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Out in Theaters: ‘THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN’

It certainly won’t work to The Girl on the Train’s advantage to be compared to David Fincher’s Gone Girl but the proximity of the two properties – both feature strong female leads, are based on best selling novels and center on soapy surburian murder mysteries – make such comparisons as unavoidable as they may be unfavorable for director Tate Taylor. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘HIGH-RISE’

In 2011, Ben Wheatley proffered one of the horror genre’s best new finds in Kill List. In this sophomore feature, Wheatley showed a fierce command of the film medium, creating a dizzying religious parable set among a world of violent crime and ethereal justice with dreamlike sadistic cults operating levers best left unmolested. And though Kill List fit most easily into the horrorscape because of its acrid use of bloodshed and razor wire tension, it also established a director predominantly preoccupied with splicing genres together. He did so again with 2012’s brilliant black comedy Sightseers, blending elements of horror and dark English satire, and once more in 2013’s wildly experimental, black and white historical drama/“horror” film A Field in England, though to lesser effect.   Read More

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Tom Hiddleston Totally Loses It in Insanely Awesome ‘HIGH-RISE’ Trailer

Director Ben Wheatley is perhaps the most underrated name in the horror game and his latest, High-Rise, looks to continue his streak of being a total badass with a camera. High-Rise will be the director’s fifth feature film effort – coming off the heels of the rather eccentric A Field in England – and has the potential to live up to Kill List and Sightseers, easily two of the best post-millennium horror movies bar none. Wheatley has proved a capacity to drastically alter his style, with Kill List being an unrelenting, absolutely terrifying horror show, Sightseers landing with much more darkly-tinted comedic barbs and A Field in England being, well, A Field in England, so it makes sense that High-Rise looks nothing like anything the director has delivered in the past. Read More

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Out in Theaters: THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES

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For all the huffing and puffing we’ve done over Peter Jackson‘s Hobbit trilogy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is one big juicy payoff. For story look elsewhere, as Jackson’s latest is a smorgasbord of VFX battle scenes, one right after the other for practically the entire running time. Those not looking for elf-on-dwarf-on-man-on-orc action ought to look elsewhere as this is literally the foundation, the studs and the dry wall of this movie. Those thinking that sounds pretty, pretty good, rejoice, as this third Hobbit installment is Jackson’s most bombastic to date. Somehow it’s also his most restrained and the tightest of the series as well; it’s shorter and battle-ier than any LOTR-related installment and only has one ending. Color me satisfied.

Picking up in the midst of the Smaug v. Laketown populace face-off that Desolation of Smaug capped off on, The Battle of the Five Armies wastes little time dispensing with the namesake of the second film. From the get-go, this is a narrative charged with finality and doesn’t purport to drag its feet getting there. In past Hobbit installments, Jackson has made brevity his enemy and this opening pre-title card sequence makes fast work of ejecting old habits while setting the stage for that golden payday at the end of the tunnel. Call it a marketing strategy if you must but I believe Jackson’s claim that this third entry is his favorite of the prequel trilogy. You can finally taste his passion again.

In the smoldering ashes of a battle equally won and lost, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) is now a certifiable hero while Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), atop an insurmountable pile of loot, battles a monkey on his back that’s poisoning him against his fellow Dwarf companions and the increasingly faithful Bilbo (Martin Freeman). Dragon’s gold is said to hold that kind of sway and within this internal battle Armitage is afforded the opportunity to flesh out the themes of paranoia and addiction that have been bubbling to the surface in these Lord of the Rings prequels. Studying the not-so-subtle nuance of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s source material and his very specific in-book relationship to the idea of addiction, it’s clear that there’s no short pathway to redemption in Tolkein’s Middle Earth. For all his struggles, Gollum is never redeemed. Boromir ends up a pincushion for his once ring-craving. And Frodo and Bilbo ultimately end up shipped off to Elf rehab because they can never escape the sway of the ring. Ownership always ends in bloodshed and torment.

Jonesing over a stupid amount of wealth, Oakenshield’s internal battles get a touch hokey (the golden whirlwind of bad choice) but it’s his character’s pig-headedness and his fellow race’s predilection towards greed that becomes the fulcrum point of this five armies affairs. Everyone’s got their own legitimate or illegitimate claim to the fallen Smaug’s treasury and even in light of advancing enemies forces, struggle to band together to defeat a far greater foe. It’s thematic even if it does hit the nail on the head.

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But what am I on about? Jackson’s sixth never pretends to be anything more than smashing time at the Hulk convention. There’s enough f*cking battle to make Hitler jealous (guy was a big fan of CGI.) An intercut twofer of big baddie fights pretty much occupies the entire third act. Turns out Orlando Bloom engaged in more gravity-defying elf-crobatics matches up with Armitage playing CrossFit with Azog the Sword-Armed like peanut butter and chocolate. For once in this series, I wasn’t just waiting for it to end. I was engrossed.

In chaos, Jackson excels. He makes big spectacle set pieces look grand beyond belief. From Smaug’s beautifully-rendered firebreather to copious stretches of advancing Orcs, The Battle of Five Armies is earmarked by a preeminent sense of technical mastership. The large-scale cacophony of peoples is a marvel to behold. Though 48 FPS (rightfully) went the way of the Balrog, I can imagine that this action-hectic film would have been breathtaking under the cowl of those next-gen glasses.

Rather than bake everything in a long string of fanfare, Jackson manages to tie things up rather quickly once the armies and their battles subside. Thank goodness. I don’t think the franchise could withstand a Return of the King triple decker ending.

From the humble (boring) beginnings of An Unexpected Journey to the foot-dragging musings of Desolation of Smaug, Jackson and Co. have depended upon a sense of nostalgia for the far superior Lord of the Rings to propel events forward in this cousin trilogy. Old characters have lent their personages and many, many moments of foreshadowing have splayed themselves like a cheap whores (“They call him Strider but you’ll have to figure out his real name for yourself”) but while Five Armies hits on more of the same notes – more steely-eyed, bratty-boy Legolas, more “remember him?” Ian Holms, more Gandalf scraping his pipe and packing a bowl – it does so with a dreadful amount of fun.

B-

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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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