Saturday, April 30, 2016

Slashed Punk: “Green Room” is a Decidedly Nasty Little Thriller

Somewhere the logline “punk band must evade neo-Nazi skinheads after witnessing a murder” made sense to someone and it has manifested itself in the creepy, tight little thriller “Green Room.” I’m not quite sure how to even describe this film to someone. Is it horror? Is it a thriller? It’s a bit of both but it’s certainly a suspenseful journey that isn’t afraid to show pretty intense and graphic violence. The film is injected with so much soul and depravity I’m not even sure what to compare it to. Director Jeremey Saulnier gives the film a neo-realistic crime thriller feel with some truly grotesque makeup effects. It’s an interesting film that’s truly impossible to guess what exactly is going to happen next.

“Green Room’s” setup feels akin to something like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” with a bunch of grungy young people stuffed into a van in the middle of nowhere. Nowhere is in fact the Pacific Northwest and the young people are a punk rock group called “The Ain’t Rights.” They seem to be desperate for cash since they have to siphon gas just to get to where they need to go. They get pointed to a gig at a club in the middle of the woods that happens to be home to a bunch of skinheads. Next thing you know the entire group is stuck in the club’s green room after witnessing something they most definitely shouldn’t have seen. It quickly becomes band vs Nazis in a thrilling game of cat and mouse as the band attempts to survive the night.  

I’m not really sure where exactly this movie came from but I’m glad it exists. It definitely feels inspired by films about kids getting lost in the woods and happening upon psychotic killers. The direction from Saulnier is proficient and even when the screenplay threatens to lag he mostly adds something shocking to the mix whether it’s an unexpected death or some disturbing ultra-violence. The actors are pretty fabulous here including standout Anton Yelchin as the band’s leader.

Punk rockers vs. white supremacists feels like reason enough to check out this film let alone the marquee name of Patrick Stewart, playing wildly against type, as the leader of the neo-Nazi group. It at least convinced one mildly disoriented theater goer where I saw the film to watch it for his name alone. A bold move considering the film’s shocking violence and disturbing story. If you know what you’re getting into it’s worth the wild ride.  GRADE: B+

Trailer for Green Room on TrailerAddict.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Brohood: Richard Linklater’s Nostalgic “Everybody Wants Some!!” Hits a Home Run

“Boyhood” was a brilliant and simple film about the trials and tribulations and oftentimes mundanity of growing up. The 1980-set “Everybody Wants Some!!” is similar and takes it to the next step by addressing finding one’s identity when entering the crazy, fast-paced world of college. Director Richard Linklater, ever the one to capture the realities of youth by drawing from his own experiences, (he was a baseball player at his Texas college) presents us with a story about a team of college baseball players in the days leading up to the start of the school year. Linklater is also a master of the practically plotless film choosing to focus on interesting characters and witty dialogue. Here he gives us a bunch of baseball jocks and while it may be a turn off to anyone who didn’t play sports in college, Linklater manages to make typically unlikable characters into fascinating studies of human behavior. “Everybody Wants Some!!” which plays like a spiritual sequel to Linklater’s own cult comedy “Dazed & Confused,” is a delightful slice of Americana – all set to the pleasant sounds of the late 70s and early 80s.

First of all, it must be said that like a majority of his films Linklater follows a very loose narrative structure and those looking for a truly compelling storyline need look elsewhere. “Everybody Wants Some!!” is all about the nostalgic atmosphere, characters, dialogue, and rockin’ tunes. And even though the film revolves around a bunch of baseball-playing college bros, Linklater manages to make typically unlikable caricatures into really likable fully developed people (though you’ll have to look elsewhere for many well-written female characters). 

It’s Texas, circa 1980 and our surrogate is Jake (Glee’s Blake Jenner in his feature film debut) an incoming freshman. He’s moving into one of the two houses for the Texas university’s baseball team. We’re quickly introduced to some other players who initially seem rather unappealing including Tyler Hoechlin’s star hitter McReynolds, Ryan Guzman’s Roper, Glen Powell’s Finnegan, Wyatt Russell’s bearded stoner Willoughby, J. Quinton Johnson’s Dale, and other freshmen Plummer (Temple Baker), Brumley (Tanner Kalina), and redneck roommate ‘Beuter’ (Will Brittain). On the surface, these characters seem like typical dumb jocks; you instantly stereotype them as dumb idiots but Linklater slowly lets you get to know these guys. The film takes place in the days before school begins with an onscreen text doomfully counting down to the start of classes. The film’s story is basically watching Jake become accustomed to his new college life while he pursues different parties as he and his teammates ogle the coeds.

While “Dazed & Confused” followed several groups of high school personalities (i.e., jocks, stoners, losers) “Everybody Wants Some!!” follows the jocks as they attend several different party atmospheres. The first night at college Jake’s teammates throw a huge beer bash. The next night they attend a disco and then head to a country bar, and even a punk concert. After Jake begins to pursue a cute theater major and some of his friends attend an artsy theater party. Jake, like most incoming college students, attempts to find his niche amongst his fellow jocks as no one should be pigeonholed to one group. Jenner is extremely appealing here as are his other co-stars. I’d say Powell feels like the MVP here though everyone gets their moment to shine. Oh, did I mention the film’s awesome soundtrack filled with glorious 70s and 80s tracks? The film’s title is, after all, also the name of a Van Halen song (with double exclamation points sealing the deal) and the film's story easily reflects the title's proclamation.

“Everybody Wants Some!!” manages to take the  leftover brilliance of “Boyhood” and form its own fascinating fly-on-the-wall nostalgic tale of college life. And even if your personal college experience isn't reflected here it still feels rather universal. Those who are fans of Linklater’s early, influential work will no doubt be in hog heaven here. As someone who was never quite on the Linklater bandwagon until the magic of “Boyhood” it’s easy to see why this auteur is in a league of his own.  GRADE: A-

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Welcome to the Jungle: Jon Favreau Creates a Dazzling CGI World in “The Jungle Book”

Is it a misnomer to call “The Jungle Book,” Disney’s latest redo of an animated classic, a live action film? After all there’s really only one human character and everything else onscreen was created in a computer. Whether you wanna call it live-action or not, this version of “The Jungle Book” has some of the most impressive computer effects I’ve ever seen in a film. The so-called “uncanny valley” is almost all but dried up here. We’re constantly looking at animals and their movements and facial expressions are so lifelike it could easily fool some less informed moviegoers who may think there’s been some kind of scientific talking animal breakthrough. Visually appealing or not a movie has to also have a good story and interesting characters otherwise it’s wizardry for naught. Since the original Disney animated version of “The Jungle Book” was never quite one of my personal favorites, I have no problem declaring this updated version the definitive version of Rudyard Kipling’s collective works (though I, like many others I assume, haven’t seen the 1994 live action version).

The plot of “The Jungle Book” is simple enough but extremely effective and rewarding. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a little boy who’s abandoned as a boy and then raised by a pack of wolves. He also has a wise black panther named Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) who also watches over him. The film’s main villain is the Bengal tiger Shere Kahn (Idris Elba) who believes the boy doesn’t belong in the jungle living amongst animals and seeks to banish the boy or worse kill him. Bagheera helps guide Mowgli back to his human kind but after an ambush is quickly separated from the boy leaving Mowgli to fend for himself. Then Mowgli meets several other animals; including a scary run-in with a gigantic, hypnotizing snake named Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and a big lovable bear named Baloo (Billy Murray), not to mention a scene-stealing Christopher Walken as King Louie. The film is very vignette-like which really works and give the film almost a “road trip” type feel where you don’t quite know what adventure Mowgli is going to get caught up in next (unless of course you’re pretty familiar with the original cartoon).

The film works on multiple levels beyond the fact that the film is a visual wonder from beginning to end. The visual effects are so photorealistic you’ll be shocked to find out the filmmakers never set foot in an actual jungle. Sometimes the film is so realistic I could picture tiny kids leaving the theater in fear despite the film’s family-friendly rating. Sethi gives a rather impressive feature film debut performance considering his co-stars weren’t even there (though he shot his scenes with puppeteers who don’t appear in the final film). The film also works in some of the songs from the original Disney film in a way that don’t feel forced or out of place. After all, how could one watch a Disney version of “The Jungle Book” without hearing “The Bear Necessities?” The script from Justin Marks is a real winner with subtle themes about not fitting in or feeling different from those around you. Director Jon Favreau who can go from creating little tiny CGI-free films like “Made” or “Chef” to big budget effects-driven films like “Iron Man” and “Cowboys & Aliens” feels very much in his element here finding the right beats of humor, emotion, and action.

“The Jungle Book” is an amazingly well-crafted, entertaining, visual wonder of a film (and even worth the extra bucks for 3D if that’s your thing). The film is thoroughly entertaining, impressive acting and voiceover work, and has a surprising amount of emotional depth and some nice comic relief. I’d be genuinely surprised if it doesn’t win an Oscar next year for its effects; they’re some of the finest ever put to film. I can’t imagine a “live-action” “Lion King” film being very far away.  GRADE: A- 

Super Bowl Trailer for The Jungle Book on TrailerAddict.