Monday, August 3, 2015
Rogue Nation is directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who already had the Cruise connection: he co-wrote last year's awesome Edge of Tomorrow and directed Cruise in the "okay" Jack Reacher. His noticeably-impressive credit was being the screenwriter of 1995's The Usual Suspects--he also co-wrote this film. He knows Cruise's strengths and puts them to good use: if you've seen the trailer for the film, you know there are incredible action scenes where Ethan hangs from a plane, speeds down curvy roads on a crotch rocket, and jumps into a dangerous waterway. Sure, the Mission Impossible films are all about wowing us with boisterous action, but Rogue Nation's plot moves along at a speedster clip that is invigorating even without the million-dollar set pieces.
There was a trailer for the new Bond film, Spectre, before this new incarnation of Impossible, but I'd be surprised if the new 007 had the same amount of energy and humor as Rogue Nation. This is one of those 'us against them' spy films (every series has one or two): Ethan Hunt seems completely and utterly obsessed with discovering the inner workings of the Syndicate that everyone--even his teammates at the IMF and especially CIA head Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin, always great at portraying a dickish, cocky man)--thinks that he's gone over the edge with his infatuation.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is full of the amazing action scenes that the Mission films are known for (such as the incredible sequence on the side of the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai in Ghost Protocol). You probably saw flashes of them from the trailer that's been showing for the past few months. But it's the surprises in Rogue Nation that hold the most tension, particularly a long Opera scene that builds and builds into an excitement that is rare in modern summer blockbusters. After five incarnations, Cruise's Mission Impossible films show no signs of slowing down--you could make a valid argument that Rogue Nation is the best of the whole series (though I am also partial to the third and Ghost Protocol), and rumor is that the 6th incarnation will be filming next summer. Like most summer action films, there's no point to worry too much about the plot. But Rogue Nation succeeds where other films fail: it's fun, entertaining, and 2 thrilling hours well spent at the theater. (B+)
Sunday, June 14, 2015
The park of the first film is now a gigantic spectacle: throughout the whole island, railways bring thousands of visitors to different areas with different attractions. There are rides, refreshments and an undeniable excitement about the hundreds of dinosaurs. It's as big as Disneyworld, as parents and children buy toys and replicas and congregate in the gigantic common area at the front of the park. We first meet two brothers: they are at the park for the weekend visiting their aunt, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who operates the daily operations of the park. She's supposed to be taking care of the boys, but shes so into her work and revealing a new, genetically modified dinosaur, Indominus Rex, that she essentially ignores them until shit hits the fan.
Chris Pratt portrays Owen, a former Military Man who has a way with Raptors and dinosaurs in general. He's funny and nice and loves animals, and the way that him and Claire sarcastically spar with each other completely telegraphs the fact that they are actually in love. When Owen realizes that the park has created a modified dinosaur that's been held in captivity to spike the attendance at the park (regular, docile dinos are just not cutting it anymore), he knows it's a terrible idea. And--you guessed it--the Rex eventually escapes, and the action and excitement of Jurassic World finally begins.
There's no doubt that after it's opening weekend (Jurassic World hit the second biggest opening weekend in the history of movies at 204 Million Dollars), there will be plenty more Jurassic films in our future. But like this film, I will be skeptical: luckily, Jurassic World didn't seem like a simple cash grab by the studio and was legitimate big-budget fun at times, perfect for this time of the summer. You're not watching Jurassic World for narrative coherence or characters that are well-written: you're looking for Dinosaur-crunching action and tension that doesn't let up. Therefore, it's a success. (B)
Saturday, May 16, 2015
Miller is in his mid-70's, but you'd never guess watching Fury Road: it's one of the fastest-paced action movies in recent memory. After a start that left me wondering how much I was going to like the film (it takes a few minutes to get your bearings in this strange world), once the accelerator is slammed to the floor, it never lets up until the final credits roll. This time Max is portrayed by Tom Hardy (filling in for Mel Gibson's original role), and though he's clearly up-for-anything, most actors could have played the character--he has less than 30 lines of dialogue (minus grunting), and really ins't the star of this installment. The real star is Imperator Furiosa (a shaved-head, one-armed Charlize Theron), who drives the gasoline-collecting War Rig across the barren landscape.
Furiosa works for King Immortan Joe, who has a cult-like following of Powder lookalikes who are addicted to thoughts of the afterlife and act like crack addicts. At the beginning of the film, Max has been captured by these albino thugs, and he gets thrown in a cage and used as a blood bag for the sickly Nux (Nicholas Hoult, having plenty of fun). Eventually, our Max is strapped to the front of a desert dune buggy and the epic chase (and it is epic, as most of it is with real vehicles and real explosions without an overdose of special effects) begins.
Many film goers are speaking of the feminist aspects of Mad Max: Fury Road, due to the arc of Furiosa and the women that she is trying to help, but I'll stay away from that. The film doesn't delve far enough into that aspect to truly make a case for it. What Fury Road really is: an unrelenting action film that doesn't need a real plot to succeed. Other than Furiosa's plight, Fury Road exists for cars, trucks, buggies and motorcycles to drive incredibly fast, smash into each other and explode, all while racing from one end of the desert and then back again, with characters who are bizarre living in a post-society world created by Miller. And for that, it succeeds: Fury Road is incredibly interesting, and though its not quite completely mind-blowing, mind-blowing is what comes to mind when thinking of the movie studio giving Miller 150 Million dollars and sending him off to the African desert to create a summer blockbuster as funky as this one. (A-)
Sunday, May 10, 2015
Three Marvel movies, two of them solo projects since the last Avengers film, are better than Avengers: Age of Ultron: Iron Man 3, the 2nd Captain America, and Guardians of the Galaxy. The problem with having film versions of The Avengers is there is not nearly enough screen time for each of the characters--they are all battling for our time and laughs like the Royal Rumble of a WWE match. The great HBO show Game of Thrones for an example: with dozens of characters, we need 10 episode seasons (and sometimes that doesn't even feel like enough) to truly get involved in each character's plight. A two hour and twenty minute Avengers movie, when we get 3 new, significant characters added to the main ones, just isn't enough time. It's a collage of colors and metallic action with not enough new excitement to make much of a dent in the summer movie season.
Yet again, this Avengers at least somewhat focuses on Loki's staff and the power of the Infinity Stone that lies inside of it. Who will harness this power, the Avengers (Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye) or a new Artificial Intelligence known as Ultron that can take over the Internet and anything metal to build an army of Iron Man-esque steel to--you guessed it--try and destroy the world? I think we all know the world isn't going to be destroyed, and most of the tension lies within the characters that are jockeying for screen time.
Reading over this review, I feel like a grumpy old man. No doubt kids in their teens will love Avengers: Age of Ultron, with its bombastic special effects, its attempts at humor, its blasts of action. But damn it if Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn't feel like The Avengers with a new coat of fresh paint. And like a new coat of fresh paint, occasionally Ultron comes to close to the excitement of watching paint dry: a new unexciting villain, a plan to destroy the world, a plot that jumps between a dozen characters with scientific jargon that doesn't make a whole lot of sense: It's got a been-there-done-that feel. At one time, late in the movie, Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye states (I'm paraphrasing), "We're on a city rising into the sky, fighting an army of robots, and I'm using a bow and arrow--this doesn't make much sense". Agreed. (C+)
Thursday, April 30, 2015
It's best not to know too much about Ex Machina other than the basics: Nathan Bateman (Oscar Issac, turning awesome acting into a common occurrence) the owner/creator of the world's greatest Internet search engine, BlueBook. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson, son of the great Brendan and building a fine film resume of his own) works at BlueBook and wins a contest to meet CEO Bateman for one week, who lives far far out in the mountains in a futuristic estate full of luxurious technological advances, living like a hermit.When Caleb finally reaches the automated door of this modernistic mansion, he realizes that the contest that he "won" may be less a victory and more the most interesting week of his young life.
The two Male performances are precisely what propels Ex Machina into the real of recent sci-fi greatness. Oscar Issac has been noticeable in two recent films: 2013's Bob Dylan-esque Inside Llewyn Davis and last year's A Most Violent Year. Both showcased his ability but were subdued. Ex Machina allows Issac to unleash his darker side, as he slowly reveals to Caleb his plans for his stay. Gleeson is also noteworthy as the nerdy Caleb, showcasing a solid arc of emotions as the week progresses. But it's not just men who make you sit up and watch: newcomer Alicia Vikander portrays a character named Ava with deft skill. It's Ava's situation that brings out the more thought-provoking ideas of the film
Director Alex Garland shows that screenwriting is only one of his skills. Ex Machina is slick and shot without distractions. The music/score is also stellar. If Ex Machina has a fault, it's the fact that it raises plenty of interesting moral questions but doesn't dig too deep into them: but when we're left with such great performances and an ever-building tension, even if the story doesn't break any new ground it's still infinitely watchable. So far, 2015 hasn't seen many films of note, but Ex Machina rises to the top, a film the general public and pimpled sci-fi nerds can all enjoy. (A-)
Saturday, April 4, 2015
I wouldn't suggest reading any of this review if you haven't seen It Follows but you are planning to see it one day. I went in only knowing the bare minimum: no review reading or trailer viewing. Like any horror film that sometime relies on surprises and shocks, the less you know the better. Let's just say--like 2007's humorous Teeth--it promotes a strong case for young adult abstinence. Maika Monroe (formally seen in last year's The Guest) stars as Jay, a happy young lady who has recently fallen for a mysterious guy who--when we first see him--seems a bit paranoid: he's always glancing around like something is watching him. On a fateful night, Jay decides that she's ready for the next step in their relationship, so they jump in the backseat of his car and get...it...on (as seen in the movie poster above).
Turns out--in the film world of It Follows--that HPV and getting pregnant aren't the only things that young women have to worry about after having sex: Jay's boyfriend, in the afterglow of their first sexual experience together, turns violent, and explains the hook that the rest of the film relies on. He's passed on a sexually-transmitted curse. Until Jay spreads her legs for another guy, "It" will be after her. "It" takes on any human form and can show up anywhere, but it always walks, never runs, straight at you, regardless of setting. You can avoid "It", but if it gets close enough and touches you, you die. Yeah: sounds like typical PG-13 horror to scare teenie-boppers whose parents dropped them off at the theater. But It Follows is much better than that.
One could easily write a dissertation on the metaphoric plot points of It Follows: is it promoting abstinence, so "It" will never come to get you? Is it a parable about AIDS and how you can never escape it? Or is it something different, as the only way to get rid of "It" is to actually have more and more sex...as much sex as you can to distance yourself from the horror. No point to delve into that stuff here though: the basic fact is that It Follows is a very well-made horror film from a promising new director (this is only Mitchell's second film), a simple and effective little package that may make you think twice about your next sexual encounter, (B+)
Saturday, February 14, 2015
Kingsman is one of those self-aware movies that realizes it's a movie: characters spout quotes about films that fall into similar genres, like Bourne or Bond, and many scenes can end with almost a wink to the camera. But the reason it succeeds on a pure entertainment level is because unlike the movies starring Jason Bourne and James Bond, this one's aimed at adults: London street language vulgarity is spurted at every turn by our young protagonist, and the film contains some almost shocking levels of violence. But the violence fits: it's February--the time of the year when the dregs of the cinematic universe are released--and we could all deal with en entertaining, violent and vulgar story about spies, world domination, and colorful villains.
The trailer for this movie really annoyed me. It seems like it was shown before every film in the theater for almost a year (part of that is because it was delayed from Fall 2014 until now, which was another reason to be completely skeptical), with the main character saying things like "wicked" and "that is sick" in his British accent. So count me as surprised by the fun-factor of the whole thing: Harry (Colin Firth, in a role that shows he could easily pull off a Liam Neeson-esque mid-career action Renaissance) is a Kingsman, a sort of MI6 badass spy group just as concerned with fashion and manners as they are hi-tech gadgets and hand-to-hand combat. But they need new recruits after a mission goes bad and they are one spy less than they used to be.
Kingsman moves like a Bond film, full of over-the-top world domination plots and awe-inspiring action, and it's the latter moments that make the film shine: one notable scene, taking place in a Westboro Baptist Church-style teachings congregation, really sticks out at showing the shock value of a hard-rated R spy film--the action is frenetic and brutal, but it doesn't rely on quick-cut editing like the Bourne films. You feel every stab, gunshot and ax wound. And as we learned with Kick-Ass, this is what director Matthew Vaughn is great at: taking a getting-tired genre (in Kickass is was superhero films...here it's Bond-like spy films) and making his own version full of unique humor, weirdness, and stylistic action that gets your blood pumping while this brutally-cold winter piles up another foot of snow outside of our windows. (B+)
Sunday, January 18, 2015
25. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
24. The Skeleton Twins
23. John Wick
21. Obvious Child
20. Still Alice
16. American Sniper
15. A Most Violent Year
14. Gone Girl
13. Mistaken for Strangers
12. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
11. X-Men: Days of Future Past
Blue Ruin is a unique American revenge story, a low budget edge-of-your-seat thriller that is as simple as it is tension-packed. Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) is a vagrant who lives out of his car near the beach--he's scraggly and bearded. Once day, he receives a certain bit of news that causes him to clean himself up and return to his hometown with the sole intention of murdering a specific person who wronged him in the past. There's not much to complain about when it comes to Blue Ruin: the directing and visuals are stellar (especially on such a low budget), it's undeniably taut at only 90 minutes, the thrilling unease is felt throughout, and the progression of the story is fast, moving from violent standoff to violent standoff until a satisfying and grim conclusion.
Director Bennett Miller is a sucker for interesting, true-life stories: his past works include a film about the complicated character Truman Capote, and he explored low-budget baseball with Moneyball. Foxcatcher, his new film, slips into the same categories: it contains real-life drama, intriguing characters, and an extremely peculiar story: it focuses on Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his uncomfortable relationship with mega-millionaire Jon du Pont (Steve Carell, prosthetic face and all), a team-up that turned raw and violent and ended in a tragedy. The stars of the film are the atmosphere--the dark, smokey scenes that set the chilling mood--and the acting: Carell is great in a transforming role, and Tatum continues to show that he's not just a meathead with no talent. Another solid entry in Miller's genre of True-life tension.
Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise is a god-damned movie star, and anytime anybody doubts him, he stars in an entertaining action (typically with a sci-fi tinge) film that ends up being super fun: see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Oblivion, etc. It's no different with this year's horrendously-titled film, Edge of Tomorrow (adapted from the incredibly better-titled Japanese light novel "All You Need is Kill"), directed by Doug Liman. It's an action-packed and (actually) thoughtful mixture of Groundhog Day (yes, the Bill Murray film) and Source Code: Cruise dies over and over again in a huge Normandy-style battle with Aliens, progressing further and further each time as he starts getting certain things right. It's like a charismatic first-person shooter video game with heart, humor, and an exhilarating performance from Cruise.
Jake Gyllenhaal's been on a roll lately, with last year's Prisoners and now Nightcrawler, a showcase for a sociopath character named Lou Bloom who lives on the outskirts of polite society, flying around the city at night, trying to film grotesque crime scenes to sell to the morning news stations. It's up there as one of Gyllenhaal's great roles ever: he's so damn creepy and weird that it's impossible to take your eyes off of him. As Lou's business grows, he begins to gain more notoriety from the news stations, and he begins to make more and more money for the crazier stuff that he films. It's this turning point, when Lou's self obsessions meet up with his realization that he can push the boundaries of society's morals, that Nightcrawler becomes something special, spiraling out of control until its surprising conclusion.
Interstellar continues the tradition of Christopher Nolan films that have an undeniable epic quality and occasional eye-rolling scenes of sentimentality. But I still loved the Hell out of it. It's chock full of science-fiction mumbo-jumbo, discussions of black holes, the space-time continuum, wormholes and gravitational pulls. I don't know how much of this stuff was true, but it doesn't matter: Nolan has again (like with Inception and the The Dark Knight trilogy) created a theater-going experience rather than just a good movie. It's like a nearly 3-hour amusement park ride at the Epcot Center containing famous actors. I didn't stop thinking about some of its scenes and ideas days after I left the cinema. Much of the film takes place in gigantic vastness and space and completely foreign areas and planets, and it leaves the viewer with a sense of awe. But even though the film sets its sights far, far, away, when Nolan can manage to transcend corny sentimentality and touch on real human emotion, that's when Interstellar shines the brightest.
Micheal Keaton gives the best performance of the year in a Meta-Dramedy about a former superhero (Birdman) movie actor (Riggan) who's now washed up and trying a shot at redemption by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play. Keaton is the key that locks the film into greatness, but Birdman also relies on its ensemble cast: Edward Norton as the prickish but vulnerable star actor, Emma Watson's just-outta-rehab daughter, Zach Galifianakis' producer friend of Riggan. These actors provide the humor and emotion that fly us into the heart of the story and the satiric wink towards show business culture. And it all fits together perfectly with the seemingly hour-long tracking shots composed by director Alexander Inarritu that make you feel as though your standing on stage or behind the curtain with the play's actors. Birdman is innovative, and you've probably never seen anything like it before.
Whiplash had been on my radar since its prestigious showing at the Sundance film festival earlier this year, but I didn't expect it to envelop me so completely into it's nervous energy and jazz-music-infusion. It's a fairly simple premise, but one that resonates: Andrew (great newcomer Miles Teller) has just been accepted into one of the best music universities in America. Once we gets there, he catches the eye of an intense instructor who expects nothing less than perfection, a drumming drill-sergeant who is as violent as he is transfixing (J. K. Simmons in a career defining role and one of the best performances of the year). It is an incredibly uncomfortable watch, giving you the feeling of being in a job interview as thinks keep going south far beyond what you ever expected. But what is Whiplash truly about? Having an undeniable talent and going to any length necessary to drum it out of you.
The Raid 2
Nothing this year could have compared to the exhilaration that was experienced upon the first watch of The Raid 2. It's a 2.5 hour crime epic that contains some of the best actions scenes in just about anything, ever. If you've seen the first film (which you don't need to see to enjoy this sequel, but why wouldn't you?), you know that director Gareth Evans is a master at showcasing the speed and brutality of the martial art, pencak silat: but in The Raid 2, Evans sets his sites on a whole city rather than just one building, complete with car chases and murderous gangsters. The basics of the plot deal with an undercover cop who must infiltrate a dangerous crime organization, and though the plot is much more in-depth than in the first film, the story serves the incredible actions and fight scenes. Like dancers on a stage, the Raid 2's characters glide in an amazingly-choreographed beautiful piece of blood-spurting art complete with bone-crushing beatings and Tarantino-esque style. If only American actions films were this damn good.