Thursday, October 16, 2014

Horns


Alexandre Aja’s Horns was a movie I was very much looking forward to because all the elements seemed promising. You have one of my favorite working horror directors (Aja, getting serious again after Piranha 3D), you have a broad and talented cast (including Dan Radcliffe continuing his attempt to de-Harry Potter himself), and a story based on a well-reviewed novel (written by Joe Hill, who is not quite to my taste, but apparently to everyone else’s). So was it any good? Yes, it was good. But it had some flaws.

The plot is pretty high-concept. Ig Parrish (Daniel Radcliffe) is accused of raping and murdering his girlfriend, Merrin (Juno Temple). One morning, he wakes up sprouting a pair of horns that makes people inexplicably confess their secrets to him, and gives him extraordinary powers of persuasion. Armed with these new capabilities, Ig sets out to find Merrin’s real murderer.

The story is decent, although I’m not sure that there’s really any mystery to the proceedings, as I had identified the explanation for Merrin’s murder within the first twenty minutes. Most of the film’s deviant fun comes from watching Ig put his powers to work. Whether it’s the local loose woman confessing that she wants to eat an entire box full of donuts because no one loves her, or Ig’s mother admitting that she wishes he would just disappear from her life, the revelations come fast and thick for our hapless protagonist. Some of it is humorous, such as when he coaxes news reporters into an all-out brawl, and some of it is not, such as a scene where he forces an individual to down a bottle of booze and an array of narcotics all at once.

The entire film was shot in British Columbia, and it’s a very scenic movie. Everything looks pretty, and just a little sinister in a fairy tale fashion. And of course, given that this is an Alexandre Aja film, the gore effects are in good form here, including a shotgun blast to the face, some gruesome burns, and a colorful use of Ig’s horns.

For the acting, everyone delivers good performances across the cast. Daniel Radcliffe is pissy and nihilistic, but appropriately heart-broken as Ig, although the actor’s curse is that even when he delivers in a performance, the viewer still thinks, “Why is Harry Potter so angry right now?” Juno Temple is all right as Merrin, although she is not really given enough to do to explain why pretty much the entire town is hopelessly in love with her. This could be intentional, as it’s probably better to have viewers unsure why a character is loved by everyone, than to have them actively hate a character that is supposed to be loved by everyone. But it is still a little strange. Max Minghella doesn’t do a whole lot as an attorney friend of Ig’s, but the highly underrated Joe Anderson pops up in a good supporting turn as Ig’s musician older brother. There are also a few more veteran actors scattered throughout, such as James Remar, David Morse, and Heather Graham, all of whom have memorable supporting roles.

If I had to pinpoint a weakness in the movie, I would say it’s the fact that despite a game cast, and beautiful filming, it’s a very deliberate movie. There’s not, in my opinion, a lot of propulsion here and while you won’t be bored, it’s not the kind of movie you’re dying to watch again anytime soon. However, that being said, I think its visual flair, distinctive rural northern setting, and cool makeup/gore effects make it worth a view by horror fans.


7/10

Saturday, October 4, 2014

A Walk among the Tombstones


When A Walk among the Tombstones was announced, a lot of people lumped it in with all the movies Liam Neeson has recently done in his newfound role as aging bruiser. The Grey is also frequently considered one of these movies, and like The Grey I think A Walk is somewhat misrepresented. This is a bleak, hard-boiled murder mystery full of shady people and broken dreams, and seems like something that might have come out of the mid-90s and starred Mel Gibson or Clint Eastwood. Or hell, Liam Neeson.

Matt Scudder is a former Cop who gave up the badge and the bottle after a bloody street gun battle. Now he does favors for people, and in return they give him monetary gifts. His latest case involves the kidnapping of drug-dealer Kenny Kristo's (Dan Stevens) wife. Kristo paid the ransom money, and the kidnappers cut her up into little pieces and left her in the trunk of a car anyway. He wants Scudder to find the guys who did it and hand them over for revenge.

The movie is well filmed, with lots of moody still shots of alleys and graveyards, and lots of shots of Neeson walking across the screen. Some people complained about all the walking shots, but in my mind they conveyed the sort of dreary, mundane world of investigation, juxtaposed with the gory details of the crime. And make no mistake, the violence in this movie is ugly. Granted, it doesn't show much of the actual crimes being committed (although the finale is quite grisly), but it doesn't seem especially unusual by movie standards from more than a few years ago. However, several online reviewers have suggested that much of it was too much for them to handle. So keep that in mind.

As far as the acting, Neeson is always reliable, but here he manages to bring a little more depth and nuance to Scudder than was required of him in, say, Non-stop. Dan Stevens also does a decent job as the client, although he never gives the impression that he is especially dangerous, despite the fact that he is essentially hiring Scudder to find the perpetrators so he can kill them. The killers are played with a sort of icky panache by David Harbour and Adam David Thompson that makes the viewer just itch for Neeson to go Taken on them. Aside from these four, there aren't any other characters who really stand out.

On the downside, the movie has an odd B-plot involving a homeless kid that Scudder takes under his wing. This plot itself is not bad, it just feels jarringly out of place in such a dour, nasty story. Lawrence Block's novels also focus a lot on Scudder's alcoholism and recovery, and while I appreciate the movie's incorporation of that character element, director Scott Frank makes an odd decision to splice the climactic stand off with a recitation of the twelve steps of Alcoholic's Anonymous. While the decision could have worked with a slightly more weighty counterpoint (witness M's recitation of Tennyson's Ulysses in Skyfall), it just feels out of place layered in with such an atmospheric climax.

In the end, A Walk among the Tombstones is a good mystery and thriller, and I hope people who like those kinds of movies will check it out and not just dismiss it as Taken 5 (although what's wrong with Taken 5?).

7/10

Someone always tells: A re-read of George RR Martin's A Feast for Crows


The fourth book in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is one that I have very mixed feelings about. It has plenty of great parts, and the story is as propulsive and exciting as ever, however there are two troublesome issues at play here. The first is that not all the characters the reader loves are present, the other is that the narrative scope of the book suddenly, bemusingly widens.

Picking up after the jam-packed narrative that was A Storm of Swords, Martin’s book proved to be too large, so he made the interesting choice to split the book into two. However he did this geographically, and not chronologically, so characters in the north and across the sea are not discussed at all until the next book. Which means A Dance with Dragons covers the same time period as this one, but in a different location. Until it catches up. When it covers everybody. It’s all a little confusing. To the reader, what it means is that you get no Tyrion Lannister, no Jon Snow, and no Daenerys.

To supplement this lack of characters, Martin has branched out to give us chapters covering lots of other, newer, characters, although some of these individuals only get the one chapter. The unusual thing here is that these characters are in new locations, and belong to new families. Thus, four books in, we suddenly see promises of expanded roles for the Iron Islands folk (think Innsmouth worshipers crossed with Vikings) and the Dornish (maybe Turkish or Muslim Spanish analogues). While this could certainly be interesting, the natural assumption is that four books in (at this time, we thought there were only two more to go, although now we know there are three) the narrative would be reaching its peak. It might not be coming down yet, but we’d start to get a feeling that things weren't going to get any more complex. As it is, it feels like the plot is expanding even more. Only the future will tell if this is a good thing or not.

On to the good, we get some tantalizing glimpses at the inner workings of the Faceless Men. Arya Stark has by far one of the best plot lines of this book, and it’s very interesting to speculate about where she is headed in the narrative as she trains with the murderous priests of the House of Black and White. Cersei continues her descent into madness and villainy quite spectacularly. I’m curious what the minority of Cersei fans who only know her from the HBO show will think once she reaches these vindictive, paranoid heights. We also get another blast of the occult with Lady Stoneheart, a resurrected character from a previous book. Not only does this give us a chilling new spin on a formerly sympathetic character, but it hints that death is not as final as previously thought in the Martin world (yes, yes, the Lightning Lord was also resurrected, but this is the first MAJOR character we saw die and come back to non-wight life).

As previously mentioned Dorne and the Iron Isles both have significant, minor plot arcs, but until future volumes play out, I couldn’t tell you of their significance. Of the two, I find the Iron Isles to be the most interesting.  The culture, characters, and intrigue of that particular plot line seem the best of the two, and seem to have the most potential for future storytelling greatness.

In closing, I actually liked this book better on the re-read than I did the first time, but it’s still the runt of the litter.


7/10

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Martian by Andy Weir


The Martian is a book that reached me first in the form of hype. First I heard about a surprise sci-fi debut full of hard science, that had been the subject of a publishing bidder's war. Then I heard about how it had been painstakingly researched through publicly available sources. Then I heard Ridley Scott was making it into a movie. And then we came full circle again, and I kept hearing about how it was the best recent science fiction book to come out, so I decided to read it.

The Martian is written in two formats. One is the journal of Mark Watney, botanist and astronaut, and part of a manned Mars mission. The other is a traditional third-person narrative set back on earth with mission control. At the beginning of the novel, a big storm rolls up and the inhabitants of Mars have to flee on their ship. Unfortunately, Mark gets impaled on an antenna and blown away, causing his crew to very reluctantly abandon him on the surface. But he's still alive, no one knows he's on Mars, and he has years until the next manned mission shows up. Time to dredge up his resourcefulness.

When it's firing on all cylinders, Weir's novel is an unabashedly nerdy Robinson Crusoe for the modern age. Watney crunches numbers to determine how many calories he needs to survive for three years, and uses that to determine how many potatoes to try and grow. He jerry-rigs a rover so he can go recover the Pathfinder robot and salvage parts. And he separates oxygen into water and hydrogen, and almost blows his habitat up. Even someone who is not especially adept at mathematics, or the sciences relying heavily on mathematics, will enjoy this portion of the book.

Watney's journal is written in the style of most intelligent-yet-nerdy bloggers, and as a result tends to be pretty humorous. However the humor can range from perfectly placed, to excessive, depending on the situation. I'm not entirely sold on naming a unit of energy a "pirate-ninja" no matter how stir-crazy your Martian isolation has made you.

The book slows down somewhat when it goes back to earth. These sequences play similarly to the Houston portions of Apollo 13, with the primary difference being the urgency. We are told over and over again throughout the book that time does not favor Watney, and that the flight to Mars itself takes over a year. For this reason, it's hard to get too invested in the earthbound sequences, because we know whatever is going to save our main character is a hell of a lot closer to the red planet than the blue one.

The Martian is an entertaining story, and reminds me a lot of a peppy, optimistic tale of future adventure from the 1950s or 1960s, like E.E. Doc Smith, or early Heinlein. It's not perfect, and the tone fluctuates a bit, but I'm curious to see where Weir goes from this one. Hopefully he continues to play around in space for a while.

7/10

Sunday, August 3, 2014

"In a coat of gold, or a coat of red, a lion still has claws:" Re-reading George RR Martin's A Storm of Swords



A Storm of Swords is probably my favorite, thus far, of A Song of Ice and Fire. It is packed to the gills with excitement, twists, and excellent set pieces, and has provided the HBO series with close to three seasons of material. The number of things that occur in this volume alone can make some of the others appear a little paltry. Of course, it's also well over 1100 pages long.

Martin continues to expand his narrative casts, adding Jaime Lannister and Samwell Tarly to the mix. Tarly is not a very interesting character, although he gets some of the more interesting scenes (some of them involving the necromantic "Others" that live north of the Wall, and at least one with the mysterious Coldhands, who plays a bigger role in the next book). But Jaime Lannister was a fantastic character choice, and really highlights one of Martin's strengths: his characterization. For the previous two books, Jaime has been a brilliant revision of the glorious knight myth, being an unparalleled combatant and a handsome knight, but also an arrogant bastard hated by pretty much the entire cast of sympathetic characters. And yet in this book, where his story line takes him to some very unpleasant places, we see a new side of him, as a man who tried to do what was right, and has been condemned by the world for it. Also, as a fellow who is enslaved by his love for his sister, a woman who stands a good chance of coming out of this series as the ultimate, supreme villainess.

This book also redirects some of the attention north. In the very first scene of the very first book, readers were introduced to a dark force from cold north lands that could re-animate the dead. Now, in A Storm of Swords, we start to see even more. There are the wights, the creatures that are raised from the dead, and then there are the Others who control them. And then there is a strange third party, the First Men, who seem analogous to the Celtic Tuatha de Danaan or something. These last are barely hinted at with the arrival of the ominous, but seemingly benign, Coldhands. Overall, the series is taking the violent, medieval feuding, and starting to contrast it with a dark, magical threat. It's almost as if Lord of the Rings were set in 11th Century continental Europe.



Martin continues to kill characters with abandon, and this book was famous for killing off a second major, sympathetic character. A lot of minor supporting characters die as well, although I have noticed that HBO likes to turn these supporting characters into major players, in order to create emotional fallout with viewers (as evidenced by the amazing reaction of watchers to "The Viper and the Mountain" episode - of course some of that might have had to do with the extremely grotesque cause of death).

And of course, the Daenerys story line continues across the sea. This is a good plot, and provides a very different flavor than the rest of the story, given its Middle Eastern/Southwest Asian feel and undertones. However, it also feels distinctly separate from the rest of the story, although as a reader I know it's only a matter of time before the stories collide. Especially with two major characters bound to Daenerys' lands by the end of the volume.

A Storm of Swords still holds up well, and is probably the strongest of the series. This is good, because the next book in the pile is widely acknowledged by many (including myself), to be the weakest. Check back in a month for my review of A Feast for Crows.

8/10

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Snowpiercer


Snowpiercer is a  movie that got a lot of positive word of mouth through the internet, but not a lot of buzz in the mainstream. It’s a very good, but very weird movie that also feels very complete. It has a solid, complete narrative arc and is crammed with character arcs, cool set pieces, and story.

17 years after mankind distributed a strange chemical into the atmosphere to stop global warming, the earth is an ice cube. The only survivors live on the Snowpiercer, a train that loops around and around the world, completing one cycle every year. At the front of the train, the wealthy live in luxury. In the rear, the poor live in squalor. In between there’s a school car, and aquarium car, and a kitchen car among others. Curtis (Chris Evans) has decided the time has come to launch another revolt. Numerous revolts have occurred on the Snowpiercer and failed, but this time he has a secret weapon: Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), an engineer who understands the inner workings of the train. Backed by a handful of others, they fight their way toward the front of the train.

The acting is good throughout the film, but the highlights are Chris Evans and Kang-ho Song. Evans has always been a good leading man, and here he provides the appropriate amount of charisma, as well as some strong acting for the movie’s quieter moments. I remember seeing him as a supporting character in The Fantastic Four and Sunshine and thinking he would be a good lead. Well obviously, this was a view shared by several, as Evans is now Captain America in the Marvel Studios movies that come out every year. Here he relies on a lot of that leading man magnetism, but he also clearly likes getting the opportunity to explore some other, darker areas of Curtis’s personality. Kang-ho Song provides some welcome dry humor as the slightly smarter of the duo. And early scene involving language difficulties with his rescuers was quite funny. He also adds some humanity to the proceedings through his relationship with his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko), who also played his daughter in The Host.

Snowpiercer’s set pieces are great, including some early action sequences, including a cramped battle between the resistance and scores of hooded, body-armor wearing, axe wielding shock troops. There’re also a few very unsettling moments, such as where Curtis finds out where the black, quivery protein bars the population eats come from. And as I’ve already said, the design of the train cars is great. The Snowpiercer itself is an incredibly cool concept and is beautifully realized on screen.


Snowpiercer is a good story, and at 2 hours it gets a lot of good scenes and character development in. Director Bong Joon-ho’s first English Language film is a solid work, as he once again proves that Korean directors actually make halfway decent American movies. Unlike Hong Kong directors.

7/10

The Raid 2: Berendal


The biggest question I have about The Raid 2 is precisely why it is, in fact, The Raid 2. The move follows the original film by a few hours, features the same main character, and establishes motivation by killing one of the more interesting supporting characters from the original in the opening scene. And all of these feel like connections that could easily be axed for a completely new movie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a kick-ass action flick and a solid crime drama, but it doesn’t really feel like The Raid. At all.

Rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais) survived the high-rise from the first film, but now he’s attracted the wrath of the corrupt cops that he uncovered. So a shady superior erases his records, talks him into beating up a local politician’s kid, and throws him in prison so he can get close to an Indonesian Kingpin’s son, Uco (Arifin Putra). He does this mostly by protecting Uco from killers in the prison, because in case anyone forgot, Rama is probably the most lethal human being in Asia. Unfortunately, he spends years in the prison, separated from his wife and newborn child, and he emerges bitter and jaded. From there we embark on a traditional divided loyalties undercover cop movie, that is held together by strong acting, amazing cinematography, and some of the most brutally inventive fight choreography I’ve seen since…well…The Raid.

Iko Uwais is a good leading man, primarily because his youthful face gives him an air of innocence and goodness that helps sell him as a valiant man of the law, even when he’s beating the crap out of a car full of thugs. He has good supporting players this time around, none of whom I was familiar with. Arifin Putra does good work as the ambitious, troubled kingpin’s son, while Oka Antara gives a strong showing as the loyal right-hand man who feels a lot of kinship with Rama. The acting is solid throughout, and doesn’t really ring false anywhere, except perhaps with Alex Abbad, who might just be too evil as Bejo, another competing gangster and the ultimate bad guy of the flick.

Of course, the big star of this movie is the action. It’s intense, grisly, and exhilarating. Much like the first movie, variety is the name of the game here, with a huge melee with 20+ people duking it out in a giant mud pit, an insane car chase/claustrophobic hand-to-hand battle, and a bloody final showdown in a gleaming white kitchen. Which obviously doesn’t stay gleaming white for long. Evans has an excellent eye for scene composition and editing. There’s a sequence where a character takes an exacto knife and works down a line, cutting the throats of several prisoners. It’s a brilliant, ominous scene, with an excellent intercut of long shots and close-ups, against a rich color palette of gold and red. Evans is a director who is very comfortable with the visual medium.

Again, there’s no really serious flaws here. It’s just a strange choice to make this movie a direct sequel to The Raid when all of its connections to that movie feel very forced. Almost like the script was already written, and was hastily edited to make it a “Part 2.”


But it’s a fantastic action movie, and for fans of the genre, it’s probably one of the best you’ll see this year. It’s one of the most solid martial arts flicks I’ve seen in a while.

8/10