As Above/So Below (R)

7 Stars

Horror movies are rarely called ‘great.’

When was the last critically acclaimed horror movie released? You’d be hard-pressed to find anything since The Ring in 2002.

I haven’t seen The Conjuring, Mama or Oculus but people say they’ve got potential. I thought Drag Me to Hell was pretty good from 2009.

But the last great one I caught in theaters was Devil from 2010.

Which is also directed by John Dowdle. He wrote Quarantine (2008), as well – another solid semi-recent horror.

As Above/So Below is the best horror movie I’ve seen in a long time.

First of all, it’s shot on-location in Paris, which is a delight for any fan of that city. Favorite sights like Notre Dame and Sacre-Coeur are featured throughout.

The filmmakers use almost every shooting style. AA/SB is a mockumentary about Scarlett (played by Perdita Weeks) a young archaeologist searching for the philosopher’s stone. Therefore much of the footage is shot in first-person via headlamp GoPro cams.

Although I’m sick of ‘found footage’ it works better here. For obvious reasons, the budget can’t be massive, so this filmmaking style is particularly suited to horror.

The story is also good, co-written by the director and his brother, Drew.

There’s more nuance than usual. The main characters use deductive reasoning and historical analysis in order to solve riddles and navigate the labyrinthine catacombs.

There’s a lot of rebirth imagery, but I wonder just how far the metaphor goes. Are the ribbed tunnels supposed to be reminiscent of a vaginal lining?

Dichotomies drawn between light and dark, and up and down, are intriguing and thought provoking.

The cast of unknowns delivers strong performances. It’s tough to get through a whole scary movie without poor acting or cheesy moments.

Apparently I’m in the minority because AA/SB is getting 13% amongst top critics and 57% amongst the users on Rotten Tomatoes.

But I would encourage an open mind, because it’s a cut above the rest.

If you’re looking for a decent flick this weekend, especially if you dig horror, you can do a lot worse than As Above/So Below.

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.

Mud (R)

10 Stars

Mud is not a ghost.

I promise.

Thought I heard that on a podcast before seeing the movie, and turns out, it’s a complete fabrication. Made the whole damn thing up.

Myself and I, we really had a good laugh.

It actually jives with the story for awhile…but I digress.

Don’t waste your time focusing on homemade red herrings. Pop the disc in with the expectation of a complete story told quietly well.

Talk about a nomination snub.

I’m surprised the Academy didn’t glom onto Mud.

Then again, it’s an April release. Oscar doesn’t check his radar until May.

Even though it’s only #11 on my ‘Top Films of 2013’ list, it still deserves the nod more than half the B.P. nominees.

This film written and directed by Jeff Nichols scores on both ‘ocative ots.’

Provocative thoughts and evocative shots. Hah! What more do you need?

If you want to talk well-deserved spotlights, Matthew McConaughey will be at the forefront of the dissertation.

He’s the award winning lead in Dallas Buyers Club. Turning in a magnificent performance, he cameos as a broker; a character who inspires DiCaprio’s in The Wolf of Wall Street.

He’s cleaning up the small screen in HBO’s True Detective alongside Woody Harrelson. The new series (just concluded last weekend) is pretty much an eight-hour movie, and an excellent one at that.

Matt’s also in The Butler, but I refuse to see that movie, or refer to it by its listed title. It’s a shame, I would probably enjoy him as John F. Kennedy.

What a 2013. Keep it up Mr. McC!

The best way to describe Mud is delightful. It weaves a quietly cool narrative, with a heart-wrenching conflict at its center.

There seems to be a trend in adventures by the Louisiana Bayou.

This is a similar setting, but different, and you’re racist for mistaking the two.

Those of us who aren’t bigots know the plot unfolds in a small riverside Mississippi town.

Although Matt’s credited for the lead, I’m pretty sure Ellis (played by Tye Sheridan) has more screen time. And the narrative seems to swivel primarily around his perspective.

Never the mind.

Both turn in excellent, astonishingly true performances. Neckbone, Ellis’s best friend and cohort’s (played by Jacob Lofland) about as hard and crass as they come in the realm of moral children.

Hey guy, don’t see this Dramystery with your bros if you’re easily moved to tears. Okay?

It’s a touching romp full of beautiful imagery and a well-crafted simplistic story.

I think this film’s more suited to adults, despite the nature of the narrative. The transformations come thru both Ellis and Mud, and the juxtaposition of their romantic conflicts is excellent.

My love for the film stems from admiration for the writing.

This is an all-around fun story that everyone can connect with, no matter your age or gender. What’s great is considering how far removed it is from the realm of personal familiarity. I’m not going to run into a boat caught in a tree anytime soon.

The film may be mostly about growing up and broken love, but set in the Mississippi context, and with such devoted attention to physical detail, it might appear a waterlogged portrait of, “two boys who learn things.”

And it is; but it translates onscreen in an enchanting fashion.

There are minors who use swear words in this film. So if cursing gets you queasy, get the fuck over it, and go see the movie anyway.

Ellis’s blind devotion to Mud, whom he believes to be a good man (despite the protestations of everyone around him), is the catalyst allowing their ultimate redemption. That rapport, that silent understanding between two honest and good people; it’s a distinct enigma, and the film captures it perfectly.

It’s the complete opposite of disheartening. It’s heartening.

What an ending, huh? I was sure it was going the other way.

But I’m all too pleased with what we’re given.

Like I said before, Mud is definitely not a ghost.

Ironically, the actor portraying the role couldn’t be more alive (in this writer’s heart, at least.)

Really, I hope he retains this aversion to phantasm in his professional career.

I’m just happy I don’t have to write any more letters begging for Sahara 2.

Don’t miss Mud!

Side Effects (R)

10 Stars

The word you’re looking for is ‘Captivation.’

It’s the concept everyone forgets when trying to articulate their reaction to a film.

But it’s the sole unifying factor for the viewing masses. It may be the single collective pursuit, the only aspect of movie-going everyone can agree upon.

We all seek captivation.

And Steven Soderbergh delivers it on a pallet-jack.

Side Effects is #3 on my ‘Best Films of 2013’ list.

It doesn’t get any better than this all-star cast. Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta-Jones are two of my favorite actresses, and they both pull off stellar performances.

I know it’s been said before, but CZJ ages like wine.

And Rooney Mara, sheesh, that little firecracker can act.

Need it even be mentioned Channing Tatum and Jude Law were great as always?

The plot is not only timely, intricate and moving, it’s exhilarating. The characters are compelling, and the central conflicts are rather complex. It’s tough to say who makes the right or wrong decisions, and the ending pays off all the mystery and suspense in a satisfying manner.

It’ll keep you on the edge of your seat. And also raises questions about the evils of psychology, especially when intertwined with the business world.

This is a fantastic movie, and didn’t get its due last award season.

See this film! But if you haven’t, watch out, I’m going to spoil some things below.

I watched G.I. Joe: Retaliation a day before Side Effects, and this turned out to be a good thing. I was definitely not expecting the twist about a third the way thru.

To be honest, I think I was sadder to see him go the second time. Give me CT in a big starring role one of these days.

But speaking of sadness: I must be honest. When I’m watching a movie with a buddy and it gets the waterworks running, I can do a pretty good job of containing the outbreak.

Twice I was gotten by Miss Mara. When Roon-Dawg almost steps on the train tracks, and when she can’t contain herself at the party because her depression is so severe – I draw some sharp breaths.

Those two moments were so moving, and then to have her character do a complete turn around by the end; that’s some masterful filmmaking.

And how about that ending, huh?

What it should not do is detract from Mara’s portrayal of someone who is clinically depressed. She delivers a moving performance that deserves particular respect because our perception of her character undergoes several transformations.

All in all, the spectacular ending ties off what already was a spectacular movie, with a shiny new ribbon.

Can’t wait to see what Soderbergh takes on next!