Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters

Back in the 1990s, in Southern California, movies were preceded not only by trailers for future films but ads for the Los Angeles Times. I think there must have been some exchange agreement with the papers and the theaters, as an advertising tradeoff. Since the internet took off as the main source of info about show times and theater locations, the ad revenue dropped and the newspaper stopped being advertised in front of every movie playing in So Cal. In the ten years before they disappeared, the paper promoted it’s unique position as the Company Town paper by making the ads focus on the movie business. Many of the ads had nice bits of info about movie making and some of the personalities involved. In celebration of the past, as a service to any of my readers from other parts of the world or from more recent times, I am including these snippets in my reviews for the rest of the year. In honor of today’s film, you got the LA Times movie ad featuring some special effects using guns, and bows and arrows. This is especially appropriate given the nature of today’s movie.

The Red Band Trailer that you see above, was the deciding point for me in seeing this film. Prior to this trailer, the movie looked like some CGI action flick that had a weird subject and a silly point of view. Once I saw the trailer, I did not really change my mind but I did add on to my expectation, violent blood splatter and reckless disembowelment. Once I knew that was coming I was on board. Sunday mornings decapitating witches and eviscerating them as they fly through the forest, yeah, that’s more like my cup of tea. In all truth, it is not as gruesome as it might have been, and the CGI takes the edge off a lot of the gore, but for a stupid idea with a stupid script it pretty much lived up to my low hopes.

The idea of taking a fairy tale and turning it into the basis of an action film is not new. Heck, last year we had “Snow White and the Huntsman” and twenty five years ago there was “The Company of Wolves”. The difference here is that it is all being played for laughs. Nothing is supposed to be serious, from the narration to the weaponry of the leads, to the obvious tip off of a 3D promotional tag. The very opening of the film takes a shot at a long gone cultural reference, pictures of missing children on a milk carton. Of course they are bottles of milk, the pictures are drawings and they are tied onto each individual bottle. If the script could have kept up with that tone a little more, this movie would work a lot better and be more fun. As it is, not too long after it gets started, it begins to take itself too seriously. Sometimes that is the story, which involves white witches and black witches in a struggle for dominance. Sometimes it is the characters who are not given enough to say and are reacting more than attacking. This movie needs a big shot of Bruce Campbell to make it work, instead we get Jeremy Renner. Renner is a real actor, slumming in a piece of schlock, probably for a change of pace and a nice paycheck. An while he is amusing, he simply does not have the comic persona a piece of silliness like this needs.

I do think I made a mistake in not seeing this in 3D. Usually, 3D is an unnecessary addition to a movie that needs something to pump it up. Here it probably is justified by the pieces of bloody body parts that would come flying off the screen. The sprays of CGI blood would probably be more enjoyably over the top in a third dimension. The slo mo shots of arrows, axes and other weapons would be more savory and memorable in 3D. I think I would definitely have enjoyed the resolution of the curse of hungering for things that crawl in the earth a little more. That scene did have one shot that helped Renner establish a bit more comic potential, but that trait is never developed fully and Hansel simply comes across as grumpy most of the time. The truth is there is not much logic in any of it. Characters come in and out of the story, they act for reasons that are never clear, and the witches have no personalities except the one played by Famke Janssen. Most of her performance is growling scowling CGI rendered witch talk. There is just not enough character to care one way or the other.Gemma Arteton is a slight personality with an even slighter character to play in Gretel. Again, there is not any real need to look at this as a measure of ability for any of these actors, the script and film making treat them as figurines to be played with and moved through the story to get to the next action shot.

By all means go and see this if you have a screening in 3D and money burning a hole in your pocket. It won’t hurt you or insult you, but it won’t make your juices flow much either. There is potential for great pulp stupidity in this film, but it can’t quite catch fire like all the  witches need to do in the story. There are things about it that could work, but I don’t have the energy or need to talk about them. This is just another filler until better stuff shows up, move along.

Mama

After we saw this movie this morning, Amanda and I had a discussion about the horror films we had seen recently. We usually are willing to go, and usually sorry we went, or at least disappointed. This morning has not broken the trend. We both agreed that the last time we saw horror films that worked for us was “The Crazies” and “Drag Me to Hell.” Both of those are a couple of years old now, and we are still plugging along hoping for something that will give us a shiver and be glad that the lights are on. “Mama” starts off with great promise but ultimately fails to deliver.

The opening of this movie is maybe the best set up for a horror film I can remember in a dozen years or so. Before any ghosts or spirits make an appearance, we are horrified to see the desperate acts of a man at the end of his rope. Too often this story plays out in the real world and it is not an entertaining one. The anguish that the man feels can never justify what has happened but there is a sense of understanding of the emotional turmoil a person can go through. The little girl who plays the three year old Victoria in the story is just perfect. It is hard to say if she is a good actor, but in the part she delivers the right kind of innocence and trust and anxiety all at the same time. The sequence ends with the arrival of our apparition and everything has hooked us in for a strong horror experience. When the story picks up five years later, there is another very creepy sequence with the discovery of the two sisters and their return to the world. After this, things begin to fall apart.

It is a cliche to say less is more, especially in a horror film. Everyone is aware that the visualization of the evil spirit or monster can almost never live up to the imagination that we have been working on. Short shots in shadows and quick glimpses in a mirror or across a doorway are usually good for making the audience anxious and a little bit scared. Unfortunately, we need more for the story to pay off. Sometimes, like in the film “The Others” or “The Sixth Sense”, the ideas get really good and surprising and they work to frighten us. Most of the time we end up with something like this, where the horror images are the focus of the last third of the story and they are a let down. A previously, nearly invisible antagonist becomes visible and then there is a confrontation that just does not work.

One of the reasons that the frights don’t work as well here is that the audience has become jaded by CGI effects. The artists who put this material together can visualize almost anything, and as a consequence they do. When those images are so removed from anything bordering on “realistic”, the image simply becomes a grotesque cartoon. That’s what happens here, the spirit appears and then we get a chase film featuring a dark version of an animated nightmare. Slasher movies have a edge on ghost stories because when the fright comes it feels real. I think a ghost story can get away with being dismissed if it can achieve a level of believability. Unfortunately, “Mama” just can’t do this. The unrealistic nightmare story of a movie like “Phantasm”, feels more real despite the fact that it does not take place in an ordinary universe. Look, there are two or three good jumps, and a disturbingly real looking fall down a staircase, but the payoff feels weak.

Story does in these movies as well. There is always a complicated explanation and then a sequence of revelations that tell us what kind of result to expect. “Mama” has some nightmare visualizations that never amount to anything. The Uncle has a vision of his dead brother, which forces him out of his hospital bed to investigate. Once he arrives at the scene that he envisioned, nothing happens. The psychiatrist in the story is freaked out enough to stop his session in the comfortable home where the developing family is living, but he is not so perturbed as to refrain from going into the woods alone, into a spooky house in search of a ghost, in the dark. The vengeful spirit is pursuing a secret agenda. The psychiatrist find a key part of the puzzle from a government clerk who helped him earlier with other information. Unfortunately, instead of a creepy story being revealed in a mundane file drawer in an office building, the director (and co-screenwriter) chooses to try to amp it up by hiding this key piece of physical evidence in a warehouse that looks like it was lit by the same interior decorator of Hannibal Lecter’s cell. It is also so cavernous that I would not be surprised if the Arc of the Covenant wasn’t also hidden there.

Jessica Chastain’s character Annabelle is the most real person in the story. She is ambivalent about participating in the recovery of the girls. She resents the life changes it imposes on her and sometimes she is just a bitch to her boyfriend. Yet she is also a woman who can empathize with two frightened little girls. We can see a potential for a loving relationship and that part of the story works. The idea that jealousy in a spirit might provoke danger is an interesting one, but it is not consistently followed. The spirit here acts in ways that are capricious and have nothing to do with the back story. The resolution makes no sense and the creep factor was gone twenty minutes before the story was over. There are a couple of scares but nothing to make me say, “I Remember Mama”.

Top Ten Moments I Experienced in Movies in 2012

Let’s face it, not all movies are worthy of two hours of our attention, where as some are deserving of even more time. It is often the brief moments in a film that redeem it or that make us remember the rest of the film fondly. I selected ten moments from movies this year that reached up and slapped me. They are sometimes poignant, sometimes harsh and sometime hysterical. Here are ten moments to remember 2012 by.

10. The U.S.S. Missouri makes a guest appearance in Battleship. 

I know that the movie was crap. I also am aware that it is widely despised. I however may be one of the few who overlooked it’s shortcomings and enjoyed it for the popcorn junk snack it was. The one part that worked for me was when the old-timers launch the Missouri back into battle. Of course it is impossible, but the AC/DC music, the shots of Big Mo, turning into the ocean, and the real heroes of WW2 jumping to duty gave me a rush of patriotic adrenaline which made me happy.

9. The Hunger Games: Katniss Salutes Rue and District 11

This is the point of the story where Katniss goes from a competitor trying to survive, to a real icon of a revolution. Her brief alliance with Rue and the honor that she shows her, stirs the residents of District 11 to a mild riot. Just the sort of thing the games are supposed to prevent. This is the match that lights up the rest of the stories and makes the material rise emotionally. It brought a tear to my soft-hearted eye and made me care a lot more about the stuff that was going on on the screen.

8. Prometheus: Dr. Shaw Gives Herself a C-Section

This was the most tense and horrifying scene in the movie. This is the only moment that Prometheus rises to the level of the original Alien. We are terrified by the concept that our own bodies can harbor the dangers we most fear, and it takes an act of incredible will for Elizabeth Shaw to take the action she does. The scene is gory, suspenseful and the one truly scary moment in a film that needed more moments like this.

7. The Grey: Liam Neeson Stands Up to A Wolf by Getting Ready to Punch It

If you have ever seen the inspirational poster of the mouse flipping off the eagle as it is about to get torn to shreds, you will understand the impact of this moment. Neeson’s character is not going to go quietly into the night. He is going to kick and scream and fight for every moment of life he can get. Whether it could ever work is beside the point. What matters here is that his character is going to try anything he can think of to keep living. This deeply philosophical story is summarized nicely by the deceptive idea that this is an action picture where Liam punches wolves. The real question is whether or not we should bother? This film answers that question very clearly.

6. The Dark Knight Rises: Batman Re-Appears After Eight Years of Hiding

The moment we waited for in the movie. Batman comes out of hibernation and begins to fight for Gotham again. The surrounding areas during a police chase all go dark, and then, to the pounding score, Batman drives out of the darkness on the Batpod, to run down the criminals who just invaded Wall Street. Like the moment from the Michael Keaton Batman film, when he opens his safe and reveals Batman’s costume, we suck in our breath and wait for the fireworks to begin. It is a signal that our story is about to take off.

5. The Avengers: Hulk Smash Puny God

Sometimes the super intelligent industrialist, the heroic warrior, the Norse demi-god, and all the SHIELD agents just over think their approach. The Hulk just gets right to the point and we all laugh our asses off and applaud. This is a moment of genius, like Indy pulling his gun and shooting the swordsman, the direct approach is often the most effective.

4. Django Unchained: Dr. Schultz is simply done with Calvin Candy

 Christoph Waltz’s character has outwitted a hundred idiots in his career.  He has used cleverness and language to move successfully into his career as a bounty hunter. He is even as gracious as he can be when he gets outwitted. He is simply not going to knuckle under to a stupid request to be treated as a civilized person, by the lowly scum of DiCaprio’s Calvin Candy. Even though they have achieved their goal and could safely leave by giving in, Schultz simply draws a line in the sand, and the fireworks that result are the orgy of violence we have waited for through the whole movie.

3. SKYFALL: 007 Has Two Great Moments in One Movie

OK, maybe it is a cheat, but It is my favorite movie of the year and I did not put these at the top, so indulge me a little. In the pre-title action sequence, Bond makes a daring leap from a back hoe that is collapsing on top of an escaping train car. As he jumps into the passenger car, he takes a moment to pay attention to his stylish appearance. Like Connery pulling off a wetsuit to reveal a tuxedo, or Roger Moore straightening his tie after flicking a bad guy off a building, this was a moment straight from the hearts of 007 lovers everywhere.

As a fan of James Bond since I was seven or eight, there are many iconic moments, characters and gadgets that I recall with great adoration. In closing the second act and beginning the third in Skyfall, the film makers bring back an old ally in a reveal that frankly gave me a little too much of a charge. Thankfully the only body excretion was a tear.

2. Piranha 3DD: The Greatest Line in 2012 (Maybe in Movie History)

This is not a great film, but I was entertained. I will never be able to erase from my memory (nor do I want to) this terrific piece of dialogue.

 

1. Les Misérables: I Dreamed a Dream


There were a lot of things I did not enjoy about Les Miz, but all of them are forgiven because we got Anne Hatheway doing the key song from the play. If she is not the Academy Award Winner for Best Supporting Actress, I may never watch the awards again.

 

 

 

Gangster Squad

I selected the trailer above because it still has a brief clip in it that makes reference to a shootout in the Chinese Theater, a scene that was removed from the film and caused this movie to be moved to January after the Aurora CO. shooting. I understand the sentiment but it seemed to be a little overdone to me. The film probably is a good fit for a January release when action fans are starved for a little love. The trailer makes it very clear that this is an action popcorn film and not really an attempt to make a classic crime film. The idea of machine gun shootouts on the streets of L.A. is clearly an invention of a creative mind. The story of how the LAPD kept organized crime to a minimum in the city has been covered before by better films like L.A. Confidential and Mullholland Falls. This is basically a pulp version of that tale and fidelity to the actual history goes right out the window.

There is not really any originality to the story or the film making. The plot is basically “The Untouchables” transferred to the West Coast, and instead of Robert DeNiro chewing the scenery, we get Sean Penn.  Of course in the DePalma film, we got some interesting character development and some actors who had charisma in spades. Here there are cryptic references to the characters past but almost no follow through on why any of that matters. Josh Brolin is a good tough guy but he has no personal development in the film, just the back story that is created for his character. Ryan Gosling I suppose is a stand in for Sean Connery, but with a love interest and lacking 30 years of gravitas to back it up. From the pregnant wife to the doomed members of the squad, and even the death of an innocent bystander, everything about this movie is predictable. There are some attempts to put a California Dream spin on the story, and that may be the right way to go, but anytime there is something that resembles a theme being raised, it is immediately overtaken by a shootout of some sort. The California Paradise idea is a good one because this was the land of opportunity after the war. Thousands were flocking to the Southland, to take advantage of  wide open spaces and the fantastic weather. That criminals would be among the immigrants is not surprising. What is a surprise is that the only hint that this criminal intrusion into SoCal was having was dead kids and kidnapped wanna be starlets. The details of the rackets are not explored, we just get histrionics from Penn’s Mickey Cohen.

My parents were part of that wave of immigrants. They came out here in 1947, and got started in the entertainment business like so many others. The nightclubs and bars and hot spots shown in the film, all have a very authentic feel to them. My daughter took the train into Union Station for a year after she graduated from but continued to work at USC, and it still looks like the 1940s. Clifton’s cafeteria is used as a set, and they probably did not have to do much more than take the newspapers out of the racks to make it look like it belongs in the era. I’m pretty sure the scene in the Mexican restaurant was shot at El Cholo, and it looks exactly the same. All the old neighborhoods of East L.A. and Pasadena, as well as large sections of the Fairfax district, still resemble the suburban paradise that vets were looking for.  It looked to me like the Chinatown sequence was done on a soundstage, but the reproduction from the long standing main square in the area was tip top. Some of the daytime shots of the city, with large sections of empty hillsides are clearly CGI, those spots were being filled in with new homes when I was a kid. While there may be a few blank spots here and there, the crowded hillsides don’t resemble the spacious vistas of the late 40s and early 50s. The clothes, and cars and general language of the film are all accurate and it is a big draw for the audience. Those of us raised on the film noir of Hollywood, lust for the days when men wore hats that made them look sharp instead of like shlumps. Women dressed up when they went out, and all the nightspots were decorated with neon and deco themes. The vision of a gangster wielding a machine gun harkens back to Hollywood’s heyday of Warner Brothers gangster films, populated by Cagney, Bogart and Robinson. The film makers know this is what we are looking for, but it happens so often in this movie that each time feels less dramatic. By the climax of the film, it is just one more shootout in a nostalgic location with the weapons used more in the movies than in real life. There was one shot of a bad guy with a Tommy gun in each of his hands. This owes more to John Woo than Howard Hawks. I think because so many locations harken back to those days, and they are iconic from movies or collective memory, we will continue to get films set in this city, but at that time period.

Brolin is stoic and determined, Gosling is wain and smouldering, and Sean Penn is over the top. Robert Patrick gets the best scenes and lines, but he is not in the story as much as Connery’s old timer was in “The Untouchables”. Emma Stone is really very pretty, but she and Gosling don’t have the chemistry that they had in last years, “Crazy, Stupid, Love”. Her part feels tacked on and underdeveloped. The other guys on the Gangster Squad, could have had something to do that might have made the story more profound, but every time an idea pokes it’s head up, the shooting starts again. Michael Pena is in this movie for no reason, and Giovani Ribisi and Anthony Mackie, get only a little time to register. I always love the disclaimer at the end of a movie that says this is a work of fiction and it is not based on any person or location. That’s silly, the LAPD headquarters building is named after the Police Chief played by Nick Nolte here. They slip in a reference to a more recent chief by having Darryl Gates as his driver and the guy Parker uses to bring in Brolin’s character. I know they want to avoid lawsuits, but when the movie is all based on Location (LA) and real people (Mickey Cohen and Chief Parker), it is ridiculous to deny a link.

I liked this movie pretty well for what it is; a slam bang action piece with a cool setting. They overdo the shootouts and violence. The characters are not given much chance to develop past their archetypes. The city looks great and the music is good (even the segments copped from Ennio Morricone’s score for “The Untouchables”). There are no story surprises and very little tension. There are plot-holes galore, but don’t worry about it because the plot is just a chance to play cops and robbers in a cool setting. No one except the set dresser, art directors, costumers and make up people will be looking at this with a huge amount of pride. There is nothing embarrassing here, there is just a lack of something to care about or any originality. If you do go to see it, stick around for the credits. They play over some beautiful postcards of Southern California from that era, and you get a sense of how well they nailed the look, without getting much else right.