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Out in Theaters: ‘WARCRAFT’

Warcraft, the uber-geeky, crazy-spendy passion project/live-action shart from director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) attempts to capitalize on a prodigious worldwide fandom by kowtowing to the nerdy needs of message board trolls and Mountain Dew guzzlers. In bending the knee, the once-great auteur has log-jammed his feature with a waterfall of meaningless (at least to non-World-of-Warcraft-gamers) exposition, allowing for a marble-mouthed plot that’s so dense, so busy and so blundering, one can only shudder at the thought of the echo chamber of dorks responsible for letting this 160-million dollar turkey come to fruition. But their foul cinematic foal has come home to roost in all its Avian-diseased glory and the symphony of ill-timed laughs and exasperated sighs shall serve as unbiased representation of what is in store for Warcraft viewers. Reckless fan servicing, harebrained plot devices and dramatically empty characterization all mash their meaty skulls to render a film that’s entirely inaccessible and subsequently snoozy as all hell for anyone without extreme existing affinity for the source material, making Warcraft, in effect, the world’s most expensive sleep aid. Read More

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Out in Theaters: DRACULA UNTOLD

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Let me tell you an untold story: a bunch of studio execs crowd in a room. The air is thick with the fumes of aged (pronounce age-ed) scotch, the carpet stamped in the cookie cutout of a Louis Vuitton heel. The unpaid Lambo payments and hefty beachside mortgages are palpable. “How can we play the franchise game without shelling royalties to a greedy parent company?” The question all kids dream of answering someday. The words hang. Their answer is a lightbulb: unlicensed public property characters. Like Hercules! Or Frankenstein! Pump out films about characters that’ve been around for infinity because easy money. There’s literally no one in that Wolfman family tree coming forward to claim a check when Benicio dons a hairy mask. “I know! What about Dracula?” Penny saved, penny earned. This seems about the extent of thought that birthed this (dis)passion project that is Dracula Untold. In the petri dish that is the studio system though, this revisionist take on a monster movie classic actually (amazingly) transformed into something half-worthwhile; an appropriately enjoyable bad movie.

About 30 minutes into Dracula Untold, Vlad the Impaler (not the most welcoming moniker) comes face-to-face with an aged (again, age-ed) vampyre played by Game of ThronesCharles Dance (ol’ toilet Tywin.) I say vampyre and not vampire because connotation motherfucker. Modern vampires sparkle in the sun and feel guilt over vanting to suck your vlood. Vampyres hide in the darkness. They clink their bird-like talons menacingly. They don’t hook up with underage vixens. But if they did, it’d be cool by me. Klaus Kinski is a vampyre. Edward Cullen is a vampire. Willem Dafoe is a vamypre. Brad Pitt is a vampire. This floury-faced Charles Dance is a mo-fo-ing vampyre and it’s freakin’ awesome. He and Vlad face off in the belly of a carcass-littered cavern as Dance shows off his massive proclivity for unparalleled menacing. The guy breathes threats. His pores leak evil. I wish the entire movie had been him in that cave. Hell he could have been muttering about his precious and I woulda been hooked.

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The issue is, outside of that cave, the movie’s not quite as good. It’s got its moments but is weighed down by its need to turn to the teenagers in the audience and connect plot points with mind-numbing exposition. And that’s not a potshot at teenagers so much as a studio who demands everything be dumbed down to Larry the Cable Guy levels. Because America. In a generation where 4th Graders are apparently hard to beat at game shows, can’t we just leave out the bits where Vlad’s tow-headed wife Mirena, played by the absolutely beautiful and absolutely dreadful Sarah Gadon, has to explain things to us like we’re being tucked into bed wanting to know why the sky is blue. It’s not her fault that the script plays towards the ESL crowd but her character is a putrid thing of convenience, morphing scene to scene to fit the narrative propulsion du jour. But unlike Mirena, spousey Drac is playing at his own kind of game.

Luke Evans is Vladula and for a guy whose career resembles a Seattle Transit bus (always startin’ and stoppin’, amiright?!) he’s quite solid in the role. There’s just enough pathos to his internal battle, just enough roaring fire behind his eyes to sell a battered past and a gilded warrior’s soul. It doesn’t help that his history (told in an absolutely dreadful pre-credits scene) apparently involves rising in the ranks of a Turkish child army and then being crowned prince (cuz that’s what people with the surname Impaler DO!) but it’s forgivable enough because Evans is solid cool. Not quite cool enough to be a vampyre but at least he’s not full blown vampire.

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That’s in large part due to his little deal with the devil. In order to stop an army of Turks led by a motivation-less but nonetheless dickish Mehmed, played by the not-at-all-Turkish Dominic Cooper, to-be-Dracula makes a truce with ol’ papa Lannister: he gains the power of a vamp for three days but if he gives into the insatiable desire for human vlood, he’ll be forced to stay that way FOR-EV-AH. That means no more beach days, no more crispy garlic chicken and no more steaks. Or is it stakes? Both I guess. I’ll never quite understand why vamps dig blood so much but won’t crunch into a nice bleu ribeye. But I digress.

With the power of Satan at his disposal, Vlad is a one man army. A battle scene where he discovers the extent of his powers is as fun as it is poorly choreographed but whatever, watching one man versus a thousnad Turks is just the kind of absurdist fanfare I expected from a movie called Dracula Untold. Two more GoT alums show up (Paul Kaye aka Thoros of Myr and Art Parkinson aka Rickon aka the most useless Stark around) just to verify that this is indeed a period piece. Because it’s not a modern day period piece without a cast member or two (or in this case three) from Game of Thrones. Suck on that Hercules.

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You could blame director Gary Shore for clunky camera work but seeing as it’s his first effort and his DP also worked on the aesthetically useless The Amazing Spiderman, it’s hard to shovel all the visual headaches on his grave alone. In fact, it’s kind of a miracle that he turned Dracula Untold from a totally lifeless money-generator into something as mildly enjoyable as it is. In a year that’s seen an incredible amount of these revisionist storybook films rape their way into theaters, Dracula Untold is probably the cream of the crop.

Don’t get me wrong, this is by no means a good movie, nor is there much going on beneath it, but it’s a thoroughly entertaining, fittingly dumb entry to a genre that is often devoid of entertainment value and more numb than dumb. And while the comparison may seem minuscule, it’s the difference between autism and being brain dead. One you can hold a somewhat handicapped conversation with while you bring flowers for the other. Me being me, I’d take the autistic kid every time.

C-

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Out in Theaters: NEED FOR SPEED

“Need for Speed”
Directed by Scott Waugh
Starring Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson, Ramon Rodriquez, Michael Keaton
Action, Crime, Drama
121 Mins
PG-13

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Need For Speed
is the kind of movie that the descriptor “high octane” was conceived for. It’s dumb but technically competent enough to pander to the NASCAR hillbilly types and Formula One engine snobs at once. But with neck-breaking car stunts and tightrope tension, it’ll keep your posterior numb and your adrenaline glands humming. Promising that if you get up for a bathroom break, you’re sure to miss something, Need for Speed rockets forth at breakneck speeds, blasting past the roadblocks of story beats and into head-on collisions with nonsense. In the very least, Scott Waugh has seemed to eek past the first set of crash dummy drafts as the undeniably cinematic experience he presents seems more finely tuned than one might first expect. It’s no Chauser but, at the very least, it won’t require you to strap in for a crash course on idiocracy.  

Setting the events to a ticking clock is a bit of a stroke of genius on screenwriter George Gatin‘s behalf as this provides the perfect framework for a movie about fast cars driving fast that has little to offer outside of the temptation of increasingly sleeker, and more European, cars set against an Imogen Poots stripping down layers by the ten minute marker. It’s seduction 101 and it works wonders.

As a movie based on a video game, Speed hits all the marks of mainstream adaptation one would expect, complete with shameless product placement and leggy blondes to ogle at. But beneath the veneer of corporate construction, this is a movie that reaches slightly above the plastic wrappings of strict VG adaptations. There’s obvious fun taking place beyond the lens and, thankfully, it’s the kind of fun we can actually revel in.

Michael Keaton, for one, is having the time of his life and his hammy performance as the illusive Monarch is representative of Need for Speed at large. As he goofs into the mic, accessorized with gaudy, almost Elvis-esque, shades and a flashy wardrobe, he’s the ridiculous meta commentary this kind of movie needs. He’s the outlet for the film’s sarcastic self-mockery and only with his kind of wink-wink-nudge-nudge attitude is Need for Speed able to get away with all its gravity-defying shenanigans.

Piping hot off the untouchable success of Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul is given a chance to reinvent his image in this more mainstream, but still mostly antihero, personality. Moving away from his persona of forlorn but corruptible Jesse Pinkman and into a guy that we can feasibly buy as a studio action figure, Paul, like Jesse in his fleeting moments, has started down a long and windy road. Even though he’s been (mostly) shaved clean and (as far as we know) isn’t at any point addicted to meth, he shares the chiseled brand of intensity – raging yet dopey – that we’ve come to know spending time with Jesse. For his part though, Paul’s still immensely watchable. We see the gears work as Paul faces the canals of yet another moral trauma; the ticktock of a man on the edge of his rope. No one does wounded like Paul. He’s got haunted down pat.

But regardless of how many times Paul and Waugn try to push the idea that Need for Speed is nothing like Fast and the Furious, don’t believe a word of it. What we’ve got here is very much in the same wheelhouse and a good hair below in quality. Beyond the cars, crimes and carnage, the biggest similarity is the ensemble-driven cast. Speed, whether intentionally or not, seeks to recreate a familiar team of interracial, eclectic banditos. We’ve got the wisecracking black man, the reliable Latino, the standard cut white dude and a vaguely Middle Eastern mechanical genius. It is a surprise however that Scott Mescudi (or Kid Cudi as he’s known in hip hop circles) stands out most amongst a dudery that includes Dominic Cooper, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson and Ramon Rodriquez. I guess there’s something behind the unadulterated charisma of rappers that translates well into onscreen supporting characters. Who knew?

C

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