Friday, April 29, 2011

Resident Evil 5 - Video Game Review of the Month - April 2011

Genre: Survival Horror
Rating: M
Publisher: Capcom
Release Date: March 2009
Co-Op: Yes
Split-Screen: Yes
Tip: Rent it and play story mode with a friend
Game Summary: Resident Evil 5 submerges its player into a world threatened by political unrest and bioterrorism. Introduced with a brief monologue by Chris, the protagonist and ex-Special Tactics And Rescue Service (STARS) operative plagued with the guilt of his old partners death, the game begins. The story takes place in the fictional African town of Kijuju. Chris is sent there on behalf of the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance (BSAA) to meet up with Sheva Alomar and track down Ricardo Irving. Irving, a former TriCell Pharmaceutical Company researcher, plans to make a large sum of money selling bio-organic weapons (BOW) on the black market to political radicals. Chris and his new partner, Sheva, soon find that their assignment goes far deeper than illegal black market activity. With the help villains Albert Wesker and Exella Gionne, Irving plans to infect the world with a super virus, Las Plagas, mutating the entire human race into grotesque, murderous abominations, but not if Chris and Sheva have anything to say about it. Motivated by the impending fate of the world and a data file indicating that Jill, Chris’ old partner, could still be alive, Chris and Sheva set out to stop Irving, Gionne, and Wesker once and for all.

Review: Graphics wise, Capcom delivers both inside and outside of the cut-scenes. The characters motions are fluid and lifelike and the environments are rich with detail, making for a visually pleasing experience.

As for gameplay, the camera is un-adjustable and far too close to your character. It often makes it difficult to see oncoming enemies as well as where you are trying to go. The point and shoot setup is also frustrating. For one, your character is unable to walk or run while aiming. And two, the aim movement is relatively slow. Strangely enough, these two elements combined with many enemies having plentiful amounts of health, creates a strategic element to the gameplay. A good portion of the enemies require some planning and maneuvering to defeat, which only adds to the fun.

Like the previous games in the series, the game incorporates some puzzle solving aspects. This part of the game seems to be over hyped, however. The most complicated puzzle consists of a turn or two of a mirror to reflect a beam of light. Let's just say that it is no Portal or Portal 2.

For a game that prides itself off of being in the survival horror genre, it seems more fitting to call it an action horror. I say this because you never feel like you are in extreme danger. The game also includes conveniently placed, but oh so classic exploding barrels and Gatling guns. In survival horror’s defense, you are given a limited amount of ammo with the intent of making the gameplay more suspenseful. Additionally, there are some enemies (mini bosses and bosses) that are able to kill Chris and/or Sheva in one attack.

The main factor that kept me interested throughout was the weapon upgrade and purchasing system. By picking up in-level gold and selling unused items, you can purchase new weapons and upgrade many aspects of them (damage, reload speed, clip size, and critical damage chance). The game also features a ton of other un-lockables (new costumes, 3d figurines, game modes, and more).

In short: The game is definitely a fun one. The graphics are great. The story and voice acting are adequate. And there are tons of items to unlock. I would recommend playing this one co-op with a friend. But even if you don't have a friend to play it with, the AI is interactive and fun to play with too (I recommend not giving ammo to Sheva, though. She seems to waste it). It took about 8 hours to beat the story mode solo, but do not be deterred. For the hardcore gamer there are plenty more hours in store to unlock everything in this game (but it can get a repetitive process killing mutants none stop). Either way, rent it. Play it with a friend, and become the greatest mutant/zombie killing force there ever was.
  1. Great graphics
  2. Co-op Story
  3. Tons of weapons and upgrades
  4. Mercenary mode (kill as many mutants as you can within a time limit)
  5. Tons of un- lockables (characters, costumes, weapons, figurines, ect)
  6. Replay value (if you can get passed the repetition of killing mutants all day long)
  1. Repetitive
  2. Unable to adjust camera
  3. Stationary shooting and clunky aim (however, this creates a strategic style of play)
Score: 7.5/10

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wonderful Foreign Films: Part 2 – Movies Spotlight – April 2011

Country: UK
Director: Chris Morris
Plot Summary: Four friends living in England decide to become jihadists, only they are fairly clueless. Yet through sheer will and in the face of competing ideologies within the group, they are able to hatch a plan to suicide bomb a marathon happening in their town.
Why You Need to See It: How can a film about jihadists be a comedy, you may be asking? Well, Four Lions is presented with a biting wit, hysterically wonderful characters and dialog and fearless filmmaking. It is a farce, but Morris brilliantly keeps the tone grounded which by the end of the film makes the whole thing a little terrifying. There are not too many films quite like this one, making it an absolute must see. It is really funny, horrifying and utterly crazy (and genius). Check out the trailer.
Available On: Blu-ray, DVD and to Rent

Country: France
Director: Pascal Chaumeil
Plot Summary: Alex (Duris) and his sister (Ferrier) run a business in which Alex is paid to breakup relationships. When the daughter (Paradis) of a rich man is to be married, they are hired to stop it, but the problem is they only have one week to do so.
Why You Need to See It: In the States, romantic comedies have become quite bad for the most part in recent years, which is really too bad as when they are good they are very entertaining and heartwarming. Director Chaumeil (making his feature debut; he has done a lot of French TV and second unit work for Luc Besson previously) has made a great Hollywood style rom-com but with French flare and beautiful locations. Star Duris also brings a wonderful charisma and charm to the film as well. If you like romantic comedies, this is the best one released in 2010. Check out the trailer.
Available On: Blu-ray, DVD and to Rent

Film: Micmacs
Country: France
Plot Summary: Bazil (Boon) does not fit into society and is taken in by a group of oddities. Having suffered greatly indirectly at the hands of two weapons manufacturers, he sets out to bring them down with the help of his strange friends.
Why You Need to See It: Auteur director Jeunet has one of the most interesting and quirky styles, playing off the odd intricate details of people’s lives. This film takes it a step farther, as most of the main characters themselves are strange societal outcasts. But Jeunet treats them so endearingly, that the ‘normal’ people feel like they are the ones who are truly strange. The film is very funny and has a nice slapstick comedy feel to it. It is also aesthetically quite brilliant. Check out the trailer.
Available On: Blu-ray, DVD and to Rent

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Super (2011) – Review

Super is funny, but not a comedy – features costumed heroes, but not a superhero adventure – and has graphic bloodshed, but not a gorefest. More so than last year’s Kick-Ass (resembling Defendor a bit, but without a mentally challenged protagonist, as far as we know), this film is about an ordinary man who puts on a costume to fight injustice – and the real consequences that stem from that decision. While Kick-Ass features characters that somewhat resemble comic book superheroes who seem to be able to do things outside the realm of plausibility (i.e. Big Daddy and Hit-Girl), Super is presented in an un-bashfully, if not a bit unnerving realistic manner – The Crimson Bolt literally walks up to a perceived criminal and hits him in the head with a wrench. Director James Gunn stages the film in a very organic manner – missing is the gloss and exaggeration of Hollywood film. There certainly is an indie flare (or quirkiness) to the film. The characters are not likable, but the audience connects seemingly out of a higher moral responsibility – Frank D’Arbo (The Crimson Bolt) has put on the costume to save his wife from a drug dealer who is leading her down a destructive path. While the viewer does not like Frank, would not want to hang out with Frank, the mission that Frank has set himself on appeals to a core moral need: protect the ones we love, which puts the audience firmly behind Frank and invested in the outcome. Plus, his misery sort of endears him to the viewer. The film would be interesting at that, but Gunn twists it enough to make it all the more compelling (or off-putting depending on your preferences). The narrative comments on Christian religion – from the purposely hypocritical The Holy Avenger TV series to Frank’s visions of God and demons make the film quite subversive. Frank feels that being The Crimson Bolt and hurting people (be them criminals in his mind) may be wrong and prays to God for guidance. Through the interpretations  of signs and visions, he comes to believe that God wants him to do what he must do, which in a sense is true for some Christians (and people in general) – they take what they believe are signs and justify their actions and intent. The interesting question with this film is whether Frank is just or not. On one hand he is doing things that most would not consider appropriate or moral behavior, but on the other he is doing it to save his wife and only to supposedly bad people. But Gunn twists it even more by making the violence gory and graphic. Yet, many of the violent scenes are humorous. The characters are just odd enough and the montage and framing of the film is done in such a way to make it all seem a little goofy and out there, which informs the audience that it should be funny (at least it did me). Gunn has a lot going on in the film outside of what the viewer sees on screen, which makes it an interesting piece. Super is not going to appeal to everyone. There is way too much gore, religion-joking and strangeness to engage the general moving going audience – but this was never a film for them anyway. It is funny, yet kind of disturbing shaping an interesting commentary on good and bad and the grey area in between (where we all mostly live).

Technical and acting achievements: James Gunn’s vision for the film came through very well. Visually, it feels rooted in reality, likely aided by the naturalistic and somewhat pseudo-documentary style of cinematographer Steve Gainer. However, much like Gunn’s first feature Slither, Super also has sort of a B-movie quality and appeal to it, particularly the use of gore. Production designer William A. Elliot’s locations give the film such a grimy almost forgotten dreg of suburban/small-town America look, which really plays into the narrative as well. Tyler Bates’s score sounds noting like a typical superhero movie (and that is a good thing). The original score plays off the indie sensibilities of the film, and is mixed with a rock/punk soundtrack that works well and not so much at different moments. The opening credits are fairly brilliant; featuring an animated dance number that introduces the characters and really sums up what the viewer is about to experience. The cast is good, with mostly low key performances (given the subject matter). Nathan Fillion is pretty funny as The Holy Avenger. But the film belongs to its lead and co-lead. Rainn Wilson plays the role just right, equal parts quiet, shy and restrained and on the brink of insanity. He is not likable (as said above), but very charismatic. Ellen Page steals the film. She is cute, yet scary as she is totally mad (in a homicidal way), as if she took the charisma from her performance in Juno and laid it over a budding serial killer. It is a lot of fun to watch, as she demands the audience’s attention whenever she is onscreen.

Super is fun and entertaining, but the very in-your-face violence may not be for everyone. Its indie charm mixes strangely well with its B-movie shocks. 7/10

Monday, April 25, 2011

Movie of the Week - Goldfinger

This week’s movie is Goldfinger (1964).

The third in the James Bond Series, it is about Bond looking into suspected gold smuggler Auric Goldfinger, only to uncover a much bigger and devious plot. Director Guy Hamilton made four Bond films, this being his first (and probably best film of his career). Richard Maibaum wrote the script (he wrote thirteen Bond films in total). Hamilton also used Bond veterans composer John Barry, cinematographer Ted Moore and production designer Ken Adam on the film giving much the same feel as Dr. No and From Russia with Love. (My favorite Bond) Sean Connery stars; while series actors Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewelyn reprise their roles (Felix Leiter makes an appearance but is played by a different actor from his appearance in Dr. No). Honor Blackman, Gert Frobe and Harold Sakata highlight the supporting cast (and for fans of the Peter Sellers’s Pink Panther Series, look out for Burt Kwouk). What makes this film great is Connery’s performance as Bond – he epitomizes the era of the film while still appealing to modern day fans with wit and an aura of coolness (it is really a timeless performance, to some degree). The scale of the film is much bigger than the first two Bond adventures (leading to the big underwater action scenes in Thunderball and the overall huge scale of You Only Live Twice), and the villain is one of the more memorable. Interestingly, the film does not mention SPECTRE, the villainous group that plagued Bond through most of the early films, almost like it was a side adventure. The film has all the best parts of a Bond film: great villain, memorable women, an awesome Aston Martin, lots of locations, and Sean Connery’s perfect performance (plus maybe the best intro song of the series by John Barry and Shirley Bassey). Goldfinger is a must for James Bond fans and Sean Connery fans alike. Check out the trailer.

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and to Rent

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Wonderful Foreign Films: Part 1 – Movies Spotlight – April 2011

Film: A Prophet
Country: France
Director: Jacques Audiard
Plot Summary: A young Arab man, Malik, is sent to prison where he befriends a man highly connected within the mafia, Cesar. Malik finds that prison is a different world, and he must serve Cesar to be protected and accumulate benefits. But like all gangster stories, a fast rise often leads to bloodshed and a fall.
Why You Need to See It: Starting with all the film’s accolades: nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2010 Oscars, won Best Film/Foreign Film at the Cesar Awards and BAFTAs (the French and British equivalent to the Oscars) and won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Audiard is a fantastic auteur. His last two films, this one and The Beat That My Heart Skipped, are among the best films to come out of France in the last decade. The performances by Rahim and Aresturp are both very good, and the film is such a great entry into the gangster genre. Check out the trailer.
Available On: Blu-ray, DVD and to Rent

Country: Australia
Director:  David Michod
Plot Summary: J, a seventeen year-old, must go live with his estranged grandmother and uncles after his mom overdoses. His uncles are notorious bank robbers, which a special unit of the police is hunting with intent to kill. The cops target J as a possible weak point to get to his uncles. Now, J needs to navigate difficult terrain just to survive.
Why You Need to See It: Like A Prophet, this crime-drama/gangster film is highly decorated with awards, dominating the Australian Film Institute Awards in 2010. Michod’s use of tension in the film is brilliant (primarily created by the excellent camera work collaboration between cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and Michod). It builds slowly (like the narrative), but creeps up on you and engulfs you. The performances are also quite good, especially the work of Weaver (who got a supporting Oscar nod), Mendelsohn (who scares the crap out of me) and newcomer Frecheville. This is a film that will stay with you long after it is over. Check out the trailer.
Available On: Blu-ray, DVD and to Rent

Film: Fish Tank
Country: UK
Director: Andrea Arnold
Plot Summary: Mia, a fifteen year-old, wants to be a dancer. She lives in a tenement (so to speak) on an Essex estate with her little sister and ‘stuck in her twenties’ irresponsible mother. Having been dismissed from school for fighting, Mia spends her days aimlessly – practicing her dance moves, wandering around and drinking. When her mother brings home yet another new boyfriend, she strikes up an uneasy friendship, as he encourages her to pursue her dancing. But all is not totally innocent here.
Why You Need to See It: The drama also won its fair share of awards: winning the Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and the 2010 BAFTA for Best British Film. It is highlighted by extraordinary performances by Fassbender and Jarvis (who had never been in anything previously, and was discovered while director Arnold was scouting locations). Arnold is able to mix a lot of different moods and small sub genres into this coming-of-age story, as the film will have you laughing, crying and shocked – her use of tension and suspense is very good. There is also an interesting moral dichotomy at play in the film, making it an interesting study both of the characters and of you, the viewer. Check out the trailer.
Available On: Blu-ray, DVD and to Rent

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

TV Series of the Month - Buffy the Vampire Slayer

This month’s series is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003).

The show is about a teenage girl who moves to a new town, Sunnydale, having to start all over again – making friends, fitting in and all the other problems that come with being in high school. Oh yeah, and Sunnydale just happens to be situated on a Hellmouth. As the chosen Slayer of her generation, Buffy Summers is tasked with protecting the world from all manner of beasts, vampires and demons (and I promise it is much better than I am making it out to be) with the help of her friends (the Scooby Gang). Lasting seven seasons, the show was created by Joss Whedon, who also directed and wrote a number of the best episodes (I love Becoming, Graduation, The Body, The Gift, and of course Once More with Feeling). The series has a phenomenal cast, led by Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, and Anthony Stewart Head, while also featuring wonderful other principals along the way in James Marsters (who is many a fan’s favorite character playing Spike), Emma Caulfield (whose Anya is hilarious), Michelle Trachtenberg, and David Boreanaz (who is always awesome – see the Buffy spin off Angel or his latest show Bones). Additionally, the show featured excellent reoccurring and guest stars (my favorites are Eliza Dushku’s Faith, Juliet Landau’s Drusilla and Harry Groener’s Mayor Richard Wilkins). Along with Whedon, it illustrated the work of many fantastic writers (like: Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson, David Fury, and Douglas Petrie). The brilliance of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that the show combines action, comedy, drama, and horror extremely well. Whedon also authors a vehicle for a female star (which is still rare today). The show is just not about a young woman running around fighting demons (I mean there is that); it is about growing up, facing responsibilities, friendship, loss, happiness – life – which makes it easily relatable to its audience. There are not too many shows (or films) that can have its viewers scared, entertained, blown away, laughing, and crying all in the same episode. This is one of the great works in television (and among my absolute favorites). Each season has the Scooby Gang facing off against a new Big Bad as its main arch, but throughout the seasons the show addresses many fun, sad and wonderful stories (the nerd in me compels me to list in order my favorite seasons: 5, 3, 7, 2, 6, 1, 4). And for those who love the show, it continues in comic book form with season eight. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an amazing show and a must for fans of Whedon’s work. Check out the trailer.

Available on DVD and to Rent

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Scream 4 (2011) – Review

Scream 4 is a slasher film that much like its predecessors combines horror, comedy and a self-referential wit. It is the strongest in the series since the original. Director Wes Craven is a veteran in the genre and certainly knows how to make thrilling scenes, ripe with anticipation – however, the film was not scary at all. Craven did not take the cheap and easy road (that too many a horror film takes) and use noise and quick cutting (impact cuts) to create scares instead of building tension, but the playful tone created by the comedy from the outset undermines the tension throughout leaving the film thrilling (watching Ghostface pursue victims) but far from scary. The thrilling aspect of it is more in an entertaining vein than one that constricts the audience (leaving them on the edge of their seats, figure nails dug into the armrests) only to release them at the perfect impactful moments. The film is very self and genre referential, even more so than the first three (and maybe even too much). The prologue is quite funny, but kills any hope of the film being truly chilling, as the tone set (especially in the wonderful Anna Paquin/Kristin Bell scene) creates a jesting (if not lighthearted) atmosphere for the rest of the film. Also, Craven does not take his time with the murder scenes (for which there are quite a few). He is more interested in making an entertaining narratively quick moving movie than slowly building anticipation and tension (which generally leads to the scariest moments in films). The brisk pacing (which seemingly slams to a halt in a few dialog heavy exposition scenes) also takes away from the characters, especially all the new faces (but with a long prologue and extended, yet great, ending, the middle needed to move rapidly). The audience gets a brief idea of the characters, but not enough to really care or take stock in any of them, which again takes away from a real sense of tension (i.e. if we are not invested in them, then we do not care if they die or not, so whether they die or not is inconsequential dramatically, so all we want is for it to be entertaining). Luckily, Craven does make these death scenes engrossing on more of a fun level. Thus, the film plays a bit more like a spectacle than a drama (which is fine). That being said, a few of the new characters fit the Scream world very well and are a lot of fun (I personally really enjoyed who they picked as the principal killer – sorry for any minor spoilers for those who have not seen this or any of the Scream films). Scream 4 is entertaining and enjoyable (just like the original), but not among the best films in the genre.

Technical and acting achievements: Aside from Red Eye, Craven has not really made a good film since Scream, which is maybe why he and writer Kevin Williamson returned to the franchise and characters. Scream 4 is a step in the right direction for him as a director, though it feels like a film made for a much different audience than his past better known works like A Nightmare on Elm Street (and maybe that is a good thing – but it does change the aim and tone of his films, from scary to entertainment driven). The music in the film overall was not that great mostly due to the bland rock that populated the found pieces. Composer Marco Beltrami’s (who worked on the series previously) score is ok. It is adequate but nothing more. Peter Deming’s (who is doing great work in the genre recently) cinematography is good (but maybe not as good as his recent work on Drag Me to Hell, but Sam Raimi is a much more stylistic director, and nowhere near as amazing as his work on From Hell, but again The Hughes Brothers have a lot more style than Craven). He is at his best in this film when there is an active camera. Adam Stockhausen’s production design is pretty standard for the series (though I did like his set for the Stab Fest and thought the selection for Kirby’s house was somewhat aesthetically interesting – and of course all the homes have stairs to run up). The cast was a lot of fun overall, and really the lifeblood of the film. The prologue features great work – Paquin and Bell are really only there for laughs and do the job well, while Lucy Hale and Aimee Teegarden are quite good in their brief scenes (it is too bad they were not in more of it). The film also features a number of supporting characters played by funny people. Chief among them is Alison Brie (who much like her work on Mad Men and Community is full of energy and hilarity). The three members of the original cast that return are ok – lead Neve Campbell is the best among them playing a more confident and badass self, David Arquette is useless and goofy (just like he is in all the others) and Courtney Cox is fine, but her character feels forced into the narrative. While grossly underdeveloped, the new characters shine. The cinema nerds played by Rory Culkin and Eric Knudsen are good fun, and make the self-referential exposition fresh and enjoyable. Hayden Panettiere is witty and charismatic (her best film performance to date, washing away some of the stink left by the horridness of seasons three and four of Heroes). Emma Roberts is fantastic in the lead. Her scenes with Campbell are good, but she is at her best during the end (the sequence of events after the killers are reveled has some really great and funny work from her).

If Scream 4 is indeed the start of a new trilogy, it has started it off just as well as the original did for the first three. 6/10

Monday, April 18, 2011

Movie of the Week - The Darjeeling Limited

This week’s movie is The Darjeeling Limited (2007).

The comedy is about three brothers who have grown apart. They meet up on a train to take a spiritual quest across India with the hopes to find themselves and reignite their bond as brothers. The short film Hotel Chevalier is part 1 (and included on the DVD release) about Jack’s, one of the brothers, meeting in Paris with his ex-girlfriend, a relationship that had been painful and destructive. The short and feature film are both directed and written by Wes Anderson (the feature is also co-written by Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola). On the film, Anderson again works with cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman and production designer Mark Friedberg (who also did The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). In addition to his typical use of rock/pop from the 60s and 70s for the score, Anderson also takes a lot of pieces from the Merchant-Ivory films (which inspired this film). The cast mixes frequent Anderson cast members like Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray (who has an awesome cameo during the prologue), Wallace Wolodarsky, Waris Ahluwalia, Kumar Pallana, and Anjelica Huston with great new ones like Adrien Brody, Amara Karan, Irrfan Khan, Barbet Schroeder, Camilla Rutherford, and Natalie Portman (who has a cameo, but co-stars in the short). What makes the film great is the artistic style of it – Anderson’s camera and blocking act as a character in the narrative, adding comedy and drama to the piece. The film is very quirky, but even with eccentric and odd characters the narrative feels very honest and connects to its viewers. Wilson’s performance in particular is very good (maybe the best of his career). Stylistically and character wise, the film fits Anderson’s body of work – but a bit like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, there is more of an edge to the characters. It is a must for fans of Anderson’s films (it is probably my second favorite after Rushmore), and those who enjoy quirky comedies and/or highly stylistic filmmaking. Check out the trailer.

Available on Criterion Collection Blu-ray, DVD and to rent

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pusha T – Fear of God Mixtape (2011) – Review

Pusha T – Fear of God
As one half of hip hop duo Clipse, Pusha T has developed his style of ‘cocaine rap’ with a number of trademarks that let familiar listeners know he is on a track. He exhibits great flow with a knack for fun play on words that make his lyrics enjoyable. Having signed to Kanye West’s label G.O.O.D. Music as a solo artist shortly after collaborating with him on the last Clipse album Til The Casket Drops. He made himself know to a bigger audience with wonderful features on a number of G.O.O.D. Fridays tracks and West’s amazing album My Dark Twisted Fantasy (including a great performance at 2010’s VMAs). Fear of God marks his first solo release, serving as a buildup to his studio album Long Live the Caine (which is rumored to be heavily produced by West, and why not when you are friends/partners with possibly the best working producer right now). The mixtape has seven new songs and six freestyles (my favorite of which is Blow/Funk Flex Freestyle) over existing (but tweaked) tracks. The new songs are all solid and would be album quality (if not better than) for most hip hop albums released so far this year. I Still Wanna with Rick Ross and Liva Don stands out however, both lyrically and quality wise. It is one of the best mainstream hip hop tracks to date in 2011. Pusha T is at the brink of potential enormous fame and wealth being part of West’s inner circle and yet he talks about still having that street instinct in him to make money the way he knows how – selling drugs. While many MCs boost about their street credibility, past and current exploits (real or not), Pusha T’s stories feel more honest – a bit like 2Pac and Biggie rapping about their lives or West’s narratives on heartbreak. There is a truth to his words that the listener can connect with. I also like Pusha T’s embracing of different types of beats (when a lot of mainstream, and even indy hip hop to its own degree, sounds similar). Songs like Touch It and his single off the mixtape My God feature a much more subtle beat allowing his voice and words to dominate and pull in the listener. The mixtape is impressive overall and definitely has me excited and looking forward to Long Live the King. Pusha T has the skills and is ready to be among the best out there right now. 3/5

Editor’s Song Picks:
1)      I Still Wanna – Featuring Rick Ross and Liva Don, produced by Inkredibles
2)      Tough It – Featuring and produced by Kanye West
3)      Alone in Vegas (Outro) – Produced by Nottz

Available for Digital Download

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Your Highness (2011) – Review

Your Highness is a good adventure fantasy film infused with the humor of co-writers Danny McBride and Ben Best, which is not for everyone as it is often crude and juvenile (so basically, if you are not a fan of their HBO series Eastbound & Down you are probably not going to like this). From an adventure fantasy point of view, McBride, Best and director David Gordon Green certainly have an affinity for similar genre films from the 80s (like Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja, Beastmaster, and so on), as this has the same look, feel and tone. Structurally, Green is influenced by these films as well in his construction of the narrative. The monsters, characters and special effects work well in the genre. Fans of this genre will get a kick out of Your Highness. It is not often that filmmakers work in this genre anymore, making epic quest films (aside from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Kull the Conqueror and the TV series Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert produce – Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess and Legend of the Seeker – I cannot think of too many, though a remake of Conan the Barbarian is scheduled to be released this summer). And thus, the film has a nostalgic appeal. The humor is certainly not for everyone, and will be off-putting for some. But fans of McBride and Green’s comedy directing work should know what to expect. It is not as funny as it could have been, in that it does not meet the high expectations that such a film, director and cast incite. However, it is funny (and I look forward to seeing what the Blu-ray release has to offer in terms of a possible director’s cut, outtakes and blooper reel). The film is comparable to Army of Darkness, a film that combines the horror and adventure fantasy genres with slapstick comedy (in the vein of The Three Stooges). This film is very much the same as it plays like a typical epic quest adventure fantasy but with a modern R comedy taking the place of most of the dialog, which is all improvised. Because of the nostalgic aspect of the film and the genre it tackles, Your Highness will likely be a cult favorite among its fans – that is the type of film it is. For fans, it is great fun. For non-fans, it is a rude, foul and a strange film (and generally not liked). Your Highness is a slight letdown as a comedy (but I have a feeling it will grow on viewers upon multiple screenings), but the adventure fantasy world the characters inhabit is great and a lot of fun.

Technical and acting achievements: David Gordon Green started his feature career making good indy dramas (like George Washington and All the Real Girls) before switching to comedy with Pineapple Express (and directing most of Eastbound & Down). Your Highness feels like a much more personal and fan specific piece than Pineapple Express. The film looks great and plays well (it really just comes down to a matter of genre and comedic taste). The technical work on the film is fun, both paying homage to the genre while having fun with it. Steve Jablonsky’s score is referential and appropriate to the material. It helps the film feel like a classic adventure fantasy. Tim Orr’s cinematography gives the film an 80s adventure fantasy look, but cleaner (as technology has improved). Mark Tildesley’s production design is great, and the best among the principal crew work. His sets fit the world perfectly (I particularly liked Leezar’s fortress). Most of the cast plays the film straight, fitting the world of the film – but the main characters act and say just ridiculous stuff given the setting, which is the point. The hairstyles of a few of the characters are hilarious onto themselves. There is both a visual and physical comedy to the film which adds a lot – when most of the main comedic moments are derived from spoken words. Zooey Deschanel is great in the film, and really not in enough of it. Justin Theroux has a fun duality to his character – being powerful and dangerous while completely insecure. Natalie Portman plays a badass warrior well, and is funny with the exaggerated blood lust dialog. James Franco plays his character to almost an absurd level, going overboard on the heroic-persona aspects and then saying random off-character lines. Plus he makes some pretty funny faces. Danny McBride is his typical self – insecure, but with swagger and sort of an I-only-care-about-myself confidence hiding his true affection for his friends. However, the breakout performance in the film is Rasmus Hardiker. He is very funny, playing mostly straight against the outlandishness of McBride and Franco, which comments on how much they contradict their environment at times.

Your Highness is not for everyone. But for fans of adventure fantasy films and the comedic stylings of McBride, it is quite amusing. 7/10

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hanna (2011) – Review

Hanna is a very good action thriller made excellent by a great coming-of-age story at its core. Director Joe Wright uses his kinetic style of filmmaking to create a full visceral experience visually for the audience, while also incorporating a wonderful booming score from The Chemical Brothers to accentuate both what is happening on screen and how the viewer interacts with it. He uses long takes, multiple contrasting and interesting locations and beautiful photography to pull the viewer in and set the film apart from just any old action thriller. The fights are choreographed and shot to be seen and felt, rather than impact and quick cuts, jumping around giving a sense of a fight. Here, the audience is treated to a much more personal experience, letting the action play out as if the viewer is there – the sequences telling a story. This is forwarded even more by how much affection the film has for its main character, Hanna. She is shot with such wonder: feeling music, friendship, color, and many other things for the first time. Her discovery of a world outside her relationship with her father, which is built mainly on his preparing her for what lies ahead – constant training and survival skills (but we also feel that they do love each other, which makes their relationship, and the film, all the more powerful) – play like a coming-of-age story. It is completely relatable to the audience, as she uncovers new sights, sounds and feelings – whereas if the story had only focused on her as an assassin hunting down her target, she would not resonate with the viewer to the same extent as a character, and the film would not be as vital. The viewer cares about Hanna, and that is extremely important or the film would just be another shallow entertaining action piece. Aesthetically and narratively, Wright creates the film to play as a fairytale, with many references (most notably to the Brothers Grimm). This works quite well to the film’s advantage, as there is playfulness to the tone (amidst brutal violence and serious implications), allowing for moments of pleasure and humor (which are needed to break up the action). It also affords quirkiness to the characters, making them even more interesting and memorable. The structure is circular, which some critics complained about in addition to the ending being fairly abrupt and open-ended. But, as the film is a fairytale, the ending works quite well, as the audience can decide for themselves. Too often in modern films everything is spelt out entirely, removing imagination and audience participation. This film leaves the audience with a feeling of content (as Hanna’s story is told), but also allows them to decide what will become of her now that the tale is done (which I like, and think it works much better that way). Hanna is not just another action film; it is aesthetically brilliant with great performances and emotional clout – engaging and wonderful.

Technical and acting achievements: Joe Wright is one of the most exciting directors working today. With his fourth film, he has shown that he processes both a mastery of storytelling and performances, but also a unique and aesthetically interesting style (his long takes, especially the subway fight and container park chase, are a treat). Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons (The Chemical Brothers) deliver such an impressive score (and their first) that fits the tone of the film so well (check out this track off it, container park). Alwin H. Kuchler’s cinematographer is wonderful and beautiful. The use of light and color projects so much character. It will be among the best work this year. Sarah Greenwood’s production design is also astoundingly good, and fitting. Her sets for Grimm’s House (and its surrounding area) and the Moroccan base were brilliant. Overall this is just a special film from a composition point of view (probably the best aesthetics wise I have seen this year, along with Jane Eyre, to date). The cast is just right across the board. Tom Hollander and Jessica Barden are marvelous in their supporting roles (Hollander’s appearance and way made me giggle every time he was on screen, just great performance work). Eric Bana plays his role well. With limited screen time, he coveys his relationship with Hanna very well. Cate Blanchett makes such an amazing villain. She is ruthless, cruel and yet sort of venerable (the performance is a little polarizing, but I contend that it is great). Saoirse Ronan shows that she is a star with her performance in the film. It is a difficult role, but the viewer forgets that they are even watching a character in a film. Ronan is Hanna, completely.

Hanna is a unique film, built on lustrous aesthetics, perfect performances and thrilling action. 9/10

Monday, April 11, 2011

Movie of the Week - Army of Darkness

This week’s movie is Army of Darkness (1992).

The horror/comedy is the third film in The Evil Dead trilogy. Ash accidentally sends himself to 1300 A.D., where he finds that he must fight against an army of the dead and quest to retrieve the Necronomicon (the book of the dead) so he can return home. The film is directed by Sam Raimi (who did the whole series) and features a script by Raimi and his brother Ivan (they also co-wrote Darkman, Spider-Man 3 and Drag Me to Hell), a score from Joseph LoDuca (who scores a lot of Raimi and producing partner Robert Tapert’s TV stuff, like Legend of the Seeker), a musical theme from Danny Elfman, cinematography from Bill Pope (who went on to shoot The Matrix, Spider-Man 2 and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and production design from Anthony Tremblay. The film stars Bruce Campbell, who hams it up for the camera (but in a good and funny way). Embeth Davidtz features in a supporting role, and Bridget Fonda makes a cameo appearance (originally she was to have more screen time). What makes the film great is how funny it is – Bruce Campbell is a riot, and the cheesy lines are endlessly quotable. The film is very campy, and Raimi’s style is exaggerated for effect at times. But, it makes for a great experience for fans of the series, Campbell and Raimi. It is not a scary as the previous two films in the series, but it is maybe the funniest (Evil Dead 2 is really funny too). It also makes for a good adventure fantasy film for fans of similar films from the 80s, as there is certainly an apparent love of those films by the filmmakers. If you love the first two films, you must see this (and probably already have). If you have not seen this but love campy humor B movies, this is perfect for you too. Check out the trailer.

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and to Rent

Friday, April 8, 2011

Pharoahe Monch – W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) (2011) – Review

Pharoahe Monch – W.A.R. (We Are Renegades)
The Queens MC has been in the game a long time now with amazing solo work (like Simon Says and Desire) and rare features (my favorite might be on Talib Kweli’s Guerrilla Monsoon Rap with Black Thought and Kanye West). With his new album, Pharoahe Monch is again attacking the establishment – both in terms of popular hip hop and the government. He preaches free speech and thought, imploring his listeners to think for themselves and find out what is really going on. There is certainly an air of mistrust to his lyrics, but the message of activism is through mostly positive measures. Pharoahe Monch’s rhyming is what truly sets him apart from most rappers, as he brilliantly strings words, thoughts and emotions together in varying patterns that delight the listener. The album feels very much together tonally, and his track selection both fit his style and the album’s overall expression, which benefits the experience as a whole – the album plays as a building story more than just a series of hot tracks. I like that Pharoahe Monch worked with producers that would give him the right sound for the album rather than just picking tracks from today’s hot producers. There are a few good features on the album as well – I like Idris Elba’s intro, and Royce da 5’9” and Jean Grae (who was also great on Talib Kweli’s Uh Oh, off Gutter Rainbows earlier this year) give great verses on the track Assassins. But, all the features are greatly overshadowed by Pharoahe Monch who is just ablaze. This is the best hip hop album so far in 2011. 4/5

Editor’s Song Picks:
1)      Let My People Go – Produced by Fatin “10” Horton
2)      Assassins – Featuring Jean Grae & Royce da 5’9”, produced by M-Phazes
3)      Evolve – Produced by Exile

Available on CD/Digital Download

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Stars to Watch: Part 4 – Movies Spotlight – April 2011

Cinema constantly has new talent each and every year, making good films and opening audiences’ eyes to new characters, stories and worlds. April offers three more exciting performers to watch.

What She’s Been In:

Ronan, 16, made her screen debut in 2003 on the Irish public service broadcaster RTE in the medical drama The Clinic and then later in the mini-series Proof. In 2007, she made her American debut in the film I Could Never Be Your Woman co-starring with Paul Rudd and Michelle Pfeiffer. While it is not the best film, though funny, she is great in it as Pfeiffer’s more grownup that her years would indicate daughter. She also appeared in two barely seen films before getting her breakthrough performance (see next paragraph). After her breakthrough, she starred in Gil Kenan’s adaptation of City of Ember, and was the best part of the film (along with Bill Murray). Her first big starring role came in 2009 with Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. The film was an ambitious mess, but Ronan was quite brilliant in it (and one of my favorite performances of the year). In January 2011, she co-starred with Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess and Colin Farrell in Peter Weir’s The Way Back about Siberian gulag escapees who walk 400 miles to freedom in India.


Ronan’s big break came in 2007 with a supporting role in Joe Wright’s Atonement. She played the role of Briony Tallis (age 13). Jealous of her older sister’s relationship with Robbie, the handsome son of an employee of her parent’s house who she has a big crush on, she tells a lie that devastates their relationship. She spends the rest of her life trying to atone for her mistake. The film is brilliant, set during WWII in England. Ronan stars with James McAvoy and Keira Knightley, stealing the film a bit from these two very good actors. She is so good, in fact, that she was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Supporting Actress category. Her performance in the film got my attention, and I have been a fan ever since.

April Film:

In April, Ronan has her next great role – working again with Wright in the film Hanna. It is about a young girl who is trained by her father to be a cutthroat and unforgiving assassin all with the purpose of unleashing her on his rival, a ruthless CIA agent. Ronan stars as the title character. The film looks to be a great mix of action, thriller and drama genres in sort of a twisted coming-of-age story. It co-stars Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, Olivia Williams, and Tom Hollander (who from the trailer looks to be awesome).


Also in 2011, Ronan has another young assassin film – Violet & Daisy, about two teenage assassins who accept what they think will be an easy gig (but of course it is not). The film co-stars Alexis Bledel and Danny Trejo and is Geoffrey Fletcher’s directorial debut (he won a screenwriting Oscar for Precious). 2012 looks to be big year for her – she is up for roles in either The Hobbit: Part 1, directed by Peter Jackson, or Anne Karenina, directed by Joe Wright. It seems as though scheduling conflicts would keep her from doing both and some reports already have her as a confirmed cast member of The Hobbit (but either way, both are great opportunities, but I cannot help but be more excited for The Hobbit). With good working relationships with great directors like Jackson and Wright, there should be tons of wonderful projects in her future.

Career Highlights:

1.)    Atonement (2007) – supporting* [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
2.)    City of Ember (2008) – lead [DVD/Rent]
3.)    The Lovely Bones (2009) – lead [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
4.)    The Way Back (2011) – supporting [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
*Editor’s picks

What He’s Been In:

Culkin, 21, got his start in films alongside his older brothers, Macaulay and Kieran (often as their younger brother or version of their character), in the films The Good Son, Richie Rich and Igby Goes Down (in which he has a few good scenes with Bill Pullman). While he has had roles in Hollywood films as a more established actor (though, still young), like his supporting role in Signs, Culkin has found a good niche for himself in indy films, appearing in a number of good ones: The Chumscrubber, Lymelife (starring with his brother Kieran) and Twelve. He also had a role in Down in the Valley.


Culkin’s breakthrough came with his supporting work in 2000’s You Can Count on Me, about a single mother’s life that is thrown into turmoil when her troubled younger brother returns to town. Kenneth Lonergan’s film features strong scenes between Laura Linney and Culkin, which led to Culkin receiving a Young Artist Award for Supporting Actor and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Newcomer. He got his first leading role in 2004’s Mean Creek, an excellent film about a teen bully who is lured into the woods with devious and tragic intentions. Jacob Aaron Estes’s film showcased fantastic performances from its young cast, especially Culkin and Carly Schroeder, garnering two Independent Spirit Awards – John Cassavetes Award and a Special Distinction Award for the ensemble cast.

April Film:

In April Culkin stars alongside Emma Roberts (another star to watch; it is also Culkin’s third film with Roberts), Hayden Panettiere, Erik Knudsen, and Lucy Hale among other young actors, veteran actors and returning cast members in Scream 4 (along with Culkin and Roberts, I am excited by Alison Brie and Kristen Bell being a part of the cast). The film is being positioned as a new generation take on the Scream franchise, but fans of the original trilogy will be happy as many cast members are returning (at least those still alive) and Wes Craven is directing. It should be a lot of fun for genre fans.


In 2012, Culkin co-stars in Hick with a great cast: Chloe Grace Moretz (another star to watch), Blake Lively, Juliette Lewis, Alec Baldwin, and Eddie Redmayne. Reuniting with his Lymelife director Derick Martini, the film is about a Nebraska teen (played by Moretz) who decides to set out to Las Vegas. Once there, she releases that the city is more than just bright lights but dangerously uncharted for a young girl. Scream 4 being his first big Hollywood film since Signs, its success could see Culkin land more mainstream fare going forward.

Career Highlights:

1.)    Igby Goes Down (2002) – supporting* [DVD/Rent]
2.)    Signs (2002) – supporting [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
3.)    Mean Creek (2004) – lead* [DVD/Rent]
4.)    The Chumscrubber (2005) – supporting [DVD/Rent]
5.)    Lymelife (2008) – lead [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
6.)    Twelve (2010) – supporting [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
*Editor’s picks

What She’s Been In:

Gerwig, 27, wanted to be a playwright as she studied English and philosophy at Barnard College, but got into acting too when she took a minor role in Joe Swanberg’s LOL in 2006 while still in school. She also starred in his next two films Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends (both of which she co-wrote). Starring with Mark Dunlap in Hannah Takes the Stairs, she got a role in his next directed film with his brother JayBaghead. While still a very indy film, it did get some notoriety for the directing brothers and Gerwig. She also got a supporting role in the well-received indy horror film The House of the Devil. Early this year, she starred as Natalie Portman’s best friend in the romantic comedy No Strings Attached (her first Hollywood movie). While the film is entertaining but not great, there is a lot of funny material and moments highlighted by Gerwig’s performance, which is wonderful (she steals the film with not much screen time).


Gerwig’s more mainstream (but not totally) breakthrough came last year in Noah Baumbauch’s Greenberg, co-starring Ben Stiller. The film is about a New Yorker who moves to Los Angeles to figure out his life. He housesits for his brother and falls for his brother’s assistant (played by Gerwig). The film has fantastic performances from Stiller and Gerwig, and will probably best be remembered for launching her career into bigger roles (film critic A.O. Scott said she “may well be the definitive screen actress of her generation” based on her performance in the film) – and just like that, a star was born (at least for those that watch more indyish fare).

April Film:

In April Gerwig co-stars with Russell Brand in Arthur, a remake of the 1981 Dudley Moore film, about a man-child who stands to lose his very wealth inheritance when he falls for a woman his mother does not like. She suggests a more suitable arrangement. Thus, Arthur must decide if he wants to give up his life of luxury to take a chance on love. Gerwig plays his love interest, while Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner, Nick Nolte, and Luis Guzman feature in supporting roles. The film looks like it could be potentially funny and entertaining (but probably not good), and at the least worth renting for Gerwig’s performance.


Hopefully coming soon to DVD, Gerwig has Northern Comfort, about two strangers that cross paths on their way to Canada. She stars and co-wrote this indy film. Later this year, she stars in Damsels in Distress (taking a break from Hollywood comedies) by writer-director Whit Stillman (who is known for his very good film Metropolitan), about three girls who take it upon themselves to revolutionize life at a grungy East Coast university. The film co-stars Megalyn Echikunwoke and Carrie MacLemore, featuring supporting work from Analeigh Tipton, Adam Brody, Alia Shawkat, and Aubrey Plaza (from Parks and Recreation). While Gerwig has a good place for herself in indy films currently, I hope she finds a few good big projects in the future.

Career Highlights:

1.)    Baghead (2008) – lead [DVD/Rent]
2.)    The House of the Devil (2009) – supporting [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
3.)    Greenberg (2010) – supporting [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
4.)    No Strings Attached (2011) – supporting [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
*Editor’s picks