DVD Mini-Reviews: Celeste & Jesse Forever, Ruby Sparks, Searching for Sugar Man

Time for another batch of mini-reviews, with one film clearly standing out.

Celeste and Jesse Forever [2012]
Celeste & Jesse Forever [dir. Lee Toland Krieger]
Rashida Jones is one of the most underrated female actresses working today, so I was pleased to see her in the spotlight as co-writer and star of this film. In this, she plays the role of Celeste, a “trend forecaster” who is in the middle of a divorce with her soon-to-be ex-husband, Jesse (Andy Samberg). However, this isn’t your conventional divorce — the two of them remain best friends and hang out with each other all the time. This frustrates their friends, who call their behavior inexplicably weird. As Celeste & Jesse pursue other people, their friendship is put to the test, as maybe their feelings for each other haven’t quite subsided.

While sharing elements of the romantic comedy genre, the film’s unique concept is enough to distance itself from other likeminded titles. Jones and Samberg have solid chemistry, though some of their character interactions are just plain awkward. One of their little quirks is to find a small, pseudo-phallic object (i.e. a lip balm container) and “masturbate” it together until it climaxes — yeah, it’s as unfunny as it sounds. When the film grows up, it’s at its best, but there are some rough patches along the way. The supporting cast includes a bunch of afterthoughts, including a bizarrely miscast Elijah Wood as Celeste’s gay co-worker. In the end, this isn’t a bad film, just a forgettable one, no matter how great it is to see Rashida Jones get a chance to shine. 6/10

Ruby Sparks [2012]
Ruby Sparks [dir. Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris]
The idea of a writer’s character coming to life is full of possibilities. For Calvin (Paul Dano), he has crafted his dream girl, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), who unexpectedly appears in his house one night. She provides a burst of inspiration for the struggling novelist, and he quickly finds out that everything he writes about her will happen in real life. This is a powerful ability to have, and in the wrong hands, this could spell disaster.

This dangerous idea is loosely touched on in Ruby Sparks, but when the film has a chance to go dark and move in an interesting new direction, it doesn’t. Instead, we are left with a vanilla romantic comedy that asks a little too much of its viewers in the final act. Dano and Kazan work well together — not surprising given their real-life relationship — and there is a good supporting cast to back them up (Elliott Gould, Steve Coogan and Alia Shawkat all have small roles). It’s just a shame that the film never quite reaches the levels that it could. 6/10

Searching for Sugar Man [2012]
Searching for Sugar Man [dir. Malik Bendjelloul]
So much has already been said about this Oscar-winning documentary that I pretty much knew the story inside and out before even watching this. Yet despite knowing the story, I remained enthralled by the mystique of the little-known singer, Rodriguez. For the uninclined, the film tells the story of 70s rock-and-roll singer, Rodriguez, who released a couple albums to little fanfare in the U.S. yet managed to become a huge sensation in South Africa. The documentary takes a look at this bizarre phenomenon while also trying to find out what happened to the singer. There are all sorts of rumors about him in South Africa — some say he set himself on fire while on stage, others say he died of a drug overdose — but these tall tales only add to his aura.

The truth is that Rodriguez is alive and well, and he is just as surprised by his legacy overseas as the rest of us. It’s a pretty remarkable story, and it helps that the man’s music is so good. It’s surprising that his 70s recordings got lost in the shuffle, but now his music is reaching a much larger audience than he could have imagined. Better late than never, right? This is a fun film with a great story, and it’s deserving of its constant praise. 8/10

Have you seen any of these? What did you think of them?

DVD Mini-Reviews: The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1, Nobody Walks, Smashed

While I haven’t been making it to the theater as much lately, I have been catching up on last year’s DVDs. Here’s another batch of mini-reviews for recent releases:

The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1 [2012]
The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1 [dir. Jay Oliva]
If you thought The Dark Knight Rises featured an old and broken down Batman, wait till you see The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1. From the very first scene, Batman (voiced to perfection by Peter Weller) is near unrecognizable. Now donning withered, gray hair, Bruce Wayne is retired and trying to keep a low profile. It has been ten years since Batman last made an appearance, and now Gotham is rampant with crime and debauchery once again. The return of the maniacal Two Face — now with a completely reconstructed face — convinces Bruce to bring out the black cape and try to save Gotham.

Outside of Two Face, the main villains of the film are the gang known as the Mutants. Their leader is an exceptionally large brute who gives Batman a real run for his money. He’s a worthwhile adversary, and there’s no guarantee that Bruce, now 55 years old, can match him blow-for-blow. He is aided by a newly introduced Robin — just how many of them are there?? — though this character isn’t fleshed out too much. Still, the conclusion sets up part two fantastically, and I can’t wait to get my hands on that DVD. 8/10

Nobody Walks [2012]
Nobody Walks [dir. Ry Russo-Young]
In this disappointing drama, Olivia Thirlby stars as Martine, a young artist who stays with a Silver Lake family in hopes of finishing her filmmaking project. Thirtysomething Peter (John Krasinski), a sound engineer and the father of the household, is helping her with the mixing, and he is instantly attracted to the young, carefree guest. The film quickly turns into a “will they or won’t they” drama, and this extends into the rest of the family. Peter’s wife, Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), is a therapist who is tempted by one of her clients (Justin Kirk). Their 16-year-old daughter, Kolt (India Ennenga), is infatuated with Peter’s assistant, David (Rhys Wakefield), and he is more interested in the age-appropriate Martine. Oh, and there’s Marcello (Emanuele Secci), Kolt’s sleazy Italian language tutor who keeps hitting on her.

The film presents all of these potential relationships and flings in a hopelessly dull manner. None of the characters are given any real development, and none of them, save maybe Julie, are even remotely likable. This is due to an incredibly poor script (co-written by Lena Dunham, surprisingly) that gives the generally strong cast nothing to work with. I like most of the cast — especially Thirlby — but this is an incredible waste of their talents. The film’s brief 83-minute running time still manages to feel like a chore, and the end result is a pointless effort all around. 3/10

Smashed [2012]
Smashed [dir. James Ponsoldt]
Alcoholism is a tricky subject to portray in film, but Smashed offers an interesting perspective — what if an alcoholic attempts to get help, yet their significant other makes no effort to cease their own drinking? This is the case with Marie (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a school teacher who hits rock bottom and realizes she needs to get help, fast. It turns out that her colleague, Dave (Nick Offerman), has been sober for ten years, and he brings her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. She finds a sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer), and begins the road to recovery. However, this begins taking its toll on her marriage, as her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), has little interest in stopping his heavy-drinking ways.

The relationship between Marie and Charlie is believable, and the two talented young actors have good chemistry. Winstead, in particular, delivers an amazing performance, one that could very well be career-defining. Occasional bits of humor break up the bleakness — Offerman’s character has the line of the movie, natch — but this is a drama by all means. It’s a shame that this one flew under the radar last year, as it’s well worth seeing for the performances alone. 8/10

Have you guys seen any of these? What did you think of them?

Movie Review: Somebody Up There Likes Me [2012]

Somebody Up There Likes Me [2012]

Somebody Up There Likes Me [2012]
Director: Bob Byington
Screenplay: Bob Byington
Genre: Comedy
Starring: Nick Offerman, Keith Poulson, Jess Weixler
Running Time: 76 minutes

Somebody Up There Likes Me is an indie comedy that will no doubt fly under most people’s radars. Its biggest selling point is its co-producer, Nick Offerman, who also has a supporting role in the film. Without him, I imagine this would have a hard time gaining any traction.

The film follows the life of aimless twentysomething Max (Keith Poulson), a waiter who is recovering from a divorce. He works with his best friend, Sal (Offerman), and falls in love with another co-worker, the breadstick-chomping Lyla (Jess Weixler). Max and Lyla quickly get married, and the film shows their subsequent life together in five year increments.

The two of them have a kid, get rich, have affairs and struggle as parents, all within the film’s 76-minute running time. Max never ages in appearance, and the other characters only show their age via subtle changes to their hair color. Max is also in possession of a mysterious briefcase that emits blue color when opened — perhaps that is the source of his seemingly eternal youth? Not unlike Pulp Fiction, we are never shown what’s inside.

Somebody Up There Likes Me [2012]

There’s a lot crammed into the film’s brief length, yet it feels like nothing of any substance ever happens. Major life events come and go in a matter of minutes. While this is a part of the film’s shtick, it makes it hard to care about any of the characters.

It doesn’t help that Max is a completely unlikable guy anyway. His disenchanted and apathetic demeanor (think Napoleon Dynamite) isn’t appealing in the slightest, and it’s miraculous that he manages to stumble his way into success while hooking up with beautiful women as if it were nothing. Sometimes his deadpan delivery gives way to some good jokes, but most of the time it falls flat.

Somebody Up There Likes Me [2012]

The best moments of the film come from Nick Offerman’s character — no surprise there — even though he isn’t given much to work with. Sal isn’t terribly different from Ron Swanson (of Parks & Recreation), but his blend of sarcasm never fails to amuse. There are also a couple of welcome cameos from Kevin Corrigan and Megan Mullaly.

In the end, there isn’t a whole lot to separate Somebody Up There Likes Me from the countless other indie comedies that have come out in recent years. Even its unique characteristics, such as Bob Sabiston’s (Walking Life, A Scanner Darkly) animated interludes, are underutilized and fail to paint a lasting impression. There’s a lot of talent in this film, but sadly it never comes together as any more than a one-off project.

5/10

 
On a side note, I went to a screening where Nick Offerman did a Q&A in person. Those 10 minutes of Offerman speaking were more hilarious than anything found in this movie.

Video Game Review: NBA 2K13 [Xbox 360]

NBA 2K13 [Xbox 360]

NBA 2K13
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC, Wii, Wii U, PSP, iOS, and Android)
Genre: Sports (Basketball)
Publisher: 2K Sports
Developer: Visual Concepts
Release Date: October 2, 2012

I have a confession to make: I’m a basketball junkie. I love the sport, and if I were to let myself go, I could easily watch/play basketball all day, every day. This love of the game extends to 2K Sports’ NBA 2K series, and I have to force myself *not* to buy the game every year simply because I know I will play nothing else for quite some time. In the last entry I played, NBA 2K11, I became hooked on the Association mode, even going so far as to play all 82 games of the first season (8 minute quarters) and then a good chunk of the next. For me, nothing beats taking over a struggling team (in my case, my hometown Detroit Pistons) and restoring them to their glory days.

Because I get hooked on sports games too easily, I avoided purchasing NBA 2K13 for as long as possible. It wasn’t until a recent Xbox Live sale that I couldn’t resist any longer — how could I pass up the latest basketball game for just $30?

NBA 2K13 [Xbox 360]

The first and most noticeable difference with 2K13 is that Jay-Z’s fingerprints are all over the game, at least in terms of presentation. The soundtrack is comprised mostly of Hov and his buddies (i.e. Kanye West and Coldplay), and his name is plastered all over the menus. It seems like a marketing ploy, but I have no complaints with it.

NBA 2K13 also introduces a new concept that shakes the core gameplay at its roots: Virtual Currency (VC). This is similar to a conventional XP system, as every game you play, no matter the mode, will earn you VC based on your performance. This currency can in turn be used to purchase upgrades for whatever mode you like. It comes especially handy in the RPG-like MyPlayer mode since VC is used to upgrade personal attributes (i.e. 3-point shooting, rebounding, etc.).

The fact that this system is tied together throughout every mode encourages you to try out every aspect of the game. This worked out wonderfully for me, as I have been putting most of my playing time into MyPlayer, a mode I have neglected in the past.

The great thing about MyPlayer mode is that it is basically a sports RPG. You create a player the way you see fit, then take control of him through his entire NBA career while earning upgrades along the way. Upset about your playing time? Feel free to complain to your general manager. Want to go to a different team entirely? Talk to your boss again and let him know — you may very well get your wish. This mode is completely immersive, as not only are there ties to social media (complete with a faux Twitter timeline), but after every game you partake in a brief, one question press conference.

NBA 2K13 [Xbox 360]

Being able to answer questions however you want is a nice touch, even if the dialogue is sometimes laughable. Sometimes my character would take on a completely different tone in his response other than what I intended, not unlike the notoriously off-kilter dialogue in LA Noire. The conversations with the GM are often ridiculous, too, leading to some unintentional hilarity.

Pretty much every other major mode is back as well, including the improved Association, which now allows you to start a season on that very day (i.e. right now) rather than just defaulting to the beginning of the year. There is one new mode that stands out — MyTeam, which is basically 2K’s answer to EA’s Ultimate Team mode.

In MyTeam, you build a team from the ground up by purchasing packs of cards. Each pack gives you a random set of players, jerseys, skills, coaches and playbooks. These are in turn used to improve your team, and you can buy/sell individual cards using VC in order to do so. It’s a fun little mode, even though it doesn’t feel as polished as that found in FIFA 13.

NBA 2K13 [Xbox 360]

With so many modes and ways to play, there is never a shortage of options in NBA 2K13. Unfortunately, there are a number of bugs that mar certain aspects of the game. For one, no matter how many times I tried, I could not join an Online Association. The fact that this is an issue five months after the game’s release is inexcusable. I also ran into frequent lag during online games, occasionally losing a connection entirely. I know this isn’t a problem on my end either.

There are also some truly bizarre gameplay glitches that pop up from time to time. The most prevalent — and annoying — for me was the sudden loss of the score overlay. This happened in every mode I played, and it seemed to be triggered by pushing “X” through the cutscenes/replays. Not being able to view the game score, let alone how much time is left on the clock, is a huge disadvantage. I cannot fathom how this bug hasn’t been fixed yet.

NBA 2K13 [Xbox 360]

The fact that these glitches are still present is frustrating, but there’s no denying that there is still a fantastic basketball experience underneath. The audio/visual presentation is still second to none, and the commentary from Kevin Harlan, Clark Kellog and Steve Kerr is the best out of any sports game, period.

Even with the lack of competition from EA Sports, NBA 2K13 is still delivering the goods year after year. This is another must play for basketball fans, even if it could have been cleaned up a bit.

8.5/10

2012 Movie Mini-Reviews: Dredd, Seven Psychopaths, The Paperboy

I was able to indulge in a movie marathon of sorts over the weekend, catching up another few films that I missed out on last year. Here are some quick reviews for all three:

Dredd [2012]
Dredd [dir. Pete Travis]
I always know I have come across a great comic book film when it has made me want to read some of the comics afterward. The only other franchise that has made me want to do so is Batman, namely Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Now I can say the same for Dredd, a gritty action film that surprised the hell out of me.

Dredd feels like a throwback to the old school, ultra-violent 80s action movies, but in a setting not unlike last year’s kinetic Indonesian film, The Raid. Karl Urban stars as the eponymous character, a badass police officer who acts as a judge, jury and executioner. He is partnered up with a rookie, Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who is a mutant with psychic abilities. When the two of them are sent to investigate a triple homicide, they are locked into a 200-story slum tower block by the evil drug lord “Ma-Ma” (Lena Headey, completely unrecognizable from her even more sinister role as Cersei in Game of Thrones). Now, rather than capture a suspect and leave, the officers must fight for their lives to escape.

In terms of plot, Dredd is remarkably simple, but there is enough style to draw you in and not let go. This is a dark, brutal film that never really lets its foot off the pedal. Some of the visual effects — such as an overabundance of slow motion techniques — seem to have been created for 3D and therefore fall flat on DVD, but these are just small issues in what is otherwise a very enjoyable action flick. 8/10

Seven Psychopaths [2012]
Seven Psychopaths [dir. Martin McDonagh]
Seven Psychopaths is the second collaboration between director/writer Martin McDonagh and Colin Farrell (the first being 2008’s critically-acclaimed In Bruges), and it doesn’t miss a beat. Farrell stars as Marty Faranan, a struggling screenwriter who gets tangled up in a ridiculous series of events when his best friend (Sam Rockwell) steals the Shih Tzu of an explosively-tempered gangster (Woody Harrelson). Like In Bruges, the writing is extremely clever and loaded with biting dark comedy and Tarantino-esque violence. Occasionally a joke will fall flat, but then another will pop up shortly after that will bring out the major laughs.

The cast here is incredible, with some noteworthy supporting roles from Christopher Walken (in his best performance in years), Tom Waits and Harry Dean Stanton. There’s even an amusing wink at Boardwalk Empire during the film’s opening scene, as it involves cameos from two of my favorite actors from the show: Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg. The real star here, however, is Sam Rockwell, who is an absolute riot for most of the film. His monologue in the desert is hilarious, and it is one of the best scenes I have come across this year. Seven Psychopaths may be too spastic for some, but I had a great time with the film. 8/10

The Paperboy [2012]
The Paperboy [dir. Lee Daniels]
The Paperboy is a hot mess of a film, one that revels in its trashy Southern Gothic atmosphere. The film follows two brothers, Ward (Matthew McConaughey) and Jack Jensen (Zac Efron), who are investigating a death row inmate (John Cusack) that they believe may be innocent. Or rather, Ward is looking to get a story out of this that he can write for the Herald. He doesn’t really care if the man is innocent or not. They become involved with Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a middle-aged woman who has fallen in love with the inmate despite never meeting him.

There are many different subplots at play in The Paperboy, and as such the film never really knows where it wants to go. Occasionally there are random moments of incredibly bizarre actions — there is a certain scene involving jellyfish that everyone seems to talk about — and director Lee Daniels often appears to just throw a bunch of stuff against the wall to see if it sticks. The lack of proper direction is frustrating, but there is still an entertaining film underneath (albeit a rather filthy one). If there’s one thing the film nails, it is its visual appeal. The washed-out color tones are a perfect fit for the sticky Floridian setting. The Paperboy is all over the place, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this gather somewhat of a cult following someday. 6/10

Have you seen any of these? What did you think of them?

2012 Movie Mini-Reviews: Jiro Dreams of Sushi, The Kid with a Bike, Silent House

February has been a bit of a slow month for me in terms of movie watching, but I have still managed to catch a few more of last year’s films. One of them would likely even make my top 10 list if I were to update it today. Let’s take a look:

Jiro Dreams of Sushi [2012]
Jiro Dreams of Sushi [dir. David Gelb]
Jiro Ono is an 85-year-old sushi chef who is considered by many to be the greatest in the world. His Tokyo restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, only seats ten people, and its patrons have no say in what sushi they receive. Reservations are required months in advance, and a meal costs roughly $300. Jiro’s restaurant also has the distinction of being the smallest to receive the coveted 3-star Michelin review, which it receives year after year.

This documentary details Jiro’s dedication to his craft, and his work ethic is infectious. Even his two sons are sushi chefs, though perhaps not by their own choice. His eldest son is actually his top chef, and he will be taking over the reigns when the inevitable happens. Jiro’s youngest son was pushed out and told to essentially sink or swim with his own sushi business. Spoiler: he’s still working today. It’s a testament to just how persistent Jiro is, and how strong of a leader he remains. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a wonderful, inspirational film that will make you want to work even harder to reach your goals. 8/10

The Kid with a Bike [2012]
The Kid with a Bike [dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne]
In this latest film from the beloved Dardenne brothers, newcomer Thomas Doret stars as the titular character, a young boy abandoned by his father who now lives in a shelter. A chance encounter with a local hairdresser (the beautiful and extremely talented Cécile De France) leads to her agreeing to adopt him on weekends. The boy is reckless and rebellious, struggling to come to terms that his father wants nothing to do with him. This makes him an easy target for a local teen “gang” leader who rewards him with video games in order to employ him in petty crime. The film and its plot are incredibly simplistic in nature, but there is a rewarding sense of warmth and compassion underneath.

This is a film that feels very real, and anyone who grew up in a broken home can immediately emphathize with Doret’s character. I have heard others complain that he is too whiny, insufferable, etc., but he comes across exactly how I would expect a young boy to act in this situation. Doret’s performance is revelatory, and the warmth provided by De France is felt through the screen, even if her character is perhaps a tad unqualified to raise a child. This is a beautiful little film, and a worthy entry to the Criterion Collection. 8.5/10

Silent House [2012]
Silent House [dir. Chris Kentis, Laura Lau]
This remake of the 2010 Uruguayan horror film, La casa muda, relies heavily on a simple gimmick: to make the film appear to have been shot in one single, continuous take. This isn’t anything new — Alfred Hitchcock crafted a fantastic thriller around the concept with 1948’s Rope — but it seems rather pointless in the context of this film. The plot is standard fare, with Elizabeth Olsen starring as a young woman who is terrorized in a house by persons unknown. The situation quickly grows worse for her once her father and uncle disappear, seemingly due to the strangers.

As is wont with modern horror films, there is a big twist at the end, and it’s so obvious that I’m willing to bet most viewers will know what’s up within the first ten minutes of the movie. Predictable or not, it is an interesting concept; that’s why it’s a shame that it is a dull, monotonous ride to get there. There’s only so much stupid character behavior and shaky camerawork I can take without being rewarded in some fashion. Instead, all we get is a terrible script, amateur acting (aside from Olsen, who makes the best of the poor source material), and a lame payoff. Quite frankly, this may very well be the worst film I have seen from 2012. 2/10

Now let’s hear your thoughts! Have you seen any of these? What do you think of them?

Movie Review: End of Watch [2012]

End of Watch [2012]

End of Watch [2012]
Director: David Ayer
Screenplay: David Ayer
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez
Running Time: 109 minutes

End of Watch is a police movie that nails one aspect that many others often neglect: the virtue of humanity.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena spent five months riding along (for 12 hours at a time) with several different Los Angeles law enforcement agencies in order to prepare for their roles as police officers Brian Taylor and Miguel Zavala, respectively. This commitment to their roles is extremely noticeable in their performances, as the duo feel like a pair of real life cops with their authentic banter (much of which was improvised).

End of Watch [2012]

End of Watch doesn’t have a typical plot. Most of the film feels like a hybrid of the TV show Cops and a buddy cop movie, but with an even greater air of authenticity thanks to its use of handheld cameras (more on that later). The pair of officers perform some questionable acts — such as Zavala openly brawling with a suspect in a fit of testosterone-induced action — but they remain mostly honest cops who are willing to risk their lives to save others.

When the officers stumble upon the shady underworld of a Mexican cartel, the shit hits the fan. Suddenly they find themselves entangled with the wrong group of people. As they go deeper and deeper into some truly disturbing stuff, they struggle to maintain their personal lives. Zavala is married with a child on the way, and Taylor has a blossoming relationship with fellow twenty-something Janet (Anna Kendrick). These women are well aware of the risks their men take on the job, something they are reluctantly forced to live with.

End of Watch [2012]

As mentioned earlier, part of what makes End of Watch stand out from other like-minded films is its reliance on handheld camera work. At the beginning of the movie, Taylor is shown filming everything in sight for a class project. We are often shown the perspective from his lens, but there are also many other camera angles used, most of which use the same handheld “shaky cam” technique. The transition from different angles is jarring at first, especially since the beginning of the film seems to insinuate this will be using footage from Taylor’s camera. Some of the car chase scenes using the in-dash video are tough to stomach, as are a handful of the especially-shaky action moments. While I can appreciate director David Ayer’s decision to experiment with these different techniques, I almost wish he were a little more consistent. There were also times where the camerawork made it feel as if I were watching a video game, as evidenced by its occasional “first person shooter” viewpoints, and this ultimately grew to be distracting.

While the camerawork is hit-and-miss, the sense of realism is an absolute high point. Gyllenhaal and Pena have impeccable chemistry, and the tight-knit bond between their characters feels legit. The rest of the supporting cast, led by Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick as their significant others, also do well in their given roles.

End of Watch [2012]

One aspect that the film scraps with is its overabundance of foreshadowing. There were far too many dialogue exchanges that spoke of impending doom, and they were laid on so thick that the film ultimately became predictable as a result. Perhaps the outcome wasn’t too unfamiliar at the beginning anyway, but I could have done without the ominous remarks.

At any rate, End of Watch is still an entertaining ride that is well worth seeing just for the partnership between Gyllenhaal and Pena. The film looks at the lives of police officers in a different light, and the character relationships make it stand out from the rest. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t quite reach the level of greatness that it sets out for.

7/10

Movie Review: Compliance [2012]

Compliance [2012]

Compliance [2012]
Director: Craig Zobel
Screenplay: Craig Zobel
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker and Pat Healy
Running Time: 90 minutes

Imagine you are the manager of a popular fast food restaurant. What would you do if you received a phone call from someone claiming to be a police officer who is investigating a complaint that one of your employees stole money from a customer? Would you agree to help the officer by keeping the employee, a 19-year-old woman, in a back room while searching her things? Would you agree to strip search her?

It’s easy to scoff at the notion of agreeing to do any of these things. Most of us would ask for some sort of police identification, right? Or make the cop come to you and question the girl in person? It seems like common sense, but the truth is that we really don’t know how we would react in a situation without having been there before.

Compliance tells the story of the above scenario, and every single aspect of the film is 100% true. Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of a local ChickWich restaurant, receives a phone call from a man claiming to be Officer Daniels (Pat Healy). He notifies her about the fake complaint, and she brings the 19-year-old “suspect”, Becky (Dreama Walker), into the back room to investigate. Firmly believing she is talking to a police officer, Sandra follows along with the man’s orders, even going so far as to perform a strip search. As if that weren’t worse enough, the “investigation” spirals out of control as other people become involved, and Becky is forced into even more unfathomable actions.

Compliance [2012]

During the entire film, I found myself saying over and over: “are you kidding me?” and “I can’t believe this is happening.” It is mind-blowing that the manager, the victim and the others who get tangled in the mess all willingly go along with this person’s orders simply because they believe he is a cop. It all sounds so ridiculous that it can’t possibly be real… but it absolutely is. After viewing the film, I immediately looked up the true story, and every single detail was accurate.

Watching this man, who we occasionally see on the other end of the phone, manipulate both the manager and employee is extremely uncomfortable. This is not an easy watch by any means, and its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last year brought out a number of angry reactions. Some walked out of the screening; others resorted to shouting matches. Yes, this is a film capable of evoking those types of powerful emotions, and it’s unlike any other film in recent years.

Compliance [2012]

This is only director Craig Zobel’s second full-length film (he is also co-founder of the popular animated Internet cartoon, Homestar Runner), and he already has the traits of a seasoned veteran. He is careful not to show us some of the more extreme moments of compliance on screen, thankfully, and he makes masterful use of long takes, especially near the end. The performances from all involved are also strong, especially from Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker. I heard Dowd’s name being mentioned in some awards chatter, and her performance most certainly warrants recognition. And poor Walker, she does an amazing job in a difficult role, especially as she is half-naked for the majority of the film.

It’s a bit tricky to full-on recommend Compliance. It’s a masterful piece of filmmaking, but damn if it isn’t an unsettling watch. At the very least, it’s scary to imagine just how far some people will go when they are being ordered around by someone of authority.

9/10

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writers: Mark Boal
Genre: Drama/History/Thriller
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt
Running Time: 157 minutes

When Osama Bin Laden was killed by American forces a year and a half ago, a movie release was inevitable. How could Hollywood pass up such a juicy story as the hunt for the man responsible for the deaths of 3,000 innocent Americans? Although such a film was expected, it was still a surprise to see it released the very next year. Even more shocking is that it is a damn good film getting all sorts of Oscar buzz, although it certainly helps to have the talented Kathryn Bigelow at the helm.

Zero Dark Thirty begins in 2003 with the introduction of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA officer who has been reassigned to work at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. She is teamed up with Dan (Jason Clarke), a fellow officer who has been interrogating detainees as to the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden (“UBL”) and other Al-Qaeda terrorists. As this is the early 2000s and during the Bush administration, this involves gratuitous torture, much of which we are there to witness. In fact, many have deemed these scenes to be controversial, some stating that they glorify torture. I don’t see it that way, as none of the interrogators are actually enjoying the torture, especially not Maya, who seems startled by it at first. It’s also hard to say just how much the torture helped in the hunt to find Bin Laden — it’s not like the only helpful information came from those who were abused. But I digress.

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

A few years later, Maya has her eyes on a well-concealed man known as Abu Ahmed. She is determined to find him, whose whereabouts are unknown according to every detainee she talks to. Others involved in the CIA, including the top chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), tell her she is wasting her time. Yet Maya is anything if not persistent.

It’s a long paper trail to Osama Bin Laden, and when the CIA finally believes to have discovered his location, they are anything but certain. Everyone involved have varying levels of confidence as to whether or not “UBL” is in the targeted compound, and there is a great deal of uncertainty as to whether or not they should go through with the raid. Of course, we all know how this plays out, but it’s still fascinating to watch as we follow the breadcrumbs leading to the world’s most wanted fugitive.

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

While many are bound to praise the scene during the final raid inside Bin Laden’s fortress, I found the thrill of the hunt to be far more enthralling. I only vaguely remembered hearing about some of the “smaller” terrorists attacks over the years, and it was quite stunning to see them reenacted on screen. Watching Maya piece together every lead or hint she found became an intriguing process, even if the end result was known.

Perhaps most interesting is that the film focuses so heavily on a female’s perspective. I was not aware that Maya (or rather, her real-life counterpart) had such a crucial role in the pursuit of Bin Laden, and without her persistence it’s hard to say whether he would still be alive. The role of Maya is played admirably by Jessica Chastain, who continues to rise to the occasion with every new role she takes. Maya’s progression (or rather, deterioration?) over the last decade is remarkable, as she toughens up with every attack, even becoming a bona fide badass by the end.

The rest of the cast is impressive as expected, another who’s who of great character actors. Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler have important roles in the CIA, the former of which caught my eye as someone I hadn’t even heard of before. Familiar faces such as James Gandolfini, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle and even Mark Duplass all make welcome appearances, each playing a small, but important part in the film.

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

While Zero Dark Thirty succeeds in many areas, I am a little surprised by the overwhelming praise surrounding it. The film’s running time — nearly three hours — could have used a little trimming, and the final raid was surprisingly anticlimactic. It’s kind of amazing that the operation had so many mistakes and yet the mission was still accomplished; however, this is well-known information and still fresh in the mind. Perhaps with a few years perspective, this could have been more riveting.

Regardless, I rather enjoyed the film overall, and any reservations I have had are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Bigelow has been on a roll lately, and it will be interesting to see where she goes next.

8/10

Video Game Review: The Walking Dead [Xbox 360]

The Walking Dead: The Game

The Walking Dead
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC, Mac OS X, iOS)
Genre: Point-and-click adventure
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: Throughout 2012

The last time I cried was at my father’s funeral five years ago.

There have been times since then where I would get choked up, particularly after some painstakingly depressing films (i.e. Grave of the Fireflies), but nothing has made the tears really start flowing. I don’t like crying, and I have a tendency to fight it even when it feels like a natural reaction. After completing The Walking Dead, once again I found myself holding back tears, albeit less successfully this time. No video game has ever come close to evoking this type of emotion in me.

It’s funny, I shouldn’t even like The Walking Dead. I tried watching the AMC TV show of the same name, and found it embarrassingly amateur. I gave up after the first season. I’m also burnt out on the whole “zombie” fad, as it reached the point of over-saturation long ago. Yet I found myself drawn to Telltale’s episodic video game series. It grabbed a hold of me and refused to let go.

The Walking Dead [Xbox 360]

My initial plan was to review each of The Walking Dead‘s five episodes individually — I wrote about numbers one and two last year — but it began to grow tedious. How could I possibly write about each episode without using spoilers? There are groundbreaking revelations within each episode, with characters coming and going at a breakneck pace.

At its core, however, two characters remain constant: Lee and Clementine.

Lee is the player-controlled protagonist who essentially “adopts” Clementine, the eight-year-old he finds alone in a treehouse during the first episode. With her parents missing, Lee becomes something of a father figure to the young girl (later episodes even give the option of introducing her as his daughter). The relationship between these two grows with every moment, and I found myself doing everything I could to protect her.

Every episode forces Lee to make crucial decisions, most of which offer two choices that essentially equate to “bad” and “worse.” After my playing sessions, I found myself questioning some of my choices. Should I have saved a different character’s life? Should I have really stolen food from that car? I tried to do everything in the interest of Clementine — in a world that has gone to hell, the only important thing was to help this little girl survive.

The Walking Dead [Xbox 360]

In reality, that’s what The Walking Dead is about: survival. It’s near impossible to trust anyone else because that is ultimately their goal as well. Everyone is looking out for their own interests, as well as their families. Relationships are often forged but remain shaky as tensions flare up.

I was emotionally drained by the end of the game. This series really puts you through the ringer, never letting up at all. It’s fantastic storytelling, and it’s unlike any other found in a video game so far. The writing is excellent, the voice acting top notch, and the characters unforgettable.

I had never felt the way I did upon completing The Walking Dead. I wasn’t sure that video games as a medium could evoke that type of reaction out of me — hell, very few movies have, and I have seen a lot of ‘em. For this alone, The Walking Dead is one of the most important games to come out in 2012, and I have absolutely no reservations about calling this the Game of the Year.

10/10