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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 clich├ęd 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 

TGW

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 
 
Split

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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