About This Blog

A place to find my reviews not featured on epinions.com or horror-asylum.com, as well as opinions and lists on everything from movies to TV to music. It's all about me! Send hate mail to vegie18th@hotmail.com or just leave a comment beneath the posts. Review grading system assumes C+ is somewhere in the vicinity of a Passing grade or minor fail.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Review: Super 8

 Set in 1979, Joel Courtney and his young friends are shooting a zombie movie on their Super-8 camera when they witness (and quickly film) a freight train going past, soon to be rammed by a tow-truck driven by their school science teacher (Glynn Turman). The next day, the military (headed by Noah Emmerich) swoops in and quarantines the small town. The kids (including Riley Griffiths and Ryan Lee), and Courtney’s widowed sheriff father (played by Kyle Chandler) feel that something just isn’t right. And then all kinds of strange shit starts happening across town and people are disappearing. Elle Fanning is the pretty young girl roped into appearing in the zombie movie whom Courtney has a thing for. Eldard is Fanning’s hopeless drunk father who doesn’t much like Chandler (and vice versa). Richard T. Jones is Emmerich’s subordinate.

The following review will be revealing a pretty well-known (by now) plot development in the film, so I’ll give a **** SPOILER WARNING **** from here on out, anyone who hasn’t seen the film is best advised to read this later.

I had been wanting to see this 2011 J.J. Abrams (“Star Trek”, TV’s “Lost”) flick ever since I first heard about it. It looked like a really enjoyable modern blend of Spielbergian films like “The Goonies” (which he produced) and “E.T: The Extra Terrestrial”. It would appear that something has gone wrong. Perhaps Abrams simply isn’t close to being on Spielberg’s level as a filmmaker (few are), or maybe his style of filmmaking isn’t compatible with Spielberg’s. Or perhaps Abrams is more a fan of “Close Encounters” than he is of “E.T.”, but whatever the reason, this film just isn’t fun (certainly not as much fun as “E.T.” or “Jaws”). Abrams brings up familiar Spielberg trappings and characters (broken families, etc.), but with none of the sense of awe, innocence, or adventure that marked many of Spielberg’s best films. Fans of “Close Encounters” might enjoy it more (I never really liked that one), but for the most part, the closest this film gets to “E.T.” is the Amblin Entertainment logo at the beginning of the film (Spielberg produced the film).

Aside from maybe Elle Fanning, none of the young actors has an ounce of charisma (lead actor Joel Courtney is particularly uninteresting in his feature debut), and Abrams’ script doesn’t bother to give any of the characters beyond Kyle Chandler and Joel Courtney’s an ounce of depth. Compare that to the likes of Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore in “E.T.” or the easily distinguishable brood in “The Goonies”, and this film just doesn’t stack up (Fanning does, however, look more like Drew than her own sister Dakota Fanning if you ask me and her squeal sure is familiar). You’ve got the girl, the fat kid, the little one, the lead character, etc. They don’t go beyond that one dimension, the way the kids in “The Goonies” eventually did (With the advantage of a charismatic cast, admittedly). The kids in this film talk too loudly over the top of one another if you ask me, especially early on. They’re a little annoying and pretty uninteresting, with Ron Eldard also miscast as the mopey town drunk, and Noah Emmerich too obviously cast.

It’s as if Abrams has grown up watching all of Spielberg’s films (whether as director or producer) and failed to learn a damn thing from them. The Spielberg film it most closely resembles is actually “War of the Worlds” (co-starring Dakota Fanning), only not nearly as effective as that underrated film was.

Contrary to popular opinion (in a review that is entirely contrary to popular opinion, I suppose), the film actually gets better as it goes along and the action kicks in. From that standpoint, it’s a well-directed film. The spectacular train crash early on, however, is ridiculous, despite great sound FX. I mean, why were the kids heading towards it? Who would do that? No one, outside of a movie. The ending, however, is appalling (What is it with Abrams and shit endings to supernaturally-tinged stories?). Aside from a cute Spielbergian in-joke, it comes across as overly sappy given the destruction and death that has preceded it. We’re meant to feel sympathy for the alien despite it killing lots of people? Not buying it.

The film does have its moments, and I especially liked the cinematography by Larry Fong (“Sucker Punch”) and the strong music score by Abrams regular Michael Giacchino (“Star Trek”, “Up”). The alien looks terrific, in my opinion. It looks unlike anything on Earth (a pet peeve of mine with these kinds of things), until you get a close-up of its face and it’s unmistakably familiar, but in a fun in-joke kinda way (especially when you find out what it really wants). I applaud Abrams for learning from Spielberg in obscuring our view of it for so long, though it takes far too long for the main thrust of the film to kick in. By then, I was bored.

It’s a lot darker than I was expecting, but that in and of itself isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s just that there’s very little depth to it, very little in the way of wonderment, and certainly lacking in adventure. Maybe my expectations are unfair, but I call it as I see it, and this film greatly disappointed me. I don’t think I’ve been this disappointed with a movie since (ironically enough) Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park”. Who was Abrams aiming this film at? It certainly doesn’t seem like it would appeal to kids, and the tone even alienated me at age 32.

I’m sorry, but the best part of this film is the faux Super-8 film the kids make, which we see over the end credits of the film. It has the sense of fun that this film overall sorely lacks. Nostalgia is great and all, but I’d rather re-visit “E.T.” or “The Goonies” (or “Gremlins”, “Explorers”, or even “War of the Worlds”) than sit through Abrams’ botch-job homage.

Rating: C+

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Review: The Truck

Widowed truck driver Yu Hae-Jin finds out that his beloved seven year-old daughter (Lee Jun-ha) is plagued with a hereditary heart defect and is now in hospital after collapsing from too much physical exertion. She will need expensive heart surgery- $60 000, and the poor, single, working man hasn’t got that kind of cash. He cleans out his savings, borrows from loan sharks, and then a friend tells him about a poker game that he’ll conspire to help him win by signalling one another. He agrees to go along with it, and before you know it, he’s lost all his money, his pal has screwed him over, and in pursuing said scumbag pal, he walks in on a mob boss (Kim Jun-bae) who has just finished murdering a few people. The mob boss agrees to square things with poor Yu Hae-Jin, so long as he agrees to transport the corpses to a remote lake to be dumped. He agrees to do so. Along the way he finds a wrecked police vehicle and several dead bodies. Very much alive is Jin Gu, who claims to be a police officer who was one of several transporting a dangerous serial killer, who is nowhere to be seen. Our hero agrees to give Jin Gu a lift, but soon finds out that this guy isn’t who he claims to be, and he is seated right next to a dangerous psycho, with no way of alerting the authorities (lest they should uncover his load of corpses).

On the surface of things, you could probably say that this 2008 Hyeong-jin Kwon thriller is a mixture of “Roadgames” (Truck driver transporting pigs) and “The Hitcher” (serial killer hitching a ride, messing with his chauffeur with sick games), but ultimately there are only passing similarities to those films. I love “The Hitcher” in particular, moreso than this film actually, but there’s a lot more drama here that wasn’t featured in that streamlined cult classic. This poor guy just wants to save his ailing daughter, and things just keep spiralling out of control for the poor fella. And it serves to give this film an identity of its own (think of it as Murphy’s Law played out on our unfortunate protagonist), it’s really a solid film in its own right. The cute widdle kid certainly helps. It still ranks as a B-movie, but if you think that’s a bad thing, then I pity you.

Terrific performances, especially by Jin Gu as the handsome killer, the impressive (and alarmingly funny) Kim Jun-bae as the violent mob boss, and adorable Lee Jun-ha as the little girl who is cute even when she’s being all stroppy. In fact, it’s a shame she’s not in the film more. Jin Gu isn’t exactly Rutger Hauer (Yu Hae-Jin is certainly an upgrade from C. Thomas Howell, though) but he’s suitably cool and detached, played a true, remorseless sociopath whose sick intentions are only slowly revealed.

Admittedly the film at first looks like it doesn’t know where it’s going, but it’s still good stuff and never boring. Lots of creepy twists and turns and quite bloody at times too. The cinematography by Hwang Dong-guk is damn good stuff, with terrific scenery. Even the rain is made to look beautiful here, and I’m decidedly not a fan of wet weather.

With a screenplay by Hyung-Mo Jang, his is nothing earth-shatteringly innovative, but does every film have to be? Can’t movies just be entertaining genre fun? Well this certainly is. Professionally done all round, and a must for lovers of Asian thrillers and genre movies in general.

Rating: B-

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Review: About Schmidt

Jack Nicholson stars as Warren Schmidt, a recently retired actuary whose 42 year marriage to wife Helen (June Squibb) comes to an end with her sudden passing. Unsure of what to do with himself in the latter stages of life, he drives off in the huge RV Helen had bought, and goes to visit his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis). Jeannie, about to marry a mullet-sporting waterbed salesman named Randall (Dermot Mulroney) whom Warren disapproves of, is rather cold in receiving news of her father’s impending arrival. So Warren decides to take in some pit-stops along the way. As the wedding day inches closer, Warren slowly starts to realise that his comfortable-yet-boring existence isn’t all it could’ve been. Before Helen’s passing, Warren had responded to a child sponsorship ad and the film is narrated by Warren writing letters to a Tanzanian boy named Ndugu, whom he is sponsoring, telling the boy all about what he is currently going through, with little concern paid to the appropriateness or interest this might have for such a young, underprivileged boy millions of miles away. Kathy Bates plays Randall’s free-spirited, sexually uninhibited mother, and Len Cariou plays a family friend of Warren and Helen.

I was going to say that if you combined “Everybody’s Fine” with “The Descendants”, you’d get this 2002 melancholic comedy/drama from Alexander Payne (“Election”, “Sideways”). However, this sad, thoughtful, occasionally uproarious film succeeds beautifully and movingly where the other two, later films never quite got it right, despite Payne also directing “The Descendants”. It’s a film that is constantly working on two levels, so that even when you think it’s only being dramatic, there’s some kind of humour or black irony just beneath the surface. And I think that’s one of the things that “The Descendants” should’ve but failed to provide, and something that some people didn’t even seem to notice about this film. It’s a lot more subversive and a lot less traditional than it first appears (Unlike “The Descendants” or “Everybody’s Fine”, which were very much formula filmmaking to a clich├ęd and disappointing degree).

Both “About Schmidt” (loosely based on a novel by Louis Begley) and “The Descendants” utilise an infrequent narration, but the results couldn’t be more different. In “About Schmidt” the narration, provided by the title character’s letters to his six year-old Tanzanian sponsored child, works on several levels. Yes, there’s the basic level of this 66 year-old man narrating his story through these letters, because it has been suggested that he write to the child to tell him a bit about himself. But it also can be seen in blackly humorous, ironic fashion too, as Schmidt’s rantings and ravings are not only wholly inappropriate to be viewed by a child, not only is he too young to read or understand them, but the letters are insensitive and self-absorbed. A kid from Tanzania, struggling with problems of malnutrition and poverty, doesn’t give a flying fuck about your self-absorbed, middle-class white guy problems, pal! Schmidt is hilariously un-self aware, and Payne is all-too aware of how sappy and predictable the film could’ve been if it just operated on that first level. But on top of that there’s even a third level to how this narration works. Yes, Schmidt is lacking in self-awareness, he is completely self-absorbed, but that’s what makes him, and the film itself, so sad. The narration allows us into the head of an otherwise not terribly communicative person. It reveals that he is a sad, lonely man, who perhaps has spent the majority of his life in his own comfortable little world, not having to rely on or care about anyone else except himself and maybe his wife. Now that she’s gone, he starts to realise just how lonely he truly is, and probably realises just how close the end of his life likely is. And what is there to show for it? He’s lost his job, his wife, his family don’t really want anything to do with him. He needs something, anything. A connection. To have made a difference in someone’s life. But has he realised this too late? That’s part of what makes the final scene so affecting (though it’s interestingly open to interpretation as to whether that final scene is meant to end things on a happy or sad note). You see, there’s so much going on in this film with just that one element.

But there’s much more to this film than just its narration. For starters, this is one of the best performances of Jack Nicholson’s acclaimed (but uneven) career. The performance is all the more effective because Nicholson is so much unlike his usual dynamic persona. For once, he’s playing a small, insignificant man, and although Warren Schmidt is self-absorbed (hence the film’s title), there is a definite lack of ego from Smilin’ Jack here. You won’t see very many of his overtly familiar acting tics and facial expressions here, it’s a relatively restrained and wonderful performance. I liked him in “As Good as it Gets”, but his Oscar nomination here should’ve turned into a win, it’s the better performance of the two by far. He’s backed up by a fine cast, but Dermot Mulroney and Kathy Bates steal just about their every scene. Mulroney, with the worst mullet I’ve seen outside of...well, my former self (my teenage years were largely unkind), is absolutely hilarious. He plays a complete douchebag no-hoper, but a surprisingly earnest and well-meaning one. You can see- and probably agree with- why Warren feels Mulroney’s Randall is not good enough for his daughter, but at the same time, you don’t like yourself for thinking it, ‘coz poor Randall really does mean well. He’s just completely fucking useless on a molecular level. Bates, meanwhile, let’s it all hang out, literally, as his free-spirited, yet sometimes critical mother (Howard Hesseman, meanwhile, is underused but well-cast as her windbag ex-husband). The added dose of energy and good cheer that Bates (a wonderful actress) gives off assures one that we’re not just laughing at her. Hope Davis is perfectly fine as Warren’s estranged daughter, but I have to say that I had very little sympathy for her character at all. She might be nervous as hell about the wedding and her dad might’ve left it a bit late to start caring about her, but she’s a selfish bitch to be honest.

If you’re looking for a film that will have you laughing and maybe even crying, sometimes even in the same scene, this film might be for you. It’s also a thought provoking film. Whether Payne is really mocking Randall and his family, or criticising Warren for doing so, or even both, there’s still a message here. A lot of people seeing the film might worry that they will end up like Warren; Old, retired, all alone, unneeded, and unsure if there is anything to show for all the years they have been alive. Are Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor (“Sideways”, “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry”) suggesting that this is inevitable? Or is there hope for Warren? Personally I think the ending tips the scales a teeny bit in one direction, but it’s not ham-fisted at all, and I’m not even 100% certain. Even at the film’s conclusion, Payne is giving us more than one possible interpretation.

This is unquestionably one of the year’s best films and easily Payne’s best to date. You’ll laugh, you might cry, and you might just change the way you live your life as a result.

Rating: B+