Archive for the ‘ Suspense ’ Category

Focus

When a movie like Focus comes along, you know you’re going to be in for a lot of plot twists. That’s to be expected. The feeling the movie wants to give you is a thrill that it was able to pull one over on you — that its misdirection made you miss key points of information — so that you immediately want to re-watch it in order to check for clues to the ultimate reveal. So frequently is this not accomplished, and it’s not with Focus, either, whose final twist is one you’ll figure out about five minutes before it happens.

But let’s back up. This is a film with a 30-minute prologue which follows a con-man named Nicky (Will Smith) as he recruits a rookie, Jess (Margot Robbie), to help his team pull off over a million dollars’ worth of heists in a Superbowl-esque football tournament before ditching her with her share of the pot, not to be seen for three more years. Then the real plot kicks in, which is unfortunately for us significantly less interesting than the flashy and slick action that took place in the prologue. We get suckered in.

The rest of the movie, set three years later, follows Nicky as he’s hired to pull off a con for a racecar driver (Rodrigo Santoro). Things get more complicated when we find out that the driver is currently dating Jess, with whom Nicky’s had no contact since ditching her. What does this ultimately mean? Lots of “romance” scenes in which he tries to make amends for before, absolutely no drama or tension when it comes to the actual con, and then a couple of late-game plot twists that don’t mean a whole lot to us or the characters, the biggest of which you’ll guess as soon as the scene starts thanks to some earlier foreshadowing that’s just a touch too obvious.

It’s all empty, shallow, and doesn’t amount to anything close to what it hopes to. When all’s said and done, you look back and find that the big picture wasn’t all that complicated, and that the film wasn’t particularly successful at anything it attempted. The romance falls flat — Smith and Margot have little chemistry — the main con is boring, and the twists are perfunctory.

In the moment, though? It kind of works. It doesn’t run for the often seemingly obligatory two hours, which means that there isn’t too much filler. You hope that it’s going to amount to something, so you watch intently — almost too intently — just to make sure that it doesn’t pull a fast one on you. It’s got a relatively strong sense of humor, meaning you’ll laugh a decent amount, and individually Smith and Robbie are just fine. It’s only afterward that you learn you’ve been swindled, and not in a good way.

Will Smith is the lead, in what feels like his first leading role in forever. He’s fine as Nicky, and is especially good in the scenes in which he has to act like a know-it-all con-man. He can’t do romance here, either because he and Margot Robbie have no chemistry, or simply because writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa can’t direct him to. Given that they made the romance-free rom-com Crazy, Stupid, Love, that wouldn’t surprise me.

Margot Robbie, meanwhile, is captivating whenever she’s on-screen. She stole the light away from Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street and here does the same thing to Will Smith. No, she can’t do the romance parts, either, but she’s got this enchanting smile that makes it hard to hate her for that. She seems to be having a genuine amount of fun for most of the film, which is something that the rest of the movie was kind of missing. Sure, she’s mostly here to be eye-candy, but she makes the most of what she’s given and reminds us she’s a star in the making.

Focus is the type of movie that makes you feel like it robbed you, but not in the thrilling “How did you do that?” kind of way. Instead, you just feel a little disappointed that its 30-minute prologue was so much fun that it got you excited for the rest of the movie. You hope its big picture is more than it winds up being, and it is eventually too simplistic a story that adds up to too little to be worth the investment.

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Tremors 3: Back to Perfection

The one thing that made Tremors 2 worth seeing was the continued expansion of the graboid mythos. The graboids being these giant underground worm creatures that served as the monsters of the first film and the vessels from which the real monsters of the second film emerged. We didn’t know that they would spawn what are now referred to as “shriekers” before the last film, and that new information ushered in a much-needed change in direction and tone. Another evolution takes place in Tremors 3, but it unfortunately doesn’t help anything.

Our lead this time is the only character who has been in all three films, Burt Gummer (Michael Gross). He begins the film hunting shriekers in Argentina, because the shriekers are apparently not much of a threat anymore. Much like how the graboids were treated as a joke last time around, that’s the position the shriekers occupy here. He returns to Perfection, Nevada, the locale of the first Tremors only to discover that it’s now home to a fake “graboid safari” run by Jack (Shawn Christian), which hopes to take money from tourists.

There are some returning actors and characters not from the last film, but from the first one, in this Tremors 3. I was happy to see a return of Tony Genaro, and Ariana Richards is now grown up. That’s kind of fun. The main newcomer outside of Shawn Christian is Susan Chuang as Jodi, the new owner of the local convenience store. She, Burt, and Jack are going to be the main three, and they’re going to have to kill the new evolution of these creatures.

What exactly is that new evolution? Well, let’s just say they can fly and shoot fire. That’s pretty awesome, except for the fact that this is a low-budget, direct-to-video movie, and therefore they’re not going to be rendered with any sort of good CGI. The first Tremors holds up because it was all practical effects. The second one mostly was, although it did have some (bad) CGI. In this one, most of the monster stuff is computer generated, and it hurts any potential we had at suspending our disbelief or being scared of what’s been shown on-screen.

These are all cheesy B-movies, after all, but at least the first two, at times, had some scenes in which they worked as horror films. This one simply does not. The monsters are “cooler,” I suppose, but they’re not frightening. Even when they kill off secondary characters, you never get a sense of terror from them. And once their weakness is revealed, the film loses any chance it had at generating suspense. It becomes a foregone conclusion how it will end.

I will say this, though: there’s some fun when it comes to the government workers, who are actually trying to protect the graboids, deeming them an endangered species. And Melvin (Robert Jayne) returns in a role I won’t spoil, but has a tremendously funny payoff. Sadly, these high points are rare, and most of the movie involves running around, trying to avoid being killed, and sometimes cracking wise. It’s the worst in the Tremors series thus far, and this isn’t exactly a series known for being “good.”

At least Michael Gross continues to have a lot of fun playing Burt Gummer. I’m sure the role as a paranoid gun nut is enjoyable, and he’s the de facto “star” of the franchise at this point, too, which is always nice, but even when the rest of the movie is lackluster and not really worth watching, at least he’s having a good time. Shawn Christian and Susan Chaung are mostly forgettable in sidekick roles, Ariana Richards and Tony Genaro don’t get to do a lot, and Robert Jayne gets one good scene, but it’s not because of him.

Tremors 3: Back to Perfection offers a few short bursts of enjoyment, mostly from the return to the locale of the first film, some characters from the original returning, and some jokes involving the government, but for the most part it feels like more of a slog than it should. The continued evolution of the graboids produces the “coolest” creature to-date, but the CGI rendering them isn’t good and that ruins a lot of the enjoyment they might give us. It’s not as funny as you’d hope, the action feels very been-there-done-that, and I was left feeling bored more often than one would hope. Unless you’re a diehard Tremors fan, this isn’t a movie to see.

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Tremors 2: Aftershocks

In which direction does one take a Tremors sequel? That’s the question that the filmmakers had to think of before making Tremors 2: Aftershocks, a sequel to what was a pretty fun throwback to ’50s monster movies. We’ve now seen the heroes deal with the wormlike creatures named “graboids”; what are they going to do this time around? Are there even more graboids? What threat do they pose to a town that’s prepared for them?

It turns out that Tremors 2 isn’t even set in the town of Perfection. It also only contains a couple of characters from the last film. Our lead is Earl (Fred Ward), who now lives in isolation. He’s approached by a Mexican businessman whose oil drilling is being affected by a graboid infestation. Earl is offered $50,000 for each graboid he kills. He’s joined by a younger sidekick, because the sidekick thing worked so well last time, in Grady (Christopher Gartin), who is definitely ready to hunt him some graboids. The two actually do that for a fairly significant chunk of the film, also eventually bringing along Burt (Michael Gross), the one from the last film who had a whole bunch of guns. He was ready.

There’s an inherent joy to watching Early and Grady blow up a bunch of giant worms. The graboids are no longer much of a threat, since Earl knows how to avoid them, and as such the first half of Tremors 2 takes on a very light tone. The hunter becomes the hunted and all that. We know the graboids are smart, though, so after enough hunting has been done, an evolution takes place. The graboids become new creatures, with new strengths and weaknesses, and Tremors 2 becomes more of a traditional horror/monster movie.

It’s certainly a new direction to take, and it’s not one about which I’m terribly upset. The graboids become something of a joke and while doing a whole movie in which that’s the case might have worked, it was wearing thin for me only midway through. Changing things up by introducing a new “form” gives us something new, something scarier, and something which give the plot a much needed boost in intensity and action.

Does Tremors 2 get anywhere near as good as the original? Not really. It’s not as funny, it’s not as smart, and the new monsters aren’t as cool as the graboids were in the first film. Is it still fun? In spurts, sure. It gets really dull before the big “change,” the characters aren’t all that interesting, and some of the monster kills aren’t the best. But it’s still mostly enjoyable. It’s certainly not the worst sequel, or even the worst direct-to-video sequel to emerge.

However, it does need to be said that if you’re not someone who likes cheesy monster movies, Tremors 2 is not going to be something you’ll enjoy. It’s still relatively silly — even when it gets to the “scary” part — and it’s not a “good” movie in any traditional sense. There is a certain type of person who enjoys these types of movies, and the quality almost doesn’t matter. Does the CGI of the second creatures look awful? Yes. But for people who enjoy these movies, that’s part of the charm.

The last Tremors movie had a lot of characters, and most of them didn’t really matter or draw our attention to them. I couldn’t even remember the names of anyone who wasn’t our two leads. The cast has been reduced this time around. It’s fun to see Fred Ward and Michael Gross doing this dance a second time. Christopher Gartin overacts from start to finish, which might be a benefit given the nature of what these movies are. Helen Shaver is here just to be a generic love interest.

Tremors 2: Aftershocks does about one good thing, but that single decision is enough to make it watchable. It gives us the evolution to our beloved graboids, which gives us a mid-game change in both action and tone that helps freshen things up. We go from a funny movie to a scarier one. It’s still not a particularly “good” movie, but those who enjoy silly B-movies won’t care about that, anyway. It accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to be a cheesy monster movie that also further explores the graboid mythos. If you liked Tremors, you’ll likely want to watch Tremors 2.

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Tremors

You can figure out pretty much exactly how Tremors is going to go from the first point at which there’s even the potential for a scary worm monster to exist. A camera crawling along the ground, taking the POV of a dirt trail being left by a creepy-crawly from underground. A couple of good-natured cowboys who are not particularly smart but they’ll make us laugh. Supporting characters who exist simply to be killed off. Tremors is a silly throwback to silly ’50s creature features. Yes, it’s also fun.

The film is centered on the small — ridiculously small, really — town of Perfection, Nevada. Its population? 14 people. Our leads, if you can call them that, are Val (Kevin Bacon) and Early (Fred Ward). They’re the handymen, the one who do random odd jobs because they’ve got nothing better to do. There are a bunch of other people in the town, too, but it would take too long to describe them all. Tremors does a good job at balancing them all. While you might not be able to remember their names, you’ll remember the personalities and motivations, which is more than these movies can often boast.

What happens from here is pretty basic stuff, really. The main road leading out of town winds up blocked, the telephones are out of service, and some giant worm-like creatures invade. The townspeople have to figure out a way to kill all of the monstrosities before they’re all killed. It really is kill or be killed in this scenario, even though there are rarely points that feel very scary; this is a campy horror movie, if you can even call it a “horror” film.

There are certainly moments of tension — those when it looks like the worms, nicknamed “graboids,” are going to win — but Tremors is never particularly scary. It’s quite funny, with its campy nature, good-natured characters, and jokey dialogue. You have a lot of fun while watching it. It’s the type of quote-unquote “bad” movie that is really difficult to dislike. Sure, it’s schlock, but it’s the good kind of schlock — the kind that won’t bore you for even a second.

It won’t bore you because, especially once the graboids start attacking, it moves with a lightning-quick pace. The jokes fly fast, the action is frequent, the threat of death is real, and the few times we get to see the creatures in all their glory make for some great highlights. The great puppet and animatronic work used to create the graboids is just a testament to how great practical effects can look. The cast being able to interact with an actual thing helps with their performances, too.

Now, to be fair, this isn’t an “acting” movie, and any great performances would be lost in the shuffle, anyway. There aren’t many big character moments — ones in which actors get to show their stuff and deliver a memorable scene simply because of the acting on display — but the actors all get the most out of their characters allowing us to tell each of them apart in the process. Sure, we know certain characters aren’t going to make it to the end simply because of who they are, but that’s to be expected in this kind of movie.

What most certainly helps Tremors remain fresh throughout is the intelligence of the graboids. You can kill one in a particular way, and then that way won’t work again for the others. The characters need to keep inventing new ways to try to fight back against the threat they’re facing, which means that we, as an audience, are constantly exposed to new material. The film also subverts some tropes from ’50s monster movies that we’re expecting, even if it adheres stringently to others.

Tremors is a fun and silly throwback to ’50s monster movies. It gives us a small town filled with colorful characters, a light tone, some wonderfully created — through puppetry and animatronics — monsters, a good number of jokes, and a reason to constantly invent new ways to kill the creatures. It’s kind of dumb, sure, and it’s not what most people will say is a great movie, but there are two kinds of schlocky movies, and Tremors is definitely the good kind. It’s not boring, and it’s more likely than not going to be something you’ll enjoy watching.

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2012

2012 is everything that’s wrong with blockbuster movies perfectly encapsulated in 158 minutes. It’s an overlong, under-plotted, contrived movie that focuses more on special effects than plot, and exists as a cynical cash-grab in hopes of capitalizing in on a silly “phenomenon.” Characters? Who needs strong characters when we can watch California get destroyed for a couple of hours? 2012 is such a bore that it made me sad that I wasted my time watching it.

John Cusack is our lead, here playing an author named Jackson Curtis. He’s estranged from his family, because we need the eventual disaster to bring them together. And there is a disaster forthcoming. The Mayan calendar doesn’t go past the year 2012, so the legend goes, and that’ll mean the end of the world. In the movie, Dr. Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) helps find out that massive solar flares are causing the Earth’s core temperature to increase, and that’ll eventually destroy everything. This is in 2009. By the time the disaster hits, rich people have built ships upon which they can reside and survive the end of the world.

Jackson, meanwhile, finds this out thanks to a camping trip and meeting a conspiracy theorist played by Woody Harrelson. Soon enough, it’s time to save his family as California, and later most of the world, winds up getting destroyed by various earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and other such “natural” ways of destruction. The vast majority of the movie has characters driving or flying away from things that will kill them, all while famous landmarks and locations get violently destroyed and millions of (unimportant) lives end.

The “important” lives are those of the main characters. Well, some of them. You can tell almost as soon as a character is introduced whether or not they’re going to make it to the end, since the ones who won’t serve a very specific purpose to progress the more important characters. Once they serve that purpose, they’re disposable, and are usually killed off right afterward.

Not that you’ll care, since these are some of the blandest characters you can see in the movies. You can see the tiny arcs they’ll go through coming right from the get-go, and even that isn’t handled particularly well. Given the whole “world is ending” scenario, there’s very little downtime and what there is gives us some awful, clichéd dialogue. You don’t believe any of it. These don’t feel like real people, and it’s tough to care about whether or not any of them will survive. You know they will, and yet they’re as interesting as Extra #564.

This is a Roland Emmerich disaster movie, so you basically know what you’re going to get going in. You’ll get pretty destruction scenes with top-notch special effects. The plot will suck, and the characters won’t be interesting. Any depth or symbolism is going to be heavy-handed — one of the character’s names in the film is Noah, for crying out loud — and there isn’t going to be much of it, anyway. Oh, and it’s going to be about 30-50 minutes too long.

The biggest problem that 2012 faces is that it comes across as a cynical cash-grab of a movie. It’s unlikely that you’re reading this and believe that any sort of “end of the world” scenario exists because a calendar ends, but that’s irrelevant. As a culture, we’re fascinated with this type of thing, and the 2012 phenomenon is as big as it gets. The movie exists to cash-in on the public’s obsession with that, nothing more. It might even at times become moderately entertaining, but its goal is to get free advertising and in hopes that you’ll spend your hard-earned money to see it.

A cynical cash-grab masquerading as a feature film, 2012 is representative of everything that is wrong with Hollywood blockbusters. Its plot is incredibly lacking, it’s far too long, it’s far more focused on special effects than its characters, and it’s predictable from start to finish. There are a few strong moments, most of which revolve around the shots of the world ending, but there’s so much awfulness surrounding them that it’s not worth sitting through.

This review sponsored by Matt Garrell.

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