Friday, September 28, 2012

Dredd (2012) Review

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Dredd

When one thinks of comic book movies, the first images are probably of Spider-Man swinging across NYC, Iron Man flying around blowing up other robots, or the X-Men using their special powers together. These are all decidedly PG-13 affairs, and comic book movies have gotten the stigma of being labeled child’s play in some circles, the recent gritty Batman movies notwithstanding. But there are many comic properties out there for more mature audiences who crave hard-edged material. While there haven’t been many good movie versions of those out there, “Dredd” is here to turn the tides for comic fans that want to see the hard-hitting violence of its source translated onscreen.

After some background exposition establishing that most of the United States has become consumed by radiation and one gigantic city was built along the entire East Coast, we learn that crime had become so rampant that the police force was transformed into the “judges.” The judges are basically cops with the ability to determine crime sentences on the spot and dispense justice as they see fit. Judge Dredd is one of the more unforgiving men on the force, and on a routine murder investigation with his new rookie partner, Anderson, the two are trapped in a block (essentially a whole neighborhood in one skyscraper.) The block’s crime lord, Ma-Ma, doesn’t want the judges to find out about her new drug line, and orders them dead.

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Background information aside, the actual plot setup is as simple an action movie premise as you can get, and has been used in others such as “Die Hard” and the recent “The Raid.” What sets “Dredd” apart from those two accomplished endeavors is its sense of style and the world that has been established. It’s a science fiction world for sure, and yet the sets and costumes are so well designed in ways that feels both futuristic and grittily believable at the same time. It’s an unforgiving environment, a place where the likes of Dredd are perhaps necessary to apply their brand of first-hand justice.

In those cases, the movie is violent and fun in the same way that old-school action movies were, when killing nameless henchmen in the most creatively bloody ways was the name of the game. “Dredd” is like those shoot-em-ups, but with a distinct modern twist. Ever since “The Matrix,” slow motion is tool that has been overused to the point of parody. “Dredd,” however, applies it in a way that feels fresh and organic, as the drug that Ma-Ma is pushing slows the brain down to 1% it’s normal speed. At times, the bad guys will take a hit of the stuff, only to unexpectedly have Dredd and Anderson’s bullets ripple through them and spill copious amounts of blood everyway in gloriously stylized fashion. It’s a neat twist on an otherwise formulaic trope, showing that, despite the numerous action scenes, the movie has a semblance of a brain behind it.

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Writer Alex Garland slyly places the audiences sympathies with Anderson rather than the titular character, allowing us to see through the mindsets of both his machine-like efficiency and Anderson’s conscience. Because Anderson grew up near the eradiated zone, her mind has developed psychic abilities, making her a very useful asset for the judge force, allowing forms of interrogation and battle tactics not possible before. Through her, we see what this clearly fascistic system looks like to an outsider, adding subtle moments in between the bloodletting where the movie develops a sense of self-awareness to its ridiculous excesses.

The character of Judge Dredd does not have the same level of public awareness in the U.S. as he does in the U.K., where the comic originates from, and judging (no pun intended, I swear) by the low box-office returns, he won’t have it any time soon. This is unfortunate, as “Dredd” is an action movie that has been getting many unexpectedly positive reviews, and I will gladly join that battle cry. It’s very recommended for comic and action fans, and if you end up liking it too, spread the word around.

3/4

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) Review

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Beasts of the Southern Wild

Occasionally, a nearby theater will have an opening for a week or two and decide to show an indie festival favorite that had been gaining buzz for the past few months. Last semester, after feverishly searching for a couple weeks, I was able to find a nearby showing of the highly acclaimed action film “The Raid,” and it didn’t disappoint. Now, as Oscar season looms on the horizon, this will become more common, and the past week offered showings of the Cannes Film Festival favorite “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

There isn’t much of a conventional plot running through the film; it’s mostly meandering around (though not necessarily in a detrimental way) as the camera follows Hushpuppy and her father as they live in The Bathtub. The Bathtub is an island off the coast of Louisiana where a community of people living on the fringes of society has taken up residence. It’s not a glamorous place to live, but the people have a bond together and are proud to call the place their home. So when a hurricane floods the area and the government comes in to remove them, they refuse help because they have grown so accustomed to taking care of themselves.

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There are certainly parallels to Katrina at play here, but “Beasts” doesn’t want to cater to current event emotional manipulation and instead remains steadfast and focused on the tough relationship between father and daughter. It’s certainly an odd relationship, partly fueled by the loss of Hushpuppy’s mother, and the heart of the film is about watching these two find mutual ground together and grow closer, without resorting to a trite, clich├ęd handling of the material. As non-actors plucked out of obscurity to create a more palpable air of reality, Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry give performances as natural and nuanced as the best actors working today in the industry.

Wallis is the reason the film has been gaining significant traction since the festival showings, and it’s easy to see why. For a girl who was only five-years-old during filming and even contributed to the writing of her character, she’s a pint-sized wonder that powers through the film with incredible conviction and will. Hushpuppy is just as capable of taking care of herself as the adults surrounding her; and just like most other children her age, she has a certain degree of imagination too.

While it isn’t a pertinent portion of the plot, “Beasts” also has elements of magic realism that balances out the gritty setting of the Bathtub. Throughout the film, Hushpuppy is referencing tales of a creature called the aurochs. According to her tale, the titular beasts of the film were frozen under the ice caps, and that the storm that ravaged the Bathtub is linked to thawing them out of this. This is where I can see some viewers feeling a sense of  disconnect, as this element of the plot could feel disingenuous and out-of-place. However, the aurochs are a metaphorical element of the story that gives its themes more significance and the film a unique quality that makes it stand out from the usual crop of stripped-down indie dramas that it is clearly related to.

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Even though “Beasts” is certainly a very good film and is worthy of the attention it has been getting, I’m not sure I completely fell in love with it as much as others did/will. The lack of a straightforward plot was not an issue, as I’ve seen many other films in a similar vein, although I would have liked more connective tissue to carry it from scene to scene. A more prominent through-line would have helped the make the structure more fluid and some scenes have more impact.

Ultimately, this doesn’t drag the film down too much, but it kept it from transforming from an impressive, very good film to a truly great one. Even with those caveats, the surprising performances and unconventional chemistry between Wallis and Henry injects the film with the life it needs to stand out among the crowd. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a piece of filmmaking where the rough edges haven’t quite been sanded off, but the shots of imagination and verisimilitude that break through the surface give it a singular identity and life all its own.

3.5/4

ParaNorman (2012) Review

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ParaNorman

Animated movies aimed towards children but don’t talk down to children are a rarity. Typically, animated children’s movies are filled with broad slapstick and silly circumstances because it’s often assumed that children will only hold their attention for colorful chaos. Sometimes though, a movie such as “ParaNorman” comes along that not only doesn’t treat child like dim bulbs, but also trusts that they can deal with more mature subject matter.

Norman is a bit of an odd child. Not only does he have a strong affinity for horror movies, books, etc. (particularly zombies), but he also has the ability to talk to dead people. Unfortunately, no one else can, so he is often berated by his father (who thinks he needs to “move on” from his grandmother’s death) and the school bullies on a daily basis. Soon his powers will have to be used for greater purposes though, as the resident witch spirit has come back to enact revenge on the town who murdered her 300 years before.

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Fans of the 2009 animated venture “Coraline” (and by extension “The Nightmare Before Christmas”) should feel right at home with the creepy, horror-lite vibe of “ParaNorman.” It’s certainly not a coincidence that both were developed by animation house Laika, who are quickly carving out their place in the animation field amidst Pixar and Dreamworks. A large portion of the appeal of “ParaNorman” stems from its unabashed love for the horror genre, whether it’s from the funny opening movie-within-the movie and cute little references sprinkled throughout. Norman’s use of the “Halloween” theme as his cell ringtone put a big smile on my face.

The film is also unafraid of going to some macabre and dark places. This is still very much a PG-rated affair, but it doesn’t shy away from the moments that will undoubtedly freak out some of the little ones in the theater (although the ones in mine seemed pretty thick-skinned). The stop-motion animation technique was a perfect choice for creating the world of “ParaNorman,” allowing for the type of angular and bizarre designs that flesh out the eerie settings and monsters to good effect. There’s a tactile feel to the stop-motion animation that couldn’t have been achieved with the industry standard computer animation.

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While there is certainly a focus on the creepy and the freaky in “ParaNorman,” there is also plenty of humor to balance things out. Truth be told, the jokes could have been stronger. Although it generally gets stronger and wittier as the plot continues along, the first half has multiple obvious jokes (“How’s it hanging,” says Norman to a ghost that is stuck on a tree). However, I do give the film a huge amount of credit for allowing the kid characters to talk like kids actually do. There’s no mild cursing a la “The Goonies,” but the humor (mostly later on) is remarkably more subversive than the trailers would indicate without using it as a crutch to lean on.

By the time the plot really gets rolling and Norman uncovers the truths behind certain characters, “ParaNorman” becomes unexpectedly moving. The zombies descending on the town become more than just lumbering monsters, and a late scene between Norman and the witch is at turns both intense and touching, revealing a level of dimension that gives the film staying power beyond the jokes and endearing characters. If you’re a fan of animation (and who isn’t really?), there is a great chance you will enjoy “ParaNorman,” and if you’re a horror fan then you will like it even more.

3.5/4

Premium Rush (2012) Review

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Premium Rush

Not every movie has to be complex or thought-provoking to work. Some of the best pleasures of cinema are the movies that have a simple premise, with maybe a few extra details thrown in to flesh out the concept. Action movies such as “Crank” accomplish this perfectly well, and horror movies like “Halloween” can get away with sticking to their focused guns. “Premium Rush” is another movie in the same line as those; set up a plot with multiple characters and motives, and then unleash the bread-and-butter bike chases that audiences paid to see.

“Premium Rush” also sidesteps one of the issues with many “simple” movies with its creative story structure. Right from the start we’re thrown into the action with our hero, Wiley, speeding down the New York City streets on his brakeless bike to deliver a package. Once he returns to the bike messenger office, his boss hands him an envelope that soon has him being hunted down by a crooked cop. The movie throws you directly into the action, and then assuredly slides in flashbacks every now and then to flesh out the characters and plot beyond it’s deceptively straightforward basis.

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This back-and-forth arrangement means there is never a dull moment as we are entertained by the action while waiting for the next piece of the plot to fall into place at anytime. To make this work, a film such as this needs a charismatic cast to carry it through the nonstop movement, and everybody ably fills their positions. As our snarky lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings charm and determination to a character that we should probably hate in real life (seriously, cyclists are irritating, dangerous people, especially in a place like N.Y.C.)

While I’m sure many people would see this movie for his presence, the clear standout player here is Michael Shannon, as the corrupt cop, Bobby Monday. Shannon is typically known for his reserved acting style in very serious dramas, but “Premium Rush” gives him the chance to take off the reigns and have fun. Monday is a character that constantly digs himself into a deeper hole and is full of awkward tics, and Shannon’s willingness to go all out yields unexpectedly riotous results. He’s hams it up in the best kind of way, relentlessly barreling through the film like the coyote chasing Gordon-Levitt’s Road Runner.

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And when it brings itself back to the bike chases, “Premium Rush” doesn’t pause for a minute. Even when characters are learning new information and talking to each other, they remain planted in their seat riding down the crowded streets. The stunt work (even when it’s an obvious stuntman doing it) is clever and lively, and director David Koepp finds creative places to throw the camera into the flow without relying on cheap visual effects and flashiness. The extent of his tricks is a digital map that shows Wiley’s path and a “Sherlock Holmes” style effect where time slows down so Wiley can figure out how to dodge traffic.

Koepp’s approach is straightforward and streamlined, which is a perfect compliment for how the movie goes about its business. Whether “Premium Rush” sticks with you once you leave the theater or its energetic thrills fizzle from your mind moments later, that’s ultimately not the point. It’s an adrenaline shot of a movie that achieves what most of the “Fast and the Furious” movies miss out on: a sense of good, clean fun buoyed by likable actors and a mischievous sense of humor.

3/4

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012) Review

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Resident Evil: Retribution

At this point, is anyone really expecting something worthwhile out of the “Resident Evil” movie franchise? The first one may have been a passable horror/action B-movie, but since then the series has descended into excess and overall idiocy. This fifth movie doesn’t change the status quo; the same “Matrix” influenced action is in full effect and the actors are just as flat as ever. However, I would be lying in saying that I didn’t get some enjoyment out of “Retribution,” which is more than I can say for “Apocalypse” (#2) and “Afterlife” (#4).

Picking up right where “Afterlife” left off, Alice and the other survivors are attacked at sea and overwhelmed by Umbrella’s forces. Alice then wakes up in a holding cell, where she learns that the Red Queen computer has taken over Umbrella. Because of this, previous Umbrella head honcho Wesker enlists Alice’s help in stopping the renegade A.I. It turns out Alice is being held in a massive underground testing facility, so Wesker sends a team of soldiers to extract Alice while wading through the hordes of monsters still hanging around the facility.

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That may sound like a plot synopsis, but in the context of the movie itself, “Retribution” has only the illusion of a plot. I owe a few apologies to any action movie I’ve ever called plot less in the past, because this movie takes the same tact as “Afterlife” and literally has only a barebones skeleton of a plot. There’s a semblance of a beginning, and arguably a middle, but there’s no ending. Remember the beginnings of “The Matrix Revolution” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” where Neo and Sparrow have to be rescued from some holding place? “Retribution” is those 20-minute segments stretched to feature length and padded out with exposition and relentless action.

On those grounds, it may be objectively the worst movie of the series. I hesitate to go there though because unlike some of the previous entries, the action is actually really fun to watch in spots. Unlike “Apocalypse,” where the action was incomprehensible, and “Afterlife,” where the abuse of slow motion killed much of the enjoyment, “Retribution” is able to come up with a few over-the-top sequences that stand out. Even though director Paul W.S. Anderson is still not above throwing in tired bullet-time bits here and there, he appears to have a slightly better grasp on creating diverse and fast-paced scenes of carnage for this go-around.

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It’s also very clear that Anderson loves his wife, Milla Jovovich, very much, as Alice is still the only character that gets any reasonable amount of attention, more so than the characters that are actually from the videogames. Alice remains a forgettable heroine without a personality back her up, and Milla is as reliably stoic as ever, despite how beautiful she is. She’s also one of the few actors, along with Kevin Durand (Barry Burton) and Johann Urb (Leon Kennedy,) that don’t embarrass themselves. Shawn Roberts (Wesker) continues his forced, cringe-worthy sneering from the last movie, and Sienna Guillory (Jill Valentine) is flat-out awful. On top of her inability to be a convincing antagonist, Anderson saddles her with the worst of his already terrible writing, leaving a character that is only bearable when she doesn’t open her mouth.

The best way to describe “Retribution” is as a 90-minute lead up for the inevitable sixth movie. This is rather irritating, as the movie finally comes to a scene where the pieces are in place for an all-out monster war…and then the credits roll. In the end, the movie is just one big tease that fails to establish the stakes and scope that it promises, and then ends once it hits at something worth watching. Because of this, the film is not as enjoyable as the first film or even the mediocre third one, “Extinction.” However, thanks to its decent action scenes, I would probably watch “Retribution” before the other two installments, as much of a backhanded compliment as that is.

1.5/4

The Expendables 2 (2012) Review

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The Expendables 2

The first “Expendables” movie was perhaps not quite the triumph that everyone had hoped it would be back in 2010. It had some memorable moments and a great final action scene, but for the most part it left me wanting more. This is not the case with “The Expendables 2,” as the majority of the issues I had with the first one have been fixed and the film is just plain fun overall.

Seeing the first “Expendables” film isn’t necessary to enjoy this improved sequel, although there are some connections. Essentially we learn that our heroes, even though they succeeded in their own way (which basically means taking out every last villain in sight), didn’t carry out the previous mission like their employer, C.I.A. agent Church (Bruce Willis), wanted them to. In order to make up for this misunderstanding, Church wants Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his crew to locate missing nuclear launch codes and return them without fault. What should have been a simple in-and-out job becomes personal when the codes are stolen by arms dealer Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), forcing the Expendables to track him down before he can use them on hidden Russian missiles.

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Just about every actor from the first movie, sans Mickey Rourke, returns for this go-around, and some of them get expanded roles while at the same time making way for new players. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Willis, previously only two-minute cameos, finally get in on the action and the shot of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis standing side-by-side taking out nameless henchman in unison should give 80s action fans the kind of nostalgic wish fulfillment missing from the first movie. Jet Li unfortunately bows out early (not without an incredible display of martial arts skills beforehand though), making time for newcomers Liam Hemsworth, Chuck Norris, and Van Damme to get their due. Even when some actors don’t get much attention (more Terry Crews would’ve been nice, while Randy Couture is practically pointless at this point), everyone gets their moments to shine.

The humor and banter between our heroes gets a nice boost, as they spout off cheesy one-liners and joke about each other even in battle. The dialogue doesn’t work most of the time; a lot of it is flat out bad and painful to listen to, but every now and then someone throws out a line that will get a big laugh (including, yes, a Chuck Norris joke for good measure). This doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, since the core audience is surely watching this movie for the big action moments rather than the talking, but it is disappointing that the tough-guy talk (a staple of 80s action movies) could have been much better than it turns out to be. Arnold and Bruce exchanging each others’ famous quotes is fun; Hemsworth giving a laughably overdone story of his experience in Afghanistan is less so.




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Thankfully, the film manages to strike the right tone of goofy outlandishness, and many of the players like Statham, Van Damme, and Schwarzenegger manage to slide by on their charisma. Van Damme in particular looks like he’s having a ball as the head villain Vilain (get it?) as he chews through the ridiculous dialogue with his thick accent and helicopter kicking Stallone in their mano-a-mano. The films use of Chuck Norris, who is not actually remembered as a good action star, is refreshingly self-aware and plays off of his recent inexplicable Internet fame. Director Simon West also plans out the action sequences with over-the-top glee as bullets fly and heads explode, thankfully with less obvious computer-made gore, starting out with a great opening set piece and then dolling out smaller fun moments before the explosive climax.

Those who wanted to see “The Expendables 2” and have already made up your minds about the movie will most likely not be swayed by my review. Despite any faults, the film gives the audience what it wants and satisfies on that level. Those who were disappointed by the first movie and were cautious about seeing this one though should know that the sequel is a marked improvement and gives action fans the all-out brawl they were expecting before.

3/4