Friday, September 21, 2012

Dredd Review

Note: I'm assigning this a "2 out of 4" but in terms of this movie it really doesn't matter.

“Dredd” (or “Dredd 3D” if you want to waist three extra bucks) is as basic and straight forward a futuristic action flick as they come. In fact it’s a little astounding just how low director Pete Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland aim. And yet the movie takes itself so serious and to its credit, the story (what very little there is) stays on track. Though, “Dredd”—based on a 1995 Sylvester Stallone film--only has one thing working for it: a distinctive, visual style. Yes, it’s mostly constructed of CGI but the film has more artistic look (every scene sort of looks like a digitalized painting), as opposed to a sleek polished one you usually see in most big budget films like these.

As far as story goes, there’s not much to report. It takes place in a futuristic, overpopulated, dystopia, in one giant city called Mega Block 1. The city contains three kinds of people: nasty, dirty, drug dealers--who get their fix from a new drug that gives you the sensation of slow motion--lead by a vicious drug king pin known as Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), impoverished civilians and The Justice Department. It’s here we meet Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) a sort of super judge that acts as judge, jury and executioner. “Dredd” is in some ways similar to “The Raid: Redemption.” The major action takes place in massive tower, living complex. Dredd and his rookie side kick Kay (Wood Harris) have to battle their way through numerous thugs to defeat Ma-Ma at the top. And, well that’s it.

Dredd resembles Robo Cop. He wears a heavy suit of leather armor, a helmet that conceals the top half of his face and he has an endless number of action movie one liners delivered in a very emotionless tone of voice. He is portrayed by Karl Urban (“Lord of The Rings”) but he could be portrayed by anyone else. This is a role that requires no acting what so ever. Travis could have put a Chimpanzee in that suit of armor and there would be no difference. (Well, I guess Dredd would make inaudible Chimpanzee noises instead of talking. Which actually wouldn’t be a problem, seeing as dialogue is not this movie’s concern either). There’s no character development in “Dredd,” unless you count brief monologs the characters give about themselves or someone else, that only include the bare essentials.

The acting is wooden for the most part, and while the action scenes are all well and good—it helps that the movie is rated R. If it was PG-13 I think I would come down harder on it— they don’t really make much of an impression. The action scenes in “The Raid” had impact and by the time all of its mayhem came to an end you came out of the theater just as beaten and bruised as the characters in the movie. The action in “Dredd” is almost too stylized and impersonal.

If I felt motivated enough, I’m sure I could tear this movie a new one but it really isn’t worth the energy. The film tries for so little; the “narrative” is so constricted and unpretentious that I can’t totally abhor it.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Master Review

Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film “The Master” begins on a calm but ominous note. In the opening scenes we meet naval officer Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). He’s currently at sea in the Pacific, during World War 2. And the first five or so minutes of the film consist of Freddie and his fellow sailors passing the time on their Battleship, or on some kind of island beach, joking and mucking around. We don’t see any kind of fighting —not even between the lads—there appears to be no visible danger.

And yet, something’s not quite right. Anderson and his cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. frame each shot in a way that gives you a claustrophobic sensation, the piece of music that plays over the sequence (by Jonny Greenwood who scored the rest of the movie) is a fairly simple instrumental piece—consisting of drums, various strings and a few woodwind instruments—and yet there’s something disturbingly off beat about it, something sinister. Beneath this seemingly tranquil scene of military life, lies a feeling of unease and danger. The scene has a wonderfully rhythmic quality to it, as well as a hypnotic one. It’s so basic, but effective and alive, and it sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

“The Master” is similar to Anderson’s last film, 2007’s “There Will Be Blood” in that they’re both period pieces and they contain so many themes, symbols and other ambiguities, that you have to be fully attentive while viewing it and even then you won’t understand everything on the initial go round. It has multiple gears working on multiple levels. The film is definitely a little bewildering, in fact the movie is so dense that it sort of feels like even Anderson doesn’t quite know what he’s getting at. But the film is still immensely intelligent and in terms of filmmaking alone, it’s a masterpiece.

The movie resumes, post WWII in the 1950’s. Freddie has now been put back in the rat race and, he’s not doing too well. He’s suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. He has wild, erratic behaviors and violent mood swings. Among the movie’s many ideas and surmisings, one that I think stands out is the one I referenced to in the opening paragraphs: A surface-level feeling of normality, with an underlying eeriness. Order and disorder. Everything about “The Master” is so clean and put together. The period décor—the production design by David Crank and Jack Fisk, and the costume design by Mark Bridges—is so very neat, and as it should be. The movie has picture perfect appearance that feels almost too good to be true, like a dream state.

Whatever it is Freddie doesn’t fit in, or at least he’s thought of this observation before, which could explain his behavior. One day while working at his new job as a photographer in a department store he picks a random fight with a well-dressed, wealthy looking man.  It’s like he’s trying to tinker with this seamless, orderly society, seeing what will happen if he disrupts it. Phoenix (whose last movie was the awful 2010 mockumentary “I’m Still Here” where he plays a super exaggerated version of himself) sinks right into this role and it’s a role that plays to those crazy, animalistic sensibilities seen in “I’m Still Here.” He plays Freddie with a drunken eccentricity.

After being run out of a few other odd jobs Freddie ends up back on the water on a mysterious passenger boat full of seemingly normal people. It’s here where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) the leader of a questionable cult called The Cause (it’s similar to Scientology). “The Master” moves at such a slow, leisurely pace, Anderson isn’t in a hurry to go anywhere. Just about all of the individual shots within the movie last no less than a minute. And overall the movie is unwelcoming. I don’t mean that as a flaw necessarily but in the sense that Anderson doesn’t spell things out for the audience. Instead of being a generous man who invites you into his house, he’s like a stubborn old hermit, and you have to go knock on his door and be persistent.

We don’t learn much about The Cause while on this trip, Freddie doesn’t even learn that much. He hangs out and chats with the various members, one of which is Lancaster’s wife Peggy (a creepy Amy Adams) and he has a few drinking sessions with Lancaster. For the most part he remains as an outside observer, looking in at this strange, seemingly blissful world. And that applies to the rest of the movie. Even after Lancaster breaks him down in a lightning round style interview session on board—where we learn about his tortured past—and even when they go back on land, where Freddie continues to spend time with the cult and Lancaster attempts to rehabilitate him with cult tactics, he always retains that outsider status. Phoenix gives a masterful physical performance. He’s always hunched over, his arms usually locked on his sides, in a stiff arch. He resembles a rabid, wounded rat.

Lancaster Dodd is a quintessential cult leader. He’s well dressed, well read, confident, prone to losing his temper, and above all damn charismatic (I don’t think I’ve seen Hoffman this charismatic). The perfect kind of man to prey on the weak minded and lost souls such as Freddie. He always has an answer, always has something to tell Freddie. But, as it usually goes with cults, Lancaster is more of a showman, someone who preaches falsities. If I’ve just spoiled something important, then I apologize but the status of the cult isn’t that big of a revelation.

“The Master” isn’t really about Lancaster or The Cause. It doesn’t explore the politics of cults very often; Anderson doesn’t really take us into the mind of Lancaster. In the end, “The Master” is about Freddie. He’s the major puzzle the audience must solve. He comes off crazy and weak but is he really? Is he more aware and strong willed than he seems? That brings Freddie’s outsider status back into mind. Now, what the final answer to that intricate puzzle is, I don’t have the slightest clue. I don’t think you can know after one seeing.

One thing missing from “The Master” is Anderson’s usual sense of camera movement. Every scene in “The Master” is so staged and calculated and thought out. Everything down to the very last hair atop Lancaster’s slicked back perfect hairdo is accounted for. This isn’t totally a bad thing but Anderson uses movement so well. He achieves a beautiful, eloquent, fluidity, that gave movies like “Boogie Nights” and Magnolia” a real pop. “The Master” doesn’t exactly pop and is a little rigid and oppressive.

Even so, you have to walk away impressed with ‘The Master” in terms of craftsmanship and the amount of substance Anderson packs into his screenplay. Besides the performances and Anderson’s direction, it’s that idea and feeling of order as well as disorder mentioned before that propels “The Master” forward.


End of Watch Review

Considering it has such a simple concept, Dan Ayer’s (who wrote “Training Day”) “End of Watch” is a surprisingly enthralling police picture. It zips along from one beat to the next with ease; no scene or portion ever drags. It’s exciting and tense. There are scenes that are downright shocking and ones that engage you emotionally. It’s an intimate portrait of the day-to-day life of regular beat cop. And Ayer uses the ever so popular found footage device to give the film another predicted layer of realism. With that said however, it’s also this plot device—or gimmick—that holds “End of Watch” back. I’m not saying it completely ruins it but with this drawback Ayer’s movie doesn’t reach its full potential.

“End of Watch” revolves around two young cocky and naïve cops, Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike (Michael Pena) in South Central Los Angeles --probably the most dangerous place for a policeman-- as they make their rounds on daily patrols. We see them interacting with each other, with numerous street hoods as well as other cops. Ayer creates a playful and convincing dynamic between the two.

A number of the scenes take place inside their squad car as they playfully rib each other about their races or their love lives, and talk seriously about family and their futures. It’s all done in a believable way; Gyllenhaal and Pena play off of each other wonderfully, saying dialogue that feels completely genuine. In fact most of their scenes look ad-libed. The most pleasant surprise of this movie is how much character development there is. And it’s the dynamic between these two cops that drives “End of Watch.” Hell, it’s practically the only thing. The whole movie is the development of their friendship.

As good as all that is though, the film still has one major unavoidable flaw: the found footage aspect turns out to be unnecessary. When I said originally that “End of Watch” is a found footage film that was only a partial truth. There are cameras in the squad car, Brian has his own video camera that he takes around to every crime scene and situation they run into (for a film school project), both Mike and Brian have mini cameras attached to their police uniforms and then there are a couple other assorted cameras throughout. But then there are many shots, shot in that handheld style that would be pretty much impossible for anyone in the movie to capture. So really what we’ve got are two similar but different methods of filmmaking: found footage and Cinema Verite, two methods that work fine on their own but separately they undermine one another.

Why not just shoot the whole thing in Cinema Verite style, if you’re only going to half acknowledge the found footage? Found footage movies can be fun but they’re also extremely limited in terms of narrative and character scope. That’s why they usually don’t hold up on repeat viewings. “End of Watch” is trying to be more ambitious, casting a wider net with its narrative and characters—the duo runs into trouble with the Mexican Drug Cartel, and we see the story partially from the POV of the main bad guys-- trying to create a greater world that movies like “Paranormal Activity” simply can’t. And the additional incorporation of the found footage holds “End of Watch” back from reaching the level of excellence it could have easily achieved.

But, it’s easy to get caught up in the exciting, suspenseful and fun experience that is “End of Watch,” and the ending, while expected, still packs an emotional punch because you’ve come to know these characters really well. “End of Watch” is a solid police drama/thriller, a hard thing to come by these days, despite the fact that it isn’t as fully realized as it could have been.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Trouble With the Curve Review

Robert Lorenz’ “Trouble With the Curve” is basically “Moneyball”—if it were told from the point of view of the crusty old scouts that are opposed to using computer programs as a way to recruit players—crossed with a sappy father-daughter melodrama with a romantic comedy thrown in. “Trouble With The Curve” also marks Clint Eastwood’s return to acting; his last role was in his own directorial effort “Gran Torino,” in which he played an aging, raspy voiced racist, grumpy coot. In “Curve” he also plays an aging, raspy voiced grumpy coot (is this how he wants to be last remembered on the screen? As a grumpy old raspy voiced coot?). No, he’s not racist but he’s set in his old ways and won’t budge. He plays Gus, a baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves who’s slowly losing his sight and slowly being phased out.

His younger, smugger colleagues are using computers, therefore they’re able to recruit players faster. But not Gus. He don’t need no fancy computer, or Internet. Instead he uses newspapers and goes out to all of the games of a potential recruit. He may be going blind, and may need a hearing aid but he’s got years and years (and years) of experience as well as a gut instinct. Most of the movie consists of either Gus complaining about technology and youngsters, or bumbling around breaking objects and hurting himself because of his failing vision.

Then comes his estranged daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), a progressive young gal who’s a big time lawyer, hoping to make partner at her firm. Against Gus’s wishes she accompanies him on his current scouting trip (where they’re checking out a cocky North Carolina kid with first draft pick potential) to try and bond with him. She knows a thing or two about baseball—from the few times she spent time with her dad as a kid—so she’s able to give Gus a hand, or better yet a pair of eyes. The whole trip she’s constantly on her laptop or cellphone and Gus is always telling her to cut it out (meanwhile he’s tripping on the bleachers and getting into car accidents, no alarm there) while she insists she can multitask. There’s a true battle of the old generation vs. the young generation going on all throughout “Curve” and by the end it feels strongly in favor of doing things the old fashioned way.

Eastwood’s crusty old man antics are worth a few laughs initially before it gets kind of sad. Though, much like with his “Gran Torino” performance his Gus act gets real old (no pun intended) real fast. Adams is able to hold her own, even though she deserves better material. The same day I screened this movie I also saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” in which she gives a completely different performance. She has a wide acting range.

As for the rest of the movie, there’s not much to get excited about. The screenplay by Randy Brown is all over the place, unsure of what kind of movie it wants to be and Lorenz can’t find a consistent tone. One minute there’s corny, PG humor, the next minute there’s super melodramatic scenes between Gus and Mickey, and then Gus is in a bar threatening a random bar patron with a broken beer bottle for making a pass at Mickey. On top of that Lorenz and Brown throw in a romantic comedy side plot between Mickey and Johnny (Justin Timberlake) who’s now a scout for the Boston Red Socks, which makes the movie even more unfocused.

The only thing “Trouble With the Curve” really succeeds at is being a comedy about an ailing baseball scout and his young daughter. Clearly that wasn’t Lorenz and company’s sole intent, judging by the constant mood swings. So, as a serious film about a fractured father-daughter relationship, as a sports feature, and whatever else kind of movie “Trouble With The Curve” tries to be, it fails.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Review

“The Perks of Being A Wild Flower” can be summed up as a coming of age story. It deals with the ever so pivotal experience of high school, and all the ups and downs that come along with it. It centers on a group of students, at different stages of their high school careers (one is a freshman, the other four are seniors), trying to navigate their lives, having to deal with various obstacles. The movie may sound standard and may be in some ways, but the writer/director Stephen Chbosky captures the experience of high school in such a delicate, patient, bittersweet and genuine way. Everybody--current high schoolers and adults-- can find a way to connect to it.

The story is incredibly rich and multilayered, and the characters are some of the deepest most well rounded characters I have seen in a movie this whole year. The picture also evokes a sense of nostalgia. A time when people bought records and made mix tapes for one another, a time when RC Cola was drunk, a time before social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. It’s this specific period texture that gives “Perks” a refreshing feel and Andrew Dunn’s warm and glowing cinematography gives the film a distinctive, old fashioned glamour look.

The main character is Charlie (a spot on Logan Lerman) an ideal hero for a coming of age story about high school. He’s intelligent but also socially awkward. He doesn’t fit in with the other freshman, and his older sister is a senior, therefore she doesn’t want to be seen with him at school. So he spends his lunch hour sitting alone, reading a book, looking for someone who might notice him. At home his parents, played by Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh, are nice and supportive but also distant and oblivious to Charlie’s issues.

Things start to get better when he bonds with his English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) who recognizes how smart he is, and he gives him extra books to read outside of the class. He also befriends two lively and intelligent seniors: Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) who Charlie begins to fall in love with. In the movie, you can tell that Watson is trying hard to shake off her Herimone Granger character (she sports an American accent and enters the movie wearing a letterman’s jacket). She’s sweet and compassionate but has a wild, rambunctiousness to her as well. You’ll forget all about Herimone.

The five teenagers--there are also two other girls, a punk Buddhist and a Goth-- embark on a number of wacky adolescent adventures that should make anyone remember high school fondly. Going to football games on Friday nights, going to lame Homecoming dances, followed by after-parties, where you get stoned on weed brownies. Playing Secret Santa, reenacting “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” as it plays in a movie theater, and simply just driving around listening to and discussing music. All of these upbeat episodes are given such a personal touch, while watching it I felt alive and enthralled. They feel completely natural; the actors look like they’re really living these fun moments.

But then there are the down moments; it wouldn’t be high school without them. Just about all of the characters have some sort of baggage. Charlie is social outcast but we also find out that his best friend shot himself the summer after middle school and later on we discover something more horrifying about his past. We find out that Sam had a reputation for being a slut when she was a freshman, and even though she’s a lot more confident today, she still makes bad decisions when it comes to boyfriends. And Patrick, despite his happy go lucky attitude, is secretly gay and secretly dating the captain of the football team.

Cracks also start to form in their friendship. Charlie is smart and mature but he’s also young and naïve. He’s only known these people for a few months whereas Sam, Patrick and the others have known each other since they were in kindergarten. On accident, Charlie rattles some feathers one night during a game of Truth or Dare.

  Despite all of this, and more, the film never descends into soap opera. Instead, Chbosky handles it with care and grace. He doesn’t hit you over the head with it, Michael Brook’s score doesn’t swell up, and Dunn doesn’t use any special camera tricks or effects in an attempt to amp up the drama and emotion. In other words “Perks” doesn’t try overly hard to be melodramatic. It comes naturally. More depth is added to the characters, more layers to the story are pealed back effortlessly.

And the humorous moments are still around; in fact the serious/emotional instants make you appreciate the humorous stuff even more, you understand the characters on an even deeper scale. These kids have major issues they’re trying to sort out, and so these fun, giddy episodes that they partake in are ways for them to heal themselves, take their minds off of their problems for a little while. Everything is better with companions, after all.

Patrick is particularly interesting case. For most of the movie he seems lively and enthusiastic about life. He and Charlie first meet in Freshman woodshop when Patrick imitates the teacher to make the freshman more comfortable. He’s cocky and arrogant, always has an answer. All the while—deep down—he is suffering. Miller—who was in “We Need to Talk About Kevin”—gives a memorizing performance, one containing both internalized and explosive power.

I think the main reason why “Perks” works so well is not the cinematography or the music or the acting -- although those things contribute quite a bit – but because of Chbosky. Chbosky wrote the original semi autobiographical novel of the same name, and he wrote the screenplay and directed it. He knows this material better than anyone. He knows these characters inside and out; they’re a part of him. Therefore he knows how to best execute the story to the very best ability.

If someone else had directed or written the screenplay the film might have been good but it wouldn’t be nearly as intimate and deep. Everything in “Perks” clicks, which is a rare thing to say about a movie these days.