Wednesday, August 27, 2014

[Review] Sin City: A Dame To Kill For

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For suffers from the sequel slump in the most classic sense. The best way to put it is: It's more of the same, just not as good.

Picking up a number of years after the first, Mickey Rourke's character's (Marv) facial prosthetics have warped even more, to the point where you have to stop yourself from making a plastic surgery quip. Aside from that, not all much has changed in Sin City.

As we'd expect, the film utilizes the ensemble structure--complete with changing point-of-views and voiceover monologues. A problematic detail is that there isn't anything new here in terms of narrative and theme, and a lot of the story is uninspired and ill-conceived compared to the sharpness of its predecessor. Unfortunately, some of the sequences even flirt with lines of unintentional parody.

The fresh intrigue and awe of the black & white, comic-book-panels-come-to-life aesthetic has worn off. The tone is a bit lame, lacking the grimy darkness that the first one so strongly established. The script doesn't have as many memorable lines. The combination of the pop-arthouse visuals and brutal violence doesn't strike as effectively this time, nor is the mise-en-scene as stunningly picturesque. The new characters are basic rehashes, and even the added talent of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin, and Eva Green doesn't quite give this the lift it needs.

Sin City 2 can't help but feel like a minor victory trot. The B-side tracks of the deluxe edition. The secondary plot. Too many years too late.


Monday, August 25, 2014

[Review] Life After Beth

Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza star in Life After Beth, another twist on the zombie comedy. It's a mix of Shaun of the Dead and Warm Bodies, but heavier on the quirky rom-com side, and lighter on the violence and guts.

Zach (played by the perfectly cast DeHann) is mourning the passing of his girlfriend, Beth (played by the perfectly cast Plaza). The film's loopy tone is established immediately, as the film pokes at some funeral tropes. "The napkins need to be black," Zach mopes. And the goofy secondary characters fill the space with off-beat dialogue.

The story really kicks in when Zach shockingly finds out that Beth isn't actually dead, but she isn't exactly alive either... It just so happens that she rose from her grave and is gradually morphing into a zombie! It's safe to say that Zach has no idea to handle the situation, and what ensues is a complicated relationship to say the least.

It's enjoyable with its humorous mix of slapstick, screwball, and straight-up awkwardness. A number of highlight scenes just involve a lot of people yelling at each other. The mildly clever script keeps everything from delving into loathsome cheesiness. Yes, the story is ridiculous, but it's never really dumb, as it works as a metaphor for the breakup process and it's a mildly successful genre hybrid. There are sections where the story begins wander, creating the feeling that this might have worked better as a killer short.

Dane DeHaan's disheveledness is fun to watch as he experiences a rollercoaster of emotions and mindfucks. Aubrey Plaza looks like she's having loads of fun in this role, letting loose some maniacal ferocity and relishing in the typically grotesque zombie make-up, especially during the film's second half. Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Anna Kendrick, John C Reilly, Molly Shannon, and Matthew Gray Gubler lend some amusing supporting roles.

Life After Beth is a rollicking good time while you watch it, but you might kind of move on and forget about it.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

[Review] Rich Hill (Documentary)

"We're not trash, we're good people."

Rich Hill is a depressing, yet hopeful portrait of poverty in rural America.

The camera follows around the daily endeavors of Andrew, Harley, and Appachey--three teenagers living in a beaten-down Missouri town. Their houses are on the verge of crumbling, the appliances don't work, and the backyards look like junkyards.

Andrew's parents are unemployed, and his mother suffers from an undisclosed condition. He just wants to play sports and be treated fairly at the closest high school, Rich Hill. Harley's father left when he was young, and he battles mental illness and troubles in school. He also loves to skateboard. Appachey's mother is in prison for attempting to murder her husband who sexually abused Appachey. He has anger issues, and likes to listen to music and apply Juggalo paint to his face for Halloween.

It's obvious that these kids have been dealt awful hands, but the documentary's gaze thankfully never leaps into exploitation. And while the film is beautifully shot and boasts some stellar photography, it's also respectful and sympathetic, even though these kids want no sympathy. The highs and lows are vividly captured.

The ironically titled Rich Hill is painfully bittersweet. Sweet--because through all the rough times, Andrew, Harley, and Appachey all manage to find joy, clinging to the desire of a better life. Bitter--because it's not a certain thing if they'll ever get one.

Recommended Doc

Monday, August 18, 2014

[Review] The Expendables 3

Our rugged collective of action stars of a certain age are back for round three. I'm just going to rattle of the list of names on board: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Antonio Banderas, Jet Li, Wesley Snipes, Kelsey Grammar, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Dolph Lundgren, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The main plot involves Stallone's character rallying up the crew in order to take down the villain Stonebanks played by Mel Gibson, a perfectly pitched antagonist. The group even recruits some new, young members, and yes... even A GIRL!!! Along the way, there's a chase sequence involving a helicopter and a train (because of course there is), a shipyard shootout, an abundance of explosions, and thousands of shots fired.

But The Expendables 3 has a significantly more somber mood than past outings. It still has the wisecracks and deprecating banter, but those are a lot more sparse this time around, and the film can't help but feel like it's lacking the pure fun we came for. The tired tone makes sense though, and it lends to the story on a couple different levels, especially considering how all the characters are reconsidering their dangerous lifestyle--thinking about packing it in and retiring. But the cost of this is a saggy and uninspired film. There's just too much reflecting, stalling, preparing, and exposition-driven conversations that slow the pace. The script really could've benefited from some more self-aware humor.

This third piece of the trilogy doesn't leave you with that dumb smile and amped sensation like the predecessors did, unfortunately rendering this one as, ahem... the most *expendable* one of the bunch.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

[Review] Calvary

Father James (Brendan Gleeson) sits in a confessional box, and a voice from the other side informs him, "I was raped by a priest when I was 7 years old... This went on for 5 years." The voice continues, "The man's dead... What good would it do anyway if he were still alive? There'd be no news... There's no point in killing a bad priest... But killing a good one? That'd be a shock... People wouldn't know what to make of that... I'm going to kill you, Father... I'm going to kill you because you've done nothing wrong... I'm going to kill you because you're innocent... But not right now though... I'll give you enough time to make your peace with God."

This intense and troubling dialogue sets the tone and premise of the film within the first few minutes. Calvary is John Michael McDonagh's follow-up to to the black comedy, The Guard, and it's on a drastically different wavelength. Calvary is a starkly complex drama and a finely wrought character study with hints of humor that barely lighten the weight.

Following the confession, Father James strolls around the ever-so cloudy small Irish town in order to converse with various eccentric members of his congregation, investigate the voice he heard, and seek advice (as well as protection). Yes, the majority of the film is just a lot of talking, but they're worthwhile discussions. The script is filled with a plethora of loaded lines and philosophical exchanges, mostly in the form of questions.

But the fact that the film is mostly talking--makes it a bit tedious, from a cinematic sense. However, Gleeson's acting is truly something to behold (he makes it look so easy), and supporter Chris O'Dowd gives the best and most serious performance of his career. I really hope to see O'Dowd do more stuff like this in the future.

As the grey sea waves crash, Calvary's extremely powerful ending astounds--when it does finally arrive.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

[Review] Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

In the heart of New York City, the evil villain Shredder and his criminal empire known as the Foot Clan are terrorizing the streets. April O'Neil (Megan Fox), is a journalist determined to get to the bottom of it. One night, she happens upon some Foot Clan activity and witnesses an obscured vigilante fighting back against them. These vigilantes are, you guessed it--the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Of course, no one in the press believes April's account, but she's not giving up on this story. When she meets Raphael, Leonardo, Donatello, and Michaelangelo in the flesh, she bands together with them in order to defeat Shredder and save the city.

The Turtles have a creepy and darker warrior-like aesthetic to them. They're the 1990 incarnations on steroids. And if you've ever seen the 90's TV show "Dinosaurs", you'll know what I mean when I say their eye gaze and facial structures are reminiscent of those creatures, but a lot angrier. Technically, the humanized mouth movements, CGI fluidity, and scaly watermelon-color skin texture at least elevate them above video game quality. But like I mentioned, it's still kinda creepy and uncanny to see. Shredder's shiny metal, mountain-esque stature looks pretty badass here until you realize it more-so seems as though one of Michael Bay's Transformers stumbled into the wrong movie.

One major gripe is the immediately awful dialogue and foul attempts at humor that don't even deserve pity laughs. I understand that in a film where overgrown talking anthropomorphic martial arts wielding and pizza-devouring reptiles exist, there's bound to be some cheesiness. But in this case, it isn't the good type--it's stinky, moldy, and probably overpriced type.

An early focus on the origin story is the most interesting part of the duration, and there is a tightly designed hand-to-hand combat scene around the midpoint, but that's all wiped away quickly as the film delves into a run-of-the-mill blur of messy action that just feels too pointless--like a dull blade.


Monday, August 11, 2014

[Review] Get On Up

The problem with a lot of music biopics is that it's inherently difficult to recreate a real human's musical endeavors on screen without it coming off as maudlin, inauthentic, and forced. And with that idealized portrayal comes more of a fragmented series of episodic events, rather than a solid story arc. And if there is an arc, it's usually an overly familiar one, no matter who the artist is. It leaves you with the feeling that you'd rather just watch a documentary or a Behind The Music on the subject. Get On Up, a James Brown ode, falls into the same line. But the bright side is that Chadwick Boseman's electric performance as the Godfather of Soul keeps this thing moving.

In a similar fashion to 2013's Saving Mr. Banks, the narrative in Get On Up flashes back and forth between James Brown's rough, abandon-heavy childhood and his days in the spotlight. Viola Davis plays Brown's mother, disappearing from his early life, but re-emerging during his stardom. For better and for worse, the childhood events inform James Brown the human, as well as James Brown the musical icon. The film details the front stage and back stage, from Brown's innovative soul stylings and spirited live shows--to his darker bouts with the law and domestic abuse.

At first, Boseman's impersonation of the singer appears cartoony and exaggerated, but a gander at some old James Brown interviews reveals that the intonations and mannerisms aren't too far off. The part calls for a wide range of emotion and a significant passage of age, and Boseman indicatively answers on all levels. (I mean, he doesn't actually age, but you know what I'm saying.) The man goes all-out in this role, and he's definitely got the funky, energetic dance moves down. He not only steals every scene, but he also sets them on fire and revels in the heat.


Monday, August 4, 2014

[Review] Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy is yet another addition to the Marvel movie cannon, blasting off as the summer begins to wind down. It seems to be the underdog; the lesser known story of the bunch (I had no idea these characters existed). In a change of pace, there's an immediately zany and upbeat tone that even unleashes some B-movie antics and tongue-in-cheek camp. The soundtrack features an awesome mix of 70's classics that really pop against the interstellar, futuristic setting. The songs even hold a bit of weight within the narrative, but I won't spoil that. Guardians is a downright fun time, and it's ecstatic to be here. It also reminds us how wonderful blockbusters can be if all of the great elements are lovingly planted.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord (depending on whom you ask), is a bachelor and space scavenger who was beamed into the skies when he was a young kid. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is a genetically mutated assassin at a crossroads. Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is a talking raccoon--the result of a biological experiment, and this scoundrel has a chip on his shoulder. His partner in crime is Groot (Vin Diesel), a clumsy tree with tricks up his branches.

These rogues start out as enemies when they engage in a wild scrap over a mysterious silver orb that everyone wants their hands on. The misfits eventually get tossed into jail and end up forming a comradery amid lockdown. They also meet Drax (Dave Bautista), a muscular, overly literal, hothead who's on a vengeance plot against the story's main villain, Ronan (Lee Pace). Ronan is intimidating, but not all that compelling. However, this doesn't really strike as a glaring fault within the established setting. Anyway, after banding together and performing the most elaborate escape from a space prison ever seen on film, The Guardians of the Galaxy (that's what they call themselves) embark on a mission involving the powerful orb--with hopes to either cash it in or save the universe.

Guardians displays more visual splendor than any other Marvel film, especially since the entire thing takes place in the cosmos. The spunky production design, including the creative make-up and costumes often recall Star Wars and Star Trek, and there's an abundance of nifty gadgets on board. The film flaunts the usual big colorful action sequences and it's probably the most CGI heavy of all, but this particular entry stands out from other Marvel cinematic adventures because it's easily the funniest and most heartfelt. Stuffed with hilarious banter, gags ("I am Groot!"), and slapstick, the film provokes laughs at nearly every turn. The script isn't against taking a few odd detours specifically for the sake of humor.

The welcomed sentimentality materializes from Star-Lord's backstory with his mother, as well as the dynamic relationships within the group of Guardians. Part of the hype and allure of The Avengers is the fact that it's an ensemble of iconic characters all together on screen (at the same damn time), but those larger-than-life superheroes don't really possess the endearing chemistry of these rag-tags. I mean, there's a raccoon and a tree stump here, and they generate significantly more affinity and intrigue. The story delivers some unexpected bursts of emotion and surprising scenes of beauty--an attribute that rarely occurs in past Marvel movies.

I am Groot. (Guardians of the Galaxy renders itself as a memorable standalone piece within the Marvel universe. You're not just going to rush on to the next installment--you'll want to rush back to the beginning of this one.)


Friday, August 1, 2014

[Review] A Most Wanted Man

Directed by Anton Corbijn, A Most Wanted Man is a taut spy thriller set in Germany. The film contains Philip Seymour Hoffman's final leading role, and it's a great one.

The film begins when a half-Russian, half-Chechen man illegally immigrates to the city of Hamburg, and he's placed on the Jihadist watch list. Gunter Bachmann (Hoffman) heads a counter-terror organization and leads the covert investigation on the suspect. When the man attempts to collect his inheritance from his now deceased criminal father, a banker (Willem Dafoe), a human rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams), and a U.S. C.I.A. agent (Robin Wright) get involved in the case. And no one can be trusted.

It all unfolds at a steady creeping pace, at times a tad too slow (but not as slow as Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy). However, the dialogue is sharp and there are plenty of small events that keep us guessing and lead us to believe the outcome can go in any direction. Who is actually helping whom? Who is in it for themselves? And is the man really guilty or innocent?

The acting is solid all around (although Rachel McAdams is a little shaky), but of course, Hoffman is the main show. He nails the accent, sometimes speaking in a tired, croaked voice reminiscent of later-period Marlon Brando delivery. He's convincing and enthralling at every turn. It's an excellent performance, and it's a depressing thought to think we won't be seeing another one of these.