Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review: The Grandmaster

Image courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.
"The Grandmaster" is a visually stunning martial arts epic that - in typical Wong Kar Wai fashion - blends genre elements - in this case, kung fu - with a tale of unrequited love.

In the film, Wong regular Tony Leung portrays Ip Man, whom you may know as the man who went on to train Bruce Lee. But the movie legend only makes a brief appearance here as a boy in the finale.

Wong's latest is an historical film set during the golden age of martial arts amid the Republican era following China's last dynasty.

Ip is a master of Wing Chun, a martial art that his opponents will describe as simplistic, consisting of basically three moves - and yet, the man is undefeated.

As the film opens, northern China's grandmaster is seeking to set up a competition between the country's two halves and Ip is the man he chooses to represent the South. But the fight never materializes as the Sino-Japanese War sets in, forcing Ip to flee his home and relocate to Hong Kong, where he becomes a teacher.

The heart of the film, however, is centered around his friendship with and - taking a page from Wong's majestic "In the Mood for Love" - unspoken love for Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), a rival who is hunting her father's killer.

For those familiar with the director's work, it should come as no surprise that "The Grandmaster" is never anything less than visually rapturous. A fight between Ip and a group of challengers in the rain is the most amazing kung fu sequence I've seen since "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and another sparring match between Ip and Gong Er on a staircase is presented almost as a ballet.

If the film fumbles at all, it's in its insistence on scenes in which characters discuss every form of kung fu known to man and skimping slightly on Ip's story. The death of his two daughters from starvation, for example, is a mere footnote.

While I preferred "The Grandmaster" to Wong's other kung fu spectacle - "Ashes of Time," which is among my least favorite of his works - it doesn't quite compare with the director's great films - "In the Mood for Love," "Happy Together," "2046," "Fallen Angels," "Chungking Express" and "Days of Being Wild."

And yet, I defy you to find a film that looks this incredible. Even if "The Grandmaster" is more of a minor work for the great Hong Kong director, it's still more than worth a look.

Review: You're Next

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
When I saw Adam Wingard's 2011 horror film, "A Horrible Way to Die," I thought the picture was far from perfect, but that the director held some promise and could likely become an exciting new voice in the horror genre. I've now seen his follow up, "You're Next," and I feel like I'm still waiting.

His latest film is undoubtedly more high energy than his previous work and it has a fair amount of chutzpah. But it's also imperfect, occasionally derivative and a little mean spirited.

Thematically, you might think you're on board for something unique as the picture opens. A rich clan of siblings - without a doubt, a group of one percenters - gather for a weekend retreat at a secluded home to celebrate their parents' wedding anniversary. One of the brothers, Crispian (AJ Bowen), has brought along his Aussie girlfriend, Erin (Sharni Vinson), who becomes the picture's heroine.

The cast features a Who's Who of indie horror talent and mumblecore regulars, including Ti West ("The House of the Devil"), Joe Swanberg ("Drinking Buddies"), Amy Seimetz ("Silver Bullets"), Barbara Crampton ("Re-Animator") and Larry Fessenden ("Wendigo").

As the group sits down to dinner, a group of three men wearing creepy animal masks launch a brutal attack on the house, using bows and arrows, hatchets, axes, machetes and all other manner of blunt instrument.

As the wealthy family members get picked off in increasingly gruesome ways - including a barb wire to the neck, a machete to the head, an arrow to the forehead and an axe to the skull, Erin unveils a secret... that I won't divulge. Let's just say the killers may have picked the wrong house.

And, of course, there are a few major plot twists - aside from Erin's - as the movie nears its climax, but they are not as revelatory as the filmmakers appear to think.

"You're Next" is slightly better than your average slasher film, but it's not going to revolutionize the genre as some critics appear to believe it will. It's no "Scream" and it's no "Cabin in the Woods." It's greatest strength is that it gives audiences a final girl - and shit kicker - for whom we can truly cheer.

On the other hand, the film's execution is pretty by the numbers. It's gruesome and not just in the typical fashion of films of this kind. The murders are grotesque and a bit crueler than you'd typically expect and, seemingly, for no other reason than Wingard and company had extra funds to spend on buckets of gore.

Horror fans could do worse than "You're Next," but they could also certainly do better.

Review: The World's End

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
"The World's End" caps off director Edgar Wright's Cornetto trilogy, which began with the - in my opinion - overrated "Shaun of the Dead," moved on to the significantly better and funnier "Hot Fuzz" and ends with this third film.

The films are a trilogy not because there are any recurring characters, but at least two of his cast members - Simon Pegg and Nick Frost - have been in all three movies. And all three pictures blend comedy of a very British sort with violent action and, often enough, horror and science fiction elements.

This final film in the series is my second favorite of the bunch - better than "Shaun" but not quite as good as "Fuzz."

The picture is split in to two very different halves, the first of which works wonderfully and the second, while certainly amusing, with slightly less success before culminating in a strange ineffective ending.

Pegg plays Gary King, that type of guy whose charm and carefree spirit in high school has translated into a somewhat pathetic adult existence. He still drives the same car, listens to the same mix tapes - populated with Soup Dragons and Suede songs - and has the same outlook on life as he did in 1990. He's also an alcoholic.

The film opens with a funny, but also sorta sad, sequence in which he describes the greatest night of his life with his mates during which they attempted the Golden Mile, a pub crawl that was supposed to end with the titular dive, but was never completed. We then realize that his retelling of the story is taking place at an AA meeting.

Gary decides to give the pub crawl a second go and rounds up his reluctant friends - most of whom he hasn't seen in years - who are played by Frost, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Martin Freeman. While Gary has never really grown up, his pals are holding down jobs and relationships.

It's during this first half that Wright's film works best. There's a certain poignancy to Gary's belief that the gang will be welcomed back with open arms to their hometown of Newton Haven. And then there's the reality that most of us face when going home again after so many years - life in your hometown has gone on without you and most people don't remember you.

Then, the second half kicks in and so does the film's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" type scenario. The town has been taken over by - well, I won't spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that Gary and friends must fight their way out of a peculiar situation and that the themes from the film's first half still remain in play. And the otherworldly plot line that comes to the forefront has a certain satiric element to it that mostly works as a parody of consumer culture and the Starbuck-ing of our modern age, as one character puts its.

So, it's unfortunate that the film's finale is sort of a dud. I'm not referring to the scene in which Gary and crew speak to the leader of the extraterrestrial presence against which they are fighting. That scene is sort of funny. I'm talking about the post apocalyptic sequences that follow.

All in all, though, "The World's End" is a good time. It's often very funny with witty repartee displayed by all and often coming at you like a barrage of machine gun fire. And as a character study of a guy who just can't get his act together, it mostly works. It's certainly better than all of the other end of the world movies as of late.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review: Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
David Lowery's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is the latest entry in the Terrence Malick school of filmmaking and it's a pretty solid crime drama even if it does not quite live up to the recent works of several other Malick acolytes, such as Jeff Nichols ("Take Shelter") and Andrew Dominik ("Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford").

The film, which could be described as a kinder, gentler riff on Malick's "Badlands," tells the tale of two lovers - Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) - who get caught after pulling off a robbery of some sort and end up wounding a police officer (Ben Foster).

Bob takes the blame - even though Ruth pulled the trigger - and is shipped off to prison. In the meantime, Ruth gives birth to their daughter and is watched over by Skerritt (Keith Carradine), whom we can assume introduced them to a life of crime at some earlier point.

Foster's character clearly has a fixation of some sort on Ruth and takes to checking in on her and her daughter without actually being involved romantically. But when Bob escapes from prison after having been locked up for four years and attempts to find his way back to his estranged wife, complications ensue.

"Ain't Them Bodies Saints" has the visuals, tone and dialogue delivery of a Malick movie. There's very little in the way of plot and significantly more emphasis on mood. For the most part, it works.

There's a sadness that pervades the film and each of its characters. Bob is determined to get back to his wife even though he seems to second guess whether it's a good idea. Skerritt wants Ruth and her daughter to be able to move on with their lives, while Ruth herself seems torn. And Foster's cop obviously wants to be a good guy, telling Ruth that he holds nothing against Bob. And his persistence makes you wonder if he hopes to get to Bob first in order to prevent something tragic from happening.

If there's anything that prevents Lowery's film from being on the level of Malick's best work or even the films of some of his better imitators, it's that the film is a little too on the surface. "Saints" is a crime story, sort of a love story and that's pretty much it.

This is not to say that just because you're paying homage to Malick, you have to rise to the level of ambition as, say, "The Tree of Life." It's just that in the case of "Saints," what you see is what you get. But what you get is often transfixing.

Lowery is a talent to watch. He's a director that allows for his story to play out in no particular hurry and gets solid performances from his entire cast. I'm curious to see what he does next.

Review: Lee Daniels' The Butler

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Lee Daniels' "The Butler" is a thoughtful take on race relations and a unique perspective on 50 years of U.S. history that have been well-covered in numerous films during the past few decades.

That's not to say the film is without its flaws. Those familiar with the director's work have likely come to expect a bit of melodrama when watching one of his movies, but "The Butler" is thankfully more "Precious" than it is last year's calamitous "The Paperboy."

In the picture, Forest Whitaker - excellent as usual - plays Cecil Gaines, who, as a boy, witnesses his field hand father murdered by a white man after objecting to his wife being sexually assaulted. Cecil learns to keep his head low and takes up the trade of being a server and, eventually, a butler.

Some might find Cecil's subservience and Forrest Gump-ish willingness to just watch as history rolls by as frustrating, while others may find it particularly moving. In the film's first scene, Cecil is horrified to see what happens when a black man in 1940s America speaks out against injustice - he is killed.

It is that horror that will drive Cecil to continue to keep his head low during decades to come as he eventually lands a butler gig at the White House and listens to five presidents over a period of 30-some years discuss race relations as he serves them their tea, acting as if he were not even in the room.

Cecil's son, Louis ( a solid David Oyelowo), on the other hand, rebels against his father's subservience, first becoming a Freedom Rider and, later, tagging along with Martin Luther King Jr. and, eventually, the Black Panthers.

This father-son relationship provides the true meat of the movie and Daniels does a solid job of showing how each man, in his own way, rebels against the racism they face every day. Louis obviously tackles it in a more head-on kind of way, but he is surprised when King describes to him how black servants play a role in the Civil Rights movement because of their proximity to white people. A scene follows in which Cecil tries, but fails, to convince his employer at the White House that the black staff deserve to receive equal pay.

Much is often made of Hollywood period pieces depicting black people in servant positions and it's easy to see why some might be discouraged by portrayals in "The Help" or "Driving Miss Daisy," despite that those were well-made pictures.

But "The Butler" isn't quite what you might expect. On the one hand, it tells the story of a black man who learned to keep out of the spotlight for fear of reprisal after seeing his father gunned down. On the other, it's a story of a man who struggles with his powerlessness in a country where he does not have equal rights and, ultimately, comes to realize on which side of the struggle he belongs.

Whitaker gives an extremely convincing performance and the supporting cast is pretty solid, including Oprah Winfrey as Cecil's hard drinking wife, Terrence Howard as a lothario and Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as two fellow White House employees.

The film occasionally stumbles in its portrayals of the leaders of the free world. James Marsden is pretty convincing as John F. Kennedy and Alan Rickman gets Ronald Reagan's speech patterns down well enough. Richard Nixon is the most portrayed president in film history - so, while John Cusack does not necessarily add anything new here, he does well enough.

But Robin Williams was a strange casting choice for Dwight Eisenhower, whom he portrays as strangely effeminate and Liev Schreiber's Lyndon Johnson is just plain odd. The issues are not so much as how the actors play them, but how they are written.

Regardless, the film is surprisingly effective. I thought "Precious" was pretty powerful, despite a few melodramatic flights of fancy, but Daniels' previous film - "The Paperboy" - was a disaster. "The Butler" finds the filmmaker back on track. It is a thoughtful view of American history and one that works on you in ways you might have not expected.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Review: Elysium

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Neill Blomkamp's "Elysium" could just as easily be called "Occupy Dystopia."

The film, which is a follow up to the director's surprise 2009 hit "District 9," is a social allegory masquerading as a violent sci-fi action film. And, on the whole, it's not half bad. But it's not without faults.

In the film, Matt Damon plays Max, a tattooed ex-con who works the assembly line in some sort of factory peddling radioactive materials. The year is 2154 and those who have live on Elysium, a paradise for the wealthy floating in outer space. Those who have not live on Earth, which has become disease ridden and polluted.

But when an accident at work leaves Max radioactive with only a few days to live, he vows to trek to Elysium one way or another. Standing in his way are Elysium's sinister minister of defense played by Jodie Foster and her hired thug, who is played by "District 9" star Sharlto Copley.

The film is swiftly paced and its timely ideas on the wealth gap and health care are welcome during the summer movie season, where ambition typically goes to die. That's not to say that Blomkamp and company completely carry the thing off.

In its final moments, "Elysium" does a bit of a thematic bludgeoning over the head. And several of the performances are a bit, well, strange. Sharlto Copley was solid in "District 9," but I'm not sure his character - though certainly evil - is supposed to be as aggravating as he is here. And Jodie Foster, one of the finest actresses of her generation, gives quite possibly the most odd performance I've seen since Will Smith in "After Earth."

"Elysium" is better than your average summer film. It looks good and has some pretty solid action sequences blended with topical themes. The screenplay is far from perfect, but it's serviceable. So, yeah, I liked it well enough even if it's not as good as, say, "District 9."

P.S.: Yes, I would have loved to have found a publicity still without the movie titled pasted within it, but I couldn't. And this one took a near eternity to upload.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Review: We're the Millers

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Comedies either work or they don't. They're funny or they're not. It's as simple as that. A majority of American comedies, especially those doled out by Hollywood studios, tend to be eye-roll inducing affairs.

"We're the Millers" is a typical Hollywood comedy in the sense that it knows no shame in its attempts to get laughs. It's pretty crude and it's fairly formulaic. The thing is, though, that it's funny. Often very funny.

And what makes the material work here is not only the casting, but the ability to exploit laughs at their expense without being mean spirited as so many other films of this type tend to do, namely "The Hangover" and its ilk.

But back to the casting. Jason Sudeikis gets more than his fair share of laughs here as David Clark, a laid back low level drug dealer who finds that he must smuggle a whole hell of a lot of pot across the Mexican border into the United States after finding himself in debt to his boss (Ed Helms).

The surprise here is that Jennifer Aniston, who is typically relegated to not-so-exciting rom coms, is equally funny. She plays Rose, the stripper next door whom David convinces to act as his wife to seem less suspicious while crossing the border. For those who doubt Aniston's comedic chops, check out the scene during which she pretends to be a religious zealot soccer mom to a plane stewardess.

The rest of the casting is pretty inspired, including Will Poulter and Emma Roberts as a geeky kid next door and a guttersnipe, respectively, whom David asks to be his fake children during the border crossing. And then there's Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn as a fellow traveling couple who are convinced that David and Rose are trying to swing with them.

The plot is fairly standard and even involves a cartel of Mexican drug dealers whom you might expect to find on any given week of "Breaking Bad."

But despite its overly familiar plot points, "We're the Millers" is often riotously funny, much more so that I would have expected it to be. And it's smarter, sweeter and better written than any of these yawn inducing summer tentpole comedies - "The Hangover Part III," "Grown Ups 2" and "This is the End."

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Reviews: 2 Guns, The Canyons

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Baltasar Kormakur's "2 Guns" is a moderately amusing, but ultimately too familiar, type of buddy action movie that relies on the personalities of its stars to keep us amused between the various shootings, explosions and - in this case - target practice utilizing chickens. Don't ask.

In the film, Denzel Washington plays Robert Trench, a DEA agent, and Mark Wahlberg is Michael Stigman, a naval intelligence officer, who attempt to take down a Mexican cartel, a group of corrupt military officials and some crooked CIA operatives. The catch is that neither of them know - at first, at least - that the other is undercover, assuming each other to be a criminal of some sort.

Both Washington and Wahlberg have screen presence to spare, which makes the endless number of double crosses from supporting players, violent interludes (a head in a bag, several rounds of Russian roulette, the aforementioned fired upon chickens) and action set pieces more involving.

But "2 Guns" is pretty formulaic. There's nothing here you haven't seen before. If you're OK with that, you could do worse than this picture. If you're looking for something a little substantive, you'll most likely have to wait for fall.

It was only two weeks ago when I was sadly reflecting that Nicolas Winding Refn's "Only God Forgives" was the biggest letdown from a director whose work I highly value in some time. This was, of course, before I saw "The Canyons."

The movie comes with some pedigree - it was directed by Paul Schrader and written by Bret Easton Ellis, so it's difficult to discern how such a massive flop could be produced by such talent.

The picture opens with shots of run-down, decaying movie palaces, leading me to believe Schrader was going to unspool some sort of "Last Picture Show" tale of bygone eras. At one point, Lindsay Lohan's character, who has some vague role in the film industry, questions a friend on whether she even likes movies and when the last time was that she saw one in a theater. And that's about it on that subject.

For the rest of the picture's mercifully short running time, we are treated to a series of twisted sexual trysts and mind games, during which porn star James Deen's sociopath producer Christian forces Lohan's Tara into three-ways, which he films, and then obsessively has her followed to determine whether she is cheating with Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), the leading man in a picture produced by Christian who looks like he stepped straight off the Bret Easton Ellis assembly line.

The dialogue is often stilted and the readings are occasionally painful. Lohan speaks a number of her lines in mid-weep, while Deen mostly smirks, sneers and acts smug. There are several awkwardly written and performed scenes in which the apparently straight Ryan is sexually blackmailed by gay men, one a producer and another a hotel manager.

At one point, director Gus Van Sant pops up in a small performance as Christian's shrink and the sight of him is rewarding in that it's nice to see a friendly face amid all the cantankerousness.

Schrader has written some of the greatest screenplays of all time and he's often a terrific director. Ellis often aims to shock, but there's usually darkly humorous satire lurking below the surface. In the case of "The Canyons," most of the laughs are unfortunately unintentional.

Review: The Spectacular Now

Image courtesy of A24 Films.

We've all probably known a Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) at some point. You know the guy: life of the party, good hearted but aimless, uses charm and humor to waylay discussions of a serious nature.

In director James Ponsoldt’s sophomore feature, “The Spectacular Now,” Sutter finds himself at the sort of crossroads that movies about teens tend to depict, but it does so eloquently and manages to escape the trappings that typically bring movies of this sort down.

In fact, along with last year’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which is the recent gold standard for this type of film, and 2009’s “Adventureland,” Ponsoldt’s picture is a rare example of a thoughtful portrayal of youth’s trials and tribulations.

At the beginning of the film, Sutter’s well-meaning intention of hooking a pal up with a girl is misinterpreted and he gets dumped by his long-time girlfriend.

Sutter, who drinks entirely too much for his own good, wakes up on the lawn of fellow high schooler Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), a kind hearted soul who loves to read science fiction stories and debates whether she should go to college because it would prevent her from helping her mother – mostly a non-presence – with her paper route.

The scene is a good example of what Roger Ebert frequently called a “meet cute,” but the story that follows takes turns that are romantic, funny, sad and hopeful.

Aimee is a good student who excels at math and her tutelage of Sutter soon leads to a relationship, of sorts.

He makes her promise to tell her mother that she plans to go to college with or without her support, while she convinces him to force his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to divulge the whereabouts of his father, who has not been seen or heard from in years.

The performances by both leads are strong – Woodley elicits our sympathy during a particularly memorable scene in which she has dinner with Sutter and his sister, while Teller’s likability is reminiscent of John Cusack in “Say Anything,” but slightly boozier and less focused on his future.

The supporting actors are also convincing, including Leigh, Kyle Chandler as Sutter’s father and Andre Royo (whom you may likely remember as Bubbles from “The Wire”) as a teacher.

This is Ponsoldt’s second film that deals with alcoholism. His previous feature, “Smashed,” followed the story of a young woman who attempted to break away from the lifestyle in which she and her husband had become trapped.

In “The Spectacular Now,” Sutter’s drinking is almost second nature. The film is a portrait of a likable, but directionless, character who comes to see the dead ends awaiting him if he continues down the road on which he travels.

This is a picture that handles the triumphs and heartbreaks of young adults with an honesty that is rare in American movies.

New Order of Business

So, my weekly film reviews will no longer be found at exactly the same places at exactly the same time. Confused? No matter.

From now on, I will post reviews directly to this site on the weekend - most likely on Sundays. Then, I will provide links to reviews - primarily art house fare - on certain Fridays.

In just a bit, I'll put up my notice on James Ponsoldt's lovely "The Spectacular Now" and, later, a wrap-up of the weekend's other selections - "The Canyons" and "2 Guns." Until then.