Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

The 5th and final part of My 100 Movies of Summer

I had two goals going into this Summer.  Watch 100 movies and once a week write about the best thing I saw.

Well, clearly the latter was a raging failure.  I got lazy and just stopped writing.  It wasn’t because I didn’t see any good movies.  I hit 100 in the middle of this week and finished the summer off with about 105.  So that’s cool.  And in the period since my last entry, I watched three of the top ten flicks I’ve seen this year.

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Life Itself

Back in 1994, Roger Ebert gave a very enthusiastic ‘thumbs up’ to a fascinating documentary by Steve James called Hoop Dreams.  Almost 20 years later, James and Ebert decided to film a documentary loosely based on the critic’s autobiography. Shortly after they started filming, Ebert broke his hip and it was discovered that the cancer that had taken his voice had returned with a vengeance.  It was apparent to all involved that James would be filming the last few months of Roger Ebert’s life.  It’s a tough viewing experience. Ebert isn’t hiding anything here.  He’s completely vulnerable, his physical state deteriorating, the prosthetic he had used in public to give his face form now removed. I can only imagine the great difficulty Mr. James faced but ultimately he does an incredible job of chronicling his friend’s final fight.

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Boyhood

Richard Linklater had a crazy idea.  Put together a cast and film a movie for a few weeks at a time over the course of twelve years, chronicling the maturity of a young boy and the lives of those around him.  It is a most singular achievement in film-making. Consisting of a series of vignettes, it’s a simple coming of age drama clothed in the usual trappings of divorce, blended families and growing pains. Nothing truly exceptional happens but the viewer becomes invested in the lives of this young boy and his family as they (and the actors who portray them) age over time. The film is long but you don’t really feel it and I found myself almost disappointed as it ended. I dare say there’s probably something in this film that anyone who survived their childhood can relate to.  If Mr. Linklater decided to continue the project and film the next twelve years of this kid’s life, I’d be on board.

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Cold in July

This film starts off as something very familiar.  A man kills a home invader. In the eyes of the police, it’s a simple question of self-defense.  But then the father of the intruder is released from prison.  The grieving father stalks the man and his family. A tipping point is reached and a thrilling climax is reached.  But that’s just the first 20 minutes as what starts off as a simple reverse revenge flick begins smoothly transitioning into…something totally different and disturbing. Suffice it to say that truly terrible things are happening in the Lone Star State and uneasy bedfellows Sam Sheppard, Michael C Hall, and Don Johnson(!) aim to put an end to it. Fueled by a great Carpenteresque synth soundtrack by Jeff Grace, the film hits the gas and doesn’t let up until a lot of people are left dead in its wake.  This is a perfect piece of neo-noir.

 

If you’re curious to see what all I watched these last 3 months, feel free to check out my Letterboxd profile.

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Part 4 of My 100 Movies of Summer 2014

The Raid 2 (2014, w & d by Gareth Evans)

Back in 2011, Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais delivered unto us an adrenaline-fueled siege movie called The Raid.  It was a super-charged shot of adrenaline for action junkies who hadn’t seen anything quite like it in some time.  A sequel was ordered and it finally arrived back in March. I was really excited to see it.  But I never did.  I missed out on a certain chance to see it at SXSW.  I waited for a theatrical release.  But it came and went so quickly from a local multiplex, I never had the chance.  I kept an eye out for it to show up on VOD.  It never did.  I knew I’d have to wait for the Blu-ray.  And FINALLY, a few weeks after I bought that Blu-ray, I watched it.  It was worth the wait.

One of the more common criticisms lobbed at the first film was its lack of a real plot.  It was pretty one-dimensional.  Get in a building.  Get the bad guy.  Kick anyone’s ass who gets in your way.  Still, I rather liked it as did many.  As the film ends, Uwais’ Rama is left to an uncertain fate with a few dangling plot threads swinging in the wind.  Here, Evans quickly resolves those issues in rather brutal fashion setting Rama on a new path of dealing with the police corruption that caused the drug den raid to go tits up. He is tasked by an internal affairs officer to infiltrate a criminal organization that works closely with the dirty cops.  He accomplishes this by having himself incarcerated so that he can ingratiate himself to the gang leader’s son who is also serving time.  His stay is a bit longer that was anticipated but once he’s released he’s given a position in the gang because of his service to the son in the prison. So positioned, he begins his task of exposing the corrupt officials who allow the gangs to run rampant.

And, oh yeah, there’s a whole lot of fighting going on.  In the prison.  In bars.  On the streets.  And in cars.  There are a ton of elaborate set pieces where the skilled martial artists are really allowed to stretch their wings in a way that the confines of the previous film’s building setting couldn’t allow.  The fights are perfectly paced as well.  Whereas the first film played like one long extended fight, here they move the plot, throwing it in new directions, all of it leading to a somewhat subdued and more personal ending.

Rama.  The Assassin.  Hammer Girl.  Baseball Bat Man.  All of these characters have their chance in the spotlight.  And all of them shine. But my favorite character might be Prakoso.  He’s portrayed by Yayan Ruhian and while you may not be familiar with the name you’ll most definitely recognize the actor if you’re a fan of the first film.  There, he portrayed Mad Dog who famously faced Rama and his brother in a brutal fight.  He had this crazed monkey style of fighting that was a treat to watch.  If he wasn’t such a son-of-a-bitch, you’d almost be rooting for him.  Here, his appearance has been changed enough to not be distracting but he still fights the same.  His character gives Evans an opportunity to bring some pathos to the proceedings and his story arc is surprisingly moving. It’s an emotional moment in a film that actually has a lot of them.

And I think that might be Evans’ biggest accomplishment with this film.  He’s delivered yet another thrilling movie, filled with action and brutality, but accentuated with an effective and moving crime drama plot that I would put up against any of the Chinese films of that type.  It’s a two-and-half hour movie that leaves you wanting more.

And that right there is a hell of a thing.

The Raid 2 is available on Blu-ray, DVD, Amazon Prime and VOD (Finally!)  If you’ve seen the first, you’ve probably already seen this one.  Watch it again.  You know you want to.  If you haven’t seen the first one, watch that.  Then watch this.  Then wait impatiently for the third one with the rest of us. Man.  I hope there’s going to be a third film.

If you’re at all curious as to what I’ve been watching this summer to reach my 100 movie goal, check out my Letterboxd account.  I’ve already seen 60 movies with 43 days to go.  I think I’ll make it.

Previously in My 100 Movies of Summer 2014:

The best thing I saw that one week in June

The best thing I saw the week after that

The best thing I saw two weeks ago

Part 3 of My 100 Movies of Summer 2014

Rewind This! (d. Josh Johnson)

For pretty much anyone over 20, VHS and the magical VCR were their entrée into the world of home video.

I finally convinced my grandfather to purchase a VCR in the mid-80s.  I quickly got him to get a membership at a neighborhood VHS rental store.  In those days very few movies were priced for ‘sell-through’ so rental was the only way to go.  I don’t remember the first movie I ever rented and honestly I didn’t get a chance to rent that often.  But when I did, I was overwhelmed by the number of choices available to me.  Movies I’d never heard of with box art that blew my mind.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I saw the box for I Spit on Your Grave.  If you’re a dude, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

As the years went on, I still refrained from buying very many movies.  I did always maintain a membership at any place I could wherever I was living at the time.  And of course, I racked up plenty of late fees along the way.  I started collecting heavily though once I bought my first DVD player and those habits have carried on through all the way to Blu-ray.  I love my collection.  I love having a movie available at a moment’s notice right there at my fingertips.

Let’s be honest though.  As awesome as DVD and Blu-ray’s are, the number of movies available in the formats is just a fraction of those that were available on VHS in its prime.  This is why for many folks VHS will always be the King of Home Video.  This documentary is a celebration of the format and its fans.

It’s as thorough a history of the hallowed format as you’re ever likely to need.  It tracks its origin, the battle with Betamax, its rise to prominence, its expansion into the adult industry and the direct-to-video market, its peak and inevitable decline, and finally its death in the shadow of the rising DVD market.  Along the way, you get to meet the industry people who saw the value in a home market and pushed heavily to make movies easily available.  You meet the people who ran (and some who still run) the mom-and-pop stores, making money hand over fist as anxious people lined up for the latest releases.

And you meet the fans.  Those people with houses filled with those obnoxious, plastic clam-shells and those flimsy dusty slipcases.  Those people who hit up every Half Price Books, every flea market, every garage sale looking for unexpected treasure.  They each have their own reasons for having an extraordinary number of movies.  And if you’re a collector, you can only smile.  Because you have your reasons too.  You understand them.  You understand that totemic aspect of physical media.  It ties you to a specific time, a specific place, a specific memory.  Physical media is in its death throes, as the film ultimately acknowledges, but it may never ultimately die.  It can’t and won’t.

Not as long as crazy old dinosaurs like me and the people featured in this fine little film are still kicking.

Rewind This! is available via streaming on Amazon Instant.  But come on.  Do the dinosaurs a solid and buy the DVD.  Hell, buy the VHS.  Yeah.  There’s a VHS.  How cool is that?

 

If you are interested in seeing what other films I watched this week you can always check out my profile at Letterboxd.

 

Previous entries in My 100 Movies of Summer 2014 series

The best thing I saw 3 weeks ago

The best thing I saw the week before that

Part 1 of My 100 Movies of Summer 2014

Every summer, as May flips over to June, I make a silent vow to watch 100 movies by August 31.  I’ve been successful in this endeavor the last 2 years so I’m hoping to keep it going.

This year, instead of a dry list summarizing what films I’ve watched, I’ve decided that every week I will highlight an individual movie that stood out from the pack and deserves special recognition.

A man and a woman, wearing battle exosuits and looking battle-worn, stand against an urban background devastated by war.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014, d. Doug Liman)

The film starts with a news montage detailing the landing of an asteroid on Earth, bringing with it an unstoppable alien race that is steadily taking over Europe.  The combined force of the world’s armies have little success in stopping the onslaught until one brave soldier in a battle suit, Rita Vrataski (played wonderfully by Emily Blunt), destroys hundreds of the aliens in a crucial battle.  Emboldened by this victory, the united armies plan a massive attack to wipe out the invading force on the beaches of France.

Enter Tom Cruise playing Cage, a former ad man drawn into military service, whose job it is to drum up support for the war and to encourage recruitment.  He is rather unceremoniously and unwillingly thrown into duty where he will be on the front line of the attack. The combat mission begins and the enemy forces are wholly prepared for Earth’s defenders.  Thousands of soldiers are dying.  Cage spies Vrataski fighting bravely on the field of battle only to be killed.  Moments later, he himself is attacked but he manages to set off an explosive device that kills the alien.  Consumed by the fire and covered in the alien’s blood, he dies.  And wakes up, right back where he started on the military base where the previous day began.  After a couple of iterations, he comes to the inevitable conclusion that he’s stuck in a nightmarish loop that will always lead to his painful demise.

He quickly realizes that he needs to learn how to fight.  Fortunately, there is a known fighter on base.  Someone who has proven them self in combat.  He approaches Vrataski and tells his tale.  She believes him.  Because the same thing has happened to her.

And this is where the movie starts getting really fun.

If the film sounds a bit like Duncan Jones’ Source Code, that’s because it is.  That’s not really a problem though.  This kind of time mechanic has been used dozens of times in movies. What matters is how the conceit is used.  And here, it’s used to perfection.  The movie plays like a video game where the main character has infinite lives to reach their goal.  The goal is initially survival but the more Cage learns from Vrataski about fighting, the more he learns about his condition.  The end game becomes infinitely more challenging.  It’s no longer just about getting off that beach alive.  It’s about saving the human race.

Cruise is frankly great in the role.  He could sleepwalk through a part like this but he doesn’t.  He starts as a coward and has to learn to become the character we’re used to seeing from him.  The movie never explicitly states how many times he repeats the same day.  But it is clear that it’s quite a few.  The burden begins to show in his eyes.  It’s enough to test a man’s soul, enough to break him.  And at times, it does.

Blunt though, in sheer defiance of the mega-star and his mega-watt smile, is the real standout.  She’s brassy and confident and entirely capable of saving the human race.  She can’t be bothered to be a love interest for Cage.  She’s too damn busy and too hardened from the experience of her own loop.  She does convey an empathy for the man but at times it’s clear she sees him as a tool, a means to an end.

The beauty of their relationship is that every single day she’s meeting him for the first time.  He’s had countless days to know her, to respect her, to admire her, and maybe to even love her.  And every day, he has to watch her die.  That’s almost Shakespearean.

The movie falters a bit in the third act as the consequences become a bit more final and the ending has a bit of a paradox that might drive a viewer a bit batty if they let it.  But this is pure popcorn entertainment done well and intelligently.  It’s by turns funny, thrilling and sad.  And ultimately completely satisfying.

Summer 2014 has a film to beat.

If you are interested in seeing what other films I watched this week, you can always check out my profile at Letterboxd.

 

And lo from on high came the plaintive cry:  THERE’S NOTHING GOOD ON NETFLIX!

You’ve probably said it yourself.  Be honest.  You thought of a movie you hadn’t seen in years.  You fired up your laptop or your PS3.  And it wasn’t there.  You were disappointed.  You joined the chorus.

I wish I’d been there for you.  I would’ve pointed out 20 movies just on the Recently Added queue you’ve probably never seen or even heard of that were worth watching.  You would’ve laughed or cried or been thrilled.  We would’ve become great friends.  Perhaps if you were the fairer of the sexes, we would’ve fallen in love.  We’d have kids by now.  If it was a girl, we would’ve named her after your mom.  If it was a boy, my dad.

But I digress.

Every May, I push my stacks of neglected Blu-rays and DVDs to the side and attack my ever-growing Netflix queue.  It’s filled with movies I’d never heard of that looked interesting.  Some are classics I’m dying to see again.  Others are festival films that never got a wide release that I’ve always wanted to check out.  There are more good movies out there than you or I will ever be able to see in our lifetimes.  And a bunch of them are just sitting there, waiting for us.

On Netflix.

I watched 20 films on the service over the last 31 days.  I saw everything from an evangelical kidnapping drama to a parkour version of Step Up to a post-apocalyptic teen romance.  Not all of them were winners but some of them were great.

These are my favorites:

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The Hunt

A match carelessly tossed can start a fire that consumes an entire forest. A child’s lie, born of petulance, can ruin a man’s life and scar a community. Such is the dark truth revealed in this haunting and disturbing film. A teacher is falsely accused of molesting a student. Mania and fear grip concerned parents. The charges are proven false and dropped. And yet, all trust has been lost. Just as the charred and blackened trees give grim evidence of the fire, the doubting glances prove that the innocent man will always be guilty in the eyes of some. Frustrating, sad and brutally honest, this film will stay with you long after it’s done.

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Milius

This is a fascinating and engaging documentary about a filmmaker who was born of one of the most exciting periods of creativity in cinema history. He ran with Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola. His words were made famous in iconic scenes. And he was a fine director as well. John Milius is a legend to his friends and enemies alike. The film isn’t afraid to put a spotlight on his shortcomings but for the most part is a piece by obvious fans of the man and his body of work. I know I have a new-found appreciation for him. Here’s hoping we get to see that Genghis Khan movie.

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The Summit

Part documentary footage, part recreation the film recounts a disastrous day in which 11 people died in an attempt to climb K2. It’s pretty gripping stuff. It makes you wonder why anyone would want to risk their lives in such an endeavor, one that statistically claims 1 out of every 4 people who attempt it. The film then takes on an almost Rashomon feel as the survivors’ accounts of the events surrounding the tragedy begin to differ and no one seems to know the whole truth.

Just Another Love Story (2007) Poster

Just Another Love Story

It’s like While You Were Sleeping. Except there’s nudity and guns and murder. And no Sandy. This Danish noir takes a while to get rolling as Jonas, a crime scene photographer, is involved in a car accident. He goes to the hospital to check on the other driver, a young woman named Julia who now has amnesia as a result of the accident. Her family mistakes him for Sebastian, her fiance they’ve never met. He does not correct them. His life begins a downward spiral as the two grow closer. It all leads to a tension filled final act as the consequences of a myriad of bad choices come crashing down on him. Good and twisty stuff.

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Mortified Nation

This is a fun doc about a stage show in which volunteers go up and read amusing and often embarrassing entries from the journals or diaries they wrote when they were kids. There’s nothing too substantial here but it does serve as a nice reminder of the universal aspects of growing up. We were all little freaks who took life too seriously and who were just trying to figure out how to make it to the next level with some sanity intact. The one thing I kept thinking is that, if I could, I’d love to go back to 11-year-old me, shove a journal in his hand, and tell him to just write. Every night or as often as you can. Put it on paper, I don’t want to forget.

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The Dirties

Well acted, well-directed and definitely thought-provoking. It attempts to illustrate how an otherwise seemingly normal kid could end up walking down the halls of his high school and start killing people. It focuses on bullying as a possible source. It allows for the fact that the kid might just be sick. Never too preachy and often funny, it leaves the viewer not so much with an indictment of the situation but a stark picture of the reality behind it.

 

There you have it. That’s 6 movies.  Six of thousands waiting to be found.  Waiting for you.

So quit whining already…and go find one.

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Cheap Thrills

Grade:  A

Some movies are funny.  Some scary.  Others are thrilling and filled with action.  Then there’s the type of film that holds a mirror up to its audience and dares those watching to see themselves in the characters and in their actions.  It asks the viewer “What would you do?”

How far would you go to provide for your family?  What would you do to better your life?  Would you debase yourself?  Would you hurt someone?  Would you kill?  What would you do?  These are the questions asked by the new horror/thriller starring Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner, and Sara Paxton.  And the answers are quite frankly shocking.

Healy is Craig, a husband and father with an eviction notice on his door.  He’s killing time in a bar to avoid going home to tell his wife he just got fired.  There, he runs into Ethan Embry’s Vince.  They’re old friends who haven’t seen each other in a while.  Vince is working as an enforcer, an arm-breaker collecting debts.  He’s good at it.  But he’s not exactly happy with his station in life.

While they are drinking away their woes as men are wont to do, they meet an odd couple, husband and wife, played by Koechner and Paxton.  Colin and Violet are crazy rich.  It’s her birthday and he wants to show her a good time.  To that end he has provided cocaine and an open tab to Vince and Craig, companions purchased for what is sure to be a fun and eventful evening.  Some spur of the moment bar bets cause cash to be exchanged as Vince downs a shot faster than his friend  and slaps a waitress’ butt.  Craig wants in on the cash so when Colin suggests, with the promise of bigger prizes on the line, that they move the party to their mansion in the hills, he’s more than willing and able.

And that…is when the shit hits the fan.  The stakes rise.  The cash prizes become life changing.  Blood is spilled.

The plot is nothing that is especially original.  There are elements here that feel like they could have been lifted out of the cautionary tales that were often told in The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  But it is very well executed.  The script is darkly comic and sharp as a razor.  Most importantly, this is an actor’s showcase.  The four main characters occupy about 98% of the film’s running time so they’re going to have to carry the film.  They are more than up to the task.

Koechner is simultaneously smarmy and ingratiating.  His Colin is disturbingly pragmatic about the whole sordid affair.  He’s got cash to burn and willing fools at the ready who are prepared to do anything for it.  Embry brings a frightening physicality to his performance.  The man is far removed from his teen comedy days.  There’s no evidence of Rusty Griswold here.  Healey is perfect as the hard luck working class schlub.  His dreams of being a writer have long since faded.  He’s living the American Dream and it’s a fucking nightmare.

But the shining star here, in a night sky filled with them, is Sara Paxton in the quietest role of the film.  Violet is passive and bored during most of the proceedings barely taking the time to look up from her cell phone as the willing dupes jump through hoops to earn their pay.  But as the dares become darker, she grows more curious, her eyes betraying a perverse, almost sexual, interest in what’s happening.  Every twisted thing that being done is for her benefit, her pleasure.  And she loves it.

The climax feels inevitable.  To the victor goes the spoils.  And as he stands, surrounded by his winnings, his body a twisted wreck, the film ends leaving the audience with a final image that is impossible to shake.

Cheap Thrills received a VERY limited theatrical release playing only in Austin & Los Angeles.  It’s expanding into about 20 cities in the next week so it might just be popping up somewhere near you.  If you get the chance, catch it in a theater.  But it’s pretty much available on every Video On Demand format there is.  If it’s not available from your local cable provider, try iTunes or Amazon Instant.

See it now.  See it in a week.  See it when Drafthouse Films releases the Blu-ray or DVD in a few weeks.

Just see it.

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Maniac (2012) (directed by Franck Kahlfoun)

So why didn’t I see it in the theater?  Well, quite frankly, I didn’t have any other choice.  It had been on my radar forever but never came to Austin.  Hell, I even bought the soundtrack to kill the time before it was finally released.

So why did I buy the DVD?  I’d heard nothing but good things.  Elijah Wood rarely goes dark but I remembered his turn as Kevin in Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City which was nice and creepy.  Plus, as you may well know, I’m a goon for horror.  This one was a no-brainer.

So was it worth it?  Definitely.  As mentioned earlier, I had bought the soundtrack after hearing rave reviews about it.  It was like the bastard love child of Tangerine Dream and Goblin and is easily my favorite score of the year.  It painted a picture of what I would eventually see in the film.  That the Blu-ray was released during October played well into my month-long horror movie marathon and I was excited to finally sit down to watch it.  To say it was worth the wait would be an understatement.

So what’s it about?  A remake of the classic 80’s grindhouse slasher starring Joe Spinell, this film changes coasts and offers a unique and disorienting first person perspective to deliver a cracker jack horror flick that dares you to sympathize with its sociopath ‘protagonist’.  Elijah Wood steps into the role of Frank Zito, the proprietor of a third-generation family store that restores antique mannequins.  At night, he finds himself on the streets of Los Angeles stalking those unfortunate women who’ve caught his eye.  We see him trying desperately to make a human connection but he is haunted by the ghost of his mother, a neglectful woman who was more concerned with her own lascivious desires than the well-being of her child.  His best efforts are doomed to failure and would-be paramours fall like dominoes to the madness that eats his beyond damaged soul.  A glimmer of  hope presents itself in the form of Jessica, a photographer, who happens upon his store and sees a beauty in Frank’s work.  She’s wants to use some his mannequins in a photo exhibit she’s putting on.  The two strike up an odd friendship.  But Frank wants so much more.  And Jessica’s inability to see the monster that lies beneath the artist she admires might doom her.

So what’s my grade?  A very solid and well-earned A.  Elijah Wood is strong in a role in which he is very rarely actually seen.  All of the action is shot from a first-person perspective.  The viewer is quite literally experiencing the movie through the eyes of a crazed killer.   When we do see him, it’s most often in mirrors, a clever effect that never betrays the conceit.  We see his sunken eyes, his desperate hope, and his unhinged fury.  Occasionally, the camera pulls away from Frank’s perspective and shows him in action.  This most often happens when he is extremely happy or extremely enraged.  It’s used sparingly and to great effect.  Genevieve Alexandra is Jessica.  She is alluring and a bit coquettish and ably embodies the type of woman who could set a man back on the right path or knock him hopelessly off course.  Their roles are the centerpieces of a great film.  Throw in that wonderful perfect music by French composer Rob and you’re in horror geek nirvana.

 

Maniac is available on Blu-ray, DVD and on Netflix Instant.