Sunday, September 30, 2012

Looper Review

Rian Johnson broke out onto the scene with 2005's neo-noir film Brick, which introduced the genre into a high school setting unlike anything that's ever been made.  Continuing his tradition of inventive filmmaking, in Looper Johnson spins the time-travel genre on its head.  Reuniting with Brick alumnus/current coolest guy in the world Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the film takes place in 2044, where  time travel has yet to be invented. JGL acts as a hitman (called "loopers") for future mob bosses who come to his service when they need to dispose of someone without any evidence.  The target is sent back in time, where JGL immediately shoots them dead with a badass gun called a blunderbuss.  Of course, the target must be killed right away and can't escape or else the crime lords are gonna kick your ass; the twist comes along when JGL's next target is his future self (played by Bruce Willis), and hijinks ensue.

Rian Johnson's style can be hit or miss (he's directed two controversial episodes of Breaking Bad, one involving a fly and the other a certain dubstep musical number), but he always succeeds at bringing a unique vision to the screen.  In Looper, there's a very dark, realistic tone despite its sci-fi premise that reminded me a lot of Inception.  The time-travel itself was handled extremely well and the 'rules' of the movie are shown rather than explained.  I love that it doesn't insult the audience's intelligence, with more visual storytelling going on than straightforward exposition, and that it moves at a brisk pace.  Like any great film, I had no idea what was going to happen scene to scene.

A lot of people online are mentioning how JGL looks, but I think they pulled it off great.  The makeup crew tried to fix up his face to look more like Bruce Willis, and I think it added just the right amount of similarity without going into a "total transformation" territory like Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln. He also brings out a tough-guy furrowed brow and a gruff accent that made it totally believable that Willis and JGL were the same guy.  I also thought Emily Blunt was great too; she plays a southern girl in this and her heavy british accent is completely replaced.  Making short but substantial appearances are Paul Dano who plays another looper in the film, and Jeff Daniels, who plays JGL's boss.  I do wish that Dano was used more though, considering he is a somewhat 'headline' actor.

I'll wrap it up now, but really any true cinema lover needs to see this.  Like any time travel movie (except for maybe Timecrimes) there are some plot holes here and there, but the story, characters, emotion, and action are so well choreographed that it didn't bother me at all (in fact Bruce Willis even has a line like 'I'm not going to pull out straws and make a diagram of how this stuff works').  In my book, Rian Johnson can now be placed in the same league as a Chris Nolan; there's just a certain level of filmmaking going on here that I love seeing and wish there was more of in mainstream action movies and I can't wait to see what else he has in store for us.

Rating: A-

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Guns and Baseball

Dredd 3D:

If any comic book franchise needed a reboot it's Judge Dredd.  The character's other appearance on the silver screen was a complete wreck with an indecipherable Sylvester Stallone playing the titular Dredd, co-starring with, of all people, Adam Sandler co-hort Rob Schneider.  Yup, it's bad.  But the silver lining was that now, in 2012, we're seeing the Dredd that should have been, in all it's slick, explosive glory.  The plot is basically a less awesome version of The Raid, where Judge Dredd and his psychic partner Anderson (Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby) are locked inside an apartment complex and fight an onslaught of bad guys for the whole movie.

Whether or not you enjoy this film really comes down to personal taste.  There are lots of bullets flying, really breathtaking uses of visual effects, and some nice sprinkles of deadpan humor, but this just wasn't my bag.  What you see is what you get with Dredd 3D - there's no real story, subtext, interesting character development - it's just pure carnage for an hour and a half.  There were some cool touches, like Dredd's gun and how it could change ammunition types (like in a video game) and the drug that the bad guys would use on their victims before throwing them off of the tower.  Actually called 'slow-mo', the inhalent makes your brain functioning decelerate, making the long fall down seem like an eternity.  During these scenes the camera slows down thousands of times and what is captured is actually kind of beautiful.  But besides its technical achievements, this is not something I'll want to come back to see, especially when The Raid was the same thing but showcased a lot more real physical talent and different moves - Dredd 3D is just "Bullets: The Movie."

Rating: C

Trouble with the Curve:

Clint Eastwood's late career has been self-typecast as the grumpy old man - a trend I thought would apex at Gran Torino.  But no, we have not seen the last of Eastwood's "grump" films; in Trouble with the Curve, Clint is an aging widow with a detached relationship with his daughter (Amy Adams).  Living the wonder years, his natural talent of baseball draft-picking is starting to deteriorate with his vision, along with some other body parts (we get a nice sequence of him struggling to urinate right at the beginning of the film).  There's really not much to this movie; it's incredibly predictable, there's not much going on that's terribly interesting, and Justin Timberlake is thrown in for no reason other than to have a love interest for Adams.  The only thing I enjoyed were the performances by Clint and Adams, who were pretty convincing at playing off each other, but even with strong lead performances this is a chore to sit through.  Moneyball did baseball better and Robot and Frank did sad/sweet old man better; Trouble with the Curve is a swing-and-a-miss.

Rating: C-

Sunday, September 23, 2012

House at the End of Watch

House at the End of the Street:

House at the End of the Street is not only a difficult title to say out loud multiple times, it's also the latest star-vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence, the breakout leading lady from 2010's Winter's Bone who has gone on to just a few small parts, like Mystique in X-Men: First Class and Katniss in The Hunger Games, nothing major.  Who knows, maybe she'll catch her break some day.  The plot is about Lawrence and her mother, played by Elisabeth Shue, moving to a new place after what smells like a rough divorce.  The place that they got for cheap happens to be inexpensive because the next door neighbors had some grisly murders; the whole family is dead save for a young man played by Max Thieriot, who lives there on his own in his family's murder house (nothing sketchy there).  Of course Lawrence falls for this guy and gets in over her head finding out the "secrets" of the murders.

This film, as generic and un-noteworthy as it is, I found to be entertaining in a mindless drive-in kind of way.  Certainly the script is nothing remarkable, but Jennifer Lawrence elevates the material enough that it was, dare I say, just a fun time at the movies.  Not everything has to be the Citizen Kane of their respective genre. I will simply file this under my 'guilty pleasures' tab, along with Green Lantern and Spider-Man 3.

Rating: B-

End of Watch:

David Ayer is no stranger to police dramas, with nearly his entire filmography composed of films centering on the LAPD, most notably Training Day.  In End of Watch Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pina star as two cops out doing their thing on the violent streets of South Central.  Jake's character always carries around a video camera and often tapes their misadventures (so it feels very much like an episode of Cops).  I ended up really digging this movie not necessarily because of the story - it boils down to them fighting against cookie-cutter Mexican cartel members - but the relationship between the two guys was so realistic and well handled.  Their respective performances were so good that when shit goes down, I was on the edge of my seat.  There are many 'oh shit' moments in this movie and my audience actually gasped multiple times.  If I have one complaint it's that the whole 'caught on camera' aspect was totally unnecessary and distracting, especially when maybe five or six times throughout the movie, characters will say: "Hey, get that damn camera outta my face!"  Other than that, I'd say End of Watch is worth a watch or two.

Rating: B+

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Killer Joe & The Imposter

Killer Joe:

All the damn critics said that this is a gloriously sleazy piece of work from director William Friedkin (The Exorcist), showing that he still has 'it' in him.  Killer Joe, based on a play by Tracy Letts who also wrote the film, brings a new definition to the term 'dysfunctional family.'  The plot surrounds this redneck unit consisting of Ansel, played by Thomas Hayden Church, Chris, his son played by Emile Hirsch, his daughter Dottie (Juno Temple), and their slutty stepmom Sharla (Gina Gershon).  Ansel and Chris get the idea to hire a hit man to kill his mom in order to get the insurance money and contract a dirty Dallas cop named Killer Joe, played devilishly by Matthew McConaughey, to get the job done.

Being a huge horror fan I can usually find some entertainment in darkly comic subject matter, but this I felt stepped over a line.  Just something about it felt too exploitative for comfort.  Maybe that's the point, but personally I couldn't enjoy this.  Juno Temple plays a character that is underaged, and often shows full frontal nudity for no reason, with the camera always leering at her butt in her shorts.  The last 15-20 minute extended scene goes completely over the top into 'what the fuck did I just watch' territory; aside from some of the interesting ideas and boundary-pushing depictions of luridness (it totally earns its NC-17 rating), I found Killer Joe to lack anything meaningful behind the carnage.

Rating: C-

The Imposter:

Another one of those movies I knew nothing about beforehand.  This is a documentary told very similarly to an episode of Dateline, with talking heads and actors' reenactments, only told more cinematically (I guess more like The Thin Blue Line).  Like Compliance, the less you know about this going in the better, and also like Compliance, it will definitely make you think.  I absolutely loved this, it's an incredible story told from a unique perspective; hard to imagine it wouldn't make my top ten at the end of the year.

Rating: A

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Grab-bag of Indies

The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson is not a stranger to challenging his audience.  The ending of Magnolia will force you to scratch your head, There Will Be Blood is drawn-out and contemplative, and The Master just might be the least comprehensible work of his yet.  The story follows a WWII veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) who has a bit of a violent streak and a drinking problem after the war.  Basically now a lost soul, he stumbles his way onto a ship setting to sea that happens to be under the control of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a self-proclaimed prophet and leader of the group only known as "The Cause."

If I could describe The Master in one word it would be 'odd.'  It can be pretty confusing at times figuring out what the film is trying to say, but usually the performances by the two leads are so good it ends up more intriguing than frustrating.  Phoenix and Hoffman are definitely giving 110%, especially Phoenix who so convincingly plays a truly broken down man.  Every second he's on screen you're not sure what he's going to do; it's an absolutely brilliant performance that deserves an Oscar nom at the very least.  The movie just has this odd vibe, especially with Jonny Greenwood's score, that I'm just not sure about.  I loved watching Hoffman and Phoenix go at it together on screen, but I wouldn't necessarily rush out to see this again (unlike Anderson's other films which I love).  Might take a repeat viewing to fully appreciate it, but it's weird, well acted, and takes a jab at phony cult leaders.

Rating: B-

Sleepwalk with Me

Sleepwalk with Me is a kind of autobiographical dramedy from comedian Mike Birbiglia.  This movie follows his early days as a stand up comedian, balancing his life between work and his girlfriend and dealing with a sleepwalking problem at the same time.  This is kind of a by-the-books indie comedy, but it still lands on its feet.  Co-starring as Birbiglia's semi-fiance is Lauren Ambrose, playing the "perfect" girlfriend pretty well, and Birbiglia does a good job playing himself; though an unlikable guy on paper, he comes across as genuine.  I loved the stand-up aspect of the movie, showing him seriously bombing at the beginning, and getting laughs only when he starts putting his personal problems on the stage.  It has some interesting insights on relationships, has a great cameo by Marc Maron (of the WTF Podcast), and has some cringeworthy scenes of doing badly on stage. It's pretty slight on the movie spectrum, but a solid movie worth seeing.

Rating: B

Beasts of the Southern Wild

This film has been recieving a lot of buzz and has gotten awards up the ying yang.  The film follows a little girl named Hushpuppy and her father in an outskirt named "the bathtub." Harking back to imagery of Hurricane Katrina, the town is almost entirely washed out, and due to global warming, is only getting worse.  The film, while not having a straightforward plot, is a coming-of-age story for Hushpuppy as she learns to grow up and defend herself in this dangerous, wild world.

The world-building in this film was really cool, and "the bathtub" is not a place you'll forget about.  For a first-time director, Benh Zeitlin did an incredible job bringing us into this very unique setting.  Also the two leads (and first-time actors) Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry are great together, portraying a father-daughter relationship that may be tough on some viewers, but I found to be beautifully realistic.  He is tough on his daughter, and he drinks too much, but he is sincere and wants her to be strong.  While it's not a perfect film, I think the fantastical world that is created is worth delving into, and the allegory to recent disasters and global warming make this tale all the more relevant; I guess you could say that this is the film that Where The Wild Things Are wanted to be.

Rating: B


I knew pretty much nothing about this film going in and I'm so glad about that.  The less you know the better, but I'd just like to say that I have not had more of a physiological response to a film than any other this year.  It's not easy to watch, but for a low-budget movie like this I found it completely engrossing all the way through.  Plus it's based on a true story, which ends up being both infuriating and devastating.  If you have a chance, please see Compliance!

Rating: A

By the way...if you see a typo or grammatical error feel free to tell me and I'll change it.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Moonshine, exorcisms, and robots

Quick reviews again guys; during the school year (unless it's something as earth-shattering as The Dark Knight Rises) I'm just gonna stick to the 1-2 paragraph cluster reviews...if that's OK with you.


Lawless is the latest star-studded picture from John Hillcoat, director of the gritty film The Road.  Lawless follows a band of bootleggers, the Bondurant Brothers, as they make their moonshine in peace and sell it to the cops, who in turn look the other way.  But once Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) steps into the picture, the boys have to hide their criminal actions from the sniveling eyebrow-less jerk.  This film has some redeeming qualities, but was completely bland and wasted the talents of a magnificent cast.  Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Guy Pearce, even Shia LeBeouf added what little depth they could to their paper-thin characters.   The sets and costumes were really great, the Prohibition-era was captured perfectly, and I liked that they didn't hold back on the violence - if only a solid, intriguing story surrounded it.

Rating: C

Robot and Frank

This quirkly little indie drama really took me by surprise.  I had only found out about it moments before heading to the theater, so I had no idea what kind of flick I was about to see.  Basically Frank Langella plays an old guy who is getting to that age where he needs assistance and it's taking a toll on his son to take care of him.  So one day, Frank's son gets him a robot to help around the house.  At first Frank despises his new companion, but learns to get along once he finds out he will do whatever he asks it to do.  I don't want to give away what happens, but I just want to say that this film was really heartfelt and genuine.  Langella is so good in this gem of a movie that blends drama, comedy, and sci-fi perfectly.  The only problem I had was that the budget was easy to see through sometimes.  You could tell on occasion that the robot was really a person in a suit, and although there are some hints of the new technology used in this not-too-distant future, I think there was room for maybe some more cool gadgets.  Overall though, it's great, see it if you can!

Rating: B+

The Possession

The tired genre of exorcism films just got sleepier with The Possession, the latest from Sam Raimi's production company Ghost House Pictures.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays a divorced dad whose daughter buys an old box at a garage sale.  Unfortunately for her, the box is possessed by a demon, who happens to possess children.  This flick is so by-the-numbers it's sad.  There's not a shred of originality in here.  The direction and acting is all 'fine,' but there's no reason for this film to exist other than an exorcise in the exorcism genre.

PS, there's no way this is based on a true story.  False advertising.

Rating: C
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