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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Have courage and be kind

Everyone loves a good Cinderella story, so the saying goes.  The rags-to-riches underdog story of Cinderella is one of our most cherished and beloved fairy tales, and it’s only inevitable that Disney would give it the modern treatment.  Although the 1950 animated feature holds up well today, the popularity and commercial success of recent remakes of classics like ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Maleficent’ and ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ make such an update all but irresistible.  Moreover, with the wonders of contemporary CGI, the sky truly is the limit in bringing our favorite bedtime stories to life on the big screen in ways we’ve never seen before.
 
In that regard, Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Cinderella’ is a wondrous and magical confection of a movie.  Vibrantly beautiful and vividly colorful, this film is “picture perfect” with great attention to detail in set design and costumes.  Unlike ‘Maleficent,’ Branagh’s remake is a straightforward and faithful adaptation of the original Disney classic, as we follow Cinderella’s (Lily James of 'Downton Abbey') life from her blessed childhood with loving parents to her mistreatment by her evil stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and sisters after both her parents died before her fortunes took a turn for the better again when the Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) aided our fair maiden after she met her handsome prince (Richard Madden) in a chance encounter within the forest.
 
So what is it about ‘Cinderella’ that allowed it to rake in $70 million at the box office on its opening weekend and earn such wide critical acclaim?  Branagh is a capable director, but his previous credit was the box office flop ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,’ an unsuccessful attempt to reboot the popular Tom Clancy franchise.  The story of Cinderella is timeless and enduring because its heroine never lost faith in the face of adversity and always lived her life by the words her mother left her before she died, to “have courage and be kind.”   But perhaps even more than that, it’s also a fantastic fairy tale with a happy ending and its own built‑in audience.  While the movie dragged a bit and played it fairly safe, it's still a delightfully sweet confection for the whole family.
 
Grade: A-
 
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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

RoboChap

Since Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 cyberpunk masterpiece ‘Blade Runner’ (based on Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”), the notion of giving robots sentience through AI has been a popular subject in Hollywood which continues to intrigue viewers.   While ‘The Terminator’ and its sequels warned us that it’s a terrible idea which will only lead to our downfall, other movies such as ‘Short Circuit,’ ‘AI: Artificial Intelligence’ and ‘I, Robot’ were more willing to see AI-programmed automata in a gentler light.
 
Adding to this list is South African director Neill Blomkamp’s edgy and exuberantly energetic near future sci-fi actioner ‘Chappie.’  As the titular droid, ‘Chappie’ is depicted sympathetically and possessed more humanity than some of the flesh-and-blood characters in the movie, including the film’s ambitious and ruthless villain Vincent (Hugh Jackman), a soldier-turned-engineer whose pet project, a remotely human-controlled walker bristling with firepower called “Moose,” is much more suited for the military than the civilian police force he vainly tried to pitch to (square peg in round hole, anyone?).  ‘Chappie’ is heavily influenced by ‘RoboCop,’ as the rabbit-eared humanoid ‘Scouts’ (of which ‘Chappie’ is one) are to RoboCop what the ‘Moose’ is to the ED-209.
 
The childlike Chappie’s rocky journey is always fascinating, and the friendship he forged with Yo-Landi and Ninja (of the SA rap outfit ‘Die Antwoord’) is often funny and touching.  In ‘Chappie,’ Blomkamp proved once again that there is simply no better when it comes to creating a gritty and compelling contemporary/near-future dystopia that’s believable, immediate and all-too-real.  While ‘Chappie’ lacked the political subtexts from his two previous films (‘District 9’ and ‘Elysium’), the chaotic, lawless urban jungle of Johannesburg he envisioned in his latest effort is no less visceral, sobering and indelible.
 
Grade: A-
 
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Monday, March 9, 2015

Saving Private Hook

Northern Ireland, 1971.  A year before the infamous “Bloody Sunday,” tensions between Catholics and Protestants are reaching a boiling point.  A young British paratrooper (Jack O’Connell) is sent with his squad to maintain order and assist the local constabulary with a house-to-house search in Catholic-controlled west Belfast.  His young and wet-behind-the-ears leftenant told them to ditch their riot gear and don their berets because “we need to go out there and reassure people. We're here to protect them. We need to look them in the eye and tell them that.”  Whoo boy, just what could possibly go wrong?

''71,' first-time French helmer Yann Demange’s superbly crafted and tightly paced historical melodrama, is cut from the same cloth as Walter Hill's 'Southern Comfort,' a heady cocktail of adrenaline-fueled survival story mixed with a riveting cat-and-mouse hunt through the mean streets of west Belfast.  Taut and nail-bitingly suspenseful, '’71' paints a vivid and sobering picture of the religious tensions and political upheavals in Northern Ireland at a time when enemies can become friends and the loyalties of “friends” can be questionable.  Jack O’Connell, who recently portrayed yank Louie Zamperini in Angelina Jolie’s ‘Unbroken,’ proved once again that he’s a talented young Brit actor to keep an eye on, delivering a compelling and believable performance as the hapless soldier-in-peril trapped deep inside hostile territory trying to survive.

From the opening scene of his army training to his final deliverance, '’71' grabs us and never lets go.  While there are scenes of brutal violence, including a bombing at a loyalist pub by the IRA, there are also moments of kindness, such as a former medic and his daughter patching up our badly injured protagonist.  By far my favorite scene in the movie is a furious foot chase through the streets and alleyways of Belfast the likes of which we haven’t seen on celluloid since Keanu Reeves' undercover FBI agent doggedly pursued Patrick Swayze's bank robber in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 surf noir crime thriller ‘Point Break.’

Grade: A
 
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The Art of the Steal

Slumping A-lister Will Smith attempts to get his mojos back in the uneven but infectious heist drama ‘Focus,’ in which he plays Nicky, a jaded big-time con-man and hustler who took a protégé under his wing in the guise of an attractive young blonde, Jess (Margot Robbie).  The two struck up an on-again-off-again relationship that’s playful despite its unlikelihood, thanks to the magnetism and chemistry between Smith and Robbie.  Unfortunately, far less believable are the various capers and cons we’re supposed to believe they and their team of sophisticated thieves are capable of pulling off.
 
That isn’t to say ‘Focus’ isn’t entertaining.  The misdirections, sleight-of-hand and deception methods employed by the movie’s various con-artists to put “other people’s money into their own pockets,” as Matthew McConaughey humorously put it in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (which Robbie also starred in), are often funny and enlightening.  We’ve all heard the cliché that “God is in the details,” but so are con-artists (though gods they’re obviously not) because their elaborate set-up and planning to pull off the perfect con are impressive even as they defy belief in that all the pieces have to fall into place at the right time.

Utterly unbelievable, light-hearted and filled with numerous twists and turns, ‘Focus’ is best enjoyed with an open mind.  Whether or not you can suspend your disbelief that B.D. Wong’s compulsive Chinese billionaire gambler can be so manipulated at the Super Bowl by Smith in their game of chicken and one-upmanship, or the scene near the end when Gerald McRaney pulled off the perfect “gotcha!” head-trip moment, you’ll walk out of the theatre shaking your head that a movie so incredible can be so entertaining.

Grade: B
 
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The gods must be crazy...

Better late than never, I always say.  Having told myself that I should give ‘Jupiter Ascending’ a pass due to all the negative reviews as well as my disappointment in the Wachowskis’ post-Matrix credits, I went against my better judgment and decided to give it a look.  “It can’t be that bad,” I thought.  At the very least, the visual FX should be worthwhile.

My verdict on JA is similar to most critics’.  The Wachowskis’ latest offering is a grand space opera that’s visually stylish even as it suffers from weak storytelling and a hackneyed plot.  The movie’s basic premise is interesting enough; earth is one of many planets hosting intelligent life unwittingly exploited by effete alien demigods who harvest them when “ripe,” meaning the population reaches a tipping point when the planets’ natural resources and environment can no longer sustain them.  The people are harvested not for “soylent green” but liquefied for the elixir of life (the ‘fountain of youth’) in order to keep these royal demigods immortal and forever young.  When the humble and unassuming earth girl Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) takes possession of earth (and by extension the right to determine its fate), the quibbling demigods plot and scheme against her and each other like spoiled Roman brats of noble families to take back their “birthright.”  The length to which the three siblings would go for their ultimate prize knows no bounds.

So how can poor Jupiter survive her fate as a mere pawn in this cruel Machiavellian power play of the gods?  A guyliner-wearing Channing Tatum comes to the rescue, of course.  As Caine Wise, a genetically-engineered hybrid human/wolf supersoldier/bounty hunter with his own force-field shield and cool rocket boots, Tatum cuts a figure that’s macho yet oddly effeminate.  And along with Sean Bean as grizzled veteran Stinger Apini, Jupiter can rest assured that whenever she falls (and she does that quite a bit in this movie), someone will be there to catch her like Christopher Reeve caught Margot Kidder in ‘Superman.’  While JA isn’t a great sci-fi epic that we’ll remember fondly in time, it isn’t exactly the disaster many are making it out to be either.

Grade: C+
 
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