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Marcus Pinn of Pinnland Empire, a fantastic film review blogger and good friend of mine, kindly asked me back to review this holiday favorite. GARBAGE DAY!

http://www.pinnlandempire.com/2012/12/movie-for-christmas-silent-night-deadly.html

My friend and fellow reviewer Marcus Pinn was kind enough to ask me for a review for his EXPENDABLES 2 countdown at his blog, Pinnland Empire. Have a look and check out all of the great reviewers over there now!

http://travissaves.blogspot.com/2012/08/countdown-to-expendables-2-punisher.html

This review contains **SPOILERS**

Writer/director Joe Cornish gives himself a nearly impossible task with opening Attack the Block the way that he does: five youths mug a lone woman, Sam, pulling a switchblade knife on her, among other weapons, threaten her, knock her on the ground and force her to remove her ring. It’s a scary scene and you’re never quite sure how the leader, Moses, is really going to play it. He seemed to genuinely want to hurt her by the end. She perhaps only escapes because an Unidentified Flying Objects crashes into a car beside them, distracting her attackers. It’s a hell of a scene to build sympathetic characters from. Unfortunately, Cornish doesn’t really try.

The UFO turns out to contain a relatively harmless alien life form, which the boys track down and beat to death for fun. These are their first two actions in the film: a threat of gang violence against a woman, and killing and parading the body of an unknown creature. The hole was dug so deep for me that I felt next to nothing when the real action began. The alien was, in fact, a female, and its death triggered an invasion of its species, aptly described by one of the boys as “gorilla-wolf-motherfuckers.” They wipe out two cops arresting Moses, who manages to escape in the paddy wagon, and go on to kill pretty much anyone in contact with him. The cops were the only victims I felt anything for, as they were only doing their jobs and were killed out of nowhere. Everyone else in the line of the massacre was a predator in his own right, from any of the gang of boys to Hi-Hatz, a violent drug dealer who immediately turns on Moses because movies like this need a human antagonist as well as an otherworldly one. Once he understands the alien threat, there’s no genuine reason for Hi-Hatz to maintain his grudge with Moses. He just does until he can get his.

Improbably, just as Sam is letting herself back into her apartment, the gang comes out of the elevator and forces their way inside, as if they hadn’t terrorized her enough. They’re just looking for a place to hide, though, and a scene for Sam to show off her nursing skills on one of the injured boys. We go on to learn a few rudimentary facts about Moses after this, like that he is 15, lives with his uncle (which I think was supposed to explain his violent tendencies, but I couldn’t say how), and that you should feel sorry for him because he sleeps in a Spider-Man sleeping bag. I think that was the logic of the movie, because as soon as she learns that he is 15, Sam immediately develops sympathy for her mugger. It’s all too haphazard to generate any real feeling and mostly serves to detract from the film’s real stars, the alien horde.

Giant balls of fur and luminous fangs and eyes, they never seem like they could have found their way to Earth from outer space. But that’s not their point. They’re mindless killing machines, and in that regard, they do pretty well. They suffer from a movie monster’s ability to attack precisely only when the movie calls for it. Some moments they strike viciously and efficiently, smearing someone into paste. Other times, they allow a child to get past them inexplicably. It’s an uneven handling of their threat, but it provides one of the film’s best visuals in Hi-Hatz exiting an elevator filled with dead aliens, absolutely dripping with blood. You get a real sense of his menace from that one image.

Cornish has a great eye for these kinds of shots. As I mentioned, he develops a world of violence in “the Block” early, so much so that crashing meteors barely even affect its citizens beyond curiosity about what’s dropping on them. It permeates their entire existence as portrayed here. Nothing exists in this world but predators and prey, the latter proving to be largely female. It’s a very casual and disturbing attitude presented in the film, because one stoner character presents as easily as suitable target as Sam, and exhibits more fear than she, yet he is never accosted in any way. I know this is supposed to be a fun summer action film, but this hampered my enjoyment of it greatly. The emergence of Moses as the hero never sat well with me either. His turn from thug to savior feels forced and I didn’t believe it.

That’s not to say that I found it unenjoyable. It’s visually stunning, especially when the aliens hit Earth with their whatever-carries-them-here. They light up the sky and careen into the planet with amazing impact. The damage they render is palpable. The question of how these ravenous furballs managed to pilot a spacecraft really never occurred to me until after I’d finished the film, and by then I didn’t care. Their attacks on people are fantastically realized, too. They come from nowhere and leave only smears of blood and shredded clothes. With characters I cared about, these things would have been terrorizing. As it stands, I was rooting for the monsters.

In spite of any negativity, I look forward to more of Cornish’s work. I think he did a great job with this film. It looks amazing and it feels naturally gritty, I just wanted someone besides a victim to root for. I wanted someone to really strive to be a hero, rather than just look after himself until the very last minute. 3 stars

Note that this review contains plot elements that will be considered spoilers.

Special is an early example of the suddenly burgeoning self-made-superhero genre, well ahead of the well-known Kick-Ass and the lesser known, but superior, Defendor. It has much more in common with the latter than the former in terms of performance level and underlying themes.

Traffic cop Les (Michael Rappaport) spends his days letting crying women out of parking tickets, however insincere they may be, and working up the nerve to talk to his local grocery’s cashier. Like all DIY superheroes, Les is an awkward, lonely man, given to fantasy, especially the comic books he loves. In fact, his only friends are the two brothers who own the comics shop he frequents. For presumably the chance to change his life, Les begins taking an experimental drug, whose intended purpose is never explained (Wikipedia claims it is an antidepressant, but I never heard that said; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_%28film%29). He’s warned of side effects, though, which kick in almost immediately: he begins floating over his couch.

Suddenly, Les can phase through walls, hear others’ thoughts and project his telepathically, and, of course, fly. The movie doesn’t play coy with these abilities for long, however, and the true effects on the drug on Les are revealed as visual and auditory hallucinations.

Once the doctor tries getting Les off of the pills, the film’s true villain (Paul Blackthorne, of The Dresden Files) is finally introduced. The company manufacturing the drug has achieved its aim, being bought out by a larger conglomerate, and the owners cannot afford their failure in Les’ case being brought to light before the sale is complete. As Les falls deeper into his superheroic delusions, mostly involving innocent shoppers at the grocery where his love interest works, the secondary effects of the pills kick in, boosting Les’ confidence enough to talk to her.

It’s this part of the movie that slows too much, with Les hanging around doing little if anything. The plot isn’t advanced and not much characterization is added. Les is clearly lost in the use of his “powers,” but it takes longer than needed to get to the main confrontation with the villain, a downfall of any superhero film, which Special, for all its use of delusion, very much is.

It has all of the hallmarks, from the origin of the powers to the making of the costume to the failing of those powers in the final showdown, where the hero has to rise above his shortcomings and rely on himself to get through the battle. Special provides the full ride, the superheroes’ journey. Rappaport’s talent shines in this role more than I have ever seen before. Not to imply that Rappaport has not shown talent, but I don’t recall seeing him in a role so rich before, with the possible exception of Higher Learning. Les’ “dark night of the soul,” and the degradation he suffers, is particularly affecting, though it doesn’t even last through the end of its own scene. It’s another place the film stumbles, not letting Rappaport show the full effects of his humiliation. He really finds the heart of his character here, and it would have been more satisfying to see this explored rather than his “Batman” moments of patrolling his city.

The choice of villain is brilliant, a real high point of the film. He’s never concerned with whatever this drug was to accomplish—his only focus from the outset was to sell the company at a profit, nothing to do with helping anyone. Using the pharmaceutical industry in this manner seems tailored for a superhero film, too, though I can’t recall another that’s done it. The Smalltime Superman facing the Low-rent Lex Luthor feels perfect for Special, as they are so opposite in their motivations but so similar in their professed goals: helping humanity. One is sincere and the other false, one has means and the other only heart, like Special in a world of big-budget superhero films. It succeeds in a way that those films cannot, don’t have the room to, by being smaller and more focused. It’s not flashy, but it works harder to prove itself among its bigger counterparts. 3 ½ stars

The novel The Hunger Games conjures up fantastic images, struggles of life and death in a corrupt world, both on field and off. The film of the name manages that about sixty percent of the time, carrying the story but leaving off too much of the detail, some of which is simply unavoidable. It plays like a Cliff’s notes of the book, though too much of that discarded detail would bloat the film and sink it. It’s a damned project, but makes a fair go of it.

Panem, the fictional country rising from the remains of the United States and possibly Canada (I was never sure), hosts a tournament every year, the eponymous Hunger Games, wherein each of its twelve districts sacrifices two of its young as penance for an earlier revolt. These twenty-four children fight until only one survives. It’s a premise perfect in its simplicity for a young adult novel. Children are stolen from parents, sacrificed for a world they had no part in making. It’s all so unfair, as childhood so often is. There’s your story: now go.

Katniss Everdeen, of a hard luck family in coal-mining District 12, just barely provides for her family. She lives in a third-world state, where owning an animal like a goat is the difference between starvation and just enough. She, along with Peeta Mellark, represents her home in the Games. The rest of the movie prepares her for, and then drops her into, those Games, where the only goal is survival. She battles her fellow contestants, the elements, and even the machinations of the Capital, who need to make the Games as exciting as possible. Ratings count, even in a state-sponsored death tournament. You can guess enough of the outcome without me going into that.

The Hunger Games’ PG 13 rating hampers its action terribly. It falls into the shaky-cam trap in each and every fight scene, blurring them beyond any ability to make out its participants. Much of the violence takes place off-screen, but this is also due to the limited narrative of the movie, sticking with its star the whole way through. Rarely is Jennifer Lawrence away from the camera. Some of the effects are likely impossible to reproduce with the majesty described in the books, but the “Girl on Fire” was particularly underwhelming. Lawrence appears to be backlit by a butane torch during this scene. There are creatures so meticulously described in the book, as well, that they couldn’t be but disappointing rendered by CGI.

I give the filmmakers credit, though, for making no more of the story’s romance angle than need be. In other hands, this could have inflated out of proportion and dominated the foreground. Hopefully, the franchise sticks by this decision in the wake of director Gary Ross’s departure. Katniss’s relationship with her sister, though, has too little time to play out and it negatively affects her relationship with Roux, the youngest tribute. It has too little time to develop and comes to a close without the proper impact. Again, underwhelming when compared to its source material.

Lawrence handles her part very well, from Katniss’s awkwardness with people to her comfort alone in wooded surroundings. She seems confident when she knows her element, self-conscious when out of it. Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch goes through his trademark drunkenness a little too cleanly. I chalk this up to the rating, too. My only gripe with Elizabeth Banks’s casting is that she’s too young for the way I envisioned Effie Trinket. She seems a little too smooth, even caked in makeup as she is. She’s great in the part, just too young and pretty, if you can call that a complaint. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta is good as the quiet, strong, resigned Peeta. He brings the right amount of stoicism and pent up emotion to the role.

The Hunger Games works as an action film but falls short of its roots. It needed a harder rating to properly showcase its world and bring out the hardness its inhabitants have to embrace in order to survive. I don’t expect that to change in its sequels, but I enjoyed what the film was able to give. 3 ½ stars

I find mockumentary an iffy genre at best these days. It often creates a false realism, but one not earned by its films. It creates a false sense of urgency because this time it’s not a movie, it’s real. Some movies take this premise and rise above it. I felt like Cloverfield pulled this off, and now André Øvredal’s Trollhunter, or The Troll Hunter, has achieved the same sense of showing monsters towering over average people.

 

Student documentarians track Hans, an alleged bear poacher, only to discover his true profession: Troll Hunter. Hans works for a shadowy branch (as if there was any other kind) of the Norwegian government, the Troll Security Service, cleverly part of the Wildlife Board. Framing troll attacks clumsily as bear attacks, which seems to fool everyone and no one at the same time, Hans tracks and eliminates the troll threat.

 

Hans, though, is a weary, lonely man, and allows the documentary crew to accompany him and film his work, clearly not a good idea for anyone involved but too fascinating to pass up. They brave multiple troll encounters, learn their strengths, weaknesses and habits, and most importantly, learn who Hans truly is. Hans has very little contact with the outside world, seemingly spending all of his time on troll hunting. Whether it is in preparation, repairing damage to his equipment or actually attacking trolls, his entire life revolves around his one-man operation, making it easy to see the appeal of bringing along this documentary crew. He seems to have one friend in the world, possibly a lover, in a female veterinarian who examines troll samples for him. Otherwise, it’s trolls and bureaucrats, and it’s obvious which Hans prefers.

 

Troll Hunter’s effects are passable, as the trolls only come out at night and the scenes stay pretty dark, but they aren’t the reason to watch. It is Hans unfolding character, a man conflicted in a duty to which he is dedicated, that drives the movie. My only real complaint is the semi-copout ending. I wanted to see what the consequences were to the outing, and I suppose we know at the end of it, but it felt a little too conspiracy theorist to me. Maybe I just wanted a happy ending for a man for whom none could be had. 3 ½ stars

Marvel Films is accomplishing something that I doubted would work: they are transferring the wonder of a shared universe from comic books to film. Captain America: the First Avenger marks what I feel is the first film in the Avengers line to fully develop this. Yes, Nick Fury appears in every film and, yes, many Easter eggs have been dropped into the films, but this one really feels connected to the rest.

The lynchpin to this is Howard Stark, Tony’s father, introduced in Iron Man 2. His role ties much of the universe together and leaves a longer legacy than simply putting Fury in a cameo. You see that he started the Avengers’ work earlier than anyone knew, going back to World War II. Dominic Cooper’s energetic performance makes Stark seem like he could have fathered Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony.

Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull makes an excellent villain, actually ramping up all of the horrific things about Nazi’s into the movie’s new nemesis, Hydra. Think of Hydra as cultist Nazis, even more devoted to a power-hungry madman. Everything about Hydra looks amazing, from their goggled and armored thugs to their tanks to the tentacle-skull logo. They’re deadly and sleek and you want to see them go down.

Also looking the part is Chris Evans as Captain America. Once the movie gets past the odd head-to-big-for-his-body stages, which aren’t as distracting as I had feared, Evans is free to let loose. He takes full advantage of his range of motion, too, running leaping and kicking everything in sight. He carries Steve Rogers with just enough shyness, and no over the top “golly gee” kind of manner, to make the character work as an everyman hero. He seems so solid a person, and conveys much of the goodness that Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Erskine talks of, that he makes the character real and not corny.

If it suffers from moments of convenience, Captain America’s story arc builds up quite well. Steve Rogers does not become Captain America through a series of injections; he becomes Captain America through a series of choices. It makes him a far more compelling hero than, say, Thor of his own movie, who was born to fight. Cap had to earn his opportunity just to do that.

The movie maintains the kind of hopefulness that its era seemed to convey in film. Its lead character should not become Batman, and I praise the filmmakers for knowing this. It’s all too easy to add “edge” to a character for the sake of seeming cool. Captain America is a leader, though, not someone who stalks in shadow. He inspires, not frightens, and Joe Johnston’s film shows this off in a fine way. 4 stars

I doubt any actor today can present a portrait of himself quite as tragic as that of Steve Coogan. Picking up where 2007’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story left off, The Trip finds Coogan and collaborator Rob Brydon on a tasting tour of northern England. Meant to be a romantic trip for Coogan and an estranged girlfriend, Coogan immediately lets Brydon know his third wheel status on their two-man expedition.

Their banter throughout the journey brilliantly extracts a host of insecurities and defense mechanisms in both men. Brydon rarely speaks in his own voice, letting his impressive impression work do his voicing. He is not unlike a ventriloquist in how much he relies on the outside voice to project his thoughts and feelings. Coogan bluffs being too cool for Brydon’s act while simultaneously trying to one up him with fairly accurate impressions of Roger Moore, Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Christopher Lee.

Concurrent themes of camaraderie and loneliness permeate The Trip. Once each man reaches the end of his competitive streak, Coogan and Brydon seem to genuinely enjoy one another’s company. They become two old friends sharing long held private jokes, albeit private jokes that an audience can enjoy, as well. Coogan spends almost as much time, though, trying to distance himself from Brydon, largely in terms of ambition. Coogan scours for new women to bed, while Brydon enjoys intimate phone conversations with his wife; Coogan dreams of winning Oscars and scorns British television, while Brydon is content with his fame on BBC. The movie makes it clear that Coogan does these things to fill an emptiness that Brydon has already filled. The film’s best scene illustrates this as Brydon talks easily with his wife, while Coogan imitates Brydon’s only original character (presented in this film) before the bathroom mirror.

Michael Winterbottom presents the English countryside beautifully. The scenes of simply driving along meadows are gorgeous, along with some breathtaking cliffs. He also presents the food handsomely, both cooking and serving, from a ridiculously posh eatery to a simple English breakfast. One standout shot features an old man trying to impart information on limestone to an aloof Coogan. As Coogan walks away you can feel the human connection leaving the old man, standing alone atop a cliff.

Hilarious from the first shot to the end of the eponymous voyage, Coogan and Brydon rarely slow in their attacks on one another, the people they encounter or the accommodations provided them. Not that all of it is mean-spirited, just playful. I began to tire of Brydon’s act, funny though he may be, after roughly an hour. Once he dips into the Hugh Grant impression a fourth time it grows old. In those moments, Coogan alleviates the tedium by pointing out what Brydon is doing. The Trip is a great road movie, with two friends entertaining one another for a few days. Getting to ride along with them is the next best thing to being there. 4 stars

Marvel Comics’ Thor suffers lately from rushed and uninteresting stories with no real degree of importance. I watched Thor in a theater and Thor: Tales of Asgard on DVD and neither seemed like more than a set up for another story. I got the feeling that both movies were made just to get Thor’s backstory out of the way.

 

In the case of Thor it’s simply to explain who the big blond guy with the hammer is in the soon-to-be Avengers. His story of a god fallen to hubris works well enough and his supporting cast carries their end of the deal, but star Chris Hemsworth contributes just enough to get by. His slipping Australian accent distracts from his lines frequently, though I know of no other actor better suited for the role physically. Huge, blond and gruff, he looks the perfect Norse Thunder God. He’s best when hurling Mjölnir into Frost Giants and screaming battle cries. Not coincidentally, so is the movie best when Thor is limited to doing so. The comedic elements on Earth, though, work well due to Kat Dennings contribution as an intern studying under astrophysicist Natalie Portman. Portman’s good enough in the role, far better than a Star Wars performance but the role hardly demands another Black Swan turn from her.

 

Again, my main beef with the movie is that from crater where the hammer was buried (Iron Man 2) in the beginning right through the stinger at the end, this felt a building block for Thor’s eventual membership in the Avengers. The origin story in the film’s center felt too bookended by the outside influence of other films both past and future. Thor’s movie never belonged solely to Thor in the way that Iron Man belonged to Tony Stark or The Hulk belonged to Bruce Banner. Maybe that’s just the nature of the character but he felt far too blank outside of his readily remedied rageaholic tendencies. Unlike Stark’s alcoholism or the Hulk’s ever present rampages, Thor has no personality issues he can’t resolve by stopping to think briefly or any external problems from that he can’t solve by hitting them with his hammer. With Thor almost every problem really is a nail. 3 ½ of 5 stars

 

Thor: Tales of Asgard suffers even worse as it functions only as a prequel to Thor. Everything presented in the latter is shown in the former but with the always annoying transformation of the lead character into a teenager. The preening young Thor learns humility and heroism through his folly, much like the older Thor of the theatrically released feature film. So, apparently Thor goes through this same transformation every few years, retaining nothing of the original lesson. I found the voice acting and animation dull and the story rehash since I had seen the other already. I’m starting to question whether or not the character even deserves better than this. A little frailty would go a long way with Thor, especially some moral questions about the use of his power that aren’t wrapped up inside one battle gone wrong or thrust upon him by his father’s judgment. 2 of 5 stars

The first mistake I noticed watching Crazy Heart was an early familiar shot of Jeff Bridges at a bowling alley bar. It invites too many comparisons right out of the gate and I found it entirely too cute for the story they were setting up. I soon wondered how the film found itself up for so many Academy Awards in 2009. Not to say that the film is poor but I found it in no way remarkable. It was an above average presentation of a very tired story carried almost entirely by the charisma of its cast.

Jeff Bridges’ performance, which earned him an Oscar for Best Actor, never struck me as entirely true. Nothing is overtly wrong with it, just slightly off and a little too foreign to a hard living country star in my mind. I’m talking minor things like his stance, hand bent on hip, when browbeating a tech during sound check. It’s very Jeff Bridges; not so much Kris Kristofferson. Far too much of his performance as a drunk went over the top, too, with him openly vomiting frequently and seemingly played for comic effect. This felt entirely contrived for a character supposedly as hardened as “Bad” Blake. The name, too, sounded cheesy to me. I had no clue for most of the movie that “Bad” served as his first name. It sounded like the name of a masked wrestler to me. It is to Bridges’ credit that he makes material like this work as well as he does. It’s B-grade material in A-list hands.

Maggie Gyllenhaal had less to live up to but she made her similarly thin material work. All she had to do was be nice to Blake and talk a lot about her son. Bridges’ moments as a family man in the making are the best through the first two thirds of the film, especially his time with Gyllenhaal’s son. Blake’s behind the scenes stuff rarely interested me, especially when he met up with Collin Farrell’s Tommy Sweet. The movie picks up again at the introduction of Robert Duvall’s character, who adds much needed grounding to Blake’s world. Before him it’s all flights of fancy.

Duvall, though good, ultimately served to gloss over the most important part of the film, Blake’s inevitable journey into sobriety. If the movie is to be believed, though, getting sober is as easy as making a decision to do so. It’s as empty as the movie’s portrayal of Blake’s alcoholism. His problems never have any ultimate consequences. He loses a kid, who is easily found. He wrecks his truck and breaks an ankle. He’s lost his drive as a performer and an artist. So do a great number of sober people. The movie never ties back to his addiction except when it tells us it does. His hospital conversation spells it out directly, with the doctor telling him to quit drinking, smoking and to lose 25 pounds. That’s all it takes to turn his life around.

The great shame is that the opening does set up Blake as a tragic character. His nosing around for booze at bars and liquor stores is never followed up on, and his onstage fumbles are played for laughs. Gyllenhall has savior written all over her from her very introduction, even though it never makes much sense that Blake is drawn to her. It just sort of happens and he keeps coming back to her in spite of his distance and lifestyle. Outside of his fame not much is made of her attraction to him. She plays it appropriately hesitant, though, and never seems quite as committed as Blake to the idea of a relationship.

The movie spends far too long on the musical performances given by Bridges, particularly as the songs change very seldom. That time could have been better spent on Blake’s descent. I suppose it served to show some of the spark he once had but after the first one I found them tedious. I had no interest in Farrell’s Sweet character or his performance whatsoever. I would much rather have spent that time with Blake and his bitterness. Their reunion went far too smoothly considering how much build up came before it to establish its difficulty for Blake.

That difficulty was what this movie lacked, from Blake’s substance abuse to his emotional problems to his rocky relationships and his recoveries from these, he never seemed to struggle with these issues. He coasts along effortlessly through his existence and when Blake needs something life hands it to him. In the end “Bad” abides. 2 ½ stars