Sunday, May 31, 2015

Review: Heaven Knows What

Image courtesy of Radius-TWC.
Jesus Christ. Those are the first two words that popped into my head after watching Ben and Joshua Safdie's festival favorite "Heaven Knows What," which chronicles the story of a group of drug addicts on the streets of New York City over the course of a couple of weeks.

Have you ever overheard a person - very possibly homeless and just as likely inebriated in some form or fashion - rapping to somebody on the street about something that seems to make sense only to them, but not necessarily to you or the person listening to them? That's what it's like to experience the Safdies' film as they follow Harley (Arielle Holmes, a former junkie herself), Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), Mike (Buddy Duress) and their other cohorts as they shoot up, pass out on bathroom floors and comb the streets searching for money.

And I don't mean that pejoratively. "Heaven Knows What" captures what appears to be the actual experience of struggling to get by without a home and being hooked on drugs. This is an intensely unpleasant film, but it's unlikely it could be any other way and remain true to the world which it is depicting.

There's very little plot in the Safdies' film, other than Harley scores, shoots up, crashes, sets out to find more drugs and starts all over again. She is torn between Ilya, whose selfishness and lack of respect for her lead her to very dark places - there's a wrist slashing scene early in the film that might make you nauseous - and Mike, who has his own problems but allows Harley to tag along and, occasionally, get free drugs.

The film's most effective attributes are the creepy electronic score and up-close-and-personal camerawork which, when combined, gives the impression of a late 1970s John Cassavetes movie by-way-of John Carpenter. And Holmes's naturalistic performance - as well as those of her fellow cast members - give the picture a documentary feel, albeit a grim and gloomy one.

If there is any downside to the proceedings, it's that the film's nonstop parade of shooting up and crashing eventually becomes a bit rote. On the other hand, this is likely the point of "Heaven Knows What" and, by all accounts, what it's like to live as Harley and her friends do. I'd recommend the film, but with the caveat that the picture can best be summed up by Dante's "abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

Review: San Andreas

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Family in peril? Check. Hero who failed in the past to save someone and is still haunted by it? Check. Brainy scientist who nobody believes? Check. Exploiting images of 9/11 by portraying cities crumbling and people falling from high places? Check. Sequences in which characters resolve personal issues, only to be followed immediately afterward by additional scenes of peril/buildings crumbling/water gushing/streets splitting open/etc.? Check.

But here's the thing - despite relying on every cliche to be found in the Disaster Movie Prototype, which stretches from the 1970s ("Airport" and "Earthquake") to the unfortunate 1990s revival (the middling "Volcano" and the disaster porn standard bearer "Armageddon"), "San Andreas" is not half bad. In fact, it's a pretty decent summer blockbuster. And, in fact, it's a little better than all of the films I just referenced.

The picture opens with helicopter-bound rescue worker Ray (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) saving a girl stuck in a car hanging off a cliff - how does one find oneself in that position you might ask? I digress. Shortly afterward, we meet a scientist (Paul Giamatti) who is working on finding a way to predict earthquakes before they take place. While conducting research at the Hoover Dam, a massive quake knocks down the structure, killing his partner and numerous others.

As it turns out, the Nevada quake is only the beginning of a seismic event taking place all along the titular fault. So, those who love movies with nonstop special effects will rejoice that not one or two, but three major earthquakes occur during the picture's two-hour running time - first in Nevada, then in Los Angeles and, finally, in San Francisco.

And, of course, Ray and his soon-to-be-ex-wife (Carla Gugino) - who is now dating and plans to move in with a slick businessman (Ioan Gruffud) who we just know will do something sleazy once all the shaking begins - are in L.A. for the first quake, while their daughter, a survivalist type named Blake (Alexandra Daddario), just happens to be in San Francisco for the second quake, meaning the estranged couple must work together to get from one city to the next to save their daughter, who pairs up with a young Brit and his little brother to escape the melee. Seriously, no cliche left behind.

But despite the use of some very well-tread plot devices and occasionally annoying special effects that once again plunder the American psyche by mimicking 9/11-style mayhem, "San Andreas" is an effective summer movie. Despite their being cliches, we care enough about the characters to be invested in their survival - well, perhaps with the exception of Gruffudd's increasingly sinister soon-to-be stepdad - and the effects are well-done. And, therefore, it's pretty easy to forgive the "San Andreas" faults. Sorry, couldn't help myself.

Review: Aloha

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
"Aloha" is scattershot and tries to cover too many stories at once and, yes, it is the weakest film in Cameron Crowe's oeuvre, but it's not as bad as you might have heard.

Much like his previous pictures, Crowe's latest is loaded to the brim with great music - and also, unfortunately, the type of speechmaking that worked much better in the filmmaker's earlier works. Every time a character enters a room in "Aloha," they don't speak so much as launch into soliloquies.

In the film, Bradley Cooper plays Brian Gilcrest, a military guy who spent some time in the Middle East and is now working for a "civilian" named Carson Welch (Bill Murray), whose rocket launch into space from Hawaii, where the film is set, may include some nefarious intentions. We are told on more than one occasion that Gilcrest was "brilliant" and the best in his field, but it's a bit unclear what exactly he did or does.

His trip to the island state leads to romantic entanglements, which include coming to terms with an old flame (Rachel McAdams) being happily married (to John Krasinski, a military pilot) with two kids as well as getting mixed up with a no-nonsense - yes, I don't like that term that much, but it best describes the character - military chaperone named Allison Ng (Emma Stone).

The latter of the two talks a mile a minute and spouts dialogue that stretches the limits to which most would extend their disbelief - and yet, Stone sort of steals the show here, not because her character is that well thought-out, but because she puts so much energy into it. You have to admire the commitment.

Rounding out the cast are Alec Baldwin as a stern military commander and Danny McBride as a punch line generating military figure. McBride does his best with the short amount of time that his character is on screen.

"Aloha" is not only a romantic comedy, but it's also one of Crowe's grown-up-men-growing-up chronicles in the vein of "Jerry Maguire." You know, a guy who has not quite reached his potential finds the ability to do so by getting others to believe in him. There's also a subplot about the military industrial complex and another involving native Hawaiians getting displaced and yet another about some troubles between McAdams and Krasinki's characters. In other words, "Aloha" is too overstuffed.

So, yes, the film is my least favorite of Crowe's thus far. But it's not that bad. There are some nice moments between Cooper's character and McAdams's young son. And we get to see Murray and Stone cut the rug to Hall and Oates. And most of the music, although a bit in abundance, is well chosen.

I always root for a Crowe film. "Say Anything" remains one of the absolute best films about youth that I've seen. "Jerry Maguire" is a very good character piece with terrific writing and "Vanilla Sky" is woefully underrated in my estimation. And, of course, "Almost Famous" is, in my opinion, his greatest film - a picture that not only meant something particular to me at a specific point in my life, but also one of the 10 best movies of the previous decade. So, if "Aloha" is a stumble, it's not an enormous one. It's a minor Crowe picture and, hopefully, just a blip before he makes another film that is much better.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Review: Poltergeist

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
This remake of Tobe Hooper's well received and popular 1982 film of the same name is, much like other horror reboots of this type, probably unnecessary. But it is, for the most part, a competently made and occasionally scary horror film, even if it adds little to the original story, other than changing the little girl's name from Carol Anne to Maddy and switching out the character of Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) for TV show host and spiritualist Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris).

The new version pretty much follows the events of the original - a family (Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt and their three kids) moves into a new home that is, unbeknownst to them, on top of a burial ground and spooky things start happening, including young Maddy (Kennedi Clements) being kidnapped by the titular ghosts lurking in the house's shadows.

There are certainly some creepy moments in the film - middle brother Griffin (Kyle Catlett) discovering a closet full of sinister looking dolls, a large tree limb smacking on the glass ceiling window of Griffin's room and Maddy's closet opening and closing on its own.

There's not much in the way of characterization - Rockwell is out of work following a layoff, while DeWitt's mother is a struggling author, whom we never see write a word - and the filmmakers often rely on the generic jump scares that now populate genre films of this type.

That being said, there's a certain technical competency to the visuals and the special effects are actually pretty good for a mid-level horror movie of this sort. Famous lines of dialogue from the original are repeated here - some to maximum effect (Harris' "this house is clean" is presented as more of a joke), while others feel a bit unnecessarily included ("they're here" isn't quite as creepy this time around).

Writing about a movie such as the updated "Poltergeist" presents somewhat of a challenge. There's not much to say that hasn't already been said about the 1982 version, which is certainly better than this one. The 2015 remake is slightly better than your average horror movie, about on-par with your average summer movie and able to please those who like knowing exactly what they'll get out of a moviegoing experience.

While I wouldn't go as far as recommending it, the film is decent enough as far as horror films go and it's definitely better than some of the other unnecessary remakes of horror classics, such as the abominable reboots of "Evil Dead," "The Hills Have Eyes," "Last House on the Left," "Black Christmas" or "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Review: Good Kill

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
Andrew Niccol's "Good Kill" is a well-made and mostly effective political/war drama that focuses on the ever-controversial use of drones as weapons of warfare. The picture's questioning of the ethics involved in using such weapons hits most of its targets, even when the script falls short in a few other departments, namely in fleshing out its characters.

In the film, Ethan Hawke plays Major Thomas Egan, a former pilot who did six tours in the Middle East and has now been relegated to working in a booth in Nevada, spending all day in front of a screen and using drones to kill targets in places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Egan's character is a bit of an enigma. He appears pensive and moody, but never outwardly questions the orders of his superiors, including his sympathetic commander (Bruce Greenwood). And yet, Hawke, who always brings a certain something to a movie, manages to give us a pretty good sense of the guy anyway.

The same could be said for his long suffering wife, Molly (January Jones), who grows wary of her husband constantly being away, including the times when he is actually with her. As a character, Molly exhibits some of the cliches of the soldier's wife, who can only put up with so much of her absent husband. But Jones, who proved in last week's second to last "Mad Men" episode how much she can do with the right material, still makes her character sympathetic and lived-in.

"Good Kill" plays like a thriller, although the stakes, as Hawke and his cohorts point out, are only truly playing out on the other side of the globe. He tells a coworker, "The greatest danger I face every day is driving home on the highway."

Since this is a political thriller, the film presents some of the pros and cons - although, certainly more of the cons - of drone warfare, a tactic that has been employed increasingly since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. There are several scenes in the film in which Hawke must deal with the collateral damage involved in using the drones, whereas in two other sequences - one in which he rightfully takes out a man whom he witnesses perpetrating horrors against a young mother and another in which he watches over a group of soldiers, so that they can get a good night's sleep - Egan uses drones for higher purposes.

Niccol, who broke onto the scene in the late 1990s after penning the script for "The Truman Show," has an interesting filmography that has included some hits - "Gattaca" and "Lord of War" - and a miss or two, including the woeful adaptation of "The Host."

"Good Kill" isn't quite one of his best films, but it presents him with an opportunity to break out of the sci-fi thriller genre in which he often dabbles. "Lord of War," which also dealt with weapons, is the closest point of reference in his oeuvre. It's a solid, low budget thriller that, for the most part, works and poses some grave questions about the ways we do war.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Now, here's what a summer movie should be. George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road" is the first in the series in 30 years, but this latest entry brings it back with a roar.

Placing less emphasis on dialogue and in motion nearly nonstop, "Fury Road" is a triumph of camera work, set design, costume and adrenalized action filmmaking. It could best be described as a two-hour chase scene - which, in most cases, sounds like a headache, but here acts as a gorgeous assault on the senses.

In the film, Max (Tom Hardy) has been enslaved by an evil man named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who is visually the stuff of nightmares (skull mask, long white hair). The man keeps the ragged population of the futuristic desert kingdom over which he lords hungry and thirsty. Young boys, painted white, grow up to be cogs in his machine, while young women are his "wives," whose purpose is to give him heirs.

Just moments after Max has been captured, one of Immortan Joe's warriors, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), has snatched his wives and made a run for it. Eventually, Max breaks free himself and joins the band of women who drive across the desert in a gigantic truck rigged with weapons as Joe and his war party follows behind. In the way of plot, that's all "Fury Road" has to offer.

Also, there's very little dialogue between Furiosa, whom we learn was stolen as a child from her village and taken to Joe's kingdom, and Max, who lost his wife and child years before and is tormented by memories of them. And much of the film involves the pair - along with the wives and a stowaway (Nicholas Hoult) - fending off villains, which include dozens of men with skulls adorning their vehicles and even a guy with a gigantic electric guitar that spouts fire.

I've often complained about summer blockbusters trading in characterization or even story for nonstop action and special effects. "Fury Road" is one of the rare cases where this style works - and mostly because it is done so well. There are constantly things flying in the audiences' face, whether it's men, auto parts, explosions or dust. But the film's incredible visual effects do not have the clunky CGI look of most other pictures of this sort.

There are numerous sequences that are breathtaking to behold, including a ride through a massive sandstorm and another into a swampy area being circled by crows. And while Theron and Hardy are given little to say, they make up the difference quite a bit with what's going on on their faces.

Another unique element of "Fury Road" is how Max is often relegated to being a sidekick to Furiosa, a move that is fairly ballsy for a franchise movie. Some fans of comic book movies have said they'd like to see a female superhero picture at some point. If they don't get their wish, "Fury Road" is a great alternative. This is easily the best action movie of the year so far.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Review: Hot Pursuit

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Reese Witherspoon's last two films have exhibited the signs typically associated with an actor's comeback - critical prestige and a paycheck. Her deserved Oscar nomination for her performance in last year's "Wild" was an example of the former, while her latest, "Hot Pursuit," is a perfect example of the latter.

Paycheck films pay off for some, while not as much for others. So, it saddens me to say it, but "Hot Pursuit" is an absolute dud. The picture, which was directed by Anne Fletcher ("The Proposal"), relies primarily on creaky cliches - including everything from the bumbling good cop taking on the crooked cops in her department to a buddy film in which the two leads spend much of the time badmouthing one another - and most of them are not funny.

Witherspoon plays Cooper (and, yes, we know her only as that for much of the movie), an officer who is so by-the-book that her colleagues do not take her seriously. Also, her love life is nonexistent and she has so far failed at living up to the standards set by her father, a lauded officer who died in the line of duty.

I won't give away the gag, if you want to call it that, but suffice it to say the flashback sequence during which we learn why Cooper is the butt of so many jokes is not only not particularly funny, but I'm curious to see how it will play in the wake of recent news items involving police using brutal force.

Cooper gets assigned the job of escorting the wife (Sofia Vergara) of a drug dealer who plans to testify against his cartel's leader to court. Of course, things do not go as planned. The other officer with whom Cooper is working is killed and, suddenly, she and Mrs. Riva (Vergara) are on the run from crooked cops, cartel killers and the like. And for some unexplained reason, Cooper becomes the number one suspect in the slaying of the cop with whom she had been working. It's a plot device that is well-worn, but in this case it doesn't even particularly make sense.

Most of the film's jokes revolve around the two women's clashing personalities - Cooper is seen as overly serious and mostly humorless, while Mrs. Riva is a bling-bling airhead who cannot be trusted. And most of the jokes stemming from this pairing fall flat, not so much due to a lack of chemistry between the two leads, but because they are given little to do other than play out the script's tired material.

Subplots abound, involving a romance (of course) with a man violating his parol, a trip to a casino and Cooper finding out that her fellow officers are shady. If you guess in which direction "Hot Pursuit" is going at any point in the film, you're probably correct.

Witherspoon is a very talented actress. Check out her work in "Wild," but also her Oscar winning performance in "Walk the Line" and her turn in "Election," which proves she can hang with the best of them as a comedienne. I hope that if she takes on another comedy in the future, it involves a better script than this one.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Review: Far from the Madding Crowd

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Thomas Vinterberg's "Far from the Madding Crowd" is a beautifully acted and visually lush version of Thomas Hardy's classic novel. What makes this odd is the fact that the film's director was once one of the progenitors of the Dogme 95 film movement - which deemphasized aesthetics for more naturalistic performances and handheld camerawork - and is responsible for the fascinating and grim "The Celebration."

And yet, Vinterberg - who was nominated for Best Foreign Film a few years back for his intense drama "The Hunt" - unleashes his inner Merchant Ivory with his latest. His "Far From the Madding Crowd" doesn't reinvent the wheel when it comes to adapting Victorian era novels, but the picture is a very good - and gorgeous looking - character study.

In this version, Carey Mulligan does a solid job of inhabiting Bathsheba Everdene, an independent woman who takes over her uncle's farm following his death and works hard to stave off three suitors. Mulligan has provided excellent work in "An Education," "Drive," "Shame" and "Inside Llewyn Davis" and her performance here is one of her best.

One of the reasons Bathsheba is so likable - and a little flawed, like the best characters - is that she doesn't seem to care what anyone thinks of her. The marriage proposals start trickling in toward the beginning of the film and Bathsheba's reason for denying them is simple - she doesn't believe she needs a husband.

Her first suitor is Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a kind and physically imposing sheep farmer who first proposes to Bathsheba and, after a spell of particularly bad luck, ends up working on her farm. He's a hard worker and easily the best man of the three attempting to court our heroine.

William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a wealthy but socially awkward bachelor, is the second of Bathsheba's suitors. We overhear that he was once jilted by his first love and his attempts to woo Bathsheba are earnest, but not particularly successful.

And last - and most certainly least - of the three men attempting to marry Bathsheba is a young, arrogant soldier named Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), whom we first meet as he plans to marry another woman (Juno Temple).

One of the elements that makes "Far from the Madding Crowd" such a rich story is not only does it juggle the three stories involving Bathsheba and the men pursuing her, but it places equal emphasis on her attempts to keep her farm prospering. These scenes, which include Bathsheba and Gabriel working with the farm's sheep as well as scenes in which the entire farm staff socializes, are some of the film's best. And the picture also does a stellar job of portraying the depths of the friendship that forms between Bathsheba and Gabriel after she turns down his earlier marriage proposal.

Yes, "Far from the Madding Crowd" is romantic in the tradition of many of the great Victorian novels, but it's also the chronicle of a budding friendship and a strong woman. The combination of Vinterberg's talents behind the camera and the film's strong performances make for a very good adaptation of a classic work of fiction.

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
Joss Whedon has been a formative presence in pop culture for nearly 20 years and his work, whether in television ("Buffy, the Vampire Slayer") or film ("The Cabin in the Woods," which he co-wrote), tends to combine genre elements with fully developed characters and cheeky humor.

So, it's a shame that "Avengers: Age of Ultron" isn't quite up to snuff. It's not a bad film and as far as summer blockbusters go, it's certainly better than many. But it's lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. The special effects are good enough, it's fast paced and heavily plotted, but it almost feels as if the hearts of those involved aren't quite in it.

To be fair, "Age of Ultron" is one-half mediocre movie and one-half pretty decent one. It's the first half that lags, not because it's not filled with wall-to-wall action as the second half is, but rather it feels so muted that the film gives the impression of a contract obligated in which no one appears to be having much of a good time.

The film boasts a particularly impressive cast: Jeremy Renner, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Stellan Skarsgard, Mark Ruffalo, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron-Taylor Johnson, Paul Bettany, Anthony Mackie, Julie Delpy, Linda Cardellini, Idris Elba and the voice of James Spader.

And yet, all these wonderful actors are given little with which to work during the film's first half, other than some expository dialogue and an opening action sequence that is the most fake-looking in the entire movie.

The picture picks up a little after we are introduced to two twins - played by Olsen and Johnson - who have a grudge against the Avengers, Tony Stark (Downey) especially, and the sequences in which Olsen's character causes our heroes to suffer twisted dreams are among the film's best.

The movie's prime villain, however, is Ultron (Spader's voice), a machine constructed by Stark that is meant to be a world peacekeeper, but ends up deciding that the only way to save the human race is to destroy it. Unfortunately, Ultron's decision begins to make sense less and less as the film goes on and his modus operandi is, to put it kindly, a little lacking.

But the messier elements of the film are soon overwhelmed by the onslaught of action sequences, most of which are deftly handled and pretty fun. And the camaraderie we'd expect in a Whedon production begins to kick in and each Avenger is given at least one good scene. I particularly liked Hawkeye's (Renner) constant attempts to one-up Olsen and Johnson and Renner's character also gets some nice moments with his wife (Cardellini), who might have the best line in the movie when she tells him, "I totally support your avenging."

In the end, "Avengers: Age of Ultron" is a big, expensive product. At times, it's a pretty good one and, at others, a little bit of a drag. It's not as good as the first "Avengers" movie, which I liked but didn't love, and in terms of its rank in the world of comic book movies, it comes nowhere close to Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. I can't wholeheartedly recommend it, but when it comes to summer tentpole films, trust me when I say you could do much worse.