Monday, April 28, 2014

Summer 2014 Box Office Predictions

(Pretend the fish is money and Toothless is a Hollywood producer)

It almost feels like summer's already started with Captain America: The Winter if May 2nd wasn't early enough. This summer is a little tough to predict because of all the sequels and superheroes - there's not one "original" movie on my list (not based off of another property).  I'm not sure how tired audiences will get of these action flicks, so maybe there will be a few surprises here and there.  But I've placed my bets and here they are.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Oculus, Transcendence, Jodorowsky's Dune

Hey guys -- sorry if these reviews sound rushed...that's because they were.  I'm finishing up my last undergrad year, so I have to sneak these movies in whenever I can! I plan on writing up my Summer 2014 box office predictions soon, so look forward to that (and maybe you could play along, if you're cool).  Anyway, thanks for reading, and Happy Easter!

Dir. Wally Pfister
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Wally Pfister, the go-to cinematographer for Christopher Nolan, marks his directorial debut with this sci-fi story written by first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen.  The film had been on the Hollywood 'black list' for a number of years before finally being picked up; the movie is about an artificial intelligence researcher, Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), who is shot by a radical anti-technology group with a radioactive bullet.  To save his life, his partner (Paul Bettany) and his wife (Rebecca Hall), plug all the information in his brain into a computer.  However, once in there, Dr. Caster kind of turns into HAL from 2001 and you can imagine that things don't go too well.

While the philosophical ideas in the movie are interesting, the film ultimately has the same emotional heft as a computer program.  All the actors, while not "bad," are clearly phoning it in here, the plot borders on total implausibility, and most surprising, the visual aspects weren't even that great.  If anything, I would have expected this film to have a certain amount of visual flair, coming from a cinematographer, but it really looks dull and generic.  The film just jumps ahead in time when it's convenient, and at times the film was somewhat confusing. The whole idea that a human consciousness can be uploaded into a computer is really interesting, but the rest of the film just didn't do anything with it, pretty much devolving into a really crappy love story.

Rating: C-

Dir. Mike Flanagan
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Recently, the horror genre hasn't exactly been doing so great - especially in America.  Mostly we just see remakes, sequels, prequels, or just plain rip-offs, but every once in a while someone comes around and surprises with a little gem (like Mama from last year).  I think Oculus is one of those films; while it isn't the most original horror flick out there, I think it does handle the psychological/supernatural horror angle really well, and despite a very weak beginning and predictable ending, I found the middle of this movie to be really interesting stuff.  The movie is basically about this brother and sister, who as kids make a pact to destroy this mirror, which supposedly causes people to kill themselves/others (aka it's haunted).

The film pulls a "Godfather II" and flashes back between the siblings' past and present to explain what's happening, and the way the film toys with perceptions of reality is really well done.  The acting from the two leads leaves something to be desired (it looks as if the producers just wanted to hire some young hot models to sell tickets), but the kids, especially the girl played by Annalise Basso, were great and the parents in the flashbacks (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff) gave me a Duvall/Nicholson Shining vibe.  All in all, I think Oculus is a solidly put together supernatural horror movie.  It does fall to some of the bad cliches of the genre (like the pointless 'jump scares'), but its positives outweigh the negatives in my opinion.  And one scene involving an apple is one of the cringiest things I've seen in a horror film in a while.

Rating: B

Jodorowsky's Dune
Dir. Frank Pavich
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Alejandro Jodorowsky is a cult filmmaker most widely known for having created the first "midnight movie," El Topo (1970), and went on to direct the equally influential and trippy The Holy Mountain (1973).  But after those projects, his next plan was to adapt the epic 1965 sci-fi novel Dune - a huge visionary undertaking that would require a huge budget and lots of talent.  This documentary from Frank Pavich recounts the history of Jodorowsky's unproduced film, which very well may be one of the "most important films never made."

Having influenced such films as Star Wars and Alien, it was really fascinating to see this film's undeniable impact without even having ever been produced.  Guiding us through the history is Jodorowsky himself, who at the age of 85 still has so much life left in him.  The movie also brings many of his original storyboards to life, giving a taste as to what the project may have looked like (if anything it would've likely been better than David Lynch's Dune, which was such a huge bomb critically and commercially that Lynch erased his name off of some of the prints).  Jodorowsky's Dune is about a man who would literally die for his movie, and the strength it takes to be ambitious and be able to fail on such a large level.  I really enjoyed this movie, and you don't have to be familiar with Jodorowsky's work or Dune to enjoy it (though it may enhance your viewing).

Rating: B+

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Raid 2, Under the Skin, Joe

The Raid 2
Dir. Gareth Evans

The Raid, a spellbindingly violent martial-arts action movie from Indonesia, blew the back of my head off when I first saw it.  The film, although extremely simple in the plot department (a SWAT team clears out a building floor by floor), made up for its basic story with some of the best hand-to-hand action scenes I've ever seen.  So Gareth Evans had a lot to live up to with his sequel, The Raid 2: Berandal - and in some ways it completely tops the first, and in others it made me wish for the more streamlined approach of its predecessor.  The Raid 2 is decidedly a much bigger film with a larger scope than the first, throwing away the simple "take out these guys floor by floor" formula.  The film picks up where the last left off, and the hero, Rama, is sent undercover into a crime syndicate to reveal police corruption.  

I thought the story was somewhat interesting, but it was pretty unbelievable at points (just to earn the criminal's trust, Rama has to spend TWO YEARS in prison, with no contact with his family) and it ended up being too complicated for its own good, going off on pointless side-plots.  Even though the ensuing action scenes were amazing, there was one random machete-wielding homeless character introduced halfway through the film for no apparent reason, and I was pretty lost throughout the film, losing track of the character relationships.  I hadn't seen the first Raid film since it came out three years ago, so without a refresher I was pretty dumbfounded as to what exactly was going on at first.  The movie is also way too long, clocking in at almost 2.5 hours.  

I think more time in the editing room would've helped this film along, but in the long run, the action scenes are worth the wait.  If you in any way like crazy, violent, Tarantino-esque action, you simply must see this film.  Every single fight is breathtaking, and if you get the chance to see it in a theater or with a crowd, do so because you can't help but wince at the sheer brutality of the fights (what these actors go through for the sake of entertainment is astonishing).  I don't want to spoil the fight scenes, but they are all different from one another so they don't grow stale and Evans isn't afraid to show the consequences.  While I wouldn't recommend this to anyone not really into the genre, fans of action movies need to stick through this film: it pays off!

Rating: B

Dir. David Gordon Green
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Nicolas Cage infamously has taken some questionable roles in the past...and by 'some' I mean 'mostly.'  Sure he managed to squeeze out an Academy Award win or nomination here and there, but I think Cage has mostly gone the route of M. Night Shyamalan and nobody takes him seriously anymore (if they ever did).  But, for whatever reason, David Gordon Green saw something fresh in the guy, and casted him in yet another Southern drama of his.  Joe feels very much like last year's Mud, which is no coincidence - they're both southern dramas that attempted to give a waning celebrity a career revival (Cage and McConaughey), they both have a lead character escaping from a criminal past, they both star Tye Sheridan playing a coming-of-age boy yearning for a father figure, Green was a co-producer on Mud, and they both have really terrible three-letter word titles.  Considering the timing of it, I couldn't help but compare the two films, and unfortunately, I think that negatively affected my view of the movie.

Joe is about a real rough-and-tumble guy, Joe (Nic Cage) who spends his blue-collar days chopping down trees, unflinchingly grabbing venomous snakes, and banging trailer trash women.  He hires a kid named Gary (Tye Sheridan) one day and the two form a bond - something he never got in his home life from his alcoholic, abusive father.  I don't want to give anything away, but basically Tye gets mixed up with some bad people, and the rest of the film may or may not spell tragedy for everyone involved. The world of this film was ultra-rundown and raw (I couldn't help but think of Chainsaw Massacre), and if it wasn't already clear from his past work, David Gordon Green knows how to bring this subculture to life. But I think critics are so excited that Cage is in a halfway decent role that they looked past all the problems with this movie.  I thought the script was pretty lackluster and nothing we haven't seen before; and Cage himself I didn't even think was that great - in my opinion his much younger co-star stole the show.  I just didn't get anything out of this movie other than 'life sucks.'  With Mud and even Beasts of the Southern Wild, I think there are much better films of this type lying around that you should watch instead.

Rating: C

Under the Skin
Dir. Jonathan Glazer
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Jonathan Glazer, director of Sexy Beast and a bunch of commercials and music videos, brings the sci-fi genre out of the exposition-heavy plots we're used to, and into the dark abyss of ambiguity in Under the Skin, based off a book by Michael Faber, which follows an alien in the form of Scarlett Johanssen who picks up guys, takes them back to her apartment (which is actually a trippy black metaphorical death room) and through context clues we figure she's harvesting their organs.  Although it sounds like a plot ripe for a blood-and-guts creature feature, the film is much more akin to a European art film, taking its sweet-ass time, letting each and every shot linger and speak for itself.  There's barely any dialogue throughout the movie, but for me it felt like pure "cinema" as the wonderful cinematography from Daniel Landin (another music video regular) and a very unsettling, bizarre score from Mica Levi wash over you as you try to piece together what these images actually mean.  It's a wholly original film, and by far the most unique I've seen this year, but if you're not in the right mindset you're going to find this a slog.

Johanssen is on a roll with her roles lately, and she's really showing off her range: she can go from this one character who barely speaks at all, to voicing the computer in Her, where she can only rely on the dialogue.  I think she was perfect casting as well because in the popular culture, she is more or less seen as an "object" for men to ogle at (most guys don't look forward to seeing her as Black Widow "for the plot"), and the film plays with the idea of this alien going from a blank-staring killing machine to an actual woman (or as film blogger Britt Hayes brilliantly put it: "from an 'it' to a 'she'").  Its very deliberately paced, but if you can get through it and don't mind when a film doesn't spell everything out for you (I literally didn't know what I was even looking at for the first 5 minutes), I think Under the Skin is a beautiful, weird, haunting movie that grew on me the more I thought about it.

Rating: B-

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Noah, Muppets: Most Wanted, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dir. Anthony & Joe Russo

I am tired of these superhero movies.  This is the ninth entry in the "Marvel Studios" franchise of films in only 6 years, and that doesn't even count all the DC and Marvel characters still under contract at other studios (like X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man).  There's only so many of these things I can take before it gets monotonous - but I do like the idea behind Marvel's plan.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier was decidedly marketed as more of a "political thriller" than a typical "hero's journey" sort of movie.  Although Winter Soldier actually is that prototypical superhero film, I do admire the extra effort to give it a sort of "Bourne" sheen.

The movie has Captain America (Chris Evans) now in the present and working for SHIELD under Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).  Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford, who somehow got talked into doing this), a high-ranking SHIELD offical and long-time "friend" of Nick Fury, is spearheading Project Insight: three giant helicarriers loaded with artillery used to eliminate threats before they even are threats (kind of like a half-explained version of Minority Report).  Obviously the controversial connotations of this death machine aren't up Cap's alley, and kind of obvious SPOILER here, but Pierce is not exactly working for the same team, if you catch my drift.  

I thought Winter Soldier, though vastly superior to both the first Captain America and Thor: The Dark World, still felt kind of ho-hum.  After hearing so much about how this was taking a 'political thriller' angle, I was really hoping it would use more of that stuff, but the film is ultimately still a rock-em sock-em action movie with just a sprinkling of politics. But I do have to admit, the action aspects of Winter Soldier are amazing. As opposed to Thor, who has these all-powerful god-powers, Captain America is more or less just a super-powerful guy, so the movie featured some fantastic hand-to-hand (and fist-to-face) action. Though I do wish the camera wasn't so shaky in parts (and it doesn't come anywhere close to The Raid), this film is worth watching just for the fun action set pieces.  One complaint I had about the first Captain America film is that he didn't utilize his shield very much - in this one, that shield is the coolest thing ever. Black Widow also gets a lot more to work with in this film than ever before, and Anthony Mackie is pretty great as the Falcon.  I do think though, that while the villain (the winter solider) was a physically intimidating force, was a pretty boring villain (pretty much exists for action purposes and to possibly set up the story for Captain America 3).  Overall, I did have fun with this movie, and I think fans of the Marvel films will love it, but ultimately I'm just growing tired of this genre as a whole.  I mean, there were three Marvel trailers playing before this God.

Rating: B-

Dir. Darren Aronofsky
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One thing is for sure: when Darren Aronofsky makes a movie about Noah's Ark, it won't exactly be the "cute smiling animals with a rainbow" version taught in Sunday School.  With Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream, Pi, The Wrestler, and The Fountain, in my mind Aronofsky has never disappointed, so I was very interested in this huge undertaking from a relatively "indie" director.  Now, I'm definitely no bible-buff, and I identify as an atheist so I don't have much opinion coming from a biblical standpoint, but I do think this was a fascinating film, and really did make an experience that shows how cruel "God" can be, and the decisions Noah has to make about saving animals over other people was thought-provoking and upsetting.

While I do wish this aspect was played up a little more and the fantastical elements toned down (there are literally giant rock things that walk around like the ents in Lord of the Rings), I think Aronofsky knew how to ground this biblical epic on a human level.  Russell Crowe is a bit of predictable casting, but no one is better than Crowe at delivering these types of performances.  Jennifer Connolly, playing Noah's wife, and Emma Watson, playing his adopted daughter, are also major stand-outs, and the final third of this film, though at times melodramatic, to me was extremely intense and dramatic between the family members left on the boat.  Aronofsky doesn't have a problem bringing up the issues with Noah himself, and how radical one's belief must be to basically kill off most of humanity.  The movie looks beautiful (though the animal CG was a little iffy) and I thought it was still distinctly an "Aronofsky" film, even though it's a big studio movie.  It may be one of my least favorites of his, but a lesser Aronofsky movie is still better than most directors' best.

Rating: B

Muppets: Most Wanted
Dir. James Bobin
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James Bobin and co. had a tough act to follow with The Muppets, which was a true comeback for the talking puppet franchise in every sense - it had fantastic music that rivaled that in any of the other films, it was perfectly sweet and nostalgic, and it was genuinely hilarious.  It just felt so great to see my favorite childhood characters re-introduced in such a grand way.  The problem with doing a sequel, however, is figuring out which direction to head in after that initial nostalgia factor has worn off; the story of The Muppets is all about the original gang getting back together - now that they are together it's tough to keep the fire burning.  What initially concerned me was the writers came up with a ridiculously cliche and "safe" choice: an "international heist" movie.  Even the parodies of this genre are past their prime, so I was pretty nervous about this one - but seriously, this is still a fantastic Muppet film that retains all that sharp self-aware wit and sing-along music (again supervised by Bret McKenzie).

The plot is basically about a Russian doppelganger frog, Constantine, who pretends to be Kermit (getting him out of the way by putting him in prison) and uses the Muppets' new tour as an excuse to steal various jewels and paintings around the world.  While the plot itself is pretty lame, it's more or less an excuse to have a constant springboard for jokes.  Along with the Muppet gang, there are tons of funny human characters in here as well, including Ricky Gervais as Constantine's "number two" man, Tina Fey as a Russian prison guard with a passion for musical theater, and dozens of celebrity cameos that I wouldn't dare spoil for your virgin ears.  So basically, it's everything I sort of wanted out of a Muppet sequel.  It may lack that same energy as its predecessor, and strangely feels much lower budgeted - but there's a joke-a-minute, ranging from word play to hilariously specific pop culture references to plenty of self-depricating humor.  I didn't expect that much (especially after that AWFUL trailer), but Muppets: Most Wanted is a solid follow-up to The Muppets.

Rating: B+
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