Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Magnificent Seven: The Action-Packed “Furious Seven” Fires on All Cylinders

How many film franchises can boast that their seventh entry is actually the best? Of course, when the first film in your series is “The Fast & the Furious” that’s not really saying all that much. However, “Furious Seven” the SIXTH sequel in this mindbogglingly successful franchise is actually the most well-rounded, epic, entertaining, and satisfying as anything that came before it. The series really has done a complete 180. It started out as a lame street racing drama and has become a must-see series of action-packed heist and James Bond-esque spy thrillers that are merely shadows of its rocky beginnings.

Horror director James Wan, hot off the success of his “Insidious” films and “The Conjuring” goes a completely route by tackling his first action film. He brings a fresh eye to the series but the film maintains the same sense of absurdity and state-of-the art stunt and effects that fans of these films crave. There are more fights, crashes, and ridiculousness to fill three films. Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his “family” return but this time he’s back in the US living a quiet retired life. That is, until Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw shows up to get revenge for his brother (the villain from the previous movie). Another mysterious character known as Mr. Nobody shows up who needs help finding a kidnapped computer hacker who can hack into a God-like computer system that can find the location of anyone in the world. If Dominic and his team can retrieve the hacker then Mr. Nobody will let him use the program to track down Shaw.

What comes next is nothing short of crazy, thrilling, and completely ludicrous set pieces involving dropping vehicles out of planes and cars driving through buildings INTO other buildings. Things like physics and gravity never seem to be an issue. The filmmakers know that by now the fans crave this stuff and have certainly upped the ante on crazy stunts and fights. Oh the fights. There are too many to count. In one two characters tussle as they are flying down stairs on a broken door. Another is one of those female-on-female fights so we know that woman can fight just as good as men. If you’re willing to turn your brain off and just take in the action you’re guaranteed to enjoy it. It’s all utterly crazy to the point of being practically comical and you chuckle in spite of yourself. But the thing is: it’s all very well done. You have to hand it to Wan and his crew; everything is expertly staged for maximum enjoyment and suspense. There’s nary a dull moment to be had and the film has a breathtaking use of various striking locations from the deserts of Abu Dhabi to the mountains of Eastern Europe. And I mean they literally drive their cars down mountains and off cliffs. Did I mention it’s ridiculous?

Odds are you’ve decided already if “Furious Seven” is a movie worth seeing. As someone pretty new to the franchise I really dug it. I’m amazed at how the series has developed over time. The fifth film really reinvented itself as a heist thriller and here the film goes all spy thriller. It’s “Mission: Impossible” with more cars. These films, as written by series regular Chris Morgan, have never been about thoughtful dialogue, and as corny as they can be at times you do get a sense that these characters and the actors who play them are indeed “family.” The ensemble is pretty solid. The film, which easily overcomes a possible icky factor due to the real-life death of lead Paul Walker, also plays terrific tribute to its lost star in a way that is fitting and tasteful. Even with all the previously witnessed explosions, fights, crashes, and extreme death toll, the film ends on a well-earned emotional note that is brilliantly handled.  GRADE: A- 

Revised Trailer for Furious 7 on TrailerAddict.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Fault in Our Stars: The Dumb but Fun “San Andreas” is a Rockin' Disaster Epic

Is it impossible to make a disaster film without relying on the overused “I have to get to my [insert family member here]!” storyline? Movies like "The Day After Tomorrow," "Dante's Peak," "Volcano," and even the Oscar-nominated “The Impossible” all follow the basic premise of some kind of terrible event that separates the characters and them eventually being reunited. And there can be only one rational explanation: no one gives a crap about the actual plot of disaster films. You can count me among them. Give me your cliched disaster situations, dumb-as-stumps characters, and whatever other lame attempts at a storyline you can come up with; if it's an epic scale disaster film I don't even care. It's cinematic junk food at its best; and this being a post-9/11 world, the genre has mostly been seen as un-PC. Having said all that, “San Andreas” is one of the best disaster films I've seen in quite some time. It may actually be one of the best ones since “Twister.” And it's the only disaster film having to do strictly with earthquakes since 1974's appropriately titled “Earthquake.”

And at least this time we don't have to sit for an hour being introduced to boring characters before the rumbling starts. We're introduced to boring characters and the money shots begin almost immediately. The star of the film is Dwayne Johnson who is Ray, a firefighter/helicopter pilot who is recently separated from his wife Emma, played by Carla Gugino. They have a daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) who's entering college. Yes, the college girl from “Son-in-Law” is now old enough to be the mother of a college student. The three characters are separated, a massive earthquake hits, as predicted by seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) who has the all-important task of explaining to the audience what's happening scientifically.

Since Ray appears to be one of the more selfish emergency responders he insists in going after his wife and daughter before helping any of the millions of people currently being crushed, engulfed, or swallowed by the violently shaking earth. Ray sets out in his helicopter first for his wife and then for his daughter who was helped by a young British guy who caught her eye and his younger brother. The trio set out to find a location where Blake's dad is sure to find them. I'll let you guess whether they eventually all miraculously meet up amongst the sheer chaos.

Alright enough about the simply, preposterous and unoriginal plot line as conceived by story writers Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore. We have former Lost writer Carlton Cuse to blame for corny lines of dialogue like, “It's been a long time since I got you to second base” after Ray and his wife parachute onto a baseball field. But forget all that. This movie is simply 100% disaster flick entertainment. The special effects are pretty spectacular if not always totally convincing. The film is actually rather intense as proved by the small child sitting near me who almost had a heart attack. “San Andreas” sort of hits all of the standard beats but it does it all so well and is very well staged by director Brad Peyton who I won't embarrass by stating his previous filmography.

“San Andreas” is the best kind of dumb fun you can have at the movies. None of the corny or cliched moments take away from how glorious the disaster sequences really are. It brought me back to when first saw “Twister” and being amazed by what was happening on screen and not caring about the film's thin or ludicrous story. The film doesn't rely on a large Irwin Allen-like supporting cast so we don't have to jump back and forth between characters we don't really care about. And the actors here really aren't all that bad – I’m disturbed to say that “The Rock” is, in fact, not a terrible actor. If you want to see an out-and-out fun disaster epic and one thankfully not too long (like the similar “2012”), “San Andreas” will certainly fit the bill.  GRADE: B+

Trailer for San Andreas on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Ghostblunder: The Disappointing “Poltergeist” Redo is Rather Unremarkable

In the original 1982 film “Poltergeist” real skeletons were allegedly used in the pool sequence. Real as in actual human remains. They were apparently cheaper than the plastic ones. In the remake of “Poltergeist” they don't even use prop skeletons; they're made in the computer and are not very convincing. Of course, the original series of films was apparently “cursed” after several cast members passed away after shooting the movies. The new cast could only be so lucky.

There's actually nothing truly wrong or extremely bad about the new “Poltergeist.” It's just that in a world where movies like “Insidious” and “Paranormal Activity” and “The Conjuring” (which may be one of the best haunted house movies since "Poltergeist") exist it feels a bit redundant to redo a movie that inspired all of the above. The film pays tribute to the original film by reenacting memorable moments: the tree, the clown, the bent silverware, etc. The film hardly does anything new, transcendent, or creative with the material; material that was pretty much perfect from the get-go.

When remakes of well-liked movies happen it's usually because it would be interesting to see that story with modern effects – for example, “King Kong” a rare remake done right. The redo even won an Oscar for those impressive new effects. The original “Poltergeist” was nominated for three Oscars including for it's visual effects. Are 2015 computer effects more impressive than what could be accomplished in the 80s? Generally, yes. But you know what's really missing? Creativity. Nowadays a computer can show an audience anything. In 1982 it was way more impressive (and in terms of horror, shocking), which is why nothing that director Gil Kenan (a damning directing gig if there ever was one) throws in front of us is even remotely scary, cool-looking, or generally impressive even by modern standards.

The new cast includes Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt as the heads of the Bowen family. They move into a new house and quickly notice some strange phenomenon. Can we retire the cliché of a family moving into a new house only to discover it's actually haunted? That would be great. Like in the original film they have three kids: a teenage daughter, a young song, and the youngest daughter. Of all the actors, I was most impressed with Kyle Catlett as the middle child Griffin who gets an entire story arc all to his self, even if it's contradicting (the film opens up with him playing a violent zombie video game and then presents him as being afraid of everything). The youngest daughter, named Maddy here instead of the reusing the iconic name Carol Anne, is again the one who the ghosts make contact with and then kidnap. And instead of diminutive psychic Tangina we get Jared Hess doing his own reality TV host version which feels uninspired and uninteresting. Jane Adams is good as a fellow paranormal researcher who helps investigate. The new script by “Rabbit Hole” writer David Lindsay-Abaire even controversially shows us the ghostly other world: and it's more yawn inducing than sacrilegious. Hands down the best new sequence in the film involves a power drill.

The original “Poltergeist” may not be the best movie of all time, far from it, but it's a classic of the horror genre and was a terrific summer movie blockbuster. It was an event - until E.T. came along a week later at least. Nothing about this new film feels even remotely as important or awe-inspiring. It's missing that sense of Spielbergian wonder that was so prevalent in the original film most people argue the man even directed it. There's nothing really wrong with the film – the actors are good at least and it's not nearly the trainwreck that is “Poltergeist III” – but there's nothing memorable about the look of the film or even it's music, two more areas where the original has this film beat. Not to mention the fact that nothing in the film is truly that scary if you're over the age of 12 (the scariest thing in the movie is probably a squirrel).  If you're a fan of the 1982 version and you have any sense of apprehension towards this new one it's probably best to just steer clear. As they say, stay away from the light.   GRADE: C  

Trailer for Poltergeist on TrailerAddict.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Fast & Furiosa: The Superb “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a Ridiculously Entertaining Thrill Ride

I’ve always had a theory that sequels to well-loved movie franchises that get made many years later are rarely, if ever, successful. “Mad Max: Fury Road” has proven me wrong. Not only is it an amazing sequel but it completely bests each and every film that came before it. The “Mad Max” post-apocalyptic Australian film series from director George Miller is an cult trilogy that has aged poorly though all the films have one positive thing in common: simply outstanding stunt work and car chases. Could you imagine if The Road Warrior has been made today? Well now we can with the release of “Fury Road” – and strap in because it is one ludicrous and thrilling ride filled with jaw-dropping camerawork, effects, and production value that completely blows the original films out of the water.

This fourth entry has very little setup and that’s fine: all you need to know is that it takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where water and gasoline are hot and rare commodities. Max (Tom Hardy, taking over Mel Gibson’s role) is still mad as ever and has a touch of the crazies as anyone would living in this stylishly produced desert wasteland. In the film’s opening moments his kidnapped by a bunch of equally crazy guys known as the War Boys who work for their leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) a wild-eyed masked villain with a Darth Vadar-like voice. He attempts to escape as trucker Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) goes on a mission with her tanker to retrieve gasoline… though she has ulterior motives which sets off the film’s entire plot into motion: a kick-ass car chase that hardly lets up for a minute. Max and Furiosa, each apprehensive, eventually team up forming one of cinema’s greatest action duos of recent memory. And throw in Nicholas Hoult as a morally questioning War Boy Nux for good measure.

Yeah that’s basically it. You get almost two hours of crazy vehicles chasing each other through the desert and it’s all utterly amazing. The 70 year-old Miller (who’s last three films were Babe: Big in the City, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet Two) sits confidently behind the camera giving us dizzying shot after dizzying shot of explosions and automotive mayhem that Michael Bay couldn’t on dream of conceiving.  Cinematographer John Seale (also in his 70s) was coaxed out of retirement. The guy is no stranger to shooting in deserts, having won an Oscar for lensing “The English Patient” but his work his groundbreaking. Miller employs mostly practical effects with real stunt people performing at high speeds. We’re talking crazy stuff here like crazy guys wielding chainsaws and flaming throwing guitars. It’s also so… Australian. It’s like Baz Luhrmann wanted to make an action thriller or something.

With all the frenetic action and amazing stunt set pieces, there’s actually a lot going on emotionally as well. The film has a strong feminist element which never felt forced and gives the story, which essentially a long chase, real gravitas. The performances are also wonderful, especially Theron who has found her Ripley role as Furiosa. Hardy makes a great action hero grunting along the way though his bad boy looks feel strange opposite all of the bizarre make-up and costume design. This is such a fascinating world Miller and team has created and everything here is simply top notch and beautifully conceived and produced. And it’s all given a heartbeat with a simply amazing, pulse-pounding score from electronic musician Tom Holkenborg (who goes by the stage name Junkie XL).

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is a complete assault on the senses in the best way possible. It’s a dazzling piece of big-budget action filmmaking. It feels like something so different from what came before it and yet it feels like a nature step in the Mad Max cannon. It may just have a simple point A to point B plot, but there just isn’t anything else out there like it. See it and you’ll never drive the same way again!  GRADE: A

Feature Trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road on TrailerAddict.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Artful Intelligence: “Ex Machina” is a Stand Out Sci-Fi Thriller

There have been countless films that deal with artificial intelligence. “Ex Machina” is yet another one. And yet in a time where not many films truly feel original, “Ex Machina” manages the difficult task of showing us something we haven't seen before while not forgetting all that came before. The difference is that the film is a superbly crafted little thriller. It's focus is more on characters than it's effects, which actually works to its benefit because what little effects there is are simply amazing. And of course, like most films in this genre, the less said about the plot the better.

When Stanley Kubrick died back in 1999 he had started planning on directing “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” which was eventually directed by Steven Spielberg. What resulted was somewhat of a beautiful mess. A film with conflicting outlooks and a sort of uneven story. I truly feel “Ex Machina” is what Kubrick might have made had he lived long enough to tell a story about artificial intelligence.

We're introduced to computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who is whisked away to meet his genius boss who lives isolated in a large sterile high-tech research facility, seemingly alone. He's taken via helicopter. There's he finally meets Nathan (Oscar Isaac) who is as brilliant as he is an alcoholic. Nathan tells Caleb that he's created an AI that is seemingly human and wants him to take part in research tests with it. Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a magnificent creation who moves, looks, and acts like a real human woman. Only the metal pieces and wires running through her arms, lets, and torso give her away as a robot. Ava is not only a magnificent creation but she's a technical wonder cinematically speaking. The special effects that bring this character to life are nothing short of amazing. It's truly a technological breakthrough as Ava is a stunning visual effect.

The film then presents us with segments in which Caleb and Ava interact – with Nathan, somewhat creepily, observing via cameras. Writer and director Alex Garland, making his directorial debut (and frequently collaborating with Danny Boyle), has crafted his film much like a play: there really are only a few characters and most scenes consist of conversations between Caleb and Ava and then between Caleb and Nathan. As the sessions go on Ava appears to have a connection with Caleb and the audience doesn't quite know where the film is headed, but the film has an overall sense of doom and gloom: something bad is definitely coming. Nathan is an interesting character – he's obviously intelligent but has serious flaws which are easily exploited by Caleb who suspects there's something Nathan isn't sharing with him. To say anymore would do a disservice to the viewer.

Garland has made a stunning first film. His bizarre sci-fi touches, which he's injected into all of his projects from 28 Days Later to Sunshine are clearly present. He's obviously heavily influenced by films that came before it like “Blade Runner” and the aforementioned “A.I.” The film is a simple one: one setting, few characters, not much action, but it's slower pace is a purposeful and suspenseful build up. It has interesting characters with great performances and truly spectacular visual effects. This is a great modern sci-fi film and anyone who's a fan of the genre would be doing themselves a favor by checking out this stunning movie.GRADE: A-

Theatrical Trailer for Ex Machina on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

The A Team: Marvel is at it Again in “Avengers: Age of Ultron

 The arrival of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” brings mixed emotions within me. I'm happy to report that the film is completely solid and entertaining. It stands up with other great Marvel adventures (though not quite as good as Guardians or Winter Soldier) and yet I can't help but feel a bit of comic book movie fatigue. Though moments after watching the film I realized that until Marvel delivers a complete and utter trainwreck of a film, what they're doing is actually pretty great. With so many films in such a short period of time they do begin to blend together but as each one shows itself in the local multiplex they consistently prove their worthy of being a worthy and entertaining entry in a canon of films unlike anything anyone has really seen before.

Overall, I really did like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” even if I didn’t quite get every moment of it. Because of this “cinematic universe” the film really does rely a lot on what you've seen before and that extends beyond the theater – Marvel has two TV shows airing on ABC, neither of which I've watched. Anyone expecting continuing plot elements from the shockers in the second Captain America film will likely be disappointed. The film opens with a battle with the superheros battling the Hydra organization, and after Tony Stark's Ultron defense system goes self-aware and hell bend on destroying humanity are soon whisked away into hiding where they recuperate and strategize. It seems in the ensuing battle Hulk goes on a rampage (obviously) and the public isn't too pleased with the mayhem. I'm not sure I quite get the Hulk's role in this group but I digress.

There are other specific plot elements about glowing CGI stones and a random romance between Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce (Mark Ruffalo) the former of which will become even more important down the road. Finally Thor (Chris Hemsworth) describes the “infinity stones” to the group and tells of their importance. The real highlight here however is how large a role Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) have here as this feels more like an Iron Man or Captain American sequel more than anything. I've never personally had much interest in the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization and since being overrun by Hydra there isn't much screentime devoted to it.

And what of the many new characters writer/director Joss Whedon has given us? They're all pretty solid. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are initially on the side of the evil robot/humanoid Ultron (voiced by James Spader) but we all know they eventually join the Avengers, right? One of the more interesting developments includes the introduction of “Vision” who sounds exactly like Tony's AI companion JARVIS and for good reason. Whedon's script surprisingly balances the new characters, older characters in a surprisingly funny (the gang trying to pick up Thor's hammer is a standout) and action-packed film that never feels overlong.

There's a lot going on in “Avengers Age of Ultron” and it sometimes feels like a buildup to something even greater but it never really feels bloated and never outstay its welcome. I enjoyed the first Avengers film back when it was first released but never found myself going back to it. This one feels different somehow, though it never quite feels transcendent. It doesn't quite reach the level of “Guardians of theGalaxy” or “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” but fans of all the Marvel films in general won't be disappointed.  GRADE: B+  
Feature Trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron on TrailerAddict.