Sunday, June 29, 2014

[Review] Transformers: Age of Extinction

Transformers: Age of Extinction is an excruciating experience at best. An unpleasant clamor. The type of movie that makes you cringe every minute, pull your own hair out, and beg for the end. We're bombarded with CGI overload, melodramatic music (the horns and strings ramp up every time someone walks across a room), vacuous stock dialogue, and misogynistic gags. There's even a level of creepiness between Mark Wahlberg's character and his teenage daughter (Nicola Peltz). And that's all within the first 5 minutes. The trend continues throughout the entire painstaking duration.

Early on, there's a pathetic attempt at pulling a 22 Jump Street during a scene where an old guy is complaining about "Movies these days... Sequels and remakes... A bunch of crap... Special effects, IMAX..." It would be a fairly agreeable piece of commentary, if Michael Bay weren't the prime offender of this, and if a 3-hour turdfest wasn't about occur. Whether it be a hint of awareness, or the idea that he just doesn't care what people think about the superficial bombast, this still doesn't make it any less awful.

When we meet Wahlberg's character, his thick Boston accent seems out of place among the cornfields on his Texas farm. I'm definitely not suggesting that people don't transplant, but in this instance it just comes off as Wahlberg showing up to yell lines thrown at him, stare blankly at CGI effects, and roll around for a paycheck. "I don't think it's a truck at all." The awkwardness of the performance rivals his infamously hilarious display in The Happening.

There's one semi-impressive sequence that involves an exhilarating chase, after a Black Ops investigation of Wahlberg's farm leads to the bot breakout. But it'd be better if Wahlberg's obnoxious friend wasn't there, and if it didn't eventually devolve into explosions and ridiculous physics. And this isn't the amusing variety of over-the-top stunts; it's the eye-rolling kind.

Going forward, the film is a gigantic blurry chain of clanky action scenes and convoluted plot. It's easy to forget what's actually happening on screen and who is trying to do what. Whenever there's a hole, a reach, or a dead end, a big explosion wipes everything away, and next thing you know, they're in Hong Kong doing stuff. 

The film contains a running theme about the robots having a disdain for humans. "I'm a slave to no one." "I'm not paid enough for this." Maybe that's the meta point. These transformers are tired of being manipulated and blown up by Michael Bay, time and time again, and they're not getting their proper due.

One can argue that Transformers: Age of Extinction is pure spectacle and that it doesn't need to be judged so harshly. But spectacle shouldn't make you feel like you've just guzzled a gallon of gasoline, saddled up on a mechanical bull, and had a young child swing a metal baseball bat at you for three hours.


Monday, June 23, 2014

[Review] We Are the Best!

"Hate the sport!"

Lukas Moodysson directs this spunky slice of adolescent angst. Set in Stockholm during the early 80's, two 13-year-old girls, Klara (Mira Grosin) and Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) are obsessed with the punk rock lifestyle (complete with rebellious haircuts). They form a band, and they know little more than banging on their instruments and wailing into microphones. But they've got the energy and the passion. Eventually, they recruit a shy, neutral-looking, outwardly Christian girl named Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne). She's pretty much the opposite of Klara and Bobo, and she's really good at guitar.

The film is keenly observant, and thankfully, it develops all three of these characters beyond caricatures or stereotypes. We Are The Best! hinges on the power of tiny details and the illusion of screen naturalism, whether it's the meshing of bonds or sparks of drama that later ensue. Aside from all of its subtleties, it's packed with amusing in-your-face antics, from wild the scenes of the band rehearsing, to Bobo's dedication to her cause--There's the on-the-spot lyrics she makes up during gym class: The world is a morgue, but you're watching Bjorn Borg!. And lines like, "He abandoned punk rock... He listens to Joy Division" when complaining about her older brother.

But the fact that this is a slice, rather than a film with a big story arc, makes it feel more restrained than wanted. The film wanders into a few too many mundane spots, allowing tedium to creep in.
However, there's no denying the joy if its high points. We Are the Best! is refreshing because it never becomes a cynical commentary or a one-way 'anti-' message. At its heart, it's three young people forming an amateur band, and most importantly, a friendship. It's about delving past external labels and their connotations, while still preserving the importance of being whoever you want to be.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

[Review] How to Train Your Dragon 2

Picking up a few years after the last one, How to Train Your Dragon 2 opens in the island of Berk where the Vikings and Dragons are living in harmony, and the village is now dragon-proof (or as much as it's possible to dragon-proof something). Hiccup faces the pressures of becoming the town's new Chief, but he'd rather just roam around with Toothless, his faithful dragon companion. While he's out on an adventure, he happens upon a significant relative who has been gone for 20 years. This unlocks one of the film's many emotional avenues, along with some origin story. And history is on the verge of somewhat repeating itself, because a scary guy named Drago Bludvist is waging war and threatening the peace of not only humans, but dragons as well.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 doesn't quite reach the lofty heights of its predecessor (and those are VERY lofty heights), but it totally renders itself as a remarkably worthwhile sequel, expanding the world and advancing the story in a natural and compelling way, while also retaining a lot of elements that made the first one so fantastic. The visuals are dazzling, and the sky scenes of Hiccup and Toothless cruising through the clouds (accompanied by the gorgeous musical score) are major highlights. The variety of dragons is more vast this time around, and the designs are really creative. I noticed Guillermo del Toro received a shout in the Thank You credits. It doesn't say the exact reason, but the colossal Ice Dragon looks super Guillermo-ish.

Even though there are funny moments, the Dragon series is a bit light on the humor side, and it doesn't attempt to make you laugh every minute. Instead, there's more of a focus on character dynamics, especially Hiccup's relationships and how he develops amidst his surroundings. The story even journeys into some unexpectedly somber places, setting up some poignancy. There's also tons of heart here again. One of the things that gets you attached to this tale is that Toothless possesses the characteristics of a pet dog, and it's more prominent than ever.

With 22 Jump Street and How to Train Your Dragon 2 releasing, it's been a great week for sequels. (There's something I never thought I'd be saying.)


Monday, June 16, 2014

[Review] 22 Jump Street

Thankfully, this comedy sequel is no Hangover II. The first Hangover film was a gigantic hit, but did anyone ever really think, "I want to see another one of these"? That unnecessary vibe isn't the case with the Jump Street series, as the freshness of the first film proved there's tons of fun to be had with this formula, especially considering Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum's wonderfully goony chemistry. Phil Lord and Chris Miller were the masterminds behind the surprisingly great 21 Jump Street, and they're also coming fresh off the surprisingly great LEGO Movie. And with 22 Jump Street, they prove their comedy filmmaking success is no longer a surprise, even though they still manage to surprise. Did that make sense?

22 Jump Street essentially has the same setup as the first installment--Ice Cube commands the brotagonists Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) to take down a mysterious drug supplier, but this time they're infiltrating a college instead of a high school. The film pokes fun at the repeat premise during an opening scene featuring Deputy Nick Offerman, in which the briefing of the mission doubles as a meta-commentary on sequel expectations and their new-found large budget. This continues to be a clever thread throughout the entire duration, and it's handled just right.

Everything is just as entertaining as the predecessor, but it's bigger and even more ridiculous. The college stereotypes are heavily played into, and the script hilariously attempts to reconcile with the PC police on several different occasions. Schmidt and Jenko's relationship becomes deeper as their gravitational bromance intensifies, reaching beyond the brolar system. 22 Jump Street delivers jocular bit after jocular bit, as well as running gags that aren't annoying, and stocks of funny quadruple-liners. Some of the most hysterical moments are too spoilerish to mention, but they induce the type of laughter that makes your stomach hurt in the best way.

Who knows if 22 Jump Street is indeed the last stop, or if there will be a 23 Jump Street? Apparently, there are rumors that Phil Lord and Chris Miller are working on Alvin in the Chipmunks 4, which doesn't sound very appealing, but these two would be the ones to make it surprisingly awesome.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

[Review] Chinese Puzzle

Chinese Puzzle is a mostly accurate title for this French farce, written and directed by Cedric Klapisch. The story is complicated, and there are a lot of small pieces, but none of it ever really fits together snugly.

Xavier (Romain Duris) is a recently divorced novelist living in Paris. His ex-wife, Wendy (Kelly Reilly), moves to New York with their kids, and Xavier follows shortly after. What happens next is a bizarre scattershot of events and loose subplots. Much like the main character, the film meanders, and that doesn't bode too well. After a while, it's easy to wonder, "Where the heck is this all going?"

Audrey Tautou shows up about halfway through the film and injects some charm, but her great presence ends up being under-utilized. And aside from a few bits of poetic insight, Xavier's constant voiceover is mostly unnecessary.

It isn't exactly an excruciating watch though, because the cast is solid, and there are a number of pleasantries, but there just really isn't much to grasp onto. Julie Delpy told a similar story in 2012's charming 2 Days in New York, which worked better on all parts.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

[Review] The Fault in Our Stars

Based on John Green's popular YA novel (which I haven't read), The Fault in Our Stars revolves around two people finding love during tragic circumstances and deteriorating time. While the film is inherently sad, it doesn't quite deserve to be labeled a tragedy either, because it strives to be a bittersweet affirmation of life, and a positive observance that these two individuals came to know each other in the first place. Fitting somewhere on the spectrum between The Bucket List and 50/50, its approach to pain and death goes beyond simple inspirational posters. 

Hazel (Shailene Woodley) is terminally ill with thyroid and lung cancer. Being diagnosed at young age, her day-to-day struggles are established early on, making it clear that she's living a completely different life than the average 16-year-old. At a support group she meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort), who recently had his leg amputated due to cancer, and he's now in remission.

After trading their favorite novels, they both are fascinated by a book called "An Imperial Affliction", which apparently has an abrupt and ambiguous ending. They want the answers badly. This involves a "Make A Wish" trip to Amsterdam in order to meet the reclusive author. It's a vacation that proves to be both wonderful and disappointing.

I haven't seen Divergent, but I've yet to witness a Shailene Woodley performance that wasn't less than stellar (see: The Descendants and The Spectacular Now). Ansel Elgort solidly coasts for a while, almost seeming like a more enthusiastic extension of his character in the recent Carrie remake. However, once he's able to shed the prince charming caricature, he demonstrates some serious abilities.

Despite a couple of questionable scenes, The Fault in Our Stars is mostly successful, and it's a great exploration of romance that isn't all sunshine and rainbows. Adapted for the screen by the same writers of (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now, there are nice amounts of humor and honesty, as well as heartbreaking turning points and genuinely moving moments. The film earns its glossy direction, and M83's "Wait" is a nice touch too.


Monday, June 9, 2014

[Review] Edge of Tomorrow

William Cage (Tom Cruise) awakens at an army base and is forced into immediate warfare, and he has no idea what he's doing. Like a fish out of water, he practically soils his heavy duty combat suit. During a battle on a beach against robotic, alien-like creatures called Mimics, William gets his head blown off, only to wake up right back where he first started.

That's the time concept twist in Edge of Tomorrow. It's as if William is stuck in a perpetual state of a choose your own adventure video game. Along the way he meets a woman named Rita (multiple times), played by Emily Blunt, and he learns that she used to have the same experiences. The two join forces as Rita trains him until they can finally get things right.

The time device is clever and effective enough to avoid falling into eye-rolling redundancy. The catch is that William is still able to remember the events that happen before he dies. Therefore, he discovers something new each go-around, makes different decisions, and sometimes advances further. The repetition actually creates some surprising humor, whether it's particular lines of repeating dialogue, everyone around him thinking he's crazy, or the certain moments when he dies even quicker than the previous mission--embracing the "Dammit, here we go again" sentiment.

The story eventually settles into a groove, and builds to run-of-the-mill sci-fi action. The film isn't as stylish and thought-provoking as contemporaries like Looper, but it is more fun than Source Code. Edge of Tomorrow is an entertaining popcorn flick that surpasses it's on-paper qualities, but after seeing it once, you probably won't be compelled to watch it over and over again.


Thursday, June 5, 2014

[Review] Obvious Child

 "We're trying to figure out... everything."

First-time Writer/Director Gillian Robespierre brings on Obvious Child, a wonderfully fresh and subversive romantic comedy, starring an uproarious Jenny Slate.

Donna is an amateur comedian (a hilarious one). She's immensely self-aware, self-deprecating, and remarkably candid about the personal details in her life, from the traits of her vagina to her bouts with diarrhea and untamed farts. She also just got dumped by her jerk boyfriend, she lost her real job, oh and she's just gotten pregnant from a drunken one night stand with an unassuming prep from a small town in Vermont. His name's Max (Jake Lacy).

Donna immediately schedules an abortion. And she's convinced she'll never see Max again, and she's okay with it. But then, Max keeps randomly popping up wherever Donna is, and his character actually becomes endearing, "I'm not stalking you, I promise." He turns out to be the nicest guy Donna's ever met, and the story revolves around Donna continuing a relationship with him while keeping the secret. The film makes it clear that there will be no re-considerations. Along the way Donna seeks advice on how to handle the situation from her friends ("He's like super Christian," she frets.), as well as her uptight and controlling college professor mother, who demonstrates a superb turn later on.

Jenny Slate shines with comic prowess in every scene. Seriously, she's actually in every single scene. But she also displays great emotional range during some of the film's poignant moments. Robespierre's script is lively, unfiltered, and efficient--bringing laugh after laugh, and piling on squirmy conflicts in a brisk 80-minute runtime. "I'm the queen of awks," Donna claims.

If you're in need of a comedy that is both daring and heartfelt, Obvious Child is the obvious choice.


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

[Review] Maleficent

As a revisionist piece, Maleficent explores the backstory of Sleeping Beauty's infamous villain, adding some welcomed dimension to the character. However, the overall presentation ends up being less fresh than what the premise suggests, and it isn't nearly as wickedly intriguing as what the trailers display.

The towering, awesomely horned central focus (aka "The strongest fairy of them all") is played solidly by Angelina Jolie. She possesses a majestic, commanding presence in this role, even though the screenplay calls for a few too many blood-curdling screams that come off as unintentionally funny. And unfortunately, she's surrounded by weak subplots that are filled with generic characters.

The film has a cringe-y campy aura about it. Opening scenes display some imaginative creature designs that are fun to look at, but after a while, the CGI overload kicks in, and the problem is that it's more cartoony than innovative. The enchanting score, at first, is a nice touch and expected element from this Disney film, but there are so many moments when the cues become overbearing.

Maleficent is a noble effort on the main character front, and it twists some tropes, but the execution disappointingly falls into bad, forgettable fantasy territory.


Monday, June 2, 2014

[Review] A Million Ways to Die in the West

Seth MacFarlane's Ted was insanely dumb, but it did have a number of uproarious moments and goofy setpieces. A Million Ways to Die in the West is in the same vein, but it's less entertaining, and the bad joke/good joke ratio is troubling. It's about what you'd expect if you've seen a later episode of Family Guy.

Albert (MacFarlane) is a misfit sheepherder, and he hates everything about the (Old) West. Everyone dies so easily. Aside from all the dying, a few other incidents occur early on. He gets dumped by his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfield), who shortly after gets picked up by a pretentious guy played by Neil Patrick Harris, Anna (Charlize Theron) becomes Seth's new love interest, and Liam Neeson rides into town with his gang to rile things up. It all feels aimless and stagnant for way too long, and it barely picks up.

Some bits work, some have parts that work, and some fail to land. Unfortunately, it's the latter that is most frequent and pronounced. A few scenes don't even seem to do anything, which becomes especially grating considering the two-hour runtime. What amounts is a hodgepodge of misfires with some decent sketch material in between. A lot of the humor is too flat, absurdly crude, or just too on-the-nose to be funny. The fart jokes actually redeem the film, but let's face it, fart jokes usually are funny--no matter the setting. This, along with the small shreds of clever parody, are just enough to keep A Million Ways to Die in the West from being a Razzie Award contender.