Thursday, January 31, 2013

Review: Warm Bodies (2013) is a poignant and allegorical genre hybrid that adds rich layers to the zombie template.

Warm Bodies
97 minutes
Rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

There is very little that happens plot-wise in Jonathan Levine's Warm Bodies (trailer) that you haven't seen somewhere else. But beneath the somewhat generic narrative is both a rather sad subtext and a worthwhile parable that elevates the film beyond its somewhat simplistic humor. Most importantly, the film genuinely adds a new idea to the zombie cannon, something that seems so simple that I'm surprised that someone didn't do it much earlier.  In short, the film is told from the point of view of a zombie.  Set in a world where something somewhere caused the vast majority of the world to turn into zombies, the film tells a seemingly simple story of how one such brain-eating creature falls in love with a random human he happens to encounter.  The romance is arguably the film's weakest element, as it's basically a variation on Beauty and the Beast's Stockholm syndrome, but the story goes in some thoughtful directions nonetheless.  Based on a novel by Isaac Marion, Warm Bodies takes bits and pieces from Beauty and the Beast, Wall-E, and How to Train Your Dragon to shape a film that becomes a parable for our current 'war on terror' foreign policy.  But its most important idea is detailing the sheer hell of actually being a zombie.

Daniel Craig doesn't deserve a raise for The Girl Who Played With Fire because Daniel Craig is not a box office draw...

This one is pretty simple.  Daniel Craig allegedly (Hollywood Reporter) wants a raise for his appearance in Sony's planned The Girl Who Played With Fire.  Sony is refusing and may even be trying to wrangle a pay cut.  Sony is allegedly digging its heels out of the desire to cut costs, as the first film grossed $232 million worldwide yet still barely broken even due to its frankly absurd $90 million budget.  Had the film cost a more reasonable $60-$70 million, it would have been quite profitable for Sony.  But it didn't so it wasn't.  If we must see the two other chapters in the original series, then they damn-well shouldn't cost nearly $100 million apiece. You could argue that Rooney Mara is an essential component of any sequel and should be hired even at a token higher cost this time around.  But everyone else involved is expendable.  Daniel Craig, whose character was as bland a male lead as you can ask for, is not a box office draw, period. If Sony sees fit to write out his journalist protagonist, I imagine it won't affect the film's financial fortunes one iota.  Daniel Craig is one of countless actors who do just fine in a marquee role or a popular franchise but flounder elsewhere.  If Daniel Craig wants a raise from Sony, he is welcome to ask for one for the next James Bond film.   But outside of the 007 series, Daniel Craig isn't a box office draw, period.

In praise/defense of The Haunting In Connecticut.

I have nothing but envy for those critics who got more out of Mama than I did.  But I do take issue with a certain thread that pops up in many of the more positive reviews, the idea that is somehow the first mainstream horror movie in forever to actually have three-dimensional human beings at its core.  To be frank, I think the prestige associated with producer Guillermo Del Toro and star Jessica Chastain has caused certain critics not so much to overpraise the film but to assign it undue credit in terms of presenting a humanistic horror film.  Just as each new 007 film sees cries of 'most feminist Bond girl ever!', I think at least some of the praise being heaped on Mama is perhaps selective amnesia in terms of the oft-derided horror genre.  For a prime example of a horror film that exists as a character drama first and a horror film second, one need only look at a film that's receiving a somewhat under-the-radar sequel this Friday, possibly tonight in certain theaters.  I'm talking of course about The Haunting In Connecticut.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Five Sylvester Stallone films better than Bullet to the Head...

Rather than obsess over how weak and amateurish Stallone's newest action film happens to be, I thought I'd take some time to pick out some better examples of Sly's surprisingly interesting filmography.  These five films aren't so much the best or even the most underrated, but merely five films that merit discussion and are worth digging into just a little bit more than usual.  Agree?  Disagree?  You probably do, because I could have easily done such a piece on ten Stallone films worth briefly dissecting, but I imagine I can only punish my readers for so long at one time.  You'll get your chance below, but for now enjoy these mini-essays of well, uh, let's just call them five Sylvester Stallone movies that are much better than Bullet to the Head.

Review: Bullet to the Head (2013) is awful, but amusingly so.

Bullet to the Head
90 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

I cannot in good conscience recommend Walter Hill's Bullet to the Head (trailer).  It is an amateurish production that looks and feels like a direct-to-DVD film in all of the worst ways.  It is badly acted, terribly written, and lazily plotted.  It is easily one of the worst films Sylvester Stallone has ever made, and it's a huge step down after Rocky Balboa, Rambo, and the silly-but-large scale Expendables films.  Moreover, it lacks any of the subtext or resonance that has occasionally highlighted Stallone's best work and brightened some of his lesser films over the decades (essay HERE).  Yet it is also the kind of movie that can be a genuine good time in the right frame of mind and with the right audience.  If you have a friend or two who is in the right mood and you waltz into a cheap weekend matinee, you'll probably amuse yourself accordingly.  But for anyone actually expecting quality cinema or even something on par with a mid-range Jason Statham vehicle, just know that this makes The Mechanic look like Safe.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

When the words don't match the face: Beautiful Creatures banner poster brings to light a poster art pet peeve.

This is a perfectly satisfactory billboard poster for the upcoming Beautiful Creatures.  It has its title, its release date, a tagline, and a roll-call of the elder vets and younger newbies (plus young vet Emmy Rossum) that will play in the southern gothic supernatural sandbox.  Everybody looks snazzy and it's a solid sell.  There's just one annoying problem.  They are exactly 1 for 7 when it comes for accuracy of labeling.  I've known Jeremy Irons as an actor for thirty years and I know he doesn't look like some kid aiming to be the next Robert Pattinson.  And I've had a thing for Emmy Rossum since her Mystic River/Day After Tomorrow/Phantom of the Opera break-out led to a near-decade of relative obscurity before bouncing back on Showtime's Shameless.  She does not look like a younger variation on Michael Angarano.  And while I don't know offhand who Thomas Mann is, I know he probably doesn't look like a dead-ringer for Viola Davis, who in turn is not the young Caucasian girl at the center of the poster.  By random chance, Emma Thompson is actually correctly labeled.  But the rest are all very wrong.  Yes I get the poster design, which puts the young girl at the center and then slowly branches out with the various forces of good or evil that will try to influence her destiny (IE - evil Emmy Rossum versus good Emma Thompson or something like that).  But any number of posters that screw this up in any given year don't even have that excuse.

Scott Mendelson gets pull-quoted again...!

Thanks to the many readers who caught it and especially to Ryan Bisasky who scanned and sent me a copy of the box art in question.  I don't generally write in a fashion that would lend itself to pull-quoting nor do I make as much of an effort as I should to review little-seen movies that might be desperate for a quote, so this doesn't happen all that often.  I occasionally get inquiries about possible quotes but I don't make the final cut that often (movies I was almost quoted on: The Muppets, Puss In Boots, and eventually Zero Dark Thirty).  Anyway, feel free to rejoice or mock accordingly.  Maybe if I took my wife's advice and wrote accordingly ("Thor brings the thunder!" or "Jack Reacher reaches for greatness!") this would happen more often.

Scott Mendelson

Oz: The Great and Powerful gets four new character posters. Why I might owe Disney a slight apology.

This banner dropped awhile ago, but I never got around to posting it so I'm using it at the top for convenience.  After the jump you'll get the four character posters that dropped on Friday but officially dropped from Disney on Monday.  In my essay last week about The Little Mermaid 3D, I included this film as a Disney property that was technically targeting boys but had female appeal.  I still stand by that statement, as the film is clearly James Franco's journey.  But it must be stated that the film also has three major female characters, all played by actresses of note and at least one of them playing something other than the love interest (I'm presuming some misdirection with Mila Kunis being revealed as the main 'wicked witch').  It doesn't mean I don't think the film looks a little iffy or that Franco seems to be attempting to give a bad performance, but it does mean that we'll get a major would-be tent pole where the major female characters outnumber the major male ones.  That frankly doesn't happen all that often so it deserves notice when it does.  Also of note is Michelle Williams's role in this, as it represents the acclaimed actresses's first tentpole appearance and her first major role in an overtly commercial picture since oh, Halloween: H20 in 1998 (you could say the superb Dick in 1999, but that flopped anyway).  Yes I know she cameoed in Shutter Island and did a voice in Where the Wild Things Are, but you know what I mean! Anyway, the character posters are after the jump.  And no, I will not be posting the 12-second teaser for this Sunday's Super Bowl commercial.

Scott Mendelson

The Lone Ranger gets a new poster...

No, I'm not posting a 21-second preview of a 90-second Super Bowl trailer.  But I will post this rather nice new poster, which seems to the be the official theatrical one-sheet.  So yeah, along with Iron Man 3 and Oz: The Great and Powerful, Disney seems to be going full-steam ahead with this Sunday's game.  I know G.I. Joe: Retribution has a preview debuting during the game as well, along with Oblivion, World War Z, and allegedly Star Trek Into Darkness.  But the big teaser debut will be for Universal's sixth Fast and the Furious film.  This clip will be notable both because it's the first footage anyone has seen of the film and because we might finally find out what the title of the fifth sequel is going to be.

Scott Mendelson

Monday, January 28, 2013

Blu Ray Review: The Dark Knight Returns part 2 (2013)

The Dark Knight Returns part 2
76 minutes
rated PG-13
Available January 29th from WHV on all the usual home-viewing outlets.

by Scott Mendelson

Note: My review of The Dark Knight Returns part 1 can be found HERE.

One of the dangers of being too literal of an adaptation is that you start to realize, when seen in a different format, what doesn't quite hold up.  Such is the case with the second part of The Dark Knight Returns, which dramatizes the third and fourth books in the 1986 graphic novel.  At least in animated form, it is clear that Mr. Miller bit off just a bit more than he could chew, with a final chapter that expands the playing field far beyond Gotham's borders.  It doesn't quite work, taking us out of the intended story and using it as a way for Miller to discuss a broader commentary on 1980s American foreign policy (the original story was of course written in the mid-80's).  Nonetheless, those wanting a faithful adaptation of the iconic comic book will get their money's worth.  As a filmed adaptation, it is stymied only by a curious bit of miscasting and material that just-plain doesn't work as well on the screen as it did on the page.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Weekend Box Office (01-27-13): Hansel and Gretel slightly overperforms while Parker and Movie 43 underwhelm.

This weekend's lesson is "all the marketing prowess in the world doesn't matter if you don't have the movie". Paramount has been batting 1.000 in terms of launching major fantasy-skewed franchise pictures.  From at least summer 2007 with Transformers, they have been the most consistent performers in terms of grabbing those blockbuster debuts, launching not-quite sure things like Iron Man, Star Trek, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and Thor to blockbuster numbers while also turning a glorified home movie (Paranormal Activity) into a massive horror franchise in their spare time.  They were a little off their game in 2012, with several high profile delays into 2013 (Star Trek Into Darkness, GI Joe: Retaliation) and with the few films Paramount did release in 2012 somewhat under-performing (Jack Reacher, Katy Perry: Part of Me, The Dictator, Rise of the Guardians).  But I would argue the fact that Paramount got what looked to be an utter shit-storm like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters to nearly $20 million, or $19 million in this case, is a sign of their sheer marketing will.  They hit all the sweet spots (in theater infomercials, an unexpected R-rating, IMAX engagements, an exclusive sneak peak at a future Paramount movie, saturated coverage in various demographics, etc.) but the movie is the movie.

Friday, January 25, 2013

J.J. Abrams is directing Star Wars Episode VII. A look at how the surprising politics of Star Trek may bleed into Star Wars.

So, it's officially official.  Disney just put out a press release, which means I can write about it without fear of it being debunked moments after publication.  J.J. Abrams is indeed directing Star Wars: Episode VII.  And what do I have to say about that?  Well... not much really.  There is indeed a part of me that feels that it is wholly inappropriate and/or unnatural that the same director will be behind new Star Trek *and* new Star Wars movies.  Back in the old days, I believed in the perhaps simplistic idea that every franchise would get their own special director.  Sam Raimi had Spider-Man, Bryan Singer had X-Men, and Chris Nolan had Batman.  Obviously that idea no longer exists. Bryan Singer can helm X-Men and then go on to attempt to reboot Superman with Superman Returns before taking back the X-Men franchise from Matthew Vaughn, who is now rumored to be among Warner's top choices for a Justice League movie.  Even with more and more franchises being rebooted and/or changing hands, it seems like an awfully incestuous little circle, with only a handful of directors seemingly ending up helming these major properties.  Say what you will about Marvel, but they deserve kudos for thinking outside the box on pretty much every major film thus far when it comes to a director.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Chinese censoring of Cloud Atlas is true truly a real problem.

The news broke yesterday that the Chinese government is censoring Cloud Atlas in advance of its Chinese theatrical exhibition.  That in itself is not a surprise, as the Chinese government has a history of censoring US films.  Usually its a case of material that is deemed insulting/inflammatory/etc. to the Chinese, such as the complete omission of Chow Yun Fat's murderous pirate in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.  Also reported is the fact that Skyfall will run in China with several edits and changes in subtitled dialogue, among other bits omitting a scene where a Chinese nationals are murdered (while Bond sits on his ass and does nothing about it) and changing dialogue involving Javier Bardem's history of being captured and tortured by the Chinese government. Ironically changing Severine from a former child sex slave to merely a member of the mob makes Bond slightly less dick-ish for setting her up for murder, but I digress.  Again, no big deal or at least nothing unusual.  Other countries have different standards of censorship and often change US films when they eventually arrive on respective shores (fun tip: click HERE and do a search for "Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles").  

Sorry, Dredd 3D probably still not getting a theatrical sequel.

One of the bigger pieces of news in the film blogsphere was the relatively high sales figures for the debut of Dredd 3D in its first week of its various home viewing platforms.  A press release put out by Lionsgate states that Dredd sold 650,000 DVDs and Blu Rays in its first week as well as leading in digital purchases/downloads as well.  This is of course good news for those involved in the picture, which earned just $36 million worldwide on an alleged $50 million budget, but it doesn't mean that the franchise is now magically alive-and-well.  The news has had pretty much every movie blogger screaming that we may now get that theatrical sequel after all!  Sorry folks, it ain't gonna happen.  

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Man of Steel gets its PG-13. Is the high-profile live-action PG-rated film an endangered species?

As of this morning, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel has been awarded a PG-13 for "intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language."  That's not a surprise, as pretty much every major comic book film since Bryan Singer's X-Men has received said rating.  Even if the content seemed more appropriate for the more kid-friendly PG rating, such as I'd argue was the case with Fantastic Four and Thor, studios don't want the potential kiddie-flick stigma that's still somewhat attached to live-action PG-rated films.  Unless you're dealing with fantasy that's somewhat aimed at families, such as The Chronicles of Narnia or four of the eight Harry Potter films, or high-brow family adventures like Hugo or The Life of Pi), it's PG-13 or bust. Part of that is the way in which Shrek turned the PG rating into an acceptable 'for all rages' status for animated films back in 2001.  Part of that is merely the fact that getting a PG-13 doesn't seem to be making parents think twice about bringing their very young children to the likes of Transformers: Dark of the Moon or Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Trailer: Olympus Has Fallen looks like a terrific old-school action blast with a cast to die for.

Good lord this looks like great fun!  If this is supposed to be the "B-Level" movie about terrorists taking over the White House (proceeding the Channing Tatum/Jamie Foxx action thriller White House Down), then I can't imagine how good that Roland Emmerich action picture might be.  Antoine Fuqua is a generally solid action filmmaker and the cast (Gerald Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Dylan McDermott Ashley Judd, Melissa Leo, Cole Hauser, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, and Rick Yune) is to die for.  Yes it's mired in cliche, but tell me you didn't grin a little bit when you correctly predicted Butler gravely intoning "I'm the best hope you have!".  It's a little odd to have Ashley Judd for such a small part, unless A) she's still alive in the end or B) she wanted a paycheck to finance her probable US Senate run in 2014.  Either way, this looks like an old-school action blast from the proverbial past, a gee-wiz Die Hard/Air Force One hybrid that is hopefully high-energy, production value-rich, genre fun.  Olympus Has Fallen opens on March 22, 2013.  Come what may, it looks like we may get at least one good Die Hard movie this spring after all.  This one was barely on my radar and now it's among my top must-sees of the season.  Nice work, Film District marketing!

Scott Mendelson

Burying the lead: Disney's cancellation of The Little Mermaid 3D leaves the Mouse House light on female-targeted movies.

From a business standpoint, one could argue the logic of Disney's surprise cancellation of the planned September reissue of The Little Mermaid.  The 3D reissues, which started with The Lion King back in September 2011 peaked to an absurd degree with that blockbuster rerelease ($94 million domestic alone).  The respective grosses for Beauty and the Beast ($47 million), Finding Nemo ($41 million), and finally Monsters Inc. ($31 million) trended ever downward to the point where the flop 3D reissue of Monsters Inc. probably didn't even break even when you account for prints and merchandising.  I would argue that Disney dropped the ball by moving the Monsters Inc. reissue from January (where we have absolutely nothing for kids to see during the first six weeks or so of the year) to the already brutally crowded Christmas season where it was crowded out by the holiday releases and the still strong Wreck It Ralph and Rise of the Guardians (which should be crossing $100 million domestic in the next couple days). I would also argue that The Little Mermaid, which has the same nostalgia factor as The Lion King and has not yet been released on Blu Ray while going for around $50 on Amazon for the 2006 DVD, is a likelier contender to get parents into the theater than Monsters Inc.  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Weekend Box Office (01/20/13): Chastains's Mama and Zero Dark Thirty top while Walhberg, Crowe, and Schwarzenegger bomb.

This weekend provides a fascinating lesson at the would-be star system and the extent to which it exists in Hollywood today.  Jessica Chastain indeed reigned as the star of the top two movies of the weekend.  Mama (review), which was sold more on executive producer Guillermo Del Toro than anyone in front of the camera, debuted with a terrific $28 million over the Fri-Sun portion of the weekend, with $33 million expected by the end of the four-day Martin Luther King Day weekend (or twice its $15 million budget).  Zero Dark Thirty (everything I've written about that one thus far...) is projected to earn another $21 million by Monday, with $17 million of that coming from its Fri-Sun second weekend, a solid hold of just -28% from last weekend.  The film's ten day total is now $55 million and will be about $59 million tomorrow, or almost identical to what Black Hawk Down had after its first ten days.  It opened on *this* weekend eleven years ago, ironically grossing exactly what Mama made over the four-day holiday and dropping 40% in weekend two for a $17 million second weekend.  Even compared to the usual slate of early year (January/February) supernatural horror, Mama's debut is the strongest yet, besting the $24 million debut of Michael Keaton's White Noise back in January 2005 (that would be about $29 million today).  So does this mean that Jessica Chastain is a new movie star?  Not quite.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Skyfall has crossed $300 million domestic! A closer look sees James Bond near the top of the action-film record books.

Sony is reporting that Skyfall grossed $260,000 yesterday, which was just enough to put its domestic total over the magic $300 million mark.  Putting that in perspective, this means that Skyfall has nearly doubled the previous domestic-best gross of the 007 series, the $168 million grossing Quantum of Solace and the $167 million-grossing Casino Royale.  Now that it's theatrical run is pretty much finished (it's got $5 million left in the tank, at the absolutely most), let's look at how it did in the grand scheme of things.  Even when adjusted for inflation, the film is the third-biggest domestic earner in the series, surpassing the adjusted-$279 million gross of You Only Live Twice ($43 million in real 1967 dollars) and hanging out below only the $515 million-grossing Goldfinger ($51 million in 1964) and the $585 million-grossing Thunderball ($65 million in 1965). It's the biggest-grossing spy film of all time and the highest-grossing non-fantasy action film of all-time.  Even when playing the inflation card, it's the sixth biggest spy movie ever, behind the aforementioned 60's 007 films, Mission: Impossible II ($310 million adjusted gross/$215 million actual gross) Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me ($315m/$205m), and the first Mission: Impossible ($318m/$181m).  If you factor in pretty much every remotely recent non-fantastical/non superhero action franchise, it still ends up with more tickets sold than all but the likes of Beverly Hills Cop ($522m/$234m), Rambo: First Blood Part II ($329m/$150m),  Rush Hour 2 ($310m/$226m), and Beverly Hills Cop II ($305m/$153m).  

Friday, January 18, 2013

Beautiful Creatures gets a new poster, a new release date, and a new plot-heavy second trailer.

What's interesting about this second look at what is arguably the first of the new wave of 'next Twilight/Hunger Games' franchise-starters is that it sells itself as a story specifically centered on a young girl in the South who is fought over as a result of her supernatural powers and her would-be destiny.  When I wrote about the wave of female-centric young-lit adaptations a couple months ago, I was informed that this movie, or at least the book that it's based on, is actually told from the boy's point-of-view.  You wouldn't know it from this trailer.  And I would argue that it is almost noteworthy that Warner Bros. is trying to trick audiences into thinking that it's a female-pov story.  Anyway, marketing gimmicks aside, this still looks like a solid piece of supernatural hokum.  Come what may, the cast (Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum) should be more than enough to do the heavy lifting if the young kids (Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert) can't pick up the slack (not presuming they can't of course, Ehrenreich was fine in Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro).  The "big" news is that it's been moved one day up to February 14th, and it's clear that Warner Bros. wants this to be the date-movie of choice for those otherwise uninterested in yet-another Die Hard film.  Will it work?  Depending on how cheap this one was, it may not matter.  Valentine's Day/President's Day weekend is a holiday weekend where a number of big films can flourish alongside each other (witness 2010, where Valentine's Day, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and The Wolfman all opened to over $30 million).  Anyway, Beautiful Creatures opens on February 14, 2013.  As always, we'll see. If you have any thoughts on the matter, do share them below...

Scott Mendelson 

Second time's the charm part 01: When X-Men, not Batman, spawned a golden age of comic book movies.

This is one of three pieces that delve into something that has frankly puzzled me over the years.  In brief, we've seen occasions where a massively, seemingly influential blockbuster that completely failed to spawn successful imitators.  Yet some years later, another somewhat similar film would end up unleashing a wave of proverbial copycats.  What is it about the second successful at-bat that spurred the studios (and of course paying audiences) in a way the first time did not?  The first of these three pieces will deal with the comic book film in the aftermath of Batman. Remember all of those smash-hit comic book adaptations brought on by the success of Tim Burton's Batman back in June of 1989?  Oh right, there weren't any.  Yes, I will always argue that Batman changed the movie industry and basically kick-started the whole idea of shaping various non-traditional properties for big-screen adaptations (something I'll touch upon yet again in a later essay), but it did not usher in a new golden age of comic book films.  

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review: The Last Stand (2013) delivers crowd-pleasing B-movie goods in a genuinely entertaining action adventure.

The Last Stand
109 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

The Last Stand (trailer) is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination.  But even in mid-January, it lays down the gauntlet for providing one of the more overtly crowd-pleasing (and thus successful) genre films to come down the pike in awhile.  The key to this film's success is simple: Director Kim Jee-Woon and writers Andrew Knauer, Jeffrey Nachmanoff, and George Nolfi remember the basics to constructing this kind of meat-and-potatoes entertainment.  It's not rocket science, but you'd be shocked how often simple entertainment value gets left in the dust in the quest to construct the biggest and/or baddest genre entry out there.  The Last Stand isn't the biggest of anything.  It's a mid-budget B-movie action picture set in a small town between California and the Mexican border.  But it is filled to the gills with inventive actions sequences, colorful heroes and appropriately nasty villains.  Everyone knows exactly how seriously to take this material, never getting too reverent but also never descending into pure camp.  It also plays to Arnold Schwarzenegger's relative strengths while doing its best to work around his weaknesses (a look at his very best films).  It may not be art, but its surprisingly splendid entertainment if you're in the mood.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Review: Mama (2013) is a horrifying psychological drama trapped inside a mostly routine ghost story.

100 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

There is potential for an absolutely fascinating character study hidden within Andrés Muschietti's Mama, but unfortunately the film feels content to follow the road oft-traveled in its genre.  The film's first ten minutes or so are absolutely superb, and the opening credits are among the best in rest years, if only for how succinctly they offer copious exposition in a way that is downright chilling in its simplicity.  In a sea of remakes and franchise reboots, it is indeed admirable that Mama attempts to tell an original horror story, and I'd be lying if I didn't say that it's often quite creepy.  But the real-world horror that we are presented with is actually scarier and far more disturbing than the supernatural elements at play, which puts the viewer in an odd position of wanting less horror and more drama.  The picture is well-acted and contains a few genuine surprises during its relatively brief 100 minute running time.  But the film somewhat hampers its intentions by coming out of the gate so strong that what it offers for much of its running time is merely the wrong kind of horror.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Brandon Peters ranks the Dirty Harry films...

Ranking the Dirty Harry Franchise

Like with Bond, at the end, I’m going provide my ranking of the entire series.  Unlike 007, nothing changed with my rankings this time around.  It's pretty much locked down.  I do recommend four of the five films in the series though.  Only one of the five qualifies as a genuinely bad film. Without further adieu...

Review: The House I Live In (2012) is an all-encompassing look at the national disgrace that is our 'War on Drugs'.

The House I Live In
110 minutes
Not Rated
Available on various Video On Demand platforms January 15th, 2013

by Scott Mendelson

This won't take long.  Eugene Jarecki's newest documentary is a superb and comprehensive look at the last forty years of drug policy in America.  Oh it goes even further in time then that, but the focus is generally on the 1970s to the present, when the anti-narcotics crusade became the largest source of our current prison industrial complex.  There is little here that will be shocking or new to anyone who has been paying attention over the last few decades.  The value is this fine documentary is that it serves as a all-inclusive document of everything wrong that was and still is when it comes to our drug policies.  It can be argued whether or not a documentary of this nature, unlikely to be seen outside of the converted and perhaps a few not-yet converted during various special screenings, should be judged by its effectiveness in changing policy.  Whether or not it 'makes a difference', it is an important piece of non-fiction filmmaking, a shining light to one of the great shames of our country.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Disney hires Zack Snyder to helm a stand-alone Star Wars film. Three (3) reasons why it's great news.

Update: Hollywood Reporter just debunked the story.  Apparently you can't trust a blog post from the frigging New York Magazine!  And *this* is why I don't generally comment on breaking news!!!  Anyway, all the opinions below still stand.

Well, we now have a big clue as to what Disney has in store for the Star Wars universe and it's the best news I could have hoped for in this capacity.  Vulture is reporting that Zack Snyder has been hired by Disney to make a film that exists in the Star Wars universe aside from the promised "Episode VII" and the related ongoing 'episodes'.  It will apparently be a loose remake of The Seven Samurai which of course makes all-too much sense if you've ever seen The Hidden Fortress.  The secret hope that I had when Disney acquired Star Wars is that we'd see a whole host of interesting filmmakers try their hands in the Star Wars galaxy.  And this announcement seems to indicate that this is indeed the plan, with side-films in the Star Wars mythology helmed by the likes of well, Zack Snyder.  We now have the hope of any number of dynamic filmmakers trying their hand, be it obvious contenders like Joss Whedon or Brad Bird, or the old-guards of the film school generation like Spielberg, Scorsese, DePalma, or Coppola, or somewhat off-the-grid choices like M. Night Shyamalan, Tim Burton, or Kathryn Bigelow.  Depending on how often Disney is pumping these out and/or how reasonably budgeted the off-shoot films are going to be, we may end up seeing a Terrence Malick Star Wars movie after all!  

Zero Dark Thirty doesn't endorse torture, and neither did 24.

Zero Dark Thirty finally opened wide last weekend, which means that the general movie-going crowd finally got to see what all the fuss was about.  But while I don't want to rehash the various 'No, it doesn't endorse torture!!' arguments that I've made here and elsewhere yet again (review, essay 01, essay 02), I would like to take a moment to address a side issue.  In many of the discussions about Zero Dark Thirty, be it pro or con, we've seen the television show 24 being used as a shorthand for being a mainstream entertainment that did all of the things that Zero Dark Thirty is accused of.  I intended to write something of this nature back when the show left the air in May 2010, but life got in the way.  24 premiered in November of 2001, not directly inspired by the 9/11 attacks but unfortunately in their shadow.  I wrote extensively about that first season when it ended (read it HERE), but looking back, it's clear that the show wasn't intended to be a lightning rod of controversy and/or the go-to talking point when discussing the post 9/11 'war on terror'.  Throughout its eight seasons, 24 was never 'the torture show', nor was it intended to represent one political ideology (or political party) over another.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Weekend Box Office (01/13/13): Zero Dark Thirty tops while Gangster Squad disappoints and Haunted House overperforms.

After nearly a month in limited release, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (review) finally went wide this weekend and it grossed $24 million to top the weekend box office. The film now has a $29 million cume.  All eyes were on this one, with the big question being whether critical acclaim and film punditry would translate into mainstream interest.  Obviously the current 'does the movie promote torture?' controversy brought the film all kinds of free publicity, but I'd argue it scared off just as many as it brought it.  By the way, no it doesn't endorse torture because... well just watch the movie again (essay 01/essay 02)!  Anyway, the closest comparison is the Martin Luther King Day Jr. weekend wide-release debut of Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down eleven years ago next weekend, which pulled in $33 million over four days and $28 million over Fri-Sun.  The 'hunt for Bin Laden' film's debut is a bit lower, especially when inflation is accounted for (BHD's 3-day total is around $38 million in 2013 dollars), but the Scott picture was pretty much a nonstop action picture while Bigelow's is an icy and often cold 2.5 hour procedural where even the climactic action sequence is meant to disturb more than excite.  The film played 59% male and 62% over 30. Sony did a great job selling this one somewhat falsely as a triumphant action drama, although they didn't seem to make as much of an effort to bring in females for what is indeed a female-centric character drama (Jessica Chastain is terrific here).  Despite a merely okay  2.6x weekend multiplier, expect pretty strong legs as this becomes the defacto water-cooler Oscar contender (Oscar nomination essay 01/Oscar nomination essay 02), the one everyone has to see in order to participate in the national dialogue.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why an R-rating for A Good Day To Die Hard matters...

Bruce Willis let it be known to Harry Knowles late Friday night (and Fox confirmed sometime later) that A Good Day To Die Hard will be opening on February 14th, 2013 with an R-rating.  That's somewhat of a surprise, since Live Free Or Die Hard infamously went out as a PG-13 and still ended up as the biggest domestic grosser of the series.  On the other hand, it still earned less worldwide than Die Hard: With a Vengeance way back in 1995 and is actually the lowest-grossing entry in the series when adjusted for inflation, so it stands to reason that the PG-13 didn't make a difference either way.  Of course, cutting down a movie for a PG-13 to get the kids and then opening it on the same weekend as a Pixar movie is somewhat stupid, but I digress.  Of course, the fact that the film is going to be R-rated doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be good.  Heck, it may not mean anything other than John McClane saying "fuck" more than once amid otherwise bloodless (or hastily CGI-inserted bloody) violence.  From the sound of Willis's statement, it seems that Fox wasn't aiming for an R-rated movie, but that they are merely willing to accept the MPAA's position.  This is itself is encouraging and possibly a sign of a 'new day' for mainstream studio films.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar snub is a moral outrage.

For a general discussion of the Oscar nominations, go HERE.

In the broad scheme of things, the only Oscar snub that qualifies as an outrage is the omission of Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director.  Not because it's a bigger slight than snubbing Ben Affleck or Samuel L. Jackson or the like, but because her omission is clearly the result of the kind of smear campaign against the film that has made politics next-to-impossible for the last decade or so.  It's the same kind of baseless campaign that prevented Susan Rice from being nominated for Secretary of State, it's the same mud-slinging that caused Obama to (wrongly) dismiss Van Jones early in his term, thus providing the GOP their first scalp.  And to add insult to injury, Bigelow has been deemed wholly responsible by those who wrongly believe that Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture, leaving screenwriter Mark Boal (who got a nomination) off the hook.  If this kind of stuff happens every time someone tries to make a challenging film for adults, then we can kiss such things goodbye from those who seek award recognition.  If this is a sign of things to come, where Hollywood becomes as frenzied and maddening as politics, then that is a troubling thing indeed.

The year the presumed favorites didn't even get nominated. Thoughts on the 2013 Oscar nominations...

Despite all of the pre-awards chatter and what-not, there were still a few surprises in this morning's Oscar nominations.  The biggest shock, for me anyway, was the inclusion of Christoph Waltz for Best Supporting Actor in Django Unchained and the unfortunate exclusion of Leonardo DiCaprio (who I frankly expected to win) and Samuel L. Jackson (who gave the film's best performance) for same.  Waltz is fine, although it's interesting in that A) he's basically the film's lead character and B) he's playing a riff on the work he did in Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, but this time on the side of the angels (it's possible that voters simply voted for the most morally righteous white character in a film full of racists, ala Tommy Lee Jones's expected nom for Lincoln).  Django Unchained scored a best picture nomination (one of nine films nominated) but Tarantino was denied a Best Director nod.  The other massive snub was the exclusion of Ben Affleck for Best Director for Argo, despite the film being up for Best Picture and Alan Arkin snagging a Best Supporting Actor nomination.  I honestly can't figure that one out, as pretty much everyone who loved Argo gave Affleck full and complete credit for the film.  It's disheartening in that Affleck has made a real effort to use his star power to direct the kind of mainstream big-studio grown up genre fare that has been neglected over the last decade, and a snub can surely be read as 'Don't bother, just go direct Justice League'.  The Best Director category also provided the other mega-shock this morning, snubbing the proverbial front runner Kathryn Bigelow.  I'd hate to think the stupid 'torture debate' had an effect, but I think the stupid torture debate had an effect.     

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Brandon Peters returns! Brandon Peters dissects the Dirty Harry franchise V: The Dead Pool (1988)

The Dead Pool
Director:  Buddy Van Horn
Starring:  Clint Eastwood, Patricia Clarkson, Liam Neeson, Jim Carrey, Evan C. Kim
Rated R

Fuck with me, buddy, I'll kick your ass so hard you'll have to unbutton your collar to shit.
                        ~Harry Callahan

Dirty Harry returns to the screen one last time in 1988’s The Dead Pool.  Director by another Eastwood “Yes, man”, longtime Eastwood stunt coordinator Buddy Van Horn delivers an adventure that finds the perfect medium between a film like Magnum Force and Sudden Impact. The film boasts likely the most familiar, big name cast of the series.  However, in 1988, this cast was much a bunch of nobodies.  Liam Neeson and Patricia Clarkson had minimalist film experience and were bouncing around television guest spots prior to The Dead Pool.  Jim Carrey (then going by James), was much of nothing then.  He was up and coming in a few films, but this was likely his first major and dramatic venture.  And its not like these were star making or star turning roles for them either.  Most were still years off from making a splash.

Review: The Gangster Squad (2013) is LA Confidential for kids.

The Gangster Squad
110 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

I've long spoken of the irony of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy being one of the most mature and adult comic book films ever released (essay).  Despite its PG rating and primarily colors-centric art direction, it's rather violent and genuinely sad, focused on adult characters who deal with very adult problems.  It is perhaps doubly ironic that Ruben Fleischer's The Gangster Squad (trailer), which feels at times like a loose remake of the 1990 Disney release, is so juvenile despite its grown-up cast and its very R-rated violence.  It is cheerfully pulpy but childishly so.  It turns the tale of a group of off-the-books LA cops waging war on gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, going 'full gangster') into a simplistic adventure seemingly aimed at eight-year old boys.  For much of its running time, it can't decide whether it wants to be a serious gangster drama or a kid-friendly action adventure (graphic violence be damned), before just giving up and becoming a glorified video game instead.  Despite all of that, it is not a boring picture, filled with enjoyably bad acting, laughably cliched and/or corny plot turns, and pretty much non-stop violence.  The Gangster Squad achieves a rarity in this hyper-aware age: It's genuinely so bad that it's (almost) good.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Never an Absolution: 15 years later, a look at the 5 best films murdered during Titanic's 4-month reign of box office terror.

This winter will of course mark the fifteenth anniversary of the momentous box office run of Titanic.  For over three months, the James Cameron epic dominated the box office in a fashion unseen since E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial during its initial 1982 release.  The film sat atop the box office for an unprecedented fifteen weekends, a record for unbroken domination and the second most weekends at number one on history (E.T. had sixteen weekends atop, but only six of them were in a row).  From December 19th, 1997 until April 3rd, 1998, it caused crushed pretty much everything in its path.  Aside from a few offhand Fridays were a new film temporarily took the top spot (US Marshals, The Man With the Iron Mask and the re-release of Grease during its March run), but the first three months of 1998 were all about Titanic.  But while we must remember this astonishing run of utter and complete domination, which was the last of its kind, we must also take a moment to remember the many many films laid to waste in its path.  Oh there were a few survivors, such as the aforementioned Fugitive spin-off and the Three Musketeers sequel that happened to also star Leonardo DiCaprio, along with Adam Sandler's break-out smash The Wedding Singer (as well as um, Everest IMAX which slowly earned $87 million after opening on March 6th). But otherwise Winter 1998 was merely mass grave.  Ironically, there were actually at least several worthwhile films, now mostly forgotten in the dustbin of history, that bombed during those cold winter months.  So this is a place to remember five worthwhile pictures that were flattened by the mighty ship.  All deserved their moment in the spotlight, some have become cult favorites while others are barely remembered at all.    

Monday, January 7, 2013

Love the sinner, hate the sin: Films I like or love despite finding them morally or ideologically objectionable.

Let's pretend for a moment that Zero Dark Thirty does in fact do all of the things that its critics, many of whom have not even seen the film, are claiming.  Let's pretend that it endorses torture on a practical and/or moral level.  Let's pretend that it implies/states that information gleaned from torture was essential in catching Osama Bin Laden and would not have been discovered any other way.  Does that (incorrect, I'd argue) interpretation automatically negate its worth as quality film making?  There has been much discussion of the alleged morality of Bigelow and Boal's superb procedural, much of it penned by those who believe that either it is 'pro-torture' or at least will be interpreted as much by general moviegoers (a classic case of 'I'm smart enough to understand but they aren't').  The question for those critics becomes whether its alleged sins negates its worth and/or can be separated from its qualities as a film.  But quite frankly, it's more than possible to enjoy a film while disagreeing with its opinions or moral worldview.  In fact, this whole thing started with David Edelstein picking the film as his favorite of 2012 while also calling it morally reprehensible.With that in mind, without endorsing any of the somewhat simplistic ( in my opinion wrongheaded) views of Zero Dark Thirty, I thought this would be a good time to discuss a few films that I happen to like and/or love despite being vehemently opposed to their respective ideologies. Spoilers ahoy!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Weekend Box Office (01/06/13): Texas Chainsaw 3D tops the first weekend of 2013. Promised Land tanks.

Texas Chainsaw 3D topped the box office this weekend with a robust $23 million.  That's a bit behind the $33 million opening haul for The Devil Inside, but it's still easily the top horror debut for January.  Moreover, the picture earned more, even adjusted for inflation, than the last go around, the painfully underrated Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (retrospective essay).  The 2003 remake took in $28 million way back in October 2003 ($36 million in today's dollars, not even accounting for the whole 3D bump), but this under-hyped and frankly somewhat undersold quasi-sequel to the original 1973 film was never going to reach those heights. Said Platinum Dunes remake was exceedingly well-marketed, with a pioneering trailer (think how often it gets ripped off ten years later), and it basically kicked off the return of the hardcore horror film (along with the mostly ignored Wrong Turn from that May). Of course, the best weapon a new horror January film has is the October release of a new Paranormal Activity sequel, as it's a piece of prime demo-friendly marketing.  The Devil Inside attached its trailer to Paranormal Activity 3 back in October 2011 while Texas Chainsaw 3D had its trailer viewed by those attending Paranormal Activity 4 this October.  Of course, the fourth entry made about half what the third one did, so that probably didn't help.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Host (1 of 3 'next Twilight's) gets 3 theme posters.

Yahoo Movies just debuted three new theme-specific posters for one of three major young-adult literature adaptations dropping this year.  The clear advantage that it has over Beautiful Creatures and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is that it's based of course on book written by Stephanie Meyer, she of Twilight fame.  Saoirse Ronan is the real deal, William Hurt always has my attention, and Andrew Niccol seems an uncommonly good match for the material.  This could be Open Road's shot at the big time, the same way Twilight elevated Summit Entertainment just a couple years into its existence.  Anyway, The Host debuts on March 29, 2013.  As always, we'll see. For those who care, a synopsis is after the jump.

Scott Mendelson

Thursday, January 3, 2013

In defense of... Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.

With yet another would-be remake/reboot/sequel of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre arriving in theaters tonight night at 10pm (this time merely titled Texas Chainsaw 3D), I thought now would be as good a time as any to offer my thoughts on my favorite entry in the very long running series.  No, I'm not talking about the admittedly groundbreaking Tobe Hopper original, nor the surprisingly good 2003 remake, nor even one of the wacky 'official' sequels.  No, truth be told, my favorite variation on the adventures of Leatherface and his cannibalistic family remains the last one.  I'm speaking of course of Jonathan Liebesman's 2006 prequel to Marcus Nispel's 2003 remake (complicated, I know), entitled merely Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.  The film was a moderate box office success ($19 million opening weekend, $51 million worldwide off a $16 million budget) but was roundly panned by most critics and even a large number of would-be hardcore horror fans.  To this day, I'm not sure why.  Yes, it can be argued that we don't need an origin story for Leatherface and his murderous clan. We don't need to see how he was born, how he got the chainsaw, or how a certain villain from the prior entry happened to have lost his legs.  But perhaps too well hidden in the minutiae of its origin stories and mythology building is nothing less than a top-flight horror film.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Brandon Peters returns! Brandon Peters dissects the Dirty Harry franchise IV: Sudden Impact (1984).

Sudden Impact
Director:  Clint Eastwood
Starring:  Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke, Albert Popwell, and everyone’s second favorite Commissioner Gordon – Pat Hingle (editor's note: you mean third favorite, one shant forget Bob Hastings!)
Rated R

Go ahead, make my day
            ~Harry Callahan

That quote is what most people even know about at all about the Dirty Harry series.  Eastwood returns and takes on the director’s chair (as well as 60% of the film’s profits) for the biggest, most successful film in the Dirty Harry franchise.  While not close to being the best of the series, its nowhere near as boring and dull as the previous entry.  Its almost a completely mindless, satisfying watch akin to that of Rocky IV.  In order to get some reliable bread winners into the theaters in the early 80's, Warner Bros coaxed the magnum back into Eastwood’s hand to continue the series.  Reportedly he got the lay of the land at Warner with guaranteed future projects to direct and points on box office totals.  And with that, Dirty Harry returned. 

Trailer: Dwayne Johnson vs. the 'War on Drugs' in Snitch.

The best documentary I saw in 2012 is Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In.  I'll review the film closer to its actual January 15 VOD release date, but it's an all-encompassing detailing on the generational and often racial genocide that is our 'war on drugs'.  But it's also likely to not make one bit of difference in combating the outwardly insane drug policies in this country, if only because most people already know most of the outrages contained within and don't seem to care all that much.  Does a Dwayne Johnson action thriller have more hope of 'making a difference'?  I can't say, but the fact that far more people will surely see this policy discussion disguised as a B-movie action thriller perhaps automatically makes it a more worthwhile piece of proactive art.  The film itself looks pretty solid, most importantly seeming to keep the policies it critiques front-and-center even when the cars start blowing up.  The cast (Nadine Velazquez, Susan Sarandon, Michael Kenneth Williams, Harold Perrineau, Barry Pepper, Benjamin Bratt, and Melina Kanakaredes) looks solid and the film now has my complete attention.  Will it actually live up to its potential as a genuine piece of social examination?  Well, Snitch opens on February 23rd from Summit Entertainment.  As always, we'll see.

Scott Mendelson

2012 in Film: My Favorite movies of the year...

We come to it at last, the great list of our time (err... our year).  Anyway, after plenty of foreplay, it's time to actually rattle off my picks for the ten very "best" films of the year.  As always, these are not the 'objective' "best" films of the year, but merely my out-and-out favorites of the last twelve months.  As always, we'll do the first ten films in alphabetical order, with a final summation for my personal pick for the top film of 2012.  Without further ado, onward and downward!

The Avengers (review/spoiler review):
Unlike a number of blockbusters that I've discussed elsewhere, this one actually got better with repeat viewings.  I nitpicked the first time around, found problems here and there during my initial viewing, but still found it to be a relative triumph of blockbuster film-making.  But upon additional viewings, I began to appreciate the coup that Whedon and company pulled off even more.  The minor problems (a clunky first scene, issues with how a major second act plot twist is handled, the lack of a specific lead character, the lack of a definitive climax) began to fade away into the sheer joy that is The Avengers.  The film is well-acted across the board, including a superb starring turn by Mark Ruffalo who makes Bruce Banner into the most interesting character in the group.  The plotting is relatively basic, but the picture is crackling with wonderful dialogue throughout.  The action sequences steadily improve as the film goes on, and the entire escapade has a casual hugeness ("Oh, we've got a giant invisible flying aircraft carrier?  Why not?") that reminded me of Richard Donner's Superman film (moments that would have been the main event for other blockbusters came off as blink-and-you-miss em action beats here).  The character arcs worked better the second time around, the musical score clicked into place, the second-act plot turn worked in the context of the film as opposed to operating as part of a long-running franchise, and a major character's selfless decision felt right.  The sheer excitement of seeing all of these already established heroes (established both in the comics and the prior films) doing battle side-by-side on a truly epic superhero showdown is only topped by how good it all is.  Whether or not it is a great film will no doubt be endlessly debated, but it is surely a great movie, one that I look forward to watching over and over again over the years.


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