Monday, April 14, 2014

Radio Show/Podcast #26: OCULUS, THE RAID 2, and all things Depp

My reviews of OCULUS and THE RAID 2...and I give a rant on Johnny Depp and some recommendations for some of his earlier (good) movies to check out on Netflix

Saturday, April 12, 2014

OCULUS Review: 7 out of 10 (A Scary, Tense, and Familiar Tale)

OCULUS is the newest horror film distributed by WWE Studios and stars Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites as Kaylie and Tim Russell--a brother and sister who witness their own parents come under the spell of an mysterious supernatural mirror.  Eleven years after this childhood tragedy, Kaylie and Tim return as adults to find the antique mirror and destroy it forever.

Yeah, it isn't exactly original material--spooky mirror, look at it, bad things happen.  It would seem to be a pale reflection (HA!) of lots of other horror films before it.  But director Mike Flanagan offers some interesting story telling devices that puts just enough originality into this movie to make it feel new.  Taking the original incident with the Russell family and the young Kaylie and Tim (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) the movie twists the flashbacks of their previous story with the current one. 

When Kaylie and Tim return to their old home with the mirror in tow, they work to set an elaborate plan in place to document the spooky powers of the mirror--and at the same time--destroy it forever.  As they arrive at the house, the film begins to mix in flashbacks of how the mirror came into their family's lives and how it worked its black magic.   Many times it becomes hard for the viewer to ascertain which timeline is which.  This device creates suspense and tension, which is what any great horror film needs.  The mirror's power itself is to alter reality in such a way that Kaylie and Tim, as well as their parents in the flashbacks, can never know what is real and what isn't.  There is this little horror film (maybe you have heard of it) called NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET that used this same device with its characters' dreaming and waking lives.  As we watch, we struggle to know, like the Tim and Kaylie, if what we are seeing is reality or fantasy.  It is a cheap trick that Freddy did much better, and it does become a bit wearisome near the end of the film.  However, there are still plenty enough chilling moments to make this film rise above its otherwise schlocky premise.

OCULUS works to build tension, create some chilling moments, and attempts to breathe the last bit of life into some old horror tropes and parlor tricks.  Likely, you may leave the theater wondering exactly what you watched--and question what was real and what was imagined, but in that way, OCULUS does its job.  An above average horror thriller. 

THE RAID 2 Review: 9 out of 10 (Fantastic Martial Arts meets Epic Crime Melodrama)

Without a doubt, THE RAID 2 is  one of  the best martial arts action films of all time.  Period.  Full Stop.  End of sentence.  Right after I say it again... One of the best ever.  Really.  I'm not kidding.  Seriously.

...yeah...its that good.

I had the chance to see it at Lubbock Premiere Cinema 16 & IMAX on its opening day.  The movie's predecessor--THE RAID: REDEMPTION certainly had garnered a reputation all its own as a martial arts masterpiece--but had been criticized by some (including the late, great Roger Ebert) as being all slick style and action with no substance.  I had not yet seen the original, but suffice to say THE RAID 2 answers that bell with enough melodramatic storytelling to fulfill any epic.  Clocking in at 2 1/2 hours, there is plenty of plot to connect all the action set pieces.  And the action?  With dizzying camerawork and fluid choreography--the fight sequences move from bathroom stalls to muddy prison yards; inside of SUVs and huge open warehouses; hotel hallways and catering kitchens... and they all absolutely make sense.  None of the action here feels artificial or staged.  Instead, THE RAID 2 chooses to integrate these fight scenes into its story in a seamless fashion.  The movie takes place in Jakarta with connections to its underground crime syndicate.  Written and directed by Gareth Evans, the movie highlights the traditional Indonesian martial art pencak silat.

Picking up just two hours after the end of the last film, Rama (Iko Uwaris) is reporting in on the police corruption that he has discovered (in the first film) and is asking for his superiors to take action.  It seems, like many police corruption stories, that the mob has taken control of law enforcement and is paying them off.  Instead of making arrests, Rama's superiors ask him to go into deep cover to infiltrate the mob from the inside.  Though he fears for the lives of his wife and young son, our hero agrees.  Rama goes to prison to sidle up to Uco who is the son of Bangun, one of Jakarta's most powerful mobsters.  The plan works, and Rama  slowly befriends Uco, defending him against attacks inside the prison walls.  Two years later, Rama is released and brought in to work for the Bangun family--alongside his friend Uco.  However, Uco's taste for power and desire to unseat his aging father's position in the crime syndicate becomes far more dangerous when he begins to plot with Bejo, a self-made gangster who is making a play for power in Jakarta.  With Rama stuck in the middle, this undercover cop has to make some difficult choices in tipping the balance of power.

Embedded within all of this are some of the greatest fight sequences ever captured in film.  And with homeless vagabond assassins, another who uses a baseball and bat, and yet another enemy called Hammer Girl, there is no need to wait long to see these characters mix it up.  For fans of martial arts and action movie connoisseurs, THE RAID 2 offers some deep story elements as a backdrop for fantastic fighting and action.  One of the best films in this genre I have seen in a very, very long time.  Highly recommended.


Monday, April 7, 2014

Show #25: Reviews of Captain America and Special Guest Paul Hunton

My reviews of Captain America: THE WINTER SOLDIER and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.  Also special guest Paul Hunton and I chat about the Lubbock art scene.  Also movie reviews and Netflix recommends

Friday, April 4, 2014

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER: 10 (Comic Book films don't get any better than this)

When CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER came out, it proved to be easily the best Marvel/Avenger film made to date--and has since stayed in that position.  With the right mix of nostalgia, action, and effects, the sequel has been highly anticipated.  Now the ninth film in the Marvel franchise, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER arrives to match and maybe beat its predecessor.  Locally I hit the bonus seeing it in IMAX at Lubbock Premiere Cinemas.  

Starring a returning Chris Evans as the Cap, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Sebastian Stan, Anthony MackieRobert Redford, and Samuel L. Jackson as the dubious Nick Fury.  Both screenwriters have returned for the sequel here, taking place about two years after the incidents from THE AVENGERS.

Steve Rogers is still a very uncomfortable in this new world.  Having been frozen in time for 70 years, his nostalgic sense of right and wrong is out of place in a world of gray morals and antiheroes.  The S.H.I.E.L.D organization that works to protect the planet is led by Alexander Pierce who is also a member of the World Security Council.  Redford stars here as Pierce and is absolutely stellar as a man buying and selling his own brand of corporate war and peace.  When Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. are compromised, the Cap--along with Natasha/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) beginning looking to find the answers.  Their plans are quickly thwarted and their lives put in danger by the mysterious "Winter Soldier," a global assassin who has been contracted to eliminate the heroes.  When the two need help, they seek refuge with one of Rogers' only friends--Sam Wilson--a US veteran who works at the VA...and was part of (another) military experiment called "FALCON."

Unlike its other Marvel movie cohorts, CA:TWS is pretty serious minded.  Again, when you consider a movie like this *in its genre*, this film stands high above nearly every other film.  Though it still has a few chances to crack wise, this movie doesn't attempt to chase faceless alien enemies or other-worldly villains.  This is an instantly relatable film with political intrigue, talk of global security, and mixing corporate budgets with military power.  Sound familiar?  This film also bravely questions all of those ideas, whereas most post 9/11 movies opt for a more hawkish stance of sacrificing freedom for security and eliminating your global enemies before they even fire a shot.  Like DC's previous Batman films, and last year's MAN OF STEEL, CA:TWS chooses themes that matter.  The storytelling relies on themes that we see versions of in our own world every day--and that is why the film succeeds.

Speaking of crime, Chris Evans just nearly has his film stolen away by ScarJo and Mackie.  Johansson's Black Widow reveals a bit more of her softer side, and Mackie's Falcon is possibly the most thrilling of all the heroes here.  For anyone who enjoys these comic book films, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER brings a new level of serious minded action with great characters and in-depth storytelling.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

BAD WORDS Review: 8 out of 10 (Bateman is a comic G-E-N-I-U-S)

BAD WORDS is a *very* dark comedy film that stars Jason Bateman as a middle-aged eighth grade dropout who decides to enter the National Golden Quill Spelling Bee. It also stars Allison Janney, Phillip Baker Hall, and newcomer Rohan Chand as Chaitanya Chopra--a young 10 year old Spelling Bee contender.  This is the directorial debut for Bateman--and all I can say is I hope there is more to come.  This film certainly has the edge that previous dark comedies like some of Jason Reitman's work or even some of the better Apatow films.  

Bateman stars here at Guy Trilby--a 40 year old dropout who finds a loophole in the spelling bee rulebook and decides to enter the contest to get his revenge.  Revenge on what, exactly, we are never really clear on until the film allows its reveal.  However, it is part of that mystery that drives the movie's forward.  Trilby is clearly an unhappy fellow, angry at the world and ready and willing to take it out on his 10 year old competitors.  As he competes in each spelling bee, moving his way to the national stage, he is willing to do nearly anything to advance his cause, not to mention crushing the pre-teen competition.  Allison Janney stars here as Dr. Bernice Deagan who is the director of the Golden Quill event, and is attempting to remove the rabble-rouser Trilby from her hallowed competition. 

There is a lot here to like if you don't mind watching Bateman mercilessly pick on 11 year old kids.  What's worse (and hilarious) is seeing Trilby interact with these over achiever parents, cursing, calling them out, and smirking all the way.  For the comic brilliance that he has had in the past, this is easily Jason Bateman's strongest work.  Undaunted by his mean spirit, young Chaitanya (Rohan Chand) is one competitor who tries to break through Trilby's hard exterior.  As they slowly begin a friendship, albeit not one most parents would approve of, the movie finds a charm surrounding all the sharp barbs.  Young Chand here is infectious and is equal to Bateman here in his comic performance and deadpan delivery.  Regular comedy actress Kathryn Hahn shadows Trilby as a online reporter who is trying to understand all the "whys" behind his mysterious exploits and hoping for a great human interest story.

This film comes round in the final act and offers closure to all the plot threads here without being schmaltzy.  For one that is pretty picky about comedies, I was laughing out loud at several of the bits between Bateman and young Chand.  This is certainly a hard-R comedy, but there is just enough sweet center to enjoy--wrapped in the dark exterior of this cinematic treat.  Recommended.   


Friday, March 28, 2014

NOAH Review: 7 out of 10 (A fantasy expression of Biblical lore)

Darren Aronofsky's NOAH is a visually stunning film that explores the story of the flood narrative from Genesis--with fantastical elements, Biblical themes, and some strong performances.  The film stars Russell Crowe as Noah along with Jennifer Connelly as Nammeh Noah's wife, Ray Winston as Tubal-Cain, Emma Watson as the wife of Shem and Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah.  Though the film's structural story is based in Scripture, this film brings some new interpretations to the story, looks to fill many parts of the Bible's narrative gaps, and offers quite a bit of creative expression.  In other words, this film is a whole lot closer to the LORD OF THE RINGS  or CHRONICES OF NARNIA than it is to THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.  Praised by some Christian groups that see Paramount's $150 million dollar epic as a godsend to Christian film-going, other groups have decried the artistic license and complained that the film's errant ways with Scripture should be condemned.

In the end, Aronofsky's vision of this Biblical story is left for filmgoers to form their own opinions.  As a former pastor of 18 years, I probably struggled more with some of the storytelling itself than any inaccuracies or creative expression that the filmmakers choose here.  Like all of his past films (THE FOUNTAIN, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, THE WRESTLER, BLACK SWAN) Aronofsky creates an absolutely beautiful movie, particularly in the first half.  However, once the characters board the ark in the 3rd act, the darkened interiors and the gray pallet of the outdoor floodwaters and sky remove much of the previous eye candy.  Crowe gives a great performance as a follower of The Creator who struggles with his own calling and mission.  Christians who choose to see the film can certainly appreciate the strongest aspect of this movie-- a biblical hero who struggles to follow God's purpose. A man of faith and family, Crowe's Noah wrestles with the environment, sinful men, and ultimately his own psyche.  It is bold, daring, and frightening all at once.

Though some might scoff at the "Watchers" (Aronofsky's own take on the Nephilim of Genesis) and others might be bothered by the re-imagining of Noah's family structure and the addition of Tubal-Cain...I was able to release all of that in favor of the greater themes of faith that the movie offers.  In fact, I actually appreciated a lot of the mystical ideas that were presented;  and anyone who studies their Bible can certainly look to plenty of points where some magical/supernatural/miraculous things are happening there, after all.  In the end, this film is no different than many other films that goes before it; it is the lens one chooses to see it through that will make it a movie of inspiration or heresy.  After all, pastors, ministers, and Christians everywhere have extrapolated messages of God from lots of other fantasy/science fiction films.  God, Jesus, and the Bible can be found in everything from STAR WARS to THE MATRIX; from SIGNS to THE LION KING.  As long as Bible believers are willing to offer the proper weight/counterweight to this film, there is lots here to enjoy.

Unfortunately, not much of what is there to enjoy is in the final act.  Accuracy arguments aside, the film's storytelling and characterizations seem to run a bit off the rails once everyone is onboard the ark.  There are some odd choices, a few contrivances, and a couple of (let's call them lazy) choices that the movie makes.  Even after its climax, the conclusion of the film seems to feel incomplete.  However, for those that are willing to set aside their own bias, this movie might just take believers to the cinematic promised land.  NOAH is a beautiful film with strong themes of faith.  Just avoid doing a Biblical fact check while you are sitting in the movie theater. 


Monday, March 24, 2014

Show #23: DIVERGENT and calling out Christians and Hollywood

My thoughts on the current Bible-based cinema movement, my DIVERGENT review, and Netflix and rental recommends.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

DIVERGENT Review: 7 out of 10 (You will REALLY have to turn off to enjoy this...)

DIVERGENT is the latest American science fiction action film to cash in on the YA novel craze.  Directed by Neil Burger, it is based on the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth. The film stars Shailene Woodley, Theo JamesMekhi Phifer, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, and Kate Winslet. It is a dystopian tale of a future world where people are divided into distinct factions of the population in order to maintain control and order of the people.  Shailene Woodley plays "Tris", a young girl who is tested and found to be "divergent", or in other words--not belonging to any of the five known divisions.

Wait.  You mean there is an film about an adolescent who discovers that she/he is different than everyone else around them?  Then they discover that they are unique while lots of adults around them are trying to hold them back?  And to make things worse, they are belittled, hunted down, and even on occasion... some look strangely upon them?  WHA?!  That's right, from SIXTEEN CANDLES to KICK ASS, and RED DAWN to TWILIGHT, this isn't exactly an original idea when it comes to adolescent film.  In other words, the very title of the movie is strangely ironic in terms of thematic material.  But with the rage of all the supernatural tweener novels being made into films--this huge best-seller was next in line.  Like so many before it, I haven't read the novels... don't want to read the novels... and (STILL) believe that the movie will have to stand up on its own cinematic legs to make current fans happy and potentially win new ones.  So, is this the next HUNGER GAMES series... or does it go the way of THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS film set, whose sequel was cancelled in mid-production because the first film was so awful?  To be clear... I love me some dystopian movies.  Second, I have to admit that even a skeptic like me walked into THE HUNGER GAMES and was shocked and surprised for how much I loved it.  So, with that in mind, and being a big fan of Shailene Woodley and even the young Miles Teller, I joined three *HUGE* fans of the series (my wife and two "young adult" daughters) to see if this latest offering might be the next big movie craze.

...and apparently the "book" people are really going to love it... according to the experts I went with.  For me.  Eh...

The movie is fine.  Choosing to accept the story, world, and settle into another YA adaptation, this movie certainly outpaces much of its competition as named above--though that isn't saying much.  Action--check.  Drama--check.  Tweener heartthrob casting--Double Check.  But still lots of problems... though some of that may be a criticism of the book series altogether, I suppose.  Whereas the film's premise sets out to have 5 factions, a sort of caste system really, by dividing this city of people into distinct groups, the movie does a less than stellar job explaining *why* exactly that this works to keep the peace.  It seems over history that attempting to keep people in a box, politically speaking, has sort of.... failed... historically.  But I digress.

But then again, this movie does too.  A lot.  Far too long at 2 hours and 23 minutes, this movie spends much of its time focusing on one faction, called Dauntless.  Tris chooses this faction as part of a strange selection ceremony and seeks to hide her true nature of "divergent."  This faction of Dauntless are the Army/Police/Fearless/Macho types who apparently spend much of their lives in training... or much of the movie anyways.  Miles Teller is really great here at Peter--a former truth teller faction member who has also jumped ship to join the Dauntless tribe.  Teller is consistently the smarmy bully--yet hard not to like with that evil grin.  Shailene Woodley is clearly the best thing going on in this film.  I enjoy watching her onscreen, though at the same time she seems miscast here, never seeming to be comfortable as a heroine.  I suppose, maybe, that is the point of her character (?), but again that would be for those followers of the book to know for sure.  Theo James stars as "Four"-- the hunky trainer of Dauntless who becomes a love interest for Tris.  And apparently he is divergent from any acting school nearby.  I think I saw more than one facial expression from him in the 2 hour and 23 minute running time... but I would have to slog through it again to be sure.  In short, an absolutely wooden performance that demanded far more for a heroic lead.  Think Taylor Lautner, then drop down a notch or two on the performance scale.  Yeah... that bad.  Shailene Woodley does the heavy lifting here, and I am still on the fence on whether or not she did exactly what her character seemed to be, or missed by a mile altogether. 

For those without the book's backstory, this movie demands more than a few narrative leaps along the way.  Some of them are more like chasms, actually.  Just for instance: Why are their factions just in the city limits?  Why don't the faction less people just pack up and leave town?  Why 5 factions... not 4 or 6?  How many tests DO you have to pass to be in a faction exactly?  It seemed like two too many...  Also, when the Amity/Farmer tribe have their "Final Test" do they have to grow carrots?  Do a raindance?  And for the Knowledge/Smart/Erudite folks--do they prove themselves by having to solve a really long algebraic equation? Is their greatest fear the mathematical constant of Pi?  Again, I digress.  Suffice to say the film does a pretty terrible job attempting to explain itself, but instead simply asks you to accept the construct it has created.  But if you are willing to forego and just enjoy the ride, there is enough action and story here to carry the day.  Like any film, one must be willing to buy in to the implausible ideas of a strange dystopian world.  For me, comparatively THE HUNGER GAMES world of Panem and 12 Districts and their crazy murder games makes more sense than some of the rules of DIVERGENT.  But for fans of the books, and the uninitiated that they drag along with them to see this film, there is just enough fun, action, and drama to enjoy this film.  And I mean JUST.  In the end, I flipped a coin on whether this movie rated a 6 or a 7 on my 10 scale.  Tails--I guess that makes it a 7.