Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Three Musketeers (2011)

I suppose I should have known better seeing director Paul W.S. Anderson’s name attached to the loose adaptation of The Three Musketeers. From the previews, I thought that the film could perhaps settle on an enjoyable level of stupidity, something of a wink while it obliterates all fidelity to Alexander Dumas source material. Well, the movie sure is stupid but it’s far from enjoyable. This swashbuckling-on-steroids flick has got 17th century zeppelin-battleships, booby-trapped secret passages, and a confluence of English accents in France, but by far the dumbest part of this incredibly dumb movie is that war (or the “looming apocalypse”) rests entirely upon a diamond necklace. A ludicrous amount of the movie’s conflict rests on getting the Queen of France her stolen necklace back so that her husband doesn’t think she’s unfaithful. Instead of two people just having a conversation to clear up a misunderstanding, the movie pushes this marital conflict as the climactic push that will lead to global war. The action sequences are dull and none of the actors seem to be successful at faking enthusiasm. What does it say that Anderson rips off his own Resident Evil series as he concludes Musketeers, setting up a sequel that surely will never exist? This movie is bereft of any whiff of fun even with all its fantastical elements crashing through classic literature. It had a slight chance of being the right kind of stupid, but instead it’s just stupid times a thousand. Beware, canonical literature, because as long as Anderson lives none of you are safe.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Advertisements

The Raven (2012)

When “The Raven” was released in 1845, it was a literary sensation. I can’t say that the 2012 movie of the same name will be met with anywhere near the devoted fanfare. Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) has become embroiled in a deadly criminal investigation. The famous author is penniless, drunk, and depressed, but what else is new? What is new is that some Poe admirer has been stalking Baltimore and killing people in grisly styles fashioned after Poe’s macabre stories and poems. Detective Fields (Luke Evans) recognizes the connection to Poe and enlists the author to aid in capturing the murderer. Poe’s upper-class love, Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), is captured by the unknown madman and buried alive. Poe must race against time to stop a killer, rescue the girl, and write a new horror-themed story to be published via the killer’s demands.

The Raven feels like an ill fit from the start. What is the point of featuring an American literary icon when all you’re going to do is plop the man into a pretty rote police procedural/serial killer thriller? The deadly flaw of The Raven isn’t its concept; it’s that the finished product didn’t embrace the particulars of its literary mash-up enough. Is it really a good use of Poe to just have him tag along on a police investigation? I wanted this premise to crackle with a devious slyness, a cleverness of genre and concept that the movie seems incapable of producing. You’re taking America’s singular literary voice of the Gothic and macabre and putting him into a game with a deranged fan. That’s a great start. I’m interested in that movie. But there needs to be some follow-through. This should be a battle of wits, an opportunity for Poe to backslide into the murky chasm of his own creations, bearing some pinning of guilt at having birthed a mad killer with the power of his words and imagination. This should be a psychological descent into hell for a man already famously tortured. Instead, the movie just becomes another rote serial killer movie but somebody typed in the name “Poe.” The various corpses, inspired by Poe’s works, just end up being gory, easily telegraphed deposits for clues. We don’t see these people in peril, terrified by the fiendish ye olde Saw-like death traps. We don’t even understand the process of the killer. The movie just ends up becoming one long, tiresome chase from dead body to next dead body, with Poe literary association haphazardly ladled in to tie stuff together. After a while, it feels like somebody took a thoroughly uninspiring serial killer script and just transported it into mid 19th century America. It’s nice to know that some clichés are timeless.

The movie never feels like it works properly, and the potential of its premise is completely unrealized. The murder mystery isn’t really ever given suitable footing to be a mystery, except in that tried-and-true “who’s going to be the bad guy” reveal. There aren’t really any clues left behind. So when characters suddenly come up with epiphanies on their murder investigation, you wish they would at least show their work. For a movie written by screenwriters with names like Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, The Raven certainly isn’t smart. The Poe stories feel tacked on in an arbitrary fashion instead of being interwoven into foundational elements of the story. Who cares how the characters die if their deaths have no impact on Poe or anyone else? The “how” of the equation becomes inconsequential. The title poem doesn’t even bear any weight on the story. The love interest/damsel in distress character is so bland and underwritten, that it’s hard to really feel Poe’s gnawing sense of urgency. Sidling the gloomy Gus Poe with a puppy-dog love story seems like a poor misunderstanding of the man and his demons. To top it off, the girl isn’t even his cousin (surely the oddest criticism of mine thrown at a movie)!

The movie doesn’t really ever become a convincing thriller either. The pulpier elements are ignored or downplayed, played with stodgy seriousness for a movie this ridiculous (Saw-style death traps in 1849?). Director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta), who after this and 2009’s Ninja Assassin is starting to look like a one-hit wonder, badly misplays the action elements. The dingy cinematography is unnaturally dark, making it exceedingly difficult to understand certain sequences and giving the audience yet another reason to lose interest. The impressive production design is totally mitigated when there’s not enough light to even see it. I understand given the nature of the story that we’d be dealing with  lot of shadows and darkness, but this is just one poor looking movie. The only way you’d feel excitement from this movie is if in a fit of amnesia you forgot what you were watching and suddenly thought it might be a different, better movie, only to be disappointed ten minutes later when that sinking feeling reemerges and you realize, no, I am still watching The Raven.

I love me some John Cusack (Hot Tub Time Machine), but this guy is just the wrong fit for the movie. His sensibilities never really gel with the character, so Poe’s sense of melancholy comes across as more haughty boredom. He is not the right fit for the material. Eve (She’s Out of my League) has got nothing to do but look pretty and scream occasionally. The worst crime of all is utterly wasting one of my favorite contemporary character actors, the phenomenally great Brendan Gleeson (The Guard). He plays the uptight father of Poe’s love interest, which means he gets to pop onscreen and glare at Poe while looking worried. It’s a criminal waste of this man’s considerable talents.

I think the best part of The Raven is actually it’s mostly unseen killer. It’s not because the guy is particularly clever or interesting or even remotely memorable (when they reveal who it is, make sure to pay attention to the constant reiteration of who he is, because if you’re like me, you plum forgot). The reason this guy is good is because of his impetus. He’s ultimately terrorizing Poe so that he can force the author to create more stories. Call it an extreme case of motivation. I can see our studious killer justifying his bad behavior, claiming to give the world new gifts of literary brilliance that we can all share, stories that will last the test of time. Isn’t that worth a few dead bodies, he’d argue. Ultimately, this rationale becomes more egotistical, about flattering the killer and his devious appetites, which is a shame. I’d prefer if the bad guy were more devoted to the cause of helping to shape the Canon of transcendental literature. I almost wish that the movie were told from this skewed perspective. I could have dealt with an entire catalogue of famous authors being victimized under the auspices of producing great literature. What if this one sick person is responsible for wresting the great works of the 19th century out of the authors’ minds and onto the page? I think we all owe this terrible individual a debt of gratitude.

I’m finding myself disliking The Raven the more thought I put into it, which, admittedly, my brain is actively fighting against. It does not want to spend more time processing this bore of a movie; a fun premise never fully realized, a conflict never truly developed, and characters that are the 19th century equivalent of the stock roles you’d find in any mechanical CSI/Law & Order TV episode. So in the interest of literary fairness, I’ve decided to channel the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe for the final word on The Raven:

And The Raven, never flowing, still is going, still is going,

On the pallid screen I silently stare at in unblinking bore,

And its plot is not that smart, missing heart and clues to start,

And it seems like the writers were tasked with an unfriendly chore,

The movie does not work; it’s dull and empty to its very core,

And so I lastly ask does this movie properly entertain?

Quoth The Raven – “nevermore.”

Nate’s Grade: C

Lockout (2012)

Rather derivative and not very clever, the sci-fi prison break movie Lockout is surprisingly enjoyable, in a brain-dead sort of way, mostly thanks to a few lean suspense sequences and the deadpan glory of star, Guy Pearce. The man plays a reluctant hero sent to a space prison to rescue the president’s daughter (Maggie Grace) hiding amidst the dangerous inmates. It’s like every action, sci-fi cliché rolled into one, and yet the movie is consistently entertaining. Pearce carries the same deadpan gumption throughout; it doesn’t matter what’s happening, it will not faze him and he has a quip for everything. When the first daughter asks him if her dad had any words to pass along, he quips, “Yeah, you’re adopted.” The roguish charm of Pearce keeps the movie grounded even when it goes a little nutty with conspiracies, obstacles, and a mad rush of a climax. The movie is set only 40 years or so in the future, and as such it feels too weirdly futuristic for the minimal time jump. Would we really have an orbiting space prison and put prisoners in hyper sleep? Anyway, the movie is a lot more fun and tolerable than I would have expected, and Columbus, Ohio’s own Grace (Taken) actually gives the most mature performance of her still young career, for what that’s worth. It’s not great, but thanks to Pearce, it’s pretty passable entertainment, especially for generous genre fans.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods has been building an avalanche of buzz in the time it’s been sitting on the shelf. Originally filmed in 2009, the horror comedy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer creative heavyweights Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon has been patiently waiting to unleash its wicked Jack-in-the-box of surprises. Directed by Goddard, and written by Whedon and Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods is a brash enterprise, a blast of entertainment and a breath of fresh air in a genre that typically teeters into self-parody. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and have a strong, or even curious, desire to do so, then stop reading. Go in as blind and unspoiled as possible. Then you can come back and read my witty words. It’s okay. I won’t take offense. In the meantime, I’ll keep myself busy. Back? Good, let’s get started then.

You know the setup. A group of dumb teenagers spend a weekend at a friend’s cabin in the middle of nowhere. There’s the jock (Chris Hemsworth), the slutty girl (Anna Hutchinson), the stoner (Fran Kranz), the bookish one (Jesse Williams), and the mousy girl-next-door virginal type (Kristen Connolly). There’s the scary old guy at the gas station, there’s the promise of debauchery and sweet oblivion. But we’re not the only ones watching the gang. A group of lab techs, led by Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins), is watching their every move. They control the cabin and its surroundings and are manipulating events to lead to slaughter. But why are they going to all this trouble? That’s just the tip of the iceberg here.

The macabre sense of humor is what will immediately separate Cabin in the Woods from its blood-and-guts brethren. The sharp dialogue is routinely laugh-out-loud funny, absurd in the right parts. Whitford’s downbeat reaction during a joyous moment of celebration had me howling. The movie is so smart, sometimes too smart for its own good. If you’re going to level one major charge against the movie, it’s that it isn’t really ever scary. Oh sure it has some stuff that should be scary given the particulars, and its 31 flavors of horror should find something that tingles everyone’s spine on some level. But this is much more of a deconstruction of the horror genre and its audience than an actual horror movie. Whedon and Goddard undercut their horror almost at every turn, settling for the ironic laugh or satirical tweak and repeatedly cutting back to the lab guys to provide a few good laughs and commentary (Jenkins has a terrific foul-mouth rant aimed at children that left me doubled over in laughter). Do not be mistaken; the lab stuff is easily the best part of the movie. Upon my second viewing, I found myself growing weary with the teens-in-a-cabin stuff and anxiously waiting our next detour into the weird and wonderful lab. The duo of Whitford (TV’s The West Wing) and Jenkins (Friends with Benefits) makes for some terrific and biting middle management corporate satire, as well as satirizing the jaded, bloodthirsty audience of slasher movies. You can tell that Whedon and Goddard love horror movies and are frustrated with the nihilistic rut the genre has found itself mired in. And as a deconstructive exercise, Cabin in the Woods is first-class. Roger Ebert succinctly called the movie a “fanboy final exam.”

It can be a tad clinical at times, failing to give us any true attachment to the characters even in an ironic sense, but when a movie is this fun, this wild, and this clever with its deconstruction of genre, I concede the point of having to root for somebody. The characters break the stereotypical mold; the jock is on academic scholarship, the smart guy happens to also be a hunky jock, the slut isn’t really slutty, the virgin isn’t squeaky-clean, and the stoner is the smartest guy in the group, aided by his cannabis (As one character later reasons, “We work with what we got”). He’s the only one who seems to be able to notice the strange manipulations at work. Once you dig into it, the very nature of how and why we watch horror is analyzed by Cabin in the Woods (get ready for some voyeurism parallels). The nature of fear and sacrifice is given some thought, though this stuff gets a bit lost in the madhouse of a final act. The movie becomes a funhouse of horrors and the frenetic carnage and chaos elevates the energy level. I cannot think of a movie that ended in such a whirling dervish of excitement and deep, demented satisfaction. This is one movie that doesn’t just end with a bang; it ends with every bang you can think of. Horror fans are going to be hopping out of the theaters, foaming at the mouth, desperate to tell every one of their friends what they just witnessed. I wish several of my friends would hurry up and see Cabin in the Woods so I had somebody to talk about its many pleasures, thrills, and surprises with. The movie has several terrific payoffs. This is the most fun I’ve had with a horror movie since 2003’s Cabin Fever. Must be something about cabins that brings out the meta-ness.

Considering this was on the shelf for over two years while MGM worked out its bankruptcy dealings, it’s fun to see how fate has been to this lot of actors. The biggest name has got to be Hemsworth, better known as the flaxen, hammer-wielding God of Thunder Thor in the Marvel movies, and Whedon’s upcoming Avengers ensemble. He’s rather enjoyable onscreen and his hero moment is one that will definitely be a talking point. The two standouts from the cast, other than Jenkins and Whitford of course, are Connolly (“iGirl” on the Web series, iChannel) as the nubile Final Girl and Kranz (TV’s Dollhouse) as the clever pothead. Connolly has got a great face for movies, looking like the younger sister of Ellie Kemper (TV’s The Office) or Jayma Mays (The Smurfs), and I’m always a sucker for a redhead. Kranz is so good with the comedy that you may fail to notice all the work he’s actually putting into his role, which quickly becomes the audience’s voice of reason.

But the strangest quirk for a movie knotted with them comes to the casting of its resident  “slut” played by Hutchinson. The woman has a sultry side that comes through without going overboard into parody. Scanning through her resume, I see that Hutchinson portrayed the Yellow Power Ranger (Lilly) for 32 episodes in Power Rangers: Jungle Fury. Now here’s where things get interesting. Being the movie aficionado that I am, I recognize that Cabin Fever also had an actress, Cerina Vincent, who portrayed the Yellow Power Ranger (Maya) for 45 episodes in Power Rangers: Lost Galaxy. Here’s where it gets even weirder. Both Hutchinson and Vincent are the only cast members in their movies to go nude in their respective films. So two actresses, both different versions of the Yellow Power Ranger, both get naked and star in horror genre deconstructive movies with “cabin” in the title! Is this one of the Mayan signs? Should I contact Dan Brown? Does it say something that the yellow ranger appears to be the most comfortable with nudity? This may be the greatest and most obscure observation I’ve ever made.

Of course there are so many fun surprises that it puts me in a bit of a critical bind. I don’t want to go into too much detail because that would spoil the fun, though rest assured that The Cabin in the Woods does not live or die based upon unknown plot twists. You may think you know given what’s already been revealed via the trailers, but really you have no idea how deep this thing goes and to what ends. Unless you just happened to be me, which at last count there was only one of (my evil twin long since slain… or was he?). I say this not as some point of pretentious bragging, but it’s because I wrote a horror screenplay a year ago that also satirized the genre tropes (for those few interested, it was called Blood Wake). I won’t go into spoiler detail, but both of our bad guys were called into question as being bad, from a greater good standpoint, and the killers had more on their minds than simply punishing dumb, horny teenagers. Well, after watching Cabin in the Woods, I know that screenplay goes back in the shelf now where it will live in eternal slumber thanks to core similarities. But if somebody’s got to be wielding the knife, at least it’s my man crush Joss Whedon.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

It may not be fair, but I was never expecting to like Steven Spielberg’s first foray into animation, The Adventures of TinTin. It just looked so busy and I’m still on the fence when it comes to motion-capture technology. So imagine my surprise when I found myself not just enjoying the movie but also actively loving it. This rollicking adventure practically hums with energy and imagination. It’s easy to get lost in its sweep. The action sequences, of which there are several, are terrific, breathlessly paced but showing great fair and imagination. It comes to the closest of any imposter to replicating the magic of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Give great credit to Spielberg but also his team of terrific Brit writers (Dr. Who’s Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and the man behind Attack the Block, Joe Cornish). The characters don’t feel like soulless androids, the adventure is lively, the immersive visuals are gorgeous to behold, and the scale of some of these action set pieces is just massive, in particular a chase through a Moroccan city that is performed in one unblinking take (although does it matter when it’s animated?). I felt transported while watching Tintin, back to a time of childhood awe and excitement. Some will find the movie wearisome and vacant, but I’m prone to shaking off my adult quibbles when a movie can make me feel like a kid again

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Raid: Redemption (2012)

If you’ve been let down by flaccid Hollywood blockbusters in the action department, then give Indonesia’s The Raid: Redemption (part one of a planned trilogy) a try. The movie is like 90 minutes of getting kicked in the face, but in the best possible way. The flimsy premise almost seems like that of a video game. An elite forces police team storms the tenement building of a crime lord. He traps them inside and alerts the unruly residents there will be a reward for whomever takes out the cops. Each floor presents a new level of danger, from machete-wielding gangs to thugs that could show Bruce Lee a thing or two when it comes to wizardly martial arts. When the action is pumping, you feel every electric second of it. Writer/director Gareth Evans uses every part of the buffalo when it comes to action cinema. He kills guys in ways you didn’t know existed. The action is brutal and often relentless, but Evans draws out scenes organically, making fine use of geography. Guys will break through walls, jump down floors, blow up gas tanks, and use everything from filing cabinets to broken doorframes to and florescent light tubes as weapons. It’s a thrill to be able to take in the beautifully balletic choreographed fight sequences; there one that goes on for seven minutes and should already be considered an all-time Top 5 contender in movie history. There’s a fairly pedestrian plot about police corruptions and some family connections, but that’s just gristle. The real meat is the action. It’s so exhilarating and gratifying that the rest is meaningless. The Raid is the best video-game-turned-movie ever, and I don’t even care that it was never a video game. Have you seen these special movies?

Nate’s Grade: B+

October Baby (2012)

Abortion and the rights of choice are topics that inspire intense feelings on all sides. October Baby is the latest evangelical movie to be funded by Provident Films, who gave us Courageous and Fireproof. The directing tandem of Andrew and Jon Erwin take a more melodramatic approach, focusing on the aftereffects of not just abortion but also the aborted.

Hannah (Rachel Hendrix) is a 19-year-old college student who collapses during the opening night of her big play. She learns from her family doc that her parents (Jennifer Price, John Schneider) have been keeping some pretty major secrets from her. She was adopted. She was the survivor of a failed late-term abortion. Also, she had a twin brother who did not survive the abortion. Suddenly Hannah’s physical and mental maladies make sense, and she’s determined to seek out her biological mother and find out more about whom she is. Her lifelong best friend, Jason (Jason Burkey), invites her on a road trip to New Orleans, and the two of them veer off to Mobile, Alabama to look for her mother. Over the course of Hannah’s journey, she will come face-to-face with the mother that tried to abort her.

Like other heavily funded Christian productions, this is more of a message than a movie, which is a shame because it had the potential to rise above. I guess there are no spoonfuls of sugar accountable when you’re dealing with a subject as painful and raw as abortion. I’ll give October Baby credit for being less interested in sermonizing. Oh sure, you’ll never doubt where the movie stands on the issue and where it wants its audience to go. The fact that a former clinic nurse can recall, in graphic detail, a procedure that was done over 20 years ago seems a tad suspicious, but credit actress Jasmine Guy (TV’s A Different World) for nailing this scene. The movie makes a more sincere, modest approach and sidesteps the overt proselytizing of the Kendrick brothers’ pictures like Fireproof and Courageous. It’s a fervent melodrama, yes, but it doesn’t push its message in your face. The issues of faith are seemingly kept to a minimum. Though soft-pedaling the admittedly traumatic story of abortion into a dewy coming-of-age movie seems like a disservice to the drama at play. This is more than one girl just finding out where she came from. This is more than just a routine road trip. This is more than tropes and clichés. This is about the pain of making agonizing decisions and living with them. What about Hannah’s biological mother? There’s a wealth of dramatic potential there as mother comes face-to-face with the teenage daughter she decided to abort. Just having her reject Hannah all over again to later cry against a doorway seems like a lousy use of screen time. Clearly this woman did not come to this decision impulsively. And yet, October Baby is less interested in exploring the realities of abortion than ascribing psychological torment to all parties (the mother, the baby, the nurse, etc.) and providing a clear, and somewhat contrived, road to redemption and forgiveness.

If we’re going to feel for these people, they need to feel like recognizable people and not as mouthpieces for message points. We’re told via Hannah’s journal that she’s deeply depressed and contemplating suicide. However, this mental misery does not match the Hannah we have seen on screen at all. I also find it really hard to believe some of her ailments. I’ll buy that she has long-lasting physical problems from the failed abortion, including asthma, seizures, and hip issues that require surgery. What I don’t buy is that somehow the act of abortion left a psychic scar on this girl and she has gone her entire life feeling unwanted, which is more than a little specious considering her adoptive parents have been unwavering in support and paid for all those costly operations. It’s not too long before we realize that Hannah is really just the formless mass of producer ideology. She makes weird decisions, like forcing her platonic friend to sleep on the floor when they have to share a hotel room, and then after blurting out, for no reason, that she is a virgin, she leaves the room that she paid for to sleep on a couch in the lobby. And her platonic friend joins her, so it’s acceptable for them to sleep side-by-side on a couch rather than a bed? That makes no sense. Hannah doesn’t feel like a person, more like a series of plot points in human form, and her ridiculously happy ending seems a tad disingenuous given the dramatic reveals this woman has endured. Her anger would feel more justifiable if she were more represented as a character.

Let me deal with the romantic relationship with Hannah and Jason. They’re life-long best friends and the movie even opens with them as smiling children, holding hands and racing to jump into a lake. You can only imagine where the two of them are destined to end up. He even has a standoffish girlfriend (Colleen Trusler) that doesn’t like the amount of time Jason spends with his “friend” Hannah. I believe that her resentment is well deserved considering how Jason dances around the truth of spending time with Hannah, often falling back on the shady vague rationalizations, “hanging with… a friend… doing… nothing.” As much as Hannah lacks proper characterization, besides being victimized, Jason is also every sweet, nice, good guy trope rolled into a human being. He’s less a person than a human-sized version of a loyal puppy ready to lap at her face. He never seems to have any interests or desires or goals other than being there for his dearest platonic pal, and even when she’s behaving like a mad woman, he sticks by her. Their eventual coupling is so chaste and passionless that, while inevitable from the opening image, makes little in the way of payoff. Both of these people are rather bland and nice, so why not be bland and nice together and have bland and nice children who will marry their spouses before they sleep in the same bed together (couches are another story). For a story about teenagers ignoring their parents’ wishes and getting into trouble with the law twice, including breaking and entering (because really abandoned hospitals leave behind all their patient info), there’s nary a hint of danger or excitement.

October Baby looks a lot more professional than the other notable Christian releases that have found themselves in the mainstream marketplace. The photography is actually quite good, bathing Hannah’s journey in an amber, honeyed glow, and the Erwin brothers have a knack for visually pleasing compositions. Their background in music videos really shows, especially during the movie’s montage sequences. The music, on the other hand, is horribly redundant; lots of twinkling pianos and soft acoustic guitar. Former 2007 American Idol contestant Chris Sligh contributes several low-key tunes to the soundtrack and actually plays the overweight driver for the road trip. He’s fat, so you know he’s going to be a source of comedy, though you’ll be hard-pressed to realize it.

Acting-wise, October Baby is also a step up from what we’ve seen recently. Hendrix (Alumni), despite a somewhat surly characterization, is quite able to handle the many, many crying moments she’s run through. She’s got a fresh face and hopefully she’ll find her footing in the film world. She at least deserves to have as big a career as Kirk Cameron. Burkey (For the Glory) does earnest well and that’s about the only note he gets to play. Schneider (TV’s Dukes of Hazard) provides a calming presence, even though his beach bum haircut felt off-putting for a surgeon. I kept staring at Schneider onscreen and thinking how strangely he resembled Beau Bridges (The Descendants). The best actor in the movie is Hannah’s biological mother played by Shari Rigby (Easy Rider: The Ride Back). Sure she gets a crying jag all her own, but the actress underplays the mixed emotions upon the confrontation with her past. I wish the movie had concentrated more on this storyline, and more with this actress. The closing credits include a touching interview with Rigby where she confesses relating to her character and the abortion she had in her youth. Those brief couple minutes come across as more honest, engaging, and moving than any of the fictional drama that preceded it.

When the topic concerns abortion, it’s always going to be a controversial movie no matter the stance. October Baby is not exactly nuanced but it’s a lot gentler than I ever would have imagined. The entire movie takes a cue from its bland but pleasant leads and produces an overwhelmingly bland but pleasant enough experience. There’s no demonization of pro-choice people and few scenes of absolute sermonizing. Clearly the movie has an agenda but it doesn’t feel so overwhelmingly dogmatic. It’s not exactly going to make people rethink their political stances on a hot-button issue, but then again a rather humdrum story with characters that don’t feel recognizably human is only going to affect the audience members who are there for the message, not the movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

Miss Bala (2011)

Miss Bala (Mexico’s foreign film entry for 2011) is an unwavering, startling, and deeply tense movie about one woman’s tragic and unwilling association with a powerful drug cartel. Laura (Stephanie Sigman) wants to be the next Miss Baja California, but she’s unwittingly pulled into a life of crime after she witnesses a gang hit. The cartel ensures that Laura wins the beauty pageant and becomes a courier for them. The movie takes a Lars von Trier approach to storytelling, putting its heroine through a torture chamber of anxiety and terror. This woman only wants to escape the hell she has accidentally found herself a part of, but every attempt to escape, be it going to the police or confessing assassination plots to the intended targets, gets her corralled back into the fray. For Laura, there is no escape. The movie packs a near-constant surge of paranoia, as we fear that at any time something awful will happen. In fact it’s usually only a matter of time. Laura is more a symbol of the collateral damage of Mexico’s billion-dollar drug war than a character, and she kind of becomes a numb zombie by the movie’s latter half, perhaps accepting her doomed fate. Director Gerado Naranjo favors long unwinding takes and handheld cameras, which add a gritty realism and sense of compounding dread to the picture. The movie has an unflinching level of realism to it that makes it all the more haunting, stripping the romanticism from a life of crime. Much like Italy’s heralded crime film Gomorrah, this bleak but impassioned movie shows the inescapable tentacles of organized crime and gives a face to innocents caught in the middle. Miss Bala is a testament to the hidden toll of a nation at war with itself.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Wrath of the Titans (2012)

The 2010 Clash of the Titans made some sizable sums of money but it really became famous for one reason – the beginning of the 3D fleecing and the public’s souring on what was supposed to “save the movie going experience.” Clash was converted to 3D in post-production, and its lack of foresight and rushed conversion showed. After the high of Avatar, it only took approximately three months for the public to feel ripped off by 3D. Certain Hollywood bigwigs are concerned that bad 3D conversions will kill the golden goose, and it is having an effect. The percentage of movie audiences seeing big releases in 3D has slipped steadily from 2010. Whether it is the added cost or the underwhelming conversion, movie audiences are warier of the third dimension. And it was Clash of the Titans that destroyed a nation’s innocence. Two years later, the sequel is out and, surprise surprise, you also have the ability to see it in 3D. Either way, this movie will cause you a headache.

In the wake of Perseus successful slaying of the Kraken, he is now a widower with a young son, living their lives quietly, trying to avoid the daring heroics of his earlier life. Fat chance, kid. The gods are at war, particularly Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and Aries (Edgar Ramierez) versus Olympian head honcho Zeus (Liam Neeson), Perseus’ absentee father. The titan Kronos will be unleashed from his prison, Tartarus, and this powerful behemoth will lay waste to the armies of mankind. The gods have grown weak due to mankind’s dwindling faith, and as such they cannot conquer Kronos without the help of man. It’s up to Persues, Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike), and Poseidon’s demigod son a (Toby Kebbell) to track down the right magic artifacts to take down Kronos.

Once again we have a threadbare story that involves running from one location to another to find a clue that leads to the next location; the plot is just a series of magic-item gathering missions, much like a video game. Greek mythology made regular use of magic weapons to slay great monsters, but the myths at least gave their audience heroes worth fighting for. Worthington’s scowling rendition of Perseus is a bore, and giving him a son doesn’t help much. Just because the guy keeps insisting he has someone to protect doesn’t fill his void of characterization. He’s so free of charisma, so gruff and without any defining personality, that you wish he could find some magic shortcut to find his dumb magic items faster. The whole setup with our villain is also vague, beyond the very specialty of the god in question. And then there’s the whole concept of the gods dying, which was also featured in last fall’s glorious-to-look-at-but-empty-on-the-inside Immortals, another cinematic tussle with the titans. What’s the point of being a god anymore if the defining quality, immortality, can be ripped away? I suppose the screenwriters wanted to raise the stakes when Zeus and other gods enter the fray, dangling the threat that they too could perish. “We may not have weapons, but we’ll fight how long we can,” Zeus declares with modesty, and then he proceeds to zap enemies with lightning bolts. I don’t think a club is going to outrank a giant projectile of electricity. Realistically, I think the whole death-of-the-gods angle, which cold have brought some real somber and existential weight to the film, was just a setup to allow the producers to recast future sequels with less costly actors (goodbye, Neeson and Fiennes; they’ll be no more Kraken-releasing for either of you).

Director Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles) isn’t going to wow anybody with his addition to cinema, but he can put together a serviceable sequence of action. My favorite sequence in the entire film is when Perseus and crew enter the underground maze of Tartarus. The stone walls are constantly shifting around and the characters are zooming all around the room. It reminded me of the moving staircases in the Harry Potter world or think of it as the real prequel to Cube. And yet, even this nice sequence is limited because Liebesman and the screenwriters don’t take full advantage of their situation. We have a constantly shifting three-dimensional maze, and nobody gets lost at all? And the heroes, after discarding the map, easily find their way to the other side? What kind of design flaw is that? Liebesman prefers a lot of handheld camerawork and low angles, which can be jarring at times. Worse, the action favors a visceral chaos rather than steady development. There are plenty of people dying, columns exploding, fireballs tossing, but little of it adds up to much. It’s all disparate shots, like every character is in a separate movie. Such a shame because the special effects are rather good. If you’re going to spend this kind of money on a Greek mythology spectacle, at least make us care beyond a “fire pretty” level of tepid enjoyment.

The movie is in some breech of false advertisement since the title clearly states a plurality of titans, but by my modest account we only really have one titan to deal with, the giant lava beast Kronos (do the smaller creatures and Cyclops count as titans? I doubt this). Now we all love how fire looks, though some love it a bit too much. And lava itself has long been a childhood adversary. Who amongst us has never pretended the floor was once lava and but a handful of couch cushions were the only stepping-stones to safety? It’s hard to get an exact feel for how massive Kronos is considering he emerges from a mountaintop and seems to extend even higher into the sky. It’s intended to be a threatening and horrifying sight, but I kept thinking of a Marine ad from the 1990s where prospective recruits displayed their mettle by combating giant lava creatures (“Marines: Keeping the U.S. safe from lava men since 1916”). Instead of being awed by Kronos, I started picking apart the logistics of being a lava man. I suppose when you’re a god, or a titan for that matter, you don’t have to really eat or drink or do the things we mortals must for sustenance. But how does a lava creature work when part of his fiery M.O. is how drippy and malleable he can become? Perseus flies into the mouth of the lava beast but why does a beast, which needs no food or drinks, even needs a mouth? It’s not like this guy is speaking beyond a ground-shaking mumble. The entire face is almost superfluous. It’s not like a lava creature has eyes or a working circulatory system. Now I could apply these same annoying ticky-tack questions to any monster or mythological creature. The reason I did this is because the monster of monsters is no more intimidating, or satisfying, as the array of giant monsters that Godzilla would fight (or for you youngins – the Power Rangers). When your ultimate bad guy, and lone titan, can just as easily be blown up in the same manner as the Death Star, then we have a problem.

There’s a certain level of entertainment watching dignified actors in something so inherently campy. Neeson (The Grey) and Fiennes (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two) are a long way from their Shindler’s List collaboration. The two men lend a level of gravitas to a movie that is leagues below their talents. Perseus proves to be such a dull demigod, that I wish the entire movie had followed the warring gods instead. That approach would have been much more interesting considering that they must confront mortality. Worthington (Avatar) still has a notable screen presence in the realm of action cinema, but his constant scowling is just getting tiresome. Hollywood, give this man something to do other than scowl and he may surprise you, like in The Debt. Pike (Doom) is unconvincing as a warrior princess, and her forced romance with Persues could not be more contrived (did somebody say, rebound?). The best actor in the movie is Bill Nighy (Underworld) who shows up as a daffy version of Hephaestus, the god of metallurgy and blacksmiths. Nighy understands how completely cheesy the whole getup really is and delivers a performance on the comic wavelength that the entire movie should have held.

While not nearly as humorless and joyless as the 2010 edition, Wrath is still a fairly block-headed romp through the noisiest parts of Greek mythology. After two movies with “titans” in the title, it’s somewhat remarkable that we only witness one single titan in the entire combined 245 minutes. It’s all CGI sound and fury with little cohesion to make anything feel important, despite huge mythological creatures demolishing cities. From an action standpoint, Wrath packs enough serviceable, escapist sights for the eyes to please diehards of Greek mythology and genre fans with low expectations. I wish there was a more compelling reason to run through all this stuff than big monsters needing to be killed; this hero’s quest needs more motivation or at least a grander sense of awe. The demise of the gods due to mankind’s mounting religious doubt seems like a juicy subject that could have opened these characters up. But then the theological discussions would get in the way of people hitting made-up CGI monsters. If you like your cheese feta, then Wrath of the Titans will provide enough wrath for your bucks, though found lacking in titans.

Nate’s Grade: C

%d bloggers like this: