Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Short Round: Under the Skin (2014) ****/*****

There seems to be two distinct discussions that have sprung out of Jonathan Glazer’s (Sexy Beast) new film, Under the Skin. They’re discussions that are generally at odds with each other when it comes to their ability at helping you figure out how audiences are likely to respond to the film too. The first thing people seem to feel the need to address after coming out of a screening of Under the Skin is that it’s very avant-garde, the kind of movie that sweeps you up in a mood and dazzles you with visual images, but that doesn’t tell a traditional story and that doesn’t go out of its way to explain to you what’s happening on the screen or why. This makes it feel like Under the Skin is only going to be for hardcore film buffs. The second issue people seem to address after seeing the movie is that its star, Scarlett Johansson, does a handful of nude scenes in it. This makes it feel like Under the Skin is going to be for everyone. In my experience though, the impenetrable nature of the story probably overpowers man’s innate urge to ogle.

That’s not to say that the film is so abstract that it’s impossible to read any sort of sense or meaning into it though, just that the film is challenging enough and slow-paced enough that only those especially comfortable with art cinema are likely to get much enjoyment out of it. Anyone seeing it solely because they’re a fan of Johansson’s sexy onscreen persona is likely to be left out in the dark, but for more adventurous audiences there is light to be found. The story, or what of it exists, sees the actress playing an otherworldly creature of some sort who seems to have been tasked with wearing a (remarkable) human form, driving around Scotland in a van, and seducing lonely men into traveling with her back to her place, which ends up being an inky black void where they soon find themselves naked, trapped, and eventually consumed from the inside out. The bulk of the film consists, simply, of this same thing happening to a series of hapless men.

The reason the film works despite it’s being slow, difficult to follow, and a little repetitive, is that, despite the fact that you never know exactly who Johansson’s character or the mysterious men on motorcycles she works with her are, or what they’re up to, she still goes through something of an engaging character arc. While she starts off in a state where she seems to be experiencing humanity and the Earth for the first time, and has little sympathy or concern for either, over the course of the film she softens, and once she lets her guard down and tries to experience this life more fully some real stakes and vulnerability creep into the story. Johansson is really good in the role too, still managing to engage even while she’s stripped herself of nearly every trace of her inherent personality and charm. And even though you won’t understand everything that happens in the film, you’ll still walk away from it with thoughts about power struggles between the genders, and thoughts about our bodies, and what aspects of them we take for granted and what aspects we overly obsess upon, running through your head. Plus, you can’t help but get lost in the film’s gorgeous visuals and fascinating score, so long as you’re willing to let the filmmaking do its work and you don’t demand that it move at a different pace or give you more answers than it’s willing to. Take the ride, put your trust in Glazer and Johansson, and chances are you’ll like what you see.

Joe (2014) ****/*****

Once upon a time, David Gordon Green was known as a maker of moody, bleak indie films that took place in authentic, working class worlds full of local color. People liked that. Then he took a detour into the world of mainstream comedies, making raunchy stoner fare like Your Highness and The Sitter. People didn’t like that so much. Last year he took Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch out into the woods and made a smaller movie with them called Prince Avalanche though, and a lot of pundits called it a return to form for the filmmaker, even though it was a bit more ambiguous than it was bleak, and a bit more absurdist than it was moody. With his latest effort, Joe, there’s no question that Green has moved back toward the same sort of material that made him famous, however. This small town tale stands right next to things like All the Real Girls and Snow Angels when it comes to spotlighting local color, mood-building, and telling a story that will leave you slumped over and feeling like the world is just an awful, terrible place to be. So chances are you’re going to like it.

The story told here isn’t really all that involved, seeing as Joe is much more interested in being a slice of life and a character study than it is in developing a complex plot, but the general setup is that Tye Sheridan is playing a teenager named Gary who comes from a family led by an alcoholic, vagabond patriarch who would rob you blind just as soon as he’d share a joke with you, even if you’re his own son, and Nicolas Cage is playing a character named Joe, who gives Gary his first job and becomes something of a mentor to him. Joe is responsible enough to run his own business and to employ a crew of workers, and he’s enough of a standup guy to look everyone in the eye and treat them fairly, but he also seems to be a sad man in general, and appears to have something of a violent past. As things develop, Gary, Gary’s dad (Gary Poulter), Joe, and a local sleaze bag named Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins) have a series of interactions that see them develop relationships both friendly and antagonistic, but that all grow on top of an undercurrent of violence that’s constantly threatening to bubble to the surface and consume everyone involved. From the very beginning, Joe exists in a world that’s absolutely steeped in doom and dread. The only real question seems to be just how bad things are going to get for our main characters before the end credits roll.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Raid 2 (2014) ****/*****

Gareth Evans’ buzz-creating martial arts film The Raid—which was released in the US as The Raid: Redemption—basically showed up the last twenty years of Hollywood action filmmaking in embarrassing fashion. Heck, The Raid was so good it might be the most thrilling action movie of all time. It hedged its bets by being solely about the action though. The structure of that film, which consisted of a hero fighting his way up a building full of bad guys until he got to the main boss, was so simple that it might as well have been the basis for an 8-bit video game, and not the plot of a feature film. The Raid made it clear to the world that Evans was a top-notch director of action scenarios, but whether or not he could handle the other aspects of making a good movie was still a big question everyone who was new to his work had. Well, seeing as The Raid 2 is a sweeping crime epic with a near two-and-a-half hour run time, it looks like we now have our answer. That answer being a resounding yes he can. 

The Raid 2 picks back up with our hero from the first film, Rama (Iko Uwais), pretty quickly after his surviving of the raid of the criminal stronghold from the first film. The basic plot sees him getting inducted into a super-secret faction of the local police force meant to root out corruption, and the basic plan is that he’s going to be thrown into jail, gain the trust of a powerful crime lord’s son, gain entry into said crime lord’s criminal empire, and then find out what public officials he’s been doing business with. Things don’t end up going as smoothly as planned though, and there ends up being about a half dozen other competing interests that all poke their noses into the proceedings, so by the time everything hashes out, The Raid 2 ends up being a fairly involved film. There are a lot of things that can go wrong with movies as ambitious as this one is, but thankfully Evans is able to avoid all of the usual pitfalls, and he’s also able to make that two-and-a-half hours of movie fly by so fast that you don’t even notice your butt getting numb. I guess it’s helpful when half of it is hanging off of the edge of your seat though (seriously, that’s not a cliché, this movie will affect your posture).

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Short Round: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) ****/*****

Now that we’re this deep into Marvel Studios’ ongoing efforts to create a connected and constantly growing film universe, it’s pretty clear that a pattern has started to form. The pattern being that, as their universe gets better established and these superhero movies get more of a chance to build off of what has come before them, the more successful they become. I had planned to write a bit more at length about their newest film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but just a day into its release, doing so has already started to feel a little bit pointless. Given its box office projections and its performance at all of the review aggregation websites, it seems like everyone in the world has already seen this second go-around with a solo Captain America movie, and everyone has absolutely loved it.

Wherever you look, the reactions seem to be the same. The Winter Soldier is being called the biggest and most engaging thing Marvel has done since The Avengers. It’s being said that the film succeeds not just because it’s a great superhero movie, but because it’s also able to blend the intrigue of 70s-era political thrillers and the adrenaline of modern-day spy movies seamlessly into its formula. Much is being said about how well-cast the principal players are, and how effectively they’ve settled into their characters now that they’ve had a chance to play them a few times and to develop them a bit. Everyone seems to be talking about how surprising it is that co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo were able to make pulling off an action movie this huge in budget and scope look effortless, given that their experience lies in TV comedies. All of these observations are spot on, irrefutable, so I won’t waste anyone’s time by being the one millionth person to wax on about them.

Instead, I’ll just use this space to step back from the movie a bit, and to appreciate what it is Marvel has accomplished here. I grew up in the 80s, which was the Golden Age of genre-heavy, big budget blockbusters, and even then the best we ever hoped for was that a movie studio could keep its act together long enough to produce a classic trilogy. And though the industry back then had no qualms with making a million movies that were full of comic book elements, like monsters, aliens, ghosts, and time travel, for some reason it always stopped short at making an actual superhero movie that spent the money necessary to get things right, and that played everything with a straight face. That Marvel has now released nine movies (and counting) that not only bring superhero action to dazzling life in the way young nerds always knew it could be realized, but that also all exist in the sort of rich, expanding universe that we used to only be able to explore through comics and literature, is just a godsend to the little geek that exists inside all of us. Just imagine the kids who are growing up watching all of these Marvel movies today. Twenty years from now they’re going to think of them the same way their parents came to think about Star Wars, only with the nostalgia multiplied by about ten. And, heck, if the studio keeps up the levels of quality they’re hitting right now, we of the older generation might too. Make Mine Marvel, indeed.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Short Round: Bad Words (2014) **/*****

Seeing as the last decade or so has given us Bad Santa, a Bad News Bears remake, Bad Teacher, and Bad Grandpa, movies that have the word “Bad” in the title and that feature a cartoonishly mean main character can probably now be considered an official comedic sub-genre. The latest, Bad Words, comes to us from director/star Jason Bateman, and it sees him playing a foul-mouthed and bitter 40-year-old named Guy who finds a loophole in a national spelling bee’s rules that allow him to sign up as a contestant—you know, even though spelling bees are supposed to be for kids. Seeing as he’s an overall bad person, it seems to be Guy’s plan to use his superior intellect to make a mockery of the competition, and to crush the dreams of all the little nerds who worked so hard to get there.

The thing that Bad Words doesn’t get that most of the “Bad” movies that came before it did is how to make the man character likable, despite their behavior. In all of those other movies, the mean character in question was a loser, someone who had hit rock bottom and was aiming their barbs at people perceived as being above them. Bateman’s character here seems much too smart and together to really be considered a loser, and he’s aiming most of his insults at children. Like those that came before him, you can describe Guy with words like cranky, crotchety, and cantankerous, but he’s the first of his kind that can also be described as smarmy, snarky, and smug. There’s no joy in watching someone who holds a position of power being mean to those beneath them. It just comes off as being cruel, and kind of a drag to sit through. And while most of these characters have been played as broad cartoons in the past, with a heightened reality that makes their behavior more palatable, Bateman plays Guy far too naturally for us not to take him seriously, which leads to some off-putting shifts in tone. Bateman never digs deep enough into Guy’s pathos for him to be dramatically effective, and his delivery is far too dour and dry for him to be all that effective comedically either.

The movie does start to get engaging somewhere about halfway through, once you realize that the real reason Guy has inserted himself into the spelling bee and the real reason he’s being a total jerk to everyone is being built up into a mystery, but once you finally get your answers, they’re just too unsatisfying and senseless for Bad Words to redeem itself as any sort of character study. It’s clear that the film thinks it has presented a moment of emotional catharsis by the time the end credits roll, but from this side of the screen the final few scenes don’t end up resonating at all. Even when all the cards are out on the table, you’re still just left asking yourself, “So what?” 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Short Round: Sabotage (2014) ***/*****

Ever since the VHS boom of the 80s came to an end, action movie fans have been forced to sit through glossy, bloodless, PG-13 fare designed to play not to those that get their kicks from bullets, blood, and boobs, but instead to the broadest, most easily-offended audiences possible. Maybe it had something to do with all of the big action stars stepping back from the game at once, or maybe it had something to do with theaters getting more serious about not letting kids into R-rated movies, but action movies eventually went from being thoughtless, testosterone-soaked spectacles of destruction to being slick, music video-looking things that survived on casting pretty faces as their leads. But no more! Action King Arnold Schwarzenegger is done with his political career and has recently returned to making shoot ‘em ups, and his latest film, Sabotage, probably resembles classic 80s action more than anything else we’ve seen in years.

What that means is that Sabotage is grossly over-violent, tone deaf, politically incorrect, downright sleazy, and has been given a blood-splattering, boob-baring, Hard R rating by those geeks over at the MPAA. The film is directed by cop movie veteran David Ayer (End of Watch), and it stars Schwarzenegger as the leader of a team of specially trained DEA agents who infiltrate and take down the world’s most dangerous drug cartels. If that doesn’t sound thrilling enough already, it also turns out that Schwarzenegger’s crew of hard-partying, quick-to-shoot agents are dirty, and after the team botches an operation where the $10 million they steal from a particularly nasty cartel mysteriously disappears, eventually they start to get picked off one by one. Who took the money? Who’s perpetrating the murders? Maybe it doesn’t matter much, because all of the characters in this movie are awful people, and most of the intrigue seems to be built on the question of how progressively gruesome each of their deaths can get.

Actually, Schwarzenegger’s character and his team are such crude, despicable, unlikable meatheads, that the first half of the film or so can be something of a chore to get through. Sure, there are a handful of decent action scenes, and a smattering of super bloody kills, but there are also a lot of scenes where you’re forced to just hang out with these idiots as they get hammered on cheap beer and engage in rock dumb locker room banter—and it sucks. Thankfully though, Olivia Williams eventually gets introduced as a homicide detective assigned to investigate their murders, and not only is her American accent amazing, but her character also provides us with a relatable figure to engage the story through. It doesn’t hurt that the mysteries deepen and start to get vaguely interesting around this point as well, or that the action ramps up its intensity and brutality during the climax. The first half of Sabotage is a little rough to get through, but if you manage to stick around, it actually doesn’t end up being all that bad.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted (2014) ***/*****

Back in the day when Jim Henson and company were making Muppet movies, the stories of each film often had little or nothing to do with one another. Co-writer/director James Bobin’s new film, Muppets Most Wanted, is very explicitly a direct sequel to his 2011 hit, The Muppets, though—so much so that it opens immediately after The Muppets calls cut on its final scene, and then it goes straight into a musical number about how audiences liked The Muppets so much that the studio has now ordered them to do a sequel. At first this approach seemed to be a welcoming one for those of us who were fans of the Muppets’ return to the big screen from a few years ago, but after the opening song starts making Meta jokes about how the sequel is never quite as good as the original, the feeling that maybe this movie isn’t going to be able to live up to expectations starts creeping in pretty quickly.

The story this time around is kind of a heist film, kind of a road trip movie, and kind of a prison break flick. The basic gist is that a duo of evildoers played by Ricky Gervais and a Kermit the Frog lookalike named Constantine have hatched a plan to steal the Crown Jewels and to frame the Muppets for the crime. The particulars of the plan involve replacing Kermit with Constantine in the performing troupe, leaving Kermit to rot away in a Russian gulag, hitching along with the gang on a tour of Europe that will allow them to steal a series of priceless art pieces that have a series of items necessary for the acquiring of the Crown Jewels hidden in them (National Treasure style), and then eventually ending the tour in London, where the climactic robbery will take place. That description kind of makes the film sound more intense and involved than it really is though. At its heart, Muppets Most Wanted is still just a silly movie where the Muppets and a handful of human guest stars engage themselves in absurdist hijinx. You know, for kids.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) ****/*****

Wes Anderson has such an easily identifiable bag of visual tricks, and his movies have such a distinct tone, that it’s always immediately obvious when you’re watching something that he’s made. His films don’t look like the typical movies that get played in suburban multiplexes, they don’t feel like the typical movies that get played in suburban multiplexes, and they don’t reach the audiences that see the typical movies that get played in suburban multiplexes. He makes movies for himself, that also happen to play to an enthusiastic but niche fanbase, and by you probably already know whether or not you’re a member of that fanbase, depending on how you’ve reacted to things like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom.

Because Anderson’s work is so singular and well-established, and because general audiences have already made their minds up in regards to how they feel about what he does, he’s become one of those directors whose movies probably aren’t best reviewed as standalone pieces of art. Instead, it tends to be most helpful to confirm that the new film does indeed fit inside of a box alongside the work that proceeded it, to warn the viewer that their feelings on said work are not likely to change, and then to do a little bit of discussion in regards to how the new film ranks amongst the filmography to date, and the small ways in which it might distinguish itself from the rest of the pack. So, now that The Grand Budapest Hotel has been released, let’s go ahead and approach this review by using just that strategy.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Need For Speed (2014) **/*****

When I heard that they were making Need For Speed, a film adaptation of a video game that’s little more than a racing simulator with no built in characters or storylines, I was incredulous. When I then heard that it was going to be the first big starring vehicle for Aaron Paul following his career-making run on TV’s Breaking Bad, my reaction to the project was downgraded from incredulous to skeptical. If Paul, who had reached a career crossroads where he likely had offers coming in from all corners of Hollywood, saw something in this project, then maybe there’s something to it? Maybe some ambitious screenwriter somewhere took a thin premise and nonetheless turned it into a screenplay worth getting excited about? Nope. Need For Speed is one of the most senseless, stupid, poorly written movies I’ve seen in a really long time.

When it comes to the story this movie tells, it turns out a dry racing simulation would have been preferable in almost every way. Instead, we get a melodramatic tale that sees Paul playing a down on his luck mechanic/street racer named Tobey who enters into an ill-advised race with an old rival (Dominic Cooper) that not only causes the death of his adopted little brother type (Harrison Gilbertson), but that also results in him serving two years in jail while Cooper’s character uses his connections to get off scot-free. Upon his release, Tobey decides to get revenge through an inexplicable plan that will see him racing across the country in order to get to San Francisco in time to join an underground race put on by an eccentric recluse (Michael Keaton). He intends to win the race, which would… somehow make things even between him and Cooper’s character? Cooper’s character, of course, doesn’t want this to happen, so he offers up a bounty to anyone who can hunt Tobey down and stop him from making it to the race on time. Oh, and also Imogen Poots is also along for the ride as Tobey’s passenger, because somewhere during the development process someone must have decided that the movie needed a romantic element.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Veronica Mars (2014) ***/*****

Despite entertainment pundits talking endlessly about how we’re living in a Golden Age of television and claiming that television has overtaken cinema as the best creative medium for filmmakers to work in, whenever a TV show jumps to the big screen with a movie adaptation, it’s still always a great reminder of the different sets of expectations we put on an episode of a TV show and a feature-length film. Has any TV-show-turned-movie ever really successfully expanded out the scope of its storytelling, blew up its aesthetic, and broadened out its world enough for it to feel like a proper movie and not just a slightly longer version of something that belongs on the small screen? If something has, it’s not coming to my mind right now, and the latest fan favorite series to spawn a movie, Veronica Mars, doesn’t break that streak either.

That’s not to say that Veronica Mars is an unpleasant experience, however. If there were three main things creator Rob Thomas’ cancelled-too-soon TV show about a teenage detective had going for it, they were the chemistry of its cast, the wit and pop of its dialogue, and the storytelling potential inherent in its fictional and economically divided setting of Neptune, California—and all of those things are still present here. Kristen Bell is still great as the title character, she still has great chemistry with all of the actors playing her friends and family (especially Enrico Colantoni, who plays her father), and the haves and have-nots of Neptune still seem to find themselves violently, endlessly at odds with one another. Fans of the show should have no problem finding things in here to like.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Non-Stop (2014) ***/*****

Liam Neeson has had a pretty interesting career. He’s been acting for so long, and has done so much good work, that it’s pretty much impossible not to respect him. That said, he’s done a lot of crap too. The tone of the projects he takes are so wildly divergent that it’s hard to pin down what kind of a performer he is as well. How can you classify an actor who’s probably best known for a weird collection of movies like Darkman, Schindler’s List, Rob Roy, and The Phantom Menace? Ever since Taken made an impossible amount of money in 2008 though, Neeson has settled into filling a pretty comfortable niche as being Hollywood’s tough old man. He’s basically the new Clint Eastwood or something.

Non-Stop sees Neeson once again being directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (as he was in Unknown), and once again playing a grizzled, grumpy, wrinkled badass. This time around in the form of a burnt-out, alcoholic Air Marshal. His character has had a rough life and seems to be a little bit on edge these days, but it becomes clear that he’s still got some mettle left once he begins to receive threatening txt messages while on his most recent flight, and then passengers start dying. Actually, there’s a bit more of a gimmick to the plot than that. The setup is that the killer will make sure that another passenger dies every 20 minutes if authorities don’t transfer an absurdly large amount of money into his bank account of choice, and seeing as he’s sending Neeson’s character messages over the plane’s closed network, you know that he’s got to be someone who’s on board the plane at that very moment. So, in addition to it having a ticking clock survival element, Non-Stop is also something of a mystery story.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Pompeii (2014) ***/*****

I won’t pretend that I’ve seen all of director Paul WS Anderson’s work. I’m not sure that I’ve even sat through an entire Resident Evil movie. But I’ve seen enough of what he’s done to have an expectation that his films are going to be tacky and juvenile, and are going to be aimed at audiences who are lacking in discerning tastes. Because of this, I wasn’t too excited to hear that he was going to turn the destruction of the city of Pompeii into a historical disaster epic. Once it was announced that Kit Harington and Emily Browning were going to be playing his leads, however, suddenly I found new interest that bubbled up and threatened to erupt out of seemingly nowhere.

With leads as powerfully attractive and inarguably crush-worthy as Harington and Browning, could it be possible that Pompeii would be able to rein in Anderson’s worst tendencies enough to properly focus on their beauty and at least be an enjoyable guilty pleasure? Happily, for everyone as shallow as me, it does. Good lord, those two are on fire in this movie. Harington, with those glistening abs and those pouty lips. Damn. Browning, with her milky skin and that angel face. Shit. You get so caught up in ogling them that you tend to forget that a giant volcano is about to erupt and kill everybody.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Short Round: Cheap Thrills (2014) ****/*****

You always hear stories about crazy things happening in the theater whenever some gross new shock movie comes out. Somebody storms out of the place in protest, somebody has a seizure, or what have you. Well, Cheap Thrills will always have the distinction of being the first movie I ever saw that made someone start puking in the theater, and for that it will always have a special place in my heart.

The film stars Pat Healy as a down on his luck family man looking to find a way to keep his house after he loses his job, Ethan Embry as an old acquaintance he runs into in a bar, and David Koechner and Sara Paxton as a very eccentric and very rich couple they come across who start paying them an ever-increasing amount of money to perform an increasingly dangerous and disgusting series of stunts. These stunts start somewhere around dares to slap a random girl’s ass for a few extra bucks and develop into performing terrible acts of self-mutilation for six figures, and beyond.

Director EL Katz has made a gleefully deviant movie here. His camera is always peeking around corners, giving us the sense of being voyeurs who are seeing things that we’re not supposed to be seeing, and clearly he’s taking joy in getting as imaginative as possible with the stomach-turning nature of the events we’re spying on. Cheap Thrills is the type of movie that doesn’t just give Koechner free range to be as big of a loudmouth blowhard as he can be, it puts a damned laser pointer in his hand while he’s doing it. That’s next-level obnoxious. There’s a slow stretch of time somewhere in the middle, after the fun setup but before the stunts start to have real danger and stakes attached to them, where the stuff going down starts to feel like consequence-free time filler, but the places the film ends up are so intense and affecting that the wait ends up becoming worth it anyway. I mean, a dude started puking right in the middle of the theater. That’s nuts.

Monday, February 17, 2014

RoboCop (2014) ***/*****

Normally if you told me that Hollywood was throwing its full financial support behind a movie called RoboCop that was about a grizzled Detroit police officer named Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) who gets his body blown up and has his surviving parts salvaged so that they can be fused with machinery—turning him into a robot cop—I would be over the moon. But seeing as there was already a movie called RoboCop about that exact thing when I was a kid, and I not only watched the movie, I also watched the animated series, ate lunch out of the lunchbox, and bought the action figures, this new RoboCop arrives carrying some pretty hefty baggage.

That’s really not the way it should be though. Remake or not, we should approach every movie with an open mind, ready to judge it completely on its own merits. We shouldn’t at all compare the different ways in which the Murphy character gets his body destroyed so that he can become RoboCop in each movie, which is a ridiculously awesome bloodbath in Paul Verhoeven’s original film and is a toothless homogenized nothing in this José Padilha-directed remake. Then again, it’s hard to treat these remakes fairly when this one has a line that references the infamous, “I’ll buy that for a dollar,” line from the original. Why do these things always feel the need to include cloying bits of fan service that just take you out of the movie and remind you that you’re watching something that comes pre-loaded with expectations?