A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST

A Million Ways

By R. David

Viewed May 30, 2014

A talented cast and high-concept comedy ambition come together in “A Million Ways to Die In the West”, Seth MacFarlane’s affectionate send-up of Western genre tropes.  It’s a bold and curious film in that one can’t help but wonder just what the audience is for a film like this.  Moviegoers in their golden years who may actually have fond memories of the films MacFarlane is paying homage to aren’t likely to be sold by the its vulgar and violent trailer; while younger audiences whose funny bone might be tickled by the bawdy bathroom humor and graphic sight gags aren’t likely to grasp or fully appreciate the overall concept.  But MacFarlane would be nowhere if not for taking risks on odd and potentially off-putting premises (see “Family Guy” and “Ted”).  And funny is funny regardless of the box it’s placed in.  If MacFarlane can find the hilarity in a film about a walking, talking, pot-smoking teddy bear, surely he can find it in a Wild West farce, right?

The answer, it turns out, is a bit complicated.  On the one hand, “A Million Ways…” gets just about everything right on a technical level.  The production design, cinematography and score especially recall the sprawling, dusty oaters of Hollywood yore.  The cast is game and seems to be having a great time with such farcical material (typically serious actors like Liam Neeson and Charlize Therone in particular seem to be enjoying themselves).  As fans of “Family Guy” know, MacFarlane knows how to milk a sight gag and the film, written by MacFarlane with his frequent collaborator Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, has a good amount of clever lines and observational humor, both raunchy and cartoonishly violent.  But “A Million Ways…” is never quite as funny as you’d like it to be.  I smiled a lot, but the big laughs are few and far between, and the film also has trouble sustaining momentum.  Going back in time initially feels like a breath of fresh air for a comedy, but after a while, returning to the same jokes about the Wild West starts to wear thin.  The film simply doesn’t have enough up its sleeve to remain compelling and funny for its entire running time.  As a result, it feels padded and overly long.

Part of the problem is the thin plot, which is too shopworn to inspire much audience investment.  MacFarlane plays Albert, a worrywart sheep-farmer who detests the dangers of the primitive Wild West.  His girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for the local mustache groomer (Neil Patrick Harris), and Albert contemplates leaving town.  But when he accidentally saves the life of a beautiful stranger named Anna (Therone) and the two seem to be a perfect match, he thinks he’s finally found happiness.  What Albert doesn’t know is that Anna is married to one of the most feared gunslingers in the West (Neeson), and he’s coming to town to find his wife.

As I said, pretty standard stuff.  While any send-up is bound to be representative of its target’s conventions, whoever is doing the sending-up still needs to fashion a compelling narrative; but the plot here feels completely beside the point, as if MacFarlanbe just needed the most basic of stories to attach all his wacky little gags to.  If he had more of them – or more of them worked – this might have been OK; but again, the writers simply don’t have the comedy gold they think they do.  Though, some of it works very well.  The overall gimmick of the dangers that run rampant in the Wild West – with characters being killed randomly and in a bevy of ridiculous and often hilariously extreme ways – is presented with the sort of surprising, giddy, cut-away precision MacFarlane relies so heavily on in “Family Guy”.  The other commentary on the Old West – men’s manliness is judged by the size of their mustache, nobody smiles in photographs, the slightest offense results in bar fights and shootouts, Albert’s self-awareness of the ridiculous science and social expectations of the time – is also generally funny stuff,.  But MacFarlane returns to all of these jokes again and again.  The first few times a gag is repeated, the repetition itself gets a laugh.  After a while though, the constant call backs just start to feel tired.  For instance, Sarah Silverman plays a prostitute who claims to be a good Christian so she won’t have sex with her daffy fiancé (Giovanni Ribisi) until they’re married; but she has no problem with her occupation or graphically discussing the details of her work.  Initially, this is the sort of ridiculous, vulgar joke MacFarlane excels at.  But spend too much time with these characters making the same joke over and over again and it loses its luster.

Through all the unevenness here though, “A Million Ways to Die In the West” has three things keeping it watchable and entertaining despite its flaws.  First, it is often undeniably funny.  Even though it spins its wheels considerably, there is usually a clever sight gag or surprising cutaway not far ahead. Second, as mentioned, the look, tone, photography and music are all simply exquisite – not just an ace parody, but a wonderfully made film on a technical level by any measure.  Third, and perhaps most beneficial, is the cast.  MacFarlane (who also directs) has the face of a 20-something despite being in his 40s and the voice of a radio announcer.  He might not make for a genius comedic performer or a captivating leading man, but he is rather perfect as the sarcastic, exasperated voice of logic and reason amongst all the insanity.  He and Therone are tasked with playing straight-man to all the over the top buffoonery surrounding them and they have clear comedic chemistry even if their romantic chemistry is lacking.  There are moments where it is clear he is legitimately cracking her up, and she’s not just acting.  To that end, there is also obvious improve work to much of the dialog which lends some scenes a bit of edge and energy.  Also, who better to ring-up to play a smarmy, show tune-singing, mustache-twirling ham than Niel Patrick Harris; and who better to riff on the alpha male badass than Liam Neeson?

There is much to admire about “A Million Ways to Die In the West”; it’s just a shame it’s not a bit tighter and more inspired.  It’s the kind of movie that feels like they came up with a concept and cast, but tried to throw together a script as they went along.  But that it’s as enjoyable as it is is a testament to the winsome cast and MacFarlane’s considerable gift for mining (if over-milking) scatological humor.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

GODZILLA

Godzilla

By R. David

Viewed May 16, 2014

I suppose I am required by movie-reviewing law to make some reference to the infamously ill-fated 1998 American “Godzilla” remake in this review; so let’s get the elephant (or iguana-meets-T-Rex-shape-shifting-thingy) in the room out of the way right at the top:  It was not good.  It’s not often that pretty much everybody agrees a movie should be wiped from our collective memories;  and even less often when that film is a big-budget, would-be summer blockbuster featuring one the most iconic monsters in movie history.  Sure, remakes are botched all the time, but the degree of the botching in Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” is unprecedented.  So, when “Godzilla” emerges from the depths of the sea in this new reboot from director Gareth Edwards, the creature is returning from a 16-year slumber since he last laid waste to American shores.

Despite the reviled 1998 attempt, it is a bit surprising it has taken a studio so long to attempt rebooting Godzilla for the CGI age. But perhaps we should all take comfort in the fact that a studio waited (for once) to do something right, rather than rushing yet another generic, half-baked blockbuster into theaters based on name recognition alone.  The willingness to take risks to do right by the big guy this time around is obvious not only in the measured amount of time it’s taken to bring him back, but in giving newish, indie director Edwards (he made the low-budget, slow-burning feature, “Monsters”, which supposedly won him this gig) the reins as opposed to some blockbuster guru (ala Roland Emmerich), and greenlighting a script that keeps Godzilla himself largely off-screen for the first hour of the film.

Withholding the titular character of a movie for nearly half of its run-time would be a risky move for any film – and it will most certainly prove to be this incarnation of “Godzilla’s” most controversial sticking point for many viewers – but demonstrates both faith in the film’s story, characters and performances, as well as a commitment to making a film that is not simply a another typical monster movie.  Unfortunately, the story and characters writers Max Borenstein (screenplay) and Dave Callaham (story) have come up with is not nearly as worthy of all the build-up as they and Edwards think it is. 

The movie begins in 1999 with unexplained tremors causing the meltdown of a nuclear power plant in Japan where an American scientist, played by Brian Cranston, loses his wife (Juliet Binoche), and becomes obsessed with tracking down the cause.  Fast forward 15 years later to Cranston’s estranged, Navy lieutenant son, Ford (“Kick-Ass’” Aaron Taylor-Johnson), returning to Japan to bail out his father after his conspiracy theories land him in prison.  But it turns out dad might not be crazy when his predictions of new tremors begin coming true.  The two infiltrate a top secret facility where they discover the military conducting experiments on a giant radioactive monster.  No, not Godzilla, but MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), who is trying to bust out of the facility to rendezvous with his mate (you’d think mating wouldn’t be the only reason this thing would want to set itself free from captivity; and if it could, it would have done so long ago).  So where is “Godzilla” and how does he figure into all of this?  To tell would be a minor spoiler of sorts.  Let’s just say that the MUTOs actions spur his return.  From here the movie essentially becomes the smashy-smashy monster flick most are likely hoping for as the three creatures make their way to America.  Ford too is doing his damndest to get back home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child amidst all the havoc the monsters unleash.

You have to admire a summer tentpole monster movie that strives for plot and character depth and is not simply another exhausting, run of the mill blur of CGI action.  But the characters are simply not as compelling as the movie would like them to be, and their would-be engrossing and emotionally-exhausting plight never registers the way the movie would like it to.  The reason, I suspect, is twofold:  1) it’s all cliché.  There’s no shortage of action/disaster flicks in which the hero is racing to save and/or return to his family against the insurmountable odds of the crisis in question.  And “Godzilla” can’t find a way to make these tropes any more emotionally resonant than they usually are.  For all the tearing up going on in this movie, audiences can leave their Kleenex at home.  2) The actors do what they can – no one is bad here – but the characters too are basically nothing more than clichés; and no one finds a way to rise above the stock material they’ve been given to work with.  Not surprisingly, Cranston comes closest, but even he isn’t as enjoyable to watch as one would assume, trying to work the crazy-not-crazy mad scientist thing.  Taylor-Johnson is bland, but again, that may be more the script’s fault than his own, but regardless, he’s a less than exciting hero.  And the usually engaging Olsen is reduced to the weeping-on-the-phone wife, until she becomes the running-and-screaming wife in the climax.

Another issue here is the MUTOs.  Even if you’re okay with the fact that they essentially join the plot and other characters in delaying and diminishing the movie of its namesake, there’s still the issue of their uninspired design and the fact that they frankly aren’t very interesting, either in design or their motivations.  They look like leftover SFX specs from “Cloverfield” or “Starship Troopers”.  But they are nowhere near as entertainingly vicious as anything in “Troopers”, and where those bug-monsters had character and personality, I’m not sure if the MUTOs are actually supposed be organic creatures like Godzilla or if there’s a robotic or alien component to them.  Godzilla’s a big lizard, right?  I don’t know what they the hell the MUTOs are supposed to be.  They look like construction rebar come to life.

And if it seems like I’ve spent a lot of time talking about everything other than Godzilla in my “Godzilla” review, that’s a pretty telling critique of the film.  But, while I realize I sound pretty down on the film at this point, the portion of the film – or more accurately, the half of the film – with “Godzilla” is pretty spectacular.  Freed of the need for exposition, the script finally gets out of its own way and Edwards demonstrates what he’s truly capable of as a blockbuster filmmaker.  He starts by revealing the monster slowly, with quick glimpses, building to a roaring (literally) full reveal.  Technically speaking, this Godzilla is flawless.  You feel his enormity, and he does not change in size from scene to scene or shape-shift as the script requires (remember in the ’98 film when Godzilla was at one moment bigger than a skyscraper and the next hiding in the sewer?).  Unlike, say, “Pacific Rim” or “Transformers”, there is an obvious, genuine desire here to make this movie feel real.  In those movies, you feel every bit of the CGI wizardry, never feeling a part of the action.  They are  the technically impressive, polished cinematic equivalent of a cartoon or a kid playing with their toys.  Clearly there is an audience for that sort of thing, but what makes “Godzilla” so thrilling is Edwards’s directorial approach of staging the events with a you-are-there aesthetic.  No, it’s not one of these found-footage gimmicks, nor is it presented as some pseudo docudrama, but he shoots looking up at the beasts, in bird’s-eye views, through smoke – the paratrooper scene is sure to be one of the most thrilling, gloriously filmed action set pieces of the year.  In Godzilla, the monsters feel big and we feel small; we are not merely watching events happen to other people on a screen.

The harrowing second half of “Godzilla”, and the monster himself,  more than makes up for my misgivings with the first half  which I still admire for what it tried to pull off, even if it wasn’t entirely successful.  There’s a bit of a twist at the end of the film that is rather telling of the direction any future sequel may go in.  While some may understandably gripe that a “Godzilla” reboot should have probably focused more on Godzilla himself, it seems with the reintroductions out of the way, future installments will do just that on a monster-of-the-week basis.

3 Stars (Out of 4)

NEIGHBORS

Neighbors

By R. David

Viewed May 9, 2014

“Neighbors” is a fairly run of the mill comedy of errors and rivalry, somewhat elevated by its endearing cast and a few clever bits of dialog sprinkled throughout the script.  For the most part though, this story of stressed-out new parents whose lives are turned upside down when a fraternity moves in next door is typically silly and predictable fluff.  That’s not always a bad thing – and “Neighbors” is certainly funnier and tad more ambitious than many of its slipshod ilk – but it doesn’t make for a very exciting or memorable comedy; which is unfortunate because Seth Rogan has been involved in a handful of some of the most surprisingly authentic comedies of the past decade.  “Neighbors” has the facade of some of his earlier films, but not a lick of their sharp observations or – most glaring of all – hilarity.

Rogan and Rose Byrne (“Bridesmaids”) star as Mac and Kelly, a mid-30s couple raising their first child in a new home when the Delta Psi Beta fraternity moves in next door.  Naturally, all the frat wants to do is party late into the night, and all Mac and Kelly want to do is get some sleep (and keep their baby asleep).  In one of Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien’s screenplay’s cleverest touches, Mac and Kelly aren’t simply a couple of ranting, curmudgeonly party-poopers.  They are still young enough – and stressed-out enough by life as new parents – to remember a time not that long ago when they enjoyed the college-party lifestyle.  The film has them initially trying to befriend, and then play along with their new neighbors.  Mac, particularly, is taken with frat president Teddy, played by Zac Efron.  In the film’s single funniest exchange, the two actors riff on their generational differences in a pot-filled haze which ultimately degenerates into an argument over who had the better Batman actor growing up.  Mac and Kelly assume both parties have bonded and reached an understanding, but the fraternity takes advantage of the couples’ wannabe-hip attitude and their incessant partying and noise quickly creates a grow rift that eventually spirals out of control, with Mac and Kelly doing all they can to get the frat dissolved by the university due to their rule-breaking ways and the frat responding by assaulting the couple with a series of elaborate and embarrassing pranks.

“Neighbors” is all premise and very little actual plot.  Maybe the filmmakers figured the target audience would be fine with a basic outline of a story as an excuse to hang a bunch of would-be hilarious hijinks on; but as Rogan has proved many times in the past, the secret to the best comedies lies in having a complete and genuine narrative, fully-drawn characters and meaningful stakes in their conflicts.  Original ideas help too, but if you are going to romp through the tried and true, it helps to do it in new, interesting and honest ways.   Rogan’s films with Judd Apatow, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked-Up”, are a perfect example of this.  Even Rogan’s essentially-one-big-in-joke “This Is the End” was one of the most riotously funny movies to come out of Hollywood in recent years, mainly because of its talented cast’s improvisational comedic riffing, but also largely thanks to the film’s inspired, fearless nature.  There was a sense that everyone was sort of flying by the seat of their pants making  that movie, and it came through in exciting, kinetic fashion on screen. 

“Neighbors” has hints of all of those films’ assets, but it feels more like one of their many imitators than their equal.  Maybe it’s because the only through line to them here is Rogan himself.  None of his usual on-screen cohorts are here for support, he wasn’t involved in writing the script, and this is not a Judd Apatow joint, which is maybe the biggest difference between a standard issue movie like this and those Rogan has made in the past.  “Neighbors” is directed by Nicholas Stoller who helmed the Apatow-produced “Forgetting Sarah Marshal”.  He’s learned a few of Apatow’s tricks:  it’s obvious in some scenes he’s letting his cast riff and improv with the material, the eclectic supporting cast (which includes Dave Franco, Lisa Kudrow), stabs at tipping genre conventions (Efron is a walking fratboy cliché in terms of appearance, but many of his actions and the attitudes toward him by other students go against the grain of the college/party comedy rules).  That’s all good stuff.  But it’s also simply window-dressing for the far less ambitious comedy “Neighbors” actually is.  If it were actually the Apatow-minded comedy it asserts itself as, it would have spent some time exploring all of those things, not just tossing them out there.  Simply suggesting you know the theme of your movie is shopworn is not the same thing as doing something different.   For instance, as much as “Neighbors” purports to be a comedy about parenthood, it just nails all the traditional tropes of those conflicts:  no time for themselves, unspontaneous sex, boredom, etc.  These things are mentioned or played for the obvious laughs, but never explored or tipped on their ear.  Contrast that with the likes of “Knocked Up” and you’ll understand the difference.

Rogan and (even, surprisingly) Efron are affable and likeable performers (as is the rest of the cast, particularly Byrne who does more for the script than it does for her), and there’s a sense that they are elevating the material on sheer will and talent alone.  There are laughs, clever dialog, interesting observations and good performances in “Neighbors”.  But all that only serves to make its tired premise, shoddy plotting, and predictable results that much more of a bummer. 

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

BLUE RUIN

Blue Ruin

By R. David

Viewed April 25, 2014

Just a few weeks after “Joe” – the riveting, Southern-fried tale of redemption and revenge starring Nicolas Cage in masterful return to form – comes “Blue Ruin”; another sweat-soaked slice of vengeance and grim Americana.  It may lack the above-the-title star power of Cage, but it features a lead performance from Macon Blair that is every bit as revelatory, and perhaps even more extraordinary.

Blair is Dwight, a disheveled recluse and drifter with a blank stare and the face of an apathetic child.  But his nebbish exterior is masking a vengeful rage boiling just beneath the surface; a fury that erupts when he discovers the man who killed his parents – and who is thereby responsible setting in motion the events that led Dwight to his listless, damaged existence – has been released from prison.  Dwight hatches a half-cocked execution plot that he is hardly capable of properly planning or executing.  Blair’s still, childlike aura lends Dwight a naïve innocence.  He’s in completely over his head, which ratchets up the suspense as well as rendering Dwight an extremely sympathetic character despite his bloodlust.

“Blue Ruin” is directed by Jeremy Saulnier, who is also a cinematographer; and there is a hair-raising merging of art and craft on display in this, only his second feature film. He has an obvious gift for conveying a sweeping, atmospheric sense of place, but Saulnier also drops crushing intimate moments on the audience both small and silent, and thundering and fierce.  He is a savvy enough director to present the violent moments sparingly but with an intensity and volume that is completely at odds with the tone set by the rest of the film; so when they do occur they land with the impact of a hammer to the skull.  Conversely – or similarly, depending on how you want to look at it – there are muted moments of heartbreaking quiet and revelation.

In many ways “Blue Ruin” is one of the best Coen Brothers movies the Coens never made.  Like the best of their celebrated works, this film is intimate and atmospheric, minimalist but with a vast scope and shocking outbursts, steeped in heady moral themes and a growing, suffocating tension, as well as expertly paced and performed.

I can’t say enough about this film, Saulnier’s direction, or Blair’s performance; so I’ll simply say this:  “Blue Ruin” deserves Oscar nominations for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture.  It is the best movie of 2014 so far.

4 Stars (Out of 4)

RAZE / BIG BAD WOLVES / THAT AWKWARD MOMENT / WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE / NEED FOR SPEED / THE RAID 2 / OCULUS / LOCKE

Raze Big Bad Wolveswelcome_to_the_junglehr_That_Awkward_Momentneed for speedThe Raid 2oculuslocke

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By R. David

These are capsule reviews of films viewed after their initial theatrical release.  Theatrical release dates are noted in parenthesis next to each film’s title.  All star ratings are out of four stars.

RAZE (January 10th, 2014) – A bloody hybrid of “Saw” and “The Hunger Games”, “Raze” stars New Zealand-born stuntwoman and frequent Quentin Tarantino collaborator Zoe Bell as one of a group of women kidnapped, held captive in a secluded location, and forced to fight to the death for a bunch of rich weirdoes’ amusement or their loved ones on the outside will be murdered.  The movie is basically one long grudge match, with “So-and-So VS So-and-so” popping up on the screen, those two characters running into a room and brutally fighting to the death, then the next title card pops up, repeat.  Almost perfunctorily, a few plot points are dropped between the mayhem to advance the story (as it were) which really just boils down to the ‘who, how and why’ question hanging over the proceedings.  The answer is hardly worth any audience investment; of course, it isn’t likely that most who sign up for this flick care much about an engrossing narrative.  It’s about the fights, right? How exciting, well-choreographed, and – depending on your penchant for such things – violent are they?  The answer to all three of those criteria is ‘very’.  The throwdowns are fitfully exciting and fairly innovatively staged, and gorehounds will get a few squirm-inducing fatalities.   That said, the film really wears itself down with its repetitive structure, and the finale leaves quite a bit to be desired.  Though, to be fair, for a modern if low budget spin on the “Girls In Cages” genre (no sex here though), “Raze” will keep its target audience invested enough for the duration; and Bell is, as always, an impressive specimen to see in action.  2½ Stars (Out of 4)

BIG BAD WOLVES (January 17th, 2014) – Quentin Tarantino famously called this nasty little Israeli import the best film of last year.  I don’t agree with him, but it’s easy to see why he’s such an admirer.  The film is fearless and challenging, dealing with the ramifications of sexual predators, vengeance and torture.  It’s also unflinchingly violent in all the ways Tarantino seems to relish.  Obviously it’s not for all tastes, and the film is frankly flawed even if you take its heavy themes out of the mix, but there is much here to admire, starting with the coldly determined lead performance from Tzahi Grad as a man convinced he has found his daughter’s rapist/murder (Rotem Keinan) and enlists the help of a police detective (Lior Ashkenazi), whose own daughter has been kidnapped, in exacting his brutal revenge.  The film is an uncomfortable simmer of rage.  Grad is well past the point of the obvious emotions over his daughter’s death and calmly goes about his revenge with the precision of a man tasked with a job to do, which makes the “how far will he go” question hanging over the film all the more gut wrenching.  You know he’s not going to have a sudden change of heart or be convinced to show mercy.  But the film isn’t telling whether Keinan is indeed guilty which makes Grad’s revenge and attitude towards his captive all the more disturbing.  This is all fairly fascinating, but the movie begins to spin its wheels – hammering the same points about justifiable vengeance home again and again – and even with the stakes as high as they are for the suspected murder/pedophile, his plight becomes tedious, something that even the filmmakers must have recognized because they introduce another character late in the film just to keep things interesting and moving along.  The movie is not for the squeamish (hands are hammered, toenails are removed, you’ll have a hard time looking at a blowtorch for a while), but what’s not so clear is if the film is holding a mirror up to its characters’ ugly extremes as commentary, or reveling in them as entertainment.  3 Stars

THAT AWKWARD MOMENT (January 31st, 2014) – Some movies you just don’t want to write about because they are so generic and forgettable it’s hard to muster any passion to sit down and discuss them, never mind come up with an interesting way to describe their tired premise.  So please forgive me if I sound less than engaged here.  Three mid-twenty-something’s are afraid of commitment so they all pledge to stay single (only sex).  Except they all fall in love, but then realize they can’t tell each other.  Lies and their wacky ramifications ensue, rather than the 10 minute conversation that would solve all the problems in real life, naturally.  The movie stars Zach Effron, Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller, all whom have garnered a fair amount of “that kid could really be big” acclaim, but none of whom display any of that potential here.  This movie is a soulless slug through romcom (and bromcom) clichés, which many might expect given the genre or thanks to the trailer (not that expecting the filmmakers to at least try to do something different should automatically be laughed off when it comes to these kinds of comedies), but it is also insultingly stupid to boot.  The characters constantly make the stupidest possible decisions in every conflict, just to score a cheap laugh – or awkward moment, if you will – never mind that it completely insults the audience’s intelligence and renders whatever stakes the movie would have you invest in completely moot.  Everyone has seen this movie at least 20 times already.  1 Star

WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (February 4th, 2014) – “Welcome to the Jungle” is an amusing absurdist hybrid of “Lord of the Flies” and “The Office”, most notable for its (surprisingly good) comedic turn by Jean-Claude Van Damme as an overzealous ex-marine type who runs a motivational survivalist camp on a remote island.  A cast of familiar comic faces (lead by Adam Brody) star as a group of advertising executives who find themselves stranded on the island after their boss (Dennis Haysbert) sends them there for a teamwork and morale-boosting exercise.  And boy does this group need it.  Rob Huebel is the narcissistic, cocky, insecure office hot shot who immediately wants to take charge of the situation, despite his lack of any survival knowledge or experience.  He is so threatened by the more-capable Brody upstaging him with his Boy Scout experience that he eventually divides the group into rival gangs ala “Lord of the Flies”.  The laughs in “Welcome to the Jungle” come not from its sitcomy scenario, but from the game and talented cast and their considerable (and obvious) improve skills.  You may not know actors like Huebel and Kristin Schaal by name, but you’ll likely recognize their faces and their agreeable brand of comedic riffing immediately from their numerous TV show credits and supporting film roles.   “Welcome to the Jungle” wisely lets them run with the scenarios set up in the script, resulting in some hilariously ribald dialog and insult humor.  For his part, Van Damme may not have the natural comedic ease of his costars, but he seems to be enjoying himself as he mocks his badass personality.  He’s so game for the challenge, it’s easy to forgive any stiffness in his performance.  This is one of those comedies where the story and plot are beside the point.  It was clearly made by a group of like-minded comedians as a vehicle for them to slip into the broad character personas they excel at and throw humor at the wall to see what sticks.  “Welcome to the Jungle” is admittedly slight and fairly forgettable, but it’s surprisingly plenty of fun while it lasts.  3 Stars

NEED FOR SPEED (March 14th, 2014) – Another year, another video game-based feature film; this one notable for staring Aaron Paul in first major big screen role after the phenomenon that was “Breaking Bad” wrapped production.  But if Paul wants to be a movie star – and the jury is still out as to if he has those chops (he was terrific on “Bad”, but he has yet to prove he has munch in the way of range) – he might want to consider choosing roles that don’t require him to spend the entire movie glowering like a poor man’s James Dean (I’m guessing the script called for leathery, tough-guy cool, but Paul just looks sleepy and disinterested) and scripts that aren’t riddled with clichéd dialog and situations.  “Need for Speed” would have felt tired even in the 1980s.  Paul is a small-time garage owner by day and drag racer by night who does a prison bit after he is deemed responsible for the racing death of his friend.  The real culprit is Paul’s longtime nemesis, now a professional racer (an also slumming Dominic Cooper). Both men find themselves in a notorious, underground cross-country race overseen by a billionaire puppet master gearhead (Michael Keaton, who after this and that “RoboCop” remake earlier this year can stop taking roles in movies just to prove he is the best thing in them – we get it; you’re awesome; put it to better use).  Paul vows revenge by winning the race, naturally.  He is also saddled with a pretty, pain-in-the-ass passenger (Imogen Poots), a car broker babysitting her investment.  Might they bond or even find themselves attracted to one another?  Guess you’ll just have to watch to find out…  I’m not generally one to get too down on the conventions of the action genre.  Storytelling clichés can be forgiven in service of an absorbing plot, interesting characters, well written dialog and genuinely thrilling action sequences (see “Speed”, for instance).  But “Need for Speed” has almost none of those things.  The plot is predictable, pedestrian and beside the point.  The dialog has no zip or snap to it.  The characters are uninteresting and all nothing more than stock ‘types’.  There is no suspense generated by them or the story, so there is no real reason to care about any of this.  The movie is also wildly overlong.  At 130-plus minutes, they could have cut out at least a half hour of this nonsense.  Worst of all, this movie is completely insulting to the audiences’ intelligence.  I don’t expect a realistic documentary from a movie like “Need for Speed”, but the contempt for real world logic and consequences here really leaves a bad taste.   On the plus side, the car chase stuff is fitfully entertaining; nicely staged and filmed.  If that’s all you care about, you might find some value in “Need for Speed”.  2 Stars

THE RAID 2 (March 28th, 2014) – “The Raid 2” was a big disappointment for me.  I loved, loved, LOVED 2012’s “The Raid:  Redemption”.  It was and still is the best action movie I’d seen in years.  Breathless and invigorating, it was like nothing I’d ever seen.  Literal non-stop action.  The sequel, however, takes a different tactic: more plot than action.  The result not only robs the film of the main thing that made the first film so special and spectacular (that literal non-stop action), but does so in the service of standard-issue police potboiler about rival gangs and the cop obsessed with bringing them down.  Like so many generic action movies, the particulars don’t matter.  The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good, yet the film insists on spending a lot of time on longwinded exposition that really only serves to run down the clock in between action scenes, which are admittedly still spectacular here, but too short and too few.  At two and a half hours long, it’s just not worth it.  “Raid 2” (or more accurately this first film) is yet another reminder that sometimes less is so much more.  2 Stars

OCULUS (April 11th, 2014) – Haunted mirror, y’all!   Yeah, meh.  This silly movie does have some interesting mystery-solving aspects early on, but like nearly every horror movie with potential and restraint at the start these days, “Oculus” quickly devolves into clichés and chaos simply to get the requisite amount of money-shot horror-action in for the ADD crowd.  There are some good ideas buried in this movie, mostly about children coping with unhinged parents.  But IF there is any intended real-world commentary about families, it’s lost in the supernatural muddle and “Oculus” ends up feeling like yet another horror film that utilizes the cheap (and questionable) tactic of placing children in danger simply because it generates sympathetic scares (we all remember what it was like to be young and afraid of the dark; adults with the ability to reason and defend placed in these scenarios never seems to be an easy thing for directors to make terrifying).  This is another one you’ll confuse with the ever-growing multitude of possession and haunted house flicks with no-name casts a few months down the road; if you remember anything about it at all. (Not for nothing, but there was already a killer/possessed mirror movie just a few years ago, remember?  Of course you don’t.)  1 ½ Stars

Locke (April 25th, 2014) – The phrase “it’s more about the journey than the destination”
 gets thrown around a lot in film criticism.  I use it semi-regularly myself to warn audiences against, if you’ll forgive another expression, missing the forest for the trees.  Not every movie is about its outcome; rather, the pleasures are to be found in the nuances along the way:  the dialog, character vignettes, directorial flourishes; the list is endless.  But some movies are literally about the journey and do not concern themselves at all with a traditional narrative conclusion.  “Locke” is such a film.  It stars Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke, a hard-working contactor on the verge of erecting the skyscraper he has tirelessly fought to see to fruition.  On the eve of his company breaking ground, however, he gets into his BMW SUV and begins driving out of town.  ‘Why?’ is the question that consumes the rest of the film, so to say more would be spoilery, but the film is a one-man show with Hardy behind the wheel of his car and on his phone in series of conversations that change the course of his family, his life and his soul.  When he gets to his destination, the movie is over.  No epilogue or postscript; we are just with him for the ride.  What happens after that is anybody’s guess.  This style of filmmaking might prove frustrating for certain audiences.  I won’t soapbox about people needing plot details spoon-fed to them or pat conclusions in order to comprehend or enjoy a movie.  But if you can allow yourself to accept a nontraditionally structured film, there is much to appreciate in “Locke”.  First and foremost is Tom Hardy’s magnetic performance, which is etched in the considerable details of his vocal inclinations and facial expressions.  Arguably, the film is something of stunt, with its construct that might seem better suited to the stage than a feature film.  But writer-director Steven Knight finds plenty of arresting visuals and intimate angles to keep the viewer engaged throughout.  His taunt, complex script is equally compelling.  As much as Hardy is the force that elevates the proceedings from a mere experiment to a transfixing character study, Knight’s script and direction create a fully realized character study rather than a mere gimmick.  “Locke” is not a thrill ride, if that’s what you’re hoping for.  At least not in the traditional sense.  It’s a high wire act for Hardy though, and an important cautionary tale for men, both of which make a “Locke” a riveting journey. 3 Stars

JOE

JOE

By R. David

Viewed April 12, 2014

“Joe” is a film about redemption.  It is found both on-screen and off.   For Nicolas Cage it is a stunning return form for an actor who has too-long traded on his combustible persona at best, or looked sleepy and disinterested phoning in performances in generic material at worst.  He is reinvigorated and firing on all cylinders in this atmospheric and powerful drama from director David Gordon Green who, after helming “The Sitter” and “Your Highness”, could use a little redemption himself.

Their combined commitment and ambition in this adaptation of Larry Brown’s acclaimed novel elevates “Joe’s” relatively familiar narrative and turns it into something truly special.  “Joe” is a hard-boiled Southern drama, so tightly wound you can feel it fraying at the seams.  Like its titular character, the movie is primed to explode.

Cage plays Joe Ransom, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking ex-con who runs a tree-poisoning business.  He is well-liked by his employees, most of whom are alcoholics or ex-cons themselves.  But Joe is the kind of integrity-driven man who endears himself to others.  His employees respect him because he is willing to give them a second chance.  He also offers a fair wage in a community where jobs and hope are scarce. 

Joe hires Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old who says he and his father Wade (Gary Poulter) desperately need work.  He’s eager and excited for the opportunity.  His father is not.  Wade is an old, lumbering and violent alcoholic who would rather steal money than work for it and will viciously beat anyone who gets in his way, including his son.  Joe is always struggling to contain his own violent tendencies which are bubbling ever closer to the surface the more protective he becomes of young Gary, and the more he realizes the danger Wade presents. 

 “Joe” is very much Cage’s show, but Green colors in the margins of Joe’s bonding with Gary and his growing conflict with Wade with a bevy of sublime revelations and colorful supporting characters.  It is the flavor these character developments add that renders “Joe” more than simply another depressed-rural parable.  “Joe” is more about the journey than the destination; and Green peppers the journey with moments of disturbing violence a shocking emotional outbursts..  At its best, his direction and the tone he creates here recall Terrence Malick’s “Badlands”.  But it’s Cage who is most often used as Green’s tool of expression, and whether he is struggling to stay restrained or succumbing to his unhinged emotions, Cage is pure, riveting perfection.  It is a captivating, sympathetic, Oscar-worthy performance (the parallels of an actor who has been so decried over the last two decades for his tendency to go wildly over-the-top playing a character who must force restraint upon himself should go without saying, but not unnoticed).

Though it’s probably not intentional on the script’s part, the Wade character often threatens to shift the focus of the film from the titular character simply because Poulter’s performance is so damn terrifying.  His raw, natural and unforgettable performance is all the more amazing when you discover he was a homeless, bipolar man and “Joe” is his lone film credit.

Unfortunately, that will remain the case as Poulter was found dead in a homeless shelter before the film’s release. 

The only film Gary Poulter will ever be in is also one of 2014’s very best.

4 Stars (Out of 4)

UNDER THE SKIN

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By R. David

Viewed April 11, 2014

I’ll concede that true visionary directors are in short supply these days.  Those daring, inventive auteurs not afraid to go against the grain of what is considered traditionally acceptable in film are often dismissed as pompous, pretentious, or just plain weird; yet audiences overwhelmingly flock to the predictable, familiar, and mediocre time and time again.  So, when a bold, distinctive voice submits a challenging and defiantly original film, I always wrestle with a great deal of regret when I can’t recommend it.  Alas, pompous, pretentious and just plain weird is precisely what Jonathan Glazer’s (“Sexy Beast”) “Under the Skin” is.

A sensory experience rather than a mere narrative, “Under the Skin” means to be haunting and intriguing – and  it is for a while – presenting an alien (Scarlett Johansson) who cruises the streets of Scotland in a cargo van, looking for men who will make suitable candidates to invite back to her abandoned country hobble where she joins them in stripping naked and watching as they dissolve in pool of black goo as they approach her, seemingly hypnotized by whatever spell she wields.  Why is anybody’s guess.  Her motivation is never made clear, nor is her origin or the extent of her powers.  The film is essentially a series of these encounters, augmented by the addition of new characters and settings as the story, such as it is, meanders along. 

Glazer’s intent here is obviously to present these events as some sort of fever dream for the audience to decipher for themselves and take away what they will.  Kudos to any film that doesn’t insist on leading me by the hand to its point.  But there should ultimately be a decipherable point, or at least a satisfying cohesion of themes and ideas, and a conclusion that offers some sort of revelation in lieu of closure.  But “Under the Skin” makes the mistake of so many show-offy indies in which the filmmakers come up with a provocative premise, but either can’t or don’t bother to load it with anything resembling coherence.  The movie is nonsensical and, worse, all too obviously proud of it.  You can feel Glazer reveling in every infuriatingly impenetrable sequence he tosses up on screen without rhyme or reason.  “Under the Skin” is moody and ambitious – haunting even (its droning soundtrack and the ominously languid encounters between Johansson and her victims create some real tension) – but there is no pay off to any of it.  Sequences that have you on the edge of your seat end in frustratingly opaque impasses again and again. 

For instance, there is little variation in the scenes where Johansson prowls for, selects, and ultimately consumes her prey, so why the film spends more than half of its running time repeating these encounters is anyone’s guess (Glazer employs cinema verite style to these sequences, supposedly filing real men on the street without their knowledge – that’s interesting I guess, but is neither here nor there in terms of effective, dramatic storytelling).  Worse yet, in one of these episodes she meets a man with a severely disfigured face, and you’d think the physical difference of her subject would yield some narrative payoff (perhaps a change in her attitude or different reason for her engaging him); alas, this variation in character type yields nothing in terms of narrative variation.  Similarly, there is disturbing sequence on a beach that seems to be accidentally spliced into this movie from a completely different film. 

Again, much of this will be interpreted differently by the individual.  One man’s boring repetition or pointless sequence is another’s in-depth commentary, or perhaps at least their fascinating enigma.  Those who favor style over substance and the bizarre over the intelligible will no doubt be elated with “Under the Skin”.  It is moody and visually stunning to be sure.  The sight of a fully-nude Johansson doesn’t hurt either, though to diminish her performance here by solely focusing on her nudity would be unfair.  It’s a coldly fascinating turn that you don’t fully appreciate until you think back on the film and realize how instrumental it was in pulling you through the muddled story and conveying the few emotions and revelations the film does manage.  But “Under the Skin” ultimately feels like so much ado about nothing.  In the final act, there are character and plot developments that come completely out of left field.  It’s hard to make sense of them, and even harder to care about them. 

“Under the Skin” is an intriguing and sometimes stunning mess.  But it’s a mess just the same.  Its slack pace and pompously artistic air don’t help matters.  Maybe if it had a certain manic energy, or even a consistent tone, it would be easier to appreciate for its visceral thrills alone.  But the movie wants you to ignore its narrative structure despite being frustratingly beholden to it.  The film simply can’t have it both ways.  Despite (or because of) “Under the Skin’s” considerable attributes, the result is unsatisfying and disappointing.

2 Stars (Out of 4)

THE DROP

THEDROP

By C. Merlin

Viewed September 15, 2014

Despite the obvious hype this movie garnered for being the last, posthumous film of the great James Gandolfini (The Sopranos, The Last Castle), it was not the tour de force I was expecting in story, or Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises, Bronson). The Sopranos, debatably, has been the only series that was able to successfully break free of the “Scorsese” style of New York City gangster that had spawned so many re-hash’s of the same type of characters, some good (A Bronx Tale), and some not so good (Pool hall Junkies). So with a good knowledge of Gandolfini’s acting credits, and knowing that he is capable of other types of roles besides a Brooklyn gangster, I went into The Drop wondering if this would be a re-visitation to The Sopranos, or something totally different. I would assume that Gandolfini had no problems finding work after the critcally acclaimed HBO series. I’m sure with his range he had no intention of playing the grizzled crime boss role for the rest of his career. So this could have been considered his first baby step away from that kind character.

Marv is a dark, brooding, and calculating man that manages to stomp through his middle age years with the reputation that he built up in his youth. However his younger self got too caught up in the glory, let his guard down for just a moment and found himself under the thumb of the very one dimensionally written Chechen mafia. While the Marv character contains the depth of a mysterious past, the antagonist Chechen’s appear to have been written as an afterthought to create conflict with Gandolini’s aged, and brooding thug.

Taking up the bulk of the screen time is Bob, Played by Tom Hardy. Bob “just tends bahr” at Cousin Marv’s tavern, which has become a “drop bar” for the Chechen gangsters. A drop bar is a laundering operation where over the course of the night money is dropped off in envelopes and dropped into the safe as if it were revenue from that night’s drink sales. So clearly Bob is competent enough to handle a money laundering operation but when you see him in his day-to-day life you would be surprised he could even press start on a microwave. Throughout the film Hardy’s character comes off as a bit of a simpleton that has seen the Rocky movies one too many times. He delivers the lines slowly and in a monotone that makes him look like he can barely comprehend the situations at hand. At one point he finds a puppy in a garbage can that belongs to Nadia played by Noomi Rapace (“Prometheus”, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”) which sets in motion a side plot involving a psychotic ex-boyfriend, and an excuse for the camera to shoot heart throb Hardy holding a pit bull puppy. Which can only help their box office ticket sales. To make matters worse, the bar gets held up by gunmen which causes the Chechens to strong arm Bob and Marv into getting it back.

Overall I would give The Drop a B grade. While the pacing was slow and the action was few and far between, Gandolfini’s performance is what makes the movie above average. A man who no longer carries the power he once had, and appears that life has both physically and mentally beaten him into submission. It could almost be considered a sad sequel to the fate of Tony Soprano if your interpretation of the final episode was that he lived and started a new life as a bar owner. Although Bob’s lines have you rolling your eyes at some points during the film, his character leaves you giving the thumbs up to Hardy’s performance as well with an ending that I personally did not see coming.

CHEAP THRILLS

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By R. David

April 11, 2014

“Cheap Thrills” is one of those film titles – and to be sure, films – that challenge the audience to watch.  An enter-at-you-own-risk warning that is also titillating enough to temp the skeptical (the words “cheap” and “trills” in almost any context tend to pique interest), the film is as hard to resist and turn away from as its title.  A horror movie parable for the recession era in which we live, “Cheap Thrills” asks how far you would go to make some easy money. 

The basic premise has been tackled before.  A jobless new father (Pat Healy), on the verge of eviction, reunites with his troublemaker high school buddy (a buff, bearded, and otherwise unrecognizable Ethan Embry) who gets them both mixed up with a thrill-seeking rich couple (David Koechner and Sara Pxton) willing to pay the two men increasingly exorbitant sums of cash if they compete in a series of dares for the couples’ amassment.  Naturally, these challenges quickly cross the line from the banal to the dangerous to the sinister  The movie is cagey about the couples’ motivations for all this.  I’m not sure they are ever really explained, but I’m also pretty sure they are beside the point.  They have too much money, too many drugs and far too much hubris to worry about the ramifications of their boredom-curing games on real peoples’ lives.  Conversely, Healy and Embry are too desperate, too greedy and too angry (at each other, and the hand they have been dealt in life) to know when to quit. 

The screenplay by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga is a bit deeper and smarter than the exploitation-style premise makes this all sound.  “Cheap Thrills” deals in ruminations and ramifications as well as uneasy suspense and queasy, primal violence.  In one of the film’s best tactics, Koechner’s character – though appropriately slimy and manipulative – is not only a convincing and agreeably laidback huckster, but the two men are never held hostage by him or at his mercy.  That they could leave any time they’d like, yet stay even as events spiral out of control speaks volumes about their desperation and temptation; and that is “Cheap Thrills’” biggest accomplishment.  A lesser film would have left its protagonists shackled (literally and figuratively) against their will at the whim of some obvious mad man and mistakenly place all of its potential thrills in their struggle to escape or survive. “Cheap Thrills” makes the case that we – and or our demons – are our own worst enemies. 

And while this may all sound fairly heavy, “Cheap Thrills”, directed by E.L. Katz, never forgets to maintain the air of tacky, tawdry fun its title implies.  It’s a pitch black comedy with genre-horror overtones that also just so happens have some cerebral insight shining through its twisted premise.  The performances by all four leads hit just the right notes, with Koechner and Embry (both winning supporting players for many years now) relishing in their characters’ smarmy nature.

Unfortunately, there’s a bit of déjà vu running through “Cheap Thrills” as this basic premise has been exercised plenty in the past; as recently as last year’s “Would You Rather”.  But almost all of those films inevitably fell victim to the aforementioned lazy horror flick tropes that “Cheap Thrills” so deftly avoids.  It may not be a true original – and it’s certainly not for all tastes (it’s not “Hostel”-level torture porn, but the squeamish need not apply) – but thanks to its clever, insightful script, and exceptional performances, “Cheap Thrills” is an engrossing bit of nasty business just the same.

3 Stars (Out of 4)