‘Hardcore Henry’ Review

Hardcore Henry is a frantic eight-ball, one fueled with the power and energy of Red Bull, prepubescent hormones and restless leg syndrome. It’s a jarring shot to the balls of static and relentless intensity, a film that’s at one both incredible and tedious in its execution from the first minute onward. Shot entirely on GoPro cameras strapped to the heads of professional life-risking stuntmen, it’s a gimmick of a movie that’s impeccable to its style and craft, but never quite able to deliver anything beyond its initial test reel. It’s exactly the type of cinematic experience that wins you over with its quick-edited trailers and death-defying in-your-face stunts, but one unfortunately never able to excel beyond its flimsy plot and confusing character motivations.

In an age of first-person shooting games and virtual reality simulations, is Hardcore Henry, the feature directorial debut of Biting Elbows’ frontman Ilya Naishuller, truly the future of cinema? It’s hard to say, but probably not. There are simply too many limitations in its admirable-but-mildly nauseating format to truly take off. At least, at this time. But there’s no denying the brass cojones on display here. In the right moments, it can, indeed, be just as batshit-crazy fun as it promises. But those moments often feel few-and-far between, especially after irksomely familiar set pieces and thinly-stretched plot mechanics make Naishuller’s first film more muddled and unintentionally haphazard in its execution.

Hardcore Henry is exactly the kind of looney, maniacal, politically incorrect, no-holds-barred balls-to-the-wall punk-rock extravaganza I should have loved. That I walked away feeling kinda sluggish, indifferent and beaten in all the wrong ways suggest that either I’m getting too old for these kinds of rodeos, or this movie wasn’t exactly what I hoped it would be. Either way, I couldn’t help but leave a little empty handed. Was it truly too hardcore, or was something lost in perspective here?

What constitutes as a plot in Naishuller’s is basically little more than a launching pad premise to get us from one POV action beat to the next POV action beat. Through the eyes of Henry, we’re transported into a futuristic holding cell where a beautiful young scientist named Estelle (Haley Bennett) reveals that our on-screen avatar has lost his left arm, left leg and a majority of his memory in an off-screen accident. He also, at least temporarily, lost his ability to speak. In the process of gaining mechanic limbs and readjusting to life after an extended coma, Estelle lays another bombshell: she and Henry are actually happily married together and will run away together after he recovers from this madness. But just as Estelle’s groundbreaking medical procedures are set into place, they’re attacked by Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a menacing warlord with Albino features who kidnaps Henry’s wife and kills her co-workers in the process. Set on revenge, our unseen lead is set to take action into his own hands until he runs into the mysterious Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a bizarre shapeshifter of a man who practically impervious to death and gives Henry directions on how he can save his love.

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From there, we follow Henry in a massive killing spree across Moscow as henchmen are slaughtered left-and-right and explosions, car crashes and gun-fire come a-plenty. So what’s not to love here? Well, it just too little, too late at this point. As much as the film would protest otherwise, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this before. In terms of plot structure, Hardcore Henry is noticeably inspired by the Crank movies, and sometimes in all the right, nitty gritty ways too. But this first-person spectacle has already been done in cinema by the likes of Enter the Void, Cloverfield, 2012’s Maniac remake, Chronicle, The Blair Witch Project and, well, basically any found footage movie ever made. Always Sunny also had an entire episode shown directly from Frank’s POV this season. The novelty isn’t in the idea so much but rather the execution. And in those terms, Naishuller’s debut feels a little too limited for its own good — despite the ever-visceral action on display throughout these 96 minutes.

To call the plot of Hardcore Henry nonsensical would be an understatement. Naishuller, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t give a damn whether or not any of this makes a lick of sense, so long as you follow along with the insanity and have a good time. And I’m always for having a good time. Maybe too much so, according to some of my friends. But Naishuller falsely assumes having video-game aesthetics means you don’t have to have a solid narrative. The main problem here is that most first-person shooter games generally have a plot — at least, as far as I can tell. I’m not much of a gamer, honestly, but I know most video games today have more than a threadbare series of events to keep gamers’ hands compulsively glued to their controllers. Though Hardcore Henry carries itself on the loosest of story threads, it can’t help but feel disorganized and discombobulated even within the confines of its straight-as-an-arrow focus.

The plot grows more scattershot than simply crazy, and while its goofiness is always inspired, its mythology fails to add up. It’s evident most things happen because the filmmakers thought it was just a fun idea at the time. For example, characters are elevating elementals just because it’s cool, dammit. And executive producer Copley’s loose-fitted backstory lets him play variety of supporting characters, each wackier than the last, just because it gives the District 9 star the chance to not only experiment with different wigs and costumes, but also pull an Edge of Tomorrow and constantly get murdered in a series of bizarre, downright comical ways. But all this does is kill any sense of stakes or tension. Henry is such a bona fide killing machine that he never truly feels at odds with his opponents and, therefore, it doesn’t seem like he’s in any serious risk or peril throughout the growingly monotonous, if exceptionally well-performed, action sequences. There are never any firm rules established in this universe, and while its off-the-cuff mentality is fun in certain contexts, it makes for a meandering film before long — one that also grows more repetitive and less impressive as it goes along.

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What’s more, the one-person viewpoint doesn’t allow the full scope of these incredible practical stunts get their full due. Only one motor chase sequence on a highway, seen heavily in the promotional materials, and the final climax fight get a full scope and widespread perspective. Everything else feels filtered and minimized, and that includes some of the neat production designs, impressive low-budget special effects and committed-to-the-teeth performances. Everyone involved, both in front and behind the camera, are really giving this one their all, and that Hardcore Henry doesn’t give them their full due is just a disservice to their amazing sacrifices and whole-hearted beliefs in Naishuller’s marginalized vision.

But one shouldn’t belittle what is accomplished here. It’s a valiant effort on everyone’s part, and while it’s not a full-on success, it’s filled with passion, dedication and wholehearted convictions at every first-person turn. Unfortunately, I didn’t love Hardcore Henry. In fact, I don’t even think I liked it all that much. But I respect its unapologetically tone and lowbrow kookiness in the face of adversity and ill-logic. But for all the winking absurdity and malicious imagination on display here, there’s just something missing here. It’s not heart, and it’s not brains. Though this is one dumb movie, it has every right to be. And it’s certainly not lacking persistence. What I guess it’s missing is follow-through, not in terms of execution but providing something we really, truly haven’t seen before, as promised to us from the very beginning.

Once you’re adjusted and familiar with the premise and gist of Naishuller’s first film, it doesn’t exceed itself beyond simple means. No matter how impressive its action can be, it begins to lose its stunning spark all-too-quickly. What worked so beautifully in small doses becomes aggravatingly dull after a while, all before even the half-hour mark. And that’s something I never thought I would say about this film. Beyond some of its questionable-at-best depictions of women and its underlying homophobia, Hardcore Henry is just a little too meager for its own good. Despite the sometimes unbelievable feats and off-the-cuff enthusiasm it transpires, it soon begins to feel wearisome at best and unbearable at its worst. And inspired moments inevitably become too little and too far in-between to salvage it from overwhelming boredom after all while. For a movie that calls itself hardcore, it feels just a little too light for its own well-being. And that’s a perspective I’m disappointed to take.

Rating: C+/C

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’10 Cloverfield Lane’ Review

Expectations are a weird thing, aren’t they? In a day-and-age where we feel entitled to know absolutely everything before we really know anything at all, it’s really hard these days for Hollywood to stay ahead of the game in any way, shape or form. And so, much like the first Cloverfield film eight years ago (?!), the announcement of 10 Cloverfield Lane was as much of a surprise as a major motion picture business can create these days. Diverting the attention of the public-at-large through the production codename Valencia, the unanticipated first trailer for what looked to be the much-desired, if largely-unexpected, sequel to the original monster hit (in more ways than one) came like a bombshell before Michael Bay’s 13 Hours this January, similar to the one Paramount also sprung for Cloverfield (back in the good old 1-18-08 days) before Bay’s first Transformers movie in summer 2007.

Like any production from J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot banner, it was another genius slice of marketing. Here comes this movie that literally had no buzz whatsoever, which is now among the most anticipated of the early new year. And we only have to wait another two-or-so months! It’s another testament to Abrams’ infamous mystery box. But if 10 Cloverfield Lane — the “blood relative” to the found footage film that shares its name, as producer Abrams has called it of late — proves anything, it’s that maybe the mystery box wasn’t shut tight enough. Even though the trailers almost gave away almost nothing, I couldn’t help but feel as though I knew exactly what I was getting with this one. My mind went in open, but I still had a pretty good idea of what giddiness I was getting into.

With his first feature film, director Dan Trachtenberg — whom many on the web may know best from his days co-hosting The Totally Rad Show — rattles us up with a taunt little jack-in-the-box of a movie, one that leaves up cringing, squirming and cavorting with delight in our seats waiting for the big, expected reveal to finally pop out. It’s a highly suspenseful thriller, not unlike the other film that shares 1/3rd of its title, but having lead us to believe the jack inside the box was going to appear one way, it’s hard not to get just a little disappointed when the doll that springs out the box is not quite the jester you were kinda hoping would appear. I guess I should explain a little more.

Don’t get me wrong: what you get here is well worth the time invested and spent. I doubt many will walk away thinking they were robbed a good movie. You get a wonderfully wrapped package, but what’s inside the gift box may not be the dollhouse you thought you put on your list. Enough with the toy metaphors, you say? Fair enough. I guess what I’m saying here is: there might be such a thing as promoting a movie too well. Because, sometimes, the clover you turn over may not have as many leafs as you thought.

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So let’s get to the nitty-gritty, shall we? Alright first off, is 10 Cloverfield Lane a sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield? Well I’m not sure, really. After mulling it over for a bit, I think it’s safe to say the answer is: no. At least, that’s my answer. Abrams could prove me wrong. He’s done it before. Does it have similar themes and  consistencies? Absolutely. Are the thrills and jump-scares effective, especially when surrounded by the booming intensity of IMAX speakers? Totally. Do they have some tie-ins with one another? They do, actually. I advise you to be on the lookout for the Slusho logo. That’s a key one I notice, even if it’s a little obvious. But of course, the characters are now completely different, the actors are recognizable, the setting is elsewhere, the camera is actually holstered by a tripod, related destruction doesn’t happen on-screen and, in fact, none of the events of the original film are mentioned, shown or addressed. Not even a little bit. I think this is as good a point as any to mention that, if you don’t want to know anything about this one, I would suggest not reading too much further. In short, it’s a good movie. But it has some problems.

Without getting into too many details, there are some monsters — just maybe not the ones you were initially expecting. This is at the heart of where I feel the promotional materials misdirected people, if even just a little bit here. I think it was a dirty trick on somebody’s part to include the Cloverfield monster’s semi-iconic roar in the promos. That’s a petty thing, I’m know. And it doesn’t relate to the actual movie at hand, I’m aware. But it’s deliberate and, quite frankly, kinda wrong choice. And a damn sneaky one too.

Nevertheless, it’s important to note, once again, that Trachtenberg shouldn’t be blamed. Far from it, I would say. Objectively, his debut is —at its absolute best — a shockingly confident tour-de-force, an impeccably well-crafted filmmaking grand entrance aided well by an equally smart, often self-aware screenplay and boosted by layered and deeply-felt performances from the three leads. It’s a supremely well-oiled machine of a bunker pulse-pumper, which makes the fact that I can’t say I completely loved it all-the-more frustrating. But that’s the case here, and I don’t want to lie to you fine folks. After all, you guys seem like nice enough people. I don’t want to stray you wrong.

Again, was I going in with too many preconceptions? Perhaps. But at its heart, I think 10 Cloverfield Lane is merely a very well-groomed B-movie — although one acting chiefly as a chamber drama piece, not unlike recent Best Picture nominee Room. But, you know, minus some of the whole childlike wonder found in the first half and all. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr. and especially John Goodman are all aces in their parts, committed to the intensity with full convictions and never blinking at the chance to travel down the dark, twisted, occasionally haunting road this tight-quartered picture goes down through Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle’s (Whiplash) warped little screenplay. It’s an absorbing, affectively unsettling little isolated mystery, and playing it in an enlarged format like IMAX actually adds to its engulfing sense of enclosure. You only think you know where it’s going to go, and don’t really know which way it’ll turn at any moment. But at the same time, you kinda, sorta do in many ways. And this gets to the heart of my biggest gripe.

As stressed before, expectations are everything, and I wish Abrams and his team — including executive producers Drew Goddard and Matt Reeves, the writer and director behind the initial Cloverfield, respectively — were just a little clearer about their intentions, and less murky with themselves about what they wanted to do here. Because I feel such wishy-washy attitudes is what keeps 10 Cloverfield Lane from being the great movie it should very well be. It’s among the few movies where having a monster pop out at the end actually makes things worse, and knowing these monsters are coming googat all hurts some of the morally ambiguity, and questions about whether or not there’s such a threat outside, that’s created inside the confined bottle where most of Trachtenberg’s film is hosted. As weird as I feel saying it, I kinda wish this wasn’t a Cloverfield movie. I wish it was just its own, self-contained little thing. It wouldn’t nearly have gotten the widespread attention it has now — which, admittedly, it does deserve, in many respects —but it would have been much more satisfying as a whole.

I spent way too much of this review focusing on what bothered me here, and I shouldn’t have. Because 10 Cloverfield Lane is, indeed, a good film all-around. The performances, as mentioned before, are absolutely excellent, including one A-list cameo I wouldn’t dare spoil. And I genuinely think Goodman’s chilling, versatile against-type role (you could say he’s not playing a very… good man, hehe) would be considered prime Oscar-material, if it wasn’t a genre film, not to mention one that came out in early March. Also, the sound design and the score constantly keep your ears glued for clues and your heart in your stomach, and it comes across so vividly through the louder-than-normal speakers available here that you’re always on edge.

And the attention-to-details on set is both impeccable and very considerate; I can’t wait to see where Trachtenberg’s career takes off after this debut. The use of silence and not throughout alone, namely in the wordless opening five minutes and one restless dinner session, proves he’s learned well from the filmmaking etiquettes of Alfred Hitchcock. And a nice weaving of comedy between beats of suspense (namely towards the middle and end) shows he knows the importance of balancing tones, and does so in a fluid manner. Plus, the tight editing proves there’s still a place in Hollywood for a fraught, well-clipped high-budget film. It’s nice to know not everything needs to be pushing the two-hour mark to be considered a good film. Good pacing is key to making a solid, worthwhile film.

And that, on the whole, sums 10 Cloverfield Lane up pretty well: solid and worthwhile. I don’t like that the promotional materials make you think you’re going one way when it’s ultimately just short of the ride there, but the trip down the rabbit hole isn’t unrewarding. This is an unnerving, tight-gripped film, and one that effectively peels away the details like an onion and knows a thing-or-two about holding the attention of its audience. In the future, though, I hope Abrams and the folks over at Bad Robot make it a little more straightforward with their brand.

10 Cloverfield Lane proves the Cloverfield name should be treated as various chapters in an ongoing, freestanding sci-fi anthology franchise, not unlike Tales from the Crypt, The Twilight Zone or, more appropriately, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It should stay the course of reintroduced itself once throughout each decade or so. Skewing fans to think it’s otherwise feels like a petty cash grab, in some respects. And I don’t think that was everyone’s intentions here. Much like Reeves’ original film, this new Cloverfield doesn’t completely live up to the hype, but it nevertheless captivates you all-the-same. As masters of promotion, however, I think it’s more appropriate for Bad Robot to wiggle the collar than to tug at it sharply. We’ll follow you either way at this point, Abrams. His company may know what they’re doing, but it perhaps should reconsider what mysteries are best left unhidden.

Rating: B/B+

‘Into the Storm’ Review

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By Will Ashton
As far as the summer movie season goes, August is basically the dumping grounds of the season. That said, however, Guardians of the Galaxy opened the dog days of summer with a laid-back, tongue-in-cheek level of entertainment not typically reserved in movies this time of year. In a pretty good movie summer, perhaps August was not going to be as bad as one would think. Right?

Well, unfortunately, Into the Storm comes blowing into the summer season proving that—ultimately—August is probably not going to any more fun than it usually ever is.

Set in a decidedly vague state in Middle America, this new tornado movie follows in the same vein as Cloverfield and Chronicle by taking a blockbuster story and showing it in a more grounded style. Showcasing three-to-four storylines primarily, the movie focuses its attention on a group of storm chasers, lead by an egotistic filmmaker Pete (Matt Walsh, in a sadly serious performance), as well as a trouble relationship between a vice principal at a local high school (Richard Armitage) and his two sons, Donnie (Max Deacon) and Trey (Nathan Kress).

Each and every one has their problems and their differences. But that doesn’t matter, because they are going to get over them when giant tornadoes destroy all the property. That’s right, ALL THE PROPERTY!

If that character description sounds intentionally lazy, it’s because I am giving it as much depth and care as the writer (John Swetnam) and director (Steven Quale) give in their efforts. They try at making these characters believable here and there, although they are only the mildest of attempts to keep the movie moving when giant tornadoes are not on the screen. Besides Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies) and occasionally Deacon, however, none of these people feel genuine, real and therefore likeable.

Walsh has always been a likeable screen presence, but because his character is meant to be so sullen and serious all the time, he is unable to ever play up his natural, normal guy charm. Additionally, as he did in the Hobbit movies, Armitage is continuing to prove that he cannot cast any sense of charisma. It’s not for a lack of trying, but, no matter how hard he tries, he cannot give any sense of genuine presence.

Coming from a sitcom background, Kress tries way too hard to make any of the movie’s awkward comedy beats believable. As the love interest, Alycia Debnam Carey tries so, so hard to make her pancake flat character believable, but even Judi Dench couldn’t make it work.

By and far, however, the worst characters—and aspect—of this movie come from a par of hicks (Kyle Davis and Jon Reep). As a pair of stereotypical hillbillies trying to make their names for themselves as YouTube celebrities, they never, ever act in any way that is natural and believable. Worse yet, they want to serve as the movie’s comic relief, but are only painfully unfunny and do absolutely nothing for the main plot of the story. What little there is of it, anyway.

The biggest problem with Into the Storm, however, is that it never accomplishes the one thing it tries to be: a found footage movie. For whatever shortcomings Cloverfield and Chronicle had, at least they were consistent in their style. Into the Storm bounces back from being a found footage to a real movie so much that it makes no real sense why they would make this a found footage movie in the first place.

The only real reasons would be A. to separate it from any connects to Twister (even though they pay homage to it towards the last act) and B. to bank on an ever-declining film trend. All the found footage aspects do here is cause excuses for the characters having cameras. Unless they are in a car whenever a twister is happening, they never truly ground the movie, and, worse of all, they cause some of the cheesiest fake TV confessionals that have ever been put in a film. It always feels like a last-minute rewrite or decision, and the cracks show throughout.

But, most people going into this movie could probably care less about the characters and the style the movie is presented. All they want—probably—is to see some cool tornadoes. In that regard, that is where the movie seems most at ease, and where, naturally, it gets its best moments.

The visual effects range from impressive to B-movie level, and switch between the two almost constantly. But what really sells them is the sound mixing and designing from Geoffrey Patterson and Christopher Assells. No matter what leads up to it, when the twisters come and you’re in a loud theater, you feel them. Bringing some excitement to a movie that constantly feels without it.

There is little about Into the Storm that separates it from any Asylum film on SyFy, except for the fact that the movie is not self aware of itself. While the effects—and sometimes the acting—may be better than your average TV movie, there is little here that hasn’t been seen before, and done better.

Honestly, when there are already shows on TV like Storm Chasers on the Discovery Channel showing real people chasing real tornadoes, why would anyone pay $10 or more just to see a bunch of actors in front of a green-screen running away from CG natural disasters? Needless to say, this shouldn’t blow anyone away.

Rating: C-/D+