Thursday, February 26, 2015

[Review] Kingsman: The Secret Service

On first viewing of the trailer for Kingsman: The Secret Service, it looked like a shabby (and possibly lame) action film arriving early in the year with a wasted cast of Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, and Michael Kane. But seeing it in its full splendor, it's actually a whole lot of fun.

After some opening prologue, the film flashes forward 17 years to where we meet Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the film's protagonist and apparently ordinary street kid. Harry Hart (Colin Firth), an intelligence agent and former friend of Eggsy's father, recruits Eggsy for an apprenticeship to become a Kingsman, which is a highly secretive organization of independent & international, crime-fighting spies that work for the greater good. Eggsy enters the competitive training program that is described as "the most dangerous job interview ever." Meanwhile, a global threat is being run by supervillain Samuel L. Jackson, and we get the feeling that Eggsy will have to take on a bigger role than he expects.

The action is of the cartoony and quizzical variety, and it works. The fight sequences project a memorable spunkiness in the same way that Kick Ass did, alternating between both fast and slow-motion. The sound cues are the equivalent of "CRASH", "POWS", and "THUDS" in comic book panels, and the wild choreography intentionally renders the violence as less graphic and more humorous. A highlight is an all-out brawl in a courtroom, and one climactic scene has the POV of a video game combined with a laser tag match. There are also some delightfully over-the-top deaths along the way.

At times Kingsman can feel a bit heavy on the origin and setup side, not fully taking off until a couple of later turning points, but after the film is over, the structure begins to make more sense. It definitely isn't on the level of X-Men: First Class, and if this sort of action outing isn't your thing, Kingsman won't do much for you. But if it is your thing, then it's a fine piece of entertainment, and the film's loving homages and fun-pokes at spy flicks of the past is no secret.


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

[Review] McFarland, USA

You've seen it before, and you know exactly how it goes. The inspirational, feel-good movie about an underdog sports team. This here is ripe material for Kevin Costner. A lot of times this sort of thing gets scoffed at, but you know what? McFarland, USA is really effective, and it's one of the more well-executed films of this genre. It's completely okay to be moved sometimes.

To the film's credit, for being such a conventional outing, it never attempts to over explain anything. The opening scene involves a football coach Jim White (Costner), scolding his team and throwing a shoe during a halftime blowout. Straight after, he and his family move to McFarland, a predominantly Mexican working-class neighborhood, described as "the poorest area in the nation" where the high school is across the street from the prison. Jim takes the only coaching job he can get during this point at the shabby school. So, we assume he got ousted from his district for an incident that was probably blown out of proportion. From there, he puts together a track team, and after a few rough hurdles and some motivation digging, they go from laughing stock to serious state competitors.

The sporting aspect runs through the basics, but it's based on a true story (an amazing one, at that). It's a culture shock of awakening for the main character, an ode to hard work and dedication, and a heartwarming story of community. The narrative subverts using stereotypes but honors the Mexican traditions, while also working to clear itself of the "white savior" trope. Director Niki Carro seems more invested in looking at ways in which the roles and expectations can be reversed. On the performance front, Costner is again skillful at getting the riveting sports mood across through speeches, and the young cast of track stars are quite fun and impressive as well. Some scenes teeter close to the corny side, but there are a handful of moments in the film where it's extremely difficult not to feel a lump in your throat, unless you're just completely cynical and jaded.

Now, at the cost of me using a sports movie review cliche: McFarland, USA is a winner. 


Thursday, February 19, 2015

[Review] Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

When he isn't delivering a big studio outing, Spike Lee takes on these independent projects that are more reminiscent of his earlier film career. His latest joint of that sort, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a remake of a 1973 film called Ganja & Hess. It's a lot like 2013's Red Hook Summer in that it's overlong and oddly structured, but even with its downfalls, it still gives you a lot to chew on.

Lee's signature is immediate from the film's opening credit sequence of primary colors and break dances atop an outdoor basketball court's New York Knicks logo. From there, we're taken to church during a sermon about putting down the vices. This is where we first meet the main character, an archeologist named Dr. Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams). At the story's jumpoff, Green is stabbed to death by an ancient dagger, only to come back to life with a thirst for blood. Actual blood. Or so it seems. Through the film's campaign descriptors and promotional interviews, Lee has emphasized that this is NOT a vampire flick. And while we can still view at as a vampire flick that is more in the vein of Only Lovers Left Alive, this mostly means the bloodthirst provides different meanings.

The script carries a bunch of multi-interpretational meditations and subtext on various forms of addiction, whether it's drugs, adultery, or wealth. It explores the differentiations between passion and needs, and just where, why, and how these addictions are instilled. Lee casts his lenses through race, religion, class, and the subjects' relations with social oppression.

While the visuals are kept consistently on-point and well-framed, the story itself loses its spunk and potency as it progresses, sometimes feeling like a slug-paced soap opera (with a few gruesome cuts). Green continues to do vampire-like things, working his way through metaphorical checklists in monotone fashion. But aside from a few jolts, there's too much listlessness for this to fully hit.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

[Review] The Voices

Directed by Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), The Voices is one of those oddball films that is so off-the-grid that it's kind of impressive that it even got made. This strange psycho-comedy commits itself as a maniacal and horrific version of Doctor Dolittle. The cast contains a couple of big names in Ryan Reynolds and Anna Kendrick, but it's about as far as possible from a studio romantic comedy in which you'd think these two would be starring together.

Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) is a square, textile factory worker. He frequently sees a therapist (Jacki Weaver) where he lies about taking his medication. And because of this, his pets literally talk to him (all of them are voiced by Reynolds). What starts as something unsuspecting with a bit of whimsy--turns into something batshit insane. I won't go into too much detail, but a gruesome murder turns the tide as Jerry spirals down a whirling path of WTF and begins to hear more and more voices from things that he shouldn't be hearing voices from. I found myself imagining this character as a bizarro fixation from a lost season of "Dexter". And if things weren't already squirmy enough, Jerry finds a new love interest named Lisa (Anna Kendrick), and she has no idea about the secrets he hides.

The tones and genre-mixings are all over the board, yet the film manages to be a uniquely well-wrought unit. It pushes to those uncomfortable lengths where you're not sure if you should be laughing or not. The story often hits with equal parts sharp comedy and dark tragedy. Sometimes these types of sporadic and abstract films can result in a turn-off (like last year's Horns), but in the case of The Voices, it's difficult to look away, and there's enough engrossing intrigue to make you wonder how the hell all of this is going to turn out.

Ryan Reynolds escapes his recent plunge into banality and lands a perfectly eccentric and delirious role here that feels somewhat like its own resurrection. His character does hideous things, yet remains sympathetic throughout. With that said, The Voices will still fall in the category of "not for everyone", and there isn't much in the way of resonation or resolution, but with a film as disturbingly schizophrenic as this, we wouldn't really expect it.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

[Review] Two Days, One Night

Coming off the excellent The Kid With A Bike, the masterful Dardenne brothers continue their dramatic prowess with Two Days, One Night, which stars the always great Marion Cotillard.

After being released from the hospital following an initially undisclosed illness, Sandra (Cotillard) finds out that she's been ousted from her company job. The only way for her to get reinstated is if the branch collectively decides to relinquish their own bonuses through a vote. Up until the ballots are cast, she spends time trying to individually reconcile with each of her former co-workers in order to sway them. But with the struggling economy, it isn't an easy situation for anyone involved.

It sounds like a thin premise for a feature length, but the Dardenne brothers have proven to make this sort of thing work wonderfully. The picture thrives on quiet realism and organic emotion. Every detail and complicated hurdle is mined to the utmost from all angles. Cotillard gives another award-worthy performance, gaining our sympathy from the beginning (even though her character doesn't want to be pitied). Cotillard might just be the best in the business at slipping into a teary-eyed state. There's a great moment of music as her character is riding in the car and "Needles and Pins" comes on the radio. She cracks a crying smile as she realizes how on-the-nose the moment is.

Two Days, One Night will most likely end up being too mundane for the majority of audiences, and it's not the Dardenne's most potent work, but it isn't really a crimp in their resume either.


Monday, February 16, 2015

[Review] Jupiter Ascending

The Wachowskis' previous effort, Cloud Atlas had its moments and visual dazzles, but it was ultimately too convoluted for its own good. It's hard not to say the same about Jupiter Ascending.

Jupiter (Mila Kunis) was born as a special starchild. Now a grownup, she's scrubbing toilets in Chicago. It's an intro and scenario that is more than a little reminiscent of both Harry Potter and Cinderella. Eventually, a very goat-like Channing Tatum shows up to save her from some Splice-looking creatures, and he's really difficult to take seriously (especially during a scene when he starts shooting off his laser gun in Tony Montana fashion). What ensues is a romance, a save the universe quest, and a crown the queen story.

At one point, the two end up at a guy named Stinger's (Sean Bean) house to learn more about their mission. The scene is so prolonged that you start wondering exactly how Sean Bean's character might die in this movie. The villain is played by Eddie Redmayne, and after coming off his impressive performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, he's notoriously cheesy here. Oh, and there's a talking dinosaur thing that hangs around with him.

The whole outing is pretty bumpy in establishing its universe, because early on there are a lot of different things going on in different places. The recent Guardians of the Galaxy executed this tactic to way more successful degrees. Jupiter Ascending is a crazy mixture of everything, but instead of being an innovative hybrid, it's one big derivative ball of spacecapades. It also suffers from a major pacing problem, as it lapses into boring territory. The previews make this thing look like it could be a potentially fun ride at best, but it never even reaches those heights.


Friday, February 13, 2015

[Review] Seventh Son

Seventh Son is that odd, second-rate (or third) fantasy adventure that always lands with a thud at the beginning of February. The film has a gigantic budget, but it still manages to look cheaply made.

The plot jumps into action right away, which is both good and bad. Good, because there isn't much waiting around to do. Bad, because we really don't know what's going on. A powerful evil of the past has suddenly been unleashed, and Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges) is the only one who knows how to stop it. However, he's old and weak, so he recruits an apprentice named Tom (Ben Barnes) in order to train him. Tom is presented as "the chosen one", but Master Gregory seemingly selects him at random. The characters are introduced so quickly that it's never quite clear who they really are.

This "evil" everyone is speaking of, involves a wicked witch (Julianne Moore), a dragon (a mini-Smaug), and for some reason there's also a possessed woman that seems to have stumbled into this world from a recent exorcism film. It's all so sloppy and incoherent, but this thing's valiant attempt to toss the kitchen sink is also strangely admirable. The story feels like someone started writing a fantasy novel and didn't realize they were subconsciously recreating The Hobbit until halfway through. Jeff Bridges sounds like Rooster Cogburn got hammered and started doing Gandalf impressions, and Kit Harrington is cast a pointless character, because ever since Game of Thrones, Jon Snow just always shows up in every swords and magic movie.

It all stumbles forward with run-of-the-mill archetypes, and battles and climaxes that look dwarfed compared to what has appeared on the screen lately. You can embrace Seventh Son's ridiculousness and pass it off as a serviceable genre piece for a while, but as the clock ticks and ticks, you eventually just wish you were somewhere else.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

[Review] The Loft

Here's an erotic thriller that isn't sexy or intriguing. In fact, it's one of the least appealing things you could see. After being shelved for a while, The Loft quickly got dumped into a slot before Fifty Shades of Grey racks up. It's so bad that it almost made me wish I were watching the latter instead.

"The Loft" is a snazzy apartment dig that five businessmen (played by Karl Urban, James Mardsen, Eric Stonestreet, Wentworth Miller, and Matthias Schoenaerts) invested in so they can use it to secretly escape from their family lives and bang chicks. Everything is a party until the day when they find a naked, murdered woman handcuffed to the bed. The plot alternates between interrogations, the scene of the crime, and the events leading up to the crime. The group suspects that either an outsider stole one of their keys and did it, or one of them is the lying culprit. It's The Hangover but without the tigers, face tattoos, or any ounce of entertainment.

It's incredibly dull and unrelentingly sleazy. A lot of scenes drag on too long without getting much done in the way of story or amusement value. During the back half, the narrative seems to hit cruise control as it blurs into one long, gross, and un-entrancing montage. It's the type of movie you might fall asleep to on a rainy weekend afternoon and wake up like, "This is STILL on?"And when the climax and reveal finally does come, a sense of deja vu sets in as if you've seen it before or knew exactly what happened. Then, for some reason, the film continues for another 20 minutes. You'll get more run out of a CSI or 48 Hours episode, and with more concise duration. None of the characters are worth giving a damn about in any way whatsoever. They're all so boneheaded and wrapped up in their own interests that you wouldn't mind if they all got tossed off a skyscraper.

The Loft is a waste of talent and space.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

[Review] The Boy Next Door

The Boy Next Door is no more than an inferior, self-serious version of last year's great The Guest. It's so cringeworthy and awfully conceived in all areas that even a person with the lowest of expectations for this thriller-that-isn't-a-thriller will be clamoring for the end, only to still be disappointed after it arrives. Really though, even the movie poster looks questionable at best.

Claire (Jennifer Lopez) is a literature teacher in the midst of a separation from her husband after he had an affair. Their son goes back and forth between the two households. Eventually, a "nice guy" heartthrob neighbor named Noah (Ryan Guzman) moves in next door. Claire starts checking him out during some cliche 'look out the window while he's wearing a muscle shirt and working on a car' scenes. The two begin smanging on the down-low, and when Claire starts having second thoughts, Noah's anger issues emerge, and it's pretty clear that he's a manipulative and psychotic stalker.

From its melodramatic music over scenes of nothing, to its poor build of intrigue, the only surprise here is that this film didn't premiere on the Lifetime channel. Not a single line of dialogue sounds genuine, and a lot of it will most likely be used in the 'DO NOT' section of future books on Screenwriting. The film never makes the leap to 'so bad, it's good'; it just becomes 'so bad, it's GET IT OUT OF HERE.' Okay, okay... I'll admit--there were a couple of scenes when I laughed. The story haphazardly attempts to ratchet up the creepiness, delving into straight-on horror during the final minutes, but it just comes off as unintentionally funny. However, as a whole, this thing still isn't quite ridiculous or memorable enough to warrant novelty midnight madness showings.

The Boy Next Door is definitely one to stay away from. Scratch that. Move away as far as you can.


Monday, February 9, 2015

[Review] Black Sea

After the lingering of Oscar films and trickling of January stinkers, February usually takes a rough dive on the cinema calendar. But here we find Black Sea, a well-crafted submarine thriller. The film's marketing has been relatively under-the-radar, but you should seek it out of it's your thing. 

The premise is fairly straightforward--After getting fired from his career as a submarine pilot, Robinson (Jude Law) learns of the possible existence of a gold-carrying German U-boat that sunk to the bottom of the sea. So, he invests in a rust bucket submarine and recruits a crew of crusty British and Russian sailors to set out on the mission. Each man gets an equal share of the goods. But you know how these things go--there's a good chance that not everyone will be there in the end.

What ensues is a sweaty mixture of claustrophobic drama and high-stakes thrills. More than a few scenes will make you hold your breath. Jude Law gives a solid performance at the helm. It seems that the thinner his balding hair strip gets, the grittier his roles get. Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom, The Place Beyond The Pines, Starred Up) has definitely established a type, but he wields another unhinged turn here. Newcomer Bobby Schofield (the young'un of the vessel) is impressive as well.

Be prepared for some eerie ocean-bottom sequences and a grip-full of lines that are exactly the type of dialogue you'd like to hear in a film like this. Black Sea proves to be thoroughly engrossing. It isn't perfect, but it's worth the plunge.


Thursday, February 5, 2015

[Review] Cake

The vague and minimally titled Cake finds Jennifer Aniston engaging in a heavily dramatic role. The performance is impressive, but the surrounding elements are mixed and weirdly lethargic.

Claire (Aniston) is cynical and sarcastic. She lost her only child during a tragic car accident, which has left her with chronic pain and depression (and a lot of pill-popping, which results in several hallucinatory scenes). After a woman (played by Anna Kendrick) from her support group commits suicide, Claire becomes obsessed with the situation and attempts to make sense of everything.

Cake can never seem to find a proper or consistent tone, as it meanders around an awkward line of black comedy, melodrama, road trip antics, and tragedy. The pieces just don't fit very well. The leisurely pacing drifts along, and the narrative never demonstrates a firm grasp from one scene to the next. It's less of a conventional story and more of a slice-of-life portrait or slight character study, which is fine in some circumstances, but it comes off as sketchy and underwhelming here. 

Aniston is the least Aniston-like we've ever seen, and she displays some serious range here. But it turns out that the performance is really the only thing this film has going for it (which might be why Aniston didn't appear in Oscar selections). And rather than her fully rising above the material, the material mostly brings her down with it. This trial of grief only cuts the surface.