Bright


Not your two ordinary cops.

(2017) Fantasy (Netflix) Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Edgar Ramirez, Lucy Fry, Veronica Ngo, Alex Meraz, Happy Anderson, Ike Barinholtz, Dawn Olivieri, Matt Gerald, Margaret Cho, Joseph Piccuirro, Brad William Henke, Jay Hernandez, Enrique Murciano, Scarlet Spencer, Andrea Navedo, Kenneth Cho, Bobby Naderi, Carlos Linares, Bunnie Rivera. Directed by David Ayer

 

This Netflix film, released last Christmas, is a perfect example of the dichotomy between critics and audiences. Film critics hammered the film, calling it confusing and preposterous. Audiences loved it, making it one of the most watched non-theatrical movies ever. Netflix called for a sequel which is likely to be on the streaming giant’s front page in two to three years.

Smith, one of the most appealing actors in Hollywood for the past two decades, stars as a bitter and curmudgeonly L.A. cop who has a new partner that he doesn’t want. That sounds like the plot to dozens of cop buddy movies but this one’s a little different – it turns out his partner, Nick (Edgerton) is not just a different ethnicity. He’s an Orc – a completely different species.

The two are on the trail of a magic wand so powerful that whoever wields it can essentially bend the world to their will. Fortunately, only a select few can actually wield the wand; these worthies are called “Brights” and they only appear once every generation or so. Also on the trail of the wand is a bunch of corrupt cops, a gang of Orcs (who are portrayed here essentially as low-riding gangbangers) and an evil elf named Leilah (Rapace). Assisting Nick and Daryl (the Smith character’s name) is a less corrupt elf named Tikka (Fry).

There are some pretty decent effects here and Smith has never been so badass as he is in this film. I’m not kidding when I say that this is his best performance in a decade. Daryl walks around in a perpetually foul mood, like there’s a rock in his shoe he can’t quite get rid of or he has a particularly painful case of hemorrhoids. Either way, he’s far from cheerful; he’s like the anti-Fresh Prince.

It should come as no surprise that Max Landis wrote this; one of the things he does extremely well as a writer is world-building. The world of Bright is believable despite the mash-up of high fantasy and urban crime drama. There is a lot of detail and one gets a lot more detail that didn’t make it into the script. This is the kind of thing that can turn a single picture into a franchise.

David Ayer is the perfect director for this. Not so much for the fantasy elements although he is just fine with those but there are few directors who intuitively understand the workings of an urban crime drama like Ayer, whose previous credits include Training Day (as a writer), End of Watch, Harsh Times and Street Kings.

I don’t understand all the critical hate; this is really a good movie but I suppose this kind of fantasy mash-up isn’t for everybody. Still, I found it not just solidly entertaining but actually absorbing. This is one I wouldn’t mind seeing regularly (I’ve already watched it several times since it debuted). As far as I’m concerned, I only wish that this movie had a more widespread theatrical run; I would have liked to have seen it on a big movie theater screen. Ah well, if wishes were horses…there would undoubtedly be a few of them trotting around in the world of Bright.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers do an excellent job of world-building. Will Smith is at his badass best in this one.
REASONS TO STAY: The final action sequence is a bit disappointing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, fantasy violence and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With a $90 million production budget, this is the most expensive Netflix movie to date. Also, it is the first Netflix film to generate a sequel which was signed shortly before the movie was released to the streaming service.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews: Metacritic: 29/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alien Nation
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Three Identical Strangers

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

Bad Moms


Party girls never die; they just put on mom jeans.

Party girls never die; they just put on mom jeans.

(2016) Comedy (STX) Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Christina Applegate, Jada Pinkett Smith, Annie Mumolo, Oona Laurence, Emjay Anthony, David Walton, Clark Duke, Jay Hernandez, Wendell Pierce, Leah McKendrick, Megan Ferguson, Lyle Brocato, Wanda Sykes, Cade Cooksey, J.J. Watt, Ann Mahoney, Samantha Beaulieu, Kelly Lind. Directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore

 

Motherhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be these days. The expectations that are put on the shoulders of moms are simply unrealistic. Not only do they have to keep their kids days filled with various activities, they have to balance a career, the needs of their husband, working out, bake sales and PTA meetings with the needs of their parents and siblings as well. Something has got to give in these cases and it’s usually the women trying to be all things to all people.

Amy Mitchell (Kunis) has about reached her breaking point. First of all, she’s caught her husband Mike (Walton) having an online affair. Her marriage has essentially been an empty shell for years so he doesn’t complain too much when she kicks his ass out. Now, however, she has to go the single mom route which is no easy task for a woman who is perpetually late to everything.

Her daughter Jane (Laurence) is stressing herself out trying to make the soccer team which looks good on the transcripts when applying to the Ivy League schools Jane so desperately wants to attend. The Queen Bee of the PTA and poster child for perfect moms, Gwendolyn (Applegate) gives her askance looks, directing passive aggressive taunts her way. And she can’t get any respect at work.

So Amy has a meltdown. Right in the middle of a PTA meeting, no less. After receiving an extensive list of things not to bring to the upcoming bake sale, Amy just loses it. She is done trying to be a good mom. It’s time to be a bad mom for once. She goes to a bar and is surprised to find a couple of her fellow moms there; single mom Carla (Hahn) who seems to be potentially coming on to anything male, and breathless put-upon Kiki (Bell) who is sweet but overwhelmed with a husband who treats her like a house cleaner. The three ladies bond and begin a campaign of their own.

At first it’s all fun and games; Amy goes out and begins to have a life again. She forces her kids to make their own breakfasts and do their own homework rather than doing it for them. She goes to movies and to brunches with her friends. She starts to see a hunky widower (Hernandez) that all the women in school are lusting after. She quits her job and it isn’t long before her boss (Duke) is begging her to come back.

But Gwendolyn and her Gwendo-lettes (Smith, Mumolo) take this as an affront, a challenge to Gwendolyn’s authority and absolute rule of the PTA. Gwendolyn begins to attack and she targets Amy’s daughter, who is high strung enough as it is. Mama bears don’t take kindly to having their cubs threatened and Amy decides to take on Gwendolyn where it would hurt the most; she runs against her for the PTA presidency.

This is a raunchy comedy from the folks that brought us The Hangover and its sequels. And yes, in some ways it’s a distaff version of that series but rather than male bonding which has been done to death and even female bonding, which has also had its share of movies made about it, this one is about the expectations piled onto the modern mom and there is certainly room for a movie on that subject. I do think we pile unreasonable demands on mothers these days and while this film focuses on upper middle class helicopter moms, similar demands are made on women from less comfortable economic strata.

For this movie to work, it needs to have some chemistry between the leads and to be honest, it isn’t quite as consistent as I would have liked. Hahn is a force of nature and absolutely dominates the movie; Kunis is an excellent actress but in a lot of ways she’s overwhelmed by Hahn’s personality. Bell is almost under the radar, her character too mousy and too innocuous to really make much of an impression.

At times the movie doesn’t really seem to address real life. For example, most of the moms that are in the film are stay at home moms and that just doesn’t jive with current stats; most moms are also in the workforce. It’s freakin’ expensive to raise a family and most families can’t do that on a single salary unless that salary is six figures or more. The helicopter mom phenomenon isn’t one solely limited to the upper classes.

By the same token, I don’t think it’s of particular shock value that women can be just as dirty in their behavior as men. Women, after all, do like and crave sex as well as men. Why this should be a shocking fact in 2016 is beyond me. There are those complaining that the movie doesn’t have to be raunchy, that woman can be funny without it. This is quite true but the same goes for men as well and serves to indicate that there is a double standard on both sides of the gender equation. Men and woman can both be raunchy or not; it makes no difference what the gender is. What matters is if you find the movie funny, or not. In my case, I found it funny enough to recommend as one of the better comedies this summer which frankly isn’t saying much, but hopefully this will also spawn a franchise. Lord knows that the ladies deserve one.

REASONS TO GO: The film addresses some real issues.  It’s really funny in a lot of different ways.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie isn’t as revolutionary as the filmmakers think it is. In some ways, it’s not very realistic.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of profanity and sexuality, some full frontal nudity, as well as drug and alcohol content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The closing credits feature the main actresses having conversations about motherhood with their real life moms. All of those actresses are moms themselves.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daddy Day Care
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Suicide Squad

Max


Max prefers kidfingers over ladyfingers.

Max prefers kidfingers over ladyfingers.

(2015) Family Drama (Warner Brothers/MGM) Thomas Haden Church, Josh Wiggins, Luke Kleintank, Lauren Graham, Robbie Amell, Mia Xitlali, Dejon LaQuake, Jay Hernandez, Owen Harn, Joseph Julian Soria, Raymond W. Beal, Edgar Arreola, Jason Davis, Pete Burns, Miles Mussenden, Joan Q. Scott, Ian Gregg, Andrene Ward-Hammond. Directed by Boaz Yakin

]It is a Hollywood truism that it is never a good idea to work as an actor with children and animals, unless you like getting upstaged. Sometimes, of course, it’s unavoidable – families must have their films and they are often crawling with kids and pets.

Max is a dog working for the military. He and his handler, Kyle Wincott (Amell) are in Afghanistan, where Max faithfully sniffs out weapon caches for the Taliban and alerts the platoon when there’s trouble. However, all of Max’s training can’t save Kyle from a Taliban ambush.

Back home in Texas, Kyle’s family is living day to day; his ex-marine Dad Ray (Church) bears his wounds that he got in Desert Storm and runs a storage facility. His wife Pam (Graham) relies on her faith in God to get her eldest son back home safely and to keep the peace between Ray and their youngest son Justin (Wiggins). Justin is at an age where he is, quite frankly, a jerk – like most teenage boys. He has little or no respect for either parent (less for his demanding Dad than his Mom), plays videogames all day long and has no interest in spending his summer working for his Dad who really needs the help. He is also burning bootlegged copies of videogames that haven’t come out yet for a local hoodlum named Emilio (Soria), who is the cousin of his best friend Chuy (LaQuake).

The Wincott family is devastated by the news of Kyle’s passing. It is Max, however, who is the most inconsolable. His relationship with Kyle and devotion to him is such that he is of no use back in the field; he suffers from PTSD (and yes, dogs can be afflicted by it) and won’t let any other handler near him. The Army ships him back to Texas where he was first trained to see if anyone can deal with him. They bring the dog to Kyle’s funeral, where he breaks hearts by running up to the casket, pawing at it and with a piteous whimper lies down at the foot of it. Why don’t you go get a tissue now, I’m sure you need it.

Anyway, the only person Max responds to is the sullen Justin. As it turns out, Justin is beginning to respond to Max, too – after his mom forces him to take care of the dog on his own. It would seem an insurmountable obstacle for Justin, who doesn’t know the first thing about caring for a dog. Fortunately for him, another cousin of Chuy – this one not involved in anything illegal – named Carmen (Xitlali) – has raised pit bulls in her family for ages, so she agrees to help Justin out. The two start to take a shine to each other.

However, things get complicated when Kyle’s buddy – Tyler Harne (Kleintank) returns from duty early and gives Ray an account of Kyle’s death that puts the blame squarely on Max. Ray is all for putting a bullet in the dog’s head after that but cooler heads prevail. Max clearly doesn’t like Harne – he gets upset whenever he’s close by, barking and trying to break his chain to get at the former Marine. Justin thinks Harne is up to something. When Justin’s suspicions prove correct, Harne has Max taken away by animal control to be put down and when Ray finally figures out that his younger son has been right all along, kidnaps Ray to hand over to the drug cartel that he is selling weapons that he liberated in Afghanistan to with the express instructions to take his buddy’s dad to Mexico and make him disappear permanent-like. It’s up to Max to escape doggie death row and aid Justin in finding his dad.

I liked the first part of the premise – bringing a military dog home and helping the dog heal from his PTSD, while simultaneously helping the family heal from the grief of their loss. Had they stuck to that story this might have been an excellent family film. Unfortunately, they add the whole far-fetched junior detective angle that just turns the movie into an Afterschool Special and not a particularly good one.

What saves the movie is Max himself; the dog is absolutely wonderful, the kind of dog that epitomizes why the species is Man’s Best Friend. One can see why the military and law enforcement both rely heavily on dogs, particularly those of Max’s breed. Max will definitely tug on your heartstrings and in a movie like this one, frankly that’s his job.

I didn’t talk much about Carmen in the story summary but let me tell you, Mia Xitlali may have an unusual last name but she also has unusual talent to back it up. She’s absolutely a knockout in the looks department but she has plenty of screen presence to make her a talent to watch out for, so long as she doesn’t go down the Selena Gomez path. Latin actresses don’t often get really juicy roles but hopefully one will come this lady’s way – I know she’ll make the most of it when one does. Mark my words, this girl has a future ahead of her.

Wiggins, who was impressive in the far better Hellion, is less so here. Mostly, he’s the victim of awful writing; Justin is so sullen and so angry at the world that it is absolutely excruciating to spend time with him. Sure, this might be more typical of teenage boy behavior – and I helped raise one as well as having been one, so I know they can be real jerks – but most teen boys, even my son, had redeeming qualities. Eventually Max turns Justin around but by the time he does, you’re pretty much already over Justin. Sadly, Yakin gave Wiggins some cringe-inducing dialogue to speak and you can almost see Wiggins wincing when he says it.

I get that this isn’t meant to be a work of art but it could have been so much better. I think the story that takes up most of the first part of the movie is far more compelling than the Disney Channel detective show that makes up the second. I wish Yakin had trusted his main story to carry him through although to be fair, it’s quite possible (and even likely) that the studio may have had something to do with adding the kids save the day second half. In addition, when a filmmaker casts actors the caliber of Graham and Church and then gives them little to do but look stern or sad, that’s a bad sign. Still, those looking for family entertainment that isn’t animated in a year in which it seems like the only good option for families is Inside Out could do worse than seeing this as a break from multiple viewings of Pixar.

REASONS TO GO: Max is terrific. Some nice cinematography. Xitlali shows some legitimate talent.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedantic story. Church and Graham criminally underused. Justin may be a “typical” teen but far too abrasive to get much audience sympathy.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence and peril, disturbing war sequence and some thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Five dogs play Max, who is a Belgian Malinois (not a Belgian Shepard as is at least once remarked upon in the movie) which are a breed used often by the military and police; the primary canine actor, whose name is Carlos (great name!) also appeared in the movie Project Almanac.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bolt
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Meet Me in Montenegro

Takers


Takers

You can tell these cats are cool because of the blue lighting. Really.

(2010) Action (Screen Gems) Matt Dillon, Idris Elba, Paul Walker, Zoe Saldana, Hayden Christensen, Chris Brown, Michael Ealy, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Jay Hernandez, Steve Harris, Jonathan Schaech, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Glynn Turman, Nicholas Turturro, Gideon Emery.  Directed by John Luessenhop

There are those who go through life wishing they could have things, and there are others who simply take what they want. There are those who admire such people and wish they had the brains and the cojones to do the same.

Detectives Jack Welles (Dillon) and Eddie Hatcher (Hernandez) are on the trail of a group of bank robbers who pull of daring heists that operate like clockwork. Welles knows that he’s after some smart, competent men who know how to plan down to the smallest detail.

The crew is led by Gordon Cozier (Elba), a smart, dapper sort who has a sister (Jean-Baptiste) who’s addicted to crack. He is anxious to get out of the business while he still can so he can take care of his sister. Also in the crew is Jesse Attica (Brown) and his brother Jake (Ealy), A.J. (Christensen) and John Rahway (Walker). Missing in action is Ghost (T.I.) who was one of the leaders in the crew before he got caught during a botched robbery and imprisoned. Now he’s out and even though his ex-girlfriend Lily (Saldana) is engaged to Jesse, he is letting bygones be bygones.

In fact, he has a plan for a heist that should bring enough money in so that they can all retire. It’s an armored car heist, a very daring and seemingly impossible one. However, with Ghost’s help, the crew manages to pull off the heist although not exactly as planned. However, taking the money is not the whole crime. Getting away with it is what counts and with the cops hot on their tails and double crosses awaiting within the crew, who is going to be left standing when all the money is taken?

This is meant to be a slick, modern heist thriller with an urban cast. It can’t be denied that the movie looks stylish. However, the script is incredibly derivative with elements of many other heist films coming into play, The Italian Job coming chiefly to mind.

There are also way too many characters who come and go throughout the movie. Even the crew seems terribly interchangeable and some members redundant. It’s difficult to keep track of who’s who without a scorecard, and at the end of the day the movie would have been better if some of the parts had been consolidated.

What’s worse is that none of the characters that are here really stand out. Elba comes close as Gordon; he has a natural charisma that shines through a part that is essentially a stock character. His relationship with his sister is one of the elements in the movie that actually works; the interrelationship with the gang is largely forced and seems to come straight out of a music video.

The palate here is in soft hues and neon bright; there is also an overreliance on the hand-held cam which sabotages the filmmakers’ attempt to look slick and cool. There are moments however when the film succeeds and that is mostly in the action sequences.

The armored car heist is spectacular and is the best part of the movie by far. The fact that it doesn’t go off like clockwork only adds to the thrill factor. There are several chase scenes and fight scenes that are also effectively staged, although a hotel shoot-out with slow motion tumbles and bullets flying looks way too 90s for my tastes.

This is one of those movies that is all concept. It could have been a decent movie if the filmmakers (and likely, the studio) had taken more chances and tried to be a little more of its own film but sadly, there seemed to be more attention made to attracting box office numbers than making a good movie. In that sense, you get what you pay for.

WHY RENT THIS: Some really impressive action sequences.. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many characters who are too interchangeable; a smaller crew would have benefitted the film. Nobody really becomes the film’s center although Elba comes close. Too much style over substance.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence action-style, some nudity and sexuality and  a fair share of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author Stephen King called the armored car heist sequence the best action sequence of 2010.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: With a cast this heavy with rappers, you know there’s going to be a rap video on the extra menu.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $69.1M on a $32M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Bless the Child

Quarantine


Quarantine

Jennifer Carpenter is just glad it's not Dexter who's stalking her.

(2008) Found Footage Horror (Screen Gems) Jennifer Carpenter, Jay Hernandez, Columbus Short, Greg Germann, Steve Harris, Dania Ramirez, Rade Sherbedgia, Jonathon Schaech. Directed by John Erick Dowdle

There is a certain horror of being trapped in an enclosed, locked space with flesh-eating lunatics. However, the possibility of becoming one yourself only heightens the terror.

Cub television reporter Angela Vidal (Carpenter) has a relatively soft assignment; to spend a shift with the night crew of a Los Angeles fire station. She flirts with the handsome paramedics Jake (Hernandez) and George (Schaech) and banters with her cameraman Scott (Harris). She goes with them on what appears to be a routine call; an elderly resident of an apartment complex has been injured and is acting erratically.

They go on the call only to find something extraordinary. The elderly resident is far from a helpless old lady; she attacks them with nails and teeth, seriously injuring one of the firefighters and killing a police officer. When they call for help, things get even weirder – the house is locked down by the CDC and anyone who tries to leave is shot, as in dead.

It turns out that there are more infected than just the old lady and soon the residents, including the landlord (Sherbedgia), a vet (White) and a badass (Short), are fighting for their lives and trying to find a way out – if there is one.

This is the remake of a Spanish film called [REC] and is similar to films like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield in that it is filmed with a single hand-held camera and purports to be “found footage,” raw footage of an actual event. The appeal of these to audiences is that they create a certain buzz and people are fascinated with the concept of footage of events that have been kept secret from them; the appeal to studios is that they’re incredibly cheap to produce and can be extremely profitable.

Dowdle, who did a similarly-themed film in The Poughkeepsie Journal, does a great job in making the tension high throughout the film, basically from the time they arrive at the apartment complex. The issue is that if you watch [REC] as I did you will see that the movie is virtually a shot by shot remake in most of the important aspects. Many of the best parts of Quarantine were lifted whole cloth from [REC]. I would have liked to have seen a little more creativity on that score.

Of course, it can be argued that this just shows the good taste of the filmmaker and I can’t argue that. I will also grant you that the changes that Dowdle did make were all improvements, without exception. The main problem with the film is that other than Schaech and Hernandez, the cast is pretty bland. Carpenter, who was excellent as the sister in “Dexter,” is miscast as the reporter. She doesn’t have the vanity or the look of a local television reporter; she is more tomboyish. The role requires her to become terrified to the point of panic and she’s never really convincing in that light. That may be a little bit of “Dexter” holdover; I will willingly cop to that.

Still, this is a nice example of a found footage horror film. It’s a little more slickly made than [REC] but to be honest, I liked the Spanish film better (the cast was far more convincing although the explanation in that film for the events bordered on the ridiculous) and would recommend that above this one; however it’s a given that it’s much more difficult to find so if all you can locate is this one, you won’t be disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Tension is nicely executed here. Horrific images are over-the-top and well done.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A nearly shot-for-shot remake of [REC]. Although Schaech and Hernandez make fine firefighters, the rest of the cast is mostly forgettable.

FAMILY VALUES: Extreme violence and gore, along with a good deal of profanity. There’s also an extremely tense and terrifying atmosphere that may be too intense for the impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is no musical score in the movie, highly unusual for a Hollywood film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41.3M on a $12M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Treeless Mountain

Nothing Like the Holidays


Nothing Like the Holidays
John Leguizamo gets the uncomfortable feeling that he is the object of their laughter.

(2008) Holiday Dramedy (Overture) Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo, Vanessa Ferlito, Freddie Rodriguez, Debra Messing, Jay Hernandez, Melonie Diaz, Mercedes Ruehl, Luis Guzman, Elizabeth Pena. Directed by Alfredo De Villa

Families at Christmastime can be very complicated indeed. We all bring our joy to the table, but also our problems. The holidays can be a time of great stress, but also of great catharsis – regardless of what the background might be.

Eduardo Rodriguez (Molina) is overjoyed that his children are coming home for the holidays. Eduardo owns a bodega in the Humboldt Park section of Chicago and is proudly Puerto Rican, as is his wife Anna (Pena). Of course, each of his children has issues of their own – would it be a holiday movie if they didn’t?

Jesse (Rodriguez) is recently home from Iraq and is wounded in ways that aren’t necessarily visible on the surface. His girlfriend (Diaz) has moved on, although he seems stuck in some odd half-life. His father is very eager to hand over the bodega to his son, which Jesse is not so eager to do. He feels a little trapped and lost and doesn’t know quite where to march from here. Mauricio (Leguizamo) has married Sarah (Messing), a Jewish girl who is constantly butting heads with Anna, who wants nothing more than to have a grandchild and Sarah is pretty much the only shot at the moment. Mauricio is concerned that his wife may be more in love with her high-powered career than with him.

Finally there’s Roxanna (Ferlito) who has been pursuing an acting career in Hollywood with considerably less success than she has been letting on to her family. She has a thing for neighborhood friend Ozzy (Hernandez) and he has one for her but circumstances seem to conspire to keep them apart. All these issues become so much less important when Anna announces during Christmas Eve dinner that she is leaving Eddy because he has been cheating on her. Despite his protestations to the contrary, she knows he is talking regularly with a woman on his cell phone. That must mean he’s cheating, right?

There’s also the most stubborn old tree in the history of cinema in their front yard that defies every attempt to pull it from the yard where it blocks Anna’s view as well as a vendetta that Ozzy has for the guy who murdered his brother that he intends to bring to a climax that very night. Not exactly the Christmas spirit, right?

If you like movies like The Family Stone in which an extended family gathers for the holidays to hash out their problems and draw closer together in the process, you’ll love this. Having it be in a Puerto Rican family is like icing on the cake. The Puerto Rican culture has been long neglected by Hollywood, so it’s refreshing to see it addressed here. While I wasn’t familiar with all the specific traditions that are mentioned or displayed here, this isn’t so much a learning experience as it is an opportunity to spend some time with a specific family. In many ways, their ethnicity is immaterial; it’s about how they pull together when they need to. From that standpoint, they could be any family, anywhere.

There are some fine actors in this ensemble, notably Molina, Leguizamo, Messing and Pena, but Hernandez, Ferlito and Rodriguez are also impressive. Like many ensemble movies of this type, each of these actors gets only a limited amount of screen time so none really stand out (with the exception of Molina) but each of them make the best of the time they have.

There won’t be any revelations you don’t see coming or any resolutions that are unexpected. That’s all right. When it comes to holiday movies, success is measured by the warmth in the heart that is generated rather than the insights that are revealed. By that yardstick, Nothing Like the Holidays is a solid success. Holiday movies fulfill a specific function which is to put people in the holiday spirit and this does that quite nicely. If it’s an analysis of the Puerto Rican experience, this isn’t really it but if you’re looking for a cup of eggnog, there’s plenty to go around here.

WHY RENT THIS: Heartwarming in the tradition of family ensemble holiday movies like Home for the Holidays, This Christmas and The Family Stone.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script relies too much on holiday clichés and forced family dynamics.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the dialogue references drug usage and sexual issues; however, most of the movie is pretty benign for families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Pena play the parents of John Leguizamo, in reality they are only nine and three years older than he is, respectively.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: This was apparently quite a fun movie to make, as the Blooper reel and cast reunion featurette show.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie might just have made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues!