Friday, September 27, 2013

Metallica: Through the Never (2013)

I suppose it's cheaper than a concert ticket...

This'll be a fairly quick review as there's not much to Metallica: Through the Never, and if you're not already a fan I can't imagine why you'd want to pay the IMAX premium ticket price.  Through the Never is a concert, inter-cut with what's essentially a glorified music video.  If you're hoping for some backstage footage or insight into the band, then you'll need to look elsewhere, but if you just want to rock out with Metallica for 90 minutes, then Through the Never delivers.

Yes, I am a Metallica fan, particularly when I was younger and in my early days of playing drums.  I used to play "...And Justice for All" from beginning to end, and was a big fan of Lars Ulrich.  As far as the music goes, I feel like the drumming and the tempo the only things I feel qualified to critique, but I'll get to that later.

I want to get the music video elements out of the way, since I found them to be complete nonsense.  Trip (Dane DeHaan) is a roadie for the band.  Shortly after the concert starts, he's sent out on an errand to retrieve an item from a truck that has run out of gas.  I don't know if everyone in this city was already at the concert or they just shut down entirely, but you'll notice there isn't a single car on the road.  That is, until Trip almost runs a red light and is struck by another car.  What a coincidence!  Forced to continue on foot, Trip finds himself in the middle of a riot between people that couldn't afford a Metallica ticket and the police.  Then he's chased by not-Bane on a horse.  He's able to find the truck though, and it's only cargo is a small bag.  What's in the baaaaaaag!?  Why a moving truck was needed for a small bag, who knows?  He's cornered by not-Bane's posse at one point and figures the best way out of this mess is to douse himself in gasoline and flail about uncontrollably.  This didn't work at all as the mob beats him senseless.  Fortunately, he wakes up on the top of a parking structure, still with the bag, and relatively unhurt.  I pretty much gave up at that point.  I know music videos don't always make sense, but I found these scenes to be devoid of any entertainment value and more and more distracting as they went on.  I'm not sure what the band and director Nimród Antal were going for here, but I'll chalk it up to an experiment that didn't work.  I was more surprised that Dane DeHaan is the featured character as he's an up and coming actor that's been in some well-reviewed movies.  He has no dialog though and doesn't really do much otherwise.

As far as actual concert goes, I really enjoyed it.  The stage design was great and there were some really elaborate and interesting effects used.  For instance, the intro to "One" was very theatrical and that would have been something to witness in person.  However, there were some distracting elements here, too.  At one point James Hetfield's mic cuts out and he angrily knocks it to the ground and motions for a tech to fix it.  Was this a real event in the concert or staged to make it feel like a 'real' concert?  Eventually the music video events bleed into the actual concert, and it felt awkward.

They play a wide variety from their catalog which I also enjoyed, like the aforementioned "One".  You'll hear many of their other popular songs like "Battery", "Master of Puppets", "Fuel", and "Enter Sandman".  However, if there's one thing that bugged me, it was that some of the songs were played at slightly faster tempos.  "Fuel" is already a fast paced song, but playing it even faster made it sound messy.  There was one song that was intro'd with the album version, but then cut to them playing live, which really made you notice how much faster they were playing it.  You'd think they would have worked on that to make sure it wasn't so jarring.  The irony is that when playing "Battery", it sounded great, as did many of the slower paced songs that didn't have many tempo changes, like with "Nothing Else Matters".

I hate to say it, but it sounded like Lars Ulrich's playing has regressed a little over the years.  His tempo was all over the place, even within the same song.  Again, with "One", I was happy to hear it begin normally, but then the speed keep creeping up as the song went along.  I'm sure the band would feel that using a click track or metronome would take away from the realness of the performance though.  Even his technique was a little off, and many fills sounded rushed or sloppy.  I don't mean to sound like I'm hating on Lars, but I tended to be more technical when I played, so things like this always bugged me.  I also don't recall hearing this as much when attending previous Metallica concerts.  At least I can still enjoy the goofy faces he makes.

The musical highlight was during the credits, when the band played "Orion", one of their instrumental songs.  It was just the band on stage jamming the song without an audience.  The band sounded great here, and their playing was tight and clean.  I'm sure when playing in front of an audience they feed off the energy of the crowd, but I liked seeing the band play as if they were back in the garage.

You're not rewarded for staying until the end of the credits though, as we never find out what's in the bag.  What's in the baaaaaaag!?

Fans of Metallica will enjoy Through the Never for the music, but the movie elements end up being distracting nonsense and totally unnecessary.  The 3D and IMAX were also nothing special, but I guess it's cheaper than a concert ticket.  If you have a good surround sound system, then I'd recommend saving it for rental and enjoying it that way.  It's worth a listen.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Prisoners (2013)

The moral of the story is that you are so gonna get your ass kicked if you steal Wolverine's kid.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a family man who runs his own carpentry business.  His family attends Thanksgiving dinner at the house of his neighbors, the Birch's.  After dinner, the youngest daughters of both families, Anna and Joy, take a walk back to the Dover's home, only they never return.  While looking for the kids, Keller's son recalls a parked RV the kids were playing on, but is no longer there.  When the police find the RV, they arrest the driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), but can find no trace of the kids.  Making this more difficult is that Alex has the intelligence of a 10-year-old, so getting any kind of useful information out of him isn't likely.

Not having any real evidence to hold Alex, the police are forced to let him go.  Convinced that Alex knows the location of the kids, Keller kidnaps and plans to torture him until he reveals where they are.  Meanwhile, the detective that's in charge of the investigation, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), looks into every possible lead, even Keller.

Prisoners is a super intense film that had me on the edge of my seat throughout.  Hell, I jumped more times watching this than I did when seeing Insidious: Chapter 2, and that's a horror film.  I heard several gasps from those sitting around me.  The reactions from the audience added to the experience, and is why I love seeing movies like this.

I was a little nervous when I saw that Prisoners was two and a half hours long.  Considering the weight of the subject matter, I thought it might drag.  While I did notice the length in a few parts, overall it didn't feel like a two and a half hour movie.  It's barely 5-10 minutes into the film before the kids are abducted, and once that happens the tension escalates and never lets up.  Prisoners is also not bogged down with needless exposition.  For example, you get closeness of the Dover and Birch families without having to be told how they met or how long they've known each other.

Much like the characters, you'll go through a range of emotions and opinions throughout the film.  There are times you'll feel bad for Alex as Keller is torturing him, but then you'll think he's hiding something, so maybe this needs to be done.  Franklin (Terrence Howard) struggles with the morality of what they are doing to this guy, where his wife, Nancy (Viola Davis), goes along with it as a necessary evil to get their kids back.  Meanwhile, Keller's wife Grace (Maria Bello), has taken to medicating herself as she can't deal with it at all.  Even your opinion of Detective Loki will change.  At the beginning, he's a little cocky and seems like he's going through the motions.  He even does that patronizing, "Sir, what I'm gonna need for you to do for me is calm down", when dealing with the raw emotion of Keller. Then you see his own emotional investment in the case develop the longer he works on it.

However, the character I most identified with was Keller.  While his methods are extreme, I look at it from the angle of the father.  I don't have any kids myself, but I have two nephews roughly in the same age range.  If they ever went missing, I would tear the world apart to find them.  That's Hugh Jackman's Keller Dover, and I totally understood the lengths he was willing to go to get his daughter back.

Hugh Jackman may have been nominated for an Oscar for Les Miserables, his role in Prisoners is easily his best.  It's such a passionate performance that I couldn't help but get wrapped up in it.  As we're getting towards the end of the year there's already Oscar buzz about Prisoners and expect to see Jackman's name in the mix again.  While Jackman is going to get the lion's share of the buzz, I wouldn't be surprised to Gyllenhall's name thrown around, too.  The entire cast is fantastic and there isn't a weak link in the bunch.  Even Melissa Leo has a small role, and once again she proves to be chameleon.  I don't know what it is about her that I never realize she's in a movie until I see her name in the credits.

If there's anything about the film I thought was a little weak it was that there a bunch of red herrings, and it all wraps up a little too neatly.  Some of them are obvious from the outset, like when they go out of their way to mention that Keller has an old, abandoned building left to him from his father.  I wonder where he's going to hide Alex away?  Others are a little more subtle and don't pay off until much later.  It's a minor complaint though, and they weren't handled in a clumsy way.  I thought Aaron Guzikowski's screenplay was very smart overall.  I also have to applaud director Denis Villeneuve, not just for the pacing, but how balanced everything was.  Even how many shots were framed were very well done.

Prisoners is an emotional, haunting ordeal.  It's the kind of intense and disturbing that makes you feel like the film punched you in the gut after.  Despite the weight of the film, it features powerhouse performances that make this a must watch.

4.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Spectacular Now (2013)

The Spectacular Now is the sweetest, most poignant movie about teenage alcoholism and enabling I've ever seen.

The Spectacular Now was a much different movie that I was expecting.  My first clue should have been that this was rated R.  You usually don't see a lot of light-hearted teen films with that rating.  My second clue should have been that this was directed by James Ponsoldt, whose last film, Smashed, dealt with a similar theme.  Apparently Ponsoldt's first film, Off the Black, also deals with it as well, but I haven't seen it.  Anyway, the tone of the film caught me a little off guard.  It's not like I didn't like The Spectacular Now, but I'm on borderline on putting in that category of a great film that I'm not sure I want to see again.

Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a popular student approaching graduation.  He has a hot girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), and is the life of the party.  Sutter lives in the now, and it's spectacular.  Get it?  Fortunately, nobody actually says that phrase in the film, so you'd hear that collective, "Oooooh, that's what it means", from the audience.  Sutter has a few issues though.  One, he's more than just a social drinker, and is never without a flask or soda cup spiked with something.  Second, he's not a great student and doesn't have much in the way of ambition or plans after high school.  Cassidy dumps Sutter for these reasons.  After a night of binge drinking, he wakes up on the front lawn of a fellow student, Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley).  She's a bit of a wallflower, but the two of them hit it off and eventually become a couple.  As it's a case of opposites attracting, Sutter's friends think Aimee is a rebound, and Aimee's friends don't want Sutter to screw her over.

While their relationship is sweet, when Sutter gives Aimee a gift of a flask filled with booze, it appears that they may be heading down an unhealthy path.  Aimee is a good student and has a bright future ahead of her.  There's concern about what kind of influence Sutter might have on her.  Sutter genuinely wants the best for Aimee though and encourages her to go away to college and stand up to her mother, even though he doesn't seem interested in following his own advice.

As the case with many character-based stories, I felt it was a little on the slow side as far as pacing, but it picks up as it develops.  This comes to a head when Sutter reconnects with his estranged father (Kyle Chandler), and is disappointed to find out they aren't all that different.  He realizes he's heading down a similar path.  The fact that there's an arc and character growth is one of the things I really liked about the film.  You're left with a satisfying ending that didn't feel forced.

The chemistry between Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller is fantastic and they bounce off each other in a very real way.  Woodley builds on her critically acclaimed performance from The Descendants with another great one.  She's extremely natural and perfectly captures that shy girl falling in love for the first time.  It doesn't even feel like she's acting.  I was actually a little more impressed with Teller though.  I liked him in 21 & Over as a fast-talker in the mold of a young Vince Vaughn, but here he shows dramatic depth and that there's a lot more to him.  When he breaks down in front of his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), there isn't a dry eye in the theater.  Even in her limited screen time, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Sutter's older sister evokes a similar feeling.  The entire supporting cast is strong.  Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dayo Okeniyi, Brie Larson and Bob Odenkirk are all great.  However, the best performance of the film is by the kid that plays Aimee's younger sister.  He has no dialog, just flips the bird with both hands.  I can't wait to see how his career develops.  Okay, I'm kidding a little on that last one.  Wouldn't it be funny if he grows up and wins an Oscar and then we go back and remember his first role as the flip off kid from The Spectacular Now.

The dialog is very natural and captures the awkwardness of high school, being unsure of yourself and venturing into a relationship.  I expected nothing less from the Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also wrote (500) Days of Summer, which is still one of my favorite films.  The Spectacular Now is based on a book Tim Tharp, but I had never heard of it prior to seeing the film.  Tharp doesn't even have a entry on Wikipedia.  Someone should correct that.  While this is a heavier film, James Ponsoldt does a great job of balancing the tone and elements.  It's serious when it should be, but sweet and funny when it's not.  You get the feeling that you're watching something important.  At the very least you have to appreciate that this is anything but a typical, predictable teen romance.  Nobody in the film is perfect or can be put in a box.  Like real life, you don't always know how things are going to turn out, and at some points it appears the worst may happen.

As much as I've been anticipating the film, I waited a few extra weeks to see it until my favorite theater, The Vine (, was playing it.  One of the reasons why I love The Vine so much is that it's a theater that has restaurant food and beer.  While watching The Spectacular Now, I found myself drinking at a much slower pace that I normally do.  There's nothing like watching a film about alcoholism to make you take a hard look at yourself.

Darker and more emotional than this year's other coming-of-age offerings, The Spectacular Now offers a nice contrast to them.  It's one of those films that will stick with you well after watching.  It's honest, real, and anything but typical.  The great performances from Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller alone make it worth watching, and you can count this film among the year's best.  I highly recommend watching it.

4.5 out of 5 Death Stars

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)

People used to say that Darth Sidious was really short for insidious (and Vader was short for invader).  Then, Insidious comes out and there's that Darth Maul looking dude in it (but not short for mauler, or imaul, or whatever), and I was like, "Hey, what's up with that?"

I have to give credit to James Wan and Leigh Whannell Insidious: Chapter 2 is a genuine sequel to Insidious, and doesn't feel like a cheap sequel made to cash in.  Chapter 2 absolutely requires that you've seen the first.  In fact, I wouldn't even recommend seeing it unless you have it fresh in your mind.  Chapter 2 does a good job of expanding on the story, and it loops back on events of the first in pretty clever ways that I enjoyed.

Unfortunately, Chapter 2 misses the mark as far as actual scares.  The first was a lesson in effective use of sound and atmosphere, while the second relies a bit too much on loud noises and cheap jump scares.  Even when they displayed the title they did it with an ear splitting noise that was actually a little painful to listen to.

It's kind of odd to me in that I liked Chapter 2 for the opposite reasons I liked the first.  When watching Insidious, I was really into the film until it switched gears and they went to the astral-plane where Darth Maul's brother hung out.  With Chapter 2, I enjoyed the film more in the second half when they went back to the astral-plane, and you got the expansion of the story and callbacks to the first.

So what's it about anyway?  After a brief prologue where we learn that Josh was able to astral project as a child and was hypnotized to forget this, Chapter 2 picks up immediately after the events of the first.  Despite recovering their son from the astral plane, Renai (Rose Byrne) is still hearing and witnessing strange events around the house.  Josh (Patrick Wilson), who's already under suspicion for the death of Elise (Lin Shaye), is exhibiting bizarre behavior of his own.  It becomes clear that Josh is no longer himself and something came back with him from the astral plane.  Josh's mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), contacts Elise's old team, as well as the man that hypnotized Josh as a kid, to investigate.  As they discover more, Josh's behavior becomes more erratic and things escalate.

As I eluded to earlier, part of my disappointment in the film is that there was a too much reliance on generic, horror/thriller cliches.  At one point an abandoned hospital is night.  Why can't they search this during the day when there's more ambient light?  Why do they never bring more flashlights?  I was also disappointed in the lack of an effective villain or imagery.  While I thought the Darth Maul guy from the first was a little silly by the end of the film, at least he was scary looking.  Chapter 2 has a bunch of people in sheets and a totally not-scary woman dressed in white.  This woman in white turned out to be an overbearing mother that was forcing her son to dress as a girl.  Why?  I have no idea!  Why are these two the focus?  Who is Josh possessed by and why?  I don't feel like we got good answers to any of these questions.  Instead of being scary, it just came off as weird.

Since there's no tension due to lack of scares, I felt the pace of the film really dragged, as well.  An hour and 45 minutes seems long considering how underdeveloped the story was.

I didn't hate the film though.  I do appreciate that they are making these films on a tiny budget and not relying on CG or excessive gore.  They even managed to get a few laughs this time around, although some of them may have been unintentional.  The performances were also above average for the genre.  However, I thought the normally rock-solid Patrick Wilson was a little too over-the-top at times.

Insidious: Chapter 2 does a good job of expanding on the story set up by the first, but it unfortunately doesn't have the scares to match.  If you were a fan of Insidious, then I think Chapter 2 is still worth a watch to see how they built on the story, but overall it's a bit of a step down.  I'd recommend saving it for rental and watching Chapter 1 and 2 back-to-back.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Vacation - Birthday!

I'm not a fan of self-indulgent posts, but if you're a fan of the blog and wondering why there's been a lack of posts recently, here's the reason:  I typically take a vacation in late August-early-September, surrounding my birthday and a few local events.

This year, my birthday fell on Friday the 13th.  It also happened to be my 40th birthday.  Yes, my 40th birthday was on 9/13/13.  If you're into numbers then this probably means something.

Anyway, so I promised myself that I wasn't going to spend a lot of time on my 'vacation' sitting at the computer, and I actually didn't even watch that many movies on my break. I'm slowly trying to catch back up to my normal schedule, and I'll have a few reviews this week from stuff I watched recently.

I just wanted to shoot a quick post out to people that enjoy the blog and that I'll be back up to speed in the following week.

Thank you, and I appreciate that you read it!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Riddick (2013)

I used to attempt a Vin Diesel impression, but it sounded like a mix of Sylvester Stallone with a little bit of Elmer Fudd.  "You'wr nawt afwaid of duh dahk, are you?  Huh huh huh.  Huh huh huh."

Even though it's been almost ten years since The Chronicles of Riddick, Vin Diesel fought pretty hard to make another.  First, he worked out a deal with Universal to get the rights to Riddick for himself.  He owns the character now.  Then, he was so determined to get a film made that he leveraged his house in order to get it done.  I have to credit Diesel for taking the risk.  I hope it works out for him.

The good news is that Riddick is a significant improvement over Chronicles, and it brings back the style and formula for what made Pitch Black a popular film.  It's broken up into three distinct acts that feel like several mini-stories.  The first act is pretty kick ass and was my favorite part of the film.  It takes the time to catch us up with what happened to Riddick after the events of Chronicles.  There's even a cameo from Karl Urban.  After an attempt to find his home planet, he's betrayed by the Necromongers and left for dead on a hostile planet.  Horribly injured, Riddick nurses himself back to health while fighting off the planet's various creatures.  Outside of some narration from Riddick, there's a minimum of dialog.  It's like a sci-fi Rambo survival story.  Also, a lot of work went into the look of the planet and creatures.  If the whole movie had been like this, I think I would have been happy.

Eventually, Riddick knows he's going to have to get off planet.  He finds an old outpost and activates a beacon.  Two groups of bounty hunters arrive to bring him in.  The first group, led by a man named Santana (Jordi Mollà), is there to collect the bounty.  Satana is kind of a douche, so you know things probably wont work out well for him.  The second group, led by Boss Johns (Matt Nable), is after Riddick for a different reason, and has a tie to Riddick's past and the events of Pitch Black.  Riddick isn't going to make it easy for them, staying in hiding and picking off the mercs, while giving them the option of leaving him a ship or he'll kill them all.  The dialog during this part varies from cheesy, eye-rollingly-awful, to funny, to rapey when directed towards Dahl, played by Katee Sackhoff, who's basically doing Starbuck again, which is fine by me.

Finally, the third act is basically Pitch Black 2 where monsters start attacking, and Riddick seems to be the most effective guy at killing them.  He's been through all this before.

Another thing Vin Diesel did was fight for an R rating and that's another area where the film worked.  Sure there's gratuitous nudity, thank you again Katie Sackhoff, but the rating allowed them to not pull any punches.  There are some great and inventive kills as Riddick picks off some of the bounty hunters that rival any horror film.  I mentioned the dialog earlier, but it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect from a room full of egos and testosterone, meaning lots of f-bombs.  I also liked that they didn't go out of their way to make Riddick a good guy.  He's a killer and the very definition of an anti-hero.  I think that got lost in the last film and a weaker rating wouldn't have helped convey that here.

The effects were very good in parts, and very bad in others.  They seemed a few years behind, but considering Riddick had a modest budget for a sci-fi movie, they did a decent job.  Overall, I have to credit writer/director David Twohy for getting the most out of the budget and giving us some entertaining action.  I enjoyed the pace of the film and the overall style.  However, I have to point out that once again one of the climatic scenes featured the same poorly edited fighting that's been plaguing recent films.  This one was even a little more disappointing considering it featured Diesel and Dave Bautista, who are two guys you want to see duke it out and you know can handle the physicality.  It's a missed opportunity to give us something memorable, and instead it's just another run-of-the-mill fight scene.

Riddick is a return to the style and roots of what made people like the character in the first place.  If you were a fan of Pitch Black, but disappointed by Chronicles, then you should be pleased with Riddick.  The dialog and special effects can be a little rough in parts, but overall it's an entertaining film and a late-Summer bright spot in what's been a somewhat disappointing movie season.  I definitely recommend it as a matinee.

3 out of 5 (Death Stars)