Red Sparrow


Misogyny? Wellllll….

(2018) Espionage Thriller (20th Century Fox) Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds, Jeremy Irons, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Thekla Reuten, Douglas Hodge, Sakina Jaffrey, Sergei Polunin, Sasha Frolova, Sebastian  Hulk, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Nicole O’Neill, Kristof Konrad, Hugh Quarshie, Kinscö Pethö. Directed by Francis Lawrence

While this is set in recent years, Red Sparrow could very easily be mistaken for a Cold War-era spy thriller by John Le Carré or those of his ilk. At the center is Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika, a former Russian ballerina who has had to move on to other career choices when her ballet career is cut brutally short. She is sent by a well-meaning but corrupt relative slash government official to a school for spies, which she disdainfully calls “whore school.” There she’s taught to use her sexuality as a weapon and the rest of her body as well. Her assignment is to make contact with American agent Nate Nash (Edgerton) but whether or not she is following orders remains to be seen.

This doesn’t particularly add anything to the espionage thriller genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot, enough so that the studio sent an e-mail pleading with critics to reveal as little about the plot as possible which in this case is justified – the less you know about what actually happens, the better your enjoyment will be of the film.

The surprising thing about the movie is star Jennifer Lawrence. She has been for several years now one of the most reliable and talented actresses in Hollywood, but this one she falls quite a bit short. Her Russian accent is unbelievable and it slips throughout the movie. Lawrence is a lot of things but she is not a ballet dancer; she doesn’t move like one and any woman who has been through the kind of training that lands you a spot on the Bolshoi is going to have a certain elegance and grace in her every movement.

This is pretty much standard spy stuff, although granted with a surfeit of graphic mayhem, torture and yes, rape. I think some women, particularly those who are sensitive to how women are portrayed as sex objects, are going to have some serious problems with this. It’s not quite misogynistic but it’s close. This is one well worth skipping which is a first in J-Law’s otherwise glittering career. I guess she’s just due for a misstep.

REASONS TO GO: Fans of Cold War-era espionage thrillers will love this. Rampling and Irons deliver swell performances.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s too much rape and torture – there’s too much of everything (it’s too long). J-Law’s Russian accent keeps slipping.
FAMILY VALUES: There is severe violence, torture, rape, sexual content, profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Deer Tick was originally formed in Providence, Rhode Island. They are currently based in New York.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Atomic Blonde
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tomb Raider

Iraqi Odyssey


A family outing in the Iraq that was.

A family outing in the Iraq that was.

(2014) Documentary (Typecast) Jamal al Tahir, Sabah Jamal Aldin, Suhair Jamal Aldin, Samira Jamal Aldin, Tanya Uldin, Samir Jamal Aldin. Directed by Samir

documented

Generally, when people in the West think of Iraq, the impression isn’t very good. We find savage religious war between Sunnis and Shiites, an army that turned and ran at the first sign of ISIS, a democracy in chaos. Of course, the United States bears a great deal of responsibility on that score when we’re talking about that last item, but still most people have a very negative opinion about Iraq in general.

However, people tend to forget that once Iraq was one of the most modern of Middle East countries, one in which the middle class was strong and education was valued. Once having thrown off the yoke of colonialism, the monarchy in Iraq was actually relatively progressive compared to other countries in the region. Women in Baghdad dressed as they did in Los Angeles and the universities in Iraq produced some of the finest doctors and engineers in the world.

That’s all changed now, and with all the upheaval that has been suffered by that country, from Saddam Hussein and the Baathist party’s brutal repression through the unnecessary Iran-Iraq war to the bombing of the Gulf War and it’s sequel to the American occupation, many of the finest citizens of Iraq have spread to the four winds.

This documentary is the story of one family, well-to-do and middle class and progressive (the daughters, for example, were allowed to marry for love rather than by parental arrangement) who can trace back their lineage back to the prophet Mohammed (but are mainly secular now) and whose own family mirrors the chaos in Iraq. The family for various reasons has scattered across the globe and while director Samir mentions a good many of them, he focuses on Jamal who now lives in Moscow, Sabah who now lives in New Zealand, Suhair who lives in Buffalo, Samira who lives in London and Samir himself in Switzerland.

In doing so we get a fairly detailed crash course on Iraqi history of the 20th century. We see the communist party in postwar Iraq ready to assume leadership but abandoned by Moscow after the Cuban Missile crisis, leading the way for the Baathists – who were founded as an outgrowth of the Nazi party – to take over.

Through home video and archival footage we get a sense of the closeness of the clan, the activities they took part in and the anguish that has overtaken them all, scattered across the globe as they are. To put it in perspective, think of your own family and imagine that every last one of them lived in a different corner of the globe. How would that affect your own happiness?

The film is amazingly informative and gives us a good deal of insight into the issues of the Middle East from a perspective most of us haven’t really been exposed to. The major problem here however is that the film is nearly three hours long and after awhile it’s like a university lecture that has gone on much too long. The interviews with the family members tend to take place against black backgrounds and are often in English, although they are also in German and Arabic and I believe, Kurdish as well, which doesn’t help audiences with attention span issues, i.e. Americans.

The use of graphics is nicely integrated into the film, with charts and graphs indicating the relationships between the various family members (very much appreciated) and the distance between family members geographically (not so much). The music, mainly comprised of traditional instruments of the region, from time to time playfully uses regional music of the region where the interviews are taking place (the Marseilles in France or the Star-Spangled Banner in the United States) and one gets a sense of the humor that these extraordinary people have had to have in order to stay relatively sane. We also get a sense of the loneliness and isolation many of them feel.

In many ways this may end up being the definitive work of the Iraqi Diaspora and academics may well want to study it. However for the casual viewer, this is quite a momentous undertaking and while chock full of admirable material, may be a little bit much for those who are easily bored. However, those who don’t mind binge watching 13 hours of their favorite Netflix show might benefit from putting that kind of discipline to work here.

REASONS TO GO: Extremely informative. Clever use of graphics and music.
REASONS TO STAY: Way, way, way too long. Very much like watching home movies.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of foul language and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over four million Iraqis live in Diaspora as of this writing..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outside the Law (2010)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Stink!

Anna Karenina (2012)


Alone in a crowd,

Alone in a crowd,

(2012) Drama (Focus) Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, David Wilmot, Shirley Henderson, Holiday Grainger, Pip Torrens, Susanne Lothar, Alexandra Roach, Luke Newberry, Aruthan Galieva, Tannishtha Chatterjee. Directed by Joe Wright

Our Film Library

Everyone knows the old saw that love is blind. We mostly come to think that it means that looks and faults don’t matter when you’re in love, but I don’t think that’s really the case. What I think that the statement means is that we are blind to the consequences of falling in love, so emotionally inundated we are by love.

The Leo Tolstoy classic has been made into big screen extravaganzas several times, most notably with the legendary Greta Garbo in the title role (twice). Here we get Keira Knightley who has shown that she has plenty of talent although perhaps not quite a match to her luminous beauty which is considerable; the girl might just be the prettiest face in all the world.

A brief plot synopsis for those not familiar with the Tolstoy work; Anna is the wife of Karenin (Law), a well-respected Russian government official in Tsarist Russia but one can scarcely characterize the marriage as a happy one. Karenin is emotionally distant, occasionally affectionate but generally not present. Many women over the years have identified with Anna, alone in a marriage to a man who barely realizes she’s there at all.

When she takes the train to Moscow on behalf of her brother, Count Oblonsky (Macfadyen) who has cheated on his wife and who has sent him to plead with said wife Dolly (Macdonald) to take him back, she meets Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson), a dashing young soldier who is the object of unrequited love for Kitty (Vikander) who is anxious to marry the young man. Kitty, in the meantime, is the object of affection for Levin (Gleeson) who is thinking of freeing his serfs and is being urged by Oblonsky to take one of them for his wife. However, everything is thrown in disarray by Anna who falls in love with Vronsky. Hard.

The two begin seeing each other and are none too discreet about their feelings. This is a big no-no in St. Petersburg society at the time which tolerated affairs but only as long as they were kept in the shadows where they belong. It was a kind of hypocrisy that in a large way still informs our somewhat hypocritical  views towards the sexes. Even if you’re not a Russian literature enthusiast or familiar with the novel, it doesn’t take much of a genius to figure out that this all leads to tragedy – and it does.

Wright has taken the conceit of staging the movie as if it were a play in a dilapidated theater (and in fact, they filmed in one just outside of London which was essentially the main filming location). There are backdrops that are very theatrical and occasionally we see audience members in box seats observing the drama. Players in the play sometimes step onto the front of the stage and address the audience directly. It’s certainly a bold move, the kind of thing someone like Baz Luhrmann might do.

But I have to admit it all feels kind of gimmicky and there’s no doubt that the stage-centric production design sometimes gets distracting. The costumes are lush enough (costume designer Jacqueline Durran won an Oscar for it) and the movie looks amazing, thanks in large part to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey.

The acting though is kind of spotty, surprisingly. Law fares the best, making Karenin who often comes off as uncaring and downright mean in other filmed versions of the novel almost sympathetic here. Macfadyen, as the lusty Oblonsky, also performs well as a character that is a bit of a cad. Knightley, however, is oddly subdued here. There are almost no sparks between her and Taylor-Johnson which is critical – you have to be able to see why Anna would risk so much and get the depth of the emotion she feels for Vronsky. It is not helped by Taylor-Johnson who makes Vronsky something of a caricature. The miscasting for the role is obvious – and crucial.

The British film industry has always been reliable about producing costume epics as well as anyone, particularly those based on classics and Wright, with Sense and Sensibility and Atonement both to his credit, is as adept as anyone working now at the genre. However, the overwrought concept soon overwhelms the story and becomes more the focus than Tolstoy’s classic tale does. My recommendation is either read the novel or if you prefer seeing it onscreen is to find the 1935 version with Garbo which really is a classic. This is more of a noble failure.

WHY RENT THIS: Sumptuous production design and costumes. Decent performances by Law and Macfadyen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overwrought. Conceit of giving the film the look of a theatrical performance becomes distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexuality and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot had to leave the film during pre-production due to painful sciatica which eventually required back surgery. He was replaced by Wright’s regular collaborator Seamus McGarvey.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a nifty time lapse photograph of the main set’s construction as well as interviews with the cast members.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68.9M on a $51.6M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: In Secret

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mr. Peabody and Sherman

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit


Chris Pine realizes there's No Way Out.

Chris Pine realizes there’s No Way Out.

(2014) Spy Thriller (Paramount) Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh, Peter Andersson, Colm Feore, Lenn Kudrjawizki, Alec Utgoff, Elena Velikanova, Nonso Anozie, Seth Ayott, Gemma Chan, David Paymer, Bogdan Kominowski, Maggie Daniels, Matt Rippy, Hannah Taylor Gordon, David Hayman, Isobel Pravda, Annika Pergament. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

In many ways war has become obsolete. A world war seems pretty unthinkable when so many nations have nuclear capability. In the 21st century rather than waging war on a battlefield, it seems far more effective to wage economic war electronically.

Jack Ryan (Pine) is studying for his doctorate in economics when the World Trade Center comes down. He is moved to join the Marine Corps and is advancing in rank when his helicopter is shot down. He is badly injured and must learn how to walk again. He catches the eye of a pretty physical therapist named Cathy (Knightley) who is preparing to be an eye surgeon and doing a student rotation in PT at Walter Reed. He also catches the eye of Thomas Harper (Costner), head of a CIA team whose mission is to prevent terrorist attacks. Harper recruits Ryan to keep an eye on terrorist money laundering on Wall Street, helping him complete his doctorate and placing him at a high-profile Wall Street firm.

That proves dividends when Jack notices certain accounts at a Russian firm have been hidden from his company. That seems extremely suspicious to Jack so he goes to Moscow to run an audit where he meets billionaire Viktor Cherevin (Branagh) who sets off all of Jack’s up-to-something sensors. Things are further complicated when comely Cathy, now Jack’s girlfriend and completely unaware of his double life as a CIA analyst, impulsively travels to Moscow and becomes caught in the middle of what could be a crippling economic blow to the United States.

As the first Ryan film not to be directly sourced from an existing Tom Clancy novel, the movie rewrites the origins of the bestselling character and updates it somewhat (the first Ryan film appeared in 1990, eleven years before 9-11). Pine becomes the fourth actor to portray Ryan in five films which is perhaps one of the reasons this franchise, while profitable, has never really taken off like Bond for example, which seems to survive the changing of actors much better than Jack Ryan does. Also, the Bond films have surmounted the end of the Cold War much more effectively than the Jack Ryan movies which really need a Soviet presence to work properly.

This is perhaps the least visually impressive of the Ryan movies but yet still packs a decent visual punch. We don’t really get to see the high-tech CIA headquarters much (read: at all) and most of the really impressive visual stuff takes place at the headquarters of the Russian financial corporation that Ryan is auditing.

The cast is fairly impressive, with veteran Costner coming off with the win as the laconic CIA officer who, when asked by Jack if he and Cathy can have a moment to discuss their relationship situation after she discovers his double life, says flatly “No. This is geopolitics, not couples therapy.” It’s a highlight in a movie that lacks light moments.

Pine plays Ryan as a literal analyst; he always seems to be thinking ten steps ahead of things. Often this leaves him feeling cold and unapproachable to the audience. I would have liked to have seen more humanity from Ryan, who as portrayed by Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin and Ben Affleck, always seemed to manage some humanity while still coming off as the smartest guy in the room. Pine gets the second part right.

Branagh, once the heir to Sir Laurence Olivier’s mantle in terms of being the finest actor and director of Shakespeare onscreen, has of late been trying his hand at action movies, having previously directed Thor before taking this one on. He has a fine visual sense as a director and uses that to his advantage here. As for action sequences, there aren’t really a lot of them here – a motorcycle chase near the end of the film, a fight with an assassin in a hotel room and a very suspenseful sequence in which Jack is trying to retrieve data from the computer of Cherevin before getting caught. That contributed I think to what I felt as an overall lack of energy in the movie; it didn’t seem to flow the way I would like an action movie to flow.

As the bad guy, Branagh is very understated (as opposed to the villain he played in The Wild, Wild West in which much scenery was chewed) and makes a nice foil for Ryan, full of quiet menace but with real rage boiling underneath the surface. If the movie were a tiny bit better, he’d have been a classic espionage villain but even as it is he is still a superior villain. I wonder what Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan (still the best of the bunch) would have done with Branagh’s Cherevin.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific cast. Believable plot. Nifty production values.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie has a curious lack of energy.

FAMILY VALUES:  Yeah, there’s violence and some intense action; there’s also some brief strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Costner was originally cast as Jack Ryan in the very first movie in the franchise, The Hunt for Red October but wound up turning it down to make Dances With Wolves instead.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sum of All Fears

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: I, Frankenstein

Resident Evil: Retribution


Go ask Alice.

Go ask Alice.

(2012) Horror Action (Screen Gems) Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Sienna Guillory, Kevin Durand, Shawn Roberts, Colin Salmon, Johann Urb, Boris Kodjoe, Li Bingbing, Aryana Engineer, Robin Kasyanov, Ofilio Portillo, Oded Fehr, Megan Charpentier, Mika Nakashima, Ray Olubowale, Toshio Oki, Takato Yamashito, Ali Larter. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

6 Days of Darkness 2013

Some fights you can’t run away from. Sooner or later you have to take the fight to your enemy because otherwise you’ll be running until you’re caught and/or killed. Sometimes those fights will cost you more than you know.

After the events of Resident Evil: Afterlife Alice (Jovovich) has been taken prisoner by the evil Umbrella Corporation and is being interrogated by former ally turned enemy (thanks to a parasite buried in her chest) Jill Valentine (Guillory). She escapes with the help of Ada Wong (Bingbing) who is one of the chief operatives of Albert Wesker (Roberts), the evil head of the Umbrella Corporation. However, he is no longer in charge; the computer program Red Queen, activated after the fall of The Hive has taken over and is at war with humanity – and she is winning.

Alice and Ada are in an Umbrella cloning facility where several environments were created to work out different scenarios to T-Virus infection protocols. Wesker sends in a strike team to retrieve Alice and Ada and also Becky (Engineer), a cloned little girl who operated as a daughter to a cloned Alice in a Raccoon City scenario. Make sense? Don’t sweat it.

Anyway the strike team along with Alice and Ada are up against hordes of mutants, Jill Valentine as well as clones of Rain Ocampo (Rodriguez) and Carlos Olivera (Fehr). They will have to fight their way through simulations of Moscow, Tokyo and Raccoon City. The now-fully human Alice will have to rely on her wits and her indomitable will to survive in order to get out of the base alive and once they do, a final battle on the surface awaits in which friend becomes foe, foe becomes friend and the world prepares for a last stand in the most unlikely of places.

The thing that has made this series so spectacular is not just the videogame franchise it’s based on but on Milla Jovovich’s interpretation of Alice. Jovovich, because of her appearances in a lot of sci-fi, horror and action movies, is sometimes underrated as an actress (much like Kate Beckinsale is) but she really has a great deal of screen presence and the focus is entirely on her, which gives the filmmakers smart points. Then again, Anderson is married to her so he probably knows her abilities better than any other.

The movie is like a non-stop chase scene, beginning with the spectacular opening sequence in which Alice’s capture is done in reverse sequence going back to the final moments of Afterlife. It’s imaginative, far more so than one would have expected from a franchise that’s supposed to play to a less-discerning crowd. While the sequence following that opening which consists of cloned Alice, cloned Carlos and Becky playing house is a bit confusing, the rest of the movie takes off at warp speed. Non-stop battles between humans with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ammo and increasingly grotesque mutants will more than satisfy the entertainment quotient.

The Resident Evil film series has been the only successful franchise (or standalone film for that matter) to capture the nature of the videogame that inspired it. While it doesn’t compare to playing the game and having that interactive element that is missing in a film, it is as close as film is going to come to that element simply because of the frenetic pacing and touches that less attentive directors might miss. One gets a sense that Anderson plays a lot of videogames.

I’m not sure how much farther they can take this franchise. There are after all only so many ways you can go here until it starts to get repetitive and it is absolute death for a franchise such as this to repeat itself – even the Friday the 13th franchise fell into that trap. They do seem to be leading to a climactic battle and the next movie, scheduled for release on September 12, 2014 may be the climax of the series. If so, they’ll have a fairly high bar set for them in order to make the series go out with a bang, which I sure hope it does rather than the fizzle that it could easily go out with.

WHY RENT THIS: Mindless fun. Jovovich has made the role of Alice iconic in horror films.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of been there, done that.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots and lots of violence. And I mean lots.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jovovich is the only actor to appear in every Resident Evil film to date.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Along with outtakes, there’s a nifty interactive database that allows viewers to explore the world of the franchise through bios, video clips and more. There’s also a look at Nakashima, the lead Japanese zombie and a reunion of cast members from previous installments in the series.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $240.2M on a $65M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silent Hill

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2013 concludes!

Red 2


Helen Mirren takes aim.

Helen Mirren takes aim.

(2013) Spy Comedy (Summit) Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Byung Hun Lee, Neal McDonough, Catherine Zeta-Jones, David Thewlis, Brian Cox, Tim Pigott-Smith, Garrick Hagon, Jong Kun Lee, Steven Berkoff, Philip Arditti, Mitchell Mullen, Martin Sims, Tristan D. Lalla, Nathalie Buscombe. Directed by Dean Parisot

That pesky Internet. Just when you think you’ve found peace and quiet in a suburban retirement far from the stresses of your job, WikiLeaks goes and publishes a document that links you to a CIA plot back in ’79 to smuggle a WMD into Moscow. Now you can’t even shop at Costco without having wackos taking a shot at you.

That’s just what happens to Frank Moses (Willis), once the CIA’s most skilled assassin but now enjoying his golden years with his new lady Sarah (Parker). In fact, he is shopping at Costco with his somewhat bored Sarah when they are accosted by Marvin (Malkovich), Frank’s twitchy partner (you’d be twitchy too if you were fed LSD every day for several years) in the power tools aisle.

He lets Frank know that the two of them have been linked to some operation called Nightshade that neither one of them can remember and now it looks like there’s a big nasty storm headed in their direction. Turns out he’s right.

It also turns out going on the run with assassins – including Han (Lee), the world’s best – after them is just the kick in the pants Frank and Sarah’s relationship needs. Of course having homicidal Victoria (Mirren), one of the finest killers-for-hire there is – on your side doesn’t hurt. Frank and his crew will need to break Dr. Bailey (Hopkins) out of jail, never mind that he’s supposed to be dead. Oh, and the CIA has sent Jack Horton (McDonough) to see that Frank is captured and interrogated none to gently and it turns out Han has a personal grudge against Han and all Frank wanted to do was get a new barbecue grill.

Movies like this need to be lighthearted and Parisot uses an undeniably light touch. Maybe too light – the movie is almost devoid of weight like it was filmed on the International Space Station using elaborate sets to make the audience think it was completely earthbound. There’s no substance here – and there isn’t required to be – but the lack of it might turn those who want a little meat with their mousse off.

Willis excels at these kind of roles these days, the weary hero. If you’ve seen his last three Die Hard movies you’ll know what I mean. He is a bit grumpy and a bit smart alecky but when the rubber hits the road the man is still one of the best action stars in Hollywood. Some might sniff that he’s playing the same part he has for 30 years but then again that’s true for most of the actors in Hollywood in one way or another.

Mirren steals the show though. She’s got that patrician look and accent and when she pulls out a big effin’ gun, she looks so gleeful it’s hard not to feel a surge of the same emotion yourself. She has some interesting byplay with Parker, who is a lot better here than she was in the first movie where she was a bit overwrought. She goes more subtle here and it works better.

Lee is impressive; I’m hoping that we see more of him in similar roles. With most of the great martial arts action stars aging, it’s nice to know that there are some guys ready to step in and fill the void. Malkovich, of course, is Malkovich. He does what he does

The first Red was fun, unusual and unexpected. While its sequel retains much of the first quality, it lacks the second two. Still, there’s enough of that one quality to allow the audience to have a pretty good time at the movies. It may be disposable, but sometimes that’s just what you need.  

REASONS TO GO: Mind-numbing fun. The cast is a hoot.

REASONS TO STAY: Exceedingly lightweight. Has lost its novelty.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action of the gunplay variety, some car chase property destruction, a little crude language and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hopkins and Cox have played Hannibal Lecter in the movies.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100; the critics weren’t so enamored of this one but at least they didn’t hate it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Losers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Back to the Future Part III

A Good Day to Die Hard


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Octopussy

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Picture Me

Exporting Raymond


 

Exporting Raymond

Philip Rosenthal on the mean streets of Moscow.

(2010) Documentary (Goldwyn) Philip Rosenthal, Stanislav Duzhnikov, Anna Frolovtseva, Boris Klyuev, Konstantine Naumochkin, Oleg Tabokov, Aleksandr Zhigalkin, Ray Romano, Peter Boyle, Doris Roberts, Brad Garrett, Patricia Heaton. Directed by Philip Rosenthal

We grow up thinking that certain things are universal, that you can count on them no matter what part of the planet you’re standing in. However, you’d be surprised at how some of the basics differ from country to country.

Philip Rosenthal assumed that no matter where you went, family dynamics would be pretty much the same the world over. As the producer in charge of the hit sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” he’d used his own experiences as well as those of star Ray Romano to create a show that resonated with American audiences. While the show was never critically acclaimed (and in several of the reviews of this documentary I read some fairly snarky comments about the show) it still got high ratings mainly due to the likability of the stars and the universality of the situation – families can, after all, be pretty weird sometimes and the source for a lot of our own stories and smiles.

As the show was reaching its final episode, Sony (who distributed the series) was eager to export it to other countries (much in the way reality shows like “The Biggest Loser” and “American Idol” are exported), complete with local casts and crew – with Sony reaping the benefit. To this end they decided to use the Russian Federation as a test market and sent Rosenthal over there to talk with the Russian network and help set the show up there.

Before going, Rosenthal was nervous due to reports of high crime and the kidnapping for ransom of American businessmen; he was sold insurance in case of that very scenario occurring although he was later told that he “wasn’t worth the effort” which wasn’t meant in a mean way – he’s just not high enough on the food chain to make it worth the time and expense for the Russian mob to snatch him.

Once in Moscow, Rosenthal found the television industry to be much different than the American counterpart (although in some ways very much the same when it came to studio interference). He was constantly at odds with the director and in particular, the costumer (who thought that this middle class Russian family should be far more fashionable). Also the American sense of humor is a lot different than the Russian and jokes that brought rolling on the floor laughs from the Americans fell flat for the Russians, and vice versa. Acting styles were a lot different.

Rosenthal was constantly frustrated by the lack of willingness to bend by the Russians in terms of the concept of the show, the casting and other items. He has invested a great deal of his time and blood, sweat and tears into making the show successful. Can he make lightning strike twice?

This isn’t what you’d call a vital documentary. After all, your daily life isn’t going to be much affected if the Russian version of “Everybody Loves Raymond” is successful or not. I think Rosenthal wanted to make something on the cultural differences of the nation formerly known as The Evil Empire and the Good Guys.

Except this really doesn’t do the job. Rosenthal seems more inclined to take shots with cheap one liners at the expense of the various people he meets rather than to explore the nature of the differences between us. He does make an attempt to spend time with a Russian family but only manages to connect with them when he converses with his own technologically challenged parents on Skype.

This becomes little more than one man’s home movies about his vacation in Russia and to be honest, if I wanted a travelogue I’d look up Rick Steeves. There really are no attempts to really look with too much depth at the Russian culture other than to make fun of it. Still, if you liked the sitcom, you’ll probably like this as well. I just wish it had tried to get us to laugh with the Russians than at them. In the end, maybe if Rosenthal had been a little more willing to listen and a little less needing to do a comedy act he might have had a smoother time getting the show made.

WHY RENT THIS: The culture clash elements are the most interesting parts of the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of a fluffy subject matter. Doesn’t really educate much and the humor can be a little mean.

FAMILY VALUES: One or two mildly rude words but really acceptable for all families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although originally titled “Everybody Loves Kostya,” the show eventually ran under the title “Voroniny,” after the central family’s surname.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a featurette comparing the American and Russian versions of the show. There is also a brief piece in which Rosenthal’s dad tells a joke.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $87,277 on an unreported production budget; the movie may have made a profit but just broke even in more likelihood.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Baseball

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Bernie

The Darkest Hour


The Darkest Hour

Emile Hirsch mistakenly thought his scavenger hunt list said "gremlin."

(2011) Science Fiction (Summit) Emile Hirsch, Olivia Thirlby, Max Minghella, Rachael Taylor, Joel Kinnaman, Veronika Ozerova, Dato Bakhtadze, Gosha Kutsenko, Nikolai Efremov, Vladimir Jaglich, Arthur Smoljaninov, Anna Roudakova, Pyotr Fyodorov. Directed by Chris Gorak

 

Some movies have little or no potential and make the most of what they have. Others take wonderful ideas and go absolutely nowhere with them. Which one would you rather see?

This is one of the latter. Hirsch and Minghella play a couple of net entrepreneurs who fly to Moscow to pitch an app to a bunch of venture capital bigwigs, only to see their idea stolen by Skyler (Kinnaman), a slimy Swede. The boys, furious and with uncertain futures, decide to go to a sleazy disco to drown their sorrows. There they meet Natalie (Thirlby) and Anne (Taylor), American and Australian (respectively) tourists who are apparently globe hopping in order to meet boys. Guess there weren’t enough slimy club hounds in their own neck of the woods.

While in the club, Moscow gets invaded by – wait for it – Christmas lights. Well, that’s what it looks like at first until the aliens actually arrive and are completely invisible. They are also deadly, reducing any organic matter they touch into ash. Whenever they’re around, they generate an electrical field that turns on car alarms, light bulbs and cell phones, all of which have gone dead (we assume an EMP has passed through the city but are never shown that definitively).

After a week in the club’s pantry, the four (who have been joined by Skyler who turns out to be even more of a dick than they thought) set out on foot to find other survivors and to find food, shelter and water. Eventually they learn of a nuclear submarine which intends to ferry survivors to a safe place (the aliens can’t see through machinery or glass – they detect humans by their bio-energy or some such gobbledygook) which I would imagine is somewhere in the middle of the ocean.

Director Gorak’s last film was the much-superior Right at Your Door which made a lot more from a lot less. That film adequately captured what humans do in impossibly stressful situations (in that case, the detonation of a dirty bomb in a metropolitan area) and made his characters non-heroic at times. Here, he also makes some of the characters non-heroic although Hirsch’s Sean character falls into the mold of the brainy hero.

The problem here is that none of the characters are given much in the way of characteristics. They’re all pretty much unremarkable, all given a single characteristic (Anne’s fear, Skyler’s amorality) in which their character pretty much uses as a means of reaction to every situation. They come off as one-dimensional not because the actors are bad, but because they’ve only been given one dimension to work off of. Whereas Gorak’s last film was filled with real human beings, that doesn’t happen here.

Another missed opportunity is the aliens themselves. They are invisible through most of the film, which gives the filmmakers an opportunity to develop a great deal of tension and paranoia. That also never happens here; the aliens appear with such regularity that you just assume that wherever the characters go there’s going to be an invisible alien trolling about waiting to turn someone to ash (including a hapless dog). When the aliens finally are revealed, they are less than satisfying.

This is pretty bloodless. Not only the humans turn to ash but when the aliens blow up they turn into hunks of what looks like volcanic glass. Even gorehounds will be irritated by this movie.

The Russian locations aren’t used to their best effect in most cases, although there’s a really nice scene in Red Square. By and large, producer Timur Bekmambatov (director of such fine films as Night Watch and Wanted) should have done a better job of showing off his city; for the most part it looks pretty dull and boring.

The concept was good here; the execution was lacking and mostly due to lazy writing and poor decision making on the parts of the filmmakers. If you’re going to use Moscow as your backdrop, don’t trap your characters in malls and pantries. If you’re going to have invisible aliens, use them sparingly – make our spines tingle. If you’re going to write a science fiction picture, don’t baffle us with bull-crap; cut down the scientific jargon to a minimum and give the poor actors something to work with. I was sorely disappointed here.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting premise and some nifty effects shots.

REASONS TO STAY: Missed opportunity; none of the characters are drawn all that well and the plot is awfully predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words, some disturbing images and lots of action violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Production was suspended for three weeks due to air pollution caused by the wildfires that surrounded Moscow in the summer of 2010 while production was underway. After production resumed, there was still some smoke in the air that had to be digitally removed in some shots.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 16/100. The reviews are extremely poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Skyline

ALIEN INVASION LOVERS: Should be high on your list but be warned that when you finally do see the aliens, it’s a bit of a letdown.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Roommate

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol


Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Paula Patton and Tom Cruise flee Doc Brown's new car after an 88MPH chase through Mumbai.

(2011) Spy Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Josh Holloway, Michael Nyqvist, Vladimir Mashkov, Lea Seydoux, Anil Kapoor, Samuli Edelmann, Ivan Shvedoff, Tom Wilkinson, Ving Rhames, Michelle Monaghan. Directed by Brad Bird

 

The term “popcorn flick” usually refers to a movie which one brainlessly munches popcorn to, one in which the viewer is engrossed in the action and in a real sense leaves themselves behind and become enmeshed in the world the filmmaker has created. Strangely, the term is often used in a derogatory fashion. From where I sit, it should be a high honor to be a popcorn flick.

And here one is, the fourth entry in the long-standing Mission: Impossible franchise which Cruise began 15 years ago as a big screen adaptation of an old ’60s spy series that in turn was a response to the wild popularity of James Bond. In many ways, the film franchise has of late outdone the Bond series, taking it high-tech and over the top.

The movie begins with Ethan Hunt (Cruise) being broken out of a Russian prison by Benji Dunn (Pegg) and Jane Carter (Patton), two fellow IMF agents. Hunt then receives orders to break into the Kremlin and retrieve information about a nuclear terrorist code-named Cobalt, who intends to destroy the information so that his true identity can’t be discovered. Hunt arrives too late; the information is gone and Cobalt has planted a bomb in the Kremlin, blowing it to smithereens. Hunt – and by extension, the IMF – are blamed.

Hunt manages to escape the hospital where he has been treated for wounds suffered in the explosion – and the dogged Russian agent (Mashkov) who is pursuing him – and is picked up by the Secretary (Wilkinson) of the IMF and Brandt (Renner), an IMF analyst. The Secretary explains that the IMF has been disavowed as an agency by the President – a situation called the Ghost Protocol – and that Hunt must stop Cobalt from initiating a nuclear horror and simultaneously clear the IMF from wrongdoing in the Kremlin explosion. Unfortunately, the Secretary destructs shortly thereafter and Brandt and Hunt barely escape with their lives.

Thus begins a globe-trotting adventure that takes Hunt and his team-by-default to Dubai and Mumbai in India, following Cobalt (Nyqvist) and his lackey Wistrom (Edelmann) and put them squarely in the path of lethal assassin Sabine Moreau (Seydoux) who had earlier murdered Agent Hanaway (Holloway who was Sawyer in TV’s “Lost” as you might recall) who also had been Carter’s lover. Carter is a bit cheesed off at Moreau because of it.

This is Bird’s live-action debut, having directed The Incredibles and Ratatouille for Pixar. He is perfectly suited for this kind of movie, the M:I series being something of a live action cartoon in any case. There are stunt sequences here that are some of the best in the series, including one in which Ethan Hunt climbs the outside of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building using a pair of electronic gloves that allow him to stick to the glass surface. There is also a climactic fight between Cobalt and Hunt in Mumbai in one of those garages where the cars are stacked as in a carrying case and brought out robotically. There’s also a chase in a sandstorm involving Hunt and Wistrom.

If it sounds like Tom Cruise gets to have all of the fun in this movie, he essentially does. He has the charisma and star power still to retain your attention whenever he’s on the screen. However there is also no doubt that the man is getting older (he’ll turn 50 in 2012) and that he is slowing down some. This is not the cocky self-confident Cruise who did the first Mission: Impossible film. He is not yet too old for the role but he’s certainly showing signs that he’s on his way there.

Renner gets to show off his acting chops a bit, surprisingly, as Brandt. In many ways his character is more interesting than Ethan Hunt, having been given a bit of a backstory and Brandt gets to pull off a bit of pathos which is unexpected in a movie like this. Then again, it has been widely rumored that he is the heir apparent to the franchise once Cruise decides to bow out and it seems likely that a passing of the torch will take place in the next film of the series or perhaps two films down the road.

Patton and Pegg have supporting roles, she as sex appeal and he as comedy relief and both perform ably. Patton in particular really isn’t given a lot to work with and that may leave some cold when it comes to her character, but she is sexy when she needs to be and an action heroine when she needs to be.

An action film doesn’t need to have intelligence (although that can be a pleasant plus) in order to be successful. For those looking for entertainment that doesn’t require a great deal of mental investment, this is definitely the way to go. It’s got great stunts and fights, high tech gadgets that would make Q Division green with envy, sexy women, hunky men and international intrigue – not to mention exotic locations. There may be no casinos here but the spirit of James Bond is alive and well with this franchise – and with the Bond franchise as well, thankfully. Spy movie fans are certainly living in the best of times.

REASONS TO GO: Spectacular stunts and amazing pacing makes for an exciting, breathtaking and ultimately mindless action film.

REASONS TO STAY: Cruise is a little long in the tooth for his role. Nyqvist makes for a pretty bland villain.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence action-style.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cruise performed the scaling of the Burj Khalifa tower sequence himself without the aid of a stunt double. The insurance company is recovering nicely from their angina.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely in the theater – the big stunts and big vistas deserve a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Darkest Hour