So “Transcendence”… happened. I don’t regret having seen it, if only for the joy of seeing it in an empty theater with some friends and co-workers, thus being granted the freedom of unmitigated riffing. To put it sweetly, it’s not very good at all. The techno-thriller attempts to shed light on some rather tired themes (most emphatically the dangers of technological advancement) with yet another modernized variation of the Frankenstein allegory. Award winning Cinematographer Wally Pfister, famous for having worked with Christopher Nolan on The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception, makes his debut as a director. If Transcendence is any indication, then despite his proficiency with framing/lighting/ tracking ect, he has a lot to learn about the mechanics of translating a cohesive story to the screen and drawing compelling performances out of actors.

Johnny Depp plays Jeff Goldblum from Independence Day (you’ll know it when you see it) and quite literally phones it in (he spends about 75% of the movie on a computer screen). For his little time on camera as a physical entity Depp plays the trite “quirky scientist who doesn’t want to work for the man.” Rebecca Hall does her best as the distraught wife and Frankenstein archetype for the story (after her husband’s death she upload his consciousness to a computer kick-starting the dull, flaccid proceedings). Paul Bettany tries his darnedest to put in a good performance (despite disappearing for long stretches of time, held captive by and eventually joining Kate Mara and her Luddite terrorist cell). Cillian Murphy shows up for about five collective minutes as an FBI agent investigating whatever the plot demands he be investigating at the moment, and does an adequate job given the material. I’m still unsure as to why Morgan Freeman was in this movie. He kind of just hangs out with Cillian Murphey while things get investigated and exposits whatever vague messages this movie was trying to convey.

The main problems with this movie stem from the script and the inexperienced directors inability to transcend (oh yeah, that happened) the shortcomings of said script. The story plods along with weak, poorly defined characters. The science fiction elements are not contextualized by anything in the story, making the more fantastical things that happen here feel really out of place. For example, the cause of Johnny Depp’s death: after delivering a speech at a convention about artificial intelligence, an assassination attempt is made on him by the aforementioned Luddite group. They shoot him with a radioactive bullet that puts him in the hospital and gives him cancer, killing him in the span of a month. This creative decision just baffles me. He needs to die for the story to advance, audiences will understand this….but a cancer bullet? You couldn’t just have him get shot and die? Or get poisoned? Or just simply die of cancer and forgo the silly Luddite thing? And this is about fifteen-twenty minutes into the movie…well at least they prepare us for what’s to come ahead of time.

The movie is peppered with unintentionally silly little touches like this, despite it’s heart attack-serious tone. My god, does his film take itself seriously. The air of self-importance is stifling from the first few minutes, even though the oh-so-deep themes being explored really aren’t anything new. Couple this with characters who range from cliche to two-dimensional to downright unlikable and this movie, under ordinary viewing circumstances, could be quite a chore to stomach for it’s two hour run time. But at least I had a blast, despite the film’s best efforts.

Muppets Most Wanted

After the smash return to the big screen in 2011, the muppets continue their reintroduction to pop culture with a sequel entitled “Muppets: Most Wanted.” The previous film asked the question of whether or not a franchise like The Muppets could still be relevant in today’s pop cultural lexicon, and was answered with a resounding yes. But can they maintain that relevance?

In keeping with the franchises trademark forth-wall breaking humor, the film follows the muppets directly after they finish filming their previous movie. Seeking to capitalize on their newly reacquired fame, the muppets, at the manipulation of their dubious new manager played by Ricky Gervais, embark on a tour across Europe to generate brand awareness. Little do they know that Gervais’ character, Dominic Badguy (pronounced badge-ee, apparently French) is working for escaped criminal Constantine, the world’s most dangerous frog and doppelgänger (with the deception of a birthmark) to Muppet frontman Kermit the Frog. His plan: to switch places with Kermit, (landing the innocent frog in Siberian gulag under warden Tina Fey) so Constantine and Dominic can use get Muppet’s tour as a front for series of heists. Hot on their tail is the classic muppet Sam the Eagle as CIA agent accompanied by an Inspector Clouseau Pastiche played by Ty Burrell.

As a whole the film is tremendously enjoyable. The songs are all fantastic (even better than those of the previous, I felt). While there are certainly a few that just take up time rather than advancing anything, they’re all well crafted and delivered with both hilarity and grace (and remarkably complex instrumentation). Since it’s a muppet movie there are numerous little celebrity cameos, some so subtle I had to be told about them after getting out the theater (so keep your eyes open). Ricky Gervais and Ty Burrell are really fun as the main human characters, especially Burrell with his hammy French accent and buddy cop interactions with Sam the Eagle (there are also a few funny jabs at general European customs like taking month long holidays and driving annoyingly tiny cars). What is refreshing about the movie is that while the human characters are enjoyable, the true stars of they to film are unquestionably the Muppets, particularly Kermit. The film’s villain Constantine, also gets a fair amount of screen time and he is a blast to watch.

However, I will say that movie does fail to capture the charm and sense of joy of it’s predecessor. This could be due to difference in emphasis: the last movie’s central theme being nostalgia for long-forgotten franchise as oppose to the more straightforward narrative of a farcical crime caper on display here. Be that as it may, there is noticeable lack of heart here, at least compared it’s predecessor. As such the story, while fun, does drag in parts and fizzles out a bit by the time the climax rolls around. With that said, the fun characters, great comedy and fantastic musical sequences make it a well-above average family film, and I definitely look forward to seeing it again.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

From Shoulin Soccer to Kung Fu Hustle, Chinese film maker Steven Chow has carved a niche for himself as maker of quirky action comedies. While he may not be a household name stateside, I’ve definitely noticed his body of work and enjoyed it immensely. So when I found out that he was directing an adaptation of age old Chinese epic “Journey to the West,” a story that has fascinated me for a few years now, my excitement exceeded measurement. Today I was finally able to sit down and watch the movie, and it did not disappoint. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, despite deviating pretty heavily from the source material is various areas, is a blast to watch.

The entirety of the film, from the acting to set design, music and action, just pulsates with energy and imagination. The action is both thrilling and hilarious, and surprisingly sad at certain parts, providing a tremendous amount of heart to complement Steven Chow’s manic comedic sensibilities. The story follows a naive but well meaning Monk in quest to protect the innocent from demons and cure those demons of their evil, rather than simply destroying them. Throughout his travels he comes across various monstrous demons and other demon hunters. Eventually he seeks out the infamous Sun Wukong, aka The Monkey King (who has spent 500 years imprisoned under neath a mountain by Buddha for his crimes against the heavens) for guidance in defeating a powerful demon. But he soon discovers that the mischievous Sun Wukong is an artist of deception and will say anything to be released from his prison.

Wen Zhang is tremendously likable as the lead, the kind-hearted Buddhist monk and hunter of demons Tang Sunang (later in the story known as Trikipitaka, his holy name when he achieves enlightenment). Shu Qi is captivating and hilarious as his love interest, fellow demon hunter Miss Duan. Despite her character being made up for the movie (obviously for the purpose of providing a romantic subplot), the relationship dynamic is refreshing in that her love for Sunang (born from an admiration for his kind-hearted approach to fighting demons) is unrequited due to Sunang’s devotion to the Buddhist lifestyle (which he has interpreted as one of abstinence). Huang Bo plays the devious Monkey King with an electric physicality, charm and barely hidden menace befitting of the classic folk character.

The film is not without it’s faults: some of the comedic gags go on a bit longer than they should, which left me a bit cold to them. There is also a significant dip in production value in middle section of the film. During Sunang’s journey to the Monkey King’s mountain prison it becomes clear that the film’s budget was stretched to it’s thinnest, relying heavily on obvious green screen effects rather than the colorful sets from the first forty minutes or so. Luckily the production value regains a more grand scope when the climax comes around, resulting in a dazzling battle between the Monkey King, three demon hunters and a giant, cosmic Buddha. While it may not be particularly inventive on a narrative level, Journey to the West: Conquering here Demons is a hilarious, visually inventive martial arts epic and beautiful portrait of Chinese Buddhist Culture. I look forward to watching it again as well anything Steven Chow has to offer in future outings.

The Raid 2: Berendal

In 2012 an Indonesian Martial arts action film called “The Raid: Redemption” generated a fair bit of buzz among genre buff circles. Unfortunately I did not have the sense to see it while it was in my local theater, in fact I have not had the sense to see it even still. However, at the assurance of a friend I saw it’s sequel this very evening: “The Raid 2: Berendal.” I regret every moment I have gone without seeing it’s predecessor, for while the sequel is tremulously enjoyable as a stand alone film, (as a sequel should) I can only imagine what I might have missed from the past work of these artists. For that is what this film is, it is art. Painting, sculpture, mosaic, shadow puppets…choose which analogy best suits you. The Raid 2: Berendal brings form and substance to the abstraction of pain. It turns violence into a display of sickening beauty.

The fight choreography is brutal and lightning quick without being hard to follow or disorienting. This is made possible by the fantastic cinematography, which captures the action masterfully. Even outside the actions scenes the framing/ lighting/overall mise-en-scene is incredibly well crafted. The top notch special effects/ make-up complement the choreography resulting in some of the most grisly mutilations I’ve seen in a action film. It’s as if the director’s prime objective was to truly test how much pain the human body was capable of enduring before breaking down completely. The film literally end with it’s action hero (played by Iko Uwais), soaked in blood after taking down over twenty people singlehandedly, declaring that he is done. He’s had enough. The film pushes it’s protagonist to the breaking point of physical human suffering, and the audiences ability to stand witness to that brutality. The story is intricate web of criminal allegiances, undercover intrigue and betrayal of Shakespearian proportions with an electric cast of memorable villains (some of whom aren’t even given proper names, such is the depth of their impact).

You may not have ever found yourself asking “how many different ways can the hooked end of a hammer enter the human body?” But hot damn does this film answer that question…and you will be glad that it did. If you are a fan of visceral carnage made manifest in celluloid, then I recommend you seek this film out immediately, if you’re squeamish I would advise taking caution. Without question The Raid 2 is one of the greatest action films made in the past 2 decade, and I cannot fathom how I’ve managed to go without viewing it’s predecessor.

The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Today I’m turning my pen towards another medium that’s been rather overlooked in recent years: the novel. As inevitable as it’s decline is, due to the evolving nature of mass media, a great possibility for creative world building still exists within the fibers of the printed page. After months of on-again/ off-again reading (unfortunate I do have the pre-requisite attention span of my generation) I finally completed “The Strain.” The first in a trilogy co-written by Chuck Hogan and cult film maker Guillermo Del Toro, The Strain follows the outbreak of a viscous strain of vampirism after a plane lands at JFK full of dead passengers and a mysterious, large wooden box as cargo. While fans of Guillermo Del Toro’s film might recognize the stylistic choices made with these vampires from those of his movie Blade II, The Strain offers a refreshingly grotesque portrayal of the often-romanticized horror icon. The monsters on display here are just that: monsters. They’re hairless, emaciated and in place of fangs they have cancerous retractable stinger that extends from their throats. Like the Blade films, while there are vaguely supernatural connotations to the vampires, they are approached primarily from a biological/ scientific standpoint.

This is most prominent in the choice protagonists. The lead male, Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather is a high ranking member of the CDC tasked with containing the possible biological disaster. Accompanying him is an ensemble cast following the multiple vantage points as the disease spreads throughout New York City. Nora Martinez is co-worker at the CDC with whom he shares tense romantic ties, unexplored due to the stresses of Eph’s custody battle with his ex-wife Kelly over their son Zack. As the biological disaster begins to shows the colors of war, Eph and Nora find themselves in league with Abraham Setrakian, a Van Helsing-esque Holocaust Survivor with past experience with the creatures he calls “strigoi.” Also joining the fray Is my favorite character Vasiley Fet, a rat exterminator employed by the city to investigate sudden surge in displaced rat populations in the city, specifically around the ground zero site as well as gang banger turned vampire slayer Gus Elizalde.

The story is not without it’s well worn story tropes and contrivances, Eph’s the divorce/ stepdad rival subplot being noticeably distracting. However plotting is well placed and builds suspense masterfully, structured very much like a cinematic thriller thanks to film background of it’s co-author. The prose occasionally veers towards the overly descriptive (but not to the mind numbing degree of Steven King or Dean Koontz), but the dialogue has good, natural rhythm to it. In its totality it is a solid piece of fiction and a very cool addition to popular vampire mythology. A television adaptation is currently in production to air this Summer, and I am truly excited to see Del Toro try his hand at the serialized format of the television series.

True Detective- A Retrospective

In the past few year one could say that media criticism has leaned towards notion that television is the new cinema (in a manner of speaking). With shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Mad Men, it is clear that the medium of televised fiction programming is demonstrating a higher quality of acting, writing, and even cinematography than that of the status quo of yesteryear. In turn television shows are also attracting the attention of big Hollywood names in way we have not seen before. HBO’s recently concluded debut season of True Detective is no exception to this pattern of media transcendent television.

Set over the course of nearly two decades, the 8 episode season is the first in what is expected to be an anthology crime show. It follows the lives of Rustin “Rust” Cohle and Marty Hart (played by Mathew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson), Louisiana detectives investigating the ritualistic murder of a prostitute that winds up connecting to several murders across the entire state over the course of years, even after supposedly gunning down their killer in an unsanctioned raid on his meth den. What started out a murder case for a dead hooker becomes a conspiracy with possible government ties surrounding a cult led by the mysterious “Yellow King of Carcosa.” The show builds the haunting atmosphere of a classic southern gothic through sweeping crane shots of the desolate fields of dead trees, placid lakes, slums and industrial factories (aided by it’s dark, brooding musical score). The occult imagery throughout the show (sometimes obvious, sometimes hidden) creates a sense of foreboding as the two detectives get deeper and deeper into the mystery surrounding Carcosa and it’s Yellow King. The standout of of the show, aside from it’s stellar production value, is the acting, particularly that of it’s two leads. McConaughey is fascinating as the brilliant, nihilistic and damaged Rust. Meanwhile Harrelson shines as the alpha male Marty struggling to compartmentalize his job, his affairs and his family (to disastrous ends). Both actors bring their characters to life in a dizzying display of nuance, subtlety and charm. It’s difficult where to determine that character begins and ends between the phenomenal performances and the fantastic writing. The plotting of the mystery is structured well, making for an engaging unfolding of details as the shows pushes on, but it’s the fully realized, 3-dimensional characters that make the story worth telling.

It’s disappointing that the finale, “Form & Void,” will most likely be the last we see of these characters and their stories, due to the anthology structure of the show. However, as long as the creative team, specifically the shows creator Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga (who directed every episode) remain in the writing room and behind the camera, continuing to attract the caliber of talent precedent end by McConaughey and Harrelson, I have high hopes for the coming seasons. Cinema may not have died, or be in any particular danger of doing so, but it certainly has competition as the dominant medium of quality storytelling and spectacle.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

While I can say in all honesty that Marvel studios has never made a bad film, their last two efforts at continuing the success of the smash hit Avengers have been rather underwhelming (Thor: The Dark World more so than Iron Man Three). Their latest film, however, is not only a far superior an effort than that of it’s two predecessors, but may in fact be Marvel’s greatest film to date as well as possibly one of the greatest superhero movies ever made.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a dazzling spectacle of exhilarating action, witty humor, wonderfully crafted characters and taut political intrigue. It follows the titular hero as he struggles to adjust to contemporary American society after being frozen alive since his heyday in World War II. There is an intriguing amount of subtext throughout huge movie regarding the moral ambiguity of a post-patriot act America, the pitfalls of a society so dependent on a digital, global network and even struggles of shell shocked soldiers returning to civilian life. The film establishes, quite expertly, a history around the legacy of Captain America, cementing him as the original, shining example of super-heroism. within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All this is achieved by the writer- director duo behind the scenes: Anthony and Joe Russo. Despite a background in comedy television, the two don’t miss a single step in the process of thrilling blockbuster making, while maintaining the humanity and charm of their earlier works (such critically acclaimed shows as Community and Arrested Development).

Chris Evans delivers an earnest, likable but stoic performance of Steve Rogers/ Captain America, effortlessly embodying the character. In point and fact the entire cast was firing on just the right cylinders. Anthony Mackie is a show stealer as newcomer to the franchise Sam Wilson/ Falcon. Meanwhile Scarlet Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson are the best they’ve ever been in the roles of Natasha Romanov/ Black Widow and as S.H.I.E.LD Director Nick Fury, respectively. Robert Redford brings the pedigree one would imagine from his involvement with charm and menace as World Security Councilmen Alexander Pierce. Without divulging too many spoilers, the main standout of these film, aside from its hero of course, is his villainous foil: The almost ethereal assassin known only as The Winter Soldier for much of the film. With few lines, the actor (who shall be go unnamed until the film is released) imbues the character with an indomitable menace and truly daunting threat to our heroes.

There is only so much I can gush over without spoilers so I’ll end it here. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is fantastic. It has great performances, great directing, writing, action, everything. Go see it. And while I’m sure it goes without saying, as this IS a Marvel movie, but make sure you sit through the credits.

The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises marks the swan song of animation legend Hayao Miyazki’s prolific filmography. The film is truly a work of beauty and provides a more than sufficent goodbye to a pioneer in the field of Japanese Animation. The animation is crisp, colorful and imaginative while maintaining a remarkable realism in the movements of here human form. The dream sequences in which Jiro imagines his planes dazzling and spark with creativity. As a matter of preference I generally prefer foreign movies with subtitles rather than a dub track, but the English voice dub cast is naturalistic and generally not distracting as dubs often are. Joseph Gordon Levitt, Emily Blunt and John Krasinksi all give great, understated vocal performances that seek to emote rather than over-animate.
The story is a biographical piece about Jiro Horikoshi, a Japanese engineer who lived his dream of designing and building airplanes by doing so for the Japanese war effort in World War II. An artist with a passion, he honors his country while fulfilling his life long ambition, yet still maintains his innocence as a man who simply wants to build planes, regardless of what they are used for. The film provides some biting commentary on the backwards nature of Japanese society during the Second World War, especially in comparison with the rest world. It also illustrates some chilling recreations of disasters like the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But the true heart of the film lies in the romantic subplot between Jiro and Naoko. Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: I generally find love interests tacked on and unnecessary. They don’t interest me, in fact they generally bore me. The romantic sub plot displayed here is one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve seen put to film. There is a sincerity and warmth that diffuses the melodrama it could have so easily devolved into. Spoilers ahead: Their story is a tragedy, as Naoko is stricken with Tuberculosis and eventually passes. But her death is never seen, it is simply presented as something he had to go through. That right there exemplifies what I loved so much about this movie: it’s avoidance of melodrama while still maintaining a touching story of love and tragedy. I can not reccomend this movie enough, especially if you’re a fan of Miayazaki’s other work like Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, or Princess Monoake. Either way this movie is a moving experience and a wonderful send off to a tremendous talent.