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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