Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Mother of All Wars

‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is the latest installment in the much ballyhooed Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the third of a planned four films in the all-star super team’s mega-blockbuster franchise.  After fan fave Joss Whedon (‘The Avengers,’ ‘Age of Ultron’) departed to take over the rather lackluster ‘Justice League’ from Zack Snyder for DC/Warner, The Avengers franchise was put into the talented and capable hands of the Russo Brothers (‘Captain America: Winter Soldier’ and ‘Captain America: Civil War’), whose pre-Marvel filmography as directors comprised of only two movies including the 2006 rom-com ‘You, Me and Dupree.’

Unless you’ve locked yourselves into a closet, I’m sure you all know that the Avengers, dis-assembled due to their philosophical differences as chronicled in ‘Captain America: Civil War,’ had split up and scattered to the four winds.  Only a world-shattering threat can hope to bring them back together against a common cause.  This threat came in the form of hulking, granite-chinned Thanos (Josh Brolin, who’s also Cable in the upcoming ‘Deadpool 2’), a demigod hailing from Titan who seeks to collect the “Infinity Stones” and cull the universe through his brand of controlled genocide, what he calls “balancing the universe.”  This hombre is so badass that he made even the Hulk tuck his tail -- if he had one -- between his legs.  Well-meaning (in his mind at least) but misguided, only the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Sorcerer Supreme master of the mystic arts Doctor Strange can stand in his way.  But is even all that power arrayed against him enough?

I don’t really have to tell you how good this movie is, do I?  Chances are, you’ve probably seen ‘Infinity War’ by now (if not, what the hell are you waiting for, goddam it?).  If I have to describe A:IW in one word, it would be "Epic." In two words?  "Epically Awesome!" of course. This film has already broken all kinds of box office records including the single weekend gross previously held by ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens,’ swatting it aside like Thanos dispensing with so many Avengers.  Like Thanos, ‘Infinity War’ is a juggernaut that seemingly can’t be stopped, and it hasn’t even dropped in China (due this Friday) yet.  Why can't DC movies be like this?

Grade: A

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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Welcome to Beirut

I remember back in the ‘80s before being overshadowed by Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the hotbed of instability in the Middle East was virtually synonymous with Lebanon, a tiny nation smaller than the state of Connecticut bordered by Israel from the south and Syria from the east.  With a population comprising of various religious and ethnic factions including Christians, Muslims (both sunni and shia) and a group calling itself the “Druze,”  Lebanon was wracked (and wrecked) by 15 years of tumultuous civil war from 1975 to 1990, with outside geopolitical players getting involved such as neighboring Israel and Syria.  International peacekeeping efforts have also taken a high toll in blood, such as the Marine barracks bombing in 1983 which claimed the lives of 241 marines and 58 French servicemen.  Okay, that’s enough lecturing.

Jason Bourne scribe and producer Tony Gilroy attempts to capture the despair and chaos of Lebanon on the big screen in his latest thriller (though Brad Anderson’s the director it’s Gilroy’s movie) ‘Beirut,’ starring Mad Man Jon Hamm and the always welcome Rosamund Pike.  A deeply human story, ‘Beirut’ is the tale of the fall and redemption of Hamm’s character, a former diplomat and negotiator who left Lebanon in the wake of a personal tragedy, only to return 10 years later to aid the CIA in the recovery of a former colleague and friend.

Tightly plotted, briskly paced and grippingly realistic (when the explosion occurred at the hotel where he gave a speech I almost fell out of my comfy AMC chair), ‘Beirut’ gives us an unflinching snapshot of Beirut in all its unbridled hopelessness.  It is timely as we’re witnessing today an even greater tragedy unfolding in Syria and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, and should serve as a cautionary tale against poking our noses where they really don't belong.

Grade: B+

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Chi-Town Urban Renewal

Movies adapted from video games can’t be taken seriously and are often scoffed at.  I mean, are Hollywood’s best creative minds so bankrupt in imagination that they have to mine ideas from simple and mindless video games, of all things?   Then again, some video games (console or PC) have enjoyed success and even spawned franchises in cinemadom.  Regardless, for every success story such as ‘Resident Evil’ or ‘Tomb Raider’ we get a handful of dismal failures like ‘Doom,’ ‘Prince of Persia,’ ‘Super Mario Brothers’ and ‘Assassin’s Creed.’

‘Rampage,’ based on one of my favorite old-school ‘80s coin-op arcade games, seeks to beat the odds.  Anchored by one of Hollywood’s hottest leading man working today, action superstar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who also starred in the aforementioned ‘Doom’) and featuring three giant beasties rampaging through the densely packed urban sprawl of Chicago, ‘Rampage’ certainly has a lot going for it even if it wasn’t much of a movie. While the 1986 Bally Midway game allowed us to unleash our inner King Kong (George), Godzilla (Lizzie) or—why not—giant werewolf (Ralph) to our heart’s content, the film managed to stay true to the spirit of the video game with some tweaks such as making George an Albino ape who learned sign language, giving Ralph flying squirrel wings and changing Liz into a mutated super mega A-10 Warthog-chomping alligator like it’s some cut-rate B-movie produced by the Syfy channel.

This isn’t to say that ‘Rampage’ was terrible, or even bad for that matter.  In fact, I found it to be great rollicking fun, a highly enjoyable pop-corn flick of the first order.  As a fan of Japanese Kaiju, seeing this movie was a no-brainer.  And Dwayne Johnson has proven once again that he is the “Arnold Schwarzeneggar” of today with the same muscles but better acting chops.  Nothing else really matters in the final analysis.

Grade: B+ 

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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Escape from Dog Island

Indie auteur Wes Anderson (‘Rushmore,’ ‘The Royal Tenenbaums,’ ‘Moonrise Kingdom,’ ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’) is one of those successful directors in Hollywood whom one can truly call “quirky,” and I’ve come to anticipate his films with a certain eagerness reserved only for a few of his peers.  ‘Isle of Dogs’ is his first old school, non-CGI, stop-motion animated film since his fantastic ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ nearly 10 years ago, and upon seeing its teaser trailer a few months ago I’ve been impatiently waiting for it to hit my local megaplex.

The timeless story of a boy and his (lost) dog, ‘Isle of Dogs’ is set in a dystopian near future Japan when all dogs are banished to an island of trash for carrying and potentially spreading dog flu upon their masters.  Undeterred by the strict edict, young Atari Kobayashi crash lands on Trash Island in his XJ-750 Junior Turboprop plane in search of his dog Spots and in the process embarks upon the adventure of a lifetime with the help of a pack of stray mutts, while the mayor of Megasaki City (and his uncle) back home scrambles to get him back and rescue him from his own naiveté.
 
I loved this movie.  Wondrously fanciful, engrossing and heart-warming, ‘Isle of Dogs’ is that rare animated triumph in a world oversaturated with glossy computer-animated movies.  The story's idea may have been informed by Japanese history, even though the it went in the opposite extreme: The Dog Shogun.  As a fan of anime and Japanese pop culture, ‘Isle of Dogs’ is just my cup of Japanese tea.  And all this coming from a cat lover no less.

Grade: A
 
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Dare or Die

When I first saw the trailer of Blumhouse’s latest low-rent horror flick aimed at the YA crowd, ‘Truth or Dare,’ I couldn’t help but roll my eyes into the top of my head in the grand “For cryin’ out loud, give me a break!” fashion.  But since the movie, which takes the popular but potentially embarrassing high school/college party game to heretofore unexplored new territory, features an above average-looking young ensemble cast including “Pretty Little Liar” Lucy Hale whom I had a bit of a crush on (I picked "Truth," sorry), I thought “Why not?”  With a built-in audience and costing only $3.5 million to make, ‘Truth or Dare’ is virtually critics-proof and guaranteed to come out on top no matter how badly the movie is panned.  So take that, 14 percent (and probably going down further) on Rotten Tomatoes!
 
The 28-year old Hale plays college co-ed Olivia (which she still pulls off admirably because she’s baby-faced), who goes to Mexico with a group of friends including her bff Markie (Violett Beane) on spring break where she meets Carter, who got the group to play a game of “harmless” Truth or Dare.  Except for the fact that the game is dictated by a jester demon who won’t let the players back out or the game to end, with the result that whoever doesn’t follow through (telling the truth or doing the dare, with the additional house rule that you can’t have more than two consecutive “truths” without a “dare”) will be possessed by the demon and die a gruesome death by his or her own hands while wearing a rictus grin.

Like last year’s utterly forgettable ‘Wish Upon,’ ‘Truth or Dare’ is a blatant “cash grab” for the hard-earned money of high schoolers and early twenty-somethings.  It’s unapologetic for what it is and doesn’t even try to pretend to be a good movie, but it’s also not as terrible as some critics would have us believe.  As with bad B-movies, low-budget horror like these can be a guilty pleasure if you approach them with the right mindset.

Grade: C
  
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Thursday, April 12, 2018

On Earth, They Better Not Hear You Scream....

As a jaded horror aficionado who’s practically seen it all, few scary movies really “wow” me anymore.  While I was really impressed with Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’ from last year, that was the rare exception rather than the general rule.  So imagine my pleasant surprise after walking out of ‘A Quiet Place,’ a quietly subtle but poignantly powerful post-apocalyptic (or is it apocalyptic?) creature feature starring real life celebrity couple John Krasinski (best known for his role in the American version of the sitcom ‘The Office’) and Emily Blunt (a much more accomplished movie star than her hubby) as two parents trying to protect their kids and survive day-to-day in a dangerous world.
 
If you’ve seen the trailer (who hasn’t?), you would already have gathered as much that this little family of four (it started out with 5) has to live a life of enforced quietude because there are unseen, horrifying monsters out there that prey on humans by the slightest sound.  With this brutally simple premise, the movie is really creative in depicting a world that’s believable yet utterly terrifying.  And from the opening scene, the movie engrosses us in its living hell and never lets go, as we really come to empathize with and care for the family at the center of it.  When we stop asking obvious questions like “How did we get to this point in the first place?” and just let the movie take us along for the ride at face value, its mission is accomplished.
 
Visceral, suspenseful and devastating, ‘A Quiet Place’ may be the best pure “Creature Feature” since Ridley Scott’s original ‘Alien.’  That’s high praise indeed.  This film is so good that I didn’t want it to end and, while the film did not tie up neatly at the end, leaving the fate of the survivors unknown, there is a glimmer of hope amidst the sea of despair.  And wow, oh wow, what a movie of sheer brilliance it is over the course of its all-too-short 95 minutes.  I know there are still over eight months to go, but we have a bonafide (96 percent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes) contender here for best movie of the year, folks.
 
Grade: A+

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VR Treasure Hunter

Ever since I first heard that Steven Spielberg had taken on the task of adapting Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel and geektastic homage to ‘80s pop-culture, ‘Ready Player One,’ onto the big screen, I can’t help but feel a strange mixture of joyous excitement and wary apprehension at the same time.  I loved the novel, which is ambitious and sprawling in its scope, packed with so much obvious and not so obvious references to ‘80s geek chic culture that made even this child of the ‘80’s head spin.  "How is Spielberg, as legendary and talented as he is, going to pull it off?" I wondered.  Tamping down my expectations but remaining cautiously optimistic, I decided to find out (as if that’s ever in doubt).
 
RP1 is the story of Wade Watts, a teenager from a near-future America who, like most others in this technologically-driven dystopia, finds the ultimate escape in a virtual reality world called the OASIS.  The creator/programmer of this truly global MMO (massively multi-player online game) environment, whose corporeal form no longer exists, had left “Easter Eggs” in his creation for people to find (and solve).  The ultimate prize?  His entire fortune, which is an insane amount of moola.  Of course, finding all the eggs (called “keys”) and divining the clues they provide is not easy, and to make things more interesting, they’re pitted against an evil soul-less tech conglomerate with bottomless resources that will do anything and stoop to any level in order to win.
 
Steven Spielberg managed to pull it off admirably.  The book is simply too detailed and had too many things going on in it to fit in a standard two-hour movie.  So Ernest Cline and screenwriter Zak Penn did what was necessary: keeping the bare bones of the plot and characters in the book, discarding most of the non-essential details and minutiae from the book, and redressing it with pop culture elements and things that a younger audience can appreciate.  Out are old-school D&D and obscure video game references.  ‘Blade Runner’ is replaced by ‘The Shining’ and Mobile Suit Gundam takes over for Ultraman in the battle against Mechagodzilla.  Even with these compromises, the movie is entertaining and enjoyable throughout its brisk two hours and 20 minute running time, so who am I to complain?
 
Grade: A-
 
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