Friday, September 28, 2012

Review: Dredd

Dredd is based on a comic book that I was rather fond of when I was younger but haven’t read recently.  It was previous adapted to an early 90s action-movie (titled Judge Dredd) starring Rocky himself, Sylvester Stallone. Having seen it…it’s pretty terrible, but not as bad as some of the other comic book movie misfires of the 90s, like Batman and Robin or Steel. Still, it was a critical and commercial flop, and now we have a new adaptation that overcomes a middling script to be a solid action flick.

Sorry, did I give away my opinion too early? Oh well, on we go. The setting is the future, naturally. Shit went tits up a few decades earlier and now everybody in North America lives in a huge city (supposedly going from Washington DC to Boston), where shit is still going tits up, with an inhumanly high crime rate. Dredd (Karl Urban) is a Judge (kind of uber-cop with rights to just shoot you if they feel they need to) training a rookie on a routine assignment. Soon enough he and the rookie are trapped in a giant apartment building, with no hope of reinforcements. Guess how they plan to get out. That’s right peaceful negotia- SHOOTING EVERYONE!

Okay so it’s not going to be winning any screenplay prizes, but it makes up for it in the technical details. A drug that causes time to appear to be passing at 1/100th it’s normal speed is well realized and sparsely used, the action scenes are well put together and gory as hell and it even has a couple of really cool set pieces. It’s also well paced, aside from a bit of a wonky opening action beat and a bit of Iron Man syndrome (late movie action scenes not being as good as the ones in the middle).

On the acting side, it’s mostly good. Karl Urban has the lead and he’s really good in it (which is nice, he’s had a shitty post-LotR career). He’s a solid action lead and an intimidating physical presence in the move, both of which work well. His sidekick is also okay, if a bit bland. The villain…is a bit more problematic. She’s played by Lena Headey, who is doing a riff on her Queen Cersei persona from Game of Thrones. She’s still good at it, but the character (who is built up as being a complete psychopath) is crying out for a couple good psychotic breaks. It’s not a deal breaker, but it is a little odd how underplayed her performance is.

There are some other issues with the movie. The screenplay seems like a nice ripe target. Yeah I know some of the lines are intentionally cheesy and kind of satirical (like the comic), but there’s a limit to how much you can pass under that. And while I like that the movie never forces anyone on either side to be idiots, some of the villain’s actions seem unnecessarily extreme.

Dredd is, ultimately, successful at what it wants to be. Am I confusing it with The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises (or even Chronicle) in terms of quality now? No. Will anyone still be talking about in a few months when Zero Dark Thirty and The Hobbit are out? Probably not. But it’s ultimately a fun silly action movie and for what it’s worth, I’d like to see more of Judge Karl. So take this as a recommendation if you’re in the mood for a good R-Rated action movie.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’d like to congratulate Karl Urban on making “I am the law,” sound good.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Review: The Master

This is probably the first year that all three directors with the last name Anderson have movies out. Wes Anderson had Moonrise Kingdom, WS Anderson has Resident Evil: Whatever out this weekend and Paul Thomas Anderson has The Master out at the same time. And while I’ve not doubt WS’ movie will make the most money, I don’t think anyone can argue that Paul Thomas and Wes’ movies are better, because Moonrise Kingdom and now The Master are two of the best movies I’ve seen all year.

On the other hand, I feel that this review is somewhat unnecessary. Is anyone who's heard of this movie expecting it to be anything other than good? Seriously, it's directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. He did Punch Drunk Love, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood. He's one of the best directors currently working, so did any of us expect this to not be good?

Ah well. The plot is concerned with Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, former World War II soldier turned alcoholic, unemployable drifter. One night he stumbles onto a boat looking for work and discovers an odd but charismatic man (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who is in the midst of founding Scientology a strange cult based on his sci-fi writings.

Okay so, as you may have guessed from that opening, the cult in question bears more than a passing semblance to Scientology a famous real world religion cult and Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character is more than a little bit like L. Ron Hubbard the shitty sci-fi writer who founded it. But PTA et al aren't lying when they say that's not what the movie is about. Scientology The Cause is a major part of the movie, but it and the increasingly odd people in it are not the focus of the movie. In fact, as the movie itself is quick to show us, it's actually a character study of Phoenix's damaged former soldier. The cult that he joins are merely a device to show how it's affects his already heavily damaged psyche.

Being a character study this is primarily Joaquin Phoenix's show and by the way: HOLY SHIT! He gives an incredible performance, easily one the best of the year. His character is quietly damaged and the effects of the brainwashing often bring out his worst aspects. He's tasked with acting out one of the darkest and most disturbing character arcs of the year, as well as portraying the majority of the brainwashing techniques used by the cult, purely through his acting. He will be nominated for an Oscar for this performance and he deserves to win.

The only other two major performances come from Phillip Seymour Hoffman as L. Ron Hubbard the cult leader Lancaster Dodd and Amy Adams as his wife. Hoffman is, of course, amazing, a man defined by his unflinching politeness and calmness, making it all the more interesting when they and he break down. Adams is a little weirder and a little harder to gauge. She's given the thankless task of acting out a character almost entirely devoid of emotions, which can make her seem a tiny bit flat at times, but her subtly accentuates the bigger personalities around her, and she's really quite good, despite her minor role.

Aside from the acting, I'm kind of hesitant to discuss the story and it's direction and writing. Oh they're all great; The script is one of the best of the year thus far, PTA is one of the best directors working and this is easily his best directed work outside of There Will Be Blood (including a few really incredible shots that more or less guarantee him a Best Director nomination). But discussing what sequences really stand out and why risks spoiling the movie, and since the trailers have been, for once in movie history, coy enough to avoid spoilers, I'd like to do the same. Suffice to say this is one of the best movies of the year and easily the best thing hitting theaters right now. If this plays anywhere near you, do not miss it, it's a fantastic movie about self loathing and psychological damage as well as the effect Scientology cult brain washing can have on those already damaged and what draws damaged people to such things. Go see this movie.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he might go see Resident Evil just to round out the Anderson trio.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Review: The Inbetweeners Movie

There have been a lot of comedies this year. Some good (The Campaign) some bad (Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie), some I haven’t seen yet (Ted), some I don’t want to see (That’s My Boy). But, even though it’s not going to be on my best of the year, I’d have to say that The Inbetweeners is probably going to be my favorite comedy of the year, partially because British comedy appeals to me but also because it’s just plain fucking HYSTERICAL.

Based on a British tv show that I, for once, actually have watched a bit of, The Inbetweeners can best be thought of as a British reboot of Revenge of the Nerds. Four awkward, nebbish British teenagers have just graduated from high school and are looking to have a good time while on holiday in Greece. Role call: The weird one, the smart one, the lovesick one and the horny one. While they’re there they meet four girls, also from Britain and you can pretty much plot the movie from there.

Okay so it’s not the most unique or inventive setup imaginable, but it makes up for it in the details, most notably a sharply written script and great chemistry between the four leads. The horny character (named Jay, for the record) in particular is a fantastic character, a shockingly nasty and occasionally downright awful person, but with the odd glimmer humanity showing through occasionally. There’s also some great lead work from the main character/narrator, who’s deadpan narration adds a lot to simple sight gags.

It’s also worth pointing out that the movie is extremely British, both in it’s sensibilities (hard to quantify) and in it’s language use (much easier). It’s an extremely filthy movie, but without ever falling into the disgusting or tasteless trap, which is a hard line to walk, and they walk it with style. It’s also interesting how the movie seems to be much more comfortable with male nudity than it is with female nudity, although I don’t know if that’s a British thing or not.

The movie is not without it’s flaws, mostly on the purely structural level (at least one character lacks anything resembling an arc, but that’s sort of acceptable in a comedy as broad as this, and there are a few callbacks to the show that I imagine will be lost on people who haven’t watched it), but I’m not overly interested in talking about that. What I am interested in talking about is the across-the-pond attempt at an American TV show that originally brought the series to my attention. This is getting alarmingly common, after The Office first hit and made everyone involved rich and famous, but has fallen intensely flat with every other attempt (looking at you Skins). In this case, I’m not ENTIRELY opposed, as the idea of Porky’s meets suburban ennui is one that could easily translate to America, but having given the show a glance, I just have to say it doesn’t have an identity of it’s own. Maybe that will change when they run out of episodes of the original show to copy (the original show has a limited number of episodes, as most British shows do), but right now it’s just an irritating copy that adds nothing to an idea that worked fine on it’s own, like the American remake of Let the Right One In. Wow, that was a long rant eh? Let’s bring it home.

In the end, this is a hard movie to review for the same reasons that all good comedies are: If I talk about what makes it funny, I’ll spoil the jokes. So I’ll just tell you that this movie is easily one of, if not the, funniest movie of the year. If you enjoy comedy in general and British comedy in particular, then you’ll definitely want to check this one out.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’d like to see a spinoff devoted to Will’s dad. Because he’s played by Giles. And Giles is awesome.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Review: Cosmopolis

Cosmopolis is a rare kind of movie, a very difficult to review movie. It’s a movie so surreal, so strange and offbeat in it’s characters and presentation that at the end I was surprised it was to be reminded that it wasn’t directed by David Lynch. The movie as a whole is confusing and dark, a movie that most film goers (and in particular the lead actor’s fans from Twilight) will feel alienated by.

So naturally, I loved it to pieces. It’s presentation is just the perfect kind of surreal and strange to appeal to me and my sensibilities (I must remind you that I count David Lynch as one of my inspirations). It’s definitely one of the most surreal movie Cronenberg has made since Videodrome, but it all works, into one of my favorite movies of the year thus far. But while I loved it, I can’t recommend it without reservation, as a lot of people are going to hate it.

For the record, the plot is about Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), a rich ,detached and self-destructive billionaire living in a near-future New York City, who is traveling across New York to get a haircut. And…that’s more or less it. There are some lingering plot bits about a currency crisis, a violent anti-capitalist group and someone planning to kill Eric, but those mostly hang around the edges.

This is one of the major ways a lot of people are going to feel alienated by this movie: There’s very little in the way of plot. The vast majority of the movie consists of Eric meeting with various people, from his equally detached new wife who refuses to have sex with him, to his doctor who gives him a checkup right in the limo, and having detached conversations with them. It feels very cold, and almost didactic, as the characters and their actions don’t seem to have any connection to human behavior.

The script is probably the strangest thing about it. The dialogue is rapid, highly technical and veers between philosophy, economics and in-character dialogue so rapidly that it threatens to give you whiplash. As you might have guessed from the plot description, there is an essential lack of any linear narrative or even more than the barest amount of a story.

The acting fits with the movie: Cold and detached. Pattinson comes close to redeeming his time with the Twilight franchise in this movie. His natural cold and  emotionless affect is exactly what this movie needs and it shows that in the hands of the right director, he could be a good talent and if nothing else, he’ll be good at playing villains and psychopaths down the line in his career. Aside from him, no one gets more than a handful of scenes, but they all do very well, keeping the movie’s tone consistent, but special mention must go Paul Giamatti, proving once again he’s good in everything.

None of this would work without Cronenberg at the helm. His direction is so distant, it’s almost clinical, emphasizing the lack of emotion, but it also manages to be precise and interesting. The camera holds in one-to-two person shots for a long time and repeats similar angles, in a way that sounds boring, but manages to emphasize the characters and the world they live in.

Cosmopolis is not a movie for everyone. A lot, and I mean a lot, of people are going to hate it. It’s less a fully formed story than it is an experience, something you immerse yourself in and think about for days or weeks later. But, if you’ve ever liked the works of David Lynch, in particular Mullholland Drive, or some of Cronenberg’s early more surreal work, then you’ll probably like this one. If nothing else, it’s going to be one of the most divisive movies of the year, so if any of this sounds like something you want to see, give it a look. And if it helps, I loved it.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s probably gonna have to see this a couple more times before he fully absorbs it.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Review: Robot & Frank

Robot & Frank is easily one of the best sci-fi movies to hit in a long time (probably since 2009 when we had the one-two punch of District 9 and Moon). This is because, like most of the great sci-fi movies, it manages to have the science fiction aspect without feeling that that aspect excuses it from having anything else interesting about it. It is, in no particular order: a fantastically made hard sci-fi movie (hard sci-fi is more in line with science, rather than soft sci-fi which is more silly, like Star Wars), a deeply affecting character study, a well paced and interesting heist movie, a profound look at the idea of a soul and one of the most quietly effective looks at senility in films. It’s destined to be on a lot of year’s best lists (and signals, in my opinion, the official start of Oscar Season) so you should see it right away.

The plot is concerned with Frank (Frank Langella), an elderly and increasingly senile former jewel thief. His adult son is getting tired of coming to see him, so he gives him a robot to keep him company and to help with his mental and physical health. Soon Frank starts zeroing in on doing a few more heists to help save his favorite library and stick it to the yuppies whom he holds responsible for it’s failing.

Weirdly enough, this is not based on a forgotten Isaac Asimov short story (it would fit right in in the IRobot book), but it feels exactly like it was, from the way it’s story is based heavily around the relationship between a human who initially doesn’t trust robots and a robot and in how much the design of the tech and ESPECIALLY the robots seem to be Asimov inspired. It must be said, that a good portion of the movie’s depth comes from the fairly deep exploration of the relationship between Frank and the Robot. Saddling a full half of the main characters with a complete lack of facial or vocal changes is a pretty damned brave decision, and one which pays off magnificently, as the Robot is eventually capable of communicating huge amounts of information with tiny changes in posture and word choices.

What you’ve heard about Frank Langella as the lead is true: He gives an all time career great performance, managing to find the delicate balance between being an angry old man and the increasingly tragic deterioration of his mind.  His portrayal of senility is almost entirely without angst on his part, merely a slow quiet slide into  forgetfulness and it manages to be all the more realistic and touching for it. He gives a truly brilliant performance and if there is any justice at all he is a shoe in for a Best Actor nomination come January (of course that’s what I said about Sam Rockwell in Moon so what do I know?)

The other actors are more up and down. Liv Tyler and Susan Sarandon come off pretty good, although Liv is saddled with a rather thin character arc and not enough screentime to properly realize it. James Marsden is a little more problematic, as he is given very little screen time and as such seems to switch disposition from scene to scene.

The direction is fine, emphasizing music and lighting. A few shots stand out, in particular one bit of fantastic lighting towards the end. Kudos must be given to the script writer and director for managing to realize a future so close to modern day that I’d swear I could buy some of the appliances they pull out regularly. Along with some interesting shot composition and editing, the direction is as good as you can expect from such an actor driven movie, and the screenplay rises to the challenge, delivering an engaging and moving story that never once feels forced.

September has officially started and with it, Oscar season, something I’ve been eagerly anticipating for weeks now. Robot & Frank is the first one out the gate and it sets a very high standard for the rest of them (still need to see Cosmopolis though). If this plays near you, do not miss it.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he still wants a robot.