Saturday, December 18, 2010

Flm Review - TRON: LEGACY

It will come as a surprise to precious few that Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski has an extensive background in architecture. A mere glimpse at the expansive blackened cyber-city known as the Grid reveals an almost fanatical attention to detail. Thickly populated with intricately designed jagged towers, sleek, shiny platforms, glass-walled gladiator arenas and cavernous hallways, Kosinski and his team create an almost oppressive sense of machine-tooled exactitude. Even the smaller interiors are gorgeous. Take one step into Jeff Bridges’ character Kevin Flynn’s abode and you’ll bear witness to the most charmingly antiseptic futuristic Zen palace this side of the Matrix. And that’s just the sets, never mind the fantastic-looking light cycles, planes and 4-wheel runners. Forget Xzibit, if I ever need my room or ride pimped, I’m calling Kosinski and his crew of design dynamos.

Indeed, as a honkin’ piece of big-with-a-capital-B blockbuster filmmaking, Tron: Legacy sure is mighty pretty to look at. So persuasive are the picture’s eye-popping visuals and glossy production work that we almost don’t notice that most of the inspiration seems to have stopped at the design stage. Like Avatar, this is another hyper-costly blast of musty storytelling gussied up in all the shiniest CG bows and ribbons.

Which, of course, isn’t to imply that Tron: Legacy is devoid of fun. The first hour of the film plays like a truncated remake of the original 1982 cult hit, full of disc battles featuring daredevil choreography and a multi-layer light cycle race that amps up the velocity and danger factor. There are also nifty moments involving a quartet of simultaneous-stepping babe-bots in fetish gear and a virtual saloon overseen by a foaming-at-the-mouth Michael Sheen, playing an underground contact with all the subtlety of Willy Wonka on trucker speed.

Unfortunately. none of these highlights really play a prominent role in the by-the-numbers main storyline, which follows rich whiz-kid Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), who has been on his own since his father vanished off the face of the earth in 1989. Now residing in a storage container with his camera-savvy dog, Sam lives off his shares from ENCOM, the tech firm father Flynn once worked for, conducting vigilante-style annual sabotage pranks on the heartless company. He’s basically Bruce Wayne without the motivation to accomplish much beyond irritating boring old dudes (and a nerdified Cillian Murphy) in business suits.

Things take a turn for the technological, however, when Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), Flynn Sr.’s old Grid buddy, tells Sam that a beeper call has been made from Kevin’s dusty old office at Flynn’s Arcade. After all-too-easily finding the top secret subterranean lair (Where “Sweet Dreams” apparently plays on a never-ending loop), Sam is zapped via laser beam into the Grid, which is now ruled with a silicon fist by Clu, a Polar Express-ian young doppelganger of dear ol’ dad. Sentenced to partake in deadly games against warrior programs in futuristic motorcycle gear, Sam is rescued by wide-eyed ass-kicker Quorra (Olivia Wilde – officially replacing Speed Racer’s Christina Ricci as the fantasy girl for anime “enthusiasts” everywhere). She’s been sent by her creator – *drum roll* – Kevin Flynn, who decided eons ago that the best way to combat Clu was to just hang out, man. Now a grizzled cyber-hippie, Flynn Sr. is much sought by the sinister digital twin for his light disc, which contains every secret necessary for Grid – and perhaps world – domination.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with wrapping high concept ideas around a tried-and-true formula, Tron: Legacy too often feels like it’s following a checklist. The story doesn’t flow so much as leap mechanically from one beat to the next. It’s stated early on that, to return home, Sam et al. must reach a portal on the other side of the Grid. Since the portal is apparently only open for a short span of time, why is there no sense of rising tension as our heroes race bravely towards it? There’s a classic ticking clock set-up, but Kosinski and writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz fail to exploit it. Similarly, Sam has to break into Clu’s headquarters to retrieve a valuable item. To say that he meets very little opposition in his mission would be an understatement. Like too much of the film, it feels like the filmmakers are going through the motions, hitting the required genre tropes without comprehending why they’re crucial to building pace and excitement.

The slapdash screenwriting also extends to two of the film’s plot twists. There is a key character reveal, and a change of heart, which is dealt with so haphazardly that it’s positively baffling. Although Tron fans steeped in the mythology of the property may be able to fill in the gaps, non-converts are likely to greet the intended crowd-pleasing moment with ambivalent shrugs. Also frustrating is Kosinski’s bungling of Kevin Flynn’s immense scientific breakthrough, which has led to the creation of new life-forms called ISOs. They’ll revolutionize science, religion and medicine, he declares. An intriguing concept, for sure, but no one involved with the script deemed it necessary to develop this idea much beyond a single line of dialogue.

These story deficiencies could have been softened had the actors been given three-dimensional characters or intelligent dialogue. Jeff Bridges is characteristically warm and charming - and drops a few amusing Lebowski-isms – but isn’t given a whole lot to do beyond act reluctant, provide exposition and share some emotion-free father/son moments with Hedlund. His motion-captured performance as Clu is serviceable but lacks spark – the character is sunk by spotty animation and an utter absence of villainous charisma. Hedlund and Wilde manage to mine what they can from their clichéd roles, but ultimately fail to make much of an impact. They do, however, get the privilege of engaging in perhaps the most groan-inducing romantic exchange since George Lucas waxed poetic about sand.

By the time the Star Wars-inspired climax and dramatic denouement arrive, the picture feels like its spinning its wheels creatively – not a good sign for a supposed franchise re-starter. It is a mite frustrating to see hundreds of millions of dollars worth of dazzling art direction, costumes and computer programming working overtime to compensate for a screenplay that could have been easily (and inexpensively) retooled to provide a sturdy backbone for the impressive fireworks. Tron: Legacy is harmless and forgettable, a 1.0 blockbuster trying to operate in a 2.0 world.

2.5 out of 5

P.S.: How to Train Your Dragon remains unbeaten as the best 3D presentation of 2010. Legacy's muted use of the technology is a true disappointment and something of an insult when taking into account the $4 ticket surcharge.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Film Review - BLACK SWAN

Black Swan is such an overpowering cinematic experience that attempting to recall it after the fact is akin to trying to remember the specifics of a bravura on-stage performance. Rather than a coherent whole, we’re left with a series of fractured images and sensations of hypnotic splendour connected to one another by a relentless jolt of adrenalized awe. To simply call it a movie is missing the point; the joy of Darren Aronofsky’s twisted tribute to Swan Lake is that it is so engrossing and spontaneous that we feel as if we’re the opening night audience to a thrillingly dangerous new stage show. We don’t know what to expect next but the crackling energy in the room tells us it’s going to be unforgettable.

Occupying centre stage is Natalie Portman, playing the role of Nina Sayers, a gifted young ballerina whose fierce determination is counterbalanced by a nearly stifling innocence. Technically, she’s a worthy candidate to win the lead in her company’s eagerly anticipated new adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, but lusty director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, reliably skeezy) has some misgivings. While Nina may be ideal to play the White Swan, he’s unsure she has the seductive abandon to tackle the Black Swan. Perhaps if she was a little more like mysterious new arrival Lily (Mila Kunis), the rough-around-the-edges dancer with a dangerous erotic streak and a penchant for recklessness and moody black attire...

But wait, does Lily really exist or is she merely a figment of Nina’s increasingly fevered psyche? The answer remains elusive to the troubled dancer even after she wins the coveted job. As she begins her rigorous, unconventional training under the demanding Leroy, and her obsessive mother Erica (a scary Barbara Hershey) battles to maintain control over her life, Nina becomes more and more consumed - both physically and mentally - by Lily and her starmaking role. Soon, she's spiralling into the unknown and undergoing the early effects of a metamorphosis. What could be waiting for Nina on the other side of this transformation? And why won’t those strange scarlet scratches marking her back ever heal?

Aronofsky, an established master at balancing disparate story elements, has fashioned himself a gritty and unsettling homage to the paranoia-soaked horror classics of the late 60s and 70s. Although the presentation is intentionally grimier (cinematography Matthew Libatique’s intentionally unflattering, grainy camera work is the perfect mixture of ugliness and beauty), Black Swan could just as easily be a great lost film from Roman Polanski’s heyday. And, like its brilliant influences, this picture will consistently make you cringe and shift uneasily in your seat. No one mines involuntary shudders from scenes involving hangnails and fingernail trimming quite like Aronofsky.

Yet, despite its numerous cinematic references, Black Swan is wholly an Aronofsky film, continuing many of the themes and visual quirks of his previous efforts. The director adores doggedly determined protagonists who, like auteurs, delve headlong into their passions in order to create their ideal world. Similar to The Wrestler’s Randy the Ram, Nina is driven by the unflagging desire to achieve glory on the theatrical stage. Aronofsky frequently shoots her just as he did Rourke’s character, from behind with a handheld camera, as she navigates her way throughout the ballet company’s rehearsal space and lower bowels. There’s an immersive fly on the wall quality to the picture that captures the day-to-day sweat and toil of the industry. Black Swan also boasts a strong element of body horror when depicting Nina's physical makeover. The spreading raw back scratches bear a distinct resemblance to the festering injection wounds from Requiem from a Dream – gradually deteriorating external injuries mirroring intensifying internal turmoil.

Aronofsky may be the true star of Black Swan but Natalie Portman runs a very close second. Gaunt and vulnerable, with a toned professional’s physique, the actress ventures into previously unexplored territory, playing a naive shrinking violet at the mercy of the dominant personalities around her. Not only utterly convincing as a career dancer, Portman commands the screen every second she’s on-screen (Which is roughly 90% of the film). Certainly her visceral and nightmarish descents into madness are the most attention-grabbing, but it’s her charged interactions with the supporting cast that are the real showstoppers. There’s one scene, wherein Cassel teaches her character about seduction, which is as icky-sexy mesmerizing as Naomi Watt’s big audition in Mulholland Drive. It also bears mentioning that Portman and Hershey form the most destructively dysfunctional mother/daughter combo since Carrie. Although I’m not yet sure I’d call Portman’s work here the best performance by an actress this year, it’s undoubtedly the bravest.

If Black Swan has a shortcoming, it’s that Aronofsky’s lack of subtlety with the material has a tendency to dull the tragedy of Nina’s arc. Like ballet or theatre, the emotions are broad, sweeping and melodramatic – a necessity in those venues for communicating with attendees seated both near and far – but as a film it tends to hold us at a cool distance. We’re invested in Nina’s journey, but never quite locked in on a deeper personal level.

However, the picture is so confidently well-crafted, and ends on such a triumphant, spine-tingling high note, that it’s extremely easy to pardon the director for his slight shortfalls. It’s a miracle worth celebrating that a film as unabashedly weird and risky as Black Swan managed to come to fruition in the current filmmaking climate. Ultimately, Aronofksy’s latest looms large over the majority of 2010’s cinematic offerings and is worthy of not only your attendance but a standing ovation as well.

4.5 out of 5

Sunday, December 12, 2010


As I sat watching The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the latest chapter in the spotty Chronicles of Narnia film franchise and the first produced by 20th Century Fox, I began to wonder why I felt no sense of emotional attachment to the lush, miraculous world on-screen. After all, with its emerald green hills, towering castles and cliff faces, dreamy, tranquil blue seas and colorful population of imaginative creatures, it should be the stuff of daydreams; a gorgeous, sprawling cinematic vista to escape for a few hours. Yet, instead everything feels flat and remote, an amalgamation of visual ideas from better fantasy films with more exciting tales to tell.

The fault certainly doesn’t lie in the source material – C.S. Lewis’ beloved universe has no shortage of sparkling invention – but rather the increasingly problematic disconnect between the episodic films. I’ve made two previous pilgrimages to Narnia, with the previous Walt Disney-produced films The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2005 and Prince Caspian in 2008, and have yet to be given a cohesive layout of the land. Unlike The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series, there’s been no attempt to establish a strong, unified cinematic Narnia. We jump haphazardly from new location to new location without a strong idea of where we’re going or how one place relates to another. Why is the brave King Caspian (Ben Barnes) sailing the open ocean at the beginning of Voyage of the Dawn Treader? Doesn’t he have a kingdom to run back, um, somewhere or other?

While I’m sure hardcore Narnia fans have no problem filling in the gaps, the rest of us are left confused and disoriented, treading water like Edmund and not-so-little-anymore Lucy Pevensie (Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley) near the beginning of Dawn Treader. Pulled back into the magical land through a painting, the two plucky WWII-era teenage Brits are reunited with Caspian and swashbuckling mouse Reepicheep (now voiced by Simon Pegg, taking over from Eddie Izzard) and embark on a perilous ocean quest to collect seven enchanted swords which have the power to stop a sinister green mist that has been consuming Narnians. To complicate matters, the two siblings have accidentally brought along their snivelling, aptly named cousin Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter), who has never met anyone (audience members included) he can't aggravate.

Unlike the pleasant first entry and the dire second, Dawn Treader seems more intent on pleasing the young folk in the crowd, maintaining a determined, brisk pace that focuses on special effects and action and often leaves character and story development by the wayside. Each of our three Earthly protagonists are given a single trait to conquer (Lucy wants to be beautiful like her sister Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund lacks confidence in his masculinity and Eustace needs to stop being a selfish twerp) and overcome them all too easily. Barnes’ Caspian – who has dropped the annoying accent from the last film – is more or less just along for the ride, occasionally required to swing a sword or provide exposition.

Dawn Treader’s script, by returning series scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, is chock-a-block full of allegedly important events and characters that are ultimately glossed over in the service of holding attention spans. There are no less than three key figures who are introduced to great fanfare and then unceremoniously scuttled off-screen once they’ve delivered their key piece of dialogue. If you’re able to keep track of any names beyond those of the lead protagonists my (feathered) hat is off to you. Make no mistake, I’m not arguing in favor of the overindulgent bloat that dragged down Prince Caspian, but new director Michael Apted and editor Rick Shaine have gone too far in the opposite direction, stripping their movie of nuance and soul. This Narnia adventure is efficient and pretty, but not particularly engaging.

However, there are still a handful of wonders to behold. The introduction of a not-so-sinister fire-breathing dragon to the story manages, improbably, to inspire a few moments of gentle warmth while Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), the franchise’s trusty Jesus Lion, has a moving third act scene holding court on a gorgeous white sand island. There’s also a thrilling sea battle against a ravenous serpent beast and nice little bits featuring a living star (Laura Brent, a breathtaking spectre of otherworldly beauty), as well as transparent mermaids (who resemble more fully-formed relatives of the water tentacle from The Abyss) that splash and dive freely alongside the Dawn Treader. These dazzling moments operate as very welcome diversions in a feature film that too often feels sadly light on amazement.

Despite being three films in, this series just isn’t hitting the crucial audience-pleasing notes required to warrant its continued existence. Although The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is perfectly inoffensive – and will provide suitably harmless entertainment for kids with free time over the holidays – it lacks the sweep, majesty and overpowering sense of awe necessary to reach the hearts and imagination of its audience. During the film’s closing it’s implied the time has come for Lucy and Edmund to leave Narnia behind and move on with their lives. The franchise’s filmmakers should probably consider following suit.

2.5 out of 5

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Epi-Cast: Episode 27 - "Rock and/or Roll!"

While it's become no doubt painfully apparent of late that the ol' Epi-Cast hasn't been sticking to its once tight-as-clockwork schedule, Cam and Tom are still battling to fit in recording sessions, amidst their packed school workloads, for your entertainment. Call them heroes, if you must. However, they prefer the term Supreme Galactic Overlords of Awesomness Squared. They're just modest like that.

Epi-Cast: Episode 27 - "Rock and/or Roll!"

In this pre-holiday extravaganza, recorded just prior to final exams/projects, the suitably stellar stalwarts of snarky cinematic speech-ifying roll out a special episode jam-packed with poorly prepared filmic chatter. Want to know if Danny Boyle's 127 Hours moved either of them to tears? Well, right click and save my good man/woman! Also on the agenda: Cam weighs in on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and Winter's Bone, while Tom tackles the tremendous period epics Agora and Centurion. They also band together - Wonder Twins style - to discuss the recent trailers for Green Lantern, Cowboys & Aliens, Battle: Los Angeles and Source Code and, in a rare - and slightly unsettling - moment of tender nostalgia, name their favourite Christmas movies. Forget the blu-rays, gift cards, clothes and Xbox crap, this here's the true Christmas gift destined to bring happiness to one and all! Ho Ho Ho!

To download, simply right-click and save on the green episode title above. Then you are free to indulge in one of the wild web's most fantabulous mp3 treasures.

P.S. We are also available on iTunes! We kid you not! Simply do a store search for "Epi-Cast" and, BRUNDLE-GOLDBLUM!, you can subscribe to our feed and receive insta-dl's (Geek-speak for downloads). Oh, and we are the "Epi-Cast", not the "Epicast." Profound interpretations of the Bible will probably not be given here. That said, never say never.

P.P.S. Don't hesitate to leave a review on our iTunes page. As always, we sincerely welcome your glowing praise/scorching venom!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Top 5 Greatest Train Thrillers

With Tony Scott’s runaway train crowd-pleaser Unstoppable opening in multiplexes across the globe this weekend, it seemed like an opportune time to reflect on how the now fairly antiquated form of travel has colored the cinematic art-form.

As film history junkies may recall, the train famously ushered in the cinematic age in 1896 when Auguste and Louis Lumière legendarily terrified an unwitting audience with one-minute of footage, titled L'arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat, depicting a locomotive charging towards the camera. The experiment served as a fitting kick off for the exciting new visual medium and later led, in 1903, to the very first narrative picture, The Great Train Robbery.

While the train, chugging purposely across the rails, became instantly iconic, the film industry fell equally in love with the romance associated with train travel. The collective cinematic consciousness is forever imprinted with images of cozy private cabins, tasteful dining cars and steam-drenched stations. The train offered passengers a means of achieving freedom, adventure or true love, as well as inspiring heartbreak and danger. Who can forget Bogart standing alone on the rainy train-station platform waiting for Ingrid Bergman? Or the infectious romantic hijinx depicted in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot? Hitchcock adored trains, utilizing them in classics like Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt and North by Northwest, and the James Bond series is peppered with scenes aboard travelling coaches.

So, in tribute to the most cinematic mode of travel, I’ve compiled a list of the Top 5 Greatest Train Thrillers. Don’t bother looking for movies like Back to the Future III or Mission: Impossible below, though. These films don’t simply use trains as a prop or as part of a slick set-piece, they set the majority of their action aboard the majestic transports, pulling audiences out of the popcorn-scented confines of the cineplex (or living room) into an insular, nostalgia-tinged world that’s almost always in motion.

5) Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995) - While this is hands down the cheesiest entry on the list, Steven Seagal’s return appearance as ass-kicking Navy chef Casey Ryback is actually one of the most enjoyably over-the-top Die Hard clones produced in the 90s. Facing off against loopy hacker Eric Bogosian and lethal mercenary Everett McGill, Seagal is in fine form, snapping limbs, unloading guns and delivering whispered wisecracks with admirable aplomb. Dark Territory also deserves credit for the creative means in which it dispatches its motley crew of villainous goons, many of which experience the very worst that can come from being careless atop a speeding train. Although the flick kinda jumps the tracks into bad CG-hell during the climax, this second Under Siege moves at a full clip and offers action-fans the exact ride they were no doubt hoping for.

4) Runaway Train (1985) - The film most noticeably similar to Unstoppable (The Denzel Washington flick even bore the same title during shooting), Andrey Konchalovskiy’s Runaway Train stars Jon Voight and Eric Roberts as a pair of escaped convicts who find themselves trapped on an out-of-control Alaskan locomotive without an engineer or even brakes. Teaming up with a young railroad worker (Rebecca De Mornay, an early crush of mine), the two prisoners must put aside their own self-interests in order to survive long enough to enjoy their newly-found freedom. Both Voight and Roberts received Oscar nods for their impressive work in Train, which is the rare big-budget thriller that trusts its characters, not the spectacle, to do the driving.

3) Murder on the Orient Express (1974) – The great Ingrid Bergman won a third Oscar for her supporting turn in this cheeky Agatha Christie adaptation directed by heavyweight auteur Sidney Lumet. Bergman’s character, a timid Swedish missionary, is but one of a handful of murder suspects being interrogated aboard the attractive titular train by unorthodox sleuth Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) over the brutal death of businessman Richard Widmark. While Orient doesn’t fit within the thriller genre as tidily as the other four entries, Lumet and Finney give each verbal showdown its own distinct feel and captivating energy, and the filmmaker steadily raises the stakes to near-dizzying levels. Co-starring esteemed talents such as Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Jacqueline Bisset and Vanessa Redgrave, Murder on the Orient Express is an enthralling first-class affair.

2) The Narrow Margin (1952) – Arguably the most obscure title on the Top 5, this Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green, Fantastic Voyage) film noir is a lean, mean, 70-minute exercise in tension and black humor. The picture follows hard-edged cop Walter Brown (gravel-gargling Charles McGraw) as he attempts to safely transport a gangster’s moll-turned-informant from Chicago to L.A. aboard a crowded train populated with ruthless assassins and mysterious characters who may not be who they seem. Brimming with sharp dialogue and surprising twists, The Narrow Margin is a memorably sly entertainment that’s well worth hunting down.

1) The Lady Vanishes (1938) – One of Hitchcock’s finest masterworks, Vanishes stars Margaret Lockwood as a rich young woman who discovers that a fellow passenger, a kindly elderly lady played by Dame May Whitty, has, well, vanished without a trace. However, as she attempts to convince those around her that the senior traveler has disappeared, she comes to realize that no one aboard will admit to ever having seen the woman in the first place. Equal parts psychological thriller and espionage tale, The Lady Vanishes displays all of the wit, charm, suspense and technical daring one can expect from a film bearing the brilliant director’s fine name. An unforgettable classic on any list.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Epi-Cast: Episode 26 - "Yay-O for the Trej-O!"

Sweet Salamander Salsa! September has crashed upon us like an unholy space chunk and school's back in session. And with this transition, germs are upon us, infecting all of those who dare enter into the hallowed halls of academic learning. Take Cam and Tom, for example. Usually perched squarely atop the ball, the duo spend their return to the podcast world hacking, sniffling and whining about their fall from grace. Yup, it's another infectious Epi-Cast, here to ease the pain of homework and pop quizzes!

Epi-Cast: Episode 26 - "Yay-O for the Trej-O!"

Burying their faces in jumbo-sized Kleenex's, the premiere princes of pithy podcasting once again take their place upon their lofty cyber-thrones and reign down judgment on the latest Hollywood offerings dosey-doe-ing into theatres as we speak. In a half-assed bit of critical analysis, the two use the word "fun" 134 times while describing Robert Rodriguez's Trejo-tastic Mexploitation epic Machete. Additionally, Cam weighs in on both Ben Affleck's second directorial effort The Town and the latest Resident Evil (now in 3D) instalment, while Tom highlights a couple random rental choices in Hot Tub Time Machine and the 1964 Michael Caine classic Zulu. In the newest "Trailer Park Encounters" segment there's plenty of discussion on Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, Uwe Boll's Auschwitz (!!!), David O. Russell's Mark Wahlberg boxing epic The Fighter and Todd Bridges' Robert Downey Jr./Zach Galifianakis buddy-road movie Due Date. Plus, as filler, the two discuss their worst theatre experiences. Enjoy! *Coughs*

To download, simply right-click and save on the green episode title above. Then you are free to indulge in one of the snazzy net's most fantabulous mp3 glories.

P.S. We are also available on iTunes! We kid you not! Simply do a store search for "Epi-Cast" and, QUINTO-QUASAR!, you can subscribe to our feed and receive insta-dl's (Geek-speak for downloads). Oh, and we are the "Epi-Cast", not the "Epicast." Profound interpretations of the bible will not be given here. Or at least not intentionally...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Epi-Cast: Episode 25 - "The Dream Team"

...aaaaand here we go again with another cherry-scented blast of filmic irreverence (okay, mostly idiocy)! This time around we delve into Inception, the film which stood the best chance - after Piranha 3D, of course - at redeeming this whole sub-par movie season and allowing us to trudge into the grim early days of September with heads high and chests puffed. Did it succeed and manage to tickle the ever un-tickle-able Tom? Is it at least a good lead in to Eat, Pray, Love and Takers? Only one way to find out senor, and that's to do some d-l-in' and get hip to the buzz. Our buzz!!!
Out of practice and worn down by the suffocating summertime heat and toil of full-time work, Cam and Tom finally get around to reviewing Chris Nolan's Inception, and the results are nothing less than, um, all over the map (But entertainingly so!) In addition, Cam reviews the indie hit The Kids Are All Right and the hit Swedish import The Girl Who Played With Fire (And badly mangles his attempt at synopsizing the latter's convoluted storyline). Apparently uninterested with staying up-to-date, Tom looks to the past for inspiration - finding the 1973 classic The Day of The Jackal to be worth shining a light on, along with the 2008 Ben Kingsley effort Fifty Dead Men Walking. The duo also make the most of another "Trailer Park Encounters" segment by analyzing what could be the finer points of Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, Guillermo del Toro's Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark, the Ed Norton/Bobby De Niro joint Stone and Yogi God Damn Bear. Finally, as a fun bonus, the two hosts recount some of their most awkward film-watching experiences.

To download, simply right-click and save on the green episode title above. Then you are free to indulge in one of the interthingy's most glorious holy of mp3 holies.

P.S. We are also available on iTunes! We kid you not! Simply do a store search for "Epi-Cast" and, OSMOSIS-JONES!, you can subscribe to our feed and receive insta-dl's (Geek-speak for downloads). Oh, and we are the "Epi-Cast", not the "Epicast." Profound interpretations of the bible will not be given here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Epi-Cast: Episode 24 - "To Critique A Predator"

Is it just me or has this summer's cinematic offerings been seriously underwhelming. I mean, yeah, Toy Story 3 was a magical odyssey for the young and old alike (blah, blah, blah) and Iron Man 2 was fun, but Prince of Persia? Robin Hood? Get Him to the Greek? Shrek Forever After? Knight and Day? I mean, even the semi-decent ones in that pile aren't exactly worth leaving the safe confines of your barred-and-gated homes for. Sure, Inception is only days away, but can one film single-handedly redeem an entire season? I suppose we shall see. In the meantime, in a half-assed effort to remind our adoring audience that we are in fact still alive, myself and my loyal and snarky co-host Tom Wytrwal have convened to spit out another dash of mp3 brilliance in order to help lift your tragically weighed-down spirits. We're just considerate like that.

Epi-Cast: Episode 24 - "To Critique A Predator"

Despite having suffered through two terrible Alien Vs. Predator spin-offs and a lousy 1990 Gary Busey-fronted sequel, Cam and Tom return for a rumble in the space jungle with producer Robert Rodriguez's Predators. Does it live up to the 1987 Schwarzenegger original? Tune in and find out. In addition, the duo begin carving a tombstone for M. Night Shyamalan's career while trashing The Last Airbender, as well as discuss the disastrous Jonah Hex, the surprisingly awesome Karate Kid and the critically-loved documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. For no apparent reason, they also spent an unnecessary amount of time yammering on about From Paris With Love. Plus, in Trailer Park Encounters they weigh in on the latest promotional clips for David Fincher's The Social Network, the Bruce Willis/Helen Mirren action comedy Red and Michel Gondry and Seth Rogen's intriguing/troubling Green Hornet. Good golly goombas, I guarantee the glorious results are a hippin-hoppin' hollerin' hootenany for all.

To download, simply right-click and save on the green episode title above. Then you are free to indulge in one of the interweb's most glorious audio-based holy of holies.

P.S. We are also available on iTunes! We kid you not! Simply do a store search for "Epi-Cast" and, GORO-MOTARO!, you can subscribe to our feed and receive insta-dl's (Geek-speak for downloads). Oh, and we are the "Epi-Cast", not the "Epicast." Avoid those blundering buffoons like a gaggle of carnivorous blue-footed boobies.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Another Summer in Amity: 35 Years of JAWS, Day 5: JAWS: THE REVENGE

As unthinkable as it seems now, there was a point in time when a fourth Jaws film seemed like a good idea to someone. How and why is hard to determine, but it would seem that Universal decided, a few years after the release of Jaws 3-D, that the cracks in the franchise were repairable and that audiences would be game for another installment involving the Brody clan’s increasingly preposterous ongoing war with enormous man-eating fish. Apparently, the studio decided to scapegoat the third entry for the diminishing returns of the series, and felt it necessary to essentially ret-con the SeaWorld-tastic events of the past and return to the peaceful, sleepy town of Amity once more. After all, how could the public resist such a tempting cinematic treat?

Supervising the resurrection of the great beast was Joseph Sargent, helmer of hits like The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and the Burt Reynolds’ fave White Lightning, who’d transitioned into the television industry by the dawn of the 1980s. He would be both directing and producing the project, dubbed Jaws: The Revenge, and bringing to life a script by Michael De Guzman, an untested feature-film-writer who had previously penned two episodes of the Steven Spielberg-created NBC series Amazing Stories. Seemingly aware of where the property had gone astray, Sargent decided that it was imperative the new movie be character-based and continue the story developed over the course of the first two chapters.

Hence, Lorraine Gary was hired to reprise her role as Ellen Brody, while Lance Guest - of Last Starfighter fame - was signed to play her eldest son Michael, and Michael Caine as her dashing devil-may-care romantic interest. Purportedly, Roy Scheider was also asked back so he could be served up to the shark as an appetizer in the flick’s opening scene. Shocking as it may seem, he was able to resist the lofty offer and instead the script was altered so that Sean Brody (nasally Mitchell Anderson – light years away from Jaws 3-D’s douchey cowboy John Putch) would be the sacrificial victim.

Following a bumpy production period in Martha’s Vineyard, Nassau and the Universal back-lot, Sargent was forced to reassemble his cast and crew to reshoot the ending of the film following disapproving test audience feedback – a complication which would wind up preventing Michael Caine from accepting his Best Supporting Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters in person (He later joked that though he never saw the results of his hard labor, he had “seen the house that it built, and it is terrific!”). When Jaws: The Revenge was at last unleashed onto the unsuspecting populace on July 17th, 1987 it was met with a hailstorm of harsh critical barbs and middling box-office, grossing just 20-million domestically and 31-million in foreign ticket-sales. Routinely named one of the worst films of all time, the film ultimately proved to be the final devastating blow for the franchise – as well as Joseph Sargent’s motion picture career - and a source of ironic hilarity for untold numbers of bad movie fans. On a more positive note, though, it also inspired a seriously addictive NES game and a brilliant Richard Jeni comedy routine.

The epic saga that is Jaws: The Revenge begins in picturesque Amity Island around Christmas time. While children sing heart-warming carols in the chilly open air, Chief Sean Brody (Anderson), who has followed in his now-deceased dear dad’s law-keeping footsteps, is called to investigate an errant log floating in the harbor. But no sooner has the poor sap hooked the chunk of timber than his entire arm has disappeared down the cavernous maw of a gigantic great white shark. In precious little time, the rest of his gnarled form follows suit. Did the evil animal create the wood-y diversion to catch him? (No, seriously, did it? I still have no idea) Well, crazy old lady Brody thinks it did, much to the concern of surviving son Michael (Guest) and his artist wife Carla (Karen Young). So, to cheer up the grieving matriarch, the couple invites her back to their home in Nassau, where Michael and his colleague Jake (Mario Van Peebles) are conducting research on conch snails for a Marine Biology PhD project. Flying them there is Hoagie (Caine), a mysterious pilot with a live-for-the-moment mentality and an astonishing tolerance for listening to hysterical middle-aged women spout screwball theories about ocean-dwelling carnivores.

However, apparently eager to back up Mrs. Brody’s claims, the colossal finned culprit has made the speedy journey from the east coast of the USA to the Bahamas in about two days. That is one determined fish! Rather than reunite itself with Ellen, though, the bulky creature reveals itself to Jake and Michael, who, rather recklessly, decide to abandon their trivial sea-snails in favor of secretly studying the predator instead (Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think PhD research grants quite work that way…). Despite not telling anyone of their covert research mission, Mrs. Brody senses something is wrong and is plagued by visions, nightmares and sepia-toned flashbacks to events which she wasn’t actually present to witness (The novelization states that this is due to the shark being controlled by a voodoo witch doctor, but the film isn’t quite so clear or boldly off-the-wall).

Possibly bored of swimming around doing nothing for weeks on end, the shark finally makes its presence known, interrupting the public unveiling of Carla’s latest dangerous-looking, jagged metal statue, and chowing down on a banana-boat-riding extra. Her deranged beliefs confirmed, Ellen hijacks Michael’s sailboat in order to feed herself to the shark – a loony plan which Michael, Hoagie and Jake justifiably disagree with and attempt to prevent. After attaching some sort of tracker thingie to the monster, Jake is killed (or not, depending on the version you’re watching) and the remaining trio ram the mast of the boat into the inexplicably-roaring shark causing it to spontaneously explode. We’re then treated to a recycled clip from Jaws showing its corpse sinking to the ocean floor. Then the Brody family lives happily ever after. Well, except for Sean Brody, what with the being dead and all.

Taken as a stupid whole, Jaws: The Revenge is like the most unbearable type of fan-fiction (I should know, I wrote an awful Jaws 5 outline when I was 11); assuming that a great sequel story can be made by simply ripping off the original’s most iconic scenes and inserting random obscure references to please the die-hards (Both Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fierro) and Amity council member Mrs. Taft (Fritzi Jane Courtney) have brief cameos sitting in Ellen’s living room) Although Sargent and De Guzman obviously worship Spielberg’s 1975 smash, their fawning reverence is like an anchor weighing their movie down, preventing it from being its own unique entity. Consider the father/child mimic scene, which was a heartfelt, poignant moment in Jaws, and is replicated here between Michael and his daughter Thea (Judith Barsi) almost shot-for-shot. Whereas the first film used the scene as a character-driven emotional release, introducing it at the precise time it was needed, Revenge just plunks it in haphazardly during a listless gap between shark incidents. Rather than engage in thoughtful, organic storytelling with multi-layered individuals, the film plays like an abbreviated series of perfunctory story beats that have no real aim or purpose beyond barely filling up three acts.

Even though the picture is intended to be thrilling adventure tale, the shark is almost a non-entity during the run-time and nothing exciting or interesting really happens to the characters. Instead, Jaws: The Revenge plays like a really dull soap opera in which everyone carries on tedious expository speeches and exhibits stereotypical movie behavior in order to cause badly-written crises and arguments to occur. How else to explain Michael and Jake’s idiotic behavior regarding their deadly science project? If your brother had recently been devoured alive, would you really take part in unprotected dives with a visibly hostile predator? Especially after it’d already come close to killing you once? And wouldn’t it be a wise idea to warn local authorities that there’s an aggressive man-eater in the vicinity? Lord knows, banana-boat woman would probably have benefited from a small word of caution.

Sargent occasionally tries to spice up the suffocating dreariness with a few inconsequential shark encounters, but he’s working with a robot that wouldn’t be out of place at a Chucky Cheese restaurant. It moves drunkenly, has a coarse plastic complexion, emits laughable guttural groans and is often quite evidently suspended above the water. At one point, you can even see a cable pulling it. Whereas Spielberg and Szwarc understood the limitations of the mechanism, Sargent shoots it from every possible angle – frequently altering its scale in the process - and has it commit physically impossible acts such as remaining stationary and standing on the tip of its tail in the water. It’s never scary or menacing, rarely appealing and almost always distractingly phony. Arriving a dozen years after the original design, one would have to be as nutty as Mrs. Brody to consider this progress.

In the end, Jaws: The Revenge is little more than a pathetic, whimpering finish to a once endearing film series. Although I don’t think that it was Sargent’s primary intention to cheaply manipulate the audience by calculatingly exploiting their fondness for the first Jaws, his under-baked, soggy final product seems to indicate otherwise. Rather than accomplish its sole objective of keeping the profitable Universal’s property afloat, Revenge sends the entire franchise spiraling into the same blackened abyss previously reserved for inert, decimated shark carcasses. Given the direction it was headed, perhaps its best to just be thankful for a speedy mercy killing, no matter how unintentional.

Shark Bites:

Shark-tality Count: 2 or 3 (depending on the version) – Sean Brody, Banana boat woman, Jake (Current DVDs feature this character surviving, while some theatrical cuts and TV versions end with him taking an exploratory dive down the shark’s gullet.)

Best Toothy Kill: Sean Brody, I guess. You’d think that having such a low-kill count would at least inspire the filmmakers to put some effort into the measly few they have. Sadly, you’d be sorely wrong. Certainly Brody’s actual death is nothing to write home about, but it’s elevated a bit by being crosscut with children singing Christmas carols. Oh, the cruel irony of it all.

Worst Toothy Kill: Jake. His survival in certain versions is utterly moronic, but his demise is no better. His death is intended to have a similar impact as Quint in Jaws but any drama is annihilated by the shark inexplicably standing on its tail and the Jake clumsily tripping ass-backwards off the ship’s mast.

How the Shark Finally Bites It: (Also depending on version) Ummm... I’m not exactly sure. It’s hit with the mast of the Brody clan’s sail-ship and detonates without warning or cause. One cut of the flick just features the shark being impaled (which is still goofy but at least sorta makes sense visually) whereas the other requires a team of analysts working around the clock JFK-style to decipher.

Climactic Words to Chew On: Courtesy of a pointless sepia-toned flashback, we once again get to hear Chief Brody utter his classic “Smile you son of a...” Needless to say, the impact is considerably dulled.

Shark-splosion Rating (Out of 10): Impaling demise: 3.0, Random explosion demise: 1.0

Overall Film Rating: 1 out of 5

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Another Summer in Amity: 35 Years of JAWS, Day 4: JAWS 3-D

Originally, during their development of a Jaws 2 follow-up, executive producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown had a very different plan in regards to the direction a third series’ entry should take. The duo were of the opinion that audiences would no longer be able to accept the premise of yet another shark arriving in Amity at all seriously, so the film best not either. Their cracker-jack plan? To produce a spoof film, along the lines of Young Frankenstein or Airplane!, called Jaws 3, People 0. The duo were so certain that this was the correct approach that they hired on Animal House producer Matt Simons and commissioned National Lampoon writers John Hughes (Yes, that John Hughes!) and Todd Carroll to conjure up a script.

However, Universal, not pleased to see that its high-banking tent-pole property was being turned into an ironic joke, shut down the production and fought for a more conventional threequel. This clash of opposing ideas ultimately led to Brown and Zanuck abandoning the project altogether, and the studio turning the fishy franchise over to exec producer Alan Landsburg (responsible for such masterworks as Porky’s II: The Next Day and Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo), who nabbed up Guerdon Trueblood’s story outline - which involved a shark becoming trapped in a lake after a poorly-navigated migration – and handed it off to series scribe Carl Gottlieb, Legend of the Lone Ranger screenwriter Michael Kane and author Richard Matheson (Yes, that Richard Matheson!) for expansion and polishing. It’s unknown how many versions of the script were cranked out, or which lasting elements came from which writer, but Matheson has been quoted as saying that the final screenplay as we know it was essentially cobbled together by uncredited studio script doctors.

Although Zanuck and Brown had briefly flirted with employing helmer Joe Dante - whose cheeky 1978 B-movie Piranha had proved to be a cult hit - their dismissal led to this tantalizing possibility evaporating into thin Hollywood air. Instead, the studio chose to seat Joe Alves, the franchise’s capable production designer, who also oversaw second-unit shooting on the first sequel, in the director’s chair, with a stipulation that the film be shot for 3-D so as to compete with popular trashy horror flicks like Friday the 13th Part III. While none of the original cast was expected to reprise their roles, Roy Scheider allegedly ran screaming towards Blue Thunder just to ensure that he’d be unavailable if Universal came a-calling. Instead, the lead was handed over to an unknown, named Dennis Quaid, who would play Chief Brody’s all grown-up son Michael, with support coming from Bess Armstrong, newcomer Lea Thompson (Just two years shy of Back to the Future) and recent An Officer and a Gentlemen Academy Award-winner Louis Gossett Jr.

Released under the oh-so-cheesy moniker Jaws 3-D on July 22nd, 1983, the water-logged effort (Which, to be fair, did have a really wicked teaser trailer) would end up generating just under half the worldwide box-office of Jaws 2, bringing in 45-million US and 42-million overseas. Though not a financial disaster by any means, it was readily apparent that the series had slipped out of the cultural zeitgeist and was unlikely to recover it’s once illustrious status. Just to further hammer home this point, at the close of the year the flick would garner five Razzie nominations,
for film, director, screenplay, supporting actor (Gossett Jr.) and newcomer (the movie’s two dolphin sidekicks). This, of course, would have little bearing on the regrettable decision to green- light a fourth film a few years later.

Abandoning the calm environs of Amity Island, Jaws 3-D transplants the aquatic action to balmy Orlando, Florida, where none-too-bright businessman Calvin Bouchard (Gossett Jr.) – who, judging by the actor’s tenuous accent, may or may not hail from New Orleans – is opening up a colossal new SeaWorld(™) theme park. Folks, this park has it all; an Undersea Kingdom decorated with hokey mechanical eels and tentacles, a water show featuring trick-skiers in lederhosen performing a human pyramid, a pair of wacky dolphins named Cindy and Sandy and a plausibility-busting 35-foot man-eating great white shark. Obviously that last attraction isn’t an intentional addition, but its present nonetheless, alongside its cute lil’ 10ft off-spring, and making short work of greasy-looking maintenance workers and inept coral robbers. Thank the heavens, then, that Philip FitzRoyce (Simon MacCorkidale) is on the scene! He’s a hotshot British photographer/hunter who feels the best method of dealing with the problem is massacring the beast on live television for publicity. While logic would seem to dictate that most media outlets and animal protection groups would be rather upset by a high-profile zoo murdering a protected animal for entertainment purposes, Bouchard is a dope, so he’s fine with the deal.

Enter the sole voices of reason: Kathryn Morgan (Armstrong), a senior biologist eager to contain and study the creature, and Michael Brody (Quaid), her boyfriend and the park’s engineer, who mostly stands around and does nothing. Oh, a cowboy-hat-wearing Sean Body (John Putch) is also kicking around, alongside his barfly professional-skier girlfriend (Thompson), but they don’t really add much to the already convoluted equation. After Kathryn and FitzRoyce capture and sedate Jaws Jr. during an unnecessarily dangerous night-hunt, the biologist attempts to nurse it back to health. But Bouchard wants moolah, dammit, so he puts the sick shark on public display. Where it promptly dies. This ensures that Momma Shark is officially pissed and she begins attacking the Undersea Kingdom, to woefully unsatisfying effect. FitzRoyce, ever the wannabe hero, attempts to lure the creature into the pump system, but brings along rope that’s about as strong as a wet noodle. Hence, he winds up mashed to a pulp. In a confusing last-ditch crack at saving the day, Michael Brody does some high-stakes welding, which proves pointless when the shark, shortly after, attacks the underwater control-room holding himself, Kathryn and Bouchard. All is looking grim until they notice FitzRoyce’s arm flopping around the behemoth’s maw, still clutching a grenade. Utilizing a rudimentary hook, they pull the pin and KA-BLOOEY!!!, the shark dies, Cindy and Sandy celebrate in high-pitched dolphin fashion and Bouchard vanishes without a trace. The end. Or is it?

Jaws 3-D is a pretty terrible movie, albeit a pretty terrible movie that’s strangely watchable. Indeed, there is so much camp on display that it makes for a thoroughly amusing “Bad Movie Night” choice. From the laughably ludicrous 3-D effects themselves (Not only do we get eternity-length shots of dead fish, butchered arms and cartoony-looking sharks, but also Pussy willows and plastic tri-pronged spears!) to the painfully awkward acting and wretched dialogue (Bouchard: “Well, you know, uh, it's that old shark screen, the bubble screen. You know, shark's don't like that. It's what they call, uh, marine segregation”), you’re guaranteed a solid 99-minutes of incompetent hilarity. To take it a step further, I’m even going to declare that if you don’t collapse into a spastic bundle of giggles during the climactic scene where the great white “smashes” through the glass barrier protecting the control-room, you, sir or ma’am, have no soul!

It’s generally acknowledged that the shark grows more and more fake-looking with each installment, and this film truly doesn’t disappoint in making the once fearsome predator resemble a taxidermy patient. Rarely moving at all, the creature inches along at a crawl in almost every scene it’s featured in. Whereas, in the first two entries, there was brutality and speed to its attacks, in Jaws 3-D the gilled antagonist looks logy and disinterested in prey; snacking only on those stupid enough to virtually crawl into its yawning oral cavity. It also swims backwards multiple times, which recalls crucial information given in Deep Blue Sea dictating that sharks simply can’t perform such an unnatural feat.

Certainly a large part of the blame for Jaws 3-D can be pinned on Alves (he, unsurprisingly, never directed again), whose efforts feels slack and mechanical, but the whole enterprise reeks of studio interference. It is fairly obvious that no one involved in making the movie had any real enthusiasm or inspiration for doing so other than a chance at raising Universal’s bottom-line. The tension is long gone, the players cut-rate and dull and the attack scenarios wholly unimaginative (Minus FitzRoyce’s gloriously goofy demise). Heck, even the score by Alan Parker (No, not that Alan Parker!) feels workmanlike and lifeless – a sad successor to the mighty John Williams. You know there’s something rotten in the aquarium when even the iconic Jaws theme can’t quicken your pulse an iota.

At the time, Jaws 3-D marked a new low for the franchise; a crass attempt to copycat the slasher genre with a giant fish and outrageous technological gimmickry. Gone was the attention to characterization and drama that made the first and, to a lesser degree, the second, compelling suspense pictures. Ultimately, despite boasting a gargantuan killer bearing hundreds of dagger-edged chompers, this third Jaws picture couldn’t be more toothless.

Shark Bites:

Shark-tality Count: 5 – Shelby Overman, Two black-clad coral-thieving morons in a dinghy, Philip FitzRoyce, Anonymous SeaWorld control-room tech guy.

Best Toothy Kill: Easily FitzRoyce. For all of its innumerable descents into awfulness, “Jaws 3-D” at the very least gives us something new in the kill department: a POV fatality from inside the shark’s gullet. The results are both riotously corny and insanely cool.

Worst Toothy Kill: I gotta go with Shelby Overman’s death by stupid montage. I’d probably be more willing to forgive its terrible staging if it didn’t end with a craptastic shot of the muscular, porn-moustached welder’s arm “floating” in eye-scraping 1980’s 3-D.

How the Shark Finally Bites It: Conveniently positioned hand grenade – still gripped in FitzRoyce’s cold, dead hand, no less - lodged in the creature’s throat.

Climactic Words to Chew On: As the entire finale is filmed underwater, in silence, we only get a few rather underwhelming breathing sounds and gurgles.

Shark-splosion Rating (Out of 10): 4.0 (Extra point added for silly-looking shot of shark’s jaws flying towards audience.)

Overall Film Rating: 1.5 out of 5