Friday, April 19, 2013

The Drone Wars: Tom Cruise Actioner “Oblivion” is Visually Captivating

Here comes “Oblivion” finally an original science-fiction film that isn’t a sequel or based on anything. Well it’s based on a comic book, but that hasn’t been published so you nor I have had an opportunity to have read it. Of course my use of “original” might be skewered depending on how well versed you are in the science-fiction genre. As I sat in awe at the wonderful visuals being projected onto the screen I couldn’t help but not think of one other past science-fiction film that Oblivion attempted to reference or borrow from. I’ve seen plenty of science fiction films, but for some reason I got so lost in the film that I failed to realize just how much it’s been influenced by previous works. That is something that could either make or break the experience for you. That, and whether Tom Cruise’s nearly bat-shit crazy off screen antics over the last decade have made you dismiss the megawatt star.

“Obvlivion” as you’ve most likely seen from the trailers is set in a post-apoalyptic future in which aliens have decimated the planet. The humans have won the war, but the planet is no longer livable. Instead, the surviving humans are living on one of Saturn’s moon’s and Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are tasked with gathering Earth’s last remaining resources before joining the rest of humanity. Robotic drones help search and seek any leftover “alien” life forms remaining.

Of course that’s really just the premise, but what’s really the story here? Well, Jack seems to have flashes of his previous life. He sees a woman who appears to be his girlfriend or wife. During one of his scouting missions he’s sees what appears to be a part of a damaged spacecraft land and when he investigates the woman appears to be familiar. This begins the setup for the film’s second, and admittedly weaker, half in which not everything is as it appears to be. And that’s usually the case in movies like this. To say anymore would either ruin the fun or if you’re one who finds this all familiar, may even deter you from even paying money to see the film.

The film was worth the admission price for several reasons, however. The film has such stunning production value you wonder why this isn’t being distributed as a midsummer tent pole release. Of course, there’s no brand recognition here, so that most likely limits its mass appeal, which is a shame because director Joseph Kosinski has created such a fascinating world –with both practical and well-done visual effects. This isn’t the first post-apocalyptic film ever made at all, but the look and feel are simply wondrous. Too often we movies about aliens invading and attacking, and here we finally get to see a movie that takes place in the aftermath. The “now what?” scenario. The terrific music score from M83, a French electronic brand, is equal parts bombastic and subtle. I totally dug it.

I can’t say I really saw the film’s final act coming, as most of it sort of puzzled me. It has one of those, “nothing is what it seems” ending and gleefully pulls the rug out from under us. It doesn’t necessarily have a Sixth Sense level twist as much as it plays with what we thought we had been seeing for the previous two hours. You’ll either hate it or love it, but either way you see things you can’t deny the film’s ambition and scope – certainly felt more rewarded than cheated. Many will dismiss the film as a clone of previous sci-fi adventures… but after you see the film perhaps you’ll think that was the point in the first place?  GRADE: B+

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Spellbound: Art Heist Thriller “Trance” is a Kinetic, Hypnotizing Experience

“Trance” is a difficult film to describe. And it seems even more difficult to actually put together. It’s a movie that only someone like Danny Boyle could put on the big screen. It’s full of flashy colors and hyper-editing and loud, electronic music and mind-bending images and enough twists and surprise revelations to fill three movies. You’re most likely to either hate it or love it. I definitely fell more towards the love it side because you simply have to admire someone for even attempting to make a crazy movie like this even remotely cohesive.

The story is simple enough: James McAvoy plays Simon, who works at a British auction house. He follows standard procedures when a team of art thieves tries to rip the place off. He tries to stash the painting, but gets a knock on the head leaving him with memory loss. It turns out Simon was actually in on the job and attempts hypnotherapy as a way to unlock his mind and remember where he put the valuable painting. Simple enough right? What we end up with is some sort of Inception, Spellbound, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind mind-warp thriller with some decidedly Cronenbergian touches (a head half blown off that still manages to talk) that only Boyle could pull off. Just when you think you have things kind of figured out you the film reveals more and more until by the film’s end you never actually knew anything that was really going on.

The film’s screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge purposely withhold certain character and plot elements on purpose. That way you’re instantly identify with Simon, who doesn’t quite know what’s going on. He begins seeing hypnotherapist Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson in a fascinating role) and begins to fall for her. But Elizabeth in turn begins to fall for Franck (Vincent Cassel, who seems, at first to be reprising his Black Swan role) Simon’s cohort who is desperate to find that painting. At first you’re not exactly sure how these relationships really work but you learn much more than you’re initially give at the film’s beginning, and certain characters aren’t exactly what they seem.

Whether or not you get the full plot from a single viewing is up to how much you want to invest in what’s going on. Boyle gives you just enough of what you need to not be totally confused, but luckily he provides some much needed expository dialogue near the film’s end which fills in some of the gaps. And all of this is wrapped up in a nicely kinetic and colorful package (love DP Anthony Dod Mantle’s candy colored digital palate) that hardly stops for a moment’s rest. The film has a relentless pace, and is never once boring. Thrillers of the mind can either be fascinating or a slog. This one is certainly spellbinding, if not particularly a must-see for everyone. Those in the mood for a bit of a mind flip will certainly get a kick out of this.  GRADE: B+

Friday, April 05, 2013

The Tree of Strife: “Evil Dead” Update Has Blood & Gore But Not Much Else

There’s nothing particularly outstanding about the new Evil Dead, but there’s nothing particularly horrible about it either. Your enjoyment of it will be dependent on several factors including how much you like the 1981 low budget original directed by Sam Raimi and how much of a tolerance you have for gobs and gobs and gobs of gore. Like, a lot of gore. Like, it literally rains blood in this movie. This new vision from first time feature filmmaker Fede Alvarez (who is this guy? I dunno) pays homage to the original while updating and changing certain story elements, much like most modern horror remakes. No one is certain to cry afoul at the changes made, though the original’s main beloved character Ash (portrayed by proud C-lister Bruce Campbell) is nowhere to be seen. But the basic elements – those spooky flying shots through the woods, the tree rape, the demon chick being locked underneath the floor, and lots of bloody effects – are all accounted for. Like most of these films, it just has very little reason to exist – and I’m surprised it does what with that supposedly clever horror-comedy “The Cabin in the Woods,” which shamelessly mocked this type of movie, released nearly a year ago to the day – though for fans of graphic violence it offers lots of it and then some.

In the original cult classic, a bunch of college kids go to a cabin in the woods, read from a book they find in the basement, and release evil spirits who proceed to possess and kill off said college kids. This more or less happens here, except the setup is a tad different. Mia (Jane Levy) is attempting a cold turkey drug detox weekend with the help of her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and their friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas). It is in fact Mia who is the first to show signs of being possessed by the “evil dead” after Eric finds a strange, ancient-looking book with strange drawings and reads from it. Of course, they think she’s just going through major withdrawal. It gets rather intense, however, when Mia pukes chunky blood all over Olivia and then she begins to cut her face off with a broken mirror. They all begin to become either possessed or killed off in increasingly disturbing ways, which tend to happen in movies like this. So no real surprises there.

However, and horror fans take note, this new “Evil Dead” is probably one of the goriest R-rated movies I have ever seen. And I have seen a lot. I don’t know how in the world the ratings board gave them an R rating but it’s rather surprising (not that I’m complaining). I just can’t even imagine bringing a kid to see this movie. And the main reason? It seriously lacks the overwhelming camp value and humor of the original movie. The film has a much darker and serious tone which makes the violence that more disturbing and shocking. There are moments where the violence is so grotesque you laugh out of sheer uncomfortableness.

Most fans will be saddened to find out that there’s no real Ash character equivalent here. It’s obvious that David is the “main character” but Fernandez is rather bland in the lead role. David and Mia are siblings dealing with the recent death of their committed mother, which adds drama and depth to the proceedings, but the actors don’t do much with it. I enjoyed the Eric character who could have easily just been the “obnoxious guy” but he definitely stood out, which isn’t that difficult when you’re surrounded by four other characters with no real personalities or character traits.

Lastly, without saying too much, the film contains a sort of false ending, and once the true ending begins, after much consistent groaning by the theater’s audience up until then, the film kicks into high gear and it doesn’t let up for minute. It’s certainly a welcomed surprise in a film that, offered very little surprises - and scares - to begin with. Overall, I’m sure most gorehounds will enjoy the film, and many of its well-done practical effects, while others are certainly advised to steer clear of this one.  GRADE: B

Thursday, April 04, 2013


The film world was saddened to hear of the passing of Roger Ebert, one of the best and the most well-known film critics of all time – and the first to ever receive a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism. As someone who loves movies and writing about them, he inspired me, and I was therefore particularly saddened by this news. I had just read Ebert’s most recent blog post about how his cancer had returned but he “wasn’t going away” - it almost feels like he was actually saying his goodbyes, knowing full well that he was going to be leaving us - even at 70 years of age - way too early. To think there will be no more Roger Ebert reviews to read upsets me, but there are hundreds of terrific reviews that will be with us until the end of time. I didn’t always agree with his opinions, (2 stars for War of the Worlds and The Devil Wears Prada?? Oh please!) but he was one of the few professional film critics whose reviews I read consistently. It was sad enough when Ebert left his syndicated TV show after his first round of health troubles but to have no more printed reviews leaves me a little empty inside. Ebert wasn’t only a big movie fan and phenomenal critic; he was a likable and extremely well-educated and knowledgeable person. Roger wasn’t just a journalist; he was a great human being. And that counts for something in this world. He’s gone but not forgotten. As a particular fan of reading film reviews, I leave you with ten great scathing Ebert reviews of movies he simply hated, hated, hated. Negative movie reviews are a showcase for a great writer’s talent – and sense of humor. Thumbs up to you Ebert, wherever you may be.

Click each title to read Ebert's review:

Baby's Day Out
"...the audience produced an audible coo the first time they saw Bink on the screen. The more they like him, unfortunately, the less they're likely to enjoy him crawling along a ledge."

Beethoven's 2nd
"Some dogs are very clever. But when Beethoven came back with a box of popcorn for Missy, I realized these were not ordinary dogs but two of amazing intelligence, and when it was revealed that Missy got pregnant later that night, I found myself asking if they'd never heard of taking precautions."

"...this isn't a realistic movie. It's a wildly idealized romance, in which the kids live in a hut that looks like a Club Med honeymoon cottage, while restless natives commit human sacrifice on the other side of the island."

"It's not bad in any usual way. It's bad in a new way all its own. There is something extraterrestrial about it, as if it's based on the sense of humor of an alien race with a completely different relationship to the physical universe. The movie is so odd, it's almost worth seeing just because we'll never see anything like it again. I hope."

Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo
"As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks."

Freddy Got Fingered
"This movie doesn't scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels."

The Human Centipede (First Sequence)
"I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don't shine."

Jaws the Revenge
"I believe that the shark wants revenge against Mrs. Brody. I do. I really do believe it. After all, her husband was one of the men who hunted this shark and killed it, blowing it to bits. And what shark wouldn’t want revenge against the survivors of the men who killed it?"

"I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it."

Wet Hot American Summer
"I want to escape,
Oh mudduh faddah--
Life's too short for cinematic torture.
Comedies like this,
Oh mudduh faddah--
Inspire in me the critic as a vulture.

Ben and McKinley
Achieve their fame
As campers whose love dare not speak its name."