Thursday, July 31, 2014

[Review] Wish I Was Here

10 years later, Zach Braff follows up his directorial debut, Garden State, with another dramedy called Wish I Was Here. It's uneven in its terrain, but the wonderful moments outweigh the bad ones. The film has a rocky beginning that might induce a few cringes, but it gradually delivers some powerful upswings and eventually rises to greatness.

Aidan (Braff) is a struggling actor and he's kind of an unlikable jerk at first. His supportive wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) provides for the family. Their daughter and son go to a private Hebrew school, which one loves it and the other hates. When Aidan learns that his father (Mandy Patinkin) is dying of cancer, he leaps into some soul-searching and takes the path to make amends. The narrative meanders quite a bit, but not nearly as much as, say, last year's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It's also a lot more grounded.

One of the film's finest traits is the gorgeous cinematography, capturing a mix of sunny California scenery, along with some whimsy imagery (purple wigs, goggles, floating contact lenses, fish bowl astronaut helmets...). And while the script is wildly hit-and-miss, the solid scenes, as well as the funny and smart lines of dialogue, outnumber the ones that come up limp or sleazy. The backbone of the story deals with dreams, self-discovery, and familial dynamics in the face of death. It all leads to a genuinely heartfelt conclusion (the woman in the theater sitting in front of me was a blubbering mess at the end).

The script also does a nice job in developing each of the characters beyond stock supporters, and the performances are fantastic. Joey King as Aidan's daughter is a standout (just as she was in the first season of the Fargo TV series). Braff cruises, but gets better and rangier as it goes along. Mandy Patinkin is stoic yet emotional with small facial expressions, spending most of his time looking up from a hospital bed. And Kate Hudson gives her best performance in God knows how many years.

Wish I Was Here is one to stick with. Despite its flaws, and the fact that sometimes it just feels like a revamped Garden State, it's an ultimately rewarding journey.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

[Review] Cold in July

Cold in July, a Texas neo-noir set in the 80s, is drenched in seedy atmosphere and crap-stained colors. It's filled with pulpy direction by Jim Mickle, and some solid performances from Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson.

Within the first few seconds, Richard (Hall, or Dexter with a mustache and a mullet), and his wife, Anne (Vinessa Shaw), awake in the middle of the night and suspect a house intruder. Richard loads up a revolver and nervously blows the criminal's brains out in the dark. The next day, Richard is praised as hero, but he's not proud, and he realizes this event is going to stick with him in more ways than one. Paranoia and sleepless nights abound, especially when the father of the deceased man (played intimidatingly by Sam Shepard), indirectly threatens Richard's son. What follows is a bizarre web of crime, unpredictable twists, and heat-of-the-moment character studies.

The ugliness of the film is artfully shot, sometimes with horror-esque lighting. Along with the brooding visuals, the music has a significant impact on the mood. Richard and Anne scrub blood off of their mantle clock while soul song "Forgetting You" by James Carr loudly plays. It's a scene that might make Scorsese's eyebrows raise in excitement. Single, eerie piano keys raise tension as the camera slowly moves around corners, and the synth-driven music recalls the flair of 2011's Drive.

An introduction of a detective character named Jim Bob (Don Johnson) simultaneously helps and hurts the film. It helps because the guy is frickin' awesome and quite possibly the most interesting person in the story. It also allows some cartoony black comedy sneak in, but it almost entirely changes the direction and tone of the film, which would be fine if all of the initial tension and conflict weren't sucked out. Even some of the story's early setups and mysteries are left behind, and the narrative turns into a waiting game during a large portion of the midsection. It's a turn that's clumsily handled, but fortunately it all ends with one hell of a showdown. Seriously.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

[Review] The Purge: Anarchy

Here's the sequel to last year's intriguing but ultimately awful The Purge--the one night out of the year when crime is legal, and one of many days when it's okay to release a horrible movie. The Purge: Anarchy hits the screen like an "Okay, let's try this again" effort, but the good news is that it's better than the last time. The bad news is that it's still not very good.

This go-around, instead of focusing on one family barricading themselves inside their home, the story has perspective from three different groups, and these poor souls are left outside amidst the mayhem and legal slaughter. When the sun goes down and the streetlights turn on, all hell breaks loose, and our protagonists are scared out of their minds, except for the guy that actually chooses to go out on the prowl. Eventually the parties cross paths, and they do their best to survive together and attempt to avoid more masked Odd Future-aged kids, and a Bazooka Bus full of meatheads.

It's as violent as you'd expect, and it moves at lightning pace. But it isn't quite bold or unique enough to be embraced as a cult spectacular. It isn't quite tense or dreadful enough to get your heart racing, make you sit at the edge of your seat, and give a crap about these characters' well-being. And it isn't sly enough to espouse its vague undercurrents of social commentary. The thing is, the film doesn't amount to much more than an extended piece of shootout tropes that we see in every other mediocre action flick--it's just that there's a gimmick premise behind it. The Purge: Anarchy isn't a total waste, though. There are some fun sequences, twists, and an awesome turn by Michael K. Williams.

Still, a tradition like this shouldn't be so forgettable. Maybe next time they'll get it right. Or not.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

[Review] Boyhood

"It's constant, the moments, it's just... it's like it's always right now."

Filmed over the course 12 years, Richard Linklater's Boyhood follows the path of a boy from age 6 to 18, along with his family. We watch them age and change before our eyes. There's no denying that it's an astonishing feat in filmmaking. The passage of time transitions are impressively seamless. No blatant "2 years later" stamps. Everything progresses naturally, and it's really a sight to witness on screen. The date settings are cued by music, movies, books, video games, technology devices and news events relevant to the period. This helps frame the perspective, and it brings some resonant nostalgia where you might find yourself thinking, "I remember that... I can relate to that..."

At the beginning we're introduced to Mason (Ellar Coltrane), just as he's entering grade school. We also meet his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), who's in the film almost as often as Mason. Their Mom (Patricia Arquette) is a struggling single parent, and their estranged Dad (Ethan Hawke) is just now re-entering the children's lives. It's anchored from Mason's viewpoint, so we see his ups, downs, and firsts of growing up--it's almost like a subtle checklist of the different things that define a person at a certain age. The film doesn't subvert away from displaying the usual parts of coming-of-age tales and life's generalities--whether it's an encounter with a bully, moving to a different house, a first crush, trying alcohol for the first time.

Mason himself isn't really that fascinating of a character. He's more of an average portrait. All of his surroundings, mainly his sister, mom, and dad have a lot more spunk and personality to them, but Mason's bottledness still makes the character feel authentic. He very much mirrors the film, as it mostly consists of the small and mundane details--nothing is really glorified or highlighted. He actually ends up being a tad boring during his high school years, and the film's pacing begins to falter along with him as it approaches its nearly 3-hour runtime, rendering the first half way more interesting. Even though there are points of drag, a welcomed constant is the excellent dialogue throughout the entire film, much like Linklater's Before trilogy, the words always flows organically, while also carrying some subtext and insightful observations or questions.

And thankfully, the film presents itself as more than just a sprawling technical achievement of watching a boy grow up. It's also an exploration of the modern and nontraditional family. Early on, Mason and Samantha bounce back and forth between their separated, contrasting parents. As time goes on, their mom gets married to a new gentleman who has kids of his own, and a blended family forms. But the guy isn't so gentle, and he turns out to be an abusive alcoholic, which creates some major conflict for everyone. What does Mason's mom have to do to get out of the situation? How do the kids from both sides deal with this, and what happens when the pieces have to break away? This is when the film is at it's strongest and most compelling--when it's Boyhood, it's Girlhood, it's Brotherhood, it's Sisterhood, it's Motherhood, and it's Fatherhood. Boyhood unfortunately loses some of this in its weaker later half. But at least the ending feels right, as it really isn't an ending--but a new beginning.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

[Review] A Brony Tale (Documentary)

"We might be insane but we're not criminally insane."

In case you aren't familiar, a 'Brony' is generally a male anywhere from age 14 to 57 who is a fanatic of the cartoon series "My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic". They religiously watch the show, they buy the toys, and they even dress up as the pony characters sometimes. Yes, this really exists, and it's a considerably rampant phenomenon and a perplexing subculture to us outsiders. A Brony Tale takes an affectionate and surprisingly insightful look into this fringe craze. It might just change any preconceived notions you had about the people that participate... scratch that... not just participate--but actually live this way.

Directed by Brent Hodge, this documentary is framed from the perspective of Ashleigh Ball, a voice artist of two characters on the "My Little Pony" show. She and the director set out across the country in search of Bronies, and it all culminates at a huge festival called Bronycon. Along the way, there are interviews from various members of the Brony community, including the "manliest Brony of them all..." He's a 40-year old welder by day, bodyguard by night, and full-time Brony. The interviews supply plenty of interesting tidbits about Brony culture, and the film traces back the origins of Bronies to the 4chan internet forums. The doc provides a number of Brony statistics, and even delves into the sociology and psychology of what it means to be a Brony.

The Bronies claim that "My Little Pony" is a testament of happiness, harmony, positivity, and friendship, and the Bronies embrace these morals in every day life. They refute any accusations of pedophilia or manchild weirdness. And they're crusaders in breaking the boundaries of gender norms and simply being whatever makes you happy. Some go as far as to say that Brony-ing is a direct reaction to the violence and hostility around the world.

A Brony Tale is a thoroughly fascinating and eye-opening documentary, and the presentation heavily stands alongside the Bronies. Even after seeing it though, it's definitely still understandable to think that these people are strange and it's easy to be skeptical about this culture, but it's hard to argue with the positivity they embrace, especially if they apparently aren't doing anything wrong. That said, I personally won't be dressing up in Pony costumes anytime soon.
*goes to watch the first episode*

Recommended Doc

Monday, July 21, 2014

[Review] Hellion

Written and Directed by Kat Candler, Hellion is a forbidding tale of family woes set deep in the dusty pits of Southeast Texas.

13-year-old Jacob (Josh Wiggins) is a thrash metal t-shirt wearing, dirtbiking, vandalizing, troublemaker. He lives with his younger brother Wes and their hard-living father Hollis, played by a heavily bearded Aaron Paul, who you might know from a little TV show called "Breaking Bad". The three are mourning the recent death of the mother and wife of the family. Hollis takes off for a while, leaving the two boys alone, and things don't go very well. A visit from social services splits up the family--Hollis is allowed to retain custody of Jacob (under strict court guidelines), while Wes goes and lives with their cool and compassionate aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis).

The result is a slow burner of complicated family matters, teenage angst, grief, pain, and flashing red and blue lights. It launches into grim territory when a gun ends up in the wrong hands, setting off the narrative into full-on tragedy. The characters comprise a group of very flawed individuals that we feel for due to their heavy hearts, and we wish against their unfortunate decisions. The film envelops hints of last year's enthralling The Place Beyond The Pines, but it's on a much smaller scale.

Amidst the handheld camera movements, lens flares, and washed out colors, the stellar performances emerge above everything. Newcomer Josh Wiggins gives a solid debut--best when conveying his thoughts in a distressed stare. Aaron Paul continues to impress, delivering a tightly focused turn, almost like a mature version of Jesse Pinkman. Juliette Lewis is only in a small amount of scenes, but she's great in all of them, especially during the times of aunt/nephew bonding. Even though there are instances early on in the story when the script seems like it's stalling, these fine performances keep us invested. And even though the film feels a bit middle-of-pack in comparison to other entries of this genre, it still packs its powerful moments.

Hellion is the type of film where almost everything that can go wrong... does. It's a harsh coming of age trial--a not so feel-good story.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

[Review] Begin Again

John Carney's second music-driven dramedy Begin Again doesn't even come close to the outstanding film that was Once, but we can't really expect it to either. However, Begin Again is still quite enjoyable, thanks to the solid leads, Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightly, as well as its agreeable premise and indie spirit.

Aptly named Dan Mulligan (Ruffalo [Sidenote: I'm just going to refer to him as Ruffalo in this review, 'cause this is a very Ruffalo character]) is a messy deadbeat that finally gets fired by Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) from his job as a record-label exec. That same day, he gets trashed at a bar and stumbles (literally) upon Gretta (Knightley), a shy singer-songwriter and fish-out-of-water in NYC. Ruffalo is enamored with the song she sings on stage (it isn't really a game-changer song to go crazy over, but the liquor might have had an effect). Anyway, he wants to sign her, but she's cynical about the music biz and understandably reluctant. Not to mention, Ruffalo doesn't even HAVE a label anymore.

An overlong subplot between Gretta and her pompous, newly famous, soon to be ex-boyfriend (played fittingly by Adam Levine), threatens to the throw the film off from its early humble and charming beginnings. But thankfully, things pick up and settle into a groove when Ruffalo takes Gretta to his former label and tries to land a deal. Mos Def isn't feeling it though, so Ruffalo and Gretta decide to make the album themselves. Not only that, but Ruffalo comes up with the cool idea to record the entire thing live outside, with each song taking place in a different area around the city.

The scenes of the outdoor recordings are irresistible, especially when Ruffalo gathers a mixture of street musicians, music students, and even his own estranged daughter to fill out the sound. And though Begin Again is bigger and glossier than Once, there's still a combination of great, small moments that keep this thing from being a loser. The film is also refreshing because even with all the moonlit nights and sharing of headphones around town together, Ruffalo and Gretta never fully crossover into predictable romantic territory.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

[Review] Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes opens up about a decade after where Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes left off. The population has been mostly overtaken by the simian flu epidemic, and the cityscapes are barren wastelands, almost "Walking Dead"-like. The stoic, center chimp, Caesar (played awesomely by Andy Serkis) leads a group of apes that reside in a cliffside town outside of San Francisco's wreckage. There's a lengthy, gorgeous sequence of the apes carrying on with every day life, as they gather food and communicate by sign language. This also introduces the main supporting apes: Caesar's son, Blue Eyes... the resentful and human-hating, Koba (Toby Kebbell)... and the long face of wisdom, Maurice. The film spends a lot more time developing the dimensions of the apes, rather than the humans. And that's probably for the best, because the apes deserve to be the stars this time around.

Major conflict sparks when a couple of the apes encounter a group of (human) explorers, and an act of violence propels implications of war. Malcom (Jason Clarke) does his best to act as mediator between the opposing sides, and Caesar's past memories of human Franco prevent him from hastily leaping into combat. It turns out Malcom wants to reboot a hydroelectric dam that's located on the ape territory, in order to restore power in San Francisco. Caesar eventually agrees to help him, and the groups work to establish trust between each other. However, internal conflicts on both sides render the harmony elusive.

In a different progression from Rise, instead of making you root for one side, Dawn tactfully emphasizes the good and bad pieces of each, which raises some moral complexities, along with the message that you can't let a single individual define an entire whole. But even the bad pieces are much more grey than clear-cut here. The template has the makings of a Greek tragedy, but with sci-fi grandeur, gun-toting apes on horseback, and less poetic language.

The narrative is constructed with emotional resonance and themes of family, friendship, and the difficult quest for coexistence. There are plenty of heart-tugging moments - in the form of cute baby Caesars, poignant story shocks, and an affecting nostalgia that calls back to the early brighter moments of Rise. In turn, the action sequences pack an oomph because of the motives driving them, our investments in the characters (on each side), and the intense stakes behind it all. The arrangements are visually stellar, furiously choreographed, and enhanced by some magnificent framing and technical camerawork--A stunning rotating shot from a tank, a long take of Malcom navigating a dilapitated building amid chaos... The battles leave you with a memorable impression - an "I haven't seen it quite like this before" feeling. The top-notch digital effects and steady uprise of pace are also crucial to the overall experience.

Add Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes to the list of great, big spring/summer sequels (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, 22 Jump Street, and How To Train Your Dragon 2). We'll leave Transformers out of that conversation.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

[Review] They Came Together

Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler star in this romantic comedy parody. The supporting cast is full of familiar faces: Ed Helms, Bill Hader, Melanie Lynskey, Kenan Thompson, and Michael Ian Black. I'll keep the cameos a secret.

Opening up during a double-date, Joel (Rudd) and Molly (Poehler) are asked how they originally met. Then, the flashback begins...

They Came Together straight up mocks all the cliches/scenes/montages that have flooded romantic comedies over the years. But it's not in a cynical way; it's more of a fun and loving way. There's an obligatory outdoor basketball court scene where Joel and his buds converse about relationships. Some bits of the talk: "Don't ask 'Mr. Chronically Single 'cause he's dating some hot chick guy'". And, "Okay 'Mr. has to go home early 'cause he can't hang with the boys 'cause he's gotta spend time with his wife guy'". Then there's the *out in the cold / splashed by Taxi mud / sit at a bar alone* montages... the coffee shop conversations... Even Norah Jones is on the soundtrack. Seriously, it tackles all of them. If I mentioned the rest, I'd be reciting the entire movie.

The exaggeration of the tropes is chuckle-worthy most of the time, and the well-verseness in rom-coms is impressive. However, the schtick gets old after a while, and the film amounts to little more than a rom-com with self-aware commentators. 

They Came Together just kind of comes and goes, but there are worse DVD/VOD choices you could make on a date night.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

[Review] Deliver Us From Evil

Deliver Us From Evil is a strange one. It starts like a police drama, as Ralph (Eric Bana) and his oddly cast partner Joel McHale prowl the South Bronx streets. For a moment, you wouldn't mind if this was an End of Watch situation, but then you remember you came for the supernatural scares. Deliver Us doesn't actually feel like a horror film until a creepy night-vision sequence in a zoo brings about some jumps. It's pretty much the only fresh thing about this film, and I'm not just referring to the various shots of rotting corpses.

In that zoo scene, we get a brief glimpse at a mysterious figure of what looks like a hooded juggalo. Turns out, this suspect belongs to a connected group of "possessed" individuals that are responsible for multiple disturbing crimes throughout the city. Of course, Ralph remains a skeptic--that is, until he teams with a hard-edged priest (Edgar Ramirez). The two make an interesting duo.

The film does deliver a shadow-drenched atmosphere, and the usual jolt scares land successfully (as they should). But the closest it comes to capturing the frightening dread of Sinister, is when the demons begin to invade Ralph's daughter's bedroom. Oh that's right, Ralph has a daughter, and a wife (Olivia Munn) who's expecting, but they don't really have much to do, and Ralph is never home anyway. Otherwise, the film pumps out tons of grotesque and harsh imagery, to put it lightly. It's clear that these demonic people aren't just on bath salts, and they pack enough nasty bites to make Luis Suarez jealous.

A cop thriller and a possession tale might be somewhat of a new blend, but when you take the tropes of each one and combine them, the result is still a sloppy mixture of mediocrity. Deliver Us brings little more than a patchwork of seen-it-all-before scenes. A cop doing his duty, an exorcism running through the motions. 


Monday, July 7, 2014

[Review] Snowpiercer

Joon-ho Bong's first English-language film, Snowpiercer, is set in a dystopian world on a perpetual train called the Rattling Ark. This piece of machinery holds the last of the human race, and it's divided into classes. Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, and Song Kang-ho form the group of protagonists. They're from the back of the train (the poor area), and they're plotting to overthrow the establishment. Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris lead the upper class at the front.

Snowpiercer is an eclectic genre mix, drawing from sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, martial arts, and low fantasy. It's part tonally depressing political allegory, as well as absurdist satire that goes for smirks. The film also revels in the display of artier-side visuals, but it has the high octane action, scope, and accessibility of a blockbuster (for the most part). This clash of elements run together impressively well on all gears.

The action setpieces pummel by with exhilaration. There's an all out brawl in the dark with axes and lit torches. The views from the train whipping through the decrepit, ice-covered world are magnificently surreal. And the jarring contrasts between the train's back and front aesthetics make it seem like you're watching two different films.

Unfortunately, Snowpiercer loses a bit of steam at the end. I'm not implying that it doesn't go out with a bang, but the climax feels a litte shakey and it isn't as fascinating as everything that leads to it. With that said, there's no denying that we could use more hybrids like this.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

[Review] Locke

One man. One car. Multiple crises.

Essentially, the entirety of Locke takes place inside of a car cruising on the freeway. The driver of this vehicle is Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy). Flashing lights fill the night spaces on the inside and outside, and reflections emerge on every piece of glass. The camera displays multiple angles, but most of the time it's a view through the front windshield.

From the get-go, Ivan speaks on the phone via Bluetooth, on-and-off with a small bundle of people. We gradually learn that he has a couple of problems on his hands. He's on his way to the hospital where a woman who he had a one night stand with is going into labor--with complications. He's in the midst of explaining the situation to his wife and sons. And to top it off, his latest construction project is unraveling at the site.

This film definitely is a Tom Hardy showcase, and it's the main factor that keeps this thing from turning into a drifter. It's an intense yet restrained performance--a brilliant depiction of someone attempting to remain calm in heated moments. Swallowed frustrations. There are no steering wheel poundings. In fact, he barely even raises his voice. The strength is in the nuances and dedicated focus.

Given that Locke is such a contained film, it does take some patience. This isn't thriller. It's a character study in a car--a depressing and enveloping portrait of a person's life crumbling during the course of a single, 80-minute car drive (the duration is in real time). The ending feels fitting, but it isn't fully satisfying either.

Is Ivan stuck or is he moving? Probably both. Is Locke stuck or is it moving? Probably both.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

[Review] Happy Christmas

Jeff (Joe Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) are a thirty-something couple with a newborn baby, and they're preparing for Jeff's sister, Jenny (Anna Kendrick) to come visit around Christmas time. When Jenny arrives, it's quickly apparent that she's a bit irresponsible in her antics, and her behavior threatens to cause conflict within the household. The film is so low-key that it's actually a lot less chaotic than what the premise suggests.

Much in the spirit of mumblecore, the focus is less on plot, and more on human nature, relationships, off-beat interactions, and pondering conversations. The low-budget, handheld camera approach makes the film look just a few steps above home movies. Since Happy Christmas is more of an observational glance at someone's life, it's minor to a fault, and about midway through, it feels like not much has happened. Swanberg's previous feature Drinking Buddies suffered from the same troubles.

Lena Dunham's supporting appearance as Jenny's friend, is a highlight--delivering some much needed comedy, vigor, and an endearing presence within this setting. And the film's runtime is a brief 75 minutes, so it never quite gets sloggy.

Swanberg is pretty good at these observational slices, and the characters are well drawn, but too often this style is frustratingly confining, and it could use a breakthrough--or at least a little more spice.