Friday, October 31, 2014

[Review] The Book of Life

Director Jorge R. Gutierrez and producer Guillermo Del Toro present The Book of Life, a Dia de los Muertos (Day of The Dead) celebration themed animated feature. It's a visual treat with a sort of basic story, but it still manages to impress.

'The Book of Life' is essentially a book of stories, involving various realms and rulers, including the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten. This story revolves around Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna), a hopeless romantic, as he competes with a braggadocious bonehead named Joaquin (Channing Tatum), in order to win the heart of Maria (Zoe Saldana), a local strong-willed dream girl.

Things take a significantly more interesting turn at the midpoint when Manolo is forced to journey into the Land of the Remembered, as well as the Land of the Forgotten. The story finally gains some leverage and the visuals ramp up with glowing lights and kinetic energy, almost like the Nightmare Before Christmas with a Mexican culture aesthetic and an infinitely more vibrant color palette. It also introduces a new godlike entity (played by Ice Cube) who injects some lively comedy into the otherwise flat (but not off-putting) humor.

Along with its eye-popping settings, and the awesomely ornate and elaborately decorated character designs, the film flaunts a wondrous horn-driven score, giving the experience an exuberant grandness. There are a number of musical interludes of Manolo plucking away on his acoustic guitar, doing renditions of popular songs from Radiohead's "Creep" to Elvis' "Can't Help Falling In Love". The story delves into themes about dealing with death and the loss of loved ones, as well as bucking family expectations and being yourself. It even somewhat subverts some of the patriarchal trappings the premise initially suggests. And there's a nice and meaningful climax about heroism and selflessness.

The Book of Life ranks a bit below some of the stronger animated films of 2014 like How To Train Your Dragon 2 and The Lego Movie, but it still has enough spice and festivities to render it great in its own realm.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

[Review] V/H/S: Viral

The V/H/S anthology series has taken found footage horror to some intriguing levels. The first installment was a hit-and-miss outing that showed some potential. The second one polished things up with more developed stories and peaked at the well-crafted "Safe Haven" chapter, an awesomely creepy and chaotic long-short about a crew of documentarians that investigate a disturbing cult. Unfortunately, V/H/S: Viral is only about 1/3 successful, and as a whole it doesn't improve at all on the predecessors.

This time, the wrap-around story involves a police chase, and it's frankly annoying filler. The jerky, handheld camera and static proves to be getting old. "Dante the Great", the first main story, is about a magician that goes crazy with some witchcraft while making a deal with a malevolent spirit of some sort, and his magic becomes real. This probably sounds cooler than it actually is, as the chapter comes up lame on all parts. You figure it's more of a warm-up. Things get better, but not much.

Next up is "Parallel Monsters", a story about a guy who uses a futuristic machine to transport himself into an alternate dimension. It starts out like a rudimentary Twilight Zone episode, but quickly launches into some scuzzy devil-worshiping and monstrous sex antics. It's semi-amusing, but the payoff isn't that great, and it comes off as a lower-tier version of "Safe Haven".

"Bonestorm" is the final segment. It revolves around a group of skateboarders with helmet cams. It wastes some time stalling, but it definitely amounts to the best chapter when a group of skeleton-like Day of the Dead beings invade the skate park and things get very gruesome. The beings look genuinely scary, and the story is the most entertaining. If you happen to single one segment out, make it "Bonestorm".

V/H/S: Viral is largely a disappointment and it renders itself inessential. Also, I know it's different for everyone, but I came down with a major case of vertigo/dizziness/nausea after viewing this film--not because of the gore, but because of the damned shaky camerawork. I'm officially declaring death to the queasy cam, especially when the content isn't even worth the struggle.


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

[Review] Horns

Horns is a clumsy fantasy fable and a tonal crapshoot, starring Daniel Radcliffe as the film's horny main character.

Ignatius (Radcliffe) is a raging alcoholic, and he's the main suspect in the twisted murder case of his girlfriend Merrin (played by Juno Temple). But as far as we know, he's innocent. Either way, his life is shambles, and the entire town is after him like a witch hunt. Or more like a devil hunt. The supernatural aspect emerges when Ignatius literally begins growing horns on the top of his cranium. And suddenly, everyone he comes in contact with confesses their sins and secrets to him.

The film starts to take on a black comedy tone, but it also opens the doors for some off-putting absurdity. It's an awkward mixture of camp, gore, melodrama, tragedy, and sleaze. Sometimes hybrids can be fresh, but in this case it comes off as a jumbled mess. It's as if the filmmakers ran completely wild with this and no one questioned whether any of it was a good idea or not.

Despite its awkward fragments and unwanted detours, the story still holds interest, as we really want to know the truth. It's best when it's going full-dark in the latter half. There's a great soundtrack here, consisting of David Bowie, Pixies, and The Flaming Lips. It looks cool visually and captures an Eden-like fantasy world within reality settings. Radcliffe, doing his best American accent, is focused and intense, countering the narrative hodgepodge. Between Horns and this year's surprisingly charming rom-com What If, he seems to be doing a pretty decent job at getting us to stop referring to him as Harry Potter.

Horns is enthralling at its best, and loathsome at its worst. I just wish there was less bullcrap. 


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

[Review] St. Vincent

Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, and newcomer Jaeden Lieberher, star in this formulaic but likable dramedy. St. Vincent has some mixed results, but overall, there's enough good to make you glad you stayed.

Vincent (Murray) is a low-life curmudgeon. He's rude to everyone, he drinks 24/7, he's gambled all his money away, and he's impregnated a "lady of the night" named Daka (Naomi Watts). Maggie (McCarthy) is a struggling single mother in the midst of a divorce and a custody battle. She and her 12-year-old son, Oliver (Lieberher), move nextdoor to Vincent and they definitely start off on the wrong foot. Oliver is also entering a new school, and he immediately is bullied on the first day. After getting his his wallet and keys (and clothes) stolen, he's forced to knock on Vincent's door. Vincent grudgingly lets him chill out for a while in his unkempt house. And Maggie, having to work tons of overtime at her nurse job, eventually hires Vincent as a babysitter. Vincent takes the kid under his wing, and well, you probably know how this Scrooge story goes. In an amusing and encapsulating shot, Oliver looks at the sky while he's lying on the ground after getting beat down by some bullies, and Vincent's head eclipses the sun, radiating a saintly aura as he helps Oliver off the pavement.

There are two subplots and characters that I wish were done away with completely. Not only do they disrupt the tone, but they also take valuable time away from the three main stars. Naka is annoying, and actually spoils the one really good subplot, which involves Vincent's ritual of going to visit his wife who is suffering from Alzheimer's at an assisted living home. And at one point, a bookie, (played by Terrence Howard) goes after Vincent with a gun. We already get the impression that Vincent owes people money, and this moment isn't developed enough to justify being there. The time could've been much better spent on Oliver and Vincent's relationship, which would've made the film's ending more powerful. The extra space also would've given McCarthy more screentime. Granted, her frequent absence is part of the narrative point, but after seeing McCarthy play the same character for her past few films, it's extremely nice to see her in a more grounded and dramatic role like this, because she does it wonderfully.

Even in the face of the film's flaws and unevenness, Murray's presence always makes this watchable, exercising his comic timing, while slipping into serious mode with a flip switch. He just makes it looks so easy (and it probably is for him). St. Vincent doesn't really present anything that we haven't seen multiple times (there's even a somber montage while a song by The National plays, which I'm actually always okay with). And the climactic scene is one of those blatant checklist sentimental recipes, but the thing is, it'll still leave a lump in your throat.


Monday, October 27, 2014

[Review] Birdman

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a strange film that might scare a lot of people away. Ironically, it arrives in theaters just as the internet explodes with the leak of the new Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer. Birdman is actually an anti-superhero movie... movie of sorts, but it's also so much more than that. It isn't the most accessible piece of work to hit the big screen, but it possesses an undeniable brilliance, and there are almost too many layers and genre-bendings to digest in one sitting.

Riggin Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed up actor (the cameras make sure to shoot him the most unflattering of ways). He was once the star of a big superhero franchise (Birdman), and he's attempting to revive his career by directing and starring in a Broadway play. It's an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. Carver's influence plays a significant role in the film itself. Not only does it open with one of his quotes, but there's also a lot of whiskey consumed, and the essence of his writing style fits into one of the thematic pockets--cryptic, yet expounding in meaning when you fill in the blanks. Zach Galifianakas plays the producer. Edward Norton enters the supporting cast as someone who is "only truthful when he's acting." Emma stone is Thomson's rebellious daughter, who just got out of rehab.

The film opens with an impressively long continuous take, but wait... it keeps going on and on, and then you realize it's actually the illusion of a long take that lasts for the entire movie. It's an interesting choice for a movie of hallucinations and delusions, surrealism and magical realism. Early on, the story feels a bit tedious, as if you're just watching play rehearsals, but eventually things start to resonate and an innate cleverness breaks through. You can never quite tell if the play is any good (actually, it probably isn't), but it's all the behind-the-scenes drama that makes for compelling viewing.

Birdman is a show-business satire, a commentary on the state of entertainment, and an exploitation of artistic creativity, as well as criticism. It's a comedy that's blacker than black. There are moments that will make you laugh while you question if you should be laughing. It's metaphysical and philosophical. It's both primitive and ingenious. It's bizarre and whimsical, yet hideously honest. At times it's ambiguous, and other times it's clear as the sky. There's an interlude where the narrative busts out into some big budget effects and superhero movie action, as if Alejandro González Iñárritu is saying, "I could do this if I wanted to, but I don't." But it's less pretentious and more playful.

A handful of the performances are surefire Oscar contenders. Keaton is incredible as the lead, demonstrating a sporadic mixture of great stage acting (and sometimes possibility intentional bad stage acting), as well as screen acting. It's a crazy, layered range of emotions as a complex character in crisis. It's encore-worthy. (He even looks like a bird when he squawks out.) Edward Norton is the best he's been in a while and he's almost too perfect for his role. Emma Stone is impressive and could very well land her first Oscar nomination. Let's just say that this role and performance is a far cry from The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

There were points in the film where I thought I wasn't going to like it, but by the end, Birdman won me over.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

[Review] White Bird in a Blizzard

Eva Green and Shaliene Woodley are mother and daughter in White Bird in A Blizzard, a weird and enigmatic mystery melodrama, set in the late '80s and early '90s of American suburbia.

Amidst its opening '80s indie-pop music and bright Autumn colors, the film initially feels like a teen coming-of-age tale when Kat Connors (Woodley), an experimental teenager searching for an identity steps off the school bus. But everything quickly delves into psychological arthouse territory, when Kat's gloomy mother, Eve (Green), randomly vanishes from the household one day. Kat's dazed and confused father, Brock (Christopher Meloni), isn't much help in the matter. All the characters project a cold dissonance in their mannerisms, and there are a number of surreal dream sequences involving Kat trudging through the snow in search for her missing mother.

The first act of the film gives off the impression that this could be a slog. The script is based on a book of the same name, and Kat's frequent voiceover in the storytelling creates an unwanted feeling of a novelistic approach with visuals. But that aspect eventually sheds, and a few revelations and unconventional affairs along the way hold enough intrigue to make us want to stick around until the end to find out where the heck Eve went. It's the type of odd film that grows on you as it progresses, and you don't have to wait too long for the payoff, because its runtime doesn't even reach 90 minutes.

White Bird in A Blizzard has its flaws and head-scratchers. Sometimes it's a little too offbeat and tonally awkward for its own good. It never quite resonates as much as you want it to, but it's still a unique film and a lingering experience that shouldn't be given up on.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

[Review] Jimi: All Is by My Side

In a year of too many music biopics, here comes one for Jimi Hendrix, starring André Benjamin (better known as André 3000, the enigmatic artist from rap group OutKast). Even though André gives a great performance, the overall product is a little underwhelming. And once again, it leaves you with the feeling that you'd probably be better off watching a documentary on the musician instead.

The timeline of the film spans the year before Hendrix broke into stardom, from the stints of him playing smokey nightclubs in front of 20 people, to packed theaters. His quirks and ideologies are on full display, and so is his unique and dazzling guitar-playing. We see his meetings with label heads and his endeavors with women. The narrative also delves into the drug and alcohol abuse and the unfortunate violence it led to. A good thing that All Is by My Side has going for it is that it's a lot rawer than the sensationalized gloss of, say, this year's James Brown biopic, Get On Up.

But one inherent problem with many music biopics is that they have a difficult time rounding up much conflict or stakes, and this film is the same way. Sure, there are some brief spats and moments of heaviness, but for the most part, the film is a path of vignettes. It just moves along from one incident to the next and never really gains any momentum, so it lacks decent payoff. The film has a really good look to it though, capturing a dense '60s vibe. There is some interesting editing and intersplicing of moon visuals and psychedelic filters, especially toward the beginning.

André intently portrays the electrifying rock star and legendary guitarist with swagger, style, and nuance. It's clear that André spent a lot of time and dedication in order to get all of the performance details down. He's the reason to keep your eyes glued to the screen.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

[Review] John Wick

"He isn't a fucking nobody. He's John Wick."

We all know that Hollywood has no shortage of action thrillers of the assassin variety. I won't run down the list, but an apt point of comparison is the very recent The Equalizer. But John Wick stands alone. It has its own distinct identity. The premise delivers as much as you'd want it to, and more. The film also lets you breathe, but at the same time, there isn't a moment wasted. And most importantly... It's personal.

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has just lost his wife. After the funeral process, he receives an adorable beagle puppy as one last gift from her. One day while he's gassing up his Mustang, he has a confrontation with some Russian hoods. Iosef, the loud one of the group, is played by Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy from "Game of Thrones"), and he's a little shit. Iosef gets angry when John Wick refuses to sell him the car, and we get the impression that he'll strike later. An early thing to notice about John Wick is its picturesque cinematography. An overhead shot of a rainy funeral creates a cluster of pure black. John Wick speeding around in his Mustang on a rain-glistened blacktop while the dawning sun and early morning fog casts a yellowish hue.

John Wick's tranquil, white-on-white mansion is interrupted when Iosef and his crew break in, beat him up, steal his car, and kill his dog. It's a sad scene that's difficult to watch, and in turn, we immediately want these dudes to get decapitated. Iosef's father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), the mob boss, catches wind of what his son has done and whom he has done it to. Viggo is pissed, and he informs everyone about John Wick's Chuck Norris-like backstory. "He isn't the Boogeyman. He's the guy you send to kill the boogeyman..." he says. Meanwhile, John Wick is out for revenge, and he hasn't even bothered to change his blood-stained t-shirt yet.

The film has a serious set-up, but eventually its bombast musical score and soundtrack blast in, and a certain tone of hilarity, along with some great lines of dialogue make this a downright fun time. John Wick annihilates everyone that comes in his way, and the brilliantly staged action scenes pack more power than the usual stuff. They're personal. It also successfully subverts a major genre rule. The story's enemies don't necessarily hold the power here. They're genuinely scared of John Wick and they're not afraid to admit it. Even the police refrain from asking questions when they show up at John Wick's house one night and see a couple of dead bodies in the foyer. That isn't to say that John Wick doesn't face a share of danger, but we never really doubt his skills.

There are some solid supporting roles. Willem Dafoe plays a crafty sniper. John Leguizamo is only in the film for a couple of minutes, but he makes good use of them. Adrianne Palicki enters the scene as a badass hired assassin. A duo of alumni from "The Wire" (Lance Reddick and Clarke Peters) have some comic relief spots. Michael Nyqvist is a standout as the mob leader, playing it straight-faced while also conveying a major sense of humor. Keanu Reeves is monotone and mostly expressionless, but it works for this character. John Wick's physical actions do all the speaking.

There are probably moments in the film when you'll be thinking, how did he get up from that? But come on... He's John Wick.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

[Review] Lilting

Lilting, the sluggish debut feature of writer/director Hong Khao, explores grief in the face of language barriers and differences in ideals--to a painfully underwhelming extent. It gives off the impression that it would work better on paper, literally, as a 10-12 page short story.

Junn (Pei-Pei Cheng) lives in an assisted-living home, and she's a mother mourning the loss of her son, Kai. Richard (Ben Winshaw) is Kai's tearful former boyfriend. He attempts to reach out to Junn in order to ensure her well-being, as well as bond through the coping of their loss, but Junn despises him and refuses any insight that he has to offer. The film revolves around the two coming to terms with each other, and it also examines their exclusive relationships with Kai through a series of bland flashbacks.

The intimate plot holds just a few characters and mostly takes place within a couple of rooms. Pei-Pei Cheng greatly plays her complex role as the story's lead anchor, especially through telling facial expressions. Everyone else here is a complete and utter bore.

Lilting is a character study with some noble intentions and inherently interesting conflicts, but its monochromatic mood and stifling pace makes this a major drag (even considering that its run-time is only 80 minutes), to the point where you start thinking that the title should be called Wilting.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

[Review] Housebound

Housebound is the impressive debut from New Zealand director, Gerard Johnstone. It blends straightforward horror with comedic horror, and it does a lot of things very well in both aspects.

Kylie (Morgana O'Reilly) is a smart, but troubled 20-something that is ordered to go on 8 months of house arrest, due to problems with substance abuse and theft. The twist is that she has to complete the sentence under the roof of her estranged mother's home. Oh yeah, and the house has a dark history and is apparently haunted. Kylie is a skeptic, but she witnesses some creepy happenings early on during her stay. With some help from a neighbor, they set up a bunch of paranormal research equipment in order to get to the bottom of it.

The interior is steeped in shadows and the eerie music rings in at every turn. The film employs the usual ghost story conventions and utilizes effective scare tactics. It really likes to use the on-off-on-off lighting strategy as entities lurk into the frame. Even though the film provokes scares and jumps, there's also a dry and deadpan cleverness to it. It doesn't take itself overly serious either. There's a demonic teddy bear and a mysterious wildling running around the house that seems to be just as afraid as everyone else.

Events escalate to the point of being crazily over-the-top, but it isn't a turn-off in this case. Some supernatural and home intruder horror films that take themselves seriously can end up being eye-rolling or unintentionally hilarious at points, but Housebound dwells in a setting and tone that makes room for both deliberate seriousness and deliberate humor, and it strikes the perfect balance. When a battery-operated toy suddenly breaks the tension of a quiet scene by yelping, "Well hello there, you can record a message by pressing the green button on my fanny pack!" it's hilarious.

The duration probably could've been shaved down about 15-20 minutes, but it isn't anything painful. And while this film isn't quite as entertaining and inventive as other recent horror comedies of the type (like Cabin in the Woods or You're Next), it's still worth a watch.

In a year where quality horror films have mostly been lacking so far, Housebound is a great VOD choice to cue up in a dark room from the comfort (or discomfort) of your own home.


Monday, October 20, 2014

[Review] Fury

"Fury" seems like quite the undistinguished and forgettable title for a big, Oscar season World War II film starring Brad Pitt, but when you see that word painted across the main gun of the tank in which this close-knit group of soldiers spend the majority of their time in while fighting to the brink of death, it begins to make more sense.

It's the year 1945 in Nazi-occupied Germany. The film opens in an obliterated battlefield, where an entire American platoon has been wiped out except for Sgt. Don Collier (Pitt), a tank commander, along with the three remaining members of his crew. It goes without saying that we're not in for a feel-good movie.

Don is hard-nosed and ruthless. His face is worn and his eyes have seen better days. There's an underlying sense of despair within him when he's not in front of his men. Boyd (Shia LaBeouf) is the mustached, spiritual and religious member of the crew. Grady (Jon Bernthal) is more of the archetypal unhinged tough guy, and anyone who has seen "The Walking Dead" knows that Bernthal is incredibly good at that. Trini's (Michael Pena) character is a little flat and appears to be there for the sake of diversity. When the group returns to their base, a new young, baby-faced scared mouse kid enters the picture. Norman (Logan Lerman) is just a typist and he isn't trained for battle. The film never fully justifies why he, out of all people, is suddenly forced to take part in steering a tank, but his character is a significant piece within dynamics of the group and it adds an emotional pull. From here on out, it's them doing what their trained to do: kill Germans.

Within the stark settings and drab colors, Fury depicts the horrors of war as hell on earth, physically and mentally. Hills of dead bodies are pushed around like they're garbage, people get burned alive, chunks of blown off faces stick to the tank's control panel, soldiers are put in the position to kill children. "Wait 'til you see what men can do," Grady says. The brutal graphics are shown with immense, disheartening detail.

There's no doubt about the intensity and dread the film propels. Sometimes it's so severe that it might put knots in your stomach. The camerawork, often functioning from the close viewpoints of the characters, immerses you into the action as bullets fly and bombs explode. In an odd break from the action, the narrative's pile-driving momentum is halted in the midsection during a prolonged scene when Don and Norman enter the home of two German women and make them cook breakfast. It's a scene that unfolds in a Tarantino-like manner. It feels a bit awkwardly placed, but at the same time, it introduces a different sort of tension and conflict.

Philosophical dialogue is delivered throughout the script, and the acting from everyone involved is stellar. Even Shia LaBeouf, who is a tad unpredictable and a bit difficult to take serious in films nowadays, turns in an impressive performance. And of course, Brad Pitt accelerates as the lead. It has kind of come to the point where we simply expect Pitt to be great, no matter what role he's in, and he definitely doesn't let down here.

Even though it has a tough duty in living up to WWII films of the past, Fury still really sticks with you, and the final frame is one hell of a shot.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

[Review] Dracula Untold

Dracula Untold is just one of those bland, lower tier fantasy fare outings that you'd expect to see in January if it weren't for a Halloween push. The good news is that it's never quite cringe-worthy, so that puts it ahead of I, Frankenstein and The Legend of Hercules, but it's also completely forgettable.

Vlad (Luke Evans) is the ruler of Transylvania, and he's a family man at war with the Turkish army, lead by Sultan Mehmed (Dominic Cooper). He's put in a predicament that involves either giving up 1,000 young soldiers (including his own son) or going into an un-winable battle. In order to cheat death, win the war, and save his people, Vlad makes a deal with a ghastly vampire (played by Charles Dance) in which Vlad will become an invincible, blood-thirsting vampire as well for three days. The catch is that he'll return to regular form only if he doesn't actually drink any blood during the spell.

Let's be real, this is kind of a dumb premise, but it does carry some decent conflict. However, the execution is so stale that it ends up being a seemingly lazy character co-opt and a revisionist origin story that is questionable at best. Everything is so shallow and uninspired. The dark and clustery battle sequences just run through the motions, and there's a couple of prolonged death scenes that the filmmakers apparently thought we'd care about. A lot of it is flat-out boring. The performances are dull, but the cast also doesn't have much to work with. It's the type of film where you'll see actors from other current and more regarded fantasy installments showing up (The Hobbit and Game of Thrones), and you might drift off and wish you were watching one of those instead.

You practically forget about Dracula Untold before the film is even over. It never really sparks any investment. There's nothing to sink your teeth into.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

[Review] The Judge

Two really good R.D.s star in this small town, family courtroom melodrama. The Judge reminds me quite a bit of this year's Wish I Was Here. Not only does it share a lot of the same themes (and it also plays the same Bon Iver song twice, and that's only kind of beside the point), but its flaws also frustrate within the more solid material. Thankfully though, its strong spots are powerful enough to create a rewarding experience, and a couple of top-notch performances from Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall give everything a lift and make the weak spots a little more forgivable.

Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.) is a hotshot A-hole defense attorney, navigating the skyscrapers of Chicago. He's also in the midst of a divorce, but he seems to be a pretty good father to his daughter (when he has the time). Hank's life spirals when he receives a call about his mother's passing. This forces him to return to Carlinville, Indiana (the hometown he despises) for the first time in about 20 years. He also has to face his father, Joseph Palmer, a longtime judge, and the two are definitely on separate pages. It also turns out that Judge Palmer is a suspect in a hit-and-run murder case, and just as Hank is ready to get the hell out of town, he's called back to represent his father in court.

The film has an awkward start. It stumbles over tones, which gives the narrative a disjointed feeling--bouncing in and out of some underwhelming humor, schmaltz that gets too close to cheesy, and some nostalgic home movies that don't quite mesh yet. There also are some clichés of the less passable variety, and there's a cringe-worthy subplot that certainly would've been better off being wiped away completely. Questions also arise about how legitimate the legal proceedings are, but that's an aspect where you just have to suspense some disbelief.

Eventually (and luckily), the film finds its footing in the second half, as it becomes way more focused. The complicated conflicts ramp up, and the familial dynamics and dysfunctions are tapped into more genuinely and interestingly. The emotion begins to ring truer, and it actually hits pretty hard. The film provokes a number of pocket crinkling moments, where you can hear various members of the audience digging around for tissues. A handful of the heavy scenes between Downey Jr. and Duvall are fantastic as the two give it their absolute best. And when Billy Bob Thornton enters the picture as the prosecutor, there are some remarkably sharp head-to-head confrontations.

The Judge is a total hit-and-miss effort, and the glaringly problematic elements hold it back from excelling, but when you have two powerhouses like Downey Jr. and Duvall leading the way, this film can't just be dismissed.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

[Review] The Two Faces of January

Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac are the tricky triangle in this well-wrought suspense thriller. The Two Faces of January contains the traits of a Hitchcockian concoction, from the visuals, the music, the twist-filled script, and the tangled mess of everyone involved. 

It's the year 1962. Chester (Mortensen) and Collette (Dunst) are a couple of tourists perusing the attractions in Greece. They make acquaintance with Rydal (Isaac), an American tour guide. For the sake of mystery, we can't gather much about these characters at all early on. Chester and Collette's night at the hotel is interrupted by a shady man who confronts Chester about some business deals. Turns out, Chester owes multiple people a lot of money. The meeting goes awry and Chester ends up killing the guy. Rydal agrees to help Chester clear up his debacle and achieve passports to get home. The question arises: Why in the world would Rydal agree help this guy? But of course, Rydal has his own untrustworthy motives up his sleeve.

The story unfolds with clever misdirects, heady dilemmas, and finely crafted twists at every corner. Nothing is quite what it seems, and the characters clash amidst the heat. This isn't an action-based thriller, but the sheer intrigue, high stakes, and the "holy crap!" one-thing-after-another progression of the narrative (to the point where it almost gets humorous) makes this thing move at freight-train pace.

Directed by Hossein Amini (Screenwriter of 2011's Drive), the film is greatly lifted by its lush visuals and technical work. The voyeur camera style slowly guides across the nicely set frames, intently focusing on specific details, objects, and facial expressions. The old-school, string-driven score escalates everything as the To Catch A Thief and Strangers on a Train vibes ride in.

Even though the conclusion doesn't satisfy as much as everything that leads up to it, and the film heavily relies on the appeal of movies of the past, The Two Faces of January renders itself as a 2014 thriller of high order. In fact, the zeitgeist it captures is exactly what makes it so impressive, and it proves that even more than half a century later, we can still enjoy some of these old tricks.


Monday, October 13, 2014

[Review] Dead Snow 2: Red Vs. Dead

Dead Snow 2: Red Vs. Dead is the follow-up to Norway's delightfully campy Nazi zombie gorefest, Dead Snow (2009). This sequel arrives five years later, but it picks up almost immediately after the last one. And it's even more fun and entertaining this time around. The B-movie antics are cranked way up, but calling this a B-movie is a disservice, because this film is surprisingly well wrought. It obviously isn't a completely serious premise, but it's crafted with serious passion and execution.

The film opens with a lot of guts and blood, and wastes no time getting down to business (there's an insanely twisted sequence where someone's intestines get ripped out and pulled by a speeding semi-truck). The story's villain, Herzog, Colonel of the Nazi zombie battalion, is building his army. And now, they're not just going after unsuspecting snowmobilers and cabin dwellers; they're going after entire towns. And they have a tank! Meanwhile, Martin (Vegar Hoel) a surviving character from the predecessor, wakes up in a hospital bed with a brand new arm. But the problem is that it's a zombie arm, which has a mind of its own. He catches wind of Herzog's reign of terror, and joins with a couple of Zombie Squad geeks from America in order to fight against Herzog's army.

In a welcome turn, this film comes with significantly higher production values and a larger scope than the last one, and it definitely goes all out with it. The costumes and make-up are extremely detailed, and the special effects are awesomely repulsive. A lot of the imagery is brutal, but it's rendered with impressive cinematography. The whole thing looks like a dream project, and nothing is too over-the-top for Director Tommy Wirkola's realm. There's also an abundance of laugh-out-loud humor, and the accessible and well-structured script provides some memorably epic one-liners that carry just the perfect amount of cheese and schlock amidst the crazy circumstances.

Dead Snow set the stage, and Dead Snow 2 surpasses it in every way. This is a surefire modern classic in the zombie comedy genre. It's a ridiculous blast in the best ways and it's a rollicking crowd-pleaser, delivering ebullient scenes that rival the likes of Return of the Living Dead, Dead Alive, and Shaun of the Dead. So, for avid fans of this sort of thing, Dead Snow 2 is an absolute must-see.


Friday, October 10, 2014

[Review] The Equalizer

The Equalizer is the run-of-the-mill anti-hero action flick. It doesn't really offer anything profound or do anything to differentiate from or rise above films of the same type, but if you're content with watching Denzel Washington kick ass for a couple of hours, then you should be somewhat satisfied.

From the very beginning, Bob (Washington) is intently portrayed as the "every man." He's got a normal morning routine (he's actually shown putting his pants one leg at a time). He takes the bus to work for his repetitive warehouse department store job. He converses regular banter with his co-workers. He sets a timer on his watch for various tasks.

The status quo changes when he meets a young prostitute named Teri (Chloe Grace Mortez) at his favorite diner, and he witnesses her get slapped around by some Russian pimps. Bob holds back at the moment, but we know this ignites a switch inside him and we definitely haven't seen the end of this battle. It turns out Bob also sets a timer on his watch for when he's beating the crap out of a room full of mobsters.

Isn't there always a satisfying rush when a lone person strolls up into an area full of unsuspecting enemies and takes out each one of them? The Equalizer delivers plenty of this in its stylish and brutally violent action sequences. A lot of sharp objects get jammed into arteries, and skulls are pounded into the pavement. Denzel Washington keeps his charisma as he embarks on a vigilante spree, eliminating factions of criminals throughout the whole city, all while keeping his day job.

Unfortunately, the bloody action scenes aren't the only messy thing about this film. The midsection lulls and trails off at times, threatening the story's cohesion while also stripping it of its own identity. It definitely feels like the film could've benefited greatly by having 30 minutes sliced off, especially in respect to the swiftness and efficiency of its lead character. And on a side note, Chloe Grace Mortez's character is barely utilized, and by the end of the movie you almost forget that she was in it. 

Despite its falters, The Equalizer does have its payoffs--most notably a ridiculous, yet entertaining climax in a department store where everything is a weapon, like one of those 'anything goes' wrestling matches. But I'm calling for it now - We need a more succinct thriller next time, and we need Denzel Washington and Liam Neeson to join forces as the ultimate gritty aging crime-fighting duo.


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

[Review] Gone Girl

"I'm starting to feel like I'm in an episode of Law & Order," Nick (Ben Affleck) quips as he's questioned by the police about his missing wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike). But Gone Girl, based on Gillian Flynn's bestselling novel, is no Law & Order episode. Its slyly humorous and cynical dialogue, murky characters, and WTF story warrant immense intrigue at every turn. Combine all that with its viscerally warped score and the stellar performances across the board, and David Fincher's latest is cemented into the upper echelon of contemporary mystery/suspense extravaganzas.

Drenched in a shadowy gloss, the film smoothly alternates between two different timelines. One is the past progression (as well as the deterioration) of Nick and Amy's marriage, and the other is the present search and investigation into the disappearance of Amy. In a soon to be iconic scene, Nick emerges as a possible suspect during a press conference when he cracks a smirk in front of his wife's 'MISSING' poster while the press cameras flash. Every subsequent story detail is best sealed in envelopes and tucked away. The narrative doesn't just gradually escalate with subtle nuances, and it doesn't just stack on twists, misdirections, and reversals--it packs fucking wallops.

Aside from exploring the darkest crevices of a marriage gone wrong--way wrong, it's also a strenuous exercise in multiple methods of conning and deception. The overtones present a commentary on the noxious ways the media operates and the disgusting culture of tabloid exploitation, while simultaneously rendering a stunning portrait of psychopathic, wealthy, and detached people. David Fincher directs the performers with slow movements as if they were immersed in an almost robotic state of trance.

Rosamund Pike delivers a potential Oscar-worthy performance. Ben Affleck solidly continues his recent surge for respect (we'll ignore Runner Runner), and he might just shave off a few of his Batman doubters. Kim Dickens is great as the stern lead investigator, and Nick's through-thick-and-thin sister is played by Carrie Coon with a swagger reminiscent of Orange Is the New Black-era Laura Prepon. Neil Patrick Harris gets serious and creepy as one of Amy's ex-boyfriends, and even Tyler Perry shows up and impresses as a savvy and charismatic attorney.

Gone Girl gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, "There's two sides to every story." There's probably a lot more than that.


Monday, October 6, 2014

[Review] Annabelle

Annabelle kicks off this year's Halloween season with decent success. The film is more of a spin-off backstory to The Conjuring, rather than an actual prequel lead-in. Even though this infamous doll was a highlight in last year's consistently frightening, old-school haunted house tale, her own film falls short of The Conjuring's greatness on pretty much every level. You won't find any startling originality or masterful genre craft here, but if you want to get your creepy doll fill, Annabelle mostly does its job.

Mia, played by Annabelle Wallis (holy crap, her name is Annabelle, too!), and John (Ward Horton) are an archetypal 1950's American couple who are expecting their first baby. The film doesn't try too terribly hard to *ahem* conjure up a throwback mood, as The Conjuring did with its 70's vibes. Anyway, Mia is a doll collector and John gifts her the final piece to the collection, Annabelle. Annabelle still looks creepy in her non-possessed/occupied/demonically-attached form, and she's placed on a shelf with the rest of the dolls in the baby's room. Things heat up when devil-worshiping cult members break into the house and take some brutal attempts at Mia's (and the baby's) life, and a mishap with a fire causes a nasty fall. It's all to the point where you'll be thinking, "This baby is screwed."

The film has some clunky pacing, especially early on, where it feels like it's stuck in a state of multiple beginnings. And along with some less-than-fluid cuts and scene transitions, the story settles into a stagnant 50/50 back-and-forth between the mundane and the scary, instead of building tension and momentum as a unit. The climax is quite intense though, and the conclusion is very reminiscent of a certain classic horror film, but it obviously isn't close to as satisfyingly unsettling. "Satisfyingly unsettling" sounds like an oxymoron, but it's the perfect recipe for a horror ending, right?

In spite of Annabelle's flaws, it does bring a good amount of the scares you came for. Worthy jolts, clichés, and borrowings from horror films of the past are delivered as expected, but the most effective moments are actually the ones that don't provoke jumps. Prolonged close-ups on Annabelle's face combined with the screechy score can make the hairs on your neck stand up, and there's a finely executed basement/elevator scene that constitutes as the best sequence in the film. Also, some shallow focus techniques and swiveling cams add a nice touch to a few earlier scenes.

I found myself to be fairly freaked out while I was watching Annabelle, but I often reserve full judgement of horror films until I go to sleep that night. Maybe I was just really tired, but none of Annabelle's imagery really crossed my mind, and I slept like a baby. I guess I'm still just waiting for The Babadook to come along and blow everything away.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

[Review] Tracks

Based on a true event, Tracks tells the impressive tale of Robyn Davidson, a young woman who leaves her city life behind and embarks on a nine-month trek across the Australian desert. It's quite a story, but from a cinematic sense, it's a remarkably dull and tiresome viewing.

Mia Wasikowska plays Robyn. She's a wayward soul, sick of being stuck in one spot. It takes a while before she actually sets out on her solo mission. But she's not completely alone, as she brings her dog and a group of camels. Rick (Adam Driver), a photographer, pops in and out on wheels in order to document Robyn's journey. And, predictably, a love story forms. A dry one.

The scenery is nice, and there are some great crane shots of the textural terrain, but pretty soon I started hoping for mirages of a compelling film. Mia Wasikowska is solid, but she doesn't have that much to do aside from walking forward and looking parched. Danger and stakes don't really enter the equation, so it never feels like a straight-on survival story. And the narrative only skims the motivations and dimensions of the character, so the soul-searching barely comes to fruition.

You'll be glad when this journey is over.