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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

2701: A Space Oddity

Prolific French filmmaker Luc Besson brings to the big screen the French sci-fi/action comic "Valerian and Laureline" by replacing Laureline with a gigantic space station hosting “thousands” of alien races in ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.'  V&TCO1000P is easily Besson’s most ambitious, sprawling, visually stylish and expensive gamble, I mean project, since ‘The Fifth Element’ starring Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich some 20 years ago.  Being a fan of T5E I marked this movie on my “to see” list ever since I initially saw its colorful and swashbuckling trailer packed to the gills with unique aliens and gee-whiz futurama, but in the deep recess of my mind lurked the nagging fear that it would turn out to be another ‘Jupiter Ascending.’  Therefore, I took care not to dial my expectations up too high.
 
Aside from the fact that I never read the comic which inspired it, that is perhaps why I enjoyed V&TCO1000P so much.  Major Valerian (Dane DeHann) and his comely and sassy blonde sidekick Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are elite agents of a special Space Police unit operating out of a giant space station named “Alpha” which hosts innumerable alien races (think Babylon 5 but much, much bigger) living in peaceful harmony.  A seemingly routine mission to recover a valuable device (a power converter) on a desert planet thrusts Valerian and Laureline into a web of deceit and intrigue involving a race of lithe, androgynous and translucent-skinned aliens.
 
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Critics have faulted V&TCO1000P mostly for its weak and contrived story but come on, this is a Luc Besson movie we’re talking about.  While the plot isn’t exactly awesome or original for that matter, it is much more conventional and straightforward than, say, Besson’s ‘Lucy.’  With its campy humor, wild-eyed fantasy and high-tech Avatar-esque visuals, V&TCO1000P is a rollicking space opera that’s fun for the whole family.  I’ve learned long ago that Luc Besson movies are visceral experiences; don’t overthink them and just sit back and enjoy the ride.  Oh, and don’t forget the popcorn.

Grade: A 
 
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No Small Miracle

The 1940 “Miracle at Dunkirk” is the subject of Christopher Nolan’s latest big budget feature, a vast sweeping WWII epic and passion project from the acclaimed British director best known for the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy and a couple of FX-heavy sci-fi mindbenders that start with an “I,” ‘Inception’ and ‘Interstellar.’  In turning an ignominious and unmitigated military disaster resulting from German “shock and awe” (aka Blitzkrieg) lightning warfare that brought France to her knees in a little more than two weeks into a symbol of British defiance, individual heroism and selfless sacrifice, the story of Dunkirk just begs to be re-told (there was a 1958 version apparently which I haven’t seen) to a modern audience who sadly know too little about world history.
 
The narrative of ‘Dunkirk’ is divided into three distinct but related parts.  “The Mole” follows a lowly British PBI (poor bloody infantryman) named Tommy (aren’t they all?) as he attempts to survive repeated Luftwaffe air attacks and reach “Home Sweet Home.”  “The Sea” is mostly told from the POV of a British naval officer (Kenneth Branagh) overseeing the evacuation effort and a yachtsman (Mark Rylance) who answered the call to join the hastily assembled fleet of private fishing vessels, yachts and ferry boats sailing toward Dunkirk.  Lastly, “The Air” is seen through the eyes of a RAF Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) who risks running out of fuel before he can return to base in order to provide air cover for the helpless (“where is the bloody air force?!”) Tommies who can only anxiously peer into the sky at the sound of approaching German bombers.
 
While the non-linear storytelling and down-in-the-dirt POV are effective in conveying the realism, chaos, fear, heroism and, yes, even cowardice one would expect in the unforgiving crucible of war and make for a harrowing viewing experience, the juxtaposition of the three subplots and the rapidly shifting perspectives achieved through cut scenes in editing prevented the movie from reaching greatness.  Even though the three parts did come together at the end (and two of them intersected at another point earlier in the film), it lacked the dramatic impact and emotional resonance of more linear war movies.  Nolan shouldn't have given 'Dunkirk' the ‘Memento’ treatment, but do go see it anyway because films such as this should really be watched on the big screen (unless you have a state-of-the-art home theatre system and don't mind the wait) so you can hear and feel the rumbles and reverberations of every explosion deep down in your very bones.

Grade: A- 
 
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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Ape-pocalypse Now

The rebooted ‘Planet of the Apes’ trilogy comes to a fitting if somewhat sad conclusion in director Matt Reeves’s ‘War for the Planet of the Apes,’ the follow-up to ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (2011) and ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ (2014) which tell the story of how a human-engineered “simian virus” decimated humanity and made monkeys and apes the dominant species on earth.  A modern take on the POTA franchise of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s with prosthetic made-up apes featuring Roddy McDowall (few remember the 2001 Tim Burton remake starring Mark Wahlberg and Helena Bonham Carter), this new trilogy combined cutting-edge computer animation with facial mapping (notably Andy Serkis’s) to give the various apes in the films a hyper-realistic yet all-too-human quality.
 
So the (ape) shit finally hits the fan  in WFTPOTA and the war is on.  Going by its action-packed preview trailer one could easily come away with the impression that the conflict between homo sapiens and apes comes to a head and all hell breaks loose, but it’s actually quite a bit more complicated and nuanced than that.  Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice it to say that Woody Harrelson’s character (simply referred to as "The Colonel"), inspired by Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in ‘Apocalypse Now’ and Caesar’s key nemesis in the film, didn’t have the luxury of solely focusing on wiping out ape-kind.  There’s a bigger picture at work here.
 
Even more so than the previous ROTPOTA, Caesar carries the weight of his people’s deliverance on his tired shoulders while Woody Harrelson’s “Alpha-Omega” paramilitary faction seeks to enslave and ultimately destroy them.  This Caesar isn't one to cross the Rubicon and challenge the humans in a war of annihilation where only the strongest survive.  Like Jesus, Caesar is more likely to extend an olive branch to his enemies with turn-the-other-cheek humility and grace, even if they shove it right back in his face.  Is peaceful coexistence between humans and apes even possible?  Not if "The Colonel" still draws his last dying breath.

Grade: A

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The Wishing Box

Teenagers love scary movies, even the bad ones.  It’s hard to go to a horror movie nowadays without noticing that a majority of the audience seems to be 20 or under, and a good portion of that even much younger.  Now that I think of it, I was probably one of them back in the day, since I’ve been a horror aficionado/gore-hound for as long as I can remember.  It’s no surprise, then, that the folks behind the ill-fated teen-centered horror flick ‘Wish Upon’ believe they had a built-in audience for their movie.  Well, they were dead (excuse the pun) wrong.
 
‘Wish Upon’ recycles the well-worn tropes of the “101 ways to die” ‘Final Destination’ franchise, providing it with a new twist by replacing the Grim Reaper with an evil octagonal Chinese demon box.  This weird and somewhat creepy music box, as the movie’s young protagonist Clare (Joey King) discovers, can fulfill all her adolescent dreams, such as literally causing the mean girl tormenting her in high school to rot and making the boy whom she secretly crushes on dump his hotter girlfriend and fall for her.  However, every wish has a price and Clare comes to the belated realization that her shallow and selfish desires are better left unfulfilled as they could very well consign her soul to damnation.
 
‘Wish Upon’ is a dumbed-down ‘The Box’ without the moral dilemma or surreal artsy trappings, a horror-lite clearly aimed at the 25-and-under demographic.  It’s a rather vacuous and gimmicky movie, but hardly an unexpected one considering such films’ relatively low budget.  I’m sure its disappointment at the BO will not discourage producers from making similar movies in the future, but I will have to try a bit harder steering clear of them though I fear I may not be able to resist ‘Happy Death Day.’  I’m so easy.

Grade: C

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Requiescat in Pace

In so many ways they never truly die....

GR

ML

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Diary of a Teenage Superhero

Our friendly neighborhood web-slinger returns to the big screen once again in ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming,’ the second reboot and third Spidey film franchise in the last 15 years.  The first trilogy from ‘Evil Dead’ writer/producer/director Sam Raimi starring Tobey Maguire was an unqualified success even if the last film fizzled out, but the reboot with Andrew Garfield as the wise-cracking superhero disappointed both critically and commercially and was canceled after just two installments.  This prompted Sony Pictures, which owns the rights to the title as long as they keep rebooting it every 10 years or so, to collaborate with Marvel Studios and properly integrate Spider-Man into the rich and highly successful MCU.  It turned out to be one of the best decisions Sony ever made (are you listening, ‘Fantastic Four’ rights owner 20th Century Fox?).
 
After his well-received debut in ‘Captain America: Civil War,’ Tom Holland takes over the mantle in the brand spanking new franchise as the youngest Spider-Man to date.  Holland’s Peter Parker is only a geeky 15-year old navigating through the minefields of adolescence and high school like any other teenager, except he’s not your typical high school sophomore.  After his brief stint as a probationary Avenger on “Team Iron Man” in ‘Captain America: Civil War,’ Peter Parker is eager to further develop his crime-fighting skills on the not-so-mean streets of Queens, New York, but his mentor Iron Man just told him to “settle down and get back to school, kid.”  It’s like giving a kid his first taste of ice-cream and then taking it away.  Not to be discouraged, Spider-Man keeps patrolling the neighborhood and is finally rewarded for his perseverance when he stumbles upon the arms-dealing schemes of the Vulture (Michael Keaton) and his henchmen, who came across some cool Chitauri tech while pulling clean-up duty after the Battle of New York in the first Avengers movie until Tony Stark’s Department of Damage Control rudely stepped in and took over jurisdiction.
 
The verdict is in.  ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ is a refreshing take on my favorite Marvel superhero.  It is entertaining, fun and a highly promising start to a Spider-Man franchise that had gone stale for so long.  Tom Holland (who first opened my eyes in this moving film: The Impossible) is great and bestows Peter Parker version 3.0 with a wide-eyed wonder and youthful exuberance we haven’t seen to this extent before.  He’s also terrible at keeping his identity a secret, as you’ll see throughout the movie (and the last line in the movie is classic).  But let’s cut the kid some slack shall we?  He’s new at this superhero gig.

Grade: A
 
SM

Gru & the Gang Part III

In the genre of family-friendly CGI animated movies, the ‘Despicable Me’ franchise is easily among the most beloved and successful. The four films released to date (including the ‘Minions’ spin-off) have already garnered over $3 billion worldwide, making it one of the most lucrative animated franchises of all time.  So what gives DM its widespread appeal?  The legion of unintelligible but lovable Twinkie-like minions, surely, but let’s not give the other characters short shrift because DM is a family affair with Gru, Lucy and the three girls who give the franchise its heart.
 
DM3 sees villain-turned-agent Gru (Steve Carell, voiced by that is) foil the pink diamond-thieving ‘80s supervillain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), only to be fired by the new head of the Anti-Villain League for failing to apprehend him.  Along with Lucy (Kristen Wiig), who resigned A-VL in protest as a show of solidarity, and his three adopted girls, Gru visits his long-lost twin brother in the kingdom of Freedonia and is tempted to return to the life of supervillainy he thought he left behind until Bratt re-enters the picture and successfully steals the pink diamond to power his giant robot for the purpose of destroying Hollywood in revenge for canceling his ‘80’s TV show.  And that, my dear readers, is the story of DM3 in a rather compact nutshell.
 
I won't lie to you.  The “laws of diminishing returns” is at work in DM3 here.  The story isn’t all that great and the series is suffering a bit of fatigue.  But that’s to be expected and perhaps unavoidable in the final analysis.  What’s important is that DM3 should give fans of the DM franchise what they wanted and keep them happy, and it did that admirably well considering the fact that it made nearly $450 million worldwide after only its second weekend.  As for me personally, what I particularly liked about DM3 are its throwback ‘80s soundtrack and Japanese-inspired Giant Robot mayhem.

Grade: B 

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Monday, July 3, 2017

License to Drive

Like many of you, I've been a big fan of British director Edgar Wright ever since his breakthrough zomedy hit ‘Shaun of the Dead’ back in 2004.  His two follow-ups in the so-called “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy,” the buddy-cop shoot-em’-up action-comedy ‘Hot Fuzz’ (2007) and end-of-the-world bodysnatcher apocalyptic comedy ‘The World’s End’ (2013) were also great, even if SOTD is still considered to be the best among them.  Likewise, his movie adaptation of the graphic novel ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World' (2010) was brilliant if underappreciated.  I was therefore disappointed when he was attached to direct the ‘Ant-Man’ movie, then abruptly left due to “creative differences.”  No matter, because as his latest film ‘Baby Driver’ has shown, the 43-year old Wright is better off writing original material than having his quirky genius crimped by a major studio like Marvel anyway.
 
Set in Atlanta (like last year’s ‘Triple 9’ reviewed here: 999), BD dispensed with Wright’s long-time British partners-in-crime Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in favor of a much more American cast boasting some major league talent in the forms of Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and a couple of Jon’s (Hamm and Bernthal).  The film also features two young newcomers in baby-faced Ansel Elgort and the hot-to-trot Eiza González and gave them a chance to shine, the former as a reluctant getaway driver with the mad skills and cool nerves of a NASCAR driver and the latter as the saucy and spicy Latin “Bonnie” to Jon Hamm’s Clyde.
 
While BD’s plot isn’t exactly new being a variation of the “decent fellow who wants to leave his life of crime behind but finds it easier said than done” theme, Wright managed to give it a fresh spin with its unique protagonist and colorful cast of criminals.  In many ways this movie is also Wright's homage to heist movies, rom-coms and funky soul music from the 60's and 70's.  Not only does BD work as an entertaining cops-and-robbers flick but also a romance with plenty of heart and soul (music), as Wright proves once again that he has a singular talent for blending comedy with humanity and a healthy dose of gratuitous R-rated violence.  I love it.

Grade: A

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How to Survive a Shark Attack

Despite its obvious flaws I quite enjoyed last year’s ‘The Shallows,’ a movie about a cat-and-mouse game between a Great White Predator and Blake Lively’s hapless surfer-in-peril (reviewed here: Blake Lively kicks Shark Butt), so when the new Jaws-inspired movie ’47 Meters Down’ came under my radar I just knew I had to see it.  One blurb even called it “the best shark film since Jaws,” so you’ll have to forgive me for jumping the shark, I mean into my local mega-plex to see it the first change I got.
 
The basic plot of 47MD is bloodily simple.  Easy-on-the-eyes siblings Kate and Lisa (Aussie actress Claire Holt and singer/actress Mandy Moore) go on vacay in Mexico to help the latter get over her recent separation with her boyfriend, who had the gall to break up with her because he considered her “boring.”  Needing to send her ex-BF a “FU, you don’t know what you’re missing” and reasoning that “I’ll be enclosed in a sturdy steel cage and people did it all the time, so what could possibly go wrong?", Lisa (who does seem to be a tame and risk-averse gal in the movie) threw caution into the wind and reluctantly allowed her wilder and more spontaneous little sis Kate to talk her into going on a cage dive in shark-infested waters after a couple of local young eligible bachelors they met at a bar the previous night suggested it.  What could possibly go wrong?  The law of “Murphy” of course.
 
I was disappointed.  After sitting through a third of the movie following the sisters around with all their girl-talk and issues before they become shark bait, the big payoff I expected never materialized.  Unlike ‘The Shallows,’ the tension and suspense failed to build-up to a level that kept me at the edge of my seat, and the sense of danger and peril were sorely lacking in this film.  47MD may be more realistic in its depiction of real-life shark encounters wherein a survivor lived to tell the Shark tale, but sometimes movies have to ratchet it up a few notches and over-dramatize things to keep us interested even if every marine biologist tells us that sharks aren’t the aggressive, human-chomping monsters pop culture made them out to be.  Even the original ‘Jaws’ went pretty far, right?  And I was shaking my head in utter disbelief when I saw the (spoiler ahead) faux ending sequence in which Lisa fought off tooth-and-nail the shark that had her firmly in its grips by ripping one of its eyes out, but then I read this hard-to-believe story: How to Survive a Shark Attack.  Regardless, I still liked the badass, don’t mess with Blake Lively ending of ‘The Shallows’ much better.  Sorry, reality is just soooo boring.

Grade: C+
 
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All in the Family

I admit I am a bit of a sucker for low-budget indie horror and have, as you might expect, seen my share of both good ones and bad.  For every ‘Paranormal Activity’ and ‘Get Out,’ there is an ‘As Above, So Below’ and ‘Ouija.’  There are movies that were critically maligned that I somehow enjoyed, such as the unabashedly exploitative ‘The Purge,’ and ones that critics raved about that I thought aren't very good, like the highly overrated ‘It Follows.’  The latest such movie to get a wide release is A24’s ‘It Comes at Night’ which falls somewhere in between being just so-so. 
 
‘It Comes at Night’ (don't ask me what comes at night because I still can't figure it out) can best be characterized as post-apocalyptic survival psychological suspense horror (now that’s a mouthful).  A family of three comprising of a father, mother and their teenage son (played by Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr.) live in a secluded house in the woods of an unspecified location in America.  A plague or disease of unknown origin has ravaged the world outside, and the characters’ (and by extension the audience’s) situation awareness is so limited that all we know is what’s happening in the "here and now. " When another family of three including a little boy seeks their aid and appeals to their humanity for shelter, they agree to take in the family for mutual support and companionship. However, even sympathetic gestures such as this can lead to tragedy and disaster in the end.
 
While this glacially paced movie is fairly well written and solidly acted, it is not an easy film to watch.  Not only is ‘It Comes at Night’ bleak, depressing and devoid of hope even by post-apocalyptic standards, its dark and tragic ending defies Hollywood conventions and leaves a bitter taste in our mouths.  Be forewarned.  All ye who enter this movie abandon hope because there is none to be found.

Grade: B
  
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The She-Mummy

Universal Studio’s much ballyhooed “Dark Universe” appeared to be off to an inauspicious start in producer/director Alex Kurtzman’s ‘The Mummy,’ the latest incarnation (or is it reincarnation) of one of Hollywood’s classic monsters harking back to the days of Boris Karloff.  Lambasted by critics and shunned by moviegoers, ‘The Mummy’ bombed with a disappointing domestic take of $32 million on opening week and suffered a steep 60 percent drop over the past weekend.  The final nail seems to have been driven into the $125 million dollar movie’s coffin before you can ask “What the hell happened?”  Well, something funny, that’s what.  With the savvy Tom Cruise at the helm, ‘The Mummy’ proved to be a mega-blockbuster hit overseas, particularly in China.  The film has now grossed nearly $240 million worldwide, of which less than $50 million came out of the North American market.  Just let that sink in for a minute.  What would Hollywood do without the Chinese?
 
The critics are right though.  The story (credited to Kurtzman, Jon Spaihts and Jenny Lumet)  is pretty bad.  Cruise plays Nick Morton, a sleazy ex-Special Forces sergeant and shameless tomb raider who had no qualms selling priceless artifacts that belong in museums on the black market for personal gain.  When he accidentally awakened the mummy of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), an Egyptian princess who sold her soul to Set and murdered her own family for the throne but was thwarted in her quest to become queen of Egypt, Morton must draw upon every ounce of his wits and ability in order to prevent worldwide catastrophe with the help of archeologist and out of central casting cookie-cutter blond sidekick Jenny Halsey (Anabelle Wallis).
 
The main problem with ‘The Mummy’ isn’t that it’s unwatchable.  The problem is that it cannot be judged on its own merits without comparing it to the 1999 version directed by Stephen Sommers starring Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz and John Hannah.  While that movie was no masterpiece by any stretch, it was fun and the perfect Indiana Jones-inspired popcorn flick.  By contrast, this latest is a weak effort that’s a sloppy slapdash mish mash of various influences, and the film suffered for it stylistically and tonally.  I mean, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, really?  Also, Cruise and Wallis lacked the sheer on-screen chemistry of Frasier and Weisz.  If anything, this film brings to mind another expensive and messy failure, 'Van Helsing,' whose director happened to be the same guy who directed the 1999 version.

Grade: C
 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Princess Diana of Themyscira

Superhero moviedom gets a good dose of “Girl Power” in DC Extended Universe’s ‘Wonder Woman,’ director Patty Jenkin’s highly anticipated and “trail-blazing” film featuring a superheroine in a genre overrepresented by men (just ask yourself, how many such movies end with the suffix “Man”?).  Much hand-wringing and no small amount of feminist drama, including a controversy over WW’s shaved armpit (hairy armpit "controversy"), preceded the movie’s release as Hollywood held its collective breath to see if the world is finally ready to embrace and, more importantly, financially reward a movie with a female headliner.
 
Having made more than $100 million over its first weekend in North America and twice that globally, we can all now breathe a sigh of relief.  Not that there’s really any doubt, since WW was well-received and a bright spot in 2016’s ‘Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice’ (reviewed here: Bats vs Supes: Dawn of Justice), her very first appearance in the DCEU.  Israeli stunner "what a Gal!" Gadot was nothing less than gorgeous as the Amazonian Goddess Diana Prince, the greatest warrior princess on an invisible island full of Xenas.  After British pilot and spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) unwelcomely crash lands on her secluded island paradise, she joins him and embarks on a mission outside her sheltered world to stop Ares (as in the God of War) and put an end to man’s greatest folly, which happens to be World War I at the time.
 
Relying on familiar storytelling tropes such as the opening scene in which an old war photograph from Bruce Wayne triggers her story via flashback, WW’s origin is a nostalgic affair reminiscent of the story of another idealistic red, white and blue-clad do-gooder who fought Germans during the last century in ‘Captain America: The First Avenger.’  Partly set in London during the early 20th Century, WW also provides some levity in the way of a British comedy of manners.  And even though Zack Snyder stepped aside as director this time his influence is still evident, like the 300-esque visual style and jerky slow motion action scenes throughout the movie.

Grade: A


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Monday, May 22, 2017

Prometheus 2

As an aficionado of just about anything 'Alien,' Ridley Scott’s latest film in the 38-year old franchise, ‘Alien: Covenant,’ may be my most anticipated movie of 2017.  Five years after 2012's 'Prometheus,' which I thought was pretty darn good (so sue me) even if it had too much "Space Jockey" (Engineer) and too little Alien, a new installment is long overdue as far as I'm concerned.  And the gorier the better!
 
‘Alien: Covenant’ takes place in 2104, about 10 years after the events which expired, I mean transpired in ‘Prometheus.’  Centering on the crew of the space ship “Covenant” in cryogenic stasis entasked with transporting 2,000 settlers to a habitable planet dubbed Origae-6, only to be rudely awakened prematurely to deal with an on-board crisis before responding to a garbled and mysterious transmission from an unknown planet nearby which just so happened to be suitable for human habitation without the need for terra-forming.  Sounds familiar?  Needless to say, they encounter hostile Xenomorphs of various types on the planet.
 
While ‘Alien: Covenant’ is undeniably a direct sequel to the divisive ‘Prometheus,’ it can also be considered to be a prequel to ‘Alien’ and hews more closely to the 1979 original than perhaps any of the other films in the official Alien canon.  With deadly Xenomorphs skittering around the confined corridors of Covenant preying on soft fleshy things that die messily, the claustrophobia-induced anxieties and nail-biting suspense of that original Ridley Scott film are rekindled.  It's also perhaps by no accident that the movie’s heroine, Daniels "Dany" Branson (Katherine Waterston, whose pedigree is impeccable given her lineage), somewhat resembled the young Ellen Ripley.

Grade: A-

Alien Covenant

Short Live the King!

Poor Guy Ritchie.  The ex-hubby of Madonna and director of entertaining British Jason Statham‑starring crime capers such as ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ and ‘Snatch’ just can’t catch a break.  Less than two years removed from his unenthusiastically received big-screen adaptation of the campy ‘60’s spy series ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ (reviewed here: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), his latest feature, the $175 million sword-and-sorcery epic ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,’ only managed to fall on Excalibur instead and disembowel itself at the box office.  Ouch.
 
Intended as the first entry in a new King Arthur/Knights of the Round Table franchise (now in doubt undoubtedly), KA:LotS retells the story of Arthur’s (Charlie Hunnam) origin, starting from his father King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) being betrayed by his power-hungry and treacherous uncle Vortigern (Jude Law) to his eventual restoration to the throne.  The story is a familiar one, albeit updated with the latest visual effects, a contemporary sensibility and the quippy rapid-fire dialogue that has become a trademark of Guy Ritchie movies.
 
It’s not difficult to see why KA:LotS crashed and burned so badly both critically and commercially.  This latest retelling of one of our most cherished legends is a decidedly messy affair that’s hard to digest.  While boasting a talented cast, most of whom did okay, the film is pretty much “all sound and fury, signifying nothing” while lacking substance with an over-abundance of action.  Shamelessly riding the coat-tails of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ visually and stylistically, KA:LotS seems content to dish out one overblown set-piece action sequence after another, never slowing down enough to show that it cares about the characters or ponder their significance.

Grade: D 
 
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Iraqi Sniper

The latest movie about America’s tragic, never-ending war in the Middle East is ‘The Wall,’ a low-budget affair directed by Doug Liman (‘The Bourne Identity,’ ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith,’ ‘Edge of Tomorrow’).  With a mere budget of $3 million and a cast of two, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and WWE superstar John Cena, ‘The Wall’ is at first glance intriguing but ultimately an unsatisfying war movie that takes a lo-fi minimalist approach.
 
Johnson and Cena play sergeants Allen Isaac and Shane Matthews, a US Army sniper team sent to investigate a pipeline construction site that’s “gone dark” in the middle-of-nowhere desert wasteland of post-war Iraq.  After patiently observing the now quiet kill zone where the private contractors were killed for nearly 24 hours, the pair broke cover in order to recover equipment only to find themselves pinned down by an unseen enemy, a cunning and ruthless Iraqi sniper who takes particular pleasure in playing mind games with his hapless victims (namely Isaac).  The only thing separating Isaac and his sadistic never-seen adversary is a length of crumbling brick wall, which provides the setting for virtually the film’s entire length.
 
Even though I’m as much a fan of do-or-die cat-and-mouse sniper duels as anyone (I thought ‘Enemy at the Gates’ was good and enjoyed ‘American Sniper’ despite its blatant rah-rah jingoism), ‘The Wall’ just didn’t hold my attention or interest long enough.  In the wake of his bravura performance in ‘Nocturnal Animals,’ Johnson proved once again that he can act (although Cena was pretty much a non-factor after he ran out and got shot), but the movie’s limited by an overly thin and sparse script that would have trouble holding our attention for 60 minutes, much less its 81-minute running time.

Grade: C-

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Monday, May 8, 2017

Galaxy Quest

2014’s geektastic ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (reviewed here: GotG) is an excessively fun and humorous galaxy-spanning romp in the MCU and a bona fide smash hit which exceeded all expectations at the worldwide box office, so it comes as little surprise that the follow-up would garner inflated expectations.  With such a tough act to follow, can writer/director James Gunn and company deliver and satisfy the legions of comic book fans renowned for their hard-to-pleaseness?  Inquiring minds want to know.
 
‘Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2’ continues the wild and wacky misadventures of our unlikely band of privateers-for-hire comprised of Peter Quill aka Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket Raccoon and a pint-sized “I am” Groot, who can’t seem to shake trouble wherever they go.  After narrowly escaping the wrath of a gold-painted former employer, the motley crew of misfits are called upon to save the galaxy yet again, this time from none other than (spoiler ahead) Peter’s long-lost father Ego (Kurt Russell), who’s a god-like sentient living planet of all things.
 
Like the original, GotG2 is a candy-coated rollicking rollercoaster ride of a movie, but this time with family dysfunction at its core.  Not only did Star-Lord have a misty reunion with the dad he never knew, green-skinned Gamora was also reunited with her sister Nebula, who wanted to kill her because she blamed Gamora for what their cruel dad Thanos did to her by being “too good” in their sibling rivalries.  But the real hero in the movie is the rough-around-the-edges Ravager leader with the blue skin and red Mohawk, Yondu (Michael Rooker), who showed us in the end what being a true father is all about. 

Grade: A

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Big Brother... with a Smiley Face

Every so often, a film aims to be thought-provoking and to make some kind of eye-opening social commentary about the human condition but somehow falls flat and fails to connect with the audience in a big way.  I’m sure this was not what the producers and director James Ponsoldt had in mind when they tackled the challenge of adapting Dave Eggers’ bestselling novel ‘The Circle,’ a cautionary tale about letting too much information into our lives and becoming too dependent on social networks, onto the big screen.
 
The story of a young woman (played by Emma Watson) who joins a chic Google-esque tech firm in Silicon Valley but increasingly finds herself the unwilling member of a cult of technology which happily and unquestioningly sacrifices individuality for the “greater good” of openness and full transparency, ‘The Circle’ is meant to sound an alarm and provoke debate on how technology is encroaching into our personal freedom and sovereignty.  Yet despite game performances from Watson and Tom Hanks, the latter as the charismatic and fatherly founder of ‘The Circle’ with all his homespun wisdom, the film never manages to find its footing as either suspense thriller or social satire.
 
While Eggers’ novel is powerful and effective, a true spiritual successor of dystopian classics such as George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World,’ this movie is ill-conceived from the very start.  ‘The Circle’ should serve as a cautionary tale to Hollywood that not all bestselling books can be transplanted into feature films.

Grade: C- 

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Ghost in the Machine

Mamoru Oshii’s animated feature ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is considered to be essential viewing and one of the defining anime films of all time.  Not having read Masamune Shirow’s 1989 manga pre-dating it, this 1995 movie was my first entry into the futuristic cyberpunk universe depicted in the popular anime franchise which also includes ‘GitS: Innocence,’ ‘GitS: Stand Alone Complex,’ ‘GitS Stand Alone Complex: Solid State Society,’ ‘GitS S.A.C. 2nd GIG,’ ‘GitS: Arise’ and ‘GitS: The Rising’ (aka ‘The New Movie’).  So when I heard that GitS is being made into a live action movie starring Scarlett Johansson, it became one of my must-see movies of 2017.
 
ScarJo (in a somewhat stiff performance, but that's hardly her fault) takes on the role of GitS’s main protagonist, Major Mira Killian aka Motoko Kusanagi, the cybernetically enhanced team leader of the highly secretive “Public Security Section 9,” a shadowy black-ops department of the Japanese government.  When a Hanka Robotics meeting was hit by unknown assailants and a hacked killer Geisha robot (cool!), the Major and her team are assigned to go after the mastermind behind the attack, an elusive and mysterious cyber-criminal puppet-master known as Kuze.  As Killian closes in on Kuze, she comes to the increasing realization that things are not as she’s led to believe and begins to question her very own identity.
 
Mixing the visual style of ‘Blade Runner’ with the hyper-kinetic choreography of ‘The Matrix,’ GitS has a lot going for it in the eye-candy department.  While I can overlook the “white-washing” in casting ScarJo as a Japanese heroine and switching to a “nude” Thermoptic bodysuit, the screenplay is unoriginal and little more than a recycled neo-noir Philip K. Dick-sian conspiracy plot in which the protagonist turns against her masters along the lines of ‘Minority Report’ and ‘Total Recall.’ Nonetheless, fans of GitS should find just enough to recommend here (Spider Tank, cool!)  despite its obvious flaws.

Grade: B+
 
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La Belle et la Bête

Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villenueve’s popular romantic fairy tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is updated for the umpteenth time in Disney’s latest live action treatment starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans and Josh Gad.  With its “beauty is only skin deep” and “true beauty comes from within” theme and counterpoint to fairy tales like ‘Snow White,’ ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ in which the beauty and the handsome prince live happily ever after, it’s easy to see why this fable possesses such a timeless appeal, but few people may be aware that this tale was borne out of social-economic necessity in its time and place, 18th Century France, an era when young women of marriageable age (“beauties”) form alliances with men of wealth and good standing but lacking in appearance (“beasts”) out of convenience rather than love as a matter of course.
 
You should be familiar with the story by now.  A witch turns a handsome young prince (Dan Stevens) into an unsightly beast after he refused her shelter because of her looks (she’s an enchantress who appeared to him in the guise of an ugly old hag as a test), along with his servants whom she transforms into various mundane household objects.  To break the curse, the princely beast must learn to love another and in turn earn her love in return before the last petal of a rose falls off.  To make a long story short, he manages to do so with a headstrong and bookish young woman uninterested in love named Belle (Emma Watson) in the nick of time despite various obstacles, not the least of which was the rakishly handsome but dastardly villain Gaston (Luke Evans).
 
Glossy, exuberant and with charm to spare, BatB is another joyous and wonderful Disney offering that’s nigh impossible not to like.  Watson is quite simply radiant, and the fact that virtually all the songs in the film are instantly recognizable and familiar didn't hurt either, making BatB a highly accessible musical for all ages.  With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that this latest incarnation of the classic had already earned its place as the highest grossing live-action musical of all time.

Grade: A
 
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Friday, March 24, 2017

3 for 1 Special

It's been a long time since I posted one of these short-but-sweet triple headers.  Since I'll be on vacation out of the country for the next two weeks cinema-free, I thought I'd get a quick one in while I can.
 
Life on Mars: A team of astronauts on the ISS recover a dormant and seemingly innocuous living organism from Mars and got themselves into a world of hurt (especially Ryan Reynolds).  While 'Life' is but the latest incarnation of the creature feature in space (or other claustrophobic environments) like 'Alien,' 'DeepStar Six' and 'Leviathan,' it is a suspenseful, tightly plotted and frightening flick made all the more believable by its contemporary setting and strong individual performances.  The tentacled starfish-like alien in 'Life' may not be a  seven-foot tall xenomorph encased in hardened carapace with sharp teeth and razor-like claws, but it is no less deadly for its survival imperative.  Curiosity kills not only cats and in space, no one can hear you say "we're fucked."
 
Grade: A-
 
Powerless: The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were all the rage in the 1990's.  This team of five teenage superheroes in color-coded costumes with chop-socky karate moves and cool transformer-like toys was one of the great Japanese pop cultural imports, spawning a hugely successful TV franchise and two feature films, not to mention all those action figures.  Like those pesky Ninja Turtles, now we get a reboot in Saban's 'Power Rangers.'  If you've already decided to see this movie because it brings back fond memories of your bygone childhood, I can't stop you, but if you're on the fence I can save you the trouble (and time and money) by telling you to just stay away.  Go see 'Life' instead.  This latest movie in the PR franchise may be glossy and packed with the cool visuals one would expect considering its $100 million budget, but it is so languid and boring that I was on the verge of falling asleep.  The five "chosen" teenagers are a clichéd bunch of misunderstood and angst-ridden rejects out of 'The Breakfast Club,' and although she isn't a bad actress by any measure, Elizabeth Banks had the misfortune of being miscast as one of the worst movie villains in cinematic history.
 
Grade: C-
 
Office Slays: In the tradition of 'Battle Royale,' 'Would You Rather?' and 'Saw,' the latest "people forced to do unspeakable things to other people by unknown people who play god" movie is 'The Belko Experiment,' a low budget B-horror movie about a group of office workers in Colombia who suddenly and inexplicably find themselves to be the guinea pigs of a sadistic and bloody "social experiment."  The devilish premise is deceptively simple and requires us to suspend our disbelief in no small degree, but once you sign on for this Fangoria and Bloody Disgusting gory ride you may find it to be a rather enjoyable guilty pleasure, even if its ending is a bit predictable.
 
Grade: B

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Island of the Ape

It can be said that the latest Hollywood treatment of King Kong, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ ‘Kong: Skull Island,’ would not have been possible without the success of ‘Godzilla 2014’ (reviewed here: link),  Gareth Edwards’ reboot of our beloved Japanese big lizard franchise which went on to gross over $500 million worldwide.  So confident was Legendary Pictures in the popularity of its newly minted “Monsterverse,” scheduled to culminate in the battle royale between the ape and lizard (what a marquee matchup, eh?) in 2020, it shelled out a production budget of $185 million for ‘Skull Island,’ plus another $130 million in ancillary marketing/advertising costs making it that much harder to turn a profit. 
 
‘Kong: Skull Island’ takes place in 1973 (as the Vietnam War winds down) on Kong’s mythical homeworld, a primeval “lost world” somewhere in the South Pacific.  Members of a shady government program dubbed “Monarch” (John Goodman and some black dude) organize an expedition onto Skull Island in search of god-knows-what.  With a Huey air cavalry squadron led by brash and gung-ho Samuel L. Jackson providing muscle, former SAS man-turned-mercenary Tom Hiddleston as tracker/guide and photojournalist Brie Larson tagging along to record the momentous event for posterity, our hapless explorers find more than they bargained for in this most unforgiving of hostile environments.
 
With nods to ‘Apocalypse Now’ (cue breathtaking sunset backdrop and “Rise of the Valkyries” formation flying before being punched out of the air by you-know-who) and ‘Jurassic Park’ (yes, people got devoured by giant reptiles), ‘Skull Island’ can hardly be called original.  Yet despite all that it is an exceedingly entertaining popcorn B-movie that even the most cynical of viewers will find difficult not to enjoy.  The action comes hard and fast, the cinematography and visuals are simply gorgeous, and the Great Ape had never seemed so… human and humane.  Whether or not ‘Kong: Skull Island’ ultimately recoups its insanely high budget, it maintained the tradition of King Kong movie excellence and whetted our appetites for Kong’s highly anticipated smack-down against the giant radioactive-spawned reptile currently slated for May 29, 2020 (after said reptile's sequel due out on March 22, 2019, that is).

Grade: A

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Monday, March 6, 2017

Logan's Run

Since I first saw the trailer of ‘Logan’ set to the mournful melodies and lyrics of Johnny Cash’s "Hurt," I’ve been impatiently waiting to see it.  The Wolverine trilogy comes to a fitting if somewhat sappy end as director James Mangold (‘Walk the Line,’ no wonder his choice of song) followed up on his pretty good second installment (‘The Wolverine’ reviewed here: link) with this even better, and certainly more memorable, effort that made us all but forget the mess that was ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ and redeemed the rough-and-tumble Canuck X-Man whom we all love.  Hugh Jackman, in reprising the feral and animalistic character who can rip you to shreds for the last time over a span of 17 years, put in what may well be his best performance to date.  Well done, bub.
 
Loosely based on ‘Kick-Ass’ creator Mark Millar’s alternate universe graphic novel ‘Old Man Logan,’ the film takes place in the bleak dystopian future of 2029, one in which Logan and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) are among the last of a dying breed (as in mutant-kind).  Reduced to a shell of a man eking out a pitiful existence as a drunkard and limo driver, Logan – and the bedridden and even more pitiable former Professor X whom he’s taking care of like an ailing father – suddenly find one last worthy purpose in their meaningless lives to nobly fulfill when a young Mexican girl-experimental subject named Laura (Dafne Keen) needed their help.
 
Raw, primal, complex and unexpectedly dark, ‘Logan’ is the most deeply personal Wolverine movie ever committed to celluloid.  James Howlett never seemed so flawed, tortured and grappling with his inner demons as he did in this film, and Hugh Jackman had a lot to do with that.  Tonally and stylistically, ‘Logan’ is a different film from anything we’ve seen in the Marvel milieu, even for one that falls well beyond the official MCU.  It is ‘Wolverine’ by way of a dusty Sam Peckinpah western combined with a Mad Max chase thriller, a brutal R-rated bloodbath reveling in its nihilistic excess.  Ditching glossy CGI visuals and epic-ness of scope for a low-fi naturalistic feel, ‘Logan’ is a welcome departure in a genre that’s become somewhat predictable and stale in its very sameness.

Grade: A 

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Friday, March 3, 2017

Meet the Parents

Jordan Peele, MAD TV alum and one half of the comedic duo from Comedy Central’s ‘Key & Peele,’ is also one heck of a screenwriter, producer and director.  His debut feature (as writer/producer/director), the low budget horror flick ‘Get Out,’ had garnered universal acclaim (an unbelievable 99% "fresh" rating on RT, so take that 'Moonlight' and 'La La Land'!) and generated a lot of buzz since its release last weekend, not to mention exceeding expectations and earning the number one spot with $33 million at the box office.  Being the jaded horror aficionado that I am and having been disappointed more often than not by recent efforts in the genre, I just had to see for myself if ‘Get Out’ truly lives up to its high billing.
 
The story is simplicity itself.  Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a young African-American whose relationship with his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) has reached a steadiness that warranted finally meeting her family, the outwardly nice Fockers.... I mean Armitages.  Concerned that Rose hadn’t yet told them she's dating a black man, his reservations were soon put to rest after the warm reception from the loving family.  But things are not as they initially appear of course.  Strange behavior from the family and the two black servants as well as other guests gradually led Chris to believe that things are very, very wrong and that he is slowly sinking into a living nightmare from which he must "get out."  Just what in tarnation is going on here???!!!
 
With no expectations of what the movie’s about but high expectations from all the hype surrounding it, I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by what turned out to be an intelligent, funny and genuinely scary movie which also serves as social satire.  I am not exaggerating here in saying that ‘Get Out’ is a masterwork of steadily building suspense and creeping paranoia the likes of which we haven’t seen in quite awhile.  Thanks to this movie, you will never hear the simple sound of a silver spoon stirring in a China teacup quite the same way again.  And like all great horror movies, it has a doozie of a twist near the end that hits us like a pile of bricks.  There are shades of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (the 1956 original and the 1978 remake), ‘The Stepford Wives’ (the original, not the remake) and 'Rosemary's Baby.'  That, my friends, is high praise indeed.

Grade: A+
 
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Monday, February 27, 2017

Teacher's Pet

Mike (M.R.) Carey’s "The Girl with All the Gifts" is one of the better – and most original – zombie apocalypse novels I’ve read of late, so when I heard that it’s been adapted into a movie starring Glenn Close and the lovely Gemma Arterton I knew I can only resist watching it with as much success as the undead can decline an all-you-can-eat brain buffet.  Unfortunately, foreign films (in this case British) generally take a bit longer before reaching the American audience if they do at all, and even when it finally happens these films typically only get a limited release due to the sheer number of competing films out there at any given time.
 
Determined as I was, when I found out that TGWATG is finally released stateside (only five months after its initial release in England) last weekend I drove 35 miles to see it at the Laemmle NoHo Theater in North Hollywood, not far from the Dolby Theater where they held the (somewhat disastrous) Oscars last night.  And it was well worth it.  First-time director Colm McCarthy and writer Mike Carey (who wrote the screenplay) hewed closely to the book for the most part and told the story from the very human and sympathetic viewpoint and experiences of the protagonist, a young girl named Melanie who (you guessed it) possesses “all the gifts.”  As in the book, the relationship and special bond between Melanie and her teacher, Miss Justineau (Arterton), provide the emotional depth and complexity to the story as we follow them and a few other survivors in their trek across a devastated English countryside toward a safe haven called Beacon.
 
As I anticipated, TGWATG is a taut, riveting zombie apocalypse/survival thriller unlike anything we’ve seen before.  It’s a fresh take on the “zombie” viral outbreak concept and injected a refreshing jolt to a clichéd genre much as Danny Boyle’s ’28 Days Later’ did back in 2003.  The movie also has a certain "Lord of the Flies" element in it that’s in line with its focus on children as humanity’s future and a shocker of a twist ending.  Less expected is the fine performance turned in by 12-year old newcomer Sennia Nanua as the precocious and very "gifted" girl who may be the key to our survival, or perhaps the instrument of our very extinction?

Grade: A 

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Just So-So Wall

Acclaimed Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou (‘Hero,’ ‘House of Flying Daggers, ‘Curse of the Golden Flower’) takes on his first bona-fide blockbuster in ‘The Great Wall,’ the $150 million action-fantasy epic starring Matt Damon, Willem Dafoe, Pedro Pascal and a bunch of Chinese actors.  While it's a certified flop at the US box office critically and commercially, earning a mere $21 million over the President’s Day weekend, it somewhat mitigated its disappointing performance stateside having already pulled in over $260 million worldwide ($171 million in China alone).
 
Damon plays William Garin, a mercenary who traveled far and wide to the exotic east in search of Black Powder.  Along with his compatriot Tovar (Pascal), he survives a raid by Khitan bandits only to be captured by Chinese soldiers garrisoned at the Great Wall after fending off an attack by a mysterious creature at night.  With his particular set of skills (especially with the bow), William was impressed into the service of an elite Chinese military order tasked with defending the famous wall against mythical alien monsters called “Tao Tei,” four-legged creatures resembling giant Predator Hounds that terrorize China every 60 years.  You heard right, it's a generational occurrence.
 
Combining the epic mythical fantasy of LOTR and ‘The Hobbit’ with the oriental flair and style of Zhang’s previous “wuxia” movies, TGW is visually stunning without a doubt.  The vibrancy of the Chinese warriors of the “Nameless Order” ‘color-coded by specialty (Crane Troop, Bear Troop, Eagle Troop, Deer Troop and Tiger Troop) is a nice touch, and the acrobatic wire-fu action sequences from the all-female Crane troops are poetry-in-motion.  However, as ambitious in scope and visually impressive as it may be, TGW is nevertheless saddled with familiar trappings, tired tropes, uninspired storytelling, uneven pacing and lackluster individual performances (even from the accomplished Damon and Dafoe), making it a bloated effort with style to spare but rather lacking in substance.

Grade: B 

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Assassin's Creed

‘John Wick,’ 2014’s surprise sleeper “hit” (get it?) which more than quadrupled its modest $20 million budget at the box office about an assassin forced out of retirement to exact his brand of one man vigilante justice against a Russian mob boss (reviewed here: link), earns a much deserved sequel in ‘John Wick: Chapter 2.’  With a bigger budget (twice that of the original) and a story that ups the ante for our titular anti-hero, JW2 promises to be even bloodier and badass-ier than its predecessor.  And boy, did it deliver the goods!
 
After leaving death and destruction in his wake for the death of his beloved puppy, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) recovered his vintage ’69 Ford Mustang (in a manner of speaking) and settled down once again to the quiet and peaceful life of a retired legendary international hitman, to be forgotten by the world and left alone.  Of course, that was simply too much to ask.  This time an old “associate” calls in a debt from his dark past, one which he is bound to honor, and he is thrust back into the life he so desperately wanted to leave behind.  In JW, we learned that there is a universal golden rule punishable by death that must be followed by all assassins, and that is to never conduct “business” at the Continental hotel.  In JW2, we learn a second equally binding law, and that is a “marker” must always be honored.
 
That’s part of what makes JW so fascinating:  Its unique world-building and portrayal of a secret society of assassins amongst us, as outlandish and incredible as it may seem.  In JW2 we immerse ourselves in this richly imagined universe even more to the level of near absurdity (seemingly every other person may be an assassin!), but despite its contemporary settings and “realism” we do not question it or roll our eyes in give-me-a-break fashion because the mayhem and carnage inflicted throughout are so bloody delicious and fun.  ‘John Wick: Chapter 3’ anyone?
 
Grade: A

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The 24th Persona

M. Night Shyamalan continues his impressive comeback which began with 2015’s ‘The Visit’ in his latest directorial feature ‘Split,’ a twisty psychological chiller that harks back to his earlier works such as ‘The Sixth Sense,’ Unbreakable’ and ‘Signs.’  While this won’t entirely wipe away his later string of disappointments including ‘The Village,’ ‘Lady in the Water’ and ‘The Happening,’ the Indian-American former NYU grad proves that he’s still “master of the Night” when he’s on top of his game.
 
‘Split’ tells the intriguing tale of Kevin (James McAvoy in one of his best performances to date) , a troubled loner with a condition the field of clinical psychology calls “dissociative identity disorder.”  To put it simply, he has 23 distinct personalities, of which two happen to be dominant.  One such identity is a creepy weirdo named Dennis who stalks young girls.  In the movie's opening scene (and in the trailer) this particular incarnation kidnaps three teenagers, one of whom is Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy from ‘The Witch’), a disturbed and abused girl herself who engages in a battle of wits with Kevin's myriad personalities (including a 9-year old boy named "Hedwig") as they manifest themselves in her attempt to get out alive.
 
‘Split’ is a masterwork of psychological terror and suspense.  Much of this is due to McAvoy’s bravura turn as the man with many faces and  particularly his uncanny ability to switch among the multiple personalities with seemingly effortless ease.  Anya Taylor-Joy was also compelling as the damsel-in-distress whose survival instincts are fueled by an inner strength born out of her own dark childhood and history, which unfolded through a series of flashbacks.  The film reaches its climax in truly frightening fashion as Kevin’s 24th personality emerge from the depths of his being, a physiological transformation so primal that made it nothing less than an apotheosis.

Grade: A 
 
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Resident Final

The most successful video game film franchise in cinematic history comes to a fitting conclusion in ‘Resident Evil: The Final Chapter,’ B-movie genre veteran Paul W. S. Anderson’s adaptation of the immensely popular but ultra-violent and gory Japanese post-apocalyptic shooter-survival video game series from Capcom featuring zombies, mutants, death traps, an unscrupulous (okay, downright Evil) pharmaceutical conglomerate and the heroes who fight them.  Unlike ‘Underworld’ (see my first review this year), the producers of ‘Resident Evil’ knows when to wrap things up, deciding that six movies are quite enough, and rightly so.
 
41-year old Ukrainian beauty Milla Jovovich (and real life wife of Anderson) reprised her role as Alice for this final go-round, cementing her place as one of Hollywood’s most iconic and badass femme fatales in recent memory.  15 years after the original film, the story comes full circle as Alice and a group of like-minded resistance fighters including Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) return to Umbrella Corporation's labyrinthine underground complex to destroy the sinister organization and its head, Dr. Alexander Isaacs (Iain Glen), once and for all.  Any lingering questions and missing plot-lines are explained and neatly tied up, bringing the RE series to a somewhat satisfactory conclusion.  We find out why the T-Virus was created, how its original creator had noble intentions but was subverted and betrayed by a scheming colleague, and what the objective and end-game of the Umbrella Corporation were.  Then we get what we came for, seeing Alice shoot up and decapitate zombies and mutants, perform graceful acrobatics effortlessly like poetry and kick Umbrella Corporation butt. 
 
‘The Final Chapter’ is by no means a great movie, or even a particularly good one for that matter.  But really, do we seriously expect it to be?  What RE offers is what its intended audience always wanted, no more and no less.  ‘The Final Chapter’ may not even be the best film of the franchise (to me, the 2002 original is still the best), but what it does is give us a chance to see Milla do her thang one more time for old times’ sake.

Grade: B 

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Tampa Vice

There’s an unspoken but generally accepted perk in Hollywood that, when a director wins big at the Oscars and is sufficiently accomplished, he’s entitled to a “labor of love” or vanity project with little studio interference and no strings attached.  Actor/Director Ben Affleck, coming off a directorial hot streak with films like ‘The Town,’ ‘Gone Baby Gone’ and the Oscar best picture winner ‘Argo,’ cashed in his chips by making a prohibition-era gangster crime-noir thriller set in sunny Tampa, Florida.  While ‘Live By Night’ isn't the disaster (except at the box office in an unusually crowded January) some critics are making it out to be, it nonetheless failed to catch on, becoming the latest in a string of recent misfires set during the same period along with ‘Public Enemies,’ ‘Lawless’ and ‘Gangster Squad.’
 
Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel by the same name, Affleck (who also wrote and directed) plays Joe Coughlin, an Irish Great War vet-turned-small time crook who became a reluctant gangster.  From what we can gather, his motivations didn’t arise out of any ambitions to rise to the top of a criminal empire a la’ Tony Montana but out of revenge for the loss of his beloved Emma, with whom he was having an affair behind the back of her patron, the Irish mobster Albert White, who found out and dealt with them in typical heavy handed fashion.  So even though Coughlin’s Irish, he signed up with White’s arch enemy, the Italian mafia boss Pescatore, who saw potential and assigned him to take charge of his rum operations in Tampa.  As the story unfolds, we see Coughlin build up his rum empire in Tampa and make it a highly lucrative enterprise, strike an alliance with the Cubans through marriage (with Zoe Saldana's Graciela), go to war against the local Ku Klux Klan and develop a soft spot for the daughter of the local police chief played by Elle Fanning (the daughter, not the chief).  There’s a lot to cover even for a movie running over two hours, and many critics have pointed out that perhaps the film’s ambition exceeded its limited reach.
 
While ‘Live By Night’ probably would have worked better as a mini-series, it managed what it could as a movie and I found the film to be alright, all things considered.  Affleck gave a quiet and understated performance as the film’s anti-hero, a man who skirts the boundaries of the law but possesses a code of honor, not unlike Tom Hanks' character in ‘Road to Perdition.’  In ‘Live By Night,’ action and Tommy Guns speak louder than words.  And the cinematography and sets are quite gorgeous too.

Grade: B+
 
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Patriots Day of Infamy

The Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 is the subject of the latest docudrama from Mark Wahlberg and actor-turned-director Peter Berg, who previously collaborated on similar movie adaptions of true life events in ‘Lone Survivor’ and ‘Deepwater Horizon.’  This terrorist incident isn’t so long ago that it’s no longer fresh in our memory and is perhaps more relevant today than ever before in light of the fact that Europe and the US had been hit by a rash of “lone wolf” style attacks of varying intensity last year that contributed to a climate of fear and anger (rightly or not) which may have helped elect a populist candidate into our highest political office.
 
With ‘Patriots Day,’ Peter Berg has surpassed Paul Greengrass as Hollywood's pre-eminent director of current events-based dramatic reenactments.   Wahlberg, who has established a niche in Hollywood as our everyday blue-collar “working man,” donned the cap and uniform of Boston’s finest (a true “Blue Blood”) this time around as Sergeant Tommy Saunders, a wisecracking cop and family man assigned as part of the police detail overseeing the race.  Through his character as well as other participants (some real-life and some fictional) on that fateful day and in the succeeding weeks, including sibling perps Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, this infamous terrorist incident is painstakingly recreated in procedural detail.
 
‘Patriots Day’ may not be for everyone and may hit “too close to home” for some, but it is engrossing, inspiring and, yes, even patriotic.  As one who did not follow this incident very closely in the news at the time and knew little of its details, I found the film to be enlightening, at times fascinating and even inspirational in the reassuring sense that people unite together to help each other out in times of crisis.  But all this is expected and the film (though technically flawless) has a decidedly by-the-book quality, from the initial chaos to the political turf battles to the subsequent manhunt, that’s all too familiar right down to its jingoistic heart.

Grade: B+
 
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