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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