Tuesday, April 25, 2017

[Review] The Lost City of Z

Based on real events, The Lost City of Z is a sweeping epic of exploration and relentless desire.

Set in the early 1900s, James Gray's film tells the story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British soldier-turned-explorer who's hellbent on discovering a mythological city in South America (which he calls "Zed"). He teams up with a fellow comrade (played by a funny and heavily bearded Robert Pattinson) and they, along with a native guide, embark on a quest deep into uncharted Amazonia.

It's slow-going at first, but once the crew enters the jungle, this transforms into an intense and engrossing journey, especially as they're faced with the unforgiving elements of the rainforest--dangerous animals, infection, terrain, weather, and the uncertainty of how the native tribes may react to their presence. The picture is steeped in a sepia haze, giving the film a layer of humidity and an old-fashioned grandeur, and it displays some exquisitely stunning photography of lush, scenic nature.

Charlie Hunnam, who I've found to be a bit bland in the past, gives a towering performance here. It's easily his best to date, as he commands every single scene with a steadfast vigor and a major sense of dedication. It's also a richly complex character, too. Percy has peaceful and knowledge-seeking intentions, stressing the importance of respect for the natives, their culture, and their history, despite the backlash he receives from the bigoted British aristocracy. And yet, at times he can come off as harsh and neglectful to his own wife (Sienna Miller) and children (one is played by Tom Holland, who's having a breakout as the latest Spider-Man). Percy's commendable ambition and passion for discovery is the very thing that drives him away from his family. These same themes came up in a great film from a few years ago called Kon-Tiki (check out the director's cut if you haven't).

The Lost City of Z is a beautifully shot, sprawling expedition that hearkens back to classical adventures of the past. It's a film that shouldn't just be hidden away, so go seek this one out.

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, April 24, 2017

[Review] Free Fire

I'll start by saying I've pretty much loathed Ben Wheatley's last few films--the overstretched alt-horror of Sightseers, the sloggy A Field in England, and the thoroughly unappealing High-Rise. I figured, maybe I'm just not a fan Wheatley's style. Then along comes Free Fire. While it hasn't converted me to Wheatleyism, it's at least a relatively raucous caper of flying bullets and a gritty cesspool of scummy characters.

Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley, Jack Reynor and a few others play a bunch of low-level criminals of varying backgrounds, egos, and tempers. When the smarmy crew meets up for an arms deal, things go terribly wrong (to put it lightly).

With shades of Guy Richie, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese (who serves as executive producer here), the situation escalates and erupts in a nasty clash of mayhem. Equipped with scattered editing, countless BANGS, and quick, freewheeling dialogue--the script seems to be aiming for a record of most gunshots and F-bombs dropped during a single film. What's interesting about this pulpy flick is that it's essentially one big scene in one location. In other words, it's a really long shootout in an abandoned warehouse. The warehouse holds plenty of places to hide behind--almost acting like a makeshift paintball course, except the guns are deadly, and the floor is littered with asbestos and heroin needles.

Unfortunately, the relentless execution of the concept is also Free Fire's downfall. Once you've witnessed the first 20 minutes or so, you've pretty much seen the rest of the film. And while this thing is billed as a "biting critique of the insanity of gun violence", I think this happens to be a case where the film's press synopsis is giving the film more credit than what it actually conveys. And whether the critique is effective or not, the duration of this thing is still exhaustingly repetitive and it long overstays its welcome. And even though it's greatly acted all-around, we don't really care about the fates of any of these characters, aside from maybe Brie Larson's.

So, Free Fire is exactly like the situation it presents--messy, violent, prolonged, pointless, and sometimes sadistically amusing.

( 6/10 )

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

[Review] After the Storm

If you're familiar with the work of director Hirokazu Koreeda, you know that his filmography consists of quiet familial dramas like Our Little Sister and Like Father, Like Son (to name a couple). His latest, After the Storm, unsurprisingly, is in the very same realm.

Ryota (Hiroshe Abe) is stuck in a rut. Once a successful award-winning author, his career is now dwindling, he has a gambling problem, and he's further alienated himself from his ex-wife (Yoki Maki), his son (Taiyo Yoshizawa) and his elderly mother (Kirin Kiki, who delivers one of the film's best lines: "New friends at my age just means more funerals"). The story essentially swirls around Ryota's attempts to become a bigger part of his son's life and rediscover his own self-worth.

This is a very breezy and relaxed film. You can literally hear the birds chirping. Its narrative - more of a character study, steeped in symbolism of plants blooming and caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis, mirroring the arcs and transformations of the people here. One scene sees Ryota chasing after lottery tickets in the wind, as if he's chasing lost dreams. It is a slow-moving duration, though. A couple of times I found myself drifting in and out of my own daydreams.

Still, with some patience, After the Storm is a rewarding experience, thanks to the subtle yet rich details, the wise dialogue, Abe's stellar central performance, and the heartfelt moments of bonding.

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

[Review] Smurfs: The Lost Village

As I dazed off into the slightly trippy world of Smurfs, a major sense of déjà vu came over me. Then I realized it - Smurfs: The Lost Village is A LOT like last year's Trolls movie...but with Smurfs.

After ~the only girl in the village~ Smurfette (voiced by Demi Lovato) discovers a mysterious map, she and her friends Brainy (Danny Pudi), Clumsy (Jack McBrayer), and Hefty (Joe Manganiello) embark on a journey through the Forbidden Forest in order to search for--as the title says--a lost village. But the nasty wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson) is on their trail and ready to mess stuff up.

I wasn't really expecting the script to have much humor, but the script really doesn't have much humor. And I wasn't really expecting the story to be very engaging, but the story really isn't very engaging. When you think of "generic animated kids movies" this one fits the bill. While it boasts a few semi-amusing chase sequences (tiny little buggers running from much bigger buggers), the narrative is all over the place, so scattered that it also gets lost in the woods. There also are some well-intended but really basic messages of gender equality and empowerment--the kind of sentiment that makes you go "Well, duh."As for the animation, it's smooth like a balloon. The settings are colorful and whimsical and magical and filled with glowy and spunky creatures and plants.

All in all, this movie is a serviceable, mostly harmless 85 minutes of sweet eye candy. But if anything, it just made me hungry for Sour Patch Kids.

( 5/10 )

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

[Review] The Bye Bye Man

You either die a Babadook, or you live long enough to see yourself become The Bye Bye Man.

This insanely ridiculous, meme-provoking horror film is a modern marvel of unintentionally hilarity, and I loved every minute of it. After opening with a sadistically grim scene that flips to chuckle-worthy at the drop of a dime, the story flash-forwards to the present where we meet a generic group of college students who move into a decrepit old house that might as well read "Yep, I'm haunted" on the welcome mat. The usual stuff occurs--mysterious noises, doors closing on their own, out-of-control bodily functions... And then the group learns of THE BYE BYE MAN - an imaginary, mind-warping entity who apparently makes people want to kill whenever they say or think its name.

Drinking game: If you took a shot every time someone in this movie says "Don't think it, don't say it," you'd be dead. And if you took a shot every time someone actually does utter "THE BYE BYE MAN," you'd also be dead--from laughter. See, whenever someone spews out the name, they make an amusingly odd face and their eyes roll back, as if they've finally broken a spell of constipation. It's kind of how my face looked the entire time while I was watching this movie. And let me just say that I'm so glad that this thing falls into the so-bad-it's-funny category, rather than the so-bad-it's-just-bad category.

To the film's credit though, the composition of some of the early scenes--between the eerie lighting and camerawork--is effective enough to spook you out if you're watching this at home alone in the dark. But then there's all the absolutely absurd and relentlessly cheesy scenes, like the one where a couple is sitting in a car, and little maggots start squirming out of the girlfriend's eye. This scene is even funnier than the trailer cut (the exchange that takes place is something you just have to witness for yourself). And there's the head-scratching hallucinatory sequences that look like Axe Body Spray commercials gone wrong. And the random Chupacabra that comes out of nowhere. I seriously wondered what the point of any of it was. And then there's the consistently atrocious acting and the hysterically questionable dialogue. When The Bye Bye Man begins to get into the characters' heads, I couldn't believe the stuff that was coming out of their mouths (and how it made the final script). Honestly, The Bye Bye Man is actually a pretty funny guy. He really should be called The Ha Ha Man.

What's also astonishing is how this film is so incredibly derivative, so unwilling to carve out its own path in the crowded genre of haunted house and evil ghoul movies. And yet, I went into it thinking it would be completely forgettable and ended up being wrong. Because I cannot stop thinking about it.

( The Bye Bye Man/10 )

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