Review: Drag Me to Hell (2009)

I didn't go into Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell with any expectations at all. I had seen the preview once and it didn't particularly stick out in my mind for any reason, but I was game to see what Raimi was up to during his Spider-Man hiatus. I'm sort of an Evil Dead fan, but A Simple Plan is even better.

Drag Me to Hell is an EC Comics-esque silly morality tale horror thrill ride, and it works well on that level. It doesn't try to mean much or even surprise much, except with its pretty effective make-you-jump moments, some basic suspense and gross-you-out grotesqueness, but it's fun on that level. It has some Hitchcockian trappings which don't add up to much, and an unused Lalo Schifrin theme for The Exorcist which is pretty cool.

The movie tells the story of Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), an L.A. loan officer who grew up as a "fat girl" on a farm somewhere, who has career ambitions and social ambitions in the form of impressing her boyfriend Clay's (Justin Long, the Mac guy) well-to-do family enough to fit in to his life. Unfortunately for her, she sees a chance to win a promotion by denying a mortgage-payment extension for a rather disturbing elderly Hungarian gypsy woman, Mrs. Ganush (the appropriately named Lorna Raver), who is already in arrears and facing foreclosure. It's a close call, Christine has permission to grant an extension, and Mrs. Ganush seems sympathetic at first, closely followed by the first gross-out moments, then begging, cursing, and physical attacks.

The set-up is pretty much like Stephen King's Thinner, but with a much more disgusting gypsy. So we see the curse coming a mile away, but Raimi does have a lot of fun getting there, with some of the yuckiest confrontations between Christine and Mrs. Ganush you're likely to see, or want to see, anywhere. It's over-the-top and revels in it.

Lohman carries the film with her curious, earnest, credulous Christine. She has almost an animatronic quality which lends itself to the film's storyline and effects. She goes nuts good, still always optimistic about overcoming her obstacles however ridiculously evil they become. She's fun to watch.

Other supporting players are good as well. Long as the perfect boyfriend hits all the right notes, Dileep Rao as psychic adviser Rham Jas is persuasive, and Adriana Barraza is riveting as the essentially throwaway medium character of Shaun San Dena. I would love to have seen more and better scenes with her just talking. I also liked Reggie Lee as "Stu Rubin."

If there are criticisms, it's hard to make them stick. The film is not serious and does not pretend to be, so even the overdone set of the séance, which is sort of like a Disney haunted house, isn't really out of place, and lots of the comic relief and overwrought histrionics throughout are harmonious rather than distracting.

I can't say I was disappointed at all, or blown away by its originality. It's solid; it works. One note: If you're an animal lover, especially a cat lover, or if you're going to be offended by some in-depth occult references, you probably wouldn't enjoy it. If you can handle some of what that suggests and realize it's all in good fun, you still might.

So I wouldn't call it a must-see for anybody, even hard-core Raimi fans, but it is a funny, entertaining popcorn movie/thrill ride, if that's what you're looking for. I found it almost refreshing after all the super-serious but essentially dumb girl-in-danger horror movies polluting movie theaters of late.

The Magic of the Movies


Obama nominates Judge Sonia Sotomayor to Supreme Court

From the Washington Post:

Sonia Sotomayor's journey to her nomination Tuesday as President Obama's first pick for the U.S. Supreme Court began in a public housing project in the Bronx in the 1950s, as the neighborhood was changing from majority white to predominantly Puerto Rican.

Sotomayor's father died when she was 9, leaving her mother to raise her and her brother alone on a nurse's salary. But her mother instilled in the two children a strong ethic of hard work and the importance of education. After graduating from a Catholic high school, Sotomayor attended Princeton University, where she graduated summa cum laude, and then Yale Law School.

At Yale, her classmates recall a young woman with a brilliant legal mind who was tough when arguing for her views. And although they said she never forgot her modest background, and always identified with the disadvantaged, her main passion was for the law, not a particular political agenda.

Looks like a solid pick to me....

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Review: Terminator Salvation (2009)

The Golden Gate Bridge (and Anton Yelchin) both feature prominently in this summer's reboots of popular sci-fi movie series, first Star Trek, and now Terminator Salvation. In Star Trek, it gleams in the background at the Starfleet Academy, where humans learn to use machines to conquer space. In Terminator Salvation, it looms deadly over Skynet Central, where machines learn about humans by rounding them up as prisoners for research on how better to destroy them. (Yelchin is less emblematic, but pretty good in both.)

The Bridge sort of tells the story for both films. Star Trek portrays the optimistic far-future, while Salvation is a bleak, blanched, claustrophobic actioner in the Mad Max mode, and set in 2018 (so there's time still to clean it up for the Starfleet Academy groundbreaking).

I think I watched about three minutes of Charlie's Angels when it was released, and went home and went to sleep. So the name "McG" in the credits as director of the new Terminator did not heighten my anticipation for the latest installment in what has been a pretty solid series, which includes one great film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and two slightly lesser efforts, which are pretty decent action movies in themselves.

From the first scenes of Terminator Salvation, I was nervous that this was really going to be a bomb of the first order. It opens with the execution of a condemned murderer, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), including a needlessly weird interlude between Wright and the needlessly weird Helena Bonham Carter. After this sequence, the film takes off and doesn't let up until the last second. It's all action. It's tight, efficient, exuberant, even semi-profound, and lots of fun.

It even made me sympathize with Christian Bale's now-famous profane rant when some crew member wandered into his shot. With so much crap flying around in the air (even though lots of it is probably digital), I also would not want to have to repeat such tightly choreographed scenes any more than necessary.

Bale plays John Connor (previously memorably played by Edward Furlong in T2 and less memorably by Nick Stahl in T3), a leader of the Resistance who's stuck in a time-travel loop which complicates all of the movies. He knows certain things about his future, and others are more mysterious. For the purposes of this film, he seems not to be the same John Connor who's lived through T2 yet, but the events of the first and third movies have had an effect on his life. I just realized that typing this, it's not very important to the story.

Again, the most important things to this story are the action sequences. We get mushroom clouds, assaults on Skynet installations, helicopter jumps to submarine rendezvous, Terminators in the familiar forms, as well as in the form of huge ships, enormous human-shaped walking transporters for human prisoners, mini-satellites, eel-like hydrobots, intelligent motorbikes, and a few more I won't spoil, all handily signaled by the now-familiar and still quite effective T-klaxon.

Bale is excellent in the film, though some similarities to his Batman may make some think otherwise. I thought he was quite effective as Connor, and he serves the story well. The real breakout star of the film, though, is Worthington as Marcus Wright (his name is a hint), who's awakened from years-long slumber by a raid Connor's unit makes on a Skynet facility to capture a universal shut-off signal for the machines for later use in a larger assault. Wright proceeds to make his way through a totally unfamiliar new post-nuclear landscape for mysterious reasons.

There are plenty of legitimate criticisms which could be made about the film in terms of logic, depth, etc., but on the whole I think it is very successful. Its deus ex machina (which I won't reveal) is persuasive and fits this incarnation of the series quite well. The action is first-rate and fun. The acting is surprisingly good, especially from Bale, Worthington, Yelchin and Moon Bloodgood as a hot, kick-ass Resistance fighter, and clichéd characters and symbols, though present, aren't given much room to ruin things. I even found some questions that get raised about the "logic" of the killer machines more persuasive because the machines are not perfect, they are machines, formidable but limited by their own capacity to utilize vast resources just as efficiently as they can, and no more efficiently. This idea excuses lots of seeming plotholes, and, for me, made the film more interesting and "believable" on its own terms. I'd call it the second-best Terminator, after Judgment Day. I already watched it twice.

The Magic of the Movies


Review: Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek is a very fun, action-packed reboot of the original Roddenberry mythology. It manages to show us more about the characters even a casual observer of the pop culture knows a lot about. The casting is first-rate, perfect, the effects are quite satisfying, and the story is not overly dense or insider-ish while still respecting the source material and never sacrificing entertainment value.

Why three and a half stars then, and not four? Again, while the story is entertaining and well-crafted, the actors all up to their tasks, and the movie overall is fast-paced and fun, I did want just a little more density or substance.

I would have liked to see a number of more sequences about the childhoods of the main characters, Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy), a bit more embellishment on the future presented and especially a bit more of a wide sweep on Vulcan, the planet, the people and the culture. Quibbling? Maybe. The film is still well worth watching, and highly enjoyable.

The film opens as the starship Kelvin encounters a large Romulan ship, which immediately begins a devastating attack. Our Captain James T. Kirk's father George is in command while the captain of the Kelvin beams aboard the Romulan ship to negotiate terms. Meanwhile, George's wife is about to give birth to our hero as the crew and civilians evacuate the ship.

Some interesting treatment of Kirk and Spock's childhood follows, then a contretemps between them at the Starfleet Academy and an all-hands-required emergency on Vulcan lead them into their first space service and further conflicts, and the beginnings of their eventual friendship and partnership. It's a tribute, in a way, to the overarching story, and the familiarity of the characters, that more of this isn't exactly needed, even if it would have been fun and interesting to see.

To compliment the casting again, Pine (Bottle Shock) is a great choice for Kirk and Quinto ("Heroes") is an inspired selection to play the young Spock. Other familiar cast members from the original television series are filled in well with Zoe Saldana particularly effective as Uhura, John Cho solid as Sulu, Anton Yelchin entertaining if underused as Ensign Chekov, and Simon Pegg funny and also solid as a late-arriving Scotty.

The design of the plot, which I won't reveal here, but which is actually a staple of probably all the various incarnations of the Star Trek universe, allows original cast member Leonard Nimoy to reprise his role, almost (but not quite) as the new Spock's father figure, and a memorable and well-done handoff between Nimoy and Quinto is accomplished.

Bruce Greenwood also acquits himself well as the captain of the Enterprise and Kirk's mentor, and Karl Urban is memorably cranky, odd and surprisingly original for such a well-worn, if not clichéd character, as Dr. McCoy. Eric Bana, as the revenge-bent Romulan Captain Nero, is as effective as I've ever seen him; this is a compliment in the way it's a compliment to say Helena Bonham Carter's performance in the Planet of the Apes remake was one of her most powerful. Their faces are largely obscured.

A must-see for Trekkies, Trekkers or even casual fans of any of the Star Trek franchises, this Star Trek is self-aware, funny, entertaining, full of action and suspense and a welcome kick-off to summer blockbuster season. It may be a bit too easy and comfortable, but then again if you're hoping to build on a franchise, some comfort level is definitely required. You can like it if you're a Star Trek nerd or buff, or a relative newcomer to Gene Roddenberry's enduring characters and mythology. It's a great time at the movies, and great news for further adventures of the starship Enterprise.

The Magic of the Movies


Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

Unlike with Watchmen, I have not read the comics series upon which X-Men Origins: Wolverine was based, though I understand from some who are familiar with it that it is pretty faithful to that source. I suppose this will be some comfort to Wolverine fans. For me, the film has very much the feel of trying to be faithful to something perhaps to the point where they leave out a lot of character development and explanation which might make it more comprehensible to an average viewer.

Unfortunately, as I'm a big fan of the first two X-Men movies, tolerated the third, which was just okay, and enjoyed Hugh Jackman's performance as "elder statesman" Wolverine, there's just a lot about this movie that rings very hollow, a lot that just isn't interesting, and the rest is a mess.

From the beginning, we're plunged into Wolverine's childhood, where somebody kills somebody and then somebody kills somebody else. And then somebody says something significant that's supposed to be devastating, I guess, if we knew what was going on. Then Wolverine and some other kid run away, leaving their beloved Canada for a chance to fight for whatever they don't care about in the American Civil War.

Eh? That's how I felt. I can look back and try to piece together a story there, but it's not presented in any informative or meaningful way. Sadly, this is a pattern which repeats throughout the movie.

Unlike in Watchmen, we then follow Wolverine through a series of wars which make no political or character statements whatsoever. A confrontation between Wolverine and his brother (Liev Schreiber) during the Vietnam War leads to their execution by firing squad, which is not very effective. It does lead to their falling into the hands of an evil warmonger named Stryker (Danny Huston, who's absolutely brilliant and wasted here) who puts them in a mutant mercenary special forces squad to accomplish his own devious ends.

Wolverine himself, as a character, is given extremely short shrift throughout the film. We get few hints of his motivations or emotions at all, so that the dark, determined actions he takes seem almost comic, whimsical, or stupid.

Lots of the fun of the first X-Men movies comes from trying to figure out how the blockbuster superpowers of each mutant will match up in fight scenes, and seeing it play out, with spectacular effects and complications which do affect the characters and their motives. The fight scenes in Wolverine are uniformly subpar, to the point of boring, and have so many strange complications that one can hardly follow who is supposed to be on whose side, or why. Many of the effects seem ho-hum or even silly. I suppose the film was made in a hurry, because the editing leaves a lot to be desired, and even the print I saw kept changing colors during some scenes, literally ripped from production before drying, I guess, to give rabid Wolverine fans their fix. It's not much of a fix. There are two tedious codas in the credits to emphasize the point that nothing much interesting happened during the film.

There's a romance thrown in, Wolverine gets his adamantine skeleton, more boring, underwhelming mutants show up, Ma and Pa Kent find a naked Wolverine and take him in and design his uniform, and other crap happens, too.

To sum up, Wolverine fan, X-Men fan, or no, skip it. It's a true, confused, confusing, underwhelming bomb.

The Magic of the Movies


Recent political developments

  • Sen. Arlen Specter (PA) switched parties. Not really much interesting here.

  • Associate Justice David Souter announced his retirement from the Supreme Court. I believe President Obama should appoint a woman to replace him, and keep appointing women every time there is a Supreme Court vacancy for him to fill, until we get to five or six women on the Court. It's past time to get some real balance between men and women on the Court. For another thing, it will infuriate the GOP and make them look stupid attacking women, like they usually do. My official prediction will hedge a bit, I'll name two, in order of likelihood, as I see it: retiring Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears and Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the U.S. Court of Appeals Second Circuit in New York. Whichever is not chosen this time (or if neither is) should be at the top of the list for next time, as it is generally agreed that Obama may have three or four more opportunities to appoint.

  • Jack Kemp, former New York congressman, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, 1988 GOP presidential candidate and 1996 GOP vice presidential nominee, died this weekend. He brought new ideas and a broader point of view to his party consistently during his public career.

Choose Our President 2012

Sanford (again) leads April 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results

Gov. Mark Sanford (SC) led April voting (for the second month in a row) for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. This poll ran a day over, through May 3, because I had a long weekend. Here are this month's results:

April 2009

#1 - Gov. Mark Sanford (SC) ... 16.4%
#2 - Fmr. Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR) ... 10.9%
#3 - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge (PA) ... 9.4%
#4 - Fmr. Gov. Jeb Bush (FL) ... 8.6%
#4 - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) ... 8.6%
#5 - Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA) ... 7.8%
#5 - Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 7.8%
#6 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... 6.3%
#6 - Sen. John Thune (SD) ... 6.3%
#7 - Fmr. Vice Pres. Dan Quayle (IN / AZ) ... 5.5%
#8 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 4.7%
#9 - Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) ... 2.3%
#9 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 2.3%
#10 - Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) ... 1.6%
#11 - Sen. Sam Brownback (KS) ... .8%
#11 - Other ... .8%

128 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

Choose Our President 2012