Friday, September 28, 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution 3D Review

I like the Resident Evil movies.  There, I said it.  I don't think they're great or even that good, but they're incredibly entertaining and just fun to watch.  At the end of the day, isn't that why we all watch movies?  Yes, I very much enjoy such fare as The Artist or The King's Speech, but I also enjoy the Expendables 2s of the world.  Resident Evil: Retribution 3D obviously falls more in line with the "turn off your brain and watch stuff get blown up" part of the cinematic scale.  I enjoyed it overall, but it's certainly not my favorite of the franchise.  And to warn you, I'm gonna spoil the crap out of this movie (like anyone actually cares?).

First and foremost, I thought the concept for the film was somewhat original when compared to the rest of the franchise.  Yes, Alice is yet again in the hands of the Umbrella Corporation, but this time she's "in the belly of the beast," to quote that resurrecting sum'bitch, Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts, reprising his role from Afterlife).  The "belly" is actually an old Soviet-era submarine base under the arctic ice.  To aid her escape, Wesker dispatched his top agent, Ada Wong (Bingbing Li), who is, for some reason, wearing her signature red dress from the games.  Why is she wearing a skimpy red dress hundreds of feet under water?  I don't know.  How did she get into the base when we later see the complexities of such an act when the rest of the strike team enters?  I don't know.  My biggest complaint with the film, and the franchise in general, is that so much just doesn't make sense.  But I digress.

The aforementioned "strike team" consists of returning hero Luther (Boris Kodjoe), and newcomers Leon S. Kennedy (Johann Urb) and Barry Burton (Kevin Durand), who are both from the video game realm.  There are two Russian red-shirts with them, but they don't really matter.  What does matter is that I was delighted to see these two classic characters on screen for the first time.  And I really dug em both.  I'm a huge fan of Kevin Durand (he is SUCH an incredible douche on Lost), and while he doesn't have that much to do, I liked him as Barry (even if he is very miscast in the role).  Johann Urb is a pretty believable Leon and is a nice addition to our cast of heroes.  The one aspect of these characters that I wish would've been explained or at least alluded to is where the hell did Wesker find these guys?  Oh, by the way, Wesker is now on Alice's side in the fight against Umbrella.  The human race is on the verge of total extinction (hey, that's the name of da one movies!), and Alice is the "weapon" capable of turning the tide.  She is just told who these people are, but not where they came from or why they're fighting Umbrella - and that really bothers me.

At this point this all sounds generic, I know.  But what's really cool is that in this facility, Umbrella has recreated cities from across the globe to test their bio-weapons: Tokyo, New York, London, Paris, Moscow.  Umbrella was actually selling bio-weapons to every nation, under the ruse that they were tested against each nation's rival in this facility.  Weapons were sold to Japan to use against China.  The Chinese bought weapons to fight Japan.  You get the idea.  This would kinda explain the world-wide Apocalypse (see what I did there?) that happened between the second and third films.  So basically Alice and Ada have to traverse several of these testing areas to rendezvous with the strike team.  The zones are populated with fifty models of clones to provide fresh meat for the zombies.  Hence, we get returning (and dead) characters Rain (Michelle Rodriguez), Carlos (Oded Fehr), and James (Colin Salmon).  Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) is back as well, considering she showed up in the mid-credits scene at the end of Afterlife.

As is my complaint with most of these films, Retribution just seems a bit rushed.  The film clocks in at about 90 minutes; I would've been perfectly content with another 30 minutes of story.  Alice and Ada spend not nearly enough time in the city environments for my taste.  They show up in New York, fight two axe men, and are on their way after just 5 minutes.  A prolonged fight or multiple fights against other abominations would've been much appreciated.  We cut from Alice in a Russian subway, to the strike team being saved by Alice.  That connective tissue that holds scenes together was missing.  There are also just little plot points that bug the hell out of me - Ada gives Alice a grappling hook gun, which Alice uses later in the film.  Then she uses it again.  There was only one hook, and it was stuck in the ceiling from the first time she used it.  We just needed a 2-second cut to Alice re-loading it and I would've been fine with it.  It seems a bit petty, I know, but when little things like that start to pile up it really bugs me.

Let's get real here: if you're a fan of this franchise you're going to see this movie.  If you aren't a fan, then Retribution will do nothing to sway you in its favor.  There is but one last thing that I feel I must bring up: the film's intro.  It opens with Alice floating in water, and proceeds to progress backwards, in slow motion, showing us the events that occurred immediately after Afterlife wrapped; Umbrella choppers are assaulting the "Arcadia."  And it is glorious.  I'm a sucker for slow motion and things played in reverse, so when you combine the two I just get giddy.  Seeing Alice kill a chopper gunner with her quarter-filled shotguns was just completely bad ass.  Where the intro falters a bit is the expository-heavy dialogue that follows.  Yes, every film has the "my name is Alice" speech, but this particular speech had to delve into the Red Queen stuff from the first film just so the audience knows who she is when she shows up again *gasp*!  Still, the first 20-25 minutes are almost non-stop action and are pretty incredible.  The last thing I'll say is that the final 15 minutes or so (including a badass final fight between Jill and Alice) pretty much blew me away and have me incredibly excited for the sixth (and final) film.

Resident Evil: Retribution 3D doesn't bring much new to the RE table, but it doesn't really have to.

The Bearded Bullet.

Looper Review

Rian Johnson is a filmmaker that probably most people haven't heard of.  To be honest, I still have yet to see Brick, but I've heard nothing but great things.  I have, however, seen The Brothers Bloom; Bloom is and forever will be one my all-time favorite movie-going experiences.  That and The Hurt Locker.  If what Johnson does with Looper is any indication of where this man is headed in his career, then the world will be that much better for it.

I'm going to be completely honest with whoever decides to read my forthcoming thoughts: this review will be chock-full of spoilers for Rian Johnson's brilliant sci-fi thriller, Looper.  What I liked and didn't quite like is inherent to the narrative and will thusly contain spoilers.  If you stop reading now, I'm okay with it.  Just go watch the movie instead.  There aren't many better times to be had at the theater this year.

 ***Full spoiler warning is in effect***

Basic plot: Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a "Looper;" he gets paid to assassinate targets sent back in time to him from mobsters in the future.  In the film’s "present" timeline, 2044, time travel hasn't yet been invented.  By 2074 it will be and will also subsequently be outlawed, only used by criminals to dispose of people they wish to be killed.  The problem arises when Joe's target is himself from the future.  He botches the hit and his future self (Bruce Willis) gets away. 

It’s a relatively simple premise that can get bogged down by the intricacies of time travel itself.  Luckily, Looper just grazes the surface on how this film's version of time travel functions; it’s one of my favorite aspects of the film and also one of my least favorite (which will be a running theme for this review).  Two characters in particular, elder Joe and Abe (Jeff Daniels), verbally dismiss attempting to make sense of how time travel works; you just have to accept that it’s possible and that it is happening.  Johnson wants you to just sit back, turn off that part of your brain, and enjoy the fantastic ride that he's built for you. 

The problem, for me, is that that part of my brain didn't quite turn off the whole way.  When you sit down and really think about it, certain aspects start to break down, namely the idea that what physically happens to young Joe directly impacts elder Joe.  If young Joe gets cut on his arm, elder Joe will instantly have a scar.  Similarly, memories for elder Joe become clearer or begin to fade dependent upon how close young Joe is to reaching his preordained future.  I'm more of a fan of the "new timeline" means of time travel; if you go back in time you're altering the flow of history and therefore creating a new timeline altogether.  Your memories remain intact because you lived them, but your younger self will no longer experience those same events because of your time-traveliness.

I understand that's getting a bit nit-picky, but when the central crux of your film begins to break down upon further thought, there might be bigger issues at hand.  Luckily Looper, as a whole, is just so fantastic on almost every level that I can forgive any logical breakdowns in the time-travel-theory at play.  The narrative is simply brilliant with little twists and turns to keep you engaged.  The semi-futuristic Kansas in which the film is set in is just plain fascinating - to the point at which I want to know more.  Why are there people living on the streets?  Who are "vagrants" and why are they named so?  Despite these lingering questions I can't help but feel that Johnson has presented us with a fairly realistic outcome of current society; skyscrapers will look cooler, billboards will feature holographic technology, and our cell phones will be small squares of glass.  With all this tech flying around (as motorcycles can now do), there are still people living on farms (like Emily Blunt's Sara), driving pick-up trucks right out of 2012.  The world that Johnson has built for us is mysterious and familiar at the same time.  And part of me just wants to know more. 

Simply put, the performances on display in Looper are fantastic.  The two Joes are as awesome and badass as one would expect; Levitt gets props for emulating Willis not just in appearance (with help from some incredibly natural prosthetics), but in speech and mannerisms.  If I didn't know any better, I would assume that Levitt is Willis' son in real life.  One of the most compelling aspects of Looper is the relationship between the two Joes.  Young Joe is trying to set things right in his life by finding and killing elder Joe with little or no remorse; to him, elder Joe has already lived his life and should "just die."  Elder Joe, however, voluntarily went back in time after witnessing his wife's unintentional murder.  His only goal is to stop a murder madmen known as the "Rainmaker" by killing him/her as a child.  Both men are hellbent on achieving their objective, with elder Joe performing a pretty heinous deed.

The rest of the cast is as top-notch as the two leads: Emily Blunt is fantastic as the aforementioned farm owner; from the first shot of her first scene she comes across as intriguing and inexplicably compelling.  Her strength as a character builds in conjunction with the burgeoning romance between her and young Joe. Jeff Daniels doesn’t get that much screen time as the mysterious Abe – the man sent back in time to control the Loopers – but is mysterious, enthralling, and screen-grabbingly villainous.  To tie back into the theme of this review, I loved his character and what little information we’re given about him; his backstory isn’t inherently important to the narrative and therefore we’re given little to nothing about who he is.  At the same time I wanted to know more about him. 

Of all of these fantastic performances (Garett Dillahunt has a minor but important role and is great as always), the performance that surprised me the most was of Sara’s son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon).  His role was kept out of the trailers for good reason.  He’s the linchpin of the entire narrative, and as such, for a child actor, does a pretty bang-up job.  Most of the time children in movies bother me (the kids in Signs and Brothers jump to mind immediately), but Pierce balanced malevolence and child-like naivety incredibly well.

I could honestly keep talking about Looper for several more pages.  It has an incredibly layered and complex sci-fi narrative that few films attempt to achieve (Lockout, I’m looking at you).  The world-building that Johnson pulls off is nothing short of astounding; you immediately feel comfortable yet kept at a distance by some of the dramatic changes (10% of the population having telekinesis, for one) in the world that we know.  While Looper may not be my favorite film of the year, its damn near the top of my list.  I really cannot recommend it highly enough.
Looper is an incredibly original time-travel drama/action film that raises many more questions than answers.
The Bearded Bullet.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

End of Watch Review

To be completely honest, End of Watch wasn't even a blip on my radar until about two weeks ago when I finally saw the trailer and thought it looked fairly promising.  Walking into that theater I had no idea that I'd be leaving with a new favorite film of the year.  Yes folks, End of Watch is an incredible film that needs to be seen.

Directed by David Ayer (who wrote Training Day, among others), Watch is about LAPD partners Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal, or Joe Geronimo for any of you SNL fans out there) and Mike (Michael Peña) who become minor heroes for a shootout that happens quite early in the film.  The narrative structure is something akin to The Hurt Locker; we're treated to several eventful patrols over a course of many months, with character-developing-connective-tissue in between.  Now, I'm a huge fan of The Hurt Locker, but for me End of Watch does what its trying to do better.  While both films feature (in)tense patrols/missions that kept me on the edge of my seat (and stressed me out quite a bit), the aforementioned connective tissue is handled better in Watch.  We slowly get to know these guys and just how close they are, to the point where Mike tells Brian that he'd take care of his wife if anything happened to him.  Their relationship and dialogue just feel real and incredibly natural.  The weight of the film rests on their shoulders and they pull it off with aplomb.

Every performance in the film just felt right.  It was as if I was watching an episode of  Cops or real footage from real police officers.  Anna Kendrick plays a relatively small but important role as Brian's girlfriend.  While she doesn't have much screen time, and therefore, little dialogue, she pulls off her character incredibly well and increases the stakes for Brian that much more.  Natalie Martinez plays Mike's wife, Gabby, and does quite a fantastic job as well.  Her character just feels real and plays off Mike with ease. There are myriad tertiary characters that I could mention but that would just take too long.  From the police chief, to other officers, to thugs and and gang-bangers that our protagonists encounter over the course of the film, virtually every character is grounded and very realistic.

The style in which Watch is shot is essentially found-footage.  Brian has a camcorder with him during most of the film and documents much of what is going on (for a film class he's taking).  He outfits himself and Mike with small cameras that clip on their uniforms.  Much of the film is from these perspectives.  What I enjoyed the most is that the shots and scenes that weren't from one the perspective of one of those three cameras was still shot as if it was found-footage.  There are plenty of times where there is obviously no one standing there holding a camera, filming unfolding events, but the cinematography keeps the trend going.  And I absolutely loved it.  Presenting the film in such a manner immersed me deeply into their experiences and what they encountered on the streets of L.A.  On a technical level, it would have been quite jarring to go from a handheld shot to a clean, steady traditional shot.  By keeping everything on the same level, even while breaking the edict that there has to be a character in the film holding a camera, Ayer is able to bring us into the front seat with Brian and Mike and ramp up the intensity that much more.

Usually here is where I bring up issues I had with the film or minor complaints, and frankly, I don't have any.  I felt the pacing was pitch perfect, the narrative arcs of the Brian and Mike were very natural and made me care about them deeply, the dialogue is great, and the actual narrative itself is incredibly engaging and just plain fantastic.  I felt fully immersed in the seedy underbelly of L.A. from the first moments; the film opens with an awesome car chase that gives you just a small taste of what is to come.  As the action ramps up so do the consequences, to the point where I just didn't want these guys to go on patrol because I knew bad things would eventually happen to them.  Few films have me so deeply invested in their protagonists as Watch did.

I cannot honestly believe how much I enjoyed End of Watch.  Simply put, its one of the best films of the year, and now my personal favorite.  Despite being totally and completely stressed out beyond belief, I cannot wait to see this film again.  And again and again.  I just can't recommend it highly enough.

End of Watch is a fantastic drama/thriller that must be seen.

The Bearded Bullet.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Lawless Review

John Hillcoat's latest directorial effort had all the ingredients for a masterpiece: an insane cast, an intriguing setting, and an interesting, gripping story.  The thing about Lawless is that all of those individual parts are, in fact fantastic and work very well.  Where things starts to falter a bit is how they all interact with each other.  The result is an incredibly uneven film that can't decide what it wants to be.  There will also be spoilers peppered throughout, so you've been warned.

The fact of the matter is that I was quite entertained while watching Lawless, but I wasn't happy about it.  What I mean is that there are some aspects of the film that are just incredible, namely the performances on display.  The narrative, however, is wildly uneven and just kills the pace of the film.  It also doesn't help that the film's tone is all over the place as well.  Lawless is very much a drama, but there are bits of comedy sprinkled throughout (which isn't inherently a bad thing, considering the overbearing bleakness of the world we're watching), with some parts perhaps being inadvertently funny.  I'm directly referencing Tom Hardy's Forrest and his mumbled delivery of dialogue.  I think we're supposed to laugh at how he grumbles and says "um" a lot, but I just wasn't sure.

There is one thing in particular that bugs me, and is meant to be completely serious but becomes accidentally funny: Forrest comes back from the dead twice.  Now, part of the "legend" of the Bondurant boys (Hardy's Forrest, Shia LaBeouf's Jack, and Jason Clarke's Howard) is that they're "invincible" and can't be killed.  Well, twice Forrest endures life-ending wounds and is somehow still alive.  The first time it happened I would've admittedly been quite upset that he was dead, but it would've serviced the narrative and lead to some interesting events.  Instead, he's somehow alive in a hospital (we do eventually find out how he made it there).  The second time it happened is just plain silly.  It is most certainly not  played up for levity, but it comes across that way.  Then when he does die, in the film's epilogue (which really didn't need to be there), its treated as something lighthearted; something that we're supposed to shrug our shoulders to and say "gee willikers, that's a shame!"  It just felt very out of place to me.  Again, I am wholeheartedly acknowledging the fact that his overcoming these life-threatening injuries (using 1930s medical science) plays into the greater idea that these Bondurants are invincible...I just thought it came across as goofy.

Now that I'm done complaining (for the most part) I can get to what I really enjoyed about Lawless - the performances.  This film has an all-star cast if I've ever seen one.  I really feel that this is Tom Hardy's best performance to date (even though he's fantastic is just about everything he does), and reinforces the idea that he's one of Hollywood's most under-appreciated actors (a sentiment that I may be the only person to have).  He is honestly the most interesting and gripping character on screen; Forrest is calm, quiet, and contemplative most of the time, but acts with swift veracity when he needs to.  This is probably also my favorite Shia LaBeouf role (granted, he hasn't done much other than Transformers films); his journey is one from child to adulthood, as he steps into his role as a "Bondurant brother" and takes a more active role in the moonshine business and he pulls it off quite well.  Despite these two fantastic performances, the show-stealer has got to be Guy Pearce's Charlie Rakes, a "Special Agent" from Chicago sent to their hometown of Franklin, Virginia, to help dry up the county and share in the profits of the bootleggers.  Rakes is hideous in both appearances and actions; even though he is a lawman he is most definitely the main antagonist of the film...and boy does he earn that title.

What's so frustrating to me is that there are plenty of things to love about Lawless, but at the end of the day it just didn't wholly gel for me.  Perhaps my expectations were too high.  Or maybe it was the misleading trailer that had me looking for a bit more action.  Regardless, I would still recommend that Lawless be seen on the merit of the performances alone.  Before I go I just have to mention one last thing: if you feature Gary Oldman predominantly in your trailers and marketing then he better be in the film for more than five minutes.  Because that is literally the amount of screen time given to his character (who is relegated to nothing more than a story point).  Anyway, just go see it!

Lawless is a flawed yet incredibly entertaining period film that should be seen.

The Bearded Bullet.