Noah

Noah posterEveryone seems to have an opinion about Noah. Some say it’s a fresh and creative, yet appropriate, adaptation of the celebrated story.  Others say it borders on blasphemy. Having seen the film, I can say that one thing it is definitely not is blasphemous.

Which is good, I suppose. But just because a movie isn’t blasphemous doesn’t mean that it’s good. The sad thing is, this movie showed so much potential. You can tell that Director Darren Aronofsky and writer Ari Handel studied their Bibles while writing the script. There is an abundance of creative interpretations, such as rock monsters as the Nephalim and ice age animals boarding the ark, beautiful images, such as stars visible in the daytime sky (which may have been a reality in the pre-flood atmosphere), and some truly touching subplots. The best of these is the one in which Noah’s family rescues a girl named Ila from a massacre and raises her as their own. Years later, Ila (Emma Watson) and Shem (Douglas Booth), Noah’s eldest son, are in love. However, due to a sword wound, Ila can’t have children.  As the ark is being built, she wrestles with her inability to repopulate the earth at this crucial time, and wonders why she has a place on the ark. There is a beautiful scene in which Noah (Russell Crow) comforts her, and the crowning moment comes when Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) “blesses” her and takes away her sterility, after which she runs into Shem’s arms.

Film Bible Blockbusters

“You’re dressed strangely. Are you one of the watchers?”

There are a few problems early on. For instance, Noah gets the idea that the purpose of the ark is to save the animals because “they still live as they did in the garden,” despite the fact that animals routinely tear each other limb from limb. The movie pushes the idea that Noah and his family are vegetarians, and that that is part of their righteousness, yet Noah thinks nothing of hacking down human beings at several points in the movie. It’s very unlikely that the real Noah was a vegetarian, given that God told him to bring extra animals onto the ark for food, (Gen. 7:2) and that Abel had been sacrificing animals to God nine generations earlier. (Gen. 4:4, 5) But that’s okay. I can forgive some Ferngully-esque nonsense for an otherwise good movie.

Most of the way through, I was enjoying this movie, problems notwithstanding. My hopes reached their highest about midway, when Noah ventures into a camp where Tubal-Cain, the villain, is building an army, hoping to find wives for Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo Carroll). There he sees the extent of human depravity, witnessing infanticide, cannibalism, rape, child slavery, and *gasp!* meat-eating.  Aronofsky and Handel had opened the movie with a visual retelling of man’s fall into sin, and were even brave enough to use the word “sin” as the explanation of what’s wrong with our world. I was impressed. Now I saw this graphic depiction of sin’s effects (It’s amazing this movie didn’t get an R rating). Noah is watching a man commit a sin, and suddenly, the man’s face becomes his own. This is immediately followed by a vision of the snake in the garden. “Wow,” I thought. “Are they really going to go there? Are they really going to point to the Gospel with this movie?”

Noah snakes

Indiana Jones would not have lasted on the ark. Those aren’t tree trunks.

After all, the flood narrative is one of the four pivotal stories in the Bible, the first being the story of how man disobeyed God and brought suffering into a perfect world. The second is the flood story, in which God destroyed all of humanity except one righteous family in order to start the world over. And it worked, for awhile. But as we saw in the above scene, sin is inborn in every human being, and it soon resurfaced. This lead to the third pivotal story, in which God selected a nation, Israel, for himself, and gave them the Law, instructing them on how to live like righteous people. And it worked, for awhile. But the Law is powerless to bring life or renewal; it can only bring death. Sinful Man cannot keep it. Thus, there was a need for the fourth pivotal story, the Gospel. Because we could not keep the law, it was necessary for God to become a man two thousand years ago, and to live a perfect life, keeping the Law for us, pay the penalty we could not pay, dying a death more horrible that you or I can really imagine, and conquer death, rising from the grave. It is by this that “a multitude no one can count” (Rev. 7:9, 10) will be restored to their pre-fall glory, and that there will be a new heaven and a new earth.

But that’s all pretty heavy for a Hollywood movie.

Noah returns to his family, still working on the ark, and callously reports “There will be no wives!” and orders his family to get back to work. Noah tells Naameh, his wife (Jennifer Connelly) that evil is present in all of them, sympathetic and unsympathetic characters alike. As proof of this, he asks her “is there anything you would not do for your sons, good or bad? We would both choose to kill for our sons.” Of course, Noah has previously thought little of killing men for less than his sons, so I’m not sure why it’s such a shocking revelation to him now. We eventually learn that Noah has concluded humanity must be snuffed out so that the animals will be left in peace, but we’ll get to that later.

Methusela

Anthony Hopkins does well as tender patriarch Methusela, but there’s still something creepy about hearing Hannibal Lecter’s voice say to children “come closer.”

Ham, who looks to be about 14, cannot except this and runs toward the camp to find himself a wife. He eventually stumbles into a ditch full of bodies, where he finds a girl about his age named Na’el (Madison Davenport), who is terrified of him and swings a rock at him to drive him off. Given Ham’s age, and the urgency of the situation, I half expected to see him physically overpower her, then drag her by her hair back to the ark. However, we are treated to a couple of surprisingly moving scenes, in which Ham feeds Na’el and comforts her in the ditch, as she refuses to leave her dead family. Only when the rain begins to fall does he insist she come with him. The two of them run through the woods to the ark, not far ahead of Tubal-Cain’s advancing army. Na’el becomes caught in a leg trap set for an animal. Ham can’t pry it open, but he refuses to leave her. Until Noah shows up. Our hero pries the two screaming children apart and drags Ham away. We then get a cringe-inducing shot of Na’el reaching after them, before she is trampled to death by the army.

Watching this movie is a bit like watching The Passion of the Christ, or a Michael Bay movie, in that you get the sense that you are being punished for something, but you don’t know what. It’s like every moment is calculated to stick a knife in you and twist it, and the bombardment of violence, misery and heartbreak begins to feel like clubs hitting your head from all directions, and you want to shout “Make it stop! Whatever I did, I’m sorry!”

Noah and Ham reach the ark, and there is a pretty awesome battle scene between Tubal-Cain’s army and the rock giants, after which, the world gets swamped and Noah’s family hunkers in the ark. This is the point where the movie plunges irretrievably downhill. Noah, still believing Ila to be sterile, explains to everyone that they will be the last people to live on the earth; there will be no reproduction. That way humans will not “ruin the garden” again. A few days later, Ila becomes pregnant. For some reason, she, Shem and Naameh are stupid enough not only to tell Noah, but tell him immediately, when he’s obviously working through some issues. Noah throws a tantrum, pleads with God (it’s unclear if he gets a response) and finally announces that if Ila’s baby is a girl (who could mature into a mother), she will be cut down at the moment of her birth. The last act of this film is absolute agony to sit through, as it follows nine months of screaming and yelling about this in the confines of the ark. I will say one thing for this movie, the cast does a fantastic job with what they have to work with. You have to wonder what they must have been thinking, belting out the lines of such a contrived and sadistic script. There are no words to describe how bad it all is. I spent the last act asking “Why, Aronofsky, why this?” First, there’s no support for it in Scripture. God expressly told Noah to build the ark to insure that earth would be repopulated with men as well as animals, and after the flood, explicitly gave men permission to eat animals (if he hadn’t already). (Gen. 9:1-3)

s-NOAHS-ARK-large300

Darren Aronofsky is coming! All who wish to avoid embarrassment, into the ark!

Second, even if you ignore Scripture, it makes no sense. Why would Noah leap so quickly to such an extreme conclusion? There’s nothing in the film to suggest God has told him man must die out. And even if he does kill Ila’s baby, what’s to stop Ila and Shem from running away after the flood and having more babies? They’ve got the whole globe to choose from. And if Naameh wants her other sons to have children badly enough (and she clearly does), she may well copulate with them herself. Don’t look at me like that, it’s been done. Desperate times call for creepy measures. To accomplish his ends, Noah would have to kill everybody.

Third, it’s not as if this movie doesn’t shove enough horror and suffering in our faces (as it must). There is another side to the flood story. And it was taking shape in the first act. Noah’s relationship with his sons. Methusela’s tenderness with his great-grandchildren. Naameh’s adoptive care of Ila. Amid the wickedness of the world, this movie started with a beautiful depiction of familial and adoptive love. And that was exactly what God was trying to save when he told Noah to build the ark. (Gen. 7:1) God knew better than Noah that Man was inherently sinful. (Gen. 8:21) He was still giving Man a chance to start over.

But the touching story from the first act is out the window now. Ila gives birth to twin baby girls. Naameh comments that “He (God) sent us what we needed.” So … Ham and Japheth are supposed to marry their nieces? And very young nieces at that? I know I said desperate times, creepy measures, but why do we need this in the story? Considering the fact that Noah was 600 years old at the time of the flood (Gen. 7:6), (Shem was 98) his sons were most likely grown men, with grown women already at their sides. Why, Aronofsky, why? This leads up to what is supposed to be the climactic moment, when Noah has his dagger raised over Ila’s twin daughters, and — big surprise – he can’t bring himself to do it. The ark runs aground, the waters go down, and they start to rebuild. There is a scene where, for no clear reason, Ham packs up and walks away from the rest, implicitly never to return — so what was even the point of the twin baby girls?

But what about that bold and visceral depiction of the sinfulness of man? Noah is, after all, correct that evil is just as present in him and in his family as in Tubal-Cain, and that killing 99% of humanity will not end sin. Is this film going to at least hint at the coming of Christ? Noah and Ila sit on a beach. Ila says “The choice (of whether to kill her children) was put in your hands for a reason. He showed you the wickedness of Man and knew you would not look away. But as you looked, you also saw goodness.” So, no such luck on the Gospel. We went through all that agony just to hear one more canned Hollywood speech about faith in … goodness, I guess. Whatever that is. We then see Noah giving his blessing to his wife, two sons, daughter in law and two granddaughters, telling them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and we’re right back in creepy town, but at least the movie’s over.

I could have forgiven a movie that didn’t accurately depict the events in Scripture. I could have forgiven a movie that watered down the message in Scripture. I could have forgiven a movie that was just another piece of mindless Hollywood tripe. Hell, even a blasphemous movie would have been less painful to sit through than this. The worst part is, this was on track to be one of the greatest movies ever made. The talent was there. The creativity was there. The visuals were there. The source matter was certainly there. A full-budget rendering of the flood story was long overdue, and I was looking forward to a thorough exploration of the pre-flood world, and some awesome 2012-esque world destruction scenes. Instead of that, I had to sit through the manufactured misery of the most dysfunctional family on earth (literally). While Noah isn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen, it may be the biggest disappointment of my film-watching life.

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The 5 Most Overrated Movies of All Time

Since you’re on this site, you probably enjoy discussing movies. And like me, you’ve probably been frustrated by seeing a movie you couldn’t stand, only to find out everyone else loves it. Of course, since I’m taking down overrated movies here, you probably also love at least some of the movies in this article. So it’s important to remember that even a great movie is simply that — a movie. I don’t necessarily expect you to agree with me, as long as you consider my thoughts and enjoy the read, and perhaps leave a response. But if I can release a few people from their servitude to one of these movies, my work will not be in vain.

Without further ado, the most overrated movies of all time:

Glory poster#5 Glory (1989 Dir. Edward Zwick)

Okay, before I get a contract out on my life, I’m not saying Glory  is a bad  movie. I’m just saying it doesn’t deserve its five Oscar nominations, slough of other awards or the endless adulation it’s received. I know in our political and cultural climate, hardly anyone dares criticize such a movie, so for the first time ever, let’s take an honest look at Glory.

Colonel Robert Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is commissioned to lead the first Regiment of black soldiers in the U.S. Army. The sequences of training the regiment are far more Hollywood than history. For instance, there is a scene in which soldier Silas Trip (Denzel Washington) is caught deserting, and is to be flogged before the regiment. We are supposed to be shocked when Drill Sergant Mulcahy (John Finn) yanks Trip’s shirt down to reveal years’ worth of whip scares. Shaw actually starts crying when he sees this. Trip then stares unflinchingly at Shaw while he is flogged, as Shaw whimpers like a little girl.

This brings us to my indictment of Glory, and of those who praise it. It’s less about its quality than about the fact that people seem to think the film is making some kind of bold statement about the country’s history. But if a film wants to make a bold statement about history, it needs to get history right. Modern audiences are moved by the scene above. But Shaw would not have been. The thing people forget is that we are looking at the U.S. Army of the 1860s. White men in the army where routinely flogged for deserting, falling asleep on duty, or having an unkempt uniform. They were also accustomed to sleeping on the ground, eating maggoty bread and (get this) being shot. Shaw most likely had scars on his own back, and had certainly been grazed by a bullet at the Battle of Winchester.

The movie tries to deal with a lot of arguments and issues that would find no place in a military environment, especially if you want to tell a story of honor and glory. We hear a lot of infantile whining about military discipline, not only by new recruits, but by white officers we’re supposed to sympathize with. Then there’s the scene where Shaw informs the regiment that the Confederate Congress has issued a proclamation that any negro captured while fighting for the North will be executed. After he delivers the shocking news that if they go to war they might die, we’re supposed to be inspired when they are all still there the next day.

To be fair, Glory  certainly has some things going for it. It’s interesting and refreshing to see a full cast of black actors playing very different characters fighting together. Both black and white bring passion to their roles and there are some really powerful moments, especially the campfire the night before the climactic battle. Also, as race movies go, this one is a lot deeper than most. But for every great moment there’s another one that’s ruined by awkward acting or cheap cinematography, including, sadly, the crowning moment of an otherwise good climax.

The climax is the 54th’s doomed assault on Ft. Wagner on July 18, 1863. We see Shaw and Trip fatally shot at the foot of the fort’s walls. The remaining major characters, and a lot of extras, then storm the fort. The crescendo comes when Sgt. John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), Major Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes), Thomas Searl and Jupiter Sharts run up onto a ledge before they are killed by cannon fire. It’s all supposed to happen in a moment, because they died fighting. However, the camera focuses on them for well over a second, as they stand there awkwardly, posing for the camera. You can almost see Freeman thinking “Aw, yeah, I’m gonna get another great close up!” while you can see Elwes looking for Zwick, thinking “Do I tilt my gun up a little? Down a little?” And finally, even though we saw Washington shot through the chest at the bottom of the hill, we then see him running up behind everyone, craning his neck as if to say “I want to be in the picture, too!” Not only that, but the camera actually cuts away from this awkward pose to the cannons, and then back to the awkward pose for another second or so, before our heroes disappear in cannon smoke, making it truly laughable.

It makes a great still, but the moving version is pretty painful

It makes a great still, but the moving version is pretty painful

For better or worse, Glory  has had a huge impact on movies since. The black Union soldier has become to civil war movies what the explosion is to Michael Bay movies, even though, in reality, there were black men fighting for the South before there were black men fighting for the North (yeah, that’s right) and the role played by black Union soldiers in the war was actually very small. Glory  is a solid movie over all, and I own a copy that I enjoy watching from time to time. But come on. Five Oscars? Really?

Society’s rating (according to Rotten Tomatoes):

My rating:

 

Cars poster#4 Cars (2006 Dir. John Lasseter)

There isn’t much that can be said about this one, except that if it hadn’t been riding the coattails of Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, it wouldn’t have had nearly the success that it did. As Doug Walker put it, it seems more like a satire of a Pixar film than an actual Pixar film. Cars spawned an endless flood of toys, lunchboxes and kiddie toilet seats, as well as a handful of sequels, all to the tune of $10 billion in the first five years after it came out. And does anyone even remember what it was about? Don’t feel bad, I had to look it up myself.

The first reason this movie doesn’t work is the world it tries to create. Consider A Bug’s Life, which is similar in that it has an entirely non-human cast, in this case ants and other bugs. This works well, because bugs actually have their own existence, independent of humans, so it’s interesting to hear a story about what hopes, fears and conflicts bugs might have in their own world. Cars‘ world is populated with anthropomorphic machines, with no trace of human existence. But if there are no humans, where did all these machines come from? Did a submarine crawl out of the sea millions of years ago and magically grow wheels? Or was there some divine mechanic that took a side panel from the first daddy car and made the first mommy car, and told them to bump uglies and fill the earth? And if so, from whence did the babies come, mommy’s tail pipe? See the problem here?

Anthropomorphic vehicles have worked better in other movies, usually as a foil to a more serious plot, or as wisecracking sidekicks, such as the taxi in Roger Rabbit. It can be interesting to see a show where sentient vehicles interact with their owners, e.g. Nightrider, or interact with each other, talking about the jobs they do for  their owners. But machines exist only to serve a purpose. With no humans in Cars, the writers have to stretch their characters into emotional and organic roles that don’t make sense. For instance, near the beginning, Lightning McQueen is pursued by a police car. The police car’s motor back fires a few times. McQueen exclaims “he’s shooting at me! Why is he shooting at me?” A better question would be “how is he shooting at me?”

But let’s say we get past all this, and generously grant the film its ill-conceived premise, and just judge it by its own standards. It’s still not a a good movie. It’s not terrible, but it’s just a handful of overused cliches with nothing original. We start out with a self-absorbed, ambitious protagonist, McQueen, that we know is going to learn a lesson in the end. We then learn that he doesn’t have any friends. Through a misadventure, he finds himself a fish out of water in a small, forgotten town out of the interstate limelight. Some of the characters of this town are Rockwellian stereotypes, such as Doc, who is both the town judge and the town doctor. The rest are more recent stereotypes, like a hippie, a big city lawyer and a fairly racist Hispanic stereotype.

cars sugar

This movie is sugary enough to give a man diabetes.

We hear a lot of rhetoric about how small town poverty is better than big city wealth, which is always amusing coming from Hollywood producers. McQueen, who has learned the value of hard work during his trial, ultimately gets everything he wanted in the beginning anyway, but turns down millions of dollars to be “happy.” The story pushes the familiar idea that friendship and family are better than worldly success, but never believes in its own message enough to sell it. Significantly, none of the characters in this movie have any meaningful family connections. How could they, after all?

Even if Cars isn’t good, it is kind of cute, and I suppose that’s what sold so many products. If you like this movie, it doesn’t mean you’re an idiot. It just means you’re easily entertained.

Society’s rating:

My rating:

 

Avengers poster#3 The Avengers (2012 Dir. Joss Whedon)

The success of The Avengers is a powerful testament to the superiority of aggressive marketing over quality product. For some reason, American moviegoers made this film the highest-grossing film of 2012, probably the second most embarrassing choice by the American public in that year.

There is a video game series called Marvel Ultimate Alliance. The story of the game is an afterthought as an excuse to cram every single Marvel character in to the same game and have them go around beating up polygons. I’ve never found it that interesting, but it works okay as a game. The problem with Avengers is that it’s exactly the same thing, except we, the audience, don’t get to play.

Anytime you cram several superheroes into the same story you’re playing with fire. You’re mixing mythologies and there’s usually not enough time to develop all of them and create enough suspension of belief. For instance, why in the name of Odin can a hammer forged by the gods and imbued with the power of lightning and thunder not break (or even dent) Captain America’s shield? I don’t care if it was designed by Howard Stark. And even if we grant that the shield is indestructible, why is Cap’s arm not broken behind it? This might seem like a minor detail, but Avengers is full of questions like this, because the mythologies don’t gel. And because they don’t, we have to settle for a movie that is about like watching a video game. The B-movie “story” concerns a race of computer-generated aliens that invade New York City. Who are these guys? We don’t really know. Where do they come from? Who cares? What were the events that provoked their hostility with the Earth? If they can rip open a portal to NYC, what prevents them from attacking several points of Earth at once? And if they have such technology, why do they still need live mounts? None of these questions are ever bothered with, as these aliens are just cannon fodder for the heroes to show off their powers. The aliens are led by Loki, who has transitioned from being a poorly written prodigal son in Thor (first he hates Odin, then he loves Odin, then he throws himself down to the earth because Odin simply tells him “no”) to now being a flat-out cartoon villain, consumed with a drive to (what else?) take over the world.

Now, which one of these pictures is from Avengers ...

Now, which one of these pictures is from Avengers …

Marvel Studios also needs to learn that stone walls do not a prison make, nor rampant destruction an action sequence. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent rendering huge battle sequences for Avengers in which skyscrapers and aircraft carriers are laid waste, and the audience never breaks a sweat. In fact, the one action sequence in the movie that’s actually engaging is the one-on-one fight between Hawkeye and Black Widow, which involves no CGI, but only great choreography.

... and which one is from Man of Steel?

… and which one is from Man of Steel?

This summer, movie goers were treated to a similar movie, The Man of Steele, which was panned by critics and audiences alike. And not without reason. But the people who lapped up Avengers  never seemed to realize that Man of Steele  was the same movie (In fact, Google either one, and you’ll get lots of images from both). Avengers  throws constant superhuman fighting in your face with no rules of reality. Man of Steele  does the same thing. Avengers  spends most of its two hours blowing up trains and tearing skyscrapers to bits. Man of Steele  does the same thing. Avengers wastes precious little time on story or character development. Man of Steele  does the same thing. In fact, Man of Steele comes out the stronger, because

Is that gravel spray being raised by Clark or the Hulk? Who knows?

Is that gravel spray being raised by Clark or the Hulk? Who knows?

the director isn’t mediating between six stars and dividing up the face time. We at least get an interesting and moving expose of Clark’s relationship with his parents, and Michael Shannon is actually able to develop a compelling (if over-the-top) villain in General Zod. The only thing Avengers  brings to the table that Man of Steele  doesn’t is some great shots of Gwyneth Paltrow from behind and Scarlet Johansson from above. In fact, Amy Adams as Lois Lane spends most of her movie in a parka. But really, which of those two options is the mark of the superior film?

Society’s rating:

My rating:

 

Princess B poster#2 The Princess Bride (1987 Rob Reiner)

We now reach the hard-core portion of this list. Strong of heart, read on. I apologize if I shatter your childhood, but it’s high time that you knew 1) there is no Santa Clause, and 2) this movie sucks. The faithful reader may remember my review of The Grey, in which I commented that, at the end, I felt like an 18-year-old groupie who had been picked up by Director Joe Carnahan, only to find out in bed that Carnahan had this … “little problem.” My experience watching The Princess Bride was similar, except that I felt more like a chronically cheated-on wife, who has spent years going to counseling and forgiven her husband over and over and over again, because he has promised to take her on some romantic vacation to some exotic location, and then, when the time comes, he leaves her at the airport and goes off with his secretary.

From the start, we see a cheap movie. Cheap sets, cheap camera work, cheap actors. But it still shows signs of being a fun, campy fairy tale. After enduring the griping of a young, ailing Fred Savage about the story being read to him, we see the story of a girl named Buttercup (Robin Wright) falling in love with a farm boy named Wesley (Cary Elwes). Buttercup later hears that a ship carrying Wesley was taken by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never takes prisoners, so she figures he’s dead. Five years later, she is betrothed to Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). However, she is kidnapped by three brigands and taken on a ship. At one point, she tries to escape by jumping overboard, and hears a strange noise. And here we have a good example of the crystalline dialogue we get to hear over and over in this film. The leader, Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) shouts out “You hear that, highness? Those are the shrieking eels! They always grow louder when they’re about to feast on human flesh!” Did they have a five-year-old write this? Vizzini also spends much of this part of the movie repeatedly shouting “inconceivable!” It gets old real fast. He also shouts lines like “Move the thing! And that other thing!

I’ll admit this part does a good job of creating mystery and suspense, as they find themselves being followed by a stranger who gains on them no matter what they do. After they scale the Cliffs of Insanity, Vizzini cuts the rope at the top, leaving the stranger clinging to the cliff side. He instructs his swordsman, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), to dispatch him once he reaches the top, while he and Fezzik (Andre the Giant) escape with Buttercup.

The stranger ascends, and we get the single awesome scene of the movie. And awesome it is! I have PB fightpersonally studied under Ted Katzoff, the Fencing Maestro who choreographed this scene. The man is a swordplay genius (not to mention one of precious few non-European Maestros). He has worked on films such as Hook and Outrageous Fortune, and I would expect nothing less than what he delivers in this scene. The swordsmanship displayed by both combatants is truly remarkable, being both technically proficient and exciting to watch. Each man starts out fencing with his left hand, and just when we think one of them is going to lose, he switches to his right! We get flips, dives, stair fencing, the whole nine yards. The whole movie should be like this. Alas …

The stranger bests Inigo, but knocks him out rather than killing him. He then goes on to somehow defeat Andre the Giant in a wrestling match that still somehow manages to be boring. Finally, he bests Vizzini in what is called a “battle of wits,” but is really just a contest to see whose ears start bleeding last from listening to Wallace Shawn’s incessant, nasal rambling. Thankfully, Shawn dies. Buttercup is now the stranger’s prisoner, and in a following scene, she learns that he is the pirate who killed her love. Eventually she pushes him down a hill. The camp meter shoots up here, from merit-badge-camp-out to Mt. Everest-base-camp. As he rolls down the hill, he shouts out a catch phrase that Wesley used to say to Buttercup. This is supposed to immediately clue Buttercup in that the stranger is actually Wesley. Upon realizing this, she throws herself down the hill for … some reason, and we have this long, stupid scene of them rolling down a hill, at the bottom of which they kiss.

About this time, we join Humperdinck and his right hand man, Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), at the head of a search party, examining the footprints from Inigo’s fight with Wesley. Two things take shape in this scene. First, we see that Humperdinck is able to analyse the fencing technique of both fighters from their tracks, implying that he is a skilled fighter and tracker himself. Second we learn that Humperdinck hired the brigands to kidnap and kill Buttercup, in order to frame a neighboring kingdom for it, to generate public support for a war. Humperdinck is beginning to show himself as a stereotypical fairy tale villain. And that’s a good thing because, as we all know, when people go to a fairy tale movie, they’re going to see sword fights. Yes, there’s also that “true love” thing, but there’s no point in having a true love if there’s no danger to save her from. That’s why good movies of this genre, such as Errol Flynn movies or Zorro movies, are packed with sword fights, each one more spectacular than the last, leading up to the climactic battle between the hero and the villain, which should blow us all away. Yes, it’s a formula, but there’s a reason it’s a formula. And hey! Reiner has already got Maestro Katzoff right there on set, and he has two sympathetic swordsmen, Wesley and Inigo, still alive after their fight. What’s more, we’ve learned of Inigo’s vendetta against Count Rugen for killing his father, so we also have two villainous swordsmen, with henchmen at their command. Perfect!

Make no mistake, while there have been some clever moments, up to this point, this has been by no means a good movie. We’ve seen ham-fisted acting, painful one-liners, and gaping plot holes. There’s been no explanation of why Humperdinck wants to go to war, or who with. For that matter, why was he trying to catch the brigands if he hired them? I’ve been overlooking all of this because there has got to be some more of that swashbuckling action before too long. I mean, it’s not like Reiner would actually put his one good fight scene in the first 20 minutes of the movie! Would he?

The boneheaded moments are coming faster now. As they walk through the Fire Swamp, Wesley tells  Buttercup the story of how he was, in fact, captured by Roberts, but Roberts took him on as a valet. Three years later, Roberts decided to retire, and so appointed Wesley to plunder in his place.

Wait a minute! Did I miss something here? This is our hero in this fairy tale? And he’s spent the last two years as a pirate, killing people by his own admission? Was he under some kind of coercion? Was he using his position to undermine Humperdinck’s oppression of the masses? Was he at least using his ill-gotten gains to provide for the less fortunate? If any of these things are true, we’re never given any indication. We’re just left to assume that Wesley has been raping and pillaging his way around Florin for two years because … his old boss said to. Worse yet, at the end of the movie, Wesley actually suggests to Inigo that Inigo take over raping and pillaging from him!

At least our primal couple are walking through a dark and dangerous swamp from which none have returned. What thrilling dangers and battles lay ahead? Will Wesley have to fight dragons? Trolls? Orcs? Will the adversity finally force Buttercup to find her inner strength so she can be of help? The tension is palpable as they push their way through vines and trees. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Wesley is pounced upon by a … rat? A freaking RAT! Granted it’s an unusually big rat; one might even say a rodent of unusual size, but it’s a freaking rat! In addition, it doesn’t look real at all. So we spend three minutes watching Buttercup cower in a corner while Wesley rolls around with a stuffed animal.

But that’s okay, because the climax is going to be awesome.

Miracle Max. Amusing, but too little, too late.

Miracle Max. Amusing, but too little, too late.

To make a long story short, they get out of the swamp and Humperdinck captures Wesley and sends him to the torture chamber, leading Buttercup to believe he has been released. Humperdinck eventually kills Wesley by sucking his life away. On the day that Humperdinck and Buttercup are to be married, Fezzik and Inigo break into the torture chamber and steal Wesley’s body. They obtain a pill which brings him back to life, but with temporary paralysis. The three break into the castle. Inigo has to fight four guards, but it’s over in about three seconds. He then confronts Rugen, who flees. Inigo gives chase, but Rugen is able to trick him by throwing a dagger into his gut. He recovers, however. This fight isn’t terrible, but it’s nothing compared to the first one. Inigo basically backs Rugen into a corner and skewers him after some dialogue.

But that’s okay, because we’re almost to the big fight between Wesley and Humperdinck!

Buttercup enters the bridal chamber, sick with grief after the wedding, and is about to kill herself, when she hears Wesley’s voice! She turns to see him lying on the bed. They kiss and he tells her she’s not married, because she didn’t say “I do,” and didn’t do “it.”

“A technicality that will shortly be remedied.” Ooh, boy! Our contrived, two dimensional villain stands in the doorway, sword in hand. Chills run up my spine. This is it! “But first, to the death!” Sounds good to me. “No!” Wesley says. “To the pain!” Um, okay. That sounds fine, as long as you guys fight.

Well, not just yet. First we have to listen to a long explanation of what “to the pain” means. Finally (finally!), Wesley rises to his feet and the fight is on! He raises his sword. Humperdinck counters by … dropping his sword?? Then sitting down and letting Buttercup tie him up? No!

No, dammit, no! Don’t do this to me!

I forgave the whiny, prepubescent Fred Savage, the shrieking eel nonsense and Wallace Shawn’s inconceivably annoying rants. I forgave our “hero” spending years as a murderous pirate for no discernible reason.  I forgave the stupid and unscary “battle” with a stuffed animal in the Fire Swamp.  I forgave the torturously boring torture scene and the physiologically ridiculous fight between Inigo and Rugen, but I forgave those things because this movie promised a thrilling climax. A dazzling duel between hero and villain. I mean, they had a world-class fencing maestro right there on set. He had already done a great job with one fight scene — the one at the end should have been even better! Fencing on rafters! Falling chandeliers! Backflips! But the best Reiner could come up with was to have the villain wimp out and sit down and get tied up. Haven’t you ever seen a campy sword movie, Reiner? You couldn’t possibly have thought this movie was good enough to be different.

When I first saw this movie, I had a headache for the next day or so, thinking of the two hours I’d never get back. Even after I saw it, I really wanted to like it, but I’m just not that dumb.

Society’s rating:

My rating:

 

And now, the most overrated movie of all time:

 

 

Nightmare poster#1 Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993 Dir. Henry Selick)

This is it, the creme de la crap. How this mess of a movie achieved critical acclaim and won a loyal cult following of tens of millions, I will never understand. Everything about it is just plain warped, right up to the way it was marketed. It was sold to the public as a Christmas family film, and given mild-sounding PG rating. Then, as soon as the theatre doors were shut, a door that looked like a pumpkin swung open and families with young children were sucked into a world full of vampires, werewolves and ghouls in a celebration of the macabre. And I have to admit that this opening number is pretty cool — that is it would be if this were a horror movie. But it’s a Christmas movie, dammit. At least that’s what it said on the poster. Don’t get me wrong, the horror genre has its place, but this is not it. We have to wait until 20% of the movie has gone by to see the first glimmers of holiday cheer. And even once it arrives, there’s not much too it. I know we’ve all seen plenty of cheesy holiday specials with titles like So-and-so saves Christmas, and most of us were tired of them by age 10. But to those specials’ credit, they at least make an effort to capture the true feelings of Christmas that bring people together during the holidays; the joy of giving and forgiving. The only “Christmas” this movie has to offer is the most two-dimensional, cellophane-wrapped, commercialized version imaginable, and even that only shows up for about 5% of the movie.

This movie doesn’t have any good versus evil narrative, which wouldn’t be fatal if it had another narrative that went somewhere — but it doesn’t. It seems to try to tell a story of how a misguided hero’s plans go wrong, but it never gets off the ground. After a whiny solo about being tired of his job, Jack Skellington, the “pumpkin king” of Halloween, wanders into Christmas  Town, and is taken aback by the feelings of warmth and joy that replace the fear of Halloween. Having “grown so tired of the sound of screams,” he becomes convinced that getting involved in Christmas is the way to escape the rut he is in.

So, like any reasonable businessman fancying a career change, Jack seeks out the owner of this … franchise he’s discovered, and buys him a beer and says “I would like to learn more about what you do here, maybe even try working with you for awhile,” right? No of course not. He dispatches three of his minions, Lock, Shock and Barrel, to kidnap Santa, and announces that he is forcibly taking over Christmas. What the hell? It’s really hard to buy Jack as the well-meaning but misguided tragic hero, because if his intentions are truly non-malevolent, he has to be the biggest bone-head the world has ever seen. I mean, how could anyone not out of his skull ever think this was a good idea? When Lock, Shock and Barrel have accomplished their task, they haul in Santa, bound at the hands and feet and tied in a sack (a freaking sack!), and throw him at Jack’s feet. Jack simply tells Santa “You can consider this a vacation — a reward! I’ll be taking it from here.” He then allows Santa to be dragged away by the trio, absentmindedly dismissing them with the comment “See to it he’s comfortable!” Are you kidding me? these kids have shown themselves in previous scenes to be anything but responsible, careful or empathetic, and Jack can see they’re dragging Santa off into a world full of open sewers and torture devices. What does he think the three little psychopaths are going to do, put Santa up in a Hilton and serve him coffee and a croissant every four hours??

Sure enough, Santa soon finds himself stuffed down a pipe and tied to a torture rack in the lair of the

Merry Christmas, suckas!

Merry Christmas, suckas!

Boogieman, Oogie Boogie. Meanwhile, Jack carries on with his insane plan, placing gifts under trees that attack children all over the western world. He never seems to feel the least bit bad about it, his narcissism even prompting him to insist that humanity is “thanking us for doing such a good job,” when the national guard is firing at his sleigh. There’s nothing to root for in this movie. We’re supposed to identify with Jack as his “good intentions” blow up in his face, but he has more in common with a maniacal comic book villain than anything else, sicking killer toys on children a la the Joker, or being driven to remake the world in his image a la the Lizard. The female lead, Sally, at least has her head on straight (if only thanks to stitches), but she never accomplishes anything. We can’t root for Santa to save the day either, because we never see anything he does.

Fans of this movie will probably argue that it wasn’t made for the story, but rather for the animation and the music. To be sure, the stop-motion animation is done with tremendous care and skill, but the most that animation can do is make your movie look real. It can’t make your movie good. Without at least a decent story to carry the movie, no amount of technical skill will save it. And to be honest, as fluid as the animation looks, there’s nothing revolutionary about it. The same techniques have been used hundreds of times before. The music, frankly, is overrated. There are two numbers in the movie that I found impressive; the opening and Oogie’s song. The rest range from annoying to decent, but cliche.

Anyway, Jack finally gets it through his skull that this was a horrible idea, and races back to Halloween Town. We get the single scene in the movie where good faces off against evil, and he saves Santa and Sally from Oogie. Santa races off to magically save the day off camera, and finally causes snow to fall on Halloween Town, presumably for the first time ever. We then get the culmination of a romance that was assumed, rather than developed; a kiss between Jack and Sally, even though they only have about 1.5 lips between them. So did this story actually go anywhere? Is there going to be some cultural exchange or cooperation now between Christmas and Halloween Towns, which might vindicate all this foolishness? Or did Jack actually learn anything from this debacle? Probably not, because Jack wasn’t trying to do something good that went wrong. He was doing exactly what writer/producer Tim Burton did when he wrote this story, along with most of his other stories: taking something that everyone loves, something that was fine as it was, and putting his own twisted stamp on it, expecting us all to care. Look, I’m sorry Burton had an unhappy childhood. That’s no reason to subject all of us to it. The stuff in his movies should be shared with a psychologist, not with families who’ve come to see a warm holiday film. I bet Burton deliberately neglects to flush public toilets, too, because he’s convinced the next person to come along would love to dissect Tim Burton’s leavings to learn what kind of food Tim Burton eats. And that’s what this movie is: the poo from Burton’s narcissistic ass, spread across the silver screen for the world to marvel at and analyze!

Society’s rating:

My rating:

It’s fun to talk about why a movie is good or bad. But just as interesting is the question of what makes people love some bad movies. Some movies achieve acclaim by touching on subjects that make people afraid to criticize them. Glory exploits an inspiring part of history. No one wants to say anything negative about it, partly for fear of being considered racist or otherwise uncaring, and partly because they really want the film to be as meaningful as the event. Some films rely on shear marketing “firepower,” spending huge numbers of dollars. The world was smothered in merchandise related to Cars and The Nightmare Before Christmas both before and after their releases. Everyone talks about how much they love them, but few actually remember the movies themselves. Still other films manage to get a commitment from people early, so that they refuse to believe they have been cheated. The Princess Bride actually starts out pretty promisingly. That was why I endured the last two thirds of it and really tried to like it. It seems many people actually managed to make themselves like it. Marvel Studios actually spent four movies advertising Avengers. People were so excited, they were giving Avengers five-star ratings before they’d even seen it.

I hope you got a kick out of this article. Perhaps you have an overrated movie you’d like us at Walking Taco to take down a peg. (Already, I’m beginning to think of movies that probably should have been on this list.) If you do, post a comment and ask us to review it! Until then, good night.

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Hansel & Gretal: Witch Hunters

H&G PosterWhen last we met, we covered the evolution of various supernatural critters from detestable to desirable. Vampires are a particularly striking example of an archetype that began as walking, rotting corpses, and rose to be portrayed as superior to humans in almost every way. And now, with Warm Bodies, zombies have begun to travel the same road. But as this happens, producers of fiction lose a useful tool in the form of a creature that can be killed without remorse. This leaves writers searching for a new archetype to fill the role of humanity’s enemy. Sometimes what they come up with is surprising.

Writer/director Tommy Wirkola has found an unlikely replacement:

witches. His latest work, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, starts out with an abridged retelling of the classic children’s tale of two kids who are apparently abandoned in the woods, find a house made of candy, and are captured by a hideous, cannibalistic crone, until they knock her into her own oven. This refresher is graphic, brutal, and not for children. Hansel and Gretel then vow to spend their lives hunting down and killing witches, and we are treated to a montage of newspaper clippings and wood-cut drawings, showing their exploits over the next fifteen years.

We don’t have to think much for this movie. Hansel (Jeremy Renner) narrates “We learned two important things that day (when they escaped the witch as children). One, never walk into a house made of candy. And two, if you’re going to kill a witch, set her ass on fire.” Good advice.

Gemma Arterton, up to her usual awesomeness.

Gemma Arterton, up to her usual awesomeness.

The main story deals with the twins working a case in Augsburg, investigating the disappearances of 11 children. The witches in this movie display many of the traits we’ve seen in vampires and werewolves in recent years: super human strength (why? Because it’s cool), animal-like movements (why? Because it’s cool), and an apparent black belt in jujitsu (why? … must you ask?). Hansel and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) save a beautiful young woman named Mina (Pihla Viitala) from being wrongfully executed as a witch. Hansel announces to the obligatory mob of villagers that when a woman engages in the black arts, a nasty rot sets in. That’s right, the witches in this movie are essentially walking, rotting corpses. Sound familiar?

Jean Grey gone bad. Or did she already do that?

Jean Grey gone bad. Or did she already do that?

Is it a good movie? No. But the real questions is how well do the witches satisfy that part of us that just wants to weild a shotgun, as zombies used to do for us? The best thing about this movie is that it’s not afraid to be politically incorrect. The witches are plentiful. They’re ugly. And they’re decidedly unsympathetic. They’re a bit harder to kill than zombies, but the writers always find a way. All this movie really is is a big, silly bonanza of over-the-top stunts, awesome weapons that could never exist and dazzling fireballs. (It’s even sillier than Van Helsing, if you can believe that). It’s the kind of movie where people get knocked through walls, jump up and keep fighting.  It doesn’t need to be good; it’s a blast.

But are the witches really all subhuman monsters? Are there none we can identify with? Are all those female

Bad witch.

Bad witch.

movie goers who spent their teen years fantasizing about being witches and making love potions going to be left out in the cold?

Well, we eventually learn that, in fact, Mina is a witch, a “white witch” who uses her powers for “good.” Good witches don’t have the rot set in. So how do we tell a good witch from a bad? We look at their outward appearance. How delightfully shallow. Of course, even Mina admits that there are not many good witches, so the good news is most of the witches are just going to be fodder for the awesome fight scenes.

To be fair, there are some clever ideas in this movie, such as the glass milk bottles that bear pictures of the missing children, or the subplot in which Hansel has to take an insulin shot every day, due to all the candy the witch made him eat as a child to fatten him up. There is also a fresh take on the reason the twins’ parents abandoned them in the forest that fateful night. But this is also one of the nastiest movies I have ever seen. Not only is it excessively gory, but the subject matter is pretty intense. There are graphic scenes of children being starved and terrorized by the witches (I understand there were some scenes cut out that were even worse) and one of a witch magically forcing a teen boy to shoot his own mother. Rape is also hinted at. After all, the original “children’s tale” is pretty nasty when you think about it. The Brothers Grimm tended to live up to their name.

Good witch. See the difference?

Good witch. See the difference?

I expect witches’ time on popular fiction’s crap list will be briefer than that of some other creatures, if only because we’re so accustomed to seeing pretty witches save the day. So what’s going to come next? Maybe vampires will cycle around for another run. Personally, I think I’ll stick with my old standby: zombies.

 

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World War Z

World-War-Z-posterFurther global annihilation awaits audiences this weekend in the form of World War Z, a massively expensive summer tentpole picture geared toward action-seekers and zombie fanatics, though it’s likely to please one of those crowds more than the other.  The film is based on a novel by Max Brooks of which I conquered a mountainous six pages.  That’s not to the novel’s detriment.  I merely put it down and never picked it back up.

No matter.  The screenplay divided up by three writers apparently ditched the source material and instead journeys with Gerry Lane played capably by superstar Brad Pitt.  Gerry has one of those professions never fully explained, but he is recruited out of retirement by the United Nations on a global quest to track down the origins of a zombie virus that has catapulted the planet into chaos.

The film opens with Gerry and his family—wife and two young daughters—traveling in the car when the outbreak hits.  Cars slam into each other.  Crowds flee in the streets.  Hordes of rabid human undead attack civilians on the run and spread the pandemic.  Within seconds, humans are fed on and turned to monstrous, speedy, lethal cannibals.

Gerry is offered a secure naval base shelter for his family in exchange for his efforts to track the down the spread of the virus.  He joins a military strike force and globe-trots from the U.S. to South Korea to Jerusalem in search for answers that might allow him to find a cure for the spreading contagion.

Unfortunately for World War Z, the film has arrived following a wave of negative buzz after its production budget ballooned to unfathomable proportions for this type of zombie apocalypse thriller.  A third act rewrite and reshoot didn’t help matters especially when rumors spread that Brad Pitt quit talking to the director, Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Machine Gun Preacher), and threatened to walk out on the film.  Consider all the rumors hearsay.  What we finally have onscreen is pure unrelenting entertainment from start to finish, a film that easily outguns and KO’s all alien superheroes and fast car lovers.

world-war-z-brad-pittWorld War Z is a superb suspense-thriller and manages to succeed against all odds even for a PG-13 zombie film.  Whether Forster, his editors, or his writers pulled off the magic required or blind luck intervened, this was not the choppy moviegoing experience I was expecting.  The computer-generated mounds of zombies featured in the trailers raised I Am Legend-sized visual doubts, but actually turn out to be quite freaky physical specimens, which are (in individual cases) actually human actors sporting incredible makeup and prosthetic enhancements sans much of the gore fans have become accustomed to.

Believe me when I say the lack of blood never once hinders the film from its storytelling ambitions, nor from rampant intensity and scares.  There are plenty of jump-out-of-your-seat moments.  Several sequences mount tingling suspense.  The filmmakers have flat-out created a well-structured thriller that flows neatly across continents from start to finish atop Brad Pitt’s shoulders.  Its his show and he does create a genuine character that the audience can root for as he struggles to return to his family and save the world.

At a tight 2 hour running time, World War Z delivers the goods and winds up a fine summer blockbuster filled with big action, big thrills, and the kind of suspense this season has been lacking.  Despite the lack of blood, the movie has plenty of guts, and it knows how to turn up the intensity to eleven.  Skip the 3D conversion and forget about a faithful adaptation to novel.  If you can do so I’m betting you’ll eat it up.

 

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Warm Bodies

WB posterBefore we begin our discussion of Warm Bodies, I want to say few words about vampires. Why vampires? Because zombies and vampires have a great deal in common, especially if you look at their history. In ancient times, vampires bore more resemblance to zombies than to anything we would call a vampire today. They looked – and smelled – like the reanimated corpses they were. At dusk, they would claw their way out of their graves and stagger about, seeking to feed upon the living. And they did not wear Vampire perfume.

The reasons for their existence also intersect. Everyone today is used to zombies being created by a virus. But you probably don’t know that vampires, too, have been through this phase. You are probably familiar with the 2007 zombie movie I am Legend, directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith. You might not know that this is a remake of The Last Man on Earth, directed by Sidney Salkow and starring Vincent Price220px-Lastmanonearth1960s (1964), which was based on the novel I am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954). Of course, neither Last Man, nor the novel had a single zombie. That’s right, in those stories, a disease turns the living into vampires. For some reason, they are still repelled by crosses and mirrors. Go figure.

Bella Lugosi started a change in the vampire’s image in 1931, and people began to think of vampires as dapper gentlemen. Another significant milestone came with Interview with the Vampire (Dir. Neil Jordan, 1994), the first major motion picture to focus on the vampire’s point of view. Interview included, among other things, Louis (Brad Pitt), a vampire whose conscience is haunted by the people he has to drain to survive. Instead of rooting for Louis’ destruction, moviegoers felt bad for him. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he looked like one of Hollywood’s most bankable heartthrobs. This was the fulcrum in the swing from vampires as dangerous to vampires as desirable. More recent vampires are genuine bring-home-to-mom material, and in fact are often kinder and more thoughtful than humans. In fact, in certain series, e.g. Underworld, vampires don’t even drink human blood. The subject of how they survive is kind of glossed over, leaving us to assume that vampires exist only to look sexy, twirl pistols, and spout the angst of a prolonged adolescence.

SeleneA lot of people are really enjoying this desirable vampire craze, of course. Nothing has generated so much drooling female hysteria as the smut series we call Twilight. But as much as Interview gave us, it also caused us to lose something. Vampires as they once were provided no end of engaging stories and wish fulfillment, because they were enemies you could kill without remorse (because they were already, you know, dead). Everyone loves a story of human struggle and triumph, especially with some combat thrown in, but when such stories involve human enemies, that raises all kinds of pesky moral issues, along with the occasional libel suit. If we have to sympathize with vampires now, who can we kill without remorse?

Zombies to the rescue! I’ve already expounded on the flood of zombie flicks we’ve seen in the 19 years since Interview. Zombie movies are the perfect genre. They’re quick and cheap to make, they don’t need to be good, and they are the perfect form of escapism, because not only do they provide an army of unfeeling, unthinking enemies, they also bring about the downfall of the Man. That mortgage you’re stressed about? Forget about it! That cubicle job you have to go to everyday? Not anymore! You now need concern yourself with three things: Food. Shelter. Zombies. So pick up your shotgun or chainsaw, and go have a head-splattering, limb-severing blast, all amid a playground of empty mansions, unguarded stores, and abandoned Ferraris.

This brings us to Warm Bodies. We join our narrator, a zombie (Nicholas Hoult) who remembers only that his name started with R, as he shambles through a crowd of other zombies, who occasionally manage to squeeze single words from their rigor mortized throats. We also meet Bonies. Bonies are what zombies will eventually become. They resemble the more skeletal monsters from The Mummy and are conceptually the same thing as the re-deads from the Resident Evil games. Our hero makes his home in a disused airplane, where he collects trinkets, listens to vinyl and wishes to be alive again.

Meanwhile, a group of teenagers, including lovers Perry (Dave Franco) and Julie (Teresa Palmer), leaves a fortified compound to scavenge supplies. They are busily ransacking a pharmacy, when a pack of zombies, including R, takes them by surprise. R is momentarily knocked down and watches Julie, rhythmically firing her shot gun, and apparently falls for her. In the following moments, R kills Perry, and proceeds to consume him. He narrates that when a zombie eats someone’s brain, that zombie experiences that person’s memories.

R teaches Julie to act like a zombie.

R teaches Julie to act like a zombie.

He concludes “I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to feel what you felt … to feel a little less dead.” The zombies come out the clear winners of this skirmish, and Julie is left standing alone, her magazines drained and her throwing knives spent. R approaches her before most of the others have left their kills and speaks her name, having learned it from Perry’s brain. To her astonishment, he rubs blood and grime over her face, and tells her “Come … s-safe.” With few options, she follows him and realizes the other zombies assume she is a new “addition to the family.” He takes her home and promises, in what sentence fragments he can manage, to keep her safe. However, she initially refuses to interact with him other than by curling into a ball and crying. He comments “I can tell when a girl needs her space. There’s other ways to get to know someone. Like eating her dead boyfriend’s brains.” He has saved several pieces from the attack, and over the next few days, he learns more of Perry and Julie’s story, and becomes increasingly remorseful for killing Perry. During this same time frame, R(omeo) and Julie(t) begin to talk more and grow closer.

R begins to change. His heart begins to beat, he begins to experience warmth and cold, and he begins to dream (“The dead do not sleep”). What’s more, as R changes, it also seems to affect the other zombies. Significantly, the zombies in this movie lack the wounds other zombie movies like to put on their zombies.  No lips missing, or ribs showing or anything. From the beginning, I wondered if being a zombie was any different from having arthritis and Alzheimer’s. We actually don’t get any clues as to how any of these people died (supposedly, none of them remember). The implication seems to be, at least at the symbolic level, that these zombies only ever “died” in that they forgot what it was to be human. As they start to remember, they start to move less stiffly and form sentences. Meanwhile, Julie begins trying to convince her father (John Malkovich), who runs the compound that the zombies are not the enemy and want to help.

All this is thrown together pretty loosely. For example, there’s never really a good explanation of how the humans and zombies end up allied against the Bonies. But I’m not complaining. I have to admit, the end of Warm Bodies really did bring a smile to my face, even if there were some holes in the plot. After so many zombie flicks tried to out do each other with bleakness and cynicism, it was cool to see one where there actually was a cure found — and it wasn’t some magical batch of chemicals, but simply, well … a little TLC.

But geez, now we’ve also lost zombies as unfeeling enemies that we can kill without remorse! If bothzombies love 2 vampires and zombies are now eligible mates with hopes, dreams and humanity, what supernatural creatures can we still use as fodder for the part of us that just wants to wield a shotgun? Hmm … maybe witches? More on that next time.

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ParaNorman

ParaNorman posterThis movie is stupid. Worse than stupid, it is probably the most retched piece of filmth I have seen in a long time (and I have seen some doozies). It offends on all fronts. It’s badly written and badly directed. On top of that, the story is just plain stupid and it insults anyone who knows something about history (admittedly a minority). And finally, it perpetuates certain misconceptions that are very dangerous and damaging.

The movie opens with Norman sitting on the floor, watching a movie, while he talks to his grandma. Then his father enters the room and tells him to take out the garbage. Norman walks into the kitchen, and we meet his parents and teenage sister, Courtney. We immediately notice one thing: everyone in this family is butt-ugly. Both the mother, Sandra, and Courtney have hips in different time zones, Perry’s (the dad) gut fills up the room, and all their faces appear to have some deformity. Norman tells Perry that Grandma is requesting he turn up the heat, and we get the big surprise: Grandma is dead. Norman has the ability to see and talk to ghosts. (Why does a ghost

The ghost of Norman's mother, who's head was tragically crushed ... what? She's one of the living characters? Yikes.

The ghost of Norman’s mother, who’s head was tragically crushed … what? She’s one of the living characters? Yikes.

need the heat turned up?) So of course, his family encourages him to mourn the loss of his grandma in his own way, and gently directs him to some more constructive occupation of his time. No, I’m kidding. They’re total dicks to him and call him a freak.

As the movie goes on we see that everyone in town (Blythe Hollow, apparently someplace in Massachusetts) is the same way. There’s not a single attractive OR likable character in this whole movie. To be sure, Hollywood deserves criticism for being obsessed with appearance and filling its movies with impossibly beautiful people, but this movie goes to the opposite extreme. If they didn’t care how their movie looked, why didn’t they make it live action? Give some much-needed work to all the aspiring actors who don’t meet the usual standards of perfection? Almost every character looks like something I’ve seen dangling from a Q-tip, and has a voice to match. It makes the whole movie downright painful to look at and listen to, even before the dead start crawling out of their graves. Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell seem to have a particular obsession with women with huge butts. One of the most (sigh) memorable scenes in the movie is of a black, female cop on a motorcycle, using her butt to force a van off the road.

Most of the first act revolves around Norman getting picked on by everyone in the world. We sit through a lot of bad dialogue and toilet humor, all delivered with painful awkwardness. Most of the scenes open with a close-up on the face of some hideous grown-up we are supposed to hate. Norman eventually learns from the ghost of his uncle that he is supposed to use his gift to avert a super-natural catastrophe. A young girl was hanged as a witch in 1712 in Blythe Hollow and at midnight that night, her ghost is going to wake up and reek a terrible vengeance upon the town. What is she going to do? Spread a plague? Set the town on fire? Nope. She’s going to raise the bodies of the six witnesses and judge who convicted her. And then … well, we never really get any explanation of why this is such a big deal. The zombies don’t really do anything but stagger around and moan for the whole movie. It’s about like a Scooby Doo cartoon; it’s all about running from the zombies, but there’s never any indication of what will happen if the zombies catch us. We’re just supposed to run because … they’re scary because … the script says so. Even if we grant that the zombies will perpetrate some standard zombie fare, the mention of which is omitted from a PG movie, we’re talking about seven dilapidated corpses versus the world. What’s the big threat? Sure there might be some casualties, but there’s not a single character in this movie I’d lament being rid of.

scooby doo

If you squint your eyes, you literally can’t tell this isn’t Scooby Doo.

And in fact, when Norman is finally cornered by the zombies, they don’t try to eat him but rather speak to him, asking him to read from a certain book, which will effectively send them back to the grave. This is supposed to be a big moment where we realize the zombies, now repentant for killing the girl, aren’t dangerous, after which Norman comes to their defense and berates a torch-bearing mob for being fearful and reactionary. But if the zombies are good guys, how do they serve the witch’s purpose of revenge?

As for the witch, a word needs to be said about the portrayals in popular culture of Puritan life and thought, and of so-called “witch hunts” (unlike a lot of mainstream movies that exploit the stereotype, this one actually accuses the Puritans by name). Unfortunately I don’t have the time or the space here to give a full treatment of Puritan history. It will have to suffice to say that, unless you have done serious independent research on the subject, you should forget everything you think you know about the Puritans, as they are probably the most unfairly maligned group of people in history. They possessed a truly rare understanding of the world and of human nature that allowed those that came to this continent to create stable and sustainable societies with very few resources. They were passionate about education and were one of the first groups to require by law that all children be literate. They eventually founded a number of the most venerated colleges in America, including Harvard. Alexis de Tocqueville would later write that Puritanism was the very thing that provided a firm foundation for democracy.

I bring this up because popular culture, when it mentions the Puritans, always tries to get us to laugh at them as superstitious nincompoops, and hate them as religious nuts whose zeal gave way to atrocities, the symbol of which in movies is usually an exaggerated version of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. But here’s the thing: in popular entertainment, they are always real witches. How many movies try to get us to believe that witches are real, and can do so many cool (if terrible) things? Movies like Sleepy Hollow, The Blair Witch Project, or this one always want us to scoff at the simple mindedness of colonial peasants, but their witches always turn out to be real witches, whose powers are indeed a great danger to everyone around them. In which case, why shouldn’t they be outlawed and eliminated?

The reaction of the audience, upon realizing they paid to watch ParaNorman.

The reaction of the audience, upon realizing they paid to watch ParaNorman.

Anyway, we get a cheesy climax, where Norman confronts the witch and she turns the landscape into a really blasé field of yellow smoke and floating islands that was probably easy and cheep to animate. He’s able to get her to stop by, I don’t know, being nice to her or something. The various dead characters all go back to their graves and the living get various trite comeuppances, good and bad, according to their sympatheticness.

I tried to find something good to say about this movie, I really did. I suppose the animation is okay, especially considering that they did it with models. In this age of computers, that deserves a nod just for being there. I think I did laugh at a line once or twice, maybe three times. But I couldn’t tell you now what the funny lines were, because the memory is buried under two hours of agony and regret of my wasted time and money (I only paid $1.28, but the movie sucked so much I’m still depressed about it). At least I can spare you from repeating my mistake. You owe me one.

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The Grey

THAT’S IT ?!?!?!

I literally shouted those words at the screen when it went black after The Grey. In a full theatre, no less. I couldn’t believe it. I felt like an 18-year-old groupie who had been picked up at a night spot by director Joe Carnahan, titillated and swept off my feet with rides in sports cars and parties at private pools, enraptured in building anticipation, only to find out in bed that Carnahan has this … “little problem.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt this let down by a movie. Perhaps it is partly my fault for allowing my expectations to get so high. Since our daughter was born, it’s gotten much harder to get to the theater, and last weekend was the first time I had been since the Fourth of July, when I reviewed Green Lantern. But after seeing the trailers, I couldn’t wait to see The Grey. It had all the ingredients for a perfect wilderness adventure:

A group of tough guys who know a thing or two about the out doors (in this case oil-rig workers in Alaska),

A plane crash in a harsh, remote location with little hope of rescue,

A pack of very large, very hungry wolves on the hunt (the trailer made it clear this movie was not afraid of PETA),

and Liam freaking Neeson, who, in the closing seconds of the trailer, is surrounded by wolves. He tapes a bunch of empty bottles to his left hand and smashes them against a rock. Then he tapes a combat knife to his right. The Alpha wolf lunges forward, then Neeson does the same, and we see the title. I was hooked. I knew whatever happened in the moments after Neeson charged that wolf, was going to be AWESOME!

It was the perfect formula: a primal battle! Brain against brawn! Teeth against tools! What could possibly go wrong? I walked into the theatre thinking I might be about to witness the greatest man vs. beast movie since Jaws.

It starts out well enough. The plane goes down in the subarctic tundra, and John Ottway (Neeson) and six other men crawl from the wreckage. Once they pull themselves out of the shock, they begin to build a fire, make a shelter out of the plane and look for food. Their spirits have begun to lift when their dinner around the fire is interrupted by a howl. They stand up to see a huge wolf just inside the campfire light, and a sea of glittering eyes behind it. After a standoff, the wolves retreat into the darkness. A few hours later, a member of the group gets up and actually walks away from the fire to urinate. After what he’s seen, this makes no sense, but whatever; I guess it’s kind of a movie staple. He dies, of course.

The next day, Ottway, the group’s wolf expert , decides that if they can reach a forest some distance away, they could better defend themselves. On the day-long trek through knee-deep snow, they loose one more to the wolves. As night falls, they reach the forest, just as it begins to fill with the dinning and barking of the wolves. They hastily build a fire to keep the wolves at bay, then build four smaller fires to make a perimeter that they can sit inside. Ottway produces five straight branches and five shotgun shells he salvaged from the plane, and begins to instruct the others in making bang sticks to fight the wolves.

Alright. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Out of nowhere, a wolf jumps on John Diaz (Dallas Roberts), despite the fire. There follows a wild flurry of yelling, thrashing, and a couple of loud bangs, presumably bang sticks, and finally, we see Diaz on top of the wolf, thrusting his knife in and out of it. The thing is, we never really saw the fight with the wolf. So far, we’ve had a lot of great buildup and a lot of great suspense. The movie has created an atmosphere where we can never really relax, and the wolves, even when not seen, are always felt. But we really haven’t seen any good action.

But that’s okay, because the climax is going to be awesome.

This is where the movie starts to go downhill. Ottway decides for some reason that they have to move, and they go walking through this forest full of wolves in the dark. For some reason, there is never an attack, and they stop at a place where Ottway decides they will be safe. And they build ONE campfire. We’ve already seen how the wolves have become bold enough to enter the circle of fires they made earlier, but all fear of the wolves seems to have flown away for some reason. Even more strangely, the wolves seem to oblige. The next day, the group reaches a canyon and decides to climb across. They manage to attache a rope to a tree on the other side through means very hard to swallow, but whatever, it’s a movie. As the last member of the group (Durmot Mulroney) climbs across, the rope breaks and he swings across, hitting the tree hard and falling to his death. His body is then immediately pounced upon by the wolves, almost as if they were waiting at the base of the tree! Now, how did that happen? How did the wolves climb down one side of the canyon and then up the other? And even then, how did they know exactly where Mulroney was going to fall? And why hadn’t the rest of the group shouted anything to him about wolves at the base of the tree? Why did the wolves magically disappear the night before when it would’ve made sense for them to be attacking, only to reappear in such a ridiculous way here?

Let it go. The climax is going to be awesome.

Neeson poses and never delivers in “The Grey.”

The group presses on, as their number continues to dwindle. Strangely, we never hear a word about the bang sticks after that first campfire in the woods. It sounded like they used one or two during the attack at that point, but they have to have some left. The other reason this doesn’t add up is that, shortly after the plane crash, there is a scene where Ottway is attacked by a wolf. It latches onto his leg, and two other survivors run up and apparently beat the wolf to death with bits of the plane. This confirmed my impression from the trailer and set a good tone for the movie: these are tough guys. Some of them have been in prison; all of them have spent months working an oil rig in Alaska. They’re used to these elements. Even in a situation this bad, they would have a fighting chance. But now, every time the wolves show up, all they can think of to do is run. And as anyone who has spent time around dogs knows, as slim as your odds might be fighting a wolf pack, they’re going to be even slimmer running. When am I going to get what I paid for?

That’s okay. The climax is going to be awesome.

As predicted, Ottway is the last one left alive. Trudging through a clearing with most of his equipment gone, he suddenly finds himself surrounded by wolves. The Alpha advances from the pack. The excitement builds as he empties the contents of a back pack. He kisses a picture of his wife, tapes a bunch of empty bottles to his left hand and smashes them against a rock. Then he tapes a combat knife to his right.

Oh, boy, this is it!

Ottway reaches inside himself and recites a short poem composed by his father. Then we see his eyes, now devoid of fear. The Alpha lunges forward, Ottway does the same, and …

THAT’S IT?!?!?!

I couldn’t believe it, but that was the end. There was nothing of that scene in the movie that wasn’t in the trailer. If fact, I got online when we got home and checked out the trailer again. They actually show you a little bit more in the trailer than they do in the film! Talk about false advertising! Where was my glorious man-wolf battle?? CARNAHAN! You lied to me!

A few hours later, I read that there was one more scene after the credits, in which we see Ottway and the Alpha, both on the ground. The Alpha is apparently dying; Ottway’s condition is harder to determine. Even if I had stayed for this scene, it would have been small consolation. That only means that Carnahan didn’t consider it a forgone conclusion that Ottway had no chance. So why didn’t I get to see him fight?

Anyway, for those of you that are complaining “you spoiled the ending,” I did so because, really, there was no ending. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the ending. All of it. I did you a favor, saving you time and money. And for those of you saying “you missed the point. The wolves are a metaphor for death and the story is really about being brave when death is coming for you …” I can understand that. But this is a movie. It’s based in the visual. What is the point of having a story of internal struggle leading up to a physical confrontation, if you’re not going to show the confrontation — especially when it would have been so simple to do! In Jaws, for example, we still have most of the same themes — over coming your fear, a bond that developes between three very different men when they face death together, etc. But we get the pay-off at the end. We get to see what happens. We get to see the symbol of fear and death destroyed. And even if said symbol had won, it would have been a more satisfying ending than that of The Grey.  And in any case, if all the movie was trying to do was tell a story about philosophical ideals, why was it sold to me as an action/adventure picture?

I can contemplate the meaning of life without buying a ticket, thank you.

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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

David Fincher closes out of his Facebook to take on a remake of the Swedish film The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, based on the first installment of a trilogy of novels.  I sat through this film, encompassed by the calculated grim atmosphere, taken in by the stylish cinematography, and ultimately slapped around by the incessant violence.  Ignore the snowy landscapes.  Dragon Tattoo is utterly and completely the anti-Christmas film of the season as it so proudly advertises.

Daniel Craig plays investigative journalist, Mikael, undergoing a major setback in his career that has him crawling out from an under a lawsuit.  As an escape for Mikael, he accepts an invitation to a Swedish island from aging Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to unearth a 40-year-old missing person case—Harriet Vagner (Henrik’s niece), a young girl who was abducted and likely murdered—her body was never found.  Mikael leaves his boss and lover (Robin Wright) back at the office to isolate himself in a tiny house on the island where he studies old photographs and police investigation reports, while also conducting interviews of the family members scattered within close radius on the island.

Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is introduced as an intelligent, and mightily troubled 24-year-old woman working as a private investigator.  Her life has been and continues to be flooded with trauma.  She undergoes sexual abuse from an overseeing guardian responsible for withholding her monetary earnings, and generally is mistreated by all the men that occupy her life.  She’s cold, quiet, pierced, tattooed, gothic-looking, bisexual, and every adjective that might make a 65-year-old white businessman uncomfortable.  Midway into the film, she partners with Mikael, both professionally and otherwise, to piece together the puzzle of the long-missing Harriet.

David Fincher, an auteur when it comes to such material, displays a deft hand for sinking audiences into uncomfortable darkness.  Zodiac, Seven, The Game, and others have become his bread and butter, so it’s no surprise that he’s drawn to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  This is almost certainly his darkest film yet.  What holds him back from greatness here is the source novel which screenwriter Steven Zaillian attempts to translate over a very, very long 2 hour and 40 minute runtime.  If the mystery were as engulfing as it ought to be, the film might not be as tough of a sit, but the film meanders before sinking its teeth in, and treads water for 30 minutes after the film climaxes.  While Fincher often had me enraptured in the film’s most piercing and horrific sequences, the whole is missing a few pieces.

Both Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig commit to their roles completely, especially Mara.  She’s uncomfortable and intoxicating in the role.  Craig has a cool confidence that exudes James Bond (go figure), and offsets his internal desperation.  However, their teaming happens much later in the film than I was anticipating.  And their sexual affair threw me for a loop.  Not because Craig is about twice her age, but because the spark between the two is missing.  There’s no chemistry, there’s no heat, and even less plausibility.  The character of Lisbeth wields her sexuality like a weapon, but there’s little buildup between her and Mikael.

It must also be noted that the film unleashes some of the most shocking scenes ever filmed.  Fincher’s eye never shies away from the graphic nature of the story.  Nothing goes implied here.  It’s all onscreen.  I’m guessing the novel did the same.  Anyone interested in seeing this film needs to be prepared for some horrific depictions of torture and rape.  It’s blood-curdling, and stomach-twisting.  The scenes emphasize the horror endured by Lisbeth and that has shattered here trust in men, until Mikael offers her a first brushing of kindness that draws her to him.

Where does that leave me with this film?  I walked out of the screening without the slightest guess as to how I responded to it.  I know it’s certainly not in line with Fincher’s best work.  The chemistry between the leads was also lacking, or simply not amped up enough.  No amount of onscreen intimacy can generate chemistry.  However, the performances were right.  The mood of the film carried me through.  The cinematography captured the ugliest corners of this cold world.  The film’s ending left me wondering where the characters go next.  I cringed, I looked away, but I was also pulverized by this film.  And I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  I’m certain that’s what Fincher wanted.  I won’t ‘recommend’ this film to anyone.  It’s impossible to enjoy, there is only enduring.  But overall, the film does exactly what it’s designed to do in a compelling way.

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