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On Two of the Less Appreciated Films of 2014

You probably never heard of these two

It was a great year for movies. For all the doom saying and fear mongering about the franchising of cinema and the creative gloom it’s supposed to bring, 2014 yielded one of the strongest years in the millennium. I’ve seen 17 of the theatrical releases from this year and I only disliked one of them (Mockingjay Part 1, which is boring and suffers greatly from being a Part 1). Movies I’m not huge on, like Godzilla, I still find redemptive aspects in. And I’ve loved many movies from this year, like Gone Girl, Nightcrawler, and of course Marvel’s two offerings that step high and above other films of their ilk.

But I’m not here to praise films that you saw and/or read a hundred articles about. I’m not even here to talk about my favorite movie of the year, which was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. As much as I love those films , I don’t feel compelled to add my two cents to the conversations surrounding them. These two films on the other hand, I want to talk about because they seem to have been lost in the shuffle.

Calvary

Bleak barely begins to describe Calvary. It’s depressing, grim, pessimistic, and unflinching. With Brenden Gleeson providing an incredible central performance, the film takes you through a week in the life of an Irish-Catholic priest who has been marked for death by a member of his flock. His flock, however, resents him. It’s not clear why, though. The priest is never anything but a standup guy, a priest who doesn’t force religion upon anyone as well as a man who respects and listens to what people tell him, even when they tell him how much they hate him. He comes off as saintly, almost.

The film then takes you on a journey with this man as he bears the brunt of a community’s cynicism while he tries to make things right with them and his daughter. A film of nuance and grace, Calvary makes you understand everybody involved. Director John Michael McDonagh’s bleak subject material matches his photography senses. He captures the cloudy skies and lonely mountains of the Irish countryside like it’s a natural force surrounding and closing in on its main character. And Gleeson, one of our most unappreciated actors, puts the film on his back like the priest puts his town and his daughter on his. It’s a truly amazing film.

Locke

Tom Hardy sits in a car for 90 minutes and talks to various people via blutooth. It sounds like a high-concept thriller, but in reality Locke is just an examination of real world, down to earth ethics and what it really means to do the right thing. This film is more nerve-wracking than a lot of so-called thrillers that studios crank out with abandon, and it’s got Tom Hardy’s mesmerizing performance to thank. You’ve seen him play larger-than-life figures like Bane and Charles Bronson (in Bronson, look it up), now watch him just play a man with a crisis of conscience.

Ivan Locke is stuck in the middle of a desperate situation that he created for himself. He knows he has no one else to blame and takes it upon himself to try to make it right. Along the way, he learns how far this car ride will resonate with his family and coworkers and how much it will unravel his life.

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Dredd: My favorite comic book film of 2012

dreddposter

From the moment its title screen literally explodes into view, accompanied by Paul Leonard Morgan’s dirty, vicious industrial-metal score, Dredd embarks on a mission. The mission is not to be a meaningful film, a film with the biggest scale, or even one that wows audiences with impressive CGI. Instead, the mission is simple: be fun.

It’s a refreshingly simple mission that too many action films neglect in favor of meaningless bombast, melancholic atmospheres, or dense world-building. And while I certainly don’t want the likes of The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises to go away, I am ecstatic that a group of artists got together in 2010 to make a comic book action movie as lean, nasty, violent, and humble as Dredd. Because those qualities are what make it one of the best action films of the century.

Karl Urban plays the titular Dredd, a “Judge” who patrols the post-apocalyptic slum that covers the area from Boston to Florida called Megacity One. He is an on-field judge, jury, and executioner and he is incredibly adept at his job. He effortlessly recites his “judgments” to criminals, be they murderers, junkies, or vagrants. Urban never takes off the mask as Dredd, an admirable trait considering most action heroes want to show the world their pretty mugs. But Urban, like the film itself, is humble, and stays in spirit of the character and comics it’s based on. Relying on his gruff tone and chin, Urban still gives a fantastically cheeky, deadpan performance.

Olivia Thrilby plays Anderson, the new Judge and arguably the main character of the film. Her psychic abilities override her inexperience and Dredd is forced to take her under his wing. Their mission is take down Ma-Ma, played by a gloriously-evil Lena Headey. Ma-Ma took over the giant “megablock” (this movie fucking rules) and runs all the crime and drug-dealing within. Dredd and Anderson one of her lieutenants, a dealer of “slo-mo,” the drug that has taken over much of the Megacity and tricks the user into thinking time has slowed to one per cent of its speed.  Ma-Ma locks the block down and orders her cronies to have them killed. Fans of The Raid: Redemption will undoubtedly notice the similarities in this set-up, but Dredd differentiates itself with its execution. This film is definitely lighter in tone than The Raid centers its action around gunfights instead of elaborately-choreographed punches and kicks.

Thirlby gets to play more of a human being. Anderson, unlike Dredd, experiences guilt and uncertainty with doling out judgments so readily. This conflict manifests subtly that one view might not convey the depth that this ostensibly-stupid movie has. This surprising character dynamic reveals a film that doesn’t condone the gung-ho approach of the judges as one would think. With Anderson, the film creates a dynamic between callous cynicism and narrow-minded ideas of “order” and more nuanced ideas of morality and humanity. To see which idea wins out at the end is just as satisfying as the seeing the gunfights.

And those gunfights are fucking rad. The concept of slo-mo allows the filmmakers a narrative excuse to showcase a tired gimmick with the film’s brilliantly realized aesthetic. Gratuitous blood sprays and tightly framed head shots presented in highly-detailed slow motion are peppered throughout the first half of the film. Just as the slo-mo gimmick seems to be getting overused, the filmmakers set it on the backburner until the climax, where it comes back into the fray in clever, ironic fashion. Filmed on a small (for Hollywood sci-fi) budget, Ddd contains griminess that most films either lack or don’t know what to do with.  The production design conveys the humble, retro ambitions of the filmmakers. The film wouldn’t look out of place in a lineup of action movies from the 1980s.

If you allow Dredd to envelop you, you will have fun. In my estimates, a film simply has to meet its own goal. Dredd wanted to be a fun action film and it succeeded. It’s a beautifully cohesive movie. The set design, the score, the characterizations, the editing, the badass monologues, the gory action, and the story all work in sync together. The result is a film that completely understands itself and what it wants to be.

You could level certain criticisms against: it doesn’t sufficiently flesh out its world and the main character isn’t really the subject of the story, but those complaints pale in comparison to the fun I had on both viewings and to the depth I probe on second viewing. Dredd and Anderson do not fall into the pitfalls of many buddy-cop characters; their relationship reveals a more nuanced portrayal of Judge’s system, and eventually reveals how breaking their rigid rules might be more beneficial. It’s also a great example of how to make an action film that doesn’t alienate the female audience. It places a man and two woman as the primary characters; Dredd, Anderson, and Ma-Ma. As her name suggests, Headey’s character represents a kind of deranged maternal figure, encapsulating malicious authority. On the flip-side is Dredd, whose brutal authority exists in the name of good and places him at the business end of Ma-Ma’s machine guns. Between them is Anderson, the young doe learning her way in the world trying to make a dent in the criminal network. She emerges as the soul of the movie while her surrogate parents fight to the death.

Watch it by yourself, watch it with friends, or watch it with booze (though you might find yourself wanting to flip over a truck afterward). All are great options. Any situation will allow you to enjoy Dredd. It s an unabashed and unpretentious movie that simply wants you to have fun. Ironically enough, it stands for even more than that, symbolizing a kind of lovingly-made cinema-for-cinema’s sake that doesn’t get enough attention or respect.

Only God Forgives Review

Wanna Fight?

Ryan Gosling reteams with his Drive director, Nicolas Winding-Refn, for the ultraviolent revenge thriller Only God Forgives. The result is a beautifully shot, utterly deranged arthouse flick that delivers its narrative punches far too sporadically to match its acts of depraved violence.

Gosling plays another silent type, but the strength is zapped by his domineering mother, Crystal, played with bravado by Kristin Scott Thomas, who flies to Bangkok to tell Gosling’s Julian to avenge his brother’s murder. Problem is, a mentally unhinged Thai cop is involved and Julian actually has a conscience, as evidenced by his unwillingness to follow through on his mom’s orders. But she won’t let that stop her. What follows is an especially brutal, thematically disturbing movie.

Julian’s brother, Billy, rapes and murders a 16 year-old girl. The mother condones it. Chang, the cop played by Vithaya Pansringarm, commits cringe worthy mutilation, and Julian might want to marry his mother. Not exactly a fun, family movie. It’s not until late in the third act that we get a reason for Julian’s mental state, but Chang’s and Crystal’s insanity are left unexplored. What you see and hear is largely what you get. A brooding ambient score from Cliff Martinez and slow tracking shots of red corridors complement the violent imagery and communicate the emotion of the film and its characters to the audience to a point, but what’s under the surface feels unexplored until the third act. Until then, it’s just a beautifully-shot pseudo-horror film where ordinary people are the monsters.

 Many filmgoers will check out at the first sign of Julian’s massive Oedipus Complex and it only gets weirder and more incestuous from then on. The finale of the film calls back to an erotic encounter with Julian’s girlfriend, only with a different woman (guess who). And Thomas excels as the manipulative mother of Julian. Her ability to sway her last remaining son is horrifying, as are the consequences.

It should be no surprise that Refn manages to craft a surreal interpretation of modern-day Bangkok soaked in blood and exaggerated color tones. Surrealism has always been an effective tool of his, ever since Bronson (I have not seen his Pusher trilogy and cannot comment on those films), but here something is lacking. With Bronson and Valhalla Rising, Refn managed to stick noticeable allegory and interesting stories into his images, but Forgives lacks that layer. Its story is pretty straightforward, if borderline revolting.

This emptiness and straightforwardness causes the film to be so boring for the first two acts. I go back to Valhalla Rising again (which is a great movie on Netflix if you’re in the mood for some slow, methodical, ultraviolent allegory) because they are both similar in tone and style, but Rising has the subtext going for it. Here, Gosling stares at the camera or at other people while moody synthetic music plays and nothing happens.

The main theme of the film seems to revolve around parenthood. Parents are the driving factors of most of the violence in the movie. Julian’s mother puts out hits and encourages her son to commit murder, the detective is a violent monster who shows compassion to his daughter and her caretaker, and Billy is even killed by another father. And the grotesque violence and scarce dialogue imply that Refn may not have much to say about these awful parents, but he at least has strong feelings about them.

Only God Forgives feels like a filmmaker channeling his most psychotic feelings into a film without corralling them to tell a story with a point. That makes a starkly composed, colorful and memorable film, but it’s not as richly layered as Valhalla Rising, fascinatingly surreal as Bronson, or as effortlessly cool as Drive. It also doesn’t make it that engaging to the audience, even fans of him. I do not consider this a bad film, anything this interesting isn’t a waste of time to watch, but I do wish Refn had given the film a bit more smarts to match the emotional intensity.

Iron Man 3 Review

Iron Man 3 (2013) Poster

Iron Man 3 starts off promising but then careens into bewildering plot twists and action scenes that lack the desired impact.

After Jon Favreau departed the director’s chair (but remains as Happy Hogan in this movie), Shane Black, writer of Lethal Weapon and director of the 2005 film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which also starred Robert Downey Jr., stepped up to helm and help write this entry. Black and Downey attempt to portray Tony Stark as a complete mess after the events of The Avengers, and they do so, successfully. The tension in Stark’s home life, the horror in his eyes, and his detachment from his girlfriend, Pepper Potts played by Gwyneth Paltrow, all indicate a haunted man.

Stark still makes quips and retains a façade of playfulness, but it’s clear more is going on under the surface, thanks to the nuanced performance and writing from Downey and Black, respectively. From here, a golden opportunity is missed to completely break down Stark and utilize the idea that “he is Iron Man” against the character; to develop him, to equate his numerous suits with the “demons” that Stark alludes to in a beginning voice over narration.

The fact that the film doesn’t do that is fine; not every superhero movie needs to be that dark. Iron Man 3 focuses mostly on being fun, but it also suffers from a lack of tonal consistency. Stark’s PTSD is basically abandoned halfway through the film without warning, and his vulnerability becomes limited to his lack of badass body armor. Speaking of which, there isn’t much Iron Man in this Iron Man movie. I have no problem with superhero films limiting their use of costumed antics in favor of characterization, like The Dark Knight Rises, but it needs to build to something. For the first half of this movie, that lack of Iron Man does work to its advantage, but later on, it just drags, with no satisfying payoff. There’s a trick with Iron Man suits, where they just fly to Stark on a whim, that Black abuses so much that when Tony Stark just throws dozens of AI-controlled suits at villains, it stops feeling exciting, even if it does show that Stark is just as much brains as brawn.

None of these are as problematic as the choices done with the Mandarin and Aldritch Killian, played by Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce, respectively. Both of these actors are phenomenal…in other movies. Here, they’ve got some bad roles. Pearce has clichéd dialogue and undercooked motivations, while Kingsley has what might be the lamest plot twist in years. I have no connection to the comic, so that is not the reason I dislike these changes to the Mandarin; what I don’t like is that, when the film shows you its cards, it becomes more straightforward and formulaic than it was.

I love fun movies. I loved The Avengers. But Iron Man 3’s numerous problems prevented it from being as fun as it could have been. Even when Stark’s most interesting aspects fall to the wayside, Downey entertains. And Paltrow has a lot more to do here than in Iron Man 2, and she does it very well. It could have been even more than just fun, though. And that’s the most depressing part of it.