Archive | August, 2014

The November Man

28 Aug

‘November Man’: Plenty of plots muddle, but post-007 Brosnan still the master spy


Old assassins may die hard, but in this plot-bouncing thriller starring Pierce Brosnan they’re also pretty hard to kill. Brosnan, still looking 007 fit in his early sixties, plays Peter Devereaux, a retired CIA agent called back into the game to help bring in a Russian double agent. The double agent has the goods on a Russian general who executed innocents and likely staged an act of Chechen terrorism to further his agenda, thus positioning himself to ascend to the apex of Russian political royalty.

082714i Meek The November ManThat premise might sound silly, and it’s hard not to think of Putin and the Russia of the moment, though there’s never any mention of the notorious president (the film’s based on Bill Granger’s 1986 book “There Are No Spies,” which clung to Cold War fumes). That aside, as a straight-up spy thriller, “The November Man” does offer fierce and feverishly paced rewards. The rub is that Devereaux happens to have loved the double agent in question (with whom he has a 12-year-old daughter – and a cafe on Lake Geneva – that none of the folks running the machine know of) and that causes his handlers some concern, so they assign Devereaux’s former protégé, a young can-do field operative by the name of Mason (a hunky yet generic Luke Bracey) the task of cleaning up the stink Devereaux is stirring up in Belgrade.  Continue reading

A Dame to Kill For

23 Aug

‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’: All the red in green-screen noir epic comes out white


Much is the same and much has changed. Even if you don’t dig pulp, graphic novels (comic books that can be full of adult content on steroids) or blood (it’s whited out, no lie), you can’t deny the alluring cinematic opulence rendered by writer-turned-director Frank Miller and cinematic master-of-all-trades Robert Rodriguez, partnering again as directors. It’s sharper and far more encompassing than their 2005 “Sin” outing, which garnered a slow, long-running fan burn. That film was something new, something cool and dark, laced with a noirish ambience and a built-in cult affection. With genuine intentions, it sated and captivated as much as it filled its niche. There’s more of it here, but is more better?

082214i  Contact the Filmmakers on IMDbPro » 7 Sin City- A Dame to Kill ForLike its predecessor, “A Dame to Kill For” is broken into four segments. Interestingly, the character of Dwight, which was played by Clive Owen in 2005, is played here by Josh Brolin and Miho, the lethal blade-wielding assassin from Old Town originally played by Devon Aoki is updated by Jamie Chung (“Sucker Punch”). The other players remain, including Mickey Rourke as Marv, the pulp-prose-spouting strong man with an iron jaw, Jessica Alba as the troubled object of desire, Nancy, and Powers Boothe as the corrupt and ruthless Senator Roark, whose family seeded Sin City (Basin City, but the “Ba” is X-ed out) with the pillars of ill repute back in the day to draw a dollar from those settling out west. The use of Rodriguez’s rich black and white photog helps mask some of those nine years in between.

Rosario Dawson’s back too as Gail, the head of the gun-strapped ex-prostitute militia that takes no shit from no man, especially cops. The new additions, which include Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Johnny, the card-sharking wild card who pisses Roark off to no end, and Eva Green as Ava, the dame in question, add fruits. Gordon-Levitt’s Johnny, while cool and hip and dexterous with a deck, eventually spirals off more into a non sequitur. Ava, however, is the center of all the sin, sex and plot twists. Green, who played the witchy warrior-sorceress Artemisia in “300: Rise of an Empire,” has everyone in Sin City under her spell. Dwight falls for her, but she’s married to a rich man and has a henchman/driver (Dennis Haysbert) who doesn’t let her out of his sight – and is a worthy throw-down for Marv.  Continue reading

To Be Takei

20 Aug
George Takei's personality carries the documentary To Be Takei

The flick begins as a lazy fandom hagiography of sorts, but it develops into something much more as Takei, taking the narrative reins, delves into his struggles: first, as a young Asian male in America and his perseverance through the injustice he suffered as a Japanese American during the Second World War and later, as a gay man coming out to support Proposition 8 in California.  Continue reading

Dinosaur 13

16 Aug


<i>Dinosaur 13</i>

It’s hard, if not impossible, to believe that relic hunting really could be as thrilling, exciting or harrowing as depicted in the Raiders of the Lost Ark movies, after all, what is it that most paleontologist do but chisel and sweep away bits of stone from fossilized bone, right? And while that remains largely at the core of Todd Douglas Miller’s dino hunter doc, there’s a grisly eruption in the middle; a Brontosaurus big “What the Fuck” if you will, that shoots the somber dusting and digging off into a disturbing web of jurisdiction abuse, injustice and tangled land and property rights.

Back in 1990, the Black Hills Institute of Geographical Research in South Dakota, essentially a group of dino-loving paleontologists without Ph.Ds or academic grants, discovered the most complete and largest Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton to date. Priorly, only twelve had been found—lucky number 13! The find was purely accidental, a flat tire, heavy fog and further unfortunate tidings had the crew heading to town to get the SUV fixed but one, Susan Hendrickson, decided to remain and mill about the weather-worn ravines of the Dakota Black Hills. That’s when lightning struck.  Continue reading

The Expendables 3

16 Aug

‘Expendables 3′: Bloated sequel shows they don’t make ‘em like they used to


Ah, “The Expendables,” the low-fi, big (former-)star-fueled franchise that started as a amiable insider joke but with “The Expendables 3” has grown big and bloated – like many of its mothballed stars – and thrown aside its agility and sense of humor. The previous two installments, directed by creator Sylvester Stallone and Simon West, smartly ran spry at under two hours; here in the hands of relative newcomer Patrick Hughes and at more than two hours, the film is not only overlong and annoyingly stilted at times, but also, clearly long in the tooth.

081514 The Expendables 3Old-school old guys schooling buff newbies with plenty of tongue-in-cheek ha-has was the way of the first films. “Expendables 3” starts off that way, somewhere in a Baltic/Eastern Bloc country with Barney Ross (Stallone), the series quarterback of a covert military ops group, springing an old colleague (Wesley Snipes) amid great, witty barbs about “tax evasion” and “blades.” Then it’s onto Mogadishu, where Barney and crew go on a routine mission to stop an arms trade and get their asses handed to them. The fly in the ointment, and adding to the heavy list of new names, is Mel Gibson as Conrad Stonebanks, who’s as bad-assed as the whole Expendables crew and arguably the dark side of Gibson’s already certifiable Riggs persona from the “Lethal Weapon” franchise.

Realizing he might get old chums – Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham among the lot – killed going back after Stonebanks, Barney kicks off a youth movement and winds up with a series of generic 20-something hunks (Kellan Lutz of the “Twilight” series among them) and a woman named Luna (MMA fighter Ronda Rousey) who looks fetching enough in a red dress but can throw down with the best of the lads. Rousey isn’t much of an actress, but boy can she spin, flip and make the stunts look extra authentic. Of course she shows up most of the cast.  Continue reading

Into the Storm

9 Aug

‘Into the Storm’: Mix ‘Sharknado’ budget with the big-screen aspirations of ‘Twister’


“Into the Storm” is no “Twister,” not even a “Sharknado.” It’s not bad, mind you, but it’s not good, either. There are touches of camp and humor that add zest, though it never goes over the top like “Sharknado” – a good thing. What hampers “Storm” most are the insidiously stilted melodramas that occupy the screen between the two perfect storms that cut through an Oklahoma township on the last day of school.

080714 Into the Storm“Storm” is a humble effort with the budget of “Sharknado” and the big-screen aspirations of “Twister.” Even bolstered by a meaty budget, that 1996 film was no masterpiece, but it had masterful thespians Helen Hunt and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the cast, and flying cows. It also had well regarded cinematographer Jan de Bont (he shot “Die Hard” and “Basic Instinct”) taking the reins (his prior effort was “Speed”), which in a way ties us back to “Storm”: Director Steven Quale has toiled as second unit director on James Cameron projects. He might not quite have his hands around sculpting a full-bodied drama just yet, but the one thing he clearly does know are FX. The rendering of the massive twisters – one a flaming tornado – is vivid and viscerally done. As far as character and plot, that’s pretty much the eternal overcast sky while sitting in a steel-plated storm-chasing vehicle hoping for lightning and mayhem to strike.

The storm chaser in Quale’s effort is Pete (Max Walsh of “Veep”), who needs his money shot or his funding will be gone – and he’s got a whole crew and an armored gas guzzler to feed. Pete’s always late to the show, so he’s hired a Ph.D. meteorologist (Sarah Wayne Callies, from “The Walking Dead”) to make sure he’s the first one in and getting paid. Also going on in the Podunk town: Gary (Richard Armitage, Thorin in the “Hobbit” films) the high school’s vice principal, is having a bad single-parent day with his boys, Donnie (Max Deacon) and Trey (Nathan Kress), and graduation is scheduled. Then comes, as you can guess, the shock of tornados touching down.  Continue reading

The Congress

9 Aug

 An animated Robin Wright gets real in The Congress 


Robin Wright takes on ageism in Hollywood in the animated film The Congress

Robin Wright takes on ageism in Hollywood in the animated film The Congress Folman, who held willing audiences rapt with his Oscar-nominated animated tale of an Israeli incursion into Beirut(2008), goes in an entirely different direction with this wide-ranging contemplation about individualism, control, ageism, and the dynamics of Hollywood.

“Different” is loosely how Folman described his goal with The Congress at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, but in reality, the two films bare much in common. Both rely heavily on dream sequences and alter-realities to convey horror and meta themes, and both are animated in the same flat, textual style that is piquantly elegant, spare, and cartoonish all at once.

Folman’s latest takes its cue from the Stanislaw Lem novel The Futurological Congress and doesn’t really get to any of the plot elements or themes of the satirical 1971 future-scape until it transitions into an animated format about halfway in. The preamble before is a pat, but intriguing affair with the actress Robin Wright playing a fictionalized version of herself. The faux Robin lives a strange, yet cozy existence in a converted DC-9 hanger on the perimeter of an airport. Her son, Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) for unexplained reasons enjoys flying a boxy red kite over the fence and into regulated airspace, which draws the ire of authorities not to mention two vicious German shepherds, an occurrence that bodes far heavier in the animated future world. Aaron too is ill and losing his hearing and sight, a condition that opens Wright up to a suggestion from her agent (a needling Harvey Keitel) to undertake the ultimate sellout: body, mind, and soul — screened into a computer so Hollywood can do with her as they like — even put her in a sci-fi movie, something the actress abhors.

Continue reading

Child of God

4 Aug

<i>Child of God</i>

James Franco’s infatuation with the literati and his desire to be among the ranks continues with this adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel (his third) about a mentally handicapped malcontent who loses the family farm and evolves into something more feral and arguably evil. Best known for his Spiderman roles and Oscar-nominated turn in 127 Hours, Franco has just a small part in the film and steps behind the lens to helm the effort. It’s not the actor’s first time in the director’s chair; last year he tackled William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and he’s working on a biopic of Charles Bukowski. (Purportedly, Franco wants to attempt an adaptation of Faulkner’s seemingly unadaptable The Sound and the Fury.)

Franco himself got the literary-to-screen treatment earlier this year when a collection of his short stories about growing up in the California ’burbs was crafted into the movie Palo Alto by Gia Coppola. Franco also had a role in that film, directed and starred in The Broken Tower, a biopic about the poet Harry Crane, and also played the renowned beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Jeffery Friedman and Rob Epstein’s tepid docudrama, Howl.   Continue reading

Magic in the Moonlight

1 Aug

‘Magic in the Moonlight’: Promised twists and turns are illusion, leaving a love story


Woody Allen at nearly 80 is still cranking out a film a year, but not with the success he had in the  ’70s (“Annie Hall,” “Sleeper” and “Manhattan”) or ’80s (“Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors”). Nuggets such as “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” show up about every third or fourth off, but with the recent near hits of “Midnight in Paris” and “Blue Jasmine,” by math alone “Magic in the Moonlight” is not in that sweet spot. It’s a great-looking film, scrumptiously shot by Darius Khondji, who’s framed most of Allen’s recent works, and well acted, but something in the plot just never works.

072814i Magic in the MoonlightColin Firth gets a big scene-chewing role as Stanley Crawford, a 1920s illusionist who takes the stage as a Fu Manchu-like incarnation known as the Great Wei Ling Soo. He wows audiences, making elephants disappear and sawing women in half and, like Houdini did in his time, debunks hoaxes, which Stanley agrees to do when fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) asks him to come to a country villa in France to expose a young American woman shaking down a susceptible and well-off widow (Jackie Weaver). The young American woman in question, Sophie Baker, is played by none other than Emma Stone, a big-eyed cutie with auburn locks and by logistical association alone muse du jour to Allen. But she’s no Diane Keaton, not even a Mia Farrow or Mia Sorvino, for that matter. She’s game, but asked to do a lot with a little and beyond her range. Thankfully she has Firth to play off of, and he’s masterful. Initially when the game is afoot in the gorgeous greenery of Southern France, there’s promise and a playfulness in the air. The film suggests twist and turns to come, false reveals and oneupmanship, but then romance floats into the picture, and the notion of god too. What a buzzkill.

The chemistry between Firth and Stone has a foisted feel, but it’s not truly their fault. They’re likable enough – and Firth’s hubris and braggadocio makes for a great period character – but just don’t have a story worthy of their potential. It’s almost as if Allen set out to make one movie and in the process of penning it, had a nostalgic, romantic yen that he let consume the second half of the script. It becomes indulgent and uninteresting. We all want love, and this is the very milieu that Allen at his best employs hyperbole and pops with sharp, deprecating humor, but nothing comes. And that’s what’s missing: There is no zing. Firth, as the elegant lion, holds it together for a good time, but left to chew on a shoe for too long, even a well-mannered lion will roar with contempt.

Guardians of the Galaxy

1 Aug

‘Guardians of the Galaxy’: Marvel’s best flick yet puts ’70s fun back in space opera


Finally a summer blockbuster worth our dime and our time. Okay, “The Edge of Tomorrow” and “Lucy” weren’t bad, but “Guardians of the Galaxy” is full of what made movies fun back when “Jaws” and “Star Wars” were igniting the genre. It also may be, or at least is to date, the best Marvel comic to make it to the big screen.Yup, better than “The Avengers” and, get this, it even takes place in the same universe/time continuum as “The Avengers” – there’s a series of mystical artifacts (infinity stones that can collectively give the one who holds them the power to rule the stars and beyond) that are spread throughout the various franchises.

073114i Guardians of the GalaxyWhat to know: After losing his mother to cancer in the ’80s, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt of “Parks and Recreation”) is abducted by a spaceship. Flash forward a quarter-century to a galaxy far away in another universe, or something like that, and Quill is a treasure hunter seeking out high-risk items à la Indiana Jones, with the attitude to boot. Smugly he goes by the moniker Star-Lord as if he were Banksy, though no one knows who he is – that is, until he recovers an orb with some of the empowering infinity stones in it and everyone, including the evil Ronan (a cloaked and face-painted Lee Pace from “Halt and Catch Fire” ) and his overlord Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin), want him and the orb.  Continue reading