lunes, 31 de diciembre de 2012

2012: The Best and Worst For Me

2012 is about to finish so, despite the fact that I haven't seen a lot of films, I figured why not make a list of the best and worst for me? First, lets get the films I haven't seen out of the way, so you won't start wondering why this or that didn't "make it". Some of the ones I haven't seen are: The Avengers, Skyfall, Django Unchained, Lincoln, Les Misérables, The Hobbit, Life of Pi, Argo, The Master, etc. etc. As of today, I've only seen 15 films from 2012, so here are my best and worst.

The Best
To this day, I hadn't really seen anything spectacular. Casually, the one that I would consider the best 2012 film I've seen so far is Chained, which I saw this last week. It is a little known thriller starring Vincent D'Onofrio. Neatly acted and overall well done. The rest of the best that I've seen tend to fall more in the B-grade range, but entertaining nonetheless. Films like Savages, The Sound of My Voice, and The Hunger Games, among others, were all entertaining films, albeit not spectacular.

The Middle of the Pack
Not far from the last three I mentioned above, are a group of films that were also entertaining, but leaning more towards average. Films like Prometheus or The Dark Knight Rises could be considered disappointments, but they were far from awful. Other films that would fall in the middle would be Haywire, The Grey, Safe House, and The Raid, among others.

The Worst
Just like I haven't seen anything spectacular or mind-blowing, I haven't seen a truly awful 2012 film. The one I would probably consider the worst would be The Raven. Overall, a mediocre film with pretty good directing, but uneven acting and a mediocre script. After that, I would probably say that Chronicle was very disappointing. I thought the premise was pretty good, I felt the approach was inventive, the acting was solid, but the use of the "handheld camera" ended up being annoying and distracting, and the final act ended up being a mess.

Maybe later, as I end up watching more 2012 films, I'll add more to this entry. But as of now, that would be my feeble list of 2012 best and worst.

domingo, 30 de diciembre de 2012

Chained: Surprising little film

(Although I tried to refrain from spoilers, there might be some light ones.)

Chained is a little-known film from director Jennifer Lynch with a disturbing premise. A 9-year old kid and his mother are kidnapped by a cab-driving serial killer. After dispatching of the mother, the killer forces the kid to work as both his servant and helper on his secluded home, which goes on for years. I hadn't heard of this film before renting it this week. It was mostly filmed and shown in Canada, and then released directly to video in the US. After watching it, I have to say it was a pleasant surprise.

The role of Bob, the serial killer, falls on the hand of Vincent D'Onofrio. IMO, D'Onofrio is one of the most underrated actors out there, and I just can't understand why he hasn't had more success, or at least more exposure. His performance is disturbing, chilling, scary, but at the same time, he manages to give the character certain levels of humanity. The role of the kidnapped child, who Bob calls Rabbit, belongs to both Evan Bird (9 years) and Eamon Farren (17-18 years), and they both excel in it. They both portray the complexity of Rabbit's relationship with Bob perfectly, as well as the fear and insecurity that an isolated child might feel.
As the film progresses, and the years go by, we see dozens and dozens of women dragged into the house by Bob only to end up dead and buried under the house. Meanwhile, Bob assumes the role of paternal figure to Rabbit in his own way. He tries to "educate" Rabbit by giving him a book of anatomy, while forcing him to keep scrapbooks of the news of his kidnappings. In their free time, they "play" with the drivers licenses of the deceased which they both have memorized.

As Rabbit grows older, Bob tries to teach him his "craft", which brings up the question. Will Rabbit grow up to follow Bob's footsteps? Even though Bob removes his chains at one point, is he still "chained" to this fate? The film doesn't necessarily offer an answer, but the ending revelation surely took me by surprise, and made the film feel yet more twisted and sad.

Overall, a surprisingly good little film, with some great performances. Despite its subject, Chained doesn't fall into the slasher genre, and becomes more of a psychological thriller/character study. I fully recommend it. Grade: A

(All pictures belong to Anchor Bay Entertainment and its affiliates)

The Dark Knight Rises: The End of Nolan's Batman Trilogy

(This review includes spoilers for the film)

This week I finally saw The Dark Knight Rises, the last chapter of director Christopher Nolan's trilogy on Batman. First, to put things in perspective, I'll share some quick thoughts about the two previous films. Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are solid, entertaining films. I remember seeing both in theaters and enjoying them. Regardless of this, the first one has been somewhat forgettable to me, and I haven't felt compelled to rewatch it. The second one is only elevated by Heath Ledger's flawless performance as the Joker. But other than that, the film is far from great. I have many issues, particularly with the last act, but that's a matter for another entry.

Now, for the third installment, I tried to keep my expectations in check, considering my thoughts on the previous two films. In the end, I can say I was satisfied with it. The Dark Knight Rises is a solid, entertaining film, but not that different from its predecessors in that it never reaches excellence or greatness. Some of its assets are its performances, most of which are good, but none spectacular. I really liked Joseph Gordon-Levitt performance as John Blake. I thought Christian Bale did a better job here than he did in the second one. And Tom Hardy was pretty good as Bane, considering he had to fill Ledger's shoes. Another asset would be the direction. Nolan does a good job handling the camera for the most part and the action sequences are neatly shot.

Now for the stuff that wasn't that good. First, I thought the dialogue was at times too clunky and preachy. Some lines felt as if they were written just for the sake of having a "quotable" quote there. Some for the "epicness" of it, others just for the "coolness". 

Second, I know it's a superhero film and as such requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, but I had some issues with most things concerning The Pit. From the narrative symbolism of it, to the time issues having to do with Wayne's recovery and the time that Gotham spends in chaos. About the symbolism, I would've preferred a bit more subtlety to the "rising" of the Dark Knight. And all that stuff about being able to jump the ledge and walk out, it just didn't work for me. And then, we are supposed to believe that a whole city will remain in this chaos for months without the government doing something? I just didn't find Bane's plan either plausible or coherent.

My third and final issue would be with both of Bruce Wayne's relationships in the film. IMO, both felt forced and unnecessary. With Miranda Tate more so. I don't think that it added anything to the conflict within the Wayne Board of Directors or in the climax of the film. Plus, the fact that Tate's secret was all spoiled through the Internet, even before the film opened, ruined all the surprise that the ending revelation might've had. So when she revealed her true nature, there was no edge to it, and then, the script dispatches of Bane, the villain we've been following all the film, rather easily and unceremoniously.

But despite everything I've written, like I said above, the film was still entertaining, albeit a bit overlong. And considering all the bad third installments we've seen among comic book films (Superman III, Spider-Man 3), I suppose this was as good of a closure as one could wish. In the end, I don't think this was neither worst nor better than the first two films. All of them, decent and enjoyable efforts, but nothing great (aside of Ledger in The Dark Knight). Grade: B

(All pictures belong to Warner Bros. and its affiliates)

domingo, 23 de diciembre de 2012

Homeland: A look back at Season 2

 (This review includes spoilers for the whole season)

Last weekend saw the end of the second season of Showtime's Homeland. After a great season premiere and some unexpectedly early twists, the show again delivered on its promise of great thrills, intense moments, and great performances. 

Following the events of the first season, which left war hero/terrorist Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) en route to a political career, and mentally unstable CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) dismissed from the CIA and "committed", the new season manages to spin the wheels again in a believable way, as Carrie's suspicions are proved correct and Brody's cover is blown, forcing him to collaborate with the CIA in their attempt to capture head terrorist Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban). Meanwhile, Brody's family life continues to crumble under his lies and guilt.

After Brody's capture on the fourth episode, I asked myself "what now?", cause it seemed surprisingly early in the season for that. But fortunately, the writers found good paths to take the story through on its way to the finale, just like they did on the first season. And every episode delivers on such different ways, be it with its performances ("Q&A"), its emotional grip ("The Clearing"), or several unexpected twists. The fifth episode ("Q&A"), which featured an intense interrogation of Brody by both Quinn (Rupert Friend) and Carrie was among the best the show has done so far. Simply an acting tour-de-force by everyone involved. 

Some of the unexpected twists involved the CIA being surprised while searching the Tailor's shop in Gettysburgh by a team of terrorists that left everyone, including Quinn and Galvez, for dead; Brody being taken away by Roya to meet Abu Nazir; or the revelations of Quinn's actual involvement in the mission. All of those involved pretty good cliffhangers that left me craving for the next episode.

That said, I won't deny that I felt a certain decline in the execution of some plotpoints during the second half of the season. Most notably, I felt the way the search for Nazir at the abandoned mill was handled was slightly weak. I mean, experienced tactical  search teams didn't notice a false wall? or Carrie and the team leader being separated from the rest when they find Nazir? the awkward return of Galvez? Those are some of the ones that come to mind. Producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon did a good job in addressing some of these "issues" in a lengthy press conference (read here). But overall, those issues didn't detract much from my enjoyment of the show.

The finale also did a great job of putting the events of past episodes in perspective. Whereas the capture of Abu Nazir had seem a bit anti-climatic and maybe even borderline silly, the finale revealed what was actually behind all of it, literally with a bang as an explosive planted on Brody's car blows up the whole CIA building in the middle of a memorial to Vice-President Walden. The moment of the explosion was actually a nice surprise that I didn't see coming. It saddens me that they offed Estes (David Harewood) because I always thought he was a pretty good actor, and the character was a solid grey-ish antagonist.

There was actually a little bit of everything in the finale, with great emotional moments between Brody and Dana, some great intense moments between Estes/Saul, Estes/Quinn, and Saul/Carrie. I have to add that the addition of Rupert Friend as Peter Quinn to the cast was a great move. Friend delivered greatly with his cold performance. I loved his character. As for the rest, if there's anything else I could nitpick, the moments that Carrie and Brody spend together as a "happy couple" always feel awkward to me. And maybe that's how it's supposed to be, but I really don't see this relationship as something healthy. I tend to lean towards Saul point of view on the matter and I consider Carrie to be "the smartest and the dumbest f**king person I've ever known".

Either way, the explosion at the CIA only ignited another string of events, as Carrie is forced to help Brody leave the country, while Saul is left in charge of the CIA, after the death of more than 200 people, including Estes and most of the CIA top-brass. This sets up the events of what would be the third season, which will begin someday in 2013. Just like after Season 1, I can't wait.

(All pictures belong to Showtime and its affiliates)

jueves, 20 de diciembre de 2012

Dream Theater: Scenes from a Memory

With 27 years, and 12 studio albums, Dream Theater have established themselves as one of the most talented bands of progressive rock. It has been one of my favorite bands for several years now. I've seen them live twice and pretty much love all their albums. Now, when I look at their discography, the one that probably stands out as the best for me is their epic, concept album Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory. Released in 1999, the album tells the story of a man called Nicholas, who discovers details of a past life which include love, murder, and betrayal. The album was further recorded live in both a CD (Live Scenes from New York) and a DVD (Metropolis 2000: Scenes from New York).

The album has a lot of assets. First, great music and an interesting story. Second, the usual musicianship and talent of the band is at its peak. And third, is the cohesiveness of the whole album. This really feels like a concept album; all the songs feel like a part of each other, a part of the same story. There's a seamless nature to the songs that makes them flow much better.

"Fatal Tragedy" is probably my favorite song from the album. Even before I became familiar with the band, and even heard the whole album, I had heard it and I fell in love with it. Some time later, after hearing the whole album, the whole sequence of "Through My Words", "Fatal Tragedy", and "Beyond This Life" became my absolute favorite. To me, it is one of the strongest and most kick-ass sequences of any album ever. The build-up from a slow song to a hard-hitting rocker is excellent, and the intensity of each song is contagious. That doesn't mean the album lets go after that. All the songs share the same qualities, but "The Spirit Carries On" and "Finally Free" come to mind as another sequence that rivals the first one I mentioned.

That said, I have to admit that I tend to give the edge to the live recording of the album (Live Scenes from New York, or Metropolis 2000) when listening to it. This might seem weird, but I think the songs benefit themselves from the live environment. The intensity I mentioned feels stronger in the live version, and there's a "rawness" to the music that elevates it. Sure, James LaBrie's voice suffers just a tad when he's live, but I still think the live versions are better than the studio album.

Although Dream Theater has always been consistent in the quality of their albums, Scenes from a Memory stands out for me. As good as their other albums are, the only one I think approaches its greatness is maybe 2003's Train of Thought. Epic, thought-provoking, intense, hardcore. Those are some words that can describe it. Grade: A+

(All pictures belong to Dream Theater, Elektra, and its affiliates)

domingo, 16 de diciembre de 2012

Road to Perdition: Can we turn around?

perdition: loss of the soul; eternal damnation.

Is a killer beyond redemption? or is his soul condemned to eternal damnation or hell? That's one of the questions that lies at the core of this film. Tom Hanks' character, enforcer Michael Sullivan, knows where his soul is headed (or at least he thinks so), but still he wants to spare this "fate" from his son (Tyler Hoechlin). Either Michael sees himself beyond redemption, or thinks he can achieve it at least by keeping his son away from the life he has led.

Set during the Great Depression, Road to Perdition follows Sullivan, an enforcer for Irish mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman). When Rooney's son and fellow enforcer, Connor (Daniel Craig), loses his cool and murders an associate, Sullivan's older son accidentally witnesses it. This worries Connor, who unknowingly to his father and boss, kills Sullivan's wife and younger son, mistaking him for Michael Jr. This forces Sullivan to flee to Chicago with his son. Michael's desire for vengeance must wait while he tries to keep his son protected. To make matters worse, Connor recruits a ruthless killer (Jude Law) to hunt Sullivan and his son.

Although the titular "road to Perdition" refers to the road that Sullivan and his son take on their way to a town called Perdition, where an aunt can keep young Michael safe, it is obviously a reference to the road that Sullivan has traveled all his life, and the one he fears his son might embark on now that they're on the run. He knows the kind of life he has led, and despite all his efforts to keep it from spilling on his son, he fears that his desire for vengeance might push his son towards the same road.

To contrast, the film presents Rooney's relationship with his own son, Connor, as a very troubled one. Rooney dislikes Connor's reckless behavior, and actually loves Michael, his surrogate son, more. Connor holds a constant jealousy towards Michael and a deep resent towards his father. Rooney has similar traits to Sullivan, albeit a bit late in his life. He regrets the way his son has turned out, but recognizes that it's his fault.

One of the greatest things the film has is its cast. Craig, Law, Stanley Tucci, and even young Tyler Hoechlin, all are pretty good in their roles. Newman, in what ended up being one of his last roles, really shines as the regretful mob lord. As for Hanks, much was said about the role (a "killer") being a stretch, but it really isn't. His character is indeed a killer, and does so ruthlessly, but is that enough for a "stretch"? One can say he is a "bad guy", but he is juxtaposed with characters that are worse than him, thus making him the "good guy" and the one to root for. Regardless of this, Hanks always delivers and he infuses the role with the needed restrained humanity and cold sense of "fatherhood".

Aside of the performances, two of the best assets the film has are Sam Mendes' direction and Conrad Hall's excellent cinematography. Hall, who died shortly after the film was released, received a posthumous Oscar for his work. The work of both make the film look both dark and beautiful at the same time.

This wasn't the first time I saw this film. But I hadn't seen it since its release, and was looking forward to rewatching it. I'm glad I caught it on TV yesterday. Grade: A-

(All pictures belong to Dreamworks, 20th Century Fox, and its affiliates)

sábado, 8 de diciembre de 2012

The Walking Dead: First half of Season 3

(This review features spoilers to the third season of the show)

After what I considered to be a so-so premiere, The Walking Dead kicked it up pretty good in its upcoming episodes. Sparked by some pretty intense episodes ("Sick"), and some shocking plot twists ("Killer Within"), the first half succeeded in delivering good drama, thrills, and gore right to the last episode.

As our group of survivors, led by Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), settles in the prison as their new refuge, they must face the threats of walkers still roaming the dark hallways, and the possibility of an external attack from another group of survivors. Meanwhile, Andrea (Laurie Holden) who is being protected by Michonne (Danai Gurira), find what they think could be a safe haven in a barricaded town called Woodbury, led by a man that calls himself The Governor (David Morrissey).

Overall, I was satisfied with what I've seen so far. The second episode ("Sick") featured some very intense moments as Rick and Company clashed with the surviving prisoners led by Tomas (Nick Gomez). The tension between the two groups was excellent, and the payoff was perfect. I also thought the suspense about Hershel, and the possibility that he might turn into a "walker" was handled pretty well.

The third episode ("Walk With Me") expanded on the whereabouts of Andrea and Michonne, as well as introducing The Governor and the town of Woodbury. The episode wasn't as intense as the previous one, taking a more relaxed pace, probably to evoke the feeling of apparent safety in Woodbury. The plot is mostly carried by the enigmatic Governor, played perfectly by Morrisey. As the season progresses, he adds so many dimensions and layers to his character that it's a joy to watch. We also find out that Daryl's brother, Merle, is alive and well serving as The Governor's lieutenant in Woodbury.

The big revelation in this episode comes from the way The Governor handles the military group that he was allegedly going to help in the end. I didn't particularly like the way the scene was directed (slow motion), but I was surprised nonetheless by it. Add to that the final scene with The Governor looking at the fish tanks, and we have a pretty interesting episode.

The fourth episode ("Killer Within") probably marks the peak of the season, at least in terms of surprising twists and shocks. Rick and Company have to deal with a horde of walkers that infiltrated the prison, helped by one of the prisoners that was left alive by Rick. The moment of the attack is very intense, and the action and gore is pretty good. Moreover, the departure of two original cast members came as a real surprise to me. I thought that final act was handled perfectly, particularly with Carl's big decision. Another effective moment of directing for me was how at that moment, they flashed back to the moment when Rick gave Carl his gun and told him:
"No more kid stuff. I wish you could have the childhood I had, but that's not gonna happen. People are gonna die. I'm gonna die. Mom."
The resonance of those words, in light of what happens in the episode, gives such an emotional impact. I really loved that moment. And Andrew Lincoln's performance in the end, when he realizes what has happened to Lori was excellent.

Like with "Walk With Me", the fifth episode ("Say the Word") feels a bit more relaxed and slow-paced after the intensity of the previous episode. Still, there are a few good tense moments, particularly between Michonne and The Governor, as they square off each other in mistrust. I wasn't that crazy about the way Rick's emotional debacle was handled, but I wasn't that bothered by it either. His frail state of mind continues to be an issue in the next episode ("Hounded") where he begins getting strange phone calls while isolated in one of the prison rooms. The best parts here are the ones with Michonne running away from Merle. All the stuff with Merle's soldier, Gargulio, was pretty funny too. Merle's eventual kidnapping of Glenn and Maggie was another highlight that set up what would happen in the next episodes.

The seventh episode ("When the Dead Come Knocking") have Merle and The Governor interrogating and torturing both Glenn and Maggie, as they try to find out the location of their group. Meanwhile, Andrea collaborates with Milton in one of his experiments on the walker's psyche, or lack of. The interrogations, and Glenn's fight with a walker, were the best moments. The scene when The Governor questions first Glenn, and then Maggie, was so good that I wanted to punch the man in the face.

The eight episode ("Made to Suffer") was the last one of this stretch, and it delivered in most aspects. First, we are introduced to a new group of survivors led by Tyreese. I really loved the way Carl handled the situation and I'm looking forward to what they will do with his character in the future. The action scenes when Rick and Company raid Woodbury were a bit clunky at times, but they still worked. The peak of the episode was the fight between Michonne and The Governor, which was nothing short of great. My jaw hit the floor when she actually killed Penny. I just couldn't believe they would go that way, and the fight that ensued was perfect. In the end, we see how The Governor betrays Merle as he reveals they have captured Daryl, and teases the crowd into lynching them.

Like I've said, I thought the first half really delivered and I was pleased with the outcome. Sure, there were some awkward moments (Carol's disappearance, how Rick handles Lori's death, T-Dog? Oscar?), but the good/great moments outweigh the ones that were not so good. I have to underline how surprised I was at Lori's death. I wouldn't have thought the show would go that route. With Dale's death last season, and now T-Dog and Lori, it almost feels as if showrunner Glen Mazzara was cleansing the show from everything that had to do with Frank Darabont. And even though I didn't have as much problems with Season 2 as most people had, Season 3 already feels with a more assured pace and a more focused story.

Kudos to Andrew Lincoln, David Morrissey, and Michael Rooker, who I think give out the best performances from the season. Looking forward to February, to see where they take the show. But for now, I give this first half an A- 

(All pictures belong to AMC and its affiliates)

miércoles, 5 de diciembre de 2012

Nightwish: Imaginaerum Tour @ Puerto Rico

Nightwish has been one of my favorite bands since a bit after they released Once, which is arguably their most popular album. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to see them live for the first time during their Imaginaerum World Tour here in Puerto Rico. Overall, I enjoyed the show a lot. There were some surprises for me, some things I didn't like, and lots that I did. But overall, it was a pretty good concert. 

First, kudos to the producers for the punctuality. The opening act started exactly at 9:00pm and finished roughly at 9:30pm. And then, Nightwish started at 10:00pm exactly, so there was little to no wait for everything. On that note, the opening band was guitarist Ramón Ortíz' solo project. Ortiz, who is the guitarist from Puya and Ankla, made a solid effort, and the crowd responded well, at least as far as opening acts go. The sound was muddled though, and although the singer he used for his last two or three songs had some moments, he wasn't that great either. Still, I enjoyed it.

Replacement singer Floor Jansen (credit: rjforster)
My first surprise was the absence of singer Anette Olzon from the line-up. Unbeknownst to me, Olzon, who had served as Nightwish's lead singer since 2007, had departed with the band in October right in the middle of the tour. In her place was singer Floor Jansen, whom I had never listened before. Still, Jansen projected a unique domain of the stage and a commanding presence that was enough to forget Olzon. Nothing against her, but Olzon always felt like an odd choice for me because she lacked the vocal abilities of previous singer Tarja Turunen. And although she knew how to handle her style, her vocal limits were obvious, and she didn't quite fit wit what Nightwish had been so far musically. Jansen, on the other hand, has a more impressive voice that is closer to Tarja's than Olzon. And as proved through the concert, she was a perfect for the band.

As far as the set list goes, I have to say I haven't listened to most of Nightwish's new album so my main expectations were with them singing classics. Still, the opening song ("Storytime") was a pretty good choice to kick off things. After that, they went with two of their greatest hits: "Dark Chest of Wonders" and "I Wish I Had an Angel". I think this was my peak of the concert because of them being among my favorite songs from the band, and judging from the response, the crowd agrees. I think the only song that even came close to the response those two had was another classic "Wishmaster", which was the second to last song from the night.

But that doesn't mean the concert was bad. Far from it. New songs like "I Want My Tears Back", which was another highlight, were intercalated with classics like "Nemo" and "Planet Hell", among others. Slower songs like "The Siren" and "Ghost Love Score" sounded pretty good on Jansen's voice. Bassist/vocalist Marco Hietala's voice was also flawless. As for the sound, it was better than with the opening act, but still there were moments were there could've been improvement.

My biggest beefs with the concert were the following: first, they didn't come back for an encore! I mean, what band nowadays denies their audience an encore? The crowd was left there chanting and waiting, looking at each other. That pissed me off.* And second, they didn't sing one of my favorite songs: "Bye Bye Beautiful". Considering the song is from the first studio album that Olzon recorded, maybe they consciously stayed away from those; but that song is easily on my Top 5 of Nightwish songs. All in all, the band sung over 15 songs during almost two hours, but an additional 5 minutes would've been the icing.

So, like I said in the first paragraph, a pretty good show overall. But the absence of an encore, and some missed favorites for me left me a bit sour. Still, the concert gets a high B+ from me.

*Note: Thanks to the people at the Nightwish English Forum for clarifying something to me. The absence of an encore was a conscious decision from the band. I wasn't aware of that.

(Credits: The first picture was taken by me. Floor Jansen's picture was taken by rjforster. Last promotional picture belongs to Nightwish)

domingo, 2 de diciembre de 2012

The Retro-80's Machismo of The Expendables

I'm sure everyone that watches any of The Expendables films knows what to expect: pure retro 80's, macho adrenaline, lots of explosions and mindless action. And that's exactly what they deliver. Each of them to varying degrees of success, but never really straying from that formula of being a tongue-in-cheek, action-filled vehicle for "faded" 80's action stars, or wrestlers-turned-action-stars.

The Expendables follows an elite team of mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone). The team is completed by actions stars of then and now like Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Terry Crews, and Randy Couture. Stallone also serves as screenwriter, and director of the first installment.

This first one was the "experiment", for lack of a better word, and hence the less unpolished one, IMO. I saw it earlier this year and, although I enjoyed and respected its intentions, I felt it missed the mark in some aspects. First, I thought Stallone and Co. didn't take advantage of the opportunity they had to play off the concept and premise and make a really fun film. As a result, the film feels a bit dull at times. Second, Stallone's direction was a bit muddled, particularly in the last climatic fight, which should be key to this type of film.

The sequel corrects most of those flaws. First, Stallone brought director Simon West who, although far from a great director, has a more sure hand in handling the action. The scenes flow with a better pace and there's a better control of the camera. Second, I felt the approach to the film was more tongue-in-cheek, which makes the film feel more relaxed and less interested in achieving anything beyond what is intended.

There's little to look for here performance-wise. The joy comes from watching these 80's old stars duke it out and kick-ass together while exchanging witty one-liners. Stallone does a decent job carrying the lead role, and the expanded "cameos" of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis work well. Plus, there's a pretty funny appearance by Chuck Norris. Does it feel forced? Sure, but I was still chuckling at the absurdity of it. What little drama there is comes  from Liam Hemsworth's role. Despite being predictable and a bit of a cliché, he does it well and sells the part.

Like with the first part, I think the most fun comes from the villain. Eric Roberts did a pretty good job in the first one and, surprisingly, the same happens here. I think this will be the first time I say this, but Jean-Claude Van Damme was easily the highlight of the film. He played the villain (appropriately called Vilain) with the sort of swagger and cockiness that all those cool, 80s villains exuded. His final fight with Stallone was also pretty good.

Overall, a pretty solid action film. Not much more, but I'm sure that's exactly what Stallone had in mind. It gets a solid B from me. (For what it's worth, my wife kinda liked the first one more :-D)

(All pictures belong to Lionsgate and its affiliates)

The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary
Over how bad The Raven could be, and if it would leave my eyes sore.
After renting it and watching, suddenly in my mind there came a tapping
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my brain door.
“This isn’t as bad as I expected” I muttered, “but it’s still a bit of a bore”
“Only this, and nothing more”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was James McTeigue who directed,
Danny Ruhlmann’s cinematography that cast lights, shadows on the floor.
Eagerly I wished the film would’ve been better, and not as hollow.
From John Cusack’s miscast role – he did good, but could’ve done more;
To the script that could’ve glowed, and could’ve soared,
But it was just there, nothing more.

Then a supporting cast that was solid, they delivered with their acting
By Luke Evans and Brendan Gleeson, although they could’ve done more
Though their roles were stuck and underdeveloped, I said at least it’s a haven
In a film that brought little thrill, could’ve been so much more
Tell me why with such a great source, it could’ve been easy to score
But The Raven? Nevermore.

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing,
On the climax and the ending, could’ve taken the film to the next shore;
On the killer’s motivations and identity, that could’ve used some more refining
On the resolution that the film tried to rest o’er,
But whose contrivances where so weak to look over
'Tis just a C and nothing more.

(Silly, but I had fun writing it XD )

(All images belong to Relativity Media and their affiliates)

viernes, 23 de noviembre de 2012

King of Devil's Island: A Norweigan surprise

King of Devil's Island (or Kongen av Bastøy) is a Norwegian film released in 2010. Loosely based on real events, it follows what happens at a remote juvenile correctional facility in 1915 after the arrival of a teenager called Erling (Benjamin Helstad). Erling's rebellious nature earns him the respect and friendship of fellow prisoners, namely Olav (Trond Nilssen), but clashes instantly with the leaders of the facility: cruel and abusive Housefather Braaten (Kristoffer Joner) and strict director Håkon (Stellan Skarsgård).

On the surface, King of Devil's Island might seem like your typical prison film with the typical clichés: abusive guards, cruel warden, the bonding of prisoners, the hard labor, the punishments... there's even a brief scene that, in a way, mimics the well-known "grave" scene from Cool Hand Luke. But the thing is that such "clichés" are handled in a way that they don't feel as such; they feel organic and natural to the story.

Add to that an excellent work from the cast, and a neat work from director Marius Holst, and the result is a pretty good film. Most of the cast deliver top performances. Helstad and Nilssen, both portray the rough and emotional side of both Erling and Olav respectively. Their friendship feels real and believable. Joner is solid as the cruel Braaten, and Skarsgård portrays his character with such a "greyness" that makes us feel empathy for his character as well. His Håkon is not the typical ruthless and evil warden. He's a conflicted man that wants to do what's right, but is unable to.

Overall, a fine film. It doesn't tread any new grounds, but knows how to walk a familiar path without stumbling. Grade: A-

martes, 20 de noviembre de 2012

Prometheus and The Raid: Different films, similar grades, different reasons

About a week ago, I saw to very different films: Prometheus and The Raid: Redemption. These two films couldn't be more different from each other. And still, when the dust cleared, I ended up giving both almost the same grade, albeit for very different reasons.

First, Prometheus. The film is a quasi-prequel to the 1979 Alien, and is directed by Ridley Scott himself. It features a scientific expedition to a planet where lead scientists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) expect to find answers about humanity and life. The expedition is being monitored by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), an employee of the company who could be described as a "bitch". The other significant members of the crew are Captain Janek (Idris Elba) and David (Michael Fassbender), an android that is perhaps more curious and more human than he should be.

It's inevitable to watch a film like this without high expectations. The resume of the director (who has worked with films like Blade Runner, Gladiator, Alien itself) combined with the legacy of the series make for a hefty baggage to carry. In the end, this is one of the things that harms the film. Because, as a stand alone film, Prometheus is a solid, decent sci-fi flick. But when compared to the likes of Alien or Aliens, it pales. You can tell it's an ambitious film. There's an underlying message on life, creation, mortality, and divine intervention. But it feels unexplored, despite being too preachy and in-your-face in some scenes. There are subtle hints of greater things here that are never fully brought, at least effectively, while other things are hammered more intently, perhaps numbing their effects. 

That aside, there are some genuine intense moments of dread and fear, particularly as the crew explores a structure they find in the planet they arrive at. Scott knows how to handle those moments brilliantly, and delivers a nice, creepy atmosphere as well as some good scares. The essence of a greater and more complicated world is there. Unfortunately, it's not executed properly all the time. Speaking of great directing and scares, there's a scene where Elizabeth (Rapace) is trapped in a medical pod that's particularly intense. But the fact that it stretched believability too much hindered its effect, IMO.

As for the cast, the characters aren't developed that well. Rapace, as good as she could've been, never became a completely effective lead for me. The rest of the cast is pretty much one-dimensional. There's a vague attempt to instill some depth on Vickers (Theron), but it fell flat for me. Janek has a cool arc, but his character is too secondary, plus the arc is too predictable and not that strong. The only character that shows interesting traits is the android. Michael Fassbender plays the role of David neatly, and he truly shines in it. That said, I don't know what the director and writer wanted to convey with the character. There was something off about the way his character did things, and not necessarily the obvious "off". His motivations and behavior seemed more childlike than anything else. Perhaps that was to show how eager he was to please his "father"?

Anyway, the final act ranged from messy to predictable. Sure, there was an intensity to it, in terms of action, but it felt too muddled. Add to that the fact that the trailer revealed too much, and you have a drained effect in the end. High expectations, perhaps unfulfillable, combined with a so-so execution doesn't add up to greatness.

On the other hand, we have The Raid: Redemption. an Indonesian action film that's probably the opposite of Prometheus; at least in terms of goals. The film doesn't have the lofty goals that Prometheus has. It exists purely to provide kick-ass action and not much else. The film follows a rookie SWAT agent called Rama (Iko Uwais) thrown in the middle of a raid inside a building controlled by a vicious crime-lord (Ray Sahetapy). After the team is ambushed, Rama has to fight his way out. And that's about it.

The whole film consists of neatly choreographed fights that occur while Rama is trying to get from point A to point B. Even though the fights veer too much into superhero genre, they are still kick-ass. Sure, there's an underlying story about police corruption and estranged brothers, yadda yadda, but it only serves to connect one action sequence to the other. In a way, the film feels like a video game as Rama tries to get through each floor into safety, while encountering seemingly endless hordes of thugs. Like I said, there are no ambitions here. But on a pure entertainment level, it delivered enough to keep me up. Not enough to bring it over the hump or make it memorable, but enough to pass time.

So we have two different films: one with great ambitions and maybe greater expectations, and another one with more simpler goals. Prometheus was decent, but failed to deliver on its promise. The Raid was better than I expected, but not enough to be great. In the end, they both meet in the middle. Grade: B (although I can see The Raid leaning more towards a B- with time)

(All pictures belong to 20th Century Fox, Sony Picture, and their affiliates)

jueves, 8 de noviembre de 2012

Chronicle: The unnecessary use of found footage

Even though it isn't new, the "found footage" sub-genre has become one of the most popular filmmaking trends of recent years. It encompasses all films that presents its events through the perspective of the camera of one of the characters involved. Sparked by the release of The Blair Witch Project in 1999, Hollywood has seen a continuous increase of these type of films every year. According to Wikipedia, only six "found footage" films pre-date 1999's Blair Witch, starting with 1980's Cannibal Holocaust. Fast forward to 2012, where at least twelve "found footage" films have been released so far.

The technique has its merits. Even though I've only seen two of these films (the aforementioned Blair Witch Project - which is a favorite of mine - and a little known indie called The Poughkeepsie Tapes), I can see how effective the style can be given the right material. But there's no denying that for some filmmakers and/or studios, it has become a trend, or a gimmick. Even films that don't fall in this sub-genre have found ways to have one or two scenes shot from a first-person, camera point of view. Sometimes, a director and/or writer might feel the need to shoehorn the style to a certain film, just to make it "cool" or "different".

This is the case with Chronicle, a 2012 sci-fi film from director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis. The film follows a trio of high-school teenagers that develop telekinetic superpowers after interacting with what seems to be an asteroid or alien spaceship inside a cave. The teenagers are introverted Andrew (Dane DeHaan), his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and popular class president Steve (Michael B. Jordan). Initially, the trio begin using their powers just for fun and pranks, until Andrew begins to use it in more aggressive ways. Through all the events, Andrew constantly carries a camera with him, to "document" things. But what starts of as an interesting directing perspective, eventually becomes less and less necessary and, as a result, more and more distracting and annoying towards the final act.

First, Chronicle has a solid enough story and interesting characters to hold the film on its own. All three lead characters feel real and natural, and develop a believable chemistry, despite their differences. Their interactions, and even the choices they make as the film goes on, are understandable within the films universe. One of the things I liked about the film is how, despite realizing they have "superpowers", these teenagers behave like teenagers. Using their powers to blow girls skirts, or play football while flying around in the clouds. There's no Spider-Man philosophy of "great power brings greater responsibility", but instead a group of teenagers having fun.

But as the story progresses, the need for Andrew to hold a camera becomes less organic and believable. To offer an example, there are some scenes which doesn't feature Andrew, but the director introduces a female character with the same camera fetish, to justify the need and the presence of the camera point-of-view during those scenes. This, in turn, ended up feeling very awkward and forced on. The film continues to prove how unnecessary the gimmick is as the film enters its climax, where the presence of a camera becomes even more ridiculous.

Also, even though Andrew's character is presented as a bullied and volatile person, there's a bit of an awkward shift from the middle to the last act that felt, well, awkward. Add to that the ridiculousness I mentioned above about the need of a camera despite what was happening in the end, and the final act ended up feeling quite muddled and messy. It's a shame because, like I said, I thought Landis had a solid story here, but it got dragged down by shoehorning the "found footage" gimmick.

Overall, the film wasn't downright awful. Like I said, the story was solid, the performances were good, I liked the different approach they gave to the "superhero" formula; even the "found footage" style could've worked for a lot of scenes. But the need to stick to it, regardless of anything, knocked this film a couple of notches down. The film could've mixed it with regular direction and be just as effective, maybe even more. Grade: B-

(All pictures belong to 20th Century Fox and its affiliates)

domingo, 4 de noviembre de 2012

Sound of My Voice: Interesting experience

(Although I tried to refrain from spoilers, there might be some minor ones)

I had never heard about Sound of My Voice until yesterday when I walked to the rental booth. Released in 2012 at Sundance, the film follows Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), a young couple trying to infiltrate a small cult as part of a personal investigative journalism endeavor. The cult is led by a charismatic and mysterious woman called Maggie (Brit Marling), who claims to be a time-traveler from 2054. As their visits to the cult continue, they start to question their intentions, truth, and each other. Is Maggie a charlatan or is she for real? are they in it for the journalism project or are they really involved?

The film is the debut feature film of Zal Batmanglij, and was co-written and co-produced by Brit Marling. Marling had previously worked on a similarly interesting indie film, Another Earth. Here she also plays the role of Maggie, the leader of the cult in a very subtle and ambiguous way. Even in moments where she seems to be psychologically harassing some of the characters, she doesn't lose her cool. Denham and Vicius are equally good as the lead couple. You actually wonder how involved are they in this as they continue to play along. Special kudos to Denham, who I thought really nailed his key emotional moments.

The film moves at a slow pace, with a lot of quiet, introspective moments. In a way, this can make the film feel a bit flat, since there really aren't too much peaks in it. And although that doesn't necessarily make it a bad film, it doesn't make it a memorable one either. Lots of questions are left unanswered, which I'm cool with. But most of the questions simply revolve around the "is she/isn't she" dilemma. Not much else to nibble at.

Overall, an interesting film with a solid cast. It's not a great film, but probably worth a watch. Grade: B+  

sábado, 3 de noviembre de 2012

Face Off: The Final Six Episodes

(This review includes spoilers)

Six more episodes have come and gone after a promising start to the third season of Face Off. And in the end, a new Face Off champion has surfaced.

First, Episode 7 started with a surprising bang when all the eliminated contestants returned for a chance at redemption. After a brief Foundation Challenge, Nicole was chosen to return to the show. This kinda pissed me off a bit, because I felt it was unfair to the other contestants. But anyway, after 6 more episodes, here is my take on the last half of the show.

Weeks Seven and Eight
This two weeks presented two unique challenges that in the end fell flat to me. The first one had the contestants paired with a kid to create a monster based on a sketch from their kid. I thought the premise was so great and could lend itself to some interesting makeups. However, I thought that the kid sketches chosen weren't that creative. And second, I thought the execution from the contestants was really poor. Laura won this one, but I really didn't like her monster. I kinda leaned more towards Roy's blinking monster, but none of them really surprised me.

The following week, the contestants had to create a hybrid human based on Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book. This was another challenge were I didn't think the source material was that good. I'm not that familiar with Dr. Seuss, but judging from the book illustrations shown on the show, I think I've seen other Seuss books with more colorful characters. To me, most of the characters looked similar, which translated to some "meh" makeups. If I were forced to choose, I think that I would've agreed with Nicole as the winner. But like the previous challenge, none of them did much for me.

Week Nine

Episode 9 turned it all around, though. The contestants visited a junkyard and had to build a cyborg makeup using materials scavenged at the site. This was probably one of my favorite challenges from the season, and maybe the show. Most of the finished makeups were great and impressive, with the possible exception of Sarah, who ended up being eliminated. As for Roy, I was looking forward to his makeup, but I think he spent too much time focusing on the contraption in the back of his character, which should've gone to a much integrated makeup. As for the final two, I agreed with the judges that Derek and Nicole were the best. Nicole ended up taking the win, deservedly so; but I think I would've gone with Derek's. His character looked so cool, that I wanted to see it in a film or something.

Week Ten
In the last episode before the final, the contestants had to create a creature based on the show Grimm, using a different crime scene as inspiration. This was another challenge where I think that most of the contestants failed. Laura won with her insect-like creature, but I wasn't that crazy about it. For starters, looked too much like a Predator, and it didn't look as polished as other creations. If I were to pick one winner, I would've gone with Derek; but even his creature wasn't perfect. It looked sorta unfinished. Sadly, Roy ended up being eliminated after making a wig-wearing, snake/reptilian biker. It pissed me off, cause I was kinda rooting for him. His makeup was solid, but the choice to turn her into a biker, put her fangs outside of the mouth, and most of all, wear that awful, awful wig... Gawd, when he put that wig over her, I almost reached through the screen to yank it off. It killed him.

Week Eleven

The final challenge had the three remaining contestants preparing two different makeups: a demon, and a queen inspired by one of the four elements. Also, they had a chance to choose two partners from the previous contestants. The end results were, overall, pretty good. All three queens had a lot of impressive qualities. The overall concept and color of Derek's Fire Queen was impressive, while the details and application on Laura's Earth queen were pretty good, although her body didn't look as detailed. But Nicole's Water Queen really looked like a complete character from head to toe. Her work was impressive, and so was her demon. They both looked like characters from the same universe, and those teeth! Really cool. Derek and Laura's demons weren't that successful. Laura's was just a mess, IMO, while Derek's looked really good up-close, but not so much from a distance. The winner, however, would be chosen by the public, and announced on another episode.

The twelfth episode worked as some sort of reunion, with all the other contestants answering questions from the audience, while they all shared anecdotes and behind-the-scenes stories. They all looked really cool and relaxed, and I enjoyed watching the camaraderie between them. In the end, Nicole was crowned as the winner. It was an impressive win, considering she was eliminated on Week 4. But she came back with a bang, and most of the work she did after her return was among the best of the show.

Overall, a really great season, even though it hit a couple of bumps on its last few episodes. I look forward to the next season.

(All pictures belong to Syfy and its affiliates)