Monday, April 27, 2015

Brief Impressions....

After a year it’s time for a couple more short-but-sweet mini reviews I think.  Here we go.

Ex Machina:  This widely heralded indie sci-fi gem from British writer/producer and first-time director Alex Garland (28 Days / Weeks Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, Dredd) is a stylish, atmospheric and riveting slow-burner that's as cerebral as it is mesmerizing. A young computer geek (Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen by the reclusive and brilliant CEO (Oscar Isaac in another stellar and intense performance) of a Google-esque company he works for to spend a week at the latter's secluded and highly secure retreat to conduct the "Turing Test" on his latest android Ava (Alicia Vikander). What follows are a fascinating series of interactions and conflicts culminating in a mind-bending twist ending worthy of water cooler conversation.  Enough said, go see it already.

Grade: A
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Unfriended:  "Cyberbullies" who unintentionally drove a friend to horrific suicide (after posting a humiliating Youtube video of said friend having soiled herself after getting shit-faced drunk at a party without considering the repercussions to her self esteem) get their supernatural comeuppance in this low budget “found footage” horror film seen entirely from the laptop computer screen of one of the transgressors, pretty high schooler Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig).  As with last year’s similarly themed ‘The Den,’ you don’t have to be social media-savvy to wrap yourself around this claustrophobic chiller about five young friends who video chat via Skype with each other on the one-year anniversary of the aforementioned suicide.  Can you say “Ghost in the Machine” is gonna getcha?  You are so unfriended.  Before you laugh, consider that with a mere budget of $1 million and a cast of virtual unknowns working for peanuts, this movie co-produced by Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) literally paid for itself.

Grade: B
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Kung Fu Killer:  A silly name for a movie, surely, but this latest chop-socky kung fu actioner from Hong Kong starring Donnie Yen (Ip Man) is undeniably kinetic and fun in its martial arts mayhem.  Equal part police drama/chase thriller centering on the pursuit of an elusive serial killer who targets well known kung fu masters by challenging them to death matches and equal part kung fu action flick, KFK’s well tread formula and predictability do not diminish the fact that its superbly choreographed set piece fight scenes are wildly entertaining.  Still, a better name would be “Enter the Red Dragon” with a nod to Thomas Harris.

Grade: B+
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Monday, April 13, 2015

Paul Walker's Last Ride

Ka-ching!   Universal hits the jackpot once again with the seventh installment of its head-scratchingly lucrative cash cow of a movie franchise ‘Fast & Furious.’  Grossing over $250 million domestically and $800 million worldwide after only its second weekend, ‘Furious 7’ is already the biggest moneymaker of the series to date and on pace to become the first to break the $1 billion mark, all the while leaving its hapless box office competition in the dust much like Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his souped-up ’70 Dodge Charger after a street race.
It’s hard to believe that the original F&F came out nearly 15 years ago.  After a rocky start which bottomed out with the third installment ‘Tokyo Drift,’ the series somehow staved off direct-to-DVD hell and really took off, with each follow-up setting a new box office record for the franchise.  Each subsequent F&F movie also managed to be even faster and furiouser than the one before, upping the ante in their unrealistic physics-defying set-piece action sequences.  The street-smart testosterone-fueled machismo of Dominic and his crew are again on display in ‘Furious 7,’ when they clash with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), a British rogue wetworks badass looking for payback against our homies for what they did to his brother in F&F6 (reviewed here:  To wit, F7 includes such perfectly choreographed shenanigans as: 
Dominic and Deckard purposely smashing their cars head-on into each other in a game of chicken a la’ ‘Rebel without a cause.’  Two macho guys butting horns like a couple of rams is just too good a metaphor to pass up;
Dominic and his gang skydiving out of a military transport inside their cars to put the drop on a convoy and rescue a super hacker held hostage by bad guys;
Brian (Paul Walker in his last movie, RIP) running along the top of a bus about to tip over the edge of a cliff and leaping off in the nick of time, grabbing onto the spoilers of Letty’s (Michelle Rodriguez) perfectly timed fishtailing car;
Dominic and Tej (Ludacris) accelerating and crashing through multiple Abu Dhabi skyscrapers in their jacked Lykan Hypersport;
DSS super agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) kamikaze-ing a “borrowed” ambulance into a jet-powered drone in flight to stop it from taking out Dom and his homies.
But really, it is precisely for scenes like these that people pay to see F&F, the more preposterous the better.  And what about the plot, you ask?  Who cares!  Like “Nightshade” in F&F6, it’s some half-baked spy bullshit about the possession of a super spy program called “God’s Eye” which allows you to find anyone, anywhere, any time.  With F7, the F&F franchise proved yet again that story simply doesn't matter when you have mind numbing and stupid action sequences to spare.
Grade: B-
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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Following

When an underdog movie builds momentum through critical acclaim from both rave reviews and word-of-mouth, it follows that our sense of anticipation and expectations for it would be higher than they otherwise would be.  It can also be a curse in a way because if the movie falls short it would be a disappointment.  The low-budget indie horror sensation and Cannes Film Festival favorite ‘It Follows’ is one such example due to the tremendous buzz it's been generating since its initial limited release in early March.  Certified fresh with a 96% "Tomatometer" rating, I was expecting it to be great but it turned out to be merely okay.
This isn’t to say that much of the positive reviews are undeserved.  ‘It Follows’ is refreshingly different and unlike most of the clich├ęd tropes that pass for horror movies nowadays.  The movie builds suspense and creates its scares not through the usual tired tricks-of-the-trade but through artful subtlety and Suspira-esque sound effects.  In fact, the movie moves along at a sleepy and snail-like pace; the shape-shifting boogeymen (and women) terrorizing our protagonist, a plucky teenage girl named Jay (Maika Monroe) who contracted the mysterious curse from her boyfriend like an STD, shamble leisurely after her like they're relentless Romero zombies sans the decomposition and decay (although they have a tendency to stalk her with various body parts exposed).  While she’s the only one who can see these "followers," her group of close friends and family make sure that she never faces her fears alone, some of whom are males willing to take the burden off her shoulders by engaging her in sexual intercourse.  What selfless sacrifice, eh?
While “It Follows” is a commendable exercise in minimalism and restraint, its lack of truly scary moments is what made it an underwhelming experience for me and prevented me from fully embracing the movie.  I can’t help but compare it to another film also about a curse passed from person to person, not through sexual contact but via a videotape you may remember called ‘The Ring.’  The defining scene from that movie (and one that is so scary I will never, ever forget) was the poltergeist girl with long wet strands of hair crawling out of the well and through the TV directly at you.  This movie desperately needed a scene like that.  It just simply wasn't scary enough for this jaded horror buff in the final analysis.
Grade: B

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