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 "Pok√©mon 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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