Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter was more than just a fine film. An unflinching realist’s portrait of mental illness as seen through the eyes of the afflicted – his family’s support and social standing both dwindling at an alarming rate – its unfailing sense of sympathy remained an infallibly respectable high point. Deftly executed through and through, I eagerly anticipated Nichols’ follow-up, Mud. This time playing as a sort of Southern-fried semi-fairy tale-cum-coming-of-age tale, it’s apparent that this now established filmmaker has found his niche as an accomplished storyteller, even if his latest can’t quite hold a candle to what’s to this day one of 2011′s absolute best.
Mud shines the spotlight on two best friends – Ellis and Neckbone – as their typically heightened adolescent sense of adventure lands them on an island inhabited by one “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey). Unknowing of the man’s past but supportive of his plans for a hopeful future, the two boys become increasingly involved in his plan to leave the island via a capsized yacht. Details naturally unravel pertaining to the former as Ellis’ curiosity digs himself into a seedy hole he may not be able to crawl out of; Mud’s very existence irrevocably altering his future.
Merely reviewing that long-winded but compelling synopsis reveals that Mud should be something of a gem among typically uninspired fare – a proverbial diamond in the rough that allows McConaughey to continue along a critically favorable path. Sadly, the film isn’t much more than aptly put together as its narrative walks a simple path of least resistance, pairing a concise coming-of-age element as it dully unravels its baser elements. Put plainly, the core concept is in itself more engaging than a bulk of the details fueled by Mud’s naive good-naturedness and foolish longing for the so-called love of his life.
In summary, Mud is rarely even particularly surprising albeit solidly, moreover routinely constructed. There’s a requisite amount of deep water for its characters to wallow in as events unfold, heartfelt interaction between them and noticeable if subdued dramatic highs, however it never manages to peak regarding its potential. It’s a serviceable third feature from Nichols, but outside of a simple air of intrigue and a partially self-redeeming third act, it all comes off as a bit lackluster in relation to what we now know the aspiring auteur is capable of.
The maiden voyage of Marvel’s “Phase Two” initiative comes in the form of Shane Black’s much-anticipated Iron Man 3, a.k.a. the (potentially) final go-round for Robert Downey Jr. in the titular role as billionaire playboy tech genius Tony Stark (barring The Avengers). While not as voluminous as others’, my personal level of anticipation frequently walked the fine line between lukewarm and fervent; a miniscule morsel of hope lingering deep in my subconscious longing for continued greatness within the mostly stellar Marvel canon. Although as amiable as you’d expect, Iron Man 3 simply didn’t come together as swiftly or at all as completely as I swore it could have.
For the uninformed, this third installment brings to life the renowned “Extremis” comic book story arc – one that focuses on an unstable technology created and harnessed by one Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) as the horrifying truth behind its effects and intended purpose are slowly revealed. Simultaneously tormented by a mysterious international terrorist figure known only as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), it’s up to Mr. Stark, his lovely live-in second-in-command Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to act accordingly.
Despite the sustained intrigue at its narrative’s core, Iron Man 3 too frequently comes off as something self-indulgently steeped in tongue-in-cheek exposition – a production permeated with too-carefully positioned action set pieces if only to somewhat satisfy our needs as viewers. This isn’t to say that the script is at all inept as it’s quite the opposite, however Downey Jr.’s always apt “Stark Snark” delivery has officially run its course early on and throughout the fourth feature starring the armored Avenger. Sometimes effective and sometimes not, people like myself will ultimately gripe about this abundance of one-liners and lack of Iron Man himself, even though the central arc’s base elements pride themselves on taking the franchise in a different direction.
Unfortunately, different isn’t always better, and while the performances undeniably remain front and center, characters themselves are a bit overabundant and often rendered for naught as emotional vapidity tends to muck up the proceedings considerably. Side-stepping this fault at irregular intervals, Iron Man 3 is still just another reasonably involving chunk of the ongoing mythos coinciding with the popular Avenger’s now fifty-year-old string of varying exploits. It’s strange to consider and comprehend, yet something that’s easily noticed and missed all the same.
Before I inevitably get lambasted, let me just reiterate that I enjoyed Iron Man 3, plain and simple. Shane Black’s foray into the Marvel Universe isn’t great or even very good, but its steadfastness in adhering to its source material’s intricacies is quite admirable. Placing Stark himself in the spotlight if only to let him characteristically mouth off a bit too frequently, the film sports a requisite amount of action yet not enough of the title character – a necessary if intermittently disappointing evil required to stay true to its comic book roots. Well-intentioned, partly witty and engaging all the same, Iron Man 3 is definitely worth your time regardless of viewers’ varying levels of fandom and instances of simply falling flat.
Let me begin by saying I mean no disrespect when referring to one Michael Bay as ostensibly infamous. Forever botching potentially well-rounded productions as unnecessary big budget thrills swallow all last semblances of valuable substance, Mr. Bay has often publically defended his style of filmmaking, of which is (needless to say) notoriously hit-or-miss. His most recent Transformers endeavors have decreased ever noticeably in quality from one installment to the next, marred by overwhelming juvenility and plain silliness that detracts from the films’ visual spectacle. Pain & Gain – a welcome conceptual departure for the anti-auteur – read well on paper yet is once again undone at various intervals by Bay’s grating trademarks.
Adapting a string of editorials chronicling the events brought on by a bumbling trio of bodybuilders’ flimsy extortion scheme, Pain & Gain‘s first mistake is glorifying these individuals’ detestable pre-crime lifestyles as much as it does during its post-felonious narrative. Lamebrained as he is naive, Daniel Lugo’s (Mark Wahlberg) vision of the American Dream involves insatiable greed, ignorance and impatience as said crime molds his first and only course of action. Grouping up with long-time pump buddy (Anthony Mackie) and recently sprung, born again ex-con (Dwayne Johnson), their half-baked plan is set in motion as various details blow by quite unceremoniously.
Unsurprisingly, Bay’s uncanny ability to turn things as serious as extortion through torture and eventual double murder into those of questionable levity remains front and center. Immaturity, while rarely negligible thanks only to the uniqueness of the core narrative focus, oozes from Pain & Gain‘s every oil-basted pore while cheap ineffective jabs at humor are thrown at us in droves. Zipping from one plot point to the next as equally inauthentic dialogue – spewed machine gun-style – further mucks up the proceedings considerably, it’s hard to follow exactly what’s going on until these characters physically act out the next phase of two separate schemes. At least it’s all bathed in a typically lush tropical mid-90s Florida color palette; Bay’s frenetic presentation-centric quirks remaining more interesting than wholly engaging.
Characters come and go and return whenever as rhyme and reason take a backseat to an appealingly bizzare if poorly executed true crime effort. Pain & Gain sure looks great more often than not, however choppy, inconsistent editing, awkward pacing and loathsome, ineffective humor trouble the film early on and throughout. Adding increasingly questionable levity to a retelling of a story of this magnitude is as tasteless as can be, the script’s awfully shallow sense of being remaining unrelenting as two hours feels like an eternity even despite Pain & Gain‘s breakneck exposition. Collective dysfunction aside, I really had high(er) hopes for this, Mr. Michael Bay’s latest, although this further proves that his frequently obnoxious sense of style remains front and center regarding his creative process, now and (conceivably) forever.
Conceptual familiarity often plagues works of pure science fiction, as no wholly unique idea could conceivably exist without borrowing – to some extent – from an identifiable source. This opinion of mine is almost solely why Oblivion succeeds on every level, pairing the obviously derivative with the agreeably entertaining to mold itself into an above-average film. Though unsurprisingly not perfect by any stretch of the word, director and fledgling writer Kosinski’s gamble with this type of material is certainly of the winning variety as poise frequently trumps Oblivion‘s lesser elements.
Confidently harboring the latest incarnation of the not-so-fabled dystopian future motif, one Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is a ruined Earth’s last remaining drone repairman – ones that function as beefed-up security for massive energy collectors meant to power a far-off human colony on Saturn’s moon, Titan. Wrapping up he and his communications officer’s (Andrea Riseborough) last tour of duty, the duo naturally anticipate their departure, that is until a multifaceted conspiracy begins to unravel pertaining to the truth behind Earth’s fate and these individuals’ very existence. As to be expected, questions are asked, yet not all are answered as thoroughly as one would hope.
Kosinski’s world-building ability is adequate to say the least, the film painting an evocative portrait of a ravaged planet teeming with a vivid, exceedingly unique futuristic aesthetic that rarely ceases to impress. Oblivion‘s recognizable visual prowess aside, it embraces its aforementioned familiarity with confidence, slowly building from an unremarkable opening up to and through one revelation after another. While some of its influences are more recognizable than others (both narratively and thematically), a competent balance of arresting action set pieces and unexpected emotional depth exists to push a potential barrage of harsh criticisms from our minds, the film remaining steadfast in building up to a stellar, moreover gratifying and skillfully executed conclusion.
With Oblivion being so pridefully story driven, it’s difficult to discuss at length without touching upon narrative spoilers. This in mind, such a statement should speak volumes about how assuredly the film surpasses expectations, doing so even despite a frequent employment of tried-and-true dystopian sci-fi tropes. Bolstered further by a typically praiseworthy Tom Cruise, Kosinski’s sophomore effort proves its worth as genre thrills pair wonderfully with intelligence, emotional resonance and a technically flawless aural and visual quality. A proverbial pleasant surprise if there ever was one in my book.
Danny Boyle’s career, due in part to its obvious longevity, has been one of admirable poise as each project carries with it a sense of stylistically-infused likability. Genre-hopping more often than not, it’s these instances of professional diversity that have established Boyle as a household name, due largely in part to his growing if now slightly wavering reputation with cinephiles and casual viewers alike. In Trance, the lush characteristic imagery is there, however convolution trounces style as the script’s purposeful thinness remains its downfall amid a whirlwind mind fuck of a final act.
For the uninformed, Simon (James McAvoy) is more or less a glorified art auction security guard – an individual responsible for prohibiting theft in the case of an actual emergency. After suffering a blow to the head that renders him amnesic following a heist he was (supposedly) a part of, the thieves themselves partner with a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) to help them extract a painting’s whereabouts. What ensues is a hodgepodge of multiple genre elements, double-crossing, occasional violence and a questionable love triangle that adds more fuel to the fire than you’d initially expect it to.
To elaborate, Trance is mostly a muddled if fairly engaging mess, employing a similar gimmick of invading Simon’s psyche to extract bits of pertinent information here and there to varying avail. It falls into a predictable rhythm of reality-hopping into and back out of the poor man’s head, that is until the rug (pun intended?) is violently pulled out from under us following a peculiar, sexually explict MacGuffin’s reveal. Cue both full-frontal female nudity and the aforementioned latter act’s beginning, a.k.a. a WILD fucking amalgamation of fastly accumulating detail, an aptly frenetic aesthetic and twist after twist that all amount to being vastly more overwhelming than one can imagine.
In the end, you’ll most likely have a hard time distinguishing between reality and fiction; emotionally gratifying or plain silly, however Trance remains Boyle’s film through and through. Viscerally competent as can be, I for one bought into most of what the film has to offer, up to and including its A Perfect Getaway-esque infinite flashback scheme that provides (few) answers as it sort of insultingly negates the first two-thirds of it all. Cassel, Dawson and McAvoy all expectedly deliver on the talent front, although my particular feelings on Trance as a whole walk the line between “WOW!… wait, what?!” and “just so-so.” Crude, perhaps, but Boyle’s latest is agreeably slick and substantially accessible, even as semi-startling revelations are had regarding the narrative’s zany, sometimes imperceptible trajectory.
Famously and undeniably campy, Sam Raimi’s original 1981 cult classic was – just barely – a bit more of a straightforward if comically over-the-top horror yarn than that of its sequels. Made on a shoestring budget, Raimi had to rely almost solely on practical effects to achieve the gross-out-heavy visceral panache the film is known for – something Fede Alvarez notably recreated throughout the production of this year’s remake. A bit too self-serious for the film’s gleefully absurd origins, Evil Dead isn’t at all as terrifying as we were led to believe it’d be, however its ability to harness and run away with an altogether competent if exceedingly grim tonal consistency is admirable in its own right.
Early on and throughout, the revamped script sports a discernible lack of blunt homage and genuine scares while it partially compensates with apt-ish characterization, a requisite amount of tense build-up and – of course – gore galore. The characters’ oft-discussed ignorance/stupidity aside, this remake was conceived to deliver the thrills suggested by balls-out marketing and a determined batch of filmmakers which, like I said, Evil Dead infrequently delivers. Maintaining dark if sometimes awkwardly contrived dramatic highs here and there, I found it easier to appreciate this and the film’s technical merits over cheap attempts to make the audience jump out of their skin.
Plainly put, Evil Dead is an exceedingly dark reimagination of Sam Raimi’s 1981 low-budget gorefest. It’s not particularly terrifying in any capacity, however the film as a whole is an unmistakably valuable contribution to a continually floundering genre. The practical effects are expertly implemented – achieving their desired effect with ease as the shocks keep building in intensity until a questionable final act twist is half-heartedly executed. This aside, and despite it being an overly hyped rehash, Evil Dead possesses enough stand-alone creative flair to warrant a genuine liking toward it, even if genre thrills take a backseat to its overbearing yet likable grim intensity and silly human caricatures.
During a period when inconsequential but properly executed escapism remains a cinematic cornerstone, loudly obnoxious blockbusters frequently dominate their opening weekend box office and ensure later (if unnecessary) installments. The second of Hasbro’s live action “Toys Gone Wild” initiative – a title I wish they’d coin – 2009′s G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra was, for all intents and purposes, a goddamn abortion. Never since Bay’s Transformers sequels have I witnessed a much-worshipped sect of my childhood get so brutally beaten to death, and with bionic, performance-enhancing suits and laser beams no less. As if we weren’t dealing with enough big-budget punishment as of late, G.I. Joe: Retaliation returns in true rote fashion as just plain dull segues into unwatchable at consecutive, superficially effects-laden intervals.
Retaliation, in light of its innumerable weak suits, isn’t without its one merit. While the action is collectively presented rather predictably, there’s always going to be a requisite amount of fun that coincides with ninjas dishing out capital punishment. Take away the above average fight choreography and what do you get? A string of narrative filler/drivel that serves only to break up the monotony of fifty some odd firefights laden with your standard pyrotechnic overkill.
As you may have already learned, yes, the second of soon to be three G.I. Joe films cashes in on the presently popular US Government takeover subplot – of which will be employed once again for June’s White House Down. This aside, and if the generic threat of all-out nuclear war and world domination was employed deftly enough, I for one would not have a sole fucking gripe with it. Unfortunately, Rheese and Wernick’s script is so inept and bereft of even the slightest semblance of intellgence and expected tension that I couldn’t wait for it to just be over. Throw in some increasingly worthless characterization of Johnson and Tatum’s respective roles and you have yourself a crock pot full of stewing rotten chum passing itself off as substance.
I know what these films and those of their type are trying to achieve, I really do, but in imitating the bombastic escapism of similar, more recent actioners, there’s truly a fine line between forgivably mindless and insulting. In once again expanding upon the initial tread through Hasbro’s toy-centric action legacy, G.I. Joe: Retaliation showcases the exact opposite of what defines big-budget genre thrills. It’s uninspired from both a narrative and technical standpoint, unenthralling as such and wholeheartedly lacking even the most miniscule of souls. If this all reads as harsh as I think it does, maybe my extensive warning against seeing this paltry schlock won’t go unheeded.
In true hackneyed fashion, Olympus Has Fallen emulates mid to late-eighties actioners as a lone former Secret Service agent (Gerard Butler) goes toe-to-toe with South Korean terrorists, the latter of whom have forcibly taken control of the White House. Holding the President (Aaron Eckhart) and a string of US government higher-ups hostage, it’s a race against the clock for our commando as nuclear catastrophe looms ever-present on the proverbial horizon.
Opening with one of the more contrived sequences of 2013′s lackluster-thus-far mainstream canon, we’re offered insight into the lives and minds of our central protagonists as the tragedy preceding Butler’s Mike Banning’s demotion is highlighted. Unsuccessfully meshing with the bloodbath at Olympus‘ core, these characterizations are almost immediately overshadowed by the subsequent (and wildly implausible) invasion and conquering of our nation’s capital. Showering us viewers with one big budget set piece after another, even the terrorists’ motives are too familiarly and thinly scripted to add but a semblance of substance to Fuqua’s latest.
At the mere use of the word “bloodbath,” I vividly recall the persistent bouts of distractingly over-the-top violence, from point blank-range executions to limbs snapping and knives being driven through the skulls of Mike Banning’s opposition. Vast excess of CGI-generated blood splatters aside, even nods to Olympus‘ purely Die Hard-centric influences are forgotten as the film’s attempts at frank, situation-inspired realism become more humorous than gut-wrenching. If there’s one positive thing to make note of in this regard, it’s Fuqua’s steadfast attentiveness to the film’s primary and predictably attainable objective, and that is to right all wrongs in an admirably unbiased if still mildly pro-American fashion.
I’m as baffled as the next individual when it comes to analyzing the soon-to-be triple threat of White House takeover cinema. Antoine Fuqua’s intial go, while pervasively bloody and discernibly reminiscent of actioners past, lacks a soul as repetitive, sometimes laughable characterizations and combat scenarios pave the way toward a foreseeable conclusion. It’s serviceably acted and executed, however Olympus Has Fallen falls flat in painting a credible portrait of a well-worn terrorist-infused US invasion thriller.