Minireview: “Dallas Buyers Club”

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Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, “Dallas Buyers Club” was most likely conceived with the awards season in mind, as it checks all the necessary boxes to be officially considered ‘Oscar bait’, and it is never a good sign. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, and Jennifer Garner, the film is a biographical piece about Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), a flesh-and-bone Texan who contracted HIV back in the mid-80’s when not only the treatment had not been properly developed, but the fact of being diagnosed with AIDS went hand in hand with being cast out to the margin of (a very conservative) society; Continue reading

Minireview: “Aftershock”

Nowadays, in the age of ‘destruction porn’, a solid survival/disaster horror is hard to come by. The main stream of disaster genre has been taken over and beaten to death with the likes of Roland Emmerich with their epic slant, bloated budgets and overwhelming pathos, so that it was even more refreshing to have watched “Aftershock” directed by Nicolás López. It turns out, a solid disaster flick requires only a creative touch to bring about the suspense and terror, not millions of dollars.

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“Aftershock” plays it straight with a bunch of young characters (mostly unknowns and Eli Roth) being thrown together to wander around Valparaiso, Chile. While they are out enjoying life, sex, drugs, and alcohol they are caught unawares by a powerful earthquake that swiftly turns the holidays of their lives into the worst kind of nightmare. Not only will they have to face the immense power of nature by trying to survive around collapsing buildings, fires and related ‘natural’ threats, but it will be other survivors and escapees from the destroyed prison they will have to fear the most.

It is my personal belief that, contrary to popular opinion, the B-movie look in actuality adds immense value to “Aftershock”. It turns out we don’t need to resort to flooding the screen with special effects to build the sense of danger; what we need is a refreshing look at the genre. I couldn’t help but draw immediate parallels between “Aftershock” and “Hostel” in terms of the story progression and handling of the characters. In fact, the film plays out almost exactly like a horror movie with the extensive exposition in the first act, the major left turn the story takes with the earthquake, and with the aftermath drawing vastly from the slasher genre.

I don’t quite understand the universal criticism towards “Aftershock” for being a cheap knock-off, where in reality it makes for a quite decent horror with all the genre staples, such as the archetypical cast of characters, typical plot points, ‘the unlikely heroine’, the prison inmates as the threat, copious amounts of violence and gore with a healthy dose of humour, and a strong use of practical special effects. If seen in that light, the complaints about cliché characters and the cheap look seem completely out of place. If anything, “Aftershock” among other slashers looks quite unique and refreshing.

Hypothetically, if this film had been done on a 9-digit budget, I don’t necessarily think it would be any better than it is now. Sure, it’s nice to look at CG buildings crumbling and the tsunamis laying waste to everything in their path, but horrors don’t really need that to be memorable. “Aftershock” most certainly is with its classic practical tricks and little restraint with violence. In combination with a cast of characters being picked off in a suspenseful and imaginative way, “Aftershock” kept me at the edge of my seat all throughout its running time. A tight ride it was.

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Minireview: “The Heat”

Directed by Paul Feig (who is mostly known for the surprisingly successful “Bridesmaids”), “The Heat” has taken me by complete surprise and brought a serious onslaught of hilarity into the summer blockbuster line-up. Admittedly, my expectations towards this particular comedy were kept relatively low, especially after the utterly underwhelming “The Internship”, which succeeded in destroying my comedy palate. Thankfully, “The Heat” strikes all the right notes and, while not entirely original, brings all the ingredients together to create a very refreshing summertime dish that’s light on the stomach, but zingy on the senses.

(I should probably grab a sandwich or something, because I can’t stop thinking in cooking analogies)

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In terms of the story, “The Heat” is a feminine variation on the buddy cop comedy where a young and arrogant FBI agent Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is paired up with an obnoxious police officer Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), as they turn Boston upside down trying to find the identity of a mysterious new drug kingpin Larkin. In the process, however, they both have to come to terms with their own shortcomings and learn to co-exist. Moreover, their unlikely partnership quickly develops a peculiar dynamic that not only drives the whole film forward, but also serves as a vital plot device that pretty much carries the entire story.

I find it ironic that shortly after I had to sit through “The Internship” and nearly choked on the awkward and nearly forced performance by Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, I was quickly reminded of how that kind of comedy can be done right. Sure, the idea of pairing exact opposites together is nothing new in here, but when it’s done with confidence and flair, with only a speck of originality, the end result has the potential to fly.

 

While I normally wouldn’t associate Sandra Bullock with an all-out comedy and frankly I didn’t expect she had it in her, she did a wonderful job in creating a funny character (although very conveniently layered, so as to keep the pacing going) that knew her place in the picture. Granted, I think everybody would expect Melissa McCarthy to take the lead in any comedy she’s in, because she clearly is gifted that way. I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that most of her best gags were at least partially improvised. She does know she’s the star here and all eyes are on her at all times. What I think makes “The Heat” work so well, is the combination of McCarthy’s filthy humor and lack of any moral brakes with Bullock’s perfectly professional supportive role where she would let McCarthy do her thing all the while providing the fillers and backup vocals here and there to make the film work as a whole.

“The Heat” does not reinvent the genre in any capacity, but stands firmly on its own within it. It’s not just a two-man show with little around it, but rather a very balanced work including a set of very memorable secondary characters (hilarious in their own right) that makes a banal buddy cop story funny once more.

 

Minireview: “Stand Up Guys”

Who would have thought that bagging a couple iconic names to star in a gangster movie alongside one another is not going to work…? It turns out the only reason an abomination like “Stand Up Guys” is allowed to exist, is to prove just that. Under sloppy direction by pretty much a random dude (Fisher Stevens), the film brings together for the first time in history a highly respected trio of fantastic actors: Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin (who doesn’t get much of a role), plus Mark Margolis as the villain who supplements the geriatric trio, and you would think that the film should be good. Well, it’s not. It’s just the opposite, to be exact.

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“Stand Up Guys” is a story about Val (Pacino) whom we meet when he’s leaving prison and is greeted by his old friend Doc (Walken), who offers Val shelter and everything he needs to readjust to normality after nearly three decades behind bars. What Val doesn’t know, is that Doc’s intentions are not exactly clear, as he is being blackmailed by their former (mob) boss Claphands (Margolis) and forced to murder Val in revenge for killing Claphands’ son 30 years ago.

Honestly, there’s nothing that could save “Stand Up Guys” here. The film is awful through and through. The story is ridiculous and apart from being just generally implausible, the way the plot proceeds from A to B to C lacks logic in a way that makes “Iron Man 3” look intellectual. The story doesn’t flow naturally, as a result, which makes every turn look forced. Moreover, Doc’s moral dilemma – supposed tent-pole to the whole story – plays out artificially and the whole thing feels like there was nothing at stake at all. Having the story be stuffed with banalities and clichés all throughout doesn’t help either, and any doubt as to how the story would unfold and where it’s going is swept away very quickly.

 

And the acting… I thought I’d never say anything of the sort about a film starring Pacino and Walken, but their performances were horrid, forced, blundering, sloppy, bogus and downright crap. Does the age turn a film icon into a caricature? Or is it the abhorrent direction by a random schmuck that’s responsible for what I have just witnessed? Either way, Pacino and Walken don’t even break a sweat with their acting, which is confined to them doing impressions of themselves. And not even good ones – I think I can find people on Youtube that do a better ‘Christopher Walken’ than Walken himself. They all just walk around, read lines with no emotion, thought, or melody, but it does fit rather well into the story that lacks exactly the same qualities.

In summary, “Stand Up Guys” is just 90 minute-long story (or rather an incoherent, illogical, and annoying collection of scenes) about grumpy old men talking nonsense to one another, shooting guns and pretending to act. Shame! At least it wasn’t too long…

Minireview: “Chasing Mavericks”

Note: Mainly in the interest of consistency and continuity of writing, and also as a way of challenging the form I have grown accustomed to, I have decided to do the following. Whenever I don’t feel ‘ranty’ about a particular film, but still would like to have something to say about it, I thought it would not be a terrible idea to attempt reviewing the film in question in a more confined fashion. It will surely force me to think about substance and coherence when all I would have to work with would be 500 words or less. I realize that in this day and age the general consensus seems to favor bullet points over long essays, and normally I try and fight this trend with every fiber of my being. Nevertheless, I find a shorter form fun to play with and it gives me a chance to talk about films that are not exactly ‘blind spot’ material, or they simply don’t evoke emotions powerful enough to coerce me to go on a rant. Well, I can still go on a rant, as long as it’s compact…

So, there it is – A minireview: delivering opinions in 500 words or less.

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Directed by a weirdly paired duo of directors (Michael Apted and Curtis Hanson), “Chasing Mavericks” can be succinctly described as a true story of a father-son relationship between two completely unrelated characters. In it, a veteran surfer Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler) befriends his teenage neighbor, Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston), whose only passion and a getaway from his sad everyday life is the dream of riding big-ass waves. Even though the youngling is skilled and determined beyond belief, Frosty initially refuses to help Jay prepare to surf the most dangerous waves imaginable. The boy’s persistence finally wins over and they embark on an adventure, where they will both realize they have more in common than they first imagined.

It is almost too easy to dismiss “Chasing Mavericks” as a bog standard biopic-drama (Jay and Frosty are real people) with its predictable arcs and emotional tone. And yet, I enjoyed it thoroughly, even when I knew 15 minutes ahead what was going to happen every time. It’s safe to say that for some films, the story needs not to be original and fresh to still make an impact. In here, I knowingly waited for Frosty to realize, how much he needed his young protégé to be in his life. I couldn’t help, but root for both protagonists to discover the bond that existed between them, and that it did not need to be built in the first place; it was simply there: a bond between two fatherless men, but at different stages of life.

 

I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t point out this film’s shortcomings that I found to be concerned with character development. I understand the main story arc of the bond between two men and their mutual empowerment was supposed to be the focal point of the whole film, but at times the serious tone of surfing big waves made the film look like a buddy cop drama, where Frosty is the seasoned lieutenant and Jay is the rookie cop that has yet to understand the importance of rules and respect, but not before he gets them both into trouble. I understand that people take their passions seriously, but still some dialogue in “Chasing Mavericks” walks the fine line between ‘serious enough’ and ‘so serious it’s funny’. I should also point out the redundancy of almost all supporting characters in the film, as for the most part they distract, rather than enrich the picture. Notable examples include Jay’s girlfriend and the entire cast of Jay’s peers who have no business being there other than to fill the void on the screen.

Even with all its flaws, “Chasing Mavericks” delivers what it set out to, in which a combination of beautiful sceneries (some helicopter-shot sequences are truly breath-taking), matching soundtrack and the dynamic duo of main characters prove that a showdown between a man and nature has little to do with physical exertion, but rather with overcoming your fears and finding yourself in tune with both nature and your spirit.