Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Evil Dead

I'll swalla ya soul!

It may come as a shock to people, but I feel it necessary to open up with this confession; I’m not a fan of The Evil Dead.

I’ll give you a moment to compose yourselves. See, I think Evil Dead 2 is an unmitigated masterpiece and I’ve seen Army of Darkness a few dozen times thanks to the Oscar-worthy performance of Bruce Campbell. But I have always found the first Evil Dead to have a tone that I couldn’t get into. It was too silly to be scary, but it wasn’t silly enough to be funny. Sure, there’s a lot of the inventive camera work and energy that would put Sam Raimi on the road to becoming the captain of blockbusters he is today, but for the most part I’ve always seen it as a pretty run of the mill, low-budget 80s horror film. And of those films, it has never struck me as the rip-roaring, tree-raping, scream-inducing good time that a lot of cult cinema fans have found it to be. I’ve always found it to be one of the rare instances in which the sequels are unquestionably better than the original film. Understandably so, given it was Raimi’s first film.

Perhaps that’s why, while I was not particularly enthused when it was announced that there would be a remake, my head did not fully rotate 360 degrees from my outrage while steam poured from my ears. Besides, Evil Dead 2 is basically a remake of the first film. The first twenty minutes or so of it, anyway. I just kind of figured it would be another case of a 70s/80s horror film being remade, maybe managing to spit out a sequel, and then slowly migrating into the dollar DVD bin at Wal-Mart while the original continues to be the one that people think of when the name is brought up. (Looking at you, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, Texas Chainsaw Massacre…)

One thing that does seem to initially cause a seismic shift in that way of thinking is that Raimi, along with his old cohorts Campbell and Rob Tapert, are producers of this particular installment in what apparently is taking a calculated move from “cult favorite that died off when Army of Darkness didn’t make money” to “franchise.” Since Raimi is busy making mediocre movies with James Franco, we are instead being led by first time director Fede Alvarez. Honestly, I’m still trying to decide how good a job he did. There are definitely scares in the movie, mostly of the “jump” variety, but the tension never ratchets up to the levels it could under the hands of a more seasoned director. Also some of the performances are stiff and wooden, especially Shiloh Fernandez as the male lead, David. Doing much better (though with some questionable moments kept in that I can’t quite blame her for) is Jane Levy as his sister Mia, a heroin addict taken to the cabin in the woods by David, his girlfriend, and a couple of old friends: a stubborn nurse and a dick high school teacher. They’re finally getting her sober and making her stick to it. What follows is a film that never quite seems like a straight remake, but is never original enough to not be a remake. Shots and plot devices are stolen directly from the first two films in the original trilogy, which acted as a double edged sword; part of me thought the references were fun, while part of me was taken out of the movie by them. Not to mention, there are a couple of things in the film that point to it being a direct sequel to the original series, which makes little sense under any kind of continuity. (But which Raimi’s subsequent comments on how the story is planned to move forward, and a tiny stinger after the end credits, seems to substantiate.)

In some ways, it’s hard to watch this kind of film in a post-Cabin in the Woods world. That film did such a good job skewering this exact kind of film, while also elevating it, that I almost expected Richard Jenkins to suddenly show up after a jump cut. Perhaps this is another reason that the film seems to purposefully shy away from any self-referential humor, though I think it was in production before Cabin finally was released. It’s odd, but the clumsily obvious metaphor of the demons of drug addiction is one of the things that seems to work well in differentiating it from the original series and, thanks to Levy’s performance, ultimately helps the film, grounding it before the supernatural shenanigans start, thanks to the dick teacher reading from the Naturom Demonto, a generic brand version of the original Book of the Dead, seemingly designed by a metal album cover artist and defaced by a kid in study hall.

One thing that is not in short supply is gore. A lot of the movie just plain hurts to watch. There is a balancing act that is mostly pulled off, in which gore goes from gooey and weird to ultra realistic. Once again, it creates a bit of a tonal issue for me, like the original film does. But when it is just going for squirm-inducing moments, the lack of CGI absolutely helps sell the pain. It is not a film for the easily queasy. There were a couple of moments that had me thinking about covering my eyes and I’m even a bit surprised it managed to get an R-rating.

By the ending, the film does go very over the top. It is obvious the tone is still not intended to be overly comedic, but without daring reveal anything about it, the finale is crazy enough that it is exciting and fun. It was here that things seemed to really gel for me and the film ultimately won me over. I’m not sure exactly what it was that got me over the hump, but things just finally merged into a whole that made me curious to see what is to come from the already announced sequel.

(Three damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Jurassic Park

Admit it. You hear John William's score right now in your head.

I still remember seeing Jurassic Park for the first time. It seemed to take forever for the small Jayhawk Theater in Atwood, Kansas to bring it to us, but that was the norm for a single-screen theater in a tiny midwestern town (pop. approx. 1,350.) Or maybe it just felt that long because I wanted to see it so bad. As a dinosaur-obsessed kid grown into a junior high student, I quite loved the film. Actually, “it blew my widdle mind” might be more accurate. I remember getting the VHS as soon as it was released and putting it on while some people were visiting our home, including a girl that was staying with our guests as a foreign exchange student. She seemed bored by the whole idea of a dinosaur movie… until that brachiosaur lumbered across the screen and she let loose with a breathy ‘wow.’

I’d already read the book. It remains my second all-time favorite novel, right behind The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and it made me a lifelong fan of Michael Crichton’s particular brand of thriller. This is not to say that the movie and the book match up, of course. They’re two completely different kinds of pleasures. The book, with it’s indepth philosophical examination of mankind’s ego in his supposed control over or destruction of nature, only scratched upon in the film by comparison, and the explosive finale that contrasts with the crowd-pleasing antics of Steven Spielberg vary to a large degree. But thanks to Crichton adapting his own story with David Koepp, the movie is very much it’s own animal. Despite the fact that the ‘new’ ending makes absolutely no sense, it’s hard not to love it.

Now, on the twentieth anniversary of the its release, we have it back in theaters. I suppose this isn’t so much of a review of the film, given that it is a couple of decades long in the tooth. Rather, it’s more of a reflection on the film and it’s influence on my life, in most ways. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Jurassic Park on film since 1993. Only a couple of years ago, Liberty Hall in Lawrence, where I currently live, played it as part of the town’s Christmas opening. It was a bit of a beaten-up print, but I’ll take a somewhat scratched and speckled screening of a favorite film any day over a DVD projection. I got to hear kids squeal during the velociraptor attacks as if it was brand-new. Nice to know it still has that magic for the next generation.

Like a few certain special effects spectaculars, Jurassic Park has managed to keep away a timestamp, despite excited references to CD-ROMs. The same way we don’t care that the people in King Kong don’t have cell phones, it is in some ways a ready-made period piece, the ravages of time being very kind to it thanks to the writing and the character work. But the true marvel is how well the effects have aged. While we keep being told that computer animation is improving by leaps and bounds (which can certainly be seen from instance to instance) it’s bizarre and somehow miraculous that Jurassic Park still remains one of its greatest triumphs. Part of that has to be thanks to its judicious use. Wisely, practical effects were used in a great many instances and they blend fantastically with the animation. (See the first Iron Man for another instance in which this was done to positive results.) Plus, the method of the computer animation was done old-school; the animators used stop motion techniques to animate the dinosaurs like hi-tech Harryhausens. The result manages to retain personality that is often unseen in the rubbery, boneless critters that now populate the big screen. When I read the words of internet trolls criticizing the effects in the film, I have to shake my head.

The added draw that is intended to bring out audiences who have had the film on video, DVD and now blu-ray for that last two decades is, of course, that it has been post-converted to 3D. I haven’t exactly made it a secret in the past that I am not a fan of that particular brand of 3D, preferring to only go to films that were intended for and natively filmed in the format. Of the post-converted films I’ve seen, only a couple have really managed to not support my feelings on the matter. Most are dark, blurry messes.
I would be lying if I didn’t say Jurassic Park was the best conversion job I’ve seen. I’m sure the time they had to get it right certainly helps matters. While there are certainly examples of the film succumbing to the problems inherent in the process like softening of details and blur, the people behind the transformation have done a surprisingly good job of making it seem like it was intended to be this way. Depth of field is applied very well, not just in the wide expanses of the park, but in the indoor scenes and even close ups. The infamous Tyrannosaurus sequence, still one of the best bits in cinema history, makes spectacular use of the rain and dark where these criteria would usually play havoc with the attempt and it was obviously treated with tender loving care.

I absolutely recommend seeing this movie again in the theater, with or without 3D. It retains its scares, it’s tension and its humor and remains a jewel in Spielberg’s crown.

(Five damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: John Dies at the End

Spoiler alert!

Having never taken psychotropic and/or psychedelic drugs, I can only imagine what it is like to dose myself so heavily in mind-bending pharmaceuticals as to make Timothy Leary look like a tea-totaler, but I am of the firm belief that the end result would essentially be John Dies at the End.

The new film from Bubba Ho-Tep and Phantasm mastermind Don Coscarelli,  it exudes the same kind of imaginationgasms, seeking to belie its rather obvious low budget through sheer force of will and velocity.

We meet Dave in a poorly-named Chinese restaurant, seeking to tell his impossible story to Paul Giamatti, a scribe from an unnamed publication. He explains how through the use of a designer drug called ‘Soy Sauce’ (seemingly named for it’s inky black color), he has overloaded sensory perception. It contains within it the ability to see what others can not see, do what others can not do, esp, precognition, wind, fire, all that kind of thing. No, sorry, some of those were from Egg Shen’s Six Demon Bag in Big Trouble in Little China. Regardless, he explains how he managed to accidentally expose himself and of his friendship and partnership with the title’s John, a buddy of his that draws him into the line of interdimensional fire, jumping around in his narrative like Quentin Tarantino writing a screenplay after snorting a mountain of cocaine.

His ingestion of soy sauce puts them in a position to stop an invasion from a neighbor dimension, but with so much coming at them from all directions, it won’t be a simple delineation from point A to point B.

In much the same way as last year’s Detention, this film is more concerned with ideas and energy than with making sure the narrative is completely coherent. But, also like Detention, those ideas and energy are strong enough to carry the film. It’s hard to explain how a movie like John Dies at the End can go so right where an equally incomprehensible flick like Sucker Punch gets it so wrong, but I do believe a lot of it comes down to the fact that John is, while optioning horror elements, a comedy. Along with the funny, there’s something very punk rock in it’s construction and execution, sort of like the Frighteners filtered through Repo Man.

Alongside Giamatti, the main players are Chase Williamson as Dave and Rob Mayes as John. Williamson makes a great lead for the film, somehow managing to put forth the calmest freakouts I’ve ever seen. His Dave spends a good portion of the film trying to come to grips with the bizarre things in front of him and is perfect in his portrayal of a man barely keeping it together, on the verge of screaming and running headlong into traffic. And at a certain point, there’s a fantastic visual shift as he completely changes from this normal guy in a frightening circumstance to saying “eff it” with every portion of his being and simply accepting everything that comes at him, meeting it headlong with a gun and his three-day stubble.

Mayes is more excitable as John, clearly more interested in being a part of the world-saving business. Meanwhile, an excellent supporting cast including Clancy “Lex Luthor” Brown as an infomercial guru, Glynn Turman as a detective, Fabianne Therese as Dave’s lone-handed quasi-love interest and Doug Jones (still not sure exactly what he is) round things out, each bringing their own unique brand of oddness.

Coscarelli does his best with the obviously shaky CGI work, and even some mediocre flash animation. (One would guess for the purpose of both saving money on what would be a crazy horror sequence and managing to get the film an R-rating like the anime sequence in Kill Bill.) He still manages to make things pretty visually impressive strictly from a filmic point of view.

Basically, if you’re like me and have enjoyed Coscarelli’s work in the past or if you just want to spend an evening being beaten over the head with fifteen pounds of lunacy in a ten pound sledge hammer, this one’s for you.

(Four damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Chronicle

Seattle; rain and superheroes!

Before I get into my review of the actual entertainment value of Chronicle itself, may I just make a plea to filmmakers around the world; just stop with the found footage movies. Actually, just stop with all the shaky cam, period. But most specifically I’m getting tired of the found footage format being used for everything. I’m not saying that it hasn’t produced some good films. I know that The Blair Witch Project has fallen from indie-grace, but when it came out it was admittedly unique and well made. (Save the Last Broadcast argument, I know it exists, ok?) I will continue to defend it. The problem is the copying of the format for a seemingly never-ending batch of first-person, purposely-poorly edited stuff flooding the cinema. I may have enjoyed the heck out of Cloverfield and Chronicle, but as a technique, it’s becoming hackneyed and copied far too often. By the time Supernatural did their rip-off episode, it was already in need of eulogizing. So try to find the next new thing to steal, please. Thank you.

Now, as for Max Landis’ film… There is a fine line between stupid characters and characters that do stupid things and I’m not sure where the line falls for Chronicle. It starts out promising enough and I certainly enjoyed the concept, heck, even the execution of a lot of the ending, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t have some issues with how it gets there when it comes to the character development. Granted, it’s hard to explain without spoilers a-flying, so I’ll try to skirt specifics and let any chips fall where they may with a pre-apology in case I’m actually not the last person on the planet to see the movie.

Centering a movie around a sociopath is always risky business. It becomes a little easier when you seek to be humanizing of them and their dark descent into the madness that ensnares them. As the cliche goes, absolute power corrupts and in the case of Chronicle it explores just how it does so when someone that is used to being the world’s punching bag suddenly gets the powers of a superhero.

It’s harder when it’s tough to justify the person’s choices because there seem like obvious smarter choices to make, even in the “bad choice” category. When a character is presented as having a modicum of intelligence, but then they don’t think things through at all it is aggravating.

At that point, the question becomes, “how well is the story told so that these issues can be forgiven?” In the case of Chronicle, the answer is, “well enough.”

Now I personally haven’t really had an affection for Max Landis since he put out his douchey anti-Death of Superman internet video. How does any kind of a so-called DC fan drop a steaming deuce on the awesomeness of Booster Gold? But I digress. The fact is, Landis made a pretty darn effective film about a trio of high schoolers developing telekinetic powers through contact with some mysterious, glowing, blue Maguffin in the woods.

Steve is a popular kid, big in the school sports community. Riding somewhere in the middle is Matt, a guy trying to seem cool by not caring or liking anything. And then there’s his cousin, Andrew. He’s on the bottom rungs of the social ladder, terrorized by asshats at school and in his neighborhood, plus regularly abused by his cliche drunk of a dad on disability. Presented as a cross between a Columbine Kid and the artistic weirdo in American Beauty, we are shown at the beginning of the film that he’s decided to start filming everything to chronicle (get it?!?) his life. Why he doesn’t bother to use this to, say, bring assault charges on the people slamming their meat hooks into him is never explained. But moving on…

As the trio’s powers manifest, they find themselves bonding as friends despite their differences. They experience joy in finding they can fly using their minds. But, of course, Andrew decides he’s going to use his powers to lash out. Sometimes this is at the people actually giving him grief, but he starts to be indiscriminate as he starts talking to the camera like a serial killer about being a superior predator. As he goes off the rails, he lays into the others about ‘not being his friends’ because they didn’t really know him well before getting powers, apparently being one of those people that somehow misses the point that bonding over shared experiences is exactly what leads to friendship. But hey, what’s logic when you’re an emo kid with a terrible father?

As performances go, the film does a good job all around with all three of the kids and the minor love interests all being fairly naturalistic. Michael Kelly as Andrew’s father chews scenery at a far larger capacity, but he mostly seems to exist to show up, screw things up and move on.

The most impressive thing about Chronicle is probably the economics of it. Filming in the found footage format, despite the obvious logic leaps it creates regardless of the explanations to how the footage was being collected midway through the film, no doubt has something to do with the relative lack of expense. But it’s nice that at least Landis is budget conscious. He used a fifth of what this type of film would cost in a normal shoot for a major studio. It’s the kind of filmmaking I imagine we’ll see a lot more of as belts are tightened. The effects work is, while certainly not perfect, effective and it is shows how far preparation goes in an age where throwing money at problems seems to be a preferred solution.

(Three damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Do-Deca-Pentathlon

Not what you want to see first thing in the morning. 2012 seems to be the year that a lot of movies that had been sitting on the shelf finally saw the light of day.
Cabin in the Woods and Red Dawn are the ‘sexier’ examples, (one good, one not so good) as they are the ones that hibernated due to the financial issues of MGM while Chris Hemsworth blew up into a star thanks to his role as Thor in the Marvel films and Joss Whedon finally seemed to enter the mainstream consciousness.

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is also a film that set around for a few years due to money problems, but of a different kind; the Duplass brothers (Jay and Mark, who appeared in one of my favorite films of last year, Safety Not Guaranteed) simply ran out of it. With the release of Jeff Who Lives at Home, their film with Jason Segel and Ed Helms that earned them further critical success, they’ve finally been able to go back and finish it and we should be glad they did.

An insanely low-key story of sibling rivalry, Do-Deca tells the tale of two middle-aged brothers that engaged in a contest of 25 events as teens. The competition was so fearsome (and fraught with controversy as only teenagers can experience it) that it destroyed their relationship for decades to follow. When they are suddenly thrust into the same house again, they seek to settle the score once and for all, even at the cost of all they hold dear.

The film doesn’t feature anyone that you will likely know (aside from appearances in the brothers’ other films), but the actors are perfect for their roles. Jeremy (Mark Kelly) is a professional poker player that seems to feed on competition and is constantly needling his brother to get a rise out of him. He shows up expressly (and unwantedly) for the purpose of dragging him into recreating the contest by hook or by crook. Mark (Steve Zissis) meanwhile starts the film as what one could describe as a sitcom dad. He’s the schlub with the hot wife and the sarcastic kid that seems to be utterly dumbfounded and henpecked as if he stepped out of an episode of According to Jim, except actually funny.

But that’s where they film gets interesting; in many ways these characters start out as one-dimensional archetypes, but as the film progresses, the Duplasses manage to subvert expectations as to who these people are and give you a few swerves as to what their motivations and reactions are that constitute radical shifts, but feel entirely organic.

The wife may seem like an overreacting harpy that is standing in the way of something her husband needs to get his mind right at first and in 99% of films or TV shows that would probably be the case. How many wife characters have simply seemed to exist lately to stand in the way of a male character that bumbles his way through some self-serving situation? But with Do-Deca, there is instead a sense of purpose towards trying to make sure there are no bad guys here or a neat bow of a final act, but rather a drive to tell a story that, while comical, seems to hold itself to a reality that most people aren’t simply schmucks or shrews or wacky “cool uncles” as we’re shown in a half-hour of TV. They have real motivations and needs. None of the small cast of characters are simply plot devices and it is very, very refreshing.

It is something of a shaggy film with some rough edges. Even at 75 minutes, it feels like it could be tighter. Still, that’s part of the film’s charm. Its loosey goosey editing and less than dynamic camera work for much of the runtime actually seem to help it go down smoother since it makes it feel less aggressive when it doesn’t need to be.

The film is far from a masterpiece, but it’s nice to see a little movie that can do right.

(Three damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Spring Breakers

More like Spring Broken, amIright?

Spring Breakers absolutely has its foundings in the youth gone wild pictures with titles like High School Big Shot and Kitten with a Whip, which blew through drive-ins (and onto Mystery Science Theater 3000) with their over-earnest screenplays and protagonists seeking to fill their empty lives. They would promise teens shock and titillation  while hiding behind the claim of teaching moral lessons to anyone that actually ended up paying attention by the end. Spring Breakers may be filmed with a documentary style and it has a much more morally ambiguous ending than you’d find in the 50s, but 95% of the film seems preordained from the first ten minutes, in some ways flat out telling the audience exactly what will happen if you have any experience with these types of films.

Of the four principal actresses, the most famous would probably be Selena Gomez, seeking to get from under her Disney Channel shadow. She is playing up a metaphor of her own life as the goody two-shoes girl that wants to push the boundaries and see what’s out there that she hasn’t experienced in her sheltered life. As she attends church group meetings, her enthusiasm is waning with her faith. Faith also happens to be her on-the-nose character name. Her friends, newly-minted blonde (and pink) bombshells Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical fame, Ashley Benson of Pretty Little Liars and Rachel Korine of… well, not much apparently, if her IMDB page is to be believed, we meet lounging in their dorm room, smoking weed and watching My Little Pony. Initially we are led to believe that Faith is the one that is outside the norm, but within a short while we find that she’s the only reasonable one. Gomez probably gives the best performance of the four, but she also doesn’t make it through the whole film. (Something that’s very, very telegraphed from the beginning.)

When they find that there’s not enough money between them to take their dream trip to Florida to participate in the bacchanal that is Spring Break, Faith’s friends stage a robbery of a local restaurant to get the funds. What happens when they arrive is that Spring Break is basically presented as a Caligulan orgy of booze and sex. While only one of the four actresses shows as much skin as your average Girl Gone Wild, there is no shortage of nudity in the film.

Unfortunately for the girls, while they seem to get away with the robbery, they party a little too hard in their own hotel room. Someone eventually calls the cops and they get nailed for underage drinking and narcotics charges.

But then you have James Franco. Playing ‘Alien,’ he claims to be from another planet and I’m almost inclined to believe him. His performance is so whacked out that it’s hard to tell if it’s brilliant, gonzo or both. A terrible rapper, but a pretty good drug dealer, his character bails the girls out of jail, seeking to prey on them, seeing something in them that is manipulatable. With his corn-rows, awful tattoos and teeth that make Jack Sparrow’s seem practically modest, he looks like he stepped straight out of a Gathering of the Juggalos video. While struggling to describe his character, the best thing I could come up with is that Franco is the walking embodiment of the Dynamite Hack cover of Boyz in Da Hood. And the more sincere he becomes, the more hysterical his performance is.

The problem is, I’m not sure if that’s how he is supposed to be perceived. It’s really hard to put one’s finger on the exact tone that Harmony Korine, the writer/director behind the film, is trying to set. While the film has more than it’s share of absurd and/or funny moments, it can’t break away from acting like we are supposed to be taking this very, very seriously through the direction, style and tone. Every time the film begins to look like straight-up satire as a montage streams by with one of the girls waxing philosophical about the amazing spirituality of where they are contrasting with debaucherous images, another moment would rumble in depicting the consequences of their actions with the subtlety of an after-school special. As these girls descend down a darker and darker path, I laughed a lot, but I don’t think I was supposed to laugh as much as I did. I can’t say I really recommend Spring Breakers, but I can’t deny it has moments that work and moments that are interesting, even if they don’t work. I give the film credit for not spooning out easy answers to its questions of why these three young women would dive headfirst into the world that they do despite the obvious insanity of it; seduced by violence, money and an awful, awful musician.

(Two and a half damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: G.I. Joe: Retaliation

Damn. I knew The Rock was bigger than most people, but...

I’m trying to be fair to the new G.I. Joe movie. I really am. But there are a couple of things that I have going against it from the beginning.

First off, there’s the simple fact that I was not a fan of the cartoon growing up. I never had any of the toys. I never read the Marvel comics. So really, I don’t have that unquenchable thirst for nostalgia that so many of my generation exhibits. That thirst which led to abominable Transformers sequels becoming box office juggernauts despite near-universal panning. When I was but a young ‘un, I had two loves. First was He-Man, which I watched every afternoon until I began school (and by proxy She-Ra because she was He-Man’s sister, of course.) I did try to revisit Masters of the Universe years later to see what made me love it so and could not for the life of me understand because it was awful. Chalk that one up to being six. At the time, I had segued right into my Ghostbusters obsession that kept me glued to the TV on Saturday mornings. Thankfully, this one held up better since it came from a classic movie, an OK sequel and a much better than your typical spin-off cartoon of the time that was originally driven creatively by J. Michael Straczynski back before he became the worst Superman writer in recent memory. But no Joe.

Secondly, I have not screened the original Stephen Sommers film, The Rise of Cobra. The best thing I ever seemed to hear about it was, “Well… it’s kinda fun,” so I just never got around to seeing it, despite the beckoning thrall of Sienna Miller’s fabulous leather-swaddled derriere on the box. Because of this, I have no idea how much of what didn’t make sense about the second film is due to not having that working knowledge and how much is due to not knowing the ’80s cartoon. (The first would be my fault, the second would be the film’s.) While reading about the film’s delays and troubles, I had been led to assume that one would not need to be acquainted with the first film to see this one, but there was definitely either something I was missing out on or the film did a very poor job of establishing the characters and situations. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming it’s the previous.

That said, I found Retaliation… and I hate to be an echo machine… kinda fun. The story is like something a child in his sandbox playing with his three and three-quarters figures would come up with. There’s a ton of goofy sci-fi gadgets that are as ridiculously specific as “Bat-Shark Repellant” and plot holes the size of “Prometheus.” And yet…

It definitely helps that they got an absolutely winning cast to bring this absurd world to life. Dwayne Johnson remains charismatic as ever and remains only a couple of great movies away from being this generation’s Schwarzenegger. Just as he helped bring the Fast and the Furious series back from life support, he contributes his larger than life persona here. Adrianne Palicki is an addition that I can get behind as Lady Jaye for sure. I have never been sure what to think of her as other people always seem to have found her more attractive than I do. Though I was glad to see her succeed as a fan of Supernatural from the early days. I can honestly say that she is breathtaking in Retaliation, and, even better, she gives a performance which definitely adds to what is on paper. Ray Park mostly just jumps around as Snake Eyes, but darned if he still doesn’t manage to be cool, despite how utterly ridiculous the character and his Daft Punk-ish costume are, even in the stylized universe he inhabits. (Maybe part of it is the fact that you have to love a ninja that uses guns.) Everyone else fills their spaces amiably, including Bruce Willis, who doesn’t get a ton to do as the original Joe, but still manages to be more engaging than in A Good Day to Die Hard.

Oh, I do want to give a special congratulations to Justified favorite Walton Goggins for being pure awesome in his short but memorable role.

After lots of rumors that dance movie director Jon M. Chu had screwed the pooch on this one and that it was a big part of the film’s delay, it’s hard to see anything glaringly incompetent. Certainly to the degree that people seemed to think was going to be unleashed. It seems to point more towards the explanation that reshoots were made expressly for expanding the role of Channing Tatum after his triple-crown of box office toppers last year. Most of the film seems workmanlike, though there is at least one inspired and off the wall (actually more “on the wall” if you’ve seen it) sequence involving ninjas and ziplines that is pretty darned creative. There’s nothing that seems as poorly done as some films I’ve seen in the last few months. When it comes to the performances, in many ways, he seemed to just be smart enough to let his actors do their thing and not get in the way.  The post-converted 3D doesn’t really add anything, but it’s the only non-native 3D I’ve seen besides The Avengers that doesn’t take away from the film. I guess they used their extra year to get it right.

The hard part for me is deciding what rating to give. I ultimately am choosing to go with a strong two and a half as opposed to a weak three, but I can imagine that old-school fans of the franchise will obviously get a bigger kick out of it than I do.

(Two and a half damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Stoker

And you thought The Addams were creepy.

Equal parts Asian horror, surrealist French cinema and twisted indie drama, Stoker is a film full of understated performances, bizarre actions and visual oddities.

It should come as no surprise that Stoker is, boiled down to its essentials, arty trash. Or perhaps it would be better to call it trashy art. Chan-wook Park, the Korean director making his stateside debut, is most famous for his Vengeance Trilogy, of which Oldboy, a tale of a man seemingly abducted at random off the street one night and held prisoner in a room for years (currently on the remake block with Spike Lee of all people) is the best known part. There are similar building blocks here in the darkness, menace and highly messed up family relationships that permeate, though the story and tone are far different.

When India’s father, Richard, dies on her birthday, she begins to descend down a dark path that is egged on by her enigmatic and handsome uncle Charlie. An uncle she didn’t even know she had until her father’s funeral. Matthew Goode, who was not quite right in Watchmen as Ozymandias, nails the creepy, sleazy Charlie, spending most of the run time with a bemused smirk on his face, choosing the right moments to insert himself into India’s life, much as she may attempt to push him away. Like the family’s eponymous name, he fans flames that smolder inside her, attempting to bring her to a blaze. Her mother (Nicole Kidman) was already falling apart, coinciding with the crumbling foundation of her marriage, and she begins an escalation in selfishness and hedonism that centers around her resentment of India’s closeness to her father instead of being the daughter she wanted. Bette Davis on Prozac would be an apt comparison. She manages to pack a ton of malice into her impressive performance, even more so because she does a great job of poorly trying to hide it for much of the picture. She spanks the tawdriness of her Academy-bait performance in To Die For and sends it to the corner.

Without going into the kind of detail that would ruin the surprises of the movie (there is no real twist, but the story spills forward in fits and starts), it fits well into Park’s filmography that centers on broken people with broken motivations and contains many of his trademark shocking moments that will leave you at least uncomfortable and at most disturbed. And it’s written by that guy from Prison Break. Who knew?

Mia Wasikowska, whose Victorian looks no doubt helped her land the lead role in Tim Burton’s megablockbuster sack of crap, Alice in Wonderland, brings a much deeper sense of personality as India Stoker. She displays more in the forever folded-armed character’s twitches and glances than in whole acts from Burton’s film.

Visually, the film is almost a cinematic haiku. Images from previous scenes repeat later in the movie (sometimes multiple times), flickering across the screen for moments, seeking to connect the seemingly unconnected and fold the film in on itself. In some cases, one image transitions into another through clever visual effects and in still others, scenes based on a visual idea or metaphor will fold within longer scenes with almost no sense of continuity. The movie in itself has a very loose interpretation of time, sometimes using it to advance the story, sometimes flashing back almost at random. For the most part, the confusion adds to the tone and makes the jumbled, frightening changes in India seem to jump directly off the screen in a stream of consciousness. However, it is also to the film’s slight detriment in a way and is used to the point of ultimately making the film tough to digest. Park’s attempts to elevate the material get in the way of it succeeding in its primary needs as a narrative. (See Ang Lee’s The Hulk for an infinitely worse example of this problem of overpowering ambition mixed with Eastern film styles.) Fortunately for Stoker, it does not go to that extreme and remains effective.

(Three damns out of five)