Saturday, November 30, 2013

My Tops of 2013 - November

LEVIATHAN had a few awe-inspiring visuals but the experimental nature and questionable cuts made it pretty boring.

DRUG WAR was another awesome Hong Kong gun-fest from Johnnie To.

A TOUCH OF SIN was a fine chronicle of four modern Chinese tales that end with violence.

ROOM 237 was an amazingly edited documentary about a couple of fans' devotion to The Shining.

SCARY MOVIE 5 was truly one of most insane things ever to be labeled as a "movie".

SHOOTOUT AT WADALA had a good gangster tale but the lackluster songs and those dreadful smoking disclaimers hampered the Bollywood experience.

WHITE HOUSE DOWN was the lesser of the two White House action films. Still watchable though.

BLACK ROCK was both a bad mumblecore film and a bad retro-horror film. Kate Bosworth and Lake Bell didn't need to be in this.

BLACKFISH was preachy yet still a haunting, sad examination at the practices of SeaWorld.

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR was frankly just okay. Not the earth-shattering best film of the year, nor an exceptional lesbian drama.

PARKLAND had a lot of ambition for a small independent project but it a lot of missteps.

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE wasn't as great as the first one, at least according to myself, but it still was a mightily blockbusting sequel.

12 YEARS A SLAVE was an all-around masterfully crafted epic.

My on-going best and worst lists will now be hidden from public view, until revealing their final cuts at the start of 2014.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - Review

Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games series, had one huge complaint about Gary Ross' vision of her first book: Primrose's grumpy cat Buttercup. It apparently didn't the right color of fur, that being orange. Actors of different backgrounds and races playing some of the roles were fine, in a very wise decision by the film's creators, but a non-essential, bratty creature designed for a couple of jokes annoyed her to no end. It was up to the new head of the next adaptation, director Francis Lawrence, to fix this grievance. There's a shot in the beginning where the book-friendly cat rests on top of the feet of a statue in District 12's Victors' Village, given plenty of time for the devoted fans to take in and finally relax. And then, it is never seen again. How important.

This cat dilemma pretty much sums up the very nature of THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE. It's a distinctly entertaining sequel that raises the stakes for the characters but only as seen in the original novel. It switches the growing franchise's mindset, from being another artfully yet sometimes jittery (those shaky-cams) piece like the first film to being prime blockbuster material, where we start experiencing nearly a straight-on adaptation. Screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt do an admirable job fixing and reworking some of the truly dumb faults of the book (no sight of biscuits anywhere!) but they tend to do too much of a clean job at writing, sticking to Collins' words instead of their own ideas. Unfortunately, the two do exorcise a few elements that are extremely crucial to the overall story, such as the importance of Peeta. Maybe we will see an extended cut later on video because the theatrical movie wants to chug along through so much plot and action in just two and half hours.

Spoiler warning to no one: The protagonist of the first film, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), won. But alas, so did her fellow district tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who is now also her forced-upon boyfriend for the watching masses of the nation. They are set to embark on a victory lap tour to all of the other Districts ruled over by the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland), including the regions whose tributes Katniss killed or befriended during the Games. Snow, not happy with the trickery of dual winners and Katniss' potential to further spark uprisings, threatens Katniss to convince him of her being an adequate, loyal pawn to the Capitol or he'll eliminate everyone she ever loved and the entirety of District 12. When a couple of off-the-cuff gestures lead to a riot at their first stop in District 11, the two along with their consultant Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) agree to the p.r. move of planning a wedding. After all, the courtship will be followed and viewed at the subsequent Games, so they might as well nip it in the bud. However, this plan is subsequently thrown out with the arrival of the new head Gamesmaster, Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). He devises the perfect plan for the next Game, which has the benefit of being a Quarter Quell, a special type of event in honor of the Capitol's destructive might. In order to smite out the chance of hope brought up significantly by Katniss, while also eliminating the invincibility some peons have, the Game will feature those who have all been crowned a victor.

Though I have and will further knock some of their decisions, the best thing Beaufoy and Arndt did was remodeling the revolutionary aspects of Katniss. The writers greatly plan out the step-by-step evolution of her anger and sense of justice. This becomes more fruitful since they have a strong, fiercely talented actress capable of handling any material. But in order to work more on Katniss, they sadly detached some of her important changes, such as the growing bond/love she has for Peeta. The second book is really a dazzling show for Peeta and yet his outgoing charisma and tortured courtship with The Girl on Fire is often muted or removed entirely. This becomes more egregious whenever Gale (Liam Hemsworth) shows up. I guess the two writers are Team Gale players because the block of wood is given many scenes and many chances to woo Katniss, despite there being little chemistry between Lawrence and Hemsworth. But the biggest complaint has to go to the strict belting to Katniss' hip at all times. We never get many chances to experience what's outside the character's view, such as the sight of others' reacting to the Games, as we did in the first film. I wanted to hear the slimy remarks of the commentators amid the violence, have Haymitch talk his way into getting more packages sent, or see the strife plaguing the Districts we haven't seen before. Just because the book is told in first person, doesn't mean it works on the silver screen. Lastly, the two still keep the film franchise tradition of not displaying the hunger in the title.

As for the true production side of the picture, Francis Lawrence does a first-rate job at the helm. Since the producers wanted this to be an absolute blockbuster, they got someone who was capable of adhering to the generic code. He tends to favor CGI to tell the story but he is able to work greatly with the actors. The shaky-cam aesthetic has been removed to the proceedings but it pops once in a while to convey mass hysteria within the Games. Of course, the true delight for readers will be the presentation of the tricks and treats included in the Quarter Quell. Not all are in attendance but the ones that are are deliciously menacing; the deadly fog sequence is really haunting and surprisingly gruesome from beginning to end. Editor Alan Edward Bell would have been expertly commendable, as he devises some superb fast cuts and a couple of slow-burns, but there are some glaring mistakes that sour the surprises.

No lie, the cast is still great. Jennifer Lawrence greatly nails her role again and is now able to spread out Katniss' wings. We get to view an emotionally distraught heroine, someone who still has contempt for her inequitable world but is finally opening up to her allies. Lawrence even delivers the arduous task of conveying PTSD, showing how the previous Games impacted her psyche and what the new set of Games does to her on the spot. Hutcherson continues to be an admirable leading man, Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks get to explore and stretch out more as their characters, and Sutherland continues to drive fear in the hearts of others. As for the new additions, the true shining examples are Sam Claflin and Jena Malone. Claflin gets to breakthrough with the meaty role of Finnick, a tribute that won when he was 14 and has become the heartthrob of the Capitol. He's able to flaunt the charm of the character while adhering to his cocky bravado and be the Iceman to Katniss' Maverick. Malone, on the other hand, basks in the uncouth, scandalous side of Johanna, displaying what Katniss could be if she became less headstrong and more evilly calculated. She has a pivotal introduction that is sure to bring the house down and Malone plays it like a fiddle. Probably the only sad part of this front-loaded cast is that journeymen like Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright don't get to stand out with their subtle, quiet portrayals as Heavensbee and Beetee respectively. Also, Toby Jones got a high credit despite having two lines and being in only one shot. I'm surprise the cat actor wasn't below his name in the ending credits.

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE loses its stride of being more challenging to the viewer, like Gary Ross' depiction of this world, but it is a fun ride with twists and turns. It will tide fans of the book series over while also leaving an edible cliffhanger that grants goosebumps all over the arms and neck of new spectators. As stated earlier, I feel that the video release of the film will expand on the leftovers, adding the missing scenes and plot points that aren't in the theatrical cut. If not, then the film isn't as stable and smart as I choose to believe.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Blue Is the Warmest Color - Review

After all of the universal acclaim at this year's Cannes Film Festival, after riding through much discussion about gay cinema and the controversy continuously spreading from the words and actions of its director Abdellatif Kechiche, BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR ends up being another standard lesbian melodrama. The plot, loosely adapted by Kechiche from a French graphic novel, is basic as can be yet decompressed to fill up three whole hours, all of which is claustrophobically filmed in medium close-ups. There's no spontaneity to the proceedings, nor a titillating charge to the slow-burn romance or the explicit lovemaking. Frankly, you're better off watching KISSING JESSICA STEIN, which follows the same path of storytelling but with better writing, a better grasp of modernity, and a shorter running time. I don't mean to flog the picture as a ghastly time at the theater because it is quite satisfactory and refreshing. It's just certainly not one of the best films of the year.

Adèle Exarchopoulos plays Adèle, a French teenager whose direction in life is constantly fluctuating, like the wind that blows her long hair into a tizzy in nearly every scene. One day, as she is late for a date with her new boyfriend, she walks past a blue-haired woman (Léa Seydoux) hanging her arm over another woman at a cross-walk. Though their lives are currently tied with others, the two exchange a mesmerizing gaze that haunts their souls. Adèle eventually breaks up with her boy-toy, due to an unstimulating sexual encounter, and eventually meets up with the colorful woman at a lesbian bar. She introduces herself as Emma, a college student studying the fine arts. The two share a quiet friendship at parks and museums, amid all of the high-school gossip and drama for Adèle. They eventually evolve into a committed relationship, experiencing the pains of sharing dreams and lifestyles, as the film jumps further ahead in its second half.

Kechiche does craft some exquisite moments, whether when the love is fresh or slowly numbing itself, but he often chooses to implement scenes and metaphors that would have been laughed off the screen at a Film Schoo1 101 class. For instance, when the couple is older and they move in together, Emma no longer dyes her radiant color. Gee, I wonder what that could mean for their relationship. Another great example is an outdoor party being held for Emma and her pretentious art allies. Why is it outside? Because they need to have an old silent movie projected on a big screen. Why is the movie included into the festivities, despite the fact no one pays attention to it? Because Adèle needs to have a sad moment dancing on her own, as the heroine in the film-within-the-film convey her inner feelings. I will gladly point and chuckle at these tripes compared to the overlong, tedious sequences of characters wallowing around nowhere, excruciatingly awaiting for Kechiche to call "cut". Still, at least all of those things are at least interestingly put together, unlike the pathetic sex scenes that somehow wowed the Cannes critics.

Anybody that thinks and says this movie is erotic hasn't seen many European movies or desperately wants to praise their adoration for porn. Except for an early heterosexual fling, which could factually be truncated, there is no need for any of the raunchy romps. Sex in film needs to have a purpose, conveying something about the characters or to the plot to warrant its inclusion, especially when the leads bare completely all or, in the rare cases, go unsimulated. They also often need a set-up to the intercourse, to make the viewer feel okay with spying on their bedroom techniques. None of that is here because Kechiche clearly doesn't care about anything but boobs and butts. The sex is routinely filmed in a disastrously stale long shot, with no decorum beyond a green bed, as if the film was intercutted with an amateur porno. The direction seemingly given to Exarchopoulos and Seydoux was to embark on all of the most impractical, goofy-looking positions and fake the orgasmic ecstasy as if their career depended on it.

What this film greatly shows off instead of steamy sex, whether Kechiche intended or not, is delicious food. You absolutely do not want to go into this with an empty stomach. Everybody is munching, chewing, and slurping to their hearts' content and you will want to join them, from the gyros to a glass of strawberry milk to fried wontons clumped with shrimp. The two most important treats are Adèle's family recipe for spaghetti and Emma's favorite dish of oysters. Both are given the time and attention to them in order to show how they speak to the characters' stomachs. They also correspond with their respective characterization: Adèle is overbearing with her rich flavor of emotions while Emma is more complicated to enjoy and requires some finesse.

Exarchopoulos and Seydoux give good, not startling, performances. Sadly, Seydoux isn't as featured as much as Exarchopoulos, largely because Kechiche changed the focus of the story and the original name is translated as "The Life of Adèle". Despite this setback, she does suffer from the same predicament as her co-lead: the extended devotion to their lives mellows out their abilities to wow the viewer. When the time thankfully calls for a major plot development, the two relinquish all barriers and go hard with their acting. Exarchopoulos is the MVP in this case because she frequently turns into a flood of tears and snot. She also is able to handle the truly hardest scenes, namely a couple of confrontations where she buries herself further and further due to her consistent lies. However, probably her biggest disservice, other than her unlikable character, is that her acting method makes her out to be the French version of Kristen Stewart: Her mouth is kept firmly open, showing off her chipmunk-like teeth and unaware of what she should be feeling at the moment.

Surveying over this review, I spent more energy lambasting it then truly expositing why its a fairly quality picture. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR could have been the spectacular groundbreaker it wishes to be or what the people at Cannes said it was. I simply feel that the faults of the picture greatly rest on Abdellatif Kechiche. Even though he crafted some fine moments and made an overall satisfactory movie, he also showed that he's just another flavor of the week, a director who brings more damage to the silver screen than anything beneficial.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Trailer Review - Maleficent

Teaser Trailer
Watch It Here

Person of Interest: Angelina Jolie is Maleficent and Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora.

Scene Pop: Jolie's forest reveal.

Briggs Breakdown: Just some magic gardening skills by the titled character.

Effective?: Meh.

Check it Out?: Hold your horses. Judging by the early footage, it looks like the movie will be nothing more than a live-action remake of Disney's Sleeping Beauty. Why bother spending money for a ticket to this when I can just pop in the DVD at home? Lately, fantasy flicks has been hurting at the box office, besides the name-value of The Hobbit. Snow White and the Huntsman did alright but not enough, as talks of a trilogy have completely gone cold. And, of course, there was the disaster that was Jack the Giant Slayer. This movie is probably going to be exactly like Disney's recent fantasy Oz: The Great and Powerful: a 3D diversion for the family that will then be quickly forgotten about.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Brief Film Reviews - November 2013

Some more 2013 films that have hit video:


LEVIATHAN is what happens when you mix Stan Brakhage with The Deadliest Catch. That should be a major compliment to give this film but I frankly nearly fell apart when watching it. So much of the film has the rain-soaked cameras capturing absolute pitch blackness, with no stimulation or interesting visuals beyond bobbling along with the boat. That is, of course, when directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel aren't showing us a tired guy taking a shower, a bored guy in extreme close-up, or a tired and bored guy literally watching The Deadliest Catch. It surely wants to challenge the viewer's expectations but its unconventional structure could prove mentally destructive to the average person, causing them to quickly tap out and move on. Despite the many aggravating moments, the film is genuinely a one of a kind feature. There are a few amazingly fluid long-takes, like when the camera follows a bird close-by as it goes through the ocean spoils or when the bloody leftovers are washed off the boat, only to be assaulted by a humongous flock. It even has some interesting metaphors, such as how the lack of the ship docking anywhere makes the vessel to appear as just another ocean dweller, hunting after other fish and "ingesting" them into the lower quarters. LEVIATHAN is worthy enough to throw a wrench in your viewing habits but it's also certifiably capable of pissing you off greatly.


Drug War

A drug manufacturer (Louis Koo) is arrested after his plant accidentally blows up, killing his family, and he drives into a crowded restaurant. Desperate to avoid the death penalty, he cooperates with a determined police captain (Sun Honglei) to violently take down many of the other drug kingpins. The latest from Hong Kong action guru Johnnie To, DRUG WAR is an impressively simple shoot-em-up that would make Michael Mann proud. The bullet-flying sequences are expertly constructed and given a blank soundtrack to match up with the somber morals of the picture. Without giving away too much, the movie has a hard conservative attitude towards dealing with those in the drug trade. It even likes to catch the viewer off-guard at many times: I thought that Honglei was sinking the film with his mumbling performance, only for him to become a chameleon, adopting differently vibrant personas once he goes undercover. It may not be a game-changer but it thankfully shows that the much-abused action genre as of late can still thrive in smaller corners.


Room 237

As evident by the fact that I write reviews, I love film criticism and film theory. I may have a few goofy hypotheses about certain flicks but they are not as bizarre as those assembled here in this magnificently enjoyable documentary. A small group of Stanley Kubrick fanatics lengthily discuss what they believe the auteur was secretly trying to address in his adaptation of THE SHINING. Is it about Manifest Destiny and our nation's history with the Native Americans? Is it about the Holocaust? Or, is he coming clean about his involvement with faking the moon landing? These and a couple of others are beautifully constructed by director Rodney Ascher, who edits the intense exploration of the horror classic with the rest of Kubrick's work and other important supplements. Do not mistake this as a gawky, finger-pointing comedic doc; despite their utter strangeness (why does everyone think the weasel character of Bill Watson is so important?), these theses are given a fair shake and are truly mind-blowing to come up with. Without question, the hugest highlight is when one voice (the interviewees aren't physically shown) helps explain what happens when the film is played backwards and forwards simultaneously. The film also shows what happens when fan appreciation of a film and its director is taken to the extreme, where probable continuity errors are treated as intentional decisions and maps of the hotel are printed and meticulously plotted out like a criminal investigation. Simply one of the absolute best films of the year.


Scary Movie 5

I wasn't expecting much from this fifth entry in the long-dormant SCARY MOVIE series but I at least expected it to be somewhat competently made. SCARY MOVIE 5 is shockingly abysmal in every category, continuing the nose-diving career of once comedy expert David Zucker. Director Malcolm D. Lee should be at fault for being at the helm of this disjointed slop but it's spellbindingly clear to see that his product was taken over by Zucker and The Weinstein Company. This was obviously intended to be a rated-R entry, only to be scrubbed clean in order to desperately attract any revenue. Don't believe me? Listen to the entire film's audio, which is largely compromised of ADR, all of which never, ever matches up with the actors' lips. This strict adherence to a PG-13 rating goes so far that there's a massive spit-take ruined because the setup was legitimately bleeped out(!). The parodies are both so old and way too new: The main plot follows MAMA exactly, yet the film spends too much unimportant time on jabs at INCEPTION, BLACK SWAN, and RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Sometimes, the references are too obscure: It takes awhile to figure out that Katt Williams' cameo is a play on INSIDIOUS, simply because he puts on a gas mask. And sometimes, the lampoons go way off into the deep end: There's an astonishingly long, unfunny gag where a swarm of pool-cleaning robots have a raunchy backyard party. Can you honestly guess which movies are being invoked? It just badder and badder with every minute, whether it's the severe abundance of under-cranking, the terrible ape costumes, the horrible antics of Simon Rex, the stolen joke they took from ARMY OF DARKNESS, the fact that it's 71 minutes long with 19 minutes of ending credits, or the fact that Ashley Tisdale and Erich Ash are the "Coy and Vance" of Anna Faris and Regina Hall's characters respectively. Those two are too good for this pathetic, wretched contraption, which easily showcases that Zucker didn't need the intervention of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer to construct another bad movie spoof.


Friday, November 8, 2013

Let This Amazing Spider-Man 2 Image Sink In

Many people approved this. So much for being the angsty alternative to Sam Raimi's vision.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Touch of Sin - Review

In one particular moment of disenchanted flirting, a woman scrolls through a pink iPad, reading off news stories to her colleague. The first story involves a village chief who was arrested and found to have possession of 20 Louis Vuitton bags. She asks him if he wishes to leave an online comment. All he has to say about this grossly commercial matter is three letters: WTF. She reads off a second story and he again repeats his simple answer. A better response for this lowly waiter is to flip the letters' order, creating a palindrome, so he can greatly express the giant middle finger he's forever giving the worldly change of his home country.

A TOUCH OF SIN, which won the Best Screenplay award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, continues Chinese director Jia Zhangke's signature display of the ennui of modern China. Culling from apparent real-life incidents and journeying the camera to four contrasting areas, the movie showcases the lives of four individuals whose permanent state of shock from all of the corruption and moral degeneration eventually leads them to harsh violence. The first story involves Dahai, a loudmouthed, bullying miner who's the only one of his village brave enough to dare speak against the village chief and the company owner about their deceptive promises. Later, there's a sauna receptionist who experiences her own personal free-fall when her melancholic affair with a married man collides with the stigmatization of being a woman. At very end, the film covers a young hopeful who bounces from job to job, unable to be more than a servant or finally run away into a place of bliss. The character introduced first but is covered secondly, a wandering sociopath who can only express emotion through his handgun, is the only lead who makes brief encounters with the other participants or with a story element of theirs.

Zhangke often supplements the plots with appearances of a multitude of animals. Whether it is a horse, a duck, a snake, or fish, the creatures are explicitly added to bubble up the inner turmoil of a character's plight, a technique that Eisenstein fans will favor yet is way too creaky for current opinion. The only thing that can match this blatancy of metaphors is the ending, which sours the bite of the picture and leaves the audience in place but keeps their eyes rolling. Zhangke also includes some odd directional picks when it comes to some of the slaughter. Questionable CGI makes a couple moments of tragedy a bit laughable and in the specific case of one major murder, the destructive act is treated like a martial arts fight.

Despite these problems, A TOUCH OF SIN is impressively shot, often held for long periods of time so your heart beats like a heavy metal drum set. Zhangke willingly plays with the viewer's expectations; one minute he's dropping subplots or advancing unseen developments, the next he forgoes the dramatic use of Chekov's gun. It's also very damning in its critiques, particularly in several jaw-dropping sequences that trivialize the influence of Communism in China today, as being nothing more than window dressing for sleazily institutionalized practices. If you're expecting this to be a complete bloodbath, you'll be slightly disappointed but hopefully intrigued by the film's sweeping brushes of scathing social attacks.


Friday, November 1, 2013

Trailer Review - The Lego Movie (2)

The Lego Movie
1st Official Trailer
Watch It Here

Person of Interest: Most of the same Lego people from the teaser trailer, Wonder Woman & Abe Lincoln get to talk, Will Ferrell as the revealed Lord Business, Liam Neeson as a two-faced cop, and a cat lady.

Scene Pop: The Invisible Plane goes boom.

Briggs Breakdown: A lot of batarangs, 1 bad bat pun, a brick explosion, a chair-jetpack, and a double decker couch.

Effective?: Yes.

Check it Out?: Yes. This trailer lays out more of the plot, the world, and the jokes, all of which look extremely enticing. Or as the trailer exclaims, everything is awesome!