Tag Archives: 2stars

First Squad

There are two ways to watch this film, and they are very different, though the difference is created through 12 min of live action footage inter-cut with the animation during the hour-long movie.

The short version is purely anime, following an occult battle between the Russians and Germany on the Eastern Front during WWII. Germany was infamous for its occult fascination and it has been been the basis of many movies and anime over the years. If it were demonstrably true, it is believable that the Allies would have developed their own counter-attacks in the same vein. But this story is ill-constructed, using an amnesia-based plot to allow many flashbacks to explain the situation, leaves far too many questions open, and then resolves it far too quickly and not through the main character’s direct actions.

The long version is exactly the same animation, but starts with and continues to inter-cut live actor, talking-head interviews with purported war veterans, historians, and psychologists. At first, it has the effect of making the animation feel either like Russian jingoism or like an apology for how thin the plot is. As the movie goes on, you realize these are actually actors who could have been characters in the animation. Clever premise, but it ends up shifting the movie to being a sort of re-enactment. Even the style of animation supports that feel as it uses rotoscoped war footage to provide some of the landscapes and attacks.

Unfortunately, neither viewing is particularly satisfying, though I think the original, short-version is probably the better of the two as it is less self-conscious.


There are moments in this, some hilarious, but not much of a movie. Like many films of this ilk, you get sucked in by these moments and by the ideas that are clearly there, regardless of whether they are ever really tackled or explained. But, in this case, the story, such as it is, and the ideas never really come together into a satisfying whole.

Part of the issue is the story itself, which is fractured in multiple directions, all apexing around a child. A perfectly valid structure and way to knit together wildly different people and plots and have them interact. And, individually, some of the plots and some of the actors are good. But several of the actors, most notably Ben Redgrave, are just wrong for their roles… just not believable on any level even if they manage to convey a single aspect fairly easily (for Redgrave, it was “creepy”). To be fair, the script didn’t help. But an actor still needs to be able to deliver drivel believably. Half the time, that is what the job is.

Around the adult and world drama that is going on, we also have a huge idea and implied metamorphosis of the young boy that is never explained nor used to effect, except in one exceedingly telegraphed moment. I don’t think there is any room for re-interpretation of what is going on for the kid, but by the time we get to the end, I expected it to have a more definitive impact on the lives of those around him (other than the one moment). There is the feeling of a metaphor in the final scene, but it leaves you hanging like an unresolved note.

I’m not one of those viewers that demands easy answers, or even answers at all. However, I do require that a story hands me enough pieces so that I can construct a satisfying story, or set of stories after I’ve invested a couple hours. For me, this film failed on too many levels for me to ever recommend it, despite the fact that it kept me in my seat to the end hoping that it would pay off.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)

Way back in 1973, the original material for this remake, terrified me for years. Del Torro (who produced and co-wrote the script) was one of the few in the industry I’d have trusted to approach this film with the right sense of the fantastical and dread. He not only has the chops, but he also found the original scary as heck. As it turns out, you can see echos of lots of films that del Torro has had a hand in (from the tooth fairies in Hellboy 2 to Pan’s Labyrinth, to The Orphanage, and others), which is a function of the 15 or so years this project has been in process.

But this re-imagining missed on multiple levels. Admittedly, I haven’t seen the original since it first aired… honestly it scared me that much then and now I just want to protect my memory of it; it is probably as cheesy as anything else from that time. But it lives alongside Trilogy of Terror as some of the scariest stuff on film because they both prey on one of the darkest fears of childhood: something is under my bed and no one believes me. Both of these films terrified people of all ages when they aired, they are not kids films by any stretch.

Some of the changes from the original, such as the main character now being a little girl rather than an adult, could have worked. Even the alterations to the lore that drove the evil in the house was acceptable. But the choice to reveal the creatures from the beginning was a mistake and lost all the tension. The decision to have them running around visibly through a lot of the film was also an error in my opinion. It is what you cannot see that is truly terrifying. Whether that is Alien, The Thing, or these little devils, holding back and letting the audience imagination run wild based on sound and glimpse, at most, is much more effective.

I blame most of this on the director, who just isn’t as adept as del Torro. While he has similar sensibilities, he isn’t as developed. The lack of relationships between the daughter and the adults was pivotal in the failure-the director depended on circumstance to create the emotion rather than creating that emotion between the characters during their exchanges. And there are holes in the story that I suspect are on the cutting room floor. On the positive side, this is the first performance of Holmes’ that I’ve ever believed… at least until the coda, but I can give her that one.

I cannot say it was horrible film, but I wouldn’t recommend wasting your time. If you can find the original, watch that. It may be kitschy beyond words in this era, but I’m betting it still has more power to creep you out than this version did.


What a shame that such a promising property fell so bloody (pun intended) flat. You knew you were in trouble when after a quick prelude scene, we were thrust in to an, admittedly well done, animated sequence that explains the world and how they got to where they were. People, if you cannot build that into your script, you’ve already shown me you can’t write nor tell a story. Even if this is based on a graphic novel, there are better ways to impart information.

However, even if I give them a pass on the opening, the rest of the premise is pretty absurd, as explained and the directing and acting are wooden. The f/x don’t even rise to something worth seeing in most cases. I’m particularly disappointed in Urban’s character. I don’t think it was his performance … both he and Maggie Q made Paul Bettany look like a walking corpse… but the script and direction left him practically twirling a mustache and cackling.

Overall, I could see the bones of a great and fun film. Unfortunately, it didn’t materialize in just about any way. If you just have to see it, do. This is really a strong 2-stars/anemic 3-stars. I didn’t spit at the screen when done, but I didn’t feel particularly satisfied either. However, the lack of box-office success in this case was well deserved.

Mars Needs Moms

There was only really one reason this ended up in queue: Seth Green. And, sadly, all he was only used for was mo cap… the character voice wasn’t him at all; they brought in a different actor. Talk about a waste of talent. To list all the ways this movie went wrong and became one of the biggest flops of all time at the boxoffice would be to waste pixels. But let me go through a couple anyway because I just can’t resist.

Primarily, the movie had no audience focus. It really couldn’t decide if it was for 8 year olds or the parents and didn’t ride that line in a good old-fashioned Bugs Bunny way. The adult references were decidedly boomer and utterly foreign to the kids… but not in a way that really enhanced the story since it was the ideals that were driving the plot. The plot itself was generally insulting and silly and the science was lousy beyond words. OK, it was based on a kid’s book, but in translation to screen, it really coulda used some work.

The animation itself is actually really impressive and, for the first time, one of the characters eyes didn’t go dead during pauses in action. Mind you, it was only the supporting character played by Dan Fogler, but I finally realized something about mo cap movies… when they enlarge the eyes in anime-like style, they fail. Folger’s character had normally proportioned… or even slightly beady eyes. They stayed alive. Or, probabaly more accurately, I couldn’t see them go dead. The character, for all its outlandishness, lived. On the other hand, the main characer constantly fell into that scary state of souless staring that this technology is famous for. Cusack’s character was even worse in this way as her whole face was just leaden. I did evilly muse if it was a by-product of botoxing of Hollywood, but honestly, if you think about her acting style, she’s always had a fairly flat affect unless she’s pushing the boundaries. Her voice work and movement were both good.

Basically, skip the film unless you’ve an interest purely in the technology.

Falling Skies

OK, here I go again… a lack of movies in my roster forces me to write about a show still airing its season. However, since I am walking away from it for cause, I don’t feel guilty. And because I expect to be lauding a different show tomorrow when I finish watching its final season, it seemed appropriate to talk about good and bad applications of the evening hours. Mine are limited and when I take back 30 min or an hour so I can do something else, it is worth noting. I’m taking back this hour.

So, why? At the risk of bad punditry, Falling Skies fell flat for me. Despite an intriguing set of mysteries and some nice twists on the alien invasion trope, it started slow and with issues. First, few female characters of strength. The show sort of recovered from that a bit, but still has dang few female soldiers and women kicking-butt. This is the end of the world folks, everyone should be fighting. The whole “I am the man and will protect the women and children” is old-school crap. Second, the lack of grey characters was just bad writing and directing. Again, they managed to get a bit away from that over the first few episodes… but not very far away. There are clear black and white hats in the cast.

Finally, and this was the unforgivable issue that drove me from the show: the characters are “willful stupid.” Or in laymen’s terms: they were written dumb so the plot could happen. Unforgivable when it happens over and over in the show. The final straw was the 4th episode where it was so clear what was going on and no one, not one person, not even the history prof who could talk ad nauseum about collaborators throughout history, quesitons the information and situation. C’mon. I’d forgive questioning and coming to the wrong conclusion, but not avoiding the obvious all together. People are scum. They’ve established this aspect of humanity with the plots and in historical reference.

I should say that the cast, mostly, is actually fairly good and committed to their roles, even when they’re written foolishly. I think the mysteries and the aliens themselves actually made me curious… just not enough to overcome the issues. The directing even seems very competant, given the material. This really comes down to the writing, in my opinion.

Time is a precious commodity and there is no reason to waste it. I’m not saying a show cannot be just silly and pointless and worth your time. Heck, look at Big Bang Theory or any number of other sitcoms. Brainless fun is as important as thoughtful discourse. We need both. But no one needs to waste time on bad writing.

Season of the Witch

You are really playing with fire when you do a “what if” story that centers on the wonton killing of women during the dark ages. The “what if” here is basically, what if they really were (or some of them were) witches? It is a disturbing suggetion… not that they might be right, but that there might be a defense for the hunting and sadistic killing of women who didn’t do what they were told or who were a little different.

Getting beyond the politcal, and the historically questionable on other counts, story you’d hope that at least the plot and acting would carry the day beyond the challenge they set for themselves. Not so much. There are moments, yes. Some aspects that are even entertaining. But, overall, it is a weak film done on the cheap.

The only surprise for me was getting to see Robert Sheehan in a role other than his Misfits character. While he’s been around a long while, that was my only touch point for him till now.

Frankly, don’t waste your time on this flick. The high points aren’t worth the cost of your evening, even if you’re a Ron Perlman or Nick Cage fan.

The Green Hornet

Such promise and such disappointment. The approach to the reboot for this story was inspired. Having Diaz feed our boys the way of the warrior was a fabulous idea as well. However, the story couldn’t decide if it was super-hero satire or origin story. Ultimately, it ended up as neither. But the idea of the heros knowing they were absurd and not only accepting that but embracing it, to a degree was great. That Seth Rogen is, for me, an unwatchable and annoying actor was not.

However, that wasn’t where they lost me. I accepted the rich, ignored child at the start assuming he’d mature and learn (not that he really does). The further you go in a trial, the bigger the payoff, right? Except, right out of the gate, on their first mission, our “heroes” gleefully beat up on a cop and destroy his car. Not with chagrin. Not with reluctance. They think it is cool as all get out. Now, I’m not saying that some other character couldn’t feel that way, but not our main protagonist. Not the Green Hornet. It showed from the start just how muddled the story and directing were. If you can’t decide if you’re doing an adult Fast Times at Ridgemont High or The Dark Knight, you have a problem. And boy did this film have problems. With its casting. With its rhythm. With its fight scenes. I ended up zapping through a ton of painful dialog and childish inter-team fighting to just get to the end and see Waltz’s denoument; whose character was a fabulous riff against the expected… though even he was directed a little over-the-top at times.

Basically, in my opinon, don’t waste your time on this film.


There isn’t a weak performance in this movie and Jessica Chastain really sells her titular role. I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more of her in the coming years. But none of these performances overcome the basic failures of the story that provides a strangely weak main character whose consciously bad choices are being sold as being a “free spirit that follows her heart.” Bull.

How can you find sympathy for someone who, even as a survivor, keeps making bad decisions after admitting they didn’t want to do so in the first place and doesn’t learn from their past? That’s not following your heart, that’s following your … something else I’ve yet to define, cause it certainly wasn’t her Id. Often she ended up with people that just made her life easier rather than better; and then only for a time. Perhaps that just made her a parasite?

Another interpretation is that this is an orphan’s coming-of-age/fantasy story, both of their own life and the life of their parent in fantasy. This is far from satisfying as well. Perhaps she is just a borderline sociopath who was using people? Honestly, I cannot say.

And strangely, despite this being based on a fairly recent story by Doctorow, and while admitting this covers a breadth of time (well, 9 years anyway), the production designers and director went for a timeless sort of feel that left you floating rather than anchoring you in place culturally. This can be a good thing for some films, providing timeless truths. In this case, the events are so society dependent, that the lack of a time actually frustrates rather than enhances the experience.

Overall, this is miss for me and I cannot recommend it unless you have a serious jones for the original story or one of the truly good actors in the film. Since it is told as a serial, it makes it rather easy to pick out the 20 minute chunk you want to watch and then walk away.

A Summer in Genoa

Haven’t had much time to watch movies for the last week due to visitors and work deadlines. It is a shame that this was the first on my docket after the pause. It made it to my disc player thanks to some intriguing teasers on other rentals that were good. And it had a couple performers that can usually bring me to the table: Firth and Keener.

However, and you knew that was coming, this movie just never comes together, despite a promising start. I understand what the director was attempting, or think I do, but the movie isn’t quite slice-of-life, isn’t quite suspense, isn’t quite coming-of-age. It is really not quite anything and ultimately never gels despite solid performances by the entire cast. Add to this lack old film stock, or the look of old stock, which is too dark and washed out to really see some of the action (let alone Genoa) and weak editing that leaves much to be desired and it is an overall miss.

It has been a long time since I was so led astray by both trailer and Netflix ratings, but it is bound to happen at times. Though it wasn’t so bad that I didn’t watch it till the end hoping it it would resolve into something more than its jumbled parts, I cannot recommend this movie on any level.