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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