Thursday, April 30, 2015

[Review] Adult Beginners

Adult Beginners is A Duplass Brothers Presentation and the feature debut of new director Ross Katz. The list of comedic talent here is pretty vast: Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne (who was hilarious in Neighbors), the always amusing Bobby Cannavale, and appearances from Jane Krakowski (Jacqueline from "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt"), Mike Birbiglia, and Joel McHale. This looks good on paper, however, the film is disappointingly a little too light and forgettable.

Jake (Kroll) lives recklessly and his life is crumbling apart. He totally falls into the "man-child" category. After failing at his tech job, he temporarily moves in with his 'grown up' and well-to-do (and currently pregnant) sister, Justine (Byrne, pulling off an American accent again). Jake spends most of the time sitting on the couch and babysitting Justine's other kid.

The script has few bright spots, but there isn't much of a solid plot, aside from Jake figuring out what he's going to do with his life. His character isn't very likable, nor is he unique or interesting enough to get by with being unlikable. The whole thing possesses the brevity and feel of a modern sitcom that isn't all that funny, and it actually seems longer than it is. There's an unwelcome amount of flat lines that someone probably thought were clever. And the story tries to go for some somber emotional moments, but they don't really payoff or hit too hard, given the lack of substantial material in everything that came before.

It's finely watchable, but it doesn't have the stakes, the developed characters, or the comedic and dramatic heft as something like last year's The Skeleton Twins. I'm not going to call Adult Beginners a soiled diaper--It's just more of a dud.


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

[Review] Ex Machina

Alex Garland (screenwriter of 28 Days Later and Sunshine) makes directorial debut with Ex Machina, a stunningly well-crafted slice of future-shock drama with some A.I. eroticism.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, of last year's Frank) is a computer programmer with a fairly vanilla personality. Early on, he's selected as a contest winner and gets to take part in a very secretive study within a billionaire inventor's secluded and beyond-modern mansion. That mysterious billionaire inventor is Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Despite being a genius tech expert, Nathan speaks in specifically laid-back, non-scientific language. Oh yeah, and he stays up drinking alcohol all night. But we can tell that he's an immediately intimidating, complex mastermind. His current creation is Ava, a startlingly intelligent humanoid robot (played by supermodel-esque Alicia Vikander).

Nathan's aim for Caleb and Ava is to conduct an experiment involving the Turing test--if Caleb is unable to differentiate Ava from a real human being, then the test is a success and Ava is technically rendered as conscious. So, Caleb engages in a number of escalating sessions with Ava from the other side of a glass partition. At first, Ava behaves like a naive dictionary, but she becomes more responsive and assertive through multiple interactions. In many ways, the whole premise feels like a Willy Wonka factory trip, but without the sweet everlasting Gobstoppers and chocolate river.

The narrative is consistently intriguing. Each incremental reveal of information injects a major jolt of electricity into the story. It's never quite clear how everything is going to end up. Sure, there are a couple of things that you can most likely see coming, but it isn't necessarily a detriment to the experience. It's all so carefully calculated, and we as the audience are never quite positive who is being manipulated. The film sort of functions like a darker and more claustrophobic reboot of Spike Jonze's Her. And despite the film's heavy explorations of empathy, morality, human attachment, and the weirdness of hi-tech creationism, there is a sense of humor present. Most of the chuckleworthy moments sprout from general awkwardness, as well as Nathan's sporadic characterization.

The great performances take things up another notch. Domhnall Gleeson is sophisticated yet vulnerable, delivering a solid amount of believable "WTF?" takes. Oscar Isaac is definitely the standout here (The dance sequence!), and between his run of Inside Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January, A Most Violent Year, and now Ex Machina, I think it's time to start mentioning his name in the industry's 'best current actors' discussion. Alicia Vikander is impressive as well, demonstrating a skillful turn that is both robot-like, and, well... human.

* 9/10 *

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

[Review] The Water Diviner

Russell Crowe makes his directorial debut with this historical piece, The Water Diviner. It's part war tale, part search drama, part romance. The results are mixed and a little muddy.

It's been four years since the Battle of Gallipoli, and well digger Joshua (Crowe) is a man who has lost everything. His wife is dead, and his sons never made it home from war and are presumed to be scattered in the battlefields. Joshua travels to Turkey in order to give them a proper burial, but of course he has to find them first, which is no easy task. In the meantime, he temporarily resides in a small hotel, run by single mother Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and her young son.

The film seems a little disjointed at first--the scene transitions don't quite mesh, and there are a number of flashbacks and jarring changes in tone. But after a while, it settles into more of a cohesive groove. The problem is--it's a very slow moving groove. In regards to the pacing, it's as if an hour glass got clogged and the sand only trickles through in small specks. The narrative is full of unmemorable stretches where the events just aren't all that interesting. This is a fairly sprawling story with a large scope, but instead of being a sweeping epic, it's more of a sleeping epic.

Crowe's performance is very solid, and you gotta to hand it to him for having the ambitions for something like this, especially that of a lesser-known part of world history. The cinematographers convey the views nicely, and there's a beautiful musical score to back it. Essentially, The Water Divine has great intentions and sentiment, and it hurls an emotional punch toward the end, but the path there isn't as particularly thrilling or as deep as it wants to be.


Monday, April 27, 2015

[Review] Clouds of Sils Maria

Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloe Grace Moretz star in Olivier Assaya's character drama about aging, fame, and the fortunate or unfortunate winds of time and change.

The film revolves around Maria Enders (Binoche) a high-profile international actress and her loyal assistant Valentine (Stewart)--who is nicely characterized as more of an influential friend than just a worker-bee. Maria currently is to be cast in a role of the play she starred in during the early bud of her career, but this time she's slated to play the older character, while a young starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz) will take on Juliette's former role. The 20-year-old is known for her Hollywood tabloid antics and blunt, foul-mouthed interviews, and Maria & Valentine debate whether she's a disgraceful mess or if she should be praised for being herself.

The film is staged a lot like a play itself--there's a lot of dialogue in one setting for big chunks of time (the whole first scene involves Maria and Valentine taking phone calls in a train car), and the vignettes transition with fade outs & fade ins. This aspect might underwhelm some and may prove to be trying over the course of the duration, but the substance is usually rich enough to stay involved. It's even divided into clear-cut Acts, and fortunately, each one takes on a new breath of life--Part Two opens with some Swiss mountain scenery, backed by a gorgeous score of strings.

And the acting is consistently splendid. Juliette Binoche turns in a fittingly wide-ranging performance that becomes multi-layered, especially considering the premise. Kristen Stewart has received a lot of flack for the whole Twilight thing, and the general public is probably mostly unaware of her real acting chops. Her recent indie streak (On the Road, Camp X-Ray, and Still Alice) has been pretty impressive, and in Clouds she's smotheringly good. The characters are interesting and full of depth--little bits of their personalities are skillfully revealed throughout, making them feel like well-rounded people with some soulful depth. They're all very different from each other, yet there are moments when they reflect like mirrors. And there's a subtle sense of humor to it all.

Undeniably, there are some slower stretches, and the story seems to peter out by the end, but even through that, we grow attached to this great, endearing duo. 


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

[Review] Unfriended

The new Facebook horror film Unfriended seemed like it could've a cheap and obnoxious gimmick, possibly taking the found footage genre to its deathbed. But the result here is a fresh and intriguing twist on the format, and it works as a somewhat well-executed and cleverly disturbing cautionary tale for the social media generation.

It begins with a snuffy exploitation video (aka something you might see on Worldstar) of a high school teen named Laura, passed out drunk in a very unflattering manner. It turns out that the video spread throughout her school--going viral, and she ended up committing suicide because of it. Following the clip, a group of friends meet up on Skype, and an unknown user keeps intruding on their party. They think it's a glitch or a hacker at first, but they slowly realize it's the cyber spirit of Laura from beyond the grave, and she's out for some manipulative and bloody revenge.

The entire film is staged from the first-person viewpoint of a computer desktop screen, and everything is conveyed via browser windows, Skype sessions, and iMessage convos. It all works surprisingly well, as the filmmakers take full advantage of the compact yet vast technological universe. Suspense and anticipation is built through simple back & forth texts, Google searches, and Facebook notifications. Laura's spirit presence gains the upper hand, going from freaking the kids the fuck out, to giving them a taste of their own cyber-shaming antics. The climax evolves into the most intense and violent game of "Never have I ever" ...ever.

The characters are all super annoying, and you'll probably want to reach through the screen and punch them in the face, but it's most likely intentional, so you just have to stomach it. And one does wonder if some of their reactions are realistically apt for the situation. The conclusion feels right, though. However, the final fatality could've used a bit more jarring creativity. But aside from that, Unfriended is harshly contemporary and relevant, and the kids here have a lot more to worry about than just a lagging pinwheel. The film itself won't frighten you all that much, that is, unless you too have something you might be feeling guilty about.


Monday, April 20, 2015

[Review] While We're Young

Noah Baumbach returns with While We're Young, a generational gap comedy starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, & Amanda Seyfried. The film comes off like a companion to last year's Neighbors, but obviously it isn't as over-the-top and there's less dildo sword fights (not that that's necessarily a bad thing).

Josh (Stiller) and Cornelia (Watts) are a couple possibly nearing a midlife crisis. Their aging shows through notably amusing moments--Josh can't get his power presentation to work during a lecture, and they're bedside light is too bright. Early on, they befriend a "hip" 20-something, art loft dwelling couple, Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Seyfried). Josh hangs out with Jamie a couple times, and next thing you know; he's wearing denim jackets and fedoras. Josh and Cornelia gain inspiration and energy from the young couple, but it eventually leads to envy and disdain.

I wasn't huge on Baumbach and Stiller's previous collaboration Greenberg, but While We're Young is much more appealing and it seems to the perfectly fitting follow-up to 2013's cute, lo-fi romp Frances Ha. The script is considerably sharp, humorous, and thoughtful. There's a blatant irony here: Josh and Cornelia are living fairly modern and adjusting to the newest technologies, while Jamie and Darby indulge in vintage material (or as Cornelia says, "Stuff that we threw out") and live plug-free.

The highlight of the film, and possibly my favorite sequence of 2015 so far, comes when Naomi Watt's character joins a hip-hop dance class, and a thoroughly unedited "Hit 'em Up" by Tupac blares in the background and continues into an extended montage. There's also a scene when Josh and Cornelia join Jamie and Darby in some bizarre meditation ritual where they ingest some sort of substance (I'm still exactly not sure what the hell the deal was) and engage in a woozy trip that plays out like their "I remember my first beer" moment in high school.

For a while, it feels as if though the film is just drifting along, mostly because it doesn't have any major conflicts or stakes to anchor it. In Baumbachian fashion, the film thrives on the interpersonal relationships of the characters, as well as the narrative's themes. But things inevitably begin to hit the fan, as Josh and Cornelia have a fallout with the friends in their age range (played by Maria Dizzia & Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys) and rifts arise in their own relationship. We can assume where it's all going, as Josh and Cornelia find their current selves and approach the "Young people are frickin' weird" conclusion.

In a turning point scene, Josh is walking down the street and he looks down and glares at a single bike wheel that's chained to a pole. Like, how does that even work? Is it a postmodern art project? Does it mean nothing or does it mean everything? Are we all just descending and ascending spokes crossing each other in a spinning circle that orbits around another circle? That's life, I guess.

* 8.5/10 *

Monday, April 13, 2015

[Review] Ned Rifle

Indie auteur Hal Hartley closes the Henry Fool trilogy with Ned Rifle. Hartley's distinct, serio-comic
notions are certainly in full force here, and the diehard fans will eat up the intentionally off-kilter vibes, but the majority of everyone else will find it hardly bearable.

After several years of being in witness protection under the care of a devoutly Christian family, Ned (Liam Aiken) decides to leave in order find his father (Henry) and kill him for destroying his mom's (Fay) life--that's essentially the direct quote he bluntly tells the minister as he steps out the door. Along the way, he meets Susan (played by Aubrey Plaza), who is linked to Henry's past.

Since this is the final third of a trilogy, it definitely helps to have seen the first two films Henry Fool (1997) and Fay Grim (2006) in order to know the backstory of Ned's parents and fully get the callbacks and payoffs. However, it isn't essential, because the films take place so many years apart and sort of stand alone as their own stories. But chances are, if you're seeking out Ned Rifle in the first place, you've probably already seen the previous films.

This lackadaisical yet lucid, deadpan style doesn't really strike as hit or miss; it sort of just leaves indifference. It's decidedly anti-thriller. A lot of the dialogue is flat and mundane, but a few lines bring amusement and chuckles. Near the beginning, Ned says "Hi Claire" in a manner reminiscent of Tommy Wiseau's "Hi Doggie" line in The Room. The script also dabbles in a number of philosophical musings, sprinkled with shavings of existential crisis and irony. The background music sounds like it's from a work training video or a public television special from the '90s. However, as a whole, the film is too tedious, overly talky, and it's blandly shot to a fault. Aubrey Plaza is the saving grace (kind of). She blends in perfectly with this world while still managing to be a standout.

The Henry Fool films occupy an obscure space on the dramatic (or non-dramatic) spectrum that makes even the most oddball indies feel more like Hollywood. But sucking the life out of something and subverting classical cinema in order to be offbeat doesn't necessarily make it interesting. You can't really call this an acquired taste if there is no taste.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

[Review] Lost River

Lost River is Ryan Gosling's long anticipated directorial debut. The cast features Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Ben Mendelsohn, and Eva Mendes. It carries the logline: "A single mother is swept into a dark underworld, while her teenage son discovers a road that leads him to a secret underwater town." Now, this all sounds mighty intriguing on paper, but unfortunately, the film drowns in its own arthouse fragments and worst of all: it becomes boring.

Set in a fictional neighborhood that doubles as Detroit, Billy (Hendricks) and Bones (Iain De Caesrecker) are a poor mother and son on the verge of having their home bulldozed. They do what they can do stay afloat; Bone sells copper and Billy attempts to get a job as a performer at an underground theater. There's also a weird dude in a glitter jacket who rolls down the street shouting through a megaphone, and he cuts people's lips off when they steal from him. One day, that weird dude chases Bones through an abandoned zoo and Bones stumbles upon a flooded town. Later that night, Bones' friend (Saoirse Ronan) tells him that the town is a reservoir under an evil spell. Bones' curiosity leads him to investigate. However, he never fully "goes there."

Gosling frames the shots nicely, capturing a decrepit and decaying Detroit in a way similar to how the recent horror flick It Follows did. Everything appears to be lit with natural lighting under Terrence Malick-like skies. The images transition along like pieces of a large collage. It always at least looks interesting, even if we're not sure exactly where this is all going. Much of it hinders on symbolism that most likely reflects harsh economic downfalls and swallowed up societies, but that isn't quite enough. There's also a chance that some of it might just be abstract for the sake of being abstract.

The problem really comes down to the narrative, as it's void of any dramatic heft. There's a patchy awkwardness to each event, and the script meanders and drifts between long silences and fumbling conversations containing loose themes of failed American dreams. Also, on an odd technical note, a lot of the dialogue is hushed and muffled, making it somewhat difficult to hear certain points. The opening setup is relatively solid, but as the film reaches its midway point, it delves into some fever dream sequences and the story seemingly builds and crumbles at the same time. It's quite clear that Gosling has drawn a lot of influence from his frequent collaborator Nicolas Winding Refn, but unfortunately it's more Only God Forgives than Drive.

It'd be rude to say "Ryan Gosling should stick to acting," because there is enough here to hint at some potential. But he needs a stronger story, and scene constructions that are more engaging next time.


Monday, April 6, 2015

[Review] Furious 7

After a train of unworthy sequels, the Fast franchise rejuvenated itself with Fast Five as it gained a sense of humor, indulged in its over-the-topness, delivered some elaborately staged action sequences, and added The Rock. In other words, it became a whole lot of fun. Furious 7 is the best example of that fun, working as an exhilarating action flick as well as a poignant sendoff for Paul Walker.

You're either already on board for this ride or you aren't, so there's no point to catch you up to speed in this review. All you need to know is, the core group (or family, as they like to say) of Dom (Vin Diesel) Brian (Walker), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese), and Ludacris team up with a very cool covert ops leader (played by Kurt Russell) in order to hunt down the film's ruthless and highly decorated villain, appropriately played by Jason Statham. It's far from an easy task, and the whole endeavor involves heists, computer & camera hacking, and lots of physical combat.

The premise takes on more of a Mission Impossible type, rather than the racing genre tactics that the earlier installments hinged on. But don't get it twisted; there are still loads of fancy, expensive cars and close-up shots of *dat ass*. As expected, the setpieces are gleefully crazy. Highlights include a squadron of cars skydiving out of an airplane onto some mountains (which creates some literal cliffhangers), cars leaping through skyscrapers and into other skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi, and The Rock breaking out of his arm cast by flexing. A lot of people might pass this off just as a big, mindless, throwaway action film, but the technical aspects--from the VFX to the stellar camerawork elevate this above the norm, even in the face of the deftly aware questionable physics and total ridiculousness. If you're one of those people that says "There's no way that would actually work" or "There's no way he/she would survive that," then you've come to the wrong place.

The movie clocks in at two hours and 20 minutes, but it never feels that long, particularly because it's straight-up entertaining and the pacing is set to hyper drive, feeling like the film is in constant motion. There are also some impeccably timed, campy but clever one-liners. The only slip-ups are the couple of soap-y scenes between Dom and Letty, but they're somewhat forgivable. Given the close-knit nature of the cast, the themes of friendship and family are echoed throughout. And in regards to Paul Walker, there's an undercurrent of his impending departure and the idea that he's on his way home, and all of this is tied up in a respectful and beautiful ending that you just have to see.

* 8.5/10 *

Friday, April 3, 2015

[Review] Home

Just judging by the previews, there was already something very familiar about Home. The little alien creatures, the 'fish-out-water' plot, the lost girl who finds companionship... There's not much we haven't seen here that hasn't been in many other animated kids films (even ones from within the last couple of years). And that turns out to be the case, but Home's intentions are in the right place.

Oh (that's his name) is voiced by Jim Parsons. He's a square alien munchin called a "Boov" who speaks with technical an overly literal syntax--like if Sheldon Cooper from "The Big Bang Theory" had English as a second language. Tip is an adventurous and no-nonsense-attitude girl (fittingly voiced by Rihanna), and she happens upon Oh in a convenience store after he's been labeled as a fugitive by his own planet. Tip sees Oh as an irritating burden at first, but he's the only key to aid her journey in finding her mom (whom the Boovs apparently abducted).

There's a funny meta moment when Tip and Oh are riding in a rocket car and an actual song by Rihanna comes on the radio. Oh says "This is not good music," and then a couple of seconds later he can't control his dancing. And there's a well-placed line about Oh almost having to "#3" near the end. But aside from that, the humor is mostly light and sub-par. The usual and agreeable themes of bonding, belonging, and friendship come across, and the story finishes with some wonderfully touching moments that keep this film from being disposable.

Home is never bad; it just isn't nearly as great as its contemporaries. It just kind of cruises by, but it might still find its way into your heart.


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

[Review] Serena

Directed by Susanne Bier, Serena was once an Oscar hopeful, starring the terrific duo of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, who impressed us in Silver Linings Playbook. But the film barely made it into the theaters. And this led a lot of people to ask "What went wrong?" Well, the answer to that is: a lot of things. 

Set in the smoky Mountains, the year is 1929 and Pemberton (Cooper) is a generic woodworker. One day, he sees Serena (Lawrence) riding on a horse and they suddenly get married. It gets to be about 25 minutes into the film and it feels as if nothing has really happened, but the two eventually start a timber empire. Their industry builds, while their marriage crumbles, but we don't really care. It's a small-town business endeavor and a soapy relationship drama that we have no investments in.

The film comes across as a Hallmark movie. Everything is so flat and forced, and there are a couple of dreadful montages backed by cheesy and melodramatic music. What we have here is two great actors fumbling with a bad script. The dialogue doesn't really ring as convincing, making for piles of stilted and awkward lines. It's essentially two people doing bad impressions of a certain period that they aren't familiar with at all. There's no character development or even any emotion, and a film as monotone and unengaging as this desperately needs it. The whole thing just drags and drags, The costume details are nice, and the picture is fairly well shot, but that's probably the way it should be.

The story in Serena is full of significant mistakes, accidents, bad decisions, and falling clunkers--and you can't help but think it all becomes a wooden reflection of the film itself.