Haywire (R)

9 Stars

This film satisfies.

Specifically the urge to watch a female protagonist square off with a male in hand-to-hand combat, and realistically win.

I’ve never considered how ill-equipped women are for fist-fighting. But that’s probably a good thing.

With the long hair, the unstable shoe heels, and simply the lack of body mass for throwing punches; in reality, most male vs. female altercations won’t result in sophisticated brawls.

And I suppose that’s why we rarely see it in film. When reviewing Captain America: The Winter Soldier I mentioned how we never get enough combat from Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson.

Anyway.

Haywire is great.

The writing, directing, editing, casting, soundtrack/scoring and acting is fantastic. The fights are awesome.

Steven Soderbergh may be my favorite director. His movies never disappoint.

Side Effects podiums amongst the top three films of 2013. You may know him from the Oceans Eleven franchise, Traffic or Out of Sight.

Gina Carano’s biography on IMDB claims Soderbergh, “wrote the role of Mallory Kane specifically for her,” though the screenplay’s written by Lem Dobbs (who also wrote The Limey, another famous Soderbergh flick.)

I knew I recognized Gina C. She plays a great character in Fast & Furious 6!

Others may know her as the famous MMA fighter.

If you see the movie, you’ll understand why Soderbergh’s such a great director. The action is entirely more riveting without stunt doubles.

I dig that Gina Carano. She’s charismatic and lovable as the protagonist. Let’s hope we see more of her in future films.

The chase scenes are quietly spectacular. The plot moves along at a break-neck pace so you have to pay attention.

There’s something about the on-foot chase scene that’s gripping. When it really feels like the characters are sprinting for long periods of time, it’s so engaging.

Haywire’s stylishly edited and utilizes innovative storytelling techniques. One scene cuts between three different types of footage to show a trio of plots developing simultaneously. Plus, there’s no in-scene sound or dialogue, just the musical score.

It’s very cool! And slightly confusing. So pay attention!

The supporting cast is spectacular.

Channing Tatum never disappoints.

Ewan McGregor doing quality Ewan.

Bill Paxton doing quality Paxton.

Anotonio Banderas. Michael Douglas.

Michael Fassbender!

Come on. What more do you need?

Haywire is a top-notch action thriller available for HD rental through Xfinity OnDemand, Amazon or iTunes for $3.99.

There’s nothing special during the credits.

But it’s 93 minutes, and it’s an R-rated flick that men and women will both enjoy.

You might call it a great ‘date movie’.

300: Rise of an Empire (R)

7 Stars

When it comes to expectation, Rotten Tomatoes established a new dynamic.

Although I only made the realization days ago, I’ve been a long-time fan of Frank Miller adaptations, loving both Sin City (2005) and 300 (2006) in the theater.

Since its early March release, 300: Rise of an Empire is certifiably rotten with a critic percentage in the low forties. So I skipped it.

Despite a similar Tomato rating, I saw Sin City: A Dame to Kill For the day after it hit theaters and couldn’t shake the disappointment/frustration for a few days.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I realize Frank Miller’s other sequel is available through Xfinity OnDemand via HD rental for $3.99. I’d totally forgotten it existed.

Neither my time, nor money went to waste.

300: Rise of an Empire is very good.

The co-starring antagonist role, Artemisia, is played by Eva Green. Artemisia is vastly different from Ava Lord, her character from Sin City: AD2K4.

She’s more, ahem, sympathetic.

Green’s slightly less nude, as well, though I don’t believe there’s a correlation.

Eva is top notch. Artemisia is easily 300 Part Deux’s greatest redeeming quality, and I said the same thing about Ava Lord in the sequel to Sin City.

Apparently Green is excellent in any badass female role written by Frank Miller.

Let’s hope we see more out of her in the future!

The same goes for Lena Headey, one of my favorite actresses, who reprises a supporting role as Gorgo. Just like David Wenham as Dilios (Leonidas’s one-eyed loyalist), she doesn’t disappoint.

Love that Lena Headey. She’s a ‘Grade A’ thespian.

One strong aspect of the story is how clearly it overlaps with that of its predecessor. The interaction with the timeline from 300 is never obscure to the viewer.

Clarity has its downsides however. The director recycles bits of footage from the first movie, which always feels like a cop-out. He doesn’t stop there, even reusing original footage introduced in the sequel.

That’s the one-two punch of fair criticism that overlaps with Sin City: AD2K4, wherein footage is also recycled.

It’s a near-certainty this film would be great had it been directed by Zack Snyder.

The writing is very strong. The action takes place at sea and furthers the original narrative, while building the larger world of the story. It’s good stuff!

The battles are epic and beautifully rendered. The CGI’s not perfect, especially when there’s a horse on-ship, but it’s easily ignored.

The outro credits are fun, but there’s no stinger after they start rolling.

Overall, 300: Rise of an Empire isn’t bad by any means.

With strong performances from a solid (albeit lesser known) cast, I’d say it doesn’t disappoint!

To bring it back around: I think this reaction’s noteworthy in contrast to the lingering sadness I felt about Sin City: AD2K4.

Perhaps much-anticipated sequels received with critical disfavor are best left on the backburner until becoming available as a rental. That way, reality can set in, and expectations are appropriately leveled.

By this logic, if Dumb & Dumbr To receives a R.T. percentage in the mid-forties, I should skip it and wait on the rental.

Or otherwise expect severe disappointment, right?

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (R)

7 Stars

Sigh.

It’s an injustice when critics refer to Sin City as a ‘cult classic.’

Likewise ‘campy’ denotes a lack in quality, and is an unfit qualifier for the first film.

A Dame to Kill For isn’t as good as its predecessor. Therefore if a group arises to defend their equality, it’s fair to deem the sequel ‘camp.’

Dame is not bad. It has many redeeming qualities.

But overall, AD2K4 is underwhelming.

Part of the problem involves the visuals.

Why didn’t they release it in IMAX? The larger screen and better sound could help.

I can’t put my finger on it, but something’s different about the shooting style between the two movies. The visuals are sharper, less gritty, and that’s not a good thing.

The clarity lends the settings/backdrops a more artificial feel. The environment feels cartoonish; not ‘lived in’ or ‘real.’

What happened with the editing? Seriously.

Why weren’t the filmmakers more generous to Jessica Alba?

The first film has an iconic two-minute scene of her dancing on-stage, but it’s mostly background to Hardigan’s (Bruce Willis) activity. The camerawork is elaborate, tasteful and never self-indulgent.

It’s as if the fans cried for more dancing Jessica, and the filmmakers way overcompensated. They’re building story with the nuances of strip teasing, but the performance is unconvincing.

Who deserves the blame? Why didn’t they do multiple takes? Why didn’t Alba prep better? After finishing the rough cut, didn’t the directors realize the stripping feels excessive? Where’s the stylistic panning, the cutaways, the slow-motion?

Why didn’t they re-shoot the boozing scenes? Who didn’t have time for whom? I want to know!

Ugh. Disappointing.

There’s way too much voiceover. Characters are constantly telling the audience unnecessary details.

If only things were a little bit tighter. Less voiceover, more background extras.

Other than the dancing and drinking, Alba’s acting is pretty good.

In fact, the entire cast is strong. Each thespian manages to fit the tone of the movie (except Julia Garner.)

That doesn’t include the ‘under fives’ (characters with less than five lines) however.

The frat boys are particularly alien. They oversell the frustration, the weirdness and the ‘douchiness’ (I guess?) that ‘frat boys’ are supposed to emulate.

If you can’t tell, I feel slighted by the open, in which ‘frat boys’ with an eye for ‘brand names’ are associated with disrepute. This is a tired cliché, and a feeble attempt at social commentary.

One of the characters actually says, “I have a trust fund!” while begging for his life.

Bobby, Franky; come on, guys. Nobody talks like that.

I’m curious to know why Clive Owen didn’t reprise his role as Dwight.

Josh Brolin accomplishes the job sufficiently. But is it possible the sequel suffers without Clive?

Absolutely. It’s just one more source of unnecessary confusion.

Bruce Willis, a protagonist and highlight from the first, returns as a supporting character and doesn’t disappoint.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s rock-solid as usual. That goes for Mickey Rourke, too.

Along with a cameo in A Million Ways to Die in the West, Christopher Lloyd appears twice on the summertime big screen (both times as a doctor, no less).

Lady Gaga was a minor disappointment. Small as it is, she doesn’t sell the waitress role.

Eva Green, on the other hand, buys the pie. Her performance as Ava Lord is rather impressive. She does a good job of selling a tough role and her character is the single greatest redeeming quality of the sequel.

Second place goes to how it illustrates the metaphysical nature of the city’s location.

Sure it’s noir L.A., but it’s also a weird sort of limbo in which archetypal anti-heroes congregate and intermingle.

The allegorical environment’s a phantasmal depot for sinners caught in the cycle of criminality.

Think about it, man.

When considering both flicks from that perspective, the sequel becomes much more thought-provoking.

The action’s pretty good; some moments are downright fantastic.

All in all, Dame 2K 4 is inferior to its predecessor, yet contains enough enchanting moments, compelling character interactions and violent mystique to satisfy fans.

See it if you like the first. Just don’t expect much.

There’s no stinger after the credits, so you can leave once they start to roll.

Perhaps Sin City 3 will make up for lost ground.

If Eva Green reprises her role, they’ve got a shot at turning things around.

The Raid: Redemption (R)

9 Stars

Kung fu needs a new publicist.

Somewhere along the way, martial arts acquired a bad reputation.

Perhaps Keanu’s been over-quoted.

Regardless, a number of great movies from the past few decades feature hand-to-hand combat: The Matrices, Shanghai Noon, the Rush Hours, Rumble in the Bronx.

[Sidebar: Top two films involving a woodchipper: Rumble in the B and Fargo.]

Now, hesitation’s healthy when a martial art is all a motion picture offers.

The Raid: Redemption is a lot more than just kung fu.

If I ever review an entirely male-oriented flick, it’s The Raid.

It’s often compared to another movie released around the same time, because both flicks portray an assault on a crime-ridden high-rise.

Dredd, however, isn’t good.

Lena Headey as the cruel antagonist, and SLO-MO (the reality altering drug) are the only redeeming aspects in that overrated reboot. Everybody that played GoldenEye 007 on N64 is well-aware of proximity mines, smoke grenades and the like.

On the contrary, The Raid is fantastic.

The fellow who owns the criminal complex being raid redeemed has an interrogation room with a chain restraining system. It’s a chamber specifically suited towards information extraction via shackled prisoners.

Speaking without hyperbole, Raid: Red contains the single greatest action sequence in cinematic history.

Gareth Evans deserves a standing ovation for the fire-axe scene.

The tension is multi-layered as the characters realistically adapt to an evolving conflict. There are varied threats and the individual movement through the scenery (plus the interplay with props/weaponry) is magnificent.

It’s a delicate waltz, my Friends.

A riveting score overlays elaborate choreography, creative stunts and sharp camerawork.

The Raid is originally an Indonesian film and Sony Pictures tasked Mike Shinoda (of Linkin Park and Fort Minor) with creating a new score for the U.S. market. The Shinoda scored version made its U.S. debut at Sundance 2012.

The fireaxe is just one of many great scenes though. Rent it and see for yourself.

The stakes are high. The plot is smart and dark.

Neither slasher nor ‘torture porn.’

It’s as good as action gets.

Somebody at the festival must have noticed the issue with the subtitles, right?

Whoever translated the closed captioning did very poor work. One of the main barriers between non-viewers is the necessary reading, so naturally a minimalist approach would seem appropriate.

There were subtitles for grunts, music notes to indicate the swell of Shinoda’s composition (which goes against the very nature of a film score), footsteps and other sound effects. This would make sense if America were a deaf culture.

One subtitle in particular, “Okay [English],” appears toward the middle of the film. This is more than a distraction. It’s especially problematic because it instigates needless confusion.

Why the distributors haven’t fixed the closed captions (especially now the sequel’s been released) is beyond me.

But behold; I let it go. You will too.

If you’re a lady who loved The Raid, please set me straight; your comments are welcome below!

Gentlemen – go nuts.

Snowpiercer (R)

8 Stars

Dystopian societies are hip.

So are post-apocalyptic civilizations.

It’s rare to find them together without robots, space travel or undead.

Snowpiercer is based off a French sci-fi graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, which colloquially translates to “The Train of the Snow Land.”

And boy is it fun.

It’s available for HD Rental through iTunes and Amazon for $6.99, or a dollar more through Xfinity OnDemand.

This is South Korean director Joon-ho Bong’s third film. Mother was released in 2009 after his creature feature The Host from 2006.

Which, far as subtitled scary flicks go, is not a bad film.

Unless foreign horror’s your wheelhouse, you can skip The Host, and move right along to Snowpiercer.

It’s Bong’s first English-speaking film, and although this is clear at times, it’s a remarkable experience.

Set entirely on a train circumventing the world, this post-doomsday thriller is riveting, intelligent and visually stunning.

Chris Evans is good as the protagonist. He’s catching a lot of critical flack for his performance. There’s a moment late in the movie where he delivers an emotional piece of dialogue that’s a bit jarring.

Perhaps a superior actor could have delivered the line better. I’d argue it wasn’t strong writing in the first place.

Other than that, Chris gets the job done.

The characters encounter quite a bit of combat, all of which involve intricate physical procedures. Between the battleship in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the blade car in Snowpiercer, Chris plays the centerpiece in two of the finest fights in cinematic history. And they were released within three months of each other.

When it comes to action sequences, the director does everything right. He utilizes long takes, different camera lenses, varied setting features, drastic changes in momentum, realistic physical contact, slow motion (there’s an outstanding sequence in which Evans dispatches several thugs with a felling axe), martial arts, weaponry, tag-teaming. The list goes on and on.

The supporting cast is great as well.

Jamie Bell, who you know from Billy Elliot, turns in a solid performance as the jokester best friend.

Upon reaching the classroom car, the schoolteacher’s played by Alison Pill. She, like Tilda Swinton, performs a quirksome role. Their characters are odd (in different ways) but the actresses pull it off.

Bong’s got Octavia Spencer pounding dudes with body shots, with fists and a piece of metal pipe on-screen!

It’s just delightful.

If you dig fights, Snowpiercer’s the flick to rent.

That being said, I think the ladies won’t like this as much. The story is thoroughly bleak and imperfect.

In fact, I agree with much of what the critics are saying. The boundary between reality and metaphor is blurry to the point of confusion.

The narrative’s allegorical which makes it difficult to connect with the characters on a human level.

Events unfold in a manner that feels more orchestrated than organic.

Despite its imperfection, the story is still thrilling and sweeps you up.

Just like the animated sequence describing the rail’s creation, this movie’s full of style.

This tendency doesn’t continue after the ending, though. So you can shut the movie off once the credits start to roll.

After reading up and carving thru all the confusion, the ending’s a tad bit dissatisfying. My buddy fell asleep, and I’m still not in love with it.

As a final note, there is an aspect of this story I find gross.

People respond to the grotesque in four ways: 1) Revulsion 2) Silent Distaste 3) Cool Indifference 4) Embracement.

I’m weak in this area. I’m a 2 but would rather be a 3, like my friend who watched Snowpiercer with me.

It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But my buddy disagrees.

We both agree, however, it’s totally worth the ride along the way.

So to the 1’s I suggest caution.

To the 2’s I say, “Power through, compadres.”

To the 3’s, keep chilling.

And to the 4’s, God help you.

Hercules (PG-13)

9 Stars

I cried.

Go ahead. Laugh it up.

Greek minstrels sang tales of his twelve labors. Roman historians like Tacitus and Plutarch inked record of his deeds.

Most recently he was the protagonist of the 1997 Disney animated feature. Which is good, but on the lower end of the classic spectrum.

The demi-god makes a cameo in Homer’s Odyssey, for Pete’s sake!

My point being: We’re due for another dose.

This weekend Hercules lost in the box office to Lucy, despite a superior score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Lucy pulled in almost $44M, earning back its $40M budget. It’s now at 58%, certifiably rotten and deservedly so. My displeasure with Lucy’s deceptive trailer has increased considerably since reviewing it.

Starkly contrasting the experience with Hercules, which made only $30M and cost $100M. It now clings to ‘Fresh’ status with 62%.

Based on a Radical Comics series “Hercules” by Steve Moore, director Brett Ratner offers a revisionist take on the classic tale.

A recent trend in PG-13 is to parade the rating throughout. Two summer blockbusters are guilty of this: Godzilla and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. DotPotA is particularly at fault for feeling like a franchise vehicle.

IMDB and Rotten ‘Matoes should include another statistic: Number of submissions to the ratings board.

Hercules has admirably high stakes. If one’s looking, there are moments you can pinpoint when the footage is cut to ‘earn’ the stamp of approval. Either way, I’m nearly certain this one pushes the limit. The battles feel real and characters die on-screen.

In order to acquire a PG-13 rating, one of the criteria limits the number of ‘F-Bombs’. If the curse word is uttered more than once, the movie can’t be released with anything less than an ‘R.’

Like last year’s All is Lost, Hercules puts its one ‘fuck’ to good use.

Perusing various reviews, one quickly recognizes the vitriol toward Ratner. One critical reviewer mentions how the director, ‘nearly ruined Hannibal Lector and the X-Men.’

Hannibal, really? Who cares?

In regards to the X-Men, we can agree he made mistakes.

I don’t believe his goal was to lessen their integrity, and try to avoid schlepping hurt feelings between franchises.

Speaking of which, I’d much prefer a sequel to Hercules in exchange for the next Apes flick.

Fans of that series need to settle down. The Apes movies are cool, okay? Can we please move on?

Anywho.

What really makes Herc shine is the casting.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is perfect for the role.

In Roman mosaics Hercules’s image is shown tanned bronze for symbolic reasons. The same goes for the Etruscans who cast his deeds onto bronze mirrors.

Therefore Dwayne’s skin tone is appropriately dark – on a symbolic level, no less.

Plus he’s an excellent actor. He’s charismatic and lovable. Some might associate him with the ‘good guy’ role, when he’s nailed it as the antagonist twice: In Doom as the corrupted honorable leader, and in Get Smart as a charming double agent.

More importantly, he’s prolific.

Most importantly, he never mails it in.

For that we thank him. Good on ya D.J.

The value of Ratner’s version is bolstered largely by the supporting cast.

Ingrid Bolso Berdal is a Norwegian actress and plays the orphaned Amazon, Atalanta.

Her badass bow-slinging performance is worthy of esteem. Warrior women are always physical roles, and I think directors hesitate to craft intricate female fight sequences.

The majority of the credit’s due to Ingrid’s acting, however. Not many could pull off Atalanta, and most wouldn’t be brave enough to take it in the first place.

Especially considering the two-piece armor she wears in every scene.

Before quibbling, someone should compare the percentages of bare skin between Ingrid and Dwayne. I can almost guarantee he’s more naked.

To the point: Hopefully Ingrid pops up more often.

The movie opens and closes with Ian McShane doing voiceover as Amphiaraus. You might recognize him from the HBO series Deadwood, in which he plays one of the greatest sympathetic villains ever. Or his more recent role in 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman.

McShane’s terrific regardless, and his character is reminiscent of Vitruvius, the unreliable prophet (voiced by Morgan Freeman) in The Lego Movie.

Rufus Sewell plays Autolycus, and delivers a performance in which he must navigate some clichés. He’s a tremendous actor, because he quietly softens their impact.

You may recognize him as the lead role in a great movie: John Murdoch from 1998’s Dark City.

As a final note, Hercules ends with one of the best credits sequences released this year. It’s noteworthy because it’s brilliantly animated, and contributes to the narrative.

If you haven’t seen Ratner’s revisionist take, I’d suggest catching it in IMAX 3D. People love to hate on the new movie-going experience.

It’s bigger. From a technical standpoint it’s better.

Try not worry about the price to visual improvement ratio when you can be enjoying the film.

All in all, in a summer sea of PG-13, Hercules is a cut above the rest.

With its riveting story, a strong cast of diverse characters and plenty of fighting to go around, something’s bound to catch your eye.

Lucy (R)

6 Stars

Six stars is rare.

Categorically, it’s ‘just barely worthwhile’; a timid thumbs-up.

Anything less I can’t recommend.

This particular rating syncs up with the Rotten Tomatoes score at 60%. Which is, coincidentally, the lowest possible for the ‘certifiably fresh’ stamp.

So the question becomes: What’s the value of a review teetering on indifference? Let me explain.

The main problem involves the trailer. Almost all of the good moments are spoiled.

It’s been mentioned before, but I’m sick and tired of seeing previews that ruin the movie. This day marks the official beginning to a lifelong campaign against misleading trailers.

If you saw the preview and hopes are high, don’t catch this one in the theater. Give it a few months or a couple years before tackling Lucy. Try to let your memory of the footage fade before renting it.

After all, it’s only ninety minutes. You’re not losing much; even if you hate it.

If you’re planning on a future rental or catching it on the big screen anyway, you may wish to stop reading now. There are potential spoilers below.

The trailer isn’t the only problem.

An expectation is The Bourne Limitless with a female protagonist. The story doesn’t allow Scarlett Johansson to develop a particularly memorable character. Her acting is strong as always, but it doesn’t fit the tone of such weak storytelling.

The premise is similar to the Bourne films in terms of being an international action-thriller. A similar plot device to Lucy’s CP4 is utilized in 2011’s Limitless. The main character, played by Bradley Cooper, takes a drug that allows him to unlock a higher percentage of brain capacity.

But the viewer never feels ‘swept up’ like one associates with watching those comparable works.

Unfortunately, Lucy attempts to accomplish similar goals, but ends up falling short.

For example, all of the combat is spoiled in the trailer. There are no elaborate fight sequences. There’s a solid car chase, in which Lucy drives against traffic. As effectively shot, choreographed and edited as it is, it’s still illogical.

The editing is disjointed and the story is riddled with plot holes. Lucy leans further toward fantasy, rather than science fiction.

Style abounds throughout, but not in a positive way. Much like the ticking digital clock in the TV show 24, title cards with percentages are utilized as dramatic transitions. All in all, they add nothing to the story and serve as only a further distraction.

Quite a bit of wildlife footage is interspersed, presumably to build tension and create a more elaborate experience. But it just comes off as cheesy.

I truly wonder why such a prolific writer/director as Luc Besson would include the cheetah chasing down the gazelle as Lucy’s captured. This is a pinnacle of heavy-handed metaphor. The enormity of the cliché seems almost purposeful.

The montages of various wild animals engaging in intercourse and giving birth are hollow moments devoid of value.

Besson’s use of time lapse and montage is clunky and distracting; not to mention it feels cheap. Montages, time lapses and original animated interstitials are in vogue. Such films as Noah and 22 Jump Street make productive use of them.

Lucy does not.

The animation of the CP4 molecules spreading throughout her nervous system is momentarily interesting, but eventually drags on. The footage is later revisited, much to the viewer’s misfortune.

The narrative voice is unfocused. It opens with Johansson speaking her thoughts through voiceover. They’re not real-time thoughts, more like generalized notions about the beginning of mankind. This transitions sharply into Lucy snapping out of a daydream.

This disparity is heightened by the introduction of Morgan Freeman’s voiceover regarding the evolution of the brain and human potential. Later it transitions back to Lucy’s real-time thoughts, so the nature of the narrative voice remains unclear.

During the film’s introduction, the missing link is featured on-screen. The part’s played by an actor in discomforting make-up and is featured several times throughout the movie.

Its too bad Besson didn’t speak to Andy Serkis, who crafted a simian army using stop motion technology for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Serkis could probably create one missing link without removing his bathrobe.

Besson is hit-or-miss. His early career hits include Leon: The Professional, The Transporter and The Fifth Element, and more recently Taken. These are all great movies, each in their own way.

There’s a through line to his pictures, though. They aggressively toe the boundary between fantasy and reality, asking a lot from the viewer in order to suspend disbelief.

Take Leon: The Professional for example. Gary Oldman plays Stansfield one of the greatest villains in cinematic history. His drug of choice is less potent than CP4, but it’s still a ‘fantasy intoxicant.’

The point being: Lucy would be a lot easier to accept if I was still a teenager.

All things considered, it’s a good movie that isn’t great.

It’s ironic Lucy went out the same way as ‘Samantha’ (from Her).

Hopefully they’ve successfully avoided Skynet (from The Terminator) now governed by Arnim Zola (from Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and joined the torch-bearing digital people (from Tron: Legacy) in the cyberspace community.

Unfortunately I’m one of the few people who haven’t seen Transcendence, so I can’t include Johnny Depp’s character in that reference.