Tuesday, March 31, 2015

[Review] Get Hard

After a quick look at Get Hard's trailer, it didn't take much to come to the conclusion that this film was probably going to be terrible. But after seeing it as a whole, I was wrong--it's worse than terrible.

The soundtrack of Iggy Azalea ushers us in, as if there never was going to be any other way, and we meet James (Will Ferrell). He's one of those businessmen who is so filthy rich that he buys ridiculous stuff just because he can. His fiance Alissa is played by Alison Brie, and he only seems to keep her around for the casual smang. On the other side, we have Darnell (Kevin Hart), a working class family man.

During James and Alissa's engagement party (John Mayer is the musical performer, adding to the scuzz factor), James is abruptly arrested for fraud and embezzlement, which gets him a one-year prison sentence. He's terrified to go, so he hires Kevin Hart (for no other reason than him being black, seriously) to prepare him for life in the big house. Yes, this is a genuinely stupid premise.

Get Hard is a comedy that thought it could coast on Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart's star power, but none of it flies. Kevin Hart's character is essentially the same dude from The Wedding Ringer, another one of this year's awful comedies, but that one seems like a masterpiece compared to this one. Actually, no it doesn't. The usually great Alison Brie is dumbed down so much here that you wouldn't be surprised if the writers just listed her character as "THOT" in the screenplay. And sorry, but various shots of Will Ferrell's bare ass just don't do the trick anymore.

Many of the attempts at humor are derived from cheap stereotypes that are simply just unfunny. They don't work in a satirical sense, nor a teachable moment "that's part of the point" way, even given James' ignorant character and eventual clumsy arc. The entire script is cringeworthy and loathsome. The fact that this even made it to the big screen is somewhat embarrassing, and I haven't even mentioned all of the lazy and uncomfortable jokes about prison rape.

No matter what your opinions on Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart are, there's no question that both of them are a lot better than this. Get Hard is in with the worst Hollywood has to offer on the comedy front, and the bar here is mighty low. I know one of you readers are thinking, "But what about Adam Sandler's recent endeavors?" I think it's best for us all to just end this topic right now.


Monday, March 30, 2015

[Review] It Follows

It Follows is the best horror film I've seen since The Babadook. I know, The Babadook just released not more than a year ago and there haven't even been many major horror films in between that time, but my point is that there are still good horror flicks emerging if you look in the right places. For the record, I still like The Babadook a lot more, but It Follows shares a somewhat similar approach. This is a disturbing, atypical teen drama that mixes in physical and psychological terror.

Following a twisted prologue, we meet Jay (Maika Monroe, The Guest), a typical suburban teen girl. After a first-time sexual encounter with her boyfriend, Jay begins seeing various incarnations of an evil being that only the people infected by "it" can see. The narrative can be considered as ambiguous, and many reviewers have chalked it up to an STD cautionary tale or the perils of teenage sex in general, but I gathered differently. "It" becomes less of an STD metaphor, and more-so a representation of the trauma from sexual abuse and its pervasive and lingering nature.

Jay's initial encounter is clearly consensual sex, but a subsequent act she experiences (I won't go into detail) IS sexual assault, and it's a bit surprising that more reviewers aren't considering it as is. THAT is the exact incident which triggers the terror (the very next sequence is when Jay first sees a creepy being approaching). Afterward, she's dropped off in front of her house, shivering, barely clothed, and confused. The police show up, and Jay tells them that everything was consensual, but she doesn't sound fully positive, which might speak to the unfortunately large number of unreported sex crimes. There's also the fact that none of Jay's friends are able witness what she sees, let alone even believe her at first. An oblivious neighbor asks, "Is this some game?" But it obviously isn't.

The film thrives on an unnerving mood and atmosphere. The clear-eyed lens captures both strikingly beautiful and strikingly ugly imagery within the mundane settings. Some clever camera movements extend the uneasiness. At times, a 360 pan or a long take create paranoia as our eyes dart in every direction on the screen where a predator may be lurking in a crowd of people. Other times, it takes on a voyeuristic and stalkerish angle, building an unaware dread for the protagonist. The static-y, synthy musical score (John Carpenter will come to mind) ups the discomfort, brewing an intense sense of trapped helplessness whenever Jay spots an approaching intruder. This is a huge turn in genre and tone from director David Robert Mitchell's previous outing The Myth of the American Sleepover, but it still provokes a biting nostalgia from an "it's a teen's world" point of view. Monroe's impressively delirious performance is also worth noting, as she's creating some significant indie waves.

The plodding stretches where not much happens in the way of fright might make some viewers impatient, and the lack of a major payoff will probably leave some people dissatisfied. But like The Babadook, It Follows brings on a more substantial brand of horror. One that is jarringly real, and more terrifying than a jump scare.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

[Review] Run All Night

The incredibly generic title of Run All Night is so forgettable that it might slip your mind as you're asking the cashier for your movie ticket. But here is some more patented Neesian fare, and thankfully, it's a hell of a lot better than this year's Taken 3. It's by no means a flawless masterpiece, but this fast-motion crime thriller sets out to do exactly what it wants--and that is entertain you for a couple of hours with a potent amount of crisis driven action and bullet-flying escapades.

Deep in the sprawling streets of NYC, we get introduced to a disheveled and heavily alcoholic Neeson character. We learn that he used to work for a "businessman" named Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris, looking very old nowadays), and the two have shady, murderous pasts. By a horrible coincidence, their respective sons are involved in some violent mishaps, and the two fathers are forced to act. It's best to keep most of the premise details to a minimum, because this is a situation where it's better to just see the chain of events unfold and let them ride.

At the beginning of the story, it seems as though Neeson might be taking a backseat this time around, but that definitely isn't the case, as he gets pulled back in quickly and becomes the main driving force. His character actually falls significantly further on the *bad person* side here, rather than the *weary protagonist we can root for* side, but his current mission involves keeping his son on the straight and narrow, which essentially means he doesn't want his son to become him. So in turn, we still end up rooting for Neeson (to a certain extent).

Aside from Neeson's presence, and the other solid supporting performers (especially Boyd Holbrook, who has mastered the scummy criminal type), the reason why Run All Night works well is because almost every single scene has a large amount of engaging tension that can erupt at any minute. The plot does get a tad convoluted, and things always brush close to ridiculousness, but you wouldn't really expect it not to. The active camera and quick cut editing attempts to add some flare, but it becomes more distracting than anything. And the climax(es) aren't necessarily anything that hasn't been seen before. Despite these given flaws, it's rarely less than enthralling.

The film notably takes place during Christmas time (at one point a drunken Neeson is actually wearing a Santa suit), and I get the feeling that this film could've played even better if it was released in December and billed as a crazy holiday alternative. With that said, watching Liam Neeson shoot up a bar while The Pogues' "Fairytale in New York" plays is fun at any time of the year.


Monday, March 23, 2015

[Review] The Salvation

Danish director Kristian Levring delivers The Salvation, which stars Mads Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Eva Green. This Western tale doesn't stray too far from the path, but that's okay.

Jon (Mikkelsen), a Danish ex-soldier, boards a train with his wife & son, and they get stuck in a car with a couple of despicable gentlemen who aren't so gentle. During an intense scene involving reversals of power, the two men take Jon's wife & son by weapon and push him out of the train. In a tragic manner, Jon finds his family's dead bodies on the road. Afterward, he tracks down the two men and kills them. Don't worry, I know it might sound like I'm giving away a lot of the movie, but this is the setup, all occurring within the first 15 minutes. The ruthless brother (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) of one of the men Jon killed comes looking for revenge, and the lines of good versus bad are clearly drawn.

The setting is so windy and dirty that you feel as though you might get dust in your eyes while watching. There are some starkly picturesque shots of the wide frontier under the moonlight. Mads Mikkelsen's performance is a very Mads Mikkelsen-like performance--stoic and not generating a large amount of outward emotion. But it works for him. On a side note, I can't remember the last time I've seen him on the big screen when he wasn't getting his face pounded in. Eva Green's character is mostly silent and mysterious, and it would've been nice if she had more to do. This is somewhat redeemed late in the game, especially as the story builds to a fiery, bullet-filled climax.

The Salvation isn't as memorable or as haunting as even some of its most recent companions, but it's still one that big fans of the Western shouldn't pass up.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

[Review] Cinderella

How much praise can we give a remake of a classic, oft told story? This 2015 live-action revisioning of Cinderella stays loyal to the tale and its essence, pretty much beat-for-beat, and in turn, it doesn't add much or expound anything that hasn't already been.

It begins with Once Upon A Time... Ella (Lily James) lives with her stepmother and nasty stepsisters, where she's been shunned to the attic and forced to do all the housework. She befriends a group of mice, and well, you probably know the rest: Prince Charming, a royal ball, Fairy Godmother, a spell, golden carriage, glass slippers, the clock striking midnight.

The always alluring Cate Blanchett plays the Stepmother, and is an immediate strong spot.
Richard Madden (Robb Stark from Game of Thrones) plays the Prince, and another Game of Thrones character (mostly known as "the richest man in Qarth") also makes an appearance. The CGI mice within the real world are a bit distracting, even though these magical elements are pertinent to the story and part of the fantastical appeal. Speaking of magic, Helena Bonham Carter plays the Fairy Godmother, and she's just as eccentric and comical as ever, even though she's only there briefly.

Despite its remake trappings, this film is very watchable and easy on the eyes, from all the vivid candy colors and the elaborate costume designs, to the moonlite lighting. The enchanting, flowery musical score rarely takes a break, and that's okay, because it is quite riveting. An agreeable "Have courage and be kind" message is delivered, even though it's reiterated about 100 times throughout.

2015's version of Cinderella never feels essential, but it's fine for those itching for some extra magic, even if they've already been there before.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

[Review] '71

Jack O'Connell's acting breakout has been a stellar one, considering Starred Up, Unbroken, and now '71, a real events based story about a soldier caught behind enemy lines.

It's the year 1971 (duh), and Private Gary Hook (O'Connell) is a British Army soldier in training. Eventually, he and his unit are sent to the dangerous streets of Belfast, Ireland to man the front lines of the Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists conflict. Soon after they arrive, a violent riot breaks out and Hook is separated from his group. He ends up in a flat of IRA stronghold, fearing for his life. From here on, it's a 24-hour course of survival and differentiating between friend and foe.

The shaky handheld camera puts the viewer into the center of action. This tactic may cause some dizziness as Hook swiftly weaves around corners and through alleyways, but it's a fitting approach for a story of anger, confusion, and paranoia. There are proper breaks in the bruising intensity, especially when Hook spends a good deal of time holed up in hiding while the stakes still remain high. The narrative ratchets up the conflict and tension on all sides, and at times, it's the ones that try to stay neutral that end up in the most danger. There's a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" thread, but there's also a shred of humanism when all the labels are stripped away.

Yann Demange's '71 is a gritty, well-crafted & wounded thriller of politics and war. It will be interesting to see if Jack O'Connell will ever have a role where he isn't getting beaten, stabbed, shot at, or tortured, but he's proven to be pretty good at it, and I mean that in the best way possible.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

[Review] Song of the Sea

Following 2009's The Secret of Kells, Tomm Moore's next offering, Song of the Sea, is an even more enchanting animated tale based on Celtic mythology surrounding a mystical being called the selkie.

After a brief prologue, the film leaps forward to the adolescent era of brother and sister, Ben and Saoirse. After the death of their mother, the family's lives are in turmoil. Confusion and grief litters the household, and their father (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) has been left smile-less. One magical night, Saoirse plays a tune into a seashell and is led to the sea by a swirling collective of glowing fairy specks. Here, she swims with the seals and transforms into one herself. It's a scene that is both gorgeous and chilling. After the two siblings are sent to go live with their grandma, a fantastical and dreamy quest ensues as they search for meaning and unlock secrets of ancient stories.

The film is visually beautiful, and it possesses the poignancy to match. The frosted animation is  traditional in style, as well intricately layered and textured. Some major highlights are the dips through the glimmering and effervescent ocean, along with the views of the foggy, ethereal hillsides. Along with that, it's a heartrending tale of feeling lost. It displays a family torn apart by significant death and how they find their way through the crashing waves. The Celtic score, full of flutes and strings, fits in wonderfully and enhances the whole picture. This testament of the power of stories & songs begins from a somber place of rainy sorrow, and ends at a cliffside of hope and peace.

Song of the Sea reflects the quieter and more subdued side of current animated films, as opposed to a lot of the stateside big studio "LET IT GO" extravaganzas. And even if you are unfamiliar with the folklore, there's plenty to love and drift away in.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

[Review] Chappie

After blowing us away with District 9, Director Neill Blomkamp followed that up with Elysium, which was a step down but still a serviceable if muddled action/sci-fi outing. Unfortunately, Chappie is a step down even further and it misses more than it hits.

Set in a near future Johannesburg, the crime rate is so out of control that a highly advanced (and durable) robotic police force has been enlisted to patrol the gang-ridden streets. Meanwhile, the local tech company, headed by Sigourney Weaver is working every day to improve the bots. Here's where we meet Deon (Dev Patell), a young genius who is in the process of programming a device that can render the robots with a conscious, or make them as human-like as possible. Across the room is Vincent (Hugh Jackman), who is developing a giant war machine that just screams "bad idea." I hesitate to even discuss his character's relation to the plot, because it ends up being more of an obnoxious device, a cardboard bad guy, and a waste--despite the amusing mullet.

After Deon finishes his device, he's abducted by a group of hoodlums, which includes Ninja and Yolandi from the rap-rave group Die Antwoord. At first, the two seem almost incapable of not being corny, but surprisingly, Yolandi's oddball character sort of grows on you. Anyway, the gang wants to pull off a heist, and they force Deon to program a stolen police bot. This is where Chappie is born. Chappie awakens as innocent and childlike, but gets caught in a push-and-pull battle of good and bad.

The biggest problem with this film isn't necessarily the awkward casting of Die Antwoord, or Jackman's useless antagonism, but it's the fact that Chappie isn't as fresh and innovative as it wants to be. This doesn't mean A.I. isn't still a fascinating subject to explore, but a lot of the narrative beats here are incredibly similar to 2011's Robot & Frank and even last year's Big Hero 6--but to much less successful degrees. The good thing is that Chappie itself is likable and magnetic, and it looks fantastic. Sharlto Copley voices the bot and physically plays him with motion-capture technology, and the visual result is highly crisp, appearing like it really exists within the established world.

Chappie will stick out as a blunder in Blomkamp's filmography, seeming like an afterthought or a plan C of his first two films. And yet, he still remains as one of the more interesting directors to watch, considering his utopian aesthetics, knack for action sequences, and undertone-driven thinking. Maybe the Alien reboot is the direction he needs.


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

[Review] Faults

Faults is the debut feature of writer/director Riley Stearns. There's a bit of promise shown here with the films early, off-beat & dark "Fargo" vibes, but it also leaves much to be desired.

Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) is a grumpy "mind control expert", living out of his shabby car (call him the Saul Goodman of the therapy game). He makes pennies by traveling and giving half-assed self-help speeches, where audience members suddenly ask, "Wait, who are you?" Eventually he's approached by two troubled parents, whose daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has joined a creepy religious cult. The parents offer Roth big bucks to get her out, and he obliges.

The premise ends up being a lot less interesting than advertised. Roth easily abducts Claire and places her in a drab motel room where he conducts mental experiments to lure her away from the cult life. There's a lot of talking and analyzing that is more patience-testing than engaging. It's a slow burn that never fully delivers, even considering the twists that come late in the story.

Unfortunately with Faults, it's all just a distant memory.


Monday, March 9, 2015

[Review] Wild Tales

Damian Szifron's Wild Tales is an anthology picture of six short films. This Argentine-Spanish film earned an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language film this year. This collection of stories is farcical, satirical, violent, and yes, wildly entertaining.

- A woman makes her way through an airport and boards a plane. She sparks up a conversation with a fellow passenger, and eventually other passengers chime in. What starts out as fairly unassuming, turns into a full-blown crisis when they all realize they have one thing in common: They've wronged a guy named Gabriel in some way or another, and it just so happens that Gabriel is the captain of the flight (Ahhh!!!). This is more of an intro sketch, giving us a taste of what's to come.

- Set in a quiet cafe, a waitress encounters a severely unwanted customer (a corrupt politician that directly destroyed her family). The head cook (a woman reminiscent of Red from "Orange is the New Black") tries to convince her to put rat poison in his food. The suspense reaches queasy levels and builds to a very messy conclusion.

- Two men driving on a highway. Separate cars. They have a shouting altercation. And the ensuing events result in the perfect instance for a "Well that escalated quickly" meme. Calling this a case of road rage is an understatement.

- The fourth story casts Ricardo Darin, the lead from 2010's excellent Oscar winner, The Secret in Their Eyes. It revolves around a guy trying to sort through a number of government and insurance hurdles after his car gets towed. This one is more low-key than the previous pieces.

- The son of a wealthy family is involved in a hit & run accident, and his father attempts to pull some strings while scheming to put the crime on their gardener. And as you can probably guess, a lot of complications transpire.

- The grand finale takes place during a wedding reception. The glowing bride sees her new husband potentially flirting with another girl across the room, and all hell breaks loose. This ridiculously amusing piece feels like a proper send off.

Usually with anthology pieces, they risk a hit or miss/consistency aspect between the stories, but each one here is just as well-conceived as the other. Of course people might get more of a rise out of the rousing first couple of shorts, while the middle ones still remain engaging but enter a more subdued dramatic territory. Wild Tales is a study of madness, with shared themes of people getting pushed to the edge in the craziest of situations. There are protagonist/antagonist setups, but no one ever really succeeds. It comes down to the question of who got screwed the worst, as the lines of comedy and tragedy merge together. An exchange heard on the plane near the beginning sums it up the best:

"Work or pleasure?"
"Both things, I hope."


Thursday, March 5, 2015

[Review] Maps to the Stars

David Cronenberg's erratic and dizzying Maps to the Stars offers up a repulsing portrait of the worst Tinseltown has to offer in this exploitation affair of Hollyweird psychodrama.

The incoherent narrative entails several Hollywood caricatures, starting with a young wide-eyed tourist (Mia Wasikowska) and a wannabe actor that doubles as a limo driver (Robert Pattinson). The two essentially have a name-dropping contest during the car ride, and from there, we pretty much know what we're in for (kind of). An aging and desperate actress (played by Julianne Moore) clamoring for an Oscar-worthy role, and a punchable teen phenom (Evan Bird), enter the picture and a poisonous web between the ensemble forms. Basically: they're all crazy AF.

Every matter is taken to constantly extreme degrees, and the film piles on the graphics and the shocks. Even though stuff really hits the fan, the empty and unlikable characters--along with the detached atmosphere render the whole experience as an eyebrow raiser where you don't feel much while watching it. As bizarre as it is, it is somewhat guiltily entertaining at points, like a bloated TMZ episode turned up to the max (and with a lot of fire), but it all eventually becomes exhausting.

Sure, this is all part of the point, and there's truth in its view of greed and nihilism, but that doesn't mean this film isn't a star-studded turn-off.


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

[Review] What We Do In The Shadows

Jemaine Clement ("Flight of the Conchords") and Taika Waititi (Director the of 2010's underrated Boy) write/direct and star in this brilliantly funny and gleefully clever take on vampires. The vampire angle is significantly more traditional here, as opposed to the contemporary big studio flicks you might see in major theaters, or even Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee's recent social commentary films in Only Lovers Left Alive and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, respectively, yet What We Do In The Shadows is way fresher and more alive than any of the above.

Set up as a mockumentary, the film looks into the lives of four vampire roommates Viago (Taika Waititi), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), and Petyr (Ben Fransham) that dwell in a Wellington mansion. Each character is a type, ranging from a rugged and former Vlad The Impaler-like dude, to a ghastly recluse that resembles Count Orlok. But they all have enough human dimension and clashing personalities to make them feel like full-bodied characters. They're all a bit awkward and out-of-touch as well, making this a "Not-so Modern Family" of sorts. We see their antics in attempting to thrive in society, and yes, they do indeed leave the house sometimes.

The deadpan style hits all the right spots when mining humor from the vampires' everyday activities (it's been five years since anyone has done the dishes), and it twists tropes from the vampire, mockumentary, and horror found-footage genres in ways that are too hilarious and smart to be written off as gimmickry. On the way home after a night of clubbing, the guys inform the camera crew: "I can smell werewolves... We're just about to walk past some werewolves, so some shit might go down," like the creature version of a Jersey Shore episode. And that's one of the less subtle examples.

What We Do In The Shadows might sound like an odd concept, but it's completely accessible and enjoyable throughout. And while vampires are usually considered to be "cold" beings, there's even a some warmth and poignancy injected. The vampires here can be viewed as occupants trying to find their way in a country that is constantly foreign to them. And despite the characters' differences, the one thing they all have in common (well, aside from the bloodthirst) is the fact that they have to cope with seeing their mortal friends die, for years and years. But it always comes back to the comedy.