My full review of The Grey is available at the Herald.

I gave The Grey a B. I thought it was harrowing and gorgeous, but that Liam Neeson’s despairing badass sometimes descended into tough-guy cliches. My take turned out somewhere between the exasperated enjoyment of the AV Club‘s Scott Tobias and the visceral awe of the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott. But even as I was writing about how I mostly enjoyed The Grey, I thought I might be underrating it. Not because I was wrong to fault it for being soulful/manly to the point of ridiculousness. I’m never wrong in those reviews composed 48 hours after seeing a movie I’ve discussed with no one and purposely try to avoid knowing anything about beforehand.

But The Grey is a movie I could watch a hundred times.

This isn’t necessarily a guarantee of quality. I could watch 2012 a hundred times, too. Even, God help me, The Day After Tomorrow. But my personal list of endlessly rewatchable movies also includes stuff like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Inception, and Zodiac, so it’s not like it’s all raw garbage, either. The one thing these movies good or bad have in common is an extremely well-realized setting.

I just get lost in those worlds. Even if that particular world involves wolves loping along the glaciers of New York City while the humans valiantly attempt to outrun global warming itself. The Grey has a landscape you can get lost in. Driving, blinding snowstorms. Looming pine trees. Misty peaks. Gleaming blue ice. Frigid rivers slashing down the slopes. So it’s got that going for it, which is nice.

But I don’t think that’s the only reason I’d happily throw it on the DVD player every day until the DVD becomes unviable. I’m also highly attracted to wilderness survival stories. No no no, not like that–I mean I want to have sex with them. No, wait. I mean I really enjoy them, possibly because the plots are so boiled-down. Are these guys going to make it out alive? How are they going to get over that stream? Can they start a fire in the rain? The questions are pretty yes or no. Either they’re going to get devoured by wolves or they won’t. Not a lot of ambiguity there. I like ambiguity as much as the next guy–or do I?–but sometimes it’s nice to be told a story that is what it is.

So The Grey very much has that going for it. It moves fleetly from one simple act of survival to the next while Neeson and the others are dogged (heh heh) by a pack of angry wolves. It isn’t all violent pack-attacks, either. During one scene, Neeson and the others cluster together in the woods at night. Beyond the light, a wolf howls, but it’s close enough to see its breath. A moment later, the pack answers. From sixty feet away, twenty other columns of breathy mist rise into the darkness.

It’s chilling. It’s the kind of moment that makes you happy to be there.

I have some issues with the support cast, though. Visually, they’re all but indistinguishable, mostly white guys with dark beards and heavy clothes. One guy has glasses, I guess, and one guy’s Hispanic, but most of their individual traits don’t emerge until after the point where they’ve already become an amorphous blob in my head. They’re basically there to be killed one by one in typical horror movie fashion. Even when they are given defining identities, a lot of it is this very simple storytelling/Hollywood thing where they’re all defined by a single trait. One guy’s whole personality is that he loves his daughter and tells this anecdote about her. That kind of thing. It’s the illusion of depth.

But really, that’s beside the point. This is Neeson’s show. The only word for what he’s got is gravity. It’s a strange situation, too–Neeson’s character is haunted by the wife he lost. Meanwhile, Neeson’s real-life wife died in a skiing accident about three years ago. He’s said on record he’s chosen all these action roles lately for the specific purpose of working through that. The performance he gives is pretty remarkable and goes a long way to defray the action-movie toughguy cliches surrounding his character. I don’t know if it’s because of the specific emotions he’s able to channel here, or simply that he’s a great actor, but it’s a hell of a performance. It works even when he’s busy talking about death, which, like I said in the review, is extremely challenging to do without sounding stupid.

For me, there’s a very simple truth at work here. One where the will to survive becomes a metaphor for persistence. Early in the movie, Neeson’s ready to kill himself. He’s sitting in the snow with a gun in his mouth. Then he hears the howl of one of the wolves he’s paid to protect his coworkers from. The literal call of the wild reminds him of his own animal instinct to keep going. From that moment on, that’s all he does. He keeps moving. He keeps thinking. He keeps trying. Even when it’s down to him against the alpha wolf, and all he can do is strap some broken bottles to his hands, he keeps fighting. Anything else would be giving up–and his will can’t allow him to do that.

I think that’s what gets me about The Grey. I probably won’t ever be stranded in a dangerous wilderness. If I ever find myself hunted by wolves, I would probably just laugh. But we all face discouragement every single day. Why keep trying? Why keep going?

Because there’s no other choice.

As always, full review of Contraband is available at the Herald.

I have a complicated relationship with Mark Wahlberg. Actually, in a more realistic sense, our relationship is very simple, as it doesn’t exist at all. But in the highly unreciprocal world of movie stars and the people who watch movies, it’s complicated. As an actor, I mostly like Wahlberg a lot. I’ve liked him since Three Kings, and he earned himself a lifetime pass from me in The Departed. He’s done fine work in movies like The Other Guys. Sure, he was also in The Happening, but for that I’m going to blame M. Night Shyamalan, because that’s what Shyamalan does. He makes good things bad.

At the same time, Wahlberg seems like kind of an ass. The most obvious and recent example is that interview where he claimed 9/11 wouldn’t have happened if he’d been on the flight, as if not only do his action-hero movie skills exist in real life, but he’s a psychic as well, and, knowing the terrorists were about to execute an utterly unprecedented attack rather than diverting the plane and taking some hostages, would have catapulted out of his seat and punched all the bad guys into submission/death. He seems like something of a cocky jerk, is the thing.

But that’s probably exactly why he’s fun to watch in movies like Contraband. Contraband is essentially nothing more than a fast-paced caper movie. It’s not going to make you think, except about how cool that scene is when the Panamanian cops are facing off with the truck-robbers. It’s not glossy with style. It doesn’t have whip-crack dialogue or Heat-level shootouts or anything, quite frankly, you’re likely to remember three months later.

Even so, it’s pretty good! Wahlberg is a smuggler-gone-legit forced to make one last smuggling run, but in a minor twist, he actually loves smuggling, and except when he’s worried about his wife and kid, he seems extremely thrilled to have this final chance to commit some crime. Meanwhile, his support cast is top-notch. Giovanni Ribisi appears to have gone all Method and smoked meth for six months to get in character as an unhinged New Orleans drug-runner. J.K. Simmons gets to do a lot of barking and glowering as the captain of the massive container ship Wahlberg’s using to do his smuggling. And Ben Foster, who should legally change his name to Awesome, is Wahlberg’s best friend and former partner in crime.

Between these characters and others, including Walhberg’s team on the boat, Contraband keeps a lot of balls in the air, but it’s fast, fast, fast. The density of its plot is almost funny. When the ship stops in Panama, Wahlberg as all of like two hours to go collect the counterfeit money he needs to pay off Ribisi, yet he appears to have enough time to scrap his old plan, pull off a new one, and probably to complete a graduate thesis while he’s at it. That part’s a bit silly, is what I’m saying.

But for the most part, Contraband is, like many of Wahlberg’s movies, sheer entertainment, with snappy dialogue, crisp editing, and some interesting turns. For pure genre stuff, it’s not quite up there with Taken, but it’s something I’d happily watch again.

Official review of The Devil Inside available at The Herald.

That review has no major spoilers. Warning: this will!

Because the ending of The Devil Inside is one of the worst in recent history. To provide some context, this is a found-footage movie about a woman who killed her husband years ago and might be possessed, but her now-grown daughter can’t find out for sure because the Catholic church refuses to investigate. Except now she’s run into two science-priests who think she might be right–and are willing to put their careers on the line to find out!

And it’s all pretty boring, because none of these people have much in the way of personality, especially the god damn main character played by Fernande Andrade. Andrade’s a Brazilian model, yet somehow that rigorous training and experience doesn’t pay off in the context of a low-budget horror movie. Partly because of her worthless character, partly because the rest of the writing is equally dreadful, watching The Devil Inside is like eating bad calamari. You don’t notice anything’s wrong for a few moments after you start chewing, and then it’s rubbery and awful but you keep chewing in the hopes it will get better and anyway you’re not going to just spit it out, and then, well, no, it’s still horrible, but at least it’s almost over and you’re ready to swallow and move on with your life. Whew.

SImilarly, The Devil Inside almost becomes tolerable as it nears its end. All the crummy setup is out of the way, Andrade’s mom is undeniably possessed, and now she’s started killing people to boot. Oh no! Now she’s made one of the priests kill himself! That was actually kind of shocking! It turns out the mom is possessed by some kind of super-demon whose lesser-demon followers can possess anyone nearby. Andrade is possessed, too. In desperation, the surviving priest and the man who’s been documenting this all throw her in a car and rush off to go see a super-priest who can presumably exorcise the Devil himself–because that, it’s implied, is the monster who’s inhabited her mom all along.

What will happen next?? Oh. The demons will almost instantly possess the documentarian, who’s driving, causing him to crash the car into an oncoming truck. And everyone dies, probably. But if you’d like to learn more, the text on the now-black screen informs us, you can visit our website!

What the hell? Was this whole movie a commercial for a website? Why would we watch that? Who would possibly imagine that would be a satisfying ending? Other people in my audience shared my concerns. I didn’t speak to them, but as the credits began to roll, a man yelled out, “Oh, hell no!”

I can’t think of a better way to sum it up. No, The Devil Inside. Hell no. Now we’re all going home angry. Thanks a lot.

Full review’s over here.

This will be a rather less full review. In short: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fourth sequel (third sequel?) that’s flat-out good. No fair counting A New Hope. Scream 4 was okayish. I think Jason 4 was oddly decent, and I heard surprisingly good things about Fast Five. But that might be the complete list. Generally by the time a franchise gets that deep, it’s just milking what’s come before; it’s creatively bankrupt, shaking the loose change from the pants of passing fans before gearing up for the next duh-duh sequel.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is the fourth in the series. And it’s good. Really good. Easily one of the best action movies of the year. A lot of this is because they hired Brad Bird to direct. You know what else Brad Bird has directed? The Iron Giant. The Incredibles. Ratatouille. A handful of great animated movies, in other words–but no live-action stuff.

So this was a bit of a gamble. A gamble along the lines of giving The Lord of the Rings to Peter Jackson or Spider-Man to Sam Raimi. And a gamble that paid off just as well, with vivid, colorful, kinetic action sequences that sometimes look like they could only exist in the anything’s-possible world of animation.

Here’s hoping Bird gets plenty more work–ideally, a whole new franchise of his own.

Proper Herald review of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows available here.

I liked the original Sherlock Holmes quite a bit. I mean, the Guy Ritchie original. Not to say I don’t like the original original Sherlock Holmes. But we’re talking about movies here. Try to keep up. The original Sherlock Holmes, then, was a welcome surprise: witty, offbeat, frenetic, very modern in its steampunk trappings and Ritchie actioneering, yet still faithful to the source. It was good in a way you don’t expect these tentpole franchises to be.

In other words, kind of like the first Pirates of the Caribbean.

Not that anyone was comparing it to Pirates back then. Or if they were, I didn’t hear it, and am going to continue to pretend as if such statements don’t exist. Because if they did, that would make my comparison–that A Game of Shadows is an awful lot like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest–sound much less original.

But the comparison’s pretty great. Big, wanna-be blockbuster that everyone rolled their eyes at becomes surprise success. Everyone’s looking forward to the sequel. Second movie comes out and it’s.. not so great. It’s too much. It tries to deliver everything that made the original so charming and fun, only amped up to 11. It’s overstuffed, confused, sprawling. It’s not horrible, but in its excess and tone-deafness, it’s exactly the kind of Hollywood-bad everyone expected the first movie to be.

That description fits both A Game of Shadows and Dead Man’s Chest to a T. I don’t want it to. I liked both originals. I even kind of enjoyed both sequels (though A Game of Shadow‘s very-forced repartee between Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law almost pushed me into dislike territory). They’re just nothing I ever really need to see again.

Two fucking awesome wordplay headlines in a row. I’m on fire. My full review of The Sitter is available here.

And you know what? Again, I’m not doing an informal review here. I like director David Gordon Green lots and lots, but he barely elevates this above a cliche-ridden script full of some loser venturing into the night to tangle with drug dealers and engage in wacky car chases. The Sitter is in many ways every nondescript comedy since 2008, with only a decent performance from Jonah Hill to try to elevate it.

It’s almost midnight on a Tuesday. I have to go to sleep now. I would much rather do that than write anything more about The Sitter.

Full review of The Descendants available at the Herald.

And actually, there will be no real informal review here, other than to say this is not the best of Alexander Payne’s movies, but it clearly is one of his movies, in that it shows people as petty, shallow assholes who are also capable of being funny and thoughtful and heartfelt. A step down from About Schmidt and two steps down from Sideways, but still one of the better movies of the year. Worth catching once it shows up in your market.

Full review of Breaking Dawn Part 1 available at the Herald.

Actually, still deep in other work, so I don’t have much time to get into it here. As a whole, the Twilight series continues to be so divisive that anti-Twilight sentiment has pushed some of its former detractors into positions as apologists, arguing (with some rightness) that the series has drawn more hatred and mockery just because it’s for girls. Meanwhile, boys’ stuff like Transformers–and essentially all other blockbuster movies–pulls disproportionately little ire, because boys’ interests are infinitely more acceptable.

To which I would say “Agreed,” followed immediately by “But that doesn’t change the fact Twilight is crazy and also sucks.” Breaking Dawn is the best example of that yet. The first half is a conflict-free drift of Edward and Bella’s wedding, Edward and Bella boning on their honeymoon until she passes out and he apparently beats her up(?), which shames him so bad he refuses to bone her again–so long as she’s human, anyway.

Which confused this non-fan, as I didn’t know whether there were plans to ever make her a vampire (and thus capable of handling the vampire-stick), meaning their married life would be as chaste as their prior life, which.. well, quit fucking whining already, big guy. So you gave her a few bruises. She seems to have liked it, but if that’s the sort of thing that will make you decide to never have sex with your wife again, maybe you should have figured that out BEFORE you made a lifelong commitment to her. This just in: Breaking Dawn secretly criticizes waiting until marriage! Abstinence is a farce! It’s werecats living with weredogs!

Then, of course, Bella gets pregnant after their single tumble in the hay. Instantly, her life is no longer singlemindedly devoted to Edward, but to the half-vampire fetus that is literally eating her from the inside and which Dr. Vampire confirms will kill her. I don’t even want to get into the political subtext of this, but it makes her undying love for Edward suddenly feel very mortal indeed, to the point that it can’t help but suggest she was never really in love with him to begin with–just madly, self-negatingly infatuated with him.

Which dovetails nicely with a lot of the criticism of Twilight as a whole: Bella doesn’t really have a personality of her own, and she’s looking to extinguish whatever bits she does have through her obsessions with other people. I guess that’s why the series is so popular: with such a generic protagonist, readers and viewers can instead project as much of themselves as they want onto Bella.

So sure, Twilight isn’t really as bad as twenty Hitlers. (It’s like two Hitlers, tops.) But for plenty of men, women, boys, and girls, its two lovestruck leads offer nothing of interest. Before I could begin to start caring about the crazy melodrama of Bella’s life, she’d need to learn to care a lot more about herself.

Full review of J. Edgar available, as usual, at the Herald.

Wait, maybe I should rewrite that, because that implies there will be a partial review here, and I’m too busy for that beyond saying that J. Edgar is a mess that tries to cover all aspects of J. Edgar Hoover’s life at the expense of finding depth in any of them. Everyone involved is talented–star Leonardo DiCaprio, director Clint Eastwood, writer Dustin Lance Black–but the end product is frustrating and unrewarding. At least it’s better than Breaking Dawn!

My proper review for Tower Heist is here, and I recommend reading that one, because I don’t have the time right now to really get into it here.

Anyway, by all indications director Brett Ratner’s not a very good guy. He decided/had to quit directing this year’s Oscars after a week in which he declared “rehearsing’s for fags.” He meant it in the jokey way, and in all honesty I think he caught more shit for that than he deserved, but if nothing else come on, guy, you work in Hollywood and should know better.

Oh, and it probably didn’t help that this came within days of Ratner saying he “banged” Olivia Munn, but he didn’t recognize her in a later meeting because she “wasn’t Asian back then.” I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to be a criticism of Munn deliberately changing and misrepresenting her image (she changed her name, too) to gain Hollywood success, and not, as it appears to be, a bizarre comment about the shape-shifting abilities of the Far East. He may even be telling the truth. But the way he said it is just poorly phrased, making him look like a douche at the very least, and quite possibly a misogynist and a racist.

These are the reasons people don’t like Brett Ratner. I mean, besides his movies. He comes off like a thoughtless prick, an arrogant fratboy, and his films aren’t nearly good enough to make people overlook the foolish things he says and does. Which I’m going to say is a little unfair–I’m not sure these comments mean all that much besides Ratner isn’t self-aware enough to realize he’s a public figure who can’t blurt to the national media the same things he’d say to his friends, who’d understand it’s a joke or at least ask him what the hell he means about that Asian thing.

Meanwhile, Tower Heist is fairly fun, a typical Ratner film in that it doesn’t have any particular style to it but is fairly funny and competent in a slick action-movie way. But it doesn’t matter, because Brett Ratner can’t keep his fool mouth shut. Maybe that’s how it should be. Whiffs of bigotry from public entertainers shouldn’t be brushed off like you would for your friends. At the same time, how much does it matter? What does it say that we’re more entertained by celebrities making asses of themselves than the art and entertainment that made them famous in the first place? Don’t we have better things to be doing with our time, energy, and attention? Like making fun of Kim Kardashian?

I’ve spent too much time on this already, I think. Time to get started on the next review.

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