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)

Playing the Game: Game of Thrones Season 2

(This review includes spoilers about both seasons)

"I'm not Ned Stark, I understand the way this game is played."
-Tyrion Lannister; Episode 2, Season 2

This quote from Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) to sleazy eunuch Varys (Conleth Hill) during an exchange of subtle threats, in a way, shows us how the second season of Game of Thrones unfolds; in a web of deception, backdoor deals, opportunistic alliances, and machinations. Tyrion is probably the best at it. After what was arguably a linear first season, centered around the character of Ned Stark, it can be said that Tyrion assumes the lead of the show, as he becomes acting Hand of the King and tries, in his own peculiar way, to maintain peace and common sense in the Kingdom.

The plot, however, feels more scattered than in the first one. Whereas in the first season, we were following Stark most of the time, the second season starts and ends branched all throughout Westeros and Essos. The first season started with most of our characters in the same place: Winterfell, and then slowly sent them all on different paths. In the second season, most of the characters begin and end in the same place, with most of the characters separated, which makes the plot feel a bit flat or even stagnant, at least when compared to the first one. This isn't a slight to the show, considering how hard it would've been to top the ballsy conclusion of the first season, but I still felt that the show lacked the "highs" that the first season had.

Some of the plots that the second season follows are:
  • The rise to the Iron Throne of Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), under the guidance of his mother, Queen Cersei (Lena Headey).
  • The threat of aspiring kings Renly (Gethin Anthony) and Stannis (Stephen Dillane), brothers of the late King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy). Both brothers start building massive armies while plotting to take over the kingdom from each other.
  • Tyrion Lannister takes Stark's place as Hand of the King, at the request of his father, Tywin (Charles Dance), and tries to knock some sense into the king, his nephew, who grows more vicious and cruel every day.
  • Stark's older son, Robb (Richard Madden), marches against the armies of the Lannisters, seeking revenge for his father's murder.
  • On the other side of the kingdom, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) continues her march towards King's Landing to reclaim the throne that was taken from her father, now with the help of her three baby dragons.
I felt that the subplot of Stannis was one of the least effective. Dillane did a decent job, but I don't think there was much to see there. I actually think that the character of his right-hand, Davos (Liam Cunningham), was more interesting than Stannis himself. On the other hand, kudos to Jack Gleeson for his continuing improvement in the portrayal of Joffrey. It's impressive how far the character has gone from the first season to now, and he has become one of the greatest villains I've seen on TV.

Other plots include the rest of the Starks children: Arya's captivity in Harrenhal, Sansa's enslavement within the kingdom's walls, and Jon Snow's service as part of the Night's Watch. This last subplot, despite feeling detached from the rest, actually plays a very important role in the long run. Like I read in a review on Time, Snow and Co. are "playing the show's long game" as they prepare to face the threat of the mysterious White Walkers. Kit Harrington's performance as Snow is a strong point, because he manages to convey a sense of inner tragedy and maybe some self-loathing within himself, but without overdoing it. I also thought that the interactions between Arya and Tywin Lannister were great and perfectly acted.

With so many plots and so many characters, the lack of a true protagonist could be seen as a drawback to the show. But the writers manage to flesh out the cast so much that even characters that could be thought as minors are given some depth. Characters that could've been seen as just despicable villains (like Cersei or Jaime), are given room to grow and maybe even develop empathy. This is another strong point of the show because there are really no black and white characters.

One of the best examples of this is the character of Theon Grejoy (Alfie Allen). Theon grew up along the Starks after his father was defeated by them in a previous war. Even though he grew with the Starks, Theon still carries the resent of being abandoned by his father and given away as a slave. Despite being well treated by the Starks, the inner conflict inside him arises as he is forced to choose either Robb or his father, while trying to prove himself. Those moments are some of the strongest and most powerful in the show, thanks also to Allen's portrayal. He is so great that you can almost feel how his soul is torn between the two sides. The episodes where he takes Winterfell are some of the best of the season.

But perhaps the best example of the complexity of the characters is with Tyrion. His character is as scheming and deceitful as the rest, but you can't help but root for him. Both the script and Dinklage's performance give the character such a great depth and complexity. He is arguably the smartest guy in the room and knows indeed how to "play the game". But when he forgets about the game in favor of the realm, and chooses to take the lead in the battle against Stannis, he ends up being backstabbed himself. This is the harsh truth about the game, and if it wasn't for his squire, he would've ended dead, like Stark before him. Like Cersei said in the first season, "you either win or die". I have to add that the episode that follows that battle ("Blackwater") was one of the most intense episodes of the show. Great direction, excellent effects and production values.

Overall, the season was really strong, albeit a tad below the first one. Like I said, this isn't a knock at this season, but rather a testament of how great the first one was. The high points here were the battle against Stannis, and perhaps the fall of Winterfell. The acting remained as stellar as in the first one, and the expectations for the third season are there, particularly after the chilling last shot beyond the Wall. As for this season? I'm torn between a solid A or an A-.

(All pictures belong to HBO and its affiliates)