Movie Review: Despicable Me 2

When it comes to filmmaking, there are multiple types of chemistry. The one most often discussed is the chemistry between actors; when it’s good, it can make good movies great and even unwatchable movies tolerable (say, Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler in “Just Go With It”), but when it’s bad, it will consume all living things on the screen (Jennifer Aniston and every other co-star she’s had in the last 10 years in movies not named “Horrible Bosses”). The other, arguably more important bit of chemistry involves story lines. 2011’s “Despicable Me” was about 45% villain plot, 45% foster parent plot, and 10% minions. Now, of course, the minions are stars, so they get more screen time in “Despicable Me 2.” And the movie suffers because of it.

That’s not the only reason the movie suffers, mind you; the villain story isn’t as compelling, they lean really hard on the bathroom jokes (the “dart” gun from the first movie makes multiple appearances here), and for a movie that is supposed to have a mystery angle to it, everyone hides in plain sight.

Gru (Steve Carell) has quit villainy in order to be a good father to adopted daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Kate Fisher), but he is soon recruited by the Anti-Villain League, due to his expertise as a bad guy, to track down a new super-villain who has stolen a serum that turns its subjects into indestructible monsters. The AVL tracks the serum to a local mall, and Gru, with the help of AVL agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), go undercover to find out which merchant is hiding the serum. The girls, meanwhile, want a mom, and pressure Gru into dating, while Margo falls for a boy, something Gru is not remotely prepared to handle in a way that doesn’t involve the words “Freeze ray!”

It makes sense that filmmakers would want to make age-appropriate versions of genres that are not kid-friendly, but between this and “Cars 2,” it’s clear that spy thrillers should be left off the table. It’s extremely difficult to challenge both adult and child with a whodunit; if anything, they will likely insult one or confuse the other, and if the studio is forced to choose, the parents are always going to be out of luck. The ‘secret identity’ part of the villain story left a trail of bread crumbs for kids to follow, and the emotional core of the movie (i.e. the girls) is marginalized in favor of the minions. The minions are cute, sure, but there is more to moviemaking than rolling out the walking punch line every few minutes. Based on the first “Despicable Me,” the filmmakers clearly know this; they just took the easy route this time around.

It was nice to see Wiig return, though (she was the head of the orphanage in the first movie), and she nails Lucy’s combination of naiveté and spy badassery. Carell doesn’t get a ton of chances to do something really funny, but he makes the most of his opportunities. The bit where the villain shows off the indestructibility of his serum is the funniest scene in the movie, and there is a circular shot towards the end where Gru is fighting off an army of bad guys that looks better than most live action movies from the last couple years. (My wife would also like to add that she loved seeing middle sister Edith acting like a full-blown tomboy. Apparently, that’s a middle sister thing.) You can see the makings of something better in fits and starts; it just can’t keep its momentum.

Universal had a golden opportunity here to hit Pixar while they were reeling and gain significant ground in the ridiculously competitive animation market, but “Despicable Me 2” does not land the punch. It feels as it Hal from marketing had some input in the creative process. This is never a good thing, and worse, the next installment in the series is actually called “Minions.” The tail is now officially wagging the dog.

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)
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Movie Review: Despicable Me

Universal has balls of steel for naming their first foray into the world of computer animation “Despicable Me.” In truth, it’s not the best title from a marketing perspective, since it doesn’t tell you anything about the movie, certainly not in comparison to, say, “Toy Story,” “The Princess and the Frog” or “Finding Nemo.” Yet “Despicable Me” is the perfect title for this delightfully silly movie, because it sends a clear message up front that this is not your typical animated adventure. Sure, it has the traditional, sweet moral (being there for your kids is more important than anything you’ll ever do at work), but it also derives laughs out of dream sequences where a grown man joyfully abandons three small children.

Gru (Steve Carell), a Russian criminal mastermind, has hit a bit of bad luck. He hasn’t pulled off a truly diabolical crime in a while, and the bank that funds his work is threatening to cut him off. He has a plan to steal the moon, but for it to work, he needs a top-secret shrink ray. When the ray is stolen by a younger villain named Vector (Jason Segel), Gru devises a plan to use three orphan girls selling Girl Scout cookies to enter Vector’s house and inadvertently assist him in procuring the device. But in order to use the girls, he needs to adopt them, even though he hasn’t the foggiest idea how to take care of or even talk to children. As he spends more time with them, he loses sight of his evil scheme, much to the dismay of both the bank and his staff scientist Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand).

In basic form, the movie is a bit like “Shrek,” in that the lead is an anti-social grouch who’s ultimately healed by love. The similarities end there, though, as “Despicable Me” draws inspiration from Tex Avery cartoons and the “Spy vs. Spy” series from “Mad Magazine,” right down to Gru’s long, pointy nose. And with “Spy vs. Spy” comes a healthy dose of mean, though the movie is smart to keep things mean but not mean-spirited. Perhaps the most impressive thing about “Despicable Me” is the decision to have the voice actors playing characters, rather than themselves. Brand’s Dr. Nefario has an English accent, yes, but it’s not Brand’s accent, and Vector sounds very little like Segel’s normal speaking voice. Carell, as we mentioned, is Russian, and Kristen Wiig, who plays the heartless director of the orphanage, uses a southern drawl. It’s a little thing, but it makes a big difference.

If there is one thing that disrupts the movie, it’s the way in which it rushes towards the inevitable conflict between Gru and the girls in Act III. It’s not at all natural, and one gets the sense that the directors – both of whom are French, which might explain the movie’s unconventional approach – would have preferred to flesh out the bonding stage of the story, but a studio-mandated run time (and a front end-loaded plot) forced them to make some unpleasant decisions in the storyboarding process. The movie is also one giant You Must Suspend Disbelief moment, as Gru and Vector do all sorts of things that should arouse the suspicion of the authorities, yet no one suspects them of any wrongdoing. And yet, it’s never an issue, and that’s the way it should be. When Gru gets even with a crooked carny at an amusement park, it’s hard to argue with his methods.

If “Despicable Me” is any indication of what’s to come from Universal and Illumination Entertainment, they could be in a position to challenge Pixar before too long. They are clearly not afraid to think big, and their willingness to throw caution to the wind actually gives them a leg up on Pixar in some regards. (Pixar is brilliant, yes, but not what one would call wacky.) Better yet, they’ve delivered the best 3D of any movie not named “Avatar” since this silly 3D trend began. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)
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Movie Review: The Descent

Let me guess: you think you already saw this movie last year, when it was called “The Cave,” right? To that, I have two things to say: guess again, and why on earth did you see “The Cave”? That movie was terrible, but I digress. “The Descent” is one of the creepiest movies you’re going to see this year or any other, a suspenseful, claustrophobic horror flick that is like a hellish melding of “Aliens” with “The Hills Have Eyes.” Indeed, “The Descent” is everything I was hoping the recent remake of “The Hills Have Eyes” would be, and then some.

The story begins with Sarah (Shauna McDonald), Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid) wrapping up a whitewater rafting trip, after which Sarah is involved in a horrific car accident that claims the lives of her husband and daughter. Flash forward one year, where Juno gets the gang back together, along with three other thrillseeker friends, for a climbing expedition in the Appalachian Mountains. Sarah, understandably, is still a little skittish, and her nerves are not calmed when they enter the dead-drop set of caves that Juno has found. Not only are the caves dark, narrow and barely navigable, Sarah gets the sense that something else is in the caves with them. Juno tries to convince Sarah that she is suffering post-traumatic stress, but that might be because Juno has a secret of her own with regard to these caves, and doesn’t want to acknowledge that entering the caves may have been a big mistake. Soon enough, however, the entire group receives overwhelming evidence that they are in fact not alone, and their new friends are very, very hungry.

There are two simple things about “The Descent” that I found deeply refreshing. For starters, the six women in this movie are not your typical horror movie screamers. These girls are tough, dammit, and they make quite a few of their predators pay gruesomely for their trespasses. The other refreshing aspect of the movie is the straightforward nature of the dialogue. There are no snappy Whedonesque one-liners or drawn out soliloquies, not that there’s anything wrong whatsoever with the brilliant, brilliant dialogue that Joss Whedon comes up with for his “Buffy”/”Angel”/”Firefly” characters. It’s just that it doesn’t work in this kind of environment, so thankfully we get real talk by real people (Holly, the Irish girl, of course says ‘fuck’ a lot). Oh, I thought of a third simple thing: there’s no nudity. A lesser movie would have had at least one of these girls stripping to their skivvies (think Saffron Burrows in “Deep Blue Sea”), but writer/director Neil Marshall, wisely, plays it straight.

And by straight, I mean unbelievably gory. This movie is a gorehound’s wet dream, between the eating and the stabbing and the gouging and the skull-meets-rock encounters, not to mention one scene that made everyone in attendance groan in sympathy for the victim in question (despite the fact that it doesn’t kill her). Marshall shoots the action in a way that’s disorienting, but not incoherent, and the actresses are game for whatever comes their way. Sure, it has its cliché moments, like the pose-for-the-timed-camera shot early on, which will no doubt be the world’s last evidence of all six women alive at the same time. And there’s also the very last shot of the movie, which in this reviewer’s mind isn’t remotely possible. Still, we go along with the ride because the women, despite playing certain personality types, are not stereotypes, and there’s a big difference between the two. I’ve read on other sites that the movie is an allegory of the battle of the sexes, but screw that. It’s a freaky deaky horror movie, not a grad school thesis.

“The Descent” is one of those rare horror movies that doesn’t try to reinvent a genre – let’s face it, everything’s pretty much been done already – but tries to improve on one, and succeeds beyond its wildest dreams. For anyone who felt as though the remake of “The Hills Have Eyes” did not live up to its expectations, do I have a movie for you. But no matter your status as a gorehound, I would recommend seeing “The Descent” in the daytime, because the feeling of the sun on your flesh as you walk out of the theater will cheer you up in ways that you had heretofore never imagined. Seriously.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
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Movie Review: The Descendants

You’d be hard pressed to find a modern-day American filmmaker who brings out the very best and very worst in his characters, while preserving their likability, the way that Alexander Payne does (though Quentin Tarantino, believe it or not, is not far behind). He has no interest in stacking the odds against someone, and it is that even-handedness that makes his movies so compelling. Case in point: the protagonist in his great, great 1999 comedy “Election” cheats on his wife and conspires to rig a student council election against a girl who, in his eyes, needs to be taken down a peg. A teacher picking on a teenage girl…and you’re rooting for him the entire time. That, right there, takes skill.

All of Payne’s signature trademarks are on display in his latest film “The Descendants,” but for the first time in a decade, there is an emotional detachment that keeps the viewer at arm’s length, which is all the more surprising considering that this is the most harrowing story Payne has adapted yet. One might argue that this was Payne’s goal, to show the family who suffers through the insufferable while maintaining their dignity. If so, those are admirable intentions – families go through this sort of thing all the time, after all – but the movie suffers as a result.

Attorney Matt King (George Clooney) has lived his whole life in Hawaii, but as he says himself in a voiceover, he is a long way from paradise. His estranged wife Elizabeth suffered a head injury in a boating accident, and is in an irreversible coma. His eldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is doing everything she can to get kicked out of private school, and his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) needs a strong authority figure in the absence of her mother, something that the workaholic Matt is not used to providing. Meanwhile, the rest of Matt’s extended family is leaning on him to sign paperwork that would unload his family’s last parcel of land and make them all rich. If all of this weren’t enough, Matt learns some shocking secrets about his wife’s activity before the accident, which leads Matt to take the girls, plus Alexandra’s surfer dude friend Sid (Nick Krause), on a road trip to Kauai to do a little fact-finding.

Matt spends more time under Payne’s microscope than anyone else here, so it stands to reason that the movie’s most emotionally gratifying scene comes when Matt is trying to placate his inconsolable father-in-law Scott (Robert Forster), despite the fact that everything Scott thinks he knows about his daughter is wrong. This is not to say that Payne lets anyone else off the hook, but rather that he seems more singularly focused than in his previous films. You have to think that rising real estate star Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) has a story to tell, as does Matt’s cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), but we do not get their perspective – just a glimpse at the impulses driving them at that moment. It feels like a cheat by comparison to Payne’s other work.

This is not to say that the actors don’t do their part to make the movie as watchable as possible. Clooney is pitch-perfect as Matt, handling Scott’s misdirected insults and the unwanted extra baggage of Sid (think Keanu Reeves crossed with Chris Klein) with far more grace than any of us will ever know. Shailene Woodley is getting the Oscar buzz for her turn as the rebellious Alexandra, and she’s quite good, but the best female performance here belongs to Judy Greer, who plays Brian Speer’s wife. She sounds defeated even when she’s calling out to her kids at the beach, as if to suggest that she had no say in what their (super-trendy) names would be. Her best moment, though, comes later, when she delivers a heartbreaking scene in the finale.

Payne has the mindset of a documentarian at times in his films, but “The Descendants” could have used a more forceful hand. Matt’s situation is difficult, but his choices are easy; when the movie ends – and the final scene is flawless – Matt hasn’t challenged our notions of right and wrong the way Payne’s other protagonists have. It’s smart and beautifully made, but Payne had the opportunity to punch the audience in the chest, and didn’t take the shot. Pity.

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)
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Movie Review: Delivery Man

It’s easy to see why Touchstone wanted to make “Delivery Man.” It has a ton of heart, and it honors the bonds and the importance of family. The catch is that it is an indie script through and through – though a flawed one at that – and the big-budget touches they add to it, namely Vaughn doing that ‘look Ma no hands’ thing that he does, do not serve the material. Despite the outrageousness of the plot, it’s an intimate movie. A smaller scale would have worked wonders, but only to a point.

David Wozniak (Vaughn) is a terminable screw-up. He delivers meat for the butcher shop his father runs, and he is always late, always racking up parking tickets, and completely unreliable. (Also, he owes a loan shark $80,000, as if he weren’t already in enough trouble.) In the span of 24 hours, he discovers that his policewoman girlfriend Emma (Cobie Smulders) is pregnant, and that as a result of nearly 700 donations to a sperm bank when he was in his 20s, he is the father of 533 children. One hundred forty-two of these children want to meet him, and have filed a class action suit against the sperm bank to reveal his identity (he signed all of the documents under the name Starbuck). His lawyer friend Brett (Chris Pratt) takes the case, and gives David an envelope containing profiles of the 142 plaintiffs. Against Brett’s advice, David visits some of his kids anonymously, and tries to help them any way he can. When he sees the good fortune that his kindness provides, David’s life has purpose for the first time, but remaining anonymous quickly proves to be difficult.

Don’t let the trailers fool you: this is not some broad, wacky comedy, even if it’s based on a premise involving a sperm bank. David is essentially coming face to face with people who possess exaggerated amounts of his best and worst qualities (one’s a professional basketball player, one’s a junkie), and learning a hell of a lot about himself in the process. There are moments of levity here and there, but this is much more of a drama than it is a comedy, and it should be. To make too many jokes about this premise would be missing the point.

And what, then, of the parents who raised these kids? They are not spoken of once, and while including them as characters would admittedly bog down the plot, a simple line of dialogue acknowledging their existence and sacrifice would have been nice. There is also the matter of Ryan, the severely disabled participant in the lawsuit. The boy can’t speak, never mind write. How, then, did he give his consent to participate in the lawsuit? That may sound like splitting hairs, but it doesn’t make any sense from a logical standpoint. He’s basically there to manipulate the audience, and while it works, it’s a cheat.

You can see why they wanted Vaughn to play David. He’s a very likable guy, and David is equally as likable. Had they kept Vaughn properly restrained, he may have delivered exactly what the role required. As it is, they gave him too much rope, and the movie suffers because of it. Vaughn is an inherently funny guy, but there is nothing inherently funny about the plot. I’m going to chalk this up to director Ken Scott, who wrote and directed the 2011 film “Starbuck” upon which this film is based, not feeling as though he had the clout to tell Vince Vaughn to take it down a notch. Or worse, he was getting notes from the studio execs to let Vince run wild. Either way, it wasn’t the right call. Also, Smulders is wasted as the girlfriend. She’s the most important person in his life, and she’s treated as an afterthought.

“Delivery Man” has its good points and bad points, but the one thing I kept asking myself when it ended was, who is the audience for this movie? Vince Vaughn fans will most likely be disappointed because it’s not as unleashed as his other work, and indie film fans who would otherwise flock to see this movie will instead skip it because it was made by a major and it stars Vince Vaughn. Neither group is right and neither group is wrong, but both sides shed light on why this version of “Delivery Man” doesn’t work, but that the material has the potential to be something much, much greater.

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)
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Movie Review: Deja Vu

“Déjà Vu” is a near-mirror image of most Jerry Bruckheimer popcorn flicks: the logic, by and large, works (which is really saying something for a time-travel movie), but watching it unfold isn’t terribly exciting. Compare that to, say, “The Rock” or “Con Air,” which are brain-dead but also tons o’ fun. Maybe director Tony Scott got so wrapped up in the groovy new F/X shots the movie employs, and how he was going to serve up some stunning split-screen imagery that no one’s ever done before, that he lost track of some of those other important ingredients to making a good movie, like acting and pacing.

Denzel Washington plays Doug Carlin, a New Orleans ATF agent investigating the horrific bombing of a steamboat filled with US Navy sailors and their families. While filtering through the casualties, he stumbles upon the body of a girl named Claire (Paula Patton), though the circumstances surrounding her death lead Doug to believe she is not a victim of the bombing but a clue to the bomber’s identity. Enter FBI Agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), who shows Doug a top-secret government program that allows them to lock in on any place in the world four days in the past. As they follow Claire’s life, Doug doesn’t just want to find the man responsible for the bombing; he wants to save Claire’s life. But can he? Will the rules of the time-space continuum permit such a thing?

That last question alone takes up nearly ten minutes of exposition in the scene where Doug is shown the technology that permits the Feds to look back in time. Ten, long, minutes. Every time Washington said “Let me get this straight” or “Are you saying that…,” I thought to myself: college kids across the country have their next movie drinking game. There’s certainly a story here, but it gets continuously sidetracked by the gimmicks. Our jaws are supposed to drop at the possibility of a bunch of satellites having the ability to provide a very revealing window into the past (one that, for the sake of convenience, cannot be replayed or sped up, though it can be recorded in tiny increments), and again when Doug goes into the field and uses this new technology in mind-boggling ways. And maybe your jaw will drop when those things happen, but a better approach would have been to move the story along, rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae.

Then there’s the ending, which works on one level but doesn’t work on another (to say more would mean spoiling everything). Movies that are based on time travel all have those paradoxes, and this one is no exception. In fact, the cynical, no-dry-eyes-in-the-house part of me saw a fantastic, if brutal, ending to this movie, and was disappointed that they were thisclose to realizing it, only to go in another direction. Unlike “Stranger than Fiction” – and I’m totally stealing the end of the great Roger Ebert’s review for this line – the compromise here was not the choice of the characters, but the storytellers. They probably couldn’t sell the script any other way, of course, but they should know that other options were in front of them, much like they were for the characters in their story.

Props to “Déjà Vu” for trying to take the typical Bruckheimer action movie and make it smarter, but they should have focused on what makes a Bruckheimer movie a Bruckheimer movie, and it ain’t smarts. No one goes to see these movies to be challenged in any way; they see them to be entertained, and that’s where the film loses its way. Film buffs will surely berate me for “lowering the standards” by accepting Bruckheimer’s movies for what they are, but let’s get real for a second. The standards are already low, and it’s not Bruckheimer’s fault. I call out his junk when I see it (“Armageddon,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” “Kangaroo Jack,” “Bad Boys” and its sequel), and while this isn’t art, it isn’t junk, either. But it’s also not what it could have been. Give me access to the technology that’s in this movie, and I’ll make a better movie. Maybe not the most likable movie, but a better one.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)
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Movie Review: The Debt

You can cut a movie until it’s faster than light, but no amount of editing will make a movie more intense if the action isn’t in the script. Director John Madden clearly understands this, because his film “The Debt” manages to wring tension out of a sequence that cuts between two people walking at normal speed. In truth, only a third of the movie could be considered a thriller; the rest of it is the kind of period piece family drama that litters Ang Lee’s resume, but the action-to-plot ratio is not what undoes the movie. Rather, it’s the transparency of the payoff. It’s painfully obvious what the movie has planned, and while the ride is perfectly enjoyable, you’ll wish for a prettier sunset once you’ve arrived.

In 1966, three young agents of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad earn great acclaim for succeeding on their mission to bring Nazi war criminal-in-hiding Dieter Vogel, a.k.a. the Butcher of Birkenau, to justice. Flash-forward to 1997, where the daughter of agents Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) and Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) has written a book about her parents’ courageous story. The only problem is that the story Rachel and Stephan have told everyone is not exactly how things went down, and the two must decide between continuing the charade, which would mean potentially torpedoing their daughter’s career prospects, and coming clean.

You can see why the actors were drawn to the movie, on a number of levels. Oscar nominee John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) is at the helm, and the script was shepherded by It Boy Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass”). The young actors get to play multilingual secret agents in the ‘60s, and the older actors, well, the men get to use accents. Helen Mirren, meanwhile, gets the best of both worlds by speaking Russian and kicking ass. Odds are, though, that the original script that lured the actors in has a much more satisfying ending than the one presented here, which has potential but ultimately reeks of tampering and reshoots.

The casting of the young male leads is curiously backwards. The tall, raven-haired Marton Csokas should grow up to become tall, raven-haired Ciaran Hinds. Instead, he’s played by the less tall, full-faced Tom Wilkinson, while Hinds is played in flashback by the less tall, full-faced Sam Worthington. It creates a visual disconnect at times, which is a shame because the young men deserve better. Jessica Chastain is the lucky one; she becomes Helen Mirren in the end, which means that her back story will be the juiciest, and Chastain makes the most of a role that demands her to be both cruel and empathetic, sometimes within seconds. The movie’s true star, though, is Jesper Christensen, who’s delightfully nasty as the unrepentant Dr. Vogel. Had the rest of the characters been as fully developed as he was, the unsatisfying finale would have been far easier to stomach.

It’s difficult to put down “The Debt,” because the world could use more thrillers like it, or at the very least, thrillers that aim for more than a series of gun fights. The lack of a real mystery at the story’s core, though, is fatal, so it’s to the credit of the cast (despite the miscasting) and direction that they are able to make “The Debt” as entertaining as it is.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)
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Movie Review: Death Sentence

Embrace the badness. It’s a lesson that a lot of movies would benefit greatly from learning. Look at “Ghost Rider,” for example. That’s a bad, bad movie, right there, but hot damn, is it bad in a really fun way. James Wan, director of “Saw” and this year’s underwhelming “Dead Silence,” must have known that he was setting himself up for trouble when he signed on to make “Death Sentence,” author Brian Garfield’s first sequel to his 1972 novel “Death Wish.” And yet, Wan approaches the subject matter with a wide-eyed innocence that only occasionally taps into its potential for awesome badness. If you’re going to get in bed with a movie like this, you should be prepared to go all the way.

Kevin Bacon is Nick Hume, a risk assessment specialist whose life is torn apart when his oldest son Brendon (Stuart Lafferty) is killed before his very eyes in a gas station holdup by a group of masked thugs. Nick jumps the killer and is able to ID him in a police line, but once he learns that the killer will serve a relatively short sentence, Nick recants his testimony, making the killer a free man and, more conveniently, an open target. Nick exacts his revenge by killing his son’s killer, unaware that he has just started a gang war with noted dirtbag Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund), who now feels just as wronged as Nick did, setting the wheels of vigilante justice into tragic motion.

I’m willing to wager that Wan was attracted to the source material because it was as far removed from “Saw” as any directorial gig that he has likely been offered to date, and yet as each death scene came and went, I could not shake the thought that the movie would have been better served by a series of deadly traps, each one grislier than the last. They actually seemed to be heading in that direction at one point – in what turned out to be the most entertaining death scene the movie has to offer – but from then on, the goings get serious, man, and even though you want to get excited when Bacon gives the camera the ‘I’m Gonna Git You Sucka’ look, it’s too late for the movie to live up to either Wan’s reputation as a gorehound director or the awesomely bad potential of the source material. I will, however, give points to Bacon for giving the movie his all. Six degrees jokes and all, Bacon knows what a movie needs, even when the director himself doesn’t.

There is a case study to be made with “Death Sentence,” in that someone should wait outside of a theater showing the movie and ask the viewers, “So what is the moral of the story?” My critic friends and I asked ourselves that question as we were walking out, and we could not come up with one. Is vigilante justice wrong, or is vigilante justice only wrong when there is retribution for your act of retribution? The movie itself doesn’t appear to have an answer for this; it just wants to make sure a bunch of people get dead, but even on that front it fails, since the director, like it or not, has a reputation for dispatching with people in far more interesting ways than the poor bastards here. If you’re lucky enough to have a Brew & View near you, that would be the perfect environment in which to see “Death Sentence.” Since the movie itself didn’t embrace its inherent badness, it is now your problem to do so. A few drinks will definitely help in that endeavor.

2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)
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Movie Review: Dead Silence

The ads for “Dead Silence” will tell you that the movie comes from “the writer and director of ‘Saw.’” A more accurate description, though, would be that it comes from “the writers of ‘Magic’ and ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street,’” since the movie’s premise borrows liberally from both. If it bears any similarity to “Saw,” it’s in the ending, but more on that later.

Ryan Kwanten stars as Jamie, a man whose wife is brutally murdered while he’s out getting takeout. The detective assigned to the case, Jim Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), thinks Jamie is guilty, but Jamie thinks it has something to do with the ventriloquist doll he mysteriously received before his wife was killed. Those dolls, to the people from Jamie’s hometown, are a bad omen; he grew up hearing a ghost story about a ventriloquist named Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts), who would cut out your tongue if you screamed at the sight of her. Jamie thinks he’s being terrorized by Mary, and he confronts his distant father (Bob Gunton) to find out why.

Like the “Saw” movies, “Dead Silence” is not scary so much as it’s unsettling. Mary Shaw’s victims look like gored-up versions of the dead people in “The Ring,” which will have you covering your mouth unconsciously. The manipulation of audio – or the slow draining thereof – is used to shockingly good effect, and those damn dolls are just creepy. The entire movie is shot in a wash of blue and gray, which makes everything look just a tad more sinister than it otherwise would.

But it’s only so creepy, so sinister. “Saw,” after all, was not a horror movie but a graphic thriller. “Dead Silence,” likewise, is a graphic ghost story. And, typical of writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan, they couldn’t resist coming up with an ending that will have you arguing with your mates afterwards about its plausibility. Personally, I think it’s a huge cheat, but I thought the endings to “Saw” and “Saw III” were cheats too, so there you go.

“Dead Silence” is better than most horror movies these days, particularly those of the subgenre that likes to call itself claustrophobic cruelty (read: exploitative torture). However, that’s kind of like praising the 1963 Mets because they didn’t lose as many games as they did the previous season. Better, yes, but not quite great.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)
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Movie Review: Dead Man’s Shoes

“God will forgive them. He’ll forgive them and allow them into heaven. I can’t live with that.”

So begins “Dead Man’s Shoes,” a pitch-black revenge thriller set in an even darker suburban London underworld. It’s an indie jack of all trades of sorts, using elements of drama, horror and even a pinch of comedy to tell its tale. It’s a bit jumpy, and, thanks to the thick accents, could use subtitles a la the club scene in “Trainspotting,” but despite the fact that there is little left to the imagination, the movie is enthralling.

The dialogue quoted above belongs to Richard (Paddy Considine), a soldier who returns to his grimy ‘burb after seven years in the service. While Richard was away, a local group of drug dealing dirtbags was not very nice to his developmentally disabled little brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell). They took Anthony in and watched after him, but they also humiliated him as well, and Richard has a score to settle, particularly with Sonny (Gary Stretch), the leader of the group. As we see Richard go on his rampage, the movie jumps back and forth between details about how Anthony suffered at the hands of Sonny and his mates, and Richard’s slow, methodical execution of said mates.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll catch about every sixth word of dialogue, but surprisingly, it’ll be enough to follow the action. I’m not sure if that’s because the story structure is so mind-numbingly simple or because director Shane Meadows’ use of visuals successfully fills the gaps. Richard doesn’t stalk these goons like Jason Voorhees, hiding in the shadows; he’s pretty much right out in the open, taunting them for their gross incompetence and complete inability to stop him. And just when the movie appears to be on autopilot, they reveal a piece of information that drastically changes your feelings about everything you’ve seen up to that point, and all for the better. Without that scene, the movie is just one long, anticlimactic death scene. With it, it becomes a probing character study.

IMDb lists “Dead Man’s Shoes” as a 2004 release, which makes one wonder what held this movie back a couple years. This isn’t some “Adventures of Pluto Nash” shelving decision here, where the studio knew it was sitting on a dud and tried to keep it off the books. Why was no one interested in releasing this? It’s not the most revelatory movie in the world, but much, much worse UK imports than this have crossed the pond in the last two years.

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)
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