Get the Gringo Review (Matt Hodgson)

Get the Gringo (2012)

Starring Mel Gibson, Peter Stormare, and Dean Norris

Directed by Adrian Grunberg

Love him or hate him the caustic and often politically incorrect Mel Gibson is back with an action movie that got me hoping for something similar to 2010’s Edge of Darkness, which I have to admit I actually enjoyed quite a bit. Sure, all I had to go on was the advertising, but as you can see in the poster above – Gibson looks like he means business. Unfortunately, Get the Gringo doesn’t even come close to the fast-paced fun that was Edge of Darkness.

The film begins with two clowns racing towards the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border, paper bills flying out the window of their car, red and blue flashing lights hot on their trail. Of course these men aren’t actually clowns, but thieves in disguise who have just stolen a huge amount of cash. One of the thieves lies mortally wounded in the back seat, while the driver (Gibson) spots a make-shift ramp which just might launch their car over the wall and into the relative safety of Mexico. Gibson’s character takes the chance, escapes the American authorities but ends up in a Mexican prison, his money divided between some corrupt cops. The rest of the film is about Gibson’s character adapting to the prison life, which is really like a dangerous, over-populated small town. Gibson’s character befriends a young boy and his mother, discovering later that he may be the only person who can help them get out of this hellhole alive.

While the story of Get the Gringo is fairly basic, it still could have been a very fun and effective action\crime film. The prison as a family community is quite a different concept from the one normally depicted (ie. daily shankings, stolen fruit-cups, and the dreaded shower scenes). The prison in Get the Gringo is certainly dangerous, but is much more of a functioning community. However, this is where the originality and fun ends. Many of the ‘bad guys’ are laughable, the action sequences uninspired, and the 95 minute run-time is one of the seemingly longest I’ve had to experience. Frequently while watching the film I wished that I would just put on Desperado and have a much more inspiring and entertaining night on the rough streets of Mexico. A particular gunfight, inexplicably shown almost entirely in slow motion could have been entertaining as an early film school project, but certainly not as part of a multi-million dollar production.

As I’ve said, Get the Gringo COULD have been an entertaining movie, although probably not a great one. However, too many poor decisions were made while making this one. A peek at the writing credits revealed Gibson to be the first author of the screenplay…this explained a lot for me.

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Dark Shadows Review (Matt Hodgson)

Dark Shadows (2012)

Starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earl Haley, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Christopher Lee

Directed by Tim Burton

MINOR SPOILERS

Tim Burton, the great visionary behind Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, and many other films is at the helm of an adaptation of one of the oddest soap operas of all-time, Dark Shadows. Burton’s entourage is also on the scene as Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter play central roles in the gothic, supernatural, horror-comedy. I had personally never seen an episode of Dark Shadows despite there being 1225 of them. One would think that I would have bumped into one on the telly by now, but I suppose the fact that I wasn’t alive when the show was airing from 1966 – 1971 might have had something do to with my unfamiliarity with the vampire Barnabas Collins (Depp) and the rest of  his equally enigmatic family.

I’m not sure what the story-arc is like in the television soap, but Dark Shadows the film follows the accidental discovery and releasing of Barnabas Collins, who like many vampires before him, has been cooped up in his coffin and buried underground for nearly 200 years by a witch. Well maybe not all vampires have received this cruel treatment, but at least upon being freed Barnabas can return to the Collins estate. After all, the Collins’ have always been one of the wealthiest families in Collinsport. However, Barnabas soon discovers how quickly the world has changed since the date of his original imprisionment, most importantly, the family fishing business has been all but replaced by competitors. After some interesting introductions to his living descendants, Barnabas makes it his top priority to restore the family business to its former glory, no matter what the costs.

Tim Burton has been in this territory before, and so has Johnny Depp. The characters of Edward Scissorhands and Barnabas Collins have a lot in common – extraordinarily strange men in a normal time (to us), which happens to be very difficult for them to adapt to or fit into. For this reason I expected that Dark Shadows would excel on the comedic side of things as Burton and Depp could draw on their previous experience. Also, the trailer for Dark Shadows was quite good, despite giving away nearly every scene and plot device in the film. Despite these encouraging signs going in, I’m sorry to say that Dark Shadows is one of the dullest films I’ve had to sit through in the past few years.

The movie starts off with a recap that would be much more appropriate preceding a television episode. Maybe this was a nod to the soap of the same name, but such heavy handed use of narration should be reserved for much less experienced filmmakers than Burton. It’s almost as if Burton forgot he was dealing with subject matter that oozes atmosphere. The only thing that could have destroyed that atmosphere was the voice of a narrator recapping events from 200 years ago.

The cast itself also seems much more appropriate for TV. The quality of the actors is quite high, but to feature them all in a two-hour film is ridiculous. Depp and Green are the only two who get enough screen time for actual character development, the rest feel cheap and quickly assembled. It seems like Burton simply expected the audience to accept who he said these characters were and move on to something more important. For example, Carter’s character has an alcoholic drink at the dinner table, she also has a hangover another morning – there’s your character development! She’s an alcoholic! The large cast would be much more appropriate for something like…I don’t know…maybe a 1225 episode soap opera…oh wait. The screen time given to Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) is particularly ridiculous given that she is a central character. There must have been 20-minute stretches during which she didn’t even make an appearance or deliver a line of dialogue.

Finally, even though it’s a comedy, the plot behind Dark Shadows feels of miniscule importance. A vampire returns from a 200-year imprisonment and his goal is to get the family business back? Really? It may have worked with more whimsical and endearing characters, but not with the characters we watch onscreen. Sure Depp is good, but his eccentric characters are beginning to blur together for me. Perhaps it’s time for Burton and Depp to take a break from each other. I know that I’ll be taking a break from Burton.

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The Woman in Black Review (Matt Hodgson)

The Woman in Black (2012)

Based on The Woman in Black (1989)

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Janet McTeer and Ciarán Hinds

Written by Susan Hill (novel), Jane Goldman (screenplay)

Directed by James Watkins

MINOR SPOILERS

The Woman in Black was on my radar for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a throwback to the days of old Hammer Horror films in which atmosphere and a brooding feeling of dread were paramount, rather than today’s focus on grisly violence and silly teenagers; however, saying that I prefer the former doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the latter. Secondly, the trailers made it seem like director James Watkins actually pulled off a very creepy and scary horror film. Finally, this film marks the entrance of Daniel Radcliffe onto the film scene after the decade-long box-office bonanza that was the Harry Potter series. Quite a few good reasons for me to check it out, but after the end credits rolled I was left a little unsatisfied. The Woman in Black had done some things very well, but it failed to live up to my expectations.

The film tells the story of a young lawyer, Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), who must travel to a small pastoral village on business; a wealthy old woman has died and someone must pore through her documents to try and find her most recent will. The townspeople are less than helpful regarding information about the deceased woman, Kipps even has trouble procuring a reasonably priced carriage ride to the secluded mansion. The townspeople seem afraid of the old estate, but about what specifically, is uncertain. Kipps battles his nerves as he spends time in the old dusty mansion, as well as haunting memories about his wife, who died giving birth to their only son. But this is just the beginning of Kipps’ problems as he becomes involved in some dangerous events threatening the lives of the village children, not to mention the strange moments in the dead of the night when he witnesses the appearance of an apparition hiding in the shadows – the woman in black.

The idea behind The Woman in Black is so much more appealing than the finished product. In today’s age of relentless action, over-the-top CGI, and surprise convoluted endings that can make a Scottish Highland road seem straight, an atmospheric horror film may be exactly what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately, while The Woman in Black features some excellent cinematography, setting the scene for a ghostly good time, the narrative is not even remotely interesting, let alone spooky. Yes, the film establishes an evil and mysterious force, the woman in black, and an innocent and duly skeptical lead in Kipps, but at no point will the viewer feel as lost, confused or as frightened as Kipps regarding the mystery of the mansion. The story arc is just too unimaginative, too relaxed, and despite the supernatural subject matter, too mundane.

As I’ve said, many of the visuals in the film are a delight to the eyes, the cinematographer has done their job well. Also, many of the performances, including those by Radcliffe and Hinds, are quite solid. Radcliffe can rest easy knowing that audiences will be able to accept him as someone other than the scourge of Voldemort. However, it would appear that The Woman in Black had problems at the conceptual stages, or perhaps someone completely ripped apart the script before filming. If you’re looking for an atmospheric horror film, revisit The Changeling, or some old Hammer films. Leave this one alone, it doesn’t even know what it’s supposed to be.

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The Avengers Review (Matt Hodgson)

Three months in France and 10 days in Italy; I can’t even remember the last time I had an opportunity to see a new release in a movie theatre that wasn’t the victim of a coldly indifferent dub job. Luckily, Rome seems to be a little more conscious of preserving film experience, and this past Thursday I had the opportunity to check out one of the most hyped and successful films of recent memory – The Avengers.

Now being in Europe the theatre experience was a whole different beast than I was accustomed to – in fact I could probably write a review just on Italian theatres! For example, seats were assigned for each ticket holder, and at roughly the middle-point of the film the projector was shut off and the overhead lights unceremoniously turned on to make way for an intermission accompanied by a popcorn vendor trolling down the aisle. But I’m not here to review the Italian cinema experience, rather one of the most enjoyable action blockbusters to come out of Hollywood in a long, long time.

In case you’ve been living in a pre-Y2K underground shelter, The Avengers is the cinematic version of the comic book of the same name. The Avengers is comprised of some of the most popular superheroes in the Marvel universe, and the film version casts similarly popular Hollywood actors in the roles of these heroes: Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Evans (Captain America), Mark Ruffalo (The Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), and Samuel L. Jackson as Samuel L. Jackson Nick Fury.

As a boy and an avid comic book fan I was certainly aware of who The Avengers were, but in the 90’s they hardly seemed like a hot Ticket. The X-men dominated the marvel universe, while the skin-deep coolness of the Image universe was temporarily stealing fans from ‘classic’ superheroes like The Avengers. Since then we have had a plethora of superheroes movies, and despite being a previous comicbook fan, I have to admit that Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ version of Batman was the only one that seemed to resonate with me. This has definitely changed with the release of The Avengers.

Joss Whedon the writer/director of the film has chosen and depicted the perfect subject matter for a superhero film; the fate of the world is threatened by an alien god (Hiddleston), threatening an alien invasion – nothing more, nothing less. The heroes, earth’s only hope for surviving this ordeal, are introduced throughout the beginning of the film, and the issue quickly becomes whether or not these extraordinary individuals can overcome their differences and work together as a team. A simple concept, one that could even work on TV’s ‘The Office’, but when you have a egomaniac-playboy-billionaire with a nearly indestructible suit of armour, a super-soldier from the 40’s, a Norse God, and anger management’s least successful participant, getting along and working as a team seems barely short of infinitely impossible.

The Avengers can be charged with some sloppy dialogue at times, not the fault of the Whedon, but of Jackson and Johansson early on in the film and some of the secondary actors. However, after about 30-40 minutes the script and the actors begin to work wonderfully together and there are some truly hilarious lines and moments, not to mention REAL superhero dialogue. Also, the action sequences will leave you sitting on the edge of your seat, your support firmly behind one of the combatants, but still worried about their fate despite their superhero status. A particular action sequence in the first half of the film with Thor, Ironman, and Captain America is as close as Whedon could have hoped to approach perfection.

Robert Downey Jr. is an absolute scene stealer with his deadpan delivery of comedic dialogue that we’ve become so accustomed to. Also, it may sound strange, but the filmmakers really nailed the appropriateness of the special effects. The effects rarely seem to be too much for the subject matter (an issue that I think many Hollywood movies are struggling with nowadays, studios often blowing viewers away resulting in stimulus overload), that said, the film is still packed with some crazy visuals!

Finally, the reveal at the end of the credits left me wanting to walk out of The Avengers and directly into Avengers 2. Rarely have I been this satisfied with a Hollywood movie. The Avengers is a must see for anyone with a sense of adventure or a desire to meet some of earth’s greatest heroes.

The Conflicting Emotions Stirred up by Watching Tarantino Movies on Cable in France (Matt Hodgson)

For those of you who don’t know, I’m on a prolonged vacation away from the beautiful city of Toronto, living in France on the Côte d’Azur. Now the South of France has many beautiful things to offer: plenty of sun, the ocean, deliciously fresh bread, inexpensive and surprisingly good table wine, but the selection of new release films in theatres is deplorable. Ditto concerning the ease and nonchalance with which ‘whoever is in charge’ dubs foreign English language films. My appreciation for Toronto as a film mecca has increased ten-fold; I long for the plethora of film fests, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the many rep cinemas. I’ll simply have to make due until I return in August. Quitting film has felt like quitting a hard drug…I imagine (I’m afraid my most hardcore drug experience was with Extra Strength Motrin).

So due to the dearth of new releases in the cinemas I’ve had to keep an eye out for films on my French cable connection. Again, most of these are dubbed in French, but every now and then, late at night, I may be lucky enough to get something in English. Last night was one of those lucky nights. I turned the channel only to come face to face with a bloody Uma Thurman wearing a bridal dress and veil. ‘Oh no’ I thought, Kill Bill? This was not even close to a movie that I would say I enjoyed. What should I do? These chances at watching an English movie came along so rarely.

Well, I watched it, and I still didn’t like it, but it got me thinking about Tarantino. A man who may single-handedly be responsible for enamouring me with the world of film, as I’m sure has been the effect on many other people, but whose work I have grown very wary of as the years have gone on.

For the reader with too much time on their hands, and even for me to try to understand my own feelings towards the work of Tarantino, I will try to analyze the affect his work has had on my early career.

As a film blogger and an aspiring screenwriter I’ve necessarily been influenced by a wide variety of films. The imagination stirred up by adventure films like Indiana Jones, and The Goonies were an early influence, and so were horror films like Gremlins and The Burbs, but it was at the beginning of high school that I learned for the first time that movies could be F-ing cool. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were the coolest things on the planet the first time I saw them. I desperately wished I could sit around a table with the likes of Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen; I could even have my own moniker: Mr. Mauve? I dreamed that I could be as bad-ass as Sam Jackson in Pulp Fiction. Who was this writer\director who seemed to be tapped into a deeper vein of coolness than everyone else on the planet? To the younger version of me – Tarantino was a god. In fact, there was even a nasty rumour in high school that I had recorded the audio track of Reservoir Dogs on a tape and would listen to it during classes on my walkman; completely and utterly false – I had a Discman.

I remember rummaging through stacks of VHS movies at HMV, Musicworld, and Cinema 1, searching for anything featuring Tarantino’s work. It was through this method that I discovered True Romance, From Dusk Till Dawn, and Desperado; anything this guy touched was gold, even if it was only a small cameo in the film itself. I shared these cinematic gems with my friends and nearly everyone agreed, this guy was on another level, he had a different frame of mind than the Hollywood cookie-cutter film makers. We hyped ourselves up for the hotly anticipated theatrical release of Jackie Brown.

I walked out the theatre feeling cheated. What the hell was that? Where was the Tarantino that I idolized, the one who could do no wrong? I knew that Pam Grier had been a star in other movies, but I hadn’t seen them. Did I need a certain film background to really ‘get’ Jackie Brown? If so, that didn’t seem fair. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction could be appreciated by anyone. You didn’t need to have a certain film background to appreciate them. As evidenced by myself, even a scrawny kid with next to no life or film experience in grade 9 could appreciate them. Our group of friends was split down the middle. Half of us thought that Tarantino had succeeded, the rest of us thought he had failed miserably. It didn’t matter who was right or wrong, it was the first time we had a divided opinion about Tarantino; he seemed human for the first time; a regular guy who’s not always perfect.

It was at this point that I really branched out, exploring many different types of films and eventually getting sucked into the horror genre, where I still happily reside most of the time. But my interest in Tarantino was very real once again with the news of Kill Bill. When I heard that Tarantino was planning a four-hour epic sword fighting film I just smiled – he was back. I had no idea what to expect from Kill Bill, and would like to think that I went in with a completely open mind. Well if Jackie Brown left me confused, then trying to understand what Kill Bill was supposed to be felt like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube, while blindfolded, hands tied behind my back, and randomly bashing it with my skull.

Gone was the intelligent and cool dialogue, although it certainly TRIED to be cool. For a film with a strong female protagonist there certainly were a lot of shitty things done to women (on-screen or implied). The action scenes were extremely inconsistent, sometimes amazing, other times confusing. Extremely long side-stories would force their way into the narrative. And the ‘wiggle your big toe’ scene holds a very special place in my ‘most hated scenes of all-time’ list. For a movie that promised to be crazy fun, Kill Bill was surprisingly not very fun. In fact, it felt slow, dull, and stupid. I’ve since heard that in order to fully appreciate it you need to understand the multitude of references. Really? Shouldn’t a film be enjoyable by fans of the genre for what is at the heart of the story, and not just because of homage or references? I certainly don’t think Saturday Night Live is more hilarious when I recognize the conga line of celebrity guests that seem to appear on every episode these days: ‘Oh look, that’s James Franco, I recognize him, HAHAHAHAHAHA!’

Then when I happened to be watching either The Golden Globes or the Oscars, I saw Tarantino roll up to the entrance in the P-Wagon from Kill Bill and basically scat into the microphone. I finally understood – the man had gone insane (I’m only half serious).

More recently I feel he’s gotten back on track with Inglourious Basterds, no doubt an enjoyable film, but I still feel there’s something bothering me about the more recent work of Tarantino. Look at Death Proof, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, and his new film Django Unchained. Not positive about Django, but the rest are all about revenge, seemingly one of our most primal emotions and actions. Certainly it’s an intriguing topic for film and when done well it’s incredibly powerful; Old Boy anyone? But doesn’t it seem like Tarantino has squeezed the hell out of revenge as a theme? Isn’t it time for something else?

Getting back to my French Cable and my night with Kill Bill, I watched the whole thing…and tossed and turned all the way through. I guess it’s just a matter of taste, but it made me think about my break-up with Tarantino. If I make any sort of a living in film, then I owe Tarantino the world, but he’s changed, or I’ve changed. Hell, we’ve both changed. I’m going to buy a ticket for Django Unchained when it comes out, but if things don’t work out I think might have to file a restraining order. Kill Bill you must stay at least 500 meters away from Mr. Hodgson at all times, and especially stay off his French cable, at least have the decency to wait until he’s back in the film Mecca of Toronto and has the choice of which movie to watch.

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