Review: Knights of Badassdom

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The long awaited horror comedy, Knights of Badassdom, has had a tumultuous experience making it’s way to the screen. The wait for the film reaches back to 2011, where the film’s trailer premiered at that year’s Comic Con to a wildly enthusiastic response. Financial disputes and extensive re-edits from the producers prompted the delayed release of the film, frustrating its fan base and even it’s own director. After nearly three years of delays, Knights of Badassdom was finally released on Digital and On Demand earlier this month. While I may not have waited for as long as the rest of the fan base, I too eagerly awaited the film’s release. Sadly, the film’s flaws made that wait ultimately for nothing.

Knights of Badassdom tells the story of Joe (played by True Blood‘s Ryan Kwanten), a mechanic whose best friends, Eric and Hung (played by Steve Zahn and Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage respectively) bring him to a live action role-playing game (or LARP) to cheer him up after Joe is dumped by his girlfriend, Beth (Margarita Levieva). The game takes a blood soaked turn when they accidentally summon a real demon (also played by Margarita Levieva) that starts eating the other gamers. The group, joined by game master Ronnie (Jimmi Simpson), the sexy Gwen (Summer Glau) and her disturbed cousin Gunther (Brett Gipson), must band together and kill the demon before she devours everything in her path.

Director Joe Lynch has shunned the film and understandably so. The version that’s been released is not his cut of the film, but rather a version re-edited by the film’s financiers, possibly with the potential to try to give it a wider appeal past the LARPer crowd. Whether or not that is the case, I, like most if not all of the fan base, believe that this was a terrible idea. I don’t believe it needed a wider appeal to succeed, given that another film, Role Models, heavily featured LARPing and was still a critically and commercially successful film. That being said, Knights of Badassdom’s many faults can’t be placed on the extensive edits alone. While it’s hard to suggest where exactly Lynch’s fault lies in all this, it’s hard to deny that the film was riddled with problems from its very conception.

Let’s start with the positive. Lynch directed the film with an appropriately cheesy, yet nostalgic 80’s B-movie tone, not unlike its spiritual predecessor, Evil Dead. A scene that stands out in particular, features Lando (Community’s Danny Pudi in an extended cameo) hiding from the demon in a bathroom stall. Despite the fact that the film is not even close to scary, it’s the only scene that evokes any sort of tension at all.

The actors all do a good enough job with the lackluster material they were given (more on that in a minute). Ryan Kwanten does a decent job as an everyman thrown into the world of LARP. As his nerdy best friends, Steve Zahn and Peter Dinklage also do decent work, particularly Dinklage, who relishes his role with faux Shakespeare in the Park bafoonery. Jimmi Simpson, as Game Master Ronnie, is even sillier than Dinklage, yet never too over the top, something that could have easily happened. Summer Glau gives the film’s best performance, bringing sweetness as well as a nerdy, yet seductive charm, making it easy to see her as a love interest for Joe.

Unfortunately, none of the film’s better aspects can overcome its worst offense: Kevin Dreyfuss and Matt Wall’s lazy, disappointingly poor screenplay. This is one place where I must question Joe Lynch’s place in his film’s failings. While I understand that the final cut of the film was not his own or even made with his consent, the footage they had at their disposal was presumably filmed from a screenplay that’s so poorly written, it’s concerning that he even approved it at all. It honestly makes me wonder how much better Lynch’s cut would have been.

To be fair, I love the concept of the film itself. The idea of people pretending to be warriors and wizards then actually having to become them is what drew me to the film in the first place. What makes the script so frustrating is that it takes that concept and just throws it down on the page without any concern to make it interesting, funny or even have it make sense.

Multiple plot points are merely stated with no buildup or explanation. At one point, it’s stated that Eric is an accidental millionaire who lives in a fake castle, but the explanation as to how he came into that much money is never once explained. There’s also a subplot with a group of redneck douche bags that merely shows up now and again, but has virtually no narrative purpose whatsoever. Then, there’s Joe’s final battle with the demon, which is so startlingly random that I could barely believe it was put on film. The jokes, except for maybe a few gags, are stale and not well written. There’s a gold mine of potential humor in this premise, but Dreyfuss and Wall either don’t realize it, or don’t care too.

There’s also barely any attempt to give the characters any sort of arc or depth, let alone the protagonist. At first, it seems like Joe’s journey is about him needing to find something else to do with his life other than work at a car repair shop and mooch off his rich friend, which would have at least introduced a flaw, something important to any character. Then, it appears that his arc is about him needing to get over his ex-girlfriend. It changes yet again to make his journey about him finding his courage. The script can’t stay on an arc long enough to make you care about Joe as a character. The script even tries to throw an arc on Eric’s character, but it feels more like a random afterthought than anything else. The most successful attempt at development goes to Gwen’s backstory with her cousin, Gunther and even that is adequate at best.

Another failure in the film comes in the form of its special effects. For a horror film, this can be considered just as bad, if not worse, then having a bland screenplay. The computer effects would barely be acceptable in a video game. The demon’s monstrous form during the climax looked disastrously silly, looking more like a Muppet than a terrifying beast. Even the gore was haphazardly thrown together, looking more like slabs of meat and some liquid rather than blood and guts. If a horror film can’t even get its gore to look good, something is very wrong indeed.

Knights of Badassdom is far from the worst film I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely disappointing to see such an intriguing concept executed so poorly and then butchered so cruelly.

Review: Blue Jasmine

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I, unlike quite a few cinephiles out there, am not too familiar with the work of Woody Allen. Other than the few I have seen (Annie Hall and Midnight in Paris), I am largely unfamiliar with his large body of work other than what I’ve read about online. What I do know is that Woody Allen seems to be experiencing a sort of artistic renaissance, as his more recent films have been both financially successful and critically well received, including and especially his latest film, Blue Jasmine.

Cate Blanchett stars as Jeanette Francis (though she prefers the name “Jasmine”) a New York socialite who moves from her wealthy, well to do life to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) after the suicide of her incarcerated husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), a smooth talking, unfaithful Bernie Madoff-esque swindler. Jasmine’s attempts to pick herself up and build a new life for herself are complicated by her self centered, holier than thou attitude, her complete lack of knowledge of how the world works for those who have to actually work for a living and her not so thinly veiled and progressively worsening slide into madness.

Blue Jasmine is first and foremost a character study, a slice of life meant to peek into these people’s sad little lives. While it does feature several comedic moments, mostly comprised of Jasmine’s horrified reactions to her new, less glamorous surroundings and her frequent asides describing her old life to everyone she meets, this is first and foremost a drama about a woman whose life and psyche have fallen into disarray.

Unlike some of his other films, Woody Allen’s direction is devoid of overly stylistic flourishes, like split screen or voice over narration. His more subdued direction suits this film perfectly, allowing the actors and the gorgeously photographed city of San Francisco to own the screen at all times. The same can be said of his Oscar nominated script which, while splendidly written as per usual, didn’t stand out or produce and particularly memorable one-liners. His dialogue was more naturalistic, which gave the story and it’s characters a sense of authenticity.

Cate Blanchett has been showered with accolades for her work in this movie and deservedly so. She is marvelous, a perfect storm of energetic, frenzied dysfunction. Jasmine is completely over the top and hammy compared to the other characters, but that is entirely the point. Unlike the other characters, Jasmine is severely untethered from reality, almost appearing as though she’s in a play that only she is aware of. Her multiple asides describing her previous life feel less like genuine communication than epic soliloquies befitting her spiritual cousin, Blanche DuBois.

Despite that, Blanchett’s performance avoids turning Jasmine into a caricature, focusing instead on making her a fully fleshed out, three dimensional character. In every scene, Blanchett surprises by peeling back layer after layer, showing us a woman who can be glamorous, delusional, inconsiderate, vulnerable, sexy and even downright unhinged. What’s even more amazing is that no matter how ungrateful and despicable she is, there are moments where you can’t help but feel sympathy for Jasmine. Blanchett is widely considered to be the frontrunner for Best Actress at this year’s Academy Awards and it’s easy to see why.

Sally Hawkins’ excellent performance as Ginger, Jasmine’s blue-collar sister, is another highlight of the film. What could have been a one-note turn becomes anything but in Hawkins’ hands. She infuses Ginger with a soft-spoken sweetness and a tough, earthy charm. It’s a winning combination. She was also nominated for an Oscar for this film and I couldn’t be happier.

The supporting cast also deliver stellar work all around, particularly Bobby Cannavale’s turn as Chilli, Ginger’s boyfriend. Even though Jasmine frequently refers to Chilli as a drunken loser, Cannavale’s work says otherwise. Despite a foul temper and a penchant for drinking, he manages to steer away from the typical “drunk deadbeat boyfriend” trope and make him an actual person, never beyond the audience’s sympathies. This is showcased especially well in a climactic scene at the supermarket between him and Ginger. You can’t help but feel sorry for him in that moment.

In a short, but no less memorable role, legendary stand up comedian Andrew Dice Clay does great work as Auggie, Ginger’s ex-husband and a victim of Hal’s illegal dealings. Clay infuses Auggie with a deep-seated bitterness that haunts the screen whenever he isn’t there. As Hal, Jasmine’s ex-husband, Alec Baldwin oozes snaky charisma as only Alec Baldwin can. Louis C.K. and Peter Sarsgaard are equally good as the men that have affairs with Hawkins and Blanchett’s characters respectively.

While I can’t account for how it stands amongst Woody Allen’s entire body of work, I can say that Blue Jasmine is a strong film bolstered by a great script and absolutely terrific performances.

Review: Thor The Dark World

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Out of the original lineup for the Marvel Cinematic Universe,   Thor was the trickiest to adapt. It has to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe previously set up in films such as Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk to include the possibility of other worlds beyond our own. If the transition didn’t work, The Avengers wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it did. While the first film wasn’t perfect, it was much better than expected with excellent direction from Kenneth Branagh, great performances, and superb visual effects.

With the task of introducing alien worlds behind it, Thor: The Dark World has the different (and arguably more formidable) challenge of being a superior sequel. Much like its predecessor, it isn’t a perfect film by any means but director Alan Taylor (known for his work on Game of Thrones) and writers Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are more than up to the challenge.

Chris Hemsworth returns as the God of Thunder, who’s spent the last two years since the previous film fighting to maintain peace across the Nine Realms. Back on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) struggles to move on with her life after falling in love with Thor, who hasn’t contacted her since he left her in the previous film. When she gets infected by a mysterious substance called Aether, Thor comes back and, in a reversal of the first film’s “fish out of water” trope, brings her to Asgard in the hopes of removing the Aether before it kills her. To do this, he’s forced to form an alliance with his maniacal brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who’s imprisoned after his crimes committed during Thor and The Avengers. Meanwhile, Malekith the Accursed (Christopher Eccleston), the leader of a presumed extinct race called the Dark Elves, emerges from suspended animation to claim the Aether for himself. He intends to unleash it upon all the Nine Realms, all of which are converging for the first time in thousands of years.

Overall, Thor: The Dark World is better than the first film, which is a commendable achievement in and of itself. Despite the darker tone that sequels are virtually required to have, director Alan Taylor still manages to maintain a sense of fun and adventure, which is sorely lacking from many big budget blockbusters nowadays. The film is action packed and each set piece is expertly staged and thrillingly realized with excellent visual effects.

One of the aspects that works the best is how the world of Asgard is expanded and detailed this time around. In the first film, Asgard, as beautifully rendered and imagined as it was, felt more like an intergalactic Narnia than anything else. While it wasn’t particularly detrimental in regards to the first film, there is no mistaking that the handling of Asgard in this film is superior in every way. The sumptuous production design and visual effects work expertly together to give Asgard a level of grit and detail that not only create a world that feels as though it could conceivably exist (highly advanced technology aside) but it creates a world that easy to get invested and lost in. No doubt that Alan Taylor’s work on Game of Thrones proved beneficial in creating the world of Asgard. A whole movie or even a whole series set in Asgard with this level of work put behind it would easily hold an audience’s attention.

Unsurprisingly, the action sequences are another one of the superhero sequels’ more successful aspects. The opening battle of Vanaheim, which serves to reintroduce Thor and his band of warriors, is one of the standouts. The sequences’ unique juxtaposition of advanced alien weaponry and medieval fantasy action results in an excitingly original opening. Another standout (and arguably the best action sequence in the film) is the extended siege of Asgard. Where the battle of Vanaheim mixes fantasy elements into the superhero proceedings, the siege of Asgard goes full on science fiction, complete with force fields, turrets and battle ships. It’s one of the more epic, visually striking set pieces seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films (which, in an unrelated note, should reassure anyone who still has doubts over the future of Star Wars).

The film isn’t without it’s faults, however. Like the first film, the material on Earth isn’t particularly interesting. Despite the talent of the supporting cast (Kat Dennings, Stellen Skarsgard and newcomer Jonathan Howard), the scenes on Earth just didn’t hold my attention as well as well as the scenes that were set on Asgard and the other featured worlds.

Malekith the Accursed, played by Christopher Eccleston, was another one of the film’s weaker points. Compared to past villains from the more recent Marvel films, Malekith comes off as more of a one-dimensional bad guy rather than a complex villain, despite Eccleston’s best efforts. Supposedly, footage involving Malekith’s back-story was cut from the final film. Considering the results, it was sorely missed.

The biggest flaw, in my opinion, was the emphasis put on the relationship between Thor and Jane Foster. Despite the talent of Hemsworth and Portman, I never bought their relationship. Even though the film tries to sell them as star-crossed lovers, their lack of chemistry just didn’t sell it for me. I couldn’t help but think that Sif (a robust Jaimie Alexander) makes a significantly better match for Thor than Jane does. The film’s hint at a love triangle at least attempts to make this pairing even a possibility, which is great, but I’m sure that in the films to come, Jane and Thor will end up together in the end.

Despite this, Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman are in fine form as Thor and Jane Foster. Hemsworth skirts the fine line between oafish comedy and stern seriousness, yet never tips the line too far either which way. Even though Foster feels like little more than a plot device this time around, Portman’s winning awkward charm manages to make her likable all the same.

As Odin, King of Asgard, the legendary Anthony Hopkins is convincingly commanding and powerful. As his queen, Frigga, Rene Russo doesn’t get very much material to work with, but she does an exceptional job with what she is given. Heimdall, played once again by Idris Elba, gets an expanded role. He is consistently good, infusing Heimdall with an ageless wisdom appropriate for the character.

Which brings us to our favorite God of Mischief. Tom Hiddleston’s outstanding performance as Loki is, without a doubt, the highlight of the film. It’s a credit to Hiddleston that even though he is portraying the manipulative demigod for the third time, he can still surprise the audience by finding new layers to explore. Hiddleston never lets you forget that underneath his snark and psychopathic tendencies, Loki still has a scintilla of humanity left in his dark heart. He showcases this in an early scene with his mother, played by the underused Rene Russo. Hiddleston’s magnificent work has created not only the best villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but of any Marvel cinematic adaptation ever.

Flaws notwithstanding, Thor: The Dark World manages to be thrillingly entertaining. It successfully expands the world of the first film and in some ways, surpasses it.