Thursday, January 19, 2017

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage Review (2017)

“xXx: The Return of Xander Cage” (a sequel to 2002’s “xXx”) is a movie that simply doesn’t care. It’s a big, loud, silly action cartoon wherein there’s no consistent internal logic of any kind; the rules of physics or gravity don’t apply either. It’s a film where one can survive the blast caused by a crashing, malfunctioning satellite. In this world, literally thousands of rounds of bullets are fired yet the only people who seem to die are unnamed foot soldiers. In this world, you can have a massive gun battle in a warehouse, in the middle of Detroit and in broad daylight. The only representations of law enforcement/authority are corrupt government agencies. There are literally no rules in this film.

 “The Return of Xander Cage” takes every action movie cliché/trope you can think of (gunfights, both at regular speed and slo mo, choreographed martial art fights, car and motorcycle chases, Parkour, a cornucopia of sexy ladies who the protagonist can flirt and try to have sex with, and of course a half baked commentary on the dangers of the NSA and Government surveillance) and mixes them together into a thick, greasy action movie stew. There’s little coherence, consistency, or even continuity from scene to scene.

The picture is a series of ridiculous action set pieces and characters’ awkward attempts at quips/ breezy banter, loosely held together by a threadbare plot involving a doomsday device that can take down satellites. Extreme sports athlete Xander Cage (Vin Diesel), a tatted up rebel who plays by his own rules, is recruited by NSA agent Jane Marke (a delightfully deadpan Toni Collette) to recover the device from a supposed terrorist group.

But plot doesn’t really matter here; the action set pieces call the shots. Whenever the story needs to advance it just does. Whenever Xander and his self-assembled crew of one-dimensional mercenaries need to find what they’re looking for (the location of the people who have the device) they just…do, so that the movie can get on to the next action sequence.

When it comes to action, the film is in constant competition with itself. Every action beat seems to have a mind of its own and has the drive to top the previous beat in terms of absurdity, with no regard for the overall film:
“Yeah…jumping off a cable tower and skiing through the jungle is pretty hardcore but you know what’s more hardcore? Surfing with a motorcycle!”
“What about playing Hot Potato with grenades?”
“What about using a dirt bike as a melee weapon?”
“Pffff! Try using a boat as a melee weapon…on land!”
“That’s nothing! How about a fist fight/foot chase right down the middle of a busy street?”

My personal favorite, and one that’s not as outwardly absurd as any of those scenes listed above: At a random beach rave in the Philippines, one of the bad guys (played by international Martial arts star Tony Jaa, delightfully twitchy and eccentric with bleached hair) slowly makes his way through the crowd to shank Xander. So one of Xander’s crewmembers, a DJ named Nicks (Kris Wu) proceeds to play sick beats, causing the crowd to get rowdier and distract the bad guy, allowing Xander to escape. In this crazy action dream world, scrawny DJ’s can be heroes too. A few moments later he chokes a random baddie with his headphone cord. Check and mate, surfing motorcycle!

Unfortunately, from a technical standpoint the action in “Xander Cage” is just as incoherent as the film itself. Outside of a hand-to-hand fight on a plane involving fellow international Martial arts star Donnie Yen the action is shot with confusing shaky cam and choppily edited. It’s chaotic and disorienting; at the end I felt exhausted. It also doesn’t help that the soundtrack mostly consists of blaring, obnoxious techno/Dubstep music that gave me a minor headache. It’s as if the filmmakers are trying to make us experience sensory overload.

In the end, “xXx: The Return of Xander Cage” is sheer madness—a baffling, chaotic collage of action, sexy ladies, and paper-thin characters. But it revels in that madness, which makes it watchable. You can tell everybody involved is having a blast: the director DJ Caruso, the cast. Vin Diesel isn’t a good actor, especially in action movies, but its nice to see him loosen up and have fun for a change. He’s usually so brooding and serious.

I wouldn’t say “Xander Cage” is a good movie either but its madness and scatterbrained nature makes it utterly fascinating.

 Grade: B? C+? D+? F? I really don’t know.  This movie transcends the movie review grading system.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Split Review (2017)

With each new film, director M Night Shyamalan is slowly climbing his way back into the fold of competent filmmaking/storytelling. A place he hasn’t been since ”The Sixth Sense.”

His last picture, “The Visit” was a feverish fairytale mockumentary that blended horror and comedy quite well, and even managed to enliven the mostly stale “found footage horror” gimmick. It was one of the year’s biggest surprises. His most recent film “Split” is an entirely different beast—a complex, deeply unsettling kidnapping horror film with an unexpected dose of Sci fi. It’s expertly crafted, full of twists and turns, difficult to watch at times (some of the subject matter is extremely dark and icky) but never unwatchable thanks to its tense and unpredictable structure.

“The Visit” is more fun-- an effective back-to-basics horror comedy, while “Split” is more ambitious and harder to pin down. However, Shyamalan also overthinks things in the latter film, especially during the last third (pulling one too many rugs out from under you) resulting in a slightly muddled finale.

“Split” gets going quickly. Three teenage girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) are abducted by a mysterious man named Kevin (James McAvoy) and kept in an underground bunker for unknown purposes. It turns out that Kevin suffers from split personality disorder and has twenty-three distinct personalities trapped within him. Some of them are harmless (like a nine year old kid) while others are more sinister (an strict British lady named Patricia). Meanwhile, on the outside, we see interactions between “Kevin” and his therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley).

The craftsmanship in “Split” is top notch. The cinematography by Mike Gioulakis manages to be both kinetic, his camera navigating the tight creepy corridors of the bunker with frantic ease, and static— the crooked camera angles and reoccurring shots through keyholes and door cracks create a claustrophobic sensation. And the editing by Luke Franco Ciarrocchi is jarring and paranoid without being disorienting or rendering the action incoherent. Meanwhile, Shyamalan’s direction is meticulous and patient, creating an atmosphere of gradual and impending dread.

McAvoy gives a difficult, multifaceted performance. His “Kevin” can be menacing and sweet, calculating and erratic as his various personalities jockey for attention. While his multiple personalities aren’t three-dimensional characters, each one is distinctive enough to leave a memorable impression. They don’t blend together. McAvoy pulls you into his character’s traumatized, complex psyche without giving you full access. There’s plenty we don’t know, which keeps us on our toes. Meanwhile, up and comer Taylor-Joy is also great, playing a clever and resourceful heroine suffering from her own psychological damage. Casey is resilient and cunning with an undercurrent of emotional fragility. Taylor-Joy’s performance only gets stronger the more we learn about Casey and her background.

“Split” contains some very dark and disturbing subject matter, mostly related to Casey’s troubled background. Occasionally, I felt icky and slumped down in my seat in discomfort. At the same time, the film contains its fair share of humor—off beat jokes, black humor, horror/thriller moments that are outright cheesy. This combination of horror and comedy doesn’t always jell, and sometimes I felt uneasy about laughing at the film’s humor. That being said, the comedy never completely undermines the disturbing subject matter or makes light of it. Shymalan shows thoughtfulness and restraint.

The big third act turn (you can’t have a Shymalan picture without one) involving a “twenty fourth personality” is ridiculous to say the least and the science/psychology behind it is equally ridiculous. Though it’s conveyed with a straight face and Shymalan at least tries to explain how it could work in this universe (the seeds are planted during the therapist scenes). In other words, it doesn’t feel like it was pulled out of thin air and dropped on you unexpectedly for the sake of a twist; there’s at least some development.

My main issue with “Split” has to do with the second twist, one final stinger during the last scenes. Without spoiling, it just doesn't feel appropriate for this particular film. It’s a rather drastic and goofy narrative pivot that comes too late and therefore feels unnecessary. The “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” nature of the last scene somewhat cheapens the film overall. I think Shymalan got too clever for his own good during the writing process.

I have other reservations regarding the film’s last third. There are some holes in logic (concerning the true location of the bunker) and Shymalan loses track of the film’s geography; the layout of the bunker becoming slightly confusing. But overall, like “The Visit,” “Split” is a step in the right direction for Shymalan and shows how great a horror filmmaker he can be.


Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Bye Bye Man Review (2017)

Lets not beat around the bush: Stacey Title’s “The Bye Bye Man” is a bad horror movie and it’s one that you could easily pick apart until there’s nothing but a few scattered bones and viscera left. But it’s also a low budget picture made by mostly unknowns and there are good ideas in it that might have made for a solid piece of early-in-the-year horror. On top of that, through its badness, “The Bye Bye Man” turns into a fun watch.

Three college students, Elliot (Douglas Smith), his childhood buddy John (Lucien Laviscount) and his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas) decide to rent an old creepy house off campus. One night, the trio accidentally awakens The Bye Bye Man (through a séance of course! Can we retire the séance from horror cinema please?), a mysterious supernatural being that comes when you say his name and think about him. So your only hope is to not say his name and not think about him. “Don’t say it. Don’t think it,” our trio is advised to tell themselves. But wait. By saying “don’t think it” aren’t you thinking of it? And since you’ve already heard the name and said it isn’t it automatically ingrained in your psyche?

OK…scratch the “hope” part. You’re totally screwed.

Aside from that, “The Bye Bye Man” has a solidly terrifying premise/antagonist reminiscent of “The Candyman,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” as well as Mike Flanegan’s recent horror picture “Oculus.” The Bye Bye Man enacts intense torment through psychological distortion and trickery. Characters see things that aren’t there, hear things that aren’t there and do horrible things they don’t remember. All of this results in a few tense, slow burn horror sequences that wisely avoid cheap jump scares.

I also like that the film mostly preserves the mystery behind Bye Bye Man’s origin. There’s no “research montage” wherein the characters conveniently unearth a ton of historical documents via Google, nor do they consult an old and wise paranormal or mythological expert (played by Lin Shaye, probably). The Bye Bye Man is simply this otherworldly being that gets into your head and slowly drives you mad. Works for me.

So then what’s the problem? The picture’s decent premise is ultimately overshadowed by shoddy execution.

The screenplay by Jonathan Penner is a clunky mess, chocked full of awkward, unintentionally hilarious lines of dialogue that continually undermine the film’s attempts at serious terror: “It’s hard to get scared in the middle of the day,” “don’t worry…it [a house fire] can’t hurt him now.” I wish I could provide more context for the later comment but it comes at the end.

Furthermore, Penner’s script may not provide background on The Bye Bye Man but it does include multiple scenes wherein the characters blatantly explain the plot and/or suddenly become well versed in The Bye Bye Man’s tactics. During one scene, after Elliot goes to his school’s library and unearths one measly “dead file” concerning an incident involving Mr. Bye Bye, he gets into a conversation with the librarian (who’s never heard of him) and before long both are talking as if they’re Bye Bye Man scholars (which would be a disastrous profession to pursue, by the way). It’s the classic: “we figured this out because the screenwriter told us!” syndrome.

It also doesn’t help that the acting from our central trio is for the most part painfully bad, ranging from stilted and strained (the actors’ tongues practically tripping over their lines) to hysterically over the top. It’s a shame because you can tell these kids are trying as hard as they can. Bonas is particularly bad—her delivery of the line: “It’s hard to get scared in the middle of the day” is so flat and affected that I laughed for about a minute straight. You’re simply unable to connect or sympathize with these doomed college students because the acting constantly distracts you. Even their attempts at intentional comedic banter near the beginning feels forced.

“The Bye Bye Man” gets more unstable and convoluted as it goes along; its internal logic begins to crumble (how did that house fire start? How did the librarian end up on that deserted highway?), Bye Bye Man’s abilities become increasingly erratic and incoherent-- he can basically do… well, anything. Meanwhile character decisions/motivations on the part of our doomed trio go from shaky to just plain nonsensical. Additionally, the editing by Ken Blackwell is noticeably choppy, adding confusion. There are scenes that end too abruptly as if the studio came in at the last minute and forced Blackwell to quickly and carelessly snip scenes to make the film just over ninety minutes.

And yet, I was never bored during “The Bye Bye Man.” It gets to a point, after the film has long collapsed into unintentional lunacy, where I started to embrace the badness. I sat eagerly in my seat, waiting for the next stupid line of dialogue or absurd scene and laughing along in giddy delight. This may not have been the reaction Title and Penner were looking for but in the end entertainment value is entertainment value. I had a mildly good time.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

Silence Review (2017)

“Silence” (Martin Scorsese’s long gestating historical/religious drama) is a long and brutal watch. Those who are accustomed to the kinetic exuberance and black comedy of Scorsese flicks like “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Goodfellas” may be put off by this film’s overly deliberate and dour nature. But for those who are patient, “Silence” is a thought-provoking, deeply rewarding experience.

The setting is seventeenth century Japan. The government, known as the Tokugawa Shogunate, has outlawed Christianity and adherents are persecuted. Thousands have been killed and thousands more have undergone (and are still undergoing) ruthless torture. The only way to be set free is to apostatize, i.e. publically renounce your faith by stepping on a plaque with a mold of The Christ. The central plot concerns two Jesuit Priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrape (Adam Driver) who go to Japan looking for their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has supposedly apostatized. While there they become immersed in the suffering.

Scorsese doesn’t shy away from depicting the gruesome details of this mass persecution; people are crucified while boiling hot springs water is slowly sprinkled on them, others are burned or drowned, not to mention all the psychological torment. Japan itself is grey and dirty—at times resembling a dystopian landscape. A thick, ominous cloak of fog overtakes the characters time and time again. Scorsese creates an atmosphere of excruciating dread and suffering. The film is often claustrophobic and overbearing, and with a running time clocking in at two hours and forty-one minutes you’ll feel emotionally drained by the end.

Yet, as grueling as “Silence” can be to watch, I couldn’t look away.  The picture is a dense, fascinating exploration of the endurance of personal faith. How strong is your faith? Is your belief in god (specifically the Christian God) worth suffering for? Is it worth watching those you love and care about suffer? If your god exists why does he let this seemingly endless suffering happen? If it’s part of God’s plan (as some religious people like to say) that seems like a lousy plan. Should you live and practice your religion in secrecy and shame or die for your belief? “Silence” is loaded with intriguing theological questions/dilemmas like these and doesn’t provide easy answers.  

Though a more intriguing question “Silence” poses and one that becomes central to the entire film is: what’s the breaking point for a priest? For a person that has dedicated their entire life to god and Christianity, how much suffering is too much?

Gradually, “Silence” emerges as an absorbing psychological character study of Rodrigues and his religious endurance. Garfield is remarkable-- giving an understated, physical performance that gains more power and nuance as the film goes on. At the beginning, Rodrigues is stern and composed— his faith concrete and ready to seemingly take on anything, even a government that opposes everything he stands for. However, as he spends more and more time in Japan, knee deep in suffering, he becomes increasingly unhinged--physically and mentally deteriorating before our eyes, the concrete crumbling. Scorsese and Garfield provide intimate, sometimes painful glimpse inside Rodrigues’ psyche as he interrogates his own faith that’s endlessly fascinating.

Along with this emphasis on endurance and faith, the film thoughtfully examines the nature/purpose of missionary work. The film suggests that perhaps missionary work is partly motivated by the desire for personal glory (on the part of the priests and missionaries). It’s not only about spreading the word of God but also being in a position of influence and superiority. When Rodrigues arrives in Japan he’s immediately sought out by Japanese Christians living underground, becoming a source of spiritual guidance, a beacon of hope in this otherwise dark time… a savior. This sense of power and purpose is intoxicating and slowly gets the better of Rodrigues. At a certain point you become unsure as to whether Rodrigues genuinely cares about these poor, devoted people or if he’s become absorbed in his own fantasy of a “Christian Japan” and messianic complex.

There’s plenty more I could talk about, too much for a single review, so I think I’ll leave it at that. “Silence” isn’t without flaws—it can feel a little too exposition heavy at times especially in the first hour, slowing down an already slow movie. The drawn out torture sequences can feel repetitive and I wish Scorsese had cut down on the voiceover narration. Admittedly, Scorsese does voiceover better than most (see “Goodfellas” or “Casino”) but there are times during “Silence” where I wish he would just let the images speak for themselves.

Even so, “Silence” is a challenging, visceral, multilayered study of faith and missionary service. It’s not easy to watch. It made me uncomfortable and tested my patience. But as soon as I walked out of the theater I wanted to see it again. Scorsese gives you so much to munch on and digest. I have a feeling this will only get better with more viewings.