Wednesday, September 4, 2013

My August Rundown

Sorry about the long wait for new reviews, folks. The decision to move from my former apartment to the new one was sudden and not entirely my decision. For three weeks, I barely had time to SEE any movies, let alone review them in a timely manner. And to top it all off, when I arrived at the new place, it took a week just to get the internet up and running. I'm just not one of those types who can pull out his phone and post from there. Typing just doesn't feel natural unless I'm sitting at my desk or in bed with the laptop. But since I DO want to get back into the swing of things, I'm just going to jot down my impressions of the movies I watched in August, a month with blessed few titles I actually cared to see. I'll include a brief synopsis, my findings, and a final score, based on an A+ to F ratings system. There were certainly a number of movies I wish I hadn't missed, but most of those, like The Spectacular Now or The Butler, are still out there. Sadly, so are many that I'm glad I didn't see. I'll catch up on them eventually, but for the moment I present to you what I would like to call... my August.

2 Guns is exactly the kind of gun-toting wise-crackery you would expect from a film that stars Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg. In this buddy-cop formula, the two actors play a DEA agent and a Naval Intelligence Officer, respectively, who go undercover without knowledge of the other, in an attempt to take down a vicious Mexican drug cartel. After they successfully rob a bank in an effort to solve the case, they discover one-another's true identities, as well as the fact that they have unwittingly ripped off a corrupt cell of the CIA. With the money lost in the wind and three whole organizations calling for their blood, two men who simply do not trust one another are forced to work together just to survive.

As I mentioned before, 2 Guns is definitely derivative of the buddy-cop formula that has existed in Hollywood for decades. Adding an international flavor with the Mexican drug angle helps, as does the easy chemistry between the film's stars, and the trio of heavyweights coming after them (played well by Edward James Olmos, Bill Paxton and James Marsden). Director Baltasar Kormakur (Contraband) knows how to film action, even if his directing as a whole is uneven and at times excessively violent. Still, the humorous edge does work wonders, causing the film to rise well above where it ought to have been. However, his is no game-changer for either Washington or Wahlberg. Despite their pairing, 2 Guns was never meant to be anything more than a flash in the pan. The story at times does get pretty bright, but other than some crisp dialogue the whole thing is barely memorable.
Score: B-

I'd been long awaiting Elysium, the sophomore entry from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, and not just because District 9 was one of the best science fiction films of the past decade, if not all time. You had Matt Damon, who looked to kick the most ass since leaving the Jason Bourne franchise, and Jodie Foster, a talented actress who is just starting to get back into mainstream films after almost a decade of independents and laying low. The story takes place on a ravaged and over-populated Earth and follows Max (Damon), a former car thief trying to keep his life on the straight and narrow when a work incident exposes him to a lethal dose of radiation that will end his life in a manner of days. His only chance is to escape to Elysium, a wondrous man-made satellite that is the home of the rich and powerful, orbiting the Earth while leaving the sick and dying planet to the poor. There, and only there, they have the state-of-the-art medical facilities that can heal him. Hacked into an experimental exoskeleton designed to keep him alive, Max seeks to take over Elysium and change the class system forever.

In retrospect, it's easy to see how Elysium fails to live up to the bar set by its predecessor. District 9 had an amazing and believable universe set around its alien refugee invasion plot, and the story was subtle and nuanced leading up to its explosive-packed ending. Elysium lacks that same subtlety, and while the action never gets dull, Blomkamp's curious use of shaky cam makes the fights confusing, really taking you out of the story. The acting is also all over the place; while Damon is solid and Sharlto Copley's appearance as an evil mercenary is downright scary, Foster turns in a throwaway performance that is almost cartoonishly bad. You'll certainly enjoy yourself watching this, especially with the gorgeous visuals projected onto the big screen, but with such an obvious 99% message hammered down your throat, it's hard to get fully behind this otherwise-innovative tale.
Score: B

The concept behind We're the Millers was simply too good NOT to be true. When a low-level drug dealer (Jason Sudeikis) is forced to smuggle marijuana across the border from Mexico in order to pay off his blood-thirsty boss, he is unsure as of how to pull it off without getting caught. Desperate, he hires a broke stripper (Jennifer Aniston) and two local youngsters (Emma Roberts and Will Poulter) to play his "family", and the group travel down south to pick up the package. But two things happen: first, things get complicated as the gang discovers they haven't completed a transaction so much as they've stolen from a ruthless drug lord. The second is that, despite their initial dislike of one another, the four begin to grow into something resembling a family unit. But despite their growth, will these four people who are not as they outwardly appear be the victims of violence when that drug lord eventually catches up?

To the point, We're the Millers is way, WAY funnier than it ought to be. This is partially due to the work of Dodgeball director Rawson Marshall Thurber in keeping the pace and jokes flying, but especially thanks to the cast. While Sudeikis perhaps is the weakest link here, everyone else has chances to shine, especially British actor Poulter as a virginal teenager. Aniston also proves that she can still pull off angry well, and though her range is rather limited she does a great job of picking roles that let her tap into that vein. But perhaps the biggest scene-stealers are Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn as the parental units of another traveling family to whom the "Millers" become acquainted. While some of the jokes miss, far more hit that sweet spot perfectly, and when that 110 minutes has passed you'll wish you could stay for more of that great humor. We're the Millers is easily one of the funniest R-rated comedies in recent memory, and while that's really not saying much, it's a platitude well deserved.
Score: A-

I saw Blue Jasmine more out of respect for its director than for thinking it would be a great movie. Woody Allen is a legendary filmmaker whose efforts have largely been lauded in the industry even as they have often failed to garner a mainstream audience. His biggest hit in recent memory was easily Midnight in Paris, and it also happens to be my favorite of his films. After the mediocrity that was To Rome with Love, however, I remain convinced that Midnight will remain his high point for the distant future. Still, with a strong cast and strong Oscar buzz for Cate Blanchett, I figured I could spare a couple of hours and give this one a try. It follows Jasmine Francis (Blanchett), a former big-time society wife whose multimillionaire husband was a crooked financier, getting himself arrested and soon afterward dead in prison. Penniless and humiliated, Jasmine moves across country to San Francisco, moving in with her sister and hoping to turn her life around. But no matter what she does, whether it's getting a receptionist job, returning to school or meeting a romantic interest, she cannot escape the truth about where she came from and the mental instability that threatens to crack her soul at any second.

As I mentioned before, the cast is absolutely spectacular. Blanchett is especially divine, the marriage of Jasmine's demure personality to Allen's dialogue as expert a performance as you're likely to see this year. And there's more as well, as the group of actors includes standout performances by Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K., Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Sally Hawkins. But while the cast is first-rate, the pacing is a bit slow, and the characters a bit too numerous. Jasmine makes for an excellent character study, but the others - while certainly well-acted - are written as relative one-notes and given a bit too much to do. Blue Jasmine is a bit closer to Vicky Cristina Barcelona than it is to Midnight in Paris, and so it's better off as a future DVD rental than as a trip to the movies right now.
Score: B

With four wide releases coming out the weekend of August 18'th, Paranoia was the choice of my faithful movie-going sidekick Anne. I guarantee it wasn't the story of a war between two old tech giants that enticed her, but the starring role going to Liam Hemsworth, younger brother of Thor and up-and-coming Hollywood hunk. Oh, well, at least I get Amber Heard as part of the package.

Paranoia is the story of Adam Cassidy (Hemsworth), a blue-collar computer expert who finds himself trapped in a trade war between cell phone magnates Nicholas Wyatt (Gary Oldman) and Jock Goddard (Harrison Ford). Forced to spy on Goddard on behalf of Wyatt, Adam hopes to at least come out making enough money to take care of his dad. But when things go from shady to outright deadly, it'll take everything Adam and his precious few allies have to overcome and take down these seemingly untouchable forces.

As a brainless diversion, Paranoia has opportunities to be passable entertainment, and for the most part it takes them. There's equal parts humor, tension and action, and the story itself is decent, if laughably edited and entirely predictable. Director Robert Luketic (Killers, 21) isn't the best director out there, which should have been the first clue as to Paranoia's true potential. The acting and dialogue are also second-rate, and while Oldman and Heard really try their hardest to make the material work, Hemsworth is entirely vanilla. Worse, Ford puts in the kind of ham-fisted, paycheck-seeking performance that reminds you that without Han Solo and Indiana Jones, his career would be far less memorable. Despite a few smart choices, it's mostly wasted potential, and there's really not that much about Paranoia that makes me excited to see its eventual DVD release.
Score: C-

I've been awaiting Kick-Ass 2 for nearly three years. That was when the original Kick-Ass hit theaters with it's bizarre blend of ultra-violence and dry, bathroom humor. And for the most part, it worked. It heralded the rise of actors Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloe Grace Moretz and brought something radically different to the big screen. Expecting anything different from the sequel would be a mistake, especially considering the smaller budget and change of directors (from X-Men First Class' Matthew Vaughn to Jeff Wadlow, whose biggest movie to date is American martial arts flick Never Back Down). Kick-Ass 2 continues the story of every-man turned brawling hero Dave Lizewski as he adjusts to a world in which it's becoming cool to dress up in cool costumes and fight crime when the sun goes down. Kick-Ass soon finds himself surrounded by like-minded citizens determined to keep the streets safe. But when Chris D'Amico demands revenge on the hero for the death of his father, he puts together a gang of super-villains with one goal in mind; humiliate and kill Kick-Ass.

Frankly, if you liked the first movie back in 2010, there's absolutely no reason not to like this sequel. Despite the change of creative heads, Kick-Ass 2 is strikingly similar to its predecessor that you'd be certain they were made by the same filmmakers. There is the new emphasis over super-groups over the individual, and Wadlow does a good job expanding the universe that had already been set in the last go-around. And if I had the room there would be no end of praise for Moretz, whose character undergoes such an epic, identity-seeking journey that sets in nicely - if apart - from the rest of the story. There are some quibbles: Jim Carey is a bit misused (though genuinely unrecognizable) and doesn't quite fill the void left by the first movie's Nicolas Cage, and the special effects are a bit of a step back, though to be fair they looked worse in previews than they did in the final big screen product. Kick-Ass 2 is not a total package, but does a better job of reminding viewers why the first one was so good, feeling remarkably similar to the first Kick-Ass while still establishing it as a film all its own.
Score: B

The wait is finally over. The World's End is the final entry in director Edgar Wright's so-called "Cornetto Trilogy", following cult hits Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the films that made Simon Pegg and Nick Frost household names. The World's End takes five grown men who were friends since childhood (Pegg, Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan), as they travel back to their hometown of Newton Haven at the urging of Pegg's alcoholic miscreant, in order to complete the "Golden Mile", a pub crawl spanning twelve bars across the village. What they discover along the way is that most of the townspeople have changed since they left; not in the normal ways, but replaced by human-like, blue-blooded robots from outer space. With no hope of escape and no discernible plan, the five friends can do only one thing: reach the final pub on the way, the "World's End", and hope for the best.

In the end, this might be considered the best of Wright's loosely-associated trilogy. The film pumps all of the character development and plot progression into the opening sequence, which would seem odd anywhere else but here allows the film to pace itself perfectly, as the lads go from location to location without having to stop and explain themselves. We largely understand their motivations from moment one, and it allows them to do what they do without causing confusion for the audience. It's great to see Frost play straight man off the wonderfully-irreverent Pegg (it's usually the other way around), and the humor hits on all cylinders, while still finding some room for some appropriate melodramatics when they're called for. The supporting cast also helps immeasurably, which is far different from the two-man shows that were Shaun and Hot Fuzz. The ending is a bit drawn-out, but The World's End is still a relative masterstroke by its creators, as Wright, Pegg and Frost put together an "End of the World" movie that handily beats the similar efforts that have been released the past few years.
Score: A

I realize now that logically I should have concluded with The World's End, but I of course blindly went in order of viewing. So we finish up with You're Next, a low-budget horror flick from Adam Wingard, perhaps best known for his additions to the V/H/S series of horror compilations. It's a familiar horror trope; an often-contentious family gets together for the first time in a while to celebrate their parents' wedding anniversary at their remote family summer home. Suddenly, and without warning, they are attacked and hunted by a group of mask-wearing killers intent on slaughtering the entire family. But this is no random attack; there's a reason these things are happening, and if anybody wants to survive, they'll have to find out who these attackers are, and why they're doing this.

You're Next starts off with cervical bruising (there, I said it), and for a while you're not sure if it will ever get any better. The trope has been done to death (home invasion horror is nothing new) and even horrible fare such as The Purge manages to include something new to the formula once in a while. Top that off with the acting, which ranges from stilted to just plain bad (the one exception is Australian lead Sharni Vinson, who is wonderful). Then, just as the film begins to veer into the point of no return, You're Next begins to emerge as something of a black comedy, riffing on the very genre it's emulating. Yes, the twists become obvious and the gore is pointless, but some of the deaths are actually pretty inventive and you actually get some glee out of watching little-loved or poorly-developed characters get offed in humorous ways. It's not as good as it could have been, but horror fans may enjoy it, even if absolutely nobody else will.
Score: B-

That, folks, was my August. As you can tell, eight movies is a little under my usual monthly average, and I'll be sure to catch up on Percy Jackson, The Mortal Instruments, The Butler, Getaway, Closed Circuit, Planes and more in the coming months, though whether I'll see them in the theater or on DVD remains to be seen. Thanks for your patience, and I'm looking forward to getting back to a regular posting schedule from now on!

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