‘Survival of The Dead’ Finds Zombies Running Afoul of Family Rivalries

Survival of the Dead movie poster

“We’re not gonna make it, humans I mean.”

 “It is in your nature to destroy yourselves

                                                                  -Edward Furlong & Arnold Schwarzenegger from “T2”

There was a 20-year gap between George Romero’s “Day of The Dead” and “Land of The Dead.” Some parents now have kids who are slightly older than the number of years Romero sought financing to make zombie movies on his own terms. But since “Land of The Dead,” Romero has been pumping out one living dead movie every other year. Talk about strong productivity. His latest flesh-eating opus is “Survival of The Dead” which looks at the rivalry between two families on an isolated island, struggling to maintain power as the zombies continue to outnumber them and reject their vegan ways.

Actually, we first get introduced to a group of mercenary National Guardsmen who appeared briefly in “Diary of The Dead” when they stole supplies from the protagonists as they traveled the deserted highway in their old Winnebago. These soldiers are lead by Sarge “Nicotine” Crockett (Alan van Sprang), and they are now on their own, struggling to survive in a god forsaken world. As a result, “Survival of The Dead” is the closest thing to a direct sequel this series has ever had.

These days, Romero is not trying to scare with these movies, and he even “Night of The Living Dead” was the only true horror movie of the bunch. These zombie movies act as a conduit for his social commentary which is both humorous and yet very bleak. In Romero’s point of view, it is only a matter of time before these “deadheads,” as one young boy calls them, devours what’s left of humanity. What can be said about us in the meantime?

Whereas “Diary of The Dead” was a clear take on the You Tube/social networking generation of today, the meaning behind “Survival of The Dead” is not as clear. It took me some time after watching the movie to get an idea of what Romero was attempting to accomplish. Apparently, this one was inspired by a 1958 western called “The Big Country” which follows a new man in town who gets caught up in a feud between two rival families over a valuable piece of land. The same thing happens here between the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, but their rivalry is amped up by the fact that many of the people they know and loved have died and come back to life as drooling flesh eaters.

The O’Flynns believe the zombies are dead and will never return to normal, and therefore must be destroyed. The Muldoons, however, believe they should be kept alive in the hope a cure can be found for them. Romero sees their sharp differences as symbolic of the state of our world today as we can’t agree without being disagreeable, and the lack of civility reigns over the ability for us to listen to one another.

With the Muldoons, things get a little confusing at times because they are not above shooting zombies dead if necessary, so their protection of these same beings threatens to make them utterly hypocritical. Then again, their hypocrisy may be the point. “Survival” goes along with one of the plot threads of “Land of The Dead” as it shows how zombies have evolved somewhat to where humans can now teach them things. What the Muldoons hope to do is teach these lumbering bodies to consume something other than human flesh. Whether or not they succeed is for you to find out.

When the National Guardsmen arrive on the island, they are caught in the middle of this conflict and provide a more objective point of view. All they want to do now is survive. They can take an island and make it their own, but they won’t hesitate to abandon it when it becomes overrun by unwelcome guests. They are also not about to get caught up in some family duel when they run a high risk of turning into the thing they blow away at close range.

Politically speaking, we are so seriously divided these days, and we believe the side we are on is right without any question. We just think the other side is full of horse dung and incapable of looking at the world objectively. In the meantime, the world is falling apart all around us, and we appear to be unable to pull together as a whole when a crisis hits. I’m sure we can all see by now it’s not the zombies who are going to do us in, but ourselves instead. That’s the way it has been from the start.

The budget for “Survival of The Dead” was around $4 million dollars; not a lot, but enough to give Romero total creative control over his content. I have to give him a lot of credit because he gives this movie a look which makes it look like it cost much more. I don’t know if this is because the scope he is shooting in is bigger than on his previous movies, but it looks more like it cost at least $20 million to make.

Plum Island almost seems like the land time forgot. Whereas on the mainland people are utterly consumed by technology and have made themselves a slave to it, these families live like they are still stuck in the Old West. You never see anyone other than the National Guardsmen with a laptop computer or an iPhone. They simply ride on their horses or in their cars, and they appear happy to be isolated from the rest of the world. Feminism also seems to not have been introduced yet to the island, and this is regardless of how Janet O’Flynn (Kathleen Munroe) is perfectly capable of taking care of herself without the help of a man. Leave it to Romero to always include strong female parts in his films.

Both families are Irish by the way. I’m not sure why Romero went this route, but perhaps it was to remind us how America is, and always has been, a land of immigrants. Their accents at times were a little too thick to where I couldn’t understand half of what they were saying, but as long as I got the gist of what was being said, I didn’t complain much.

There is a strong of familiarity which runs throughout “Survival of The Dead” in the themes and characters Romero employs throughout. Sarge “Nicotine” Crockett is close to being a doppelganger of Captain Rhodes from “Day of The Dead.” Janet O’Flynn is your basic strong willed female character who is in every “Living Dead” movie. And, of course, the movie ends the same way the others do with the zombies having more than enough room for leftovers. So really, there’s not a lot new here, but once you get past that, the movie is still fun.

The cast is the usual batch of no-name actors Romero prefers to use. I liked Kathleen Munroe and thought her to be very lovely, and I also liked Alan van Spring as the no-nonsense sergeant who manages to hold it together throughout. Kenneth Welsh also has a very strong presence here as Patrick O’Flynn, the patriarch of his family who gets thrown out but ends up coming back with the guardsmen for revenge. Athena Karkanis also makes a badass soldier out of Tomboy in the same way Jeanette Goldstein made an undoubtedly tough marine out of Vasquez in James Cameron’s “Aliens.” All in all, the cast does very good work here.

Many of you probably are wondering how gross the effects are in “Survival of The Dead.” Well, let’s just say the Fangoria fans will not be disappointed. One character makes creative use of a fire extinguisher to dispatch one flesh eating bastard. All the other characters have their own creative kills as they are equipped with the full knowledge that zombies need to be shot in the head to be killed. They are no longer terrified of the living dead as much as they are hopelessly annoyed by them, and the living dead exist more as a nuisance to them instead of a threat.

“Survival of The Dead” is not as good as “Diary,” and the themes and meanings behind this sequel are not easy to decipher at first. I’m not even going to bother comparing it to the original trilogy because it’s just going to take away from Romero was trying to accomplish here. I still enjoyed “Survival” for what it was, and there is something really inspiring about how Romero still makes these zombie movies after so many years. It’s like you could never make him give up on the chance to make another one after the box office disappointment of “Day of The Dead.” There is a way to make a movie all your own. It’s just that there is not as much money involved.

The movie’s last image of two men facing off at each other with their guns is a strong one as it illustrates the folly of rivalry, especially when it’s over things which become increasingly insignificant in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. Romero still has a bleak worldview of humanity, but he still manages to give this film some biting humor which keeps us entertained. It seems like all we can do is just survive and make it to another day. In his movies, this seems to be the best victory anyone can hope for.

* * * out of * * * *

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‘Paranormal Activity,’ a Movie Not to Be Watched Before you Go to Bed

Paranormal Activity movie poster

“I know something about opening windows and doors

I know how to move quietly to creep across creaky wooden floors

I know where to find precious things in all your cupboards and drawers

Slipping the clippers

Slipping the clippers through the telephone wires

The sense of isolation inspires

Inspires me

I like to feel the suspense when I’m certain you know I am there

I like you lying awake, your baited breath charging the air

I like the touch and the smell of all the pretty dresses you wear

Intruder’s happy in the dark

Intruder come

Intruder come and leave his mark, leave his mark

I am the intruder…”

                                                                                                       -from “Intruder” by Peter Gabriel

                                                                         (sounds even scarier when he sings it in German!)

I finally got around to watching “Paranormal Activity” on Blu-Ray, and I truly regret not seeing this movie while it was on the big screen. How great it must have been to take in the audience’s reaction; watching all the ladies shriek and recoil into their lovers’ arms, and seeing guys who think they are so fearless jump out of their seats during some of this movie’s scariest scenes. I imagine the experience would have been like when I first saw “The Blair Witch Project” back in Irvine at a crowded art house movie theater. The last scene of that indie horror film had the audience completely freaked out, wondering if what we saw was real or fiction.

“Paranormal Activity” is an ingenious little horror movie which cost only $15,000 (excluding marketing costs of course) to make and made over $140 million dollars worldwide. It has joined the likes of “The Blair Witch Project” and John Carpenter’s “Halloween” as one of the most profitable independent films ever made and was released through Paramount Pictures which employed a unique strategy where audiences had to “demand” for it to be shown in their area via the internet. This strategy is probably what kept me from seeing the movie initially because prints of it had already been sent out to theaters all over the country, so the whole idea of participation was just an illusion to get people excited as they are led to believe they have the power. But getting past the overblown promotion which threatened to upstage it completely, “Paranormal Activity” is one of the most unnerving horror movies I have ever seen.

The word paranormal is a term used to describe unusual experiences that are outside of science’s ability to explain or measure (I think Dan Aykroyd has a PHD in this). This is exactly what’s going on in the home of Micah and Katie, a normal looking couple when we first meet them. Micah has recently purchased a video camera to capture what happens while they sleep at night. Katie has confessed to Micah and a psychic that a ghost has been haunting her since she was little, and she now believes it has followed here to their house in San Diego. They are both told by the psychic this ghost is a demon which feeds off of negative energy, and it will pursue poor Katie everywhere she goes. From the start, you know this is not going to end well for anybody.

Micah Sloat, like Katie Featherston, uses his first name for the character he plays. With him parading around the house with the camera, he could have easily been a character in George Romero’s “Diary of The Dead.” Like those college students studying film, Micah seems more interested in catching paranormal activity happening more than in helping Katie until later on, and he complete annoys Katie in the process. But he soon discovers there is a mysterious force intruding on their well-being as they sleep, and it puts them in the most vulnerable position possible.

Don’t worry, I’m not going into a scene for scene breakdown where I give away the best moments of “Paranormal Activity” as it is full of many hair-raising, jump out of your seat moments which deserve to be discovered with your own eyes if you dare. With a budget similar to the cost of hiring a celebrity bodyguard, director Oren Peli utilizes special effects very simple in their construction, yet incredibly effective when used. By filming in a typical suburban house, it feels no different from homes we grew up in. There’s nothing extravagant shown here, and that’s exactly the point. The more this home reminds you of your own, the scarier this movie becomes.

The suspense and tension which continually escalates throughout “Paranormal Activity” is accomplished through the power of suggestion. It does not contain the gallons of blood and gore most horror films employ. Not that I have any issues with gory movies, but what makes a horror movie all the more effective is when the filmmakers don’t you show everything. It’s what you think you see that really messes with your head as it forces your own fears and superstitions onto these characters throughout the film’s 90-minute running time.

Watching “Paranormal Activity” reminded me of a story my dad said he heard as a kid which scared him half to death. It involved some guy on TV talking directly to the camera about how that sound you heard behind you was probably nothing, or so you would think. But what if it was something sinister? What if that feeling of someone coming up from behind you was not just a feeling? Anyway, the more my dad talked about, the scarier it seemed.

Anyway, I bring this up because “Paranormal Activity” gets at a fear so universal and primal as we try to get a good night’s sleep, something which seems impossible these days without Ambien. Those little noises you hear right around you… What if they’re not just noises? What if someone is in the room with you? What if you didn’t lock all the doors and bolt all the windows? Peli plays will all the sounds which keep us awake at night, and the shocks these characters end up enduring easily resemble ones we have all experienced. It was a huge mistake to watch this film at night before I went to bed. I figured it would not be so scary as it was said to be while in theaters, but then again, I made the same mistake with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Movies often benefit from a music score which can really escalate the powerful emotions the director has already captured. But as “The China Syndrome” and Michael Haneke’s “Cache” demonstrated, sometimes they benefit by not having one. I honestly think “Paranormal Activity” would have suffered if it had a score as one would have made several moments seem anticlimactic and premature as a result. The sound of loud footsteps from someone you’re not sure you know is scary enough as it is.

What Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston do act as much as they inhabit their characters here. They are not called upon to be Meryl Streep or Daniel Day Lewis. If we were to actually catch them acting, the illusion of the movie would have been completely destroyed. What both succeed in doing is acting naturally, and they make us recognize ourselves in them. We quickly come to recognize their fear and relate to it in a way we would rather not experience on a daily basis. These two were complete unknowns when this movie was released, and this elevates the sheer terror we feel for them as casting known actors would have taken away from the proceedings.

I also have to give credit to Mark Fredrichs who plays the psychic who visits Micah and Katie’s home. This role could have been an absolute cliché, one guy who comes across as a madman no one ever fully believes until it is too late. Seriously, this guy could have been just like that crazy old man from the first and second “Friday the 13th” movies who kept warning all those camp counselors, “You’re doomed! YOU’RE ALL DOOMED!!!!” But Fredrichs makes this character into a down to earth guy whose fear is quite palpable once he enters the peaceful looking home. Mark never overdoes anything here, and he more natural he is, the scarier this movie becomes. While the psychic is only on screen for a brief time, it is long enough to where he makes a forceful impression of impending doom.

They say “silence is golden,” but what is truly golden about “Paranormal Activity” is how silence is used so effectively. We’ve all had nights where we lie in bed and hear something fall in another part of the house, but maybe that something didn’t fall on its own. Maybe someone pushed it off to get our attention, to lure us out of our safety zone. Most movies are jam packed today with noise, but Peli recognizes how powerful the lack of sound can be, and he uses it to brilliant effect. I don’t know about you, but I need to be listening to something like soft music as I fall asleep. The quietness of the night has my mind racing when it should be resting.

Some will despise “Paranormal Activity” as nothing more than a gimmick while lacking the blood, gore, and occasional impalements and decapitations they feel are mandatory in a horror film. Others will hail it as a new horror masterpiece which will leave audiences extremely unsettled after leaving the theater. For me, this movie is definitely on the same level with “The Blair Witch Project,” a movie this one owes a huge debt to. It doesn’t try to blow us away with an overabundance of special effects, but with simplicity as the ordinary things are far more terrifying than monsters who wear hockey masks. Seeing a chandelier swaying back and forth definitely throws off my balance and makes me feel wide awake because I get so used to seeing it staying so still. Seeing a chandelier move from side to side in this movie gives the events an especially unsettling feeling.

Okay, I’m going to stop writing about this movie now. The thought of it is freaking me out, and I’m going to end up ripping down my shower curtain if I’m not careful.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Girlfriend Experience’ has Sasha Grey Teaming up with Steven Soderbergh

The Girlfriend Experience movie poster

The Girlfriend Experience” represents one of Steven Soderbergh’s more experimental films as well as the occasional escape he gets from mainstream filmmaking. Like “Bubble,” he shot it with a very low budget and a relatively inexpensive camera, and he cast actors in it with no previous experience. There is, however, one exception to this, and that is Sasha Grey. Known to people, though they probably wouldn’t openly admit it, as one of the biggest stars in pornography films, she gives the term “Grey’s Anatomy” a whole new meaning. Her being cast in the lead role should show just how big of a breakthrough the world of pornography has made into the mainstream media, something which can no longer be denied.

This movie takes place a month or so before the 2008 Presidential election between Obama and McCain. Sasha plays Christine, a high-priced escort who goes by the alias of Chelsea, as she services the rich commodities brokers of New York. Sex does play a part in her job, but this is not the only thing she provides. Chelsea gives herself over to you as your girlfriend for the evening; one who will listen to your problems over a dinner at a nice restaurant, and she is there for you when the reality of life hits you too hard, or if your wife and kids are giving you too much to deal with. Basically, she is selling companionship as a commodity, and she has become independently wealthy because of it. Throughout the movie, she seems to have a disconnect between what she does, and the life she has outside of it. But as the story goes on, you will see this façade take quite a beating.

Sasha’s life outside of being an escort includes having a boyfriend who works as personal trainer at gyms. He is played by Chris Santos, and his relationship with Sasha is a stable one. While their chosen professions differ from one another, they are essentially the same; they sell their services for a price and try to remain independent while running their individual businesses their own way. Chris and Sasha are, to put it bluntly, pimping themselves for a price, except Sasha is getting a better price for her services. Unlike others, Chris is comfortable with what Sasha does for a living, assuming it remains in certain parameters the two of them have set for one another.

“The Girlfriend Experience” is really not about sex, and there is no simulated or non-simulated sex to be found here. Those looking for the typical Sasha Grey experience need to be made fully aware of this before they sit down to watch this film. She does have one nice full-frontal scene near the beginning of the film, but it is hardly titillating in the way you would expect. What this movie is really about is the practice of buying and selling certain commodities, and of how even the feel of loving companionship has become an ever-growing business. The question presented to us is, are we so drained of feeling and morality that we feel more comfortable buying companionship than we are in obtaining it naturally? Furthermore, what if the line between what you do for a living and what you do outside of it becomes blurred? Can you remain objective in such a situation?

Soderbergh gives the movie a non-linear approach as the movie shifts back and forth in time, and we see the characters in different emotional states. This will undoubtedly annoy many who are so used to watching movies where everything is shown in chronological order. I, on the other hand, welcome this approach because it is always refreshing to see any filmmaker challenge the medium especially when movies these are mostly about tried and true formulas. This method makes this movie seem more unpredictable in regards to what will happen next, and it also gives the audience a somewhat alienating feeling which forces us to view these characters from a clinical distance. “The Girlfriend Experience” doesn’t want us to feel like we are in the same room with these characters. Instead, it wants to observe them and think about what they are going through. The movie also wants us to question if there really can be an unbreakable line between work and play. If we lose sight of this, is it even possible to bring ourselves back to where we once were?

As an actress, Sasha Grey is no Meryl Streep, but she does do good work here. Soderbergh made it clear he chose her in part because of her name value in porn films, and that is understandable. It will certainly bring a bigger audience to this film than it would have gotten if another actress played her part. Soderbergh also said he chose Grey because she is a lot like the character in that she runs her own business and is her own agent; she runs herself and has no one managing her. Indeed, looking at Grey’s career overall, it’s hard to think of another actress, let alone a more accomplished one, who could have been more believable here. In many ways, Grey is Chelsea, and she may even be the first to admit this.

Shooting this movie with a digital camera, Soderbergh makes it clear “The Girlfriend Experience” takes place in the real world and not some fictional one. The Elliott Spitzer scandal which came about because of his dealings with escorts like Chelsea could make this film seem like a documentary. In casting people with no previous acting experience, Soderbergh succeeds in giving us characters we recognize from our daily lives. Still, he doesn’t let you get too close to them. Just as you’re about to get closer, he moves the story in another direction to where you are just as starved for feeling as the characters are.

The film’s final image, of two characters locked in an embrace, seems to define it completely. We want this closeness to another person just as much as we are frightened of it. It makes us wonder if it is possible to achieve it without having to pay a price for it. The movie does not lay judgment on escort services or other forms of prostitution, but simply acknowledges how one of the oldest professions in the world still plays a significant part in our world whether we admit it or not. It has since evolved to another level where it is being offered for more than just a quickie in a motel.

“The Girlfriend Experience” is one of Soderbergh’s more interesting films of the past few years. It runs at a scant 77 minutes, but it feels longer as there is much to take in. Many will say he owes us a movie this short after splitting his previous movie, “Che,” into two. It’s not quite a great movie, but it is very good and willing to take chances other movies in 2009 have not. It will be interesting to see where Grey’s career will go from here. Porn actors and actresses rarely, if ever, make a break into mainstream films because of the stigma attached to their profession. But even those who consider themselves “morally superior” to pornography are probably bigger fans of it than they will ever admit. It all plays a big part in our lives, probably on more of an unconscious level more than anything else.

Of course, it will become a very lonely world if the only way we can get intimacy is to pay a high price for it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ Belongs in the Cinematic Abyss

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen poster

To a certain extent, I have been happy to defend Michael Bay on some of his movies. “The Rock” was a kick ass action flick, and it brought Nicholas Cage to a whole new level of stardom which he has since pissed away. When he gave us “Transformers” two years ago, it seemed really good when you compared it to his other movies. It seemed like he might turn out to be better than we typically give him credit for. Heck, Steven Spielberg worked with him on it for crying out loud!

But now comes the inevitable sequel entitled “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen,” which I thought could be the “Empire Strikes Back” of the franchise, but this not even close to being the case. If I didn’t have an intense hatred of Bay before, I sure as hell do now. I came out of this sequel cursing his name as if he had no reason to live. “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen” may very well represent the biggest waste of money ever spent on any film I have seen since “Waterworld” or even “Norbit”. Yes, the movie has action all over the place and the effects are incredible and incredibly loud as you would expect them to be, but I came out of it wanting to spit at the screen. This is a movie with no heart or soul, and it renders all the hard work put into it as utterly meaningless. What a pathetic waste of celluloid this is! But what’s truly depressing is no matter how critically thrashed this movie gets, it will still make tons of money.

Shia LaBeouf returns as Sam Witwicky in a performance which threatens to be as utterly annoying as Ralph Macchio’s in “The Karate Kid Part III.” Despite being a hero and helping the Autobots defeat the evil Decepticons in the first movie, he still acts like a pussy whipped bitch here. I don’t think LaBeouf is a bad actor, but he needs to stop playing characters like this lest people start thinking he’s playing himself. The first “Transformers” gave his career a huge leg up, but this god-awful sequel can take him down just the same.

Megan Fox also returns as Sam’s voraciously attractive girlfriend Mikaela Banes, and she makes her entrance by leaning over a motorcycle showing off one of her best “assets.” This will probably piss people off as Bay makes good sport of objectifying women throughout, and it wouldn’t be the first time either. Still, I would be a bit of a hypocrite if I didn’t say I enjoyed this visual even if it was from a faraway distance. Hey Fox, I know you want to be taken seriously as an actress and, believe it or not, I would like to see that happen for you. All the same, if there is a third “Transformers” movie, I strongly advise you NOT to do it. I honestly think you deserve better than this.

The plot of “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen” is… well, it’s somewhere in there. It involves… uh, some shard from that cube lodged in Sam’s clothing which…umm…well, ends up filling his head with symbols that… Jesus this is hard to describe! It makes Sam write all these symbols that…that…I don’t know, lead him to this big fight in Egypt… Oh yeah, he meets up again with Optimus Prime from the first one… Bumblebee is back too, and he threatens to be even more of a pussy than Sam is, but he kicks ass… Then they end up in Egypt and fight alongside those military dudes from the previous film…you know, Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson? And then… uh, well… There’s a lot of action!

It’s clear from the start Bay is not concerned with developing a good story or giving us characters who are anything but shallow. It certainly would help to bring us into the action more on an emotional level. I have a pretty good idea what Bay is thinking: Fuck the critics! I make movies for the audience, not you snobs! But in the process of flipping the bird to film critics, he is also insulting the audience’s intelligence. And yes, this includes all those 12 and 13-year old’s who this movie was clearly made for. I can’t say I was a huge fan of the Transformers as a kid, but I bet the most die-hard fans will find much to hate about this horrid sequel, and the call for Bay’s blood will be as loud as the explosions are in this film.

All the hallmarks of a Bay movie can be found here; loud explosions every other millisecond, characters communicating by yelling at each other even when they are in earshot of each other, and inane dialogue which makes George Lucas’ sound like John Patrick Shanley’s. I’m sure there are many who will say this is a movie where you should “check your brain at the door,” but this sentiment only goes so far. There is a point where you take your audience for granted, and finding forgiveness for this transgression is a bitch. This isn’t the first time Bay has gone out of his way to intentionally piss off those critics who hate his films. “Bad Boys II,” another cinematic monstrosity, was Bay lighting a fire under the ass of many a film critic. But the maker of one god awful sequel has now succeeded in creating one which is far worse.

Bay flips the bird at us even more by introducing two Autobots which are nothing more than extremely offensive stereotypes of the blatantly racist kind. I’m talking about Mudflap and Skids, the Transformers’ answer to Jar Jar Binks. I figured by having an actor like Tyrese Gibson might balance out things here since he doesn’t descend into any stereotypical behavior, but this is a movie whose main audience will be kids for crying out loud! I usually think people look into the way certain people are portrayed in movies a little too much, but this time the criticism is more than justified as Mudflap and Skids are two infinitely misconceived characters.

Speaking of characters yelling at each other, this god forsaken sequel may very well contain the most yelling of multiple characters in any film. Do you have any idea of just how annoying it is when people TALK LIKE THIS AS IF YOU HAVE SOME HEARING DISABILITY AND THEY THINK YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH YOUR HEARING AID EVEN THOUGH YOU DON’T ACTUALLY HAVE ONE BUT THERE’S SO MUCH FIGHTING AND EXPLOSIONS GOING ON TO WHERE YOU DON’T HAVE THE TIME TO APOLOGIZE TO EACH OTHER BECAUSE YOU EITHER ARE RUNNING LIKE HELL FROM THOSE NASTY DECEPTICONS OR YOU HAVE TO FIGHT THEM ASSUMING YOU GOT ANY BALLS LIKE THE MILITARY DOES BUT HAVING ANY OLD GUN WON’T HELP BECAUSE YOU NEED THE EQUIVALENT OF A BAZOOKA?… I’m not sure I have seen another movie where I have been desperate to see so many tracheotomies performed in one sitting! It’s not enough to tell one person in this movie to shut the fuck up just once. You have to do it over and over, and they still will end up screaming their anxieties right out at you!

Not just that, but half the time I couldn’t even understand what the hell anyone was saying. Did Bay sneak crystal meth into everyone’s food? It’s bad enough he gave us a movie at two and a half hours long, but is this how he chooses to condense a lot of it? I wonder if Bay could actually explain to us what’s going on here. I bet the way he sees it, if he gave us all sorts of loud explosions and expensive special effects, then who are we to argue? You can get away with this in another movie, but not this one.

My reaction to this new “Transformers” movie reminds me of when I witnessed Roland Emmerich’s tragically horrific take on “Godzilla.” I went out of that movie feeling depressed and saying to myself if this is the way Hollywood is going to keep making movies, then I am not going to another one ever again. Over ten years later, it feels like we haven’t come any further. Does Bay really think this is something people will instantly embrace? In the end, it won’t really matter because “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is bound to make a ton of money no matter how bad it is.

It’s not worth it wasting any more time on this movie than I already have. Seriously, I was all but ready to spit on the ground of the theater I saw it at. If you didn’t hate Bay before this movie, you will now. As I exited the theater, I quietly said to myself, “Fuck Michael Bay! Fuck him royally! Burn in hell!”

In regards to the audience I saw it with, the best piece of praise I heard from anybody about the movie was, “It’s okay.” Talk about being generous! Right now, I am sick of movies being just okay. So far, there has only been one truly great live action movie out this summer, and that’s “Star Trek.” Coincidentally, two of the screenwriters on this massive train wreck, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, also wrote the screenplay for that one. What the hell guys? Or maybe you’ll get off easy since Bay runs through your dialogue so fast to where we can’t possibly understand what anyone is saying. But don’t worry guys, Bay is taking all the heat on this one.

Michael Bay, you have just given us a great example of how NOT to make a summer blockbuster. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go watch “No Country for Old Men” just so I won’t forget what great filmmaking looks and feels like.

ZERO out of * * * *

*This review should suffice for the “Transformers” sequel of your choice.  

‘Observe and Report’ is the Blackest of Black Comedies

Observe and Report movie poster

I read an article in the Los Angeles Times which had an interview with Jody Hill, the writer/director of “Observe and Report.” Reading it was the best preparation I got for watching the movie as the trailers made it look like the typical Judd Apatow produced, Seth Rogen starring comedy. However, director Hill didn’t really see it as a comedy, and he said the term “dark comedy” didn’t really apply to the film the way he envisioned it. Hell, even Rogen went out of his way to call the film a “dangerous comedy.” I never would have guessed from the trailers which made the film seem like the average formulaic comedy I was more or less interested in seeing. I should have seen it coming it was not going to be what I expected it to be when I realized that Apatow had nothing to do with this.

If you’re thinking “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” redux, you’re dead wrong. With “Observe and Report,” you need to go in expecting “Taxi Driver” or “One Hour Photo” as if they were comedies. This is a very black comedy. We’re talking Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” black. It touches on several ever so touchy subjects such as drug abuse, date rape, alcoholism, delusional, and racial stereotypes among others. It is also proof of how comedy can be mined out of places and subjects you would never expect to find it in. Hill and Rogen prove to have a large pair of cojones on them as they take big risks with their subject matter and come out of it with many moments which are frickin’ hilarious. It says a lot about this movie how it can break taboos, many of which will easily offend people, and still have you laughing your ass off at the same time.

Rogen stars as Ronnie Barnhardt, the head of Forest Ridge mall security. From the start, we can see this is a guy with a few screws loose. Along with his fellow mall cops, he laments at the fact none of them are allowed guns on the job. Ronnie is a hero in his own mind, and no one takes the job of what is essentially a “rent a cop” position as seriously as him. Ronnie also longs to join the police force, but he is kept from being accepted due to his bi-polar illness which he treats with the typical medication Scientologists rally against. This is not your typical Rogen character where you wonder if and when he will get the girl. Instead, you wonder if this guy is going to have a psychotic break and end up killing someone before it is too late.

Ronnie’s mission in life, however, becomes crystal clear to him when a flasher exposes himself to the girl of his dreams, makeup counter employee Brandi (Anna Faris). So distraught she is after this attack, Ronnie makes it his mission to catch the flasher before he can attack her again. But then the local police department gets involved in the form of Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta at his overplaying best), and Ronnie sees this as a threat to his mission. The way Ronnie sees it, this is his case and no one else’s. To let the local police take over would be the same as giving up control of the mall. Paul Blart may have taken his job as a mall cop seriously, but he has got nothing on Ronnie Barnhardt.

For Rogen, this movie represents a sharp change of pace. Through movies like “Knocked Up” and “Zack & Miri Make a Porno,” he has perfected the role of lovable loser to the point where you could not see him in any other role. This usually results in a career which starts big and then crashes in record time. I was hoping to see him play some other role because I found him to be one of the funniest actors in quite some time, and I was in no mood to see him crash and burn. With his role in “Observe and Report,” Rogen finally breaks out of his comfort zone to play someone who is anything but lovable. He also never plays the role just for laughs which is a major plus. As Ronnie Barnhardt, he manages to find the heart of this delusional character, and he keeps the audience up with him even as Ronnie’s mental state continues to get worse.

Among the supporting cast in “Observe and Report” is Michael Pena. As Dennis, Ronnie’s second in command and best friend, Pena also goes against type to play a role we have never see him in before. He has proven to be the most dependable of supporting actors in movies like “Crash,” “Shooter,” and “World Trade Center” to name a few. As Dennis, he steals scenes from Rogen as his character ends up taking directions you never expect him to take. This is an inspired performance by Pena, and he serves, however briefly, as Ronnie’s conscience when he sees Ronnie is taking himself WAY too seriously. Dennis’ methods of loosening up Ronnie, however, are anything but safe and legal.

Another inspired performance in “Observe and Report” is from Celia Weston who plays Ronnie’s alcoholic mother who still lets her son live under her roof even though he is well into his 30’s. There is no doubt of how much Weston’s character loves her son even when she is hopelessly drunk, and it leads to where she tells one of Ronnie’s fellow mall cops of how she slept with his friends while he was in high school. This could have been a cruel and clichéd character, but Weston makes it a lot more.

You also have to give a lot of credit to Anna Faris who proves here she is not afraid of going to extreme lengths to get laughs. Throughout the movie, she never tries to sweeten her character of Brandi up like many actresses would. Brandi will easily remind you of all those spoiled rotten bitches you had the misfortune of going to high school with. Many may hate the way her character is treated in the movie, but to a large extent, Brandi brings a lot of it on herself. Like Rogen and Hill, Faris does not shy away from the unpleasant extremes of her role.

Then there is Ray Liotta, who will always be best remembered for playing Henry Hill in “Goodfellas.” As Detective Harrison, Liotta is the perfect counterpoint to Rogen’s mentally unhinged mall cop. His strait-laced character has his shit together, but it doesn’t necessarily make him much better. One of the movie’s best moments has him taking Ronnie on a ride along which ends with him stranding Ronnie on a bad corner with a bunch of crack head drug dealers. How Ronnie ends up handling these dealers is something I would prefer not to spoil for you. Just when you think you know where the scene is going, Hill and Rogen pull the rug right out from under you.

Another really nice performance comes from Collette Wolfe who plays Nell, an employee at the mall’s coffee shop who is somewhat hindered by her leg being in a cast. While Brandi really wants nothing to do with Ronnie, Nell pines for him every time he comes to get his free cup of coffee. She also has to deal with an unsympathetic boss (Patton Oswalt) who picks on her whenever given the opportunity. She is a sweet presence in an otherwise nasty movie which seeks to make you uncomfortable and laugh at the same time. For a moment, I thought this would turn into another tale of unrequited love a la “Rules of Attraction,” but Collette’s character gives Ronnie the emotional grounding he DESPERATLEY needs.

Hill’s biggest success with “Observe and Report” doesn’t lie in just the laughs he gets, but more in the fact he and the actors never just play everything just for laughs. There is no winking at the camera in this film. The actors don’t play it completely straight in this movie, but they take their roles seriously and never appear as if they all know they are in on the joke. If they did, the movie would not be anywhere as effective.

Hill’s breakthrough directorial effort was the movie “The Foot Fist Way” which served as the breakthrough for Danny McBride who went on to appear in “Pineapple Express” and “Tropic Thunder.” It is clear Hill revels in the portrait of people who live in their own world and are oblivious to what the world thinks of them. What Hill does here is ballsy to say the least.

“Observe and Report” also serves as a biting satire of the mall culture which serves as the movie’s setting. It ends up being symbolic of the melting pot which is the United States of America. Cultures of all kinds rub up against each other in the mall, and it unsettles our main character at times. Ronnie ends up having a tense moment with a character he thoughtlessly nicknames Sadamn (played by Aziz Ansari) who has filed a restraining order against Ronnie for past transgresses. This leads to one of the movie’s most insanely funniest moments as they say a barrage of “fuck you’s” to each other. The F-bomb is uttered almost endlessly in this scene to where you think they are going to give “Scarface” a run for its money in terms of how much the word is uttered.

This movie also continues the trend started with movies like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” of showing the penis in all its tiny glory. The audience I saw it with seemed more shocked by the “throbbing python of love,” as Robin Williams once described it, than they were with Rogen’s character holding a gun in his hand. After all these years, American audiences still prove to be an unknowingly hypocritical bunch as they find themselves more comfortable with the sight of a gun than with the appearance of a sexual organ.

Suffice to say, not everything in the movie works perfectly. The ending where Ronnie defends his place in the mall falls a little flat despite the use of Queen’s music from “Flash Gordon.” And granted, the mix of comedy and action and violence is a tricky road, but it is a road bound to have some inescapable potholes.

Still, when all is said and done, “Observe and Report” is a comedy with big cojones which cannot be easily ignored. It is not a movie for all tastes, but for those who are willing to travel a darkly comic path, there is much to find in this crazy film which dares to imagine a Travis Bickle-like character as a funny person despite himself. Do not say you weren’t warned.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Antichrist’ Shakes You Like Few Movies Can

Antichrist movie poster

This review was written in 2009.

It’s been over a week now since I saw the latest cinematic provocation from Danish film director Lars Von Trier. What I witnessed in “Antichrist” is still on my mind, and it took me a long time to process all I saw. I found myself talking to complete strangers about it as we each tried to interpret the movie on our own terms. Some found it too long which had me wondering if they ever saw Von Trier’s “Dogville” which was three hours long (“Antichrist” is only 109 minutes). Some just didn’t get the story. Either way you look at it, “Antichrist” is to 2009 what Michael Haneke’s remake of “Funny Games” was to 2008; an immensely polarizing film people will have passionate disagreements on. I found it to be a completely mesmerizing experience which had me transfixed throughout its entire length.

“Antichrist” stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in performances which don’t deserve Oscars as much as they do Purple Hearts. They play a married couple who are referred to as He and She, and the movie opens with them making love while their baby boy plays in his room. There is even a hardcore insertion added to the sex scene which may seem inappropriate to some, but it adds a raw carnality to a moment which makes it all the more immediate. Their lovemaking becomes equated with death as their son goes up to an open window, fascinated with the falling snowflakes, and ends up plummeting to his death. From there, “Antichrist” follows them as they cope with their son’s tragic death, but things get even worse. And just when you think they have hit rock bottom, things getting even worse than that. Yup, it’s that kind of movie.

It really helps to go into “Antichrist” with no expectations and an open mind because it will not be anything you predict it will be. So much attention has been paid to the unnervingly graphic moments to where you think Von Trier is trying to court fans of “Saw” and “Hostel.” But anyone expecting this will walk out of this movie horribly disappointed. “Antichrist” does not exist merely to shock viewers with copious amounts of blood and gore. Instead, Von Trier seeks to challenge the things you believe in, and he dares you to look beyond the darkness of our own human natures to get a glimpse of what he implies.

An ominous hum runs throughout this movie in the same way it runs through many of David Lynch’s films (“Lost Highway” and “Blue Velvet” among others). Dafoe’s character is a therapist, and his conflict of interest is clear from the start as he questions how his wife’s psychiatrist is treating her. The wife disagrees, telling him he shouldn’t get involved, but his love for her overrules everything else, including common sense. Almost immediately, he makes her flush her medication down the toilet, causing her a frightening amount of emotional upheaval. He then takes his wife to a cabin in the woods, which is ironically called “Eden” (it’s anything but). She finds this is the place which scares her the most, and he decides it will be the perfect place to try exposure therapy. By facing her greatest fears, he feels this will get her past the tragic loss of their son.

You would think Dafoe’s character has his wife’s best interests at heart, but the exposure therapy only exacerbates her grief and despair. We later discover her hold on reality is tenuous at best when He finds She has been working on a thesis regarding gynocide, which itself is a take on the word gendercide; referring to the systematic killings of a specific sex, in this case, women. He comes to see She has embraced the witchcraft of women and that they are seen as evil beings, something he quickly tries to disprove to her. But having made her emotional state even worse than it already is, He sees her grief has made her justify the punishment She inflicts on herself as She lets herself believe it is her fault their son died.

Von Trier has long been accused of rampant misogyny in his films, and yes, he does seem to put his actresses through an emotional wringer most of the time. But while “Antichrist” deals with misogynistic themes, it is not a misogynistic movie. I’m sure many will make a good that it is, but the film could also be interpreted as empowering in some respects. “Antichrist” does call into question how the female sex is viewed as nurturing and caring while the male sex is seen as stronger. But for the last half of the movie, even though She has gone completely mad, She seems to have all the power and proves to be anything but weak and helpless.

All of this led me to a big question when I walked out of the movie theater in my emotionally shaken state; who is the antichrist of the story? Many may see it as the Gainsbourg character in how She embraces the sexist teachings which She has been studying, and of how the stick figure in the movie’s title seems to look like a woman. But I felt this illustration was not gender specific in its design, so this makes it subject to interpretation. Neither character is of sound mind throughout the movie, and both deal with their soul-sucking grief in very unhealthy ways.

Nature itself is a huge character in this movie, and the majority of the action takes place there. The house which sits upon “Eden” is much like the one we have seen from the “Evil Dead” movies so you can see in advance how bad things will happen there. Maybe nature is the antichrist of because out there, the laws we live under don’t exist in the same way, and there is no order to be found in anything. “Antichrist” almost ends up being like “Deliverance” but without the demented hillbillies. No one is put in cages. This all leads to the moment where Dafoe encounters the fox who takes the time from disemboweling itself to utter the words which define the film, “Chaos reigns!”

This scene apparently led to much laughter in the audience at Cannes when “Antichrist” was shown there, but it is the most truthful and frightening of moments in the entire film. Whether or not you believe Gainsbourg’s character when She says “nature is Satan’s church,” it is clear the relationship between these two, let alone their state of minds, are descending into total chaos. Many movies show how nature can force us to discover the animalistic parts of ourselves, the parts we would rather not know about, and “Antichrist” is no exception.

I took some time to look at the definition of the word antichrist and what it really meant. According to Christianity, the antichrist is one who fulfills Biblical prophecies concerning an adversary of Christ while resembling him in a deceptive manner. Clearly, someone of sin, he or she opposes against anything that is worshiped, claiming divine authority. Most notably, this person also works all kinds of counterfeit miracles and signs. With this in mind, I can’t help but think Dafoe’s character is the antichrist of this movie, for he has taken his wife’s well-being into his hands thinking his experience trumps that of a younger doctor. He rails against all which is medically sound, and he subjects his wife to unnecessary torment despite his intent to help her. If he really thinks exposure therapy is the way to handle things, I wonder how it worked with his other patients who were not family related.

Much of what we see in “Antichrist” is open to interpretation. Von Trier has not gone out of his way to try and justify what he has shown us. There is a story at work here, but its meanings will be different for those who dare to see it. Watching this movie reminded me of when I was a student at UC Irvine and saw a production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna.” It was a play which focused on a meeting between a male professor and one of his female students whom he gave a bad grade to. At the end of it, no one could decide who was more at fault. It frustrated many because the play seemed to be devoid of a straight answer, but this was the point. One made the play so great was how thought provoking it was. It made you think about what you just saw, and it expanded how you saw certain things and maybe gave you a deeper understanding of the world around you more than ever before.

“Antichrist” gave me this same kind of experience, and I can’t remember the last time I had one like it. Most movies today don’t challenge you out of fear of offending too many paying customers they depend on, so as emotionally draining as this film is, it still feels s like a victory something this artful actually got made. It is meant to shake you, and that it did to me. Many will hate the film, but for those filmgoers who are far more adventurous in what they watch, I think there is much they can appreciate.

Is there anything audiences can come to agreement on with “Antichrist”? Well, one thing’s sure; you cannot deny the astonishing beauty of the cinematography on display. The director of photography is Anthony Dod Mantle, the same cinematographer who shot “Slumdog Millionaire.” The opening prologue stands out as one of the most beautiful pieces of film I have ever seen. The juxtaposition of He and She making love while their son ends up falling from his bedroom window is as lovely as it is horrifically tragic. Mantle also gives us some incredible dreamlike shots which capture the beauty of nature while hinting at the inescapable darkness lingering beneath the surface. I somehow doubt that I will see more beautiful imagery in any other movie I see for the rest of 2009.

What else can we agree on about “Antichrist”? Ah yes, the performances! Both Dafoe and Gainsbourg rise up to the unthinkable challenges Von Trier lays at their feet. What they both do here almost seems criminal were they not such willing participants. Both actors are known for taking big risks, so this makes them well suited to take on material so emotionally naked.

Gainsbourg won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, and she clearly deserved it. Ironically enough, she also appeared in a production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” and she played the title character in the 1996 version of “Jane Eyre.” Her opening intro from “The Cement Garden” was used in one of my all-time favorite Madonna songs, “What It Feels Like for A Girl.” Throughout her career, she has disappeared into her characters with an abandon you don’t find in many other actors. Her performance in “Antichrist” shows her at the peak of her powers, but I’m sure there is greater work we will see from her in the future.

But let us not leave out Dafoe who can add his role here to the many great ones he has played. His character is a witness to an unspeakable despair, and he does not hide the fact his character deals with this despair in ways which are selfish more than anything else. Dafoe’s career has spanned several decades, and it includes controversial movies like “Mississippi Burning” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Dafoe’s mission and intent as an actor has never been to simply get under your skin, but to explore the darker parts of humanity so we can better understand them. He is unhindered by the trappings of stardom and glamor, and he continues to take chances with movies like this one.

Von Trier may not be “the greatest director in the world” as he proclaims whenever given the opportunity, but he is certainly one of the best directors working today. Watching his movies, you can understand why there is actually a benefit to people booing his material. Were a film like this were not generating strong emotions such as booing, this film would have been a failure for him. Art, be it in film or in paintings, serves to challenge the things we believe in, and that is what Von Trier has done here.

“Antichrist” is a movie which takes its time in getting to where it’s going as opposed to going for a quick payoff like most movies do. If you can keep up with its slow pace, you will be in for a movie as mesmerizing as it is psychologically draining.  Many will it intensely, but I count myself as one of its defenders. For me, this is far and away one of the best movies of 2009. But like both sides, I will warn you this is not a movie for everybody. If you are easily offended or not in the mood for something deeply disturbing, then don’t see “Antichrist.”

* * * * out of * * * *

 

Fast & Furious

Fast & Furious movie poster

This review was written in 2009 when this movie was released.

I never bothered watching either of the sequels that came out after “The Fast & The Furious.” What was the point? You have Paul Walker headlining “2 Fast 2 Furious” (clever title) which did not inspire much confidence in me at the time. Then came “The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift” which had none of the original characters in it (excluding cameos). For many, including myself, this second sequel seemed to be the last gasp of a franchise trying to get by on its name only. But now we have “Fast & Furious,” a movie every bit as tight as its title. With this one, we finally have the original cast back with the clever tagline of “new model, original parts.” With this in mind, I actually found myself excited at what looked to be the first true sequel to the 2001 original.

Okay, the original was by no means a great movie. Even Rob Cohen, who directed it, didn’t try to hide the fact the story was ripped off from “Point Break.” In essence, “The Fast & The Furious” was basically “Point Break” on wheels. At the same time, it was never less than entertaining and offered us a surprisingly authentic look into the world of street racing. What astonished me most was how it brought all kinds of ethnicities together who were all in pursuit of being the ultimate racing champion. In a way, it made you look at street racing as an equal opportunity killer. Car crashes of all kinds know no prejudice.

With “Fast & Furious,” the series comes back to what Cohen originally hoped it would be; the continuing soap opera of what’s happening with Dominic Toretto, his sister Mia, his girlfriend Letty, and his friend turned nemesis Brian O’Conner. Of course, this particular sequel would never have happened without the participant of one individual: Vin Diesel. Having opted out of the other sequels, Diesel returns to his star-making role as Dom, the character all the fans desperately wanted to catch up with.

“Fast & Furious” has been described as an intersequel, as opposed to just a prequel, in that it takes place between the events of “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Tokyo Drift.” We catch up with Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, as luscious as ever) in the Dominican Republic as they are up to their usual game of hijacking trucks, in this case oil tankers. The movie gets off to a fast start indeed as the hijacking quickly develops some rather dangerous complications. From there, Dom comes back to Los Angeles to avenge the death of a very close friend.

When the movie heads to Los Angeles, we then catch up with Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), who is now an FBI agent. Brian starts the movie on a chase which is indeed furious as he runs after a fugitive who has information on a major drug dealer he is pursuing. It is a wonderfully executed chase scene which gets us primed for what will happen next. Of course, the real man Brian is after is the same man Dom wants revenge on, so these are forced to work together again even though they couldn’t trust one another any less.

“Fast & Furious” allows us to also catch up with Dom’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), who fell hard for O’Conner before realizing who he really was. She now looks at him with disdain as she feels completely betrayed by his lies. But come on, you know these two are still hot and heavy for each other. Of course, it takes them some more time to realize this.

Is it even worth it to be critical of a movie like this? The plot threatens to be paper thin throughout, and it is there of course to hang a lot of car chases and other action sequences on. There are clichéd characters aplenty, such as Brian’s superior officer who wants results or his ass is grass. There’s also that rival agent who doesn’t trust Brian one bit, and that’s even before Brian drives the guy’s head into the marble wall at the FBI office (ouch!). Then there is dialogue which sounds like it comes out of every other action movie you have seen, and some of it will have you rolling your eyes. But seriously, it’s not like the filmmakers are trying to make “Lawrence of Arabia” here. I mean, you could compare the two to determine which is the better movie, but this is more likely to make you look like a snob rather than an objective film critic.

Truth be told, I just went into “Fast & Furious” to have a fun time, and that’s exactly what I got. This is a well-maintained action picture which has much to appreciate. I especially liked the chase scenes which, while not necessarily the best ever, are heads above a lot of the recent action movies Hollywood has churned out. I especially dug the street racing scene where Dom and Brian race two other guys for the chance to become drivers for hire. The only catch is the streets are not closed off for this one. They are being led by GPS monitors showing them the direction they need to go, but they also have to keep their eyes open for oncoming traffic which is oblivious to the reckless endangerment about to be unleashed.

There is another cool sequence where cars race across the desert to get across the Mexican border. While the chase itself succeeds in defying the laws of logic in several ways, and it does have those CGI moments which takes away from it, it was still fun as Dom and company barrel through these secret caverns with their twists and turns. This leads to an all-out furious climax as the tunnel is utilized again for more deadly results.

There is also a high volume of scantily dressed women to be found just like in other movies in this endless franchise. Very appealing to the eye, I found it to be. Still, it continues to astound me just how lax the MPAA is with movies like these. There is a lot of skin left uncovered for a PG-13 movie and then some. Very stimulating it was! Sorry to sound like Yoda, but I am not going to lie about the eye candy on display.

As for the movie’s faults, the female characters keep getting short shrift compared to the men in this franchise. Seeing Michelle Rodriguez here made me forget about all her troubles which she got into during her time on “Lost” and of how the media paid way too much attention to. She is a hottie to put it mildly, and you totally believe she would actually go out of her way to do some of the dangerous shit herself. It doesn’t matter if a stunt double did most of her work because you come out of this movie believing she would have done some of this on her own. The fact she is underused here is painful.

The same goes for Jordana Brewster whose character of Mia is left around just hoping and worrying about Dom and Brian. She’s great to watch, and she doesn’t even try to hide her character’s anger and bitterness at Brian. Still, to have her just sit around worrying about the guys instead of doing more threatens to make this a waste of her talents. She gives the movie the heart it needs though, and she strengthens the connection between Dom and Brian. The end of the movie seems to imply that if there is another sequel, she will have a bigger part in it. It would have been great if this were the case here though.

It’s great to see Vin Diesel back in this franchise. Lord knows it wouldn’t be worth doing another one if he were not participating in it. Over the last few years, Diesel had become envisioned by the media as an actor with a very over inflated ego, and many of his movies released after “The Fast & The Furious” tanked at the box office. In retrospect, this seems largely unfair as studios were quick to blame him for trying to be the next big action star way too quickly. While Diesel is not a great actor (not yet anyway), there is no denying he has a charismatic presence onscreen. Some of his strongest moments come when he doesn’t say a word. After all these years, he still has the physical confidence which spells out to the audience, “Let’s not mess with me today.”

Paul Walker is, well, Paul Walker. Every performance I have seen him give is basically the same, so his rep in Hollywood as a nothing more than a pretty face feels pretty much justified. To be fair though, he is more believable as Brian O’Connor this time around than he was in the original. That rough facial hair he has helps illustrate the years he has been on the job and of a history he still has to absolve himself of.

John Ortiz is also on board as the nefarious Campos. It’s a role very similar to the one he played in Michael Mann’s movie version of “Miami Vice,” except he has a lot less hair this time around.

The director behind the wheel of “Fast & Furious” is Justin Lin who also helmed “Tokyo Drift.” Lin is best known, however, for his brilliant 2003 debut feature “Better Luck Tomorrow” which brilliantly transcended the stereotypes many people have of Asian Americans. Ever since then, however, he appears to have gone all Hollywood with wussy studio movies like “Annapolis” with James Franco. Many still want him to come back and make another movie like his first feature, but Lin does a good job here in delivering a good old fashioned B-movie which delivers the goods. His skills as a filmmaker are not in doubt, and I expect great things from him in the future.

Lin also brings along his “Tokyo Drift” composer Brian Tyler for the ride, and Tyler gives the movie the kick ass score it deserves. A combination of thunderous guitar riffs and orchestral movements, the propulsive score he comes up with more than matches the horsepower the cars have here.

“Fast & Furious” was a lot of fun and that’s all a movie like this needs to be. Whether or not it stands the test of time, it is great to see these characters back on the silver screen. It was worth it to see these characters live a quarter mile at a time once again.

I also want to add that the movie does have that disclaimer which says, “The car and motorcycle sequences depicted in this film are dangerous.” To this, I say, duh!

* * * out of * * * *

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

x-men-origins-wolverine-poster

I was racing to the movie theater, one of the smaller ones in the Los Angeles area, trying to get there before the movie started. My friends were all there waiting on my slow ass, and as usual, I had left my apartment at the last possible minute. Cursing myself and the slow ass drivers placed in my path, I hurried while risking the possibility of getting pulled over. With the economy now being located in the center of the earth while we slowly dig towards it, the police are handing out more tickets than ever. Heaven forbid I make some sort of unnecessary donation to them and miss the film.

Anyway, with an enormous stroke of luck, I managed to make it to the theater just as the trailers were about to start. I was thankful to find my friends who managed to save a seat for me, and I was even more thankful to miss out on all those stupid commercials AMC Theaters feels the need to inflict on us. It is an addictive thrill to get to where you are going just in the nick of time and a hard one to get over (it would help if I did, though). Thank god for Japanese machinery, especially with it having almost 200,000 miles on the odometer.

I bring this up because my maddening drive to get to the theater on time turned out to be far more exciting than the movie I ended up seeing: “X-Men Origins – Wolverine.” It is the fourth movie in the “X-Men” franchise, and the first big movie of summer 2009. But more importantly, it is also summer 2009’s first big disappointment. This has been the case for the past couple of years, with the first big summer movie not meeting expectations.

“X-Men Origins: Wolverine” takes place years before the first “X-Men” movie, and we get to see the pivotal character of Wolverine as a young boy who ends up committing a violent act he can never take back. As a result, he runs away from home with his half-brother Victor Creed (later to be known as Sabretooth). From there, we get a spectacular opening sequence in which we see the both of them fight in just about every major war they were exposed to throughout their endless lifetimes. From the American Civil War to the Vietnam War, we see them fighting with the other side, taking their hits, and they come out of it all relatively unscathed. Of course, when Wolverine and Sabretooth end up being played by Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber, they stop aging for good. Very convenient for the box office, wouldn’t you say?

With this being a prequel, a lot of the suspense is sucked out right there because we all know Wolverine is going to survive this adventure and go on to experience many more. Granted, some prequels can be exciting and leave you hanging on the edge of your seat (“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” is a perfect example), but it takes a really good script and precise direction to suck you into the present tense of the movie you are watching. The more you as an audience member are sucked into the moment, the more you forget about the film which chronologically comes after it. But since this franchise has been around since the early part of the 2000’s, we have come to know these characters all too well. We know what will happen to them eventually, and we end up spending too much time trying to connect the dots between this and the other “X-Men” movies. It makes this origin movie a lot less exciting as a result.

Seriously, this is “X-Men” meets “The Punisher” when you take a close look at the story. We see Wolverine working as a lumberjack after having left special ops six years ago, and he lives with his girlfriend Kayla Silverfox (the lovely Lynn Collins) in a secluded cabin up in the hills of Canada, but the past, of course, catches up with him like we expect it to. Logan (Wolverine’s real name) is approached by William Stryker (Danny Huston playing the same character Brian Cox played in “X-Men 2”) to get back into action because Victor/Sabretooth is on the loose. Logan says no, and this had me rolling my eyes because we all know Kayla is going to get murdered by Victor, and this will make Wolverine become thirsty for revenge. In doing so, he will be forced to alter his body to where he will become the indestructible animal we already know him as through the previous installments.

One of the movie’s real stumbling blocks is both Wolverine and Sabretooth are presented as indestructible. No matter how many bullets are shot at them or how many times they get stabbed, we know they will get back up and heal themselves in a matter of seconds. This knowledge affects the movie’s big action sequences because, regardless of whether or not they get the bad guys, we know they will come out of it all unscathed. We also know Sabretooth is not going to get his due justice at the end of this story. It gets to where you expect either of these characters to start singing “Shoot Me Again” by Metallica. You know how that one goes, right?

“Shoot me again, I ain’t dead yet!”

In terms of performances, Hugh Jackman still delivers the goods as Logan/Wolverine. If you think his successful stint as host of the Oscars might have softened him, you needn’t worry. Even with a script which deals with elements we have seen in other movies like this one, he gives this comic book hero a real heart and soul just as he did before. Starting off an “X-Men” prequel series with this character wasn’t a bad idea, but it’s a shame the filmmakers did not give him a more original and compelling story.

Liev Schreiber also does solid work here as Victor Creed/Sabretooth. While the script could have given the character a little more dimension, Schreiber makes the character an effectively dangerous rival with a never-ending bloodlust, and he keeps our interest along with Jackman throughout the movie’s two hour running time.

The other actors don’t fare as well. Danny Huston’s portrayal of William Stryker lacks the complex nature Brian Cox brought to the role previously. The fact Stryker’s son is a mutant is brought into this film as an afterthought, and it leads to one of the character’s more ludicrous moments. Stryker’s fate at the end of the film doesn’t make much sense either because you can’t help but wonder how he managed to become such a powerful military leader by the time we see him in “X-Men 2.”

Ryan Reynolds plays Wade Wilson/Deadpool, and it is same kind of character he played in the dreadful “Blade: Trinity.” While I got a kick out of Reynolds’ sardonic wit and lightning speed with swords, his appearance in “Wolverine” feels like a wasted opportunity. Reynolds ends up disappearing from the movie too quickly, and we don’t see him again until much later. This leaves us with mutants who are nowhere as interesting as the ones we met in the previous “X-Men” movies. Characters like Agent Zero (played by Daniel Henney) are so one-note, they cease to be interesting almost immediately.

In fact, this is my biggest beef with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine;” it has an utter lack of character development. The three previous films gave us characters to care about as soon as they appeared onscreen. Bryan Singer, who directed the first two films, really took the time to make us feel what these characters were going through as they were cruelly branded as outcasts. We sympathized with their struggles as they worked with Professor Charles Xavier to co-exist peacefully with humans. This made the action sequences all the more exciting; we worried about these characters getting hurt. It was like we got hurt along with them.

But with this newest “X-Men” movie, these characters cease to be as interesting as they once were. They exist here as a means to an end, to guide Wolverine to the point where we first met him. We get introduced to some cool characters like Gambit, but it feels like he is being given only a test run here to see if he will be popular enough to include in future installments. More attention is paid here to the spectacle than anything else, and it shows. There are some great visuals to be found here for sure, but without stronger characters, they just come across as empty. There is no visceral feeling to them, and not much risk is on display.

“X-Men Origins: Wolverine” was directed by Gavin Hood who previously directed the Oscar-winning “Tsotsi” as well as “Rendition” which starred Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal. I’m not sure how much of the blame he should take for this one. Word is the production was troubled and that executive producer Richard Donner took over directing duties for a few scenes, and the script was constantly being rewritten (no surprise there). I guess by bringing in an indie director like they did with Singer, the producers were hoping to bring a fresh new perspective to the long-running franchise. But Hood’s direction is not exemplary here in the way Singer’s was, and he makes this nothing more than an average action movie. There is nothing really special he accomplishes here which could have made this particular comic book movie more unique.

Indeed, there are many twists towards the end which serve to define the character of Wolverine. But the more they came, the less I believed them. There are gaps in logic I am willing to forgive in movies, but once I start thinking about them while watching what unfolds onscreen, I will undoubtedly have some serious issues. Some plot twists would have required years of preparation for the characters to pull off, and I can’t see any of them thinking that far into the future. Much more attention should have been paid to the script, and the characters should have been given top priority. They also should have given this film a much different story than an average one of a man scorned by the loss of love and the need for vengeance. The conflicted hero act worked for a while, but now it feels old, old, old.

It’s hard to dissuade you “X-Men” fans from seeing this movie, so I’m not going to try. Granted, I’ll be interested to hear what you all think of it. You may end up enjoying it far more than I did. Jackman is great as always, but his performance is not enough to save this scripted mess. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” should serve as a warning for future origin movies in how they should and should not be made. Seeing Wolverine before he goes on his Jason Bourne-like mission takes many of the character’s mysteries away and renders him far less intriguing. Sometimes it is better to not know so much about where certain people come from.

* * out of * * * *

 

Capitalism: A Love Story

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“We are here to tell the truth! People say if you don’t love America, then get the hell out! Well I love America!”

                                              -Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic in “Born on The Fourth of July”

“I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies.”

                                                                                                                                                           -Thomas Jefferson

I was a little worried about Michael Moore’s film, “Capitalism: A Love Story.” It covers the catastrophic economic fallout from 2007 to 2009 and presents a very harsh indictment of the current economic order in the United States. Throughout the movie, Moore shows us families being evicted from homes which they have owned for years, and how many get swindled out of them without them realizing the trap they are ensnared in until much too late. He also looks at how Wall Street treats the country’s economy like a reckless night of gambling in Las Vegas, and at how Goldman Sachs gained a frightening amount of leverage over congress at an economically vulnerable time. In short, it is Moore’s attack on all things capitalism, and of how it is an evil which is ruining the fabric of our once great country.

While it may seem ironic how Moore would take on capitalism, especially when he has benefited so much from it over the years, he creates a very compelling case here. Whether you think he is telling the truth or simply manipulating facts to his own advantage, he remains the most entertaining documentary filmmaker in American films. “Capitalism: A Love Story” is honestly one of his best films to date, and it combines some truly devastating moments along with some very funny ones. The movie does need those humorous moments, otherwise this could have been one of the most emotionally draining cinematic experiences ever.

“Capitalism: A Love Story” starts off in a way both hilarious and frightening. Moore starts off with one of those cheesy, snicker-inducing 1950’s instructional movies about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. It resembles all those films we were constantly subjected to throughout our school years. While the movie plays out along with the stiff narration, Moore inserts clips from the Reagan era White House, and continues all the way through the Clinton era, not to mention both of the Bushes, showing us how the fate which befell the Romans is very much alike to what is happening to America right now. Clearly, he sees us following in the footsteps of a society destroyed through endless greed and avarice, and he is amazed people want to hang on to this damaged system regardless of how bad it is.

From there, Moore takes us to a family in Peoria, Illinois getting evicted from their home. It’s one of the saddest moments in the film, and to add insult to injury, the family ends up getting thrown out of their home much earlier than they had expected. They were given a couple of weeks originally, but it turns out the bank which repossessed their home had just sold it to another family who were ever so eager to get settled in it.

I’ve been looking at these foreclosures from a distance, and I felt a good portion of them were due to owners not living up to their responsibilities. But while this may be the case to a certain extent, Moore creates a very interesting case of how the banks ended up swindling many families out of their homes because the banks continued to charge them more and more for their mortgage. For those looking to become homeowners, the movie is a reminder of how important it is to read the fine print of every contract you sign.

For Moore, capitalism seemed like such a great gift to our country when he was growing up in Flint, Michigan. The way he saw it, it provided his dad with a good job, helped give his family free health care, helped to pay for him to go to college without falling into tremendous debt over student loans, etc. But then Reagan came along and ruined it all from Moore’s perspective. “Capitalism: A Love Story” doesn’t necessarily portray Reagan as an evil man, but it views him more as a puppet for the banking industry among others. Before the star of “Bedtime for Bonzo” came along, the rich were apparently given a 90% tax on what they made, so naturally, they weren’t very happy about this. With Reagan taking over as President, the banks were able to gain control of all things money related, and they created massive tax breaks for the rich. From there, the cost of living rose faster than the cost of living, and prices on things like health care skyrocketed to an exorbitant rate. Even prisons and juvenile detention halls became for-profit businesses where the sentences turned out to be longer than you were told. In short, things were changing, and the price of those things started to get higher and higher.

Much of the American public seemed to be sold on the idea we could be rich too, and therein lays the big lie of Reganomics. In actuality, his policies throughout the 1980’s resulted in creating a bigger gap between the haves and have-nots, and the middle class at times threatened to be rendered extinct. Moore presents this as the point in our country where things started to change to where the rich benefited more than anyone else. Greed became a powerful influence on everyone, and much of America turned into a “me, me, me” society as opposed to one which sought to help the less fortunate. He also shows how it went from there to the Clinton era and, more horrifyingly so, to the George W. Bush era in which the tax cuts for the rich almost became permanent.

“Capitalism: A Love Story” is kind of a semi-sequel to Moore’s “Roger & Me” which came out 20 years ago. In that film, he pursued General Motors chairman Roger Smith for an interview over the closing of the car factory in his hometown. The closing resulted in a tremendous loss of jobs, all despite the fact GM was posting record profits. All these years later, Moore still cannot get a meeting with the CEO of GM. What occurred in Flint, Michigan all those years ago gave him a chance to tell the automotive industry, “I TOLD YOU SO!!!”Unsurprisingly, after all these years, Moore can still not get inside the doors of the GM corporate headquarters to talk to the CEO. His attempts to enter other buildings are just as unsuccessful, and when he tries to get any of the bankers to explain what a “credit derivative” is, one of them says, “Stop making movies!”

Unsurprisingly, after all these years, Moore can still not get inside the doors of the GM corporate headquarters to talk to the CEO. His attempts to enter other buildings are just as unsuccessful, and when he tries to get any of the bankers to explain what a “credit derivative” is, one of them says, “Stop making movies!”

One moment in “Capitalism: A Love Story” which really stayed with me was when President Reagan addressed the bankers on Wall Street, and one of the most powerful bankers standing right next to him told, not asked, him to “speed it up.” Wait a second, Reagan was one of the most powerful people on the planet at that time, and someone next to him was telling him to speed it up? It makes you wonder who was really in charge of America back then.

A truly heart breaking scene comes when a former Wal-Mart employee talks about how, when his wife died at a young age, the company ended up making thousands of dollars off her death. It turns out Wal-Mart took out life insurance policies on all their workers, and ended up profiting from their passing. To make matters even worse, the younger the worker, the more money they get. Now fact checkers everywhere are going to point out how Wal-Mart has since ended these policies, but Moore does mention this during the closing credits.

Another section of the film which hit close to home was when Moore points out how airline pilots are paid less than the manager of a Taco Bell; about $19,000 a year for starting pay. My brother is an airline pilot, and while he makes better wages now, those first few years were a struggle to say the least. It seems almost criminal how these huge airline companies which make millions of dollars end up paying their pilots so pitifully. Thus, we get an example here of the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Now let’s take a moment here because we all know many will be accusing Moore (many of whom will not even bother watching this film) with thoughtlessly manipulating his on-camera subjects and distorting what they say to his own advantage. Granted, there are moments where his camera focuses on crying family members a little longer than what feels comfortable. While the feeling of manipulation is hard to ignore, getting angry at Moore for showing this will be missing the point. He wants you to be mad. With “Capitalism: A Love Story,” he means to stir up your anger because he does not want you to react passively to what you are witnessing. He wants you to take action against what is happening because he is really sick and tired of doing this all by himself. Can you blame him? Many of us are viewing this economic breakdown and corruption from a distance, and we can’t spend the rest of our lives letting all this go unchecked.

But if scenes of everyday working class people getting heartlessly fleeced doesn’t frighten or enrage you, then the latter half of the movie where nerve-wracked members of congress get swayed by Goldman Sachs among other banks to bail them out so the banking industry could survive should do the trick. Nobody I know of was happy to hear about this, and we got even more pissed off when they got million dollar bonuses which were undeserved. There was a great article in Rolling Stone of how Goldman Sachs circumvented the economic crises of past and present to benefit themselves. Seeing this play out on the screen brought back my own deep feelings of unrestrained infuriation at what these bankers were doing with taxpayer dollars. Why exactly do we have to pay for the mess they created anyway? What happened to accountability?

Many still believe Moore is nothing more than an anti-American zealot who has nothing better to do than say bad things about our country. The conservative comedy “An American Carol” had a character like him trying to convince fellow citizens to abolish the Fourth of July as a holiday. But what made me really love the last half of this film is how he shows how the power of the people really did win out. If you still think he is a hater of this country after watching this, you may need to remove yourself from the cave you have been hiding in.

Moore shows how it was the will of the people which prevented the first economic stimulus, largely engineered by members of Goldman Sachs, from passing. At seeing what was about to occur, Americans everywhere contacted their representatives, urging them not to pass this bill. There were enough house representatives who saw how the banks were in the position of almost completely controlling the legal process, and they rallied against them for the sake of the country. This was all the result of American citizens speaking up loudly.

The spirit of the American people is shown even more strongly when we witness the laid off workers of Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago do an in-house protest at their place of employment. This came about because none of them were paid the severance promised from Bank of America. We also get a look at community groups like LIFFT in Miami which helped unfortunate families and “liberated” the houses they were evicted from. The police came out in force of course, but they ended up not arresting anybody probably because it wasn’t worth the trouble. Then we see Captain Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III, the pilot who saved the lives of all 155 passengers aboard US Airways Flight 1549 when he landed it in the Hudson River, go before Congress to protest the way pilots were treated in general and how underpaid they are.

I should add when the section regarding Captain Sullenberger came up, I was afraid Moore would bash him in some way. But he actually applauds Sullenberger for taking his newfound fame and using it to help others who love their job of being a pilot. This leads to one of the movie’s funniest moments as Moore shows how the media seemed to like him more as a hero instead of someone who stands up against the companies for not paying pilots enough. Moore ends up putting some patriotic band music over the soundtrack to shut out Sullenberger, because no one really likes a Debbie Downer.

After all the films Moore has made criticizing people and polices of the United States, it seems amazing anyone would talk to him on camera. But he does get people like University of Missouri professor Bill Black, and Ohio Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur to talk about what they see as the ills of capitalism. Furthermore, he even talks to the Catholic priest who married him and his wife who says capitalism is a sin and not very Christian-like.

Kaptur is one of the movie’s most compelling voices, and she said the first economic stimulus bill would have been a disaster for democracy had it been passed. It would have allowed the banks to have more control over taxpayer money and the legislative process, hence rewriting the law books we have come to study all these years. The banks may want to concentrate the nation’s wealth among the 1% of the population who has it, but they cannot be allowed to silence the voices of the 99%.

Black himself comes off as one of the most intelligent people seen here, and it is heartbreaking to see how some of the smartest minds in America saw this economic disaster coming from miles away. He compares the fallout to a water damn which breaks apart, but of how we could see those little cracks forming. The fact many people like him were silenced or had their character smeared beyond all repair is shameful. For them, they saw it as only a matter of time before the banking industry came crashing down, so there was no way they could have been surprised by any of this.

I was also really pleased to see Moore stick it to the Democrats as well as the Republicans. While the Republicans may share the largest blame, the Democrats cannot be excluded because many of them are every bit as guilty in what transpired. It doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum they were on, politicians of all kinds were bought out with what seemed like very little effort. Truth is, I am seriously frustrated with both major parties, and Moore taps into this because many Americans, regardless of party affiliation, feel the same way.

By the way, if you really think that Moore is this left-leaning zealot, keep in mind he has spent many years criticizing both parties, and his ire at Democrats seems much larger because he expects more from them. I’m sure if Moore had it his way, Ralph Nader would have been President by now.

As for President Barrack Obama, Moore steers clear of saying anything bad about him, probably because many still see him as a symbol of hope. If Obama does foul things up in Afghanistan, I’m sure Moore might consider doing something on it. But that coupled with the power of people made the last half of this movie seem like the feel-good movie of the year, and this is regardless of how exaggerated it all may seem to those who cannot stand this baseball cap wearing filmmaker.

In the end, Moore is not out to make you repeat everything he says or believes in like it’s the gospels. His attack against capitalism is not entirely waterproof, and much more blame could be thrown at how corporate America has become so corrupted. But it doesn’t matter because what he wants is for you to be angry, and to fight against those who would try to wrestle away the powers given to us in the Constitution.

“Capitalism: A Love Story” is really one of his best films in how he attacks many policies this country has adopted, and then counters it with proof that the power still does belong to the people. It does to the banking industry and deregulation what “Sicko” did to the health care industry, and it is informative, funny, moving, and endlessly entertaining.

For those who wonder why Michael Moore hasn’t left America yet, see this movie to find out. Like him, you may hate what this country is doing to its people, but you are not about to leave it.

 * * * * out of * * * *

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