Monday, January 27, 2014

[Review] Big Bad Wolves

This Israeli thriller from writer/director duo Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado revolves around a vigilante cop, the father of brutally murdered daughter, and the alleged suspect.

Big Bad Wolves arrives during a wave of recent films that involve child abduction, strings of disturbing murders, and the lengths one goes to get revenge and answers. It shares thematic similarities to films like Prisoners, The Hunt, and even HBO's new series True Detective. However, it's void of the strongest cinematic merits of each, whether it's the chilling atmosphere of Prisoners, the haunting frustration conveyed The Hunt, or the sharp writing and exceptional performances in True Detective. Instead, it sort of serves as a counterpart and trades in the aforementioned elements for dark humor and exploitation, which works to its advantage and disadvantage, depending on its consistency.

This imbalance contributes to the film's rocky start. It's a clash of different tones, the pitch black humor doesn't quite land, and the story setups are clumsy and inexplicable. But the great news is that Big Bad Wolves gets better as it progresses, thanks to some clever plot turns (that would be too spoiler-ish to mention), and a more focused and contained narrative for the rest of the duration. Shades of the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino work their way in, leading to the finale in an enthralling manner.

If you can stand the film's early fumbles, the scenes of grisly torture, and the boggling twists, everything is worth it in the end. Can't say the same for the characters.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

[Review] Ride Along

With the names of Kevin Hart and Ice Cube headlining a buddy cop comedy, you'd think Ride Along would at least be a lot more fun and funnier than it turns out to be. Aside from the well-timed musical choice of Busta Rhymes' "Look At Me Now" verse amidst an opening action sequence and Ice Cube's angry line about a Prius, the laughs are few and far between.

Ben (Kevin Hart), a puny motormouth, gets accepted to the police academy and plans to propose to his girlfriend, Angela (Tika Sumpter). But Angela's brother James (Ice Cube), a hardened APD detective isn't having it. In order to gain respect, Ben has to complete a ride along with James to prove he can be a worthy policeman and a caring spouse to Angela. The mission gets out-of-hand as Ben and James find themselves facing a Serbian mob and an elusive arms dealer.

Unfortunately, the film vapidly plays out like a buddy cop movie check list, and despite Kevin Hart's spirited antics, there aren't many noteworthy lines of humor, and the slapstick attempts are eye-rolling for the most part. Ride Along ranks low among the recent crop of buddy cop comedies, never reaching the clever heights of The Other Guys or the boldness of The Heat. It isn't even in the Cop Out  'so-dumb-it's-funny' vein.

The Training Day references just aren't enough to save this one.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

[Review] The Legend of Hercules

 It's definitely January.

After a bloated prologue involving a massive war and the birth of Alcides (Hercules), the story flashes forward 20 years to a corny lovers-in-a-lake scene with a grown up Hercules (Kellen Lutz) and princess Hebe (Gaia Weiss). The two are sabotaged by Hercule's jealous brother, Iphicles (Liam Garrigan), Hercules is banished to Egypt to compete in a series of gladiator battle-to-the-death fights, while his brother and Hebe's engagement is arranged, all in the name of the unfair justice of Greek mythology.

And well, it's definitely January. The action sequences and visual effects in The Legend of Hercules often look like the recreations in History Channel specials, but with slow-motion/pause/speedup 300-esque techniques and without as much intensity. The acting is flat, full of unconvincing projections of dull dialogue, and it's difficult to tell who is the worst offender, whether it's the cast or the script. Kellen Lutz as the lead is virtually indistinguishable and this particular Hercules persona lacks any decent characterization, much reflecting the film itself as an unoriginal and mundane mess. All of this is the recipe for a gigantic flop, and even the horses look like they wish they hadn't signed on for this one.

The rating is bumped from a 2 to a 3 for the awesome moment of unintentional hilarity near the end when Hercules has a large burst of power, breaks free from some chains, and groans like he's finally dropping that one mighty dump.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

[Review] Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

The first Paranormal Activity was a commendable effort with an intriguing concept, elevating the potential of found footage horror. The second was more of the same but with a larger budget. The third reached greatness by improving on every element and fully utilizing creative tricks for suspense and effective scares (the oscillating fan-cam ruled). The fourth introduced a more modernized technology gaze but didn't entirely capitalize on that aspect or satisfy with its story.

And this brings us to The Marked Ones, which is only loosely connected to the main section of the series. In other words, you don't need to watch the other Paranormals before you see this film, and I also get the impression that this one isn't an essential viewing as the brand moves forward.

In a change of scenery and culture, this entry takes place in a Latino-centric neighborhood with all Hispanic characters. Once we get the obligatory lo-fi filler out of the way, the weird stuff starts happening. The group of friends catch the neighbor lady doing some witch-like rituals, unexpected deaths occur, and there's even a Ouija Simon game that is cool for a couple of minutes.

Jesse, the main character, eventually wakes up with a bite on his arm and realizes he has superhuman powers. This generates a few unamusing gags, reminiscent of those fake videos people upload to Youtube where anonymous usernames argue in the comments section about whether the footage is real or not. From there on, the friends investigate the demonic mysteries surrounding them, and everyone wonders what the hell is going on.

Unfortunately, the problem is we don't really care what's going on, and it doesn't seem like the filmmakers even know. Marked Ones is just too absurd and undercooked to provide any real dread or thrills, and it surely doesn't help that most of the climactic moments are shown in the trailer. It appears that found footage films are beginning to use the genre's tropes as lazy crutches--from the obscured camera angles, to the awkward continuity, and the abrupt endings.

Here's to hoping Paranormal Activity 5 will bring it better, come this October.


Friday, January 10, 2014

Top 25 Films of 2013

Forget an intro, let's get right to it...

#25. Spring Breakers 
A group of bored college girls looking to let loose take a trip to St. Petersburg for Spring Break where they quickly get acquainted with Alien, an eccentric Riff Raff-esque rapper and wannabe Scarface, boldly played by James Franco. Things get crazy. Crazier than you'd expect. The debauchery and raunchiness is pushed so far to the point that it turns grim, uncomfortable, and ugly. In an interesting juxtaposition, the cinematography is absolutely beautiful throughout. The usage of slow-motion, artfully choreographed scenes and the vibrant palette of colors make each frame look like a euphoric postcard. And the cast notably includes Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, two former Disney stars. Is it a satire? A commentary about the generation? A shock-fest? A cautionary tale? A dumb teen movie? A little bit of each? Are we thinking about it too much? I think that's a good thing.

#24. Prisoners
Even at 140 minutes, Prisoners, a relentless suspense thriller, seems to cruise due to its escalating tension and high stakes scene-by-scene. Keller's (Hugh Jackman) child has gone missing, and there's an elusive serial killer on the lose. A creepy Paul Dano is the alleged subject, but there isn't enough evidence to convict him. Jake Gyllenhaal heads the twisty investigation as the obsessive Detective Loki (a distracting name if you were looking forward to the next Thor movie). The strong performances all around bolster this weighty and morally complex story, and the stark and cloudy atmosphere is almost suffocating as we hope for some type of resolution, if at all possible.

#23. Kon-Tiki 
The most expensive film in Norway's history re-creates the true story of Thor Heyerdahl (another distracting name if you were looking forward to the new Thor movie), an ethnographer with a taste for adventure, and his 1947 voyage across the ocean from Peru to Polynesia on a primitive raft. Thor, set on proving his radical theory that Polynesia was populated by settlers from South America rather than Asia, rounds up a crew of wide-eyed hopefuls to accompany him on the peril filled expedition. It's a story of tenacious determination, and the painfully ironic ending was unfortunately altered for the U.S. release, so make sure to choose the original Norwegian cut. 

#22. Mama 
Andrés Muschietti's feature debut revolves around a couple that adopts their two young nieces who were abandoned in a forest shack and mysteriously guarded by a wrathful presence. With touches of influence from producer Guillermo del Toro, Mama presents itself as a dark and haunting fairytale, and the film is injected with emotion and compassion for its characters, a rare feat for most modern horror films.

#21. Fruitvale Station 
Based on the story of Oscar Grant, a young unarmed man slain by a police offer, Fruitvale Station offers up a glimpse into the 22-year-old's life - the good and bad. Michael B. Jordan is superbly well-rounded in this role, and the film's grainy Instagram-like look creates a timely effect for an incident that was caught on cell phone video. The narrative takes place over the course of one day, focusing on Grant's relationships with his girlfriend, daughter, mother, and friends. Each moment adds magnitude to the impending tragic outcome. 

#20. Pacific Rim
Massive robots controlled directly by human memories VS. gigantic destructive creatures that emerge from the depths of the sea. Operating as an homage to monster movies, and an ode to smashing stuff, Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim delivers on its wild and entertaining premise. But it also manages to be a big Summer action film with impressive CGI and battle sequences that pack a spectacular punch without coming off as humdrum and soulless.

#19. The Conjuring 
The Conjuring is an old-school ghost/possession story that recalls past haunted house classics in the best ways possible, and although it doesn't necessarily bring anything new to the genre, it reaffirms why horror films can be so riveting. The direction is meticulous and the chills are effective--built from dread and suspense without getting too over-the-top. The performances are convincing, and opposed to a lot of other horror flops, you don't feel the need to strangle any annoying characters with your own hands. There's always a phenomenal appeal to sitting in a dark room, staring at a screen, and getting the crap scared out of us. Oh, and that creepy doll.

#18. Her
Spike Jonze's thoughtful depiction of the very near future revolves around Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and his love relationship with his operating system--Yes, his OS1 with a conscience (voiced exceptionally by Scarlett Johansson). It sounds absurd, but it isn't that far off. And it's a premise that could've easily gone gimmicky or even condescending, yet it forms an immensely focused and humane exploration of the relationship between people and technology, people connecting (or not connecting) with people, loneliness, and the strained idea of perfection. The script is sharp and provocative, and Joaquin Phoenix pulls off this unique part with grace.

#17. Nebraska
It's the case of a crotchety old man (Bruce Dern) who is convinced he's won a million dollar sweepstakes. His son (Will Forte), knowing it's a scam, reluctantly takes his father on a road-trip from Montana to Nebraska to "claim" the prize. The film is humorous in its deadpan representations of Midwestern personalities, and the black & white aesthetic gives the hilly and farm landscapes a fitting sparseness. Bruce Dern is great as the gimpy and slightly senile, but determined lead. Nebraska is a fairly straightforward course, but the end result is profoundly sweet and prosperous--lottery winner or not.

#16. Don Jon 
Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a shallow and self-involved porn addict. Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) is a sentimentalist, viewing the world through romantic comedies and Channing Tatum movies. After the initial sparks fly between these two, a crucial disconnect arises and their unreal expectations implode. Amusing and observational, Don Jon is an impressively even-handed character study on how the media skews our perceptions and lifestyles. It unravels our darkest secrets, mocks conventional relationships, and throws awkward moments in the face for the first 45 minutes, eventually shifting into a slightly clumsy but well-intended and meaningful conclusion. All of this crowns Don Jon as either the worst or best movie to see on a first date.  

#15. Star Trek Into The Darkness 
The sequel to 2010's successful update of the Star Trek series, Star Trek Into Darkness is even more exhilarating this time around. The film kicks into gear from the get-go and never loses its power. The rousing action takes you on a thrill ride, the dialogue is sharp, and there's an earnest core with matters of sacrifice and friendship that often go beyond logic. You don't have to be a Trekkie to appreciate this film, in fact, I hear it might be best if you aren't. 

#14. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers return with this melancholy period piece about a talented but struggling folk musician in the 1960s. Llewyn Davis is a couch-hopper and money-borrower, and everything in his life is a mess. The film is a depressing slice of giving up on dreams, and not so much a profile of a diminishing career as it is the fade of a career that never was. Oscar Isaac gives an impressive performance as the title character, and the music is beautiful throughout, acting as an outlet of pain rather than celebration. Also, the cat(s) deserve an Academy Award.

#13. 12 Years A Slave
Adapted from an 1853 memoir of the same name, 12 Years A Slave is a brutal portrait of slavery witnessed by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who was kidnapped and sold around to various plantations in New Orleans. It isn't easy to watch, and it's not supposed to be. The film provokes winces as the tortured protagonist and his cohorts endure godawful cruelty. The unwavering treatment of the subject matter represents a dark chapter in America's history, and the harrowing scenes and stunning performances mount a powerful achievement in filmmaking.

#12. Dallas Buyers Club
Set in the 80's, Dallas Buyers Club tells the real-life story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a devil-may-care, drug-addled sex friend who is diagnosed as HIV-positive and given 30 days to live. Unhappy with his medical treatment, he seeks out alternative remedies to combat the disease and begins his own operation of importing and distributing the medicines illegally. Woodroof, a bigot, reluctantly teams with Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender also on the verge of dying, in order to extend the business. Ron and Rayon operate against authority, fight for their health, and help many others in the process. McConaughey and Leto give the best performances of their careers in these amazingly transformative roles, making Dallas Buyers Club an unforgettable experience.

#11. Enough Said 
Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Albert (James Gandolfini), both divorced and soon to be empty-nesters, meet at a party one night and begin to date shortly after. The middle-aged couple display a fresh chemistry and new beginning as their lives are met with turning points. But things get messy when Eva, a masseuse, befriends Marianne (Catherine Keener), one of her clients who just happens to be Albert's ex-wife. As if that isn't bad enough, Marianne constantly loathes Albert and uses Eva has her vent outlet. Eva gets caught in quite the dilemma. The excellent script carries a charming wit and frankness, and the path it takes is genuinely touching and bittersweet. 

#10. American Hustle
Yo, I heard you like con artists so we hired some con artists to con other con artists into... Wait, what? Anyway, American Hustle, set in the 70s, is the story about a couple of con artists (played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams) that get pinched and are forced to cooperate with an FBI operation, lead by an eccentric agent (Bradley Cooper). The whole film is chaotic, energetic, and fittingly flashy. It remains refreshingly unpredictable to the very end, and also has more of a Goodfellas-esque vibe than expected (not complaining). The cast is top-notch, and the twist-filled story of deception ruffles quite a few man-perms. David O. Russel is on a roll.

#9. The Wolf of Wall Street
This movie is Kanye West's Yeezus album in movie form. From all the chest-beating to the shouting, it's a noisy and abrasive, over-the-top drug/sex/money/power/ego-fueled train that rampages over you and never lets up. Dicaprio leads the pack in his wildest career performance as the corrupt, out-of-mind stockbroker. Scorsese dabbles in his usual themes, but this time it's much more offensive, un-PC, and unbridled in all of its excesses. It demands attention even with its 3-hour length. I'm not sure if this much coke has been snorted on screen since Scarface.

#8. This Is the End 
This Is The End is an apocalyptic comedy about a group of friends holed up in a mansion while God knows what is going on outside. It stars current comedy staples; Seth Rogan, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride (and a plethora of cameos) playing parodies of themselves. The film is bizarre, incessantly entertaining, full of surprises, and it induces laughter that might make your stomach sore and leave you gasping for breath. It's the best straight-on comedy of the year.

#7. The Place Beyond The Pines 
Pines is a dense crime saga that involves a rebellious bank robber, a cop caught in the dilemmas of a corrupt system, and their two outcast sons in high school. The stellar cast includes Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Bradley Cooper, Ray Liotta, and a couple of young up-and-comers. It's a look at fate, the relationships between fathers and sons, and how past events can rupture the present. The narrative spans over three time periods from the point of view of various characters, sort of functioning as three different movies--three really fascinating ones. 

#6. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Picking up right where An Unexpected Journey left off, the story continues with the company of Bilbo, the Dwarves, and (sometimes) Gandalf, making their way to the Lonely Mountain where the terrifying dragon, Smaug dwells. The films sweeps you off your feet with its amazing visuals and enthralling setpieces. The action sequences are impeccably choreographed, and the pacing is reminiscent of The Two Towers, intercutting between escalating narratives. It's satisfying for readers of the book, as Peter Jackson leaves no stone unturned. There are even a couple of additions, most notably the brand new, standout character, Tauriel. When you compare The Desolation of Smaug to other adventure/fantasy films from this year, it dwarfs them in size. 

#5. Captain Phillips 
Based on the account of Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking of a U.S. container ship by Somali Pirates, Captain Phillips is an intense and emotionally exhausting piece of cinematic excellence. Appropriately in the hands of Director Paul Greengrass, a specialist in stark recreations of real-life events, the film is raw and gritty. The jerky, center-of-action camera establishes itself as if it were the eyes of a character on the ship. The script carefully complicates matters with a sociopolitical edge, never condoning the attacks--but humanizing the antagonists and depicting the desperation of their environment. Barkhad Abdi, a first-time actor, turns in a commanding performance as the head of the pirate crew. And despite the shaky accent, Tom Hanks' portrayal of Phillips evolves from solid to magnificent as the situation becomes more treacherous.  

#4. The Way Way Back
The Way Way Back is a humorous and heartwarming coming-out-of-shell story about Duncan, an awkward teen who takes a trip with his mom and her new conniving boyfriend (played by Steve Carrell in an unusually unlikable role) to a family beach house for the summer. The film is bright and sunny on the outside, but there are bubbling conflicts that add an emotional undercurrent. Luckily, Duncan finds a getaway to a local waterpark where he meets the manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), a charismatic slacker who takes on the role of mentor. The spunky screenplay encompasses an abundance of edgy hilarity, poignant moments, and some uplifting themes about self-worth. And I won't give too much away, but there's an immaculate, crowd-pleasing finale. The Way Way Back is familiar to lots of other coming-of-age classics, but when it's done this damned well, it's nice to embrace the familiar.  

#3. Gravity 
Space is gorgeous, but you don't want to be stranded in it. After their shuttle is wrecked, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) are cut off from all connections and faced with the nearly impossible task of navigating the vastness of space in order to get back home.  Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity is the best usage of 3D up until this point. The rotating camerawork makes use of the entire plain, maneuvering around the astronauts and through the vessels, immersing the viewer. And of course, there's the flying space debris. Sandra Bullock gives a bravado performance at the center of the story, and George Clooney, well, is pretty much George Clooney in a spacesuit. At the surface, the film is a visceral experience about astronauts reacting to disaster, but there are just enough elements to keep it from being only that. The reveals about Stone's personal life add even more investment, and there's an engaging exploration of human spirit when all hope is gone and you're completely alone... Seriously. Gravity is a contemporary Blockbuster at its very best and it will surely impact the future of cinema. 

#2. Short Term 12
An honest and unflinching film about a foster home for at-risk teens, Short Term 12 is full of quiet, intimate details, as well as full-blown moments of devastation. The astounding cast and efficient script enrich these characters with immense depth in short amounts of time, and the challengingly melancholy circumstances unfold with moving and organic resonance. Grace (Brie Larson), the dedicated and fragile supervisor of the center, battles with her own troubled past and an unsure future, while also dealing with the ever-present relationships with the kids she cares so much about. Brie Larson yields the most intricate and nuanced performance of the year, and Short Term 12 envelops compelling scenes that will water your eyes, tear your heart apart, and even make you smile.

#1. Mud
Deep in the Arkansas Delta, the film’s young and tough protagonist Ellis (Tye Sheridan) lives in a houseboat with his quarreling parents. One day, Ellis and his foul-mouthed buddy, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) take an excursion to a small island in the Mississippi river. There, they discover a boat stuck up in a tree, a very intriguing sight, particularly when they find out it’s recently been occupied. Before their departure, the boys run into a murky and rugged character that appropriately goes by the name of Mud.

Skin glistened in sweat and dirt, Mud (Matthew McConaughey) wins the boys over with his mystique and likable quirks, but we get the feeling that he can’t be fully trusted. Mud speaks poetically about his long lost love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and inspired by the story, the boys agree to help them reunite. This becomes an escape for Ellis and a dynamic change from his parents’ oncoming divorce. But of the course, their elaborate scheme doesn’t pan out so cleanly, and things get especially complicated when the boys realize that Mud is a Wanted Man for reasons depending on whom you ask.

Matthew McConaughey is stellar in this film. After stepping away from his generic romantic comedy characters, he’s recently delved into a heap of impressively audacious roles that have created a sort of McConaughey renaissance. Tye Sheridan also proves to be a talented force with his naturally multidimensional performance, giving way to a bright future.

Director Jeff Nichols establishes himself a rising name in the film world. His careful consideration of powerful and cohesive visuals, passionate storytelling, and ability to generate great performances from his cast, make this film a must-see. The open-window cinematography vividly captures every little leaf crinkle, water droplet, and land crevice—to the point where you might feel like taking a shower after you watch this film.

Mud is so thematically rich and full of symbolic connections between the terrain of the setting and its characters throughout the story. While Ellis hears swirling and conflicting information from everyone around him, he eventually carves out his own path, and even though he witnesses all the relationships of those close to him crumble, there remains a sweet hopefulness of possibilities as vast as the winding, divergent river.