Archive | February, 2013

Hunger – Review

27 Feb

Not too long ago, I did a review for the film Michael Collins, which told the story of the early days of the IRA, with the focal point being Collins, himself. For this review, I will be returning to the subject of the IRA, but in a completely different way with Steve McQueen’s film Hunger. Take everything you have learned about biopics and throw them all out the window. This is a biopic like no other. It is a gripping experience that will leave you pondering your own moral beliefs.

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The year: 1981. The place: Maze Prison in Ireland. Members of the IRA are held in this jail without being granted rights that are given to political prisoners. These rights involve the uniform policy and visitations, among other things. After a long running “no wash” protest is broken apart by the guards, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) decides to take these protests to the extreme. He proposes a hunger strike to anyone who wants to be a part of it. He is the first to protest, and we have to watch.

In terms of story, Hunger doesn’t have a whole lot to offer. It definitely does have a story to tell and it tells it well, but in a very unconventional way. The first half of the movie isn’t so much about Bobby Sands than it is about creating the atmosphere and way of life of Maze Prison. During this time, we don’t grow to hate the guards or any of the prisoners. This film doesn’t offer you the chance to take a side. Instead it purely shows what happens in the most beautiful way possible. That’s what really hit me about this movie. McQueen has taken such an ugly event and turned it into a wonderful work of art.

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Seeing an actor get so deep into a role can be an unsettling thing. I think a very good example would be Christian Bale in The Machinist. I wanted to use that example so I could segue easily to Fassbender’s performance in Hunger. Like Bale, he lost an obscene amount of weight for scenes in the latter half of the movie where Sands is slowly deteriorating. He looks terrible, and McQueen feeds off this. There is nothing held back, which may be a turn off to some, but others will appreciate the realism which seems almost undramatized.

The artistic element of this movie is completely out of this world. For the first quarter of the movie, there is barely anything said. The story relies on the framing of the shots and the physical performances of the actors. Then, in what must be on of the biggest game changers in film history, there is a 17 minute long take of Sands and his priest friend engaging in brilliantly layered thematic dialogue about protests, morality, and death. McQueen proves that he isn’t afraid to take major chances in order to get his artistic vision on screen.

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Like I said before, this is a biopic like no other. Calling Hunger a story about Bobby Sands wouldn’t be doing the film justice. It’s an examination at a time period in a culture that has been uprooted, changed, and fought over for many years. Being entertained by this movie is asking a lot. Hunger isn’t so much entertaining as it is an immersive experience that must be seen and felt to really appreciate it. Artistically, this film is beautiful and Fassbender gives an outstanding performance that proves he is one of the most powerful actors of our time.

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Jacob’s Ladder – Review

21 Feb

Saying that the mind is a mysterious force behind our every move is an understatement. My opinion is that what goes on inside our heads is so complex and abstract that I can’t even begin to describe it. Psychologists and biologists have a lot of fancy vocabulary to describe the mechanics behind it, but everyone’s is so different and reacts in its own unique way. But this isn’t a blog about the mind, it’s a review of Jacob’s Ladder, a film that ares to go to the darkest recesses of our minds and make us rethink life, death, and the world that we inhabit.

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Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) isn’t having a good time. First his youngest son dies and then he is shipped to Vietnam to serve his country. While he is there, his platoon is attacked and he gets severely injured. Now home after an honorable discharge, he is divorced from his wife and living with his girlfriend, Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña). Soon, Jacob’s life begins to spiral out of control after he begins seeing warped demonic creatures following him and trying to harm him. Are these creatures just figments of Jacob’s imagination caused by a severe case of PTSD? Are they real supernatural entities out for his blood? Is this all part of some government conspiracy?

I can’t answer any of these questions because that would completely ruin the movie. Since I watched the movie last night, I’ve been dreading writing this review because I have no idea how I’m going to be able to do it justice without revealing too much. Jacob’s Ladder is really a film that has to be seen and experienced to really appreciate this review, but to hell with it. I’ll give it my best shot.

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“That movie made me so scared to go home.”

The above quote is something my friend said to me when we were talking about it this evening. It’s true, this movie is unusually terrifying in its own unique, disorienting way. There are things that are seen in this movie that are purely Jacob’s Ladder. What I mean by that is that I haven’t seen anything the resembles the movie before it, and I haven’t seen anything quite like it since. The scares are shocking in a body horror kind of way, but also in a way that affects the viewer mentally. There’s an awesome effect used that has become pretty famous of one of the creature’s heads shaking violently very quickly while his body is completely still. It’s a bizarre, creative technique that is actually not too hard to accomplish. The camera used was simply filming at a very low shutter speed, and no extra special effects were added. You don’t need CGI to have awesome effects.

So thats the scry bits, but lets not forget how absolutely intentionally confusing Jacob’s Ladder is. It is the job of the writer and the director to make the audience feel what the characters, mainly the protagonist, is feeling throughout the film. How well this is pulled off depends on how good the film makers are at their craft. The viewer will feel completely immersed in Jacob’s Ladder, and even after it’s over, you’ll still feel like your subconscious is lingering in the world of the movie. During the course of the narrative, I felt just as confused and disoriented as Jacob, and I was really curious as to the answers involved in this psychological mystery. This movie left me in a strange and contemplative mood.

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It’s always shitty when movies don’t live up to the hype that surrounds them. Jacob’s Ladder did not let me down. This is one of those exceptional pieces of film making that will generate a physical, along with mental, reaction from the viewer. It’s terrifying and sad, confusing and tragic. Most of all, it’s a fantastic psychological thriller that will never be forgotten.

A Good Day to Die Hard – Review

20 Feb

Since 1988, John McClane has saved what must be hundreds of thousands of lives. He stopped Hans Gruber at Nakatomi Plaza, saved the lives of Col. Stuart’s airborne hostages, hunted Simon all over New York, and successfully put a stop to Thomas Gabriel’s fire sale. All four of these movies have excellent qualities, yet of course not all of them are perfect. Now we have A Good Day to Die Hard, a film that brings the series back into the R-rating. Where do I begin?

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After hearing that his son is in some sort of trouble in Russia, John McClane (Bruce Willis) takes to the skies for yet another adventure, this time in Moscow. It doesn’t take long to find his estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney), who is an agent for the CIA working with a government whistleblower, Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch), to find a file that would incriminate high ranking Russian officials. Viktor Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov), an official who risks exposure, hires Alik (Radivoje Bukvić) and his team of mercenaries, to find and kill Jack and Yuri. They didn’t count on John, however, who turns Moscow into a war zone and will do anything and kill anyone to protect his son.

This is most certainly one of the weakest entries in the Die Hard franchise. There are so many weaknesses that jump off the screen and do their best to make the viewer disappointed. A Good Day to Die Hard has been receiving terrible reviews from both critics and audiences alike. Me? I didn’t hate the movie, in fact, I was entertained for most of it. Is it an action classic? Does it make the character of John McClane even more of a hero than he already is? Not particularly. But, it still does feel like a Die Hard film, despite all of its glaring weaknesses.

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Let’s start with what bothered me. First of all, the plot was pretty hard to follow, and not because it was a complicated web of intrigue. It was hard to follow because it was so muddled with the need for action that it just seemed out of place. A plot that has to do with exposing foreign government secrets that have to do with major historical events is great for a political thriller, not for something where John McClane has to run around killing bad guys. Along with the plot, there are characters. The characters are so uninteresting, save for John. Jack is stoic and boring and the villains are the worst that this series has to offer. Remember Hans Gruber? He was awesome, if not, the best villain ever. These guys are just boring. There’s also a weird revelation towards the end that has to do with the bad guys that threw me off and made me with they were more characterized.

Second of all, the dialogue at times made me cringe. If I had to hear one more snarky remark from Jack about how much John sucked as a father, I was going to somehow transport myself into the movie and shoot him myself. Having the theme of family issues is fine, especially when the idea of law enforcement and service is thrown in, but it got way too overbearing. We get it, Jack. Thanks.

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But come on. There has to have some good stuff. Of course there was! The action in this movie is awesome. Cars go flying, buildings are torn to shreds, helicopters explode, guns, fists, knives, the works. This is where I felt best. It had the same over the top insanity that Live Free or Die Hard had. The sky’s the limit with this movie. I already talked about the bad dialogue, but there was also some really good dialogue in that cheesy, sarcastic Die Hard way. In fact, there’s one scene involving a particular hand gesture that I consider to be one of the funniest moments of the whole series. I feel like John McClane is back and better than ever, character wise. The last film made him seem like a fish out of water and nothing else. In A Good Day to Die Hard, he’s back in his element.

So yeah, A Good Day to Die Hard is definitely one of the weakest entries in the series, but I don’t consider it the weakest. That award goes to Die Hard 2: Die Harder. I’m sure there are many, many people who would disagree, and they can if they want to. I was a little disappointed with this movie, but not enough to make me hate it altogether. Don’t go into this expecting a fantastic entry into the series. Instead, just be happy to be part of another one of John McClane’s adventures.

Side Effects – Review

18 Feb

Steven Soderbergh is one of those film makers that seems to have the ability to dabble in any genre imaginable. His filmography is extensive and seems to be painted in broad strokes. His latest film, and supposedly his last film he will be releasing for theaters, is Side Effects. As a theatrical swan song, I don’t think there is a movie that could be more appropriate to best represent his diverse skills.

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When Emily Taylor’s (Rooney Mara) husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is released from prison after serving four years for insider trading, it is assumed that life will go on for the couple as it did before his incarceration. Not so. Emily finds herself depressed to the point of attempting suicide on multiple occasions. She meets with psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who after consulting her past therapist, Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones), prescribes Emily with a new experimental drug, Ablixa. The drug appears to be working until its side effects tear Emily’s life to shreds. Blame is soon put on Jonathan, who suspects there is more going on with Emily than meets the eye.

About 2/3’s of the reviews that I have read for Side Effects, good or bad, have split the movie up into two separate parts. The first part involves Emily’s struggle with her depression and the prescribing of different drugs until the Ablixa drug is brought to light. This is a very interesting look into the debilitating effects of depression and a filmic debate over the necessity and morality behind prescription drugs. The second half is Jude Law’s show. During this time we see the fall of his character and his attempts to climb out of the mire. The theme of prescription drugs stays strong for this half, but the concrete finger pointing of the companies behind them make this half engaging.

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While four people are shown on the poster, the two main players are Rooney Mara and Jude Law. Both give two of their finest performances. Jude Law, who has recently become one of my favorite actors, gives a very convincing performance that has its moments of subtlety and explosive anger. Mara has proved herself in her career making role as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but shows once again why she should be one of the most sought after actresses in Hollywood. Zeta-Jones’ character is unfortunately wasted and has only one or two brief scenes that stand out. Finally, Channing Tatum is considered to be a joke of an actor to many, but I give him credit. Give him the right director and the right script, Tatum is actually a pretty good actor. He’s not great, but talent is definitely evident. He just needs to start going after more mature movies.

This film screams Soderbergh. The screenplay written by Scott Z. Burns, who has collaborated with Soderbergh for The Informant! and Contagion, brings a great layer of drama, crime, and corporate thrills that would make Hitchcock proud. Visually, Side Effects looks great. The use of low angles and depth of field tricks definitely visualizes the mental state of depression. I’ve heard aesthetic comparisons of this film to that of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, the most obvious being the very opening shot, which I consider to be a direct homage.

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I really hope that this isn’t Steven Soderbergh’s last theatrical release. The film world would be losing a powerhouse film maker that it can’t really afford to go without. He has provided many smart films with different societal messages that can be taken seriously or darkly comic. If this is his last, Side Effects is a great film to go out on. It’s condemnation of big companies, suspicion against legality of drugs, and the interest in different states of mind define his career and proves this film to be one of his bests.

Gozu – Review

17 Feb

There are movies that exist that make me thankful to live in the world that I do. A good portion of these films fall into the sub genre of surrealism. Gozu, directed by horror icon Takashi Miike, is an example of a movie that pushes this genre to its limits and creates a blurred line between comedy and nightmarish terror. Is it the best this style has to offer, probably not, but it certainly has its fair share of memorable moments and insanity to keep your attention.

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Minami (Yûta Sone) is given a very difficult order by his yakuza boss to kill his mentor and best friend, Ozaki (Shô Aikawa), after it’s become clear that he’s gone off the deep end. After accidentally completing his task, all that is left is to dispose the body at the yakuza dump. All is going fine until Minami discovers that Ozaki’s body is missing from the car. In his odyssey through a Japanese suburban hell to find the body gets stranger and stranger, Minami begins to question his morals, his relationships, and his own sanity.

I consider myself an individual who loves surrealism, being a fan of film makers like David Lynch and Luis Buñuel. Gozu is certainly surrealism to its core, and for that I was pleased. The film still seems a bit off in a bad way. There were times where things got really weird and were supposed to be “interesting,” but I found myself checking the time or playing with my cat. This mostly happened in the scenes involving the motel employees, as strange as they were. Strange doesn’t always mean interesting though. It’s all about the execution and the overall atmosphere of the scene.

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There are still really great scenes of nightmarish surrealism. One of my favorite, and I think hysterical, scenes is when Minami goes into a diner and there’s a man talking on the phone saying the same thing about the weather over and over again. It’s not the most bizarre thing to happen, but it had me laughing and scratching my head at the same time. The goat head’s scene should really be recognized as an excellent piece of horror, if you can call it that. Finally, and I think most importantly, there is the most unconventional birth scene I have ever seen. Forget The Fly. This is the hardcore shit.

A thought that I had after Gozu was over was that there is no way that it would pass here in America. Sure, there are people who’ll get it on DVD and enjoy it, but if it was ever released in main stream theaters, people would be running home to their mommies and daddies. This might sound condescending, but I don’t mean it that way. What I’m trying to say is that America has become so strict with its censorship and its apparent laziness when it comes to certain summer blockbusters. There’s rehash after rehash of old shows or remakes of classic films when there’s films like Gozu that may never see the light of day.

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Like most of Takashi Miike’s work, Gozu is not a very easy film to get through both because of its form and context. It looks very cheaply made when it comes to image quality, even though the special effects look really cool. This certainly isn’t my favorite of Miike’s work and isn’t my favorite surrealist film. It sometimes relished too much in its own bizarre nature, when it was actually starting to get a little boring. Luckily there were excellent scenes in-between that made up for its uneven pacing. If you’re new to Takashi Miike, start with something else like Audition. If you enjoy movies that transport you to a world that you’re more than ready to leave when the film is over, and you can appreciate Miike’s low budget filming style, than you should check out Gozu. Good, but not great.

Martyrs – Review

12 Feb

There seems to be a relatively new genre in gory horror films that have been labeled with the insulting name of “torture porn,” the most popular being Hostel.  While some of these films offer a grand abundance of gore, they aren’t always my cup of tea, like the overly excessive GrotesqueMartyrs technically doesn’t fall into this sub genre. It actually belongs to a sub genre called New French Extremity, which prides itself in being as graphic as possible with little to no censorship. Another reason this film stands apart is its strange philosophy and depth that creeps up from time to time.

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When Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) was a child, she was kidnapped and held hostage for a long period of time. While she was trapped, she was abused physically and psychologically. Eventually, she escaped. Fifteen years later, she, along with her only friend, Anna (Morjana Alaoui), has tracked down her tormentors. She soon gets her revenge, but finds out that she is still haunted by the demons that have been following her ever since her abduction. The two friends also begin to learn that there is something more sinister involving their kidnapping and torture, and may even be subjected to it one final time.

The narrative of this movie is structured in a very strange way. In school, I’ve learned that there are certain points that a film’s plot will hit. They are as follows: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Some people may have been taught differently, but this is just from my experience. Martyrs does hit some of these points, but at times it will seem to have missed one, or blurred it in such a way that it can be hard to miss. This is a very weird way to tell a story, and I’ve never really seen a movie that plays out like this one. At first, it’s kind of hard to adjust to the style, but once you do it’s really rewarding.

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Martyrs is a very shocking film in a couple of ways. The first half of the movie has to do with revenge, questioning morality, and haunting pasts. In this half, the audience is treated to one of the most horrifying specters to be put on screen. It contorts and bleeds and shrieks and wedged its way deeply into my subconscious, only to return when I’m home alone. The second half of the movie is when things really start getting weird. Brutality runs amok, and my limits were tested. Going into this movie, I wasn’t really expecting anything too terrible. Little did I know that I’d be leaving this movie thinking that it was one of the scariest that I have ever seen.

Returning to the weird narrative structure, I do want to briefly complain about the pacing in the beginning of the movie. There’s a period of about 20 minutes that can only be compared to a bowl of jello. It’s moving, but not going anywhere. I was watching the movie hoping and praying that the cool stuff wasn’t over in the first half hour of the movie. It picked up after a little bit, but every time I watch this movie, I know that there’s going to be a period where I’m going to be bored. I wish this whole segment wasn’t there. It is important for character development, but it’s really slow and doesn’t match the rest of the film at all.

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For a film that people label “torture porn”, the acting is at the top of its class. I was completely surprised with how well the actors performed. Special congratulations goes to Morjana Alaoui, who is in absolute control of all of the performances in the second half of the movie.

Martyrs is not a movie that can be easily stomached. I wouldn’t say it’s as shocking or controversial as A Serbian Film or even Antichrist, but it is something that will be lurking in your head and causing you to lose sleep for a long while to come. I will defend it till the end in saying that this is not torture porn. What Martyrs is to me is a twisted journey into the minds of troubled individuals engaging in troubling things. It’s disturbing psychology mixed with its brutality and sprinkling of philosophy pushes this film to be one of the best horror films of the past decade

Opera – Review

6 Feb

I’ve already talked a lot about Dario Argento on this blog. So far I’ve talked about Suspiria, Inferno, and The Mother of Tears. Well, here we are, back with Argento, one of the masters of the horror genre with his 1987 film Opera. When it was first released for U.S. audiences, it was heavily cut, and therefore never complete. Luckily, I’ve seen the uncut version and I have quite a bit to say, both bad and good.

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MacBeth has always been a cursed show, but never before seen like this. After the original choice for Lady MacBeth is injured in adar accident, the role then goes to newcomer Betty (Cristina Marsillach). Her first performance is met with a standing ovation, but also attracts the attention of an obsessive and violent stalker. Soon after the performance she is forced to watch the masked man kill one of her friends. In the days to come this happens again and again, giving her all the more reason to find out who the murderer is and stop him before she becomes the victim.

It seems that Argento movies always have their fair share of really great things and really terrible things. This film is case and point to my theory. In that same way, he’s kind of lucky that he’s so good at creating memorable scenes of horror, because there are so many things in this movie that have the potential to drag this movie down. The biggest problem, since it happens throughout the entire movie is the acting. This is a problem throughout Argento’s filmography, and this doesn’t have the worst acting (Suspiria), but it can be pretty laughable when the scene is meant to be dead serious.

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The “joy” that is found in Opera are the fantastic murder sequences. These scenes are some of the best that you will ever see in horror along with Psycho and the original Saw. I find it remarkable how the needles that are taped under Betty’s eyes aren’t recognized as a major symbol in the horror genre. The film also shows that Argento will not hold back in his violence. The first killing that is shown is memorable, unexpected, and wonderfully gory. It was so good that I had to rewind the scene a couple of times just to prolong my giddy laughter. The scene that really stands above the rest in the movie features a bullet being shown shooting through a peep hole and into the victims head, all of it in slow motion for maximum appreciation. And what would these murder scenes be if they weren’t accompanied by some unexpected 80s metal music? There are some against this choice of soundtrack, but I think it’s a great contrast from the opera music heard throughout.

The set design also looks fantastic, especially the opera house, where a lot of the action takes place. The hall and the backstage design is both beautiful and spot on. Even Betty’s apartment has this old Italian style that you can’t really find in America. I wouldn’t be able to fully take all of these sights in if it weren’t for Argento’s stalking camera work. The camera seems to have a life of its own as it chases, stalks, and even flies throughout the opera house and the various apartments.

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The problem that almost ruins the entire movie is its godforsaken ending. I can honestly say that this is one of, if not, the worst ending I have ever seen. Never has an ending felt like it was literally thumb tacked on by a kindergartner. The conflict is over way too fast and the whole scenario is way too absurd, bordering on deus ex machina. It’s a joke.

Opera is a very good horror movie, even though it has all of the makings to be dreadful. There’s bad acting throughout and an ending that will leave even the most casual cinephiles annoyed. Still, the murder scenes, set design, camera work, and idea are all great and work well together. This isn’t going to change anyone’s minds about Argento nor will it be appropriate for anyone with a weak stomach, but it’s a fun watch for horror fans, especially those already accustomed to Argento’s style.