Thursday, 25 September 2014

Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For

"Sin City's where you go in with your eyes open, or you don't come out at all."
Doesn't get any more quotable than that.

"Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For" is the sequel, nine years in the making, to the brilliant Sin City, directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez. Back then it was a surprise hit, enabling movies like "The Spirit" and "300" directly and other R-rated comic movies like "Kick-Ass" and apparently not Deadpool, but I digress... Sadly, it is already obvious that the sequel doesn't come close to the financial success of the original. But that's just the box office, what about the movie itself?

"A Dame to Kill For" sees the return of a lot of the talent involved in the first movie, Rodriguez and Miller direct and a host of actors return to further explore their characters from the first movie. The sequel follows the formula of the first movie and separates itself into four stories, loosely connected by the city and the characters.

"Just Another Saturday Night" features Mickey Rourkes Marv regaining consciousness on a highway, surrounded by corpses and having no recollection of the last hours. "The Long Bad Night" was written exclusively for the movie, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a professional gambler who gets in over his head. The titular "A Dame to Kill For" revolves around Dwight, Clive Owens killer with a new face from the original, this time before his plastic surgery, played by Josh Brolin. In the story, he gets entangled with his ex, Ava Lord, played by Eva Green. Finally, "Nancy's Last Dance", likewise an original story, takes place four years after the events of "That Yellow Bastard" from the first film and sees Jessica Albas young stripper seeking revenge for the events of that story.

It's really hard to review this movie without acknowledging the kind of universe it is set in. Realism very much takes a back seat here, with characters that might seem human, but definitely excel in terms of durability and strength, to varying degrees even. The City is a brilliant backdrop, dark, murky and with danger lurking behind every corner. There is very little morality to be found here and none of our heroes are even slightly squeamish when it comes to violence.

For the people who liked the original, this on promises more of everything, more violence, more sex and most of all, more Marv. Yes, Mickey Rourkes character was so well received, deservedly so, that Miller and Rodriguez put him in every single story, even if it is only a cameo. But while he is a fascinating character and Mickey Rourke plays him with an energy and relish you don't see that often, he is definitely overused here. When the final story comes around, in which he is Nancy's right hand in her plot for revenge, we've seen so much of him already that all he really does is pose a huge error in continuity from the first movie. I won't spoil it, because if you don't notice it, you're definitely better off.

Both Sin City movies jump around their timeline wildly, with only loose connections between the storys. This makes the world of Sin City seem so intense and full of storys. Some storys take place at the same time, like "Just Another Saturday Night" and "That Yellow Bastard", others show you characters at vastly different points of their story, like "A Dame to Kill For" and "The Big Fat Kill". It is a very intricately crafted timeline, which makes it even worse when it is broken.

Another problem is the arrangement of the different episodes. The main story, "A Dame to Kill For" begins after the very short opening with "Just Another Saturday Night" and a quick glimpse at "The Long Bad Night" and "Nancy's Last Dance". The problem is that this way, the movies climax comes around half of its running time. While Joseph Gordon-Levitt can hold the audiences attention very well, fitting into the citys aesthetic and style perfectly, Albas story feels more like an afterthought, at its most interesting in its beginning and declining from there. At this point, the movie only drags on, giving you time to ponder continuity errors, something that might have been fixed by putting the story up front.

Apart from those two things "A Dame to Kill For" is actually a lot of fun. Despite being in it a little bit too much, Rourke is amazing to watch, Josh Brolin shows once again that whatever actor came before him in a role, he can match up to it. With the help of some prosthetic make-up, he even looks the part towards the end of his story. Gordon-Levitt has some of the best lines and fits the story like a glove. However, the real standout is Eva Green, chilling and dangerous, the epitome of desirability. Once again starring in an adaption of Rodriguez work, she shows once again that plays dangerous women like no one else in Hollywood.

The original style is back as well, with a few new flourishes, but mostly the same. The films noir look is once again punctuated by a few coloured accents. The movie looks astonishing, worth it just for the sheer stylishness.

Overall, this movie is a fun ride, not quite as great as its predecessor, but still showing a lot of potential. Sadly after it tanked at the box office, it's not likely we'll see another one, but then again, Rodriguez and Miller do have a mind of their own.

Oh, and be sure to check out Cinemartians review over here.

Friday, 19 September 2014

One Page on House of Cards

House of Cards is a very peculiar thing. It follows congressman Frank Underwood, a spot on performance by the great Kevin Spacey, who after being denied the position of secretary of state following a successful presidential campaign, starts scheming his way up the political ladder on Capitol Hill. Similar to Breaking Bad, maybe the greatest piece of television ever created, there is a lot of ambivalence here concerning the moral standing of our main character. Is he the protagonist of this story? If not, who is?

I finished season 2 of this wonderful series a few days ago. It is such a curious thing, constantly catching you off-guard. I'm not going into spoiler territory just now, but it is clear from the beginning that Underwood is ruthless. In his struggle for power, he has no regard for others. Now it is always fun to watch manipulative characters on-screen, the elegance of it makes us sympathize with the obvious smartest person in the room. You can't help but marvel at the foresight and minute planning that takes place here. Yet, House of Cards provides you with constant reality-checks, showing you some of the people who get left behind in Underwoods wake.

In that regard, Underwood may be the best politician ever put to screen. He constantly directs our attention. We are constantly aware of his ulterior motives, it's all about the power for him. Regardless, as he rises through the ranks, especially in the first season, we root for him. We feel his defeats and are impressed by his victories. Why? Do we want our politicians to be that way? If his opponents are so easily manipulated, do they deserve what's coming to them?

Spoilers from here on... you've been warned.

In the second season, things become much clearer. Now, Underwood has bloodied his hands. The fate of Peter Russo and Zoe Barnes has shown us his true colours. No amount of smoke screening he can do will make us root for him again, right? And yet, watching it, I never seriously entertained the possibility of his defeat. There are those who know stuff about him, people that become dangerous. This should be the main conflict, following the heroic attempt to blow the whistle on a man that couldn't be any more corrupt and dangerous. But Underwood isn't even playing that game anymore. He has become untouchable, delegating this whole aspect of the story to Stamper. He has bigger fish to fry. In a normal Hollywood film this hubris would lead to his downfall, and it might still, but not in House of Cards.

Through his conflict with Tusk, he even finds a way to get us back on his side. Tusk is just as bad as he is... but he isn't talking to the camera, and that's what counts here. At this point, we all know that Francis Underwood is a villain, maybe one of the best, but he doesn't fight good guys, and that makes all the difference. Of course decent people cross his path, but none of them ever seriously challenge him. Most of them don't know how bad, and those who do are effectively silenced. Apart from brief opposition by the president, there is no hero in this story.

Spoilers end.

And in that, House of Cards is completely unique in my opinion. No other show or movie manages to resist the hero character. Of course, there are anti-heroes, and they are fine and good, but someone always opposes the villain. Even Breaking Bad had Hank Schrader, obsessively searching for Heisenberg.

If you know another example of this, please tell me, because it is such an amazing thing to watch. Anyway, those are my thoughts on House of Cards, definitely one of my favourite shows.

Outside Hollywood #4 - After Earth

Alright, here it is, episode 4 of Outside Hollywood. Leo and I take a look at the works of none other than M. Night Shyamalan, a VIP-member of the "So-bad-it's-good" society. Enjoy Share Music - Embed Audio Files - Podcast #4 - After Earth

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

A Most Wanted Man

So yesterday I wrote my list of movies I want to watch this fall, pretty sure that I wouldn't be able to find some of them in theaters. Today I can already cross one of those from my list, thank you Sneak Preview.

"A Most Wanted Man" is a spy-thriller by Anton Corbijn, set in post 9/11 Hamburg. It stars a great ensemble, including Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, but most of all, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The movie follows Hoffmans spymaster Günther Bachmann in his efforts to ensnare Homayun Ershadis Abdullah, a charitable and spiritual muslim whom he suspects of funding terrorist organizations under the cover of his philantropic work. The linchpin in Bachmanns plan is Issa Karpov, played by Grigoriy Dobrygin, a half Russian, half Chechen muslim who inherited a large sum of money from his war-criminal father.

Spy movies, particularly those based on stories by John le Carré, such as this one, can be hard to follow, which is part of their appeal. "A Most Wanted Man" is different in that regard. The goal is always clear, even if the movie manages to keep you in the moment very effectively instead of jumping ahead in your mind. Because we know what the outcome has to be, the audience is at liberty to concentrate on every single step of the plan, analyzing each situation for weak points, aspects that can go wrong and possible threats. This makes it less surprising than other movies in the genre, although it still does pull the rug out from under you to great effect at times.

This movie has everything you can imagine in a spy movie. A shady spymaster, shady government officials, a shady bankier, very little in this movie does not come as shady. The movie is well cast even in the smallest roles and gives us good characters throughout. Apparently, Willem Dafoes Tommy Brue is a much larger character in the original book and you can feel that on screen, there is a lot of background hinted here, a character interesting even outside of his role in this story. Similar, although not as extensive, Annabel Richter, played by Rachel McAdams, is drawn with few but effective strokes.

Nevertheless, the real key players here are Hoffmans tired spy and Dobrygins troubled refugee. Karpov is an interesting character. It is never made clear wether he is or isn't a terrorist, or at least was. He might be a trained insurgent, riddled with doubt, or completely innocent, having gone through an inhumane ordeal. Bachmann is the most important character in this whole piece, not only because he is the main character, but also because the whole tone of the movie hinges on him. A movie like this could easily become propaganda, demonizing the enemy in the war on terror, but this one is saved by Hoffman, fuelled by a believe in a soft touch. You get the feeling that he is desperately clinging to his humanity in an inhumane business. One particularly strong scene includes him seamlessly slipping into a very hard stance on terror, intimidating and aggressive, juxtaposing two ways of fighting the war on terror.

The murky swamps of espionage and this covert war are the main themes of this movie, keeping you on edge at all times, because it is clear that in this world, nobody is to be trusted. Like a dark shadow, the other parties involved in this operation loom over Bachmanns shoulders, none of them being more threatening than Robin Wrights Martha Sullivan, embodying the American interest. If you have seen "House of Cards", you already know that she is a force to be reckoned with and that she has a bite to match her bark.

By focusing so heavily on Hoffmanns spymaster, the movie does lack a personal touch on long stretches. Scenes between McAdams and Dobrygin show that there is a more emotional side to this story, but the movie keeps those moments sparse. We are seeing this from Hoffmans point of view, which is a lot darker and cynical.

All in all, the movie has a simple plot for a spy-thriller, but that is not necessarily bad. The emotional detachment could be a problem for some to get into this, but apart from that, this is a brilliantly acted thriller, full of suspense. It also serves as another memorial to Hoffmans genius, which we will sorely miss.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Deliver us from Evil

"Deliver us from Evil" is a new exorcism-themed horror shocker by Scott Derrickson, director of "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" and recently "Sinister". It stars Eric Bana as New York street cop Ralph Sarchie who stumbles upon a series of connected cases that make him question his beliefs. He then partners up with Castilian priest Mendoza, portrayed by Édgar Ramirez, to fight an ancient evil.

Personally, I usually find exorcism movies to be rather ridiculous, what with spinning heads, weird voices and vomit all over the floor. Still, I was interested in this one. It is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, which, if nothing else, guarantees good production values. Also, "Sinister" crept me out like few movies did recently and Scott Derrickson is going to follow this movie up with "Doctor Strange", a new Marvel project. This gave me reasonably high hopes for this movie.

The direction by Derrickson is definitely the movies strongest point. The first time we meet our hero he just found a dead baby in a dumpster and Derrickson manages to relate his state of mind within just a few shots. This is a man who knows how to shoot an intense scene. Also, just as we saw in "Sinister", Derrickson has a love for found footage, yet knows exactly how to insert it into his film without overusing it. He seems to be the only filmmaker in the horror genre who refuses to decide between no found footage or completely found footage. Having your main character be the one who actually finds the footage is still a refreshing twist on what has become a mostly played out genre.

Eric Bana gives a credible performance as a man who slowly starts seeing the world in a different light. Bana and McHale work well together as partners, their chemistry almost perfect. The spiritual discussions between him and Édgar Ramirez work just as well. The only weak point is his relationship with his wife, played by Olivia Munn, which just doesn't draw the audience in enough to make us care about their problems. Instead, Munn is ill-served with a role that is quickly reduced to constant nagging. You can understand her, but she's hard to identify with.

The movie has a lot of very strong and scary sequences, although at one point the whole "It's just the cat" cliché is definitely used one or two times too much. Apart from that, Derrickson once again shows that he knows how to film an inventive and tension-filled horror thriller.

If you are a fan of scary movies or just curious about what kind of director Marvel has taken aboard for Doctor Strange, definitely check this one out.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Outside Hollywood #3 - Summer Blockbuster Season 2014

After we let all our 43 listeners wait for two months, here is a new episode of the Outside Hollywood Podcast featuring me and my friend Cinemartian. This time, it's all about the big ones. Summer movie season is over, even in Germany by now, and we take a look back our favourite entries this year.

Free Music - Audio Hosting - Podcast #3 - Summer Blockbus...

Walking on Sunshine

A romantic comedy, so gripping, so engaging,  the audience I saw it with was clapping along and applauded when our two love interests finally got together... is not what this movie is.

Don't get me wrong, these things all happened, but the motivation behind it was not how immensely invested we were in the story, but rather pained sarcasm. I do not normally enjoy people talking in movies, but in rare cases it has enriched my experience. In this case, it was a sneak preview, so no one know what we were in for. We have seen some terrible movies in this setting, but rarely has one been the subject of such ridicule.

"Walking on Sunshine" is a romantic musical comedy starring Leona Lewis as the only person who can sing. Sadly, she is not our main character. The movie revolves around Taylor, who had a summer flirt with Raf when she was on vacation in Apulia, Italy. Three years later, she goes back to visit her sister, Madison, who went there to find herself after a bad breakup. When she arrives, she finds that the real purpose of her visit was to attend her sisters wedding to... well you can guess whom she's marrying. Exasperated gasps all over the audience and shenanigans ensue.

This movie fails on so many levels. "So many levels?", you say. "Name three!"

I'll do you one better and go for four.
First, the music. I'm not even going to talk about the quality of the song and dance numbers just yet. For now, lets focus on song choice. Similar to "Mamma Mia!", which featured songs by Abba, this one goes for 80s pop hits. It also goes for every cliché it can possibly get its hands on, telegraphing each song as hard as it can. The song choices are pretty uninspired, always going for the obvious choice, which I'm not sure I can count against it, because that's pretty much what pop music is about I guess, the obvious choice.

The execution is pretty underwhelming from the first number as well. Dance numbers prominently feature people reading books or newspapers in choreography and you will not believe how funny the scriptwriters felt it was to have someone tumbling backwards into a pool. It happens about six or seven times, such a prominent feature that I feared for our heroine when in the final song she is on the edge of a rooftop with Raf. Luckily the screenwriter had his instincts in check that time. The singing is mostly average with one case of heavy auto-tuning. At least Leona Lewis can sing, but she makes the rest of the cast look very bad in comparison.

Second, the "villain". As it had to happen, Madisons ex Doug shows up for the wedding, trying to convince her to take him back. At that point, the movie has spend a lot of dialogue on getting across the point that he is bad news. Imagine my surprise then, as he shows up being the most romantic and likeable person in the whole movie. When in the beginning we meet our protagonists, it tries to establish something of a "Team Taylor" vs. "Team Madison" dynamic, which by the way never pays off. From the moment Doug is on screen, most people I talked with were "Team Doug". Greg Wise obviously has the most fun of the whole ensemble and gets the most believable character arc. He is a perfect gentleman, madly in love with Madison and can read her wishes better than anyone else in the movie. I always thought that was the kind of guy women went for in Rom-Coms, but I've been wrong before.

Third, the story. When Taylor and Raf meet for the first time after their separation, not only have they the most bland meet-cute imaginable, they also decide to keep their past hidden from Madison. At that point, the movie could have taken a shortcut right to a happy ending, but instead it takes the long way round and fabricates reason after reason why Raf would be spending time with Taylor instead of his future wife, just so they can rekindle their love. It's bad, extremely forced and insults the intelligence of the viewer.

Fourth, and this is worst, this movie almost exclusively features beautiful people. That wouldn't have been so bad hadn't they decided to put in comic relief in the form of two heavy-set characters and an old Italian maid that at some points is treated dangerously close to an indentured servant. If you are not eye-candy in this movie, you can be damn sure you are comic relief. And to top that off, obviously the two only non-eye-candy characters have to end up as a couple, because come on, they belong together, you know, because lets face it, fat people belong with fat people. I don't know exactly why this bugs me as much as it does, and it isn't even that the movie portrays them as not being able to get anyone else.

So yeah, this movie made me angry, don't waste your money or your time on it. It is plain terrible.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

"You're Welcome"

"Guardians of the Galaxy" is Marvel studios newest property, directed by James Gunn, and stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel and Dave Bautista as a team of outlaws, out to protect the galaxy from Lee Paces Ronan the Accuser.

If you thought the Avengers had a colourful line-up, boasting a Norse god, a Tinman, a super-soldier from the past and a man with extreme anger-issues, you've seen nothing yet. The Guardians raise you a walking and talking, albeit with a limited vocabulary, tree and a Raccoon proficient in heavy weaponry and demolitions. This movie was considered a risk by many, mainly because the Guardians are among the less well-known heroes in the Marvel universe. If Iron-Man was B-League before he got his movie, The Guardians of the Galaxy were somewhere down in G. And then there were people who thought that a character like Rocket Raccoon could be hard to sell to audiences. Those are the people I don't understand.

Of all the Marvel films so far, this one is definitely the funniest by a wide margin. Groot, the talking Tree voiced by Vin Diesel, Gamora, the green Assassin played by Zoe Saldana, and Drax the Destroyer played by professional wrestler Dave Bautista all get their chance to shine in some way. But the real comedic gold comes from Chris Pratt and Bradley Cooper as Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon.

Star-Lord aka Peter Quill is from Earth, having been abducted in 1988, a mix between Han Solo and Indiana Jones, and yes, it is as awesome as it sounds. He always has a quick one-liner on hand. He isn't the only one though.

Rocket, a genetically manipulated, half-cyborg rodent matches him line-for-line, steals scenes left and right and is probably going to be everyones favourite Guardian, because, lets be honest here, he is a Raccoon with a gun, how do you top that?

Gamora is a genetically modified trained Asssassin. She is pretty uptight, understandable, since she got "adopted" by the Thanos the mad Titan after he destroyed her home planet, killing her family and transforming her into a ruthless weapon. She has some really touching moments when she tries to convince her sister Nebula to join her instead of fighting for Ronan.

Drax the Destroyer has a personal vendetta against the movies villain, Ronan the Accuser, having witnessed his familys death. Draxs race does not understand metaphors and he has a code of honour, which leads to some pretty fun exchanges. Acting-wise, as a professional wrestler rather than an actor, Bautista is definitely the weak link, but luckily the script and the character work with him and don't ask things of him that he can't deliver. Bautista manages to inject enough likeability and heart into Drax, who is essentially a killing machine.

Then there is Groot. A tree with a heart of gold, probably the character that is most responsible for the growing solidarity between the Guardians. Like Quill, his first thought is not to kill, he is happy to find new friends and is very pro-life in general. Diesel apparently said that getting into Groots character helped him immensely to deal with the death of his close friend Paul Walker and one can see why. He might be limited in his one-liners, but he exudes love and friendship in a way that is rare in a blockbuster these days. That's not to say that he doesn't deliver punishment when it's needed.

The story follows these five in their struggle to obtain/sell/protect the galaxy from a Maltese Falcon/Arc of the Covenant-esque Macguffin called "The Orb", which to noones surprises contains immense power in the form of an infinity stones, the third one we've met so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They are however not the only ones looking for the Orb, with the big bad Ronan the Accuser hot on their tails. Ronan is a Kree warlord with a grudge against the Nova, a galactic police force that had been involved in a war with the Kree until shortly before the events of this movie. Our villain in this piece cannot accept peace and starts his own campaign.

There are some minor flaws in this movie, most of them only small inconveniences not worth mentioning, but the biggest shortcoming is definitely Ronan. Once again, Marvel delivers a cut-and-dry villain. He is imposing, he is evil, but there is not much more there. He has one interesting scene that I'm not going to spoil, but everything else is very by the numbers. Now this movie had enough on its plate that I guess I understand that they were limited in terms of capacities for adding a great villain next to its five anti-heroes, a whole galaxy and different factions within that galaxy, but still, except for Loki, the only Marvel villain so far that showed any promise was the Winter Soldier, and we will have to wait and see what comes out of that. Personally, I long for a villain that has impact and feels like a real threat. James Spader as Ultron has high expectations to meet.

Apart from that, the final showdown is very similar to what we've seen so far, but it does fit with the space-opera genre, so I'll give this one a pass. Still, this is another part where I want more diversity and creativity from Marvel.

Apart from that... I can't even tell you how excited I am about this movie. I've seen it twice now and it is such a thrilling ride. The comedy elements are perfectly played, giving everyone a time to shine and cracking you up on a regular basis. Meta-humour plays a huge role, undercutting moments that are so well-known that they have become clichéed on a regular basis. It also provides you with some extremely inventive action sequences. Especially the gadgets that Peter Quill uses are amazingly fun to watch.

While the story is really rather simple, but the time that it doesn't use to flesh out the story is used on the characters. A team movie without a lead-up is something Marvel hasn't done yet, but they do it right. We do not learn everything about our characters, but noone is set aside and little bits of background are inserted smoothly into the script. But it doesn't stop there. The movie also has a big supporting cast, filling each faction with multiple characters for you to get invested in. Especially Karen Gillans brilliant portrayal of Nebula and John C. Reillys character add a lot to the experience.

All in all, this is so far the biggest movie of the year, a throne that it might just keep, depending on how much buzz The Hobbit and Mockingjay can generate. It deserves every single penny, because this film is just great. If you haven't seen it yet, go watch it right now, it is great. It also has the greatest tagline of all time.