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

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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)

NYMPHOMANIAC

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By R. David

Viewed April 9, 2014

Taken as one piece, Lars Von Trier’s two “Nymphomaniac” films – “Volume 1” and “Volume 2”, which I am reviewing together as its intended whole – is a difficult movie to review.  Fitting, I suppose since Von Trier as a director who delights in polarizing audiences.  His films are almost always incendiary and controversial.  Critically speaking, this is what makes them exciting.  You want filmmakers to be bold, unapologetic and challenge genre conventions.  However, ideally they will also find ways to engage their audience rather than alienate them, and win-over skeptics rather than be content to simply speak to their cult fan base each time out.  Von Trier lacks nothing where gusto is concerned, but he seems either frustratingly unwilling or unable to break his own, now-obvious mold. 

“Nymphomaniac” is a perfect example of this dichotomy.  On one hand, it’s fascinating.  The film is by turns funny and brutal, sympathetic and disturbing.  It’s that blending of emotional responses which are at tonal odds that that lends the film a complex and compelling narrative structure.  The film is essentially a series of flashbacks recounting the sexual exploits of a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Von Trier’s go-to lead actress).  She is found beaten in an alley by a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) who comes to her rescue.  Joe claims it is her insatiable sexual appetite that has led her to this place.  She tells Seligman her story, explaining she has been obsessed with sex nearly all of her life.  We see her as a curious little girl, a precocious teen, her earliest sexual experiences, including the disappointments and abuse that shape her understanding of what sex is.  There isn’t much shared about her upbringing or home life, other than the fact that she loved her father (played by Christian Slater) and resented her brash mother (Connie Nielsen), but her sexual awareness and eventual preoccupation stems from such a young age and seemingly organic place, Von Trier clearly means to make no excuse for her nymphomania.  It just simply is.  As a teen Joe is played with just the right amount of aloofness by Stacy Martin, who seems to only come truly alive during her sexual encounters.  Point taken.  It is as a young adult when she first meets the closest thing she ever has to a true love in Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), whom she later marries and has a child with; but her sexual addiction always threatens to derail everything good in her life.  We see her lose jobs, ruin marriages, break hearts, attempt treatment; it’s all for naught.  Von Trier drives home the point that nymphomania is an addiction or neurological disorder like any other, unable to be easily stifled.

Most of this makes up the first half of “Nymphomaniac” (“Volume 1”).  It is in the second half where any levity Von Trier was allowing is stifled and we move on to the true dark side of Joe’s obsession.  Like an addict always trying to get higher, she moves on to punishing kink to feed her addiction, and the toll her unquenchable sexual appetite has taken on her personal life leads her to crime, cruelty and murder.  It is also in the film’s second half where Von Trier shows his full hand and reveals “Nymphomaniac” to be as much a commentary on sexual politics and gender roles as a singular character study.  As Joe recounts her exploits to Seligman, she begins to question if her life would be in such dire straits if she were a man with the same urges (though Von Trier doesn’t exactly portray any of the sex-obsessed man she meets as any happier or healthier).

Saying all this, I realize how ambitious and interesting “Nymphomaniac” sounds.  And, indeed, it is both of those things.  But it is also obvious, ponderous and – this might go without saying – overlong.  As no doubt intended, the film’s sex is almost never sexy, but rather almost always uncomfortable, ranging from merely awkward to downright ugly to terrifying.  Anyone watching this film for titillation purposes probably deserves to be shocked and appalled, but Von Trier seems almost perversely eager to disgust.  The actors range from shrill and over the top (Uma Thurman as the jilted wife of one of Joe’s conquests), laughably earnest (LaBeouf), or frustratingly opaque (almost everyone else).  The movie almost doesn’t feel like it takes place in the real world, or at least not present day.  At times I forgot I was watching a contemporary film and assumed I was watching a period piece and would catch myself thinking, “maybe things were different ‘back then’”.  The world Joe lives in and the people she interacts with feel similarly inorganic.  Nothing about this movie, the locations, or the characters feels the least bit organic or indicative of the 21st century.  The film and the performances all have this aloof, alternate reality vibe that makes it hard to fully invest in or identify with Joe and her plight.  Maybe some of this has to do with the film’s budget, maybe it’s intentional on Von Trier’s part; but only Gainsbourg is convincing as a complex, emotional being.  Everyone and everything else seems to just kind of orbit around her in some alternate reality.

I’m sure there’s someone out there ready to argue with me that that was the point and Von Trier’s intent.  Perhaps.  But that wouldn’t make this exercise any more coherent or, frankly, necessary.  This is one of those movies (or two movies) where you look back after nearly four hours and realize you aren’t coming away with anything more than when you went in, and certainly nothing that couldn’t have been covered in half the time.

As it is, Von Trier’s thesis is strong and his ideas are ambitious.  And Gainsbourg’s bravery and contributions to this project can’t be overstated.  But “Nymphomaniac” never grabs the viewer the way it should; and worse yet, fails to justify putting audiences through four hours of sexual cruelty and awful behavior.  The perverse notion that Von Trier is smirking proudly at that doesn’t help either.

2 Stars (Out of 4)

ENEMY

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By R. David

Viewed April 9th, 2014

Revered in some circles, but met with “WTF” disdain in others, “Enemy”  is the strange arthouse thriller director Denis Villaneuve and star Jake Gyllenhaal made just before the two paired-up for last year’s excellent kidnap drama “Prisoners”.  Full disclosure right at the top: I’m in the later camp.  Not because “Enemy” is nontraditional, strange, or a complete mindfuck – no, I enjoy all of those things in a movie.  But like any other genre of  film, those things all need to be done right.  There has to be a point, and all the weirdness should be in service of a narrative that holds up under scrutiny or offers audiences something to hang it all on.  Otherwise it’s just a façade.  A sheep in wolf’s clothing.  Something purporting to be so much more than it is – than it needs to explain – but not having a clue what all that is.  No, a movie isn’t bad simply because it is different, weird or doesn’t provide the audience with answers.  But it is not automatically good because of any of those things either.

Things start off intriguingly enough in “Enemy”, with Jake Gyllenhaal’s dour college professor discovering a bit-part actor in a movie who looks exactly like him.  He seeks the actor out, and sure enough, the guy is his total doppelganger.  They even have identical voices and scars.  Creepy for sure.  Things only get more sordid when both men begin trying destroying each other’s romantic lives, with actor Gyllenhaal setting his sights on teacher Gyllenhaal’ s girlfriend, and the teacher returning the favor by get close to the actor’s wife. 

But what the hell’s going on here?  Good question.

Right off the bat, teacher Gyllenhaal is so morose and actor Gyllenhaal seems so inherently fiendish that there is never a moment of true wonderment between the two men.  Sure they seem super creeped-out by what they have just discovered, but the teacher seems to use it as an excuse to slip further into depressed obsessiveness, and the actor goes off the deep end so quickly, you’re left to wonder if the film is trying to convey he’s always been the nasty sort or if this whole situation has brought something out of him he never knew was there.

It’s one of “Enemy’s” fatal flaws that it either has no interest in exploring these things, or it is simply too concerned with keeping up this front of the mysterious, figure-it-out-yourself mind-bender that it purposely omits any character introspection.  Similarly, the film – and the characters – is almost defiantly humorless about this situation.  There isn’t one moment where the two men share a smile or joke about this situation.  They become adversaries the minute they discover the other exists.  Why, we are only left to ponder and assume.  Is the idea that they are both so screwed up discovering something like this just drives them deeper into their own psychosis?  Do two of these guys even exist, or is the one just a figment of the other’s screwed-up mind?  Things happen in the film where each man interacts with people in the other man’s life, suggesting they both indeed exist, but movies like this always conclude  with that pivotal scene explaining how, “you know all that stuff you thought proved they couldn’t be the same person?  You’re wrong!”

Not “Enemy” though.  It isn’t telling.  But don’t think that means it skips the “gotcha!” ending.  Oh no.  It’s present and accounted for; but like everything else here, it makes no sense and explains absolutely nothing… Or maybe it explains everything.  Who knows?  There are theories out there, and of course the filmmakers have taken the tactic of “it’s up for interpretation, can mean something different to everyone”.  Gee, thanks.  Again, I don’t need or even want everything explained to me in a movie – especially trippy little thrillers like this.  But I need to be able to follow it to the degree that I feel like I have an investment in the characters, their motivations and the consequences of their actions and not feel as though I’m just watching some pretentious director’s abstract jerk-off fest.

You don’t have to completely understand a film to enjoy it.  Plenty of movies are bizarre or frustratingly impenetrable, but the difference is the good ones offer up fascinating scenarios and characters, or they throw the audience enough of bone as to at the very least bring them into the story.  “Enemy” has none of this.  It’s dank to look at, unpleasant to watch, has a story that constantly keeps the viewer at arm’s length, despite a set-up that will have most wanting to follow it, which is even more perverse in a sense. The movie forces you to fight to get close to it and offers no reward for the trouble, unless you consider a haunting sight gag proper pay off for your investment.  Slugging through “Enemy”, trust me, it’s not.

1 Star (Out of 4)

THE GRAND PIANO

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By R. David

Viewed April 5th, 2014

Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is a world-renowned concert pianist who found himself disgraced when he attempted to play the “the most difficult piano piece in the world”, “La Cinquette”, written by his late mentor, Patrick Godureaux, and failed humiliatingly.  Five years later, he has been lured out of self-imposed exile to perform a tribute concert for Godureaux. 

Selznick is already a nervous wreck – despite his obvious staggering talent at the keyboard and the unwavering support of his beautiful movie-star wife (Kerry Bishé) – when, a few notes into his performance, he turns the page of his sheet music to reveal a note scrawled in red ink: “PLAY ONE WRONG NOTE AND YOU DIE!”  The red dot of a laser sight on his chest lets him know this is not a joke.  Via an earpiece stashed at the piano, Selznick is able to communicate with his assailant who informs him he wants him to not only play a flawless concert, but again attempt “La Cinquette” – this time with no mistakes – or he and his wife will be killed.

The fun of movies like “Grand Piano” is two-fold.  Done correctly, these films should be a guessing for the audience as to who the villain is and what their motivations might be.  Could this be someone going to great extremes to restore his Selznick’s confidence?  Could it be Godureaux, not actually dead, attempting to do the same; or worse yet punish him for botching his works?  A jaded fan?  Or is it all in his head?  Secondly, these thrillers also live and die by how cleverly the protagonist finds these answers and navigates his predicament.  Trapping the hero at a piano in front a hundred-plus observers gives Selznick little wiggle room and ups the suspense considerably.

Unfortunately, “Grand Piano” is lax on both fronts.  There is more than one moment where Selznick leaves his piano.  Presumably these are points in the piece where he is not required to play, but more than one of these instances feels like a cheat on the part of the filmmakers because they know it is almost impossible to have their protagonist discover/accomplish much from a piano bench (fair enough, but don’t make that movie then), never mind the fact that allowing it undermines the authority and threat of the bad guy.  And when the would-be killer’s identity and motivations are revealed, they are far less interesting than what most audience members have already likely concocted in their own minds.

Director Eugenio Mira demonstrates considerable skill at creating atmosphere, deftly building tension and generating action and suspense where there otherwise isn’t any.  Credit for this must go to Wood as well.  Feverishly banging away on his keyboard, looking like a convincing concert pianist while still maintaining and convey an air of dread and concern to the audience; it’s another impressive, all-in performance from this underrated actor. 

But ultimately, “Grand Piano” just doesn’t have enough up its sleeve to reward those who might get caught up in its “’Speed’ On a Piano!” concept.  It’s as if everyone involved was so taken by the hook that no one bothered to question the legitimacy of the script or make any effort to punch it up where needed.  In addition to his clearly talented eye, Mira is also smart enough to keep the film rolling briskly along, wrapping things up in just over 80 minutes.  It’s hard to hate a tight, stylish little thriller with good performances and a bravura concept.  But this is another case where the laziness of the script and lack of any truly original inspiration sabotages the film’s quality elements.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

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By R. David

Viewed April, 4 2014

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a major disappointment.  Not only has it garnered rather exceptional notices from critics, but I thought the first “Captain America” film, while not without its flaws, had a refreshingly old fashioned matinee-style energy and Indiana Jones-esque spirit.  If only it could have been a bit less silly and attempt to avoid the tired conventions of the typical Marvel film, I complained.

Well, be careful what you wish for, I guess, because “Winter Soldier” spends so much time trying to convince the audience it is more than a mere comic book film – rather a complex and serious mystery; a James Bond-style action film with something topical to say about the state of the world in which we live, rather than the rabble-rousing cinematic throwback that the first film aspired to be – it loses any sense of fun in the bargain.

Directors (and brothers) Joe and Anthony Russo, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, deserve kudos for their ambitious attempt to present a grounded superhero film as opposed to the usual outlandish offerings that populate the Marvel stable (“Thor”, “Spider-Man”, etc.).  But the fact remains that “Winter Soldier” is only “grounded” in its plotting.  The action sequences and convoluted character tie-in agenda is pure, generic Marvel .  The studio is simply far too invested in the universal appeal of these films and characters to allow any director to really go for broke.  At least while they are still raking in billions of dollars at the box office each year, that is.  Thus, the filmmakers can’t attempt anything nearly as radical and realistically complex as say, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films.  So instead we get an awkward compromise:  a movie with all the usual outlandish, comic book FX sequences clumsily blended with a dreary, overly complex and intrusive story that strives to give the film weight, but instead renders it nothing but tedious.

For a while though things are looking up.  Chris Evens reveals he hasn’t lost a step as Steve Rogers/“Cap”, who is still trying to assimilate into 2014 America after being cryogenically frozen since WWII.  The script gets some solid mileage (and chuckles) from his naiveté and lack of pop culture awareness, but these simple pleasures are constantly overshadowed by the film’s outrageous action sequences (from the generic shoot-out opening, to the silly and exhausting finale – only a SUV chase around the nation’s capital raises an excitement).  And the freewheeling spirit of the original film is only captured in fleetingly brief asides (Cap dispatching an elevator full of thugs).  The rest of the film hinges on lots of plot exposition courtesy of Robert Redford as a SHIELD higher-up spearheading a suspicious satellite ant-terrorism project and various supporting cast members who pop up and spout some inane revelatory dialog simply to tell the audience what’s going on and move the story along to the next beat. 

Oh, and about the story; it’s preposterous.  Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) sends Cap and Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), to free a bunch of SHIELD hostages, but Cap discovers mid-mission Romanoff has a secret agenda that involves extracting data for Fury.  Furious, Cap confronts Fury (see what I did there?) who informs Cap about Project Insight, the aforementioned spy satellite program designed to preemptively neutralize foreign threats (if you’re worried that there might be a none-too-subtle commentary on real life military policies afoot, you should be).

But who’s this titular Winter Soldier, you ask?  Well, he kidnaps and presumably executes Fury over the data Romanoff secured.  Cap digs into WS’ true identity and discovers they may be old acquaintances from Rogers’ WWII, HYDRA-battling heyday.

That’s enough plot, you say?  Oh no, no, dear reader.  It keeps going.  There are supercomputers containing this and that discovered.  Romanoff isn’t even Cap’s intended partner in this movie.  There’s a whole other parallel arc with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) as Caps partner and best friend and his “Falcon” wingpack (I wonder if he’ll spend about 20 minutes of the finale showing that thing off?).  Data-mining algorithms are discovered and created, data bases and classified information are jeopardized, double-crosses ensue and moles are revealed.  Ships collide.   Stuff happens at the Potomac River.  A HYDRA test facility is discovered.  There’s WikiLeaks paranoia parallels, Guantanamo parallels, talk of telekinesis…  This movie is completely exhausting.  And if the unnecessarily overstuffed plot wasn’t enough, the action sequences are just as bludgeoning.  They all go the generic and obnoxious shaky-cam route; except for the finale, which is standard-issue Marvel CGI everything. 

There are plenty of good things in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”.  As stated, Evan’s finds just the right appealing tone for Cap; and he is surrounded by good performers, particularly Jackson and Redford who are both ideally cast and each seem to be relishing their respective roles (though Jackson can by now play this part in his sleep, he’s still always fun to have around).  And I do admire the filmmakers’ attempts to ground these characters in a real-world espionage potboiler.  The Russo brothers’ directing style suggests a “Bourne” film, while Marcus and McFeely’s script aspires to be a later day kin to 1970s conspiracy thrillers like “Three Days of the Condor” or “The Jackal”.  They even took care to make Cap’s suit more real-life military-esque, and whenever possible the script eschews the heroes’ monikers (Johansson is rarely referred to as Black Widow).  All good stuff.

But the movie just isn’t as complex or interesting as it thinks it is, and it has no idea when to quit – both where the plot and the action sequences are concerned.  It’s all too much – and ultimately, it’s all much ado about nothing.

2 Stars (Out of 4)

BAD WORDS

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By R. David

Viewed March 29, 2014

“Bad Words” is the equivalent of cinematic comfort food.  While guilty pleasures tend to be  films more of the “so bad it’s good” variety – movies that have a winking or knowing idea of their own limitations – films of the comfort food variety are generally familiar, safe and predictable efforts, lodged firmly in their genre wheelhouses.  They aren’t lazy, per se.  Many of these films have a sincere attitude towards their story and characters, and the best ones attempt to color in the margins of their tried and true formula with a few colorful ideas.  Rather than delighting in their limitations or exploiting them for laughs like their guilty pleasure counterparts, the best of these comfort food films try to bring some distinct flavor and originality to the table.

As a fairly predictable genre exercise with its own distinctive energy and tone, “Bad Words” is a success.  Not a total black comedy, but certainly darker than the usual mainstream Hollywood comedy, “Bad Words” doesn’t break any molds or buck genre conventions, but it delights in going through the usual motions with an attitude that’s all its own (similar to other films in this recent, semi-cottage industry of comedies with “Bad” in their title – “Bad Santa”, “Bad Teacher”, etc.).  As a result, the audience always feels a bit off kilter; unsure of how the story will play out, even if the film is technically marching headlong from beat to formulaic beat.

“Bad Words’” ace in the hole is Jason Bateman, making his feature film directorial debut here, as well as staring as 40-year-old Guy Trilby, a hapless and unapologetically misanthropic warranty proof-reader who makes it his life mission to compete against pre-teens in national spelling bees.  You see, Guy never graduated 8th grade, which allows him to exploit a loophole in the contest rules, making his entrance in the competitions fair and legal, much to the disgust (and – in many cases – the outright violent hatred) of the juvenile contestants’ parents.  It doesn’t help that Guy is nothing short of a savant in his command of the English language, easily and humiliatingly obliterating his young competition and never missing an opportunity to add insult to injury by hurtfully mocking each kid he defeats.  The film is purposely cagey about Guy’s motives for all this.  Does he do it for the prize money?  Does he do it to prove to himself and others that he is indeed a smart guy despite never making it past 8th grade?  Or is he simply a damaged individual who delights in destroying the hopes and dreams of others? 

Bateman’s directorial style – an unpolished, tossed-off approach – isn’t much to look at, but it does give the film a dank, hostile edge in keeping with its attitude.  Andrew Dodge’s screenplay is light on originality and surprises where plotting and storytelling are concerned, but that feels almost intentional as his true intent here seems to be discovering how unconventionally he can be in play with genre conventions.  His script also feels tailor made for Bateman and more concerned with giving the star vehicle in which to play to his strengths.  The venerable, likable sitcom star has always had subversive sarcastic streak and “Bad Words” is a perfect thematic showcase for his talents, allowing him to lob biting observations, insults and one-liners like Molotov cocktails.  The film is at its best when it just lets Batman off his chain to do what he does best.  Unfortunately, a story must intervene.  Dodge does what he can to keep the more predictable aspects of the genre interesting, though.  The always winning Kathryn Hahn plays a reporter following Guy’s story as well as his perspective love interest, and young Rohan Chand is charged with playing Batman’s foil – a polite, naïve, wide-eyed 10-year-old spelling wiz – no easy task for any actor, never mind one as young and inexperienced as Chand, but he is a truly delightful performer and he and Batman have an easy and infectious on-screen chemistry.  Again, “Bad Words” doesn’t exactly take chances where either of these supporting characters’ subplots are concerned; but true to the film as a whole, it’s the little nontraditional tweaks Douglas and Bateman add to the proceedings that keep the audience entertained despite trolling familiar ground.

“Bad Words” is a bit to slight and traditional to get really excited about.  But it has a pleasingly relaxed and matter-of-fact style and attitude that makes it hard to resist.  It also offers a bevy of outrageous laughs, and terrific performances across the board, particularly for the three aforementioned principal players.  It’s a solid foundation for Batman to build what will hopefully be an interesting and varied filmmaking career upon.

3 Stars (Out of 4)