Pitch Perfect 2 Review

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In 2012, the world was treated to a rather fun little musical comedy by the name of Pitch Perfect. While it perhaps didn’t live up to it’s title, it was certainly better than it looked and brought acapella music groups back from obscurity in a big way. Now, almost three years later, the Barden Bellas with a bigger budget, some increased confidence, and a new director in the form of actress Elizabeth Banks. Normally sequels to surprise hits fall a least a little bit short, will this one have any of the same trebbles (I had to, I’m sorry).

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We begin with the Bellas in a bit of a pinch, after a disastrous arial stunt by Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) leads to an embarrassing scene in front of President Obama. Disgraced and alienated from competing at the college level, the group is forced to compete in an international competition against an arrogant and almost supernaturally talented German team. Yes, it’s basically Rocky 4 if people boxed with their mouths. Meanwhile, Beca (Anna Kendrick) starts to fear what life has in store for her after her impending graduation, and the team finds itself in the form of Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), who might ultimately be a little better at writing original songs than singing covers.

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Pitch Perfect 2 establishes itself as a greatly amped up version of it’s predecessor from moment one. It’s humor broader, it’s musical numbers bigger, and it’s characters a little thinner. This certainly removes a little of the emotional authenticity that was there before, but fortunately Banks and company make up for it big time in the humor department. I found myself constantly laughing here, frankly way more than I expected.

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A great deal of this humor comes from the new well acquainted cast. Not only are Kendrick, Wilson, and the rest of the gang infectiously charming with wonderful comedic timing, but there’s a greater sense of camaraderie and friendship this time around. Since the characters are having so much fun, we’re having fun right along with them. Sure, there is a tiny bit of conflict within the group, but the film nicely sidesteps some fairly contrived troupes by having these characters talk issues out, and work through them. These people actually seem like friends, and as such, I not only found myself caring about them, but feeling like I was a part of the group when they rib and jab at each other. The only real weakness in the group is Steinfeld’s Emily, who is a touch too bland and ‘goody-goody gee wizz’ to really make an impression, surprising considering the fire Stienfeld has brought to other roles.

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With that said, Banks does ride a fine line of absurd humor that does every so often get out of hand. For every wonderfully loopy musical number or perfectly placed insult, there’s an overcooked supporting character who will often beat their one joke into the ground. This ranges from certain members of the Bellas who are just there to say weird things, to John Michael Higgins’ commentator character saying just about every sexist, racist, and otherwise blunt word he can think of. All of these characters (Higgins in particular) are hysterical in small doses, but Banks hurts them all with the old “more is more” approach, that will leave certain audience members with a bad taste in their mouth, as the mean spirited stuff does throw off some of the momentum this sweet little film has otherwise.

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One thing that is amped up in wonderful fashion is the music. The numbers here are punchy, use a nice mix of different styles, and are nicely sung by all. We really get a sense of the styles of the different teams here, particularly in a wonderful riff off sequence that manages to both recapture the magic of a key sequence in the original, while adding new touches, some of which are absolutely hysterical. There’s also one or two songs here that are allowed to just get flat out Broadway level silly, which is always welcome. I won’t lie, I’ve been listening to this soundtrack since I saw the movie on Thursday, and I’ll probably pop it on a few more times in the days to come.

Pitch Perfect 2 isn’t trying to do anything groundbreaking. It’s light on plot, and is mostly concerned with being a funny summer movie, and as that, it completely succeeds. As a matter of fact, in the process of not trying to be overly complicated, it nicely avoids a couple of standard sequel traps, and in some ways is a great deal more fun to watch than the original, even if it is not necessarily a better movie. Weirdly enough, some elements of the story function as something of a swan song for these characters, and that’s a shame, because I’ll certainly miss them when they’re gone.

Rating: B

Mad Max: Fury Road Review

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While Avengers Age of Ultron certainly kicked off the summer movie season, it seems that for many, Mad Max Fury Road is when the sparks really start to fly. Yes, critics, fans and causal moviegoers alike seem to be circling around this gonzo, post apocalyptic race though hell as something of a savior for blockbuster filmmaking, with many claiming that it is one of the best action films they have ever seen. Certainly lofty expectations for an action lover like myself to go into a movie with, especially considering that I have not yet gotten around to seeing director George Miller’s previous three Mad Max films, and as such accept this as both an introduction and reboot to the classic franchise.

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The film begins in a future that could just as well be five years from now as it could one hundred. An oil crisis, mass thrust, and anger at Joss Whedon for his mistreatment of Black Widow in Age of Ultron has thrown society into a chaotic shadow of what it used to be.  A masked dictator named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Bryrne) has control over the entire water supply, uses that power to subjugate women to sex slavery among other things. Stopping at nothing to take him down is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who steals a few of Joe’s best breeders, driving as fast as she can into the desert. This leads to a car chase of epic proportions, with all manner of spiky cars, flamethrowers, and other death machines after them. Caught in the middle is Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a drifter who finds himself captured by the pale skinned “war boys” Joe uses has his minions, one of which, Nux (Nicolas Holt), will stop at nothing to catch the women and impress joe.

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I hope you enjoyed that plot synopsis, because that’s just about the entirety of story in this film. Yes, Fury Road is more concerned with being a visceral experience than anything else, establishing it’s characters through the action sequences more often than not, and my word, are these incredible action sequences. In this film, the seventy year old George Miller puts just about every action director to shame. His camera zooms through the desert, as legions of cars create all manner of mayhem in the sand, and not only is it consistently easy to follow, but through his use of mostly practical effects, every single crash, flame, or slam feels impactful. We learn more about these people by how they drive, and fight then we do through any form of exposition, which is a welcome and unique change of pace from most blockbusters.

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Unfortunately, the movie dosen’t always fully deliver on the promise of it’s ideas. While the style it uses is certainly fascinating, it also comes at the expense of truly caring about what’s going on for a large chunk of the film. Make no mistake, we’re thrown right into this world from moment one, and while that’s a valiant approach on paper, there is absolutely no time spent at the start of the story to make us care about these people one iota. So while we are learning about them through this action, there’s no foundation for that to build off of. As such, the film is a bit alienating in it’s first half.

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As stunning as it is, everything comes off a bit stiff because there’s simply no barometer for what the stakes we should have in this story are. I’m not asking for thirty minutes of exposition before we get going, but even the slightest moment of humanity could have helped, which is proven later on in the film, when things take a few minutes to calm down going into the climax (which is simply fantastic). Just those tiny moments where the characters are allowed to talk to each other do wonders for my excitement level once they do go into action again, and the film really could have benefitted from sprinkling one or two more of these little breaks in without tarnishing the relentless flow of the story.

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As for the characters themselves, they’re a bit of a mixed bag. While Tom Hardy just might be the single best actor working today, his Max takes a major backseat here, mostly acting as an audience avatar for the situation around him. Hardy does what he can, his imposing presence and infectious charisma coming through in a couple great moments, but for most of the film he’s basically just a grunting prop. The supporting cast is much stronger. Theron is given one of the absolute best characters of her career, and infuses her with fire and heart. Furiosa is a force of nature in this film, her determination being what ultimately drives the story, and as such she comes off as the true hero here. Meanwhile, Holt breaks through what is initially an over the top cartoon character, and ultimately really breaks down what he desires, and how his experiences affect him. He’s a grunt with a heart of gold. Also, there are tons of little ancillary characters here that are beautifully designed and fun to watch, several of whom serve as rather empowering  figures for women, always nice to see in an action fest like this.

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Mad Max: Fury Road works better as a visual feast than it does as a story. It has some of the best production design, and practical action sequences I may have ever had the pleasure of seeing in a film. However, it suffers from not being a fully developed story, desperately needing a little more humanity to fuel it’s madness. It’s absolutely worth seeing, and ultimately a great deal of fun, but perhaps it’s best to adjust expectations just slightly, and know exactly what this heavy metal soaked monster truck show is before buying a ticket.

Rating: B+

Avengers: Age Of Ultron Review

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As a great funk song once said “there ain’t no stopping the Marvel Cinematic Universe now.” It’s perhaps the most guaranteed money-maker in cinema right now, and as far as quality goes, it’s been consistently fantastic enough to etch it’s way into pop culture with talons as strong as gold titanium alloy. So with that, the second wave of films about The Avengers comes to a climax here, in this highly anticipated Age Of Ultron. Getting to this point has been something of a geek Mecca, but the question is, does it provide that near religious high that the original Avengers did, or is this eleven film long (and counting) film saga finally starting to show some wear and tear?

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We pick up with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) picking up the pieces of the fallout of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, by collecting artifacts stolen by Hydra, one of which being Loki’s staff. With the power the staff provides, Stark finds himself able to fuel an artificial intelligence program he’s been working on, something that if done right, could take the place of the Avengers in protecting the world. Unfortunately for him, it’s not done right at all, and leads to the creation of Ultron (James Spader), a deeply cynical creature who believes that the only way to protect the world is to mold it into something new, and this new place most certainly does not have The Avengers in it.

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If there’s anything Age Of Ultron can be proud of, it’s the sheer sense of scale and fun it captures. In some ways even more so than the original, this thing feels like a comic book ripped straight off the panels, and onto the screen. Returning writer/director Joss Whedon keeps things moving at a nimble pace, constantly bombarding us with new action sequences. This could get tiresome in some movies, but when you have characters as cool as these, it never really gets old to watch them use their respective powers to mow down any fools in their way. Beyond that, while the writing may be weak in certain other areas, it excels at being funny, almost to a fault. There is a witty one liner for almost every ten seconds of screen time, and a solid ninety five percent of them are hits. Taken simply as a roller coaster ride, there almost certainly won’t be as many that are as massive and fun to ride as this in 2015.

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At this point, the cast is so completely settled into their roles that there isn’t really a whole lot to say about them that hasn’t been said already.  They each completely inhabit these roles, and at this point feel like nothing short of family. With that said, Whedon’s screenplay serves some of them a great deal better than others, with some of them so oddly written that I would go as far as to say that it invalidates what has come before. Evans, Hemsworth, and Renner come out the best, the first as strong willed and morality rooted as ever, the second stretching his comedic chops with some of the movie’s funniest moments, and the third finally getting a chance to really shine with some wonderful action beats, and a great deal of plot elements that give him depth and humanity.

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While Downey Jr’s Tony Stark is always a riot, he’s reduced to a vending machine of one liners here, and ultimately his motivations for creating Ultron seem not only quickly came to, but out of character with how much he matured in Iron Man 3. He comes off as more of an impulsive ass than anything here. Meanwhile, Ruffalo’s Banner feels like an entirely different character, lacking the quirky cynicism that made him such a charmer before, and it certainly dosen’t help that he’s stuck in a romantic subplot with Johansson’s Black Widow that feels entirely forced and out of character for both of them, particularly the perviously calculating and mature Romanoff. This is a character who has gone from “love is for children,” to a doting babysitter for the big green monster she has a crush on in the blink of an eye, and Whedon does a terrible job in selling that transition.

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As far as new characters go (yes, there’s more) most of them don’t leave a huge impression. I had high expectations for Spader’s Ultron in particular, especially after a strain of weak villains in this series, and quite frankly, he does not deliver. It’s not Spader’s fault at all, who gives a very spirited and expressive voice performance indeed, but quite simply it’s an issue with how the character is written. Conceived as something of a son to Tony Stark, he has inherited his sarcastic, insecure sense of humor, and quite frankly, it makes him completely non threatening. He comes across as more of a priss who won’t shut up than anything, going between odd humor that never quite lands, and typical bad guy monologuing that could be out of a sunday comic. Meanwhile, there is the introduction of Scarlett Witch and Quicksilver played by Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor Johnson, which yields mixed results. Olsen seems completely lost in her role, lacking both the screen presence and the chops to pull it off. With her constantly slipping accent and silly over acting, she comes off more like a power rangers villain than anything. Taylor Johnson is a little better, but isn’t given a great deal to do, and therefore comes off as a bit of a waste, especially considering how well the character was used in X Men: Days Of Future Past.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron certainly delivers enjoyment in spades. Despite any problems that might be there, it’ll always be a treat to see these characters together, barbing and bickering with each other. It’s a massive action extravaganza that’s constantly topping itself, and demands to be seen on the biggest screen with the biggest crowd. However, once the smoke clears, it falls a bit short in the story department, sacrificing the integrity of some of it’s characters, contorting them to fit it’s themes, when perhaps it should be the other way around. It’s not so much the step into darkness we were promised as it is an entertaining middle chapter before Civil War really tears it up, but as a summer movie, one could certainly do a whole hell of a lot worse.

Rating: B

Ex Machina Review

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With technological possibilities widening by the day, it seems as though society is more fearful of being possessed by artificial intelligence than ever before. After all, if we can barely go a day without our I-Phone on hand where could we go if they all could decide to rebel, and turn off. Along with that, what choices will we make if there comes a time where we could fall in love with something that could never grow old or die, something with intellect spanning eons beyond our own. The Spike Jonze film Her explored this a couple year ago, and now, in Ex Machina, that question is not only deepened, but darkened.

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We begin in the near future with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programer at the mass-used search engine Bluebook, winning a contest to meet Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive billionaire creator of the company, and stay with him for a week. Flying for hundreds of miles through Nathan’s massive estate, Caleb finds an affable and friendly man in Nathan, even if he does succumb to alcohol a bit more than he should. Nathan gives Caleb a proposal, he claims that he has invented the most advanced artificial intelligence ever built, and if he signs an NDA, he can meet, and interact with her for the whole week. Yes, her, a seemingly fully grown human woman built entirely of metal and synthetic skin, Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a curious and sociable being, who takes an interest in Caleb almost immediately. The question is, is it genuine interest, or just crafty programming?

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Ex Machina is the kind of Sci-Fi that comes rarely in this day in age. Deliberately paced, and contemplative, first time director and long time Danny Boyle screenwriter Alex Garland paces his film out more like a novella than anything. The story is fairly condensed and confined, but full of rich themes dealing with sexual imprisonment, the nature of attraction, and the parallels between man and machine. All of this is wonderfully crafted and un-pretentious due to Garland’s crackling dialogue, particularly what is given to Nathan, who brings everything back down to earth with his devil may care attitude whenever things are getting a touch too cerebral.

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The performances are uniformly stellar. Gleeson makes for a compelling lead, reserved and pensive while still utterly empathetic. Even if his is not the most flashy turn in the film, he anchors the others nicely. Isaac is electric as always, bringing eccentricity, arrogance, and humanity to Nathan, who’s obsession with creating life is paired with his own inadequacies and insecurities. He provides all the film’s funniest moments as he toys with Caleb. However, the real stand-out here is the previously unknown Vikander. Initially seeming like an intelligent but fairly blank slate, she slowly curves our perception of her into a wickedly crafty, sexual being with an assertive taste for what she wants. Both sweet and scary, she absorbs attention whenever she’s on screen, with masterful visual effects (a great deal of which seem practical) aiding her robotic movements and mannerisms.

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As strong as most of this movie is, there are some narrative hiccups here and there. For one, since the story is laboriously structured around Caleb’s daily sessions with Ava, and as such, the movie falls into a fairly repetitive grove after a while that feels redundant when pieces of the eventually mystery aren’t being revealed. Also, as thematically rich as certain parts of the film are, the ending feels like a major stretch to try and mold to those themes. Parts of it simply don’t seem to make sense with the characterization that has been established before, ultimately coming across as needlessly maudlin. By that same token, the ending drags out a great deal, finding several perfect points to stop, and then continuing to a decent, but not quite as impactful, final frame.

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Ex Machina is a rich Sci Fi guided by ideas and intellect that uses visual effects as a seasoning instead of a spice, and that is instantly and deeply commendable. Beyond that, it’s a well acted, and impressively realized vision, especially for a first time director. However, it never quite gets into great territory, as the emotional impact of it’s biggest moments is slightly dulled by some nonsensical choices that could have tied in better with that film’s theme. It may be a little artificially intelligent, but it’s good enough to be intelligent at all.

Grade: B+

Unfriended Review

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Every generation has a horror movie or two that completely encapsulates the fears brought about by their primary method of expression. In the 80s, Friday The 13th turned the campsites of free drinks, drugs, and love into blood soaked grave-sites, In the 90s, The Blair Witch Project created an entirely new genre using our obsession with portable and accessible video as it’s weapon, and now in 2015, Unfriended takes on the horrors of the internet. We live in an age where anybody’s life and attention is up for grabs at any time, certainly a monster of sorts that may not take a concrete form, but looms over us all waiting for us to make a mistake. Those mistakes, are the catalyst of Unfriended.

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The movie takes place entirely on the laptop screen of Blaire (Shelley Hennig), a high school senior who thinks that this night will end like any other, on Skype with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) and their three friends. However, things take a turn when a mysterious caller joins in, sending threatening messages to the group along with personal attacks to Blaire, claiming to be Laura (Heather Sossaman) a girl who committed suicide a year earlier due to cyber-bulling committed at least in part by each member of this call. As her attacks go on, it becomes clear that her threats are very real, as she confines our band of jackasses to the call, picking them off one by one.

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Unfriended is instantly commendable for it’s commitment to it’s unique format. Seeing as we never leave Blaire’s computer, it in turn leads to several tension building techniques that are not only effective, but realistic. Blaire will multitask, opening up other windows and sending messages as she tries to piece together what is going on. This makes each tone or page of Skype or Facebook extremely ominous, as the film plays on our familiarity with them to punctuate important points. Each message could be something critical. Beyond that, the film avoids the pitfall of crystal clear video chat reception that plagues so many movies that portray it. The reception is often spotty, and those lapses of video and audio make for wonderful tension, leaving what could be happening to the imagination. While certainly gory in small doses, the film admirably leaves a great deal of it’s shock value within this tension, and as such comes across as restrained and effective.

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It helps that the characters, while certainly reprehensible in their own ways, are given just enough depth and personality to make them engaging. As we find out just how far their depravity has gone, they either have fairly clear motivations, or freely admit that they didn’t have a motive, simply getting caught up in the temptations of a digital age. Beyond that, the chemistry between them is constantly engaging and often quite funny, with pettiness galore, which comes out most prevalently in the most high stakes game of Never Have I Ever on film to date. However, it does hurt a bit that there is nobody to really and truly like. There was not a moment where I wasn’t sympathetic to Laura, which makes the emotional elements of the story a bit lopsided.

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The film also majorly and disappointingly cops out at it’s conclusion. What is so tragic here, is that just seconds before the ending does hit, something truly profound and heartbreaking happens. Something so poetically perfect, that it would have given me chills for hours afterwards if it was not ruined. Sure, it’s subtle, but it’s the conclusion this film deserves, and the tacked on final jump scare screams of studio interference.

Is Unfriended the next horror masterpiece? No. However, it not only manages to balance originality with solid storytelling, but it’s a short, tightly paced little creep-fest that remains engaging from moment one, even if it majorly undercuts itself on the home stretch. Who knows, it just might find itself in the annals of horror history for format alone, and if anything, it makes for a damn good screensaver on a lonely, dark friday night.

Rating: B

Furious 7 Review

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The Fast and the Furious franchise has always been a fascinating mesh of the most machismo of blockbuster tropes, with the genuine emotion and chemistry that comes from having a cast that has spent years together, and as such loves each other as much as the characters they’re playing do. This dynamic has been what separates it from other blockbusters that some would claim are just as superficial, and it plays into what will always be so tragic about this particular installment. The loss of Paul Walker in November 2013 not only affected the production of this film, but also deeply scarred the cast, who promised to give us the absolute best film, and send off for their fallen brother that they could. In some ways, this film acts as a climax of about fourteen years of history. No pressure.

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We pick up almost immediately after the events of the previous film, with defeated criminal Owen Shaw’s (Luke Evans) bother Deckard (Jason Statham) vowing revenge against Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), Bryan O’Conner (Paul Walker) and their crew after murdering one of their own. Being that Deckard is special forces, he could be anywhere at any time, as the crew quickly finds out through the hospitalization of Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), and the destruction of their home. Luckily, it seems like they may have a way to find him, as a mysterious government agent (Kurt Russell) offers them a way to track shaw down, offering them use of a tracking device that hacks into any security camera it can find, if they can recover it from a group of terrorists.

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At this point, if you’re going into one of these movies, you should know exactly what you’re getting, high intensity action sequences with absolutely no realism or limits, along with the group dynamic we’ve come to love. This film delivers exactly that, in perhaps the most over the top, fun fashion in the series to date, while still adding enough of an emotional element to give everything stakes, something that the previous film lacked.

The cast perhaps won’t be up for any oscars next year, but they are reliable as ever. Diesel in particular shows a great deal more humanity here than normal, really selling us on his utter heartbreak at the loss of his friend, and his drive (see what I did there?) to get the job done no matter what. He also has affable chemistry with Walker, who has always acted as a great straight man to all the madness. Bryan O’ Conner is so much a part of who he is, that it’s especially clear here that the character needed to be retired here, and not replaced. The rest of our players do what they’ve been doing before to equally solid effect, Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris acting as wry comic relief, Michelle Rodriguez giving us a nice emotional arc with Dom as she tries to remember the years of love with Dom that she lost to amnesia, and Dwayne Johnson giving the most cheesy action hero lines the spice that only The Rock could cook up. It also helps that Statham is by far the best villain of the series so far, icy and intimidating, he’s more a force of nature than anything else, and he makes it seem as though our characters are genuinely in danger.

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Director James Wan, who comes from making some of the absolute best horror films of the past decade (The Conjuring, Saw) faces not only the challenge of moving to something of a much larger scale with massive expectations behind it, but the logistical nightmare of covering up the material that Walker was unable to finish. Fortunately, he ascends to both challenges with grace and style, giving us by far some of the craziest stunt sequences we’ve seen in these films to date, done practically whenever possible, and it looks great. There’s a fluid mix of car chases, stunts that seem pulled out of a comic book, hand to hand combat (with some particularly fascinating camera-work), and shootouts, with enough variety where it does not start to feel repetitive until deep into the last act of the film. As for his treatment of Walker, it’s immaculate. The replacement of his body with that of either of his two brothers, Caleb and Cody, along with some CGI touch ups here and there is hardly even noticeable unless it’s really looked for, and is not distracting in the least. Along with that, the movie ends with a send-off of Bryan O’Conner that is so touching, that it’ll be hard to hold back tears, particularly in a final frame that is simply beautiful filmmaking.

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The film does run into problems with it’s length though. At a hefty two hours and twenty minutes, it becomes easy (especially towards the end of the film) to feel the bulk of sheer stimulation overload. With a bit of trimming, perhaps to an even two hours, the already tight pacing would have felt just right.  Also, there ends up being so many sub-villains, that some of them just feel like excuses to throw fight scenes in, particularly characters played by Rhonda Rousey and Tony Jaa. It’s just a bit too much of a good thing. Also, I wish that Wan had been allowed to put a bit more of his own stamp on this, incorporating less of his affinity for long takes and old school sensibilities than I would have liked, there are moments that just feel like Justin Lin is at the helm again.

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Furious 7 not only acts as yet another blazing installment of pure mayhem, but also as a resonant goodbye to one of the franchise’s key players. Perhaps it would be best to end the franchise on that final, beautiful frame, but seeing how much people love this gear-head version of Mission Impossible, I doubt that’ll be the case. As it is though, this is one of the best rides this series has ever given us, and I suggest you take it.

Rating: B+

Get Hard Review

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It seems as though there isn’t a buddy movie without Kevin Hart in it these days. Teaming up with the likes of Ice Cube, Josh Gad, and in the near future, Dwayne Johnson, the wildly charismatic funny-man seems to be able to pair with just about anyone he wants. However, what he somehow has never had until now, is an elite comedian to play off of. Yes, Hart and Will Ferrell seem to be a match made in heaven, as Farrell certainly knows a thing or two about having a period of being in seemingly every movie under the sun. Let’s see how they did, shall we?

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James King (Will Ferrell), a man who has collected a great deal of wealth through cooperate investments is living the prime rich white man life. Servants answer his every beck and call, there’s a promotion in his future, and he’s even got a hot trophy fiancee (Allison Bree) to bang when he has a minute. Hell, I don’t even think there’s a color that isn’t white in his entire house. However, he finds all of that is about to come crashing down when he gets incarcerated into maximum security prison for embezzlement that he believes he didn’t commit. Terrified, he enlists the help of car washer Darnell (Kevin Hart) whom he assumes has been to jail (although Darnell is a perfectly average family man), to help him prepare. Needing the money, Darnell bucks up, and goofiness ensues.

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Get Hard has been taking a lot of heat for it’s apparent racism and homophobia, and while some of those complaints may be valid, they are also slightly wasted on what is at the end of the day just a silly comedy. Yes, stereotypes run rampant here, and some of them even seem rather dated and out of touch, but to the film’s credit, nobody is left out of the loop on that tomato throwing. Everyone’s an idiot here, and as such, I felt fairly ok enjoying this goofy little movie for what it was, even if it certainly isn’t anything special.

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While this may not be the most fiery of comedic duos ever put on screen, these guys do what they can to help the silly set ups that they have. Ferrell plays up the silly, out of touch one percenter to the highest degree he can, ringing the biggest laughs out of the moments where that exterior starts to break (particularly when he starts inventing his own style of trash talking). Meanwhile, Hart is funny doing just about anything, and his reactions to Ferrell’s ignorance can sometimes save a badly written scene. I wish the two had some better back and forth, as they mainly shine when they’re given something more individual to do (Hart launches into a solo conversation between three different characters at one point that is actually really impressive), but they certainly carry what is ultimately pretty trite material.

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I can’t help but think that perhaps first time director Etan Cohen (who strangely enough helped write Tropic Thunder) was just not the right guy to take this on. He seems lost, not only in crafting solid set ups for these guys, but also in general filmmaking technique. This premise really could have made room for some genuine social commentary, especially if it took more time to either validate or invalidate Ferrell’s fears. However, since so much of it is training, it’s all hypothetical and as such, there’s never any real stakes to really make the laughs feel earned. Beyond that, there’s some really awkward editing here, particularly in the beginning, where between flashing back from an odd opening of Ferrell sobbing, to establishing the characters, does not begin the opening credits sequence until almost ten minutes into the film.

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If Get Hard had opened in 2006, it just might have been one of the most popular comedies of that year. The stereotypes it employs and cliched buddy troupes certainly would have felt more at home there. However, there is a fair amount of enjoyably and laughter to be had, particularly because Ferrell and Hart are just so talented and likable that if one can put the stupidity aside, they might have some fun. I won’t deny I enjoyed watching it, but if it were to ever come across my TV guide, I’d probably keep it behind bars.

Rating: C+

It Follows Review

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Horror films have always seemed to want to do nasty things to those folks who like to do the nasty. The teen couple who have sex in the woods are the first to get butchered, and if you do get yourself far enough to find a baby in your belly, it’s likely to be the antichrist. Since this trope is so ubiquitous, it’s shocking that it’s taken until It Follows for a horror film to truly delve into it. Sure, it dosen’t have a ghost in it, so it can’t be released wide in this climate, but quite honestly this film dosen’t seem to really care, yearning to bring back the style and tone of a vintage John Carpenter , or Tobe Hooper classic with a modern twist.

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We kick things off with Jay (Maika Monroe) about to go on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary), a fairly mysterious man who she’s just met. All seems fine and dandy between them, but Jay notices some strange behavior when Hugh seems to see people that she dosen’t. Unsure what to make of it, she goes ahead and has sex with him anyway, sealing her doom. You see, Hugh is infected with something of an STD (Sexually Transmitted Demon, if you will) that can take the form of any person, and will follow him and now Jay wherever they go. The only solution is to pass it along to somebody else, and even that will prove ineffective if the monster ends up catching and killing them.

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It Follows seeps into its audience’s sense of paranoia, and slowly spreads until it consumes the mind completely. From the moment Jay is infected, there is always someone lurking towards her, slowly but surely, ready to destroy her. It’s not a matter of these creatures making scary faces, or jumping out at random points, but the fact that they’re simply always there. Director David Robert Mitchell clearly has a great liking for a more classical, slow burn horror, and every single one of his scare set ups are all the more effective because of it. He unsettles by making no location safe, giving even the calmer scenes an added element of creepiness. I found myself searching for danger in each and every corner of the frame, knowing full well that the threat just might be lurking in the distance with the surreal, occasionally dizzying camerawork and blasting electronic score aiding the proceedings every step of the way.

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The performances are a solid cut above what you’d expect in a movie like this, subdued and authentic while still portraying the raw terror this situation would entail. Monroe in particular is not only stunning to look at, but has a deeply relatable presence that makes us intuitively care about her. It helps that she has a very solid group of young actors to play off of, and the film wisely avoids the trite family/friend tension that plagues so many cheep slasher films. Sure, these guys will bicker from time to time, but it occurs naturally in the scene, and not because of some forced reason in the script to add false drama. The only weak link is Paul (Keir Gilchrist), a longtime friend of Jay and her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) who’s constant yearning for Jay’s attention even at the most inopportune times grows tiresome.

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The only major issue comes in the film’s setting, which is some oddly ambiguous rung between yesteryear and today. Vintage TVs, movies, and cars run amuck, but so do cell phones and strange make-up mirrors that serve as mini Kindles for some reason. The older ascetics certainly aren’t a problem, but it would have been nice if the film had just committed to one time period, preferably around the 80s, as the heavily synth based score meshes beautifully there.

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Coming out of It Follows, I had it’s creepy imagery and deeply unsettling music running though my mind for hours on end. I was disturbed, but I also knew that I had just had a great time. It’s a film that is constantly keeping it’s audience guessing, disturbing them one minute, and then making them laugh the next, leading to a wonderfully entertaining experience at the movies. It’s one of the best, most original horror films that has come out of this decade, and whether you check it out now or use it for some added creeps around Halloween time, you owe it to yourself to see just how much a filmmaker who truly embraces his genre can bring to his material.

Rating: A-

Run All Night Review

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Judging from recent comments from elite level actor turned actor star Liam Neeson, his run as an ass kicker is nearing its end. After all, the man has to watch out for his health and certainly couldn’t be believable pummeling thug’s heads in ten years on. However, I’m starting to believe that he’s also thinking about giving up the way of the gun because quite simply, people are starting to tire of it, as there are only so many Taken 3s we can withstand. So considering that from this moment forward, any Neeson action outing could be his last, it’s about time that he start making them count!

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Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson), a former mob enforcer who has descended into alcoholism in light of his estrangement from his son Michael (Joel Kinnaman), is trying to lay low and live out the rest of his days without any more bloodshed. It seems to be working, even if he has to take the odd job as a Santa Claus for a mob christmas party now and again, until Michael happens upon a drug deal gone horribly wrong at the hand of Jimmy’s boss and best friend Shawn’s (Ed Harris) son Danny (Boyd Holbrook). When Jimmy finds himself having to kill Danny to protect Michael, the two men find themselves having to go on the run from Shawn’s murderous wrath, as well as the ensuing sea of police that start to follow the trail of blood.

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From the moment that Ed Harris barks at a group of drug dealers to leave his quarters because he is a “legitimate businessman” it becomes pretty clear that we’re getting nothing particularly new in Run All Night. It’s not a terrible surprise, since Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra have collaborated twice before on Unknown, and Non-Stop, which were both fairly standard as far as plot is concerned. However, as in those two films, this duo understands that if you’re going to do something generic, the least you can do is infuse it with a little energy of some kind. In Unknown and Non-Stop, they weaved winding mysteries for Neeson’s characters to solve, and here, it’s a palpable attention that is paid to character.

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Even when the basic premise here is at it’s most trite, what tends to save this film are the rather interesting dynamics that run though it. Sure, the estranged father and son trope isn’t anything particularly new, the movie isn’t satisfied to leave the conflict at the tired and true “you were never here daddy” cliche. Neeson and Kinnaman portray the rift with a solid amount of grit, and as we find out just how far into depravity Neeson slipped, the tension between the two becomes all the more understandable. It dosen’t just slip into the two of them being best friends when the plot suddenly needs it to, but allows mere begrudging respect guide Michael to see things his father’s way for one night. This is wonderfully paralleled with Harris, who gives a wonderful performance here as he experiences the hurt involved in trying to kill somebody he holds dear, because of what that person happened to do to his own flesh and blood. This constant ray of doubt runs through him more and more as the film goes on, and ensures that he never becomes just another cardboard villain.

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If anything, things just become boring once they do have to go into action. Neeson just seems tired with these types of sequences at this point, infusing almost none of the emotion that he brought to these scenes in earlier films, instead just going through the motions of what he has to do to move things forward. The set-ups aren’t anything to get excited about here either, with the standard close quarters fights, car chases, and shoot outs that we’ve even seen in other Neeson/Serra films. This story really could have benefitted from that extra jump start of style and emotion, and because it’s deprived of that, it little by little falls into the category of generic action film #50067. There’s also some pretty damn lousy editing, to the point where shots will repeat two or three times without any attempt to cover it up, and some choppy cutting in the tighter fights to cover up lousy choreography.

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There is certainly an attempt to bring something to Run All Night that stems beyond the blood and the bullets, and that is very appreciated. However, it all ultimately falls a bit flat due to phoned in execution, that really dosen’t seem to want to elevate the material above what is simply a passible TNT action movie. Neeson certainly is watchable, but I look forward to a long break from seeing him in these types of roles, as they just don’t seem to give him the cathartic rush that they used to, and hopefully, taking something a bit more intimate and character focussed will bring the master in him out once again.

Rating: B-

Chappie Review

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In 2009, at the tail end of a particularly mediocre summer, the world was treated to one of the most innovative films of the decade. This little 30 million dollar sci-fi flick, by the name of District 9, combined some of the richest alien mythology ever put on screen with thoughtful social commentary on the horrors of Apartheid, and it’s director Neill Blomkamp, was lauded as the next Ridley Scott. Six years, and one somewhat disappointing (but still enjoyable) follow up by the name of Elysium later, and we find ourselves at Chappie, Blomkamp’s final training run before he takes 0n something bigger with the iconic Alien franchise.

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Chappie takes place in around 2020 or so in a South Africa (what a surprise…) where some of the police force has been replaced with droids created by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), with a fair amount of success. However, Deon has bigger plans in mind, as he’s created the first fully functioning program for artificial intelligence, but unfortunately, his fickle boss (Sigourney Weaver) won’t give him anything to test it on. Taking matters into his own hands, he steals a partially destroyed droid, but as he’s on his way to test it, he’s kidnapped by three gangsters. These guys (two of which are played by and share the same names as Ninja and Yolandi from the rap duo Die Antwoord) need ten million dollars before an evil mob boss kills them, and they think that the childlike Chappie (Sharlto Copley), the being that Deon ultimately creates, just might be the thing to help them pull of the perfect heist.

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Chappie certainly isn’t breaking any new ground conceptually, as the whole childlike robot growing into itself trope has been mauled over time and time again. However, Blomkamp seems very aware of this, and is determined to take Chappie in thoughtful and original directions throughout. This is his somber, darkly humorous, hard-R version of a fairy tale, and as such it really does work.

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It certainly helps that Chappie is such a fascinating character, a childlike mind constantly being ripped between different ideologies. Deon wants him to engage his creativity, Yolandi wants him to learn slowly, and Ninja wants him to become tough and ruthless. As an impressionable baby he is constantly trying to adapt to each person, regardless of how smart he ends up becoming. Watching this transformation and conflict is all the more interesting due to Copley’s absolutely wonderful performance, where he not only does brilliant work establishing Chappie’s movement, but by melding innocence with intelligence.

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To my utter surprise, the supporting cast is also very strong. I normally find Dev Patel as bland as a bunch of rocks, but here he gives a rich and soulful turn as a man who just wants his creation to be a good man/robot/whatever, and will stop at nothing to engage Chappie’s morality. Also, while there was a great deal of well founded skepticism in casting Die Antwoord, these two actually ended up being up to the challenge. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not Shakespearian level or anything, but they fit the roles they’re given, making the best of it. Ninja provides some of the film’s biggest laughs with his utter hotheadedness, while Yolandi makes for a very atypical mother figure indeed. They actually seem like real south African gangsters, and not hired actors, which aids authenticity. Hugh Jackman also shows up as the film’s villain, who wants to get his own police robot off the ground by any means necessary, and while it’s a bit of a thin character, he infuses it with the same passion one would expect from him. The only one who is wasted is Weaver, who has such a small and ultimately insignificant role it’s a wonder they even cast her in the first place. Whatever gets her back into space i suppose…

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Where Chappie starts to falter a bit is in it’s acton sequences. Typical of Blomkamp, they’re brutal and well staged, but equally typical, they’re also a bit over stylized for the tone this film is going for. This comes out most in his overuse of slow motion shots, which I suppose is there to highlight the brutality of the violence, but because it’s used so often in other places that are just silly. It comes off as though he’s fettishising the violence a little bit, taking us out of the immediacy of everything and reminding us that we are in a movie. It ultimately undercuts the action sequences that do feel quick and powerful, and makes the whole affair feel a bit overcooked in this respect.

Chappie has been met with a brutally negative reception, with people comparing Blomkamp to the likes M. Night Shyamalan and quite frankly that is simply too harsh for what is such a shot of originality, humor, and pathos in the sci fi genre. Sure, he does ape a couple of the aesthetic choices he has made before, but he’s told an entirely different story. Any movie that has the balls to deal with the corruption of innocence in such a visceral and emotional way is pretty damn good in my book, and as far as I’m concerned, Blomkamp and Copley could make fifty more movies together and I would see each and every one of them.

Rating: B+