High Strung


Girl just wanna have fun.

Girl just wanna have fun.

(2016) Urban Musical (Paladin) Keenan Kampa, Nicholas Galitzine, Jane Seymour, Sonoya Mizuno, Richard Southgate, Paul Freeman, Maia Morgenstern, Ian Eastwood, Anabel Kutay, Marcus Emanuel Mitchell, Comfort Fedoke, Simon A. Mendoza, Miranda Wilson, Dave Scott, Andrew Pleavin, Tomi May, David Lipper, Nigel Barber, Giulia Nahmany. Directed by Michael Damian

 

One is a fresh-faced wanna-be ballerina from the Midwest who is in danger of losing her scholarship to a prestigious arts academy in Manhattan. The other is a brooding, angry subway busker whose violin playing shows tons of ability and tons of passion but little restraint; he’s about to be deported. Is this a match made in heaven or the odd couple?

This is the latest entry into a genre that really began in 1980 with Fame but has really picked up steam in the last decade with the Step Up movie franchise, the Glee TV series and Pitch Perfect, to name a few, plus other assorted one-offs. Star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the tracks, one into classical performance art, the other an innovator, face enormous challenges, enter a dance competition usually revolving around hip-hop, then after a temporary setback nearly tears them apart, reunites in the last frame to grab the gold, the glory and the fluttering hearts of tweens everywhere. Roll credits.

It’s not a bad formula per se, but this is the type of movie that has not been among my favorite genres and this one is a fairly weak representative of it. The dialogue is a bit clunky and the plot preposterous. The saving grace for the couple – ballet dancer Ruby (Kampa) and hip-hop violinist Johnny (Galitzine) – is (get this) a string and dance competition with a $25,000 grand prize. Have you heard of a string and dance competition, much less one that is giving away that much cash? I didn’t think so.

There are also hard hats who break out into a dance-off on a subway platform and a (fictional) conservatory that seems to only employ Russians, including a feisty and nearly unrecognizable Jane Seymour as the headmistress, and Paul Freeman as a dancer whose hips were shattered by the Nazis who has become a pre-eminent ballet teacher. Ironic, since Freeman played a Nazi ally in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The dance sequences are energetic, spirited and actually a lot of fun to watch. That figures, since Dave Scott, one of the best hip hop choreographers in the business, is involved as a producer (although he is not listed as a choreographer here). They’re most certainly the best aspects of the film and make it marginally watchable. The cast is fresh-faced and at least good watching; Kampa has a kind of ingénue appeal, while Galitzine has cheekbones that can cut glass and a brooding pout sure to set tween girls to sighing in their Corn Flakes for months after seeing this.

But too much of this movie is simply “been there, done that” and the most amazing dance sequences in the world can’t save a movie that borrows so heavily from other movies, many of which are frankly not that good. I will give it props for having a gee-whiz can-do vibe and a certain innocent sweetness to it, but there isn’t enough here to hold the interest of any but the most non-discerning for the entire hour and a half run time.

REASONS TO GO: High energy. Winsome leads.
REASONS TO STAY: Cliches abound. Adds nothing to the genre. Stretches credulity. Predictable throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: A little foul language and some thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was filmed in Bucharest, standing in for Manhattan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Step Up
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: To Keep the Light

Getaway


This is Ethan Hawke's career going up in flames.

This is Ethan Hawke’s career going up in flames.

(2013) Action (Warner Brothers) Ethan Hawke, Selena Gomez, Jon Voight, Rebecca Budig, Bruce Payne, Paul Freeman, Ivailo Geraskov, Dimo Alexiev, Slavi Pavlov, Deyan Angelov, Kaloian Vodenicharov, Danko Jordanov, Velizar Peev, Peewee Piemonte, Esteban Cueto, Kiril Todarov, Georgi Dimitrov, Lena Milan, Silvia Ranguelova, Maria Bobeva. Directed by Courtney Solomon

Some filmmakers accept their limitations and try to work within them. There are directors who specialize in certain types of movies and seem fairly content to making those sorts of films year after year, churning out films that are right in their wheelhouse. Others prefer to challenge themselves.

I’m not sure which kind of director Courtney Solomon is. What he has delivered to us here is basically a 90 minute car chase through the streets of downtown Sofia, Bulgaria with little thought given to plot or logic. The reason for that may be that Solomon is good and filming car stunts – or perhaps he isn’t and wants to get better at it.

Either way. Here we witness Brent Magra (Hawke), a former race car driver now living in Bulgaria after his career went belly-up and he’d turned briefly to a life of crime. Now married to a Good Woman (Budig) with whom he can start over in Eastern Europe, he is working a legit job. It’s Christmastime. What could go wrong?

Well, a lot. He comes home and finds his apartment trashed and blood on the floor. He receives a call on his cell from a guy with a German accent (Voight) who informs him that they have his wife. Just for good measure, pictures are sent to prove they mean business. Brent is to steal a car – a tricked out Shelby Mustang with all the latest gadgets including surveillance equipment inside and out, armor plating and a hands-free phone. It even comes with its irate owner, a Kid (Gomez) who is the daughter of a bank executive who happens to be a brilliant computer hacker and happens to have a gun. Brent is ordered to take her along and drive throughout downtown Sofia causing all manners of mayhem, like driving through a crowded park and ramming police cars.

Soon the entire Bulgarian police force is after him and the Kid and Brent need to figure out what the Voice wants; it’s clear to both of them that once the real deed is achieved the many and various thugs will kill Brent, the Kid, his Wife and a small village in Bosnia. Think of the Voice as a walking talking Monsanto.

It’s hard to know where to begin here. The acting is wooden and Gomez is horribly miscast. I get that she wants to scuttle her Disney Channel reputation and move on to more adult roles but she is about as convincing as a street-wise punk as De Niro would be as Tinker Bell. Hawke, who has done some fine work in the past, seems to be distracted throughout; maybe he’s thinking about how to invest his paycheck.

The big crime here is not the one being committed by the Voice and his gang but by the writers. There are incredible lapses in logic and continuity that are simply beyond amateur. For example, one of the tasks Brent and the Kid are given to do is to blow up a power plant by uploading a virus that overloads the system, causing a shower of sparks. We see the lights go out in Sofia. Cut to the very next scene and all the lights are on. Every. Last. One. When was the last time that your power went out and your lights came on within five minutes? Exactly.

Brent is chased by the cops and the thugs and none of them can shoot very well. Apparently there’s bullet proof glass in the car, but they are seen rolling down the windows on several occasions. Not with bullet proof glass you can’t. The Shelby is smashed and bashed by multiple collisions yet all the delicate electronics continue to work. Even given the armor plating, isn’t it likely a wire or two might be jarred loose?

I could go on and on but frankly this isn’t worth it. Those of you who think Hal Needham was too highbrow for your tastes might be happy as a pig in slop with this mess. For the rest of us, move along. Nothing here to see.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent car stunts.

REASONS TO STAY: Gomez is miscast. One trick pony.  Severe lapses in logic.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and general mayhem throughout, a few choice words here and there and a few rude gestures to go along with them.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: 130 cars were wrecked in the making of the movie; the wrecked cars were stored in an on-set junkyard.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 2% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Transporter

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Kick-Ass 2

New Releases for the Week of August 30, 2013


Getaway

GETAWAY

(Warner Brothers) Ethan Hawke, Selena Gomez, Jon Voight, Rebecca Budig, Paul Freeman, Bruce Payne, Ivailo Geraskov. Directed by Courtney Solomon

When the wife of a former race car driver is kidnapped, her husband is forced to commandeer a customized sports car, taking the owner on a high octane race against time. Forced to follow the instructions of a faceless voice, knowing his every move is being watched, he must whip up a plan to defeat the nameless criminal calling the shots, knowing that his wife’s life as well as the two lives in the car are forfeit if he can’t.

See the trailer, clips, promos and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for intense action, violence and mayhem throughout, some rude gestures and language)

Closed Circuit

(Focus) Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Ciaran Hinds, Julia Stiles. Two former lovers, now estranged, are reluctantly forced to work together as the defense team of an accused terrorist. However, it seems that their every move is being watched and it becomes clear that events are being manipulated. The closer they look, the more danger they’re in.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexuality, violence and language) 

The Grandmaster

(Weinstein) Ziyi Zhang, Tony Leung, Zhang Yongcheng, Cung Le. Visionary Chinese director Wong Kar Wai weighs in with this tale of Ip Man, the legendary Chinese martial arts master who is best known in the West as Bruce Lee’s teacher. During the chaos that followed the fall of China’s last imperial dynasty, he would rise as the best of the best during the golden age of Chinese martial arts. Not to be confused with the Ip Man trilogy which also was loosely based on the same historical figure.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Martial Arts

Rating: PG-13 (for violence, some smoking, brief drug use and language)

Instructions Not Included

(Pantelion) Eugenio Derbez, Jessica Lindsey, Loreto Peralta, Daniel Raymont. A ladies man in Acapulco finds a baby girl on his doorstep. He decides to raise her himself after unsuccessfully searching for the mother in Los Angeles and manages to carve out a decent life for the two of them and a successful career as a Hollywood stunt ma. Complications ensue six years later when the birth mother resurfaces and wants her daughter back.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, thematic elements and language)

One Direction: This is Us

(TriStar) Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles. Documentary filmmaker shocks his fans by doing a movie about the teen heartthrobs du jour. At least all the pre-teen tween girls will be giggling and texting in a different theater than the rest of us while this is out.

See the trailer, clips and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D (opens Thursday)

Genre: Musical Documentary

Rating: PG (for mild language)

Satyagraha

(UTV) Amitabh Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor, Ajay Devgn, Arjun Rampal. A young man rising in the corporate ranks sees his hopes dashed when a personal tragedy exposes him to the corruption in the system. Moved to take action, he allies with an idealistic older man and ignites a revolution that soon spirals far out of control.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

The Spectacular Now

(A24) Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Kyle Chandler . A popular BMOC in high school, the guy all the girls want to be with falls for the good girl. What begins as an unlikely romance blossoms into something deeper and more complicated than either one ever expected.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Coming of Age Drama

Rating: R (for alcohol use, language and some sexuality – all involving teens)

Centurion


 

Centurion

Michael Fassbender runs for the nearest X-Men movie.

(2010) Swords and Sandals (Magnet) Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, David Morrissey, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, JJ Field, Liam Cunningham, Imogen Poots, Andreas Wisniewski, Paul Freeman, Ulrich Thomsen, Rachael Stirling, Eoin Macken. Directed by Neil Marshall

War can be boiled down to a basic truth – one group, who want the other to leave, against the second group, who only want to go home. I suppose a lot of wars would end with much less bloodshed if the second group just did what the first wanted – and what they wanted to do anyway.

Quintus Dias (Fassbender) is a centurion of the Roman army (which means he commands 100 men) who survives a massacre in Caledonia (ancient Scotland) where the Picts hold sway. He joins up with the Ninth Legion, commanded by General Titus Virilus (West). Virilus is the commanding officer that Quintus always wanted to have. Brave, bold and every inch a Roman.

But as things will sometimes do even in the best-led of armies, things go wrong. The Ninth is ambushed by the clever Picts who kill the bulk of the army and capture Virilus. Quintus knows his duty is to rescue his commanding officer and his friend but with only a handful of soldiers whose devotion to duty varies wildly from man to man to battle an entire army of vicious Picts, the prospects are grim.

Still, Quintus has to try but in the end the existence of their merry little band is discovered and the Picts send out Etain (Kurylenko), a beautiful, mute and remorseless hunter who hates everything Roman and for good reason. When the remaining Romans take refuge in the home of Arianne (Poots), a healer, things fall in place for a showdown. Will the Romans make it back to Roman lines, or will they fall alone and forgotten in a cold, harsh place far from home?

This could well be seen as an allegory for all war. Put U.S. Soldiers in Iraq, or Russian soldiers in Afghanistan, or French soldiers in Russia and it’s all interchangeable. Neil Marshall, who was responsible for one of the better horror movies of recent years with The Descent has a penchant for realistic looking gore, and his fight scenes show people getting hacked to death and it’s not pretty.

Although there are way too many shots of CGI blood jetting into the snow like a gruesome fountain – the practical blood seems far more realistic – there is a beauty to the bright red of the blood on the white and grey dismal landscape of the Inverness Mountains. There is a stark beauty to the movie that captures how those Romans must have felt – they may as well have been on the moon, so alien was the landscape to them.

Fassbender made this just as he was starting to get some key roles (to this point he was best known for Hunger and for his brief but memorable turn in Inglourious Basterds) and this was certainly a warning shot across the bow that here was a talent to be reckoned with. This is his movie to carry (although initially it doesn’t seem to be) and he does so quite nicely. He shows some charisma and acting skills; you can see why men would follow Quintus into battle.

Kurylenko was best known for her stint as a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace but she’s totally badass here. She kicks a lot of ass and because her character is mute, her ferocity is mainly in her body language and her eyes. Another reviewer compared her character with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor as far as ass-kicking women go and he was right on the money. Etain is nobody to be trifled with.

I like that Marshall tried to make this as historically accurate as possible. What I don’t like is that the CGI was disappointing, and that there were scenes that simply didn’t work very well. The thing I liked the least was that after Quintus and Virilus the Romans were really indistinguishable from one another and all kind of blended together, making them all spear fodder and really giving the viewer no reason to identify with them or feel any connection with. That hurts the film overall in my opinion.

I’m a sucker for a good swords and sandals movie and this one is pretty solid, even if it isn’t as spectacular as something like, say, 300. Fassbender gives a good performance and even if it is essentially one gigantic chase sequence, it still gives you a little insight into the soldiers and what they’re fighting for. That’s an insight that serves military sorts from any era.

WHY RENT THIS: Fairly realistic from a historical point of view. One of the first instances where Fassbender shows his leading man potential. Kurylenko makes a formidable opponent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Is uneven in quality. CGI battle sequences are unconvincing. Most of the rest of the cast are made up of characters we’re unable to even tell apart.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly gruesome violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although it is thought that the Picts wore no clothing, the harsh condition on the location shoot made the filmmakers give in to necessity and design warm clothing for the actors to wear on the shoot.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on a $12M production budget; unfortunately this was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Eagle

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Life

Raiders of the Lost Ark


Raiders of the Lost Ark

Harrison Ford is having a ball.

(1981) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, Wolf Kahler, Alfred Molina, Vic Tablian, Don Fellows, William Hootkins, Fred Sorenson, Anthony Chinn. Directed by Steven Spielberg

When news came that Spielberg and George Lucas were joining forces back in 1980, movie fans couldn’t help but rub their hands together in anticipation. After all, these guys were two of the brightest flames in Hollywood; Lucas with two Star Wars movies (to that point), Spielberg with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

What nobody anticipated was that these two men, along with star Harrison Ford, would rewrite the book on adventure movies. An homage to the great serial movies of the ’30s and ’40s, Indiana Jones, trusty whip on the hip and battered fedora on his head, took the world by storm. The first Indiana Jones movie was the box office champ of 1981 and spawned numerous imitators, clones and wanna-bes which persist to this day (Tomb Raider for instance).

But nobody has even come close to the entertainment delivered by the Indiana Jones series. The first movie of the series, set in the 1930s, introduces Indiana Jones, professor of archaeology and “how should I put it? — obtainer of rare antiquities.” An expedition to South America to retrieve a golden idol puts the tattered archaeologist through fiendish traps and less-than-loyal associates (Molina, in one of his first movie roles, meets a particularly gruesome end) to emerge from the cursed temple, idol in hand – only to have it snatched away by his nemesis, Rene Belloq (Freeman), a French archaeologist with fewer scruples than Indy.

Jones returns home to find Army intelligence waiting for him; they’ve intercepted a Nazi communiqué that is puzzling to them, but makes sense to Jones and his sponsor, museum curator Marcus Brody (Elliot); they realize that Hitler’s minions may be close to finding the resting place of the Lost Ark of the Covenant, which held the actual Ten Commandments Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Realizing that this was something they had to prevent Hitler from obtaining, the Army sends Jones to go retrieve it.

In order to find the actual location of the Ark itself, Jones needs a staff headpiece that former flame Marion Ravenswood (Allen) has. After going to her bar in Tibet to try to retrieve it, he foils a Nazi attempt to take it by force.

The two head down to Egypt, where they are aided by Indy’s close friend Sallah (Rhys-Davies), who helps Indy divine the correct location. However, Belloq (who is working with the Nazis), manages to steal the Ark that Indy found and takes it and the girl to a remote island, with Indy close behind. There he will learn the secret of the Lost Ark, one that is beautiful and terrifying at once.

Raiders sets the tone as a virtual roller-coaster ride, putting Indy in one perilous situation after another, with little let-up. Spielberg proves himself to be an absolute master of pacing — editors Michael Kahn and George Lucas deserve a lot of credit here as well — knowing when to ratchet up the thrills and knowing when to give the audience a chance to catch its breath. Using devices common to serials and adventure movies from the ’30s and ’40s, Spielberg creates a wonderful sense of the era without forgetting the modern sensibilities of his audience.

The result is a movie that can legitimately be called a classic, one that has lost none of its luster in the 30 years since its release. While Star Wars made a star out of Ford, Raiders cemented him as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. His screen charisma is never put to as good use as it is here; Jones is both a traditional adventure hero but also a fallible one – he hates snakes and he has a penchant for getting beaten up. Unlike the heroes of past serials, Indy rarely fights fair – the scene of him shooting an expert swordsman who tries to intimidate him with a series of elaborate moves was both improvised and classic. The ability of the film and its actors to poke fun at traditional adventure movie clichés is part of what makes the movie great.

Personally, I was never a big fan of Karen Allen’s performance although I understand why people adore her. She was supposed to be a strong, bold woman of her era, able to drink big ol’ Nepalese under the table and a woman willing to stand up to the Nazis but at the end of the day she was just a heroine in jeopardy, waiting to be rescued by the hero while whining “Indyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy” as she does. The part was a little too schizophrenic for my liking, although it did set the tone for heroines for the rest of the series, for good or for ill.

Freeman made Belloq smooth, suave and pretty much forgettable. He was the more “reasonable” of the heroes, the dark side of Indiana Jones who allowed his own greed to become his driving force. It was the money that motivated Belloq, not the actual artifacts that he was after. Jones wanted the items that he found to be displayed in museums for everyone to enjoy; Belloq only wanted the payday. He makes an interesting contrast to Jones, but Freeman doesn’t have the charisma to really compete against Ford.

It is Lacey who is the villain most everyone remembers. As the eager Gestapo agent, he is both dangerous and disarming. He can torture a young woman with a red-hot poker, or lead a group of thugs to beat up a single aging archaeologist.

This remains to this day one of my favorite movies and I’m not alone in that regard – Raiders has everything that makes going to the movies fun. Even 30 years after the fact, it remains as fresh and fun as it did the day it came out. It is currently only available as part of a four-disc DVD set of the original trilogy which is kind of a shame because this deserves to be part of everyone’s home video collection and the prohibitive price of the multi-movie set may be out of reach for some. I don’t think Indiana Jones would approve of that kind of thinking, although Belloq might.

WHY RENT THIS: The perfect adventure movie. Harrison Ford shows why he’s one of the world’s biggest stars. A roller coaster ride from beginning to end, brilliantly paced.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenswood is a bit whiney.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some fairly scary images and a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The name of the lead character was originally Indiana Smith, which was an homage to the Steve McQueen character Nevada Smith. The surname was changed to Jones on the first day of production.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: All of the special features on the DVD are on the fourth disc of the four-disc collection and include a massive Making of the Trilogy featurette that is more than two hours long and includes much behind the scenes footage. There are also featurettes on the stunt work, the music, the special effects and Ben Burtt’s amazing sound work. There is also a promo for the new (at the time) Indiana Jones video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $384M on an $18M production budget; the movie was a massive global blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Footnote