Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Benghazi Down

Big budget blockbuster and ‘Transformers’ helmer Michael Bay tackles the story of the Benghazi attacks that claimed the lives of US Ambassador Chris Stevens, IT specialist Sean Smith and two ex-Navy SEALs (Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty) in his new contemporary war thriller ’13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.’  While I consider Bay to be a total hack and find his brand of highly commercial, mind-numbingly dizzy and over-the-top action flicks excessive and distasteful in the extreme,  even I must grudgingly admit that ’13 Hours’ may be his best since ‘The Rock’ way back in 1996.
Adapted from Mitchell Zuckoff’s gripping book of the same title, 13H painstakingly recounts over the course of nearly two-and-a-half hours the events leading up to, during and immediately after the waves of relentless, near suicidal attacks by al-Sharia militants on the State Department “compound” (a fortified palatial residence) housing the US Ambassador and CIA “annex” (a walled outpost consisting of four buildings) a mile away throughout the evening and early morning of September 11-12 of 2012, on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  The story is told from the point of view of the CIA annex’s security detail, a team of six former special operators-turned-private military contractors tasked with protecting the civilian CIA staff.  With a cast of relative unknowns, the film’s most bankable star is John Krasinski, whom some of you will recognize from his role in ‘The Office’ (American version) and the fact that he’s the lucky guy married to British actress and 'Sicario' star Emily Blunt.
Eschewing unnecessary “character development” that would only slow down the pace in favor of visceral and intense combat scenes, 13H has more in common with Ridley Scott’s ‘Black Hawk Down’ than recent fare such as ‘American Sniper’ and ‘Lone Survivor.’  The small unit tactics and firefights in the movie are highly realistic and hard hitting, and the camaraderie within the brotherhood of arms rings true.  As a solid if brutal and uncompromising military action thriller, 13H avoids making any overt or implied political statements and it’s a shame that its subject matter is used for partisan attacks that only served to overshadow and detract us from the courage and self-sacrifice exhibited by these brave warriors who went above and beyond the call of duty, even if they were merely mercenaries.
Grade: A 
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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Die Hard with a Vengeance

In the wake of his snappy and delightfully trippy continuous-shot mindfuck of an Academy Awards winner for Best Picture, ‘Birdman,’ Alejandro G. Iñárritu follows up with ‘The Revenant,’ a harrowing tale of survival and revenge set in the wild and uncharted territories of early 19th Century America.  In so doing the critically acclaimed Mexican director, whose previous credits include ‘Amores Perros,’ ’21 Grams,’ ‘Babel,’ ‘Biutiful’ and ‘Birdman,’ is now a perfect 6-for-6 at bat in being nominated in at least one category for each and every one of his movies at the Oscars.  Now that’s what you call an Oscar-darling.
Based on Michael Punke’s bestselling novel of the same name, ‘The Revenant’ is the unbelievable but true story of Hugh Glass, a wilderness guide and trapper on a pelt hunting expedition in the harsh and unforgiving territories of what is now North Dakota and Montana.  After being badly wounded by a grizzly and left for dead by his erstwhile fellows, Glass managed to overcome great odds to survive, trek across hundreds of miles while evading hostile Native Americans, and dish out righteous retribution against the trapper (John Fitzgerald played by Tom Hardy) who murdered his half-Indian son Hawk and unsuccessfully tried to kill him.  As the movie’s protagonist, Leonardo DiCaprio delivered yet another Oscar-worthy performance and opened our eyes to a time when men were made of much sterner stuff.
More than simply a historical epic, ‘The Revenant’ is a marvelous odyssey and a true testament to the strength of will and fortitude of spirit.  Combining the humanism and mysticism of Kevin Costner's ‘Dances with Wolves’ with the action-adventure and storytelling of Michael Mann’s ‘Last of the Mohicans,’ ‘The Revenant’ adds proof to the pudding that AGI is one of the best directors working in Hollywood today.
Grade: A 
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Into the Woods

Natalie Dormer (‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Hunger Games: Mockingjay' both parts) adds “Scream Queen” to her resumé with her starring role in the latest J-Horror (Japanese Horror) movie ‘The Forest.’  Inspired by the mythical Aokigahara Forest, infamously known as the place where people go to commit suicide, ‘The Forest’ seeks to chill the audience the same way ‘The Ring’ and ‘The Grudge’ did so many years ago.
Dormer plays Sarah, a young woman whose twin sister “disappeared” in the Aokigahara Forest.  With the preternatural connection that twins are famously known for, she sensed that her twin was lost but still alive.  Hopping on the next flight to Japan, she went in search of her missing sister.  With the aid of a strapping Australian reporter (Taylor Kinney), Sarah ventures into ‘The Forest’ and encounters a series of strange apparitions and supernatural happenstances that could be either real or imagined.  That’s J-Horror for you.
While ‘The Forest’ was intriguing at first, it soon lost momentum about midway through and the ending simply collapsed into an unbelievably jumbled mess.  The scares were few and far in between and not really scary at all.  As a horror fan (and Asian horror in particular), I am sorely disappointed in this rather limp and passionless effort.  If I have to find something positive at all to say about the film, it’s that it was not filmed in shaky camera “found footage” style.  And that’s the only reason I didn’t give it an F.
Grade: D
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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Eight Little Cowboys

You should all know by now that I’m a huge Quentin Tarantino fan.  When it comes to elevating trashy exploitation B-movies to an art form, there simply is no better than the former video store employee who became one of the best writers and directors of our time.  Since his breakthrough crime noir masterpiece, ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ Quentin Tarantino has entertained us with a steady stream of memorable films such as ‘Pulp Fiction,’ ‘Kill Bill: Volumes One and Two,’ ‘Jackie Brown,’ ‘The Inglourious Basterds’ and ‘Django Unchained.’  His latest feature, the eagerly anticipated (at least by me) mystery-western ‘The Hateful Eight,’ demonstrates his prowess and mastery once again and proves that Tarantino is still on top of his finely honed craft.
To put it simply, TH8 is a sordid tale of murder, revenge and poetic frontier justice.  I know it doesn’t get any vaguer than this, but the movie is best enjoyed without any expectations or foreknowledge whatsoever.  It is a deeply layered mystery with a simple yet elegant plot device, pulling you in with its building suspense which doesn’t let up until the final act.  Even at a bladder-trying two hours and 47 minutes, TH8 never seemed to drag because everything about it, from the beautiful cinematography (filmed in Panavision 70mm) to its despicable (as in “hateful”) characters and their interactions and dialogue, are just so damn compelling and fascinating.
TH8 is a love letter of sorts to the low-budget spaghetti westerns of yore starring Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef.  It is also one of Tarantino’s best in my opinion, as he lets out his inner Agatha Christie (or Alfred Hitchcock) and gives us a masterwork of suspense that’s both engrossing and deeply satisfying.
Grade: A
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Miracle Mop Maven

David O. Russell’s latest feature is the kinda-sorta biopic dramedy ‘Joy,’ inspired by the real life rags-to-riches story of infomercial queen Joy Mangano, the inventor-turned-entrepreneur familiar to QVC and HSN shoppers.  Mangano should be honored that she is played by none other than the wonderful, fabulous, lovely and talented Jennifer Lawrence, who delivered yet another solid and memorable performance.
Through three films (‘Silver Linings Playbook,’ ‘American Hustle’ and this one), it is easy to see how Lawrence has become Russell’s muse and favorite go-to actress.  In ‘Joy,’ she is reunited with two actors who starred in previous David O. Russell movies, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro.  ‘Joy’ is not always a joy to watch as we follow the struggles of an underachieving former high school valedictorian single mother trying to raise her young ones while having to live with her deadbeat soap-watching mom and insufferable dad (De Niro), but for all that baggage her journey is no less a testament to the American entrepreneurial and never-say-die spirit.
‘Joy’ is the story of the woman who invented the self-wringing “Miracle Mop,” but it’s also a story of how, with the right combination of ingenuity, determination, timing and no small amount of luck, the elusive “American Dream” can be realized.  While ‘Joy’ falls short compared to his two previous efforts, it nevertheless demonstrates once again that David O. Russell is one of the best storytellers working in Hollywood today.
Grade: B+
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