REVIEW: Hardcore Henry

19 04 2016

The vicarious thrill-ride and emphasis on spectacle over story are just two aspects of video games that seem to have infected the contemporary action movie. Yet very few, if any, can commit to maintaining the first-person aesthetic so prevalent in the format. At least, that is, not until Ilya Naishuller’s Hardcore Henry.”

The film takes its viewers on a wild ride through a strange Russian criminal underworld through the eyes of Henry, a man saved from death thanks to the installation of a few cybernetic limbs. Though he lacks the mental capacity to fully understand what this means, it makes him into a ruthless killer – essentially a human weapon.

“Hardcore Henry” is best understood – no, best felt – as a visceral experience. Though what it replicates is less the effect of playing a video game and more a kind of “Cloverfield”-style nausea. With perpetual off-balance motion, the film recalls the sensation of being a fumbling, stumbling drunk more than it gives the feeling of being an assassin. Its GoPro-shot immediacy also does the video quality few favors, summoning memories of YouTube videos more than any kind of cinematic adventure.

Furthermore, the authenticity of the mad rush of blood to the head gets consistently undercut by Naishuller’s visible artifice. When assuming the identity of an avatar with their joystick, gamers get a level of continuity. Essentially, their play only gets interrupted by the end of a round (or by pausing the action). In “Hardcore Henry,” however, the action gets spliced up like a “Bourne” film, and each cut only serves to showcase the limitations of the technology Naishuller and producer Timur Bekmambetov tout as being so awesome.

But those gamers need not worry, as “Hardcore Henry” panders to them even more obviously than “Deadpool.” Women are little more than sex objects; at one point, their subtitled dialogue overlaps as if to suggest that one female is indistinguishable from another. Bloodshed and murder take place at gratuitous levels, enough to raise the possibility that its creators have little to no regard for human life. At least in the films of someone like Tarantino, gore goes in purpose of themes or characters. “Hardcore Henry” just revels in raking up a body count because it can. Naishuller’s innovations here are worth exploring – mainly so they can be improved. B-2stars

REVIEW: Unfriended

3 10 2015

Movies – in particular the horror genre – are great at tapping into our digital anxieties, and “Unfriended” may very well be the ultimate representation to date.  The action unfolds entirely on a computer screen in real time over the course of roughly 85 minutes, following a group of teenagers who get terrorized by an online presence. This omnipotent force takes the name of a girl, Laura Barns, who everyone thought had committed suicide after some particularly vicious bullying.

Laura threatens them primarily with the disclosure of secrets that each individual kept from the group, usually of duplicitous or just plain malicious nature.  In particular, she uses the leverage from social media where images can be deleted but never really die.  If ever there was any doubt why teenagers are flocking to apps like Snapchat where images supposedly disappear, “Unfriended” has the answer.

Writer Nelson Greaves and director Leo Gabriadze execute the daring formal conceit well, even managing to throw in some interesting micro-observations about the way people communicate with divided attention and crossed alliances.  Yet no clever presentation can hide the fact that the story plays out like an episode of “Pretty Little Liars.”

At its core, “Unfriended” is still a bunch of whiny, obnoxious adolescents clawing at each other because of someone unknown, supernatural force.  The film is sure to make Laura some kind of technical wizard, able to control the computer’s mouse and rewire the Internet at will.  This makes her a little bit more frightening but a whole lot more ludicrous and unbelievable.

Still, “Unfriended” emerges as more positive than negative.  This feels like the best case scenario for the kinds of assembly-line horror movies cranked out overt at Jason Blum’s prolific Blumhouse Productions.  It’s entertaining and lowbrow enough to satisfy the lowest common denominator of moviegoers while also offering a little something to chew on for those who need a more existential terror to really scare them.  B-2stars

REVIEW: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

22 06 2012

Back in 2008, Timur Bekmambetov came bursting onto the Hollywood stage with “Wanted,” a badass hitman thriller that both excited and entertained because the director seemed to understand a few things that Michael Bay and his merry band of pyromaniacs seemed to have forgotten.  Mainly, it helps to not take yourself so seriously.  You are not directing the sequel to “12 Angry Men” when you make the latest “Transformers” movie, so stop trying to serve me some BS drama and riddle the screen with bullets!

A few days ago, I probably would have said that was the only lesson that action-thrillers could take from “Wanted.”  But now, after having seen Bekmambetov’s latest, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” I learned that he fell into a typical pratfall that he avoided the last time around.  Stock style without substance is an empty void, one that is inherently undeserving of being watched – no matter how cool the slow-motion blood effects are.

Seth Graeme-Smith’s book, which I hear is actually quite clever and enjoyable, is transmuted by the Hollywood machine into a campy lowest common denominator summer popcorn flick.  The allegory gets muddled as a thoughtful portrait of the Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker, looking like a young Liam Neeson) is lost to one-note horror and one joke comedy.  So by all means, if you could be entertained for 100 minutes by nothing other than dramatic irony – Harriet Tubman’s appearance supposedly funny to us because the characters in the film don’t realize how famous she will be – this might be your movie.  And if you can be scared without losing your sanity by “BOO! VAMPIRE OUT OF NOWHERE!” accompanied by crescendoing strings, then by all means, you are going to be cheering in the aisles.

But for me, the laziness just made me wistfully remember one evening in July when I went into “Wanted” expecting mindless entertainment and coming out clapping.  Instead of applause, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” inspired me to roll my eyes while our sixteenth President slew hoards of pasty-white vampires alongside his mentor Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) and childhood compadre Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie).  What was once mind-bogglingly cool to me was quickly destroyed by soulless repetition.  A revisionist history works when you have Quentin Tarantino’s panache (see: “Inglourious Basterds“), but it’s really not worth the effort when it merely provides the backdrop instead of the backbone of a story.  Bekmambetov needed the cast of Spielberg’s “Lincoln” – (Daniel Day-Lewis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones, among many others – to compensate.  C-