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Keanu Reeves is one of modern cinema’s great oddities. No one might accuse him of being a master thespian, or even being particularly versatile, and depending upon whom one asks his acting skills range from passable to nonexistent. But once in a while, a character so well tailored to his particular strengths appears on his resume that proves why Reeves in the power player he has become today. Neo was such a role; John Constantine another; Klaatu of 2008’s The Day The Earth Stood Still remake might have been yet another had the film around him been up to snuff; and now along comes John Wick, the lead of a slick, no-frills shoot-em-up that’s sure to please fans of old school revenge flicks.

Our first introduction to Wick is the subdued, stoic Keanu we’re most familiar with, still in mourning over his wife (a there-and-gone Bridget Moynahan) whose relationship with John is illustrated in a few short, wordless flashbacks and an intimate iPhone video used to bookend the film. With the arrival - and subsequent loss - of a special pre-arranged gift, however, Keanu runs the gauntlet of human emotion and sells Wick’s turmoil like a pro. Even before a monologue late in the movie spells it out in plain and simple terms, the audience knows full well it isn’t so much the loss itself, which is tragic enough (animal lovers beware, this film will not be kind to you), but what the loss represents that drives Wick over the edge, and once that switch is flipped, any attempt at story complexity goes straight out the window to make room for as much carnage as humanly possible. In this, John Wick does anything but disappoint; Wick moves with cold, swift precision, wasting few movements and intending every shot as a kill. The camera is also kind to the audience in this respect, following the action with a minimum of obnoxious close-ups or quick editing. The film is shootout-heavy with a few hand to hand scuffles, but in such case favoring rough-and-tumble brawls over choreographed dances.

Alfie Allen as Iosef, essentially serving as a prop for which to draw Keanu from one action scene to another, is easy enough to hate, though the character isn’t vastly different from the one he plays on Game of Thrones; an entitled manchild with an inflated opinion of himself who manages to piss off all the wrong people and cause an awful lot of trouble. Adrianne Palicki appears as Perkins, a rival assassin with whom Wick shares a brief but amusing bullet-riddled “courtship” of sorts, bolstering her own action-movie credentials right on the heels of her debut as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest acquisition. Michael Nyqvist adds some welcome color to the otherwise hollow role as Viggo, Iosef’s father and Wick’s former employer. He garners probably the most of the film’s many unexpected laughs; the humor here is pitch-black, most often delivered in uncomfortable silences and single-word responses, and result from jokes about the dynamic of the “assassin’s life” - like how the question of “Where are the police during all this?” is swept out the way in but a few short sentences, establishing that even the cops know who John Wick is and want NO piece of his business.

Alongside a fanciful Ian McShane and an aggravated John Leguizamo, who are mostly accents to the film’s star-studdedness, John Wick boasts a surprising conga-line of cameos from asskickers of varying pedigrees - Keanu’s Matrix Reloaded costar Daniel Bernhardt, finally swinging fists and feet in a major motion picture again; former WWE star Kevin Nash; Mr. “Mayhem Like Me” himself Dean Winters in the odd role of Viggo’s non-Russian-speaking right hand man; even Legend of the Seeker’s Bridget Regan pops up as a sympathetic (and foxy) tattooed barmaid.

While the film revels in the simplicity of its plot, it leaves very little to spoil. As much fun as it gets watching the action unfold, major points of the story can be called well in advance, and Wick takes a few too many detours to reach his targets, though this is a minor issue next to the messiness of the film’s overlong final stretch, which could have been solved with some fine-tuning to the script. Once the main thrust of the story is concluded, the film rolls on for roughly another fifteen minutes to tie up certain loose ends, namely that of Willem Dafoe’s character. Dafoe’s Marcus is meant to have ambiguous intentions where Wick’s mission is concerned, but again, one can predict the role he plays fairly easily. The need to close the book on his part leads to several further action beats, which, while well-executed, close with a superfluous one-on-one duel with an antagonist who pretty much has a target for Keanu’s fists spray-painted on his face.

John Wick may not be deep, but it’s anything but brainless. It’s flashy without being ostentatious, and it strikes a booming emotional chord early on to get the audience in on the insanity and root for its hero without a shred of guilt. It’s not a game changer or anything meant to turn the genre on its head, but it succeeds big time at being a damn good tale of bad guys vs. not-quite-so-bad guys doing incredibly violent things to one another. And the moral is one anybody can get behind: Never mess with an assassin’s housepet.

  • Listening to: Lia Ices - Wish You Were Here
  • Reading: Jasper Fforde - Lost in a Good Book
  • Watching: NOT Gotham
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  • Reading: Stephen King - The Stand
  • Watching: Under the Dome / The Strain
What follows are my immediate reactions to recent film viewings, some revisits, most first-time viewings, in the last few months, as originally posted on my Movie Fan Central page.

I really enjoyed MONEYBALL. Pitt and Hill make a great tag team of a downtrodden ex-player and an idealistic young'in making a play for something untested and scientific and therefore rejected by all the old fogies stuck doing things "the old fashioned way". It's not only a really good baseball flick, but an interesting examination of America's other great pastime, big money vs. no money.

***

THE RUNNING MAN: Holy crap, how have I missed out on this slice of cheeseball 80s awesome for so long??

***

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is just as thrilling, funny, and heartfelt as the first, with not only the upgrades to its action sequences and emotional hooks you expect of a sequel, but with an additional maturity that warrants it all. This is turning into a film series that doesn't forget its audience is growing up, and treats its stories and characters the same way.

***

DEAR MR. WATTERSON is a very interesting watch. Not just an examination of the influence of and on Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes, but how his craft was affected by his early career and the state of the comic strip industry at the height of C&H's run, as well as an analysis of his ongoing refusal to merchandise the characters. Very much a labor of love for the filmmaker and communicated thusly in the production values and choice of interviewees.

***

I revisited Michael Bay's first TRANSFORMERS for the first time in years last night. I still love the shit out of the over-the-top direction, robot designs, and bot-on-bot action, but the goofball aspects have not aged well. Most of the human characters are insufferable, and I found I had the best time where the military troop with Duhamel and Tyrese were concerned. But, some credit where it's due; Mikaela is a legit proactive female lead and not just a damsel in distress (like Rosie HW in Dark of the Moon), and during the finale I kind of liked her having one very brief breakdown moment before putting on her "let's get down to business" face and driving Bumblebee back into battle.

***

I'm gonna be the weirdo in the room and say TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON is the best Bayformers movie so far, and yes I think that IS saying a lot. It has the greatest spectacle, the biggest stakes, the most coherent story, the least amount of annoying bullshit (relatively speaking, anyway), and it's Shia and Bay's best work in the series. And while it's more than a little backward that Sam fights the hardest for Carly because she actually NEEDS saving, Rosie HW is a genuine charmer who has the HELL filmed out of her at every opportunity, so I don't hold it against the movie that her character is largely a do-nothing.

***

I had a good time with GET THE GRINGO. Mel Gibson may be insane, but he's still crazy-fun to watch in stuff like this. In a lot of ways, it felt like some sort of long-lost sequel to Payback.


***

Color me VERY impressed by SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED. It rises above its initial screwball premise with a touching look at wanting to reshape the past vs. living for the here and now, meanwhile throwing the viewer completely for a loop by the midpoint only to deliver a visual and emotional jaw-dropper at the end. If Colin Trevorrow can make this great a sci-fi flick with 95% zero CGI, I'm giddily excited to see what he pulls off with freaking DINOSAURS.


***

I am in indescribable awe of how utterly BORED I was by TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION. Even when trying its best to be the least racially/culturally insensitive of the series, the plot is as slapdash and convoluted as Revenge of the Fallen, the robot action feels mostly lethargic, and the human elements are just plain DRAINING. Not even Sophia Myles being hot or John Goodman being JOHN FREAKING GOODMAN AS AN AUTOBOT could save this. Your energy for this franchise is depleted, Bay, and it shows. MOVE ON.


***

THE SHARK IS STILL WORKING is informative, thorough, often quite funny (particularly the interview bits with Richard Dreyfuss), and in one instance jaw-dropping when Spielberg relates the story of the original Orca's demise. A fantastic documentary and fitting tribute to the masterwork that is JAWS.


***

If Terry Gilliam combined the setting of 12 Monkeys with the style of Brazil and crafted the whole thing as a satire of Atlas Shrugged (inasmuch as Atlas Shrugged isn't already patently ridiculous, anyway), the result might be something like SNOWPIERCER, an engagingly bizarre class-struggle parable that's equal parts grim and absurd, often sliding to either extreme and back again at the drop of a hat with no sympathy for any failure on the audience's part to acclimate. A fair lot of good buzz surrounded this going in, and I'm happy to report it lived up.

***

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is the anti-Transformers; a smart, involving drama and action thriller, free of gaping plot holes and juvenile antics, full of story-driven spectacle from its brilliant opening bookend to its mirror-image closer. Andy Serkis reigns as the king of motion-capture performance, and WETA's digital work often looks like practical makeup, giving the apes greater life. But the Academy need take note: WETA made a monkey out of him, but there is no Caesar without Serkis. Bring on WAR OF THE PLANET OF THE APES!
  • Listening to: Swordfish soundtrack
  • Reading: Stephen King - The Stand
  • Watching: Under the Dome / The Strain
Like him or hate him, there's little denying the successes of schlock filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson. Event Horizon is an underrated science-fiction/horror mashup, Mortal Kombat still stands tall as the single best live-action video game adaptation to date, and even his increasingly silly Resident Evil series runs strong at five films and counting. His latest dials it down a few notches from the last Resident Evil and even his bizarre steampunk revision of The Three Musketeers to bring us Pompeii, a B-grade Gladiator-meets-Dante's-Peak wrapped around the plot of Titanic but not nearly as drawn out or melodramatic, and free of any "there was room enough for two" malarkey.

Kit Harington stars in his first top-billed role as the brooding and vengeful, yet sensitive and heroic Milo. Harington possesses a palpable leading presence, even if the film doesn't ask much more of him than to kick some asses and look sensitive for the camera - the former of which plays to his Game of Thrones' experience, while the latter comes naturally to his babyface complexion and refusal to grow a full beard. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, put to much better use here than Thor: The Dark World, brings equal parts bravado and humor to the jovial Atticus, a veteran gladiator one victory away from winning his freedom, as the film reminds us many times; the subplot lends itself to the same ridicule as it would in any buddy-cop film, and Pompeii seems to treat this with a certain winking self-awareness, making Atticus' exit from the film a certifiable fist-pumping "Hell Yeah" moment. Like Harington, Emily Browning is not asked for much more than looking pretty, but Cassia bears a genuine if general kindness and sympathy that make her and Milo a good romantic coupling, and while their relationship develops only over the course of roughly 24 hours, it culminates in one of the film's few honest-to-goodness moving moments.

The easy standout however is Kiefer Sutherland as Corvus, a deliciously slimy Roman senator who rolls out his every line as if wanting to throw all subtlety to the winds and scream his foul intentions to the world. He is never not fun to watch, and while his character is a cardboard cutout, Kiefer gives him edges sharp enough to slice though the Colosseum. Rounding out the cast are Jarred Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss in the serviceable roles of Cassia's well-meaning parents, along with Cloverfield and Evil Dead beauty Jessica Lucas as Cassia's companion Ariadne, providing moral support and some choice cleavage shots. Their presence is welcome, but their every moment on screen is accompanied by an invisible countdown clock marking them as easy volcano fodder.

On the action side of the proceedings, the gladiatorial fights are well-choreographed but too quickly cut, often resort to rapid exchanges of close-ups with wider shots, making them disorienting to watch; this practice thankfully eases during the latter half of the film, wherein the best sequence is a merry chase with Milo on the tail of a fleeing Corvus and their subsequent final boss battle while Pompeii crumbles around them. Any effectiveness of the action is severely undercut, unfortunately by the movie's PG-13 rating where it should have been a red-drenched R, leaving fights full of on-camera slashes and stabs frustrating clean and bloodless.

Though the film presents itself with unnecessarily dead seriousness, and there is little memorable in the dry dialogue - of which the actors make the most they can, especially Kiefer and Adewale - the script does the film no major disservices, save for one event midway that, apart from meaning to develop Milo and Cassia's relationship and their mutual longing for freedom, makes no sense whatsoever, as it needlessly places Milo's life in danger and Cassia in Corvus' debt, enabling him to force his own desires on Cassia's parents.

But what of Mount Vesuvius, you may ask? Whatever one's opinion of Anderson, he can be credited with a fantastic grasp of 3D spectacle, and in the film's final act makes every use of it when the real star of the show becomes the volcano. Though nearly every beat of the mayhem may be predictably plotted, including a fireball taking out a fleeing ship boarded by a minor antagonist, the visuals are completely up to the task as smoking arcs of molten rock comet their way over the city, as flakes of ash blizzard around the actors, and as flying rocks jettison directly at the camera, making a few members of my screening audience dip and swerve in their seats. The effects are only betrayed by a few shots in which the seams of the composite are showing - which unfortunately supplies one character's demise with some unintentional humor - but the destruction is an overall visual delight, with enough visible human casualties to almost make up for the lack of liquid crimson in the fight sequences.

Pompeii may not change anyone's mind about Anderson's work, but it takes fine advantage of his visual talents, and could be called his best non-remake, non-video game adaptation in years. Its script is a blender full of borrowed plots, and its cast populated with broad character templates afforded just enough depth to keep an audience engaged for 100 minutes, thanks largely to Sutherland's energizing mugging, but it hits the notes where it's supposed to as the city is swallowed by fire and ash. And while its depiction of the eruption of Vesuvius is about as scientifically accurate as Roland Emmerich's 2012, it ought in time to carve itself a respectable place in the halls of Disasterpiece Cinema history. And especially if you're not the sort to spend the movie's run time wagging your finger at the screen shouting, "It wouldn't have happened that way!" you ought to have a fine enough time.
  • Reading: Neil Gaiman - Anansi Boys
  • Watching: Game of Thrones: Seasons 1-3
When movies "based on a true story" go wrong, you get Pearl Harbor. When they go very, very right, you get Ron Howard's Rush, a fascinating story of honor in competition that quickly draws the viewer into its era and putting them firmly behind the wheel and behind the eyes of its characters, who gain life through able development and the charisma of their actors. Chris Hemsworth - proving his acting skills extend far beyond swinging large heavy weaponry and looking damn good doing it - and Daniel Brühl envelop themselves in their respective lead roles, opposites and yet mirrors of one another.

Hemsworth finely conveys the "look good, feel good" philosophy of James Hunt, the reckless womanizer and life of the party whose own existence turns out quite hollow when his passion project is stripped away from him mid-film, his bravado before the cameras effectively undercut by fits of pre-race vomiting and the constant nervous fidgeting of his hands, his cigarette lighter snapping open and closed like a set of chattering teeth. Brühl's Nicki Lauda is cool, precise, and calculating to the point of alienating everyone around him, including his sponsors and teammates. He is reserved and mannered but also startlingly blunt, leading to some humorously awkward segments of Lauda's attempts to socialize, including his diagnosis of a car's working condition by the vibrations felt in his posterior. Equal narrative focus is granted both Hunt and Lauda, to the point that each are awarded introductory voiceovers at the start of the film, and their respective journeys and the lessons learned - or not learned - are what keep the movie appealing between their racetrack encounters and verbal snipes.

While the film is lovingly captured in crystal clarity, the cinematography also bears a somewhat grainy, fuzzy quality that complements the 70s hair and clothing, lending credibility to the setting particularly when modern-day shots are intercut with stock footage from the real events. The headlining talents are the racing sequences, which expertly convey speed, intensity, and even emotion, without extraneous quick-cutting to disorient the audience (and better yet a minimum of CGI) while the roar and hum of engines are sure to give theater speakers a serious workout, and perhaps secure a few sound design nominations come awards season.

But truly the star of the show is Lauda in the film's third act, following the horrific crash - shown both in stock footage and a dazzling, highly-detailed recreation - that nearly ended his life and career. The makeup effects rendering Lauda's injuries are nasty to look upon, and images of the bandages being removed from his fresh wounds are made extremely difficult to watch. But as the adage goes about car wrecks, one is hard-pressed to turn their gaze away.

This is the film at its most uncomfortable, but also its most engaging; while we root for Lauda's recovery and return to the track, we also see the best evidence of the effect Hunt and Lauda have upon one another, and how the spirit of competition better them both. Not that the effects are equal; Hunt enters the story a self-centered, irresponsible jackass and exits much the same way, but at the very least gains some nobility in the process, most notably when we takes a reporter to task over an insensitive question following a press conference. The climactic World Championship race in Fuji, for those unfamiliar with the real-life events, does not end as one might expect, but the result is still triumphant, and the victory feels solidly earned.

The film slightly, and only slightly, hiccups in a few areas. While it moves at a steady pumping pace even when the cars aren't rolling, it hampers its ability to properly relay the passage of time. Hunt and Lauda's first Formula 3 encounter and the fiery crash of 1976 is spaced by six years, but dates and locations are thrown at the viewer in such rapid succession that it's easy to get lost, particularly as a mid-film montage chronicles the two's wins and losses.

Additionally, so sharp is the focus on Hunt and Lauda that it comes at the cost of supporting players who might have offered some outside perspective on the whole ordeal, such as Lauda's racing teammate Clay Regazzoni (Pierfrancesco Favino of Howard's Angels & Demons), but namely Suzy Miller, Hunt's model wife played by Olivia Wilde, who struts into the film as if out of a pleasant dream in a brief but penetrating supporting role.

While Miller's whirlwind marriage to Hunt immediately following their first meeting  - seriously, they meet once and in the very next scene are hitched - works from a comedic standpoint, the divorce is handled in the same "oh, so that just happened" fashion, where a touch more setup toward their inevitable rift would have been welcome even if such steps had to be fictionalized; Hunt's verbal abuse during his depressed period might have been reason enough, but their final face-to-face sees Miller rattle off a laundry list of transgressions to which the audience is never witness (meanwhile one wonders if a cameo by a Richard Burton lookalike was cut from the film).

Awarded greater attention is the equally impressive Alexandra Maria Lara as Lauda's wife Marlene, and not unrightly so, as she has greater impact on the story. She is the first to bring out the more Hunt-ish, daredevil side of Lauda, and becomes the face of supportive worry through the final stretch of the film once Lauda suffers the consequences of "chasing Hunt like an as asshole", as he puts it.

As a historical drama, Rush just plain works because it benefits even those without knowledge of Hunt and Lauda's rivalry or of Formula 1 racing at all, dropping tidbits on the rules and practices of the sport without diving into lengthy expositions. It instead lets the races speak for themselves, and when the engines stop, it's the characters, not simply their dialogue, driving the action and its lesson, that not all rivalries need remain bitter.
  • Reading: Stephen King - Insomnia
  • Watching: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D
To call Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies a "romantic comedy" would be a disservice. While it is comedic, it doesn't attempt to elicit a laugh every minute, and while there is romance, it most certainly is not romanticized. Rather than painting in the typical broad strokes of Hollywood extremes, it is a down to earth look at relationships focusing far more on uncomfortable silences than canned banter and magical fix-all endings.

The four leads each bring their own built-in likability to their respective parts, playing off one another in such natural fashion that it's no surprise to learn the movie was completely improvised. As Chris, the first to notice something not-quite-right in his love life, Ron Livingston offers the same droll delivery that made him the easy hero of Office Space; Anna Kendrick is an adorable bundle of insecurity as Luke's better half Jill, clumsily broaching the subject of marriage on a few occasions; Olivia Wilde not only further demonstrates her surprising comedic talent, but her chemistry with wiseass Jake Johnson (who I haven't seen in anything else but earns my respect with his epic beard alone) is so palpable that - while their routinely good-natured snipes at one another are invariably fun times - the film's single funniest scene is two-minute static shot of the pair wherein not a single word is spoken.

"Convention-free" would probably be the best way to describe the film. There is no colorful big-city backdrop. No despicable romantic rival to root against. No emotionally-keyed soundtrack to tell the audience how to feel; in fact there's hardly a soundtrack or score at all. No right thing said at just the right time. No overdramatic soliloquies on the nature of true love. No obstacle over which love conquers all. No evil boss at whom lead character will triumphantly blow up, unless one counts an uncredited Jason Sudeikis in an extended cameo - there is a blowup that serves at the film's climax, but there's nothing triumphant about it; it's simply an outpouring of emotions bubbling over at the wrong time and aimed in the wrong direction.

Human authenticity is the hub around which the movie is built, and where it succeeds the most. Characters make bad decisions, but they're played as the faults of ordinary people, not caricatures or cardboard cutouts serving the convenience of the plot. Because they all come off as genuinely decent people, their emotional ordeals are all the more affecting, even when the movie skips over such developments like Kate and Chris' initial breakup; we never actually see it, the but the reasons for it happening are made perfectly clear, and as neither is made out to be the "bad guy", we feel equally bad for them both. There is no easy moral to the story; the major conflicts are internal, and as real people are wont to do, important things often remain unsaid.

This is the film's surprise attractor, its ability to say the most when none of the characters are speaking at all. The relationships - chiefly Kate and Luke's but Luke and Jill's as well - are defined just as much, if not more, in the silence as in the speech; in their gestures, physical proximity, and sleepy and/or inebriated embraces. That will probably be what drives some viewers away from the movie, the idea that such "dead air" need be filled with dialogue, when ideally they ought to walk away with something at least vaguely reminiscent of a murky romantic experience in their own lives.

If there are any concrete criticisms to make, it's only that there are  a few fleeting moments of artificiality present in the film's more dramatic moments, namely in one unfortunate happenstance hitting Kate just after her failed attempt to reconnect with Chris. It's an instance of rubbing salt in an open wound that momentarily took me out of the film, even granting that such moments (in which one is left to think, "Oh Jesus, how can this get any worse?") do occur regularly in real life. For a movie aiming to avoid convention, it's probably the most conventional development in the entire affair, but one that not by a long shot ruins a thing.

Drinking Buddies defies expectations of movie romance and comedy with a little harsh reality mixed with its sincere portrayals of friendship and courtship. At a lean ninety minutes it doesn't overstay its welcome; as a romance, it doesn't overplay its drama; and as a comedy, it doesn't overstretch itself to make a joke. And thanks in no small part to a lack of manipulative tropes, it is a more authentic storytelling experience, thus more involving than the average or even above-average romantic comedy.
  • Reading: Dan Brown - Inferno
  • Watching: Under The Dome
In its best moments, World War Z: The Movie couldn't even pass for a "missing chapter" of Max Brook's novel. Gone are the multifaceted viewpoints, sociopolitical commentary, and slow-building worldwide turmoil. In a perfect world, a faithfully-minded adaptation would have spawned a mockumentary-style action epic the likes of, say, District 9. What we have instead, amid sordid tales of budget blowouts and exhaustive reshoots, is a frantic and surprisingly intense monster caper.

Brad Pitt is literally THE star of the film; the focus is squarely centered on his Gerry Lane, in lieu of the novel's constantly changing perspectives. Whether Pitt is acting out the exhaustion of constant peril or simply sleepwalking through the movie as some have criticized (more likely the latter), he coasts on his effortless likability whilst sharing easy chemistry with his on-screen wife (Mireille Enos) and children for the brief time they are all together through the breezy first act. Nearly all other supporting roles are a series of extended cameos, with the notable inclusions of a charmingly snide James Badge Dale - who I like to think of as an analogue to the novel's Todd Wainio - and a half-crazed David Morse. Also of note is the blink-and-you'll-miss-it presence of LOST lead Matthew Fox as a nameless chopper pilot who rescues Gerry and his family, the few lingering shots of him standing as proof of a furious re-edit. The standout among the supporting cast though is the quiet but stalwart Segen (Daniella Kurtesz), an Israeli soldier tagging along with Gerry following the insane Jerusalem sequence at the heart of the film; she is awarded the most screen time second only to Pitt, and the few words they exchange are reinforced by their solid, silent bond as a two-person survival team.

The film slides along at a relentless pace for its first two acts, refusing to sit still for more than a few moments between large-scale catastrophes. It runs the gauntlet of zombie suspense scenarios, shifting gears quickly from citywide panic in Philadelphia to a claustrophobic crisis aboard an airplane, before dialing it down in its third act and centering on the dread of isolation and not knowing what may lurk around the very next corner. The zombies themselves, instead of the classic lumbering flesh-eaters, are sprinting biting machines in the vein of the Rage Virus infectees of 28 Days Later; they attack, contaminate, and move on, leaving their victim only moments from full conversion. While in defiance of standard zombie conventions to which the book adhered, this change complements the sense of immediacy within the film, making it quite clear that literally every second counts. The chaos is highlighted by Gerry's visit to Jerusalem, a seeming safe haven suddenly overrun by a literal flood of bodies as zombies scramble over one another like siafu ants to scale the protective walls, then cascade down streets and over buses and people alike. The CGI is such scenes is obvious, but not nearly as awful as the trailers made them appear, and the transition from live actors in makeup to digital swarm is admirably seamless.

On a down note, the camera work often follows the story's example of never sitting still, and much the same way it hampered director Marc Forster's Bond franchise entry Quantum of Solace, the use of Earthquake-Vision™ is occasionally overbearing, the chief offender being the otherwise well-staged airplane outbreak. There are a few larger problems than this, however, starting with the four digits no one wants to see in a zombie movie, the dreaded PG-13; but while World War Z is a frustratingly clean experience, the rating doesn't drag the film down nearly as much as in 2013's other zombie reinvention Warm Bodies. There is plenty of carnage taking place, and even moments of censored violence get their message across just fine.

The movie's largest problems lie in its third act, the primary target of the oft-mentioned reshoots. While possessing creepy moments aplenty - including the single scariest image the film has to offer, a close-up of a bug-eyed zombie snapping its teeth behind a pane of protective glass - the slower paced and smaller scaled sequence, in which Gerry acts on a near-insane logical leap that even if successful seemingly has no best-case scenario, is a paltry follow-up to the captivating lunacy of the Jerusalem invasion. Additionally, the movements of the zombies, though overall well-performed in their various twitches and jerks, result in a few unintentional laughs - these may sadly undercut the effectiveness of a darkly hilarious death early on in the film, but it's half-rescued with, of all things, a product placement that unless I'm misreading things is played far more for laughs than advertising revenue.

The very ending of the movie, however, is where I took the most issue; it's jarringly abrupt, and upbeat to the point of being atonal to the film that preceded it. It feels as if after all the effort to retool the tail end of the movie, they were simply in too big a hurry to wrap things up and roll the credits, where a little extra care in the final few frames would have closed the film on less of a sour note.

World War Z may bear zero concrete similarity to its source material (in its defense, neither did the highly successful Bourne Identity series), but at the very, VERY least makes some fairly clever, winking nods to the novel while stampeding on its own wild course. Viewers will walk away with no complex thoughts or fodder for intense philosophical debate, as at the end of the day Marc Forster's World War Z attempts no more than to be a swift tidal wave of an action movie with racing zombies, and at that much it succeeds. And given the overall critical reactions in the face of its production fuss, it may just go on record as one of cinema's happiest accidents.
  • Reading: Richard Hooker - M*A*S*H
  • Watching: Under The Dome
Even long before this new dark-and-gritty era of superhero filmmaking, Superman was considered by many an outmoded archetype. Does a clean-cut goody two shoes decked out in primary colors preaching the all-American way have a place among superheroes trying harder and harder to have social and historical relevance? The comics have addressed that very concern numerous times, and under producer Christopher Nolan, who brought Batman into a cinematic light never before seen, and director Zack Snyder, who has cultivated his own impressive resume of adult superhero fare in 300 and Watchmen, the difficult questions of Superman's moral standing and his role on Planet Earth are finally presented in film form. While the result is no stroke of genius, Man of Steel is a sometimes thoughtfully somber and often thrilling spectacle that admittedly takes a great number of cues from Richard Donner's landmark 1978 film (and it will be nearly impossible not to draw comparions), but also writing a few rules of its own.

The success of the film is largely in Henry Cavill, whose casting was not only inspired but revelatory. If Christopher Reeve was the twentieth century's definitive cinema Superman, the twenty-first may have already concretely found its own in Henry Cavill. Chiseled like a Greek statue with a smile as bright as his blue eyes, he carries the aura of a superhero effortlessly, and every moment he appears in costume is like an Alex Ross painting come to life. Amy Adams meanwhile may not quite fit the standard visual model of Lois Lane, but she brings the kind of disdain for authority and penchant for troublemaking that is expected of the character, and it's through this particular iteration that probably the biggest nuisance of the Superman franchise - particularly the movies - is done away with cleanly and logically, fulfilling one of the chief items on my wishlist for this film. The worst that can be said of Michael Shannon's General Zod is simply that he's no Terrence Stamp, but then that's the opposite of his intentions. This Zod is not a preening megalomaniac, but an engineered soldier following his genetic programming to what he believes is its logical conclusion and who doesn't blink at the means by which he means to do so. Yet for all the atrocities he's prepared to commit, there is an effectively communicated sense of heartbreak in him when he discovers Krypton's ruin, and again when his plans crumble before his eyes.

Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner create an interesting positive and negative as Clark's dual father figures; Crowe as Jor-El - who could have been solely a first-act cameo but actually has a substantive presence throughout the film - encourages openness with Kal-El's earthly powers to act as guide and savior to the human race, while Costner's Jonathan Kent cautions restraint, furthermore warning of difficult, even impossible decisions to come; this reasoning leads Pa Kent to a highly questionable measure of sacrifice, but one that serves as a primer for Superman having to decide between acting and staying his hand, and thus between life and death.

What will easily be the biggest point of contention between fans and critics of the film, though, is the middle ground between those lessons and the choice it leads Kal-El to make. While a certain degree of outrage is expected - I myself did a double-take - the act in question not only bears precedent within the comics, but was a necessary step in order for Superman to be taken seriously in the contemporary film world. It also lays the groundwork for further moral debates surrounding the use of Clark's powers…as a certain bald billionaire criminal mastermind is likely to initiate once he joins the inevitable sequel.

For all the familiar territory Man of Steel treads in Superman's origin, it regularly attempts to sprinkle new material throughout, starting with the very striking design of Kypton's alien world and its technology. The scenes make frequent use of a metamorphic nanotech display, the highlight being Clark's first encounter with the holographic Jor-El, in which the planet's history is recounted in dazzling storybook form. Additional insight, however slight, is provided on what led not just to Krypton's destruction, but the downfall of its civilization, the reasons why Earth was the planet of choice to send baby Kal-El, and his importance as truly THE Last Son of Krypton. Jor-El is also depicted as both man of science and man of action, effectively establishing the El family's predisposition for heroism and Clark's seeming obligation to use his powers to aid others.

From then on the recurring question is not whether Clark is a child of Krypton or of Earth, as Jor-El plainly states he IS both, but whether he CAN be both. And from that sense of uncertainty, Man of Steel gives us Superman's first real show of vulnerability without the benefit of Kryptonite; he finds not only his strength matched but his fighting ability surpassed by Zod and his lieutenants, led by the sultry Faora (Antje Traue), and the resulting scuffles are gloriously destructive, leaving both Smallville and Metropolis reduced to rubble in mile-wide stretches. The fights, while floating occasionally into shaky-cam country, are furious both in the air and on the ground, with hero and villain taking shots at one another that before one might only have seen in animated form.

While great attention is paid to the science and spectacle of Superman, there is still lacking in Man of Steel a certain element of magic, and this I attribute to the attempt at crossbreeding the very different film styles of Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan, in effect disallowing the film from benefitting fully from Snyder's stylistic talents. The first causality is a glaring lack of what could have been a stellar and galaxy-sweeping opening title sequence as might be expected of Snyder (given his especial flashiness in this department in nearly all his films), opting instead for a simple text-on-black-background end credit roll in keeping with Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. Furthermore, true to Snyder's claim, the film boasts zero of his trademark slow-motion shots, but this is not always to the film's benefit; with a firm restraining hand on the frame-rate button, a few choice slow-motion effects might have been welcome in displays of super-speed, a power used frequently in the second half's multiple hand-to-hand fights. The color scheme as well suffers from the Snyder/Nolan amalgam; the cinematography of Man of Steel is very cold and subdued, an additional disappointment considering Snyder's history of much more vibrant palettes.

Then there are script elements that simply don't work, despite writer David Goyer's good intentions, like Martha Kent's (Diane Lane) hammy "The world's too big, so make it smaller" pep talk after young Clark's senses-induced panic attack; or Zod and Superman's telepathic meeting of the minds, which neither fits the rest of the movie nor is ever used for anything else. Meanwhile, the "codex" MacGuffin, the blueprint of Kryptonian DNA Jor-El sends to Earth with his son, never feels as important as Zod's frantic search would have you believe, especially once the codex's actual location is revealed and it becomes entirely inconsequential. Finally, there's a certain lack of cohesion as the movie rolls on from one scene to the next, sometimes switching to a complete tonal opposite; this mostly isn't a problem, except during the final leg of the movie, where Superman's extreme world-saving decision is immediately followed with a humorous encounter with General Swanwick (Harry Lennix), where a little additional catharsis in between would have done the film a service.

Man of Steel will be for some the Superman film they've always wanted - a grimmer, more mature, action-heavy approach - and it benefits fully from technology and film sensibilities finally having caught up with the visual potential of superhumans waging war in the human world. While it lacks in character development for all but Superman himself, it stunningly, stylishly reintroduces the character to the world, opening up plentiful possibilities for him and his supporting cast in future adventures down the line, and does so refreshingly absent of obnoxious sequel-baiting.

Up, up, and away.
  • Listening to: World War Z Unabridged Audiobook
  • Reading: George RR Martin - A Dance With Dragons
  • Watching: America's Got Talent
Praise be to the gods of cinema, the curse of the threequel has been broken. Iron Man 3 not only sticks with everything that made its predecessors great and starts Marvel Phase Two off with the necessary bang, but also constantly aims to dick around with the audience's expectations, and better yet succeeds at nearly every turn. Director Shane Black mostly keeps the tone and look consistent with Iron Man 1 and 2, while still placing a distinct stamp upon the film and making it a memorable one.

Downey continues to shock and awe as Tony Stark, bringing back the same special deadpan wit and every laugh that it earns, but also a surprising amount of humility as Stark is broken down to little more than a raw nerve, the pieces scattered like the armor plates of his newly-minted Mark 42 (a possible Hitchhiker's Guide reference?) armor. Downey takes Stark from cocksure to crumbling at a moment's notice, and the weight of the anxiety is never in doubt.

IM3 places further emphasis on Stark's humanity by focusing on Stark outside of the Iron Man suit for the better part of the movie. Cut off from the suit, from Pepper, even from JARVIS (one can only imagine Paul Bettany having a bit of fun in the recording booth as the AI experiences a few hiccups), Stark plods through a small town in search of answers, picking up a few temporary sidekicks along the way. Only a little of the humor flounders a bit at this point, but watching Stark struggle to keep up his unflappable facade in the face of a young starstruck fan supply some of the biggest laughs in a film with no short stock of big laughs.

Guy Pearce, unquestionably an actor worthy of his own comic book film franchise, sweats foul intentions from every pore the moment his swaggers back into the film after a brief introduction in the prologue sporting a limp and a shaggy wig. Along with his lackey James Badge Dale, Pearce's Aldrich Killian is all sneers and shifty eyes, making him pretty one-note as a character but never lacking in menace, especially when the creepy "Extremis" glow crawls across the skin. Rebecca Hall makes the smallest impression among the new cast members, but is likeable enough in her small role, and adequately sympathetic when faced with a dire moral quandary. As for Ben Kingsley's The Mandarin, suffice to say the character is not adapted how even those with casual knowledge of the comic's background will expect, and the treatment makes a good bit of sense for a character this outrageous (at least by Iron Man's standards). Kingsley takes an equally unexpected approach slow, eerie drawl, and becomes even better on screen once his big secret comes to light.

In the action department, IM3 again sets the bar high for Marvel Phase Two, showing off some increasingly inventive, large-scale and finely-choreographed fights, leading up to the blow-out finale that sees Stark go through several different suits over the course of few minutes, with easily the Iron Man series' single best final mano-a-mano duel - maybe even the best in the Marvel film series as a whole - that concludes with a wicked parting shot from a very unexpected source. If one thought that after the Chitauri Invasion in The Avengers, the only direction to go was down, simply put, one thought wrong.

On the slightest of downsides, if anything suffers from the abundance of new material in this entry, it's Tony and Pepper's relationship. By having them become an item at the end of Iron Man 2, the writers ran the risk of the romance becoming stale, and to their credit they avoid they avoid this trap, but at the risk of their screentime together. This was understandable in The Avengers given the sheer number of things of going besides, but in Iron Man's own movie it does become an issue, even while the magic of Downey and Paltrow's chemistry is still quite active. The same could be said of Stark and Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who spend more time together out of their armor than in, but this then lends their third-act escapades plenty of humor in the vein of a good old fashioned buddy-cop movie.

In addition, callbacks are made to the first Iron Man (including a supporting player's surprise cameo) and in this not quite enough steps were taken; the true roots of the organization behind Stark's first capture are hinted at, but the links are not quite cemented to the degree that, say, The Dark Knight Rises connected to Batman Begins.

Finally, the conclusion of the film suggests a little too bluntly that this may be Downey's final solo ride as Tony Stark, trying to wrap up every little tiny thing in ways that just seem to hammer the audience over the head for the sake of a sentimental ending. At the same time though, it can't seem to decide if it's really the end of an era, or if "the adventure continues".

If indeed Iron Man 3 signals Downey riding into the sunset, a better sendoff would be hard to come by, as Downey and Shane Black bring the same magic on display in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (a recommended hidden gem of a film). The bar has been set pretty damned high for the rest of the lead-in toward Avengers 2, but if this film is any indication, expectations are going to be rocked left and right - even where the obligatory post-credits stinger is concerned.
  • Listening to: AC/DC - Shoot to Thrill
  • Reading: The Collected John Carter of Mars, vol. 3
  • Watching: Thor, Captain America, The Avengers
A Series in Review

In the name of "Family Above All", as the tagline boldly declares, Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco's "The Black Donnellys" is the story of a good man driven to do all the wrong things for all the right reasons. Such is the plight of Tommy Donnelly (Jonathan Tucker), who sees nearly his entire life devoted to keeping his three ne'er-do-well siblings - would-be criminal mastermind Jimmy (Tom Guiry), unlucky gambler Kevin (Billy Lush), and dropout womanizer Sean (Michael Stahl-David) - out of trouble, an effort they scarcely make a simple one.

Just as Tommy dreams of moving on from the neighborhood he's lived all his life, each sibling has their own idea of "wanting more", most of all Jimmy, who invariably opts for the quick and criminal path to striking it big. He is most often at odds with Tommy, and theirs has shades of Fredo and Michael Corleone's relationship; one the older brother who naturally feels inclined to lead but is not taken seriously by anyone else, the other the calmer and smarter sibling who has to take the lead regardless not wanting the job. Despite his best efforts to keep the peace, Tommy is goaded into increasingly violent acts in the name of defending his family. The phrase "I'll take care of it" becomes his trademark in early episodes, the effect of which is not unlike that of Vincent Vega visiting the bathroom in Pulp Fiction.

At the heart of Tommy's moral dilemma is his complicated relationship with Jenny Reilly (Olivia Wilde), his childhood sweetheart and occasional confidante. Just as she's an outsider to the Donnelly family, Jenny is often an outsider to the main events of the season, just as much by her own design as by happenstance. Their mutual attraction is established within but a few minutes into the pilot, and the series plays a mean switcheroo on the will-they-won't-they dynamic by having them crash together at the close of episode two, "A Stone of the Heart", only for Jenny to spurn Tommy just before the credits roll.

The drawn-out question from then on is, were they ever meant to be? Their brief tryst had its own set of hurdles - namely the interference of Jenny's frowning father (Kevin Conway), and her marriage to a missing schoolteacher who befell some undetermined fatal mishap. The obstacle that keeps dividing them through the season is whether Jenny can forgive Tommy's means regardless his ends. The answer is ever in flux; two back-to-back episodes,  "Run Like Hell" and "The Only Thing Sure", see Jenny chastise Tommy for what she believes are heinous means by which he obtains money to help her, then embrace him gratefully when he procures the money to save her father's diner. The difference maker is how honest he is with her about his methods - in the former instance, Tommy tries to pass off the money as an anonymous gift, whereas in the latter he openly warns her, "If I can get the money, you may not like how I do it."

But before their reconciliation can gain any steam, the very next episode, "In Each One a Savior", sees Jimmy again become the wedge between Tommy's long-term wants and his family's immediate needs. Where every bad turn in Tommy's life arrives, Jimmy's hand is usually to be found. So often is it Jimmy that feeds the storm that it could be argued he in fact is the Donnelly family's worst enemy, more than even Dokey Farrell (Peter Greene) or Nicky Cottero (Kirk Acevedo), the two main antagonists representing the Irish and Italian mobs, respectively - both adept at the intimidation game in their own right, but neither are nearly as harmful to Tommy and his family than Jimmy. To their credit, neither Dokey nor Nicky are portrayed as some untouchable Mr. Big, as both see the business of end of bloodshed, and both have higher authorities to which they must answer.

This is one the series' better attributes, its ability to humanize its worst characters. Even fearsome Dokey has a quiet and touching educational moment with his young nephew that's a pleasant opposite to his axe-weilding tactics. And Jimmy, who quickly climbs the ranks of most dislikable character on the show - with a laundry list of defects beginning with his loud-mouthed bravado and not even ending with his drug addiction - has his most sympathetic moment in the penultimate episode "The Black Drop", which sees him abused, humiliated, and tossed into the street, and even given everything the audience has witnessed of him to that point, it's difficult not to feel the pangs of compassion as he bursts into tears in Tommy's arms.

The show is at its best when focused on the principal leads, particularly the commanding Jonathan Tucker, who may be the result of a genetic splice between Clifton Collins, Jr. and Joseph Gorden-Levitt. It's his striking portrait of a man on the thin border between sanity and chaos that cemented my continued interest in the series past the pilot. The dynamic between himself and his onscreen brothers is often hilarious and moving, and always engaging, no less so when they're cooperating than when they're coming to blows. As the romantic lead, Olivia Wilde's naturally subdued, sultry growl well complements Tucker's bottled intensity, making Tommy and Jenny's rocky courtship, and their continual battle of things said vs. things should-have-said, just as frustrating for the audience as for the characters themselves, without devolving into shouting-match melodramatics - although it stands to reason the two would have to eventually have it out in a big way if their relationship was ever to move forward.

The cast also boasts an impressive selection of recognizable genre faces - "Star Trek Voyager" captain Kate Mulgrew as Helen, the Donnelly's no-bull matriarch; "Die Hard" alum WIlliam Sadler as a painter who briefly mentors Tommy; "Cloverfield" lead Michael Stahl-David as Sean; a pre-"Legend of the Seeker" (and fan favorite Wonder Woman hopeful) Bridget Regan as a councilman's aide and pawn of Nicky; future "Iron Man 3" heavy James Badge Dale as Samson, whom Jenny beds in an ill-advised one night stand; Peter Greene of "The Mask", "Pulp Fiction" and "The Usual Suspects" fame as Dokey; Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Damien Thorn of 2006's remake of "The Omen", as Dokey's nephew Matthew, who takes a liking to Tommy and takes it upon himself to keep an ugly secret for him; and a personal shock to myself in writing this article, Tom Guiry, formerly the shy Scotty Smalls of "The Sandlot", as the ignoble Jimmy.

While the ominous opening quotations that lends each episode its title give one the constant premonition of impending disaster for Tommy and company, the tone is kept from getting too grim through regular flashes of humor between Tommy's brooding and Nicky's schemes, thanks to characters like Kevin and Sean, Nicky's sidekick and verbal punching bag Vinnie (Brian Tarantina), and particularly Donnelly cohort and highly unreliable narrator Joey Ice Cream (Keith Nobbs).

It is around Joey's prison-bound intros and epilogues that the events of the season unravel, wherein it appears the Donnellys manage their survival on a long string of bizarre coincidences and lucky breaks, including a darkly hysterical death in episode three, "God Is a Comedian". All of which of course assumes that Joey can be taken at his word, which his interrogators routinely do not. And why should they, given most of what he describes happens without him present? A fine bit of meta-humor in early episodes (that thankfully does not overstay its welcome) sees Joey literally insert himself into a flashback, much to the chagrin of those already there, who startled by his appearance remark, "Where did he come from?"

One may wonder at first why it's Joey, as a sort of fast-talking Rod Serling, who relays the tragedy of the Donnellys. The answer becomes plainly evident by the end of the pilot; nobody knows the ins and outs of the Donnellys better than Joey, up to and including his knowledge of Tommy's most haunting secret, the inevitable revelation of which would have been a major breaking point among the brothers in a future season.

That is the show's single largest problem, that it has no concrete ending. To be fair, neither did, say, Firefly, but the collected episodes did feel like a whole and cohesive story, with only a few major loose threads to tie up with the film Serenity. "The Black Donnellys" finale episode "Easy Is The Way", while ending with a thrilling confrontation between the Donnellys and their enemies, leaves a laundry list of pressing questions unanswered - who lived and died, the fate of the crime family leadership, the events that landed Joey Ice Cream in jail, and of course the direction of Tommy and Jenny's relationship - and any number of outcomes could be inferred by Joey's dejected final line.

And where could the show have gone had it the chance? Say for a moment it were up to me...

If the introductory season was about Tommy Donnelly's fall from…not quite "grace", let's say "decency"...its eventual end could have seen Jimmy Donnelly's redemption and last-ditch efforts to save his brother's soul. Spurred by the brutal end of "Easy Is The Way", Tommy dives further into the darkness, taking the fight-fire-with-fire approach to putting the mobs in their place; whilst Jimmy, finally taking the steps to better himself (as he begrudgingly decides in the finale), takes responsibility for the wrongs he's committed and starts to become the elder sibling he should have been from the beginning - but still mucking things up in gloriously chaotic fashion as habit dictates.

As for Tommy and Jenny? Her conduct in the finale, wherein she takes an act of violence in response to her own developing nightmare situation, could put her in a state of greater understanding of Tommy's decisions, yet at the same drive her further away in order to avoid his path; but when Tommy inevitable returns to her for aid, he finds a colder, harder woman than the one he wooed in season one, and only when circumstances - say, the destruction of Reilly's Diner - reconnect her with the Donnellys can she reconnect with her own heart.

With the increased talk recently of gone-before-their-time television shows getting their own theatrical epilogues, it would be lovely to see the Donnellys get their due. But given the finale's open-endedness akin to a gaping wound, the passage of time since, and that the show has not quite obtained a cult following the likes of Firefly, Veronica Mars, or Arrested Development, one might be at a loss to pick up the story and finish it cleanly.

Whatever fate had in store for Tommy and family, only Haggis, Moresco, and Joey Ice Cream know for certain.

"The Black Donnellys" complete series set is available on DVD, and presently on Netflix Instant Watch.

  • Listening to: The Neville Brothers - Drift Away
  • Reading: The Collected John Carter of Mars, vol. 3
  • Watching: Game of Thrones Season 3
Hey all,

AMP is an online gallery collecting "alternative movie posters" for virtually any film imaginable. They've recently released their second collected print volume, featuring my V For Vendetta custom banner. There's a whole host of sweet artwork made by movie-loving supergeeks like you and me, so have a look, and hey, snag a copy if you feel so inclined. A bundle of Volumes 1 & 2 is also available, as well as a few select individual prints.

Buy Alternative Movie Posters: Volume 2
  • Listening to: Daft Punk - Harder Better Faster Stronger
  • Reading: George R.R. Martin - A Feast For Crows
Greetings, programs...

For this, my 30th birthday month, I'm running a special sale at my Etsy shop. Each week, one print from my catalog will be on sale, and all available prints will have reduced shipping.

March 1 - March 7 - Avatar - "Struzan's Pandora" 13x19

March 9 - March 14 - Space Odyssey - "Full of Stars" 13x19

March 15 - March 21 - Drive - "Graffiti Hero" 13x19

March 22 - March 28 - Labyrinth - "PacLab" 13x19
  • Listening to: Adele - Skyfall
  • Reading: George R.R. Martin - A Feast For Crows
I will defend Live Free or Die Hard to my last breath as a fun old-school-hero-against-new-school-odds action movie worthy of the Die Hard title. A Good Day to Die Hard is worth no such effort. This scarcely feels like a Die Hard movie, it's so removed even from its immediate predecessor, and its return to the beloved R-rating is little comfort for a laundry list of missed opportunities.

Honestly, the greatest praise I can offer is simply: Bruce is still the man. He gets all the best shots, the best lines, the best moments, so Die Hard 5 at least remembers the movie is first and foremost his show. But despite flashes of that old enthusiasm that kept even Die Hard 4 interesting, one gets the feeling at the very start of DH5 that Willis may not be too old for this shit, but he's certainly getting a little tired of it. We don't get McClane as a world-weary hero shuffling off for yet another zany adventure, we get an actor who knows he's got better stuff left in him than this.

Not for lack of trying on Jai Courtney's part, Jack McClane is a nearly nothing character. The idea of McClane & Son has great possibilities, but instead it's a rehash of the Lucy subplot from DH4 stretched over 90 minutes; Jack doesn't like his dad, learns to better respect him. Sure, Jack demonstrates a different methodology than his father, but these scenarios only further illustrate how much more Willis is the movie's best asset. The two also come off as non-entities to one another, and the bonding scenes are largely flat and lifeless.

And what of the villains? Well, that's just it, there's hardly anything to say. Of the several new heavies, only one, played by Radivoje Bukvic, is worth mentioning for his droll delivery, his occasional carefree glee and a few fancy dance steps whilst gloating over his capture of the good guys - and he is not even the film's main villain. Which only leaves the caper itself to keep the audience's interest, but this too simply falls on its face. The past exploits of the McClane Family were marked by intricate master plans devised by diabolically intelligent men; the master plan at play here though is dull, simplistic, and unsurprising once a lame third-act twist is engaged. A little robbery, a little backstabbing, and you see most of it coming even before McClane does.

To be fair to the movie, there are highlights in the action department, namely in a positively killer road chase early on involving McClane, Jack, and the Russian baddies, in which many a vehicle is crushed, flipped and toppled in spectacular fashion. What follows are a few nifty scuffles and shoot-em-ups, decorated with some very slick slow-motion shots, culminating in a beautifully fiery crash. That said, while the film does benefit from some decent but overly CGI'd cinematography (if you didn't like the F-35 scene in DH4, you're likely to hate what you see here), it also heavily suffers from Lensflare Syndrome and Perpetual Motion - the first insisting than any light brighter than the average light bulb have a glare stretching across half the screen; the second that the camera always be moving during the action scenes, including some quick and quivering close-ups that sooner induce nausea than any sense of dynamism.

Probably the worst thing DH5 does, believe it or not, is try way too damn hard to actually be a Die Hard movie. Throughout the film are several obvious nods to the original, which includes composer Marco Beltrami lifting a recognizable cue directly from Michael Kamen's score for the climax. Sure, the previous three sequels made reference to the first, but they did so with class compared to DH5's attempts; here, they just make a series devotee groan.

A Good Day to Die Hard is underwritten and overstylized, hardly resembling any of the movies that came before it. The best thing it has going for it are of course Bruce being Bruce, the freeway chase, a handful of well-shot sequences, and some additional eye candy in Yuliya Snigir - whose trailer shot of unzipping her catsuit is longer than the scene in the actual movie - and a fleeting Mary Elizabeth Winstead - returning just long enough to remind the audience how much better Die Hard 4 was.

Taking it on its own, it's a mediocre action diversion at best; taking it as a Die Hard sequel, it's just plain bad. Welcome to the new definitive franchise low.
  • Listening to: Paul McCartney - My Valentine
  • Reading: Jeff Smith - Bone
"Once upon a time in the Antebellum South..."

As much as Quentin Tarantino openly idolizes Sergio Leone, Quentin himself is something of an anti-Leone. While Leone's trademark was building almost unbearable tension through prolonged silences ending in violent bursts of action, Tarantino's approach is quite the opposite - filling nearly every second of film with dialogue - yet achieves the same effect. Some might view this as Tarantino simply not knowing when to shut his characters up, when really, dialogue truly is action for him.

Not that Quentin doesn't know the value of silence, of course. Jamie Foxx, in the ice-cold titular lead of Django, is far more quiet and reserved than his costars, communicating more in glances and glares than long stretches of prose, and in this he excels in his Man With No Name-esque part. The lion's share of the talking, praise be to the gods of cinema, belongs to Christoph Waltz, playing both a similar and very different character from Hans Landa of Inglourious Basterds. While both Landa and Schultz love the sound of their own voices and display surprise spurts of lethality, Schultz's penchant for violence is borne of a sort of blood-soaked sense of benevolence, making him arguably a less complex character than Landa, but far more easily likable (whereas Landa was endearing in an ironic fashion - he was after all a Nazi).

The heart of the movie lies in Django and Schultz's relationship, and while fascinating alone in its surface dynamic of friend-and-partner, it also runs the gamut of teacher-student, master-servant, and most surprisingly father-son, particularly where one scene is concerned, in which Schultz regales an eagerly-listening Django with the tale of Brumhilda and Siegfried of German folklore - an obvious parallel to Django's search for his wife. There is even a hint of a "sins of the father" element introduced, wherein Schultz perhaps suspects he might have taught Django a little too well, as a mission is jeopardized not by Django's inexperience, but by Schultz's compassion.

Joining Quentin's alumni of charmingly despicable characters are DiCaprio's Calvin Candie - silver of tongue and decadent in dress - and Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen - sporting an almost comical Uncle Ben haircut contrasting with his trademark venomous stare - as the deliciously poisonous villains of our tale. They simply drip with evil intent the moment they each appear, playing with stereotype and caricature to ride the thin line of effective self-parody while never (with one intentional exception) forgetting to be taken for credible threats, making the possibility of their comeuppance, and that of their many accomplices, all the sweeter.

That's what Tarantino has become so good at over the course of his career; giving the bad guys what's coming to them, while we the audience laugh it up. Often uncomfortably so, as Quentin constantly challenges the boundaries of what we find acceptable to laugh at, even when (relatively) innocent bystanders are added to the body count. The self-awareness and sense of the preposterous are never far from sight, allowing a gathering of the Ku Klux Klan of all things to become the source of the film's biggest roaring laughs.

And one thing Quentin has not done is grow tamer with time; Django Unchained in fact may be his messiest film to date - and yes, that includes the one where Hitler gets machine-gunned in the face - as every gun shot in a cannon, every bullet hit is a geyser. Yes, Quentin still has the ability to shock and awe, and in more than simply onscreen bloodshed, for viewer beware, [MILD SPOILER] you will see more of Jamie Foxx than you may have bargained for.

All the while relying on the classic tools of his arsenal - love of spaghetti westerns, blaxploitation and kung fu flicks, an eclectic soundtrack ranging from hip-hop to Johnny Cash (and the obligatory dose of Morricone), as well as a bevy of talented character actors including M.C. Gainey, Walton Goggins, James Remar (appearing in two roles, if my eyes did not deceive me), and even Tarantino-Verse mainstay Michael Parks, - Quentin refuses to lower the volume of his patented large-and-loud filmmaking style, continuing to test the patience of his audience and the boundaries of good taste, yet nary a step is missed. The flow of the movie is largely similar to the script that appeared online prior to production, but expands on some elements while streamlining others, and clearly to the final film's benefit.

Django Unchained is Quentin's most brutal, brutally funny film yet, and a late-entry winner for my favorite film of 2012.
  • Listening to: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy audiobook
  • Reading: George R.R. Martin - A Storm of Swords
Originally my design elec_TRON.ica was set to go on sale back in October. Due to some last-minute snafu on their end, it got pushed back. Praise the Users, we're back on.

elec_TRON.ica goes on sale at TeeFury on Thursday, January 3, 2013.

Be there or be derezzed.

@ShokXoneStudios
  • Listening to: Lord of the Rings BCC Radio Drama
  • Reading: George R.R. Martin - A Storm of Swords
Mostly for the sake of shits of giggles, I've just joined Twitter this evening. We'll see what I do with that.

If you feel so inclined, follow me @ShokXoneStudios.
  • Listening to: Daft Punk - Tron Legacy
  • Reading: George R.R. Martin - A Storm of Swords
(I got to see an extra-early screening this week. I give it a 6 bordering a 7...I wanted to be nice to it as I really did like it, but in scoring felt I should err on the side of criticism. Open February 1; see it with someone you respect for their brains...their juicy, juicy brains...)

The zombie genre is, let's face it, a little played out, and fresh perspectives and approaches are needed big time to keep it alive and kicking (pun intended). Such a thought gave us the likes of Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, which left the bar pretty high up for any potential followers. So along comes Warm Bodies, the latest in the zombie comedy sub-genre, and while it's scarcely anything revolutionary, it runs well on its goofy premise and delivers some good-natured ribbing to a few genre conventions.

The story is driven by "R" (the only part of his name he can remember) and his running narration, delivering most of the film's laughs through his strangely coherent observations, both of the zombie community through which he plods, and the increasingly silly events in the wake of what could be described as a "zombie beer run". Nicolas Hoult is easily likable, regardless how unnaturally photogenic - I dare say Twilight-ish - he looks for a walking corpse, and his human "exhuming" (a word thrown around a couple times in the film) is credible enough as he goes from the typical groans and grunts, to carrying on whole one- to two-word conversations (surviving possibly the most awkward "first date" imaginable), to finally forming near-complete sentences.

Teresa Palmer is the catalyst for these changes, and while she's incredibly cute and just as easy to like, her character is pretty one-note through the bulk of the story, mostly switching between "OMG zombies!" fear and the "What ARE you?" awe of R's transformation. The two highlights of the comedic casting are Rob Corddry as R's zombie buddy, who gets the film's single biggest laugh, and Analeigh Tipton as Julie's acerbic cohort with something of an Aubrey Plaza aura about her. Oppositely, Dave Franco - younger brother of James - is rather sleepy and boring as Julie's boyfriend, but his role is necessary to R's development, particularly in one wrenching introspective moment wherein R begins to truly reject his own zombie nature.

The film only opens itself up for more explosive laughs on one or two occasions, but the chuckles are consistent if light throughout. Fun is had at the expense of various zombie movie and romantic comedy cliches, namely in the eating of brains (a reason is actually provided for this behavior) and the use of montages; there are several throughout, the most successful of which includes a pretty genius bit of meta-humor as a character demands a change of background music - highlighting another of the movie's great strengths, its soundtrack.

Warm Bodies suffers on several levels, mostly because of the painfully obvious PG-13 rating. In its defense, violence and gore are clearly not the focus, but considerable cred is still lost when your zombie movie is this clean and bloodless and devoid of resonant human casualties, and in fact seems to go out of its way to be so. This results in the movie's main undead antagonists, the "Bonies" - zombies who claw off their flesh and give up any remaining pretense of humanity -  CG-rendered skeletal scavengers who should be the horror highlight, but instead look like videogame cutscene rejects whereas full-body makeup with choice CG enhancement would have made a world of difference.

The other less serious misstep is a tendency to take itself just a touch too seriously during its non-comedic moments. While a consistent light tone is established throughout the film, it never really dares to go too "out there" when it should. Even Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland's most dour moments kept one foot planted firmly in the realm of the absurd, and this is something Warm Bodies never manages to do when it isn't intentionally going for a laugh. Take the casting of John Malkovich as Julie's father and leader of the human colony; given the type of film, one might expect an open invitation to cut loose a little in the stock role as hardass overprotective military figure, but instead Malkovich mostly plays it straight, and thus a part that could have been memorable is reduced to a part that could have been played by anybody.

Warm Bodies is not likely to turn a whole lot of heads, but it is a fun, easygoing movie that makes a respectable effort to do something new with a tired platform. One can even walk away with a decent moral about stepping out of one's comfort zone and attempting to become a better person, along with the not-so-subtle message about "reconnecting". And with Valentine's Day just ahead of its February release, it may turn out to be just the right time for a chick flick...with zombies.
  • Listening to: The Rolling Stones - Doom And Gloom
  • Reading: George R.R. Martin - A Storm of Swords
(I had seen the movie opening weekend, and a second time since, but needed time to properly compile my thoughts. The rambling nonsense below is the result.)

After fifty years and twenty-two missions, the burden was on the Bond franchise more than ever to keep things fresh and interesting. 2006's Casino Royale made a startling jump on its own with the casting of a very against-type James Bond in Daniel Craig, taking part in a very against-type Bond adventure. Three movies into Craig's tenure as 007 brings us to Skyfall, wherein fans finally see a return of a few popular series staples, and witness that not only has Bond not lost his edge, it's sharper than it's been in years.

Even at over 140 minutes, there isn't a slack moment to be found. After the dynamic opening sequence, the film takes an extended breather - starting with Adele's haunting title sequence number - and from then on holds the audience hostage with some witty exchange, exotic location, or rewarding plot development. When the bullets, fists, and bits of shrapnel start flying again, the film never repeats itself, offering a splendid variety of Bond-induced chaos, including a short but thrilling single-take brawl between Bond and an assassin against the glow of a Shanghai billboard. Escalation is in full effect from there, the action sequences getting bigger and more destructive as the film slices on.

The game changes completely, however, once Javier Bardem enters at the midpoint. Charismatic, flamboyant, and sinister, but at times strangely sympathetic, Bardem's Raoul Silva is the walking proof of the influence Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy had upon Skyfall; like Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning turn as The Joker, just beneath Silva's smiles and singsong voice lies a genius intellect and a ferocity capable of leveling mountains, leaving little doubt to the credibility of the threat he poses. The dynamic between himself and Bond is one of the film's out-of-left-field surprises, as a moment during their initial meeting is bound have some raising their eyebrows and others shifting uncomfortably in their seats.

Not to be overshadowed, the other new additions to the fold carry their weight admirably. Naomie Harris lends sexy moral support as Bond's nameless field cohort, and their flirtatious repartee highlights the movie's least serious moments. Bérénice Marlohe positively sizzles in a brief turn as Sévérine, acting mostly as a Point-A-to-Point-B plot convenience, but making her mark nonetheless thanks to a slinky evening gown, fiendishly dark eyes and lips, and silky accent. Ben Whishaw is calm and cocksure as the new fresh face of Q-Branch, still playing a limited role, but in attendance for more than simply presenting Bond with the latest in superspy gadgetry. And Ralph Fiennes, he with the power to class up any movie he's a part of, provides a genial voice of authority as Gareth Mallory, who over the course of the film steps into a role practically tailor-made for him.

What's most interesting about Skyfall is its effort to move Bond forward while at the same time looking back. In the process of re-establishing certain 007 mainstays, Skyfall also takes Bond and M places they haven't been before, namely in a central element explored lightly if at all in previous eras; the heart of Bond and M's relationship. M as a mother figure became a running theme when Judi Dench debuted in the role in Goldeneye, but only was it emphasized with regularity once Daniel Craig took up the tuxedo. Now given center stage in light of Silva's intense personal grudge - a grudge that, murder and sabotage notwithstanding, could perhaps be justified, particularly when Silva reveals some of the grotesque consequences of M's decision-making - the trailer line rings especially true: "Mommy was very bad" indeed, and Silva's intended comeuppance leads us to Judi Dench's single most poignant moment as M.

But all is not doom and gloom where the film is concerned, in fact quite a bit of fun is had at the franchise's own expense, as many a tribute and good-natured snipe is taken at the highs and lows of Bonds past - from the unexpected appearance of a certain classic Aston Martin, to a flippant remark from Q taunting some of the more outlandish machinery to have graced the screen. As an added bonus, Skyfall appears to cleverly play to the popular fan theory of James Bond simply being a codename passed from one agent to another, even while the final stretch of the film deals heavily with Bond's origins.

Skyfall is not only a series best for Daniel Craig, but a top-tier entry within the whole of the Bond series. Craig continues to shine as the very rough-and-tumble yet very human James Bond; Javier Bardem may be the most memorable villain outside of the Connery era; and Sam Mendes' sharp direction plus Roger Deakins' vivid cinematography bring a welcome artistic edge to 007's latest exploit, more than whetting the appetite for what is to come.

James Bond will return? No...James Bond HAS returned!
  • Listening to: Fun. - Some Nights
  • Reading: Edgar Rice Burroughs - A Fighting Man of Mars
  • Watching: Bond movies and other such film fare
Update...AGAIN...
elec_TRON.ica gets its 24 hours at TeeFury...soon. It was supposed to be Friday, Oct. 26th, but a last-minute snafu on their end forced a schedule change. They're gonna get back to me with a new sale date.
  • Reading: Edgar Rice Burroughs - The Chessmen of Mars
  • Watching: The Hellraiser series (don't ask me why)
I stated when I uploaded my revised version of my now-famous Dark Knight Rises poster that due to multiple unsolicited sellers offering prints of the poster, I would be offering my own limited supply of prints of the new-and-improved version exclusively available through myself. That plan is now in action.

The Dark Knight Rises from Shok Xone Studios is now available for purchase via Etsy.

Also available:
Captain America
Drive
Avatar
Space Odyssey

I am also contemplating selling full-size 27" x 40" copies as well, but these will be far more costly, as they are more expensive to produce. I welcome feedback or suggestion on this.
  • Reading: Stephen King: Under The Dome