Friday, August 28, 2015

No Escape: Scariest Movie Of The Year

There was a big of hesitancy going into No Escape for me.  Way back when I saw the first trailer I knew I wanted to see it.  The trailer itself was more tense and suspenseful then the entirety of Poltergeist and Insidious III combined.  Then, for some reason, I never saw the trailer again.  Instead it was replaced with a weaker trailer, half the length, and all tension removed.  So, I did a little digging.  I found out that the film was being helmed by the Dowdle brothers.  That may mean nothing to you, but their filmography will.  They've directed four films and don't exactly have the greatest track record.  Their previous films are: Devil, Quarantine, and the absolutely reprehensible As Above, So Below. These aren't exactly game-changers and have essentially sullied the Dowdle brother names for me.  So, needless to say, my hesitancy was warranted.  What's pleasantly surprising here is that not only have they made their first solid movie, they've made their scariest film of their careers and it isn't even a horror film.

We are briefly introduced to Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson), his wife Annie (Lake Bell), and their two young daughters, Lucy and Beeze.  Due to some financial troubles, Jack's company has sent him to an unmentioned Asian country (with some very short deduction one can discern it is Malaysia) for a new job at a water manufacturing plant.  After their first night in the country, the Malaysian Prime Minister is killed by armed rebels who then roam the streets brutally murdering all foreigners.  The family finds themselves caught in the middle of a violent rebellion where they are among the main targets of it.  With the help of a British tourist named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), they must figure out a way to get out of the country alive.  This is where the film grabs hold of you and won't let go.  There's a quick ten to fifteen minute introduction to the characters and situation, but once the rebellion begins the level of tenseness on screen and in your chest doesn't subside until the credits roll and you can finally catch your breath.

What the Dowdle brothers have been able to do is keep the film and the story moving forward without ever interrupting the suspense.  Because of their background in horror, they're familiar with filming tense and suspenseful scenes that will literally keep you clutching your chest in panic.  Though their previous horror films were failures (especially As Above, So Below... I can't express enough how much I hated that movie), they are still capable filmmakers that just needed the perfect vehicle to display their talents.  And though the film is  more of a B-movie, action/drama... it still plays out like a very well-paced and terrifying horror film.  There is danger looming around every corner and there isn't this idea in the back of your mind that you know they will be safe.  The writer/director siblings establish early on that no one is safe and there is no guarantee of a happy ending.  By the end, you may find that your hands hurt from how hard you're unknowingly clutching the arms of your theater seat.

Let me put this out there-- critics are judgmental pricks. Judgmental, obviously... it's their job... but sometimes they forget to sit back and just have a good time.  All films need characters the audience can care about and conflict.  The biggest critiques that poor movies can receive is that the characters were flat or uneven or stereotypical or not fully fleshed out or anything... OR that the plot was thin, or uneven, or didn't make sense or anything.  But, sometimes there doesn't need to be twenty minutes of backstory or character history.  Sometimes the situation combined with great acting can say more about character than anything in written exposition.  There has been a lot of hating on this film throughout the critic world, in fact the film currently holds a 40% on rottentomatoes... and most of this backlash is that the characters are one-dimensional and the film provides a real "uncomfortable retrograde worldview."  And while I disagree with the latter comment, the critique of the characters being one-dimensional, I semi-agree with, but not in a negative way.  These characters don't have to be fully fleshed out because they're there to represent the typical American family.  They represent you.  They could be anyone stuck in this situation with no way out and that's what illicit the most fear.  They aren't these crazily complex characters with rich histories... they're middle class Americans struggling financially, looking for a way to keep the family going, stuck in the middle of something that they have no prior experience with, but no safe haven in sight.  Any one of us could be caught in the middle of something like this.  Our past experiences aren't just going to come out through dialogue during the middle of a violent rebellion, it's going to come out in the way we handle ourselves and try and figure out an escape.

Owen Wilson is a very good and capable actor to be able to portray not only the metaphor of the 'everyman' family dad and American, but as Jack Dwyer.  It's nice to see Owen showing his acting chops again outside of Wes Anderson and the comedy genre.  Lake Bell was surprisingly good as well (and to see another well-written female character that doesn't just run and scream). And, obviously, Pierce Brosnan is perfect as usual.  His Bond films may have been dumb and goofy, but he is and has always been a very likable and watchable actor.

Though the film may have not much to say, culturally-speaking, it is still a very good movie.  It's the reason action movies and horror movies are made... to keep you entertained and terrified throughout.  It's the equivalent of being on a roller coaster at Six Flags for an hour and a half.  It's never not going to be thrilling and you're probably going to feel a little ill afterwards (in a good way).  Sadly, this is one of the few original scripts/movies released this year not based on a book, or a true story, or a graphic novel, or a sequel/prequel/reboot and because it's coming out at the end of August no one is going to see it.  No one is going to make their way out to see it, it will probably fail box office wise and further convince Hollywood that original films are dead.  However, I strongly encourage you to watch this film, not just to support creativity, but because it's a sickly good movie.


Friday, August 21, 2015

Straight Outta Compton: A Love Letter To West Coast Rap

I'm probably just a little bit too white to review this movie.  I'm that kind of white guy who gets nervous looking at signs that say 'Compton' much less ever having been within ten miles of it in my life.  I'm not a huge hip-hop connoisseur, I mean my God, I use words like 'connoisseur'.  However, I do have a large amount of respect for the music of N.W.A.  I have the album 'Straight Outta Compton' on vinyl as well as Dre's The Chronic. Both of those albums were a major part of my college existence as well as the soundtracks to most of our house parties. Yet, I never knew the story of the band.  And while it could've been your average, run of the mill music biopic (and it kinda is), with confident direction, amazing performances, and a perfect flow, Straight Outta Compton is a capable (semi-auto)biography with legs to stand on.

Yes, it's a film told about a group written by people of the group that leaves out, I'm assuming, a good chunk of personal negativity about certain members about the band... it doesn't seem to be entirely fluff.  Each member of the band have their strengths displayed almost as often as their weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  They aren't just shown as stereotypes but as human beings living in a culture where music is their only outlet of rebellion that isn't actual physical violence. This was during a time where most of white America wasn't ready to hear it (especially the police), but paved the way for hip hop to become a predominant staple in American music.  This is where the film shines brightly with it's very obvious love for the conception of west coast rap.  I mean, they even got Tupac in the movie.  I'm talking the actual Tupac finally showed us he isn't really dead and appears briefly in this film (it isn't really him probably, but dude looks just like him).

The actors, mostly unknowns, are perfect in their respective roles.  Especially the main three of the band-- Ice Cube, Dre, and Eazy-E.  While Cube and Dre's characters are likely told with a bit more fluff than what probably really happened, Eazy-E was shown through most of the movie to be a real piece of shit (though not as much of a piece of literal human trash as Suge Knight).  Then, of course, there's Paul Giamatti in the role of the band's manager which is apparently his new typecasted role in films now.  I mean, he's great at it, but this is the third time we've seen him as some sort of band weasel.  The story itself actually goes a lot further than I had anticipated from the trailers.  It begins before the group forms, to the rise in fame and glory, to the break up, to the solos, all the way leading up to (SPOILER ALERT) E's death.  There's a decade worth of storytelling crammed into two and a half un-wasted hours of provocative story.

Director F. Gary Gray (who, it turns out, also directed Cube in 1995's Friday) directs his film with a level of respect for the group, but doesn't allow them to sugarcoat a lot.  While there may be no mention of Dre's penchant for Ray Rice-ing women, he isn't this infallible character either.  None of them are.  In fact, they even seem to downplay just how educated and intelligent Ice Cube actually is.  And though I have to sincerely laugh at the fact that I saw a trailer for Cube's new film Ride Along 2 where he plays a cop, before the film about a group's strong opposition to militarized police force is the epitome of irony, there is a beautiful, albeit heartbreaking portrait accurately depicting street life.

The film is well-written, well-directed, well-acted, and one of the best biopics in recent memory.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Southpaw: Standard Boxing Fare Backed By The Solid Performance Of A (Now) Admittedly Great Actor

Alright, Gyllenhaal.  I finally believe you.  You can act.  You can act the shit out of pretty much anything you want.  For a while there in the late 2000s I thought you were really just tying to convince the world with overbearing certainty that you were a heterosexual.  Now, I still think there's a 50/50 chance at that... I'm no longer concerned with your performances reflecting your sexual preferences.  I'm more concerned with the amazing performances you've continually put out in the last few movies you've done.  You've shown that it doesn't matter the quality of the script.  Whether it's a 10/10 (Nightcrawler) or a mediocre one (Southpaw), you're able to commit and bring the movie up to a higher standard based solely on your acting choices.  I apologize for doubting you all of these years.  You were robbed in last year's Best Actor category.  Not only should you have been nominated, but you should have won.  The boy in the bubble you are no longer. While Southpaw may not be the most inventive and ground breaking boxing movie I've ever seen... what the actors bring to the film elevates it from okay film to pretty damn decent.

As far as sports movies go, boxing seems to be the most pervasive. While most of them are forgettable, there have been a few to transcend the genre and stand out as some of the best dramas of all time (Rocky, Raging Bull, Cinderella Man).  Southpaw doesn't even touch these aforementioned films, but what it does is give us a boxing movie that only seems like the standard boxing structure we're used to.  Most boxing movies take a scrub or former champ and train him up so that he can go against unstoppable odds and most of the time lose at the end only to show the heart they've learned to grow.  However, Southpaw is different.  Gyllenhaal is already the champ.  He's undefeated.  He's getting older and he's the best.  When his wife (Rachel McAdams) is killed and he slips into a suicidal depression and loses his daughter... it's not about winning to get daughter back.  It's about getting back the piece of himself that was taken when he lost his family.  He hires a trainer (Forest Whitaker), but not to teach him the ins and outs of the game, but to perfect the game that he's already a pro at.  He's undefeated, but his weakness is defense.  His whole persona is that he excels when he's against the ropes.  The harder he's hit, the harder he hits back.  Whitaker has to teach him to defend himself as well as attack.  But, that's it.  Gyllenhaal mostly needs to learn how to take care of himself now that the one person that took care of both of them is gone.

It's a very emotionally driven film.  And it's not that what's happening in the script is all that compelling, it's the performances that have brought the script to life.  The death scene of Rachel McAdams (don't worry, I'm not spoiling anything, this happens fifteen minutes into the film) is seriously the best performance from her I've ever seen.  It's real.  It's heartbreaking.  You're watching her confusion and life slip away and it's like it's your own wife.  It was tough to hold back tears, even for me.  Gyllenhaal takes the cake, however. His character is a one with a tough exterior (obviously) who almost never allows himself to be vulnerable.  He's a difficult character to like for a lot of the film, but yet you can always empathize with him.  You want him to succeed even if you don't really like him all that much for the first two-thirds of the film.  He experiences a series of unfortunate circumstances beyond his control and it's tough to watch someone's life get continuously beaten down. A lesser actor wouldn't have illicted the same emotion from the audience.  The script really isn't that great.  It's Gyllenhaal and Whitaker and McAdams that really allow it to exceed its talent.

Whether you're just a fan of boxing films and just want to see the fighting, don't worry there's plenty of it.  However, if you're not a boxing fan and care more about complex characters struggling with their inner demons and trying to rectify the dark situations of their lives... there's plenty of that too.  It actually works well, the two inter-mingling. I was expecting a mediocre film with handful of decent performances.  What I got was a mediocre film, cleverly disguised as a great film with actual great performances.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.


Monday, August 3, 2015

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation: The Franchise That Keeps Getting Better And Better With Age

As I have just finished bashing the reboot of Vacation for how inherently lazy and irrelevant it is as a film, I have to now go in the opposite direction when speaking of the latest installment of the Mission: Impossible series.  There have been franchises throughout history that have a decent first movie, a decent second movie, then it sputters out a little bit, and is finally resurrected into something great.  The first one I can think of are the Bond films.  I mean, you have to be doing something right for a character to last over thirty years.  However, we know that there were some dark days (specifically the non-Goldeneye Pierce Brosnan films as well as anything involving Sir Timothy Dalton), but it was brought back with Daniel Craig, provided some actual depth to the Bond character and realism and they're better than ever (minus half of Quantum of Solace).  There's also the biggest franchise resurgence of the Fast and Furious films.  One was decent, two and three were balls, four was a decent resurrection and once they got Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, they had franchise Viagra and the last three films have been some of the most fun you can have watching an action movie.  But, where I'm going with this is-- the Mission: Impossible films haven't had that middle couple of movies lull that almost every long-winded franchise has had.  They keep getting better and better.  They pass on to a popular up and coming director to give provide their own unique life into the films and they're some of the best action movies that you can officially call reliable fun.

Say what you will about Tom Cruise the human being... Tom Cruise the action star is on point. Each Mission film he does is better and better.  And each one can stand on their own.  What's great about them is they don't have to spend a ton of time giving the Ethan Hunt character some new emotional and complex inner problem to work out and a lengthy back story.  We know the character.  We like the character.  So, each movie we can jump into the story without having to give a ton of set up.  The airplane scene that has been plastered all over trailers and posters (and my picture above) happens about two minutes into the movie.  This latest entry is almost entirely action and thrills... but it's done in a very smart way.  It's not action for the sake of action.  Every set piece and action sequence compliments the story and moves forward progressively and organically.  It's fun, but it's also very smart.  It's the best kind of action film.

This time around we have the IMF shut down by the director of the CIA (Alec Baldwin) and each member disavowed.  Ethan, who is on the run from the CIA has figured out that there is a secret syndicate of anti-IMF agents out to control the world (muwahahaha)... but it's not as stupid as it sounds.  It's a real problem that is presented very realistically.  So, now, Hunt, along with his team (thank god Simon Pegg keeps coming back... and yes, I guess Ving Rhames too) have to figure out who the syndicate is, hunt the down, stop them, avoid being killed by them, as well as evading the CIA who are also after all of them as well.  Throw in a German mystery woman with her own motives and you've got an exciting, complex, and entertaining action film.

For being over 50, Cruise looks like he's Ethan from the first movie (well, maybe the second movie).  We're not questioning his credibility as an action star (as we are with each Expendables film).  Simon Pegg is perfect as the bumbling sidekick who is there to solve complex problems, but also lend a humorous hand.  Ving Rhames, Jeremy Renner, and Alec Baldwin all lend their own great performances that make up this lively film.  But, the best new character is Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust, an undercover British operative.  She's tough, she's badass, and she's capable of holding her own.  Holy shit... a male-driven action movie that actually writes a capable female character and doesn't succumb to the Bond-style love interest/damsel in distress tropes that are so pervasive in the spy genre? What a miracle.  One could argue, in this film, she's even more capable than Hunt, himself who ends up getting his life saved by her more often than he has to save her.

In the end, we've probably just gotten the last good popcorn blockbuster of the summer, but it's a good one to go out on.  This movie will appeal to everyone.  It's funny, it's smart, it's action-packed, and it's thrilling from the opening scene to the credits.  It's a nice little apology film for the mile-high garbage heap this summer has thrust upon us this year. I didn't get a chance to see it in IMAX, but if you have the means (and the funds) it will be well worth it.

One final note, I'd like to point out-- I've been spewing a lot of hate for sequels this summer because almost all of them have been complete butt.  But, as I was saying earlier, each of the Mission movies could stand on their own.  The only relationship they have to each other is the main character and the name.  Yes, they're sequels, but each one is very original.  It's not re-creating past franchise moments and trying to out-do them bigger and badder Michael Bay style (though this film does have a few very clever homages to the previous entries).  They stand on their own as original, creative property with only the name linking them to the franchise.  Yes, they're sequels, but they're doing sequels right.  They're moving the story forward without looking back.


Vacation: Three Big Laughs And A Hot Springs Of Shit

So, let's just remind everyone what I've been saying all summer long about half the movies that have come out... lazy filmmaking exists.  It's running rampant through our theaters.  It's either speeding through plot so quickly that character development goes unnoticed... or it's a sequel/prequel/reboot/spinoff that's essentially a shittier carbon copy of the original material that we once love that has been so bastardized and beaten down by it's following films we don't recognize it anymore. This accurately sums up Vacation.  It's that exact type of sequel/reboot/spinoff that cares so little about the source material that it winds up copying it but in a much lazier way.  It's not a good movie.  By any means.  And I would never recommend it to anyone with an IQ higher than that of a third grader.  But, I will say that the laughs (and they are few and far between) actually did hit pretty hard.  Unfortunately, there was a total of three of them... in the entire film.

I have been an Ed Helms guy since his days on The Daily Show.  He was the big toothed, innocent, loveable idiot who moved from that show to the most perfect role for himself as Andy Bernard in The Office.  There are some great Andy moments and before the show decided to screw up his arc, him and Erin's back and forth was almost as good as Jim and Pam.  But, then the show ended.  And Ed Helms is left to do one singular character for the rest of his life.  He's Andy Bernard in Cedar Rapids.  He's Andy Bernard in The Hangover movies.  And he's a retarded, socially inept Andy Bernard in Vacation.  By now, it isn't funny.  But it's all he has.  And, obviously in The Office he was able to make it work.  But, by now, it's a dead character.  And it certainly isn't reminiscent of ANY Rusty Griswold from ANY of the previous movies.  Rusty was never going to grow up to be a simpleton who is as vanilla as the ice cream he's probably lactose-intolerant of.

Here's the rub: Rusty is a socially awkward man-nerd who doesn't understand social cues and has a very strange relationship with his family-- they don't respect him.  He decides to re-create his childhood trip to Wally World and drive across the country to visit there one more time.  Along the way, they piss off a trucker (unfunny).  Their car explodes (2.5/10 on the funny scale).  They return to Rusty's wife's old sorority and she drinks a lot and vomits a lot (unfunny).  They visit Audrey and her hulk of a husband (played by Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth) on her farm and Rusty accidentally plows through a cow on an ATV (the entire scene is unfunny), they visit a hot springs that is actually a bubbling vat of human shit (very unfunny), they visit the four corners monument and are interrupted by a ton of people having sex and get interrogated by four different cops from the four different states (kinda funny), they go white water rafting in the grand canyon (very funny), and they arrive at Wally World where something not nearly as clever as Chevy Chase holding a BB gun on John Candy happens.  Along the way Rusty, who is a man, has to learn to be a man.  His wife is the only character that actually looks like she knows what she's doing.  The kids have occasional funny insults flung at one another, but it's a one-note joke that never really pays off at all.

Bottom line, there are three big laughs in the movie.  Are they worth going to the theater to watch?  Absolutely not.  They're hardly good enough to watch on youtube six months from now.  John Hughes and Harold Ramis knew exactly what they were doing when they first created Vacation.  They knew how to establish a funny family, while allowing for hijinks to ensue on a road trip that were actually relevant, clever, and creative.  Now, in favor of creativity, we are given bodily fluids and kids that swear like adults, and a man child who is aloof to anything resembling common sense.  It's some of the laziest filmmaking I've seen this summer (don't worry, it's not even close to as bad as Pixels was, Dear Lord!).  And if it wasn't for some of the better cameos in the film, the entire movie would've been a waste.  It's still mostly a waste, but some of it is salvaged.  You know, like when you throw out pants you hate in the trash and some greasy hobo comes by and takes them and they actually kinda look good on him-- Vacation is like that.