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-