Thursday, July 31, 2014

"Guardians of the Galaxy": Hooked On A Feeling (Of Joy)

Now In Theaters
Guardians of the Galaxy is a film that I have been looking forward to ever since the first trailer landed.  I’m not overly familiar with the comic book origins of this one, but it looked like some sci-fi action with a good dose of humor to go along with it and a catchy classic rock soundtrack to boot.  In short, it looked freakin’ awesome.  And guess what?  It’s fuckin’ awesome!  Guardians has managed to be the second Marvel movie of the year to break into my top three list for the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its combination of solid world-building efforts and a hilarious script.

Peter Quill is a human who was abducted from Earth as a child.  As an adult, he is a rogue and a thief who fancies himself as Star-Lord, though nobody else seems to latch on to his self-imposed codename.  He steals a spherical artifact while on a job, and this attracts the attention of Ronan, a powerful alien with notions of galactic domination.  Through a series of fateful meetings, Star-Lord ends up associating with four other misfits, including Gamora, a traitor from the bad guys, Drax, a revenge-minded thug, Groot, an adorably innocent tree-monster, and Rocket, a megalomaniac raccoon.  Together, they must band together to stop Ronan, and blah-blah-blah, you get the picture.  The plot isn’t really what ties this movie together.  It’s the characters and the hilarious ways they interact with one another.

Star-Lord is a child of the 80’s and is constantly throwing references around that (obviously) nobody in this setting would understand.  Drax is no-nonsense to the point where metaphors slip right by him, and takes everything said to him with the utmost literal sincerity.  Groot’s vocabulary is limited to the words “I am Groot,” yet still acts as a loveably dumb sidekick that can convey a surprising range of emotions with just those three words.  Rocket is a self-aggrandizing prick, but has the genius to back up his cocky wisecracks.  And last, Gamora is the straight-woman, providing the on-screen reactions to the ridiculous antics on display.  The interactions between these characters are the heart of the film, and it’s good to see that director James Gunn understands that.  If the film had had a more complex plot, its characters would have been lost in the shuffle.

My only real issue with the film is that the first act has a problem with just dumping exposition on the audience with little contextual information.  There’s one speech in particular that rattles off names and places so fast and with so little perspective that it quickly became gibberish in my ears.  There’s a lot of plot points that seem shoved into this film only to provide set-up for future Marvel films.  However, once the main characters are established and the main villain's evilness is shown off, the minutiae of the galactic politics becomes background noise, and the simplicity of the main storyline becomes the film’s saving grace.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say on the matter.  To say any more would be to give away the jokes or to detract from the surprises delivered by the awesome set-pieces.  This is one of my favorite summer blockbusters this year, and Marvel has once again proved why they are the masters of their craft.

Have a favorite Guardian?  Tell who in the comments below!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"Noah": The Film You Aren't Seeing For All The Wrong Reasons

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Noah is a bold and ambitious film to make for a modern audience.  Christianity in pop culture is usually relegated to the realms of extreme moralism, intent on reaffirming the beliefs of those who consume it and hoping to proselytize to unbelievers.  However, Noah is both a call-back to an earlier era of film-making and a reimagining of the Biblical epic using modern technology.  It’s like someone took the debaucherously true-to-scripture The Ten Commandments and made it using the stylistic sensibilities of The Lord of the Rings.  This is the Bible used as the source material for a fantasy epic, yet never ceases to take itself or its biblical origins seriously.  And this is a film that reimagines fallen angels as monstrosities encased in stone, looking like a troll’s shambling extra-limbed cousins.  It’s a little insane that director Darren Aronofsky managed to pull this off, but he does so beautifully.

For those unfamiliar with Abrahamic mythology, Noah is the story of man commanded by God (or as the film calls it, The Creator) to build a massive ark in preparation for a flood that will wipe out the rest of humanity for being so corrupt.  Two of every animal is gathered and placed inside, so that new life may emerge and thrive after the flood recedes.  Where the film tends to focus, however, is on the human characters.  Noah and his family are the last remaining descendants of Seth, the brother Cain didn’t kill in the Biblical tale.  The rest of humanity is the descendants of Cain, an industrial society with no regard for the world they live in, so much so that the world is near-dead in their wake.  The film masterfully sets up these two factions so that understandable tensions mount between them when Noah refuses them admittance to what would essentially be their salvation from the flood, and as Noah prepares for the coming storm, the followers of Cain prepare for war.

The action scene that results feels right at home in a post-Peter Jackson blockbuster, which is an incredible feat for a story that derives its origins in the Bible.  But that isn’t even the climax, though.  The battle between Noah and the rest of humanity is an important turning point in the film, for we transition from looking at the ark as a vessel of hope to a vessel of psychological torment.  I won’t spoil what makes the third act so powerful, but the film’s final hour is harkened by the screams of those drowning outside, a starkly horrifying contrast to the righteousness Noah proclaims for his cause.

The film taken as a whole is a thesis statement on the nature of humanity, its internal struggle between good and evil, and how Noah can reconcile his warring feelings about the people he saves and those he leaves behind.  It’s a powerfully thought-provoking film in that respect, leaving behind the black-and-white moralism that religiously-based media seems to revel in, and instead paints the world in shades of gray, and humanity as subject to the whims of a higher power, regardless of that power’s claim to righteousness or indifference thereto.  This is all beautifully captured in Noah’s dream sequences from which he interprets the end of the world, but also in images from biblical mythology, including a surreal take on the Garden of Eden and a scientifically accurate montage of the creation of the universe, set to narration of the Christian creation myth.

In other words, Noah is the very definition of epic, in its scope, ambition, and visuals.  This is the type of film that biblical literalists will hate for all the wrong reasons, and religious naysayers should see for all the right reasons.  This is a fantasy epic with the most epic of origins, and it’s not trying to convert anyone or tell anyone their beliefs are the right ones.  Instead, it tells a damn good story about the faults of humanity and leaves us more questions to ponder than answers.

Have a favorite biblical epic?  Let me know in the comments below.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

"Jodorowsky's Dune": The Unmade Magnum Opus

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Here I am, once again struggling to think of what to say about a documentary.  It’s good.  Yeah, let’s start there.  Jodorowsky’s Dune is a really good documentary, and your enjoyment of said documentary is going to depend largely on your interest in film production, science fiction, and the nature of the film auteur versus the commercialism of the Hollywood capitalist production system.  I found myself fascinated by it, but that’s because I’m a huge film nerd with leanings toward science fiction and artistry independent from money-making concerns.  I will say that I would have loved to see Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version of Dune produced, but barring that, I can now appreciate the unmade film’s influence on such works as Star Wars and Alien.

Alejandro Jodorowsky is a Chilean-French director, probably most famous for the cult classic El Topo.  At the height of his career in the 1970s, Jodorowsky was given the opportunity to make any film he wanted, and he decided he wanted to tackle Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic, Dune.  Through interviews with the would-be film’s production team, the documentary unravels the tale of recruiting the perfect people for the job, including Dan O’Bannon on special effects, Moebius and H.R. Giger on art design (the three of which would later go on to work on Alien), Salvador Dali and Orson Welles as actors, and Pink Floyd on musical score, just to name a few.  Seeing the enthusiasm that each piece of this puzzle had for making this film is truly inspiring, and it makes me wish I saw more of that enthusiasm in modern, big-budget film-making.

The unmade film lives on in the storyboards that Jodorowsky pitched to film executives, and those have been converted into animatics in small portions for this documentary.  Of course, we have no way of knowing how these would have turned out in an actual film given the technology of the time, but Jodorowsky’s ambition and confidence that it could be achieved certainly made a believer out of me.  About half the film’s runtime is devoted to interviews with Jodorowsky himself, and his eccentricity is that which only a person obsessed with their art could produce.  He’s very entertaining to watch, and he has a charisma about him that made me want his film to be made.

I think this documentary is partially a plea for someone to just go ahead and make this version of Dune.  The pre-production is already finished, and it wouldn’t necessarily be difficult to produce the storyboards as an animated picture.  I’d certainly go see it.  However, while that’s probably not a likely possibility, this documentary does a good job of exposing a lay audience to the film that never was.  Jodorowsky’s Dune is a must-see for film aficionados and sci-fi nerds alike.

Is there an adaptation of a novel that you’d like to see made for the screen, but has yet to get there?  Let me know in the comments below.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

"Blue Ruin": A Quiet Masterpiece

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Blue Ruin is comparable in a couple ways to a film I reviewed last week, Under the Skin.  Both films feature soft-spoken, often silent protagonists who their respective films try to frame in eerie and tense situations.  However, where Under the Skin came off as boring and meaningless, Blue Ruin is a masterpiece of cinematographic storytelling, relying on the body language and apparent inner torment of the main character to carry a story that starts as a mystery to the audience, but gradually unravels into a blood-drenched revenge tale that feels almost on par with the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple and No Country For Old Men.  I can’t say I enjoy this film as much as I did the Coens’ work, but it is a damn good version of exactly what it is trying to be.

Dwight is a homeless man, living out of vacationers’ vacant houses and dumpsters just to get by.  He finds out that a particular murderer is getting out of prison in a few days, and he starts to prepare for taking the man out.  It isn’t readily clear exactly why Dwight wants to kill this man, but the film cleverly leads the audience along with sparse yet vital bits of dialogue, making a lot of scenes make sense only in retrospect and consequently providing a lot of “a-ha” moments.  This is a gratifying way to non-linearly tell a story, for the actions of the characters makes sense to them, if not us right away, and exposition is minimal if not non-existent, so it feels like real events happening, and we as the audience are left to piece together the events that led up to the present day.  This is a film that rewards paying attention, and it’s hard not to after the initial confrontation between Dwight and the murderer, which happens very early on.

And Dwight is a great character, very unlike the traditional hero or anti-hero of your usual revenge saga.  He’s not an angry man, nor an apparently vengeful one.  He’s quiet and demure, and when he commits acts of violence, there is not rage in his eyes, only a sadness that belies a sense of obligation to do what he thinks is right.  He’s a man of few words, but wears his emotions on his sleeve, complex as they are.  Macon Blair does a fantastic job portraying such a complicated character, and his performance is damn-near Oscar-worthy.

If I had to make one nitpick, I’d have to say that the use of music in the film leaves something to be desired.  Most of the soundtrack consists of songs that are playing at various locations in the film, namely in bars or cars.  However, the songs that play don’t really match the mood of the experience most of the time, and the eerie background score doesn’t even stop, so the two soundtracks end up competing for attention in a very distracting fashion.  Thankfully, this never happens during any pivotal points in the film, but it’s annoying nonetheless.

Blue Ruin is a great film and it deserves recognition as such.  It has likely flown under most people’s radar; I didn’t even know anything about it until I started watching.  I hope that this review encourages more people to pick it up, because it would be a damn shame to watch this one disappear into obscurity.

Ever discover a little-known film that you really wanted others to see?  Let me know about it in the comments below, and maybe I’ll watch it!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Transcendence": Blurring the Line Between Stupidity and Boredom

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I’ve been very happy to see the revitalization of the hard sci-fi genre in recent years.  As much as I enjoy spectacle flicks where aliens and robots are rendered in astonishingly realistic detail, I do still enjoy science fiction that explores the implications and ramifications of technological progress on our society.  In other words, as much as I like watching things blow up, a thinking picture is something I’m always willing to get behind, and it’s nice to see science fiction return to those roots.  So I was pretty excited to see Transcendence, a film that purports to be about blurring the line between human consciousness and artificial intelligence.  However, what I got was a film that was so disappointingly pedestrian that it crossed the line right over stupid and into just flat-out boring.

Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a computer scientist who develops artificial intelligences beyond anything anyone else has before.  When he is shot with a poison bullet by a member of an anti-AI terrorist cell, his wife and a fellow scientist resolve to use his final weeks alive to transfer Caster’s consciousness into a computer.  This set-up may seem contrived, but I did think that the film had potential despite it.  However, as the film goes on, and we see Caster stretch his networking limbs out as he reaches his full potential, it becomes clear that the contrivedness is going to be the status quo for this film.  There’s a pretty sharp tonal U-turn as the Casters’ achievement becomes ominous and suddenly the film expects its audience to root for the terrorists.  And while we can see the effects that this AI has on the world it inhabits, the film never stops to delve into questions of the ethical responsibility of scientists creating new intelligences, or whether or not scientific progress outweighs those concerns.

See, this film is content to just present the emergence of a true artificial intelligence as scary in its own right, but doesn’t really give us a reason to fear it beyond it being unnatural.  There’s an argument to be made that many, if not all, of the AI’s aggressive actions throughout the film are self-preservational, but the movie just wants us to see how scary a monster Caster has become.  The last act of the film is a half-hearted attempt to inject some action into a slow and methodical plot, but the explosions and effects feel token, and the so-called plot just involves Caster doing scary things like build a self-sustaining power facility for itself and create nano-machines that heal and give super-strength to people, but also implant a pseudo-hive mind for Caster’s self-preservation.  In theory, these actions should be a slow build-up to a thought-provoking climax, but instead the film is content to end on a whimper that doesn’t really advocate either a pro- or anti-AI philosophy, making the cinematic equivalent of a shrug and walking away.

Now, I can take a stupid film as long as it’s entertaining… but this film is not.  Everyone involved, including great actors Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman, seems to either realize just how stupid of a movie they’re in, or the director just couldn’t be bothered, so no one seems to actually give a damn about giving a good performance.  Everyone delivers their lines in the same flat dramatic monotone, supposedly trying to convey the gravity of the supposedly intellectual happenings at play, but instead just seeming as bored with the material as I was.  If the actors in the film can’t be bothered to care, why should I become invested?

In the end, Transcendence is beyond a disappointment.  It is a dull, soulless piece of science fiction that has been done better a million times before.  Hell, Portal did a better job of analyzing the depths of artificial intelligence, and GLaDOS is about as cartoonish as computerized villains get.  Don’t waste your time here, folks.  A two-hour nap would be more intellectually engaging.

Have a favorite hard sci-fi flick?  Let me know in the comments below.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"The Raid 2": A Brutal, Brainy Continuation

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

The Raid 2 is great example of exactly how to do a sequel.  It is not a retelling of the plot of the first film.  It sees the flaws in the first film’s execution and seeks to remedy them.  Perhaps most importantly, though, it recognizes what made the first film so much fun to watch, and it capitalizes on that in spades.  As far as raw, brutal action flicks go, The Raid 2 is one of the best that I’ve seen in a long time, and though I do have a few problems with it, I wholly recommend the experience.

The Raid 2 picks up just after where the first film left off, with raid-survivor Rama being recruited by police internal affairs to go undercover in a criminal organization to root out any corrupt cops that may be associated with it.  Whereas the first film had a simple premise that acted as an excuse to have a ton of brawls and gunplay, The Raid 2 opts to enhance the story elements this time around, using intricate plots of betrayal and criminal politics as the backdrop against which the action takes place.  And this is an improvement in my book.  The first film was great for what it was, but I wouldn’t call its attempts at storytelling ambitious.  The Raid 2 seeks to build a complex world with more emphasis on characters and how their relationships lead to epic conflicts, and it largely succeeds.

But when the talking is done and over with, the fights come back in full force, and now there’s a vast variety of locations and improvised weaponry that The Raid’s Jakarta high rise just can’t compete with.  The fights take place in wide open areas, giving the fighters more room to maneuver, and it’s very satisfying to see exactly what these performers are able to do.  What really takes the cake this time around, though, are the villain character designs.  The Raid had one fairly generic guy who preferred hand-to-hand combat to guns… sorta just because.  The Raid 2 has a woman duel-wielding claw hammers, a guy sporting a baseball bat AND WEAPONIZED BASEBALLS, and an assassin so skilled in martial arts that he is content to peck away at inferior opponents to gauge their strength.  Watching the unique ways that each of these characters fight is a real treat, and I guarantee that you won’t forget their scenes any time soon.

If I have one major complaint, it’s that I think the film is a bit too long.  The entire film is two and a half hours, and I think there’s a good half hour of that that could have been left on the cutting room floor.  In particular, there’s a part roughly an hour into the film that follows the life of an assassin who works for the crime family Rama has been adopted into.  Though this character’s eventual death is a driving force in events to come, the emotional build-up to that death is really not.  This character seems to primarily exist to add some action scenes in a part of the film that’s relatively devoid of them, but the film diverts its attention to him for way too long.  There was actually a point when Rama enters back into frame and I thought “Oh yeah, that’s the protagonist, isn’t it.  Where’ve you been?”  That said, though, the assassin’s scenes are entertaining in their own right, but they just don’t really serve a greater purpose except to lengthen an already long-enough runtime.

The Raid 2 turned out to be a fantastic film, and if you have any interest in martial arts, this is one to check out.  Aside from a few scenes at the very beginning of the film, its plot stands alone as an excellent crime thriller, so seeing the original movie isn’t even a requirement (though I’d highly recommend it on its own merits).  All in all, The Raid 2 delivers on bringing a more intense, more intelligent version of its predecessor, and as an action fan, I couldn’t be happier.

What sequels do you think have turned out better than the original?  Let me know in the comments below.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Under the Skin": I Don't Get It

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I don’t get it.  I just don’t understand this movie.  I don’t understand what message it’s trying to convey, I don’t understand why a talented actress like Scarlett Johansson would sign on for this movie, and I certainly don’t understand why other critics seemed to really enjoy it.  Under the Skin is trite and pointless, using its dour mood to mask a completely meaningless undertaking, but more than that, the film is just flat-out boring.  Maybe I’m just a bit dense when it comes to this particular film, but it seems to me to be a flop for first-time director Jonathan Glazer.

Scarlett Johansson plays an alien visitor who possesses the body of a woman and lures unsuspecting men into a trap that… does something to them, causing them to eventually shrivel away into a floating skin.  The film leaves a lot of its visual splendor up to interpretation, as there is very minimal dialogue and Johansson’s constantly vacant expression doesn’t do much in the way of communicating.  And that’s pretty much the sum of the film: Johansson goes from man to man, having varying experiences with each in her quest to rob them all of their essence or some such thing.  And it would be great at creating an eerie atmosphere if it weren’t so damn boring.

I recently watched an Eddie Izzard stand-up special where he described boredom as the winner against fear in the rock-paper-scissors of emotions.  That about sums up perfectly how I feel about Under the Skin.  See, creating an emotional atmosphere is all well and good, and the best films all do it.  However, they do so through context, making the viewer invested in the happenings on-screen by making the story relatable to feelings the viewer has felt before.  Throughout most of her performance, it’s near impossible to tell what Johansson’s character is thinking because she’s so damn busy being otherworldly that it’s impossible to care how she’s feeling.  The context she’s placed in doesn’t really help either, for we’re usually either watching her abduct another unsuspecting bloke, or just watching her do day-to-day human things with a sense of foreign detachment.  That is not compelling; it’s just ridiculously yawn-inducing.

I also had a vague feeling throughout the film that there was supposed to be a message about feminine sexuality, as Johansson’s body is showcased in vacant strip-teases and mirrored self-admirations multiple times.  However, I’d be very hard pressed to come up with what exactly that message is.  Various feminine archetypes are exhibited through Johansson’s experiences, such as the seductress, the love interest, and the attempted rape victim.  Yet none of those experiences ever seem to leave much of an impact on Johansson, for even while she assumes those roles, the same blank stare occupies her face.  There’s clearly an attempt being made here to say something meaningful, but the pieces don’t fit together into anything cohesive.  This just turns out to be the wanderings of an alien body-snatcher and the incredibly dull life that apparently is.

Maybe one of you will find something in Under the Skin to appreciate.  If someone could explain to me why this is supposed to be a good film, I’d greatly appreciate it.  But upon a first (and likely only) viewing, I cannot recommend Under the Skin.  It is pretentious, sophomoric tripe that only bodes ill for the future of director Glazer’s career.

Know of any art films that don’t quite reach the heights they wish to.  Complain about them in the comments below.

Monday, July 14, 2014

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes": No Monkey Business

Now In Theaters
I’m honestly a little bit shocked that this movie exists.  Despite how awesome Rise of the Planet of the Apes was, I don’t remember it being a huge box office success, nor have a heard clamorings for a sequel, and yet here we are with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  And you know what?  It.  Is.  Awesome.  In a summer where I’ve had generally positive feelings about almost every blockbuster I’ve seen (not counting the horrible Godzilla, of course), Dawn really takes the cake as a summer action flick.  And you know why?  Because it expects its audience to think, and that’s something one doesn’t see often in cinema between the months of May and August.  This is hard sci-fi at its best, where the action takes a backseat to the intellectualism and character drama, and yet still offers some of the most satisfying imagery you’ll see this summer.

The story picks up ten years after the events of Rise, where the ape Caesar (the only returning character from Rise) has established a settlement for his ape brethren after the fall of mankind to the Simian Flu, the same mutagen that endowed the apes with heightened intelligence.  All seems at peace until the apes discover a band of surviving humans.  It turns out that the humans want only to provide electricity to their settlement through a dam that is in ape territory.  Neither side trusts one another, and yet, neither side has anything to gain or lose by helping the other.  Caesar seems to be the only ape to have positive memories of the human race, so tensions are high as Caesar's chief general advocates a preemptive strike.  The humans, meanwhile, stockpile weapons in preparation of an assault, which only adds to the pressure on the shaky truce the two sides have.

What’s so wonderful about this set-up is that there isn’t really a bad guy in this scenario.  This is a story about two species trying to co-exist, but their mutual distrust of one another makes that difficult to realize.  Everyone who plays a key role in the film’s events has clearly defined reasons for making the decisions they do, and even when a villain does become apparent, their motives are entirely sympathetic and relatable.  This is only further advanced by the fact that the focus of the film is primarily on the apes and their society, treating the humans more as plot devices than actual characters.  This is not only impressive from a storytelling perspective, but it also makes the apes seem like a fully fleshed-out society comprised of thinking individuals, an amazing feat considering that most speak only in sign-language and at most can grunt words in broken English.  What comes of this is a thoughtful meditation on the consequences of mutual distrust and how that can lead to mutual destruction, both from without and within.

But, of course, much of the audience is going to want to see some intense ape action, and this film has it in spades in the latter half.  Without giving away too much of the surprise, seeing apes ride on horseback and wield machine guns while still moving in an apelike fashion is an incredibly fun visual.  The ape-on-ape fights are fantastically choreographed and the final battle is actually quite symbolic of the contrasting ideologies of the characters fighting one another.  The fact that the action works on both a visual and literary level is very much appreciated.

So, yeah, I absolutely loved Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  It is a thought-provoking science fiction film with plenty of action and plenty of smart writing to balance it out.  Seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes is recommended, but not necessary for fully enjoying this sequel, and I’m sincerely hoping for a hat-trick with a third Apes prequel in the coming years.

Have a favorite Planet of the Apes film?  Let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Nymphomaniac Vols. I & II": A Self-Contradictory Sexcapade

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Nymphomaniac is a pretty good film, and not for the reasons that you would think it would be.  It is a strangely pieced-together four-hour, episodic adventure through the life of a woman who can’t seem to get enough sex, but really the sex acts as a backdrop for a greater point that the film is trying to make.  And, remarkably, the film belittles its audience for attempting to sense a greater meaning.  It’s a paradoxical puzzle of a film that wants its audience to just sit back and enjoy the story, but often takes steps to pull the viewer out of the experience and remind them that they are watching an art piece that is subject to interpretation.  In short, this is a film critic’s wet dream and worst nightmare rolled into a package that defies analysis yet seems to be constantly inviting it.

The film opens on our protagonist, Joe, beaten bloody in a back alley, where she is discovered by an academic named Seligman, who takes her back to his apartment to nurse her back to health.  When asked how she got there, she proceeds to tell her life story in eight chapters, revealing a life where sex has been the sun around which she revolves.  It is at times humorous, and at times heartbreaking, and Joe’s journey remains compelling throughout.  However, I wouldn’t recommend going into this film expecting a coherent opinion on sexuality’s role in our lives.  Much of Joe’s actions and the things that happen to her revolve around the theme, and the unsimulated sex scenes are certainly explicit enough, but I don’t think there’s much in the way of social commentary here; if there was an attempt to analyze sexual politics, it isn’t apparent.

No, what this film seems to want to focus on is that Seligman constantly interrupts Joe’s narrative, trying to find meaning in her life story through allegory, history, and mythology, while Joe repeatedly insists that there’s no greater meaning to her tale and that this is just what has happened to her.  Seligman’s observations are simultaneously profound and asinine.  Director Lars Von Trier recognizes that there are parallels in his work to his literary predecessors, but he’s just trying to tell a story here.  Except, obviously, the film does not simply want passive observation, or else the Seligman framing device wouldn’t exist in the first place.

What results is a film that takes a stab at the very nature of critiquing film as an art form.  It uses the tricks of the trade that have accumulated over centuries, going so far as to borrow some aesthetics from various eras in film history, in order to create an art film that defies the very nature of art film: the desire to be analyzed.  I’m sure there are plenty of arguments that could be made about how the individual chapters of the film act as commentaries on different film styles; I’m not familiar with Von Trier’s previous work, but I’ve read that Nymphomaniac is rife with self-reference to his filmography.  Ultimately, though, any such analysis flies in the face of the film’s self-professed point that symbolism is subservient to plot and characters, and Nymphomaniac does tell an entertaining story.  This review may have been light on the story elements, but that’s only because the tale is complex enough that a summation would not do it justice and would likely detract from the experience of seeing it firsthand.

And so, Nymphomaniac is a paradox of a film, and whether or not the subtext appeals to you, it is a good film at that.  It has been released in two parts, approximately two hours each in length.  It is a time investment, but one that I think worth it.  Check it out.

Is subtextual analysis of a film really as pointless as this film suggests?  Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Looking Back At: "The Raid: Redemption"

The Raid: Redemption is a damn good action flick.  The sequel is coming out on Blu-Ray this month, so I figured I’d take a look at the first film to see what the big deal is, and I was not disappointed.  It’s not trying to be groundbreaking or reinvent the martial arts action genre by any means, but it is really damn good at being what it’s trying to be, which is a series of absolutely brutal martial arts brawls that are beautifully choreographed and devastatingly violent.  This film is a lot of fun, and if you like intense, R-rated action, this is a pretty good film for you.

The premise here is that a raid squad is set to enter a high rise in Jakarta in order to take down an infamous crime boss, who has rented out the rooms of the high rise to various thugs and criminals looking to lay low, forming what amounts to a makeshift army.  Through a series of complications, the raid squad ends up outmanned, outgunned, and with zero hope of reinforcements, so the focus quickly shifts from being about heroically taking out the bad guys to just getting out of the building with their lives.  It’s a pretty intriguing idea that, while having some fairly genre-typical twists, allows for one element to be played up very well: suspense.  At times, the film borrows heavily from the atmosphere of classic slasher flicks, emphasizing the helplessness of the once-powerful heroic cops in the face of better armed adversaries lurking around every corner.  It adds a lot to the tone of what could otherwise just be fast action all the way through, and it’s an appreciated aesthetic choice.

The action itself is very well captured, and it’s really different than the more majestic take on martial arts that one typically sees from Asian action flicks.  The brawls focus on full body combat rather than focused strikes, so there’s a lot of knife and gun-play intermixed with tackles, throws, and ramming, though that isn’t to say there isn’t a fair share of punching and kicking too.  A shaky, handheld camera is used for many of the fight scenes, and while I would say that occasionally it is hard to tell what’s happening, most of the time the swooping camera is used to showcase the most brutal aspects of the fights, lingering on necks getting sliced and kicks connecting to sternums.  It focuses in on what its audience came to see, and it really revels in showing its spectacle in a way that’s satisfying and coherent.

And, yeah, there isn’t too much more to say on the matter.  I liked this movie.  It’s a lot of fun, fast, satisfying action, interspersed with some tense horror-style suspense.  My one stipulation is that you should watch it in the original Indonesian with subtitles, because the English dubbing crew mostly sounds bored with their own flat deliveries.  That one nitpick aside, though, if you want to see 100 minutes of action without a ton of plot getting in the way, The Raid: Redemption is as about as good an offering you can expect.  Check it out.

Have a favorite mindless action flick?  Tell me about it in the comments below.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

"How to Train Your Dragon 2": Better Than The First

Now In Theaters
Until very recently, I had not seen the first How to Train Your Dragon.  I’d heard about it and heard that it was good, but nothing I’d heard made me feel like I needed to see it immediately.  When I finally did sit down to watch it a couple weeks ago, I found myself charmed by the visual style and well-told story, but wasn’t very much inclined to go to the theater for the sequel.  But then, on a whim, a friend and I decided to go see it, this being her third time watching it and me finally incentivized to go to the big screen.  And as the theater lights came up and the concept art backdropped the film’s credits, I found myself wanting more.  I realize this review comes almost a month after How to Train Your Dragon 2’s release, so the film’s availability is likely going to be pretty low in the coming weeks, but I just have to get this out there: If you haven’t already, go see How to Train Your Dragon 2.  It’s a charming film that expertly expands on the premise of its predecessor, offering much more than the standard kid’s movie schlock that one normally expects from Dreamworks.

The story picks up five years after the first.  The village of Berk is a utopian vision of human-dragon cooperation, and Hiccup and Toothless fly around the surrounding islands, trying to map out the newly accessible greater world.  Hiccup’s father is trying to prime him for taking over the village one day, but Hiccup isn’t sure that’s what he wants for himself.  Meanwhile, a looming threat lies on the horizon in the form of Drago Bloodfist, a conqueror who has amassed an army of dragons in order to take over the world.  As Hiccup’s father tries to prepare Berk for war, Hiccup believes he can reason with Drago, and so sets off to find him and reason with him.  Meanwhile, the hunters-turned-riders from the first film have their own comically romantic subplot, a band of dragon trappers is discovered, and a new nest of dragons holds a plethora of mysteries to be unraveled.  If this sounds like this is a lot of running plot threads, it is, and there are more surprises waiting throughout the film.  And, surprisingly, it all works very well.  This could have easily been a retread of Hiccup’s character arc from the first film, but fortunately, this story takes the already-established world of the first film and builds a more complex tale that doesn’t leave any dangling threads by the time it’s completed.

Of course, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning the dragon designs.  The first film had some really cute renditions of dragon, creating a vastly rich world wherein every type of dragon has a name and a distinct personality.  The sequel continues this tradition not only by giving us a deeper look into the dragons’ naturally playful antics, but by providing us with new designs that really help to enrich our understanding of dragon culture.  In particular, what come to mind are the neurotic baby dragons and the alpha Bewildebeasts, who are not necessarily as vicious as the first film’s alpha dragon.  And all these new designs are accentuated by the fantastic action scenes, which have us swooping and diving with the loveable monsters and their riders.  Dreamworks really stepped up their game in animating some of these complex battles, and I’m glad to see the effort put in.

If I had to make a nitpick, I’d probably have to say that Drago isn’t really all that interesting of a villain.  Sure, there’s some stuff by the end of the film that makes him interesting in comparison to Hiccup, but for the majority of the film, he’s mostly a loud, brash villain archetype who’s just a human version of the villain dragon from the first movie.  The film has enough twists and turns where that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, though, making Drago’s invasion almost secondary to some of the greater themes at play.  And, frankly, that's just fine by me.

I’ve only scratched the surface as to what makes How to Train Your Dragon 2 so good, but to say any more would be give away some of the film’s greater surprises.  I’m sure fans of the series have seen the film multiple times already, but if any of you are still on the fence, this is definitely worth seeing on the big screen.  I only wish I’d recommended it sooner.

And now How to Train Your Dragon 3 has been announced with a 2016 release date.  Where do you think the franchise is headed as it completes a trilogy?  Think Dreamworks can pull a hat trick and make the third installment as good as the first two?  Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

"Bad Words": U-N-D-E-R-W-H-E-L-M-I-N-G

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I like Jason Bateman.  Specifically, I like Jason Bateman as Michael Bluth on Arrested Development.  Based on interviews I’ve seen with Bateman, Bluth doesn’t seem to be too far removed from Bateman’s actual personality, or at least the one that he would like to present himself as in the public eye. He’s arrogant, narcissistic, and self-important, and he’s frankly quite rude about it.  The only difference is that Bluth seems to be a self-acknowledgment of Bateman’s faults, for Arrested Development often casts Michael Bluth as be well-meaning, but ultimately just as flawed and hopeless as everyone else on that show.  Bad Words is Bateman taken to the other, unapologetic extreme, where Bateman plays a cruel, narcissistic douchebag who at first glance doesn’t evoke much sympathy.  This narcissism is accentuated by the fact that Bateman also directed and produced this movie, and as a self-promoting vehicle, this film succeeds somewhat.  However, Bateman’s first crack at directing leaves a bit to be desired, and ultimately the film doesn’t quite rise above its formula or faults of internal logic.

Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a forty-year-old man who finds a loophole in a national spelling bee competition and works his way to the finals.  Trilby’s motivations aren’t readily apparent, but what is apparent is that he does not give a fuck what anyone thinks of him or his personal quest, cursing and insulting his way past any obstacle that crosses his path.  Along the way, he is followed around by a fellow competitor named Chaitanya, age ten.  Chaitanya is niceness and innocence taken to Trilby's cartoonish opposite, and the film slaps the two guys together in a fairly typical story about learning life lessons from one another.  I can see a lot of people getting upset at the fact that Trilby gets the kid drunk and takes him out for a night of debauchery which includes staring at a prostitute’s breasts, but for the point the film is trying to make about the two characters, I think it works.

However, what doesn’t end up working for a lot of this film are the jokes.  The best jokes are the creative insults volleyed by Trilby, but those tend to lose their appeal after Trilby’s obnoxious personality becomes the expected status quo.  Without the benefit of shock value, the jokes just meander into being awkward.  Otherwise, the jokes either just don’t land as being funny, or are just plain uncomfortable, such as any time sex is brought into the picture.  The sex scenes are meant to be painful to watch, but the obvious attempt at comic delivery falls so flat that you can practically hear the crickets chirping.

But most of all, Jason Bateman just doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing in the director’s chair.  The film develops a theme by the time the climax rolls around, but some of the characters, primarily Trilby, seem to make decisions that don’t have any logic in relation to their character.  I recognize that that’s partially the fault of the screenplay, but Trilby has a change of heart toward the end of the film that could have really been better contextualized.  From a technical standpoint, the film also tends to meander into following underdeveloped plot threads that don’t really impact the overall story all that much, and seem to be there merely to pad out the already short ninety minute runtime.  Throw in a really lazily edited montage (to a fantastic Beastie Boys song, by the way), and it’s clear that Bateman doesn’t really belong at the head of the production.

There were moments of Bad Words that I enjoyed, but I ultimately didn’t find the experience worth it.  Others may disagree, and your enjoyment is primarily going to be based on how much Jason Bateman being an asshole can sustain you.  If you think ninety minutes of that will work for you, then this might not be so bad.  However, in my personal opinion, Bad Words falls short of the mark.

So, how long are we going to have to wait for that damn Arrested Development movie?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Looking Back At: "Rio"

I know I say this a lot for someone who opts to write about films, but sometimes it’s really hard to write anything about a particular movie.  This is usually because there isn’t much one can objectively say about the quality of the film and it comes down to personal preference for the subject matter.  This is generally where documentaries fall.  Sometimes a film is so niche that, unless you understand that very specific sub-genre very well, I only feel qualified to give a superficial analysis.  This is where martial arts films tend to fall for me.  And then there are films so bland and mediocre that it’s really hard to think of anything constructive to say about them, and are so forgettable that you write a whole opening paragraph designed just to stall having to talk about it.  Rio is one of those films.

Rio is a film that seems designed to fill out a balance sheet for Sony Pictures.  Animated kids’ films are guaranteed to make money for any studio because it seems modern parents will take their hyperactive kids to anything, regardless of quality, just to shut them up for an hour and a half.  So, presumably just to have a guaranteed cash cow, Sony pumped money into this safe little film about a parrot trying to get back to his owner in Rio de Janeiro.  The visuals are pretty, the songs are unoffensive to the palette if forgettable, and the story is about as generic as kid’s films go. 

There’s nothing really wrong with Rio… if you’re five years old.  But this is exactly the type of movie that an adult places a kid in front of because they don’t want to deal with the kid for a little while.  The jokes are the type of silly cartoon slapstick that the kids are going to love, and the eclectic cast is designed just interestingly enough to make them marketable as toys, though I’d be hard pressed to remember any of the characters’ names.  But there’s nothing much here remotely resembling writing that adults can find just as entertaining as their kids.

The only part of the film that removed the glaze over my eyes was a musical number by a villainous cockatoo played by Flight of the Conchords’s Jemaine Clement.  The witty lyrics felt like something out of FotC’s songbook, which is appropriate given that Clement was one of the song’s writers.  Unfortunately, that moment ends as abruptly as it starts, and though Clement’s silly evil diction is slightly amusing, it doesn’t save the film from being boring for anyone over the age of ten.

So, if you have kids, I can’t really say that there’s anything here that merits a disrecommendation.  If you’re looking for a cartoon for all ages, though, there’s so much better stuff out there.  Take almost anything out of Pixar’s fantastic catalogue, and you’ll not only find smarter writing, but you’ll find much more creativity and imagination in the visual design as well.  Rio is adequate at what it’s trying to be, but when all it’s trying to be is a money magnet for a parent’s disposable income, that bar is set pretty low. 

I watched this movie in preparation for the Blu-Ray release of Rio 2… I’m not hopeful for where this is going.  Leave your thoughts in a comment below.