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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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Unsung Space Heroines

Every year around the MLK holiday and Black History Month, we see some notable films released that depict African-American history or the civil rights movement.  This year, female African-American pioneers from the early days of our space program are given their belated due in director Theodore Melfi’s marvelous big-screen adaptation of Morgot Lee Shetterley’s nonfiction book ‘Hidden Figures.’   Entertaining, eye-opening and deeply inspirational, ‘Hidden Figures’ is essential viewing not only in high schools but for anyone interested in the American space program as well as gender and racial equality in the workplace.
 
‘Hidden Figures’ is the story of three remarkable women, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who made valuable contributions to America's fledgling space program during 1962, at a time when the US was lagging behind Russia in the space race after Sputnik and Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth.  In an era when Jim Crow laws and “separate but equal” facilities were a part of life, African-American women working at the Langley Research Center (NASA's precursor) were segregated into a group labeled “West Area Computers” or simply “Black Computers.”  Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and the beautiful and talented Janelle Monáe delivered highly nuanced performances that are at once memorable, charming and disarmingly human.  Kudos should also go to the supporting cast of white people including Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst, with the latter two having the unenviable task of getting in the way of the three protagonists.
 
To its credit, ‘Hidden Figures’ is not an angry movie that seeks to redress past wrongs and highlight the injustices and rampant racism of its era.  Far from it, the film adopted an optimistically positive and light tone, focusing on the technical challenges of launching men and capsules into space while ensuring their safe return back to earth.  The film is as much a history lesson of our space program during its infancy as it is on female empowerment or the “African-American struggle,” while also turning out to be extremely entertaining to boot.  The critics are right on this one, ‘Hidden Figures’ is a skyrocketing hit and heart-warming crowd-pleaser that’s the first must-see movie of 2017.

Grade: A

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Vampires versus Werewolves - Round 5

Never underestimate the allure of vampire fetishism.  Ever since British hottie Kate Beckinsale first slipped into her tight black leather form-fitting bodyglove and assumed the role of sexy ninja-assassin, I mean, the badass vampire “Death Dealer” Selene back in 2003, the ‘Underworld’ franchise has survived many a stake through the heart by the many critics who mercilessly panned it and went on to earn a cult following that’s hard to fathom. I should know, since I’m one of those diehards who, despite telling myself that I won’t be seeing another ‘Underworld’ sequel, keep going back when a new installment comes out.  I have the same weakness for ‘Resident Evil.’  Hopeless.
 
‘Underworld: Blood Wars’ is the fifth film in the long-in-the-tooth Vampire-versus-Werewolf series started by director Len Wiseman seemingly so long ago.  Picking up where 2012's ‘Underworld: Awakening’ left off, the outcast Selene is once again paired with the dreamy hunk of a vampire David (that's me! JK, it's Theo James from 'Divergent'), who find themselves caught in the middle of yet another conflict between the vampire and lycan (werewolf) clans.  The vampires are headed this time by the ambitious and scheming Countess Semira of the Eastern Coven, who seeks to enlist Selene's help to train a new crop of young and inexperienced Death Dealers in preparation for an anticipated all-out assault on their fortress mansion by a strong horde of lycans led by the charismatic and powerful vampire-lycan hybrid Marius.  'Game of Thrones' style court intrigue, forbidden vampire-lycan romance and backstabbing betrayal are the order of the day leading up to the climactic battle royale with lots and lots of bullets flying.  Hey, vampires and werewolves play with guns too.
 
While this latest chapter tried to give us something new, all these films have a sameness to them, be it the dark brooding atmosphere and cinematography drained of color or the pseudo-Gothic style of the characters and costumes.  No matter, because ‘Blood Wars’ delivered what the fans wanted.  There’s a built-in audience for über-violent and gory R-rated vampire/werewolf action-romances (I’m not speaking of ‘Twilight’) packed with beautiful people fit for a Calvin Klein commercial outfitted in outlandish 19th century costumes.  'Underworld' is a period piece, soap opera, "shoot 'em up" bullet ballet and Gothic horror all rolled into one.  It's not particularly deep even if we consider its vampire-versus-werewolf theme as a metaphor for class struggle, with vampires representing snotty elitist high nobility and the lycans being the poor lowly masses.  But I'm a sucker for gothic vampire B-movies and Beckinsale holds it all together, who at 43 still looks as good today as she did 14 years ago when she first squeezed into those sleek black vampire tights. 

Grade: B
 
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