Saturday, February 27, 2016

"Zootopia" Review

With its 55th animated feature, Walt Disney Animation Studios serves up yet another home run in the form of Zootopia - a lush, colorful feature that may be too dense for kids. Older teens and adults should eat up the film's deep conspiracy plot and its mature, but never dirty, sense of humor. Keen-eyed fans of The GodfatherBreaking Bad, and past Disney animated hits will find plenty to chuckle about.

The story starts with Judy Hopps (Once Upon A Time's Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny from a small country town with dreams of being a police officer in the big city of Zootopia. After being told to temper her expectations for the real world, Judy leaves the haters behind and heads to the police academy. Her first day on the job in Zootopia leads her to an encounter with a sly fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). After a rough first day, the city-slick Nick and greenhorn Judy become unlikely partners when Judy takes on a missing persons case in a last-ditch effort to save her career. As they chase down leads all over town, a more sinister plot comes to light.

If anything bad can be said about the film, it's that things fall into place too conveniently on more than one occasion for our heroes. I won't list examples in fear of giving too much away, but leads and hunches are often resolved with little effort from the story or the characters. This diminishes the stakes a bit and undermines some of the most interesting aspects of (especially) Judy's character. It's odd that the bunny who doesn't have a clue suddenly seems to have an answer for everything. When she doesn't, her conveniently paired fox friend does.

It's easy to see past these flaws, however, because of how incredible everything else is. The animation is gorgeous; every animal, building, article of clothing and drop of water is realized with vivid detail. And believe it or not, everything looks even better in 3-D.

The voice acting is also quite strong. Bateman shines as Nick, a perfect match for the actor's smart comedic sensibilities. Goodwin is perpetually engaging as Judy. The two lead an impeccable supporting cast including Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Tommy Chong and Shakira among others.

Lastly, Disney delivers another ballsy message in the form of a colorful kid's movie. The central conflict of Zootopia stems from deep-seeded prejudice. Predators and prey co-habitate in Zootopia despite their biology, and this creates a fascinating, sometimes complicated, dynamic for both the characters and the world they exist in. It's a message that rings all too truly for the real world today, but the deeper issues at hand for us humans have existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Until hate and prejudice are erased from the face of the earth, films like Zootopia will continue to timelessly inform as well as entertain.


Thursday, February 25, 2016

"Gods of Egypt" Review

Gods of Egypt is an action/fantasy film from director Alex Proyas (The Crow, I, Robot) and stars far too many miscast actors - including Gerard Butler, Brenton Thwaites, Geoffrey Rush, and "Game of Thrones'" Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Even Chadwick Boseman - one of the film's two ethnically appropriate actors - is forced to try on a British accent to woefully awkward avail. Elodie Yung is the only hope for accurate representation as Hathor, the goddess of love. She's great, and the rest of the cast are as good as they can be even if it is difficult to take anything, or anyone, from this bonkers production seriously.

Regardless of the talent involved, this kind of casting really isn't okay. Perhaps Gerard Butler is an easier sell as the lead of a blockbuster action film than, say, a guy like Naveen Andrews (Sayid from ABC's "Lost"), but that's the problem. Would the general public reject the film if Naveen were in the lead role? Somehow I doubt it, as long as the film's decent. Gods of Egypt offers a small handful of mindless pleasures, but let's just say the whitewashing is only the beginning of this film's problems.

The story kicks off when the angry god Set (Butler) usurps Horus (Coster-Waldau) on the day of his coronation, blinds him, and banishes him to exile. Set takes up the throne and rules by fear, pain and darkness. A mortal thief, Bek (Thwaites), seeks Horus's aide in a bid to save the woman he loves (Courtney Eaton) from death under Set's watch. This alliance between god and man begets an action-packed journey in which the heroes encounter several other gods of Egyptian legend, including Ra (Rush), Thoth (Boseman), Hathor (Yung) and Anubis (Goran D. Kleut) among others.

It looks and sounds a lot like a corny Clash of the Titans setup, but it actually ends up being a decent plot for a popcorn flick with little expectations.

It's important to realize that this tale is rooted entirely in fantasy and that none of it is meant to be taken as a serious interpretation of Egyptian history or folklore - however you like it. Some audience members at my screening found it easier to see past the whitewashing by acknowledging this.

On that note, the fantastical adventure of a film like Gods of Egypt demands spectacular set pieces and rich visuals. Some of the fight scenes are pretty intense, but the CGI landscapes and settings in which the action takes place look atrocious. For a film with a budget north of $140 million, you'd think they could afford cleaner green-screen rendering. Some sequences look so bad that they may actually be incomplete, including a scene where Bek and Zaya (Eaton) escape Set's palace by chariot and also in a later scene where Bek and Horus face two giant cobras in the deserted garden.

Gods of Egypt tries desperately to be a worthwhile diversion but lacks the heart to be considered "good" mindless entertainment. The message is a bit too iffy in the end. Combined with all the film's other glaring issues, as such it's certainly possible to find better "mindless entertainment."


Saturday, February 20, 2016

"Risen" Review

Risen stars Joseph Fiennes and Cliff Curtis in a story about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What sets this film apart from being yet another bland retelling of the Easter story is the fact that it takes place entirely from the perspective of a non-believer.

Parts of the modestly-budgeted production design look and feel like an after-school special, but Risen is worth recommending for its unique approach to the story and for assured performances, especially from Fiennes as Clavius, the Roman tribune whom Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) tasks with securing the tomb. The events that ensue prompt a manhunt in the hope of preventing a revolution in Jerusalem.

The film actually has palpable stakes and a decent amount of action for viewers hoping for the excitement of traditional "sword-and-sandal" epics. There's some edge-of-your-seat material here, but those hoping for non-stop intensity may be disappointed. That said, the story really isn't about the manhunt. It's about the spiritual conflict of a doubter as he reconciles events beyond his comprehension.

If for nothing else, the film earns major points for actually casting a POC as Jesus and for using his given Hebrew name 'Yeshua.' Never once is he called "Jesus." Curtis gives a terrific performance in the role. If not for Jim Caviezel's heart-wrenching turn in The Passion of the Christ, Curtis's version of Christ would be my favorite of any portrayals I've seen on film. It's easy to buy Curtis as an understated leader and a "fisher of men," as the apostles come to realize. Quite refreshing after the whitewashing of Son of God and just about every other faith-based film out there.

Most faith-based films are easy to write off for their blatant desire to hammer you over the head with Christian values and to showcase how "it's hard out here for a Christian." Not to mention the acting is usually terrible, and the logic questionable (see just about anything with Kirk Cameron sans "Growing Pains"). But Risen puts viewers in the shoes of a doubter, presents the story nearly word-for-word from the Gospel, and then is respectful enough of the audience to let them decide what to believe. Sure, it skews in one direction, but I walked out feeling moved rather than talked at. Perhaps that's the key to a successful Christian film.

As an aside, Harry Potter fans will find a small Easter egg with Tom Felton ('Draco Malfoy') as Clavius' aide, Lucius. I can only imagine the Lucius Malfoy jokes on set during filming.


Friday, February 19, 2016

"The Witch" Review

The first and only two words that come to mind as I sit and gather my thoughts on Robert Eggers' Sundance darling The Witch rhyme with "moley" and "truck."

The hype is real with this one, folks. To the horror fans bemoaning the glut of mainstream, jump-scare-ridden fare, especially from the United States, your search for a new classic is over.

The Witch is billed as "a New England folktale" that borrows its story and language from myriad accounts of demonic possession, native folklore, and personal diaries from around the time that the first settlers came to America in the early 17th century. I'm concerned that the production design and old English language used in the film are so period-accurate that it may throw too many mainstream audiences for a loop. This is not your typical horror film, and that may disappoint less discerning viewers. The Witch is a slow-burning tragedy about a Puritan family that tears itself apart on a spiritual level. There are no jump scares and very little gore to be had. However, Eggers' story, lighting design, and Mark Korvan's evocative score combine to create a pea soup-like sense of dread from start to finish.

Things get off to an unnerving start when the main family is banished from their settlement and move to a secluded farm at the edge of a forest. Mysterious events cause everyone in the family to undergo individual crises of faith as their limits are tested by evil in its purest form.

Eggers' cast is full of relatively unknown faces which makes it easier to buy into their fear. These are meant to be real, average people, and the audience accepts them as such on the strength of the central performances. Newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy plays the oldest daughter, Thomasin, whose perspective the story adheres to most. Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie play the parents. Ineson's patriarch, William, is a man who would have everyone believe that he is a stalwart in faith. But what's most interesting about his performance is the way Ineson nails the fine line between his Godly duty to faith and family and succumbing to the evil before him. Dickie plays the emotionally-unstable mother Katherine struggling to keep her children (and her sanity) in check.

Like most slow-burning horror films, stuff seriously hits the fan in the last 15 minutes. The Witch is no different. See the movie for yourself, but when it comes out that the distributor, A24, showed the film to a group of real-life satanists and got a ringing endorsement from the actual Satanic Temple, that should generally be taken as a good sign for a horror film.


Monday, February 15, 2016

"Deadpool" Review

After years in development hell at Fox, the "Merc with a Mouth" finally has his own live-action movie! And they finally did right by the character. You may recall that Ryan Reynolds first played Wade Wilson in 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but whatever abhorrent movie monster they turned him into for the final act was most assuredly NOT Deadpool.

Eww, no.

As a result of the public's violent outcry for an honest portrayal of Deadpool, Reynolds, along with writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, championed the character and the idea of an R-rated, stand-alone Deadpool film. After some "leaked" test footage went viral, Fox couldn't put the movie off any longer. They finally took a risk on what is essentially an R-rated X-Men movie. The character of Deadpool has always been synonymous with crude, scatalogical humor, crass language, fourth-wall breaking and graphic violence. Thank our lucky comic-book stars that none of that is lost in 2016's Deadpool.

Probably the film's most contrived aspect is that it is, at its core, another basic superhero origin story. The big difference is that Deadpool is well aware of its own trappings. First-time director Tim Miller and his writers use these basic pieces to present a character and his world so in-tune with the source material that this becomes a superhero movie that actually feels refreshing. 

Eww, yes.

Explaining the plot in-depth will give too much away because of the way Deadpool himself toys with the structure of the film. For example, he stops in the middle of the opening action scene and narrates to us how we got to the current situation, which happens to be a thug impaled on his dual katanas "like a fucking kebab." Deadpool's words, not mine. Through this detour, the character's backstory and stakes are established. We learn that the opening action scene is one important moment in a larger revenge narrative.  

As crass as Deadpool is as both a character and film, its lightheartedness is infectious. It's impossible to hate the way this story is treated when the character is played with so much enthusiasm and loyalty to its roots. Kudos to Reynolds for working tirelessly to do this character right and for finally pulling off a superhero role. It's been tossed around that this is the part Reynolds was "born to play." Deadpool fits his comic sensibilities and his physicality so perfectly that it's hard to argue otherwise.

As a film, Deadpool will never win any awards and may never be considered a "masterpiece" by anyone's standards. However, this is a film that knows exactly what it has to be and pulls it off without any glaring flaws. Believe it or not, Deadpool, Fox's R-rated super-gamble, is the first must-see movie of 2016.


Thoughts on the First Official Trailer for "Hardcore Henry"

By: Levi Hill
The first trailer for Hardcore Henry was recently released, and it is definitely worth taking a look at - unless you’re easily susceptible to motion sickness. The trailer sells the film as “a motion picture event unlike any other,” and it’s pretty obvious that the movie is taking some pretty enormous risks that could either pay off big time or fail spectacularly.
Hardcore Henry is a first-person action movie, meaning you see everything through the protagonist’s eyes. It is obvious that the film takes a great deal of inspiration from countless "first-person shooter" video games. The protagonist, Henry, is half-man, half-machine. Following the tradition of most first-person shooters, Henry is also mute. As the trailer conveniently states, his “speech module” hasn’t been installed yet.
Hardcore Henry looks interesting purely because of the enormous risk it's taking by being a live-action, entirely first-person narrative. Featuring the talents of Tim Roth, Sharlto Copley and Haley Bennett, the movie doesn’t lack talent in front of the camera’s ”eyes.” However, the film’s plot seems incredibly bland. A menacing group wants the technology that has been installed into Henry; so in order to get to him, they kidnap his wife.
Given the innovative way the film is presented, the plot could be more interesting. If the action holds up, however, a bland plot may not be a glaring issue to most viewers. Thankfully the action in the trailer looks easy to follow, which is surprising considering that the camera will probably be incredibly shaky during most of the action scenes.
Whether or not Hardcore Henry will make viewers sick, à la Cloverfield, or will live up to the creative premise is yet to be seen, but this trailer at least caught my attention.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

"Hail, Caesar!" Review

At one point in the Coen Brothers' new film, studio production chief Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) gathers a boardroom full of clergymen and heralds the fictional Hail, Caesar! as "a prestige picture featuring one of the biggest stars in the world." The Coen's Hail, Caesar!, despite also featuring one of the biggest stars in the world - George Clooney, falls far short of being a "prestige picture" in its own right. The film really amounts to nothing more than incomplete character arcs and a series of only marginally funny excuses to feature stars like Scarlett Johansson, Jonah Hill, and Frances McDormand.

The story follows Mannix as he juggles production duties on several films shooting on his Capitol Pictures backlot. When the star of his biggest blockbuster is kidnapped, Mannix tries to contain the situation by quietly enlisting the help of some of the studio's other contracted actors to find out what happened.

The marketing made this out to be a classic Coen caper more in line with The Big Lebowski than middle-of-the-road fare like Burn After Reading. Though Hail, Caesar! features many classic hallmarks of the Coens' work, including strong neo-noir elements and undertones of political paranoia, the simple narrative becomes lost in the tangled web it tries to weave. As a result, the whole endeavor ends up feeling loosely plotted and unfocused. An unnecessary subplot with Mannix fielding a job offer from Boeing is meant to add another dimension to the story (the threat of obsolescence) but instead leads the film to meander in more places than it needs to.

All the same, Hail, Caesar! taught me a valuable lesson that I should've learned by now - when it comes to the Coen Brothers, throw all expectations and pretensions out the window. I would like to see the film at least one more time to pick up any nuances I may have missed.

 For all its narrative flaws, Hail, Caesar! features lush production design that almost perfectly captures the spirit of "Old Hollywood." Film buffs will also love the allusions to the works and personas of industry legends such as William Wyler, Cecil B. DeMille, Gene Kelly, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Esther Williams.


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

"Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" Review

From Seth Grahame-Smith, the author of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, comes the next bloody bastardization of history - Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

The film is an adaptation of Jane Austen's famous novel about romance and decorum between upper and lower classes during the time of the British Regency. The big wrinkle is that the country is overrun by the undead. In addition to being trained in the ways becoming of wifely young ladies, Elizabeth Bennett (Lily James) and her sisters are highly skilled in hand-to-hand combat. Their suitors - Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), and Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston) - are all military brats equally skilled at zombie-killin'.

Despite their incessant, well, "pride" and "prejudice" towards one another, I'd still want all these folks on my side during the apocalypse.

The only "lovable loser" who may not be of much service besides cracking wise is Parson Collins, played by Doctor Who's Matt Smith. Each character is relatively consistent with the manner in which Austen originally wrote them, although Smith's version of Collins is made out to be the jovial scene-stealer. Smith seems to have a bit of fun with the idea of a clergyman searching for a wife and plays the role with a bit of sexual ambiguity that the preview crowd found endearing.

Despite relatively strong characters, the story doesn't always support them. It often dabbles too far into either Austen territory or Romero territory, thus ultimately feeling imbalanced. The Austen stuff feels almost too much like a Lifetime Original Movie adaptation, but the zombie action is exciting and often just violent enough to be satisfying. Hardcore gore-hounds will probably be displeased, but again, there's a surprising amount of blood and entrails for a PG-13 film.

Unless you were a fan of Grahame-Smith's book, I wouldn't rush out to see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in theaters. Worthwhile only as a Redbox rental for this year's Halloween sleepover.


Monday, February 1, 2016

"Anomalisa" Review

Few storytellers tap into the complexities of human emotions with more honesty than Charlie Kaufman. With Anomalisa, he returns to the screen for the first time since 2008's Synecdoche, New York, now pulling double duty as writer/co-director with Duke Johnson.

From the poster above, it's easy to tell that Kaufman's new film is well-marketed with superlatives that make it sound like a life-changing masterwork of modern cinema. An Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature all but seals its status as the can't-miss puppet show of the season. While Anomalisa offers much more dramatic nuance and understated comedy than your typical Punch & Judy sketch, the film's stop-motion pleasures only take it so far.

By the time the credits rolled, I felt unmoved albeit mildly entertained.

The story follows Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a customer service guru who has just traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio to speak at a conference. Despite having a successful, bestselling book and a loving family back in Los Angeles, Michael struggles with the mundanity of his existence. To him, everyone looks and sounds alike (all ancillary characters, male and female, are voiced by the same man - Tom Noonan). Everyone, that is, except Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a seemingly insignificant woman who turns out to be the one person able to give Michael a fresh perspective. She's an anomaly in his mundane life; "anoma-Lisa," as he agrees to call her.

Questions are left frustratingly unanswered in the end, and it appears as if the events of the film don't really change Michael as much as we're lead to believe the whole time. Maybe that's the message, that temporary solutions are rarely the real answer. Or perhaps the final lesson really is that "there is no lesson" - something that Michael himself alludes during the film. Either way, that's kind of a ballsy message to try and get across in a film, but either way it didn't quite work for me. It's really a far more depressing piece of work than I expected.

Cincinnati natives especially should chuckle at the way Kaufman pokes fun of the city, especially the chili and the zoo. Being from that area myself, the jokes about both are pretty spot-on. That's really where Anomalisa shines. Its humor comes from the relatable nuances of Michael's day. It takes him five tries to get the card key to work to his hotel room, regardless of what rush, or lack thereof, he's in. He takes a ride in a cab where the driver won't shut up about things to do and see in the city.

Kaufman has always had a talent for creating vivid, almost fantastical, worlds that either mirror our own or exist within them. Anomalisa's sense of humor serves the world-building quite well, as we've all come to expect from Kaufman.

The voice acting is also strong, as is the technical, stop-motion wizardry from Johnson. I think this story is actually quite effective with puppets - especially the aspects regarding the Fregoli syndrome and certain moments when Michael begins to question his own identity. That said, it's still a story we've seen many times before, even occasionally from Kaufman himself (see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the movie Her from frequent Kaufman collaborator Spike Jonze).

While Kaufman and Johnson deserve some props for creating such a vivid world filled with nuance and sleight humor, there's nothing from narrative or emotional standpoints that makes me want to rush out and recommend Anomalisa to everyone. Even though this film is meant to be smart animation for adults, my money is on Pixar's Inside Out for the Oscar. It navigates the complexities of human emotions more accessibly and therefore more effectively.