Month: August 2013

Mini Reviews- “The Man With The Iron Fists”, “Evil Dead” (2013), “Warm Bodies”

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Evil Dead The Man With the Iron Fists Warm Bodies

“The Man With the Iron Fists”–  (**) There’s an old saying : “If you’re going to make a Quentin Tarantino movie, it’s best that Quentin Tarantino directs it”.  Alright, so that’s not true, but it should be.  Q only “presents” this movie, and  Wu Tang Clan alum RZA wrote, directed, and starred in this passion project, which doubles as an homage to surreal Kung Fu cinema of yesteryear.  The words ‘passion project’ should make something sound like the beginning of a beautiful thing.  In this case, however, a silly threadbare story, which is what most martial arts films have, isn’t elevated to a coolness or beauty that good or great films of its kind have.

Unlike “Kill Bill” and other similarly toned exploitation films, the startling moments of gory violence and extreme action didn’t work for me.  The eye-gouging, scalping, and heart-piercing in Tarantino movies startle us, but seem right at home in the context of the film. RZA tries that with his film as well, but it’s startling in a silly way.  Instead of giving an uncomfortable guffaw after one unfortunate soul’s chest is split open, I just rolled my eyes.  Russell Crowe (I’m not sure what he saw in this role) does his best to chew out a supporting gig as a dangerous mystery man trying to enjoy his vacation of debauchery.  It’s not nearly enough, as this film turns out to be more goofy than I think it intended.

“Evil Dead” (2013)– (**1/2)  For some reason, the powers that be decided to remake the original “Evil Dead”, a film that’s very well-known, and is just awful.  I know that people love Bruce Campbell and the original “Evil Dead” trilogy, but putting myself through those films was an experience I can’t imagine doing again.  Why in the world would I watch a remake then?  I was admittedly intrigued by the marketing campaign, which boldly declared the new film the “most terrifying film you’ll ever see”. I figured anyone brave enough to stamp that on their poster must be serious about their movie, so I bit.

Amazingly, this isn’t a disaster.  The plot is typical, and vaguely resembles the original, as friends meet at an abandoned cabin for a weekend getaway.  This time around, though, it’s not all fun and games for the young adults, as Mia (Jane Levy) aims to get sober with a little help from said friends.  Of course, this means she’s the most vulnerable of the group.  That works out quite well for the freshly unleashed (and conveniently nearby) demon, or hellspawn, or whatever one might call it.  So far, so typical.  What works for this movie is the constant onslaught of gore and doom, which made me consistently uncomfortable; what didn’t work is that the filmmakers expect the sheer presence of said gore and explicit violence to work as a fear tactic.  At no point did I experience fear.  The possession/demon story line isn’t new anymore, and it isn’t enough to scare me.  I’m wondering if instead of a remake, a prequel might have been a better idea.  After all, the opening scene of the film was the most effective part, and a further look at the wretched story of the demon sounds more intriguing than Hell on Earth.  I suppose the claims of the marketing team aren’t accurate, but it is watchable, an accomplishment the original trilogy failed to achieve.

“Warm Bodies”– (***1/2)  Of the three movies I’ve seen in the past ten days, this is by far the best of them, even if it falls short on occasion.  If you haven’t heard of it, imagine the main ideas for “The Walking Dead” and “Safety Not Guaranteed” colliding with “Romeo and Juliet”.  In other words, this is a quasi-indie zombie romantic comedy with heart.  I’m sure that helps.

Nicholas Hoult (“About a Boy”, “X-Men: First Class”) stars as a zombie who’s conflicted with the state of affairs in the post-apocalyptic world he’s in.  Why a reanimated corpse has any cognitive function at all is a mystery to me and the film, but I digress, for the film wouldn’t exist otherwise.  In a particularly grisly attack on the living, this zombie is overtaken with an urge to protect someone- the lovely Julie (Teresa Palmer, the Australian equivalent of Kristen Stewart).  So, he removes Julie from the situation, and takes her back to his ‘place’.  Again, why a zombie would have living quarters is perplexing, but it does give the plot a chance to advance.  The zombie doesn’t remember anything from his past, but can speak (kind of).  Through that, an unlikely relationship develops between Julie and ‘R’, as she christens him, and while he continues to protect her, he starts to undergo changes.

The changes I’m referring to are where the film really takes off.  Imagine being dead, or completely isolated from living society, and then someone makes the effort to understand you, despite the inherent danger and disgust involved.  No matter how dead, depressed, or isolated you might be, the film illustrates in a quirky way that love, or the energy of loving feelings, can bring anything back to the light.  Other zombies that ‘R’ feasts with began to feel similarly, especially the one played by Rob Corddry.  I would have liked this better without him in it.  Corddry is a scene-stealer, like Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler before him, but in a bad way; he’s always got to “Corddry it up”, and it doesn’t fit in this movie.

We’ve seen unlikely couples on film before, from Romeo and Juliet to Jack and Rose, and the pairing of ‘R’ and Julie qualifies as one of them, albeit not as legendary.  There’s also a demanding, militaristic father (John Malkovich), the head of the living resistance, who would never accept a zombie- right?   This all comes to a head, of course, because the change in zombies coincides with an increasing discontent amongst the ‘bonies’, a sect of the undead that’s “too far gone”, and even kills their own kind.  Add that up, and of course there must be a final battle of sorts.  All in all this is a good film, with a lot of quirky humor, and surprisingly, a lot of heart.  I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like on a grander scale, where the history of the zombie plague was at least hinted at, and the science of viruses and the undead were taken seriously.  I don’t think that was ever the intention, but nonetheless I saw an even better movie hiding underneath.  It’s possible that the original storyteller, author Isaac Marion, simply wished to use zombies as a metaphor for how we live our lives today.  Are we basically zombies, and do we need to periodically reconnect with the world around us to regain our humanity?  I can see that being possible.

Film Review- ‘Elysium’ (** 1/2)

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Matt Damon doing his best to not look exactly like Dr. Octopus in "Elysium"
Matt Damon doing his best to not look exactly like Dr. Octopus in “Elysium”

“Elysium”   ** 1/2 (out of 5) 

Starring:  Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, and Diego Luna

Written and Directed by:  Neill Blomkamp

It was becoming clear to me after seeing “The Wolverine” that 2013 is not a good year for really, really good studio blockbusters.  After being spoiled with the summer of 2012, it stands to reason that a letdown was in order this year.  “Elysium”, the second effort from “District 9” director Neill Blomkamp, cements this summer’s film output as mediocre to disappointing at best.  Even with a very talented group of people in front of and behind the camera, “Elysium” just isn’t as groundbreaking or meaningful as it should be.  It’s a beautifully shot, frantic, violent, and unfortunately jumbled film somehow made dull by the ‘smartest people in the room’.

Anyone who has seen “District 9” knows how politically charged it is, with sweeping themes of classism and racism.  As heavy-handed as it is, I would have been inclined to dismiss it out of hand.  However, Neill Blomkamp is a native of South Africa.  He’s lived through tumultuous times (albeit as a youngster) in that very part of the world; I thought it lent credence to his sermon of a film.

I couldn’t help but keep those facts in mind the first time I read the plot summary for “Elysium”.  The title even gave me a hint of what was to come; ‘elysium’ was a term in ancient times given to a place, like Heaven, that was “reserved by gods for the favored heroes”, or a “place or state of perfect happiness”.  I sensed (correctly) that Blomkamp would bring audiences another morality play masquerading as a science fiction film.  Generally, that’s what makes the best science fiction; ‘Star Trek’ is famous in part for mirroring our current society’s issues through the interactions with other intergalactic beings.  We have other literary examples of this through Richard Matheson, Isaac Asimov, and Philip Dick, to name a few.

I believe Blomkamp and company were on the right track, just like the aforementioned authors, but there’s one thing that separates this story and its’ notorious villains from better science fiction: ambiguity.  There is none.  Jodie Foster’s character, a ruthless defense secretary, shows only one motivation- keeping illegals out of Elysium.  Sharlto Copley’s psychotic agent/bounty hunter and his pals simply live for the thrill of the hunt.  William Fichtner’s devious character doesn’t think twice about his company’s liability after a serious workplace incident.  These are all characters without remorse, conscience, and seemingly without reason.  It leads me to wonder how they got that way, and why society has made the choice to separate their physical and moral selves from planet Earth and the rest of humanity.   To be honest, that’s far more interesting movie to me than the black and white way this film presents the division of power.

We clearly understand the motivations of every earthbound citizen in this film.  Earth sucks, robot police and parole officers can’t sense sarcasm, no one can get decent healthcare, and to boot, everyone on the orbiting space station Elysium lives disease-free thanks to special medical pods.  They have it all ‘up there’, we don’t ‘down here’, and that’s life.  So, everyone on Earth spends their time risking their lives trying to somehow sneak onto the Wheel In The Sky.  (I hoped, at some point, there would be a random reference to the Journey song, but alas, no)

I cannot wholly dismiss the film, for the performances are top-notch, especially Sharlto Copley.  I cannot appropriately convey how immensely talented he is, and I hope he one day holds a golden statue as a result.  Matt Damon, as likable as he is, does well as the hoodlum-turned-productive citizen-turned soldier Max.  Jodie Foster delivers another economical, if not memorable performance, and even manages to keep her odd French accent from being too distracting.  It also bears mentioning that the film looks absolutely breathtaking.  WETA continues their dominance as the go-to effects shop in my mind.

That being the case, “Elysium” is just not the satisfying film it should be.  Blomkamp showed an economy to his story in “District 9”, an intelligence that’s lacking this time around, especially in the last third of the film.  In him, I had sensed a rebellious director, eager to merge the intelligence of classic sci-fi principles with the broad capabilities of today’s movie technology.  With “Elysium”, I sensed a director who got the big budget and wasn’t forced to economize his thoughts.  His talent is undeniable, and I have a sneaking suspicion that his next film will be more focused and rich, hopefully while being less frenetic and explosion-happy.  Instead of the engrossing and smart journey to Elysium that we should have, befitting the effort it took to get there, we’re treated simply to a shoot ’em up where the gore and violence wins.  It just doesn’t seem right; it’s a purpose film, perhaps alluding to the disparity between medical technology and affordability in our world, but sorely lacking in purpose.  If you want a ‘splosion film that’s smarter than “Transformers”, “Elysium” might be great for you; however, as a parable for today’s society, it’s not nearly as enriching and satisfying as it should be.

Film Review- ‘The Conjuring’ (****)

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The Warrens, doing what they do best- interviewing the air.
The Warrens, doing what they do best- interviewing the air.

“The Conjuring”  **** (out of 5)

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston

Written by:  Carey Hayes and Chad Hayes

Directed by:  James Wan

Nothing scares me anymore in the theater. I can’t pinpoint the exact reason why, but it’s possible that I’ve just seen it all, experienced too much in life, or I’m too familiar with the typical precursors most ‘scary’ movies give away.  Most of the time with horror films of recent vintage, a filmmaker will follow procedure and give away every tense moment beforehand, or the script has such banal dialogue that we’re taken out of the moment.  Sometimes the gore doesn’t quite match the tone of the film.  Sometimes horror movies are just mean-spirited and full of torture moments, which aren’t fun for anyone (maybe fun for perpetrators of such action?).  “The Conjuring”, however, does an excellent job of balancing tense and horrific moments, while simultaneously balancing itself between the ridiculous and the serious.  I can say with confidence that although I wasn’t truly frightened at any point, this film held me in suspense the entire time.

It is important to note that in no way do I actually believe any of this movie, or any story with a similar premise, to be true.  The focus in popular culture on ghosts, the supernatural, and the unholy is quite the snoozefest for me.  That being said, I’m open to suspending disbelief for a film about such subjects, provided that it isn’t too heavy-handed and preachy.  Director James Wan (“Saw”, “Insidious”) does a masterful job of showcasing the ghost busting Warren couple (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as a grounded, focused team that at least tries to use scientific methods to back their work up.  In this setting, I’m game for that, and although we’re given a couple of on-screen notes about the ‘true’ nature of this story, it isn’t shoved down our throat.  Again, a balanced approach.

The film is centered around a single case the Warrens worked, albeit not the one they are most famous for (the “The Amityville Horror” is centered around that particular case).  Until I saw this film, I wasn’t familiar with the Warrens themselves.  Apparently they investigated many ‘supernatural’ cases, and as the film tells us at the beginning, this one was the ‘most harrowing’.  Of course it was.

The Warrens are at a speaking engagement when they are urged, at the insistence of the mother (Lili Taylor), to come and see an old house in the country that the Perron family of seven has just moved into.  Things are…happening at the house that can’t be explained.  All the clocks stop at 3:07 AM.  There are randomly banging doors.  The family pet meets doom.   The smell of rotting meat is prevalent. Most importantly, the daughters are frightened, and after a particularly harrowing incident, the weary family decides to take action.  It takes the initially skeptical Warrens only a few minutes at the house to be clear that something is amiss.

In a sequence of scenes straight out of the “Poltergeist” playbook, a metric ton of ‘analyzing’ equipment is brought in to help provide evidence that the Perron’s house does, indeed, need an exorcism.  That’s right, a whole house exorcism.   The family can’t leave, either, because this ‘demon’ will follow them.  Bummer.  What follows, though, is a consistently tense stream of events, where the clairvoyant Lorraine Warren sees terrible images, and the presence in the house toys with everyone.  Why does it toy with this family?  The reason is given, but I would venture a guess and say that this entity can only grow powerful by striking at the heart of the family, and breaking their bonds.  Destroying things like family photos, and killing pets, is one way to do such a thing.

What could be ridiculous in “The Conjuring” is not- this is all well constructed and edited, for there are neither dull moments, nor wasted scenes of needless exposition.  The tension level is high until the very end of the film, and never lets up.  There’s a point in any thriller where the film can stand pat, and things go as expected, or the boundaries are stretched.  This is one of the films where the stakes seem higher, and the antagonist unpredictable.  At one point, not only does the affected family deal with the disturbance, but the Warrens themselves deal with the spook’s wrath.  That unnerved me- the rules seemed to change on the spot, and I wondered what, exactly, the supernatural nemesis was going to do next.

A few smaller details deserve mentioning.  The title sequence of the film, which scrolls up, is a nice throwback to titles past.  The font is oversized, and clearly not a subtle yellow.  It certainly caught my attention, and got me thinking something unique was forthcoming, not to mention a grin on my face.  I’ve also got to give the film credit, for there are many ‘jump’ moments, but they’re timed just right.  For subject matter we’ve seen many times now, I appreciated the attention to detail.  The dark corners were somehow more menacing than I remember, the shrieking music at critical moments hit just right, the tree in the Perron’s yard was appropriately jagged, and the visceral reactions from the actors gave what should be a throwaway film some gravity.  Tonally, this film’s got it where it counts.

Interestingly, in the course of writing this, I’ve realized that it’s possible I will never be scared watching a movie again.  Either a horror film tries too hard and gives away an upcoming scare, there’s too much gore and it becomes silly, or it’s full of torture or shock ‘porn’, and I just feel depressed more than anything.  Maybe that’s what getting older is like.  Maybe we’re only scared by what we don’t know or understand, and thus being scared is a childish reaction.  Maybe (this is a stretch) we’re so used to the world being more horrific than a horror film that nothing surprises us in the theater anymore.  That being the case, I give extra props to “The Conjuring” for jarring me at all, and I dare any other film to do better.

Film Review- ‘The Wolverine’ (***)

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The Wolverine
“Dammit, every time I go to Great Clips!!!!”

“The Wolverine”  *** (out of 5)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Wil Yun Lee, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, and Famke Janssen

Written by: Mark Bomback and Scott Frank

Directed by: James Mangold

Sometimes, being the good guy isn’t the best thing.  Hugh Jackman has now played Marvel’s Wolverine character five times in full, and briefly appeared in “X-Men: First Class”.  I like Hugh Jackman, and for all intents and purposes, the Aussie star seems to be a genuinely good, hard-working guy.  However, not one moment has passed where I have considered his portrayal of the most popular Marvel mutant to be as defining as, say, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, or even Patrick Stewart as Professor X.

Could it be the character of Wolverine, and not the actor, that I find less interesting?  It’s entirely possible.  Wolverine is virtually indestructible.  His ‘weapons’ are attached to his skeleton in the form of adamantium claws.  So, in essence, it requires very little skill for him to succeed at doing what he wants, because nothing stands in his way (other than an adamantium bullet, according to the last film).  He’s been alive for a few centuries, but what he’s seen and done haven’t driven him insane, or kept him from trying to function over and over again.    I guess Wolverine might be the most boring ‘immortal’ ever.  He never catches a break, but it never seems to completely drive his character over the edge.

This particular film incarnation of Wolverine isn’t a ‘bad’ film, by any means.  It’s very nice to look at, and there is a smattering of memorable scenes, such as a flashback scene to World War II-era Nagasaki, with Logan as a P.O.W., an evenly matched battle between Logan and the adamantium-armored ‘Silver Samurai’, and a fun, if unbelievable, fight sequence on top of a bullet train.

Unfortunately, like most other X-Men entries, this is an incomplete film.  It’s not “the Wolverine film we’ve been waiting for”, as some critics have opined (were we waiting for one?).  For all the extravagance of the aforementioned scenes, it’s the other pivotal scenes that don’t work as well.  For example, an old friend offers Logan the chance to join us mortals, an opportunity you’d think he’d relish no matter the cost, but he passes.  A new lady friend gets close to Logan, and they end up being intimate (how old IS she?) despite her engagement to a politician, and despite his apparent loyalty to Jean Grey, but later he violently chides the politician fiance for doing the same thing he did earlier- violate the commitment of that relationship, even if it was set up.  Hypocrisy with Wolverine doesn’t sit well with me, especially since the filmmakers have always asked us to give this violent, moody character the benefit of the doubt- this time it’s inexcusable.  On top of that, Jean Grey (or Phoenix, depending on your level of anal retentive-ness) appears throughout the film, but do we ever get a solid reason for why she’s around, other than Logan dreaming about her?  Does she exist on some spectral plane, or just as a figment of his imagination?  I didn’t notice an explanation either way.

As I mentioned before, X-Men films are generally incomplete.  Even the best of the series, “First Class”, occasionally rides on too much style and not enough substance.  I’m convinced that the series needs fresh faces in charge, and someone to ground the fantastical abilities of the characters in a more believable reality.  We’ve been shown many scenarios throughout the six films which pit the mutants against the homo sapiens, but never on a level that I can imagine would be appropriate in real life.  That’s the big failure of the series, in my opinion.  There is significant conjecture about the ‘outcasting ‘of mutants, and the ‘brewing war’ between humans and mutants, but aside from a couple random scenes, when do humans and mutants actually square off?  Here’s hoping that Bryan Singer finally graduates from director of pretty decent films to elite director with next years “Days of Future Past”, and with the mutant hunting Sentinels, we actually HAVE the ‘brewing war’ alluded to in previous films.  I’m not holding my breath that it will actually happen, though.

I think we desperately need a new style of film for the X-Men.  Gritty, dark, and grounded would be a perfect approach for me.  That’s what we were promised with “The Wolverine”, but I only see dark, with the imitation of gritty and grounded, much like the other films in the saga.  My suggestion?  Why not hire Darren Aronofsky again, and see what he comes up with?  He was the original director on “The Wolverine”, then bolted.  The same thing happened before with “First Class” helmer Matthew Vaughn, who worked on “The Last Stand”, and left.  Aronofsky is an elite filmmaker. James Mangold is not.  He’s Bryan Singer, Brett Ratner, Gavin Hood, and Matthew Vaughn.  He’s good but not great.  He’s a fine filmmaker that hit on the brilliant “3:10 To Yuma”, but had two super heavyweights heading the cast.  Hugh Jackman is not a heavyweight.  This movie isn’t a heavyweight.  After six entries, shouldn’t we get something more exciting?  Is it possible that the X-Men, simply, aren’t that interesting to begin with?  The best conclusion I can come up with is that the X-Men are just as interesting as most comic characters, but to this point, no filmmaker has taken the cinematic version of these characters to the next level.  I say it’s high time someone did.

Trailer Reviews 8/2/13- “Out of the Furnace”, “The World’s End”, “The Wolf of Wall Street”

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Here are another set of trailer reviews for your viewing pleasure today!  (Technically, I watched these in the past few weeks, but the last trailer review was a wee bloated)

“Out of the Furnace”– While I’m tempted to say I’ll see anything with Christian Bale in it, I’m hesitant with this latest.  Director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) brings us this tale of a man (Bale) avenging his brother’s death when the law men can’t (or won’t?) bring the responsible to justice.  That sounds rather straight-forward, and it is.  In fact, it’s so straight forward and familiar that I was immediately reminded of a British indie-noir film entitled “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” with Clive Owen, Charlotte Rampling, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.  Despite the talent involved, that film wasn’t as gripping as it should have been, but maybe “Furnace” can capture what was missing in that.  Woody Harrelson appears to be the main ‘baddie’, and if he’s as effective at making me hate him as he usually is, I suppose there’s a reason to see this version of the same story.  “Out of the Furnace” arrives  December 6th, 2013, in time for Oscar season, but I honestly can’t imagine this having any more resonance than the various other versions of this same story ever had.

“The Wolf of Wall Street”– To be honest, the last thing I really want to see is another movie about an incredibly privileged, good looking guy learning a lesson after he’s already trashed countless lives, the filmmaker all but asks us to empathize for the character. That being said, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have a spirited history of working together (“The Departed”, “The Aviator”, “Gangs of New York”), and the result is generally positive.  The trailer itself is quite solid, with an excellent speech by none other than Matthew McConaughey.  If that speech, in it’s ‘truthful silliness’, embodies the tone of this film, then I’m on board.  If this is just another “Wall Street” or “The Sopranos”, count me out.   This arrives on November 15th, 2013.

“The World’s End”–  Filmmaker Edgar Wright and fellow chums Simon Pegg and Nick Frost complete their ‘Cornetto’ trilogy (whatever that means) with this genre-bending comedy.  In a similar vein to “Shaun of the Dead”, the story appears to be rather straightforward, with individuals experiencing real life events, and then the unreal takes place.  In this case,  a group of friends decides they’re finally going to complete the grand pub crawl they’ve wanted to do since they were younger.  In the midst of that, aliens or monsters, or whatever unidentifiable creatures that were in the trailer appear, and suddenly a grand pub crawl turns into a fight for survival.  Think of it as “Shaun of the Dead” meets “This Is The End”, but set in England.  That sounds like fun, if not great.  See it August 23rd, 2013.