Thursday, December 31, 2015

Arrested Development

SNL alumnae Tina Fey and Amy Poehler take a stand for feminism to prove that women can behave just as badly as men in 'Pitch Perfect' director Jason Moore's 'Sisters,' the feminine answer to such party classics as 'National Lampoon's Animal House,' 'Dazed and Confused' and 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High.'  Since their days co-anchoring 'Weekend Update' on SNL, I've been a fan of the comedic duo's unique brand of kooky humor.  I even watch the 'Golden Globes' (which I usually don't) if they happen to be hosting. 
'Sisters' is an R-rated adult comedy about two unlikely sisters (one blonde, one brunette, not looking at all alike) who decided to throw a monster of a party at the home they grew up in after discovering their parents have put the house up for sale.  These thirty-something siblings invited all their high school acquaintances except for Maya Rudolph for a night of misbehavior and debauchery, because what the hell why not, right?  And believe it or not, the usually straight-laced Tina Fey turned out to be the more irresponsible of the sisters, acting even more immature than her teenage daughter Haley (Madison Davenport).  Sorry Amy. 
Like all such movies, 'Sisters' is full of wacky and weird characters.  The movie is well represented by current and former SNL members including Maya Rudolph, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Moynihan and (remember her?) Rachel Dratch, whose character reminds me of her former SNL alter ego Debbie Downer.  Other invitees include John Leguizamo, Ike Barinholtz and WWE's John Cena, who plays a muscle-bound drug dealer brought in to spice up the party with his goods.  While 'Sisters' isn't consistently funny and misses the mark often, it has a beating heart and the chemistry between Fey and Poehler never flags.  Well, I reached a new milestone with my 60th - and final - post of the year.  Thanks for visiting and come back in 2016.

Grade: B+

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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Geeks of Wall Street

‘The Big Short’ is 'Anchorman' director Adam McKay’s first movie not featuring Will Ferrell, and it also happens to be his best by far - with all due respect to Mr. Ferrell.  Trying to make the 2008 economic crisis brought about by the collapse of the housing market into a black comedy can be quite a challenge, considering that it shattered the lives of so many people.  Yet somehow McKay and the movie’s ensemble cast led by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt managed to pull it off brilliantly.
Adapted from the 2011 non-fiction bestseller by Michael Lewis with the same title, TBS is the (somewhat) true story of how a disparate group of renegade investors went against the grain and bet against the then “rock solid” housing market.  As early as 2005, a neurologist-turned-hedge fund manager named Michael Burry (Bale) foresaw the subprime mortgage crisis and created the “credit default swap” market, betting that people won’t be able to pay off their mortgages in a couple of years because banks were approving loans at an alarming rate to people who have no business owning homes, like the stripper who owned 5 houses (and a condo) in the movie.  A few other savvy and like-minded investors soon caught on, like Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and a couple of enterprising young "Wolves of Wall Street" in Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley, who needed an assist from retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to get them in on the “deal of the century.”  But the best performance award has to go to Steve Carell, whose Mark Baum was a sheer revelation.  The steady progression of Baum's disgust and despair the deeper he delved into the corrupt financial credit system is a true reflection of the resentment bitterly felt by so many Americans who lost their homes and pension funds in the aftermath.
Razor sharp, whip smart and bitingly funny, TBS is tragicomedy at its very best.  The film often resembles a docudrama and routinely commits cardinal sins, such as taking the hammer to the “fourth wall” by having Gosling’s character look directly at the camera to address the audience on many occasions.  Along the way the movie also recruits experts and non-experts alike including respected University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler, TV celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, sexy Australian actress Margot Robbie and cutie-pie pop star Selena Gomez to explain the finer points of economics as the crisis unfolds, making such esoteric terms as “Collateralized Debt Obligations” (CDO’s) accessible to the layperson, all in fourth wall-breaking style.  Don't miss it.

Grade: A
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The Inconvenient Truth

The man who first brought Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) to national awareness is the subject of Will Smith’s latest biopic and sports drama ‘Concussion.’  As a long-time San Diego Chargers fan, CTE hit particularly close to my heart in 2012 when it claimed Hall-of-Famer and former Linebacker Junior Seau, one of the best at his position.  The risks of long term brain damage undertaken by these gridiron warriors serve as a constant reminder that our collective national addiction to American Football exacts a steep price.
Smith delivered one of his most sympathetic and nuanced performances as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian (now American) forensic pathologist who went to great lengths studying the effects of a sport based on repeated concussions to the head.  Alarmed and deeply disturbed by what he discovered after the premature deaths of ex-NFL players including Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long and Andre Waters, he found a sympathetic ear in Doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), a former team doctor of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and embarked on a personal crusade to speak for these psychologically tormented former players.  In so doing the full wrath of the multi-billion dollar money-making machine of the NFL and fans were brought to bear upon him and his allies, because it wasn’t simply about money and reparations to the players.  The future viability of the League and its ability to recruit talent were being threatened.
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To the credit of writer/director Peter Landesman, ‘Concussion’ avoided polemics and treaded lightly around the controversial issue of playing football.  We are not being asked to consider the risks of letting our kids play football and risk long term brain damage or suicidal tendencies; that is beyond the scope of this movie and not its intent.  Unlike the far-reaching effects of its protagonist, which included not only reparations to ex-players and their families but also implementation of the league’s current Concussion Protocol, the movie’s aim is a much more modest one: the humanistic portrayal of one man’s uphill struggle to speak for the few who can’t speak (or at times even think) for themselves.
Grade: A-
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Monday, December 21, 2015

May the Force Awaken

It's finally here!  The Star Wars saga continues in J.J. Abrams’s ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens,’ the seventh episode of the beloved and super popular fantasy-in-space opera George Lucas started seemingly so long ago.  As members of its fandom, Star Wars defines who we are and makes us proud to embrace the inner geek in all of us because it is cool to be a Star Wars fan.  With a box office gross of $238 million in North America and well over $500 million worldwide on its opening weekend, TFA proves once again that SW is a global phenomenon with no equal.
While Abrams gave the Star Trek franchise an extreme makeover with sometimes mixed results, he approached his new project with the care and reverence of a devout fanboy who’s terrified of straying too far from the original material.  Playing it safe is the right thing to do because: (1) he would have been crucified by angry SW lynch mobs, I mean fans, had he taken too many risks they didn’t like, and (2) he can’t go wrong staying true to the “spirit” of the original trilogy.  If by so doing TFA looks a bit familiar and feels like a rehash of Episode IV in its parallel plot lines and characters, then so be it because that was the intention in the first place.
Fans love SW for its plentiful action, colorful characters and simple black-and-white world-building with a dash of dysfunctional Shakespearean family melodrama, all of which TFA delivers in spades.  While we may miss the old (or young, rather) Luke, Leia, Han and Vader we’ve known, a new generation of heroes and villain has capably picked up the standard in Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren.  With the background thus set in this long-awaited new chapter, the future looks bright indeed for the most popular “science fiction” franchise of all time.
Grade: A- 
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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Kramped for the holidays

Christmas-themed horror movies are a rarity, perhaps because they seem so out-of-place during what’s generally regarded to be “the most wonderful time of the year.”  It is also the holiest of religious holidays, notwithstanding the fact that Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25.  Nonetheless, once in a while we get the likes of ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night,’ ‘Black Christmas’ and ‘Krampus’ during this most joyous of occasions.
At least ‘Krampus’ is based on traditional European (Austro-Bavarian to be precise) folklore and mythology.  If you’re unfamiliar (or haven’t seen the 'Venture Bros.' episode below) with the character, think Krampus as a deformed “evil Santa” of sorts who punishes bad children, just as Saint Nicholas rewards good children with gifts.  Portrayed as a hairy daemonic creature with horns and cloven hooves, Krampus is known to carry chains and bundled birch branches (ruten), the better to lash misbehaving children with.  Krampus finally gets his own feature length movie, and all things considered  it isn’t bad.
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With a comedic cast including Adam Scott, Toni Collette and David Koechner, ‘Krampus’ is a light-hearted, oft-funny horror comedy in the tradition of ‘Gremlins,’ ‘House’ and ‘The Frighteners.’  It is particularly sharp in its satire of family dysfunction, and the film's opening credits sequence depicting rampaging holiday shoppers in slow-mo set to Bing Crosby's "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" was simply classic.  For what it lacked in truly scary moments, the movie made up in sheer PG-13 rated family fun.  Come to think of it, that’s what Christmas is all about isn’t it?
Grade: B+ 
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Apollo's Creed

The legacy of Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) lives on in ‘Creed,’ the seventh film in the popular boxing franchise which began back in 1976 featuring the underdog Italian-American human punching bag (because he seldom takes the “guard” stance in the ring and too often leaves his head unprotected) Rocky Balboa.  Rocky is now 69 and well into his twilight years, so he reluctantly plays the role of Mr. Miyagi to Michael B. Jordan’s Ralph Macchio, imparting his learned wisdom and experience to the young but talented misbegotten offspring of his late former adversary-turned-close friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).
It turned out that, just before his cockiness got him killed by Ivan Drago’s 1,850-psi punch in ‘Rocky IV,’ Apollo cheated on his wife and sired a bastard son who took on the last name of his real mother.  Adonis Johnson, now a strapping young lad in his early twenties, has shown a particular talent in following in his dad’s footsteps while holding down a nice yuppie job at a financial firm in LA.  A self-trained amateur boxer bored with life and not challenged enough while beating down hapless opponents in Mexico, he gave up his well paying white collar job without batting an eye and moved to Philly in search of the legendary Rocky (now a restaurateur) to take him to the next level and realize his full pugilistic potential.
When you come down to it, ‘Creed’ is as formulaic and predictable as any of its predecessors, and yet it still somehow manages to seem fresh and new.   There’s a natural chemistry between Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis and Stallone’s Rocky, and the screenplay co-written by director Ryan Coogler (who previously collaborated with Jordan on the excellent ‘Fruitvale Station’) dispensed with the cheesiness of prior ‘Rocky’ movies in favor of a grittier and more realistic feel.  ‘Creed’ is about emerging from the shadows of your forebears and establishing your own legacy, and in that it succeeded by a knock-out.
Grade: A-
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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Eyes Have It

The acclaimed 2009 Argentine thriller ‘El Secreto de sus Ojos’ gets the American treatment in ‘Secret in Their Eyes,’ loaded with A-list star power in Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman and the rising Chiwetel Ejiofor.  I know, it’s virtually impossible to top a movie that’s won an Oscar for best foreign language film, but surely you can excuse Hollywood for the indulgence in adapting this movie for the American audience since I’m sure many of you (myself included) find the prospect of reading subtitles for two hours straight a daunting one.   
Without giving away any spoilers, suffice it to say that SITE is a slow-burning suspense/revenge thriller with a shocking revelation at the end.  If you’ve seen the movie’s trailer, you would gather that the movie centers on the aftermath of a young woman's brutal murder, a young woman who happened to be the daughter of the FBI agent played by Julia Roberts.  The attempt to bring the killer to justice ties together the movie’s three main characters, played to near perfection by Roberts, Ejiofor and Kidman.  The movie employs frequent flashbacks as a device in telling its story then (2002) and now (2015), and while this at first can be rather disorienting and confusing, once you settle down into the movie’s rhythm it flows naturally enough.
Although SITE has been panned by critics, not having seen the original Argentine version (yet) gives me the luxury of not being overly critical of this film.  In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed SITE as an old fashioned suspense-mystery thriller, which worked in no small part due to the fine performances delivered by Roberts, Kidman and in particular Ejiofor, who manages to impress me more and more with each movie he starred in. 

Happy Thanksgiving, y'all.
Grade: B+
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The Mockingjay Strikes Back

The Hunger Games’ saga concludes with ‘Mockingjay Part 2,’ the fourth and final film adapted from Suzanne Collins’ popular post-apocalyptic YA trilogy.  The story of a young woman from humble beginnings who’s so badass that she won the bloody national pastime which had become an annual tradition in the fictional country depicted in the novels not once but twice and rose to become the universal symbol against tyranny and oppression, it is easy to see how ‘The Hunger Games’ appeals to so many people across all age groups.
‘Mockingjay Part 2’ picks up right where Part 1 (big surprise!) left off (reviewed here:, as the rebellion of the districts against the capitol of Panem and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) reaches a crescendo after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) survived the “betrayal” and near assassination by her former ‘Hunger Games’ partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).  Clocking in at a brisk two-hours and seventeen minutes, I feel that I have to retract my initial dismissal of splitting up the third book into two movies as nothing more than a shameless cash grab.  To conclude the series in one movie would make it well over three hours long even if it’s mercilessly edited down, and both parts of ‘Mockingjay’ are essential to telling the whole story as well as providing depth and nuances to the key players.
‘Mockingjay Part 2’ is the gritty “war movie” of the series and is as visceral and uncompromising as a PG-13 movie geared toward teens and young adults would allow.  There are moments of triumph and joy but also tragedy and heartbreak.  The million-dollar question as to whom Katniss will ultimately settle down with in the Katniss-Peeta-Gale love triangle is thankfully answered by the end of the movie, but as in the case of “Team Edward” versus “Team Jacob” not everyone will go home happy.
Grade: B+
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Monday, November 9, 2015

Still On Her Majesty's Secret Service

James Bond goes fabulously retro in 'Spectre,' the 24th installment in the venerable British secret agent franchise that began with ‘Dr. No’ way back in 1962.  007 was very much a product of the Cold War, in which the spy games between the CIA or MI6 on one hand and KGB on the other were mirrored in popular media by MI6 versus SPECTRE, SHIELD versus HYDRA and even CONTROL versus KAOS.  So when it was announced that ‘Spectre’ is to be a throwback homage of sorts to the early James Bond films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, color me intrigued.
Director Sam Mendes and the screenwriters were well aware that the sinister and all-powerful SPECTRE (acronym for Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) criminal organization which appeared in such Bond classics as 'Dr. No,' 'From Russia with Love,' 'Thunderball' and 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' would be an anachronism in our contemporary post-9/11 era, but that didn’t mean they can’t reinvent it for the modern audience.  As such ‘Spectre’ turned out to be a compromise which, while not as campy or infused with self-parody as the early Bond films that informed it, is nonetheless much lighter in tone than the previous movies starring Daniel Craig.  And not only did ‘Spectre’ tie in to ‘Casino Royale,’ ‘Quantum of Solace’ and ‘Skyfall,’ it also paid tribute to the early Bond films in some of its scenes, like the one where Dave Bautista’s Mr. Hinx did a decent Jaws (RIP, Richard Kiel) impression fighting Bond in a speeding train à la ‘The Spy Who Loved Me.’  Providing much food for thought, ‘Spectre’ also fuels public debate with its warning of an all-seeing "Big Brother" police state that threatens to render the Double-O program (i.e. human spies) obsolete.  It is a highly relevant topic considering how satellites and drones have made killing in far-off places so easy at the push of a button.  As Ralph Fiennes' “M” succinctly put it in one memorable scene, the use of field agents like 007 is indeed a license to kill, but it's also a license not to kill because he still has to look the person in the eye before he pulls the trigger.  
‘Spectre’ has garnered mixed reviews, with the detractors citing its uneven pace, forgettable Bond girls and uninspired action scenes (except for the fast and furious street race through Rome between Bond’s Aston Martin DB10 and Mr. Hinx’s Jaguar C-X75, that is) among the reasons not to embrace it.   They're dead wrong.  'Spectre' not only possesses the old-school charm reminiscent of those early Bond flicks starring Sean Connery and Roger Moore, it is also a solid and respectful addition to the 007 canon bridging the past and present.
Grade: A
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Monday, November 2, 2015

Boy Scouts versus Zombies

Zom-Coms are a lot like Rom-Coms; most of them are crap and you can’t pay me enough to waste time watching ‘em.  For every ‘Shaun of the Dead,’ ‘Fido’ or ‘Zombieland’ we get five ‘Zombie Strippers,’ ‘Zombeavers’ or ‘Navy SEALs Versus Zombies’ that couldn’t even get a proper theatrical release.  So when I decided to check out the unheralded ‘Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse,’ I kept my expectations low accordingly for good reason.  And this is how I found SGTTZA to be a rather entertaining diversion.
SGTTZA is the story of Ben, Carter and Augie, three best buds since childhood who are now high school sophomores but still members of that storied American institution, the Boy Scouts of America.  Upon return from what was to be their last camping trip, they found that the world has gone to shit and the much dreaded “zombie apocalypse” has begun in their sleepy little town.  Such is the ridiculous and often funny premise of SGTTZA, which I’m somewhat ashamed to confess is quite the guilty pleasure of the year.
Growing up during the golden age of B movie zom-coms such as 'The Return of the Living Dead,' 'Re-Animator,' 'Night of the Comet,' Night of the Creeps' and 'Dead Heat,' perhaps I'm naturally inclined to give SGTTZA a break, but SGTTZA does possess that certain ‘80’s je ne sais quoi with hints of ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’ ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ and all those endearing John Hughes movies, except with rotting zombies of course.  Puerile and packed with crass adolescent humor, SGTTZA is what a zom-com might be like if Kevin Smith wrote and directed it.  There are slow zombies that seem to evolve and move faster as the movie progresses (consistency, you say? Sooo overrated), a “hot” zombie cop with a nice rack, a nasty and mean zombie old lady, her horde of zombie kitty cats and a zombie scout leader (David Koechner) who simply doesn’t know when to quit.  SGTTZA is an edgier, racier ‘Zombieland’ and I’m frankly shocked and appalled that I laughed so hard throughout this sorry excuse of a B movie.
Grade: B (plus)
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The Lost Witch Hunter

With the massive worldwide popularity of the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise, it’s easy to forget that Vin Diesel’s first love has always been the fantasy/sci-fi genre.  In between movies about driving fast cars and pulling off impossible heists, the muscular Diesel likes to indulge in genre movies such as ‘Riddick’ and his latest feature, ‘The Last Witch Hunter.’  Don’t be so surprised, he’s an avid D&D roleplayer.
Unfortunately, TLWH turned out to be derivative, uninspired, and bland to the extent that I nearly dozed off at various points during this one-hour, 46-minute exercise in futility which seemed to drag on forever.  Diesel plays the dark and brooding Riddick, I mean Kaulder, a witch hunter from the Middle Ages who vanquished the Witch Queen but not before she “cursed” him with immortality before she died.  800 years later in the modern world, Kaulder still assumes his role with serious gravitas as the protector of humanity, maintaining the fragile peace between humans and the witches (and warlocks) who live in secret among us.  Just like vampires, eh?
TLWH might have worked 15 years ago when TV shows such as ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and movies like ‘Blade’ and ‘Underworld’ were all the rage.  Now it’s just the latest been-there-done-that “where have I seen that before?” addition to a long dead subgenre.  Nothing at all stands out in this film and even the FX is boringly pedestrian.  And as much as I like Diesel, his acting chops leave a lot to be desired even if he nailed the “look” in his long coat and sword strapped across his back.  Good thing he's making a ton of money in F&F and can afford flops like this, because TLWH's tanking fast and furiously at the box office.
Grade: C-
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Paranormal Finality

Hurray!  The long-running and critically maligned ‘Paranormal Activity’ franchise thankfully draws to a close with ‘Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension,’ the sixth and last film of the low budget, “found footage” series which became an unexpected sensation eight years ago.  It is only a matter of time that PA would eventually fall prey to the “law of diminishing returns,” which arguably happened three sequels ago after PA3.  But you can’t blame Oren Peli for milking this cash cow for all she’s worth, because the series as a whole made something like 40 times its budget, due in no small part to suckers like me.
PA:TGD isn’t unwatchably horrible, but came pretty close.  What it attempted to do is to answer any lingering questions and provide the series with closure.  As in the case of nearly all of the previous films (except the last entry, ‘Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones’ which was a detour of sorts), a daemonic entity named “Tobey” stalks young children, in this case six-year old Leila, who like the others speaks to him like an imaginary friend.  We’ve all been here before, but ‘The Ghost Dimension’ ties in with some of the other films, in particular the third installment (arguably the best of the franchise) which took place in 1988 when Katie and Kristie were young and blissfully unaware that they’re witches (luckily they didn't come across the subject of my next review).
Unless you’re a diehard PA fan you’re not missing much here if you choose to skip PA:TGD.  Even if you are you’re likely to feel a sense of déjà vu as you watch this movie.  It’s the same tired formula as nearly all the previous films in the series.  A young couple discovers to their increasing horror that their child is targeted by an evil daemonic entity and tries to exorcise it with the help of Catholic clergy but fails epically and dies horribly for their vain attempt.  There, I just saved you ten bucks.
Grade: C-
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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Love Hurts

Like his contemporaries Peter Jackson and J.J. Abrams, fan-favorite Guillermo del Toro (‘The Devil’s Backbone,’ ‘Blade 2,’ ‘Hellboy,’ ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and ‘Pacific Rim’) has established himself as one of the most geektastic filmmakers of our time.  Interestingly enough, the Guadalajara native’s latest feature combined his trademark visual style and panache with the sense and sensibilities of a Jane Austen novel.  An engrossing tale of gothic horror with romance at its heart, ‘Crimson Peak’ may be del Toro’s best since ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ from a storytelling standpoint.
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."  The wife in this instance is Edith (Mia Wasikowska), a headstrong young woman and aspiring novelist from Buffalo, New York at the turn of the 20th Century who’s smitten by the rather charming Mr. Darcy, by which I mean Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a baronet from England who may lack "possession of a good fortune" but certainly not pride and ambition.  Against her wealthy industrialist father’s wishes before his untimely demise, she marries Sir Thomas and moves to the forbidding and run-down mansion he shares with his enchanting but mysterious sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), realizing too late that she’s residing at the very place the ghastly apparitions of her childhood warned her to beware of, a place called ‘Crimson Peak.’
‘Crimson Peak’ is a story of elaborate schemes and tragic romance, but it is also a creepy, unsettling and deeply atmospheric gothic chiller.  Del Toro is a master at building slow-burning suspense, imbuing the movie with a pervasive sense of dread and impending doom.   While the climactic ending seems a bit rushed, it really can’t be helped once the “cat is out of the bag.”  Del Toro also deserves much credit for not toning the movie down to a more commercially viable PG-13 rating, as there are some disturbing images and scenes which made even a jaded horror fan like me cringe.
Grade: A
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The Mediator

The latest collaboration from celebrated director Steven Spielberg and veteran A-list actor Tom Hanks is the Cold War melodrama ‘Bridge of Spies,’ which recounts the historical events surrounding the Francis Gary Powers-for-Rudolf Abel spy swap across the Iron Curtain in 1962.   I’m sure you’ve all heard of the infamous U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union while on a top secret reconnaissance mission for the CIA in 1960, but the behind-the-scenes efforts that brought him back remain a relatively unknown footnote in our nation's history.
Although ‘Bridge of Spies’ isn’t the first Hollywood treatment of what is commonly known as the “U-2 Incident” (that honor belongs to a 1976 TV movie starring “Six Million Dollar Man” Lee Majors, believe it or not), Spielberg nonetheless crafted a riveting and tightly paced thriller on a subject as unexciting as a prisoner exchange.  He managed to pull it off by providing unexpected depth and character to the key players of this affair, in particular James B. Donovan (Hanks) and Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance in a remarkable performance), the soft-spoken Russian spy arrested by the FBI for espionage in 1957.  From the movie's opening scene in which Abel displayed his well-honed spycraft evading J. Edgar Hoover’s finest with consummate ease, ‘Bridge of Spies’ pulls the viewer into its intricately set-up cloak-and-dagger world and never lets go.
More than just a spy movie, BoS also provides us with a valuable history lesson and a glimpse into the politics and fears of the pre-Cuban Missile Crisis Cold War era.  As the legal counsel assigned to defend Abel for the sake of formal due process under the law, Hanks’ Donovan is an honorable and wise man doing a thankless job, not to mention prescient in his prediction that Abel is much more valuable alive as a potential future bargaining chip (not surprisingly, his specialty is insurance law).  If you have an interest in this period of our nation's history or simply want to see the work of a master director, BoS should not be missed.
Grade: A
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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Martian Chronicles

Astronaut-in-peril movies make great drama.  Since Tom Hanks’s Jim Lovell uttered the famous words “Houston, we have a problem” in Ron Howard’s riveting 1995 cinematic account of the Apollo 13 mission, there has only been one other such movie, Alfonso Cuarón’s phenomenal multiple Oscar winner ’Gravity’ starring Sandra Bullock (Reviewed here:  That is, until now.  In ‘The Martian,’ Matt Damon delivered one of his best performances to date as NASA astronaut Mark Watney, a botanist who became stranded on Mars after his fellow Ares 3 crew mates mistook him for dead while evacuating from the Red Planet due to a severe storm.
Adapted from the 2011 bestseller by Andy Weir, ‘The Martian’ is another fine addition to the astronaut-in-peril subgenre.   What’s compelling about these movies is that we get to witness American innovation and ingenuity first-hand in solving challenging practical engineering problems (like “fitting square pegs into round holes,” to use another ‘Apollo 13’ reference) under extreme life-and-death situations.  While the pace of ‘The Martian’ is more measured than that in ‘Gravity,’ it is in many ways superior to the 2013 seven-time Oscar winner, thanks largely to Damon’s bravura performance.  His Watney is a fascinating character who’s at once engaging, charismatic, clever, optimistic and full of wry humor, a true “MacGyver in space” who elicits chuckles from such witty observations as being the first Mars colonist because he grew crops or a “space pirate” since he’s hijacking the Ares 4 Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) when international maritime laws apply.  The movie gets away with “breaking the fourth wall” by having Watney maintain an ongoing video log while speaking directly to the camera in order to chronicle his experiences for posterity, which provides the audience with a more "personal" viewing experience.
With an excellent ensemble cast including Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover and what had to be the two prettiest astronauts to ever fill a spacesuit on-screen, Jessica Chastain (Ares 3 mission commander/disco lover Melissa Lewis) and Kate Mara (specialist Beth Johanssen), ‘The Martian’ is the latest tour de force from acclaimed director Ridley Scott, arguably his best since the Roman swords-and-sandals epic ‘Gladiator.’
Grade: A+
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The Man from Medellín

What if we take on the Mexican drug cartels the same way we combat terrorism?  That, in essence, is the central question director Denis Villeneuve’s ultra-violent and sobering new crime thriller attempts to answer.  With ‘Sicario,’ the relatively unknown French-Canadian director, whose previous credits include the Hugh Jackman vigilante thriller 'Prisoners' and the Jake Gyllenhaal head-scratcher ‘Enemy,’ just put himself on the radar as a singular talent to keep an eye on.
After playing Tom Cruise’s training sergeant in the sci-fi alien invasion flick ‘Edge of Tomorrow,’ British actress Emily Blunt further cemented her action-heroine creds as Kate Macer, an FBI Special Weapons and Tactics agent attached to an inter-agency task force headed by the laid-back Matt Graver (Josh Brolin).  Initially believing that the purpose of this special task force was to surveil and apprehend a local drug figure with connections to a ruthless Mexican cartel who's responsible for a series of gruesome murders in Arizona, Kate discovered to her increasing alarm that its scope went far beyond and she may be in over her head.  Adding to her anxiety was the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a Colombian national and “consultant” on the task force whose role and motives remain somewhat unclear.
Like Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Traffic’ and Oliver Stone’s ‘Savages,’ ‘Sicario’ depicts the “War on Drugs” not in black and white but shades of grey.  It’s not something to be “won” but rather “managed,” and it is perfectly okay to “fight fire with fire” so to speak.  ‘Sicario’ is brilliant filmmaking because it’s not simply a crime thriller but also a grindhouse revenge flick and gritty war movie.  It’s as if Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow and Michael Mann collaborated to make a movie.  Then there’s Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro, whose quiet demeanor belies a menace just below the surface that’s resolved perfectly in the film’s climactic final scene.  Visceral, cathartic, gripping, suspenseful and thought-provoking, ‘Sicario’ is by far the best movie on the “War on Drugs” to date because it literally depicts it as one.
Grade: A+

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

National Geographic Horror Story

‘The Green Inferno,’ Eli Roth’s latest directorial effort, is both a love letter to ‘70’s grindhouse exploitation cinema and a gorehound’s delight.  A contemporary update of Italian cannibal movies such as ‘Cannibal Ferox’ and ‘Cannibal Holocaust,’ ‘The Green Inferno’ is just as shocking and violent, but surely fans of Roth’s body of work (‘Cabin Fever’ and ‘Hostel’ parts 1 and 2) would expect nothing less.
TGI is simply “delicious” in its irony.  A group of young idealistic, tree-hugging college kids travel to the Amazons in Peru to prevent the destruction of an indigenous tribe’s village by an evil oil corporation.  After getting their message viral, the small single-engine Cessna carrying them on their way out crashes and they become captive to the very people they’re trying to save.  And surprise!  They’re cannibals.  They don’t do it like in the cartoons, either.
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Like ‘Cannibal Ferox’ and ‘Cannibal Holocaust,’ TGI plays with our expectations and diminishes our disgust by portraying the victim as despicable villain, in this instance the tree-huggers’ suave Ricky Martin-esque Latin leader and hypocrite-extraordinaire Alejandro (Ariel Levy).  The final scene in which the lone survivor was being interviewed is also eerily similar to the one in ‘Cannibal Ferox,’ no doubt just the way Roth intended it.   Let’s face it, exploitation B-movies such as this isn’t for the faint of heart or queasy of stomach, but if you’re game you’ll find it a “glorious throwback to the drive-in movies of your youth: bloody, gripping, hard to watch, but you can’t look away.”  That was a tweet from none other than the great Master-of-Horror Stephen King, by the way.
Grade: B+
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The Paranoid Chessmaster

Bobby Fischer is the subject of Tobey Maguire’s biopic on the late chess champion considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all time.  While ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ isn’t the first movie inspired by the oft-controversial chessmaster thanks to the 1993 coming-of-age story ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer,’ it is somewhat surprising that it took so long for a movie to focus on the man’s life.
Hollywood loves Cold War allegories, whether it’s the true story of an underdog American ice hockey team upsetting the mighty Red Army team in the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid (2004’s ‘Miracle’) or a fictional one about a washed-out boxer named Rocky Balboa (Sly Stallone) returning to the ring to face the hulking Soviet superman Captain Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, a Swede) and avenge his friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).  The rivalry in ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ between Maguire’s Bobby Fischer and Liev Schreiber’s Boris Spassky is a more subtle one, as you might expect for a thinking man’s game, but it is no less riveting as we see both players prepare and maneuver leading up to their great showdown at the 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland.
‘Pawn Sacrifice’ adheres to the usual conventions of biopics in its portrait of the complex and at times dislikable chess genius.  Even if he looks nothing like the man he portrayed, Maguire’s Fischer is everything we’ve read or heard about the man: eccentric, insufferable, irascible, demanding, egotistical, offensive, anti-semitic and tinfoil-wearing paranoid.  He may even have been schizophrenic, who knows?  By contrast, Schreiber’s Spassky looks almost dead-on like the Soviet chessmaster and comes across as the more sympathetic and likable of the two.  Graceful and classy, he’s the epitome of good sportsmanship. If you enjoy biopics, movies with the Cold War as backdrop or have even a passing interest in the great game of chess, ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ is not to be missed.
Grade: A-
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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Out of the Glade and into the Scorch

‘Maze Runner,’ the first film in a trilogy adapted from James Dashner’s young adult (YA) post-apocalyptic novels, was a pleasant surprise (review here:  Therefore I eagerly anticipated the next installment, ‘The Scorch Trials,’ which picks up right where the first movie left off as our hapless band of young dazed maze survivors ("Gladers") find themselves hurriedly whisked away by their saviors in a helicopter out of the WCKD research facility from which they were monitored by white coated scientists as if they’re nothing more than lab rats running around in a.... maze.  To their surprise and dismay, the world outside is revealed to be a desert wasteland (the "Scorch") in stark contrast to the lush green glade from which they emerged, such that you can easily picture roving bands of lawless, homicidal marauders motoring around in dilapidated vehicles thrive in such a setting.
As in the first film, not everything is as it seems.  In the world of ‘Maze Runner,’ deception is the main currency, as Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his friends find themselves on the run once again from the evil organization WCKD led by the ruthless Ava (Patricia Clarkson) through the unforgiving landscape of the "Scorch."  As if this isn’t bad enough, the Gladers must also evade and fight off zombie-like “Cranks” and the forces of nature (abrasive sandstorms) in their arduous trek through the "Scorch" in search of ‘The Right Arm,” a group of resistance fighters who have been a thorn in WCKD’s side.
While ‘Maze Runner’ combined "Lord of the Flies" social conflict with a deep and satisfying mystery to good effect, this follow-up is a more straightforward action thriller and chase movie.  It also shares the same anti-authority/rebellion/good-versus-evil themes as other popular YA series like 'The Hunger Games' and 'Divergent.' Nonetheless, if you can manage to see 'The Scorch Trials' for the popcorn movie it strives to be, you will find it to be an enjoyable enough diversion.
Grade: B+
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Irish Goodfellas

‘Black Mass,’ the “true story" of the rise and subsequent fall of south Boston Irish mob boss and “Winter Hill Gang” leader James “Whitey” Bulger, is the latest movie starring Johnny Depp, who needed a hit after such recent misfires as ‘Transcendence’ and ‘Mortdecai.’  In portraying the notorious kingpin whose role as an FBI informant to help bring down the Italian mafia in the ‘70s and ‘80s later scandalized the Bureau, Depp delivered what may well be one of his best method acting performances to date.
Deathly pale, gaunt and sunken-cheeked with slicked back hair (and a receding hairline), Depp’s Whitey Bulger resembles something between the Grim Reaper and LOTR’s Gollum.  The Grim Reaper simile isn’t far off, because behind his calm façade is a ruthless and cold-blooded killer, a calculating fox (or wolf) who perfected the art of making one feel at ease and lower his guard before putting a bullet in his head.  ‘Black Mass’ is the tale of how the FBI, through one of its agents (John Connolly, a childhood friend of Whitey’s), practically gave Bulger free rein in his criminal activities while doing him the favor of eliminating the Angiulo Brothers, his main competitors of the Italian mafia.
With a stellar cast including Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Bacon plus a fine screenplay from Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk based on a non-fiction book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, BM not only makes for a fascinating character study but also a compelling gangster film in the best traditions of ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Scarface’ and ‘Goodfellas.’
Grade: A

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Monday, September 14, 2015

3 Simple Rules

The “found footage” genre has been overdone even before the most recent ‘Paranormal Activity’ installment, and I must admit when I first saw the trailer of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest release ‘The Visit,’ I rolled my eyes and dismissed it as nothing more than another desperate attempt to turn around a sinking career which suffered one setback after another with such critical flops as ‘The Village,’ ‘Lady in the Water,’ ‘The Happening’ and ‘The Last Airbender.’  Regardless, I went to see it anyway because: (a) it’s “horror” and (b) it’s an M. Night Shyamalan movie.  And who knows?  Maybe there’s a trademark Shyamalan WTF???!!! twist at the end.
‘The Visit’ does have a twist, but it’s more subtle and less jarring than one would expect from Shyamalan.  That’s not a bad thing either, because ‘The Visit’ is refreshingly different from any of his previous films.  While the movie possesses some scary moments, it is also rather funny.  On the surface, ‘The Visit’ seems to address the creeping infirmities and frailties of aging that we must all face someday, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously or wrap itself in sentimentality like Michael Haneke’s ‘Amour.’  Told from the POV of two young teens visiting their “nana” and “pop pop” for the first time because their mom ran away from home when she was 19 and never reconciled with her parents, ‘The Visit’ worked for me largely due to the fine performances delivered by its two unknown young stars.
Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge are simply a joy to follow as Tyler and Rebecca, the precocious siblings witty beyond their years, even if their maturity lags somewhat behind.  One is a snarky overachiever who's making a documentary of the visit in order to bring her mom some closure (or "elixir" as she calls it) after leaving on bad terms so long ago, while the other is a goofy improv rapper and former pee wee football safety who, well, you just have to see for yourself.   With ‘The Visit,’ Shyamalan demonstrated that he still has a few tricks up his sleeves even if it falls short of a true comeback.  Stay tuned.
Grade: A
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Monday, August 31, 2015

Escape from Southeast Asia

The latest feature from director John Erick Dowdle (‘Quarantine,’ ‘Devil ‘and ‘As Above, So Below’) isn’t his typical B-movie horror schlock but a taut and gripping trapped-in-a-hostile-foreign-land political thriller in the tradition of 'The Killing Fields,' ‘Under Fire,’ ‘Missing’ and ‘Salvador.’  While I’m not comparing ‘No Escape’ to these earlier films, it is still an exemplary work of tightly wound suspense and nail-biting tension that’s guaranteed to keep you riveted at the edge of your seat.
Jack (Owen Wilson) and Annie (Lake Bell) Dwyer and their two young girls arrive in an unspecified southeast Asian country (it's Thailand, wink-wink) to start a new life because daddy just got a new job when a bloody coup d'é·tat topples the existing American-friendly regime and all hell breaks loose.  In the ensuing chaos, open season is declared on Americans along with other westerners, and the Dwyers suddenly find themselves running for dear life.  If you thought the bat-shit crazy Iranian mob that deposed the Shah and stormed the US embassy in Tehran back in ’79 was horrible, wait til you see these zombies, uh, Asians overcome by bloodlust in action.

Largely due to its depiction of the aforementioned Asians as sadistic, faceless monsters out for blood, or hapless victims themselves serving as so much collateral damage, critics have lambasted ‘No Escape’ as being “racist” and backward-thinking in regards to human nature.  But that’s really missing the point, because other than a watered down attempt by Pierce Brosnan’s character (an ex CIA operator and corporate "private contractor" named Hammond) to explain what may have caused the Asians to behave like a mob of rampaging orks, the movie is no more - and no less - than a simple tale of survival in the midst of life-and-death peril.  With its story centered on a sympathetic young American family, perhaps ‘No Escape’ is guilty of manipulation, but much like ‘’71’ (read about it here: this movie can be devastatingly effective on a primal and visceral level even while it taps into our collective post-Benghazi anxieties.

Grade: A-
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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The "Mad Men" from U.N.C.L.E.

Director Guy Ritchie adapts another popular '60s spy show for the big screen in ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ (acronym for "United Network Command for Law and Enforcement").  It's hard to believe, I know, but while I'm familiar enough with its contemporaries 'I Spy' and 'Mission Impossible,' I’ve never seen this television series starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.  Nonetheless, the big screen treatment showed much promise, and in any event I like Cold War “spy-versus-spy” games of the groovy ‘60s being a fan of the Sean Connery James Bond flicks.
Henry Cavill (‘Man of Steel’) and Armie Hammer (‘The Lone Ranger’) are younger versions of U.N.C.L.E. operatives Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, respectively, as the erstwhile enemies across the Iron Curtain are recruited to prevent a nuclear bomb from falling into the wrong hands.  The wrong hands in this case are the finely manicured clutches of high society socialite Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), matriarch to a surviving clan of Mussolini fascists in Rome.  Our reluctant allies are joined by Gaby Teller, daughter of the physicist kidnapped to build the portable nuclear device, who may have her own secret agenda and is played by sexy Swedish actress Alicia Vikander whom you may remember from her role as Ava, the too-human AI who masterfully played Domhnall Gleeson in ‘Ex Machina.’
Cavill’s Napoleon Solo is a smooth talking (or rather, droning) playboy in the vein of James Bond as played by Roger Moore.  His casual nonchalance lends him a certain air of unflappability, to be sure, but also makes him a bore.   Not to be outdone, Armie Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin is a newsboy-wearing KGB tight-ass whose faux Russian accent is painful to the ears and about as convincing as his wooden acting.  While the two may be perfect fodder on the covers of ‘GQ’ and ‘Esquire,’ interesting characters they do not make.  Sadly, TMFU is also saddled with a clichéd plot, action scenes that lack zip, and the frequent split-screens are distracting even if they were a nostalgic nod to the TV show.  The movie's lone saving grace is the lovely eye-candy Vikander but, alas, even she cannot lift TMFU from the depths of mediocrity.
Grade: B-
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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

"Just because you're done with the past..."

"…doesn't mean the past is done with you."  ‘The Gift,’ actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut, has been causing quite a buzz since its release.  Lauded by critics and audiences alike, the movie brings to mind the classic suspense thrillers popular during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s such as ‘Fatal Attraction,’ ‘Pacific Heights’ and ‘The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.’  Boasting a stellar cast including Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall and Edgerton himself, ‘The Gift’ shines as a modern example of Hitchcockian suspense that’s all too rare nowadays.
Talk about managing our expectations.  'The Gift' introduces us to Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall) Callen, an outwardly normal couple whom we take a liking to instantly.  Bateman usually plays luckless schmucks in comedies like ‘Arrested Development,’ until ‘Bad Words’ showed that he can out-jerk even 'The Jerk' Steve Martin himself.  Bateman displays his versatility again in this film, gradually unveiling the true colors that he hid so well in the beginning. When a “stranger” named Gordo (Edgerton) befriends the Callens with gifts who later reveals himself to be a childhood acquaintance of Simon’s, things take a turn for the bizarre, culminating in a climactic payoff worthy of water cooler conversation.
The plot, pacing and caliber of acting in ‘The Gift’ are quite effective.  Solid performances from Edgerton, Bateman and Hall provide depth to their characters as well as elicit empathy from the viewers.  Edgerton in particular gave a quietly subtle performance as the socially awkward and disturbed Gordo, whose past history with Simon is uncovered slowly and masterfully, much like the peeling of an onion.  If you enjoy slow-burning paranoia thrillers, you simply can't go wrong with 'The Gift.'
Grade: A
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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Going Rogue

Tom Cruise reprises his role as IMF leader and superspy Ethan Hunt in the well received fifth installment of the ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchise which started nearly 20 years ago back in 1996.  A modern spin on the ‘60s spy series starring Peter Graves and Greg Morris, ‘Rogue Nation’ proves once again that this popular espionage series, like its main character, has staying power and that Tom Cruise remains a bonafide A-list Hollywood mega-star, love him or hate him.
‘Rogue Nation’ sees our team of outcasts pitted against a sinister shadow agency/cabal called “The Syndicate” comprising of former spies from all over the world that has been influencing global events and subverting governments worldwide without any accountability or oversight.  Sounds a bit like the upcoming ‘007: SPECTRE,’ doesn’t it?  Compounding the problem is that, after the events of ‘Ghost Protocol’ and the untimely demise of their beloved Secretary, the IMF has been dissolved by the US government and is on the run from the CIA.  An “impossible” turn of events, you say?  Certainly not, as IMF doesn't stand for “Impossible Mission Force” without good reason you know!
Since J.J. Abrams took over the reins as director and producer beginning with ‘Mission: Impossible III,’ the series has really taken off and is now regarded by many as equal to the venerable 007 franchise.  As you might expect, ‘Rogue Nation’ is action packed, thrilling and fun in the best tradition of pre-Daniel Craig James Bond flicks with Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan.  What you may not expect is that ‘Rogue Nation’ is also blessed with a splendid femme fatale in the comely shape of Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), an MI6 agent-turned-Syndicate operative whose motives are somewhat nebulous.  But if you ever imagined James Bond a chick, she would come pretty damned close.
Grade: A
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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Vacation Hell

The 1983 road-trip comedy ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation,’ about the Griswold family’s arduous journey to a fictional Disneyland-style amusement park called “Walley World,” is a critically acclaimed comedy classic which spawned four sequels.  The concept of a fun and relaxing family vacation that turns into hell can be uproariously funny if done right, and now we get the sixth installment with the simply titled ‘Vacation,’ which takes the franchise to the next generation and tells the tale of the son’s attempts to avoid the pitfalls that befell his dad over 30 years ago on a trip to Walley World.
Rusty Griswold, the son of Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold played by Anthony Michael Hall in the 1983 original, is now Ed Helms (‘The Office,' ‘The Hangover’) as he takes his own dysfunctional family cross-country in a malfunctioning Korean-speaking blue Tartan Prancer dubbed the “Honda of Albania.”  Throughout the memorable road trip, numerous embarrassing mishaps ensue, including the unexpected discovery that his loving and unassuming wife (Christina Applegate from ‘Married with Children’) was a wild and loose party girl when she was in a sorority in college.  Like the current crop of R-rated comedies, ‘Vacation 2015’ ups the ante in gross-out moments, such as a "soothing" hot springs dip the family took in sewage infested waters.  The movie also made reference to the original, not only in the destination of the trip being the same and keeping its catchy theme song but also with its own twisted version of the iconic scene where Christie Brinkley pulled up next to the Griswolds’ dumpy panel-sided station-wagon in a lipstick red Ferrari and flirted with Chevy Chase.  Well, up until the hot blonde was stopped dead in her tracks by a speeding semi anyway.  Ouch.
‘Vacation 2015’ isn’t as good as the original of course, but it was never intended to be.  What it managed to become is a pretty funny movie in its own right that stands apart from its forebear and caters to the less refined tastes of today’s jaded audience.   If you don’t care for this type of R-rated not-for-kids humor, may I suggest that you save yourself a few bucks and revisit the original  movie instead.  Trust me, it still stands the test of time.

Grade: B

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8-Bit War of the Worlds

Our beloved “golden age” arcade games from the '80s terrorize earth in ‘Pixels,’ Adam Sandler’s sci-fi comedy and homage to nerd culture during my favorite decade.  Admittedly, I’ve never been an Adam Sandler fan, even during his stint on SNL in the '90s.  For the most part I find him so gratingly annoying and unlikable in films such as ‘Happy Gilmore’ and ‘The Waterboy’ that I just wanted to punch him in the face, hard.  C’mon now, I can’t be the only one.  The “Golden Raspberry” (aka Razzie) awards he won in recent years for such critical (and commercial) flops as ‘Jack & Jill’ and ‘That’s My Boy” prove that his schtick is beyond old and is no longer funny, if it was funny at all in the first place.

Alas, I had to see ‘Pixels’ for nostalgic reasons.  The premise of ‘Pixels’ is an alien invasion of earth using pixelated arcade game monsters as the instruments of our destruction.  Instead of sending motherships the good old fashioned Hollywood way, Pac-Man, Centipede and Donkey Kong were dispatched to wipe out humanity because the aliens misinterpreted those wonderful 8-bit video games we sent 30 years ago on a deep space probe beyond our solar system as an act of war rather than a message of peace and good will.  And since current Gen Y-ers are only versed in twitchy video games like CoD and Halo, the government has to recruit early Gen X-ers like developmentally arrested 48-year old man-child Adam Sandler who excelled in these games of yore.  Obi Wan, you’re our only hope.  God help us.
While ‘Pixels’ tried hard to compare itself to that ‘80’s classic, ‘Ghostbusters,’ it failed to approach that movie’s originality, charm and wit.  The humor was only scatter-shot and mostly missed the mark; even its best moments couldn't elicit more than a chuckle from the audience.  ‘Pixels’ is also filled with silly ideas that isn’t funny at all, like the hare-brained scheme to train elite Navy SEALs in a crash course to play ‘80s-era arcade games to do battle against the pixelated invaders.  Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised because in ‘Pixels’ the POTUS (the President of the United States) is none other than Sandler's chubby 'Grown Ups' co-star  Kevin James ('Mall Cop,' 'The King of Queens'), so what did we truly expect?
Grade: C
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Monday, July 20, 2015

The Incredible Shrinking Ant-Man

The latest offering from the MCU (and final release in Marvel Studio’s "Phase 2" schedule) is ‘Ant-Man,’ a comic book superhero who's familiar enough to die-hard Marvel fans but otherwise relatively unknown to the mainstream audience.  Although ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (Extra! Extra! read all about it here: proved that obscure titles can strike box office gold if done well, ‘Ant-Man’ is still a tough sell for Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios.  As a third-tier character, Ant-Man is often overshadowed by the more glamorous and popular Marvel properties like your friendly neighborhood Spiderman, Captain America, Iron Man and Thor.  Can Disney repeat its unexpected GotG success with ‘Ant-Man’?
Development of the film got off to a rocky start when "Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” director and fanboy favourite (he’s British, so suuue me) Edgar Wright left and was replaced by Peyton Reed, who up til now is best known for the Jennifer Aniston-starred romcom ‘The Break-Up’ and the bubbly cheerleading guilty pleasure ‘Bring It On.’  Well, I don’t know how they managed it, but they overcame this "setback" in brilliant fashion.  Wright had a hand in the final script, and Reed’s background in comedy paid off handsomely.  It’s fun (and funny) watching Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man battling Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll) on his kid's “Thomas the Engine” railroad track, but in addition to the visual pizzazz ‘Ant-Man’ also boasts great storytelling and solid character development. 
After witnessing the latest orgy of epic carnage and destruction in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron,’ it’s a breath of fresh air to enjoy something smaller and more personal.  Scott Lang (Rudd), Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly, looking almost unrecognizable with short hair and even hotter than she did 10 years ago in 'Lost') and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) are eminently relatable characters who complemented each other perfectly.  The movie also features some very funny moments, the highlights of which are when Luis (Michael Peña), a friend of Lang's when they were in prison, would go on about how he caught wind of their latest caper like some gossipy school girl who happens to speak ghetto while the various scenes are played out in perfect lip-sync pantomime.  To coin a cliché, 'Ant-Man' proves once again that "good things come in small packages."
Grade: A
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