Thursday, 17 April 2014

Review "Noah": a flawed but thoughtful epic

Russell Crowe being Russell Crowe
Darren Aronofsky is one of the few directors these days that not only I respect (despite not liking the genres that he is working on) but one of those that keeps me intrigued with each film. After the massive success of "Black Swan", he was (finally) able to do his passion project - Noah's arc. While it may sound boring and uninspiring choice for his next movie, "Noah" actually is more than just an updated version of the classic tale. This is Noah for the 21st century, filled with such modern ideas like evolution and environmental conservation that makes me wonder about the bravery that Aronofsky and co are showcasing here.

Yes it has been told a billion times but not this way. The script incorporates all the important issues that we as a race face today: environmental destruction, the decline of ideals and the fall of civilization justified by our choices to survive. There are a handful of meaningful lines to provoke religious or not thoughts regarding the decisions that man has taken (represented here by Ray Winstone's king) while Noah is shown as an extremist of god's vision that may start losing the bigger picture of His plan. Surely those who follow closely religion might object to the (a bit controversial) liberties for both the characters and their surrounding environment. These are some heavy stuff due to their nature, the pg-13 rating seems like a bad joke as quite a few scenes are horrific, and violent.
Wish this scene was more than a minute..
However, due to its big ambition and incorporation of various themes, "Noah" does not feel focused and although it is justifiable (this is the first truly big film of Aronofsky), this has a rather significant impact at the story. Sure we all know what happens and pretty much how the story ends. Despite solid work from (the relatively small cast), we never get to see any crucial character development besides well...Noah. The less screentime the cast has, the less important scenes it is in it, which they are passed relatively fast. And this is a fundamental problem with "Noah". The movie pretty much reaches its climax middle way through and what we get afterwards feels like an extended edition that tries to infuse and showcase the consequences of the great flood while describing the lives in the arc. Although it does not fail, it does no reach any cinematic awesomeness either. The confusion of Noah regarding the message of the Creator, the emotional conflict of his younger son, the family fear towards him are all there but are not given the appropriate sentimental gravitas. In addition, the watchers are more used as a deux-ex machina plot device twice and reveal not a single drop of character.

Like expectation, Russell Crowe is just Russell Crowe which is enough but he never gets any more expressive that he was in "Gladiator". Jennifer Connely has only one pivotal scene to shine but it feels a bit short. Ray Winstone is particularly wasted as the human king who gruffs and screams his (limited) way through the screen and it is a shame that he does not have a proper acting face off with Crowe. Despite some interesting jabs regarding his character - he is fighting for the survival of the now doomed human race! - he does not go beyond the one dimensional bad guy, especially towards the end. Noah's second son (portrayed by Logan Lerman) is just a cliche teenage rebellion boy that feels totally misplaced and mishandled with a partial role that comes into play when the plot requires to. Finally, an exceptional Antony Hopkins as Methusala has a mere 5 minute presence - as if the film was lacking crucial scenes. Much to my surprise though Emma Watson - by far the most interesting career out of the wizard trio - cannot only definitely act but elevates her (mostly dramatic) scenes, and it is great to see her playing roles that are not necessarily cute or related with magic anyways.
More of Antony Hopkins please!
Despites all its aforementioned flaws, this is visually an impressive film that deserves the price of admission just for that. Aronofsky, no stranger in almost surreal visuals ("Requiem for a dream", "The fountain") and subtle yet disturbing imagery ("Black Swan") delivers some truly iconic sequences - a rendering of the creation of the universe by god is infused with the theory of evolution and Darwinism in a truly astonishing scene that utilizes animation in fast forward with multiple cuts and exchanges of the environment and has almost a visually poetic hand painted quality - or the travelling of a pigeon pair towards the arc through vast almost apocalyptic and deserted landscapes reveal a rare talent behind the camera. It is like if Tarsem had a huge budge to work on and it is great to see an uncompromising filmmaker making the most out of the money that he has at his disposal to adapt such an old-school tale.

Credit has to be given to the astonishing cinematography and I already predict glorious awards in the next season. The sweeping landscapes are breathtaking with more than one screenshots resembling a live cart-postal. Strictly from visual perspective, "Noah" is a 10 out of 10, a rarity among blockbusters and expensive Hollywood pictures that puts thought and (less) spectactle in equal proportions. The special effects truly compliment Aronofsky's vision with fallen angels showcased as stone monsters, thousands of animals arriving at the arc and when the foreshadowed flood happens, you truly sense the wonder of destruction that occurs.

Noah” certainly feels long, and sometimes the emotional scenes do not hold ell enough for us to care. There are interesting dynamics and liberties in order to bring this tale to the 21st century and keep it fresh through Aronofsky's passion, but the loss of focus and the relatively empty characters drop the levels of intrigue. Nevertheless, the visuals make up for everything with stunning landscapes and poetic almost surrealastic sequences that simply annihilate any competion that this year might reveal.

+ breathtaking visuals
+ incredible cinematography
+ auteur direction from Aronofsky
+ solid cast
+ great work from Emma Watson
+ interesting ideas and ...
+ characterization
- but not enough scenes that fully fleshed the characters and their thoughts
- feels rushed and studio cut
- ...with an early climax
- followed by an extended edition running time
- Antony Hopkins in an extended, glorified cameo
- wasted opportunity for Ray Winstone


Friday, 11 April 2014

"The raid 2" review: exhilarating, thrilling sequel

One of the best fights ever filmed. A vicious one on one fight that almost tops the Rama-brother-vs-Mad-Dog one
When the small Indonesian film "Raid" stormed cinemas back in 2012, everyone raved about the complexity of the high octane action sequences, the hypnotic and precise direction of Gareth Evans, the gloomy atmosphere and the relative realism added in a simplistic almost videogamish way, story. Not only Evans managed to put the glasses to the vast majority of directors out there, but made himself a household name when it comes to cinematic martial arts. Fresh from the huge success of the first movie, Evans armed now with a bigger arsenal of stunt men, a heavier plot and a grueling schedule of 100 days in production(!), sought to expand the mythology of the "raid" to "Godfather" and "Internal Affairs" proportions. He has made his big splash but does he have the balls to maintain the hype around his name? Frankly, I can say not only that he does but this Welshman keeps finding ways of reinventing the action genre.

Surely, the follow up to one of the greatest (if not the greatest in my opinion) action film of all time can be a tough challenge. And there in lies the problem with sequels. Everyone is now aware of your movie  and frankly the expectations are through the roof for its continuation. What can you do to match those? 

a) do you go Michael Bay - the bigger, the better? 
b) do you reside in the safe ingredients that made the previous one so successful in the first place? 
c) do you go to a different genre? 

Any option you might choose, the results will receive critisicm no matter what. We all know what happens to bigger and louder sequels in 90% of the cases as empirical evidence suggests (Revenge of the fallen, the mummy returns, the matrix reloaded, mortal kombat annihilation, etc) whereas repeating the same experiment again might alienating the audience who expects something fresh. Fortunately, Evans is wise enough to go route c), an act with its own dangers. Changing towards other film territories might prove something edgy and courageous but the final result could be just a dreadful attempt due to the loss of focus and the lack of faith. 
Yayan Ruhian as Prakoso is awesome
Having said that, "The raid 2: berandal" is not the case. In a rarity among the sequels and depending on your definition of what makes a second film superior to its predecessor, "raid 2" succeeds where most fail. In a wise move, the action now swifts between two gangster families thirsty for power along with a variety of dogdy and shifty characters. Everyone is connected with everyone and cannot be trusted and the whole arsenal of gangster cliches have been employed in front of our eyes for our entertainment. You could say that "Godfather" potentially was the role model here. 

Evans is aiming high and there are many dramatic scenes that are quite strong. His direction feels personalized most of the times with extended unedited sequences, meticulous zooms in and outs and it is a wonder to see such a director working at the action genre. It gives a John Carpenter vibe even in the dialogue scenes with the moody cinematography embracing the mostly terrible events of screen, displaying immense talent.
Exhilarating action from intriguing yet underdeveloped characters (Hammer Girl)
There is a plethora of new characters to keep our interests up (e.g., Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man) and Evans has taken? notes from the Tarantino notebook. This time around he has created some really intriguing personalities (see Bejo) with particular physical and behavioural trademarks that stuck in mind and make them all more fascinating to watch. Evans (who serves as a writer as well) remains sharp in his characterization and avoids to fall pray into caricature types and some actually get our sympathies despite those dogdy motivations that happen to lurk underneath.

The real star here though again in Iko Kuwais, a thrilling actor to watch on screen. His physical performance is exceptional and charismatic to say at least and the good thing is that his only difference with other action stars is that HE can act. Surely he will never win academy awards for this type of work, but just the physical achievements and demands that the role requires in combination with solid acting are outstanding. Eeveryone else here is doing a great job with the given material with the standout being Arifin Putra as the hot headed Eko and the catalyst for the whole story. It is very good to see again Yayan Ruhian after his phenomenal turn as mad dog in the first film in a kinda different that you would have expected him to be role (Prakoso). 
Bejo - the major villain? of the film, a very Tarantinesque persona
But who am I kidding? I am here for the awesomess of the action sequences and boy Evans does not dissapoint (in 16 in total). Those who loved the first film, rest assured, you will leave happy the theatre. Although most of the times, there are simply excuses for face offs, it does not matter because everything is so deliciously shot, so precise and epic that leaves you breatheless. Only a few movies can claim that their action sequences are so thrilling that leave audiences speechless. "Raid 2" is just one of them. Evans moves from brief fights to bigger and bigger set pieces as the running time passes with a sizzling 40 minute climax involving a car chase and a kitchen fight that comes really close to the viciousness of the brothers-vs-mad-dog in the first movie. The sheer display of moves that include elbows, kness, kicks, punches, etc with environment interaction is yes, groundbreaking. Perhaps, a special award should be created for choreography, no? And it is a pleasure to see the "actors" pulling such physical demanding things off rather than obvious stunt doubles that Hollywood has us used to.

Make no mistake though. Those who found the violence the first time around tough or disturbing, they will not get any light treatment here - knives and broken bottles meet throats, people are crushed by cars, others have their heads blown off by close range shotguns - anything you can think off, can be seen here. It is not particularly gory but the whole emphasis of bodies pilling up for 2 and a half(!) hours can be quite excruciating for some. For me, I could not care less. I know what I am expecting!

Having said that, there are certainly moments that either the film needs a bit of trimming or that pieces are missing (which they are officially!). Between the action ensuing chaos, there are not many quiet moments to allow deep and insightful analysis of our characters and even sometimes in the whole mayhem, Rama seems sidelined in key moments. Certain characters do feel as action filler like the aforementioned Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man since they have no material to work with besides the beating of nameless goons in gruesome tactics. On the other hand those like Prakoso once they fulfill their role in the plot, we were wondering what's the point of having a backstory! Others while they feel integral to the plot like the Goto family, in a similar way to Rama, are sidelined to make way for Bungun and his son Eko. You could almost say that these two share the biggest amount of screentime when fight is not the key word. 

However, these are just observations because I was really invested in the story and wanted to know the outcome from all the angles. Evans has created a complex gangster world with multiple right hand mans, sons of patriarch families, assassins, henchmen, corrupted cops and sometimes it feels too much to be able to follow everything. This can be reflected on the script as 2,5 hours do not seem enouh to represent in their dramatic entirety all these conflicting personalities. Who knows? I might get an extended edition on blu ray and we could watch even more!

So this is the "Raid 2". It is more articulate and more thoughtful than its relenteless, yet simplistic predecessor despite its flaws. The long variety of characters certainly establishes a new mythology and a new franchise with a more complex than usual storyline. Certainly Evans has to say the last word. Perhaps with the third installment, not only he will but potentially he could redefine the entire action genre.

+ intriguing characters
+ excellent acting particularly by Arifim Putra
+ fight sequences are thrilling at least...
+ particularly that breathless kitchen fight
+ old-school direction
+ Yayan Ruhian as Prakoso, always welcome
- too many characters, not enough screentime...
- thus not enough development...
- which leads to action (yet fantastic) filler
- certain plot points close way too quickly (Prakoso)


Thursday, 27 March 2014

Review "Captain America: the winter soldier": best superhero movie in ages

Chris Evans delivers this time and HE IS CAPTAIN AMERICA
Wow! If only the first Captain America film was like this one. Although loved by many, I thought as time passed that it was action generic with increasing emphasis on CGI stunts and zero actual hand to hand combat. While visually it was arresting with a retro futuristic atmosphere oozing in every corner and Red Skull being portrayed brilliantly by Hugo Weaving, ultimately it lacked that spark, and felt like a prelude for "the avengers". I believe that after the (monstrous) success of the superhero mash-up, Marvel has actually put the bar higher for their films. "Iron man 3" no matter what surprises its plot might had, tried to take a different route. "Thor" felt more complete with world expanding components, a delicious final pull-the-rug-under-your-feet-moment and an inventive climax. 

Now "The winter soldier" is everything a Captain America movie should be. While it maintains some of the humour that now has become the trademark of Marvel films, TWS is way more serious than all of them combined. Perhaps the reason is that besides the Super Serum and Red Skull, Captain America does not have the gadgetry of let's say Iron Man or the mythical dimensions of Thor. He is just a man out of time who tries (desperately if I may add) to adjust in a more grey world that the one he used to know (and fight for). And this is truly where the film feels so brave and yes different than any other superhero flicks that we have seen. 
By far one of the most memorable action scenes of the year
Which brings me to the most important point, the plot. While of course it is not going to be the most original or complicated film of the century, there is the basic screenwriting elements that so much lack from modern day blockbusters. You have the (likable) characters and a mystery they need to solve along with a racing clock. It reminded me the 70's political paranoia thrillers (3 days of the Condor - another Redford link, The parallax view, Z) and it is a welcome tone that makes the WS to differentiate itself from the rest. There are strong scenes regarding political fear, control, and information manipulation but it never feels bloated or overbearing. the purpose is to entertain even if it manages to squeeze through a bit of political views with Rogers replacing the viewer's voice on screen. At one point there is a talk about who is who which results in every man for himself mayhem in one of the most interesting sequences that you may see this year. We do not get this stuff these days!

Besides the charged plot, the introduction of new characters and the mega mayhem in the streets of Washingthon DC, the Russos have found time (and they should bloody do since TWS is 2 and a half hours long!) to inject some sentiments in the proceedings - a visit to Peggy, a confrontation with Fury regarding SHIELDs actions, Bucky's memory recall, Natasha's kissing talk. They could have easily skip these "crap" but instead the extra running time feels adjusted and coherent with a bit of more characterization which results to bring us closer to the on screen counterparts. 
Terrific and cool villain-Sebastian Stan steals every scene he is in
However, the action is what took me by surprise. The bar has been set higher now. It is truly unbelievable to think that these two directors (of the "Community" fame) came with such inventive ways of using Cap's shield. Finally, the shield gets to be seen in all of its glory. In addition, all the fist fights (and they are many) are excellent examples and putting the glasses to the school of frantic edit (which I truly despise) with varied and rapid choreography. A terrific elevator fight sequence probably stands out as truly memorable whereas the encounters with the Winter Soldier never feel repetitive. The Russo brothers keep changing the game from stealth and cloak missions, to car chases, to gun fires, to dog fights, to fist fights. There is something for everyone here and it is arguably among the finest I have seen. Impressive considering their credits. Real stunt work (backflips, wrestle moves, sommersaults, etc), real fights and it is a pleasing sight to go away from superhero duels of the Avengers, Thor and Iron man. These characters rely on instincts and bullets. No more and no less and most of them do have some brutal moments for a PG-13 film (and blood too).

The actors are absolutely brilliant in their roles. While Evans came out as a bit arrogant in the "Avengers" and the least interesting character, here he truly shines. First time ever, I actually bought what he was bringing on the table. This is a soldier who believed in protecting the people and their freedom. Here though, in the modern era of espionage with multiple intrigues and political events, he finds himself unable to identify which side he is on and for what. At one point he even considers himself Fury's caretaker of terrorist "problems". The other side of the coin is Samuel Jackson's Nick Fury and Robert Redford's Alexander Pierce. It is nice to see Jackson expanding his role from 1 minute cameo in "Iron Man" to a fully supporting actor here. But the real standout is Robert Redford. Kevin Feige (the producer) probably knows how to do casting because so far there has not been a single acting mistake. Bringing heavy-acting-weight Redford to a superhero film is actually a bold move and while most movies do not focus on the talented cast, here the Russo brothers give Redford plenty of close ups and necessary gravitational dialogue that kept surprised me for a "summer" and "mindless" blockbuster. Antony Mackie plays Falcon believably enough and it is very good to see a great supporting turn instead of being the comedic sidekick. The winter soldier now himself is as you would have expected? probably the best villain outside Loki(!) in the marvel films. A truly unstoppable and cool killing machine that shows no remorse or regret considering his completely disregarding (and destructive) actions throughout the film. Stan manages to bring a bit of menace to a generally light hearted series of fantasy films as he has to act more with his eyes rather than sharing any scenes of actual dialogue.  
Welcome addition - Robert Redford injecting some acting class
The direction unusual for a film like this does have personality. There are some aggressive close ups and zoom outs while the action is mostly staged well and centered without giving a headache feeling. The need to embrace the human faces rather than chockng everything with overwhelming CGI and not-intense-but-loud music is abscent from here. And since TWS has been labelled a success I am totally curious about the Russo's' next directional gig.

If I have to nitpick I would say that the winter soldier himself does not have enough screentime (at least in the first half) and it would have been interesting to get an extra 5 minute sequence or so to show a bit of his backstory or some more than hellbent emotions. Perhaps this is something that could be fixed in the set for now sequel in May 2016 as it is being suggested. And I will get a lot of backlash for this but I still do not buy Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. While she certainly has the looks, I would have prefer a Russian actress looking more convincing in her fight scenes (camera usually pans away to hide the stuntdouble). Finally, there is a bit of a massive expositionary plot point that a bit stretches the canvas of believability but I cannot have everything, can I?

Is it perfect? Of course not but it does not feel that it is drugging forever or raising any boring flags. There is plenty of plot, intelligence and sweet characters moments to keep anyone satisfying. This is blockbuster at its finest, a superhero film with heart, immersive action and subtle touches of humour. Totally recommended.

+ terrific fights
+ excellent choreography
+ no overuse of CGI
+ likable characters
+ good character moments
+ subtle humour
+ Evans is great...
+ but Redford is outstanding
+ yet Winter Soldier steals the show
+ interesting plot
- winter soldier does not get enough screentime
- still do not buy SJ as Black Widow

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Review "Bad 25": An insightful documentary for the most anticipated album of all time

Spike Lee could be a filmmaker with varied performance when it comes to films but here he truly displayed some professionalism covering the recording era of Michael Jackson's "Bad" album. Not only, he collects interviews from numerous individuals of the music industry but he carefully tries to avoid the myth and gossip traps that surround the name of Michael Jackson. This is a musical documentary at first and not a closer look as to who or what Michael Jackson was.

An argument could be made that Lee decided to focus all his energy to the musical genius that Jackson was and how hard he worked to finish an album such as "Bad" including his any skills. The man was composing, producing, writing the songs, choreographing his videos, singing and dancing live, vocal arranging and beatboxing! It is a shame that the album itself had to endure endless criticism for not reaching the levels of "Thriller" and at that period it was considered a disappointment despite selling more than 30 million copies worldwide and being accompanied by the most successful tour of all time.

After 25 years though, "Bad" is considered one of the best albus out there, a record unparalled in terms of hits and quality balance. "Bad" is a record richer than "Thriller" with less filler and more meat. Lee's interviews, raw footage and behind the scenes tactics proove just that. Taking a massive 5 year period to be recorded, with hundreds of (finished) demos, lots of artistic input and various musical collaborations, "Bad" now gets the treatment and (much awaited) spotlight it deserves. 

Bad 25 celebrates the rich sound that Jackson's third solo record contained along with diverse musical engineering and craftmanship. The album has so many hits on so many levels - the short film of Smooth Criminal, the anti gravity lean, the West Side Story dance number of "Bad", the rock gritty sound of "Dirty Diana" with Steve Stevens' input, the psychedelic vibe in "Leave me alone" and the powerful anthem of "Man in the mirror" are just cases that display, suggest and reveal a creative and hard working genius at the peak of his game.

It is really sad that people still tend to emphasize any negative or controversial aspects that Jackson may had. But the musical one is not one of them. For he remains at the pantheon of the most brilliant musicians and performers ever to walk the earth and perhaps, the greatest. And we cannot take that away from him. Ever

Friday, 7 March 2014

Review "300": rise of an empire" : hyper stylized gory epic

Sullivan Stapleton was better than expected
Well that was unexpected. Capitalizing in the huge fame and legacy that the first film generated, "300: rise of an empire" seemed to be the most unnecessary sequel of all time. Based on the yet still unpublished Frank Miller comic, ROAE certainly lacked Zack Snyder behind the camera and the charismatic turn of Gerald Butler in the now iconic role of Leonidas. After 8 years, it is kinda weird that the sequel appears now, in a film era where the then novel green screen and uber slo mo effects are now typical, mediocre and standardized in hyperstylistic Hollywood action sequences. does this one fare?

Well, it is actually pretty good. Loosely based on the battle of Salamis where Xerxes' navy was pwned by the small (remaining) Greek fleet, "Rise of an empire" offers plenty of the jaw dropping candy and action that made the first film so memorable. Only it just cranks them up to 11. Noam Murro (a director with the credentials of the romantic comedy "Smart People" and some commercials) does not inspire actual confidence before watching a sword and sandal Greek epic. Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised to see money shot after money shot delivered with epic zooms and astonishing camera work. Murro definitely brought his Snyder notebook on this one and it feels more of an expansion of a style rather than pure imitation. 
Eva Green steals the show with her villainous (and charming) performance
"Rise of an empire" has astonishing visuals, and simply it is a feast for the eyes. Each shot has a poetic beauty (a night on a rocky beach with a huge moon) and even the most violent and gory scenes carry with them enough magnificence ready to enchant you. It is like watching a hyper realistic movie canvas becoming alive in front of you. Assisted by gorgeous cinematography by Simon Duggan, Murro stages his set pieces in fantastical locations combined with a witty production design from Patrick Tatopoulos (Independence Day, Godzilla, Underworld, Silent Hill). It is style over substance but man what style!

Now, let's be honest, we are not here for the context of the film neither to see if it is accurately depict the historical events that shape pretty much the fate of then ancient Greece. As a Greek I take no offence on that. I am here to see action fantasy cinema and nothing more than that. If there is a good depiction in the films is the heroic deeds of Athenians that tried to fight off a huge navy with inventive ways (and smaller ships). Everything else (non character wise), is pure fiction Instead we get bloody, gorgeous action with eye popping visuals in 3D. Obviously, the characters are literally one dimensional with any backstory added in matter of seconds and there is not a moral ambiguity regarding their actions (and consequences). Murro moves from a set piece to a set piece with only a handful speeches giving us a break from the displayed massacre. Carnage you want, carnage you get. I lost count of the bodies that went flying, chopped, burned, etc more than once. If war is your thing, then rest assured you will not be disappointed. Especially, when it is presented in such poetic fashion. Surely though that does not mean that everyone is going to like this. those annoyed with Snyder's style and visuals will find little to love here. Those of use who embraced (and there are many) oh dear, you are for a treat. 
Shame that Xerxes does not get enough screentime (again).
The cast is rather interesting with Lena Headey doing a good job as Queen Gorgo. Sullivan Stapleton is by no means Gerald Butler but surprisingly he brings some gravitas into the film and it was wise to have him as a smaller built hero than Leonidas who relies more on his brains rather his warrior skills to defeat his opponents. Rodrigo Santoro (by far the most intriguing visually character) still suffers from limited screentime with zero development (no the start does not count) or any special skills since he became a god king. So the whole film relies on Eva Green's shoulders as the poisonous Artemisia, commander of the Persian navy. She chews the scenery and it is almost impossible to take your eyes of her, first because she is gorgeous to look upon and secondly because she is the only one to have a bit of psychological synthesis for her role. Green seems to be having a blast and is one of the probably the best female villains on the big screen in the last decade (along with Faora). 

So this is "300: rise of an empire". It is a great film? No. However, it is one of the best looking movies of all time and for that it is required to be seen in the cinema in immersive 3D and IMAX! There are tones of great and swift action, epic money shots and fantastic cinematography. No point really if you miss that on the big screen! Sometimes style is all you need baby! It is like watching a huge building being demolished. It does not last for long, is shallow, but the spectacle of the moment is fascinating to witness.

+ stunning visuals
+ 3D is actually a character on its own
+ Eva Green, great villain and performance
+ excellent action
+ Stapleton is adequate but ...
- but he is no Gerald Butler
- one dimensional characters
- story does not really go anywhere


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

"Machete kills" review - Rodriguez lost his mojo

No matter how charming or ridicusly stupid the first film was, it had its crazy fun moments - those that involved the inventive use of sharp objects, intriguing casting - Steven Seagal as a Mexican drug lord???, plethora of babes, explosions, gun fights, one liners stretched in the grindhouse canvas that Rodriguez and Tarantino created in 2007 with their double feature.
One of the few good things in the film is Mel Gibson as the villainuous Voz
"Machete kills" though is a different story. The (talented) filmmaker seems bored. Frankly there is nothing really memorable here except the even bigger cast of well known actors who probably are having a blast portraying these out of this world characters- Jessica Alba, Cuba Gooding Jr, Lady Gaga!, Antonio Banderas, Walter Higgins, Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Amber Heard, Sofia Vergara, Charlie Sheen, Alexa Vega, and a villainuous turn by Mel Gibson. However, the storyline is even worse than that one of the first film. And you are right - you may say, seriously did you watch MK because of the compelling script? Hell no! But there is not really a point A to point B plot. There are genetic enhanced supersoldiers, space adventures, contract killers, hookers thirsty for vengeance, politics, a idiotic US goverment. It feels as if Rodriguez lost his way during the making of this movie with actors and actresses coming and going whenever the (illogical) plot requires. 

In a similar manner with the first "Machete", there is enough political commentary here that totally overstays its welcome and to be honest is not even related with the spirit of the movie. Trying to be a grindhouse flick on one hand and then making some serious statements about the state of Mexico (or the world) is just a bit bad taste and childish in my opinion. Nobody cares in a "Machete" film about these political components. We want MAchete killing with inventive ways various bad guys and looking like a total badass. End of story. The rest are just filler for whoever potentially wants to pay attention to a messy script.
OMG, Amber Heard.
Having said that, most of Rodriguez films, penned by him have surprisingly and unnecessarily complicated scripts. But the man himself makes it up for the insane action, the groovy and latin infused soundtrack played along some ridicoulous yet inventive lines. MK has nothing actually thrilling. All the money shots are in the trailer and most of the gun fights have been replaced with cheap CGI bullets (holes and blood), a technique he started using in "once upon a time in Mexico". And this is where my biggest problem lies. Put "Desperado" next to "Machete kills" and you already see a filmmaker in decline. After a bunch of interesting directing choices, the wild style of frenetic action is nowhere to be seen here and it is really disappointing. Add on the that, the terrible kid films he has released. Man what are you thinking? Go old-school!

"Machete kills" tries with almost no effort to be a grindhouse flick. In that it succeeds. It feels cheap, lazy and boring. It is a shame for the cast and the director. With a more active plot and a larger share of tongue in cheek humour, it could have been a blast. Instead I sometimes, think that they are taking themselves too seriously (it is two hours long)!

+ Danny Trejo as badass, always good
+ the cast!
+ some inventive kills disparsed in a two hour movie
+ Mel Gibson
- looking cheap
- replacement of practical effects with CGI - from blood to bullets
- no plot
- some interesting characters that have no connection to the plot or to the hero
- too much political commentary
- taking itself seriously
- too long


Saturday, 15 February 2014

"The wolf of wall street" review: overrated film, Scorsese has done better

Hearing the massive overwhelming reviews regarding the true story of Jordan Belfort aka the wolf of wall street and the undeniable praise for Leonardo DiCaprio boosted my confidence to go and experience Scorsese's latest film. Having said that mate, I was in for a disappointment.
DiCaprio carries the film on his shoulders. Brilliant performance!
Do not get me wrong. The film is good but it is not THAT good. However, first things first. Leonardo DiCaprio continues the string of incredible performances ("blood diamond", "revolutionary road", "the great Gatsby", "the aviator", "catch me if you can", "Django unchained", "inception", "the departed", "shutter island") that he has used us the last couple of years. The man makes no (acting) mistake neither capitalises his fame into boring (and lame) action films or stupid romantic comedies. To his credit, he always chooses passion projects and different characters that are always flawed rather than mindless positive stereotypes with pretentious intentions for the brains of 13 year old girls . So basically, "the wolf of wall street" is a vehicle for DiCaprio to explore his acting horizons and deliver the goods. In that field, the film succeeds. Being a black comedy - a genre very tough to pull it off internationally as well as aiming towards mainstream audience - is a new area for Leo and it fits him perfectly. I personally would love to see him win an Oscar (finally) as this performance is close to perfection to that one of "Blood diamond" and "Django unchained". The man is fearless and every movie is a surprise. Not many actors are pulling this trick off today. 

The supporting cast is excellent portraying ultimate douchbags with the standouts being Jonah Hill - a bizzare performance with interesting manierisms - and Matthew McConaughey in a small but crucial role who carries on with awesome performances one after another as Jordan's mentor and guide to excessive lifestyle, Mark Hanna. Margot Robbie makes a strong debut and holds her own against DiCaprio, having a fragile sensitivity besides her stunning looks.
Jonah Hill plays a guy so creepy that he would have a made a really demented psychotic serial killer in another film
Scorsese's direction is shiny and fast paced with a brand new look - the film was shot and distributed digitally - unusually for a Scorsese movie. Perhaps though this is a filmmaker than even at his 70's shows evolution rather than remain static to approaches that he already used in the past. The trademark long and steady cam shots do exist and purists will have a joy tracking them. In many ways this reminded me "Goodfellas" from a financial point of view. The rise and fall of fascinated by this particular lifestyle individuals that show no limits and let their addictions to get the upper hand ignoring any (fatal) signs of decline. 
Show-stealing supporting turn from Matthew McConaughey - shame he is no more than 6 minutes in the film
However, "Goodfellas" is better structured and it has a far more interesting plot. The problem with the "wolf" is that we just do not care about the characters. Personally, I found them one dimentional with zero empathy towards them. These people have stolen from others millions and millions of dollars and it seems (by accident) that they get constant praise from their working and emotional environments. The film lacks a catalyst for the viewer's consiousness. We are all aware of their crime but we consider it as funny - the scene where Jordan persuades the first guy to buy penny stokes is hilarious - but the problem here is the lack of consequences - the excessive drinking, drug abuse and money stealing activities surely would affect somehow the psychology of anyone and it would have been interesting to see how as well as the point of view from his victims. In addition, there is no emotional catharsis. Nobody, nobody puts these people into their place. They think they own the world and they can do anything they want - drugs, prostitution, stealing - without getting caught because they think they are too smart. Unfortunately for me where "Goodfellas" succeeded was that Henry was a flawed individual and we actually sympathize with him. We get seduced by the lifestyle he so much craves and understand the stakes that can come up by being a gangster. Here, there is a bit too much glorification and almost no exploration of the psychological traits of these characters, thus there is no connection. DiCaprio's character is almost in every single frame and yet we know nothing about how he feels, how he should react to things, how much he really loved his first (or second) wife or even his daughter. Like Scorsese simply observes and never suggests. Perhaps, it is because he is the observer here, the kid who takes notice of people like that rather than the one to pose judgment. Or potentially he is just a journalist, recording like a big brother the lives of wolves in wall street and letting the audience to make the moral decision. 

Even towards the end, you think that somehow this is going to pay off but really it does not. The film avoids a climax and feels an extension of (rather interesting) scenes and no arcs are coming full circle. This gives the movie the one dimensional status regarding its protagonists. We never get to see anything conclusive regarding his first wife (it is explained in one line) and similarly his relationship with Naomi. A subplot involving a romance? with Naomi's British Aunt is going nowhere and the introduction of the Swiss banker (who is amusing nontheless) is used as a deus-ex machina device in order to close the involving plot points at the last minute.
Margot Robbie as Naomi made a strong impression and holds up her won against DiCaprio
And here is what my biggest problem with "the wolf of wall street" lies. I can see why people are thinking that glorifies drug and sex addition, how to be a douche and get away (especially towards the end) with a relatively cool soundtrack in the background. There is no context behind it. It has been well shot, it is brilliantly acted, the direction is focused and energetic but the characters are incredibly shallow, the sex scenes get repetitive fast enough and surely the film would benefit from 30 minute trimming with unnecessary in sometimes exposition. Whereas "Goodfellas" had Henry evolving as a character and trying to adapt to his circumstances surrounding him, Jordan does almost nothing and carries on unconsious (and then consious) of his actions and the potential catastrophic consequences that they could bear. But to the director's credit, maybe he was such a shallow and superfluous asshole that his character had no dramatic evolution whatsoever. But I am not here to judge what he could have been but rather what I saw and frankly, the story of Jordan Belfort no matter how clever this "wolf" was, it is not that unfortunately intriguing.

+ DiCaprio's performance - no doubt - the film would have been empty without him
+ the supporting cast is doing an excellent job of portraying real life douchbags
+... with the standout being Matthew McConaughey
+ Scorsese's direction
+ nice soundtrack
+ good breakthrough role for Margot Robbie
- ...feels like a glorification of a particular lifestyle rather than a satire that it aims to be
- ... characters are not remotely interesting...
- and one dimensional. Lack of motivation or any psychoanalysis for their characters
- certain subplots lead nowhere
- no catharsis for the character and lack of empathy towards him and his friends
- too long with unnecessary scenes - like the infomercials and the breaking the 4th monologues