Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Frozen Hearted

Despite mostly middling reviews, the 2012 Snow White fantasy epic (one of two released that year) ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’ exceeded all expectations and went on to gross nearly $400 million at the box office against a budget of $170 million.  With a deliciously nasty villain played by the ever lovely Charlize Theron, SW&TH overcame the miscasting of Kristen Stewart as Snow White and the near simultaneous release of another Snow White film, the lighter and more kid-friendly ‘Mirror Mirror’ starring Julia Roberts.
So it should come as no surprise that a sequel is in order.  In ‘The Huntsman: Winter's War,’ we discover how Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) came to be and what drives him (i.e. love).  We also go back in time to see how the vain and scheming Queen Ravenna (Theron) manipulated her own sister Freya (Emily Blunt) to become the cold and heartless Ice Queen of the North through a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, who then went on to build a mighty conquering army of Huntsmen (and Huntswomen) plucked while they're children and trained in the art of war.  When the Magic Mirror was taken while being transported by Snow White’s men, Eric and his beloved Sara (Jessica Chastain) must join forces to recover the artifact with the help of a quartet of hearty dwarves, including one who bears a striking resemblance to Nick Frost.  Wait, didn’t SW&TH also featured dwarves aplenty?  What is it with huntsmen and dwarves, anyway?

Beautifully filmed and replete with stunning costume and set designs, not to mention three gorgeous femme fatales in Theron, Blunt and Chastain (plus something for the ladies as well in Hemsworth, eh?), 'The Huntsman: Winter's War' is a fantasy adventure quest/tragedy/love story with all the markings of a crowd-pleaser despite being panned by the critics.

Grade: A-

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Lost Memories

61-year old Kevin Costner attempts to maintain the Liam Neeson-esque action hero creds he established in 2014’s ‘3 Days to Kill’ with his latest spy thriller ‘Criminal,’ which throws in sci-fi elements and an unlikely anti-hero to spice up an otherwise unremarkable action flick plagued with warmed-over spy movie clichés.  Insufferably tedious, disconnected and plain boring, ‘Criminal’ lives up to its name in having been green-lit in the first place.
The plot is as ridiculously clichéd as it sounds.  A nerdy superhacker developed a computer program that can magically take over any nation’s defense systems including the ability to launch nukes (Don’t you just love such laziness in writing?).  He then decides to sell it to the United States (presumably the highest bidder) and arranges a meet with a CIA agent played by Ryan Reynolds in the film’s first 20 minutes or so.  Predictably, things go horribly south and Reynolds got captured, tortured and ultimately killed but being such a badass hero he did not spill the beans.  Since he’s the last person who had any contact with the hacker, a desperate CIA called in a scientist who experimented with memory transfers to transplant Deadpool’s (I mean, Reynold’s) memories to hardened criminal Jericho Stewart (Costner).  He’s their only hope because his frontal lobe was damaged during his childhood and only people with his very specific brain damage condition are potential candidates, of which there are only one in 100 million according to the scientist played by Tommy Lee Jones.
Regardless of the movie’s razor-thin sci-fi conceit, ‘Criminal’ is the kind of plodding and insipid mess that moviegoers will likely forget as soon as they leave the theater.  Sure, it’s got some star power in Costner, Reynolds, Gary Oldman and Tommy Lee Jones, but considering that three of these actors are at the age where they don’t so much pick the roles as the roles pick them, beggars can’t be choosers, eh?

Grade: D
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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hardcore Stupidity

Once in a while I see a movie I wish I hadn't. When I saw the trailer for ‘Hardcore Henry,’ it crossed my mind that the movie would be pretty bad but I had no idea.  Its shaky first-person-shooter format promises a fully immersive experience, as if you’re Hardcore Henry himself rampaging through 96 minutes of kick-ass action and sheer mayhem.  But then I thought: "I don't recall walking out of ‘Doom,’ so how bad could it possibly be?"  Sorry I asked.
Featuring ‘District 9’ star and perennial Neill Blomkamp fav Sharlto Copley, HH is a non-stop balls-to-the-wall action flick that would make even the most jaded Michael Bay aficionado’s head spin.  The movie’s whirlwind and continuous action sequences are laid on so hot and heavy that the viewer can’t catch his breath and is constantly overwhelmed with sensory overload.  The film’s flimsily thin and weak plot, something about a cybernetically enhanced super soldier’s search for “The Truth” and to rescue the one whom he believed to be his wife, only provides a piss poor excuse for all the senseless destruction and carnage throughout the movie.
By the mid-point of the movie, even this veteran of numerous John Woo actioners has been pummeled senseless by the veritable orgy of violence that is ‘Hardcore Henry.’  It’s as if you’re playing a gory FPS game but the AI is dragging you along for the ride kicking and screaming.  HH is so big and dumb that it doesn’t even bother to ponder such basic questions as “Who is Hardcore Henry?” and “How did the movie's sadistic villain Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) get his telekinetic powers and what is he after?”  Apparently such considerations are unimportant to the writers/producers and mindless action is all that matters.  Sharlto Copley provided the only bright spot in the movie, taking on his various caricatured personas (including a WWII-era British officer) with gleeful abandon but, alas, it isn’t nearly enough to pull this bloody mess out of the bottomless pit of mind-numbing apathy.

Grade: F
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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Boy with All the Gifts

Up-and-coming director Jeff Nichol’s (‘Take Shelter’ and ‘Mud’) latest feature is the throwback 1980s-esque science fiction chase movie ‘Midnight Special,’ the tale of a young boy with special powers whose abilities made him the most wanted kid by the US government forcing him, his dad and a friend helping them to go on the lam.  Made for a mere $18 million, MS is an ambitious and imaginative film with strong characterizations anchored by the performances of Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
The movie doesn’t waste any time with exposition, beginning with the trio already on the run while a nationwide Amber Alert is in effect for their immediate apprehension.  We don’t really know what’s going on, who these people really are and why they are wanted badly not only by the government but also a Branch Davidian-like religious cult.  As the movie progresses, the mystery slowly unfolds and things become clearer, culminating in the grand finale when ET finally gets to go home.  Well, in a manner of speaking anyway.
Foregoing geez-whiz special effects and non-stop action for strong storytelling and suspense, MS is no less compelling for its restraint as we follow our fugitives in their cross-country trek to an unknown destination that is only prophesied.  Part Stephen King and part Steven Spielberg, MS has a unique mythology and freshness that’s all too rare in sci-fi these days.
Grade: A
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A View to a Kill

The real-time decision-making process of a targeted drone strike is the controversial topic in director Gavin Hood’s riveting pseudo military/political thriller ‘Eye in the Sky.’ Told from a uniquely British point-of-view (with some American non-binding input, since the drone is operated from Creech AFB) where stringent rules of engagement are being observed, EITS depicts the difficulties faced by military commanders and civilian officials alike when authorizing a drone strike in real-time while also making sure that their asses are covered.
What started out as a routine Predator surveillance mission to support a snatch-and-grab mission by Kenyan ground troops gets complicated when the terrorists were observed preparing two willing martyrs for a suicide bombing.  With time thus “running out,” a snap decision was made to change the mission objective from “capture” to “kill” since hundreds of lives are now at stake.  While the mission commander, a rather cold and hard-nosed British colonel played by Helen Mirren, her immediate superior (Alan Rickman in his last role) and the Americans remain undeterred even when a young girl inadvertently sets up shop right outside the terrorists’ hideout, the more collateral damage-averse civilian leadership at Whitehall were subjected to much soul-searching and hand-wringing in the film’s consensus-by-committee approach.
Whether or not EITS’s portrayal of drone strikes is realistic in a real world context, one cannot argue that it is engrossing, suspenseful and utterly thought-provoking.  The film essentially poses the question of who gets to play God in our age of push-button warfare, and forces us to face the consequences of killing innocents (euphemistically labeled “acceptable collateral damage”) for the sake of some perceived greater good.  They even got it down to percentages.  Whatever your views of targeted drone strikes may be, EITS is a fascinating film that should not be missed.
Grade: A 
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