Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Couple of Oscar Night Photos to Share with You

Here are two fun photos I took at an Oscars party I went to in Nashville:

This is my tally sheet for keeping score against fellow Herald writer Ryan Pait. (Yes, that is a yellow cocktail napkin.) Ryan and I were in a heated contest, and in the end, he came out on top by a narrow margin. Congrats!

At the party, I entered into a picks pool and this was my prize for winning! My very own "Oscar"! (Actually, I was told its official title is a "Lynnie", named for the street that the party was on.) "I'd like to thank the Academy for this great honor and to my fellow nominees whose company I don't deserve to be in."

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Reel's 2012 Oscar Predictions

Here are my picks for the "Big 10" categories at 85th Annual Academy Awards, airing THIS SUNDAY, February 24th on ABC.

It’s been sweeping every “Best Picture” accolade for the last month. No other film this year delivers Argo's level of nerve-shredding suspense punctuated by top-notch acting performances. Simply the year’s finest drama.

Day-Lewis embodies his role on a level far above any other actor this year. After he wins, I’m calling the U.S. Mint. I want a Day-Lewis $5 bill.

She gave me the feeling that there was a storm of emotions brewing underneath that steely exterior, and I never felt like I knew what she would be doing next. That kind of unpredictability is refreshing for such a familiar, fact-based drama.

I wish Samuel L. Jackson had been nominated for his scene-stealing turn in Django, but Hoffman’s been garnering lots of accolades for his captivating performance in The Master, including the Critics’ Choice Award and a Golden Globe nomination.

One of the finest, stirringly emotional performances I've ever seen. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” moved me to tears.

Loads of fun with colorful animation and classic video-game characters. A nostalgia trip with something for the kid in all of us.

Lee was confronted with the most daunting task any director faced this year: giving cinematic life to Yann Martel's "unfilmable" novel. For his efforts in pioneering state-of-the-art 3D technology, selecting stunning cinematography, and garnering A-list performances from a cast of relative unknowns, Ang Lee should take the top prize for pulling off what many said was impossible. 

It’s also nominated for Best Picture. ‘Nuff said.

Kushner is the man responsible for crafting the foundation for Daniel Day-Lewis’s bone-deep performance. Lincoln wouldn't be the consistently engaging period piece that it is without Kushner’s fine interpretation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book.

With the Critics’ Choice, BAFTA, and Golden Globe under his belt, Tarantino should have no trouble snatching the Oscar for his sharp, wildly imaginative screenplay.

"Dredd" Review

And now for my verdict on last Fall's Dredd, an adaptation of the British comic book and remake of the  1995 Sylvester Stallone film Judge Dredd. As the hero himself would say, "It's judgement time..."

This hyper-stylized, 3D adaptation sees Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) paired with a rookie who has telekinetic abilities (Olivia Thirlby) as they take on a deadly gang responsible for producing illegal hallucinogenic drugs. With dazzling 3D special effects, a brooding performance from Karl Urban, and a script that delivers both hard-hitting action and humorous self-parody, Dredd earns a "pass" in my field test.
Once the plot really got going, Dredd reminded me very much of The Raid: Redemption, an Indonesian film that happens to be one of the best action movies I've ever seen. Both involve a team of elite enforcement officials who fight their way up a high-rise to take out an entire drug cartel. What sets Dredd apart however is its use of revolutionary 3D technology to deliver eye-popping, slow-motion special effects. It's cringe-worthy, yet downright awesome to see how the human body is affected when standing next to an explosion or to watch bullets sail through a perp's face. In contrast, the effect creates a surreal experience whenever there's a sequence involving broken glass or water. What's also great is that the hyper-slow-motion technology is used whenever a character is under the effects of the film's aptly-named drug "Slo-Mo", so it actually serves a purpose within the story and isn't used as some cheesy, 3D gimmick. These sequences are so cool that it's worth the price of a rental just to marvel at them.
I also really enjoyed Karl Urban's performance as Judge Dredd. The Star Trek and Lord of the Rings actor hasn't always been a first choice for the leading man, but he's so perfectly brooding in Dredd that he deserves attention from any future franchises looking for a star. Urban dispenses justice and delivers cheesy lines at the same time, which is another part of why Dredd is so much fun. Think of him as a futuristic Dirty Harry. Olivia Thirlby (Being Flynn) also makes a nice turn as the psychic rookie, Cassandra Anderson. She's a refreshing, cerebral counterbalance that keeps Urban's gung-ho hero in check and adds some substance to all the style.
Speaking of cheesy lines, props also go to scribe Alex Garland (28 Days Later) for a screenplay that's true to its source material, but also has a subtle sense of humor, keeping Dredd  from taking itself too seriously. I believe elements like a script that doesn't take itself too seriously are necessary in blockbuster films as ridiculous as this. It keeps the plot grounded and allows the characters to be consistently engaging. That's certainly the case in Dredd.

In the end, Dredd is a comic adaptation that comes off as a more stylized and implausible version of The Raid: Redemption. But for its mind-blowing use of 3D slow-motion technology, strong acting performances, and sharp writing, I'd recommend this film to anyone looking for a bloody good diversion. Rent it today at Redbox.

3.5 OF 4 STARS

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Walking Dead - "Home" (Feb. 17, 2013)

SPOILERS: This week on The Walking Dead...

Rick continues his plunge into psychosis with more visions of his deceased wife, Daryl and Merle have a falling-out after they help defend a family from walkers, and The Governor plans an offensive against the prison.
This is my favorite episode in recent memory. Layers of human drama and exciting zombie action kept things moving along briskly, which is a change of pace from last week's relatively slow debut. I'm hopeful that Rick will overcome his psychotic visions of Lori and resume his place as the head of the group. Having said this, it's nice to be reminded that our hero isn't invincible. I also like seeing Glenn start to assert himself as a leader in Rick's absence. He brings a level of passion that's similar to Rick's, but it's refreshing to see another character fill that role.
Probably my favorite moment of the night was when Daryl and Merle fought off a pack of walkers while trying to protect a stranded family. "Zombie Kill of the Week" goes to Daryl for slamming a zombie head in the trunk of a car. Bloody awesome.

I'm looking forward to next week as Rick begins to come back to terms with reality and plans for a counterstrike against The Governor start coming to fruition. No doubt an all-out war will begin by season's end.

"A Good Day to Die Hard" Review

Like father, like son.

That pretty much sums up the latest entry into the classic Die Hard canon. In what seems like the umpteenth iteration of Bruce Willis's action legacy, the aged Detective John McClane heads to Russia to  bail his long-lost son, Jack (Jai Courtney), out of prison, only to find that Jack is actually a CIA operative working to stop a nuclear arms deal. Naturally, trouble finds the McClane boys as they team up to finish Jack's mission.

Now if you're like me, you're one of the millions of "die-hards" who love all the previous movies, even if it hurts to admit enjoying the PG-13, Justin Long version. We all know it's necessary to suspend disbelief when watching these films, especially as star Bruce Willis pushes 60. In 25 years, this guy's fought his way up a skyscraper, single-handedly brought down a jumbo jet full of rogue soldiers, saved all of New York City with Samuel L. Jackson, and even clinged onto the tail of a fighter jet before shooting himself through the shoulder to kill a terrorist. Five rodeos in, Willis has still got it, but it's clear by now that the years haven't been kind to him. It's not so much A Good Day to Die Hard as it is a "good day" to hang up the badge and call it quits. 

At 97 minutes, A Good Day to Die Hard (aka Die Hard 5) is the shortest of the series, which is appropriate because it's also the worst. One should never go into an action blockbuster expecting more meat than potatoes, but the dialogue is awful and the plot is far-fetched, even for Die Hard. McClane walks a fine line that nearly sees his cowboy demeanor slip into caricature. Poor writing from Skip Woods (SwordfishHitmanThe A-Team) is the primary suspect here. 
What made the fourth film cool is that it served as a political allegory and re-introduced the concept of "Big Brother" in the midst of our country's technological revolution. Good Day brings the action to Russia, and I couldn't help but think, "Who cares?" It would've made more sense if this was the plot of the very first movie, but the Cold War undertones come off as tired and irrelevant in an action film for today's audiences. We don't need to head to Russia and start beef 25-30 years after the fact.
I also wasn't a fan of the chemistry between John (Bruce Willis) and Jack (Jai Courtney, Jack Reacher, Spartacus: War of the Damned). It improves as the paper-thin plot drags on, but overall I had more fun watching Willis and Long work together in Live Free or Die Hard. There was a stronger father-son dynamic there than in this new film. I think John Sr. and John Jr. are too much alike for their own good, which might be a ploy to eventually pass the franchise onto Courtney once he becomes a bigger star. Again, not a necessary move on the producers's part, but in the ongoing pursuit of the almighty dollar, who's to say we wont get a Die Hard 6 or 7 with Courtney running the show? We've got proof now that two badasses aren't always as good as one, and it's up to the producers now to keep on with an old-school classic and let him go out on top, or pass things off to the new-school. As a fan, I've got my fingers crossed for the old-school.

SPOILERS: The action pieces are plentiful, but they're ultimately too tame for what I've come to expect from Die Hard. They're also packed with some gawdy CG effects that had me shaking my head in utter disbelief. Nothing was dazzling enough to keep me distracted from the lackluster authenticity of the stunts. That's saying something for an action franchise like this. Blowing up a room inside a building full of weapons grade uranium and NOT having the bad guys vaporized by a giant nuclear mushroom cloud? I mean, c'mon. "Yippee ki-yay" my ass.
Speaking of villains, there's a twist around the film's three-quarter point that might've been cool if our baddie (Sebastian Koch) was the least bit memorable. That's kinda why the originals are classics to begin with. Who could forget Hans Gruber at Nakatomi Plaza or his brother Simon out for revenge in the streets of New York? Nobody cares about a quiet Russian who may or may not want to start a nuclear war. I never got the impression that he was a hellbent maniac, and that's why he doesn't stack up against the likes of his cinematic predecessors.

In the end, Willis's performance is still enough to keep A Good Day to Die Hard from becoming a complete caricature of the series, even if it appears to be headed in that direction. There are devices at work that could've seen Willis and Jai Courtney elevate this fifth rodeo beyond expectations; they've just gotta remember to actually READ and REFLECT on the script before taking the next job. Good Day is ultimately too tame, too contrived, and too unnecessary to warrant the time of anyone besides series "die-hards". Having said this, I think most fans will be disappointed and (perish the thought!) might even find themselves running back to the open arms of Justin Long and a PG-13 rating.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Office - "Moving On" (Feb. 14th, 2013)


Is anyone else's mind blown?

In a special, one-hour Valentine's Day episode of The Office, Pam goes to Philadelphia to interview for a job so that she can be closer to Jim. Turns out, the vibe is all too familiar for her. Andy wages an all-out war on Pete and Erin by bringing back their exes. Toby learns firsthand why they call the local menace "The Scranton Strangler", and Dwight and Angela spend the afternoon helping Dwight's aunt.

There was lots going on, but I think this episode was the best of the season so far. I howled with laughter and found myself pounding my head in frustration at all the appropriate times, something I've been accustomed to as an Office fan. It's what keeps me coming back each week.
It was fun seeing Jim and Pam reconnect for awhile; that is, until the very end of the episode. It's still impossible to tell what's gonna happen there, but if I know Jim, he'll choose Pam over Philly and move back to Scranton. Maybe he'll concede his position at Athlead to Brian (our newly-unemployed boom guy) as a "thank you" for saving Pam...?
The plot thickens even more in the wake of Andy's return. I hope things between Pete and Erin work out after having awkward in-office confrontations with their respective exes. Andy's a scumbag now, and I don't like it. I still wish she'd choose me, but I'm happy seeing Erin with Pete. Andy doesn't deserve her.

This week's epilogue was also a riot seeing Oscar in those ridiculous workout boots trying to do inverted crunches in the break room doorway. But did anyone catch the "Easter egg" after that? On Oscar's computer screen? Something going on in May? Was it a hint at some sort of legacy / farewell / retrospective special? I'm not sure. Hit me up on Facebook (THE REEL MOVIE REVIEWS) or Twitter (@thereelbennyc) to share and compare thoughts. I'm stymied here.

Also, it's looking like there won't be another new episode until March. :-(

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Office - "Couples Discount" (Feb. 7, 2013)


Last week on The Office...

Everyone heads out to the salon in order to take advantage of a Valentine's couples discount on manicures and pedicures. Meanwhile, Jim and Pam go to lunch with Brian, the boom guy. Andy returns from his 3-month boat trip and tries to re-assimilate, but he has a hiccup with Erin that I'm sure fans already saw coming.

FINALLY a solid episode! "Couples Discount" has a nice balance of laughs and drama, and it actually seems to advance the season's storylines significantly. I think I found myself laughing more with Andy back and the rest of the crew trying to return to the way things were. It's painful and funny at the same time, which is what I've come to love from The Office. 
The awkward tension between Jim and Pam is still there, but it wasn't so bad this time. At least  not until they make it to the restaurant to meet Brian. I'm not quite sure what to expect these next few weeks. I don't wanna see a divorce, but something's gotta give. And if in fact Brian does give in and "Jam's" marriage is saved, how will he go out? It still feels eerily like the end of season 2. . .

Oh and I'd also like to add that I'm psyched to see things looking up for Pete and Erin!! (That kiss! I'm jealous, Pete, but don't worry. One potential homewrecker is more than enough for the employees at Dunder Mifflin.)

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Walking Dead - "The Suicide King" (Feb. 10, 2013)

Behold the long-anticipated, mid-season return of The Walking Dead.

When we left our survivors back in December, Merle and Daryl had just been captured by The Governor and thrust into the arena for a brother-on-brother fight to the death. Things pick up almost 2 months later exactly where they left off. Rick and company conclude their daring infiltration of Woodbury by getting Daryl and Merle out of town. The fate of Tyrese's group is also deliberated but never reaches a definite conclusion thanks to a last-minute twist.

SPOILERS: Now I love The Walking Dead as much as the next guy, and I've been waiting for this night since before Christmas. My Sundays have been empty without a little gore in them. But I gotta say, I wasn't entirely impressed with this new episode. It wasn't quite the epic, slam-bang return that I had hoped for. In the first 10-20 minutes, a member of the group decides to head out on his own, but aside from that, not much happens. There's some drama at Woodbury in the wake of Merle and Daryl's escape that results in a breach of the town's safety measures, but I didn't find it especially memorable. I'm also not entirely sure why the title of the episode is "The Suicide King". I didn't catch a connection there. The only thing that blew me away was the end where Rick returns to the prison to meet Tyrese and his group. There's a head-scratching twist that makes me question Rick's sanity and his future ability to lead the group. We'll see what happens next week in "Home".

"Side Effects" Review

I want you to think for a second about some of the classic works of Alfred Hitchcock. I know you've seen some of 'em. Rear Window, The Birds, Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest. They're among some of the most beloved American films of all time for their shocking twists and beguiling characters. Hitchcock was notorious for his methods of tapping into the human psyche by showing us our deepest fears. To this day, filmmakers are still chasing his legacy and very few, if any, have been able to match the original "Master of Suspense" at his own game.
But that's not to say any of today's filmmakers have ever come within dagger-point. One who's arguably the closest on Hitchcock's heels is Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's Eleven, Magic Mike, Contagion), and it's easy to see why in his latest thriller, and possibly his last as director, Side Effects.

In this new film, director Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns (Contagion) tell the story of young New York City couple Emily and Martin Taylor (Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum, respectively) who have their world tugged out from under them when Emily's psychiatrist (Jude Law) prescribes a new pill to treat her anxiety with shocking and unforeseen side effects.
With a plot so tightly constructed, yet filled with enough twists and turns to warrant its own theme park ride, Side Effects is the best film to yet be released in 2013.

What I love most about all of Soderbergh's work is that he keeps everything tight, often quite literally. He uses lots of close-ups, and the performances from his actors, even the ones fraught with emotion, somehow remain in check. The actions and reactions of the characters never appear bombastic. I had the feeling that the drama unfolding in Side Effects could happen to anyone in the real world.
Stars Mara, Tatum, and Law are all tremendous, capturing the raw tension of Burns's script with aplomb. Mara especially stands out in the role of Emily as she's reminiscent of Tippi Hedren, star of Hitchcock classics The Birds and Marnie. Emily is the troubled female anti-hero, a role that Hedren surely became familiar with in her work with Hitchcock (for proof, see Marnie). Catherine Zeta-Jones is also delectably dark as Dr. Victoria Seibert, Emily's previous psychiatrist before her move to the city.

Just thinking about these wonderfully complex characters brings the film's mind-blowing twists to the tip of my tongue. For fear of giving too much away, I'll stop now and just tell you to see Side Effects as soon as you can. But be warned: this is a thinking viewer's movie. Don't go into this if you're all hot and bothered to see Channing Tatum because you'll be disappointed. To me, I take this film as proof that he can actually act.
Side Effects is a taut psychological drama with a twist ending that'll knock your socks off. It shouldn't give you an Inception-sized headache, but it's important to watch closely. It's one of Soderbergh's best efforts in recent memory, and I sincerely hope this isn't the last we see of him in the director's chair. He's done Hitchcock proud.


Saturday, February 2, 2013

"Warm Bodies" Review

If George A. Romero found it in his zombie-infected heart to do a romantic comedy, I think this would be his way of doing it.

In Warm Bodies, writer/director Jonathan Levine (50/50) does his best to emulate the horror king by making his own entry into the zombie canon. While Romero loads up on gore and chooses to highlight the experiences of normal human survivors, Levine's take is a bit more original. Based on Issac Marion's book of the same name, Warm Bodies is a comedy that follows R (Nicholas Hoult, X-Men: First Class), a zombie who's looking for something more out of life. He's tired of shuffling aimlessly around the airport, grunting at his friend Marcus (Rob Corddry, Hot Tub Time Machine) for weeks on end. But R's cold world gets turned upside down when he saves Julie (Teresa Palmer, Take Me Home Tonight) from a pack of his flesh-eating friends. What follows is a chain of events that might just bring hope to the entire undead world.

I know that sounds cheesy, and it is, but Warm Bodies is not like any zombie flick you've ever seen. There's not an abundance of blood and guts, and it's told from the point of view of a zombie. Levine's smart, albeit safe, writing breathes adequate life into the living dead, lending star Nicholas Hoult plenty of witty narrations. Even if it doesn't quite measure up in terms of edge, Warm Bodies is still the freshest zombie-comedy since Zombieland.
And as much as I enjoyed the film's refreshing approach, I kinda wish Warm Bodies was a little more graphic. I think this would put a wider smile on the faces of hardcore genre fans while also giving Zombieland a run for its money. For a zombie movie, Warm Bodies is far too tame.
But that's not really the point, is it? Warm Bodies is supposed to be a love story. It's a romantic comedy with horror elements that's told through the eyes of a horror-genre antagonist. The actors all have marvelous chemistry, and they're perfect fits for their roles. That's what sets Warm Bodies apart and makes it so fun to watch.
I think this is the first of multiple 2013 star vehicles for Nicholas Hoult, the next one being Bryan Singer's Jack the Giant Slayer in March. If his charming turn as R is any indication, this kid is surely destined for great things. Aussie hottie Teresa Palmer is also a fine counterbalance as Julie and is as entertaining as she's been in all her other work. (Also, notice the Shakespeare reference: R & Julie = Romeo & Juliet??)

Aside from the occasional schmaltz and a general lack of satisfying zombie violence, Warm Bodies is still a charmingly unique romantic-horror-comedy that avoids being written off as the next Twilight thanks to its smart script and well-rounded characters. It's not quite Romero or even the next Zombieland, but Warm Bodies is still a fun date movie with enough to please guys and girls alike.


Friday, February 1, 2013

The Office - "Vandalism" (Jan. 31, 2013)

This review may contain SPOILERS: In the second of two new episodes of The Office this week, Pam's warehouse mural is defaced by a disgruntled employee. Jim and Darryl move into an apartment together in Philly and start butting heads, as all friends and roommates do. And there's yet another twist involving Brian, the boom guy.

Pam's all-out crusade to discover who ruined her artwork is a real treat. She rarely gets into a seriously pissed-off mood, and what's different about this time around is that she actually uses that frustration to get results. She's smart about her approach and catches the eyes of Dwight and Nellie, earning their services to aid her in catching the perpetrator. Even Dwight is impressed with Pam's newly-embraced dark side. "And then it occurred to me..." he says, "Pam's got a nice butt."
She's fun to watch here, as are Darryl and Jim in Philadelphia. We get a first-time look at Jim's unkempt personal habits, and seeing the tension play out between he and neat-freak Darryl in the workplace at Athlead (the name of their new company) is neat because it shows a microcosm of the true brotherly love that Philly is famous for.

As for the aforementioned twist involving everyone's favorite homewrecker-to-be, I really can't say. As a fan of Jim, it looks like a good thing, but it could also turn out to be bad if it comes back to have an influence on Pam's feelings. It looks like it could be a repeat of the season 2 finale with a different man. I hope that doesn't end up being the case.

The Office - "Junior Salesman" (Jan. 31, 2013)

The Office just seems to be chuggin' right along.

In the first of TWO brand-new episodes this past Thursday, Dwight brings in a handful of his closest friends to interview for the position vacated by Jim while he's in Philadelphia.
Other than that, not much happens. This is the only premise that drives the episode's hilarity. Dwight's friends are fun to watch, many of whom are more dysfunctional than Dwight himself. I liked seeing the teacher from Donnie Darko (Beth Grant) as an interviewee and Dwight's former babysitter.

SPOILERS: Things are also taking a turn for the dramatic with the interactions between Pam and Brian, the show's boom mic guy. Even though things appear to be smoother between Pam and Jim, Jim still doesn't know about Brian's new presence in Pam's life. I'm not sure exactly what's gonna happen there. I've loved Pam and Jim as a couple since I started watching the show years ago. I've always hoped to someday find my Pam and have a relationship like they have. I'll continue to root for them until the series finally concludes in a few weeks.

Overall, Junior Salesman is a mildly funny episode that foreshadows some of the emotional drama to come. I'm still uncertain as to my feelings on this seemingly darker tone.