Tuesday, June 23, 2015

REVIEW: JURASSIC WORLD

Being out of school doesn't always mean you're free of homework. When it was announced that the fourth installment of the Jurassic Park franchise was coming out, I knew everybody would be talking about it. And when I realized that America's (current) favorite movie star Chris Pratt would be in the lead, I knew I'd have to see it. I had previously watched the original Spielberg, Oscar-winning classic at the age of 14, unfortunately a little too old to be completely captivated by it, like if I'd have watched it when I was an impressionable 8 or 9. I was still impressed with the astonishing special effects, something the 90s wasn't always known for. But I am no fool, and for five years had heard how the sequels left...well, a little to be desired. In short: The Lost World is overlong with too much Goldblum (I know, but it's possible), story and Julianne Moore talking a mile a minute. JPIII was a very enjoyable, short ride, but its characters were silly and it didn't aspire to much. Homework completed. I'd say respectively a C and a B- to the sequels.

So how does Jurassic World make the grade? You have to up the ante. This is the vision Richard Attenborough's (RIP) John Hammond had in the original: a beautifully envisioned park where resurrected dinosaurs can roam free while humans interact. Cue every sitcom cliche ever saying: what could possibly go wrong? Even with the gorgeous Bryce Dallas Howard's futuristic haircut and Chris Pratt's pecs, there's somehow still margin for error.  Claire (Howard), the director of Jurassic World, invites her nephews (both stock characters you do end up rooting for in the end) to her theme park. The boys' parents are (apparently, because not much is shown to back it up) are in the midst of a divorce, and super smart Gray and super teen-angst Zach come to enjoy their aunt's invitation. We also meet Owen Grady, a velociraptor trainer whose running into problems with Progress (yes a capital P because isn't progress and change always the villain in movies?) in the form of Vincent D'Onofrio's Hoskins.

So was Jurassic World's highest box-office opening of all time warranted? (Also I feel bad for them because that reign will end as soon as The Force Awakens opens in December). I would say so, because it fits that definitive blockbuster mold Spielberg himself helped create with Jaws. While, like I say, I had minor problems throughout, the characters are a little stock, though Chris Pratt could play a variation of Star-Lord and I don't think I'll ever get bored with him. But the movie itself is an amusement ride: don't think too much about it, you're in it with tons of people, and there's massive spectacle to behold. The special effects are stupendous, and when that original John Williams JP score kicks in movie lovers and fans of the original will find their nirvana. While it does take a little while to get things moving, that's just because they have so much to establish since we haven't visited this franchise in over a decade. Colin Trevorrow, whose Safety Not Guarunteed I enjoyed as a little indie gem, and I'm sure his massive team behind him finds a balance of human drama and fantastical dinosaur wonder. In other words, unlike John Hammond, he can make dinos and humans mix just fine. You'll like this ride.

Rating: 2.5/4 stars

Friday, May 22, 2015

REVIEW: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

What a lovely day to be a film buff. In fact, what a lovely year to be a sci-fi nerd of any kind. When there's big fare like George Miller's return to the "Mad Max" franchise in three decades with Fury Road, blockbusters like Age of Ultron and indie side dishes like Ex Machina, a nerd's palate is sure to be quenched. Of course, these are just appetizers until the mother of all science fiction franchises releases its long awaited film near Christmas, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip. Until that sure to be Oscar winner is released, Fury Road will be a fine placeholder, and a perfect shot of adrenaline for movie buffs familiar with Max or not.

I binge-watched the two sequels leading up to this movie, The Road Warrior and  Beyond Thunderdome. Both were enormous servings of adrenaline and creativity, especially the latter, which might've been my favorite until I walked into the theater, anxiously awaiting the start of this film, as EIGHT TRAILERS passed before me (sorry Entourage, I'm just not that interested in you). The movie wastes no time setting up the atmosphere, with Tom Hardy doing the most talking in this movie he's going to do in its duration, in that interchangeably, vaguely European brogue of his that's somewhere between a grunt and a rough groan. Max is a prisoner of Immortan Joe in the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is Earth, a man who rules the desert by briefly letting loose water onto his subjects, though he warns them "not to get addicted to it." Charlize Theron, playing Furiosa, takes Joe's five prized "breeders," beautiful, fertile woman forced to produce his offspring, and speeds off in a massive oil rig. Nux (Nicholas Hoult), wants to prove his worth to Joe, and, taking his blood bank of energy with him (Max), all set off to track down Furiosa, kill her, and salvage the breeders. And that's pretty much it. Complex storytelling is not a problem in this reboot.

In fact, my only problem is, and that's why this movie gets docked half a point, is Max. Tom Hardy is still great in the role, don't get me wrong. But there's so many questions we have. I've read Miller said that the audience got three movies worth of backstory but...is this a reboot? A continuation? Who are the people in Max's troubled visions? I know the character of Max Rockatansky is supposed to be this speak softly and KILL EVERYTHING type of antihero, but give me a little more substance to work with. Especially stacked up against co-star Theron, who's hardcore heroine can now be added to the very small list of female action heroes people automatically will think of (and yes, it does include Ripley and Sarah Connor). She has her weak moments, certainly her strong moments, and her nubbed arm and greased war paint face just portray an immensely interesting character. Give me a spinoff!

But why should the average, casual moviegoer see Mad Max? To get their minds blown. The movie isn't necessarily the two hour car chase some are calling in it. But the action so rarely lets up it...and let's be honest, that's rare in an action movie. There are always scenes in one, sure. The major three big battles between bad guys. But not since...well, The Road Warrior, has so much heart-pounding action been crammed into a two-hour running time. There's just sand in George Miller's world, so when there's an explosion you feel it, and see it in all its glory. Shots are sped-up to keep up with the frantic, kinetic tone Miller is looking for. The special effects are practical and ludicrously entertaining, the score appropriately in your face, the cinematography spectacular (and subtly beautiful, look out for those gorgeous blue night scenes). Miller, at age 70, gives the most adrenaline-soaked, freshest action movie to have come out in years, I can truly say there's nothing like it I've seen. Why has he been making Happy Feet movies for the past decade or so? I don't know. But I do know whatever he does next will have me singing and tap dancing to the theater like one of his penguins, because what a day, what a lovely day it'll be when we all get to see the sequel to one of the best movies 2015 has to offer so far.

Rating: 3.5/4 stars

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

REVIEW: EX MACHINA

If you've stepped outside in the past month, or have consumed a beverage, gone on the internet or have generally been alive in the year of our lord Joss Whedon, then you will know another little robot movie has been getting quite the buzz. While that review is coming out in the next week or so, I'd like to serve up to you a little side dish of cerebral intelligence, a smaller movie that's gotten rave reviews and an expanded release date: Alex Garland's directorial debut Ex Machina.

Other movie critics have been very discreet in revealing the plot summary, but...I don't think so. This movie doesn't have a Fight Club type twist, but maybe if you don't think too hard about what the "twist" could be it'll come as a surprise to you. So I'll go ahead and give you the skinny: Domhnall Gleeson's Caleb is an intelligent programmer who works for Oscar Isaac's Blue Book, a Google-esque search engine, wins a lottery and is selected to come visit the reclusive genius. They meet and Isaac's Nathan begins to tell him about a creation of his that may change the world: an artificial intelligence robot that he wants Caleb to test out. All he has to do is determine whether the AI has truly evolved past its robotic creations, and can emote real human feelings.

I think that's a good place to leave off, to get the eager movie-goer's tongue wagging. I avoided trailers like the plague because I expected that big twist, but from what I hear they're deceiving. This is probably the studio's way of marketing a really quiet, thoughtful sci-fi movie pushed forward more with dialogue and big ideas than explosions and gunfights. Little violence occurs, it's all (gasp) characters interacting with each other and discussing, mostly, the idea of artificial intelligence. And while you don't get as much backstory as you do with Caleb, Isaac certainly has the movie's most interesting role. Here's a boy genius (he developed the code for Blue Book when he was 13) who has probably an equivalent of money as Mark Zuckerberg who's grown up lonely, possibly burdened by an intelligence and now he takes it out on himself with drink. Gleeson gets the job done as Caleb, but his performance is could use a little more energy at times. Sometimes he's too calm, and even an advanced programmer like himself would be freaking out at the chance to go an eccentric billionaire's mansion to test out his new toy that's going to change the face of technology.

It is Alicia Vikander who has the breakout role here, as Ava, Nathan's creation who slowly begins building a relationship with Caleb. She doesn't just stiffen her joints and look out at the world with dead eyes. She feels like an automaton acting like a human, like it's inches away from her reach. Speaking of breakthroughs, I need to end this review with a discussion on what might be my favorite part of this movie: the score. Not since The Social Network have I been so engrossed in music, there are parts where Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's pulsing electronic soundtrack had me gripping my armchair and nearly sweating with anxiety over a cinematic moment. Like the film itself it's light and futuristic in one scene, and heart-pulsing intensity in the next. If you just like music buy the soundtrack to Ex Machina, if you want what is sure to be one of the year's best science fiction think pieces, go see the movie before it disappears.

Rating: 3.5/4 stars

Monday, April 13, 2015

SPECIAL REVIEW: TIMBUKTU

In my last review, I spoke of my desire to jump at the chance to go to another film opportunity at my college. I'm very happy to say that I was able to: the French Club funded a quick day trip to Charlottesville's Paramount Theater, where Abderrahmane Sissako's latest film Timbuktu was screening. For Oscar enthusiasts like myself, the name struck out as being nominated as one of the five best foreign language films at this past Academy Awards! Sissako himself was there, and while I would've loved to hear him talk about his film my group was on a strict time schedule. I can confidently say that this was my first Mauritanian film experience, but that probably goes without saying.

Timbuktu, though its narrative structure is not solely driven
on a particular set of characters, concerns the impact a group of Muslim jihadists has on the very remote titular city. Primarily it involves the affairs of Abdelkerim and his wife Satima, their two small children and their herd of cattle. The jihadists slowly and, to the misfortune of the natives, effectively begin instilling their radical beliefs and extreme policies. That means women must cover themselves entirely, including a fish saleswoman who speaks the audience's thoughts: "We've already had to cover our heads, how do you expect me to sell fish with gloves?" In the film she is taken away, and hardly seen after. This is the face of those who stood against the oppression.

One of Timbuktu's more colorful characters
Abdelkerim is a herder, until one day something happens to his cows, by the way of his sweet, task-handling son. That leads to a much more serious incident, that gets Abdelkerim imprisoned by the radical militia. Sissako is clear to show us that, through all of these muddied politics, ultimately actions will always produce consequences, and the good guys certainly do not always win. This is no fairy tale of rebellion in a time of Ukranian conflict and Syrian massacre, this is reality. Abel Jafri plays the protagonist Abdelkerim, with a nurturing, fatherly touch. Though in one scene his point is repeated ad infinitum (though that may be script issues on Sissako's side) he truly does care for his wife and children. Their home is set up in a very desolate desert land, far isolated away from any nearby communication. One of the film's best scenes is when Satima (Toulou Kiki) gives the frostiest of cold shoulders to the jihadists who simply just come to stop by (aka harass) and see how things are. She and her daughter wash her hair the entire scene, and don't respond unless asked an interrogative question. Though it's small, it's the resilience you end up rooting for, since rebellion in these sort of environments seems to get squashed fairly easily.

While at the Oscars it went home empty-handed, this was not the case at France's equivalent of the Oscars, the Cesars. It nearly had a full sweep with seven out of eight awards won, including wins for its gorgeous, sweeping cinematography and its memorable, mood-setting music. What interests me is that it picked up no acting nominations: perhaps because the film has such an authentic feel to it the actors just seem like natives being filmed, going on their day to day lives and trying not to be affected by the jihadists. I enjoyed it, and even though the ending is jarring, there's a lot of substance Sissako puts into something a little over an hour and a half. The man has a lot to say. (And I wish I could've heard him say it!)

Rating: 3/4 stars

Monday, March 30, 2015

MY EXPERIENCE AT THE RICHMOND FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL!



Here at old Randolph College, I take whatever chance I get to partake in a moviegoing experience. I'm currently enrolled in a French 102 class for my Gen Ed. requirements, and was given the opportunity to attend the 23rd Annual French Film Festival in Richmond, Virginia. I was a little reluctant at first, I'd never attended a festival of any sorts before, another tick against a guy who calls himself a so-called "movie buff"! It consisted of a full Thursday to Monday schedule of a medley of short films and feature-length films, with the directors of these movies attending the screenings and answering questions afterwards.
Embassy Sutites Hotel (very Grand Budapest)

We were able to stay in the beautiful Embassy Suites (pictured here), and I personally had to attend at least four sessions of films at the Byrd Theater, located in the tres chic Carytown of downtown Richmond. Saturday morning at 8, six short films were shown: among my favorites were Son seul, Samourai and Mr. Lune, the latter the tale about a little moon creature that I heard being described by one of the audience members as "a comment about imperialism." Only in France, oui? Samourai was the one that most caught my attention, by directors Juliette Sales and Fabien Suarez, opening dynamically with what you believe is a murder, only for it to unfold to be a very humurous comedy about a Thai woman coming to the house of her alleged husband's son to stake her claim at the home. It was bizarre and had a truly great comedic ending.

Inside the Byrd
But the feature film I saw later that day is what I truly wanted to discuss here: Patrick Ridremont's Dead Man Talking, a wonderfully cynical cocktail of political farce, gallows humor and excellent emotional attachment to our antihero, William Lamers, imprisoned on death row, and ready to be executed. When he's told to give his last words, he begins talking about why he came here, and the events that led him to this point in his life. Due to technicalities, the prison keeps delaying his death, and then suddenly the media catches on to it, along with a wicked politician bent on making Lamers a martyr for his own greedy gains.

I'm a sucker for anything related to prison movies (I wanted to be a warden after I watched The Green Mile and then I took that back after I watched The Shawshank Redemption). What I was telling my friends works so effectively in this movie is that it gives ample time to each of the characters, not just focusing on Lamers' struggle. There's the director of the prison and his daughter, who Lamers is practically giving an ulcer, a guard with a troublesome home life, the governor and his bumbling friend, the ice-cold woman working for them (she pours coffee in a fish tank) and other memorable roles that are fully fleshed out. They're not just pieces in Lamers' checkered life, but human beings affected by his decision. Throughout the film is also an abundance of Christian iconography, including the cross-like execution table, the followers Lamers picks up as his celebrity status grows, and...well, you know there's a Judas in there, but I won't say who.

In an interview included in the program, Ridremont cites an influence by the Coen brothers, especially in the exceptionally dark humor that had the audience roaring. If this Belgian film got an American release date, there's no doubt it would be up for foreign film and best original screenplay at the Oscars. It has some of the best writing I've ever seen in a foreign movie, a great cast, score and beautiful cinematography. I hope the invitation is extended again and I can return to the 24th festival!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

2015 OSCAR PREDICTIONS!


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: (Edward Norton, Ethan Hawke, J.K. Simmons, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Duvall)
Should Win: J.K. Simmons or Edward Norton. Simmons, similar to his band teacher Fletcher, has been dominating this category since day one. It's his to lose, but I wouldn't be sad if Edward Norton pulled a huge upset. His Mike was an endlessly interesting actor with a massive ego.
Will Win: J.K. Simmons.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: (Patricia Arquette, Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Keira Knightley, Emma Stone),
Should/Will Win: Patricia Arquette. Laura Dern was delightful in Wild, but Arquette had the strongest role out of all these ladies as a very human mother. When you can make the audiences sympathize with you after you refuse to see your kid off to college, you deserve an Academy Award.

BEST ANIMATED MOVIE: (Big Hero 6, How to Train Your Dragon 2,  The Lego MovieThe Boxtrolls, Song of the Sea, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya)
Should Win: I've only seen How to Train Your Dragon 2 out of these nominees, and we all know what really should've been up here, (I'm keeping the rants to a minimum) so I'll go with the Rotten Tomatoes score on which flick is the most worthy: The Tale of the Pricess Kaguya with a perfect 100%.
Will Win: How to Train Your Dragon 2. It won the Annie Award and the Golden Globe for this prize.

BEST DIRECTOR: (Bennet Miller, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Alejandro G. Inarritu, Morten Tyldum)
Should Win: Richard Linklater. Both Linklater and Inarritu bravely experimented with cinema with phenomenal results. Linklater gets the edge just because of commitment to the craft over more than a decade, and even if the critics want to call it a gimmick, I'm calling it a revolutionary approach to film!
Will Win: Alejandro G. Inarritu.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: (Boyhood, Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman)
Should/Will Win: Birdman. Boyhood's concept is Oscar-worthy, but Birdman had A-plus, snappy show biz banter, and biting commentary on film nowadays. It should absolutely be rewarded with some gold.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: (The Imitation Game, Whiplash, American Sniper, The Theory of Everything, Inherent Vice)
Should Win: Whiplash or Imitation Game. The latter brought the hard to understand jargon of 1940s computer to the mainstream, plus some great quotable lines from Cumberbatch's Alan Turing. But who could forget the venomous insults spewing from Fletcher's chrome dome?
Will Win: The Imitation Game. This film's going to either go home empty handed or just win this one award. Since it got the Writer's Guild Award for this category, it's a safe-ish bet.

BEST ACTRESS: (Rosamund Pike, Marion Cotillard, Reese Witherspoon, Felicity Jones, Julianne Moore)
Should Win: Rosamund Pike. In fairness, I haven't seen Still Alice, which everyone has been raving about. I'd just love to see Pike get something for her gonzo, all-out role as the world's most...fascinating wife.
Will Win: Julianne Moore. This is one of those career-award Oscars that seems well deserved, I can't wait to see her performance!

BEST ACTOR: (Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, Michael Keaton, Steve Carell, Bradley Cooper)
Should Win: Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne. Despite my falling asleep in The Theory of Everything, I certainly caught enough where I could admire the physical endurance Mr. Redmayne put himself through to become the genius Stephen Hawking. That said, Michael Keaton gives the more emotional performance, a complex, narcissistic actor past his prime shooting for one more shot at glory. I'll be bummed if Keaton loses this, but it will be a worthy loss indeed.
Will Win: Eddie Redmayne.

BEST PICTURE: (Selma, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Whiplash, The Theory of Everything, Boyhood, American Sniper, Birdman, The Imitation Game)
Should Win: Boyhood. You already know how I feel about this movie!
Will Win: Birdman. Yes, I do believe that Inarritu's satire will trump Linklater's dozen-year piece of childhood reflection. I can't bring myself to put it on my own official Oscar ballot, but the statistics and the gut feeling I have just tell me so. If this does occur, I think it'll be safe to say that it will be the strangest film to ever win Best Picture, but perhaps one of the most technically accomplished! But yes, I do indeed believe Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) will join the ranks of West Side Story, Patton and Unforgiven as one of the select 87 chosen among the decades as the finest films of the year. I'm not saying I won't have beef with the choice though. Read more to see my choices for the other categories!

Monday, February 16, 2015

DVD REVIEW: CHEF

Here's the first thing I can tell you about Jon Favreau's sixth directorial effort: consume it on a full stomach. Maybe let this be your family's post-Thanksgiving meal, because regardless of whether or not you dig Chef, I assure you that you will want to strap on an apron and try being Paula Deen for the next few days. Favreau had food truck owner Roy Choi (the creator of Korean BBQ, which I've tried and enjoyed!) prep him on all aspects of the movie's culinary creations, and it more than pays off. Stick around for the end of the credits and you'll see Choi school Favreau on how to make the perfect grilled cheese!

Besides leaving me physically famished, Chef also left me hungry for more. Or, perhaps, a little less. Everyone knows Favreau's got the chops to make big special effect movies: Zathura and the first couple Iron Man's. What I really dug was the meta-plot of the film. Favreau's Chef Carl Casper has been working at a high-class restaurant for a while, building up a loyal crew of culinary misfits, including John Leguizamo and Bobby Canavale, who need a buddy movie of their own. After a clash with his boss (Dustin Hoffman) over making meals he actually wants to create, he teams up with Leguizamo and his young, blase son to go into the food truck business.

As I've mentioned, the chemistry in "Chef" is the glue that holds it together. Leguizamo and Favreau have undeniable rapport along with Scarlet Johannson's Molly. I'd like to bring that up as my first point: the ridiculously good looking women that Favreau has flings with. His ex-wife is played by Sofia Vergera and his...weirdly unexplained...quasi-girlfriend...hostess employee...is Black Widow herself. If Robert Downey Jr. was the titular chef instead of his cameo in the film, I could definitely see it. But Favreau? Well it requires a little stretch of imagination.

Additionally, there are a little too many pop culture jokes in here to my liking. The neat visual effects of tweets going out into the world is cute, but will that sustain for the years to come, when Twitter will be the next MySpace? I feel like the movie is dating itself a little with the references, and they're not clever enough to justify their being there like the actor digs in Birdman. I know RDJ was probably doing him a favor to have his name on the poster, but don't waste the man's talents. Save him from being in The Judge and give him a meaty role in your movie! Their scene together is actually kind of uncomfortable, and drawn out.

These are small grievances but they add up, to where it distractingly takes away from the film experience. What keeps giving it its life is the relationship between Carl and son Percy, and as many times as you've seen it before you cheer when you see the direction its going. Though I would've loved to have seen Chef as a feast of wit for the mind and stomach, I can settle with it being a tad undercooked but still having some substance.