Tuesday, April 22, 2014

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE Is a Vampire Movie You Can Sink Your Teeth Into


- A Jim Jarmusch-directed vampire movie? Not something I ever expected to see ... which is exactly what makes this one such a unique and fascinating film. It is about vampires, yes, but it's still unmistakably Jarmusch. That means long, lingering shots, a methodical and hypnotic pace, and a slice-of-life perspective that's less about plot, and more about simply immersing us in the world of these characters. A slice-of-life vampire flick - have we ever seen *that* before? ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is like Before Sunrise, if the title was taken to mean something only slightly different. This is a film centered around conversation, observation, and little moments that add up to something that is, ultimately, pretty mesmerizing. It probably shouldn't work ... but with some self-aware humor, an absolutely fantastic cast, and a dark rock n' roll vibe that sucks you in and never loses its groove, this feels like a definitive take on vampires - taking its place in the cannon of all-time-great bloodsucker movies.

I'm guessing a lot of people will be curious about this one due to its leading-man turn from perpetual Marvel movie badguy Tom Hiddleston. I'm a fan of Hiddleston's great work as Loki in Thor and The Avengers, but his work here cemented him, to me, as a 100% real-deal movie star. He pretty much just owns every frame that he appears in, turning in a transfixing, commanding, morbidly funny performance as reclusive vampire rock-star Adam. Again, what makes the character work so well is that even though Adam is dark and brooding, Hiddleston plays him with a slight wink, allowing the film to sort of have fun with Adam's relentless gloominess. I will also add to the chorus of people who, after seeing this film, came away convinced that Hiddleston might just need to play the lead in the eventual Sandman movie, as his character here seems like a definite riff on Neil Gaiman's Morpheus (and in fact, there's a very heavy Sandman vibe to the entire film). Much like The Sandman, Adam has been around for centuries - often in the company of great artists and inventors, from Byron to Tesla. Adam laments the state of the modern world - living in Detroit, content to be an undead creature in a dying city. He spends his nights working on music, which he records and releases anonymously. His isolated house is filled with old books, old instruments, old machinery - that he jury-rigs to power his home, allowing him to stay off the grid. He has an arrangement with a doctor at a local hospital, whom he pays in exchange for regular vials of blood, without which he'd starve.

Adam is married to Eve (clearly, no subtlety in Jarmusch's character names), played in similarly gripping fashion by Tilda Swindon. Eve is much older than Adam, but still seems to find wonder in the world, whereas he tends to wallow in misery. When the movie starts, Eve is spending time in Tangier, hanging out with her friend and fellow vamp Marlowe (John Hurt). However, when Eve decides to go to Detroit to be with her husband again, she has to contend with an Adam who seems all but defeated by the burden of his immortality. What's interesting is how Eve again inspires Adam to look at the world with fresh eyes, and how the bond between the two continues to flourish even as time marches on.

The heart of the film lies in the small scenes between Adam and Eve. As the two visit old haunts, discuss politics, music, and art, and just generally hang out, there's a great back-and-forth rhythm to their dialogue. This isn't rapid-fire banter, but instead a sort of stark, hypnotic shorthand between two (very) old friends. As the film goes on, there's no explosive plot development that suddenly changes everything, but instead, a series of seemingly small events that all seem to portend a shift in the long lives of these two characters. The first major disruption is the arrival of Eve's wild-child sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), whose erratic behavior quickly screws up Adam's carefully-constructed life. Things continue to spiral from there, and soon Adam is forced to make some major decisions about his future.

The movie doesn't have a large cast, but aside from Hiddleston and Swindon (like I said, both phenomenal), the film is filled out by top-notch supporting players. Wasikowska is playing very against-type as Ava, but she absolutely nails the sort of walking-embodiment-of-chaos that the character represents. John Hurt is excellent as the aged vampire Marlowe - who, we learn, was in fact the brains behind Shakespeare's works, but who, like Adam, had to toil in anonymity so as not to reveal his true nature. Anton Yelchin is unrecognizable - but quite good and very amusing - as Ian, a stoned-out rocker who makes a living as Adam's assistant, paid to keep mum about his boss' secret life. Finally, Jeffrey Wright makes the most of his few scenes as Adam's blood-providing associate, a nervous doctor who can only sort of shake his head in bemusement at the insane situation he's found himself in.

The movie's visuals are constantly striking. Jarmusch's camera moves deliberately through the dark ruins of Detroit, as well as through the narrow, ancient corridors of Tangier. Both cities reflect on our main characters: Detroit lies in apocalyptic ruin, a dead city, like our dead vampires. Tangier is old and timeless - it too, reflects an aspect of Adam and Eve. Jarmusch's visuals, matched with the film's droning goth-rock score, often create a sort of hypnosis. In a way, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is just one big drug movie - except here, the drug isn't booze, or heroin, or cocaine ... but blood. Much of the movie is about the need to feed - and Jarmusch takes us down the proverbial rabbit hole as Adam, Eve, and Ava fight and indulge their compulsive urges. Stylistically, the movie is almost a throwback in some ways. I suppose its whole gothy aesthetic comes off as very 90's - certainly a flashback of sorts to the decade of The Sandman, The Crow, Kurt Cobain, Nine Inch Nails, and Marilyn Manson. But hey, if that particular aesthetic floats your boat, you'll be in goth heaven. The movie is replete with pale-faced, English-accented rock n' roll vampires hanging out in dank clubs and brooding to the sounds of industrial guitar chords. It's like Jarmusch is on one big nostalgia kick for the pre-Twilight days when vampires were portrayed as punk-rock misfits as opposed to sparkly teen idols. Again, it would all be sort of funny, except the movie fully acknowledges the inherent absurdity of all of this.

For all of its sly nods and self-aware winks, however, I came away struck by just how oddly profound the movie ultimately is. This is a film that is relatively small in scale, but that has a ton to say about the human condition and the world we live in. While the film might seem ambling at times, it really comes together in the end in a way that brings everything full-circle. This is a movie about finding art and beauty and love in an often bleak and dark world, and about recognizing and embracing the rays of light that shine through in the darkness. The vampires in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE have seen a lot of bad stuff go down through the years, and their very blood-sucking existence is one of violence and addiction. And yet, they are sort of like the world's oldest cultural critics - appearing in the various corners of the world and seeking out the great thinkers, the great musicians, and the great innovators of various ages. Guess immortality has its perks.

And so, the film becomes an unlikely source of inspiration - an ode to art and music and literature and appreciating all of the things that humans are capable of. The vampires in the film condescendingly refer to humans as "zombies," (they are, after all, the walking dead ...), but they also can't help but be drawn to the exceptional people and things in the world - past and present. Jarmusch's film is knowingly over-the-top at times, slyly funny, clever, and darkly hypnotic. It's a thought-provoking, captivating walk on the wild side.

My Grade: A-

Friday, April 18, 2014

OCULUS Is Solid Horror Film With Admirable Ambition

OCULUS Review:

- I'm really digging the new wave of throwback horror cinema. After a glut of torture-porn garbage over the last several years, it's cool that horror is getting back to the things that make me a fan of the genre: clever ideas, unexpected twists, creepy atmosphere, and an emphasis on having fun with the trappings of the genre. I give Oculus credit: it's got an uber-clever structure, and a knack for throwing creepy, eye-popping imagery at you that you won't soon forget. At the same time, the movie tries, perhaps, to be a little too clever for its own good. It's so focused on wowing you with its time-jumping plot-line that it doesn't always take the time to properly explore the motivations of its characters, or to make sure that all the details of the story properly add up. Still, with a likable cast and some fun ideas, this one is worth a look if you're a horror fan.

OCULUS is all about a haunted mirror that seriously %&#*s with you. Okay, that's simplifying things a bit, but that's the premise at its core. Part of the film takes place twelve years ago, when a young family moves into a new home, not realizing that one of their new pieces of furniture is in fact some sort of demonic hell-mirror. The dad, Alan (Rory Cochrane) - a software developer - places the creepy, ornately-carved mirror in his home office, unaware of the slowly-worsening effect its having on him. He starts acting distant, forgetful, seeing things that aren't there. His kids begin to see a strange woman in the office with him, even though he doesn't know who they're referring to when they ask about her. Soon, the madness that's infecting Alan spreads to his wife, Marie (Katee Sackhoff). She becomes paranoid, then sick, then unstable and even dangerous to herself and others. Something is seriously wrong. As we learn more about what happened to the family twelve years ago, the movie intercuts with the present day. The two kids, Kaylie and Tim, are now in their twenties (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites play the older versions). Tim just turned 21, and he's been released from his long stay at a mental ward. Kaylie's been waiting for him. For years, she's been plotting and planning to re-acquire the old mirror - which she is now convinced was the root of her family's suffering - and destroy it once and for all. The mirror, she's learned, has a sordid history that dates back centuries. Now, she recruits her brother in an elaborate scheme to destroy it, and to end the hold it has over their lives.

The film does an excellent job of creating an atmosphere of creeping dread, and director Mike Flanagan really shows a knack for creepy imagery and claustrophobic foreboding. Particularly in the flashback scenes, there is a great sense that we're watching a picture-perfect family's descent into darkness, unfolding in a way that's mesmerizing and scary. Helped by a droning, ominous score, the flashback scenes are particularly effective at establishing the power of the mirror. It really messes with you, making you question if what you're seeing is real, and heightening existing, internalized paranoia into externalized outbursts and incidents. Cochrane and Sackhoff are both quite good as the falling-over-the-edge parents, and both impressed me with how they morphed from amiable, likable characters into total psychos over the course of the film. I was also impressed with the two kid actors who play Kaylie and Tim in the flashbacks. Annalise Basso, who plays young Kaylie, might be the most impressive actor in the film. She does a fantastic job, both when she's called upon to be terrified, and when she shows great courage in the face of insane circumstances.

The movie loses a bit of momentum in the present-day scenes. I like Gillan, but I didn't love her character here. As the 23-year-old Kaylie, Gillan plays the quick-witted, thinks-of-everything hero who is determined to destroy the object that plagued her family years ago. But I never felt like the movie sufficiently explained why Kaylie was so intent on carrying out this seemingly-doomed mission to destroy the mirror. Why not just stay far, far away from it? Her motivation to proactively seek it out - and to involve her clearly damaged brother in her plans - felt a little vaguely penciled-in to me. I also don't know that the movie sufficiently explains Kaylie's big plan of action. It seems to take a lot of pleasure in showing us her elaborately-conceived set up, designed to monitor and record the effects the mirror is having on her and the house in which it resides. But what's the endgame of all the MacGuyver-esque planning? Again, the movie seems a little too smugly satisfied in the cute quirks of Kaylie's plotting (she's set a loud buzzer to remind her and her brother to hydrate), and a little too unconcerned with how this all adds up to a satisfying whole.

So OCULUS ends up being a movie with a number of clever, visually-cool, memorable moments ... but also stretches where you sort of tune out, because those moments don't seem to be adding up to much. The film is very inventive in how it weaves together its two timelines, and the slick editing deserves mention. It's rare to see past and present scenarios in a film woven together so elegantly, with parallels between what happens in each time period drawn in a sharp, powerful manner. I can only imagine that the scene-by-scene script outline of this film is quite the impressive document. But clever structure can only take you so far. As much as I admire the way that OCULUS changes up the usual horror format and ambitiously weaves back and forth between decades, there's ultimately no great "aha!" moment that 100% justifies the twisty narrative. All the while, more fundamental things like character motivations (why is Kaylie so hellbent on finding and destroying the mirror?), world-building (what exactly is the mirror's M.O.? How did it come to be?), and plot details (how does Kaylie hope to destroy the mirror) get a bit of the ol' short shrift.

Still, there's enough cool stuff in OCULUS - fun creep-outs, creepy atmosphere - that you can't help but admire what it's going for. And hey, it's nice to see fan-favorites like Sackhoff get this sort of meaty role, that really calls for her to stretch and play outside of her usual badass persona. Even if OCULUS didn't completely wow me, it is definitely the sort of thoughtful, atmospheric horror film I'd like to see more of.

My Grade: B

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER Makes Cap The Coolest Hero In the Marvel Movie Universe


- Here's what's cool to me about CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER: the trust that Marvel Studios had in the source material. Let me give some context. Captain America is, obviously, a product of the 1940's and World War II. Created by a young Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the iconic comic book image of Cap from that period was of him delivering a knockout punch to Adolf Hitler. Later, in the 1960's, Stan Lee revitalized the character when he revealed that Cap had been frozen in ice since the 40's, and was now thawed out - still preserved in the body of a young man - and made a charter member of The Avengers. The first Captain America film (not the abhorrent 1990 version - the one from a few years back) paid loving homage to those early comic book adventures. It gave the character a modern sheen, but it was still 100% done in the pulpy, bombastic, colorful spirit of the golden and silver age comics. And for that reason - and for the fact that it took pains to portray Steve Rogers as not just a powerful hero, but as a good and decent person - the first Captain America movie quickly became my favorite of all the modern Marvel films. As much as I dug the way that that movie captured the spirit of Simon, Kirby, and Stan Lee, I was equally jazzed that, for the sequel, Marvel chose to mine one of the best stories from their recent history. Honestly, until Ed Brubaker took over writing duties on Captain America in the 00's, I liked the *idea* of the character, but never cared to actually read of his adventures. However, I had become a huge fan of Ed Brubaker from his work on the Batman comics, and was curious to see this darker-edged writer take on a traditionally bright and more lighthearted hero in Captain America. What Brubaker did during his comics run was nothing short of game-changing, embroiling Steve Rogers and his cohorts in political intrigue and conspiracy. Steve Rogers himself didn't become darker, but the world around him did. Most notably, Brubaker introduced The Winter Soldier,a dark mirror of Cap that proved to be a fantastic adversary and antihero.

To me, it's pretty cool to see Marvel, the movie studio, put faith in Marvel comics. Not mining stories from fifty years ago, and not simply reinventing everything needlessly for the movies. Instead, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is an actual adaptation of a great modern comic book story - something we've rarely if ever seen from Marvel or DC films. Yes, the movie works within the framework of The Avengers films and fits into the larger Marvel movie universe. But what most excited me about it is that it actually treats the source material with respect, to the point that it adapts a specific story in a way that's very faithful to that story's characters and tone. As a comic guy, this is awesome. I mean, fans are almost invited to pour over details of YA novel film adaptations and see how accurate the movies are. But comic fans? We've been trained to get excited over the mere mention of some obscure reference to one of our favorite stories. It's not that I need to see a literal adaptation of every great comic book story. It's just that it's cool to see one of the great modern comic book story-arcs finally get the respect it deserves from Hollywood. I like that it allows fans to go and buy a compendium of stories that the movie they just saw was adapted from. I like that it paves the way for other modern classics to be adapted, so that we can stop going back to the 40's, 50's, 60's, 70's, and 80's for inspiration. And I like that this takes us to a point where a premium is placed on story and characters, and not just fanboy-pleasing references to said stories and characters. To me, this approach says "we are going to tell you a great story," and not just "we are going to throw a bunch of characters together and fill in the gaps later."

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is pretty awesome. It drops some major plot bombs on the broader Marvel movie universe, but more than that, it's just a really compelling thriller, and it works very well as a self-contained film, and as a darker follow-up to the previous Captain America movie. The intent on this one was to pay some stylistic homage to the conspiracy thrillers of the 70's - Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, etc. And getting into that shady corner of this universe - looking at what happens when a darker element invades the typically altruistic structure of S.H.I.E.L.D, makes for a pretty compelling path for the movie to follow. Like the comics it's based on, the movie gets a lot of traction from taking the straight-arrow Steve Rogers - a relic of a simpler, more black-and-white era - a placing him into a much more complex world, where it's harder to tell the good guys from the bad.

And man, it's crazy how good Chris Evans now is as Rogers. He stunned me in the first film with how much he knocked it out of the park. And he's as good, if not better, here. He portrays Rogers as a man still clinging to his morals and sense of right-and-wrong, even as he realizes he's going to have to have a healthy suspicion about others in order to survive. He is, also, a man out of time. And this film does a nice job of addressing that, in ways both humorous (Cap keeps a running list of pop-culture he needs to catch up on), and poignant (as when he visits his old flame, Peggy Carter, in a nursing home).

What's really surprising about this sequel though is how much of a team movie it really is. No, the Avengers don't fully assemble, but Cap does form his own mini squad here, and seeing this particular team in action is a lot of fun. Black Widow is very prominent in the story, as is Nick Fury. With Black Widow, we get some of the best character development we've yet seen for the former KGB agent. Scarlett Johansson does a great job of giving her a flirtatious yet tense relationship with Steve Rogers, even as we see the influence of the morally unshakable Cap start to rub off on her. We see her transition from mere Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. to hero. Similarly, we start to see what it is about this version of Nick Fury that makes him stand out from the pack. Samuel L. Jackson gets to shine here more so than in any Marvel movie to date. Fury gets to play a pivotal role in the plot, and, finally, he gets to kick some ass. I was honestly beginning to tire of the character a bit before now, because he just seemed to always show up without actually getting to do anything all that interesting. No more ... now, I'm primed for a Nick Fury solo movie. So Marvel, make it happen ... you dig?

Also joining Team Stars n' Stripes (that's what I'm calling it), is new (to the movies) character Sam Wilson, aka The Falcon. I wasn't sure how cool The Falcon would be going in, but I'm happy to report that he's pretty flipping cool. Anthony Mackie has been a favorite since he wowed me in The Hurt Locker, and he is great here. He's got a great buddy-cop chemistry with Chris Evans, and there's something oddly endearing about having these two characters meet, become fast friends, and just plain like each other without any big fight or dust-up. Very un-Marvel, if you think about it, but hey, I thought that the Cap/Falcon relationship in the film was really well-handled. And the icing on the cake is that the Falcon's suit, wings, and weapons are all pretty great-looking, despite often coming across as lame in the comics. In short, The Falcon is a very solid addition to the film, and I'd be eager to see him pop up in future Marvel movies.

I'll also add that, man, it's great to see Robert Redford pop up here as a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. director. Redford was, of course, a staple of the 70's conspiracy thrillers that this movie pays tribute to, and he lends an undeniable air of gravitas to the film. I thought he might just be popping up for more of a cameo sort of role, but was pleasantly surprised at just how crucial of a part he plays in the story.

Meanwhile, there's a nice lineup of villains to counter all of these badass heroes. It's hard to say too much without spoiling things, but I will say this: The Winter Soldier is just a super cool, well-handled adversary for Captain America and co. Sebastian Stan does a nice job in the role, but I also give a ton of credit to the film's visual design team. Not only does The Winter Soldier look like he walked straight out of the comics, but he looks cool as hell. The character is visually imposing, but he's also got an ultra-compelling origin that ties back into the first film and makes things very, very personal for Steve Rogers. Just as he did in the comics, I think the Winter Soldier will become a huge favorite with film fans. I know that when the film ended, I was even more excited about the potential to see more of the character's journey than I was for just about anything else in the Marvel cinematic universe - Avengers 2 included.

The Winter Soldier is a great, memorable villain, and another reason why is that he's involved in some absolutely kick-ass action scenes. In fact, the movie as a whole - while spending plenty of time on quieter, tension-building scenes - is packed with big, exciting action. There are rapid-fire shout-outs, bone-crunching fights, and some truly visceral vehicular mayhem. In keeping with the darker tone of the film, the action feels much grittier and more violent than the first movie's two-fisted, Indiana Jones-style set pieces.

I definitely came away from the movie impressed with directors Anthony and Joe Russo. Especially given that their background is in TV comedy, the fact that they transitioned so seamlessly to big-budget action is kudos-worthy. They do a very nice job overall, and excel at both action and smaller character moments. I guess my one complaint - which has been true of many of the Marvel movies outside of The Avengers - is that the movie does, ultimately, have a slightly generic, house-style feel to it. It's funny to think about, because Marvel comics, back in the day (namely the 70's and early 80's), was known for all of its books having a very uniform art style (hence the popular book "How to Draw the Marvel Way"). In recent years, however, Marvel has really been a leader in publishing books with a wide variety of unique, and often experimental, looks. I hope that the films begin to follow suit (and I think with Guardians of the Galaxy, we may start to see that branching out, to an extent). In this movie, there's a strange dichotomy, because the film, as mentioned, is clearly emulating 70's conspiracy thrillers - to a degree. But that stylistic tendency also feels reigned in, and forced to work within what is now a very familiar Marvel movie house style. I get that there is a need to not deviate *too* far from fan expectations, but you also don't want movies that feel stifled, or held back from being all they could be. So yes, the film has some interesting visual motifs and a unique feel vs. other Marvel movies, but it never quite goes all the way. For every scene that feels like something we've never seen in a Marvel movie before, there's another that seems like it could be totally interchangeable with the latest Iron Man or Thor flick.

Even so, it's pretty remarkable just how well this film came together. It nails the character dynamics. It tells a great story (and is a great adaptation of the comics), with one of the best villains yet seen in a superhero movie. It gives us the best Black Widow and Nick Fury we've yet seen on-screen. And it further convinces us that Captain America - that dusty old relic from the 1940's - just might be the coolest (not to mention the most relevant and vital) superhero in the whole Marvel Universe. In that respect, Marvel: mission accomplished.

My grade: A-

Saturday, April 5, 2014

NOAH Is The First and Only Art-Film Biblical Fantasy-Epic

 NOAH Review:

- Darren Aronofsky's biblical epic, NOAH, has all of the scope and grandeur you would expect out of this story. And yet, Noah is unlike any bible-based film we've yet seen. Aronofsky, ever the auteur, goes for broke here - crafting a film with complex morality, apocalyptic darkness, and, oh yeah ... giant rock-monsters engaged in Lord of the Rings-style battles with human armies. This is a movie that is most definitely NOT playing it safe, and to me, that's what makes this such a riveting and uniquely entrancing spectacle.

In interviews, Aronofsky - raised Jewish but a proclaimed atheist - expresses his desire to capture the awe-inspiring and very-much-relevant story of Noah and recast it as an epic morality play in the style of Greek myth. And that's exactly what he's done. Freeing himself from the need to take one of the bible's most outlandish stories and tell it as literal history, Aronofsky is instead able to make this story every bit as sweeping, mind-blowing, and thought-provoking as it can be. So to those who perhaps shied away from the film because of the supposed controversy, I say open your mind and recognize that this film actually presents the meat of the biblical story in a surprisingly un-whitewashed fashion - instead of dancing around the questions raised by the text, it addresses them head-on. Any biblical scholar should be able to appreciate that. For those on the other end of the spectrum - those who are wary of any biblically-derived story on the big screen - I think that when you look at these tales as morality plays, as myth with still-resonant themes and lessons - there is a lot to be gained from them, and there's a reason why they've endured in our collective imaginations for so long. What Aronofsky has done here is to imbue a visionary's imagination into one of the greatest story's ever told. This is one of today's best filmmakers going bigger and crazier than he's ever gone. And that means that Noah is a must-see not just for biblical scholars, but for any and all film fans.

I found so much about Noah fascinating, but what immediately grabbed me was the pre-Flood world that Arnofsky has crafted. It's a primitive world, in which the descendents of the murderous Cain have spread across the globe, eradicating environmental resources and building crude and lawless cities. On one hand, it's a world that's unspoiled compared to what we have today. On the other hand, it's a world that very quickly became depleted and barren, with large swaths of wasteland emptied of trees and vegetation. While the tribes of Cain live in violence and sin, the nomadic descendents of Seth live in relative peace - living off the land and keeping to themselves. One such person is Noah, who lives with his wife and children, adopting a simple and quiet lifestyle. Noah, in fact, is one of the few holy men left in the world. While the tribes of Cain believe that the Creator has abandoned the earth, Noah believes that he still guides them. One day, Noah begins having prophetic visions, and becomes convinced that a world-ending flood is on its way. Acting on his divine dreams, he begins building a massive ark (with help from the Watchers: fallen angels-turned-rock-creatures, more on them later) to help his family - as well as representatives of every animal species on earth - to ensure that he and earth's animal kingdom survives the flood and can start the world anew. Of course, when the tribes of Cain - led by the desperate Tubal-cain - begin to sense their oncoming doom, they rise up and revolt against Noah, leading to an all-consuming battle as the flood rains begin to fall.

And ... that's just the first half of the movie.

What is both jarring and sort of cool about the whole thing is that Aronofsky goes all out in crafting a world where divine miracles are part of the fabric of reality. Using the vocabulary we know from other pop-culture, this is a world of magic - the pre-Flood biblical earth as Aronofsky's version of Middle Earth. The aesthetics of the film - from the giant battles, to the monstrous, Ent-like Watchers, to the costuming - support that notion. But the magical nature of this world takes root in other ways as well. Anthony Hopkins' character, for example. Hopkins plays Noah's wizened grandfather, Methusala, a hermit who lives alone in a cave atop a mountain, whose ramblings are a mix of age-induced senility and a genuine knack for divine magic that proves crucial to the plot. The Watchers, meanwhile, are sort of insane, yet undeniably cool if you just go with it (and yes, their appearance in the film is inspired by allusions in the biblical text). They are angels who were long ago cast out of heaven, and who have since lay dormant on earth, pledged to not interfere in the affairs of man. They move like stop-motion animated creatures, channeling the spirit of Ray Harryhausen, lumbering around with divine light shining through their rocky exteriors. I loved the look and feel of the Watchers in the film - while it was initially odd to see fantasy creatures like this in this film, their presence ultimately adds to the film's sense of mythic scope.

At the same time, Aronofsky makes this a very human story. There is real weight to the movie's destructive events. Noah is a good man, but as the responsibility and survivor's guilt begins to weigh on him, he goes just a bit mad. And he becomes sort of a jerk, if not a full-blown antagonist. In the second half of the film, as Noah and his family stay cooped up within the ark, the issue of what happens after the flood begins to come to the forefront. Noah's eldest son Shem has taken up with Ila, a girl who Noah and his wife Naameh adopted and saved from certain death as a young child. But Noah's second-oldest, Ham, is growing restless. He has no woman of his own, and the thought of being forever alone in the new world begins to turn him against his father, to an extent. What's surprising is just how seriously the movie addresses the idea of post-apocalyptic repopulation. Noah, eventually, is convinced that all people are meant to die out after the flood. Which is a major issue, since Ila is pregnant. Noah's grim determination to do what needs to be done, to carry out what he believes to be the Creator's will, is what actually turns him into the movie's de facto villain. That's where the moral complexity I mentioned comes into play. On one hand, we see how wicked and horrible many of the descendents of Cain truly are. On the other hand, we see just how cruel and terrifying the decision to wipe them *all* off the face of the earth really is. In one key scene, Ham goes to a village to try to find a decent woman to bring with him on the ark. He seems to find one, but Noah refuses to help her when an angry horde of tribesmen chases him, Ham, and the girl. "She was innocent!" screams Ham, later, in condemnation of his father. And as far as we know, she was. Similar feelings of dread run through our heads when we see the great flood killing people. This isn't simply some cleansing water whose apocalyptic effect goes unseen. We see people scrambling for higher ground, clinging desperately to rocks, and being swept violently into the cascading waters. We ultimately feel less good about Noah and his family surviving the flood, and more mournful for those who did not.

Aronofsky has dabbled in the world of high-concept epics before (I'm a huge fan of the underrated The Fountain), but he's never done anything quite like this. But man, he shows that he's got the chops to go big - and not just in the same way that so many other blockbuster filmmakers go big. Aronofsky uses his artist's touch to make NOAH not just big, but awe-inspiring - as it should be. I talked about the ominous, fantastical, almost alien look of the movie's world. But the way he shoots Noah, his family, and the Watchers constructing the ark is a a thing of beauty. So too are the scenes in which the animals make their way onto the ark, compelled by a divine calling. You can't help but gasp a little as you watch the procession of beasts. And yet, Aronofsky makes the film seem even more epic by interspersing interesting, non-traditional vignettes amidst the big set-pieces. The most memorable of these is a cutaway that essentially re-tells the story of Genesis in a manner that's both mesmerizing and thought-provoking. In a Cosmos-worthy montage, we see the seven days of creation juxtaposed over what is, essentially, the process of evolution. I love that Aronofsky included this, because it's a concept that I've always personally embraced: that when taken as myth and parable, and not literally, the biblical text is actually a fascinatingly accurate overview of the scientific genesis of humankind, and a remarkably rich document worthy of discussion and debate as to how to interpret its meaning (something which us Jews have been doing for our entire history). In any case, Aronofsky adds texture to his film by giving it a hypnotic art-film feel. Even though I compared it to things like Lord of the Rings, that's not entirely accurate - because Aronofsky goes big, but he also never abandons his love for hallucinatory mind-trip aesthetics.

It's funny - in another review, I saw it mentioned that Aronofsky made this film for no one. And I laugh because it's true. A morally complex art-film biblical fantasy epic? It's incredible that a studio put money behind this, and even more so, in a way, that the movie proved a box office hit. At the same time, it seems a lot of moviegoers came away from the film sort of perplexed, which is understandable. NOAH is, easily, one of the weirdest blockbuster films ever made. If you don't dig weird, then you might be one of the naysayers. But those of us who have followed Aronofsky's career, and who go in knowing that we're getting a version of Noah from the guy who made Pi, Requiem For a Dream, and Black Swan ... well, this is, most certainly, and above all else, a Darren Aronofsky film.

Part of the great fun of this film (yes, it's fun, despite also being super-dark and intense), is seeing Russell Crowe once again play the epic hero. The dude was born for this type of role, and he brings all the gravitas you'd want to the table. The fact that Crowe makes Noah the undeniable hero, only to turn the tables and recast him as a morally-ambiguous character, is a credit to the actor's ability to bring nuance to even his most bombastic roles. Meanwhile, Emma Watson as his adopted daughter Ila is the other major standout here. Watson does fantastic work, acting as the movie's heart, soul, and conscience. Jennifer Connelly is excellent as Noah's wife, and Logan Lerman also really sells his character's angst and torment as Noah's problem-child son Ham. Speaking of which, I also got a huge kick out of Anthony Hopkins's hammy awesomeness as Methusala. One of the movie's most endearing scenes is when Methusala talks to one of his youngest great-grandsons about what they love most in life. I won't spoil it, but the over-the-topness of it all is quite entertaining. I'll also give a shout-out to the always-great Ray Winstone as Tubal-cain. While he is clearly the villain of the story, there is also much truth in what he says, and if the story were told in a slightly different light, he may well have been its hero. Winstone does a commendable job of showing both the character's repugnance and his more sympathetic side.

Noah does at time walk a fine line between treating the biblical story as grandiose mythology, and yet also putting a microscope up to some of the text's more puzzling and contradictory aspects. When the movie ends, we're still not sure what mankind's future could be. Are we really meant to speculate on who repopulates with who, and how exactly Noah's family is to "be fruitful and multiply" given the lack of of-age males and females? Probably not, but Aronofsky invites us to wonder about these things given the way he's told his story. At times, there does seem to be a slight disconnect between the movie's mythological ambitions and its desire to present these characters as real, grounded, and morally complex.

But what ultimately makes the movie work is that Aronofsky is able to turn this sprawling story into a resonant parable - about the goodness that we as humans are capable of, despite the flaws inherent in our makeup. Noah becomes convinced that all people are wicked, and therefore condemned. But the lesson of the story of Noah is, perhaps, that all people are both wicked and good, and all we can hope for is that as that eternal battle between our dualities is waged, the good will find a way to prevail. NOAH posits that even when things are at their worst, we've still got a fighting chance.

My Grade: A-

Friday, April 4, 2014

SABOTAGE Is Flawed But Sporadically Awesome


- I was really stoked for SABOTAGE. Even if Arnold Schwarzenegger's post-political career action films have mostly been met with lukewarm reactions at the box-office, I've highly enjoyed his late-period work. Most notably, The Last Stand was one hell of an action/comedy, and deserves to go down as a must-see in the Ahnold cannon. That said, part of me was itching for the Governator to get really dark and hardcore, and do the kind of gritty action flick that that was less about well-timed quips and more about the serious kicking of ass. Enter David Ayers, who wrote Training Day, and who really impressed me last year as a director, with his excellent film End of Watch. Ayers and Arnold seemed like a match made in heaven for action fans, and the mixture does indeed yield very interesting results. Here's the thing: SABOTAGE is an uneven film, but it's still a must-see for Schwarzenegger fans, because it has some absolutely classic Ahnold moments. So while the movie may have some plot issues, I still recommend giving it a look. The kickass factor ultimately outweighs the flaws.

The film deals with a tight-knit squad of DEA agents, that was disbanded after accusations that they'd stolen money from a crime scene. The leader and father-figure of the squad - Schwarzenegger's Breacher - is a DEA legend, but he's also a haunted man. Prior to his team's breakup, his wife and son were kidnapped, tortured, and ultimately killed by one of the cartels. This made Breacher more driven than ever, and kept him determined to reunite his team and get back in the field following an internal investigation. The film deals with the tricky family dynamics of the reunited team, which slowly begins to unravel, even as Breacher tries to keep the peace. Meanwhile, the ongoing mystery of the film revolves around what actually happened to the stolen money. Who - if anyone - from the team took it, and why? This mystery rises to the forefront as an unknown group of assailants begins targeting Breacher's team, taking out its members one by one. As the FBI is brought in to investigate, the mystery deepens and the true nature of what's going on is ultimately revealed.

There are some really compelling mysteries here, and some really fun characters at the center of the story. The problem is that while the movie has cool characters, a stellar cast, and some top-notch action, it never quite overcomes some root problems that likely stem from the script. Namely, the structure of the film just feels off. The movie kicks off with a thrilling flashback sequence that shows us the mission that initiated the stolen-money mystery, and then flashes to the present, when the band gets back together. But as the movie progresses, a couple of problems become evident. One is that we're never given any real clues as to who stole the money, or any real possible motivations to latch onto. In a movie like this, everyone should be a suspect. But really, no one feels like a suspect, and we really have no clue as to who might be waging a war against the squad, other than the cartels. And so, when we finally do get the truth about who stole the money, and who the true Big Bads of the movie are, the revelations are mostly duds, and very-much out of left field. Nothing we'd seen up to that point adds up to a true "aha!" moment. That's one problem. The other biggie is that what seems like the movie's most compelling plot point - the fact that Breacher's family was murdered by the same cartels he's spent his life hunting - is inexplicably pushed to the background for most of the movie. While we are getting some decent-if-not-breathtaking procedural-style drama, it feels like the true, potentially awesome movie that we *should* be watching lies buried underneath. That movie, of course, is a grizzled Arnold recruiting his old squad to hunt down the bastards that killed his family - Rolling Thunder-style. And for a bit, it seems like that's where all of this is going. But for some reason, that surefire badassery is shunted in favor of a more sedate crime story / mystery ... and it's not the wisest or most effective of choices.

CAVEAT: Everything I just said is almost, *almost* negated by the movie's absolutely friggin' awesome last ten minutes. Without spoiling anything, the film's final sequence is so badass that it pretty much elevates the entire film. Only problem is that its awesomeness makes you wonder what a whole movie operating at that level could have been like. Suffice it to say, it's Arnold's Clint Eastwood-in-Unforgiven moment, and holy lord, it rocks.

Now, SABOTAGE isn't just a Schwarzenegger movie - the cast, as I said, is stacked with an overwhelmingly talented cast. Arnold's team is comprised of a mixture of genuine A-list stars like Terrence Howard, action movie staples like Sam Worthington (almost unrecognizable in his Fred Durst-esque nu-metal getup), ready-for-their-big-break TV talent like Lost's Josh Holloway and True Blood's Joe Manganiello, and up-and-comers like Pacific Rim's Max Martini. The scene-stealer, however, might be an actress (who for a while I assumed to be Jessica Chastain) named Mireille Enos, who plays team wildcard Lizzy. Enos is a redheaded ball of fire, taking down cartel members with secret agent-esque spy moves, Alias-style, when not causing friction on the team. In addition, Olivia Williams is quite good as the FBI agent tasked with solving the mystery of who is out to get the team. Her partner is played by Lost's Harold Perrineau, who's always solid, and, hey ... mini Lost reunion!

What is a bit odd is that some of the movie's best talents get very much lost in the shuffle. When you've got a Terrence Howard in the cast, you don't make him a second-stringer with minimal screen time. And when you've got a guy like Josh Holloway doing some really great work, it seems a slight waste to have him barely make an impact in the film, beyond one or two notable scenes. The core team is made up of such strong, charismatic actors that it seems odd when the movie eventually sort of falls in love with Williams and Perrineau's FBI agents. Not that they aren't really good, but again, it's an issue of the movie getting diverted from its core dynamics, and spending too much time on tangents. It almost feels like the FBI duo could have their own movie, and the more grounded, primetime drama tone of their scenes almost feels like it belongs to a different movie than the hardcore, slightly comic-booky, larger-than-life scenes that focus on Breacher's squad. I mean just look at the names of the people on the DEA team: Breacher, Monster, Sugar, Grinder, Pyro, Neck ... do those sound like the names of characters in a procedural investigation movie, or like those in a larger-than-life grindhouse revenge flick? 

Still, what I like about Ayers is that he goes all-in when it comes to making his films feel gritty and hardcore. SABOTAGE doesn't pull punches. It's violent, dark, grisly, and vulgar. It's overflowing with testosterone and isn't compromising in the name of appealing to a mainstream audience. When you watch an Ayers movie, you feel in need of a shower afterwards - he puts you there among these battle-hardened badasses and makes it clear that the world of the film is not one for the weak of heart. He's also one hell of an action director - he uses you-are-there aesthetics to really create a sense of immersion and intensity. Here, he also seems to have a lot of fun playing up the iconography of Arnold. While the movie is dark, it also isn't afraid to semi-playfully utilize Schwarzenegger's iconic stature to create some of the film's more over-the-top moments. And Arnold gives a pretty fantastic performance here, any way you slice it. While he's still got plenty of one-liners, he also seems to relish the chance to go a bit darker and grittier than he has of late. Joke if you like, but the dude pretty much kills it in this one. And once again ... those final ten minutes ... epic.

SABOTAGE is one of those films that I've got to recommend, simply because it's got some fantastic moments that any action fan will regret having missed. At the same time, it's a slightly frustrating movie in that it feels like all the elements were there to make a true action classic, if only they had come together in a slightly more impactful manner. 

My Grade: B

THE RAID 2 Is a Total Knockout

THE RAID 2 Review:

- How to put this? THE RAID 2 is off-the-rails awesome. If you dig action movies, at all, go see it. Of course, first make sure that you check out The Raid, last year's out-of-nowhere game-changer. Only then will you be at least somewhat prepared for the insanity that awaits. Emphasis on somewhat. The Raid 2 is just that crazy.

For the uninitiated, The Raid - the first film - is an absolute must-see. Directed by Welsh-born Gareth Evans, the Indonesian-set flick, in my view, raised the bar for martial-arts action cinema. The movie had a simple but effective premise: a ruthless crime lord was holed up on the top floor of a multilevel building, and an elite squad of cops had to break in, clear the building of hostiles floor by floor, and take out the boss. The simple, videogame esque plot was the backdrop for some of the most spectacular action sequences ever put to film - some of the most jaw-dropping gun battles, fist fights, and battle royales I've ever witnessed.

THE RAID 2 ups the ante by combining the incredible fight scenes of the first film with an epic crime-saga storyline that makes this sequel feel like some sort of acid-trip mash-up of The Godfather and Enter the Dragon. In truth, the film's plot owes more to Infernal Affairs (which in turn inspired The Departed), as it sees The Raid's sullen hero, Rama, forced to go undercover in a dangerous criminal organization in order to root out police corruption. Picking up immediately after the events of the first film, The Raid 2 quickly ties up some loose ends from its predecessor (in predictably bloody fashion), only to then see Rama go straight to his next mission. It seems that the first film's Big Bad was just a smaller piece of a much larger puzzle - as Jakarta is currently being ruled by two rival crime families, one of which is being protected by corrupt cops. In order for Rama to embed himself in the crime family, he must assume a new identity, get himself arrested, and, while in jail, befriend the charismatic-yet-troubled son of the syndicate's leader. And so it goes - Rama saves the son's life, and upon release from jail, becomes a trusted enforcer for the crime family. All the while, war between Jakarta's two rival families - who have enjoyed a tenuous truce for years - is brewing. Rama hopes to fulfill his mission and go home to his family, but he also can't stand by and watch his city burn.

The rhythm of The Raid was just nonstop action that only escalated with each new sequence. But if The Raid was speed-metal, The Raid 2 is an epic power-ballad. The film is surprisingly, methodically paced - with dramatic, character-driven scenes spaced out between the action. It's certainly a much different beast than the original movie. And I'll admit - for the first stretch of the film, I sat in my theater seat feeling slightly baffled. Was I watching The Raid 2, or an Indonesian version of Donnie Brasco?

But then, once Rama is in prison, and once he's formed a tense relationship with his mark, Ucok (the prodigal son of crime boss Bangun) ... well, there's a prison riot. And what erupts from that prison riot is one of the most insanely glorious, most unbelievable action sequences I've ever seen. Evans bobs and weaves his cameras through the mud-packed prison yard with violent grace, giving a you-are-there feeling to a sequence that simply must be seen to be believed. And as this scene played on - just getting ever more intense and crazy as it went - the audience in my theater couldn't help but burst into applause. Hell yeah, this was THE RAID, and there could be no doubting its ownage.

The rest of the film proceeds in this manner - a grand, melodramatic story of crime, corruption, and broken families - punctuated by action scenes that seem to literally erupt from the framework of the plot and never fail to leave you in a state of catatonic shock. What's so impressive is that Evans just keeps one-upping himself. He once again delivers the sorts of visceral, hardcore melee fights of the previous film, but also goes to places that The Raid never dared. The Raid 2 not only contains martial-arts action like nothing you've seen ... but it's also got one of the most insane car chase firefights in cinematic history. Trust me, I've seen it all when it comes to action, but some of the sequences in this movie are just next-level.

What also helps elevate the action is that there are some truly memorable adversaries for Rama to face off with in this installment. By far the most kickass of the movie's combatants are a pair of assassins - known simply as Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man. Simple enough, right? Well, hot damn, these two do things with a hammer and a bat that are just wrong. So wrong it's right, baby. Not since deadly schoolgirl Go-Go Yubari wielded a mace against Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill have we seen such memorably, insanely badass sociopaths engaged in such gorgeously-choreographed mayhem. Who, I have to wonder, is Julie Estelle, who plays Hammer Girl as the ultimate femme fatale ass-kicker? Where did she come from? How did she get to be so awesome? Spin-off prequel, please. Meanwhile, the movie's climactic duel, in which Rama engages in an extended one-on-one battle with a deadly, hook-wielding chef, is a five-star fight - an absolute mind-melter that, again, yielded exuberant audience applause. And, oh, remember how badass "Mad Dog" was in The Raid? Well, the uber-talented actor/martial artist who played him - Yayan Ruhian - is back, as a new character: a criminal lifer named Prakoso who ends up hunted by his own organization. Prakoso - a grizzled, shaggy man who's seen better days - is a much different character than the quietly confident Mad Dog. But damn, Ruhian once again rules it. He should be a part of The Raid franchise for as long as they keep making 'em.

As for our hero, Rama ... well, this movie solidifies him as an all-timer. Star Iko Uwais may not be a particularly colorful leading man, but he's so quietly and intensely badass - and so skilled at kicking ass - that by the end of this movie, I officially counted myself as a member of the Rama fan club. When it comes to combat, Uwais is in a class all his own - the guy is simply a machine. But hey, in The Raid 2, Uwais does some pretty serious acting as well, and I came away convinced that he may well be the next Jet Li. He certainly deserves to be called the undisputed heir to that mantle.

Speaking of solid acting, the entire cast is actually quite good here. The thing is: the movie's sprawling crime-saga story could have been a real drag if not done well. But it's actually really good, and the plot slowly builds until it's evolved into quite the epic by the third act. I give a lot of credit to Uwais for anchoring things, but I've also got to mention Arifin Putra as Ucok, who is fantastic. Ucok as the privileged son prepped from birth to one day inherit his father's criminal empire, but who now grows angry and restless as his father refuses to hand over the reins. And Putra brings a ton of slick charisma to the role - a sort of James Dean vibe that makes him an antihero at first, but eventually a full-out villain as we begin to realize the extent to which his sadistic streak runs. Some of that is revealed in Ucok's scenes with Alex Abbad's Bejo - an up-and-coming gangster who partners with Ucok in a bid to take over Jakarta's criminal underground.

It's compelling stuff, and it all unfolds with operatic scope. Evans proves that he's not just a great action director, but a great director, period. After the one-two punch of The Raid and The Raid 2, I think he's got to be considered in the upper echelon. I can only imagine what this guy could do with a big budget blockbuster, or with a Marvel or DC event film. Suffice it to say, with indie budgets, Evans is working absolute wonders.

THE RAID 2 is long and sprawling, but it's phenomenal entertainment from start to finish. Gareth Evans brings an ingenuity and kinetic quality to his action scenes that's unmatched. Despite the movie's hardcore violence, there is something that's just plain joyful about the way that Evans continually seeks to impress us with crazy, jaw-dropping stuff that we've never, ever seen done before on-screen. I see a lot of movies, and even when I really dig a film, it's rare that a movie of this sort just leaves me awed and in disbelief at the awesomeness of what I've just seen. But man, THE RAID 2 is that damn good - an epic action flick that once again raises the bar, with all others now forced to step up their game and follow its lead. It's a cinematic knockout punch if ever there was one.

My Grade: A