Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Promised Land

Promised Land - Dir. Gus Van Sant (2012)

Socially conscious dramas have long been a staple of Hollywood. Promised Land, written by stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski, is certainly attempting to evoke the classic works of Frank Capra along with Bill Forsyth's Local Hero. The movie touches upon several hot button topics, but primarily focuses on hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," the controversial process of mining natural gas from underground rock layers.

Steve Butler (Damon) is a top sales rep for Global Crosspower Solutions and in line for a promotion to VP of Land Management. Before settling into a cushy office gig, Steve's superiors task him with securing the drilling rights in McKinley, a small farming community hit with hard times. Butler feels he is the right man for the job because he grew up on a farm in Iowa, which went into a downward spiral following the closure of the local Caterpillar plant. Butler and his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) have their entire strategy mapped out, including driving into town in a weathered pick-up truck and dressing in down-to-earth denim. Many of the locals have been anxiously awaiting their arrival others are easily swayed with the promise of lucrative payouts and improved schools.

Everything seems to be in the bag for Global Crosspower until a low-key town meeting at the high school gym. Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), a former engineer turned high school science teacher, raises his concerns that the fracking could contaminate the town's water and soil. Soon, Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a fervent environmentalist, arrives with evidence that Global caused irreparable damage to his farm in Nebraska.

Though they try their best to be even-handed, it's clear Damon and Krasinski are strongly opposed to fracking. Damon's beliefs were strong enough that he initially planned to direct Promised Land, before handing the reins to his Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant. Van Sant handles the film with a gentle hand and captures the beauty of the rural landscape with a solemn tone. The acoustic folk rock and ethereal score by Danny Elfman add to the old fashioned atmosphere. A montage of life in McKinley acts as a forlorn tribute to the heartland of America, which has been hit hard by the economic crisis. One character bluntly raises the fact that there are no drills in Manhattan and the gas company has arrived solely because they are poor and desperate.

Damon and Krasinski forget a few basic rules of screenwriting. Rather than tell a good story and allow their message to flow forth naturally, they hammer home their ideology on the shaky back of an inconsistent script. Steve Butler is meant to be a confident hotshot, yet he's completely thrown off his game by the sudden opposition of Yates and Noble. You'd think he had enough experience to deal with any arguments in an intelligent manner without throwing a tantrum. A vital twist in the third act is too convenient and hackneyed not to induce eye rolling.

Credit goes to the stellar cast for preventing the film from falling further into ham-handed moralizing. Damon and McDormand turn in fine performances in spite of their underwritten characters. Old pro Hal Holbrook lends an extra layer of gravitas to every one of his scenes. Rosemarie DeWitt is also terrific as an elementary school teacher being romanced by Butler and Noble. She's made a habit of these strong supporting roles in good (My Sister's Sister) or bad (The Watch, The Company Men) flicks. Titus Welliver has a quiet turn as the owner of the wonderfully named "Rob's Guns, Groceries, Guitars, and Gas," who has amorous intentions towards Sue.

The art of cinema can be educating and entertaining, but Promised Land fails on both accounts. Mary Poppins always said a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. In this case, you'll leave with nothing more than a sour taste in your mouth.

Rating: ** (*****)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Silent Hill: Revelation

Silent Hill: Revelation - Dir. Michael J. Bassett (2012)

Video game movies haven't been altogether successful. Interactivity is the key ingredient missing. Every choice the player makes advances the story in various ways and affects the outcome. They are a huge part of building the narrative whereas the film's audience is solely along for the ride. There's no button to mash or joystick to jostle if they don't like what's happening. The viewer is stuck with whatever wrongheaded decision has been made by the producers or screenwriters. This brings us to the befuddling Silent Hill: Revelation, based on the spooky franchise from Konami. Think of it was their answer to Capcom's Resident Evil.

The first Silent Hill game was released in 1999 and adapted into a 2006 picture by director Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf) and writer Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction, Killing Zoe). To recap: Christopher (Sean Bean) and Rose Da Silva's (Radha Mitchell) adopted daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) has frequent nightmares about a ghost town in West Virginia called Silent Hill. Believing it to be the girl's birthplace, Rose takes Sharon there only to be trapped in a nightmarish alternate dimension. The town is blanketed by fog and ash and inhabited by a cult of religious fanatics who accused Alessa, an innocent child, of being a witch and burned her at the stake. Sharon is actually a manifestation of Alessa's purity and innocence. The film concludes with the vengeful spirit of Alessa killing the cult while Rose and Sharon escape from Silent Hill, but remain trapped in the other world.

That summary may have been unnecessary because Revelation throws most of that out the window in the opening minutes. A brief flashback reveals Rose used a talisman known as the Seal of Metatron to send Sharon back home. Since then, Sharon (Adelaide Clemens) and her father have been moving across the country under assumed names to avoid the remaining cultists (The Order of Valtiel). Unfortunately, the Order has caught up with them and kidnapped Christopher to draw Sharon back to Silent Hill. With the help of classmate Vincent Cooper (Kit Harington), Sharon sets out to rescue her dad from the Order's leader, Claudia Wolf (Carrie-Anne Moss), who seeks to use Sharon for a ritual that will summon their god.

Writer/Director Michael J. Bassett (Solomon Kane) should get credit for creating such a slick and creepy looking movie on a shoestring budget of $20 million. His Silent Hill feels like hell on Earth and populated by gruesome creatures ripped from the mind of Clive Barker. Bassett plays plenty of lip service to the hardcore fans with the appearances of game villains like the knife-wielding Dark Nurses, a disturbing spider made out of mannequin parts, and the instantly recognizable Pyramid Head.

Ultimately, the visuals mean nothing when faced with a nonsensical story that exponentially increases in absurdity. Bassett clearly loves the source material, but finds no possible way to streamline it. Thus, the majority of the dialogue is nothing more than exposition. Characters drone on and on in a vain effort to explain the convoluted mythology of the game.

Malcolm McDowell makes a silly cameo as a raving old man, a role he's more than capable of comfortably slipping into. Yet, you can't help but feel he, along with Sean Bean and Carrie-Anne Moss, are slumming it. Neither of the leads is given much. Aussie actress Adelaide Clemens bares a strong resemblance to Michelle Williams, except she's not given the chance to show if she has the same dramatic chops with such a one-dimensional character. And "Game of Thrones" devotees shouldn't expect a lot from Kit Harington since his Vincent Cooper isn't nearly as well-written as Jon Snow.

Silent Hill: Revelation is a portentous horror show that could have easily been churned out of the Paul W.S. Anderson factory. At least, it's better than anything by Uwe Boll.

Rating: * (*****)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Haunted House

A Haunted House - Dir. Michael Tiddes (2013)

Although you can trace the origins of the found footage genre back to 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust, it was 1999’s The Blair Witch Project that brought it into modern consciousness. There’s been a resurgence of the genre following the runaway success of the Paranormal Activity films. With that success comes a host of imitators and parodies, beginning with the direct-to-video 30 Nights of Paranormal Activity with the Devil Inside the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. One of the most prominent horror spoofs has been the Scary Movie franchise, which was shepherded by the Wayans Brothers. They departed after two films and were replaced by David Zucker, no stranger to parodies since he also directed Airplane and The Naked Gun. The Weinstein Company is resurrecting the Scary Movie brand after seven years with a fifth installment coming to theaters in April. Meanwhile, Marlon Wayans, an original star and co-writer of Scary Movie, has branched out with his own horror-comedy, A Haunted House, which hit theaters in January and arrives on DVD and Blu-ray shortly after the release of its competitor.

Malcolm Johnson (Wayans) is extremely excited to have his girlfriend, Keisha (Essence Atkins), move into his handsome suburban home. However, things go wrong immediately when she accidentally runs over Malcolm’s beloved dog. It only gets worse when spooky events start to occur, from doors and objects moving by themselves to ghostly moans in the middle of the night. Keisha sheepishly admits that she sold her soul to a demon for a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes and may have brought the supernatural presence with her. Together, they seek help from a variety of sources, including a pair of security experts (David Koechner and Dave Sheridan) filming their own reality series, an overly intimate psychic (Nick Swardson), Malcolm’s gangsta cousin Ray-Ray (Affion Crockett), and a priest (Cedric the Entertainer) with dubious credentials.

Marlon Wayans intended A Haunted House to be a humorous look at how black people would react to supernatural circumstances in the place of white folk. Too bad Eddie Murphy already did that gag in his classic stand-up special Delirious. Not to mention Murphy's joke was far funnier and only a couple minutes long. A Haunted House is excruciatingly dull and it's almost half an hour into the movie before the ghost story kicks into gear. One of the criticisms levied against Paranormal Activity was the thin plot and the plot is even thinner here. Really, it's a one joke premise. As soon as the furniture is thrown around, get the hell out of the house. That's exactly what Malcolm tries to do, but then the movie would be blessedly over. Instead, he and Keisha stick around, forcing us to endure a steady string of fart jokes and dated references to Snakes on a Plane and the Shake Weight.

Wayans seems to think flashing his bare ass is hilarious and does so on several occasions such as when he drunkenly defecates in the middle of the living room and when he gets sodomized by an invisible spirit. A Haunted House also loves playing up stereotypes from a Mexican housekeeper who seemingly can't speak English to Nick Swardson's swishy psychic who is constantly trying to fondle Malcolm because that's what all gay guys do.

Admittedly, there are some amusing moments. One scene finds Malcolm and Keisha calmly eating breakfast completely ignoring the poltergeist wreaking havoc on their kitchen. A Haunted House might have worked as a series of short skits. As it stands, it's nothing more than a lazy, lowbrow spoof.

Rating: * (*****)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Django Unchained

Django Unchained - Dir. Quentin Tarantino (2012)

Django…Django, have you always been alone?
Django…Django, have you never loved again?

Film geeks had to be on pins and needles when word got out that Quentin Tarantino would write and direct a Western. The Spaghetti Western was a tremendous influence on Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds so fans were eager to see QT tackle the genre outright. He does not disappoint with the vibrant and violent Django Unchained.

The titular Django (Jamie Foxx) is a runaway slave separated from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) by their wicked master. He is rescued from a chain gang by German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who requires Django's assistance in tracking down a trio of outlaws known as the Brittle Brothers. A newfound friendship quickly blossoms and Schultz agrees to help Django find his wife. Unfortunately, she is now in the possession of a particularly nasty plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Just as he has done in the past, Tarantino litters the narrative with references to the movies he loves with Django Unchained serving as a fusion of Westerns and blaxploitation. Tarantino specifically riffs on Sergio Corbucci, director of the original Django, which was a classic Spaghetti Western. Much like Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino took the title and barebones premise of an older Italian picture and injected it with his own unique vision. Franco Nero, the original Django, makes a cameo appearance and receives special thanks in the opening credits. Django isn't the only Corbucci flick Tarantino pays homage to. The montage where Schultz trains Django in the snow covered mountains is a reference to The Great Silence, a rarity of the genre in that it was set during the dead of winter and not under a scorching desert sun. The theme of revenge recalls Navajo Joe, starring Burt Reynolds, as well as Giulio Petroni's Death Rides a Horse, which played a huge part in the genesis of Kill Bill. Another film Tarantino owes a debt to is the controversial Mandingo with its brutal depiction of slaves forced to fight one another. In true Tarantino fashion, Broomhilda's full name is Broomhilda von Shaft, after the German family that previously owned her, which points to her and Django being the ancestors of blaxploitation icon John Shaft.

Tarantino isn't known for providing his films with an original score. He prefers using existing music and the soundtrack is an eclectic collection of anachronistic pop tunes like Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" with hip-hop tracks by Tupac and Rick Ross. In addition, there are the usual pieces from Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov whose compositions are synonymous with the Western genre. The opening credits are set to the theme song of the original Django while the end credits use "Trinity (Titoli)," the theme from They Call Me Trinity, a comedic take on the Western starring Terence Hill, who also appeared in the similar My Name is Nobody.

Django Unchained isn't without its problems, not the least of which is Tarantino's atrocious attempt at an Australian accent. The movie certainly feels like one of his messiest works, which could be explained by several factors. QT reportedly took a lax attitude when it came to production and the picture fell behind schedule. The death of Tarantino's long-time editor Sally Menke has to be factored in as well. This is his first picture without Menke and her presence in the editing room is missed. Finally, a lot of material was cut from the original screenplay, including extended backstories for Broomhilda and some of Candieland's denizens. Django's wife suffers the most from these trims as she is reduced to a damsel in distress. It is truly disappointing to see her as such a cipher compared to the strong female characters Tarantino has written before (Jackie Brown, The Bride, etc.). Tarantino does manage to inject his own flair for dark and over-the-top humor exemplified by a Blazing Saddles-style sequence involving the Regulators, the precursors to the KKK.

All those faults are easily overlooked by a winning performance from Christoph Waltz, who earned a second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Django Unchained lives and dies at the feet of the loquacious Dr. King Schultz. Never has the marriage between auteur and thespian been so perfect. Waltz was born to breathe life into Tarantino's stylish dialogue. He exudes an inordinate amount of charisma in every scene. At the same time, there's a subtle layer of shock and seething anger underneath Schultz's whimsical nature due to the prejudice he witnesses. Every hero needs a strong villain to face and Calvin Candie serves that role thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio, who is cast against type as the sinister Southerner. Much like Waltz as Hans Landa, DiCaprio possesses a disarming charm and cherubic visage that belies his propensity for sadism. However, the true antagonist in Django Unchained may just be Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, the faithful servant to the Candie family. Judging by outward appearances, Stephen could be dismissed as a comical stereotype in the vein of Uncle Remus from "Song of the South." But, his hateful nature is quickly revealed to be downright frightening. In addition the leads, Tarantino rounds out his rich supporting cast with regular collaborators like Zoe Bell, Tom Savini, and Michael Parks alongside Jonah Hill, Walt Goggins, Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, James Remar, John Jarratt, and Tom Wopat.

Django Unchained is a vibrant example that Quentin Tarantino doesn't just make movies, he makes pop art. The film soars on the back of Tarantino's intricately written dialogue and a bravura performance from Christoph Waltz until it builds to a bloody crescendo. "Django Unchained" is my pick for the best film of 2012.

Rating: **** (*****)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Dragon - Dir. Peter Chan (2011)

Donnie Yen doesn't have the instant recognition of his more renowned peers, Jet Li and Jackie Chan, but his output lately has been very impressive. Ip Man is one of the best martial arts flicks to be released in recent years. He's also starred in Flash Point, SPL, and Bodyguards and Assassins. His newest film is Dragon, which was originally released overseas as Wu Xia, the broad term used to define the genre of period martial arts films. In spite of the generic titles, Dragon  is hardly a traditional action picture.

Set in 1917, Yen stars as Liu Jin-xi, an unassuming paper maker married to Yu (Tang Wei from Ang Lee's Lust, Caution), a farm girl with two sons, one from a previous marriage. By sheer dumb luck, Liu manages to thwart a robbery by two brutal thieves, killing both in the process. Anyone who has seen A History of Violence or read the graphic novel it was based on will see where this is headed. The investigating detective, Xu Bai-ju (Takeshi Kaneshiro), believes there is far more to Liu than meets the eye. He deduces that Liu is a highly skilled martial arts master, but why he is living an anonymous life in a tiny rural village is the real mystery.

As a young officer, Detective Xu showed leniency on a young boy who stole from his adoptive parents. Xu never foresaw that the boy would poison him and his parents. The couple died and Xu barely survived. He uses his knowledge of physiology and acupuncture to stave off the effects of the poison as well as his own emotions. By suppressing his own empathy, Xu remains utterly objective and unyielding; the Inspector Javert to Donnie Yen's Jean Valjean. He uncovers Liu's past as a member of the 72 Demons, a clan of assassins responsible for the grisly murders of a butcher and his family.

Dragon comes from director Peter Chan and screenwriter Aubrey Lam, who previously collaborated on The Warlords, a 2007 epic starring Jet Li, Andy Lau, and Kaneshiro. Chan has dabbled mostly in the romantic comedy, including his one and only Hollywood production, The Love Letter with Kate Capshaw and Tom Selleck. Chan does his most interesting work on Dragon, which pays homage to the classic movies of the genre while using slick and modern techniques. The opening half of Dragon plays out like an episode of CSI with Xu reconstructing the crime scene and analyzing clues.

The third act unfolds more like a standard kung fu film as the focus shifts to Liu as he battles the 72 Demons. What makes the finale so special is the presence of two actors from the Shaw Brothers' stable, Kara Hui and Jimmy Wang. Hui is best known for her roles in My Young Auntie and The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, which were both directed by Lau Kar-leung, who also helmed two more seminal entries in the genre, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Drunken Master II. Wang is a coup for the production since he hasn't appeared in a movie in nearly two decades. He was one of the biggest stars in Hong Kong cinema during the late-60's and 70's with his most renowned films being The One-Armed Swordsman and Master of the Flying Guillotine.

It should be noted that approximately 18 minutes of footage has been trimmed for the American release by Anchor Bay and the Weinstein Company. Having not seen the international release, I cannot attest to which version is better.

Despite a few slow spots, Dragon gets a recommendation due to a few unique elements and strong fight scenes.

Rating: *** (*****)

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Croods

The Croods - Dirs. Chris Sanders & Kirk De Micco (2013)

Faster than you can say, "The Flintstones," Dreamworks offers their own take on the modern Stone Age family with The Croods. The Croods opened to boffo box office worldwide as moviegoers, thirsting for family friendly entertainment, flocked to theaters for a grand total of over $122 million.

The Croods live in a highly stylized version of prehistoric times where all of their friends have been killed off by animals or disease. The patriarch, Grug (Nicolas Cage), subscribes to the motto, "Never not be afraid." In order to keep his family alive, Grug moves them into a dark cave and spins cautionary tales about how curiosity will kill the caveman. Obviously this irks his teenage daughter, Eep (Emma Stone), whose adventurous streak is a constant concern for her overly protective father. One night, Eep notices a strange, orange glow that leads her into an encounter with Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a more evolved drifter who warns Eep about the end of the world, what we know now as continental drift. Guy disappears and the next morning, the Croods' cave is destroyed by a rockslide. They discover an incredible new world that had existed behind their backs. It's a beautiful, yet dangerous land with strange creatures like land whales, furry saber tooth tigers, and Piranhakeets, ravenous birds with razor sharp teeth. Guy saves the Crood family from a flock and leads them on a journey to a safe haven he calls, "Tomorrow." The Croods are awestruck by Guy and his newfangled inventions like fire, shoes, umbrellas, and snare traps. But, Grug is less than impressed and grows jealous of all the adoration heaped on Guy.

The Croods is fairly straightforward stuff with obvious themes about family and that trying new things is good. There are plenty of references to parents being overprotective, especially when it comes to boyfriends, and kids being embarrassed by mom and dad. What sets it apart is the presence of co-writer and co-director Chris Sanders, who previously brought us Lilo & Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon. The similarities are obvious right down to the character designs, including an albino hyena and an adorable sloth named Belt, both of whom bare a resemblance to Experiment 626. Sanders brings real warmth and heart to the story along with his irreverent sense of humor and a steady stream of slapstick. The opening sequence with the Croods hunting for breakfast while fending off other wildlife sets the tone for the energetic pace to come. The animation is breathtaking with the world the Croods explore baring strong similarities to Avatar.

There is a small, but strong voice cast at work here with Nicolas Cage employing his own brand of off-kilter charm to the role of Grug. He gets in a toned down variation of the trademark Cage meltdown as Grug undergoes history's first ever mid-life crisis. Emma Stone is terrific in the lead and even looks a little like her character, who appears to be the freckle faced offspring of Pebbles and Bam Bam. Rounding out the cast are an underused Catherine Keener as mom Ugga, Clark Duke as dim-witted brother Thunk, and Cloris Leachman as the crotchety grandma.

It's a safe bet that the best animated films of 2013 will be Pixar's Monsters University, Universal's Despicable Me 2, and The Croods. The zany energy and colorful presentation will be more than enough to entertain youngsters as well as older audiences.

Rating: *** (*****)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hyde Park on Hudson

Hyde Park on Hudson - Dir. Roger Michell (2012)

Hyde Park on Hudson had all the makings of a prestige picture. It’s based on a true story, features an A-list cast, and helmed by a prominent British director in Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Morning Glory). Yet, the film was quietly forgotten during awards season, except for a Golden Globe nomination for Bill Murray’s performance as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR is ranked high in the presidential pantheon, right alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. He served four consecutive terms as president and shepherded the country through the Great Depression and World War II. Hyde Park is an attempt to humanize FDR and explore the man behind the myth.

The title comes from Roosevelt’s childhood home in upstate New York that hosted a historic visit from King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the first time a presiding king had come to the United States. Screenwriter Roger Nelson was inspired to explore this intimate summit through the eyes of Roosevelt’s fifth cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckey, after correspondence was discovered between the two that hinted at a possible relationship. Nelson originally wrote it as a radio play before adapting it for the big screen.

Laura Linney plays Daisy, a spinster living with her elderly mother, who is called to Hyde Park to ease the President’s mind from stately affairs. There’s an instant attraction between FDR and Daisy though the latter isn’t sure what to make of things considering the presence of the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams) and secretary Marguerite “Missy” LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel), who is also having a clandestine affair with the President. Amidst all the romantic entanglements come the King (Samuel West) and Queen (Olivia Colman) of England who are hoping to beseech the Americans to join in the war effort against Nazi Germany.

Hyde Park isn’t an accurate portrayal of historical events, but a speculative dramatization. Though there’s no strong evidence to suggest FDR had affairs with Daisy or Missy, it’s been suspected for decades along with a previous affair with New York Post publisher Dorothy Schiff. FDR may be portrayed as a womanizer, but he doesn’t come off as a callous cad due to the likeability of lead actor Bill Murray. Murray doesn’t disappear into the role the way Daniel Day-Lewis did in Lincoln so much as he imbues FDR with the trademark Bill Murray wit and playfulness. Unfortunately, the filmmakers choose to focus on Daisy and Hyde Park grinds to a halt whenever she takes the spotlight. This is no knock on Laura Linney, a tremendously talented actress, but the script does its job too well in painting Daisy as a mousy wallflower to the point she becomes an utter cipher  By sticking with Daisy, the movie loses out on Eleanor Roosevelt’s feelings about her husband’s extramarital activities. It’s hinted that their marriage is nothing more than a political convenience, but Eleanor fades into the background for the most part. That’s a shame because Olivia Williams gives a forceful performance in the scant amount of scenes she is given.

Hyde Park picks up steam when the royals enter the picture. Their story could be seen as something of a sequel or companion piece to The King’s Speech. For argument's sake, let's ignore Madonna's ill-conceived W.E. King George VI, who suffers from a terrible stammer, has awkwardly taken the crown following his older brother’s abdication. The Queen isn’t particularly fond of Americans and it’s clear that they don’t fit in. Her Royal Highness is apoplectic when the President insists on serving them cocktails and hot dogs. However, that hot dog turns out to be a clever gambit on FDR’s part to turn the King into a relatable Joe instead of a stuffed shirt. A father-son relationship emerges between the King and Roosevelt during a tender moment of bonding over their respective ailments. His Majesty bemoans his crippling speech impediment while Roosevelt points to his battle with polio.

In spite of a quick 90 minute runtime, Hyde Park on Hudson was one of the most laboriously tedious movies I've experienced in a while. There are sporadic splashes of brilliance that are overshadowed by a dull protagonist and a myriad of subplots stumbling over one another.

Rating: * ½ (*****)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

G.I. Joe: Retaliation - Dir. Jon M. Chu (2013)

Any self-respecting child of the 80's who had the misfortune to catch G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, couldn't help but leave the theater with a foul taste in their mouth. Paramount's clumsy attempt at turning Hasbro's famed toy line into a live-action franchise played fast and loose with the mythology as it careened through a nonsensical plot riddled with idiotic dialogue. Rise of Cobra earned a little over $300 million worldwide, just barely turning a profit on its exorbitant $175 million budget. It was still enough to greenlight a sequel with the studio taking much of the criticism to heart. G.I. Joe: Retaliation serves as not only a sequel, but something of a reboot and catch-all apologia.

This time around, the Joe team consists of Duke (Channing Tatum), Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Flint (D.J. Cotrona), and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki). After retrieving a nuclear warhead stolen from Pakistan, the Joes are the victim of an airstrike that kills the majority of the team, including Duke. The attack was ordered by the President (Jonathan Pryce), who is actually Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) in disguise. Zartan proceeds to turn the country against the Joes and orchestrates the escape of Cobra Commander from a high-tech underground prison with the help of Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) and Cobra saboteur Firefly (Ray Stevenson). With the enemy now in the White House, Roadblock, Flint, and Lady Jaye seek the aid of the original Joe, General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis) to expose Cobra's Machiavellian plot. Meanwhile, Snake-Eyes (Ray Park) and his protégé Jinx (Elodie Yung) are dispatched to the Himalayas to hunt down Storm Shadow for the murder of their master.

Stephen Sommers and his brand of bland blockbuster filmmaking are gone. In his stead, Paramount has gone for an improbable choice in Jon M. Chu whose previous credits include Step Up 2: The Streets, Step Up 3D and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never as well as the Microsoft Surface commercials. His experience with directing elaborately choreographed sequences serve Chu well when it comes to Retaliation's numerous action scenes. By far, the best set piece where Snake-Eyes and Jinx clash swords with a cadre of red ninjas while swinging around snow-capped mountainsides. It feels like an entirely separate film within the film. Most of the other scenes involving shootouts or fistfights suffer from hyperactive camerawork. The Himalayan sequence is also the only section that benefits of the 3D post-conversion that shelved the picture from its original release date in August 2012. Despite rampant rumor mongering, Retaliation did not go through any extensive reshoots.

Another aspect Chu brings is a genuine love of the property to the point he used action figures to storyboard the action. The screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Zombieland and unproduced scripts for Deadpool and Venom) inject the sequel with more humor and faithfulness than its predecessor. The story skews much closer to the Marvel comics by Larry Hama, including an homage to the iconic "Silent Interlude" in issue #21. The Joes are more grounded as a Special Forces branch of the military rather than the cartoonish global peacekeeping force from Rise of Cobra. The vehicles in the film resemble the toys you might have collected, such as the HISS Tank, the AWE Striker, and the Water Moccasin. Cobra Commander has ditched the god-awful plastic mask for his classic chrome faceplate. Roadblock being a former chef and a hint of romance between Flint and Lady Jaye are thrown in for the die-hard fans.

While the story gains in reverence to the source material, it completely lacks in substance and coherence. The plot unfurls at lightning speed through the 90 minute runtime with no gravitas to any of the film's major moments. The convoluted backstory between Storm Shadow and Snake-Eyes is shoehorned into the standard Cobra threatens to blow up the world scheme. The entire city of London is destroyed with little bearing because we are ripped away to the next scene. At one point, Storm Shadow is imprisoned and the guards bafflingly bring along his swords, then leave them right out in the open. Nearly everyone from Rise of Cobra has been ditched with no mention at all to their fates. They aren't missed with the exception of Rachel Nichols as Scarlett. However, her role is supplanted by Adrianne Palicki's Lady Jaye though there is little done to differentiate the two. Developing fully dimensional characters is hardly a priority. It's clear a lot of that stuff was cut out during the hiatus.

Only Roadblock makes an impression thanks to the charisma of Dwayne Johnson, who has become the go-to guy to resurrect flailing franchises. Besides already looking like an action figure brought to life, Johnson has an easygoing charm that meshes well with the surprisingly funny Channing Tatum. The repartee between Roadblock and Duke are some of the most entertaining in the movie, which suffers following Tatum's departure. However, you can't blame Tatum for wanting to move on to bigger and better things now that he's starring in Steven Soderbergh productions. Jonathan Pryce, one of the few actors to return, gets a much meatier role with a dual performance as the disheveled president and the villainous Zartan. Pryce is clearly relishing the deliciously evil one-liners given to him ("They call it waterboarding, but I never get bored."). The same goes for Ray Stevenson and Walt Goggins as a somewhat sadistic warden. Don't expect to see the lively Bruce Willis seen in Moonrise Kingdom or Looper. As Gen. Colton, Willis can hardly muster up an emotion aside from mild bemusement. RZA wins the award for worst performance due to his wooden turn as the Blind Master.

Paramount still doesn't hit the mark the second time around. G.I. Joe: Retaliation won't be mistaken for high art, but the sequel accomplishes its modest goal of being mindless entertainment.

Rating: ** (*****)

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Superman: Unbound

Superman: Unbound - Dir. James Tucker (2013)

Since 2007, Warner Premiere has been producing a line of direct-to-video animated films based on DC Comics' extensive library of characters. They've actually have a better track record at bringing to life superheroes like Green Lantern and Wonder Woman than WB's live-action division. Lately, they have released some of their best pictures yet with Justice League: Doom and the much-anticipated 2-part adaptation of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Their latest effort is Superman: Unbound, which is scheduled to be released in May and was recently screened at WonderCon.

Unbound is based on a five-issue story arc by Geoff Johns with art by Gary Frank and taking place in Action Comics #866 through #870. The film opens with Superman (Matt Bomer) and Supergirl (Molly Quinn) flying through Metropolis in an attempt to rescue Lois Lane (Stana Katic) from a group of armed men. From there, the Man of Steel has a heart-to-heart talk with his cousin about her difficulties in adapting to life on Earth. Superman is also having relationship problems with Lois. Before those can be ironed out, Kal-El speeds off to the desert to investigate a robot that crash landed from space. He takes the remains back to the Fortress of Solitude where Supergirl recognizes it as a drone belonging to Brainiac (John Noble). A fusion of flesh and machine, Brainiac collects all the knowledge of a world, shrinks one of its cities to keep as a specimen, and then destroys the entire planet. Long ago, he came to Krypton and took the city of Kandor. Supergirl and her parents barely escaped. Rather than wait for Brainiac's arrival, Superman decides to take the fight to him.

Warner Premiere has struggled working within the limitation of their budget. This has resulted in many movies being released with truncated run times. In some cases, the films barely break the hour mark (Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, Batman: Year One). Although, Superman: Unbound runs 76 minutes, it never plays like huge chunks are missing. In fact, the film feels a lot longer than it is. The script by Bob Goodman (who also adapted Dark Knight Returns) goes deeper in exploring Superman's relationships with Supergirl and Lois Lane. The main characters are fully realized in spite of their relatively short screen time. For all his powers, Superman still has trouble figuring out Lois. Meanwhile, Lois is depicted as quick-witted and fiercely independent, hardly the typical damsel in distress though she regularly gets into trouble. Unbound also earns a PG-13 because of a rude gesture Lois flashes at Brainiac. Supergirl has all the complexities of a teenage girl topped off with super-strength and heat vision.

The animation doesn't look cheap at all and the art style doesn't resemble one used in previous pictures or of Gary Frank's artwork from the original comics. The style has a slight anime influence. Unbound is action-packed as the title refers to a rare instance where Superman faces an enemy formidable enough that he doesn't have to hold back. Brainiac is a creepy foe that is Superman's match both physically and mentally.

The cast is one of the finest assembled by voice director Andrea Romano. Matt Bomer and Castle stars Molly Quinn and Stana Katic are perfect in their roles and it helps that they could portray them in a live-action version. John Noble of Fringe fame is excellent as Brainiac with a booming voice full of menace and arrogance. Rounding out the ensemble are Frances Conroy as Martha Kent, Wade Williams as Perry White, Stephen Root as Supergirl's father Zor-El, and Diedrich Bader as the Daily Planet's resident meathead Steve Lombard.

Superman: Unbound definitely ranks as the best Superman release from DC and Warner as well as one of the best releases in the line.

Rating: *** (*****)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Master

The Master - Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (2012)

"Good science by definition allows for more than one opinion. Otherwise, you merely have the will of one man which is the basis of cult."

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master can be easily summed up through a sequence in which Joaquin Phoenix and a group of fellow sailors on shore leave gather around a woman sculpted from wet sand. Phoenix proceeds to vigorously hump the facsimile to the amusement of his comrades. But, as he continues, their laughter turns to awkward chuckles and hushed horror. The Master is enthralling, confounding, and the most enigmatic picture Anderson has made to date. Yet, you can never look away.

Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an extremely troubled man who has just been discharged from the Navy. Though most would see Quell's service during WWII as the cause of his problems, it's likely he's always been mentally disturbed. Quell only yearns for the basest of needs: drink and sex. His addiction to alcohol is so strong that he's willing to drink anything including paint thinner, photo-chemicals, and missile fuel. Quell seems to have no place as a civilian after being fired from his job as a photographer and chased off a cabbage field by migrant workers. He stows away on a yacht where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-proclaimed renaissance man who fancies himself as a doctor, philosopher, author, and educator. He leads a movement known as The Cause whose followers refer to Dodd as 'Master.' His beliefs will change the world and better all of mankind. In Quell, Dodd sees the infallible validation of his work, for if he can cure Quell, he can cure humanity itself. One of the best sequences in The Master sees Dodd grilling Quell with a series of questions during an exercise called "processing."

Much has been made about Anderson basing The Master on L. Ron Hubbard and the formation of the Church of Scientology. While Dodd is clearly inspired by Hubbard, The Master could hardly be considered an exposé on the origins of Scientology. Instead, Anderson uses those concepts as a springboard to explore the symbiotic relationship between Dodd and Quell. This is a different take on the father-son dynamic than what was explored in Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood. There are times when Dodd disciplines Quell as he would a dog, by chastising him while screaming, "Naughty." Quell certainly behaves like an attack dog when he assaults and threatens anyone who criticizes Dodd, including Dodd's own son, Val (Jesse Plemons), who looks upon his father's work with ambivalence.

On the surface, Dodd portrays the refined intellectual, but he is hardly as evolved as he believes. He'll unleash a profane outburst should he be questioned as one loyal follower (Laura Dern) unfortunately discovers. When he's around Quell, Dodd indulges in simpler pleasures, drinking his protégé's noxious concoctions and laughing at his fart jokes. If Quell is pure id and Dodd the ego that would make the latter's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), the superego. Peggy comes off as the doting wife in the public's eye, but behind closed doors, she is the true power of the Cause. She literally has her husband by the balls, manipulating him through sex.

The Master is sparked by three powerhouse performances from Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams, all of whom were nominated for Academy Awards. However, it was largely ignored in every other category. Not surprising since The Master is a tough nut to crack. Anderson deploys an unconventional narrative that builds to an ambiguous ending that some may find infuriating. Personally, I found it to be an enriching and though provoking experience, a story that is masterly told.

Rating: **** (*****)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Rise of the Guardians

Rise of the Guardians - Dir. Peter Ramsay (2012)

Rise of the Guardians is the Avengers of holiday icons. Based on a series of novels by William Joyce, the film sees Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and the silent Sandman join forces as protectors of children all over the world. They are needed once more with the return of their nemesis, Pitch Black (Jude Law), colloquially known as the Bogeyman. Pitch has become more powerful than ever after gaining the ability to turn dreams into nightmares.

To defeat Pitch, the Guardians must recruit a new member into the fold, Jack Frost (Chris Pine), a free-spirited prankster whose interests lie solely in snowball fights than crusading for the forces of good. The Guardians derive their powers from the belief of children and they weaken when that belief unravels. Almost nobody believes in Jack, thus making him a disembodied spirit to the world.

Dreamworks Animation has really stepped up their game in the last couple years to close in on the gap between them and Pixar. Part of their efforts includes hiring Guillermo Del Toro as executive producer and Roger Deakins as a visual consultant. The animation is a colorful feast for the eyes although the 3D effects don't amount to much aside from snowflakes floating out of frame. First-time director Peter Ramsey crafts several thrilling action sequences beginning with a wild sled ride through the streets and a raucous scene in which the Guardians assist Tooth in collecting teeth. Sandman and Pitch inventively use sand particles to create various objects, a power akin to Green Lantern.

The script by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole) is rather formulaic with Jack's character arc following the basic hero's journey. The film tries hard to rekindle those dying embers of childhood wonder before kids were glued to iPhones and Playstations. However, discovering Santa wasn't real always seemed like a rite of passage, a first step into adulthood, instead of a traumatic experience. Plus, the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy have usually been placed on the low end of the pantheon. Are there kids still desperately clinging to the idea that a giant rabbit hands out eggs every Easter? Had they been as cool as they are depicted in Guardians, children would be ready to believe.

Joyce has creatively re-imagined familiar characters in unfamiliar ways. Santa is now a boisterous Russian Cossack with 'Naughty' and 'Nice' tattooed on his forearms. He has an army of Yetis building the toys in his workshop while lame-brained elves scurry about ala the Minions in Despicable Me. The Easter Bunny is now E. Aster Bunnymund, a rough and tumble Aussie voiced by a pitch perfect Hugh Jackman. Despite wielding a pair of boomerangs, he still has the skittish side of a fluffy rabbit. Tooth is a hyper energetic hummingbird-type fairy with an armada of cute little fairies to do her bidding.

Rise of the Guardians won't go down as a classic, but it's handsomely animated and set to a beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat.

Rating: *** (*****)