Monday, October 13, 2014

Dracula Untold



Vlad To Meet You

I'm Vlad I saw Dracula Untold. Well, I'm not Vlad. Luke Evans is Vlad, the 15th century Transylvanian prince the world would come to know as Dracula. As the most celebrated of all vampires, Evans has mighty big fangs to fill - luminaries like Bela Lugosi, Frank Langella, and Gary Oldman have all sucked the blood of the living as Dracula, but none of them have natural incisor fangs in his teeth like Evans (it's true, he was born with fangs). Evans' Dracula differs from his predecessors in that we know him in his early days of vampirism. Dracula Untold is Dracula Begins, who he is and how he came to be the prince of darkness. With a name like "Dracula" (translated depending on whom you ask as "Son of the Dragon" and "Son of the Devil") Vlad is inescapably destined to be a monster, in spite of his best efforts. Dracula Untold chronicles Vlad's best efforts.

Borrowing from the intriguing medieval politics of Game of Thrones, Dracula Untold tells us that 10 year old Vlad Dracula was given over as a hostage to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, along with one thousand Transylvanian boys to fill up the Turkish army's ranks. Vlad grew into a hell of a warrior, becoming feared by both Europe and the Turkish army for his blood lust in battle and his penchant for impaling hundreds of his victims and leaving their corpses to rot in the sun. This earned him the super cool title "Lord Impaler." (If I ever start a band, I'm calling it Lord Impaler.) Though to hear Vlad tell it, tales of his sadism were greatly exaggerated; for every village he impaled on stakes, he actually spared a dozen. Whatever. Eventually, Vlad was allowed to return to Transylvania and begin ruling his people properly as their prince, all the while serving as a vassal to the Turks. Vlad took a hot wife (Sarah Gadon), sired a son, and kept the peace for ten years.

Even in peace time, the Prince of Transylvania has 99 problems and a vampire is one. Atop one of Transylvania's forbidding mountain peaks, there is a creature that men fear which comes in the night and kills people, Turkish scouts and Transylvanian soldiers alike. Next thing Vlad knows, history repeats itself and the new Sultan (Dominic Cooper) demands another thousand boys for his army and Vlad's son as a hostage. Or else, he declares war on the poor, raggedy people of Transylvania. Out of love for his family and his country, Vlad makes two very bad decisions: 1) he refuses to hand over his son, thus declaring war on the Turks. 2) Lacking an army to wage war, he decides to seek the aid of the monster in the mountains that slaughtered his friends and nearly killed him when they first met.

The monster is, naturally, a vampire, played by Charles Dance, also borrowed from Game of Thrones. According to Dracula Untold's rules of vampirism, once Vlad drinks his blood, he becomes Tywin Vampire's replacement, "freeing" Tywin from this eternal torment and allowing him to start his plan of revenge on the demon that sired him (already, Tywin is thinking sequel). As a vampire, Dracula has super strength, super speed, can become a giant flock of bats, and even control the clouds of night. Plus he has an out; if he can go without drinking blood for three days, he reverts back to being human. Easier said than done. And yet, Vlad optimistically plans to win a war against a hundred thousand Turks all by himself in three days. 

Day one of the war goes pretty well; newly superpowered Vlad wipes out a thousand Turk soldiers all by his lonesome, slamming into them in swarm of bats-mode and then taking them out in fang to neck combat. Unfortunately, that leaves 99,000 Turk soldiers to deal with. Meanwhile, his own people, including his hot wife, notice strange things about their prince who disappeared and suddenly reappeared, like how he was able to wipe out a thousand enemy soldiers singlehandedly ("Never ask what happened here today," Vlad warns his peeps) and how he convulses with pain whenever anyone around him has a paper cut. Plus his silver wedding ring makes his flesh burn, he avoids sunlight, and he has glowing red eyes. The monks they hide with in a mountaintop monastery figure it out right away and decide to burn their prince in a religious frenzy. Dracula scolds them for being a bunch of ingrates. But instead of killing them all in a rage for betraying him, he continues to try to win the war against the Turks. Mainly he wants to save his son and his hot wife, though he tried to eat her one night because she's so hot (blooded).

By day three of the war, things go very badly indeed for Vlad. While he conducts legions of bats like a symphony, using the bats as battering rams against the Turkish legions, the sly Turks trick their way into the monastery, kidnap his son, and chuck his hot wife off a cliff. This lends to a rather lovely visual of Dracula in half bat-swarm, half human mode, arms outstretched, reaching to save his plummeting wife. All to no avail, as Spider-Man could tell Vlad. Finally, Dracula makes another poor decision and turns a bunch of his Transylvanian people into vampires to go settle the Sultan's hash once and for all. The Sultan was ready for Vlad and faced him in a mano e undead mano fight in a tent full of silver coins. Fiendishly clever of the Sultan, and it nearly worked, but he fatally underestimated Dracula when he was down for the count. After saving his son and making him prince of Transylvania, Dracula has another problem of his own doing on his hands: a bunch of vampires he sired looking to go rogue. In the last of his noble acts, Vlad lets the sun shine in on all of them, including himself, thus ridding the world of all vampires once and for all. Except the great, great, great, great, great + a few more greats grandfather of Renfield saves Dracula from his attempted suicide and restores him to full vampirinity.

Simultaneously grand visually yet thin-blooded, Dracula Untold ends up telling us Dracula was a really a noble guy but a bad prince who made a lot of bad decisions. As Dracula, Evans is a speak softly and impale you with a big stake kind of vampire; a loving family man constantly trying to do the right thing because his heart was in the right place, even after it stopped beating. Evans bemoans becoming a monster but his Dracula is Mr. Nice Guy every time it counts. Dracula Untold skips right over how Vlad regains control of Castle Dracula and the centuries he spent terrorizing Transylvania, siring hot, lusty vampire wives and all that. Instead, Dracula Untold launches into an epilogue in 21st century England, where a dashing Vlad encounters the spitting image of his hot wife, and her name is Mina, wouldn't you know it. Meanwhile, Tywin Vampire is still lurking about. He has his own plans for Vlad Dracula. Those plans, as yet, remain untold.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Gone Girl



Take My Wife, Please

Gone Girl ranks among the very finest adaptations from novel to motion picture ever made. Written by Gillian Flynn, who penned the best-selling novel, and directed like a maestro by David Fincher, Gone Girl is a lurid, feverish, spellbinding, jaw-dropping exploration of a marriage between two modern day thirty-somethings gone horribly wrong. Horribly wrong. It's an indictment of our bottom-feeding news culture that exploits tragedy for ratings. It's a love story twisted and mangled into something grotesque and abhorrent. It's a wondrously wicked game of he-said/she-said show and tell that yanks the carpet out from underneath you midway through. It's riveting from start to finish, bursting with wild surprises and dark, gallows humor. And if you look really closely at just the right moment, Ben Affleck's penis does indeed make a cameo. (Might as well put that out there since the week of Internet media leading up to Gone Girl's release seemed to be 90% about the rumored presence of Affleck wang. Confirmed. It's there.)

Is it safe to say from an acting performance standpoint, Ben Affleck has never been better? Yes. Ben Affleck has never been better. Ideally cast as a less-than-ideal husband to the titular gone girl Rosamund Pike, Affleck centers Gone Girl like the movie star he is. Affleck transforms throughout the movie from a sad, pathetic guy you hate, to a sad, pathetic guy you kind of like, to a sad, pathetic guy to you kind of root for because holy crap, his wife! As Nick Dunne, a beaten down, angry sad sack who has given up on his marriage, Affleck spends most of the movie being indicted in the court of public opinion and investigated by the police when his wife disappears of the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. The evidence of violence in the house, mysterious credit card statements, a million dollar life insurance policy, and all other signs point to him. The only people who believe Affleck is innocent (more or less believe, anyway) are his twin sister Carrie Coon and their high-powered, slickster defense attorney Tyler Perry (also terrific). Admittedly, Affleck is not a good guy. He has a secret young, busty mistress, he's a callow, habitual liar, and he may have physically abused his wife in a boiled-over rage.

Affleck's romance with Pike, who plays "Amazing" Amy Elliott Dunne, a beautiful, well-heeled New Yorker, is narrated by Pike via the gimmick of diary entries, showing their rosy meet-cute and happily affluent life in New York City, which is gradually upended into a series of defeats and disappointments as they are laid off from their jobs as magazine writers, and forced by money troubles and Affleck's parents' illnesses to relocate to his Missouri home town. Amy Eliott Dunne is born from psychologist-writer parents who mined her childhood (and bettered her accomplishments and failures in print) for "Amazing Amy," a series of popular children's books. Pike comes with her own baggage; a history of ex-boyfriends who she claims stalked and raped her. She mysteriously has few friends, and five years into their nuptials, she is essentially a stranger, and an unwelcome one, to her husband. And then she is gone, girl. Gone Girl plays like a fascinating exploration of a failed marriage-cum-tragedy and then at midpoint, it takes a wild left turn towards crazy-bananas Albequerque and never looks back.

Did Affleck kill his wife? What really happened to Amazing Amy? Where did she go, girl? Why does Neil Patrick Harris, a fabulously wealthy, effete former lover of Pike, lurk on the outskirts of the investigation? What do all the clues and treasure hunts Pike left for Affleck really mean? The answers are insane, diabolically, entertainingly insane. Gone Girl's second half gleefully smacks down the rows of dominoes it carefully builds, as we marvel at the answers to the mystery and the truth behind Amazing Amy. We find out the name "Amazing Amy" does indeed suit Pike, but not necessarily in ways anyone can find admirable. Pike herself is incredible as Amy, simultaneously appealing and terrifying, intelligent and nefarious, a wife you could be proud to call yours, if you were a psychotic super villain. No one is entirely innocent of blame in Gone Girl, certainly not Affleck, and absolutely not Pike, but in an utterly bizarre way, those two kind of deserve each other.* Forced to choose between two fortunes, for better or worse, richer or poorer, until death does them part, poor Affleck chooses to pick from barrel A:

* Affleck's "You fucking bitch." to the bloody Pike when she returns to his arms after her "abduction" may well be the best delivered line reading of 2014.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Equalizer



"You gotta be who you are in this world."

In The Equalizer, that nice, helpful man who works at Home Depot is secretly the most dangerous person in Boston. It's a good thing that if you find yourself in trouble, he's on your side. Reunited with Antoine Fuqua, who directed him to a Best Actor Oscar for his villainous turn in Training Day, Denzel Washington assumes full hero mode as Bob McCall, the Equalizer (no one calls him that.) Fancying himself as a knight in a world where knights no longer exist, Denzel plays McCall as a compassionate enigma who can't stand idly by when crime and injustice wantonly flashes a gun and extorts the innocent or smacks up a local teen prostitute. Denzel is a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark... er, Denzel must Equalize.

Details are sketchy and the movie isn't forthcoming, but McCall is some sort of deadly former CIA agent who escaped the agency by faking his death. He lives a solitary existence just north of Boston, working 40 hours a week at a Home Depot by day and spending his insomniac nights reading literature in his favorite corner table at his local diner. He's plagued by OCD and lives by his stopwatch, frowning to himself about not being as fast as he used to be. Most of all, Denzel has a powerful streak of do-goodery in him; he's compelled to help the helpless, be it training his overweight co-worker in physical fitness and proper diet or avenging the assault and battery of the local teen prostitute mentioned prior, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, who is owned by the Russian Mafia. 

Denzel forming a bond with a young white girl is territory previously trodden in Man on Fire, but unlike his gentle relationship with tween Dakota Fanning a decade ago, Denzel is more cautious and less emotionally invested in Moretz's fate. He maintains an odd distance towards her, even after he tries to buy her freedom and subsequently goes to war with the Russian Mafia. Denzel's conversations with Moretz center on the idea that a person should be free to be whomever he/she wishes to be. This is inelegantly articulated by Denzel citing "The Old Man and the Sea": "The old man's gotta be the old man, the fish has gotta be the fish." For Denzel, the person he wants to be is Batman, but without the costume, car, cave, butler, and unwillingness to kill. To his credit, Denzel almost never uses a gun; he'd rather creatively use every implement in Home Depot to brutally murder his enemies. Books and corkscrews kill just as well as bullets in the hands of Denzel.

Boston in the movies is plagued by crime, drugs, and corrupt cops; The Equalizer posits that all of that and prostitution is controlled by the Russian Mafia, which is amusing news to this lifelong resident. When Denzel annihilates Moretz's pimps in their own office, the crime lord of Moscow sends his top enforcer Martin Csokas to find the man responsible. Csokas carves a bloody path across Boston looking for Denzel, massacring rival Irish gangsters, his own prostitutes, and his own local police henchmen alike. No one is more surprised than Csokas to find Denzel escalating the brutality by killing even more people than he does. As fearsome as Csokas is, he realizes far too late he's no match for Denzel. It's only after Denzel has utilized the full murderous potential of Home Depot against him and his private army that Csokas understands just who he fucked with.

The Equalizer is an entertaining, odd duck. The movie is paced in a stately manner where it fools the audience into thinking it's an intimate character study of a curious man named Bob McCall. This patina of realism is then exploded in a stream of viscera and violence into the realm of stylized, pure revenge fantasy. Once Denzel sets his timer (goal is 16 seconds, actual time of murders 28 seconds) and unleashes his wrath on the Russian gangsters, The Equalizer only becomes less and less plausible until the final minutes where Denzel pays the crime lord of Moscow a visit in his own mansion, leaving no Russian gangster alive. To think, Denzel killed the entire Russian Mafia all because a pimp smacked up Hit-Girl. And because it was the right thing to do. Who are we to argue? It's Denzel's world; he Equalizes it.

One day, when I need him, I will definitely hit up Denzel's Craigslist:

Friday, August 29, 2014

The November Man



The November Man returns former James Bond Pierce Brosnan to the bloody world of cinematic spy games. Indeed, the filmmakers seem to proceed with the mandate that the November Man does whatever 007 can't. Unlike his world famous former alter ego, Brosnan's so-called "November Man" Peter Deveraux works for the CIA, trains young agents, and has managed to keep a secret family hidden from his superiors at Langley. Older, greyer, wearier, and with a bit of a paunch, Brosnan still effortlessly exhibits lethal cool. With an international cast set in modern day Serbia, The November Man sees Brosnan caught in an unwieldy murder-conspiracy involving a Russian politician and the war crimes he committed in Chechnya in 1999. Brosnan, his bitter former protege Luke Bracey, their CIA superiors, and a hook-nosed Russian assassin Amila Terzimehic are all hot on the trail of gorgeous Olga Kurylenko, a social worker with ties to the war crimes the Russians committed in Chechnya. Herself a former Bond Girl for Daniel Craig in Quantum of Solace, everybody wants Kurlyenko's body, as the labyrinthine plot slowly reveals her involvement in what is literally a new world order at stake. As he protects Kurylenko from international killers, Brosnan seems to relish unleashing the kind of ruthlessness Daniel Craig has been lauded for infusing into 007; never more so than when Brosnan holds Bracey's girlfriend Eliza Taylor hostage at knife point to even up a score with Bracey. Gruff, bloody, and a little bleak, The November Man is overall a fine return to form for Brosnan. We're told Brosnan was named "The November Man" because of the body count he leaves behind; it's an apt name.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014




What's truly important in life? What can't we live without? Family. Food. Social media. Well, not that last one, but even Jon Favreau eventually realizes its usefulness after letting Twitter nearly ruin him. Chef, written and directed by Jon Favreau now free of the weight and clang of Marvel's Iron Man armor, is one of the sweetest -- and most mouthwatering -- movies I've seen in a long time. As disgruntled Chef Carl Casper (@ChefCarlCasper), Favreau blows a steady but uninspired career as chef de cuisine for respected LA restauranteur Dustin Hoffman after a Twitter flame war with food critic Oliver Platt. Without prospects to get back in a kitchen, Favreau reluctantly begins to rebuild his career, accepting help from his ex-wife Sofia Vergara and her ex-husband Robert Downey, Jr. to operate a food truck ("El Jefe") selling Cubano sandwiches in Miami.

Most importantly, Favreau accepts his estranged young son Emjay Anthony and begins training him as a cook, with help from his trusty sidekick John Leguizamo. What follows is a predictable but utterly charming and heartwarming story of a father and son reconnecting on a cross country journey back to LA as Favreau imparts his knowledge and love of food, sometimes gruffly, and Anthony secretly aids his father's cause with an understanding and mastery of social media any modern child today possesses. Along the way, Chef serves up absolutely succulent-looking food porn, overseen by Favreau's culinary mentor Chef Roy Choi. One needs to merely overlook Favreau (who amusingly takes a few shots at his now husky physique) casting knockouts Vergara as his incredibly supportive ex-wife and Scarlett Johansson as his incredibly supportive girlfriend as the more unrealistic parts of his movie. Rather, relish the love on display in Chef, both in the kitchen with Favreau cooking incredible food, and between the characters, relearning the joys and importance of family. Chef is a wonder in and out of the kitchen. Now, let me at one of those Cubanos!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)



Ninjas are very loud, according to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Traditionally, they aren't supposed to be. Ninjas are silent killers, like radon gas. Even Shredder, the evil ninja master and arch enemy of the Ninja Turtles is loud, clad in his clanky battle armor bristling with swords and knives. This new Michael Bay-produced and Jonathan Liebesman-directed reboot is a frenetic cacophony, updating the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies by bombastically ramping up the action and the Ninja Turtles themselves. Now motion capture and CGI creations instead of stunt men in rubber suits, the Ninja Turtles and their wizened "father" and sensei Splinter the rat (voiced by Tony Shaloub!) are bigger, more expressive, more dynamic, and... a lot louder. 

As ever, the Ninja Turtles are named for Italian Renaissance painters and coded by color, weapon, and personality: Leonardo (blue mask, katana swords, played by Pete Ploszek and voiced by Johnny Knoxville) is the serious leader; Donatello (purple mask, bo staff, played by Jeremy Howard) is the nerdy techno-whiz; Michelangelo (yellow mask, nunchaku, played by Noel Fisher) is the party-loving horn dog, Raphael (red mask, sai, played by Alan Ritchson) is the hard-nosed loner who likes to put on his growly "Batman voice." Of course, they're into hip hop and superhero movies, and they still love pizza. Moreso, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles loves product placement money; the movie practically stops halfway through for Splinter and the Ninja Turtles to shamelessly pitch Pizza Hut to the audience.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is very much the Megan Fox show. Having learned how to anchor a Michael Bay special effects extravaganza based on a 1980s cartoon from her Transformers co-star Shia LaBeouf, Fox proves up to the challenge as the nexus of her own franchise. As yellow-clad reporter April O'Neil, Fox is the best she's ever been in a movie. A diehard Ninja Turtles fan in real life throwing herself into the material and playing it straight, Fox is in nearly every scene, working her ass off to sell both the bizarre exposition and the frenetic action she gets involved in. Trying to prove herself as a serious investigator by uncovering the truth of the "vigilantes" battling against the fearsome Foot Clan terrorizing New York City, Fox uncovers not only the insidious plot by billionaire industrialist William Fichtner and Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) to poison all of New York, but the secret of the Ninja Turtles. 

In a clever twist, the Ninja Turtles turn out to be Fox's childhood pets, whom she freed when a fire set by Fichtner killed her scientist father. This creates an interesting new bond between Fox and the Ninja Turtles while also presenting us with such visuals as a bewildered Fox sitting cross-legged opposite a talking rat. The blood in the Ninja Turtles that mutated them is the mutagen that can cure Fichtner and Shredder's poison, conveniently. Even though Fox is sort of the Ninja Turtles' "mother," it doesn't stop Michelangelo (Fox's real life favorite Ninja Turtle) from hitting on her repeatedly. It's awkward, but Fox just shakes it off with a laugh. Best not to contemplate Fox-Turtle mating any further.

Every human in the movie, including her news editor Whoopi Goldberg and roommate Abby Elliott, talks down to Fox as she tries to prove the "vigilantes" battling the Foot Clan are in fact four six-foot-tall talking turtles... and mutants... and teenagers... and ninjas. The only human (not affiliated with Shredder) who sort of believes her is her camera man Will Arnett, who's really just there to ogle Fox and try to get in her pants, as if seeking high fives from the men in the audience. (Just like when LaBeouf used the cartoon tag line "More than meets the eye" in Transformers, Fox is nonplussed when Arnett suggests the Ninja Turtles are "Heroes in a half-shell.") Poor Arnett finds himself blue-balled by the unattainable Fox and caught up battling and escaping from ninjas shooting machine guns while trying to drive an Optimus Prime-like truck down a snowy mountain side. But Arnett acquits himself admirably throughout; who can blame him for taking a moment during a car chase to scope out Fox's ass?

Though relegated to the shadows for much of the movie, by the time they're all together taking on Shredder on top of a skyscraper and trying to save themselves and Fox from plummeting to their deaths (their tag team move with Fox to kick Shredder to a Joker-like death dive was a nice Batman '89 homage), the Ninja Turtles do get their moments in the sun. Each Turtle's personality and capabilities gets a chance to shine through (at least enough to effectively tell them apart beyond the color coded masks) and they get a touching climactic moment reaffirming their family - turtles, rat and Fox. Where the Ninja Turtles got the Turtle Van with the rocket launcher on the roof at the end is a question that might have to be answered in the announced sequel, but whatever. More Turtle Power to them.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014




Brett Ratner's Hercules takes the monsters and the gods out of the classic Greek mythology of gods and monsters. In this revisionist take on the legend of Hercules (where everyone has a Greek name except Hercules himself, because if he had his actual Greek name he'd be called Heracles), the legend that Hercules is the son of Zeus and performed Twelve Labors against the most fearsome monsters of Ancient Greece is just that. In actuality, Hercules, as embodied (and what a jacked body it is) by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, is merely an incredibly strong mortal man and who is surrounded by a gang of warriors (including Rufus Sewell, Ian McShane and a fearsome Amazonian warrior played by Ingrid Bolso Berdal) who are loyal to the end. Nor did Hercules face monsters, for there are no monsters; each of the Twelve Labors was against either an otherwise normal animal (the Nemean Lion) or people pretending to be monsters (the Hydra) that Hercules and his buddies tag teamed and defeated. The legend of Hercules is just smoke and mirrors. It's all just a story, a myth built around Hercules mostly spread by his carnival barker of a nephew as a means for them all to make money. Hercules and his posse gots ta get paid, preferably in Hercules' weight in gold.

Traveling across Ancient Greece and eking out a living as mercenaries, Hercules and friends - exiles from Athens and their king played effetely by Joseph Fiennes - are brought to Thrace by the Thracian king John Hurt to train his army and lead them in a war against centaurs. (Hint: there are no real centaurs.) Little does the soft-spoken, lion's mane-as-a-hoodie-wearing Hercules realize that he's a pawn in a diabolical scheme by Hurt to make himself an emperor over all of Greece. Despite his legend preceding him, there's a lot of doubt cast as to whether Hercules is the demi-god he claims he is, but once the Thracians see Hercules beat the crap out of five guys at once with one blow of his club and powerslam a horse, doubt erases as to whether Hercules is the real deal. If only Hercules believed his own hype; Johnson's Hercules is haunted by the murder of his wife and children - blamed on him by Fiennes - and of the Twelfth Labor left uncompleted: battling Cerberus, the three headed dog of Hades (note: there is no three headed dog from Hades.) 

As a sword and sandals spectacle, Hercules is sufficiently entertaining, even surprisingly so. While the long yak hair wig and odd anatomy of his armor never quite suit him, The Rock brings a godly physicality to the role that makes him totally convincing when he lays the smack down on Ancient Greek candy asses. (Repeat: Hercules powerslams a horse.) Johnson is especially mighty in the final act when Hercules finally unleashes all of his incredible Hercules-ness and flattens whole armies by toppling giant marble statues onto them. Sewell, McShane, and his compatriots handle most of the exposition and the comedy, while Hurt makes for a dastardly old villain. In a weird way, by having a gang of buddies around him as a makeshift family who ride or die with him, Hercules kind of has his own Guardians of the Galaxy. The studio should use that in the marketing of Hercules; it might lift up its ungodly box office.