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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Douchebag of Wall Street

According to that definitive online authority on modern lexicon, Urban Dictionary, a ‘douchebag’ is a person of the male gender who’s beyond a jerk or an asshole but not quite a fucker or motherfucker.  The protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ fits that definition to a ‘t.’  Based on the published memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a New York stock broker whose heady rise to fortune and subsequent fall serve as a sobering lesson on the dangers of capitalist greed and excess, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street‘ displays both Scorsese and his frequent collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio at the top of their form.

DiCaprio gave an Oscar-worthy performance as Jordan Belfort who, under the tutelage of mentor Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey in a rather humorous turn), discovered that the secret of a good stock broker is not making money for your clients but "moving your clients’ money into your pocket.”  And apparently, a good stock broker also parties like there's no tomorrow (often in the office), snorts copious amounts of coke and bangs lots of hookers.  After the disaster of ‘Black Monday,’ Belfort took on a brief stint selling blue-collar penny stocks to schmucks at 50% commission before starting his own brokerage firm with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and some of his old dope-dealing high school buddies out of an auto repair garage (kinda like Steves Jobs and Wozniak with Apple).  The rest of the tale is compelling stuff indeed, as the meteoric rise of Stratton-Oakmont came under the increasing scrutiny of the FBI and SEC.

Powerful, witty, irreverent and packed with wry humor throughout, TWOWS provides us with an interesting glimpse into stock market manipulation while entertaining us at the same time.  Guided by Scorsese’s deft touch, the movie is tightly paced and never floundered even at 3 hours, which is more than you can say for DiCaprio in one hilarious scene when he and Donnie were half paralyzed by slow-acting Quaaludes.  While there’s no denying that DiCaprio’s Belfort is a despicable scum-sucking scoundrel of the highest order who fleeced people of their hard-earned savings (i.e. 'moving his clients’ money into his pocket'), one must also grudgingly concede that he was simply marvelous on-screen, a personality radiating so much confidence and charisma that he can sell virtually anything to anyone, anytime.  Whether he's galvanizing his peeps before a big IPO or giving a moving speech about how  a single mother pursued the 'American Dream' and rose from the depths of poverty and despair, you can't help but give him your undivided attention and applause.  Bravo, Leo, bravo!

Grade: A
 
Well, this makes my 50th and final review of the year.  Have a safe and happy new year, everyone.  Next up: American Hustle.  Until next time.

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Monday, December 30, 2013

L5R: The Movie

Fantasy and history with a distinctly oriental flavor collide in Keanu Reeves' latest actioner set in the breathtakingly picturesque landscape of feudal Japan.  Based on a well known and beloved Japanese folk tale, '47 Ronin' is the story of forty-seven masterless and disgraced samurai (ronin) who defied the Shogun in order to avenge their lord, who was forced to commit seppuku as a result of the duplicitous deceit and treachery of a rival daimyo.
 
Being a fan of samurai history, Kurosawa and Japanese chanbara as well as jidaigeki, I had high hopes for '47 Ronin.'  Japanese cult film director Takashi Miike, whom Quentin Tarantino idolizes and cites frequently as an influence, recently brought samurai flicks back in a big way with his robustly violent '13 Assassins' and the more understated 'Hara-kiri.'  Therefore, it is really a shame that '47 Ronin' squandered a great opportunity and failed to further broaden the appeal of Japanese samurai cinema to American viewers. 
 
So what went wrong?  Purists argued that combining history with fantasy (the movie has an evil shape-shifting witch, forest demons, a giant Silver Samurai right out of 'Wolverine' and a Chinese dragon) was a mistake.  However, the story of the 47 ronin has been told on film twice already straight, the first in 1941 and more recently in the 1962 movie 'Chūshingura,' so I won't blame the producers and writers for giving this retelling a fantasy element in light of the success of 'The Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit.' 
 
The fact is simply that '47 Ronin' is bland, uninspired and tepid.  None of the characters, least of all Keanu's half-breed outcast Kai, are compelling or sympathetic enough for us to care about.  His monotonous, droning proclamations of love to Lady Mika (Kou Shibasaki) lacked resonance and the ring of authenticity, and the over-reliance on CGI only made the movie appear superficial and less 'human.'  They spent $175 million on this?!

Grade: C

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Monday, December 16, 2013

Bilbo and the Thirteen Dwarves

When it comes to bringing large scale sword-and-sorcery to the big screen, perhaps no one is better than Peter Jackson.  In three ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, the New Zealand native has established himself as a master at breathing life into the enchanting realms of not only men but of Orcs, Elves, Dwarves, Goblins, Trolls, Halflings (Hobbits) and Drakes.  A gifted storyteller and cinematographer, Jackson’s movies are always breathtaking in beauty and scope, lending his movie a grandeur few of his contemporaries can match.
 
In ‘The Desolation of Smaug,‘ the middle installment of Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit,‘ Dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield and his merry band of dwarves continue their quest for the Arkenstone and to reclaim the lost kingdom of Erebor from the bane dragon Smaug, with the help of the wizard Gandalf (for the first quarter of the movie anyway) and the halfling Bilbo Baggins, armed with the One-Ring he took from Gollum which renders him invisible.  Their ‘unexpected journey’ becomes an even more unexpected adventure as the hapless PC's (that's 'player characters' in D&D parlance) evade Orcs, a Man-Bear ‘skin-changer’ named Beorn, get cocooned by mandibled Giant Spiders, run afoul of Wood Elves in the forest, before finally arriving at Lonely Mountain to face an awakened and royally pissed off fire-breathing Dragon.  “What have we done?!” indeed.
 
‘The Desolation of Smaug’ moves at a livelier clip than the unevenly paced ‘An Unexpected Journey’ and, like the dwarves in their white-water barreling escape from their wood elf captors (including Tauriel played by the comely Evangeline Lilly from ‘Lost‘), we can’t help but get swept along for the ride.  At 2 hours, 41 minutes the movie could have been trimmed down to a better length; the dragon talked a bit too much and the last scene in which the dwarves and hobbit evaded the dragon seemed to ‘drag on’ and on (no pun intended), but given the movie’s merits this is a small transgression I am more than willing to overlook.
 
Grade: A

 
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Friday, December 6, 2013

Sex, Lies and Hammer

Spike Lee’s latest ‘joint’ is the American remake of South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s excellent but subversive 2003 cult hit ‘Oldboy,’ the second installment in his so-called "Vengeance trilogy" that is also widely considered to be its best.  Chances are, if you - like me - have seen the original ‘Oldboy,’ this movie will offer nothing new for you because ‘Oldboy’ is one of those delicious “riddles wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” with such a shocking twist slowly but methodically revealed that watching it again invariably loses some of its impact.
 
However, for those of you who haven’t seen the original, this Americanized version is well worth the look because ‘Oldboy’ is really a splendid mystery and sordid tale of revenge that never holds back, packed with ultra-violence, creeping suspense and sheer, good old fashioned storytelling, even if it’s guilty of being outlandish and highly implausible.  In fact, like David Fincher's 'The Game,' it is the plot's very outrageousness that lends the movie its strength, as we're drawn into its intricate web of deceit and realize with bone-chilling horror just how far people will go to serve the cold dish of revenge in calculated fashion.
 
‘Oldboy’ 2013 is more-or-less a faithful remake of Park Chan-wook’s original, with some minor tweaks in details.  Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley and Samuel L. Jackson all performed their parts well in this Coen Brothers-meets-Alfred Hitchcock suspense thriller that could have been directed by Quentin Tarantino if one didn’t know any better.  Alas, ‘Oldboy’ is an art-house genre film that will never have mainstream appeal due to its highly provocative and taboo content.
 
Grade: A
 
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Saturday, November 30, 2013

This Girl is on Fire

She's just a girl, and she's on fire
Hotter than a fantasy, lonely like a highway
She's living in a world, and it's on fire
Feeling the catastrophe, but she knows she can fly away
 
If it wasn't for the fact that R&B diva Alicia Keys' album 'Girl on Fire' came out a full year to the day before 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' was released in theatres, its title track would have been the perfect anthem to this second installment of the popular Suzanne Collins YA trilogy, in which the lovely and talented Jennifer Lawrence reprises her role as the Diana-esque archer Katniss Everdeen competing in the popular bloodsport known as 'The Hunger Games' held each year in the bleak and dystopian future world of Panem.
 
Just one year after co-winning the 74th annual 'Hunger Games' with her male counterpart and 'lover' Peeta Mellark representing District 12, Katniss and Peeta find themselves imperiled again when President Snow (Donald Sutherland) held the third 'Quarter Quell,' a once-in-25-years event when the powers-that-be can break tradition in the games and do whatever they want to "quell" the rebellious districts.  Oh, curse the gods that they just had to be winners of the 74th games!  At least Katniss and Peeta were more dignified and accepted their misfortune with a bit more tact than the District 7 tribute, Johanna Mason, portrayed with comedic effect by Jena Malone.
 
'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' is another crowd-pleaser packed with action and melodrama, even if not all of it came across entirely convincingly.  The contrived love triangle between Katniss, Gale and Peeta "deepens," no doubt for the sake of swooning teenage hearts, and this second installment had more to do with surviving the deadly artificial environments and dangers thrown in by new Gamemaker Plutarch Heaventree (Philip Seymour Hoffman) than trying to kill each other for the entertainment of the masses.  There's more cooperation and teamwork in 'Catching Fire' among the various tributes than in the first film, as Katniss slowly realizes her true destiny, which becomes clear at the movie's abrupt and unresolved ending, to be concluded in the third and final installment  'Mockingjay.'
 
What makes this YA trilogy so appealing is that it's a timeless story of good versus evil, much like 'Star Wars' and 'The Lord of the Rings.'  The world of 'The Hunger Games' is contrasted in stark black and white with no moral ambiguity.  Katniss Everdeen is not only a symbol against tyranny and oppression, a beacon of hope in a world of despair for many, but also represents the archetypal post-modern heroine, one who wields her bow and arrows with as much dexterity, skill and efficiency as Buffy with her signature wooden stake.

Grade: A

For my take on the first installment, here it is:
http://moviesaccordingtodave.blogspot.com/2012/04/let-games-begin.html
 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thor: The Dark Elf World

Of all the Marvel superheroes I've known reading comic books as a kid, Thor is probably one of my least favorite.  He's like a cheesy, badly dressed Viking wannabe with a big stupid hammer.  I mean, what's up with that?  So what if he's a Norse god?  He has little personality and always seems stiff.  Lame.  I'll take Spiderman, Captain America, Iron Man, Daredevil, and even Hulk over him any day.
 
Well, all I can say is that the two Thor movies have totally changed my views on the Son of Odin.  Thor is noble, tough, principled, strong willed, and romantic, with all the knightly virtues of King Arthur's court.  In 'Thor: The Dark World,' Thor's home world Asgard faces its gravest threat as the banished Dark Elf king Malekith returns to wreak vengeance and to destroy the Nine Worlds with the power of the Aether during the once-in-five millennia cosmic event known as the Convergence.
 
Never mind that I still have trouble seeing Natalie Portman as a brilliant Astrophysicist, even though she is one of the brightest actresses in Hollywood, or that Kat Dennings with her street-smart sarcasm as her intern can give an exposition on dark matter for that matter, because 'Thor: The Dark World' is another entertaining thrill-ride from Marvel Studios.  And somehow, strangely, the Thor movies managed to smoothly and effortlessly bring two disparate and seemingly incompatible genres, Fantasy and Science Fiction, into perfect 'Convergence.'  Imagine Lucas and Jackson collaborate on something called 'Star Wars of the Rings,' if you will.

Grade: A-

Ender's Endgame

Humanity's very survival is at stake in the big screen adaptation of Orson Scott Card's thought-provoking  1985 tale about kids trained and programmed to become military strategists and cold-hearted killers.  While the book poses the question: "Is it right to lose our humanity in order to save humanity?" the movie makes no such philosophical pretenses, aiming to simply give us a thrilling sci-fi crowd-pleaser centered around its angst-ridden but likeable protagonist, Andrew 'Ender' Wiggins.
 
Played by Asa Butterfield, the willowy Ender is portrayed as a vulnerable and conflicted young man who feels the weight of saving the world on his tiny shoulders.   Of course, that is precisely because this is what he and his fellow cadets were told by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), the commanding officer of the Battle School in which Ender and many others are enrolled.  Ender soon outshines all the rest as he proves to be not only a prodigy in the Art of War but also deceptively adept at personal survival against the predations of bullies and jealous classmates.
 
As Ender feels increasingly out-of-touch with his own emotions in his rigid military surroundings, he thinks of his dear sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) to get back on track, demanding that he be able to send messages to her.  Because in 'Ender's Game,' genocidal war is no more than a virtual symphony depicted on glitzy neon screens of a massive multi-player video game with Ender as the conductor.  In fact, you can't tell what is simulation and what is real.  And therein lies the kicker.
 
Grade: B

Monday, October 21, 2013

Mujeres, Machinegun(bras) & Machete

In their critically acclaimed but underappreciated 2007 homage to '70's Grindhouse cinema, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez gave us a slew of fake movie trailers.  Notable among them is ‘Machete,’ a Mexican lone-wolf anti-hero cut in the same mold as Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris and Clint Eastwood, if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s played by Danny Trejo, whom God didn't exactly grace with good looks.  Before ‘Machete,‘ Trejo had mostly been type cast as either a hardened convict serving hard time or an ex con.  Talk about racial profiling!  Then again, perhaps they can be forgiven because with his unruly long hair, leathery skin, beefy frame and gang tattoos, not to mention acne scars and a perpetual scowl, Trejo just looks like one badass mofo you don’t want to be anywhere close to.  If nothing else, 2010‘s ‘Machete’ was a gleefully fun and violent popcorn flick worthy of the old school exploitation B-movie it strived to be.  And at the end of the movie, we’re teased with a sequel, ‘Machete Kills.’  Can’t wait.
 
So three years later ‘Machete Kills’ arrives in theaters, but nobody cared.  Maybe the joke’s getting a bit old, whatever.  While ‘Machete’ was a simple story with the undercurrent of illegal immigration about a man unjustly framed seeking to clear himself and bring righteous fury to those who wronged him, ‘Machete Kills’ has a messy, disjointed and overbloated plot with too many cameos, detours and twists.  In this follow-up Robert Rodriguez included various B-movie influences, from campy low budget espionage thrillers to the cheesy ‘Babes, Bullets & Bikinis’ (or 'Girls, Guns & G-Strings') sexploitation fluff made popular by Andy Sidaris in ‘80’s and ‘90’s Grindhouse cinema.
 

More firepower than a squad of Austin Powers fembots

‘Machete Kills’ earns points for trying to be the light and ridiculously fun B-movie its predecessor was, but it ultimately failed because the movie's not so much about 'the man' himself.  With a cast of characters including Mel Gibson, Carlos Estevez (aka Charlie Sheen), Demian Bichir, Cuba Gooding Jr., Antonio Banderas, Sofia Vergara, Lady Gaga, Amber Heard, Vanessa Hudgens and Alexa Vega as well as returning ones such as Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba and Tom Savini, 'Machete Kills' is less about Machete than all the other crazy and colorful people (like Desdemona above) who inhabit his mad, mad world.


"Adeptus Machetetus"

In 'Machete Kills,' we're teased again with a trailer for yet another sequel called 'Machete Kills Again........ in Space!'  Look, it's an homage to Star Wars!  This time I can wait....... forever.
 
Grade: C
 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pirates of the Indian Ocean

Somali piracy on the high seas is the hot-button topic in Paul Greengrass’s newest thriller, ‘Captain Phillips,’ a reenactment of the 2009 hijacking of the American container ship “Maersk Alabama” off the coast of Somalia.  Best known for directing two of the three Jason Bourne movies, the former journalist has established himself as the ‘go to’ helmer for gritty real-life dramatizations with movies like ’Bloody Sunday,’ ‘United 93’ and ‘Green Zone.’
 
Academy Award winner Tom Hanks gives another fine performance as Captain  Jack Sparrow   Richard Phillips, the titular hero of this movie.  While many of his former crew accused him of being insufferable (that‘s politely calling him a jackass boss by the way), prone to take unnecessary risks to the point of being reckless and disregarding their legitimate concerns of navigating too close to the Somali coast, his harrowing ordeal while being kidnapped at gunpoint on a cramped orange rescue boat cannot be denied. 
 
‘Captain Phillips’ is a thriller that feels genuine, authentic and believable, yet this also turned out to be its greatest weakness because, although there are brief moments of tension-filled suspense, this rote, by-the-numbers dramatization ultimately proved to be a bore.  Fact is, the four Somali pirates who boarded 'Maersk Alabama' never stood a chance, even when they thought they held all the cards.  ‘Muse,’ the famished, skeletal leader of the hapless pirates simply because he spoke some broken English and played admirably by Barkhad Abdi, tries vainly to project an air of menace and assert his authority by declaring “I am the captain now,” but the calm demeanor and poise of Tom Hank’s Phillips left absolutely no doubt as to who’s really in charge.  Even before the US Navy and SEALS arrived, by which point it became the equivalent of the proverbial cat playing with the mouse before having his dinner, the sheer desperation and bickering of the pirates made it clear that they overplayed their hand but were in denial and refused to accept that the jig is up.  Why didn't they just take the 30 grand and called it a day?
 
Grade: B
 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Houston..... we're fucked"

Wow!  Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s space-based adventure drama ‘Gravity’ is an awesome cinematic achievement, a visually stunning and visceral experience that will leave you breathless.  Using cutting-edge FX and innovative filming techniques, space has never been portrayed with such realism or grandeur.  This is the type of groundbreaking movie that visionaries like James Cameron, Steven Spielberg or George Lucas wish they can claim credit for. 
 
On the surface, ‘Gravity’ is a simple story of survival against the elements with only two protagonists, George Clooney’s space shuttle commander Matt Kowalski and Sandra Bullock’s mission specialist Dr. Ryan Stone.  We don’t really get to know them, but like most survival tales such as ’127 Hours,’ ’The Impossible’ and ’Life of Pi,’ this movie has a way of grabbing you and not letting go.  And “Don’t let go” was exactly what Sandra Bullock had to do in the movie, lest she spiral out into the endless oblivion of space.  Set in the unforgiving vacuum of space over 300 miles above earth, ’Gravity’ makes for a riveting and compelling story as we’re taken along on a giddy, exhilarating, frightening and emotional (not necessarily in that order) roller-coaster ride over the course of the movie’s tightly paced and efficient 90 minutes.
 
Do yourself a favor and go see this stupendous piece of work on the big screen in IMAX 3D.  The extra surcharge for IMAX 3D is well worth it, because to watch ‘Gravity’ in traditional 2D simply won't do.  So  immersed was I into this movie that I ducked when the space debris were scatter-shot at me, and I instinctively reached out for the bolt when it flew out from Sandra Bullock’s gloved hand.  So silly.
 
Grade: A+
 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Confessions of a Porn Addict

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s anti-romantic comedy, ’Don Jon,’ takes an honest and humorous look at a modern-day Don Juan Demarco’s vain attempts at finding love.  JG-L plays Don Jon Martello, a twenty-something lothario who works in the ‘service industry’ (a bartender) and is proud of it.  He confesses at  church every week for his sexual misdeeds, hits the gym, works hard, parties even harder and has quite the reputation of a 'player' and ladies’ man, since he has had more one-night stands under his belt than he could remember.  In the tradition of other young Italian-American "guidos" like Joey Tribbiani from ‘Friends’ or Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino from ‘Jersey Shore,’ Don Jon is a real jerk-off (in more ways than one) who objectifies women.  Oh, and did I mention he’s addicted to porn?
 


So when he saw Esquire Magazine’s sexiest woman two-time winner Scarlett Johansson’s Barbara across the dance floor at the bar one night, it was ‘love at first sight’ after rating her a solid '9' and he just had to hit on her.  She’s not as easy as his typical conquests, however, and only begrudgingly allows him to take her on a date to see a (gasp!) rom-com.  With her New Yorker accent, ScarJo did quite a passable impression of Fran Drescher from ‘The Nanny,’ though not as nasally.  Alas, their fling did not end well.  Just as they finally consummated their courtship after a night of, well, you know what, Don Jon boots up his computer again to ‘unwind’ with his favorite websites in an adjacent room while Barbara was ‘asleep,’ only to have her walk in on him with his pants down, so to speak.   Spoilers, you say?  Go screw yourself, because all this was given away in the movie’s trailer.  Anyhoo, with some help from Julianne Moore’s Esther, a widow who turned out to be Don Jon’s ‘Mrs. Robinson’ if you get my drift, Don Jon learns the valuable lesson that 'love' without true love is deeply unfulfilling. 

Written and directed by JG-L himself, ‘Don Jon’ is full of wry humor and wit.  Don Jon isn’t a particularly likeable guy (okay, he’s something of a pig), but like Joey Tribbiani he’s naïve and well meaning, so he’s not entirely despicable.  To the contrary, some might even find him a bit endearing.  In essence, Don Jon is the very antithesis of the other lovelorn twenty-something JG-L portrayed in Marc Webb's quirky 2009 rom-com ‘500 Days of Summer.’  In ‘Don Jon,’ JG-L has shown that he may not only be a versatile actor but an up-and-coming writer/director as well.  Only time will tell.

Grade: A-
 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Life in the Fast Lane

Ron Howard’s latest movie, a biopic focusing on the heated-but-never-bitter rivalry between two Formula One drivers, is a tour de force of staggering virtuosity and a fascinating glimpse into the world of F1 racing.  I’ve been watching the Indy 500 since the 1980's, when it had such legends as Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Mario Andretti, so racing flicks like ‘Senna’ and ‘Rush’ hold a certain appeal to me.  Yes, I know an Indy car is not the marvel-of-engineering that a custom-made F1 car is, but let's not split hairs.  At least I'm not a NASCAR redneck who watches 'Days of Thunder' or 'Talledega Nights,' no offense.

'Rush' is also an interesting character study of the two drivers, Niki Lauda and James Hunt, as they vie for the F1 title in 1976.  As such, it is a compelling story of quiet jealousy, personal ambition, perseverance and, to coin a well used phrase, the "triumph of the human spirit."  In many ways, the Austrian Lauda and the Briton Hunt cannot be more different.  One is calculating, methodical and precise, with an engineer’s eye for detail and is driven by a fierce competitiveness as if he always had something to prove.  The other is a long-maned, laid-back womanizer with Rock Star aura whose motivation came from the fruits it would bring: personal riches, glory, fame, beautiful women, a partying lifestyle and pride.  James Hunt's philosophy is to live for the moment because life may be short.  Unfortunately, he proved to be right.

Anchored by mesmerizing performances from Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Daniel Brühl, 'Rush' is Ron Howard’s best directing effort since ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ which won Best Picture at the Oscars more than 10 years ago.  Riveting, exhilarating and highly accessible, 'Rush' is guaranteed to entertain not only racing and sports fans but mainstream moviegoers too.

Grade: A
 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

More Insidious?

James Wan is one of the most profitable filmmakers at work in Hollywood today.  Back in 2004, the then 28-year old Malaysian fresh out of film school in Australia made quite a splash with his horror cheapie ’Saw,’ and for better or worse introduced us to the horror subgenre known as "torture porn."  With a budget of only $1.2 million, ’Saw’ went on to gross $107 million worldwide.  Then, after a couple of less successful efforts, Wan did it again in 2011 with his slow-burning but eerie ‘Insidious.’  At a mere $1.5 million, ‘Insidious’ made $97 million globally, cementing Wan’s place as a gifted ‘Master of Horror.’  Eschewing the blood-and-gore of torture porn and relying instead on a heady mix of gothic atmosphere, spellbinding suspense and good old-fashioned storytelling about a family haunted by sinister supernatural forces, ‘Insidious’ was a welcome breath of fresh air in a genre that’s gone a bit stale and unimaginative of late.  Not surprisingly, the movie’s ending pointed to a sequel, with the father (spoiler ahead) bringing his son back from the netherworld but leaving us with the question: “Did dad come back a different person?”  Insidious minds want to know.
 
‘Insidious: Chapter 2’ answered this question and more, as the Lamberts find themselves still haunted by poltergeists.   At the beginning of 'Insidious: Chapter 2,' we discover that ’Insidious’ isn’t the first time ghosts and evil spirits visited some of its characters.  Allow me to go off topic briefly here to praise the casting director, because the young actresses picked to portray earlier versions of Barbara Hershey's Lorraine (Lambert) and Lin Shaye’s Elise (Rainier) are dead-on lookalikes, especially the young Elise.  Once again, there are comic moments from the nerdy 'ghostbuster' team of Specs (screenwriter Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), such as when they had their own version of Rock-Paper-Scissors called ‘Hunter-Ninja-Bear.’  Ha, get it?
 
Alas, ’Insidious: Chapter 2’ suffered the same curse that plagued almost every sequel; that is, it has to be even better than the original to be considered a critical success.  If it’s just more of the same, why bother with a sequel at all?  But I must admit that I enjoyed ‘Insidious: Chapter 2’ more than the original because it is more briskly paced and the threads of its complex storyline, past and present, all tied together neatly in the end.  Perhaps most of all, what makes 'Insidious: Chapter 2' so gripping and suspenseful is that through two movies, we’ve grown to care about the Lamberts as well as the paranormal investigators who risk everything (including their lives) to help them, even if daddy goes a bit 'Jack Nicholson' from ’The Shining' near the end.  

Grade: A-
  

Friday, September 13, 2013

Get Riddick

Riddick is one of Hollywood’s archetypal anti-heroes.  The sole survivor of a warrior race called the Furyans, Riddick is the quintessential lone wolf, a soft-spoken yet barely contained force-of-nature whom you do not want to mess with if you care about your health.  The third installment in the cult-favorite sci-fi series, ‘Riddick’ follows in the wake of the well-executed ‘Pitch Black’ and the somewhat underwhelming ‘The Chronicles of Riddick.’
 
Self-proclaimed Dungeons & Dragons geek Vin Diesel, who reportedly leveraged his own house to finance this latest venture himself because the studios wouldn’t back it and it’s his passion project, infused the titular character with the quiet menace and brutal efficiency we’ve come to expect from this badass mofo.  In one scene, just when a chained Riddick was (Warning: Spoiler a-head!) about to have his head chopped off by a merc with a machete who's not named ‘Machete,’ he turned the table on the poor guy (because the merc never stood a chance) with a fluidity of motion that is simply beautiful to behold.  Kudos also goes to Katee Sackhoff (best known as ‘Starbuck’ on Syfy’s reboot of BSG) for not only playing the role perfectly type-cast for her as a tough female merc but also answering my prayers and showing a bit more skin than expected in a gratuitous shower scene. 
 
‘Riddick’ isn’t particularly profound or groundbreaking, but it is an entertaining sci-fi B-movie about a flawed man prevailing against the odds and surviving on an inhospitable death world while hunting (ahem, being hunted by) mercenaries.  It is a simple story well told, something that’s not too much to ask for but is all too rare in Hollywood nowadays.
 
Grade: B+

And he will hunt them..... (see poster for 'You're Next')

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The lamb, the fox and the tiger

'You're Next,' the self-referential, tongue-in-cheek satire of home invasion slashers from the director/writer team of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, is a tightly plotted, suspenseful and well crafted piece of indie filmmaking.  Like Wes Craven's 'Scream,' Michael Haneke's 'Funny Games' and Joss Whedon's 'Cabin in the Woods,' the movie's a game-changer that's not afraid to bend or break genre conventions and, in so doing, give us something we haven't encountered before.
 
With its sinister masked-killers-terrorizing-a-family plot, 'You're Next' at first glance resembles other home invasion thrillers like 'Them,' 'The Strangers,' 'The Collector' and 'The Purge.'  However, as the story progresses and the twists are gradually revealed, culminating in the unexpected and delicious ending, we discover that 'You're Next' has about as much in common with those other films as 'Scream' has in common with 'Friday the 13th,' 'Halloween' or 'A Nightmare on Elm Street.'  Indeed, so good is 'You're Next' that I find it hard to believe this is only the second full-length outing from Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, the first being the highly acclaimed 'A Horrible Way to Die' which I most definitely will have to check out now.
 
Violent, bloody, darkly humorous and with a charismatic and resourceful post-modern feminist heroine played by Australian newcomer Sharni Vinson who, like Macaulay Culkin in 'Home Alone,' chose fight over flight, 'You're Next' is an immensely entertaining and highly satisfying film that's a must-see for all horror buffs.

Grade: A

Sunday, September 1, 2013

It's the End of the World as we know it....

Following 'Shaun of the Dead' and 'Hot Fuzz,' the third and final entry of Edgar Wright's so-called Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy is an epic "pub crawl" with Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan.  Owing to sci-fi classics like 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' and 'The Stepford Wives,' Wright described 'The World's End' as "social science fiction" because its theme deals with the human condition.
 
In what may be his best performance of the trilogy, Pegg plays Gary King, a middle-aged 'rebel without a cause' and slacker who sought to recapture the lost glory of his youth by completing the 'Golden Mile,' an epic pub crawl (what we Americans call bar-hopping) of 12 pubs with names like 'The Famous Cock,' 'The Two-Headed Dog,' 'The Mermaid' and, of course, 'The World's End.'  You can read more about these fine drinking establishments here: http://www.flickeringmyth.com/2013/07/special-features-what-do-pubs-in-world.html.  He recruits his old buddies, who are by now all middle-aged men with real jobs and families, to join him in finishing what they couldn't before when they were carefree teenagers with their airs of invincibility, which is recounted brilliantly in the movie's snappy opening montage.
 
'The World's End' combines slacker/stoner comedy with alien invasion sci-fi and social commentary.  When Gary defied 'The Network' by making his rousing speech that he'd rather be a flawed human than a soulless automaton and thereby bringing about the apocalypse, Wright is really commenting by proxy that our society as a whole has given in to conformity and that we have lost our individuality.
 
Witty, funny and filled with numerous references that you'll likely only catch with repeated viewings, 'The World's End' is trademark Edgar Wright and makes for a fine ending to the Cornetto Trilogy.  As the R.E.M. song goes, "It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine."
 
Grade: A
 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Oh, take your tampon out Dave

Along with 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,' Matthew Vaughn's big screen adaptation of the Icon comic series 'Kick-Ass' by Mike Millar and John Romita Jr. was one of the pleasant surprises of 2010.  Irreverent, ultra-violent, exploitative and loaded with black humor, 'Kick-Ass' is beloved by fans and critics alike for its witty satire of the superhero genre and allowing Comic-Con geeks to fantasize that they, too, can be superheroes. 
 
'Kick-Ass 2' picks up where 'Kick-Ass' left off, and we see Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Mindy Macready (Chloë Grace Moretz) go their separate ways.  While Dave still wants to fight bad guys and defend the weak and innocent, Mindy, who's now adopted by Detective Marcus, has to hang up her purple tights and wig in order to live a normal life.  It's Hit-Girl versus Mean Girls as she attempts to navigate the perilous waters of teen angst and catty high school clique bitchiness.  Meanwhile, without Hit-Girl by his side, Kick-Ass joins a new 'family' of masked vigilantes called 'Justice Forever' led by former mob goon Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey) while Chris D'Amico, formerly 'Red Mist' (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), seeks revenge for the bazooka-killing of his dad at the hands of Kick-Ass by transforming himself into a villain mastermind called 'The Motherfucker.'
 
Like its predecessor, KA2 brilliantly balances its R-rated, blood-soaked violence and sexual content with a good dose of zaniness and humor.  Once again, Chloë Grace Moretz steals the scene and shines bright as the irresistibly cute and potty-mouthed little bad-ass Hit-Girl, who told Kick-Ass to do what the title of this review says when he writhes on the ground after a brief bout with her on the training room floor.  And wow, her climactic battle with The Motherfucker's über-henchwoman 'Mother Russia' is quite literally one for the ages.  Therefore, I felt it's only appropriate to rename the movie accordingly in the poster below.
 
Sure, KA2 is a bit formulaic and predictable, but in a movie like this what's important is the journey and not the destination.  And what a gleefully fun ride it is!  The bittersweet ending of the movie also provided the perfect closure to the Kick-Ass/Hit-Girl saga.  What can I say?  It had me at 'hello.'

Grade: A+++

Sunday, August 11, 2013

So this is how the 1 percent lives

It's been four years since South African director Neill Blomkamp's gave us the cerebral and original sci-fi actioner 'District 9,' so his follow-up, the eagerly awaited sci-fi epic 'Elysium' is long overdue.  Blomkamp's movies are above the norm because they are more than simple popcorn sci-fi action movies; they also have a social message and serve as a cautionary tale on where we might end up if we don't take responsibility and treat each other with humanity.
 
While 'District 9' was an allegory of the plight of Africa's poor and hungry with aliens filling in as second class citizens, 'Elysium' could be a forecast of how humanity may really look like in 2154 if the current gap in socio-economic inequality continues unabated.  Before you get all self-righteous and start calling this movie a socialist manifesto, I'll stop here and just say that 'Elysium' isn't heavy-handed or preachy at all.  Like 'District 9,' it gives us pause and makes us reflect on the current (and possible future) human condition, for better or worse.
 
Matt Damon plays Max DeCosta, a working class 'automaton' who tries to stay out of trouble despite having a sarcastic wit which earned him a broken arm from a droid.  After an industrial accident which gave him just 5 days to live, he became a man 'transformed' out of desperation and became the last ray of hope for the dispossessed on earth who could only look up at Elysium (a massive wheeled space station for the rich reminiscent of the one in '2001:A Space Odyssey') with yearning and dream.  Jodie Foster has never been more ruthless as Elysium's secretary of defense, especially when she barked out the order: "Activate Kruger!" with such cold authority.  And Sharlto Copley, who was the timid fugitive victim in 'District 9,' played the predator this time and was marvelously evil as Kruger, a loose cannon soldier-for-hire who became the personal attack dog for Jodie Foster's Delacourt.  Unfortunately, as it sometimes happens, the dog would turn on its master.
 
With a great storyline, beautiful cinematography contrasting the Elysium paradise and hell on earth, and the hyper-kinetic action that is Blomkamp's trademark, we have another winner here in 'Elysium.'  Gritty, sympathetic, visceral and realistic, this is the kind of sci-fi movie I enjoy the most.

Grade: A

Family Ties

I've always found Jason Sudeikis to be pretty funny on SNL.  He brings a smarmy, sardonic wit to his roles, whether he's plugging feminine products with a straight face on ESPN Classic as a sportscaster or expressing his disapproval as the professor of Japanese Studies on the Michigan college cable talk show 'J-Pop America Fun Time Now!'  'We're the Millers' is the SNL alum's third movie, following in the wakes of 'Horrible Bosses' and 'Hall Pass.'
 
In the tradition of National Lampoon's 'Vacation,' 'We're the Millers' is a family road-trip comedy, except the Millers are a fake family composed of a small time drug dealer (Sudeikis), a stripper (Aniston), a not-too-bright but well meaning virgin (Will Poulter) and a rebellious runaway (Emma Roberts) who aren't on vacation at all.  The whole scam was put together for the convenience of making a drug delivery from Mexico to the US, because what are the chances that such a nice All-American family can be mistaken for drug smugglers, right?
 
Never mind that we can't seriously buy into Sudeikis being a drug dealer, or Aniston being a stripper/pole-dancer for that matter, because this whole ridiculous premise is only the set-up for the hilarity that ensues as the faux family-in-their-Winnebago had to overcome one crisis after another.  There are some truly bawdy but funny gags, like what a tarantula did to poor Kenny's jewels, or when 'mom' and 'sis' gave him his first kiss.  But 'We're the Millers' also has heart.  The most memorable scene is when the Millers sang along with TLC's 'Waterfalls' on the radio.  And while the movie is ultimately predictable in that these four people who at first can't stand each other (except for Poulter's Kenny) later discovered that they really are a close-knit 'family' and looked out for each other, we can forgive the movie for its sins because it made us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  Be sure to stick around for the gag reel in the end credits, which tops off with a different version of the family sing-along song and took the 44-year old Jennifer Aniston on a pleasant trip down memory lane.  Can you say "Awwwwww!"?

Grade: B+



Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Last Wolverine

James 'Logan' Howlett, aka 'Wolverine,' has always been my favorite X-Man.  Unlike other X-Men (or X-Women), he can't fly, manipulate the weather, teleport, steal other mutant powers or shoot laser beams from his eyes.  Though his Weapon X 'gifts' are formidable indeed: instant self-healing and a virtually indestructible adamantium endoskeleton.  Not to mention those retractable adamantium claws of his are pretty nifty too. 
 
'The Wolverine' is the second spin-off of the popular X-Men character, following the much maligned 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine' back in 2009.  While that movie wasn't terrible, it was a bit of a messy affair, overwrought with action set-pieces piled on one after another to the point that you stopped caring.  With that in mind, 'The Wolverine' is a welcome change of pace and scenery.
 
Japan is the setting of the new Wolverine movie, which should be familiar to X-Men fans well versed in the comic books.  While visiting an old WWII acquaintance at his death bed, Logan found his abilities impaired and became embroiled in the Byzantine affairs of the Yashida family, in particular the well-being of the granddaughter of the patriarch he came to say goodbye to in the first place. 
 
'The Wolverine' is richly textured and layered with nuances, a subtle, character-driven and at times poignant story without all the excess of action too common in summer blockbusters nowadays.  And when the action scenes do come, they are not only exciting but memorable, such as the fight atop the Bullet Train and the final set-piece between Wolverine and the Silver Samurai.  The movie captured the essence of Wolverine perfectly, a tortured man living by his own personal code of honor (Bushido).  There's also romance: the budding love between Wolverine and Mariko, and Yukio's J-Pop schoolgirl crush on Logan as his 'bodyguard.'  Perhaps hiring a respected director more known for 'art films' like James Mangold to impart 'The Wolverine' with the feel of 'The Last Samurai' isn't such a bad idea after all.

Grade: A-

'Wolverine' is a study in contrast, of light and shadows
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Seeing RED

'RED' was a sleeper hit and one of the great success stories of 2010.  The movie made an underwhelming $22.5 million on its opening weekend (behind 'Jackass 3D' which drew a younger audience), but went on to eventually surpass the erstwhile #1 movie in America by grossing nearly $200 million worldwide, proving that there is hope for humanity after all.
 
It is no surprise then that the surviving senior citizens of "Retired, Extremely Dangerous" are back for a second go-round in a bigger sequel.  This time, domesticated Frank and paranoid-as-ever Marvin find themselves the target of state-sanctioned assassination again when their names are published on the internet associated with a Cold War top-secret mission involving the smuggling of a 1-megaton nuclear device piecemeal via diplomatic pouch into the Soviet Union called 'Operation Nightshade.'  Mary Louise-Parker reprises her role as Frank's bored-with-her-mundane-life girlfriend, Sarah, and Helen Mirren returns as MI6 assassin Victoria, but 'RED 2' is decidedly younger with the addition of two fresh faces in Catherine Zeta-Jones and South Korean star Lee Byung-hun, both at the 'tender young age' of 43.

'RED 2' is quite a bit more action-packed and globe-trotting than its predecessor, but with the back story out of the way there is no need to slow down for character development.  With the addition of Katya (Zeta-Jones) and Han (Lee), as well as Sir Anthony Hopkins' Dr. Bailey, the movie is also busier with more subplots and 'complications,' like the tongue-in-cheek love triangle between Frank, Sarah and Katya. 
 
Still, 'RED 2' is a tad too déjà vu and predictable.  The cool 'fish-tailing car entry' technique is repeated in 'RED 2,' and there's a ludicrous scene in which Victoria pointed pistols out of both windows of a spinning car and still hitting moving targets.  Also, who didn't predict Victoria playing sniper and saving the day again when Frank, Marvin and Sarah were on the firing line, or that somehow the bomb is still on Han's plane when Frank got off?  Never mind the movie's disregard for common sense in its portrayal of a 1-megaton airburst as harmless with a tiny blast radius (destroying only the plane and its occupant) and telling us it's okay to stare into it. 

Grade: B

La Femme Katya likes her guns and wine
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Sunday, July 21, 2013

'Conjuring' Fear

Malaysian-born, Australian-raised director James Wan is a rising star in the horror genre.  The virtually unknown director who started the 'Saw' franchise in 2004 had come a long way since, steadily evolving as a 'master of horror' and setting himself apart from other schlocky directors (or hacks) in a crowded genre by going back to classic old school horror filmmaking of the '70's.  He's gotten progressively better with each directorial effort and his latest, 'The Conjuring,' is not only his best movie to date but also the most well crafted and effective horror movie I've seen in quite some time.
 
I admit, I'm a bit of a gorehound.  But sometimes I get jaded with all the gratuitous in-your-face graphic violence in movies like 'Evil Dead' or 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' and long for something more subtle along the lines of 'The Sixth Sense' and 'The Others.'  'The Conjuring' falls into this latter category  and is scary as hell to boot.  Based on the true story of the Perrons and the strange events which occurred in their Rhode Island home in 1971, and the paranormal investigating couple (the Warrens) who tried to help them, the movie is a haunted house story with elements from 'The Exorcist' and 'Paranormal Activity' plus a dash of 'Ghost Hunters,' but without the gimmicky shaky-cam and 'docudrama' tropes popular today.  Instead, James Wan utilized old school methods such as pacing, mood, atmosphere, lighting, pauses and a very creepy doll (Chucky's new bride?) to build tension and a sense of dreadful anticipation. 
 
 
Other than a great story, what made 'The Conjuring' so effective and terrifying are in no small part due to the fine performances by Lili Taylor, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga and the supporting cast.  All of them had to 'sell us' that their primal fears are real in order to make this movie work.  And to be frank, I haven't felt so 'invested' or focused in a horror movie as I have in 'The Conjuring' in quite a while.  Well done, James.  William Friedkin couldn't have done it any better.

Grade: A

Totally R.I.P.D.

Poor 'R.I.P.D.'  Even before it hit theaters on Friday, it was all but R.I.P.D.ed to shreds by movie critics and declared D.O.A. by those who predict how a movie will perform on its opening weekend based on advance screenings and tracking data.  Who can blame them?  Universal didn't release 'R.I.P.D.' for critical review until right up to the movie's opening, and it's competing head-to-head against 'RED 2,' another action-comedy expected to draw the same demographic.
 
'R.I.P.D.' has been billed as 'Men in Black' meets 'Ghostbusters,' and it does bring to mind these two earlier films.  Like MIB, it is also based on a Dark Horse comic title, and as derivative as it may be, it's still a fun-filled popcorn flick and entertaining as hell.  For those unfamiliar with the title, 'R.I.P.D.' stands for 'Rest In Peace Department,' a law enforcement agency staffed with dead cops from different eras who are tasked with apprehending 'deados,' fugitive evil souls who have escaped eternal judgement (okay, going to 'hell').  In that sense, it is reminiscent of the short-lived but well liked WB series 'Reaper.'
 
As a supernatural buddy-cop comedy, 'R.I.P.D.' surprisingly works due to the chemistry between Jeff Bridges as a gunslinger lawman from the Old West and Ryan Reynolds, a contemporary cop murdered by his corrupt partner (Kevin Bacon).  Bridges is simply a hoot throughout the movie as Roy Pulsipher, but Reynolds is also very good with his sardonic deadpan humor.  And as the villain, Kevin Bacon portrayed his role with the same stab-you-in-the-back smarminess as he did in 'Super.'  In a very funny twist, which is no less funny despite the fact that it's given away in the movie's trailer, the two lawmen appear very different to mortals on earth.
 
Let's face it, 'R.I.P.D.' is far from a great movie, but it's not nearly as bad as the critics would have us believe.  It's really a shame that this movie, with a budget of $130 million, is all but assured to be the latest summer blockbuster to bomb at the box office.  Too bad.
 
Grade: B
 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Robot Jox

Japanese kaiju gets a big boost in 'Pacific Rim,' Guillermo Del Toro's action-packed, visually stunning mecha-versus-monster smackdown guaranteed to fill every fanboy's heart with joy.  Being a kaiju fan (I grew up watching Ultraman and Godzilla), PR is one of my most anticipated movies of the summer.  The movie is also influenced by Japanese mecha anime such as 'Mobile Suit Gundam' and 'Neon Genesis Evangelion.'

The story of PR is straightforward enough.  Giant monsters emerge from an extra-dimensional portal beneath the Pacific Ocean.  They terrorize and perform 'urban renewal' to cities along the Pacific Rim, killing millions, and humanity is forced to create its own 'monsters' in the form of towering, nuclear reactor-powered mechas called Jaegers (Hunters) to fight them.  When a movie is premised on a supernatural conceit like the fact that the monsters come from another dimension, or that they can magically spawn more frequently and evolve to ever deadlier 'categories' (like hurricanes) in a war of escalation,  we really shouldn't be asking overly logical questions like why earth's defenders didn't just nuke the monsters before they reach the coastline or why the Jaegers are armed mainly for hand-to-hand combat rather than with stand-off, long-range weaponry to engage them from afar. 
As in his 'Hellboy' movies and 'Pan's Labyrinth,' Del Toro is a true auteur when it comes to visual style and aesthetic.   In PR, the kaiju designs are inspired by dinosaurs, reptiles, crustaceans, and even Francisco Goya's famous painting 'The Colossus.'  The Jaegers likewise are all distinctive, designed to give each its unique 'national' character: USA's 'Gipsy Danger' (below) looks 'western,' combining elements of Halo and Iron Man. 'Cherno Alpha' is a behemoth of brutal functionality, a superheavy tank of a Jaeger you will have no trouble at all identifying as 'Russian.'  The Chinese Jaeger with a 3-man crew, 'Crimson Typhoon,' is red, high-tech looking and very stylish, as befits the rising 'Dragon from the East.'  The gladiatorial-style clashes between heavy-metal Jaegers and tough flesh-and-hide kaiju, up close and intense, were either fought in the rainy night or underwater, lending the movie its atmosphere and tone. 

Curiously, PR reminded me a little of 'Top Gun,' because the main Jaeger pilot in the movie, Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam of 'Sons of Anarchy'), sought redemption after a tragic incident, like Tom Cruise's 'Maverick' after 'Goose' died.  The Jaeger pilots are an ultra-competitive and territorial bunch; there's even friction between Beckett and a cocky young Australian pilot, reminiscent of the rivalry between Maverick and Iceman. Idris Elba did a fine job as the authoritative 'father figure' holding them all together and Rinko Kikuchi infused her role with equal measures of toughness and vulnerability.  Comic relief came in the form of Charlie Day (playing the same character from 'It's Only Sunny in Philadelphia') as a scientist holding the key to vanquishing the kaiju, and 'Hellboy' himself (Ron Perlman) as a black marketeer of kaiju parts.
Bottom line: 'Pacific Rim' is a fun and entertaining giant robot mecha versus monster mash-up that should not be missed.  Just be sure to watch it with the mindset of a 12-year old kid.  Awesome!

Grade: A-

What do you mean Japan has to wait til August 9 to see this???!!!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Adorable Me

First off, I’m not a big fan of G or PG-rated animated features churned out on a regular basis from studios like Disney’s Pixar or DreamWorks.  I can count the number of such movies I’ve seen on the fingers of one hand (Toy Story 1-3, The Incredibles, Despicable Me), so it is something of a big deal that I would see one in the first place.  I saw 2010’s ‘Despicable Me’ based solely on its preview trailer I’ve seen at another movie (the name of which I cannot remember no matter how hard I try) which featured these cute little yellow critters with big eyes (or eye) doing something stupid but inexplicably funny.  They cracked me up with their shenanigans and I just couldn’t resist.  The movie, about an aging supervillain with a heart-of-gold voiced by Steve Carell, three little orphan girls, and a bunch of the aforementioned little yellow thingies (which I later learned were called ‘minions’) who speak nonsense but proved to be as hilarious as the preview trailer promised, was such a delight that I even bought the DVD.
 
If it were possible, ‘Despicable Me 2’ is even bigger and more charmingly funny than its predecessor. In DM2, Gru retired from his evil ways and became a jam maker, but not a very good one.  He’s recruited by the AVL (Anti-Villain League) to uncover and stop a supervillain who got ahold of a super-serum called PX-41 which turns normally nice creatures (like ‘Minions’ for instance) into vicious monsters.  Apart from the usual spy-versus-spy stuff influenced by early James Bond and vintage ‘60’s spy thrillers, there is also a romantic subplot involving Gru and his AVL partner, Lucy Wilde (voiced by SNL’s and Bridesmaids’ Kristen Wiig).
 
As in DM, the real stars in DM2 are the minions we all came to love.  So what are Gru's minions anyway?  According to 'Despicable Wiki':

Minions are small, yellow, cylinder-shaped, genetically humanized kernels that have one or two eyes and are one of the most notable characters in the film. The minions possess one additional physiological characteristic; with a snap and a shake, they can double as glow sticks for activities in the dark, such as going through ventilation ducts.

A rambunctious bunch of simple-minded homunculi, the Minions are a similar size and shape, but have unique features to tell them apart, such as height, number of eyes, roundness or secondary features such as hair, eye/pupil size or clothing. They choose to express themselves through actions, not words: their "language" is fairly basic, they speak in a strange jabber; except for the odd human word every now and again and occasional Spanish-sounding words like "Para tú" (roughly "for you") as well as french in the second movie (poulet tikka masala, et pis c'est tout) , their language is incomprehensible to most humans, though they do understand English. It is also possible to isolate elements of Japanese from their speech patterns.”

Yup.  Carl, Dave (my favorite of course), Kevin, Phil, Stuart, Tim and the whole gang are back with more silly mischief and wacky fun.  All you have to do is sit back and enjoy the show.

Sorry, Lone Ranger and Tonto, you never stood a chance.

Grade: A

Who knew Twinkies in denim overalls can be so freakin' funny?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Never take off the mask, Kemosabe

Disney revives a classic western pop icon in 'The Lone Ranger,' the big-budget summer blockbuster starring Johnny Depp and Armand 'Armie' Hammer brought to you by the people behind the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' franchise.  Reportedly with a budget of around $225 million, Disney gambled that a character derived from a popular 1950's TV show (and before that, a 1930's radio show) will still have relevancy and resonate with moviegoers today. 

Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp reprise the roles most famously known for Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels in the television show.  As he did for Jack Sparrow in POTC, Depp infused the role of Tonto with his own quirks and a good dose of irony and humor.   In fact, his Tonto was so charismatic that the sidekick overshadowed the titular hero.  Speaking of whom, the man named after baking soda (or is it the American industrialist?) played the straight-laced Lone Ranger with so little personality and so much naïveté that I found the movie's caricature villain, Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), to be a much more interesting character than the masked upholder of justice.

At two-and-a-half hours, 'The Lone Ranger' tests our patience with a jumbled mess of a plot that could have been handled in two hours or less.  The simple good-versus-evil storyline about the devious schemes of an evil rail tycoon did not need to be overbloated with so many over-the-top, CG-heavy action scenes; they become tedious after a while and each successive set-piece action sequence just get wackier and more unlikely than the last.  It got to the point that, in the end, I felt like I was watching Road Runner on Looney Tunes.  Screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio tried to follow the same formula as their POTC and Zorro flicks to the extreme, but in 'The Lone Ranger' these tropes fell flat and seem contrived.  That isn't to say the movie is not without any redeeming feature; it shined in its slower moments when Hammer's Lone Ranger and Depp's Tonto built their rapport and camaraderie with humor, and when it took detours to portray colorful secondary personalities like Madam Red Harrington (Helena Bonham Carter) with her leg gun.  Be that as it may, I just can't bring myself to whole-heartedly embrace this movie.  Sorry.

Grade: C+

Yeah, I'm wearing a dead bird on my head.  Whatcha gonna do about it?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Apocalypse Z

It's Brad Pitt versus the 'zombie apocalypse' in Marc Forster's 'World War Z,' which took its name from Max Brook's masterpiece of pseudo non-fiction, an oral history and geopolitical analysis of the worldwide zombie war told from the perspective of a member of the UN Postwar Commission (Brooks himself) who traveled around the world collecting first-hand accounts from survivors a decade after the global cataclysmic event.  The movie's production problems are well documented, which resulted in a major shift in its narrative format, not to mention script rewrites and numerous reshoots which ballooned its budget to around $200 million.
 
While Brooks's narrative structure comprised of a series of snapshots of the zombie apocalypse from key participants at various points of the world, the movie took a more linear approach by focusing solely on the journey and experiences of Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former UN 'hot-spot' investigator reluctantly called out of retirement to investigate the cause of the global pandemic.  If you drop the conceit that the movie is a faithful adaptation of Max Brooks's novel and see it for what it actually is, which is a movie loosely based on the book, or a movie that's only 'inspired' by the book, you might enjoy it a little bit more.

Brad Pitt is in fine form here, grounding the movie with a sympathetic and believable protagonist battling to save his family and, by extension, the rest of the human race.  And as Segen, a young Israeli soldier who crossed path with Pitt's character through a confluence of unfortunate events, newcomer Daniella Kertesz reminded me of a spunky young Lori Petty (aka Tank Girl) with her rebellious, feisty 'don't mess with me' post-punk feminism.
Tight, well-paced and riveting, WWZ worked for me because, despite its obvious detour from its source material, it truly captured what a global zombie pandemic would be like.  The panic, chaos and sheer pandemonium as the hordes of zombies bear down on their prey have great urgency and feel authentic.  While previous movies like '28 Weeks Later' and 'The Dead' tried to capture the feel of a worldwide zombie-virus outbreak, WWZ blew them away with its sheer size and scope.  WWZ is truly epic.  Such set piece scenes of zombies breaching Israel's 100-foot walls by instinctively building 'pyramids' and flowing over an overturned bus like tidewater leave an indelible image in my mind.  Then there are the inadvertent stupid mistakes with tragic consequences, like what happened when a young optimistic Harvard virologist stepped off the plane on a dark rain-slicked airbase in S. Korea, or how an uplifting act of solidarity and brotherhood via singing in Israel can lead to catastrophe.
The movie is also vindicated, in this reviewer's mind, by combining the zombie genre with the virus outbreak genre (two of my favorites).  The final act of the movie set at a WHO lab facility in the UK is more reminiscent of movies like Michael Crichton's 'The Andromeda Strain' and Steven Soderbergh's 'Contagion,' as Gerry Lane desperately tries to 'run the gauntlet' in one of the building's zombie-infested levels to obtain what he needs.  It also turned out to be the most suspenseful part of the movie, reminding me of that nail-biting scene in Steven Spielberg's 'Jurassic Park' when the two kids were trying hard not to serve the velociraptors their dinner.
Grade: A-

Reach up and touch the sky, er, the chopper.
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Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Man of Steal

DC's most iconic superhero gets another makeover in Zack Snyder's 'Man of Steel.'  Henry Cavill's Superman is the third incarnation of the Kryptonian do-gooder on the big screen, following Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh, who only got to wear the red-and-blue tights once in Bryan Singer's 'Superman Returns.'  So why reboot a movie that made $200 million domestically and nearly that internationally?  Other than the fact that 'Superman Returns' cost $204 million to make and hence was considered a failure domestically, Warner Brothers wanted the franchise to be more akin to 'Dark Knight' and less like 'Lois and Clark.'  You know, the popular '90's TV series in which Dean Cain and Terri Hatcher were all lovey-dovey on each other.  In other words, they wanted to ramp up the action and dial down the romance.
 
'Man of Steel' achieved all this and more.  Henry Cavill is more rugged and muscular than either Reeve or Routh.  With Christopher Nolan ('Dark Knight' trilogy) producing and Zack Snyder ('300' and 'Watchmen') directing, this latest version is darker, grittier and more brooding than any that came before.  Even his suit is darker hued than those of his predecessors.  The movie also earned points for skipping much of the backstory, relying instead on a series of flashbacks to tell the story of young Clark's time on earth living with Ma and Pa Kent through selected highlights in his life.  Even at over 2 hours, the movie is tight and efficient in its storytelling, with every scene setting up for what will come later.  The movie's prologue, for instance, tells the story of Krypton's doom and the last days of his parents, Jor-El and Kara, but also sets the stage for the coming battle between Kal-El and General Zod.

General Zod.  I guess this would qualify as a remake of Superman II, the 1980 Richard Donner movie starring Christopher Reeve and Terence Stamp as Zod.  I fondly remember that movie and regard it as the best of that series, but Michael Shannon did a great job in the role of the Kryptonian villain in any case.
So why did I accuse 'Man of Steel' of being a thief in this review's title?  Because while the movie is indisputably exciting and action-packed, there is something too familiar and derivative about it.  The bio-mechanical designs of the Kryptonian sets, spaceships and smaller craft look like they've been ripped from 'The Avengers,' 'Prometheus' and 'The Chronicles of Riddick' to the point that I'm beginning to think H.R. Giger-influenced concepts are overused in Hollywood.  Then there are the numerous action sequences resembling those from all the recent Marvel movies: the jerky stop-and-accelerate movements, the asphalt-cratering pile driver landings, the sheer scale of the mass destruction wreaked in an urban landscape.  It's as if Zack Snyder watched Joss Whedon's 'The Avengers' and thought: "I think I'll do him one better!"
 
Regardless, 'Man of Steel' is an enjoyable romp and breathed new life in the Superman saga.  While the mythos of Batman is bleak and rather depressing, the world of Superman has always been a hopeful (and romantic) one.  After all, Superman represents "Truth, Justice and the American Way," does he not?  If nothing else, 'Man of Steel' whets our appetite for 'Justice League,' DC's answer to 'The Avengers,' due out in 2015 if David Goyer is to be believed.
 
Grade: B+
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Apocalypse Later, Dude!

The end of the world has never been funnier than in 'This is the End,' Seth Rogen's and Evan Goldberg's directorial debut about world-ending cataclysm during a party at James Franco's pad in the Hollywood Hills.  The movie starts off with Seth Rogen reconnecting with an old friend from way back when he was in Canada (Jay Baruchel), who reluctantly allowed himself to be dragged into Seth's new rich-and-famous lifestyle when they crashed James Franco's house-warming party, a party also attended by Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Michael Cera, Jason Segal, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Kevin Hart, Martin Starr and David Krumholtz; in other words a veritable 'Who's Who?' of anyone who ever appeared in a Judd Apatow movie.  The only exceptions were Barbados-born pop star Rihanna and Wallflower/Harry Potter-alum Emma Watson. Another Apatow collaborator, Danny McBride, showed up the next day, but you probably already knew all this from the movie's trailer.

'This is the End' is inspired by a 2007 short by Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel called 'Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back,' ahem, 'Jay and Seth versus Evil,' which they developed into a full length parody of apocalyptic sci-fi and the supernatural.   In portraying themselves rather than fictional roles, the actors also get to parody themselves and have some fun while at it.  At its core, the movie is about six people drawn together under trying circumstances (if 'Doomsday' qualifies as such) who have to band together to survive the Apocalypse, but it also riffs some of Hollywood's more familiar tropes.  When people are zapped into Heaven, they look like they're abducted by aliens.  The movie also pays homage to William Peter Blatty's 'The Exorcist' and throws in various movie and pop-culture references ranging from 'Max Max' cannibals to a well endowed giant lava demon (think a raunchier version of the stay puft marshmallow man from 'Ghostbusters') to a Backstreet Boys reunion.  You have to see it to believe it, or not.
Chances are, if you decide to see 'This is the End,' you are already predisposed to like the kind of irreverent, subversive, 'did I just hear them say that?' phallic humor in stoner comedies such as 'Superbad,' 'Pineapple Express,' 'Your Highness,' 'Hot Tub Time Machine' and 'Zack and Miri.'  These movies are unapologetically offensive and we really should hang our heads in shame for enjoying them.
Grade: B+
 
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