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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story



Rogue One: A Star Wars Story answers a question that hasn't really loomed that large since 1977: How exactly did the Rebel Alliance acquire the plans for the first Death Star that allowed Luke Skywalker to destroy it in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope? Director Gareth Edwards offers this lost tale as the first standalone Star Wars movie from Disney not centering on the Skywalker family. A grim, ruthless, death march across brand new worlds in the Star Wars Galaxy, Rogue One (the first Star Wars movie where the characters say the title of the film) heaps a plethora of new characters onto the screen as cannon fodder for the mighty Death Star. Luke Skywalker isn't here to rescue Rogue One, but the entire enterprise is ultimately redeemed by a violently gonzo third act and a welcome parade of Droids, vehicles, weapons, and familiar faces from the Original Trilogy (in the case of the late Peter Cushing, in a computer generated reprisal of his role as Grand Moff Tarkin, a ghastly, haunting familiar face). Rogue One could even be renamed: How Darth Vader Saved a Star Wars Movie from the Rebel Alliance.  

The Rebels are the problem in Rogue One. Not just for the Empire, tightening its authoritarian grip across the Galaxy with its brand new planet-killing super weapon, but for the audience. The Rebels can always be described as a "rag tag" group of freedom fighters, but Rogue One's Rebel heroes are the most rag tag of all. Following the heroes of Rogue One on their exploits, we sorely miss the charm and charisma of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron. Hell, we'd even settle for Padme Amidala and Anakin Skywalker making goo goo eyes at each other during their "aggressive negotiations." Rogue One pleasingly diversifies the human races of Star Wars with a truly multicultural cast. It's a shame most of these new characters are relegated to being a bunch of dour sourpusses with threadbare personalities and motivations. Who are these guys, and seriously, who wants to save the Galaxy with them? Most of them are no fun at all, and a couple join the Rogue One team because they literally have nothing else to do. But we get it, desperate times, and all that...

First and foremost, we meet Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a tough, hardened criminal with the angelic voice of a British nanny. Jyn deserves to wear a Daddy's Lil Monster shirt more than Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad. Her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a genius scientist forced by the Empire to design and build the Death Star. Separated from her father as a little girl, Jyn had a tough life; she watched her mother get murdered, her father get kidnapped, and she was raised by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a cyborg Rebel fighter who's too extreme even for the Rebellion. Jyn spent most of her life on the run or in Imperial prison, suppressing having a winning personality along the way. And yet, she's still swayed by the promise of Hope. Whitaker, incidentally, clanks around on robot legs and wheezes into an oxygen mask in a bizarre cosplay of General Grievous from Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Upon meeting Saw Gerrera, we realize we don't really want to spend any time with this guy. Thanks to Grand Moff Tarkin and the good people on the Death Star, we don't have to.

Unbeknownst to his Imperial masters, Galen built a fatal weakness into the Death Star and sent a sweaty, hapless Imperial pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) on a mission to let the Rebels in their "secret" base on Yavin IV know about said weakness. Instead, Rook is captured by Whitaker's people on the planet Jedha, which is under Imperial occupation, because it's both the location of ancient Jedi Temples (the "Force of Others" and "the Whills" are name checked, continuing the mining of George Lucas' preliminary concepts for Star Wars that began with naming The Force Awakens' Death Star "Starkiller Base") and a repository of Kyber crystals. Kyber crystals in Star Wars lore are what power the Jedi's colorful lightsabers, but they are also the power source of the Death Star's fearsome planet-killing lasers. Jyn and a shifty Rebel fighter named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), along with K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), an Imperial Droid reprogrammed to tell jokes and provide comic relief, are sent on a mission to find (and kill) her father. They're joined by more rag tag recruits to The Cause, including Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind preacher of the Force skilled in martial arts, and his buddy Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), not sure what he does. These are not names easily remembered, and much of their adventure is easily forgotten.

Thankfully, the turgid first couple of hours of Rogue One culminates in an explosive and ruthless third act on the planet Scarif, an idyllic beach world except for the Imperial AT-ATs trudging around and the energy shield around the planet protected by a fleet of Star Destroyers. The Rebel fleet launches a full-scale assault on Scarif while the rag tag Rogue One team penetrate the Imperial base to heist the plans for the Death Star. Finally, the cut scenes from the Star Wars Battlefront video game are filmed as a movie, but this is by far the most enjoyable part of Rogue One, featuring multiple main character casualties and bravura sights like a Rebel Hammerhead starship ramming a listing Star Destroyer and forcing it to collide with another Star Destroyer. As an homage to The Empire Strikes Back (among multiple callbacks to the previous movies), there's a climactic confrontation between Jyn and Orson Krannic (Ben Mendelsohn), the sneering, white cape-wafting villain of the piece who kidnapped her father, on one of those same narrow elevated platforms where Vader revealed to Luke who his daddy is. Anyone who has seen the previous seven Star Wars and lamented that not enough people die in these movies ought to have their bloodlust (hopefully) slaked. Rogue One puts the "war" in Star Wars.

Rogue One manages to accomplish a surprising feat: making the Rebel Alliance unlikable. We had really only seen the Rebellion through the eyes of Luke, Han, Leia and friends, as a bunch of faces and soldiers surrounding the heroes we actually care about. Absent them (save for a computer generated cameo of Leia restoring Carrie Fisher to her cherub-faced youth, a Jimmy Smits appearance as Senator Bail Organa, and C-3P0 and R2-D2 dropping by), we see the Rebellion in a different light: as a bunch of frightened, bickering people who engaged in thinly-veiled terrorist acts and moral compromises in their attempt to defeat the Empire. The Rebel council argues interminably among themselves, forcing Jyn and her Rogue One buddies to act in spite of them. The Rebels aren't strictly white hats in Rogue One, and while that is probably more "realistic," is that actually better? Speaking of wearing white, the killing of Storm Troopers in Rogue One is beyond ridiculous. Dozens and dozens of Storm Troopers are so easily slaughtered, it's hilarious. A Storm Trooper is violently killed almost every few minutes; most are annihilated by explosion or cut down in blaster fire. The Storm Troopers achieve a haplessness beyond even the "roger roger" battle Droids in the prequel trilogy. As the Empire's jack booted stand-ins for Nazis, no one really mourns the Storm Troopers, but Rogue One goes above and beyond in making them look utterly incompetent and easy to kill. I killed two or three just while writing this review.

Star Wars remains the greatest toy box in movies. With Rogue One, director Edwards and his writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy are like little kids playing with action figures, haphazardly ramming them together, occasionally coming up with cool things to do with them. However, they did right by the best Star Wars toy of all: Rogue One promised the cinematic return of Darth Vader, and while he's only on screen for a few fleeting minutes - including an eyebrow-raising reintroduction to him by seeing what's left of his limbless, charred human body taking a steamy bath in a bacta tank - Vader utterly commands the screen in Rogue One every scant second he appears. Rogue One concludes right before Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope begins, but seeing Darth Vader at the height of his fearsome powers, easily decimating the Rebel soldiers in his way with his blazing red lightsaber, is exhilarating in a way nothing else in Rogue One is. One imagines Kylo Ren leaping to his feet, tears in his eyes, exploding in applause watching Darth Vader in all his glory in Rogue One. Man, that Vader is really something. Someone should make a movie about him.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them



Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them apparates in movie theaters already threatening to be the first of five films. Packing the most threadbare of story and characters in Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne)'s magical suitcase, Fantastic Beasts has nothing on its mind besides slamming the helpless audience with two hours of non-stop CGI pandemonium masquerading as "magical adventure" while picking their pockets with sleight of hand. There is no whimsy or wonder in Fantastic Beasts' color-bled version of 1920's New York City, nothing resembling human emotion or interest, certainly nothing truly magical. Fantastic Beasts' idea of ending every scene is having the CGI animals destroy every set, and its idea of a happy ending is having the Wizards use their wands to magically repair the sets. Written by Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling and helmed by the franchise's sitting bull director David Yates, Fantastic Beasts is the most soulless, somnambular, and egregious example of franchise masturbation in movie theaters today.

Plenty of noisy sturm und drang occurs in Fantastic Beasts. A British Wizard named Newt Scamander arrives in New York City hoisting a suitcase containing magical beasts which are contraband in the magic-ignorant United States. Some of the beasts get loose and Scamander, with the aid of former Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and down-on-his-luck human Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), scuttle about Manhattan trying to recapture the ridiculously destructive creatures. There's also some hubub of a pre-Voldemort Wizard criminal escaped from England and hiding in New York, visits to the immensely pedantic Magical Congress of the United States, and Colin Farrell as an obviously evil Wizard working for the Magic Congress holding in his thrall the simpering, weirdo son (Ezra Miller) of a woman warning against the infestation of witches in America. This all culminates with all of the Wizards, good and evil, chasing after the ever-imaginative staple of lazy blockbuster films: a CGI black cloud of ash destroying the city. This after over 90 minutes of watching some of the unsightliest CGI monsters ever rendered destroying locations like the Central Park Zoo. The Harry Potter franchise has honestly always had an ugly CGI problem, but Fantastic Beasts ups the ante; Fantastic Beasts has more unpleasant and frenetic CGI than all 8 prior Harry Potter movies put together.

As the hero of Fantastic Beasts, Newt Scamander is an utter failure. Lacking a raison d'etre besides something about traveling to Arizona or a backstory even a fraction as interesting as Neville Longbottom's, much less Harry Potter himself, Redmayne plays Scamander as an incomprehensible cypher. Redmayne, whose dialogue desperately needed to be subtitled, affects a bizarre accent making him nigh-impossible to understand, especially when he's simply telling the audience the names of his CGI creatures. Redmayne isn't even as competent a zookeeper as Tracy Morgan's Brian Fellows from Saturday Night Live. Waterston as a "good" Auror and Farrell as an "evil" Auror, are dual sides of the same, boring coin. The only character reasonably sympathetic is Fogler, who simply wants to open a bakery and get with Waterston's floozy sister, making him by default the most relatable person in Fantastic Beasts. (Fogler cackling every time he takes a sip of Wizard booze is the only fleeting dose of humor in this dour, interminable slog.) Fan service name checks of Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts, the LeStrange family, and Farrell's Deathly Hallows logo keychain (available for purchase where ever Harry Potter merchandise is sold!) remind that Fantastic Beasts exists purely as an obnoxiously transparent attempt to extend the money-making capacity of the Harry Potter franchise. But the Wizarding World of Newt Scamander is a real snoozefest, unless you're looking for a Fantastic Nap and Where to Find It.

Monday, November 14, 2016




A tale of first contact with otherworldly aliens like no other, Denis Villeneuve's Arrival couldn't arrive in theaters at a more opportune time. Deliberate, dream-like, and arresting, Arrival's heady themes address xenophobia, trust, loss, memory, and international cooperation laboring against militarized fear and ignorance to achieve an understanding with creatures as different from human beings as you can imagine. When twelve 1,500 foot tall space craft (dubbed "Eggs") suddenly materialize over twelve random locations around the world, brilliant linguist Amy Adams is recruited by US military liaison Forest Whitaker make contact with the aliens in the Egg hovering over rural Montana. Adams is joined by theoretical physicist Jeremy Renner; together they are charged with the daunting task of deciphering the language of the aliens, dubbed Heptapods.

As far as human-alien negotiations go, Arrival is the polar opposite of when Adams met the handsome farm boy from Krypton in Man of Steel. The Heptapods are thoroughly inhuman. They're like enormous Dr. Zoidbergs from Futurama; octopus-like creatures without visible eyes, which communicate by making circular symbols with octopus ink, like an otherworldly Etch-a-Sketch. But why are they here? What are the Heptapods trying to tell humanity? Adams is haunted by memories of her daughter, whom she lost to cancer. But are they memories at all, or something more? Arrival carefully reveals the answers, while lobbing the intriguing notion that by learning another language, one can literally re-wire their mind to achieve a different, heightened form of perception. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking as the unprecedented collaboration between the other nations also communicating with the Heptapods collapses as China, gripped with fear, declares war on the alien ships, causing other governments to follow suit. It's up to Adams to find a way to literally prevent a war of the worlds, building to Arrival's astounding conclusion. Arrival is a sci-fi ray of hope, of patience and intelligence outweighing fear and ignorance, ideas and truths to ponder and positively act upon during these darkening days of our own time.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Doctor Strange



Doctor Strange sees the Marvel Studios machine working at full-bore, essaying its magical Sorcerer Supreme into movie theaters while busily checking off a Greatest Hits list of Things That Worked Before in Other Marvel Movies. As a Marvel origin story, Doctor Strange borrows wholesale from the previous magic of Iron Man and Thor. We're introduced to Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, cheerily belaboring an American accent), world famous, mega-successful neurosurgeon. Like Tony Stark and Thor, Strange is at the top of his field, which is perhaps all the more remarkable with that surname. Wealthy people felt confident putting themselves in the hands of a surgeon named "Dr. Strange?" In the Marvel Universe, apparently so. Also like Tony Stark and Thor, before assuming the mantle of a hero, Strange is an arrogant snotball who needs to be taken down a peg. Strange does this to himself when he races his Lamborghini in the rain without paying attention to the road and drives himself off a cliff. He survives, but suffers permanent nerve damage to his hands, ending his surgical career. When neither begging lesser surgeons to treat him nor emotionally abusing his colleague and ex-lover Dr. Rachel McAdams cures his hands, Strange absconds to Nepal looking for a miracle.

In the magical compound of Kamar-Taj, Strange finds his salvation in the form of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a magical Mr. Miyagi who shows Strange the secret of Marvel sorcery. Initially scoffing at the idea of magic and the multiverse, Strange nonetheless begins his mystical training at Kamar-Taj, rapidly gaining enough power to be able to stop Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen), who sports perhaps the least memorable and Kae-silliest of Marvel movie villain names. Kaecillius was the Ancient One's protege but turned to a new master, Dormammu, the nefarious lord of the Dark Dimension. Dormammu wants to swallow the entire universe and especially wants Earth because Earth rocks. Lots of great stuff on Earth, like Infinity Stones, one of which turns out to be Doctor Strange's magical amulet the Eye of Agamotto. Doctor Strange also receives a magical Cloak of Levitation, which chose him for some reason and stopped just short of sorting him into Gryffindor.

In Doctor Strange, Marvel Studios gets to do their version of Inception, with New York City bending its skyscrapers into itself in multiple dimensions as Doctor Strange and Mordo are chased by Kaecillus and his band of no-dialogue magical henchmen. Christopher Nolan now knows how the Wachowskis felt when everyone started stealing bullet-time after The Matrix. Cumberbatch is a game Doctor (don't call him Mister or Mister Doctor) Strange. He is never more interesting than when he first arrives at Kamar-Taj, a broken but still arrogant man, and the Ancient One literally yanks his astral form out of his body. Yet Doctor Strange's magical abilities come too quickly (the Ancient One even matter-of-factly points this out and then moves along) and with no cost. Doctor Strange doesn't for a moment dwell on the price one traditionally must pay for using magic. In Doctor Strange's universe, Strange just grows more and more powerful and acquires more and more stuff, like a Greenwich Village Sanctum to hang his cloak in. Together with Wong (Benedict Wong), the wry librarian of Kamar-Taj, and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the Ancient One's loyal, intractable pupil, Strange battles Kaecillius in London, New York, and Hong Kong, before facing off with Dormammu in the Dark Dimension and pulling a magic trick on him right out of Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow.

As Doctor Strange's villains, Mikkelsen doesn't break from the established Marvel movie tradition of underwhelming antagonists. Mikkelsen merely does a riff on Le Chiffre, the Bond villain he played in Casino Royale a decade ago, right down to having messed up eyes. Mikkelsen even cries a tear (but not of blood) when he explains what his beloved Dormammu is to Strange. Dormammu is quite a disappointment, just a talking face in outer space. Dormammu is sadly nothing more than a version of the reviled evil space cloud Parallax Green Lantern fought in his space dud of a movie, with just a smidge more personality. Mordo even turns evil at the end, like Sinestro arbitrarily did at the conclusion of Green Lantern. The Ancient One sends Doctor Strange on a magical journey across the multiversal dimensions, but Ant-Man went through a similar trip just two summers ago when he kept shrinking into infinity. To hammer home Doctor Strange's Marvel pedigree, a certain God of Thunder drops by in the expected end credits Easter egg to commiserate; both missed out on this year's wildly successful Captain America: Civil War and eagerly position their parts in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War. More power to them. Doctor Strange is Marvel Studios casting their movie magic strictly by the book.

Friday, October 28, 2016




Robert Langdon wakes up in a hospital bed in Florence, Italy, befuddled, feeling like he got shot in the head. Buddy, I know that feeling. I sat through Inferno. The third in the Robert Langdon series based upon the Dan Brown novels, directed by Ron Howard, and starring Tom Hanks, Inferno literally puts the fate of the world in Langdon's hands. This time, there's a pathogen on the loose, created by crazy billionaire Ben Foster. Now, Foster may have a point that the world is dangerously on the brink of global over-population, but despite his obsession with (misquoting) Dante Alighieri, Foster seems like he's read too many Marvel Comics. Foster's pathogen, the Inferno (which, mind you, comes in a plastic bag), is designed to wipe out half the world's population in a matter of days. Hey, killing half the population is Thanos' thing. Ben Foster was a middling Angel in X-Men; he's sure as hell no Thanos.

Langdon is lured into this crazy, Dante Alighieri-based mystery puzzle plot by multiple forces who all seem 1) eager to shoot him and 2) eager to ask for his help, in that order. There's the World Health Organization, repped by Westworld's Sidse Babett Knudson, who used to be Langdon's sorta girlfriend. Then there's a shadowy "security" organization run by Irrfan Khan, last seen piloting a helicopter into a bunch of pterodactyls in Jurassic World. There are also two dangerous, gun-toting agents of mysteriously foreign origin and questionable allegiances, Omar Sy and Ana Ularu. Last but not least, there's Felicity Jones, the British emergency room doctor who saved Langdon when he was kidnapped and shot in the head. Jones is conveniently a "big fan" of Langdon and of "puzzles." She claims she met Langdon when she was nine years old, and for some reason she's gung ho about finding a killer virus. Something seems fishy about that, but Langdon, wobbly and confused for half the movie from his injuries, doesn't have the wherewithal to suss this stuff out this time. Langdon suffers from a unique affliction in Inferno: Half the Movie Amnesia, which he's conveniently cured of just in time to put all the clues together and foil the end of the world.

By now, we're wise to all this Dan Brown twisty mystery plotting based on academic research into history and antiquity. Inferno is as rote and mechanical as this hokum gets. Neither Howard nor Hanks seem remotely interested in the hoops Langdon must jump through to solve the puzzles in Inferno. Hanks zips through the exposition while suppressing yawns, and who can blame him? Compared to the "secret history" of the Knights Templar, Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene, and the Holy Grail, there's none of the inherent juiciness in the history of Dante Aligheri that gave The Da Vinci Code what little pulpy fun it had. Nor does Inferno have the benefit of a scenery-chewing Sir Ian McKellan livening these dreary proceedings. Inferno whisks Hanks, Jones, et al to smashing locales like Florence, Venice, and Istanbul, but no one in the movie has the slightest bit of fun. Hanks and Jones seem perfectly resigned to being a mystery-solving duo completely absent of chemistry. Hanks contorts his face for the entire movie into his version of Dante Aligheri's Death Mask, and Jones sports an I'm Just Here for a Paycheck/Fuck This, I'm In Star Wars Now face throughout the entire movie. Inferno is super duper serious all the time, even when the survival of half the human race depends on Hanks winning a three way fist fight in three feet of water for a plastic bag of pathogen.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back



"Congrats, Jack. I don't give a shit." says the heavy to Jack Reacher before their climactic rooftop fistfight, and we're inclined to agree. In Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Tom Cruise returns as the titular character, a mysterious former Army Major turned drifter who rights wrongs with clinched fists and jaw. This time, Reacher, who made his way to Washington, D.C. for what he hoped to be a booty call with his replacement in command of his unit, Major Cobie Smulders, finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy within the Army to frame Smulders for the deaths of two of her soldiers in Afghanistan. Somehow, this involves a shadowy network of arms dealers, and even more somehow, it places a teenage girl who may or may not be Reacher's daughter played by Danika Yarosh in harm's way. Suddenly, tough guy loner Jack Reacher ends up on the run with an ersatz family and may have been a deadbeat dad all along. He looks as happy about it as we are.

The previous Jack Reacher film written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie was a solid thriller that established Reacher as the smartest bad ass in any room. In Never Go Back, Edward Zwick, who took over the helm and co-wrote the screenplay, does away with most of Reacher's vaunted brain power. Reacher retains the uncanny ability to spot evil mercenaries tailing him, but that's about all he can do anymore. Reacher spends the whole movie puzzling out the conspiracy against Smulders, and that's nothing compared to the mystery of whether Yarosh really is his daughter, which he never does suss out until Yarosh literally spells it out for him. The previous film also established that Reacher was irresistible to women, but Never Go Back does a total 180 on that. Boy, is Reacher now a dick - rude, sexist, and unappealing - which half the women in the movie including Smulders are at pains to point out. Reacher's a total Jackoff in Never Go Back.

Cruise, who produced Never Go Back, seems inexplicably hellbent on subverting audience expectations of what a Tom Cruise movie is. Cruise spends 99% of Never Go Back willfully suppressing his patented Tom Cruise charm, his face frozen in a scowl throughout the entire movie as if he's wearing an Angry Tom Cruise version of those masks everyone dons in his Mission: Impossible films. Who ever thought Tom Cruise would hold Tom Cruise's smile hostage, and why? In place of charms or brains or a plot audiences can follow and invest in, Never Go Back substitutes running. See Reacher run. Run, Reacher, run. Never Go Back makes Cruise and whomever is with him, usually Smulders, run enough to equal the running in any three prior Tom Cruise movies. Cruise and Smulders seemingly spent their rehearsal time practicing endless wind sprints, rather than creating a believable romantic chemistry. Never Go Back also sets the record for the number of cell phones slipped into characters' pockets in a movie. As you leave the theater, you'll be sure to check your own pockets to see if someone slipped you a burner phone, as you silently promise to never go back if Jack Reacher returns for a threepeat.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Accountant



Ben Affleck is The Accountant. Affleck stars as "Christian Wolff," one of many nom de plumes his character adopts, based on the names of history's greatest mathematicians. Now, Affleck is no mere accountant, oh no. He also 1) suffers from a high-functioning form of autism since childhood that renders him socially repressed but one of the most gifted mathematicians on the planet, 2) is a freelance book keeper for some of the world's most dangerous criminal organizations, and 3) happens to be one of the world's greatest assassins, a regular Jason Bourne with (Good) Will Hunting's head for numbers. Like the taxes Affleck does for a kindly Illinois farm couple who are also his clients, The Accountant's books are quite overcooked.

The Accountant's screenplay by Bill Dubuque seems to have escaped the writer's workshop too soon. Affleck's story alone is a convoluted rigamarole: His ruthless Army Colonel father drove his hapless mother away when he refused to let young Affleck attend a special New Hampshire school to treat his autism. Instead, the Colonel dragged Affleck and his brother around the world 37 times, forcing them to endure brutal schooling in the martial arts and egging them on to have street brawls with their Parisian school chums. As an adult, Affleck received expert tutelage in criminal accounting by George Bluth himself, Jeffrey Tambor, his callow prison roommate. 

Affleck then went to work for a mysterious British lady who instructs him over the phone, as if he were her only Charlie's Angel. Affleck cooks the books for international crime lords when he isn't also killing people or posing as an actual CPA in the suburbs of Chicago. And that's all before he starts doing the accounting for a robotics corporation owned by John Lithgow. Affleck is there to investigate missing millions of dollars found by a junior level accountant played by Anna Kendrick. Of course, Affleck falls for Kendrick, the only math nerd who can understand his extreme math nerdiness. Kendrick is an out of place distraction in The Accountant, a sore thumb when counting with our fingers. And doubly of course, Affleck ends up in the middle of a murder plot where killers lead by Jon Bernthal start offing Lithgow's partners, placing him directly at gruesome odds with this gang of murderous thugs.

If that all that weren't enough, Affleck is being investigated by the United States Treasury run by J.K. Simmons, who recruits Cynthia Addai-Robinson, a former criminal who lied about her past to become an analyst in the treasury. Together, they track down this mysterious Accountant, before Simmons suddenly launches into a complicated third act exposition monologue revealing his entire career was linked to Affleck, they met in the past, and Affleck's British lady boss not only has Simmons in her thrall, but now Addai-Robinson as well. And all that's before the question of whatever happened to young Affleck's brother is answered with the bloody obvious reveal that Bernthal is Affleck's brother all grown up. Director Gavin O'Connor, who helmed the superior MMA brothers-up-in-arms smash Warrior, again goes to the well of two brothers slugging it out before admitting they love each other. The only thing The Accountant didn't account for was why Affleck rubbed and beat his shin bones with a pole whenever he's upset.

It turns out the biggest accounting job in The Accountant is keeping track of all of the DC, Marvel, and other nerdy comics references and casting choices. Let's show our work: Obviously, Affleck is currently Batman. His brother Bernthal is Marvel and Netflix's The Punisher. (As Affleck was also once Daredevil, Bernthal has now fought two Daredevils in the movies and on Netflix.) Simmons is the new Commissioner Gordon opposite Affleck's Batman. Addai-Robinson played Amanda Waller, leader of the Suicide Squad on The CW's Arrow. Amusingly, Affleck, who, again, is Batman, makes a point of packing a vintage copy of Action Comics #1 when he plots to escape with Kendrick. Affleck also quotes the words "statistically speaking," which is a famous line ("Statistically speaking, flying is still the safest way to travel") spoken by two Supermen, Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh. Bernthal calmed Affleck down as a boy by reciting the rhyme "Solomon Grundy," which is also DC Comics super villain. Affleck and Bernthal's mother isn't named Martha, but Martha does appear at the very end at the autism center in the form of Alison Wright, who played Martha in The Americans. For most of the movie, Affleck does his best impression of stoic Mr. Spock from Star Trek, with the rare giggling like a giddy school boy while showing off his math for Kendrick. The Accountant works overtime crunching numbers but all those numbers just don't add up.

Marveling at Darth Vader


Marvel recently concluded a remarkable 25 issue run of their blockbuster Darth Vader title. A simply incredible achievement by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Salvador Larroca, Darth Vader was the most provocative, enlightening, and inspiring of Marvel's line of officially canon Star Wars comics. 

Set immediately after the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, Darth Vader thrillingly depicted the Dark Lord of the Sith's attempts to prove himself once more to the Emperor, who blamed him for the failure of the loss of the Death Star. 

Gillen and Larroca gifted Vader with his own unforgettable supporting cast, including droids Triple-Zero and BeeTee One, hilariously homicidal versions of See Threepio and Artoo Deetoo, and best of all, the rogue archaeologist and droid technician Dr. Aphra, a twisted female version of Indiana Jones and the best new female character in the Star Wars canon (sorry, Rey). Vader also faced off against villainous challengers to his supremacy, including cybereticist Dr. Cylo and his cadre of creations, all of whom sought -- and failed -- to supplant Vader as the Emperor's apprentice.

Throughout their 25 issues and Darth Vader Annual #1, Gillen, Larroca, et al delivered a cinematic experience that truly felt like Star Wars at its best, depicting Vader as a calculating, fearsome, and indomitable force, while never compromising his terrifying mystique. Indeed, Darth Vader even gloriously enhanced Vader's mystique, allowing him to perform breathtaking acts using the Force even the movies never did. What's more, Gillen and Larroca sparingly but brilliantly used flashbacks to Vader's former life as Anakin Skywalker, allowing us to delve into his deepest regrets and his torment over his loss of Padme Amidala, which stoked the fires of his obsession to find Luke Skywalker, his newly discovered son.

The following are my favorite moments from Darth Vader, the Star Wars comic that truly proved nothing is impossible for the Force:


When Anakin Skywalker slaughtered the Tusken Raiders who kidnapped and killed his mother Shmi in Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, he never set foot on Tattooine again. Anakin did not, but we learn in the comics Darth Vader came to Tattooine. His business was with Jabba the Hutt, where we learn in a retcon that Vader walked a path into Jabba's throne room that his son Luke Skywalker would unwittingly follow in Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi. Vader's other business on Tattooine was to recruit bounty hunters, including Boba Fett, to find Luke Skywalker, but at this point in the story, Vader had yet to learn the name of the young rebel who destroyed the Death Star. While waiting to meet with the bounty hunters, Vader busied himself with an old habit and slaughtered even more Tusken Raiders. (Later, we learn in a coda to the entire Darth Vader series, the Tusken Raiders created a myth about Vader, worshiping him as a vengeful god.)


Our introduction to rogue archaeologst Doctor Aphra is delightfully familiar to everyone who loves Raiders of the Lost Ark. Aphra, Star Wars' villainous answer to Indiana Jones, successfully obtained the lost Triple Zero matrix, a relic of the Old Republic, which she programmed into the homicidal protocol droid Triple Zero. Of course, to get the matrix, Aphra had to escape deadly traps that were clever homages to Indiana Jones by the skin of her teeth, only to fall under the thrall of Darth Vader, her new "boss" whom she cheerfully aided, abetted, and betrayed throughout the series. The strange relationship between Vader and Aphra, where she loyally serves him out of the fear that he would murder her the second he no longer found her useful, was the oddly touching and compelling heart of Darth Vader. Doctor Aphra proved to be so charming, and popular, we have been gifted by an ongoing Doctor Aphra comic series by Marvel written by Gillen. Still, with Aphra now believed dead and hiding from Vader, we'll miss their unique exchanges. We've never seen anyone talk to Lord Vader this way before or since:


Once more, Luke Skywalker would be surprised to learn that a lot of stuff he famously did, his father did first, and better. That includes fighting a rancor. In this case, Vader faced a rancor cybernetically enhanced by Tulon Voidgazer, a brilliant, evil scientist and one of the would-be heir apparents to Vader. The cyberanimate rancor Vader battled had its pain receptors eliminated technologically. So, when the usual Force Chokes and Jedi/Sith tactic of amputating limbs by lightsaber didn't work, Vader brilliantly used the Force to hurl his lightsaber into the rancor's head, disabling the cybernetics. The rest was all too easy for the Dark Lord of the Sith, who finished the rancor off with the ol' lightsaber stab to the brain. 


"All I am surrounded by is fear. And dead men." These were the chilling words Darth Vader uttered when surrounded by the collective force of the Rebel Alliance in the Vader Down crossover series. And Vader was right; it was the Rebellion that was in deep poo doo here. Tracking Luke Skywalker to a lost Jedi Temple on Vrogas Vas, Vader, alone, destroyed three squadrons of X-Wing Fighters before Luke Skywalker himself collided his X-Wing with Vader's TIE-Fighter, shooting the Dark Lord down. The Rebels then amassed in full force to kill Vader and... it didn't go so well for the Rebels, who were nearly all annihilated. Never has Vader's bad assery been on such thorough display. Vader Down also features hilarious confrontations between Vader's allies Dr. Aphra, BT-1, Triple Zero, and Wookiee bounty hunter Black Krrsantan vs. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, C3P-0, and R2-D2, where we finally got to see Aphra fight Solo (whom she'd never heard of), and Chewbacca tear off Triple Zero's arm and beat him with it. Oh, and Vader battled another of Dr. Cylo's would be replacements for him, Karbin, a Mon Calamari trapped in the quadruple lightsaber-wielding cyborg body of General Grievous. That fight didn't go so well for Karbin.


In the Darth Vader series' ultimate display of Vader's indomitable will and mastery of the Force, Vader's cybernetic body was deactivated by Dr. Cylo, who was revealed to be the robotics genius who created Vader's armored form. Cylo believed he achieved ultimate victory over Vader by simply shutting him off, but he sorely underestimated the amount of sheer hatred in Vader's heart. In a moving series of Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith-inspired flashbacks and dream sequences, Gillen and Larroca depict Vader coping with a "Last Temptation of Anakin Skywalker" scenario, where Vader's memories of Obi-Wan and Padme plead with what's left of Anakin still within Vader, before Vader battles and overwhelms the last vestige of Anakin Skywalker. In the end, empowered by the Dark Side of the Force, Vader wills his cyborg body to reboot and finally executes Dr. Cylo with a lightsaber through the torso. It was an awe-inspiring moment once more proving that for Darth Vader, all is possible through the Force.

These are just a few of my favorite moments from Gillen and Larroca's spectacular Darth Vader run. A run absolutely worth reading in its entirety. Maybe some day, Disney will adapt this series into a Darth Vader feature film. Regardless, Darth Vader never compromised the Dark Lord's villainous machinations, motivations, and deeds. Or as Doctor Aphra correctly surmised:

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Girl on the Train



"There are a lot of threads here that seem promising, but they don't amount to much," says Detective Allison Janney to Rebecca Ferguson during her murder investigation. That telling quote aptly sums up The Girl on the Train, director Tate Taylor's blank adaptation of the Paula Hawkins' bestseller, itself an overrated potboiler. Told mostly from the point of view of Emily Blunt, the titlular Girl on the Train and an alcoholic who gazes longingly at the home, husband and life she lost during her daily train commute into New York City, The Girl on a Train is a sober, enervating whodunit with a reveal so obvious and telegraphed, the killer all but twirls a handlebar mustache when he's found out.

In her former life, Blunt was happily married to Justin Theroux, who now lives in their house with his new wife Ferguson and their newborn. They have a nanny, Haley Bennett, who's also a next door neighbor, and Bennett is married to Luke Evans, whom the movie is at pains to describe as an emotionally abusive monster. In her daily drunken reverie, Blunt fantasizes from her train seat about the lives of these seemingly perfect people, until Bennett disappears and is murdered on the same night Blunt disembarked from the train in their neighborhood. She has no memory of why she awoke bloody and beaten the next morning. Who killed Bennett? Was it Evans? Was it her therapist Edgar Ramirez, who succumbed to Bennett's sexual advances during their sessions? Was it Blunt herself? The Girl on the Train awkwardly shifts between these possibilities, toying with what Blunt does and doesn't remember, until she eventually remembers everything, revealing the real killer to the shock of no one paying attention. 

Blunt is convincing as a drunk grasping at straws, a liability to herself and to those around her. We're meant to ultimately find her sympathetic as the story reveals in a bit of a cheat that it turns out nothing she did was actually her fault, except for all the stuff she does that's actually her fault. Ferguson is wasted in a thankless, nothing part of being Theroux's dutiful but suspicious wife, until circumstances way beyond what's acceptable forces her to literally put the screws to Theroux. Wilson and Ramirez alternate as unlikable jerks whose sole redeeming features are they weren't the ones who murdered Bennett. Bennett herself delivers The Girl on the Train's most complex performance, though the movie doesn't really mourn her loss too much, as her real value is being a plot device. Unlike the seemingly similar Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train offers little subtext or biting commentary on marriage or suburban life. As a murder mystery, it's a remedial whodunit, checking off plot points like a train making every stop along its two hour travel time.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows



Stealth. Cunning. Silence. These are some of the hallmark traits one can associate with ninjas. Traits entirely absent from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, the cacophonous, ludicrous follow up to the successful 2014 reboot. The prior Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles took pains to establish this world of mutated, talking, pizza eating, humanoid teenage terrapins (proudly) named by the fetching intrepid reporter April O'Neil (Megan Fox) after Italian Renaissance painters: stern leader Leonardo (Pete Plozek), techie-nerd Donatello (Jeremy Howard), hard charging Raphael (Alan Ritchson), and party animal (literally) Michaelangelo (Noel Fisher). Louder and dumber than its predecessor, like a five year old banging dishpans together, Out of the Shadows squarely aims to recreate the weekday cartoon from the 1990s, with wall-to-wall CGI mutant creatures colliding into each other making tons and tons of noise, signifying nothing.

A year after defeating the evil ninja master Shredder (Brian Tee) and his ninja Foot Clan, the Ninja Turtles continue their thankless mission of protecting New York City from evil. But all is not harmonious within the four brothers. The Turtles are divided by their desire, like Ariel the Little Mermaid, to be part of that world above and be accepted. Their chance comes via a purple ooze from another dimension, a gift to Shredder from Commander Krang (Brad Garrett), a talking sludge of Pepto Bismol puke housed in a robot body and the most ridiculous and unsightly CGI creature in a movie bursting at the seams with them. This ooze could turn the Turtles into humans, an opportunity the Turtles reject after quick, arbitrary soul searching. Shredder and his mad scientist Tyler Perry instead use the ooze to transform a couple of bumbling henchmen Rocksteady (the WWE's Sheamus) and Bebop (Garry Anthony Williams) into a giant mutant rhinoceros and warthog respectively. The Turtles and April O'Neil recruit their own backup: not just April's old cameraman turned preening Hero of the City Will Arnett (who publicly took credit for Shredder's defeat so the Turtles wouldn't be publicly exposed), but also Casey Jones (Stephen Amell), a corrections officer in a goalie mask who fights ninjas with a hockey stick. 

Out of the Shadows unabashedly plays as a live action cartoon toy commercial. New vehicles like the Turtles' Battle van and the Foot Clan's motorcycles are trotted out and all but boxed and placed on Toys R Us shelves. The great threat to New York City is Krang's Technodrome, a massive Death Star-like base that arrives through a ripple in the sky in pieces, which the Ninja Turtles fight to prevent it from fully assembling. Every human, including Laura Linney as a police captain, plays the material as broad as possible, which is to say every performance is terrible. Everyone in Out of the Shadows who's not a mutated animal of some sort is thanklessly wasted by the overwhelming spectacle of CGI dominating the screen every moment. Wasted most of all is Megan Fox, who anchored the first movie with a heroic lead performance, but in this sequel, she's an arbitrary sidekick to the Turtles with no arc of her own, left to just react and reassure all the other humans meeting the Turtles for the first time that they're all right. Out of the Shadows is 112 minutes of being bludgeoned in the face by a bo staff, sai, katana sword, and nunchucks, and then a whole large pepperoni pizza is shoved down your pants.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Magnificent Seven



I Seek Righteousness. But I'll Take Revenge.

The Magnificent Seven reunites the stars and director of Training Day, Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, and Antoine Fuqua, in a rootin'-tootin', shoot-em-up remake of The Three Amigos. The Magnfi -- what's that? Yul Brenner? Steve McQueen? There was a previous Magnificent Seven? Wait, what? The Seven Samurai? Akira Kurasawa? Are you sure? Huh. Well, okay. Let's start again.

The Magnificent Seven reunites the stars and director of Training Day, Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, and Antoine Fuqua, in a rootin'-tootin', shoot-em-up remake, transplanting all of the action to the Old West mining town of Rose Creek, which is under duress from scheming robber baron Peter Sarsgaard. Sarsgaard plays Bartholomew Bogue, the most evil man in 1873, who rolls into Rose Creek with a private army, takes over the gold mining operation, and threatens to kill everyone in the town if they don't accept his offer of $20 for their plots of land. He burns down their church and makes a bloody example of some of the townsfolk, including Matt Bomer, the husband of Haley Bennett. Looking for revenge, Bennett gathers up "all she has" in gold coins and sets off to hire as many bad ass movie star gunslingers as she can afford. She can thank her stars and garters she found Denzel.

Denzel is excellent as Sam Chisolm, a duly sworn bounty hunter and evidently the fastest gun in the West, who gets real interested when he hears the name Bart Bogue. Denzel and Bennett recruit Chris Pratt, stepping into the Steve McQueen role, as Josh Faraday, a comedic magician cowboy, but deadly. Together, Denzel and Pratt bring in Ethan Hawke as Goodnight Robicheaux, the best shot with a rifle in the Civil War, Vincent D'Onofrio as Jack Horne, a legendary frontiersman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, an honorable Mexican bandito, and two guys competing for the coolest minority of the Seven, Byung-hun Lee as knife-wielding Chinese bad ass Billy Rocks, and Martin Sensmeier as heart-eating Comanche killer Red Harvest. The screenplay by True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, has fun bringing the Magnficent Seven together, landing some ribald jokes as these dastardly guns for hire bounce off each other. Denzel and Hawke wink at their prior collaboration by playing old friends, Pratt goes after Garcia-Rulfo with some off color teasing for being Mexican, but no one is aiming for any particular depth in their characters. The Magnificent Seven plus Bennett and Saarsgard's pure movie star charisma are the nine bullets in Fuqua's chamber.

Once the Magnificent Seven arrive in Rose Creek, our heroes quickly roust Sasgaard's remaining forces from the town in a show of force and spent the seven days until Sarsgaard returns with his army to prepare the townspeople for war. There's some comedy in the ineptitude of some of the towns folk in trying to shoot, but otherwise, the last act of The Magnificent Seven is a straight-forward, ultra violent, melee of gun blazing, men being shot off horses, wild charges blown to smithereens by dynamite, and the most fearsome weapon of the 19th century, a gatling gun, ripping the town and most of the characters to shreds. Denzel and Sarsgaard have a final confrontation that turns out to be very personal, indeed. After saving tween Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire and teen Chloe Grace Moretz in The Equalizer, for once Denzel turns out to need saving by the white girl in his movie. It's a neat twist to see Haley Bennett bail Denzel's ass out of a jam. Not all of the Magnificent Seven make it out of The Magnificent Seven alive, but this able remake on the surface provides enough gun-totin' entertainment  to corral the audience's rooting interest and earn the classic theme music finally playing over the closing credits as we all ride off into the sunset.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Blair Witch



Say fifteen years ago (in movie time, seventeen years ago in real life time), your sister set off with two friends into the forbidding Black Hills Forest of Burkittsville, Maryland to film a documentary about the fabled Blair Witch. They all disappeared. After an extensive manhunt, their footage was later found, which, if watched, argues pretty conclusively that 1) they are dead and 2) going into these woods to film a documentary is a very, very bad idea. Would you A) leave well enough alone, or B) go into those same woods with your friends and also film a documentary? All it takes for James Allen McCune is for a blurry reflection in a cracked mirror that could maybe possibly be but probably in all likelihood isn't an image of his missing sister Heather Donahue to be found within her unearthed footage to get him to pack up his buddies and head off to meet the Blair Witch. His sister could still be out there, he reckons. Fifteen years later? What does McCune really expect to find? Best case scenario she's living underground in an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt situation. In all likelihood, she's dead. But no, this Blair Witch foolishness runs deep in the family blood.

Blair Witch treads the same haunted ground as the original The Blair Witch Project, the 1999 phenomenon that kickstarted the found footage horror movement. Treads it far too closely. When they arrive in Burkittsville, McCune and his friends, filmmaker Callie Hernandez, skeptical Brandon Scott and his girlfriend Corbin Reid, meet up with a couple of shady locals, Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry, who are all too willing to lead this Scooby Gang into the woods and plow them with the spooky local legend of the Blair Witch. After spending a largely uneventful night camping, mistrust is sown within the group when a bunch of stick figures of the Blair Witch's logo are found all over their camp site. Things get worse in a hurry: Reid's foot is injured and she's stricken with a mysterious illness. The Scooby Gang walks the woods for a full day looking to escape only to wind up right back at their campsite. Robinson and Curry are banished from the group, blamed for planting the stick figures as a hoax, but they reappear later that night claiming it's been five days since they'd last seen them. Then everyone starts dying (the Blair Witch doesn't buck horror movie tradition and kills the black guy first), as the unseen Blair Witch attacks them all in an endlessly dark and stormy night.

The Scooby Gang entered the woods to make their documentary armed with the latest technology: ear mounted HD cameras, iPhones, GPS tracking devices, and even a drone. Against the supernatural Blair Witch, all their technology fails them (the drone turns out to be particularly useless all around). Similarly, technology failed Blair Witch. The power of the original Blair Witch Project lay in its stripped down simplicity; it felt like the cheap, no-budget documentary assembled from disparate footage it was purported to be. Its raw straightforwardness enhanced the creepiness of being lost in the woods, stalked by an unseen force. Director Adam Wingard achieves some effective atmosphere early on -- the moment when Reid snaps a Blair Witch stick figure and Curry collapses in a manged heap is a standout -- and the ladies in the cast, Hernandez, Curry, and Reid are game to be scared like visitors to Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, but Blair Witch's self-conscious camera work and editing cuts the suspension of disbelief and nullifies the intended verisimilitude.

We are told on the outset the footage we are watching was assembled from footage found in the Black Hills, but whoever edited this footage decided to cut it like a standard horror movie, complete with bludgeoning sound effects. By the time McCune and Hernandez come upon the dilapidated cabin of the Blair Witch, their mad dash into the cabin and fatal final encounter with the Blair Witch drags on and on with ear-splitting hysterics. A rehash of the chilling signature shot of the original of a man standing in the corner achieves no impact during the relentless cacophony of the final sequence. One of the new intriguing new ideas not beholden to the original was the cut on Reid's foot, which turned out to be a thoroughly missed opportunity. We are teased with the possibility of a creature or a manifestation of the Blair Witch growing inside of her, but instead, she just ends up pulling some sort of slug from her leg before the Blair Witch does her in. And how about that Blair Witch, huh? She's really into her own branding, what with the dozens of stick figures she puts together to scare campers. The Blair Witch should just set up shop on the side of the road and sell her stick figure logos to tourists, make some ca$h. Ultimately, Blair Witch proves you can't teach an old witch new tricks.

Friday, September 16, 2016




There's a line in Oliver Stone's JFK quoted by Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) during his marathon courtroom filibuster: "A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government." The uneven but riveting Snowden is in some ways a spiritual successor to JFK, wherein Oliver Stone returns to his theme of one man compelled to air truths inconvenient to forces in power at great risk to himself. Snowden dramatizes the life and deeds of Edward Joseph Snowden (embodied with clockwork-like precision by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the controversial former CIA programmer and NSA contractor who copied and leaked classified information about the NSA numerous secret global surveillance programs to the Guardian and mainstream press in 2013. Part techno-thriller, part relationship drama, and part heist, Snowden urgently presents the reasons why Edward Snowden chose to blow the whistle on the ability of governments worldwide to spy on its citizens without legal cause for suspicion, yet Stone and Snowden feel coldly remote and oddly restrained, only baring their teeth without dramatically going for the jugular.

Snowden leaps about from Edward Snowden's 2013 Hong Kong meetings with reporters from the Guardian and filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), whose documentary Citizenfour about Snowden won an Academy Award, and Snowden's years leading up to committing treason under the Espionage Act and his subsequent escape and refuge in Russia today. Stone and Gordon-Levitt humanize Snowden as a young computer genius lacking a high school diploma and suffering from epilepsy who, after being discharged from the military due to injury, was recruited into the CIA's global communications division. As Snowden's mentors in the CIA and NSA, Rhys Ifans and later Timothy Olyphant are presented as decidedly cynical and sinister, citing the usual tropes of the global war on terrorism as justification for what Snowden summarizes as the preservation and continuation of the United States' global interests in economic and cultural dominance. After being stationed in Sweden, Japan, and finally Oahu as an NSA contractor participating in and writing the programs allowing for the scope and breadth of governmental secret global surveillance, Snowden's crisis of conscience compels him to smuggle thousands of documents and abscond to Hong Kong to leak the information to the mainstream press.

Stone and his co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald meet the daunting challenge of sorting through and making the voluminous amount of esoteric data involved in Edward Snowden's story accessible to the audience. Stone is decidedly in his wheelhouse delivering cinematic exposition as he combines crackerjack editing with Snowden narrating the insidious acts of the NSA and making his case against the clear-cut violation of the ordinary citizen's right to privacy. One of the faults in our Snowden lies in the love story between Snowden and his real life partner of ten years Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). Despite the grueling pressures of attempting to maintain a relationship while your work life is shrouded in secrecy, Gordon-Levitt's Snowden seems to have a more enticing chemistry with his keyboard than he does with Woodley's petulant Mills. Snowden can be accused of glossing over the criminality of Edward Snowden's actions, asking the audience instead to judge the man by his intent, and what blowing the whistle on the NSA ultimately cost him. Snowden's secret weapon ultimately is Edward Snowden himself, who appears in the final minutes of the movie, a welcome sight. Hero? Traitor? Whatever you think about Edward Snowden -- or about anything -- Snowden convinces that if you type it in an email, text it to a friend, speak it on your cellphone, or post it on the Internet, someone you don't know is seeing or hearing it, your privacy settings be damned.

Friday, September 9, 2016




Sully is like a warm, comforting mug of cocoa, easing you into relaxation as your grampa Clint Eastwood spins a yarn of a Real Thing That Happened Not Long Ago. On January 15, 2009, United Airlines flight 1549, captained by Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), took off from New York's LaGuardia Airport bound for Charlotte, North Carolina. Moments after liftoff, a flock of birds collided with the plane and destroyed both engines. With only 208 seconds to act, and not enough speed or altitude to return to LaGuardia or land in Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, Sully makes the impossible call and in turn performs the impossible: he lands his airplane in the Hudson River intact, saving the lives of all 155 souls on board. It is the first water landing of an airplane ever performed without a single loss of life. It was called the "Miracle on the Hudson." Sully is a hero. Who doubts this? Not Eastwood, and not Sully.

Played with quiet dignity by Hanks, Sully attempts to balance his newfound celebrity with the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation into his competence in the days following the incident. The questions of whether Sully and his First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) obeyed proper procedures during the emergency are the NTSB's main sticking point. They claim the left engine of the airplane was operational, despite Sully's claims, and that their computer simulations showed the aircraft could have been landed back at LaGuardia. With class, stately elegance, and remarkable visual effects depicting the dramatic landing of the airplane in several stunning sequences, Eastwood and Sully disprove anything but the quick thinking and calm, experienced professionalism of Sully and Skiles saved the lives of everyone on that plane. Eastwood depicts the heroic response of New York City's rescue teams that rose to the occasion to quickly disembark the passengers from the waterlogged aircraft with aplomb. Sully himself is finally allowed a genuine moment to feel well-earned pride at his heroic feat. In Sully, we know that everything is gonna work out in the end, and then you know what? It does! Sully leaves us with a flying high feeling.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings



Kubo and the Two Strings is exquisite. Directed by Travis Knight and gorgeously animated in eye-popping stop motion by Laika, Kubo and the Two Strings delivers a moving message of the power of family and the importance of story. In Ancient Japan, a mother (voiced by Charlize Theron) and her infant son flees her family and takes refuge in a cave above a tiny village. Her son lost an eye, taken by her father, whom we learn is a powerful god called the Moon King (voiced by Ralph Fiennes). Eleven years later, her son, Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), bright, heroic, and well-liked, uses magical music and origami to dazzle his fellow villagers with tales of his father, the samurai Hanzo, who battled the Moon King and once sought a magical suit of armor and an unbreakable sword. Kubo is warned by his mother, who suffers from mental illness, to never stay out past sundown. One night, Kubo does, and is found by his mother's evil Sisters (voiced by Rooney Mara). Accompanied by a magical but stern Monkey and an amnesiac comic relief former samurai transformed into a Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo is plunged into a thrilling adventure to find the missing pieces of the magic armor his father once wore so he can defeat the Moon King and restore honor to his family.

The visuals are extraordinary. Kubo's quest alongside Monkey and Beetle sees him battle a giant skeleton with multiple swords, including the Sword Unbreakable he seeks, impaled in its head. In a forbidding lake, Kubo and Beetle find the breast plate of his magic armor, along with a number of terrifying gigantic eyeballs serving what seems to be a Sarlaac monster at the bottom of the lake. There are violent battles between the Sisters and Monkey, but the screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler keeps the focus on Kubo's emotional growth, while weaving in evocative themes of the power stories contain. A revelation involving the always-bickering Monkey and Beetle, as well as the final battles between Monkey and the Sisters and Kubo and his grandfather the Moon King imbuess Kubo and the Two Strings with poignant family drama. Though Kubo employs famous non-Asian Hollywood actors to voice Asian roles (George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa voice only minor roles of villagers), Kubo and the Two Strings vividly brings to life a dreamy vision of Ancient Japan, where origami is magic and the powers of darkness can be defeated by the light of a family's love.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Don't Breathe



Don't Breathe is a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to break into Daredevil's house and rob him blind. Er, blinder. Well, maybe Daredevil wouldn't go on a murderous rampage against home invaders, but his crazy old blind ninja teacher Stick would. I digress. In the tidy, effective Don't Breathe, Dylan Minnette, Jane Levy, and Daniel Zovatto dream of a sun-kissed life in California far away from crappy, rundown Detroit. Thus, they break into homes and steal shit. They're like millennial Robin Hoods -- robbing from the rich to give to themselves, since they're poor. Zovatto gets a line from his fence about an easy mark: a blind old ex-soldier (Stephen Lang) living alone in an abandoned neighborhood. His daughter was killed by a rich girl (rich people! Damn rich people!) and he was paid off a million dollars to not press charges. The old Blind Man keeps the money somewhere in his dilapidated old house, they think. With that kernel of info to go on, Minnette, Levy, and Zovatto go breaking and entering.

For cat burglars, Levy, Minnette and Zovatto are awfully loud. The old man is blind, not deaf; in fact it stands to reason his hearing would be even better than a sighted person's. And yet, the three hoods make little effort to not cause a ruckus smashing windows and stomping around the creepy house, even before Zovatto thinks he gassed the sleeping Blind Man. However, they didn't reckon the old dude to be like a blind Terminator. Lang is a relentless, remorseless killing machine who knows his ramshackle abode far better than the kids do, and he has a dog that's an equally relentless, remorseless killing machine. Trapped in the house and desperate to escape, Levy and Minnette still manage to score a cool million bucks in cash from the Blind Man's safe, yet they ignore a couple of prime opportunities to just blow past the Blind Man and make a break for it. They use their cell phones liberally early on, but then somehow forget they even have cell phones with flashlights when the Blind Man turns off the lights and chases them. 

Instead Levy and Minnette plunge themselves into the house's enormous, labyrinthine basement, sub-basement, and crawl spaces where they learn the Blind Man harbors a terrifying secret. One so twisted and heinous that Don't Breathe does a wild turnabout and literally tells the audience it's okay after all that these kids are robbing this old Blind Guy, because he's a total sicko. Minnette is the brains of the operation and Levy turns out to have the heart and resourcefulness of a true survivor, but neither is a match for the Blind Man's WWE fighting style. (It is kind of satisfying to see the Blind Man pop Minnette in the kisser over and over. Poom! Poom! Poom!) We also learn that even though he's blind, the old man can slice the nether region of a woman's pants open with a pair of scissors with lickety split ease and precision; most dudes with sight have trouble unhooking a girl's bra. Don't Breathe manages to succeed in asking the audience to root for terrible people to survive against an even more terrible person, but its greatest achievement is ruining Thanksgiving for years to come. Millions of people who watch Don't Breathe will likely be unable to see a turkey baster and not be grossed out ever again.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Mr. Holmes



I chose exile for my punishment, but what was it for? 
I must have done something terribly wrong.
And I've no evidence of what it was. 
Only pain, guilt... Useless, worthless feelings!

There can be no greater torment for the greatest deductive mind of all time than the diminishing of his faculties. Bill Condon's Mr. Holmes,  based on the novel "A Slight Trick of the Mind," brings us Sherlock Holmes in the twilight of his years. Magnificently portrayed by Sir Ian McKellen, this Sherlock Holmes never perished at Reichenbach Falls in a battle against Professor Moriarty. Aged 93 in 1947, McKellen's Mr. Holmes lives in self-chosen "exile" in a remote Sussex farmhouse, having long since outlived all of his contemporaries, including his brother Mycroft and his loyal friend Dr. John Watson. Mr. Holmes battles dementia; he keeps bees on his property hoping the royal jelly might cure his affliction and when the film begins, he has just returned from Japan with hopes the jelly from the prickly ash plant he acquired might improve his failing memory. Worst of all, Mr. Holmes cannot remember the details of his last case, involving a man who came to him about his ailing wife, and what Holmes' involvement was in her death.

Mr. Holmes finds little comfort from his housekeeper, played by Laura Linney, who resents his burgeoning friendship with her bright, inquisitive son Roger, played by Milo Parker. Roger admires Holmes, and helpfully prods his memory with a barrage of questions. Some of the finest moments of Mr. Holmes involve Roger sitting under Holmes' learning tree, absorbing his still-formidable brilliance, be it in deducing who and where a person has been or how to care for bees and to fear their enemies, wasps. Mr. Holmes also flashes back to Holmes' sojourn in Japan, meeting another supposed fan of his, played by Hiroyuki Sanada, who wants answers to the disappearance of his father in England decades earlier. McKellen powerfully invokes this ancient Sherlock's pathos; his chagrin at the image of the fabled fictionalized hero Dr. Watson based on him, his succumbing to the physical realities of age, and a lifetime of deeply held loneliness and regret. Even stripped of his accoutrements, his famous sidekick, and his deerstalker cap, McKellen's Mr. Holmes remains proud, defiant, brilliant, and is perhaps the most human Sherlock of all.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Hell or High Water



Hell or High Water is a terrific modern day tome of crime, family, and friendship set in the dusty, dilapidated towns of West Texas. Chris Pine, a desperate, determined father trying to do right by his resentful ex-wife and their teenage sons, recruits his ex-con older brother Ben Foster into a series of local bank robberies. Pine is awkward at robbery at first, and too careful; they only hit particular branches of Midland Bank, and only early in the mornings before the banks get crowded. Foster is a volatile hellion, even robbing a branch solo while Pine eats a steak dinner in a diner next door. Gradually and expertly, Hell or High Water reveals the motivations behind their crime spree: their late mother's ranch is about to be foreclosed on by Midland Bank. Pine's plan is to steal enough from Midland to pay the bank back with their own stolen money, and then leave the ranch in a trust to his sons. ("The most Texas plan ever," declares Pine's accountant.) Even though these battlin' brothers don't see eye to eye, Hell or High Water weaves a powerful undercurrent of love and loyalty within their family.

Meanwhile, US Marshals Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham are hot on Pine and Foster's trail, chasing them across the highways of West Texas. Days away from retirement, old man Bridges, crusty, determined, and prone to busting Birmingham's balls with an endless array of racist quips, manages to intuit Pine and Foster's methodology and motivations. The lawmen hunt the outlaws in classic movie Western-style, while Hell or High Water provocatively comments on the poverty and every day socio-economic hardships the people of West Texas face. For those of us weaned on the football-loving optimism of Friday Night Lights, Hell or High Water's bleaker, unblinking depiction of West Texas is harsh, indeed. This is a place where conceal and carry is a proud fact of life; indeed, when one of Foster and Pine's robberies go awry, several local townspeople who are packing open fire and give chase, illustrating the folly of the theory that "the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." Hell or High Water is so effective at making us emphasize with Pine and Foster that they never feel like the bad guys, even when they are, and even when Bridges does his damnedest to bring the long arm of the law down on them.