Sunday, September 28, 2014

THE ZERO THEOREM Is Another Satirical Journey Into the Imagination from Terry Gilliam


- First of all, let's just put this out there: Terry Gilliam is one of those great, great directors and creative minds who, honestly ... I'm just glad that he is still making movies. Even when those movies are flawed, they are fascinating, stunning to look at, and great conversation-starters. So to those who found flaw in Gilliam's latest, THE ZERO THEOREM, and who have decided to gleefully trash it, I say for shame. I'm not saying to just give it a pass. I am saying to talk about it in the proper context. For me, this is a film that yes, falls short of Gilliam's greatest sci-fi films like Brazil and 12 Monkeys. But man, there is still so much goodness here. Visually, thematically, performance-wise. THE ZERO THEOREM may ultimately end up as "advanced studies" in the Gilliam syllabus, but even so, I'm glad for the two hours to once again spend inside the genius director's brain.

THE ZERO THEOREM takes place in a cluttered, colorful, surreal version of the future that is one part Brazil, one part Idiocracy. In this skewed future-world, garish ads follow you wherever you walk, everyone dresses like they worship at the alter of Lady Gaga, and, to add to the sensory overload, it's rare to see anyone walking sans screen held at eye level and earphones blocking out external noise (no wonder the ads have to be so in-your-face - otherwise, no one would ever notice them). One unique denizen of this world is Qohen Leth (the great Christoph Waltz) - a worker-bee who, when he's not at his job working for a number-crunching conglomerate - keeps to himself in the renovated, cavernous cathedral he calls home. The cathedral used to be home to a monastic order, and Qohen himself is monk-ish, in a way. He is bald, he keeps to himself, and he lives his life based on a strange sort of faith. Years ago, Qohen received a phone call in which a celestial voice promised to tell him the meaning of life. So excited was Qohen that he dropped the phone and accidentally hung up. Ever since, he's been waiting for that voice to call him back and give him his answer. Obsessed with the call-that-may-never-come, Qohen asks his Big Brother-like bosses to let him work from home, so that he might not miss that call. Though they think him insane, Management (embodied with enigmatic, good ol' boy charm by Matt Damon) grants Qohen his request, as they have a project for him to work on solo. Qohen's usual workday involves a strange routine of him in a circle of similar worker-bees, peddling a bike and plugging away at a never-ending geometric puzzle with an XBOX-like controller, working on an endless equation that will never be solved. Now, Qohen is to work on an even more intense version of this sort of puzzle - solving the Zero Theorem - the equation that will prove that all life is meaningless and doomed to end and disappear forever into the void. Zero must equal 100%. Everything equals nothing.

Once his work on the Zero Theorem begins, Qohen becomes even more obsessive and hermetic than he already is. However, given the importance of his work, Management sees fit to continually send him help to deal with his mental stress. Regularly-scheduled online therapy sessions with a tightly-wound psychiatrist only aggravate Qohen. More effective is the introduction of Bainsley into his life. The stunning Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) meets Qohen at a party (that he's forced to go to by his boss), and takes a liking to him. But Bainsley is - as is seemingly everything in this world - just a tool of Management, sent into Qohen's life tokeep him calm and focused. Even as Qohen's feelings for Bainsley begin to feel more real, it becomes increasingly apparent that she, like so much else, is not what she seems. Everything equals nothing. The same goes for Bob, the teenage son of Management - a whipcrack-smart programmer sent to help Qohen with the Zero Theorem. In return for Qohen's help, he promises to get him his phone call. But is that claim legitimate, or just a way to keep an insane man on a leash?

As you can probably gather, there's a lot of stuff in THE ZERO THEOREM about life, the universe, and everything. But where the movie perhaps falls a bit flat is that it never quite connects all of the dots in order to say something that seems sufficiently urgent and cohesive. There are a ton of fascinating ideas in the film about what it all means, but you also never feel like there's a singular thesis statement underlying it all. Maybe that's part of the point (everything equals nothing), but still ... Case in point, pretty sizable scenes are dedicated to showing Qohen and Bob bobbing and weaving as they solve their videogame-like puzzle in search of the elusive Zero Theorem. But what are they doing, exactly? What constitutes failure vs. success in the game? It's all sort of abstract and vague, but then why show us so much of it? Certainly, Gilliam intends to convey the tedium and pointlessness of the puzzle, but there isn't enough definition. The reasons why Management is so hellbent on solving the Zero Theorem aren't 100% convincing, and neither is Qohen's singular need to get that phone call. Unlike, say, Brazil, where Jonathan Pryce's character drives everything, here, the characters feel a bit more like props to inhabit this strange future. Bainsley is another example - she is a "hooker with a heart of gold" archetype, but there is a certain dimension to her character that seems to be missing. Like Qohen and others, she feels not-quite-fully-realized.

What does feel more fully realized is the world of the movie. Here is where Gilliam's artistic eye really shines. The movie looks amazing, and every scene, every location, is brimming with incredible detail, imagination, and eye-popping color. I don't know how Gilliam does it. But I do know that in a world where CGI and f/x so often look bland and cookie-cutter, seeing a master like Gilliam do sci-fi world-building of this order and magnitude is truly thrilling. I assume that Gilliam is working with a fraction of the budget of your typical sci-fi blockbuster. But how many other directors so painstakingly hand-craft every detail of their films to achieve this sort of artistry?

Gilliam's vision is also complimented by the talented actors in the film. Christoph Waltz is fantastic as Qohen. He crafts this unique character who is everything-phobic, reclusive, and on the brink of madness. Qohen refers to himself in the plural, "we" instead of "I," putting even more emphasis on his status as a drone, one small cog in a vast collective. Like I said, I do wish there was just a little more to Qohen's character and driving purpose, but man, Waltz makes him memorable nonetheless. Same goes for Mélanie Thierry as Bainsley. I wanted more from the character, but Thierry makes her incredibly memorable. Not just with her pin-up girl beauty, but with the way she - in conjunction with Gilliam's direction, evokes Old Hollywood glamor while still coming off as thoroughly post-modern. Lucas Hedges as Bob is perhaps the one weak spot - he's good, but he's a little too 2014-seeming, and not quite able to fully adapt his acting to Gilliam's surreal sci-fi tone.

The world of ZERO THEOREM is one that any film fan worth his or her salt needs to check out. Gilliam goes big here, and tries to weave together a profound satire about the ways in which non-reality passes for reality in our lives, thus rendering everything as pointless. Between the lines, there is some real food for thought about how, in an increasingly synthetic and virtual world, we doom ourselves to a void of our own making. That's the irony of Management's search for the Zero Theorem - what they seek to quantify is already apparent all around them. I suppose the fault here is that the film's profundity is mostly all in the little details - the great bits of satire and humor and world-building - but a lot less so in the driving narrative arc. Qohen's story is less interesting than that of the wonderfully weird world that surrounds him. But hey, like I said, give Gilliam credit for unleashing his imagination and giving us something so unique. I'll still take THE ZERO THEOREM over most movies any day of the week.

My Grade: B+

Monday, September 22, 2014

THE MAZE RUNNER Is Solid Prologue to a Bigger Story


- By now we all know the standard YA novel-to-movie adaptation template. Basically, a high-concept sci-fi/fantasy/horror premise (vampires, werewolves, post-apocalyptic dystopias) gets "CW-ized" (for lack of a better term), and tweaked and optimized so as to best appeal to a target demo of teenage girls. This leads to a lot of movies in the genre that seem to squash their own potential, by forcing MTV VMA-ready actors and melodramatic love triangles into films that could have been better if not for all of their pandering. Sometimes you get some happy accidents (i.e. the great Jennifer Lawrence cast as Katniss in The Hunger Games). But more often than not, I tend to view these movies as less-than their non-YA counterparts. THE MAZE RUNNER, however, makes a real go at being something more than just another YA movie. In many ways, it reminded me as much of 80's kids adventure movies like The Goonies as it did The Hunger Games and its ilk. The film avoids a lot of the usual trappings of the genre. With no shoehorned-in love triangle, some moments of true brutality and danger, and a Twilight Zone-ish mystery at its core, THE MAZE RUNNER definitely feels like a different breed.

That doesn't mean that this is a perfect movie, though. THE MAZE RUNNER never quite nails the Twilight Zone-ish vibe it's going for. It suffers a bit from Lost-itus, where characters answer questions with questions for no good reason, and characters never seem to ask the right questions, or follow-up. That sort of thing is a pet peeve of mine, unless it's done really, really well and the entire tone of the story is conducive to that sort of mysterious vibe. THE MAZE RUNNER has a Twilight Zone-ish premise, but there's little about the movie's aesthetic that feels dreamlike or surreal. Everything is visualized in standard blockbuster fashion. That's not to say there aren't some great action scenes and fun moments - but, given the mysterious nature of the premise, it would have been cool if the movie's aesthetics made more effort to match it. Director Wes Ball shows off some really solid action set-piece chops - many of which have an additional element of sci-fi horror to them. But what he doesn't really do is give his film a real mood or atmosphere beyond standard YA movie stuff.

That mysterious premise is this: a group of boys finds themselves stranded in a glade surrounded by a vast, high-walled maze. None have any memory of their past, except for their name. Every month, an elevator shoots up from underground and deposits a new boy in the glade. For a while, there was chaos, but the first boy who arrived in the glade - Alby - became the boys' leader and helped establish order and rules. A group of "Runners" was created from the fastest and strongest in the glade, tasked with exploring the maze and trying to map it, in hopes of figuring out a way to escape. However, the maze is constantly shifting, making navigation difficult. In addition, it's filled with roaming monsters called Grievers, whose sting is deadly. Despite that, the boys live in relative peace, but their world gets shaken up when Thomas arrives. Thomas is determined to figure out how to escape the maze - rules be damned. Thomas' arrival signals a new chapter. There are hints that Thomas himself has knowledge of the people who created the maze and sent the boys there. And when yet another person arrives in the glade - this time a girl (the first ever) - suspicions are aroused when it's clear that she knows Thomas, even if she doesn't remember how or why.

It's a cool premise, no question. But I'm also not sure if there's enough substance here to really make the film flow well. Here's the thing: the basic plot points I just summarized invite dozens of questions about the true nature of the maze, the back-story of the boys, etc. And those questions, inevitably, are at the foreground of the entire movie. But the hints at answers only really begin to come at the very end of the film, and even then, they feel more like teases for the already-greenlit sequel. Plus, a lot of seemingly key plot points are left mostly unaddressed at all. Case in point: the first girl to enter the glade, Teresa - other than her memory of Thomas from before the glade, she is pretty much a non-character in this film. Who was she? Why was she the first and only girl to enter the glade? Why was there a note attached to her saying she would be the last? All of these issues will presumably be addressed in future movies. But for now, in this one, it feels unfulfilling.

Dylan O'Brian, from MTV's popular Teen Wolf, is the lead. He does a nice job, and really shows some good range in the film. His character, Thomas, shakes things up in the glade by being proactive and not settling for the status quo - and O'Brien is good at playing the desperate-but-determined Chosen One, who may or may not also have a dark side. There are a couple of other interesting turns in the movie from relative newcomers. Aml Ameen has a real presence as Alby, the wise-beyond-his-years leader of the boys. This guy could go places. Also good is Blake Cooper as Chuck (seemingly a bit of an homage to Chunk from The Goonies), the lovable younger kid who is like the goofy kid brother to a lot of the glade boys. Thomas Brodie-Sangster, from Game of Thrones, is also good as Newt, the spritely friend of Thomas' who helps him learn about the glade and the maze. As Teresa, Kaya Scodelario doesn't have a ton to do, at least not yet. But she seems to have the chops to be a compelling franchise co-lead, so I'll be curious if the character steps up in future installments. Scodelario definitely seems capable. Finally, I'll give a shout-out to Will Poulter, who I thought was so great way back when in Son of Rambow, and has now emerged as a go-to young actor to play slightly off-kilter antagonists. In this movie, he does a great job as Gally - a volatile kid in the glade who resents Thomas' quick rise to influence among the group.

I mentioned earlier that the film has some great action scenes. To reiterate, there's some really good stuff here, and a lot of it feels surprisingly dark and horror-infused. The Grievers are truly creepy creatures, and there are some legitimately riveting moments in the maze as Thomas and his friends try to escape their clutches. Later in the film, the Grievers stage a full-scale attack that is fairly awesome and flat-out scary at times. The movie doesn't pull punches here, and key characters are killed in the melee.

Ultimately, I liked THE MAZE RUNNER, but this film on its own felt pretty insubstantial. Because the film has minimal Lord of the Flies-esque infighting among the boys, the focus here is really on the overarching mystery. So the strength and weakness here is that this first film feels like a mere prologue to something much bigger. The hints we get towards the end at the big-picture mythology here are pretty intriguing, no question. But it remains to be seen if subsequent films make this one seem better in retrospect. As is, THE MAZE RUNNER is a solid-if-not-mind-blowing sci-fi adventure flick that will, ultimately, be judged on the strength of the franchise as a whole. So yeah, those sequels had better be good. No pressure, guys.

My Grade: B

Saturday, September 20, 2014

THE GUEST Is a Badass, Twisty, Pulp Thriller


- Director Adam Wingard is quickly becoming a favorite filmmaker. I loved his previous film, the surprisingly fun and clever horror movie You're Next. That film was marketed as a run-of-the-mill home invasion flick, but it turned out to be a twisty, funny, subversive, smart genre-bender that gave me the same sort of giddy cinematic thrill as classics like Evil Dead. It was one of the big movie-going surprises of last year. So I was pretty psyched for Wingard's follow-up, THE GUEST. And luckily, the movie does not disappoint. Wingard switches genres in this one, going from horror to action/thriller. But the DNA of the film is clearly the same as that of You're Next. Wingard is exciting as a director because he clearly loves playing around with genre and messing with audience expectations. On many levels, THE GUEST feels familiar. Stylistically it calls to mind classic 80's-era pulp movies. With its pulsing synth score and ominous tone, it clearly pays some level of homage to the works of John Carpenter. But in many ways, the film feels new and unpredictable. It subverts expectations at every turn, and squarely aims to shock you with its many sharp-left-turns. So many films today feel homogenized and by-the-numbers - with stories that unfold as if in direct response to market testing and four-quadrant appeal. But here, we get to sit back and get caught up in the simple pleasures of rock n' roll filmmaking - storytelling that is designed for the sole purpose of thrilling an audience and delivering awesomeness. I guess I can sum it up by simply stating that both You're Next and THE GUEST are infectiously fun - both got my creative juices flowing and made me want to go and write and make stuff and test the limits of what could be done within their respective genres.

To say too much about the plot of THE GUEST would be to ruin the fun. But the basic, initial premise concerns a soldier named David (Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens) who pays an unexpected visit to the home of his fallen comrade-in-arms' family, the Petersons. David ingratiates himself with the parents of his slain friend, telling them that he had promised their dying son that he'd look after them. David is invited to stay with the family. He helps mother Laura with chores. He drinks beers and acts as a sounding board for father Spencer. And he acts as big brother to outcast teen Luke, helping him deal with school bullies. In short order, David is a beloved member of the Peterson household. Beloved by all, except for older daughter Anna. The 20-year-old has some suspicions about David (offset, at first, by her crush on him). She wonders: is David, perhaps, not quite what he seems?

The mystery around David doesn't play out how you might expect. Like I said, the movie seems to take great pleasure in messing with its audience, and creating multiple "WTF" moments where things suddenly veer in some pretty crazy directions. The pacing of the movie is also seemingly designed just to screw with expectations. The movie teasingly lingers in certain scenes, raising the expectation that the other shoe is about to drop ... only to pull back and prolong the tension. Then, suddenly, the film will smash-cut into some giant tonal shift and the effect is jarring, but also a lot of fun given the element of surprise. The movie leaves you with a constant feeling of "where is this all going?" But in a good way. Trust me.

Dan Stevens really does a fine job here as the enigmatic David. He's asked to pull off a monumentally tough task - paint a portrait of who this guy is, all while keeping his exact nature a mystery. But Stevens deftly hints at David's true self, letting the cracks in his well-maintained facade occasionally show. It's a captivating turn - calling to mind that of Ryan Gosling in Drive. In fact, the entire movie evokes Drive's 80's-throwback aesthetic and hypnotic, music-video vibe. Like Drive, THE GUEST is 80's-grindhouse pulp as art-film homage. Nu-wave cinema that self-consciously subverts and twists the conventions of B-movie action films and thrillers.

In You're Next, one of the most interesting subversions was the way in which Sharni Vinson's character proved to be more than meets the eye. There's a similar trick pulled here with Maika Monroe's resourceful Anna. Again, don't want to spoil anything - except to say that Anna is another Wingard female lead who has more to her than initial impressions might indicate. Give credit to the script by Simon Barrett, which keeps revealing added layers to its key characters as the film progresses. Monroe is a great find, and really nails the part of Anna. Similarly good is Brendan Myer as teenaged Luke, whose complicated relationship with David proves to be one of the film's most fascinating dynamics. I also, of course, have to mention the presence of the great Lance Reddick in the film. Reddick, much missed by me since Fringe went off the air, is the best in the biz at playing the stoic badass - and he does so here to pulpy perfection.

What's interesting about THE GUEST is that, despite its pulpiness and B-movie aesthetic, there is also, I think, some potentially interesting social commentary at play here as well. Wingard has some things to say about war and America and the military, and the movie provides some interesting ideas to mull over post-watch. To that end, there is also a lot of humor in the film - a lot of social satire and a lot of deadpan, self-aware quirk. Again, it's all about having fun with genre and genre conventions, and sort of knowingly subverting things and pushing the limits of storytelling.

The film perhaps is a little too flippant in terms of what it ultimately reveals about its lead character. A lot is kept vague and/or left to the viewer's imagination, and occasionally, potentially interesting plot-points get trampled over by the movie's need to constantly shock and surprise. I guess what I'm saying is: as much as I admire Wingard's enthusiasm for eliciting "WTF" audience reaction, I do also wonder if, by that driving the film, he's ever-so-slightly sabotaging the movie from being as great as it could be. I could see a version of THE GUEST that, were it a little less inclined to wink at the audience, might actually be a stronger film. 

But man, in terms of sheer B-movie badassery, THE GUEST is pure pop entertainment. Wingard, similar to guys like Tarantino or Nicholas Winding Refn, joyfully genre-mashes in a way that embodies the pure joy of cinematic storytelling. The film features plenty of thrills and plenty of insane, over-the-top action. Individual scenes are often mesmerizing, unfolding in trippy, psychedelic fashion. But what's most fun about the film is the anything-goes rock n' roll attitude. By-the-numbers this is not. Always excited when a movie like this comes along, and even more excited to see what's next from Wingard.

My Grade: A-

Friday, September 19, 2014



- For years, Bill Hader was the unsung MVP of Saturday Night Live - the modern-day Phil Hartman who simply elevated the quality of any sketch by virtue of being in it. Hader was effortlessly funny on SNL, but there was also a manic darkness to many of his characters that made you wonder if he might have a Jim Carrey-like ability to transition from comedy to drama. Well, wonder no longer. Bill Hader absolutely kills in THE SKELETON TWINS, a dramedy in which he gets to be very funny, but also show some previously-unseen dramatic depth. This is, quite simply, a total breakout performance for the SNL alum. The film pairs Hader with SNL colleague Kristin Wiig. The two play brother and sister, and the chemistry between them is incredibly naturalistic. There is a sense of intimacy with this film that helps to sell the drama. The laughs are bigger and the gut-punches hit harder because there is such a clear sense of authenticity that these actors bring to the table. The result is that, while THE SKELETON TWINS has some flaws, it's so earnestly likable that you can't help but be won over. Hader and Wiig's fantastic performances seal the deal.

The movie - from writer/director Craig Johnson - opens with Hader's Milo and Wiig's Maggie each contemplating suicide. Milo goes through with it first, and just as Wiig is about to do the same, she receives a call from the hospital that her estranged brother tried to off himself. The two live on opposite coasts and haven't spoken in ten years, but Maggie goes to see her brother - a failed actor living in LA - and convinces him to come live with her and her fiance in New York. So yeah .. as you can tell, the tone of this one is comedic, but the humor is decidedly pitch-black.

However, that's not to say that the film isn't ultimately uplifting. The characters go to some dark places, but the great joy of the film is seeing this brother and sister duo - who have each arrived at a pretty bleak place in their lives - help each other up and into the light. Before that can happen though, Milo and Maggie each have major obstacles to overcome. Maggie is married to Lance, a likable-enough lunkhead played by Luke Wilson, in classic Luke Wilson fashion. Lance is a pretty solid dude, but his basic-bro lifestyle is a bad match for Maggie. Maggie keeps her unhappiness repressed around Luke, only finding solace by going behind his back and cheating on him with any number of random men. Milo, meanwhile, seeks to get out of his failed-actor funk by reconnecting with an old lover. Problem is, the old lover (played with creepy cowardice by Modern Family's Ty Burrell) is Milo's old high school English teacher, with whom he had a nearly life-ruining affair as a teenager. Suffice it to say, both siblings are seemingly locked into downward-spiraling behavior patterns. Their only hope, cheesy as it may sound, is each other.

And again, what might have been unbearably emo somehow works in the capable hands of Hader and Wiig. The rawness of their performances - and the comedy chops they bring to the table to keep things from getting too self-serious - allow the movie to reach unexpected heights. The highest of those heights is an instant-classic sequence in which Hader's Milo turns up Starship's cheesy 80's ballad "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" and coerces Wiig's Maggie into joining him in the lip-synced duet. Maggie resists at first, but soon enough, she gives in to the moment and, finally, Maggie goes full-Wiig, and Hader goes full-manic-awesome, and the scene is just transcendent in its sheer joy and greatness. And yet, as hilarious as it is to see these two SNL vets get goofy and riff off each other, there's a real power to the scene as well. The music provides the catalyst for these two troubled siblings to lift each other up out of the darkness - a theme that comes into play repeatedly throughout the film.

At times, I do think the movie overdoes it a little. The more cynical part of me had a few moments where I was tempted to roll my eyes a little, and shake my head at the contrivances the movie throws at us in order to get to some of its big emotional-catharsis moments. Still, Johnson does an admirable job of making most of the movie's emotional beats feel earned. The director seems to have a definite knack for creating and maintaining a moody, absorbing aesthetic.

THE SKELETON TWINS is a really worthwhile indie flick that is elevated by two fantastic lead performances. We've seen that Wiig can do more dramatic roles, but this to me is a coming-out party for Bill Hader as a more-than-viable dramatic actor. He's hilarious in the film, but also brings real rawness and pathos to the character of Milo. He and Wiig make even the smallest moments in this movie memorable.

My Grade: A-

Monday, September 15, 2014

THE CONGRESS Is Mind-Bendingly Strange and Ambitious


- I love a good weird movie, and THE CONGRESS is one of the strangest I've ever seen. That said, it's one of those gloriously ambitious films that very nearly completely collapses under its own weight. One thing's for sure: it's incredibly hard to talk about in a critical manner. There are so many interesting ideas and memorable visuals and astounding performances in this film ... and for that reason, I say it's a must-watch. But, there is also much about the movie's plot and creative choices that just left me scratching my head, wondering what was going on and waiting for some other shoe to drop that would make the puzzle pieces fall into place. That shoe, as you can probably tell, never quite comes. In fact, THE CONGRESS is unique in that it keeps getting increasingly nonsensical as it goes. It begins as compelling social-commentary science-fiction. It ends as an animated acid-trip that has quite possibly gone totally off the rails. Like I said though, I can appreciate this sort of thing, and enjoy a beautiful disaster if it at least has enough substance to stick with me. And THE CONGRESS, if nothing else, sticks with you. There has never been another movie quite like this one.

The film stars, and is about, Robin Wright. The actress who made a splash way back when with The Princess Bride, and who then turned down big roles in order to carve her own path in the movies. Of late, Wright has seemingly been everywhere, and seems to be in the midst of a full-blown career resurgence - popping up in several recent films, and helping to anchor popular Netflix TV series House of Cards. But THE CONGRESS willfully ignores that last part. Instead, it portrays a fictionalized version of Robin Wright who is an exaggerated take on her real self. This Robin was the belle of the Hollywood ball in her prime - a promising young actress with the world at her fingertips. But because she refused to play ball, and insisted on bucking the system, she now finds herself approaching middle age and wanting for work. Left to her own devices, Wright would prefer to work only on projects that speak to her, but there are extenuating circumstances. This Robin Wright has two kids - one of whom, her son, is very sick with a debilitating illness. To care for him, the actress needs income, and so she reluctantly agrees to participate in a new process that will change the face of entertainment forever.

At the prodding of her manager (Harvey Keitel), and a devilish studio chief (a fantastic Danny Huston), Wright agrees to have her voice, body, and movements scanned and turned into a virtual actor - an actor who is, forever, a young Robin Wright fresh off The Princess Bride. Wright grapples with the decision to literally sell her soul to the studio, but ultimately succumbs and goes through with it. This decision, and the gorgeously-shot, ominously disturbing and heartbreaking scanning process, is what comprises the first third of the film. And here's the thing: this first section of the movie is completely gripping. As I watched it, I was pretty sure I was watching the beginnings of a new science fiction masterpiece. Wright's performance is off-the-charts excellent. And Huston - wow, the guy just exudes sinister sleaze and is absolutely, terrifyingly great.

Then something weird happens - the movie flashes decades into the future. We see a sixty-something Robin Wright drive into some sort of high-security compound, where she's an invited guest and featured speaker at the studio's (satirically called Miramount) keynote address. But the address doesn't take place in the real world. It takes place in an animated virtual universe - a shared mass-hallucination induced by popping some pills. In this world, people are free to assume whatever form they'd like. And so anthropomorphic cartoon animals cavort with with multi-limbed aliens. Apparently, the future looks like hand-drawn 2D animation.

There's something undeniably fascinating about this segment of the film. In particular, I got a huge kick out of the satirical glimpses at the scanned Robin Wright's movie superstardom. The virtual Robin is a megastar - featured in her own neverending sci-fi action franchise and trained to answer banal interview questions with the unflinching poise of royalty. However, the more time we spend in the virtual world, the less things make sense. The movie seems to drop the more grounded sci-fi edge of its opening in favor of anything-goes chaos. The 2D animation here is eye-popping and colorful, but the movie gets a little carried away with showing off the endless possibilities of the format. In turn, we lose track of the "rules" of this world, and it becomes increasingly unclear what's happening and what the stakes of the film are. When the "real" Robin Wright has her big Network "mad as hell" moment, what could have been a riveting scene is mired in so much oddball surreality that it's hard to know quite what to make of it.

Eventually, the movie takes an even odder turn when it again flash-forwards in time. I won't spoil anything, except to say that a new character is introduced, voiced by Jon Hamm, who becomes an ally of Robin's, and eventually more. Again, there is some absolutely fascinating stuff going on in the movie's final third. But there's also the feeling that we're watching a half-finished sketch play out before us. The longer the movie goes, the more it becomes clear that we seem to be missing key details about the story. I think that there's a certain type of sci-fi story that can get away with playing fast and loose with plot and plot detail, and exist more as a dartboard for out-there ideas. But THE CONGRESS' first third sets up such a strong sci-fi premise that it's disappointing to see such a jarring tonal shift later in the film. I also became increasingly frustrated the more I realized that the film's narrative was playing out as if relayed by a really stoned guy who was leaving out a lot of important information.

And yet ... man, this movie, as trainwreck-y as it may get towards the end, it downward spirals in a fashion that's completely engrossing. A lot of that is Robin Wright. She's phenomenal in this film. Particularly in the live-action segments, but also in the animated ones. There's no question that this is a passion project for her, and it's clear that she's putting her all into this. She perfects a certain just-left-of-reality affectation in her acting that makes her character feel real, yet also lends itself to the film's increasingly surreal tone and bizarre narrative turns. I give Wright a ton of credit for putting it all out there, playing herself, and holding nothing back - she, more than anything else in the film, allows us to buy into all of the movie's weirdness.

There's a lot to pick apart here, but I also do think there's a lot to praise. Like I said, it's one of those movies ... you can find fault, but you can't deny its insane level of ambition. The movie could have just been a pretty basic-but-compelling sci-fi parable about an actor going to extremes to achieve cinematic immortality. But it takes a hard left turn and also becomes a cautionary tale about a society so ready to immerse itself in user-generated fantasy that reality itself is all but left behind. And then it takes a further turn into the great unknown, becoming a surreal fable about a society divided between haves and have-not, in which those not able to join in on the endless youth and riches of the omnipresent virtual world are left to suffer in a cracked and crumbling real world. THE CONGRESS took me to some really interesting places, and presented ideas and concepts and images that I won't soon forget.

So yeah ... I am left wondering how to grade this flawed yet fascinating epic. For sheer ambition and richness of imagination, I lean towards a more favorable assessment. THE CONGRESS is a movie well worth watching, discussing, and sharing with friends. Writer/director Ari Folman swings for the fences. And sometimes, you wish there was more of that in film. Watch it. Discuss it. Just be prepared for that discussion to include multiple utterances of "WTF."

My Grade: B+

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Comics You Should Read - LOCKE & KEY


- I feel like I've already talked so much about Locke & Key to friends and fellow comics geeks that it almost seems redundant to write about it here. But having finally just finished the complete series, I feel compelled to post about the book. Why? Well, not only is Locke & Key one of the best comics I've read and a legit modern classic, but it's also one of the best gateway comics to come along in quite some time. I would put it right up there with acknowledged must-reads like The Sandman and Y: The Last Man, and in terms of being the perfect comic to hand to someone who's new to comics. So if you're reading this, and you've thought things like "hmm, I wish I could be cool and get into comics, but I'm not sure where to start ..." - well, you could do a lot worse than with the superlative Locke & Key.

Fun fact: Locke & Key is written by Joe Hill, who is in fact the son of the legendary Stephen King. Over the last several years, Hill has become a celebrated author in his own right, penning many acclaimed novels, as well as comics. Hill has his own unique style, but there is also an unmistakable King quality to his writing. Hill shares his dad's affinity for horror and weirdness - especially when that weirdness finds its way to ordinary-seeming places and all-too-relatable people. To that end, Hill also shares his dad's knack for writing fantastic characters. No matter how crazy or strange the horror becomes, Hill's stories always feel humanistic.

And such is Locke & Key. In many ways, it feels like vintage King: a rustic New England setting, a distinctly slice-of-Americana vibe, and an existential horror that creeps its way into these characters lives and starts profoundly changing their worlds.

The series tells the story of the Locke family. After the horrific murder of family patriarch Rendell Locke, his surviving wife and three children move across the country, back to their family home in New England - an old manor known as Keyhouse. Gradually, the Locke kids - teenaged Tyler and Kinsey, and younger sibling Bode - discover the secret of the house and how it relates back to their father's death. The house sits beside a series of caves, inside of which lies an ancient portal to a dimension of demons. Centuries ago, during the American Revolution, rebels hiding in the caves discovered the portal, and also discovered that when demons crossed over through the portal, their essence was transformed into a magical metal, that the rebels used to fashion a series of keys - each with a special power to "unlock" some hidden ability or transformation. Now, the Locke kids begin to discover these keys, and also unravel the mystery of what their father and his friends knew about them when they were young. Meanwhile, a demon named Dodge - years ago - found a way to cross over to our world intact, by taking human form. He has long plotted to use the hidden keys to bring his fellow demons to earth. And now, just as the Locke family (whom he has a long history with) move back to Keyhouse, Dodge's plan is able to fully be set in motion.

Joe Hill has created an incredible and fascinating mythology around this world. He brilliantly interweaves the backstory of the keys and Keyhouse with the modern-day saga of the Locke kids. Some chapters of the story take us back to the Revolutionary War era, some to other decades in American history, and some to the 1980's, when a teenage Rendall Locke and his friends discovered the keys and had adventures of their own. However, the heart and soul of the story are the characters that exist in this mixed-up world of magical keys and heartless demons. Tyler and Kinsey Locke - and their mother, Nina - are such fully-shaped characters that they are practically living and breathing people. Tyler is the rugged, All-American kid with a big heart and a lot of grit. Kinsey is the artsy proto-punk who stands up for her beliefs and does her own thing. Nina, meanwhile, is struggling with the death of her husband and battling more personal demons.

All the same, Hill also creates a truly, epically vile villain in Dodge. The character's M.O. is that he inhabits the bodies of various people, and uses his charm to ensure that most are oblivious that their charismatic new friend or lover is not who he or she seems. In the Locke & Key saga, only one character, Rufus - a mentally-challenged boy and playmate of Bode's - truly sees through Dodge's deceptions. This makes Rufus' predicament quite terrifying, as his mother has a long and strange history with the demon. Like Tom Cullen in The Stand, Rufus plays a crucial role in the story of Locke & Key, and his adventure is one of the story's most riveting and heartfelt.

In many ways, Locke & Key reminds of The Stand - the great masterwork of Stephen King. Like The Stand, Locke & Key tells an epic story at a very personal level. It places ordinary people in a battle against ancient evil. I weaves a gripping tapestry of interrelated characters and backstories. Locke & Key is an even more personal story though. The stakes are less about the world, and more about one family's struggle for survival. Locke & Key is a story, first and foremost, about fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, friends and lovers.

The art by Gabriel Rodriguez is quite simply phenomenal. His line work has a classic animation aesthetic, but put through a twisted Halloween filter. The art is clean, bold, and yet incredibly expressive. What's more, Rodriguez excels at both smaller moments of real emotion and pathos, and with scenes of trippy, dark-magic insanity and chaos. Rodriguez draws just about the entirety of the series, and I couldn't imagine the book without his distinct, fluid, evocative art.

Locke & Key is exciting in that, on one hand, it's clear that this is potentially just the tip of the iceberg for Joe Hill. On the other hand, this already feels like a magnum opus of sorts. It will be hard for Hill to top this, as this really is one of those rare gems that has a little of everything, and something for everyone: horror, adventure, heartbreak, hope, and a lot to say about the human condition.

There's already been a lot of talk about turning Locke & Key into a TV series or movie franchise. FOX did a Locke & Key pilot a few years ago that ended up not going to series, but it's worth tracking down as a glimpse of what might have been. The material here seems a natural fit for adaptation, no question. But I don't like to get too hung up on that stuff, as I am perfectly content with the amazing source material. As you should be, too.

The saga of Locke & Key wrapped up last year, but now is the perfect time to dive in, given that the entire story is now available via a series of six handy volumes/collections. This is one of those books that you won't just want to read for yourself - guaranteed, you'll have a strong compulsion to hand it off to anyone and everyone. And if you yourself have been on the fence about comics - looking for just the right gateway into the medium - look no further. Locke & Key is the perfect place to start.

Read it if you like: Stephen King, Joe Hill, modern horror-fantasy.

Monday, September 8, 2014

FRANK Is a Quirky Rock n' Roll Trip

FRANK Review:

- In a short span of time, Michael Fassbender has become one of those actors who I want to see cast in everything. Whenever I hear of a new film in production looking for an epic hero or a sinister villain, Fassbender is always one of the first names that comes to mind. He's one of those actors who can bring that extra something to a part - who can elevate it with charisma, presence, psychological complexity, and gravitas. With that said, I would probably not have thought of Michael Fassbender to play the titular role in FRANK - a quirky comedy about an eccentric, would-be rock star who hides his face at all times behind a giant cartoon-head helmet. But Fassbender, playing against type, kills it as Frank. It's a unique performance. We can't see the actor's face, so the acting is all in his voice and body language. What Fassbender does, given those limitations, is pretty remarkable. And what FRANK accomplishes as a film is also pretty noteworthy. This is a funny, heartfelt, and strange movie about the line between creative genius and madness, about success and selling out, about rock n' roll.

The film is actually presented not from Frank's point of view, but from that of a guy named Jon Burroughs. Jon, played by Domhnall Gleeson, is a young British guy, living a relatively boring middle-class life with his parents, dreaming big dreams of being a musician. He's got a decent amount of talent, but so far has used it to record pretty middling song demos that won't exactly serve as his ticket to the big time. However, his life takes a sudden strange turn when he encounters members of a band he admires - with the unpronounceable name of "Soronprfbs" - who are in need of a replacement keyboardist. Jon joins them for a gig, and though there is some resentment from the various band members, their singer and leader, Frank, takes a liking to Jon. Soon, Jon is whisked away to a remote cabin with the band, where Frank has decided they will stay until recording of their new album is complete. 

Frank, as mentioned, is a bit of an iconoclast (to put it mildly). No one has ever seen him without the giant cartoon head he wears. He doesn't take it off to eat, drink, or bathe. Frank himself subscribes to a weird zen philosophy of music making. His album recording process is as much about strange rituals and training as it is about the music. He's clearly a bit off his rocker, but he also inspires a strange, cult-like worship from his band-mates. As Jon grows more comfortable with Frank, he becomes increasingly open in his desire to take Frank and the band from little-known rock curiosity to full-on pop sensation. He begins posting YouTube videos of Frank, and books the band at major festivals, including Austin's South By Southwest. But what Jon doesn't quite realize is that Frank's quest to find the perfect sound is less about winning over the masses, and more about indulging his own obsessive quirks. The band is less a band, and more a support group. A collection of lost souls who need each other, but not necessarily anyone else.

In addition to Fassbender's remarkable turn as Frank, there are a couple of other really noteworthy performances in the film. One is Gleeson as Jon. Gleeson is excellent as our POV character, and though he starts off the film as the typical ordinary-geeky-kid-who-gets-thrust-into-a-new-world-of-crazy, he evolves into something else - a semi-destructive force who becomes blindly ambitious. He starts as the classic underdog protagonist, but ends as someone who you almost have to root against. Secondly, Maggie Gyllenhaal is excellent as Clara, a morose, prickly band member who has a complex, co-dependent relationship with Frank. The character reminds me just a bit of Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski, as Gyllenhaal makes Clara darkly funny, but also just plain dark at times. Finally, Scoot McNairy as Don, another band member and acolyte of Frank's. World-weary and full of rock n' roll wisdom, Don takes Jon under his wing, and is the one who originally recruits him into the band. Don seems the most grounded of the band, but he may actually have the most pronounced issues. In any case, it's a funny and tragic turn from McNairy - definitely an actor to keep an eye on.

Director Lenny Abrahamson is not someone I was really familiar with before now, but he's now leapfrogged onto my movie-watching radar. What's impressive is that FRANK is both unbelievably odd and quirky, yet also has a realness to it that gives it a surprising humanity. There's a very delicate tonal balance achieved here. The movie is really funny at times, but it has scenes - including a nakedly emotional ending sequence - that are quite raw. There's a poignancy to FRANK - and to Frank - that stems from the movie's themes about art vs. commerce and the satisfaction gained from self-fulfillment vs. the adoration of others. Is music and art about simply doing what makes you and your circle of co-conspirators happy, or is it only valid if it reaches the masses? Frank's persona seems like a gimmick designed to get attention ... but is it? Or did it start that way, only to become a personal prison? Or was it, all along, just one person's crazy way of coping with major issues?

Regardless, FRANK looks at the madness of music-making, and the insanity of the search for rock n' roll perfection - with a keen satirical eye and a lot to say about art, music, and the human condition. Fassbender's performance is a brave one - and it further proves that the guy is as multifaceted and talented an actor as they come. This is a fascinating, strange film, and one of the year's most interesting indies.

My Grade: A-

Sunday, September 7, 2014

LOCKE Is a Trumph for Tom Hardy


LOCKE Review:

- I knew Tom Hardy was good. But his work in LOCKE is next-level stuff. LOCKE is a film that could have been very gimmicky, and very hard to watch. But thanks to sharp writing, hypnotic direction, and an off-the-charts great performance from Hardy, it turns out that this is an absolute must-watch.

LOCKE takes place almost entirely inside the car of Ivan Locke - played by Hardy - as he drives down the M6 freeway in England. No other actors appear in the film. But we do hear many of Locke's conversations, conducted over his car's speaker phone. To say too much would be spoiling, but I will say that the plot of LOCKE may not be what you think. Locke isn't driving to save a hostage or stop a bomb from going off. But that's not to say that he doesn't have problems. As we learn over the course of the film, Locke is a good man who's messed up his life. And through an accident of bad timing and bad luck, a mistake that Ivan Locke made in his personal life is about to, potentially, cost him everything.

At first, there's a strange sort of disorientation that happens as the movie starts. We see Hardy as Locke leave his job at a cement farm, enter his car, and drive off into the night. As he drives, he struggles to maintain his composure as he makes desperate phone calls to family and colleagues. What's happening? Who is this guy, and what did he do? Who are the people he's talking to?

Writer/director Steven Knight masterfully unravels the mystery as the movie progresses. But even as we get caught up on Locke's situation, we become increasingly riveted by the question of how events will unfold. We get caught up in the web of Locke's life, and we are made to feel his palpable desperation right alongside him. Credit Knight with never letting the film's single setting limit his direction. He makes Locke's car a claustrophobic vessel that's one part prison and one part mobile command unit. And he imbues the film with a hypnotic sort of rhythm that leaves you hanging on every word, every phone call, every gloriously horrifying instance in which we hear "You Have a Call Waiting" drone over Locke's phone speaker, like some sort of digital car-crash pileup unfolding before us.

Credit also Tom Hardy, for making each moment of the film so captivating. Hardy plays Locke in a theatrical manner - in fact, there's a lot about the film that could lend itself to being a hell of a one-man stage play. But Hardy's acting here - reminding me almost of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (with his confident affectation giving way to madness) - is just superlative. Seated and driving for the film's duration, Hardy acts with his voice and with his eyes. And man, does he ever run the gamut of emotions - steely determination, desperation, heartbreak, regret, love. Ivan Locke is a good guy, respected, hyper-competent at his job, and admired by his kids. And we see Hardy, as Locke, try his best to hold on to all of that, even as his world comes crashing down. It's an award-worthy performance.

Hardy's performance, coupled with sleek and mesmerizing visuals and a great score, gives the movie a gripping intensity.  This is a small and personal story, but somehow - despite that and despite the entire film taking place in a guy's car - Knight makes it feel big, theatrical, and in its own way, epic. The movie seems a film designed for our times - an era where communication is omnipresent, but not necessarily in a way that's empowering. Like Ivan Locke, we strive to be in control. But life is fragile, and it doesn't take much to topple our carefully-constructed realities. And so we find ourselves in the in-between, hoping for light at the end of the tunnel. LOCKE is about the moments between moments - about being stuck in traffic on the freeway of life. A great film, highly recommended.

My Grade: A-

A MOST WANTED MAN Is a Gripping Thriller, and a Chilling Goodbye



- Damn. As a send-off to one of the greatest film actors of all time, A MOST WANTED MAN is a hell of a goodbye. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers a quietly ferocious performance as German spy Gunther Bachmann. It's the sort of role that Hoffman had perfected - the caged man, desperately trying to make things happen from a dimly-lit office, a boiling cauldron of ruthless efficiency mixed with simmering, anxious rage at the world around him. Adapted from a book by John le Carré, A MOST WANTED MAN takes on a similar affectation - it's a slow-burn thriller that quietly keeps ratcheting up the intensity, until it eventually boils over via a barn-burner of a climax.

If you're familiar with le Carre, then you know that his spy stories are practically the antithesis of the swaggering James Bond stereotype. His spies work in bland office buildings and deal with international threats not with showy force, but with a weary, grim determination to prevent catastrophe. The recent adaptation of le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy captured the aesthetic to perfection. But honestly, I liked A MOST WANTED MAN better. To me, the plotting seemed tighter, the intensity level higher, and the masterful performance of Hoffman more noteworthy than any one performance in Tinker Tailor.

The film has the sort of satisfyingly-constructed plot - a rare beast in movies these days - that takes its time revealing all of its secrets, but that makes a sort of clockwork sense when it does. Hoffman's Gunther is convinced that Abdullah, a prominent Muslim philanthropist, is in fact sneaking a portion of donations to his charitable causes to terrorist cells - but Gunther has no hard evidence to prove this. However, Gunther devises a complex and risky plan to take down his mark. He finds Jamal - a disillusioned Arab immigrant who stands to inherit a large amount of money from his deceased father. Gunther then secretly recruits Jamal's young lawyer, Annabel (Rachel McAdams) to manipulate her client into donating the inheritance money to Abdullah. The money, tracked by Gunther and his spy colleagues, can then be traced back to Abdullah. The trick is convincing Jamal to donate the money, and convincing Abdullah that nothing is amiss.

What ensues is a riveting cat-and-mouse game, with Gunther pulling the various strings. Not only does he have to move mountains to get Annabel on his side, but he also has to get a slippery banker (Willem Dafoe) and his American counterparts in the CIA (namely, a hard-nosed rival played by Robin Wright) onboard with his risky plan. Increasingly, Gunther's plan faces resistance, and increasingly, he faces the moral dilemma of how to catch his prey without also taking down everyone else whom he's roped into his scheme.

The cast here is completely top-notch, and seeing each of them play off of Hoffman is a treat. Robin Wright totally owns her role as a take-no-prisoners American agent. Dafoe is dynamic as usual. And McAdams - though her French accent wavers here and there - is also quite good. Mehdi Dehbi plays Jamal as nervous and unstable - which makes his character all the more of a ticking time bomb. But really, this is Hoffman's show. The actor looks in rough shape in the movie - perhaps a sign of some of his real-life personal troubles. But the look suits the character, as Gunther is a single-minded careerist, a smoker and a drinker whose obsessiveness causes him to neglect hygiene, nutrition, health, and niceties.

Like I said, the movie seems to take on the trappings of Gunther. Director Anton Corbijn creates a cinematic powder-keg: a movie that moves along at a methodical beat, but that brims with intensity. The film paints its primary location, Hamburg, as a grey purgatory. Grey buildings, grey skies, - and grey rooms, sparsely-furnished, that encourage the sort of grim worldview that Gunther possesses. At times, the movie loses momentum and feels a little *too* methodical, but there is, also, a confidence that we're watching the pieces of the larger puzzle fall into place.

To that end, the film's final ten minutes or so prove incredibly rewarding, but also bittersweet. As Gunther's long-simmering plan finally played out, I found myself on the edge of my seat. And then, I've got to admit, I started getting chills. In the film's riveting final sequence, the themes of the movie begin to coalesce, and Hoffman's driven Gunther faces down the void, as his best-laid plans begin to crumble. By accident, Gunther's final cry to the heavens is a chilling echo of the actor who plays him - a defeated curse from a man who, as good as he was, just couldn't come out the other side on top. The final, silent tracking shot of Gunther driving away is a gut-punch - a farewell, also, to Hoffman. Here is one of the great actors, showing us yet again how to embody our frustration, powerlessness, impotency, and rage with the universe. No one else was as good. And so, A MOST WANTED MAN is not just a gripping thriller, but it's one last master-class from Hoffman. A final bow that, somehow, feels both tragic and yet uniquely appropriate.

My Grade: A-

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR Is A Fun Return to Frank Miller's Twisted Comic Book Universe


- Here's where I go against the critical conventional wisdom and say that the second SIN CITY film is actually good. Over the last several years, critics and fans, for whatever reason, have turned against Robert Rodriguez. Maybe he made one Machete movie too many. Maybe people are waiting for him to get serious as a filmmaker. Whatever the case may be, Rodriguez remains a filmmaker whose work I largely enjoy, and whose Sin City remains, in my eyes, a great film. The movie came out at a time when every comic book adaptation strove for realism. But Sin City, with its ripped-from-the-graphic-novels aesthetic, was a huge breath of fresh air. Finally, a film that seemed to honor not just the skeleton of the source material from which it was adapted, but one that actually took care to translate the stylized visuals of the comics to the screen.

Meanwhile, Sin City creator Frank Miller's reputation among the geek elite has also been steadily plummeting. Once, the man was a comic book god - the guy who crafted game-changing masterworks like The Dark Knight Returns. As time went on, Miller's extreme style went out of favor, and he didn't do himself any favors with oddball works like All-Star Batman and Robin, or with his spectacular crash-and-burn directorial debut, The Spirit.

However, going into SIN CITY 2 merely as a fan of the first film, I think it's fair to say that this movie exists in a sort of comfort zone for both Rodriguez and Miller. The fact is, this one is not a huge departure from the first film. If you liked that movie, there's nothing not to like here. You get the same gorgeous-to-look-at black-and-white comic book aesthetic (touched up with strategically-placed shocks of red or blue or yellow) - now even more eye-popping in 3D. You get the same gritty yet over-the-top neo-noir-on-acid storytelling - the same motley crew of thugs, vigilantes, dirty cops, strippers, and femme fatales. This is, quite simply, a return trip to the world of Sin City. If you dig Sin City, then you'll dig this.

And what is Sin City? I read so many critics who try to compare this film, and this world, to legit film noir classics and declare it lacking in comparison. Yeah, no kidding. Sin City is film noir, comic book superheroes, 80's-era nihilism, and escapist adolescent fantasy rolled into a blender and spit out and stomped on. Miller's work is over-the-top, unsubtle, and everyone - men and women both - are basically bad apples. To complain that this isn't Out of the Past or The Killing seems to be missing the point entirely.Yes, these movies and this world are completely ridiculous. Sometimes though, there's merit in that.

Now, if you like the world of Sin City, and don't inherently find it offensive, then you'll most likely find some things in this sequel to get excited about. One thing that's fantastic right off the bat is that the great Powers Boothe, as sinister Senator Roarke, figures heavily into the film as it's biggest bad - and as you can probably guess, he's friggin' awesome. I mean, this is Boothe in full-on evil bastard mode, and nobody does it better. Second thing to be excited about is new cast addition Eva Green. Green has been absolutely killing it of late - she wowed in the 300 sequel, and did Emmy-worthy work this past year on the Showtime series Penny Dreadful. Green is similarly great in this film, playing the classic femme fatale, as filtered through the scratchy, cracked lense of the Sin City-verse. It's now clear that Green is the best in the biz at doing these sorts of over-the-top characters. She nails the sort of pulpy, hammy tone that this sort of role requires, mixing old-Hollywood glamor with just the right hint of self-aware winking.

The rest of the cast is pretty uniformly excellent. Mickey Rourke again shines as the lumbering brute Marv. And he's got some great moments with Josh Brolin's hard-luck Dwight. Brolin acquits himself very well to the Sin City-verse, and does hard-boiled like he doesn't know any other way to be. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is also quite good as Johnny, a pushing-his-luck gambler who runs afoul of Boothe's Roarke. Also a stand-out is Christopher Meloni as Mort, an initially by-the-book cop who, in true Sin City fashion, compromises his integrity as he falls under the spell of Green's seductive Ava. Oh - there's also a weird but sort-of-cool Christopher Lloyd cameo.

I suspect a lot of people will point fingers at Jessica Alba as a weak point. I agree that Alba hasn't historically had the sort of forceful presence to fully pull off the role of troubled stripper. But I also think that Alba has grown as an actress, and she is good here. In particular, I really enjoyed her climactic confrontation with Roarke. She doesn't quite match Green for sheer screen presence (few do), but I also wouldn't call her a blatant weak link.

The movie's biggest weakness, I think, is its jumpiness and overall pacing issues. Pacing undeniably feels just a bit off, with fairly abrupt jumps between the film's intermingling but separate storylines, and certain sections that feel overlong and draggy. The movie has some solid action, but it is, overall, a bit slower-paced and more methodical than the first film. And yes, as much as I dig the overall Sin City aesthetic, there are, certainly, moments where it feels pushed a little too far - moments where the movie seems a little too caught up in self-seriousness to realize it should be having fun. But I think that's where Rodriguez's love for pulpy grindhouse filmmaking ultimately steers Miller's grim excesses away from the cliff.

Overall, I really enjoyed SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR. It may simply be more of the same, but it's a lot of fun to just watch these actors go all-out in the service of bringing Frank Miller's twisted world to life. If nothing else, you get to watch Eva Green vamp it up, Mickey Rourke bust heads, and Powers Boothe go full-evil - all in grand, highly-stylized fashion. Not a bad time at the movies.

My Grade: B+

THE EXPENDABLES 3 Finally Delivers the Old-School Goods


- Once, the promise of THE EXPENDABLES was infinite. After a late-period filmmaking renaissance that included improbably great sequels to Rocky and Rambo, Sylvester Stallone began work on what was sure to be his crowning achievement: a new franchise that would assemble a retro-tinged, action-movie Dream Team. Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, Lundgren, Statham, Li, Rourke, and more would gather to make the dream of every Gen Y and Gen X'ers pre-teen self become a reality.

Sadly, the first Expendables movie was less about embracing 80's-action excess and fun, and more about Stallone and his crew trying to place aging action stars in some sort of nu-metal re-imagining. It was like the movie version of the nWo, except nowhere near as cool. We came for old-school nostalgia, and were instead treated to a rather soulless and joyless film that tried too hard to make the kids think it was cool. Still, the movie was a financial success, and spawned a sequel. Part Two seemed very reactionary to some of the criticisms of the first film. Whereas the first movie was too self-serious, Part Two was way too overtly jokey. And not in the sort of serious-but-sorta-winking-at-the-audience way that most classic 80's action films were. No, the second movie was downright hokey at times, with the theme from "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" accompanying Chuck Norris' grand entrance and other such cartoonish shenanigans. Jean Claude Van Damme was pretty awesome as the villain, but the movie, mostly, felt flat and misguided.

Suffice it to say, my expectations were severely lowered for the third installment. And I suspect others' were too, since the box office was pretty dismal. But the fact is, I ended up having a blast with the third Expendables film. It's the best of the franchise by a longshot. It's still silly and semi tone-deaf in parts, but the movie is the franchise's first to actually feel like the sort of epic 80's action flick that its fans want to see. The action itself is often damn good, Mel Gibson is the best Expendables villain yet, and there are enough great/silly/quotable quips and one-liners to satiate even the most discerning of retro-action junkies.

THE EXPENDABLES 3 gets off to a hell of a start, thrusting the audience headlong into a pretty crazy sequence in which Stallone's Barney Ross and his crew engage in a daring rescue mission to free an old colleague from a prison-transport train. As it turns out, the old colleague is Wesley Snipes, playing a semi-insane, blade-wielding doctor whose signature phrase is "jang-alang." Yep, awesomeness. Plenty of jokes are made at the expense of Snipes' real-life legal troubles ("What were you in for?" "Tax evasion."), but the fact is that, man, it's good to see Snipes back in the saddle and kicking ass. He plays his character as suitably nutty, and sort of sets the tone for the movie: sort of crazy, but 100% committed.

Speaking of disgraced former action stars, I've got to give it up to Mel Gibson: he's a fantastic Big Bad in this film. Since I still sort of hate Gibson, it would have been hard for me to root for him as a hero in this one ... so I'm glad he's a villain. And not just a villain, but a complete $&%#-head of a villain. But hey, despite my dislike for Gibson, I can admit that he's a very good actor, and, let's face it, a step above a lot of the guys who've populated these Expendables flicks. Gibson brings a real unhinged, self-righteous venom to his role, and he finally gives Stallone someone to really verbally spar with. He brings out the sort of real-deal acting from Stallone that I don't think we've seen yet in this franchise.

In Gibson, the franchise has its most serious-business villain to date. But the film also feels like it's having more genuine (and less forced-feeling) fun than earlier entries. I mean, look at Harrison Ford here, playing a government liason with Stallone's team. Ford looks awake, aware, and semi-giddy to be playing the badass again. His role here actually got me sort of pumped to see him play Han Solo again in Star Wars VII. Schwarzenegger gets to kick ass but also spout some quality one-liners, including a reprisal of one of his most famous lines from Predator. Antonio Banderas is sort of a comic relief character, but he makes the most of it. He's genuinely amusing and seems to be having a blast going big and broad. Sure, it would have been fun to have him play the classic Banderas badass, Desperado-style, but as is, he injects a lot of life into the movie. Meanwhile, a lot of people (myself included), rolled their eyes at the inclusion of Kelsey Grammar amidst the movie's roll-call of action movie legends. Really - the guy who played Frasier listed alongside Stallone and Schwarzenegger? Actually though, he's quite good here, and a good fit. As an old buddy of Barney Ross', Grammar is well-cast. He plays the guy with the inside track on promising young would-be Expendables recruits, needed by Ross when he rids himself of his old team.

And that is where the movie falters a bit - in its central plot hook of Ross ditching his usual comrades and upgrading his team to a group of newer, younger recruits. In theory, it's a solid through-line for the film. But in execution, it feels pretty tacked-on and rushed. A ton of time is spent as Stallone and Grammar size up potential Expendables - and these scenes are a lot of fun, no question. But the recruitment portion of the movie takes up so much time that these new characters mostly feel like non-entities. And the actors playing them don't have anywhere near the charisma of their elders. Maybe that's part of the point? We do, ultimately, get a predictably triumphant return-to-action from Ross' old-guard Expendables, and the movie's climactic action sequence is an awesomely-chaotic melee that is a pure adrenaline rush. But the movie seems torn as to whether it's about "these old guys still got it" or a passing-of-the-torch to a new generation of action icons. Well, the kids have a long way to go before reaching icon status. Ronda Rousey - a real-life female MMA fighter - is a standout, bringing legit toughness and fighting prowess to the mix. But some of her next-gen compatriots are lacking in the charisma department. Sorry, but guys like Kellan Lutz don't quite have the star-presence to be the next Stallone or Snipes.

That said, The Expendables has always been a sort of ongoing tribute to the larger-than-life heroes of yesteryear, and this final sequel is the best testament yet to the old guys' lasting ability to kick ass. Like its predecessors, the third film feels way overstuffed and very all-over-the-place. But tonally, it hits a satisfying sweet spot between serious action and over-the-top 80's-style silliness that left me smiling and pumping my fists on several occasions. I don't think it's mere nostalgia telling me that, by god, they don't make action movie heroes like they used to. And THE EXPENDABLES 3 is a fitting salute to these aging but still-badass cinematic titans. Even if you were let down by previous installments, I say "get to de choppah!" and check this one out.

My Grade: B