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: http://www.moviesaccordingtodave.blogspot.com/2014/12/to-kill-mockingjay-act-one.html), 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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