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Monday, October 20, 2014

Why Gangster Film REVENGE OF THE GREEN is DRAGONS Especially Relevant Right Now

Police brutality and racial prejudice has once again become the topic of discussion in the U.S. recently with the controversial stop and frisk practices in New York often targeting Blacks and Latinos, as well as the horrific aftermath of the shooting of an unarmed Black teen by a White cop in Ferguson, Missouri -- which sparked a national discussion on Twitter and beyond. But in our ongoing conversation about these serious events, we often neglect to discuss how other marginalized races in America have been affected by police injustice.

Which is what makes a film like REVENGE OF THE GREEN DRAGONS so relevant right now. It goes beyond the story of the rise of the prominent Chinese gang in New York City 1980s by exposing how a virtual war was brewing right underneath the noses of the NYPD without so much of an acknowledgement. The notion is--and the gang is very savvy about this--as long as the crimes only involved other Asian gangs or victims, police won't pay them any mind. In short, murder became legal as long as it was acted against their own kind.

It's a bold statement which still reflects today's society, sadly. Directors Wai-keung Lau (Infernal Affairs) and Andrew Loo take on the enormous task of not only bringing to light a buried truth in this country but also illuminating this story through the eyes of a generally unknown cast--in a way that resonates and rises up to the level of classic modern gangster films.

While executive producer Martin Scorsese's (who remade Infernal Affairs with The Departed) influence is sure to be found in pockets of the film (especially when it the tone shifts between hyper violence and petty romance), Lau and Loo (the latter who co-wrote the film with Michael Di Jiacomo) definitely have a heavy hand when it comes to the execution of each scene and the persistent slow-motion shots.

What also stands out in the film is, of course, the riveting story that follows Sonny (Justin Chon) from the meek adopted son of a Chinese restaurant worker to becoming one of the biggest threats in the gang. Coincidentally, we only see him actually kill someone once, as a child in the initiation stage who's brought in to finish a guy who originally pegged as his friend's target. While the two, childhood friends and brothers in the truest sense, rise up the ranks of the gang it is Sonny who sees beyond the crew while his friend Steven (Kevin Wu) sees his alliance with the gang as an inevitable means to an end--one which fills him with as much power as dread. With a feeble romance between Sonny and Tina (Shuya Chang) waiting in the wings, the friends must contend with dangerous head honcho Paul Wong (Harry Shum Jr.), irresponsible law enforcement led by Ray Liotta's Detective Bloom, and their own fates.

Chon and Wu, with Shum, hold their own on screen as the main characters in the film, but Eugenia Yuan as a fierce puppet master commands each of the few scenes she's in with even just a rise of an eyebrow. With a ending you'll never see coming, REVENGE OF THE GREEN DRAGONS is a solid crime drama that presents an alternative to the typical American gangster film often about a white man wreaking havoc. Lau and Loo are forces to be reckoned with. Your move, Scorsese.

Rating: A- (**** out of *****)

REVENGE OF THE GREEN DRAGONS is in theaters October 24th. Watch the trailer here,

Friday, October 17, 2014

Watch the Official Trailer for EXTRATERRESTRIAL, the New Horror Film from the Vicious Brothers

I won't rehash my review of EXTRATERRESTRIAL in this post, mainly because this is the type of film that will likely defy critical opinion (but if you're curious, you can read it here). Since the Vicious Brothers' (Grave Encounters) new alien horror film is on VOD today, you may be interested to check out the official trailer. First, here's a little background info on the movie in the following synopsis:

From The Vicious Brothers, the creators of Grave Encounters comes a different kind of encounter, one of 'EXTRATERRESTRIAL' origin. Still reeling from her parents’ divorce, April (Daytime Emmy winner, Brittany Allen) is dragged back to the vacation cabin she spent fond summers at as a child accompanied by a group of friends. Her trip down memory lane takes a dramatic and terrifying turn when a fireball descends from the sky and explodes in the nearby woods. Lead by her boyfriend, played by Freddie Stroma (Harry Potter & The Half Blooded Prince, Pitch Perfect), the group venture out toward the crash site and discover the remnants of a ship from another planet along with footprints that suggest its alien occupants are still alive. The college friends soon find themselves caught in the middle of something bigger and more terrifying than anything they could ever imagine.

Watch the clip:

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Trailer for TOP FIVE Isn't What I Was Expecting

So, when I first wrote about Chris Rock's TOP FIVE, I kinda thought that it would be, you know, good. I mean, it's really hard to tell what a film will be based on its trailer, so I'm going to try to take this one with a grain of salt. But, in my head, I had souped up the film to be witty and smart -- indicative of most of Rock's comedy. Or maybe that's just too high of an expectation.

It could be that the trailer reflects what you may already consider Rock to be, a successful comedian who's kinda stuck in a mid-career crisis, and not a more fresh comedy approach concept (or even something that moves away from both those things and builds off the tone of 2 Days in New York). In any case, it doesn't look bad, just...unexpected. Plus, it's filled with tons of star power like Kevin Hart and J.B. Smoove (both from BET's Real Husbands of Hollywood), Whoopi Goldberg, Cedric the Entertainer, Gabrielle Union and Rosario Dawson. So that's gotta amount to something. It actually kinda reminds me of Adam Sandler's Funny People, which I really liked (I know I'm in the minority with that).

Watch the trailer and let me know what you think:

TOP FIVE is in select theaters starting Dec. 5 and nationwide Dec. 12th

Review: BIRDMAN is a Meta Tale of Superheroes and Other Narcissists

It's interesting to me that in a film poised to revitalize the career of its star Michael Keaton, it is supporting actor Edward Norton who I can't seem to get out of my head. It's not because Keaton isn't spectacular in BIRDMAN (for the record, I've always known him as The Great Michael Keaton), it's that his character -- an old school superhero superstar-turned-flailing Broadway novice -- is so self-important, wallows in his own moroseness, desperately trying to rekindle his flamed-out celebrity status, such, you know, an actor that he just sorta drains all the energy out of the room. But Norton's character is the trendier version of him -- nihilistic, ubiquitous, self-indulgent but relevant and oddly entertaining. Keaton's character? He just crawls under your skin and stays there.

This idea of generational celebrity shift as it pertains to one actor in competition with his former self or with another actor is the pulse of Keaton's performance and, in a sense, Norton's as well. Keaton plays Riggan, a washed up actor in the middle of probably his fourth or fifth career reinvention as the new Broadway star, director and writer (of course) of the upcoming show, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (which is really just a story about Riggan, because he can't stop thinking about himself even when he's supposed to be writing about other characters). To say that Keaton's performance is art imitating life only reduces it and grossly overlooks the fact that the actor has consistently tackled a variety of roles that magnificently vary in not just intensity but quality  as well -- an ideal resume for a role like this. Riggan is estranged from his straight-out-of-rehab, brutally honest daughter Sam (Emma Stone), and the closest thing he's ever come to a real relationship was years ago with his ex wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), who's really just a distant friend out of obligation. Also, he can't seem to recapture the flourishing career he had back when he was once Birdman, a beloved superhero he played back in his heyday. No matter how hard he's tried to erase the alter ego from his celebrity image. Oh and... *cues the violins*.

The list goes on and on. He's unhappy, underappreciated, and battling inner demons (in this case, Birdman himself -- who may be friend or foe). Until he's forced to take a look at himself once he finally opens his eyes to the fact that he just may never be a star anymore in a world in which celebrity is more viral sensation that an indicator of talent (he refuses to open a Twitter account). Meanwhile, his newly appointed co-star Mike Shiner (Norton) gets it: this is the guy who probably has about 75 social media accounts and has found a way to be on all of them at once. If tanning is considered cool at all, he'll sleep inside a tanning booth if he has to, he'll date every budding actress he can find and say whatever out-of-pocket drivel that pops into his mind just to be on the cover of a magazine. And yet, he's also quite talented. He's able to be so in control of his celebrity persona that it drives someone like Riggan absolutely crazy (which isn't really a far trip). He puts on the act, plays the game in order to, by his own account, be able to put that all aside to go full method on stage. Norton masterly walks a tightrope between charm and empathy -- and succeeds on both levels.

BIRDMAN (OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) presents a fascinating dichotomy, a character study of self-absorption in which even when they're speaking to one another, no one is really listening. With the help of composer Antonio Sanchez, director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu draws you in to a series of tedious personal battles, heightened by the sound of jazz drum beats and the obsessive ticking of a clock as the story quickly unfolds within the tiny crevices of backstage at a Broadway theater. The physical and emotional claustrophobia is so unbearable that the actors playing the actors (I know, this is all so meta) often step out onto the street or onto the roof just to escape their own thoughts. In vain, because everyone else is out there doing the same thing but out loud. Iñárritu wonderfully recreates this ever hovering feeling of New York City's theater district -- down to the omnipresent racket of the random guy screaming on the street corner for no reason.

But though it gracefully taps into the deterioration of the human spirit, there's a strangeness to this story. While each character desperately looks to maintain or acquire acceptance in a world where they don't really belong, including the smaller characters played by Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and Zach Galifianakis, the element of the supernatural too often overwhelms these subtler, more touching nuances of the story. It's just so self-indulgent, so self-congratulatory from a filmmaker like Iñárritu (or any director, for that matter). There are a few scenes that I could have done without (watching Riggan literally fly high above buildings channeling Birdman is interesting in theory, but falls remarkably flat). Iñárritu often shifts from hyper meta to hyper extravagant any time he departs the snug safety and comfort of the St. James Theatre.

The penultimate sequence in the film brings us back to the main stage where Riggan finds an ironic loophole in his dwindling sense of self-- one so perfect for the film that I wish it ended right there. But in a film like this that is part dark comedy and part melodrama, it is only the fictional characters who can prevail while the actors playing them ultimately concede to their existence out of necessity.

I'd wager that BIRDMAN is the type of film that begs multiple viewings not only because it's worth the watch, but because there are so many new things you can pick up from it each time. The characters come alive with this rather random cast (outside of Keaton and Norton, who fit their roles like well worn gloves) that make much of the surrealism in the film work. It's not perfect (it can be exhausting at times, actually), but it says a lot about people, narcissism and the co-dependent relationship between actor and celebrity.

Rating; B+ (**** out of *****)

BIRDMAN is in theaters Friday. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

I Maybe Just Got A Little Excited About JURASSIC WORLD

Confession: I really haven't been paying much attention to this whole new Jurassic Park movie business. Steven Spielberg's original film released back in 1993 is jaw-dropping, unlike anything I'd see before. And since then I've avoided all the sequels in hopes to contain the original in a capsule of its own. But years later, when reports began to surface about a new film in the works, I grew concerned all over again. Why can't they leave this series alone??

Today I finally decided to look into JURASSIC WORLD and you know what? It doesn't sound so bad. In fact, it sounds like something I may want to see. So, I didn't realize Bryce Dallas Howard, Internet sensation Chris Pratt (I still haven't seen Guardians of the Galaxy) AND Judy Greer were in the movie. Guys, this is starting to look like a good film!

But of course the quality will also depend greatly on Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow's screenplay (the duo previously teamed up for Safety Not Guaranteed) and Trevorrrow's direction. Honestly, I remember not really loving Safety, but...I remain hopeful.

Check out a few images from the images:

All I need now is a trailer with a giant, hungry Tyrannosaurus Rex in it and I'd be all set. Hopefully that's coming soon. 

JURASSIC WORLD is scheduled to hit theaters June 12, 2015. Anyone else getting excited? 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

NYCC: What Distinguishes the Zombie Genre from Every Other Type of Horror

Out of all the subgenres of horror (and there are plenty), I still believe that none have been as compelling, vastly explored and consistently fresh as the zombie genre. From George A. Romero's groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead in 1968 to 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead, creators continue to churn out captivating stories that delve into the human experience and survival unlike any other genre -- horror or otherwise.

Some of the best and brightest zombie creators from literature and cinema gathered together to discuss this very topic at a New York Comic Con panel I attended last weekend titled Decade of the Dead: A Zombie-versary. Panelists Jonathan Maberry (New York Times bestselling author of "Dead of Night: A Zombie Novel"), Roger Ma (author of "The Zombie Combat Manual: A Guide to Fighting the Living Dead") gave their thoughts on the last ten years of zombie film and TV in a lively hour of conversation moderated by the co-creator of the SYFY channel's Z Nation, Craig Engler. Here's a great takeaway:

While many people often focus on the zombies, there's a deeper meaning behind most great stories that often leads back to the human connection. Maberry said, "What's so interesting about the zombie genre is that zombies generally don't have a personality, so the humans remain the center of the story. In fact, many fans don't realize that the title The Walking Dead refers to the humans, not the zombies." It's the humans who have to fight to survive knowing that this could be their last day on Earth. "Any story that makes the zombies the focus, loses the audience," Maberry added.
It's true that the humans' fight for survival is most absorbing to watch (and I'd also add understanding how a situation as unique as a zombie outbreak affects their sense of self and who they ultimately become when faced with death). But then I thought of Warm Bodies, which is more about the zombies' struggle with their humanity. It's also the only time I've seen a zombie gradually recompose and develop human capabilities. I've always wondered whether a zombie would even want to ever be human again, and how that would affect their zombie urges. What's also fascinating is that zombies are former humans, and some of them have just recently inhabited their zombie forms yet still feel so distant from humanity. The Walking Dead often plays with this concept: sometimes the zombies start exhibiting symptoms quickly after they've been exposed or bitten, while others are bitten and instantly shed their humanity.

Does it make a difference to the viewer whether the zombie is first introduced as a human rather than only ever being a zombie with actual characteristics? I feel more connected to a human-turned-zombie, but I can also understand how some may be drawn to a zombie like R in Warm Bodies who's quite distinct. But that goes back to the earlier theory that many of us are interested in the human aspect, even if the human aspect is provided by the zombie.

But hey, I also love a zombie to just be a zombie -- a slow-moving, human-eating villain with no name. There is, however, the idea of fast zombies, which are often found in more recent contributions to the genre. They get around quickly, but there is something about them that definitely leaves an impression, especially given that they're the rarer breed. Plus, their speed weakens the humans' chances of survival because it makes it difficult for them to be outran. So how does a human overcome this type of zombie? Well, fight them as if they were human. Ma went into greater detail from his book on how a human could utilize common weapons to annihilate a zombie (like, seriously explicit detail that even discusses how to properly bash in their skulls).

I could really go on and on about the zombie genre since it has been revitalized so often, which is perhaps the best thing about it. As Ma said, "Everyone has an opinion about the zombie genre. Even if they hate it, they've got something to say about it and what it means to them."

So now I must ask, what do you love most about the zombie genre? Or what do you dislike most about it?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Is DEAR WHITE PEOPLE More of a Movement Than a Film?

At the core of every great college film is its exploration of identity at an age when many of us are still trying to find a place in the world, when we are still struggling to discover who we are and who we want to be. In that sense, filmmaker Justin Simien's DEAR WHITE PEOPLE is no different. But the dramedy goes beyond the default teenage-early 20s existential dilemmas to introduce a new topic to the discussion that examines the question, What do you do when you're 20 years old and Black on a predominantly white campus?

It's a question that can move beyond the campus to the office or any other organization in which there is a clear minority, in which your race is seen first followed by your character. That's what makes DEAR WHITE PEOPLE so important is that it calls out the significant nuances that a particular set of people (in this case, Blacks) have to deal with when enveloped by a room filled with white people -- whether it be hair, skin tone or social differences. By setting the story on a college campus, it gives a voice to characters like Dee from Clueless, Charles from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jodi from Daria and Lamar from Revenge of the Nerds, who are faced with a unique set of challenges that are less about they're being minorities and more about intersectionality within the black culture and their struggle to be seen as something more than just a trending topic or object of satire.

But as great as the message is, and as hilarious as it is at times, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE struggles as a full-length film. While it is refreshing to see Simien tackle such subjects on the big screen as sexuality, closeted nerdom, and the power of conflict, the characters could have used a lot more fleshing out. As a result, they lack dimensions and are short changed. For instance, the always excellent Tessa Thompson (For Colored Girls) and Tyler James Williams (Everybody Hates Chris) play college students on separate yet equal sides of the minority spectrum. Lionel (Williams) is a Mumford and Sons listening, openly gay and openly nerdy young black man stuck living in an all-white and all-jerk frat house with an overwhelming number of idiots. A loner partly by choice and partly out of convenience, he's compelled to step out of his shell once tepidly treading the social in between on campus becomes impossible. Samantha (Thompson) is a radio deejay who many would call a rebel rouser, someone who will no longer stand for the status quo of social and racial injustices on campus, and has essentially become the face of the new rebellion (I really hate to use a Hunger Games reference here, but it applies). Unlike Lionel, her role on campus is distinct, even envied at times. But her appointed status, with all its prestige and notoriety, may also mean losing herself in the process. Both characters, while engaging, clearly represent very specific molds that we've seen before (though not in this context), but still manage to lack a connection with the audience because they are written as messages and not as people. Who are they beyond what they're supposed to represent?

The rest of the characters aren't drawn any differently in terms of their development. Simien's screenplay is spread quite thin, but most noticeably when it comes to the wide variety of characters he creates. Plus, the editing doesn't do it any favors. The film often shifts between scenes for no clear reason, which also makes it difficult to get truly invested in any of the smaller storylines. Specifically, Samantha has the potential to be more interesting had Simien made her character outside her "Dear White People" movement as significant as her popular cause. Luckily, in Thompson's capable hands, Samantha is more humanized, but she can only do so much given the script. Another good character in theory, Coco (Mad Men's Teyonah Parris in a solid performance), feels remote. Coco is a young woman who like everyone else is trying to find a way to stand out. So, as is often the case in this social media age, she creates an online identity that represents a countermovement to Samantha's "Dear White People," to elevate her social status. But we don't get to spend enough time with her to truly understand her. Why she does what she does, and what she learns by the end of the movie (if anything).

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE has a lot of great ideas, a wonderful cast with relatable and entertaining scenarios throughout, but I wonder whether what people will remember more -- the story or the messaging? Will it matter if one is weaker than the other?

Rating: B- (*** out of *****)

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE is in theaters Friday.

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