The only movie reviews you need

All you need to know in 3 short paragraphs because honestly, who wants to read more?

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Friday, December 30, 2016

City of Stars (When Sebastian Met Mia)

The subject of my final review of 2016 also happens to be the best of the 65 movies I’ve seen in theaters this year, Damien Chazelle’s reverently crafted and wondrously exuberant musical love letter to the City of Angels, Golden Age “CinemaScope” musicals (RIP, Debbie), classical jazz and lost love told through the eyes of two young lovebirds struggling to realize their dreams in modern-day Los Angeles.  With ‘La La Land' the immensely talented Harvard man Chazelle, who previously directed and wrote the Oscar darling ‘Whiplash,’ single-handedly rejuvenated the movie musical and gave us the perfect feel-good movie in which to surrender ourselves.
 
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (the adorably cute couple from ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’) are reunited on-screen as two idealistic twentysomethings pursuing their flights of fancy.  Sebastian is a talented pianist who aims to keep the torch of traditional improvisational jazz (not the new age elevator "smooth jazz" of Kenny G, that's Keith played by John Legend) burning and to save enough money for his own jazz club someday, while Mia is a lover of classic TCM movies and dreams of becoming an actress and playwright.  The two cross path by chance and, despite their initial feigned indifference and nonchalance toward each other, soon fall madly in love.  While the story is a familiar one, we can’t help but be swept along by their blossoming romance and eventual drifting apart through the four seasons on the strengths of the performances and chemistry between the two engaging leads.  The always endearing Emma Stone had never shone brighter and is an utter delight to watch, proving once again why I've been a fan since first seeing her in 'Zombieland' and 'Easy A.'  Just listen to her half of the wistful ditty below:



Evoking the kind of movie magic all too rare these days, ‘La La Land’ is an exercise in pure whimsical fantasy but is also irresistibly charming and sweet.  The original songs and musical score from composer Justin Hurwitz and the dance numbers by choreographer (not to be confused with the singer) Mandy Moore are Oscar-caliber, eliciting feelings from joy to melancholy, and the film's bittersweet “what might have been" epilogue is a sublime masterpiece of such heart-wrenching beauty and tenderness that only elevated its poignancy and resonance.  Light on its feet but heavy on our hearts,  'La La Land’ is a stunning cinematic musical tour de force that appeals to the hopeless romantic in all of us and makes our hearts swoon.  Now that's entertainment!  Have a safe and happy new year, my friends.
Grade: A+
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Monday, December 19, 2016

Going Rogue

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RIP, Carrie.  Thanks for playing "Beauty" to the Beast and being the best. slave. ever.

‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ is Disney’s first stand-alone movie set in the popular Star Wars universe, a spin-off rather than a numbered installment in the Star Wars film franchise.  Directed by British helmer Gareth Edwards (‘Monsters,’ ‘Godzilla 2014’), it was made clear from the very outset that R1 is going be a darker, grittier Star Wars movie that promises to put the “war” in Star Wars.  Edwards even went so far as to say that it’s inspired by one of the best WWII movies of all time, Steven Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ which, by the way, should have won Best Picture instead of ‘Shakespeare in Love’ in 1999.
 
Unless you’re ignorant about everything Star Wars, it would be no spoiler for me to tell you that R1 is a prequel to Episode 4 (aka ‘A New Hope’), about a ragtag group of rebels who successfully stole the plans of the Death Star which Luke Skywalker destroyed in his X-Wing starfighter in Episode 4.  This “Dirty Half Dozen” includes Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of the scientist forced to build the planet-destroying superweapon; Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Rebel Alliance intelligence operative; Chirrut Ĭmwe (Donnie Yen, Chinese #1), a blind warrior monk who thinks that “The Force is with him and he’s one with The Force”; Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen, Chinese #2), a Boba Fett-like bounty hunter and friend of Ĭmwe; Bodhi Rook, an Imperial pilot-turned-rebel and K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), an Imperial enforcer droid reprogrammed to serve the rebel cause (think of "him" as a more kick-ass or less wimpy version of C-3PO).  How do you think Luke and his Red Squadron knew where the critical flaw/weakness of the Death Star is?  Thanks to the one-way suicide mission these brave misfits undertook, that’s how!
 
R1 is the Star Wars movie we’ve all been waiting for, providing us with a tale of heroism and sacrifice from the grunt’s POV as well as the space-spanning galactic battles we've come to expect while keeping the overall tone of the movie light enough for a Disney picture.  The realism and immediacy of the pitched laser gunfights have come a long way from its humble beginnings in the original trilogy, and Storm Troopers actually displayed "proper tactics" and behaved in a way that’s semi believable even if their marksmanship still leaves a lot to be desired.   What I like the most about R1 is that it maintained the dusty “space western” feel of the original trilogy; the rebels are all dirty-grungy looking like desperados and wearing their gun belts loose.  All that’s missing are cowboy hats.
 
Grade: A-
 
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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Love Lies Bleeding

The new movie from fashion designer-cum-director Tom Ford, ‘Nocturnal Animals,’ is a weirdly compelling art-house gem which defies convention and description.  Not having seen his directorial debut from 2009, the critically acclaimed ‘A Single Man,’ I probably wouldn’t even have sought out his latest release if not for the fact that a friend mentioned it to me.  Thanks, Penny!
 
The narrative structure of ‘Nocturnal Animals’ involves two parallel stories.  One is set in the present and follows art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who’s trapped in an unhappy marriage with an unfaithful husband.  One day she receives the manuscript of a novel (dedicated to her) entitled ‘Nocturnal Animals’ from her ex-husband, whom she left on bad terms some years ago, and finds herself increasingly engrossed in it.  The other story is the one told in the novel itself, a tale of obsession and vengeance that was set into motion when a teacher's road trip through West Texas with his wife (Isla Fisher, who kinda looks like Amy Adams!) and teenage daughter turned into a hellish living nightmare.  The two otherwise unrelated stories are told in alternating fashion and are tied together by Jake Gyllenhaal, who played both the protagonist (teacher) in the novel and Susan’s real life ex-husband shown in a series of flashbacks, which gave me the unsettling impression that the events which unfolded in the novel are real. Alas, it is an allegory of the death of true love.
 
Billed as a “neo-noir psychological thriller,” ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a boldly provocative film that’s unafraid to go where few other movies would dare.  From its shocking and disturbing opening scene featuring plus-sized burlesque strippers to its final act, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ never ceases to surprise (though not always pleasantly) and manages to hold us spellbound even as it repulses us in its surreal excess and nihilistic violence.

Grade: A- 
 
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Axis & Allied

It’s ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’ versus Nazis with ‘Casablanca’ as the backdrop in Robert Zemeckis’s sizzling World War II spy actioner/romance ‘Allied.’  The accomplished and accessible director of such films as  ‘Back to the Future,’ ‘Forrest Gump’ and ‘Castaway’ is no stranger to pairing flirtatious male and female leads, with 1984’s ‘Romancing the Stone’ starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner among his directorial credits.
 
Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard play dashing Canadian commando Max Vatan and sultry French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour, rendezvousing in Casablanca and posing as French socialites on a daring mission to assassinate the German ambassador to Morocco at a high profile Nazi party.  Their mission goes without a hitch and their budding romance soon blossoms into marriage after they returned to London, but things get a bit, ah, more complicated when Marianne is suspected of being a Nazi spy by British intelligence.  How can this be?  Please say it isn't so!
 
‘Allied’ is an action-packed and suspenseful thriller anchored by its two strong leads. The cinematography and period flavor evoke nostalgia and remind us of ‘Casablanca,’ which undoubtedly is its intent.  It is also surprisingly sexy.  There is one memorable scene inside an automobile where the raw passion and desire between Max and Marianne build up with increasing urgency, before reaching a crescendo in tune with a raging sandstorm outside.  No wonder Brangelina broke up.  Just kidding.
 
Grade: B+
 
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Monday, November 21, 2016

A Failure to Communicate

Hollywood loves alien movies, be it the apocalyptic mayhem of a full blown invasion from outer space or the idea that aliens are harmless and virtually everything in between.  From ‘War of the Worlds’ to ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ to ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ aliens have been portrayed as brutal conquerors to sinister infiltrators to benevolent beings who just needed our help to go home (not just ‘ET’ but ‘Starman’ and ‘Paul’).  Just when you think you’ve seen them all, along comes ‘Arrival,’ French-Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve’s fascinating and rather introspective look at how we might realistically react and behave in a “First Contact” scenario.
 
Based on Ted Chiang’s Nebula Award-winning novella “Story of Your Life,” ‘Arrival’ centers on linguistic professor Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) attempt to communicate with “Abbot” and “Costello,” two Heptapod alien creatures whose highly advanced giant elliptical spaceship hovered above the plains of Montana.  Along with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), she was tasked by the US government to determine what the aliens want.   The simplicity of the question belies its very complexity in execution, as Louise and Ian try to decipher the aliens’ highly complex and enigmatic written language and come up with a way to effectively communicate with them.
 
If you’re expecting the typical dumbed-down alien fare we’ve seen all too often from Hollywood, you will no doubt be disappointed.  Quiet and poignant in tone, ‘Arrival’ is a hard sci-fi film that’s cerebral and deep, delving not only into the scientific but also the metaphysical.  Like 1997’s ‘Contact,’ ‘Arrival’ seeks to answer some of our most pressing questions through the personal experience and journey of its main protagonist as opposed to simply provide mindless entertainment.

Grade: A 
 
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Monday, November 7, 2016

The Conscientious Medic

For whatever reasons, World War II movies on ground combat in the Pacific Theater lag well behind their ETO (European Theater of Operations) counterparts in popularity and impact.  There were a couple of early notable ones to be sure, like ‘The Sands of Iwo Jima’ and ‘Halls of Montezuma,’ but it wasn’t until Clint Eastwood’s ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ in 2006 that managed to give audiences something good after such misfires as ‘Windtalkers’ and ‘The Thin Red Line.’  However, that film told the story strictly from the Japanese perspective.
 
Mel Gibson’s latest directorial feature, a remarkable and faithful (in more ways than one) biopic on the life of Private First Class Desmond T. Doss, finally gave us a “grunt movie” set in the island-hopping campaign of the Pacific worth gushing about.  You may have seen the trailer of ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ but are debating whether to see the movie or not because you suspect Gibson may have gone cuckoo for cocoa puffs.  I don't blame you because that too has crossed my mind.  But let me assure you that he is back in top form and ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ represents his best directorial effort since ‘Apocalypto’ and perhaps even ‘Braveheart.’    Imparting Doss with a certain small town country boy charm, Andrew Garfield delivered his best performance yet as the medic who was awarded a Medal of Honor for saving numerous lives during the pivotal battle on Okinawa despite being labeled a coward because he refused to carry a weapon into battle.  Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths were also great as Doss’s deeply religious but dysfunctional parents, but my favorite character in the movie is arguably Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn), whose most memorable contribution in the movie isn’t training the raw recruits or even leading them into battle himself but making us laugh our asses off.
 
‘Hacksaw Ridge’ doesn’t sugarcoat the horrors of war or pull any punches in its depiction of war as a brutal and gory hell-on-earth, but as a biopic it is a powerful and inspirational portrait of courage under fire and selfless sacrifice as well as the convictions of one's deeply held religious beliefs.  Hallelujah, the “lesser” theater has finally found its own ‘Saving Private Ryan.’

Grade: A
 
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When You're Strange

The latest film from Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a bit “strange.”  I have to admit, Doctor Strange is one of those characters from Marvel who isn’t familiar to me because I’ve never read his comics in my youth other than maybe a couple of cross-overs.  Not that I dislike him or anything; it’s just that there are so many superheroes and characters in the Marvel and DC universes that I simply don’t have the time to cover them all even if I had the allowance to buy every comic book of every title.  
 
In a way this is refreshing because, as in the case of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ I don’t have to wait impatiently for the familiar obligatory origin story to be told, in this instance that of a brilliant but egotistical neurosurgeon played by Benedict Cumberbatch who’s vain (not stupid) enough to attempt multi-tasking with a tablet while driving his speeding sports car in the rain on a slippery mountain highway, which proved to be a fatal mistake and his undoing as a surgeon.  The “unfortunate” accident also proved to be fateful and maybe even fortuitous, however, as it placed him on a path to enlightenment and becoming part of a group of mystical warriors entasked with protecting our world against magical and mystical threats, much like The Avengers protect earth against physical threats as the first among them known as the “Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton) succinctly put it during his orientation.
 
While it is derivative and borrowed liberally from oriental Buddhist traditions and mysticism as well as the good-pupil-turned-bad soap operatic tragedy of ‘Star Wars’ and other stories, ‘Doctor Strange’ nonetheless managed to be yet another solid addition to the MCU that is mind-blowing, entertaining and smart.  The reality-bending special effects (which is best viewed in IMAX 3-D) are reminiscent of ‘Inception’ with its topsy-turvy skylines but are fun to watch.  My favorite scene is probably the one at the end of the movie when Doc Strange insists on striking a bargain with “Dormammu,” a malevolent god-like being from the Dark Dimension, which serves as a perfect example of never-say-die (no pun intended) persistence.

Grade: A
 
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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

El Gringo Predator 3: Desierto

Illegal immigrants crossing into America get more than they bargained for in first-time director Jonás Cuarón’s low-budget exploitation thriller ‘Desierto.’  Co-produced by his famous director father Alfonso (‘Y Tu Mama Tambien,’ ‘Children of Men,’ ‘Gravity’), its hot-button topic of Mexicans pouring across our borders is not only timely and relevant but will undoubtedly provoke debate as we approach the end of another election year.  Trump may already have lost, but at least his supporters can indulge a bit in this cinematic fantasy in pure homicidal excess.  Note: I'm not one of them.
 
When a group of migrant workers seeking to realize the "American Dream" of making a living outside of Home Depots in Los Estados Unidos becomes stranded after their truck broke down in the middle of the Arizona badlands, they find themselves terrorized and hunted by a text-book card-carrying, rifle-toting NRA redneck named (Uncle?) Sam (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his ferocious hunting dog.  As they are systematically picked off one by one, auto mechanic Moises (Gael Garcia Bernal) must draw upon every ounce of his reserves to survive and reunite with his familia.  Can he do it, or will he become the latest victim of El Gringo?
 
Lean, primal and visceral, ‘Desierto’ is gripping in its tension and tightly wound suspense even if its plot is simplistic and its characterizations are thin.  Morgan and Bernal are both believable in their roles as the hunter and the hunted, and the film managed to keep us on edge throughout its 90-minute or so running time.  Make no mistake, ‘Desierto’ is a shameless and exploitative B-movie taking advantage of a divisive political issue, but it certainly isn’t alone in that regard. 

Grade: B+

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Monday, October 24, 2016

Adventures in Accounting

Oscar winning director and DC Extended Universe’s new Batman Ben Affleck wears a pocket protector and gives one of the world's most unglamorous professions a dangerous (and sexy?) twist in director Gavin O’Connor’s ‘The Accountant.’   Just who is “The Accountant,” you ask?  Not simply a CPA who can help with our taxes as J.K. Simmons’ director of financial crimes pointed out in the movie’s trailer (a scene that was changed in the film unfortunately), the mysterious and elusive Accountant is so much more: a forensic accountant with a penchant for “following the money” and blowing the lids off financial cover-ups who’s also a deadly “don’t mess with me” all-around badass.  Of course, he had no choice if he were to keep "uncooking the books" of dangerous criminals and live.
 
Affleck is Christian Wolff, an autistic math whiz who, along with his more normal little brother Brax, were raised by their father after their mom left them.  A psych-ops officer in the army, the father raised his two boys with “tough love” so that they are prepared to survive no matter what hardship.  When Wolff’s latest audit uncovered hidden accounting discrepancies at a cutting-edge robotics firm owned by Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow) whose stocks are about to go public, he and the unwitting whistleblower played by Anna Kendrick found themselves marked for death.  Those poor professional assassins.  They had no idea who they’re up against.
 
Affleck delivered an understated and nuanced performance as the man with many aliases, imparting ‘The Accountant’ with humanity and depth despite his obvious lack of social skills and stone cold façade.  While the movie's script defied belief and gave us a twist near the end that was a bit predictable, 'The Accountant' is nonetheless an entertaining popcorn action flick and certified crowd-pleaser.

Grade: A-

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Girl Who Can't Recall

British actress Emily Blunt’s latest film is the mystery-suspense thriller ‘The Girl on the Train,’ adapted from the bestselling novel by British author Paula Hawkins about the disappearance of a young woman and the sole witness (Blunt) being the prime suspect.  The trailer of the movie looked promising and reminded me of David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl,’ which undoubtedly was its very intent.
 
Blunt plays poor Rachel, a thirty-something divorced woman with a lot of issues.  Not only is she infertile and a recovering alcoholic still suffering from the lingering emotional and mental trauma of having been cheated on and tossed aside by her ex husband (Justin Theroux), who fathered a baby with his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), she’s also susceptible to disorienting blackouts which made her lose large chunks of time that she can’t recall.  Finding it hard to move on, Rachel frequently stalks her ex and his new wife from a distance, once even entering their home without permission and taking their baby (left alone for a minute) outside.  When the baby's independent young twenty-something nanny Megan (Haley Bennett), who in turn was having an affair with the cheating husband (men!) behind Anna's back (what goes around comes around), disappears and later turns up dead, Rachel becomes the chief “person of interest” in the subsequent investigation.  As damaged and baggage-laden as she may be, is Rachel truly capable of... murder?  Inquiring minds would like to know.
 
Of course, if you’ve read the book the movie would hold little suspense for you.  Not having read it, I find TGOTT to be a moderately suspenseful tale.  While the movie is uneven, slow at times, and resorts to flashbacks a lot, the central storyline and individual performances did just enough to hold my interest throughout.  Alas, ‘Gone Girl’ good this isn’t.

Grade: B+
 
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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

DeepSix Horizon

The British Petroleum oil rig disaster which occurred over the course of April 20 to 22, 2010 off the coast of Louisiana is the subject of Mark Wahlberg’s latest disaster flick.  I remember watching news coverage of this incident with equal parts fascination and horror as it unfolded, the worst man‑made environmental disaster in US history surpassing even the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill.  A tragedy of epic proportions, 11 lives were lost and an estimated five million barrels of oil were spilled into the pristine waters of the Gulf of Mexico by the time the blowout was finally contained nearly three months later.
 
‘Deepwater Horizon’ is told through the eyes of three key participants.  Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, an electronic technician caught in the maelstrom during that fateful night of April 20, as the shit hits the proverbial fan despite earlier assurances from a BP exec (John Malkovich) that there was nothing to worry about.  Tragedies often beget ironies, and in DH it was his boss and rig supervisor Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) being given a safety award mere hours before the explosion.  The other key player in the film is Gina Rodriguez’s Andrea Fleytas, a rig pilot working in what is essentially a man’s world.
 
Director Peter Berg crafted a near perfect disaster movie, imparting DH with the immediacy, chaos and sense of impending doom that are at once riveting and yet deeply human.  As he was in ‘The Perfect Storm,’ Wahlberg is solid once again as the main protagonist, the eye of the storm in the midst of all the confusion and chaos.  Exciting, compelling and utterly tragic, DH is worth a look not only for disaster movie aficionados but also anyone who’s interested in this dark chapter of American environmental history.

Grade: A-

You might say he's seen better days...
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Miss P's House of Freaky Kids

The latest YA novel to be adapted into a movie is Ransom Riggs’ ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.’  The adaptation, directed by Tim Burton and starring French actress Eva Green in the role of the titular head mistress of a creaky old Gothic boarding house on an island off the coast of Ireland, is as oddly peculiar as its name would suggest.  Best characterized as a dark fantasy/horror film for teenagers, the movie features children possessing powers or unique characteristics including a girl who’s lighter than air, a fire starter, an invisible boy, a creator/animator of creepy objects, a girl with Popeye-like strength and another girl who has a gaping maw filled with sharp teeth on the back of her head.  Weird, huh?  What sick and twisted mind thinks up of this stuff, Ransom Riggs?
 
Not having read the book, I enjoyed MPHFPC more than I probably would have had I read it.  The tale combines dark fantasy with gothic elements and sci-fi; the whole conceit of the movie is that these people exist in a time-loop that restarts every day right before a German bomber plane destroys their home during WWII.  Can you imagine living the same day over and over, even if you try to live them differently each time?  Like clockwork, Miss Peregrine winds her pocket watch back each day on the hour so that she and her children can live on in blissful happiness forever.  But there has to be more to the story, you say?  It just so happens that Miss P and her precious charges are pursued by the sinister Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) and his cohort, immortal Wights with an army of giant stick-like ‘Hollows” who seek to regain their human form by consuming the eyes of children, the more peculiar the better.
 
Refreshing and entertaining, MPHFPC is also stylish and atmospheric as we would expect from a Tim Burton film.  If I have to characterize the movie, I would say it has a decidedly creepy Lovecraftian eldritch vibe and should appeal to those who like their fantasies a bit off the beaten path by way of the twisted and the macabre.

Grade: B+

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Monday, September 26, 2016

Seven Nation Army

Director Antoine Fuqua reunites his ‘Training Day’ co-stars Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in his contemporary update of John Sturges’ 1960 western based on Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai.’  This timeless story of a few good men defending the weak from the predations of bad guys (standing up to bullies) never gets old and Fuqua, a veteran of the action movie genre with such gritty R-rated flicks as ‘The Equalizer,’ ‘Tears of the Sun,’ ‘Shooter’ and ‘Olympus has Fallen,’ is an accomplished director uniquely qualified to tackle the remake of the beloved classic which boasted Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn among its ensemble cast.
 
While the setting and dramatis personae are different, the tale is the same.  The American mining town of Rose Creek, Minnesota is beset and terrorized by an evil capitalist with the dastardly name of Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) and his army of henchmen, who gave the poor homesteaders the ultimatum to get out of town or else.  After losing her brave but foolhardy husband when he resisted, frontierwoman Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) appeals to renowned Wichita, Kansas bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington) for aid, who agrees to help and begins assembling his seven-man army.  And what a ragtag and colorful bunch it turned out to be.  Criticism has been leveled at the group's composition for its racial stereotypes and being too PC, since it not only includes a black man garbed in black but also a Mexican bandito (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a redskin brave from the Commanche tribe (Martin Sensmeier) and – I kid you not – a yellow man from the east (Byung hun-Lee) who goes by the all-too-white moniker of Billy Rocks.  Rounding out the group in the minority are three white men: Ethan Hawke’s tortured ex-Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, Chris Pratt’s easygoing hustler/gambler Josh Faraday and the Davy Crokett-like almighty-fearing mountain man/trapper Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio).  It’s a transgression I am happy to overlook because watching these eclectic characters with their unique personalities, fighting styles and weapons of choice is a helluva lot more interesting than watching a bunch of white guys playing cowboy, historical likelihood be damned.
 
Although Fuqua dialed down the graphic violence a bit to attain the movie’s PG-13 rating, there is no shortage of bang-bang western action once the shooting starts and the fun begins.  Fuqua has a great eye for action and proves here once again why he’s one of Hollywood’s most surefire directors of action movies today.  Packed with heroism, villainy and sacrifice, ‘The Magnificent Seven’ stands on its own well even when compared to the 1960 original, I daresay.

Grade: A- 

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Rubik Man

Edward Snowden.  Mention of his very name will either conjure the image of a despised traitor or a selfless hero in your mind, depending on your biases and political outlook.  It is also the controversial subject of Oliver Stone’s latest biopic, which covers not only the pivotal events leading up to the big exposé but also delves into Snowden’s past and gives us a glimpse into who he is and what makes him tick.
 
Not having seen Laura Poitra’s documentary on Snowden, ‘Citizenfour,’ I have the luxury of evaluating ‘Snowden’ on its own merits.  Despite his blatantly liberal outlook, Stone gave us another masterfully crafted film that’s not only a well-paced and suspenseful nail-biter but also makes us think.  Snowden was part of that new breed of post-9/11 warriors in the intelligence community which relies more on brains than brawn, the computer nerds on the front lines of America’s cyber wars against near-peer adversaries like China and Russia.  As he’s immersed deeper into the black world of America’s cyber-intelligence activities, first with the CIA and then with the NSA, he becomes increasingly alarmed at the implications such activities had on our individual privacy and personal freedom.
 
Through a series of flashbacks, it is revealing to see how Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing a great “method acting” job here mimicking his voice and mannerisms) gradually transformed from a conservative patriot whose devotion to Uncle Sam can be characterized as one of blind faith to a man who made the difficult and fateful decision to betray his own government by becoming a whistleblower.  Shailene Woodley also turned in a fine performance as his free-spirited love interest and conscience, Lindsay.  While ‘Snowden’ doesn’t seek to answer all of our burning questions, it is nonetheless a thought-provoking and paranoia-infused thriller that would be perfectly placed next to Stone’s previous conspiracy-tinged movie, ‘JFK.'

Grade: A- 
 
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Monday, September 19, 2016

Unsullied

The remarkable real life drama behind the “Miracle on the Hudson” when an Airbus A320 passenger jet landed in the Hudson River is the subject of the latest Tom Hanks biopic.   With ‘Sully,’ Hanks has shown once again that he is peerless when it comes to portraying flesh-and-blood personalities caught in difficult and trying circumstances while maintaining their dignity and humanity, as he managed to do in such previous films as ‘Bridge of Spies’ and ‘Captain Phillips.’
 
While the world has always known Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger to be a hero for his masterful soft belly-landing of US Airways Flight 1549 into the calm waters of the Hudson with no casualties after a catastrophic bird-strike which disabled both engines in January of 2009, it is perhaps less well known that, behind the scenes, computer modeling and flight simulations conducted during the subsequent NTSB investigation suggest that he could have diverted the stricken airliner to nearby airfields at LaGuardia or Teterboro.  All the second-guessing and doubt merely formed the backdrop of director Clint Eastwood’s latest effort, who kept the movie's focus on Sully himself not simply as a pilot under intense scrutiny but also as a man and loving father and husband.
 
Fascinating, insightful and fundamentally human, ‘Sully’ represents yet another understated triumph for Hanks and Eastwood.  Hanks is fully in his element as the earnest, caring and humble airline pilot and ex air force “Phantom Phlyer” while Eastwood turned in what may be his best directorial effort since ‘Million Dollar Baby.’  Not just a tale of one man's vindication, ‘Sully’ is also a portrait of courage under pressure and how making the right decision in a life-or-death situation over the course of a mere three minutes twenty-eight seconds can make all the difference to the lives of 155 people.

Grade: A
 
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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Once Upon a Time in West Texas

The best film of the year so far is ‘Hell or High Water,’ director David Mackenzie’s neo-noir contemporary western based on a screenplay from talented writer/actor Taylor Sheridan, who previously penned the script of Denis Villeneuve’s excellent drug war thriller ‘Sicario.’  A crowd favorite at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, HOHW is not just your typical run-of-the-mill heist movie but also a deep social commentary on our troubled times.
 
Chris Pine and Ben Foster portray two brothers who become modern day “Butch and Sundance” of sorts as they rob a series of banks across the Midwest in order to keep their ranch from being foreclosed by greedy lenders after their irascible mother passed away.  Since their bank robbery spree is too trivial for the FBI to get their hands dirty, soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his half-Injun-half-Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) take on the merry chase to bring them to justice.  With the noose tightening around the outlaw siblings, can they evade the long arm of the law intact?
 
Evoking Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood with a dash of Coen brothers, HOHW is a tale of crime and punishment whose desperados are complex and conflicted anti-heroes whom we can’t help but have some sympathy with even if they’re bad guys.  Bridges is always a pleasure to watch and provided levity to an otherwise depressing story, but Pine delivered what had to be his best performance to date while Foster is also memorable as the big brother who decided that, if he was going to go down in a “blaze of glory” so to speak, he might as well christen himself Lord of the Plains.  Come hell or high water, do yourself a favor and go see this powerful tour de force of a movie.

Grade: A+

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Raising Morgan

‘Morgan’ is the feature directorial debut of Luke Scott, who has big shoes to fill indeed.  As you might have guessed from his last name, he’s the son of Ridley Scott, director of such films as ‘Blade Runner,’ ‘Alien, ‘Gladiator’ and ‘The Martian’ (true, he also gave us ‘Thelma and Louise’ and ‘Prometheus,’ but we’re all entitled to our duds once in a while aren’t we?).  Having tutored under his famous dad, Luke is now ready to establish a name for himself in a genre that treated his father well back when he started.  Sci-fi/Horror is a safe and logical choice, the thinking goes.  So how is it that ‘Morgan’ bombed at the box office with less than $3 million over the past weekend?  Because no one watches movies (except yours truly) over the Labor Day weekend, evidently: http://www.avclub.com/article/weekend-box-office-horror-hits-and-misses-labor-da-242194.
 
The latest variation on the familiar sci-fi “Frankenstein” theme we’ve seen in such movies as ‘The Fly,’ ‘The Hollow Man,’ ‘Splice’ and ‘Ex Machina,’ it didn’t help that ‘Morgan’ has been mercilessly panned by the critics.  Nonetheless, I’ve always been a sucker for these science-gone-awry movies where we know things will go very wrong because of human short-sightedness and hubris but somehow still can’t look away.  'Morgan' is an effective sci-fi/horror thriller even if it offers nothing new.
 
Fresh off her fine debut performance in ‘The VVitch,’ Anya Taylor-Joy is once again mesmerizing and compelling as the titular Morgan, a bio-engineered “human” with preternatural abilities who became the subject of an internal investigation by cold and methodical company “consultant” Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) after a violent episode in which she stabbed one of her doctors in the eye.  Can the project be salvaged or is it a write-off?  We may all know the answer to this question, but seeing how “playing God” once again leads to our own violent end is as deliciously fun as it ever was.
 
Grade: B+
 
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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Reluctant Assassin

British man-of-action Jason Statham returns as Arthur Bishop in the second installment of the rebooted 1972 actioner starring Charles Bronson and Jan–Michael Vincent.  One has to ask: “Why does Hollywood feel the need to remake what is essentially a mediocre movie to begin with?”  Then again, if the original source material is considered weak, our expectations for any reboot attempts will likely be correspondingly low (see what happens with ‘Ben-Hur’).  Brilliant!

While the 2011 film starring Statham and Ben Foster (in Vincent’s role) was a more-or-less “faithful” remake of the 1972 original and a moderate success at the box office, ‘Mechanic: Resurrection’ attempts to kick it into high gear and start a movie franchise a la’ ‘Mission Impossible’ and ‘Fast and Furious.’  Bishop is hunted down and forced out of retirement by a sinister James Bond-ish British villain to take on three jobs (assassinations) that must be made to look like “accidents.”  So how does one force a badass like Bishop to do anything against his volition?  By exploiting his weakness for bleeding heart Third World volunteer and damsel-in-distress Jessica Alba of course.  Even I would kill for her.  She’s so hot!

‘Mechanic: Resurrection’ is one of those macho action B-movies that expects us to ignore its shortcomings - such as the lack of a believable plot or good acting - on the strength of its non-stop and thrilling action sequences.  In the best (or worst) traditions of 80’s action movies, it racks up an impressive body count and is best enjoyed the same way ‘Fast & Furious’ is enjoyed.  Don’t overanalyze or question its plausibility and just go along for the ride.  Just roll with it and you might find it a passable diversion.

Grade: B
 
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Robbing the Blind

Three young thieves bite off more than they can chew while robbing a blind man in ‘Don’t Breathe,’ Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez’s latest low budget horror-thriller produced by Sam Raimi.  In playing with our expectations, this twisty little thriller once again proves that the indie horror genre is stocked with promising talent and is alive and well.
 
Rocky, Alex and Money are three down-on-their-luck-in-Detroit delinquents looking for easy money and a quick score, robbing and vandalizing homes while their occupants are away.  When they caught wind that a secluded home occupied by a blind man (Stephen Lang) could reap them a windfall of $300K, it was too good to pass up and just the ticket out of their economic hardship.  Of course, what should have been an easy score was anything but as their carefully planned heist turns into a night of terror.  Intrigued?
 
Tightly plotted, well-paced and filled with edge-of-your-seat (hold your breath) suspense, ‘Don’t Breathe’ is a solid sophomore effort by Alvarez, who previously gave us the excellent ‘Evil Dead’ remake (also produced by Raimi and starring Jane Levy).  If you’re looking for something better after a lackluster summer of disappointments at the box office, you can certainly do worse than checking this one out.

Grade: A
 
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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The War Dogs of Miami Beach

The latest semi-biographical “based on a true story” comedy-drama on the big screen is ‘War Dogs,’ adapted from a Rolling Stone article and later a full-length book entitled “Arms and the Dudes” by Guy Lawson chronicling the misadventures of two young Jewish buddies in one of the world’s oldest professions.  Hollywood has a pretty decent track record mining sensational news stories for box office gold, so it should come as little surprise that the fascinating tale of Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) just begged to be told.
 
Efraim and David were (they had a falling out after their arms dealing exploits) best friends from junior high who re-connected in their early twenties in Miami Beach.  David, a certified massage therapist struggling to make ends meet, was approached by his old pal Efraim after being out of touch for many years and recruited to work for him in his enterprise.  This was back in the day when the Pentagon was under increasing scrutiny for cronyism in the wake of Dick Cheney’s company's (Halliburton) profiteering during the second US invasion of Iraq.  Small businesses suddenly find themselves in a position to vie for government contracts, and AEY (Efraim’s company) dived in head first.  From the highs of gun running through the Iraqi Triangle delivering Beretta pistols to US troops to the ill-fated attempt to supply the Afghan army with AK-47 bullets, the movie paints a vivid and often enlightening portrait of the shady world of arms dealing and the potential pitfalls of promising more than you can deliver.
 
Scathingly funny and whip-smart in execution, ‘War Dogs’ is the latest in a series of true stories adapted into comedy-dramas (or dramedies) which includes ‘The Big Short,’ ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ and ‘Pain and Gain.’  Interestingly, they all have one thing in common: The protagonists in all of these movies are “ordinary” people who pursue what they believe to be “The American Dream.”  In their determination to succeed and to gain wealth, prestige, the “good life” or whatever it is they’re after, they lose sight of what is right and spiral toward their ultimate downfall.  As such, these films also serve as cautionary tales to us all.

Grade: A- 

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Circus Minimus

You can’t top an Oscar winner that’s widely regarded to be one of the greatest biblical epics of all time, but that didn’t stop Paramount Pictures and director Timur Bekmambetov from bringing the beloved 1959 classic starring Charlton Heston back on the big screen in their $100 million blockbuster remake of the movie most remembered for its gripping and brutal chariot race.  It doesn’t take the prophet Isaiah to tell us that it’s an ill-advised undertaking from the very start and whose doom at the box office is preordained.
 
The 2016 remake (they can call it “re-imagining” or “re-interpretation” all they want but it’s still a remake) re-tells the familiar story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a Jew from a wealthy family in Jerusalem, and his adoptive brother Messala Severus (Tony Kebbell), a Roman living under the ignominy of his grandfather being branded a traitor for his role in Julius Caesar’s assassination.  When the latter stomped off to join the Roman army and returned years later to suppress Jewish rebels in revolt, Judah and his family were implicated in aiding and abetting the rebels and sold into slavery.  Several years later, Judah miraculously survived his prolonged “death sentence” to seek vengeance against his once-beloved brother, culminating in a chariot race pitting the two against each other.  Great Hollywood melodrama, right?
 
For all its efforts, this unwelcome 2016 remake falls short in matching the storytelling, grandeur and soul of the original.  While competent enough in a purely technical sense, it nonetheless failed to contribute anything new or useful other than more contemporary film making techniques and better special effects.  Its only bankable star is Morgan Freeman as a wealthy trader and businessman, and Jesus was included as an afterthought only to allow the film its claim to being a “biblical” movie.  And what should have been the most exhilarating scene of the film, the much anticipated chariot race, seemed rather anti-climactic and lacked the intensity of the original’s. Overall, this exercise in futility is a half-baked and lackluster cash grab that deserved all the rejection it received at the box office during the final weekend of this summer blockbuster season.

Grade: C 

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Food Story

Seth Rogen and his long-time partner-in-crime Evan Goldberg’s latest collaboration is the subversive and definitely not-for-kids (except in Sweden, apparently) CG-animated feature ‘Sausage Party.’  An adult spin on the animated classic ‘Toy Story,’ ‘Sausage Party’ envisions a perfect world within a supermarket where food can talk and interact with one another while waiting to go to the mythical “Great Beyond.”
 
Like all the other food in the supermarket, Frank the wiener (Rogen) and his hot dog bun girlfriend Brenda (Kristen Wiig) bide their time and yearn for the day when gods (shoppers) purchase and take them to the Great Beyond, a place they don’t really know but regard as Heaven.  Even when a returned jar of traumatized honey mustard (Danny McBride) warned them that heaven isn’t what they think and is more akin to hell, they ignore him as the raving lunatic that he was.  After a shopping cart mishap foiled Frank and Brenda’s long awaited turn to the Great Beyond causing disappointment and heartbreak, they embark on a journey of discovery and enlightenment with a few other stranded food items to uncover the Truth behind their misguided beliefs (Surprise! Food gets bloody-murdered and eaten by gods).
 
So what do you expect from a movie featuring a wiener, a bun, a taco and a douche (you read right) other than obvious sexual references, double entendres and borderline offensive racial stereotypes?  Luckily, SP is more than a series of gag jokes that pushes the boundaries of propriety and good taste.  It is clever, funny, and ultimately uplifting in its message of food empowerment as they fight back against the “gods” who oppress (and eat) them.  There are also some pleasant surprises, like Edward Norton’s dead-on imitation of Woody Allen as Sammy Bagel Jr. and Salma Hayek’s "taco," who would more readily accept a bun than a sausage.

Grade: B+ 

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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Dirty Half Dozen

The DC Extended Universe (DCEU) branches out from familiar territory (i.e. Superman and Batman) in director David Ayer’s big screen adaptation of ‘Suicide Squad.’  The “Dirty Dozen” or penal legion of comics, Suicide Squad is a circus freak show of decidedly unhero-like (downright villainous in fact) meta-human convicts and nutcases sent by the US government on suicide missions that are too risky or sensitive to accomplish by regular methods.  After the much maligned ‘Man of Steel’ and ‘Batman V Superman,’ ‘Suicide Squad’ seeks to reverse the negative trend and provide the DCEU with its first bona-fide critical success.  The initial trailer showed promise and generated a lot of buzz before events crashed and burned in typical DC fashion.
 
Ayer’s original vision for the movie was deemed too dark and not light-hearted enough by the studio execs.  We can hardly blame them for having cold feet; after all, light hearted and fun are what made the MCU so successful and the studio suits all had a panic attack following the thrashing ‘Batman V Superman’ took from the critics (Bats and Supes vs. the critics and lost).  Scenes were deleted and reshot, and the result is an unevenly paced and disjointed mess that really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise and bore little in resemblance to Ayer’s original version.  While it isn’t ‘Fantastic Four’ bad, SS suffers from an underdeveloped and slapdash plot that its characters can’t quite overcome.  Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) got most of the attention and character development/backstory via flashbacks.  While the latter is interesting and a joy to watch who provided much of the film’s humor, the former is one-dimensional, a sulking bore whom Ayer vainly tried to “humanize” with a contrived father-and-daughter relationship that rings hollow.  The other members of the group (El Diablo, Boomerang, Killer Croc and Rick Flag’s attack dog Katana) are simply disposable add-ons who happen to tag along, like the unlucky Slipknot (Adam Beach) who lasted all of one minute into the mission thanks to Boomerang and his own gullibility.  Here’s my final verdict.
 
The Good: Harley Quinn, whom Robbie injected with great fun and a chipperness that’s refreshing in an otherwise dark and dreary movie.  Honorable mention should also go to The Joker (Jared Leto) in his various appearances throughout the movie to rescue her.  I can’t believe most of The Joker scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.  Director’s cut anyone?
 
The Bad: The Enchantress, who resembles little more than a bad imitation of X-Men’s “Apocalypse” with her quasi-mythological vibe.  Not-so-honorable mention goes to Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, the ruthless she-boss of the SS (no pun intended) who had no qualms about whacking her own staff just because they lacked “proper clearance.”
 
The Ugly: While the movie was purportedly reshot to match the tone of the initial trailer and make it more accessible to the audience (more “crowd-pleasing”), it ended up being a compromise which lacked a singular vision stylistically and tonally.  And despite all the reshoots and edits, SS still reminds us of a Zach Snyder movie: dark, rainy and utterly depressing.

Grade: C
 
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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Bourne Again

Matt Damon reprises his role as the CIA’s most wanted rogue assassin-turned-fugitive and all-around don’t-mess-with-me badass Jason Bourne in the self-titled fifth installment of the alpha male action spy series (the fourth if you discount ‘The Bourne Legacy,’ which featured a different protagonist played by Jeremy Renner) based on the popular novels of Robert Ludlum.  With Paul Greengrass (‘The Bourne Supremacy’ and ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’) back in the director’s chair, ‘Jason Bourne’ promises to be another suspense-packed, exciting and violent chapter in Jason Bourne’s life as well as the sinister and unaccountable black program that spawned him and those like him in the name of safeguarding our “national security.”
 
It’s been 14 years since Doug Liman’s ‘The Bourne Identity,’ which begs the oft-used sports question: “Does Bourne have any gas left in the tank? “  Worry not Bourne fans, the ex-Assassin with amnesia is still as kick-ass as ever as he proved in the movie’s opening scene, making a living “off the grid” by competing in anonymous fight clubs beating down other alpha males in a primeval contest of who’s King of the friggin' Jungle.  Alas, he gets pulled back into the spy-vs-spy world he hoped he left behind for good when ex-CIA operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) from ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ uncovered the resurrection of Treadstone/Blackbriar and needed her ass saved, I mean, his help.
 
JB is similar to all the previous installments (including ‘The Bourne Legacy’) in one important aspect: it is essentially a chase movie at heart.  Once again, top CIA movers-and-shakers mark this “one man army” for immediate termination and send wet work specialists to do the job, only to epically fail in the attempt.  The players may change but the result remains the same.  This time, the governmental villains are Tommy Lee Jones as an unscrupulous old-school CIA director spouting the usual "the ends justify the means" bullshit, the lovely Alicia Vikander as a rising young star in the CIA who “volunteered” to help capture or kill Bourne and Vincent Cassel as the “Asset,” a Blackbriar operative who had a personal score to settle with Bourne and wanted him dead 10 times over.  Despite its familiarity to the other Bourne movies, I can’t help but give this latest entry top marks because it managed to be another gritty hard-hitting thriller in which there’s never a dull moment.  Besides, I love the chaotic close-up shifty-cam jumpy quick-cut action sequences that have become a mainstay of the Bourne series.  Seriously.

Grade: A 

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Games People Play

In our age of social media, live networks and the "Pokémon Go" craze, a movie like ‘Nerve’ comes across as both relevant and timely indeed.  Co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, whose 2010 debut 'Catfish' was equally a reflection of our times and was so influential and eye-opening that it gave new meaning to the word,  hit the target once again with this gripping online reality game show thriller starring Emma Roberts, Dave Franco and Juliette Lewis.
 
‘Nerve’ is a "high-concept" movie about NY high-schooler and all-around good girl Vee Delmonico (Roberts, who turned out to be a decent young actress despite her famous aunt Julia), who’s regarded by her more spontaneous and adventurous best friend to be “boring” due to her laid-back, tame and risk-averse style.  At the urging from the friend, she got involved (reluctantly of course) in a shady online dare game called “Nerve” in which she was prompted to complete a series of increasingly high-stakes, risky and embarrassing challenges for cash reward.  With the help of a handsome young stranger (Franco, making a name for himself despite his more accomplished big brother James) who seemingly shares her own interests, how can she resist the potential romance?  But as in all such undertakings, the more she plays the deeper she sinks and the more things spiral out of control.
 
Like David Fincher’s 1997 movie ‘The Game,’ ‘Nerve’ is admittedly far-fetched and requires us to suspend our disbelief and keep our natural skepticism in check.  Luckily, this isn’t overly difficult to pull off because ‘Nerve’ is a fascinating thrill-ride with a nice twist in its final act.  Roberts and Franco possess great chemistry, propelling an otherwise unbelievable story along on the strengths of their charisma and personalities.  While ‘Nerve’ may not be wholly original (it owes its spirit to the Fincher film mentioned above), we still can’t help but become the vicarious “watchers” in the movie when all is said and done.

Grade: A-
  
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Monday, July 25, 2016

Star Trek Fast & Furious

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From watching the chic young ‘90210’ cast of J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek movie franchise, it’s hard to fathom that Gene Roddenberry’s venerable sci-fi space opera just turned 50 this year.  Then again, it’s equally hard to imagine that ‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ (TOS) was axed by NBC back in 1969 after just three seasons as a result of dismal ratings, only to become a big hit in syndication and remain one of the most enduring cultural phenomena of our time with legions of fans called Trekkies (I mean “Trekkers”) five decades later.
 
‘Star Trek Beyond’ is the third entry in the new ST cinematic universe (to borrow Marvel’s terminology) and is the first not directed by J.J. Abrams who, in an act of betrayal worthy of Kylo Ren himself, took on a certain other space opera project and stayed on only as producer this time around.  Holy Benedict Arnold, Batman!  Filling in is Taiwanese director Justin Lin, who’s everything Ang Lee isn’t and whom I regard as the Chinese answer to Michael Bay.  For those unfamiliar, Lin is the guy responsible for pulling 'Fast & Furious' out of straight-to-DVD obscurity and making it into one of the most inexplicably lucrative film franchises in recent memory.  Lin brought his fast-and-furious style to this latest installment, making ‘Star Trek Beyond’ the most fast-paced and jam-packed-with-nonstop-action ST movie we’ve seen yet.  Case in point, while it took Abrams most of ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ just to damage the Enterprise, it only took Lin the first half hour or so to totally obliterate the iconic starship at the hands of the movie’s baddie, a villain by the name of General Krall (Idris Elba).
 
In spite of its cinematic excess, ‘Star Trek Beyond’ managed to be another solid addition to the ST franchise, providing viewers with a fun and action-packed deep space adventure yarn in the grand tradition of popcorn movies.  Filled with individual exploits of derring-do, dastardly villainy and a colorful cast of characters (including the feisty alien heroine played by Sofia Boutella shown below), it is an immensely satisfying thrill ride worth taking not just for the diehard Trekkers but for anyone who simply enjoys a good sci-fi/action flick. 

Well well well....     Look who's the Captain now!
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Grade: A
 
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Fear of the Dark

Good horror movies are hard to come by nowadays largely due to their susceptibility to sequel-itis and tendency to follow the same tired formulas, but in light of their popularity with young moviegoers looking for a good fright and favorable return-on-investment they are often a lucrative and safe bet.  While Hollywood will never stop swinging for the all-or-nothing home runs by making blockbuster tent-poles costing hundreds of millions in the vain hopes of recouping three times the films’ budgets at the box office, producers of horror films have discovered their own little secret: that settling for hitting singles often isn't such a bad deal.  First-time director David Sandberg’s new supernatural horror movie, ‘Lights Out,’ is the latest example of this limited approach. With a mere budget of $5 million, it has already grossed nearly $30 million worldwide.  Even if it drops substantially over its second weekend and disappears from theaters by week 3, the movie will be considered an unqualified success.
 
‘Lights Out’ (co-produced by James Wan) is a PG-13 rated supernatural thriller about a family terrorized by a malevolent entity that takes form in the darkness.  It is quite an intriguing – if unoriginal – hook.  But good horror movies can’t simply rely on gimmicks and must immerse us in the story and make us care about the characters.  ‘Lights Out’ delivers in this regard.  As with most James Wan movies (either as director or producer), the film centers around a small group of people whom the audience gains sympathy with in their worsening predicament, in this case a young woman named Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and her little brother Martin (Gabriel Martin), who lives with his deranged mother Sophie (Maria Bello) and an entity of pure and unadulterated evil named Diana.
 
‘Lights Out’ is an effective little chiller due to its simplicity and sparseness.  From its nightmarishly creepy opening scene inside a mannequin factory to its final act, the movie’s scary moments are well parsed out for maximum impact without overdoing it and thereby rendering us immune, like many horror movies couldn’t resist doing.  Likewise, the performances by its cast of relative unknowns are subtle and understated yet no less powerful, driving the story briskly along and making us true “believers” in its outlandish supernatural premise.
 
Grade: A-

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Monday, July 18, 2016

Ghostbusterettes

Ivan Reitman’s 1984 supernatural comedy ‘Ghostbusters’ gets a shot of estrogen in actor/director Paul Feig’s 2016 reboot.  Paul Feig (‘Bridesmaids,’ ‘Heat’ and ‘Spy’) is best known for collaborating with A-list comedic actress Melissa McCarthy, who’s one of the four Ghostbusters in this update, but did you know that he also created the short-lived coming-of-age cult comedy series ‘Freaks and Geeks’ produced by Judd Apatow?  Didn't think so.  Bringing back ‘Ghostbusters’ is no mean feat for the director, because he has to walk a fine line between attracting a new generation of viewers while not straying too far from the original and alienating fans of the 1984 classic.
 
Like the ‘Ghostbusters’ of auld with Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, the  new ‘Ghostbusters’ leans heavily on SNL with ¾ of its team comprised of current or recent SNL cast members in Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, with the fourth being McCarthy who’s hosted SNL quite a few times.  Even more than the original, the all-female Ghostbusters are nerdy science types who would fit right in on ‘Big Bang Theory’; Wiig as a straight-laced and socially awkward physics professor, McCarthy as a PhD outcast weird science paranormal investigator, and McKinnon’s Dr. Jillian Holtzmann is a tomboyish and gay mad engineer whose madcap experiments would give Christopher Lloyd’s Dr. Emmet Brown a decent run for his money.  The lone holdout of the geek club is Leslie Jones’s Patty, who makes up for her lack of science smarts with her street smarts and like-the-back-of-her-hand knowledge of NYC.  Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth (‘Thor’) proves that he has comedic chops as the Ghostbuster’s hunky male receptionist/secretary Kevin, who’s kept on for his looks despite being dumb as a bag of hammers in a classic example of gender role reversal.
 
‘Ghostbusters 2016’ is a fun if somewhat familiar exercise in 1980’s nostalgia.  Paying homage and staying true to the spirit of the original, the film is a respectful reboot and featured cameos from the original cast including Bill Murray, Sigourney Weaver, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson (sadly, Harold Ramis passed away in 2014) and Slimer the ectoplasm-spewing ghost.  The four female leads were all game and did justice to the Ghostbusters franchise, demonstrating that they can walk the walk as well as talk the pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo. 

Grade: B+
 
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