Monday, April 28, 2014

[Review] Jodorowsky's Dune (Documentary)

It's eulogized as "The greatest film never made." Dune, adapted from Frank Herbert's novel of the same name, is a sci-fi space epic that was (and still is) a passion project of Chilean-French visionary film director, Alejandro Jodorowsky. His version, unfortunately, was too far out for Hollywood.

This documentary is the making-of Jodorosky's Dune, which never never actually appeared on the big screen, despite its lore-ish hype and game-changing ambitions. Packed with interviews from the producers, artists, designers, and even the eccentric Jodorowsky himself, Jodorowsky's Dune is a fascinating and insightful look into the process of creating the sprawling world that Jodo envisioned. There are plenty of scene-by-scene looks into the script and storyboards, as well as all the elaborate ahead-of-its-time art design and effects.

Everything about the project seemed to be coming together perfectly. Jodo handpicked all of the artists in eclectic and fateful ways, Pink Floyd signed on to compose the music, and the likes of frickin' Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dali all agreed to act in it. However, the studio bailed on the film after having too many disagreements with Jodo, and the project fell into other hands.

Jodorowky's Dune leaves you with a bittersweet "what could have been" feeling. Even if the film would've fallen short of expectations, it's difficult not to imagine it being an amazing feat in the 1970s and a possible cult classic. This documentary makes a great case and fully embraces the lore, and Jodo's wide-eyed enthusiasm is a joy to listen to. It's an ode to the madness of artistic freedom and the height of dreams and lows of disappointment. There's a breathtaking sequence that shows the influence that Jodorowsky's Dune has had on sci-fi films throughout the past few decades, as a lot of his team carried their same ideas into future endeavors. It's hard to argue against the project's "The greatest film never made" title. But then again, its spirit seems to be on screen all the time.

Recommended Doc

Thursday, April 24, 2014

[Review] Alan Partridge

I'll start by saying that until now I was completely unfamiliar with Alan Partridge, a longtime British sitcom character. But he's definitely a jocular one, and I very much enjoyed this goofy feature-length of the same name.

Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) is an idiosyncratic radio show host, a cross somewhere between Ron Burgandy and Nick Frost's character from Pirate Radio. The first 25 minutes or so spend a lot of time displaying this character's buffoonery and his narcissistic personality, but then it becomes a wonder where this thing is going. However, it snaps into action when Pat (Colm Meaney), a fellow broadcaster, bursts in and takes the station hostage after getting fired. Alan manages to escape in hilarious manner, but soon after is hired by the police to become a mediator. He enters back into the building to reckon with Pat, and he does a horrible job. He ends up watching viral videos with the shotgun wielding mad man, says all the wrong things, attempts to boost his own ratings, and even forgets why he's there at one point.

Alan Partridge blatantly and satirically subverts the cliches of hostage movies, and that's where a lot of the comedy comes from. It never takes itself seriously. The film is driven by droll, witty, and random dialogue exchanges, but there are also a few great screwball-ish, laugh-out-loud moments. And just when it feels like the narrative is running thin, there's always an extra boost of humor, most likely in the form of Partridge messing up the situation even more, or missing an opportunity to resolve it (or somehow ending up with no pants).

Steve Coogan is terrific in this little comedy and it's certainly worth a watch, whether you know of the character or not. Alan Partridge never really turns out to be a hero, and that seems appropriately consistent.


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

[Review] Only Lovers Left Alive

Indie/arthouse auteur, Jim Jarmusch returns with Only Lovers Left Alive, a subversive twist on vampires.

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a reclusive musician living in Detroit. He buys blood from the local hospital. Eve (Tilda Swinton) is ghostly, roaming the back-alleys of Tangier to acquire her blood from a specialty market. Adam and Eve (ha?) are married, but living on different continents--I can only guess if a couple has been together for a few centuries, a year-long break probably isn't too big of a deal. Eventually, Eve comes to visit.

Like much of Jarmusch's work, Only Lovers Left Alive is an exercise in atmosphere and allegory. The vampires double as world-weary hipsters, possible drug addicts, and/or misunderstood artists. These beings dwell in underground clubs, give high praise to Jack White, and they describe the "normal" people as "zombies". This bite of satire is clever for a bit, but it becomes stale and unengaging over the course of two hours.

The film's dim style, ethereal performances, and philosophical musings will quench a certain thirst for some, but the lethargic pace, absence of drama & plot, and too many scenes of the vampires entangled in a dark room, will leave most people (including me) in an immortal state of boredom.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

[Review] The Railway Man

Based on the true story adapted from Eric Lomax's autobiography, The Railway Man is a war drama about a former British Army officer that's haunted by his past as a prisoner at a Japanese labor camp during World War II.

During present times, an older Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), meets Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a train and the two fall in love and get married. Patti soon realizes that Eric suffers from PTSD. He experiences memory flashes from his time at war, and often snaps back from them in a disturbing manner. These flashes serve as Eric's backstory, and Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) plays the younger version. As the film progresses, we see that Eric was forced to work on a railroad, and one day he gets caught listening to a radio and is then taken away to be violently tortured. In the present, Eric refuses to talk about what happened, but the torture scenes are shown later on, and it's safe to say they aren't pleasant.

It takes a while, but Eric is notified that his main captor is still alive, and he sets out on a journey to find and confront him, in order to gain peace of mind. This gives the story some direction, and a lot of anticipation arises as we wonder exactly how it'll play out.

The lush camera angles in The Railway Man highlight a visual motif of ascension and descension--rows of chairs, steps, boardwalks, lines of soldiers, prison cells, grave stones, and of course the trains and railways. These visuals enhance the story's rich themes of debilitating repetition (mentally and physically), emotional ups and downs, and literal and figurative trails to closure. Jeremy Irvine does a nice job as younger Eric, and Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman are expectedly solid. The string-driven musical score is quite beautiful.

The Railway Man drifts over the line to where the actual existence of the real life story is more compelling than what the film offers. The slow pacing is The Railway Man's biggest enemy, but its path to reconciliation turns out to be a rewarding one, and it's a powerful testament of mercy and forgiveness, even in the face of the long-lasting horrors of war.


Monday, April 21, 2014

[Review] Draft Day

The managerial aspects of an NFL Draft is a questionable concept for a feature length film, but there's an abundance of behind-the-scenes factors that create plenty of drama. There's the difficult task of choosing the right pick (or the initially apparent right pick), the risk/reward, the option of positions, the trading and maneuvering, and the pressure to not look like an idiot, or the repercussions of making an unpopular decision.

Kevin Costner stars as Sonny Weaver, fictional manager of the Cleveland Browns. Early on, Sonny makes a trade with the Seahawks in order to get the number one overall draft pick. The surefire "slamdunk" player, according to John Gruden, goes by the name of Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), and it seems like the automatic decision, but Sonny isn't quite sold on him. He takes a personal interest in Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman of last year's 42), a lower projected pick. The film delves into all the tricky components that lead up to the big night.

Draft Day contains an over-calculated attempt to inject some sweetness into the story, detailing Sonny's relationship with his recently deceased father, his romance with Ali, a coworker played by Jennifer Garner. Also, Vontae Mack, the underdog pick, is immensely more likeable and developed than the superstar Bo Callahan. That stuff is all fine and dandy, but it always feels like a predictable checklist, rather than a profound weaving of heart and emotions. We pretty much know who Sonny is picking from the beginning, however, the climax pivots on the surprise reactions from everyone else, and the aftermath keeps things fresh by dealing out a couple twists.

It isn't surprising that we see a bunch of cameos from ESPN analysts and former NFL stars. Roger Goodell even makes an appearance. And Puff Daddy plays the role of an agent, because of course he does.

In a film that's filled with phone calls, clock-ticking, and highlight reels, the use of active split-screens is a nice touch. And the role as the stressed but savvy sports manager with a plan, couldn't be more perfect for Costner. Draft Day navigates that awkward fictional state of a sports film, but it's generally based in a present reality, and it seems like this is how some of the draft stuff goes down, although one may question the large amount of hope the film instills in the franchise of the Cleveland Browns.

Draft Day is watchable but there's nothing really overly special about it. It lacks the slick dialogue and sharpness of Moneyball, as well as the overall entertainment and humor of Jerry Maguire. Draft Day is a mediocre choice, but if anything, it works as a precursor for people to get pumped for the actual NFL Draft next month.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

[Review] Dom Hemingway

Jude Law has put on the pudge, he's got a grill of stained teeth & gold replacements, and he's very hairy as the title character in Dom Hemingway, a raunchy yet sentimental comedy about a British gangster and his wild days after being released from prison.

The story opens with Dom clutching jail bars and spouting a riveting monologue about his cock, while receiving "service" down under. And that pretty much sums him up. He's belchy, crude, egotistical, and like a geyser--about to erupt at any minute. "I'm Dom Hemingway!" he yells a number of times throughout the film.

After being locked up for 12 years, Dom is finally granted release, and he's ready to let loose (even more than he has been). The plot entails Dom attempting to make up for lost time, whether that means partying, taking revenge on people that did him wrong, collecting his reward payment for not snitching, or trying to reunite with his daughter, Evelyn (Emilia Clarke, best known as the Mother of Dragons from HBO's "Game of Thrones").

Writer/Director Richard Shepard's film definitely has a Guy Richiness to it. And it's hyper-stylized, packed with bold colors, and juiced with a loud soundtrack of melodramatic musical cues. A highlight is an operatic, slow-motion car crash scene where the characters float through the air, making hilarious faces.

Dom Hemingway is a messy tale of two halves. The first section is a raucous and abrasive jolt, essentially Dom picking up right where he left off. The second half settles down, bringing in a redemption story that sets up some tender moments. It doesn't quite all mesh successfully, even though the film is decidedly sporadic. Certain scenes work way better than others, and it ends up feeling tonally bloated, yet filled with threads that aren't fully developed.

Much like its main character, Dom Hemingway is audacious, obnoxious, and wildly uneven, but it's almost always amusing.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

[Review] Joe

After making his big budget breakthrough with the hit Pineapple Express, and the not-so hits The Sitter and Your Highness, David Gordon Green returned to his indie roots with last year's subtle and bizarre highway worker drama, Prince Avalanche. Green continues down that road with Joe, a gritty Southern tale of violence and unlikely bonds. The lead cast includes a surprisingly top-form Nicolas Cage, as well as budding star Tye Sheridan (Tree of Life, Mud).

Joe (Cage) is a rugged forest worker. One day, Gary (Sheridan) stumbles upon Joe and his crew and asks if he and his dad can get a job. Gary is hired on the spot and fits in well. However, when he brings his deadbeat father the next day, the father causes problems. They aren't invited back, and then Joe witnesses the father beat Gary. Joe re-hires Gary and becomes protective of him. Meanwhile, there's an ongoing beef between Joe and a scarred faced local. The Southern Gothic vibes set in as trouble brews, punches are thrown and shots are fired.

It's an engrossing and harsh story, making last year's Prince Avalanche seem minor in comparison. Joe strikes hard emotionally and visually. Green seems to have taken a keen interest in natural lighting and the asymmetry of wilderness. Every character is pushed to their edge, and it's easy to get the feeling that there will be unhappy, messy endings.

Joe shares a lot of similarities with last year's excellent Mud, which is both a good and a bad thing. Good because Mud is so good, but bad simply because Joe has to follow it. With that said, Joe is surely great and different enough to stand on its own. Nicolas Cage gives an impressively well-rounded and challenging performance, and sometimes it isn't difficult to forget that it's actually him. Joe is one of the best of films of his career, but I'm not quite yelling NicCage-aissance yet.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

[Review] The Raid 2

"If we're gonna clean up this city, we have to aim higher and we have to get all of them." That pretty much sums up The Raid 2, the sequel to first film which saw a police force infiltrate a mob-controlled building. This time around, the duration is much longer, and instead of just one building, it's the entire city. But unfortunately, this excess is exactly what hurts The Raid 2, making it feel bloated and unfocused compared to the non-stop adrenaline rush of its predecessor. This isn't to say The Raid 2 should be a copy of the first, but the heights it strives for aren't reached in the most economical or exhilarating manner.

Our main character Rama (Iko Uwais) returns, and he's as scrappy as ever. Rama gets involved with a plan to go undercover as a mob member in order to gain their trust and then take them down from the top. He works his way through a number of missions, most entertainingly, a jail yard fight in the mud. But this first half is bogged down with way too many prolonged conversations of exposition and an ensemble of character introductions that are forgettable. Things turn up in the second half, but as a whole, it's exhausting.

The Raid 2 still brings the pulpy violence, stunning fight choreography, and it always looks superb visually, but I can't help but feel like someone should've sliced off an hour of this film. Preferably with a machete.


Monday, April 14, 2014

[Review] Oculus

Amidst the handful of awful mainstream horror films within the last few years, there have been a couple of gems. Most recently Sinister, Mama, and The Conjuring have all hit the mark. And now we have Oculus, a supernatural thriller that revolves around a manipulative, demonic mirror.

Kaylie (Karen Gillan) reunites with her younger brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who has just been released from a mental institution. Both of their parents fell victim to murder, and Kaylie strongly believes it was because of the mirror, which has a cursed history dating back to the 1700s, and she seems to be the only one that's recognized the causation. The tragic back story is tactfully revealed as the narrative alternates between two different time periods--the present, as well as Kaylie and Tim's childhood 10 years prior. Kaylie and Tim have differing accounts of what originally happened during those terrible days. This creates some early conflict between them, and also serves the story's themes.

The catalyst in the present occurs when Kaylie tracks down the mirror and buys it at an auction. First thought is: Why? Wouldn't she want to stay far away from the thing that caused so much damage? BUT... For one, we wouldn't have much of a movie then. And two, Kaylie has an elaborately thought-out plan in order to document and prove the mirror's malignant powers are true, then eventually destroy it and reconcile with the past.

It starts patiently and then the events in each timeline steadily escalate, ramping up the dread, scares, and uneasy intensity. The timelines begin to bleed together, and once the mirror yields its vicious powers, the doors open up for a bunch of creepy tricks and tools, blurring what's real and what isn't. Oculus also retains a thematic thread of memories and coping mechanisms, guilt and innocence, and rational explanation vs. the paranormal. The film solemnly taps into primal fears and tenacious curiosity. 

The mirror in this film is very much a reflection of horror films in general--disturbing, traumatizing, and hair-raising, but we keep going back to them. And when horror films are as effective as Oculus, we just can't look away.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

[Review] Enemy

Director Denis Villeneuve enlists Jake Gyllenhaal again for his follow-up to last year's visceral and heartwrenching Prisoners. Enemy is more of a a subdued suspense drama. Still bleak, but significantly detached and way less heavy and tragic.

The film opens with the quote "Chaos is order yet deciphered." And after a strange, hazy and flickery dream sequence involving a naked pregnant woman and a tarantula, we're introduced to Adam (Gyllenhaal), a history professor. There's a scene early on, where one of his colleagus asks him, "Are you a movie guy?" Jake replies, "I don't really get out much", and his colleague answers with "You don't have to go out to see a movie." This exchange almost feels like a clever fourth wall break (considering Enemy has primarily been a VOD release), but it also incites the story. Adam ends up renting a film, and he notices someone who looks exactly like him in it. This rattles him, and naturally, he invistigates. As you can imagine, things get very weird as he seeks out his doppelganger.

It all unfolds in Hitchcockian fashion, sparking plenty of intrigue and making you scratch your head up until the very end. But unfortunately, it isn't always head-scratching in the best way. The plot gets muddled in the final act and the steep ambiguity leaves more to be desired, even though the final shot is pretty amusing. Gyllenhaal is very impressive, essentially giving two separate performances, and often having to talk to his "other" self.

Enemy is a woozy and confounding thriller, but you probably won't feel the need to watch it twice.


Monday, April 7, 2014

[Review] Captain America: The Winter Soldier

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, our hero is welcomed into the 21st century with chaos. This new Marvel adventure packs on the expected action, but the story firmly hinges on real world issues, making it equal parts conspiracy thriller, relevant commentary on surveillance in the digital age, and a plight for defending freedom.

Winter Soldier's plot is incredibly expansive, but it ultimately revolves around Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) uniting with fellow agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and new friend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in order to take down HYDRA, an internal corruption operating within the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency. HYDRA has a mysteriously masked assassin and extraordinary powerful warrior on their side, known as The Winter Soldier. Samuel L. Jackson reprises his role as Nick Fury, and Robert Redford plays a villain with a politically savvy demeanor. The story piles on the twists; it's a game of who's who and a question of where to place your trust (if there is anywhere).

The action scenes and special visual effects are top-notch, delivering some intensely choreographed setpieces. Whether it's a spy mission, a shootout, a chase, or some good old fashioned hand-to-hand combat (usually all in one sequence), it all feels so purposely crafted due to the constantly crucial stakes and turns, rendering it more than just pure spectacle. Or in other words, it's not just a high volume of explosions and incomprehensible shit flying around on screen.

The emotional roots that the first Captain America film planted emerge here, greatly enhancing all that's taken place. And the flashbacks and callbacks add some sweet nostalgia, while simultaneously complicating the way you'll view the predecessor. There also are plenty of well-timed comedic relief moments sprinkled throughout, and the witty exchanges between Rogers and Romanoff never fail to amuse.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier might be the most well-balanced and strongly executed entry into the Marvel movie catalog, to date.


Friday, April 4, 2014

[Review] Mistaken For Strangers (Documentary)

Tom Berninger is the brother of Matt Berninger, lead singer of acclaimed indie rock band, The National. The two bros are presented as polar opposites. Matt is an esteemed songwriter, fronting a band that has transcended the indiesphere, now playing their brand of beautifully melancholy music across the world in front of thousands of people. He wears a suit and sips wine on stage. Tom is a metalhead, a shaggy slacker who still lives at home with his parents, and he isn't really a huge fan of the music his brother makes. Tom gets invited on The National's tour to be a roadie/assistant manager, and he decides to bring a video camera along in order to make a rock doc--that actually doesn't turn out to be a rock doc.

While there is still a fair amount of live footage and behind-the-scenes looks at The National, the core of this documentary is about two brothers on divergent paths. Tom walks through the city streets and no one pays attention; Matt follows behind as dozens of people stop him for photographs. Matt rocks a stage in king-of-the-world fashion, while Tom gets yelled at backstage for not doing his job correctly. Tom is on the outside looking in, and he expresses this in his commentary.

The film veers into even more personal territory during the second half, as the dialogue about Tom and Matt's differences comes to the forefront, journeying back to their childhood. Even their parents get interviewed. The fraternal dynamics elevate Mistaken For Strangers above being just a music profile about a rising band, and it also works as a documentary within a documentary, which adds a meta element that expounds the creative process. Tom's motivations for making the film become clear in a genuinely heartfelt and humanistic manner.

Mistaken For Strangers is a wonderfully layered documentary, and it definitely deserves some attention.

Recommended Doc

Thursday, April 3, 2014

[Review] Nymphomaniac: Volume I & II

Danish filmmaker and provocateur Lars von Trier extends his controversy with Nymphomaniac, the four-hour plus, two volume portrait of a self-diagnosed sex addict.

The film opens with a prolonged black screen and transitions to a drippy and dark alleyway where we see a woman lying battered and bruised on the concrete. This is Joe (Gainsbourg), the story's protagonist (Stacy Martin plays the younger version). Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her and invites her into his home.

Joe begins telling her life story while Seligman intently listens. Shown through explicitly detailed, chapter-divided flashbacks, Joe recounts her sexual experiences--from early exploration, various hook-ups, a train game (I'll let you guess what that is), to her on-and-off relationship with Jerome (a greasy Shia LeBouf).

Seligman responds with fascination. He waxes intellectual, and incredibly (and somewhat hilariously) attributes Joe's episodes to the topics of fly-fishing, Fibonacci numbers, musical notes and more. The final chapter of Volume I ends with Joe having sex and distressingly proclaiming, "I can't feel anything!" This sets up Volume II as Joe's quest to regain her feelings of pleasure, leading to some more "experimental" territories.

The discussions between Joe and Seligman provide some interesting framework. But it's difficult to decipher whether the device is an outlet for von Trier to clearly express his intentions while refuting accusations of misogyny by constructing a loosely feminist position and turning the moral hypocrisy of society on its head, or if he's just criticizing his critics and making a joke of analysis. Or both. Or none of the above.

If you're wondering about the extent of its graphics, it isn't all that shocking in a post-porn world. The visual boundary pushing is more-so the idea that these unsimulated acts and close-ups of genitalia are being presented on a very large screen.

Nymphomaniac proves to be more than just a snuff fest, but the moments of striking engagement are too sparse over the course. And while it's rich, complex, and ripe for interpretations from all angles, the monotony and repetition drabs it down. Even when the volumes are viewed on separate occasions, the film is tiresome, tedious, floppy, and limp, no matter which lens you view it through.


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

[Review] Noah

It comes as no surprise that this film is very, very wet.

Director Darren Aronofsky makes a tentpole leap with the retelling of the biblical story of Noah's Ark. Compared to recent outings like The Wrestler and Black Swan, Noah is colossal in scope (and budget). But Aronofsky's touches are still fully apparent as he employs plenty of arthouse visuals (but now very expensive ones), while also provoking complex emotions. The film has a dark edge and a dystopian setting with a tone that is way closer to The Road than Evan Almighty.

After an impressionistic montage of the Garden of Eden (the first of many stroby time-lapse sequences), we meet Noah (Russel Crowe) and his family in surreal landscapes under strange skies. The family consists of his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), three sons, and an adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson). The performances are strong all around.

Noah has these nightmarish premonitions about the world catastrophically flooding and wiping away the sinful human race. With the major aid of his wise, magical grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) and The Watchers (fallen angels that transformed to beings of stone), he starts constructing the ark (this version of the massive boat is super rectangular) in order to save all the species on the planet. When the monumental migration comes, it's a very cool moment, but unfortunately the creatures don't take up much screentime. I wish the animals were shown more throughout the film, because animals.

Major conflict arises when King Tubal Cain (a grizzly Ray Winstone) shows up at the building site, which leads to an eventual battle. Absolute chaos ensues when the storm hits and the king's army charges the ship while The Watchers attempt to fend them off in Treebeard fashion. The entire sequence is tremendously impressive and is the most exciting part of the film, so in a way it feels like an early climax. However, the story turns over to a more contained family drama with enough dilemmas to keep matters complicated and tensions high, amidst the now grey and cloudy abyss of the world and an unsure future.

No matter what your expectations are going in, or what your fundamental beliefs are, there's no denying that Noah is an astonishing sight to behold.