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Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado – Film Review

The title Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado evokes memories of straight-to-DVD Blockbuster Video exclusives. The embarrassing marketing, with a skeleton holding an assault rifle, draped in a US flag, doesn’t help. Topping it off with a Rotten Tomatoes score hovering at a disappointing 64%, it seemed safe to say that this would be a Sicario sequel in name only.

Perhaps it helped then, that I watched the original Sicario just two days before. With the original fresh in my mind, I felt like I watched a very different sequel from many critics. Sicario 2 takes the pessimistic worldview of the first film and dives in even deeper, leaving behind Emily Blunt’s Kate Mercer as the one idealist we could root for. We’re left with the morally-ambiguous fixer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and revenge-fueled hitman Alejandro (Benecio Del Toro), off on a new mission to shake the hornet’s nest at the US/Mexican border. Continue reading Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado – Film Review

Pacific Rim: Uprising – Film Review

The original Pacific Rim left a lot of room for improvement. The film had so much promise, referencing Godzilla and mecha anime, but with a big budget and recognizable actors. There were ideas at the heart of that first film — the whole concept of drifting, where two people merge their minds to pilot their mecha successfully, for example — that elevated it beyond things like the Transformers films. The world-building of Pacific Rim was unmatched. Unfortunately, it stumbled when it came time to drive a plot around that world. The end result felt like a mash-up of the anime Evangelion, and the 1995 US Godzilla movie. It was really weird.

Pacific Rim: Uprising brings nothing new to the table, nor does it manage to succeed at the basics of storytelling. Rather than build on the cool ideas established in the first film, it quickly acknowledges the ideas before going for the lowest common denominator. Continue reading Pacific Rim: Uprising – Film Review

Blood of Redemption Review – Keep it dumb, Lundgren

Blood of Redemption opens with an In medias res structure that belies a pretty straightforward tale of betrayal. It’s the kind of storytelling that will leave you confused if you don’t turn your brain on, and that’s Blood of Redemption’s crucial mistake. It’s called Blood of Redemption, it stars Dolph Lundgren, and it’s brimming with corny action scenes and cheesy acting — do you really want to turn your brain on for that?

You can almost feel a smarter, more thoughtful plot brewing beneath the Syfy channel shark-movie-of-the-week production values, but it never truly surfaces. The acting is mediocre-to-terrible all around, with big names like Dolph Lundgren and Billy Zane phoning in passable performances while Gianni Capaldi delivers what would be so-bad-it’s-good if the movie wasn’t taking itself so seriously. The true pro here is Vinny Jones, who has the advantage of being Vinny Jones, but he’s still awesome for giving it his all.

The film is schizophrenic, bouncing between deadly serious drama and fight sequences that would make the cast of They Live blush. There’s a balance to achieving fun-bad cinema, but Blood of Redemption is too dry to capture laughs with its corny moments. A shameless Godfather quote could have elicited a laugh, but a pained groan was about the best I could muster.

A fine piece of cover there.

Once the film gets out of clunkily explaining itself, the plot does level out somewhat. The core story is a whodunit with a mobster foundation. A murder in the Grimaldi crime family leads to jail time for its second-in-command and a change of guard, as the new guys take over a family business that doesn’t belong to them.

In the chaos, the family bodyguard, Axel (Dolph Lundgren), goes into hiding in an attempt to piece it all together. He even creates a crazy conspiracy wall! Working in parallel is Kurt Grimaldi (Gianna Capaldi), playing the role of the film’s biggest plothole. Why in the world would the FBI hire the son of a mob boss
That implausibility leaks into the films later plot twists, which are certainly twisty, but barely make a lick of sense. It’s never entirely clear who the protagonist is in Blood of Redemption, and the redemption at the end is hard to get excited about. The whole mess wraps up in an oddly grim manner, overlayed with a smug monologue that explains how clever the film thinks it is.
Blood of Redemption could have used a script rewrite and an injection of energy into the cast. To make matters worse the cinematography and editing is every bit as cold and clinical as the slickly designed DVD cover suggests. Even taken on the B-grade terms it aspires to, it never connects. If you’re looking for a dumb, modern action movie starring Dolph Lundgren, you’d be far better served with The Expendables 2 — a film that understood exactly what it was and reveled in it.

Zombie Massacre review – one big Resident Evil reference

Credibility be damned, I like Uwe Boll. It’s an unpopular sentiment, but it’s true. Sure, the guy has made a lot of trashy, nearly unwatchable video game movie adaptations, but they aren’t all bad (Postal) and some of his work is legitimately great (Rampage). That, and the guy is a lovable character in the media, boxing his way to notoriety and spouting some of the best angry rants the internet has to offer. No matter how dumb his work might get, he’s entertaining through and through.

His name is what initially caught my eye when I decided to check out Zombie Massacre, and I was disappointed to learn that the film is actually “presented by Uwe Boll”. Thankfully, beyond a producer credit, he makes an absurd cameo that’s one of the film’s best highlights. More than that, though, you can feel Boll’s influence throughout. He didn’t make the movie, but he may as well have, for better or worse.

The premise seems more than a little influenced by Resident Evil. A small town is infected by a deadly virus, turning everyone into zombies. The creators of the virus stage a cover-up, hiring a ragtag team of mercenaries to go in and clean up the mess. The team is as colorful as any cast of video game characters, with a sniper, bomb specialist, lady Samurai, and your typical white-washed grunt.

Unlike most B-horror, which would dive headfirst into zombie film cliches, shooting, and gore, Zombie Massacre spends an uncharacteristically long time on each character’s backstory. It backfires a bit, as the film revels in some dumb, cumbersome dialogue, but that’s kind of the charm. This is a movie you riff on with some friends, and it provides plenty of dumb moments to poke fun at, especially as things escalate. Most scenes go on far too long, but that eventually becomes another funny quirk if you’re in the right mindset.

Zombie Massacre doesn’t quite live up to its name, as the amount of zombies killed isn’t any more than any other zombie movie. That said, I have to give the effects department credit for making so many unique zombie designs. It really is a grab-bag of gory zombies, bloody zombies, and strange mutations.

The biggest problem with the film is, oddly, how sharply shot each scene is. For all the so-bad-it’s-good dialogue and awkward action, there’s a few oddly artful shots in there. The visuals fit in more with a dreary apocalypse or disturbing horror piece than a silly-action-zombie-thing. The result is a film that at times seems to be striving for legitimacy, even when that goal couldn’t be more ridiculous. The net result is something that falls squarely middle-of-the-road, neither serious or silly enough. It sits in this spot were it’s simply too dry to get the full mileage off of its cheese-value.

There are worse films you could rent on a drunken movie night with some friends, but there are also a ton of better-bad and better-good films out there. That said, a fantastic Uwe Boll cameo and completely left-field ending make Zombie Apocalypse a worthwhile watch, even if it could have been a lot better. It’s recommended if you’re into watching corny horror movies, doubly so if you can get through a Uwe Boll movie without walking out.

Only God Forgives review – No real heroes, no human beings

The pervasive complaint among critics for Only God Forgives is that these characters aren’t human, that they don’t act in ways a real human would.

I can only imagine this made director Nicolas Winding Refn incredibly happy.
At the core of this film are a family: a mother (Krystal, played by Kristen Scott Thomas), her two sons (Julian, played by Ryan Gosling; and Billy, played by Tom Burke) and a long dead father who we can only assume had a powerful influence on how they got to be the way they are. 
When brother Billy is killed in the film’s opening minutes, the stage is set for retaliation. Julian quickly gets his chance, but spares the man responsible — Julian has a lot of issues, but murder is one thing that registers on his moral compass. This disappoints Krystal, who has lost her favorite son and isn’t afraid to take it out on the one she still has.
The darkness in their family is something they take for granted. Krystal’s deadpan commentary on her two sons’ manhood is just about the best hint we’re given into what’s really going on. “Julian’s was never small, but Billy’s was, oh, it was enormous! How can you compete with that?”
The truth is this isn’t a family of normal humans, but a family of sociopaths, and they’ve probably been at it for a while. There’s no need to dwell on it, no need to tell the audience how they feel, because this is just how they are. As a result, Only God Forgives is 90 minutes of crazy people acting crazy, doing things normal people don’t do. It’s left to the audience to piece together the humanity in it, and if you just sit there and take it at face value it may appear to be a film with no substance.
Slow, seemingly pointless scenes of Julian reaching into darkness (and reaching into…other things) come into focus as the film moves along. There is purpose to every agonizing frame. Only God Forgives doesn’t go out of its way to be enjoyable, but to call it nonsensical would be slanderous.
Then we have Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a police lieutenant who acts more like a mob boss. You’d be forgiven for assuming he was the latter. When Julian’s family makes a move, Chang is the one who arrives to retaliate, enacting his own twisted sense of honor. Again, this is a movie about crazy people, and Chang is just a different brand of the same product. His scenes are a highlight, to be sure, displaying Refn’s talent for juxtaposing stark violence with lighter moments.
Only God Forgives is an appropriately named film. Not only are there no apologies to be had in the film itself, but I doubt Refn would apologize for what he has made. It’s a methodical, challenging film that only rewards those who are willing to meet it in the middle. While his last film, Drive, welcomed audiences to his twisted mind, Only God Forgives simply opens a door and says “fuck you” if you don’t step through it.

Pacific Rim Review – You Can (Not) Reference

Pacific Rim is, for a large portion of its runtime, a pornographic recreation of my childhood. It’s an amalgamation of cartoons, comics, video games, and Japanese anime turned up to a visual volume that no cartoon, comic, video game, or anime can compete with. If the things Pacific Rim references resonate with you, it will be hard to deny the goosebumps of excitement every time an epic battle between Jaeger (robots) and Kaiju (monsters) begins. It also makes it easier to laugh it off when someone says something incredibly dumb.

For everything Pacific Rim seemingly references, one of my favorite animes as a kid seems to sit at the heart of it: Neon Genesis Evangelion. The similarities are uncanny — giant robots fight giant monsters that appear from nowhere with regular frequency, pilots form an intense bond required to drive the robots, they’re delivered to the fights in epic fashion, and the battles are overseen from a metallic fortress where commanders shout orders under the neon lights of computer screens. At one point, one character even suggests that the Kaiju come from the heavens as some form of punishment for humanity’s sins, which is more or less the actual reason for the monsters in Evangelion. It got to the point where it was impossible for me to avoid comparing the two.
The problem with the comparisons is that Pacific Rim only dabbles in concepts that Evangelion went whole hog on. From the battles themselves, to the mental toll they take on the pilots and the utter hopelessness of humanity’s final hour, Pacific Rim sets a stage nearly as dark and potent as Evangelion, but it loses its edge in the final act.
There is no doubt that Pacific Rim sets the stakes incredibly high early on. The story of the Kaiju arrival, the creation of the Jaegers, and the ensuing war is told in prologue form at the opening of the film, and needless to say, Pacific Rim’s apocalypse is dire. It takes every resource humanity has to keep the threat at bay, and when those resources start failing it paints a sense of hopelessness few “end of the world” films attain.
We learn a lot about the Jaeger pilots, who must “drift” with their co-pilots, sharing memories and forming powerful bonds so that they can split piloting duties. These scenes are some of the film’s best. We see the trauma the pilots must share with each other and the ways the system can backfire if a pilot lets their emotions run wild. Again, this has a lot in common with Evangelion, where the only people capable of piloting an EVA are pubescent teenagers in the most irrational and emotional stage of their lives. But while Evangelion embraces the internal struggle of the various pilots, Pacific Rim gives up its best themes before the climax.
It wouldn’t be a huge problem—this is a summer blockbuster after all—except the film replaces its admittedly simple bit of thematic depth with a ton of ugly apocalypse cliches. You’ve got everything from the wacky scientist outrunning a giant monster in comic relief style, to an inspirational speech delivered so blatantly on cue that “EPIC SPEECH TIME” should have started flashing at the bottom of the screen. Most of the film’s third act plot points seem to be cribbed from the US Godzilla remake and Independence Day, and if it wasn’t delivered with Guillermo Del Toro’s child-like charm we’d be talking about a very different kind of disaster movie.
The battles and special effects remain awe-inspiring and hard-hitting from beginning to end, but the plot and themes driving that action wither and die before the end of the film’s 131-minute runtime. It’s an undeniably fun and exciting ride, but it trades in potential depth for cheap cliches so swiftly that its hard to ignore.
Maybe I was expecting too much. That’s the inherent danger in homage. If you’re going to reference material brimming with pathos and philosophical questions, you’d better be willing to do more than dabble in those concepts yourself. Perhaps the references are meant to be superficial, and I’m having some unfair expectations squashed, but either way I was disappointed. Many will find the simple cartoon joys of Pacific Rim entertaining enough, and I’ll surely watch it again one day just to experience those epic fights all over again, but I’ll always reach the credits hoping for a little more to chew on.

The Hangover Part III Review – Hangover Fanfiction

The Hangover Part III presumes that you have so much love for this cast of characters that you’d watch them in any genre of film. It presumes you care or even remember what happened to these characters in the last two films, weaving together a narrative from small plot points in the first two entries. It reads like fanfiction — what if Phil, Stu, and Alan got dragged into a crime plot instigated by Mr. Chow? What if John Goodman were an angry crime boss threatening the Wolfpack with death if they couldn’t track down Chow?

Ever since the second film, The Hangover writers have put a lot of stock in how “cool” their characters are. They’re the Wolfpack, man! What started as a joke that Alan took too far has become a genuine identifier that the writers feel can hold up to a semi-serious crime story. Yes, The Hangover Part III has jokes, but they’re few and far between, and the very funniest ones were carefully plucked and featured in the preview.

This is a film about the trio fumbling around in the dark, out of place in a violent world of crime. They’re in over their head but manage to trip and fall into not dying at every turn. It’s the kind of story that you write after binge-watching all of Breaking Bad, and I can only assume that’s exactly what happened here. It was pretty clear with the first sequel that The Hangover was a one-time thing and the concept had run out of ideas, and Part III only solidifies that notion by drawing inspiration from left-field.

I don’t care about the characters in The Hangover, if you haven’t noticed. I’m not interested in their bond, nor their relationship with Mr. Chow, the painfully racist character the series refuses to let die. Sometimes comedies can have depth of character and laughs, but I come to Hangover movies simply to laugh. Considering only one of them was genuinely funny I feel like a bit of a fool. Rubbing salt in the wound, I spent maybe 45 minutes or so waiting for Part III to hit its stride and “get funny.” It was only after a solid twenty minutes without a peep from the entire theater that I realized I wasn’t actually watching a comedy.

For the few times a laugh genuinely sneaked out, it came with the recognition that the joke was only funny because it was referencing a much funnier YouTube clip or internet meme. That’s the kind of humor you expect out of cheap parody garbage like A Haunted House or the “____ Movie” series. The Hangover features Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Jeffrey Tambor, and mother fucking John Goodman. It should be above these lazy references, even if the crafted humor falls flat.

And speaking of John Goodman! His sole purpose in this film seemed to be a reminder of his role in a much better film, The Big Lebowski. It’s clear that Lebowski is the sort of dark crime comedy they were aiming for, and boy did they miss by a few million light years. I think the recently released Star Trek Into Darkness might have more in common with The Big Lebowski. It’s funnier too.

Consider this warning: I may have laughed more during Movie 43 than The Hangover Part III. This isn’t a comedy and it’s one of the more useless crime capers out there. It fails on all accounts. The budget, cast, and competent filming only add to the sense that this was all an epic waste of time and talent. Go watch The Big Lebowski, Breaking Bad, and that YouTube video of the guy who cries really weird instead, you’ll thank me later.

Here, I’ll even get you started: