IR Film Review: 31 [Sundance 2016]

31_8054The aspect of horror and how spectacle fits into the undeniable formula is the thought process that Rob Zombie can always skew but play with. With the new structure of the studios, it is harder and harder to make the film you want. It either has to be huge, undeniably indie or have an angel investor. Or you can do the crowdfunding approach. It worked for Zach Braff…and it definitely takes you back to your roots but it begs the question: what do the investors get in return? Usually with a lot of these approaches, there is a ton of gimmicks in playing to the crowd. You got to have a hook. What “31” has to its strength is a blessing of characters (more on the villain side) that keep it moving. The problem is that the backing superstructure is pretty weak. Now granted, most of the people seeing this film are not going to be looking at that. The one thing that Zombie can definitely do is set a scene. The ending of “Devil’s Rejects” optimizing the song “Freebird” is over the top and exhilarating on many levels. Here, both the beginning and ending have bookends that really set tone, both with music and editing. Zombie’s use of freeze frame is an art and always harkens his films back to the Grindhouse circuit. After the screening, he did make reference to growing up in carnivals among the carnies so that notion of a gypsy existence very much rings true here. Sheri Moon Zombie gets the female vigilante role and busts it out, going for gold. You know she feels safe to do whatever is necessary and she goes for it. The dialogue is what it is since it is working towards an end game. It is more for the theatricality of it then anything else. The revelation of the movie is Richard Brake who plays Doom31_5313head. You’ve seen him in a ton of films and music videos as well as “Game Of Thrones”. He is the movie. His character has little motivation but his sheer presence, intelligence and physicality simply pummels off the screen. This character is doing a job, albeit a violent one, but he loves it. Every time he is on screen, nothing else can dominate it. You can build a new horror franchise off this character. No masks. Pure and simple. The weak spot is the meaning per se of the game itself. Malcolm McDowell, a longtime favorite of Zombie’s, takes on a maniacal role but the chemistry on it is not quite right. He gambles with two older ladies on the results of the game but their inclusion seems neither motivated or essential. The sequences essentially take you out of the movie. The other villain including a murderous midget dressed up like Hitler, two maniacal brothers with chainsaws and a girl/boy team that is all about beauty and the beast by way of a maniacal mix of “The Munsters” and the nihilists from ” The Big Lebowski” is interesting but despite an inkling doesn’t make a story connection. There is a small one with “beauty” but it is never really optimized. Again, the movie doesn’t necessarily need to be that deep. On one side you have a powerful villain presence and some good style but on the other side a fairly weak backbone in terms of concept. But the element of it balances a bit and ending is still pretty bad ass.

C+

By Tim Wassberg

 

IR Film Review: SISTERS [Universal]

Going up against “Star Wars” is a monumental task but what allows a great functionality within “Sisters” at times is that it knows what it is. Like a more mature version of “Superbad”, it is ultimately about two best friends in real life [Tina Fey & Amy Poehler] (playing sisters here) and how they anticipate each other. The best parts of this comedy is just when these two are riffing in a scene and not trying too hard to sell the story. The story arch has to move along of course but it is during the more non-forced scenes you get a sense of what still makes these two so effective. They are aging and it is apparent but their enthusiasm and love of the work is still there. But first the story to set it up. Amy Poehler plays Maura who is a the straight laced always responsible sister who never got to let loose. Tina Fey is Katie, the happy go lucky one who had more sex than she could count accordingly to her diary in high school. This is a little bit more of a role reversal for the two and it is great at the beginning watching Fey fly her freak flag. The woman has a bent of sexuality that is just hiding beneath that surface that she doesn’t let peak out too often. When she uses it, it is very palatable with her type of comedy because it is tongue-in-cheek but she is also getting a kick out of it.

Unlike the way “Baby Mama” functioned, their bantering like when Fey is trying to get Poehler to ask a cute neighbor to the party feels just right, especially when Fey is making hand signals just away from where Poehler can see. The best part is when they are trying on clothes wearing them the wrong way on purpose because the physical comedy is really  dead on. When it actually gets to the party, the set up almost undermines it and what should be the blow out seems more anticlimactic. The all stars come in with Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch and the overplayed (who believes he’s channeling Belushi) Bobby Moynihan keeping the party moving as Poehler attacks her pent up issues with her guy and Fey plays the party mom without going nuts. The side quips with drug and alcohol peddling bits by John Lequizamo and John Cena help because they are supposed to be the grounding force but the bits are too disjointed. The big build up to Poehler’s bound-to-go-wrong sex scene works and gets the laugh but in many ways, the movie (despite its verbal vulgarity) never quite hits extreme physical gags say of “Bridemaids”.

SISTERS

Jason Moore, famous for “Avenue Q” on Broadway and the first “Pitch Perfect”, keeps the pace moving and lets his girls run amuck but it still feels in the safe zone. The mother/father/daughters/granddaughter subplot and the losing of jobs is handled almost too hamhanded with the ending pretty much petering out in the essence of a happy ending. That is all fine but if you are doing a fairly hard R, there is more to be done. The supporting players actually get to do most of the questionable bits to varying degrees of success. You can see the Animal House just wanting to come out. The drugs are there but it seems like…safe. The two leads as talented as they are, are great to watch but you seem to get a feeling that they are playing nice, when all you want them to be is bad. But then again, they still have to clean it all up in the morning.

C

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Reviews: TORONTO INTL FILM FESTIVAL 2015

PrintThe essence of the Toronto International Film Festival is debated by the vivacity of its films and the late nights of its parties. Like many festivals of its ilk, the Midnight selection seems to shine by knowing a balance between art and commerce. Of course, celebrating in the right way doesn’t hurt. while a limited amount was screened because of an influx of other pressing commitments, an interesting cross section was discovered, as always comes about.

hardcoreHardcore Anything that has Russian director Timor Bekmambetov’s name on it always deserves a second chance. He is very much behind trying to help establish a new Russian voice in action cinema. The thing with something like “Black Lightning” which I saw at Fantasia Film Festival a couple years back is that it was mostly in Russian. Unfortunately you need to have at least a balance of English to allow it to play worldwide or at least keep the dialogue to a minimum. Here different aspects up the ante. This is basically a live action, first person shooter…pretty much “Grand Theft Auto”. But here you never see our protagonist’s face except once…usually only his hands. It is non stop but sitting in the third row, the motion sickness of it all has possibility. That said, you couldn’t have made this film a few years ago but, using Go Pro technology, it has become an interactive possibility. The director Ilya Naishuller mentioned at the Q&A that they couldn’t shoot at 48fps because at the standard they needed the extra frames to add in CG. The acting though is interesting because it offers an interesting section of possibility. Sharlto Copley has started to distinctify taking chances on certain genre possibilities with first time directors which can go either way. He was part of the very interesting “Europa Report” and here he plays a mixture of characters that only become clear towards the final third of the film. At times it is a tour de force because it is very fluid and yet specifically on take. Tim Roth is credited in the film but unless he is the villain I can’t see him and, if that is true, his craft is only getting better. He was unbelievable in “Planet OF The Apes”. People talk about Andy Serkis and Serkis is great but he had CG. Roth only had prosthetics. Different processes and both brilliant. In terms of style, the use of some humor and music including a Queen song is placed well well but not to ultimate effect. That is a very small critique because this movie takes aspects of RPGs, “City Of Lost Children”, “Blade Runner” and anime to create a very visceral uninterrupted barrage of precise yet loose genre filmmaking. It took 147 days to film but looks like it took place in 2 hours…and that is the ultimate trick.

office1Office Director Johnnie To tries to find back doors of convention and usually it functions within the crime or action genre. Turning the view on the corporate structure of China per se in an interesting exercise. Now the actual space in the film is not really specified but the characters keep referring to the Mainland China. The actual structure and construct here as the basis is what is interesting. Akin to someone like Peter Greenaway, To does something different in creating a setting that is all an illusion and transparent literally in that function. The arrival to work on a train, the elevators, the offices, the roof…almost all of it is in a transparent, almost architectural baseline construct. Everything should be obvious but like many of To’s films, it is about power and betrayal. What is interesting even more so here is that it is built as a musical but one, despite having some pop sensibilities, that more has the identity of an understated rock opera. What works well is the level of relationships which only becomes clear now by reflection. The first is one of the older couple which is the CEO (played by Chow Yun Fat) and his first in charge (Sylvia Chang) who is also his mistress. The CEO’s wife is in a coma…possibility because of the shame of his infidelity. The betrayal is the game and they understand it. The couple at the end other end of the spectrum is two new brand new recruits in the office looking to make their bones. One is secretly the CEO’s daughter and he wants her to learn. The other is a bright fresh protege who loves his work but eventually loves her more. They don’t have the foresight to see what will entice and ultimately destroy them later in life. The middle couple is the most volatile. So obsessed with work. So obsessed with money. But unable to recognize what is important right in front of them. Not all of these metaphors and characterizations work all the time but it is an interesting experiment not just in acting approach but just in sheer staging. Ultimately it all comes undone in the aspect of Shakespeare. Plus add the fact that he shot it in 3D. “Office” is interesting on all counts but you must be open to the experience and interpret it in your own way.

born-to-dance1Born To Dance Like “Step Up”, each country has the right to see their dance identity in their own way. This film does not take that structure any further but, in many ways, outdoes its predecessors on significantly smaller budget. The basis of the story is a worker who has his own local dance crew but after posting one of his videos on You Tube attracts the attention of a big time money crew with endorsement deals. Normal West Side Story set up without the violence, just stealing of creativity. There are some good dances and, of course, a morality play at stake but that is accepted and expected. However there are some points that the dance scenes just pop and show that adrenalin rush that some of these movies miss. One specifically is staged at this down and dirty club with eight female dancers led by a big boned blond haired African girl that is kinetic. They writhe their bodies but with a power and strength that is undeniable. I could watch a music based dance action movie with them as assassins all day. This is what Tarantino meant when he described Fox Force Force through Uma Thurman’s lips in “Pulp Fiction”. These are the girls he would have had in mind. Ultimately, the film turns in the end into a competition like “Glee’ or “Pitch Perfect”. It is expected but no less commercial. It just was an interesting selection for the festival but even independents want to make crowd pleasing movies. It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.

girlThe Girl In The Photograph This Midnight Madness selection uses the serial killer basis of a psychopath obsessed with his muse. What it tries to balance itself with is the narcissism of modern life. The metaphor here is the capture or diluting of self. A pretentious celebrated photographer played with annoying relevance by Kal Penn returns to his home town when a serial killer starts matching up his killings to photographs of modelsb that Penn’s character creates. So this photographer returns to his hometown in South Dakota where the killings are happening. He brings along his assistant, his model girlfriend and two other models to this nowhere town to discover creativity again and try to outdo the serial killer with his “vision”. Of course, it kicks them all in the ass and the slasher mayhem begins. It just ultimately feels like an exercise. This is all done for effect and, of course, the local sharp blonde, bushy tailed female lead who is the muse for the killers is the one we are supposed to identify with. The problem is that there lack of consequence and, by extension, sensibility that seems to be lost in the proceedings. The ode to John Carpenter in the music is distinctly noticeable and welcome. Wes Craven was an executive producer on the picture before he died so his touch is definitely on the film as well. But the movie is neither classic horror nor has a truly modern twist. The ending actually ends too late as one scene earlier would have effectively done the possibilities justice without spelling it out. That said, it is a perfectly interesting if not gothically gory approach to the genre but there is nothing really character wise to sustain it.

Toronto International Film Festival again allows your humble narrator a brief interaction of film aside from the general elements of press commitments and scheduling mayhem. But what this small selection of films shows is both the standard and experimental approach inherent n the current marketplace but the key is finding the one that exists in the middle for the greatest success, both creatively and monetarily.

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION [Paramount]

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION

The intention of a Mission Impossible film seems to change with each director but the transformation of movies since 1996 when the first film came out has changed irrevocably. We now have these bloated blockbusters and comic book adaptations just trying to create a universe. Mission Impossible, and to a lesser degree, the Bond films have always been about bowing to the director. This is undeniably the effect of Tom Cruise. Whatever you want to say about the guy personally, his business instincts are usually creative and spot on. Point in fact is “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”, the strongest entry storywise by far since the first one directed by Brian DePalma and written by Robert Towne. This is because you have an exceptional writer at the helm directing his own script with Cruise backing him all the way while giving constructive notes. People ask why Cruise is still a movie star. This is why.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE ROGUE NATIONThe conceit of this film, much like “Ghost Protocol”, involves the disavowing of the IMF team. What is great here is that from the beginning, Cruise plays against expectations by doing the most massive stunt at the beginning with the take off of a huge cargo plane and getting it out of the way. Cruise hanging off the side of that transport continues to show that he is willing to go the extra mile.

TAURUSThe picture jumps back into story mode but knows where it is going starting from the immediate capture scene soon after. What McQuarrie seems to do, like he did in “Jack Reacher” and likely “Edge Of Tomorrow” is create female characters who are very bit as powerful and smart as Cruise yet still retain a balance. Emily Blunt did it in spades with her character in “Edge” and Rosamund Pike to a lesser degree in “Reacher”. Rebecca Ferguson is a more divisive choice but interesting nonetheless. She is more akin to Tom’s age but also keeps the intent platonic as to not demean her progression. From the beginning she is just as quick and save for a couple swimsuit shots, not over exposed while Cruise is only too happy to take off his shirt when asked for it. The key is that she moves the plot and is not a by product of it. Big points for that and indicative of McQuarrie as a writer having a steady hand. It is too bad that it needs to be mentioned but it is a truism.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATIONOne thing McQuarrie also creates, like DePalma did before him in the series, is stylish and practical set pieces. They might not fall utterly in line but their intent is beyond reproach. The Vienna Opera House sequence has elements of DePalma’s beginning in “Femme Fatale” using the backdrop of classical music to show a double/double cross. Ferguson anchors it having the right balance of poise and classic titillation In a stunning yellow dress you can’t take your eyes off of.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATIONAnother is a hark back to the CIA infiltration scene in M:I 1 but this time going underwater with Cruise holding his breath. Again he supposedly did this for real but the story element makes it work especially with a turn of phrase from Ferguson which leaps into an even more high octane but less original car chase. The progression is interesting again nonetheless because it introduces a flaw in Cruise in his response which makes the sequence more true. Despite the spectacle of running through a sandstorm in the last one, “Rogue Nation” is more controlled and lower budget. It allows for cleaner and more concise film making.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATIONEthan Hunt’s cohorts are back but save for Simon Pegg, they seem to fill gaps through no fault of their own. it is just the way it is built. MCcQuarrie understands the underdog nature of Pegg’s character Benji getting to run with Cruise and makes the best of it giving him both gravitas, wit and humor. The dichotomy of the opening scene with an absolutely excellent climactic scene against a bad guy using a really great progressive device really ups the game in the final moments because it makes it about the psychology and the intellect. It is a very intimate scene with no big explosions and that it what makes it so exceptional. It shows what film making used to be on bigger films.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATIONThe only slight soft spot is the villain. With his frail almost Blofeld approach, he has menace but his tics seem too affected and as a result seems over acted. Granted the rest of the leads including the head of MI6 and especially Cruise and Ferguson are top rate. Alec Baldwin as the new CIA chief had the possibility of getting some of that old Jack Ryan mojo back but he needed to change his delivery. He Is so overtaken with his own persona and posture that he wastes a perfectly good opportunity and seems to be mugging. Again smaller issues in an overall exceptional picture.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE ROGUE NATION“Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” stands with the 1996 original as being one of the best of this series simply because the writing is tight and the direction follows close behind it. Much of this is due to Cruise but also to Christopher McQuarrie’s strengths. Add to this a more malleable Cruise able share the screen and mold his image plus a powerful and plot oriented female lead in Rebecca Ferguson and a multi layered turn by Simon Pegg. Put these all together and you have an effective, smart and worthwhile ride.

A-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: TED 2 [Universal]

ted2The problem when recreating a cultural hit is trying to do it again. It hardly ever works, especially with the best intentions. With the first “Ted”, the idea of a foul-mouthed talking bear was new because it worked as that joke. However, unlike “Family Guy” you need diversity. The problem with this type of film is narrative structure. It can’t simply be a collection of vignettes. This is how “Ted 2” starts off and for the first 20 minutes or so, it works. Ted is trying to have a kid. But McFarlane got sentimental and made it into a search for identity. I am all for these kind of existential journeys but that is not what this picture needs to be. We want to see Ted have his best friend’s son and watch the shenanigans. Instead, we get a bit of a replay or “Law & Order”. Now granted, they make fun of that too but watching Ted as a partial courtroom drama just doesn’t feel exceptional or particularly well thought out. When stage action progresses to a comic con, it just feels like lazy storytelling. McFarlane by extension seemed much more engaged by “A MIllion Ways To Die In The West” because it was a new sandbox to play in but the reception of that didn’t go over well. Plus the goodwill or Mark Wahlberg’s character splitting up with Mila Kunis is done extremely haphazardly. There was so much great opportunity for Meg insults that fans would have loved and Mila, even with her busy schedule, would have possibly been up for it. Instead we get Amanda Seyfried as a stoner lawyer working pro bono. She is not bad mind you but the progression just feels slightly off. Eventually the resolution comes in a way to where it needed to be in the first place without the shenanigans inherent. It just seems that that might have been a more fun ride.

D+

IR Film Review: JURASSIC WORLD [Universal]

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The tricky question when you decide to relaunch a franchise is do you reboot it or do you pay homage and continue a story from before. With something like “The Fast & Furious”, you had to go back to what worked initially which was the original cast. With “Jurassic Park III”, that didn’t work because you took this great couple (The Grants) with push and pull chemistry and made them divorced. A similar thing happened with Dr. Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) who was a stellar character in the first one because of his humor but became more stoic in the second one. The thing that filmmakers need to understand is that many of these franchises are simply designed to be theme park rides. You don’t have to get into deep mythology. Just make sure it hits some notes for hardcore fans and stays on track and, above all, doesn’t take itself too serious. Case in point is its leading actor Chris Pratt, who through some cosmic coincidence has basically become the new era’s Harrison Ford of the early 80s. He is at the exact right age (36). Ford didn’t make his bones in Star Wars until that age. Here he has enough gravitas to make you believe that he could do some of the stuff with the raptors that he claims to do. The other is pure charm which he makes look fairly effortless which with marks and everything is not as easy as it looks. As Starlord in “Guardians Of Galaxy”, he could come off as fairly inept and still remain likeable. Here, there is a little more meat but not much. However, it gives definite creedence that he could play Indiana Jones. Bryce Dallas Howard does the same thing with her role which is less defined but definitely intersperses with the spirit as needed. She and Pratt work well off each other and have chemistry is a cartoonish sort of way. It is similar to Starlord with Zoe Saldana’s character in “Guardians”. Essentially, he makes her laugh. The secondary plot involving Howard’s two nephews is meant as a throwback to the original film. Compounded by the possible divorce of their parents thrown in as a device, it does provide a level of emotional connection. I saw it as a ploy but it still worked. The reveal of a certain location and props from an earlier film does connect the story lines as does the reveal of a protagonist at the very end. The ending sequence beyond spectacle has a little bit resonance beyond the final shot but it is more interesting getting there, especially with certain aspects of the raptors. “Jurassic World” might not be the greatest film but it is the best “Jurassic” since the original.
B-

IR Film Review: TOMORROWLAND [Disney]

tomorrowlandIf George Clooney signs onto a picture, it is with good reason. “Tomorrowland” has all the possibilities of a intrinsic original film and has throwbacks to Disney films of the late 70s such as “Cat From Outer Space”, the “Witch Mountain” films and even “Tron”. It works but it seems it was not the right time. Writing this shortly after opening weekend, there is nothing glaringly wrong with the film. In fact, much of the acting is very good and that has a lot to do with Clooney. The plot is not infinitely complicated but it does involve an android recruiter that has been operating to bring the best minds and thinkers to Tomorrowland. But, like the aging time capsule of Epcot, which has become more nostalgia than cutting edge, “Tomorrowland” in the film promises more what it shows in the trailer and not necessarily in its true self. The bad guys come off more as “Briscoe County Jr”. You can’t be too hard nosed with the concept but Brad BIrd was trying to find that balance between entertainment and edginess. “Pirates” found it, stumbled a bit and nearly lost it but never lost its audience because Captain Jack always brought them back. There is no such characterization in this. What is impressive is watching a 12-year-old girl scolding Clooney because her character is older than him…and it works. Same thing happens again at a crucial point at the end of the film. And it works. The film is not badly structured. Damon LIndelof did an adequate job…but it didn’t capture the zeitgeist. You coukd tell Disney had decent plans for this and you could see a sequel being formulated in the final moments of the film. It is an original world. Just disheartening though to see a lot of great design work and world building lost because of sequel mania. But some things aren’t meant to be. I just hope this doesn’t prevent places like DIsney from taking chances. Marvel and Star Wars are great but they are based on a formula. Ideas, at times, still need to run rampant.
C+