Friday, May 29, 2015

[Review] The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared is a title that rivals this year's upcoming A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Based on a Swedish novel, this droll and farcical comedy is notably underwhelming.

After blowing up the fox that killed his cat (Really.), Allan (Robert Gustafsson) winds up in a nursing home. The title proves to be quite literal as the man actually climbs out of the window on his 100th birthday and never returns. He embarks on a solo journey, while reflecting on his quirky life story (which will draw Forrest Gump comparisons), and along the way he accidentally steals a suitcase full of big money. So, the hospital workers aren't the only people on his trail.

The film meanders, perhaps fittingly--but in turn it all feels pretty light, the stakes are mighty low, and the duration is overlong. There is some charm here, and Gustafsson's performance is solid, but the film's flow can't escape its novel trappings. The film lulls and scatters and never feels quite fulfilling.


Thursday, May 28, 2015

[Review] Good Kill

Considering the powerhouse that was American Sniper, you can't help but think Good Kill--following that film up within the same year, sort of got pushed over to the side into a limited & VOD release. But if the subject matter falls into your interests, this film shouldn't be skipped, as it contains a great performance from Ethan Hawke and an interesting spin on the 2010s war on terror film.

Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke) is a veteran Air Force pilot. But now he's been placed in special operations, engaging in targeted drone killings, and he's having a difficult time with it. It's not long before he has to take direct orders from the CIA, where he's forced to pull the trigger in situations against his best judgement. His morals are compromised (innocent women & children are in the victim zone), his nerves are rattled, and his marriage with his wife (played by Mad Men's January Jones) and family life is crumbling at the home base.

Good Kill is a slower burn than American Sniper, and doesn't contain the hugely intense, Clint Eastwood-directed battles, but in a similarly heavy manner it explores the toll of war through the eyes of a weary and overstressed soldier. Ethan Hawke conveys this sense with careful skill, especially with his deep, hollow eyes constantly on display. The rising star Zoe Kravitz adds a solid key supporting role, as her and Hawke's characters are the only two in their unit that find what they're doing troubling, and they grapple with the lines of what it means to be a "terrorist."

It's a tough, complex, and thought-provoking film, and like many of its type, it's unable to offer up any easy answers or reconciliations. And its power comes from within those very conflicts.


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

[Review] Tomorrowland

It seems like Tomorrowland has been advertising forever doesn't it? But now the Disney theme park adventure film has finally arrived. Director Brad Bird, who has a very good track record (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, & Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol) is at the helm. It stars George Clooney and Brittany Robertson (from the wackily straight-faced, yet gloriously ridiculous CBS series "Under The Dome").

From its secretive trailers to its TV spots, Tomorrowland's promotion has sent mixed signals regarding what the story entails or even what type of film it is... Is it a version of Wizard of Oz? Oh wait, there's jetpacks. And then its 5-minute sneak peak revealed some humanoids or possible body snatchers, creating even more mystery. And the thing is, the film still sends mixed signals long after the story actually begins.

It opens with Frank (Clooney) and Casey (Robertson) during present time (well it's technically the future, but present within the film's world). Then it flashes back to a relatively lengthy sequence of Frank's childhood, and it's never quite clear where exactly he is or what he's doing. Subsequently, we shift to Casey's perspective, and I can't help but think we could've just started there in the first place. Anyway, Casey is a curious teen who lives on a farm with with her generic country dad (played by Tim McGraw). One day, she finds a magical pin. Every time she touches it she teleports to another futuristic realm (what we assume is Tomorrowland). She meanders back & forth for a while. It seriously gets to be an hour in and we as an audience still don't know what's going on, which is part of the point because no one within the story will tell her either. But it's difficult to grip onto anything. Eventually, she sets out on a mission to go find Frank, who knows about Tomorrowland, and the film finally gains a sense of direction, or as Casey puts it, it's like "Deciding your own destiny and stuff."

Despite its clunky narrative and subpar execution, the film is always great to look at: The whimsy and fantastical visuals, the unique set production, the sky warps... With all the flying, whirling, and speeding around in various forms of transportation (or bathtubs), it actually gives off the feel of a flashy theme park ride.

Tomorrowland delivers its heavy handed message more-so through dialogue than the actual story arc, but it's at least an admirable message. It's about doing the best you can to make the world a better place. The film's optimism is refreshing, especially because cinema in the post-millennium is full of cynicism, disasters, apocalypse, and dystopia. The future can be a scary and depressing place or it can be beautiful and kind. And the truth is, the future holds a bit of all of the above--it just depends on how you view it.


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

[Review] Poltergeist (2015)

It's no secret that Hollywood has been pumping out reboots & remakes at a frequent rate. There have been plenty just within the horror genre alone, and here is another with Poltergeist. Now, any rational person isn't coming into this expecting stellar performances, an excellent script, or startling originality. But if you're looking to get a Spring horror jolt, you could do a lot worse.

Eric (Sam Rockwell) & Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their three kids move into a brand spankin' new home in a suburban development. They all begin to notice a strange static electricity that runs throughout the house, and welp, there's a got damn evil poltergeist spirit lurking under the roof. I'll spare most of the plot details because if you've seen the original 1982 version, you already know how the story goes. And even if you haven't seen the original, you probably still know how the story goes.

This film sticks significantly close to the original story. The characterizations are basically kept the same--even down to the bratty older sister. A lot of scenes, narrative beats, & lines of dialogue are virtually identical, and the shots of the house look very similar. There are a couple of tweaks, though. That stormy window with the tree in the boy's loft bedroom is a sky view now--right above his bed, making it even more difficult to avoid. And instead of one creepy clown, there's an entire pile of them. Oh yeah, and there's a wild squirrel on the loose too. All of that essentially makes it the worst bedroom ever. In other words--it's the opposite of Arnold's room in Hey Arnold! The technology is obviously upgraded here as well, both in the production values and aspects within the film's world. The visuals look a lot crisper and a little less cartoony. And this time around, it's iPhones, iPads, and flat screen TVs that go haywire. Oh yeah, and there's a drone involved. (Really.)

The jump scares amp up in this version, and they're effective. Things go over-the-top pretty quickly, so horror fans of subtlety might be taken out of this. But we can't pretend like the original version wasn't excessive either. At times, the new one doesn't quite capture the same eeriness of the old one, so there's always the "might as well watch the original" thought lingering over this, and that's fair. But as I mentioned, there are some redeeming factors here with the frightening imagery and surprising moments of giddy fun. I would also argue that this 2015 rendition is more economical than the 1982 piece. Ultimately, I think biggest problem with this one is that it doesn't have this lady.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

[Review] Slow West

Slow West might be the antithesis of Mad Max: Fury Road, both in title and lack of extravagance, which isn't necessarily a bad thing because it's not trying to be that. What we have here is a low-key Western, suitable to watch on a lazy afternoon.

Set at the end of the 19th century, the premise is pretty straightforward (it's even introduced by a narrator at the beginning): A 16-year-old Scottish boy named Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is journeying on a horse across the American frontier in order to find his lost love. And like we all learned from The Oregon Trail game, there are countless obstacles and threats along the way. On the path, Jay meets a very very sneaky drifter (played by Michael Fassbender) who decides to travel with him.

As expected, plenty of picturesque views of the landscapes are on display--vast deserts, lively creeks, blooming prairies, and beautiful mountain backdrops, all under skies of sunlight bursting through clouds or crystal clear starry nights. It's often quiet, and the campfire conversations crack with long pauses. In regards to the title, the pace is a little deliberate at times, but it's never un-engaging (and the runtime is only 80 minutes). Some intense situations unfurl--and it's all a matter of who shoots whom first, as well as the chain reactions and the high stake consequences from each bullet fired. Things are undoubtedly bleak, and a couple of notable exchanges in the script express it best:

"Do you care not to share your company with a murderer?"
"I'd be a lonely man if I did."

"There's more to life than just surviving."
"Yeah, there's dying."

The ending is a definite ending, but my guess is it will upset most people. Not because it's a bad conclusion, but more-so because it's a tragic conclusion. Slow West isn't going to blow anyone's minds, even in comparison to its recent Western contemporaries, but it's worth the time.


Monday, May 18, 2015

[Review] Mad Max: Fury Road

After a 30 year gap, George Miller (now in his 70's) whirls out the fourth installment of the Mad Max series, and is it ever overwhelming... overwhelmingly awesome.

Fury Road is a film in which you can hear rusty engines revving up before the first scene even fades in. Deep in a dystopian wasteland where the conditions are even more extreme than where the events last left off, Max (Tom Hardy) is imprisoned by a nasty gang of hoarders. After an exhilarating escape sequence, Max gets himself into a possibly even more unsettling position: chained to the front of a speeding vehicle. Meanwhile, a rogue & natural leader named Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is on the run--with a liberation mission to free a group of wives from their disgusting abuser and ruler of the horde, Immortan Joe (the dude with the creepy mouth mask). The parties collide, and Max and Furiosa don't so much buddy up as they fall into a situation when they both need to use each other. They plan to journey to an assumed oasis called "The Green Place", but the ruthless Immortan Joe is directly on their trail. What unfolds is essentially one giant chase with a few necessary breaks. And those breaks are mostly due to vehicles getting stuck in the unforgiving terrain.

What's so striking about the film is the uniformly frenzied aesthetic, from the hodgepodge rigs, to the on-the-verge-of-death makeup work, to the jagged grease warrior attire--all amidst the drought brown tones. With all the busyness stuffed into the frame, visual flairs of jittery fast-forward effects are injected--conceiving some imagery that is reminiscent of seminal silent films like Metropolis and Man on the Moon. There's a lot of post-apocalyptic ugliness here, but it is gorgeously shot and furiously choreographed. We witness setpiece on setpiece on setpiece. A standout is a pedal-to-the-metal chase through a colossal sandstorm filled with tornados (and lightning), and it literally takes your breath away. Everything is so relentlessly aggressive and operatic. And just in case things weren't already loud enough, there's a guy strapped to a tower of amps slamming on a flamethrower guitar to fill out the volume. It all seems like a fever dream come true for George Miller.

Fury Road isn't just a pulverizing mindless action flick. Okay, it's mostly a pulverizing action flick, but it isn't really mindless, and it doesn't just all blur together--even considering the constant kinetic energy of gears grinding and wheels spinning. The fight scenes are so crisp and well-designed, and the gutsy stunts & kill shots render the events as consistently gripping and memorable. The narrative takes a classically structured path, and we care about these characters' well-being as each close call grows more intense than the other. Tom Hardy is stoic & charismatic, and his voice sounds pretty damn cool as he calmly delivers small bits of wisdom. But he sort of takes the passenger seat in favor of a remarkably kickass Charlize Theron (who seems like she was barely shown in the trailer), as her character is the center of the quest, like a queen on the rise that doesn't necessarily want to be labeled as a queen. Nicholas Hoult also delivers a deliriously cartoony turn--Gollum-esque, even.

It's best not to put too much investment into the hype that the film is receiving, and just let it ride. Fury Road isn't a film that will appeal to everyone, but its sheer execution is undeniably something to behold. During certain sequences I was thinking to myself: How the hell did they film that? So if this is straight up your avenue, you're sure to get maximum enjoyment out of it.


* 10/10 *

Thursday, May 14, 2015

[Review] Welcome to Me

Welcome to Me is primarily VOD release, but it shouldn't be slept on, especially if you're into dark indie dramadies and Kristen Wiig.

Alice (Wiig) is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She has messy outbursts, drastic mood swings, and she doesn't like taking her medication. One day, she wins the lottery jackpot (an 86 million dollar payout to be exact). What does she plan to do with all that money? Well, she starts her own network talk show, inspired by Oprah. And she mostly just wants to talk about her own life, or as she more specifically explains: "my spirituality, hopes, dreams, what I like to eat, and who I think is a cunt." Oh, and she demands to enter every episode on a swan boat.

The scenes when the producers talk behind Alice's back about loathing her ideas - begin to border on tragic, whether they think she's ridiculous or are planning to exploit her. Alice's deadpan, black comedy delivery makes for some amusement as she spouts off multiple 'TMI' moments and heavy takes on the human psyche--making things very awkward for the skeptical showrunners, while creating some possibly guilty laughs for us. Alice has a knack for getting cut off during public speeches and being edited when in front of a camera. In a later act, when things begin to hit the fan, a montage featuring "Where Is My Mind?" by the Pixies practically ends before it begins.

Kristen Wiig's performance is endearing and sympathetic, funny and highly emotional, dreary and charming, frustrating and idiosyncratic--and it's still significantly different from last year's Wiig-starring, mental illness themed The Skeleton Twins, which proves her nuanced brilliance and pathos that transcends comedy. The solid supporting cast includes Tim Robbins, James Marsden, and Thomas Mann (from the upcoming Sundance hit Me & Earl & the Dying Girl).

The narrative seems a little thin at times, and it isn't quite as engrossing and heartfelt as The Skeleton Twins. A big part of that is because it lacks the factor of having two complicated characters dueling on screen, because the dynamic chemistry within the roles of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader were undeniable in The Skeleton Twins. Still, Welcome to Me might be one of 2015's more under-the-radar gems, and it's an impressive addition to Wiig's filmography.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

[Review] Tangerines

Tangerines (not to be confused with the iPhone-shot, transgender themed Tangerine, which arrives later this year) is an Estonian picture that recently received a Foreign Language Oscar nomination, and it's finally gotten a stateside release.

It's the year 1992 and the Georgia /Abkhazian conflict is brewing. An Estonian farmer named Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) lives alone and grows tangerines in a village where mostly everyone else has fled. The sounds of gunshots can be heard in the distance, and the battles eventually trudge closer and closer to his front yard. A peaceful man, Ivo invites a couple of wounded soldiers (from both sides) into his home, in order to nurse them back to health. So of course, conflict arises under his own roof between the individuals. But in the spirit of the most optimistic war tales--the opposing soldiers begin to realize that they are more alike than different.

I know some people stray away from these Eastern European dramas, as they can be overlong and tedious in some cases, but Tangerines is only 84 minutes or so. You also don't have to be super familiar with the specific social, geographical, and political climate, because this story is a fairly simplified and universal presentation. That said, there are still some slow parts here, and the film could really use a little more juice within the narrative to uproot the place of the plodding strolls and dinner table conversations.

The film brings about a few moments of compassionate emotion toward the end, making the low-key preceding events a little more worth it. However, Tangerines isn't necessarily a film you'd want to sit through twice, and it doesn't exactly scream Foreign Language Oscar nominee. There just isn't enough urgency or momentum to fully sting or move.


Monday, May 11, 2015

[Review] Maggie

Buildings are deteriorating, crops won't grow anymore, and there is a dangerous virus spreading throughout the land. In other words, considering the post-2010 trends of dystopian cinema--it's zombies. Wade (Arnold Schwarzenegger), instead of being a deeply developed character, is more of an archetypal dude dealing with the circumstances. His daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine) is tragically infected with the virus. The disease is gradually progressing, and they're left with a small list of options.

There have been so many screen takes on zombies that it pretty much has its own subgenres now, whether it's over-the-top camp, straight-on horror, comedy hybrid, parody, plague science, or the gritty and bleak survival tale. Maggie falls into gritty and bleak survival mode (or just slowly dying might be more accurate), and there are certainly a few eerie scenes, but unfortunately the film isn't nearly as thrilling as anything that the TV series "The Walking Dead" has already accomplished.

The film moves at blood-droplet-seeping-through-a-bandage pace, and some stretches take too much time to get anything across. It's as if the script wasn't long enough, so the production needed a lot of lingering and filler to meet a feature-length duration. The film is also notably quiet for big sections, which makes sense in the story's world considering the dwindling population, but for our own film-viewing it ends up on the sleepy side. It seems as though director Henry Hobson set out to make the most subtle zombie film ever, and he might've been successful, but that doesn't mean it's all that compelling.

The makeup work is impressively grotesque and realistically painful-looking. The lighting is fittingly dim and there are some interesting shots, but the constant close-ups make things a little awkward. Not awkward in a sense that Schwarzenegger's beard practically scratches you through the screen, but awkward in a sense that it's constraining and monotonous to watch and a mostly an unnecessary choice. The shallow focus works in that it seems to reflect the blurry vision that one might have when they're slowly "turning", and the sorrow-filled soundtrack of strings is a nice touch.

Schwarzenegger is actually pretty decent in this low-key serious role, but chances are his fans are rather looking forward to seeing him in the setting of Terminator Genisys.


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

[Review] Avengers: Age of Ultron

The All-Star team of superheroes are at it again in Avengers: Age of Ultron with some undoubtedly tentpole results, but the film falls short of its great predecessors.

Amidst the film's opening setpiece, the Avengers cruise through a forest, fighting off bots in order to invade a HYDRA fortress. It's hard not to think that Return of the Jedi did a similar sequence in the woods much better in the in the early '80s. Anyway, within the fortress is where we meet a pair of new villains--the speedy Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who disturbingly looks a bit like James Holmes here), and the telekinetic Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The Quicksilver portrayed in last year's X-Men: Days of Future Past happened to be a lot cooler. But Scarlet Witch's mind control powers benefit the film in multiple ways. Not only is it a good upper hand technique for a villain, but in addition it allows for some dark and haunting dreamlike sequences that give the film some nice visual flares, while also functioning as a slight character development method to get all up in the Avengers' personal grills, even given the crowded ensemble.

Later, the Avengers throw a party at their headquarters, and the floor is opened up for a lot of humor. The banter between this group has always been a strong suit, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is generally hilarious, whether it's the things he says, his facial expressions, or the gags with his hammer. However, the fun is soon cut short when an A.I. specimen that Tony Starks (Robert Downey Jr.) has been working on manifests and crashes the scene. This is Ultron, and he's a mean son of a gun. Ultron eventually takes off and teams with Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, and from here on out, the Avengers must engage in the tall task of defeating a ruthless robot that they are partially blamed for creating. This aspect explores a running theme--Are the Avengers heroes, or are they monsters? "Are they human, or are they dancer?"

I've seen a few reviewers and tweeters accuse the film of being confusing. But it really isn't. The narrative itself is actually very straightforward--it's just that there's A LOT going on. Some of it works and some of it doesn't. There's a flourishing love story between Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and it never quite flies. I'm all in favor of these films attempting to inject some sentiment, but the love story isn't interesting or conducted well enough to fit in with an already bloated plot. There are characters coming out the woodwork here, and a couple of them are welcome highlights. One is played by a grisly Andy Serkis, who is mostly known (or not known) for his brilliant motion-capture work as Gollum from Lord of the Rings, and Caesar from the rebooted Planet of the Apes. Another is played by the very brilliant actress/writer/directer indie purveyor Julie Delpy (2 Days in Paris, 2 Days in New York, the Before Sunrise series). Okay, her character actually is only on screen for a couple of moments in Ultron, but I'm just an avid fan.

The big battle sequence is impressively ambitious, but it isn't all that exhilarating. The now too common *a lot of things flying around and hitting stuff while the entire city crumbles* climax is getting worn out the more you see it, and it all sort of blurs together, even though Joss Whedon does his best to give everyone something to do. There's a moment near the end when Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) says something along the lines of, "The city is flying, we're fighting robots, I have a bow & arrow, and none of it makes sense," and you question exactly how the wink should be perceived. And even in regards to action sequences from this year alone, the setpieces in Furious 7 managed to be more gleeful and thrilling to witness.

When considering Marvel films from 2014, Ultron lacks the spunk and heart of Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as the adroit execution of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Last year's Captain America installment, The Winter Soldier, also had a more intriguing storyline. And then in comparison to the first Avengers--it's still enjoyable to watch these icons together on screen, but the film can't help but give off a "just more of the same" vibe. It's also worth mentioning that this film doesn't have a villainous screen presence quite as potently magnetic as Loki, who majorly lifted the first one.

I know this review might seem nit-picky, but sometimes that's what happens when you're dealing with such a beast of this hype. Overall, Ultron does its job in entertaining the masses, serving the comic book fans, and boosting the Marvel franchise. And most of us will keep flocking to these films. This blockbuster will have a significant place in box office history, but you wonder if its place in cinematic history will possess much staying power, especially when people are already looking forward to the next one. Or two. Or three.