Peppermint (2018)


Mommies with guns – what fun!

(2018) Action (STXJennifer Garner, John Gallagher Jr., John Ortiz, Juan Pablo Raba, Annie Ilonzeh, Jeff Hephner, Cailey Fleming, Eddie Shin, Cliff “Method Man” Smith, Tyson Ritter, Ian Casselberry, Richard Cabral, Johnny Ortiz, Michael Reventar, Kyla-Drew Simmons, Gustavo Quiroz, Pell James, John Boyd, Michael Mosley, Jeff Harlan, Chris Johnson, Samantha Edelstein. Directed by Pierre Morel

 

Jennifer Garner began her career with the excellent TV spy series Alias but has since fallen out of the action genre and into roles that are mom-centric. She plays a mom here as well, but a different kind of mom.

Riley North (Garner) doesn’t have it easy; between her take-home pay as a bank teller and her husband’s (Hephner) as a mechanic there isn’t a whole lot left over. Worse still, her hours at the bank force her to miss her daughter’s (Fleming) birthday party. So, she is guilted into going with the two of them to the local Christmas carnival, only to watch her husband and daughter brutally gunned down before her very eyes.

She is able to identify the killers but the justice system fails her in spectacular fashion. Refusing to take a pay-off, she is let down by a corrupt district attorney and a corrupt judge. Things get so bad that she is put in a mental hospital, from which she escapes…and then disappears for five years.

She puts the five years to good use, learning combat training, hand-to-hand training and essentially anything that will make killing bad guys wholesale easier. When she comes back, it is as kind of a folk hero but the corrupt city government as well as the vicious drug cartel are out to take her out for good.

This is pretty standard revenge-flick fare with not a whole lot in the originality department. As mentioned, Garner is excellent in her role, one that combines her latter career maternal roles with her early career kickass roles. The movie is unusually bloody for its type (which is saying something) and there have been some rumblings from woke film critics who notice that most of the bad guys are Hispanic. Villains who aren’t old white men are apparently no longer acceptable. I know the LAPD won’t like this film very much at all.

I’m not bothered by that any more than I would have been bothered if the villains were Russians, or Arabs, or any other nationality you can name. Somebody has to be the bad guy and there are plenty of Hispanic criminals out there, just like there are plenty of Russian ones, Arab criminals and any other nationality you can name. Still, the movie does itself a disservice by simply relying on tried and true tropes that are predictable as well as overused. The results are a lackluster movie that wastes a fine performance by Jennifer Garner.

REASONS TO SEE: Garner would make Linda Hamilton proud.
REASONS TO AVOID: Standard, unremarkable revenge action thriller.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jennifer Garner has used the same stunt double (Shauna Duggins) for almost twenty years.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fubo TV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Showtime, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews: Metacritic: 29/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Rhythm Section
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Fahrenheit 11/9

Upgrade


Grey Trace descends into a nightmare.

(2018) Science Fiction (Blumhouse) Logan Marshall-Green, Harrison Gilbertson, Melanie Vallejo, Steve Danielsen, Abby Craden (voice), Benedict Hardie, Richard Cawthorne, Christopher Kirby, Richard Anastasios, Kenny Low, Linda Cropper, Betty Gabriel, Emily Havea, Ming-Zhu Hii, Simon Maiden (voice), Stephanie Demkiw.  Directed by Leigh Whannell

 

When Grey Trace (Marshall-Green, doing his best Tom Hardy), an analogue man in a digital world, is shot and paralyzed and watches as his wife (Vallejo) is shot dead, he only wants to die. Enter bazillionaire Eron Keen (Gilbertson, doing his best Leonardo Di Caprio) who was a client of Grey’s auto restoring business, offers to set things right by implanting a spiffy new microchip in Grey’s spine, not only allowing him to walk again but giving him superhuman combat skills. Grey decides to use his new abilities to find his wife’s killers, all the while hiding his new found condition from the police detective (Gabriel, doing her best Betty Gabriel) investigating his wife’s murder.

While the plot is a mite hackneyed, this dystopian sci-fi action thriller has its own charm. Australian director Whannell – who as James Wan’s writing partner helped kickstart both the Saw and Insidious franchises – takes his cues from the Robocop franchise of Paul Verhoeven to comment on our own society, from the increasing loss of privacy to the over-reliance on technology most of us don’t understand.

Whannell does very well with the action sequences which are kinetic and fun, as well as the special effects which can be stomach-churning or glossy depending on the mood. There’s plenty of gore, enough that the sensitive should be warned, but not so much that the gore is the main component. Marshall-Green does a serviceable job in the lead and most of the cast of non-household names hits their marks well, even though most of the characters are fairly underdeveloped. For the most part this is a fun ride although it is sabotaged with a groaner of an ending.

REASONS TO GO: The effects and action sequences are well-done. There is some interesting commentary on a Big Brother-like society which with our online privacy disappearing seems to be the direction we are going in as a society..
REASONS TO STAY: The ending falls with a bit of a thud.
FAMILY VALUES: There is brutal violence and gore, some grisly images and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  During fight scenes, the camera follows Grey keeping him in the middle of the frame. This was done by secreting a smart phone on Marshall-Green and pairing the camera with the phone.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Robocop
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Chasing Coral

The Tail Job


Nicholas pleads with Stacy as Trevor looks on.

Nicholas pleads with Stacy as Trevor looks on.

(2016) Comedy (Moses Millar) Craig Anderson, Blair Dwyer, Kellie Clark, Laura Hughes, Dorje Swallow, Georgina Symes, Daniel James Millar, Stephen Anderton, Dave Eastgate, Grant Dodwell, Rakesh Dasgupta, Gary Waddell, Troy Russell, William Ryan, Ralph Moses, Dave Williams, David Attrill, Claudia Barrie, Ursula Mills, Lauren Orrell, Jessica Saras. Directed by Bryan Moses and Daniel James Millar

Slamdance

There is no doubt love breeds jealousy. The simplest of acts can be misinterpreted to be sinister – a phone call taken in another room, a vague identification of the caller as “just a friend,” a mysterious rendezvous that you’re not invited to – all can point to infidelity to the jealous mind. And let’s face it; the jealous mind is capable of some pretty imaginative stuff.

Nicholas (Dwyer) is in just such a situation. He believes his beautiful fiancée Mona (Hughes) is having an affair with a man named Sio Bohan. Hurt and stung, when she says she’s off to a girl’s night out in downtown Sydney, he hires a taxi with the idea of following her and taking photos of her caught in the act. Unfortunately, the cab he hires is driven by Trevor (Anderson).

Trevor is one of those “G’day mate” Aussies who means well and is a solid citizen, but Trevor is also one of those guys who can’t catch a break. When he hears of Nicholas’ plight, he is all in to help the cuckold tail his girl. Unfortunately, an encounter with a psycho driver (Millar) with terminal road rage leads them to lose their quarry. Nicholas (whom Trevor repeatedly calls Nick, much to his annoyance) first chats up Stacy (Clark), a friend of Mona’s, to see if she has any idea where Mona is going that night and who clearly has a thing for Nicholas.

After consulting a phone hacker (Anderton) friend of Stacy’s as well as finding out from the cabbie (Dodwell) who drove Mona downtown where he dropped her off, the duo turn out to be miserable detectives, misinterpreting one clue after another and running afoul of the real Sio Bohan (Swallow) who turns out to be a vicious gangster. Nicholas is determined to get the evidence that will end his relationship with Mona, who is actually on an innocent girls night out with her mate Siobhan (Mills), but to rescue her first from the clutches of a dangerous man. Trevor turns out to be far more loyal than you’d expect a cabbie to be, but can the two crack the case and bring Mona back to Nicholas?

Millar and Moses have been filmmakers for a decade but this is their first feature. Made on a shoestring budget shooting mostly at night and on weekends in Sydney, they utilize local actors and Aussie celebrities who make cameo appearances, all of which will fly right over the heads of American audiences unless they’ve spent some serious time in Oz. And that’s okay because it won’t diminish the film any if you don’t get the references, but I’m sure that Australian audiences will get more of a kick out of the film than we Americans will.

The plot isn’t particularly praiseworthy; there are some lapses of logic that give me the sense that certain plot points exist mainly to send poor Nicholas into a death spiral of jealousy, but the thing is that the Nicholas character doesn’t seem to be unduly emotional or prone to going off half-cocked. He seems like a pretty reasonable guy. Then again, as I said earlier jealousy can manufacture crazy ideas in the brain.

The movie is a comedy and has some genuinely funny moments, like the second road rage encounter and Trevor’s attempts to get into a posh club that end up with him asking a prostitute (Symes) to be his date. There are also some moments of pathos, as when Nicholas finds a photo of Trevor’s family in the glove box and realizes the deep wounds in Trevor’s soul may be what is motivating him.

At times this feels a bit too much like a sitcom for comfort; as I alluded earlier, some of the plot points feel contrived and the movie relies far too much on magic coincidences. However, it also has an immense amount of charm and plenty of heart at its center and those are things you can’t fake. That tells me that these are filmmakers who love what they do and have some truly marvelous films in them. That’s something you can feel in the film and it makes it so much more enjoyable for the viewer.

This is one of those movies who as the late Roger Ebert pointed out wouldn’t exist if the lead characters had a two minute conversation. Then again, divorce probably wouldn’t exist if couples would have more two-minute conversations but that might be a bit of a stretch. Certainly one wonders what sort of chance the relationship between Nicholas and Mona has if they can’t even communicate over a night out with a friend.

The Tail Job isn’t perfect but it is solid entertainment. While Americans might find the Australian sense of humor a trifle broad, the film definitely has its heart in the right place. After making its world premiere at Slamdance this past weekend, it is likely to play the festival circuit and hopefully pick up some distribution. There’s always room for a movie like this and it would be a shame if a wider audience didn’t get to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Has plenty of heart and charm. A cut above similar American films.
REASONS TO STAY: Has a bit of a sitcom feel. Loses its steam towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of foul language, some violence and sexuality and brief frontal nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moses and Millar based their movie on a friend of theirs who actually believed his fiancée at the time was cheating on him with a man named Sio Bohan; the two thought that would make a good movie if they took it to the next level.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Other Guys
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Boy

The Water Diviner


Love can be illuminating.

Love can be illuminating.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Jai Courtney, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz, Dylan Georgiades, Steve Bastoni, Isabel Lucas, Salih Kalyon, Megan Gale, Ryan Corr, James Fraser, Ben O’Toole, Jacqueline McKenzie, Jack Douglas Patterson, Ben Norris, Aidan Liam Smith, Damon Herriman, Sophia Forrest. Directed by Russell Crowe

The bond between father and son can be complicated. There’s always an element of competition between them; the old lion wants to have the loudest roar even as the younger lions are coming into their own. Still when push comes to shove, there isn’t a father who wouldn’t move heaven and earth for their children…sometimes even when hope is lost.

Joshua Connor (Crowe) has a farm in Australia. It’s not an easy life; water isn’t easy to come by in the arid landscape. However, with the use of a pair of sticks and his unerring instincts he is able to find places to dig wells that he desperately needs. It’s a hard life but it’s a good one – or would be. You see, Joshua sent his three sons Arthur (Corr), Edward (Fraser) and Henry (O’Toole) to war, in this case World War I. With many troops from their part of the world, they went to invade Gallipoli in Turkey and many thousands of young men in the ANZAC (Australia-New Zealand Army Corps) died in the attempt which ultimately failed. All three of Joshua’s sons were among the dead.

The grief of the loss of all her sons had led Joshua’s wife (McKenzie) to take her own life. Now with nobody and nearly four years gone, Joshua feels obligated to go to Gallipoli and bring the remains of his sons back home. However, there’s a problem there – basically so many soldiers died in the battle, one of the bloodiest of the First World War – that proper burials are only now just happening, led by an English Colonel (Courtney) who is being assisted by the Turkish officer Major Hasan (Erdogan) who led the Turkish forces at the battle. Civilians are not welcome – not that there are any clamoring to go. The battle site is still full of booby traps and other dangers that make it a dangerous place even in peacetime.

But Joshua has nothing to lose. With the help of Ayshe (Kurylenko), the owner of the hotel he is staying at in Istanbul and Orhan (Georgiades) her adorable moppet of a son he manages to make it past the British bureaucracy which is dead set on preventing his passage to Gallipoli. Once he makes it there though he acquires the friendship of Hasan, even though he commanded the forces that led to the deaths of his sons – and discovers that even amidst the carnage, hope exists. He also discovers that love might exist as well with the hotel owner whose husband disappeared in the same battle and is presumed dead, although she holds out hope that he may yet return.

Normally the presence of Crowe in front of the camera would insure a wide American release for a film, but the story is a bit of a hard sell to American audiences. Gallipoli doesn’t mean as much to us as it does to audiences in Australia and New Zealand, where the battle is part of the national identity. Released on the 100th anniversary of the battle, the story isn’t so much about the fight as it is of a father’s devotion to his children, even after they’re dead. It is about  his grief and his healing.

Crowe remains a compelling presence, giving one of his best performances in years. Joshua is a quiet and powerful presence, never demonstrative although once he begins interacting with the irresistible Orhan does he begin to start coming out of his shell. There is a bit of an aura of the supernatural here – Joshua has visions of his sons in the battle and is able to infer things that he shouldn’t have been able to know. The more practical-minded among the audience will find that whole concept to be poppycock, although the connection a parent has with their children and the way parents can sometimes know things they shouldn’t about their kids can’t be discounted.

This would be the last movie lensed by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie who also shot most of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films and he makes a stark contrast between Australia with it’s blade blue skies and dusty earth, and with Istanbul with its Blue Mosque and beautiful interiors. Then there’s Gallipoli itself with a lovely beach but once over the first hill becomes a scorched hell. Crowe made a smart choice in that department and it will remain part of Lesnie’s lasting legacy as one of the great cinematographers of his – and our – day.

Most of the battle is seen through flashbacks, particularly those that concern the brothers but those scenes can be pretty brutal with limbs getting blown off and young bodies being shredded by machine guns and artillery fire. Crowe doesn’t shy away from these scenes that depict the horrors of war, those who are upset by such things should be forewarned.

I generally don’t respond to specific criticisms of a film brought up by a different film critic but Andrew O’Hehir’s excoriation of Crowe and Warner Brothers, calling this a “disgraceful” film for not mentioning the Armenian genocide which occurred roughly at the same time the battle of Gallipoli was fought, is absolutely mind-boggling. Yes, there are sympathetic Turkish characters here but not all Turks participated in the Genocide which occurred hundreds of miles away and essentially before the main action of the film begins – the battle itself is pretty much only seen in flashbacks other than the opening scene which depicts the withdrawal of troops from Gallipoli. But what is disgraceful is a critic suggesting that a filmmaker not mentioning something that has absolutely nothing to do with his film or the events in it is somehow morally wrong and insensitive. Talk about Liberal Guilt.

For a debut effort in the director’s chair Crowe has come up with a pretty impressive film. Of course, when you have Russell Crowe to star in your first film you’ve got an advantage over most right there. I don’t know what Crowe the director did to inspire Crowe the actor but whatever it was, it resulted in a compelling performance that confirms Crowe’s star power. There is an epic sweep here that reminds me of movies from a bygone era.

The movie hasn’t gotten any sort of push from Warners and has been essentially released as an independent film in select cities. It isn’t easy to find but it is well worth seeking out; this is a surprisingly powerful film that I believe will appeal to more than just Australian audiences.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performance by Crowe who remains a compelling presence. Gripping storyline. Lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies on Joshua’s visions and instincts a bit too much. The battle scenes may be too intense for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The horse that Crowe rides in the Australia scenes is actually his own horse, Honey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Legends of the Fall
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Age of Adaline

Red State


What Pastor Abin Cooper REALLY wants to be is Vulcan.

What Pastor Abin Cooper REALLY wants to be is Vulcan.

(2011) Horror (SModcast) Melissa Leo, Kyle Gallner, Michael Angarano, Michael Parks, Ralph Garman, Kerry Bishe, Jennifer Schwalbach, Stephen Root, John Goodman, James Parks, Molly Livingston, Catherine McCord, Alexa Nikolas, Ronnie Connell, Haley Ramm, Nicholas Braun, Cooper Thornton, Kevin Pollak, John Lacy, Anna Gunn, Kaylee DeFer. Directed by Kevin Smith

Life is full of it’s real horrors. Both conservative and liberal alike are outraged and disgusted by the antics of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church whose fundamentalist Christian zealotry borders on the batshit crazy. More accurately, is full on over the border and deep in crazy territory. You have to wonder what goes on in a congregation like that.

Travis (Angarano), Billy-Ray (Braun) and Jared (Gallner) are three horny high school buddies who answer a Craigslist ad from an older woman (Leo) who wants to have sex with three guys at once. They drive to her trailer where she serves them some beer before the festivities begin – except the festivities never begin since the beer is drugged and the boys pass out.

When they awaken they are in the church of Pastor Abin Cooper (M. Parks) who makes Fred Phelps look like a Girl Scout. They are treated to one of his fire-breathing sermons of hating sin and hating the sinners, ranting against the evils of homosexuality, adultery and premarital sex. Basically, against anything fun I suppose.

When a gay teen who was similarly entrapped is executed while immobilized and tied to a cross with saran wrap, the three boys realize they are in mortal danger. Travis is being bound to the cross when a deputy rolls up looking for the boys car which had sideswiped the Sheriff’s car while the Sheriff (Root) was parked on the side of the road having sex with his partner. Billy-Ray is able to free himself and manages to escape into the armory where he gets into a shoot-out with Caleb (Garman). This attracts attention of the deputy who calls in the shots fired to the Sheriff, who in turn calls in the ATF in the form of Agent Keenan (Goodman).

Soon the compound is surrounded and a standoff of Branch Davidian proportions; the well-armed zealots facing off against the might of a government which wants the situation ended without any surviving witnesses. Horny teenage boys, take note.

This is very much unlike any other Kevin Smith film; while there are humorous elements here it is most definitely not a comedy. This was also distributed in a unique way – for the most part, Smith took the film on tour with Q&A sessions following the screenings. There was also a one-day screening of the film just prior to its VOD and home video releases.

Smith is a well-known fan of genre films and while he doesn’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of B-movies like a Quentin Tarantino I do believe his affection for horror, action and comic book genres is just as passionate. He has tackled religious themes before in Dogma albeit in a much more satirical vein. He also is one of the finest writers in the business in my opinion with dialogue that is second to none in making onscreen characters talk like people you’d run into at the grocery store. Believe me, that’s a lot more difficult than it sounds.

The part of Pastor Abin Cooper was written specifically for Michael Parks and he delivers a blistering performance that will chill you to the bone and stay with you for a long while afterwards. His delivery is so smooth and so gentle that you are almost fooled into buying his message which you come to realize is absolutely whacko.

Goodman is solid as usual as the government stormtrooper who is tasked with bringing a situation that has spiraled wildly out of control back in control and who has no problems with carrying out orders that to you and me might seem immoral. In many ways, Cooper and Keenan are opposite ends of the same coin.

There is plenty of violence here and while I would hesitate to label it strictly as a horror film mainly because the gore and level of terror isn’t in line with, say, a Hostel movie. As thrillers go however, it is on the gruesome side. To my mind the movie winds up being somewhere in the middle – call it throrror. The overall tone is pretty bleak so be aware of that and the body count is high; if you like to play the game of “who’s still standing at the end credits” chances are you’re gonna be wrong. Some main characters barely make the second act and some surprising characters are still around when the dust settles.

There is a lot of things going on here of a topical nature, dealing with religious fanaticism, government overkill and homophobia which makes for entertaining viewing. However, the movie lacks a strong center – Gallner as Jared kind of assumes that role by default but is never really fleshed out enough to get the audience intrigued. Still, it IS Kevin Smith and the guy can write so there is entertainment value here. Hell, ALL of his movies have entertainment value (except for maybe Cop Out) of at least some degree. Still, one wonders what direction he is going to head in next – genial raconteur or all-out revenge film slasher found footage supernatural thriller.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrifying portrayal of religious fanaticism. Very topical.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too tame to be good horror, too bloody to be a thriller.

FAMILY VALUES: The content here is awfully disturbing and violent with plenty of foul language and sexuality. There’s also a bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Abin Cooper was named after Abin Sur from the Green Lantern comic book series.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an informative interview with Michael Parks, a Q&A session with Smith from Sundance and a making-of feature which includes the Westboro Baptist Church’s reaction to the film and finally a series of Smith podcasts recorded while the film was shot, in post-production and finally in theaters.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $4M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Children of the Corn

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Blackfish

A Good Day to Die Hard


Why some guys will go see A Good Day to Die Hard.

Why some guys will go see A Good Day to Die Hard.

(2013) Action (20th Century Fox) Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Yulia Snigir, Cole Hauser, Amaury Nolasco, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Anne Vyalitsyna, Rasha Bukvic, Melissa Tang, Catherine Kresge, Sergei Kolesnikov, April Grace. Directed by John Moore

One of the most successful action franchises of all time is the Die Hard series. Each one pits New York cop John McClane (Willis) against a parade of really nasty bad guys who over the years have included Alan Rickman, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Olyphant and William Sadler.

The fifth in the franchise isn’t located in the States. In fact, the action takes place all the way East in Russia (Moscow) and the Ukraine. McClane goes over to the former Evil Empire to see his estranged son Jack (Courtney) who is going on trial there for unknown charges. McClane feels a lot of guilt for the chilly relationship he has with Jack and not only does he want to see what he can do to help his son get off the hook (unlikely) but also what he can do to mend some fences (even more unlikely).

And of course, this being a Die Hard movie all hell breaks loose. Jack is getting ready to testify against a former billionaire named Komarov (Koch) who is on trial on some unspecified corruption charge, but the new minister of defense Chagarin (Kolesnikov) – who was once Komarov’s friend and business partner – is anxious for his old friend to remain silent.

So when an attempt is made to break Komarov out of jail, Jack goes along for the ride only he’s not just a passenger, he’s driving the car – Jack it turns out is a CIA operative and they’re very eager to get their hands on a file containing some damming information about our old friend Chagarin. Unfortunately, Jack shows up in the midst of all the chaos and in trying to help throws Jack’s carefully made arrangements out the door.

Naturally Jack is none too pleased to see his father but now he needs to get Komarov, the file and Komarov’s beautiful daughter (Snigir) out of the country but with Jack’s partners dead, it looks like it will be Russia vs. the McClane’s and as red-blooded Americans we know how all of this is going to turn out – yup, into a showdown at Chernobyl. Literally.

In all honesty, this is a movie that’s like the previous films in the franchise more than it is a Die Hard movie. Yeah, all the elements are there but it just doesn’t have the energy and inspiration the first four movies in the franchise had.

Willis continues to be the Energizer Bunny of action heroes. Throw him through plate glass windows, shoot him, toss him from great heights and he’ll just dust himself off, wipe the blood from a couple of cuts on his bald pate and he’ll just head on to the next action sequence. There were times during the movie that he got out of a situation that should have killed him and I thought “Oh come on!” I would much rather McClane use his cleverness or street smarts to get him out of a situation where he could be killed rather than have him emerge unscathed from a situation in which he should be killed. That takes us out of the movie and descends into self-parody.

Willis has good chemistry with Courtney. While the father-son bonding sequences are a bit weak (although one where Willis asks him if he wants a hug and he responds “We’re not exactly a family of huggers” is pretty good), the two play off of each other nicely. The discord between father and son is palpable but not really explained very well other than “he worked long hours, was never around blah blah blah” which sounds more like the whining of a spoiled brat than of an adult who is so busy working he has no relationships whatsoever. Hmm.

Most of the cast isn’t terribly well-known other than by savvy film buffs but they get the job done. In fact if you’re looking for mindless entertainment, you could do a lot worse than this. It’s just that it doesn’t measure up to any of the first four movies in the franchise so you might think harder about renting one of them instead of spending the bucks to see this in theaters – unless you’re a Die Hard diehard of course.

REASONS TO GO: This is Bruce Willis’ signature role and he’s always worth seeing in it.

REASONS TO STAY: Weakest film in the series to date.

FAMILY VALUES:  As with most Die Hard movies there’s a ton of violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the road trip every car after the original rental had a crushed can of Red Bull on the dashboard.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100; the reviews are pretty damn bad.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Octopussy

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Picture Me

Taken 2


Taken 2

Maggie Grace doesn’t react well to the critical pasting her latest film has taken.

(2012) Action (20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Rade Serbedzija, Luke Grimes, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, D.B. Sweeney, Kevork Malikyan, Alain Figlarz, Ergun Kuyucu, Alex Dawe, Luenell, Olivier Rabourdin. Directed by Olvier Megaton

 

There is an old saying – let sleeping dogs lie. This is particularly true when said sleeping dog is a former CIA operative with a particular set of skills that tend towards the mayhem-inducing.

Bryan Mills (Neeson), the said ex-company operative, wants nothing more than to be a dad. He is trying to help his daughter Kim (Grace) get her driver’s license after two failed attempts. After all, when you live in L.A. you gotta have wheels. Especially when you were kidnapped by Albanian sex slavers in Paris and had to be rescued by your Dad who put half of Albania in the ground to do it.

Of course, even these lowlifes have parents, brothers and sisters who mourn their loss (yes, despicable white slavers have parents too). One in particular, Murad Krasniqi (Serbedzija) is about as scummy as the ones Bryan slaughtered and it is him who declares that he will get “justice” which in this context rhymes with “blengeance.”

Bryan, who these days is a security consultant, is protecting a powerful potentate visiting Istanbul. Just before he leaves, his ex-wife Lenore (Janssen) who will henceforth be referred to as “Lenni” since that’s what Bryan calls her, is upset because a planned trip to China with her new husband got canceled because…well, her new husband (and about to be new ex-husband) is a dick. Bryan, a sweet hearted sort, offers to fly Lenni and Kim out to Istanbul where they can vacation once his job has concluded.

At first it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen but Lenni and Kim decide to surprise Bryan by showing up anyway and thus the family vacation starts. At first there is a bit of sight-seeing and a little more matchmaking – Kim really wants her parents to get back together again, despite her overprotective dad busting in on a make-out session between her and her somewhat too-polite-to-be-true boyfriend Jamie (Grimes).

Unfortunately, nothing ruins a family vacation than a bunch of Albanian thugs kidnapping the family for the purpose of making the father watch the mom die slowly and selling off the daughter into sexual slavery like she was supposed to be in the first movie. However, apparently Murad didn’t see the first movie or he’d know that messing with Liam Neeson is tantamount to asking for your ass to be kicked and having everyone within a three mile radius gunned down.

I really liked the first Taken. Not only did it establish Neeson as an action star, it was one of French action film producer Luc Besson’s best films yet (and remains so to this day). It was hyper-kinetic and even though there was a bit of suspension of disbelief overload (which also exists here) it was a fun piece of action entertainment.

Here while Neeson continues to take center stage (as he should) there’s more emphasis on his family than before. Janssen’s Lenni goes from uber-bitch to sympathetic character and the sparks fly between her and Bryan. Also, Grace’s Kim goes from being whiny and helpless to capable and skillful. She drops grenades on people and drives like Remy Julienne during a particularly fine car chase sequence.

The action sequences are strangely not quite up to the level of the first film, although the car chase comes close. I will say I like Serbedzija as the villain over the mostly disposable and faceless Albanians from the first film.

However while pretty good, this isn’t great and the first film was great. Certainly Taken 2 will not disappoint action fans and those who love the genre should be urged to go see it if they haven’t already (and given the box office numbers it appears that they have). There is certainly enough to warrant interest in an already proposed third film in the franchise. Hopefully Taken 3 will find someone else besides Neeson’s family to take however.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson one of the most dependable action stars today and Grace steps it up a notch. Nice Istanbul locations.

REASONS TO STAY: Action sequences not quite as kinetic as first film. Stretches believability in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots and lots of violence, as well as a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The budget was triple the one of the first film (from $26M to $80M) and seems to have been worth the uptick in cash as the film is doing big time box office and has already gotten a green light for a Taken 3.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100. The reviews have been mixed to bad.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tourist

ISTANBUL LOVERS: Many of the exteriors were filmed in Istanbul, a beautiful and squalid city that rarely gets the screen time it deserves.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Cold Weather

Dredd


Dredd

The last thing lawbreakers in Mega City One will ever see.

(2012) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris, Warrick Grier, Domhnall Gleeson, Rakie Ayola, Joe Vaz, Scott Sparrow, Nicole Bailey, Langley Kirkwood, Edwin Perry, Karl Thaning, Michele Levin, Luke Tyler, Junior Singo. Directed by Pete Travis

 

As far as dystopian futures go, few have captured one so bleak as the long-running British comic book Judge Dredd. In its 35 year publishing history it has managed to come up with a rich smorgasbord of characters and a well-developed backstory that acts not only as hardcore action sci-fi comic but also as pointed social commentary as well. It was brought to the screen in 1995 with Sylvester Stallone in the lead role; the movie tanked and alienated not only fans of the source material (which it desecrated to be honest) but general movie audiences as well.

The new film is much closer to the tone and look of the comic, which is good news. In the future of Judge Dredd (Urban), most of the planet is an irradiated wasteland with people living in gigantic cities. Mega City One, population 800 million, is the Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, basically from Boston to Washington DC. Gigantic skyscrapers, called “Blocks” act as multi-use facilities (apartments with shopping, restaurants, movie theaters and other entertainment) on steroids.

With that many people in such an enclosed space, the streets are near-anarchy. Crime is rampant and the Department of Justice can only investigate about 6% of it. Doing that are the Judges – a combination of motorcycle cop, detective, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. Judges mete justice on the spot, ranging from imprisonment in iso-cubes to death. In order to do the latter, they have guns coded to their DNA that fire an astonishing array of firepower from normal bullets to stun grenades to incendiary missiles.

Dredd is asked by the Chief Judge (Ayola) to take out rookie Judge Anderson (Thirlby) whose proximity to the radioactive wasteland rendered her psychic – the most powerful one the Department of Justice has ever encountered. Dredd will be responsible for her evaluation, either failing her and washing her out of the program or passing her into the ranks of the Judges. He’s not too keen on doing it – her test scores didn’t make the cut and in the eyes of Dredd (which see things entirely in black and white) a fail is a fail.

Their first call takes them to a low-income block where unemployment is at 96%. Three bodies have plummeted to the ground-floor atrium with predictably messy results. Dredd notices that one of the corpses has signs that he was on slo-mo – a drug that slows down the perception of time to 1% of normal – which to him means that this was not suicide but homicide. They make a raid on an apartment where the stuff is distributed and capture Kay (Harris), a high-end dealer with the intention of bringing him in for questioning.

The tower is actually run by a gang, the Ma-Ma Clan, so-named for their founder Ma-Ma (Headey), an ex-prostitute with a wicked scar on her face. She is solely responsible for the supply of slo-mo for the entire city and while she would have been fine with the Judges killing Kay in a raid (a price of doing business in Ma-Ma’s eyes), she is not fine with Kay giving up details on her operation that will bring the Judges down on her like the apocalypse. So she locks down the building and gives her gang orders to shoot to kill. Now Dredd and Anderson are trapped in a gauntlet where trigger-happy gunmen lurk around every corner and help is not within reach.

Writer Alex Garland has concocted a story that remain true to the action elements of the comic books, it is a little light on the social satire. Dredd in the comic books is a humorless ultra-violent appendage of a fascist society who has no life beyond that of his calling; we rarely see him off-duty and we never see his face (think of it as all Batman and no Bruce Wayne). There is speculation among fans that he sleeps with his helmet on.

Urban captures this perfectly. While we only see the bottom third of his face, his twisted expressions are always grim, his movements deliberate and nearly robotic and his posture arrogant. His belief in the Law is absolute and unyielding; if the sentences are harsh he doesn’t argue with it. Whatever Dredd’s opinions are of his world he keeps to himself; he is the Arm of the Law and the Hammer of Justice. That’s all he really needs.

Anderson has more of a conscience. Having grown up in a low-income block, she feels more empathy for the people who live there. Dredd’s concern throughout the film is that she isn’t tough or ruthless enough to make the hard choices. Thirlby often looks out of place in a Judge’s uniform, being smaller than most of the other Judges in the film, but she pulls off the attitude nicely with a heaping helping of self-doubt.; Anderson herself isn’t sure she’s in the right job. She’s less about the law and more about justice.

The visual of Mega City One is a bit of a mixed bag for me. It looks like a modern 21st century city for the most part with internal combustion engine cars that look not unlike the sedans, coupes and mini-vans of 2012 – while customizing the vehicles a little might have been more expensive, it would have made the visuals more believable. It’s hard to believe that the vehicles of a society 100 years from now would have changed so little in the intervening period.

The slo-mo effects are great however. There is a beauty to them which is a nice juxtaposition to the bleak city and block we see throughout. You can almost understand why the junkies would much rather see the world through slo-mo than the reality of it.

It’s a brutal world but then again a world that crowded would have to be. Still, locking up Dredd and Anderson in an impregnable fortress reminded me of the hit Indonesian action film from earlier this year The Raid: Redemption. While that film had amazing martial arts battles interspersed with the gun fights, there is little beyond using different kinds of weapons here in an endless series of shoot-em-ups once the blast doors close. In that sense, the filmmakers painted themselves into a corner a little bit. Still, the visuals are good, the action is solid and as mindless entertainment the movie succeeds nicely. The audience hasn’t been there for Dredd sadly but hopefully some who gave the movie a miss will reconsider. It’s solid, satisfying entertainment.

REASONS TO GO: Closer to the comic book than the Stallone version. Satisfying visually. Urban and Thirlby make a good team.

REASONS TO STAY: Can be somewhat more brutal than American audiences are used to.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence is pretty intense – people fall from great heights and get shot up pretty good. There’s also plenty of foul language, drug use and just a bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Karl Urban’s face is always obscured by the helmet; we never see anything other than his mouth, jaw and chin.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100. The movie is getting mixed reviews but leaning towards the positive..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Raid: Redemption

CLINT EASTWOOD LOVERS: Urban based his vocal interpretation on Clint Eastwood, which is fitting since the character of Judge Dredd was based on Eastwood’s character in the TV show “Rawhide” – in the comic book Dredd even lives on Rowdy Yates block in reference to the character!

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Robot & Frank

The Lady (2011)


The Lady

Michelle Yeoh is living in the golden age.

(2011) Biographical Drama (Cohen Media Group) Michelle Yeoh, David Thewlis, Jonathan Raggett, Jonathan Woodhouse, Susan Wooldridge, Benedict Wong, Flint Bangkok, William Hope, Victoria Sanvalli, Danny Toeng, Nay Myo Thant. Directed by Luc Besson

 

One of the most compelling political figures in the world today is largely unknown in the United States, yet she has won the Nobel Peace Prize and is iconic in Asia and Europe for her courageous stand against the repressive military junta which rules Burma (or Myanmar as they like to call it) with an iron fist. Her name is Aung San Suu Kyi and her story has been one waiting to be told.

Her father, Aung San had been a leader in the fight for Burmese independence from the English and had been moving to take the country into democracy when he was assassinated in 1947. He was and still is revered in Burma and his daughter Suu Kyi (Yeoh) lived in exile, in England where she had since married a bookish professor at Oxford, Michael Aris (Thewlis). They had two children together; Kim (Raggett) and Alexander (Woodhouse).

In 1988, Suu Kyi’s mother got seriously ill following a stroke so she journeyed back to Burma to be with her mom. At the time, the country was smack dab in the middle of the 8888 Uprising which was being brutally repressed by the government. Suu Kyi saw soldiers shooting unarmed students and doctors and was horrified by the carnage. In the meantime, students and professors at the local university, heavily involved in the uprising, saw Suu Kyi as a symbol of her father and for democracy and were eager to get her involved. Reluctantly at first, she began to take part in the protests.

Her one or two week trip would stretch out as the Uprising went on. Suu Kyi became the symbol the students hoped she would be and the people began to rally around her. Finally, when the government allowed the elections Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy demanded, they were shocked to discover that the NLD had won 392 seats in Parliament against only 5 for the reigning government, with Suu Kyi the new Prime Minister of Burma. That could not be allowed and the government voided the election.

The detestable Sein Lwin, the head of the military dictatorship, knew he couldn’t kill her outright; her father was a martyr and he was trouble enough. Killing Suu Kyi and making a martyr out of her as well might be too much for even his well-armed soldiers to control. He needed to break her spirit and make her a non-factor.

That job is charged to Win Thein (Thant), an ambitious and fiendishly clever Colonel. He placed the erstwhile Prime Minister under house arrest, confining her to the lovely lakeside home where she’d grown up, where she had last seen her father alive and where her mother eventually passed away. Most of her colleagues in the NLD were imprisoned or disappeared entirely.

She endured the loneliness of her imprisonment, surrounded by trigger-happy guards who’d like nothing better than to see her dead. Michael, knowing how precarious her safety was, initiated a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize for his wife, which she won in 1991. Unable to attend, her son Alexander gave a moving speech in her absence which she heard over a battery-operated radio despite attempts of her guards to prevent her from hearing it.

However, in 1998 her husband Michael discovered that he had terminal prostate cancer. Suu Kyi was now presented with a horrible choice; return to Oxford to be at her husband’s side and never be allowed to return to Burma (effectively negating the work and suffering they’d done for democracy in Burma over all those years) or remain under house arrest, knowing she would never see her husband again.

Suu Kyi is one of the most courageous people of our time and her story is one that has needed to be told. It has, in fact appeared onscreen in John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon as well as the recent documentary They Call It Myanmar. However, this might be the most ambitious film about her yet. French filmmaker Besson, mostly known for the action movies he’s produced (including The Fifth Element, Taken and the recent Lockout) goes out of his comfort zone here.

The result is spectacular. Using his long-time cinematographer Thierry Arbogast he captures some beautiful images of the countryside (some of which was filmed illicitly by Besson himself during a visit to Myanmar) as well as of the people. Many of the extras were Burmese and during segments in which Suu Kyi was giving speeches, filming had to be stopped because the extras were crying.

Much of that is due to the performance of Yeoh. This was a role she was born to play and she gives Oscar-caliber work here. It is in my opinion the best performance of her career and that’s saying something about an actress who is one of the finest ever produced in Asia. She captures Suu Kyi’s inner strength and grace, as well as her fierce resolve. It doesn’t hurt that Yeoh has a very strong resemblance to the real Suu Kyi.

Thewlis who has done some fine work of his own, is never better than he is here. His Michael Aris is an academic with a heart of gold; well-read and as committed to the cause of democracy in Burma as his wife is. His sacrifice is as almost as great as hers, although he at least had the succor of family around him. Thewlis gives him a bit of a stiff upper lip but never fails to keep the man’s inner warmth close to the surface.

This is a powerful movie and the testament to it was the expressions of the people who had seen it on the way out of the theater – these were the expressions of people who had been deeply moved and many faces were streaked by tears. While there were times I felt the focus was too much on Michael and the boys, the end result is that this movie is about a portrait in courage Kennedy would have approved.

For some reason, critics have been giving this film a shellacking, including some that I have respected over the years. One went so far as to call the film “fawning” and compared it unfavorably to They Call It Myanmar which I haven’t seen yet and I’m sure is a fine film on its own, but they are different fruit entirely. This is one in which I say don’t listen to the critics and go and experience it for yourself. It’s a powerful, moving cinematic experience that shouldn’t be missed.

REASONS TO GO: Yeoh gives a bravura performance, quite possibly the best of her stellar career. Authentic and powerful.

REASONS TO STAY: Could have focused less attention on Michael and more on Suu Kyi.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a few disturbingly bloody images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Besson constructed the set of Suu Kyi’s home to near-perfection, using photographs and satellite images for accuracy. He even set the home so that the sun rises through the same windows as they do in Suu Kyi’s actual home.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100. The movie inexplicably has received poor reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burma VJ

BURMA LOVERS: While much of the movie was filmed in Thailand (particularly the scenes set in Rangoon), some of the footage was taken in Burma as well.  

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Lockout

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days


Sophie Scholl: The Final Days

Sophie Scholl's trial was stacked slightly against her.

(2005) Historical Drama (Zeitgeist) Julia Jentsch, Gerald Alexander Held, Fabian Hinrichs, Johanna Gastdorf, Andre Hennicke, Florian Stetter, Johannes Suhm, Maximillian Bruckner, Jorg Hube, Petra Kelling, Franz Staber, Lilli Jung. Directed by Marc Rothemund

When confronted by absolute evil, people of good conscience are required to act. In reality, we know that’s seldom the case and when it does happen it rarely ends well for the person who acted.

It is Nazi Germany, February 1943. In Munich, a young woman named Sophie Scholl (Jentsch) and her brother Hans (Hinrichs) are distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at the University there. They are members of an underground group called The White Rose who stood against the government and were hoping to urge the students to rise up against the Nazis.

The two are just finishing up their task when Sophie accidentally knocks a pile of the leaflets off a balcony where a janitor sees her. He turns them in to the authorities – not so much because he’s a Nazi toady but because he was irritated at having to clean up the mess.

The two are brought to the police station, where Sophie is interrogated by Robert Mohr (Held), a police inspector who while a member of the Nazi party is also a somewhat compassionate man who views Sophie as more of a misguided youth rather than as a dangerous dissenter. Most of the interrogation is a foregone conclusion; the police know that Sophie and Hans did it.

Justice, or what passes for it, works swiftly in Nazi Germany and their trial takes place within a few days. There an outspoken and shrill judge (Hennicke) tries the two Scholls as well as Christoph Probst (Stetter).Sophie is repeatedly offered chances at clemency if she gives names to the tribunal; she refuses, protecting the other members of The White Rose. The trial soon reaches its inevitable conclusion and Sophie, her brother and Probst would pay the ultimate price for their dissention.

Sophie Scholl is a national heroine in Germany, particularly in Bavaria where she lived and died. The filmmakers used actual transcripts of her interrogation and trial, recently unearthed from the former East Germany, to supply the dialogue. Survivors of the period, including members of The White Rose (few as they are; most of the organization was wiped out by the Nazis) who knew Scholl well, contributed to creating the character of Scholl for the movie.

There is an authenticity to the movie that rings true. Sophie’s interrogation contains few grand gestures, few political statements; for the most part, it’s all police procedural – where were you, why were you carrying a suitcase, are you a member of a subversive organization and so on. The very mundane nature of the interrogation makes it all the more sinister and tragic. Mohr, by all accounts a decent man who was horrified by what happened to Scholl and her co-conspirators, is persistent and certain in the justness of his cause. He can’t understand why Scholl, whom he considers privileged and spoiled, would speak out against a system that was responsible for getting him to a position he might never have obtained otherwise. Held gives a note perfect performance of the role.

Jentsch is astonishing and makes Scholl very human. She is no martyr, no Joan of Arc looking heavenward with soulful eyes (although Scholl, a devout Catholic, prayed regularly) but certain of her beliefs. She is terrified of what is to come but refuses to endanger others no matter what the cost. There is a scene near the end where she is allowed to meet with her parents one final time that is absolutely sparkling. The parents are heartbroken that their children are about to die, but justifiably proud at the same time.

Hinrichs didn’t get the acclaim that Jentsch and Held got but in his own right does a terrific job. Hans Scholl has taken a backseat in the hearts of Germans in many ways but he was as brave and suffered the same fate as his sister. He doesn’t get the kind of screen time that Jentsch gets (we see none of his interrogation) but he makes the most of his.

In an era when young people in Egypt, Libya and Wisconsin are rising up to say “no” to tyranny, the movie is particularly poignant. While perhaps the protesters in Madison face mere jail time for their demonstration, the students elsewhere are confronted by the very real possibility that they may get shot and killed.

This isn’t a movie that’s flashy or histrionic. We do not see Scholl’s execution; we only hear it against a black screen. The movie proceeds at a slow, inexorable pace that some may find off-putting but the effect is powerful nonetheless. The movie received a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2006 Oscars and while it didn’t win, it certainly was good enough to. The movie hasn’t received a good deal of attention over here but if you’re looking for a compelling drama and you’re willing to look outside the box a little, this is a perfect choice for your DVD viewing.

WHY RENT THIS: Captures a little known element of the war (for Americans). Outstanding performances by Jentsch, Held and Hinrichs. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie proceeds at a somewhat slow pace.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and some smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in chronological order to help the actors feel what Sophie and Hans Scholl felt in their ordeal.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a feature that contains interviews with people who knew Sophie Scholl and members of the White Rose and captures their commentary on how accurate the movie was in depicting her. It offers some amazing insights.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.2M on an unreported production budget; the film almost certainly was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Adjustment Bureau