Monday, March 31, 2014

47 Ronin

47 Ronin - Dir. Car Rinsch (2013)

47 Ronin is the latest in a string of blockbusters that have suffered from overblown budgets and production delays. Much like World War Z and The Lone Ranger, 47 Ronin attracted negative buzz long before it was ever released. Universal was in desperate search for the next big thing, one that would line their pockets the way the Fast & Furious franchise has. After costly failures like Battleship and R.I.P.D., the studio was probably banking on 47 Ronin to reverse their misfortunes as well as appeal to the lucrative Asian markets that are so important today. Originally scheduled for release November of 2012, it was pushed back twice to accommodate extensive reshoots and special effects work amidst rumors of producers clashing with an overwhelmed, first-time director. The fact that 47 Ronin collected only $2.8 million in Japan, despite being based on a renowned legend in that country, says a lot about the movie's quality.

47 Ronin is set in 18th century Japan though it was primarily shot in Budapest and London. The city of Ako has grown prosperous under the rule of the benevolent Lord Asano (Min Tanaka). However, the power-hungry Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) covets everything Asano has, including his beautiful daughter, Mika (Kou Shibasaki), who is in love with the orphaned Kai (Keanu Reeves). Half-British and half-Japanese, Kai was found running through the forest as a boy and taken in by Asano though almost everyone else treat him as a lowly half-breed.

During a visit by the Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the witch Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi) casts a spell on an unsuspecting Asano that causes him to mistakenly attack Kira. Humiliated in front of the Shogun, Asano is forced to commit seppuku in order to save his family from further disgrace. All his lands are given to Kira while Asano's loyal samurai, led by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), are disbanded and forbidden from taking revenge. After spending a year of imprisonment, Oishi seeks to reunite his scattered brethren, avenge their fallen master, and rescue Mika from the clutches of Kira.

47 Ronin is an awkward fusion of the classic jidaigeki with the modern Hollywood blockbuster. The filmmakers attempted to stay faithful to the original legend while making it appealing to Western audiences by introducing mythological beasts, black magic, and a wealth of computer generated images. It's clear they were aiming to create another Lord of the Rings. Instead, the tone is so dour and self-serious that 47 Ronin fails to be the rousing fantasy the studio envisioned.

Carl Rinsch, a former commercial director, makes his feature debut here and he's certainly no hack. Yet, it's clear that he is a visual filmmaker without a firm handle on emotional beats. 47 Ronin only truly shines during the climax in which the samurai raid Lord Kira's compound. There's also a chaotic sequence ripped straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean, where Oishi rescues Kai from a Dutch trading post. Unfortunately, these exciting moments are few and far between.

While Oishi is nominally the lead protagonist, the narrative doles out an equal share of screen time for Kai. Not only is he a less interesting character, Reeves turns in another stiff performance and he's a couple decades too old to be playing the part. And let's not get into a convoluted origin story that involves a sect of bird-like monks with mystical powers. At least, Sanada is a strong enough actor to provide the dramatic gravitas that 47 Ronin desperately needs. Aside from those two, you would be hard pressed to pick any of the other ronin out of a line-up. None of them are allowed to display any distinct characteristics aside from a handful of tired archetypes. There's the jolly fat guy, the babyfaced rookie, and the jerk that eventually learns to respect Kai. The only other memorable cast member is the beautiful Rinko Kikuchi vamping it up as a shape-shifting seductress, who can change into a dragon or a flurry of undulating fabric.

A major studio production with a predominantly Asian cast is always welcome at the local multiplex, just too bad it had 47 Ronin, a thoroughly forgettable and uninspired affair.

Rating: * ½ (*****)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Need For Speed

Need For Speed - Dir. Scott Waugh (2014)

The Need For Speed series is one of Electronic Arts' longest running franchises and the most successful racing games in the video game industry. For the most part, the games have no narrative structure so the idea of using them as the basis for a film is akin to producing Madden Football: The Movie. On the other hand, it's a shrewd marketing ploy by Dreamworks, who are clearly angling to cash in on the wildly lucrative Fast and Furious franchise. Now they have brand recognition. The video games are incidental as they might as well have called it Hot Wheels or Tonka Trucks, both of which are actually in development.

Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame stars as Tobey Marshall, an amateur street racer living in Mount Kisco, New York. He has inherited his father's auto shop after old man's death, but the place is on its last legs. That's when Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) swoops back into town. The wealthy hometown boy has gone on to the professional leagues, runs a big-time dealership, and even stole Tobey's former flame, Anita (Dakota Johnson). Dino offers Tobey the chance to restore a one-of-a-kind Ford Mustang that belonged to the famed Carroll Shelby. They'll flip it for millions of dollars and a cut of which will save the Marshall family's shop. However, their rivalry boils over and the two challenge each other to a winner takes all race with Anita's younger brother, Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), caught in the middle. Dino causes a fiery wreck when he rams Pete's car from behind, then flees the scene and leaves Tobey to take the fall.

After a two-year stint in prison, Tobey vows revenge by defeating Dino in the De Leon, a clandestine street race put on by the eccentric and mysterious Monarch (Michael Keaton). In order to do so, Tobey borrows the Mustang from its new owner who sends his assistant Julia (Imogen Poots) to tag along as his minder. Tobey and Julia must travel coast to coast within 45 hours in order to join the race. At their side are Tobey's mechanics Joe (Ramon Rodriguez) and Finn (Rami Malek) as well as eyes in the sky Maverick (Scott Mescudi), against them are hordes of police officers and opportunists looking to collect a bounty issued by Dino.

Need For Speed attempts to hearken back to the classic car movies of Hollywood's past. All the cool kids in Mt. Kisco watch Bullitt at a neon-lit drive-in theater ala American Graffiti. Tobey's cross-country sojourn and Michael Keaton's omnipresent commentator are reminiscent of Vanishing Point while Tobey and Julia's flirtatious relationship was clearly inspired by Burt Reynolds and Sally Field in Smokey and the Bandit. Not surprising that Need's director Scott Waugh began his career as a stuntman much like Smokey director Hal Needham and H.B. Halicki, who starred, produced, and directed the original Gone in 60 Seconds. Unfortunately, Need For Speed is a poor substitute.

For his part, Waugh is a stylish director and the film's engines fire on all cylinders when it focuses on vehicular mayhem. We watch Tobey run amok in the streets of Detroit with dozens of cop cars on his tail and kicking up dust in the Utah desert, the latter of which is beautifully photographed by cinematographer Shane Hurlbut. Waugh proudly touts that he relied heavily on practical effects rather than CGI. This will surely please gearheads as they get to see American muscle like the Gran Torino and Camaro along with sleek European models such as the Lamborghini and Koenigsegg.

The movie quickly loses momentum once it moves away from the car chases and you realize how thin the characters are and how inane the dialogue is. Screenwriters George & John Gatins are unable to muster an ounce of wit for what passes as snappy banter between our protagonists. The plot is riddled with holes large enough to…well…drive a car straight through them. The winner of the De Leon gets all the other competing cars, but what's the point when those vehicles are either totaled or impounded by the police? Monarch provides play-by-play of the race for his internet broadcast, yet how does he see what's happening when there are no cameras present? There's some queasy morality to the picture as the protagonists callously race through crowded streets and laugh at nearly killing a homeless man. Tobey also doesn't seem to mind that he's caused numerous traffic accidents and grievous injuries to the police officers pursuing him. Some viewers might be sensitive to images of crashed cars bursting into flames following the tragic death of Paul Walker.

At two hours and ten minutes, Need is way too long and laborious to be a mindless quickie. Skip it unless you have a passion for cars and a high tolerance for cringe-worthy dialogue.

Rating: * ½ (*****)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club – Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée (2013)

We are living in the McConaissance. Matthew McConaughey first charmed audiences as the lovable stoner David Wooderson ("Alright, alright, alright.") in Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused." He cemented his status as an actor to watch, particularly due to projects like Lone Star and Frailty. However, McConaughey became a punch line thanks to his Southern twang, his willingness to go shirtless, and a string of lackluster romantic comedies. In recent years, he seems to have taken the criticism by heart and re-dedicated himself to the craft. He turned down the easy payday for a big screen version of Magnum P.I. in favor of working with renowned directors such as Jeff Nichols, William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, and reunited with Linklater for Bernie. Despite only being in two scenes, McConaughey is one of the best things in The Wolf of Wall Street. The crown jewel of McConaughey's recent output is Dallas Buyers Club, a performance that earned him a slew of accolades including a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Actor.

Based on a true story, Dallas Buyers Club features McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, an electrician and rodeo cowboy with a predilection for promiscuous sex and drugs. He's not the most enlightened fellow either. Woodroof reacts with disgust when Rock Hudson's affliction with AIDS became public and casually tosses around a few racial epithets. An accident at work sends Woodroof to the hospital where Drs. Sevard (Denis O'Hare) and Saks (Jennifer Garner) break the news that he too has AIDS and only has 30 days to live. Woodroof angrily storms out of the hospital. How could he possibly have AIDS when he's an all-American heterosexual? That is, until he remembers having sex with an intravenous drug user. Woodroof is evicted from his home, loses his job, and is shunned by his family and friends. However, he's hardly resigned to his fate.

At first, Woodroof bribes a hospital janitor to get AZT, a drug with the best results for fighting the disease, but whose side effects can be just as debilitating. When he runs out of AZT, Woodroof meets a doctor in Mexico (Griffin Dunne), who points him towards other medication that have not been approved by the FDA. Driven by self-preservation and profit, Woodroof makes frequent trips to Mexico, Japan, and Europe to stockpile drugs. He establishes the Dallas Buyers Club with a membership fee of $400 that will allow other AIDS patients access to medicine not available in the US.  As he battles government bureaucracy, Woodroof finds his attitude changing, especially when he forms an unlikely friendship with Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgendered woman also suffering from AIDS.

When the AIDS epidemic first began to sweep the country, those who were sick and their loved ones faced an uphill battle against the spread of misinformation and prejudice. Under the Reagan administration, the government did little to stem the tide. After all, gays and drug addicts were not exactly their constituency. These early days of AIDS activism were captured with amazing detail in How to Survive a Plague, my pick for best documentary of 2012. Dallas Buyers Club isn't as rabble rousing. This is an intimate character study focusing on just one of the many powerful stories of that era.

The real Woodroof died in 1992, a full seven years after the doctors' grim prognosis. Shortly before he died, screenwriter Craig Borten (who co-wrote the script with Melisa Wallack) interviewed Woodroof and set about to tell his story. The film has been in development ever since with actors like Woody Harrelson and Brad Pitt previously attached. Borten stuck by the production though you wish a little more subtlety was introduced during the lengthy writing process. The writers don't paint in shades of gray as evidenced by a scene with a room full of butterflies meant to symbolize his spiritual transformation.

It's a credit to McConaughey's abilities that he's able to sell corny lines like, "Forget about the FDA. I'm gonna be DOA." Physically, he went through a grueling transformation by staying out of the sun and dropping nearly 40lbs to play the gaunt and ailing Woodroof. No matter his outward appearance, there's no hiding McConaughey's innate charisma and likeability. Another role destined for awards season is Jared Leto, who netted the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Leto is no stranger to body transformations having lost weight (Requiem for a Dream) and gained weight (Chapter 27) for other movies. Leto disappears into the character of Rayon with assistance from the award winning make-up team.

Dallas Buyers Club follows all the established steps in creating a critical darling. This is an inspiring true story with a pair of performances that required radical metamorphoses. It's hard to fault the filmmakers for adhering to the formula when they've done so with spectacular results.

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

Friday, March 14, 2014


Homefront - Dir. Gary Fleder (2013)

In 2006, Sylvester Stallone bid farewell to his most famous character in Rocky Balboa. The Italian Stallion donned the boxing gloves once more for a comeback match against a young upstart. In 2008, Stallone dusted the mothballs off another iconic character, the haunted Vietnam vet John Rambo. In the simply titled Rambo, Stallone rescued missionaries from the military junta in Burma. While Stallone has closed the door on Rocky, he left the possibility open for another Rambo adventure. At one point, he purchased the rights to Chuck Logan's novel Homefront as a possible vehicle to direct, star, and produce. There was even talk that it might be rewritten into a fifth Rambo flick. Instead, Homefront has become a vehicle for Stallone's fellow Expendable Jason Statham.

Statham is Phil Broker, an undercover DEA agent whose final mission ended in bloodshed and led to the arrest of Danny T (Chuck Zito), the leader of a drug running biker gang. Broker has decided to live the quiet life by moving to a small town in the Louisiana with his daughter Maddy (Izabela Vidovic). He's got horses, plenty of fresh air, and the pretty school teacher (Rachelle Lefevre) seems to take a liking to him. All that changes when Maddy gets into a scuffle with playground bully. This sets off a chain of disastrous events as the boy's drug-addled mother, Cassie (Kate Bosworth), demands retribution. Just so happens her brother, Gator Bodine (James Franco), is one bad dude. He cooks meth and everyone in town knows to stay away from him. When Gator learns of Broker's former line of work, he ropes in his girlfriend Sheryl (Winona Ryder) to set up a hit and get into Danny T's good graces.

Homefront doesn't off anything anyone hasn't seen before in a Jason Statham action movie. Although, there is one unintentionally funny scene in which the British bruiser tries to affect an American accent. Statham isn't afraid to unleash righteous fury when the bad guys push him around. However, he's not intentionally looking for trouble. You kind of wish he did.  A few scenes where Statham goes Buford Pusser on some sleazy swamp folk may have livened things up. There's just enough action in Homefront to keep your attention, just not enough to bring you to the edge of your seat. Director Gary Fleder, who previously helmed Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead and Runaway Jury, isn't known as an action director, but he handles the set pieces well, particularly one where Statham fights several henchmen with his hands zip tied behind his back. The script by Stallone is exactly the type of B-movie fare he and peers like Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme traded in during the 80's.

What does set Homefront apart is the bold decision to cast against type for the antagonists with the exception of Frank Grillo as a hired assassin. California surfer girl Kate Bosworth is turned into a weary looking meth addict while Winona Ryder struggles to convince as an opportunistic biker groupie. James Franco certainly would not have been an obvious choice to play the lead villain though he is the most interesting. Franco's eclectic tastes were on full display in 2013. He played a young Wizard of Oz in Oz: The Great and Powerful, appeared in a cameo as Hugh Hefner in Lovelace, directed and starred in the docudrama Interior. Leather Bar, and won acclaim for his outlandish performance in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. Franco doesn't ham it up as Gator. He does relish in being a baddie, but he's not completely amoral. Once the truly ruthless killers arrive, Gator discovers he's just a little fish in a swamp full of crocs.

Homefront isn't a wholly satisfying experience due to a cookie cutter script that was cobbled together after a binge watching Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad. Still, if your standards aren't too demanding, Homefront winds up being a fun and disposable action pic.

Rating: ** (*****)

Sunday, March 9, 2014


Rush - Dir. Ron Howard

Nobody could accuse Ron Howard of being a visually stylish filmmaker. In fact, if you asked me to name any specific trademarks in Howard's techniques, I'd draw a blank. However, Howard's career has blossomed from 80's comedies like Gung Ho and Cocoon to prestige dramas like Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and Frost/Nixon, the latter of which was written by Peter Morgan. Morgan is well known for penning movies based on real-life events from the British royal family in the aftermath of Princess Diana's death (The Queen) to a harrowing account of Idi Amin's brutal regime (The Last King of Scotland). Howard and Morgan have teamed up again for Rush, a story lighter in tone, but no less compelling.

Rush is set in the world of Formula-1 racing during the 1970's, a time when technology and safety guidelines seem downright archaic compared to today. Injuries and deaths were a regular occurrence as 42 drivers lost their lives between 1950 and 1980. F1 spectators were enraptured by the rivalry between champion racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). Hunt is a blonde Adonis, a brash and cocky Englishman who fit perfectly in the era of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Even Hunt's failures were spectacular. His brief marriage to supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) ended when she left him for screen idol Richard Burton. On the other hand, Lauda is cold and calculating, a veritable Vulcan. His bluntness doesn't make Lauda any friends among his fellow racers, who see him as arrogant. But, Lauda is driven, no pun intended. Shunned by his wealthy family, Lauda bought his way onto his first F1 team and rebuilt his car from the ground up to his specifications. Later, he joins Ferrari to win his first championship.

A rain soaked course in West Germany changed their lives forever. Lauda argued to postpone the race as weather conditions made the already dangerous track more treacherous, but Hunt rallied the other racers to his side and the race was on. Lauda suffered a near fatal accident that caused severe burns to his face. Against all odds, Lauda was back in the driver's seat six weeks later.

Rush is undoubtedly Ron Howard's best looking picture and his strongest work since 2008's Frost/Nixon. Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (who won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire) make liberal use of car-mounted cameras to drag the audience along for the ride. Some snazzy graphics help to jazz up the requisite montage sequences. There's a slight graininess to the look of the film that, along with excellent make-up and costume design, accurately capture the heyday of the 70's. Rush won't have enough racing to satisfy enthusiasts, but this is primarily a character study.

Morgan doesn't go the easy route by painting one of the leads as the villain. He finds the right balance and makes Rush equally Hunt's story as much as it is Lauda's. The screenplay builds an antagonistic relationship between the characters while naturally growing them into a mutual understanding and respect. Hemsworth is pitch perfect as the golden boy James Hunt. He is, after all, the god of thunder. Hemsworth's charisma could have overshadowed his co-star, but Daniel Bruhl is just too good to recede into the background. It's a shame Bruhl's performance was lost in the shuffle during awards season. Lauda isn't the most likeable guy around, but Bruhl imbues him with an unwavering determination and subtle charm. If that doesn't work, Lauda will earn your sympathy as he undergoes the painful procedure to have fluid drained from his damaged lungs.

Since Rush focuses on the macho world of Formula-1, the female characters get the short change. Olivia Wilde and Natalie Dormer from Game of Thrones mostly serve as arm candy for Hemsworth though Alexandra Maria Lara gets the meatier role as Lauda's wife, Marlene. Thankfully, she's not the stereotypical worrywart. She's a woman with a quiet understanding that the dangerous world of racing is her husband's life.

Rush doesn't reinvent the sports drama, but it is a well-made picture built around two solid performances from Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl. The beautiful presentation of the Blu-ray makes this an easy recommendation.

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