song she hasn't even sung in 10 years. And again, it was all just padding.

And then there were those other strange decisions like having the live orchestra perform down the street from a studio. Are times so tough for Oscar that he cannot afford an orchestra pit anymore? How about the Best Song nominees which alternated between a live performance from Adele (whose huge voice was somehow drowned out by the orchestra), film clips for nominated songs and then back to a live performance from Norah Jones. It was as if the producers could not make a decision with which way they wanted to showcase the nominees this year so they just decided to use every idea they had.

The "In Memoriam" section, always awkward due to its popularity contest style of audience applause and recognition of those dearly departed began and was executed in a classier way this time around as applause was kept to an absolute minimum. And again, just at the point the section was at its natural conclusion, it continues onwards with a Barbara Streisand performance that felt to be entirely shoe-horned into the telecast.

Just as the show was reaching its breaking point, I was so happy that the producers decided to not have previous Best Actor/Actress winners stand on stage and address the current nominees as that would have added another 50 minutes to an already interminable program. But, the arrival of First Lady Michelle Obama was another jaw dropper and not in a good way. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against our incredible First Lady, but her presence upon the Academy Awards was just so head scratching, so unnecessary and you know it will just prove to be fodder for those on the Right who just want something else to complain about as they will undoubtedly proclaim that she was indoctrinating viewers to support the arts. Even so, I could not fathom why having Jack Nicholson read and announce the winner was deemed to be not good enough so they just added more and more when it was just not needed. To add insult to injury, MacFarlane performed yet another oh-so-clever yet unfunny song over the ending credits and I have to say that I honestly felt sorry for those in the theater audience because I could easily turn the TV off and go about my business while they were forced to sit there and endure hostages.

As for my predictions and the awards themselves, I said, I am fair at best with my cinematic award show clairvoyance abilities. But I did get some correct. I correctly picked "Argo" as being the big winner of the evening in regards to Best Picture. While I did think it was yet another strong effort from Ben Affleck the Director, it was not a film that I thought represented the movie year of 2012 at its best. That said, I am proud of him and I felt this win completely vindicated his talents. This win was a victory lap for him and I virtually congratulate him.

Overall, I was pleased with the winners, most especially the wins by Christoph Waltz, Ang Lee, composer Mychael Danna and Quentin Tarantino as they were so richly deserved. But, I have to say it. I just do and I make no apologies for it. With the disastrous "Brave" winning the Best Animated Feature category, Pixar has now officially become the Meryl Streep of animation studios as they will now be nominated or anointed with awards whether they deserve them or not. And I'm sorry, "Brave" is the sharpest drop in quality during an unfortunate creative decline for Pixar. I would hate for them to receive awards and recognition just for being Pixar. They need to earn the notoriety and as far as I am concerned, they have quite a ways to go before they re-establish their former glory.

And now, another Oscar telecast has been mercifully put to bed...a place to which I shall soon retire for the night. But, man, if I could get my hands upon that telecast, I really think that I could streamline it and just make it more fun, more celebratory, and move a lot faster. but no one is asking for my ideas anyway and I'll watch next year regardless.

But, just one last thing and this goes out to Kristen Stewart. If you don't want to be there, then don't show up!!! Believe me, no one will miss you, your nasty scowl and your improper attitude that seemed to show you off to a billion viewers not as a Hollywood actress presenting an Oscar award but as a petulant teenager whose Mother dragged her to a formal event. Didn't yo mama teach you nuthin'?!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

THE COMEDY HIT OF THE SEASON: a review of "Taken 2"

Based upon characters created by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen
Screenplay Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen
Directed by Olivier Megaton
*** (three stars)

Lord help me, I think I would actually sit through "Taken 3" after being so entertained with this one.

Dear readers, I sincerely hope that you do not think that I have completely departed from my senses with that statement and star rating but I have to say that "Taken 2," the sequel to the surprise box office smash from a little over four years ago, was an undeniably entertaining experience but not quite for the reasons that you may think. 

Yes, and like its predecessor, "Taken 2" is another dark thrill ride that aims its intentions towards viewers' jingoistic fears of those scary, swarthy, nefariously minded individuals overseas and the promise of nasty, violent retribution against our attackers and it does indeed deliver the goods in ways that the inexcusably horrific "A Good Day To Die Hard" didn't even bother to attempt. But for me, this film is one in which the characters are, and remain, dead serious then entire time but the movie itself plays as sheer unadulterated, and completely unintended, comedy...and believe me, sometimes unintended comedy is even better than mainstream comedy films. Whether you are looking for action or laughs or both, "Taken 2" does indeed get its messy job done very confidently.

As with the latest entry in the "Die Hard" series, the actual plot line of "Taken 2" can also be described in a sentence. While on a family vacation to Istanbul, one-man CIA task force Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is forced to spring into mad dog fury once again as he is targeted by the evil Murad (Rade Serbedzija), who wants to avenge the death of his son (whom Bryan killed in the first film) by capturing Bryan's ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). Yet, what "Taken 2" accomplishes with this wisp of a story unlike the latest "Die Hard" film is that is actually wants to bother with telling a story and keeping this film conceptually in lock step with the previous entry. So, yes, we do have a few scenes during the film's first third that re-establishes the struggles Bryan has with connecting and re-connecting with his fractured family. We do have the sense that Kim is still dealing with the trauma of having almost been sold into white slavery in the previous film. You know that little certain something known as character development..such as it is for a movie like this one but be glad it was there at all in any fashion.

I have to say that I did appreciated how Besson, Kamen and Megaton did take their story and film seriously enough to bother to create a certain amount of tension with the inevitable capture of Lenore. The film also and thankfully never collapsed into self-referential humor as every moment was played as straight as possible. This was indeed a wise move because if the filmmakers at any point treated "Taken 2" as a joke, then why should audiences care about anything that happens to Mills and his family at all? Furthermore, and regardless of the ADD editing and cinematography, the action sequences are ferociously paced and presented with the same vengeful, relentless retaliation as the first film, giving us a sense of that palpable and primal sense of unrepentant justice that I think was a highly perceptive nerve for the filmmakers to tap into the first time around. So, of course, that same nerve is tapped again and again and again (to enormous box office effect for the second time) throughout this sequel which, also like its predecessor, magically escaped an R rating despite the copious amounts of violence on display. Perhaps it was due to the unstoppable wavering of the dreaded shaky cam...     

The laughs of "Taken 2" arrived for me at the pure preposterous nature of the entire enterprise which is essentially a variation of what Roger Ebert has long identified as "The Idiot Plot," that mysterious element of the story that if it happened or did not happen then the movie would immediately be over. Like for instance, after the horrors the Mills family endured in the first film, why for Pete's sakes, would this family ever decide to travel outside of the United States again, and to Istanbul no less! But in order for this film to even exist, someone has to get themselves "Taken" to get Liam Neeson back into his mad dog status. So, logic be damned. 

Once the plot does indeed kick itself into full gear, we are treated to one sequence after another that just had me howling. First of all, absolutely no one in this film ever tries to be remotely inconspicuous. Killers causally wave their guns in hotel hallways while hotel employees, in clear view of the killers, call for security. Kim is actually told at one point to not draw attention to herself as she races for safety, a not so easy feat being a teen-aged bathing suit wearing white female in Istanbul who is scaling the window's edge of a hotel high rise. And the laughs only continue... 

During one particularly tense moment, as a gun is placed straight at Bryan Mills by an assailant, one who has just mercilessly killed a partner in crime without any thought, for some reason allows Mills to take out his telephone and call his daughter to not only warn her that Murad's men are coming for her, but to also tell her where to hide and what to look for in order to keep herself safe. Mills, after saving Lenore from certain death not once but twice leaves her behind instead of taking her with him--of course, this ridiculous act serves to allow the movie to reach the full 90 minute running time.  

And then there is Bryan Mills' unbelievably acute and outstanding sense of direction, which is downright supernatural to the point where I thought he was clairvoyant or at least Daredevil in plain clothes. I cannot even begin to describe the sequence where Mills, captured and blindfolded in the back of a van, is able to know exactly where he is at all times partially based upon hearing certain sounds like a street musician and a barking dog--a musician who is somehow still playing and an animal who is somehow still barking when Mills returns to the site later in the film for his revenge. And if his sense of direction is hysterical then the times in which he has to give directions will just make you want to fall down on the floor. How, for the life of me, he is able to know precisely where he is being held captive and then, through another lengthy and improbable phone call to Kim, explain to her exactly where he is through the combined efforts of utilizing shoestrings, maps, a knowledge of kilometers, interconnecting circles and randomly thrown grenades is beyond me.  

But the highlight of "Taken 2" for me was the inevitable and interminable car chase which places Kim behind the wheel with Mills constantly barking directions like "Faster!!!" and "Keep going!!!" at her. This section was made all the more uproariously berserk as we have already been given the plot point that poor Kim still has not attained her driver's license due to her inability to parallel park. But when the bullets start flying and the U.S. Embassy is in reach, Kim magically possesses the ability to DRIVE that car, and with a stick shift (!), like the greatest stunt woman to ever sit behind the wheel and it is an absolute scream.   

All of these sequences and so much more would make "Taken 2" completely hurl itself from the rails but it is through the mighty gravitas of Liam Neeson that keeps it bolted to the ground. Aside from however much money he is being paid, I have no idea of why Neeson agreed to take one more ride down this scuzzy cinematic alley. But truth be told, if not for him, this film, as with the previous entry, would not be remotely worth watching at all and it is somehow made the better just for having him.

"Taken 2" is not a great film by any means and honestly, it is not even a good film. But man...on a late Saturday night, I don't think I could have asked for anything better.  

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Truth be told, my annual predictions for the winners at the Academy Awards has been fair at best. I am no expert and there is a "horse race" element to the proceedings that I think an experienced gambler would be more suited to tackle and would also be able to navigate infinitely better than I could. Even so, it's all in fun and I am so very happy to share this latest edition of my Oscar predictions, which also exists as a version of a television segment which Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert used to call "If We Picked The Winners." 

And so, with that, shall we begin?

Nominees: Amy Adams ("The Master"); Sally Field ("Lincoln"); Anne Hathaway ("Les Miserables"); Helen Hunt ("The Sessions"); Jacki Weaver ("Silver Linings Playbook")
SHOULD WIN: Jacki Weaver
WILL WIN: Anne Hathaway
This category belongs to Anne Hathaway so completely that it is entirely hers to lose. Believe me, I would feel as if the Seventh Seal had been broken in the event that she did not grab the golden statuette but no worries as there is just no way for that to happen. Yes, I thought Hathaway did a marvelous job in "Les Miserables," with her grueling, heartbreaking performance but as I look upon the surprisingly strong category of nominees, my heart just flies out to Jacki Weaver's comparatively quieter work in "Silver Linings Playbook." Unlike Hathaway's work, Jacki Weaver is not an obvious choice as her performance does not leap from the screen and call attention to itself. But what she does do is create, through her anguished silence and rock solid steadiness, the full emotional and psychological history of a Boston family in which key players suffer from debilitating mental illnesses and she is placed in the role of caretaker and long suffering anchor. For me, sometimes the quieter performance speaks the loudest and I would be thrilled if Weaver won this category.

Nominees: Alan Arkin ("Argo"); Robert De Niro ("Silver Linings Playbook"); Philip Seymour Hoffman ("The Master"); Tommy Lee Jones ("Lincoln"); Christoph Waltz ("Django Unchained")
SHOULD WIN: Tommy Lee Jones
WILL WIN: Tommy Lee Jones
This category is TIGHT!! Five simply outstanding performances all vying for the grand prize, all of whom would be deserving of the congratulatory trophy. But perhaps some more than others to very minuscule degrees. This is a tough category for me to predict but if I were to take the "horse race" element out of the picture and just focus on the performances, I would say that the work from Jones, Waltz and De Niro reached me the deepest. I will give the edge to Tommy Lee Jones as he gave "Lincoln" some real blood, fire and guts as he obviously relished speaking Tony Kushner's wonderful dialogue. But if Waltz or De Niro surprised me and took the prize, I would be equally happy.

Nominees: Jessica Chastain ("Zero Dark Thirty"); Jennifer Lawrence ("Silver Linings Playbook"); Emmanuelle Riva ("Amour"); Quvenzhane Wallis ("Beasts Of The Southern Wild"); Naomi Watts ("The Impossible")
SHOULD WIN: Quvenzhane Wallis
WILL WIN: Jessica Chastain 
First things first. Let us all rejoice that Meryl Streep wasn't nominated yet again just because!!!! Now back to business. To be fair, I have not seen all five of these particular performances but I do think that these five represent a cinematic anomaly as 2012 provided an unusually large amount of strong, varied, three dimensional roles for actresses to play. That said, I do think that Jessica Chastain will be the route for Oscar to give attention to the controversial "Zero Dark Thirty." But for my money, while Chastain's performance was a good one, it was not a great one and I don't think that her time to nab an Oscar trophy should be right now. For that matter, as excellent as Jennifer Lawrence was in "Silver Linings Playbook," I also don't think it is quite Oscar worthy either. For me, Quvenzhane Wallis delivered something so raw, and almost inexplicable in its power, complexity, directness and fever dream like intensity. Her performance, given at the age of 6, showcased a level of command in a way that I am truly unsure that seasoned actresses could accomplish in the same fashion. And for that matter, who knows if Wallis would be able to deliver this powerfully ever again. But, this time, she did and beautifully so. While I know that young Wallis does not have a chance to win the award, it is obvious that the academy, through this nomination, is more than acknowledging the greatness of her work. But, how amazing would it be if she actually won!

Nominees: Bradley Cooper ("Silver Lining Playbook"); Daniel Day-Lewis ("Lincoln"); Hugh Jackman ("Les Miserables"); Joaquin Phoenix ("The Master"); Denzel Washington ("Flight")
SHOULD WIN: Joaquin Phoenix
WILL WIN: Daniel Day-Lewis
As with the Best Supporting Actor category, this particular selection of performances is nothing less than top of the line. As with Anne Hathaway in the Best Supporting Actress category, the award for Best Actor is Daniel Day-Lewis' to lose, plain and simple. Even though I thought that Day-Lewis' performance was a technical marvel, to the point that I could not find even one speck of his past performances or even his real world persona anywhere inside of this haunting portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, I however did find it to be enigmatic to a fault. When I think back to Joaquin Phoenix's flat out unrecognizable work in "The Master," I am dumbstruck by how Phoenix transformed himself into something that was not only completely unlike any performance he has ever given but one that also elicited the role of his far. It was the type of performance that you just do not see coming and when it arrives, the wind is knocked clean out of you due to its force, its level of surprise, unpredictability, complete inability to fully pin down and tame and you just cannot tear your eyes away for even a second. For my money, I would easily forgo Daniel Day-Lewis in less than a heartbeat to award Joaquin Phoenix for his searing performance.

Nominees: Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin ("Beasts Of The Southern Wild"); Tony Kushner ("Lincoln"); David Magee ("Life Of Pi"); David O. Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook"); Chris Terrio ("Argo")
WILL WIN: Chris Terrio-"ARGO"
It should be stated right up front that all five of these nominees are absolutely excellent and all are prime examples of how the thankless and under-appreciated role of screenwriting should be given a tremendous amount of increased respect. With that, I felt that Tony Kushner's luxuriously written work for "Lincoln" represented some of 2012's finest writing and it was obvious that the film's actors felt exactly the same. Even so, I have this feeling that Chris Terrio's sharp, complex, satirical and provocative work for Ben Affleck's "Argo" will sneak up and take the prize.

Nominees: Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola ("Moonrise Kingdom"); Mark Boal ("Zero Dark Thirty"), Michael Haneke ("Amour"); John Gatins ("Flight"); Quentin Tarantino ('Django Unchained")
I am the least confident about this category actually. The key word of this category is original. And with that, there was absolutely NOTHING more original than Quentin Tarantino's screenplay which merged so many different thematic styles, genres and concepts--of such varying degrees, that they should not even fit together--so seemingly effortlessly and undeniably brilliantly. I have my doubts that the Academy will award this powder keg of a film with anything at all aside from the honor of being nominated but Tarantino delivered the goods and raised his own creative bar once again, so if Oscar was going to honor this film at all, it will probably be here.

Nominees: Michael Haneke ("Amour"): Ang Lee ("Life Of Pi"); David O. Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook"); Steven Spielberg ("Lincoln"); Benh Zeitlin ("Beasts Of The Southern Wild")
WILL WIN: Steven Spielberg
For me, this is the most ridiculously conceived category as I just cannot fathom how the Academy can have nine Best Picture nominees and yet only have five Best Director nominees and then not even nominate certain directors for certain films (Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino and Tom Hooper), as if they just magically directed themselves. Even so, these fine nominees are the ones we have and out of the ones listed, I wish, from the bottom of my cinematic heart, that Ang Lee is able to take the prize as I believe that "Life Of Pi" was the finest work of his highly illustrious career and it would be wonderful for the industry to acknowledge it as such. Alas, that is not going to happen as I do think this year's awards are really a race between "Lincoln" and "Argo." And seeing that Affleck was not nominated for his film, the legendary Steven Spielberg to take the trophy home for the third time.

Nominees: "Amour," "Argo," "Beasts Of The Southern Wild," "Django Unchained," "Les Miserables," "Life Of Pi," "Lincoln," "Silver Linings Playbook," "Zero Dark Thirty"
SHOULD WIN: "Django Unchained"
WILL WIN: "Argo"
And here we are at the final award of the evening. I have seen eight of the nine nominated films and aside from "Zero Dark Thirty," which I think was effective but highly over-rated, I am pleased overall with the listed titles. As you all know, "Django Unchained" was my favorite film of 2012 so of course, I would wish for that film to be awarded Best picture--but that's not gonna happen by a long shot.

Now, even though "Lincoln" always felt to be to the a perfect Oscar type film to take the biggest award of the night, I was actually never fully convinced that it was a shoo-in. That trepidation became firm once "Argo" surprisingly took the top prize at this year's Golden Globe awards and then has continued to sweep the industry award scene ever since. If Hollywood likes anything even more than prestigious historical dramas, Hollywood loves movies about itself! With "Argo," Hollywood could get the proverbial two birds with one stone. Also, Hollywood just adores a "comeback story" and awarding "Argo" would not only award Ben Affleck even though he was not nominated himself, it would also celebrate his industry resurrection from the tailspin he endured years ago.

As terrific as I thought "Argo" was, I do not think it was the best film of the year by any means as I don't think that Affleck has directed a film that strong just yet...but he is inching closer with each try at bat. Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," for me, was the film this year that outperformed absolutely everything else, and I would jump out of my seat to see the forces behind that film swarm the stage with rock star swagger...but as I already stated, that just ain't gonna happen.

And there you have it, dear readers. Let's see how I do on Sunday night!!!!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

HERE LIES JOHN McCLANE...R.I.P.: a review of "A Good Day To Die Hard"

Based upon characters created by Roderick Thorp
Screenplay Written by Skip Woods
Directed by John Moore
1/2* (one half of one star)

I hope this is not a sign of what the cinematic year of 2013 will have to offer.

Unbearably loud, violent and stupid, "A Good Day To Die Hard" is not only the very first film of 2013 I have seen, it has also immediately earned a spot as one of the very worst films of the year. 

While it should not serve as any surprise to me that John McClane has prematurely run out of his cinematic nine lives, I was, however, absolutely shocked to see how far our blue collar, working class hero has fallen in his adventures with just this one film. Honestly, the insanely intrepid John McClane, as portrayed with with command, swagger and "average joe" relatability by Bruce Willis, has survived the Nakatomi Plaza massacre, the Dulles International Airport terrorist attack, the voluminous and near constant screaming of Samuel L. Jackson alongside an incoherent climax, and even a PG-13 rating to near miraculous effect but even he is no match for a non-existent script, story or any creative reason to exist. In fact, there was really absolutely no reason whatsoever, other than financial, to make even one sequel to the 1988 action film classic. But somehow, someway, and by an almost sheer force of will, a variety of filmmakers and Willis have ensured that the good will they have earned from film audiences around the world for 25 years was not soiled as they have consistently produced hugely entertaining, exceptionally well produced and excitingly explosive bowls of movie popcorn that made you want to reach for seconds, thirds and fourths. 

But with bowl number five, I have the worst indigestion as "A Good Day To Die Hard" is a perfect example of what happens when the powers that be treat audiences as mere consumers and not as people deserving to receive high quality entertainment for their hard earned money and even more valuable time. While you will get much bang for your buck, everything you have ever loved about John McClane and his exploits are absolutely, positively nowhere to be found this time around. And yet, what else could I have expected from the writer of "Swordfish" (2001) and "The A-Team" (2010) and the director of "Flight Of The Phoenix" (2004) and "Max Payne" (2008)? And if for some inconceivable reason I am fooled into venturing into the inevitable sixth McClane adventure after the trash of this installment, then shame on me.  
As with all of the previous four films in the "Die Hard" series, the plot is extremely straightforward.  Detective John McClane (again played by Willis) travels to Russia to aid imprisoned CIA agent and his long estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney) from a terrorist plot. Yet unlike the four previous entries, this fifth film delves no further than that one sentence description and shamelessly so. In fact, Moore has made a film that is almost defiant in its inability to create even one solitary moment where you would...pardon my wrath, dear readers...give a shit about anything that happened! This is the type of film that firmly believes that if it keeps hurling explosions at you, the film will just get better. That the more shootouts and car chases and crashes it piles upon you, the film will just get better. But, John Moore is so blindingly WRONG as this film does indeed pummel you with all manner of cataclysm and the film just never...gets...better. 

Take the film's initial car chase which lasts for seemingly six hours. The sequence is a complete disaster  not for all of the wreckage upon the screen but the fact that it was conceived and edited with any sense of rhyme or reason that the story of the car chase is non-existent. You have no idea of where one character is in relation to another. It is edited with a meat cleaver and feels as if Moore shot mountains of footage, threw it all up into the air and stitched it together randomly. There is no intensity or excitement or action film awe. Just noise and a lot of it. For all of the cacophony nothing much actually happens in "A Good Day To Die Hard." While I will give all of my compliments to the special effects, set dressers and stunt teams for a job well done, all of it is for naught since Moore, Woods and Willis never bothered to show up for work themselves. 

And that's the major rub I have against films like "A Good Day To Die Hard" the most. It's the fact that this film did not even TRY to make something worthwhile of the series and for the 25 years worth of fans that the series has attained. It is coasting upon the "Die Hard" legend, hoping that our affection for the series will be enough...and it just ain't! We are living during a period where we have seen what I feel is the very best James Bond film to date in Director Sam Mendes' Skyfall" (2012) and the ferociously and inventively executed work from Director Brad Bird and Tom Cruise with "Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol" (2011) and I am sorry, a series with the pedigree of "Die Hard" has just NO EXCUSE to make a film that is so obviously a money grab that I feel as if I have just been rolled. 

Bruce Willis should just be so damn ashamed of himself. He is truly one of our most frustrating actors as when he actually decides to show up, he can still deliver strong, compelling, inventive work as evidenced with his performances in Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" and Rian Johnson's "Looper" from just this past year. I cannot make myself believe that even at his laziest, he would sell out his signature character for a hefty paycheck and yet, there he is on the screen, eliciting his trademark smirk and uttering the most perfunctory lines of dialogue--half of which are nothing more than profane variations of "I'm on vacation!" and the other half exists as guttural utterances and grunts--to get to the next barrage of shattered glass. There are points in the film where the look on his face suggests that even he is wondering why he is doing this to his series as well as himself but then, he smirks once again, alerting the audience, "Oh yeah! I got $20 MILLION dollars to do this crap!" And for that, I just want to grab Willis and the film itself by the collars, bend them both over my knee and with my Grandmother's inimitable switch in hand, give them the seemingly interminable lashing it deserves...and in complete rhythm with my smacking like so: "HOW (SMACK!!) DARE (SMACK!!) YOU (SMACK!!) MAKE (SMACK!!) A (SMACK!!) MOVIE (SMACK!!) THIS (SMACK!!) TERRIBLE (SMACK!!)!!!!"   

I just want to pretend that this movie never happened. But since I just saw it this afternoon, the memory still lingers and stings. As I have said to you before, dear readers, I see these things so you don't have to. TRUST ME, this time!!! I implore you!!! There is just no reason to reward Bruce Willis and any films any more than he and they have already been rewarded for sub par work that has no respect for the art and artistry of the movies, the sheer joy that is found in great entertainment and the audiences that come out to theaters to see movies. "A Good Day To Die Hard" is not worth your time, money, patience or even one more thought from me until this time next year when I give it what should be the final nail in its coffin.

To cleanse myself, I think I'll re-watch the original, outstanding work from Director John McTiernan or even the stellar job from Director Renny Harlin's terrific sequel from 1990. Or maybe I give myself just some silence as a blank screen and no sound is instantly more compelling than any moment from the wretched "A Good Day To Die Hard."      

Friday, February 8, 2013


At last, we reach the top, the very top!

Out of all of the entries in my annual four part series, this installment is my favorite to write as I have just one more chance to give praise to the films that touched me the deepest and rattled my cages the most. The films that went higher and further than all others. The ones that flat out blew my mind and broke my heart. These films, for me in 2012, represent the BEST of THE BEST. And here they are...

10. "THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER" Directed by Stephen Chbosky
This film was the year's most gloriously fragile work as well as one of the most audacious. Based from Chbosky's own celebrated and critically acclaimed young adult novel, "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower" details a school year in the life of the deeply introverted and troubled Charlie (a wonderful Logan Lerman) as he begins his life in high school. While friendless for a spell, he eventually is taken under the wings of  Patrick (an excellent Ezra Miller) and his step-sister, Sam (Emma Watson, just terrific in her first post "Harry Potter" role), and they introduce him into their small circle of sophisticated social misfits.

I found the film to be so beautifully delicate and autumnal because Chbosky perfectly nails the adolescent experience when moments can feel interminable, meaningless and full of heartbreaking loneliness and then as if spun on a cosmic dime, your life can be filled with uplifting and an infinite sense of possibility. He fully captured not only the inner world of being a social outcast but also the extreme seriousness that provides the painful, treacherous urgency of finding friends and keeping them as well. Charlie's need for connection is nothing less than his lifeline and through that pain, Chbosky also uses his film to ask of us to try and take the time to just be kind to others because you have absolutely no idea of how much baggage someone else is carrying internally and just how precariously someone is hanging onto life. The audaciousness of the film for me is actually quite simple. Chbosky has actually created a work that proclaims that teenagers are real, three dimensional human beings with complex foibles, hopes, dreams and fears just like any adult. For an industry that completely caters to the young, that youthful audience is almost always pathetically ill served. Chbosky, like John Hughes and painfully few others before him, has the audacity to believe fiercely that teenagers are worthy and completely deserving of a film experience that honors and values their existence, that can entertain as well as being unabashedly artful. "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower" accomplishes all of those feats and more with a purity that is rare and it is indeed the very best film of its kind that I have seen since the peak of John Hughes' work.
Originally reviewed November 2012

9. "FLIGHT" Directed by Robert Zemeckis
The cinematic returns of both Director Robert Zemeckis from his self imposed 12 year CGI/motion capture exile and Denzel Washington from a string of legend coasting performances gave me a powerfully executed film of challenging moral and interpersonal ambiguity that was supremely riveting and provided no easy answers. "Flight" stars Washington as Captain William "Whip" Whittaker, a commercial airline pilot consumed with nasty addictions to cocaine, alcohol and sex. When his quick, reckless thinking saves nearly the entire plane full of passengers during a spectacular and extremely terrifying plane crash, Whip, still under the influence, is certified a hero. But the even more perilous journey is interior as the bulk of "Flight" deals with Whip's continuous struggles with his addictions, demons and failings as the crash is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, possibly bringing his private pains to the harsh light of the public surface.

Denzel Washington was correctly nominated for his searing performance, which is the very best work I have seen from him in many years, reminding us all once again that he is one of our finest acting treasures. As for Zemeckis, I loved how this film worked essentially as a companion piece to "Cast Away" (2000) as both films begin with a devastating place crash (which Zemeckis presents with nightmarish skill and terror), and then continues to detail how a man survives in a world he had never imagined for himself. Zemeckis and Washington ask of us to think of the nature of hubris, control and what a hero can actually be, especially if that person is as flawed and as dangerous as Whip. I also deeply appreciated Screenwriter John Gatins' wonderfully structured screenplay which was filled with crisp dialogue and compelling motivations that gave Washington as well as all of the actors much to chomp upon. Even though its actual final moments were a little too tidy for my tastes, "Flight" was one of the year's most dramatically gripping films.
Originally reviewed November 2012

8.  "THE AVENGERS" Directed by Joss Whedon
This was the very best film in the comic book genre since Director Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" (2008) as it was just a flat out sensational thrill ride which brought the superhero characters from the Marvel Comics universe to vibrant life to an astoundingly high-flying degree. Joss Whedon magically performed the stellar task of completely honoring and remaining consistent with all of the Marvel Comics movies that have worked as stepping stones to this one while also creating a stand alone film where absolutely every single character is faithfully represented from the source material and all of whom (and the actors who portray them) are given their fullest moments to shine as bright as the sun. It would have been so easy to just make this film nothing more than mindless explosions and endless quips from Robert Downey Jr. but Whedon so smartly ensured that we had a rich story, sharp writing and characters to ground the proceedings and then send us off into the stratosphere with a war sequence that topped itself over and over and over again with flash, excitement, awe and surprising and brilliantly placed and delivered humor. I honestly do not know how filmmakers are able to keep the seemingly infinite details of a film as large scaled as this one together. But Joss Whedon performed this task with supreme magnificence.
Originally reviewed May 2012

7. "THE DARK KNIGHT RISES" Directed by Christopher Nolan
When I wrote my "Time Capsule" series celebrating the my favorite films from the decade of 2000-2009, Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" ranked very highly within my Top Ten favorite films from that decade. With "The Dark Knight Rises," Nolan doesn't quite scale those heights again...and really, how could he? Even so, his final installment in his extraordinarily re-imagined Batman trilogy, truly re-defined the meaning of "grand finale" with this relentlessly grim and overwhelmingly exhausting epic experience.

I once described "Batman Begins" (2005) as an "overture" and "The Dark Knight" as an "opera." Continuing with that musical terminology, "The Dark Knight Rises" functions as a "requiem." It is a somber, mournful film and yet one that also builds to a crescendo so intense it threatened to crack the theater screen in half. Throughout all three of these films and this one in particular, I have loved how Nolan has treated these works not solely as "comic book movies" but more as literary adaptations, with a near Dickensian approach to detail and moral complexity. In fact, it could be argued that this series has not truly been about Batman as it has really been an exploration into the flawed psyche of Bruce Wayne (terrifically played by Christian Bale) and the soul of Gotham City. "The Dark Knight Rises" is a mammoth achievement for Christopher Nolan, and one of the very best lessons on how the entertainment value of the big budget blockbuster and a filmmaker's rich and uncompromising artistic vision can meet in the middle to make something stunningly gargantuan and deeply inspiring.
Originally reviewed July 2012

6. "SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK" Directed by David O. Russell
This was one of the biggest surprises of the year as it not only completely confirmed that Bradley Cooper can act, that Jennifer Lawrence is a young actress with a screen presence and dramatic force to be reckoned with, that Robert De Niro still has his mojo and that Writer/Director David O. Russell has made his best film in many years. This marvelous film miraculously combines a love story, a dance contest, the culture of sports fanaticism, the realistic, pulsating beats of a Boston neighborhood and a family drama without making any false steps. What I appreciated the very most was Russell's deft, honest, realistic and entirely humane exploration of mental illness, a topic most movies then to either sidestep, ignore or overplay and exaggerate to cloying degrees. Russell just presents everything with a matter of fact frankness that makes every moment crackle with an emotional freshness that was as vibrant and uplifting as it was wrenching. An excellent piece of work!
Originally reviewed January 2013  

5. "RUBY SPARKS" Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
This was one of the movies that absolutely nobody saw and it whisked through my city's movie theaters rapidly. Such a shame as this literary fantasy and cautionary tale also provided one of the year's most provocative and very best love stories. Paul Dano stars as a lonely, depressed and profoundly introverted literary wunderkind, who after striking gold with a hit novel at the age of 19 is now approaching the age of 30 and has been struggling with his extremely difficult second novel ever since. Inspiration arrives in the form of a young woman who visits him in a dream and upon waking, our hero begins to feverishly write and write until he begins to fall in love with his fantasy girl. And then, his creation named "Ruby Sparks" (in an outstanding performance by Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay) suddenly appears in the flesh in his apartment.

Where "Ruby Sparks" goes from this point is just not for me to even begin to explain as I firmly believe that it is something to see and feel for yourselves. Dayton and Faris have made a most challenging love story as it asks of the characters  as well as ourselves, what if our romantic partner was indeed everything we wanted for them to be. The dark side of that sense of romantic wish fulfillment fueled the film and propelled it from a whimsical fantasy and smart exploration of writer's block into a near psychological thriller. Zoe Kazan is a sight and talent to behold, the comparatively quieter yet no less intense Paul Dano is her equal and Dayton and Faris have helmed a film that deeply resonated with me and I strongly feel deserves to be celebrated greatly. For those who claim that there is no more originality in the movies, you need to seek this film out!
Originally reviewed August 2012

4. "BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD" Directed by Behn Zeitlin
Sometimes a film arrives, as if from out of nowhere, and somehow and amazingly nearly re-defines what a movie experience can actually be. Behn Zeitlin's "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" is exactly one of those types of movies. It is a superbly haunting experience that fuses the sensibilities of a fable, a fever dream, spiritual inter-connectivity, apocalyptic and post apocalyptic realities and fantasies, prehistoric monsters, the unshakable bonds to and within a community, and an unorthodox Father/daughter relationship with a powerhouse of a performance by young and ferociously commanding Quvenzhane Wallis as the fierce and adventurous Hushpuppy at the film's emotional core.

Despite the often harrowing nature of the story, which seems to be set somewhere between the coast of Louisiana and the edge of the world, "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" is an evocatively executed tone poem to the resourcefulness of love and survival in a universe where all things are connected, therefore effecting each other in simultaneously small and seismic ways. This is one of those movies when after you watch it, you feel as if you have been somewhere. This film is transportive, transcendent and one of the year's finest achievements.
Originally reviewed July 2012

3. "LIFE OF PI" Directed by Ang Lee
Simply stated, in the long, varied career of Director Ang Lee, "Life Of Pi," his majestic adaptation of the supposedly unfilmmable best selling novel, is unquestionably his masterpiece. Like the previous entry on this list, it also merges aspects of fables and fantasies with brutally harsh realities and a harrowing exploration of survival. Where the film is conceptually boldest is how Lee asks of us to seek out, question and comprehend the symbiotic nature logic and faith, of the scientific and spiritual inter-connectivity, two areas that many would love to keep as separate as possible but I feel are actually strongly intertwined. Suraj Sharma's performance as the titular Pi, a teenager who finds himself battling for survival upon a small raft against the unforgiving elements after a tragic shipwreck alongside a tiger improbably named Richard Parker, is sensational through his enormous physicality and the anguish and yearning of his inner spiritual quest. Since much of the film is set aboard the life raft, Ang Lee utilizes some of the finest special effects and CGI technology witnessed this year to take us for a ride upon the cosmic ocean unlike anything we have seen before. This is a spiritual odyssey that never at any point functions as dogma as it is an all inclusive experience to people of all thoughts, faiths, beliefs and even atheism as we are all asked to question our place and purpose within this vast universe. "Life Of Pi" is a thrilling, remarkable, monumental dream world of a movie so elegantly and empathetically told.
Originally reviewed November 2012

2. "SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD" Directed by Lorene Scafaria
For most of this year, this movie was my Number One pick for the best film of 2012 and it still hurts me to see how criminally ignored it was critically as well as at the box office. Lorene Scafaria created one of the year's boldest and bravest films with an excellent sense of tonality and a directorial sure handedness that would upend many other filmmakers. This story of the final three weeks in the life of planet Earth, as it is about to be destroyed by an oncoming asteroid, is a dark comedy of manners as Scafaria beautifully creates a deeply humane film that elicits what happens once all societal rules become meaningless in the face of extinction.

Steve Carell and Keira Knightley
star as Dodge and Penny, two lonely people who live in the same apartment building but have not met until the grim realization of the end of absolutely everything arrives with crushing certainty. The twosome end up taking a road trip. Penny promises to return Dodge to a lost love, he promises to find her a plane so she can see her family back in England. The road they travel externally and internally provided me with the very best love story I have seen since Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" (2004) as the intimate and the epic congeal masterfully. This is a love story told with sparkling dialogue, tremendous understanding and empathy and the heartbreaking yet life affirming nature of at last feeling a sense of significance with another person despite the fact that the universe is just this close to rendering you completely insignificant. It is haunting, saddening, constantly surprising, hilarious, shocking and yet, Scafaria keeps the entire film firmly grounded as well as richly warm. I have not been able to shake this film ever since I saw it last summer. I urge you to try it now and I really think that you just may feel the same as this is one beautiful motion picture.
Originally reviewed July 2012  

1. "DJANGO UNCHAINED" Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Unquestionably, undeniably, and indisputably, Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" is my favorite film of 2012. This titanic powder keg of a motion picture has got it all and then some, as Tarantino creatively tops himself all over again with this orgiastic blend of revisionist history, the blending of the Spaghetti Western and the 1970s "blaxploitation" film, the deconstruction and ultimate destruction of the Hollywood slave epic while existing as a Hollywood slave epic, the ingenious re-telling of a German fable while the film also creates its own mythology, and most movingly, a mountainous African-American love story as fueled through his endlessly inventive storytelling, peerless dialogue, a wicked sense of humor, stunning cinematography, always surprising music choices (Jim Croce's "I Got A Name" has never sounded so poignant before) and bar raising performances from the entire cast.

But what makes his story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave newly emancipated by a white German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) who then join forces to rescue his enslaved wife (Kerry Washington) from the insidious plantation/slave owner Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), exist as much more than yet another Tarantino revenge fantasy bloodbath (which it is) is that "Django Unchained" possess an unprecedented and newfound level of moral outrage. This is a film that does not trivialize the African-American Holocaust but completely respects the subjects of racism and slavery as Tarantino digs, digs and digs so deeply into the physical, verbal and most importantly, the psychological brutality that existed so prevalently during one of America's darkest historical chapters.

Yes, this is a violent film. Sometimes, excruciatingly so. Yes, you will hear the word "nigger" exhaustively. And as well as we should!!! Because Quentin Tarantino understands that if you are going to deal with racism and slavery then you have to be fearless and deal with it. This ain't "The Help," dear readers, a film so afraid of its subject matter that it never wanted to make the audience feel uncomfortable. News flash, folks! There is absolutely, positively, NOTHING about racism or slavery that should make you feel comfortable and  Quentin Tarantino fearlessly takes us on a a wrenching odyssey that explodes into a cathartic fury, rage filled retribution and level of emotional deliverance that I have not experienced in quite the same way before.

Of course there were never African-American bounty hunters, but Tarantino also wisely understands that the image is absolutely everything! That the sight of a strong, attractive, heroic, emancipated African-American man on horseback (and who is also the fastest gun in the South) to the characters within the film as well as the audience is a symbol that the nightmare of slavery was a soulless business of human trafficking and eradication that African-Americans were not meant to survive...but we did!!!!!! Therefore, "Django Unchained" exists as a work that doubles as pop culture adventure as well as a testament to the African-American reconstruction of the mind, body and spirit.

Quentin Tarantino is working at an entirely different level than most filmmakers, and this time, he has re-set his own creative bar that much higher.
Originally reviewed December 2012

That's my TOP TEN. My favorites of 2012 and now, I can say, that's a wrap for the Savage Scorecard series for this year. Let's see what 2013 will bring my way. I cannot wait!!!!!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A BOY AND HIS DEAD DOG: a review of "Frankenweenie"

Based upon the 1984 short film "Frankenweenie" by Tim Burton
and the Original Screenplay by Lenny Ripps
Screenplay Written by John August
Directed by Tim Burton
*** (three stars)

I am now beginning to wonder if perhaps Tim Burton has had a master plan all along. 

"Frankenweenie," Burton's third full length animated feature after "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993, and as directed by Henry Selick) and "Corpse Bride" (2005) not only signals a near return to form after some creative missteps over the past few years. To me, the film also just may be signaling a renewed sense of artistic purpose. This possibility is made all the more meaningful as "Frankenweenie" represents a return to Tim Burton's artistic roots as it is a remake of a short film of the same name he directed all the way back in 1984. And if this new version is indeed signaling a renewed sense of artistic purpose, then we, as fans of Tim Burton and as those who simply love movies that have a true, pure and unique artistic point of view, are all the better for it. While I will explain my reasoning for this impression very shortly, on the whole, "Frankenweenie," while not without some flaws, is a fast paced, very clever, sweet-natured and gently told horror parody that the entire family can enjoy in earnest.

As our story begins in the small, sleepy suburban town of New Holland, young filmmaker and budding scientist Vincent Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is premiering his latest cinematic monster movie opus starring his beloved dog Sparky to his admiring and loving parents Ben and Susan (voiced by Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara). While his parents encourage Vincent's intelligence, they are worried and concerned about Vincent's increasingly isolated existence inside the comforts of his upstairs lair and laboratory. Outside of his home, and despite the ever present Sparky by his side, Vincent is friendless and even the envy of several of his comically ghoulish classmates, which include the hunchbacked Edgar "E" Gore (voiced by Atticus Shaffer), the arrogantly sullen Toshiaki (voiced by James Hiroyuki Liao) and the gloomy, lanky Nassor (also voiced by Martin Short), all of whom are in competition with Vincent for an upcoming Science Fair.

Tragedy strikes shortly after Vincent reluctantly joined a Little League baseball team upon the urging of his Father, when Sparky is killed in an accident. Grief stricken and jointly inspired by his Science teacher Mr. Rzykruski's (voiced by Martin Landau) lectures about electricity and a chance sighting of the classic "Horror Of Dracula" (1958) on television, Vincent secretly returns to Sparky's grave site and digs up his corpse. With his parents fully unaware, Vincent ascends back to his makeshift attic laboratory. Through the electricity of a major thunderstorm combined with the deep love he shared for his dog, Sparky is fully reanimated, a scientific miracle the twosome attempt to keep hidden from family and the town but, of course, to no avail.

Things come to a head at the town's Dutch Days festival event as Vincent's classmate competitors utilize similar reanimation techniques which backfire, unleashing an army of mutated creatures upon New Holland and forcing Vincent and Sparky to save the day.

Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie," beautifully presented in luxurious black and white cinematography, is indeed a terrific sight to behold through its wondrous stop motion animation and its warmly affectionate parody/homage to the Boris Karloff starring "Frankenstein" (1931). The film is a vast improvement over the joyless and horrendous "Alice In Wonderland" (2010) and the near miss of "Dark Shadows" (2012) as, for the first time in quite some while, Burton seems to be reaching for the lovely and longing melancholy of his classic "Edward Scissorhands" (1990) as this fable places a boy's love for his dog as the strong emotional center. I think that Burton has truly hit upon a deeply touching nerve that I believe anyone who has ever shared a treasured relationship with an animal can understand: the complete unfairness that our animal friends cannot live a life as lengthy as their human companions. My heart completely went out to poor Vincent at the loss of Sparky and his desire to do absolutely anything at all to just see him and be with him again. This aspect of "Frankenweenie" spoke volumes to me and even brought me back to thinking about my very first cat, my beloved Pekoe, who passed away at the age of eight many years ago. He was a gorgeous soul, the kindest feline you could ever wish to meet (although he was very shy), who never hissed even once in his life and held so many goofy quirks and amazing and seemingly endearments that I still wish to see him again to this very day as he was indeed an angel with fur. Even so, and especially if similar feelings arise within some of you, I wish to exclaim that "Frankenweenie" is not presented as a depressing experience whatsoever.

"Frankenweenie" returns Tim Burton to familiar conceptual and thematic territory, making this film work very nicely as a companion piece to some of his past films. We are back within the same off kilter suburban setting which strikes a funny 1950's pastiche with an Edward Gorey styled cast of humorously spooky characters, from the Vincent's mopey next door neighbor Elsa (voiced by Winona Ryder), her uncle, Mr. Bergermeister (again voiced by Martin Short), the grim and portly Mayor of New Holland and even a wildly wide eyed girl named Weird Girl (voiced by Catherine O'Hara), who consistently pays heed to the premonitions of her cat Mr. Whiskers. Composer Danny Elfman, one of Burton's longtime collaborators, also provides a jaunty character to "Frankenweenie" as his bouncy score keeps the proceedings moving forwards with zestful and zippy energy.

But for all of the similar attributes "Frankenweenie" shares with Burton's past films, it also shares some of the same weaknesses. As with many of his past works, "Frankenweenie" seems to have the lack of a strong mid-section, something to make the opening and climax flow together more smoothly and not feel so rushed or abbreviated. Additionally, there are story threads and character introductions and developments that feel as if they are being established (the respective relationships between Vincent, Elsa and Mr. Bergermeister for instance) but end up going nowhere. 

What saves the film confidently is Burton's adherence the heart of his story, as well as the overall heart that pulsates within the full purpose of the film. In regards to the film's story, Burton keeps the love and friendship between Vincent and Sparky front and center, grounding the film in their relationship, ensuring that every event and circumstance, no matter how bizarre or cacophonous, is built from the bond the boy and his deceased dog share.  

But for me, there is a greater and even more crucial love on display within "Frankenweenie," and I have the feeling that for Tim Burton, this film carried more weight for him as an artist than just creating his latest project. Vincent Frankenstein is obviously Burton's fictional pre-adolescent alter-ego and I cannot help but to wonder if we are all getting a glimpse into Burton's past which then makes me wonder if he is reminiscing as well, possibly trying to ruminate over the emotions he went through as a child as he took those initial steps into becoming the filmmaker we all know him to be today. And with that, is Burton potentially trying to renew his sense of artistic purpose when it comes to the types of films he will continue to make?

Out of the films he has made over the past few years, "Frankenweenie" feels as if this one was a labor of love, the very film that he would pay to see himself whether he had created it or not. And maybe, just maybe, directing an almost anonymous and smash hit studio picture like "Alice In Wonderland" was the very thing that would give him some additional clout to pursue a personal passion project like this one. Certainly, I have no inside information but this is a gut feeling and my reading of the potential hows and whys one film from Burton has turned out so well and another so poorly, to my perceptions.  

Even so, I think that there are some peeks behind the "Burton Curtain" with "Frankenweenie" that are not to be ignored and I also think that some of those peeks can be found existing inside of who I felt to be the film's most endearing character, the wraith-like, Vincent Price influenced Science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski. In addition to delivering some very sharp, sly satirical jibes against those who claim ignorance when faced with scientific truths as well as vindicating the role of teachers during a time when teachers are being vilified for political gains, Mr. Rzykruski provides "Frankenweenie" with its conscience and purity of soul. 

In a short speech he delivers to young Vincent, Mr. Rzykruski expresses how the very best scientists certainly utilize their brains and intellect, the greatest use their hearts in equality. That without love, without an honest sense of heartfelt purpose, all scientific experimentation is rendered meaningless, a fact Vincent's classmates learn the hard way in the film's hellzapoppin' climax. But as I think about Tim Burton, the veteran filmmaker, the artist and the work he shares with us time and again, I wonder if he ever feels as if he has lost his way at times. Perhaps through this idiosyncratic character, the message is no less than an intentionally crucial reminder to himself to always remain true to his art and that just because he is a filmmaker who is able to command a certain budget and is probably one of the few filmmakers who just may have a level of creative autonomy, that doesn't mean that he should just make any old movie. That he should strive to achieve the wonderful and reach for greatness every time, to artistically make the impossible so beautifully possible--like Vincent resurrecting his beloved dog Sparky. .  

Yes, I am of course viewing this film through an adult lens and I can willingly concede that maybe I am  wishing for more than what Tim Burton intended as "Frankenweenie" is geared directly at a young audience. But I cannot help but to wonder... 

"Frankenweenie" is not Tim Burton operating at his absolute best, a level to which I am certain he will return to one day. But it is Tim Burton operating at his most tender, gentle, sincere and purposeful and for me and my sensibilities, those are all giant steps in the right direction.. 

Now, for those of you dear readers who may be parents and are wondering if "Frankenweenie" would be safe enough to view with your little ones, I will offer the following advice and foresight. Tim Burton handles the story's themes of life and death in this light footed PG rated film with a soft touch and the film never wallows in darkness. In regards to the film's horror elements, while there are a few scares, especially during the film's action climax, they are brief and minor at that. From there, you know your children best and what they are able or not able to handle, so proceed with the highest parental discretion that I am certain that you all consistently operate.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

I AM HIM, HE IS ME: a review of "Looper"

Written and Directed by Rian Johnson
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Oh, what a near miss this was! The cinematic brass ring was just this close in reach and somehow, it all slipped away. 

Dear readers, with that opening statement being said, I do want you to understand that if you take the plunge into Writer/Director Rian Johnson's science fiction/action/existential thriller "Looper," you are indeed in for a most involving and unique experience as this film will simultaneously make your pulse pound and scratch your head in pure puzzlement. While I shall do my very best to review this film to you without producing any spoilers, I will say that the "near miss" in question stems from the fact that Johnson had me in the palm of his cinematic hand from the very first moments of "Looper." My enjoyment of the film continued to rise and rise and then, I was abruptly brought back down to Earth by one (and possibly two) conceptual potholes that made me feel that the house of cards Johnson had been meticulously stacking was quite possibly not as sturdy as he may have wished for it to be.

Set in a violent and grim Kansas City in the year 2044, "Looper" introduces us to Joe (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt), a drug addicted hit man employed by a crime syndicate to assassinate and dispose criminals from 2074, who are sent back to 2044 through an illegal time travel process called "looping." When the syndicate is ready to end their formal arrangements with members of their hit squad, the assassin's future self from 2074 is then sent back to 2044 for assassination and disposal, thus "closing the loop." When Joe faces the quandary of facing and hunting down his future self, Old Joe (Bruce Willis), the paradoxes of time and punishment pile upwards forcing Joe to make a crucial decision concerning his ultimate destiny.

That is as much as I feel that I am able to share with you about "Looper" as part of the film's charm is not knowing exactly where this film is headed or what conceptual tricks it may pull from its seemingly endless sleeve. But, I do feel very safe is saying that as you watch, you are certain to discover elements from Michael Anderon's "Logan's Run" (1976),  James Cameron's "The Terminator" (1984), Robert Zemeckis' "Back To The Future" trilogy (1985, 1989, 1990), Terry Giliam's "Twelve Monkeys" (1995), The Wachowski's "The Matrix" trilogy (1999, 2003) to even television's "Lost," "Fringe," and even dashes of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and miraculously "Looper" never feels as if it has been made out of the spare parts of past works. Rian Johnson, through the strength of his cinematic vision (and aided greatly by Cinematographer Steve Yedlin and Composer Nathan Johnson), is able to beautifully weave all of those familiar elements into a deeply compelling story that is completely of his own devising and quite an elevation from his debut film "Brick" (2005), a high school set film noir that never transcended itself from being anything more than an exercise in style. 

The crucial element that I felt was lacking in "Brick" but was in sumptuous supply in "Looper" was Johnson's smart, sophisticated ability to inject a heavy philosophical underpinning to the proceedings that gave this film an enormous amount of humanity and even spiritual crisis. With the storyline's main conceit of a hit man forced into killing his future self, we are given the philosophical and psychological struggle of a man facing down the consequences of his violent present. Once you realize that you have killed yourself in the present, how do you possibly live the next 30 years of your life essentially knowing the very day on which you will die and the method which that death will be executed? Beyond that, what is to stop yourself from running away from your life, knowing that one day you will be forced into killing yourself in the first place? Joseph Gordon-Leavitt performs a remarkable task of portraying one who, despite being a junkie and hard-boiled, does indeed illicit a sense of sympathetic fear at the perceived inevitability of his life's course. But also, when he is confronted with his future self, he almost always tries to psychologically extract himself from the situation by referring to Old Joe as if he is a completely different person.

Through Joe's actions in 2044 and the life he grows into over the following 30 years as Old Joe, "Looper" becomes a powerful and soulful examination that I believe that any of us could relate to: the idea of being confronted with the mistakes and bad decisions that we have all made, and despite our best efforts continue to make, and how those decisions define us. Can we ever outrun our demons or are we just destined to be the people we are no matter what we may or may not do to change our life's outcomes? With those themes, Rian Johnson has proven himself to be a filmmaker who has indeed created a science fiction rarity these days as "Looper" is the science fiction film that is built upon ideas rather than cataclysm even though the film does provide a lot of bang for its buck will extremely well constructed action sequences that surprise and even fill you with dread.    

Much of the film's darkest clouds arrive in the form of Old Joe and to that I have to give Bruce Willis much credit for delivering a performance that functions as a near existential howl into an unforgiving universe. I just cannot go into the specifics but I have to express that I was so very pleased with his performance, a pure reminder than when he wants to be, Bruce Willis can be a dramatic actor of great range and depth as well as not squelching a bit of his trademark sly humor. Take the sequence where present and Old Joe meet in a diner. While it houses a certain intensity, it also showcases Willis' skill as he is essentially playing the role of a frustrated parent trying to get through to his hard-headed child, but in this case, the hard-headed child is himself. Is it a scene where we can laugh in recognition as we can all ask ourselves that if we did indeed have the chance to speak and give advice to our younger selves, would we listen? As the film moves ahead, Willis, through nothing more than facial expressions and body language, shows the lengths to which he will go to save his own future and the crippling spiritual conflict he becomes engulfed in with each bloody step and choice he makes. It is a terrific performance, which makes his consistently last film role choices and performances all the more head pounding as we all know how great he can actually be. 

But then...

Well, I really cannot say. But, let's just say that after a spell "Looper" reminded me very much of Barry Levinson's "Sphere" (1998), a very strong and hugely entertaining science fiction, undersea thriller that faltered at the conclusion as it seemed to write itself into a corner that it could not escape, so in order to end the film, all of the established rules did not apply anymore. "Looper" felt like that to me by the end. While not derailing the experience as a whole, I did feel that Rian Johnson had several eggs in his basket and instead of using the best, he just cooked them all, making a less satisfying meal in the process. "Looper" became an experience that I think was more confusing than it had to be. 

Even as I think about it now, I am still stuck by two sequences where the conceptual designs doesn't feel as if they can work based upon the rules Johnson establishes in the film's opening sequences. There are moments when it seems as if Joe and Old Joe are existing within two time lines yet somehow the two threads intersect into one story. The film's climax involves the present states and potential futures of several characters yet the meaning of the final decisions within that scene remain unclear to me because I was not entirely convinced of one character's possible future identity, therefore altering the significance of the climax, and the film, greatly. It just seemed as if Rian Johnson marvelously created his landscape, set up the rules of the game and then wrote himself into a corner from which he could not escape. So, instead of going back and re-thinking some things, he threw the old rules out and tossed in some new ones. Maybe, to be fair, I am just too confused to figure it all out or maybe there were some conceptual hiccups but regardless, these were the moments that stopped me from awarding this film four stars, especially as I was headed in that direction for much of the film's duration.

Even so, "Looper" is a head spinning, enormously entertaining and emotionally resonant thrill ride fueled by sheer creativity and the desire to bring you an experience you have not had in quite the same way before. To that, Rian Johnson succeeded terrifically...

...But if you don't mind, I think I still have to piece bits and pieces together some more. 

Friday, February 1, 2013


I have to admit dear readers, that this year's list where I take one final swing at the films that disappointed and/or pained me to view during the 2012 movie year will be surprisingly brief. Remember, I don't see every film that is released in a calendar year of course so there were many I avoided. That said, the overall quality of 2012 was so unusually high that my good to bad movie ratio is disproportionately weighed towards better films, a great "problem" to have, don't you think?

Even so, for the films I will take my time to recount in Part Three of my Savage Scorecard series are ones that represent lingering negative issues to be found in the current crop of motion pictures being released as well as new, artistically dangerous ones. So, let's get at it as I really hate spending more time than I need to on bad movies.


If there was a way to actually count the amount of car crashes, shootouts and explosions I have seen in the movies throughout my life, I would gather than even the numerical value of infinity would not be high enough. As I have gotten older and continue to see movies, I have to say that the sight of car crashes, shootouts and explosions are ones that really don't even begin to thrill me as much as they did when they were much fresher sights. This makes the process of cinematic storytelling, inventive direction combined with strong performances so crucial because if you want me to buy the fantasy and still rise to my feet with all manner of action sequences, then you, as a filmmaker, have to discover new ways to excite me, to make me care about what is happening to anybody on screen and to just give a damn. That's why films like Director Daniel Espinosa's "Safe House" (Originally reviewed June 2012) starring a seriously coasting on his legend Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds and Director Asger Leth's "Man On A Ledge" (Originally reviewed June 2012starring the bland and wooden Sam Worthington were such tremendous disappointments.

While I was not exactly seeking or even expecting any level cinematic greatness with either one of those films, I will always leave myself open to being surprised, for you just never know what filmmakers might come up with. Unfortunately, in both cases, the filmmakers came up with absolutely nothing but a morass of recycled ideas, stock characters, cliched dialogue, nonsensical action sequences that were so overblown that they were obviously designed to keep audiences distracted from the dreck that surrounded those very sequences. Yes, as movies go, both "Safe House" and the truly stupid "Man On A Ledge" were essentially B-level thrillers presented with A-level production values and yes, I have seen much, much worse than either of them (we'll get to those shortly). But those films were symptomatic of a sad and creatively dangerous trend were movies are shuffled out into theaters week after week to get your hard earned dollar and they are completely anonymous, heartless, soulless and especially in the case of "Man On A Ledge," flat out brainless. To take one last swipe, I have to take aim at a certain Mr. Washington.

Certainly within both films, actors like Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendon Gleeson, Ed Harris and a hysterically awful Kyra Sedgewick (as a LATINA television news reporter no less) were all wasted in completely underwritten and under thought roles. But, Denzel Washington, who is indeed incapable of delivering a bad performance, truly should have known better. As brilliant as he is, and continues to be, it was crass and almost insulting to see him smile that "Cheshire Cat" grin of his throughout the entirety of "Safe House" in a fashion that practically announced to the audience, "I got myself a niiiiiiicccceee fat paycheck for this one!"

Now, the worst example of these soulless, anonymous action movies that I saw this year had to be Director Tony Gilroy's money-grabber "The Bourne Legacy" (Originally reviewed December 2012), a movie, while being a most handsome looking production, is also a feature that has absolutely no reason to exist whatsoever other than to just cash in. And cash in it did, despite the non-appearance of Jason Bourne himself and starring Jeremy Renner as yet another genetically altered super soldier on the run from creepy government officials that want to rub him out to save tier own political hides, made an absolute fortune, even financially outpacing the debut film in the series. But the GIANT plot holes are terribly distracting, the laughable addition of a third team of elite, genetically altered super soldiers derailed this film severely and by the conclusion, it represented Hollywood filmmaking at its most cynical.


I truly believe that there is a fine art to the R rated comedy. I believe that there is a finesse  a style, an inexplicable gift to the utilization of a barrage of cuss words presented alongside copious amounts of nudity and even some toilet humor that can be as gut bustingly sensational as another film that may hold a certain loftiness. But for me, and as I have always said, the best comedy comes from the actual storytelling where once the characters and the story have been established and grounded, the fullness of the humor, dirty jokes and all, is allowed to be released. Otherwise, all you're left with is a string of gags. But even then, great comedy can come from a string of gags (1980's "Airplane!" anyone?)...but they had better be some damn funny gags.

I am by no means a prude and I am not easy to offend but 2012 saw a few of these R rated comedies that took good and sometimes provocative premises, had the potential for greatness but failed due to a completely uninspired execution that completely fell back upon a barrage dirty words and nasty, sound effects driven flatulence that fourth grade boys could easily outpace. Truth be told, I really have no idea of what inspiration could have been obtained from yet one more buddy cop movie and a re-imagining of "21 Jump Street" (Originally reviewed July 2012), no less but for me, this movie was absolutely painful to sit through and its mass box office success has seriously confounded me. I think what really irritated me about this movie, aside from the over reliance upon just saying dirty words just for the sake of saying them and it very peculiar OBSESSION with the male member, was the fact that this was a film that just believed that it was more "edgy" and "clever" than it really was. By being so smugly self-referential to the television series and cop movie genre, it was as if the filmmakers thought those mere boneheads in the audience could not possibly get the real intention behind the parody. Through it's own insufferable ironic hipster quality, "21 Jump Street" was an agonizing exercise in misguided superiority but it was so creatively low that it had to reach upwards to scrape the bottom.

Even worse was Jay Roach's "The Campaign" (Originally reviewed November 2012starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as dueling North Carolina congressional candidates which was undeniably and inexcusably an astounding example of a wasted opportunity, and like so many who have committed cinematic crimes before them, they should have known better. But perhaps they did. Roach, Ferrell and Galifianakis are smart guys. Roach even helmed HBO's excellent "Game Change," a film about a certain half-term Alaskan governor's attempt to become Vice President during the 2008 election cycle, in the same year, so we know that this is a filmmaker who understands, and can viciously satirize, our current political landscape. So, what the hell happened with "The Campaign"? This was a political film that was begging for political flame throwing in an election year no less yet it was absolutely so terrified of politics and therefore, potentially offending audience members and furthermore potentially losing those precious box office dollars, that all it could do was fall back on exhaustingly tired vulgarities that should just remain in a fourth grade boys' bathroom. Did studio heads intervene, reigning in Roach and his cast and writers or not? We'll never really know but I know that this movie was so distressingly easy when it needed to be tougher, smarter, meaner and show some true comedic teeth instead of gumming the audience into indifference.


Now we arrive at the bottom three-the worst films I saw in 2012. So, let's just get to it so I won't have to think about them ever again after I post this latest entry.

3. "SAVAGES" Directed by Oliver Stone 
The steep artistic decline in the film career of Oliver Stone is akin to watching a once great athlete slowly losing his or her near magical powers over time. Stone will always and forever remain a cinematic hero to me as his fever dream, scorched earth oeuvre has captivated and gripped me most powerfully for nearly 30 years running. But, in recent years, tone's films have felt to be surprisingly subdued, lacking the bite and pain of his earlier works. With "Savages," I initially felt that perhaps without a political agenda in mind, maybe he could flex his muscles and find that rock and roll spirit again and create a loud, nasty thrill ride. While "Savages" is indeed loud and nasty, it is also unfortunately, a profoundly ugly, ultra-violent disaster that could very well be the worst film in his long career.

This film, which tells the story of two young California drug dealers (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson) exacting brutal revenge against a syndicate run by Salma Hayek and Benicio del Toro for taking hostage their blonde beach baby, the improbably named "O" (Blake Lively), was a rancorous joy ride filled with all manner of gratuitously explicit dialogue, nudity, drug usage and violence including rape and decapitations and yet throughout this vicious maelstrom of naughtiness, it felt as if absolutely NOTHING happens over the course of the film. That is entirely because Stone has not invested his film with any depth, soul, purpose or compelling characters whatsoever and therefore all of the actors, no matter how much blood and spit they are fueling their performances with, are all entirely wasted. Worst of all is the film's gory climax which kind of rewinds itself into a cinematic do-over which negates everything we have already seen. It's like Stone had several alternate endings and instead of just picking one, he used all of them. Just awful, awful, AWFUL!!!!!!
Originally reviewed July 2012

2. "ROCK OF AGES" Directed by Adam Shankman
Mr. Shankman, for the love of all that is holy and sacred in the universe, I BEG you to just stop directing movies and remain in your chosen career as choreographer and fantastically shrilly judge on "So You Think You Can Dance," because what you have seriously inflicted upon rock music and film musicals with this gargantuan abomination of a movie should have done everything short of kicking you completely out of Hollywood. From its fun house mirror version of a 1987 landscape that never existed to the ADD delivered medleys that just shoehorned songs into the film's barely existent storyline whether they carried any narrative significance or not, "Rock Of Ages" would have been bad enough at that point anyway. What qualifies it as being a god-awful mess is Shankman's unbelievably atrocious handling of the material that shoves every single, solitary moment into your face with such force that there's no room to breathe. And since he and his THREE SCREENWRITERS didn't even condescend to create any real characters or emotions for the audience to latch onto, all you have are the songs, which are then destroyed by the overly processed, canned and hermetically sealed singing that has robbed the human voice of any subtlety and heart.  And then, Shankman couldn't even get his musical material straight as he actually includes a song from 1990 into a film set in 1987, therefore having characters sing a song that hadn't existed yet. "Rock Of Ages" is indeed the kind of musical that makes you wish to never hear a sung note ever again.
Originally reviewed November 2012

...and now, the film I hated the very most in 2012...

1. "BRAVE" from Pixar Animation Studios
I am certain that this choice has surprised many of you. And believe me, I never imagined that I would ever anoint a film from this brilliant studio, which has set the gold standard for American animation time and again with increasingly challenging and gorgeously artful material that may not be necessarily made for children but children can indeed experience and grow with over time. But over the last few years, Pixar's quality control has suffered a steep decline with its over reliance upon sequels, and therefore merchandising. I've said it before and I still mean it. I can understand if the wizards of Pixar just wanted to make something lighter, especially after the triumvirate of bar-raising films like "Ratatouille" (2007), "Wall-E' (2008) and "Up" (2009). But in being lighter, I just do not believe that art has to suffer. With "Brave," Pixar has created its first full blown failure, a feature where they were obviously chasing the dollar instead of chasing the muse. What makes me angry with "Brave" in addition to the complete selling out of its heroine, the luxuriously raven haired Merida, is that Pixar is in a position where they will never have to chase a dollar ever again, therefore making the time for creative risks more prevalent. Such a shame they decided to not to just that with this film.

What made "Brave" such a crushing disappointment is that despite its title, it is a film that is dangerously pedestrian and bland. Now, truth be told, I was LOVING the film for the first thirty minutes or so as I fell in love with the lush landscapes of Scotland as much as I fell in love with Merida, her conflict with her Mother, Queen Elinor and her desires to live her life not within an arranged marriage but completely upon her own terms. The brass ring was so in sight that I was thinking that I just may have been viewing one of the best films of the year. But, after Merida takes a visit to a witch's house, "Brave" becomes a completely different experience, taking this heroine and reducing her to being a cipher within her own story, making Pixar's crowing about having its first female leading heroine nothing but lip service. Where Merida was once driving the plot, for the bulk of "Brave" she is batted around by the plot. Merida is smart when the plot needs her to be, crushingly dim when the plot needs her to be and she arrives at a conclusion that you can see coming a mile away and then you have to wait and wait and wait for it to painfully arrive just as you expected.

Where was the risk taking? Where was the sheer refusal to be predictable? Where was the commitment to Merida herself and her conflict as expressed beautifully within the first thirty minutes or so of the film? As Merida makes a wrong choice at the witch's house, the film sacrifices any sense of bravery by making Merida undo a mess, as if in a dumbed down sitcom and essentially jettisoning her initial plight in the first place in favor of the style of hijinks with bears, curses and battles that felt to be market researched within an inch of its life. It felt as if the wizards of Pixar were afraid of having a female lead so they jazzed up the film with unnecessary and inconsequential material to ensure that boys will come too. Surely, that is not the sign of bravery.

Look, this film went through a painful gestation, as I am certain most films do. The film's creator and original director Brenda Chapman was fired from the project and two other directors and four screenwriters came in later. This is a situation of having too many cooks in the kitchen but it was so obviously not with the intent of making the film better artistically. It was in the service of making the film fly financially, therefore reducing the audience to being mere consumers, something I truly believe that Pixar has never done in the past.

That is why "Brave" is the worst film that I saw this year. It was a film that had the potential for greatness but threw it all away, story, characters and purpose, in favor of lining their bank accounts. I have not given up on Pixar but I have to say that the arrival of yet another re-tread (this summer's prequel "Monsters University") is not encouraging to me. For a studio that had made countless films that I would happily re-watch again and again, "Brave" is the one film from Pixar that I will never see again. I want Pixar to return to the days where absolutely anything seemed possible and we could all be whisked away through visual sights and splendor combined with pure storytelling heft and commitment to surprise, enrapture and give everybody the stuff dreams are made of.

With "Brave," what we received this time was an heartless ode to the consumerism of selling Merida dolls, costumes and lunchboxes at the expense of art. And for me, that's a nightmare.
Originally reviewed June 2012

I am so glad THAT is now out of my system!!!! Coming soon, part four...MY TOP TEN FILMS OF 2012!!!