Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

** SPOILERS **

"Try to keep an open mind," Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) urges Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) during their many negotiations for her to join him in his Red Room of Pain. By now, nearly everyone has made up their mind about Fifty Shades of Grey, whether or not they watch this glossy blockbuster feature film adaptation by Sam Taylor-Johnson, read the 100-million-selling novels by E.L. James, or refuse to deign to do either. 

In Fifty Shades, recent college graduate Anastasia Steele meets the lust of her loins in billionaire Christian Grey, and vice versa. She's aimless, sexually inexperienced, and bites her lip a lot. He's obscenely wealthy, controlling, and her lip biting really turns him on. Grey would be a charming guy if he had anything resembling charm or a personality; his seduction tactics include stalking her, buying her expensive things, emotional manipulation, and urging her to sign a contract. The contract is really important to him -- Anastasia might acquiesce if the contract were a pre-nup and he intended to marry her, but nope, he needs her to sign in agreement to let him tie her up and whip her to his heart's content. 

Grey is a self-described Dominant, engaged and thriving in a secret BDSM lifestyle since he was turned onto it as a teenager by a friend of his mother's (Marcia Gay Harden). He matter of factly doesn't "do" romance, or genuine intimacy, or much at all resembling comforting human behavior. The more we learn of Christian Grey's past, his poor upbringing, and his bizarre sexual history, the remarkably less interesting he becomes. And he ain't that interesting to begin with. Grey is a dull conversationalist, which is the first thing we learn in their meet cute, when Anastasia arrives to interview him for her college newspaper. But he is "hot," apparently, and wealthy. Imagine Tony Stark without the wit, genius, or innate desire to better himself. Or Bruce Wayne without everything that makes Batman actually admirable.

If anyone is dominant in Fifty Shades of Grey, it's Dakota Johnson. Throwing herself into what's she is determined to be a star-making role, Johnson plays Anastasia with a pleasing mix of skepticism, anticipation, and even savvy humor. Even as she desires Grey (but not at all his wealth), she displays an appropriate amount of weariness and outrage at his methods of turning up uninvited at her work or when she's visiting her mother in Georgia. The best laugh in the movie is when she drunkenly mocks his wild, confusing mood swings over the phone: "Come here! No, stay away! Come closer! I'm not the man for you!" Anastasia gives Christian's lifestyle the ol' college try, but she has "hard limits" (their negotiation about those limits over a business meeting is more crackling than any of the sex they have in his Red Room of Pain). Anastasia is at least fully cognizant of how unfair Christian Grey's behavior is; his agreement to take her on a date once a week and referring to her as his girlfriend to a stranger is akin to a Superbowl victory for her. 

There's really only two ways this story can go: either Anastasia Steele goes all in or she walks out. She takes her sweet time deciding, and samples the plethora of Christian's whips and chains in the process, but the movie's pulse isn't in the orgasm, as it is in the novel, but more about whether this guy is capable of being a decent human being. His sexual proclivities aren't nearly his alarming as his controlling nature. Strip the wealth and male model looks away, and the guy is a creep. There seems to be no bettering Christian Grey; he's perfectly content to be whipping Submissives in his Red Room of Pain until he's old and grey. He'd most prefer that Submissive be Anastasia Steele. Fifty Shades of Grey is a moneymaking machine, like its male protagonist, but also like Christian Grey, the movie is an empty suit, whether or not Christian is wearing one of his bespoke grey suits.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

John Wick

JOHN WICK

** SPOILERS **

The Best Supporting Puppy Oscar for 2014 goes to John Wick's adorable beagle. Really, every other award is rendered irrelevant. In John Wick, a darker, angrier Keanu Reeves returns to his Matrix action form as the titular character, a retired, recently widowed Russian bratva assassin. His late wife (Bridget Moynahan) gifts John Wick the most incredible little beagle, shining a light in John Wick's mourning heart. Then the spoiled, idiot son (Alfie Allen from Game of Thrones) of his former boss (Michael Nyquist) tries to steal his car and kills his beloved dog, setting off a chain of bloody, ultra violent events as John Wick goes on the warpath. Until John Wick unfolds, you never even knew you wanted to see a vengeful Neo go all out to hunt down and murder Theon Greyjoy. Ramsay Snow would reek of envy.

When John Wick declares war on his former bratva, the movie plunges us into a the shadow world of Russian organized crime in New York City. We move through the places we never knew existed, such as the hotel run by Ian McShane and concierge Lance Reddick from The Wire, which has particularly strict rules about no "business" conducted on its premises. There's also the gloriously decadent nightclub with underground neon pools that John Wick shoots up while trying to shoot up Allen. Meanwhile, Nyquist puts a bounty on John Wick's head, with fellow professionals Willem DaFoe and Adrianne Palicki coming to collect, guns blazing. The slew of terrific actors keep coming; John Leguizamo, Clarke Peters also from The Wire, and even WWE's Kevin Nash pop in to help or hinder John Wick respectively. Through it all, Keanu hits action highs he hasn't achieved in fifteen years, ripping apart the Russian mafia in a brazenly entertaining ballet of gunfire, car chases, and righteous fury. Don't ever, ever harm John Wick's dog is the moral of the story. The Russians learned this lesson the hard way, as the audience watching John Wick giddily go, "Whoa!"

Monday, February 9, 2015

A-Force To Be Reckoned With


Marvel announced on Friday that the upcoming Secret Wars mega event will spell the end of The Avengers. Earth's Mightest Heroes will be replaced by a new super team of Earth's Mightiest Heroines - say hello to the all-female A-Force. And it's a huge team, over a dozen superheroines from She-Hulk to Dazzler to Captain Marvel to Black Widow to Spider-Gwen. And it's X-Men inclusive.

Today, Marvel's Bill Rosemann tweeted his A-Force dream team. I responded with mine.



I love fantasy drafting superteams. Here's why I picked these eight women for my A-Force:

Susan Storm, the Invisible Woman, would lead my A-Force.

As a founder of the Fantastic Four, who has more experience fighting villains and saving the world? Sue Storm gets an A for Experience. Plus, as a mother of two (who is still remarkably youthful and hot), she has the instincts to manage the varied personalities of this A-Force.

Next, I draft Thor.
Originally, I considered Storm but who needs the weather witch when you have the Goddess of Thunder? The mysterious new Thor is a bit of a wildcard, but she brings power, power, and more power to A-Force. The hammer Mjolnir judges her worthy, who am I to argue?

Next, Psylocke.
The X-Men are abundant with telepaths to choose from. Originally, I considered Jean Grey, but maybe it's better not to have a woman who might possibly become Dark Phoenix and murder us all on the team. No, instead, I'm opting for Psylocke, the X-Men's deadly telepath/ninja, and her famed Psychic Knife, the focused totality of her telepathic powers.

A great Marvel team needs a Spider. I pick Spider-Gwen.
The coolest new heroine in the Marvel Universe is the alternate universe Gwen Stacy, who is not only not dead from being thrown off a bridge by Green Goblin, but was the one bitten by a radioactive spider instead of her universe's Peter Parker. Spider-Gwen does whatever a Spider-Man can.

A Marvel team also needs someone of the Marvel mantle. I pick Ms. Marvel.
The other coolest new superheroine in the Marvel universe, Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan not only adds an Inhuman to my A-Force, but she's the plucky young heroine with heart and enthusiasm every super team needs. Ms. Marvel is the moral compass. Putting her likely at odds with...

Black Widow.
My team needs someone who can do what needs to be done, someone with a lot of red on her ledger. Probably the most dangerous woman in the Marvel Universe, Natasha Romanov brings all kinds of skills and intangibles, plus a connection to SHIELD that will come in handy when A-Force needs some back up in the form of Helicarriers.

The team also needs muscle, a tank. A hot Southern mutant tank. Rogue, sugah.
Rogue has been one of the most powerful of the X-Men for decades. She's been through the wringer multiple times, has been an Uncanny Avenger, and she's still an idealist who believes in Charles Xavier's dream. Rogue could toss a tank at you, or a simple touch could drain you of your life force. Plus she can fly. Rogue dated Gambit, but she's aces.

And finally, my A-Force needs brains. Who better than Kitty Pryde?

An X-Man since she was 13 and recently the former headmistress of the Jean Grey School, Kitty Pryde grew up saving the world. With her phasing power, she bests even Invisible Woman as an infiltrator. And she's a genius. Plus, now she dates Star-Lord, so the Guardians of the Galaxy will come running if need be. 

That's my A-Force, if I had anything to say about it. What's yours?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Blackhat

blackhat

** SPOILERS **

The trailer for Blackhat is a snowjob, promising a frightening depiction of how vulnerable we are to hackers in the way we live our lives, devices always in hand, information sharing freely. The generic dialogue in the trailer like "You are not in control!" and "This is only the beginning!" are nowhere to be found in the actual movie. Though centering on the terrorist crimes of a mysterious "Blackhat" who hacked into a Chinese nuclear plant to cause a meltdown and then drove soy futures up so he could embezzle $75-million, Blackhat isn't purely about hacking as much as it is a cold, relentless, ultra-violent cyber thriller in the alluring, pulse-pounding Michael Mann style. This is Michael Mann back in action, guns blazing, hard men at work perpetrating global crime and law enforcement rallying to catch up.

To catch this blackhat hacker, a Chinese-American task force recruits Chris Hemsworth, himself an imprisoned blackhat hacker who wrote the code in college the mystery man used to perpetrate his attacks. The multinational cast includes Leehom Wang as Hemsworth's former college roommate at MIT who's running the op from the Chinese end and Viola Davis as the American agent trying to keep Hemsworth in line. Also on board is Wang's stunning, sullen sister Wei Tang, herself a skilled hacker and wouldn't you know it, she falls for Hemsworth instantly. They all immediately accept this plot inevitability and move on. Mann shoots Hemsworth, Wang, and Tei in profiles as they ride in speedboats, soar in planes, or look grimly off in the distance, each framed against colorful, eye-popping nighttime cityscapes. Hemsworth and his friends also find time to eat; there's food porn in Blackhat. Whether it's Korean BBQ in LA or shumai in Hong Kong, Blackhat occasionally feels a bit like Anthony Bourdain's show, just with a lot more violent killing.

Hemsworth and his team travel from Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta chasing their nefarious enemy Blackhat, finding themselves engaging in several explosive, bloody firefights against hired mercenaries. One wonders what qualifies Hemsworth and Wang to don hazmat suits and enter the damaged nuclear plant in China looking for clues, but whatever. When Hemsworth discovers their target's identity (and it turns out to be the man who raped Rooney Mara in David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo -- the seedy and fantastically cast Yorick Van Wageningen), he mounts a gambit to steal his millions and bring him to light to kill him that's as audacious as it is questionable. Mann -- bringing his A game from Heat and Miami Vice -- is in peak form during the shocking and visceral action scenes, a virtuoso at making sure his handheld cameras are as close as possible to capture bullets ripping through human flesh. Mann's sound designer deserves an Oscar nomination just for the sound of a screwdriver being driven into a human chest repeatedly. Blackhat is as ruthless as a Hollywood action film can be; the body count claims 3/4s of the cast including some of the marquee names.

Following the plot of Blackhat requires effort and concentration. Blackhat hurtles along, unconcerned with proper character introductions or whether the audience can follow what's happening. Information is doled out on a need to know basis. The hacking and mechanics of events seems to be labyrinthine but the gist of it is gradually explained by Hemsworth, just when one imagines Denzel Washington in Philadelphia demanding things be explained to him like he's a six year old. It really all boils down to "following the money," and when Hemsworth susses out what's actually happening, Blackhat turns out to not be about an assault on our freedoms or a message against the dangers of our inter-connected world, but an elaborate get rich quick scheme by a guy willing to kill a lot of people and upset the global economy to do it. Hemsworth is a handsome, dogged leading man, more believable smashing faces in fights but sufficiently engaging at a keyboard writing authentic code. Like Colin Farrell in Miami Vice, Hemsworth falls for a beautiful Chinese woman. Unlike Farrell, who allowed drug trafficker Bai Ling to escape to Cuba, Hemsworth gets to keep the girl; two sexy fugitives from justice with millions of stolen dollars and the whole world at their fingertips. It's a hacker's dream.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Justice League: Throne of Atlantis

JUSTICE LEAGUE: THRONE OF ATLANTIS

** SPOILERS **

The Justice League meets Game of Thrones in Justice League: Throne of Atlantis and it isn't all wet. Following up last year's Justice League: War, which introduced a younger, rawer The New 52 Animated Universe version of the World's Greatest Superheroes, this time Superman (voiced by Jerry O'Connell), Batman (Jason O'Mara), Wonder Woman (Rosario Dawson), and their super friends encounter a challenge from beneath the deep blue seas. Throne of Atlantis plunges us into the origin of Aquaman (Matt Lanter), a boozing, orphaned, superpowered lighthouse keeper who has no idea he is destined to become the King of the Seven Seas. Aquaman finds out in rapid-fire fashion who he is and how he came to be heir to the throne of the undersea kingdom of Atlantis when he and the League are swept up in the nefarious schemes of Aquaman's ruthless, pure-blooded half brother Orm (Sam Witwer), the self-styled Ocean Master, who wants to rule Atlantis and destroy the surface world. 

Adapted from the comic series penned by Geoff Johns and also incorporating elements from Johns' "Aquaman" comic series, Throne of Atlantis reveals that Aquaman is the "son of two worlds." He was born to Atlanna (Sirena Irwin), the princess of Atlantis, who came to Mercy Reef, Maine when "she was very young," and fell in love with Thomas Curry, a guy who owned a lighthouse. After their son Arthur was born, Atlanna bailed on her surface family to take her place as Queen of Atlantis and speak all of her dialogue in loud, haughty royal exposition. Arthur never seemed to realize he has gills and can breathe underwater and didn't bother to find out why he has super strength and endurance until, as an adult, he started getting attacked by armored soldiers from the sea and humanoid fish monsters from "the Trench." Arthur also never questioned why his best friend was a lobster whom he could communicate with. Yes, Aquaman can talk to and command fish, and it's an awesome power, shut up. Aquaman is aided by his new hot redheaded Atlantean bodyguard Mera (Sumalee Montano), who is destined to be his bride, and boy, did those two not waste any time seeking that destiny.

Meanwhile, the Justice League is a team in name only, not having officially assembled since they repelled the invasion by Darkseid in the previous movie. Superman and Wonder Woman start to get romantic, commiserating as only two lonely demigods can, going on dates in Greek diners while incognito wearing glasses. ("I can't believe this works!" Wonder Woman gasps. Neither can logic.) Cyborg (Shemar Moore) also has sparks flying with his STAR Labs assistant. The more juvenile members of the League like Shazam (Sean Astin) and Green Lantern (Nathan Fillion) find all this mushy stuff kinda icky pants. There's a retread of one of the most unwelcome aspects of Justice League: War where Green Lantern again makes an ass out of himself interfering in one of Batman's Gotham investigations, but it is kept to a minimum this time around. The Flash (Christopher Gorham) is in this movie too, by the way, but he doesn't contribute much to this mission besides some cool super speed action. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen also get in some screen time and for some extra fan service, there's a cameo by John Henry Irons, setting up his inspiration to becoming the armored, sledgehammer swinging Steel. Superman and Batman also set aside some time to do a team up detective side mission where Superman bristles at Batman's condescension. "I am an investigative reporter, you know," Superman reminds Batman, who bizarrely retorts, "Journalism's dead."

When the Justice League does hit the water with Aquaman, they find themselves immersed in Game of Thrones-lite Atlantean family politics, complete with the alien, the space cop, the robot, the boy who says the magic word, etc. scoffing at how "impossible" it is Atlantis exists. Orm, with help from armored pirate Black Manta (Harry Lennix), who somehow is assumed to have the ability to open diplomatic negotiations -- with the Justice League, mind you, not with any government or the UN -- decides to stab his mother in the back, literally, and take the throne of Atlantis for himself. Orm immediately leads an invasion of the surface world, Metropolis, specifically. (The invasion is considerably scaled down from how multiple cities, including Metropolis, Gotham, and Boston were attacked by Atlantis in the comics, and the mighty tidal wave Orm raises is purely for show. Orm hardly brings a massive army with him either; just a few dozen soldiers and some vehicles.) What ultimately drowns Orm's short, eventful reign as king of Atlantis is his big blabber mouth. Cyborg recorded him bragging about killing his mother and seeing that footage is enough to make the Atlantean forces lay down their arms and turn on their new king. What's utterly bizarre is Aquaman's speech about how they should all accept him as their king, because he's their "beacon of hope." Mind you, these Atlanteans had no idea who Aquaman was or that he even existed before that moment. Plus Aquaman immediately starts making out with Mera in front of the troops. But sure, he's the king, now, whatever, let's go home. No punishment for attacking Metropolis!

And yet, Throne of Atlantis marks an improvement over the previous Justice League installment. The superhero action is entertaining and at its best can be summed up in five words: Superman. Fights. Giant. Sea. Monster. When unleashed against the cannibalistic creatures from the Trench, the Justice League gives no quarter, not even Batman, whose "no killing" rule apparently doesn't apply to sea monsters, judging from how he explodes them with missiles from his Batplane. While Wonder Woman and Mera engage in sword-to-trident combat with the Atlantean soldiers, Green Lantern uses his Power Ring to whip up a nifty giant robot to vacuum up those pesky fish folk. Cyborg's famed white noise cannon works wonders against Atlanteans, but if one has questions about just how much white noise would affect the equilibrium of people who are aquatic -- move along, there's more punching to be done. The single best moment of Throne of Atlantis validates how great Aquaman's power to talk to fish is via how he uses it to end Black Manta (Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea can relate.) The infuriating characterizations and interplay between the Leaguers is toned down; all of the superheroes come off as reasonably more competent and less insufferable than they did in Justice League: War. In the end, Aquaman is both installed as King of Atlantis and joins the Justice League, as he must. He certainly boasts the necessary trapezius muscles to be in this Justice League. The heroes decide to make being the world's greatest super team a more permanent thing, and for the best reasons possible, because they - and we - don't want to miss "whatever weird thing" happens next.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Taken 3

TAKEN 3

** SPOILERS **

In the formula-eschewing Taken 3, the glum latest entry from the annual, reliable Liam Neeson Action Thriller Factory and the inevitable finale of the Taken Trilogy, this time Liam Neeson finds himself framed for the murder of his beloved ex-wife Famke Janssen. Prior to this tragedy, Neeson had moved past his ruthless exploits slaughtering every sex-slaving gangster in Albania to be a doting father to Maggie Grace, now a college girl with a live-in boyfriend and a secret bun in the oven. (She never did become a pop star, even after Neeson introduced her to Holly Valance at the end of the original Taken.) Neeson also clearly pines to reunite with Janssen and rekindle their marriage, but he is too honorable to cuckold her slimy current husband Dougray Scott (recast as apparently the same character Xander Berkley played in the original.) This delicate, peaceful balance in his life Neeson has achieved is chucked out the window when Janssen is murdered, at which point Neeson chucks himself out of his own window and goes on the lam in LA, with the cops, lead by detective Forest Whitaker (who eats the warm bagels Neeson eats in the movie so as best to understand his prey), in hot pursuit.

Liam Neeson spends an inordinate amount of time hiding in uncomfortable places in Taken 3. Stalking around Los Angeles undetected, Neeson attempts to investigate who really murdered Janssen by squeezing his six-foot-four-inch frame into the trunks of cars and cramped sewers. To communicate with Grace and see his baby girl, he elaborately poisons her favorite yogurt drink knowing that she will leave class to tend to her diarrhea. At which point, Neeson, who has been hiding in the women's lavatory in her college for God knows how long, meets her in the stall and administers an antidote. (Grace is repeatedly mentioned to be "predictable," but how does Neeson know Grace always goes to the biggest and last stall in the girls lav?) Grace doesn't find any of this weird, but after being Taken and sold into sex slavery, her definition of normal isn't like yours or mine. Neeson also knows the secret underground entry into the city morgue, because why wouldn't the Los Angeles city morgue have a secret underground entry? Neeson's old gang of ex-CIA misfits and golf buddies also get involved in the action this time. It's nice that Neeson has his own set of Expendables. Neeson himself moves a lot slower in Taken 3. You might say he's Taken his time. You might also say he's getting too old for this shit.

What does all of this have to do with a slew of Russian gangsters and Dougray Scott, who's obviously sending signals he's really the villain? Well, Dougray Scott is obviously the villain, having Janssen murdered for her $12-million life insurance to pay back the Russian gangsters he owes money to. And he framed Neeson, knowing Neeson would go on a bloody rampage to kill those responsible. It's actually a pretty decent plan and shows Scott paid attention to the prior Taken movies. (Aside: Dougray Scott was once going to play Wolverine before Hugh Jackman got the role. Can you imagine a world where that happened?) Neeson figures it all out a little too late, only after killing all of the Russian gangsters, including their leader Oleg Malankov, who decided to battle Neeson wearing nothing but a robe and a speedo while sporting a giant erection. Those who attended Taken 3 hoping for the abject thrills of Neeson wontonly engaging in entertaining wholesale slaughter stumble from the theater a bit disappointed; Neeson only massacres a handful of Russians and is careful not to murder any of the LAPD on his tail. Repeated counts of assault on the cops, sure. But no killing. This restraint is noted by Whitaker, who amusingly threatens to arrest Neeson for wire tapping. "That's illegal." So's everything else Neeson does, but hey.

Taken 3 is a rote, mechanical slog, short on giddy thrills and heavy on sorrowful beats of Maggie Grace mourning her mother in their million-dollar mansion. There is nothing as absurdly memorable in Taken 3 as the sight of Grace exploding grenades across the rooftops of Istanbul as a means to give Neeson a GPS fix on her position in Taken 2. The most batshit crazy thing Neeson does in Taken 3 is race a Porsche at 150 MPH and slamming it into the landing gear of Dougray Scott's airplane to prevent him from escaping with Grace as his hostage. What Taken 3 sorely needed was a good laugh. Like, say, when Grace is Taken hostage by Scott, she should have asked where he's taking her. And he could have replied, "I'm selling you to sex slavery in Albania -- like you should have been all along!" It's a pity the screenplay for Taken 3 was Taken 4 granted.


Monday, January 5, 2015

Wild

WILD

** SPOILERS **

There's a moment in Wild when Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) decides to set out on her fateful course and hike the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican to the Canadian border. "I'm gonna walk my myself back to the woman my mother raised me to be." Her friend Gaby Hoffman replies really the only reply one can make when hearing something like that: "What?" Why would anyone spend over three months walking over a thousand miles alone through the desert, mountains, forest, and snow?  Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee and produced by Witherspoon based upon the best-selling memoir by Strayed, straps us along Witherspoon's back on a stunning, remarkable journey.

In a courageous and raw performance, Witherspoon is sensational as Cheryl Strayed, a divorced, aimless woman (don't call her a hobo, as we learn in Wild's most hilarious scene) who lost her mother (Laura Dern) to cancer. "She was the love of my life," Strayed confesses, and the death of her mother sent Strayed into a spiral of heroin and promiscuous sex that ruined her marriage to her husband Paul (played by Thomas Sadowski). Strayed sets out on a soul-searching journey across California, Oregon, and Washington State, hefting a backpack of camping and wilderness supplies so enormous, the petite Witherspoon herself could fit inside it. She encounters stunning natural beauty, rugged terrain, a few kind souls, some potentially dangerous men who thankfully don't attack her as she fears, and most importantly, Strayed finds herself and the solace she sought.

The emotional journey of Strayed as well as her physical, laborious trek are intertwined by provocative directing and masterful editing, working from a delicate yet sharp screenplay adaptation by Nick Hornby. Though it all, Witherspoon effusively anchors Wild, appearing in every scene, calling upon all of her Oscar-caliber talents to portray Strayed as a confused, lost, hurting, hopeful, triumphant person. Wild is one of the best films of 2014; it is bravura filmmaking and its trail will hopefully end at some deserved Academy Awards. Or at the very least, everyone involved in Wild should benefit from a lifetime supply of REI camping equipment as thanks for all of the brilliant advertising.

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