Saturday, September 27, 2014

Blue Ruin (2013)

JohnnyTwoToes discovers what maybe perhaps one of the best films of the year

Blue Ruin is a masterful piece of work from Jeremy Saulnier, He is a cinematographer whose only credit as a director is from an other film called Murder Party from 2007. I have never seen it but now that I have seen Blue Ruin, I will be seeking it out. Saulnier has shot 14 films and counting. Some short films and documentaries but this film will surely get him the recognition he deserves. It reminds me of the Coen brothers classic film noir, Blood Simple from 1984 about a hit on a bar owners cheating wife that goes wrong. Blue Ruin has some of the same style that Blood Simple has but it also is a revenge classic in its own league. 

Macon Blair plays Dwight. He is homeless and in the very first scene has broken into a house for a bath only to scoot out the window when the owners come home. He actually is living out his car on a Virginia beach when a kindly police officer brings him in to tell him that the man who killed Dwight's parents many years ago has been released. Dwight understandably is enraged and sets out to exact revenge but although he is smart, he is out of his depth. The people he is dealing with are career criminals that are not about to lay down. When the carnage starts, it has unexpected consequences for Dwight but he knows he must see this though to the end. 

Blair is phenomenal. I have never seen him in a film before this one and he plays Dwight as a kind person who NEEDS revenge. He does not crave it but NEEDS it. Dwight has never been much but he has always been able to provide for himself, except in the ways of the criminal world. It is here he learns a lot about how dark people are and the evil that is within. Blair is strong and capable but very naive in revenge. To the point you wonder if he can outlast his criminal counterparts. 

There is not one dull moment in Blue Ruin. The tension is palpable and you cannot guess how this will end. I won't say more about the plot because it would give too much away and Saulnier captures the tension perfectly. There was a knot in my stomach for the entire length of this film and he keeps the pressure on never letting up. Saulnier's script is intelligent and he has an ear for how people talk and behave. 

Dwight is no hero, but a man who demands blood for blood and Saulnier's direction and screenplay understand Dwight's psychological drive. Saulnier never overplays his material and he never dumbs it down. He keeps Blue Ruin, sharp, clever, witty (in spots) and chock full of energy for this material. Brooke and Will Blair (presumably siblings of the film's star who also executive produced) provide a minimally ambient score that is quite effective, but sadly, as of this writing it is unavailable. 

Blue Ruin is on DVD now and is making its way around the independent theaters, as well. Take this film anyway you can get it. It is a special little film that has no big budget (it was funded via a Kickstarter campaign), and made less than 300,000 at the box office but it did get an award winning Cannes Festival premiere! I would say Blue Ruin is every bit as good as Blood Simple and in some ways even better. Watch it, it is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year. Blue Ruin-**** out of 4

Monday, September 22, 2014

Under the Skin (2013)

Richly original but not for everyone, JohnnyTwoToes explains 

As a huge fan of Jonathan Glazer's mob masterpiece Sexy Beast, I did not wait to catch his latest sci-fi film Under The Skin from Comcast. I purchased it on DVD and eagerly ripped open the disc from its confining encasement. I honestly think people would benefit from knowing what the plot is before they watch this leisurely paced, but beautifully shot art house film. This is DEFINITELY considered art house, too.

Scarlett Johansson is a mysterious drifter who seduces men in the Scottish countryside. She is an alien who has nefarious plans for her partners. If people know that going into this film, they might be more inclined to be patient with its rather slow pacing in spots. None of the characters are given any names and Johansson's alien shows very little mercy to her victims, at first. As the film progresses, she begins to transform into something more human though. Someone able to feel pity, sadness and ecstasy but still be confused about who she is. 

Under The Skin is about one hour and forty minutes and there were times I felt it. There are long shots of mysterious men on motorcycles off in the distance who, I believe, are friends (or fellow aliens) of the female alien. Her insatiable appetite for flesh seems to keep a team of 3 motorcyclists in a constant state of searching either for her or fresh victims. 

The cinematography is stunning and Johansson is truly magnificent to watch. Her performance, good looks aside, is worthy of some Oscar contention. She encompasses all of the emotions a young girl of that age would have, as I would imagine, anyway, She can be cold blooded but still be taken back with pity from a horribly disfigured young man who reveals he has never even touched a girl before. She also experiences the effects of her own lovemaking with a genuine sense of scared confusion. 

The script, by Glazer and Walter Campbell based on the novel by Michel Faber is minimal on dialogue but what the characters say seems real and rather unscripted. They seem to know what to say to one another and what not to say as real people would. Glazer takes his time saying it, too. 

Most people will give up on this film, to be honest. It takes a patient person who can appreciate an alien film of a different nature. Sometimes I am not that person, however in Under The Skin, there was enough to see here that I kind of enjoyed this film. The score, by first time composer Mica Levi is a mostly abrasive mix of electronics and acoustical instruments that add to the general creepiness of the landscape. There is a constant sense of isolation for the alien and I felt it, too and the ending is especially well done. 

If someone was to ask me how would I describe Under The Skin, I would say it is like the film Species, only with no visual effects, per say, about half of the nudity, with virtually no violent action, no big name stars (except Ms. Johansson). Some nights I want Species. On this night I wanted Under The Skin

After reading this review, most people will be able to make up their own minds what they want. I would put this on the same category as The Counselor; not for everyone and you have to be in the mood for a quietly moody and creepy film. But if that is what you are looking for then Under The Skin is for you. Under The Skin-*** out of 4

Monday, September 15, 2014

Tori Amos - From the Choirgirl Hotel (1998)

Remembering Tori Amos best selling album again! 

While the multi-talented American singer, songwriter, pianist and composer Tori Amos’ 1996’s Boys for Pele, left most fans and critics scratching their heads, her stellar fourth studio album From the Choirgirl Hotel released in 1998 found her returning to the electronica infused baroque pop rock form that first made her originally famous. Tori crafted an inimitable style on the ground-breaking albums Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, and From the Choirgirl Hotel has more in common with those discs than with Boys for Pele

Tori’s lyrics are still as complex and confusing as ever. On the radio hit "Jackie’s Strength," for example, Tori weaves an indecipherable web that involves her wedding, Camelot, black magic, anorexia, and mooning David Cassidy. I don’t claim to understand the song, and I wouldn't trust anyone who claims that they do. Even though the song’s lyrics are beyond comprehension, Amos gives them such a powerful delivery that it’s clear the song has some meaning (even if Tori is the only one who knows what it is). "Jackie’s Strength" highlights the core of Tori Amos’ appeal – she can sing just about any lyric and make her listeners feel that they can relate. She has such an emotional voice that she makes you feel the meanings more than you can comprehend them. 

From the Choirgirl Hotel features some of Amos’ most accessible songs since Little Earthquakes. The lush, atmospheric Top 40 hit "Spark" kicks off the album, and it contains a few fairly obvious references to Amos’ then miscarriage. It’s anything but your typical radio single, but then Amos is anything but your typical performer. This is the woman who had the nerve to cover Nirvana’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and the Stones’ "Angie" on the same single. 

Amos dabbles in numerous styles on From the Choirgirl Hotel, from the haunting sounds of "Black-Dove (January)" to the techno-influenced 2 Grammy nominated "Raspberry Swirl" to the rock-flavored "She’s Your Cocaine." But the album’s focus never strays far from its voice-and-piano center, giving all the songs on the album a sense of unity. From the Choirgirl Hotel is a complex and emotional album that gets better with repeated listenings. This is a great 90s alt rock album you don’t want to miss.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Hercules (2014)

Strictly for Rock Fans, JohnnyTwoToes tells you why!

I was overruled by my wife who INSISTED that we see Hercules OVER Guardians of The Galaxy. It seems she does not think she could get past a talk raccoon with the voice of Bradley Cooper. But she can look past Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson battling a 3 or 4 headed wolf and an abnormally large lion with an indestructible hide, a multi-headed hydra beast and so on an so forth? I guess when you look like The Rock and you are a female you can look past anything. I can look past almost anything when it comes to Jessica Biel, so there! 

Hercules is the latest film by Brett Ratner, the man who brought us the Rush Hour films with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. Most of his films have a standard amount of humor and Hercules is no exception. In this latest incarnation, the mysterious persona of Hercules may or may not be true but Hercules and his band of merry mercenaries don't seem to mind and use it to their advantage. When called upon to rescue King Cotys (John Hurt) and his empire from the evil Tydeus and his army, Hercules and his cohorts get more than they bargained for as they find out things are not as they seem. Most of which are just set pieces for characters to scream and give speeches about seizing the day for glory on the battlefield. 

The casting of Hercules is excellent with Johnson as the title role, Hurt, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes, Tobias Santelmann, Peter Mullan, Rebecca Ferguson and Ingrid Bolso Berdal. All of these performers do well in their roles. There is a nice dose of humor and writers Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopulos spread the jokes pretty evenly to all of the characters. But, I found myself more interested in the simply stunning Ingrid Bolso Berdal as Atalanta, the Amazonian archer who has enough sexual charisma for 3 films. Fortunately for me, she was a good guy and did not have to meet a horrible end as the bad guy does. When Berdal is on screen for me, everyone else simply paled in comparison, even The Rock. The Rock is an underrated actor and he does have the ability to carry a film even as mediocre as Hercules. 

This is not a bad film and no one embarrasses themselves but there are enough cliches that I began to look at my watch about half-way through. I mean, how many training montages set to music do we have to sit through as Hercules and his warriors transform a bunch of ragtag losers into a fierce fighting army? How many double crosses do we have to endure? There were some that were so obvious that they were as noticeable as floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Really! Still, to say Hercules was awful would not be true. 

The acting is competent and Fernando Velazquez's score is boisterous fun and Dean Spinotti's cinematography has some shots that take your breath away. You could do far worse for a lazy, hot Sunday afternoon. Am I recommending this? Not quite. Only because I know there are other films out there that are far better. But if you have to see something that requires little brain power and has some fun then Hercules could be for you. As Robin Williams once said, "Not all films can be Shakespeare." Hercules-**1/2 out of 4

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