Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Oculus (2014) Review


Supernatural horror films have experienced a prolific resurgence recently. Blumhouse Productions has frequently been at the forefront of this movement with such popular titles as “Paranormal Activity,” “Sinister” and “Insidious.” As with any category of film there comes a set of clichés that defines it, so it’s welcome when a horror film tries to branch out on its own and break the mold. Unfortunately, the new Blumhouse produced film, “Oculus,” makes passes at something fresh and comes up short in the process.

10 years after a traumatic event sent Tim Russell into the psychotherapy ward, he has recovered on his 21st birthday and is released into the care of his sister Kaylie. Tim has since repressed the belief that supernatural forces caused the terrible event, but Kaylie still refuses to believe otherwise and obtains the ominous mirror that she believes is the source of their trouble. As the siblings set up recording equipment to prove what no one else believes, the mirror awakens to twist reality to its will.

At the same time, “Oculus” shifts between these events of the present and those of the past where the Russell family was torn apart by the mirror’s omnipotent force. In spite of the present day scenes being the framework for the story, the stuff in the past is where “Oculus” finds its most compelling material. The actors cast in the film can be attributed to this, and while Karen Gillen (old Kaylie) “Doctor Who” fame is given top billing, her and Brenton Thwaites (old Tim) are overshadowed by their younger acting counterparts, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan respectively.

Writer/director Mike Flanagan, adapting his own short film of the same name, would have been better off sticking to the story of young Tim and Kaylie experiencing the deterioration of their family. Instead, he creates an awkward parallel structure that both withholds information simply for the sake of forcing a sense of mystery and yet explains too much. In the present, it’s hard to identify with the characters initially when we don’t fully understand their grief. On the other hand, when Kaylie drops a load of exposition explaining everything, it robs the past story of its unpredictability.

Another question of execution comes with the portrayal of the mirror’s supernatural grip. The film is at its strongest when it creates an atmosphere where anything can happen and what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily reality. When Flanagan toys with the audience and keeps things low-key, like in one hair-raising scene concerning a light bulb, the psychological ambiguity he builds up showcases the films potential. When he turns to run-of-the-mill ghost frights, it dilutes the ingenuity of the premise.

The more frightful material comes from the strange behavior of young Kaylie and Tim’s parents, played by Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane. Their descents into madness bring to mind comparisons to “The Shining,” and the storyline would have been strong enough on its own. The film almost seems to self-consciously recognize this as the plotline in the present becomes more and more like an obligatory footnote. Very little actually happens after the siblings set up shop with the mirror, and the ending only serves as a shock since the plot hasn’t been building up to much.

There’s a compellingly chilling story that can be found within “Oculus,” but it is buried in a shroud of cleverness that hinders rather than enhances the film. Making an attempt to shake things up is not enough, especially when that attempt simultaneously dulls the overall impact and resorts to some old tricks.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Raid 2 (2014) Review

The Raid 2

“The Raid” was one of those film surprises a couple of years ago that came out of nowhere and gave some revitalized juice to the action genre by showing up just about every one of its bigger budget brethren. Director Gareth Evans combined the claustrophobic setting of “Die Hard” with hard-hitting martial arts violence in such a way that was fresh and invigorating. Now Evans returns for its sequel, “The Raid 2,” to expand the story of the Indonesian original beyond one building and into the realm of an operatic gangster thriller.

Rookie Officer Rama may have escaped from the nightmare apartment block but quickly finds out that he merely stepped into a larger picture. He is swiftly sent undercover into a crime syndicate in order to uncover corruption that runs through the police force. After serving a stint in prison to create a new identity, Rama finds himself getting close to the crime boss’ son, whose brash attitude eventually sparks a flurry of gang violence between the local crime families.

Like many of the best sequels, “The Raid 2” sets itself apart by not repeating the formula of the first film. Rather than dilute the tightly wound storytelling, the widened story scope allows Evans greater freedom to lay out his plan and then unleash it in a torrent of impeccably choreographed action. If the original “Raid” succeeded because of its fat-free simplicity, it’s follow-up relishes in setting up the dominos with a fleshed out story and then toppling them down one by one.

Rama, a hero with only the barest of character qualities last time, benefits the most from this as he worries about the safety of his family and begins feeling the strain of diving headfirst into criminal activity. Evans also serves up a cache of memorable villains with their own distinguishable trait, from the arrogant Uco to silent assassins Hammer Girl and Bat Boy. Their titular weapons don’t go to waste once the action kicks in.

The movie sidesteps the frequent action film problem of repetitive action by creating set pieces with their own memorable qualities. Escalation in the action is another factor as the action continuously tops itself with each consecutive sequence. What sets this film apart from others in the genre is Evan’s camerawork that captures and tracks every punch and kick with smooth gliding motions.

The climatic kitchen duel is an exquisite example of how to build tension and dramatic investment through action rather than simply create noise. This isn’t a film that holds back on the violence either. Characters, for the most part, aren’t clean-cut invulnerable supermen as they take and dish out brutal punishment, and the squeamish are advised to stay away from this one.

But there’s a certain beauty to the action that offsets its rough edge. The immaculately clean environments of the rich gangsters serve as a contrast to the grungy settings that their clashes play out in, and the harsh blows are filmed with such fluid grace that it’s hard to look away. “The Raid 2” may leave you battered and bruised once it’s finished, but you’ll also exit in a rush of delirious adrenaline that won’t soon go away.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) Review

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

At multiple points in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the newest installment in Marvel Studios’ expanding superhero universe, characters justify their actions with explanations akin to, “Out with the old, in with the new.” It’s something that Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, deals with as he acclimates to the current state of modern warfare. He’s a bright colored model plopped into a grey world that challenges his steadfast resolve as the stakes, both personal and broad, are raised higher than ever for him.

The eponymous hero, still figuratively frozen in his 1940s ideals, struggles to comprehend agency S.H.I.E.L.D.’s overzealous measures taken to ensure national security in the wake of New York City’s alien invasion from “The Avengers.” With leader Nick Fury and partner Natasha Romanoff engaging in secrecy behind his back, Rogers feels that his trust has been betrayed. But when a mysterious assassin, known only as The Winter Soldier, and hostile forces from the past threaten to upend the entire establishment, Rogers must figure out where his true loyalties lie when nothing is as it seems.

Much like with “Iron Man 3,” “The Winter Soldier” shows a side of Marvel willing to inject real world themes into its stories of super-powered beings. The actions of S.H.I.E.L.D. act as a mirror image of the current United States political landscape where paranoia runs rampant and drone armies are being built up. This doesn’t sit well with Steve Rogers, who comes from a time when America put faith in its people without having to monitor every action being they take.

The Winter Soldier himself, with strength and agility that matches the Captain, represents that corrupted side of America, even as he’s underserved within the plot. He’s a man that has lost sight of who he once was, and the relentlessness of his pursuit leaves little in its wake when the paths of him and Captain America cross. The fight sequences in “The Winter Soldier” carry a level of intensity unmatched by any other Marvel entry that sells the danger our heroes experience by grounding the action in the (relative) real world. Only in the climax do the special effects take over, but that hardly matters when the film has so successfully attached us to these characters.

Anthony and Joe Russo’s past in television (“Arrested Development” and “Community”) no doubt informs their work as directors here as they give equal due to the character relationships amidst the conflict. Everything is deftly balanced with new characters such as Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson and Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce making strong impressions even as old standbys like Natasha and Fury are able to become the fully fleshed out characters they never quite were before.

And at the center of everything is Chris Evans` Steve Rogers, whose understated performance carries the weariness of a man still trying to find his place in this world he still doesn’t quite understand. Evans finds the heart and light touch in a hero who doesn’t have the bluster of Thor or jest of Tony Stark, making him arguably the most endearing of Marvel’s super lineup. He’s also got the most emotional baggage too, especially once he learns the truth about the Winter Soldier and everything he thought he was fighting for.

Even with the grave circumstances at hand, the Russo’s remember that this is a comic book movie first and foremost and embrace that sensibility when appropriate. Evans, Mackie, and Scarlett Johansson have an easygoing chemistry between them with lighthearted quips to break the tension when appropriate. The directing duo and returning “Captain America: The First Avenger” screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely carefully weave in references to other Marvel characters in ways that feel organic to the established world, some of which alter perceptions of events in previous films.

With shattering changes for these characters and implications for where their story leads them next, there’s the sense of a new dawn for the Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward. The testing of limits has made their bonds even stronger as they venture off into the new world. Yet in it’s final scenes (both in the main film and the second of two post-credits scenes), “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” also presents a yearning to rediscover the past and reclaim a heroic ideal that has faded over time. Thankfully Captain America, the quintessential Man Out of Time, is here to keep that ideal beating strong and insuppressible.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Veronica Mars (2014) Review

Veronica Mars

In the arena of moviemaking, the “Veronica Mars” film is something of a game-changer with it being the first feature-length film to be funded by Kickstarter. Less than a day after it went live, the page for the cult television series follow-up had met it’s goal of $2 million and eventually nearly tripled that number by the time production went underway. Now almost a year later, the film has made it to a limited number of theater screens alongside video-on-demand outlets for those who would prefer to watch at home. Those are the facts of the case. Looking at the film on its own terms is a whole other matter.

As her 10-year high school reunion approaches, Veronica Mars is in no hurry to return to her California hometown of Neptune as she gets ready to take an attorney job in New York City. She wants nothing to do with the place, and seems to be happy living with college boyfriend Piz. But trouble comes a calling when her old flame Logan is accused of murdering his singer girlfriend, and Veronica is pulled back into the seedy world of Neptune.

What’s most apparent from the start of “Veronica Mars,” after a quick recap of the basic story beats from the show, is that Kristen Bell’s talents have been totally under-served in the years since the show ended. Returning to the character that made her famous does wonders to show off her range as she effortlessly balances sarcastic wit with more dramatic situations. Underneath her miniature stature and good looks is a force of will ready to bring the claws out if necessary.

Seemingly everyone with a major role on the show returns here also, with some exceptions. Enrico Colantoni provides further proof of the unbreakably heartfelt bond between Keith Mars and his daughter, while Ryan Hansen’s Dick Casablancas is often around the corner to provide a good laugh. Given the story, Jason Dohring expectedly gets the most to do of the supporting cast. Logan has always been an enigma, someone who has a short fuse and keeps his motives close to the chest, and Dohring’s internalized performance holds that cloud of mystery.

It’s a shame that the actual mystery doesn’t carry the same weight. Series creator Rob Thomas and frequent writing partner Diane Ruggiero can spin a good yarn as it moves along, punched up by their snappy dialogue. However, the seams begin showing as Thomas indulges in character cameos, with the most egregious being a subplot for Weevil that is simultaneously rushed and awkwardly scotch-taped into the film to leave threads dangling for a sequel.

Giving old favorites their due is fun and all until it begins to get in the way of the important stuff, leaving the mystery resolution flat even as it serves up a tensely directed final encounter. More interesting is how the film handles Veronica’s character arc and how that fits into her larger story. As a narrative that takes place nearly a decade after the show ended, the film ends up feeling more like a return to the status quo than it does a full-on advancement.

However, a big part of Veronica is her addictive personality, always needing to scratch that itch fed by helping people out with their problems. Even when her actions turn self-destructive there’s an innate compulsion to dive back into a hairy position. The “Veronica Mars” movie generally feels like it’s dealing with a similar problem as it serves the fan desires that pushed forth its creation. Sometimes what a fan needs is more important than what they want, and Thomas often finds himself favoring the latter.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) Review

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson has a particular style that he has cultivated, evolved, and honed over the course of his career and has not deterred from that one bit. His dedication to offbeat humor, quirky characters, and perfectly composed production design has occasionally flitted off into hollow end results, but when Anderson gracefully combined that dedication with a fitting story he came away with sterling results. His most recent film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is thankfully an example of the latter kind.

Following the murder of a wealthy patron, blame for her death falls on the concierge at the titular hotel, Gustave H., who had a relationship with her. With the help of his lobby boy and friend Zero Moustafa, Gustave goes on an adventure to clear his name while tensions are rising in the years leading up to World War II.

Anderson provides much more to admire about beyond the plot though. The story is told through a framing device as a novelist looks to write a novel about the hotel’s glory days, and the feeling of nostalgia for an older era permeates the film. Nostalgia is something that Anderson frequently plays up in his works, with many of them feeling like they unfold like a storybook, and the way he literalizes that aspect here makes the heavily affected acting and style work organically.

The trailer highlighted a treasure trove of talented actors, but truth be told most of them are in minor parts. Rather than an ensemble, the story instead focuses in on the friendship between Gustave and Zero. By avoiding the usual trappings of building a film friendship (bickering, a falling out, etc.), Anderson creates an honest bond between these two that provides heart within the heavily stylized surroundings. Having a veteran like Ralph Fiennes and a talented newcomer Tony Revolori playing these roles helps immensely.

Balancing out the innocent quirk is a sense of shock value and surprising violence that provides an edge to the humor. The film doesn’t exactly become a bloodbath but there’s a sense that Anderson enjoys stepping out of his usual comfort zone of dry humor every now and then. Which isn’t to say that the dry humor is lacking, as the crack comic timing by the cast remains ever present throughout.

As with most of Wes Anderson’s previous films, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” isn’t for everyone and fits into the niche that he has carved out for himself in the last couple decades. For those that take a particular liking to his style and/or want to see a film that steps outside of the mainstream, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” certain fits that bill.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Robocop (2014) Review

Robocop (2014)

Not only is the original “Robocop” film a touchstone of 1980s action cinema, it is also a slyly subversive work of corporate satire that arguably resonates even more today than it did upon its release. Luckily, the people behind the new remake seemed to realize that they wouldn’t be able to recapture lightning in a bottle, and instead reconfigured familiar elements to fit an entirely new setup that would stand apart from the original. Unluckily, the intriguing new setup became beholden to a mediocre and uninspired execution.

The basic story points remain the same: cop gets severely injured in a gangland revenge, corporation working with the military creates new cybernetic technology, and cop and technology are fused to create Robocop. But where the remake differs is how it uses the original’s satirical jabs as a jumping off point for updated social commentary.

The dangers of drone warfare are the primary focus here, with an overzealous media conglomerate working as propaganda (i.e. a Fox News stand-in). But there’s also police corruption, humanity vs. machinery, and a whole slew of other points and plot threads vying for attention. Normally ambition is to be commended, especially when many films don’t even try, however when it’s conceived in such a jumbled and plodding fashion, that isn’t the case.

But the real fatal flaw of this “Robocop” is the lack of an emotional connection, much of which is attributed to the lead performance of Joel Kinnaman (he of AMC’s now-cancelled “The Killing”). There’s never a point where the audience is able to endear to Kinnaman as Alex Murphy prior to turning metal, and any chemistry with his onscreen wife (played by Abbie Cornish) is nonexistent.

Cornish and costar Gary Oldman, playing the sympathetic scientist behind Murphy’s recovery, are able to project genuine emotion even as they fight against being in a film as cold as this one. An early scene in which the totality of Murphy’s condition is revealed to him is the lone exception to this, which provides a poignant shock that is surprisingly graphic for the PG-13 rating.

Unfortunately the film can’t sustain that interest, as it gets lost in a sea of underdeveloped subplots. Even Michael Keaton’s always-watchable eccentricity can’t make up for a slate of weak villains, and as a result the film often feels like a robot itself shifting from scene to scene. So stop comparing this “Robocop” to the original as the reason for its faults. The new film gives plenty of reason on it’s own.


The Lego Movie (2014) Review

The Lego Movie

On most accounts, “The Lego Movie” should not be good. It is a movie-length commercial for Legos that appears to be created purely out of advertising and branding purposes. But “The Lego Movie” is much more than what it might cynically appear to be. Leave it to filmmakers Phil Lord of Chris Miller, they of cult TV fame with “Clone High” and other projects, to bring wit and brains to pieces of plastic.

Looking at the surface, “The Lego Movie” is about an average construction worker, Emmett, who stumbles onto a resistance movement of Master Builders who rebel against the stifling instructions that President Business places over his city. Everything goes according to plan, no piece is ever out of line, and people are expected to perform their work duties to the T.

Emmett is eventually told that his destiny holds the key to the Master Builder’s victory, and here is where the movie goes off into wholly unexpected territory. Throughout their two previous movies, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and “21 Jump Street” (two other greats that upended low expectations), Lord and Miller displayed an aptitude for poking fun at cliché and convention, and here that blossoms into full-on deconstruction.

“The Lego Movie” is essentially a big middle finger to stories that lean on predictable hero’s journey beats and destinies as a crutch in place of genuine storytelling. It’s in these turns where the movie reveals itself to be less a commercial for Lego (although it certainly is on some level) than one for the inspiration of creativity. Look at it this way: if children leave this movie and feel compelled to build a Star Wars figure out of the instructions rather than blend those pieces into a spontaneous model composed from 20 other Lego sets, they got the wrong message.

The movie is in and of itself that spontaneous model, where Superman can freely mingle with space men, Shakespeare, Lincoln, pirates, Gandalf, etc. (the cameos are bountiful.) While most of these are small parts beholden to the movie’s breakneck pace, others like Batman get the spotlight, and Will Arnett’s hilariously tongue-in-cheek voice work creates one of the most endearing onscreen versions of the character yet, believe it or not.

While others like Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman and Will Ferrall bring laughs too, the success of this movie’s sense of humor lies in Lord and Miller’s ability to incorporate multiple background jokes for every big gag. Much of this resides in the striking animation, a mix of computer animation and stop motion, with an impressive level of detail that must have been a nightmare to plan out.

Comparisons to “Toy Story” may seem over-zealous but are entirely appropriate. As said earlier, the amount of thought and heart packed into a film about plastic playthings is surprising. Although given how Phil Lord and Chris Miller have created a career out of this approach, it shouldn’t be. It is too late to early to reboot “Battleship” yet?