Friday, August 30, 2013

Writer's Block

So, I've been putting this off for a while for reasons that I...can't properly explain actually, but whatever. Anyway, I wrote a book.
The Beat
It's not a very long book (something like 80-90 pages, more a novella than a full length novel). I actually finished it months ago but didn't get it published until about a month ago, because well...I'm overly critical of everything I write. But every time I tried to write after that, I wound up just back rereading and editing it. So I had it self-published with Amazon just to get it out of my head.
I expect it to sell 6 copies over it's entire lifetime, 5 of which will be bought by people I know personally, but if you're interested give it a look. It's cheap, so what more can you ask?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Review: The Spectacular Now

I am known among my friends as the guy who will defend art house moves. The usual complaint I will hear about them is that they’re boring, which I tend to disagree violently with (if you can watch Drive and honestly tell me it’s boring, there’s something wrong with you). But if and when someone accuses The Spectacular Now of being boring, I will unfortunately have to nod my head and say ‘Yeah, pretty much.’

The plot is about Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a carefree but casually douchey high school senior. As the movie opens, he is dumped by his girlfriend, which causes him to go on a bender. He winds up collapsing on the yard of the supposedly unpopular geeky girl Amy (Shailene Woodley, who is way too conventionally attractive to be unpopular, but that’s to be expected). He decides she’s worth hanging out with, they begin to grow closer annnnnnnd…no prizes for guessing where that’s going.

If I had to nail down an issue with this movie, it would be that it’s just so fucking dull. The plot doesn’t seem to really go anywhere, it just sort of meanders around for 90 minutes. Scene after scene just sort of goes by without any sense of plot or urgency or progress. Plot threads, like Sutter’s budding alcoholism, his issues with his father and Amy’s confrontations with her mother pop up and then disappear, often being resolved offscreen or trailing off without any resolution. Even the big important scenes, like Prom (the center of your high school existence, or so high school movies keep informing me) doesn't seem to move the movie forward at all.

Usually I’d be totally on board with this, as an attempt to show the pointless monotony of high school or even just a stylistic choice, but something is off. It isn’t a pacing issue (one of my favorite movies of all time is 2001 a movie paced like a river of cement) or a lack of event thing (Cosmopolis, a movie with basically no event, is still one of my favorite movies of last year) but something doesn’t work. I think it’s just how poorly it all fits together. Sutter’s arc makes very little sense, and although he seems to change and grow as a person, it isn’t until the last act and it doesn’t seem to be triggered by anything.

This very thin arc combined with the slow pacing and the fact that, for the majority of the movie, Sutter is a massive douchebag, to completely kill my engagement and make the film completely boring. There are some good parts, such as Sutter meeting his father, but the majority of the movie is so completely dull and pointless that I can’t get involved. And it must be said, one of the movie’s big dramatic moments is so poorly staged that it becomes unintentionally hilarious.

It’s also a very dully directed movie, with no real visual style or interesting direction to speak of. The direction is so straightforward and passionless I had to check to make sure Tom Hooper didn’t direct it. The screenplay is also painfully on the nose, and feels rather out of touch with modern teenagers (although given that I was out of touch with modern teenagers when I WAS a teenager, maybe I’m the wrong person to judge that).

The lead actors are good I guess, Miles Teller certainly manages to sell all of his big dramatic sequences and while Shailene plays her character well, her character is such a doormat that I couldn’t really get involved in her performance and she’s given better performances elsewhere. None of the other actors get anything more than a relative handful of scenes, so it’s impossible to get a read on them (although the actor playing Sutter’s dad is pretty bad at selling his character).

This feels like a very odd negative review to give. I feel like I should like this film, as it seems like the sort of movie I would be into. But something about it kept it from clicking for me, kept me from getting at all involved. Perhaps that’s unique to me and you’ll have a better experience, but if you’re looking for my advice, you should probably avoid this.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he finds it very hard to believe you could become a senior in high school in 2013 without having heard of Manga.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review: You're Next

Hey Costume Shops? Around Halloween, you should maybe stock up on some animal masks. Just a suggestion. Thank me later.

As I’ve mentioned before, 2013 is shaping up to be the year of movies that have been gestating for…let’s just say longer than usual. And like last year’s Cabin in the Woods or 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat, You’re Next is a movie that’s been completed for a while (supposedly first screening in it’s entirety in 2011) but for one reason or another hasn’t seen release until now. Of those two, I think Trick ‘r Treat is the more apt comparison, because it’s not exceptionally deep or complicated, but it still kicks a surprising amount of ass.

The plot…is pretty uninteresting, at least at the setup. A rich family, who’s members don’t entirely get along, head out to a secluded house in the wood for their parents 35th Anniversary. During a dinner, they find their house under attack by mysterious men wearing animal masks and wielding crossbows amongst other things. At that point the movie becomes an extended Straw Dogs recreation, as the family must fight off the invaders with whatever they can find around.

As you can probably guess, the first act of this movie is easily the worst. The character work is awkward and it runs through all the slasher movie clichés (face in the window, innocuous scare which might not be so innocuous, unrelated opening murder, you get the idea). There are a lot of terms for this particular kind of opening, and this one doesn’t do it much better than most (although Ti West is in the first act and he made House of the Devil, so he’s cool with me).

But once the first crossbow bolt is fired and the shit starts to hit the fan, the movie drops a lot of its unnecessary baggage and really picks up. While crossbows, melee weapons (axes and machetes mostly) and animal masks aren’t the most unique slasher villains ever, they get the job done reasonably well and the masks never cease to be at least mildly off putting, if not outright creepy.

What I think gets the movie most of it’s energy is how creative and weird it is. The kills are across the board inventive and well staged on both sides, and the pitch dark humor that shows up literally in the first scene is injected throughout both the quiet scenes and more gruesome ones. The film has a lot of fun disguising who the alarmingly competent nominal hero of the piece winds up being, and why they are as competent as they are. This is the first film I’ve seen by director Adam Wingard, but he’s not bad, walking a couple fine lines of humor and horror throughout the film and keeping the action mostly fresh and engaging.

But even all that included, the film is not without issues. While the reasons behind the hero being kickass are interesting, who the villains turn out to be and why is depressingly straightforward. Some of the actors are phoning it in a bit (although given how quickly they start dropping, I think the director was aware of this) and sometimes the more serious attempts at drama can grate with the more darkly humorous segments.

You’re Next is fairly familiar ground to anyone who likes this sort of movie; a slasher movie crossed with a home invasion movie is nothing exceptionally new. But it’s an extremely well done example of this particular well tread ground. It’s creative and exciting and often extremely enjoyable and engaging, especially if you’re into this sort of thing. It’s been an oddly good year for original horror movies (The Purge aside), and You’re Next continues that trend. So call it recommended and I’ll see you next time.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he was surprised to find out that this movie isn’t a feature length adaptation of the music video for Animal by the Neon Trees.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Review: The World's End

The World’s End is in a slightly awkward position as a movie. It’s technically an original movie, but it’s connected by cast and crew to two previous movies, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz which together form the thematic trilogy currently called the Cornetto Trilogy. So while The World’s End is a really good, perhaps even great, film it’s also a flawed movie, that falls kind of short of its predecessors, which makes it look weaker by comparison.

The plot, like Shaun and Fuzz is a reworking of a genre formula into a British comedy. This time five high school friends who have grown estranged since they all grew up are brought back together by the manchild of the group, Gary King (Simon Pegg). His goal is to return to their hometown and complete a pub crawl known as the Golden Mile, hitting 12 pubs in their hometown for a pint each, which they’d failed to do earlier in their life. But when they return they discover things are just a little too clean and that the once unique pubs are now chains. It turns out that the town is being taken over by aliens who are replacing the townsfolk with highly durable robots. In order to fool the robots, they decide to continue the crawl, which if nothing else explains why, as the situation gets worse their decision making gets worse.

One of the ways this one differs from the other two in its trilogy is specific it is in what it’s riffing at least. While Shaun was a broad zombie parody and Fuzz was an even broader parody of American action movies (with hints at slasher films and mysteries), The World’s End is a very specific parody of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with bits of The Stepford Wives in there). The parody is therefore a little more specific, which means that the jokes are typically funnier than they might be otherwise but that there are fewer of them to be had.

The writing is a little more character focused than broad comedies like this usually are, but you should be expecting that. The upshot of this is that the acting has to be a little stronger than usual. Martin Freeman is the surprisingly strong member of the group, as he needs to sell a couple of pretty major shifts and he does it well.

But, as with the previous two, the big parts are from Pegg and Frost. The most interesting aspect is that Pegg is playing the live-wire goofball and Frost the straight man.  Frost’s character is interesting, as he (as well as the rest of the group) are already tired of King’s antics, which would usually set them up as wet blankets but here they go out of their way to show how irritating and tiresome he is. But the real strong acting comes from Pegg himself. He’s at the center of the movie, both in the actual movie and in the way his character insists on being the center of attention, but the eventual arc of his character is a lot darker than you might expect. It’s up to Pegg to sell all of it and he does an incredible job. It’s probably the best performance of his career and one of the biggest selling points of the movie is just to see where he takes the character.

Which is why it’s odd that it’s also instrumental to the films biggest issue, a significant issue with tone. The funny parts are so funny and the dark parts so dark that it has trouble holding a consistent tone. This can make certain scenes really jarring, especially towards the third act. It gets a lot more of its steam back from the creative third act, but its denoucemont goes on a bit too long.

But at the end of the day, neither of those things matter as much as you might think. The World’s End is still a funny and engaging movie, easily one of the best comedies of the year. The metaphors (which get surprisingly complex come the third act) are more specific to Britain than in previous movies, but the characters and story are still as universal as ever. Bottom line, The World’s End is a satisfying conclusion to this particular thematic trilogy and I can’t wait to see where this trio’s careers go from here. Highly recommended.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and Simon Pegg better not be teasing about playing Ant Man.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review: The Conjuring

The Conjuring might be the single scariest horror film I’ve seen in a very long time. Oh it’s not the best. The Cabin in the Woods still has the quality award in the horror field for the last few years, and modern classics like Let the Right One In and 28 Days Later don’t have anything to worry about, but in terms of pure number and intensity of scares, I can’t think of a recent movie that had me jumping or yelling quite as often.

The plot is devoted to a family who has recently moved into a new house and found…well all the stuff you find when you move to a new house in a horror film. You know the drill: Strange noises, weird smells, oddly cold, doors keep banging shut, dog won’t go in, sealed off basement o’ evil. Soon enough, shit has gone south enough that they need help and since they have intimate knowledge of the future, they call in the husband and wife team who worked on The Amityville Horror case (no seriously, google that shit) to help them out. And then it gets crazy.

The clever among you might deduce from that plot summary that it has a tiny bit of the cliché about it and yeah it does (the plot, when all is said and done, reads like a cross between Poltergeist and The Exorcist, with the odd element from The Woman in Black or Evil Dead thrown in). But that doesn’t really matter too much, in the same way that an action move being a bit on the cliché side doesn’t matter, although I will say, the plot has an odd bit of unfortunate implications about it, given it’s connection to the Salem Witch Trials. Not a big issue, but it makes a tiny bit uncomfortable whenever it comes up.

But the reason the plot in a horror movie can stand to be a bit weak is because we’re here for the scares and holy shit does this movie deliver in that regard. Through a solid combination of atmosphere and good direction, it manages to be both eerie and intensely scary. Even the scenes that don’t have anything scary in them manage to convince you they will soon. I’m not too proud to admit that I outright yelled a few times, and my friend had her eyes covered throughout 80 percent of the movie. And that’s before we get to the big ‘all hell breaks loose’ climax, which is both genuinely intense, and very creative with it’s set pieces and in the way it pays off all it’s various chekovs. It was directed by James Wan, who previously did the only good Saw movie and a bunch of other movies that range from okay to kind of sucks, and it’s nice to see him getting his footing as a horror director.

The actors all turn in good performances, especially Vera Farmiga as, basically the lead character. Another great performance comes from REDACTED, especially once we eventually get the inevitable possession sequence. All the rest are playing their stock characters well, although it is, as always, nice to see Peter Gibbons (better known as Ron Livingston).

Movies like The Conjuring are ride movies, just as much as big action movies are, but with fear, instead of excitement, as the emotional high. And while it’s a bit cliché with a weak script, The Conjuring is one of the best rides of its kind I’ve seen in a while. Recommended.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he wonders if they can make a sequel without getting sued by whoever owns the rights to The Amityville Horror.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review: Elysium

4 years ago (Christ, I feel old) Neil Blomkamp exploded onto the scene with District 9, which became a surprise critical darling (and eventual Oscar nominee) but also a pretty solid sized hit. It managed to mix hard edged, R-Rated action with surprisingly intelligent political commentary to not only become one of the best films of 2009, but also one of the (if not THE) best sci-fi action movie of the new millennium, and the movie that finally rescued the increasingly dead summer it came at the end of. And while Elysium isn’t quite as good as District 9 (mostly cause there are VERY few things that are as good as District 9), it’s an extremely engaging, well made movie on it’s own merits. Easily one of the best action movies of the year, and exactly what this increasingly dead summer needed…huh.

Anyway, onto the plot. It’s the future, shit sucks (at some point in my life, I will get tired of that joke). In this particular case, Earth got royally boned by a mix of pollution and overpopulation and the rich people fled to the titular low-orbit space station (that looks a little bit like a Halo Ring crossbred with the Citadel, but now I’m just getting too nerdy). Life is awesome up on Elysium, no disease or aging or anything of that nature, but life sucks down below and immigrating up there is strictly controlled by Elysium’s Secretary of Defense Delacourt (played by Jodie Foster) The main character is Max (Matt Damon) a former thief who’s trying to live clean, but an accident leaves him with bad radiation poisoning and 5 days to live. So, he joins up with the underground who outfit him with a robot suit and a mission to fulfill so he can earn a ride to Elysium where they can fix it.

That’s already a lot of balls in the air, and they only increase when Sharito Copely shows up as Agent Kruger, Delacourt’s brutal man on the ground on Earth, or when Max’s ex arrives with her own reasons to want to hit up Elysium. But one of the reasons I like this movie, or more specifically it’s script, is that these characters all have fully fleshed out roles and motivations in the story. The setup, at least on the ground level, is pretty simple, but it gets complicated when these characters and their goals collide.

The design of everything is pretty damned solid, the washed out, desert look of Earth and the upscale suburbia of Elysium are both well realized and interesting. Of course, since Earth is primarily desert, with a large portion of Spanish speaking people of clear Latino descent, and Elysium looks like well manicured suburbia populated entirely by clean looking white people, well that lets me segue awkwardly into the political commentary. And yes, in case you were wondering, the political allegory is about as subtle as a brick to the head, but it works, remarkably well. Maybe it’s just that it works on the same tonal level throughout, or maybe it’s just that it makes sense and isn’t (overly) preachy, but I never found it bothersome.

Or maybe that’s just because so much of the film is devoted to the extremely well put together action scenes. Copley’s Agent Kruger is a kickass villain with an awesome skill set, the robots are fun antagonists and most of the action scenes move at a good clip and are extremely well put together. Indeed, one of my few complaints is that the film seems to be more action than anything else, but that’s barely a complaint as is.

Most of the actors are really on point. Matt Damon’s been doing the action hero thing for a while, and while it seemed odd at first, he’s really good at it at this stage. Jody Foster is a good behind-the-scenes antagonist, but the bizarre standout is Copley as Agent Kruger (who some of you might remember as the lead from District 9). He’s playing the part all the way to the hilt, with some bizarre ticks and interesting additions to keep his character from being a cliché. He’s turning out to be a really solid actor, so I’m really looking forward to seeing more from him.

If I had to have a complaint, besides the aforementioned heavy focus on action, it’s that I feel like the movie should slow down a bit. Not in pacing, it’s paced fine, but with all of it’s ideas. It keeps throwing us new cool stuff for the action, and I occasionally feel like it should slow down and let us appreciate them. But when your main complaint about a movie is that there should be more of it…well let’s just say, that’s a pretty goddamn big recommendation.

Elysium is a massive injection of kickass action and smart storytelling into Summer 2013, both things that have been notably missing all summer. It’s not the equal of the legitimate masterpiece that was District 9 but it’s an awesome action movie on it’s own merits. August might be the month that finally rescues this summer, but even if it’s not Elysium is an extremely good summer blockbuster and well worth your time and money.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he find South African accents extremely distracting outside a South African setting.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Review: Fruitvale Station

Sometimes a movie about a real event is made more relevant by a similar event happening or coming into the news again, which affects the way the movie is shown or received. So I honestly can’t say if Fruitvale Station would have quite the amount of buzz it does if the Trayvon Martin shooting hadn’t rocketed it back into the public consciousness. What I can say is that it would still be a very good, even great movie on it’s own merits.

For those of who don’t know, the plot is concerned with the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant by the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police. Opening with cell phone footage of the attack (a scene which is probably going to be my winner for ‘hardest sequence to watch’ of the year) the film delves rather decidedly into the day preceding the shooting from the POV of Oscar himself, showing him going about his day to day life before going to San Fransisco for New Years Eve and…well…

An aspect of the movie I rather like is the intense focus on Oscar, as well as how nuanced the movie tries to make him. The temptation in movies like this is to sanctify the victim, and while the movie does spend a lot of time trying to make him more relatable, it also doesn’t shy away from acknowledging or depicting the more negative aspects of his past, including his drug dealing and jail time. A lot of credit for this selling this depiction has to go to Michael B Jordon (who those of you with good taste might remember from Chronicle), as he owns the part.

The rest of the cast is working hard too, most notably (from where I’m sitting) Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s long suffering mother. Her character is slightly different from a usual character in this role and she does a great job making her work. Melonie Diaz is a little less reliable, as her character undergoes pretty major shifts from scene to scene and she occasionally has trouble navigating them. But she’s not bad, and she’s actually pretty good in certain scenes.

This is all built around a solid script, that mostly manages to keep it’s expanding cast of characters from dropping into stereotypes. I don’t know how accurate the events leading up to the shooting are depicted, but it certainly feels real enough to be going on with, which is what’s important. The direction is quite good, if not precisely visionary, and even manages to be unique in a couple places, like it’s fondness for extremely long single takes.

Okay, okay, it’s not perfect. The directorial flare is a nice touch, but a couple of long takes don’t seem to have a lot of purpose other than looking nice. The visual symbolism of using a train as ominous foreshadowing gets a tad old. I think the ending goes on for a hair too long (not the actual ending point, that’s brilliant, but some of the bits they do after the shooting take a bit too long).

Over the past couple years, there’s been a slight shift to slipping more substantial into summer releases, amongst the bigger budget movies. With most (not all, but most) of the big movies this year failing to meet any kind of expectation, it might be time to put some faith in those smaller movies again, and Fruitvale Station is one of the better ones to hit theaters in a while. It can be quite depressing, but sometimes I like to be sad. Highly recommended.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he finds it very disconcerting whenever people refer to ‘The city’ and don’t mean New York.