Review- Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

Pre-Amble

If you read this blog consistently while I have tried, and I hope succeeded, to keep content fresh and diverse. However, as I intimated in this post particularly, I’ve been far less interested in reviewing theatrical releases lately (mini-reviews don’t fall under that category). There’s a certain bit of “FIRST” to it that can be tiresome and doesn’t allow one to reflect. Moreover the more interesting hooks to me to write about lately have been pieces about the films, that aren’t reviews like I did for The Dictator, The Sitter and most recently The Lone Ranger, to name three. It’s easier to write a review at polar extremes. However, this one came about through discussing the films and found me pretty firmly split on and that compelled me to write this. I say only to this to close this introduction: I do not write from a perspective of consumer advocacy but of vocalizing my thoughts and why they are so. If you read between the lines, you can usually decipher if the film may be your cup of tea.

Without further ado, the review…

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013, 20th Century Fox)

Perhaps the best way to encapsulate my thoughts on this film would be to echo the sentiments I tweeted about it the next day and expand upon that. “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters has highlights that are higher than the first (film) & lowlights that are lower than the first (film); a mixed bag.” I admit that I’m a fairly positive person, or I try to be. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, I just didn’t as much as I could have. A higher degree of satisfaction was within reach but there were frustrations and eye-rolling moments to be had.

Due to viewing commitments with different groups of friends I saw the first installment quite a few times and after just one viewing this one already felt more memorable than the initial foray. I don’t recall any really bad failings in the film prior like this one had; yet there were some things that really worked much better than before. Having said that, it’s an uphill struggle to get past all the encumbrances.

Many of the issues stem from the writing: the dialogue is frequently where there are misses. Many attempted jokes are lame but don’t land. There are some good ones. Delivery plays a role. Stanley Tucci has impeccable timing and makes most of his material work, Nathan Fillion’s brief appearance is one of the highlights, Lerman has one great line, which was given the benefitted of my anticipating.

However, these writing concerns are not just limited to the attempts at levity, but also with building character. A lot of the scripting problems lie in characterization of Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) and Clarisse (Leven Rambin), each has a character flaw we know they’ll work through but each spends half the film repetitiously re-enforcing their one-dimensional attitude regarding their prejudice to the point of cartoonishness.

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013, 20th Century Fox)

Another odd aspect of the series made itself evident first in the beginning and crystallized as the film moved on: There is a mystical cab that takes the characters part of the way on their journey. The three “drivers” have one eye among them them and drive recklessly and the cab can split; a clear homage to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, both the book and the film pre-date this book/film pair. What it underscores is that: while both this and the Potter series deal with subcultures of superhuman beings with the fate of the world in their hands, unbeknownst to mere mortals, there’s an intangible lack of epicness that permeates this world. It’s smart and creative how the mundane hides these things, but it never gets awe-inspiring when the curtain is pulled back. The divested way this series is approaching its subject matter, fronting action first, forsaking character depth and internalized; conflict is undermining it no matter how high the stakes get.

Which brings me to the The CG, which is again hit-or-miss. Overall, it’s likely better than before but while some of the designs are great, but the work isn’t the best, which is unfortunate because that being improved would go some of the way to creating the kind of impact that is being sought here.

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013, 20th Century Fox)

Logan Lerman is someone who I’ve twice nominated as Best Actor at the BAMs, in 2009 and 2012. Yet, this series gives him hardly anything to sink his teeth into. He has the one-liner moment and the compulsory scene where he can be emotional but not much in between. The stuntwork in terms of choreography and execution is Grade-A stuff and he had a small part in that, but most of those kudos go to that unit.

I’m not a staunchly anti-voice-over person. However, another misstep was the voice-over at the very end which explained the implications of what just happened and blew the doors wide open for the next installment. Had there not been that voice over and the film left off at the last line of dialogue the ending would’ve been awesome. Yes, awesome. As it stands, it wasn’t.

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013, 20th Century Fox)

There are surprises to be had and when things stop needing set-up the film really clicks, pacing is never an issue. The introduction of Tyson (Douglas Smith) is a great addition in terms of character and the performance by Smith. While Freudenthal does fine here anew as he did with Hotel for Dogs and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the series is sitting in a good place at the end that makes you hope that story and forthcoming director can really ratchet up the franchise to a newer, higher level.

Owing to that fact, I marginally give it a…

6/10

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61 Days of Halloween: Case 39

Case 39 is a film with tons of squandered potential that earns the rare distinction of Film Most Deserving of a Remake Due to Lack of Execution. Unlike others in the past like Captivity it does not, however, come even close to being good for a number of reasons. It should also be noted that this film was in the can for two years and likely to remain undistributed- not that something like that always matters (Blue Sky) but it should be taken into consideration.

To borrow a journalism term this film buries the lead, which is to say that it does not tell the most compelling story it has to offer. It decides to tell the tale of a well-meaning social worker who thinks she is doing this child a favor and saving her from abuse. As time goes by it turns out the girl is demonic. The more compelling tale would be to follow this girl’s life with her “parents” then the scene in which she is taken away has an added layer of emotion and becomes even more poignant, frightening and impactful. However, you cannot punish a film for what it should’ve done. What it did do wasn’t that great either.

It gets off on the wrong foot right away by trying to introduce too many things in the early going. There is Emily (Renée Zellweger) and her work, then we see a little about her personal life and meet Doug (Bradley Cooper); we see her working one of her other cases which comes into the mix later, Diego (Alexander Conti) and there are a few meetings with Lilith’s (Jodelle Ferland, who is rather good in this part) family when there could be fewer. Edward’s, Lilith’s father, tight-lipped attitude prompts Emily to contact Detective Barron (Ian McShane) to try and look into their history. All this before Lilith is taken out of their custody, which would not be an issue if the film had measured its pace.

Instead once Emily has custody of Lilith she starts to jump to the supernatural conclusion far too soon and the only reason that would happen is because there is a concern about running time. While strange things had occurred things hadn’t gotten to a supernatural state just yet. Either the build had to be more consistent while bringing these people in or there needs to be a slower escalation of the Emily-Lilith conflict.

So it all becomes a question of reaction, or rather overreaction. A similar thing happens when Doug, a psychologist, has a session with Lilith. It is a disconcerting and somewhat cloying standard horror scene. As an audience, we can read between the lines and see she’s messing with him but Doug walks out of the encounter saying he feels “shaken” but he looks like he saw her head spin around the reaction is far too big for the scene we just witnessed. The only function it serves is to fuel Emily’s fears.

Then Emily’s approach to the final confrontation is all wrong. She is told that Lilith can only be killed in her sleep, which she hardly does at all. What that factoid is based on is beyond me. Her first approach is very hands-off and then although we get some very good intercut flashbacks what finally does it ends up being too easy a solution especially after having seen examples of her strength not moments before.

The concept this film tries to prey upon is that you are never safe from this demon if you are on her radar as she doesn’t actually kill you but rather makes circumstances more conducive to your death. It doesn’t quite succeed in that regard either. There is the aftermath of a gruesome scene which isn’t shot to its potential. The most effective onscreen kill is likely the hornets, however, their CG-ness is rather apparent throughout.

Inconsistency abounds in this film from pace to logic to effectiveness and even the performances aren’t immune, most of the times they are victimized by the script though. Case 39 has promise in many areas but never comes close to realizing it in anyway shape or form and ends up being a wasteful disappointment.

4/10
 

61 Days of Halloween: A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

A Nightmare on Elm Street shares one, and likely only one, distinction with the film The Perfect Game. That distinction is that it excelled, for the most part, in elements that were new and unique to it and botched what it attempted to recreate. In the latter the recreations were from other sports films, in the former the recreations were from the original version of the film.

Perhaps the best thing this film has to offer is that it seemingly breaks new ground in belief in the horror film. One of the most tired clichés in the horror film is the fact that in the face of overwhelming evidence some characters just flat out refuse to believe that there’s something out of the ordinary happening, or as Buffalo Springfield would say “There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Very quickly someone does believe the theory that it’s a nightmare come true. The majority do not believe right away but at least someone does, laying the foundation for the rest of the dominoes to fall.

What this film does casting-wise is unusual, it seems to subscribe to the theory of “Put your worst foot forward and kill it,” meaning that the first two characters focused on and killed (Kellen Lutz as Dean and Katie Fowles as Kris) are the worst actors in the film and thankfully those who receive the majority of the focus are progressively better.

Another positive is Kyle Gallner who carries this film in similar fashion to how he carried The Haunting in Connecticut. His sidekick Rooney Mara is also quite capable and a good sidekick in the film.

So, here comes a mandatory talking point: the CG. Most of the time it’s not great, not great at all. One of the things this film tried to recreate digitally was Freddy stretching through the wall. However, who would possibly want to get that in the can on set by using latex like they did in the 80s? Let’s spend money and use CG so Freddy can squirm all serpentine behind the wall and have it look totally bogus. Yes, bogus. I had to revert to 80s slang to communicate the ineffectiveness of the non-practical technique. Even when the CG was good, like when Kris could no longer fight that she was dreaming and the classroom around her exploded into ash, it only aided the film in going more over-the-top than it needed too.

The major knocks against this film will follow, and again, it’s a shame that they are big and many because it wastes a new interpretation of a now classic character. By having a new actor fill the role of Krueger in such a different way it proves that the character does have as much elasticity and room for creativity as the Joker in Batman. Jackie Earle Haley plays Freddy in a much more straightforward manner and less comedically than Robert Englund, making him more effective in this viewer’s opinion. His performance aside there were sadly some character issues with Krueger.

This film, while it does try to make Freddy a more straightforward and scary version than in the past – most noticeably by giving him a more realistically burned appearance than his prior incarnation, managed to both soften and coarsen him simultaneously. The coarsening was in his dialogue and mainly his diction. It’s a more foul-mouthed, blunt and disgusting Freddy. Apparently, his being a child molester isn’t enough anymore and to push the envelope he has to talk about it some. The way in which he was softened, however, is that he is only now, in death, a killer. His victims were all allowed to live. What was wrong with having him be a ghost-like entity who was still seeking to wreak havoc because he’d been killed by a mob is beyond me. The fact that while alive he didn’t kill one of the children he harmed does give Freddy more motivation, but we’re not dealing with the most plausible concept to begin with so that justification hardly needs addressing and does create a logic flaw in the past, mainly being why would a psychopath think the kids wouldn’t talk?

While there is more to Freddy’s back-story, which is new and good to see because it was a compelling and chilling part of the tale, it created and contributed to the number of issues with logic this film has. Examples of logic flaws include: Nancy at one point sings the “Freddy Song” yet never really follows it up or wonders why she knows it, yet she has repressed other kinds of memories, so what purpose does it serve? Jesse, aptly played by Thomas Dekker, is arrested way too quickly it’s almost like a Reichstag fire situation and aside from lacking credibility it hurts the story. The line “Who can remember being five?” stands out as being quite lazy on a few accounts, firstly, it’s clear Dr. Holbrook (Connie Britton) is hiding something and is not pressed about it and, second, even if I buy that these kids all repressed memories of what happened to them (which is easy to believe), the film also wants me to believe they all stayed in the same town and now almost all go to the same high school and don’t remember having known each other? Also, while the factoid about insomniacs experiencing micro-naps is a good touch and an added suspense element, as then one won’t realize they’re dreaming, it’s repeated ad nauseum in dialogue to make sure we remember the fact. Similarly, the allusion to the Pied Piper of Hamelin is duly noted but has no effect whatsoever on the story and is clumsily done. If the reference was to be fit in why not have Krueger read it to the kids?

Perhaps the biggest logic flaw, which is also the biggest argument for the fact that for some reason they also sought to soften Krueger, is the fact that at one point Quentin (Gallner) doubts Krueger’s guilt. Quentin’s contention is that it’s mass hysteria and they all made it up and were instantly believed, which in a post-McMartin Trial world is a legitimate enough point to address as it wouldn’t be the first false accusation of its kind. The problem is that there is no moment of decision for the character and it’s not even debated it shifts immediately from “this happened” to “we lied” with nothing in between. And only their continued investigation into how to rid themselves of Krueger proves otherwise.

So, here you have a film in which not only is Krueger not a murderer until after his death but you also have his victims believing that he may not have been guilty in the first place. It is not something that increases his villainy. What then is the point of having his absolute evil doubted? Is it armchair psychological reassurance to those who identify, however loosely, with Krueger that it’s OK because he’s not that bad? It seems unlikely but whether people want to admit it or not there is some level of identification felt with an antagonist. As Hitchcock and Truffaut discuss in an interview talking about Psycho there is a degree of that identification in that film and hence a slasher film such that the longer a franchise goes the more the villain is the star and the less you want to see him toppled. Ultimately, it just seems like another unusual decision which muddles the film.

Putting a more human face on Fred Krueger does not make him scarier. Having Jackie Earle Haley play him and not Robert Englund does but all of that is rendered nearly pointless by the rewrite of the character.

An examination of the back-story of A Nightmare on Elm Street was something I wanted to see. What it had the potential of is to intensify the fear because you more readily understand the evil. What should be sought from a more intimate portrait of the cinematic psychopath is not a softer, cuddlier interpretation of what it is he did, by having it be doubted and thus stripping it of its visceral impact, but a closer examination of it.

This very type of close examination was exactly what the Halloween remake did succeed in. It may or may not have crossed every T and dotted every I with regards to why Michael Myers became the way he was but it gave you a true, no-holds-barred glimpse of who he was before he was legend. It didn’t rewrite a history it enhanced a history, and that is what this film had the opportunity to do but it failed.


3/10

Hero Whipped: Why This Spider-Man Amazed Me

In this series of posts I tend to discuss comic book characters and my unique relationship with them since my fairly recent return to reading them again and I usually find a way to connect them back to movies somehow. However, since I decided that my posts may be a little different from hereon in, these posts may have a slightly different vibe to them.

Sure enough after that post The Amazing Spider-Man was one of the first things I saw. Now, in spite of my recent tendency to like superhero movies either a lot as the case is with say The Avengers and X-Men: First Class or somewhat as is the case with Thor or Green Lantern, the new Spider-Man hearkens me back to the original trilogy which were all released during my hiatus. Thus, this will be a heavily filmic post but it’s perhaps the most unique perspective I’ve yet had on a character.

It may be possible that I knew less about Spider-Man going into that first movie than I’ve known about almost any superhero before seeing their film. It was released at a time where I was typically attending films in a group so the selection process was fairly democratic. Going alone or with at least one other person, I could take it or leave it. To give you a sense of my lack of knowledge, after having seen it I was informed that in the books Peter created a web-shooter and it wasn’t a biological side-effect of the bite. So that frames it a bit.

However, I was a fairly blank slate. I didn’t have expectations I was just reacting to what I saw on the screen and what I saw there was something I didn’t care for much at all. In the post-film powwow I was the only dissenting opinion who chimed in “Well, I thought it really sucked.” I’ve never really had the urge to revisit it and the bad taste in my mouth kept me from seeing the other two.

I could identify easily enough with the elements of the story. Few and far between are the heroes whose archetypes that have a major variable. It was really a letdown in my eyes aesthetically, technically and viscerally. With regards to the viscera a lot of that boiled down to the casting of the leads. There is a certain alchemy in all of filmmaking but perhaps where it’s most present is in acting. Yes, there is a lot of technique and things that are good acting and bad acting just like in any aspect of filmmaking, however, an effective performer who doesn’t excite you in anyway is likely to be less engaging than a less technically skilled actor who is gripping, who has a presence. Tobey Maguire is not a bad actor and neither is Kirsten Dunst. I don’t find them interesting in any way, shape or form though. They bore me more often than not. It’s really a casting issue. Maguire is going to be seen in The Great Gatsby next. That’s great casting. He belongs in that film, here I didn’t care for it.

The casting and the actors get no help in the story department I remembered feeling it tepid and trite, nothing out of the ordinary, and getting back to the alchemy thing you have actors I felt were miscast, not particularly dynamic and then no chemistry too? Brilliant.

I was also not in the camp that ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the CG. Good effects work, truly good effects work is timeless. I doesn’t just stand up against contemporary expectations but stands the test of time too. I felt they were lacking in 2002, much less now. Whereas there are shots in Jurassic Park that are still astounding almost 20 years later.

It really seems in superhero cinema that much of it boils down to character, in the better ones performance, and spectacle. Very few are those films that will also make you legitimately, consistently, and even spontaneously, feel strong pangs of genuine emotion (Teaser: I got a lot of that in the new Batman and that’s the next in this series!).

Perhaps one of the most vivid memories I have of watching any movie ever was the first time I saw Batman. You know the 1989 one, back when Tim Burton was Tim Burton.

“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” And thus, the crap was scared out of me and I was in love with that movie.

With Spider-Man you do have a basis for many emotions in the construction of his origin. As superhero films proliferate there will be more and more merit to the arguments about the viability of origin stories, however, in rebooting a series I have no problem with retelling. Similarity by itself is not cause enough for ridicule. Take the Psycho remake for instance (please?), if Van Sant had merely done the story over again: same place, same time, same characters, names; that probably would’ve been fine. However, he took it a step further into cinematic photocopying, which just felt flat.

I can stand a retelling, as I think I’ve stated before: I am fine with multiple versions of stories existing (and when I like the story I seek them out). I clearly wanted to be re-told this story based on my reaction to the first film. So, what was it in this new Spider-Man that worked for me? In short, practically everything.

However, as you may have guessed, it starts with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Just by looking at Andrew Garfield you may not imagine he’s the dynamic performer, but if you watch him you soon find out. I first saw him in The Red Riding Trilogy and I was a fan. There are quite a few things that perturbed me about The Social Network, but he wasn’t one of them, at all. Robbed of an Oscar nomination, is what he was.

Then there’s Emma Stone. I think everybody loves Emma Stone at this point. If you don’t you probably aren’t watching that many movies.

There’s a certain quietness and introspection to this film that allows the emotion to be wrenched out of it. I spoke of spectacle above, spectacle is very external. In many of these films there is rarely introspection. This film manages to do that, build these characters but also steadily build the intrigue. The characters arc, you see what makes them tick, you see and understand their decisions and I felt for them.

Now, the dynamic was changed in this film by bringing Gwen Stacy into the mix rather than Mary Jane Watson. Now, in my return to comics I haven’t delved into Spider-Man really. I’ve only really gotten to know and like him from his teaming up with The Fantastic Four after The Human Torch’s temporary demise, so Gwen was new to me and I think involving her is a great story decision that just makes this film that much better and resonant.

On a technical level, not only do scenes tend to be intensified by occurring at night but the filmmakers figured out that the web-swinging looks better then. Another interesting aesthetic note to me was that the camera was very much controlled, not an over-abundance of motion. The shots look good and composed and it hearken back to earlier superhero films, but are made with newer toys.

All those proclivities aside here are the two true litmus tests for superhero movies as I see them: One, do I want to see the inevitable sequel? Two, does the film make me want to seek out the character in print? The answer to both those questions is a a resounding hell yes. And that is why this Spider-Man amazed me.

Rewind Review- Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

As those who know me, and if such a person exists, cyberstalk me, know I created this blog after writing on another site, which shall remain nameless, for a while. The point is, I have material sitting around waiting to be re-used on occasion I will re-post them here. Some of those articles or reviews may have been extemporaneous at the time but are slightly random now, hence the new title and little intro, regardless enjoy!

Those who don’t like superlatives should stop reading this right now. Those of you who are still reading please believe that it is not for simplistic reasons alone that I am all but ready to anoint Where the Wild Things Are as the best film of the year. It is unquestionably a complete cinematic experience that, for the most part, paralyzed my pencil from note-taking and here are some reasons why.

It lives up to the old manic depressive statement of “I laughed, I cried” but goes so far beyond that. The beginning of the film sets up Max’s home life and imagination in simple, beautiful terms with nary a word wasted, which goes for the whole film. The dialogue was carefully chosen and all lines were simply set traps which if sprung would take you into the deeper meaning of the film.

This is the kind of film that does require multiple viewings for the inquiring mind, and it is the best kind of film because it works on multiple levels without any of those levels interfering with the other. Some argue that some parts of the film are too frightening for children. That is a parent’s decision, not a critic’s, and frankly the book has scared many children while others read it and remain unaffected. It has always been that kind of tale. So to think that Spike Jonze was cavalier or somehow remiss in his filmmaking is ridiculous. Two words of wisdom to keep in mind are first Maurice Sendak the writer of the tale wanted the film “not to condescend to children” as he stated in a featurette released about a month ago. Films have been known to scare kids but kids will watch them anyway. The first film I remember seeing at the theater was a re-release of Bambi and almost off the bat Bambi is orphaned. Is it terrible? Yes. Did everyone keep watching? Yes. Yet people haven’t shouted about Bambi’s inappropriateness as loudly as about this film. The other quote would be Sondheim’s as related by David Poland on his blog “Children will listen…”

Ultimately, that will be what they do – listen and watch as they see a boy be angry with his mother, run off find new friends, but ultimately find that home is the better place. He returns home and is welcomed back, again almost without words. Histrionics are not needed at that point either for dramatic or moralistic purposes. The lesson is learned by all, you have no reason to run from home and you can always go back there and be accepted. A little hard to misconstrue that, and perhaps you need to boil it down for them, but one angry incident or a little yelling and growling shouldn’t deprive a child of this experience. It’s PG for a reason…be a parent and guide your child through the film. Don’t expect it to do all the work for you.

Back to the aesthetics – while CG needed to be implemented on the Wild Things’ faces, you’d be hard pressed to tell. And amen to the practical suits which just add that much more realism. Also, adding tremendously to the mood and overall effect is the score/soundtrack, written by Karen O. and Carter Burwell, which always sets the tone with absolute precision. There is never any doubt as to the intention and correctness of the score and it is almost as wondrous as the film.

The refracted tale, of course, is that of a child trying to cope with the divorce of his parents. Pull the dialogue from some of those scenes and just read them and you heard homely and very parental type battles. In the Wild Things you see various interpretations of those relationships. Again the separation of these layers of the film must be stressed. It is not the kind of tale in which missing on such details would ruin it but perceiving it will only enhance it.

For as large or small as the part was, the cast both voice and actual couldn’t have been better-chosen. Whether it be Katherine Keener in her limited screen time as Max’s very endearing mother, Mark Ruffalo as the cause of Max’s ire, Max himself played by newcomer Max Records, a surprisingly sensitive and complex James Gandolfini as Carol, or Catherine O’Hara as Judith.

This film is proof that you don’t need a lot of pomp and circumstance to elicit emotion. With the imagination everything can expand like the lecture of a teacher. It is a tale sure to delight the child within us all and also profoundly move adults. A “must see,” and likely the best film of the year.

10/10

61 Days of Halloween- Masters of Horror: The V Word

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Masters of Horror: The V Word

Arjay Smith and Branden Nadon in Masters of Horror: The V Word (Starz Productions)

Now all that was previously said about this series is true. Even when you get one of these films that don’t quite work there is something to latch on to and take with you which isn’t always the case with other films. This film is inconsistent at best with regard to the tale it tells. While it does manipulate time well extending sequences for dramatic effect overall, however, when you take into consideration this film has less time than a traditional feature to work with it ends up being a detriment because it helps make for an anticlimactic end to the tale.

What you can hold onto in this film is that it is a rare kind in a horror film, which allows the characters to fully absorb the reality of their plight and to react to it emotionally.

The cinematography much of the time is uninspired, for example, at the start there is a tiresome series of rack focuses between hands of one friend playing a video game and the other texting.

Where this film falls into the realm of mediocre at best is what happens after the two friends leave the morgue. There is a very hard to swallow sequence with a series of attempted 911 calls all of which are disbelieved. It falls short both because of how it is written and because of the performance which is believable and makes the operator’s disbelief harder to swallow. There is also a mom who is far too slow on the uptake that something is seriously wrong with her son. The scene plays out for too long before its addressed. Not to mention the bloodstain which is explained away as something else and not investigated.
 
This is also a film, as is typically the case, with pretty good effects when they decided to do things practically and not so great results when it comes to CG.

If you’re a completist and make it a point to watch this whole series, which I highly recommend, then this film shouldn’t be high up on your list. If you’re just looking for really good horror look elsewhere.

3/10

Review- Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Bailee Madison in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (Film District)

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark? Don’t worry I won’t be. Allow me to state for the record that I do not have anything against a slow burn, which this film is, however, there’s not enough spark there to get it going. A lot of that has to do with the fact that stupidity abounds in this film. The other is the pace itself and then there’s the subject matter.

Firstly, it is easy to create an adequately entertaining to great teaser scene in a horror film, however, if the rest of the film comes nowhere near matching it then you’ve done yourself a disservice and I understand the temptation to not do one. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark‘s teaser scene is the one truly cringe-worthy moment the remainder of the film is hopelessly tedious and ineffective.

Equally as ineffective are the fairies in more ways than one. Yes, I am aware of the fact that a lot of the lore pertaining to fairies is in no way cutesy but that never really translates in this film. Their voices are small, silly and squeaky and never menacing. Though they’ve had many years to practice are about as hapless as killers can get and that really undercuts any tension that might be built. Not to mention the fact that their whole modus operandi lacks a very cogent explication.

Then you have the parents: Alex (Guy Pearce, with the most unfortunate hair) and Kim (Katie Holmes), the oh-so-young stepmother. These are your classic dumb characters in horror films. They are oblivious and/or in denial about what is really happening for far too long. Neither of them comes across as someone you could empathize with much less sympathize, Pearce with his cold dead-pan and Holmes with her patented smirky face lack depth as badly as the film does.

There is only any light shone upon the fairy backstory in one scene and that scene works but then it introduces a scene where Kim rushes back to the house drops a canvas and reveals a huge, blatant and graphic mural. The fact that this mural was missed before (or implied to have been missed) is laughable and not worthy of C-Grade Giallo films.

The only thing the film has going for it from start to finish is the stellar performance of Bailee Madison. She is often alone and having to be convincingly scared with no one to play off her and/or reacting to CG elements and she does wonderfully. The fact that Madison shines cannot save this film though.

The pace hardly ever quickens and the horrors of this this film are so avoidable such that it wallows in tedium. The film ends up not being scary, funny or entertaining. Some situations added to create character are so trite it’s surprising they’re in the film at all and to top it off the ending is just dementedly stupid.

It’s rare when a film has me leave fuming as opposed to bow-beaten by its awfulness. This film did that.

2/10

Review: Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D

Mason Cook, Joel McHale, Jessica Alba and Rowan Blanchard in Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D (Dimension Films)

Here’s another case where compartmentalization is key. In My Rating Scale I try and stress that I am grading each and every film on what it is and not against every other film in the world. Meaning, I will not downgrade a film simply because I cannot live in a world where both See no Evil, Hear No Evil and Touch of Evil have the same score. In fact, I live in world where they do. I think they’re both brilliant in their own way. Which is just another way to introduce the fact that I will rate a Spy Kids film (or a Rodriguez family film) as such and not against El Mariachi or other films in this genre.

Having said that I do like this film. It’s not better than the first but it’s better than the third at the very least. There is in its circularity a cohesion to the narrative that one might not necessarily appreciate through the CG and 3D. Not to say that there’s any subtlety here but the theme seems more unified and more parallel than it has in most other installments it just doesn’t always seem like it is.

Reboots can be a tricky thing. Whether you’re just restarting a story with new characters or re-casting those characters you’re finding new actors to fit the archetypes that have made the franchise work. The most resoundingly successful aspect of this Spy Kids film is the new kids in the persons of Mason Cook and Rowan Blanchard. While they each show some echoes of their predecessors they have characters and abilities uniquely their own. Cook has a quiet depth and Blanchard an unpretentious spunkiness that make this new tandem a worthy rival of Vega and Sabara who themselves have very humorous and effective supporting roles in the film. Also, very entertaining in this film is Jeremy Piven whose interpretation is as funny as it is wild and he becomes a rather memorable villain in the series because of it.

One note of warning to send out there those that are not fans of potty humor best stay away from this film as it is most definitely the more pronounced in this film than ever. As a whole the story is enjoyable and moves quickly except for those parts where it circles around the drain, so to speak, before making that final connection. One piece of that puzzle is kind of apparent at the very beginning but I think even if you do get ahead of it it’s not likely to ruin it.

The effects work is somewhat stepped up here and holds up better to the 3D than the previous edition did. This is where most of the creativity in the film shines through.

While I will defend Robert Rodriguez in principle as it is his right, much as William Castle saw it as his duty, to create a fun gimmick to promote his film, the fact of the matter is the Aroma-Scope just does not work. I saw the movie twice at two completely separate theatres. The cards all have a unified odor and it’s hard to get those squares to smell like something different and when they do they rarely smell like what they’re supposed to be. However, that only detracts from the film minutely. Even if the smells were brilliantly accurate it’s still distracting you from the film (you look down, find the number, scratch and sniff). So no real damage done there.

Overall, I think that this film will definitely win over fans of the series, myself being one of them I was more than a bit skeptical when I first heard about it and I think that it will also create many new fans in its target audience. Moreover, I think that it ends on a note where growth of the story and the franchise is yearned for and not a place where you think potential has been maximized. Should the new generation continue it will do so in stronger films.

7/10

Review- Captain America: The First Avenger

Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger (Disney/Marvel)

As is always the case when dealing with a superhero film I feel that one’s personal history with a character is an important factor to consider when discussing the film, at the very least so I can relay to you my frame of reference. In the crop of superhero films released this year Captain America is likely the property I had the least amount of history with, which if you think about it is an advantage to the film. For as much as I talk about disengaging expectation built by other media from a film the reason I write on it so much is that it’s a fight against human nature to more purely and accurately judge a film.

So Captain America, to me, is free of the restraint of expectations but does it take advantage of this advantage? Not fully, no. The film sets its character up well enough: Steve Rogers is a kind, disciplined, brave young man who yearns to serve his country in the hour of its greatest need but is repeatedly rejected due to his build and health problems. This film, especially the opening, runs the risk of being overly overt propaganda, however, it focuses on character enough, at the beginning at least, such that it narrowly avoids that.

Another manner in which it dodges the P-word is in the turn the film takes immediately following the experiment that gives Steve his abilities. The trajectory from everyman to super-being isn’t a straight ascent because at first the only responsibility he’s given is that of pitchman. He has to fight the power and be a little rebellious to truly fulfill his destiny so that makes it a bit interesting.

Another strength that the film has to fall back on is the strength of its cast, the supporting cast mainly. Not to discredit Chris Evans, he does a fine job and is believable as Steve at both stages though he’s not as dynamic as he was in Star Trek and it seems like he was always waiting for the transition- that CG job making him skinny is quite impressive.

First and foremost among the supporting cast is Hayley Atwell who plays Peggy Carter and the love interest in this film and is not only a strong, intelligent woman but makes the love interest in a superhero film vital for the first time in some time. If you think about it many of the recent crop have had love interests as either an afterthought or not at all. The relationship between her and Steve gives this film the little extra it needs to get by.

Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving each do rather well in their respective required roles: Jones as the disbelieving Colonel and Weaving as the villainous Red Skull, replete with an authentic-sounding accent in a film with too much foreign intrigue to dabble in foreign tongues like others have recently. Also quite enjoyable is the performance of Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine who takes Steve under his wing.

This isn’t the only recent superhero film of late to deal with actual historical events in a fictionalized context, see the recent X-Men film, what that film did though that this failed to do (and it was the major failing of it) is that it made its tale as high stakes and intriguing as the historical incident in which it wrapped itself up. It also re-wrote history in a major way this film decided instead to write a subplot so to an extent you’re watching the undercard of World War II as Captain America and co. go after Red Skull and his rogue band of occultist Nazis and Hitler and the majority get second billing and no play. When an actual man who wanted to take over the world takes a backseat to a fictional creation who does, it’s a monumental task to make that notion as scary regardless of how likely it is in the world of the story.

Thus, in Captain America his initial battle as a hero, which in the end is more climactic, is also more effective.

When it’s all said and done Captain America is an effective and enjoyable film with obvious flaws that could’ve been handled and addressed better than it is.

6/10

Review- Mr. Popper’s Penguins

Carla Gugino, Maxwell Perry Cotton, Madeline Carroll and Jim Carrey in Mr. Popper's Penguins (20th Century Fox)

You may not be expecting much when walking into a film like Mr. Popper’s Penguins. While it certainly won’t blow anyone away it does have some surprises in store and it really is quite good.

There is a quick backstory montage with some flashes that establishes who our protagonist is and what his relationship with his father was like. This sets up our expectations for what he will be like as a grown man. While this set up can have us assuming certain things how they come about is a bit unexpected.

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is Jim Carrey’s performance. Here you get what I call a hybrid of his two very distinctive styles, both of which I like. It’s a homogenization of his over-the-top comedy and his dramatic persona much more so than Liar Liar, which is very much the former.

This film also sets up several standard situations but avoids trapping the film in overly-familiar gags and goes about things differently. There are Needing to be Two Places at Once, Apparent Defeat and Ulterior Complications that are to an extent necessary and accepted handled briskly and with a twist such that they’re not stale.

This film by doing those stock things in a slightly more inventive, fresher way does end up being rather funny. There is a good dose of slapstick and verbal comedy thrown into the mix such that it’s balanced.

Comedy aside it is a family film and so the family unit has to be strong in terms of performance and chemistry and this film does that perfectly. Aside from Carrey you have Carla Gugino as his ex-wife and Madeline Carroll and Maxwell Perry Cotton as his children. Though she’s played other roles Gugino since Spy Kids is the prototypical uber-mom charming and appealing to all ages. The kids have very different tasks and handle them brilliantly: Carroll as a teenage girl whose emotions are always teetering on the edge and Cotton who plays the younger brother wise beyond his years. They make fantastic foils and allow Carrey to play drama and comedy at times simultaneously.

The children and the family story ultimately bring out the biggest surprise in that while packaged as a goofy animal film it is a sweet, heartfelt story.

While his dialogue does get a bit repetitive the film does adequately turn the man from the zoo into a serviceable villain. There are also secondary threats to the penguins conditions that never over-intrude but make their presence known.

The CG work that’s done, when it’s needed, in this film is also well-rendered and never too obvious.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins is one of the better surprises I’ve had at the movies in while. Which just goes to show that just as you can’t judge a book by its cover you can’t judge a film by its trailer (or its poster for that matter).

7/10