Sunday, February 28, 2016

Review: Gods of Egypt

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
As summer blockbusters and big budget action and sci-fi extravaganzas have continued to become more self-serious and humorless, it's somewhat of a relief to stumble across one as unrepentantly silly as Alex Proyas' "Gods of Egypt." Please don't mistake that for an endorsement as the picture represents a probable low point for a filmmaker whose career has included some very good genre films, such as the woefully underrated "Dark City" and the solid comic book adaptation of "The Crow."

Filled with absurdly inappropriate dialogue relative to its time period as well as the bizarre stylistic choice of making the gods - who walk among mankind and rule them in ancient Egypt - several feet taller than their human counterparts, Proyas' picture borders on camp and it would appear as if this were entirely intentional.

At the film's beginning, the sinister Set (Gerard Butler, hamming out of control) wrests control of Egypt by murdering his brother and maiming his nephew, Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who was supposed to become its next ruler and has now been sent into exile.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town (sorry, couldn't help myself), a mortal and thief named Bek (Brenton Thwaites) has resolved himself to stealing a powerful jewel that can restore Horus' health in exchange for the exiled leader bringing back to life Bek's lover, Zaya (Courtney Eaton), who was struck by an arrow, died and ended up in the underworld.

Much of the film is a road trip movie during which the grouchy Horus and good natured Bek do everything but bond as they make their way back to Cairo, where Horus intends to slay his uncle. They are occasionally joined by others, including Horus' former love and the god of knowledge (Chadwick Boseman), who comes in handy when getting riddled by the Sphinx. Meanwhile, Set concocts a nefarious plan to bring about the end of days, rule the world, blah blah blah. Geoffrey Rush makes a cameo as Ra and is given equal opportunity to serve up a helping of fresh ham.

Some of the picture's visual effects - of which there are many - are impressive enough, although the humans frequently look out of place as they are dodging them. The film looks expensive, but it has a B-movie feel to it throughout, especially when one notices such things as how modern the vendors selling clothes on the streets of Egypt appear to be or how all of the film's conflicts are settled with two people slapping each other around atop mountains.

"Gods of Egypt" is not a particularly good film, but it's at least not as sadistic as "300" or self-serious as "Exodus: Gods and Kings." And in terms of authenticity, it has about as much to do with the Egyptian tales of lore as that Bangles song. You could do worse, although I'd advise you not to attempt it.

Review: Triple 9

Image courtesy of Open Road Films.
John Hillcoat's "Triple 9" has such a terrific cast that it's a shame they are mostly wasted on spouting exposition in a cop thriller that gets more plot heavy as its twists are revealed. The film, which gives Atlanta the treatment L.A. and New York were used to in the 1980s, is a grim, violent and occasionally exciting crime story that never quite rises above its material.

The picture, which borrows themes and styles from better movies by Michael Mann, Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin, follows the exploits of a group of dirty cops who have staged a series of violent bank heists to retrieve information that might set a notorious Russian mobster free from prison. His vicious wife (Kate Winslet, nearly unrecognizable) is in charge of these operations, but it's up to a former special ops guy named Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing the rare unlikable character) to run the show.

There is an obvious reason why Atwood leads these increasingly dangerous robberies, which include banks and vaults: his son is being held sort-of hostage by Winslet's mobster, whose sister is the mother of the child. It's not so clear why the crooked cops played by Clifton Collins Jr. and Anthony Mackie or the two brothers - Norman Reedus and Aaron Paul - involved in the heists have agreed to do so.

The film's title refers to a police code for "officer down." This figures into the story as Mackie's dirty cop figures that Atlanta's police will be drawn to the killing of an officer and, therefore, allow for he and his pals to make their most daring robbery. The cop to be shot down is his new partner (Casey Affleck), whose uncle (Woody Harrelson) is a big wig in the police department.

One of the problems from the film's outset is how most of the characters are vaguely drawn. We don't get much of a sense of any of them, other than Harrelson having a drinking problem, Ejiofor wanting the custody of his son and Paul's junkie ex-cop feeling increasingly guilty at the prospect of setting up Affleck, whose character is hinted at having some sort of rough and tumble background that is never elaborated.

The heist sequences and a few of the film's chase sequences are well staged, although one in which the robbers take over a highway, shooting up the entire scene and then escaping borders on being ludicrous.

Hillcoat's oeuvre has primarily been filled with grim stories such as these, including the far more successful "The Proposition" and Cormac McCarthy adaptation of "The Road." "Triple 9" is more in line with his previous feature, "Lawless," another American crime drama that never quite clicked.

The price of admission for Hillcoat's latest can nearly be justified by the fact that there is so much talent onscreen. However, they are given little to do in a film that settles for following crime movie and police drama cliches through and through. This could have been a much better film considering the talent involved, but it's mostly just routine.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Review: The Witch

Image courtesy of A24.
I'll give director Robert Eggers credit: his debut, "The Witch," is among the more artfully rendered horror films of recent years and it bears more in common with the work of Ingmar Bergman or Carl Theodor Dreyer, both of whom Eggers has cited in terms of influence, than your typical example of the genre. The film looks great and is often creepy, but it's the type of picture I admire a little more than love.

Set in the 1630s, the film follows the travails of a New England family who has been cast out of their community, either for reasons unknown or simply reasons unknown to me due to the near whispered dialogue throughout the film and, unfortunately, the loud cinema screening next door to this one that nearly drowned out the sound.

The family relocates at the edge of a dark wooded area that Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the clan's oldest child, eyes with suspicion. Not too long after their arrival, the family's newborn disappears and, we learn, is sacrificed by a witch living in the woods. The death of the child appears to make the haggard old woman appear young once more.

Things continue to take a downward turn for the family. William (Ralph Ineson), the father, is unable to successfully grow crops and his hunting skills leave much to be desired. The mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), begins to lose her grip on reality after the death of the newborn and two of Thomasin's younger siblings believe that their older sister is a witch after she jokingly proclaims to be one.

Soon, tragedy strikes again. Thomasin's slightly younger brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), gets lost in the woods, discovered by the witch and then takes ill. Thomasin's family increasingly begins to blame her for the woes they are suffering and horrific ordeals continue to plague the family.

This is a very subtly made horror film. There are very few of the traditional types of sequences you'd find in a typical example of the genre. In other words, nothing jumps out and there aren't any scenes of disturbing images peeking out of the dark.

And yet, there's a sense of dread throughout the proceedings. Commonplace things - such as trees, rabbits and a goat - are well utilized to send chills up the spine. There's a sense of evil that permeates the story and the film's depiction of the era - from the dialogue to the religious beliefs practiced by its characters - struck me as authentic. The film's final scenes are particularly unsettling, although the finale involves what appears to be a moment of joy, which, in some ways, makes everything that has come before it even more horrifying.

Eggers' film has been listed alongside a handful of recent horror movies that have been singled out as potential examples of a new wave in the genre. For my money, "It Follows" is the high watermark among them, while "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" is also high on the list. I'd rank "The Witch" alongside the acclaimed "The Babadook" as both pictures were movies that I liked, although my admiration often outweighed my overall enthusiasm.

"The Witch" is a well-made period horror drama that features some solid performances, eerie use of locale and sumptuous cinematography. I can appreciate the amount of work that went into it, especially in attempting to accurately capture the feel of 1630s New England. It's not one of my favorites among recent horror movies, but it's worth seeing, especially if you are a devotee of the genre.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Review: Embrace of the Serpent

Image courtesy of Oscilloscope. 
Ciro Guerra's visually rich and mystically elegiac Oscar nominee "Embrace of the Serpent" has the feel of a long lost Werner Herzog picture from the days when that great German director spent his time getting lost in the jungle. That's obviously a compliment and Guerra, who was unbeknownst to me despite this being his third feature, is clearly a filmmaker to watch.

Set during two undisclosed times in the 20th century - my guess would be the very early 1900s and then approximately 40 years after that - the film follows the story of Karamakate (the younger version played by Nilbio Torres and the older by Antonio Bolivar), an Amazonian shaman who is the last of his tribe. He first meets Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), a German whom he reluctantly agrees to take through the Colombian wilds to find the fabled yakruna, a healing flower that grows on rubber plants, after Koch-Grunberg catches malaria.

In the later story, the older Karamakate meets American botanist and psychedelic researcher Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis), who is also seeking the yakruna plant, but whom Karamakate believes has come to the jungle for its rubber plants. An earlier scene in the film depicts Koch-Grunberg, his fellow researcher and Karamakate fleeing as Colombians raid the jungle and shoot at the natives in an attempt to secure rubber, so the shaman has reason to believe that white men dropping by his natural habitat tends to be for nefarious purposes.

Along the way, Guerra's film heads down some roads previously traveled in some of cinema's great jungle movies, including a scene where the older Karamakate and Schultes stumble upon an encampment, where Koch-Grunberg and the Amazonian had previously visited in the earlier narrative and freed some young boys from a disciplinarian priest, to find some sort of insane church where a man pretending to be Jesus Christ has fooled the locals into believing he's the son of God. The bodies crucified on trees and the overall madness of the sequence brought to mind "Apocalypse Now." Other sequences in the picture recall Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo" or "Aguirre: The Wrath of God."

One of the film's culminating moments - during which Karamakate comes to believe that his mission is to educate Schultes - involves the shaman feeding the westerner some yakruna, which leads to a psychedelic vision that feels like something out of the finale of "2001: A Space Odyssey." Even when we're not sure where exactly "Embrace of the Serpent" is taking us narratively - or, hell, even thematically - it's a movie filled with dazzling, unforgettable imagery.

If Guerra's film doesn't quite compare to some of the aforementioned classics by Herzog and Coppola, it's still a unique cinematic experience. It's slowly paced, but hypnotic, and leisurely in terms of storytelling and theme - and yet, you still feel as if you've witnessed a picture with its share of profound moments by a director with obvious filmmaking capability. For moviegoers who'd consider themselves adventurous, "Embrace" comes highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Review: Zoolander 2

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
There's a running joke throughout Ben Stiller's "Zoolander 2" concerning the age and cultural viability of the film's two leads, former male model Derek Zoolander (Stiller) and his pal Hansel (Owen Wilson), and it's a little unclear if the filmmakers are aware that the movies's characters and cultural touchstones are themselves a little dated.

Released in 2001 shortly after the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, "Zoolander" was a film of its time, when irreverent comedies about kooky characters often played by Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler were at a premium. This sequel, which is set 15 years later and involves a whole lot of explaining as to where its characters have been this whole time, is a slightly lesser sequel to an already-just-OK scenario.

That being said, there are some decent gags here, especially ones involving explanations as to where Zoolander and Hansel have been hiding out. Another running joke that's not quite hilarious but almost sincere in its absurdity involves Hansel's orgiastic relationship with 11 others, including an elderly man, several buxom women, Kiefer Sutherland (as himself) and a hippopotamus.

Zoolander is brought back from the wilds after a series of pop and rock stars are bumped off. Justin Bieber is mowed down by an unnecessary bit of gunfire at the film's beginning in a scene that could have been a lot more amusingly handled.

An Interpol agent (Penelope Cruz) believes Zoolander could possess some sort of key to the mystery of the killings. He, of course, enlists Hansel and they head to Rome, where they are expected to attend a fashion show held by a sinister seeming mogul (Kristen Wiig, virtually unrecognizable), who speaks in a nearly indecipherable - and mostly funny - accent.

As it turns out, Zoolander's long lost son - who happens to be overweight, which results in some not particularly funny fat jokes - also happens to be in Rome, so Derek decides to seek him out for a reconciliation.

Meanwhile, the first film's villain, Mugatu (Will Ferrell) returns to wreak havoc. He is first seen during a visit Zoolander makes to the fashion prison where he is being held in a scene that stretches on a little too long.

While the jokes are hit and miss - with more emphasis on the latter - in this sequel, Stiller and Wilson have an undeniable chemistry that is mostly missing - or obviously forced - in most modern comedies. Even if only a fraction of the jokes land, there's a certain charm to seeing this pair together again.

But "Zoolander 2" isn't as clever or funny as it seems to think it is. There's some biting satire aimed at the fashion industry and, surprisingly, some of that scene's top names are on-hand to take part in the lashing. But, sadly, this isn't quite enough to make the picture work. There are some funny moments to be had, but I've seen enough evidence to suggest that Stiller (who also directs), Wilson, Cruz and Ferrell can do much better than this.

Rock 'n' Roll Road Trips Vol. 2: U.S. Edition

This week, AAA Northeast is posting my second of two Rock 'n Roll Road Trips posts. While last week's focused primarily on the New York-New Jersey region, this one includes spots across the United States.

Some of the sites we've included are Graceland, Stax's Soulsville USA, Whisky a Go Go, Troubadour and Surf Ballroom.

To read the full story, click here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Rock 'n' Roll Road Trips Vol. 1: New York Edition

This week, AAA Northeast's blog is posting one of two stories I put together on the best rock 'n' roll road trips, the first of which focuses primarily on New York City and state as well as New Jersey.

Sites included in the story include everything from iconic locales, such as Strawberry Fields and Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, where the Woodstock music festival was held, to places made famous by appearing on album covers.

To read the full story, click here.

Next week, I'll post my second in the series, which will include rock 'n' roll road trips across the United States.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Image courtesy of Screen Gems.
A film with a title such as "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" is likely to leave a moviegoer with one of two impressions: a really bad idea or something so silly that embraces its ludicrousness and entertains on either the level of camp or sheer goofiness. Alas, the film falls more into the first camp, with the added surprise of being a completely serious take on Jane Austen's classic novel with violent action sequences strewn in between the familiar scenes from the book.

In other words, "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" is not particularly funny or even that goofy, aside from its concept. Based on the novel by Austen and the Seth Grahame-Smith adaptation, the picture follows "Pride and Prejudice" fairly closely in terms of Elizabeth Bennet's (Lily James) relationship with her sisters and parents as well as burgeoning romance with Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), whom she, at first, naturally despises.

All the while, England has been overrun by the undead following a plague and, therefore, Bennet, Darcy and all the other familiar figures from Austen's classic are also trained in combat and spend at least some portions of the picture slicing off zombie heads or shooting them in the cranium, causing massive explosions of brain matter to go flying everywhere.

One of the major faults of the film - and, I assume, Grahame-Smith book, although I haven't read it - is how we are supposed to listen to Bennet, her sisters and other characters describe their training in either Japanese or Shaolin martial arts with a straight face and actually take all this seriously.

Another problem is that the zombie attacks seemingly occur out of nowhere and, as a result, occasionally feel muddled. Also, the zombies in the film appear more intelligent than those in George Romero's far more effective "living dead" pictures. Some of them can speak and reason with the living and, in many instances, use their wits to sneak into places that the brain-dead would not likely be able to access. And, seemingly, the only reason this occurs is because the plot requires it to do so.

I'm not going to rehash the plot of Austen's novel here, but suffice it to say that some characters have modifications. As I'd mentioned, nearly all of the characters are trained in the art of warfare, but the snooty Lady Catherine De Bourgh (Lena Headey) is also a master warrior, while George Wickham (Jack Huston) is not only a cad, but also possibly a treasonous enabler of the undead.

The main problem with "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" is that the filmmakers - which include director Burr Steers, who was responsible for "Igby Goes Down," a film I liked - don't seem to realize that the material they have is absurd and should, therefore, be handled with a light touch. This could have been a fun movie, if it weren't such a deadly serious one. Hopefully, the inevitable adaptation of "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters" will allow itself to be fun. Better yet, maybe just leave that one on the page.

Review: Hail, Caesar!

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Some might mistake the Coen Brothers' latest, "Hail, Caesar!," for a minor or lightweight effort from cinema's most beloved pair of siblings and that would be a mistake. Considering how dark and melancholic some of the brothers' recent efforts - such as the brilliant "A Serious Man" and "Inside Llewyn Davis" - have been, it is safe to say that "Caesar" is their breeziest picture in a while as well as an out-and-out comedy.

Set at some point in the early to mid 1950s, the movie follows a day in the life of one harried Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who takes his name from a rather nefarious figure in actual Hollywood history, although any similarities between the two end there. In the film, Mannix runs Capitol Pictures - an appropriate name, you'll find out - and spends his day keeping stars out of trouble and out of the newspapers, ensuring that production schedules are being met and, unbeknownst to those with whom he works, taking interviews with defense contractor Lockheed.

The film opens with Mannix in a confessional booth, which is a daily ritual, asking for forgiveness for his relatively minor transgressions, such as concealing his smoking habit from his wife. During the course of his day, he'll be harangued by two gossip columnist sisters (both played by a game Tilda Swinton) and forced to find a solution for keeping the story of a pregnant star (Scarlett Johansson) who's unaware of the father's identity out of the papers.

Mannix will also have to ensure that the multiple films being shot on the studio's lot - which include two musicals, a western and a stiff-upper-lip British production - are on schedule as well as attempt to allay the concerns of one of his directors (Ralph Fiennes) that the earnest and deeply twanged singing cowboy star (a scene stealing Alden Ehrenreich) who has been thrust into a role for which he is not a good fit will be able to do the job.

To make matters worse, one of the studio's biggest stars, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, completing his trilogy of buffoons for the Coens), has been kidnapped by a group of Communists known as The Future.

In between sequences of Mannix juggling all these various tasks, the picture spends some time on the sets of its films in production and provides great two musical numbers - one that includes Johansson as a mermaid and features women swimming through routines seemingly coordinated by Busby Berkeley and another in which Channing Tatum impresses as a song and dance man performing a hilariously homoerotic number called "No Dames" in a film reminiscent of "On the Town."

The scene that is, perhaps, the film's funniest, takes place on the set of "Merrily We Dance," a melodrama directed by Fiennes' Laurence Laurentz and featuring Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), a good natured, but slightly out of his depth star of low budget oaters. Their back and forth during which Laurentz repeatedly attempts and fails to get Doyle to master the line "would that t'were so simple" could end up being the best running gag you'll see all year.

The production from which Clooney is nabbed is a big budget film in the style of "Ben-Hur" known as "Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ," in which Clooney's centurion has a life altering run-in with Jesus. Much like the other films produced at Capitol, the production is well-intentioned schlock. An early discussion between Mannix and a priest, rabbi, representative from the Greek Orthodox church and member of the Catholic Legion of Decency is not only hilarious, but the scene - coupled with the trips to the confession booth that bookend the picture - also nicely sets up the film's ideas concerning faith.

The concept of faith in the picture is not solely a religious one, although the idea is best driven home by Mannix's late night confessions, sense of guilt (which includes everything from his smoking habit to occasionally smacking his stars around) and his weighing the option of taking the Lockheed gig, which he poses to the priest as a matter of right and wrong. It's telling that when Mannix steals away for lunches with the Lockheed representative, the guy always tempts him with cigarettes.

There's also the storyline involving Whitlock's disappearance and the faith his Communist kidnappers put not only in their ideology, but also their fearless leader, who is revealed late in the film. The fact that "faith" is the one word Whitlock forgets late in the picture when giving a rousing speech on the last day of filming his biblical epic acts as a great punchline to the entire film's setup.

Although the Red Scare and fears of nuclear war were certainly no laughing matter during the 1950s, the Coens play the material mostly for laughs and, occasionally, borderline surrealism, especially during a sequence involving a submarine appearing off the coast of California.

During one of the scenes with The Future, one of Whitlock's captors tells him that the movie studio for which he works is part of a system of oppression. And while Mannix may or may not subscribe to this concept (he doesn't appear to when Whitlock attempts to sell him on it), he can at least rest assured that producing schlock - that occasionally is art - for the masses is God's work, especially when compared to the prospect of working for the military industrial complex.

"Hail, Caesar!" is another of the Coens' hilariously astute and unique spins on 20th century America. It's also the first must-see movie of 2016.