Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (for hire)

Wow.  18% (as of 8:00 PM, January 27) on Rotten Tomatoes.  Why do critics hate 'Hansel & Gretel:Witch Hunters' so much?  Is it because relatively unknown Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola is seen as a 'hack' of sorts, whose only work of any renown to date is the love-it-or-hate-it Nazi Zombie movie 'Dead Snow'?  The most common gripe I hear about 'Hansel & Gretel:Witch Hunters' is that it can't decide whether it's a serious horror movie or a light-hearted comedy, trying to be both and becoming neither, an R-rated mess that just doesn't know its target audience.
Come on, even their peer 'Abraham Lincoln:Vampire Hunter' did better than 18%, and that was not a great movie by any measure.  Now, I'm not saying that 'Hansel & Gretel' is high art, but it offers the same irreverent, tongue-in-cheek, bloody fun as Abe Lincoln VH and another vampire fiend who calls herself Buffy in seven seasons of quality television.  And Gretel's weapon of choice is a hunting crossbow.  If that's not an homage to Buffy then I don't know what is.
'Hansel & Gretel:Witch Hunters' re-imagines an alternate fantasy reality in which the Brothers Grimm siblings who ate from the house made of tasty goodies grew up and became badass witch hunter mercenaries-for-hire.  Immune to the witches' powers, trained in hand-to-hand combat and equipped with an arsenal of cool 'steam-punk' era weaponry, Hansel & Gretel are 16th Century (or 'Renaissance Faire') superheroes, looking oh so sleek and cool in their black leather outfits.  And of course, simply looking sleek and cool isn't enough, because they can also kick some serious witch butt.  That is, until they met the grand dark witch, deliciously played by Famke Janssen (Jean Grey of the 'X-Men'). 
Critics might call 'Hansel & Gretel:Witch Hunters' another shameless mash-up, but I see it as 100 minutes of mindless mayhem and fun.  What is wrong with that, I ask?
Grade: B+

Even the Chinese love 'Hansel & Gretel' 
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Come to "Mama," my little darlings

Without a doubt, Mexican director and producer Guillermo del Toro is one of the top 5 masters of horror working in Hollywood today.  Best known for his movie adaptations of Dark Horse Comics' 'Hellboy,' del Toro brings a unique visual style to his movies, such as the fantasy-horror 'Pan's Labyrinth.'  In a genre that is all too susceptible to the familiar, del Toro's vision is truly different and unique.
As the executive producer of 'Mama,' del Toro proved once again (as he did in 'The Orphanage' and 'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark') that he knows a good suspense horror story when he sees one.  Directed by Andres Muschietti, 'Mama' is a slow-burning ghost story, a hauntingly poignant tale of two young sisters who were raised by a maternal ghost deep in the woods for five years before they were returned to civilization.  And woe to those who would take her 'babies' away, like their uncle Lucas and his punk rock girlfriend Annabel, once again played to perfection by the lovely and talented Jessica Chastain.
'Mama' is both suspenseful and engrossing, making us care for the characters, especially the two sisters Victoria and Lilly.  As with all ghost stories, the movie is premised on a curse, loosely based on popular myths and legend.  While 'Mama' isn't particularly scary to a jaded horror fan like yours truly, relying on well worn tropes that we've seen many times before, the movie is no less entertaining.  If you like the early horror of Sam Raimi ('The Evil Dead' series, 'Drag Me to Hell') and Peter Jackson ('Dead Alive,' 'The Frighteners'), 'Mama' might just scare the bejeesus out of you.
Grade: B
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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: How 9/11 was avenged

The story is a familiar one.  After 9/11, Osama bin Laden eluded the intelligence agencies tasked to  find and kill him (or KBL) for the better part of 10 years.  Then, on May 2, 2011, members of famed Seal Team 6 finally tracked him to a heavily fortified compound in Pakistan and accomplished their mission, giving President Obama a major coup and America a great symbolic victory in the War Against Terror.  
So, when the inevitable Hollywood movie was announced, who better to helm it than Kathryn Bigelow, director of the Oscar-winning 'The Hurt Locker'?  Bigelow always had a great flair for gritty and realistic dramatic narrative, even during her early career in movies such as 'Near Dark' and 'Point Break.'  And she's certainly making more headlines right now than her ex-husband, director James Cameron.
In 'Zero Dark Thirty' (named for 'Thirty Minutes After Midnight'), Bigelow tells her story straight, lending the movie the same realism and immediacy as 'The Hurt Locker.'  At nearly three hours, the movie does border on the exhaustive, but the pace never flagged.  We get a glimpse of not only how our nation's intelligence works at a practical level (not just torture, which is a very small portion of the whole movie), but also the efforts, toils and sacrifice of the men and women involved.  0D30 is much more of a political thriller than an action movie; you won't see any James Bond derring-do's here.  Even the Seal Team action which took bin Laden down was methodical and workman-like in its efficiency.  In fact, most of the movie focuses on what are essentially dry detective work, not unlike all those procedurals you see on CBS.
Jessica Chastain portrayed the intelligence officer (an analyst, not a field operative) who was recruited right out of high school by the CIA to hunt for bin Laden.  As in 'The Debt,' in which she played a young Mossad agent back in the 1960's, Chastain relished in her role, displaying a combination of intelligence, hard-headedness and vulnerability that can be, well, somewhat sexy.  How much of 0D30 is true and how much is glorified Hollywood tripe, we'll perhaps never know, but as a tale of how America's 'Public Enemy Number One' was finally brought to justice (that is, killed), the movie did its job quite well.

Grade: A-minus


Silver Linings Playbook on Crazy, Stupid, Love

I'm typically not one for romantic dramedies, but went to see 'Silver Linings Playbook' on the recommendation of my friend Penny.  Ecclectic director David O. Russell, whose previous efforts include 'Flirting with Disaster,' 'Three Kings' and 'The Fighter,' adapted a novel by Matthew Quick into an endearing, rousing crowd-pleaser that is as irresistable as its characters are quirky. 
In SLP Bradley Cooper proved once again he's a bona-fide A-list star.  Even more than Vince Vaughn, Paul Rudd and James Franco, he excels in playing the lovable douche we first saw in 'The Hangover,' the slacker dude who eventually wins you over on the strengths of his charms, charisma, and winning smile.  Cooper delivered an Oscar-caliber performance as Pat Solitano, a teacher with bipolar disorder and OCD who was institutionalized for eight months for beating another teacher nearly to death in a fit of rage (although you can certainly appreciate the mitigating circumstances).  Upon his release, he's at such a low point in his life that he's living with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver) and trying to piece his life back together, the key of which was his plan to reconcile with his wife.  Things get complicated when by crazy, stupid chance he meets the sister of his best friend's wife, Tiffany ('The Hunger Games' Jennifer Lawrence in another Oscar-worthy performance after 'Winter's Bone'), who may be even more of a screwed-up whackjob than he is. 
What makes SLP such a joy to watch is the quirkiness and likeability of its characters, not just Pat and Tiffany but his Philadelphia Eagles-loving dad (De Niro), doting mom (Weaver) and Danny (a friend of his from the mental institution played by Chris Tucker).  Cooper and Lawrence had electric on-screen chemistry, even when they at first couldn't stand each other.  But as time goes on and they find a unique bond in their shared neuroses, as dysfunctional and pathetic Pat and Tiffany may be, you can't help but cheer and root for these kindred spirits because they are such psychotically fascinating crazy people.

Grade: A

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Lo Imposible: Disaster movie with a heart and soul

As you may already know, 'The Impossible' is a movie inspired by the true story of one English family's struggle to survive and to find each other in the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in history, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which claimed over 230,000 casualties in fourteen countries. 

Crafted by the deft hand of Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona, who was best known previously for 'The Orphanage,' 'The Impossible' is a compelling, riveting, heart-wrenching, inspiring, and uplifting movie.  Anchored by Naomi Watts, who gave the finest performance of her career, Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland, 'The Impossible' is a testament to the power of love and familial bond against near-impossible odds.  The movie manages to be sappy without being overtly manipulative, with images that are as awe-inspiring as they are indelible.  Throughout the movie, the POV shifts from Maria (Naomi Watts) and Lucas (Tom Holland) to Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Thomas/Simon seamlessly, lending the film great emotional impact and making the family's ordeal that much more harrowing.

'The Impossible' is one of those movies that is impossible not to love.  The powerhouse performances of Naomi Watts and company elevate the movie above simply another disaster film, and its humanity and warmth, such as strangers helping strangers during times of hardship, will stay with you long after the final credits have rolled. 

Grade: A


Leather-face it, my money and time got massacred

Long before Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddie Kruger graced the slasher genre I came to love, there was a cutting edge (no pun intended), widely banned, low budget flick in 1974 from director Tobe Hooper about a f*$#&d up Texas redneck family with a six-feet tall idiot who wears a stitched-up leather facemask and wields a chainsaw to cut up his victims.  From this inauspicious beginning, 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' became one of the most beloved and successful horror franchises of all time, spawning three sequels (all bad), a reboot (pretty good), a prequel (not bad), and now a 3D treatment (read on).
More specifically, TCM started the 'Cabin in the Woods' subgenre in movies such as 'Wrong Turn' and 'The Hills Have Eyes,' the defining characteristics of which include deformed backwood hillbilly inbreds and farm tools as the implement of choice, not to mention a general dirty oily sweaty grungy-ness to the characters, be they predator (Leatherface and his 'family') or prey (attractive twenty-somethings who more often than not also tend to be horny).
The latest offering in this long-running franchise, 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre:3D,' pretty much followed the same formula as the others, with its four young victims (2 male, 2 female of course) looking as hot & horny and ready for the slaughter as any who 'came' before (sorry, but I just couldn't resist the double entendre).  One of them (Alexandra Daddario) even bore more than a passing resemblance to my 1990's crush Tiffany Amber Thiessen back in her 90210 heydays.  And there is a twist in this story, which the movie hinted at in its opening 'flashback' scene.  But even with this unexpected 'twist,' the movie lacked tension and suspense.  Also, none of the characters were worth caring for, like I did to some extent for Jessica Biel and Jordana Brewster in the previous two installments.
So, even though 'Leatherface' has slaughtered the box-office once again on this first weekend of the new year, I can't quite bring myself to recommend this movie, especially when you have to justify paying extra for watching it in 3D (which TCM definitely does not warrant the use of).  Sorry, 'Leatherface,' better luck next time.

Grade: C-minus