Saturday, March 30, 2013

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)


G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a Hollywood popularity contest.  It is technically a sequel to 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra but these two films have almost nothing in common.  Marlon Wayans is not too popular anymore so he is out and when they made Retaliation, Channing Tatum was not as big of a box office draw as he is today.  Therefore, the studio cancelled it’s original release for June 2012, reshot more scenes with Tatum, who at that time skyrocketed in fame, and here we are now with all new lead characters in what is supposed to be the next chapter in the same story. 

These actor and character do-overs are akin to voting for the prom king.  Unfortunately, the story is just as ridiculous even though they brought in really popular action stars Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Bruce Willis.  The President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) was kidnapped by Cobra and replaced by Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) who copied his face courtesy of nano-technology.  Try and stay with me here folks.

Duke (Tatum), Roadblock (Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), Flint (D.J. Cotrona), and Snake Eyes (Ray Park) are the main Joes and they are off saving nukes from falling into the wrong hands or some such nonsense when evil President Zartan orders their destruction and frames them for something or other.  Now that all of the G.I. Joes are presumed dead, which they are not because then there would be no film, they can get down to business of uncovering the mystery of the President, the nukes, and why Bruce Willis plays the same character he does in Red (2010).

Even though Retaliation is saddled with being part of the remedial G.I. Joe franchise, it was not a requirement to cater it towards the lowest common denominator of movie-goes, they chose to make it that way.  There is a sequence towards the end that touches on so many geopolitical issues concerning nuclear weapons that Retaliation could have aimed much higher.  Instead, we get an hour-and-a-half of The Rock’s bulging biceps, impossible state-of-the-art technology, the most ridiculous detective work performed by Lady Jaye, and the swooshing sounds of swords which in reality everyone knows do not make those sounds.

Oh, and RZA shows up!  He may be the world’s worst actor, but at least they got a die-hard Shaolin kung-fu fanboy to play the Blind Master.  His scenes come off as parody, but it gives the audience a chance to see what remedial filmmaking does to the genre of Asian martial arts.  Give me Tarantino’s Kill Bill vol. 1 any day over this bargain bin knock-off. 

Not only did they bring in a new cast, the studio also brought in a new director, Jon M. Chu.  They certainly did not hire him for his strong credentials in directing mega-budget action films.  His resume highlights include the documentary Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and two installments of the Step Up franchise.  Perhaps this is why Retaliation is campy instead of tongue-in-cheek funny. 

When I was a kid, it was “G.I. Joe, the American Hero.”  Now it’s, “G.I. Joe, we will cast whoever is kind of a box office draw right now and trade in plot and rationality for home-made tanks and all things that go Boom!”  G.I. Joe: Retaliation is all things that should be avoided in the movie theater.   

Directed by: Jon M. Chu
Written by: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Bruce Willis, Adrianne Palicki, D.J. Cotrona, Jonathan Pryce, Ray Park, Byung-hun Lee, Elodie Yung, Ray Stevenson, Channing Tatum, Arnold Vosloo, Joseph Mazzello, RZA


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Spring Breakers (2013)


The girls in Spring Breakers must be freshmen.  They are still fascinated by the idea of beer, they think St. Petersburg, Florida is magical, and they frequently break out into inexplicable shrieks.  Based on its usage, their favorite word is, “Woo!”  I would love to see the movie which shows their lives when they get kicked out of school for failing grades, discover their first STD, and getting robbed while waitressing by girls they used to look like a few years ago.

Other than Selena Gomez who has a distinctive face and character, Faith (the good girl), it is hard to tell the other three girls apart.  It is not necessary to tell one from another because they have no personality, barely any dialogue, and are really the same interchangeable person.  In other words, the characters played by Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine are completely vacuous caricatures of real-life drunken college girls.

We have no idea where the girls are from, but it is remote enough that St. Petersburg feels like Rio to them.  They have no money and even less ability to budget for a spring break trip.  Instead, the three nameless and faceless character travesties rob an out-of-the-way diner to fund the bus ride, beer, weed, and hotel room.  They get busted for what they believe is partying too hard and get bailed out by Alien (James Franco).

Let me tell you about Alien.  First, he tells people his name is Alien.  His teeth are solid silver, his white boy hair is in cornrows, he has a dollar sign tattoo on his neck, a teardrop tattoo under his eye, and can play Britney Spears on the piano.  The girls eat this act up.  They love the cash, the drugs, the arsenal of assault rifles, and the way Alien jumps up and down on his bed yelling, “Check out my shit!”  I suppose he is the film’s cautionary tale; if girls go to St. Petersburg and party too hard, a guy named Alien will become their unbalanced sugar daddy.

Writer/Director Harmony Korine, who wrote Kids back in 1995, tries to recapture what made Kids so controversial and edgy; but he fails completely.  Kids was a wake up call; a serious story about an adrift younger generation.  Spring Breakers is about some girls who mistake substance abuse, armed robbery, and an idealized version of ‘gangsta’ culture as good times and everlasting memories. 

Korine also needs to invest in a new editor.  The girls hardly have anything to say because whenever they utter a sentence, it gets repeated at least another 19 times.  Scenes jump ahead to show the aftermath of an event and then fills in what happened through flashbacks.  People usually complain about style over substance, but in the case of Spring Breakers, there is no substance and a nauseating, distracting style. 

Spring Breakers is so over-the-top and ridiculous that if Korine actually had an agenda for social commentary about the dangers today’s youth face, it never comes out.  I bet there never was any intention at all for a serious conversation to be had after watching this movie.  Korine just thought beer, drugs, boobs, and a familiar dub-step soundtrack would score some money off those same teenagers stumbling back to their dorms this week from the beach.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen (2013)


No matter what screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt chose to do, they were always going to have plot problems with Olympus Has Fallen.  Every time an authority figure makes a decision or a military unit performs a specific maneuver, most of the audience will second-guess it with comments like, “That would never happen in real life,” or even the dreaded, “Bullshit!”  When you’re writing about the White House and the President of the United States, a location and individual everybody feels familiar with, believability will inevitably be an issue. 

The largest plot hole I noticed was the AC-130 gunship flying lower over the National Mall mowing down pedestrians with its Gatling guns while simultaneously shooting down two F-22 Raptors.  Where did the bad guys get an AC-130?  Some backstory is filled in on who the bad guys are and what their motivation is, but as to how they acquired their arsenal of cutting edge surface-to-air munitions and the USAF marked aircraft, that is ignored.

President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) is hosting the South Korean Prime Minister at a time when tensions at the DMZ are escalating; a situation which feels quite similar to today’s news.  When all hell breaks loose outside, he is swiftly escorted to the below ground command center and taken hostage along with the rest of the country’s national security staff as the White House, code-named Olympus, is taken over by extremely well armed and trained combatants.

Thank goodness Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is working a desk job next door in the Treasury building.  He used to be buddy-buddy with the President and his family as their main bodyguard until the First Lady (Ashley Judd) accidentally took a spill off an icy bridge in the film’s opening scene.  No matter, Mike rushes into the White House guns blazing and is now a one man Army against the bad guys.

Exactly who the bad guys are and what they are about is merely an afterthought in the story.  The script devotes hardly any time at all to their grievances; that would take away from hand-to-hand combat, next-generation weaponry, and throaty one-liners about promises of revenge.  Safe from it all as an armchair quarterback is the Speaker of the House and now acting President, Trumbull (Morgan Freeman).  He is surrounded by military brass and for some odd reason, the Director of the Secret Service, Lynn Jacobs (Angela Bassett). 

At a time of national crisis, who else would you expect to sit right next to the President than the Secret Service Director?  Her main job is to recite Banning’s resume and assure the room that her man in the White House is all they need.  This is a prime example of the movie’s main fault; the writers crafted the script specifically for action, not logic.  Decisions are made which are utterly ridiculous, yet they advance the plot to ensure the principal characters end up mono y mono at the end. 

Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter) ran with what he was given though.  Downtown Washington D.C. realistically suffers through waves of destruction and the replica White House looks worse than it probably did after the War of 1812.  Also, Melissa Leo in a small role as the Secretary of Defense has some noticeable fun with her limited time.  The rest is paint by numbers.  Gerard Butler and his bulging biceps pummel a heavily armed militia, Morgan Freeman’s soothing voice keeps everyone calm, and the crazy gadgets keep getting newer and more cutting edge.

There is nothing new in Olympus Has Fallen yet it will keep you engaged.  Do your best to keep the second-guessing and plot hole bingo games to a minimum and you will find an average shoot-em-up somewhere in there.  

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Beyond the Hills (2013)


Something unpleasant happened to these girls in their Romanian orphanage.  We have no idea what it was.  There is some sexual tension between these girls; they obviously had an intense relationship in the orphanage.  We have no idea how deep.  Once of age, they went in directions as opposite as can be. 

Alina (Cristina Flutur) took off on a work visa to Germany for a few years.  Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) gave up all of her earthly possessions, took some vows, and is now a nun in an austere Orthodox monastery.  She calls the priest ‘Papa’ and the head nun ‘Mama’ which Alina notices is just one of the strange rituals Voichita engages in.  Alina has come back to Romania to rescue Voichita and taker her back to Germany with her; however, does Voichita think she requires rescuing?

In the main paradox in Beyond the Hills, each girl believes she is trying to save the other one.  Alina cannot believe Voichita has changed so much that she actually believes in all of this God and sin nonsense.  Now that Alina is at the monastery, Voichita recognizes a soul in need and seeks to introduce Alina to God and bring her peace.  Alina is not ready for God; she wants Voichita.  Voichita is not ready for Alina; she wants God.

Beyond the Hills will test your patience.  It is two and half hours of rugged and real filmmaking.  There is no music, no soft lenses, and no levity.  Monastery life in the dead of the Romanian winter is no picnic.  Plus, Alina is sick and not in an easy to remedy physical way.  Voichita’s unwillingness to rekindle whatever it was they used to have has flicked a switch in Alina’s brain.  She cannot imagine her future without Voichita.

In this small and cloistered monastery, any unusual activity ripples through the rest of the nuns and to the priest (Valeriu Andriuta) in a matter of seconds.  There are no easy to identify good or evil characters here; everyone is a gray area.  The priest wants to improve his church and save souls, in what order is anyone’s guess.  The hospital will not take Alina, her old foster family will not take her, and the monastery is quickly growing tired of her.  Considering it an act of kindness, the priest and Mother Superior (Dana Tapalaga) decide on exorcism as the only practical way to help Alina cleanse herself of whatever sins and demons she picked up in Germany.

Inspired by the non-fiction novels of Tatiana Niculescu Bran about a Romanian exorcism gone wrong, writer/director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) will not give you any answers.  You will draw your own conclusions about who did the right thing, who made poor choices, and if it all could have somehow turned out differently.  The lead actresses, Flutur and Stratan, shared the Cannes Film Festival prize for Best Actress.  They are mesmerizing; especially Stratan as Voichita, but the film’s pacing is molasses.

To establish that Alina is spiraling downhill and causes daily disruptions in monastery life should not require the unending repetitions of 1) We put Alina on the right track, 2) Alina is left alone, 3) A nun comes screaming out into the open that something is wrong with Alina, and 4) Cue another half hour of discussion until the next inevitable episode.     At least Beyond the Hills does not discredit itself by showing some ridiculous Hollywood exorcism rites.  The priest and nuns are far more practical and no-nonsense for that. 

Beyond the Hills is not anti-religious or anti-secularism.  Its only message, if there is one, is that life is full of paradoxes and there are no easy answers.  The easiest answer is probably to stay away from this movie and save yourself the pain.     

Stoker (2013)


Director Chan-wook Park has a reputation; he loves revenge.  Two of his best films, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance are focused completely on the idea of achieving an eye for an eye.  Stoker is a departure for Park, not least because it is in English as opposed to his iconic Korean locations and language.  Stoker is not about revenge either; it is a psychological noirish suspenseful thriller.  I use so many adjectives here because Stoker is quite challenging to classify.

India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) sports a demeanor somewhere on the spectrum between Wednesday Addams and Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice.  She is not so morose as she is observant and suspicious.  India is right to be suspicious, her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), just died in a car accident under mysterious circumstances.  India’s mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), chooses to grieve in a sort of bipolar manner.  Some days she will sleep into the afternoon and lug around intense blood-shot eyes and other days she will cozy up far too close for comfort with Richard’s long lost brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode).

Charlie unexpectedly shows up at the funeral from…Europe maybe?  India cannot get a good answer about why she has never met her uncle before.  There is something ‘off’ about Charlie.  He stares at India as if the two of them share a secret that they have never spoken of.  India is not necessarily supernatural, but she has heightened senses of sight and hearing.  She can see minute detail from far distances and hear any crack or groan throughout the Stoker’s immense and creaky house.

Showcasing these heightened sensations to the audience is what Stoker does best.  The sound mixing is luxurious with loud pops when a hard-boiled eggshell is cracked or when India uses a pencil sharpener to remove some blood that somehow ends up on the pointy lead.  India walking up wooden stairs in perfect time with a swaying metronome focused in the foreground is a feast for the ears.  The art direction is also noticeably well thought out and used to play with the audience.  The stark, oaken dinner table enhances uncomfortable dinner conversation and India’s sopping wet clothes form a puddle on the floor perhaps to make up for all of the tears nobody is shedding for her father.    

With a name such as Stoker, one may think there are some vampire themes afoot; however, while the screenplay hints at some occult activity, there are no vampires or zombies to be found here, only a heavy gothic atmosphere.  Everyone has such bleached white skin and piercing eyes you may be forgiven if you think they will melt in the sunshine, but there are many scenes outdoors in the bright light.

Kudos to Wentworth Miller for such a bold screenplay.  You may remember Miller from his role as Michael Scofield on the TV show Prison Break.  He played an engineering and problem solving genius on the show as he broke out of numerous prisons through multiple seasons.  Here, he crafts characters in close-up detail yet you still have no idea whose motives are innocent or who is scheming. 

There are a few scenes such as an unexpected and sensual piano duet that I will remember for the rest of the year.  Stoker is easily the best film of 2013 through the first few months.  The luscious style is equally matched and mixes seamlessly with the action on the screen.  Chan-wook Park has created outstanding films before and he scores big with Stoker.  It is a rich and rewarding ride.