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Anti-Film School Recommends This Film…

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Hey readers,

Yesterday, Kathryn Bigelow’s arresting thriller Zero Dark Thirty was released on Blu-ray and if you have yet to see this firecracker of a film, you need to go out right now and pick it up. Seriously, it is collection worthy. Zero Dark Thirty was easily one of the best films of 2012 and is the type of epic film that rewards with each new viewing. The Blu-ray features a look at the making of the film, a look at how the cast trained for their roles, and a look at Jessica Chastain’s role as the tough-as-nails Maya. If you wish to see where Zero Dark Thirty fell in my top 10 films of 2012, click here to find out, and if you wish to read my review of the film, click here. So, it is that time again to whip out those credit cards and add a kick ass movie to your movie collection!

-Theater Manager (Steve)

Zero Dark Thirty Blu ray

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It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

by Steve Habrat

It’s a Wonderful Life ranks as one of my favorite films of all time. I fell in love with this film many, many years ago, allowing it to both carve a sweet spot out in my heart, but also finding it to be one of the most heartfelt movies I have ever laid my eyes on. I adore everything from the good-old-boy performance from James Stewart to the small town setting of the film. Doesn’t that town just feel so homey? Hell, even our contributor Charles Beall, who resides near Seneca Falls, sent me a photo of the famed bridge where George Bailey tries to end it all, the bridge all decked out and trimmed with Christmas lights. While the film’s message of savoring everything that surrounds us and using the backdrop of Christmas still resonates today, this is a sturdy production with sharp direction, bountiful sets, and a surprising romanticism that fails to be matched (“Do you want the moon, Mary?”). It still wows me that this film was made in 1946, shortly after the end of WWII. Hollywood was embracing film noir and grittier pictures rather than fantastic productions, as the world had seen the epitome of evil and destruction first hand during the war. And yet the pains of real life do hang over It’s a Wonderful Life, as suicide, hopelessness, and desperation all come up, it’s all handled with a compassionate sanguinity from director Frank Capra. Capra makes us feel George’s heart and soul breaking, and we fear he may be lost, but surprisingly, it’s not the religious tones that oddly lift the picture up and allow it to really soar. It’s George’s heart of gold.

George Bailey (Played by the marvelous Stewart) is a real stand-up guy, one who will go above and beyond for the people he loves and stand up to those who bully. After the sudden and tragic death of his father, George finds himself taking over his father’s business, Bailey Building and Loan Association. While George had dreams and aspirations to go off to college and travel the world, the board of directors beg him to stay and run the family company to keep it out of the hands of the ruthless and leering Henry F. Potter (Played by Lionel Barrymore), a majority shareholder in the company who rejects giving home loans to the lower class workers of Seneca Falls. Potter desperately pleads with the board of directors to put an end to this but George consistently stands up to Potter. On the night that his father dies, George was wooing the beautiful Mary (Played by Donna Reed), who has liked him ever since he was a boy. George also had to watch as his brother Harry (Played by Todd Karns) goes off to college and gets married. George finally marries Mary, but finds himself sacrificing the honeymoon to keep the Building and Loan from collapse.

World War II soon erupts and Harry is drafted into the army as a fighter pilot and ends up being a war hero. George cannot enlist due to a bad ear, an accident from his childhood, so he stays in his hometown to hold down the Building and Loan. On Christmas Eve, George’s Uncle Billy (Played by Thomas Mitchell) is on his way to make a deposit of $8,000 for the company when he bumps into Potter. Uncle Billy shows Potter a newspaper headline that says Harry has won the Medal of Honor. When Potter takes the newspaper, he finds the $8,000 hidden inside and keeps the money for himself. A frantic search breaks out to find the money and George finds himself at the mercy of Potter, who refuses to give him a loan to save the company. Potter then promises to have George arrested for bank fraud. As George’s world crashes around him, he begins to contemplate suicide and right as he is about to end it all, a guardian angle appears named Clarence (Played by Henry Travers) and begins showing George what life would be like without him around. If Clarence can save George, he will earn his wings he has desperately been working for.

A cozy film, It’s a Wonderful Life presents George as such a likable guy, its damn near impossible to find a flaw in him. You find yourself wanting to reach through the screen and give George a big bear hug to reassure him everything will be just fine. Potter is the epitome of a vile antagonist, a man you can’t bring yourself to see any kindness in. It’s heart wrenching to watch George realize his fate as he begs to be spared by Potter. It’s moments like this that portray the realism that cinema was trying to achieve after the war but it also is perhaps my favorite sequence in the film. The scene is bitter, cruel, pathetic, and quite possibly one of the most charged sequences I have seen in a motion picture. Yet the film eases the tension the whimsical appearance of Clarence, who comes in the nick of time and adds a much needed dash of fantastic. The ending of the film reminds us of the magic in the air come Christmas, and how it puts a spell over all of us. That is, if you are willing to believe in magic.

The Christmas aspect of It’s a Wonderful Life enters only at the end of the film, which may leave some who have never seen it to question why this is such a popular holiday film, but it is the spirit of kindness and giving that solidifies it’s place in holiday movie history. The way George Bailey lives his life, as a kind and warm soul, willing to go the extra mile, is a mentality that many of us only embrace around the holidays. What would happen if we embraced that attitude all the time? Why should it only be limited to the Christmas season? If only we could all be like George every day of the year. It’s his past actions that ultimately save his life by the end of the film, rather than Clarence, who is only there to provide examples.

Capra begins the film with a hand turning pages in an old story book and he molds it into an ethereal bedtime story for all ages. He does a hell of a job with the snow caked scenes at the end of this film, scenes that especially seem like they could have been ripped out of that old story book, sometimes so detailed they almost seem like a painting. I dare you to watch the scene of George Bailey running through the snowy streets of Bedford Falls, Christmas lights and artificial bells strung across the streets and trees, calling out “MERRY CHRISTMAS” and not help but think that would make a perfect Christmas card graphic or painting. Even though the film is shot in black and white, it remains eternal despite some dated dialogue. The film circumvents the cookie-cutter religious preaching and becomes a beacon of hope in humanity itself. Every time I see It’s a Wonderful Life, I swell with happiness and hope that kindness will reign supreme in the hearts and souls of every human being. With not one performance slacking and not one scene out of place, it’s a rare work of art that defines excellence. It really is the perfect film to watch with a mug of hot chocolate in hand, Christmas tree glowing bright, and snow quietly drifting down outside from the night sky. Who am I kidding? It’s the perfect film to watch anytime.

Grade: A+

It’s a Wonderful Life is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

New Moon (2009)

by Steve Habrat

While watching and battling to stay awake through the trudging second chapter in the Twilight saga, I came to the realization that New Moon is responsible for all the laughable clichés that have burdened this franchise. Every other scene in this turkey of a film is filled with a shirtless male pouting and explaining to Bella that they can’t be together. I guess they had to have some sort of selling point for New Moon because it certainly wasn’t going to get far on its storyline, performances, or writing, all which fall substantially from the first film. If you’re looking for the culprit, look no further than this film right here. There is no action aside from a fairly entertaining chase sequence in the middle of the film, cheap special effects, and a plotline that can’t quite decide what it wants to be about. To think that there is an army of rabid fans out there for this film truly amazes me after sitting through it. My advice: Stay home and read the book again. What you can imagine in your mind while reading is infinitely more fun than what director Chris Weitz cooked up and severed.

New Moon picks up with lovebirds Bella (Played once again by the stiff Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Played once again by Robert Patinson) openly dating and fairly happy. The film picks up with Edward and his family throwing Bella an 18th birthday party. She is less than enthused, as she suffered a horrible nightmare about growing old a night earlier. At the downer of a party, Bella suffers a paper cut while opening one of her gifts, causing Edward’s brother Jasper (Played by Jackson Rathbone) to attempt to kill her. In response to this event, Edward decides that Bella is not fit for Edward’s world and he leaves Forks with the rest of his vampire clan. Bella slips in to a deep depression and after an empty threat to send her to live with her mother by her Sheriff father Charlie (Played by Billy Burke), Bella agrees to bounce back from the break-up. Bella soon discovers that if she thrill seeks, she will see the apparition of Edward warning her to be careful. She also strikes up a friendship with the perpetually shirtless Jacob Black (Played by Taylor Lautner) which blossoms into hinted romance. Jacob soon starts acting funny and Bella eventually figures out he is a werewolf who is aiming to protect her from a revenge-seeking vampire that aims to kill her.

New Moon has absolutely no focal point whatsoever. It can’t quite decide what it wants its plotline to be causing the film to bounce around with no discipline to speak of. This falls on the shoulders of screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, who botches yet another adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s already rocky novel. One second the film is about the blossoming relationship between Bella and Edward. The next second it’s about Bella and Jacob developing a relationship just so Jacob can pull the same bullshit that Edward did. Then Edward is brooding about something and then so is Jacob. Director Weitz puts no cap on the film at all, never once cutting something out and making a more straightforward film. It actually begins to be unclear on who is upset with whom and who has feelings and treaties with whom. It’s daft! It’s drama for the sake of drama and the furthest thing from art. This lack of narrative structure and flow, for that matter, causes New Moon to collapse on itself.

Further driving New Moon into the ground is the performances from the actors themselves, which actually end up being worse than the first time. Bella is even more pathetic and boy crazy. She’s superficial, feeble, and the furthest thing from a feminist hero. She falls to pieces over every guy she meets and constantly longs for a male crutch. The best bit from Stewart’s performance comes when Bella takes a tumble off of a crotch rocket that she builds with Jacob. She rolls into a giant rock, smashes her noggin, and nearly knocks herself out cold. Jacob rushes over, takes his shirt off (naturally), and wipes the gushing blood from her head. “Are you trying to kill yourself!?”, he asks. She just stares at him and says, “Sorry”. Oh, come on!! She just suffered a serious injury to her head! When Jacob points this out she says, “Oh”. Reconsider you day job, Miss. Rosenberg. Edward is largely absent from the entire project, only showing up in asinine hallucinations. Pattinson must have been instructed to leave his sense of humor in his trailer, as he just stands around and looks like he is in desperate need of a toilet. Lautner is supposed to be playing a real rough and tough killer but the only way Weitz and Rosenberg know how to convey that is by having him consistently taking off his shirt. Billy Burke’s Charlie Swan is a clueless moron, someone who is frustratingly ignorant to everything going on around him. How he hasn’t figured out that werewolves and vampires are running rampant in his town, I will never know. You’re best friends with a pack of them, you imbecile! Michael Sheen pops up at the end of the film as Aro, the leader of the vampire council called the Volturi. He appears amused by all of the nonsense around him and plays Aro with a flamboyant bounce to his step. Everyone else in the film is forgettable, yes, even Dakota Fanning, who is hidden behind red contact lenses.

Where Twilight had some fairly ordinary camerawork, at least it had the good sense to be somewhat eye grabbing. Director Weitz can’t even make the picture he has framed a joy to look at. He stages a nifty chase sequence through the woods set to Thom Yorke’s stuttering single Hearing Damage. This killer sequence boasts the best CGI of the movie, puts some of its characters in harm’s way, and it even kills off a character. How bold of you, New Moon! The rest of the action is a retread of the battle at the end of Twilight only set in Italy. The effects on the werewolves look like they belong in a made-for-T.V. movie on the SyFy channel. The film never visually pops off the screen and instead retreats in to an amber glow that engulfs everything Weitz points his camera at. Maybe he is trying to imply that this entry is much more “rustic”. Your guess is as good as mine.

The crime you will be quick to accuse New Moon of is monotony, but it is also guilty of inanity. It never once asks the viewer to think about anything, never hinting at deeper meanings or motives. The film throws around implied romance every chance it gets but it never gives us anything. There are, once again, a few pecks here and there, but nothing definitive ever comes to a head. This is just filler in between entries, simply introducing us to a new character for women to swoon over. It feels like there is a real story that is ready to be cracked, but it’s not in this film. This is just leftovers from the first entry and ones that have gone moldy. New Moon is also entirely too long and could have helped itself by scaling back. They just cram more and more crap into it, and by crap, I mean Bella, Jacob, and Edward just staring at each other. I guess all I can say is kudos to the author, screenwriter, and director who have made millions of dollars from blind teenagers. Open your eyes and see that New Moon is nothing more than a diversion from the fact that this film is about nothing. Except, well, Lautner’s abs.

Grade: D-

New Moon is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Anti-Film School Recommends This Film…

Our Idiot Brother

Hey readers,

This week, Anti-Film School encourages all of our readers to check out Our Idiot Brother, which comes out on Blu-ray and DVD today. This heartfelt comedy about a big hearted stoner down on his luck is filled with nonstop laughs, wit, and a left of center performance from Paul Rudd. In my eyes, it ranked as one of the best comedies of the summer, a film that was somewhat overlooked by audiences. I was pleasantly surprised with this film and I think many of you will enjoy it. If you want to check out my review of Our Idiot Brother, click here to see my letter grade and analysis. I guarantee that you will just dig this movie, man!

-Steve

Survival of the Dead (2010)

by Steve Habrat

The Dead series was always articulate, no one can argue against that fact. Even 2008’s Diary of the Dead had something to say about our current zeitgeist, but I supposed pressure got the best of George Romero, the man who always seems to know how to make a statement with zombies. In 2010, Romero found himself in an odd situation. His Diary of the Dead was a big hit on DVD and there was a scramble to deliver another zombie adventure to his old fans and the new generation who was being introduced to his work. This was all in the span of just under three years and boy does Survival of the Dead reek of rushed ideas and impersonal filmmaking. While there was a minor shift from 2005’s Land of the Dead to 2008’s Diary of the Dead, there was really nothing more to do with his zombies in 2010. It seemed to exist solely in response to the zombie fixation that is gripping our great nation. It’s the only reasonable explanation for the abomination Survival of the Dead to exist and shuffle among us. We have Zombie Soccer, Zombie Highway, and Plants vs. Zombies, all readily available for you to play on your iPhone. We have Call of Duty: Zombies, the massively successful online zombie shooter/survival game. We now even have a television show, The Walking Dead, to satisfy the fan’s unquenchable thirst for more bloodshed. Zombies are as big as vampires, this I think we can all agree on, but they lack the romance factor, which prevents the tween girls from shrieking and crying over them.

Being a fan of the Dead franchise, I was heavily excited to see his latest entry when announced. I was surprised by how quickly he was producing another film, especially after the fatigued Diary. I was convinced that he would find some inspiration and when it was announced it would have a western backdrop, I couldn’t wait to see it. Survival of the Dead was given a limited theatrical release and then shunned to DVD and Blu-ray. It was met with a strong negative reaction, almost unheard of for a Romero zombie film. I rushed out the day of its DVD release and picked it up, eager to add it to my Dead collection. After popping it in and watching it, it was evident that Romero had hit rock bottom. Loaded with even more of the wretched computer effects that paled the impact of Land, Survival applies more farcical death scenes, wisecracking characters, and monotonous scares than you can shake a severed arm at. It made me realize that Diary, for all of its patchiness, at least strayed from the digital gore.

Survival of the Dead does have an old-school feel in its clench, and I enjoyed that. It does feel like a film you would have watched in between sips of a beer that you snuck into your local drive-in. It’s B-movie heaven and I will praise that aspect of it, but Survival of the Dead has absolutely nothing to say. Romero is just going in circles and recycling his idea that we will never be able to get along, even in the face of annihilation. Death does not even stop our grudges. The film follows a group of commandos, much like 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. The motley crew is lead by Sarge Nicotine Crockett (Played by Alan van Sprang), who along with three other soldiers, are trying to figure what to do in the midst of the apocalypse. The world has been reduced to chaos and the cities are being abandoned in attempts to escape the groaning cannibals. Sarge meets up with a young kid (Played by Devon Bostic), who tells them of an island where they could go to be protected from the zombie plague. Two feuding families, the Muldoons and the O’Flynns, who share drastically different views on what to do with their zombified family members, control the remote island. Patrick O’Flynn (Played by Kenneth Welsh) aims to exterminate every last walking stench and Seamus Muldoon (Played by Richard Fitzpatrick) demands they keep the ghouls alive in the chance that a cure is found. They obviously haven’t seen Day of the Dead yet. After Sarge and his gang arrive on the island, they are caught in a warzone that threatens the lives of all the people who live on the island. A side plot involves Muldoon attempting to get the zombies to eat something other than human flesh. They are also desperately trying to catch a mysterious female zombie (Played by Kathleen Munroe) who rides a horse.

Survival of the Dead does not boast a bad premise, and it does every once and a great while show signs of Romero’s wit. The handling of the film is what disgusted me, which appears as if Romero could have cared less about the entire project. It shuffles around and everyone furrows his or her brow. Background characters plea with their stubborn fathers to bury the hatchet and come to an agreement. Sarge seems to have no place in the entire film, just there to fire a machine gun every now and then. His crew is wiped out quickly and we are left barely remembering their names. The film never musters up the scares that Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead blasted their viewers with. The film is just an absolute mess that is more Saturday morning cartoon than horror movie. The performances from everyone involved are too animated, no one offering a lick of concern for their current situation. Why is everyone so calm?

There is some good to be found in all of this, as it does pack two thrilling attack sequences. One occurs at a boathouse where several characters become zombie chow and a gunfight at the end that would seem appropriate in an old school western, if one was to go in and take out the zombie attacks. The cinematography is also crisp and clear, putting the lush and photogenic landscape front and center. There is also some seriously sweet zombie make-up and a hoard of ghouls tearing a horse open and feasting on its guts. I wish I could say more for the characters, who are all unlikable. I wish I could praise Romero’s script or his dialogue, but here it’s disposable and infuriatingly juvenile.

Romero is defeated by his own premise in Survival of the Dead, one that we’ve seen before and to much greater effect. See any of his original three zombie films for further proof. It’s going through the motions, which are rank with decay and in need of life support. It doesn’t help that he shows no subtly whatsoever this time around, something he seems to rejecting as he grows older. The film concludes with the said horse attack, which is both relevant to the series, harkening back to the bug munching going on in Night of the Living Dead while offering a fresh direction for a future zombie film. But that is precisely the problem with Survival, it’s all seems like set-ups for future films. This is just the detour. Romero seems to at least be acknowledging that he’s beating a dead horse, having his own zombies beat and then devour the damn thing. I sincerely hope he gets back on track and soon. The remake of his 1973 film The Crazies was really fulfilling (He produced the remake of his own film). George, we know you still have it in you, man, and I’m not giving up on you, but I can’t be kind to Survival of the Dead. You are capable of so much more than this. Grade: D+

Scream 4 (2011)

by Steve Habrat

There is something intoxicating about a director who helped pioneer a certain genre way back in the day once again jumping behind the camera. I don’t care if he was making Alvin and the Chipmunks 6, if George “Night of the Living Dead” Romero is promised to direct, it’s a must see for me. But with the horror genre, it becomes something more of an event. It morphs into a holy pilgrimage for fans of the genre. Back in 2005, George Romero emerged from his crypt and served about a hearty dose of gore and stuck it to the hoards of wannabe zombie directors with Land of the Dead. Sam “Evil Dead” Raimi conjured up some demonic spirits in 2009 with the superb throwback Drag Me To Hell. There is just something about the living legend that gets me inebriated on excitement. That’s what I felt when I entered the theater to see Wes “Nightmare on Elm Street” Craven’s newest addition to his Scream franchise, Scream 4. If we stop to review Craven’s resumé, we will find it to be quite hit or miss. Name me a person who saw 2005’s Cursed and I’ll be pretty impressed. Or even last year’s 3D opus My Soul to Take! Yet the man has also provided the horror genre with the grungy grind house flick Last House on the Left and the clammy mutant extravaganza The Hills Have Eyes. Just to remind you, those came out in the 1970s. He’s also the man who is responsible for what I believe to be the most overrated horror film ever made, Nightmare on Elm Street, but that is an entirely different conversation all together.

It’s been eleven long years since Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson have crafted a self-aware stabbathon know as Scream for horror fans. I’ll be frank, it was long overdo, as horror is in such a sorry condition and the Scream films always seemed to be a cut and slash above the rest. So where did we end up in those eleven years that ol’ Ghostface wasn’t stalking a pretty young face around an empty house? Well, we are stuck in a perpetual cycle of reboots, remakes, and torture porn. Thank you, Saw. Funny enough, Scream 4 sets it sights on the Saw franchise in the first five minutes of the movie. It seems like Craven and Williamson were fed up with them too. But the film manifests itself into something else entirely: A brutal and bitter meditation on the current zeitgeist and Hollywood’s refusal to give something new to audiences. It’s just recycle and reuse according to Scream 4, but it also presents some spiffy little homages to the films that started it all and a true master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.

The film commences with one of the worst opening bloodbaths of the series and then jets off to Woodsboro, the place where all the mayhem began. Sidney Prescott (Played by Neve Campbell, who is aging remarkably!) has returned home after eleven years to promote her new self-help book, Out of Darkness. She bumps into her now married old pals Gale Weathers (Played by Courtney Cox, also aging remarkably!) and Dewey Riley (Played by refined thespian David Arquette). Gale is a has-been journalist struggling with writers block and Dewey is now the dim sheriff of Woodsboro. Upon Sidney’s return, someone has donned the Ghostface mask and is taking aim at Sidney and her little cousin, Jill (Played by Emma Roberts). Of course, Jill and her group of friends are keen on horror films and the new rules to survive them. She gets lots of help from the horror-obsessed tomboy Kirby (Played by Hayden Panettiere, with what could be the worst haircut since Anton Chigurh stalked helpless victims in No Country for Old Men.) and two film nerds who run the film society at their high school, Charlie and Robbie (Played by Rory Culkin and Erik Knudsen).

Scream 4 ends up being a mixed bag. The film relentlessly globs on the self-awareness to the point where it becomes sickening for the audience and it’s more interested with being a comedy. There is barely a scare to be found this time around. Craven, however, lived up to his title of the Master of Suspense and does provide some brief moments of pure tension. But the film makes the grave mistake of confusing tension for scares and the tension is fleeting. The film’s most fatal error is the fact that it spouts off the formula for the new generation of horror films but rarely utilizes them. The characters constantly spew hollow mumbo jumbo about how the sequels and the remakes have to go a step further than the original. That’s all fine and dandy if Scream 4 actually took things a step further. Instead, it plays it safe and rarely strays from the original formula.

While the self-awareness weighs the film down, Scream 4 further self-destructs from it’s misguided profundity. It thinks it has something intelligent to say about social media, but instead it just becomes shameless plugs for iPhones. It’s clear that Williamson had absolutely no clue how to actually incorporate it into the film. The film further suffers from the fact that it has no idea what to do with Dewey and Gale. They appear to have only been incorporated to please the die-hard fans of the series, as they are given little to do. Gale stomps around spouting off flimsy one-liners about how she still “has it”. Dewey is reduced to rushing from crime scene to crime scene while looking horrified. The film also implies that they are having problems with their marriage—problems that are never revealed or that we could actually care about. The most glaring problem with the characters is Panettiere’s Kirby. She has to be the most unconvincing horror buff on the face of the earth. She rattles on about Suspira and Don’t Look Now when she seems like the type of girl who would know more about The Grudge 2.

For all of its flaws, Scream 4 gets a few things right. The film has some truly gruesome death scenes that are the best since the original film (This is a Scream film, people!). One scene in particular has a character get stabbed in the forehead and then trying to flee from Ghostface, who calmly walks along side watching the character bleed out and die. Unfortunately, the horror of the scene fizzles out with a crappy one-liner. The film does prove that it can run with the new line of splat pack gore fests. Italso comes equipped with snappy nods to classic horror films. One scene pays blood-spattered tribute to Hitchcock’s Rear Window and another scene tips it’s knife to Psycho. One character is even named Anthony Perkins! One scene in a hospital is eerily similar to the original Halloween II. This entry is probably the most successful in capturing the spirit of the original 1996 film that started all the slashing and gashing. The film refuses to conceal the bitterness from Craven and Williamson, as one character snarls to another, “Don’t fuck with the original”. It’s a line of dialogue that elicits some giddy snickers but also mirrors some frustration that I’m sure Craven has felt, as three of his classics have been remade for modern audiences.

To be fair, Scream 4 is a descent time at the movies. You will not walk away disgusted you just spent nine bucks on the movie. It provides some fun moments and it’s a blast to see Campbell chased around by the iconic killer again. I’m glad Craven and Williamson had the good sense to keep her front and center in all the bloody chaos. The outrageous finale also makes up for some of the film’s weaker moments. Scream 4 is a viciously average time at the movies and if Ghostface should return, as I’m sure he will, let’s hope that Williamson tweaks his script and shrinks his focus down, as this is an overly busy scattershot of a product. GRADE: C+

 

Scream 4 is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

by Steve Habrat

As you exit the theater after viewing Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, there should be theater employees stationed by the door that snap a picture of you and toss you a t-shirt that reads, “I survived Transformers: Dark of the Moon!” I kid you not that when the theater lights come up, the gleaming credits roll across the screen, and Linkin Park blares down on you from the theater speaker system that you will need to take a minute to compose yourself. Your brain will be reduced the pancake batter, your ears will ring, your bones will ache, and you may suffer from a pounding migraine headache as your try to decipher what it is that you just saw. The truth is that Transformers: Dark of the Moon is infinitely better than the previous installment in the Hasbro toy franchise, but the bottom line is that the film, which hints at an intriguing concept early on, single handedly creates a new subgenre of action film: Explosion porn. In the last hour of this film, I’m absolutely astounded that you could not hear Bay’s maniacal laughter as he reduces Chicago to a pile of smoldering embers, reduces the premise to ash, and leaves you reeking of gasoline and defeat.

Almost everyone I talk to about the Transformers films seem to agree that the first film was a charming action film about a boy and his car. About an eccentric kid grappling with problems most teenage boys face (girls, popularity, money, ennui in suburbia) getting thrust into something that is larger than life. Then came the second film and the awe factor was reduced to racist rubble at the pyromaniac claws of Michael Bay. The first film was clearly overseen by Spielberg, who is the executive producer of these films; because Bay demonstrated some disciplined restraint and didn’t blow up EVERYTHING he pointed his camera at. The second film was an incomprehensible mess that was nothing but one confusing fight sequence after another. Furthermore, halfway through the film, it seemed like the writers realized the storyline was rancid and tried to redirect the entire film. Bad idea.

So how does the third entry in this lucrative franchise fair? Well, it manages to be pretty average in the story department. It has a beefier plot than the previous film but the film is so garish and cramped that it almost bursts on screen. The plot wears thin after the first hour and a half and the film spends the next hour using an epic showdown in downtown Chicago as a dazzling diversion to the fact that the storyline has run out of fuel. The film begins with a nifty prelude that suggests that the space race of the 1960s was in response to a ship that had crash-landed on the dark side of the moon. Turns out that the ship actually belonged to Sentinel Prime, an Autobot that fled the planet of Cybertron during the war between the Autobots and Decepticons. He took with him a precious weapon that would have decided the outcome of the war. Flash forward to present day and the Decepticons are lurking on earth and looking for the weapon to launch a massive campaign against Earth and wipe out the remaining Autobots.

Back at the center of all the action is the bumbling hero Sam Witwicky (Played by motor-mouthed Shia LaBeouf). Once Sam was a lovable hero who just wanted to get the girl. Now, he’s been reduced to a shadow of his once beloved character. He’s set up shop with Carly (Played by Bay’s curvy Babe-of-the-Month Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) in what appears to be a left over set of a Victoria ‘s Secret commercial. The two can’t even come close to emulating the bizarre chemistry that LaBeouf had with Megan Fox in the first two installments. They seem like the most improbable couple on the face of the earth. The rest of the cast is back too and they are all as colorful as ever. We have the tough-as-nails army officers Epps (Played by Tyrese Gibson), and Lennox (Played by Josh Duhamel) back on the front lines of the alien/robot battle. Also back is Sam’s TMI-spouting parents and the eccentric former Sector 7 agent Simmons (Played with berserk delight by John Turturro). Newcomers include John Malkovich as Sam’s unhinged new boss, Ken Jeong as Sam’s jittery coworker, Frances McDormand as an icy government agent, and Patrick Dempsey as a charismatic boss.

It truly is enigmatic how Bay convinced some of the talent to actually agree to be in this beast of a movie. They must have all been desperate for a payday because I can’t imagine stars like Malkovich and McDormand actually biting at this tomfoolery. They do the best job they can with the material they are given. Let’s not forget that some of the dialogue has never been some of the sharpest banter ever projected onto the silver screen but it is given some life by these accomplished actors. Yet somehow all these characters are the reason that these films astonishingly stay afloat. Granted the second film may be one of the vilest movies of recent memory, but you have to admit that it had spunk. The characters are effervescent and so are their alien allies even if tired clichés pour from their CGI mouths.

While many are swift to accuse Bay of producing empty cinematic experiences, they are correct to an extent. Bay does action well and he can frame a scene better than most directors out there, but the problem with Bay is that he sabotages his own film’s potential. This film has plenty of said potential and the first twenty minutes of it are expertly constructed. He weaves history and fiction together just as effortlessly as they did in X-Men: First Class. But then Bay can’t resist himself and pulls the pin out of the grenade. He does this with a single shot that throws off the momentum that the film has been gathering—a shot of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s ass as it sways up a set of stairs. It sucks the life right out of the film and for the next hour, the film scrambles to gather back that momentum. It doesn’t help that the premise here is stretched to the breaking point, snaps, and then continues on for another hour. I believe that the first film worked so well because we knew so little about these alien visitors. Now, the films have been steeped in geek lore and suffer from being completely overblown. Everything is given a longwinded explanation that drags the events on another ten minutes. This entry keeps it a bit simpler but I still firmly believe the franchise should have been left at one. Shame on Hollywood’s gluttony.

Overall, Bay has become a target for another crime against his audience—making them feel no emotion whatsoever. His films are more concerned with the action sequences than any redeeming quality like emotion. Yes, a film should send you away with a feeling. That can include walking away sad, overjoyed, depressed, moved, or, yes, thrilled to your core. While the last entry sent you away confused and simply infuriated that it exists, Transformers: Dark of the Moon sends you away overwhelmed and disoriented. You will feel like you just stepped off of a rollercoaster. I guarantee that your stomach will be doing somersaults for hours after in your gut. We can spend all day arguing over the mediocrity of his latest film, or we can just agree on the obvious: At least Bay sent you away FEELING something this time around. Grade: C+

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is available on Blu-ray and DVD Friday.

United 93 (2006)

by Steve Habrat

I think I speak for a good majority of people when I say that the announcement that Hollywood was going to release not one, but two motion pictures in the same year that dealt with an event that was so catastrophic, the wound hadn’t even begun to scab, was quite a shock. It left me with a mixture of skepticism and anger. Is this just a scheme to capitalize on a horrorific event that left thousands dead and their family members grieving for years to come? Should we really be making blockbuster pictures out of a senseless act of terrorism? But after watching United 93, the terrifyingly real account of what took place in the sky aboard the plane that didn’t reach it’s intended target, was at once delicate with it’s subject matter and uncompromisingly unflinching. It lacked a specific stance on terror and instead presented real people up against other real people and stands as a testament to unity and heroism. It helps that director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) shot the film in a documentary-esque manner and casted a slew of no name actors and a few of the prominent individuals who were mixed up in the chaos that day. The film works because of its prodigious realism.

To sum up of the film would be a waste of time because everyone is familiar with what happened aboard United Flight 93. I was worried that United 93 would become a product that was interested simply in dramatized entertainment and would easily prey on the raw emotions of it’s viewers. Yet it’s told-in-real-time approach mounts the tension to unbearable heights, just as if we were transported back to that sunny day in September and had our eyes glued to the unfolding news all over again. The gut-wrenching terror just kept elevating and we couldn’t help but ask ourselves, “How can this get any worse?”  It slyly shrouds the audience in dread by its structure and not simply on subject matter alone. This would be an easy way out and Greengrass is well aware of it. United 93, however, lingers on its characters a bit. It allows us to get to know them and lets us know that these heroes are no different than us. One man is late for his flight and is scrambling at the last minute to get aboard the doomed flight. We see documentary-esque shots of the behind the scenes activity that the flight crew went through that very day. We know how this will turnout, but this normalcy is weirdly comforting.

Hand-in-hand with the normal routines of the American citizens, we see the ritual of the terrorists that fateful morning. We see them praying, reading from the Quran, and shaving. The film humanizes the monsters. They even dress like us and putting ourselves into the mind frame we possessed before that horrible day, we wouldn’t even look twice at their routine actions. Were they really any different than us? In the beginning, when the flight is departing, there is a foreboding scene in which one of the hijackers glances out at the still intact World Trade Center looming in the distance. You can’t escape the trepidation and judging by the expression on the hijackers face, all traces of a rational, peaceful human being diminishes and the hints of a monster leaks through. They cease to be average and personify evil in the blink of an eye. It mirrors our view of the day. What only several minutes ago seemed normal has been engulfed by evil. When they are on the verge of hijacking the flight, they argue with one another about when the proper time to overtake the flight. One even appears to have a case of cold feet. It suggests that they still may have clung to some distant strand of fear. And possibly fleeting humanity.

This film should also be hailed for the careful and reverential direction form Paul Greengrass. For a project this risky, Greengrass never lets a frame of this film feel unnatural or exploitative. It could have so easily fallen victim to either one. Instead, Greengrass gives us the facts and nothing more. The film is never romanticized, singling out any one character. Instead, the film focuses on a group that we root for, the unified good. You’ll find yourself fighting the urge to leap out of your chair and cheer them on when they make their stand. The group the we empathize with, which consists of the terrified passengers who are unable to fight back and instead make heartbreaking phone calls and say their final “I love you”s and goodbyes. You’ll be left biting your lip and fighting off tears for these individuals–ones who did not deserve the fate that ultimately claimed their lives. The outburst of violence at the end (which is, as we know, inevitable) is disquieting and gory, but his camera doesn’t revel in the violence. It’s necessary and even those who are usually turned off by violence this extreme in a motion picture will find themselves pushing through it.

The film’s extreme realism also stems from the casting in the film. It lacks a familiar face from Hollywood’s A-List. This choice at times makes the film almost uncomfortable to watch because it feels as if Greengrass ripped the top off the real plane off and stuck a camera inside so we can see actual events taking place. Real pilots and flight attendants portray the flight crew in the film and he even cast individuals who were actually there that day and watching the events play out. The most notable one is of course Ben Sliney, the FAA’s National Operations Manager who made the call to ground all flights. The unknown actors do an unbelievable job and are amazingly convincing.

United 93 is, without question, a comfort blanket of a film. It soothes us with the fact that while September 11th, 2001 felt like a hopeless day, we did fight back and lives were saved. We can take solace in the fact that even though we were pushed, we did push back. This is a fact that I think is sometimes sadly overlooked. These people gave their lives to save countless others and kudos to this film for recognizing them. It also acts as a cathartic experience that should be seen by all, but it should not be approached lightly. You should emotionally prepare yourself for what is to come. You will emerge from the film shaken up, there is no doubt about that, but you will feel uplifted. Even as we hit the ten-year anniversary of the attacks, it still feels as if it were yesterday. It acknowledges the fact that even though evil won that day, good still made a ripple. United 93 is a triumph because it chooses not to focus on one face, but the face of many, and what the face of many can do is simply extraordinary. Grade: A+

 

United 93 is now available on Blu-ray.

The Big Lebowski (1998)–Blu-ray Review/Reflection

by Steve Habrat

When it comes to discussing the Coen brother’s existential stoner comedy The Big Lebowski, I never admit that I did not find myself smitten by the film on my first viewing. Keep in mind that I was in the eighth grade when I first exposed myself to the wickedly fast dry humor that Joel and Ethan wove so slyly into the narrative. I was honestly bewildered by this oddity of a film. Sure, I knew it was supposed to be a comedy but I felt left out of the joke. Like the film knew something I did not. I would later come to realize that this is a feeling that you get while watching every Coen flick.

My cousin directed me towards the film, who vigorously quoted lines from the film like “Shut the fuck up, Donny!” and “I can get you a toe by three o’clock!” He vividly described scenes to me and had me doubled over in laughter just by his descriptions. While making a Best Buy run with my old man the next weekend, I happened upon the DVD and bolted to the register. When I got home, I tore the shrink wrap off the case, popped the disc into the player, and strapped myself in for what I anticipated to be one of the funniest movies I would ever lay eyes on. When the credits rolled, I stared blankly. I was unsure what to make of it. I chuckled a few times but I failed to see the gut busting hilarity of it all. I was disappointed. Furthermore, I had no clue what it was supposed to mean. For an eight grader, trying to decipher a film like this was quite a challenge. It all seemed to signify nothing. That we are just here living our lives and what happens around us is ultimately irrelevant. That’s the message I take away from the film now but back then, I simply had to watch it again. Yes, I groaned at the thought of enduring it a second time.

Upon my second viewing of the film, everything clicked. There is no plot to this movie! It’s just about a lazy stoner who enjoys bowling. He lives a simple life with zero complications. Everything is perfect in the Dude’s universe. Then, along comes two thugs who confuse Jefferey “The Dude’ Lebowski with a millionaire also named Lebowski. Turns out that millionaire Lewbowski’s wife owes some money and the thugs aim to make him pay. To con him into coughing up the dough, one urinates on his beloved rug. The Dude’s universe is shattered. After all, that rug really tied the room together. The Dude gathers his cronies, Walter, an obese Vietnam war veteran with anger issues and the scrawny pushover Donny, and they set out for compensation.

After knowing the background of the film, the rest is all sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing. The Dude finds himself caught up in one wacky encounter after another. All he wants is a new rug. What he gets is his perfect universe turned upside down. I will admit that after this revelation, the film was automatically hilarious. In fact, it was uproariously funny. There was no reason for any of this to be happening but it was. But hey, that’s life! There are events that take place around us that really have no meaning at all. We can try to understand them but we are just a small piece of the puzzle. Like the song through the opening credits suggests, we are just “tumbling tumbleweeds”.

What ultimately makes The Big Lebiowski a classic is the ensemble of characters that it packs. Everyone from Julianne Moore’s Maude to John Goodman’s Walter is so outrageous that they end up feeling real. No matter how outrageous things get, they seem to stay grounded. The true reason to see the film is Jeff Bridges’ dedicated performance as The Dude. He’s a character that is out of touch and in touch with reality all at the same time. His character is fully realized and never sees any growth but yet he polarizes us. We can’t stop watching him. To be honest, I think we are the ones that ultimately experience a change. Should we really worry about the little things that happen? Shouldn’t we just let it go? These characters exist just to act as our guides through our conversion.

We can debate the films other underlying meanings until we are blue in the face but the truly astonishing aspect of The Big Lebowski is the fact that the film gains more and more popularity as it ages! Its cult status is through the roof. The mere mention of the films title sparks a string of quotes and chuckles. I should note that these are for the people in the know. What further shocks me is the reach that the film has. Everyone from the stoner who lives next door to your doctor has seen it. The Big Lebowski has shot up the ranks and sits as one of my favorite films of all time. I quickly learned that the irrelevance of it all is the point. The film is now available on Blu-ray and I highly suggest that if you don’t own the film, go out and pick it up. It will really tie your film collection together. Grade: A+

The Big Lebowski is now avaliable on Blu-ray for the first time.