Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Blissful Oblivion

‘Oblivion’ is a sci-fi thriller from ‘Tron: Legacy’ director and visual effects wizard Joseph Kosinski.  The movie is set on a devastated earth in the year 2077, sixty years after a war against an invading alien race called Scavs which humanity ultimately won albeit at a great price, as earth was rendered into an uninhabitable wasteland because the aliens destroyed the moon (causing cataclysmic natural disasters like tsunamis wiping out entire continents) and the humans retaliated with nukes.  The surviving humans had since settled onto Titan, the sixth moon from Saturn, or reside on a giant tetrahedral orbiting spaceship known as ‘Tet.’  At least, this is the narrative we’re told at the beginning from the perspective of Jack Harper, aka Tech 49, a member of a two-person team tasked to support and maintain a network of drones employed to safeguard a series of resource extraction machines supplying Titan from alien incursions.
With this intriguing premise and the sympathetic protagonist Jack Harper, who's having dreamed flashbacks like Douglas Quaid in 'Total Recall,' 'Oblivion' manages to engage us in the best Philip K. Dick pulpy cerebral sci-fi mystery tradition.   There's also a nice revelatory plot twist a la M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Sixth Sense’ and ‘The Village,’ and the final act pays tribute to Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’  Unlike most sci-fi tropes cranked out by Hollywood nowadays, I find ‘Oblivion’ to be a welcome breath of fresh air because it relies on good old fashioned storytelling and does not try to overkill us with one mind-numbing action scene after another.  This isn’t to say that ‘Oblivion’ doesn’t have its share of exciting action sequences and cool looking FX, however.
Stylish, entertaining, engrossing, well-paced and suspenseful, 'Oblivion' is a must-see for any sci-fi aficionado.  Those who won't just because of who's starring in it, well, it's their loss.
Grade: A-
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The long and winding road leads me to your door

Schenectady, New York is the setting of ‘Blue Valentine’ director Derek Cianfrance’s meditative character study ‘The Place Beyond the Pines,’ a complex and contemplative tale of not only crime and punishment, but also how our decisions and actions can have unintended consequences.  Like ‘Crash,’ ‘Babel’ and ‘Traffic,’ the three separate stories told in TPBTP interweave and converge in such a way that the overall story comes full circle in the end.  Below are spoiler-free synopses of the three acts in this modern Shakespearean tragedy.
Act One is the tale of a traveling circus ‘Gerbil Sphere’ motorbike stuntman (Ryan Gosling) who discovered that he had a son.  His girlfriend (played by his real life girlfriend, Eva Mendes), who tried to hide this fact from him, had since settled down with a man of more stable means and wanted to let him off the hook.  While most men would thank his lucky stars and happily play the deadbeat dad, Gosling felt responsible and insisted on providing for the boy, even if it meant breaking the law.  Act Two tells the story of a rookie policeman (Bradley Cooper) who crosses path with Ryan Gosling.  The son of a retired state supreme court judge with a strong sense of justice, Cooper finds himself increasingly disillusioned with what he perceives as rampant corruption in a police force the ideals of which he swore to uphold and defend.  The third and final act of the movie occurs 15 years later, with the focus shifting from Gosling and Cooper to their teenage sons, now attending the same high school.
With fine storytelling and excellent performances from Gosling and Cooper et al, TPBTP is a fine example of contemporary Neo-noir, even as it meanders and takes numerous detours in its path ‘through the pines’ to its destination.

Grade: A-
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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Return of the Evil Dead

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The final cut turned out pretty well, don't you think?

‘Evil Dead,’ the first of a trilogy which made Bruce Campbell a household name, is one of my most beloved horror cult classics.  Like ‘Dead Alive’ for Peter Jackson and ‘The Duel’ for Steven Spielberg, ‘Evil Dead’ gave us an early glimpse of Sam Raimi’s genius and the type of filmmaker he is to become.  As you may well know, Raimi went on to helm 'Darkman,' the Tobey Maguire ‘Spiderman’ trilogy and the recent Disney ‘Oz’ movie, as well as co-producing the popular syndicated TV fantasy series ‘Hercules: The Legendary Journeys’ and ‘Xena: Warrior Princess.’  So when it was announced that ‘Evil Dead’ was getting remade, I was both brimming with anticipation and apprehensive at the same time.  One thing is clear, though.  Whether it will do justice to its source material or suck, I’m going to have to find out no matter what.   
Whew, I am so glad it is the former.  This remake is directed and co-written by Fede Alvarez.  Alvarez is quite a story.  The Uruguyan filmmaker had no prior directing experience, not even commercials or music videos.  Like Justin Bieber, Youtube became his claim to fame when his 2009 stompin' giant robot video ‘Ataque de P├ínico’ went viral.  Within weeks, he was signed on to Raimi’s production company Ghost House Pictures for the ‘Evil Dead’ remake. 
Now on to the movie.  ‘Evil Dead’ 2013 is a lovingly crafted and respectful remake of the 1981 original.  The plot, pacing, atmosphere, tone and palpable suspense capture those of its predecessor flawlessly, and the movie appears to be guided by a deft hand which belies its filmmaker’s inexperience.  Without spoiling it for those who haven’t seen the original, ‘Evil Dead’ is probably the very first ‘cabin in the woods’ movie, which Joss Whedon’s tagline for his 2011 homage ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ summed up rather succinctly as follows: “Five friends go to a remote cabin in the woods.  Bad things happen.”  While Sam Raimi’s original featured the tough-as-nails Bruce Campbell and his infamous jawline, Alvarez’s version gave us a heroine who couldn’t have been more different in the form of Surburgatory’s sassy teenager Jane Levy.  It is an interesting, effective and welcome change, because the last thing we want is for this movie to be a mechanical, rote copy of the classic. 
This ‘Evil Dead’ remake is every bit as giddy and unabashedly bloody, brutal, disgusting, funny, gory, gross, gruesome, grungy, scary, sick, shocking, twisted and violent as Raimi's, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  And yes, you know I just had to come up with 13 words to describe it.

Grade: A

Most terrifying, you say?  Quite possibly, yes.
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Sunday, April 7, 2013

G.I. Bore: Overkill

Against my instincts and better judgment, I gave in and went to see 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation' based solely on a friend's recommendation and the fact that it made $40 million on its opening weekend.  How bad can it be, right?  Regrettably, I should've listened to myself and left it well alone.  I didn't like the first movie, so what on God's green earth made me think this one will be any better???!!!
Quite simply, 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation' is a non-stop, mind-numbing assault on our senses, a movie designed for adolescents with ADHD or developmentally arrested adults addicted to 'first-person shooter' video games.  The movie is essentially one continuous two-hour long action scene with lots of stuff blowing up held together by the flimsiest of plots, populated by way too many characters.  Bruce Willis muscled his way into the busy and overpopulated G.I. Joe world, so (WARNING: SPOILER AHEAD!) they killed off the Joes' team leader 'Duke' (Channing Tatum) early on in the movie.  I consider him lucky.  Dwayne Johnson (aka 'The Rock') took over as the de facto leader this time around as 'Roadblock,' trying to foil a nefarious COBRA plot to destroy the world with tungsten-rod firing killer satellites, but the slab-muscled former wrestler had about as much personality as, well, a block of his WWF nickname.
This movie's got it all.  Massive gun battles, air and tank assaults featuring toys you'll find at a 'Toys R' Us' near you, and Ninjas galore!  How cool is that???!!!  All without a single drop of blood (even the fake looking CGI stuff) being spilled to maintain the movie's PG-13 rating and its intended audience (8-15 year old boys).  Bruce Willis added nothing to this movie, and his one-liners are wearing increasingly thin as evidenced by the following exchange: "Are you okay?" asks Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), to which Willis replied: "My cholesterol's a bit high."  Lady Jaye's eyes weren't the only ones rolling.  The battle scenes are all been-there-done-that, mostly run-of-the-mill, overly choreographed hand-to-hand combat sequences that seem sterile, or choppy close-up firefights for that 'chaotic' effect we've seen all too many times. 
I blame it all on Michael Bay.  The current trend of such utterly disposable drivel is all his fault.

Grade: F

Even the poster looks rather uninspired...
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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

'A Good Day to Die Hard' in the White House

'Olympus Has Fallen' is the first of two ‘Die Hard set in the White House’ movies scheduled for release this year, the other being the more literally titled ‘White House Down’ starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx.  Directed by Antoine Fuqua (‘Training Day,’ ‘Tears of the Sun,’ ‘Shooter’), I expected OHF to be a solid and entertaining action flick if nothing else, and on that score it delivered admirably.  After the bitter disappointment of the latest ‘Die Hard’ installment, I was beginning to wonder if this time-worn genre has finally gone stale, but this movie put my question to rest.
The very premise of a White House takeover by terrorists requires that we suspend our disbelief to a certain degree, and the movie took no small amount of liberties and assumptions to paint a scenario in which it 'might' happen.  That the bad guys somehow can plan and execute something of this magnitude and has the resources (even an AC-130 Spectre gunship with an innovative close-in anti-missile system) to pull it off, or turn a member of the president’s protective detail into a traitor are really beside the point.  Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Gerard Butler proved once again that, as long as he’s not trying to star in a romantic comedy, he can be one of Hollywood's top action stars.   His rugged and grizzled appearance (he's no 'pretty boy' like that Channing Tatum, after all) makes him a believably tough larger-than-life action hero.  Aaron Eckhart also came across as a 'harder' president than Harrison Ford's in 'Air Force One.'  He even sparred with Leonidas, erm, Butler in the opening scene and held his own.
I don’t know if ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ is the actual top secret code phrase denoting that the White House is compromised, like ‘Broken Arrow’ translates to the loss of a nuclear warhead unaccounted for, but the movie definitely lived up to its cool sounding namesake. 
Grade: B+  

At least it wasn't a flying saucer that blew up the WH this time....
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Cute Girls Gone Wild

To the unwary, 'Spring Breakers' appears on the surface to be just another piece of mindless cultural pop candy in the tradition of ‘Clueless,’ ‘The House Bunny’ and ‘Mean Girls.’  After all, the movie took its name from that annual tradition of collegiate excess and hedonism which takes place around this time every year at Fort Lauderdale and many other picturesque beach-side locales, not to mention its shamelessly exploitative poster featuring four comely young women in string bikinis certainly suggests it as such.  Girls just wanna have fun, right?   
Well, not quite.  This film is the brainchild of indie auteur Harmony Korine, which means you should never judge it by its cover.   While 'Spring Breakers' is initially about four pretty and bored-out-of-their-minds BFF's who sought to have fun at spring break, the movie slowly takes a darker detour as the girls first find themselves in jail, then at the mercy of a small-time drug dealer named 'Alien,' played to some comedic effect by James Franco.  'Alien,' you see, is one of those black-wannabe white boys who look and talk a certain way and act all 'gangsta rap,' as if that will give them serious street creds.  But I don't know.... he also plays Britney Spears on the piano.  Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez shed their ‘good girl’ Disney-fied image in this 'coming-of-age' movie, even though Selena’s character Faith is a ‘Jesus freak’ and turned out to be not nearly as bad as her ex-boyfriend in real life, Justin Bieber, who I heard recently threw a 'pot party.'   The other two roles were rounded out nicely by ‘Pretty Little Liar’ Ashley Benson and Harmony’s own wife Rachel.  In case you're wondering, she's the third one from the left below with the hot pink hairdo.
While 'Spring Breakers' isn't exactly a fun movie to watch, the movie does earn high marks for its fierce and uncompromising style.  Part 'Girls Gone Wild' T&A peepshow, part 'Girls with Guns' sexploitation grindhouse B-movie and part cautionary tale on the perils of spring break excess, the movie does remind us why Werner Herzog went so far as to christen Korine as "the future of American cinema."  And to think this is his most mainstream 'commercial' movie to date. 
Grade: B
No butts about it, the girls find themselves falling a bit 'behind' in all the fun.... 
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