Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Resurrection

I typically stay away from inspirational Christian or so-called “faith-based” movies, but director/writer Kevin Reynolds’ ‘Risen’ piqued my interest because it’s advertised as a historical epic told from the viewpoint of a Roman soldier as he undertakes the assignment to investigate the mysterious case of “The disappearance of Yeshua's (Jesus’) body “after it was sealed in the tomb.  Telling a well-known biblical story from the unique perspective of a disbeliever?  What heresy!
Joseph Fiennes is Clavius, a Roman Tribune and seasoned campaign veteran in Roman-controlled Judea circa 33 AD who served bravely and honorably for the glory of the Empire over 25 years.  At the beginning of the movie we see him rallying and leading outnumbered legionaries softened by years of garrison duty in classic “tortoise” formation, marching inexorably up a hill through a withering hail of rocks and javelins hurled by Jewish rebels from above who dared to defy the authority of Rome before crushing them in brutal fashion and putting their defiant leader to the gladius with the eminently quotable line "tell Yahweh you are coming courtesy of Mars."  Clavius was then sent by prefect Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to check on Yeshua (Cliff Curtis), who had been hanging on the cross for a day and to hasten His demise if He’s still stubbornly clinging to life. Ever the dutiful soldier, Clavius ordered a spear through the heart and verified Yeshua's death before seeing to the internment of the body, but all hell breaks loose the next day when the body disappeared and his troubles begin.
Other than the shift in POV, ‘Risen’ is a pretty straightforward redemption story and offers little in the way of surprises or twists, but deviating from The Word is not the goal here and we must keep in mind that this movie has built-in limitations and expectations that must be met.  This is why we’re little surprised as Clavius initially approaches his investigation with the skepticism of a true pagan disbeliever, then as he continually fails to reconcile his polytheistic worldview with what he actually sees with his own eyes, he becomes increasingly drawn to the miraculously resurrected and magnetic Yeshua and His band of fishermen disciples. 
Grade: B
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The popular New England folklore of witchcraft that engendered the infamous trials and persecutions in Salem, Massachusetts is the subject of ‘The Witch,’ first-time director Robert Eggers’ atmospheric slow-burning period thriller set in early 17th Century America.  Eschewing jump scares and bloody gore in favor of psychological suspense and tightly wound tension, ‘The Witch’ gives us a chilling and compelling depiction of a devout puritan family’s gradual descent into madness.
With hearth and home at its heart, ‘The Witch’ centers on a family of Puritans who moved out of their close-knit community due to religious differences.  Mom and Dad had four children (including twins) and a fifth baby was born after their resettlement, but a nearby Witch kidnapped the newborn and sacrificed him in an unholy ritual to the dark powers.  More unfortunate occurrences soon followed but, alas, being the devout Christians that they were the family was none the wiser to the evils that befell them and bore their misfortunes with the stoic resignation of Job being tested by a vengeful God.  Someone had to shoulder the blame, however, and the obvious and convenient scapegoat is their eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), if for no other reason than because there were no other likely suspects.   It’s enough to drive one to renounce God and become a witch, you'd say.
Despite the fact that I can barely understand the archaic form of Olde English spoken by the unfortunates throughout the movie, I heartily recommend ‘The Witch’ because it is a fascinating portrait of how a family unravels as the certainty of their deeply held beliefs is slowly pulled apart by the supernatural forces of pure and unadulterated Evil.  In some ways, ‘The Witch’ is as mesmerizing as similar past and recent classics as ‘The Wicker Man,’ ‘Spellbinder’ and ‘Kill List.’  It gets under your skin and gives you a sense of dread that just won't go away.
Grade: A-
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Monday, February 22, 2016

Bad Hero

The long-awaited ‘Deadpool’ finally arrived in theaters to tickle our collective funny bones after over a decade in development. Considering that it grossed well over $200 million domestically and nearly hit $500 million internationally in just a little over a week, it's hard to believe that New Line Cinema put the troubled project on "turnaround" back in 2005 and leaving it to be picked up by 20th Century Fox, since they own the X-Men franchise.  We can hardly blame New Line for its ambivalence; R-rated comic book movies, be it ‘Kick‑Ass,’ ‘The Watchmen,’ ‘The Punisher’ or Judge ‘Dredd,’ either nosedived at the box office or earned no more than a cult following. Defying convention and all expectations, ‘Deadpool’ shattered this paradigm into a gazillion little bloody pieces and proved that R-rated superhero movies can match or even best their family-friendly big budget PG-13 counterparts.  A game changer?  We shall see.
As its snarky protagonist points out in 16th wall-breaking fashion, ‘Deadpool’ isn’t your typical tame been-there-done-that Disneyfied Marvel Universe Superhero Movie, though it oddly had a cartoon unicorn shooting rainbows somewhere in it.  It’s a darkly funny revenge action love story that isn’t afraid to make fun of itself.  From its opening credits, we’re told that its director (first-time helmer Tim Miller) is an “overpaid tool” and that the film features clichéd characters like “a moody teenager” (Brianna Hildebrand as the Sinead O’Connor-esque “Negasonic Teenage Warhead”) and the obligatory “British Villain” (Ed Skrein of ‘The Transporter: Refueled’).  It doesn’t matter that ‘Deadpool’ turned out to be little more than a slacker and ex-special forces jerk who takes particular pleasure in bullying others verbally (whether they deserved it or not) and physically (mostly those who deserved it unless it’s collateral damage), because Ryan Reynolds’ highly inappropriate and irreverent sexual innuendos, double entendres, snappy one-liners and overall lack of good upbringing had us at “hello,” even if he was turned into the leprotic Elephant Man by some d bag named Francis.
Effectively combining the wisecracking humor and levity of your friendly neighborhood Spiderman with the take-no-prisoners badass-itude of The Punisher, ‘Deadpool’ is hands-down (to the crotch) one of the best comic book adaptations of the last 10 (maybe even 20) years because it’s bold, unapologetically offensive and isn’t afraid to take risks when it comes to poking the inner cheeks of good taste and proper behavior.  The result (and proof) is in the pudding and no less than spectacular.  Edgy, entertaining and fun for the entire family (don't be a prude), ‘Deadpool’ is that peRfectly pitched R-rated “superhero” movie we’ve all been waiting for.
Grade: A+ 
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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Ave, Imperator!

The latest release from Joel and Ethan Coen is the musical comedy ‘Hail, Caesar!’  Eccentric but invariably entertaining, Coen Brothers movies are always a treat because you just never quite know what to expect.  With a filmography built over nearly three decades including such gems as ‘Raising Arizona,’ ‘The Big Lebowski,’ 'Fargo,' ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ and ‘No Country for Old Men,’ the siblings have established a reputation as true auteurs whose films always engender a sense of anticipation.
An ode to Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is inspired by the real-life story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the Hollywood studio head and problem-solver during the 1950’s who specialized in crisis management and massaging the egos of some of Tinseltown’s biggest stars.  Mannix’s biggest challenge in the movie is to secure the safe return of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the lead actor in his Roman sword-and-sandals epic ‘Hail, Caesar!’ who was kidnapped by communist sympathizers during a shoot, all the while being wooed by an emerging west coast aerospace industry in the guise of the Lockheed Corporation.
Quirky, light-hearted and fun, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is a Coen Brothers movie through-and-through with a neo-noir feel reminiscent of ‘Ed Wood.’  It is also perhaps their most accessible and non-violent offering since ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ (which incidentally also starred Clooney) and one that the whole family can enjoy with a stellar cast including Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum.  The breakthrough performance, however, goes to newcomer Alden Ehrenreich who, as the singing cowboy/action-hero Hobie Doyle, oozes a certain refreshing aw-shucks innocence and charm.
Grade: A
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Pride and Prejudice and Zeds

Author Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestselling 2009 mashup of Jane Austen’s popular novel of English upper crust refinement and zombies is finally brought to the big screen in Burr Steer’s ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.’ Stuck in “developmental hell” for nearly seven years since it was picked up initially, P&P&Z certainly had more than its fair share of bumps and detours along the long and winding road to fruition, with Natalie Portman reportedly dropping out (though she is retained as one of the producers) and two previous directors ditching the project, including celebrated ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ and ‘American Hustle’ director David O. Russell.
It should come as no surprise, then, that P&P&Z is essentially a middling effort which settled for being just average, from its cast of relatively unknown stars led by Lily James (‘Cinderella’) to its equally unheard-of director.  Although the adapted screenplay stayed more‑or‑less true to Grahame-Smith’s novel, I find that the movie utterly lacked the book’s satirical humor and the acting to be rather pedestrian, be it Lily James’ spiritless heroine Elizabeth Bennet or Sam Riley’s less-than-dashing Mr. Darcy.  The fast (you heard right) zombies are mere window dressing and at no point in the movie does one feel that any of the characters are in any sort of life‑threatening peril or predicament. And despite its message of female empowerment with the Bennet sisters, the movie comes across as elitist in its portrayal of the wealthy gentry as heroes and relegating the common peasantry to being faceless (quite literally in some cases) zombies.
Much like its predecessor, ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,’ P&P&Z’s action scenes are limp and flat, perhaps a victim of its modest budget and family-friendly PG-13 rating.  Alas, even such compromises did not help P&P&Z achieve its low expectations at the box office, raking in a paltry $5.3 million and placing sixth domestically in its opening weekend.   For a period “comedy horror” piece that turned out to be neither funny nor scary, how can one expect otherwise?
Grade: C+ 
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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Frogs in a Well

Lost amongst the flashier and big-budget studio releases such as ‘The Revenant,’ ‘The Big Short’ and ‘The Martian,’ one of the under-the-radar indie films nominated for Best Picture this Oscar season is director Lenny Abrahamson’s ‘Room,’ the poignant and heart-wrenching story of an abducted young woman (Brie Larson) and her son (Jacob Tremblay) imprisoned for years within the claustrophobic confines of a storage shed and their subsequent freedom.  ‘Room’ is a remarkable film in so many ways, deeply emotional and full of hope.  There is really nothing quite like it.
Based on the best-selling novel by Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the screenplay), ‘Room’ is not just a realistic portrayal of life under captivity but also the wonders and joy of seeing a much larger world for the very first time.  In Jack and “Ma,” Tremblay and Larson gave convincing performances that not only made us believe but also enthralled us, and it is easy to see how the unbreakable and empowering bond between mother and son is what truly kept them going through the long years of captivity as well as helping them cope with the “real world” after their eventual escape.
Compelling, fascinating and inspiring, ‘Room’ is one of those uplifting and cathartic experiences that resonate long after the credits have rolled.  It probably won’t win the Best Picture Oscar this year (odds are 40 to 1) among the other notable contenders out there, but don’t be surprised if Brie Larson takes home a statue for being such a great mum.
Grade: A
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El Niño

Next to clowns, horror movies love dolls.  Movies like ‘Chucky’ and ‘Annabelle’ raked in more money than they had any right to, thanks to our obsession with witnessing these inanimate objects come to homicidal life.  Like clowns, dolls have a certain creepiness to them that’s inexplicable but taps into our worst fears.  And let's face it, movies about them can also be undeniably fun.
‘The Boy’ is the latest film featuring a doll.  Brahms, the young boy of a couple from the English countryside who died in a fire when he was but eight years old, somehow “inhabited” a porcelain doll with pale complexion and neutral features.  At least, that’s what his parents believed.  A young and attractive 20-something American woman (Lauren Cohen), in need of making a quick buck and to escape from her abusive boyfriend, answered their call for a nanny and discovered much to her amusement that her new charge is not a real boy.  Or is he???!!!
If you’re expecting ‘The Boy’ to be like ‘Annabelle’ and those beloved ‘Chucky’ flicks, you may be disappointed because this is not that kind of horror movie.  But in a way I liked it even more because it broke the mold and dared to be different.  More of a dripping slow-burning psychological suspense thriller than a typical doll-inhabited-by-a-serial killer (or evil spirit) movie, ‘The Boy’ has a twist that’s somewhat familiar yet is wholly unexpected.  I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised.
Grade: B+
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