Saturday, October 31, 2015

[Review] Bone Tomahawk

Kurt Russell starring in a horror-Western film that involves cannibals? That's Bone Tomahawk.

The film opens with two dudes (one is David Arquette) stumbling upon a trail of skulls, and well... that never leads to anything good does it? Turns out, it's a hideout occupied by mysterious kidnappers and cannibals. Russell plays the no-nonsense Sheriff Hunt (a fairly spot-on name), the town's go-to guy for all inquiries and problems. He catches wind of this place, saddles up, and rolls out with a small group of gunslingers (including Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox) in order to investigate.

The premise sounds like the stuff made for a camp-filled B movie, but it's actually less loopy than expected, opting for a more straightforward tone of partial realism--all unfolding in a slow burn. It's also very well-shot and artful with its evocative wide landscape views. The actors fully commit to a mostly humorless, traditional Western acting style and they all do great within this setting.

But don't get me wrong--this thing is still presented with a cunning smirk. And the events gets crazy. Extremely crazy. The final act is wild, violent, and gruesome as the story transitions into a thrilling (and painfully graphic) survival outing. The film succeeds in its ambition, and most likely will manage to please both Western fans and cult horror fans equally when all is said and done.

Bone Tomahawk is a unique and strange genre hybrid that sticks to its guns.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

[Review] Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension

This is the 5th Paranormal Activity film (6th if you include the awful offshoot The Marked Ones). Despite some flaws and its hit or miss tendency, I've found the series to be pretty serviceable (I actually thought the 3rd one was great) for what it is. The Ghost Dimension turns out to be the least entertaining of them all and is a significant drop-off point, both in scare tactic value and box office numbers. People aren't sick of the paranormal--they're sick of the format that it's presented in.

It begins with the usual wasting time with mundane events, house tours, character introductions (husband & wife, their daughter, and a goofy uncle) and monkeying around with the camera. After so many times witnessing this, we just want this thing to get a move on. Anyway, they find a spiffy camera in storage that has a warped lens and apparently can see more than the average eye. They also go through some old videos that contain clips of the previous Paranormal Activity films, which comes off more as a haphazard link of research for a story/timeline that is too muddled to keep straight at this point. And as you've guessed, demonic events transpire.

On its own terms, it isn't a bad way to spend an October night. But after this genre's fresh spark, it's feeling tired stylistically. It makes traditional non-found footage horror films look at lot more enticing, as they do a better job of establishing the mood and pulling you into their shadows, while also being easier to see (less shaky cam and blurred and obscured angles) and employing more of a dramatic story structure (although there have been a lot of modern duds in the category, too).

In The Ghost Dimension, dark phantom figures lurk about once in a while, but they never seem all that threatening or shocking. The film fails to unleash any new tricks, and you'd be better off checking out the earlier ones, or something different all together this Halloween season.


Monday, October 26, 2015

[Review] Steve Jobs

"Go put a dent into the world, Steve."

People are probably getting burnt out on films that classify as biopics, but a lot of the ones released this Fall have actually been pretty good. Now, Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin bring us an engrossing and almost operatic piece on Apple Founder, Steve Jobs. And it isn't a typical biopic.

The film is essentially three clear-cut acts that all unfold in real-time. The first one looks at the behind-the-scenes events leading up to the public launch of the Mac computer. So it involves Jobs (Michael Fassbender), his assistant (Kate Winslet), and engineer (Michael Stuhlbarg) frantically smoothing out the glitches. There's also some drama between Jobs, his ex-girlfriend, and his daughter (whom he refuses to acknowledge as his). The second act delves into Jobs' initial split with Apple and his bouts with co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan) and CEO (Jeff Daniels). The third details Jobs' return to Apple, the unveiling of the iMac, and the company's major growth. To put it succinctly, it's all a shitload of arguing.

Say what you will about Aaron Sorkin, but he is a screenwriter that is masterful at wielding around large amounts of snappy and sophisticated dialogue, skillfully escalating the tension and conflict in each scene, carefully working in a lot of thematic components to form a cohesive whole, and taking an unlikely movie subject and turning it into something very compelling. He does the same with Steve Jobs as he did with Moneyball and The Social Network. It's more memorable than Moneyball, but it isn't quite on the level as The Social Network, however, it's still an impressive venture.

Steve Jobs ditches the usual by-the-numbers (and authentically cheesy) biopic formula, and dives straight into a juicy and immediate story. Steve Jobs' character is never painted as a superhero. In fact, he's painted as an asshole. Not all great films are about kind and upstanding people, and this is a biopic that dares to not glorify Jobs' personality--all while still maintaining a magnetic interest for every scene that he's in. Fassbender completely nails the role and is certainly locked in for a Lead Actor nomination at the Oscars. Also, the supporting cast is as solid as can be.

This film is a highly proficient portrait of a relentlessly difficult, egotistical and narcissistic innovator and marketer who is attempting to change the world... and succeeding at it.

* 8.5/10 *

Thursday, October 22, 2015

[Review] Beasts of No Nation

Writer/Director Cary Joji Fukunaga is mostly known for his "True Detective" work, but his talents broke out back in 2009 with Sin Nombre--a harrowing tale about immigrants and MS-13 gangs in Central America. His newest project (and first Netflix Original Film) Beasts of No Nation is a brutal African Civil War story, and it's right in line with the rest of his challenging filmography.

"Our country is at war," a small boy named Agu (Abraham Attah) states. He and his friends are attempting to sell a TV without a screen--a visual symbol for how impossible the circumstances are in his West African village. Eventually, Agu gets separated from his mother, and his father and brother are killed by bullet fire, so he's left to fend for himself. That is, until he happens upon a group of young rebels led by Idris Elba (the character goes nameless) and they transform him into a child soldier.

The tragedy of the events doesn't need any explanation. And as you've guessed, this is a very heavy and difficult-to-watch story, even thought it's all rendered through stunningly vivid and crisp cinematography. The unfortunate realities play out like an ugly trudge through despair with atrocity after atrocity. The violence is uncompromising, and there are some horrific situations to witness.

The well-chosen first time actor Abraham Attah is very impressive at the center of it all, as everything is told through his eyes. Then there's Idris Elba, who has been a prolific force (and new James Bond hopeful *fingers crossed*) on big screens and small screens. He's commanding in this role, and if the pool isn't too crowded he might just land himself an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as this nastily ruthless character. Any award talks at all is a stirring feat for a film that you could watch from your home before it hit limited theaters (if even that).

There seriously aren't many things more heartbreaking than to see what these young and initially innocent kids go through. There's a devastatingly telling line that Agu says during one of the film's all is lost moments: "If this war is ever ending, I cannot go back to doing child things." And yet, the film leaves us with a slight glimmer of hope. A very slight one.

* 8.5/10 *

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

[Review] Goosebumps

"Kids books are supposed to put you to sleep. These books keep you awake all night."

This reboot of the beloved, spooky book series Goosebumps had a good chance of being hit or miss, and luckily, it turns out to be a globby blast.

The sarcastic teenager Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his mother (Amy Ryan) move into a new town. The nextdoor neighbors happen to be the unpleasant and reclusive R.L. Stine (played by Jack Black), along with his sheltered, yet adventurous daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush). One night after witnessing some suspicious activity through the window, Zach and his goofy friend Champ (Ryan Lee) sneak into Stine's *It looks haunted* house and unlock some secrets in the form of magical books where the monsters literally leap off of the page.

All the creatures from the Goosebumps universe unleash--vengeful Lawn Gnomes, The Invisible Boy, and Slappy from Night of the Living Dummy (who is actually kind of creepy), to name a few. This is a really efficient way to get them all together. You might as well go big, and that's exactly what the filmmakers do. Hints of Ghostbusters and Jumanji ring in as the film launches into non-stop, frantic action as the beasts terrorize the town and the crew attempts to get them back into their respective books. Setpieces include The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena in a hockey rink and The Werewolf of Fever Swamp in a grocery store. The CGI looks pretty good, so you don't get that corny off-putting factor.

There's a sense of wonderment from the beginning, and in the spirit of Goosebumps, a couple of early jump scares set the mood. The script brings the funnies as well. The chuckle-worthy humor includes embarrassing moments that we can watch from a distance, spoopy slapstick, Champ's constant comic relief, and some referential quips about authors who write scary stuff. There's even a bit of heart here, regarding loneliness and the loss of loved ones.

If you're looking for heavy horror, this isn't the place. But it's a fun Halloween adventure for kids and families, and even 20-somethings like me that grew up reading these books and still have them stashed away safely.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

[Review] Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks link up for the fourth time in this well-wrought Cold War thriller.

1957 in Brooklyn--an accused Soviet spy, who we will come to know as Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested and taken into custody with overwhelming evidence against him. James Donovan (Hanks), an insurance lawyer and family man is the unlikely guy chosen as the defense attorney, because someone's gotta do it, and everyone has the right to a fair trial. "Everyone in America will hate me, but at least I'll lose," Donovan quips.

But what initially was supposed to be a "C'mon, let's just get this over with" case, turns into something more difficult as Donovan brings his 'A' game and gets more wrapped up than he ever anticipated. And even if he loses the case, he plans to save Abel from the death penalty--specifically for humanitarian reasons, or perhaps for trade collateral if one of the US' guys gets taken in Russia.

My gosh, Spielberg sure knows how to construct scenes in order to generate the greatest interest and appeal, and he also stages some terrific looking frames. Similar to what I said in my recent Crimson Peak review--there are a lot of nominees for One Perfect Shot here too.

The Coen brothers pen this screenplay with a straightforward attitude and it contains some excellent dialogue. And whether it's their doings or Spielberg's, there are many pleasant details of wit along the way despite the seriousness of it all: Such as how people look at Donovan during train rides (depending on what his role in the daily headlines entails), the lingering cold he catches in snowy Berlin (after his coat was stolen), and a repeating exchange as he (acknowledging how calm Abel is) asks "Aren't you worried?" and Abel always answers with "Would it help?"

Much like its main character, the story begins as fairly modest but it gets better and better as it progresses, especially when some big turning points come into play. And Spielberg makes sure to provoke some nice emotion toward the cathartic end. And then of course, this is Tom Hanks here. Did anyone really expect him not to be good in this?

Bridge of Spies is an engaging story of just how damned complicated things can get when a lot of different people at-odds are trying to do the job that they were sent to do.

* 8.5/10 *

Monday, October 19, 2015

[Review] Crimson Peak

The always highly anticipated Guillermo del Toro has stressed that his latest effort Crimson Peak is a Gothic Romance instead of a Horror film. And in one of the film's opening scenes, the main character says the line "It's not a ghost story... it's a story that has a ghost in it," as she attempts to get her manuscript published. But don't get either of them twisted, this thing is still creepy.

Edith (Mia Wasikowska), a wide-eyed aspiring author, meets an aristocrat named Thomas (Tom Hiddleston). After a lengthy and loaded first act, the two eventually get married and move into Thomas' family mansion. It's quite a shabby and eerie place, which is a severe understatement. Snow falls through the deteriorating roof and the foundation is sinking into the ground. Oh yeah, and translucent skeletal ghouls lurk around (similar to the entity in 2013's del Toro produced Mama). Thomas' sister Lucille (an impressively vile Jessica Chastain) also occupies the quarters. From there, Edith grows weary as she attempts to unveil the secrets of Crimson Peak.

As expected, all of the visuals are extremely vivid and on-point, and there is a plethora of Perfect Shot candidates. Aside from the exquisite period flair and costume design, the densely detailed sets glow with shades of green and amber (and yes, crimson) among the shadowy corridors. Del Toro bestows his classic insect motif as moths hover around dusted lamps and flutter along tattered walls. The acoustics are nightmarishly amplified--every creek, croak, pound, and ghastly gust of wind commands attention. Between all the noises and dripping goop, the mansion essentially becomes its own character, ironically alive with deadness.

The story itself leaves more to be desired, especially by Guillermo standards. And the human characters are a bit flat, unmemorable (although Lucille's menace will stick with you), and clipped with questionable motives. But del Toro still strongly delivers with his sense-inducing aesthetics. Even when he claims he's not trying to scare your pants off, he still does a pretty good job at it.


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

[Review] 99 Homes

Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon star in this intense recession drama, which seriously turns out to be like the Scarface of real estate.

Set in Miami during the housing market collapse, Nash (Garfield) is a struggling construction worker, living with his mother (Laura Dern) and son. Nash and his son appear to be more like big brother and little brother instead of father and son, but that's beside the point. They're on the verge of getting evicted. Meanwhile, Carver (Shannon)--a realtor/banker/punisher is capitalizing by flipping foreclosed homes and employing some schemes that aren't 100% legitimate (but not 100% illegitimate, either). Carver eventually comes knocking on Nash's door, like a shark that smells blood or the devil dressed in all white. It's a difficult scene to watch, even though we realize it's the law.

But Carver notices a fire in Nash, and he offers him a job involving some not-so-routine maintenance and repair duties. Nash moves up the rankings, and pretty soon he's in the position of doing exactly what Carver initially did to him. The main conflict arises here. On one hand, Nash sympathizes with the recipients of eviction. On the other, he begins seeing the biggest checks of his life and he wants to get his family out of the crappy motel where they're staying.

The film is a series of harsh, but perversely engrossing scenes. The narrative refrains from getting too scoldingly preachy with its aim, even as Carver drops some ugly bombs of truth about winners & losers in America. But the film's morality tale doesn't lie within the actual idea of eviction or the plot to make a business off of other people's downfalls (just like how George Clooney's character in 2009's Oscar nominee Up in the Air made a living by firing people, or like how funeral services thrive off of death). The morality tale actually lies within the classic ills of greed and corruption of the system, as well as the repercussions, trickling effects, and cyclical nature of it all.

Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon are both terrific here. Garfield convincingly plays an everyman caught between a rock and a hard place, bursting with emotional turmoil and desperation. Following his run as Spider-Man in the less-than-stellar reboot, it was almost forgotten how good he was in The Social Network, but he certainly reminds us of his chops here. And then there's the excellent, show-stealing Michael Shannon. Few people play the cold-hearted enforcer as well as him (I mean, he did star in a movie called The Iceman), especially considering his haunting cop-turned-gangster role in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire". In 99 Homes, he's chilling as this intimidating, stone-faced, crooked and complex mogul that seems to have been incarnated specifically just for him.

* 8.5/10 *

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

[Review] Knock Knock

Knock Knock is Eli Roth's second film to release this year (the other was the troubled Green Inferno). Here, he's tapped Keanu Reeves as the main character, who made a victorious return in last year's excellent revenge thriller John Wick. This shock-farce film is not so excellent.

Evan (Reeves) and his family are a pretty happy bunch (to the point of being cheesy) living in the Hollywood Hills. His wife and kids take off for the weekend, and he has the house to himself. His wife keeps jokingly telling him not to do anything crazy or have any parties while they're gone, which means--of course something is going to go down. That night, Evan receives thee "knock, knock" on the door, and it's two lost young women (Ana de Armas & Lorenza Izzo) who got caught in the rain. Evan invites them in to dry off and use his phone. Things begin nonchalant, but the seduction builds pretty steadily, no matter how much Evan attempts to resist. And I'll leave it at that for now.

From the get-go, we realize this film doesn't take itself too seriously, at all. Generic Lifetime-esque suspenseful music plays as the camera weaves through the home and shows a couple goofy looking pictures of the family (one is Keanu holding a small dog and smiling). In an opening bedroom scene between Evan and his wife, Keanu's character cringe-worthily talks in third person as a "MONSTER".

With this sort of film it's best not to know too much going in, but yes, things do get real weird. Some role reversals subvert the typical expectations as things go from raunchy to creepy to dangerous. But even though the story is very intriguing for a while, and Keanu is amusing to watch in this setting, the premise actually wears thin over the duration and loses any steam that it had. And the fact that none of it amounts to a payoff certainly doesn't help either. You get the feeling that the film isn't as suspenseful, funny, or entertaining as it wants to be. At one point, Keanu's character is strapped to a bed, and he asks, "What is the point of this?" I began wondering the same thing.


Monday, October 12, 2015

[Review] Goodnight Mommy

The eerie trailer for the horror film Goodnight Mommy caused quite a stir on the Internet. But given this Austrian film's (limited only) stateside release this month, there was a good chance that a lot of the people that were excited for this wouldn't get to see it unless they're lucky enough to have it playing at a theater near them, or if they make the effort to seek it out online. Turns out, the film itself is less accessible than even some of the acclaimed American indie horrors we've seen recently, and it falls even further on the arthouse side. But of course, that isn't a bad thing

Two young brothers live in a sleek, fairly modern home with their mother (Susanne Wuest). So any old-fashioned dust, creeks, or haunts are thrown out the window here. The mother's face is covered in bandages, donning an appearance reminiscent of the 1960 French-Italian film Eyes Without a Face. The film never outright states it, but we guess she's recovering from plastic surgery.

This moves at very deliberate and quiet pace, but it maintains a creepy atmosphere. The house's blinds are always closed (the mother doesn't want any sunlight to get in), and it seems to be manifesting cockroaches. Darkened eyes and maniacal smiling wounds seep through the mother's bandages, making it even scarier whenever she sneaks up behind the boys when they're not expecting it. And it isn't just her face--she acts strange in general, like she's in some sort of mysterious daze.

Goodnight Mommy carries the type of plot in which, for a while, you don't really know exactly what any of it means or where it's going. So, you just have to sit back and wait for things to happen with the assumption that it's building toward something. And it definitely is. The mother begins acting more and more insane--to the point where the boys don't even think it's their own mom anymore.

In respect to the spirit of the film, I don't want to give away much more. But I will say, Goodnight Mommy patiently amounts to a disturbing and high quality horror film that should certainly be sought out. It doesn't quite pack the substantial wallop of The Babadook or It Follows, but it deserves to be mentioned in that same, uneasy class.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

[Review] The Walk

3D is an often sore subject among film stalwarts, and for good reason. Most of the time it's just unnecessary, and it even has the potential to make the images worse by blurring and darkening. Then, when films come along that do utilize the 3D well (like Gravity, and this year's Everest), there's always debate whether the 3D experience is the main reason why they succeed, and there's a risk of gimmickry. The Walk uses the technology well, and it also has compelling elements to go with it.

Based on the true, incredible story of Philippe Petit's walk across a tightrope between the Twin Towers of World Trade Center in 1974 (and yes, there was already a well-received documentary on this called Man on Wire), The Walk dramatizes the events with immense success. Robert Zemeckis' film opens with an evocative shot of the Towers in angelic-like light from the perspective of the Statue of Liberty. Here, our protagonist Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) enters the picture, breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to us (he narrates throughout the story). He takes us back to his early days as a quirky street performer in Paris, to the climax of his career. JGL's French accent is a bit shaky, but it seems to get more tolerable as the film goes along. He actually ends up embodying the character, and it results in an impressive performance.

The film carries a spunky tone of nimbleness that the trailers did not convey. These flashback scenes are in black & white, while mixing in some standout objects of primary color--in a way reminiscent of Gary Ross' Pleasantville or Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish. The playfully gleaming musical score adds a circusy and magical touch, and there's some imaginative editing that displays the progression of Philippes skills. The stylish flairs push the film closer to the Michel Gondry side than anticipated, and it's welcomed. During this time, there is a lot of humor, and Ben Kingsley hops on as Philippe's mentor (another aspect that the trailer never conveyed).

Once Philippe journeys to NYC, a lot of extensive planning and preparation takes place, and the film transitions into an engaging heist thriller (except they're not attempting to steal anything), as well as a moving tribute to the buildings that are no longer there. Even knowing how everything turns out, the film still keeps the intensity high, especially as the characters are pushed to the edge, figuratively and literally. The actual Walk is guaranteed to be the most breathtaking setpiece you'll see all year (seriously--your palms will sweat). The entire sequence is both triumphant and gorgeous, as Philippe's "there is no why" dream culminates, and the camera presents some chilling aerial views and money shots. They always tell you to not look down, and this film definitely looks down.

* 9/10 *

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

[Review] A Brilliant Young Mind

The title-y challenged X+Y, now released in the US as A Brilliant Young Mind (which isn't much better, since it sounds awfully close to another film about a genius, A Beautiful Mind), is also bland and unengaging.

It revolves around Nathan (Asa Butterfield), who is a mathematical mastermind, and his relationship (a non-nasty one) with his constantly stressed and agitated teacher Mr. Humphreys (Rafe Spall). He gets accepted to a prestigious math squad, in which they'll travel to Taiwan to train. Meanwhile, his mother Julie (played by the always great Sally Hawkins) develops a thing for Mr. Humphreys. But Asa, still reeling from the death of is father, isn't having it.

The slow pace, lack of aim, and the fact that--for most people--math competitions aren't really something to get fired up about (a big apology to any of my former math teachers that might be reading this) prevents the film from sparking major intrigue. Just when you think things might pick up (an hour in), those plot strands don't particularly amount to anything. And unlike this year's chess thriller Pawn Sacrifice, the story actually depends a bit on your interest in the subject at hand.

There might have been potential for a good movie in here somewhere, but the formula is wack.


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

[Review] The Intern

Previews for The Intern conveyed a film of light fare with a charming cast in Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway (yes, I like Anne hathaway), and that's exactly what it is--just as advertised.

Dan (De Niro), our main character, opens the film with a touching monologue about getting old--whether it's doing things to keep busy, witnessing more funerals of friends than you want to, and attempting to fill in any holes within your life. He decides to apply for an internship at a fashion company run by Jules (Hathaway). The geriatric jokes start flying as they ask him questions: "What did you major in, do you remember?" "Where do you see yourself in 10 years?" Anyway, he lands the internship, and despite being triple the age of most of his counterparts, he becomes a productive and integral part of the group.

But here's the thing--What exactly are the stakes? Are we going to be devastated if he doesn't get hired? And if he does get hired, is it going to be that much of surprise? This is the problem the film has. While enjoyable, it doesn't really go anywhere. It mostly comes down to whether or not Dan finds whatever purpose he's seeking out. That's all fine and dandy, but in this situation it's a pretty thin narrative stretched over two hours. You get the feeling that you could step away for a chunk of the film and you wouldn't really miss anything of major significance.

The film does deliver a few delightful moments though, especially as Dan takes on a fatherly bond the younger people. As far as De Niro's performance, we all know he can be 'tough guy' and 'scary guy', but it's nice to see him in vulnerable roles like this as well. Anne Hathaway is perfectly likable here. Seriously, is there a legit reason why so many people on the Internet express disdain for her? So, it's all the better that she plays a glass ceiling smashing CEO in this story.

As expected, the film brings on some sweetness toward its clumsy and unfocused ending, but it's just too long of a process to get there.


Monday, October 5, 2015

[Review] The Martian

The trailer for The Martian dropped when people were still trying to wrap their heads around Interstellar. And with clips of Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon engaging in some outer spacecapades, it looked as though The Martian might be an untimely Round 2. However, the film is much more accessible and less divisive than Interstellar, as director Ridley Scott leans more toward Spielbergian tone, rather than Nolan-esque.

Mark (Matt Damon) is involved in a high profile exploration on Mars, along with his fellow astronauts (played by Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, and Kate Mara). A nasty windstorm suddenly picks up, and they're forced to flee back to headquarters. But in the process, Mark gets struck with debris and disappears into the abyss. The disheartened crew assumes he's dead and begin the journey home. Little do they know, Mark emerges from the sand the next 'Sol', still alive and left alone to survive until a rescue mission (which might take at least 4 years) ensues. It goes without saying that it's an extremely difficult and complicated task, and the odds are grim, but the film's premise itself is much less complex than Interstellar's dimension transcending.

It's a gripping plot, and it never lets up. The narrative holds enough obstacles, dilemmas, and high stakes to give you gray hair. But there is a lot of humor and optimism to balance things out. However, just when Mark experiences some success, the film reminds us how fragile, dangerous, and near impossible the situation is. Back on Earth, NASA is dealing with problems as well. They need to figure out how to communicate with Mark and how the heck to get him back in one piece, all while attempting to maintain their own reputation with the public (it doesn't look good if photos of a dead body on the planet's surface release). The loaded cast on Earth includes: Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean (the film's tone is open enough to slide in a Lord of the Rings reference), and Donald Glover. They're all very solid, but in regards to Donald Glover--it's hard to buy into the idea that Troy from "Community" turned out to be an astrophysicist.

The previews mostly entailed Matt Damon calmly talking into cameras, but he actually gives a really good physical and emotional performance. We see his highs and lows, and his determination to keep going forward, even though in the back of his mind he knows that death could be a minute away. And unless it was a body stand-in, there's a dramatic weight-loss later on. That, combined with his beard growth, makes him end up looking like very unhealthy Leonardo DiCaprio by the end. As far as visuals, the film is full of beauty and danger. We get some nice terrain views of a dusted brown Mars and spacecraft spinning through the galaxy. There's a neat montage that is backed by David Bowie's "Starman", and the sequence comes at such a great time that we forgive the too on-the-nose choice of music. And the film packs an intense climax that is totally reminiscent of 2013's sensation Gravity.

I get the feeling that if we hadn't already just witnessed the technical chops and space grandeur of Interstellar and Gravity, The Martian would thrill more. Also, Neil deGrasse Tyson is probably calling out the holes and scientific inaccuracies as we speak, but it's still a hell of a story to tell.

* 8.5/10 *

Thursday, October 1, 2015

[Review] Sicario

Directer Denis Villeneuve has quite the resume going with brutal and hard-hitting films like Incendies, Prisoners, and Enemy (to a lesser extent). He brings that same heaviness, murky morality, and harsh imagery to his latest effort, Sicario.

Chandler, Arizona. FBI Agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) leads a SWAT team into a house that is connected to the Sinaloa drug cartel, and they find some nasty surprises (the media later names it the "House of Horrors"). Following that, Kate is recruited by a Special Forces unit that includes Josh Brolin and a mysterious 'one word answer' giving hitman played by a scary Benicio Del Toro. Their goal is to journey into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico in order to take the Cartel down from the top--cutting the snake's head off, so-to-speak. Speaking of snakes, the film boasts a frequent amount of overhead shots (in the same way #TrueDetectiveSeason2 captured LA), and the camera characterizes the city as a giant snake pit with it's windy roads, rocky deserts, and underground tunnel entrances.

Emily Blunt's character is tossed into some highly dangerous zones without having much background information about the specific situations or instruction about what exactly the mission entails, so in a way, it feels like we're on the unpredictable ride with her. There's a constant uneasiness to the film. Even when the crew isn't amid action, there's an ever-present anticipation knowing that some heart-racing shit is about to go down. There's a particularly intense and visually stimulating night-vision scene where the squad invades an occupied drug transportation tunnel. The sequence is actually reminiscent of some of the stuff from Kathryn Bigelow's contemporary war films The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.

As if there weren't already enough combat, conflict arises within the group and certain reveals are made (I won't delve much further into that). And I can't go without mentioning the solid performances here. Emily Blunt continues to prover her versatility, and Josh Brolin engages in a patented Josh Brolin role. But the one that will strike you the most is Benicio Del Toro. He's a quiet, haunted assassin with a major grudge and his stone facial expressions say everything.

Like Prisoners, Sicario packs enough substance to warrant a second viewing, of course--only if you're willing to put yourself through it all again.

* 8.5/10 *