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Wednesday
Mar072012

Better Off Undead (2007)

The Slacking Dead

I don't know if John Pata's decision to make his debut film, Better Off Undead, a short was prompted by vision or simply a lack of funds. Either way, he made the right choice. At twenty-nine-minutes the story of zombies overrunning Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is well-executed enough that its weaker elements don't wear out the movie's welcome.

Let's get those "weaker elements" out of the way, before moving on to the good stuff. As with most small-scale indies I've seen, Better Off Undead suffers from a lack of actors in roles that call for them. Of the three slacker youths who make up the main cast, only one of them doesn't appear to get a migraine every time he tries to come off as, I'm sure, a version of who he really is. That would be Drew Schuldt as Marcus, the sarcastic douchebag who settles in for the zombie apocalypse by hanging out in a room wallpapered with horror-movie posters and swigging liberally from a bottle of Jack.

His friends, Chris (Dale DeVries) and Evan (Jordan Brown), are too freaked out to do anything but follow the one plan that doesn't involve getting eaten, so much of the movie is spent sitting around, wondering how to spend their copious free time. This is primarily a dialogue movie that's been dusted with gore; it's Shaun of the Dead by way of Kevin Smith--which is a fine thing to aspire to, but only if the performers can handle the dialogue and comedy.

DeVries and Brown aren't terrible, but they work way too hard at being casual. Schuldt fares slightly better, but--and please don't take this as regional prejudice--his thick Wisconsin accent fails the rat-a-tat, comedic sophistication of Pata's words. I had the same experience watching these guys as I did the Oscars' Best Screenplay category, where the Academy showed a split-screen scene of each nominated film next to its corresponding script page. To appreciate Better Off Undead, I had to mentally separate the words from the performers, which is never a good sign.

Fortunately, there's so much more to love about the film that, by the end, the main cast's foibles become almost charming.** They say the best way to make a movie is to write/film what you know, with the meager resources at your disposal. Pata may not have a lot of experience with flesh-eating-monster invasions, but he's familiar as hell with Oshkosh. He pulls off the terrific feat of painting a town as both oppressively boring and really cool to look at. The opening credits scene alone is worth the price of admission, zooming from a murder scene through the streets and into a cool apartment that sits on top of a comic book store.

Even if this were a travelogue of aimless twenty-somethings, and not a zombie film, Better Off Undead would still be fascinating. Pata and cinematographer Colin Crowley shoot everything with what Sean Cunningham calls "film school" angles; sometimes to great effect, and sometimes with eye-rolling results (the keys-opening-the-door montage springs to mind--very Clerks). They also capture local flavor in a way that seems cool to this outsider, but which the movie's characters likely have no appreciation for. It's sort of a "found art" approach to filmmaking that I liked just as much as the action.

Nope, you read that right: I said "action". The movie's other great strength is its slow-burn approach to zombie mayhem. The guys are safe inside Marcus' room, but once they venture out into the daylight, things devolve quickly. Though zombies get hold of the cast one-by-one through a series of silly mistakes and ineptitude on the part of the living, there's real terror in the attacks--a claustrophobic helplessness stemming from the fact that these guys are often so close to freedom. This is a key component to any great zombie story, and Pata and Crowley deliver, big-time.

This movie is far from perfect, but as a calling card for a promising, ambitious director, it can't be beat. Pata displays his influences a little too proudly at times, but he has the chops and heart to elevate most of his homages above mere imitation. Though it came out when zombies merely nibbling on pop culture, Better of Undead will, I suspect, engage fans who've all but succumbed to "walker" fatigue.

Shameless Plug via Full Disclosure: I'll get a chance to see how John Pata has matured as a filmmaker at the end of the month, when I attend the premiere of his new movie, Dead Weight (it debuts in Oshkosh, naturally). Look for a review of that film, as well as an interview with Pata and co-writer/director Adam Bartlett, in April.

*Which the guys were doing before the outbreak, anyway, so boredom is obviously not a problem for this crew.

**Almost.

Monday
Mar052012

Project X (2012)

HD Entropy

We've seen this formula over and over and over again: a dweeby teenage boy throws a crazy party while his parents are away. He pines for the hottest girl in school--who will, of course, be in attendance--though he'll inevitably wind up with the unconventionally attractive girl he's known since kindergarten. Oh, and he's also saddled with two sociallly inept best friends who want nothing more in life than to get laid before graduation.

There are variations on this formula, usually involving the number of idiot friends and the technical detail of whether our scrawny hero hosts or merely attends the blow-out--but it's still a formula that probably should've died after Superbad came out.

Apparently, no one sent that memo to Hangover producer Todd Phillips or first-time director Nima Nourizadeh. Their new movie, Project X, is the premise's ninetieth iteration, as well as this decade's nine-thousandth found-footage-style movie--complete with a pre-story apology from Warner Brothers to everyone affected by its characters' actions.

So, how does one cope with a film they've seen hundreds of times? If it's as effective and hilarious as Project X, the solution involves nothing more than sitting back and absorbing the drunken-party movie to end all drunken-party movies. To be clear: I find the behavior presented here to be inexcusable and unpleasant to the extreme. If the creators' idea of modern teen life are even remotely accurate, I think it's time to seriously consider an American Battle Royale program. But if you leave all sense of propriety, morality, and hope for the future at the concession stand, this movie may just blow your mind.

I've already summarized the plot generically, but knowing the characters' names will better help you follow along. Thomas (Thomas Mann) is our protagonist. Costa (Oliver Cooper) is his wiseass, wannabe-player best friend. JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown) is their overweight, overly cautious whipping boy. Costa recruits an outcast named Dax (Dax Flame) to record every moment of their wild weekend--from the parents leaving town, to Thomas' ongoing Betty-and-Veronica struggle between class queen Alexis (Alexis Knapp) and the girl he's destined to marry, Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton).

If you've seen the trailers, you might think this is nothing more than an hour-and-a-half of pathetically gratuitous Facebook photos set to motion and filthy hip-hop. It totally is, and Project X wears its lack of character development, purpose, and moral grounding proudly on a torn, vomit-soaked sleeve. The heroes are caustic assholes to each other and to Thomas' unfortunate neighbors: a pre-pubescent security guards uses a taser on one of them. The partiers are selfish, clueless, and utterly lacking in pride (as evidenced by unquestioned obeissance of Costa's poolside "Naked Chicks Only" sign). In short, Project X is a peek inside the mind of what many scared adults and media moguls would have you believe is the average American teenager.

I haven't been a teen for a long time. But even if I was one today, I doubt I would've enjoyed this party. It's just way too out of control. I loved watching it, though; more to the point, I loved watching screenwriters Matt Drake and Michael Bacall carry on the underhanded tradition Phillips began in his criminally understood and underappreciated Hangover sequel: the filmmakers seem to hate their characters as much as the adult audience hates their actions. Project X is about punishment, not heroism. Sure, the guys get laid, stoned, and incredibly popular, but at the expense of their college funds, freedom, and God knows how many brain cells.

Their elated feelings are very much "in the moment", with cold, stark reality waiting just around the corner. The cute text-on-screen blurbs that close out the film are meant to elicit giggles--and they do--but if you pay attention to what's really going on, Phillips and company have rewarded the protagonists' single night of debauchery with a lifetime of misery--or at least potential subservience to those who were cool enough to keep their acts together. But, again, in the moment, we are allowed to share in the joys that come from diving off a roof into a pool with a head full of Ecstacy and a freshly spent penis.

My one gripe with the movie is the filmmakers' decision to ignore the corner they paint themselves into. Costa uses a brilliant bit of pseudo-lawyering to turn away a couple of idiot cops early on, but a couple hours later, the party has spilled out into Thomas' whole street. Lawns and cars have been taken over, and the music can be heard, I'm sure, a mile away. But it isn't until Thomas flips off a news helicopter that more squad cars show up. I'm pretty sure they would've been on the scene long before the riot unit was even considered.

Oh, did I mention that Project X's climax is a full-on rubber-bullets-and-flash-grenades war-zone Granted, it's kicked off by an insane drug dealer (Rick Shapiro) wielding a flame thrower--but there are definitely kids in police crossfire by the time aerial units begin bombing the neighborhood with water to save it. The penultimate ten minutes of this film look like the climax of Can't Hardly Wait, filtered through CNN coverage of The Occupy Movement or last year's Arab Spring. Even the weird loner kid, Dax, takes on darker tones in light of several recent school shootings. But in the tradition of great, black comedy, Project X makes the unthinkably disturbing gut-bustingly funny.

With a little re-jiggering, Project X could take place in the same universe as Josh Trank's Chronicle, another exaggerated, faux-found-footage exploration of teen culture. That film had a bit more going for it in terms of conventional narrative structure, but both movies deal with the consequences of power and how young people, especially, have little understanding of what wielding it actually means.

That message is buried deeply in Project X, but it's still apparent through all the chandalier-busting, balls-punching debauchery. I'm not going to attack the movie, as others have, as potentially planting seeds of destruction in impressionable minds. Just as Porky's didn't lead to rampant nudity on high school campuses and the Friday the 13th franchise didn't spawn legions of backwoods butchers, Project X is not going to compel anyone to destroy property--unless that notion was already bubbling up to the surface. I'm more concerned with Act of Valor's influence over teen audiences than this disposable, dark comedy.

This movie isn't for everyone, but dismissing it sight-unseen is unfair. As such films go, Project X is executed very well, acting as a metaphor for out-of-control hormones, frustration, and uncertainty. It's a beatiful memorial to innocence and a bleak heralding of adulthood's bland, routinized death march. Despite my sympathies, though, I'd call the cops on these little monsters in a heartbeat.

Saturday
Mar032012

The Secret of NIMH (1982)

Scurry Movie 

I watched The Secret of NIMH several times as a kid, but I had no memory of it until yesterday. That's very telling. I'm surprised my parents let me see it once, let alone repeatedly. Despite the cute, spunky field mice characters and Dom DeLuise's turn as a clumsy crow, Don Bluth's cartoon about rogue, intelligent lab rats has all the markings of a fantasy/horror film.

The story begins in a cave, where an ancient rat named Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi) speaks to an old, dead friend. He writes in a book, and the words sparkle with pixie dust. He caresses a large medallion with a red crystal in the middle, which reflects his large, pupil-free eyes. Between this scene and the truly frightening United Artists logo that preceded it, I began to wonder if I'd put on the right movie.

We cut to a cinderblock on the outskirts of a farm, where field mouse/single mom, Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman), lives with her small family.* Her life is a series of near-death experiences, populated by mostly unfriendly animals who either want to dismiss or kill her. An old doctor named Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet) grudgingly gives her some healing herbs to treat her youngest son's illness. The wise Great Owl (John Carradine) can't provide secrets to her husband's mysterious life without scaring her half to death. And then there's the farm cat, Dragon, a hulking beast who terrorizes every creature in sight.

On top of all this, Brisby's home is in danger of being destroyed when the farmer plows his field. She seeks the wisdom of Nicodemus, who has formed an elaborate rat colony underneath the thorn bush in the farmer's front yard. Her visit coincides with a council meeting, in which the scheming Jenner (Paul Shenar) rallies his colleagues to continue syphoning electricity from the farmhouse--while Nicodemus and the head of his royal guard, Justin (Peter Strauss), argue for relocating to a valley, where they can rebuild as an independent society.

Mrs. Brisby is greeted with suspicion by some and awe by others. She learns that her late husband, Jonathan, was an icon of rodent liberation. Years earlier, he and a small number of mice and rats escaped the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) after being injected with drugs that boosted their intelligence to human levels. Nicodemus agrees to help move the Brisby family as the colony's last act on the farm. It's a dangerous, multi-layered process, which Jenner uses as the opportunity for a devastating power play.

I really liked The Secret of NIMH, which is disappointing because I started out loving it. This is a questionable family film, packed with spooky imagery, murder, and a hopeful, positivity-in-a-world-of-assholes vibe that I really appreciated. Brisby's love for her family is really touching, and I dug the bizarre, inter-species flirtation between her and Jeremy the crow (DeLuise).

Setting the story aside, the artistry of Bluth's team is top-notch. From the candle-lighting that opens the film to the moving-day scene in which rain drips down elabrate ropes and pulleys, mixing with pools of mud, the hand-drawn feats put a good deal of Pixar's stuff to shame. Don't get me wrong: I love Pixar, but to me there's a significant difference between innovating and working through problems via traditional animation and tweaking models with code and slider settings. Advances towards computer-generated realism are terrific, I'm sure, for the people working on such films, but as an audience member, it just looks like showing off. It may be possible to build a fully functioning ATM machine using only hydroelectric power and popsicle sticks, but what's the point?

Sorry. Rant over. It's just that looking at the strain of those pulleys reminded me that nothing in The Adventures of Tintin came close to creating that sense of gravity and excitement.

Okay--rant really over now.

My big problem with The Secret of NIMH can best be described by a term coined by Blake Snyder in his screenwriting book, Save the Cat!: "Double Mumbo Jumbo". Essentially, this phenomenon occurs when a movie asks the audience to make two or more giant leaps of faith/logic within the confines of the reality it has established. In this case, I'll buy that NIMH's meddling with rodent brains created a new race of creatures with the ability to talk and build hinged doors and power grids. But Bluth and co-writers John Pomeroy, Gary Goldman, and Will Finn (adapting Robert C. O'Brien's novel) go two steps beyond by A) introducing magic into the equation, and B) fudging the origin of their characters' intelligence.

I'll start with the second point. In a flashback, we see men rounding up various animals for delivery to NIMH. The creatures all have dumb, black eyes--except for the apes, who look at least semi-aware of what's going on. The movie's conceit is that, over time, the lab's injections made the animals smart enough to escape, and to fashion clothes and sophisticated language. None of this explains why Mrs. Brisby is able to carry on conversations or sport her tattered, red cloak. Unless she was the child of one of the NIMH rats, she and all her farm-field cohorts should be pre-NIMH oblivious.

Yet, we're asked to believe that she and Jonathan met and started a family after he escaped the lab. It makes about as much sense as the film's use of mysticism. I'm don't know what chemical one injects into an animal to give it psychic powers or the ability to conjure otherworldly talents, but the geniuses at NIMH apparently do. The movie's last act turns into a fantasy free-for-all, with Jenner and Justin engaging in a fight to the death, wearing what look to be costumes from an elementary school production of Robin Hood. Meanwhile, Mrs. Brisby uses the medallion to lift the fallen cinder block out of a mud pit (which gave me flashbacks to both The Empire Strikes Back and Transformers: The Movie).

Those of you who grew up with and cherish The Secret of NIMH may think these are stupid nitpicks. Far be it from me to steal the magic from anyone's youth, but this film cheats left and right. Did Bluth and company not think their premise was strong enough to carry a feature? My understanding of the book is that it was hocus-pocus-free, yet still beloved by millions of children. Maybe it was a trope of the era, in which kids'-movie creators thought everything needed artificial spicing-up. The one thing I'll grant Pixar is that they'd be able to pull off a terrific NIMH adaptation, storywise, without falling back on intelligence-insulting gimmicks to move things along.

Seeing as 2D animation is pretty much dead, though, a Bluth-style remake of NIMH, written by the geniuses behind Up, say, will have to remain my own, private fantasy. In reality, I'm stuck with a gorgeous, spooky, little picture that broke out of its cage much, much too soon.

*For you trivia geeks: two of her children are voiced by Wil Wheaton and Shannen Doherty.

Tuesday
Feb282012

The Stuff (1985)

Allergic to Scary

Though movie studios had a solid run of remakes, sequels, and found-footage shriekers in the mid-2000s, mainstream horror is, once again, dead. The Law of Diminishing Returns guarantees that not even the upcoming 3D Texas Chainsaw Massacre spin-off* will put asses in seats like it might have, say, seven years ago.

That's unfortunate. There's a wonderful, little movie from 1985 called The Stuff that's as deserving of a modern-day upgrade as any of the name-brand franchises to undergo the "re-imagining" knife. If you haven't heard, this is the cheesy, killer-ice-cream movie starring Paul Sorvino as a crazed, racist army colonel and Michael Moriarty as the slimy, industrial saboteur--and they're the heroes!

To be fair, it's never established that The Stuff is ice cream. It's white, puffy, and heavily whipped, but doesn't spoil in warm temperatures. Not surprising, considering a contractor first discovers it bubbling up from the ground. That's how the film starts.** In the next scene, this alien goo has become a branded, mass-marketed, global sensation. You might think it strange that people would latch on to a weird, quasi-food called "The Stuff", but keep in mind that 1985 was the era of the "McNugget".

The corporation behind The Stuff is so committed to secrecy that a rival company hire a spy named David "Mo" Rutherford (Moriarty) to infiltrate it. He's a smarmy good-ol'-boy who charms like a personal-injury lawyer and sweats snake oil, a classic movie villain hired by bigger villains to inadvertently save the planet. Rutherford cozies up to Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), the head of The Stuff's marketing campaign, and befriends a Stuff competitor named "Chocolate Chip" Charlie Hobbs (Garrett Morris). Together, they realize that the latest treat craze is actually an alien life form that devours those who eat it from the inside--while also taking over their brains.

As bizarre as this mash-up of The Blob and Invasion of the Body Snatchers might sound, The Stuff is sort of based on real science. Thanks to Marc Maron's WTF Podcast, I learned about toxoplasma gondii a couple weeks ago. These microscopic parasites' life cycle, in simple terms, involves infecting a host organism's brain and diminishing its fear response. The host becomes more susceptible to getting into scrapes with other animals, who then ingest the parasite. The Stuff has the added advantage of being instantly addictive, compelling its victims to binge and entice as many people as possible to do the same--when enticing doesn't work, the meat puppets go into full-on attack mode, vomiting marshmallow paste from every orifice (adding The Thing to the film's expansive homage family).

I don't know if writer/director Larry Cohen had any of this in mind when making the movie, but he definitely had an agenda. The Stuff is packed with anti-additive and anti-marketing messages that would be far more effective today than they were in the mid-80s. Of course, if someone were to remake this thing, they'd have to start by settling on a tone.

The Stuff begins as a goofy horror movie and ends as a coked-out-of-its-mind family adventure. Mo and Nicole team up with a young boy named Jason (Scott Bloom), whose family has been taken over by the creature. We get plenty of chases, narrow escapes, and exploding heads, but the story goes off the horror rails in the last act and plows into a bubbling ravine of insanity.

When the gang meets Colonel Spears, The Stuff becomes the last act of Blazing Saddles by way of 28 Days Later. Spears leads a small army of heavily armed soldiers to the main distribution plant, spouting anti-Communist rhetoric every step of the way. Mo, Nicole, and Jason make a series of terrible decisions to propel the story forward, and everyone acts as if they're the hero of different kinds of movies. In short, it's a beautiful mess.

If none of the above has convinced you to watch this movie, please allow me to share a selection of quotes from The Stuff:

"Everybody has to eat shaving cream once in awhile."

"I suppose we do have to keep the world safe for ice cream."

"I will permit this colored man to speak. But speak one word of the commie party-line, or one word in code, and I will blow his head off."

Still not convinced? Why not check it out for cameos by Abe Vigoda, the Wendy's "Where's the Beef" lady, and Danny Aiello as an FDA official? And don't forget the creature transformation effects, which look like they were done by Rob Bottin's less-talented, cheating classmate.

Oddly, The Stuff is at once a terrible but highly entertaining movie and fertile ground for a dark, serious-minded remake. I doubt anyone could perfect--or even recreate--Cohen and Moriarty's special blend of lunatic, macho strangeness, so that's best left in the past. But if someone were to bring The Stuff into the mass-media/food-paranoia culture of the early twenty-first century, it could revolutionize--or maybe just reawaken--mainstream horror cinema.

Who am I kidding? That'll never happen. My advice: grab yourself a vat of Haagen-Dazs, pull up The Stuff on Netflix Instant, and prepare to shoot ice cream out of your nose. Just make sure it's not moving when you go to wipe it up.

*This is not a joke.

**Not opens--starts. This is the rare movie that skips studio logos and jumps right into the action; an odd choice that may have you wondering if you've skipped a chapter in the DVD.

Sunday
Feb262012

Act of Valor (2012)

SEAL Team Sux

I read somewhere that co-directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh decided to use real-life, active-duty Navy SEALs in their fictitious film, Act of Valor, because actors would be unable to endure/replicate the grueling realities of America's elite fighting force. That sounds great, until you consider that A) it's been done before, B) short of actually killing someone on camera, there's no experience that a highly-trained and gifted actor cannot endure/replicate, and C) such a stunt is the only thing keeping this by-the-numbers clunker from going straight to video.

I found Act of Valor to be an okay movie, and a chilling piece of propaganda. One listen to the frequent cheers of "Woo-hoo!" from the early-twenties men sitting behind me during scenes of faceless mercenaries being gunned down by massive, mounted guns was enough to convince me that the film got its point across. What began life as a Navy recruitment video took on a life of its own, and was released this weekend as a big-screen Navy recruitment video.

The film stars a group of guys who are all but indistinguishable from one another in terms of personality or physical appearance--save for skin color and the infrequent beard. I guess that's the point: once the camouflage is applied and the weapons strapped on, men cease to be men and become an arm. The lethal appendage's brain is often half a planet away, barking orders to retrieve "packages" discreetly, and using whatever means are necessary.

In this case, the package is a CIA operative named Morales (Rosalyn Sanchez), who is kidnapped and tortured by the very smuggling cartel she was sent undercover to investigate. The SEALs swoop in and rescue her, only to discover that Morales' target, a slimy operator named Christo (Alex Veadov), has set a plan in motion with a Ukrainian Muslim extremist named Abu Shabal (Jason Cottle) to smuggle Filipino suicide bombers into the United States.

Convoluted? You betcha! Surprisingly, though, Act of Valor isn't just reenactments of SEAL drills; it's a globe-trotting, multi-environment campaign that feels like a whole season of 24, delivered in a tidy chunk of first-person-shooter-generation fast food. Whenever the beer-commercial/porn acting of the SEAL team threatens to derail the whole production,* the story shifts to the characters who are played by career performers. It probably wasn't intentional, but I found myself more compelled by the terrorsts' arguments, if only because they didn't sound as though someone yelled "Action!" in the middle of their Remedial English tutoring lessons.

Actually, that's not the only reason. What I'm about to say may lose all of you, but I couldn't get it out of my head during the whole movie: Abu Shabal has a pretty compelling reason for wanting to attack America--at least, the reason he professes is sound. At about the mid-way point, we see a classic terrorist video in which a band of bearded men with machine guns rattles off their demands into a crappy camera; in this case, there's only one demand: the United States needs to get the hell out of Muslim countries.

The actions of the terrorists are despicable; Shabal's plot involves explosive vests packed with silicone balls and a volatile gel that, when activated, will decimate everything within a significant radius. But here's a great mental exercise for the salivating flag-waivers among you: given the opportunity and the technology, do you think the founding fathers would have used similar tactics to thwart British occupiers during the Revolutionary War? More to the point, would Tecumseh? The film's narrator mentions and quotes him numerous times, sans irony, and I practically gave myself a bald spot from all the head-scratching.

I know, I know. The Revolutionary War was different, and what the settlers did to the Indians was different. Thinking otherwise is so pre-9/11! We're in a global terror war now--except Act of Valor conveniently leaves out the largest battlefield in that war's Risk assessment: the Middle East. Sure, we get vague mentions of jihadists in Central Asia, but none of the villains in Act of Valor look like they hail from Iraq, Afghanistan, or Iran; they look like white, Russian rejects from xXx; many of their henchmen are Spanish. For as much as the movie wants to promote the fearlessness of its "heroes", the filmmakers seem awfully timid about depicting negative Middle Eastern stereotypes. Weird...

Let's take another sidebar and talk about the word "heroes". Were an alien from another planet to land on Earth and walk into Act of Valor (assuming they could understand the language by using an intergalactic translator or something), what would they make of Act of Valor's protagonists? They're definitely brave men, walking into firefights, jumping on grenades, and the like. But what about the families they leave behind? Can there be such a thing as selfish selflessness? We get a lot of macho talk about leaving the diaper-changing to the wives, and talk of passing on generations of warrior tradition to the men's ever-expanding families. But is that love or just genetic recruitment? Perhaps it's another unwanted side-effect of casting real SEALs, but compared to the enemy combatants, the Americans look and act like the latest models from Cyberdyne Systems.

Amidst the first-person-shooter shots of machine guns and knives sneaking through dangerous terrain, we get a lot of "duty" and "real man" talk--as if putting in over-time at a day job is somehow less heroic than killing random people without questioning management's motives.

Damn, this review has turned into a rant. That's okay. A major component of film criticism concerns the reaction of the critic to the material, and I found Act of Valor to be repulsive. It's competently put together and beautifully shot (particularly a scene in which cinematographer Shane Hurlbut shows us the effects of one of the dreaded exploding vests--and then one-ups himself by showing another vest setting off a third), but that's the whole point, isn't it? The only thing missing from Kurt Johnstad's screenplay--aside from characters with self-awareness in the grand scheme of things--is a phone number and Web address for prospective recruits to check out at the end of the movie.

I didn't care for Act of Valor, but it wasn't meant for me. It was aimed at the kids sitting behind me, cheering the awesome targeting systems, cool-as-hell aerial drones (coming soon to your neighborhood!), and, of course, the big-ass, bone-pulverizing firepower. The movie definitely got my blood pumping, but for all the wrong reasons.

Or maybe for the right ones.

*Roughly every two minutes of non fire-fight action.