Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Boys (and Girl) of Bletchley Park

My last review of the year goes to 'The Imitation Game,' based on the true story of how British mathematician Alan Turing and a handful of other code-breakers broke the infamous German "Enigma" code.   Considered to be unbreakable in its time due to its 159 trillion possible permutations and the short timeframe the code-breakers had to work with before having to start all over again thanks to the daily changing of keys, the effort to break the "Enigma Code" is one of those untold stories of World War II that many people - like yours truly - find endlessly fascinating.
In what may very well be his best performance to date, Benedict Cumberbatch got his eccentric genius act down to a 't' as Alan Turing.  All the usual stereotypes about geniuses are evident in his portrayal of Turing: socially awkward, little sense of humor, intensely focused, logical to a fault, flawed but brilliant.  We've seen it all before in movies like 'A Beautiful Mind,' but Cumberbatch infuses his character with so much charisma and intensity that he single-handedly elevates the movie above a simple biopic set during WWII.  Keira Knightley also shined in her role as Joan Clarke, a genius of a woman herself who's trying to fit into a man's world and serving as "ying" to Turing's "yang."
Engrossing, well written and filled with period flavor and detail, 'The Imitation Game' is a great story about a group of unsung heroes of WWII whose contributions only came to light 50 years after the end of the Second World War.  And with this I thank you for visiting and wish you all a happy (and prosperous) 2015.  See you next year.
Grade: A
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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Orcs of War...

Peter Jackson concludes his Hobbit trilogy with the exciting final installment ‘The Battle of the Five Armies.’  As the name implies, Bilbo’s long and arduous journey is now over and war is upon us!  TBOTFA pits an uneasy alliance of hearty Dwarves, noble Elves and rag-tag band of Humans from Laketown who survived the ravages of Smaug against two massive Orc warhosts converging on Erebor and Dale in a climactic Battle Royale we’ve all been waiting for since the good guys vanquished the fell legions of Sauron in ‘Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ over 10 years ago.
Tolkien fans decried that Jackson wasn’t faithful enough to the source material in this trilogy, but we should bear in mind that adapting a single 300-page novel into three feature-length films is difficult at best and near impossible at worst, since the story of ‘The Hobbit’ can probably be told in just one movie.  Filler had to be put in to pad the movies, two of which are over two and a half hours long.  Under the circumstances, Jackson did the best that anyone could reasonably expect and it is unfair to expect ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy to equal his earlier ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, which had the luxury of having three novels to derive from rather than just one.
While ‘An Unexpected Journey’ and ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ dragged and meandered at moments, TBOTFA maintained its fast pace and is action packed throughout, aided by its relatively ‘short’ two hour twenty-four minute length.  Filled with drama, betrayal, heartbreak, redemption and acts of individual heroism, TBOTFA possesses the hallmarks of yet another Peter Jackson fantasy epic.

Grade: A

Have a merry Christmas everyone!

Santa's helpers took a break from the workshop to save Middle-Earth.

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Friday, December 19, 2014

Has Hollywood lost its cojones?

President Obama deemed it a "mistake"; John McCain said it set a "troubling precedent," and legal scholar/commentator Alan Dershowitz called it nothing less than a "Pearl Harbor attack on the First Amendment." Indeed, it's all but impossible to be ignorant of the raging firestorm in the wake of Sony Pictures' controversial decision to pull Seth Rogen's and James Franco's screwball satire of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, 'The Interview,'  from its scheduled Christmas Day release after the beleaguered studio became the victim of a series of vicious cyber-attacks and 9/11 style terrorist threats.   It's almost comical considering how something so seemingly innocuous can cause so much headache in our age of fast moving technology in global networking and communications.   I mean, why couldn't the North Koreans have similarly shut down "Team America: World Police" 10 years ago?
In one sense, 'The Interview' is no different from any other movie in the recent past that made dictators the butts of jokes, such as 'The Inglourious Basterds,' Sacha Baron Cohen's 'The Dictator' and 'Borat,' and the aforementioned 'Team America: World Police' from 'South Park' creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker.  The only crime 'The Interview' committed was that it had the misfortune to pick on a living dictator at a time who had the means to do something about it.  If this is the way things are going to be from now on, when fear of reprisals from a foreign government will be the deciding factor as to whether a movie will be made, then 'yes,' Hollywood has lost its balls.
'The Interview' never pretends to be a great movie, being just another typical R-rated comedy that's par for the course from long time collaborators Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, whose previous credits include 'Knocked Up,' 'Superbad,' 'Pineapple Express' and 'This is the End.'  It's not even an original idea, since it was inspired by Dennis Rodman.  You see, Kim Jong Un is a fan of NBA basketball and invited ex-Piston/Bull/Laker Dennis Rodman to his great country in a well publicized visit early this year.  So Rogen and Goldberg simply wondered: "What if a pretty CIA agent showed up at Rodman's house one day and asked him to 'take him out?'"  And she didn't mean 'to dinner' or 'out for a drink.'  Insert tabloid news reporters for NBA washouts here. 

Sony's outright capitulation is a 'game changer,' because beneath all the indignant rhetoric that's going on in Hollywood and Washington right now is the creeping and helpless realization that things have changed and will never be the same again. Studios will now be more sensitive to other countries' feelings and avoid portraying their dictators in a negative light, which means we have seen the last of films like 'The Interview' and 'Team America: World Police' because of the constant fear of repercussions. 
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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Reluctant Shepherd

The story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Red Sea is familiar to those of us who had ever been (or forced to go) to Sunday School when we were little, or who had seen the 1956 biblical epic ‘The Ten Commandments’ starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner.  Given the recent surge of Christianity-themed films such as ‘Son of God,’ ‘The Giver,’ ‘God’s Not Dead’ and ‘Left Behind,’ director Ridley Scott attempts to capitalize on the trend with his $140 million biblical epic ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings.’  Call it ‘The Ten Commandments Redux’ if you will.
For a movie based on one of The Book’s most well-known stories, ‘Exodus’ is surprisingly secular in character.  Christian Bale’s Moses is more of a warrior than Charlton Heston’s version, and early in the movie he saves the life of his lord and friend Ramesses II (Joel Edgerton) when the pharaoh-to-be was about to be run over by a charging Hittite chariot, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of the Pharaoh’s chief seeress.  We all know what God asked Moses to do, but little did we know that God was a spoiled and petulant little brat when He appeared to an exiled Moses and demanded that he incite a slave revolt against Memphis and lead His people out of Egypt.  Impatient with Moses’ insurgency, God then took matters into His own hands and displayed His wrath by visiting the ten plagues unto Egypt, culminating in the deaths of all first-born Egyptian children.  Can we truly blame Moses, then, for being reluctant throughout the movie with such a great responsibility?  All he wanted was to live the normal, simple life of a shepherd with his beautiful wife Zipporah (María Valverde Rodríguez) and son Gershom.
After all is said and done, I’m giving this film high marks because I enjoyed it immensely.  ‘Exodus,' dedicated in memoriam to his late brother and director Tony Scott of 'Top Gun' fame, proves that Ridley Scott is still on top of his game and the master in visualizing grand, sweeping, spectacular, beautiful, lush and sumptuous ‘historical’ epics.  I’m not knowledgeable enough to say, nor do I care for that matter, if the chariots in the movie were actually historically correct.  If I’m willing to give ‘Fury’ a pass on such mundane details, I certainly have no problem with not nit-picking on the ‘historical accuracy’ (or lack thereof) in ‘Exodus.’ 
Grade: A (yeah, whatcha gonna do about it?)
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Monday, December 8, 2014

How to Get Away with Laughter

‘Horrible Bosses,’ 2011’s surprise comedy sleeper hit, made money to the tune of over $117 million domestic and $209 million worldwide, so it would be remiss of Hollywood not to do a sequel.  Three and a half years later, we finally get to see the continuing misadventures of HB’s three bumbling protagonists, Nick, Dale and Kurt, as played by Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis respectively.
With one horrible boss six feet under (Colin Farrell) and another serving hard time (Kevin Spacey), our Three Stooges have to find new bosses to plot against.  Luckily, they found just the ticket in Burt (Christoph Waltz) and his ungrateful, scheming and wacko son Rex (Chris Pine), who screwed the trio over when they ‘invested’ in their invention only to pull the rug out from under them and leaving them out to dry.  Keeping to their characters from ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ and SNL, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis are ADD-afflicted idiots who can’t stop jabbering at once, while Jason Bateman was also in character as the sad sap schmuck we’re accustomed to seeing in his other roles including ‘Identity Thief’ and ‘Arrested Development.’  The writers also found ways to reprise Jennifer Aniston as Dale’s nymphomaniac ex-boss Dr. Julia and Jamie Foxx as the small time criminal mastermind Dean “Motherfucker” Jones.
HB2 is darker and more violent than the original, and in this sense is more akin to ’21 Jump Street’ and its sequel ’22 Jump Street.’  Like its predecessor, HB2 isn’t consistently funny throughout, but when the movie had its moments I laughed out loud more often than not in spite of myself.

Grade: B 
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To Kill a Mockingjay, Act One

When Lionsgate announced that the final installment of Suzanne Collins’ popular YA trilogy ‘The Hunger Games’ was to be split into two parts, like many people I regarded it as just another example of Hollywood milking a cash cow for all she’s worth.  While my opinion has not changed on this score, I must grudgingly admit that ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1’ managed to be yet another solid addition to the Hunger Games saga featuring its charismatic and conflicted young heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence).
As those familiar with the story are aware, the ‘Hunger Games’ are over and the various districts are in full-scale rebellion against Panem’s oppressive regime and its dictator President Snow (Donald Sutherland), which is just as well since I don’t think I can stomach another hunger game after two films.  Picking up where ‘Catching Fire’ left off, Katniss is whisked away (without Peeta to her dismay) into the secret underground headquarters of the resistance movement in District 13 and made into a symbol of the Resistance a lá Che Guevara.  Being the ever humble and unpretentious girl that she is, she is still uncomfortable and reluctant even after all the makeover and media hype she and Peeta were subjected to before the Hunger Game and Quarter Quell which made her a living legend.  Though a bit more languidly paced than the previous two movies, ‘Mockingjay: Part 1’ is still a compelling and fascinating journey as we witness Katniss’ transformation into freedom fighter and a rallying symbol against oppression and injustice.
Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence delivered another fine performance as Katniss, who not only displayed once again her remarkable archery skills in shooting down an enemy jet but her vocal chops to boot with her rather poignant bluegrass rendition of ‘The Hanging Tree.’  Well done.
Grade: A-

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Squawk! The Unintended Virtue of Ignorance

Rarely in our age of ‘Dumb and Dumber’ sequels (want to see Jeff Daniels punch Jim Carrey repeatedly in the crotch, anyone?), a movie would come out of left field that not only feels refreshingly new but takes us by surprise with its wit, charm and laid-bare honesty.  Mexican auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu’s (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) eccentric and propulsive if somewhat garrulous indie anti-superhero film ‘Birdman' (aka 'The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’) is such a film.  While ‘Birdman’ may never enjoy the commercial success at the box office it deserves even as it generates Oscar buzz, it provides us with a glimmer of hope that Hollywood is only creatively bankrupt 99 percent of the time.

In his most daring performance to date, ‘80’s era ‘Batman’ Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an aging actor desperately trying to recapture his past glory and stay relevant in a profession where you’re considered ‘old’ when you hit 35.  Doing what many washed up actors no longer employable in Hollywood would presumably do, he decides to produce and star in his own Broadway play, in this case an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’  Part Broadway satire, part Seinfeld-esque ‘Show About Nothing’ dramedy and part ‘Black Swan’ psychological headtrip,  ‘Birdman’ gives us an intoxicating and humorous look at the trials of a man who may or may not have telekinetic powers, may or may not be able to fly, and who may well be delusional as he occasionally bickers with his former alter ego ‘Birdman’ in costume.

Nothing about ‘Birdman’ is conventional, whether it’s the film’s long continuous shots with few noticeable breaks, the improv feel to the acting, or its jazzy drums soundtrack.   The snappy dialogue and fine acting from Keaton, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough are engaging and ‘real,’ as we peer into their characters’ lives and experience their hopes and dreams, their struggles and anxieties.  The ever charming Emma Stone, as Riggan’s drug rehabbing daughter Sam, is an eye-opener in particular with her witticisms and mature outlook on life, not to mention she manages to steal every scene she’s in where I’m concerned.

Grade: A
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Monday, November 10, 2014

2047: A Space Odyssey

Alright alright alright!  Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey and a star-studded (no pun intended) supporting cast shine in director Christopher Nolan’s complex and surprisingly sentimental spacefaring sci-fi epic ‘Interstellar,’ an awe-inspiring movie that is grand and ambitious in scope yet delivered on so many levels, opening our eyes and minds to possibilities while exploring the very meanings of humanity and faith.

‘Interstellar’ isn’t one of those ‘alarmist’ movies from Al Gore or liberals about the imperative of saving our environment.  If you decide to miss the movie based on this misperception, that’s unfortunate because it’s really a cinematic tour de force.  Far from propaganda with a liberal agenda, ‘Interstellar’ delves into the nature of humanity and our basic instinct to survive as a species against impossible odds, even if it means making tremendous short-term sacrifices.  McConaughey delivered another stellar performance as the calm and soft-spoken space cowboy Cooper and brought his trademark southern charm to the role.  Underpinned by the touching relationship between Cooper  and his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain), ‘Interstellar’ proves that it has plenty of heart amidst all the drama, outer space adventure, cosmology and astrophysics on relativity, space-time, wormholes, black holes, singularities, gravitational anomalies and multiple dimensions throughout its nearly three-hour running time.  
Like its spiritual forebears ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ ‘Solaris’ and ‘Sunshine,’ ‘Interstellar’ might leave you head-scratching a bit with questions left unanswered, but that doesn’t diminish it’s being a remarkable, profound and deeply satisfying movie which will leave you spellbound with a sense of marvel and wonder at our place in the universe.  And why '2047' in the review's title?  Because Kubrick's 1968 seminal sci-fi masterpiece was set 33 years into the future, of course.
Grade: A
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Despicable Me

‘Nightcrawler,’ Jake Gyllenhaal’s latest starring vehicle, is one of those rare movie experiences that leaves a lasting impression in your mind and a bad taste in your mouth even as it provides valuable social commentary on our perverse media obsession for sensational ‘news’ that feed off other peoples’ pain and loss.  I almost didn’t see ‘Nightcrawler’ because its trailer and subject matter didn’t interest me (or so I thought), but I’m sure glad that I did.
Jake Gyllenhaal is Louis ‘Lou’ Bloom, a down-on-his-luck small time thief with much greater aspirations who found his true calling when he stumbled into the life of the on-scene news videographer.  The ‘news’ he pursues are ‘live’ breaking news of grisly murders, accidents and other late night (or early morning) tragedies that make the morning news, often with warnings that what you’re about to see “contains scenes of a graphic nature, viewers’ discretion is advised.”  These news hounds monitor police and first responder frequencies and then race each other (and the responders themselves) to the scene in order to ‘get the scoop’ like vultures flocking to a carcass.  Really, I think my regard for star-stalking paparrazi just went up a notch compared to this bunch.
Still, ‘Nightcrawler’ would not have succeeded without the bravura performance delivered by Gyllenhaal, who proved once again what a fine actor he is.  His borderline psychotic portrayal of the amoral Bloom is at once intense, charismatic and downright creepy.  Bloom is a sleazy scumbag (and SOB) who would stoop to any level to get what he wants, yet Gyllenhaal also imparted to the character a laser-like focus and determination that can’t be denied.  If nothing else, ‘Nightcrawler’ will make us feel more guilty or self-conscious the next time we tune in to these types of ‘news’ on TV or rubberneck at a horrific accident scene.  Then again, maybe not.  
Grade: A
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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Wicker Man

It’s John Woo-meets-Quentin Tarantino in Keanu Reeves’s latest actioner ‘John Wick,’ a violent yet playful addition to the assassin genre exemplified by such previous films as ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith,’ ‘Wanted’ and ‘Kill Bill’ Volumes 1 and 2.  Don’t let the unpretentious title fool you; ‘John Wick’ is a stylish and kinetic bullet ballet akin to some of the best John Woo ‘Gun fu’ movies starring Chow Yun-Fat.
‘John Wick’ is not a particularly cerebral film by any measure, with its simple and straightforward ‘revenge’ storyline about a retired assassin forced back into the profession he left behind all because of some punk ass son of a Russian mob boss robbed the "wrong" guy (this is all evident in the movie’s trailer, so don’t blame me for spoilers), but what makes JW so refreshingly entertaining is the bizarro world of the assassin it depicted.   Like the other assassin movies mentioned above, the community of assassins is an exclusive and close-knit one, with its own rules and code of conduct regulating the behaviors of its members.  It’s a guild and secret society all rolled up in one, and normal society as a whole are either oblivious, indifferent, or simply ‘tolerates’ them.
Not a knock on his acting skills, but Keanu Reeves is perfect as the quiet and brooding Wick, whose reputation is legendary even within the community of assassins.  There were other notable performances from Michael Nyqvist, Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane and Adrianne Palicki.  AllState Insurance “Mayhem Guy” Dean Winters was also fantastic as the villain’s unlucky right-hand man Avi, who like all the others just couldn’t protect himself from mayhem like Wick.
Grade: A
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Friday, October 17, 2014

Achtung Panzer!

Being a World War II buff, when I first saw the trailer for Brad Pitt's new World War II tank movie 'Fury' I felt like a kid unwrapping presents on Christmas morning.  Like westerns, World War II is a genre that's all too rare in cinema these days, but this year we've already seen two with Fedor Bondarchuk's 'Stalingrad' and now this paean to the unsung tankers in World War II.  Known for his intense, gritty and visceral crime thrillers including 'Harsh Times,' 'Street Kings' and 'End of Watch,' director David Ayers delivered his best effort yet in this brutal, realistic and highly competent World War II melodrama.
In 'Fury,' Brad Pitt plays a war weary, grizzled tank commander known as Wardaddy because he's father figure to a crew of equally war weary and battle hardened misfits, except for a new assistant driver (Logan Lerman) who had yet to undergo his trial by fire.  Whether he's orchestrating the breach of an anti-tank screen, engaging the near legendary Tiger at close range, repelling repeated attacks by the hated Waffen SS in a glorious last stand worthy of George Armstrong Custer, or simply mowing down Nazi pigs with his captured StG44 assault rifle, Wardaddy embodied all the best attributes of the archetypal Hollywood war hero: soft-spoken, self assured, competent, cool under fire, displaying much dash and élan while leading by example.  There is no shortage of exciting and grisly battle scenes of combat and carnage, giving us a sobering look at the cost and harsh realities of war.  Attention to detail is also evident in the dress, equipment, vehicles and sets used throughout the film.  All the tanks in the movie are real, not rendered by a computer.  Now that's commitment.
It's easy for World War II buffs to nitpick at the movie's various "faults," such as the fact that the Tiger would have picked off the Shermans at long range with its 88mm gun, the seeming lack of gunnery skills or accuracy on the part of German soldaten in general (including a sniper, even), and the rather questionable assault tactics employed by the Waffen SS in the final scene.  But war movies have to take certain liberties for the sake of being "epic" and "cinematic," so let's not get overly critical here.  While 'Fury' isn't as indelible as 'Saving Private Ryan,' it's still a well-crafted war movie and a solid contribution to the World War II subgenre.

Grade: A

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Dracula Retold

Like, ‘Vlad the Impaler’ had gotten a bad rap throughout history and the record needs to be set straight.  So Legendary Pictures and director Gary Shore give us ‘Dracula Untold,’ a revisionist take on Vlad Tepes, the 15th Century prince of Wallachia renowned for his cruelty and predilection to impale his enemies upon stakes in order to strike fear into people's hearts. Although there was no evidence that Vlad was ever a blood-sucking vampire, the House Draculesti (of which he was a member) was associated with vampires by Bram Stoker in his seminal 1897 novel.
Played with great sympathy and humanity by The Hobbit’s Luke Evans, we come to see Vlad not as a bloodthirsty tyrant but as a great warrior, a fair and just ruler as well as a loving father and husband forced to defend his family and kingdom against the sultan of the Turks, who wanted to impress (as in forcibly kidnap) all the boys in Transylvania to swell the ranks of a future army of conquest.  Couched as a tale of freedom versus oppression, ‘Dracula Untold’ is simply another been-there-done-that spin on a well used theme, with only superficial window dressing applied to make it ‘stand out’ from the rest.
Toothless (pun intended), predictable and unimaginative, ‘Dracula Untold’ is just another dark fantasy to tide us over while we impatiently await the next Hobbit installment.  Perhaps the biggest irony of ‘Dracula Untold’ is the fact that not one drop of blood (CGI or otherwise) was spilled in the movie’s many sterile battle scenes in which Vlad tore through the Turks in fits of berserker rage, no doubt for the sake of earning its tame PG-13 rating.
Grade: C
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Gone Today Here Tomorrow

Sinatra and ‘Married with Children’ would have us believe that love and marriage is an institute you can’t disparage, but Gillian Flynn’s witty, sarcastic and biting social commentary on this most sacred of social traditions takes a damn good stab at it (no pun intended), whether she intended to or not.  ‘Gone Girl’ is one helluva marriage-gone-bad story, beginning with the disappearance and suspected murder of a bored housewife in the small sleepy town of North Carthage, Missouri.  Did the husband do it?  Curious minds want to know.

If you’ve read the novel the movie will hold few surprises for you, but if you haven’t David Fincher’s latest is a dark and brooding thriller guaranteed to hold you spellbound as you’re swept into its ever deepening mystery and twists reminiscent of Bryan Singer’s ‘The Usual Suspects,’ the Coen Brothers’ ‘Fargo’ and the best John Grisham novels.  Another bravura directorial effort from Fincher, solid performances by Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Kim Dickens and Carrie Coon, nail-biting Hitchcockian suspense and razor-sharp observations on marriage, lies, infidelity, the media and public opinion make ‘Gone Girl’ in this reviewer’s mind the best movie of the year so far.
With enough plot twists to make your head spin, ‘Gone Girl’ is one of those deliciously devious movies that keeps you guessing and second guessing without unravelling under the weight of sheer implausibility.  It will keep you in thrall throughout its two-and-a-half-hour length without glancing at your watch even once.  Finally, we have here the first 'must see' movie of 2014.
Grade: A+
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Welcome to the Dullhouse

In James Wan's 2013 horror hit ‘The Conjuring,’ there was this creepy looking antique wooden doll with a rictus grin that’s decidedly unsettling in the collection of that movie’s paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren.  The doll was purportedly possessed, according to the testimony of her former owners.  In the spin-off 'Annabelle,' we get the history behind this unique item in the Warrens' cabinet of curiosities. 
Set in year 1969, the story of 'Annabelle' centers around the lovely young couple of John and Mia Gordon.  John is a young doctor-in-training and his pretty young wife is pregnant with their first baby.  John gave 'Annabelle' to a surprised Mia as a gift, since Mia has been unsuccessfully looking for this rare doll and had all but given up on it.  As decent, church-going Catholics, God only knows why Mia wanted it.  But no matter, how else are we supposed to have a movie, right?  As you might expect, strange occurrences started happening to the Gordons, like the stove and sewing machine turning on inexplicably by themselves as if these inanimate objects have minds of their own, or some neighbor kids drawing 'flip book' pictures of their baby's stroller getting run over by a truck.  Are these supposed to be scary?
The problem with 'Annabelle' is that, by the time we learn that the doll is possessed by the demonic spirit (big surprise) of a 'Helter Skelter' cult member who attacked and killed her parents in one of the movie's earlier scenes, the movie had long lost its momentum.  Really, 'Annabelle' would have been much scarier had she shuffled around à la Chucky with a knife in her hand.
Grade: C

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Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Great Samaritan

‘The Equalizer,’ loosely based on the TV series from the '80s starring Edward Woodward, reunites ‘Training Day’ director Antoine Fuqua and actor Denzel Washington in a hard-boiled crime/revenge thriller in the tradition of ‘Death Wish,’ ‘Walking Tall’ and even ‘Punisher.’  Billed as the first must-see movie this fall, ‘The Equalizer’ delivers the goods and satisfies, giving us an action-packed and blood-drenched thrill ride well worth watching.
While Woodward’s Robert McCall was utilized by the ‘Agency’ to aid common people as a means of atonement for past sins, Denzel’s McCall is a former black ops agent now happily working for Home Depot (rather, ‘Home Mart’) who had put his past life behind him (sounds familiar? see ‘The November Man’).  Not surprisingly, he finds himself back in action after he befriends Alina, a young aspiring singer (Chloё Grace Moretz) forced into prostitution at a young age by the Russian mafia, and had to free her simply because, in the words of Edmund Burke, “the only necessary thing for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  McCall stirs up a hornets’ nest when he unknowingly 'took out' the eastern hub of the Russian mob controlled by an oligarch named Vladimir Pushkin (interesting, it rhymes with "Putin") in under thirty seconds by his watch, and the ensuing cat-and-mouse chase is on.
‘The Equalizer’ veered close to being just another forgettable potboiler, but it managed to avoid that by virtue of its climactic scene in which McCall faced off against the movie’s baddie, Teddy (Marton Csokas), an ex-Spetsnaz soldier and problem-solver sent to ‘clean up’ the mess created by McCall.  The scene in question takes place inside ‘Home Mart’ and could easily have been used in the next installment of ‘Home Alone,’ if they ever decide to make an R-rated version.

Grade: B+

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Survivor: Teen Edition

The latest YA series to be adapted on-screen is James Dashner’s ‘The Maze Runner,’ an intriguing sci-fi mystery about a group of teenage boys (and later, one girl) individually kidnapped and deposited in the ‘Glade,’ a large clearing surrounded by high concrete walls from which there can be no escape and beyond which lies the ‘Maze,’ an ever-shifting labyrinth of tunnels and passages roamed by the monstrous and arachnid-like ‘Grievers’ at night.

Not having read the books I went into ‘The Maze Runner’ with an open mind and few expectations, and the movie did not disappoint.  In fact, TMR proved to be a rather pleasant surprise for me because it is a well crafted, riveting and exciting sci-fi thriller for young and older adults alike.  The ensemble cast of unknown young actors could easily have been pulled from any one of those shows you see on The CW Network, but they played their parts convincingly as we become invested in their trials and struggles to survive without the amenities of modern civilization.  'The Maze Runner' has been compared to 'Lord of the Flies' in its study of individual leadership and group dynamics, with some members constantly yearning to escape while others accepting their fates because escape is futile.  But for me the appeal of ‘The Maze Runner’ lies in its dark dystopian setting and engrossing riddle-wrapped-in-a-mystery-inside-an-enigma plot.

While TMR's exasperating "What the hell are we doing here???!!!" premise echoes those in similar shows like 'Lost’ and ‘Under the Dome,’ the ending hints more at a ‘Cabin in the Woods’ twist, but since this is only the first movie in a planned trilogy, I loathe to jump to any conclusions at this juncture.

Grade: A-

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

The (two months before) November Man

Pierce Brosnan returns to the spy genre he left after his stint as James Bond in Roger Donaldson's 'The November Man,' based on the series of spy novels by Bill Granger.  I loved all four of Brosnan's 007 movies, so even though he's over 60 I would still see him in a spy flick, for now.  After all, if Liam Neeson (62) and Kevin Costner (59) can still play spy games in recent flicks like 'Taken' and '3 Days to Kill,' then why not Pierce Brosnan at the ripe not-so-young age of 61?
If you're expecting 'The November Man' to resemble recent James Bond, Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt movies, then you will be somewhat disappointed because while TNM has its share of derrings-do and action, they are not overbloated or messy as recent spy movies tend to be.  In fact, what I liked about 'The November Man' is its restraint in the action sequences and not letting them overshadow storytelling or character development.   Not so much because Pierce Brosnan, as graying retired CIA agent Peter Devereaux, is no longer in the shape to play James Bond, but because I think it's time for spy movies to stop pummeling us senseless with one unbelievable over-the-top action scene after another.
TNM is the story of a former CIA agent who's called out of peaceful retirement only to find himself swept into a web of intrigue and betrayal when he had to protect a key 'person of interest' (Olga Kurylenko looking as hot as Catherine Zeta Jones 15 years ago) and hunted by his young protégé (newcomer Luke Bracey resembling a young Sean Bean).  The movie succeeds as a believable and entertaining post-9/11 spy thriller, harking back to the Cold War political/espionage thrillers I grew up watching in the '80s like 'The Fourth Protocol' (also starring Pierce Brosnan), 'No Way Out' and 'The Package.'  There are more recent movies like this, of course, such as 'The Shooter' and 'Vantage Point,' but all too often spy movies nowadays try too hard to up the ante on one another in the action department that spies like Bond, Bourne, Cross and Hunt are in effect superhuman (i.e. superspies).

Grade: B+

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I just never learn.  I keep telling myself not to see the latest low-budget found footage film 'As Above, So Below' after seeing its trailer but ended up watching it anyway.  I don't know why.  Maybe I'm  suffering from 'Paranormal Activity' withdrawals or simply bored out of my mind, but this crapfest from John Erick Dowdle ('Quarantine,' 'Devil') did nothing to satiate my thirst for even a mediocre horror flick because it failed to bridge the gap between myth and reality.
'As Above, So Below' started promisingly enough with an interesting concept, the search for the mythical "Philosopher's Stone," and an engaging protagonist in Scarlet Marlowe (Perdita Weeks), a brilliant young adventurer/archeologist in the vein of Lara Croft.  Her quest for the elusive Philosopher's Stone takes her and a small group of explorers (including a Scott Baio lookalike 'love interest') to the 'mysterious' underworld catacombs of Paris, a labyrinthine network of tunnels that would make even the most stout-hearted among us claustrophobic.  Inevitably, the deeper she and her group ventured into the unknown, the weirder and 'scarier' things got, except for the fact that about two-thirds of the way through this grueling exercise I became so bored with apathy that nothing the movie throws at me could scare me anymore.
While I expected movies like this to be filled with enough logic and plot holes to make me want to claw my eyes out, AASB seemed to be saddled with more than its fair share.  Case in point, in one scene the Philosopher's Stone (yes, Scarlet found her holy grail!) exhibited its wondrous healing powers when it repaired a badly skinned arm of one of the explorers, but then later it failed to do its magic on two occasions, forcing poor Scarlet to backtrack and get the 'right' stone in a rushed and highly confusing sequence.  Huh?  Then the movie truly fell apart when it became 'psychological horror' because as the group went ever deeper, they became increasingly disoriented and started seeing inexplicable visions from their past.  These apparitions added nothing to further the plot and only managed to dissipate any suspense and momentum painstakingly built over the first half of the movie.  And oh boy, don't even get me started about the WTF???!!! ending.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  They should never have emerged out of the catacombs.

Grade: F

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Wages of Sin

Nearly a decade after their original pulp noir masterpiece, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller invite us back to the seedy underbelly of hell that is Basin City in 'Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill for.'   Like its predecessor, SC2 is an anthology of interrelated stories in the best traditions of pulp fiction, the most memorable of which is the titular episode 'A Dame to Kill for.'

SC2 is as gritty, stylish and über-violent as 'Sin City,' populated with colorful (figuratively speaking of course) and fascinating characters both innocent and evil.  There's Marv (Mickey Rourke), the beast to Nancy's beauty who embraced his inner monster and Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the lucky gambler who just didn't know when to quit.  There's also Dwight (Josh Brolin taking over from Clive Owen), who tried to resist the wiles of the scheming Ava (Eva Green as 'the Dame to Kill for') and Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba looking as yowza as ever), the revenge-obsessed stripper haunted by the ghost of her late protector, John Hartigan (Bruce Willis).  Notable also are Rosario Dawson reprising her role as Gail, the leader of a bevy of femmes fatale in downtown Sin City, Jamie Chung filling in for Devon Aoki as the ninja assassin Miho and Dennis Haysbert as Manute, the brute enforcer previously played by the late Michael Clarke Duncan.
While the interweaving vignettes in the slower burning SC2 taken as a whole aren't as maniacally fun as the original 'Sin City' (who can forget Elijah Wood's gleeful Kevin or Nick Stahl's 'Yellow Bastard'?), the movie still more than holds its own as a brilliant piece of pulp noir that is as mesmerizing as it is compelling, with anti-heroes rendered in stark black-and-white splashed with the occasional color.   SC2 will most likely suffer at the box-office for its 'sins,' among which include an unabashed lack of political correctness, exploitation of women plus copious amounts of sex and violence, but for long suffering fans of  a 'Sin City' sequel we got exactly what we wanted.
Grade: A

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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Rise of the Guardians of the Galaxy

Who would've thunk?  The latest Marvel/Disney 'superhero' blockbuster isn't a household name like Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man, X-Men, Thor or the Avengers but a rag-tag band of outlaw misfits including a thief who calls himself a 'star lord,' a badass green alien chick, a gun-toting wisecracking raccoon, a treeman/dryad right out of 'Lord of the Rings' and a tattooed brute known as Drax the Destroyer.  Heck, I have never even heard of 'Guardians of the Galaxy' until Marvel/Disney put it on their release schedule back in 2012.  A quick Google search informed me that GotG was a Marvel Comic title back in 1969 which was resurrected in 2008, when popular ex-Black Library author Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning brought it back in its current form. 
Still, "how seriously can we take a movie with a talking raccoon in it?", I thought.  You might as well throw in 'Howard the Duck.'  The answer is quite simple: you can't nor should you.  GotG is great precisely because it is funny, light-hearted, rollicking space opera.  A fun and brightly lit counterpoint like GotG is a welcome change in our era of dark and dreary, city-leveling disaster porn masquerading as superhero movies (are you listening, DC?).  Like Joss Whedon's 'Firefly' and 'Serenity,' GotG is a galaxy spanning space-western with colorful but dubious characters we love to root for.  This unlikely quintet can't stand each other and bicker most of the time they're together, but when the bullets start flying they are as close-knit as any superhero team worthy of its name. 
The visual FX and designs of GotG are breathtakingly gorgeous.  This has only been the third movie I watched so far this year in IMAX 3D and it's worth every penny.  Plus, it's got a rocking retro soundtrack.  Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista played their respective roles well, as did Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel in voicing Rocket and "I am Groot."  There are also some well known supporting casts including Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Michael Rooker, Djimon Hounsou and Benicio del Toro.  Just when this summer movie season's been one for the doldrums, GotG came along and gave it the shot in the arm it desperately needed.  All hail Marvel/Disney.  It can do no wrong.
Grade: A

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Since we first noticed her in ‘Ghost World’ (2001) and her breakthrough role opposite Bill Murray in Sofia Coppola’s wistful ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003), the lovely and talented Scarlett Johansson has proven that she’s a rising starlet to keep an eye on.  That certainly isn’t difficult considering her classic good looks and a sultry sexiness that many women would kill for, but beneath the veneer is a skilled actress who can impart any role she plays with believability, intelligence and heart.
Her formidable acting skills are put to the test in French director/producer Luc Besson’s latest femme fatale sci-fi action thriller ‘Lucy,’ a head-trip of a movie unlike anything we’ve seen in recent memory.  In some ways ‘Lucy’ is as refreshingly different, subversive and revolutionary as Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner' or the Wachowski Brothers' ‘The Matrix’ were in their time, challenging us to look at the world and our lives through fresh eyes.  Yet the movie can also be maddeningly frustrating at times in its total disregard for logic and continuity, forcing us to take great leaps of faith due to its sheer implausibility.  Then again, that's par for the course for Luc Besson.
ScarJo is her usual charming and charismatic self as Lucy (last name unknown), a young woman who was swept into a web of intrigue beyond her control in Taiwan after she’s kidnapped for the purpose of smuggling a smart drug called CPH4 into Europe.  The drug accidentally enters her bloodstream and she became not only super smart like Bradley Cooper in the similarly premised 2011 movie ‘Limitless,’ but also more powerful and ethereal.  If you can accept the movie’s outlandish conceit that when we achieve the ability to access 100 percent of our brain power, our sentience becomes not only omni-present but also omni-potent without the need of a corporeal body to contain it as if we're reading some dime store sci-fi novel, you will enjoy ‘Lucy’ for the summer popcorn diversion that it is, even as you grapple with the inconceivable notion of Ms. Johansson existing without her delectably delicious physical form.

Grade: B+
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Hercules! Hercules!

Director Brett Ratner (‘X-Men: The Last Stand,’ ‘Rush Hour 3’) brings Hercules back to the big screen starring former WWF/WWE and Disney superstar Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.  'Hercules' (formerly titled 'Hercules: The Thracian Wars') is the second movie on ‘the son of Zeus’ released this year, following director Renny Harlin’s critically panned box office bomb ‘The Legend of Hercules.’  Poor Renny, after making a name for himself with such blockbusters as ‘Die Hard 2’ and ‘Cliffhanger,’ the Finnish director hasn’t been quite the same since the critical and commercial flop that was ‘Cutthroat Island,’ a pre-Pirates of the Caribbean swashbuckler starring his ex-wife Geena Davis nearly 20 years ago. 
Fortunately I haven’t seen Harlin’s version, so I will not be comparing/contrasting the two Hercules treatments.  Brett Ratner’s approach de-mystified the man/demi-god behind the legend and depicted him as a mere mortal and laid-back leader of a not-so-merry band of mercenaries who fight for money, as that is what mercs reputedly do.  This isn’t to say that these men and woman are without honor or conscience, of course, as it becomes clear in the movie’s final act.  Despite the detractors who thought him ill-suited for the role, I thought Dwayne Johnson did just fine, as did his supporting cast including Ian McShane as the fatalistic seer Amphiaraus, Rufus Sewell as the pragmatic Spartan Autolychus, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal as the tough but beautiful Amazonian archer Atalanta, and Aksel Hennie as the quiet-but-deadly Tydeus of Thebes.  Adventure, intrigue and betrayal follow our mercenaries when they took on a job from King Cotys (John Hurt) of Thrace to check the ravages and depredations of an army of ‘centaurs’ led by the ruthless Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann).
The visual style of ‘Hercules’ is more ‘The Lord of the Rings’ than ‘300,’ which is welcome since I’m growing somewhat weary of the latter.  The movie’s plot and setting may be a bit familiar and predictable (that is to say, ‘formulaic’), but ‘Hercules’ delivered what fans expected in the historical fantasy genre, and that’s an accomplishment in and of itself in our era of lowered expectations from Hollywood.

Grade: B+

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Going Apeshit

From the movie's opening close-up shot of Caesar's angry, hate-filled eyes to its last, where those very same eyes have taken on a decidedly softer and more compassionate cast, 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' draws us irresistibly into its richly drawn post-apocalyptic landscape and timeless tale of survival, mutual distrust and conflict.  Director Matt Reeves' sequel to 2011's 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' is bigger and more action-packed yet maintained the same depth and emotional punch as its predecessor.  DOTPOTA is proof that Hollywood can make a successful summer blockbuster bristling with spectacular visual effects without dumbing it down.
Picking up 10 years after the events of ROTPOTA, civilization is in shambles because the ALZ-113 (simian) virus had wiped out most of mankind, leaving only a handful of scattered survivors who were immune to it.  Inevitably humans come into contact with ape nation again and mutual distrust and conflict ensue.  Can humans and apes co-exist peacefully after years of scientific experimentation and oppression?
Just like the relationship between Caesar and Will (James Franco) in ROTPOTA, what makes DOTPOTA so compelling are the interactions between Caesar and a group of sympathetic humans in the guises of Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee.  There is a timeless familiarity to the screenplay written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, but that doesn't matter because the movie has intelligence, verve and humanity to spare.  Andy Serkis and the FX team did a great job in making the apes 'more human' than the humans themselves and the connection between Caesar and Clarke's Malcolm seems genuine and heartfelt.  DOTPOTA is an entertaining thriller about hate and war, but like its predecessor its ultimate message is also one of love and hope for a brighter future.  Then again, maybe not.
Grade: A

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Monday, July 7, 2014

Know Your Place. Accept Your Place. Be a Shoe.

At a time when Hollywood is known for churning out reboots and sequels, playing it safe and avoiding originality like the plague, a gem like ‘Snowpiercer’ comes along and restores our optimism and faith in humanity.  Well, not exactly, since (a) movies like this are the exceptions and not the rule, and (b) it’s technically a product of South Korea rather than Hollywood, but who’s complaining?
Based on an obscure French graphic novel called ‘Le Transperceneige,’ ‘Snowpiercer’ is the 'Polar Express from hell' and Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian 'steampunk' sci-fi masterpiece, eclipsing his previous big budget creature feature ‘The Host’ (not to be confused with the critically panned 2013 adaptation of the Stephanie Meyers novel by the same name).  A post-modern parable couched as a mapcap post-apocalyptic thriller which oozes with bloody violence, a unique visionary style and black humor throughout, ‘Snowpiercer’ is reminiscent of the early works of Terry Gilliam.  Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the movie's characters is named after the Monty Python alum.  'Snowpiercer' also boasts some well known actors, including Chris Evans (fresh from Captain America), Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt as the aforementioned 'Gilliam' and a bespectacled Tilda Swinton as the magisterial and gleefully twisted Minister Mason who resembles one of those classic stern English head mistresses and gave us the memorable quote of this review's title.
The underlying poor-stepped-on-by-the-rich undercurrent of ‘Snowpiercer’ is a recurring one in the sci-fi genre, most recently in ‘Elysium,’ ‘District 9’ and the ‘Total Recall’ remake, but the movie avoided the pitfalls of being preachy or heavy handed.  The movie is entertaining and stylish, offering a fantastic vision we've never seen before.  ‘Snowpiercer’ also differs from other movies in its numerous twists and philosophical dilemmas that lend the movie its unpredictability.  With a certified ‘fresh’ Tomatometer rating of 94% (97% among ‘Top Critics’) and an average audience rating of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, critics and moviegoers agree that ‘Snowpiercer’ is an intelligent and spectacular sci-fi thriller well worth seeing.  So what are you waiting for?
Grade: A

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Tamara & Louise

I try to stay away from Melissa McCarthy movies whenever possible because they’re all basically the same character: an overweight, foul-mouthed, obnoxious, middle aged white trash who drives people nuts on a road-trip.  It doesn’t matter if she’s annoying the hell out of Jason Bateman in ‘Identity Thief’ or 'chumming it up' with Sandra Bullock in ‘The Heat,’ she just has to stay in character.  She somehow managed to combine the grating qualities of Rosanne Barr with the well meaning irksomeness of John Candy in ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles,’ except even John Candy had some redeeming qualities about him.  Melissa is just so maddeningly irritating.
So even though I passed on ‘Identity Thief’ and ‘The Heat,’ I decidedly to give ‘Tammy’ a look just to see what makes former Playmate of the Year and ‘The View’ co-host Jenny McCarthy’s rotund cousin so popular in theaters.  My conclusion is this: people who watch her movies are stupid morons.  Case in point, there was an annoying person (a teenager no doubt) sitting a couple of rows behind me who shouted ‘Penis!’ or ‘Vagina!’ at random times more than once during the movie, even though ‘Tammy’ is pretty tame in sexual content for an R-rated comedy.  I guess Beavis (or Butt-head) must be disappointed. 
‘Tammy’ is basically Ridley Scott's 'Thelma & Louise' redux as a buddy roadtrip comedy.  While it elicits a few chuckles, the laugh-out-loud moments are notably absent.  McCarthy’s Tammy is rude and obnoxious, which I expected, but also unfunny, which I did not.  Susan Sarandon pretty much stole the movie as her alcoholic ‘Bad Granma’ Pearl, whose ill-behaved dispositions irritated an exasperated Tammy more than she annoyed granma.  Say what???!!!  Her fat chick schtick must be getting old.
Grade: C
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Deliver Us from Banal

Director Scott Derrickson  ('The Exorcism of Emily Rose' and 'Sinister') and producer Jerry Bruckheimer attempt to reinvigorate demonic possession movies with the rather tepid and predictable ‘Deliver Us from Evil.’  The film is inspired by, as opposed to ‘based on’ the real life accounts of self-proclaimed NYPD paranormal detective Ralph Sarchie in his 2001 book ‘Beware the Night,’ which usually means in Hollywood-speak that the screenwriters took so much liberties to 'spice up' the story that it probably retained little of its source material. 
‘Deliver Us from Evil’ stars Eric Bana as detective sergeant Ralph Sarchie, who’s drawn into the realm of the paranormal when he investigates a series of strange and satanic acts perpetrated by a former Marine named Santino who was possessed by an evil spirit while clearing a cavern in Afghanistan.  A detective with a ‘gaydar’ or sixth sense for the supernatural, he’s joined by a young Spanish priest named Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez) who specializes in such phenomena but indulges in decidedly un-priestly vices such as smoking and drinking, not to mention he confessed to knocking up a woman whom he exorcised previously and hence broke his vows of celibacy.  Although the movie tries to humanize Ralph and Mendoza by giving them inner demons (no pun intended) to wrestle with and portraying them as flawed characters tested by faith, it failed miserably in avoiding the usual tropes we see in such movies.  Moreover, everything in the movie was been-there-done-that predictable, whether it’s the death of Sarchie’s too-hip detective partner Butler (Joel McHale of ‘Community’) because his considerable knife fighting skills is not quite up to snuff against the demonically possessed, the movie’s inevitable happy ending when Sarchie rescues his wife (Olivia Munn) and kid, the pervasive rain and darkness that provided the movie's constant backdrop, or Sarchie’s own ultimate spiritual redemption.  Never mind that the movie’s short on truly scary moments, because the movie offered nothing new in the character or storytelling department either.
One memorable scene in the movie did stand out that’s different and provided some suspense and tension: the one where Sarchie finds himself in the lion’s den at the zoo while pursuing Santino.  But other than that there is little to recommend this latest rote exercise in rebooting the exorcist subgenre.
 Grade: C

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Million Ways to Die Every Day

Love him or hate him, you have to grudgingly concede that Tom Cruise still got it.  The 51-year old actor not only remains a top draw as Ethan Hunt in the ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchise 25 years after ‘Top Gun’ but starred in slick sci-fi blockbusters such as ‘Minority Report,’ ‘War of the Worlds’ and ‘Oblivion.’  His latest offering, the grungy near-future military sci-fi actioner ‘Edge of Tomorrow,’ demonstrated once again that Cruise is in good form, even if the critically acclaimed movie falls short at the box office behind tear-jerkers like ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ and family fare like ‘Maleficent.’ 
Adapted from Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s awesomely titled 2004 story ‘All You Need is Kill,’ about a green recruit of the United Defense Force fighting against an alien invasion who dies repeatedly but finds that he has the ability to rewind back to the day before in a time-loop and fight again like a character in a video game, the ‘Groundhog Day’ concept underlying the movie’s premise is certainly not new.  But as in the case of Jake Gyllenhaal’s ‘Source Code,’ ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ somehow managed to put a fresh spin on this well used cliché and pull it off.
Set in the near future, ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ possesses the realism and grittiness which bring to mind ‘Battle: Los Angeles,’ but the film’s chaotic, shifting battle scenes and low-angle camerawork have more in common with the opening beach assault scene in ‘Saving Private Ryan.’  Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt complemented each other well as the movie’s two leads, Major William Cage and Sergeant Rita Vrataski (aka ‘Full Metal Bitch'), and the set design and visual effects are all top notch.  The minimalist exo-suits worn by Cage, Vrataski and the UDF grunts are near future enough to be believable and resemble the one worn by Matt Damon in 'Elysium.'  The multi-tentacled alien ‘Mimics’ are fast and very deadly, drawing a few humorous attempts to characterize them here:
The first half of director Doug Liman’s (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) movie deals with the war and Cruise’s attempts to grapple with his preposterous situation and is often spiced with dark humor.  The recurring scene in which he first sees Rita is also rather memorable, as a sweaty and grease-stained Emily Blunt in a tight tank-top just completed a set of push-ups and arched her back to get up.  The second half becomes more of a post-apocalyptic thriller when Cage and Vrataski trek cross-country in their mission to find and destroy the key to the ‘Mimic’ menace.  Alas, the only thing that prevented me from giving ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ a perfect grade is the underwhelming Hollywood happy ending.

Grade: A-
In the grim darkness of the near future there is only war.... 
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Monday, June 9, 2014

Once Upon a Time

Disney’s classic 1959 animated feature ‘Sleeping Beauty’ gets rewritten in ‘Maleficent’ starring Angelina Jolie.  In the original version, Princess Aurora was cursed by the evil sorceress Maleficent (she even has devil’s horns in case you’re not convinced of her pure evilness) because the latter was not invited by her father, the 'benevolent' King Stefan, to her christening.  Aurora then fell into a deep coma after pricking her finger with a spindle on her 16th birthday from which she cannot awaken unless she’s kissed by her true love Prince Phillip.  The Malevolent Maleficent did everything she could to stand between them, even transforming herself into a fire-breathing dragon to prevent Phillip from kissing his beloved Aurora.  Needless to say, the story had a happy ending but it has now been exposed to be a lie.
Darkly enchanting and deliciously imaginative, ‘Maleficent’ tells the story of what really transpired in ‘Sleeping Beauty.’  It is a sweet and touching story about the friendship between an innocent young forest fairy and a poor peasant boy named Stefan which later turned tragically into one of betrayal and redemption.  In ‘Maleficent’ we come to see that she’s not the evil witch we’ve been led to believe all along.  Rather, Maleficent is a fascinating, complex and sympathetic fairy who became the victim in the story and whose actions and motivations were in fact good.
Purists may balk at such blatant revisionism of their beloved classic, but ‘Maleficent’ works in large part due to the ageless Angelina Jolie, who imparted her character with so much charisma, humanity and emotional depth that it is all but impossible not to root for her.  With her perfectly chiseled cheekbones, jade green eyes and luscious red lips, ‘Maleficent’ possesses an exotic beauty, grace and presence that can only be described as mesmerizing.  'Maleficent' is a welcome retelling of a familiar tale that's gone rather stale with age. 
Grade: B+
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A Million Ways to Die Laughing

Seth MacFarlane scores big again in his comedy western ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West.’  Framed with sweeping vistas of great plains and the sandstone buttes of Monument Valley, AMWTDITW brings to mind 1950’s Technicolor westerns such as John Ford’s ‘The Searchers,’ but rather than romanticizing the simplicity and nostalgia of frontier life in the latter part of the 19th century, the movie lampoons the Wild West through the cynical observations of timid sheep farmer Albert (Seth MacFarlane), who from start to finish disabuses us of our misconceived notions of the Old West by describing life in the frontier as a “disgusting, awful cesspool of despair” in which there are literally and figuratively 'a million ways to die' (including by flatulence).  Like all the good western comedies such as 'Blazing Saddles,' 'Maverick' and 'Django Unchained,' the sensibilities of AMWTDITW are decidedly contemporary even if the setting is not.
Like an extended episode of ‘Family Guy’ with real actors in a western setting, AMWTDITW piles on the gross humor we've come to expect from MacFarlane while satirizing John Ford and Sergio Leone in equal measure.  MacFarlane’s Albert is a sheep farmer, not the sheriff, outlaw, gunfighter or cattle rancher which typified the alpha male in westerns.  Unlike his skills with a six-shooter, Albert’s whip-smart and biting commentaries throughout the movie are right on target and often quite humorous.  As in his previous movie ‘Ted,’ what makes AMWTDITW funny are the colorful characters and situations, like Albert trying to back out of a gun duel or Ruth's (Sarah Silverman) insistence on maintaining her chastity until her wedding night with Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) when she’s a prostitute at the local saloon averaging 10 to 15 clients per day.  The lovely Charlize Theron was great as Annie, a mysterious woman who came into town, and Liam Neeson filled the role of the movie's villain admirably, but it was recent Tony Award winner Neil Patrick Harris who shined as Foy, the dastardly mustache shop owner who stole Albert’s beloved Louise (Amanda Seyfried).
MacFarlane loves to throw in cameos and references in his movies.  Without giving away too much, there’s a non sequitur from a popular 80’s sci-fi comedy movie starring Michael J. Fox and a cameo by Jamie Foxx as Django.  Ryan Reynolds also made a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance, but that exasperated look on his face right before Liam Neeson dispatched him was priceless.
Grade: A-
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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Days of Tomorrow's Yesterday

The future and past collide in 'X-Men: Days of Future Past,' director Bryan Singer's third and the overall fifth installment (excepting the two 'Wolverine' spin-offs) of the popular 'X-Men' movie franchise he started back in 2000.  Based on Chris Claremont's storyline from 'The Uncanny X-Men' issues #141 and #142, which are among my prized comic book collection from the 1980's, DOFP is a variation on the science fiction trope of time-travel back to the past in order to alter the future and, along with the 'Dark Phoenix' saga, are two of the best X-Men stories of all time.
As we well know, a recurring theme of the X-Men is the fear and mistrust mankind reserved for mutants with powers.  Echoing the politics of discrimination throughout history, mutants are regarded by humans as a sub-species to be shunned and abhorred.  Out of this oppression arises the dichotomy between the philosophical approaches of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, wherein one preaches peaceful coexistence and understanding while the other advocates extermination and violence.  Mutants who become the disciples of Professor X are the X-Men and those who follow Magneto join the militant Brotherhood of Mutants.
DOFP is the best of the X-Men movies so far in terms of storytelling.  Richly layered, complex and intelligent, the movie manages to engage and entertain us throughout.  Under Singer's capable direction, DOFP deftly switches gears between the dark dystopian future of 2023 when mutants and humans are ruthlessly hunted down to extinction by Sentinel robots and the groovy 70's of the Richard Nixon era as the Vietnam War draws to a close.  While we see many a familiar X-Men from earlier installments in DOFP, including both younger and older versions of Professor X and Magneto, the movie pays particular attention to the personal trials of Mystique, the blue-skinned shape-shifter played by Jennifer Lawrence whose role is pivotal to the story.  Compared to other recent Marvel movies, DOFP is also a welcome exercise in restraint and strikes the perfect balance between action and storytelling, possesses heart and humanity to spare, and doesn't stumble into the pitfall of being an extended commercial for the next installment, which is more than I can say for the previous Marvel movie I reviewed.   
Grade: A 
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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Gojira: King of the Monsters and...... Box Office

Truth be told, the eagerly anticipated American reboot of the long-running Godzilla franchise had me a little worried.  After all, the previous attempt by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich to bring our beloved kaiju monster to the mainstream American audience was a dismal failure on every level and made 'Godzilla 1985' seem like a masterpiece by comparison.  That 1998 travesty's greatest sin wasn't its horrible plot or the laughable characters in it but that it deviated from Toho's Godzilla and turned our beloved 'King of the Monsters' into a giant velociraptor with no bearing whatsoever to the original.  They might as well have called it by another name.
It turned out that my apprehensions were unfounded.  Brit director Gareth Edwards' 2014 update is not only a faithful and respectful contribution to Toho's Godzilla canon but also an intensely personal and visceral viewing experience.  With the cutting edge visual effects that a $160 million budget can provide, never before had Godzilla been brought to life with such realism and immediacy.  While there is something undeniably endearing and nostalgic about the old-school, 'man in a suit' Godzilla we grew up watching, that doesn't mean we shouldn't appreciate if not fully embrace what modern technology can bring. 
Keeping both the (anti-)nuclear theme and ambiguous 'is he good or bad?' force-of-nature quality of the giant lizard monster, 'Godzilla 2014' maintained the spirit and style of the original.  Godzilla-philes might even recognize a reference to the original 1954 film in the Japanese scientist played by Ken Watanabe.  The creature designers also thankfully kept the classical thick-in-the-middle look of the original monster as well as his trademark "atomic breath" attack, but that didn't mean they can't exercise creativity elsewhere.  The MUTO's (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) are new creature designs that are cool, unique and frightening, and the climactic monster mash between Godzilla and the tag-team duo of MUTO's in downtown San Francisco is both unrivaled in realism and exciting to behold. 
Eschewing camp and cheesiness for realism and sheer destructiveness, 'Godzilla 2014' is apocalyptic in scale, serious in tone, suspenseful in a 'Jurassic Park' kinda way and a visual spectacle never before seen in the kaiju genre.  Sorry, but not even 'Pacific Rim' came close.

Grade: A
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Bad Fences

In movies like 'Knocked Up,' 'Pineapple Express,' 'Observe and Report,' 'Zack and Miri' and 'This is the End,' Seth Rogen has established himself as something of a lovable schmuck as well as a talented comedic actor.  Rogen did it again with his latest film, 'Neighbors,' in which he plays a responsible dad 'married' to Rose Byrne (if we're to believe that Katherine Heigl and Elizabeth Banks found him 'attractive' in previous movies, why not?).  His middle-class suburban American Dream with his hot wife and cute baby girl takes a turn for the worse when the house next door becomes the new frat-house of Delta Psi Beta, the 2014 version of Delta Tau Chi of 'Animal House.'  Led by pretty boys Zac Efron and Dave Franco (James's little brother), Delta Psi Beta becomes the Radners' worst nightmare after they betrayed their trust by calling the police instead of telling them to "keep it down" first.  Things escalate quickly and what we get is the best payback comedy since 'Revenge of the Nerds.' 
First, a warning.  If you're unfamiliar with Seth Rogen comedies of the 'Judd Apatow' school, you should know that they can be R-rated raunch-fests that are offensive, degrading and politically incorrect.  If your sensibilities are easily offended, AVOID THIS MOVIE AT ALL COSTS!  However, if you enjoy feeling a bit guilty while laughing your ass off, 'Neighbors' might just be the ticket for you.  We're all entitled to our guilty pleasures.
Yes, 'Neighbors' is raunchy, offensive, degrading, irreverent and just plain wrong, but it is also riotously funny.  Rogen played the same schmuck as he usually does in Mac, but Rose Byrne's Kelly is a housewife whose transformation from a loving and caring mother to a scheming, vicious She-Devil is quite the revelation.  Zac Efron is the 'Rico Suave' party animal with perfect abs while Dave Franco absolutely shined as his second-in-command and ambiguously gay 'Robin.'

Grade: A-
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