Baywatch


Ladies, you are most welcome!

(2017) Action Comedy (Paramount) Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Priyanka Chopra, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, Ilfenesh Hadera, Jon Bass, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Hannibal Buress, Rob Huebel, Amin Joseph, Jack Kesy, Oscar Nuñez, David Hasselhoff, Pamela Anderson, Clem Cheung, Belinda, Charlotte McKinney, Izabel Goulart, Arian Foster, Vernon Davis, Eros Exarhou. Directed by Seth Gordon

 

Television shows, particularly popular ones, tend to be products of their own era. They reflect the tastes and mores of their times; that doesn’t always make them dated so much as it makes it easily identifiable when they were made. Nobody can doubt, for example, that Welcome Back, Kotter was a product of the 70s, 21 Jump Street was a product of the 80s or that Baywatch was a product of the 90s. When transferring these products to the big screen, a certain amount of updating is necessary for them not to seem hopelessly anachronistic. That generally requires a change in tone from serious to self-mocking.

Mitch Buchannon (Johnson) is not only a lifeguard, he’s the lifeguard. He leads a crack team that includes CJ Parker (Rohrbach) and Stephanie Holden (Hadera). It’s that time of year when new trainees are being welcomed into the program and this year’s group is an odd lot, including the overweight nebbish Ronnie Greenbaum (Bass), the perky but serious Summer Quinn (Daddario) and the disgraced ex-Olympic swimmer Matt Brody (Efron) who is only there because he’s doing community service for a drunk and disorderly conviction.

Affable Mitch and arrogant Matt take to each other like hurricanes and small Caribbean islands, but they are more or less stuck with each other. When a body washes up on the beach, Mitch is suspicious. Eventually the evidence points back to Victoria Leeds (Chopra) a sexy but amoral real estate developer who intends to make the Bay private. Of course that doesn’t sit well with Mitch to begin with and when the local cop (Mateen) expresses disinterest, he decides to investigate on his own with Matt protesting that llifeguards aren’t crime fighters.

Nonetheless the Baywatch team takes on Victoria’s band of thugs and killers and she outsmarts them, leading to the breakup of the team. The only way for the Baywatch family to remain intact is to prove that Victoria is behind the infusion of drugs into the area and the murders that will allow her master plan to flourish.

I expected to really hate this and given the dismal reviews it got, it’s not hard to understand why. I was surprised that it was actually not that bad – not earth-shattering stuff mind you but I don’t think it was ever intended to be. This is, after all, based on Baywatch folks, not Shakespeare in the Park. This isn’t meant to be anything more than entertaining and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

As you might imagine, this isn’t your pappy’s Baywatch. This is far raunchier than the 90s version – I don’t recall ever seeing someone’s junk getting caught in a sun chair on the show – and there is a self-deprecating tone that I’m pretty sure was missing from the original, although I must admit that I wasn’t really a fan of the show; having lived near beaches almost all of my life the sight of buff tanned bodies in skimpy swimsuits really doesn’t do anything for me when it comes to making choices for regular TV viewing. If I want to see that, I just have to drive no more than 45 minutes and I’ve got all I can handle. But I digress…

Johnson is perfect for this kind of role. He has that easygoing persona with a core of “I can kick your ass anytime I feel like it” below the surface. He’s always had a natural comic timing so action movies with a comedic bent have always suited him best, although he’s just fine at straight action also. He’s one of the most charismatic leads working in Hollywood currently, on the level of Will Smith and Mark Wahlberg. This is right in his wheelhouse.

Efron has shown in the two Neighbors films that nobody does snarky like he does. He plays one of those characters here that you can’t stand from the beginning but who deep down isn’t a bad guy. Eventually you just know he’s going to turn it around and he does; Efron has to make the change believable and he also does.

This is in many ways the ultimate summer movie; light, mindless, amusing and utterly forgettable. You can smell the sun screen, feel the rays warming your skin and hear the gulls squawking above the surf hours after the movie is over. If you’re looking for a movie that is going to push the boundaries of cinema, this isn’t it. This was never going to be it. If however you’re looking for something that is going to take your mind off of things for a couple of hours, keep you entertained and maybe even get you to laugh out loud a couple of times, you’ve found what you are looking for and as the fall and winter begin to turn temperatures colder, some of you are going to need this movie to keep you going until the next summer rolls around.

REASONS TO GO: It was funnier than I expected it to be.
REASONS TO STAY: Its welcome is worn out quickly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including crude sexual humor and innuendo as well as brief but graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnson and Daddario previously worked together on San Andreas.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lifeguard
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Crown Heights

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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

Suicide Squad


Wanna come out and play?

Wanna come out and play?

(2016) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman, Cara Delevingne, Jay Hernandez, Jai Courtney, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Karen Fukuhara, Adam Beach, Kenneth Choi, Alain Chanoine, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Common, Jim Parrack, David Harbour, Shailyn Pierre-Dixon. Directed by David Ayer

 

There are those who maintain that a hero is nothing without a memorable villain to oppose him. That’s largely true; what would James Bond be without Blofeld, Holmes without Moriarty or Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader? We usually see things from the hero’s point of view but rarely do we get a glimpse into the world of the super villain.

Following the events of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the American government is extremely nervous. What would happen, posits Amanda Waller (Davis) who works for a shadowy intelligence agency, if Superman had instead of saving the world decided to destroy it? Who would stop him? Waller has an idea, one that is magnificent in its simplicity and alarming at its utter amorality.

She “recruits” (i.e. forces) several super villains locked up in the Belle Reve black ops prison in the swamps of Louisiana to form up a team to take on certain situations which are essentially hopeless. Situations in which the superheroes that are out in public (which are essentially Batman (Affleck) and the Flash (Miller) at this point) shouldn’t be risked as they aren’t exactly expendable. These guys are exactly that. Waller knows that and at the same time, she knows they have nothing to lose by running. She has a solution that recalls The Running Man to a certain extent but absolutely doesn’t say anything particularly nice about the woman.

And who are these guys? For one, there’s Deadshot (Smith), an assassin for hire who never misses with any firearm you give him. Then there’s Harley Quinn (Robbie), the deranged ex-psychiatrist who is now the Joker’s (Leto) girlfriend but who is a formidable opponent of her own. Then there’s Diablo (Hernandez), a gang banger who can shoot flames in any direction but when his powers caused the death of his wife and son, is attempting to reform and has vowed to never use his powers again.

=Add to that list Killer Croc (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a horribly mutated man who is half man, half crocodile and eats people when he gets the chance. Then there’s Enchantress, a demonic spirit that has possessed archaeologist June Moon (Delevingne) and possesses incredible magic powers, Captain Boomerang (Courtney), an Aussie thief whose weapon of choice is a boomerang that he is absolutely deadly accurate with. Finally there’s Slipknot (Beach), whose ability to climb any surface makes him a useful scout.

Overseeing these representatives of the lunatic fringe is Captain Rick Flagg (Kinnaman), a Navy SEAL who just happens to be Professor Moon’s boyfriend – and who is himself tough as nails. Having his back is Katana (Fukuhara), a Japanese martial artist with an enchanted sword that captures the souls of its victims – which include her husband among their number. Katana is able to communicate with the spirits in the blade, including her late hubby.

They are battling a mystical opponent who wants to essentially open a rift in the dimension that will end civilization as we know it. The problem is that the Suicide Squad as they have come to be known as don’t really give a rat’s tush about civilization. If they can stop fighting amongst themselves, though, they might just come through of it alive. The odds are not good for either however.

Let’s be blunt to start out; the DC Extended Universe (what they call their cinematic division) has not had the kind of success that Marvel has and the critics have absolutely excoriated this movie. Now, I will be the first to say that DC’s cinematic path hasn’t caught on for a reason; in trying to duplicate the tone of the very successful Dark Knight trilogy of Christopher Nolan. You’ll notice that the Marvel cinematic universe is anything but.

But is this movie really that bad? I don’t think so…for one thing it’s entertaining as all get out. Ayers is a director who has a very fine eye and a well-developed story-telling sense. He also knows how important it is for there to be fun in the equation, and there’s lots of great by-play between the characters and a lot of humor injected into the script.

He also has a helluva cast. Smith, one of the biggest stars in the world, has rarely been better than he is here. Yes, his Deadshot is one of the more developed characters in the film, but Smith gets to play a villain who has some human qualities as well (he’s absolutely devoted to his daughter, played by Pierre-Dixon for one). He also shows the kind of leadership skills shown by Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers in the Marvel Universe. The DC Universe sorely needs that.

Robbie has almost as much time in the movie as Smith and her Harley Quinn took a different path to the silver screen; Harley Quinn didn’t initially come from the comic books but from the television animated shows. She went from there to the comic books which she became something of an icon, particularly to female comic book fangirls. Robbie fills the role well; while some have groused that the character has been overly sexualized here (including Robbie herself), she turns in an intense performance, particularly since she has to go up against Oscar winner Jared Leto as her boyfriend/abuser the Joker.

Leto has been very vocal in his disappointment about what the role turned out to be, and in all fairness the Joker was never supposed to be a central character here. However, it stands to reason that you can’t really have Harley Quinn with Mr. J; it doesn’t work. His take on the Joker is a lot different than that of Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger or even Cesar Romero. Not better, not worse, just different. I liked Leto’s Joker just fine; he’s supposed to be unpredictable and Leto certainly makes him that. He isn’t nearly as menacing as Ledger’s Joker, nor as twisted as Nicholson’s. However, this Joker is wilder, more untamed than either. It is a good interpretation.

There are a lot of special effects, particularly involving the mystical vortex thingy that the Big Bads are creating. There are an awful lot of trans-dimensional vortices in superhero movies as of late and as those sorts of things go, this one is no worse nor any better than most. It just isn’t all that impressive; neither are most of the practical effects. Also, there are moments when the plot gets a little bit, ahh, thick. I found it a touch confusing at times and perhaps more casual comic book fans might feel the same.

Otherwise, I enjoyed the heck out of the movie. These really aren’t the A-list of DC villains (although the Joker is present) but some of the mid-level guys. Quinn and Deadshot both look like slam-dunks coming back for more cinematic superhero goodness. And all things considered, this didn’t do the DC Extended Universe better; it might well be the best of the three that have appeared so far, at least in my book. However, it still isn’t slam dunk enough to really elevate the franchise into a place where I’m actually excited about it. Maybe Wonder Woman will bring that to the game.

REASONS TO GO: There is excellent interaction between an excellent cast. Smith is at his very best here. Brings some of DC’s lesser villains to light.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects are unimpressive. The story is occasionally confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: As you’d expect, plenty of violence and superhero action, some sexually suggestive material and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harley Quinn’s baseball bat was given to Kevin Smith to thank him for hosting the TV special Dawn of the Justice League shortly before this film came out.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deadpool
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Gleason

No Escape


Owen Wilson and Lake Bell carry the movie.

Owen Wilson and Lake Bell carry the movie.

(2015) Action (Weinstein) Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Claire Geare, Sterling Jenns, Stacy Chbosky, Tanapol Chuksrida, Jon Goldney, Nophand Boonyai, Thanawut Kasro, Kanaprat Phintiang, Bonnie Jo Hutchison, Danai Tung Thiengtham, Vuthichard Photphurin, Manfred Iig, Bonnie Zellerbach, Karen Gemma Dodgson. Directed by John Erick Dowdle

It is one thing to be in a situation in which you are in mortal danger. It is quite another when your entire family is in that same situation with you. The entire dynamic is changed; you may fight for your own life but when it comes to your family…

Jack Dwyer (Wilson) is an engineer whose business has gone belly up. Forced to take a job to take care of his family, he goes to work for the multinational Cardiff Corporation, going to a Southeastern Asia country to work on cleaning up their water supply. He is going to be there for some time, so he brings his family – wife Annie (Bell), daughters Lucy (Jenns) and Beeze (Geare). The girls are a bit on the spoiled side – Lucy, a pre-teen, acts out constantly while the younger Beeze has a maniacal attachment to a stuffed teddy bear named Bob.

The family befriends scruffy Hammond (Brosnan), a British ex-pat, on the flight over and when the car that Cardiff was supposed to send around to fetch them doesn’t arrive, Hammond and his local buddy Kenny Rogers (Boonthanakit), who runs a taxi service and is freakishly devoted to the singer in question that everyone knows him by that name, offers to give the exhausted family a lift to the hotel. Once there, the phones, television and internet aren’t working. Jack heads down to the concierge (Boonyai) to complain about the situation and ends up spending some time with the womanizing drunken Hammond at the bar.

What Jack doesn’t know is that the country’s prime minister (Photphurin) has been assassinated and a rebel coup has begun. The rebels, easily identified by their red bandannas, are virulently anti-foreigner and what Jack also doesn’t know is that they’re particularly pissed off at his company who have taken over their country’s water supply.

While out to fetch a newspaper the next morning, Jack runs smack into a confrontation between rebels and riot police and is caught in the middle. As he runs back to the hotel, he soon finds to his dismay that the rebels not only have numerical superiority but the upper hand; they are well-armed and are completely overrunning government forces. They are also executing foreigners on sight. Jack, realizing the situation is out of hand, goes to collect his family including the willful Lucy who has gone AWOL to the hotel swimming pool. Once he collects his family, he takes them on the advice of Hammond to the hotel roof, which turns out to be not as safe as he would have thought when a rescue helicopter turns out to be anything but. In order to escape he is forced to throw his screaming reluctant children to the roof of an adjacent office building and hide them there after the inhabitants are butchered by the rebels. They try to head for the American embassy, but even though it is only a few blocks away it might as well be on the moon, considering how dangerous the streets are.

Dowdle, who co-wrote the movie with his brother Drew, has done some fairly high-profile genre work in the past, including Devil, Quarantine and As Above, So Below. This is less a genre film and more of an action thriller, broken down to almost a primal level – a man trying to protect his family, doesn’t get any more primal than that.

Wilson and Bell aren’t the first choices I’d make to cast an action movie, but they do credible jobs here, even if Bell is given little to do but be menaced by rebels and to try and calm down her hysterical children. What I like about the roles is that neither Wilson or Bell are ex-Navy SEALs or kickboxing champions. They are ordinary people thrust into an extraordinary situation and from time to time they freak out, understandably.

The kids though are another matter. They are whiny, bratty and basically are there to put the entire family in jeopardy at every inopportune moment. I don’t mind that happening from time to time in the movie but it seemed like every ten or fifteen minutes in a kid would cry, disobey their parents or snivel to the point where they got noticed by angry rebels. I know the kids are part of the motivation for Jack but they needed to be less involved in the action.

Some have criticized the film for making the rebels faceless, but that’s an invalid criticism. Of course the rebels are going to be mostly faceless; this is an action movie. At one point, Hammond comments that the rebels are trying to protect his family just as Jack is. The real villain here is the faceless corporation; nobody complained that the executives of Cardiff were faceless. Political correctness, once again taken to ridiculous lengths.

The action sequences are the film’s highlights; Dowdle directs these deftly, making sure the tension is extremely high throughout. Those action fans who love that kind of thing should flock to this movie; Die Hard it isn’t but it does action right, and that’s not nearly as easy as it sounds., The cinematography isn’t bad, although the urban scenes, mostly filmed in Thailand, are a little bit scruffy. It’s the night filming which is when most of the movie takes place that looks more thrilling.

This is nice entertainment, transitioning from the late summer doldrums into the early fall doldrums and let’s face it, is about as good a movie as we’re going to get until November for the most part. There are a few plot points here that are a bit dicey but if you are willing to overlook them, this is a fairly fun action thriller that does exactly what an action thriller is supposed to do.

REASONS TO GO: Pretty harrowing in places. Wilson, Bell and Brosnan are always worth seeing.
REASONS TO STAY: The kids are far too annoying. Here’s to almost.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence (some of it graphic) and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michelle Monahan was originally cast as Annie Dwyer but when production was delayed, she got pregnant and was forced to drop out of the role. Lake Bell took over the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/7/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Southern Comfort
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police

San Andreas


Either The Rock is striking a heroic pose or he accidentally gave this girl The People's Elbow.

Either The Rock is striking a heroic pose or he accidentally gave this girl The People’s Elbow.

(2015) Disaster  (New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandria Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue, Colton Haynes, Todd Williams, Matt Gerald, Alec Utgoff, Marissa Neitling, Morgan Griffin, Breanne Hill, Laurence Coy, Fiona Press, Dennis Coard, Simone Kessell. Directed by Brad Peyton

When the earth starts to shake and buildings begin to fall, who are you gonna call? Dwayne Johnson! When the fault cracks in two which the tsunami rolls into, who’ll see you through? Dwayne Johnson!

Disaster movies were a thing of the 70s for a short while, all-star casts of big stars put at risk by natural or man-made disasters. Irwin Allen was the king of these films, and things like The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno were big box office champs back in the day. These days, most of those disaster effects are done on computers which you’d think would save money in the budget for amazing casts but here in this 21st century disaster movie, after legitimate stars Johnson and Giamatti as well as next-tier stars Gugino, Daddario, Panjabi and Gruffudd, things get a little thin. Where’s William Holden when you really need him?

Ray (Johnson) is a LAFD rescue helicopter pilot whose devotion to his job increased exponentially when one of his daughters drowned during a rafting trip and he was unable to save her. His remaining daughter Blake (Daddario) adores daddy, but he emotionally shut down after the tragedy and after trying and trying his wife Emma (Gugino) is now his ex-wife and is moving into the palatial mansion of architect Daniel Reddick (Gruffudd) who seems like a genuinely nice guy. When a massive earthquake in Nevada ruptures the Hoover Dam, forcing an all hands on deck call to any rescue helicopter pilots in the neighborhood, Ray has to cancel on a planned road trip to take his baby girl to college. She instead hitches a ride to San Francisco with Daniel. And Emma takes a lunch with his bitchy sister (Minogue).

That’s when Big One #2 hits, in Los Angeles. Ray is forced to save his own wife from a collapsing high rise and when they realize that Big One #3 is going to hit San Francisco at any moment – thanks to earthquake predicting software developed by Dr. Lawrence (Giamatti) whose partner (Lee) was buried alive in the Hoover Dam thing. Now Ray and Emma are heading up to San Francisco to rescue Blake who has been abandoned by the as-it-turns-out cowardly Daniel and has hooked up with a lovestruck Brit named Ben (Johnstone-Burt) and his precocious little brother Ollie (Parkinson).

The effects-heavy San Andreas features lots of buildings and other structures collapsing, people crushed by fallen masonry, a tsunami that takes down the Golden Gate Bridge and Ray driving anything that isn’t nailed down be it on land, in the air or at sea. There’s plenty of shark jumping and WTF moments that will turn your brain into peanut butter if you think about it too hard. My advice is, just don’t think about it and go with the flow.

Other than the adequate and occasionally delightful effects, the big draw here is Johnson. He’s not the most accomplished actor on any given set, but he doesn’t need to be, particularly on movies like this. He gets by on his irresistible charm, his rippling biceps and his genuine heart. You can’t help but like the guy no matter who he’s playing; it will be interesting to see what he does with a villain role in the upcoming comic book hero movie Shazam. Here even at the movie’s most godawful plot moments, he rescues it just by being himself.

Writer Carlton Cuse (Lost) doesn’t deliver his best work here which is kind of a shame; I would have loved to see his ability to draw up fascinating characters in impossible situations transplanted here, but the movie is just so engaging in terms of effects and disaster goodness that it’s hard to really fault Cuse for not bringing on the A game here. This isn’t going to break box office records, nor is it going to redefine the summer blockbuster. While it could have used a more judicious hand in the editing room – dodging falling buildings repetitively gets pretty old after awhile – it nonetheless accomplishes what most of us are looking for this time of year which is a fun ride at the movie theater.

REASONS TO GO: Dwayne Johnson saves the day. Fun summer entertainment.
REASONS TO STAY: Paint-by-numbers plot. Probably a good half hour too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Intense action, disaster mayhem and a few choice curse words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Riddick’s San Francisco headquarters is actually the Bank of America building, the same building (enhanced with optical effects) that was used for the 1974 disaster classic The Towering Inferno.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Earthquake
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Peace, Love and Misunderstanding

Ex-Machina


Domhnall Gleeson holds open a door but Oscar Isaac one-ups him by holding up a wall.

Domhnall Gleeson holds open a door but Oscar Isaac one-ups him by holding up a wall.

(2015) Science Fiction (A24) Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alice Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, Corey Johnson, Claire Selby, Symara A. Templeman, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Tiffany Pisani, Elina Alminas, Chelsea Li, Ramzan Miah, Caitlin Morton, Deborah Rosan, Johanna Thea, Evie Wray. Directed by Alex Garland

What differentiates man from machine? One creates the other, true, but as machines grow more intelligent, able to make decisions without intervention, the difference becomes more and more narrow. We are moving clumsily but ever steadily in the direction of artificial intelligence – machines that can actually think, rationalize and eventually, feel. What will the difference be then?

Caleb (Gleeson) is a code warrior in a cubicle at Blue Book, the world’s most popular search engine who has an extraordinarily mundane life but all that changes when he wins a contest at work to spend a week in the mountain retreat of the reclusive CEO, Nathan (Isaac). The man is something of a personal hero to Caleb; Nathan had, after all, written the essential software that powers his profit-generating search engine when he was but 13 years old. Caleb in that sense is more of a late bloomer.

He’s also feeling a bit awkward when the helicopter taking him to the mansion lets him off a mile or so away; Nathan doesn’t like to be disturbed by the noises of civilization. But Nathan tries to dispel that awkwardness between boss and employee by explaining how hung over he was that morning. Looks like the two are well on the way to a bromance.

But Nathan has ulterior motives and Caleb didn’t just win a random drawing; he was chosen, selected even. You see, Nathan’s home is also something of a research facility with Nathan the sole researcher and what he’s doing is a bit of a doozy – he’s developed the world’s first artificial intelligence, giving it a female form and calling it Ava (Vikander).

And more to the point, Nathan wants Caleb to test Ava to determine if she has a true A.I., one which would revolutionize science as we know it. And Ava seems to be passing with flying colors, able to draw expressively as well as discuss intelligently nearly any subject on earth, and the one subject she wants to study most of all is Caleb who is the only other human she’s seen besides Nathan.

For the most part, Caleb is amazed but he begins to get suspicious. Nathan seems to be drunk nearly all the time and the only other person in the house is the servant girl Kyoko (Mizuno) who speaks no English and is badly treated by Nathan. During one of the frequent power outages, Ava warns Caleb that Nathan is not being straight with him and that he is lying about virtually everything.

Caleb is in a quandary.. On the one hand, he is at ground zero of one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time, but he is not at all convinced that Nathan is completely stable – and there is the possibility that he’s being manipulated. But by whom and to what end?

Intelligent science fiction is a bit of an oxymoron in Hollywood; mostly, the studios keep their sci-fi to action packed space opera adventures, or dark dystopian nightmares that are usually – you guessed it – action packed. When one comes along like this film that gets the grey matter some exercise, it’s a pretty good day right there. That it is entertaining as all get out is an extra added bonus.

Isaac has in a very short time become an actor whose presence in a film is sufficient reason for me to go see it. He has enormous presence and here he plays a charismatic tech billionaire but one with an agenda that he keeps well-hidden, although there are plenty of red flags – the rooms that Caleb isn’t allowed to access, the non-disclosure agreement that Caleb is required to sign right off the bat, the flashes of temperament. Nathan is ostensibly the villain here but he’s no standard mad scientist – although he is the definition of one when all is said and done – but more a misunderstood genius who has become too used to getting whatever whim he has seen to immediately.

Gleeson is not yet to the level of Isaac but he is heading down that road. He was really, really good in About Time and he has that Joe Ordinary quality that makes him instantly identifiable. Sweet-natured and a bit naive, Caleb is puppy-eager to please early on but quickly establishes that he is his own man and he has a genuine moral qualm with keeping Ava locked up with the certain knowledge that his report will lead to Ava being “upgraded” which will essentially wipe clean her memory. The body will live but the soul will be gone.

The special effects are eye-popping. Considering the modest budget that the film had, it’s quite frankly amazing how they pulled off some of the effects shots that they did. Looking at Ava for example, whose mid-section, arms and legs are clear where the servo mechanisms are clearly seen as well as whatever is behind Ava at the time. I spent a lot of the movie trying to figure out how they did it and I imagine it was some sort of motion capture, but that’s generally crazy expensive so I’m probably wrong on that score. The mountain forest backgrounds are pretty spectacular as well.

Garland has pulled off an impressive directing debut (he has been a novelist and a screenwriter for some time, with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later among his impressive credits) in slick fashion and seems poised to become a mover and shaker in the business. His next stint in the director’s chair is rumored to be Annihilation, also a science fiction film this time for Paramount and you can bet that there are a whole lot of studios headed his way with projects ear-marked for him – I wouldn’t be surprised if Marvel and DC will be among them.

So he has a bright future, but the present is what we’re about here. This is one incredible, impressive movie, one you’ll be talking about for weeks and months to come. If you’re a film lover who shies away from sci-fi, trust me this is going to be remembered right up there with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner when it comes to not just great science fiction films but great films in general.

REASONS TO GO: Intelligent throughout. Leads all do stellar work. Impressive special effects.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find the ending a bit of a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: A pretty good amount of foul language, plenty of graphic nudity, a little bit of violence and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Isaac and Gleeson are featured in the upcoming movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A.I.
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Monsters: Dark Continent

From Russia, With Love


Much better than a mint on your pillow.

Much better than a mint on your pillow.

(1963) Spy Thriller (United Artists) Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendariz, Lotte Lenya, Robert Shaw, Bernard Lee, Eunice Gayson, Walter Gotell, Francis de Wolf, George Pastell, Nadja Regin, Lois Maxwell, Aliza Gur, Martine Beswick, Vladek Sheybal, Anthony Dawson, Lisa “Leila” Guiraut, Hasan Ceylan, Peter Bayliss, Desmond Llewelyn. Directed by Terence Young

While most people remember the first James Bond movie (Dr. No) and the third (Goldfinger) the casual moviegoer probably doesn’t remember the second. It was a box office smash, particularly in Britain where it set a box office record in only 82 days of release. Still, it doesn’t get a lot of the love that other Bond films over the years has attained.

James Bond (Connery), MI-6 agent 007 has irritated SPECTRE, a criminal organization set on world domination led by a mysterious Number One (Dawson) who pets a white cat constantly. Planning mastermind Kronsteen (Sheybal) has come up with a plan to steal a Lekter cryptographic device from the Soviet Union and sell it back to them, while exacting revenge on Bond for killing Dr. No in the previous movie. Number One engages Number Three, Rosa Klebb (Lenya) to run the operation. She in turn utilizes SPECTRE agent Red Grant (Shaw) as her primary field operative.

However, the way to get to Bond is to use a beautiful woman and the way to get to the Lekter is to use Tatiana Romanova (Bianchi) to lure in bond with the promise of a Lekter. Of course M (Lee) and Bond know it’s a trap but if they can get their hands on a Lekter, that would be a considerable coup. Bond goes to Istanbul where station chief Ali Kerim Bey (Armendariz) meets him. Grant follows Bond around, wreaking havoc and pitting the Soviets against the Turks and Brits. Romanova rendezvous with Bond and in keeping with – and adding to – a Bond movie tradition, falls head over heels in love with the British spy.

However, SPECTRE is dogging their every move, keeping Bond alive until he can literally deliver the Lekter into their hands. Romanova, who thought she was acting on behalf of the Soviet’s in-house SMERSH agency, is now ready to defect for real. There’ll be Murder on the Orient Express and a thrilling boat chase and of course face-to-face confrontations with both Klebb and Grant before all is said and done. And I could tell you how the movie ends but you don’t have to be a genius to figure out what it’s going to be.

Young was going for a more realistic atmosphere  this time around. While there are gadgets including a fairly useful briefcase and the Lekter itself, this is mostly straight-up action as opposed to later Bond movies. Connery cemented his stardom as it was very apparent that this was a franchise that was going to have staying power – this even before Goldfinger would make it a cultural phenomenon. He’s in so many ways the ultimate male circa 1963. He’s ruggedly handsome, tough as nails, absolute catnip to women and knowledgeable as well as cultured. We mere mortal males couldn’t possibly compete against all that and there were more than a few wives at the time who, seeing this, eyed their husbands with a critical expression. They’re still doing that today, if Da Queen is any indication.

Bianchi is one of the most physically beautiful of the Bond girls, although the former Miss Italy didn’t really have the charisma of the best of them – Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Ursula Andress and Halle Berry come to mind immediately. She’s usually lumped in with Lois Chiles and Olivia D’Abo as one of the less popular girls of the series. I don’t know that it’s fair but she certainly is easy on the eyes.

Llewellyn makes his first appearance as Q, although the head of Q branch is identified by his character’s real name, Major Boothroyd here. Istanbul makes a lovely and exotic backdrop for most of the movie and of course who can go wrong with the most romantic journey in the world, the Orient Express. The winning formula of exotic locations, jaw-dropping beautiful women and clever gadgets really got its start here.

The movie is extremely dated in a lot of ways, particularly in its attitudes towards women who are mostly portrayed as either besotted creatures whose place is in the bedroom and are in need of a manly slap once in awhile, or femme fatales who are out to emasculate if not outright murder any men who come across their path. Even the wise-cracking Moneypenny (Maxwell) really doesn’t get much respect.

Armendariz, who was terminally ill when he made the movie leading Young to film most of his scenes first, is one of the more charming Bond allies and sets the bar for those that would follow. Lenya, best known as the star of her husband Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera and an Oscar nominee for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is a shrill but deadly efficient killer whose fight with Bond is one of the biggest kicks in the movie. Shaw, who went on to greater fame as Captain Quint in Jaws shows off washboard abs and a sardonic wit. Grant is a brilliant agent provocateur that creates a good deal of havoc here and it’s fun watching him work.

Having recently re-watched the movie, I get the sense that while it often gets short shrift among all of the Bond movies, there is reason for it. The movie doesn’t jell as well as most of the Connery Bond films and while Klebb and Grant are fine antagonists, they lack the over-the-top panache of classic Bond villains Goldfinger, Blofeld and Largo.

Those things aside and despite being terribly dated in many ways the movie still remains a terrific piece of entertainment. Certainly those tired of seeing the same three or four Bond films over and over again could do worse than to use this one as a change of pace.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the more reality-based Bonds. Armendariz is charming and Lenya and Shaw both formidable foes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One of the more dated Bond movies.
FAMILY VALUES: Some era-appropriate sensuality and era-appropriate violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daniela Bianchi’s voice was dubbed by Barbara Jefford due to Bianchi’s heavily Italian-accented English. This was also the final Bond film that Ian Fleming got to see as he passed away shortly after it was released.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Ultimate Blu-Ray edition is loaded with a plethora of extras that should satisfy most Bond fans, including a gallery of still images, radio and TV promos, featurettes on the late Harry Saltzman, the exotic filming locations (some of which weren’t quite so exotic), a comparison between Fleming and Raymond Chandler and an interview with Fleming by the CBC.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $78.9M on a $2M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental/streaming), Amazon (streaming only), Vudu (purchase only),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Man Flint
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Top Five