Monday, July 21, 2014

The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

I've seen a lot of movies that had really cool concepts with tons of potential, but never reached any higher than mediocrity. One of them actually came fairly recently, in the form of last year's The Purge. The core idea behind the movie ― that for one night a year, all crime (up to and including murder) is legal ― sounds very promising. But The Purge ultimately proved to be just John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 reimagined as a home invasion thriller.

The movie was a big hit at the box office though, and Universal Pictures quickly approved a sequel that was rushed into production and arrived in theaters just a few days ago. With the trailers promising that we'd get to see more of the Purge, I'll admit that I was drawn into seeing it. Alas, The Purge: Anarchy ended up following in its predecessor's footsteps by being just okay at best.

The sequel takes us to Los Angeles circa 2023, mere hours before the annual Purge is scheduled to begin. And as this period of carnage and lawlessness commences, the lives of five strangers will be drastically altered forever...

First, we're introduced to Eve Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo) and her teenage daughter Cali (Zoë Soul). While they believe they'll be safe in their fortified yet meager apartment in the projects, a heavily armed squad of mercenaries arrives in they neighborhood and starts attacking. They open fire on some of the residents, rounding up others into a paddy wagon for reasons unknown. And in all the chaos, Eva and Cali find themselves caught in the crossfire.

Meanwhile, a squabbling couple named Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are driving across town to a safehouse to wait out the Purge. When they briefly stop at a supermarket to pick up some supplies, Shane is accosted by a gang in the parking lot. They leave without incident, and Shane and Liz think nothing of it. But then disaster strikes when their car breaks down just as the Purge begins. The couple realizes that the gang has tampered with their car, and they're now being stalked by that same group of punks. Shane and Liz are forced to flee and try lying low if they're going to survive the night.

While the people we've met so far have been victims of circumstance, there's one who specifically intends to participate in the Purge. Police sergeant Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) has armed himself to the teeth and ventured out into the urban war zone, seeking revenge against the drunk driver that killed his son a year earlier. He coincidentally passes Eva and Cali on the way, and impressed by their attempts to fight, steps in to rescue them. But when they return to Leo's car, they find Shane and Liz hiding in the back seat. The five are forced to band together and fight for their lives, hoping that they can survive when a violent death awaits them at every turn.

I went into The Purge: Anarchy hoping for the best. They were going to take us into the streets during the Purge and see all the madness it brings. That idea got me really excited. But I walked out of the theater thinking that the movie still failed to live up to its potential. There were some really cool moments and a few decent elements, but when the credits rolled, all we were really given was just another ho-hum action thriller.

Like its predecessor, the movie was written and directed by James DeMonaco, whose work here just feels kinda generic at best. I mentioned that there are some cool moments and that's true, but there's nowhere near the amount of tension or excitement there could (or probably should) have been. Far too often, DeMonaco gets close to something often only to trip over his own feet and stumble along instead.

I will say that to his credit, I liked DeMonaco's attempts at making the Purge feel broader in scope than it did in the first movie. We get to see more of the bedlam, experience it on a grittier urban level. But it doesn't help that the movie's story is dull, full of flat, one-dimensional characters that never inspire one to care about them. It's basically what would happen if you replaced the titular gang from The Warriors and replaced them with The Punisher and four idiots. DeMonaco's attempt at working some sort of political subplot, incorporating corrupt oligarchs and an anti-Purge resistance faction, is just too much. The climax (which borrows from The Most Dangerous Game) is a neat idea, but the anti-Purge faction is just there for a lame deus ex machina during the climax. The whole "rich vs. poor" thing in movies is getting kinda played out too. The Occupy movement is over, so can we move on? Or at the very least, could you try something that doesn't come off like you're cribbing bits and pieces from Catching Fire?

And bringing up the rear is the cast, the majority of whom are just as bland as the rest of the movie. Zoë Soul is definitely trying, but the true standout is Frank Grillo. As I said earlier, his character is all too reminiscent of The Punisher, and I've heard that his best scenes were edited from the movie due to pacing and time constraints, but Grillo actually makes a pretty cool badass. I honestly wish DeMonaco had done away with the other four characters and made Grillo the movie's sole focus. That's a movie that could have been pretty cool.

Unfortunately, the movie that's playing in the theaters right now is the one that we got. It's watchable, and it's not as offensively bad as some other movies I've seen in the past, but The Purge: Anarchy is just another movie I left wishing had turned out better. I still think there's a lot of potential and promise left in the Purge franchise, though I'm just waiting for something or someone to really bring it out.

Final Rating: **½

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Resident Evil: Damnation (2012)

I've been a fan of Capcom's Resident Evil video games since the franchise began, before I even owned a console on which to play them. I remember many a weekend in 1996 and 1997 where I'd go down the street to hang out with a friend who owned a PlayStation and playing the first game until the wee hours of the morning. The franchise is even one of the big reasons why I bought a Nintendo GameCube. And then Sony Pictures had to go and break my heart by letting Paul W.S. Anderson make his live-action movies inspired by the games.

I've spoken about my disappointment with Anderson's movies numerous times in the past, so I won't go into that again. But I will confess to being excited to see the animated Resident Evil: Degeneration when it was released straight to DVD in 2008. It was flawed, sure, but it was fun and I ultimately walked away moderately pleased. And because of that, when a sequel was similarly released to home video in 2012 (coincidentally between the fifth live-action movie and Capcom's Resident Evil 6 game), I was excited to see it. It might have taken me two years, but I've finally gotten around to seeing the sequel. So let's jump into Resident Evil: Damnation and see how well it turned out.

The movie takes us to the Eastern Slav Republic, one of many countries that came into being after the fall of the Soviet Union. But the country's transition to independence and a surge of unchecked capitalism led to a widening gap between the rich and the poor, allowing an oligarchy to gain control of the government. A militia of freedom fighters arose to turn class warfare into actual warfare, sending Eastern Slav into a bitter civil war.

As our story proper begins, we're once again introduced to U.S. federal agent Leon Kennedy (the voice of Matthew Mercer), who has secretly entered Eastern Slav to investigate rumors indicating that the rebels have acquired biological weaponry on the black market in an attempt to turn the tide of the war in their favor. But shortly after he arrives, his superiors order him out after a breakdown in peace talks prompt Russia and the United States to get involved with the war. Convinced that something suspicious is going on, Leon defies his orders and begins searching for the source of the rumors.

This might come as a shock, but his fears prove to be well-grounded. Leon discovers that not only do the rebels have some lab-created monsters at their disposal, but the rebels are controlling them via the Plaga parasites seen in Resident Evil 4 and 5. However, as is tradition with this franchise, things have gotten out of control. The parasites have also been unleashed upon Eastern Slav's capitol city, its victims becoming violent zombie-like lunatics.

In order to survive, Leon is forced into a shaky camaraderie with Sasha Kozachenko (the voice of Dave Wittenberg), a rebel fighter whose personal stake in the war has pushed him to make some increasingly desperate choices. But things get even more complicated when Leon learns that the Plaga outbreak is part of conspiracy that runs far deeper than a mere civil war, a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top of Eastern Slav's political food chain and the country's president, Svetlana Belikova (the voice of Wendee Lee).

I honestly don't know why it's taken me two years to see this movie. I guess I was afraid of having another "it's okay, nothing special" experience like with Degeneration. But now that I've actually seen it, I can't figure out why I waited so long because Damnation is a fun flick. Again, I didn't think it was perfect, but the movie is still an entertaining ride.

One of my big complaints about Degeneration was the animation. It was serviceable enough, but it looked like it belonged in a video game instead of a movie. The CGI here, however, is fantastic. It feels like an actual movie this time around. Thanks to the combination of the gorgeous look of the CGI and the use of motion capture, the animation is a lot more fluid and looks surprisingly realistic in a number of scenes. The fistfight between Svetlana and super-spy Ada Wong particularly stands out in this regard, and serves as one of the movie's highlights due in part to the quality of the animation. I also felt the movie also felt more exciting than its predecessor as well. The movie's fight scenes, action sequences, and especially the protracted climax (one that pits Leon, Sasha, and a number of Lickers against two humongous "Tyrant" monsters) are actually more intense than I originally thought they might be.

The catch, though, is that the movie was obviously supposed to have been in 3D. From the way certain shots are composed to things getting thrown or pointed at the audience, it's obvious that they were aiming for a 3D release for the movie. I've heard it even got one in some Japanese theaters, but here in the United States, we're forced to do without. The added depth would have made the visuals that much cooler to see, so needless to say, I'm disappointed that I've been left out in the cold.

Another problem I had with the movie, one less superficial than the movie being in 2D, is the screenplay (which, much like Degeneration, is written by Shotaro Suga). My beef with it is that the plot feels murky and convoluted. With the games, you're constantly finding clues and other material that fill in the gaps in the story and provide some extra exposition that straightens out any questions one may have and makes the world of the games richer and more rounded. But you can't do something like that here without grinding the movie to a complete halt. Because of that, it makes the story feel weak. Maybe it's me just not noticing every little detail or something going over my head that would have straightened things out for me, but I felt like the movie's government conspiracy storyline was more complicated than it should have been.

To Suga's credit, however, he has improved on some things. One of Degeneration's flaws was that splitting the narrative between the separate paths the two main characters were taking caused it to be less focused. He fixes that with Damnation, spending the bulk of the story following the Leon character. We do cut away to Ada and her sneaky attempts at infiltrating Svetlana's office but for the most part, this is Leon's movie. This singular focus allows the movie room to stretch its legs without getting bogged down by having to bounce back and forth between protagonists.

The movie also benefits from some decent voice acting as well. The cast, comprised of veteran anime voice performers and actors reprising the roles they play in the Resident Evil games, all put forth respectable work. Granted, they're once again stuck with the occasional bit of clunky dialogue, but they're still good. I enjoyed Val Tasso, who plays a goofy rebel that takes a liking to Leon, and especially liked Matthew Mercer and Courtenay Taylor as Leon and Ada, reprising the roles they've played multiple times in the games. The two know exactly what to do and where to go with their characters, making both of them intriguing and likable in their own ways.

Resident Evil: Damnation isn't a perfect movie, and it might not appeal to those who aren't devoted fans of the games. But it's still a very fun, entertaining movie that, as a fan, I thought was a really satisfying effort. If Sony Pictures were to ever get rid of Paul W.S. Anderson and reboot the live-action movies, they'd do well to follow in the footsteps of Capcom's animated movies. It might just be a tie-in created just to promote a video game, but Damnation is totally worth your time if you're even remotely a Resident Evil fan.

Final Rating: ***