Sunday, December 30, 2012

"Liberté, égalité, fraternité," with feeling!

Let me begin by admitting that I'm a relative newcomer when it comes to musicals, Broadway or otherwise.  With the notable exceptions of 'Grease' and 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show,' it wasn't until the Oscar winning 'Chicago' in 2002 that I took any kind of interest in the genre, and even then I've only watched a few, and they're either on the quirky ('Across the Universe') or light-hearted ('The Producers,' 'Hairspray' starring John Travolta and 'Rock of Ages') side. 
Having missed the 1998 'Les Misérables' starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman and Claire Danes, I can't say that the current version starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, and Amanda Seyfried is superior.  Nevertheless, I came away from this moving tale of love, hope, sacrifice, duty, and redemption set in the sprawling backdrop of 19th century France with a newfound respect for the emotive power of storytelling through music.  Nearly every song in 'Les Misérables' is filled with such heartfelt emotions that you cannot help but feel the pain and sorrow of its downtrodden characters: Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, Éponine, and even Javert.  Although its themes of social justice and societal passions remained the same as the Victor Hugo novel on which it is based, the movie's strength lies in its compassion and empathy for the plight of the less fortunate. 
Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried shined as mother and daughter Fantine and Cosette, respectively, but I was also impressed with Samantha Bark's Éponine, whose unrequited love for Marius (Eddie Redmayne) was one of the most heart-breaking subplots in the movie.  Hugh Jackman, who hosted Tony Awards and is no stranger to the Broadway scene, sang admirably as well, while Russell Crowe's Javert sang within his limits and held his own. 
I won't lie to you, at over two and a half hours 'Les Misérables' did test my patience more than once, but like Jean Valjean, it ultimately redeemed itself with its compassion and heart in the end.

Grade: A-

I guess you can say I'm a 'fan' of Fantine.

Sukiyaki Western Django, Unleashed

As some of you may (or may not) know, I'm a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino.  His exploitative, violent B-movies are 'the sh!t!' and I've seen every one of them: 'Reservoir Dogs,' 'Pulp Fiction,' 'Jackie Brown,' 'Kill Bill' Vols. 1 and 2, 'Death Proof,' 'Inglourious Basterds' and now 'Django Unchained.'  While some may find his movies offensive to their delicate sensibilities, one cannot deny that he is among the best when it comes to crafting witty and darkly funny dialogue.  Only Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith come close in this department.  If you don't believe me, watch 'Pulp Fiction' again.
'Django Unchained' is Tarantino's spaghetti-western, and in many ways it's a 'love letter' to the Sergio Leone movies starring Clint Eastwood with Tarantino's own flourishes.  Its name is inspired by a 2007 movie by prolific and controversial Japanese director Takashi Miike named 'Sukiyaki Western Django' which Tarantino starred in, and sounds just silly enough that we know we're in for a good time.  And 'Django Unchained' is vintage Tarantino.  The story of a slave from Texas freed by a bounty hunter who later went on a quest (Hobbits and dwarves aren't the only ones allowed to go on quests now, are they?) to reunite with his long lost wife on a plantation in Mississippi, the movie is done in classic Tarantino style and, to borrow a term from the movie itself, lots of 'panache.'  As in lots of over-the-top action, '70's Grindhouse violence with copious amounts of unrealistic blood squibs, and some very funny moments (largely provided by Samuel L. Jackson) interspersed with a great soundtrack.  Mmmmm mmmmm delicious!
Tarantino doesn't make movies very often, but I eagerly await each one because I know it will be a treat.  Call me a fan.  His and his pal Rodriguez's too.

Grade: A

Now we know why Django wants to return to her so badly.....

Welcome Back to Middle-Earth, Part 1

It's hard to believe, but it's been 10 years since 'The Return of the King' graced the big screen, Peter Jackson's third and final installment of 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy which garnered 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  His lovingly and laboriously crafted adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy classic ('The Fellowship of the Ring,' 'The Two Towers' and 'The Return of the King') is a tour-de-force masterpiece that as a whole are among my favorite films of all time. 
Call me a 'Dungeons and Dragons' geek if you must, but ever since I've read my very first fantasy series  'The Chronicles of Prydain' by Lloyd Alexander as a wee child, I've been fascinated with medieval fantasy and enchanted realms populated by fire-breathing dragons. noble elves and hardy dwarves.  But come on, given the mainstream popularity of 'The Lord of the Rings,' 'The Game of Thrones,' 'Harry Potter' and 'World of Warcraft' nowadays, geek is the new chic if you ask me.
Back on topic, Peter Jackson finally returns to Middle-Earth with 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,' and this first part of his much awaited prequel is a rollicking adventure indeed.  While it's not as grand or sweeping an epic as 'The Lord of the Rings,' it's not meant to be.  As a faithful adaptation of the novel it is based on, 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' stands on its own very well, just like its resourceful anti-hero, Bilbo Baggins, recruited by the wizard Gandalf to aid 13 dwarves to reclaim their lost kingdom many years after they were ousted from their mountain keep by the dragon Smaug.  An adventure awaits, as our hapless band of heroes must keep themselves from being eaten by trolls, evade orcs and battle a ruthless Goblin King and his minions to fulfill their quest. 
Well, as you can see, this first part of what will be another planned trilogy on 'The Hobbit' pretty much had me at 'hello,' so I can't say that this review is entirely unbiased.  I just love the fantasy genre, especially when it's done by a master such as Peter Jackson.
Grade: A
It looks cooler in Japanese, no? 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Young Man and the Sea

Once in a while, a wondrous, fantastical, magical and uplifting movie comes along that illustrates the power of the human spirit: 'The Shawshank Redemption,' 'Forrest Gump,' 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,' and 'The Green Mile,' just to name a few.  Acclaimed Taiwanese director Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's 'Life of Pi' is such a movie.  Not having read the book, I came into the movie with a blank slate and open mind, and I came away enraptured, awed and impressed by the movie's beauty and sheer storytelling power.
'Life of Pi' is a movie about a sixteen year old Indian boy whose family was lost in a shipwreck and had to survive for 227 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean (thanks Wikipedia!).  His only companion for most of his time at sea is a ferocious big cat named Richard Parker who wanted to eat him.  What kind of story is this anyway, you ask?  Well, you have to see it to believe it, and do go see it in 3D will you, because the cinematography is achingly beautiful. 
What you take away from 'Life of Pi,' like the protagonist himself, is really up to you.  It is a spiritual journey of self discovery, and the fact that Pi was once a Hindu, Christian, and Muslim at the same time tells us that faith, universal and enduring, is an uniquely human trait that comes from within our hearts, regardless of its form.  The fantastical storytelling hints at an allegorical narrative, and in the end (for those of you who haven't read the novel) Pi does tell us a different version of the tale and gives us a choice to believe either one.  And for the record, I too prefer the more fantastical.

Grade: A


Lincoln according to Spielberg

Steven Spielberg's latest movie, 'Lincoln,' isn't a biopic but rather a snapshot of his final year in office.  The year is 1865, Lincoln is in his second term and the Confederacy is on its last legs in the final year of the 'War Between the States.'  And yet, Lincoln is determined to the point of obsession in getting the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery passed through congress.  From the debate floor of the House of Representatives to shady backroom dealings, we get a glimpse of 19th century politics that's not much different from Beltway politics today.  Through his Secretary of State William Seward and other intermediaries, Lincoln was not above getting his hands dirty and employing unsavory characters (such as W.N. Bilbo and Robert Latham) to coax, cajole, buy or twist arms to get the twenty Democratic votes he needed for the two-thirds majority to pass the Amendment.  Indeed, he even resorted to (gasp!) flat out lying, claiming that he had no knowledge a Confederate delegation (which has been kept waiting) came to sue for peace, so as to deny his democratic opponents cause for postponing the vote.  All of a sudden, 'Honest Abe' doesn't seem so fitting a nickname anymore. 

Before you rip me, let me just say that I have the highest respect and admiration for good ol' Abe.  Lincoln, after all, is a man, with foibles like everyone else.  Daniel Day-Lewis gave the performance of his career portraying our sixteenth president, and we really come to see (and believe) what Lincoln really could have been like.  He can be a great orator, sure, but not all the time, and he's better at telling stories and anecdotes in more intimate settings.  He was stubborn at times and prone to losing his temper.  He fought with his wife occasionally, such as over his eldest son's desire to risk his life and join the Union Army.  In other words, he was 'human.'  Of course, as historical epics go kudos must be given to the fine ensemble cast as well, in particular Tommy Lee Jones as the easily outraged Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn as the pragmatic William Sewell, Sally Field as the headstrong and opinionated Mrs. Lincoln, James Spader as the smug and slimy W.N. Bilbo (even the name sounds slippery) and Lee Pace as the smooth-talking Mr. Wood.

Spielberg deftly directed 'Lincoln' with a sure hand and once again brought history to life, much as he did in 'Schindler's List,' 'Saving Private Ryan,' 'Amistad' and 'War Horse.'  A true auteur whose visionary genius and ability to tell a story through the canvas of the celluloid is second to none, he is proving once again why he may be the greatest director of our generation.

Grade: A


Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Brat Pack kills Commies for Mommies

Back in 1984, three years before they dazzled us with their sizzling ballroom moves in 'Dirty Dancing,' the late Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, along with other members of the 'brat pack' of the '80's (like Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson and C. Thomas Howell) starred in this movie called 'Red Dawn,' which portrayed a scenario of America under siege, overrun by Russians, Cubans and their allies of the communist bloc.  'Red Dawn' went on to become a cult hit of sorts, not so much because it was a good movie but that it reflected American fears in a geopolitical climate of increasing tensions between the tough rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and Leonid Brezhnev.
So when it was announced over two years ago that they were remaking 'Red Dawn,' I could only scratch my head and say WTF???!!!  We're well into the 21st Century and the Cold War ended over 20 years ago!  After all, humanity should have evolved to a point where they don't settle their differences by killing each other, right?  All kidding aside, how were going to make this work?  Who is the enemy today that would rival the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact?  At first, they said China, but then China protested and, considering how much money they invest in Hollywood it became North Korea.  Yes, North Korea, with the '4th largest army in the world,' the country that couldn't even feed its own population and once every couple of years fires up its nuclear fuel processing facilities to extort money and aid from the rest of the world.  That North Korea.
Alas, I suspended my disbelief and entertained the notion that North Korea, which is doubtful of even capable of defeating its southern neighbor, can successfully launch an invasion of these United States and went to see this remake for 'old time's sake.'  Maybe they found a way to make it work, I hoped.  Well, I couldn't have been more wrong.  Despite all the rah rah patriotic talk of defending home and freedom, the movie lacked heart and soul.  This reboot of what was essentially an '80's propaganda B-movie was as ill-conceived and badly executed as just about every critic on Rotten Tomatoes tells us.  Even if we buy into the movie's premise and go along for the ride, the movie's numerous action scenes came out flat, uninspired and to put it plainly, a bore.
You can't fault 'Red Dawn' 2012 for trying to appeal to the young Twilight/Hunger Games crowd by casting Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Josh Hutcherson (Hunger Games) just as the original did with the 'brat pack' of the '80s, but unless you know you're going to like this movie before you even go to see it (and I doubt even that because that was exactly my attitude going into this movie), you're better off watching something else (like 'Argo') or save yourself a good chunk of pocket change instead.
Grade: D

Argo frak yourself!

Okay I admit, Ben Affleck turned out to be a damn fine director.  Much ridiculed as an actor for such duds as 'Daredevil' (where he met his future wife) and 'Gigli' (where he almost but didn't), Mr. Affleck has turned his career around with three consecutive directorial efforts, two of which he starred in.  While 'Gone Baby Gone' showcased the potential he had and 'The Town' gave us a glimpse of his gritty Michael Mann side, 'Argo' proved beyond a doubt that he is here to stay and may actually net him a statue.  Ben Affleck and Oscar in the same sentence?  Has hell frozen over or what?  Alright, you can come out of Matt Damon's shadow now, Ben.

As you should know by now, 'Argo' is based on the true story of the 1980 CIA operation to smuggle six American diplomats holed up in the Canadian ambassador's home after they narrowly escaped from the US embassy when it was stormed by angry Iranian mobs in 1979.  I remember the incident, and the ill-fated Delta Force rescue attempt, well as a teenager at the time.  With the declassification of this operation in 1991 by then-President Clinton, this gripping story finally came to light. 

Affleck also plays Tony Mendez, the CIA's top 'exfiltration expert' tasked with extracting the six Americans in distress out of Iran.  No mean task, as Iran was gripped by waves of anti-American demonstrations and anti-Western sentiments.  As they rightly should be, since Shah Reza Pahlavi was one of the most corrupt and brutal dictators in the modern history of the Middle East.  So what did Mendez do?  He came up with a 'lame-brained' idea to use a movie as a front to get them out.  The faux-movie, named 'Argo,' is a B-movie rip-off of a popular George Lucas film that's not hard to guess.  In fact, the storyboards, posters, costumes, etc. mimic those of 'Star Wars' down to a "t," except 'Argo' is to be filmed in the exotic locale of the Middle East, of course.

Although 'Argo' lacks the testosterone-laden machismo of superspy movies such as James Bond or Jason Bourne, in many ways it is even more edge-of-your-seat riveting.  Ben Affleck, as the bearded Tony Mendez, was a believable and sympathetic hero, risking his life (if caught he'll be tortured and executed as a spy) even though he's a family man and knew the odds stacked against such a desperate mission.  Certainly, this was by far his best performance to date, leagues above his Jack Ryan in 'The Sum of All Fears,' Tom Clancy's CIA protagonist also previously played by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford.  Filled with tension, suspense, and a good dose of humanity, 'Argo' is a well written, directed and acted tour de force, and should be a frontrunner in this year's Oscar race. it just me, or does Kerry Bishé (who played one of the six embassy staffers, Kathy Stafford) bear an uncanny resemblance to Leighton Meester?

Grade: A+


Wu Tang Clan goes Wushu, Shaw Brothers style

Question: What do you get when a member of '90s hip-hop group Wu Tang Clan and 'Hostel' director Eli Roth make a kung-fu/wushu movie?  Well, if you say something of a mess you won't be far off, but then you also have to give them props for making the attempt with such infectious fun.  'The Man with the Iron Fists' is every bit what you would expect of a collaboration between RZA and Roth, a somewhat messy yet fun spoof of the chop-socky '70s kung-fu/wushu films of the Shaw Brothers era.
TMWTIF is a parody of sorts, though not as dumb or obnoxious as Steve Oedekerk's low brow Bruce Lee tribute 'Kung Pow: Enter the Fist' back in 2002.  Set in 19th Century China, the movie tells the tale of a former slave who became a master blacksmith/weapon maker in China (RZA).  But no, it is also a story of good and evil, honor and betrayal, murder and revenge.  In other words, what any self-deserving kung-fu movie should be about, as long as they set us up for some cool kung-fu fightin'.
The movie is done in the tongue-in-cheek style of the popular spaghetti-westerns of Sergio Leone.  There's even an unlikely hero in the movie, played by Russell Crowe, who's a cowboy and wields a knife (hence his name 'Jack Knife') that looks like a six-shooter.  Much of the movie is set in the best little whorehouse in Texas, ahem, a popular hangout in Jungle Village (no kidding, that's the name of the movie's Chinese village setting) called the Pink Blossom Inn run by none other than Lucy Liu, aka Madam Blossom. 
True, the kung-fu/wushu purist in me rebels at the travesty that is TMWTIF, but it's made with such glee and abandon that I find it difficult not to fall for its charms.  It's a homage to the Golden Age of Shaw Brothers movies, and I can drink to that.
Grade: B+

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The 'Sky' is definitely not 'Fall'ing

‘Skyfall’ is the latest entry in the venerable James Bond franchise and the third starring Daniel Craig, after 'Casino Royale' and 'Quantum of Solace.'  The mother of all superspy series, like its titular hero, has just prevailed against a grave threat, not from any mastermind villain but MGM's financial troubles which cast its future in doubt.  Some even wondered if Bond has lost its place to other franchises like Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt.  Well, considering Skyfall’s rave reviews and record-setting box office opening for a 007 movie, that theme song to 'The Spy Who Loved Me' sung by Carly Simon comes to mind.
'Skyfall' is different from the previous 22 installments in that we get to know this mysterious, tuxedo-wearing, martini (shaken not stirred) drinking womanizer a little more, and the nature of his relationship with his boss, the maternal 'M' (played by Judi Dench).  The layers are peeled back, if only a little, to reveal who James Bond really is (hint: a tortured soul).  Directed by Sam Mendes, best known for his Academy Award winning ‘American Beauty,’ ‘Skyfall’ represents an end but also a new beginning for Bond. John Cleese’s ‘Q’ is gone, replaced by a young geek who looks like one of the Jonas Brothers, and by the end of the movie, Judi Dench will yield her long-running role as 'M’ to Ralph Fiennes. In an interesting twist, 'Skyfall' also reinvented ‘Moneypenny,’ the secretary Sean Connery loved to flirt with during his stint as 007.
Fast cars, beautiful women, and Bond’s trademark unflappability in the face of danger are all present in 'Skyfall,' but Daniel Craig proved to be less gadget-dependent than any of his predecessors, a more human, flawed, and believable Bond.  Consider this: he failed to save more non-villanous Bond Girls  from an early demise (Eva Green in ‘Casino Royale,’ Gemma Arterton in ‘Quantum of Solace’ and Bérénice Marlohe in 'Skyfall') than any other 007 worthy of the name, be it Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan or even that Australian Lazenby fellow.
Javier Bardem shined in his role as the latest supervillain, Silva, a former MI6 agent who had an axe to grind with 'M' because she gave him up to the Chinese for the sake of political expediency. Like Sean Bean’s 006 in ‘GoldenEye,’ a villain with intimate knowledge of the workings of British Intelligence only made him that much more formidable a foe, and also evokes some sympathy from the audience because he too was a ‘victim.’
 Grade: A

Monday, October 22, 2012

Brief Impressions

Hmmm, I must be getting lazy, as it appears that I'm now posting these short 'snapshot' reviews more and more frequently.  Oh well, look on the bright side.  They're quicker for you to read too, right?

One other little change.  I'm trying out letter grades this time (and maybe for the forseeable future) instead of a numbered scale.

Paranormal Activity 4: When ‘Paranormal Activity’ first debuted in 2007, it gave the horror genre a much needed boost due to its effective storytelling technique and unique POV. Made at a paltry $15,000, PA ushered in the ‘new’ genre of low-budget ‘found footage’ movies (though one can certainly argue that ‘The Blair Witch Project’ did many years earlier). PA2 and PA3 followed suit with bigger budgets but somewhat less satisfactory results. Perhaps it is inevitable that the ‘law of diminishing returns’ will take a toll on the franchise; you know, the economic theory that each of your successive bite of chocolate will be less tasty and satisfying than the previous one. Although PA4 continued the PA mythology, it’s the first movie not centered on the two sisters or their immediate relatives. Told from the POV of a 15-year old cutie who communicates via webcam with her boyfriend, you do feel uncomfortably like a voyeur at times during the movie, but the pay-off at the end wasn't any worse than previous installments and leaves open the possibility for part 5. With that in mind, PA4 offered nothing new or particularly earth-shattering but simply delivered to its diehard fans more of what they expected and wanted.

Grade: B

Pitch Perfect: Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. No, this isn’t Julie Andrews in ‘The Sound of Music’ but ‘Pitch Perfect,’ a candy-coated guilty pleasure of a movie about the ultra-competitive world of college acapella singing.  In the tradition of movies like ‘Bring It On,’ 'Stick It' and 'Drumline,' ‘Pitch Perfect’ is a witty, funny and sugary romp about an all-girl acapella group called ‘The Bellas,’ as they seek to de-throne their hated rivals and perennial champs, the all-male prima donnas of ‘The Treblemakers.’ Anchored by fine theatrical and vocal performances from alt girl-next-door Anna Kendrick and ‘fat Amy’ Rebel Wilson, the Australian scene stealer whom we first took notice of in ‘Bridesmaids,’ ‘Pitch Perfect’ is entertaining if nothing else, with enough laughs and endearing moments (as well as a few gross-out ones) to satisfy a diehard Gleek like me.

Grade: B plus

The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Based on a book about the trials and tribulations of adolescence, 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' upholds the tradition of such quirky bittersweet anthems of teen angst as John Hughes’s ‘The Breakfast Club’ and Cameron Crowe’s homage to rock ‘n roll, ‘Almost Famous.’ What makes this movie truly stand out, as in the case of its predecessors, is its ensemble cast of memorable misfits played to near perfection in believable and heartfelt performances. Charlie, Sam and Patrick are outcasts so earnestly and sometimes achingly portrayed by Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller that you can’t help but emphathize as they struggle with loss, love, acceptance and betrayal in their lives as not-so-typical high school kids growing up in Pittsburgh during the ‘90’s. Plus, the movie's got a nice soundtrack and pays tribute to ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show.'  Pretty cool, huh?
Grade: A minus
Sinister: From the producer of ‘Paranormal Activity’ and ‘Insidious,’ ‘Sinister’ is the latest J-Horror style movie (as in inspired by ‘The Ring’) which relies more on haunting visuals and a slowly unfolding mystery than standard blood and gore (ho hum). That’s a good thing, because even though this movie does fall back on some familiar tricks (like shifting shadows and noises aimed to make you jump), it does have a delicious twist of an ending that some may find a bit disconcerting.  The fact that I guessed it beforehand had more to do with my been-there-seen-that jadedness than due to any faults of the movie. With its slow-burning suspense, creepy atmosphere and a suitably tortured performance by Ethan Hawke, ‘Sinister’ is worth a look at least on rental.

Grade: B

Monday, October 15, 2012

Thrown for a Looper

Time travel is a well-worn topic in science fiction movies but can be rather hit-or-miss.  Ever since Skynet resistance leader John Connor sent fellow Kyle Reese back in  time to save his mom from a killer cyborg sent from the future to terminate her, I've found the so-called ‘time travel paradox’ utterly fascinating.  Hence, there was absolutely no question that I would check 'Looper' out.
And I'm glad to report that ‘Looper’ exceeded even my jaded expectations.  Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as two versions of the same person (Joe), this movie gives time travel a fresh new spin and is not only action-packed but thought provoking, a cerebral sci-fi thriller that makes you think.  Set in the dystopian future of 2074 when time travel is officially outlawed and only conducted in secret by powerful criminal organizations, ‘Loopers’ are professional hitmen who await their 'assignments' to be sent to them 30 years back in time (in 2044, that is) for 'liquidation' so that they cannot be traced.  Pretty clever, huh?  And when an assassin’s older self is sent back for termination by his younger self (unbeknownst to the younger, of course), it’s called ‘closing the loop.’  Cute.
Without giving away any details that would spoil the movie, suffice it to say that ‘Looper’ tackles not only the usual ‘cause and effect’ issues associated with time travel but also raises the popular ethical/philosophical question of whether it is morally justified to go back in time to kill Hitler (or any other monster) when he was still an 'innocent' child, at a time when he can theoretically still be guided and nurtured to do good instead of evil.  Granted, the 'Rainmaker' isn't exactly Hitler, but you get my drift.
8 out of 10


Friday, October 5, 2012

Dredd his Judgment

I first heard of Judge Dredd from my friend Grahame in high school back in the 1980's.  Growing up on a strict diet of DC and Marvel, my knowledge of British comics (or those from countries other than America for that matter) was virtually non-existent, and it took a limey bloke with a cockney accent to expand my rather limited horizons.

In case you're unfamiliar with the popular British anti-hero previously featured in an ill-conceived movie starring Sly Stallone some 17 years ago, Judge Dredd is the British answer to 'The Dark Knight,' defender of the law in the crime-infested metropolis Mega-City One.  In an urban jungle gripped by constant violence and ruled by fear, Dredd and his fellow Judges stand as lone bastions of order and justice against all evil-doers, shining beacons of light in a sea of darkness and chaos.  Judge, jury and executioner all-in-one, Judges dispense justice at the end of a gun barrel because the dystopian future in which they live is one of "continual fear and danger of violent death, where the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" that demands no less.  I just quoted Thomas Hobbes, by the way.

'Dredd’ is another entertaining sci-fi action movie in a year that already had its share of such movies including ‘Total Recall,’ ‘Lockout’ and ‘Looper.’ Karl Urban is well cast as the slab-jawed Dredd, whose black-and-white sense of justice, wooden bearing, flat monotone and seeming lack of personality bring to mind another mechanical do-gooder, Peter Weller’s ‘Robocop.’ While the ‘Die Hard’ premise of ‘Dredd’ is a well-trodden one we’ve seen many times before, most recently in ‘Lockout’ and ‘The Raid’ (both of which I’ve reviewed in this blog earlier), this movie nonetheless pulled it off because it was crafted with such panache and sure-handed “execution” (no pun intended, okay maybe just a little).   Unwavering in his ideals and certain of his convictions, Dredd is a force for Justice as implacable and immovable as a rock, the quintessential cinematic action hero. Olivia Thirlby, as the rookie (Judge trainee) Cassandra Anderson whose 'training day' proved to be more than she bargained for, contrasted Dredd nicely with her more sympathetic and humane presence.   And in her first villainous role, Lena Headley was simply marvelous as Ma-Ma, a prostitute-turned-drug lord whose end in slo-mo gave literal meaning to the term ‘poetic justice.'
8 out of 10


Sunday, September 16, 2012

More Quick Hits

After a bit of a dry spell, I watched four movies over the past two weekends, so here we go:

Resident Evil: Retribution:  Like the T-virus mutated zombies and monsters that inhabit its sci-fi dystopian future, 'Resident Evil' just refuses to lie down and die.  But that's a good thing in my book, because even though this is the fifth installment in the long-running franchise, I simply can't seem to get enough.  RE:Retribution picks up where RE:Afterlife left off, with Milla Jovovich's Alice allying with the villain from that movie, Umbrella Corporation president Albert Wesker, who's a cross between Max Headroom and 'The Matrix' trilogy's Agent Smith.  The whole setup is right out of a video game, with Alice and the few survivors she picked up , including the daughter of one of her doppelgangers, trying to make it out of the labyrinthine and treacherous underwater lair of an Umbrella Corporation facility, level by level.  Harking back to the original 'Resident Evil,' circa 2002, the real villain of the movie is the computer AI 'Red Queen,' whose single-minded purpose to terminate Alice and company makes 2001:A Space Odyssey's HAL 9000 seem tame by comparison.  Now on to the sixth already!

The Possession:  Think ‘The Exorcist’ with Judaism replacing Catholicism plus a dash of 'The Poltergeist,' and you pretty much get the idea of this latest ‘little girl possessed by evil demonic spirit’ chiller from Ghost House Pictures, director Sam Raimi’s production company. As formulaic and been-there-done-that 'The Possession’ may be, it worked because with movies like this it's all about building atmosphere and slow-burning suspense, and neither are in short supply here. Never mind the plot holes and head-scratching ‘what were they thinking?’ moments, like why did they buy the creepy antique wooden box at a yard sale in the first place. It’s a movie about a supernatural malevolent spirit, damn it. Jeffrey Dean Morgan played the father of the girl, so I couldn’t help thinking: “He’s the Winchester dad, so shouldn’t he know exactly how to kick demonic butt?”  Oops, wrong show.

LawlessInspired by the true story of the Bondurants, three brothers who ran a lucrative bootlegging operation in the hills of Virginia during the Prohibition era, ‘Lawless’ has the soul of a western, where if a man can’t stand up for his own freedom to moonshine without getting pushed around by cityslickers who want to cut in on the action, then he clearly isn't fit to be one. Tom Hardy, following his role as Bane in 'The Dark Knight Rises,' exudes the macho manliness expected of a hardy mountain man from the mean Virginia hills, while boyish Shia LaBeouf aspires to be as 'invincible' as his brother but only found his courage when the local preacher’s daughter he swooned over was threatened. Guy Pierce was perfectly cast as the archetypal Hollywood villain (in every exaggerated sense), whose city-bred aristocratic sensibilities were only matched by his ruthless but efficient barbarity.

Premium RushI loved Kevin Bacon's 'Quicksilver' back in '86, so this 'fast and the furious' cyclist movie about a bike courier in NYC who got himself in some danger and intrigue was a no-brainer for me. Leaner and meaner than ever from his '3rd Rock from the Sun' days, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was very believable and convincing as Wilee, a takeoff from Wile E. Coyote, even though he should really be called Rhode Runnar, but that would just be too obvious, wouldn't it?  'Premium Rush' lived up to its name; there's balls-to-the-wall adrenaline-fueled cycling action through the streets of New York City, and the movie maintained its fast pace and suspense in spite of a thread-bare plot. High entertainment.  The need-for-speed, live-for-the-moment ethos of the bike messenger culture is simply exhilarating. I wish I have the guts to do what they do for $80 a day.  Just think of what it would do for my cardio.
RE:Retribution - 8/10
The Possession - 7/10
Lawless - 8/10
Premium Rush - 8/10

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Expendables 2: Revenge of the action hero 'has beens'

The '80's was the golden age of action hero B-movie franchises, featuring 'one-man armies' like Sylvester Stallone in 'Rambo,' Chuck Norris in 'Delta Force' and 'Missing in Action,' and Dolph Lundgren in 'Red Scorpion.'  In the Ronald Reagan era of tough talking anti-Soviet rhetoric, I must admit I watched more than my fair share of these disposable action movies released by companies like the aptly named 'Cannon Films,' with lots of explosions and high body count factors.  It was great, bloody, over-the-top fun for a teenager who simply didn't know better.
'The Expendables 2' is the much anticipated, bigger follow-up to the inexplicably successful but ultimately disappointing 'The Expendables,' which brought back some of these '80's action staples as well as contemporary stars like Jason Statham, Randy Couture, Terry Crews and Jet Li.  Since I thought the first movie sucked, I really can't say why I saw this sequel, other than that I was curious and wanted to see how JCVD (Jean-Claude Van Damme) fared as the villain in the movie.  Suffice to say, I felt a bit like a cat afterward.
So how was 'The Expendables 2'?  I thought it was marginally better than its predecessor, but then my expectations weren't exactly very high.  The movie followed the same formula as the big and dumb '80's action movies it paid homage to.  You know, the heroes always prevail against overwhelming odds and win the day, making war seem like fun and games in the process.  Just don't forget to take your thinking cap off when you watch the movie's countless 'realistic' action sequences.
Here are but some examples of the movie's cartoon-like high jinks: Sly Stallone flies this big lumbering transport plane (not a C-130 'Herky Bird' but like it) with a big gun mounted in the nose toward a bridge with lots of bad guys on it, and co-pilot Jason Statham fires it and hits the bridge with one shot.  They hoot and high-five each other like a couple of kids.  Nice.  Oh, and there's the scene where our heroes get pinned down by superior numbers in a small town, and then you see a T-72 tank get knocked out as if by magic and the baddies start dropping like flies, then of course out of the smoke Chuck Norris strides into the picture, even though you don't see anything resembling even a LAW rocket tube on him.  People in the theatre hoot and holler like adolescent boys.  Very nice. 
The movie isn't entirely without any redeeming feature.  It is at its best during the slower and lighter moments, especially those 'wink-wink' moments in which our heroes trade classic one-liners from their old movies.  The best example is when during a shoot-out with Van Damme's goons at an airport, Arnold ran out of ammo and said "I'll be back!" and next to him Bruce Willis replied "You've been back enough, I'll be back!" and runs off.  Arnold then shook his head and uttered "Yippie ki yay."  And in a rare moment of cleverness, Dolph Lundgren's 'big dumb brute' character recounts his real life, of how he was an MIT-educated engineer and a Fulbright scholar who later worked at a night club (before becoming part of Grace Jones's entourage and coming to Hollywood).
And when it's time for the final face-off between Stallone and Van Damme, the scene can't escape looking overly 'set up' and anti-climactic.  I so wanted Van Damme to kick Stallone's butt, but there's no way that was going to happen.  The good guys ALWAYS win, after all.
5 out of 10

Monday, August 20, 2012

Legacy Re-Bourne

So, what can I say?  I love this movie.  Okay, there you have it.  No need to keep reading below and just go see it now.  What, you can't just take my word for it and would like to know why?  Alrighty then, here goes.

'The Bourne Legacy' is the fourth installment of the popular Bourne franchise based on the novels of Robert Ludlum, and the first not featuring its titular hero Jason Bourne, portrayed by Matt Damon, who in the previous three movies foiled numerous assassination attempts on his life by being 'better, stronger, faster' and succeeded in his quest to expose the black heart of the covert CIA black ops programs Operation Blackbriar and Project Treadstone to the public.

Failing to stop Bourne, the CIA went into full-on crisis damage control mode and tried to cover up everything, which includes liquidating everyone involved in these programs, whether they're highly trained field 'assets' like Jeremy Renner's Aaron Cross or brilliant civilian scientists such as Rachel Weisz's Dr. Marta Shearing.  The lengths to which these 'deep black' agencies with no accountability are prepared to go in order to cover their asses under the pretext of national security and 'plausible deniability' is staggering to the extreme. 

While 'The Bourne Legacy' has a decidedly familiar feel to fans of previous Bourne installments, what really set it apart are its two main protagonists played by Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz, whose paths cross as they came to depend upon one another for their mutual survival against the evil machinations of 'big bad brother.'  Their actions and decisions are authentic and believable in their desperate context, giving this film an emotional depth I haven't seen in the first three movies.  As the movie's villain, Edward Norton is quietly ruthless in the role previously filled by Joan Allen as the 'chaser,' determined in his single-mindedness to hunt down and terminate Renner and Weisz with 'extreme prejudice.'

Like its predecessors, I love 'The Bourne Legacy' the most when it 'cuts to the chase.'  There is an extended chase scene at the end that will leave you breathless and set your heart racing, starting on the rooftops parkour style (yes, I know there was the one in Tangiers in the last movie but this one's even better!) and ending with an exhilarating motorcycle chase through the streets of Manila. 

Quite simply, 'The Bourne Legacy' delivered the goods and then some.  It is gritty and intelligent, and packed with the tightly wound tension and suspense we've come to expect from the franchise.  Some people doubted the viability of a Bourne movie without its title character, but Renner's Aaron Cross filled in quite nicely, fulfilling the movie's promise with its tagline that "there was never just one."  The chemistry between Renner and Weisz is utterly riveting, and I would love to see a follow-up sequel that's left as a possibility at the end of this movie.

9 out of 10


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Total Recall of vintage '80's (and '90's) sci-fi

'Total Recall' is one of three sci-fi masterpieces from the '80's and '90's by Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven that are getting the reboot treatment, the other two being 'Robocop' and 'Starship Troopers.'  Based on the Philip K. Dick short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," the original 'Total Recall' is among my favorite sci-fi movies of all time, starring the biggest action hero of all time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, coming off the heels of such blockbusters as 'Terminator' and 'Predator.'  Bristling with great action, cutting-edge FX (for its time) and a good dose of dark humor, 'Total Recall' was sheer campy fun.

So how did 'Total Recall' (2012) compare to the 1990 version?  Not badly, considering.  The basic premise of a Jason Bourne-like operative who slowly regains lost memories and uncovers a sinister government conspiracy remained the same, but many details are quite different to make this movie stand on its own.  Rather than setting part of the story on Mars (warning, minor spoiler ahead), everything took place on earth this time around, albeit an earth rendered inhospitable by chemical weapons with only the 'United Federation of Britain' and 'The Colony' (what looks like present day Australia) populated.  Sharon Stone's character from the original movie, Lori, figured more prominently in this one, playing not only herself but wearing the hat of Michael Ironside's 'Richter' as well.  Kate Beckinsale was simply deliciously devilish in this role, and her no-holds-barred catfight with Melinda (played by Jessica Biel) in the elevator, like the one between Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin in the original, is the highlight of the movie.  Other major departures are the elimination of Benny the taxi-driver and the inclusion of an army of synthetic supersoldiers equally reminiscent of Star Wars Stormtroopers and 'I, Robots.'  The movie kept the one memorable scene that it absolutely couldn't do without, however, when a three-breasted alien prostitute displayed her well endowed wares to our hero.  Speaking of which, Colin Farrell did a fairly good job reprising the role of Doug Quaid/Carl Hauser.  His version of the movie's hero is more akin to Jason Bourne, a brooding and serious ass-kicker whose action speaks louder than any Austrian-accented words, but that's fine because the overall tone of the movie is darker and heavier than its predecessor's. 

The visuals and FX of this movie are breathtaking, and remind me of another movie based on one of Philip K. Dick's stories, 'Blade Runner,' filled with neon lights, Chinese characters, hovercars and giant billboard television screens on the sides of high rises.  While 'Blade Runner' ruminated on such philosophical questions as existentialism and sentience, 'Total Recall' offered us nothing more than the well worn but time-honored theme of class struggle and social justice, which also underpinned movies as recently as 'The Dark Knight Rises.'  A popular theme during our uncertain economic times, perhaps, when the divide between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' seems to be growing wider?

8 out of 10


Sunday, July 22, 2012

In Memoriam of Aurora, Colorado

In deference to the tragic incident that occurred in Colorado last Friday which claimed the lives of 12 moviegoers and wounded 58 others, I have decided not to post a review of 'The Dark Knight Rises.'  My apologies to all, but I think this is understandable under the circumstances.  Life goes on, but sometimes it is good to take a step back in rememberance of those who have suffered from this senseless event.  Our deepest sympathies go to the families of the victims who enjoyed this great pastime.  Words simply cannot do justice to their loss.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Spiderman Redux

"Spiderman, Spiderman, does whatever a spider can."  Oh, and also set a record for the shortest period of time between 'reboots.'  When I heard last year that my favorite Marvel superhero is getting a reboot, my jaw dropped.  I mean, wasn't 'Spiderman 3' released only five years ago in 2007?  Has Hollywood no shame?!!!  Then I put it in perspective and considered the fact that only eight years separated 'Batman and Robin,' the godawful 4th and last installment of the previous Batman series (which saw no less than three actors playing the Dark Knight in Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney) and the current one starring Christian Bale which started in 2005.  So why the hell not?  Like Batman for DC Comics, Spiderman is THE iconic superhero in the Marvel universe, and you can always count on Hollywood to green-light whatever would make them a shitload of money, right?  So sue them for having the gall to be the greedy capitalists that they are.

Being the Marvel fanboy that I am, I went to see 'The Amazing Spiderman' with the attitude that it's just more of what I wanted.  But knowing that this movie cannot escape the shadow of the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire version, I was expecting it to be something of a letdown.  And I am happy to report that it's not bad at all.  'The Amazing Spiderman' is a solid movie in its own right.  While there are elements of the story that are familiar to those of us who have seen the previous trilogy, this movie stands on its own and introduced new characters and layers to the world of Spiderman.

One of the things I liked more in this latest treatment than the previous one is Andrew Garfield, who fits my image of the Peter Parker I've read in comic books from my childhood far better than Tobey Maguire.  If the name sounded familiar, it's probably because you saw him in the movie 'The Social Network.'  Garfield was perfectly cast as Peter Parker, a bookish 'nerd' who's not really a nerd at all.  I know this sounds like a self-contradiction, but you have to be familiar with the Peter Parker portrayed in comic books to see what I mean.  His 'girlfriend' in the movie this time is not Mary Jane but Gwen Stacy, capably played by up-and-comer Emma Stone.  The relationship between Peter and his uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and aunt May (Sally Field) are also explored in greater emotional depth in this movie.  The obligatory villain in 'The Amazing Spiderman' is a comic book favorite of mine, the scientist-turned half-man-half-reptile called 'The Lizard.'  Nothing fancy here, folks, Stan Lee names them simply as they are.

The FX and action sequences are nothing to write home about and a little 'been there, done that,' but I am very forgiving and tolerant when it comes to the genre.  Given what came before not so long ago, this movie had big shoes to fill and a lot to measure up to.  And with this challenge, 'The Amazing Spiderman' didn't suck.  And that is all a fanboy can reasonably ask for.

7 out of 10


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Drop Dead Ted

'Ted' is the latest creation from the fertile but twisted imagination of Seth MacFarlane, whose subversive brand of nothing-is-sacred humor is all too familiar to legions of 'Family Guy' and 'American Dad' fans.  As we all know, the Teddy Bear can be one of the most treasured possessions of any little boy (or girl), and they often serve as the first friend with which--I mean, with whom--they form a close personal bond.  While kids often 'communicate' with their stuffed animals or rubber & plastic dolls, the premise of 'Ted' is that this teddy bear can actually talk (no shit!), and that he and his now 35-year old owner (played by 'Marky Mark' Wahlberg) are buds in their arrested adulthood.  From this preposterous premise, comedic tomfoolery ensues.

Imagine the cute Snuggles fabric softener bear with a potty mouth and you'll begin to get an idea of what 'Ted' is like.  Voiced by Seth MacFarlane himself, Ted sounds and acts just like Peter Griffin, the fat obnoxious patriarch of FOX's hit animated series 'Family Guy.'  Behaving in ways most unbecoming of teddy bears, I may never look at teddy bears the same way again thanks to Ted.  You see, Ted is a foul-mouthed, bong-smoking, whoremongering, owner-abusing sexist pig (um, bear) of the highest order.  But damn it, 'Ted' is also unapologetically and at times hysterically funny, sprinkled throughout with MacFarlane's trademark irreverent and self-deprecating humor with numerous references to popular geek-chic culture.  While 'Family Guy' gave us Star Wars parodies, 'Ted' paid homage to that '80's classic of sci-fi camp, 'Flash Gordon.'  Cue 'Queen' music please.

'Ted' is an unlikely 'odd couple' comedy, in the tradition of such movies as 'Down and Out in Beverly Hills,' 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles,' and more recent examples like 'Dinner with Schmucks' and 'Due Date.'  The story is a familiar one.  There's the more-or-less normal but down-on-his-luck joe, in this case Mark Wahlberg's manchild John Bennett.  Then there's the obnoxious person who makes his life a living hell, in this case a cute cuddly teddy bear who becomes less cute and cuddly every time he opens his mouth or does something offensive.  While John is trying to 'grow up,' become more responsible and lead a 'normal' life with his gorgeous and successful girlfriend Lori, played by That 70's Show's Mila Kunis (who's also a regular voice in 'Family Guy'), Ted somehow always manages to muck things up.  But in the end, things invariably smooth over because Ted is a lovable teddy bear with a big heart, even if he lacked the essential body part required to perform certain unmentionable acts implied in the movie.

One thing I like about movies are cameos, and in 'Ted' there are aplenty.  There's 'Flash Gordon' himself, Sam Jones, of course.  Tom Skerritt appeared in photos and at a wedding.  'Green Lantern' Ryan Reynolds is the gay partner of one of Bennett's coworkers, played by Patrick Warburton of 'Seinfeld,' 'Rules of Engagement' and 'The Tick.'  Though not a cameo per se, Giovanni Ribisi was perfectly cast as a creepy psycho teddy bear stalker who dances to the music of '80's teen icon Tiffany.  The pleasant surprise cameo award, though, has to go to jazz and blues crooner Norah Jones, who looks and sounds as fabulous as she did 10 years ago when she won over my heart with her wonderfully wistful debut album 'Come Away with Me.'  You picked a good one to duet with, Seth.  While 'Ted' isn't quite perfect, it mined enough comic gold to earn an:

8 out of 10


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Rock of the Ages

Back in the late ‘80’s to early '90's, a good buddy and I would often hit local independent music stores like Rhino Records and Amoeba Music on weekends.  While he’s on his neverending quest to add to his impressive Beatles bootleg LP collection, I would be in one of my Metallica or Iron Maiden t's browsing the hard rock/heavy metal section.  Ah, good times.

When I heard that the Tony-nominated Broadway homage to ‘80’s rock was being made into a movie a la’ ‘Hairspray’ and ‘Chicago,’ I couldn’t be happier.  Back in March, I caught ‘Rock of Ages’ during its last week at the Pantages and had an absolute blast, so I knew that I’d probably enjoy the movie too.  And the movie certainly did not disappoint.  Many critics panned RoA for being a ‘jukebox musical’ because the story took a backseat to the songs, but they’re missing the point here because in RoA the story fits around the songs, not the other way around.

In ‘Glee’ fashion, RoA is ambitious and covered songs from popular ‘80s acts like Journey,’ ‘Poison,’ ‘Scorpion,’ and ‘Foreigner’ among others too numerous to mention.  For what it’s worth, RoA is the story of a small town girl (Julianne Hough) from Oklahoma seeking fame and fortune in LA who fell in love with an aspiring young rocker (Diego Boneta) at a popular but seedy club on the Sunset Strip called the Viper, ahem, Bourbon Room.  But even more than that, it’s also an uplifting story of redemption for ‘tortured’ rock star Stacee Jaxx, played to near perfection by Tom Cruise, who somehow managed to channel Axl Rose and Jim Morrison in equal measure for the role.  Alec Baldwin as club owner Dennis Dupree and Russell Brand as his partner Lonny provided welcome comic relief, and Catherine Zeta-Jones was also great as the mayor’s wife who embarked on a moral crusade to shut down the 'sinful' Bourbon Room because she had an axe to grind with Stacee Jaxx.

But who cares about the flimsy story, because it’s the songs that truly shined.  All the rock hits featured  in the movie are fun and infectious, taking us on a trip down memory lane, and Adam Shankman (‘Hairspray’) did an admirable job in the big screen adaptation.  While the musical was a true ensemble affair with no particular character standing out, this movie needed someone to ground it, and that someone came in the form of Tom Cruise, whose Stacee Jaxx is a much more pivotal character in the movie than in the musical.  If you like ‘80’s glam rock/hair metal, this movie is not to be missed.

RoA may never attain the cult stature of a ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ but it more than stands on its own as an entertaining rock musical comedy romp through the '80's suitable for ages 13 and up.

8 out of 10


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

3 Encapsulated Reviews

Because I don’t feel like writing full-length reviews, I’m going to deviate from my usual modus operandi this time with these 'quick and dirty' reviews of the three movies I saw over the last couple of weekends.  And no graphics this time.  Sorry.

Prometheus: Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated "is-it-or-isn’t-it?" prequel to ‘Alien’ is a visually stunning classic sci-fi movie.  33 years after Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley found to her dismay that “in space, no one can hear you scream,” we finally got some answers as to where these hell-spawned horrors came from.  It is too bad the movie also proved to be unsatisfying.  A group of scientists discover that humans were created or engineered by ‘gods,’ who later sought to destroy their wonderful creations with the perfectly bioengineered weapon.  While I can overlook the fact that many of these so-called scientists behaved irrationally and immaturely in the movie, what I can’t forgive is that the movie resorted to its Deus ex machina device only to deprive us the answer to its central question.  Such conceit!  Noomi Rapace was passable as the main scientist, even though she’s not quite as kickass as Sigourney Weaver.  Instead of killing aliens she had to get one out of her.  Michael Fassbender as the wondrously curious android David provided the movie with its only memorable character.

Snow White and the Huntsman:  The second of two ‘Snow White’ movies released this year, SWATH took a much darker spin on this classic Disney tale.  Kristen Stewart played the titular princess whose father was murdered by the Evil Queen (deliciously played by Charlize Theron) to usurp the throne.  Forced to seek refuge in the dark forest after being declared the ‘fairest of them all’ by the Mirror and hunted by the EQ, Snow allied herself with the oft-drunken Huntsman (played by Chris Hemsworth) and seven dwarves to win back what’s rightfully hers.  Billed as what ‘Snow White’ might have been like if penned by J.R.R. Tolkien, SWATH sought to make Kristen Stewart look like Joan of Ark.  But lacking the charisma and gravitas for such a role, she only managed to look bland and sulking throughout the movie.  And Edward fans can rejoice!  There is zero chemistry between Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth.  Even Charlize Theron couldn’t save this movie from being a complete disaster.

MIB3:  The latest installment of the Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones-starred buddy sci-fi comedy took us back in time to 1969.  An evil alien named Boris the Animal escaped from a maximum security penitentiary on the moon and traveled back in time to kill Agent K (Jones), so Agent J (Smith) must go back in time to prevent that from happening.  Can you do the time warp?  Josh Brolin, as the young K, played the role with gusto.  Though MIB3 is as campy and cheesy as you might expect, it is also fun for the whole family with a charm that's hard to resist.  MIB3 went a long way in explaining how K ‘chose’ J as his protegé in the first movie.  As much as I would like to call this just another shameless sequel, it’s actually not too shabby.

Prometheus - 7 out of 10
SWATH - 4 out of 10
MIB3 - 7 out of 10

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A 'Chernobyl' Diary better left unwritten

If ever there is a prime example of Hollywood’s tendency to latch onto the latest gimmick and shamelessly milk it for all its worth, ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ is it. This ‘found footage’ docudrama is the most recent offering in a genre first made popular by ‘The Blair Witch Project,’ then rejuvenated in the ‘Paranormal Activity’ franchise. With its low production cost and unknown actors, found footage films don’t have to gross nearly as much as CG- and star-heavy blockbusters to realize a good profit, and unfortunately suckers like me keep giving them reasons to make more.

Conceived by Oren Peli, who gave us ‘Paranormal Activity,’ ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ is set in the town of Pripyat near the infamous site of a nuclear reactor meltdown in 1986, when a group of young friends decided that taking an ‘extreme tour’ of the place wouldn’t be a bad idea. Of course, when they reach the doomed town strange things started to happen and they find that they are in fact ‘not alone,’ despite the assurances of their ex-Russian Spetznaz tour guide. What was supposed to be a fun and adventure-filled trip soon turned out to be their worst nightmare (big surprise!) and threatened their very lives.

I usually am very forgiving when it comes to ‘found footage’ films but, quite simply, ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ is uninspired, tepid and entirely devoid of tension and suspense, with stock characters whose fate you just don’t care for. The radiation-altered mutants (spoiler you say, really, what else did you expect?) who terrorize our group of young twenty-somethings are anything but scary, as were the cheap scares the movie employed to make us jump, like the bear that crashed through an abandoned house in one of the early scenes. Even the ‘big reveal’ at the end hinting at a government conspiracy wasn’t much of a twist at all, since I guessed it when the group was stopped at the checkpoint before they entered the town. Take my advice and save yourself the money on this one.

2 out of 10 (and that’s being generous)


Battleship Sunk!

When they announced this movie based on a popular Milton-Bradley game I used to play as a kid last year, I rolled my eyes in that most ‘gimme a break!’ tradition. I mean, how the heck are they going to make a 2-hour movie out of a game based on luck and educated guesses? Then I heard that Michael Bay is the producer and saw the preview and thought: “Ohhh-kay, Transformers on the high seas, think I’ll pass on this one.” You see, I’m not a fan of Michael Bay, whose stupid but hugely successful movies like ‘Armageddon’ and ‘Transformers” totally baffle me. Why do people watch this kind of crap and give him more reasons to make even more stupid movies with big explosions but no brains?
Okay, so I went to see ‘Battleship’ against my better judgment because: (a) Michael Bay didn’t direct it and (b) I kinda like Peter Berg, the actor-turned-director whose other movies like ‘Hancock’ and ‘The Kingdom’were alright.  Well, this movie might as well have been directed by Michael Bay, because it’s got his stamp all over it and I simply can’t tell the difference. ‘Battleship’ is every bit as overblown, loud and stupid as every other Michael Bay movie, with the notable exception of the opening scene, in which our protagonist (played by John Carter’s Taylor Kitsch) went to great lengths to obtain a chicken burrito to woo a blond hottie who happened to be the daughter of the admiral played by Liam Neeson.
"Battleship’ is an alien-invasion movie with lots of cool gee-wiz special FX and mind-numbing action. Given the amount of carnage and damage inflicted by the sinister lizard-like aliens in this movie with their superior military technology, it is unfathomable to me how little blood was shed. I suppose it was to maintain the movie’s PG-13 rating, but the movie seemed too much like a ‘game’ (no pun intended) to me. There are a few scenes in the movie that beggars belief, even in the context of an alien invasion movie, such as when a battleship museum was brought out of mothballs in record  time so that it can get into point blank range to fire a devastating broadside salvo with its 16-inch guns against an alien ship. In one laughable scene, our  hero fired a .50-caliber sniper rifle to open a hole in the ‘window’ of the alien ship because the aliens are sensitive to sunlight (they’re lizards right?).
Just as ‘Battle: Los Angeles’ was essentially a two-hour recruiting commercial for the US Marines, ‘Battleship’ aims to do the same for the US Navy.  Boy oh boy I just can’t wait to see what the USAF has in store when its own alien invasion commercial comes out.
5 out of 10


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Avengers Unleashed

The 21st century has ushered in a golden era for superhero movies, thanks in large part to advances in computer graphics technology (CGI) which made such movies possible.  The ‘X-Men’ and ‘Spiderman’ trilogies paved the way, to be followed by ‘Batman’ and others too numerous to mention.  Nary a summer would go by without Hollywood shoving at least 2 or 3 superhero movies down our throats, to the point that many bemoaned that they suffered from ‘superhero fatigue.’  Then along came ‘The Avengers,’ directed by uber-geek director Joss Whedon, or ‘The Mighty Avengers’ to you comic purists.

Like the uncanny X-Men, the mighty Avengers is a team of super-powered individuals created by the legendary Stan Lee, founder of Marvel Comics (make mine Marvel!).  The challenge in making a superhero ensemble movie like ’The Avengers’ is that you lose focus on any one superhero because you have to give every member of the team his or her due.  The X-Men worked largely because of the charisma of its central characters, Charles Xavier and Logan (aka Wolverine), which provided the anchor point for the other characters.  By contrast, it didn’t work so well for ‘The Fantastic Four.‘  With a roster full of egos like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk, how is Joss ever going to make this work?

As it turned out, our worries are unfounded because Joss proved to be the perfect director for a movie like this.  As he had shown us before with ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘ and ‘Firefly,’ he has a particular knack for dealing with group social dynamics.  He orchestrated the interpersonal conflicts among The Avengers like a true maestro, be it the world-weary cynicism of Iron Man versus the patriotic idealism of Captain America or the testosterone-charged, ‘king of the jungle’ pissing contest between the Son of Odin and the not-so-jolly green giant.  Nick Fury (played be Samuel L. Jackson) was the Xavier of this movie, tasked with the seemingly impossible job of knitting this group of disparate and egotistical heroes into a unified and well-honed fighting force to repel the evil machinations of the scheming Loki, who struck a deal with a nefarious alien race known as the Chitauri to invade earth and subjugate mankind. 

‘The Avengers’ puts the capital E in epic superhero movies, brimming with super-powered action and superhero kickassery.  Even at two and a half hours there’s never a dull moment, for when our heroes are not fighting Loki or his evil alien army (or among themselves), Joss Whedon sprinkles the movie with the witty quips and one-liners he’s so well known for.  You can’t help but smile when in one memorable scene Thor tried to reason with his adoptive brother Loki, and Tony Stark swoops in on their little chat with: “Shakespeare in the park?”

And what’s a Joss Whedon movie without a few femme fatales for the geeks who can’t get a date?  Scarlett Johansson was great reprising her role as the ‘Black Widow’ from Iron Man 2, but it was ‘How I Met Your Mother’ alum Colbie Smulders (and yes, her beauty does smolder) who IMO stole the few scenes she was in as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Maria Hill, most notably the opener where she went after Loki making off with the Tesseract.

With such panache and oodles of flair, including an oh-so-cool flying aircraft carrier, The Avengers truly set a new standard in the superhero genre.  The extended, chaotic battle royale in New York City in which our intrepid heroes fought off legions of invading Chitauri (not to mention the ineptitude of our own politicians) is alone worth the price of admission.  This movie is not to be missed.

10 out of 10  (Joss goes 2 for 2!)


Monday, May 14, 2012

Losing "My Way" in World War II

Since 'Saving Private Ryan,' some of the best war movies to come out have been from South Korea, of all places.  Boasting big budgets (by Korean standards anyway), great CGI and high production values, movies such as 'Taegukgi:Brotherhood of War' and 'The Front Line' are loosening Hollywood's grip on war movies.  It is thus with great anticipation that I went to see South Korea's latest ambitious offering, the WWII-themed 'My Way.'

'My Way' is the story of two erstwhile friends who were swept into the maelstrom of war in 1939.  One, a Korean peasant named Kim Jun-Sik, was impressed into the service of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) against his will.  The other, a Japanese aristocrat named Tatsuo Hasegawa, volunteered out of patriotism and a sense of duty.  Althogh the two were childhood friends, an unfortunate incident which resulted in the death of Tatsuo's beloved grandfather at a party led to a bitter rift which was further exacerbated by their competitiveness in the Olympic sport of marathon running.  Alas, when our two protagonists cross paths again at Nomonhan a year later it was under anything but ideal circumstances.

Tatsuo, now the youngest colonel (his rise must have been quite meteoric) in the IJA, had relieved the disgraced colonel who retreated against massed Soviet tanks rather than making suicidal charges and ordered his seppuku.  He soon found himself fighting for his very survival when his own well laid plans were thwarted by yet another well-timed massed Soviet armored attack, and ended up a prisoner-of-war of the Soviets along with Kim.  After serving some time in the frozen Siberian gulag, Germany invaded Russia in 1941 and they were given the choice of fighting for the Rodina against the invading Nazis or facing summary execution, so the former it is.  And guess what?  Once again, the side he's fighting on had no tanks and less firepower than the enemy!  Oh, why must our poor boys always end up with the short end of the stick when it comes to battles?

Whatever misfortune befell Tatsuo and Kim, however, were more than made up for the fact that they were the only two survivors in the suicidal charge against entrenched German defenders (so who said your 'ying' doesn't balance my 'yang?), even though Tatsuo was gravely wounded while fighting for the now tankless Soviets.  Soon afterward, they were captured by the invading Germans and became separated.  Flash forward three years later and voila!, Tatsuo is in German feldgrau preparing the defense of Normandy against the pending D-Day invasion.  And lo and behold, he saw his buddy Kim running along the beach!  Whaaaaaat???!!!  Supposedly this movie is based on a true story, but come on!  Fact can be stranger than fiction, no?

I must admit, the CGI battle scenes in 'My Way' are first-rate and spectacular, though it feels like I'm playing 'Medal of Honor:Allied Assault' or 'Call of Duty' on the Playstation at times.  The final battle scene at Normandy is truly something to behold, even if it wasn't quite the way it actually happened.  But then I had to ask myself: "Does this excuse the movie from having a semblance of a coherent and believable plot?"  This movie is little more than a series of battle scenes tied together with the flimsiest of storytelling, and is also overbloated with melodrama and sappiness in typical Korean fashion.  But other than the laughable plotlines, what really ruined it for me is the high 'implausibility factor.'  There is one scene in which a Chinese female sniper shot down a strafing Russian fighter plane with a single well aimed shot at a critical point on the plane.  This is just one of many unlikely coincidences and happenstances that stretched my belief beyond the breaking point and prevented me giving this movie a 'thumbs up.'  It may be 'inspired by true events,' but that doesn't mean director Kang Je-gyu (Taegukgi:Brotherhood of War) didn't play very fast and loose with the facts (and believe it or not, he was going to give the movie the narrow and unimaginative name 'D-Day').  Sorry, but all I can give 'My Way' is:

6 out of 10


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Counterinsurgency Warfare, early 20th Century Style

“Warriors of the Rainbow” is a John Woo-produced movie inspired by the Seediq rebellion of 1930 in Taiwan against Japanese imperialism.  It earned much acclaim in the international film circuit and has drawn comparison to such movies as Mel Gibson’s ‘Braveheart’ and Michael Mann’s ‘The Last of the Mohicans.’ 

The story is told through a warrior named Mona Rudao of the village Mahebu.  As a young warrior who had proven himself in battle against rival tribes over disputed hunting ground, Rudao’s only concerns in the world were hunting enough food with the other young braves from his village.  That is, before the Japanese encroachment thanks to the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ceded Taiwan to the Japanese.  Despite their martial prowess and killing many Japanese soldiers, Rudao et al. were ultimately futile against Japanese arms and forced into an uneasy peace.  Flash forward 30 years into the future.  In strict accordance with the ‘British Manual of Colonial Rule,’ if such a thing ever existed, administrative apparatuses and schools were established throughout the region in order to civilize and educate the ‘barbarians.’  While Rudao (now the chief of his village) knew that defying the Japanese would mean suicide, he seethed within at his powerlessness to restore their traditions and way of life.  A fight between his eldest son and a local Japanese police official during the drunken revelry of a wedding, however, provided the spark for open mutiny.  Rudao, perhaps somewhat inebriated himself, saw an apparition of his deceased father by the river, who sang the songs of his youth with him and ‘convinced’ him to unite the disparate tribes in open revolt and mercilessly attack the Japanese during a local celebration.  An orgy of violence ensued which resulted in the slaughter of many Japanese, including women and children.
Having embarked upon his fateful act, Rudao scattered his warriors in anticipation of the reprisal that was to come.  Women and young children from the revolting tribes evacuated the villages and committed suicide so as to deny the Japanese targets for retaliation (Well I did say ‘fateful act’ didn’t I?).  With just some 300 braves including teenage boys, Rudao’s only option was to wage hit-and-run guerilla warfare to bleed the Japanese as much as possible before the inevitable end.  And of course, in typical colonial fashion, the Japanese underestimated the ’savages’ and paid for it dearly with their lives.  Eventually, they were humbled and became ‘wiser,’ employing a divide-and-conquer strategy by exploiting the longstanding blood feuds between the tribes against each other.

As much as I tried to, I couldn’t find much to like in this movie because I simply did not care for its key players.  Rudao lacked the depth and charisma of Mel Gibson’s William Wallace or Daniel Day-Lewis’s ‘Hawkeye,’ and I was put off by the macho ethos of the tribes, which demanded their young men to kill each other (often by decapitation) over hunting grounds and various other petty disputes of ’honor’ in order to prove themselves as warriors.  At two-and-a-half hours long, the movie dragged due to its sluggish and uneven pace, and there is a limit to the decapitations that even I can take in one sitting before succumbing to tedium (imagine my horror when I learned that there is an even longer, two-part version of this movie lasting 4 hours!).  And without the presence of the ‘fairer sex’ to humanize its key characters, like Braveheart's Sophie Marceau or The Last of the Mohicans's Madeline Stowe, it’s exceedingly difficult to sympathize with its main protagonist. 

5 out of 10


Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods: The real ‘Hunger Games’

Horror, perhaps more than any other genre, is susceptible to the latest fashion.  Whenever something new comes along, or a fresh twist is put on a familiar theme that becomes a hit with the audience, a slew of copycats is bound to follow.  The popular mask-wearing psycho slasher movies of the '80's and ‘90s, the long-haired pasty-faced Asian ghost stories and brutal ‘torture porn’ of the 2000's, and the current flood of handheld camera-style‘ found footage’ films are all cases in point.  We can hardly blame Hollywood for this lack of originality.  After all, they’re just giving us more of what we wanted, right?  And we must want more because we keep paying money to see them.
“Five friends go to a remote cabin in the woods.  Bad things happen.  If you think you know this story, think again,” so goes the tagline of 'The Cabin in the Woods,' Joss Whedon's first foray into the horror genre since ending seven seasons of one of the greatest TV series ever made.  Even before its release, the movie’s trailer and advance buzz made it clear that  ‘The Cabin in the Woods,’ notwithstanding its namesake, is anything but your typical lost-in-the-woods horror movie involving the grisly deaths of pretty young things that had been done to death many time over in such franchises as ‘Friday the 13th,’ ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ ‘The Hills have Eyes’ and ‘Wrong Turn.’  The trailer even gave away what many would consider a twist by showing you that it's all a set-up and that the pretty young things are purposely manipulated like so many puppets into an elaborate trap by some ‘Big Brother’ organization for unknown nefarious reasons.  With a hook like this, how can we resist?
And the fact that Joss Whedon is its co-writer and producer only made it that much more highly anticipated.  Whedon, for those of you who don’t know (and shame on you!), is the talented screenwriter/director behind such cult hits as ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' its spin-off ‘Angel,’ the swashbuckling fun space-western ‘Firefly,’ and the soon-to-be-released big screen superhero  ensemble extravaganza ‘The Avengers.’   Whedon is regarded as nothing less than a demi-god by Comic-con geeks around the world, and even if not everything he does strikes gold, they promise to be at the very least devilishly delicious fun.
You would think that with such high expectations, 'The Cabin in the Woods' would be something of a letdown, and you could not be more wrong. ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ has everything that you’d expect from Joss Whedon’s fertile but twisted imagination, and yet you’d never know quite what to expect. Combining elements from his previous works such as ‘Buffy’ (supernatural demonic forces and monsters galore) and ‘Dollhouse’ (shadowy pseudo-governmental agency with a mysterious agenda manipulating others) and peppered throughout with a healthy dose of his trademark wry humor, Whedon deftly draws from various horror movies from the past to make ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ entertaining as hell (no pun intended) and unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.  In many ways, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is a labor of love from Whedon and company, as he and director Drew Goddard called it their ‘love letter’ or homage to the horror movies they watched growing up (and it’s going to take multiple viewings to catch all the tongue-in-cheek references they made in this movie). Well, I for one hope that Joss never ‘grows up.’

Finally, a perfect 10!