Friday, October 24, 2014

John Wick (2014) Review

Considering his filmography, Keanu Reeves hasn't starred in a noteworthy movie since The Matrix Revolutions.  Although efforts like Street Kings and A Scanner Darkly have since found their way into the hearts of select viewers, the once glowing action star seems to have fallen mostly into obscurity.  Enter John Wick, a movie relying almost exclusively on Reeves' "yeah, I'm thinking I'm back" line to ensnare viewers.  The premise of a man starting a one-man mob war of sorts over the death his dog, however, doesn't come across as something a student would want to pitch to their screenwriting professor. 

Despite its silly outward appearances, John Wick offers a surprising blend of style and substance, with the latter coming through in spades during the first act.  Color is effectively used throughout the movie, with brief moments of orange warmth offsetting the bleak, pale blue filters which dominate the initial 15 minutes.  Later on, the dominant nighttime settings and abundant use of black play up the path John shoots and wrestles his way through.  This isn't so much with regards to tone as it is to style; John Wick employs an admittedly odd direction, injecting a healthy dose of comedic moments in unsuspecting areas, ensuring that grins are delivered aplenty.
Action comprises a healthy chunk of the runtime, and once again, there's a surprising amount of style to find.  Where any other film would stay conventional and supply an extravagant level of choreography and stunt work, John Wick takes a more honest approach.  With regards to John himself, comments about being "retired" and "rusty" frequently show up in the witty screenplay, and we're seldom led to believe otherwise.  We learn what John was like through brief, mostly implicit moments with minor characters.  These are abundantly verified.  However, things become more difficult when the magazines are emptied; when John shoots, you can hear and feel the power in every bullet.  If he's using more primitive means to subdue his foes, excitement immediately turns into tension.  Nearly every scene is presented with clarity and conciseness, providing proper vantage points for every action scene.  There's also no shying away from the blood and projectile-fueled combat, but not once does it feel too gratuitous for its own good.
Another pleasantry is the overall cast.  Keanu Reeves is in fine form, awakening a new kind of spirit through his performance, one seemingly driven by more than just the script.  Michael Nyqvist, who plays the main antagonist, puts out a performance that often leaves you guessing.  A fair portion of the comedic moments come from him, with one mid-chase scene near the end being a real knee-slapper.  Be on the lookout for the particularly cool and amusing Lance Reddick (Fringe and The Wire) as well.  Additionally, Game of Thrones fans will instantly recognize Alfie Allen as the son of Nyqvist's Viggo Tarasov, who seems poised to become an unsympathetic typecast. 

On that note, not everything that John Wick provides screams excellence.  The film definitely has a for-the-sake-of-entertainment vibe to it, but the more heavy moments make the overall weight feel inconsistent.  What's more is that some plot threads are resolved quite abruptly.  This makes the retributional aspect feel less personal, which runs counter to what John says just before the bullets truly start to fly.

Despite a few puzzling and otherwise disconcerting details in the overall picture, John Wick looks and feels the part you want it to.  Immediately compelling, quickly engaging and consistently entertaining, Keanu Reeves returns with style in a form that feels different, but works as effectively as any of his best works. 

Grade: B

Question of the Day: What are some of your favorite return-to-form films?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pepperidge Farm Candy Cane Milano Cookies Review

Pepperidge Farm have been on quite the binge lately, and that's just taking their Milano line into account.  Half the reason I don't bother buying and reviewing them is because I'd probably have an easier time catching up with the past two years worth of sports games.  Keep in mind I'm about as enthusiastic of sports as a politician is with logic and common interest, but I digress.  Yet between so many offerings and the seasons kicking into full gear, it's actually refreshing to see a more traditional approach with a Milano cookie.

I initially forgot that these weren't the first mint-chocolate Milano variant, which makes me feel less curious about what Pepperidge Farm will alter outside of some food coloring.

The strangely poor packaging at the top makes getting to a cookie less than presentational, but the unfurling smell is, to my surprise, distinctly evocative of candy canes.  Anyone already versed in Milano cookies will find next to no surprises here; the actual cookies comprise the better part of the consistency with their dry and obviously processed feel.  As for the sandwiched cream(s), they express a flavor rather similar to peppermint bark.  In fact, that's what these should've been called, especially since no bits of actual candy cane are to be found. 

Pepperidge Farm's Candy Cane Milano cookies are a pleasant if somewhat deceiving treat.  Other than the smell, these don't exactly scream "hang me from a Christmas tree," but if all you care about is getting chocolate and peppermint in your Milano cookie, then I have no reason to discourage you.  My main problem is that the formula, like the two layers of creams, feels thin and less adventurous than it could be.
Where I Bought It: Walgreens

Price: $3.69

Grade: C

Question of the Day: How often do you buy new Milano cookie flavors?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Fury (2014) Review

War is hell, but you already knew that.  When Hollywood aren't giving us sequels, prequels, spin-offs, reboots, remakes or book adaptations, they're giving us more of what we've already seen.  Fury, the new David Ayer movie, is par for the course. 

To be fair, the abundance of preceding WWII movies haven't left a field ripe for creativity, so the responsibility then falls on the cast and crew to utilize what they can, hopefully to leave a strong, lasting impression.  Fury makes the best case for itself during any scene depicting struggles or hardships of war, typically in the form of tank battles.  Action scenes are shot without reservation or gratuity, but there are split-seconds of gruesome imagery so the bullets hit hard when they need to.  However, for a considerable stretch, Fury doesn't seem nearly as concerned with war as it does with moments of deliberate, awkward silence.  There's time for development here, but it ultimately equates to a mound of empty minutes.  Compounding this issue is the majority of Fury's crew, who we become more acquainted with, as opposed to being attached to.

This is where Fury's cracks start to form.  Despite the intended sense of isolation, the moments inside the titular tank never feel as clenched in as similarly styled movies (Crimson Tide and Das Boot come to mind).  Even the lack of an outside perspective during the film's two-day period will likely be lost on most viewers.  Normally, this would be a catalyst for praise, but like the sets, production values and battle scenes, they end up feeling like tools without a capable wielder.  Part of this stems from the characters.  They don't necessarily lack character, but they fail to give us a reason to invest and ultimately care.  Sure, it's refreshing to see Shia LaBeouf in a serious role, but other than some other familiar faces to join his, Fury's crew is hardly worth remembering.  They may be here to remind us that war is ugly, but when such a stale concept is realized with minimal passion, it becomes difficult to feel enamored.

Grade: C

Question of the Day: What's the most uninteresting war movie you've seen?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Betty Crocker Maple Bacon Cookies Review

As with many things in life, baking can yield some interesting results.  And no, I'm not referring to the kind that be recreationally legalized.  That's not to say the two forms are mutually exclusive, however, as Better Crocker seem balls-on-the-floor determined to prove with every subsequent product.  Earlier this year I chanced their very limited edition Root Beer Float cookies, which were pleasant albeit strange.  So, not to be outdone for the next season of American overindulgence, they've released a variety of bake-able products, including Maple Bacon cookies.  As is customary, an accompanying frosting option is available to shoppers looking to obtain even more fattening oils and processed sugars.
Unlike the Root Beer Float cookies, which contained white chocolate chips, I purchased the frosting this time.  The cookies themselves come with bits of bacon, whose means of processing is of particular concern to me.  Regardless, I figured the otherwise plain-looking cookies would be just that (plain), so I elected to serve my co-workers a bit of extra sweetness.  The frosting is maple flavored but comes with a stubborn-to-open cap, rounded off with bacon-flavored crumbs. 
When I said baking can yield interesting results, my allusion was vague and, admittedly, personal.  While I left the prepared cookie dough balls on ungreased cooking trays and went down nostalgia lane to play Rock Band, it didn't occur to me until two songs later that my oven hadn't preheated.  Confused, I opened the door and found the temperature surprisingly consistent with the rest of my household.  Long story short: oven crapped out and forced me to resort to our less-than-sanitary toaster oven, thus making me bake only six cookies at a time.
Needless to say, our oven picked a hell of a time to break; not just because of the upcoming holidays, but because I had work that day and planned to bring these concoctions in.  My improvising did yield successful results, fortunately, as the cookies remained mostly intact for the voyage to my retail-based source of income. 
The rush-to-salvage mode I was on made evaluating these cookies rather difficult, but from what I gathered, the maple and bacon flavors were present if vaguely discernible.  What surprised--and I supposed disappointed--me was the lack of a salty bacon flavor.  These are like sugar cookies with lingering notes of maple and mostly indistinct bacon bits and crumbs.  I decided to let a couple of my co-workers try them blind; two of them tasted coffee while one of the two thought there was toffee.  Since they're still cookies, there was little complaining to be had and, after two days, all but one were left.  Definitely an interesting experiment to try, courtesy of Betty Crocker, but not one I'd necessarily make an effort to seek out.
Where I Bought It: Wal-Mart

Price: $1.98 (cookie mix), $2.48 (frosting)

Grade: C

Question of the Day: What experience(s) do you have with kitchen appliances breaking on you?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Seventh Wonder: Become (2005) Review

Before Tommy Karevik was selected as Roy Khan's heir, Seventh Wonder were little more than an obscure band.  They still are, unfortunately; and if we head further back (to 2005), we'd see them entering the scene with little more than mild celebration.  Heavy metal debut albums, however, aren't always the best indicators of a band's future.  These initial LP's typically amount to a means of formal introduction, and all a band can do in the meantime is hope they grab a few fans along the way.  In Seventh Wonder's case, their initial list of talents had Andi Kravljaca of Silent Call on vocals for the release of Become, an album which showcased a number of qualities we'd hear on subsequent releases, but with less effectivity.

One song is all it takes to gauge Become's direction--take your pick of eight.  At their core, Seventh Wonder are a progressive metal band, which shows more in song structure than track length.  That said, power metal influences creep into their music as well, primarily extending to the over-the-top instrumental nature and, in the case of future endeavors, potent vocal performances (more on that later).  One of the more curious players is bassist Andreas Blomqvist.  An endearing quality of Seventh Wonder's music has been how they emphasize the thick-stringed guitar, which Blomqvist justifies with every performance.  His work on Become is no exception, even if the rest of the band aren't quite prime for the ensuing course.  Doubling the number of Andreas, Soderin's keyboards are a more enigmatic example of Seventh Wonder's musicianship.  We do hear a Mercy Falls-esque foreshadowing during "The Secret," but a number of listeners will hear the pompously tuned instrument and see it as a staked boundary, which is easier to understand when accounting the bouncy notes with Become's limited production.  The mixing feels all over the place, with "The Damned"'s bass and off-key opening being one of the more immediate examples.  It also feels like the bass and electric guitars switch places for prominence at times.  As I mentioned, this is hardly a detriment, but it does make for a peculiar listening.

Speaking of which, I've left the issue of pre-Karevik vocals unaddressed.  Andi Kravjaca took over for a few years after a brief run by Ola Halen of Shadow's Past.  And while Kravljaca's voice isn't a constant nuisance, he does feel like a caught anchor stubbornly holding the entire ship back.  Unfortunately, the forgettable-when-not-worrisome vocals come to characterize the entire album; Become clumsily dances and simply struggles to leave a lasting impression, be it per track or as a whole.  The comparison may be as tired as an episode of The Osbournes, but Seventh Wonder's debut feels like their own When Dream and Day Unite.  To be clear, Become is a more enjoyable affair, but as is the case with Dream Theater, non-diehards have very little to gain from seeking it out.

Grade: C

Question of the Day: