The Gangster’s Daughter (Shaowu the Bad)


There’s nothing like a quiet dad-daughter meal.

(2017) Drama (Wild Dog Productions) Jack Kao, Ally Chiu, Ko Yu Luen, Stephanie Lin, Wu Min, Huang Jih Ping, Kao Meng Chieh, Ma Ru Feng. Directed by Mei-Juin Chen

We all lament lost opportunities. When those rare occasions come along that give us second chances, the smart thing to do is to grab them with both hands. The thing about second chances though is that they aren’t always easy.

Keigo (Kao) is a gangster in Taipei. It’s a life that garners him success and respect but costs him his marriage; eventually his wife and daughter Shaowu move to remote Kinmen Island, a county I Taiwan that is geographically closer to mainland China than it is to Taipei. The two women move in with Keigo’s former mother-in-law who has nothing but contempt for her ex son-in-law.

Years later Shaowu is a hard-to-handle teen. Her mother has passed away unexpectedly, leaving her with her grandmother as sole adult guardian. She has a brief meeting with her dad at her mom’s funeral but returns to school where bullies pull a mean prank on her best friend. Shaowu reacts by dumping a pail of manure on the head of her tormentor. Unfortunately, the boy is politically connected and grandma is forced to reluctantly call in Keigo to handle the situation. Realizing she can’t handle her granddaughter who has been expelled from school, she entreats Keigo to take her to Taipei.

Keigo mainly runs a karaoke club where his girlfriend Coco is hostess. At first, Shaowu has a hard time adjusting but soon she makes friends at her school and Keigo’s crew takes a liking to her, particularly Coco who acts like a surrogate mom. He begins to allow himself to dream that he can have a normal life with Shaowu, opening up a restaurant with her someday.However the idyllic family in the making is disturbed by two events; the return of Keigo’s boss from an extended trip to Thailand with plans on extending his interests into narcotics, and a feud between some of Keigo’s younger gang and a corrupt cop. When a shoot-out leaves two of his closest friends dead, Keigo knows he has to act, even if it will leave Shaowu an orphan. Shaowu for her part has strongly identified with her dad and yearns to take up his criminal career, something her dad definitely does not want for her. Something has to give.

This Taiwanese film was a big hit at the box office in Taiwan but has struggled to find an audience outside of where it was made, a troubling trend in Asian movies as of late. The movie recalls some of the great gangster movies of Hong Kong of the 90s with a certain reverence for the criminal lifestyle which many in Asia equate with true freedom. We rarely see Keigo doing anything criminal other than getting into an occasional bar fight and he takes a definite stand on selling drugs which most true gangsters wouldn’t hesitate to do.

Kao, who has been called “the Asian Al Pacino” has an engaging smile and a brooding demeanor. He’s not above losing his temper with his men or his daughter for that matter. He’s made a lot of mistakes in his life and he wears every one of them on his face. Most of all, he doesn’t want his daughter to follow in his footsteps and dissuades her at every opportunity. There is a soft side to him that comes out unexpectedly at times but when he need to be hard, he’s like iron.

Chiu and Kao have a very realistic relationship and the two have a chemistry that would be enviable in almost any film. The heart of the movie is the bond between the two and the veteran Kao and the ingénue Chiu bring it to life. Chiu is an expressive actress with a face that shows an array of emotions even when she isn’t doing much physically. She has a truly bright future as an actress and I hope more of her films make it to the States.

This isn’t what I’d call action-packed even though the title contains the word “gangster” but it isn’t typical of that genre. There are a few scenes that are violent but by and large the criminals are just chatting amongst themselves or chilling in the karaoke bar. There is the shoot-out we spoke about and a reckoning late in the movie but mostly, this is about a slice of life more than it is about a slice of death.

The acting can be a bit stiff for American tastes particularly early on in the film and the movie might be a little longer than American audiences can tolerate in a movie that is paced this slowly but it is certainly worth the patience to check out. The characters are richly drawn and there is a sweetness at the core of the film that I liked very much. This is certainly a film to hunt down and check out.

The New York Asian Film Festival is a wonderful event that exposes the cinema of Asia to an appreciative audience; I only wish that more non-Big Apple residents could experience some of these films, few of which will make it to neighborhood art houses let alone VOD. Hopefully a few of them will get some wider exposure somewhere down the line; otherwise interested viewers will have to do some digging to find an online service that specializes in streaming Asian films like Fandor and AsianCrush that might carry some of these fine films down the line.

REASONS TO GO: Kao and Chiu have a remarkable chemistry. Chiu is certainly a star in the making
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is a bit stiff in places. The film is drawn out a bit too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mei-Juin Chen is best known for her documentaries; this is her first stab at a narrative feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Six
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Look & See:A Portrait of Wendell Berry

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Kong: Skull Island


Kong goes ape!

(2017) Adventure (Warner Brothers/Legendary) Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, Toby Kebbell, Tian Jing, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero, Marc Evan Jackson, Will Brittain, Miyavi, Richard Jenkins, Allyn Rachel, Robert Taylor, Thomas Middleditch (voice), Beth Kennedy. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

 

Some monsters capture the imagination like no other. So it has been with Kong, the giant ape who since his first appearance in 1933 has been a mainstay in cinematic lore. There have been three American remakes of the original; in 1976, 2005 and now.

It is 1973 and the United States is withdrawing its troops from Vietnam. That doesn’t sit so well with Major Preston Packard (Jackson). However, before he and his boys can return home he is given a new assignment to accompany a scientific team to a remote island near Southeast Asia.

The scientists are led by Dr. Bill Randa (Goodman) whose Hollow Earth theories have been largely discredited and who is ostensibly researching seismic activity on the island but unknown to the soldiers that are accompanying him, as well as former SAS tracker James Conrad (Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Larson), an anti-war activist who smells a big story. Is she ever right!

Their helicopter fleet is smashed to pieces by a gigantic ape 100 feet tall. The survivors are separated and try to make their way to a rendezvous point with their ship on the north shore of the island. The military men are trying to hunt down other survivors while Major Packard seethes; he wants to take out the ape that decimated his men. The civilians find their way to a human settlement where they find a surprising discovery; an aviator named Hank Marlow (Reilly) who has been stranded on the island since World War II.

Their job is to find a way off the island but it is far more perilous than just a single giant ape. There are other gigantic creatures (water buffalo, for example, and Daddy Long Leg spiders with legs as long as tree trunks. Worse, there are reptilian creatures that have ascended from the depths of the Earth and are only held back from mass destruction by Kong, who kills the bad boys on sight. And just between you and me I’d rather have Kong on my side than against.

I will give Vogt-Roberts credit; he knows how to keep the action going. This is definitely a roller coaster ride of a movie. But as roller coasters go, this one is a bit tamer than I expected. Peter Jackson’s 2005 magnum opus has nightmarish critters that range from dinosaurs to gigantic insects to things that have never existed and thank God for that. There are some creatures here (a giant octopus for example) but none really have the creepy factor that Jackson’s movie had and even the Big Bads – the Skullcrawlers as Marlow dubs them – are not as nightmare-inducing as they could be.

Hiddleston has paid his dues in a number of supporting roles and is more than ready to take on a heroic lead, but for some reason his performance here feels muted. I know he has tons of screen presence – I’ve seen it and not just in the Marvel appearances as Loki – but he doesn’t have much here. It’s sad too because I think this was a good role for him. Faring better is Reilly who damn near steals the movie as Marlow, who isn’t always sure if he’s thinking or speaking with often hilarious results. He’s one of the best reasons to see this movie.

Like all the Kong movies before it this is a boy’s club with a token woman to tame the beast, although that really doesn’t happen here. This is also set entirely on Skull Island; Kong doesn’t go to New York or anywhere else. Larsen is an actress whose stock is on the rise, but her role seems like nobody really knew what to do with her. Mason Weaver is no damsel in distress and that’s a good thing for women everywhere, but part of the Kong mythos requires one and the movie feels lacking without one.

A movie with a budget of $190 million dollars should not leave the viewers feeling meh but that’s what this one did for me. Maybe I expected more out of a Kong movie than just a slambang action film; it needed to have an epic feel to it and to my mind that’s just what it lacked. All three of the preceding Kong movies had it but I suppose sooner or later that streak would have to come to an end. Given that this is part of a new Monsterverse that started with the Godzilla reboot of a couple of years ago and will include some of the most well-known giant monsters from Japan and the United States, you would think that more care would be taken to keep this franchise viable. I hope they can bring back that larger than life feeling again; what good are giant monsters without it?

REASONS TO GO: Some of the monsters are spectacular. Reilly just about steals the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie plods a bit in the middle. It’s not as exciting as other giant monster films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some pretty scary monsters; there’s also some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The appearance of Kong (the shape of his face and so on) was based on the look of the original 1933 Kong.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the Center of the Earth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Exodus

John Wick: Chapter 2


Even John Wick’s dog looks badass.

(2017) Action (Summit) Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane, Ruby Rose, Common, Claudia Gerini, Lance Reddick, Laurence Fishburne, Tobias Segal, John Leguizamo, Bridget Moynahan, Thomas Sadoski, Erik Frandsen, David Patrick Kelly, Perry Yung, Franco Nero, Peter Serafinowicz, Peter Stormare, Vadim Kroll, Kelly Rae LeGault. Directed by Chad Stahelski

 

One of the better action films to come down the pike in recent years was John Wick. In it, a retired assassin un-retires himself when the son of a Russian mobster steals his car and kills his dog. Bad career move. Wick kills everyone associated with the dumbass Russian scion and adopts a new dog.

When the movie starts, Wick is going to retrieve his car from yet another Russian mobster (Stormare) and while all he wants is the car, of course the Russian mobster and his men try to take the master assassin down. Yet another bad career move. Even as the boss retells the story of how Wick once killed three men with a pencil (which we also saw in the last movie), Wick mows down every mobster who comes at him, wrecking the car he came to retrieve in the first place but the point is clear.

Wick returns home and puts all of his arsenal under concrete, apparently intending to retire again. However, he has a visitor – an Italian mobster this time named Santino D’Antonio (Scamarcio). Wick owes Santino a favor and the guy intends to collect. It’s what’s called a marker and in the world that Wick lives in, these cannot be refused. Wick promptly refuses and Santino promptly blows up his house.

Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, Wick decides to fulfill the marker anyway (now minus a house) and takes on the job of killing Santino’s sister Gianna (Gerini) who Santino’s dad made head of the mob after he retired – or in other words, passed on. This didn’t sit well with Santino so he figured that if his sister was out of the way, he could take his rightful place as head of the family.

That’s why Wick heads to Rome, visits a tailor who has a way with Kevlar as well as a sommelier who has a nose for fine German firearms and heads over to a rave cum orgy celebrating sister’s ascension to the head of family status at a Roman ruin – those decadent Italians – and takes her out. This doesn’t sit well with her bodyguard (Common) who now unemployed decides to make a point of expressing his displeasure to Wick. Mayhem ensues.

The plot is a little more labyrinthine than before and we get more background on the world of assassins. The Continental Hotel, neutral ground in the first movie, is apparently a chain and the managers (Ian McShane in New York, Franco Nero in Rome) enforce that neutrality vigorously. We get a sense of the complex support system for the killers and the fairly cut and dried rules governing their behavior. This is all to the good.

The production design is also highly stylized from the Hall of Mirrors-like museum display in Rome, the gaudily lit rave, some of the most stylishly lit catacombs I’ve ever seen, the genteel and urbane Hotels and of course Wick’s Fortress of Solitude before Santino blows it to smithereens.

Where the movie fails, curiously enough, is the action – the strength of the first film. Stahelski fails to maintain the interest of the viewer for the length of the movie which he was able to do in the first. Here, the sequences have the effect of numbing the viewer until you feel quite blasé about the whole thing. I didn’t think I could get jaded in an all-out action film like this, but I did.

I will admit my complaints about the film have not been echoed by other reviewers or by friends who have seen the sequel and proclaimed it better than the original. I disagree, respectfully but nonetheless firmly. While it gives us more plot and more insight into the world the first film created and inhabits it with interesting characters who are portrayed by some fine actors like Fishburne, McShane, Nero and Common, at the end of the day I wanted to be wowed by the action and I just wasn’t. This is reportedly intended to be the middle segment in a planned John Wick trilogy. I hope that the third movie will combine the best points of both movies and create an action movie for the ages. When you’re a movie critic, hope should spring eternal.

REASONS TO GO: The mythology started in the first film is fleshed out more in the second.
REASONS TO STAY: The action scenes become mind-numbing after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a stupid amount of violence, a fair amount of profanity and a scene with graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stahelski was Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix trilogy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill Bill: Vol. 1
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Great Wall

Sleepless


Jamie Foxx: Amish cop!

(2017) Crime Action (Open Road) Jamie Foxx, Michele Monaghan, David Harbour, Dermot Mulroney, T.I., Scoot McNairy, Gabrielle Union, Octavius J. Johnson, Tim Connolly, Drew Sheer, Sala Baker, Tim Rigby, Eli Jah Everett, Tess Malis Kincaid, Steve Coulter, Matt Mercurio, Chan Ta Rivers, Brooke Boxberger, Chelsea Hayes, Holly Morris. Directed by Baran bo Odar

 

There are some movies that sound good on paper but when you see them in the theater you wonder what anyone involved with it was thinking. This is one of those.

Las Vegas is rocked by a shoot-out in which a couple of masked men take out several thugs. As it turns out, those thugs were carrying 75 kilos of cocaine which is wanted back very badly. And as it turns out, the two masked men were dirty cops – Vincent (Foxx) and his partner Sean (T.I.) – and the casino owner (Mulroney) who is brokering the deal wants the drugs back. You see, they’re for Novak (McNairy), scion of a crime family but whose position won’t protect him from his own father if this deal gets messed up. So Vincent’s son Thomas (Johnson) is kidnapped which doesn’t do wonders for Vincent’s relationship with his ex-wife (Union).

Neither does it do wonders for his relationship with Bryant (Monaghan), the Internal Affairs officer who is certain that Vincent is dirty and sees this situation as a means to finally get the proof. Everyone is after everyone and not everyone is who they seem to be. There is definitely a dirty cop in the mix but is it Vincent? And will Thomas pay the price if it is?

Quite frankly when you know a movie is going to be released in January, it falls into one of two categories – one is a movie that the studio is burying in the tundra and the other is a movie with Oscar ambitions that is getting a qualifying run in November/December and then released out in January so it isn’t lost in the mix with all the other Oscar could-bes This one is certainly one of the former.

Foxx is a terrific actor who has earned his spot on the A-list. It is to his credit that even for this movie he gives it his best shot despite having very little to work with. The character as written does a lot of senseless things, especially given the revelations that come later in the film. Foxx makes the character at least somewhat sympathetic, despite the fact that he’s written to be essentially a douchebag. Monaghan is an underrated actress who ends up with the role of a bloodhound with blinders on.

Most of the movie is absolutely preposterous. It is also loaded with cop movie clichés which doesn’t help matters any. The action sequences aren’t particularly exciting which is absolutely deadly for a movie like this. Fortunately for movie audiences, it came and went quickly but it should be coming to home video soon. Seriously unless you are on a mission to see every one of Jamie Foxx’s performances there isn’t a lot else to recommend this. Give it a skip.

REASONS TO GO: Jamie Foxx is almost always entertaining.
REASONS TO STAY: There is nothing new or original here. It may be more sleep-inducing than sleep-preventing.
FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be pretty intense; there’s also plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a remake of a French/Belgian film entitled Nuit Blanche (Sleepless Night). It is also Swiss director Baran bo Odar’s English language debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Training Day
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table

Live By Night


Ben  Affleck is all business.

Ben Affleck is all business.

(2016) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Chris Messina, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Robert Glenister, Matthew Maher, Remo Girone, Sienna Miller, Miguel J. Pimentel, Titus Welliver, Max Casella, JD Evermore, Clark Gregg, Anthony Michael Hall, Derek Mears, Christian Clemenson, Chris Sullivan, Veronica Alcino. Directed by Ben Affleck

 

What makes a good man do bad things? Sometimes it’s circumstance, sometimes desperation, sometimes it’s because they believe that they are doing it for a greater good. Once they a good man goes down that path however, how long before it changes him from a good man to a bad one?

Joe Coughlin (Affleck) went to the First World War as a good man. The son of a police captain (Gleeson), he returns home to Boston disillusioned and bitter, vowing not to follow orders ever again. He becomes a petty thief with a small gang but Coughlin is bold and smart and soon comes to the attention of Irish mob boss Albert White (Glenister). Coughlin wants no part of a gang but it’s one of those situations where he doesn’t have any attractive alternatives.

Unfortunately, soon White’s mistress Emma Gould (Miller) comes to Joe’s attention and the two start carrying on a rather dangerous clandestine relationship. Of course, it inevitably leads to tragedy and Joe goes to jail. When he gets out, Boston is essentially closed to him and he goes south to Tampa along with his right hand man Dion Bartolo (Messina) where they will oversee the rum running operation of Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Girone). There he meets two pivotal people – police chief Figgis (Cooper) and Graciela (Saldana); the former he forges a business relationship with and the latter a romantic one.

Joe’s interracial romance soon garners the attention of the Ku Klux Klan who makes life a mess for Joe. Joe appeals to Chief Figgis for help but the Klan’s most visible guy (Maher) happens to be the Chief’s brother-in-law. Although he admires and respects the Chief a great deal Joe uses blackmail photos of the Chief’s daughter Loretta (Fanning) to force the Chief to betray his brother-in-law.

Some time after that, Joe hits upon the idea of building casinos in Florida and begins construction on a magnificent one. Pescatore is happy because Joe is making him cartfuls of money and plenty of important people want to see the casino built. However, Joe is opposed by an evangelist – Loretta Figgis – who helps turn public and political opinion against him. Now Joe is in a great deal of hot water and finds himself once again between the two Boston mob bosses except that this time they are BOTH against him. Surviving this battle may not be possible.

Let’s cut to the chase; this is the weakest entry in Affleck’s otherwise stellar directing filmography. That doesn’t mean this is a terrible film, it’s just the most convoluted and least interesting of Affleck’s films to date. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a truly talented director and some of the scenes he has shot here are simply magic, but there aren’t enough of them to make a cohesive whole. Some of the blame lies at the feet of Dennis Lehane whose book this is based upon; the book itself was somewhat plot-heavy and it doesn’t translate to the silver screen as well as other books that the author wrote like Mystic River for example.

There are a ton of characters in here and a pretty high-end cast; that leads to a logjam of performances, some of which get short shrift and others seem to simply disappear in the bedlam. Standing out are Cooper as the bereaved and aggrieved chief of police, Saldana as the patient girlfriend and Messina as the loyal right hand man. All three get substantial screen time; not so much for fine actors like Miller, Gleeson and Greenwood among others.

And with all this, sometimes it feels like you’re riding a lazy Southern river that seems to be all bend and no destination. There are at least three false endings and when the final credits role there is a feeling of relief. The movie could have very easily ended at a much earlier point (I won’t say where but if Ben Affleck wants to e-mail me, I’d be glad to discuss it with him) and have been much more satisfying than the place it finally did end.

I’m hoping this was just a fluke and that on his next film Affleck returns to form. He has shown in his career that he’s a bit streaky, both to the positive and to the negative. He is capable of greatness and he is also capable of movies that are utterly forgettable. This falls in the latter category – it’s not horrible, not really cringe-worthy; just inconsequential. That’s not an adjective you want used in connection with your film and I’m sure Affleck doesn’t want to make films that even potentially could have that adjective used to describe them. I sure don’t like feeling that the adjective is apt.

This is a nice looking movie that captures the era convincingly to my mind. Affleck looks pretty chic in the tailored suits of the era and the ladies have that elegance that the 30s were known for. There is a fair amount of violence – some of it bloody – but you would expect that in a film about gangsters. There is also a moral ambiguity that might be troubling for some. When watching the Corleone family, you got a sense that they knew what they were doing was wrong but this was what they knew how to do. Coughlin seems to have more options and a moral compass but he still chooses to do things that are expedient rather than right. I suppose that’s true for a lot of us.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck remains a gifted director even on his less successful films.
REASONS TO STAY: A meandering plot sabotages the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly graphic violence, lots of profanity and a little sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie based on a Dennis Lehane novel that Affleck has directed (the first was Gone Baby Gone back in 2007).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Untouchables
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing

Underworld: Blood Wars


Never tell Selene that her catsuit makes her look fat.

Never tell Selene that her catsuit makes her look fat.

(2016) Action Horror (Screen Gems) Kate Beckinsale, Theo James, Tobias Menzies, Lara Pulver, Charles Dance, James Faulkner, Peter Andersson, Clementine Nicholson, Bradley James, Daisy Head, Oliver Stark, Zuzana Stivinova, Brian Caspe, Jan Nemejovsky, Sveta Driga, Dan Bradford, David Bowles, Rostislav Novak, Tomas Fisher, Eva Lavoire. Directed by Anna Foerster

 

Sometimes audiences don’t need a whole lot to be happy. They don’t need a coherent plot or character development. They just want to sit back, relax and shut their brains off for a couple of hours. It’s not much to ask. In other words, sometimes a concept is enough to satisfy an audience. This explains why the Underworld franchise has confounded critics by surviving 13 years and five movies without any letup in popularity.

A lot of the reason behind that is Kate Beckinsale. She plays Selene, a former member of the Death Dealers, an elite squad of vampires who exterminate their mortal enemies the Lycans (a.k.a. werewolves). These days, Selene is a renegade, on the run from both Lycans and vampires alike. She is aided only by David (T. James), son of Thomas (Dance) who at one time was Selene’s enemy but is now her only ally on the Eastern coven council.

The war isn’t going well for the vampires and in their dogged pursuit of Selene has led them to fighting a war on two fronts. Their Death Dealers have been depleted and while they are training new ones, the coven is vulnerable. Council member Semira (Pulver) realizes this and entreats Thomas to convince council leader Cassius (Faulkner) to revoke the exile of Selene and bring her back to train the Death Dealers.

Meanwhile, the Lycans have grown more powerful led by Marius (Menzies), their leader who has united the Lycan clans like nobody else ever has. They want Selene’s daughter Eve whose blood contains both Lycan and vampire elements along with human – she is the key to victory for both sides. Selene however doesn’t know where Eve is which is the way she wants it to protect her daughter. That doesn’t stop the machinations of various parties within both the Lycan and vampire communities who will betray anyone and stop and nothing to find Eve – and to do so they all believe they must control Selene. But can Selene be controlled?

As I said earlier, the plot is convoluted and often senseless but that’s unimportant; what matters is vampires vs. werewolves and there is plenty of that, plenty of carnage (including spines being ripped out and bodies being cleaved in half) and of course plenty of Beckinsale in skintight leather. Say what you want to about the franchise but there is no doubt that Beckinsale has made Selene one of the more formidable female action heroes of the 21st century. Critics however lament that the extremely talented actress who showed her abilities in Love and Friendship last year has been slumming by appearing in these films. Paychecks like the ones she gets from the Underworld series are what allow her to appear in less lucrative but more substantial roles like the one mentioned.

Beckinsale is as always the best reason to see these movies and while she seems a little more restrained here than in previous incarnations of the franchise, she has a presence nonetheless that keeps the focus on her every time she’s on the screen. There are those who grouse that the catsuit she wears is demeaning to women but I hear nobody complain that the ripped shirts (and occasionally shirtless look) that male action stars often wear are demeaning to them. Sex appeal remains a big selling point for action movies.

Like most of the Underworld films the lighting is dim which looks cool enough but makes some of the action sequences hard to follow which becomes a particular problem given the accelerated reflexes of the two warring factions. Again, the vampires are portrayed as indolent Eurotrash while the Lycans come off as kind of grunge chic. Also as usual, other than Selene and maybe David there is little in the way of character development, leading to all the various supporting roles to kind of blend together.

Then again, that scarcely matters. What the audience for these films are looking for are right here in great quantities. First-time feature film director Foerster (who cut her teeth on the Starz Outlander series) clearly demonstrates an understanding of the wants and needs of the audience and if she doesn’t apply much of a stamp of her own to the franchise is more likely due to the producers wanting to keep thematic and tonal continuity between the various films more than anything. I’m actually interested in seeing how Foerster does with other action, adventure and genre films in the future; I suspect she would supply a much-needed female voice to what is largely a male-dominated profession. After all, women like a good brainless action and/or genre film just as much as the next guy.

REASONS TO GO: It’s really more of the same, so if you like the same…
REASONS TO STAY: …and if you don’t…
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a ton of violence, quite a bit of blood and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this was initially believed to be the final film in the series, producer Len Wiseman has confirmed that a sequel is in the planning stages with Beckinsale returning as Selene.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lost Boys
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Elle

The True Memoirs of an International Assassin


Kevin James, badass!

Kevin James, badass!

(2016) Action Comedy (Netflix) Kevin James, Andy Garcia, Zulay Henao, Kim Coates, Ron Rifkin, Maurice Compte, Rob Riggle, Leonard Earl Howze, Yul Vazquez, Andrew Howard, P.J. Byrne, Kelen Coleman, Jeff Chase, Katie Couric, G-Rod, Daniel Zacapa, Al Hamacher, Jordi Caballero, Lauren Shaw, Emilie Ullerup. Directed by Jeff Wadlow

 

Some things in life are less likely than others; Donald Trump having an extramarital affair, for example – with Rosie O’Donnell. Or PETA opening up a barbecue restaurant.

Right up there with those is Kevin James morphing into an action hero, although he has done a few action films in his time. The portly sitcom star is actually fairly fit for a man his size, but he certainly doesn’t fit the mold of a classic action hero.

Still, he has a very likable screen persona and plenty of charisma on both the big screen and small. He hasn’t always gotten great movies and good roles but he has always been a trooper and does his best even when the material is less than scintillating. Here he plays Sam Larson, a cubicle cowboy who dreams of being a bestselling author, but unlike most of us with such ambitions he’s actually doing something about it. He’s writing a James Bond-meets-Die Hard spy story in which the hero, Mason Carver a.k.a. The Ghost is his own alter ego. Sometimes when Sam gets stuck for inspiration, Mason Carver and the other characters in the scene stand around, twiddling their thumbs and waiting expectantly for direction – which may be a metaphor for what the actors in this film were doing.

His energetic and somewhat conniving E-Publisher (Coleman) thinks she’s got a winner on her hands when he submits the manuscript and promises not to change a word. In fact, she doesn’t – she adds one to the title though, changing The Memoirs of an International Assassin to The True Memoirs of an International Assassin and marketing it as biographical.

This infuriates not only Sam but his buddy Amos (Rifkin) who has been advising him on some of the finer points of international espionage and had urged him not to print certain aspects of Mason Carver’s exploits. During an interview with Katie Couric (herself) on Yahoo, Sam gets cold feet and runs out of the studio – and straight into the arms of kidnappers who turn out to be agents of El Toro (Garcia), a Venezuelan revolutionary. He wants the Venezuelan president (Coates) dead, and essentially tells Sam – who he believes is really The Ghost – that if the president isn’t murdered, Sam will be.

Of course, Sam gets arrested and brought before the President who also believes Sam is The Ghost – and urges him to kill drug kingpin Anton Masovich (Howard) who then kidnaps Sam and suggests he murders El Toro. Maybe Sam should just nuke Venezuela and be done with it, no? Well, that wouldn’t make for a very long movie so Sam, with the help of comely DEA agent Rosa Bolivar (Henao) he figures out a way to get out of this with his skin more or less intact but not everything here is on the up and up.

Incomprehensibly, this script ended up on the Black List of unproduced screenplays a couple of years ago, which leads me to believe that either this was extensively rewritten or the standards for quality of Black List screenplays has taken a serious hit. The plot is pretty pedestrian and has been done before and better in other films; in fact, this feels throughout like you’re watching a sitcom in which the Fonz plays an international spy. Or Ray Romano. Or Doug Heffernan (James’ character in King of Queens) for that matter.

The movie also suffers from really poor CGI throughout, from the explosion to the blood splatters. It all looks fake. To make matters worse, there are several running jokes – like various characters musing “Maybe he really is The Ghost” about Sam, or in the third act for some incomprehensible reason the filmmakers chose to pepper the soundtrack with Spanish language version of pop hits from the 70s, 80s and 90s. Once or twice is okay but it was a good five or six occasions. Brevity is the soul of wit; repetition doesn’t make a joke any funnier in general. Just sayin’.

Don’t get me wrong – there is some entertainment value here but it’s mainly due to James’ work. And let’s face it; compared to the Adam Sandler comedies that Netflix has released thus far, this is Mel Brooks-level work (and believe it or not, Sandler’s production company Happy Madison had nothing to do with this which was surprising to me considering how close Sandler and James are). Still, this is little more than a 90 minute time-killer that will have little more value than that to you. Me, I’d recommend that you wait for a movie that is more worthy of Mr. James’ talents.

REASONS TO GO: Kevin James is always engaging and likable.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a sitcom-like feel to this and some of the running jokes are pretty damn annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence and some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is a remake of the 1973 French action film Le Magnifique.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spy
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Passengers