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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: