by Philip Price
Twelve years ago The Rock "arrived" with “The Scorpion King” in full swords and sandals glory. In the summer of 2014 he has returned to that well-worn genre that has lost much of the interest that “Gladiator” garnered for it in 2000. If anyone could bring films based in this type of world or adaptations of the stories in Greek mythology back into the casual movie-goers field of vision it would surely be the reigning king of action flicks, right? Over the past three years Dwayne Johnson has re-vitalized the ‘Fast & Furious’ and ‘G.I. Joe’ franchises while bringing new life to the ‘Journey To...’ movies. In many ways, “Hercules,” was the test of just what Johnson could attract and handle on his own with only the significance of brand recognition assisting him. Sure, he's had flicks like “Snitch” and “Faster” that cast him as the sole marquee star, but this was an all-out Summer B-movie with a big budget, sprawling scope and, as the trailers would have you believe, large amounts of CGI fantasy. While I am happy to report that “Hercules” is both varied in scope and is quite expansive while offering genuine thrills it isn't the CGI-heavy bonanza of easy-outs that the trailers advertised and made me cautious in getting too excited for the film. About 20 minutes into the movie I began wondering whether the film would add up to anything more than escapism or if there might be something here, something deeper they were going for. I say the previous sentence not in the line of thought that I think everything necessarily has to be about something, but more in a curious fashion as to if director Brett Ratner would aspire to something more than what was expected. It was with something akin to a sigh of relief that when the credits began to role on this latest incarnation of the Greek demi-God that I felt wholly satisfied. Maybe expectations play a certain role in that, maybe this movie won't hold up after multiple viewings, maybe Johnson needs to stick to strong supporting roles that don't require so much heavy lifting and maybe Ratner shouldn't get the opportunity to do anything outside his wheelhouse again, but for what it is intended to be “Hercules” is good, if not forgettable, fun.
Based on Steve Moore's graphic novel "Hercules: The Thracian War," we are set down in a war torn land where Hercules' nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) tells of the legendary warrior’s twelve labours in which he conquered lions, hydras and boars with skin so thick it was believed to be impenetrable. We look on as Hercules and his team rescue Iolaus from a particularly cringe-inducing fate as each of them show their skills and allegiance as his faithful followers. Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) is said to be able to see the future and more interestingly, his own death. Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) has been by Hercules' side in battle since they were young orphans drafted into the army and who rose to prominence with Hercules after his strength set him apart. Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and Tydeus (Askel Hennie) were both rescued from their villages after enemy warriors destroyed them and Hercules welcomed them with open arms, giving them somewhere to belong when they had nothing. The team work as mercenaries, going from battle to battle earning gold from whoever hired them in hopes that they might soon have enough to disappear and live out the rest of their lives in peace. It is clear Hercules is running from his past, but we don't know why until the princess of Thrace, Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), approaches him on her father’s behalf in hopes he might help them fend off impending invaders. Ergenia offers a pay day they cannot refuse and as our titular hero and his gang make their way to Thrace to find an army they have to train, a ruler with a God complex (John Hurt) and a fight they are manipulated into Hercules is forced to open his eyes to see just how far he has fallen from the man, the hero he once was.
That all may sound rather cheesy, but in all honesty the movie kind of is. There isn't much of a way around cheese when you have Johnson's bright white smile shining through the dirt and grime of his cohorts every time he places the hide of a lion on the top of his head. That said, Johnson knows the limits of his power and he doesn't overreach here by putting an emphasis on the emotional aspects, but simply broods with his massive physicality and lets his face do as little of the work as possible. This results in what we want from a movie like “Hercules”: solid action. The highlight of the above mentioned trailers was a quick shot of rival armies rising out of the ground, their bodies covered in paint and wielding sharp objects that looked extremely threatening. In this sequence in the film we not only get well-documented sword fights and strategic endeavors with an army, but we get sequenced-out little moments that make you wince or drop your jaw in a way that you didn't necessarily know movies could do anymore. That may sound like a huge compliment, but in an age where action is shot in a flurry of handheld motions and is more messy than brutal it is refreshing to see wide shots of people being run over by carriages. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti shoots the battle scenes in an almost “Saving Private Ryan” manner where the debris flies around everywhere as it mixes with ash and seems to be moving at a slower rate than the human characters. Johnson finds entertaining ways to play up his reputation as a God while his storyteller nephew and team members are given plenty of opportunity to shine in their skill-sets. Strangely, it is Sewell and McShane who make the smallest impressions as McShane is mostly relegated to intended comic relief and Sewell plays a role he's played countless times before. It is Hennie as Tydeus who makes the biggest impression, though admittedly it is a showy role requiring zero dialogue and large amounts of sympathy, while Berdal can only be pissed Evangeline Lily's Tauriel showed up seven months before her. The film and Ratner get a big kudos though in the way of getting a performance from John Hurt that wasn't completely phoned in as he totally could have given that.
So, does “Hercules” do anything unexpected with its story? No, not really. Does it dig into the themes of which it so openly discusses? No, though there are ideas and strides towards things such as man not being able to escape his fate, but in the end the film simply chalks the legend of Hercules up to preference rather than destiny. There are no thoughts on how the formalities of war are such that it is sad it ever came to be or the freedom of conscience over material liberation, but it does have Dwayne Johnson throwing a horse so you can look forward to that. The characters in “Hercules” are arguably smarter than the stories conventions as well and as the third act begins to take shape we see that in spades as numerous questions begin to pop-up concerning the logistics of Lord Cotys' (Hurt) plan and how it aligns with King Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes), the ruler of Tiryns where Hercules called home and made a family with a wife (Irina Shayk) and three children. There is a push from Cotys to destroy the army of Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann) who are believed to be centaurs, but this diligent goal is only given short-handed reason in order to be back-handed in the final act. Like I said though, there isn't really anything new to expect from a story taken from Greek mythology and so we judge “Hercules” on how fun the ride is and it would be a lie to say this wasn't an enjoyable experience. The climax of the film is pure ‘80s era awesome in that it puts our titular hero in such an unbelievable predicament the only way to overcome it is in fact to perform the unbelievable, which Johnson does as he powerfully screams, "I am HERCULES!" See, it's totally cheesy, but in the moment of that epitome of power and rage there is also a nicely built amount of tension that gives way to somewhat of an emotional peak that is then accompanied by a purely action-fueled climax. Sure, Cotys' army is apparently made up of a bunch of dummies, but they get it right eventually and so does Hercules, who at least gets it right where it counts.
by Philip Price
There is a stillness to Jeremy Saulnier's “Blue Ruin” that is inescapable and transfixing from its opening shots. There is a sense of calculation, of very precise intention in its tone and color palette that lure you in with their solemnity and then blow your expectations out of the water with its blunt violence. It is a technique that is tough to put ones finger on in terms of how exactly we become so intrigued in a story we know very little about. We meet Dwight (Macon Blair) as he sits bathing in a tub, but stumbles out and through a window when he hears noise from outside. We pick up on clues that are dropped in each moment and we begin to piece together who this man is and how he came to be at this point in his life. His appearance suggests a large amount of mystery and misery. He is brought into the police station by a sweet-natured female officer who informs him of news that likely floods his minds with endless possibilities and scenarios, but all we hear are the words of the officer assuring Dwight that he will be fine. They are words he doesn't hear and that he doesn't intend to try and uphold. From the outset of this vague premise we follow Dwight as he more or less sets out on a revenge-fueled mission that can only end a number of ways, none of which are particularly promising for our protagonist. What I enjoyed about “Blue Ruin” though is not that it both elicits thought and tension as well as it does pure entertainment (though these aren't bad reasons to enjoy it at all), but that it gains these qualities and moves with its ever-increasing momentum because of the directorial choices being made. Saulnier makes very determined decisions in his shot selection and environments to both imbue his film with a strong sense of style and also tell a rather simple and clichéd story in a way that feels fresh.
That artists can actually put new twists on old ideas is something of a revelation considering the amount of films the mainstream receives these days that simply feel like recycled concoctions of things we've seen done to better effect before. That isn't to dismiss all mainstream studio films, but it certainly makes it easier to appreciate well thought-out, involving and character-centric films like “Blue Ruin.” It is easy to fling that kind of generic praise at a film without giving any reason as why you might gain that feeling from its proceedings, but with this picture it is rather easy to convey what makes the experience all the more impressive. First is the fact that Saulnier is more a cinematographer than a director (he only has one prior feature to his name) and that shines through in the composition of each shot with its pale colors and smooth movements. The way in which the eye of the camera guides itself through certain scenes creating a rhythm in line with the tone of the characters it is documenting is not an easy task to pull off; in fact it is a trait that has to appear seamless and with ease, but must be thought about to an extensive degree in order to make it appear that way. “Blue Ruin” feels so seamless and quiet throughout the entirety of its running time though that I can only imagine how well Saulnier informed his crew and his actors of what he wanted and how best to elicit these moods and themes.
It is the small things that really contribute though and in large amounts here it is the quiet that we notice. Before the first real (albeit short) conversation is had in the film about 20 minutes in I didn't even realize we'd yet to hear Dwight's voice. I was so wrapped up in the intrigue of who this man was and what his story might be that I failed to notice the film consisted of only slight or white noise up until that point. The dialogue never becomes a central tool to the storytelling, but it comes and goes as it feels naturally appropriate. For a good portion of the running time Dwight is by himself or if he is forced to communicate does so mainly with his facial expressions. To this point, much credit is due to Blair who I haven't seen in anything prior, but does an incredible job of carrying this slow-burning, reflexive thriller of a character study on his shoulders. As we don't hear his voice very often we become more accustomed with his mannerisms and movements, more specifically those of his telling eyes. There are scenes where we come to understand the internal conflict circling in the pit of Dwight's stomach and this is all done through the performance of Blair. He is somehow able to have both an intense yet sobering presence that doesn't register him as any kind of immediate threat, yet his eyes highlight the anger boiling below the surface that could erupt at any time. While there are other characters in the film, most notably those of the Cleland family and Devin Ratray who gets one of the film’s shining moments of gore, but this is really all Blair's film and he gives a performance worthy of attention he will likely never get.
When it comes to writing about film these days it is very easy to become cynical fairly quickly given the repetitive nature of the content and storytelling techniques recycled again and again in our tentpoles, not to mention the over-reliance on brand recognition and comic book films. What makes “Blue Ruin” stand out in my mind is its ability to seemingly break down those walls of jaded movie-goers as it delivers the goods of a suspenseful and thrilling action film while delving into the philosophical ponderings of its situation through the performance of its lead character all while doing so on a beautiful canvas captured by a cinematographer with an eye to watch who just so happens to be the writer and director resulting in a well-rounded product of singular vision. Taking tropes and archetypes we've seen countless times before and transforming them into a biting picture that oozes more gravitas than you might ever imagine from a pulpy piece such as this leaves the film on your memory and will force you to re-visit it, what I don't doubt will be, many times in the future.
by Philip Price
I am a sucker for movies that deal with the creation of music or the business of it in any way and so it is with fair warning that I say I delightfully indulged in the charms of “Begin Again”. I suppose there is nothing really wrong with indulgences when they come from director John Carney and contain talent such as Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Catherine Keener and what is hopefully only another notch in a string of performances that will eventually lead to a major breakout for James Corden. Carney broke onto the scene in 2006 with his simple, music-infused love story that was “Once” and even garnered his stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová an original song Oscar. Now, I have admittedly not made it around to seeing “Once,” but understand it to be a much slower, more meditative experience than this more mainstream, pop confection that illustrates the pure bliss of the moments in music that cause you to soar. I read an interesting quote from director Richard Linklater a few weeks ago where he talked about how he felt more like an extra in a movie during the big moments of his life; ones first kiss, graduation, weddings, funerals and the idea that none of these events actually belong to you, but that you are simply cast in them. I find this interesting because it says a lot about the basic human instinct of how we reflect and classify our memories and more importantly the memories that are intended to be significant. What brought this quote to mind is that “Begin Again” operates in the moments that aren't intended to be major, but instead stem from a more natural, organic place that leave a mark on your life that belongs solely to you. They aren't moments everyone might share, but are specifically tailored to the experience of life that you have created for yourself and only register as such when you're in the middle of them and you realize it is a piece of time you will never forget. I can imagine it was difficult for Carney to nail down exactly how he might convey those types of complex emotions and the nostalgia and sentimentality that comes along with them while presenting a present situation, but “Begin Again” not only illustrates his love for music, but why music is so integral in making these moments real, heartfelt memories.
There was a certain air of not knowing what to expect around “Begin Again” which was originally titled “Can A Song Save Your Life?” when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. The critical reception was lukewarm as I assume many expected something more along the lines of Once than what this delivered. It wasn't the initial reactions that had me concerned as if to the film were any good, but having not seen Carney's first feature I was more weary of whether or not the film would be significant or not. It seems Ruffalo along with Keener have a misplaced trust in the idea of indie films. Both actors have starred in countless small projects that I seem to not take notice of until they are available at Redbox or on the shelves of one of the few remaining rental stores. It isn't that these easily forgotten films are necessarily bad, but they are indeed forgettable in the scheme of maybe never getting the right kind of recognition. “Begin Again” walked this thin line for some time, but if nothing else had enough star power to push it over into being given a fair shot at prominence and for me, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found to be a substantial piece of engaging and meaningful cinema dealing in simple human nature through song. Likely, most critics who disliked this film will say the previous sentence is what they found in “Once” and wanted more of from Carney, but that he instead goes the opposite route of his characters and is even hypocritical in selling out to a certain extent as this is a more mainstream flick that plays with conventions, just like the musicians Knightley's Gretta despises. The only thing I can think of in response to this is that while the film may look and sometimes even feel like a typical romantic comedy that is likely due only to Carney gaining his footing with an actual production crew and collaborating with a team (he shot “Once” in 17 days with two digital cameras and rented a crane). I say this because the spirit of the film never conveys that of a typical romantic comedy despite the wonderful chemistry between Knightley and Ruffalo. In fact, “Begin Again”, while it may have an exuberant color palette and the liveliness of New York City to play with, comes away as a very personal, intimate portrait that I imagine is in line with the unavoidable comparison.
We meet Gretta as she sits forlorn on the side of a hole in the wall bar and performance venue in NYC watching her friend Steve (Corden) play a gig. Against her will, Steve pulls Gretta onto the stage coaxing her into playing one of her songs. As this small moment in time occurs we are, through the magic of non-linear storytelling, shown how Dan (Ruffalo) comes to be in the same bar and experiences Gretta's song to which he has a reaction that will change the trajectory of both their lives. The back-story goes that Gretta came to the city with long-time boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) who were not only college sweethearts, but songwriting partners as well. When Dave secured a deal with a major label she went along with him in hopes of continued collaboration as well as a likely future together. As the story goes though the lifestyle and privileges of the rich and famous are too much for Dave to overcome and soon their relationship is done. Dan, on the other hand is a disgraced record label executive who started his own label with partner Saul (Mos Def) and has long since become a vague shadow of the man and producer he once was. Dan lives in a crap apartment, sleeping on nothing but a mattress and drinking his days away. He's lost the meaning in his day to day and has a broken home life that includes his ex-wife Miriam (Keener) and teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) who the movie positions as a developing person he hardly knows and doesn't bother to get to know outside the required times he picks her up from school once a month. When Dan hears the raw talent coming from Gretta that night in the East Village though things begin to turn around for each of them in ways they didn't expect because they weren't necessarily interested in changing or going the ways this opportunity presents them with. The plot description can even can sound hokey in many aspects, I realize, but it is the performances both of the actors and musicians here that elevate “Begin Again” to a level of something that is not only entertaining, but a kind of experience that places us in the middle of an unforgettable summer in New York City set to an eclectic and catchy soundtrack.
I compliment the performances so heavily because they are what stand-out about the proceedings. No, there isn't anything particularly exceptional about the level of filmmaking here, but there is endless creativity. The scene in which Dan hears the possibilities of Gretta's song becomes completely memorable due to the measures taken to help send the point home. There is the concept of an outside album that is the centerpiece for the film in which Dan and Gretta travel all over the city recording different songs in different locations that is a good enough idea on its own; the opportunity to see the songs develop and the process of this project take place feels like a peak behind the curtain or a wonderful documentary that is accentuated by the personal stories and investments of our lead characters. Ruffalo, as always, is a joy to watch on screen and though he may pick up one too many projects to where his presence doesn't feel as "special" or particularly "prestigious" he has such a wide appeal and grounded nature about him that it is impossible not to become wrapped up in his plight and his glances that say more than his dialogue ever could. I've never really been a fan of Knightley, but she certainly seems to be picking up the pace with her appearance in Jack Ryan earlier this year and the upcoming Laggies that looks similar in tone and ambition to this film. As Gretta, she plays the hipster, honest singer/songwriter well and wears her emotions on her sleeve, but in the form of slow, folksy songs. She has no interest in becoming famous, she doesn't need the fame but moreover the ability to write songs and make a living off it, but she can't help but to become involved in the vision of Dan and even further to the point that she gives him a mindset to appreciate the perspective of his life and the understanding he's wasted enough time wallowing. These developments are accomplished not through plot functions or storytelling tools, but instead through the naturalistic performances that Knightley and Ruffalo deliver as well as some strong supporting work from Steinfeld and Corden. Through all of this we are reminded that the music is what keeps our souls together and the essence of that art is truly magic and Carney just wants to draw us in to where the magic really happens.
by Philip Price
Once again we have reached a point in the Summer movie season where we not only get what we expect this time of year, but where those expectations seem to be filled out of some sense of obligation rather than an organic idea. If you have been reading this site for any period of time you know I tend to be kind to comedies as I seem to have a soft spot for them and their actors; a wishful kinship if you will. That this kind of relationship exists makes it difficult when I know a movie isn't great (or even very good) but the fact I still found moments to laugh at forces me to want to give it more credit than it's due. Expectations likely play a role in this slight bit of sympathy for “Sex Tape” as anyone might tell you not much of them existed for this film. I always secretly hope that these raunchy, ridiculous comedies will be better than audiences and critics expect and will do their best to prove them wrong, especially those including anyone from the long lost its steam Frat Pack or Judd Apatow's gang of misfits. This latest collaboration with director Jake Kasdan though has Jason Segel seeming more on auto-pilot than ever. Segel is a naturally funny guy and a better writer than he gets credit for as he is able to tap into those "that's so true" moments with such ease, but he is doing nothing more than his typical shtick here. The last time Kasdan and Segel met-up was the not-so-much better “Bad Teacher,” but Segel was used to such minimal effect there it felt like a bit of an inside joke that he could show up, do his thing and retreat into the background. Kasdan was having fun with the heightened reality of the premise and Cameron Diaz owned the titular role to the point it drew crowds given the comparison it was basically “Bad Santa” with a sexed-up Diaz. In “Sex Tape,” the trio attempt to deliver that same kind of raunch with a broad and outlandish premise, but the well runs dry about halfway through because it never takes off in the way it should or even could have.
The first of many issues with the film begins in the opening shot as individuals in these types of films are always given the most fantastical kinds of jobs. We meet Annie (Diaz) as she writes on her blog (“Who’s Yo Mommy” of all the generic titles in the world) about the loss of any kind of sex life between her and her husband Jay (Segel) since becoming busy parents. Not only does Annie have the ability to stay at home with her children and write for a living, but the opportunity to sell her blog to a large corporation for an unspecified amount of money (though it is expected to be substantial) is on the horizon. To make matters even more comfortable Jay works at a radio station where we presume he is some kind of manager or show-runner as he has access to a plethora of iPads that allow him a system of logging music for the station. This little detail brings us to my main fear going into this movie which is that the premise was almost too outlandish in that the execution would be a convoluted mess to try and convince us that it was even a possibility for all of Jay and Annie's friends to have access to the content of their personal devices. Giving Jay this profession and somehow making it seem plausible that a never-ending stream of iPad's is necessary to keep adding music to his library gives him an excuse to hand out the older models as gifts with the extra bonus of containing his expansive music catalog that in turn syncs the gifts with the rest of Jay's content including the titular video he and Annie decide to make to spice up their sex life. From here, the movie is basically a race against time to save their reputations and job prospects which attempts to position the film as a rage-fueled night of adventure to turn the predicament around, but really only boils down to one set of circumstances involving Rob Lowe and cocaine. Naturally, there is an underlying attempt to make the creation of the sex tape represent more than just a mean to an end in recapturing the intensity of their early relationship, but Kasdan is unable to balance the raunchy with the sweet in the same, credible way Apatow generally does.
The hook with this film was always going to be the re-teaming of Segel and Diaz as their comedic chemistry was the highlight of “Bad Teacher” and spelled at least some excitement for a feature-length documentation of what their relationship might be like. In this regard there is a lot to love at least about the first half of the film. The comedy is light and the setting-up of the premise is promising. Though these characters live in this kind of fantasy suburban-land where everyone has shiny white houses and fences and celebrate fourth grade graduations (and throw parties for it) we can at least relate to them as people which means understanding the hassle of day to day life and the frustrations that come along with getting older and taking on more responsibility; these points of connection may be broad, but this is me likely being too kind. The opening montage in which Diaz's Annie recounts the infatuation stage of her and Jay's relationship contains a few gems in terms of comedic moments as does the aforementioned trip to Lowe's mansion. Lowe plays Hank Rosenbaum who is Annie's prospective boss at Piper Brothers, the toy company interested in acquiring Annie's blog, who at first seems to be a very conservative personality as he asks Annie about cleaning up the aforementioned post about the couples sagging sex life to make it more in line with the Piper Brothers brand. When Jay and Annie catch Hank on a night-in by himself in an attempt to retrieve the iPad Annie gave him with her resume and presentation on it though, things get a little crazy. This scene, which involves Hank and Annie sharing a few lines of blow, discussion of diarrhea, fights with German Shepard's, drawers filled with dildos (which seems to be a common theme in summer comedies this year) and last but not least Disney-inspired paintings incorporating Lowe's face is, needless to say, the highlight of the film. That certain amount of energy the film opened with continues through the ups and downs of Annie and Jay trying to re-capture the passion of their sex life, the idea to make a video with the concept of doing every position in "The Joy of Sex," to the realization their tape has been uploaded to the cloud and through to the element of mystery that is incited by a text message that sends them on this wild goose chase to the point things were looking better than expected. It is after this landmark scene featuring Lowe that things begin to fall apart though and the film loses steam and is unable to recover even through a fun appearance by Jack Black near the conclusion.
The most disappointing aspect of “Sex Tape” though is that it is a comedy with a brash title that is almost afraid to be defined by any of the thoughts, ideas or words that might relate to such a subject. It is a somewhat risqué title and premise that is explored within the constructs of a safe, standard comedy. Sure there are shots of Segel and Diaz's dairy aire's and close-ups that suggest they are in difficult, abnormal positions and there is a profuse amount of profanity in ways that make you wonder how the people around them don't get irritated, but we never really feel like the envelope is being pushed. This brings up another point of missed opportunity in the supporting players. Lowe, while only in a couple of scenes, is able to make a major impression and I was really hoping that the likes of both Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper might be given the chance to do the same if not more. Corddry and Kemper play Robby and Tess, Jay and Annie's good friends who they hope are the culprits behind the mysterious text message. The couple have a fun, carefree dynamic and the appeal of both the actors playing them goes a long way, but unless they are playing up the running joke of their characters ogling over their friends sex tape which in turn gives them reason to re-kindle some passion, there isn't much for them to do. Robby and Tess have a son, Howard (Harrison Holzer), who is an odd bird from the get-go and plays into the story in way that is ultimately unfortunate, but more than anything I wish writer Kate Angelo would have better fleshed out these supporting players so that not only would the talents of Corddry and Kemper be able to bring them to life, but give them something more to add to and riff on that would have added a more grounded reality to the extreme premise and safe constructs. Ultimately, “Sex Tape” comes down to Segel delivering a heartfelt speech that feels more generic than moving as the film’s climax and is an archetype we've of course seen countless times before. The film attempts to dig deeper by getting to the core of the issue that pushed Annie and Jay to feel the need to make a sex tape in the first place, but this combined with everything else the film is throwing at us doesn't add up to a satisfying experience.
by Philip Price
The exorcism/possession movie should be retired for the moment and given some time to breathe. The idea of scaring people through a visual medium while relying on the inherent mysterious and otherworldly aspects of religion has officially become tired. Of course, if Hollywood were to stop cranking out horror movies centered around exorcisms it would pretty much be akin to them doing away with action movies based around super heroes. It's not going to happen so at the very least we should be able to hope for a film that is competently put together (which seems to be asking for a lot in these days of found footage) while also bringing something new to the table. “Deliver Us From Evil” has always had the potential to bring a fresh perspective on things to this tired genre given several factors including its director, Scott Derrickson. Derrickson has slowly been making a voice for himself over the past decade now as this marks his third trek into the realm of horror after 2005's “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and 2012's “Sinister.” Yes, even he has already crafted an exorcism film which proves to be somewhat of a template for his latest that again melds the idea of a scary movie with another genre of film entirely. In ‘Emily Rose’ it was that of a courtroom drama, Derrickson pulling back the small bubble of a world that these supernatural events seem to happen in on film with no repercussions on a larger society and showing us what would happen if they did. It is what happens when one takes their subject matter seriously and as both the director and co-screenwriter Derrickson is able to give his stories the utmost respect in terms of credibility and that type of approach can only work for a director as it has done again here in “Deliver Us From Evil.” All of that said, this latest addition (which feels like the end of a horror trilogy before Derrickson moves on to Marvel) is a lesser work than ‘Emily Rose’ or “Sinister” in that it doesn't have the same edge or thrill to its pacing or proceedings. Where ‘Emily Rose’ felt urgent and truly disturbing “Sinister” was a meticulous slow burn that, admittedly, has a clunky third act. “Deliver Us From Evil” has all the elements to keep us interested and intrigued from the get-go, but never does it feel as compelling as it should until the final scenes.
As is typically noted “Deliver Us From Evil” is also based, or should I say inspired, by something true which this time is perpetrated as being the case files of one Ralph Sarchie. Sarchie (played by Eric Bana in the film) was a New York police officer who, by the end of his time with the department, became a decorated sergeant and went on to become a demonologist. This has all been widely presented to the masses in hopes of drawing on the curiosity of those who find the potential of such things we typically relegate to fiction as something of a truth. Obviously, some liberties have been taken and I wouldn't count out entire characters being imagined with Sgt. Sarchie's case files as translated by Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman. We meet Sarchie as he roams the Bronx at night with partner Butler (Joel McHale) taking cases that set off his "radar" or kind of intuition that tells him certain calls will be filled with action or at least more layered things to look through than your standard robberies. Butler is an adrenaline junkie and Sarchie feeds him while playing up his own persona after becoming semi-famous in the NYPD for taking down a highly sought-after child molester a few years prior. Sarchie also happens to have been a boy raised in the Catholic church, but has since lost touch with his faith or "outgrown all of that stuff" as he so delicately puts it. This plays into the development of the character of course, but is really highlighted by the increasing need for involvement by Father Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez), a Jesuit priest. Father Mendoza isn't your typical priest as he smokes cigarettes one after another and will, with pleasure, explain to you the difference between NA and AA (the one of which he prefers being the one that kills him slowly). It is when a few cases Sarchie is working on involving a mother tossing her child into a ravine at the Bronx Zoo and a man who voluntarily drinks paint thinner to kill himself cross paths and contain more of a spiritual element than Sarchie, or anyone for that matter, might like to acknowledge that he aligns himself with Mendoza. The relationship between the two is built naturally with an understanding between them giving their serious acts against possession during the climax of the film a wider sense of affirmation.
The film really rests on the shoulders of Bana and Ramirez and this ever-evolving dynamic between their characters that culminates if not in a surprising way, is at least more satisfying than you might expect given the genre of the film. Horror is such a tough beast to tackle given everything that has come before and the tricks of the trade that are no longer shocking and so at this point if you're going to make a scary movie you have to anchor it by the characters you have in play. Derrickson realizes that and that is why he casts actors like Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Ethan Hawke and Eric Bana rather than up and coming Abercrombie and Fitch models looking for bigger paychecks. He understands the power of character plus concept and that is where he finds a point of entry into the story and just continues to dig further. We meet Bana's Sarchie as he is grasping onto a dead infant he and Butler have found at the bottom of a dumpster while the film is book-ended by a scene that both mirrors and surpasses this moment in showing the evolution of Sarchie and not necessarily how he learns from his experiences (his life in the NYPD is consistently disturbing, there is only so much he can gain from seeing the gruesome), but it is in what he takes away from these instances and how he applies them to his life and grows from them that the film takes into heavy account. Bana makes it clear for the first half of the film that Sarchie is not dealing with his work-life balance in the most proactive of ways, but is instead zoning out from his family so as to try and restrict the darkness of his nights from seeping into their home. Of course, this results in the mandatory complaint of his wife, Jen (Olivia Munn), that even when he is home that he isn't really there. This kind of distance re-enforces the overall theme of a lack of faith or that something extra that we all need in life to comfort us and reassure us that we're not in this alone or making it through our day-to-day for nothing. As much as Sarchie denounces the silliness of Bible stories, he misses the novelty it brought to his childhood. It is this kind of underlying presence of character motivation and acting depth that separate Derrickson's horror flicks from the pack.
One might wonder if the execution of Bana's character development over the course of the film is so well done then why does the film as a whole feel like a lesser effort than the director’s earlier ones? Well, the answer to that is in the form of how the film trudges through the first hour and a half as opposed to the intentional pacing of “Sinister” and the urgency with which ‘Emily Rose’ builds to the culmination of its two narratives. In “Deliver Us From Evil” Derrickson combines the beats of a police procedural with the investigation into plots that we've seen countless times before. That the meat of the film comes from the confrontation and further analysis of one another through Sarchie and Mendoza's conversations is disappointing because their relationship is put on simmer and only in the last half of the film and into the climax do we get the fruits of these labors. Leading to the partnership of Sarchie and Mendoza we are communicated the details of our antagonist Santino (Sean Harris) and the details with which he has come to allow this portal to another world that have permitted demons into ours to occur. It is in this plotting that the film lacks the narrative drive to justify what it is building to, but that seems only because I hold Derrickson to a higher standard than other horror directors. That said, the build-up is shaped by a strong performance from Bana who conveys his arc with his personal issues and reservations about leaping into the realm of spiritually-based theories with understandable caution. I rather enjoyed the film to the point that films like this don't come along too often anymore, but have reservations about my excitement over it because my wife is a stickler for horror movies and she found this to be nothing more than "another movie". Still, you could do much, much worse in looking for a scary movie to watch than “Deliver Us From Evil” even if I would still recommend Derrickson's previous efforts before this one. “Deliver Us From Evil” is that competent horror film that brings a fresh perspective to the genre in the form of the cop drama; it pairs the drama of these investigations and the bottom of society with the thrills of the supernatural elements and manages an interesting story if not withholding its more interesting insights until just before the credits roll instead of spreading them out evenly.
by Philip Price
You can tell a lot about a person’s intelligence level by what they laugh at. There is a lot of laughing to be had in “Obvious Child” that springs from the inherent comedic mentality of star Jenny Slate, but as the conclusion draws near and the agenda becomes clearer the laughing becomes less and less. I find this interesting because while the film wants to deal with the issue of abortion in a way that doesn't place judgment on its protagonist it also very much alludes to the fact she is still in an adolescent frame of mind. How are we to accept her decisions as well thought-out or mature if she herself doesn't want to be an adult yet? This could, of course, resort to questions about why she is casually throwing her vagina around as well, but we won't get into that here. That Slate and her writer/director Gillian Robespierre can't really approach the topics of motherhood or how far along the baby is when it is aborted show they are just as afraid to get into the thick of the fight as those right-wing, faith-based films are to admit that all atheists aren't bad people. As a kind of epilogue to this review I *guess* I should comment on where I stand when it comes to the issue of abortion because that will undoubtedly influence the reaction you have to this film. I'd consider myself a fairly liberal guy. I don't have anything against same-sex marriage, as a Catholic I'm not even going to force the age old argument of why contraception is wrong down your throat, but when it comes to abortion I can't get behind the idea that it is OK and that is what “Obvious Child” wants you to believe. I understand that in some scenarios it might be the only option or even necessary which is to say in cases of rape, where the mother’s health is at risk, or incest. Under the set of circumstances this film presents though they are striving so hard to come at things from the opposite perspective and to deliver a pro-choice message that not only do things get away from the appealing character interactions of the first half of the film, but diminish this huge decision in a person's life to a simplicity I wish weren't based in so much fact.
We are introduced to Slate's Donna Stern as she performs a stand-up comedy routine that mainly consists of jokes about her butthole and how women feel forced to shut them off when around the opposite sex for fear of farting in front of them. Of course, when she gets home and into her own bed she lets loose and makes the whole thing a big, steaming fart pod. I won't lie, I laughed and you can take from that what you will about my intelligence. Slate is funny and her honesty will get her places, especially in the caveat of little New York indie films where the point of immaturity evolving into adulthood continues to go up in age. Like anything we've seen in the last few years such as HBO's “Girls” or last summer’s “Frances Ha” this is about a woman in her late 20's (let's be honest, you can't even call it mid-20's anymore) trying to discover who she is and how to get to where she wants to be. There is nothing wrong with this, there is absolutely nothing wrong with continuing to expand your mind, exploring your options and chasing dreams, but by this point in her life or our lives most of us should have at least carved out a certain path for ourselves yet Donna seems destined to go nowhere fast. Her mother (Polly Draper) sees it and her father (Richard Kind) can't face it. They equally care for their daughter, but in different ways. Her mother doesn't particularly like her taste in men while her father is keen to encourage her creativity while ignoring the surrounding issues. Donna is broken up with after her set at the beginning of the film and she does not go on to deal with it well. Her friends, Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) and Joey (Gabe Liedman), encourage her to move on and get over it while one night she does exactly that with Max (Jake Lacy) and winds up pregnant because of it.
The bits of stand-up and the interactions between Donna and Joey and Donna and Max are so genuine and show such a wide range of emotion that it is hard to accept Donna's turn towards Nellie's ultra-feminist stance at the end of the film. This archetypal attitude has Nellie trying too hard to always be pissed off and go against the grain no matter if she actually disagrees or not. She will oppose because she believes she can't settle and the organization of society will never be good enough for her because if she did or if it was she wouldn't live up to the personal standards she holds herself to. I try to step back and evaluate these dividing issues on an individual basis; evaluating each by what my moral compass feels is right and wrong rather than simply always feeling one way because a group I may have been stuck in or labeled as tells me I should think a certain way. Wearing black and getting piercings doesn't make you different it just places you in another group, just like the jocks. By trying too hard you only become a conformist yourself.
If you are quick to label me as a conservative and all that comes along with that title simply because I don't find abortion a good option due to social or economic reasoning then I understand there is no changing your mind and you may enjoy a lot of this movie, I know I did up until they became tasteless in terms of their comedy for the sake of their opinion. Is it a coincidence every woman around Donna has also conveniently had an abortion and at an early age or in an earlier time period so as to make them seem in some way brave or more sympathetic? Of course not, but since we are considered prudes if we condemn the literal screwing around of human beings as being irresponsible then I guess it is intended to be positioned this way. For me, and I realize I don't know what it's like to be in their shoes but that's because I made decisions that never put me in those shoes, it is very hard to feel any kind of sympathy for a woman who has a strong support system (granted her parents are divorced) and chooses to live the kind of alternative lifestyle she does get an abortion simply out of convenience and selfishness. As much as those opposed to the pro-life act want to champion the fact women should be able to do what they want with their bodies does that also extend to what they get to do with their unborn child's body? They will also champion the fact that at five weeks old the fetus couldn't be technically classified as a human being, but it is certainly a living organism. As an expectant father myself who heard his child's heartbeat at six weeks it is impossible to imagine snuffing that sound out so my life might not be as complicated due to something I merely think I'm not ready for.
I will even give Donna the benefit of understanding that she is trying to cope with her decision by doing what she does best in telling jokes and I understand that because she can't even face Max long enough to tell him the truth and has to resort to telling it on stage during her act, but in reality it just comes off as all the more crass. I get that you are all progressive and hip for being pro-choice, but does that also mean you feel the need to push the envelope that much further by telling jokes about murdering a kid? Would it be too submissive to show remorse for the actions being taken or was that single tear meant to be redemptive enough? I really don't mean to sound like I'm preaching. I don't want to be THAT person, but before we go out and make things a huge issue over disagreements (which many will say this film is trying to avoid) I'd hoped we might simply look at things on a basic human level and from that gauge there are more solutions to problems than killing them off. It's upsetting that train of thought seems to be asking for too much.
The real problem is we have become a society so focused on the individual we can't see past anything else. Every child is raised to believe they can be what they want to be, that they can accomplish their dreams or are the best even when they fail, but this mentality is beginning to double back on us. Like those parents who have stopped giving their children vaccines to keep things more natural and as a result are now seeing certain diseases make their way back into circulation, the more we preach the importance of self and not community the quicker we are going to run civilization into the ground. Don't get me wrong, everyone should have ambitions and certainly go after those if your talents match, but there is also the moment in your life where you step back, evaluate and see what might be the more satisfactory life when you're nearing death rather than only considering the immediate future. This pivotal moment, this meeting with Max and night of lust could have been a turning point for Donna and the direction her life was heading (the conclusion of the film strongly hints this is still a possibility), but for the film to be praised as refreshing because the main character gets an abortion because she wants to and isn't hassled about it is upsetting for me because it looks at life and other possibilities in such a passive manner. These characters are conveyed as intellectuals and academics, strong observers given their lenience on stand-up yet they dismiss a thousand interesting philosophical questions as if it were nothing because they are too focused on themselves to step back and gain any kind of perspective.
I realize this has been more of an essay on why I don't support abortion and why I can feel that way but still not have an issue with other *ISSUES* plaguing our society, but this line of thought is what the film inspired me to feel and so it is how I responded. As for the craft of the picture it was well enough for a first time feature director, though the pacing was slow at times (even at 84 minutes) and while the relationships between the characters and the natural aesthetics are compelling the themes and ideas being perpetrated can only be seen as unfortunate.
by Philip Price
Is escapism really that if the relief we seek turns out to be just as unpleasant as the reality? It is questions such as this that begin to seep into your mind during the exhausting, nearly three-hour experience that is “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” Director Michael Bay has no intentions of creating anything other than grand escapism here in that this is not a film intended for a specific audience or niche, but is mass appeal in the largest sense possible. The thing about Bay that most people hate is that he has the mentality of a 12 year-old boy and composes his films from that perspective while being technically proficient. While there will be those who ask what might be wrong with the imagination of a pre-teen boy splattered across an IMAX screen the answer is technically, nothing, but might result in some incohesive story elements and slight exploitation of the young female body. There are stereotypes thrown around here from time to time, but the racism has been dialed back considerably from the truly messy second installment, ‘Revenge of the Fallen.’ There is no mention of Sam Witwicky anywhere and thus there is no forced feeling of having to evolve that character from where we saw him last allowing for the new humans to simply exist in order to aid the giant robots in whatever quest they are out to achieve this time. The film is unnecessarily, even punishingly long in that you'll be sitting in the theater for over three hours if you arrive early and catch the previews. Bay could have easily kept this at a strict two hours while providing some solid entertainment, some stunning visuals and a story the majority of us could follow with ease, but he doesn't. Bay is not one to avoid indulgence and so what we have actually been given is an over-complicated version of a rather simple story that in being so big forgets the little things such as a reason for shoe-horning in robot dinosaurs. To be fair, ‘Age of Extinction’ is in some ways an improvement over the last two films in that Bay seems to try and take the criticisms he's given and apply them to improving his work (the streamlined story, the less distracting human characters) yet in the end it more or less feels like we're watching the same things we've already seen before.
Picking up five years after the battle between the Autobots and Decepticons that leveled Chicago, the government believes all alien robots to be a threat. As a result, CIA agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) has established a unit whose sole purpose is to hunt down all of them. This "secret unit" of course holds a twist in that Attinger and his right-hand man Savoy (Titus Welliver) have partnered with a mysterious alien robot who is searching for Optimus Prime as well as having planted some kind of seed on our planet when the dinosaurs roamed. That's not even the best part though, you see, because not only is Attinger hunting down and killing Decepticons, but he is also after the Autobots. Attinger's belief is that humans never should have partnered with the robots at all and to sustain peace from here on out and avoid another Chicago scenario that every single one of them needs to be sought out and destroyed. Thus, we meet Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) an inventor and "robotics expert" from Texas who one day stumbles on an old truck and upon taking a closer look realizes what he may have on his hands might not only be a Transformer in hiding, but their leader Optimus Prime (again voiced by Peter Cullen). The fear the government has placed in the general public seeps into Yeager's partner, Lucas (T.J. Miller), who reports the whereabouts of Optimus resulting in a visit from Savoy and his boys to the Yeager ranch. This forces Cade, his abouot to graduate daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) on the run and to naturally join forces with the remaining Autobots that include Hound (John Goodman), Drift (Ken Watanabe), Ratchet (Robert Foxworth), Crosshairs (John DiMaggio) and of course Bumblebee. You think the mysterious alien race who is assisting Attinger in his quest and has struck a deal to give the humans this much-hyped "seed" in exchange for Optimus is enough though? Well, Bay doesn't. Enter Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) a defense contractor and President of technology company KSI (Kinetic Solutions Incorporated) that is taking the scraps of Transformers destroyed in the battle of Chicago and re-imaging them into man-made Transformers such as Galvatron (Frank Welker) who has the soul of Megatron. Bad news.
Even with everything that is going on here it still manages to somehow feel less like a bunch of stuff being thrown at you and instead has some semblance of a point. As an audience we at least have a likable conduit into the action in the form of Wahlberg's Yeager and we understand the main, overarching goal of the film and its multiple characters. Where the film fails is in its need to jumble the smaller details throughout that create a mess of questions that get in the way of a simple answer. Not until now, when I've been forced to sit back and recall exactly what I thought of the film and the justifications for those thoughts, have I really began to understand the reasoning for all the little caveats included in this movie except for the dinosaurs. So, the film opens on a gorgeous prehistoric earth where dinosaurs roam as it is descended upon by ships that scorch the earth insinuating the extinction of any life on the planet. Cut to Antarctica in present day and we see what is eventually revealed to be one of Joyce's many assistants reporting to a site where the skeleton of a metal dinosaur has been unearthed. From there, we move onto the easy-feeling, warm colored Texas skies and meet our main protagonists that fail to address anything about the dinosaur element until the last half hour of the film when Optimus calls on help from these "legends" to which he tames and climbs aboard and proceeds to ride into downtown Hong Kong. It is beyond silly and to a certain extent we can't help but feel like Bay is testing just how far he can push things while still raking in as much cash as his studio expects this kind of entertainment to make. To say ‘Age of Extinction’ is ridiculous is an understatement, but it is hard to be mad or even come up with a typical review or take on a film like this when nearly everything about it is so impressive. When I say that it is impressive I mean that while it overall, and certainly on initial viewing, feels like a mess there is a fair amount of elements here that hold it together; the most compelling of which are the monstrous visuals Bay has put together. Bay is a director of overexposed stills patched together to form a moving picture. Bay loves the staging and composition of shots to which he can create the most epic of feelings so that your reaction is in awe and even in the simplest of insert shots here he is working on a grand scale.
As an enthusiast of film who revels in the ability of a director who can show rather than tell I have always had a soft-spot for the visual stylings of Bay and how fearless he is in going for the money shot and holding on it while basically telling the audience they need to soak this in. By this point he has built such an extensive library of tricks, favorite angles and camera movements that he could no doubt make a movie like this in his sleep and at certain times, for longer than necessary stretches, it can feel that way. It is when his movie enters the large cities or the freeways that things get exceptional though. The pure advancement of how seamless the interaction between both robots vs. robots and the humans and the robots is astonishing, but when you have Wahlberg, Peltz and Reynor suspended between a Chicago skyscraper and an alien spaceship, ready to fall as Bumblebee jumps out to save them, and it is captured with such clarity and scale you see the wonder Bay is truly capable of capturing and even if you hate the rest of the film you kind of have to appreciate those moments. After teaming up with Wahlberg in last year’s sorely underrated Pain & Gain Bay was also smart enough to extend an invitation to the actor, who is arguably one of the few bankable "names on a poster" these days, to anchor his fourth installment. As Yeager, Wahlberg gives his best "everyman" performance allowing for the audience to trust the guy immediately and for us to buy his drive in making things right if not for any personal reasons, but simply for the fact he is a good guy. Screenwriter Ehren Kruger (who has been with the franchise since ‘Revenge of the Fallen’) has changed up the dynamics of the humans to great effect while Peltz is surprisingly able to transcend Bay's capitalization of her female assets and create some kind of sympathy for her character while Reynor doesn't so much register as he does try too hard. Bay is once again able to round up extremely credible talent such as Grammer and Tucci to elevate this material into realms it doesn't deserve while Tucci especially loves chewing the scenery here.
‘Age of Extinction’ is far too long and only creates Tucci's character in order to set-up an antagonist for the inevitable fifth film. The film is redundant to the point it beats the audience over the head with explosions. Sans Wahlberg and Tucci there isn't much of an emotional connection or attachment to the characters or what they are taking part in here. Unless one is well-versed in the Transformers universe it is still difficult to tell which robots are good and which are bad at certain points and the characterizations of these robots only seem to be getting more outlandish (here's looking at you, Hound). These are all valid complaints with which I would agree. Still, there is something to be said for a film that can go on for nearly three hours and not be considered boring or lose your attention if not for trying to figure out what the hell is actually going on, but for it's sweeping, beautiful visuals and cacophony of soundtrack, metal clanging, bombs going off and people screaming and yelling that ultimately results in a senses overload. Bay and his Transformers may not highlight the deeper senses of human existence (though the Transformers existence is a relevant theme here), but at least his films make general audiences feel that the money they spent on the ticket and concessions was likely justified if not in a sophisticated way but in that of pure, sometimes exhausting, escapism kind of way.
by Philip Price
2011's re-tooling of the ‘Planet of the Apes’ franchise was a surprise in many ways, but mostly in the way that it was really good. I went into the film with modest expectations. Having only ever seen the 1968 original and the Tim Burton re-make I wasn't soaked in the lore of the franchise and didn't hold out hope for a resurgence in the narrative. Still, when you go into a movie framed as somewhat of an origin story and understand where it ultimately has to lead there is a level of intrigue you can't exactly put your finger on and that is what “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” capitalized on and did so in ways that made the picture, as a full body of work, excel in many ways. With those kinds of expectations set for the sequel and the fantastic trailers that have been rolling out over the past six months it was difficult to adjust one's excitement for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” in a fashion that might not be cause for disappointment when the movie finished playing. While I tried to avoid the trailers after the second one was released it was almost impossible to not see several television spots over the past month as Twentieth Century Fox has done well to position this as one of if not the major event movie of the summer. There was a lot of general love for ‘Rise’ as I can recall speaking with friends who don't go to the movies regularly and them telling me they decided to go see it and how much they enjoyed it. That kind of attitude seemed to resonate with the average movie-goer and will no doubt translate to bigger business for ‘Dawn,’ but while I can imagine this sequel being more than a satisfactory trip to the movies for those who enjoyed ‘Rise’ once the excitement calms down it will likely become clearer the film suffers from not having as much substance, as much allegory or as much emotional depth as the first did. While it should not be thought I didn't enjoy this film (it is actually thoroughly enjoyable and will be worthy of repeat viewings) it is not a film that aspires towards the greatness of the first and because of this lack of complexity it feels all the safer, all the more generic and any other adjectives such as these that allow ‘Dawn’ to distance itself from the attributes that made Rise so interesting and entertaining.
Remember the pilot from the first film? The one who was neighbors with James Franco's Will Rodman and was exposed to the disease contracted by Rodman's lab partner Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine)? It seems the pilot took that disease across the globe and it spread like wildfire. As “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” opens we are between 10-to-15 years removed from the events of the first film and the human race is on its last leg. How many are left? No one is certain, but Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his band of apes have retreated to the forests outside of San Francisco and have made a comfortable living for themselves, not intervening with what might be left of the human race. Caesar has a son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), who is eager to please his father by becoming a leader yet his inability to be patient and listen stunts his growth. Koba (Toby Kebbell) still stands by Caesar's side, ready to fight whenever his anger is called upon and setting a more attractive example for the young, impressionable Blue Eyes. Caesar has also just had another son with partner Cornelia (Judy Greer) whose body isn't coping well with the repercussions of giving birth. Enter the human element of our story in the form of Malcolm (Jason Clarke) his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Ellie (Keri Russell), hot-headed Carver (Kirk Acevedo) as well as extra muscle Foster and Kemp (Jon Eyez and Enrique Murciano). This small group of humans are searching for a dam on the outskirts of the city that may help them generate more power and sustain their lifestyle for a longer period of time when they come across this colony of apes. As we are all prone to violence to protect what we fear there is an immediate distaste for one another. Caesar is a thinker though and despite his anger, still understands the concept of nothing in absolutes-that there are as many bad apes as there are good humans. When Caesar allows the humans to live and to return to their own colony the revelation of what the apes have become is too much for the masses as well as their leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), to let go of. You can imagine what happens next.
What made ‘Rise’ so interesting was that despite the fact we knew where the story would have to eventually end it still made the moments that were necessary feel organic. With ‘Dawn’ there is an aspect to the storytelling where it feels things happen because we know they have to and ultimately not much ends up happening in the film except for what can be summarized in a few sentences. I don't want to sound as if I'm doing nothing but comparing the film to its predecessor, but given how well Rise pulled off its objective one would imagine the sequel would take a few notes, at least in terms of how to convey the continuation of the same story. More than anything the issue seems to be that they are plodding through events now that they know they have a franchise on their hands and are extending what might have been half of a film into a full feature. The signs of this include the development of the human characters here as they are little more than a few characteristics with nothing below the surface. It is not the fault of talented actors like Clarke, Russel, Smit-McPhee or Oldman, it is simply that there is nothing on the page for them to do. They are part of this bigger world and exist in this movie to fill a role so that Caesar, Koba and their followers may get from point A to point B. While this type of structure is the objective of most films, that the proceedings here are so transparent make the effort put into bringing this story to life not as great and result in a final product that is not as satisfying as it could be. Of course, it is clear that great effort has been put into other aspects of the production as the film is a visual wonder to behold and worth seeing on the big screen for that reason alone. There is no compassion for the situation without Caesar and there is no arguing that this is not a full performance from Andy Serkis. The film both opens and closes with close-up shots of Caesar's eyes and in those digital eyes we in fact see a soul. It is incredible and the special effects are flawless. No matter how silly the thought of apes riding on horseback while wielding guns may sound the folks that put these scenes together have created some startling realistic images that convey more depth and emotion in the apes facial expressions and body language than some of the humans can muster with their dialogue.
I understand how it may sound in that I wasn't too impressed with this film, but that would not be a true statement. There are indeed some great, small moments throughout whether it be when Alexander teaches Maurice (Karin Konoval) to read a book or when Koba intelligently integrates himself into the human’s weapons arsenal by deceiving its guards. Matt Reeves takes over directing duties from Wyatt Russell on ‘Rise’ and focuses his story more on the apes and their growth and ability to read and judge a situation rather than the continual yearn for independence from the already present society the humans have constructed. Reeves allows his camera to linger on the apes, staging them in ways that give an imposing sense of strength and scale while every so often doing something just different enough (such as allowing the camera to spin on top of a tank while detailed action takes place in front of the camera) that we understand there is a level of deeper connection between the story that is being told and the way the filmmaker has invisibly chosen to tell us that story. As an action film ‘Dawn’ is more than up to the task, hitting the big moments frequently and earlier than I would have expected. What is strange about the film though is that for all its scope and grand set design with both expensive digital work and sweeping shots it still very much feels like a small instance, a contained blast of anger that I assume will only spread in the sequels to come. The underlying lessons by which Caesar comes to realize that his society has the same chance to fail as the humans did and that apes are not so different from man and in fact are similar in ways he was hoping to avoid is as deep or telling as the film gets while, given the layers of storytelling combined in ‘Rise,’ I was hoping for something more; an adventure where I felt like I went along on a journey with the characters rather than as a bystander watching what unfolds in front of me from a safe distance. ‘Dawn’ is interesting in that it never assigns the good guy role or the bad guy role to anyone specific, but rationally assigns different, understandable perspectives to each party and draws its conflict from that only to result in a story of the most generic kind-which is a real bummer considering how much good is going on here.
by Philip Price
What “Snowpiercer” has to its advantage more than most standard action or post-apocalyptic films these days are its interesting ideas. From the opening moments of the film where the audience is exposed to a flurry of exposition placing us in a world where man has attempted to control nature and in return has damned our earth to a frozen eternity I was hooked. The only survivors being locked within a speeding train, built and engineered to last forever, traveling the same course over and over again, completing the circle around the globe once a year. We learn of the passengers at the back of the train, those who are treated on a sub-human level and the few within the beaten and battered group that are planning a resistance, a revolution. This may instinctively conjure up comparisons to “Elysium” wherein the rich and poor are so distinctively separated that it seems convenient for the film to be interpreted as some type of propaganda, but director Joon-ho Bong never allows his film to slip into this kind of piece. Instead the throughline of “Snowpiercer” remains an unrelenting and unforgiving journey from one end of this locomotive to the other wherein our protagonist Curtis (Chris Evans) not only discovers the layers and the societal structures of those who live ahead of him, but how easily they have forgotten what is taking place not three cars away. Where many a post-apocalyptic film will maintain the focus on how society has come to work in the wake of failing and in turn sacrificing character development both this and “The Rover” prove that it is the actions and mentalities of the characters you create that define the rules of the world and not the mounds of exposition you have them spurting so that we understand those rules. “Snowpiercer” wastes little time explaining things, it trusts its audience and it gives only a brief amount of set-up before diving into the narrative that Curtis, his second in command Edgar (Jamie Bell) and their wise old leader, Gilliam (John Hurt), are setting in motion to push forward. What follows is a layered and engrossing series of obstacles that avoids feeling like a video game by creating these characters and dynamics between them to where we can't help but become invested.
Curtis is an angry, determined man who has sat begrudged by those who exist in front of him and irritated by the class system that has been established on the train. It is through his affinity for Gilliam that he listens to his words and his suggestions and that he takes note when it seems the time has finally come for an uprising. Curtis is the natural born leader, but he is afraid to take on the role, still looking to Gilliam to fill those shoes despite the fact his time is clearly more limited. As for Edgar, it is clear the admiration he holds for Curtis and the resentment that Curtis feels for being held in such esteem. It's not that it isn't flattering, but Curtis feels a certain pressure from it and he doesn't know if he can live up to the hope that has been instilled in his own mind much less those around him. Bong makes it clear that Curtis' world has always been very bleak and dark with no room to breathe and so when it is time for him to kick his plan into action we understand there is no looking back for this man and Evans is able to pull off the humanity of both this pressure and this liberation with a gravitas that isn't necessarily dignifying, but certainly significant in the repercussions it blows open. We are introduced early to Senator Mason (Tilda Swinton) who comes from the front of the train and who, like a President Snow figure, blurts out speeches about pre-ordained positions in life. That she has somehow been blessed with deserving to be a hat and therefore is at the head of the train while those in the back are the shoes in life, those who belong at the foot. It is all very theatrical which Swinton plays to the hilt and it all gives the impression of forcing a balanced lifestyle so that order is preserved. "Know your place. Keep your place." Mason says with believed justification. Curtis, Edgar and their fellow residents of the tail aren't willing to settle for last place though and so the revolution begins with comrades such as Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewen Bremner) leading the charge along with Curtis to find their sons that have been taken from them with no explanation. There is no clear plan after the initial escape for Curtis and we wonder what pushes him beyond that of hope, but it seems best to believe his attempt to break the barriers around him before he reaches a breaking point within his own is the better, less selfish option.
As I said in my recent review of “The Rover”: all systems fail eventually, it is inevitable, but usually when something is perceived as failing it is because something better, more efficient has come along-it will have been superseded. And, like I said in that review, this unfortunately is not typically the case when it comes to the loss of civilizing influences on humanity's way of life. These ideas can all equally be applied to “Snowpiercer,” but for as much as the world had fallen around these people they were immediately whisked into a new structure that told them who they were and where they belonged rather than allowing them to be lost and thus never giving them the chance to find themselves again and start anew. We could discuss the implications of Bong's film and how the script from he and Kelly Masterson and based on a French graphic novel is a metaphor for the oppressed and the oppressor or a mirror for how Western civilization would rather stay safe in their comfy middle class than face the fact the less fortunate starve every day, but those are the obvious links you can draw and so what is almost more engaging about this adventure film is how well it layers itself and the visual presence that Bong and cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong bring to this world. The gray color palette of the poor passengers and their dwellings with the transitional aesthetic that opens the train up as we move from car to car is both jarring in terms of the stark differences in how people are treated while also creating a contrast between the characters and their surroundings that is a piercing image that cuts straight to the point. Everything about this world feels so well-thought out not only in the way the narrative plays out, but in the facets of how life takes place. The punishments, the way in which food is dispersed and especially the dialogue all feel very pertinent to the central location. There is such a plausibility to the way things work and when the film makes its turns the logic with which life has come to exist continues to feel authentic because the dynamics of everyday life have not simply been glossed over, but highlighted in a way that we believe in these surroundings and the unknown threat that lies around every corner.
What I really enjoyed about the film though and what sets it apart from not being overly pretentious yet still thoughtful is the way the action is orchestrated. Much of this credit will be due to Bong and his stuntmen and choreographers who have both designed brutal and ruthless fight sequences while focusing in on the specific moments and characters to pull the right amount of emotion and shock from the scene. There is quite a lot to be taken aback by in “Snowpiercer” as it shifts from peeling back the layers of existence on the train to savage violence that makes you both squirm while appreciating the honesty that the movie is portraying. This honesty comes in the form of sacrifice and there was no way Curtis was going to travel the full extent of the train without sacrificing many things, namely lives. It would be pointless to go into which members of the cast make it further, but just know that no one is safe no matter how well-known they are. As for the actors and their performances Evans is at the top of his game. The stoic, square-jawed earnestness that does so much for him in the ‘Captain America’ films is allowed an undercurrent of pure hate here and it serves the volatile but intelligent Curtis well. We begin to wonder as the film draws closer to the front and of course its conclusion how much Curtis is actually willing to lose in return for what could end up being nothing. Paying to know what might happen with his life is worth it though I imagine having known earth outside of the train for seventeen years and then having dealt with being the scum of human existence for eighteen it was time to either go big or go home and Evans conveys this in a performance that is as physically able as it is emotionally resonant. Swinton is a scene-stealer every time she enters the frame while both Hurt and Spencer do what they do to bring a sense of sobriety to the proceedings. I've always liked Jamie Bell and he does fine here eliciting the necessary relationship between his Edgar and Curtis, but he seems a bit too old for the role in the way that I instinctively saw Edgar and Curtis as equals rather than as master/apprentice.
Curtis is also aided on his journey by Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), a prisoner who built the system that locks the doors separating one car from the next, and his daughter (Go Ah-sung) both of whom are addicted to a drug called Kronol. These two prove more and more critical with each passing car, and the performances, while mainly spoken in their native tounge are translated via the emotion in their voices, body language and the other characters reactions which only serves to further prove the efficiency with how Bong has not only captured the impressive action and scale contained in this limited space, but how he naturally conveys the themes of his work not through language, but through key visuals and specific actions. “Snowpiercer” feels like a wallop of a film, one that hits you but won't necessarily stay with you much like “Edge of Tomorrow.” It is a film that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking and I won't have a problem watching it again, but for all intents and purposes it hasn't resonated with me as much as something more meditative like “The Rover” has. That isn't to say this is a bad film, I clearly enjoyed it and there is absolutely no harm in being an intellectual action film disguised as a summer sci-fi adventure. In fact, I could very easily grow accustomed to these kinds of films. Here's hoping.
by Philip Price
“Earth to Echo” is a critic-proof film. The real question will not be of how much critics sway potential audiences into seeing this film or not, but the reaction of the children and pre-teens in the audience who will either latch onto or dismiss it. Being a few days removed from the film I still can't decide if this is something that will catch on or not, but unfortunately I lean towards the latter. Save for a few of the more visually impressive moments I don't remember much about the film. In a film that is banking on the nostalgia of parents and the innocent mentality of their children this is a film that should be nothing short of a memorable experience, but in a market saturated by science fiction stories and an audience that finds no "out of this world" value or surprise in alien invasion stories you need something different than ‘E.T.’ The problem is we've all seen the story before and no one cares if you've decided to update it by conveying the narrative through more current technology and by adapting the "found-footage" style that itself is beginning to go out of style. “Earth to Echo” can be interesting for its look at the way in which kids of today communicate more efficiently (but not necessarily better or less awkwardly) and how smart phones, Face Time, Go Pro Cameras and video chat have enabled them to capture the events of a night such as this documents, but the fact it is more relevant than something like “Super 8” doesn't mean we get to know the characters better or invest in them and it most definitely isn't an excuse to re-hash a story we've seen countless times before without adding anything new. The film does have a few character moments, I will give it that, because it isn't completely devoid of innovation. The friendships being pushed to the limits here create some drama for the audience to connect with, but it isn't nearly as compelling as it should be given the child actors (mainly Teo Halm as Alex who is given the more emotional baggage) aren't all that convincing. Regardless of if I am too out of touch with adolescent culture to know if this will connect with them or not (I hope I'm not, I called “Despicable Me” right out of the gate) or if I've seen one too many movies recycle this same catalyst to precipitate the events that occur this all just feels too tired to be worthy of consideration.
We are introduced to the world of three Nevada boys who I assume are in the sixth or seventh grade as led by Tuck (only credited as Astro here who was apparently on the “X Factor”) and also includes Alex (Halm) who is the foster child of the group, taken in by his new parents and who is being re-located away from his friends because of a new highway development by the city. Munch (Reese Hartwig) is the oddball for lack of a better term, but is endearing to his friends and they take him with them not out of a sense of obligation, but because they care about him. Munch will also be moving soon leaving only Tuck in the neighborhood where they've formed this once-believed indestructible friendship. In light of these recent revelations Tuck is determined to make the most out of the time they have left. When strange occurrences begin to take place and their phones begin to "throw-up" as they so affectionately refer to it the boys decide to look into things further. Munch, who is essentially the Data of the group, figures out that the images the phones are throwing up look fairly similar to maps of a region close by. It isn't clear what this means, but it is intriguing and a good enough hook for this trio of friends to spend their last night together investigating. The boys follow the maps on their phones, duping their parents by telling each set they are staying the night at one another’s houses, but when finally reaching the spot in the middle of the dessert that their phones lead them to it seems there is nothing to find. There is a piece of junk to be kicked around, but only to Munch's curiosity do they take the piece with them. Through this anti-climactic final adventure together the bonds of their friendship are pulled tight, but strange things begin to take place on their trek home when the once believed hunk of junk begins beeping.
It is hard to write about a film like “Earth to Echo” because 1) much of the plot is being kept under wraps in the marketing and 2) the majority of what unravels is rather generic and nothing worth noting. It is a children's film, one where the makers rely on the audience not having a large pool of knowledge to pull from so that much of what occurs seems fresh while distracting the parents with the affirmation that Hollywood still turns out films like it did when they were kids. The acting is passable at best as it is clear Astro is trying a bit too much to "act" at times and Halm doesn't know how to genuinely pull off an emotional sequence while Hartwig, who arguably has the toughest job of the bunch in being inherently goofy without trying too hard, comes off as the most natural. The boys are joined in the middle of the film by Emma (Ella Wahlestedt) who at least pulls some of the attention and strain of the relationships being put to the test off the focus of the film and more onto the main narrative that concerns this tiny little robot alien that was wrapped in the piece of junk in the desert.
Our titular alien communicates only through beeps making for an inherently interesting way in which the story of how it came to earth and what it is trying to accomplish is unearthed (wink, wink). There are certainly other things to enjoy here such as the visual magic that has created the seamless interactions with Echo, the pacing is rather brisk thanks to basic plot devices putting the group on the run and the money scene where Echo's powers finally put themselves on full display by disassembling an 18-wheeler, the gang driving through it, and then reassembling the semi on the other side of them; it really is too bad they gave that shot away in the trailer. This "on the run" mentality comes from both Echo's quest and the urgency placed upon them by the recurrent drop-ins of Dr. Lawrence Madsen (Jason Gray-Stanford) who the boys recognize as one of the construction workers on the new highway site that is developing through the middle of their neighborhood. One can likely venture to guess Mr. Madsen is not merely a construction worker but something much more covert that will not only threaten the safety of Tuck, Alex and Munch's new friend but their friendships as well. This is a classic example of a film where the kids know better than the adults and “Earth to Echo” plays this aspect to the hilt.
The downfall of the film though, and it is hard to even use such harsh words given the earnest and well intentioned nature of the film, is that it isn't anywhere near as fresh or energetic as it wants to be. The implementation of technology along with the found footage element is looked at as being a value-add or as the original aspect to this kind of story that we haven't seen before, but these techniques don't substitute as innovation in story and that seems to be what director Dave Green and screenwriter Henry Gayden were hoping for and hoping the audience wouldn't notice. There really isn't much more to say about the movie besides the fact it will no doubt go exactly where you expect it to if you've seen any kind of science fiction or children's film over the last thirty years and if you thought adults being scared made for lousy camera work wait until you see twelve and thirteen year-old kids try it. I was unfortunate enough to sit in one of the front rows at my screening and with the camera work so erratic and unfocused there were honestly moments when I just looked away because I couldn't deal with the incohesive nature of the shot. I hoped in a few of the moments early on that they might decide to pull it back and that the entire film wouldn't strictly be through the eyes of these pre-teens, but then it honestly would be a contemporary “Super 8.” It would have been interesting maybe were we to get intermittent interviews with the kids looking back on the experiences they documented, but no, this is a full 90-minutes of home movies courtesy of your children and if the standard story wasn't enough to make this whole thing feel rather typical this influence certainly knocks it down to just below mediocre.