The Jungle Book (2016)


Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

(2016) Family (Disney) Neel Sethi, Bill Murray (voice), Ben Kingsley (voice), Idris Elba (voice), Lupita Nyong’o (voice), Scarlett Johansson (voice), Giancarlo Esposito (voice), Christopher Walken (voice), Garry Shandling (voice), Brighton Rose (voice), Emjay Anthony (voice), Jon Favreau (voice), Russell Peters (voice), Sam Raimi (voice), Ritesh Rajan, Sara Arrington (voice). Directed by Jon Favreau

 

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is rightly considered a children’s classic. The Disney animated version, while not near the top of their list, is at least considered one of the better animated films of its era, complete with a passel of Sherman brothers tunes that continue to be quoted by Disney in their theme parks and commercials.

A live action version continues Disney’s string of live action features based on their animated films and in many ways this is the most challenging project yet. Director Favreau, who is best known for the first two Iron Man films, was an inspired choice to direct this, having done family films as well as big special effects extravaganzas as well.

Mowgli (Sethi) is a young human child raised by wolves after the death of his father (Rajan). Alpha male Akela (Esposito) and his noble wife Raksha (Nyong’o) take on the responsibility of raising the boy as a wolf. Try as he might to fit in, Mowgli has just two legs and no claws to speak of. However he is a cheerful boy and an inventive thinker. Panther Bagheera (Kingsley) is also nearby, making sure that Mowgli is raised right.

Also nearby, unfortunately, is Shere Khan (Elba), a disfigured tiger whose burns had been received at the hands of Mowgli’s dad before the big cat sent him on his way to meet his maker. When Shere Khan finds out that Mowgli is about, he blows a gasket. No human will live safely in his forest while he lives, and Shere Khan sets out to eliminate Mowgli from the board.

Akela and Bagheera agree that Mowgli must leave the pack, despite the laws of the pack that seem to indicate that the pack is stronger together rather than splitting up. Bagheera tries to escort Mowgli to the safety of the human village but Shere Khan finds out and Mowgli and Bagheera are separated. Mowgli is found by Baloo ((Murray), a happy-go-lucky bear who finds a stroke of good luck when Mowgli, ever-inventive, figures out a way for Baloo to get the honeycombs that are high on the top of a mountain that Baloo is unable to reach. Even in this idyllic interlude, the jungle isn’t safe; not only is the tiger after Mowgli but so is King Louie (Walken), the clever but crazed leader of the apes who has an eye on the secret of fire which only Mowgli can unravel as well as Kaa (Johansson), a seductive serpent whose only concern is making Mowgli her lunch.

Sethi is the only onscreen actor who gets any significant time; all the other animal characters and indeed the jungle setting itself is all digitally created. It’s an impressive technical achievement, achieving a photorealistic jungle as well as the animals within it. The computer animators achieve actual personalities in the anthropomorphic subjects, with Baloo’s happy-go-lucky bear augmented by Murray’s acerbic wit; Bagheera’s sleek black form is bolstered with his expressions of annoyance and occasional contentment. It is somewhat ironic that only Mowgli himself is poorly drawn as a character.

It’s not that Sethi is a bad actor – far from it. He shows some real athleticism in his role, but the dialogue for him is a little one-note and Sethi doesn’t vary much in his line reading. Like some child actors, he comes off as a little too sure of himself and perhaps Mowgli’s wolf upbringing might explain this, but Mowgli comes off as almost arrogant to the point of Trumpness.

The voice actors all do wonderful work, particularly Murray and Kingsley, but Johansson, Nyong’o and Walken also distinguish themselves. Favreau is inventive in the way he uses tracking shots and flashbacks, and the movie is never visually boring.

The animated edition is where most of the cues for this movie arise, but there are also other elements from other movies, some surprising. There are nods to Apocalypse Now, for example, when King Louie reveals himself. The appearance of three songs from the original movie is all welcome and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Christopher Walken warbling “Wanna Be Like You.”

This is some of the best family entertainment you’re going to find in a year that’s shaping up to offer some truly interesting family films that this critic is eager to check out. That’s good news as there has been a bit of a dry spell when it’s come to high quality family entertainment. This one is going to make it into the video library for a lot of kids who will be demanding it from parents who won’t mind giving in. Definitely one of the best family films in years.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing animal effects look completely real. A classic honored with a terrific rendition. Nice little shout-outs to the animated version.
REASONS TO STAY: While Sethi is less annoying then he might have been, he was occasionally a bit overly smug for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence here as well as a child in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Disney version of The Jungle Book in which Bagheera and Shere Khan fight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tarzan
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Honeyglue

Jane Got a Gun


Jane takes aim at the industry suits who kept this film on the shelf for three years.

Jane takes aim at the industry suits who kept this film on the shelf for three years.

(2016) Western (Weinstein) Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Noah Emmerich, Ewan McGregor, Rodrigo Santoro, Boyd Holbrook, Alex Manette, Todd Stashwick, James Burnett, Sam Quinn, Chad Brummett, Boots Southerland, Nash Edgerton, Robb Janov, James Blackburn, Nicoletta Chapman, Ricky Lee, Darlene Kellum, Lauren Poole, Kristin Hansen. Directed by Gavin O’Connor

When you are threatened, I think that most of us can pretty much take it. You can do what you want to us, but leave our families alone, right? When home and hearth are threatened, well, one has to make a line in the sand someplace.

For Jane Hammond (Portman), that line has been drawn. When her husband Bill (Emmerich) shows back home with bullets in his back, he tells her that he had a run-in with the Bishop Boys, a gang he once rode with and who Jane herself has a past with. Now they are coming. Jane could easily take her daughter and run, but she’s done that her entire life. She loves her home and will fight to defend it.

But she can’t do it by herself and Bill’s wounds are simply too severe for him to be much use in a gunfight, so she swallows her pride and enlists Dan Frost (Edgerton), the gunslinger who was once her fiance. While he was away fighting the Civil War, she had become disillusioned, believing that he had been killed in action. While on a wagon train headed West led by John Bishop (McGregor), she was saved from the proverbial fate worse than death by Bill, along with a daughter fathered by Frost that he never knew he had.

Now the past has caught up with her and Bill and only Dan can save them. Dan has issues of his own, many of them stemming with his treatment at Jane’s hands so he’s ambivalent about helping her out, but he can’t leave the woman he once loved in the lurch, even if he has to save the man she’s with now. So he calmly goes about the business of fortifying her home, knowing that the force that is coming at them may be greater than even he can save her from.

This is very much in the vein of typical “against the odds” Westerns along the lines of a High Noon in which a heroic figure is preparing for the arrival of an overwhelming force that is likely to kill them. Natalie Portman is no Gary Cooper, but she does topline the film nicely. When I heard she was doing this film, I wondered about the wisdom of casting her in this kind of role; after all, she’s one of the most beautiful women in the world and has the grace of a ballerina. Could she play a dirt farmer’s wife in the Old West? Turns out, she can.

O’Connor wants to make a traditional Western with a bit of a twist, putting Portman in kind of a heroic role. While Edgerton – who co-wrote the film – is ostensibly the hero, Portman steals the show but not to the same extent that McGregor does. With his shoe polish black moustache and coif, he looks the part of a Western villain, maybe to the point of self-parody. But he is certainly venal enough and his smooth words disguise lethal venom. It’s a terrific villainous role for an actor who tends to assay heroic roles more often.

The dusty New Mexico landscape is dry as a bone and makes for an appropriately desolate setting. I have to admit that while the movie is decently paced and doesn’t seem to have any extraneous material, the flashbacks are a bit awkward and the whole balloon ride thing was more or less unconvincing – you half expected to see them sailing for Oz.

The movie has largely been left to fend for itself, which is a crying shame. It deserved a better fate than it got from Weinstein and various distributors, directors and producers. Despite its checkered past in getting from script to multiplex, this isn’t a bad movie and while it isn’t the best Western out there, it is a solid entry into the genre which has received a welcome resurgence over the past several months. Movies like this are likely to entice even more viewers into the genre.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely paced. Acting performances are all solid.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing here is particularly different and exciting. Derivative.
FAMILY VALUES: There are violence and language issues.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally filmed in 2013, the movie sat on the shelf for nearly three years due to several release date changes, the bankruptcy of Relativity Studios (who were originally to release it) and reported clashes between the distributors and producers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hannie Caulder
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cinema of the Heart begins!

The Revenant (2015)


Leo in the wilderness.

Leo in the wilderness.

(2015) Western (20th Century Fox) Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Paul Anderson, Kristoffer Joner, Joshua Burge, Duane Howard, Melaw Nakehk’o, Fabrice Adde, Arthur RedCloud, Christopher Rosamond, Robert Moloney, Lukas Haas, Brendan Fletcher, Tyson Wood, McCaleb Burnett, Grace Dove. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

Nature has a way of reducing us to our primal, primordial selves. Life becomes reduced to a single choice; survive or die. There is nothing complex about it – but nothing simple either.

Loosely based on an actual incident, the story is about Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), an explorer and trapper in the 1820s American frontier who is leading a party of trappers set upon by the Pawnee, who erroneously believe they kidnapped one of their women. The Americans, under the command of the dauntless Captain Andrew Henry (Gleeson) are forced to stash their hard-won pelts and flee, led by Glass and his compatriot John Fitzgerald (Hardy). When Glass is attacked by a bear and gravely injured and the Pawnee hard on their trail, Captain Henry is forced to leave him under the care of three men, including Fitzgerald, young Bridger (Poulter) and Glass’ son Hawk (Goodluck), who is half-Native American. Glass’ wife (Dove) had been killed by soldiers a few years earlier.

However, the cowardly Fitzgerald, thinking that Glass is a goner for sure, decides to bury him prematurely while Bridger is away. Hawk discovers him and tries to fight him off but gets stabbed to death for his trouble. Fitzgerald quickly buries Hawk and then convinces Bridger that the Pawnee are almost upon them, and throws Glass into a shallow grave, still alive. Bridger reluctantly agrees but his conscience is absolutely bothering him.

The trouble is, Glass is not quite dead yet. And having witnessed his son’s murder, he is full on with a thirst for revenge. The trouble is, he is hundreds of miles away from anything and anyone and he can barely walk. It is the middle of winter and his chances of survival are nearly nil, but never count out the human spirit – and the thirst for vengeance.

This is one of the most beautifully shot films you’re likely to see. In my admittedly inexpert opinion cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is far and away the Oscar favorite and this has been a superb year for cinematographers. It is bleak and cold, but there is so much beauty. The shots are carefully constructed to frame the action but at the same time look like works of art, with the trees and the sky and the snow all combining to bring the audience into the frame. I couldn’t help but shiver at times.

DiCaprio was nominated for the Golden Globe for his work here and also has been nominated for an Oscar which are a few weeks away as of this writing and while his performance isn’t my favorite of the year, it was certainly worthy of the nominations and has a good shot at winning the statuette, Eddie Redmayne notwithstanding. He doesn’t have a whole lot of dialogue here and has to communicate much of his performance through wild looks, spittle blown out of his mouth and wordless screams. As elegant as Redmayne’s also-Oscar worthy performance was, this is primal and raw, a caveman to the sophisticate of Redmayne. It is rare to see such diversity of styles in a single nominated group and I don’t envy the Academy voters their task to pick just one winner.

Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto provided the minimalist score which often was comprised of found sounds, both natural and man-made. The composers also knew when silence would be more effective; the entire bear attack scene had no music other than DiCaprio’s agonized screams and the bear’s grunts and groans. As that scene almost has to be the most effective in the movie in order for the film to work, Iñárritu made some wise choices in setting up and executing not only the action (the bear was CGI from what I understand and quite frankly I couldn’t tell) but also in how that action was framed.

Iñárritu is a bit of a mystic and some of the scenes have that sense, almost like Carlos Castaneda translated to celluloid. He captures the brutality of life on the frontier almost too well; at times the intensity and the starkness is hard to watch. More sensitive viewers may find the film too grim for their liking. While this isn’t my favorite movie in the director’s filmography, it may well be his best in many ways but for reasons that may well be personal (I was literally exhausted while I was watching it after a sleepless night the evening before) it didn’t connect to me the way his other works have. In my case, this is a film that I admire more than I love, but that doesn’t mean you won’t love it. This is certainly when all is said and done essential viewing if you intend to capture the very best of 2015.

REASONS TO GO: An amazing technical achievement. One of DiCaprio’s finest performances of his career. Realistic almost to a fault.
REASONS TO STAY: Not for everybody; grim, relentless and sometimes too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Along with frontier violence and some gory images, there’s also a scene of sexual assault, brief nudity and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DiCaprio, a vegetarian, at an actual raw buffalo liver in the scene that called for it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Man Called Horse
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Road to Nowhere

Secret in Their Eyes


The eyes have it.

The eyes have it.

(2015) Mystery (STX) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Alfred Molina, Dean Norris, Joe Cole, Michael Kelly, Zoe Graham, Patrick Davis, Eileen Fogarty, Lyndon Smith, Kim Yarbrough, Mark Famiglietti, Amir Malaklou, Niko Nicotera, David Israel, Dennis Keiffer, Don Harvey, Glenn Davis, Walter Tabayoyong, Michael Tennant, Ho Sung Pak, Saige Donaldson. Directed by Billy Ray

 

The line between justice and vengeance is often a fine one. There are those that say that you can have one or the other but never both; there are others that say they go hand in hand. Either way, both are exceedingly hard to attain and in the pursuit of one, often one has to settle for the other. When what attains is vengeance, we often have to kill a little piece of ourselves in order to find it.

In the aftermath of 9-11, an elite counter-terrorism task force has been established in Los Angeles by multiple law enforcement agencies. District Attorney Martin Morales (Molina) heads up the team, and among his agents are partners Ray (Ejiofor) from the FBI and Jess (Roberts) from the L.A. District Attorney’s investigative team. In their crosshairs is a downtown mosque which is said to harbor a cleric who had intentions of taking the jihadist fight to the City of Angels.

When a body is found in a dumpster next to the mosque, red flags are sent up and Ray and Jess are sent to investigate. However, the grisly discovery is of Jess’ 18-year-old daughter Carolyn (Graham), a vivacious soul who had been getting ready to go to college in the fall. The discovery devastates the team. New assistant D.A. Claire (Kidman) is assigned the case and a suspect is quickly located. However, dead end upon dead end frustrates the team and eventually Ray figures out who really did it – an informant within the mosque itself (Cole). But he is being protected by powerful forces and is set free, only to disappear.

Thirteen years later, Ray – now working as a security consultant for the New York Mets – comes to Claire – now the District Attorney – with the startling news that Ray has located the long-missing suspect. Claire and Jess (who still works for the office) are reluctant to reopen old wounds but Ray is particularly obsessed with the case and in bringing the man who killed Jess’ daughter in to pay for his crime. But even now, there are obstacles in the way of finding peace for Ray, Jess – and Claire.

This is based on the 2009 Oscar-winning film The Secret in Their Eyes, an Argentine film that won Best Foreign Language Film that year. While the plots are identical, some of the details have been changed which changes the dynamics of the newer film somewhat. Also you have three Oscar-caliber actors, all of whom who have won or at least been nominated, in the main parts.

Ejiofor is the central character and as he did in 12 Years a Slave he carries the movie on his broad shoulders. The scene in which he discovers the identity of the body in the dumpster is an incredible piece of work, although it is sadly unduplicated throughout the rest of the film. No, all three of the actors in the front deliver good, solid performances with moments of excellence. Roberts in particular has a haunted look that is most unlike any of her previous performances.

The problem here is that the low-key aspect of the film drains the energy from the audience. The pacing is extraordinarily slow and there were a number of scenes that I thought could have been trimmed if not excised. Ray also jumps in time between 2002 and 2015 and often the only way to tell what time period you’re observing is by the amount of gray in Ray’s hair. I occasionally found it confusing and hard to follow.

The overall atmosphere has a bit of a noir edge to it, just as the original did albeit with a Latin flavor. Transplanting the movie to Los Angeles robs it of that and indeed gives the movie an oddly generic quality – so many thrillers have been set in L.A. that there’s a been there-done that patina. That’s kind of disturbing and not in a good way.

While the ending is cathartic if a bit preposterous, it doesn’t save the audience from feeling that this is something they’ve seen before, even if you haven’t seen the original movie this is based on. Considering the abilities of the director and the talent of the cast, this is an extremely disappointing project that on paper should have been much better than it turned out to be. While it is still entertaining and I can recommend it solely on that basis, this is a movie that is haunted by the specter of what could have been.

REASONS TO GO: All three leads are fine actors. Cathartic. Noir-esque.
REASONS TO STAY: Surprisingly lethargic. Could have used some judicious editing. Time jumping can be confusing (keep an eye on the actors’ hair for clues).
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing violence and sexual content, rape and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All three of the leads – Ejiofor, Kidman and Roberts – are left-handed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zodiac
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Second Mother

Gone


Amanda Seyfried wants to have a talk with her agent.

Amanda Seyfried wants to have a talk with her agent.

(2012) Thriller (Summit) Amanda Seyfried, Daniel Sunjata, Jennifer Carpenter, Sebastian Stan, Wes Bentley, Nick Searcy, Socratis Otto, Emily Wickersham, Joel David Moore, Katherine Moennig, Michael Pare, Sam Upton, Ted Rooney, Erin Carufel, Amy Lawhorn, Susan Hess Logeias, Jeanine Jackson, Blaine Palmer, Victor Morris, Ted Cole, Tracy Pacana, Madison Wray. Directed by Heitor Dhalia

Woman Power

The thought of being kidnapped by a serial killer, thrown in a hole and being left there, waiting to die, is something most of us don’t really even consider. The thought of escaping that hole only to have nobody believe you that the ordeal was real is unimaginable.

But Jill (Seyfried) more than imagines it; this is what her life is. She’s certain that there is a serial killer out there, who has dug a large hole in Portland’s Forest Park, some 5100 acres of heavily wooded land in Oregon’s largest city. The police haven’t been able to find any hole, any trace that there are missing women buried there. Jill has a history of alcoholism and mental breakdowns; when her parents died some years earlier she was briefly institutionalized. She is so insistent that this horrible ordeal happened to her that eventually she is sent back to the hospital for evaluation.

A year afterwards, she is still obsessed with it, although less obviously. She works third shift at a diner as a waitress, about the only job she can get given her background. At night she patrols Forest Park, looking for the place she was taken to. She has been operating on a meticulous grid-by-grid method of searching, marking off each grid with a red pen but she still has a long way to go.

After a night of searching the park she returns home to wake up her sister Molly (Wickersham) who wanted to get up early to study for an exam she had  later that day, only to find her bed empty. Jill checks with Molly’s boyfriend Billy (Stan) who informs her that Molly didn’t spend the night, then later on he tells her that she didn’t show up for the exam. Jill gets a bad feeling about the whole thing, and goes to the police.

The cops who had worked her case, Lt. Bozeman (Pare), Sgt. Powers (Sunjata) and Detective Lonsdale (Moennig) are all skeptical, given Jill’s history. They dismiss her claims, looking for reasons that Jill might not have gone to her test, and all of them think this whole scenario is going on inside Jill’s head. Only the newest homicide detective, Peter Hood (Bentley) believes her.

Knowing that she won’t get help through official sources, Jill is bound and determined to find Molly on her own and will do anything, break any law to find her sister who is the only family she has left. She’ll lie, cheat and steal – and if she finds the man who has her, kill – to get her sister back.

This is the kind of movie that should have everything going for it; Seyfried is an extremely underrated actress who shows here that she can take on roles like this and make them work. There’s also the Brazilian director Dhalia who is best known in this country for Adrift and has made some fine films in his native land. Then there’s Portland itself, one of those cities that should have more films made there; it is certainly underutilized.

Seyfried is terrific here. This is the kind of role that is often overplayed and the lead character can go from insistent and focused to shrill and unlikable in an instant. Jill is certainly not without her demons but who among us wouldn’t do the things she does to save a sister? Certainly not me. If Jill is on the ragged edge, it is very understandable and Seyfried makes her actually likable, even in her worst moments. It’s marvelous work and shows that Seyfried is a versatile performer who can do drama, comedy and musicals, all of which she’s done notably in the past.

Now for the bad news; the studio seems to have interfered a good deal on this project, insisting that the movie get a PG-13 rating (the director apparently thought it should be R rated) and made Dhalia’s life so miserable to the point that he considered taking his name off the project. In this particular case, I think Dhalia was right; the movie would have benefitted from being allowed to go to a harder rating. It needed more edge to it.

Worse still, the writing doesn’t do the role of Jill justice. It’s full of logical holes – for instance, how does a girl working a third shift waitress job at a diner afford to hold on to a beautiful home in a nice neighborhood and send her sister to college?  Since she’s going into the woods by herself anyway, why does the killer need to go to such elaborate lengths to get her into the woods?

But worse still, she has the police doing and saying things no self-respecting police department would ever do. I get that the writer, Allison Burnett, wants to completely isolate Jill and force her to take action on her own which is the crux of the whole movie, but certainly there had to be ways that she could have done it that were more imaginative. And I think the movie would have been more effective as well if the audience were left wondering if the whole thing wasn’t REALLY in Jill’s head, right up to the very end.

Still, the beautiful scenery in and around Portland and especially Seyfried’s performance make this worth a look. Granted, the movie got terrible reviews and I can’t say as I blame some of my colleagues for ripping this film a new one, but I can forgive a lot when you get a performance like Seyfried’s in the kind of role – the thriller hero that takes matters into their own hands – that is more of a traditional male bastion. That alone is worth a look-see.

WHY RENT THIS: Seyfried takes a strong role and runs with it. Pretty cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lazy writing. Illogical plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence and depictions of women being terrorized, sexuality, some drug references and brief harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hardware store that Jill shops at in the movie is a real hardware store in Portland and at exactly the location that the film shows it to be.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $18.1M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, VuduiTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kiss the Girls
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Woman Power continues!

Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes)


This guy could teach Mad Max a thing or two about vengeance.

This guy could teach Mad Max a thing or two about vengeance.

(2014) Comedy (Sony Classics) Ricardo Darin, Rita Cortese, Maria Marull, Cesar Bordon, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Walter Donado, Oscar Martinez, Osmar Nunez, Maria Onetto, Erica Rivas, Diego Gentile, German de Silva, Dario Grandinetti, Monica Villa, Julieta Zylberberg, Nancy Duplaa, Lucita Mangone, Alan Daicz, Hector Drachtman, Margarita Molfino. Directed by Damian Szifron

Revenge, it is said, is a dish best served cold although it must also be said that in Latin American countries, there’s nothing cold about good ol’ hot-blooded Latin revenge. It is a cultural imperative, as a matter of fact.

This collection of vignettes each looks at vengeance from a different angle, all of them funny and some of them downright hilarious. Mostly set in Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires (although at least one is set out in the hinterlands of Argentina), there is a delicious quality to all of them which goes against what we normally see in American movies in which we are taught that an eye for an eye tends to leave everybody blind.

Herein we see a variety of different scenarios, with the first one begins with a beautiful model sits down on a strangely uncrowded airplane and strikes up a conversation with a neighbor. Soon, all of those aboard the plane discover they have a connection and that they aren’t aboard the plane by happenstance.

From there on we go to a waitress, discovering that the corrupt politician who ruined her family has sat down in the deserted diner in which she works is egged on by her somewhat diabolical cook to take her justice, then to an incident of escalating road rage, followed by a demolition expert whose car gets towed, setting off a chain of events that grow more and more devastating. Then we see the results of a drunken hit and run by a spoiled scion of a wealthy man who, sickened by the corruption of those who want to cover up the deed, is torn between saving his son and not contributing to the corruption. Finally we end of with the ultimate Bridezilla who makes a devastating discovery on her wedding day.

Each of the vignettes is told with a sense of humor that has a distinct Latin feel; some of it is quite subtle while some of it is broad to the point of slapstick and there is even some grossness that would make Apatow shudder and exclaim “Now, that’s going too far” – as in the road rage vignette in which one of the combatants defecates on the auto of another. Many auto-worshiping American men would rather have their genitals cut off with a butter knife than have that happen to their own car.

I was fond of the opening vignette which may be disturbing to some because of recent events in France which have some similarities to what you see here. The second one set in the diner isn’t nearly as clever as the others and briefly made me wonder if the rest of the movie would be like the first scene or the second; it turned out to be the former which was quite the relief.

My favorite was that of the munitions expert who is caught up in a corrupt, greedy scam of a towing company and his quest for justice ends up costing him nearly everything. However, in this particular case, his redemption turns him into something of a folk hero as a little man takes on the big machine and wins out. I think we’ve all felt like that at one time or another.

There is definitely a class element here; the road rage incident, for example, involves an upper class man in an expensive sedan versus a working class man in a beat up truck, while the case of the hit and run drunk driving we see the police and lawyer conspire with the wealthy man to have a groundskeeper in the wealthy man’s employ take the fall for the action committed by the wealthy man’s no-account son, which seems to indicate that justice is never truly served when it can be bought by the rich.

If you can see elements of the great Spanish director Pedro Almodovar in the movie, you are to be congratulated for your insight. In fact, Almodovar served as a producer for the movie although he didn’t direct it. Certainly his influence as a filmmaker can be felt in every scene.

This truly isn’t for everybody, I will admit. Americans don’t always find the Latin sense of humor palatable, although I think that we have more in common with it than not. Still, I enjoyed this very much and laughed throughout. It can be absurd and sometimes gross and even occasionally thought-provoking but there is some real superior filmmaking here.

REASONS TO GO: Howling with laughter funny. No weak vignettes.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find some of the scenes crass and the opening vignette has elements in common with a recent tragedy that might make it offensive to some.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of violence, a little bit of sexuality and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh film from Argentina to make the final list of nominees for Best Foreign Language film and the third straight to star Ricardo Darin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: It Follows

The Purge: Anarchy


Purge biker chic.

Purge biker chic.

(2014) Thriller (Universal) Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Zoe Soul, Justina Machado, John Beasley, Jack Conley, Noel G., Castulo Guerra, Michael K. Williams, Edwin Hodge, Keith Stanfield, Roberta Valderrama, Niko Nicotera, Bel Hernandez, Lily Knight, Jasper Cole, Brandon Keener, Amy Pierce-Francis, Chad Morgan, Dale Dye, Amy Paffrath. Directed by James DeMonaco

In a brutal environment, survival itself requires more brutality. When the world is kill or be killed, so must you in order to survive it. The way things are going in this world, the future won’t be for the faint of heart.

As explained in last year’s surprise hit The Purge, the New Founding Fathers – a kind of crypto-fascist neo-Conservative Tea Party on steroids gun-loving bunch have taken over the country and given the people what they wanted – safety, stability and prosperity. Of course, only if you happen to be white and wealthy.

The rest of us have the Purge, an annual night in which all laws are suspended and everything is legal including rape, murder and destruction of property. It is a night to, as the newscasters enthusiastically endorse, unleash the beast. As the day draws to a close and the Purge draws near, people look at each other nervously, murmuring to each other “stay safe” and praying that whatever protection they have be they state of the art security systems with steel window  covers and titanium doors, or plywood nailed hastily over doors and windows will hold against the onslaught of the night.

Sergeant (Grillo) is grimly gearing up for the evening. He has a small arsenal at his disposal and he means to go out hunting. Sweet waitress Eva (Ejogo) returns home to her ailing pop (Beasley) and her rebellious daughter (Soul) – is there any other kind – and prepares to ride out the storm as best she can. She can’t afford her papa’s medicine and her bitchy boss won’t give her a raise so that she can live decently. She is one of the working poor and although she does her best to make a decent life for her family there’s not much she can do on the paycheck of a diner waitress.

 

Liz (Sanchez) and Shane (Gilford) are a couple who are on the verge of splitting up. They can’t even agree on who to tell first. Picking up groceries on the way home, their car breaks down as the sun begins to set and they know they’re in deep trouble. They will have to find a way to safety on a night when there is none to be had and when every human they see will be out to kill them.

All of these five’s paths will coalesce in a moment of conscience and Sergeant will find himself trying to lead these people ill-equipped to survive in the urban jungle to safety, all the while his mission of vengeance uppermost in his mind. The night though is long and the odds are longer that they’ll make it through.

I will say right off the bat that this is a slight improvement from the first film. While there continue to be holes in logic and common sense in the overall story I found there to be fewer in the sequel than in the original and the pacing of the story was much more frenetic. The political overtones continue to be fairly blatant – this is certainly a fairly thinly veiled uppercut aimed at the American right, particularly the neo-cons in the Tea Party and the religious right (before nearly every murder, the lily-white upper crust Purge participants pray, invoking God’s blessings on the New Founding Fathers). I can’t imagine Fox News will love this movie particularly and I can’t say as I blame them for once.

 

Grillo who has been a sterling supporting performer for years finally gets a lead role and quite frankly I see more of the same in his future. He’s got the brooding Clint Eastwood-esque anti-hero quality to him only there’s a little more warmth to him. He definitely carries the movie along and stands out in a group of solid but unremarkable actors.

Another issue I have with the movie is that while there’s a ton of violence, there’s no imagination to it. People just open fire with automatic weapons and pepper human bodies with bullets. Not that I expect that in a real life situation that mirrored this it would be any different, it just kind of all runs together. There’s no cleverness here, just carnage.

I think that those who liked the first movie may well like the second while those who didn’t will definitely NOT like this one. While I get the sense that the filmmakers are probably on the same side of the political aisle as I am, their views may be a little bit too extreme for me. Even Fox News has something of value once in awhile and not all conservative ideals are as bad as they are made out to be here. I’ve met plenty of compassionate conservatives although it must be admitted that there are some who the New Founding Fathers resemble very much.

 

Needless to say, this still isn’t quite good enough for me to recommend. There’s just too many plot issues and not enough well drawn-out characters to capture my interest. This is very much a one-trick pony and if you happen to like that trick, more power to you – enjoy. For those of us who need a little bit more variety in our hour and a half in the multiplex, this probably isn’t the movie to see.

REASONS TO GO: Different sort of film than the first. Grillo a promising lead.

REASONS TO STAY: Overtly political. Relentless violence. Not very thrilling as thrillers go.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots of violence, much of it unsettling and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead character, known here only as Sergeant, had most of his backstory cut from the film during post-production; his name in the script is Leo Barnes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Warriors

Rid of Me


The dark side of Katie O'Grady.

The dark side of Katie O’Grady.

(2011) Dramedy (Phase 4/Submarine) Katie O’Grady, Art Alexakis, Theresa Russell, John Keyser, Storm Lange, Melik Malkasian, Betty Moyer, John Breen, Orianna Herrman, Ritah Parrish, Melinda Chilton, Geno Romo, Angie Rutan, Julie Vhay, Cora Benesh, Emily Galash, Jana Lee Hamblin, Brendan Robinson, Leslie Taylor, Adrienne Vogel. Directed by James Westby

They say hell hath no fury as a woman scorned and there is some truth to that. However, if you’re the scorned woman, how do you get to the point where you become more furious than Hell itself?

Meris Canfield (O’Grady) seems to have a rock-solid marriage with her husband Mitch (Keyser). They have recently moved from Southern California to the small Oregon town where Mitch grew up. Everyone there seems to have married their high school sweetheart and mousy Meris suddenly becomes the odd woman out. Despite her best intentions, the snobby clique that Mitch was part of freeze her out and she realizes that they have more in common with Mitch than she does.

History can bite you in the ass in that regard and Mitch decides that he would have been better off with his high school girlfriend Briann (Lange) so he divorces Meris and it’s out with the old, in with the new. Or maybe out with the new, in with the old if you look at it a certain way.

In any case, Meris isn’t willing at first to give up – she still loves Mitch. But as she gets a job at a candy store and her obsessive and compulsive stalking of her ex grows more pathetic, she falls in with a bunch of punk girls. The Pacific Northwest, you might recall, was Ground Zero for the riot grrl movement and ladies are grown non-conformist out there.

As Meris becomes more enamored of the culture of these punks she begins to learn more about who she is as a person and more importantly, who she wants to be. What she wants is to be a great big middle finger to society and to her POS husband and his snooty friends who quite frankly are the sort of people that you really wish bad things would happen to.

This is all about Meris’ growth as a person and you need someone strong in the role – someone who can play mousy, conformist and something of a wanna-be Stepford Wife, but also someone who is just as comfortable as a street urchin/punk goddess/what are YOU looking at sort. O’Grady makes every phase of Meris’ development realistic and believable. I don’t know O’Grady’s work well but if this is any indication, you should keep a sharp eye out for any other movie she’s done.

My issue with the film lies with the director. Too many camera tricks, unnecessary zooms, and movement otherwise known as “Look Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome. That kind of thing can be a sign of a director who is lacking the confidence in his own abilities to tell a story and has to resort to all sorts of visual gimmickry to get noticed – trust me Mr. Westby, you’ve got what it takes. You don’t need to get all gimmicky on us to make the movie worth seeking out.

In any case, this is one of those films that you’ve probably never heard of but nonetheless is worthy of the attention of any film buff. This isn’t the kind of movie that reinvents the wheel, but O’Grady’s performance is simply put, unforgettable.

WHY RENT THIS: An extraordinary performance by O’Grady. Ruggedly nihilist.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Look ma, I’m directing!

FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and suggestive material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in Multnomah Village near Portland where director Westby has lived most of his life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11,740 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trainspotting

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Cold in July

Blue Ruin


Fear comes home.

Fear comes home.

(2013) Thriller (Radius) Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, David W. Thompson, Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock, Sidne Anderson, Bonnie Johnson, Daniel L. Kelly, Ydaiber Orozco, Erica Genereaux Smith. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier

When we commit a heinous act, the ripples from that act often reverberate for years and decades. We may consider the incident at an end, but those affected by it may not.

Dwight (Blair) lives out of his car. He talks to nobody, eats out of garbage cans and basically is completely off the grid. In the quiet beach community in which he’s taken up residence, he bothers nobody and from time to time can be seen under the pier staring out at the sea. His is a wounded soul and people generally stay away from him.

One morning a cop (Anderson) raps on the window of his bullet pock-marked blue Buick and informs him that one Wade Cleland has just been released from prison. That seems to wake him up from his fog. After all, Wade was the one who murdered both his parents some years before. So Dwight does what he thinks he ought to – head back home and take the vengeance that the justice system didn’t give him. He finds Wade and murders him. That should be the end of it but it’s only the beginning.

Now the Cleland clan is out looking for revenge of their own so Dwight needs to protect his sister Sam (Hargreaves) from the rampaging Cleland brothers Teddy (Kolack) and Carl (Werzner) as well as rabid sister Hope (Rock) and matriarch Kris (Plumb). Dwight isn’t ex-Special Forces. He’s no martial arts expert nor is he a marksman with a gun. In fact, when he tries to steal a gun from the front seat of a car, the trigger lock the owner installed is enough to defeat him.

With the help of his friend Ben (Ratray) he will go after the Cleland family but being something of a bumbler, Dwight is going to make a mess of things and certainly he’s not getting out of this in one piece. Then again, revenge isn’t exactly known for being the type of affair that leaves those who seek it intact.

This low-budget affair which was financed almost entirely through Kickstarter has been receiving rave reviews from filmgoers and critics alike and for good reason. You are unlikely to find a film that will be more intense and stressful to watch (in a good way) than this one. From nearly the opening scene to the final denouement the tension never lets up. Part of the reason for that is that Saulnier wisely adds no extraneous parts to this. Every scene is necessary to the plot; there’s not an ounce of fluff to this film. Perhaps that’s due to the budget as it is to the filmmaker but either way, that’s a good thing for the viewer.

Blair does a bang-up job as Dwight. His eyes show the wounds that never healed and throughout the movie his expression is one of near-panic, as if he is the lone passenger on a runaway train which isn’t far from the truth. One of the more original aspects of the film is that Dwight is an ordinary guy who is somewhat of a screw-up to begin with, so his plans for vengeance and protection of his sister are pretty much prone to being messed up more than they are being successful. He isn’t Dwayne Johnson, an expert in hand-to-hand fighting or a crack shot; he’s more likely to miss from point blank range than he is to hit his target. He’s basically in every scene, so the movie relies on him to carry it and Blair does. It’s a career-defining role for him.

Certainly the plot isn’t necessarily a new one – we’ve seen revenge films before, and in environments as rural as this one. It’s the way that Saulnier and company handle the premise that is refreshing and exciting. The suspense that is created is at times excruciating and I loved every minute of it. While veteran moviegoers may have a pretty clear idea how things are going to end up, the ride getting to that point is one worth taking.

REASONS TO GO: Great tension and suspense. While the premise isn’t original, the execution is. Dwight is realistic and not a superhero.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  The violence is strong and bloody and there’s plenty of cursing going on here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yes, that’s the actress who once played Jan Brady playing the Cleland matriarch.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: Metacritic: 77/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lawless

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: X-Men: Days of Future Past

True Legend (Su Qi-Er)


This armor is for the birds.

This armor is for the birds.

(2010) Martial Arts (Indomina) Vincent Zhao, Xun Zhou, Andy On, Guo Xiaodong, Jay Chou, Michelle Yeoh, David Carradine, Gordon Liu, Cung Le, Xiaogang Feng, Ka-Yen Leung, Jacky Heung, Ni Yan, Will Liu, Luxia Jiang, Ze Li, Hanwen Suen, Conan Stevens, Sylvester Terkay, Matt Weise, Dominique Vandenberg, Jon Heidenreich, He Hung. Directed by Yuen Woo Ping

Vengeance is one of the uglier sides of the human spirit. It warps the soul and is a kind of madness, an obsession that can turn a good man into something evil. Those who go through life seeking vengeance are likely to dig their own graves.

Su Can (Zhao) is a skilled general who rescues a prince (Heung) of the realm from a fortress full of enemies in a mountain stronghold. In return for his bravery, Su is offered the position of governor of Hubei province; however, Su doesn’t want it. Su is more interested in perfecting his own Wu Shu and retiring from the military life. He gives instead the position to his adopted brother Yuan Lie (On), who is jealous at having lived in Su Can’s shadow most of his life.

But not all of it  When Yuan was a little boy, Su Can’s father killed Yuan’s father who had been perfecting a particularly evil form of Wu Shu called the Five Venom Fists, afterwards adopting Yuan and his sister Ying (Zhou). Su had fallen in love with Ying and married her, further driving a wedge between the two men.

Five years pass and Yuan returns home, ostensibly to reconcile. However, that’s not going to happen – his heart has grown far too twisted and evil. He murders Su’s father in a particularly brutal fashion and maims Su. Only Ying’s pleas stop Yuan from killing her husband. Instead, Yuan throws Su into a raging river, poisoned and badly injured.

Ying escapes, diving into the river after her husband and rescuing him. She takes him to the lonely mountain cottage of Dr. Yu (Yeoh), a herbalist. Su’s injuries are crippling and only through rigorous training will he be able to use his arm again. At first, Su is more interested in drinking himself blind. Not only did Yuan murder his dad but he kidnapped his son Feng (Suen) as well and Su is in no shape to rescue his own flesh and blood.

However, the Wu Shu God (Chou) takes pity on Su and along with a wise old sage (Gordon Liu) instruct him in the art of Wu Shu. It isn’t until later that Ying realizes that Su is going mad – he is training with nobody. She realizes that Su may never be recovered enough to rescue her son so she decides to go do it herself and gets captured for her trouble.

Su knows that he has no choice; he will have to set aside his demons and save his family. The showdown will be epic but it won’t end quite the way anyone expects – leaving Su broken and fighting in an arena against foreign devils. Has he hit rock bottom? And what will he lose on the way there?

Ping is best known as the action choreographer for films like The Matrix and both Kill Bill movies. He’s also a director and has done over 20 movies on his own. As you might expect, he is an accomplished director of action sequences and has a fluid visual style that’s quite pleasing. However, he is less strong with story and character, letting them take a back seat to the sometimes breathtaking fights.

And they are breathtaking. The fight at the waterfall between the Iron Twins and Su is beautiful (it ought to be; it took 15 days to shoot) and intricate, one of the best martial arts sequences you’re ever likely to see. There are several others which are similarly spectacular. Sadly, when the action stops and the talking starts, the movie grinds to a screeching halt…or screeches to a grinding halt. Choose your mixed metaphor wisely.

Ping is best known for his wire work and he augments that with some CGI sequences involving weaponry and Wu Shu wizardry. Unfortunately, like many effects sequences in Chinese films these days, the work isn’t up to par with modern standards and for the most part look kind of weak and shoddy  While I realize that practical effects aren’t always…er, practical for certain sequences, if you must use CGI at the very least make sure it doesn’t make your film look worse.

Vincent Zhao wasn’t particularly well-known in China when this was filmed – he’d mostly done television and commercial work but he does a pretty credible job here and is at the center of most of the action. Yeoh is one of my favorite actresses worldwide; even though her role here is brief, she elevates every movie she participates in and this is no exception. I could watch her chatting on her cell phone for hours and never get bored.

In fact, having Yeoh as well as the legendary Gordon Liu and the late David Carradine in one of his final roles all together in the same movie is reason enough to rent this sucker, even though they don’t appear in the same scenes at one time. Reason enough for me to seek this one out…and it should be reason enough for you to as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific action sequences. Yeoh, Chou, Carradine and Gordon Liu in the same movie – awesome!

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No plot to speak of. CGI detracts from the quality of the film.

FAMILY VALUES: Martial arts violence as you’d expect, some of it brutal.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Ping’s first film as a director since 1996.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a music video here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Unreported (the film made a negligible amount in the States although it’s Chinese box office is probably substantial) on a $20M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: War

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Local Legends