Best Westerns

The_Dark_Valley_poster“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men… And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.” –Pulp Fiction

“I don’t deserve this… To die like this…”   “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” –Unforgiven

What is it about the western? They are straight genre-fiction, practically paint by numbers storytelling, but they always transcend their cliché elements and rise to be something more than the sum of their parts… Well, most of the time.

For a long time the western was dead. Unforgiven made sure of it. Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award winning masterpiece rang the death knell for a genre that had been sputtering for years. (I’m looking right at you, Bad Girls) However, recently a few European filmmakers have ushered in a much-needed revival. Andreas Prochaska‘s The Dark Valley, and Kristian Levring‘s The Salvation, are not just two of the best westerns in the last decade, but easily two of the better films I’ve seen in the last few years.

TheSalvation2014PosterWhether it’s me or not, Hollywood is busy pumping out teen-friendly science fiction/superhero blockbusters, the indie scene is fascinated with crime dramas, and everything worth watching has migrated to the small screen. You can’t get better viewing than Mad Men, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, or Better Call Saul, so why bother going to see Fast and the Furious part SEVEN? (I’m kidding though, I love James Wan and RIP Paul Walker, I totally want to see that). My point is that “the movies” are in a lull. That will all change in a few weeks when Age of Ultron drops and summer season begins, but that’s what I’m talking about.

In The Dark Valley and The Salvation, the theme is similar: revenge. Both are brutally realistic in their violence, which is always interesting to see through the lens of a director that’s not from a country so obsessed with guns. In Dark Valley, for instance, a key shoot out hinges on a new piece of technology and provides another layer to a tried and true western trope.

Available on Netflix, The Dark Valley is a unique look at what the “Wild West” might’ve looked like in the Austrian Alps. Sam Riley plays the a-typical Stranger, who rides into an isolated town just before the winter snow blocks access to the outside world. Under the guise of bringing photography to the town, it is quickly plain to the two women that are lodging him that his intentions go beyond just recording the beautiful countryside and taking engagement photos… Especially when the power-drunk sons of the local town boss make it clear he might not make it through the winter if he stays.

maxresdefaultThe Salvation is another revenge story, but this time set against the backdrop of the American west. It follows two immigrant brothers from Denmark, one of which is played by Mads Mikkelsen (of Hannibal fame). When his wife and son arrive from the old country, their family reunion is cut short by a band of bad guys who just so happen to be riding the same coach, and who are neck-deep in a conspiracy to drive off the locals. Also starring a scene-stealing Jeffrey Dean Morgan and the gorgeous Eva Green, Kristian Levring’s gritty parable was filmed in South Africa, and will be released in May.

the-dark-valley-3Both are heavily influenced by Unforgiven, and yet both also have their own clear voice and style. Whether the music and cinematography of The Dark Valley, or the stark desert landscapes and emotionally charged story-telling of The Salvation, both are easily two of the best westerns I’ve seen in a long time. Neither film panders to the audience, instead the filmmakers play their cards close to the chest when it comes to plot and it works in both cases. I like a film that makes me think, that drops me into a story without giving me a bunch of back story up front. There’s an immediacy that gets lost in exposition.

In either case, I’m glad to see the gritty, old-school, bad-ass western is back.. We’ve all suffered through enough Kevin Costner, Cowboys and Aliens, and The Lone Rangers

Pacific Rim Gives Guillermo del Toro a Chance to Shine

titleBefore I get into it, I told myself I wasn’t going to write another glowing review without saying something first: I don’t love all movies. While it might seem like I offer up glowing praise for every piece of celluloid on the planet, the simple fact is that I don’t go to bad movies. I skip the White House Downs and the Texas Chainsaw Massacres. Those I watch when I have the time… On Netflix or cable or whatever. I also don’t feel the need to write reviews of the shit I do see. 2012-movie-collage31 Does that make me a bad reviewer? I don’t think so. It makes me a practical one. I don’t write reviews for idiots. If you don’t know what you’re getting into when you go see Step Up 2 the Streets, then I’ not going to waste my time or yours telling why you shouldn’t. People go to see movie because they like the subject matter, they hear it’s really good, they like the people making it, or they’re just curious. If Grown Ups 2 is your thing… By all means go see it! I won’t pay to, but that’s cause I have to pay to see my movies and I’m not rich. I go see the ones I really want to see, and if it is a great story, or even just deserves to make more money, I want to spread the word.

That being said:

Screen-Shot-2013-07-12-at-12.32.35-PMIf any movie deserves to make a billion dollars this summer, it’s Pacific Rim, and if there is any justice in the world it will. Not since Avatar have we seen such an original universe so rich and full of life from top to bottom. We don’t get a lot of big-budget Hollywood action movies that aren’t sequels or adaptations, and here is a glaring example of why originality still counts for something. Director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy I & II, The Devil’s Backbone) already proved his big-budget chops with Hellboy II,  one of the best comic adaptations ever made. With Pacific Rim, he gets a chance to shine. You hear a phrase every once and awhile, that “here is an auteur at the top of his game…” And to some degree this is completely  right. However with a Guillermo del Toro film, you feel something more, something you don’t often get mid-summer:


You remember when George Lucas went back and added all that digital crap to Star Wars to make it seem like a busier, more complex universe? PACIFIC RIMWell what he was trying to do (albeit failing) was inject life into the “world” of the movie. Details, details, details. You see, if you provide a vibrant, believable backdrop to the action going on, the setting and the story feed off of each other… A perfect storm of yarn-spinning if you will… And it all stems from the imagination.

Guillermo del Toro chocks more life into Pacific Rim than 10,000 Hollywood-reboot-blockbuster-franchises put together. That’s easily his greatest talent. He takes these huge, fantastic ideas set in lush, vibrant settings, and sells them like gold on the screen. I mean come on, a future where giant monsters start coming through a dimensional tear at the bottom of the ocean? That’s a huge pill to swallow when it comes to suspending disbelief. Del Toro does it without breaking a sweat.

XXX PR-TLR-2052.JPG D ENTEvery single second of Pacific Rim had me glued to the screen, shoving candy and popcorn in nervously as I ran the gambit of emotions from suspense and scares to awestruck fascination at the amazing display of sheer kick-ass robot power… To even real human connection, humor, love, and grief… This film contains all of the reasons why we like to go to the movies in the first place. It has heart, it has a fantastic story, the special effects are seamless, and the entire time I felt as if I wasn’t just watching a movie, but that I had a front-row seat to del Toro’s endless imagination.

Despite the marketing machine that would have you believe this movie is another Transformers, don’t believe it. Pacific Rim is one of the few that breaks the mold. There are bits and pieces of different stories we’ve heard before, but never like this… And the best of all? There so man of those Karate Kid, stand-up-and-cheeer moments that you’re going to find it hard not to yell at the screen during some of the fight scenes. Screen-Shot-2013-07-02-at-11.04.01-AM-e1372788275310It’s epic action film making at it’s best. For what it is, there’s nothing else like it in the history of film. Seriously. This is the special effects bonanza that all the other CGI actioneers in the last few years have promised. It’s the perfect summer movie.

Can you tell I think you should go spend your money on this? Guess what I get for saying so? Not a goddamn thing… In fact I’m paying to tell you… But that’s ok… Cause hopefully some people will agree!

Set in the near future, giant skyscraper-sized monsters called Kaiju start attacking the major coastal cities. After we kill off the first few with conventional weapons tanks, missiles, bombs, (all at the cost of tens of thousands of lives) it becomes clear that the attacks aren’t going to stop. A new kind of weapon must be built:

Pacific_Rim_Under_Attack_06The Jaegers. Giant battle machines that are driven by two pilots. There has to be two pilots because, of course, the neural load of the Jaegers systems is too much for one to handle alone.

pacific_rim_jaegerSo teams of pilots join minds, linking to the opposite hemisphere of the other pilot’s brain in what’s called “the Drift…” a place inside the memories and minds of the pilots, where their special suits allow them to become the giant machines in body, mind, and even spirit.

They’re Rockem-Sockem robots, there’s no denying it… But I’ll be a monkey’s uncle it’s as if del Toro captured all those childhood toy-time fantasies and served it up on the screen. I forgot I was watching a movie, got lost in the story, and loved nearly every second of it.

pacific-rim04Let’s face it, most movies just sit there on the screen. You watch them, they’re done. You might talk about them afterward with your friends, but for the most part movies are fast-food. Pacific Rim is like a kick-ass, authentic, seven-course meal at La Casa Del Toro.

I don’t want to spoil any of the plot, but let’s just say the war goes well for awhile… but the Kaiju keep getting bigger, stronger, and meaner. Until one day the unthinkable happens to the world’s most hot-shot pilots. Faced with a growing threat, and dwindling support, the Jaeger program is mothballed in favor of building giant walls along the shorelines of the world. Soon the Kaiju start coming more often, and it’s up to the a rag-tag group of heroes, rejects, and geeks to save the world.

PACIFIC RIMIt borrows heavily from Independence Day, but thankfully not in a Randy Quaid kind of way… More like a Will Smith/Jeff Goldblum chemistry kind of way. The cheesy-yet-still-easy-to-swallow way.

Go see this movie in IMAX but bring your ear-plugs if you’re not deaf like me. It’s big, loud, and bad ass… It’s more than the sum of its parts, and it deserves to be seen. I’m ready to see it again, it’s one of those movies where you miss half off what’s going on because there’s just SO MUCH GOOD STUFF!

If there’s any justice in the world Guillermo del Toro will now be cemented as an A-list action director who can deliver the goods when it comes to original, thought-provoking films that appeal to all ages and tastes… And hopefully it shows that not all blockbusters have to be sequels, reboots, or rehashes.Pacific-Rim-Monster

Why Iron Man 3 is the Perfect Post-Avengers Blockbuster

imax_iron_man_3_posterI’m not an Iron Man comic fan by any right, but I am a huge fan of the film franchise and Robert Downey Jr. So any hang ups people have with the storyline regarding The Mandarin and the 10 Rings, I don’t care… The villain in Iron Man 3 is one of the best Marvel baddies yet… And Guy Pearce absolutely kills it as well. In a nutshell: Tony Stark is an addict, and now he’s addicted to the power he gets from his Iron Man suit, and even more so the hero he gets to be inside of it. He is also in love for the first time with live-in girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Therefore he is faced with the eternal Batman-esque struggle, how can he simultaneously be a savior of mankind beset by evil alien forces and magical beings from other dimensions, and keep those he loves from getting caught in the crossfire? He knows he can save the world, but has no idea what to buy his girlfriend for Christmas. How can he find balance between the man and the Iron Man? And even just a little deeper: think of the symbolism of the Iron Man suit itself… I’m talking chrysalis and metamorphosis, building walls and coming out of our shells and all of that.

The script, the dialogue, and Downey… They all work brilliantly here. Ex-Hollywood pariah Shane Black, one of the best screenwriters around, knocks it out of the park with razor-sharp wit and a breakneck pace. I’m giving away my old age when I say I had Lethal Weapon flashbacks through the entire movie. a_560x375Iron Man 3 is truly a triumph for Shane Black, and I give him props for fighting back from the brink and coming through looking good! The plot is swift, complicated, and just when it doesn’t always seem like there is one, you realize it’s only because Black is playing it so close to the chest.

Tony Stark can’t sleep in the wake of The Avengers, and he’s having trouble coming to grips with his most selfless act at the end of that movie. Basically, he’s a selfish guy, we love him for it… And yet here he has gone and given his life to save humanity (it was pretty much a fluke he survived, so I’m giving him props too for going all the way with it). You’d be pretty messed up too if you were a super-rich playboy one day, a introspective entrepreneur the next, and then nearly killed by sacrificing yourself to save Earth the next.

im3-2Story-wise, the plot concerns a new super-terrorist in town, The Mandarin (played with scene-stealing glory by Ben Kingsley) who is bombing civilians and hijacking the airwaves with some silly and yet creepy terror-tapes and Noam Chomsky speeches of the Evil America. At the beginning of the film, these tapes seem rather contrived… But come the end it all makes perfect sense. When one of The Mandarin’s attacks puts Tony’s closest loved ones in danger, he sets out on a cross-country mission to stop the mad man from destabilizing the country. I won’t give any spoilers, but it’s a seamless three-act play here. The first act is Tony in California dealing with his post-Avengers PTSD and watching the bad guys put their chess pieces in place. Then act two finds Tony alone and suit-less in the Tennessee snow, just as Captain America said in the Avengers… Which is what this whole film is about… Whether the hero that was born inside the Iron Man suit can survive without it. Tony is forced to truly stare into the abyss he has been circling since New York.

iron-man-3-don-cheadle-robert-downey-jr-tm-2012-marvelAct three grabs all of the threads and ties them up into a funny buddy-cop movie bow with Don Cheadle’s Iron Patriot (aka War Machine) helping Tony finally take down the bad guys. There are a few big reveals, some hilarious twists, some awesome special effects, and some seriously awesome high-flying daredevilry. Suffice it to say the Air Force One scene alone is worth the price of admission.

This movie is all about personal demons. Tony tells us so from the start, using narration to book end the story. From the first frame Tony is fighting his demons, and since life has a funny way of knowing when you’re struggling, events begin to unfold that have him questioning his very existence as Iron Man. Can he save the world and protect the woman he loves? Can he be a selfless protector and an OCD hermit crab at the same time? Can he move away from a past full of trampling over others to get to where he wants to be? I realize these are pretty big themes for a summer blockbuster, but Iron Man 3 isn’t your every-day actioner. This isn’t The Avengers. This is an intensely personal film that finalizes the 3-movie-arc of Tony Stark’s transformation from what he was, into what he will be. For a solid hour in the middle of the movie he’s not even in the suit. He’s out solving a mystery, chasing leads, and chumming it up with a surrogate inner child in Tennessee. Throw in a maniacal terrorist, a power-hungry industrialist, and an army of T1000-looking Extremis soldiers, and you’ve got yourself a summer movie!

iron-man-3-tony-stark-robert-downey-jrAlmost every single decision the filmmakers’ had to do the same old thing, they chose something different. Just when you think cliché is about to happen, Black spins it. It’s really fun to watch. It all comes together a little too well in the end, but audiences want the happy ending. Plus like I said before, if you’re a Lethal Weapon/Shane Black fan, you’ll love this flick. There’s a Christmas theme, snappy one-liners, a buddy-cop-flick feel, and even an Xmas tree lot! Come on, how can I be the only one catching this?? The finale even takes place on a BOAT! (I realize that’s Lethal Weapon 2, but you’re getting my drift here right?) There are so many Easter Eggs in this movie you’ll have a hard time following the fast-paced dialogue when you’re too busy pointing out Joss Whedon crouching behind a car during an attack, or Stan Lee judging a bikini contest, or the blatant Christmas tree lot scene… And despite the fact that there are a solid 10-15 minutes of credits, stay for the stinger… It’s worth it. Iron Man 3 is a brilliant movie, don’t believe any negative hype. It’s smartly made, smartly written, and doesn’t get bogged down at all.

I went back to see it in 3D, something I do from time to time to see how the technology is advancing from season to season, and thankfully Iron Man 3-D is one of the good 3D movies. There isn’t any crap flying out of the screen or gimmickry going on here, instead the 3-dimension accents the story… It makes it more immersive, more tangible and real… As much as I hate the fad-happy post-production use of RealD 3D, filmmakers are  beginning to learn how to use it wisely.

After cleaning up overseas for the last week, the film is quickly on its way to a billion dollars worldwide. Iron Man 3 opened to a whopping $170 million at the US box office this weekend, second only to… you guessed it… The Avengers.

Go summer 2013 movie season!

Believe it or Not, Spring Breakers May Be the Next Clockwork Orange


Imagine if you will, an alternate universe where James Franco is a dreadlocked, whiteboy rapper from St. Pete’s, Florida. Oh, and he’s kind of a big deal in the local drug market. He’s got a white-trash house on the water and a hard-top convertible with $ rims, an arsenal of guns, piles of drugs, naked girl and weed posters everywhere. His bed is literally covered with stacks of cash and automatic weapons… and don’t forget the weird bald guys packaging cocaine in the side room. Now imagine the backyard, where a white piano is stuck between the bay, the pool, and a sunset, and where Alien (Franco) sits surrounded by bikini-clad girls in pink balaclavas… tumblr_mju5m4SdGW1rqdh12o1_r1_500All holding guns bigger than they are of course. “You wanna see my sensitive side huh?” Franco asks in a thick southern drawl. He bursts into song, singing a completely ridiculous full-length cover of Britney Spears’ ‘Everytime‘ that’s inter-cut with shots of the gang robbing spring breakers at gun point. If you don’t know the song, open it in another tab and you’ll get the joke.

This is the universe of Spring Breakers, the latest movie from polarizing indie-filmmaker Harmony Korine (Gummo, Kids, Mr. Lonely). It opened in cineplexes across the country last weekend to a lukewarm reception due to one of the worst marketing campaigns I have ever seen. It stars former Disney teen-sensations Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens as well as Ashley Benson and the director’s wife Rachel Korine, in a HARD R-rated movie that drips with sex and attitude… Which is obviously what the studio banked on.

Don’t misunderstand me, this is an unforgettable film, and I’m not shitting you. I don’t know if you’ve seen Kids or Gummo or not, but they’re raw slices of Americana that center on kids growing up in different hell holes. Spring Breakers stays true to Korine’s reoccurring motif, teenagers hell-bent on acting like the adults they think they are… Spring-Breakers-30Only this time it’s set to the hedonistic backdrop of the annual college ritual known as “spring break.” Where thousands of college kids drive some place warm and act a fool.  I didn’t think I would like this movie as much as I did… And I’m not just saying that because the stars spend the entire movie busting out of their bikinis and underwear.

Someone in an office somewhere decided to market this movie as a straight-up good-girls-gone-bad gangster flick, probably to cash in on the stars’ names and hoping to do exactly what they did. Draw a big unsuspecting crowd the first weekend, only to be met by a  slew of comments like “Dude that movie sucked” from the poor date-night patrons they duped into the wrong film. Well screw that, and screw them, this movie is so hot it’s electric! I’m confident in my assessment that this is A Clockwork Orange or Natural Born Killers for Generation Y.

photo 1The story is simple, four bored college girls reject the horrible depressing structure they live in and only dream of going “to the place where people find themselves.” That’s right, Florida. Where spring break rages like the twisting nude flesh of some Roman sex-goddess. Morality goes out the window in the pursuit of that which has no morals to begin with. After the girls realize they’ve only saved $230 all year-long, they rationalize what they have to in pursuit of their “needs.”

So of course they rob the local Chicken Shack (in a brilliantly filmed scene shot entirely from inside the getaway car as it circles the diner). This is not a Bonnie and Clyde movie, this is a meditation on the detachment of today’s youth. This film serves up the symbolism on a steaming hot platter and forces you to take a bite. The director skewers everything from traditional gender roles to consumerism and the moral erosion of the age of information. I haven’t seen this much use of ironic neon since Grand Theft Auto Vice City.

photo 5I don’t think I stressed the fact that this movie is sexy. Uncomfortably so… and on purpose. You know the old adage of “if you want to get them laughing, make them cry; likewise if you want to make them cry you’ve gotta get them to laugh?” It’s an old movie trick that goes way back, and in Spring Breakers it’s more of, “Want to make them disgusted? Get ’em hot.” Opening scenes of the girls cavorting in their underwear while conspiring their escape give way to brilliantly staged party-scapes, where bikini-clad college kids dance, drink, screw, prank, and then finally get led on a visceral roller-coaster ride over the wrong side of the tracks. The movie follows these girls through the looking glass and beyond, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, power and helplessness, control and chaos…

I can picture the date night couples that went to see this movie expecting some kind of MTV gangster flick.

After the girls find themselves at the wrong crappy hotel party, they get busted. It isn’t really clear what for, but a lot of coke is snorted off of bare breasts while in another room two girls have sex. Luckily for our girls, two of the guys at the party (guess where the coke came from?) are also buddies with local-rapper-turned-drug-kingpin Alien (played with haunting precision by James Franco). tumblr_mjyy91D6201s4kw7eo1_500So when Alien pays their bail and picks them up the next morning, of course they nervously agree to a ride home in his convertible cheesemobile. This is where the fun begins. From Alien’s metal and jeweled grill to his corn-rowed extensions this guy is a creeper, but he’s got a way with words and he’s something of a celebrity who tosses around money and drugs like they were nothing.

Money and drugs you say? That’s all it takes for a few of the girls, and soon the movie takes a hypnotic, hallucinatory journey through the seedy side of St. Pete’s. After the good girl freaks out and questions their motives and their decisions, she finally bails and takes the bus back home. This sends the remaining girls over the deep end as their moral compass has gone away.

I know why people hate this movie. It makes them feel uncomfortable, the images are disturbing, and if you don’t get that it’s a comment on what’s going on up there on the screen then it’s pointless. spring-breakers-handcuffedOne of the triumphs of Korine’s film is that it succeeds in making beauty disturbing long before it turns ugly. So when it finally does turn ugly, oh man! One scene after the girls first hook up with Alien, he takes them to a spot where he and his friends hang out, where heavily-tattooed thugs play pool and dice in the corner while violent rap plays loudly on the stereo. It’s like watching mice in a snake pit.

All of the characters provide narration at one point I believe, and Alien gets the best lines. “Four little chickies came down to da beach. Four little chickies got out of my reach. One little chickie got shot in the arm. That little chickie went back to the farm.” In the immortal words of Mickey and Mallory Knox, “That’s just poetry baby…”

The best part about Spring Breakers is that nothing is really as it seems, and soon you realize that the girls are more than brooding, depressed college types… And in a very compelling scene involving Franco and a pair of silenced pistols… Well let’s just say for some reason I see that same snake pit, only with a pink grenade tossed in.

Spring Breakers is a movie that you will never forget for many reasons, and at the same time it succeeds in being one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

photo 3

Where Black Bleeds Into White

Once in awhile there are movies that move you. They make you laugh, cry, and talk to your friends in excited voices after the credits roll. Then there are movies that possess you, that you can’t tear your eyes away from. Sometimes you sit there, on the edge of your seat, as if the filmmakers have taped into some primordial part of the brain and are tinkering around inside your head. It’s those films that can be so powerful that it echoes in your mind for days, months, even years after you’ve seen them.

The Grey is one of those films.

The Grey is all about man’s fears. Fear of flying, fear of crashing, of the harsh elements, of the unknown, of being torn apart by vicious wild animals, the fear of being alone, and our fear of each other. Mainly it is about our fear of death and the ways we think up to deal with that fear.

The story follows John Ottway (Liam Neeson), who has been hired by an oil company to hunt wolves that pose a threat to their Alaskan drilling operations. After completing his job he is faced with returning to a world that he no longer belongs to. Ottway has traveled to one of the most remote, isolated places in the world to escape the memory of his wife Ana, who we learn has left him. As the movie opens he writes her a letter, walks into the “town” bar, downs a few shots, then walks out into the cold with his rifle- bent on killing himself. As he sits in the snow with the barrel of the rifle in his mouth, he hears the howling of wolves in the distance and stops.

The next day Ottway boards a very frozen jet with other men returning home from the oil rig as the pilots hurry to take off before a storm closes in on them. During the flight we are introduced to most of the men in the film, nothing brings out the heart of a character like unexpected turbulence. Disneyland’s got nothing on a charter jet in bad weather.

The plane goes down in one of the best crash sequences ever put on film.  Ottway, who has visions of his estranged wife throughout the movie, dreams of her under a bright sheet of white- only to awake in a frozen hell. He staggers up over a snow bank to see the wreckage of the plane and in that moment, where he previously had wanted to die, he desperately clings to life, finding the will inside himself to fight.

Inside the wreckage, a man is mortally wounded and panicking as he lies there bleeding out, surrounded by the battered survivors. Shaking, cold, and dying, the man is caught in the grip of shock. It is a horrifying scene in almost every way possible. As the survivors utter phrases like, “You’re going to be alright,” and “It’s not that bad,” Ottway takes the dying man’s hand, calming him and forcing him to look him in the eye. “You’re going to die,” he says, “It’s ok, you’re not alone… Let it slide over you… it’s warm.” He tells the man to let the fear go, to remember the good things, finally asking him, “Who do you love? Let them take you.” From the harrowing crash to this terrifying scene, The Grey kicked me straight in the gut, and never let me up.

The survivors band together to stay alive, searching for food and something to burn. Soon they find they are not alone in the dark, cold hell. Ottway is attacked by wolves while searching for food, and manages to fight them off with the help of the others. A new kind of fear sets in as they find they are surrounded by these deadly animals. Unsure of the wolves’ motivations, Ottway assures the men that motivations aren’t important. Whether because they’ve crashed in their territory, or because they simply pose a threat to the pack, the wolves have targeted them, and that’s all that matters.

The survivors escape the wreckage of the plane and are hunted mercilessly by the pack of wolves as they try to find their way back to civilization. Each one of the characters get flushed out along the way, mostly in conversations by fire-light, and while the story focuses mainly on Neeson’s Ottway, the supporting cast does a great job of giving more depth to the film. The writing is excellent in these scenes thanks to director and co-writer Joe Carnahan, who also made one of my favorite cop movies of all time, Narc.

I won’t go into much more detail, suffice it to say that the film is a race. A race away from the wolves, away from the elements, away from the fear that keeps a person thinking too much in a situation where thought is secondary to instinct. As the chase goes on, and the survivors are picked off one by one, I sat there frozen to the seat, in awe of the images and the story being told. The Grey is truly a terrifying film. From the ferocity of the wolves to the harshness of the cold, I was glad that I had worn an extra sweater to the theater, also that I could leave the darkness and go home to a warm house and a loving smile.

The Grey explores themes that are so deep-seeded in our psyche that it reminded me of a colder, more desolate Jaws. Manly men finding themselves reduced to a lower link on the food chain than that of the beasts around them. The dread is real, the characters are grounded, the acting is solid, and the movie is a brilliant meditation on life, death, and that one constant thing that haunts us in between, our fear.

Stay through the credits on this one.

Redefining Loss… Hesher Style

♣♣♣♣♣      out of       ♣♣♣♣♣

When a movie is really, really good, it gets stuck in your head like a song. Now this isn’t always the truth in reverse because some of the worst songs get stuck in your head for days and days… but with a bad movie, you only remember how bad it was. Only the good ones get talked about at work the next day. In some cases a film can be indescribably good, and such is the case with Hesher.

Hesher‘s title character (played by Joseph Gordon Levitt) looks about as pissed off as I’ve ever seen a hero (if you can call him that). There are moments in the film’s opening sequences when I doubted his existence within the film’s reality due to Hesher’s insane, erratic, and overtly-violent behavior. This story could have played very very differently, but it doesn’t.

At the heart of this movie is a red Volvo wagon and the boy who needs it. I won’t spoil anything, but when we first see the wagon, it is being towed away. Behind it, a young man on a bmx bike frantically races to keep up. He ducks in and out of traffic, his eyes tear-streaked and glued to the smashed red Volvo that seems to be further and further out of his reach. When he turns a corner and runs into a car, spilling up onto the hood, the boy simply rolls off- grabs his bike- and pedals on. He finally catches up with the red wagon in a tow-yard and opens the driver’s door to climb inside. As he sits behind the wheel we can tell he isn’t really there. He is lost somewhere in memory as he places his hands on the wheel and stares into space. This is TJ.

TJ is alone. His mother has just died, his father (brilliantly played by Rainn Wilson) is in a pharmaceutical-induced coma on the couch, and his grandmother (Piper Laurie) is… well, elderly. On his way to school one morning, fate intervenes in the form of a buried pipe. When TJ hits this pipe and goes flying over his handlebars while riding through a seemingly abandoned construction site, his suppressed rage and emotion cause him to pick up a rock and defiantly chuck it through the nearest window. A few seconds later, Hesher appears, grabbing TJ by the throat and pulling him into the unfinished house. Outside, a security patrol truck pulls up, and Hesher tells TJ, you fucked me…” while tossing an improvised explosive device out the window and bolting in his black van. Hesher has a thing for fire.

When TJ gets home from school later that day, Hesher is standing in his grandmother’s kitchen. He is a scary looking guy with hair down to his waist, homemade tattoos, and a taste for Metallica, gasoline, and cigarettes. He also no longer has a place to stay, so he takes up refuge in  grandma’s garage… naturally.

At this point the movie really begins, and I will stop. This is one of those films that you don’t want to know much about. What I will say is that Hesher is one of the rawest, funniest, and also saddest movies I’ve seen in a long time. It weaves a magnificently broken trail through the course of its running time, and no matter where the plot goes it is thoroughly supported by the performances of the actors involved. I’m talking hands-down, grade-A independent film making here.

At it’s core is Joseph Gordon Levitt, who has come along way since 3rd Rock From the Sun, and cements himself (in my mind anyway) as one of Hollywood’s best actors with this role. Rainn Wilson, of The Office, sports a Jack-Bauer-Style “Beard O’ Grief” throughout the film and makes up for all his silly NBC-shenanigans by totally losing himself in the part of the grieving husband/father. There is also an amazing performance by young Devin Brochu, who plays TJ. It’s refreshing to see new young actors that are able to carry the weight of such a film without a hitch. Brochu delivers such a great performance that no matter how unbelievable the story might become- we buy it hook, line, and sinker. Lastly Natalie Portman (who I believe is incapable of giving a bad performance) does a great job in a role that I won’t tell you anything about. You’ll just have to watch the damn movie.

I will leave you with the pledge that you are not prepared, neither for Hesher, its title character, or the elegant mayhem that ensues.

Hesher rules.

Oh Hogwarts… It’s Over

♣♣♣♣ 1/2   out of   ♣♣♣♣♣

As a Harry Potter-illiterate, I have not read the books and my only experience has been with the films. That said, I have also seen all of them as an adult. I remember when the books came out, and when they were picked up for a film franchise. After suffering through the first film, I didn’t think the flash in the pan would last… but it did. So I saw the second film, and it wasn’t really any improvement. Then Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien and Great Expectations) was picked up to direct the third, so I saw it. It was this slightly darker, more dangerous version of The Prisoner of Azkaban that peaked my interest. Even though I almost gave up when The Goblet of Fire tried to suck the lifeforce out of me, I was curious enough to want to see what happens. Plus the entire popular culture and marketing machine behind the series enthralled me, I couldn’t believe adults almost worshiped these books!

When The Order of the Phoenix came along, and director David Yates brought the whole “chipper kids with wands and broomsticks” down to a much darker (and honestly) more human level, I was stunned by the ending of that film… it was gorgeous. Perhaps it was the very point when the story itself turned serious, or when the sh*t started to hit the fan, but suddenly this world I’d watched drearily unfold before me truly was a dangerous place.

By the time the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 came out, David Yates had directed the last two movies (Order of the Phoenix and the Half-Blood Prince) and had masterfully managed to steer my attention toward this now epic story of a plucky young boy whose existence at a school for magic had turned into a battle between good and evil… where the fate of the world hung in the balance. Due in no small part to the consistent performances of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, and of course, Helena Bonham Carter.

So what can I say about a movie that has had so much said about it? I think “Bravo” will suffice, what a roller-coaster it has been! While I was glued to the screen, visions of previous films compiling a backstory in my brain made all of the initial “kiddie-movie-Chris-Colombus-cuteness” chapters worth sitting through. The cheesy brightness of the first films became like faded memories of childhood themselves as the doom and gloom of the Battle for Hogwarts’ School unfolded before me. Characters and places we’ve not seen in a few chapters come back with the solemnity and danger of the very adult situation. Which I guess could use some explaining.

Harry Potter is the “child that lived” when the evil Lord Voldemort attempted to take over the world (sort of) years ago and failed. Since then Voldemort has been presumed dead, however Harry and his mentor Professor Dumbledore have known better. For a few films now the evil Lord has returned and started building an army of Deatheaters (evil wizards, so, warlocks?), all with the purpose of killing Harry. Only then will Voldemort be able to rule the world (or the wizarding one at least). As Deathly Hallows pt 2 opens, Voldemort has found the most powerful wand in the world and leads his army against Hogwarts. It’s up to Harry and his friends to stop him.

I won’t say any more, because this movie deserves nothing less than that (well, unless you’ve read the books of course)… but suffice it to say Yates manages to make the conclusion of Harry’s story as epic as anything I’ve ever seen. It even tops Lord of the Rings, and without the sixteen endings of Return of the King. The special effects are amazing, the battle terrible, the losses sad, and the glory… well let’s just say there’s a certain Neville who almost steals the show.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt 2 is truly a masterpiece, regardless of whether you’re a Potter fan, or just a fair-weather fan like me you’ll be blown away. Bring your tissues and your candy, this one is a wild ride with more violence and death, heroism and tragedy, and above all- the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort just plain kicks ass. I will personally miss those cute kids that I’ve watched grow up for the last ten years… even with those ridiculous names.

What the Hell Is That? (How JJ Abrams, Steven Spielberg, and SUPER 8 Saved the Summer Blockbuster)

♣♣♣♣♣   out of   ♣♣♣♣♣

Sometimes movies are just plain magic. It’s been said that all magic is merely technology we don’t understand yet, and that may be, but when it comes to movie magic Super 8 is about as close as it gets to the real deal these days.

I’m 34 years old, and grew up in the early 80s as a creek-exploring, tree-fort building, outside-all day kid of kid… for the most part… I do remember getting in tons of trouble for dozens of  incidents involving going places I wasn’t supposed to go, being out later than I was supposed to be out, and be way filthier than I was supposed to be when I came home… and I do remember always living next to large wooded areas (in Oregon, go figure) that we spent countless hours playing away in (and receiving poison oak from).

So what does this have to do with the latest summer blockbuster from director JJ Abrams? Well, that’s what the movie is all about… childhood, loss of innocence, fear of the outside world, and most importantly: imagination. Super 8 is about a young man (old boy?) who’s mother has just died in an accident at the local steel mill because she volunteered to take someone else’s shift.  Joe (Joel Courtney) is left with his father, a sheriff’s deputy, his dog, Lucy, and his good friend Charlie (Riley Griffiths), whom Joe is helping make a zombie movie with a Super 8 camera setup… the year is 1979.

From the opening scene, a wake for Joe’s mom, it’s clear that this is no ordinary movie. The dialogue is fresh, the kids’ acting is phenomenal, and at some points  during their adolescent tirades, it feels like Tarantino is writing. In plain speak, it’s exciting from the very beginning because every single one of the characters is engaging, funny, and easy to like… it’s even got that horrible guy from ER in it as Joe’s love interest’s drunken father, and he does a great job. I’m talking all across the board, this movie is flying on green for most of the way.

Flash forward 4 months and summer has come to the little town of Lilian, Ohio. Charlie’s zombie movie is moving ahead full steam, and Joe seems to be hanging in there with a locket of his mothers that he carries everywhere he goes. Then Charlie decides to make some changes to the movie, and thus changes all their lives forever.

On the last day of school, Charlie informs Joe he’s written in a wife for the main character, Detective So-and-So, and has asked the enchanted Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the part… oh and she’s stealing her dad’s car to pick them all up at midnight for a trip just out of town at the old train station… to film a scene… “for production value.” All of this is handled with the light and whimsical banter of adolescents of yesteryear… in fact, when the sheriff sees a clerk wearing a brand-new Walkman he remarks, “That’s all we need, kids walking around with their own stereos… it’s a slippery slope!”

No by know we’ve all seen the preview for Super 8, so when the speeding train blows its whistle in the middle of the night, we as the audience know that some bad ju-ju is about to go down. Charlie hits the roof, “Grab the camera! PRODUCTION VALUE!” He screams, directing everyone to their places, “Just be louder when the train’s going by…” get us chuckling when the thundering train downs out all of the dialogue in their scene… and we can barely hear the screeching of tires far down the line at the next road… but Joe does. He turns in time to see the speeding truck pull up onto the tracks and head straight for the train before it’s hit by the locomotive, and bursts into flames. Then Joe sees the locomotive jump the track, and soon the entire train is flying through the air, 10 feet from them, at 90 miles an hour. This is about one of the most exciting action sequences in recent years, as even in the few short minutes the movie has been on, we’ve already grown very attached to the group of troublemakers. The effects are seamless, the sense of that metal hurtling through the air just inches from the kids as they run had me chowing liquorice like there was no tomorrow… whew!

As the flying train cars come crashing down around them, and explosions are knocking these poor kids around like rag dolls, Joe gets seperated from the rest of the group… and soon the cacophony dies, and most of the train grinds to a halt… except for the car directly in front of him, which starts pounding. We know there’s something nasty in that train car, something big enough to rip the door off like it was cardboard, and thankfully Abrams makes the decision to not show it to us for another hour or so… Well into the Air Force investigation, military cover-ups, and adolescent first loves that make up most of this brilliant film. This is how great movies are made. You take an original story in a timeless setting, superior acting, and a skilled director, and the magic just happens (with a little help from the fx guys).

Now I have to admit, I’ve been following this movie for awhile and was just in one of those “absolutely excited to see it” moods, and I’m happy to report, that it lived up to almost all of my expectations. If you’ve only heard sketchy things about Super 8, do yourself, your family, everyone you know a favor and go see it immediately. This is one that will go down in the books, and that might even just be ok with JJ Abrams, who drew heavily from producer Steven Spielberg’s early films (you know, those little films like E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Jaws that practically invented the summer blockbuster?).

Super 8 is so much more than a movie though. It is a glimpse back into what some will feel like was a simpler, easier time… when everything wasn’t at our fingertips, and there was still a big, scary world out there for kids to want to explore…

Toomb’s New Releases for 6/10 (Old School Blockbuster Edition)

Filmmakers do wonderful things, fantastic things, and those very few who have the gift and the eye, filmmakers perform magic that can change our lives, move us emotionally, and even now… time-travel. While I know time-travel as a plot device has been done and done again, that’s not the kind of time-travel I’m talking about. Time-travel (sorry, I had to say it one more time).

What I’m talking about are those precious images that many of us have, those nostalgic and faded memories from a childhood that was simpler than the fast-paced world we live in today. Of tying cards to our spokes and pedaling down the street with our original Converse All-Stars (the ones made in America) and our faded Levis jeans… For me, as a child of the 80s, it was all about Steven Spielberg movies… (although I’m not sure it’s because of my childhood that I remember these classics the way I do, or whether it’s because of these classics that I remember my childhood the way I do… how meta, I know…)

When I remember my younger years, I remember the world that movies like Jaws and E.T. portrayed, the sentimental summer evenings when kids actually left the house to find adventure, my friends and I were the Goonies, we were the Explorers (yeah, not Spielberg, but still, a classic). Today when I watch Spielberg movies I see my childhood, harkening back to a different time, when we sought adventure in the fantastic, and movies like E.T., Goonies, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were the foundation of our imagination machinations.

So when I saw the original trailer for Super 8, a movie-within-a-movie about a group of kids in 1979 who are helping their buddy finish his “zombie-movie masterpiece” while a possible real (alien?) threat descends on their small town… I was floored. Taken immediately back to my childhood, with the bell-bottom jeans and the hot-rod cars, people who actually talked to each other in person… Super 8, named after the camera the kids are using to film their movie, hearkens back to an age of filmmaking that brings all of those memories flooding back… the trailer alone looks like a peek back in time… like uncovering a missing Spielberg masterpiece from 1984. Super 8 is the attempt, by young filmmaker JJ Abrams, to recapture that lost, true Summer Blockbuster… and from all the reviews I’ve seen, Abrams has seamlessly blended nostalgic camerawork and cinematography with ulta-modern special effects to give us what possibly might be the last of the true Blockbusters (well, unless he’s creating a new genre this weekend… “The Spielberg Throwback” perhaps?).

Often billed as the creator of Lost, Abrams has been making a significant splash in tinseltown the past few years. Starting with the oft-overlooked Mission Impossible III, which came out at the height of Tom Cruise’s madness a few years ago (when everyone realized he was insane, but forgot he was still a great actor). MI:III, in my opinion, was the pinnacle of a frankly lack-luster franchise previously helmed by auteur Brian De Palma and Hong Kong shark-jumper John Woo. From the first few frames of MI:III, it had me absolutely hooked, and I knew I was seeing the work of a skilled director. With 2009’s sci-fi pop masterpiece reboot, Star Trek, Abrams’ cemented his status as a rock-solid action director who seemed to have learned the most important aspect of blockbuster filmmaking, knowing what the audience wants to see, even when we don’t know. Star Trek is such a triumph in every way, as a homage, a reboot, and most importantly- it was accessible to the general non-Trekkie public.

So if you’re looking for a great time at the movies this weekend, Super 8 will be worth the lines at the theater. If not, perhaps the significantly horrible-looking Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer.

Also this weekend we’ve got the new Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris,which is getting rave reviews as well. Owen Wilson plays an aspiring writer who gets lost while walking the streets in Paris and runs into many famous writers, much to the chagrin of his wife who wants to know who he has been spending his nights with. How do you tell your wife you’re having late-night conversations with Ernest Hemingway? Midnight in Paris is rated PG-13 for some sexual references and smoking.

From Japan we’ve also got Takeshi Mike’s latest brutal look at the waning days of the Samurai (no Tom Cruise in this movie),  13 Assassins. I watched this movie last weekend, and while some of the early scenes of brutality (used purposely to show just how insane and evil the bad-guy is) may turn some viewers off, this is truly one of the best Samurai movies I’ve ever seen. An aging Samurai must hatch a plan to assassinate the Shogun’s mercilessly evil brother in late 1800s Japan in this sword-and-honor historical piece from one of Tokyo’s most shocking directors. A must see in my book, despite the decidedly dark first act, 13 Assassins proves to be an instant classic… the real “Last Samurai,” and it’s rated R for sequences of bloody violence, some disturbing images and brief nudity

Our local theaters in Eugene are featuring the following:

(thanks Google)

Bijou Art Cinemas

492 East 13th Avenue, Eugene, OR – (541) 686-2458

‎1hr 28min‎‎ – Rated PG-13‎‎ – Comedy/Romance‎ – TrailerIMDb – : Rated 4.0 out of 5.0

5:25  7:45pm

‎2hr 6min‎‎ – Rated R‎‎ – Action/Adventure/Drama‎ – IMDb – : Rated 3.9 out of 5.0


‎1hr 43min‎‎ – Rated R‎‎ – Comedy‎ – TrailerIMDb – : Rated 3.9 out of 5.0

4:50  7:00pm

‎1hr 46min‎‎ – Action/Adventure/Drama‎ – TrailerIMDb – : Rated 2.8 out of 5.0


The David Minor Theater and Pub

180 E. 5th Avenue, Eugene, OR – (541) 762-1700

‎1hr 50min‎‎ – Rated PG-13‎‎ – Drama/Western‎ – TrailerIMDb – : Rated 4.0 out of 5.0

5:10  9:30pm

‎1hr 53min‎‎ – Rated R‎‎ – Drama‎ – TrailerIMDb – : Rated 3.5 out of 5.0


‎1hr 57min‎‎ – Rated R‎‎ – Comedy‎ – IMDb – : Rated 4.6 out of 5.0


‎2hr 9min‎‎ – Rated PG-13‎‎ – Drama‎ – TrailerIMDb – : Rated 4.1 out of 5.0


‎1hr 47min‎‎ – Rated R‎‎ – Comedy/Romance‎ – IMDb – : Rated 4.1 out of 5.0


A Thor Letter Word

♣♣♣♣♣  out of  ♣♣♣♣♣

Marvel Comics has been mining it’s treasure trove of material, at a multi-million dollar level anyway, for over a decade now. It started with their holy grail: The X-Men, the penultimate, be all/end all of superhero flicks, in 2000 and hasn’t

stopped since. From Blade to Iron Man to Spiderman to Hulk, the catalog of muscle-bound, leather-wearing, public-shying characters is nearly endless… nearly…