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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.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy



Rollicking, breakneck space adventure, big, impactful emotional moments, ribald jokes galore, and a heartwarming core message of the importance of family and friendship are the prime reasons to blast off with Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps the riskiest venture yet from Marvel Studios. A risk that has paid off big time. Opening up the vastness of outer space in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians introduces us to world-annihilating alien cultures, long dead space gods, weapons of infinite destructive power, and more than one genetically modified talking animal. Earth's Mightest Heroes, the Avengers, are nowhere to be found out there in the final frontier. Instead, the galaxy's best hope are a ragtag bunch of assholes. The Galaxy doesn't know how lucky they are to have these assholes as their Guardians, but they - and we - happily learn soon enough.

The Guardians of the Galaxy are Peter Quill, a.k.a Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), a human self-styled outlaw abducted as a child by a cadre of cannibalistic (so they claim) space pirates called the Ravagers lead by Yondu (Michael Rooker); Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an emerald-skinned assassin and "daughter" of the malevolent Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin); Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a muscle-bound lunatic out to avenge the murder of his family; Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered talking raccoon who's the technical whiz of the operation; and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a kind-hearted plant creature, kind of like a wooden, leafy Chewbacca. The future Guardians are thrown into and break out of a space gulag together when chasing after the most dangerous McGuffin in the universe: an Infinity Stone, one of six power sources from the dawn of the universe capable of unlimited destruction. Also after the Infinity Stone are the big bad of the Kree Empire, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a genocidal fanatic who swings a hammer even bigger than Thor's, and Thanos himself, who sent his second most favorite daughter Nebula (Karen Gillan) to aid Ronan in bringing him the Infinity Stone. Ronan has other plans, which directly conflict with the plans of the Guardians (although the Guardians, technically, don't have plans, per se. They just tend to improvise.)

Amidst the edge of your seat, anything goes careening action and adventure, the most surprising and pleasing aspect of Guardians is how richly realized the main characters are. All of the Guardians are broken people (er, and a raccoon, and uh... a Groot...), each nursing trauma, guilt, or regret like raw, open wounds. Certainly nothing can prepare you for the sight of a talking raccoon crying and drunkenly forlorn over existentialism. Equally sweet and touching is the moment Drax pets the weeping Rocket, and Rocket's reaction to something that has never happened to him before. Drax mourns his family and craves vengeance. Gamora has a serious case of sibling rivalry and a profound urge to fight against the nefarious plans of Thanos and Ronan. Groot is as soulful and heroic as a bizarre plant thing that can only utter "I am Groot" can possibly be. Quill is hardly the space hero Luke Skywalker or even Han Solo are, but he is learning, and he wants to save the galaxy for the most logical of reasons: because he's one of the idiots who lives in the galaxy. The Guardians squabble and brawl with one another, but gradually learn to trust each other and see themselves as a misfit family, going even further than the Avengers did as a unit when they assembled to save the Earth.

Writer-director James Gunn plays every card in his deck like it's a trump: from the outrageously fitting 1970's soundtrack on cassette tapes so coveted by Star-Lord, to the running jokes of people incredulous at calling Quill "Star-Lord," Drax taking everything literally, and Rocket's claiming he needs various cybernetic appendages of random people amputated for his schemes, to every timely laugh gleaned from Groot saying his one line. Gunn propels the Guardians and the audience to the far-flung corners of the Marvel Universe. We visit the futuristic home world of the Nova Corps, the army of space police lead by Nova Prime (Glenn Close) and captained by Dey (John C. Reilly). We are awed at the sight of Knowhere, a mining colony and wretched hive of scum and villainy housed within the gigantic, hollowed out skull of a long-dead Celestial, one of the Marvel Universe's majestic space gods. We watch a seething, pouty Ronan plot to annihilate an entire world from his fearsome starship, and we pay a brief visit to Sanctuary, the asteroid base of Thanos, seated on his throne, biding his time until he finally takes center stage to threaten all of the Marvel Universe with the Infinity Gauntlet. We even find out whatever happened to that dog the Russians launched into space decades ago. (He doesn't talk like Rocket, or like a certain duck who lives in Knowhere does.)  

Guardians of the Galaxy is a spectacular triumph for Marvel, a crowd-pleasing, devil-may-care romp though the dangerous waters of Marvel outer space, full of traitors, tyrants, and that loveable talking tree. Five oddball characters borne from Marvel Comics most people have never heard of are now, delightfully, our beloved space heroes for the 21st century. The Guardians of the Galaxy are the bunch of assholes we want watching our backs as our friends and makeshift family. May they save the galaxy over and over in multiple sequels (and maybe in a team up with the Avengers - fingers crossed!) while rocking out to Star-Lord's awesome mix tapes.