Get to the Point: Fruitvale Station & You’re Next

In light of the recent blow to my free time I’ve suffered at the hands of my new job, I’ve decided to make use of a slightly more concise format for the occasional review.  The micro-review format has worked well for many of my blogging comrades (Committed to Celluloid’s Flash Reviews, The Focused Filmographer’s Mini Reviews, The Filmster and Terry’ Malloy’s Pigeon Coop‘s Quickies), and as I’d rather post a short review than none at all it’s likely that you’ll be seeing many more Get To The Point reviews in the next few months.

Fruitvale Station

FRUITVALEIt takes a special kind of movie to bring actual tears to my eyes, and usually that special kind of movie comes around once a year.  Last year, it was The Perks of Being a Wallflower that finally beat my tear ducts into submission.  This year, the floodgates were broken and shattered by this emotional bombshell.  Fruitvale Station is a very simple film with a message that is anything but.  Its 85 minute run time is one of the shortest of any major release this year, but every second of those 85 minutes contributes to the great build-up to the spectacular, gut-wrenching fall that will leave any audience members who aren’t sociopaths in a state of intense emotional turmoil.  The recency and relative obscurity of the true story behind the film (compare the number of people who recognize the name of Oscar Grant to the number of people who recognize the name Trayvon Martin) heightens the movie’s impact even further, with the final footage of Oscar’s real life daughter standing as one of the most upsetting images I’ve ever seen in a film.  If Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer don’t get Oscar nominations for this, the system is truly broken.

The Verdict: 9.0/10 – Incredible

+ Incredible performances from the whole cast, particularly from Jordan and Spencer

+ A strong focus on human injustice rather than just Spike Lee style racial tension

+ The real life story magnifies the emotional impact beyond the usual bounds of fiction

- This movie will make you angry; if that’s not what you want, then this isn’t for you

Critical Consensus

Rotten Tomatoes: 94%

IMDb: 7.7/10

Metacritic: 85/100

Other Reviews

On the Screen Reviews: 5/5

The Code is Zeek: 5/5

Fast Film Reviews: 4.5/5

The Cinematic Katzenjammer: 8.9/10

Dan the Man Movie Reviews: 8.5/10

The Average: 9.2/10 – Incredible (Highest of the year so far)

You’re Next

yourenext3

With the sheer amount of disappointments 2013 has offered us so far (A Good Day to Die Hard, After Earth, The Lone Ranger), it’s logical to assume that Newton’s Third Law of Cinema would create an equal and opposite reaction in the form of surprisingly great movies that should have been terrible.  Out of every movie I’ve seen in theaters so far this year, I can’t think of a single one which I have looked forward to less and enjoyed more.  Based on its marketing, You’re Next looks like a carbon copy of every other lame “They’re inside the house!” horror movie made in the past twenty years.  For the first twenty or minutes or so, it seems like that is indeed the case; a group of poorly acted twenty-somethings (and their parents this time) all gather in a slightly-larger-than-usual cabin in the woods before they are slowly picked off by silent, faceless killers.  Once the second act rolls around, however, things take a turn for the awesome and the “F*ck Yeah!” per minute ratio shoots off of the charts.  Not only does the movie ferociously buck the trend of predictability that makes the horror genre such a critical punching bag, but it also offers up the best horror protagonist I’ve seen since in the past few years.  The sense of humor is extremely dark and the occasional self-referential cheesiness will probably fall flat on mainstream audiences, but it hit a bulls-eye for yours truly.  Sure, it’s not going to dethrone Evil Dead 2, Cabin in the Woods or Shaun of the Dead as one of my favorite horror comedies of all time, but that it even comes close is more than respectable.

The Verdict: 8.0/10 – Pretty Damn Great

+ A surprisingly unpredictable plot that sets it aside from horror norms

+ An intelligent and surprisingly deadly main character who is loads of fun to root for

+ An insanely dark sense of humor that will hit home for most horror-comedy fans

- A fairly typical first act that you’ll have to get through to get to the good stuff

Critical Consensus

Rotten Tomatoes: 79%

IMDb: 7.1/10

Metacritic: 67/100

Other Reviews

The Cinematic Katzenjammer: 9.0/10

Dan the Man Movie Reviews: 8.5/10

The Code is Zeek: 3.5/5

Average: 8.1/10 – Pretty Damn Great

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Posted in Comedy, Drama, Horror, New Releases | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Rorschach on DVD: Mud

Mud-Movie-Poster-Matthew-McConnaughey-630x350

At the end of each day when I come home from work, I’m faced with a critical decision; do I go out to see one of the week’s latest releases in theaters, or do I stay in and choose unnamedfrom the field of classics and new releases that fill my IMDb watchlist.  There are many facets to this decision, from “Do any of my friends want to go with me?” to “Do I really want to spend that much money tonight?”, but in the end the only question that really needs to be answered is “Do I really want to be wearing pants right now?”  As you can see from my recent trend towards the home video market, the answer to that question has been an increasingly frequent “No”.  Luckily, it just so happens that one of the most critically praised movies of the year was recently released for the small screen and as a result it was much easier to make that decision for my latest review.  Without further ado, here is my brief opinion on Mud, starring Tye Sheridan and Matthew McConaughey.

Honestly, I’d love to go on and on about this movie but I’m getting tired and hopefully the score below will be enough to point you in the right direction.  Mud has a lot ofmud-2013-1 (1)“Modern American Mythology” related aspirations in its premise, but for those of us who aren’t well versed in the plot and character archetypes of old texts are far from ignored by this honest, sympathetic and occasionally moving coming of age story.  That isn’t to say it’s anything like “The Breakfast Club Goes South”, but since when do quirky, angsty teens in middle class families get to hog all of the that little subgenre.  For most people, our own coming of age story wasn’t like anything in a John Hughs movie, and through its setting in the impoverished american south, Mud is able to offer a few bits of setting and plot development to the equation that give the film a more unique and mature tone.

While I’d like to shine the spotlight on any of the various directorial or writing flourished that make the movie such an engrossing experience, I think a more productive was to use these last few sentences before I pass out would be to touch on my mud-image09main complaint with the movie.  Now I’m not exactly Susan B. Anthony incarnate I still like to see women represented fairly in movies, but it probably doesn’t come as a shock to anyone that this is not always the case.  Basically, the plot revolves around two men and their struggle with being rejected and mistreated by the women they love, and while the men get to have their little moments of saying”Chicks, Man…”  to eachother while singing Jay-Z’s 99 problems on repeat, the women measure up to little more than scraps of meat for all of the other male characters to fight over for some reason or another.  All I’m saying is that having one honest-to-god female character in there wouldn’t have killed them.

The Verdict: 8.5/10 – Impressive

+  Excellent performances, especially from the often underutilized McConaughey

+ A clear, consistent story line that doesn’t rely on twists to keep you interested

+ An exciting third act that helps ease the slightly excessive run time

- The “Bitches be crazy” theme feels a bit one sided in its gender relations argument

You can rent or buy Mud on Amazon Instant Video, aka right here .

Critical Consensus:

Rotten Tomatoes: 98%

IMDb: 7.6/10

Metacritic: 76/100

Other Reviews:

The Focused Filmographer: 5/5

The Cinema Monster: 9.5/10

A Door Into Movies: 4/4

Keith and the Movies: 4.5/5

The Code is Zeek: 4/5

Dan the Man Movie Reviews: 8/10

Fast Film Reviews: 3/5

Average: 8.6/10 – Impressive

Posted in Drama, Reviews, Rorschach on DVD | 4 Comments

Kick-Ass 2 Review: F*ck You, Rotten Tomatoes

2013_kick_ass_2-wideIf you’ve been following this site for at least a while, you’re probably aware of the fact that I’m an absolute sucker for dark comedy.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s a blood-strewn Tarantino banter-fest or an American Beauty style ode to disillusionment, if a film maker can take something that normally invokes terror, suspense or emotional trauma and turn it into something that makes you laugh instead, I’m in.  Over the past three or four years, there have been quite a few films that have tickled my twisted funny bone (Cabin in the Woods, Zombieland, In Bruges) but I’d be hard pressed to think of anything that did so in such an extreme manner than Kick-Ass did back in 2010.  Few movies over the past decade have embodied the spirit of manic, gleeful violence quite like Kick-Ass, and when I found out that despite its luke-warm reception at the box office it would still be receiving a sequel, I couldn’t have been happier.  Despite some concerns over the sequel’s change in direction and inherent lack of Nicholas Cage, I still maintained that level of excitement as I went into the theater last night (having managed to completely avoid all manner of critical opinion beforehand).  Having now seen both the film itself and its cumulative critical reception, I believe I have a new top contender for the most underrated movie of the year.  The originality and shock value of its predecessor is unsurprisingly diminished, but fans of the first film will still find more than enough crazed, hyper-violent to make Kick-Ass 2 worth their while.

The Plot: 7/10

The costumed high-school hero Kick-Ass joins with a group of normal citizens who have been inspired to fight crime in costume. Meanwhile, the Red Mist plots an act of revenge that will affect everyone Kick-Ass knows.

In terms of story-line, there are a few things Kick-Ass 2 does well and a few that it struggles to fit into the film’s overall tone.  One of the aspects of the movie that the trailers have focused on is the fact that number of masked heroes and villains alike has been 2vamped up to meet the upped ante of sequel-hood.  While this does have the unfortunate side effect of skimping on the development of many of these characters, it also opens the door to a lot of interesting new players.  Seeing as one of the first movie’s biggest focuses was the transition from normal citizen to power-free superhero, I liked the fact that we got to see what that transition looked like from multiple angles this time aroundUnfortunately, not all of the ways the film attempts to differentiate itself from its predecessor are quite as successful.  The worst offender here is a Mean Girls-esque story arc that gets thrown in for Hit Girl’s character, which yields the occasional laugh but ultimately adds very little to the story or the movie as a whole.  I understand the logic behind the story arc (after all, her father’s dying wish was for her to live a normal life) but that doesn’t make it any less of an unnecessary distraction.

The Writing: 9/10

When looking at general audience members, the writing and more specifically the tone set by the writing is likely to be the biggest factor in determining whether someone loves or imageshates this movie.  The extreme levels of violence coupled with the indifferent-to-celebratory attitudes of the characters towards this violence will be a huge turnoff to a lot of people, but considering that the first film’s tone was nearly identical I can’t see this being much of a surprise for anyone.  As someone whose sense of humor falls within the target range of the script, this was not a problem for me.  While the character development is fairly limited compared to the first film, the amount of fun that I had during it was still perfectly intact.  Frankly, when it comes to a movie like this, that’s all I really wanted in the first place.

The Acting: 8/10

In terms of performance level, the returning cast members are just a pretty much what you’d expect.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson is still the same courageous dork and Christopher Mintz-Plasse is the same entitled douche, and in terms of their place in the story neither kickass2really needs to be much more than that.  That’s because, if you’re anything like me, you’re not watching Kick-Ass 2 for either; you’re watching it for the the profane, hyper-deadly brilliance of Chloe Grace-Moretz’s Hit Girl (Jesus, was hyphenated names a requirement on the job application?).  Even with her character’s unnecessary foray into high-school life, Motetz still shines above the rest of the cast and makes up for a sizable chunk of the film’s entertainment value.  The more I see her in, the more confident I am that Grace-Moretz is the kind of actress who’s mere presence in a film can make it watchable at the very least.

There isn’t nearly enough space to cover all of the new additions to the cast, but there are a few that merit calling out.  Despite his recent denouncement of the film’s violent content, Jim Carrey is still arguably the best new addition to the cast as Colonel Stars and Stripes.   Carrey has proven on more than one occasion that he is images1part of a very small group of comic actors that is able to break out of type without much trouble, and the fact that so few people even realized it was him when the first trailers aired is on its own an impressive statement of the man’s ability to defeat his own typecasting.  Aside from Carrey, I loved seeing some familiar faces behind the various ineffective masks including Donald Faison (Turk!) as Captain Gravity, Luther’s Steven Mackintosh as Tommy’s Dad (yes, that’s his superhero name) and the upsettingly foxy Lindy Booth as Night Bitch.  Unfortunately, as great as these new additions are, none of them are quite able to make up for the absence of Nicholas Cage’s dorky yet slightly unhinged Big Daddy or Mark Strong’s permanently frustrated Frank D’Amico.

The Action: 8/10

One of the biggest factors that allowed this sequel to be green lighted in the first place was the fact that the first film’s low budget by action standards of about $30 million gave it a fairly low bar for success.  The fact that the both films are able to deliver some of the best action of the past several years with a budget that small is a strong carrey-gun-kick-ass2-610testament to just how impressive the fight-scene choreography is here.  On the one hand, the premise of superheroes without superpowers makes it easier to avoid the sort of special-effects laden spectacles that dominate most mainstream action movies nowadays.  On the other hand, that lack of spectacle puts a huge amount of stress on the direction of the fight scenes themselves.  Rather than relying on the sort of unquestioned and unquestionable physics that allow Iron Man or Super Man to dispatch large amounts of enemies without blinking an eye, Kick-Ass is forced to ground its action in the real world and get a little more creative in its carnage.  Nothing here is going to top the third act of the first film, but it’s still a refreshing change of pace from the action status-quo.

The Verdict: 8.0/10 – Pretty Damn Great

+ A sharp script that keeps the darkly humorous spirit of the first film alive

+ Another chance to see Grace-Moretz in my favorite role of her career

+ An increased scale that allows for the inclusion of an interesting set of new characters

- Hit Girl’s ill-fitting high school story arc

Critical Consensus:

IMDb:  7.5/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 29 %

Metacritic: 41/100

Other Reviews: 

Black Sheep Reviews: 4/5

The Cinematic Katzenjammer: 7.9/10

Fogs’ Movie Reviews: B+

Amonymous Reviews: 3.5/5

Dan the Man Movie Reviews: 6.5/10

The Code is Zeek: 3/5

Average: 7.2/10 – Good

Posted in Action, Comedy, New Releases, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Elysium Review: Class Warfare… In Space!!!

elysium (1)Remember the good old days when future humans could just fight evil alien would-be-conquerors with no political subtext?  Me neither.  Apparently, neither does Neill Blomkamp, as he seems hell bent on tricking the world’s Sci-Fi Action junkies into learning valuable lessons about the human condition in between exploding bodies and robot fights.  His first attempt to achieve this end came in the form of the 2009 Sci-Fi surprise hit, District 9, which emerged out of nowhere to become one of the most critically praised and financially successful original Science Fiction films of the past decade.  That film stood out then and stands out now as a brilliant piece of proof that at the end of the day, it’s not a huge budget or an A-List cast that makes a great Sci-Fi movie; it’s about boldly going where no film has gone before.  In our day of sequels, remakes and reboots, those small films that dare to do something different are the ones which we will remember at the end of the day.  With this year already so filled with disappointments, it remained unclear if Blomkamp would be able to break through the pack and recapture that level of innovation that made District 9 such a hit four years ago.  Thankfully, while its political message is far less subtle, Elysium‘s strong pacing and inventive Sci-Fi elements make it one of the most exciting and unpredictable films I’ve seen this year.

The Plot: 8/10

Set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.

When it comes to movies in which the plot actually matters, there are two pet peeves I have that can ruin an otherwise great movie; predictability and glaring logical fallacies.  elysium8f-10-webLuckily, the relative lack of either in this film is quite impressive for a high-concept Sci-Fi film like Elysium.  In regards to predictability, the film might not feature any Shyamalan-level twists or Game of Thrones style shock value but what it lacks in profound revelation it makes up for in simple deviations from traditional story progressions.  Obviously I can’t talk about much in this area without spoiling things for those of you who might be susceptible to that sort of mental sabotage, but feel free to leave specific feedback in the comments if you so desire.

The Writing: 6/10

To be fair, the fact that Elysium tries for anything beyond the usual low level of IQ in action movies is commendable.  Despite the issues I’m about to list, I still think that rs_560x415-130410082302-560.Elysium.1Blomkamp’s bleak vision of the future is at the very least a respectably bold setting for a summer blockbuster like this.  Now that I have that out of the way, the film’s writing is the biggest reason why I can see a lot of people not liking this movie.  Whereas District 9 managed to strike a chord with audiences through it’s exploration of the fairly universally recognized issue of human xenophobia, Elysium focuses on a much more divisive issue; class warfare.  While I don’t think there are many people who deny that the Venn Diagram of the upper and lower classes contains very little overlap, the issue of class warfare is nowhere nearly as black and elysium-mnnwhite as it is portrayed here.  Even ignoring the fact that the premise makes little-to-no sense (without a consumer-filled middle class, the wealthy would have nobody to make money off of), the obvious bias the film has against the upper class makes Blomkamp seem more like he’s offering his belated support for the Occupy Wall Street movement than attempting to deliver any sort of nuanced analysis of socioeconomic inequality.

The Acting: 8/10

From an acting standpoint, the cast elevates the film over the level of performances spider-brazilian-actor-wagner-moura-helps-get-people-to-elysium-illegallyaudiences have come to expect from Action movies like this.  Damon’s Max isn’t intended to be you typical wise-cracking super-human killing machine, he’s just a guy who would really like to reverse the long, slow decline into death he is currently facing.  If, in the mean time, he happens to get revenge on his boss, save his girfriend’s daughter and break down the very walls which have come to separate his people from those above, then so be it.

Setting aside how incredibly beautiful Alice Braga’s Smile is for a moment, there are two other players here that deserve some recognition.  Jodie Foster seems to be fully capable Elysium-Shalto-Copley-640x420of training the cold-hearted-bitch vibes that she’s building up over nearly 20 years of practice, and as a result she proves capable of overcoming the shallowness of her character’s writing and standing out as a solid villain for the crowd to root against.  Still, in terms of villainy. Foster is still fully overshadowed by Sharlto Copley as Delacourt’s mad-dog on a leash; Kruger.  Despite his smaller physical stature, his relatively high pitched voice and the fact that the last movie we’ve seen the man in was The A Team, there’s little doubt in my mind that Coley is responsible for the most impressive performance of the film.  He plays Kruger with the right amount of crazy and volatility that has given us villains like The Joker or Hans Gruber, neither of whom had samurai swords.

The Sci-Fi: 10/10

Remember when Star Wars came out and everyone looked at the millenium falcon like ‘what, that’s a space ship?’.  Back then, science fiction had been dominated by the Star Trek vision of the future; clean-cut, well-maintained, shiny and futuristic looking.  The imagery George Lucas showed us instead was a grimy hunk of metal, covered in dents imagesand scratches and scars from a hundred different stories.  In District 9, Blomkamp re-introduced the world to this sort of unglamorized Science fiction, and out of all of the elements of modern trends in artistic design I’ve seen in recent films, his is the most impressive.  Everything in the world of Elysium seems to have been new and beautiful at some point, but once the armies and the doctors and the military left, those pieces of futuristic technology were picked up by those left to use them.  Between Max’s semi-DIY Exo-skeleton meld to the offensive and defensive articles weilded by Kruger, there’s something incredibly unsettling  about watching savage men wielding futuristic weapons against eachother.  Imagine a Klingon weilding a lightsaber against a phaser-toting wookie.  Disturbed yet?

As a final note to Mr. Blomkamp:  PLEASE  PLEASE PLEASE give us your loving fans the Full length Halo Movie we have been waiting for all of these years since those cruelly titilating live-action shorts you directed before you went all Hollywood Big Shot on us.  There can only be one man to direct this movie and it’s you.  Please give us a break (and take a quick break from political preechiness.

The Verdict: 8.0/10 – Pretty Damn Great

+ Absolutely spectacular Sci-Fi elements, especially in the third act

+ Solid performances by Damon, Foster & especially Copley

+ An incredibly exciting second and third act that evade most major plot cliches

-  An obnoxiously black-and-white view of the class conflict it centers around

Critical Consensus:

IMDb:  7.2/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 65 %

Metacritic: 60/100

Other Reviews: 

Dan the Man Movie Reviews: 8.5/10

Amonymous Reviews: 4/5

FlixChatter: 3.5/5

The Code is Zeek: 3.5/5

PG Cooper’s Movie Reviews: B+

Fogs’ Movie Reviews: B

Fast Film Reviews: 2.5/5

Average: 7.1/10 – Good

Posted in New Releases, Reviews, Sci-fi | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Rorschach on DVD: The Sapphires

the-sapphiresRather than exposing myself to wonder and beauty of the outside world, I decided yet again today to give into the demotivating effects of a long day at work and work up another entry edition of Rorschach on DVD.  One of the perks of working in the DVD division of Amazon.com is that I now get to sort through the leftover bits of complimentary inventory sent to our department by vendors.  For the most part, these consist of the sort of Netflix filler material that makes Uwe Boll seem like a seasoned professional.  Every now and then, though, a diamond shines through the rough and I get a chance to call dibs.  Today, that diamond comes in the form of a little Australian movie that passed under the radar of a disappointing majority of American audiences; The SapphiresIt may lean heavily on various inspirational movie tropes, but strong characters and an impressive amount of musical talent in the cast make The Sapphires one of the most enjoyable movies I’ve seen all year.

Like this April’s Jackie Robinson biopic 42 earlier this year, The Sapphires features characters fighting back against forces of societal oppression with pure, undeniable talent.  sapphires1The way the each film handles those forces is very different, however.  Whereas Robinson stands in defiance of the discrimination of his time, The Sapphires are merely trying to endure it along with the division that it has created among them.  Because of this, the focus of the film falls much more on the characters themselves rather than any sort of crusade against racial injustice.  Luckily, those characters are so strongly written and naturally performed they are able to carry the rest of the film without any need for heightened stakes.

While Chris O’Dowd receives top billing status on all of the promotional material, he is only a small part of what makes the movie such a joy to watch.  The rest is taken up by The Sapphires themselves; Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Kay (Shari sapphires_03_medium_wide-a3d653815514370e96b49f2d57c6ea2f2164c5e0-s6-c30Sebbens), and Cynthia (Miranga Tapsell).  With exception of Mailman, the four actresses above had very little acting experience between them prior to this film, but you’d hardly know it based on their performances here.  Admittedly, I’m much more willing to buy into any line said with a British, Irish, Scottish or Australian accent, but even without that boost I thought that all four did a great job of adding life to their already strongly developed characters.  As a final note, the music in the film is absolutely fantastic, with all five leads (yes, even O’Dowd has a few moments in the spotlight) showing off some of the most impressive singing I’ve seen in any film for quite some time.

The Verdict: 8.0/10 – Pretty Damn Great

+ Strongly written characters with distinct, well-developed personalities

+ An infectious level of joy fueled by some great performances from the five leads

+ An amazing soundtrack with some great motown covers by the cast

- An extremely conventional story line that offers few surprises for viewers

Critical Consensus:

Rotten Tomatoes: 92%

IMDb: 6.8/10

Metacritic: 67/100

Other Reviews:

Fast Film Reviews: 4/5

… Seriously, more people need to see this

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Reviews, Rorschach on DVD | Tagged | 6 Comments

Rorschach on DVD: Trance

trance-2013-movie-posterToday we have another special entry in Rorschach on DVD, a segment where I catch up with all of the diamonds in the rough that I have missed since the year’s beginning.  This time, we have a film that combines a director who has given us the likes of 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting with a genre which has given us the likes of Inception, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 12 Monkeys.  That movie is Trance; Danny Boyle’s mind-bending thriller starring James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel.  While its imaginative premise and Boyle’s skillful direction are enough to make you pay attention, an excess of late-game plot twists coupled with a resulting low amount of character development prevent Trance from measuring up to its director’s usual sterling standard.

Trance revolves around a botched art heist and the attempt to locate a stolen painting from the amnesia-stricken brain of one of its perpetrators (James McAvoy).  In order to retrieve the memory, the thieves seek the help of a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson), thus 2013-04-09-trance_castsetting up the “mind bending” component that ultimately gives the film its identity.  I say this because while the way the premise is executed is more or less original, it still feels like more or less of the same kind of twist-filled thriller that we’ve seen many times before.  That isn’t to say that Trance is any sort of blatant Inception-knockoff or anything, but it’s hard not to see the plot similarities at nearly every turn.  Unfortunately, while Inception managed to counteract some deficiencies in character development with a high level of entertainment value, Trance’s darker tone does nothing to distract you from the fact that the characters are mostly chess pieces for the plot to move around.

Putting those issues aside, Trance is still far from a bad film.  The characters might be so bogged down in the explanation of plot mechanics that there’s hardly any time to develop images (5)their personalities, but the performances behind those characters are easily strong enough to keep you interested in what’s going on.  The plot twists come a little too fast and a little too abruptly in the film’s third act, but they still managed to surprise me more often than not.  Like most mind-bending movies, it would probably play better for a second viewing once you know enough to catch the subtleties that build up to the eventual reveals.  As for the first viewing, Trance is still an extremely interesting (if not quite satisfying) departure from the usual cookie-cutter storylines that usually dominate the release slate of any given year. 

The Verdict: 7.0/10 – Good

+ The plot is imaginative, ambitious and refreshingly light on predictability

+ McAvoy, Dawson and Cassel give some extremely dedicated performances

- The plot twists are too plentiful and too abrupt in the third act

- The script is more concerned with explaining the story than establishing the characters

Critical Consensus

Rotten Tomatoes: 69%

IMDb: 7.0/10

Metacritic: 61/100

Other Reviews:

The Cinema Monster: 8.5/10

The Code is Zeek: 4/5

Committed to Celluloid: 4/5

CinEnemA: 4/5

A Door Into Movies: 3/4

Dan the Man Movie Reviews: 7.5/10

Filmhipster: 70%

Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop: 3.5/5

Fast Film Reviews: 3.5/5

CyniCritics: D+

Average: 7.2/10 – Good

Posted in Reviews, Rorschach on DVD, Thriller | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Conjuring Review: The Anti-Ambien

images (14)Are you suffering from an excess of restful sleep?  Does the thought of letting yourself fall into the warm, soothing embrace of a nightly REM cycle just fill you with dread?  You could drink a cup of coffee or five, but you have a feeling that regular caffeine just isn’t going to cut it.  You need that sort of soul-draining full-body tension usually only reserved for people suffering form PTSD or schizophrenia.  You need the kind of psychological scarring that would make Dexter raise an eyebrow, the kind that will make you regard every noise as impending doom and every shadow as unholy camouflage.  Well, it just so happens that I have exactly what you’re looking for; something that’ll leave you sleeping with the lights on and a rosary clutched in your hands for days.  Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you… The Conjuring.  Capably acted, brilliantly shot and unrelentingly terrifying, The Conjuring just may be the scariest horror movie I have ever seen in a theater.

The Plot: 8/10

Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse.

images (11)The plot really doesn’t give us anything we haven’t seen before, but it doesn’t really need to.  Horror movies are like comedies in that they have a very specific intended effect on the audience, and in either case the merit of the film’s story can be judged on how well it supports that effect.  If a comedy makes you laugh the story probably served it’s purpose.  If a horror movie scares the hell out of you… you get the point.  The biggest asset of the plot here is that there are very few lulls once things start going, and the constant state of anxiety that you’re kept in as a result wears on your resistance after a while leaving you cringing and covering your eyes like everyone else.

The Writing: 7/10

The script is probably the weakest side of the movie by normal standards, though if you’re judging it by horror standards things start to look a little better.  The characters are all IMG_0914.dngfairly standard horror tropes; the lower-middle class family in a house they can’t afford to move out of, the sympathetic ghost hunters, the skeptical police officer, etc.   I was happy to see that the writers at least made an effort to flesh out a few of the key players, but aside from that there really isn’t that much to latch onto in the character development department.  The problem with Horror movies is that if they’re doing they’re job and scaring you, there really isn’t that much room for adding depth to the people on screen.  Everyone is so busy holding their breath, screaming and repeating the process that they have few chances to express themselves.

The Acting: 8/10

Speaking of “Amazing by Horror Standards”, the acting here is nothing short of Oscar-worthy by that metric.  Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga bring a level of competency to the cast that alone would have set the bar above the genre’s usual level of amateurism. THE CONJURINGAdd in a couple of experienced names to the victim’s corner with Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor as the father and mother of the haunted family and the board was set for a completely respectable set of performances form the get go.  What surprised me was the fact that the roles of the family’s five girls were just as solidly acted as the adults surrounding them.  Usually child actors in horror movies can only express themselves through creepy monotones and forced screams, but the way these girls are able to express emotions (namely fear) is far above that here.  I was especially impressed with Joey King, who seems to be positioned to be the next Chloe-Grace Moretz or Abigail Breslin based on the past year (The Dark Knight Rises, Oz: The Great and Powerful, White House Down).

The Scares: 10/10

As I said, this very well be the scariest movie I’ve ever seen in my adult life.  Sure, I still have some deep underlying psychological issues revolving around Jaws, but in terms of unabated terror it’s hard to think of anything that has effected me more profoundly in images (12)recent memory.  What’s great about the movie is that it reaffirms the fact that when it comes to horror, less really is more.  The more subtly a film is able to build tension hold it until the climactic “Jump” moment, the more effective that effect generally is.  Director James Wan has perfected this style of direction in movies like Insidious, making some of the best use of POV filming and sound editing that I’ve ever seen in a horror movie.  I had a metaphor prepared comparing the audience’s relationship with the camera to walking through a dark forest with someone else holding the flashlight, but I’m just going to skip the details of that particular rhetorical device and let your imaginations have at it.

The Verdict: 8.5/10 – Impressive

+ Really… F*cking… SCARY

+ Farmiga and Wilson lead a surprisingly capable cast, especially by horror standards

+ The pace builds up slowly but does not slow down for a second once it gets rolling

- The premise and character types aren’t anything new

Critical Consensus:

IMDb:  8.0/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 85 %

Metacritic: 69/100

Other Reviews: 

Fogs’ Movie Reviews: A+

Cinematic Corner: 91/100

PG Cooper’s Movie Reviews: 9/10

The Cinema Monster: 8.5/10

Projected Thoughts: 4/5

The Focused Filmographer: 4/5

Dan the Man Movie Reviews: 7.5/10

Fast Film Reviews: 3.5/5

The Code is Zeek: 3/5

Average: 8.2/10 – Pretty Damn Great

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Scorsese Spotlight: The Last Temptation of Christ (The Cinematic Frontier)

Louis from The Cinematic Frontier was so kind as to submit review for both this film and Hugo for my ongoing Scorsese Spotlight segment, and I was so unkind as to forget to post them after he had sent them to be.  I extend my apologies to Louis but I suppose late is at least better than never.  Here is his review for Martin Scorsese’s foray into overt Christianity; The Last Temptation of Christ.
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The mythical figure known as Jesus Christ is no stranger to cinema.  There have been many Biblical films made, and Jesus has been portrayed by many different actors (Jeffrey Hunter, Max Von Sydow, and John Hurt; just to name a few).  While each actor tries to bring something to the character, whatever is brought is mostly very subtle; film after film it’s pretty much the same divine character who always acts so much more divine than human.  Perhaps that’s what drew me to Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ.  Here was a chance to see a different portrayal of Jesus, one that stands apart from all the rest.

Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, Scorsese’s film centers on the carpenter Jesus of Nazareth as he begins his ministry despite being filled with fear, lust, reluctance, images (8)depression, and self-doubt.  Many of the events covered in other Jesus films are present in this one, but there are alterations to them (in part due to Kazantzakis’ novel).  What makes this Jesus film stand out from others is that the Jesus in this film actually behaves like a human and not just some divine figure.  He constantly doubts himself and is unsure of his path; he isn’t sure if he really is God’s son or not.  Willem Dafoe’s excellent portrayal of Jesus feels more honest, realistic, perhaps even authentic (although we don’t know if any of the Gospel stories actually happened; the Bible is definitely not a reliable historical text).

Indeed, the central thesis of Kazantzakis’ novel was that Jesus was still subject to fear, reluctance, depression, lust, and doubt while being free from sin.  Jesus struggled to do images (7)God’s will, facing and conquering all of man’s weaknesses without giving in to temptations of the flesh.  If Jesus had succumbed to any temptation, including saving himself from the cross, then his life would’ve been nowhere near as significant as it turned out to be.  It is this argument that Paul Schrader successfully adapts into his screenplay (with some uncredited re-writes by Scorsese and Jay Cocks).  That is why the last temptation is so important.  A young girl (claiming to be a guardian angel) tells Jesus that, although he’s God’s son, he is not the Messiah and that God wants him to be happy.  She helps him off images (10)the cross and he goes on to live a peaceful life, marrying and having many children.  When he is on his deathbed, Judas reveals to him that the young girl is actually Satan.  It is then that Jesus returns to the site of the crucifixion, begging God to let him be his son and let him fulfill his purpose.  Jesus has conquered the final temptation, returning to the cross where he hangs until his death.  I find it amusing that so many Christians objected to the last temptation sequence before the film was even released; I would’ve figured they would find their faith re-affirmed by it (no matter how misplaced I think their faith is).

As an atheist, even I have to admit that this is a powerful film despite it going through some interesting production delays.  Scorsese was originally supposed to shoot it in Israel last-temptation-of-christin 1983 when the project was at Paramount.  Aidan Quinn was supposed to play Jesus, Sting was set to play Pontius Pilate, and Vanity had been cast as Mary Magdalene.  It was a combination of a ballooning budget and numerous protest letters that led to Paramount canceling the film.  After the success of After Hours and The Color of Money, Universal became interested in making the film.  Scorsese agreed to make the film at a lower budget and shoot it in Morocco, as well as direct a more commercial film for them later on (1991’s Cape Fear).  Willem Dafoe was cast as Jesus, Harvey Keitel as Judas, Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, and David Bowie as Pontius Pilate.

Despite a short shooting schedule and a low budget, Scorsese delivered an excellent film.  The cast was simply terrific.  The scene that lingered with me the most after seeing the images (9)film on the big screen several years ago was the one where Jesus asks Judas to betray him so that he can be crucified.  Jesus believes that Judas’ “betrayal” will allow him to fulfill God’s purpose for him.  In virtually every Jesus movie or TV mini-series, Judas is portrayed as a villain, but in this particular film he’s actually kind of the hero; without Judas’ betrayal, Jesus can’t die on the cross and bring salvation to mankind.  Willem Dafoe and Harvey Keitel were terrific together (I don’t know why people attack Keitel’s performance; I thought he was fine here).  Barbara Hershey delivers an interesting performance as Mary Magdalene; her portrayal is probably the closest to how that character actually lived (assuming she really did exist).

I could go on and on about this film, but somewhere along the line this would stop being a movie review and it would turn into a religious and philosophical debate.  If I could only recommend just one Jesus film, then Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ would be that film.

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Thanks again to Louis, who’s review of Hugo will soon be posted.  I highly recommend you check out his site over at http://cinematicfrontier.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter at @filmscorehunter.  
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The Wolverine Review: Once More, With Ninjas

images (6)Of all of the tactics used by companies to promote a product, my favorite in a simultaneously ironic and serious sense is the “We Fixed It!” strategy.  Whether it’s Domino’s basically admitting that its old recipe was garbage or Apple releasing a second generation of a device that actually works, it takes a lot of balls from a company to own up to the failure of one of their own products, even if that failure is incredibly obvious.  It seems that 20th Century Fox possesses such balls, as the most recent advertisements for the film have surrounded a critic’s quote that “This is the Wolverine Movie Fans Have Been Waiting For”.  The assumption this makes, of course, is that the previous Wolverine prequel Fox produced was not the Wolverine movie fans had been waiting for, and while it’s hard to argue with that claim it’s still nonetheless surprising that any major player in Hollywood is willing to admit their own mistakes.  Luckily, it just so happens that the newest appearance of the Box Office’s favorite X-Man is almost unanimously living up to the studio’s promise.  It may not be quite as effective on an emotional level as it’s trying to be, but an abundance of well-choreographed action and an enticing vision of what lies ahead for the franchise make The Wolverine a fine remedy for the wrongs of its predecessor.  

The Plot: 5/10

Summoned to Japan by an old acquaintance, Wolverine becomes embroiled in a conflict that forces him to confront his own demons.

Among the ranks of other “Superheroes”, Wolverine has always stood apart from the likes of Spider-Man or Iron Man in that he has a very low level of moral obligation to his fellow man.  Sure, he’ll do his best to save his friends or other assorted innocents when the The-Wolverine-giant-silver-samurai1situation presents itself, but given the chance he would always rather seek out isolation rather than trying to root out evil and stomp it out around the world.  While this detached side of his personality may have made him an incredibly effective and entertaining foil to the rest of the X-Men in the previous three films, it doesn’t work quite as well when he’s working on his own.  For one thing, it causes the scale of the film to be drastically reduced from the levels we’ve seen in movies like The Avengers or The Amazing Spider-Man, with the plot centering not on the hero trying to save millions of innocents but on trying to save himself and about two or three other people he’s taken a shine to.

Aside from the scale issues, The Wolverine also suffers from a devastatingly dull second act.  With the film’s run time coming in just over two hours, it’s all the more difficult to ignore how flat the romantic subplot that dominates this section of the film seems.  Ignoring that subplot, though, the story still feels fairly limp.  The number of enemy factions with conflicting motivations struck me as confusing rather than intriguing, and when everything is straightened out by a large twist near the end it’s hard to understand what all of the fuss was about.

The Writing: 7/10

From a writing standpoint, there are a lot of things the movie does well.  In particular, Logan himself feels far more like the Wolverine we came to know and love in the first three films than he ever did in the prequel.  Between a steady stream of wolverine-hugh-jackman-japanone-liners and a few amusing bits of situation comedy (including a bath scene that reminded me a lot of the makeover sequence in Beauty and the Beast) it felt like the writers did a great job of reinforcing the most entertaining aspects of the character.  My only complaint is that the Jean flashbacks Logan experiences throughout the film are far less interesting now that seven years and an entire feature film have passed by since the ending of the third film.  It’s hard not to feel like Logan will be much more interesting once he’s gotten over the little emotional speed bump of killing one of the loves of his life.

The Acting: 6/10

At this point, Hugh Jackman really doesn’t have to try anymore once he dons the mutton the-wolverine---train-scenechops that magically change him from Jean Valjean to claw-wielding antihero.  Logan is supposed to be gruff, annoyed, and emotionally repressed, and that’s exactly what Jackman gives us here.  Unfortunately, these aspects of his character make it a little difficult to feel any meaningful chemistry with anyone on screen, be they old flames (Famke Janssen) or new (Tao Okamoto).  Personally I felt like Jackman had much better chemistry with his pink-haired “Bodyguard” Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who is vastly more interesting than any of her female counterparts on screen.

The biggest weakness in the acting department comes from Svetlana Kodchenkova, whose images (4)shamelessly hammy performance as token other mutant “Viper” (assuming you don’t count Yukio’s vague, unhelpful prognostications)  is a laughable impersonation of Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin.  Even with the diminished scale, a strong central villain could have made the story just as compelling as any apocalyptic comic-book fare.  Sadly, as all we get here is poison-spewing femme-fatale cliche, it’s hard to care that much about exactly who Logan is fighting and why.

The Action:  8/10

While the action might not be as showy or creative as the multi-mutant-featuring predecessor, it is far more effective.  Instead of fighting a set of super-Hugh-Jackman-in-The-Wolverine-2013-Movie-Image-21-650x459powered baddies, Logan is now faced with a set of human enemies who are suddenly something to be concerned about now that his trademark healing abilities are mysteriously diminished.  With this new level or mortality, the stakes are raised considerably higher than they’ve ever been for the character, and the fight scenes are that much more engrossing as a result.  Throw in the fact that a lot of those fight scenes pit our hero against Ninjas, Yakuza and similar pillars of Japanese villain-hood and you get a level of action that will justify most viewers’ ticket purchases.

As a final note, there is an after credit sequence that you will absolutely want to stay for.  The direction for the franchise it suggests is one that I am incredibly excited to see play out.

The Verdict: 6.5/10 – Perfectly Adequate

+ Wolverine feels much more like the character we originally fell in love with

+ The action manages to be impressive without jumping the shark on effects

- The second act and corresponding romantic sub-plot are just plain boring

- Wolverine is still best when acting as a foil for the other X-Men

Critical Consensus:

IMDb:  7.3/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 66 %

Metacritic: 61/100

Other Reviews: 

Fogs’ Movie Reviews: B+

Keith and the Movies: 4/5

The Code is Zeek: 4/5

Dan the Man Movie Reviews: 8/10

Amonymous Reviews: 3.5/5

The Cinematic Katzenjammer: 6.3/10

The Focused Filmographer: 3/5

Fast Film Reviews: 2.5/5

FlixChatter: 2.5/5

The Average: 6.8/10 – Good

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The Way, Way Back Review: The Perks of Being an Awkward Teenager

imagesThe coming of age story has never been anything new.  From The Breakfast Club to Stand By Me to Juno, there’s just something about the subject of growing up that seems to offer unlimited potential when it comes to basing a film around the transition from childhood to adulthood.  It’s easy to brush off movies like this because of their focus on the kind of angsty, self-obsessed, melodramatic people who teenagers tend to be, and as an adult it’s easy to become frustrated with the kind of behavior that usually dominates the coming of age tale.  However, if you take a step back and let yourself honestly think back to that time in your life, there aren’t many among us who weren’t just as naive and irrational as the characters on screen.  The transition between that silly kid you used to be and the slightly less silly person you’ve become was likely far less than painless, and even though the situation surrounding that pain was probably very different than what’s happening on screen there’s still a lot of power in that memory.  With that in mind, it’s understandable why the teenage age bracket is so full of cinematic potential, and between The Perks of Being a Wallflower last year and The Way, Way Back this year it doesn’t look like that potential is going to go to waste any time soon.  Between a dynamite supporting cast and incredibly rich character development, the emotional and comedic punches doled out by The Way Way Back make it a strong contender for my new favorite movie of the year. 

The Plot: 8/10

14-year-old Duncan’s summer vacation with his mother, her overbearing boyfriend, and his daughter. Having a rough time fitting in, Duncan finds an unexpected friend in Owen, manager of the Water Wizz water park.

In terms of the story, The Way, Way Back doesn’t offer up much that hasn’t been offered up before.  Some might argue that this makes for a boring plot, but I thought that it did a much better job of maintaining the realistic feeling of the movie.  The amount of character THE WAY, WAY BACKdrama that the film is able to build up completely makes up for any deficiency of major plot points, and because of that I never felt any strain on my ability to pay attention to what was going on.  I particularly liked the ending, which manages to convey a sense of progress without ignoring the fact that life for these characters will presumably keep going on once the cameras stop rolling.  After all, real life doesn’t have neat and tidy endings to fade out on.  We have to look to those little pieces of accomplishment or understanding to tell us that the things that have happened along the way have meant something.

The Writing: 9/10

I’ll focus on dialogue more in the Comedy section, but even without that aspect of the writing I could go on for pages here.  Usually in a movie like this, you get two or three well-formed characters surrounded by various stereotypes that have occupied films scripts THE WAY, WAY BACKsince the dawn of the medium.  On the surface, the characters in The Way, Way Back fall into those frames fairly neatly; the angst-ridden awkward teen protagonist, the cute but socially disillusioned love interest, the dick-ish Stepdad, the older mentor, the list goes on and on.  When you dig beneath the surface though, there aren’t many other recent examples in which those character types are more richly expressed and believably written than they are here.  There was only one character who felt anything but two dimensional (Duncan’s semi-Stepsister is basically any bitchy teenager you’ve ever seen), but for the most part I felt like I could have easily known people like the ones on camera.

The Acting: 9/10

The character depth in the script is brought to life across the board here by some of the most honest and touching performances I’ve seen all year.  Liam James is a surprisingly strong protagonist, bringing Logan Lehrman in Perks of Being a images1Wallflower to mind.  James occasionally defaults to awkward shrugging but makes up for it with a sort of defiant confidence that switches its roots from anger to self-acceptance over the course of the movie.  AnnaSophia isn’t going to win any Oscars for her character here but she still brings the same forced optimism and underlying sadness that made Bridge to Terabithia so emotionally powerful.  Towering over the both of them, however, is Sam Rockwell.  While his character is often a little over-the-top and serves largely as a source for comic relief, Rockwell’s performance acts as an emotional anchor and makes it clear that his character is a normal person who prefers to take life less seriously than those around him for the sake of his own sanity.

Surprisingly, the supporting cast is just as strong as the leads and with a lineup like this, that’s hardly surprising.  Toni Collette is more or less within her wheelhouse here, but the images4amount of denial and uncertainty she is able to convey with her performance makes this one of my favorite performances of her career.  Steve Carell on the other hand is playing decidedly against type, and the effectiveness of his performance will likely make a lot of people who love the man’s sweeter side very uncomfortable.  What really impressed me about his portrayal of the character, though, was that he didn’t just feel like a two-dimensional asshole.  Instead, he comes across as an asshole who is trying to seem like a nice, reasonable guy despite his obsession with image and status that makes Duncan hate him so much.

The Dramedy: 10/10

With any cross-genre movie like this, it’s hard to pick a category to judge it by.  For example, slotting Cabin in the Woods under either Horror or Comedy would have been a misnomer in either direction as it proved more than capable of seamlessly integrating The-Way-Way-Back-Sam-Rockwellboth.  That same seamless integration is present in The Way, Way Back in the way it manages to switch between Comedy and Drama without creating an inconsistent tone.  This seems to be the case when an emphasis is placed on Drama with periodic comic relief, rather than when an emphasis is placed on Comedy with dramatic breaks (i.e. The Heat).  In fact, nearly all of the humor in the film comes from two characters;  Rockwell’s joke-spouting Water Wizz manager Owen and Allison Janney’s alcoholic busybody and the gang’s next door neighbor Betty.  The rest of the cast  contributes to the laughs every now and then, but mostly by existing as foils to those to characters.

As a final unconnected note, I’d like to point out the fact that the film was co-written, co-directed and co-starred in by Nat Faxon and Community’s Jim Rash.  The fact that this is each of their directorial debuts is nothing short of amazing to me.

The Verdict: 9.0/10 – Incredible

+ Some of the most dynamic and three dimensional character’s I’ve seen in recent years

+ Amazing performances from the entire cast, especially Carell and Rockwell

+ Extremely funny when it’s trying to be and pretty damn moving when it’s not

- If you can’t get past the focus on a moody teenager, you’ll probably get a little bored

Critical Consensus:

IMDb:  7.7/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 83 %

Metacritic: 67/100

Other Reviews:

The Cinema Monster: 9/10

Fast Film Reviews: 4.5/5

Dan the Man Movie Reviews: 8.5/10

The Code Is Zeek: 4/5

Average: 8.7/10 – Impressive

Posted in Comedy, Drama, New Releases, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments