Sunday, July 20, 2014

Moral Combat: The Purge Series Takes a New Form in “The Purge: Anarchy”

Geez, funeral parlors must make a killing the week after the annual Purge, huh? One of many questions raised by the fascinating if flawed premise of the successful film series “The Purge.” It’s only been a year since the first film intrigued but seemingly disappointed moviegoers last summer. I found the idea of a future society in which all crime is legal for one night a year such a fascinating premise. Though the home invasion plot of the first entry felt like a waste to some, though I found it creepily enjoyable.  Not since “Saw” has a horror movie premise been so ripe for a successful franchise. The idea that we could get a different movie revolving around this one night of horror and mayhem is simply too irresistible to ignore and the filmmakers this time have opted to branch out and show us life during the Purge while stuck out on the streets. It could have been “The Purge 2 the Streets.”

It was rather difficult to get a firm grasp of the plot of “The Purge: Anarchy” from its trailer. Those a few things were pointedly obvious: this was not going to focus on a family, the home invasion element was gone, and the film seemed to be more action-thriller oriented than straight-up horror. I was weary. “The Purge: Anarchy” is a successful sequel for one main reason. It doesn’t just recycle the same story from the first film. If the first movie was “Alien,” with its haunted house vibe, “Anarchy” is “Aliens,” the action version complete with a tough 80s action hero.

Frank Grillo, known simply as Sergeant, is a man with a plan. We see him suiting up leading up to the commencement of the annual Purge. He’s got his bulletproof vest on and a nice array of automatic assault weapons.  We see a photo of him and a young boy. The young boy is nowhere to be found. You can see where this is going. We’re introduced to several other random characters including a working class waitress named Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and her daughter Cali (Zoe Soul), and Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), a bickering young couple who seem to be on the brink of a bad breakup. These four people aren’t exactly the purging type and are ready to take shelter from the violence of the evening. However a bunch of guys in SWAT-like uniforms break into Eva’s apartment complex to take her and her daughter somewhere in a large tractor trailer truck. And some goons in scary masks disable Liz and Shane’s car so that they break down in the middle of the city right as the Purge begins. Fate with somehow bring all of these people together to survive the night.

I adore the Purge series. It’s such a fascinating premise that completely reflects the times in which the films exist. All good horror films are a reflection of their times. Writer-director James DeMonaco, who also made the first film returns and gives his film a very different style and direction. Most people who complained about the first film felt the good premise was wasted. By only seeing the Purge through the eyes of a rich, privileged family as their home is invaded by masked strangers, some thought it was a missed opportunity to do something truly original. Here he ups the ante in sheer action and suspense. The film misses that claustrophobic feel of having the first film take place all in one location, and there isn't one obvious villain, so this sequel is much more broad and open, but it’s still a pretty solid thriller. There is more action this time around and I think the main characters are much more relatable and likeable. You get to see so much more of what goes on during the Purge (like rich people paying big bucks to kill poor people in the safety of their own home or crazies with rifles on rooftops) and you get thrown right into the middle of it. It's hectic and chaotic. The actors are pretty great, including Grillo who does make a great rugged action hero.

“The Purge: Anarchy” is probably the film that most people wanted in the first movie. While the film is way more of an action-thriller than a straight up horror piece (the slasher elements are sorely missed), there are still some pretty horrific things going on here.  The film does have a rather heavy-handed moral center -“the Purge is bad!” – as it’s pretty obvious that this alternate society is pretty messed up, but that’s what makes the whole thing so fascinating. An entire movie, whether it be done as a faux documentary, that shows how the Purge was conceived and instilled by the “New Founding Fathers” would certainly be captivating. This is a film series I’ll be looking forward to for years to come, and this one certainly earns its subtitle.  GRADE: B

Trailer for The Purge: Anarchy on TrailerAddict.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Dangers on a Train: “Snowpiercer” is on Track to be the Summer’s Must-See Action Thriller

There are going to be some details you just won’t be given in “Snowpiercer.” To explain the film’s plot simply: it takes place in the near future where another ice age (due to a climate change fix gone wrong) has ravaged Earth and the few human survivors live aboard a non-stop train (called the Snowpiercer) that endlessly circles the snow-covered planet. A class system has developed: the poor people are at the back of the train and the rich, affluent occupy the front of the train. And it’s time for another uprising. This is a fascinating world. So much so that after the film ended I wanted to know more. There were tiny holes and I wanted them filled in. That’s how truly interested I was. That’s not to say the film has failed in any way but it shows just how invested in this story I was. Luckily, the film is based on a graphic novel called “Le Transperceneige.”

“Snowpiercer” is a strange experience, one that may not be for everyone, but it’s certainly one of the more “general audience” friendly films to come out recently. The film is directed by South Korean director Joon-ho Bong, - making his English-language debut - who film nerds may know helmed “The Host.” Here he merges his foreign sensibilities with a mostly American/familiar cast, which you can describe to your hesitant regular folk friends and family as: Chris Evans (“You know, Captain America, except here he’s all beardy and dirty.”), Octavia Spencer (“That chick who won an Oscar for playing that sassy maid in “The Help.”), Jamie Bell (“He’s British. He was Billy Elliot as a kid. No? He was in Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake. No? Oh nevermind!”), and Tilda Swinton (“That lady who looks like an alien who’s in all those movies you probably haven’t seen.”) There are other familiar faces as well, but I digress. The point is that this fusion of familiar faces and a whiff of foreign strangeness that works wonders for the film, even if you’re not quite a knowledgeable film geek.

The film quickly establishes the futuristic setting and we’re first introduced to the tail end of the train. Here Curtis (Evans) and his older friend Gilliam (John Hurt) are planning a rebellion. They’re dirty and living in squalor. Armed guards make sure everyone’s in order. They’re fed these gelatinous, black chunks called “protein blocks.” Some people have missing limbs. Someone from the front of the train keeps taking the young children. No one has ever been to the front, though people have tried. Curtis plans a rebellion, with plenty of followers in tow. He’s able to release a Korean prisoner Namgoong (Kang-ho Song), who is the one who designed the security doors that connect each train car; and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko). Will I tell you how far they get? Or what or who they come across? No way. No more details are necessary.

Of course, the best part of the film hasn’t really been mentioned and that is Ms. Tilda Swinton. The chameleon-like actress, in full gaudy makeup, plays some kind of leader of the upper class named Mason. She shows up in the bowels of the train to make sure the filthy tailies “know their place.” She accomplishes something so amazing here: She’s both authoritative and scary and yet she adds the most amount of necessary comic relief as well. In other words: she’s the scene stealer.

 It’s Bong’s fascinating strangeness that really sets the film apart from other post-apocalyptic-totalitarian-dystopian society-sci-fi-fables about the haves and the have nots. There’s a nice balance of moody atmosphere with cartoonish silliness, and makes the most of a limited setting. He presents each car of the train with its own unique personality; especially that “school car.” Production designer Ondrej Nekvasil truly creates a fascinating indoor world; it’s a true accomplishment. There are so many fascinating details here, like a green drug substance called Kronol that is later used in a more significant way. And Bong and Kelly “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” Masterson’s script is taught with suspenseful action and fight scenes, making the rebellion more and more intense as each train car is passed.  Even if the train is only so long, you’re constantly wondering where they’re going to end up next. And to top it all off, for a film with a smaller budget, it has some pretty amazing special effects that certainly rival most of the film’s big budget competition.

“Snowpiercer” is an amazing cinematic experience. It feels massive in scope yet it’s intimate and character-driven. It’s intense, funny, suspenseful, surprising, and most of all entertaining and has something to say about society. And best of all it’s the version The Weinstein Company didn’t want you to see, which in itself is a reflection of the film’s major themes. It’s everything you want in a summer action film, right in the comfort of your own living room. It’s truly the little art house sci-fi film that could.  GRADE: A

Theatrical Trailer for Snowpiercer on TrailerAddict.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Apes of Wrath: “Dawn of the Planet the Apes” is a Worthy Successor

Is it possible for a summer action blockbuster to have too much character development? It can almost make the moments between action sequences almost a bore, but when the characters are CGI motion captured chimps and other primates it’s otherwise fascinating. Yes, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the sequel to the surprising success that was 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” has it’s slower, quieter moments and it’s not the most amazing action spectacle of the summer (which probably still belongs to either “X-Men” or “Godzilla” or even “Snowpiercer”). I found the human characters significantly less interesting then their primate co-stars but maybe that’s the point?

I love what “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was leading up to. In that film, the last half hour consisted of the apes breaking out of their research facilities, breaking out their zoo brethren, and going on a wild rampage through San Francisco culminating in a fun showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a memorable movie moment. I’m not quite sure this sequel, while still very well made, can quite top anything from the first movie in terms of really memorable sequences.

Set years after the first film’s simian virus, that humans created to help cure Alzheimer’s disease, wiped out most of humanity on Earth; a large group of primates have taken refuge in the forest outside San Francisco. They haven’t quite taken over the planet yet but they have created an entire society. Some of the chimps are even capable of vocalization and they can all sign to each other which we read as subtitles. There are many scenes in which the CGI animals are the only characters on screen. Though many of the apes all look alike, the visual artists and actors have done a great job of giving them distinct looks and personalities that you’re able to eventually tell them all apart. A large group of humans, led by Gary Oldman’s character Dreyfus, have taken refuge themselves within the rundown city.

Caesar (another winning performance from Mo-Cap King Andy Serkis) is the lead who you’ll remember was raised by James Franco’s character in the first film. He’s sort of the Professor X of the primate world, he doesn’t quite see human as strict enemies but knows that he must protect his ape society. Koba (Toby Kebbell), the permanently disfigured ape who was poked and prodded in the facility before the events of the last movie is sort of the Magneto of the ape society. He sees the humans as beings who are strictly not to be trusted and as the enemy. Caesar allows a small group of humans, including Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, enter their land to get a power dam going again to the city’s electricity restored. This causes a serious conflict between apes and to put it mildly, the poop hits the fan. Soon an all-out war ensues between man and ape.

I found the results rather surprising. Seeing as through this is a prequel series, we all know that eventually the apes are going to take over the planet. Though I was surprised at actually how unsuccessful they are here. At this rate, it will take about four more sequels to get to just to ‘Planet of the Apes’ status. The biggest flaw here is the rather bland human characters who are nowhere near as interesting as the CGI apes. But perhaps that’s the point. We’re really seeing this evolution, and revolution, through the apes’ perspective which is what makes this series so fascinating in the first place.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” besides being a mouthful of a title, has top notch special effects and some pretty interesting action sequences. Director Matt Reeves gives us some pretty cool shots which anyone who saw "Let Me In" knows he’s capable of. Some surprising twists and turns are provided by Mark Bomback, Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa’s script but it’s the actors giving the apes live who really steal the show.  Their acting is really good even if some of their scenes are generally not all that exciting. And overall it’s a depressing and drab-looking film but that’s to be expected from a story like this. Even if the film doesn’t push the series’ story much further, it's intriguing enough to see what’s in store for the next installment.  GRADE: B

Theatrical Trailer for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on TrailerAddict.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Annie Fall: Romantic Comedies Get the “Airplane!” Treatment in “They Came Together”

I’m not going to bitch and moan about the current state of the spoof movie. I won’t bring up movies like “Meet the Spartans,” “Epic Movie,” and “Vampires Suck.” Too late. The modern spoof film wasn’t always in a state of utter shamefulness. Back in 2000 it was healthily revived with the Wayans’ spectacular slasher spoof “Scary Movie.” And with some exceptions (mostly “Scary Movie 3,” “Not Another Teen Movie” and Walk Hard”) it was all downhill from there. Luckily around the same time we were given David Wain’s “Wet Hot American Summer” and a new team of ragtag comedy geniuses was born. The absurdist style was a perfect blend of parody and nonsense, in other words, any Airplane! fan’s dream come true. Flash-forward thirteen years and now we have David Wain, with co-writer Michael Showalter’s romantic comedy spoof “They Came Together.” And it’s pretty glorious.

“They Came Together” stars Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd who finally get to play opposite one another. He’s Joel who works for a corporate candy company and she’s Molly the quirky girl who always falls down who owns a cute indie candy shop (a shop where, hilariously, everything is free and all proceeds go to charity). They meet, hate each other, naturally fall in love, break up, and then get back together. You can recite the plot even if you haven’t seen the movie because you’ve seen or know at least know about the plots of the films it’s making fun of. But this isn’t one of those “Disaster Movie” type spoofs where the jokes are only recycled scenes from current films. The movie has its own story, rhythm, characters, and jokes. It spoofs and deconstructs ideas and concepts and clichés, it doesn’t just repeat them (though it does). When Molly decides to change something about herself to see if Joel notices, she puts on a pair of Groucho Marx glasses complete with big nose and mustache. She’s touched that he notices.

“They Came Together” not only has a delightful double entendre title, but it has a knowing wit about itself and that comes from its writers. Wain and Showalter, who have finally come back together for the first time since “Wet Hot American Summer,” (including a few returning cast members) obviously know movies very well.  There are hints and nods to other films such as the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” line from "When Harry Met Sally." And in true “Wet Hot” fashion there are some simply bizarre and absurd moments. Check out those two guys who stare at Joel and Molly during their dating montage. Or how about the body that happens to be buried underneath the pile of leaves Molly and Joel are playing in?

I was pretty certain the spoof genre was dead in the water. Actually it very much is. Though there have been a few bright spots lately like the parody-rich “21 & 22 Jump Street” and even “The LEGO Movie.” But I’m always looking for a good “Airplane!” style spoof or some “Wet Hot American Summer” style nonsense and “They Came Together” certainly fits the bill. After all is said and done does it really need to exist? Not really but at least it’s pretty darn funny.  GRADE: B+