Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Oculus

I'll be your mirror...

Oculus is, to put it bluntly, a few interesting ideas weighed down by mediocrity.

The main complaint is that the film feels far more interested in its structure than its plot. The idea of a haunted mirror is not necessarily a bad one and it could be done very well by the right people. However, there is neither enough style to save the film, nor enough good performances. Maybe it’s a case of too many cooks considering there were four production company openings at the beginning of the film (including, for some reason, WWE Entertainment.) It’s pretty rare in my experience to see that many of them outside of Japan.

Let’s go ahead and give credit where it is due, however. One of the two leads of the film, Karen Gillan of Doctor Who fame, is excellent. While in some of the moments (especially the quieter ones), you can catch her accidentally lilting back into her Scottish accent, once the movie picks up, she displays what made her a good companion on the perennial British favorite: she seems intelligent, somewhat snarky and able to show good intensity. Her character is interesting because she is wanting to confront the supernatural head-on and beat it. In some ways she reminds me of the lead in You’re Next, a film that subverted the idea of a damsel in distress running from a killer. The idea of a person going through something traumatic and seeking revenge against evil is definitely a unique one compared to the usual supernatural thriller. (She’s not to the level of one of the Winchesters from Supernatural, but it’s a start.) It is often more compelling when a protagonist makes things happen instead of having things happen to them. Also good, unlike the usual paranormal investigators that populate movie ghost stories (even good ones, like Poltergeist or The Conjuring), she is not an outside observer coming into a situation. She has a personal stake. It’s a good twist, but sadly it is squandered on a film that is making up rules as it goes.

One of the most important parts of setting up a story like this is establishing the rules of the game and having the hero and the villain have to confront each other within those established parameters. (Even if the villain is essentially an inanimate object.) Some of the best moments traditionally in these films are when a loophole is found in these rules that allow one side to gain an unexpected advantage, but there still has to be an internal logic to the proceedings. However, in an effort to create a rigid narrative structure that jumps back and forth from flashbacks to 2003 to a night in present day, all hell breaks loose and it loses all sense of that logic. By the time the two timelines begin seeming to interact with each other, nothing seems to really matter on its race to deliver an ending that, if I were to make a bet, I’d say was the first thing written with everything else built onto to it.

It’s not what I would call a terrible movie. Gillan’s performance keeps that from happening, as well as a turn from Katee Sackhoff as the mother of the family in flashbacks, which is fairly different from most of what I’ve seen from her. But Gillan’s co-star Brenton Thwaites, her younger brother in the film who is coming out of a mental ward, delivers a pretty wooden performance, even by horror film standards. His character seems to exist to be the cliche annoying guy that offers condescending psychological platitudes far beyond any reasonable human being in an extreme situation. Of little note is the sister’s fiance who looks like Nathan Fillion’s metrosexual little brother and their father who displays a disappointing amount of menace in a character which should inspire some pretty genuine fear. Rory Cochrane who plays him has been in better stuff, so maybe it’s a case of not finding the right tone.

Also wooden is the direction of Mike Flanagan and his cinematographer, Michael Fimognari. The duo make it feel more like a fairly generic TV movie than a personal statement. It’s passable, but nothing more. I realize not every filmmaker manages to get the artistic control needed to express their individuality, but this was needing something more energetic. The set-ups seem mostly clinical and I wonder if they weren’t set up specifically to try to get the film a PG-13 rating as there are only a couple of shots in the whole thing that would really push it beyond into R. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I praised The Conjuring for managing to be as scary as it was, while containing almost nothing to justify its R-rating. Oculus has sold itself as a horror film, but it seems much more content to be a supernatural thriller/mind-screw.

It also features a score that reminded me of the type of “moody” interstitial music that Jason Segal’s character would create for a CSI-style detective series in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. It sounds like it comes from a gothed-up white noise machine. Black noise machine? No, that description indicates something more interesting. Wholly unremarkable are words that come to mind.

While I can’t completely dismiss Oculus entirely because of Gillan and the fact that some of the film has stuck with me, I also can’t really recommend it as anything other than a rental.

(Two and a half damns given out of five)

Kent’s Movie Diary: Hungry For You

Some more stuff off Netflix this week (the disc service, not the streaming.) I’m not too happy about yet another price hike from them. I don’t get cable, it’d be a shame to have to drop them too. (Though there is still a good video store in Lawrence so I’ll be OK. Liberty Hall, y’all!) On to the movies!

AOTDHungerGamesFireTHE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE- I kind of get it now. I was only a very moderate fan of the first film in the Hunger Games saga. Despite the raving declarations of love by its very large, very vocal fanbase, I just didn’t understand the furor caused by what amounted to a post-apocalyptic Battle Royale pastiche with a ton of holes in the fabric of the plot. I did give myself an out in that. I said that it’s possible the film simply didn’t capture the book and cut out lots of necessary exposition in creating a society. A society of people descended from Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter who somehow rule with a foppish iron fist. The sequel, while not fixing any of the logical problems that drive me absolutely nuts, does manage to work much better by pushing the political metaphor, deepening the character work and giving stoic heroine Katniss a truly badass moment in the finale.

I have to say, one of the things I really enjoy is the reversal of traditional gender roles at play here where the guy is considered the sensitive of the pair and she’s the hotheaded berserker. She’s Wolverine, without the forest of body hair. This doesn’t exactly match her manipulative, cunning huntress from the first film, but it’s an interesting direction to take the character.

Anyway, the Roman parallels are far more explicit in this go round and by the time we get an ipecac introduced it’s pretty much the most obvious thing ever. I find myself really wondering the author’s intentions because there are a few ways to take the whole thing. It could be a really mediocre gripe against the 1% as I’m pretty sure I’ve seen some people read into it, but given the setup, it seems to work so much better as an impugning of Soviet Russia, at least as presented on film. You have a capitol where the political elite lord over people with nothing. When they want to punish everyone, they crack down on the “black market,” the last bastion of economic freedom the people have.They destroy their possessions. They flog and shoot people in the street. Sounds like a communist regime to me. President Snow blames Katniss for his woes because he fails to acknowledge what a dumb system he’s running in the first place and when he talks about reminding people of their proper place, he forgets that with such a low life expectancy, there practically aren’t any people alive who can remember their great war of subjugation to begin with.
The ending reveals yet another issue with the logic of the series; if they can destroy District 12 without fear of having to lose what they take from them by force, why were they so determined to keep them under their boot in the first place? As I said in my review of the first film, however, the whole matter of subjugation and confiscation makes no sense when the technology apparently exists to rearrange matter at will as we see in the games themselves. Hell, they should be in a Star Trekian utopia.

Regardless of the issues present in the narrative’s background, the character work builds mightily on the previous film, giving those we’re familiar with a lot of milage. Elizabeth Banks’ character may be part of the upper class, but she seems fatigued to exhaustion and skittish under pressure. Woody Harrelson manages to portray his high-functioning alkie to wondrous effect as he looks at these silly kids with both worry and disdain. It’s extremely sad that Phillip Seymore Hoffman passed away after this film because he will be a tough act to follow. The calculating behind his eyes sells the character and his nature well beyond what is written for him to say. (Stanley Tucci remains the exact same brand of weird, though.)

It’s all pretty impressive despite the issues. Impressive enough that I may catch the next movie in the theater, even if I’m bitter about it being on the two-parter finale bandwagon that needs to just stop. The revolutionary feeling in the air of Pan Em is a pretty good draw as it turns more towards being a cross between Battle Royale and Animal Farm. And while I’m not sure how that combination sounds, I mean it in a good way.

AOTDZatoichiFugitivesZATOICHI AND THE FUGITIVES- The 18th chapter of the Zatoichi saga displays how the films are often at their best when they are very straightforward and simply head from point A to point B without trying to put in a lot of extra storylines and b-plots.

It is the kind of simple ‘walking tall’ style story the franchise does so well. Zatoichi arrives in town, meets up with someone goodhearted, gets caught up in the middle of a skirmish involving the local yakuza and it ends with him more or less reluctantly dispensing *ahem* blind justice. It is the very essence of the series, but when it is done as effectively as in this entry, it still packs a punch.

In this case, a group of hoods (the Fugitives of the title) help the proceedings along as they try to take him down several times, leading to several instances of entertaining escapes. It also was a good move to make the leader of the gang have patience and foresight we rarely see from Ichi’s adversaries. While the underlings howl about going after him, underestimating him again and again due to his blindness, he illustrates a shrewd understanding of just how dangerous our hero is. He also is responsible for some family drama that adds just a little flavor to the proceedings. The gang is better fleshed out and shows more visual diversity than many of Zatoichi’s foes, making it so some of them are recognizable instead of being a ‘uniformed’ sea of sword fodder.

In Fugitives, we see him get worn down and hurt over the film. He may be a preternaturally good swordsman, but he’s not invincible and this film does a good job of reminding us of that. The only real gripe is that the ending comes just a little too easily given the extent of his injuries, but that’s just complaining to complain.

AOTDAllisLostALL IS LOST- When you get down to it, this is 100 minutes of watching Robert Redford fart around on a boat. That said, it’s a pretty engrossing 100 minutes of watching Redford fart around on a boat.

I saw Kon Tiki not too long ago and All is Lost makes a very interesting companion piece in which folks can contrast having a half-dozen men bickering in the middle of the ocean or being alone in screaming solitude and decide which is worse.

Similar in many ways to last year’s Gravity (but saving a lot of ink on the screenplay) it is a tale of survival where everything that can go wrong does. Splotchy and lined like an old work glove, Redford is the only real character in the film and he barely speaks, seemingly using less than two dozen words after an initial opening salvo. I am increasingly distressed by the overused trope of starting at a random point in the story and flashing back for you to find out how you got there, but maybe they felt like it would stick out if they shoehorned a monologue in at the actual place it would belong after only hearing him scream one obscenity in the previous hour. (Remember when they did that with Mr. Bean in his first movie when he suddenly launches into that monologue? Yeah, that was just weird.)

Beginning with a large hole being put in his boat by a lost shipping container full of crappy sneakers, he loses power and the use of his radio. This doesn’t phase him too badly and he seems pretty capable of fixing most of it. However, sensing he is screwed, nature decides to kick him in the backside with a violent storm. It’s pretty much all downhill from there for him.

It’s a very different role from this summer’s Captain America, but one that equally relies on the gravitas that he has inherited due to his decades in the industry and the persona he has been assigned from them. This could have easily been filmed with a younger actor, but Redford brings a lot to the role simply by being Redford. It is reminiscent of roles Clint Eastwood has performed since Unforgiven or late-era John Wayne. One senses he’s been through the ringer and with his worn countenance, old wedding ring and fairly spartan lifestyle, it becomes heavily implied that his solitude and silence are self-imposed, perhaps as he tries to get over some late-life tragedy. As I said, none of it is explicit, but the use of Redford and visual cues simply gets you to start writing the story of how this guy got into the middle of the Indian Ocean. It’s a neat trick by the writer/director, J.C. Chandor.

The film is also very well made technically. In an instance of someone actually adhering to “don’t tell, show” it is a darn good thing that they make the things interesting visually. I personally think the film makes a mistake by often going long periods without any kind of score. I think the purpose behind these long moments is to express more isolation and to stress how he is out of touch from other human beings, but some of the times that try to stress it really could have benefitted from some kind of music, especially when he’s just rummaging around. The music is good enough that they really should have trusted it to help carry these scenes.

This is a film that will require patience in the viewer. I wonder if people more versed in seafaring may be more bored than me since a lot of what he does will probably come across as pretty routine. For me though, it was a well-made and interesting film. I don’t know if I’ll revisit it any time soon. However, for those that want a survival tale and a good leading performance from a veteran in an industry where it seems like people of his vintage are often only taken off the shelf to slum in niche “old people” films, it’s a very refreshing change of pace.

AOTDOddThomasODD THOMAS- I am a little surprised that this Dean Koontz adaptation seems to have essentially gone straight to video. Surprised for two reasons. Number one, because the main creative force behind it is Stephen Sommers, who was a pretty big name no more than a decade ago. Van Helsing really seems to have damaged his career in a big way (even though it did decent business) since the only other thing he’s done since is the first GI Joe movie, but you’d still think his adaptation of a book by a big selling writer would manage to get a theatrical release. Part of it may have been legal troubles, it looks like, but Cabin on the Woods sat on the shelf for a couple of years and still managed to get a wide release. Number two because it’s better than your standard direct to video film.

First the bad news. There’s a moderately awful twist ending that actually made me angry and though I haven’t read the books, I’m assuming Sommers was hamstrung by the novel to include it. The way it ends is very much setting up a series that will likely never be and it feels like a wasted opportunity to simply make one really good movie instead. It’s just one part of the film’s biggest weakness; sometimes it just plain feels like the pilot to a TV series. Ready made franchises are now second nature in Hollywood, so it’s not surprising that this one makes the attempt, it is just disappointing. Adding to that, the way it’s structured, the staging, the nature of the mystery, the parting coda and the narration by the titular character all combine to make it feel very much like a WB Network horror comedy, albeit a pretty good one. One that would probably be a little controversial given the villain’s plan of this first “episode.” I would go so far as to say this argument is more praise for the increase in TV’s entertainment value than damning the film’s quality, but there you are.

The best thing about the film is the casting and that is where it differentiates itself from other similar fare. Anton Yelchin simply has charm. He has proven himself in the new Star Trek films and he was a very, very big reason for me enjoying the remake of Fright Night. In fact, this film has a lot of similarities to that one. Sommers’ touch makes it feel like much lighter fare despite having some pretty dark ideas though. Say, it is to Reaper as Fright Night is to Supernatural.

In this film he is Odd in name and action. He sees dead people, but that’s not where his powers end. He can see demonic entities, he can see people’s dreams… He’s got a whole bunch of not very clearly defined supernatural powers that crop up when convenient, kind of like in Superman II.

His love interest since childhood is named Stormy and she’s played very well by Addison Timlin. I’m not familiar with her other work and seeing what she’s been in, it’s no wonder why. However, she’s got great chemistry with Yelchin which leads to some very enjoyable banter. And while this is not the basis of a good performance, dang it, she’s a looker. What I really enjoyed is Stormy and Odd actually have that rarest of fictional couplings, a healthy relationship that is endearing. (Sommers did a good job of this with Mummy Returns as well, now that I think about it.)

The main guy that people will have heard of in the piece is Willem Dafoe and he’s damned good as the competent cop that’s befriended Odd and has a symbiotic relationship with him. As much as I enjoy him hamming things up as a psychotic, I think people forget that he can be a damned funny guy when given the chance.

Sommers’ direction lends itself to the material when it comes to establishing a tone that could be a pretty tough balancing act. It could be more original to be sure, but then so could Deep Rising and I remain a huge fan of that particular creature feature. The film probably isn’t gory enough to satisfy the horror fiends that feed on similar genre comedies such as Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil. It is also likely too much on the side of a light R or hard PG-13 to be for young teens so it misses that whole audience. I found the tone to be fun without feeling like it was trying too hard to be pandering and that middle ground may actually hurt it, however it worked great for me. I’ll probably revisit this one on blu ray at some point. (Unfortunately, Netflix only had it on DVD, which ticks me off. Get on the ball, guys!)

Kent’s Movie Diary: In which I accidentally scare my brother’s kids…

It’s back! More tales from my blu ray player. Expect some more articles very soon with this series as I get my Netflix queue whittled down.

AOTDdiaryMummyTHE MUMMY (1999) I wonder if someday the kind of early CGI exemplified by Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy will be viewed the same way we look at stop motion/optical effects today. Barely 15 years old, the difference between it and newer films is utterly staggering. I remember people being dumbfounded by the digital work upon release. Now it is laughable at best. But is that necessarily a bad thing? One of the reasons I am a big fan of the sequel, The Mummy Returns, is because the effects aren’t perfect. I think the imperfections add to the goofy, playful nature of The Mummy’s Saturday matinee throwback nature. (I’ll elaborate on the differences between the first film and the sequel when I talk about it in these very pages, which I’m sure will happen soon.)

I love Ray Harryhausen’s work despite it being far from realistic. Is it really far fetched to believe that there will be people that develop an affinity for the kind of imperfect but then cutting-edge effects that littered the multiplex 10-20 years ago in the same way? I say no. There has long been a big anti-digital chip on the shoulders of many film fanatics. It’s hard for me not to sympathize with them because of my wailing and gnashing over the death of hand-drawn feature animation, but I don’t really count myself among them. Many of these purists are my age because they grew up with the last batch of blockbuster pre-CGI effects films in the 80s. Most of them are older. But the generation of film zealots after mine shouldn’t have that issue. Just as they never lived in a world without the internet, they never had movies without ILM weaving computer magic. I think they’ll be able to appreciate the effects of The Mummy, The Frighteners and The Mask the way I appreciate King Kong, The Bride of Frankenstein or the original Godzilla (pre-googly eyes.)

I hadn’t seen the first or second film in quite some time so I went ahead and ordered the box set on blu ray. For some reason I think I recall that they were some of Universal’s first releases in the format? The first one at least still looks pretty good despite its limitations. The ‘real’ stuff in film, like the actors, have a great level of detail as one would expect from a title created since the advent of digital home media. But the CG elements, especially backgrounds, are often blurry and not as sharp. I’m almost certain this is not a problem with the transfer, but a simple issue of the source material and the fact that the effects weren’t as well realized. Perhaps even on purpose in order to help mask them. Whatever the case, it doesn’t hurt the film which remains one of the best pure adventure yarns in recent memory, in my opinion. This is the kind of “remake” I can deal with. Rather than attempt to film a pitiful, cash-grabbing shadow of the 1932 Karloff vehicle, which let’s be honest isn’t scary at all, but is a classic nonetheless, Sommers and Universal took the film in a completely different direction. There are a few bare bones similarities. Both have an eponymous mummy named Imhotep and both involve a lost, forbidden love, but the similarities largely end there. It does not ride the coattails (or bandages rather) of the original film. It is a rip-snorting Indiana Jones style period piece full of colorful characters, humor and action. It’s also probably Brendan Fraser’s best role outside of George of the Jungle. Combined with Rachel Weisz’s underrated balancing act as the librarian that is competent enough that it doesn’t feel obligatory when she becomes the damsel in distress and John Hannah as the slightly weasely comic relief and you’ve got a really fun cast.

I actually showed my brother’s kids the movie when I went home last weekend and it didn’t go so well though. Now before anyone gets upset with me, keep in mind that these are kids I’ve seen watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. You know, bugs, chilled monkey brains, hearts being ripped out? I really thought they’d be okay with something as innocuous as a cartoony CGI mummy, but they only got about a third of the way through. We didn’t even get to the opening of the sarcophagus. And when they got home it seems all they could talk about were bugs that eat people, despite the fact that I stopped it and put on the Batman movie with Adam West. Sorry about that. So lesson for me, don’t let them pick their own movie and if they say they like it when things are a little scary, don’t necessarily believe them. Maybe if I’d shown them the second one instead…

AOTDdiaryZatoichiChallangedZATOICHI CHALLENGED- Zatoichi Challenged puts a new twist on an old story that they’ve already done in saddling him with a child, by making it a toddler rather than a baby that he escorts. (He’s become a father figure to other kids before, but this is only the second time he’s taken responsibility for one to deliver it to a family member.) It also varies in how that story ends, being much more pleasant than the previous family’s reactions.
Most importantly, it features a new storyline, just varied enough to make up for the parts that seem redundant. Inchi still is going up against gangsters and politicians, but he’s also not just trying to stop them or protect common folk from them, but help someone flee after being caught up between them and a myopic official trying to wash crime away with blood, leaving him literally trapped due to a single mistake that they can’t escape from.

As often is the case with these films, the ending is the best part, with Ichi facing off against a samurai obsessed with honor in the wake of becoming a ronin. Not only does he present a valid threat from which Ichi actually has a prolonged battle (rather than having to slice n’ dice his way through dozens of underlings) but he actually grows and changes in such a way to make their parting not exactly anticlimactic, but certainly a break from formula.

AOTDdiaryTrekXSTAR TREK: NEMESIS- I finally finished seeing all of the Star Trek movies with the last Next Gen film. I guess they knew the writing was on the wall during production because they make some pretty big shifts as per the personnel. (Then again, they shipped off Worf to Deep Space Nine, yet he always managed to show up in every film.)

My reaction to the film is a big, fat “meh.” I’ll grant you, part of that may be because I’ve just never been a Next Gen fan, but I know I’m not alone in that assessment, even among Trek fans. While given to hysterics (they proclaimed Into Darkness to be the worst film in the franchise, which is not even close to being true), enough time had passed to allow a decently fair review on the four films regarded as being part of that particular cycle and only First Contact fared well. I can’t disagree with them as it’s the only one I truly enjoy as a casual movie goer. I’m not sure exactly what it is about Contact that works so well compared to the others, but this crew just seemed ill equipped for the transition to the big screen. Insurrection felt too much like a long episode rather than a movie, while Nemesis seems like too big a departure. I know it’s not really fair, but it’s just really hard for them to win.

Fetish model Picard (aka skinny Bane) is a villain I don’t particularly get unless it’s to show ‘our’ Picard what a blowhard he is. But then it seems like they’re changing Picard Classic’s personality for a decent amount of the film what with his sudden penchant for four-wheelin’ over fragile alien ecosystems.

The Romulans/Remans should have been interesting enough without having to shoehorn the clone plot inside and the political flips and twists to put him in power seems like too much trouble for the payoff.

I’ll admit that the big battle at the end has its moments, even though I have to wonder if they’re ever going to get tired of destroying the Enterprise. At least this time we have something new happen with the bridge. The sacrifice at the end, trying so hard to echo Wrath of Kahn, doesn’t work because Data simply isn’t Spock. And there is a backdoor to the “death” so wide open and obvious that I don’t see anyone actually thinking it would stick if they’d done another film with that cast.

Now I know this is a completely contrary thing to say thus far into my ranting, but even though I’m not nearly as big a fan of the Next Gen characters as the original series or even the new cast, I wonder if Paramount wasn’t too hasty in ending the series. I think they could have kept making money by making modestly budgeted films with the Next Gen/DS9/Voyager casts spaced between the Abrams films. What’s wrong with having two continuities simultaneously? Japan does that kinda stuff all the time. Especially with how the current films are actually sequels to the previous series that take place in a different universe. But instead of doing what they’d been doing, they could have followed Riker’s command with new and old characters populating the ship and allowing for the type of flexibility needed to really create cinematic adventures of characters that people already loved. Maybe I’m crazy.

More to come soon!

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Raid 2

I don't think he ever actually wears this.

I’m pretty sure that in the span of a week, I saw the best two action movies of 2014, though they are completely different types of films. Like John Woo on methamphetamines, The Raid 2 is a film that pulls no punches and takes no prisoners. It is grimy. It is wincingly painful. But it is also a rocket-powered Falcon Punch to the groin. The closest thing I can think of to it is John Woo’s Hong Kong masterpieces like The Killer and Hard Boiled, which were undoubtedly inspirations for the series, but it reaches beyond the balletic “gun fu” that captured the heart of many a nerd in the 90s and sucked them into the Asian cinema appreciation society.

I’ve never seen a movie like The Raid 2, and that includes The Raid. One way to explain it would be to say that it is the most hard-edged film I’ve ever seen, with gore to rival any horror film that has crossed my path with the possible exception of Dead Alive. Frankly there are scenes in the film that made me surprised it was able to secure an R rating. And one particular bit at the end that I couldn’t believe hadn’t tied an NC-17 anchor around its neck. If the remake of Evil Dead broke the ratings system, as one reviewer suggested, The Raid 2 may have cremated it. Another way to say it would be JESUS H. [BLEEP]ING CHRIST PLAYING CENTER FOR THE CHICAGO BULLS, DID I JUST SEE THAT? I don’t think I’ve ever had quite the physical/visceral reaction to a film that I had with this one. Multiple times, I found myself cringing, swearing, laughing at the sheer audacity of Gareth Evans and, in many cases, staring ahead with eyes wide and maw agape.

The sequel to Evans’ calling card film, this is a very different animal. True, it shares the penchant for unflinching violence and incredibly well-choreographed fight scenes. However, Raid 2 has a very different MO. Technically there may be a ‘raid’ or two, but it is not at all structured like the very self-contained first movie. 99% of The Raid took place in one rundown tenement building over the span of a day and was largely a fight for survival.

The sequel picks up more or less where that film left off, but it removes all limitations. It takes place over years and expands its scope to cover a wide and varied urban landscape under the control of gangs and cartels. This time our hero Rama (Iko Uwais) is delving into an undercover operation under the manipulative thumbscrews of internal affairs to root out corrupt cops at great risk of life and limb. Eventually, he finds himself befriending what appears to be the Asian Patrick Wilson to get into a gang which has been procuring the services of many crooked officers.

In the midst of this are plenty of opportunities for bloodshed and Evans does not miss a one. By the time Order 66 is given*, the film abandons all pretexts and becomes a pure adrenaline hit. Trust me when I say, you are not ready for Hammer Girl and Bat Boy. You can’t handle them. They feel like they come from a completely different film. And they are glorious.

When I’ve heard people describe Evans as the best action filmmaker working today, I can’t help but feel it’s not just for the inventiveness that he displays in his set pieces. No, a large portion of it is due to simply how these beautifully choreographed blood-lettings are filmed. The editing and staging are off the charts good. Unlike many titles, ones from Hollywood especially, the film is not a random assortment of quick cuts meant to give the illusion of a fight while really showing a jumbled mess of punches and kicks. No, this film’s continuity during the kung-fu battles and shootouts is among the best I’ve ever seen. You always have a sense of where these characters are geographically and you can follow the action better than in almost any modern film involving martial arts I can think of. I’m sure a lot if it is a simple matter of confidence. The Raid 2 is an insanely confident film for Evans. His voice is crystal clear. It also shows a marked improvement in these arenas over the first film, already no slouch considering it had been called one of the best action films ever made by many people. The cinema verite style is still present, but it’s not wildly overdone this time. The urgency is still there, but not at the expense of the story and composition. Along with the new type of story being told, I’m wondering if the decision to go widescreen might have something to do with the changes in  the aesthetics. It simply feels more solid.

The Raid 2 is a superb film in a genre that deserves better than saggy stars picking up paychecks and lousy editing. It most definitely is not for everybody. There are a lot of viewers that this film is not for in any shape, matter or form. But for me and people like me who thrive on fantasy violence and bold moves in filmmaking, it is one of the best releases of the year.

(Five damns given out of five)

*Yes, I just made a Revenge of the Sith reference. Deal with it.

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Have a little Captain in you?

How do you manage to do an apolitical political thriller? It seems unlikely, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier has managed to pull it off.

The title is only slightly misleading because the actual Winter Soldier, while excellently used and portrayed, is not really the main focus of the film. In fact, directors the Russo Brothers, formally major creative forces on TV with Community and Arrested Development, juggle many balls in the air. The film deals with the political intrigue of the spy organization SHIELD, Cap’s continuing work relationship post-Avengers with Black Widow (calling the film a team-up between them would not be out of line), the introduction of his comic book compatriot The Falcon, the struggles with the Winter Soldier himself and his dealings with being a man out of time. Joe and Anthony Russo may have seemed like strange choices to helm a film like this, but like a lot of Marvel’s creative gambles it pays off with them making the transition to an action movie with style.

The plot of the film is straight out of Alex Jones’ worst nightmares. It had the prescience to be written before we found out the NSA was unconstitutionally spying on all of us, but given the ever-expanding definition of the Patriot Act, drone-strikes and the horrors of the TSA, it probably just seemed like an extension of anxiety over a security state that seems at best a necessary evil and at worst something that tentacle hentai could be a metaphor for.* Nick Fury, a major presence in the film, is the keeper of secrets and a spy’s spy. This has caused friction before, but he’s always come across in the films as ultimately a good guy who sometimes makes questionable decisions. But what happens if someone without his shadow of a moral compass ends up in charge of the most powerful intelligence organization in the world? Bad things, as you would assume.

It adds up to a pretty good plot, but what really makes Cap 2 the best of the Marvel solo films (and arguably the equal of Avengers, despite being a very different type of film at its core) is the fact that all of the disparate elements feed into each other and the very well-done action sequences inform the plot rather than seeming like an obligatory pause before getting back to more exposition.

Captain America (or Steve Rogers if you prefer) is sneered at by many of the cynical pop culture consumers these days. Much like Superman, he’s mocked for the very qualities that make him truly different in a sea of post-90s antiheroes and psychopaths in capes. Luckily Chris Evans has succeeded in capturing the qualities which make him interesting and not through mocking him or belittling him for being old fashioned. (For a jeering example of that kind of deconstruction, see Disney’s Lone Ranger debacle.) I personally believe a lot of this success is because of Marvel starting where they did with the character in Joe Johnston’s fantastic go-round showing his origin before dropping him into our modern world as a fish out of water. We’ve seen how he was in his own time and Winter Soldier does a great job building on that foundation. It’s true, there’s a lot of Black Widow and Nick Fury in the film. But this isn’t because Steve’s a weak or bland character. Quite the opposite. It works because it allows these other characters to bounce off him. He is the moral rock of Marvel’s cinematic universe, the personification of a lost era of ideals. Rather than seeing him broken down and compromised, we see him rub off on the others. The reason we need other larger than life characters in Captain America is to show just how much he effects the lives of others and makes them want to be better.

Black Widow has her best role to date and shows that she could carry her own film. Her playful chemistry with Rogers and the way she helps him survive the spy game are reason enough to include her, but her character growth in the process is one of the better arcs that we’ve seen from Marvel. I have always been of the opinion that Scarlett Johanson was serviceable in the role but didn’t bring anything particularly unique to it other than looking curvy in a tight suit. Winter Soldier has made me reevaluate that. She’s slowly made the character her own. At this point, I can’t see another person in the role.

As for new characters, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon is a bit bland in design, forgoing one of the more ridiculous costumes in all of comics for some generic military tech straight out of Iron Man 2. However, any visual issues do not extend to the writing. The work by Mackie and the screenplay establish him quickly as a formidable friend to Steve, not just because he’s a good man and a soldier, but because he’s one of the few people who can seem to understand some of the things that Steve is going through as a combat vet.

It’s hard to go more into the film’s specifics without spoiling some of the best secrets and moments, including those that involve the Winter Soldier himself. His identity may be common knowledge to comic book readers, but Marvel and Disney were nice enough to try not to spoil it for new fans and I’ll respect their decision. What I will say is that some unexpected characters return and in every case it is handled deftly and in interesting fashion.

Winter Soldier does a great job building on the films that have come before and even the Agents of SHIELD TV series. I think a person who has seen them will get more out of it simply through the larger context. However, it does a good enough job with the characters that I don’t think having a working knowledge of the film universe is a necessary precursor to enjoying it. It may even bring in some new fans. If this level of development, meaningful action and imaginative world building reflecting a stylized but recognizable reality does not bring people in, I doubt much of anything would.

(Five damns given out of five)

* (I don’t tend to get into politics in this particular site for good reason. I’ll just say I have Ron Swanson as my facebook avatar and leave it at that. Given this film and Iron Man’s penchant for telling the government to screw off, I asked Bryan if I was crazy for thinking that the Marvel Cinematic Universe had something of a Libertarian bent, perhaps as a way of circumventing criticism from either of the more traditional modern political parties. He said I wasn’t crazy. So I could be wrong, but as with all things I’m sure some of it comes down to what you bring into it.)

Kent’s Movie Diary- Early Carpenter, Teen Wolf and some newer stuff as well

Some pretty different films this installment, so let’s just dig in.

DamnedTeenWolfTeen Wolf- Teen Wolf is one weird movie, man. I get that the country was riding the Michael J. Fox wave, but I’m shocked that this thing was a major hit. It has cult film written all over it.

I’m a huge fan of Axe Cop and one of the reasons why is that it is the work of a child that is being made by adults as though it is deserving of every resource they can muster. I don’t know how old Jeph Loeb was when he wrote the screenplay, but it almost feels like a 17-year-old wrote the script and it was made by adult professionals. It’s practically dadaist in many ways, from the sudden bizzare shifts in tone to the way there is no sense of linear narrative passing. (Dialogue indicates the film takes place over a matter of days while the climax indicates an entire basketball season has been played.) Not to mention the bizarre way that the main character is accepted immediately and nobody ever really questions the situation. Wouldn’t the confirmation of the existence of werewolves be at least worthy of local media attention? Wouldn’t it spark the slightest scientific curiosity?

I mostly knew of the film thanks to the Saturday Morning cartoon and from seeing Teen Wolf Too with my mom as a kid. (I assume she saw the first and enjoyed it, so she took us to the sequel that was ahead of its time in recognizing the cinematic qualities of intercollegiate wrestling.) But I’m sure I saw at least some of the original during some network broadcast in the mid to late 80s. My interest in seeing it complete was related to a Cracked podcast (one of the participants being ‘David Wong,’ writer of John Dies at the End) in which the film was discussed as not just an obvious puberty metaphor, but a subconscious racial tale in which Fox’s werewolf side, being flashy, confident, outgoing and good at basketball, is actually displaying traits associated with being black by popular culture of the time. The climax involves him returning to being “good” by abandoning those qualities and returning to being a cookie-cutter, under-the-radar white kid.

There is certainly evidence to support the theory, though it does seem accidental at best. It’s just one part of a really, really confusing theme that seems to be a preemptive argument against The Incredibles’ cries of positive individualism. Sure, Fox’s Scott gets popular when he is revealed to be the eponymous monster, but his friends become afraid of him or exploitive and the basketball team hates him for becoming a ball hog. He also finally attracts the attention of his crush, who turns out to be both a good lay and a mind-gaming psycho on the level of her boyfriend that insinuates he killed Scott’s mom in the tradition of 80s teen movie bad guys that seem like they are trying to outdo Ted Bundy. (It also features the classic genre stereotypes of the fat guy, the sidekick that always has a scheme up his sleeve and the best friend/love interest that is actually more attractive than the popular hot girl, but they think because her hair isn’t teased, that somehow makes her “plain.” This would reach its nadir with She’s All That.) Rather than embracing his growth, the girl wants him to be his unassuming old self. And instead of using his natural abilities on the court, he intentionally hobbles himself. (Meanwhile the rest of the team somehow begins to play well magically despite still using the same poor, arcless shooting.) So what is it? Pro-USSR Cold War conformist propaganda? Parody of Michael Landon’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf afraid to go full Zucker Bros.? Segregationist racial allegory? All I know is it’s weird, it’s fun and it’s kind of terrible. So a great late night movie.

DamedInaWorldIn a World…- I wonder if Don LaFontaine’s family insisted on his lionization to use his name in the film In a World… The best known of the Hollywood trailer voices, one has to ponder if it’s because he was truly the most talented or if it is because he had the best agents. Because he’s spoken of like a God in this film. Regardless, the film is a fun little slice of indie comedy.

I personally found myself interested because it is set within the Hollywood voiceover industry. (A business I’ve had people suggest I should be a part of on occasion.) As trailers all meld together and become more and more alike, I’ve actually noticed a dip in the amount of voiceovers with trailers relying more on editing and text to sell films. Usually accompanied with the ever popular “thum!” sound effect. Which is a shame. It certainly hasn’t helped trailers get any better. Still, there’s plenty of work for voice over artists if you can find it and in this story, Lake Bell is on the verge of breaking through and out from under her famous (within the business at least) father’s shadow.

In doing so, we are treated to a pretty great cast of actual vocal performers, cameos announced and unannounced and excellent comedians. Her main rival outside the family is Ken Marino, who I’ve been a fan of for a while as he’s bounced around between The State alumni projects and small roles in lots of varied projects like the show Reaper and films like Role Models. There’s also Rob Courdry appearing as her brother-in-law, but the side story between him and her sister is actually the weakest part of the film. I mean, I get it as an attempt to build the world and deepen her background. On it’s own it would even be a decent enough short film. But ultimately it didn’t feel like it tied into the main plot enough to justify spending so much time on it. Still, Courdry is good as usual. Add in some all-stars like Dimitri Martin as her love interest and Nick Offerman (looking bizarre without his mustache) as an engineer and you’ve got enough talent to make even a failed attempt worth watching.

Fortunately, the film succeeds in being a low key success. It turns out to be utterly charming and funny. The best part is that while the film certainly fits into the “young woman adrift and flailing in the real world” genre, it doesn’t revel in it. Bell’s character Carol is seemingly a decent person who isn’t just making horrible mistakes that hurt others. She actually grows. She learns. She works to succeed. She may be a complete dork and a more than a little socially retarded, but we get some explanation for that and we see her breaking cycles to move forward with her life and that’s a great thing. It may have the technical merits of a Kevin Smith production, but the writing is strong enough to overcome its limitations.

This isn’t one of those surprise films that I find myself putting onto my “top films of the year” list like I did with Safety Not Guaranteed a couple of years ago, but I highly recommend it.

DamnedZatoichi16Zatoichi the Outlaw- In the sixteenth entry of the series that I’ve been making my way through, we find what is probably one of the weaker episodes thus far simply because there’s almost nothing new in it and it is not paced or structured as well as many of the others.

In this chapter we get a patchwork of things that have dotted the series over the last several films. Yet again, he gets involved in a gang war between rival yakuza. And they become corrupt thanks to colluding with the local government officials. Once again, a woman is forced into prostitution due to the yakuza she loves making poor choices and by the time he tries to take responsibility, she is an alcoholic who thinks her honor is too tarnished. And once again, Ichi has to deal with a moralist who chides him for using his sword to help others, though at least in this one he’s thanked in the end by a majority of the people he saves. Hell, we’ve already seen some of the actors playing at least two or three other characters. The only thing really different in this case is some b-grade Three Stooges-style hijinx involving other blind masseurs.

The best part about the film is definitely the ending and it has all the trademark grace notes of the series’ excellent sword play, as well as a return to actually including some gore in the proceedings with fake blood and the like instead of being like an old TV Western in which someone grabs the effected area and keels over. It was very odd that I remember there being a film or two that didn’t do that, but then it went right back into the bloodless killing. I’m not sure if it has to do with the particular director or if the studio tried to mimic another film and decided it hadn’t worked, but I for one enjoy the goofy bloodspray that occupies such films as the Lone Wolf and Cub series, so for me it is jarring but fun.

Given some of the themes of these films (rape or attempted rape being a rather obvious one), I’d be very careful about showing them to children anyway, so for me it makes sense to go ahead and make them visually more adult.

DamnedTheFogThe Fog- I’ve decided that on my quest to better myself in terms of expanding my cinematic horizons, I need to start catching up on the work of John Carpenter. I’ve hit most of the big beats. I consider Big Trouble in Little China a classic and look at The Thing as one of the greatest movies of all time, regardless of genre. So where did I start on this journey? Scream Factory’s release of his low-budget 1980 ghost story, The Fog. And darned if I didn’t kinda love it, despite it’s flaws.

I’ll grant you, I had the idea this would be a good starting place based on my predilection for atmospheric supernatural tales. Fortunately, the atmosphere is what Carpenter gets right above all else. The use of the actual fog they have crawling around buildings and under doors is insanely cool. They must have gone through enough dry ice to keep Mr. Wizard stocked for life. When combined with the coastal town production design (and the early 80s setting that somehow adds to the proceedings) it makes the film much more than the sum of its parts. But most of the film is shot exceedingly well in anamorphic widescreen, which helps it look like a much more professional production than it may have if it was done another way. Even the bright daytime scenes carry the film because the locations are so great, like the lighthouse/radio station that Adrienne Barbeau owns.

In many ways, the film is an urban legend mashup before that concept really even existed. You have vengeful ghosts (many of which kill with hooks), a ghost ship, a teen hitchhiker, references to the “witching hour” and all sorts of elements that come straight from a campfire horror tale. The opening exposition showing just that is a brilliant move on Carpenter’s part. It sets the mood for a tale that never is really that scary, but definitely manages to be wonderfully creepy. While there is definitely gore in the film (the most egregious example of which is an eyeless corpse) it seems downright quaint compared to a lot of the slasher films that would follow it. The music is also fantastic and is probably my favorite of Carpenter’s scores thus far.

The issues with the film are abundantly clear. The characters’ lack of depth is the biggest offender and I’m sure part of that boils down to how many characters are featured. Due to their paths only crossing on occasion, they don’t really gel that well either. That said, some of the principles are stronger than others. Father O’Fallon is a flawed man, but he manages to be a hero in the end and is utterly repentant for the sins of his fathers. Barbeau’s Stevie Wayne sinks to hysterics in some moments, but still manages to sink her teeth into the role, exuding sultriness in her role as the town radio station’s owner operator that apparently is only not working for five hours a day. It’s no wonder the Batman Animated producers made her their Catwoman. I wonder if her character wasn’t an inspiration for the show Welcome to Nightvale. The weakest link is probably Vivian Leigh’s town “historian” that comes across as a less negligent version of the mayor from Jaws.

Shout/Scream Factory has done a great job with this release. They honestly love this kind of material and it really shows. As a low-budget affair with lots of dark shots and optical effects, there’s no way The Fog was ever going to look pristine. The quality of the video varies wildly from soft shots full of grain (thankfully most of these are very short) to vivid, detailed images. It skews more towards the latter and I have a hard time believing it could look any better without seeing a pristine 35mm print on opening weekend. It also has some very interesting and candid special features in which Carpenter and co. talk about how the first cut of the film was simply terrible and quick, messy reshoots essentially saved it and turned it into a modestly successful film whose reputation has grown over the years thanks in large part to home video. I highly recommend this disc. I don’t have as many Shout blu rays as I’d like (off the top of my head, all I remember is this, MST3K: The Movie and Night of the Comet) but I will continue to build my collection. If they’re trying to be the B-Grade/cult version of Criterion, they’re doing it right.

DamnedKonTikiKon Tiki- It’s hard for me to be impartial about the film Kon Tiki because I love the book. It made me want to hop on a raft and make the trip, myself.

The book, written by Thor Heyerdahl, the man behind the expedition, is a pure adventure tale. It is largely bereft of interpersonal squabbles and full of fascinating scientific observations, colored with an explorer’s philosophy. In comparison, the film seems somewhat exploitive and false. For all I know, everything in it could be true, but it makes it seem so much more like soap opera. And I’m torn on that. Part of me knows that it would be harder to maintain interest in the story without showing the emotional effects of spending months at sea, sharing a tiny raft with five other men. I understand a big part of that is how the nuance of the journey would be hard to explain without tons of internal monologue style narration or clunky exposition. And to be fair, it does turn out to be quite a good film, beautifully shot and featuring some great, low-key special effects. There is an “infinite crane” shot that especially dazzles, showing just how isolated and small they are against the Pacific Ocean, like someone appropriated Powers of Ten and added a plot.

I watched the English language version because, while the film was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, there are two distinct versions of the film. One is in Norwegian (the country from which the men in the expedition came and where the film was essentially made.) The other is, rather than a clumsy dub, filmed natively in English and is supposed to be the exact same film, but with the actors speaking a different language. This in and of itself is rather fascinating and I’d love to compare the two. It reminds me of when Universal made English and Spanish versions of Dracula at the same time, except in the case of Kon Tiki, they actually use the same actors.

I highly recommend the film, especially if you haven’t read the book. If it is a good starting point for getting you interested in actually reading about the expedition, so much the better. It’s especially interesting now as for a very long time Heyerdahl’s work was said to be discredited due to genetic research showing Polynesia was populated from the west. But, as with most things, it turns out it wasn’t that simple and recent tests show traces of Peruvian genetics in the people of Easter Island, lending credence to his theories and showing that even now, the story of Kon Tiki isn’t over.