Tuesday, June 26, 2012

In Time

What an ingenious idea this movie has working for it. What if Earth's social classes and economy took a turn for the worse and in a dystopian future time was money, literally. All humans have a glowing, green clock on their forearms which shows how much time you have left alive. The poor have very little while the rich have a lot. If the poor want to buy a cup of coffee, it costs 2-5 minutes and hopefully you get paid in even more time at the end of the day. If the rich want to play blackjack or live dangerously by arm wrestling (you can exchange time just by shaking hands), then they can feel free to bet a couple hundred years. The catch is that everyone's body stops aging at 25. The movie is reminiscent of a world the result of an economic crisis, but there are hints at there even being issues of population control.

Fun behind-the-scenes trivia- it should be noted there was the possibility of a lawsuit claiming that Harlan Ellison had originally thought of the idea, but Mr. Ellison determined that wasn't so. Either way, writer/director Andrew Niccol (writer of The Truman Show and writer/director of Gattaca, Simone, and Lord of War) has a lot of ground to explore with this unique basis for a sci-fi thriller, but sadly the great idea does not lead to a great execution.

The story follows Will Sallis (Justin Timberlake) who works in a factory in the ghetto as he struggles to end each shift with more hours on his clock than there are in a day. After a lucky encounter with a man (Matt Bomer) who gives Will 116 years, someone close to Will perishes due to neglegience (something I don't quite get- more in a second) so he heads to another district to target the rich and take them for all the time they are worth. He finds himself encountering a banker (Vincent Kartheiser) and his daughter (Amanda Seyfried) as well as a Time Keeper (Cillian Murphy) who are cops that handle all time-related crimes.

Something I don't buy into is the emotional distance and coldness that everyone seems to have here. The man who gives Will his time does kill himself so we get it, not everyone is happy with this society. Yet when Will experiences the loss of a loved one, I don't quite see the connection with going after the rich. Sure they are to blame for conditions, but how about the bus driver and the insensitive passengers whom are also persecuted by the elite? This helps to really point at what I didn't care for about the movie in that it is simply an allegory without much of a soul to it. The movie has all of these cool ideas and then the narrative never moves past the idea and instead becomes a car-chase and shoot-'em-up movie and at least cinematographer Roger Deakins makes those moments look nice.

The film at least has a great cast led by the commanding Timberlake as well as a ton of confident supporting players and yet I can't help but feel very underwhelmed by it all. The movie doesn't do much with it's themes and devolves rather quickly with no sense of wonder or suspense.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Raid

The Raid can be summed up as all style and no substance, but what a fun style it ends up being. The premise is simple. A group of cops in an Indonesian city are about to storm an apartment complex that is housing many criminals in an effort to arrest a crime lord. They walk into a trap and must now fight their way out. The result is arguably one of the most violent and flinch-worthy movies I've seen in a long time. It's action-packed to the brim and that isn't just me being metaphorical. This is just about as non-stop action of an action movie there can be. You'd hear that thrown around every so often, but this time one could actually mean it.

That being said, I did point out that there is little substance to it all. Attempts at even trying to give the story some sort of personal resonance only seem to weaken the impact of the film. The main character is a cop named Rama (Iko Uwais) who when we first meet him, we find out that he is a muslim with a pregnant wife and has a secret connection to the building he is about to storm with his comrades. That is about as deep as the story goes into his character. It's so blatantly an attempt at trying to give the movie some sort of backbone that as a viewer I shrug it off and continue to be in awe of the action sequences.

The choreography to the fighting is brutal. When there aren't any fists flying, the characters are fighting with their elbows or knees and that is if they've dropped their variety of guns and knives. The name of the martial art is called Pencak Silat (look it up, amazing stuff). I hesitate to call this film's fighting style as a thing of beauty like that of say Bruce Lee because this film is intentionally as gritty and no-holds-barred as you can get. It's pretty much Enter the Dragon for the video-game age by way of mixed martial arts. The film is a technical marvel with such impressive production design, sound and picture editing, and cinematography to carry us through the fighting. Just when the fight gets mind numbing, one will notice something extraordinary and new added to the mix (or at least I did).

This is second film from Welsh-born writer-director Gareth Evans and the first that I've seen. Perhaps he'll find a way to add a better narrative to it all, but this is by no means as cruddy as say Act of Valor. Where that movie was similarly all-action and no story, it sadly didn't have any sort of notable style. Not even an attempt at following say Paul Greengrass or Tony Scott. Instead, The Raid has a style and voice to it that I found to be a lot of fun. Shallow fun at that, but still fun.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Hunger Games

In the world of The Hunger Games, a nation known as Panem is made out of a city designated the Capitol and is surrounded by twelve poorer districts. As punishment for the poor's uprising against the elite, the Capitol demands that each district send a young boy and girl to compete in gladatorial combat known as the Hunger Games. The arena is a completely controlled portion of the wilderness with traps that are broadcasted to the nation as reality television. Reality TV, oppression, heroism... this all leads to one of the most thrilling and original creations that was first written as a novel by Suzanne Collins and has now been adapted by director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) into a highly unique movie both in its visuals and moral complexity.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) from District 12 volunteers to go in the place of her much younger sister. Lawrence previously played a protective sister who has to fend for herself while protecting her disadvantaged family in her Oscar-nominated role in Winter's Bone. She is a perfect fit as Katniss in that she captures a girl who is strong, but sometimes unaware of her strength. Katniss knows she has the heart to match her tomboyish intensity, but with such hopeless circumstances, even she is becoming doubtful and perhaps bitter. Thankfully the film does a great job of communicating the two things necessary to really attach us to this character. First, we come to see and understand how corrupt and wrong the future of this world can be. Second, we come to see the believable transformation of a girl into a warrior in another gravitating performance by Lawrence.

Katniss is paired with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Peeta is interesting in that he can be a rough fighter who isn't completely unaware of the dreadful atmosphere of these games, but he also understands the politics and perhaps even the sacrifice that will have to be made to win. Pairing him with Katniss creates a dynamic that helps carry the film from its haunting battle scenes all the way to the final frame. And "haunting" is the absolute right word. The film's battle sequences showcase the brutality when need be, but some of the imagery is left up to the viewer's imagination with the proper cinematography and editing. The choice of Tom Stern's cinematography as well as Ross and his production designer and art director's choices for this film are all very risky, but I think they pulled it off. The costumes of the elite for example work perfectly as parody while the close-up handheld camera-work doesn't disorient, but places me in a state of suspense (I might be alone in that sentiment).

Along with a great supporting cast (of the likes of Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hemsworth, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Lenny Kravitz, and Wes Bentley), The Hunger Games was a surprising triumph that I encourage everyone to give a chance no matter what preconceptions they might have as a reader of the book or as someone who just might've caught a glimpse and were unsure of what to make of it.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Dream House

It's a shame to see Jim Sheridan hit a career low. From his debut in 1989 with My Left Foot to one of his most personal films in 2003 with In America, he has been a favorite of critics, film buffs, and awards organizations for a long time. Then he made Get Rich or Die Tryin' (2005) and Brothers (2009) which I've seen worse, but weren't as bottom of the barrel as I heard others make them out to be (more so for Brothers). Sadly, Dream House belongs at the very bottom of the barrel and it shouldn't be a surprise. The film went back for reshoots when it failed miserably with test audiences for its February 2011 release. Pushed back to September, Sheridan was consistently trying to have his name removed from the project due to differences with the studio. I can see why. The film has an extremely weak narrative to it with stale and artificial-sounding dialogue and that's just the beginning of its problems.

Will (Daniel Craig), his wife Libby (Rachel Weisz), and their daughters move into a house which is revealed to have a haunted history. If you watch a trailer you can see what the huge twist of the movie is, but for those that might catch this on a movie channel a few years from now, I'll stop there as who is to say what not knowing about certain reveals would contribute to the first experience. Eventually, the movie just turns into 'how many twists and turns can we throw around to build on what was revealed in the beginning?' The film just plods along, everything about it is telegraphed, and no moment has that strong of an impact compared to say Scorsese's Shutter Island (a similar film in a sense).

The word "thud" is very fitting for this movie. Not just in reference to its box office and critical reaction, but in how it comes across to your psyche after you've finished it.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Casa de Mi Padre

Will Ferrell is an extremely committed actor. I personally liked him the most in more dramatic fare like his fantastic turns in Stranger Than Fiction or Everything Must Go. Those would certainly see him the furthest removed from his Saturday Night Live days. Yet there is still that same sense of committment and understanding of character in any of his roles. Think of the parodies and characters that he created with Adam McKay in their four films- Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys. You still see an actor who is completely believable as his character when part of the joke is the ridiculousness and absurdity that this character treats as just everyday life in a sort of 'wink-wink' to the audience.

Casa de Mi Padre is another committed job by Ferrell as he plays the simple Mexican rancher Armando Alvarez (the film is mostly in Spanish by the way). Armando is completely oblivious to the drug dealing ways of his brother Raul (Diego Luna) and the disappointment of their father (the late Pedro Armendariz Jr.). Raul brings home a beautiful fiancee named Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez) who Armando falls in love with at first sight, but she used to belong to the drug lord Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal) and things go from there. Does this sound like a soap opera? Well that is because this is pretty much a parody of a telenovela or at least how they are commonly perceived. Bernal, Luna, and Armendariz Jr. are serious actors and Rodriguez proves herself (at least in comparison to her dreadful performance in Man on a Ledge) and that completely helps the 'wink-wink' believability in the same manner as pairing Ferrell with actors like John C. Reilly and Mark Wahlberg. 

The film is directed by Matt Piermondt whom Ferrell and McKay have worked with through their website FunnyOrDie.com and their committal to parodies on that website shows through here where they've created a cheap looking soap opera-ey movie. The special effects are purposefully bad and the backgrounds are noticeably fake. The joke here is funny, but it gets old pretty fast. We get it, the film is meant to be over-dramtized, but this happens to the point where it actually stops being a comedy or even funny. It certainly gets better as time goes on (and a hilarious soundtrack kicks in), but the film proves to be more amusing than it is actually hilarious. Then again, perhaps the fact that it isn't that much of a comedy is in fact part of the joke. I'm sure some will appreciate it, but I was constantly wanting more and had to wait quite a while for that wish fufillment.