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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Justice Denied

Pity DC.  Just when its cinematic universe, the so-called DC Extended Universe or DCEU, appears to be on the right track, finally putting its critical and box office troubles behind with the sensational success of the female-empowering ‘Wonder Woman’ this past summer, things came crashing back to harsh reality in ‘Justice League,’ DC/Warner Brothers’ highly anticipated super-powered team that’s supposed to be DC’s answer to Marvel’s ‘Avengers.’  Boasting such heavyweights as Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman, Flash, Cyborg and Superman (yes, he’s baaack!), you would think that JL should have little trouble crossing $100 million at the domestic box office on opening weekend with no major competition (‘Thor: Ragnarok’ is in its third weekend) in sight, but as the final tally came in, it appears that anything is possible.
 
To be fair, JL had what we might call “bad karma.”  One of its production companies is Ratpac Entertainment co-founded by Brett Ratner who, along with his mentor rap mogul Russell Simmons, finds himself accused of sexual misconduct in the current enlightened Hollywood climate. While women went in droves to see ‘Wonder Woman,’ most seem to have stayed away from JL despite Gal Gadot reprising her role in it.  Moreover, director Zack Snyder was forced leave the set in May 2017 due to a family tragedy (his daughter’s suicide), leaving the unfinished tentpole in the more-than-capable hands of fan fave Joss Whedon (‘The Avengers,’ ‘Age of Ultron,’ ‘Agents of SHIELD, BTVS, Firefly, etc.).  In light of Snyder’s track record (‘Man of Steel,’ ‘BvS: Dawn of Justice') in the DCEU, this change may be taken as a blessing in disguise, but even Joss isn’t Superman and only re-shot some scenes (ballooning the movie’s budget well north of $300 million), having little creative input at this late stage of the film’s development.  As a result, JL is plagued by everything the critics have mentioned: inconsistent tone and pacing, a paper-thin plot, underdeveloped characters, subpar FX, and topping it all off is a weak ass villain named after a short-lived '70's Canadian rock group.  Quite disappointing.
 
DC/Warner Brothers really had to bring its ‘A game’ to JL in order to try and catch up to Marvel, but instead of doing justice to ‘Justice League’ it laid an egg while second tier Marvel characters routinely perform better.   How?  Movie analysts and DC fanboys alike are still scratching their collective heads on this one.  Is it because there are simply too many superhero movies out there ("superhero fatigue"), or is it because mainstream audiences just don't find DC characters all that interesting, with the notable exceptions of Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman?  I guess we'll find out in due course when Aquaman and Shazam get their stand‑alone movies.

Grade: C
 
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Poetic Justice on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh stars and directs in the latest movie adaptation of Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ featuring Belgian detective extraordinaire Hercule (not Hercules) Poirot, perhaps fiction’s most famous detective not named Sherlock.  Which begs the question “Why???!!!” because all one has to do is to watch (or revisit) the superb 1974 original directed by Sidney Lumet starring Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave.  The answer is simple and pretty much the same whenever a “classic” is shamelessly thus remade: Hollywood may be creatively bankrupt and has to recycle old material every now and then, but it is also doing us a service by updating these classics for later generations of moviegoers who – unless they’re classic film buffs – would not have seen them in the first place.  A valid reason or an excuse?  You decide.

Nonetheless, many critics declared this “unnecessary” remake utterly pointless and DOA (58 percent on the Tomatometer), but MOTOE2017 actually holds up on its own quite well.  You would think that finding a cast that would do justice to an ensemble including such screen legends as Bacall, Bergman and Redgrave is no mean feat (which it isn't), but MOTOE2017 came pretty darn close with a power-house cast of its own featuring Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe and Branagh himself as the eccentric and mustachioed detective.  Am I being too lenient?  You decide.

If you’ve read the AC novel or seen the 1974 movie (or even both), there is likely no suspense here as to “Whodunit.”  Even the play on words that formed the title of this review kind of gives it away.  But like the namesake of its mode of transportation, it’s the journey and not the destination that matters.  Then again, I may be predisposed towards MOTOE2017 because I’m just a sucker when it comes to a good old fashioned “dinner party murder mystery.” 

Grade: A-

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The default president

LBJ might be regarded by some to be one of the most underrated and least understood chief executives to ever occupy the Oval Office.  Perhaps this is understandable, as the former Senate majority leader and conservative southern Democrat will always be remembered as the reluctant vice president who became president after Golden Boy JFK was assassinated and for escalating the highly unpopular “police action” in ‘Nam.  LBJ’s legacy provides a perfect example of how posterity can highlight the negative over the positive.  Eclectic director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Joey Hartstone attempt to redress this in the latest presidential biopic, ‘LBJ.’
 
The “honor” of portraying Lyndon Baines Johnson on screen goes to Woody Harrelson, the 56-year old veteran actor whom some might consider to be a bit underrated himself in light of his major awards-to-filmography ratio (no Oscars out of two noms, and one Emmy out of five noms for ‘Cheers’ back in 1989).  As if the snubs only drove him harder, Harrelson delivered one of the most dramatic and nuanced performances in his career as the 36th President of these United States, convincingly putting himself “in character” and imparting the foul-mouthed Texas firebrand with a passion and fervor rarely seen before.
 
A snapshot of the period before he became president and shortly thereafter in the early 1960’s, ‘LBJ’ is limited in scope and only provides a 90-minute glimpse of its complicated and conflicted subject, but it is no less compelling as we observe him stubbornly cling to his old ways, butt heads with Bobby Kennedy, deal with the reality of succeeding JFK in the aftermath of a national tragedy and break with his own political bloc (southern Democrats) by championing the Civil Rights Act which his idealistic young predecessor started.  While ‘LBJ’ is flawed (much like the character it portrays) and isn’t quite as good or memorable as Natalie Portman’s ‘Jackie’ last year, it is worth watching nonetheless.

Grade: A-
 
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Ragnarok & Roll

The ‘Thor’ trilogy goes out with a literal bang in ‘Thor: Ragnarok,’ director Taika Waititi’s rollicking and surprisingly fun (as in GOTG fun) take on the hammer-wielding Norse God of Thunder in the MCU.  So who is Taika Waititi anyway?  Isn’t he some famous Hawaiian or character from ‘The Lion King’ or something?  Well, no, the talented Kiwi (“New Zealander”) is the actor/screenwriter/director best known (before ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ that is) for the well-received indie vampire-comedy ‘What We Do in the Shadows.’  Look out, Peter Jackson.  Or not.
 
‘Ragnarok’ continues the tradition of sibling troubles we’ve seen in the dysfunctional royal family of Asgard.  With his Machiavellian adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) subdued after all the mischief (the Chitauri) he unleashed upon NYC, Thor only finds to his surprise and dismay that he also had a big sis whom his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) banished for being overly belligerent and ambitious in her warring ways.  Cate Blanchett is “Hela” good, and dare I say sexy in black, as the powerful, evil and antlered Goddess of Death who returns to Asgard with a vengeance to claim her rightful place and bring glory to her home world through the might of her army of conquest.  Can Thor, Loki, a fallen Valkyrie-turned-scrapper (Tessa Thompson) and a certain green berserker with anger management issues put a flower in the barrel of her rifle?

Aw, baby brother's trying to stop me with his little toy hammer.  Cute.
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While ‘Ragnarok’ is a dazzling spectacle jam packed with action and epic battles of Homeric proportions, what’s great about the movie are its lighter moments.  Aussie Chris Hemsworth may be known as a hunky action hero, but he does possess some comedic chops, and Waititi (who’s no stranger to comedy in light of his work on WWDITS and ‘Flight of the Concords’) injected ‘Ragnarok’ with well-timed moments of levity, including an intentionally badly acted scene featuring the cameo of a well-known actor portraying a dying Loki in classical tragic fashion.

Grade: A+
 
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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Good Day to Die Over..... and Over

It’s ‘Groundhog Day’ meets ‘Scream’ in ‘Happy Death Day,’ Blumhouse Production’s latest horror-comedy clearly aimed at the millennial set.  Blumhouse Productions, renowned for striking box office gold with such low-budget gems as ‘Paranormal Activity,’ ‘The Purge,’ ‘Split’ and ‘Get Out,’ has done it again with this $4.8 million slasher flick featuring an unknown actress but an intriguing concept, which already recouped its “meager” budget 10 times over after only two weekends of its release.
 
Imagine that you die at the hands of a stereotypical masked slasher drawn from such Hollywood classics as ‘Halloween,’ ‘Friday the 13th,’ ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and ‘Scream,’ except that you would wake up the next morning “as good as new” and relive the day like Bill Murray did over and over again in that beloved 1993 cult comedy classic.  Of course, you vividly remember what happened the previous day (which also happens to be “today”), particularly the pivotal moment when you died gore-iously by the hands and deadly implements of an unknown masked killer.  Talk about re-living your nightmares!  This is exactly the inexplicable, surreal predicament in which the film’s sassy protagonist, a hot blonde college sorority gal (Jessica Rothe) with a rebellious and mean streak who doesn’t fit the vain and shallowly materialistic archetype of her peers, finds herself on her birthday.  Nothing says "I love you" quite like the gift of death for your birthday, I’d say.
 
For all its faults,’ ‘Happy Death Day’ is a fun and enjoyable movie this Halloween season (it was released on Friday the 13th).  Tree (Jessica Rothe’s character) is an engaging, self-deprecating and headstrong heroine whom we can easily root for as she tries and tries again (or should I say “dies and dies again”) to solve her own murder and unmask the killer with the help of her obligatory cute boy love interest, Carter Davis (Israel Broussard).  If only this is a video game.
 
Grade: B+
 
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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Do replicants dream of electric sheep?

Ridley Scott’s 1982 cyberpunk neo-noir thriller ‘Blade Runner’ is considered to be one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time, a thought-provoking meditation on what it means to be human set in the rain-drenched neon-lit dystopia of 2019 Los Angeles.  As the film’s protagonist, Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard is a hard-boiled bounty hunter in the mold of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, an android-hunter who ended up falling for one.  As far as replicants go, he could do much worse than the femme fatale Rachael (Sean Young).
 
35 years later, acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve (‘Sicario,’ ‘Arrival’) continues the BR saga 30 years after the original with ‘Blade Runner 2049.’  While diehard BR geeks still debate to this day as to whether Rick Deckard is a replicant himself, there is no ambiguity in BR2049 that Ryan Gosling’s “K” (Unit KD9-3.7 to be exact) represents the latest in cutting-edge replicant technology, a model that’s fully obedient to his human masters and poses no danger of joining a replicant freedom movement like his rebellious Nexus-6 predecessors.  As an unrepentant blade runner himself, K’s journey of self discovery in BR2049 also (like Deckard) made him question authority and seek redemption as he slowly unravels the juicy mystery central to the movie’s plot.
 
Complex, visually stylish and deeply satisfying to genre fans, BR2049 is a worthy follow‑up to the 1982 original.  When you think that Philip K. Dick couldn’t have written the story any better, the screenwriters (in this case Hampton Fancher and Michael Green) must have done something right.  BR2049 sucks us in with its compelling and slowly unfolding plot, intricate world‑building and future tech (including flying cars and cool holograms) and never lets up, making the 163-minute movie seemingly not so long at all.

Grade: A
 
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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Made in America

Shaking off his lackluster performance in the recent ‘The Mummy’ remake, Tom Cruise returns to form in ‘American Made,’ the “inspired by a true story” account of the life (and death) of Barry Seal, an airline pilot recruited by the CIA to conduct aerial reconnaissance on Central American Marxist revolutionaries who also moonlighted as a drug smuggler for the Medellin cartel during the 1980’s (my favorite decade).  Real life stories are often compelling and can be stranger than fiction, and ‘American Made’ certainly qualifies as one of them.
 
Set during the Reagan era, ‘American Made’ is a nostalgic trip down memory lane.  The US is recovering from the energy crisis but facing the spread of communism in its own backyard in the guise of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  With the specter of Vietnam still making direct military intervention impossible, the new president sought to fight a low-intensity shadow war by proxy against the Marxist insurrectionists.  If the movie is to be believed, Seal was instrumental in this effort, first conducting dangerous low altitude photo-reconnaissance missions in a twin-engine plane for the CIA before directly supplying AK-47’s to the Contra “freedom fighters” in their half-hearted fight against the Sandinistas.  There is simply nothing Seal couldn’t do; he was also a regular errand boy for the US government in its underhanded dealings (as in bribery) with a certain colonel at the time in Panama by the name of Manuel Noriega.
 
While Cruise may be deemed too handsome and lean compared to the man he portrayed in the film, his natural charisma and commanding performance carried the movie along with its snappy pacing and near constant sense of danger.  Seal was one of those “adventurous” people who loves to play with fire and court disaster, and his exploits in the movie consist of one tightrope walking act after another as he worked both sides of the law to his own advantage even if it ultimately proved to be his undoing.  Director Doug Liman demonstrated a flair for the dramatic in this riveting docudrama, portraying Seal as neither good nor evil but simply human, warts and all.

Grade: B+
 
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