Thursday, February 27, 2014

[Review] About Last Night (2014)

Bernie (Kevin Hart) is the rambunctious horndog buddy of Danny (Michael Ealy), who is on the more romantic, Drakier side. Debbie (Joy Bryant) is subdued and conservative. She describes her friend Joan (Regina Hall) as the "crazy one." During a double-date, Bernie gets obliterated drunk with Joan and the two take off to the bathroom, while Danny and Debbie leave quietly and spark a relationship in typical rom-com fashion. 

About Last Night follows an acutely similar template to the 1986 original film of the same name. The plot is nearly beat-for-beat and some scenes and lines of dialogue are identical. It also uses conversational intercuts between the duos of counterparts. And thematically, the story explores the conflicts and dynamics of relationships, the undermining games that occur, and the push-and-pull between friends.

Even though it's nearly a copy (with a new cast), this film has a freshness that makes it more entertaining than the original. The length is shorter and the pacing is more succinct compared to the often lulling former version. Maybe most importantly, it's edgier, raunchier, and it provides bigger laughs, many thanks to Kevin Hart's comedic timing. Regina Hall and Kevin Hart hijack a riotous Thanksgiving scene, notably improving on the first.

Despite the upgrades, the film stays too similar to its predecessor, holding it back to just decent at best. The story loses its steam toward the end and dives into banal schmaltz. However, this modern rendition still has enough high points to please, but your total amount of satisfaction will ultimately depend on your relationship with this genre.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

[Review] 12 O'Clock Boys (Documentary)

Some say they terrorize the city, others say it's a positive form of escapism. 12 O'Clock Boys is a gripping look into an expanding group of dirt bike enthusiasts who ride through the city streets of West Baltimore, often performing dangerous stunts. The meaning of the "12 O'Clock" tag is gracefully revealed as the film opens, and it's better to see it than have it explained.

Pug, a wide-eyed runt with a big personality is the film's central protagonist. "I've been on this earth for a decade and a couple years, so what that makes me? I'm a grown-ass man!" he proclaims. Pug dreams of joining the 12 O'Clock Boys one day. It means absolutely everything to him.

The documentary is brilliantly layered, working as a glimpse into an interesting subculture, a portrait of West Baltimore and its socio-economic issues, and a story of a young kid trying to find his way though it all. The visuals are beautifully rendered, from the slow-motion stunt sequences to the sunny day color pallet. It's briskly paced and the frenetic editing entrances, intently capturing the active neighborhoods.

Director Lotfy Nathan refrains from biases and doesn't attempt to make any grand statements. Everything in front of the camera, whether it be a line of dialogue or a broader incident, subtly keys into to various outlooks. Check this one out if you can.

Recommended Doc

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

[Review] RoboCop (2014)

It's the year 2028. Samuel L. Jackson is the news reporter, and the conglomerate OmniCorp is supplying the US Military with powerful but dysfunctional robots (only for use on foreign soils). Michael Keaton is the company's greedy CEO with a plan to sell these products to local law enforcement, much to the public's dismay. After some rallying and brainstorming, OmniCorp's team of marketers and scientists, led by mad genius Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman), devise a plan to insert a human into one of their highly advanced combat suits in order to keep the 'conscious' factor.

Policeman Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is selected as the prototype, after being severely injured in an explosion. The film spends a lot of time on introductions, along with a high volume of scenes involving experiments with the high-tech suit and Murphy's post-cyborg form. In fact, RoboCop doesn't go out on the prowl until about an hour in, where he engages in some slick action sequences with videogame-like POV.

This version delves further into Murphy's family life, the moral conundrums that the scientists face, and there's a brain manipulation component that generates Murphy's inner battles of human and machine. Jose Padilha's RoboCop is almost completely void of the over-the-top charms, gore, and sickly satirical humor of the original. Instead, it's dead serious. The politics come to the forefront and are adjusted to the millennial age (and so are the special effects).

People will scoff at this remake's existence, but its obvious departures from Paul Verhoeven's 1987 film are exactly what keep it from being a complete waste, establishing it as a somewhat serviceable action/sci-fi flick. But even though these differences work in its favor, the new climax pales in comparison to the memorable showdowns of the original. That's one thing that can't be really be tinkered with.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

[Review] Gloria

Gloria (Paulina Garcia) is a 58-year-old divorcée. She lives in the moment, reacts to conflicts in stride, and she doesn't dwell on the past or dread the future. She's the center and title of this Chilean film, directed by Sebastian Lelio.

During a night at a singles bar, Gloria meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez) and the two develop a hit-and-miss relationship. A chunk of the plot concerns this, but the stagnant and repetitious narrative often dwells in mundane territory. Gloria is very much an intimate and observational character study that hinges on Garcia's stellar acting.

Paulina Garcia is consistently radiant in each scene, beguiling attention without ever getting Streepish (can we make that a word?). Garcia's performance exudes the powers of subtlety through nuanced expressions. It's amazingly well-rounded and effortlessly fluent.

Despite Garcia's greatness, the film sighingly reaches a point where you get the feeling that if you dozed off for a period of time, you wouldn't miss too much. This leisurely pace gets tiresome over the course of 110 minutes. The film will be too tedious for some, but Gloria herself is lively as can be.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

[Review] Like Father, Like Son

In this Japanese film, Writer/Director, Hirokazu Koreeda, presents an unconventional situation study on familial bonds.

Like Father, Like Son is a story about two couples whose sons were switched at birth, and they're just now finding out--six years later. It's the type of thought-provoking setup that carries enough tricky drama (and then some) to make emotions run wild for all those involved. The parents are faced with the extremely difficult predicament of deciding whether to go through with a swapping process or not.

The film approaches this weighty subject with great sincerity, exploring every intricate avenue, while raising more questions than answers. It's such a stirring series of events, but it's gently told with immense grace. Never once is its authenticity doubted.

The performances are stellar all around. Masaharu Fukuyama plays an uptight businessman and strict father, while his wife (Machiko Ono) is more outwardly loving and involved in their son's life. Riri Furanki and Yoko Maki play the opposite family. Both parties are vastly dissimilar in ideals and social class. Each character handles the news differently, displaying all types of nuanced emotions. And the child actors are amazingly impressive.

Like Father, Like Son will leave you conflicted on many levels. And considering a story as complicated as this, it shouldn't be any other way.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

[Review] A Field in England

A Field in England is like a wretched dream that you can't escape from, waking out of it only to drift back into the obscure and monochromatic world precisely where it left off.

Set during the 1600s in a hazy black & white landscape, a small group of soldiers flee from a civil war battle, get captured and tied up by two men named Cutler and O'Neil, and are forced to help search for a treasure hidden somewhere in the field. The film slowly drags like the captors' ropes, making the 90 minutes feel doubly long.

Ben Wheatley's past work is a tad more accessible (but still very off-kilter), from cult/psychological horror Kill List to the maniacal dark comedy Sightseers (a film that would've been an excellent short).

There might be ambiguous messages, murky symbolism, and philosophical ramblings buried within A Field in England, or maybe it doesn't mean anything at all. Surrealism lurches, especially the sky visions and prolonged strobe sequence. It's a lurid and head-scratching experience, and the genre refuses to be defined. All of this very well may be Wheatley's exact intentions, but just because A Field in England is unlike anything you've ever seen, doesn't mean you'll wish you would have.


Monday, February 10, 2014

[Review] The Monuments Men

With George Clooney at the helm, Grant Heslov adapting a compelling war story, and a top-notch cast including the likes of Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin, you'd think a modern classic would be in the works. Unfortunately, The Monuments Men falls short of its on-paper anticipations. But while it's no masterpiece, it isn't a total loss either.

The story follows a platoon of art scholars and historians, tasked with the mission of tracking down and rescuing stolen artwork from Nazi thieves during World War II before the pieces are destroyed. Via monologue, Lt. Frank Stokes (George Clooney) proclaims the importance of cultural preservation.

For the most part, The Monuments Men side-steps the visceral action and weighty tragedy that we come to expect from WWII films. Instead, it holds a decidedly lighter and old-school vibe. From the musical score to the look of the film, it rings 1960s Hollywood. Early on, the film presents itself as more of a comedy than a drama (although there are still jolts of poignancy). This is most pronounced through the playful banter, and a humorous scene when the rag-tags clumsily endure a training camp. I found the tone to be refreshing.

One problem is that the episodic narrative meanders, sometimes seeming slow and underwhelming, yet rushed at other times. We barely get to know a couple of the characters before they meet their demise. But the most disappointing aspect is the under-utilization of the impeccable cast. It's sort of like a Pro Bowl, in the way that there are a bunch of big names and faces together, but not much room for any impressively remarkable performances or exchanges.

Despite the shortcomings, The Monuments Men is an agreeable viewing, an interesting history lesson, and it has a pleasantly-pitched ending. And even though it feels like a patchwork at times, it still has enough wonderful moments to render itself as a story that's worth telling.


Friday, February 7, 2014

[Review] The Lego Movie

When first hearing about a Lego movie, 'straight-to-DVD' came to mind. But when details emerged that Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street) were behind it , intrigue sparked. Then, the amusing trailer released, revealing an all-star cast, and an abundance of clever gags. I thought, "This has the chance to be something special, or maybe it's just a big, messy pile of crap." Now that the film has arrived in theaters in all of its vibrant and snappy glory, The Lego Movie proves to be one of the best animated films of the last 10 years, and it accomplishes the difficult task of greatly satisfying both kids and adults.

It begins with Emmet (Chris Pratt), just an average LegJoe, if you will. When described by his acquaintances, "nothing special about him" comes to mind. One night, he stumbles upon a magical artifact and is mistaken as the chosen one to save the world from the hostile reign of President Business (Will Ferrell). Emmet is joined by a rebel warrior named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), and they team with a wise wizard named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and a large handful of others, which include Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and even Gandalf. The list goes on, but I'll omit the cast names and characters for the sake of surprise.

The animation is immediately unique and glitchy, providing a feast of color and texture that utilizes every inch of frame, and the art design takes full advantage of the Lego universe. No Lego is left behind. Each detail is charmingly vivid; if you look close enough you can see fingerprints and scuff marks on the pieces. It all manages to be busy and eye-popping without being overwhelming.

While the story is a fittingly fast-paced free-flow of ideas, the action sequences are packed tightly and all of the jokes connect with precise timing. The script is stacked with joyous slapstick, as well as witty and referential humor, making it a fun and high-powered comedy on all fronts.

The Lego Movie is an underdog-to-hero tale at the center, but it's also more substantive and intricate than expected--working as a postmodern jumble of cinematic icons, a deftly aware culmination of blockbuster tropes, and a sly critique of consumer culture. It delivers a genuinely heartfelt message that embraces imagination and deconstructs the confines of society. Emmet's journey of self-discovery is profound and resonant, and there's a twist that might leave a lump in your throat.

Everything is awesome about The Lego Movie. Now I can't wait for it to come out on DVD.


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

[Review] Grand Piano

Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), a renowned pianist, travels to Chicago to play his first concert in years. He's nervous about performing a difficult selection, but the conductor comforts him, "If you're playing music this dense, you're gonna hit a wrong note and they won't know. They never do."

When the show begins, Selznick turns a page of his music sheet and sees a handwritten message: "PLAY ONE WRONG NOTE AND YOU DIE." Yes, that's the simple setup for Eugenio Mira's Grand Piano, a high-concept thriller set in an orchestra hall. The minimal premise is surprisingly gripping enough to sustain a feature length narrative, thanks to the technical efficiency and the sprawling escalation of stakes.

An unknown voice communicates with Selznick through an earpiece, giving him a series of threats and commands, quickly establishing that this is the voice of a criminal mastermind armed with a sniper rifle hidden somewhere in the darkened audience, and he means serious business. This definitely makes Selznick's palms sweat and brings a whole new meaning to stage fright. Elijah Wood is stellar in conveying a major feeling of stress and helplessness.

The camera is highly active and employs a variety sweeping motions, emerging from corners and keeping a distance when needed, like a spy. Visual screams of danger and potential blood flow in through the red color motif of the sets. The operatic editing, elegant lighting, and corresponding orchestral crescendos all lend greatly to the mood, fervently constituting Grand Piano as a complete and well-functioning unit.

The finale doesn't quite live up to everything that precedes it, but the build-up is so sensational that it's almost easy to ignore that last note.