Thursday, March 20, 2014

MRQ XV: Pleasant Surprises Edition

[11:25PM UPDATE: I owe 19 people an apology - an earlier draft posted by accident. I fixed it, and some typos, with the big changes going to the reviews for Dredd, Immortals, MI: Ghost Protocol, and Solomon Kane. I warn readers this can happen, and I couldn't leave work early to correct it all. I was happy I could make any fixes before the day was over.]

I said there would be no reviews for a spell, but I've been working on this entry for a while. All of the pix reviewed today were far better than I had anticipated, and I watched all of them via Netflix Streaming. Yet today's MRQ is a little different - I'm only covering 6 movies today, not the usual 7: The Numbers Station, Dredd, Immortals, Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol, The Hunger Games, and Solomon Kane.

The reason for the change is that I'm going to do a Multiple Review soon to tackle 2 films that were going to be reviewed here - Joss Whedon's Serenity and the German cult hit, Iron Sky; I wanted to give that pair some breathing room...

The Numbers Station

Jon Cusack and Malin Akerman make a very nice show for themselves in this nifty, slender picture that is wrapped around one main premise: that there have been random radio stations broadcasting codes, in the form of sets of numbers, since WW2.

tNS gives us the idea that these numbers are all signals meant to be received and interpreted by spies around the world. The numbers, as well as the locations from which they are broadcast, are given multiple layers of security to prevent anyone from understanding them, much less tampering with any part of the system.

What results is a low-key thriller that punches above its class in a lot of ways. The sets are great visuals that also create a great sense of confinement and claustrophobia. The narrative is told in a nifty, disjointed fashion that I found to be quite pleasing and creative.

Perhaps best of all, the movie is full of solid character work. In addition to sketching out the players vividly and quickly, each of them receive an arc - which is not seen as often as it should be even in pictures with larger budgets and higher-profile names attached. The picture leans too much on Cusack's Grosse Point Blank character, but it's still just fine.

And I have to love the fact that we arrive at several moments where the roles are forced to confront each other, their own choices, and the lives that they are leading. tNS is such a small movie that you'd never expect it to espouse some genuine existentialist themes and ideas - and yet it does. Whether or not it looks like it was filmed in the course of one week, the people behind this picture, especially director Kasper Barfoed, deserve a lot of praise.


I stayed away from this movie because one of my go-to review sources, The A.V. Club, gave this film a D+. Although that site can be very cautious in doling out praise, I felt that such a low score reflected a picture that had no redeeming qualities. What I learned, then, 4 months ago, was that even good reviewers could be completely full of s--t.

What this film has is a good, simple story that is told well. The world of Dredd feels authentic and fleshed out. A world that survives devastation, only to exist in a state of constant semi-collapse due to the practicalities of extreme overpopulation. Simply put, what the hell happens when you cram over half a billion people into the area between DC and Boston? How does an everyday police force function when they can only respond to 6% of reported crimes?

I'd complain about the slow motion effects, but they work. I'd complain about the CGI blood, but it was the only way they could match the graphic, ugly visual look of its source. I never read the series, but I've seen pages and some scenes look like a flip book version of the comic. It's impressive. The pace is good, too, neither drowning viewers in exposition nor spewing out a relentless parade of action scenes, which helps me be so positive here.

Karl Urban deserves all the respect in the world for taking a role that kept his face obscured for the entire length of the film. Leena Headley does fine work playing an antagonist with a vivid personality. Olivia Thirlby sticks the landing as someone not quite perfect for the job of enforcer/executioner, while also conveying how she could even land a tryout in the first place.

That "simple story that is told well" I mentioned above? It's easy: we're about to see a semi-average day in the life of a Mega City One police officer, the wrinkle being that the city's toughest, most motivated cop has to give a last-chance field test to a psychic recruit. They pair takes the first case that comes in, and find that they've basically stumbled into a minefield. I think Dredd pulls that off nicely.

As others have remarked before, the universe of the Judge Dredd comics has some thematic depth - they show us a world in which crime gets a very heavy-handed response, as in some totalitarian nightmare. This film, then, merits some praise for maintaining some ambiguity when it comes to the nature of crooks as well as cops.


Recently, I've had no fun with epic films. It's a shame, of course, but I've felt the classical Greece movies have sucked way worse than the Roman ones. Troy was a dental visit, 300 was so hatefully dumb...

I can't explain what mood I was in when I chose to stream 2011's Immortals, because The Cell was garbage. There are plenty of actual non-narrative films out there, so I'm not giving a director credit for a movie being " visually beautiful" when the storytelling is an amateurish train wreck. I expected to not watch all of Immortals when I saw Tarsem's name as director... And found myself fairly impressed.

The movie begins in the weirdest way imaginable: John Hurt talks about the Olympians fighting against the Titans. The Titans lost, just as in the myths, but there's a slight deviation - for reasons never explained they weren't killed, they were trapped...

Even more oddly, they are 20 or more black men standing still in a dark cube! And they're all wearing fetish gear, with their mouths clamped onto head-high bars. So they look like the world's kinkiest set of foosball figures. And they're not in LA, for some reason.

From there, the story seems to be along the lines of 1981's Clash of the Titans. Zeus (Hurt, as "disguised Zeus") likes a human (Henry Cavill), who may be his son. He teaches the boy how to fight, while we learn that the region is being attacked by Hyperion (Mickey Rourke).

But Hyperion isn't the god of the Sun, here - he's a semi-Nietzschean warlord who scars himself and his troops. Soon, Cavill's and Rourke's roles will become entangled as they both seek out a powerful enchanted bow - Hyperion wants to free the Titans with it, but Theseus seeks only to stop this madman and save Greece.

What's surprising is how much the film gets right. The magical bow is not overused in any way, which is nearly unthinkable these days. Moreover, the Greek fighting tactics are quite authentic - the rims of shields are used to kill, warriors drum their bucklers to psyche themselves up, battle formations are used... Someone really did their research, and it shows.

There are reasons I'll overlook the stupidity of the final celestial fight, as well as the ludicrous edict that worries Zeus so much, both of which are insanely dumb. The reasons I'll be gentle about it are that Rourke does a good job as an OTT Xerxes-esque conqueror, and Cavill does just fine, and the story moves along well. Everything around the last 10 minutes works, and only half of that is bad, so I can understand and forgive that Tarsem has an obsessive love of visual over logic.

Immortals keeps up with Tarsem's love of amazing imagery, but the movie only abandons logic and plausibility a few times. The story moves along at a good pace, going from one point in this quest to another, and it does a fine job of building its characters and servicing them appropriately. It's not perfect, but it's in no way bad, and I was very happily surprised by that.

Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol

I only decided to watch this film after DJ gave it a very strong recommendation. Despite my dislike of the first installment, I have to also admit that I was pulled in by the lure of name recognition: Brad Bird is the man behind Pixar's The Incredibles, one of my all time favorite movies.

Ghost Protocol is good in presenting a variety of missions and racing along from one scene to the next. It presents many characters and lets them all act and exist without constantly cramming them all into the same space. This means that the roles, to a limited degree, get a chance to breathe - and feel a bit more credible.

This is important because of the superhuman degree of insanity that goes on in the MI cinematic franchise. I would be more critical - I really loved the TV series, and the first two installments were basically Tom Cruise ads.

I actually expected Brad Bird to right this ship, but he did even more than I expected. His action scenes are pretty much impeccable and the pacing of the film feels perfect, and it really uses a spy team instead of having one spy-superstar. I don't think I'd trust any future sequels to be this good.

It's not flawless, of course. The need for a tense yet quick opening sequence has them kill off a character that should have been developed. People talk about Mr. Cruise too much when he's not in the scene - so they've gotten better about using teams, but MI - GP is still too Tom-centric.

The antagonists are fine, but they're both sort of blank. It would've been better with more time to develop their characters, and given that Seydoux and Michael Nyqvist are solid actors, that's a waste; still a pleasant surprise, tho.

The Hunger Games

I'll be blunt: I expected this to Capital-"S" Suck. I knew that the novel was one of the set of tween works that was seen as a successor to the Harry Potter and the Twilight series.

But it wasn't even that simple. Aside from my resistance to Hollywood's desperate need for teen-friendly franchises, I recognized that the story was annoyingly-similar to Battle Royale, a foreign film I genuinely love. You put all these together and you get the honest fact that I suspected I would stop watching this picture about 20 minutes in.

Yet tHG actually accomplished the fairly unlikely by holding my attention throughout. And, despite the fact that I didn't fall in love with the film, I found it easy to appreciate the movie's strengths. Woody Harrelson is fine as always (does everyone miss Woody's hair lately or what?), and Jennifer Lawrence makes for a great lead, even though so many things about this weird dystopia are never explained at all, much less adequately.

Finally, the story generally moves so quickly that it's easy to ignore that (a) the commoners don't seem to be starving, and (b) we don't develop any feelings for all but a handful of the cast.

The Hunger Games was not a very good film - the super-magical technology, the fairly limp romantic aspect, a mining colony with a baker, all the plots and story background my friends said were cut out - but it exceeded expectations so well that it earned its place in this set of reviews. Keep in mind that when you expect to get punched in the stomach and someone just mildly insults you, you will probably feel like you came out a winner.

Solomon Kane

This movie is an excellent example of reversed expectations. Solomon Kane is based on a series of pulp novels – which Marvel Comics turned to, in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It’s about a swashbuckling Pilgrim who fights with a sword, a knife, and a pistol.

James Purefoy stars as the titular character – Solomon is a supremely-skilled fighter who is as fierce towards enemies as to people under his command. Early on, this focus and blood-lust lead Kane to a supernatural encounter in which the devil lays a claim on SK’s soul. Although the lead has not made a Satanic pact, he realizes that he must leave behind his bloodthirsty to avoid eternal damnation. This internal conflict provides most of the picture’s “meat,” as well as giving the protagonist an actual character arc.

While Kane opts for a violence-free life, he still lives in a troubled world. When Solomon is asked to leave the monastery which he uses as a sanctuary, he is confronted with the difficulties of living a pacifist’s life in violent times. Specifically, there is a demonic army sweeping through England, converting people to condone (and enact) horrific evil, while killing those that won't be turned. The evil conquering army aspect matches Immortals nicely, in fact...

As is so common with penitent film characters, abuse is immediately followed by a balm - and then that is followed by copious ass-kicking. The fights are all choreographed very well, the special effects are good, and Purefoy makes a great case for himself as a minor action hero. Solid support actors keep the film from becoming too stale or hackneyed, especially in the form of the much-missed Pete Postlethwaite. The script doesn't try to do too much, which also keeps the film from becoming as risible as many of its colleagues.

Ultimately, this may come off as "Conan plus Pilgrims" - especially in the crucifixion scene - but it's a fine fantasy/action film...

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