Sunday, August 24, 2014

Review: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" is a follow-up to his semi-groundbreaking - and visually stunning - 2005 pulp fiction "Sin City," which made up for what it might have lacked slightly in content with style, wit and near-perfect capturing of the essence of hardboiled noir. It remains one of Rodriguez's better pictures.

This sequel, of sorts, comes nine years later and it pretty much mimics the style, story lines and tough talk of the original, but something feels lost. It's not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, but one that feels as if it's lacking purpose. "A Dame to Kill For" doesn't do anything we haven't seen before (at least, once before) and it comes off as a bit unnecessary.

This latest collaboration with Frank Miller includes a variety of murderous characters, including some we've seen before - such as Mickey Rourke's Marv, Jessica Alba's Nancy and Power Boothe's slimeball senator Roark. New additions include Joseph Gordon Levitt as a card playing expert who shows up in town to embarrass Roark, and Josh Brolin as a man whose love for a sinister femme fatale (Eva Green) gets him in over his head.

As before, the film is loaded with wall-to-wall violence, which is thankfully muffled slightly by the fact that the movie is in black and white. One could argue that the picture's depiction of women as either promiscuous or avenging angels might turn off some audience members. Then again, all of the film's female characters are strong women and the picture just might pass the Bechdel Test due to the fact that when these women are not discussing their relationships with men, they are talking amongst one another as to how they might kill some of their male counterparts.

A rundown of the plot is futile. It's essentially - men cross other men and attempt to kill one another, woman crosses man and he seeks revenge, man crosses woman and she seeks revenge. Rinse, repeat. The picture is stylish and looks great, which goes a little way toward helping one forget that the stories being portrayed on-screen are often a bit thin.

"Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" is not a great movie, but not particularly a bad one either. It doesn't need to exist, but it's decent enough for what it is. Fans of Rodriguez's original who want nothing more or less than another movie in the exact same style will not likely be disappointed. Those wanting a little something more can just rewatch the original or, better yet, give another shot to Rodriguez's underrated "Planet Terror."

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Review: The Expendables 3

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
This third - and possibly final - entry in "The Expendables" franchise is pretty by-the-book and the only sense of freshness in this latest picture is - as to be expected - a series of new cast members, including Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, Kelsey Grammer, Harrison Ford (filling in for Bruce Willis, whose absence is unexplained) as well as a group of youngins - such as Ronda Rousey, Victor Ortiz, Glen Powell and Kellan Lutz - and Mel Gibson as a particularly nasty heavy.

This latest film is about on-par with the first "Expendables" film and better than the weak second entry in the series. It's filled to the brim with wall-to-wall violence, but the movie's PG-13 rating (down from an R in the previous films) ensures that not too much gore is spotted this time around.

At the beginning of the picture, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone, who also co-wrote the screenplay) and company - Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and Dolph Lundgren - help bust Snipes' character out of some prison where he has been languishing for eight years.

The group - who is joined by the younger crew after Ross kicks out his old pals due to their getting over-the-hill and his not wanting them to be killed - takes on a mission to hunt down a former Expendable turned mercenary (Gibson) wanted by a CIA agent (Ford), who joins the mission and drags along Arnold Schwarzenegger - who, as an in-joke continuously instructs other characters to "get in the choppah" - and Jet Li, once again the butt of jokes due to his height.

Banderas livens things up a bit as a wannabe assassin who convinces Ross to take him on, only to annoy all of the other crew members by his non-stop talking. Ford tells Ross - somewhat unconvincingly, due to the film's occasionally draggy two-plus hours - toward the picture's end that he hasn't "had this much fun in a long time," although it's Banderas that seems to be the only person on-board to be doing so.

Despite having lined up virtually every action star - that is, with the exception of Steven Seagal and Jeff Speakman - from the 1980s, "The Expendables" films have never really captured the fun of the uber-violent action movies of that era.

This third entry in the series is not as bad as the previous film, which featured an unnecessary cameo by Chuck Norris, among other things, and it's mostly harmless. There's a little more sense of camaraderie between those involved, even if they are merely spouting off silly one liners. The film isn't outright bad, nor is it quite good either. It might pass muster for those looking for a mindless summer action movie. My guess is that anyone attending the film will know pretty much exactly what they're getting.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review: Into the Storm

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Let's get this out of the way first: Yes, "Into the Storm" features some pretty impressive special effects of massive tornadoes ripping apart houses, towns, buildings and vehicles. The effects are frightening and realistic, although the verdict is still out for me on the tornado that catches on fire and becomes a flaming funnel.

Otherwise, the picture leaves much to be desired, from its creaky script filled with expository dialogue and unrealistic depictions of how humans speak to one another to a plot that can be summed up as such, "Look, a tornado - let's go chase it!" And if the characters were any more wooden, they'd likely end up in someone's fireplace.

As is the case of most disaster movies, there's got to be some loose plot threads involving family struggles. In this case, the story follows Donnie (Max Deacon), who's upset with his overbearing father Gary (Richard Armitage), a school principal, and younger brother, Trey (Nathan Kress), who also has a spotty relationship with the paterfamilias following the death of the boys' mother in a car accident years before.

And then there's the group of storm chasers, including Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies), who wants to get home to her young daughter and the greedy Pete (Matt Walsh), who'll risk the lives of his crew to get great shots of tornadoes. Pete operates a tank that plants stakes into the ground to allow the vehicle to withstand the storms and allow him to view the eye of the tornado. Wanna guess what happens to Pete?

Much of the film teases the audience with the tornado threatening the lives of some hundred or so youths whose graduation coincides with the arrival of a massive storm system that includes four to five huge tornados that are described by newscasters as - and I'm not kidding - "the biggest tornado ever!"

I realize that, until now, I've neglected to mention that "Into the Storm" is shot in the increasingly overused found-footage documentary style format. One of my problems with this style of filmmaking is that because we're watching a documentary approach to the subject matter - that is, we follow everything in complete chronological order and only know the characters from what we glimpse of them as they engage in the action from moment to moment - there tends to be a very minimum focus on character, story or virtually else, other than catching whatever thrilling event occurs before the camera's lens. In other words, it's a cop out.

As I mentioned, "Into the Storm" includes some very believable special effects. If only the filmmakers had taken such care with virtually every other element of the film. The picture is mostly full of hot air.

Review: Calvary

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
John Michael McDonagh's "Calvary" is a mordantly funny, but ultimately bleak, tale that combines a heavily thematic tale of a priest who suffers for the sake of his small Irish town as a modern Christ figure with a, well, not such much whoddunit, but rather a who's-gonna-do-it.

In the film, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) hears the confession of a man who claims to have been sexually assaulted repeatedly in his youth by a Catholic priest. The man, he tells Father James, is long since dead, so there's no possible way to enact revenge against him. Rather, the man says that he will kill Father James in one week's time, not because the priest has done anything wrong, but rather as a way to substitute one heinous act that should have no place in the universe for another.

The film - which is directed by playwright Martin McDonagh's brother, who also directed Gleeson in the funny crime drama "The Guard" - follows Father James as he attempts to guide the denizens of his small Irish town through the course of the week and ponders how he will handle the situation in which he has found himself.

The townspeople are far from saints. There's a butcher (Chris O'Dowd) who may or may not be abusing his wife, a doctor (Aiden Gillen), who choses not to have any sort of emotional attachment toward humanity as a means of not caring about his patients and an immigrant (the great Isaach De Bankole) who is seeing a local married woman on the sly. The town's residents all - in some form or fashion - act abusively toward Father James. And while he doesn't take their shenanigans lightly - in fact, he rips into one or two of them rather humorously - he still tries to find something worthwhile in each of them.

I'm not going to go into too many details on the direction in which the film's narrative goes, but suffice it to say that Father James' own road to Calvary also includes a Virgin Mary-esque character in the form of a woman whose husband and children died in a car accident as well as a reconciliation with a daughter whom he fathered years before becoming a priest.

"Calvary" is frequently funny - especially during a sequence in which O'Dowd ponders his wife's ailments - and occasionally moving, but also dark and surprisingly glum. Gleeson carries the film with his solid performance as Father James, but each of the supporting actors also bring something to the table. The film's ending leaves one or two mysteries unsolved - I'd argue, perhaps, a bit unsatisfactorily - but "Calvary" is a moody little comedic thriller that takes a unique approach to thematically incorporating elements of religion into a mystery story.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
"Guardians of the Galaxy" wins some points for attempting to be a little different than the typical onslaught of comic book movies that bombard us every summer. It's a bit funnier, a little quirkier (although that element is, perhaps, just a little calculated) and has more memorable characters. And I'd be willing to bet that it's the only comic book movie with a soundtrack including Redbone, 10cc, David Bowie, The Runaways, Rupert Holmes, Five Stairsteps and Elvin Bishop. More on that later.

The film provides yet another of those ragtag motley crews that populate comic book franchises - this group is less serious and has a little more personality than, say, the Avengers and, most likely, less grave than the upcoming "Justice League" picture. Then again, none of those films feature a wisecracking raccoon and a walking tree.

At the beginning of the film, a young boy who will grow up to be space outlaw Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is kidnapped by some extraterrestrials in 1988 after watching his mother, who provided him with mixtapes of her favorite 1970s songs, die from cancer. Years later, Quill gets mixed up in a battle between a green-skinned warrior named Gamora (Zoe Saldana, and what's with her playing colorfully skinned aliens?) who is attempting to keep some sort of orb from landing in the hands of a blue-faced supervillain named Ronan (Lee Pace).

After Quill and Gamora land in prison, they plan a jailbreak with the help of some fellow outlaws, including the aforementioned raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a talking tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, who mutters only "I am Groot" in varying tones) and a tough fella with grey skin known as Drax (Dave Bautista). You know the drill - villain wants to blow up the universe, blah, blah, blah and heroes must stop him, etc., etc., etc.

What makes "Guardians of the Galaxy" a little better than others of its ilk is its irreverent sense of humor (including Rocket's running joke of asking others to collect items purportedly for their mission, such as a man's fake leg, only to let them know he was joking), genuinely jovial tone as opposed to the occasionally insufferable seriousness of so many other comic book movies and the odd choice of music on the soundtrack. So, are the filmmakers trying a little too hard by playing 1970s nuggets amid the barrage of explosions and chase sequences? Yes, probably. But still, who can't appreciate a blockbuster making use of "Moonage Daydream?"

Those who are arguing that "Guardians" is some sort of groundbreaker for its genre aren't completely on the money. Despite its quirks, the film is still the type of origin story that you'd typically expect from the first of a Marvel series and it's still loaded to the brim with stuff blowing up, fight scenes, heroes making sacrifices and the setup for sequels. That being said, it does a better job of doing all these things than most of its type. It's a fun movie and a blockbuster with personality, which makes it stand out a little from most of the typically bland summer fare.

Review: Get On Up

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Tate Taylor's "Get On Up" doesn't break any ground as a music bio film, of which there have been too many to count during the past decade, but Chadwick Boseman does a terrific job of capturing the essence of the legendary James Brown.

From mimicking his voice and swagger to emulating his impressive dance moves on stage, Boseman - who recently played another legend, Jackie Robinson - brings Brown to life, better than I can imagine any other actor being able to do.

On the scale of movies about famous musicians, it's not quite as good as Jaime Foxx's Ray Charles movie or 2005's Johnny Cash picture "Walk the Line," but it's slightly better than Clint Eastwood's "Jersey Boys" and certainly leaves The Notorious B.I.G.'s sadly lightweight bio film in the dust. In other words, it's a good movie and not a great one. And, of course, none of these aforementioned films are even in the same league as Todd Haynes' brilliant Bob Dylan movie "I'm Not There."

The film's nonlinear structure is both a blessing and a burden. On the one hand, it makes the film stand out. You'll certainly have a difficult time forgetting the odd opening sequence during which an older Brown fires off a shotgun in a room full of people after one of them used the bathroom in a building he owns. This is then followed by Brown's explosive arrival to perform for the troops in Vietnam, which is complete with his plane nearly being shot down and the singer lecturing a military man on how long his set will last.

On the other hand, this structure - which frequently feels a bit all over the place - makes the picture occasionally a bit disjointed. Take, for instance, a scene in which Brown's mother (Viola Davis), who abandoned him as a child, shows up backstage at one of his concerts. Immediately after Davis's character shows up, the action cuts to more flashbacks having nothing to do with Brown's relationship with his mother. Then, some 30 minutes or so pass until we are backstage again with the singer and his mother. And there's absolutely no reason to have split the scenes up.

The film is filled with great reenacted concert sequences. A particularly effective one involves Brown performing in Boston immediately after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The mayor asks the crowd to honor King's legacy by not getting out of control and he is obviously referencing the riots taking place across the nation. As Brown performs, some audience members jump up on stage, the police begin to get rough with them and Brown manages to keep the situation under control. In fact, this sequence fits in well with the rest of the film, which paints Brown as a control freak.

This picture is a warts and all type of bio. In other words, the filmmakers think Brown was a genius, but they also take no pains to portray him as a saint. During one sequence, he hits his wife, but this is never mentioned again, leaving the incident feeling curiously unfinished. And, to say the least, Brown demands respect from his band members, but hardly ever gives it in return.

It's Boseman who carries the film with his energetic performance, but the supporting cast is also pretty solid. Davis, Octavia Spencer and Dan Aykroyd do well with relatively small parts and Nelsan Ellis brings a fair amount of depth to his portrayal as Bobby Byrd, Brown's long-time right-hand-man, who eventually loses patience with his boss after he consistently wants to hog the spotlight.

The film was directed by Tate Taylor, who was also responsible for "The Help," a film that drew some criticism for the way it portrayed its black maids during the 1960s in the south and due to the fact that its story was from the perspective of a white woman.

"Get On Up" tackles race in a little more up-front manner during the aforementioned concert following King's death, a discussion between Brown and his manager (Aykroyd) about not becoming a servant to the white owned and operated record companies and a flashback in which a young James must fight other black children as white spectators look on and cheer (another scene that packs a punch, but leaves us hanging by offering no explanation or frame of reference). But it still feels as if the film could have covered more on this front, considering that Brown was never shy about discussing race in his songs ("Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud").

In the end, "Get On Up" is a good film about a great singer and entertainer. And as for summer movies go, it's better than most. At the very least, you'll be able to witness a terrific performance and listen to some fantastic music.