“Sucker Punch” review.

Some directors follow the mantra, ‘style over substance’. Others embody it.

In his past features “300”, “Dawn of the Dead”, and his lone masterpiece “Watchmen”, director Zack Snyder has been one of those directors. Few contemporary directors have as keen a visual and directorial sense as he. But exactly how effectively he uses those skills has been subject to much debate. Me? I’ve long been a defender of Snyder, as in many instances he’s married visceral spectacle with compelling, dynamic storytelling. But his latest feature, “Sucker Punch”? An entirely different tune.

With “Sucker Punch”, Snyder essentially tossed in any floating idea he’d had: Nazi zombies? Why not! Giant samurai robots with Gatling guns? Throw that in too! It’s all of these wild, insane ideas, but put together in an entirely lazy, dishonest way.

See, “Sucker Punch” is about a group of girls put in an asylum who fantasize about escaping. So they collectively construct a dream world that they go into, to fight off various enemies that represent the oppressors in their lives. They’re placed in different “levels” where they have to achieve different goals, be it slaying a dragon, or disarming a bomb, or blowing up a blimp.

However, the whole concept falls apart for many reasons. One, approaching the movie on a purely visceral standpoint, it more often than not fails. It’s shot in an engaging way, sure, but without any sort of emotional foundation, it’s hard to feel for any of it. It’s so loud and so pounding that it’s hard to….what’s the word….enjoy?

Secondly, it’s hypocritical in nature. Snyder stated he meant for “Sucker Punch” to be a female empowerment film. But guess what? The female characters aren’t actually solving their problems, they’re side-stepping them by retreating into fantasy. To make matters worse, Snyder dresses them in costumes meant strictly for the prying eyes of, well, grown men. Snyder meant these women to be admired for their bodies, not their bravery or capability.

Third, the entire structure of the film is muddled and difficult. It’s a dream within a dream within a maybe-fantasy-maybe-metaphor, which is as difficult to understand in the film as it was to type. This brings us to the final reason the concept of this film comes along: It’s obviously built to serve the action, not the other way around. It’s just an empty conceit for Snyder to cram in any and every idea that came into his head.

The structure of the movie may be broken, but there are individual traits that are admirable (if not enjoyable). The female cast, consisting of Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone and Vanessa Hudgens, all punch up the script; giving a believable face so as to disguise the sexist concept. And this being a Zack Snyder film, the visuals are gorgeous, with Snyder’s visual effects team creating many different, distinctive landscapes. To put it bluntly: They made a nice background for me to stare at while everything in the foreground left me cold. D

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“Limitless” review.

Limitless movie photo 01 550x366

I always enjoy seeing an actor, or even a person in general, redefine the way that I see them, for the better. One such case is Bradley Cooper’s performance in “Limitless”. In past films like “The A-Team” and “The Hangover”, Cooper’s always demonstrated charm and screen presence (the good looks go without saying), but he’s never had a role that’s required him to do more than make dry cracks and smile for the camera.

Enter “Limitless”, a movie where Cooper has to stretch so far from his current comfort zone that I remain mildly amazed that he did it. It’s a wild, charming, loose performance, one that stands out a good deal in Cooper’s filmography so far. And one that stands out a good deal in the film, an almost impossibly energetic, zippy ride.

It’s the sort of film where walking into it, you need to abandon hope for any kind of realistically depicted reality. It’s brash, it’s stupid, but best of all: It knows this. It’s a movie that’s as in love with itself as much as it wants us to love it.

Bradley Cooper plays Eddie, a down-on-his-luck New York writer who’s fresh off a break-up. It’s when he stumbles upon NZT, a clear, small little pill, that his world changes for the better.

You see, you know the myth that you can only access 20% of your brain? (I say myth because it’s 20% at a given time, as opposed to at all times) NZT is a pill that unlocks the rest of your brain so that you’re firing on all mental cylinders, at all times. Eddie becomes addicted, and in about a months time, finishes a novel, tours the world, and rises to the top of the Wall Street ladder.

The movie, plot-wise, is a total mess, with various subplots involving Eddie’s exes, Russian mobsters, and a Wall Street billionaire Carl Van Loon (played by an up-and-coming actor you may know named Robert de Niro).

I’m not quite sure if I’ve made this clear yet: “Limitless” is a 105-minute-shot of awesome; a film that, to quote Charlie Sheen, has one speed: “GO!”. But to enjoy it is to acknowledge its flaws, which as you may have picked up on earlier in this critique, “Limitless” has plenty.

Leslie Dixon’s script is the gaping flaw of the film. Dialogue-wise, it handles itself well, but it has some pretty massive problems with regards to pacing, and a dramatic beat at the very ending that’s really muddled and incoherent.

But where “Limitless” makes up for almost all of its problems, lies in Neil Burger’s direction. He gives the film a stylish visual sheen, but puts in many nuances and touches that make the movie a ton of fun to watch. For example, Burger will occasionally do, almost for no reason whatsoever, shots that literally speed through the streets of a neon-tinted New York. Senseless? Yes. Ridiculous? Yes. Totally embodying of the total blast of energy and fun that this movie gave me? Yes.

“Limitless” is a film stupid in concept, but so reckless and so exuberant in its execution that to not enjoy it, is damn close to impossible. A-

Kevin Smith tweeted about me.

Today, one of my favorite public figures (not just directors, or even film-related people) not only acknowledged my existence, but shared my story and my review of his film, “Red State”. Yes, friends, Kevin Smith knows who I am, and out of the goodness of his heart, wanted his 1,763,525 followers on Twitter to know it too. I really don’t have much to say (I’m still at a total loss for words), so I’ll just post his tweets in order, and let them speak for themselves.

It’s days like this that keep me doing this.

-Ryan.

“Paul” review.

For all of the movies made about aliens, it’s surprising that their depiction falls into only two categories: Friendly (think “E.T.”) and hostile (think “Alien”). But I’m fairly certain the new Simon Pegg/Nick Frost comedy “Paul” introduces a new type of alien to the table: Laid-back stoner.

Voiced by Seth Rogen, Paul is a likable, amicable guy who just happens to green, small, and not of this world. Ever since he crashed on our planet in the ’40s, the government’s been keeping him hostage in a desert-area base. What exactly they’ve been doing with him in that time is one of the film’s great surprises that I won’t spoil here.

But Paul escapes from said base, and comes across two British-comic-book-geek-types: The always-lovable Simon Pegg & Nick Frost, (who also wrote the script) as Graeme and Clive. The British duo are in America for the first time, and are on a road trip to soak up all of the sci-fi/alien-related tourist attractions they can. Funny, then, that they come across the real deal.

Paul hitches a ride with Graeme and Clive, asking that they drive up north to Wyoming’s Devils Tower so that his spaceship can pick him up again. What none of them quite expect, and where the movie picks up a really great energy, is that there’s a group of government agents in pursuit of the little creature they have in tow. The movie is essentially a prolonged chase scene, where a combination of government agents, angry hicks, and religious fundamentalists pursue Graeme, Clive and Paul across the country. This makes for a quick pace and for a series of very, very amusing set pieces. There’s a lot of nice little in-jokes and throwbacks to science-fiction and comic-book-lore, and one particular cameo (hint: his films are a very, very big inspiration to this movie) had me speechless with glee.

The problem with this is that sometimes the movie gets a little too caught up in its own chaos and stalls at developing interesting dynamics between the characters. They’re all likable and funny, for sure, but they don’t have much of an arc besides getting from Point A to Point B. This isn’t so much a fatal flaw as it is just a missed opportunity for something a little greater and a little more memorable.

“Paul”‘s greatest asset is its varied comedic cast. Sure, you have Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, whose fantastic chemistry have been well-documented in other movies, but the remainder of the cast actually often steals the show from them. Kristen Wiig brings a much-needed dose of sweetness as Graeme’s potential love interest, Bill Hader and Jason Bateman are amusing as the secret agents put on Paul’s trail, and Seth Rogen brings alot of personality to voicing Paul.

But Paul the character is alot like “Paul” the movie: Warm, charming, and more often than not, hilarious; but misses alot of its potential to be more than just an entertaining diversion. Where Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s past scripts (and starring roles) “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” were high-energy, distinctive, almost-instant cult classics, “Paul” seems a little less ambitious and a little more content to tread ground that other movies have covered before. C+

 

“Red State” early review.

Charismatic radical preacher Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) addresses his congregration in "Red State".

Kevin Smith has been through the full cycle of Hollywood – adoration, scorn, comeback, disappointment. And if he’s to be believed, is retiring soon, with one film left in him after this. He came into filmmaking with a dream and a $27,575 black-and-white comedy that he wrote, directed, edited and cameoed in, called “Clerks’. Mega-producer Harvey Weinstein picked it up at Sundance, and the rest is independent film history.

Flash-forward 17 years — he’s going out the way he came in, releasing his latest film, “Red State”, by himself, on his own terms, paying for his own advertising and prints. It’s as low-key and independent a production as they come, made for about $4 million. He’s raising money to pay for the prints, though, by embarking (or by the time this is published, having embarked) on a multi-state tour where he screens the movie, seven months before its October release, and does an accompanying Q&A. Only fools and die-hards would dare attend this. I am both, and so I was there with my $53 ticket in hand. (save this review, it’s not going to apply to your movie-going experience until this October)

Yes, I went, yes, I had a great time listening to Smith spout stories for three hours, but that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to discuss what is one of the most exciting, engaging movies in months.

A group of teenage boys set up a meeting with a girl through the Internet with intentions of hooking up, but when they get to the meeting point things don’t go quite as planned — they’re abducted and caged by the notorious local Five Points Trinity Church. The church is an unruly bunch of fundamentalists, who have no problem murdering a gay man or picketing a funeral. A sequence of shocking events begin to occur and as time goes on, local ATF officers become involved and it turns into a bloody shootout where the authorities themselves might have less-than-pure-intentions.

The main reason “Red State” feels so exciting isn’t just because of the story, although make no mistake there is more than enough to go around in that regard. No, because “Red State” is the work of a filmmaker who is reinventing and pushing himself, before our very eyes. Smith’s past works have never ventured beyond standard comedy fare; so seeing a bold statement against religious fundamentalism from him is surprising, to say the least.

But seeing as story-wise Smith is out of his comfort zone, it means he’s gotta adapt some new tricks, stylistically. “Red State” is shot in a grimy, shaky, low-res style that gets under your skin and into your nerves. Smith will be the first to tell you that he’s always been a lackluster director when it comes to the technical (editing, lighting, camerawork) stuff, but he uses all of those things so directly to his advantage here that it’s hard to believe it’s the same director as his past raunchy comedies. The film has a constant sense of dread, building towards the inevitable in a lot of ways. It gave me chills in ways I haven’t felt since, dare I say, 2007’s “No Country for Old Men”. The tension is that great.

In addition to atmosphere, he shows a prowess for something else I never would have expected: Action. The last 30 minutes of the film are essentially a prolonged shootout on the church complex, and it’s an expertly choreographed, engaging, but most importantly, exciting (take that, “Battle: Los Angeles”!) sequence.

The acting in this movie, though, is unbelievably good. The main performance, from character actor Michael Parks as the main pastor of the Five Points is one of the most chilling villains I’ve seen on-screen in years. His very first scene is a 15-minute monologue to his congregation members, and although overlong it establishes the nature and the intensity of the threat in a really memorable way. Recent Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress, Melissa Leo, makes the most out of her small part as Cooper’s daughter. But John Goodman, as an ATF agent assigned to attack the church’s complex, is the most fun to watch without a doubt. He’s one of those actors that’s almost always put in supporting roles (“Big Lebowski”), so to see him get his own prominent role is fantastic.

If there’s a fault with “Red State”, it’s that its reach often exceeds its grasp. Smith brought a lot of ambition to the table here, but on occasion his ideas fall flat. For example, some of his stabs at crude humor, although they are very funny, feel horribly out-of-place, considering the very grave, serious tone the film often adapts. Also, the message of the film is a bit muddled. He’s dealing with heated topics like extremism and (bizarrely enough) political corruption, and its clear he wants to communicate something, but it never quite resonates. But for a film as daring, as exciting, and as plain fun as “Red State” is, that’s a small price to pay. It releases October 17. I can’t guarantee you’ll like it, but I’d like you there. A-

“Battle: Los Angeles” review.

One of the subtler moments in "Battle: Los Angeles".

I love film.

I love all that it means, and all that it can be. I love that what it exactly “it can be” varies, I love that no two works are the same. I love the feeling when the trailers finish and the lights go down, and I’m ready to absorb for the next two hours.

You know what I don’t love?

When a man is given the opportunity and the faith to create something great, and the end result is laziness. I’m not even taking into consideration that the work I’m currently referring to employed thousands of very talented individuals and cost over a hundred million dollars, and had some of the most promise out of any movie in the months to come.

I’m talking about the kind of laziness where there’s not a scene, a beat, a character, or, God forbid, an action set piece that hasn’t been directly lifted from other, better movies. I’m talking about the kind of laziness where they can’t even manage to make an alien invasion on one of the world’s great cities engaging or entertaining. Yes, friends, I speak of “Battle: Los Angeles”.

I’ve followed this movie’s path for about a year and a half, gradually getting more and more excited as time went on. By the time the trailers debuted, my excitement was through the roof. How could I not be? Tautly cut, with a suspenseful yet character-oriented feel to it, it looked as if it could bring genuine depth, maybe even greatness, to a road often-traveled, the alien invasion flick.

Instead, we get a rarity in Hollywood: A complete failure. Yes, Hollywood misses the mark often, perhaps even weekly, but those misfires have merit, or at the very least, entertainment value. Not this.

“Battle: Los Angeles” follows a group of marines as they, well, battle for Los Angeles. See,  alien spaceships have descended on the town, dropping lots of large creatures into the city to shoot and destroy everything in sight. Curiously enough, we never actually get a sense of what these buggers look like; they’re almost solely seen in wide shots. CNN reporters say they’re here for our water. Funny how networks are still broadcasting, although that’s the least of this movie’s problems.

You get the standard litter of Marine-movie-stock-characters: The guy who just wants to get home to his wife, the guy haunted by his past deeds as a soldier. Oh, and the Asian, the African, and the Latino. I’m being stereotypical, you say? One, I’m two of the above nationalities, and two, go watch any movie with Marines from the past three decades. The poorly developed main character (played by Aaron Eckhart, whose great talent is totally wasted here) aside, I don’t believe anyone gets more than six lines in. How am I supposed to be invested in this? I’m stuck with a group of characters whose faces I can’t see and whose locations I can’t determine, because the camerawork is too blurry to understand anything; shooting machine guns at dark figures that look vaguely unhuman; screaming words at each other that I can’t hear because everything around them is being pounded with explosions.

And if I didn’t make it really clear last paragraph, the action in this film is impossible to enjoy. As I said, the camerawork makes it difficult, but even still, it’s honestly little more than them running from place-to-place, shooting the occasional alien and giving me the occasional throbbing pain in my head.

Where films should offer dialogue, this movie offers commands, little more than mono-syllabic phrases. Run! Jump! Go! Sprint!

“Battle: Los Angeles” is a shocking wake-up call to big-budget, little-concept filmmaking; a soulless, repetitive romp in which characters shoot big creatures and sprint big distances but never once interest us. It’s films like this that make me worry for the art form I cherish the most.

I love film, but now that I’ve seen “Battle: Los Angeles”, I love it a little less. F

“Another Year” review.

The humorous, content Tom (Jim Broadbent), with his depressive friend Mary (Lesley Manville)

Every now and then, a movie comes along and reminds you of what you’ve been missing for a while. Mike Leigh’s new drama “Another Year” did just that, in doing both the simplest and yet the hardest thing that a filmmaker can do: Create a world of vibrant, complex, relatable, but most importantly, interesting characters, and bringing us into their lives. Leigh does this with such delicate observation and gentle humor, as he’s done consistently in his career (with works such as “Vera Drake” and “Topsy-Turvy”.

“Another Year” is a portrait of an elderly couple’s lives. Remarkably happy and content, Tom and Gerri are often the host of gatherings of friends and colleagues. The film is divided into four chapters, one for each season of the year, but all in which a different person in their lives is the subject. Not one of them is the same, but they all have a common link: Unhappiness. It’s in the way Leigh depicts this unhappiness, and the way in which his characters go about trying to fix it that make “Another Year” such a warm, refreshing work.

Take Mary, for example. A close friend of Tom & Gerri, she’s a 50-something, hard-drinking woman who still hasn’t found a man to settle down with, and shows no signs of that changing anytime soon. Mary could have been handled as a pathetic, clingy, oblivious caricature. With just the right balance of Leigh’s writing and the actress tackling the part (the wonderful Lesley Manville), she’s brought to life as someone who, despite endless imperfections and unlikable qualities, is still worthy of our empathy and attention  The final shot on the film, focusing only on her face is one of the most heartbreaking, memorable shots I’ve seen in a movie in years.

The ensemble cast, really, are uniformly wonderful. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as the film’s principal subjects bring equal doses of charisma, humor, and a subtle yet sweet bond with one another. Another highlight is Peter Wight’s performance as Ken, a middle-aged man mired in self-doubt and hang-ups about his unhealthy eating habits. Like Manville, Wight is never a creature to be pitied, but a man to be understood. I can’t really stress how perfectly the players and the script merge, to create something that’s at once so refreshing and so familiar. There are few phrases more over-used than “breath of fresh air”. But that’s exactly what “Another Year” is. Never really sticking to one genre or one mood, it instead evokes several, creating a portrait of life that dizzies and, more often than not, awes. A