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A Band Called Death (2013)

September 11, 2013

VERDICT:
7/10 Family Albums

Thank you, internet. Thank you, record collectors. We owe you one.

A Band Called Death is a documentary about three brothers from Detroit who started a band called Death in the early ’70s. You probably haven’t heard of them, but they were punk before punk was punk and, boy, did they do their thing and do it well. Unfortunately for them, record labels weren’t too crazy about signing a band called “Death” and Death wasn’t too crazy about changing their name. As the rejection letters continued to pour in, their dreams of success started slipping away. So they moved out of Detroit and gave it another go only to hit the same road blocks before going their separate ways. Decades go by, Death is all but forgotten. Then, as fate would have it, a record promoter from way back when stumbles upon their old singles. He sends them to some collectors, they make their way online, and as the masses catch on, Death finds new life.

Now that we live in this brave new world where any song by any artist is just a click away and free of charge, bands like Death are the best kinds of bands. Nothing whatsoever against the bands we all know and love, but there’s nothing like discovering a little-known band that’s been hiding in plain sight all this time. I probably sound like the king hipster of music snobs right now, but it’s truly bands like Death that make the search worthwhile. To this day, there are only a couple bands out there that I consider “mine” – the bands that make me want to start a band, yet, for some reason, (almost) no one knows about them. As tragic as it is that they aren’t household names, it’s a special thing just to be in the know, to be part of a club where, for all you know, you might as well be president.

band_death_web

So when I heard about this movie, I naturally wanted in.

Off the synopsis alone, there are a lot of things worth noting about Death. With the exception of Living Colour, Fishbone and Unlocking the Truth, there aren’t a whole lot of African-American rock outfits out there. Always wondered why that is, and if that shortlist is any indication, we could really use more. Nor is it common for a band to invent a genre only to be utterly forgotten by their peers and the masses once that genre hit the mainstream. Throw in a name that’s as metal as Black Sabbath, and one can’t help but wonder why they never hit the big time? Then again, this isn’t first time fame and talent have eluded each other in this industry.

With that said, one can safely put A Band Called Death up there with the likes of Searching for Sugar Man and Anvil! The Story of Anvil. As far as comparisons go, those ones ain’t too shabby any way you slice ’em. Unfortunately, it’s these very comparisons that are also the catch.

As much as I love me a good rockumentary, there’s definitely a good amount that following the same formula:

Step 1: Find a kickass band that never made it big even though they should have.
Step 2: Have them tell their story and get them back together, preferably for a reunion tour.
Step 3: Make them famous through the power of film.
Step 4: Party on, Wayne. Party on, Garth.

Again, hell of a formula, but after watching it play out as many times as I have, it was only a matter of time before I started longing for more. Which brings us to what makes A Band Called Death different from the rest.

The surprising thing about this rock doc is that the star of the show isn’t the music. With a lot of rockumentaries, the people in the band are often defined by the band, being that it’s seemingly the most interesting thing about them. Their life stories are told according to the highs and lows of their careers and getting to see their lives offstage is usually a bonus to equation. As interesting as it is to see a band find fame some 30 years after the fact, it’s even more interesting that to see the Hackney brothers take center stage.

Instead of telling the story about a band called Death that was formed by three brothers, it’s the story of three brothers that just so happened to form a band called Death. It’s not like this approach is simply unheard of, but big ups to the film makers for recognizing that the heart of this story lay with the musicians rather than their music. It also happens to be a wild story to boot.

They can tell it better than I can, but this tale is something to hear. As crazy as it is to see their hopes and ambitions come to fruition from an outsider’s perspective, it pales in comparison to how it plays out from their point of view. This isn’t serendipity at work, this here is prophecy, and it’s plain to see that it means everything to them. Oh, it’s a story alright, and a big part of why it makes for such easy listening is because of the men who tell it.

Simply put, the Hackney brothers are good company. I’ve seen some docs with some real buzzkills in front of the camera and the Hackneys ain’t that whatsoever. These are some happy dudes, always smiling, always laughing and always spreading the love. More importantly, they’ve just got so much love for one another, their faith and optimism is a thing to admire given everything that life has thrown their way and it’s their bond as brothers that makes their lives so compelling. Plus, it’s always refreshing to meet musicians who don’t fall into the mold of the rock-and-roll lifestyle. Double plus, their music’s legit.

It’s as touching a headbanger as I’ve ever seen, folks, and it was an awfully nice surprise. But what I really didn’t expect was how this hit home geographically.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Vermont since moving up here last year, it’s that the world has never been smaller. I can’t tell you how many chance run-ins and random connections I’ve made with people I used to know or who somehow know me since I’ve been up here, way more so than when I lived in Manhattan. I feel like I’m on The Truman Show some days, only there’s more hemp. So when Death starts to burn out and the Hackneys move from Detroit on up to Burlington, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Of all the places, there they were: walking down the streets that I walk down every day, working the night shift at the college down the block. Hell, the best sandwich in town is even named after the band their kids started. Doesn’t do much to add or detract for the movie, but it was a weird bonus, man. Nexus of the universe here in Burlington, VT.

Anyhow, where was I? Oh, yes, the stuff that doesn’t solely pertain to people in my area code.

As far as rock docs go, A Band Called Death is a pretty sweet find. Face-melting tunes, brotherly love and a wonderful story that comes with the Henry Rollins stamp of approval? That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout. It’s not unexpected in the way that Last Days Here or The Devil and Daniel Johnston are, but if Anvil! and Sugar Man hadn’t come first, I’m dead certain that Verdict would have been a point or two higher. Nevertheless, by no means does that take away from everything that makes the Hackneys’ story so special. Might even come as an epiphany for the right set of ears.

Like I said, these kinds of movies are almost always a sure thing, and with a band like this, you can’t go wrong. After all, what’s not to love about a band called Death? So freaking metal.

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A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

September 6, 2013

VERDICT:
3/10 Goddamned Americans

If ever there were a time for Bruce to branch out…

A Good Day to Die Hard picks up with our man John McClane heading off to Russia because his estranged son assassinated some guy and got thrown in the Gulag. Worst. Father’s Day. Ever. As his son is about to testify against a political prisoner as part of a plea deal, the proceedings are interrupted by a terrorist attack on behalf the guys who want the political prisoner dead. Lucky for John Jr., daddy-o shows up just in the nick of time and helps him escape with the prisoner in tow. Turns out, the kid’s been working for the CIA all along, which is a big relief for Pops here. But with the terrorists hot on their trail and some good old-fashioned backstabbing to be had, they’re gonna need to work together and put aside their differences if they don’t want to die…HARD.

To answer your question: I was on a seven-hour flight and the pickins were mighty slim. That’s why.

It’s too bad though, I was actually kind of excited for this before the reviews came in. Like many a folk, I have some pretty fond memories with this franchise, and even though things haven’t been the same since it “surfed the jet,” Die Hard‘s always been a safe bet. Even at its worst, it was still pretty fun. It just wasn’t until now that it became a truly mindless affair.

Although if you’ve had your fill of character and switched over to a strict cleanse of lemon juice, cayenne pepper and infinite ammo, well it’s a very good day, indeed.

Speaking of which, the one big complaint that I’d heard about this from my friend Sean was that John McClane is no longer a one-man army who makes the most of what he’s got. John McClane is now a walking, talking God Mode. Being that the guy’s gotten out of his fair share of binds in the past, I thought it would be a good idea to keep a running tally of all the ways he cheats death this time around. So without further ado,  the definitive list of why Johnny Boy lives:

– He dodges an RPG.

– He rolls a pickup trick half-a-dozen times…over other cars. Survives.

– He gets hit by a car head-on, then gets up without so much as a limp and chews out the driver like he’s Lieutenant Dan.

– He drives a Mercedes SUV off a bridge, lands on a car below and proceeds to drive that mofo like a monster truck over the other poor bastards that are stuck in traffic…all while on the phone with his daughter. Pretty inconsiderate from top to bottom now that I think of it.

– He survives a full-blown terrorist attack. Bodies everywhere, man, but not John McClane. He’s alright.

– He rolls aforementioned Mercedes another half-dozen times. Survives again. Double bonus: a great endorsement for Mercedes.

– He asks to be shot at, gets shot at, evades every bullet. Amazing.

– He uses an automatic rifle to single-handedly eliminate an entire Russian task force while firing from the hip and standing out of cover…twice.

– He evades gunfire from a helicopter machine gun that’s aimed directly at him…twice

– He jumps through a glass window, crashes through 10 stories of plywood, walks away with cuts and bruises. Son does the same, also walks it off.

– He jumps through a glass ceiling and into liquid fire. Survives.

Reading it all back, it actually doesn’t sound all that bad. Sounds like another day in the life of John McClane. But alas, there’s something missing this time around. That thing, dear readers, is the man himself.

He looks like John McClane and he’s still got that native New Yorker gruff about him, but being a New Yorker myself, the dude comes off as a shit ambassador. There are even a couple characters that are pretty vocal about how he’s everything that’s wrong with America, and the sad thing is that they’re pretty dead-on. Not counting his one amusing conversation with a Russian cabbie, McClane’s gone from an endearing wise-ass to straight-up loud and obnoxious. In a nutshell, it’s because of people like John McClane that everyone outside of the Big Apple thinks everyone inside the Big Apple behaves like John McClane. I don’t know what happened to the pride and joy of the NYPD, but the nuances that once made him such an endearing badass are now gone with the wind.

But that’s not really Bruce’s fault, that one’s on the writers and director John Moore.

The one-liners are corny, the pacing is a drag, the “clever” plot twists are deserving of the quotation marks and it generally takes itself too damn seriously. Case in point: the father/son relationship that keeps getting pushed to the forefront. I get it, John wasn’t exactly around to play daddy since he was walking around Harlem wearing the N-word on a sandwich board (yet, for some reason, gets along swimmingly with his daughter). Anyway, that’s not the case with John, Jr., so for 98 minutes, we get to watch them patch things up and bond over common interests, like being invincible and murdering people. Not only does it feel out of place, not only does it feel forced, but I couldn’t have cared less as they started to become family.

Seriously, who gives a shit?

Also wasn’t expecting the plot to shift to the Chernobyl disaster in the final Act. An interesting choice, for lack of a better word. And how many times is the good guy gonna get away because the cocky bad guy opted for torture over execution? Enough of that already.

Again, it’s really too bad, even more so because Bruce decided to be part of this. I like Bruce, and I get why he signed on being that he’s the face of the franchise and all. I just wish he would quit selling himself short. Nearly every time he signs on for something, he’s lighting up bad guys with a squint and a smirk. Occasionally we’ll get a Looper out of it, but most of the time it’s more of the same. It’s not the worst strategy to have considering that it’s usually not his performance that brings a movie down, although it really would be great if his turn Moonrise Kingdom wasn’t so against-type. The man’s A-list, he’s got nothing to prove and money to burn. Where’s the harm in diversifying your career?

Just saying, Bruce. The world is your oyster.

So from John McClane’s lackluster entrance to the ending that belongs in a Michael Bay movie, A Good Day to Die Hard is not what this series needed. It isn’t fun, it isn’t engaging and it wasn’t long before it all felt like noise. Yeah, Live Free or Die Hard wasn’t doing itself any favors with that PG-13 rating, but going the way of Rambo is no way to make up for past mistakes. Then again, mistakes are made to be learned from, and with Die Hardest coming to a theater near you, lets hope for Uncle Brucie that they do just that.

The Gatekeepers (2013)

September 3, 2013

VERDICT:
9/10 Vicious Cycles

Can’t we all just get along?

The Shin Bet is an intelligence organization that was formed in the wake of the Six-Day War and was tasked with preventing terrorism on Israeli soil by eliminating threats in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Gatekeepers is a documentary about six men who headed up the organization during their respective tenures from 1974 through 2011. After decades of attacks, retaliations and fledgling peace talks, the six men sound off on why things are the way they are and how each of them played a role in the conflict’s evolution.

I read a lot of fiction in my free time. As much as I enjoy it, I don’t know why that is. I’m thinking it’s only a matter of time before the non-fiction fix kicks in since those are the only books that my parents and grandparents seem to read. Not to mention how hard it is to find a bad documentary and how I can’t say the same about almost every other genre. Anyhow, the primary reason why the bug hasn’t bit is because there are only so many moments and figures in history that make me want to pick up a biography or the like. Such is life in the age of Wikipedia, I suppose.

However, there are always exceptions, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being one of them.

From an early age, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict always struck me as something important, something I should really know more about but always seemed out of reach. Admittedly, I wasn’t exactly hitting the books to verse myself on the matter, but there was good reason behind why Google wasn’t helping. Hell, I watched half of this movie before I started it over in the hopes of making heads or tails out of this conflict and its roots.

For a documentary that revolves around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I was hoping for a clear-cut explanation. A fair expectation, so I thought, being that’s how these things usually go. I’d like to say that I could hold a halfway intelligent conversation about it now, but I’m not fooling myself. On any other day, I’d usually count that against a documentary. However, it was a naive expectation to begin with.

It kind of makes me think of the way Inside Job tried to explain what derivatives are, how they work and why they led to one of the worst economic crises in history. There’s so much more to this conflict than the history between Israel and Palestine, and while it can be explained, there’s no easy way to break it all down into mere bullet points. The motivations and actions of those involved are by no means black-and-white and the goal of this film is not to simplify the situation so that viewers like myself can be on the level. Even if you are on the level, there’s nothing simple about it; it’s a conflict mired in grey, and therein lies why The Gatekeepers is so effective.

I’ve often thought about what it must be like to hold a position of power such as the one these men once held. Here in the States, everyone grows up wanting to be the President and wanting to make the world a better place. It’s the ultimate job title, a privilege among privileges that’s idolized for good reason. It isn’t until you get older and start voting that you realize the burden that comes with having the final say on national matters. Even if you are trying to make the world a better place, even if you’re saving lives by eliminating a terrorist threat, you’re still the one who has to make those calls and live with the consequences. You may not be the one who drops the bomb or pulls the trigger, but that blood’s still on your hands. I can’t imagine living with a burden like that.

Needless to say, these six men make for some compelling interviewees.

Director Dror Moreh approaches his subjects in the same way that Errol Morris did in The Fog of War. Each individual recounts how they came into their position, reflects back on the tenures of their peers and is challenged by Moreh on decisions each of them made along the way. The results are as harrowing as the ones we got out of McNamara.

It’s fantastic to hear Moreh press these men on matters that I’m guessing they would have pleaded the Fifth to while in office. I’m so used to seeing journalists throw softballs to whoever’s in front of the camera that I almost forgot they could grow a pair. Speaking of which, it’s crazy – if not strangely refreshing – how frank these men are about the realities of what they were up against and the decisions they made along the way. Being that it seems almost impossible to ever get a straight answer out of anyone in the military or politics, I can only imagine how much stuff these guys had to cover up and deny while they were doing their jobs. So the fact that there were only one or two times where a question was avoided – and even then, someone else  was always quick to provide an answer – that’s not something I was used to hearing. That’s something the world could really use more of.

But that’s not to say Moreh is trying to pain these men as anyone other than who they present themselves as, or at least that’s how it seems having just met them. Nor does it present itself as a means to point fingers. It’s the kind of thing you’ll wish every military and political leader would have the gumption to participate in, and while they may not come off in the most endearing of lights, it’s hard not to respect them for speaking their mind. Moreover, there’s an air of respect about the whole process and a common understanding that, with a subject like this, there’s nothing to lose by being honest.

Being a lapsed Catholic of sorts and living in the most secular state in the nation (Vermont of all places), I can’t even pretend to understand what life must be like for an Israeli or Palestinian. At the risk of painting with a broad brush, to say that their faith plays a defining role in their being couldn’t be more of an understatement. When you spend so much of your life in one place, it can be easy to forget how different the lives of others can be. Not only are reminders like these important in respect to understanding and accepting cultural differences that may be different from our own, but, given the context we’re dealing with, they’re a  huge step towards understanding the “terrorist” mindset through a different set of eyes.

The great thing about The Gatekeepers is that you don’t need a working knowledge of the conflict’s history to appreciate its weight and the testimonies given. While the finer details of the conflict might elude me for the time being, the benefits of watching this certainly weren’t lost.

But as enlightening as it is, The Gatekeepers is a sobering experience. Being the eternal optimist that I am, I can’t help but hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel here, that the fighting will stop, talking will continue and peace will eventually come to the Middle East. But to see the defeat and inexpression in the faces of these men who have long since arrived at the futility of their efforts, there’s a case to be made for there being no end in sight. However, one can hope and those who can make a difference can always try.

Regardless of where you hail from or how familiar you are with the subject matter, there’s a lot to be learned. It’s a testament to the cycle of violence begetting violence, the weight of which has been and will continue to be felt throughout history. And with the US on the verge of attacking Syria any day now, the takeaways are hardly exclusive to those in Israel and Palestine. There’s no silver bullet when it comes to war, but as the words of these six men will show, lending an ear certainly doesn’t hurt.

And the best member of the Sheen family IS…

September 2, 2013

MARTIN!

Darn tootin’.

Badlands alone was enough to win my vote and I still have yet to watch The West Wing. Sacrilege, I know. Doesn’t hurt that he’s a model citizen either. Seriously, what’s not to like about this guy? Gordon Bombay wouldn’t even exist without him! I rest my case.

Swell voting, folks. You done good.

RESULTS:
– Martin: 22 votes
– Emilio: 17 votes (think we’ve got some Mighty Ducks/Night at the Roxbury fans in the house)
– Charlie: 5 votes (poor, poor Charlie)
– “Barry”: 1 write-in vote (truly the unsung hero of the Sheen family)

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

August 23, 2013

VERDICT:
4/10 Misty Mountains

This is just getting ridiculous.

Jack the Giant Slayer is about a peasant boy from England who, on one fateful day, goes into town to sell the family horse. As fate would have it, nothing goes as planned. The horse gets stolen, he nearly gets killed for crossing paths with the princess, and all he has to show for it is a handful of “magic beans.” He goes back home with his head held low and soon finds out that his beans are no joke. In a mere matter of seconds, a huge-ass beanstalk shoots out of the ground and takes his whole damn home along with it. Not only that, but the damn princess is locked inside because she’d run away from home. Realizing that a beanstalk is no place for a princess, the peasant boy teams up with all the king’s men to rescue the girl and bring her back to safety. They reach the top, survey the land that’s floating in the clouds and soon come to realize that the legends are true. This land belongs to giants, and them giants hold a grudge.

Alright, that’s enough of that.

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume I wasn’t the only one throwing shade at this nonsense when they first saw the trailer. I understand the logic that comes with Hansel and Gretel becoming witch hunters, but this? This is a bit much. To its credit, it just now dawned on me that it isn’t in fact based on Jack and the Beanstalk like I originally thought. Amazingly enough, someone in the 18th Century actually wrote a folk tale called Jack the Giant Killer that, to the best of my knowledge, isn’t far off from what this is about. And while it sure would have been nice to know that from the start, that doesn’t make this sound any less stupid.

Am I the only one who was unaware of this? My childhood suddenly feels so…deprived. Anyway, the upside to all this is that Jack starts out strong.

I don’t know about you, but is there a better way to start off a movie than with a Warwick Davis cameo? Of course there’s not, don’t bother debating it. And how about that Nicholas Hoult? No matter how many times I say it, I still can’t believe that’s the kid from About a Boy. The novelty hasn’t faded and he’s turned into quite the leading man to boot. Speaking of broken records, I still and always will have all kinds of time for my man Ewan McGregor. Always great to see him play the occasional badass and, boy, is he rocking some awfully sharp duds. Don’t even get me started on the hair. Ain’t no giant gonna mess with that hair.

And let’s not forget about Stanley Tucci. Too bad his character’s such an under-developed, single-minded prick of a bad guy, but hey, it’s Stanley Tucci we’re talking about. The man can do no wrong.

Bonus points for Ian McShane. Someone give that man more work.

Now that I think about it, it doesn’t start off strong as much as it successfully casts some actors that I like. The only real eyebrow-raiser of the bunch being Bryan Singer in the director’s chair, a casting decision that is by and large the most confusing thing about this movie. Please refer back to the title to fully appreciate the gravity of that statement.

Remember when Bryan Singer was doing stuff like The Usual Suspects and the first two X-Men movies? Those were some good times, huh? Dude had his whole career ahead of him, but for reasons that may forever elude me, he takes the check and signs on for this. Poor guy must be hard up these days because this is so far beneath the man who gave us Superman Returns. That’s right, Superman Returns was good. There, I said it.

I really don’t know why he bothered with this. For a special director who’s wowed us all before. there’s really nothing special about it. Maybe he had kids or something and he’s pulling a George Lucas. Whatever the reason, his name is attached and there’s nothing we can do about it now. Single tear.

So, what can we assume he was at least trying to accomplish here? Well if Jack the Giant Slayer was out to achieve anything, face value implies that it was out to entertain. As nice as that would have been, it doesn’t really happen. Not to say that it’s torture by any means, it just isn’t what I was hoping for: that it would somehow rise above my low expectations. I wanted it to make me laugh on occasion, despite my assumption that it most likely wouldn’t. I wanted the cast to live up to their potential, to infuse this thing with some character that didn’t feel stock. Sadly, these things did not happen.

The whole time I was watching, I was waiting for that moment where disbelief would suspend and this war against giants suddenly wouldn’t seem so ridiculous. After all, I’ve seen my fair share of movies that ended up being surprisingly good despite their own premise. If they could do it, so Jack. Unfortunately for Aiden, this too does not happen.

What we have here is not much more than a by-the-books story that follows another unlikely hero in his quest to save another princess in distress. It’s Super Mario Bros. (the game, not the movie), only way less fun and with more 3D (even though that franchise is now full of 3D). The dialogue’s also stale, there’s a surprising amount of it to be had and there’s only so much the cast can do to save it. As for the laughs, well, that all depends. If your problem with, say, Seinfeld, boils down to a serious lack of boogers and farts, then git ‘er done, this one’s for you. For everyone else, there’s always TBS.

On the bright side, the kids’ll love it. Farting giants and PG-13? What’s not to love? And in case I’m coming off harsher than needed, it’s worth reiterating that this isn’t a bad movie. I saw it on a plane, it served its purpose. But if I hadn’t been taking notes to remember all this stuff, I doubt I would have had this much to say. Jack the Giant Slayer could have been better, but given its goddamn premise and title, it definitely could have been worse. It is what it is and it’s oh so forgettable.

PS: What was up with that dumbass, non-twist of an ending? Seriously, who thinks of this stuff?

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

August 21, 2013

VERDICT:
7/10 Masters of Illusion

An exception to the rule.

Oz the Great and Powerful is about a lowly magician with aspirations of greatness. He travels from city to city peddling his tricks to gullible locals until everything comes to a head in good ol’ Kansas. He gets booed off the stage, runs out of dough and his girl leaves his ass for another man in town. Not a good day. So with a pissed-off strongman looking to wring his neck, he hops in a balloon and gets caught in a tornado. Figures. But just when he thinks he’s a goner for good, he finds himself transported to a magical land. As soon as he arrives, he’s treated as a messiah: the fabled wizard who will rid this kingdom of its wicked ways. Though quick to accept the unearned praise, he soon comes to realize that he’s in over his head.

So can someone explain to me what the deal is with all these fairy tale reboots? Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters? Jack the Giant Slayer? How could such things exist in this world? I’m assuming it has to do with all the money Tim Burton made off Alice in Wonderland three years ago, but since that was a flaming-hot pile of ass, I have a hard time believing the obvious. Might just be easier to blame the Twihards and move on, which in all likelihood probably isn’t too far off. And while humanity never asked for a Wizard of Oz prequel, I suppose it’s no wonder that we got one anyway.

With that said, there wasn’t much about this movie that initially piqued my interest. Never seen Wicked, nor have I ever felt like amending that situation. The last time I saw The Wizard of Oz was during an ill-advised fourth grade assembly which nearly caused a riot because it wasn’t Jurassic Park. Nothing against the cast, nothing against The Wizard of Oz, I just didn’t understand why we needed this movie? And had it been anyone else but Sam Raimi behind the wheel, I wouldn’t lose sleep over that question going unanswered.

I don’t know what the general consensus on Raimi is these days, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the guy. When all is said done, he’s the man who gave us The Evil Dead and his is a style you could pick out of lineup. The weird thing is that I often forget that about the guy, so each new reminder proves more refreshing than the last. With that kind of logic, he’d be a mighty good fit to helm any old movie. But to make something decent out of something like this, well that’s a tall order for anyone to fill.

From the outset, the most baffling thing about Oz the Great and Powerful rested with its main character. I know he was a big deal and all, but there was only so much to be gleaned about The Wizard from the last time we met him back in ’39. We only met him for all of ten minutes and he didn’t quite live up to his reputation. Then again, the loose ends were there for the taking. How did this guy end up in Oz and why’s he hiding behind that damn curtain? While we’re on the subject, what was with the Wicked Witch of the West straight-up melting ’cause of water? For such an utterly devastating weakness, it sure was random. Not that these questions ever detracted from The Wizard of Oz, it’s just strange in hindsight that we embraced them without question. With that in mind, it’s pretty darn impressive how the writers make the most of their situation by tackling these questions head-on.

Take our man Oz for example. Within the first ten minutes of meeting him, we know everything we need to know. True to form, he’s a snake oil salesman whose brass tongue and empty promises betray his kind soul and good heart. He’s not a bad guy, he’s just a big fish in a little pond and an amusing one at that. Rather than go the Alice route and reinvent him as, I don’t know, Gandalf or something, the writers play to his established flaws and virtues. Once those ten minute are over, he rolls on over to Oz. He saddles up with some misfit toys, all of which bear a striking resemblance to the company he kept back in Kansas. From there, he hits the Yellow Brick Road, tells the believers what they want to hear and spends the rest of his journey trying to live up to the potential they see in him. If all this is sounding a lot like Dorothy, you’re certainly not imagining things.

The devil’s advocate in me wants to say that an approach like this is lazy. You can change the names and change the faces, but at the end of the day, you’re still giving us an unnecessary remake with a story we’ve already heard. And while we’re on the subject, that’s not the only issue. The laughs can be hit-or-miss, there’s one last witch-off that didn’t need to happen and it sure goes heavy on those 3D effects. But that’s not even the worst part, that honor goes to why the Witch of the West turns wicked. For such an iconic villain, you’d think she’d have a proper motive, right? Oh well…

To the advocate’s credit, he makes some good points. Nevertheless, I’m sticking to my guns on this one, the reason being that it wasn’t until now that I started piecing all these structural similarities together. Even though they exist in the same world, even though the characters are in many ways alike, Oz the Great and Powerful felt inspired in the moment and remains that way a month after seeing it.

Admittedly, a lot of that has to do with my fuzzy memory of The Wizard of Oz and my love for the way Sam Raimi makes movies. It’s not an easy thing to verbalize, but there’s this flow and this flair in the way he tells a story that makes it seem like he and everyone else is simply having a ball (except for A Simple Plan, that was a total buzzkill). As a result, Oz is as playful as it is serious, it doesn’t feel derivative and it was hard to resist all the fun this fine cast was having. The Land of Oz was more appealing than I ever remembered it being and it wasn’t until the final Act that the attraction only grew.

Again, some might interpret this as yet another case of laziness, but as it just so happens, Oz the Great and Powerful isn’t actually an inspired spin on/half-baked prequel to a childhood classic we all grew up with. Turns out, it’s Army of Darkness-meets-The Wizard of Oz, she-bitches and all.

From the worlds of fantasy that they magically arrive in to the saviors of legend that they’re quickly hailed as, Oz is Ash every step of the way. Can’t say I was expecting it, can’t imagine how anyone would, but once Oz and Co. start gearing up to storm the Emerald City, the connection was undeniable. More importantly, it was groovy as hell. I can’t help but smile at the idea of Raimi being approached about this movie and him seeing the opportunity to swap Flying Deadites for Flying Monkeys. Like I said, there’s just something about Raimi and it’s epiphanies like these that remind me why I’m a fan.

I realize I’ve been making a lot of comparisons in this review, and I’m not sure how much that’s helping my argument. The main problem I’ve been having with movies like these is that too many exist for the sake of existing, that they don’t add anything worthwhile to the equation. Seriously, folks, we had two Snow White movies last summer. Two. That’s just uncalled for and Oz the Great and Powerful could have easily fallen into that fold. Not only that, but it begs to be compared with Alice thanks to a score by Danny Elfman and a world that looks a whole lot like Wonderland. But I’m glad the similarities are only skin-deep, I’m glad that it appealed to me as much as it did. I’m still not sure if that justifies its existence, but that’s starting to become a moot point anyway.

At any rate, the most surprising thing of all is that it’s now hard to imagine The Wizard of Oz without Oz the Great and PowerfulThe Wizard of Oz no longer feels like a standalone film, but rather the third part of a trilogy that has yet to play out. I don’t know if it’ll happen (it probably will), but I’d actually like to see how that second part brings things full circle. There’s still ground to cover, loose ends to be tied and a large gap of time before Dorothy rolls up. There’s more fun to be had and I want in.

I can’t quite believe the tune that I’m whistling, but I guess I’ve got Burton and Raimi to thank for that.

The Way Way Back (2013)

August 16, 2013

VERDICT:
7/10 Long, Hot Summers

Eerily familiar, and I mean that in a good way.

The Way Way Back is about shy, awkward teen who begrudgingly spends the summer on the shore with his mom, her boyfriend and his mom’s boyfriend’s teenage daughter. Since his mom’s too preoccupied with her boyfriend, the boyfriend’s a total asshole and the boyfriend’s daughter treats the kid like a leper, the summer gets off to a pretty shitty start. Rather than endure the company he came with, he spends his days doing nothing at the local water park. Not swimming, no sliding, just nothing whatsoever. After a while, this kid’s depressing behavior catches the attention of a park employee. Rather than give him the boot, he takes the kid under his wing and gives him a job to stay busy. Before long, the kid builds some confidence and even cozies up to the girl next door. Given the circumstances, things are turning up. On the other hand, mom’s boyfriend’s still a dillweed and the summer’s just begun.

Serenity now.

So for the first 15 years of my life, I was an only child. Towards the middle, my folks had split up; towards the end, they were getting remarried. Translation: a good chunk of those 15 years was spent in the backseat with my Discman being dragged to various gatherings where I didn’t know anyone. What can I say, I had an angsty reputation to uphold and I’m truly making it sound more tragic than it was. Hell, I got to broaden my musical horizons and got some tip-top step-parents in the process. Looking back, my memories are fond ones, but back in the day, I was totally Duncan at my age.

For all the coming-of-agers that are out there, I can’t remember the last time that revolved around a kid like this. He’s terrified of girls, carries himself like a mortician’s assistant and is constantly taking shit without ever giving it back. If I had known Duncan when I was in high school, I’m thinking we would have gotten along famously. This kid a kindred spirit, the kind of kid who fakes sick to play video games. Oh yes, he’s an awfully easy kid to identify with, not just because of how he acts, but because of how he doesn’t.

If there’s one big difference between Duncan and I, it’s that the people in my life at 14-years-old were folks I actively looked up to. On a scale of 1 to 10, they didn’t take the initiative to deem me a 3 or tell me to hit the bricks because they needed to knock boots. Hell of a childhood now that I think about it, but unfortunately for Duncan, these are exactly the people he’s dealing with. Which leads me to Steve Carell.

If there’s one redeeming quality about Duncan’s mom’s boyfriend it’s that he’s played by the most likable guy on the planet. Not only is it nice to see him branch out for the first time since Little Miss Sunshine, but if it were anyone else in the role as Trent, one wouldn’t hesitate to write the guy off. For god’s sake, the man’s name is Trent. Red flags up the yin-yang, yo. And right off the bat, he’s borderline deplorable, the kind of guy that would make a kid like Duncan get real into Nine Inch Nails. But since he’s Steve Carell, I kept on giving him the benefit of the doubt. After all, it seems like he’s at least trying to have a relationship with the kid, not like he’s hiding him with his belt or anything. Maybe all this “constructive criticism” of his is just his idea of tough love?

It’s a clever facade indeed, one that I imagine wouldn’t be possible without Carell’s involvement, and it’s really too bad that it doesn’t hold up. The thing about the characters in this movie is that most of them have a shtick. The next-door neighbor always has a drink in hand and might as well be a former Rockette from the way she parades around and talks your ear off. Duncan’s mentor at the water park is like a long-winded version of Bill Murray from Meatballs. Duncan’s mom is so damn weak it’ll break your little heart. Kills ya’ to see someone settle for the love they think they deserve. But since the neighbor’s played by Allison Janney and the mentor’s played by Sam Rockwell, it’s easy enough to overlook. As for Toni Collette as the mom, she ain’t too shabby either.

Nonetheless, there are times when it gets to be a bit much. If every movie had Sam Rockwell in it, I wouldn’t leave the damn theater, but the dude is forced to showboat a few times too many. And while Trent’s admittedly a dick, there eventually comes a point where he jumps the shark with his outrageously dickish behavior. In one fell swoop, he goes from the kind of jerk that you actively avoid to a wandering stranger who’d tell your kids that Santa’s a goddamn fake. On Christmas. Then he’d slap them for crying. Then he’d slap you. What a guy.

In contrast to how genuine Duncan comes off, it’s these kinds of developments that make The Way Way Back seem more like a movie and less like life at times. And for a while there, poor Duncan was in the same boat.

As you likely guessed immediately, Duncan begins to grow as the summer goes on. He starts talking to girls, he learns how to breakdance, he even speaks his mind when things have to be said. It’s a beautiful thing, really…except for all those times he keeps biting his damn tongue. As the kid continued to blossom, I was hoping he’d grown to a point where he’d gone full Lester Burnham on us and wouldn’t think twice to tell Trent to eff off. But Trent just keeps on cutting the kid down and Duncan just keeps bottling it up. Again, Duncan does grow, Duncan’s a different kid, but I still had this urge to just shake him by the shoulders.

It was frustrating, man. I wanted him to be Gordie Lachance; not the Lachance who lets Ace steal his hat, but the kid who saves Chambers by whipping out a gun. But then I started thinking of what I was like as a teenager and what I would have done in Duncan’s shoes.

As much as I’d like to say that mine was a hard-knock life, that I always packed heat and never took crap from anyone, the truth is that I was always biting my tongue. Of course I wanted to see him go off, of course it sucks to see him stay silent, but as much of a bummer as it is to admit, I would have done the exact same thing. When I was 14 and going through the motions, it was easier to be adaptable than vocally inflexible. Making waves only made matters worse, or so I had convinced myself. Took me a while to grow out of that mindset, but damn, what a rude reminder that I ever bought into it in the first place.

With that said, I can’t imagine I’m the only one out there who can relate to Duncan and his summer at the shore. By and large, his rites of passage aren’t all that new as far as coming-of-agers go, but we’ve all been there before and it certainly wasn’t easy. It’s weird to me that Duncan feels like such a breath of fresh air considering movies like these are a dime a dozen, yet he totally is and the resemblance is striking. And since we’re on the subject, big ups to Liam James for bringing him to life. Not only looks the part but he plays the part well.

But aside from all the heartfelt stuff, The Way Way Back is quite the crowd-pleaser that’s also a whole lot funnier than I was expecting it to be. An easy recommendation straight across the board, a gosh darn guarantee if you’ve lived the life of Duncan. Hopefully time will be kind to this one. We could use more Duncans in this industry.

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