Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"I, Hollywood Retread"

Many have bemoaned the fact that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt and utterly devoid of ideas when it comes to movies.  Indeed, megaplexes are flooded with franchises, sequels, remakes and reboots, or costly made-for-3D-and-IMAX CG-heavy extravaganzas overladen with style but little substance.  Lionsgate’s ‘I, Frankenstein’ has the unique and dubious distinction of being guilty on both counts.
Based on a graphic novel and ‘original’ screenplay by ‘Underworld’ creator Kevin Grevioux, there is absolutely nothing that is original about ‘I, Frankenstein.’  This movie about a mad scientist's creation named Adam, a man ’without a soul’ who held the key to humankind’s survival (or destruction) and who's caught in a centuries-long hidden war between the forces of good and evil, is basically a reboot of 'Underworld' couched in new trappings.  All Kevin Grevioux did here was to adapt the ‘Underworld’ screenplay by rote for ‘I, Frankenstein,’ replacing Vampires and Lycans (werewolves) with Gargoyles and Daemons, as well as substituting Adam for the half-Vampire/half-Lycan ‘Hybrid’ in ‘Underworld’ played by Scott Speedman.  Talk about laziness.
As Adam, Aaron Eckhardt cannot be any less colorful or one-dimensional if he tried.  ‘I, Frankenstein’ even brought back Bill Nighy as the head daemon-prince Naberius, who is this movie's counterpart to Viktor, the diabolical vampire lord he portrayed in ‘Underworld.'  Yeah, that’s the one whose top half of the head was neatly sliced off by Kate Beckinsale’s Selene in a somersault.
“Central Casting.  How may I help you?”
“We need an actor over 50 to play an evil supernatural villain overlord.”
“How about Bill Nighy?”
Grade: F
 I just saved you another 10 bucks.  You're welcome.
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Monday, January 27, 2014

Jack Ryan: A Shadow of His Former Self

Chris Pine is the latest incarnation of Jack Ryan, following Ben Affleck, Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin, in Kenneth Branagh’s vapid and toothless spy thriller ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.’  A departure from previous Jack Ryan movies, ‘Shadow Recruit’ is a reboot of the popular Tom Clancy character and focuses on his backstory and induction into the cloak-and-dagger world of the CIA.
While Jack Ryan is very much a byproduct of ‘80’s Cold War tensions and anxieties between the US and USSR in the late author’s novels, that simply wouldn’t wash in our post-9/11 world.  The character had to be remade in order to mesh with today’s realities and sensibilities.  Hence, Jack Ryan was a student studying Economics in London on September 11, 2001 and, like many other fine young Americans, he promptly dropped out of college pursuing his graduate degree and joined the Marines to dish out some payback.  In parallel to the novels, he survived a helicopter incident but due to a bad back resulting from it had to return to civilian life.  A Navy commander (Kevin Costner) notices and woos him to work undercover for the CIA on Wall Street because, in our age of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, economic intelligence is “where it’s at.”  Jack Ryan’s first adventure is to stop a ruthless Russian businessman played by Branagh himself who sought to wreak economic catastrophe on the US ‘on a scale not encountered since The Great Depression,’ as Ryan repeatedly tried to convince Kevin Costner.  Yawn.
Even if we overlook this unlikely premise of devaluing the mighty dollar and crashing the US economy in one fell swoop, the movie stumbled in the only area that mattered by failing to deliver the taut, tightly paced espionage thriller we expected.  Far from a crackerjack action flick, 'Shadow Recruit' only succeeded in being uninspired, tedious and clich├ęd.  There’s nothing here that you haven’t seen in other, better movies before.  And the performances are subpar too, from Chris Pine going through the motions as the titular hero to Keira Knightley’s cookie-cutter damsel-in-distress to Branagh’s horrible impression of just about every Bond-ish caricature villain you’ve ever seen, accents and all. 
Utterly forgettable, predictable and unnecessary, to call this lifeless movie ‘Bond or Bourne-lite’ is being too kind.  If this is supposed to kick off a new Jack Ryan franchise, the engine just coughed, sputtered and died upon ignition.  RIP Tom Clancy Jack Ryan.
Grade: C- 

I watched this, so you won't have to.
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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Murphy's Law

As special ops badasses go, SEALs are arguably on top of the food chain, the glamorous rock stars of the Special Forces community.  Alas, Hollywood’s track record in portraying this elite brotherhood had been anything but stellar.  Since the 1990 movie ‘Navy SEALs’ starring Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn, there's only been ‘G.I. Jane’ in 1997 with Demi Moore before the rather dry and dull two-hour recruiting commercial ‘Act of Valor’ featuring real Navy SEALs, if we leave out such movies as ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and ‘Captain Phillips’ in which SEALs only made brief appearances relative to the movie‘s overall length.
That is, until now.  ‘Lone Survivor,’ based on ex-SEAL Petty Officer Second Class Marcus Luttrell’s 2007 non-fiction bestseller, finally gave this special breed of warriors the definitive treatment they deserve.  Back in 2009, I read this story along with another account of a spec-ops mission-gone-awry called ‘Roberts Ridge,’ and when I heard 'Lone Survivor' was being adapted to a movie my reaction was “Great, I can’t wait!”  While significant portions of Luttrell's book were devoted to his experience in Training Class 228 at Coronado and biographical sketches of the four SEAL Team 10 members (Mike Murphy, Danny Dietz, Matthew Axelson and Luttrell, a 6-foot-5 bear-of-a-Texan played by the compact 5-foot-8 Wahlberg) in the ill-fated mission to capture or kill a Taliban leader called Ahmad Shah, the movie wasted little time in getting straight to the gritty action with intense firefights reminiscent of ‘Black Hawk Down,’ ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan.’  
Produced and directed by actor-cum-director Peter Berg (‘The Kingdom’), ‘Lone Survivor’ is a powerful, visceral, grueling and harrowing film which captured the culture and ethos of this special breed of warriors.  Their camaraderie, bravery and selfless sacrifice towards their teammates are qualities we can never fully understand, but this movie came as close as possible to imparting to an outsider the fundamental truth that, when the shit hits the fan, what these warriors fight and die for is each other. 

Grade: A
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Friday, January 3, 2014

American Hustler

David O. Russell (‘Three Kings,’ ‘The Fighter,’ ‘Silver Linings Playbook’) scores big again with his intricately well-crafted 70’s crime-noir ‘American Hustle,’ loosely based on the ABSCAM Scandal which brought down several prominent politicians at both the state and national levels.  From its opening scene, when hustler Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) tried to bait Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) into taking a bribe and DiMaso overplayed his hand, ‘American Hustle’ pulls you irresistibly into its sordid world of con-artists and ‘dirty’ politics and doesn't let up.

Reuniting Christian Bale and Amy Adams from ‘The Fighter’ as well as Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from ‘Silver Linings Playbook,’ ‘American Hustle’ certainly boasts a talented ensemble cast.  In one of his best performances,  Batman  Bale played the balding, bespectacled and pot-bellied Rosenfeld, a small-time scam-artist who, aided and abetted by stripper-turned-English noblewoman ‘Lady Edith Greensley’ (Adams in a splendid performance, whenever these eyes are not drawn to her side-boob in her low-cut dress), swindles $5,000 checks from desperate people who needed loans he had no intention of honoring.  Caught by ambitious and prone-to-overreach FBI agent DiMaso in a sting operation (though it wasn’t him who screwed up; he just has a weakness for women like Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence), he was coerced into using his considerable talents helping DiMaso catch ‘bigger fish’ in the guise of dirty politicians.  Polito, a well-meaning mayor who only wanted to revitalize the economy of his fair city and create jobs by attracting investment to develop a chain of casinos, became their prime target.  Too bad.

Engrossing, intelligent, sexy and quite funny, ‘American Hustle’ takes a fascinating look at the dirty underbelly of 1970’s America.  Its moral palette is rendered not in black-and-white but shades of gray.  What makes this movie so captivating is how we grow to sympathize with Rosenfeld (who in the beginning is a scoundrel worthy of our contempt) as he struggles to ‘do the right thing’ and escape from his situation of being used by a ruthless FBI agent whose methods become more and more questionable.  He may be, as his on-screen wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence in yet another fine performance) pointed out during an indiscreet moment to their young son, a “sick son of a bitch,” but his story is one of redemption in the end.

Grade: A

That Rosenfeld fella is sure one lucky guy
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