Thursday, May 29, 2014

[Review] Chef

Jon Favreau writes, directs and stars in this feel-good comedy of tasty proportions. It's about a popular head chef named Carl Casper who is fed up with serving fancy but bland food at a stuffy restaurant. He decides to leave it behind and sets out across the country in a food truck. Chef's cast is stacked: John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale are line cooks, Scarlett Johansson is the hostess, Dustin Hoffman is the restaurant owner, Sofia Vergara is Carl's ex-wife, and Robert Downey Jr. is an investor.

Of course, Chef isn't just about cooking (even though their are numerous close-ups of delicious, sizzling food). Carl (Favreau) is recently divorced and he's having difficulties finding time to connect with his young son, which sets up some father/son bonding moments for later. A juicy Twitter beef between Carl and a renowned food-blogger (Oliver Platt), and some other social media blunders spice things up. These incidents bring in themes of dealing with criticism, bucking expectations, and embracing creativity and doing what you love. It's a recipe that delivers a satisfying amount of humor and spirited doses of heart.

Chef is generally easygoing. It's incredibly low on conflict, some story turns happen too simply, and it can't help but feel familiar. But that comfort is actually a refreshing contrast to this summer's plate of movies so far, and it's hard to imagine that this would leave a bad taste in anyone's mouth.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

[Review] X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past opens in the bleak future where mutant prison camps exist and shape-shifting war machines known as The Sentinels are assassinating the remaining free mutants.

Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) are cooking up a plan with some crucial help from Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), in order to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to the 1970s so he can band together with the younger versions of Xavier and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) and alter past events. But none of it is easy, as it all results in a proliferation of complex tasks.

This installment hinges on tricky time-travel leaps, and the cast of characters is overflowing, yet somehow it all manages to avoid being confusing and convoluted. It's miraculously fluid. The adroit execution of the story on all parts makes for a greatly paced, multidimensional super hero movie. Everything culminates in a crescendo of thrilling arcs and entertaining setpieces.

Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a slacker that can move at lightning speeds, is an instant highlight. He gets to do all the fun stuff. One of coolest scenes of the film involves him prankishly manipulating a shootout during an extreme slo-mo escape sequence. Wolverine is more restrained than usual, but still just as grizzly and charismatic, even adding his own bits of comedic relief. Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique is on an ass-kicking rampage, straddling the lines of hero and villain. James McAvoy gives an impressive performance as the most turmoil-filled character. And Peter Dinklage just always makes everything better.

Amidst all the dazzle and sometimes goofy looking costumes, it's the grounded levels of humanity, well-developed character relationships, and historical context that drive the story and deepen the experience. There's an ever-present sense of urgency, and the total balance and purpose of every piece propels X-Men: Days of Future Past into the upper tier of comic book/super hero films.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

[Review] The Immigrant

Ellis Island, 1921. A hopeful Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her sister are denied entry into America. Ewa faces deportation, while her sister is taken into quarantine due to tuberculosis. But then, a savvy "travel agent" played by Joaquin Phoenix, approaches Ewa and pulls some strings to get her into the US. He's deceptively nice, and this is exactly why Ewa goes to sleep with a knife tucked under her pillow. Bruno (Phoenix) ends up selling her into prostitution. A magician named Orlando (Jeremy Renner) enters the picture with aspirations to run away with Ewa, and the story becomes a bizarre push-and-pull love triangle as Ewa does her best to take matters into her own hands.

The film looks great, reveling in the period detail and old-timey hues similar to the flashbacks in The Godfather II. Cotillard is outstanding as always. Her appearance and expressions are often reminiscent of silent film stars of the 1920's, but the script holds her back. Phoenix is unhinged, but way less convincing than, say, what he demonstrated in The Master. He seems to be confused about who his character actually is. Renner works as a foil, but he's just kind of there.

It's a dour premise that could project some powerful material, but it falls so flat. The story doesn't journey too far down any of the potential avenues, and the one-note tone and stagnant pacing makes it feel like it's barely creeping past a standstill. The melodrama is constant, both situational and musically, but instead of injecting emotion, it seems to drown all of it out.

Maybe the film's setbacks and pacing reflect the difficulty of the immigrant experience, and it does faintly delve into the harsh dilemmas and troubling compromises in the face of mistrust and desperation. It also has an excellent final shot. But with a top-notch cast like this--cinematically, The Immigrant should be more than just there.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

[Review] The Sacrament

Indie-horror master Ti West returns this year with the religious cult tale, The Sacrament. It doesn't quite reach the greatness of West's last two efforts The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, but he still proves he's one of the best horror directors of this generation.

Set up as a mock Vice documentary, a video crew travels to an isolated religious community in the middle of nowhere called "Eden Parish". It's lead by a mysterious figure named "Father", who the residents tenaciously worship. The journalists interview various members of the commune, and all of them describe the camp as a peaceful, non-cancerous society--it's the happiest they've ever been in their lives. The crew eventually gets their coveted interview with Father, who is played by relative unknown Gene Jones in a gloriously twisted performance.

The Sacrament is a slightly different angle for West. It still has a crafty cleverness with slow-building suspense and dread, but it trades the nighttime jump scares and supernatural aspects for extreme sicknesses based within startling realism. Shit gets crazy at the end as usual, but the climax doesn't carry the unpredictable punch of The House of the Devil and Innkeepers. However, the events are just as jarring to witness.

Approximately midway through the film, there's a small but significant incident that occurs, completely changing the tide, darkening the tone, and turning up the anxiety. It's best to keep this moment a secret and to refrain from mentioning anything that follows. All I'll say is, "disturbing" is a light way to put it.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

[Review] Godzilla

2014's Godzilla is one of the most welcomed remakes in recent memory. Director Gareth Edwards proves to be a strong force, and his contemporary imagining of this gargantuan reptile tale is full of technical prowess. Although the film doesn't really expound anything new conceptually, it manages to be more than just another try at resurrecting an iconic monster. The film pays faithful homage to the original 1954 version, and it often recalls Jurassic Park and Alien (in fact, the structural template is significantly similar to Jurassic Park when you think about it). And those influences work in its favor. But most importantly, this film respects the beast.

Bryan Cranston holds the plot's earlier weight, wielding some of his serious post-Walter White chops as an engineer caught up in seismic shifts and disasters at a nuclear plant. Things flash forward 15 years to his son, Ford (Aaron Taylor) a soldier coming home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and their young child. A pair of scientists, played by Ken Watanabe and Sallie Hawkins help frame the details and history. Basically, disruptions are brewing. Big ones.

Edwards is masterfully strategic in not showing his cards too soon. Things warm up when a couple of giant insect-like creatures (MUTOs) emerge to wreak havoc, leading to some teases and glimpses of the main event. Much of the film is shrouded in haze, as if the ultimate dark cloud is hanging over continent, appropriately aiding the disaster flick mood. Even when Godzilla is fully revealed, Edwards never lingers on the beast too long, which makes the payoffs of roaring mayhem all the more powerful, superbly capturing the massive scope and the thrills people came for. And most of the film is fittingly presented from ground/human perspective, making for some spectacular POV angles that are greatly enhanced in IMAX 3D. The money shots are delivered on both large and small scales. Edwards carries over some of the intimate details and careful compositions from his debut Monsters into this world. My nominee for #PerfectShot is the medium close-up of a gas-masked Cranston on a boat, while a panoramic view of the dilapidated nuclear plant lurks directly behind him.

The film flaunts some impressive CGI. The monsters are meticulously detailed, from the mountainous back spikes - to the skin flaps of the terrifyingly opened jaws. They genuinely seem like fully-volumed, texturally consistent objects meshing with the surroundings, rather than thin products of unconvincing computer graphics. The visual exhilaration is at it its finest during the film's many memorable action setpieces--a tranquil Hawaiian luau that is disastrously cut short, absolute chaos on the Golden Gate bridge, an eery scene on an elevated railway track where everything that can go wrong - does.

Sure, the film isn't without flaws. The characters are bland (aside from Cranston's), and some of the story's early establishments are ditched--raising some missed opportunities in later acts. The dialogue is stale, but when there's such a colossal and furiously entrancing beast destroying everything in sight, no one is really going to care what people are saying.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

[Review] The Double

Richard Ayoade had a great directorial debut with 2011's quirky dramedy, Submarine. His new film, The Double is a bleaker and moodier follow-up, and overall, it's much less endearing. While Submarine found Ayoade channeling Wes Anderson, The Double employs shades of David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, and sometimes Alfred Hitchcock. Those are all formidable influences, and the film is visually interesting, but the middling narrative content often carries a dreamlike incoherency that is too repetitive and drab to fully engage.

Jesse Eisenberg gives two solid performances in this story about a guy who meets his twin of opposite personality. Simon is the first one we're introduced to. He's reserved, geeky, and he has a crush on a co-worker named Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). Eventually, Simon's brash counterpart, James, enters and shakes things up. Unlike this year's other double drama, Enemy, the dopplegangers are buds at first, sort of joining forces--hanging out like two bros in a surreal dystopian world. But conflict arises when their buddyship is spoiled by sneaky motives.

The film is highly stylized, almost feeling like parody of modern arthouse (but it's serious). The glitchy soundtrack and active doom-zoom camera molds with the flickery, low-key lighting and sepia tones, lingering on strange machinery and dour sets. It's loaded with abrupt edits and in-your-face idiosyncrasies--Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis makes two random two-second cameos. The Double drowns itself in all of this, and there isn't enough strong story to keep it alive. It's a prime example that not all experimenting is good experimenting.

One of the redeeming factors is the deadpan exchanges between Simon and James. But otherwise, The Double is deep in snoozy, check-your-watch territory.


Monday, May 19, 2014

[Review] Blue Ruin

Blue Ruin is a grizzly revenge thriller, directed by newcomer Jeremy Saulnier (who also is writer and cinematographer). With a stripped down story and minimal dialogue, Blue Ruin has a tense focal point. It's less elaborate and twisty, and more straightforward and "Wow, so that just happened..."

The central character is a bug-eyed, bearded vagrant named Dwight (Macon Blair). He looks similar to how Tom Hanks looked during the later days of Castaway. He finds out that a certain murderer is being released from prison, and Dwight plans to kill the guy. The first act is fairly vague, but then the story is revealed in increments, and ultimately, Dwight gets involved in a continuous family feud of bloody violence and vengeance. Although it isn't as good as FX's new series "Fargo", fans of that series will want to check this one out at some point.

Even though Blue Ruin somewhat subverts a couple of tropes, the film doesn't fully offer up anything remarkably new within this genre either, and it pales in comparison to some of its forebearers. The story has a few mundane low points that are probably meant to act as calms before storms, but sometimes it still feels like it's running on empty.

However... the thing it really has going for it is the cinematography. Blue Ruin is grim, and the director doesn't shy away from close-ups on physically painful moments, but it's also surprising how appealingly exuberant the film is, visually. Every shot has a scrupulously detailed composition, accenting contours and lighting. There are a handful of scenic views of beaches and forest roads (especially near the beginning), and a good portion of the film takes place during sunrise or sunset. At night, the backgrounds glow with carnival lights and fluorescent neon. The shots of clutter and decrepitness appear artful--Dwight's brokedown car, his dilapidated gun that may or may not work. And a deep focus on a shed filled with rusty and pointy garden tools looks like a photo from one of those "I Spy" treasure hunt books where you're supposed to find scattered items. It all had me wondering, how can such a brutal story look so beautiful?


Monday, May 12, 2014

[Review] Neighbors

Neighbors is a film of shocks, and I'm not talking about the peeing sword fights or breast-milking-gone-wrong scenes. That stuff is to be expected in this raunchy, yet vibrant comedy, starring Seth Rogan, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, and Dave Franco. It certainly brings the laughs, and nearly all of the humor lands effectively, no matter the angle. But it's also a thoughtful conjuncture of generational disconnect, fears of growing up, and what it means to straddle those lines of youth and adulthood.

Kelly (Byrne) and Mac (Rogan), are new parents, just settling down in a new home. Early on, they get invited to their friend's get-together and are encouraged to bring the baby along. In a frazzled scramble of getting ready, preparing the baby, and deciding what supplies to bring or not,  they're exhausted before they even step out the door. It's a tellingly clever scene of characterization, and it also sets up their vulnerability for the impending chaos.

That chaos comes in the form of a wild fraternity that moves in nextdoor to them. It's lead by YOLO-enthusiasts and masters of the #TurnUp, Teddy (Efron) and Pete (Franco). Kelly and Mac immediately worry about the noisy environment. They attempt to be cool and get on the good side of the frat while establishing mutual respect--even showing up and letting loose at one of the parties, all so they can tactfully tell the frat to keep things from getting too out-of-hand in the future. That fails, and the situation becomes a bitter rivalry between households.

Seth Rogan is Seth Rogan, essentially occupying a post-Knocked Up world. Rose Byrne is outstanding, often stealing though show while relishing in all of the antics. But the film's big surprise is Zac Efron's performance as a bro-lord who still manages to be completely endearing. He displays adept comic timing, as well as a knack for saying hilarious things with a stone-serious face. And his sort of lookalike, Dave Franco, does a pretty wicked Robert DeNiro impression. Another pleasant surprise is the film's stunning visuals--most pronounced during the neon-y Spring Breakers-esque party sequences. The fresh, experimental cinematography tricks are accompanied with wall-pounding Icona Pop and Kesha songs.

Neighbors is a raucous celebration of the ups and downs amid life's different stages, but it holds onto the idea of embracing change without leaving everything behind. But don't get it twisted, Neighbors is first and foremost a riotous, unfiltered comedy. It doesn't quite reach the heights of its contemporaries like Superbad, or even last year's This Is The End, but what it has in common with those hits is that--no matter how over-the-top things get, the humor serves the cozy undercurrents, and vice-versa. And most of the time, that's the best balance.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

[Review] The Lunchbox

Writer/Director Ritesh Batra delivers this Hindi Film, The Lunchbox, a pen-pal drama in the vein of The Shop Around the Corner and You've got Mail. It's a patiently-building story that's well-told, and it's different enough to fit outside of the romantic comedy genre. It stars newcomer, Nimrat Kaur, and Irrfan Khan (best known to U.S. audiences for the Richard Parker connection between The Amazing Spider-Man and Life of Pi, as well as the police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire).

It starts with Ila (Kaur), an under-appreciated housewife who decides to make an extra spicy meal for her husband at work, in hopes to rekindle their faded relationship. The lunchbox accidentally gets delivered to the wrong person, Sajaan (Khan), an accountant on the verge of retiring. After Ila realizes the lunch went to someone other than her husband, she sends a note in it the following day, and the two begin to secretly communicate through letters.

The Lunchbox is remarkably less schmaltzy than what the premise suggests. It subverts melodrama, and is rather rich with subtle moments. The film refrains from being repetitive, as the two reveal more about their personal lives, and the story unfolds with a bittersweetness that is deeply felt.

The performances are pitch-perfect. Nimrat Kaur exudes an enthusiastic warmth, while Irrfan Khan is stoic and introspective, indicating his emotions through tiny facial expressions. It's a somber tale of two lonely individuals who become each other's muse, interacting in a therapeutic manner and relating their incomplacency. It's also an ode to the power of good food.

The Lunchbox's narrative leads to the question: Do Ila and Sajaan ever meet? Well, you'll just have to see it to find out.


Monday, May 5, 2014

[Review] The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Even though it was a reboot running through the motions, 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man proved to be an entertaining comic book flick with the likeable leads of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Its sequel, The Amazing Spider-man 2 is an amazing step down. The film is slogged by a clunky and bloated narrative, lacking the focused ties of its predecessor. And stylistically, almost everything about it is considerably cheesy, and the action sequences are overly cartoony (and not in the fun way). 

It opens with some more in-depth info about about Peter's (Garfield) parents. Then it transitions to the present amid a chase scene where Spider-Man is being Spider-Man--navigating the NY streets, saving one life at a time while trying not to be late for his graduation. During the chase, he happens upon a full-nerded Jamie Foxx, who later becomes the story's main physical villain, Electro. The film revolves around Spider-Man and his mission to defeat Electro and save the city from the wrath of Harry Osborn, son of Norman Osborn and heir of mega-science company, Oscorp. Harry is played by newcomer Dane DeHaan, who was excellent in last year's The Place Beyond The Pines and Kill Your Darlings, but he doesn't have much solid material to work with here. Some of his emotional deliveries are laughably bad, which can mostly be blamed on the stinky script.

The love story between Peter and Gwen (Stone) is still a center point. But while it was sweet and serviceable in the first film, it becomes annoying and trite in this one. The entire thread is basically a series of repeats of the last couple scenes from the previous movie--breaking up and reuniting several times, but never fully resonating either way--Just "Oh, here we are again! Lol".

It's difficult to find any major redeeming factors in The Amazing Spiderman 2, anywhere. This thing is 140 minutes long, yet it's void of all the high points and charms from what came before it, and somehow it just seems like a giant, empty checklist of setups for the next movie. The film attempts to develop at least three different villains, and all of them end up being super un-interesting. Their antics are even unintentionally hilarious, at times.

This is a typically terrible and cringe-worthy sequel in the utmost sense. Just a big, forgettable blur--maybe even worse than that, because some of the awful moments still stick.