Mini-Reviews: Grand Piano, Jug Face and You’re Next (2013)

Movie watching has been at a minimum for me lately, but I did manage to catch up on a few indie films from last year. Here are some quick thoughts on each of them:

Grand Piano
Grand Piano [dir. Eugenio Mira]
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Box of Horror #2: Hatchet II, Hatchet III, [REC]³ Genesis

It’s time for another round of horror mini-reviews, with this batch focusing on violent sequels:

hatchet-2-death
Hatchet II [2010, dir. Adam Green]
– this review contains spoilers for the end of the first Hatchet –
Hatchet II begins precisely at the moment that the first Hatchet ended, with the lone survivor of a massacre, Marybeth (Danielle Harris, replacing Tamara Feldman from the first film), fighting for her life in a murky Louisiana swamp. She manages to escape the clutches of the behemoth serial killer, Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder), and makes it back to New Orleans in one piece (albeit severely shaken up). As it goes in many horror sequels, she finds a reason to go back and seek revenge on Crowley, this time with the help of Reverend Zombie (Tony Todd) and a pack of heavily armed locals.

A shaky narrative, including an unnecessary history lesson about Crowley’s past, pieces this altogether, but it isn’t until the group reaches the swamp that the film hits its apex. Over-the-top gore and creative killings arrive in bunches at this point, including one of the most memorable sex scenes ever seen on film. This is some ridiculous, violent stuff — I’m talking decapitations via hatchets, boat propellors and excessively large chainsaws. It’s absolutely outrageous, but that’s a huge part of the appeal. It helps that the film was made by a horror fan for horror fans. The cast is made up of a who’s who of genre actors — Harris (four Halloween films), Hodder (Jason in multiple Friday the 13ths), Todd (Candyman), Tom Holland (Child’s Play), and R.A. Mihailoff (Texas Chainsaw Massacre III) are just a handful of those you might recognize. Basically everyone in the film is distinguishable for horror buffs. Hatchet II is more of the same, but it’s still good fun for slasher fans. 6/10

Hatchet III [2013]
Hatchet III [2013, dir. BJ McDonnell]
– this review contains spoilers for the end of Hatchet II –
Once again keeping with tradition in the series, Hatchet III picks up right where its predecessor left off. With Marybeth (Danielle Harris) seemingly putting an end to Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder), she heads to the local police station to turn herself in for his murder. A search and recovery team immediately heads to the swamp and are shocked to find the 20-30 decapitated bodies from the first two films. While locked up in jail, Marybeth is confronted by the Sheriff’s ex-wife, Amanda Fowler (Caroline Williams), the local “Crowley expert.” Amanda believes Marybeth’s story and provides her own interpretation of the Crowley legend — naturally, it’s just mumbo-jumbo to give us a reason for our favorite deformed hatchet-wielding monster to return.

The search and recovery team are those in the line of fire this time, and their sheer number of forces gives the series its highest body count yet. Crowley goes to town with more hatchet beheadings, impalements and sheer brutality — there’s even a grisly spine pulling scene for good measure. It’s exactly what you would expect from the series, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. It’s still wildly entertaining with lots of memorable supporting roles (Zach Galligan from Gremlins 1&2, Caroline Williams from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Sid Haig from House of 1000 Corpses & The Devil’s Rejects, among others). Hatchet III confirms the series’s status as my favorite guilty pleasure. 6/10

[REC]³ Genesis
[REC]³ Genesis [2012, dir. Paco Plaza]
[REC]³ Genesis is a parallel sequel that takes place at the same time as the first two films but with an entirely different batch of characters. It’s also much lighter in tone, even going into the realm of horror-comedy. This may be a deal-breaker for some, but there’s still enough to like for those willing to look past it.

The film begins with a large and exuberant wedding. The two newlyweds, Koldo (Diego Martín) and Clara (Leticia Dolera), are introduced as a joyful, very much in love couple, and we see their ceremony through the series’s familiar found footage angle. However, things go awry when a family member gets incredibly sick and falls off a balcony. When the man’s wife approaches him to help, he bites her on the neck, kickstarting a frenzy of zombie-feeding action. The newlyweds get split up in the madness, and the film follows both of them as they desperately try to find each other.

I knew I was going to like this film as soon as it scrapped the found footage motif shortly after the zombie attacks. From that point on, it’s pure entertainment with just enough humor to break up the increasingly gory deaths. Some of the character antics, particularly those of Koldo, are incredibly dumb, but that just adds to the amusement. Leticia Dolera, however, is fantastic in this film. She just nails this role, and the image of her in a blood-stained wedding dress wielding a chainsaw is something I won’t soon forget. Oh, and there’s also a minor character dressed as a poor man’s Spongebob Squarepants (dubbed Spongejohn to avoid lawsuits) who gets in on the zombie killing. If you can get over the disparity between it and the first two films, [REC]³ is a lot of fun. 7/10

Random Thoughts on the PS Vita Japanese PSN Sale

The Playstation Network is currently in the middle of a massive PS Vita sale in which Japanese-developed games are available at significant discounts. I had the opportunity to try out a number of these games and have provided mini-reviews for most of them:

CURRENT DEALS (available through Tuesday)

Dead or Alive Plus
Dead or Alive 5 Plus
The last time I played a Dead or Alive game was back on the Dreamcast. I’m not usually into fighting games, but that was one series that I always enjoyed playing. A major reason why is that it’s so easy to pick up and play. There are quite a few modes available in this latest entry, including a cutscene-heavy story feature. So far this has satisfied my fighting fix, though I have struggled to find any online opponents (a common problem with many of these Vita games, unfortunately). Tentative rating: 8/10

Dynasty Warriors Next
Dynasty Warriors Next
Confession time: I have never played a Dynasty Warriors game. As someone new to the series, Next seems to be a good introduction. The gameplay is pretty basic — run around mashing the square button while slaughtering thousands of enemies — but there’s something to be said about mindless action sometimes. Some of the touch screen features feel a bit gimmicky and unnecessary, but for the most part this hack ‘n slasher is hitting the spot. Tentative rating: 6-7/10

Metal Gear Solid HD Collection
Metal Gear Solid HD Collection
For as much as I loved the original Metal Gear Solid back in the day, I never got into the sequels. I had some ill will toward MGS2 for forcing the emo-esque Raiden on us, and that kind of soured me on the franchise. With this HD collection, however, I am willing to give it a second chance. I am playing through MGS2 at the moment — the first time in 10 years — and enjoying it more than I remembered. I just got to the Plant though, so we’ll see how much Raiden bugs me. Still, at $15 for a portable HD collection of two of the PS2’s most highly regarded games, this is a no-brainer. Tentative rating: 9/10

Muramasa Rebirth
Muramasa Rebirth
Dragon’s Crown is one of my favorite games from this year, so I was eager to check out Vanillaware’s previous title, Muramasa Rebirth. This is another side-scrolling 2D hack ‘n slash with fun combat and gorgeous visuals. The constant backtracking is rather obnoxious, but I am frequently finding myself in awe at how beautiful this game looks. I’m also enjoying the character banter (good call on leaving the original Japanese voices). Tentative rating: 8/10

New Little King's Story
New Little King’s Story
This reimagining/sequel of a popular Wii game has taken a lot of flack for its framerate issues. While I have only put a couple hours into this, I am already noticing occasional slowdown, especially when I have 10+ people following the king around. It’s inexcusable for this game to have this problem, but so far it hasn’t been a major issue. The gameplay, a mix of action RPG and town simulation, has a surprising amount of depth, and there appears to be a lot of content. Not bad for $10, but I wouldn’t go much higher than that. Tentative rating: 7/10

Ragnarok Odyssey
Ragnarok Odyssey
I was warned not to pick this up since an expanded version of the game, Ragnarok Odyssey ACE, is coming out at some point in the future, but for $15 this seemed worth a shot. I’m new to the monster hunter scene, but this has me starting to understand the appeal. This is a grindy game for sure, and the solo campaign is a bit barren, but co-op is a blast. Occasionally I get shaky connections, but overall the online has been a pleasant surprise. Tentative rating: 7/10

Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3
Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3
This is my first time playing this fighting series, and it’s quite a bit different from what I’m used to. The 3-on-3 battles require some serious strategy, and the move lists look incredibly complex. On the plus side, the roster is impressive, and the graphics are gorgeous. This one seems like it’s going to take some time to learn, but it should be rewarding in the end. Tentative rating: ???

DEALS FROM WEEK ONE

Gravity Rush
Gravity Rush
This was one of the very first Vita games I played last year, and it immediately sold me on the system. While I still need to go back and finish it, this open-world adventure just oozes style and grace. Some of the controls and gravitational effects take some getting used to, but this is still a beautiful title that is rightfully a centerpiece of the Instant Game Collection. Tentative rating: 8/10

Silent Hill: Book of Memories
Silent Hill: Book of Memories
The idea of a Silent Hill dungeon crawler is intriguing, even though series enthusiasts will likely cry foul at this diversion. After playing a few zones, the repetition is already kicking in, but the Silent Hill atmosphere is bound to keep drawing me back. Just wish the loading times weren’t so long. Tentative rating: 6-7/10

Soul Sacrifice
Soul Sacrifice
Here we are, arguably the Vita’s biggest exclusive so far. I was excited to finally get my hands on Soul Sacrifice after digging the demo months ago. The full game does not disappoint. This monster hunting action is perfect on the go, as each mission usually takes 5-10 minutes. Being able to save or sacrifice each enemy is a nice touch, and the overall dark tone works wonders. Best if played with friends, but the computer AI seems decent so far. Tentative rating: 8/10

Touch My Katamari
Touch My Katamari
Time for another confession: I have never played a Katamari game. For $4, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to change that. I was drawn in right away by the quirky Japanese storyline, and it’s kind of ridiculous just how much fun it is to roll around and collect stuff. This seems light on content, and the difficulty just spiked up rapidly where I’m at in the game, but so far this has been a nice surprise. Tentative rating: 7/10

Have you played any of these games? What did you pick up in the Vita sale?

DVD Mini-Reviews: Holy Motors, The Dark Knight Returns: Part 2, The Impossible

In an effort to catch up on some of my recent rentals, here’s a new batch of DVD mini-reviews:

Holy Motors [2012]
Holy Motors [dir. Leos Carax]
Holy Motors has to be one of the strangest films I have ever seen, and boy, does it know it. Here is a film that is spliced together as something resembling a series of vignettes, each one bizarre in its own way. The film revolves around one man, Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant), who rides around in a limousine throughout Paris while occasionally stopping to perform in increasingly weird scenarios. While riding, he puts on makeup, changes his costume and grabs the props needed for his next performance. One early scene has him dressed in a motion capture suit in which he simulates sex with a similarly dressed female. Another scene, arguably the movie’s most popular (see photo above), involves Mr. Oscar dressing up as a deformed leprechaun who terrorizes a photo shoot and seemingly falls in love with a supermodel (Eva Mendes).

As the film jumps from scenario to scenario, it’s difficult to make sense of it all. In fact, I still have no clue as to what exactly the film was about. For those expecting a clear narrative, this one is bound to aggravate. Some scenes work better than others, but if you’re willing to go along for the ride, this is one worth taking. It’s certainly one of the most unforgettable movies I have seen. 8/10

The Dark Knight Returns: Part 2
The Dark Knight Returns: Part 2 [dir. Jay Oliva]
The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1 ended on a cliffhanger that perfectly set up its sequel. Here we have the Joker back to his old ways, feigning sanity in an effort to appear on a talk show from which he escapes. He begins terrorizing Gotham, prompting the 55-year-old Batman to attempt to put an end to his games once and for all. Meanwhile, the President (a caricature of Ronald Reagan) has contacted Superman and requested that he force Batman into ending his vigilantism by any means necessary.

These two storylines are paid off in huge ways, as the battles between Batman and the Joker (and later Superman) rank among the best moments of either film. This is actually a rather dark movie, as Batman slips into a form of brutality that is unheard of from him. Peter Weller once again does a fantastic job voicing the Dark Knight, and Michael Emerson, while no Mark Hamill, is a highlight as the Joker. The Dark Knight Returns Parts 1 & 2 make for a great double feature, especially for those who may have been disappointed by Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to the live-action trilogy. 8/10

The Impossible
The Impossible [dir. Juan Antonio Bayona]
The Impossible tells the true story of one family caught in the middle of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed over 230,000 people. The film impeccably captures the devastation and chaos of this natural disaster, and the scene showing the tsunami’s arrival is downright frightening. This is a beautifully made film, but I had a hard time getting over one especially glaring issue: the movie is focused on one white English tourist family.

Nevermind that hundreds of thousands of locals were killed in this awful tragedy; in the film, they are portrayed as merely being there to help the white tourists get medical attention and reunite their families. It also doesn’t help that the film changed the real-life Spanish family that this story is based on into an English one. This begs the question, why are films so afraid to place minorities in their lead roles? This is especially frustrating here because The Impossible is a good film otherwise. The blame can’t be placed on its actors. Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts are tremendous — I have no complaints with Watts’ Oscar nomination for her performance — and newcomer Tom Holland is a real highlight as the couple’s oldest son. If you can get over the “whitewashing” factor, this film is worth a look. 7/10

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

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?

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?

2012 Mini-Reviews: Killer Joe, Michael, Headhunters, Premium Rush, Bachelorette

Although I saw quite a few new releases last year, there were still several that managed to slip through the cracks for me. Here are some quick reviews on five 2012 films I saw recently:

Bachelorette [2012]
Bachelorette [dir. Leslye Headland]
It’s easy to compare this to Bridesmaids — it’s another crude, brash, female-heavy comedy centered around an upcoming wedding — but Headland’s screenplay actually made the 2008 Black List, well before the latter was even conceived. Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan and Isla Fisher are an entertaining trio of bridesmaids, even if Dunst does feel a bit miscast here. As expected, they run into a series of problems on the night before the wedding, some of which involve copious amounts of booze and cocaine. The jokes are hit and miss, but the best part for me was seeing a mini-Party Down reunion with Caplan and Adam Scott on screen together. A pretty solid comedy overall, one that got unfortunately overlooked. 7/10

Headhunters [2011]
Headhunters [dir. Morten Tyldum]
I had seen this pop up on a handful of year-end lists, so I was especially excited to see this Norwegian thriller. In what turns out to be a bit of cat and mouse, a so-called “headhunter” (Aksel Hennie) attempts to steal a rare painting from a merciless human tracker (played by the excellent Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a.k.a. Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones). Needless to say, this doesn’t go well, and the thief finds himself alone and on the run. It’s a pretty tense affair full of unexpected twists and turns, and the payoff is very satisfying. Very glad I was able to finally see this. 8/10

Killer Joe [2011]
Killer Joe [dir. William Friedkin]
Holy hell, this is one wild and twisted movie! In another in a string of recent unforgettable performances, Matthew McConaughey goes all out as the eponymous Killer Joe, a hitman who doesn’t take shit from anyone. The poster calls this “a totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story”, and that’s a pretty good depiction of what the film is all about. This is a trashy noir tale, and I felt like I needed to take a shower after viewing. The interactions between McConaughey and Juno Temple, playing a naive teenager, are creepy, but the dinner table scene is as gripping as it gets. I’ll never look at fried chicken the same way again. 8/10

Michael [2010]
Michael [dir. Markus Schleinzer]
This Austrian film is about one of the most disturbing subjects imaginable — pedophilia — and it is as hard to watch as you might expect. Michael (Michael Fuith) is a single bachelor who keeps a 10-year-old boy locked in his basement. The man appears normal to outsiders, even though he is a quiet fellow who keeps to himself. Little do they know the horrific secret he is keeping from everyone. It’s a gutting watch, but the performances from all involved are incredible. The ending will stay with you for days. 7.5/10

Premium Rush [2012]
Premium Rush [dir. David Koepp]
It’s not often that we get an action film involving cyclists, but here we are. This is pretty much a textbook popcorn flick. The action is fast and high octane, never letting up for a second. The characters are mostly shallow and the plotholes are plentiful, but it’s a fun ride all the same. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is reliable as always as the biker who gets mixed up with the wrong people, and Michael Shannon delivers a delightfully over-the-top villainous performance. Every now and then it’s nice to sit down for a quick, mindless film, and this easily satisfies that need. 7/10

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

2011 Movie Mini-Review Roundup: Captain America, A Dangerous Method, Mission Impossible 4, My Week With Marilyn, Young Adult

I am nearly caught up with the movies I wanted to see from last year. Here are some mini-reviews of the handful of 2011 releases I saw in April:

Captain America: The First Avenger [2011]
Captain America: The First Avenger [2011, Joe Johnston]
Captain America’s origin film is pretty much paint-by-numbers superhero fluff. A handful of quality performances, led by Chris Evans as Cap, can’t save this from plodding along and resorting to the same tired action moments. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for the movie or maybe I’m just not the right demographic, but this didn’t do anything for me. A shame, too, because I really enjoyed Iron Man (and to a lesser extent, its sequel). Captain America has made me lose most interest in The Avengers. 5/10

A Dangerous Method [2011]
A Dangerous Method [2011, David Cronenberg]
Students and followers of psychology (particularly psychoanalysis) will get the most out of this disappointing Cronenberg effort. Michael Fassbender was on a roll in 2011 and delivers a strong performance as Carl Jung, as does Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud. The examination of their friendship and mutual respect is intriguing, but the film suffers badly whenever the overacting Keira Knightley is on screen. As such, a potentially interesting subject becomes tedious as the script never really goes anywhere. The highlight of the film is Vincent Cassel’s small role as the cocky, free-wheeling Otto Gross. Again, this film is one perhaps best reserved for psych majors. 6/10

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol [2011]
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol [2011, Brad Bird]
Brad Bird’s live-action debut is a riveting affair with at least one unforgettable scene (climbing on the side of the Burj Dubai is just insane). Tom Cruise proves he still has “it” as secret agent Ethan Hunt, who along with the surprisingly formidable team of Simon Pegg and Paula Patton is sent on a mission to stop a nuclear launch. The villains (led by the unfortunately misused Michael Nyqvist) are a bland and uninspiring bunch, but the movie itself is still a fun ride with plenty of action and cool gadgets. Arguably better than it had any right to be. 7/10

My Week With Marilyn [2011]
My Week With Marilyn [2011, Simon Curtis]
Starry-eyed Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) weasels his way into a movie production job and gets to spend a week on set with Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams). All of Monroe’s idiosyncrasies are on display here, and the legendary actress is played expertly by the always captivating Williams. The film itself is entertaining enough, but unfortunately starts to dabble in tired cliches during the third act. A solid, albeit forgettable endeavor. 7/10

Young Adult [2011]
Young Adult [2011, Jason Reitman]
Charlize Theron is brilliant as a thirty-something young adult fiction writer who still acts like a teenager. With her main goal being to seduce her ex-boyfriend (who is now happily married with children), she is not exactly the most likable character. Regardless, it is hard to look away from this dark comedy, even as it sometimes gets uncomfortable. Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody make a great pair, and this movie is further proof of this. Special mention must be made of Patton Oswalt and Patrick Wilson, both of who deliver strong performances in their supporting roles. One of last year’s more underrated films. 8.5/10

Did you see any of these movies? Did any of them stand out to you?