Friday, November 22, 2013

Thor: The Dark World (2013) Review
Thor: The Dark World

At this point the Marvel train is moving full speed ahead and is not likely to stop anytime soon. “The Avengers” and “Iron Man 3” certified that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is here to stay, and now it is up to the other Avengers to keep the ball rolling. Luckily, “Thor: The Dark World,” while nothing Earth-shattering, is up to the task against the rising expectations of this ambitious series.

The ever-branching story picks up right after “The Avengers” with Loki being imprisoned for his actions, and then jumps to some time later. Back on Earth, Jane and Darcy discover a mysterious substance in London called the Aether that latches onto Jane. The reemergence of the Aether after thousands of years awakens the Dark Elves in deep space, who wish to control the Aether for regaining power over all the worlds. Thor, whose grandfather once defeated the elves in their attempts long ago, senses Jane is trouble and returns to her aid, although he may need help from an unlikely ally in this struggle.

Of all the Avengers characters, Thor is certainly the toughest to digest even after “The Lord of the Rings” brought greater popularity to the fantasy genre. Marvel and director Alan Taylor (carrying over his “Game of Thrones” experience) realize this by emphasizing the spirited adventure over potentially plodding melodramatics. Humor is in high supply here, and many of the most memorable scenes are the funny bits, particularly when one familiar character makes a surprise appearance.

Not so surprising is the highlight of the Thor/Loki brother relationship. As charismatically gruff as Chris Hemsworth is as the title character, Tom Hiddleston has arguably eclipsed him at this point as the mischievous sibling. One almost wants to root for Loki to win instead. Natalie Portman gets more to do this time as Jane too; not only is her chemistry with Hemsworth more refined but Jane even plays an important role in the inventively cool, portal hopping climax.

A big dent in this movies armor is the villain Malekith played by the wasted Christopher Eccleston. Malekith defies being labeled as a character and functions more as a plot device driving things forward, so much so that even calling him one-dimensional feels generous. Imaginative costumes and production design on the Elf front can only go so far. If it weren’t for the high energy and fun infused into the battle scenes they would fall flat from the paper-thin villainy.

Other small issues arise like plot contrivances and holes wondering how this connects to that. Mileage for Kat Dennings will vary for many (though I generally found her funnier and more useful here than in the first “Thor”), and the same goes for the final scene. It is to the credit of “The Dark World” that it works so well in spite of these holdbacks. It proves that a little gusto and a deftly light touch can go a long way in smoothing over rough edges.


Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013) Review
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

It may sound weird for many people to admit, but the “Jackass” movies (and television show) were some of the funniest of this generation. Who cared how juvenile the humor was when we were laughing our heads off. They were the only comedies that would allow us to not feel guilty for laughing at human punishment and general poor taste. And just when we thought the crew led by Johnny Knoxville had let it all out of their system with “Jackass 3” (for me the pinnacle of their work), the “Jackass” series comes back for one last gasp with the spinoff movie, “Bad Grandpa.”

Knoxville’s famous grandpa character Irving Zisman is the focal point here, eschewing the usual collection-of-gags format for a “Borat”-style mix of narrative and public reactions. It is not too much of a far cry from the series’ roots, as some of the funniest material came from the looks of shock from unsuspecting civilians. For this sort of humor, the angrier and more disturbed the better.

However this also exposes the not-so-surprising revelation that Knoxville and usual “Jackass” director Jeff Tremaine are better at prank tactics than actual writing. The loose story, as it were, concerns Irving’s wife dying and his daughter dumping his grandson Billy on him at an inopportune time. The story is told through a road trip framework of sorts, and as with many of these movies it’s about these two people who don’t understand each other well eventually learning to appreciate one another.

The blend between the two film styles is off-balance since we are often left wanting and waiting for the next gag to play out in public. The fictional parts between Irving and Billy have their sweet moments, which make Billy’s participation in the gags even funnier, though it often feels like filler since the written jokes and banter don’t hit as hard as the public button pushing.

Some familiar stunts are repeated here to great effect, like the vending machine bit as shown in the trailers. Possibly the funniest segment arrives when Irving barges into a black male strip club, and, well, things get downright weird. It’s scenes like this that display Knoxville’s fearless nature and willingness to put everything out there in more ways than one.

Not to be upstaged by the idiot art veteran is Jackson Nicoll as Billy. At multiple points in the story (it feels weird saying that here) when Knoxville leaves the scene, Nicoll is let loose on his own as a seemingly innocent child. Having children say lewd things is an easy way for a laugh, but Nicoll and Tremaine make it work, particularly when he gets to insist that one woman on the street looks like a stripper.

Ironically for an entry that tries to actually be coherent in comparison to the previous ones, “Bad Grandpa” ends up being more uneven than the traditional “Jackass” works. It is clear that Knoxville and Tremaine still have a little juice left in them, but perhaps it really is time to retire this infamous brand before they end up grasping thin air.


Captain Phillips (2013) Review
Captain Phillips

“Captain Phillips” is arguably the best pirate movie ever. This isn’t any of that flamboyant pirate stuff with voodoo and hoodoo (for the record I still love “Pirates of the Caribbean”), this is about real pirates doing the dirty work in a modern world. There is no glory or glamour to their exploits on the seas: these pirates do grunt work for the powerful warlords that control Somalia. When these pirates don’t get what they want, they turn to desperate measures because of their circumstances. But one does not simply take Tom Hanks hostage without a fight.

Based on the 2009 true story, “Captain Phillips” details the Somali pirate takeover of the Maersk Alabama ship on its way to Mombasa, Kenya. Before that point, the film establishes Richard Phillips’ relationship with his wife and then the tight regiment he commands on the Alabama. Phillips is a by-the-book kind of man that has his crew (who would rather enjoy their coffee) enact drills to prepare for incidents like what they eventually face. Then, despite their best efforts, the real pirates soon show up and manage to slip aboard, setting off a battle of wits and determination.

Whether Hanks’ portrayal of Phillips is glorified (as the real-life crew members have recently claimed) or not is beside the point. Seeing a protagonist use his only his strategic skills rather than brawn to combat a dangerous situation is both refreshing and incredibly compelling. Bottled reserve is Hanks’ greatest asset. Phillips and the crew lack the firepower of their Somali adversaries, and instead rely on stealth and cunning to maintain control.

While director Paul Greengrass has established a career of tightly coiled tension (like “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “United 93”), screenwriter Billy Ray also deserves a lot of credit for maintaining the intensity all throughout. Much of this is because Ray’s script conceives this story as one where one false move could mean certain death, and every word spoken by Phillips to hold back the pirates from going ballistic counts. The suspense runs thick as he switches between two perspectives on the ship, Phillips (who is held at gunpoint) and the crew (whom are being searched for), though surprisingly for those who don’t know the full story, this is only the first half.

After the midway point, the pirates realize that they won’t meet the demands of their overlords and take Phillips with them in one of the ships lifeboats. Despite the claustrophobic setting (perfect for Greengrass’ loosely chaotic camera style), this section isn’t quite as taut as it was on the Alabama. Yet even as repetition starts settling in, we get a better since of the desperation of these men, particularly pirate leader Muse.

Hanks may dominate the film (the ending’s emotional catharsis totally sits on his shoulders and he knocks it out of the park with some of his best work), but Barkhad Abdi very nearly matches him. Ray and Greengrass draw parallels between the two captains and how far they will go for their men, and through Abdi’s performance we see the realization that he is failing his mission and will suffer the consequences for it. While the film stops short of placing sympathy on Muse, we understand the situation he has been put in and that dimension makes him a more fascinating adversary.

His contentious struggle with Phillips never gives the viewer a chance to breathe, even with knowledge of the real life outcome. By the end, it feels like we have experienced the same exhaustion and exasperation that Phillips feels, making that climatic standoff with the Navy SEALs and its aftermath matter more. “Captain Phillips” will leave audiences entertained and shaken in equal measure, and reminds us why Tom Hanks is one of this generation’s most celebrated actors.


Machete Kills (2013) Review
Machete Kills

I love silly fun movies. Sometimes my friends don’t think this is true, and that I can’t enjoy a movie as pure entertainment anymore. False I say. In fact, director Robert Rodriguez has made a bunch of B-action movies in the past that I’ve enjoyed, from “Desperado” to “Planet Terror” to “From Dusk till Dawn.” Those are examples of how to do silly fun movies right. “Machete Kills,” Rodriguez’s latest and the sequel to the original “Machete,” is not.

I’d like to give a plot synopsis but this movie is so haphazard that it would be a fool’s errand to give a clear rundown. Basically though, following the death of Machete’s (Danny Trejo) love interest Sartana (Jessica Alba), the U.S. President (Charlie Sheen, going by his real name Carlos Estevez in the credits) calls Machete back into action. He wants the ex-Federale to track down the terrorist Mendez (Demian Bichir) aiming a nuclear missile at Washington, except things get complicated when Mendez needs to stay alive and the man who killed Sartana might be behind all this.

That may sound like a clear plot but actually watching “Machete Kills” gives the feeling that Rodriguez just made everything up as he went along and stitched together random action scenes and gags. It’s a shame, as Rodriguez showed with “Planet Terror” (a.k.a. the movie where Rose McGowan straps a machine gun to her leg) that he can make a well constructed bloody-funny action movie with creativity and a little bit of wit. “Machete Kills,” much like its predecessor, has Rodriguez flailing around, throwing whatever comes to his mind at a dart board and then cramming it all into 100 minutes.

Although with that many darts, some are bound to hit. The final act, where the movie shifts from its gritty grindhouse roots into full on science fiction, has its charms, most of them having to do with Mel Gibson’s cackling bad guy performance. Gibson goes full loony bin here, rocking a super villain cape like its nothing and tossing off his ludicrous dialogue with aplomb. On a similar note, Bichir has a lot of fun wavering between Mendez’s psychotic and tender sides (he’s got a major case of split personality). In fact, most of the villains are the highlights, although Sofia Vergara’s shtick becomes annoying. Oh, and your childhood memories of “Spy Kids” (also Rodriguez) will be distorted when Alexa Vega appears, dolled up in various skimpy outfits.

But while the reckless abandon can be occasionally infectious, it is mostly tiresome and overdone. The movie starts out at 11 and then stays there throughout, forgetting that the best of these movies give breather points so that the big moments pay off, rather than repetitively pile on top of each other. Furthermore, many of those “crazy” pay off moments thud because Rodriguez often resorts to cheap looking digital effects to accomplish them. I’ve seen movies from over 20 years ago that pulled off the cool gore better than “Machete Kills” because they used tactile practical effects rather than rushed computer work.

It doesn’t help that Machete himself is just a rather boring hero. Danny Trejo has long shown that he can be a reliably cool character actor, but so perhaps being a lead actor just doesn’t work well with him, as both “Machete” movies have shown. Rodriguez seems to know this too, as the stone-faced protagonist is frequently overshadowed by everything else around him. Maybe that is a clue that “Machete” should have stayed as the (fun) one-joke fake trailer it originated as, rather than the two (going on three) movie series that repeats the same said joke into the ground.


Gravity (2013) Review

The meaning of the word spectacle in movies has become twisted over the last couple of decades. There is very often a “more is more” thinking behind spectacle, that to be the reigning king of movies there must be bigger action, bigger special effects, and bigger characters. The new movie by Alfonso Cauron (director of the acclaimed “Children of Men” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), “Gravity,” puts that mindset to rest. For as large scale as “Gravity” appears to be, it’s greatest asset is actually it’s simplicity and restraint.

Much of this to with its unwavering focus on its central character, Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock. While George Clooney is also an important player here too, the majority of the film is a one-woman show of Bullock and Cauron keeps the audience attached to her through frequent close-ups. This means that nearly the entire film is reliant on her performance, and not only is Bullock more than up for the task, but this is arguably the strongest work she has ever done.

The little bits of self-effacing humor that the actress has shown throughout her career endear us to her before the action starts, and then afterwards the sense of fear and self-doubt that lines her face is incredibly palpable. Meanwhile, in his shortened amount of screen time, Clooney is as effortlessly charming as ever, and serves as a perfect conduit for convincing Stone (and the audience) that everything is going to be all right. Fans of “Apollo 13” (who isn’t?) will also get a kick out of hearing Ed Harris’ voice as Mission Control back on Earth.

And once the danger arrives in the form of bullet-speed debris, “Gravity” is practically non-stop in its thrills. Despite never being in space myself, the terror of floating through the endless void with nothing to stop is surprisingly contagious. Suspense runs relentlessly thick throughout even in the quiet moments because we are made aware that one minor slipup could be fatal for the characters. Adding to this is the silent beauty of space, where large explosions and clashes are muted against the actor’s voices and Steven Price’s score.

Cauron masterfully holds the attention through the many long takes that comprise the film. In an age where many movie spectacles are chopped into hundreds of quick edits to create excitement, it’s quite remarkable how Cauron is able to better those simply by holding the camera on his actors and tracking them around the “sets” as they make near-death escapes. I put sets in quotations because almost of the film was surely made with computer effects, yet the minimalism on display and total immersion into the character’s journey makes them feel completely real.

However, “Gravity” is far from simply a technical showcase for Cauron and the effects artists. In addition to the tense physical challenge Ryan has to overcome, she also undergoes a personal arc that runs underneath the plot mechanics. Details of her life back home come to light that inform her actions, and the much of imagery carries a subtext of rebirth. For those that parse out that meaning from the visuals, then the ending will prove to be especially cathartic. Even so, “Gravity” wraps that spiritual story around a film full of fear, excitement, and wonder, so it works both as pure entertainment and a great film in general.


Prisoners (2013) Review

Truly great crime thrillers are few and far between. Now I’m not talking about heist capers like “Ocean’s Eleven” or tales of cops and robbers. I’m talking about crime thrillers that display the fringes and the dark corners of humanity, something in vein of the classic “Seven” or “Silence of the Lambs.” Part of this has to do with a fall back on gimmicks (i.e. the killer with a crazy pattern) or an effort to throw the audience into disturbing areas that end up feeling cheap and exploitative. To accomplish them, they need a certain display of tonal control to properly engage and provoke, which director Dennis Villeneuve showcases a knack for in “Prisoners.”

The setup is every family’s worst nightmare. The youngest daughters from Dover and Birch families want to grab something from the Dover’s house just down the street, and the parents let them go with the teens. But the kids never grabbed their older siblings to watch them, and a few hours go by before the families realize something is wrong. They cannot find them in their frantic search, and the ensuing investigation from Detective Loki doesn’t quell their worst fears one bit.

In the case of Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), the investigation only makes him more frustrated and eventually dangerous. Keller kidnaps the main suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), after he is released from custody from lack of strong evidence, and this is where “Prisoners” gets really interesting. From this point on, Keller becomes a conflicted anti-hero that’s hard, and then harder, to sympathize with. Because of Jackman’s intensely committed performance, we perfectly understand the pain and determination that drives Keller’s motivations, but our allegiance to him is questioned. Dano has been playing creepy dudes and/or introverts throughout his career, so of course his oddball demeanor paints a target to the audience, but what if Keller is wrong in his convictions?

Loki’s story is much more understated than the fire of Keller’s, though his internal journey is arguably the more compelling one. It’s established early on that he’s solved every case he’s had in the past, so when Gyllenhaal slowly lets out a little more emotion in his performance as the plot trails on, Loki’s frustration is palpably real. These girls may not be his own, but he feels a moral obligation to both the families and himself to see this through to the bitter end, which doesn’t come quickly.

Atypical of many thrillers, Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski let the plot details boil over in a slow simmer rather than breakneck pace. This restrained pacing is fitting for this case as the loss of a child for such a long time can be unbearable to go through, and every hour feels like an eternity. Proportionally, the film takes place over a week but feels like much longer, and it’s a credit to Villeneuve that he lets us feel the length of time without dulling us in the drama. With that said, I could have done with streamlining of the various red herring plot threads, especially since it’s pretty clear which ones aren’t the real kidnappers.

There are also copious amounts of religious symbolism sprinkled throughout, though I couldn’t really surmise a meaningful purpose for them. They feel like clunky window dressing to a story that didn’t really need them. And when “Prisoners” finally reaches it’s closing stretch, the wade through its emotional muck is proven to be worth it with the revelations and final character actions that bring closure. The haunting beauty of Roger Deakins’ visuals in its major climatic drive through night traffic is a perfect example of a film that can engross us even as we see the dark side of humanity.


You're Next (2013) Review
You're Next

“You’re Next” has taken a long road in getting to theaters. It premiered at festivals two years ago to raves and then had to sit on the back burner until now because of messy distribution business. It’s been a long two years waiting for this to come out, especially since legitimately good horror movies are in short stock and the gems are sought after by horror fans (like myself) as if they were gold. Fear not though, because while long delays like that could also be a signal that the movie wasn’t actually as good as we were lead to believe, “You’re Next” lives up to its hype, and the reasons why are a little unexpected.

It’s the typical setup we’ve seen before in countless other home invasion horror movies: a family goes out to their home in the woods for a reunion dinner. Many of them haven’t seen each other in a long time, and internal resentments begin bubbling to the surface quickly. But they now have a bigger problem on their hands than petty squabbling, as multiple masked men lay siege to the house and take out the family one by one. This general outline, however, doesn’t begin to touch the little details that writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard (“V/H/S”) employ to flesh things out and even turn some horror clich├ęs on their heads.

That’s not to say that “You’re Next” is the next horror deconstruction like “Cabin in the Woods” or “Scream.” Rather, Wingard and Barrett start things out on familiar territory and then slowly begin twisting the little things that frustrate horror viewers. Don’t you hate how everyone’s cell phones in horror movies are always conveniently out of service? Well one character suggests they might be using a jammer. Isn’t it frustrating when a character just lays on the ground screaming in terror as the killer slowly raises his weapon? That isn’t like survivalist Erin, who will roll out of the way, kick the killer in the balls, grab the nearest weapon and begin wailing on him until there’s no possible way he’s alive.

Everything that is unexpectedly smart about this movie can be distilled into Erin, who takes the initiative when everyone else cowers in fear and transitions the movie from straight slasher into a more fun thriller territory. The second half becomes a game of cat-and-mouse where Erin, who must love “Home Alone” given the traps she sets up, and the killers attempt to outsmart each other around the house, often to very bloody ends. These are the kind of kills that inspire both shocks and applause in the audience in equal measure, and the darkly funny tone that emerges once Erin fights back is a delight.

Of course, it’s not all perfect. It’s clear that Wingard and Barrett have their heart more in the blood soaked laughs than in straight horror suspense. The first quarter or so is rather routine and uninspired, as if they felt an obligation to put in a “scary” section before turning the tables. The acting from some parties can be suspect too. Sure, horror movies don’t need great acting but when some of them are quite good then the lesser ones stand out more. Sharni Vinson is the obvious standout, whose physical performance and intensity plausibly sell Erin’s cunning will despite her waif-like stature. Horror veterans A.J. Bowen and Barbara Crampton show up for nice turns too, although a few of the other actors let them down with unconvincing reactions to situations.

Yet sometimes when watching a horror movie, the minor setbacks can be taken with a grain of salt when creativity and smarts shine through the cracks. “You’re Next” of one of those. The uneven acting and slow start eventually fade away when you’re having so much fun watching a character who actually fights back against the psychos rather than bend to their will in cowardice. This is the kind of horror movie best enjoyed with a big group of friends (and/or audience) for the full experience.