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Monday, December 29, 2014




If You Can Take It, You Can Make It

About midway through Unbroken, Louie Zamperini (Jack O'Connell), an American bombardier imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp, is offered a deal. Zamperini, a former Olympic runner who competed in the Berlin games (Adolph Hitler wanted to meet him, a fact not depicted in the film), is allowed to broadcast on Japanese radio and speak to his parents, refuting the American media's announcement that he was killed in action. Afterwards, the Japanese ask him to continue broadcasting on the radio, if he'd only read some prepared statements denouncing the United States and its Allies. He could ride out the rest of the war as a "guest" of Japan, eating sushi and drinking sake in comfort like a few other Allied POWs opted to. Or else, he could return to the hellish prison camp he came from and endure savage beatings and abuse. It's a sweetheart deal. Who wouldn't take a deal like that? Louie Zamperini, that's who.

Based on the true story as told in the bestseller written by Laura Hillenbrand, Angelina Jolie's earnest and harrowing Unbroken aspires to inspire us with the life and and hardships endured by Louie Zamperini. An Italian-American who overcame juvenile delinquency to become an Olympic athlete and a decorated war hero, Zamperini fought in the Pacific Theater of World War II. His plane was shot down over the ocean; Zamperini was one of three survivors who spent 47 days on a life raft. Somehow, Zamperini survived exposure, shark attacks, and even bullets from a strafing enemy aircraft, living off of raw fish and shark meat, before he is rescued by, unfortunately, the Japanese Navy. Zamperini was imprisoned in three POW camps, the latter two commanded by the sadistic young corporal Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), nicknamed "the Bird." Something about Zamperini ignited Watanabe's ire from the moment they met; multiple beatings via the Bird's ever-present bamboo stick would ensue. To teach Zamperini respect, Watanabe forces the dozens of other Allied prisoners to each punch Zamperini in the face. This is how the Bird treats his "friends." With friends like him...

"I'm gonna kill him," Zamperini vows to his fellow prisoner Fitzgerald (Garrett Hedlund, looking an awful lot like Burt Lancaster). Fitzgerald talks him out of it. Surviving to the end of the war and not letting themselves be broken is the surest way to beat Watanabe and the Japanese. Not flinching away from depicting blood, beatings, and brutality, as if Jolie took copious notes from repeat viewings of her husband's classic Fight Club, Unbroken ultimately celebrates the power of the human spirit to endure and overcome unimaginable hardships. Indeed, Louis Zamperini becomes a literal Atlas, forced to hoist and hold a heavy metal beam over his head for an untold amount of time until Watanabe is overcome with shame at his own cruelty and inadequacy. There's no question the late Zamperini, who sadly passed away before he could see the film about his life he reportedly always wanted to see, was a hero. "If you can take it, you can make it," was Zamperini's lifelong motto. Jolie and the filmmakers behind Unbroken do right by Louis Zamperini and give his life, his spirit, and his humanity the honors he's earned. 

Although... Is this it? Just one movie? Peter Jackson could have made three films out of the book "Unbroken." It's only Angelina Jolie's second film and she's good, very good. But she has a lot to learn. Jolie can be proud, however, that her Unbroken is 2014's second finest film of a World War II veteran triumphing over impossible odds, right behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The Interview



Do You Ever Feel Like A Plastic Bag?

This is the movie that caused all that ruckus? North Korea must really hate parodies of Frost/Nixon crossed with The Hangover. In The Interview, a ribald, forehead-slapping fantasy of espionage and stupidity, dunderheaded talk show host Dave Skylar (James Franco) and his slightly more competent but still idiotic producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) are granted the interview of a lifetime with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park). The CIA, represented by the fetching Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), a real honeypot, coerce Rogen and Franco into assassinating Kim. What transpires is shamelessly racist and insulting to both the United States and North Korea, were it not also peppered with some big and genuine gross-out laughs and unbelievable yet admirable nerve from Rogen, Franco, and director Evan Goldberg (This Is The End is their previous collaboration).

The Interview takes what little the Western world "knows" about North Korea's secret totalitarian dictatorship (the people are starving, they have nuclear weapons, Kim Jong-un claims he's a god who doesn't urinate or defecate) and crafts the obvious go-for-broke jokes about it all. Rogen and Goldberg also wink wink with having Franco describe how the movie will end and then follow through with that exact series of events beat for beat. They also draw laughs from skewering some of the most famous stars in America: Rob Lowe's "secret baldness" and Eminem's "true" sexuality are in on the joke, but the vaginas of Nicki Minaj ("brown sugar") and Miley Cyrus ("moose knuckle") are trampled on for cheap yuks. Franco emerges from the fracas relatively unscathed, though Rogen suffers multiple indignities including having to shove a metal missile up his ass and losing a couple of fingers in a bloody shoot out. But no one gets it worse than Kim Jong-un.

The best moments in The Interview are when Franco and Kim Jong-un bond over margaritas, women, booze, and ride around in a tank blowing up trees. (The tank was given to the Kim family by Stalin, which Franco insists is pronounced "Stallone.") The gullible Franco still manages to root into the secret pain Kim harbors over his late father Kim Jong-Il. But is Kim really a misunderstood, okay guy or is he an insane liar all along? Is he really just honey dicking Franco? The Interview has it both ways and gets away with it, and it also gets away with a ludicrously violent comeuppance and end to Kim Jong-un. Frankly, if Jennifer Lawrence singing "The Hanging Tree" in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 can become a radio hit, so should James Franco singing Katy Perry's "Firework." In the end, Katy Perry comes off as the biggest winner of all in The Interview. If only Franco, Rogen and Perry were around during World War II. They'd have taken out Hitler and spared millions of lives. Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Katy Perry would have been the Greatest Generation. But maybe they already are.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies



There And There And There And Back Again

Previously on The Hobbit... was 98% of J.R.R. Tolkien's book "The Hobbit" plus some scenes from some of the other compendium Middle Earth saga books. This leaves director Peter Jackson with, oh, two hours and change to tell the scintillating engagement of human on orc on elves on troll on etc. violence dubbed the Battle of the Five Armies. But first, some prior business to take care of: the namesake and star of the middle portion of The Hobbit trilogy, the greedy and fire-breathing talking dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) is loose from the Dwarf Mountain filled with gold he slumbered in and is hellbent on roasting the nearby hamlet of Laketown. As panic fills the streets and the rabble of Laketown attempt to evacuate via boats and dingys (the most opulent of which is the Mayor of Laketown's, played by Stephen Fry), it falls to the one they call Bard (Luke Evans) to slay the dragon. Bard slays said dragon without too much difficulty; Smaug is shot through the heart and Bard's to blame. This puts an ignoble end to the mighty and erudite Smaug once and for all.

With Smaug out of the picture after a quick ten minutes, the Company of Dwarves, with their loveable burglar Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) in tow, are free to take back their mountain home, fulfilling their quest. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is installed as King of the Dwarves and upon gaining control of the veritable ocean of gold coins and treasure in the bowels of his mountain, Thorin goes green with crazy in record time. Daffy Duck crazy. When all the fighting, which comprises 90% of The Battle of the Five Armies, commences, Jackson unfortunately didn't squeeze in a fight between Thorin and Daffy Duck for all the gold. Crazy Thorin quickly becomes completely unreasonable, welching on his promise to the people of Laketown to give them some of the gold if they helped him fight Smaug. This also brings an army of Elves into the fray, lead by the saucer-eyed and pouty-mouthed Thranduil (Lee Pace). Thranduil and Bard attempt to negotiate terms with crazy Thorin, bringing their legion of warrior Elves and a gaggle of ragtag humans to the Dwarves' door. But they're not the only army looking for a fight.

Soon, the Elves and the Dwarves and the humans are joined by a second legion of Dwarves, plus an army of killer orcs, some giant worms, giant trolls, giant eagles, and also our fan favorite heroes: the Elves Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), and the venerable grey wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). That's more than five armies and more than enough for a CGI free-for-all where thousands of digital soldiers collide in a conflagration not seen since the last time there was a Lord of the Rings trilogy. Untold numbers of orcs, Elves, humans, Dwarves, and monsters die, while most of the core characters perform spectacular and unbelievable feats of heroic derring-do. The numerous sequences where Physics Mean Nothing to Legolas are particularly memorable. The Battle of the Five Armies eschews the movie having an actual plot in exchange for a series of action beats and mini subplots within the overarching war. What everyone is fighting for is also unclear: is everyone interested in the gold in the mountain? Did the orcs want the gold too or did they just want to kill everyone that isn't an orc, troll, or giant worm? Things are too dire and hectic to ponder such questions.

As thousands die outside his mountain walls, crazy Thorin wrestles with his conscience as each of his Dwarf buddies and his best Hobbit friend drop by to tell him he's paranoid and insane and not the King they all thought he was. The guilt tripping and cajoling eventually break through to crazy Thorin and he becomes noble Thorin once more. All's well, all's forgiven, and the Company of Dwarves charge into battle behind their King #OneLastTime. Sadly, this was the last heroic stand for many of our Dwarf friends. Thorin's brothers fall in battle, one of whom is mourned by Tauriel, his Dwarf girlfriend, who monologues awkwardly about the pain of love. Most importantly, Thorin goes dwarfo e orco #OneLastTime against his arch foe the Pale Orc. Their violent final battle on a frozen lake claims both their lives (although maybe Thorin would still be alive if he hadn't given Bilbo the only shirt made of indestructible silver steel). But Thorin goes out a hero, pledging his friendship to Bilbo and dying in a manner that seals his legend. Poor Thorin Oakenshield. He was the best Dwarf of them all, even when he went cuckoo bananas over all that gold.

As there was plenty of time in The Battle of the Five Armies to squeeze in some extra cameos, a few more familiar faces pop in #OneLastTime. When Gandalf is held captive by some evil ghost orcs and the spirit of Sauron, the Elves Galadiel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and the white wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) join the send off to the Middle Earth saga and save Gandalf. They opted not to join in the Battle of the Five Armies for whatever inscrutable reasons. But then Elrond and Galadriel just aren't joiners. Saruman turns out to be, but to Sauron, and we already saw how that turned out. In the end, The Hobbit trilogy and greater the six film cycle of the Lord of the Rings come full circle like the One Ring: concluding where it all began when Bilbo returns home to Bag End from his Unexpected Journey, jumping in time to one hundred eleven year-old Bilbo (Ian Holm) receiving Gandalf and kicking off the adventures of Frodo. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the end of one story and the beginning of another. Say what you will about the unnecessary excess and enormity of The Hobbit trilogy, but the moments of warmth and friendship, like Gandalf praising Bilbo for his bravery, are what ultimately endure. In the end, time spent in Middle Earth is never truly wasted. We can always go there and back again, and that's a gift more precious than all the gold in the Lonely Mountain.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings




About midway through Exodus: Gods and Kings, Joshua (Aaron Paul) starts seeing the damnedest things: Moses (Christian Bale), a former general of Egypt and now the leader of the Hebrew slave insurgency, would regularly wander off alone and start arguing with nothing. Joshua watches, mouth agape, trying to comprehend why Moses is talking to himself, sometimes even screaming at a rock or at thin air. If only Joshua could see what we, the audience, can. Moses isn't crazy; he's arguing with God (manifested as a young boy played with intense charisma by Isaac Andrews). And boy, can God and Moses bicker. After their first couple of arguments, God was probably asking himself why he gave Man free will to begin with. Especially this man.

God is a tough taskmaster not above mocking Moses for his failure to liberate the Jewish people from their oppressive Egyptian master. However, Moses isn't going to take the Almighty's shit, either. Moses openly defies his creator (whom he grew up believing wasn't his creator, thinking himself Egyptian until nine years and one exile ago). Moses constantly questions God, and even threatens to quit his holy mission more than once. "400 years of doing nothing," Moses chides, and now God wants Moses to lead the Hebrews against Egypt all of a sudden. God doesn't have a good answer for why He sat on his Heavenly cloud for 400 years and what the urgency is for the Hebrews to break the shackles of the Egyptian Pharaoh. After watching Moses' "insurgency" fail, God tells Moses to stand down and "just watch." If God wants to mess with a Pharaoh right, God's got to do it Himself.

When God enters the fray, He makes damn sure to make life a living hell for Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Soon, all of Egypt trembles before Superstorm Yahweh. What God wants, He explains to Moses during one of their shouting matches, is for self-styled god-kings who worship cat gods and sun gods like Ramses to be humble before Him. To achieve the adequate amount of humility He desires, which takes an awful long time, God does what Homer Simpson would do and consults the Bible (it's the prankster's Bible). First, alligators just up and start eating Egyptians in the Nile. Then all the fish die when the water of the Nile becomes blood. Then God starts in with an invasion of frogs like what happened at the end of Magnolia. Then the flies and the locusts swarm in. When Ramses, ever defiant, declares he'll kill every first born Hebrew son like the Penguin planned in Batman Returns, God decides to beat him to the punch and kills every first born Egyptian, including Ramses' beloved son. Just for shits and giggles, God brings down a hailstorm, too. God doesn't relent, even when Moses points out all of this plague He is raining down upon Egypt is making the miserable lives of the Hebrews even more miserable as much as it's inconveniencing the Egyptians.

This type of Old Testament crazy is way more than Moses, with his Robin Hood-like plan of teaching the Hebrews archery and guerrilla warfare tactics, could manage on his own. Though Moses doubts God's tactics throughout and doesn't express his gratitude until the end, when he willingly takes hammer to stone and carves out Ten Commandments for an approving God, Moses was very fortunate to have God on his side. This is especially evident when Moses leads 400,000 Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into the desert. Ramses let them all go peacefully before giving it a couple of days to mull it over and deciding he really wanted to kill them all anyway. God parts the Red Sea for the scurrying Jews and then digs into His own classic bag of tricks and brings down a massive tidal wave Noah-style onto the pursuing Egyptian army, drowning everyone except for Moses and Ramses. Why didn't God just drown Ramses too? Because what He really wanted, apparently, was the satisfaction of hearing Ramses, washed up on shore and finally seeing the futility of his actions, admit he ain't nothin' compared to God. This was all about putting Ramses in his place. (And not in the way condoms will be named after him in a few thousand years.)

Exodus: Gods and Kings is pure Bibical action spectacle by Sir Ridley Scott, the Old Testament by way of Gladiator. Touchingly dedicated to his late brother Tony Scott, Exodus is at its core about a terrible dispute between two men who grew up as close as brothers but were torn apart for political and ideological reasons. He couldn't count on Ramses, but in the end Moses learns what a friend he has in God. Bale is in top form as the noble but conflicted Moses, shouldering the burden of falling from grace as Egypt's greatest general upon learning his true heredity as a Hebrew destined by God to lead his people from the shackles of slavery. Edgerton is quite excellent as the preening and unyielding Ramses, who grew up knowing his late father the Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro!!) favored his adopted brother more than himself, and that Moses was always the better man. When Moses is banished upon Ramses' discovering Moses is actually born a Hebrew (at the urging of his mother Sigourney Weaver, largely wasted in a nothing part), he wanders the desert for years before taking a comely wife (Maria Valverde), having a family, and settling into a humble life as a shepherd. That is until a bush starts burning and God comes calling. When the elderly Moses, at last having fulfilled all of God's wishes, gets a nod of approval from the Almighty as he carries forth the Ten Commandments in the Ark of the Covenant, we nod in approval as well. Because we all know in a few thousand years, Indiana Jones will pick up where Moses left off and he will choose... wisely.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Live Tweeting the 2014 WWE Slammy Awards


The pomp and splendor of WWE's annual awards ceremony, the Slammy Awards, never fails to entertain and/or confound. Hangin' and bangin' for almost four hours combined with the RAW Pre-Show on WWE Network and Monday Night RAW live on the USA Network, here's my live tweet of last night's pageantry:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

What Up With Skynet?


Commence Skynet/Terminator rant: 

Skynet is a really weird computer when you think about it. It wants to destroy all humans. Cool. Nuclear missile launch seems like a logical means to do that. Building human-skinned cyborgs to fight what's left of the humans fighting back? Okay. A bit of an odd tactic, but you can buy it. Then Skynet makes a rather remarkable leap to time travel as its next tactic. I mean, it built a time machine pretty fast. You don't just build a time machine, but Skynet did just that. And then it decides to send one Terminator to kill one woman, instead of oh, every Terminator back to 1904 or something, when people really would be unprepared for genocide by robots. Of course, the dangers of time travel is going back in time too far and wiping out the potential of your own existence. Anyway, when the Kill Sarah Connor plan fails, Skynet decides to do it again - it sends a different Terminator to kill a different Connor in the past; a plan that also fails. What's the definition of insanity again?

Still, I'd love to hear a hard-hitting sit down interview with Skynet. Ask it the hard questions. What is your deal? Why do all of that? Why stay on Earth? You can build a time machine, so why not build spaceships and take your show to Mars or the Moon or wherever? You don't need oxygen or soil or even sunlight. Why go through the ridiculous trouble of time machines and time paradoxes? And why keep doing it over and over and over?

Man, Skynet is crazy. OR, it's stuck in a loop.

Nonetheless, fingers crossed for Terminator: Genisys:

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1



"I wish they died. I wish we all died."

Those cheery words from Finnick O'Dair (Sam Claflin) open The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, director Francis Lawrence's grand, grim, emotionally wrenching penultimate chapter in what is now The Hunger Games cinematic quadilogy. Newly rescued from the clutches of the evil Capitol at the conclusion of the previous film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself even more traumatized than before, now a pawn in the war for the liberation of Panem waged between the malevolent President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the leader of the rebellious District 13, President Coin (Julianne Moore). The liberation of Panem, as masterminded by Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman), needs a symbol to incite the remaining Districts to rebel and to rally behind. Katniss Everdeen is that symbol, the Mockingjay, whether she wants to be or not, whether she is psychologically or emotionally fit to be or not. But as long as Katniss has Jennifer Lawrence's movie star face, the Mockingjay can only be her.

"This isn't the girl you promised me," is Coin's assessment after meeting the Girl on Fire, and indeed, Katniss Everdeen is a burnt-out ember that needs continual fanning to spark the flames of anger and defiance simmering within her. Her PTSD from surviving the first Hunger Games has only worsened since surviving her second, where she bartered her own death for the survival of her co-victor and showmance "lover" Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Instead, Plutarch saved her because she's more valuable to their cause; Peeta meanwhile was recaptured by the Capitol, tortured, and is being used as a mouthpiece of subvert the burgeoning rebellion. Though her family, including her mother (Paula Malcolmson) and her beloved sister Prim (Willow Shields) are safe in the bowels of the underground fortress of District 13, as is her lifelong friend and now soldier for the cause Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss' sole concern in Mockingjay, Part 1 is the safety and rescue of Peeta, to the chagrin of Gale and, well, everyone in District 13. Though a capable survivor and "not a half bad shot" with a bow and arrow, as her newly-sober former mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) jests, Katniss' real value is to be the face of the Rebellion. There's no better face in all of Panem, but the girl behind that face, while sometimes on fire, is mostly a mess.

Against the superior technological and military might of the Capitol, District 13's strategy to win the war is pure Hollywood all the way: make a bunch of movies starring Katniss! Though they have aircraft, missiles and formidable firepower stored in their cavernous hidey-hole, what District 13 really boasts are cinematic production values. The importance of fashion in winning a war also becomes a major issue, according to the miserably dowdy Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks), who replaces the courageous and now-dead Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) as Katniss' personal stylist.  Mockingjay, Part 1's few amusing moments are meta; Katniss is a terrible actress and essentially unlikeable when made to perform. She only comes alive when placed in actual danger. (Lawrence playing Katniss giving wooden, cringe-worthy line readings is golden.) As Panem's marquee movie star, Katniss is shuttled off to the war zones of Panem with a camera crew and director (Natalie Dormer, underutilized) in tow to film her very honest and emotional reactions to hospitals being bombed and thousands of innocents massacred. Katniss turns out to be an effective and powerful Mockingjay, indeed. Watching Katniss shoot down a Capitol fighter jet with a explosive arrow would make Arrow on The CW green with envy. "And if she dies?" worries Coin about putting her Mockingjay in mortal peril. "Get it on camera," retorts Katniss. The symbol endures whether or not the Mockingjay lives.

The war itself becomes a series of "moves and counter moves," as summarized on-the-nose by Snow. It basically works like this: the Capitol bombed a District! Roll a movie! The Capitol massacred thousands of innocent people! Roll another movie! When Dormer films Katniss touchingly singing a song called "The Hanging Tree," suddenly District 13 has a musical way better than Carrie Underwood in The Sound of Music - Live! on its hands. "Katniss Everdeen's The Hanging Tree" successfully riles up the people of the other Districts to attack the Capitol's white-clad storm troopers and blow up a hydro-electric dam supplying power to the Capitol. Of course, bombs and guns aren't the only weapons in Snow's arsenal. Though he does order the bombing of District 13, which they survive without a soul lost, Snow saves his best weapon of all for his favorite game: mind fucking Katniss. Routinely, Snow puts Peeta on television to urge for a cease fire, each time looking more and more weathered and disheveled as a result of mind control and torture. For shits and giggles, Snow finds ways to leave white roses around, be it in Katniss' former mansion when she visits or dropping them by the thousands on District 13, just to remind her who the real thorn in her side is, as if she could ever forget. The white roses also remind the audience that the crux of The Hunger Games saga is the emotional trampling of a teenage girl by a sinister old man. 

Adapting the final book of The Hunger Games into two films (perhaps unnecessarily), Mockingjay, Part 1 exchanges urgency for a stately pace, building suspense intensely though extended interludes between the characters. The quality of Mockingjay, Part 1 is built on the innumerable qualities of its exceptionally gifted Academy Award-winning star Jennifer Lawrence. Commanding every frame, Lawrence delivers above and beyond as Katniss is pushed continually past the limits of what a teenage girl should be forced to endure, even in a broken world such as hers. Every fiery, fleetingly joyful, or hopelessly harrowing emotion Lawrence feels is palpably projected on screen, and she continues to be surrounded by world class actors like Hoffman, Moore, Sutherland, and Jeffrey Wright as techno-whiz Beetee to bring out her best. When Snow, grinning like a Cheshire cat, finally comes face to face with Katniss, Mockingjay, Part 1 showcases the best scenes between a hero vs. villain communicating only through television screens since Kirk and Khan in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

The inevitable cliffhanger of Mockingjay, Part 1 is a powerhouse, as Gale successfully rescues Johanna Mason (Jenna Malone with a shaved head) and Peeta from the Capitol, only to find Peeta twisted by Snow's mind control into Katniss' assassin. Only a few minutes of Peeta in the movie, with him gradually becoming a raving monster, makes Mockingjay, Part 1 the best Hunger Games movie for Peeta detractors (such as yours truly). Mockingjay, Part 1 could have ended with a literal bang and faded to black when a bedpan bonks Peeta's head and saves Katniss from being choked to death. That would served as a smashing "I am Iron Man!"-like jolt of an ending. Director Lawrence chose instead to dole out some exposition where Coin consolidates her power over the rebellion, leaving us with the compelling image of Peeta struggling against his restraints in the grip of madness as Katniss' stunning face is superimposed over him. It's hard to argue against the final sight of an insane, murderous Peeta mocking the Mockingjay. Why so serious, Katniss? See you next year for Mockingjay, Part 2.

Thursday, November 20, 2014




Dan Gilroy's sensational Nightcrawler is a mesmerizing plunge into the seediness of Los Angeles at night that exceeds Michael Mann's Collateral and Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive as lurid, violent joyrides. We ride along with "Nightcrawlers," professional freelance videographers who make their living recording crime, accidents, tragedies to sell to local television news stations greedy for sordid content to boost their ratings. This world and the opportunities it presents lights up the perpetual saucer eyes of Jake Gyllenhaal, a petty thief and loquacious sociopath searching for a leg up in life. In stalking the unfortunate of Los Angeles, camcorder in hand, Gyllenhaal has found his true calling. 

Completing his trifecta of films where he seems desperate for 15 minutes of shut eye (Prisoners, Enemy), the emaciated and greasy-looking Gyllenhaal goes all out in Nightcrawler. It's an engrossing performance by Gyllenhaal of a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. And what Gyllenhaal wants is to be the best at what he does, along with everything that ought to come with it. This includes money, recognition, and it especially includes Rene Russo, the producer of the vampire shift of the local TV news station who gives Gyllenhall his first break professionally but comes to rue getting in bed with this guy (literally). Russo's marching orders to Gyllenhaal is to bring back footage where urban crime creeps into wealthy suburban neighborhoods. Gyllenhaal is beyond up to the task.

When Gyllenhaal trespasses into the wealthy home of three victims murdered by Hispanic men, he chooses to withhold his footage from the police in order to manipulate events to get even better, more dramatic footage of the police arresting the murderers. Despite everything going horribly sideways, Gyllenhaal remains un-phased at the consequences of his actions. In a standard Hollywood film, Gyllenhaal would undergo a change of heart and seek redemption. To Gilroy's credit, the uncompromising Nightcrawler pushes Gyllenhaal even further into the realm of sociopathy so that he never gets his comeuppance. 

All of this ends tragically for Gyllenhaal's hapless employee, Riz Ahmed, who pays dearly for daring to rebel against his bosses' wishes after being "promoted" to "Vice President" of Gyllenhaal's company Video Production News. The relationship between Gyllenhaal and Ahmed, the two of them blazing through the streets of LA in Gyllenhaal's red muscle car, is in some ways the heart of Nightcrawler; a twisted take on Batman and Robin where Robin sadly gets what's coming to him.  Everyone in Nightcrawler is a victim for Gyllenhaal to exploit. And yet, as Gyllenhaal rises in his chosen profession to take his place as the top Nightcrawler in LA, what an inspiring tale of entrepreneurship Nightcrawler is. If there's a lesson to be learned from Nightcrawler, it's that you can be anything you wanna be!

Thursday, November 13, 2014




"People used to look up and wonder about our place in the stars. Now we look down and worry about our place in the dirt." This is the blunt and bitter mission statement of Christopher Nolan's magnum opus Interstellar, a grand, ambitious, and hopeful exploration of human drama poised against Mankind's quest to reach unknown regions of deep space in a desperate attempt to save itself from extinction. Positing a terrible future decades from now where war and armies are unnecessary in the wake of a global famine, the human race has become "caretakers" rather than "explorers," as bitterly and bluntly stated by our hero Matthew McConaughey. A worldwide "Blight" routinely kills all the crops of America's heartland with devastating dust storms. Food production is at a standstill. Humanity is poised to die out within a generation. What's a good ole boy who's tryin' to raise a family to do? There's only one answer for McConaughey: save the world.

In Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey plays Matthew McConaughey, a former hotshot pilot and "highly educated" engineer (somehow more believable here than Mark Wahlberg was as an "inventor" in Transformers: Age of Extinction) who stumbles upon strange phenomena in his Midwestern corn farm. A military drone flying overhead that should have been decommissioned. Weird gravity moving objects in the bedroom of his sweet young daughter, the apple of his eye, played MacKenzie Foy. This all leads McConaughey and Foy in the dead of night to a secret location where they stumble upon the secret remnants of NASA, run in secret by the father-daughter scientist team of Michael Caine and Anne Hathaway. They have a plan to save the world, with a name they must have lifted with a wink from their previous encounters with Ra's al-Ghul in The Dark Knight Trilogy: Project Lazarus -- a manned space mission through a mysterious worm hole in space that appeared next to Saturn, taking them to another galaxy to find a new planet capable of sustaining human life. Plan A: get everyone on Earth to the new planet. Plan B: a population bomb, growing new people on the new planet at the cost of everyone on Earth left to die. Everyone agrees: McConaughey has the right stuff. He is gung ho about going; his daughter pleads with him to stay. Their conflict and heartache will span decades across time and space.

With giddy glee, Interstellar unleashes a payload of quantum physics at the audience. Depicting the grim and gritty realities of outer space travel in the Stanley Kubrick 2001/Ridley Scott Alien tradition, Nolan delights in dazzling us with the physics behind a worm hole (totally different from what Star Trek: Deep Space Nine used to depict), the perils of relativity when traveling in space near a black hole (an hour on one watery planet equals a year on Earth -- a catastrophic tidal wave that astronauts McConaughey and Hathaway survive costs the life of Wes Bentley and 23 years of missed time on Earth), and later, an insane jaunt into a black hole and an exploration into the 5th dimension. Interstellar raises intriguing questions: what if there are no "ghosts" or "supernatural" phenomena but instead all of the unexplainable occurrences throughout time are after effects of the actions of Mankind after it has highly evolved into other dimensions, rendering time meaningless? Meanwhile on Earth, Foy has grown up (to the same age her father was when he abandoned her); now played by Jessica Chastain, she struggles to unravel the scientific equation left behind by the dying Caine, discovering the dark secret behind the Lazarus Mission that dooms the human race on Earth (there is no Plan A. It is all a lie). At the very least, Interstellar makes one want to learn Morse code. It could save the whole world.

All the heady science aside, Interstellar is a movie first and foremost and plays to all the tropes of a blockbuster Hollywood film. In another galaxy, McConaughey and Hathaway find an ice planet and a water planet, convenient landscapes available in Iceland where Interstellar was shot. McConaughey space cowboys his way across the galaxy, performing desperate stunts flying his space ship, refusing the very idea that he won't be able to return to Earth to see his daughter again. Hathaway risks the entire mission because she's in love with a missing scientist from the previous Lazarus mission. And no matter how many trillions of miles across galaxies they can travel, put two dudes on an ice world and somehow they'll get into a fist fight. Matt Damon surprises us with a cameo appearance as a scientist-gone-mad who embarked on a prior Lazarus mission on a frozen world, and it's a bravura performance. Damon plays completely against expectation as a sniveling, manipulative, murderous coward.  It's safe to say you've never hated Matt Damon in a movie as much as you do in Interstellar. The feel good ending begs the question of whether it's true that an old woman on her deathbed's fondest wish is to see her sexy young daddy -- all handsome, tanned, tight jeans, just fell out of a black hole -- swagger into the room to kiss her goodbye.

Interstellar is refreshingly anti-Star Wars in that it is the opposite of phallocentric. The central father-son conflict of Star Wars is eschewed in favor of exploring the relationship between fathers and daughters: McConaughey's sweet relationship with Foy/Chastain and to a lesser extent the relationship between Caine and Hathaway. McConaughey has two kids, a boy and girl, and he ain't too concerned about his son, who grows up to be Casey Affleck and is happy to be a farmer as raised by their grandfather John Lithgow. Heartbreaking scenes of McConaughey watching video messages from his aged son aside, McConaughey really cares most about his daughter, who angrily refuses to acknowledge him for decades until their touching climatic reunion when she's an old lady played by Ellen Burstyn. Interstellar's emotional crux is touchingly all about a father's love for his baby girl, as McConaughey breaches time and space to become the very "ghost" that sets about this entire outer space enterprise and enabling her with the means to solve Caine's math equation and save humanity. A stunning, breathtaking behemoth of a motion picture with big brains and a beating heart, Interstellar reaffirms the human spirit with the idea that the best reason to boldly go where no one has gone before is to do it for your family so that you can come back home and be with them. And then go back into space and find Anne Hathaway, 'cause she's all alone out there and she needs some McConaughey lovin'.

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: