Coming Attractions

Processing soon: Lucy
For fun: Upcoming gear grinder on modern day music in period films and an opinion piece on
actors playing the same person.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hercules

"You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war." -Napoleon Bonaparte

What struck me the most about the movie "Hercules" is that for something that on its surface is nothing more than the typical summer action movie, there lies surprisingly deeper meaning. Directed by Brett Ratner, a filmmaker with an admittedly hit or miss resume, "Hercules" is based off a 2008 Radical Comics story written by Steve Moore. For those of you craving a full fledged film adaptation of the Hercules story from Greek mythology, you may find yourself in the wrong film. Very quickly into this movie it will be realized that what was sold to you by the Zack Snyder-esque trailers is in fact another beast all together.

This is at first quite jarring, for what the film actually does is distill all the legends, stories, and myths about Hercules back to their source. Just as the ancient Greeks turned to convoluted mythologies and stories to explain naturally occurring phenomena, so too does the storyline of "Hercules". What it shows you, is how an extraordinarily strong and able leader gets a legend built around feats and achievements that are actually grounded in reality. Whereas 2006's "300" (perhaps the closest brethren in genre that can be found in recent film memory) shows the depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae through the lens of a campfire story filled with propaganda and exaggerated retelling, "Hercules" takes things more like a "live" view of the events through a realistic lens. While most people are at least somewhat aware of the so called twelve labors that Hercules had to endure (even if it's only based off movie knowledge from Disney's animated "Hercules", or even the mid-nineties Kevin Sorbo starring tv show), what if these "labors" were actually simple fights with ordinary beasts or even men disguising themselves as such?

This film does just that and while it may not be as visually distinct as 300 or even as exotic as what the trailers suggested, it does manage to pull off having its own unique feel and even manages to realistically depict the shield wall battle tactic. In fact, the most visually impressive scenes throughout the movie involve the shield wall. Taking wide helicopter shots of a unit solidified as "a single, impenetrable unit" had a fantastic look that lives up to the promise that wasn't quite fulfilled by "300". One could easily argue that many of the battle scenes included here are the most exciting seen since Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" or 2004's "Troy". The lighting used throughout the film is also impressive and manages to make it interesting without applying obvious over saturation or the type of "Instagram filtering" that can make your eyes water. The 3-D version of the film was immersive and contained subtle use throughout and was careful not to overindulge at least until the stylized closing credits.

Just as the film isn't afraid to poke at the legend, neither is it afraid to make fun of itself. The typical doom and gloom speeches about fate and destiny are found throughout the movie, but manage to balance it well with humor (which is something that the similarly themed 2010 depiction of "Clash of the Titans" and its pointless 2012 sequel "Wrath of the Titans" managed to both simultaneously lack and awkwardly force). Two particularly memorable gags that come to mind involve the character of Amphiaraus (played by the always welcome Ian McShane) and his repeated insistence that his "time has come" and another scene that essentially "Scooby-Doo's"one of the twelve labors. Subverting viewer expectations is always a tricky endeavor that can backfire miserably but "Hercules" manages to not only do this once, but twice to the audience and pulls it off surprisingly well.

The casting works decently for the most part. Dwayne Johnson has the perfect look for the character, however continues to sound the same in every role he portrays which at times may take you out of the film. It's certainly understandable that not every actor can put on a convincing accent, but when every other character in the film speaks with the (in?)-famous "ancient british" accent it's a bit jarring. The rest of the cast is rounded off with mostly unknowns with a few more famous faces thrown in here and there. John Hurt (of "V for Vendetta" and "Alien" fame) pulls off his role as the regional ruler of Thrace Lord Cotys decently with his now standard hint of ruthlessness and Joseph Fiennes (known for "Shakespeare in Love") does an okay turn as the rather ridiculous looking King Eurystheus of Argos. The character of Iolaus (played by Reece Ritchie) does come dangerously close to annoyingly hijack the film as the "comic relief" but manages to tone it down by the midway point of the movie and in fact is replaced by Ian McShane's character as the narrator by the end of the film. One wonders why Ian McShane wasn't used as the narrator during the opening sequence as well and many will wonder if the "comic relief" character was even needed.

"Hercules" isn't without its own thematic problems as well, as it features a rather humdrum first half that brings very little to the table that hasn't been seen before. In fact, I found myself wondering if perhaps halfway through shooting the writers realized how bland the story was and hurriedly re-wrote the last half. Some may find this a bit drastic or even inconsistent but I feel it manages to barely avoid that line and hold it together. Overall, the movie manages to overcome many these issues and rise well above the typical mindless summer action flick such as this years "Transformers: Age of Extinction".

I AM HERCULES!
  • Despite all indications pointing to a mindless summer action flick, "Hercules" somehow manages to leave you with both a big smile on your face and the desire to actually reflect on the events shown in the movie.
  • While it will certainly anger some, "Hercules" takes a big gamble by subverting your expectations based on what was shown in the trailers and somehow, incredibly pulls it off.
  • Dwayne Johnson embodies the spirit of the character of Hercules and pulls off the look perfectly.
  • The battle scenes involving the shield wall translate impressively to the screen and manage to hold off from some of the shenanigans depicted in 2006's "300". 
  • A deft balance between darker themes such as fate and death that tips more towards humor makes "Hercules" a very entertaining film to watch.
F***ing centaurs!
  • Dwayne Johnson's character lacking an accent consistent with the rest of the cast is understandable (and would probably have been more distracting than what it was worth), but it can at times take you out of the movie.
  • The main villain throughout the first half of the movie is rather lame. This was likely intentional and used for misdirection but did they really have to be named Rhesus? Oh and in case you're wondering? Yes, it is pronounced "Reece's" (just like the candy) throughout the film.
  • While the misdirection and subverting of viewer expectation is a breath of fresh air, it will likely be aggravating to some and admittedly makes the movie slightly feel a bit inconsistent with itself. 
Verdict: While some may be angry with "Hercules" based on the major differences of the final film compared to the trailers, it actually manages to showcase great action scenes mixed in with humor and decent twists. This is not your typical summer action movie and manages to both leave you entertained and contemplating the story.

As an experiment, watch this trailer again after you see the movie. Notice anything?

The companion piece for the film this week comes from Adam Fendelman over at review site Hollywood Chicago. Take a look and see his thoughts here.

Note: Well, it has certainly been awhile hasn't it?! I wanted to apologize for my long absence as I actually have gone through some major life changes in the past few months. I accepted a new "day job" with a company in the Chicago area back in April, so it has certainly required some adjustments (not to mention a considerable cross country road trip!). Rest assured that I will do my best to be more consistent with reviews from here on out. Happy movie watching everyone!


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Her

What makes a person? Is it their thoughts? Personality? Their presence? Or simply their impact on others? Spike Jonze's "Her" forces you, the viewer, to ask these very questions. For those of you familiar with Jonze's work, these types of questions really shouldn't surprise you: 1999's "Being John Malkovich"broached similar territory, albeit in a slightly more abstract fashion by focusing on individuality within amalgams of personality. Whatever your views on these types of movies, when it comes to thought experiments or abstract conundrums Mr. Jonze clearly knows what he's doing.

Taking place in a peaceful future setting (likely 30-50 years from now), Her shows a society and culture even further embedded with technology. Cell phones are a thing of the past, eschewed in favor of small earpieces (a la the alternate universe version of phones depicted in FOX's tv showFringe) that reads your emails, calls your contacts, and generally runs most of the "errands" of your life all with a simple voice command. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix playing the awkwardly named Theodore Twombly, a recently martially separated and rather lonely individual that dictates intimate and well written love letters for strangers. The catch being that he's paid by the "sender"to compose and write it himself, while the person receiving it is none the wiser. Spending his day quietly muttering into a computer microphone and then quietly muttering commands to his ear piece on the train ride home, Theodore's life seems to serve as a template of everyone around him.

The people of the world of Her all mutter quietly into their earpieces, in fact it's almost as if the director made it a point to rarely show two people interacting with one another directly. Theodore's loneliness isn't his own, everyone seems to be drowning in it. This rather noticeable quirk in the film strongly reminded me of the famous refrain from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink". Indeed, it appears the closest real interaction people seem to have comes from the earpieces, why meet with someone when they are just a voice command away? This leads up to a rather humorous scene involving the main character and a sex chatroom of sorts, featuring cameo voice work by both Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. However, this isn't to say that interaction isn't common: through the use of numerous flashbacks, it's clear how close Theodore was to his soon to be ex-wife. Enter Samantha. The film eventually finds Theodore in an electronics store, and through a rather clever bit of exposition he listens to a targeted advertisement (similar the eye scanner technology used in Spielberg's Minority Report) tell him about a new computer Operating System featuring the first true Artificial Intelligence.

Perhaps the most entertaining scene occurs during the install process of the newly purchased OS. When asked about his relationship with his mother, Theodore goes into a long rambling and non-committal statement that the computer more or less cuts off with a curt "Thank you". After the setup is complete we are introduced to Samantha. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson (in what is arguably one of her best roles, despite never appearing on screen), Samantha exhibits all the traits and quirks of a person. Not only that, but she adapts and reacts to the electronic "world" around her: Which at this point in theorized time could more or less be equated to the real one given the amount of reliance humanity is depicted as having toward archived and readily available data. From here, the development of the relationship between Theodore and Samantha is handled both charmingly and realistically. After all, if Samantha truly IS a person, which the film very clearly shows- why wouldn't or couldn't a "normal" relationship develop and progress the same way as any other?

Of course, this doesn't get you past the limitation of Theodore actually having a physical body whereas Samantha is a disconnected and abstract voice. How and where the relationship ends up, is definitely worth the investment of your time and features a rather moving and heartfelt conclusion. The story itself is only strengthened by the talent shown with its cinematography. Often lingering on the display of Samantha's name on the future equivalent of an iPad during her and Theodore's long conversations, or languidly shifting through crowds of people serving as islands unto themselves, or then wildly swinging around a restaurant early in the movie with the main character on a rather disastrous first date after having a few too many drinks: this is a type of camera work connected with the emotion of the scene. This is something that can easily be blown out of proportion, think the fast cuts of the Bourne trilogy or the frenetic shots of Michael Bay's latest humdrum action film, but Her keeps it up with style and truly adds to the overall look and feel of the film in a very positive way.

The movie of course isn't without some weakness. Featuring a nearly pointless supporting role by Amy Adams, who is cast as the purposely quirky friend used the spout some pretty groan inducing lines (better seen in a dime a dozen rom-com or chick flick), we really didn't need her thoughts on the situation Theodore finds himself in (or that hair). Despite this lone blight, Her is a surprisingly engaging film that will find you truly invested in the relationship between a man and an artificial intelligence. With that I'll leave you to ponder: what makes you, you?

... spaces between the words are almost infinite...
  • A contemplative and beautifully shot film that resonates with strong emotions, Her not only captures the trials and tribulations of a relationship but appeals to our fascination with where our future may be headed. 
  • The film cleverly captures what loneliness can mean when you're surrounded by an ocean of people without being in your face about it. In this universe, being a person unto yourself is merely an accepted fact. 
  • The film isn't all drama and wisely mixes in some pretty entertaining and genuinely funny moments using not only the main character's awkwardness but the way society is depicted in general. 
  • Theodore and Samantha's relationship feels very real and nuanced and you easily find yourself invested in where these two will go. This of course is strengthened by the great writing and fantastic acting by both Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. 
It's kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity...
  • Amy Adams delivers a rather grating performance as a friend and neighbor of the main character that adds very little to the story.
  • Those who disliked Being John Malkovitch, or the even more "out there" Adaptation starring Nicholas Cage, may have some issues with the quirkiness that is inherent in films by Spike Jonze.
Verdict: Her is a thought provoking film hidden within the confines of a non-traditional romantic comedy. Vaguely reminiscent of a variety of films from Minority Report (as far as the setting is concerned) to last year's surprise hit Warm Bodies (sans zombies), this is a film that will have you invested in the lives of the main characters well after the credits roll. 

Check out this hilarious send up of the movie featuring Jonah Hill and a surprise "Cera-gate".



Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Archer Vice: A Kiss While Dying (Season 5, Episode 2)

As I stated in the previous review, one of my main concerns over the first episode this season was the very forced ending preview of what was to come. In my opinion, the greatest strengths of previous seasons was in the surprise of new episodes- you never really knew what antics Archer and company would get into next (aside from clever mini-previews during the credits). Astute viewers of last week's ending would have been able to piece together a lot of the plot that occurs this season. Which coming into this episode really hurts it, at least at first.

This week we see that what's left of ISIS has been forced to move into, as Archer puts it, "Casa de Addams family" AKA the Tunt manor (secretary Cheryl's family home). I found myself really enjoying this bit, and it points out one of the show's greatest strengths in how its built up these characters over the years and always ends up utilizing even the most trivial of details as an eventual callback. After breezily getting us up to speed with their new digs (including some great Krieger and Woodhouse gags), we get down to the start of the cocaine business. Mallory has found a buyer and sends Lana, Archer, and Pam (after Krieger hilariously assumed Mallory was joking when she asked him to design a foolproof way to transport it) to Miami to complete the transaction.

From there, we slowly cut between the action in Miami and back at the Tunt manor in New York. Which brings me to the weakest section of the entire episode. Cuts between the field and office are usually some of the best scenes in the series however, this episode stutters a bit in this regard. Ray has decided to become Cheryl's "voice coach" to help her toward the goal of being, "THE country's best country singer and some of Canada". While Archer and company meet the intermediary Ramon, who is reprising his role from way back in season one's "Honeypot" episode, the show cuts at annoyingly quick intervals with egregious pacing. One cut in particular to the manor lasts less than 4 seconds and is way more distracting than funny. However, after this small misstep we get back to a more natural style longtime fans of the show are used to. After Ray gives up for the day as Cheryl's voice coach, the gang in Miami is brought to the buyers who are none other than the hired hit-men that happen to be gay (long story) from the same "Honeypot" episode, Charles and Rudy.

As is typical with shows of this age, bringing back old characters can either help or hinder a show just as It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia has proven over on sister network FXX. Archer manages to do this just right: it has been long enough to warrant a revisit to these "Honeypot" characters, it doesn't feel forced, and they actually add something to the story (season nine of It's Always Sunny could have used a refresher of this). Lets just hope Archer manages to hold this balance, and not make it a gimmick.

Continuing the plot, after Charles and Rudy end up stealing the cocaine Archer and company regroup back at Ramon's taco stand. They decide to steal back the stolen goods and get the money that was promised, and Ramon leads them to where Charles and Rudy live. The ensuing standoff then hints at a season long "big-bad/protagonist" a la Barry from season four (here's hoping the triumphant return of Conway Stern! I'm sensing a pretty badass Crockett & Tubbs vibe if this ends up being the case), and then all three returning characters apparently die. The show concludes with a hilarious reveal that the money was in fact counterfeit and that Charles, Rudy, and Ramon duped them all. What I most enjoyed about this scene, is how it calls back to season two's "Jeu Monegasque" in that the plan used is revealed via voiceover and quick flashbacks. The final scene before the credits works rather well, with Charles chiding Ramon (and nodding at the audience) at how ridiculous it was for them to fake their deaths when they already had the counterfeit money and the cocaine.

I had my sincere doubts at how this episode would work since the recurring characters were already revealed last week and a lot of the plot could be surmised, however there were enough surprises and hidden laughs to make this a pretty strong second episode. Lets hope the season can keep the momentum going.

Potato, Po-treason...
  • Great re-use of the Tunt mansion as the now functional headquarters of the former ISIS employees, but where's Babou??
  • Really enjoyed how subtle the use of Krieger was this episode, he practically stole the show in office antics this week! My fears of him being overused seem to have been unfounded, which is a good thing.
  • Loved the way Pam quickly becomes addicted to cocaine, after she's strapped into a body-cast laced with the stuff. Her fast talking antics after Archer is injured were classic!
  • The reappearance of Ramon, Charles, and Rudy from season one was a welcome addition and they were used in a meaningful and truly hilarious way.
  • Great to see the re-worked Archer opening credits! Judging by wikipedia's listing of the show being temporarily named Archer Vice, it appears this may be only used for one season. Based on how well the Heart of Archness episodes and the back and forth on Ray's paralysis worked, I have great faith in the writers being able to pull it off.
  • Can I just repeat at how hilarious and brilliant the double-cross of Ramon, Charles, and Rudy was?!
It was still a stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid plan!
  • Some of the mid-episode cutting between Miami and the Tunt mansion was a little out of whack.
  • Ray was still a bit under-utilized this episode.

Verdict: This episode has a few minor hiccups in the middle, but managed to pull together to be a rather strong showcase for the remainder of the season. Featuring some old faces, a coke addicted Pam, and a hilarious double cross- things are looking good so far!

The re-worked Archer title presumably being used this season. It's so 80s! I get such an awesome Scarface, Miami Vice, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City vibe!

Note: Just wanted to add a quick little postscript everyone. I recently decided to start a new blog on a radically different topic: Alternate History. The blog is titled "A Branch Historic" and can be found here. Fear not film and television fans, this doesn't mean the reviews will end as I plan to continuously update both blogs. As always, thank you everyone for reading and have yourselves a great 2014!