Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Don't Breathe" Review

From the creative team behind 2013's remake of Evil Dead comes the most brutal, most intense, and most original American horror film in at least a decade. In fact, writer/director Fede Alvarez's Don't Breathe will leave you just that - breathless.

The premise of Don't Breathe is something of a reverse-home invasion thriller. We open on three young burglars - Money (Daniel Zovatto), Rocky (Jane Levy) and Alex (Dylan Minnette) - casing the empty house of a wealthy family on holiday. Hungry for a bigger score, the group sets their sights on a seemingly easy target - a blind man (Stephen Lang) living in the last occupied house in a decrepit neighborhood. Word is that the blind man is sitting on a $300,000 legal settlement which is stored in cash somewhere inside the house. However, the thieves underestimate the measure of a man with everything to lose.

The film has so many refreshingly unexpected twists, and they all generally work. Just when you think you know what's coming, something else comes totally out of left field. Oftentimes when writers try to insert this many plot or character twists, they jumble things up too much and ultimately fall flat. It's a feat in and of itself that Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues pull the rug out from under us this many times, and the film never loses steam. This is a lean, mean picture with little to no extraneous detail to distract from the story at hand.

Acting performances are strong with Levy and Lang shining brightest. Levy is well on her way to becoming one of the next great "scream queens." Although his character arc ultimately hinges on a few far-fetched circumstances, Lang hands in a positively chilling tun as the Blind Man.

The cinematography is also very well done. There's a scene where Alex and Rocky find themselves trapped in total darkness; the Blind Man thus forcing them to "see what he sees." The visuals this scene is executed with are something akin to night vision, but the shot isn't glowing green. The gradient turns, essentially, black & white, which makes the facial expressions of the terrified actors somewhat horrifying themselves.

As cool as the acting and cinematography are, those aren't my favorite things about this movie. As a horror movie fan, it's easy to feel jaded. Once you've experienced the graphic atrocities of Cannibal Holocaust and the disturbing, supernatural dreamscapes of The Shining, it's all sort of downhill from there in a way. There are things that happen in Don't Breathe that made me believe in American horror movies again. Brutal, nasty, unsettling things the likes of which haven't been seen in a mainstream release in years. Words cannot express how delighted I am that this movie is getting a general release in theaters nationwide. Outside of the indie scene, horror has been dominated by sequels and reboots. The genre needs a movie like Don't Breathe now more than ever to haunt the hearts and minds of genre fans everywhere. I think we're going to be discussing, watching and remembering this one for a long, long time. 


Friday, August 19, 2016

"Kubo and the Two Strings" Review

Kubo and the Two Strings is the latest stop-motion/CGI hybrid from Laika, the company behind Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls. Colorful characters, rich mythology, stunning visuals and a tight narrative easily make Kubo the best animated film of this year.

Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a master storyteller. Armed with a magic guitar, this young boy regularly captivates the hearts and minds of the local village with his stories of Hanzo, a brave samurai warrior and Kubo's late father. One night, Kubo's mother sends him off on a quest to find Hanzo's suit of armor which will protect him from vengeful spirits from the family's past. Assisting Kubo on this quest are two daring protectors, Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and Beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey).

There was a point about halfway through this movie where I feared the narrative might slip into tired "video game" territory. Even though the action is largely stellar, some of the fight scenes play out like our heroes facing different stages in boss battles. However it bounces back through a couple of welcome twists which you'll need to see to appreciate.

Aside from that, everything about this movie could not have been any better. The animation is simply incredible. After just four features, Laika is on-par with the very best of Pixar. Textures are rich and deep which provide a believable sense of place for this mythical story. The characters are all well-developed and show welcome degrees of agency. The three leads are wonderful, but look out for "The Sisters," both voiced by Rooney Mara. They steal the show each time they're on screen.

There's little else to say aside from the words "Go see this movie!" Kubo has something for everyone, and it deserves your support since it's largely outside of the mainstream machine, i.e. Pixar, DreamWorks, the Despicable Me folks, etc.


"War Dogs" Review

War Dogs is the latest feature from Todd Phillips, the director of The Hangover. It's based on the true story of David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), two twentysomethings who scored a $300 million government contract to arm America's allies in the Middle East.

The movie is told from Packouz's perspective; we find him as a masseur for wealthy clients in Miami but having a hard time making end's meet. When his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) informs him that she's expecting, David takes advantage of an opportunity to work with Efraim, his best friend from middle school. Efraim is a gun runner, and together, the two young men build a company that has them running weapons through some of the world's most dangerous places. David and Efraim meet lots of colorful characters on their way to the top, and the story is the better for it.

The trailers for this film didn't look that great. It looked like another stupid "frat boy" comedy, the kind of which Phillips has largely staked his career in. War Dogs has some of those elements, but it turns out to be a much more engaging dramatic piece. Its execution owes almost everything to Martin Scorsese; Teller's voiceover is reminiscent of Ray Liotta's in Goodfellas. The "rise and fall" narrative for Packouz and Diveroli also follows similar beats to Henry Hill's story.

Performances are great. Teller proves time and again that he's one of the best young actors working today. He cements his spot on a list of actors this reviewer would watch in just about anything - Kevin Spacey, Tom Hardy, Tom Hiddleston, Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey, Jr. to name a few. Hill exudes charisma while handing in an award-worthy turn.

For me, the film doesn't have many glaring issues. My biggest gripe is that the narrative slows down about 3/4 of the way through while David is in Albania. However it picks up again as it comes to its climax. Some may also find the nods to Scorsese as cheap imitation rather than an exhibition of its own director's voice. It didn't come off that way for me; I appreciate how cinema history informs present works. I'm just warning you if you're the type of viewer put off by "original" films which seem beholden to something else.

War Dogs is recommended to anyone who appreciates the works of Scorsese and/or Phillips' oeuvre of male mayhem.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

"Sausage Party" Review

Okay, listen. I'm going to try and tell you just enough about this movie Sausage Party for you to decide whether or not you should see it. Honestly, I may not even have to say much at all. This not-so-subtle phallic poster should pretty much spell out precisely what you're in for. Look at the names in the cast there. Would you expect anything less from pretty much all of those people? I'm going to attempt to review this thing for you as best I can without giving anything away, so here goes...

Sausage Party is an animated film featuring the voice talents of Seth Rogen, Michael Cera, and Kristen Wiig among several others. It's about food and what happens when we purchase food from the grocery store to prepare at home. Oh, did I also mention that this lively cartoon about food pushes the boundaries of an R-rating further than Deadpool? Seriously, I cannot express this in any more dire a fashion - DO NOT bring your children to see this film!!! They will never eat again.

In terms of a story, picture Toy Story 2 and 3 with 500 F-bombs and sex jokes. Honestly though, beneath that veneer of crassness, Sausage Party is an iteration of Homer's "Odyssey" unlike any to come before it.

Frank (Rogen) is a hot dog, and Brenda (Wiig) is a hot dog bun. They are boyfriend and girlfriend and cannot wait for the day that they are removed from their packages and Frank can finally slide all up into Brenda. Yeah. That's this movie. The food at Shopwell's supermarket imagines that, when they are removed from the shelves by shoppers/"the gods," they are being chosen for an eternal life of bliss in the "Great Beyond." When a jar of Honey Mustard (Danny McBride) is purchased and later returned to the shelf, he claims that the "Great Beyond" is actually a living hell full of death and destruction. After the store closes for the night, Frank, Brenda, Lavash (David Krumholtz), Teresa the Taco (Salma Hayek) and Sammy Bagel, Jr. (Edward Norton, doing a decent Woody Allen impression) embark on a quest to discover the truth about their "gods" and what really happens when food leaves the store.

A whole lot of other wild shit happens, and along the way, our heroes meet lots of interesting characters. At it's core, this film tells an odyssey story, but it also explores the folly of both man and religion. I'm not kidding. Sausage Party actually has very worthwhile subtext, all told with food. It pushes boundaries throughout its trim 90-minute run time before finally, irrevocably, overstepping the line with possibly the most gonzo finale to a movie you're likely to ever see. Literally nothing you've seen before can prepare you. You'll have to either take my word for it or see it for yourself. It's just that bonkers.

(I'm not sure what kind of a final grade this movie warrants. It has so many compelling pieces which come together in unique ways, but it's a Seth Rogen comedy about talking food. Let it be known, however, that I will be encouraging grown adults to see this movie. That's endorsement enough.)

"Pete's Dragon" (2016) Review

Continuing their series of big-budget reboots of back-catalog classics, Disney now brings us an update of the 1977 classic Pete's Dragon. Directed by David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints), the new film dares its audience to dream big. Although the classic music has been axed, the story is still as heartwarming as you remember, with dazzling visual effects to boot.

A young boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) becomes stranded in the forest following a violent car accident. With no way of reaching home, Pete's only option is to try to make his way in the forest. Fortunately, he bumps into a legendary creature who becomes his best friend - a dragon named Elliot. When Elliot's way of life is threatened by a local logging company, Pete sets out to save his friend with the help of a nurturing park ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard), her imaginative father (Robert Redford), and a young girl named Natalie (Oona Laurence).

Pete's Dragon is the kind of film that celebrates and rewards imagination. They set up Redford's character as a man who claims to have seen the dragon when he was young, having told stories to his daughter and the rest of the kids in town for years. The payoff is so sweet when Elliot reveals himself to them for the first time as it feels like the climax of these characters' entire lives. It's a confirmation that they haven't been crazy for the past 40 years. It's easy to think that Redford is playing a now grown-up version of the original Pete from the earlier movie. That would've been an interesting subplot to explore in this new movie, but alas, hindsight is 20/20. It's still a wonderful film, and Redford is a welcome addition to the cast.

Bryce Dallas Howard hands in another fine performance as Grace, the ranger who takes Pete in. Wes Bentley fares fine in a supporting role as Jack, Grace's fiance and owner of the logging company. He just doesn't have much to do that allows him to show the chops he's honed in excellent recent stints on TV's American Horror Story. The child actors, Fegley and Laurence, are tremendous, hitting all of their needed emotional beats like seasoned pros. Karl Urban steals nearly every scene he's in as Jack's hotheaded brother Gavin, who manages the logging company. Gavin is a skeptic, so it's hilarious when he finally encounters Elliot in the forest. He winds up playing the villain role but isn't necessarily evil, which is kind of interesting. The biggest villain in this story is, I think, deforestation itself, and Gavin is just a representation of that.

The film leaves us with a sweet "save the trees, save your imagination" message that's so classic Disney that it's almost painful. Everything is tied up in a nice little bow, which is fine. It's nice to have a big, but self-contained, movie that doesn't feel like it's a stepping stone to a wider franchise. At the end of a summer filled with so-so blockbusters, Pete's Dragon is the savior you've been waiting for.


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

"Suicide Squad" Review

After two polarizing first films (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), Warner Brothers and the DC Comics Extended Universe could really use a hit. They need a picture that gels both with critics and audiences to prove that they can do everything that Marvel and the Avengers movies can. As such, we've all been anxiously awaiting writer/director David Ayer's Suicide Squad with bated breath. We've seen wacky trailers, incredible posters, and promising promotional images for at least two years now. Surely these "bad guys" would be the ones to right the DCEU ship and deliver a satisfying, offbeat thrill-ride.

This week I sat down in my IMAX seat, 3D glasses on, waiting to fall in love with the Suicide Squad, but they might as well have stood me up. Considering the amount of hype that went into this thing, David Ayer's Suicide Squad is the biggest cinematic letdown in recent memory.

Believe it and accept it, folks. Rotten Tomatoes isn't out to get anybody, and this reviewer sure as shit isn't being paid to say so. The movie just really isn't anything special.

The first act is comprised of the same plot point reiterated at least 3-4 times. Intelligence officer Amanda Waller (a steely Viola Davis) meets with a handful of her superiors no less than twice to discuss her wishes of putting a strike team of supervillains together. With Superman out of the picture for now, the idea is that this "suicide squad" is to act as a contingency against "metahumans" who don't abide by America's best interests. Then we get scenes introducing each individual character as Waller runs down the roster. Each scene has a sort of funky appeal to it, whether by the characters themselves or some slick filmmaking on Ayer's part. For example, there's a great flashback scene between Deadshot (Will Smith) and Batman (Ben Affleck) which also introduces Deadshot's relationship with his daughter. Later, the Enchantress (Cara Delevigne) is introduced by way of some solid horror elements reminiscent of both Indiana Jones and Neil Marshall's The Descent.

The second act sees the team of misfits out on a mission in Central City, home of The Flash. One might expect him to turn up if there were evil afoot in his hometown. In fact, that would've been an interesting dynamic to explore - the Squad and Flash showing up to fight the same baddie and then, perhaps reluctantly, joining forces. Sadly that never happens. First, the Suicide Squad is tasked with rescuing a target from the top floor of a high-rise building. Next, they're sent to stop the Enchantress from building a machine which will wipe out most of the world.


When the Squad finally gets together, the whole movie ends up following a hokey plot we've seen a million times before in comic book movies and video games - kill a horde of monster henchmen to get to the final boss who's hellbent on global domination/destruction. Not to mention all of this stinks of the Joel Schumacher era. But where his Batman movies embraced and explored cartoonish camp, Suicide Squad still curiously remains grounded in reality. By trying to capture both the campy side and the gritty side of the material, the film loses its sense of identity, if it even had one to begin with. It tries so desperately to capture the manic outlaw spirit of Guardians of the Galaxy and the irreverent nihilism of Deadpool that the story feels like a shallow afterthought.

Speaking of shallow, the only characters worth their salt out of this entire cast are Deadshot, Amanda Waller, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and, for me, Diablo (Jay Hernandez). Diablo has an interesting backstory which informs his character and makes his arc possibly the most interesting of the film. As Harley, Robbie pulls off the seductive killer minx thing as well as anyone could've expected. The movie shines when she's on-screen, as long as it's not alongside the Joker (Jared Leto). Historically, I've enjoyed Leto's work both as an actor and musician, but I was disgusted by this interpretation of the Joker. As he sits in a secluded booth at the back of the strip club, decked out in gold chains and fur coat, with bodyguards on either side and Rick Ross bumping in the background, we have to wonder just when exactly the Joker became Suge Knight. Leto plays it like Tupac-meets-Tony Montana-meets-Jim Carrey. That's a curious combination which never once worked for me. We'll likely see him again, but I'm not looking forward to it.

The remaining members of this refreshingly diverse cast are all mostly squandered. Slipknot (Adam Beach) is around maybe for five minutes. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is your average military-man character. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) mostly just growls in the background save for a couple of barely-audible lines. But, hey, that makeup is impressive! Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) has a few kitschy lines and probably represents the high point in Courtney's career. Katana (Karen Fukuhara) is given precious little to do as the Squad's watch dog. Her backstory is glossed over almost completely, which is sad because she could've been great with more focus.

Really the film's biggest problem is an overabundance of characters and no clue how to handle them. Most of the backstories feel forced, and with so many subplots, it's difficult to tell where the movie's ultimate focus is. Still, all things considered, Suicide Squad is entertaining in spurts. A couple of action scenes here and there are cool, and many of the actors do strong work. The film also certainly represents a welcome shift in tone for the DCEU, but it should've come in a film with a stronger story and a deeper understanding of its characters. If you've been excited to see Suicide Squad, by all means, go buy a ticket. I don't think anyone should ever be dissuaded from seeing a movie they've been eager to support. Just temper your expectations and pray that the excellent Wonder Woman trailers don't go down in history as evidence of a similar fluke.


Monday, August 1, 2016

"Jason Bourne" Review

After a 9-year absence, director Paul Greengrass and superstar Matt Damon return for fourths on Jason Bourne. For a franchise that, at one point in time, reinvented spy thriller movies, it's so depressing to see the Bourne we supposedly know and love in a film that falls spectacularly short of the series' soaring heights. Dare I say Damon's long-awaited return to the role comes in a movie that's even worse than the Jeremy Renner-led The Bourne Legacy.

We catch up with our hero laying low in Europe, keeping in shape by fighting in underground boxing matches. We also find Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), Jason's former contact, working with a WikiLeaks-like hacker group. She tracks Bourne down in Greece and shares sensitive information with him about Treadstone, including a conspiracy involving his late father. Fueled once again by a need for answers, Jason traverses Athens, London, Berlin, and Las Vegas trying to find out what happened with his dad. Meanwhile, shady CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) looks to cover his tracks as Bourne's quest points to a collusive backdoor deal between the agency and Deep Dream, a popular social network.

This film's weakest point is its story. This is a completely original scenario devised by Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse. It is not adapted from any of the previously published Bourne stories written by Robert Ludlum. The pathos of this new film doesn't resonate as clearly as it did in the earlier trilogy. I think this is due to the fact that the plot itself feels both frustratingly convoluted and all too familiar. Bourne has been here before - a quest to uncover an unsolved mystery about the hero's past, shady government Black ops organizations, CIA directors with something to hide, informants who may or may not be on the hero's side. We've seen it already, and therefore the stakes are all but moot this time around.

Jason Bourne also lacks the breathless, non-stop action sequences that defined its predecessors. It has maybe 3 marquee scenes, and that's it. Save for a satisfyingly gonzo chase scene down the Las Vegas strip with an armored truck, the action is shot terribly. The chase sequences and fight scenes in the earlier trilogy were so tense and memorable because you could actually see what was going on, and frenetic hand-held cinematography made it feel as if the audience were part of the fight. Here, all the action is cut to ribbons to the point where it's nearly impossible to appreciate the stunt choreography. The climactic fight scene between Bourne and Vincent Cassel's hitman feels anti-climactic because of this. For a series which, in the past, has hinged on its game-changing stunt work, this is such a crushing disappointment. 

With seemingly less action scenes, there are several dry stretches punctuated by silly dialogue between Jones and Alicia Vikander who stars as CIA agent Heather Lee. These are two great actors, but they're given far too much pull in this film. It's supposed to be Damon's show, but you'd never know it. 

Although this isn't one of his finer efforts, Paul Greengrass still has an assured hand as a director, if not so much as a screenwriter. Jason Bourne simply lacks the intrigue and the execution that made its predecessors great. This is a series that would've been best left a trilogy.