Admirers of “Lord of the Rings” left with lingering dissatisfaction from the most recent “Hobbit” movie, “The Desolation of Smaug,” should be pleased that director Peter Jackson wastes no time in the “Hobbit”’s final installment, transforming a meager amount of J. R. R. Tolkien’s source material into an impressive confrontation of gratifying saga-scale proportions. We’re thrown right back into the chaos where we were left hanging: Smaug awakened from his slumber, then descending from the mountain as Bilbo and his companions can do little more than watch as the dragon lays waste to Lake Town. The opening of “Battle of the Five Armies” is apocalyptic, engulfed in fire then darkness, all before the opening credits. When the smoke clears, split alliances of every race of Middle Earth clamor to stake claim to the now-vacated mountain. Read the rest of this entry »
“What the fuck?” is not only a character’s key reaction within “The Guest,” but mine as well, even on a second viewing. “The Guest” is the most delirious of director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett’s eight collaborations, a wickedly smart thriller filled with sly, cool intelligence that elevates what could be mere homage to trashy, splashy forebears into something more concentrated. (They used to call them “good movies.”) “Downton Abbey”’s Dan Stevens plays a wicked revision of Captain America, a mean fighting machine, a gleaming model-looking blank, with elegantly oiled hair pushed back in a forelock, fierce azure eyes, a laconic killer grin, a more chiseled version of the psychopaths played by Ryan Gosling in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” and “Only God Forgives.” David arrives by foot in New Mexico at the home of the Peterson family, where he quickly ingratiates himself with tales of their fallen son, whom he had fought with before his death in combat. “The Guest” is a thriller, but first and foremost, it’s a thrill, like all of Cinemax, ever, died and went to heaven. Read the rest of this entry »
By Ray Pride
“Starred Up” is ominous from its first instants, the sounds beginning with the very first frame under presentation credits, somewhere from inner space, like the confines of a skull pressured by the slightest sounds of a low febrile hum in a constrained space that echoes from other, nearby constrained spaces.
In a word: prison. In a world: a prisoner.
A Greek tragedy is in the offing. Violent nineteen-year-old convict Eric (Jack O’Connell, “Eden Lake,” Angelina Jolie’s upcoming “Unbroken”) has been “starred up”: slang for being transferred from a juvenile jail to an adult facility, which happens to be the prison where his estranged father Nev (Ben Mendelsohn) has long been incarcerated.
The first seven minutes follow the succession of double-checks and humiliations involved in his induction, or even ingestion into the system, seven long minutes to get him into his cell, where Eric immediately snaps a disposable razor and blazes a toothbrush to create a provisional shank for what turns out to be imminent usage. The gentle float and sway of the Steadicam also suggests instability and the potential for sudden deadly motions, contrasting the naturalism of the setting of the cell block with a tensile, cumulatively dreamy-cum-nightmarish use of framing and cutting. “Starred Up” confines itself to an actual prison facility, and was shot in sequence with two editors cutting the film together daily to insure a rare immediacy in an all-too-familiar genre. The conflicts you expect from angry men under pressure come quickly, but within an unforeseen atmosphere. Read the rest of this entry »
By Ray Pride
Ireland, day: Man walks into a confession booth and tells a priest of terrible things that had been done to him by a priest when he was small. Tells the priest: I’ll get back at the church by killing an innocent priest in one week, and that’s you, get your life in order.
Now there’s a set-up. “Calvary,” the second feature by writer-director John Michael McDonagh, fills that week full-to-bursting with a raft of idiosyncratic characters and philosophical conflicts and the current crisis in the Church and idiomatic comic dialogue strung along by the script’s thriller-like ticking clock. Brendan Gleeson’s Father James could very well be his best performance in a great career. (He told me it’s his favorite role.) Graham Greene divided his books into two classes: the novels, which took on spiritual matters, and the lighter ones, which he called “entertainments.” McDonagh’s knack is to combine both the novelistic, spiritual elements of Greene and lighter notes to achieve a high level of gratifying entertainment. (It’s also beautifully shot: I could write a few thousand words about the cinematography and artful visual style.)
“Calvary,” is, in a very specific way, a “B” movie, by which I mean, “Bergman, Buñuel and Bresson,” I tell McDonagh. He laughs. “Oh dear! Those were the governing influences. When I was going through preproduction, I went through the entire back catalog again. Read the rest of this entry »
Another Marvel left-field choice of a seemingly unlikely director pays off, in slightly different fashion than “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” directed by the Russo brothers as a politically charged gloss on 1970s paranoia thrillers. Co-writer-director James Gunn’s 2010 no-budget “Super” had its share of appalling violence, but he still manages to thread abrupt violence and casual malice into the huge expanses of the outright comedy and fine sarcasm of “Guardians.” And most of the meanness is funny, after a cartoonish fashion. Any moment that could be drenched in earnestness is either beautiful—a bereft child’s ascension in a beam of light to a spaceship that will wrench him from Earth—or mocked from the get-go. Chris Pratt plays the grown boy, Peter Quill, as a would-be cock-of-the-galaxy who describes himself at one point, hopefully, as “an a-hole, but not one-hundred-percent a dick.” Read the rest of this entry »
No big-budget action film about one kind of apocalypse or another is complete these days without a rapid-fire, melancholic montage at the beginning, invoking the present day, the beginning of these particular end times. “Snowpiercer,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” “World War Z,” and, of course, the end of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011). So it goes with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” In a few fleet images atop a murmurous soundtrack, the deed is done, “simian flu” eradicates nearly all of mankind, and ten years have passed. A few humans, led by a former law enforcement officer played by Gary Oldman, are left in the center of San Francisco, while miles away, up in the mountains, under the trees, a civilization of super-smart apes begins to, well, dawn. Matt Reeves’ skills as a director, and orchestrator of talents, show a fantastic advance from “Cloverfield” and the fine “Let Me In.” Read the rest of this entry »
With “Snowpiercer,” the eminently talented South Korean genre-bender Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Barking Dogs Never Bite,” “Mother”) aims beyond the fences again with his fevered free adaptation of Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s 1984 French graphic novel, “Le Transperceneige.” Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson (“Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead”) get a running start, depicting a worldwide attempt to forestall global warming on July 1, 2014, an experiment that freezes the planet. “The rattling ark” of a visionary industrialist’s vast, perpetual motion train that makes a circuit of the globe once a year is then the film’s allegorical setting. (In the novel, the train is 1,001 carriages long, to throw in another allusion.) For seventeen years, the Snowpiercer has stayed in motion. The oppressed of the farthest reaches of the tail of the train are prepared to revolt, to make their way to the front of the train, to…? They know no other world, not even sunlight glinted off the expanses of barren snow and frozen cities they circuit past. Read the rest of this entry »
Michael Bay and his backers have spared no expense with the latest “Transformers” movie, but he can’t help but fall afoul of genre conventions and his usual over-reliance on computer-generated special effects. “Transformers: Age Of Extinction” picks up four years after the big guys left Michigan Avenue and Streeterville in ruins. To keep this from happening again, the feds are now hunting all remaining transformers, good and bad alike. An injured Optimus Prime comes into the possession of financially struggling widower-inventor Cade Yeager, played by Mark Wahlberg. Cade repairs Prime, the government finds out, explosions ensue. We spend the rest of the movie’s punishing 165-minute running time tracking Wahlberg as he tries to keep his daughter (relative newcomer Nicola Peltz) safe from the elite CIA unit that’s hunting them down. Cue robots, car chases, space ships, massive explosions and over-elaborate action sequences. Read the rest of this entry »
Mosul fell the morning I saw “The Rover,” another domino past Fallujah and Baiji and Tikrit. The rule of law is gone after a decade of the latest war in Iraq, in Afghanistan, Syria, the outer reaches of the post-Soviet Russia. Australian writer-director David Michôd’s second feature, “The Rover” fits right in. It’s bleak and sleek and the illustration of chaos capitalism in the hot, dry, remote outback of Flinders Ranges, South Australia seems less “ten years after the collapse” than what will be ten minutes away for too much of the present-day world. In the Cannes press kit, Michôd was direct about what is oblique in his assured, flinty storytelling: “’The Rover’ is set in an unspecified near-future, but is, in essence, a film about today. It’s about the rapacious capacity for under-regulated Western economies to destroy themselves and it’s about the inevitable shifting balance of global power. It’s about the seemingly intractable problems of human greed and environmental destruction and the despair these forces might elicit in struggling people. More than anything, it’s about the ways these factors affect the emotional lives of individuals.” Read the rest of this entry »
It must have been a good week to start sniffing glue again. Jesus, I wept. I made no friends with my laughter at a packed preview of “22 Jump Street.” That 112 minutes honestly comprised the most sustained amount of laughing I’ve done in years without being held down against my will and tickled. I’m not sure what hit me so hard—it could be the day of the week or the time of the day—but I became the incarnation of the legendary Inappropriate Laugher. (I was surprised no one near me moved to a different seat.) Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller found funny bones I didn’t know I had. In box-office success, the team’s roster of the past half-decade is stellar: “Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs” (2009), “21 Jump Street” (2012), “The Lego Movie” and now this rambunctiously generous, relentlessly goofball mass of laughter. The visual style is loose and reaction-shot-friendly; a quick measure of how adroit the directorial team is with comedy timing at knowing when to hold and when to cut is how they weight reaction shots by Nick Offerman and Ice Cube. It’s a bit of bliss to realize that they’re simply after the funny in live-action, as well as in “The Lego Movie,” where animation requires more strategic planning. To do both all-family and hard-R scatology, and to do both well? That’s a rare protean gift among studio filmmakers today. Read the rest of this entry »