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 http://www.moviesaccordingtodave.blogspot.com/2014/06/once-upon-time.html, ‘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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