Saturday, July 19, 2014

THE PURGE:ANARCHY Review: 8 out of 10 (Subversive Dystopian Social Commentary)

In 2013, I said of the first film THE PURGE that it didn't really go far enough with some of its ideas of social commentary.  However, if you accept the premise of the film--it works as a good matinee.  (Read my full review HERE)

THE PURGE: ANARCHY works to take its original premise and moves away from the home invasion sub-genre and broadens itself to a cityscape.  Along with that, the movie works to leverage so much of the ideas of social justice issues that the first film only hinted at.  As a result, this film feels very much like a dystopian project that John Carpenter might have made 30 years ago.  Yes, its that good. James DeMonaco returns here to write and direct the sequel.

Frank Grillo stars as Sergeant Leo Barnes, one of five different protagonists that are trying to live through the 12 hour "PURGE" of a new America where all crime--including murder is allowed.  Barnes has his own mysterious reasons for being out on such a hellacious evening by choice.  The other victims are there by terrible fate.  One couple is trapped on the streets after a pre-purging gang sabotages their car--leaving them as victims on the streets.  Another mother and daughter are kidnapped from their apartment in the projects by a mysterious group of armed militia.  When Barnes crosses paths and decides to save the other four, it becomes a game of survival for them all.  This is easily Grillo's best work to date--and may propel him further as an action star.  But it is the ideas behind this "New America" that make the film itself far more compelling. 

Television programs advertise that thanks to the Annual Purge legislated by the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) both unemployment and poverty are at record lows while prosperity continues to increase.  What subversive ideas the film has at its center is the truth behind this yearly crime spree. The reality is that these improvements in economic statistics are not because of the psychological healing that results from ordinary citizens cleansing their negative emotions by becoming violent for 12 hours per year.  Rather, it is due to highly trained and heavily armed secret government paramilitary death squads using the chaos of the Annual Purge to systematically kill a certain percentage of the nation's poor and thereby reducing the population of "have not's."  Some upper class elites also hire gangs to kidnap and deliver ordinary citizens to their mansions, where they auction the victims to the highest bidders who kill them in the safety of the gardens inside the compound.  Others offer high fees to dying family members to be killed by the super rich as a sort of Purge/assisted suicide.  In the middle of all of this lies a violent social justice militia, an emerging group of resistance fighters who challenge the Annual Purge and take action to counter these injustices.

This nation's love of guns, skewed view of justice, and the continued challenges of income inequality are all here in this dystopian Americana.  THE PURGE: ANARCHY is willing to consider them through the lens of an above average thriller--but leaves the viewer asking themselves: what would you do for those 12 hours of an annual Purge?  Compelling, thrilling, with some subversive ideas about the outliers of our society.  Recommended. 


Friday, July 18, 2014

SEX TAPE Review: 4 out of 10 ( A Flaccid Comedy that doesn't Measure Up)

Another comedy about really, REALLY stupid people. 

This is starting to wear thin.

SEX TAPE is the latest "comedy" directed by Jake Kasdan and stars Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel, Rob Corddry, Ellie Kemper and Rob Lowe.  It is a film that lays out the entire essence of the plot in its movie trailer, and I would say if you have seen *that* you have essentially seen this movie.  Save your cash.  Diaz and Segel play Jay and Annie--a 30 something couple whose sex life has suffered due to kids, busy schedules, and work.  Annie is a blogger and Jay works in the music industry, somehow (?) that isn't really explained.  However, based on their house, cars, and single income, Jay clearly is doing very well for himself.  He is in constant use of IPads and the film opens with him purchasing 3 at a time.  He swaps out music playlists and trades them out like socks.  The older ones he just gives away to friends.

Yeah--this guy is doing *really* well if he just hands out $600 IPads to his buddies.  However, apparently he doesn't wipe them clean--but leaves his music and playlists all over them as part of the "gift." I bet Apple would have something to say about that.  It is this sort of nakedly unbelievable contrivance that sets this entire film into motion.  A guy that gives away IPads to friends but leaves his own personal information on them; who works in the music industry making big money buying IPads three at a time, but apparently knows nothing about sync technology.  And even though his express purpose for giving these tablets to friends is to share music... he doesn't think that a sex video with his wife might also be there on file to be shared.

My eyes rolled so far back during this movie I could see the people behind me in the theater.

Why not create a premise where the sex tape is actually leaked world wide and the couple has to deal with the shame?  Why not actually explore why a couple's sex life suffers with family, busy schedules, and life's interruptions?  Or-- if you are going to take an easy route with more than a few terribly over-written plot contrivances, why not go for broke and make a smutty, raunchy, subversive sex romp?

Nope.  What is here instead is a 90 minute movie about "one crazy night" where Jay and Annie race around trying to get all the IPads back... later to realize they could have just erased them remotely.  DUH.  When the video is threatened to go viral, they take their young kids with them in the middle of the night (really?) to break into the warehouses of YouPorn to destroy their servers.  It is here that a cameo appearance offers the film's most interesting character who gives the couple his own brand of porn king wisdom.  They should have made a movie about *that* guy.

There is very little to like here and Diaz and Segel have nearly nothing to work with.  Corddry and Kemper have a nice turn as the best friends who join them on their quest to collect all the tablets, and Rob Lowe has yet another turn in a comedy where he is just a really odd dude who commissions paintings of himself added to scenes from Disney films.  Strange and random, but funny.  There are some laughs to be found when these other characters are on screen--as well as the unnamed executive of the porn site who confronts the couple at the film's climax.  However, these tangential characters are far more interesting than Jay or Annie.  SEX TAPE is the exact opposite of what it thinks itself to be.  Just don't be one of those taking a walk of shame to your car after having spent money on a ticket.

PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE Review: 5 out of 10 (Enough spark for the kiddos)

PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE is the latest animated feature from Disney Animation Studios.  The movie is a sequel to a spinoff—with the original PLANES released just last year, being a spinoff of Pixar CARS franchise.  Honestly it seems as if Disney is stretching the animated “vehicle” vehicle a bit thin.  Being that this film was originally scheduled as a direct to DVD/VOD release, the decision to move to a theatrical release seems to work as a cash grab.  However, with the dearth of family film options in the Summer of 2014, it is hard to argue with their logic.  That is until 2015 brings us BOATS: COAST GUARD.  I am kidding.  (I hope)

Comedian (?) Dane Cook returns here as the voice talent for Dusty Crophopper—a world champion racing plane.  However, it seems his racing has caught up with him—and a faulty gearbox is keeping him from pushing the speed envelope.  However, after a fire accident happens at the local airfield, Dusty volunteers to train as a SEAT plane—to aid with fire and rescue in his home town.  Dusty leaves to train with a veteran rescue helicopter named Blade Ranger and voiced by Ed Harris.  He works in what appears to be a lodge up in an animated fictional Yellowstone National Park.  We are introduced to an entirely new cast of animated vehicles, including Wes Studi voicing a Native American helicopter, several overly cute all-terrain vehicles, and other SEAT planes who drop all that flame retardant on forest fires.  Of course—FIRE happens.  When it does, Dusty has to face his own fears, push the envelope of his own failing parts, and help save the vacationers, the lodge, and the whole forest!

It sounds better than it is.

But PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE does have a few things going for it.  Most of those things going for it appeal to a targeted market of 3-8 year olds.  But I have to admit, when one lightning fire cropped up so all our new rescue friends could go fight it… and AC/DC’s Thunderstruck hit—I did crack a smile.  The rest of the film is cute enough for the crowd and will probably sell the intended number of corresponding toys, backpacks, and T-shirts.   It certainly is no animated classic.  In fact, it feels very much like what it was intended to be—a formulaic sequel.  But there is some cuteness, a bit of peril, and the animation of the forest vistas does offer some eye candy.  PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE is probably enough of a stop gap of a movie to fill the square until the next, likely better, family film arises.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

AND SO IT GOES Review: 3 out of 10 ( the actors in the film)

It is clear to me now that around 1996, just after GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI... Rob Reiner gave up.  You might could say he sold out--since some of his films have continued to make money.  However, the director who brought us THIS IS SPINAL TAP, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, STAND BY ME, MISERY, and FOR A FEW GOOD MEN, as well as the aforementioned commentary on American civil rights is now a shadow of his former self.  With audience pleasing pabulum like RUMOR HAS IT and THE BUCKET LIST, Reiner continues a streak of uninteresting and forgettable cinematic vanilla with AND SO IT GOES.  Actually, that is offense to vanilla--which actually is a flavor.  Instead, this film is more like a Knox Gelatin of unflavored forgettableness. The film stars Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton and Sterling Jerins who essentially are playing themselves in a movie you wouldn't be that interested in if it were playing on the Lifetime network while you were folding laundry.  Keaton is Leah, a widow who is grieving one minute and all smiles the next.  She is a lounge singer(?!?) who apparently likes to wear hats, and runs around in that Keaton-esque style of manic quirkiness unable to finish her own sentences.  Meanwhile Douglas plays Oren--a widower who is grumpy, acts like a ladies' man, and generally comes across as a pompous jerk.  If only he could be the character from SOLITARY MAN here--this film would really have something.  Instead, Douglas is just limp... worn out.  These two live next to each other--and absolutely grate on each other's nerves.  In a fairly large contrivance of his son's own drug abuse and prison sentence, Oren's granddaughter Sarah (Sterling Jerins) is dropped off on his doorstep to live with him.  A 10 year old actress playing a 10 year old that invades a grumpy old man's life--along with his lonely pining widow next-door neighbor.

You see where this is going?

Yeah... so does EVERYONE.

Look, AND SO IT GOES is harmless.  But it also isn't interesting.  It is a movie that feels like you have seen it before, because you have.  Though Douglas' own real life dealings with his son and his addiction problems might seem to hit too close to home, there is very little here that this film does to leverage that intensity.  Instead, the film is full of Diane Keaton singing to octogenarians in what appears to be a Sizzler, while Douglas complains and tries to sell a frown through his most recent facelift.  There is even a chance for the film to offer some really interesting ideas about sexual intimacy between older, grieving adults that might have turned this movie into something original.  Alas, it is a few scenes played off for laughs, even though the situation isn't altogether that funny.  In fact, I am not even sure what genre this movie would be.  It isn't a comedy--there isn't any laughs.  It isn't a drama--because the movie never gains any momentum.  There is no build, no climax, no narrative structure.  Is it a romance?  It could have been, but barely tries to touch on what could have been a very interesting idea of older adults exploring new love.

AND SO IT GOES is, instead, an apt title that describes more of the same from director Rob Reiner.  Just a film that operates on a sort of perpetual motion.  No fuel to drive it, no sizzle, no drama, no moments of tenderness.  Just a tired film with tired actors with absolutely nothing to do on screen.      

Saturday, July 12, 2014

BEGIN AGAIN Review: 8 out of 10 (ONCE again...a great musical)

BEGIN AGAIN is the latest dramatic musical written and directed by John Carney-- writer and director of 2007's indie hit ONCE.  The film stars Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, and Maroon 5's Adam Levine in his acting début.  The film tells the story of Dan (Mark Ruffalo) who is a disgraced, down and out record label executive who is struggling to find his next break out star.  He deals with a difficult relationship with his estranged wife and teenage daughter--played by Hailee Steinfeld.  Keira Knightly plays Greta--a singer/songwriter who has been in a long term relationship with rising music star Dave Kohl--played effectively by Adam Levine.  Together, the two have been a music powerhouse--débuting Dave's music in recent movies and planning an upcoming album and world tour.  However, when the relationship goes sour (as all rock star's love life stories do) Greta is left alone in New York, sulking in her friend Steve's apartment--another local struggling musician.

On an open mic night, Greta accompanies Steve to a local club and ends up performing one of her songs in front of a desperate, drunken Dan--who sees in her the next big star.  Together, the two begin to create a fresh new sound, heal their lives, and, as the film title suggests... start over.  Like ONCE, director Carney steals a bit from his own previous inspiration of two musicians crossing paths to improve their lives and create music together.  However, there is a lot of fresh material here to enjoy.  It truly is a musical--but one that happens naturally--as the songs of the film come from moments of an artist's inspiration, are performed in a studio, or even up on a stage.  Rather than most musicals where people inexplicably break into song for no apparent reason--this is a movie about musicians who both write and perform, so all the numbers feel very organic.  And the music is really good.  Carney pulled in Glen Hansard (ONCE) to write some tracks, and of course Adam Levine does a great job here, both with the music and the acting.  Not that playing a rock star is a huge stretch for Levine, but he still delivers both on and off stage.  The biggest surprise is that Keira Knightly performs all of her numbers both for the film and the soundtrack.  I assumed there was a voice double, and was surprised to see that she sang all of her songs.  Kudos to Ms. Knightly.  She has a very strong portrayal here as a jilted lover who looks to her music to set her life back in order.    I still say that girl needs to eat a couple of cheeseburgers, but alas, I digress.  Ruffalo offers some of his strongest work to date here.  A drunken buffoon who is struggling to get his life right is nothing new in movies, but Ruffalo somehow makes that cliché seem new and interesting.

The film tells its story in a fresh and fairly non-linear fashion as we watch both Dan and Greta's stories separate, and then later, together.  Unfortunately, the film has a middle section that seems to come to a screeching halt--as if the script cannot find enough for these characters to do for about 10-15 minutes of the film, before moving on with the shared music project, and watching the payoff for both characters and their lives.  It is a minor gripe, but is also clearly apparent in the movie.  It might not have the Oscar winning single on its soundtrack, but listening to it again as I write--there is a lot to like.  Seek out some of the tracks by way of Spotify and see if you agree.  If you are a fan of the movie ONCE, enjoy the music style of Maroon 5, this is an easy pick.  BEGIN AGAIN is a strong film with some solid payoffs.  Just be willing to be patient in its lagging middle. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: 8 out of 10 ( A Stunning Post APE-ocalyptic world)

A sequel better than the original is rare.  Think of this one as, well... medium-rareDAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES stars Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, and Keri Russell. It is the sequel to the 2011 film RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, which began the reboot of the original PLANET OF THE APES series.

A great sequel looks to improve on the original film--from advancing a story, raising the stakes, and with a Sci-Fi film like this--improving visual effects.  DAWN does (nearly) all of that.  The story picks up where the credit sequence of RISE left off--the simian flu has spread globally and has left only 1 in 500 survivors.  This same strain of virus is what was used to experiment on the ape population--including Caesar and his chimp buddies.  Where the virus has killed all the humans, it has raised the intelligence quotient of the apes significantly.  The film moves ten years into the future as Caesar has now gathered a large community of apes into a forest commune just outside San Francisco.  They hunt, raise families, and even teach their young using both English and sign language.  After years of no contact with humans, the apes encounter a group scouting a nearby dam for a potential power source.  It seems that down in the city, hundreds of people have taken shelter and are being led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) who is trying to restore power and civilization to the human encampment.  Malcolm and Ellie (Jason Clarke and Keri Russell) are two of the humans that encounter Caesar and his apes in the forest.  Once both groups become aware of one another, the tensions rise--both out of fear and protection for their own respective groups.

DAWN is a sort of Shakespearean tragedy--with several parallels between the apes and men.  Some are out for blood, while others seek peace.  The movie has a lot to say in terms of its own morality ("Apes don't kill Apes") when juxtapositioned against the blood lust of those who wish for war.  There is also some commentary on society and technology that offers some analysis to consider.  THE CGI work here is absolutely stunning, bringing all the apes to life--including the motion capture performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar.   Director Matt Reeves (LET ME IN, CLOVERFIELD) offers a film whose strongest characters are the apes themselves--including developing some of the ape characters from the first film.  Maurice is a wise orangutan that serves the ape clan, and Caesar and Blue Eyes offer a great view of a father and son, while Koba wants only to destroy all humans.

The same can not be said for Jason Clarke's Malcolm and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Alexander, Malcolm's teenage son, not to mention the poorly stereotyped female of Keri Russell's Ellie--who serves (conveniently) as nurse and eye candy.  Jason Clarke (ZERO DARK THIRTY) is major downgrade from the previous film's James Franco.  For all that is at stake, Clarke brings very little sizzle to the screen--and McPhee's brooding teenager who draws pictures on his tablet is practically a walking cliché.  In fact, nearly every human character, save Oldman's Dreyfus seems to be fairly flat.  I wanted more scenes with Dreyfus--and potentially even a confrontation between he and the apes--a payoff that never really occurs.  The stakes are raised, and the emotional center of the apes' community offers for some rich moments, but the parallel story of men seems bland by comparison.

Still one of the strongest summer films of 2014--DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES brings action, tragedy, and some payoff to the developing post apocalyptic world of Men vs. Apes.  Andy Serkis shines as Caesar--patriarch of the Apes.  Too bad the movie brought in all the boring humans.



Monday, July 7, 2014


Plus--music from THE LAST DRAGON!

EARTH TO ECHO Review: 6 out of 10 (E.T. phones it in)

It is rare today that a film is created that is completely full of new talent and filmmakers, where no one in the project has any full length feature experience.  Yet EARTH TO ECHO has nearly that: from director Dave Green to writer Henry Gayden to the entire cast of young actors; all of them are noobs when it comes to making a theatrical release.  When you take that into consideration, this isn't a bad film, but not a great one either.  Just one you feel like you have seen before.  Mostly because you have.

EARTH TO ECHO is a clear copycat movie taking huge heaping loads of E.T: THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL as its influence.  Even the poster is a clear ripoff.  Using the (now) worn out "found footage" technique, the film tells the story of three pre-teen friends: Tuck, Alex, and Munch.  The neighborhood they live in is being torn apart to make way for a new highway, and all of them are being displaced.  Tuck is a YouTube filmmaker and (conveniently) likes to videotape everything using his camcorder, phone, and even spy glasses he wears.  This is a pretty heavy handed contrivance so that the film can take the "found footage" route--but the film stays pretty true to it.  However, what you also get is a lot of shaky cameras, intentional out of focus shots, and odd camera angle work.  It is all to give the impression that these pre-teens are handling the cameras on their long adventure through the night.  No one bothers to be concerned about battery life on these electronics...but I digress.  When these three boys get some strange signals coming through their cell phones, it seems to point to a remote location in the desert.  Tuck, Alex, and Munch decide to spend their last night together to go and investigate the site their phones are pointing them to.  What they discover is a chrome covered limited edition Furby...or a strange robotic like alien, it is hard to tell the difference.  The boys then spend the rest of the night on a quest to help "Echo" the alien.  The challenge comes in scouring the modern world for a Speak and Spell so he can phone, wait... in this movie they are looking for random parts so that Echo can repair himself and head back to his planet.

This film also heavily borrows from 80s films like THE GOONIES and even STAND BY ME throughout.  The major difference is that it is all visually delivered in YouTube clips, cell phone cameras, texts, and social media.  It may speak to this generation of tweener audiences, but it isn't exactly artistic.  What this film does offer is three young actors in Teo Halm, Brian Bradley, and Reese Hartwig that are engaging and natural on screen.  All virtual unknowns, Brian Bradley had a run in 2011 as "Astro" on Fox's The "X" Factor talent search as the only claim to fame for the entire trio.  However, it may only be a matter of time before they have all landed their own show on Disney's Family Channel.  All three are funny and interesting, and certainly play the part of awkward boys about to hit their teen years.  The film itself takes a terribly predictable arc  along with a handful of outright ridiculous contrived circumstances.  It all moves down a path that has absolutely nothing new or surprising.  However, the young talent props up this film with their likeability quotient.  If you have kids, know kids, or are around kids and are looking for a safe bet for spending two hours in a theater--EARTH TO ECHO is choice that will put a smile on everyone's face.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

SNOWPIERCER Review: 9 out of 10 (Dystopia in Perpetual Motion)

Ah, the romance of train travel.  SNOWPIERCER is a South Korean-American science fiction film with a most interesting dystopian premise.  To offset the fear of global warming, an experimental chemical is shot up into the Earth's atmosphere to assist with cooling the planet.  Instead of relegating the Earth's temperature, it freezes the entire globe and wipes out society.  During that same time, an industrialist by the name of Wilford creates a luxury train line that circles the planet--a sort of luxury vacation indulgence for the elite.  Housing only one thousand passengers, the train carries the only remaining survivors of Earth.  From front to back, the train works as a sort of societal strata-- with the elite class at the front of the train, and the lowest class citizens in the back.  Run by a perpetual engine, the train is self sustaining--including greenhouses, aquariums, and even schools for children of the elite class.  Seventeen years later, the lowest class "tail" residents of the train are launching the latest rebellion against the armed guards and elite class that manage the remaining train cars.
The film brings an all star cast that includes  Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, and Octavia Spencer Evans plays Curtis--the leader of the tail car and the man initiating the latest rebellion to take over the train.  John Hurt is Gilliam--Curtis' mentor and friend who advises him.  Octavia Spencer has a nice performance as a mother whose child is mysteriously kidnapped and taken to the front of the train.  One of the strangest characters is Minister Mason--second in command on the train and played by Tilda Swinton-- who creates an oddball quality of British elite snobbery and quirk to this woman that is willing to callously execute the poor while lecturing them on their place in society.  Song Kang-ho is the mysterious  Minsu--a security expert now held in prison who created and installed all the locking doors that separate the train cars. He agrees to help with the rebellion, but he and his daughter seem to have their own private agenda.  Another really entertaining scene happens when the rebellion reaches the schoolhouse car where the school teacher (played by Alison Pill of HBO'S THE NEWSROOM) instructs the children about their leader Wilford, the history of the train, and the awful low class tail dwellers in a sing-songy voice.  Death and prejudice delivered in primary colors.  As Curtis and his followers make their way from car to car, the movie amps up both the cost and sacrifice of this class rebellion on wheels--riding on a track that goes to nowhere.

SNOWPIERCER has a lot of big ideas.  Class warfare, dystopia, and a perpetual vehicle that circles the globe to carry it all.  In the midst of that, some of those ideas lack some of the development needed, and a few gaps remain in the storytelling.  However, what is here works pretty darn well.  Evans turns in a fantastic performance that continues to show audiences he is a lot more than a superhero in a patriotic costume.  As I watched, the film continued to bring me back to a reference that gamers could relate to: BIOSHOCK.  With some of the same elements of a segregated society, strange characters, and an elusive, yet worshipped leader--there is this sort of forced perpetual motion as the rebellion moves from car to car that gives the sense of exploring new layers to the world.  It feels like a movie version of a sort of BIOSHOCK: RAILWAY (and something 2K Games should get to work on right away.)

The antidote to summer blockbusters, SNOWPIERCER gives mounting action and tension, has some solid performances, and aggressive ideas about society.  It also carries some dark humor to offset the very grim ideas that play out by film's end.  It is one of the biggest box office successes in South Korea--- and American distributor Harvey Weinstein wanted the film cut by over 20 minutes for the US audience.  Director Bong Joon-Ho refused, and the film was relegated to Radius-TWC and given a small release.  Based on positive acclaim, the film has expanded to 150 theaters.  One of the movies that is certainly worth your time this summer, seek this out if it is playing near you.  I was fortunate to see it here at Lubbock Première Cinemas and IMAX