Josh Brolin is just happy he's not on Mt. Everest right now.

Josh Brolin is just happy he’s not on Mt. Everest right now.

(2015) Drama (Lionsgate) Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cedillo, Hank Rogerson, Bernardo P. Saracino, Maximilliano Hernandez, Kevin Wiggins, Edgar Arreola, Kim Larrichio, Jesus Nevarez-Castillo, Dylan Kenin, John Trejo, Marty Lindsey, Alex Knight, Sarah Minnich. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

One of the casualties of any war is human decency and nowhere is that more apparent than in America’s war on drugs. Of course, the enemy that’s being battled – the Latin American drug cartels – are particularly vicious. How do you fight an enemy who will go to any lengths to win – beyond the pale of anything that could even be called human?

FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt) leads a raid on a home that may be owned by a high ranking member of a Mexican cartel in Arizona. There she, her partner Reggie (Kaluuya) and her boss Dave Jennings (Garber) discover horrors that boggle the imagination, as well as a nasty surprise. Her work on this raid gets the attention of Matt Graver (Brolin), a breezy government agent theoretically with the Department of Justice but that part is pretty murky. He’s putting together a cross-organizational team to take down one of the cartels that’s been making lethal inroads to American cities and he wants Kate on it.

Also on the team is Alejandro (del Toro), a mysterious figure whose allegiance could be to anybody on either side of the conflict. In going after Manuel Diaz (Saracino) whose brother Silvio (Hernandez) runs the cartel, they’ll have to make a dangerous prisoner transfer from Mexico to the U.S. that will lead to a deadly shootout, traverse a drug runner tunnel with numerous gunmen guarding its secrets, and eventually lead to the discovery that neither side in this war has clean hands – and maybe that’s the only way to fight it.

Villeneuve, who is probably best known in this country for Prisoners (although Incendies is in my opinion a much better film) is enormously talented and has nearly unlimited potential. Every film he makes is at least interesting, and a few are stellar. This is one of the latter; he has an economy of camera movement as well as of image; everything is important and nothing goes to waste. He knows also how to use silence; some of the best moments in the film have little or no dialogue.

Blunt who has been on the radar since Edge of Tomorrow further cements her standing as the thinking person’s action star. She isn’t the invincible killing machine that is a Schwarzenegger or a side-of-the-mouth quipster that is a Willis; instead, she’s a little vulnerable (being nearly strangled by Jon Bernthal as a corrupt cop midway through the film) and a little fragile (there are times that she literally is shaking after things go south), yet she’s as tough as nails and at the end of the film has a moment in which she asserts that she does have control – and chooses to go her own way. It is one of those silent moments I spoke of earlier that is used to great effect.

Del Toro, who often gets slotted behind Javier Bardem when it comes to Latin actors, is magnificent here, a brooding presence whose gentle voice belies an inner rage which is kept under wraps until the very end. His motivations also remain murky until we discover what is driving him late in the film. Brolin, who has been appearing in supporting roles in some very good films lately, adds another solid performance to his resume.

This is one of the better-written films of the year, one in which Villeneuve is able to thrive with. He creates a tension that begins from the amazing and shocking opening sequence and never lets up until the final frames. Sicario defines intensity pretty much, from the actions of the onscreen characters to the offscreen political aspect.

The war on drugs continues apace in a non-fiction world where bad things happen to good people and those who dare to stand up to the cartels are made gruesome examples of – wee see some of that here. It is a world that those in the Southwest are terrified might make its way up into the Estados Unidos and with good reason. Walls may make it difficult for illegals to emigrate here but it won’t keep the cartels out.

This is part political thriller, part police procedural and part action movie. There is likely to be some Oscar consideration for it down the line but to what degree remains to be seen. It wouldn’t surprise me if it gets some Best Picture consideration come February. There are a lot of movies to come out before anyone hands out statuettes but one thing is for certain; this is a feature worthy of any serious filmgoers attention.

REASONS TO GO: Intense and riveting. Extremely well-written. Strong performances from Blunt, Brolin and del Toro.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing feels a bit jumpy.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, some fairly gruesome images and a whole lot of expletives.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The thermal vision scenes were actually shot with a thermal vision camera and the optics were not added in post-production.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
NEXT: He Named Me Malala

Shaun the Sheep Movie

Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

(2015) Animated Feature (Lionsgate) Starring the voices of Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes,  Omid Djalili, Richard Webber, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate, Jack Paulson, Sean Connolly, Henry Burton, Dhimant Vyas, Sophie Laughton, Nia Medi James, Stanley Unwin, Nick Park. Directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak

Variety asserts that Shaun the Sheep is comparable to the legendary French comedian Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot and while that is a bit of a stretch, I can at least see where the reviewer is coming from. Certainly Shaun is about as loquacious as the French comedian.

Shaun the Sheep (Fletcher) made his first appearance in a Wallace and Gromit short before getting a series of 7-minute shorts of his own, more than a hundred of them most of which have been broadcast on TV. This is the first full-length feature and it follows the storyline of most of the shorts, to wit Shaun and his fellow sheep try to get out of doing any farm work, having to outwit the dog Bitzer (Sparkes) and the unnamed balding Farmer (Sparkes). The shorts are clever and cute.

This time, however, things get a little out of hand when after lulling the Farmer to sleep by jumping over a fence until he nods off, they store him in what the Brits call a caravan and we call a trailer. When Bitzer gets wind of the deception, he goes to wake up his master, only to send the Caravan on a beeline for the city – London although not specifically named. Upon arrival the farmer is bonked on the head and loses all his memories. Having no ID on him, he wanders the streets, trying to find some sort of clue as to who he is and what he does for a living. He ends up mistakenly figuring out that he’s a hairdresser and uses the clippers to sheer the heads of his celebrity clients, recreating the same sorts of styles he used to give his sheep.

Shaun knows he needs to go retrieve the Farmer so he heads out to the City, only to be followed by the rest of the flock and Bitzer. A super-zealous animal control catcher named Trumper (Djalili) is on the prowl for Shaun and his friends and eventually captures Shaun and Bitzer, imprisoning them in a dog shelter which looks much more like death row. There they meet the world’s ugliest dog who has no hope of being adopted. Their new friend helps them escape and eventually hide out, where Shaun comes up with a last-ditch plan to get their Farmer back home to the farm – and put everything to right.

I have to admit that my hopes weren’t high for this, as it is the first Aardman animation feature in awhile to arrive with little or no fanfare and quite frankly, it may very well be one of the best things the studio has ever done. One thing I’d worried about is that there is absolutely no dialogue – the animals communicate with gesture, look and an occasional bleat or woof. Humans speak in an unintelligible gibberish that puts the “WAH WAH WAH” spoken by the adults in the Peanuts cartoons to shame.

There is obviously a great deal of affection for the rustic way of life; the farmhouse is one of those beautiful old stone farmhouses that dot the English countryside, the meadow is beautiful and even the “work” that is done doesn’t seem all that taxing. The bucolic setting and the obvious affection the sheep feel for the farmer and vice versa is kind of moving. You would think that a farmer who has grown to middle age without a human partner might get unutterably lonely but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

Like most of Aardman’s animations, this is clever as all get out. It certainly seems to be aimed at a very young audience, certainly toddlers on up but unlike a lot of American entertainment aimed at the very young, this is just as easily digested by adult viewers. It’s very short as you might expect (barely over an hour) and not for a moment did I ever feel bored or talked down to. The opening sequence, done as a Super 8 film of the Farmer as a young man with Shaun as a baby and Bitzer as a puppy establishes the mood; it’s a rather sweet sequence and while critics have praised it, some might find it too treacly. Those who don’t like cute movies for kids would be well-advised to move on.

The charm here is undeniable and quite frankly although it doesn’t have the lofty aspirations of Inside Out or the epic setting of Minions this certainly belongs with those two films as the very best family films of the summer. Some families might be unaware of the character or the movie, but this is one I’d highly recommend for an afternoon out at the movies with the kids.

REASONS TO GO: Super charming. Clever like all Aardman films. Good for adults and kids alike.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little over-sentimental in places. Those who don’t like kid movies that are cute will not like this.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Twenty animators worked on the film, each producing about two seconds of footage per day.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
NEXT: Mr. Holmes

The Age of Adaline

Blake Lively is lovely.

Blake Lively is lovely.

(2015) Romantic Fantasy (Lionsgate) Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Harrison Ford, Ellen Burstyn, Kathy Baker, Amanda Crew, Lynda Boyd, Hugh Ross (voice), Richard Harmon, Fulvio Cecere, Anjali Jay, Hiro Kanagawa, Peter J. Gray, Izabel Peace, Cate Richardson, Jane Craven, Noel Johansen, Aaron Craven, Primo Allon, Darren Dolynski, Alison Wandzura. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger

Immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For one thing, you get to watch all your friends and family grow old and die as you remain young and vibrant. You also get to worry about secret government agents kidnapping you and turning you into a lab rat. After all, when you have eternal life everybody’s going to want what you’ve got. I would imagine that eternal life would be exceedingly lonely.

Adaline Bowman (Lively) doesn’t have to imagine; she knows. Born at the turn of the century in the San Francisco area. Widowed at 29 (in the early 1930s) with a daughter Flemming (Pearce – Age 5/Richardson – Age 20/Burstyn) to raise on her own, she is involved in a freak car accident during a freak snowfall in Northern California in which a freak lightning bolt hits her freakin’ car after she skids into a stream and dies of hypothermia or drowning, take your pick. All this freakishness serves to stop her from aging and she remains eternally 29.

At first this is just a cause of amusement; how is it possible that Adaline looks young enough to be her daughter’s sister? Then as her contemporaries grow into middle age and she doesn’t, the wrong word is whispered into the wrong ear. This being the McCarthy era, some firm men in dark suits come calling. Adaline manages to escape but realizes that she has to stay on the run for the rest of the life. Move constantly, then change identities once a decade or so.

Still, she can’t stay away from her beloved San Francisco, working as an archivist at the San Francisco Public Library at the tail end of her current incarnation as Jenny Larson. She has only one friend – a blind pianist (Boyd) who doesn’t realize the woman she believes to be middle aged is actually still in the full flower of her youth. Only her daughter Flemming, now in her 80s and considering a move to a retirement home, knows Adaline’s secret. Other than those two and a series of dogs, Adaline has formed no attachments to anyone; any attempt at love is eventually rebuffed although she came close during the 1960s.

However, on New Year’s Eve she meets Ellis (Huisman), a hunky dot com millionaire who loves books and is really, really into Adaline. At first she repulses all his attempts to flirt and to ask her out. When he plays a little dirty, threatening to revoke a donation to the library, she relents. Soon the two of them are sleeping together although she knows that in a short time she’ll be leaving but she is drawn to him like a moth to the flame. When he takes her up to Sonoma to meet his parents, he discovers that his dad (Ford) is 1960s jilted guy, who is now celebrating his 40th wedding anniversary to Ellis’ mom (Baker). Awk-ward.  Especially since he recognizes her.

So Adaline is ready to run again, but she is beginning to tire of the chase. All she wants to do is stay in one place, with one guy and Ellis looks to be that guy. But how can she stay with someone she is going to outlive…by a LOT? Is it truly better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all when you’re immortal?

The premise here is an interesting one but by and large it is wasted. Being an ageless immortal must have an upside as well as a downside but all we really see here is the down, and perhaps to appeal to a certain kind of audience, the movie centers on Adaline’s romantic history. We see none of what other things she does, what careers she undertakes, the things she witnesses. It is as if the filmmakers figure that the only thing that matters in a woman’s life is for her to fall in love. Kind of myopic and maybe borderline misogynistic when you think about it.

For that reason Adaline is written as a cold and distant woman, rarely speaking in a tone that isn’t devoid of warmth or possessed of any humanity whatsoever. Therefore the brunt of why this movie doesn’t work falls squarely on Blake Lively’s shoulders and the sad part is that it really isn’t her fault. She is given direction to be icy and unreachable – so she is that to the audience as well. Lively is one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood and she has shown that she is capable of being a charismatic onscreen presence in other roles but because of the coldness that she is made to possess here, rather than generating audience sympathy for her plight she actually repels it.

There are other problems besides Lively, most of which I’ve already mentioned. There are a couple of plot lapses; for example, Adaline theoretically changes her identity every ten years and yet Ellis’ dad recognizes her and calls her Adaline. So she used her own name one decade just for kicks? Doesn’t seem to be in her character.

Fortunately, Ford is here to give a sympathetic performance that will remind you why he has been for 35 years one of the most popular actors in Hollywood. Burstyn and Baker, both getting on in age, are both dependable actresses and they don’t disappoint here. Maybe the biggest star of the movie is San Francisco and Northern California. The beauty of the City and its environs takes center stage.

Still, this is merely marginally entertaining, a rote romantic fantasy that could have been so much better. We really don’t get any insight to who Adaline is and how her immortality affects her as a person, other than to put her on the perpetual lam. With longevity must come at least some sort of insight into the world but we get none here. There are a lot of reasons why immortality would suck, but hopefully one of them won’t be that we remain as shallow as a saucer. If I knew I was going to be eternally young but would neither grow nor learn well, I think I might turn down that particular gift. Yes, I think that I definitely would.

REASONS TO GO: Ford, Burstyn and Baker are solid. San Francisco utilized nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Lively is beautiful but ultimately empty here. Wasted opportunity.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality and a suggestive comment.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Burstyn also played a daughter older than her parent in last year’s Interstellar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
NEXT: Gemma Bovery

Wild Card (2015)

Never get Jason Statham's drink order wrong.

Never get Jason Statham’s drink order wrong.

(2015) Action (Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Michael Angarano, Milo Ventimiglia, Hope Davis, Dominik Garcia-Londo, Max Casella, Stanley Tucci, Jason Alexander, Sofia Vergara, Anne Heche, Francois Vincentelli, Chris Browning, Matthew Willig, Davenia McFadden, Michael Papajohn, Jean Claude Leuyer, Grace Santo, Lara Grice, Shanna Forrestall. Directed by Simon West

Life is a bit of a gamble when you think about it. We can control things to a certain extent but circumstance and luck have quite a bit to do with it as well. All of our best laid plans can be irrevocably changed in an instant.

Nick Wild (Statham) is a bit of a Las Vegas fixture. He is one of those guys that if you need a favor, he’s the one you see. Some of these favors he charges for – for example, he takes a beating from a guy so that he can impress his girlfriend (Vergara) for $500. He works out of the office of lawyer Pinky (Alexander) where he is introduced to tech billionaire Cyrus Kinnick (Angarano) who wants a bodyguard and, as it turns out, something more.

Then there are the favors he does for free. When his ex-lover Holly (Garcia-Londo) is beaten up and raped, he uses his connections with mob boss Baby (Tucci) to find out who done the deed and discovers it’s Danny DeMarco (Ventimiglia), the sadistic scumbag son of a highly placed East Coast mob boss. Using his impressive fighting skills, which were honed in a British special forces division, he subdues DeMarco’s bodyguards and allows Holly to take her revenge, after which she flees Vegas, taking with her money from DeMarco’s desk, some of which she gives to Nick for his fee.

Nick realizes that he won’t be welcome in Vegas much longer and needs to get out. DeMarco will be gunning for him and if he wants to make his dream of retiring to Corsica, he’d better get hopping. However, there is the thing that has been keeping him in Vegas so long – his gambling addiction. And on a night when so much is riding on it, he can’t afford for Lady Luck to be fickle.

Considering that this is essentially a Direct-to-VOD production, the talent before and behind the camera is pretty impressive but if you look at the budget below, you immediately understand that this was never meant for that sort of release. Why Lionsgate gave up on this project is beyond me; it’s actually surprisingly good for the genre and even though it is certainly flawed it deserved better for an unpublicized excuse me theatrical release.

For one thing, you get Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman supplying the script based on his own novel. Goldman excels in character development and each role here is definable and has at least some sort of personality to it. Given the stellar nature of the cast and that some of them only have a scene or two here, it’s no wonder that they were attracted to these parts which are more than stunt cameos.

West, who has such genre fare as Con-Air and The Expendables 2 on his resume, is usually pretty dependable for films in the action genre and surprisingly (yes, I’m using that word a lot here) this is pretty light on the action as action films go, but that’s a good thing in this case. Rather than going from one fight scene to the next, there’s actual dialogue, some of it pretty damn good. There’s also exposition and a genuine story. For film critics used to seeing action films which are just an excuse for people to shoot lots of big guns, chase around in cars and generally give people the opportunity to watch big men beat the hell out of one another, that’s like rolling ten sevens in a row.

I’ve always thought Statham was more than just a tight-lipped martial arts action hero. He actually can be quite soulful and when given the opportunity to act, has done so particularly well. Mostly though he seems content to accept roles in which he is given little to do beyond beating people up. Don’t get me wrong, he’s very good at it and usually his movies are entertaining but they are little more than that.

Here he gets an opportunity to do more and he takes advantage of it. Definitely this is a reminder of how good Statham can be in the right role, and given that he has a high-profile villain role in the upcoming Furious 7 gives me even more reason to look forward to that movie. He has nice chemistry with Hope Davis as a heart-of-gold blackjack dealer, as well as Angarano as a rich guy who believes himself a coward.

The oddball thing here is that the action sequences are the weakest aspect of this movie. That’s surprising (there’s that word again) given West’s action pedigree. Had a little more time and care been devoted to them I think this would have been released into theaters and maybe would have been the same kind of action hit that John Wick was last year.

Instead we end up with a movie that had enormous potential and remains an entertaining diversion but doesn’t do anything that pushes the envelope which is a shame. I think the movie’s slow start – things really don’t pick up until about 40 minutes in – also doesn’t do it any favors.

While the blackjack sequences are realistic and Davis (or her body double) gets the moves and attitude of a blackjack dealer just right, we also lose something in the fight choreography which is business as usual with the exception of the final fight in which Statham takes out a bunch of baddies with a butter knife and a spoon, not to mention slicing open a bad guy with a credit card. I also like that we get kind of a local’s point of view to Vegas. Still, with just a little more imagination when it came to the fight sequences this might have been something special.

REASONS TO GO: Entertaining but not groundbreaking. Realistic on the blackjack sequences.
REASONS TO STAY: Starts off slowly. Fight sequences are just adequate.
FAMILY VALUES: As with most Jason Statham movies, plenty of violence and cursing, some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: William Goldman wrote the script based on his novel, which was filmed once before as Heat starring Burt Reynolds back in 1987. This is Goldman’s first script in eleven years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
NEXT: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


Ethan Hawke tends bar.

Ethan Hawke tends bar.

(2009) Horror (Lionsgate) Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Vince Colosimo, Michael Dorman, Isabel Lucas, Claudia Karvan, Paul Sonkkila, Mungo McKay, Emma Randall, Charlotte Wilson, Christopher Kirby, John Gibson, Carl Rush, Tiffany Lamb, Robyn Moore, Michelle Atkinson, Glen Martin, Damien Garvey, Jay Laga’aia, Chris Brown, Kirsten Cameron, Candice Storey. Directed by Michael and Peter Speirig

Don’t we all just love those movie trailers that begin with the immortal words “In a world…”? This should have had a trailer like that (and maybe it did) but it might begin “In a world where 95% of the population are vampires.” Now wouldn’t that grab your attention?

Edward Dalton (Hawke) is a hematologist. No big deal to thee and me but in a world (there’s that phrase again) full of vampires it’s an important position, particularly in a world (and yet again) where humans are dying off, meaning the planet’s food supply is hitting critical mass, it’s an important job. Dalton has been tasked by the vampire equivalent of Big Pharma, a company called Bromley Marks, to develop a human blood substitute that vampires can subsist on. Easier said than done since vampires by their nature have rather delicate constitution; a test sample literally causes the subject’s head to explode. Yikes!

This does not make chairman Charles Bromley (Neill) a happy man needless to say and Edward’s day only gets worse on the drive home when he gets into a car accident. Worse still, the car is full of renegade humans. Edward, more of a reluctant vampire who has an aversion to human blood, protects them when the police arrive.

More bad news when he gets home. Edward’s brother Frankie (Dorman) pays him a surprise visit. The brothers have been estranged for some time; Frankie works as a soldier in the human-hunting vampire army and the two have shall we say severe philosophical differences. The two are attacked by a subsider, a bestial vampire who haven’t fed for some time who have lost their memories and identity and exist solely as a slave to their hunger for blood, doesn’t matter whose. The entire vampire race is in danger of becoming these subsiders if a new blood source isn’t found soon. In fact, Bromley candidly admits that Bromley Marks only has about a month’s supply left.

Audrey (Karvan), the leader of the humans that Edward had encountered the previous night, sends him a note to meet her in a desolate spot. There she introduces him to Elvis (Dafoe), a former vampire who has returned to human form again. Edward is excited at the prospect of regaining his humanity and once more venturing out into the sunlight, something vampires are unable to do. He agrees to help Elvis discover how to safely administer the cure.

In the meantime desperation has led to chaos in the vampire community and Edward becomes cognizant of the fact that those who stand to benefit from a blood shortage are the ones who would also benefit from a cure never reaching the vampire community. Games of politics and power are afoot and both the human and vampire species hang in the balance. Can Edward and his human allies get the cure out to the vampires before both species go extinct?

The brothers Speirig got this gig on the strength of Undead, their clever and innovative 2003 zombie movie. This isn’t quite up to those standards, although I will admit their vision of a vampire society ruling the globe is intelligently thought out. The vampire society is believable as an extension of our own, with similar values albeit a more cavalier attitude towards morality. Although not by much.

For those of us who love B-movies, there is plenty here to love – nasty creatures, plenty of gore and violence, a bit of sexiness and some over-the-top visuals. Everything to pander to the baser instinct of the moviegoer which is not in and of itself a bad thing. Sometimes we need the schlock entertainment of a good grindhouse movie. Quentin Tarantino recognizes that and more and more filmmakers have come to understand just how informed our society is by these movies.

The sense of humor here is quirky and a bit on the sick side, so if you like your jokes punctuated by exploding body parts, this will no doubt appeal to you. Most of the action sequences with a couple of exceptions are well-staged and exciting, although not what you would call game-changing. Nothing new here, but what is here is well-executed.

I wish I could say the same about the cinematography and visual effects. Due to their aversion to UV light, the vampires live their lives essentially indoors and in bunker-like conditions. This makes for murky atmospherics made worse when there seems to be a constant out-of-focus element to the photography. Now perhaps I got a poorly processed disc for home viewing but everything looked like it was filmed with bad fluorescent lighting, making everything look dreary. The CGI are likewise slapdash and could have used a bit of refinement.

Other than that this is solidly entertaining and Hawke, while not one of his better roles, at least makes a game effort for a genre he has admitted he’s not terribly fond of. Dafoe is, well, Dafoe and that should tell you all you need to know about his performance. Most of the rest of the cast are fairly unknown here in the States (this is an Australian production; the German-born brothers Speirig have lived there since boyhood) but are pretty competent. While this is more of an action film, I did miss the sensuality that most vampire films tend to have; it could have used a little more of it.

Still in an era where vampire movies have essentially lost their luster due to the Twilight/Vampire Chronicles generation, this is one of those rarities – a vampire movie that actually appeals to more than the preteen female audience. It is appealing in an ironic sort of way that the vampire protagonist here shares a first name with the romantic focus of Twilight. I for one am happy to champion these sorts of films if it means that we can get the nastier monsters of old that we used to love to fear.

WHY RENT THIS: B-Movie goodness. A sick sense of humor while not for everybody, was good for some intentional laughs.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dark and murky cinematography. Cringe-worthy CGI.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly strong bloody violence, brief nudity and a fair amount of cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After being filmed in 2007, the movie sat on the studio shelf for more than a year before being released overseas. It’s American release was on January 8, 2010 – nearly three years after filming had been completed.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a short film the Speirig brothers directed from 2000 that gives a good sense of their visual style, as well as a gallery showing the various lobby posters and marketing for the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $51.4M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
NEXT: Case 39

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence get serious.

Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence get serious.

(2014) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Willow Shields, Mahershala Ali, Paula Malcomson, Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Stef Dawson, Sarita Choudhury. Directed by Francis Lawrence

It has become something of a habit now for Hollywood to take the final book in a young adult franchise based on a book and split it in two; this has been done for the Harry Potter series, Twilight and now The Hunger Games with the same fate planned for the Divergent series. This is a blatant cash grab that cynical studios use to squeeze every last penny that they can out of a successful franchise. As for the Potter series, the first part was the weakest movie of the eight-film franchise (although the second part turned out to be one of the strongest). In the Twilight series Lionsgate both movies were poor and the final entry the worst of the entire series.

In this penultimate film, the events of Catching Fire have led to the complete carpet bombing and destruction of District 12, home of Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) who has been taken to the previously-thought abandoned District 13. However her love Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) had been left behind and was captured by the men of President Snow (Sutherland) and brought back to the Capital. There he is used as a pawn, with interviews conducted by the smarmy Caesar Flickerman (Tucci) which essentially are propaganda pieces.

District 13 president Alma Coin (Moore) is wary of using Katniss for the same purpose; clearly Katniss is shell-shocked and not in an emotional state where she is able to be a spokesman for the revolution that is sweeping Panem. However uber-patient ex-boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) is on hand to help Katniss make it through; old friends Haymitch (Harrelson), Effie Trinket (Banks) and Finnick (Claflin) are there to support Katniss. Rescued from the rubble of District 12 are Kat’s sister Primrose (Shields) and mom (Malcomson).

Pulling the strings in District 13 is Plutarch (Hoffman) a cynical but brilliant marketing man who is selling the revolution to the people of Panem whereas President Snow is selling safety and security while providing neither. A villain of the first order, he callously orders the bombing of a hospital in order to set an example of what happens to people when they allow a visit from the Girl on Fire who is now referred to as the Mockingjay. This pisses Katniss off enough to pull out of her funk temporarily – until the callow Peeta makes another plea for peace. Who knew the face of revolution would be so emotional?

And so after that atrocity the rebels are finally moved to push into an offensive against the Capital, giving them the opportunity to rescue Peeta and the other Victors held captive by the President, including Finnick’s girlfriend Anna (Dawson). However, they don’t begin to see the depth of the game being played by President Snow – and how far he is willing to go to win it.

As any fan of the series will tell you, it’s all about Katniss and thus it’s all about Jennifer Lawrence. Normally I’d say that’s a pretty safe bet; after all, she has become one of the hottest actresses in the world, with Oscar wins as well as starring in one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood today. However, I can’t say as I like what is happening to her character here.

Now I’ll admit that it should be taken into account that I’m not a teenage girl nor have I ever been one – nor am I likely to ever be one. I may be getting this all wrong but I feel cheated a little bit by what Katniss has become in this movie. I had always viewed her as a good role model for young girls; strong, independent, able to defend herself and those around her and with a strong moral compass. I’m not sure what the author’s intentions were  but I saw the same thing happen to Bella Swan in Twilight as well. Both series were written by women but I’m not sure if they were saying it’s okay to be ruled by your emotions to the point where you become virtually immobilized by them, or if they’re saying that’s part of being female.

I don’t know about that part. How is it role model material for your strong, independent heroine to be literally whining “It’s not fair!” while pining away for her boyfriend to the point that she’s willing to let all sorts of people – including her sister and mom – be killed because she’s too emotional to act to prevent it. That kind of self-centeredness may be part of modern culture but it seems out of place for a movie heroine. Of course, my perceptions of what a role model should be may be hopelessly outdated but I do like to think that there are some things that are fairly basic and timeless.

Lawrence is a terrific actress but she seems curiously lifeless here. Even so, she still manages to dominate the screen and while this isn’t her best work, it certainly is enough to carry the movie. She gets some able support, particularly from the late Hoffman whom the film is dedicated to. Mostly though this is a lot of people going through the motions for a paycheck and Moore, also a fine actress, looks distinctly uncomfortable in an unfortunate wig.

There’s just not a lot of energy and life to this movie even though the visuals are well shot and there are some pleasant moments in idyllic forests. Most of the movie takes place in District 13’s underground bunker and is perpetually underlit. Even without 3D this movie is dark and dingy-looking most of the time. You have to admit though it does set a certain kind of bleak mood.

There is subtext here about image-making and its use in manipulating opinion, and while that is a fascinating subject, the filmmakers tend to thunk us over the head with a shillelagh rather than skewer us with a rapier which would be much more preferable. There isn’t a lot of subtlety here but then again, I get the sense that the filmmakers don’t respect their target audience a whole lot. Certainly the kind of girls that identify with Katniss are capable of understanding subtlety.

This is a big disappointment for me. Thus far I’ve actually enjoyed the series and was looking forward to seeing this one. Although it is reasonably entertaining to earn a feeble recommendation, I was hoping for so much more. With any luck,  the finale next Thanksgiving will pull out all the stops and let the series end on a high note rather than a whimper or a whine which is where it seems to be going. Prove me wrong. Please.

REASONS TO GO: Some pleasing eye-candy. Lawrence is terrific even when she’s subpar.
REASONS TO STAY: Turgid and boring. Lacks any kind of spark. Katniss, a strong and courageous soul, is reduced to a weepy teen pining for her boyfriend and feeling sorry for herself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some intense violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hoffman passed away a week before filming concluded; rather than recasting the part, the filmmakers did some rewrites so that the portions Hoffman didn’t film could be incorporated in different ways.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
NEXT: Daybreakers

John Wick

Sometimes, Keanu Reeves wonders if he shouldn't have taken the other pill.

Sometimes, Keanu Reeves wonders if he shouldn’t have taken the other pill.

(2014) Action (Lionsgate) Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, Omer Barnea, Toby Leonard Moore, Daniel Bernhardt, Bridget Moynahan, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Bridget Regan, Lance Reddick, Keith Jardine, Tait Fletcher, Kazy Tauginas, Alexander Frekey, Thomas Sadoski, Randall Duk Kim, Kevin Nash, Clarke Peters, Gameela Wright. Directed by Chad Stahelski

If action movies teach us anything, it’s that you don’t mess with a man’s family. You DEFINITELY don’t mess with his car. But if you steal his car and kill his dog? Not a good idea, even if you’re the son of a Russian mobster.

But that’s just what Iosef Tarasov (Allen) does. But it’s not the act itself that pisses off his father Viggo (Nyqvist). It’s who he did it to. Check out this conversation the Russian mobster had with Aurelio (Leguizamo), the owner of a chop shop;
VIGGO: I understand that you struck my son.
AURELIO: He stole John Wick’s car and killed his dog.

There are some things you just do not do. You don’t walk on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. And you do not steal the car and kill the dog of John Wick (Reeves), particularly when the dog was the last gift from his recently deceased wife (Moynahan). Who is John Wick may you ask? He’s a retired contract killer. He’s the sort who can walk into a room and kill three guys with a pencil. That’s right, a pencil. If you want someone who is untouchable dead and in the ground, you’d call John Wick. There wasn’t anyone he couldn’t kill. Even other contract killers were terrified of him; that’s why they call him The Boogey Man. And not the one that KC and the Sunshine Band sang about either.

Viggo knows that John Wick won’t stop at his son; he’ll go after his entire organization, everyone who ever knew his son and a lot of people who didn’t. John Wick is like the ice age; where he comes through nobody lives. The only people who like John Wick are funeral directors. You get the general idea.

And that’s all you need to know about the plot. Mainly the movie goes from one action sequence to another. Director Chad Stahelski comes from a stuntman background (he was in fact Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix) and his experience shows. The fight sequences are mind-blowing, perfectly choreographed and exciting as hell. They are most definitely the highlight of the film, kinetic whirling dervishes of leaping assassins and flying bullets.

Reeves, never the most charismatic of actors under the best of circumstances, has a role that really plays to his strengths here. John Wick rarely shows any emotion, although he has one speech to Viggo late in the movie where all his rage seethes out of him like a terrible demonic presence and Reeves actually does an outstanding job with it. He is also a fairly graceful action hero, and is said to have performed about 90% of the stunts himself.

The supporting cast is very able, with Palicki showing her fangs as a gleeful assassin, Nyqvist showing his villain chops and Dafoe has a role as a kind of Zen Yoda-like assassin/mentor for John Wick. McShane, Leguizamo and Reddick are reliable and Alfie Allen, Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones, may be setting himself up for a career portraying men the audience would like to see die painfully.

If you go looking for something that breaks the action film mold, well, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any of that here – or anywhere else given the state of action movies in 2014. There isn’t much of a plot (the revenge thing has been done to death) but the action is so outstanding that you don’t much care. There is a place in this world for mindless entertainment and as that kind of movie goes John Wick is better than most.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing action sequences. Right in Reeves’ wheelhouse.
REASONS TO STAY: Kind of a series of action sequences in search of a plot.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of violence, some of it bloody. Loads of foul language. Some drug use as well. Dog cruelty may be upsetting to some.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth time Reeves has played a character named John in the movies.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mechanic (2011)
NEXT: Small Town Murder Songs