Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Mars Attacks

“A long time ago we used to be friends.....”  Over the course of three seasons from 2004-2007, a little TV show called ‘Veronica Mars’ earned both rave reviews from critics and legions of passionate fans around the world.  While this addictive, smartly written teen detective neo-noir created by Rob Thomas (the writer/producer/director, not the ‘Matchbox Twenty’ front-man) never became a ratings success, it garnered a strong cult following that made this movie possible.  You see, ‘Veronica Mars’ was funded via a kickstarter campaign by fans who contributed over $5.7 million to its production.  A paltry sum by Hollywood standards, to be sure, but it nonetheless underscored the passion the show’s rabid fans reserved for the diminutive, street-smart blond Sherlock with a razor-sharp tongue played by Kristen Bell that’s second only to Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy.  Indeed, a cuter detective there never was. 

‘Veronica Mars’ picks up nine years after the TV series ended, and we find our feisty young crime-solver putting her sleuthing days behind to pursue a normal life as an attorney and a stable relationship with her fiancé Piz.  She gets interviewed at a prestigious NYC law firm by Jamie Lee Curtis and wins her over with the same charm, wit, and smile as she did the rest of us.  Alas, her past catches up with her when she’s called back to Neptune because her ‘bad boy’ ex-boyfriend Logan Echolls (now a well behaved ‘officer and a gentleman’ a lá  Richard Gere, believe it or not) proved once again that he can draw murder raps like a manure pile draws flies.  Never fear, Logan, Veronica is here to pull your ass out of the fire again, and she's in fine form even after all these years.  It’s as if she never left.

The movie is a reunion of sorts, quite literally, and we see many a familiar face, including Veronica’s frequent partners-in-crime Wallace and Mac, Weevil, Dick Casablancas (the harmless and unintentionally funny California surfer douche, uh, dude), Gia Goodman, and sleazy PI Vinnie Van Lowe (Ken Marino) whose moniker, like the movie’s murder victim’s stage name, ‘Bonnie DeVille,’ are almost porn-worthy.  While ‘Veronica Mars’ remained faithful to its small-screen roots and is a noir mystery through and through, it is also a satire of our celebrity-obsessed culture and provides social commentary on the divide between classes and cliques.

If you’ve never seen the TV show, the movie provides a brief exposition at the beginning to set you up nicely for what is to follow.  You’ll find yourself drawn irresistably into the sordid, corrupt world of Neptune, California, a fictional seaside community of the rich (the ‘0-9ers’) and downtrodden, a town where many dark secrets lay hidden, waiting for the light of justice to be shined upon them by Veronica and her private investigator dad, former sheriff Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni).  Then, you’ll no doubt want to watch the TV series to find out how Veronica, who was once a popular girl at Neptune High, ditched her ‘0-9er’ circle of friends to defend the weak, solve the murder of her BFF Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried), and unravel the mystery of who caused a bus full of Neptune High students returning from a field-trip to careen off a mountainside highway into a canyon.

Grade: A
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Monday, March 17, 2014

300: The Untold Story

It’s been seven years since Zack Snyder’s stylish adaptation of Frank Miller’s blood-splashed swords-and-sandals graphic novel ‘300,’ played to Abs-olute perfection by Gerard Butler, among others.  Loosely based on the epic Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, when 300 Spartan hoplites (and allies which increased their numbers to around 7,000), sold their lives dearly at a narrow pass against a Persian army numbering over 100,000.  With a worldwide gross of $456 million on a ‘mere’ budget of $65 million, the only surprise is that it took Hollywood this long to make a sequel.

‘300: Rise of an Empire’ is neither a sequel nor a prequel, but a ‘in the meantime’-quel which steps back and takes a look at the bigger picture.  You see, before the 300 Spartans marched off to immortality in the name of democracy and freedom, an Athenian general named Themistocles tried to forge an alliance with Sparta to fight the Persians but was rebuffed, as Sparta was fiercely independent and looked upon the hoplites of other Greek city‑states, particularly those of cultured Athens, with an attitude bordering on contempt.  Even though Themistocles was the hero of the Battle of Marathon ten years prior and a respected strategist, he could not persuade Queen Gorgo (King Leonida’s wife played by Lena Headley) to pool the Spartan ships with Athens’ into a stronger navy.  ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ recounts the Battle of Salamis, the naval battle which took place while the Spartans made the sacrifices necessary for Greece to win the war on land later in the Battle of Plataea.

Like its predecessor, ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ is as beautiful and stylish as it is brutal and bloody, filled with breathtaking poetry and savagery.  The battle scenes, rendered in the muted tone that is a common feature of movies adapted from Frank Miller graphic novels, are mesmerizing to watch, perfectly choreographed dances-of-death with computer-generated blood splashes, disembowelments and decapitations. 

The movie features two charismatic and compelling commanders, the aforementioned Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) and Persian admiral Artemisia (Eva Green), as they try to outwit and outmaneuver each other in a battle that was arguably as crucial as the Battle of Thermopylae in saving Greece.  Eva Green delivered a marvelously malevolent (and sexy) performance as the tragic Artemisia, and I have not seen a more tenacious or badass villainess since Olga Kurylenko in Neil Marshall’s historical Roman chase thriller ‘Centurion.’

Grade: A-

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'Non-Stop' Suspense.... and Suspension of Disbelief

Since his surprisingly successful ‘Taken’ back in 2008, Liam Neeson has established himself as a popular action star, and one over 50 no less.  The ‘Rob Roy’ star’s latest actioner, ‘Non-Stop,’ proved once again that he’s a relatable, tortured and flawed hero with charisma to spare whom we cannot help but root for.  A movie like ‘Non-Stop’ is supposed to prove that moviegoers have put behind their post-9/11 airplane hijacking fears, and in spite of Malaysia Flight 370 (which happened after its release), the movie is doing respectably well at the box office.
As I’m sure you’ve seen from its trailer, ‘Non-Stop’ is a serial-killer-on-a-plane movie, one of those movies that you should not even attempt to watch unless you can check your disbelief out at the door.  Your mind has to be open to all ‘possibilities,’ as unlikely (okay, impossible), as they may seem.  You’re at the movies for Chrissakes, so stop analyzing already! 

And boy, does ‘Non-Stop’ put your suspension of disbelief to the test.  Liam Neeson plays an US Air Marshal who gets mysterious texts on his cellphone via a ‘private network’ informing him that, unless he wires $150 million to a certain account, a person on the plane he’s on will die every twenty minutes (all this is clear from the trailer).  Yes, we’ve all seen these sadistic guessing-game whodunit? movies before, but ‘Non-Stop’ gives us a variation so deviously and delectably delicious with such creeping, palpable and tightly-wound suspense that I’m going to recommend it, plot-holes and implausibility be damned.  It’s the perfect summer popcorn movie (in March).  I somewhat enjoyed ‘Red Eye’ and ‘Snakes on a mother-#@&%*! Plane’ too, so sue me.

Grade: B+
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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Great Patriotic Movie

The Battle of Stalingrad is the subject of Fyodor Bondarchuck’s full-blooded World War II epic CTAΛИHГPA∆.  This is the fourth film centering on this pivotal battle of the Eastern Front in the last 25 years, although each took a different approach.  The 1989 two-part movie was ambitious in scope and followed the battle from beginning to end, while the stoic-yet-powerful 1993 German version told its story through the German experience.  2001’s somewhat silly ‘Enemy at the Gates’ was based on a 1973 book which recounts of an alleged sniper duel between famed Russian sniper Vasily Zaitsev and a German master sniper named Erwin König or Heinz Thorvald.
Bondarchuk, who previously directed the Afghanistan anti-war opus ‘9th Company,’ displayed his virtuosity once again in CTAΛИHГPA∆.  Filmed entirely using IMAX 3D digital technology, the $30-million CTAΛИHГPA∆’s cinematography is simply breathtaking, with the ruins and shattered landscape of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) rendered in vivid detail.  Loosely based on the defense of ‘Pavlov’s House,’ in which a small group of Soviet soldiers led by Sergeant Yakov Pavlov held off repeated German attempts to take it for 58 days, CTAΛИHГPA∆ perfectly captured the brutality of urban combat, with some of the most realistic close-quarters battle scenes ever put on screen.  Seeing the 5-month long battle in microcosm through the eyes of a small group of Russian scouts and a German officer, Hauptmann Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann, who also played Leutnant Witzland in the 1993 movie), CTAΛИHГPA∆ not only depicted the futility and despair of war but also managed to humanize the opposing sides without resorting to jingoism.  Like 'Enemy at the Gates,' the movie also has an obligatory romantic subplot, but fortunately it wasn't so overwrought with sentimental melodrama as to detract us from the story.
For the most part, CTAΛИHГPA∆  is historically accurate and authentic in the uniforms, weapons and equipment during the fall/winter campaign of 1942 Russia, although the Panzer IV tanks with schurzen which spearheaded the Germans' final assault (they're T-55’s modded as German tanks) did not appear until later in the war.  Also, a German soldier in the movie referred to Friedrich Paulus (the commander of 6th Army) as ‘Field Marshal,’ even though the movie's events took place in November 1942 before the German surrender.  There are the notably cheesy ‘Hollywood’ moments as well, such as a scene in which the Russians fired a 45mm anti-tank gun at a German-controlled building used as a HQ across from them by richocheting the round off of a knocked-out T-34 tank between them and gave the Germans shell‑shock.  I don’t presume to be an expert but, assuming they fired an AT shell, would it damage the building and create shell‑shock?  And if it was an HE round, wouldn’t it have exploded when it strikes the T-34 and never reach the building across the street?  Am I overanalyzing here?  Who cares, CTAΛИHГPA∆ is still better than ‘Enemy at the Gates,’ which I can never forgive for the stupid scene where Ed Harris ran out of his well-concealed cover to be shot by Jude Law.

Grade: A-
I'm a sucker for WWII movies...... and the Cyrillic alphabet
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