Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

Action

Overlord (R)

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Directed by: Julius Avery
Starring: Jovan Adepo
November 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


They say honesty is the best policy. In that case, I need to be honest from the start…this isn’t my kind of movie. But if I’m being totally honest, I feel like I’ve been the victim of a bait and switch. When I signed up to review this movie, I thought Overlord, the J.J. Abrams produced WWII tale, was going to be a straightforward action movie. Then I saw the trailer and thought, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?” The movie’s premise is straightforward…a group of American soldiers parachute into France on the eve of D-Day. Their objective is simple; sneak into a French village under the cover of darkness and take out the radio tower that sits atop a church building. However, when the American soldiers infiltrate the church, they discover many living and dead people who’ve been mutated by evil alchemy in a makeshift dungeon. To accomplish their mission, the American troops must engage in a series of gun battles with Nazis while evading the fast-moving zombies that lurk in the claustrophobic corridors of the church. From that brief description of the story, you’ve guessed right that Overlord is a mash-up of Saving Private Ryan and I Am Legend. Although the story has some semblance of a plot, the novelty of its premise wears thin around the movie’s midpoint. Writers Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith weave their paltry plot among the tapestry of overblown action sequences and zombie brawls. Overlord is directed by Julius Avery, a virtual unknown who has directed only one other feature-length film. The cast is populated with newcomers, bit players, and journeyman character actors with nary a star among the bunch. Other than the intrigue of its story, Abrams’ name is the movie’s only real draw. The movie’s theme is as obvious as its premise: the dangers of playing God. Though taken to unrealistic extremes, you can totally see how Hitler would sanction such a diabolical plan to create super-soldiers. The “1,000 Years of the Reich” program is an interesting concept, but the zombie subplot is flagrant revisionist history and is only in the story to provide thrills and chills for the audience. Overlord has an excessive amount of violence, swearing and disturbing images. Aside from its myriad shoot-outs between Nazis and American forces, the movie also contains a graphic torture scene and two attempted rapes. We catch glimpses of disfigured and mutated humans inside the cells in the church’s basement. The surgery room contains mutilated cadavers and several experiments gone wrong, like a talking woman who has only a head and spinal column (which is much more macabre than the initial image of the bodiless Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact). The mutation process, when human subjects are turned into zombies, is quite hideous. Another horrific scene is when corpses (failed experiments) are carted out of the church, dumped into a ditch and incinerated with a flamethrower. Those with a weak stomach have been forewarned. One area of the movie that’s commendable is its production. From the opening CG shot of the Allied fleet to the pyrotechnics and FX, to the costumes and creature makeup, Overlord is a well-crafted movie. It’s to Avery’s credit that he only sparingly resorts to standard horror movie gimmicks, like characters suddenly appearing in front of the camera to startle the audience. In the final analysis, Overlord is a war/horror hybrid that’s unabashedly graphic. From start to finish, the movie is gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous. Though Overlord is a unique film, it certainly isn’t a great one.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4

The Meg (PG-13)

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Directed by: Jon Turteltaub
Starring: Jason Statham
August 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


“There’s always a bigger fish.” – Qui-Gon Jinn, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

Qui-Gon’s wry comment is perfectly illustrated by one of the movie posters for
The Meg, the new deep sea thriller from director Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure), which depicts the terrifying tableau of a diver swimming toward the surface who is being pursued by a great white shark which is stalked by a massive megalodon (technically, carcharodon megalodon, a supposedly extinct mega-shark that serves as the movie’s ubiquitous threat). Simply put, it’s eat or be eaten out on the open water. Our “supersize” mentality has permeated every segment of society, ranging from value meals to movie monsters. This is particularly true of thriller franchises like Jurassic Park where the T-Rex was replaced by the Spinosaurus, which was supplanted by the Indominus Rex which was superseded by the latest bigger/faster hybrid introduced in the recent Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (which I won’t spoil in case you haven’t seen it yet). Instead of starting off with a great white shark and working up to a larger predator, the movie goes right to its supersized antagonist, the megalodon. The movie opens with an ill-fated rescue mission, where Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) makes a difficult judgment call that condemns half his crew to a watery grave after the ship is attacked by what he later describes as a 70-foot creature. Five years later, after losing his career and marriage, Jonas is a guilt-stricken alcoholic who has sworn off diving for the rest of his life. Jonas’ pity party is interrupted when pal Mac (Cliff Curtis) and Mana One underwater station supervisor Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao) show up to enlist his help on another rescue mission. Jonas is adamant about not getting involved until Mac reveals the identity of the person trapped inside the disabled submersible, which is rapidly running out of air…Jonas’ ex-wife. And I’ll give you one guess as to what damaged the sub and lies in wait for Jonas at the bottom of the ocean. As would be expected for a summer creature feature, the movie is packed to the gunnels with stock characters. Statham is the reluctant hero. Bingbing Li is the love interest. Rainn Wilson is the unscrupulous business tycoon with no respect for people and no reverence for nature. Ruby Rose is the uber-smart techie. Page Kennedy is the comic relief. Robert Taylor (who is solid as usual, but seems miscast here) is the cool under fire doctor. Shuya Sophia Cai steals the show as precocious youngster, Meiying. The real star of the show, of course, is the giant shark. The sheer immensity of the creature is breathtaking. And yet, even though the leviathan is undeniably imposing, there’s something lacking in this terror from the deep…some aspect that prevents it from inducing the same level of bloodcurdling dread that the violently thrashing creatures showcased in earlier shark movies did to a superlative degree. Maybe it has something to do with the way Turteltaub frames the super-shark. Or maybe it’s the photo-realistic CGI that’s so finely rendered that it leaves nothing to the imagination. Say what you will about Steven Spielberg’s animatronic shark in Jaws (1975), it was downright terrifying. The less-than-impressive title creature leaves us with a lingering question: how is it possible that something so gigantic, so powerful, and so quick can be so unconvincing? One of the major reasons why the megalodon fails to frighten is that the story, written by Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber (based on the novel MEG: A Novel of Deep Terror by Steve Alten), has no teeth. The story is highly imitative of the Jaws series and the many cheap knockoffs it inspired: Deep Blue Sea (1999), Megalodon (2002), Sharknado (2013) and The Shallows (2016), to name just a few. With the subgenre’s tropes so well-defined at this point, it’s almost impossible to make a shark attack film without being derivative, and The Meg is no exception. The scene where the giant fish approaches the teeming Chinese beach is reminiscent of the initial shark sighting at the beach on Amity Island in the first Jaws film. Someone needs to inform the writers that humans don’t taste good to sharks, and that all the people in the water would only serve as an appetizer to the colossal creature. Plus, as one scene slyly visualizes, clothing, snorkels, flippers, etc get lodged in between the megalodon’s massive teeth…and there’s no such thing as shark floss. Though the crew pursues the megalodon in a big boat, it turns out they need an even bigger one, which, of course, is a tip of the hat to the famous line in the first Jaws movie. Mana One station is a high-tech, less commercial version of SeaWorld Orlando’s underwater tunnels in Jaws 3-D (1983). Also, there’s more than a passing resemblance between Jonas firing a spear-like weapon with a tracker at the whale-sized shark and Captain Ahab hurling a harpoon at the white whale in Moby-Dick. Suffice it to say, the list of comparisons between The Meg and other shark films is expansive. The one thing the story does right is pacing. The ratio of character beats to action scenes is surprisingly well-balanced for a horror/thriller flick. In the end, The Meg is a disappointing effort that feels more like a big budget Syfy channel movie than a major studio tentpole. Even when characters are face-to-face with the megalodon, the movie has a strange lack of peril. Still, The Meg delivers exactly what it promises…a summer popcorn flick that boasts a generous number of adrenalin-pumping chases and close calls with rows and rows or razor-sharp teeth. So, will there be a Meg 2 and if so, how will they outdo the mega-shark in this film? Or, to put it a different way, how can you supersize a megalodon?

Rating: 2 out of 4 stars

Ant-Man and the Wasp (PG-13)

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Directed by: Peyton Reed
Starring: Paul Rudd
July 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


One of the subplots in the first Ant-Man (2015) revealed that scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) lost his wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) when she went subatomic to disable a Soviet nuclear missile, a heroic deed that relegated her to being tossed about inside the swirling maelstrom of the quantum realm for all eternity. The sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, opens with that fateful mission (these archival clips from the first film set the tone for the sequel’s rehashed sameness), which effectively kicks off the action and establishes the movie’s premise as a straightforward rescue tale. Since the last film, Hank has been busy building a quantum tunnel. Hank prevails upon Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to enter the subatomic dimension and rescue Janet. Other than a few character beats and a handful of action sequences, that’s pretty much the whole plot in a nutshell. The Ant-Man franchise is like the redheaded stepchild of the Marvel universe. Compared to the Avengers series, this film feels downright low budget. Like Scott, who is under house arrest (a story element that quickly tires), the movie is firmly moored to its San Francisco locations. Whether intentional or not, the film’s insular framework is symbolic of the confinement Scott and Janet have been forced to endure. The story by Rudd and four other writers is rote and seems more like an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. than a big budget summer tentpole. With a dearth of character development and reheated dialog, the movie’s central figures are merely caricatures of themselves, especially Luis (Michael Pena), whose one-liners are as stale as last week’s pizza. The rest of the actors do what they can with mediocre material. This is a sad fact since the movie boasts some impressive actors, including: Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer and Laurence Fishburne. For this outing, Scott is joined by Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who takes her mother’s mantle as the Wasp. Other than watching the duo kick some major tuchus in a couple action scenes, the only aspect of the film that’s enjoyable is the loving relationship between Scott and his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). The homemade ant farm inside the house is a creative and thoroughly enjoyable scene. Another clever concept is how Hank’s lab can shrink down to the size of a milk crate so that it can be transported to another locale and enlarged back to its skyscraper proportions. The mobile tower concept was also used to great effect in the fantasy/sci-fi cult classic Krull (1983). The FX inside the quantum realm are a major disappointment…any decently produced TV show can achieve, and in many cases supersede, these multicolor miasma effects. The blurry ghost image employed whenever Ava/Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) time shifts is a really well conceived and executed visual effect. In the end, Ant 2 is a safe and predictable follow-up to the first film, which was a surprise hit. The only surprise here is how uninspired the story is. For Ant-Man 3, Marvel had better step up its game. Otherwise, they might discover that, like their titular hero, the audience can shrink too.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (PG-13)

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Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise
July 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Even though this is the sixth movie in the series, Mission: Impossible - Fallout has many firsts. This is the first MI movie to be released in 3-D (RealD 3D). Christopher McQuarrie has become the first MI director to call the shots on more than one film in the franchise. And while on the subject of firsts, Rebecca Ferguson, who plays MI6 agent Ilsa Faust, is the first female to appear twice in a leading role in a MI film (also noteworthy is that she was pregnant while filming her scenes). At age 56, Tom Cruise is in amazing physical shape and still looks credible as an action star (unlike Roger Moore in his later James Bond movies). Cruise’s devotion to his craft is remarkable and his stamina is undeniable, especially since he continues to do most of his own stunts. Cruise trained for a year in order to pull off the HALO (High Altitude, Low Opening) parachute jump in the movie. Since the scene takes place near sunset, Cruise and crew could only attempt one jump per day. With the assistance of a C-17 military aircraft and a ground crew to create a vertical wind tunnel, Cruise made over one hundred jumps at 25,000 feet just to deliver three shots for McQuarrie to use in the film. Now that’s dedication! Not all of Cruise’s stunts were successful, though. In a scene where he jumps from one building to another, Cruise fractured his ankle, which delayed shooting for nearly two months. Weighing in at 2 hours and 27 minutes, MI6 has a longer running time than any previous film in the series. Unfortunately, it’s about 27 minutes too long. That comment is no disparagement of the movie’s action sequences, which are innovative, wildly entertaining and, along with Cruise and Henry Cavill, the main draw of the film. If MI6 were to be judged solely on its high-octane action scenes, it would be a 4 star film. However, in a summer blockbuster jam-packed with mind-blowing stunts, it’s easy to mistake spectacle for quality. Despite having some of the finest pulse-pounding stunts in the entire series, this is a lesser MI film, thanks to McQuarrie’s flaccid screenplay. The passé premise (the 80s spy movies called and want their plutonium back), trite dialog (“Family…what can you do?”) and languid storytelling (especially in the early stages of the film) are all narrative ailments the film can’t quite overcome. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have a plot…it does; a very straightforward, predictable and contrived one. People from Hunt’s past pop up at regular intervals with little explanation or preamble. Erica Sloan’s (Angela Bassett) backhanded comment about IMF agents treating every day like Halloween is amusing and incisive. Ironically, the movie fails to take its own hint since the mask gag is overused here. The down-to-the-last-second bomb disarming is a hackneyed story element that, thankfully, is delivered with a little self-reflexive humor here. McQuarrie trots out the tired “mole inside the operation” plot device in an effort to muddle the motivations of Hunt (Cruise) and Walker (Cavill), but the shocking reveal is obvious from the start. And why did Hunt and Walker have to parachute from a high altitude (a similar sequence appears in 2009s Star Trek), through a lightning storm no less, just to land on the roof of a Parisian building they could’ve gained access to with a proper disguise? Maybe it’s because we get a show-stopping stunt sequence out of the deal or because the rapid plummet ties in with the movie’s title—the theme of personal and physical descent permeates the story. All things considered, MI6 is a decent actioner with solid performances, stellar directing and mind-blowing cinematography. The location work, particularly the scenes shot in London, Paris and the United Arab Emirates, is truly exceptional and effectively simulates the continent-hopping narrative of a James Bond film. The one thing the MI films have consistently done right, and probably one of the major reasons why people keep turning out to see them, is that each new film ups the ante with its jaw-dropping, gravity-defying stunts and action scenes (like a modern-day Houdini, Cruise is a magician who keeps topping his previous death-defying feats). The last half hour of this film contains a chain of top-notch, heart-stopping action beats that will literally leave you gasping for air. If you can get past the “same ole” plot elements, MI6 is a riveting, thrilling popcorn flick that ends with a cliff-hanger and seems destined to be followed by another sequel.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Ocean's 8 (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gary Ross
Starring: Sandra Bullock
June 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Did you know that Ocean’s 8 is the fifth movie in the franchise? The original Ocean’s 11 (1960) starred the Rat Pack and centered on a casino heist in Vegas. George Clooney’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001) was similar to its progenitor but upped the ante by hitting multiple casinos at once. Ocean’s Twelve (2004) took place in Europe and was largely forgettable (other than the cameos by Bruce Willis and Topher Grace…as themselves). Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) was a return to form (Vegas casino heist) but proved to be one trip too many to the well. Confusingly, even though 8 is a sequel, its number would indicate that it’s a prequel. As with the new Ghostbusters (2016), 8 features an all-female cast. A female heist film? When women can pull off an elaborate crime just as well as men, it’s just another sign of our emasculated times. The movie opens with Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the deceased Danny Ocean (Clooney), being released from prison. Debbie soon hooks up with gal pal Lou (Cate Blanchett) and they hatch a plan to steal the priceless Toussaint diamond necklace at NYC’s annual Met Gala. The rest of the team is comprised of a potpourri of top-tier performers including: Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna and Helena Bonham Carter. Anne Hathaway plays a self-important actress who serves as the movie’s wild card. The only tether between this film and the Steven Soderbergh films is Elliott Gould, who reprises his role as Reuben Tishkoff in a brief cameo. Like a three-act play, 8 can be cut into thirds. After the initial excitement over watching Debbie do her thing (scheming and stealing), the movie takes forever to get going. The assembling of the team is flat and rote and the planning phase is belabored and overly methodical. The middle of the movie (the actual heist) is a high-stakes, fast-paced feat of cinematic chicanery—an enjoyable lark that singlehandedly redeems the movie. Most of the post-heist action is unnecessary and is tantamount to a bad magician explaining his trick…nothing is left up to the spectators to figure out on their own. This narrative inconsistency, between its three segments, is the movie’s biggest drawback. The directing by Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) is sure-handed but is surprisingly low energy at times. The cast is as dazzling as the MacGuffin necklace. In particular, Bullock and Blanchett have excellent screen chemistry. However, I never got the same sense of synergy among this cast that I did from the ensembles in the Soderbergh trilogy. In the end, 8 is a diverting film that has none of the panache, or humor, of the Clooney capers. The stellar cast suffers at the hands of a standard story that offers nominal thrills and twists and has a denouement that overstays its welcome. Still, future films seem to be in the cards. But what will the franchise do when it gets back to 11?

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Adrift (PG-13)

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Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur
Starring: Shailene Woodley
June 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Based on an incredible true story, Adrift recounts the harrowing tale of how Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) kept herself alive for 41 days on the open sea. A romance/survival movie, the story bounces back and forth in time between terrifying present and torrid past. Months before she finds herself stranded at sea, Tami meets and falls in love with Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin). The two adventure-seekers decide to sail around the world together and unwittingly steer right into one of the worst hurricanes in recorded history—the shot of the small boat climbing the giant wave looks like it was borrowed from The Perfect Storm (2000). Woodley excels in a physically and emotionally demanding performance. It’s been reported that she subsisted on just 350 calories a day in order to look the part of an emaciated sea storm survivor. Whereas Woodley’s acting can’t be faulted, the screenplay by Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith didn’t give the star much to work with. Even though most stories of this kind, i.e. Cast Away (2000), have a dearth of dialog, Woodley’s lines largely consist of “Woo hoos!” or “No, no, no, @?&!” for the majority of the film. The biggest problem with the movie is that the romance subplot feels foisted on the audience and isn’t nearly strong enough to support this kind of lost at sea tale, which has been done many times before in cinema history: Lifeboat (1944), The Old Man and the Sea (1958), Life of Pi (2012) and Unbroken (2014) to name just a few. One disaster movie where the romance did effectively anchor the story was Titanic (1997). There’s an indirect reference to that film when Tina delivers a line that’s the reverse of Rose’s (Kate Winslet) “I’ll never let go, Jack.” In the end, the movie’s predictability holds it back from having a greater impact. As things stand, Adrift has joined the ranks of inspiring, yet standard and safe, biopics.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Avengers: Infinity War (PG-13)

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Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Robert Downey Jr.
April 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The old adage about the third time being the charm certainly holds true for Avengers: Infinity War, the third film in the series and arguably the finest Marvel film to date. So what was the difference-maker here? Story. The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely pulls together the threads of myriad storylines from the back catalog of Marvel films and manages to give each of the heroes a piece of the narrative pie amid a sprawling, planet-hopping adventure. Although character development (which was at least attempted in the individual spotlight films) is tenuous in most cases, the one individual who is fleshed out is villain Thanos (Josh Brolin). Due to his formidable physique, Thanos is an intimidating antagonist in the mold of Darth Vader. However, what makes Thanos a fully-realized villain is that he has genuine motivations stemming from a surprisingly sympathetic backstory. From the moment his home planet was ravaged, Thanos has been desperately searching for the six Infinity Stones, which will give him the ability to regenerate his world. The bad news is that Thanos’ plan will wipe out half the life-forms in the universe. This wide-scale culling has some shocking repercussions at the end of the film, which contains a heart-stopping The Empire Strikes Back (1980) style cliffhanger. Thanos’ galactic scavenger hunt provides an engaging story structure that makes the sundry action scenes and character moments cohere. Many of the film’s passages approach epic status; proof positive that Marvel has perfected the formula for its flagship property. However, for all its achievements, Infinity certainly has its fair share of flaws. For starters, Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is completely out of character in the movie (that ridiculous mustache means he’s from the Mirror Universe, right?) and squanders the team’s best chance at defeating Thanos with his thirst for revenge. Also, Vision (Paul Bettany) is a total wuss—isn’t he supposed to possess god-like powers? Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is far more powerful in the film and ends up saving Vision on countless occasions. And where’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)? Or Everett Ross (Martin Freeman)? Granted, with the ever-expanding stable of Marvel heroes, it’s nearly impossible to service everyone. Although the story is a fairly strong chain, there are a few weak links. For instance, wizard Wong (Benedict Wong) magically transports a gigantic assailant to a glacial wasteland at the end of a massive melee. So why didn’t he just do that at the beginning of the battle to forestall the large-scale destruction and to prevent Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) from being abducted? Contrived! Another bit of weak scripting involves the Wakanda storyline when Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) orders the shield to be opened, which allows an army of creatures to flood inside the dome. Panther does this to prevent the creatures from overloading the wall near Vision’s position, which is flawed logic. Why not just redeploy troops to defend that part of the wall? Since a percentage of the creatures are being cut in half by the dome, it doesn’t make sense to open the door and let them all in. Fighting part of an army is better than fighting all of the army, right? Somehow this basic logic escaped the writers. The introduction scenes are a lot of fun, especially the meeting between Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Strange. It’s gratifying to see how their instant antipathy gradually morphs into “professional courtesy.” Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is handled masterfully in the movie. Banner is constantly at odds with himself and his alter ego. The question of who’s controlling whom takes a fascinating twist here: up to this point, Banner has had a hard time turning Hulk off, now he struggles to turn him on. Infinity is one of the rare Marvel experiences where the story holds its own against the top-notch, mind-blowing FX. This has created a serious challenge for the sequel, which will have to find a way to live up to this film. If IW2 is anything like this movie, we’re in for a treat.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (PG-13)

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Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Starring: Chris Pratt
June 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


What we witnessed in Jurassic World (2015) was the fruition of John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) and Benjamin Lockwood’s (James Cromwell, who is egregiously underserved in this film) dream—a functioning dinosaur park filled with attractions, rides and, of course, gift shops. But midway through that movie, life found a way and the dinos started eating the tourists. At the beginning of the sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the park lies in ruins and the remaining dinos are being threatened by a violent volcano that will soon incinerate the island. As experts on the dinos, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) are prevailed upon to help with the rescue effort. But the dino extraction goes south when a joint military (led by Ken Wheatley, Monk’s Ted Levine) and scientific (funded by greedy industrialist Eli Mills, played by Rafe Spall) operation brings the animals back to the mainland in a storyline that has far too many similarities to The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). The caged dinos are auctioned off (quite expertly by Toby Jones) to extremely rich and “discriminating” buyers. When a new hybrid species is introduced, the Indominus Rex crossed with Raptor “Indoraptor,” the bidders leverage their fortunes to own the priceless prototype dino. Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) protests, stating that the creature isn’t for sale, but Eli arrogantly quips, “Relax, we’ll make some more.” Of course, this “lack of humility before nature” is the cue for all hell to break loose…as it always does in the Jurassic films. JW2 retains many “popcorn” elements and actually has a plot…and message. Though the animal trafficking (and human/sex trafficking by extension) subplot is drilled home pretty hard, there’s also a subtle warning about how the dinos might be used for their biopharmaceutical properties. This opens up some fascinating and frightening possibilities. Could we discover new cures to diseases and make major advancements in medicine by studying the dinos? Could such knowledge also lead to the creation of virulent stains of chemical and bioweapons? As Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, who makes a brief cameo here) states in the film, “We’re causing our own extinction.” In an unexpected twist, Eli refers to Owen and Claire as the “parents of the future” since Claire authorized the creation of the Indominus Rex and Owen successfully trained raptors. This is a compelling outsider’s perspective on how their actions have unintentionally produced results antithetical to their beliefs. In essence, they’ve created their own monster. There are numerous allusions to the earlier films here, like the helicopter’s journey to the island, the side view mirror etched with “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” (though, symbolically, the words are upside down this time) and the T-Rex’ triumphant bellow. There’s also a clever series of shots where the camera focuses on a character’s feet and then pans up. The first instance is when Claire is wearing high heels and the next is when she arrives on the island in boots. This corrects a major criticism of the previous film which had Claire running around the park in high heels. There are some fun scenes, like when the head-butting Stygimoloch sends party guests flying through the air as if they were gored by a bull, and some terrifying moments, like the Nosferatu (1922) style shot of the Indoraptor’s claw slowly reaching for the little girl hiding in her bed. In the end, JW2 is a surprisingly poignant chapter in the Jurassic saga that features far fewer gratuitous dino chases and more meaty and thought-provoking examinations of human greed and our irresistible need to play god. The way things end in JW2, JW3 may take place in your neighborhood.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Deadpool 2 (R)

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Directed by: David Leitch
Starring: Ryan Reynolds
May 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


In Deadpool 2, the eponymous foul-mouthed superhero has returned to bring us a family film, or so he claims at the beginning of the movie. Don’t believe him. Even though writers Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and some douche named Ryan Reynolds have toned down the violence and double entendres, the movie is still a bloody, crass, irreverent wad of inappropriateness. An early romance storyline quickly yields to a series of action sequences as the movie struggles to find its narrative footing. It isn’t until the Mystery Men (1999) style superhero tryout that the film begins to come into focus. The sequence is an absolute hoot, especially the heated exchange over whether or not luck should be considered a superpower. The debate is soon settled when Domino (Zazie Beetz) assists Deadpool in fending off some thugs…an amusing and unique action sequence which is basically Murphy’s Law in reverse. Josh Brolin, fresh off his stint as villain Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, is the movie’s wild card and adds some much-needed heft and complexity to the film. Another pivotal character is Firefist (Julian Dennison), a young orphan who possesses powers he can’t control; which makes him equal parts innocent kid and unpredictable threat. In an obvious indictment against the Catholic Church, Firefist has been taken advantage of by the religious headmaster (Eddie Marsan) at a school for boys. Though you have to dig through the rubble to find it, this is the only real message in the film—i.e. the heinous sexual abuse of minors at many such institutions. Of course, there are plenty of humorous scenes in the film, like the fate of Wade’s new team on their first mission and when Wade grows back his legs after being ripped in half by Juggernaut. The action scenes, filmed with numerous Matrix-style slo-mo sequences, are well executed by director David Leitch. In particular, the sequence where Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) and Juggernaut slug it out reaches near epic proportions. The end credits scenes, where Wade uses a time machine to rectify the mistakes of the past (like when Reynolds first picked up the Green Lantern script) are the highlight of the film. Final analysis: D2 isn’t as crass or graphic as the first film, but isn’t as funny or clever either. Reynolds’ shtick is wearing pretty thin at this point (especially the VO narrations and frequent instances of breaking the fourth wall). The series needs to evolve; otherwise it might end up resembling its title. Not the pool part.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Incredibles 2 (PG)

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Directed by: Brad Bird
Starring: Craig T. Nelson
June 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


While waiting to watch Incredibles 2, I detected an insidious pattern in the previews. For The Lego Movie 2, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) admits that she almost singlehandedly saved the world in the first movie, but that Emmet (Chris Pratt) took all the credit. The next trailer was for Wreck-It Ralph 2. In a telling scene, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) stumbles into a room full of Disney princesses who initially question her right to join them until they identify with her plight; people always assume that all of Vanellope’s problems will be solved as soon as a big, strong man shows up. When the feature presentation finally started, I thought for sure the anti-male bias was over—surely Pixar wouldn’t stoop to such shameless sexism, right? Wrong. It would appear that the sentiments behind the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have now infiltrated kids’ movies…and that makes me mad. For a detailed diatribe of my stance against movies that seek to indoctrinate children with partisan political views, read my review of Happy Feet. Suffice it to say, unhealthy stereotypes of men are everywhere now, even in typically high-quality, high class Pixar pics. Case in point is Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson). If we thought Bob was emasculated at the beginning of first film as the deskbound, pencil pushing cube dweller, imagine how worthless he feels when his wife Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) gets a crime fighting gig and he’s left at home to raise the kids Mr. Mom style. When Bob’s efforts to take care of his three kids go up in smoke (as a former accountant, he can’t even teach his son math because it’s “new math”), he reaches out to friend Frozone (Samuel L Jackson) for advice and prevails upon costume designer Edna (Brad Bird) to babysit Jack-Jack. Particularly disturbing is the cost analysis scene, which flags Mr. Incredible as an extreme insurance risk. The analytics reveal that Elastigirl (woman) completes her missions without bending a blade of grass, while Mr. Incredible (man) inflicts massive damage while attempting to defeat villains. Men are characterized as blundering buffoons who just can’t help but destroy everything in their path (much like Wreck-It Ralph or Hulk). So then, if Bob is a failure as a father and a superhero, what good is he? The last player in the NFL draft is referred to as Mr. Irrelevant. In I2, Bob Parr isn’t Mr. Incredible, he’s Mr. Irrelevant. Bob is the exemplar of the scores of men who’ve been sidelined and debased. Will it get to the point where men are nothing more than laborers and lovers in a matriarchal society, as was depicted in Gene Roddenberry’s Planet Earth (1974)? Time and societal evolution will tell, but as for now, we’re on the verge of the systematic censure, deconstruction and endangerment of the male of the species. Aside from gender roles, the movie also gets political when it deals with the integration of the Supers back into society; a topic that could relate to refugees from the Middle East, illegals pouring over the border from Mexico or even the way the LGBT community is being assimilated into the broader populace. The movie also makes thinly-veiled commentary about our growing screen obsession. Staring at one of villain Screenslaver’s hypnotic patterns can override a person’s will and make them highly susceptible to committing evil acts. Walk into any public place and you’ll see people with their faces buried in screens, in essence hypnotized by onscreen content and completely oblivious to what’s going on around them. The parallel is obvious; the solution isn’t. It’s ironic that this problem was in its initial stages when The Incredibles was released in 2004. Despite its broad spectrum of commentary, the film does have some fun, although not nearly as much as the original. Even though the scenes with Jack-Jack are the highlight of the film, the tyke is given far too many superpowers and the various applications of those powers are way overplayed, usually to generate laughs. Syndrome (Jason Lee) is a far superior antagonist to Screenslaver, whose identity is obvious from the start. There are several new characters here including: salesman Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), inventor Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), Voyd (Sophia Bush), Krushauer (Phil LaMarr), Reflux (Paul Eiding), Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks) and Ambassador (Isabella Rosellini). As with the first movie, Brad Bird wrote and directed I2. So is I2 worth the wait (14 years)? It pains me to say that I2 fails to capture the first film’s unbridled creativity and off-the-wall exhilaration…and fun. Though I2 is entertaining, it certainly isn’t incredible.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Solo: A Star Wars Story (PG-13)

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Directed by: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich
May 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise
:

While trying to find his long-lost girlfriend, a brash, young pilot falls in with a band of thieves, a self-styled gambler and a gigantic shaggy creature.

The Evaluation:

In the wake of the polarizing debacle known as
The Last Jedi (2017), Star Wars fans from Coruscant to Tatooine were filled with trepidation over the new character spotlight film, Solo: A Star Wars Story. Those concerns were certainly justified in light of Solo’s turbulent genesis; directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie) were replaced by Ron Howard six months into the production. Also tempering fan expectations were pre-release rumors that Disney had already written the film off as a loss. Tremors in the Force notwithstanding, the resultant film is a well-acted, well-directed tale that somehow manages to underwhelm despite its lavish ($250 million dollar) production. Not only is Solo a return to the universe we know and love, it’s also a radical departure from the timbre, texture and tropes of every other cinematic SW adventure. First and foremost, Solo is an origin story for one of the most popular characters in the SW panoply, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich). We witness Han’s heartbreaking separation from the love of his life, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). We have a front row seat for the initial meetings between Han and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), a scene that echoes their reunion in Return of the Jedi (but is far more violent), and Han and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). We get to see how Han makes the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs and it makes sense…sort of. We also see how Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando in a game of sabacc during the anticlimactic denouement. During this disingenuous scene, Han claims that his victory is “fair and square” despite the fact that he owes Lando a ship from when he lost a game earlier in the movie. But perhaps Han’s debt is cancelled after he repeatedly saves Lando’s life. At its core, Solo is a heist movie. Some of the action set pieces are spectacular, like the freight train caper on arctic planet Vandor 1, and the teeth-jarring journey through the Kessel maelstrom, which looks like it was borrowed from the “final frontier.” As a story centered on smugglers, pirates and sinister syndicate tycoons, the look of the film is appropriately grimy, gritty and seedy. Howard takes a bulldozer to Lucas’ “lived-in universe” and then covers it in mud, snow and sand. Though Howard’s monochromatic palette is a sly way of matching style with subject matter, the movie is drab for the sake for being drab. Character’s faces are flat and washed out (with low saturation and little if any contrast) throughout the entire movie and even outdoor scenes are shot during overcast conditions. This dim and dreary aesthetic, which will surely be lauded by critics as a triumph of formalism, actually detracts from the film’s enjoyment since it requires spectators to squint through long stretches of the movie just to make out what’s transpiring onscreen. Still, the directorial virtuosity on display here is astounding, and, in many respects, surpasses the finest efforts of the franchise’s stable of high-profile directors. Though it blazes a bold, new trail for the saga, Solo will go down as more of a miss than a hit. Ironically, as a movie riddled with obligatory allusions, Solo is a heist yarn where the story sabotages itself.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Howard’s insight serves him well in his first foray into the SW universe. His direction is sure-handed and reveals a sensitivity and reverence toward the existing canon that was largely missing from Last Jedi. As an Academy Award-winning director, Howard’s acumen, experience and vision are evident in every frame of the film. Other than the movie’s lighting (see: Cinematography), I have no qualms with Howard’s direction. You might say that the circle is now complete since Howard, who was but a learner in Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), has taken his first step into Lucas’ much larger world as an undeniable master of his craft. One wonders if the director had a hand in casting Paul Bettany (who co-starred in Howard’s A Beautiful Mind) to play villain Dryden Vos. There can be little doubt that he was involved in casting his brother, Clint, to play Ralakili.

Acting- While on the subject of casting, each actor perfectly embodies the part they were selected to play. Ehrenreich has Han’s insouciant, devil-may-care attitude down pat. Glover, however, pushes his portrayal of Lando too far—Billy Dee Williams was charming and confidant while Glover has too much swagger and is frequently annoying. Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett is one of the most complex and refreshingly realistic characters in any SW film. Clarke also delivers a well-measured performance as a misfortunate young woman forced into servitude by nefarious criminals. Sadly, Thandie Newton’s Val is a disposable side character who has little impact on the story. Another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part is Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt), who looks like a supersized version of an Alien chestburster. Longtime SW performers, Warwick Davis and Anthony Daniels (trivia: this is the first SW film sans droids R2-D2 and C-3PO), have brief cameos here. The most interesting new face in the cast is Erin Kellyman, who plays the leader of the Cloud-Riders, Enfys Nest.

Story- Even though Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan have delivered a unique vision of the SW universe, their script contains some significant problems. Solo is so preoccupied with cramming quotes and references from the earlier (later chronologically) movies into its narrative that the paint-by-numbers plot (i.e., “and here’s where Han meets Chewie,” etc.) consistently upstages the original story concepts. Some elements work well, like the significance of Han’s dice (which is a nice tie-in with Last Jedi), and others don’t, like how Han comes by his last name. It’s clear that the Kasdan’s have a firm handle on both SW lore and crime films. However, their twisty plot is as clear as Mimban mud and the ending is far too obtuse and protracted. And speaking of protracted, the film (which runs 2 hours and 15 minutes), is way too long. Cutting some of the chatting and gambling scenes would’ve shortened the film and made it tighter all at the same time. The gasp-inducing cameo after the final confrontation is the highlight of the movie—the only time we feel any genuine terror. But the thrill quickly abates and the potentially exhilarating storyline goes absolutely nowhere…a microcosmic description of the entire film. Still, Solo is an enjoyable respite from Jedis, lightsaber battles and the Force. There’s more to the SW universe than these elements, as Solo ably demonstrates.

Costumes/Make-up- The costumes are well-tailored, particularly those seen at Vos’ reception and inside the various gambling establishments.

Cinematography- Bradford Young does fine work for the action sequences and establishing shots on the various planets, especially the Falcon’s bumpy landing on Savareen. However, the overall look of the film is bland and lacks color and saturation (see: The Evaluation), a stylistic decision that also falls at the feet of Howard. None of the characters are lit by direct sunlight or any kind of fill light (reflectors) during the entire movie. This flat lighting scheme is unwittingly the perfect choice for a movie almost entirely populated with cardboard characters. And like the characters themselves, the film has no light or dark side…only shades of gray. The lighting design is tantamount to a dimly-lit smuggler’s den, which is fitting when considering the movie’s milieu.

Music- One of the highlights of the film is John Powell’s (Jason Bourne) soundtrack, which is filled with several beautiful, sweeping melodies and makes judicious use of the existing back catalog of SW themes.

Visual FX- Exceptional, as would be expected. The sequence where the squid-like creature is slowly sucked into the maelstrom’s maw is breathtaking. The train hijacking scenes are extremely well storyboarded and executed. In a franchise first, we’re treated to a really nice POV shot from the back seat of the Millennium Falcon as it enters hyperspace. The tableau of a star destroyer surrounded by the maelstrom’s swirling gases is another strong visual composition.

Production Values- Top-notch and top dollar, as would be expected for a Disney tent pole. No problems here.

Movie Magic- Though certain aspects of Han’s origin story and some of the action sequences are thrilling, much of the movie is plodding and dull. Solo’s serious tone makes it a respectable film, but certainly not a fun one. But that’s okay, because this is just A Star Wars Story, not a major trilogy film. As such, Solo has successfully expanded the saga while tiding us over until Episode IX.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Ready Player One (PG-13)

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan
March 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise
:

A young man attempts to win fame, fortune and the affections of a young woman by solving the mysteries of a virtual reality game.

The Evaluation:

Seems like it’s been ages since Steven Spielberg directed a live-action action movie—since mo-cap
The Adventures of Tintin (2011) doesn’t count, the last such film was Indy IV, which was released a decade ago. Based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One taps into our society’s obsession with video games and genre entertainment. The plot revolves around a VR game called the OASIS, which was created by eccentric game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance). As with computer games like Second Life or Turf Wars, real-world money can purchase loot (weapons and equipment) inside the OASIS. And just like in a video game, when you run out of lives the game is over. In the OASIS, however, you also lose all of your currency, which other players can scoop up. In a riff on Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’s Golden Tickets, Halliday concealed three keys inside his VR world. Once discovered, these keys will help one player unlock the secrets of the OASIS, become the envy of millions, and, of course, earn a boatload of cash. Parzival/Wade (Tye Sheridan), the common denizen of a Columbus, OH “stacks” (mobile home towers), has aspirations of being the winner. But in order to achieve that goal, he’ll have to enlist the support of other skilled players, like Art3mis/Samantha (Olivia Cooke) and Aech/Helen (Lena Waithe). More importantly, he’ll need to look at things in radically different ways than any other player who’s ever played the game. Despite its promising premise and cornucopia of creativity, RPO never exceeds its YA trappings or overdetermined themes: rags-to-riches idealism and little guy vs. corporate overlord populism. There are plenty of nitpicks here too…since the OASIS is populated with millions of players from all around the world, how is it possible that Wade’s team of five players all live in the same neighborhood in Columbus? Character complexity, even for adults like Wade’s deadbeat guardians and lispy villain Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), is egregiously pedestrian in the movie and the jeopardy never reaches a level of intensity above standard teen peril. The action sequences are overblown and appear as if they were designed solely for the purpose of conveying the adrenalin-pumping exhilaration of a video game to the big screen, which they’re only marginally successful at doing. RPO is afflicted by a debilitating dichotomy—the teen characters and pulse-pounding action sequences are intended to attract a younger crowd, while the ubiquitous allusions to 80s pop culture are meant to reach an audience 40 and above (their parents). Since the film fails to fully connect with either generation, it might be disregarded on that basis, even by those who would normally enjoy this type of film. As a mash-up of the sci-fi, fantasy and gaming genres, you’d expect far more imagination than what’s on display here. The Doom environment, where two sprawling armies (comprised of every type of avatar, creature or character imaginable—including the Iron Giant) charge each other on a verdant plain, is like a massive Hobbit-style melee. However, the battle sequence is all eye candy and fails to build any genuine suspense since we know none of the main characters will die (not in real-life anyway). The movie isn’t completely devoid of innovation, though. One clever creation is the Zemeckis Cube, which looks just like a Rubik’s Cube and is named after the director of the Back to the Future movies, Robert Zemeckis. When solved, the eponymous cube resets the clock 25 seconds so that you can go back in time and undo a catastrophic event (of course, this creates a snafu since how many people can solve a Rubik’s cube that quickly, especially when caught in the middle of a firefight?). Even though it’s a frequently employed in sci-fi stories—ranging from Galaxy Quest (1999) to a recent episode of Star Trek Discovery where Mudd keeps looping time—the time rewind gag still provides a fun moment here. It’s ironic that a movie focused on an Easter egg is filled with them. From the Buckaroo Banzai costume to a toy model of the original Battlestar Galactica, and the ST:TMP poster in a window to the life-sized model of Robby the Robot from Lost in Space in the corner of a room, the movie is packed with enough pop culture references to overload your flux capacitor. The movie’s resolution contains another quotation of Wonka (inheriting the company), but the denouement is overlong and overplayed. Though this is a return to form for Spielberg, the movie is a shallow, and occasionally self-referential, pastiche. RPO is full of empty mind calories and is, sadly, devoid of heart. In the end, the only relevance the movie has is that it’s a cautionary tale regarding the frightening implications of our impending VR existence. So, will there be a Ready Player Two? As a hero of mine (James T. Kirk) once said, “I certainly hope not. I found one quite sufficient.”

The Breakdown:

Directing- After a string of historical dramas—War Horse (2011), Lincoln (2012), Bridge of Spies (2015) and The Post (2017) (with 2016’s kiddie pic The BFG thrown into the mix)—Spielberg has returned to his action/adventure roots. But has he matured beyond this type of film? No one can fault his craftsmanship here, but the movie just seems incongruous with his recent works and is completely beneath him. Still, RPO must’ve been a nostalgic trip for the director since it contains many references to his early life and career.

Acting- Sheridan is decent as the hero, but it’s Cooke who shines as the worldly-wise, no-nonsense sidekick. Mendelsohn, who was serviceable as the villain (Krennic) in Rogue One, is utterly laughable here as a greedy, selfish tycoon who pays his employees to find the three keys just like Mr. Salt (Roy Kinnear) pays his factory workers to unwrap chocolate bars to obtain a Golden Ticket for his daughter in Wonka. Rylance, Spielberg’s touchstone of late, is the backbone of the story and conveys the only genuine emotions in the film as the lovelorn programmer who just wants to go back to when games were fun…before designers ruined them by making the graphics so realistic that nothing was left to the imagination. Simon Pegg underwhelms in a role that neither suits his energetic personality nor his comedic sensibilities. Maybe he accepted the part just to work with Spielberg.

Story- The story by Zak Penn and Cline is a mixed bag. The way they introduce the OASIS is extremely odd—it’s like a documentary/infomercial about the history and conventions of the VR world. The intro contains way too much preamble…we just want to watch the movie/play the game. Plus, the writers need to show us, not tell us what’s going on in these scenes. Case in point, instead of mentioning the option to climb Mt. Everest with Batman, the writers’ should’ve incorporated that plot possibility into the story (and if licensing was an issue, they should’ve selected a different hero). These amazing concepts feel like secondhand descriptions rather than firsthand experiences. RPO’s expositional opening is like playing the demo of a video game and getting enough of a feel for it that you get bored at the thought of playing the actual game. Some of the challenges are far too easy for the characters to solve and many of the clues are telegraphed (like the ones obtained while watching just the right moment of Halliday’s expansive video library). In short, the writers try to cram too many characters and too many action sequences into a story that’s overstuffed with iconography, styles and themes from the pop culture grist of a bygone era.

Costumes/Make-up- Though diverse and colorful, many of the stylish outfits seen inside the OASIS are rendered on a computer, which means they qualify more as FX than physical costumes. The VR bodysuit is an impressive creation and is destined to be a household item in the future.

Cinematography- Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan) is as masterful as ever. However, since the majority of the film is composed of CGI characters and environments, the visuals grow tiresome after a while (like watching a feature-length podrace). The epic battles are well staged and filmed, but come off looking like a LOTR-style fracas with cosplayers subbed in for orcs and trolls.

Music- Alan Silvestri’s score is full of energy and whimsy and hearkens back to his work on the Back to the Future movies.

Visual FX- Mind-blowing CGI that, unfortunately, equates to empty calories for the brain…like many video games. The OASIS is pure artifice. The CG never slows down long enough for your eyes to assimilate the many details inside the VR world. Is that because the CG artists cut corners? Though they serve as the actual star of the movie, the FX aren’t nearly as impressive as those seen in last year’s Valerian—another action-packed, teeny sci-fi adventure.

Production Values- Unquestionably a top-dollar production. The film attempts to create a cinematic video game experience. It achieves just that…for better or worse.

Movie Magic- Totally subjective. Teens may like the action and video game aspects and adults may like all the references to 80s pop culture. Many people will dislike the movie for either or both of those reasons.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (PG-13)

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Directed by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daisy Ridley
December 2017


What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The first post-Lucas, Disney owned Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens (2015), was a smashing success.  J.J. Abrams, a self-proclaimed diehard SW fan from his youth, did more than just direct the film; he established the look, feel, tone and style for the new trilogy.  Awakens was reverent to the original trilogy (although it tapped the tropes, themes and events of A New Hope with abandon), and carved out its own unique corner of the SW universe.  With such solid footing and a literal handoff of the baton (lightsaber) from Abrams to the new director (the barely-established, virtually unknown Rian Johnson), Star Wars: The Last Jedi was destined to be a surefire hit.  However, even though the movie will make bank at the box office (as all SW movies do), Last Jedi is a galactic disappointment.  To temper that caustic contention, let me first say that the film’s production elements are stellar across the board.  Sets, costumes, FX, makeup, sound, etc. are all top-notch and should be serious contenders come awards season.  Although we get some occasional stiffness (acting arthritis) from Mark Hamill and the sadly departed Carrie Fisher, the performances are solid enough, especially from the younger actors, to service this action/adventure space opera.  So where did the movie go wrong?  There’s only one area of the movie, indeed only one person, that made this movie fail…Rian Johnson.  Whereas Johnson’s directing choices are satisfactory (save for the scene where a frosted over General Leia (Fisher) floats through space like Mary Poppins without an umbrella), his writing reveals a significant lack of understanding regarding pacing, structure, tone and especially dialog.  Last Jedi features an extremely simplistic and straightforward storyline.  For nearly half the movie, the rebel fleet crawls along at sublight speed (a term borrowed from Star Trek), and the plodding plot perfectly matches its pace.  Much of the story goes absolutely nowhere.  Even worse, it goes in circles without achieving anything at all.  Case in point, when the story becomes mired in a series of scenes involving Star Destroyers taking potshots at the rebel flotilla, Johnson has Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) take us on a side trip to a resort planet (Canto Bight).  This boomerang subplot, which includes a couple of action sequences, a herd of animals, a handful of kids and a new side character, achieves absolutely nothing since the two rebels end up in the clutches of the enemy.  It’s utterly laughable that Finn and Rose are actually surprised when their new friend, DJ (Benicio Del Toro), turns out to be a scoundrel (shades of Lando’s betrayal in The Empire Strikes Back), even though they never make contact with the rebel spy they were sent to meet—the code breaker with the red flower brooch (Justin Theroux).  At the heart of the movie’s narrative ailment is a profound and pervasive identity crisis.  What’s its theme?  What’s its message?  What’s its objective?  One of the major problems with the story is that it has no MacGuffin, save for survival.  With no overarching goal or purpose, the plot casts about in search of some kind of meaning, but since it never finds any, the movie settles for a string of action sequences just to keep the story moving forward.  Ironically, the film is a reflection of its own weaknesses: conflicted characters mirror a conflicted story.  Johnson clearly intends to keep the audience guessing as to the loyalties of the main characters, but while attempting to psych us out, he muddles character motivations and muddies the narrative waters.  Ultimately, the joke is on Johnson since we’re way ahead of him (I mean, Rey actually being tempted to join the Dark Side?  C’mon!).  The story works overtime to depict the inner conflict of several characters.  Is Luke (Hamill) good or bad?  Is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) good or bad?  Is Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) good or bad?  Johnson exerts so much effort on these questions that it becomes exhausting, doubly so since the answers are so painfully obvious.  The mutiny subplot, where Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) defies Holdo and does what he thinks is best for the survival of the rebel remnant, is utterly distasteful and only provides momentary tension in the plot.  Dissension in the ranks doesn’t really suit SW …it’s more of something you’d see on Battlestar Galactica (2003).  Holdo’s character arc is particularly vexing due to her vacillating likeability and consistently illogical command decisions.  Though she makes the right choice in the end, Holdo should’ve taken action much sooner, before so many of her people were killed (plus, a quicker reaction would’ve moved the story along faster and shaved off a few minutes of the film’s too long 2 ½ hour screen time).  At least something good comes from Holdo’s desperate act; besides providing a momentary escape for the rebels, we’re treated to the film’s finest visual effect—a weaponized hyperspace jump.  Speaking of FX, two of the mo-cap characters from Awakens have returned here, with less than impressive results.  Again, we can’t fault the performers or the visual effects artisans for their efforts; the blame lands squarely on Johnson’s shoulders.  The story beat where we get glimpses of Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) fighting some far-off war via a choppy video transmission is a total throwaway scene which is shamelessly shoehorned into the story just to remind kids to buy action figures with her likeness.  The bigger disappointment is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who was portrayed as a towering, malevolent shadow lord in Awakens, but actually turns out to be far less physically intimidating and even less sinister than we were originally led to believe (and what’s with that bland, red background in his throne room?).  Johnson wrote stilted, simpleton and self-aggrandizing dialog for Snoke, and one wonders if Snoke’s characterization here is a thinly-veiled dig at President Trump.  Snoke is far too overconfident in his abilities in the Force (and who trained him?) and loves “dialoging” (The Incredibles).  Besides plagiarizing the Emperor’s (Ian McDiarmid) talk track wholesale, Snoke also enjoys playing with his captive (like a cat toying with a mouse) a little too much.  Plus, even though he claims to see everything, he can’t even sense a threat sitting right next to him?  Weak!  Like Boba Fett and Count Dooku before him, Snoke is dispatched far too easily.  Snoke is a poor man’s Emperor.  He’s all bluster with none of the menace.  In short, Snoke is a joke.  Snoke’s Ninja guards are like highly trained Imperial Guards from Return of the Jedi (1983).  This is just one of many callbacks to the original trilogy.  Judging from Johnson’s rigid insistence on rehashing themes, settings and dialog from the earlier SW films, it could be argued that the entire narrative of Last Jedi is one giant pastiche.  Here are just a few examples…  The rebels have to evacuate their base and get past an Imperial blockade (Empire).  Ships that engage in evasive maneuvers to avoid capital ships because they can’t enter hyperspace (Empire).  Luke trains Rey, just like Yoda trained Luke in Empire—and it’s amazing how well Rey fights after just a few lessons.  Near the middle of the movie, Rey enters an obsidian land anus to learn the identity of her parents. Disappointingly, Rey steps into a celestial fun house where she sees countless copies of herself in mirrors that taper to the vanishing point—an utterly superfluous sidebar, and more wasted screen time.  This sequence is similar to when Luke sees his face in Vader’s shattered helmet inside the Dark Side cave in Empire.  Gigantic walkers on a white plain (this time it’s salt, not snow) and rebel troops in trenches defending a base (Empire).  The image of a kid holding a broom like a lightsaber closes out the movie, and he stands in an archway that’s shaped just like the one inside the rebel medical frigate at the end of Empire.  These instances are just a few of the many allusions found in the story.  This doesn’t even include the many shots and lines of dialog that were lifted right out of the seminal trilogy.  Strangely, the ubiquitous gag line in every SW film: “I have a bad feeling about this,” isn’t uttered here.  The oft-repeated opening crawl phrase “spark of hope” is an insipid bromide that’s too reminiscent of A New Hope.  Another area of the film that’s derivative is John Williams’ score, which is a Greatest Hits compilation of his music for the original trilogy.  The quality of the music is predictably excellent, but it’s unacceptable that only about half of the score contains original music.  The post-crawl piccolo solo is identical to the opening of New Hope and signals the banal plot to come.  Though the movie’s shortcomings are many, perhaps the greatest is the horrendous depiction of Luke (I can’t fault Hamill’s acting—he does the most he can with a poorly conceived and written part). For his ham-handed handling of Luke, Johnson should be taken out and tarred and feathered.  Actually, Disney should be baptized in Bantha poodoo for green-lighting this hack script in the first place.  Johnson’s characterization of Luke is an abomination.  Luke is a jaded bully in most of his scenes.  He isn’t likable in the least and is a far cry from the hero we once knew.  Look no further than the Jedi Academy flashback sequences for evidence of this.  First we see the events of that fateful night through Luke’s memory and then through Kylo Ren’s (back to when he was still Ben Solo).  Aside from wasting precious screen time on Rashomon (1950) style he-said-she-said sequences that contain only minor variations, these scenes feature a flawed aspect of Luke’s character.  Let’s apply some logic to these fallacious back stories.  Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader committed countless murders (including the slaying of an entire school of kids, as seen in 2005’s Revenge of the Sith) and yet his son, Luke, can still sense good in him in Jedi. An older Luke senses evil in Ben Solo, who, at that point hasn’t killed anyone (that we know of).  As such, how can we reconcile the fact that young Luke’s steadfast objective is to redeem his genocidal maniac father, while old Luke’s first instinct is to kill his innocent nephew?  This is an emotional knee-jerk of epic proportions.  How could a Jedi Master act in such an irrational manner?  Since he was able to restore his father (Vader), shouldn’t Luke be able to prevent Ben Solo from going down the dark path and becoming Kylo Ren? Have his powers become that weak? Or his mind that feeble? Although Luke finds redemption in the end, the fact that he doesn’t “physically” come to the aid of the rebels cheapens the multigenerational dual and is a significant cheat on the part of Johnson (despite the dramatic mileage and plot twist he gets out of the climactic battle).  The much anticipated showdown between Luke and Kylo Ren features gaps in logic large enough to march a fleet of walkers through.  As someone adept at using the Force, shouldn’t Kylo be able to sense that Luke isn’t quite what he seems when peering down at him from the bridge of his ship (or to put it a different way, shouldn’t Kylo be able to detect Luke’s life force/energy, or the absence of it)?  Further, when face to face with Luke on the battlefield, shouldn’t Kylo question why his old mentor looks exactly as he did while teaching at the Jedi Academy (an estimated 10-15 years earlier)?  Luke’s black beard should be a dead giveaway, to Kylo and the audience, that Luke looks younger than he really is at present.  Also, Kylo knows Luke’s lightsaber is green. And yet, during the confrontation, Luke is wielding a blue lightsaber, which also has a hilt that looks just like the one Kylo and Rey recently ripped in half during their Force tug-of-war. With all of these visual clues, it’s inexplicable that Kylo could’ve fallen for Luke’s chicanery. Again, Johnson’s inexperience shows through during this sequence because his attempt at misdirecting the audience backfired with the creation of these major nitpicks.  Another of Johnson’s mishandled moments is the brief cameo by Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz).  At first we’re elated to see the diminutive Jedi master and then we’re puzzled when he displays an antagonistic attitude toward Luke.  Then we’re befuddled when he calls the sacred Jedi texts a dull read and condones Luke’s desire to burn them.  Yoda is completely out of character in this sequence (as is Luke). Not only does this sadly superfluous scene fail to significantly advance the plot, it squanders the appearance of one of the most beloved characters in the SW mythos.  Plus, it wastes even more screen time and seems positioned just to sell another toy version of Yoda.  Another character that was planted in the movie just to sell toys is new droid BB-9E.  The black robot has less than two minutes of total screen time and only has one pivotal scene. Though not nearly as annoying as the Ewoks (Jedi), the puffin-like porgs are shown squawking far too often in the film and are included here only to generate laughs from the kiddies so that they’ll run out and buy the toy version of the birds.  The porgs, which hail from planet Ahch-To (gesundheit), are certainly cute, but they’re overused in the movie.  In fact, the film is overloaded with creatures, including the large horse type creatures (fathiers) from Canto Bight and the crystal foxes (vulptex) on Crait (again, you can bet that each of these animals will be included in their own toy play set).  You would think that a movie so geared toward kids would be non-stop fun, but such is not the case.  In actuality, the movie has very little humor.  Most of the jokes, like Luke tossing a weapon over his shoulder in a screwball comedy flourish, are forced and fail to strike anywhere near the funny bone.  Worse still, the movie has no heart.  There are very few genuine emotions in Last Jedi. Also, as absurd as it sounds, the only natural acting in the entire film is when the rebel officer touches the white surface and dabs the substance on the tip of his tongue and says, “Salt.”  Everything else is hyperreal and put on for effect.  To be fair, the film succeeds in a few key areas.  Mentioned earlier, the cataclysmic hyperspace jump represents the film’s creative zenith.  The hyperspace tracker, though pilfered from New Hope, is a clever piece of technology that adds some much needed dramatic tension to the film.  On Crait, the red dirt under the surface of salt sets up some brilliant visuals when the rebel ships and walkers engage in combat—the vehicle movement patterns are like an elaborate Etch A Sketch drawing.  One clever character device is the Jedi Link (my appellation), which allows those with Force abilities to establish mental communication over vast distances of space.  The concept does have precedent in New Hope, when old Obi-Wan senses the deaths of scores of people on Alderaan, and at the end of Empire when Luke responds to Vader’s mental projections.  Though unsettling at first, the way one character can engage in a casual conversation with another person who’s standing in front of a contrasting background, is extremely effective visually.  These sequences are well executed and add a psychological dimension to the scenes between Rey and Kylo Ren (and are they related, since their connection is so strong?).  From the outset, it seems as if Johnson’s main objective was to confound the audience at every turn.  However, the employment of a constant string of plot twists for the sole purpose of catching the audience off guard can make a story not only tangential, but ultimately, inconsequential.  As the movie’s sole scribe (and why no assist from a veteran, proven screenwriter, like Lawrence Kasdan?), Johnson proves to be too slick for his own good by focusing on surprise over substance.  Unfortunately, the biggest surprise in the movie is how spectacularly Johnson failed.  In the final analysis, Last Jedi is a parade of disfigured character portraits, haphazard and hackneyed writing and plot holes big enough to fly a dreadnought through. If Last Jedi was converted into a mathematical proof it would be: flawed characterizations plus a flawed narrative equals a flawed film. After this middling effort, there can be no doubt that the Force is in flux.  Will the series pull out of its tailspin for the trilogy capper or will it continue its precipitous descent into the Sarlacc Pit of movie mediocrity (like the prequels, which Last Jedi resembles in many respects)?  That brings up another burning question…is this the worst SW movie ever made?  Actually, does Last Jedi even qualify as a SW film since it feels more like a high budget fanboy film than an authentic entry into the mythos?  Perhaps, due to some cosmic mix-up in The Twilight Zone, we ended up with an alternate Earth’s Last Jedi and they got ours.  Whatever the explanation is for Last Jedi’s myriad missteps, one thing is abundantly clear…the Force is not strong with this one.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Justice League (PG-13)

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Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck
November 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Though there are many comic book companies these days, the big two are DC and Marvel. In addition to producing comic books, both companies offer an array of entertainment on the small and big screens. Though achieving parity (in output and quality) has been a constant struggle for DC, the studio has, at long last, launched a cinematic version of its Justice League property—their answer to Marvel’s Avengers series. Aside from being five years behind their rival studio, DC also failed to properly establish all of its team members in solo movies as Marvel did for the Avengers (heck, they even stuck their neck out with Ant-Man, which turned out to be a crowd-pleasing success). JL members The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) all make their first appearance in the franchise here, sans a cinematic origin story. Rounding out the super group is: Ben Affleck as Batman, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and…surprise, Henry Cavill as Superman. I made much of Superman’s absence from the JL poster in my review for Wonder Woman, which I now regret. I should’ve known that the indestructible Man of Steel would emerge just in the nick of time to mete out his particular brand of justice on the bad guys. It would’ve been senseless to exclude Superman from a JL movie since he’s the most recognizable superhero in the world. However, the way Superman is used in the movie is a whole other matter; his limited screen time and inconsequential involvement in the story is a super…uh, supreme disappointment. The story itself, written by Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon and director Zack Snyder, is one of the movie’s biggest drawbacks. The plot is a sprawling mess…it juggles multiple storylines and takes forever to get out of the starting gate. The action sequences are protracted and dizzying, yet are strangely absent of peril. Steppenwolf (the 70s called and want their rock band back) is a serviceable villain, but we already know he will be no match for Superman during their inevitable, climactic showdown. Steppenwolf’s (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) insectoid minions’ only function is to prevent the team from joining forces…because if that happened, the movie would be over in five minutes. The MacGuffins in this film are the three Mother Boxes (dumb name), which serve a similar function as Marvel’s Infinity Stones. Nothing new here. The movie makes an attempt at providing some personal background for each of the JL team members as well as some meaningful exchanges between the characters, like the lakeside chat between Bruce Wayne (Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gadot), but such efforts are still insufficient and perfunctory amid the rapid succession of action sequences. Other ancillary characters, like Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons), are given ridiculously little to do in the film. Likewise, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is called upon to be a Superman whisperer when her buffo boyfriend goes off the rails. Cyborg’s father, Silas Stone (Joe Morton), also has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part. The film’s tone is its Kryptonite. Much of the color has been removed from the picture so that the overall aesthetic is dismal and seedy, like a Batman comic book, but certainly not like a colorful Superman book. The story perfectly mirrors the tone…everything is done in earnest with a level of seriousness that allows only the occasional joke to penetrate the movie’s hard-boiled, world-weary exterior. By way of comparison, JL is less like Wonder Woman and more like Batman v Superman. In that regard, the studio is moving in the wrong direction. Bottom line: JL is a bleak blunder. It’s case in point for why Marvel is winning the comic book war, at least on the big screen. Marvel’s movies have become more colorful and humorous, while DCs have become increasingly dire, drab and dreary. DC’s gloomy outlook may be an accurate reflection of the world we live in, but Marvel’s optimistic, fun-filled adventures perfectly portray the world we want to live in. Is there any question why Marvel’s films continue to be more financially, commercially and critically successful than DC’s? If DC doesn’t step up its game, it will continue to Marvel at the success of its competitor.

The Dark Tower (PG-13)

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Directed by: Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Idris Elba
August 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Having read the first book of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower novel series in advance of viewing the film of the same name, I’m disappointed in director Nikolaj Arcel’s efforts on several levels. First, only about ten minutes of the movie comes from the first book (primarily the Western scenes). Second, none of the atmosphere (“They could see the smooth, stepped rise of the desert into foothills, the first naked slopes, the bedrock bursting through the skin of the earth in sullen, eroded triumph”), poetry (“Time’s the thief of memory”) or visual vitality (“The guns did their work, stitching the darkness with red-white lances of light that pushed needles of pain into the gunslinger’s eyes”) of King’s book has been translated onto the big screen. Third, in the mold of Percy Jackson & The Olympians (2010) and The 5thWave (2016), The Dark Tower is told through the eyes of a young teenager and has that family-friendly, teen peril vibe to it that belies the book’s somber, sullied soul. Indeed, the book is much more adult (bars, brothels and bullet storms) than the movie and focuses on the exploits of the adults: Roland/the Gunslinger (Idris Elba) and Walter/the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). Although the stars are well suited (and enjoyably cast against type) to their roles, they both seem bored with the material. Much like his stiff portrait in Pacific Rim (2013), Elba turns in a one-note performance here. McConaughey, who is supposed to be playing a latter-day grim reaper, is not nearly as menacing as he should be in the role. Case in point: Walter verbally abuses one of his minions for having a rat face. By contrast, Darth Vader would’ve just Force choked the offensive underling and signaled for the body to be dragged off. The best part of the film is Tom Taylor as Jake. Jake, who has visions and powers (chief among them is his skill with a pencil and art pad), is an interesting character that, due to the uninspired writing by Akiva Goldsman, et al., never develops into anything more than Roland’s 2D sidekick. In the end, the film’s commercialized story is its Achilles’ heel, since adherence to the source material would’ve made for a subtly nuanced, psychologically complex pursuit film. The end result here is a glorified teen film that attempts to emulate the visual ingenuity of The Matrix (1999) and Doctor Strange (2016), but ends up resembling (in quality if not movie magic) Tomorrowland (2015). King’s early masterwork deserved a much better cinematic fate.

Dunkirk (PG-13)

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Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead
July 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Who else but Christopher Nolan (Inception) would be ambitious, or insane, enough to helm a film that depicts one of the worst military defeats in history? Based on the true account of how British and French forces were cut off and surrounded by the German army with their backs to the sea, Dunkirk is a prime example of how military intelligence often lives up to its reputation as an oxymoron. With the large troop transports blasted into flotsam, a flotilla of fishing boats and pleasure yachts was mobilized to rescue the 330,000 soldiers stranded on the beach at Dunkirk, France. But with enemy planes bombing the beachhead, the stranded soldiers were the very definition of sitting ducks. The film’s action takes place in three different arenas: land (getting off the beach), sea (boarding boats and evading enemy bombs) and air (destroying inbound enemy fighters and bombers). As would be expected with a Nolan film, the action sequences are absolutely mind-blowing and the cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema is meticulously crafted. Some of the finest sequences in the film are the dogfights, which effectively meld newer camera techniques with the shuddering, metal shearing, bolt-popping rawness of a classical Hollywood war film. The performances are adequate to the task, but there’s a dearth of dialog and a surfeit of long, penetrating gazes in the film. Case in point, the great Kenneth Branagh (as Commander Bolton) is reduced to a series of slow zoom close-ups that make him appear as if he’s struggling to hold in a suppository. Likewise, James D’Arcy (as Colonel Winnant) does little more than pace back and forth in a state of perpetual agitation, fretfully delivering the same line a dozen different ways over the course of the film. Young performers Fionn Whitehead and Damien Bonnard do the majority of the physical acting, but really aren’t given much to say either. Ironically, the character we are most drawn to is ace pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy), whose face is partially concealed for the majority of the movie. Also ironic is the fact that the film’s biggest drawback is Nolan’s writing. The cause and effect narrative takes us from one event, happening or action scene to the next with very little, if any, character moments in between. Dunkirk’s narrative is comprised of a series of storyboarded sequences and, as such, plays like a cinematic comic strip. The lack of character development leads to a disinterest in the few characters that actually have lines in the film. Indeed, due to the dearth of emotional investment in the characters, we don’t really sympathize with them at all. Though vastly different in theme and tone, Dunkirk is exactly what Titanic would’ve been without the love story. The reason Titanic was a titular success is that James Cameron crafted real characters that we could identify with so that when the inevitable disaster struck we were right there with them, in essence inhabiting their bodies and experiencing the tragedy with them firsthand. Aside from its marvelous acting, directing, detailed period elements and high production values, it’s that immediacy, that soul-possessing intimacy, which made the movie resonate so powerfully with audiences. In Dunkirk, we never get under the skin of the characters…everything is external. Because Dunkirk is so well made, scores of people will disagree with my assessment of the film. However, how much more powerful would the film have been if our connection with the characters was so strong that we could feel the sand between our toes as we stood beside the soldiers or felt the bone-jarring concussion of the bombs impacting on the beach? Taking nothing away from Nolan, who is a fine director in his own right, but in the hands of Steven Spielberg, who would’ve sent the script back for a massive rewrite insisting on richer back stories and more poignant character moments, Dunkirk would’ve been a four star film and Best Picture nominee.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (PG-13)

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Directed by: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland
July 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Sam Raimi helmed the three numbered Spider-Man films spotlighting Tobey Maguire, Marc Webb directed the two Amazing Spider-Man flicks featuring Andrew Garfield and Jon Watts is the shot caller behind the new subtitled wall-crawler series starring Tom Holland. Despite the changing faces on both sides of the camera, Spider-Man has remained a juggernaut at the box office over the past fifteen years. This sixth Spider-Man film makes a wise decision right out of the gate—it skips the spider bite origin story, which we’ve seen ad nauseam by now, and instead gives the movie context by cleverly showing a POV camcorder recording of Spider-Man’s derring-do during the climactic battle in Captain America: Civil War (2016). Kudos to Watts and his team of five writers for electing not to waste an hour of screen time on Spidey’s back story before initiating the actual story. The film opens eight years in the past and shows foreman Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) losing a contract to the government while cleaning up the debris after the NYC alien invasion as depicted in The Avengers (2012). Toomes discovers some alien technology in the rubble, fashions it into a bird suit and becomes villain Vulture (to remain consistent with Keaton’s other avian themed characters in Batman and Birdman). Meantime, Peter Parker (Holland) is desperately trying to impress a girl he’s crushing on at school while keeping up his grades and maintaining an internship (wink, wink) with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) can tell Peter is going through some difficulties, but chalks it up to normal teenage changes. Peter’s friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), provides some comic relief, and becomes trusted assistant (like Stark’s Happy Hogan) when he accidentally stumbles onto the secret of Peter’s alter ego. The story heats up about halfway into the film when Spidey spies on an illegal weapon’s exchange one night. After clumsily blowing his own cover (the fiery red suit certainly doesn’t help on recon missions), Spidey unwittingly interrupts the shady dealings of Vulture’s men, which sets off a chain reaction that eventually pits Spidey and Vulture in mortal combat. The film’s resolution pretty much dictates itself from there. There’s a good deal of high school angst in the movie, especially in the early goings, which hearkens back to the very first film. These scenes establish the setting and characters, provide background for Peter and are effective in showing the exigencies of his daily life, which, of course, is a stark contrast to his life at night. Although necessary for grounding the film and giving us a glimpse into the struggles of the real person behind the mask, these school scenes, particularly the prom proceedings, feel like they were lifted right out of an ABC Family or CW drama. However, more so than McGuire and Garfield, Holland nails Peter’s wide-eyed, overly idealistic and adorably naïve characteristics. Peter’s two caring, if absentee, guardians—May and Stark—offer him drive-by advice, but never when he needs it most…like when he discovers the identity of his archnemesis. As for Vulture, Keaton delivers an exceedingly restrained performance, especially when compared to the prototypical Marvel antagonist. We can identify with Toomes because he’s just an ordinary guy who makes a bad decision for the right reason…to provide for his family (and stick it to the government). Refreshingly, Keaton’s voice doesn’t change for effect, nor does he become more bombastic in speech and manner while inhabiting Vulture’s wing suit. As such, Vulture is one of the most realistic comic book movie villains ever (ironically, the runner-up is Spider-Man 2’s Alfred Molina as Doc Ock). Sadly, Vulture never strikes fear into the viewer and doesn’t really test Spidey’s mettle, which is a significant narrative misfire. This Spidey outing avoids many of the gimmicks employed in the earlier movies, i.e. rescuing cats in trees, etc, and offers some humorous asides, like when Spidey runs out of buildings to sling webs from and must jog a mile across a golf course in order to respond to an emergency. Though slow in developing, Homecoming is an exciting superhero action film once the plot kicks into high gear. If the movie has any weak spots, it’s that the story is surprisingly light-weight and that Spidey can never truly spread his wings and fly due to the intermittent avuncular advice and canned wisdom from Iron Man and Captain America (Chris Evans), respectively. Expanding on that analogy, it’s time for Spidey to fly solo in the next film. Like its young star, this third attempt at launching a Spider-Man franchise has loads of potential. Now it’s time to see if the series can live up to that potential or collapse under the weight of it.

Wonder Woman (PG-13)

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Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot
June 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Let’s face it, the best part of last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was the arrival of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) during the epic confrontation. Providing some much needed vitality and panache to a mostly ponderous and lackluster film, Wonder Woman’s presence served the dual function of saving one film and instilling confidence in her ability to carry another. As it turns out, that confidence was well-placed since Wonder Woman is a far better film than that other one where the two squabbling male heroes needed the feminine touch to avert Doomsday. The first film to feature a female superhero opens with an elegant back story that gives us a glimpse into the early years of clay-made Diana (Lilly Aspell), who is raised on a paradise island among Amazon women—governed by Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright. We’re treated to a montage of well-choreographed training scenes, and then, quicker than you can yell “Princess of Themyscira,” Diana (Gadot) has transformed into an adult. Diana’s tranquil, idyllic life is suddenly disrupted by the arrival of a German plane that crashes into the ocean inside the protective dome created by Zeus (isn’t it supposed to be impenetrable?). Diana rescues the pilot, Captain Steve Trevor (not James Kirk), who is played by Chris Pine. Steve, a British spy who speaks with an American accent, is in possession of information that could prove instrumental in ending the war. Diana is also invested in the cessation of hostilities and assigns herself the task of destroying Ares, the god of war. But will their opposing views on how to stop the bloodshed create its own conflict between Diana and Steve? Set during WWI, WW is a curious cross-universe twin of Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), which took place during World War II and also featured a super-strong hero armed with an impervious, circular shield and an unerring moral compass. Was setting WW in 1918 instead of the post-Doomsday present a misstep? Hard to say, but the film’s quality certainly doesn’t suffer from the decision over its milieu. Gadot and Pine have excellent chemistry together and the other performers offer stellar support, especially Danny Huston and David Thewlis. WW contains the optimal balance of story to action…let’s hope the upcoming Justice League follows that same formula. And why no Superman in JL? Wasn’t DC’s long game with Man of Steel (2013) and BVS to have Henry Cavill, along with Ben Affleck and Gadot, headline JL—a strategy filched wholesale from rival Marvel, which set up The Avengers franchise with its raft of stand-alone superhero showcases? Superman’s conspicuous absence from JL not only squanders Cavill’s talents, but also sidelines one of the most recognizable superheroes in the world from anchoring a film that’s been in the planning stages for years. Well, at least Wonder Woman will appear in JL. She’s proven herself to be a solid reliever as well as a dependable starter. WW is the best DC movie since Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Will wonders never cease?

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (PG-13)

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Directed by: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt
May 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) seemed to come out of left field—some obscure corner of the Marvel universe where the studio’s typical mock earnestness and platitudinous dialog was hastily jettisoned out the nearest airlock in favor of irreverent jibes and free-flowing wisecracks—and was wildly successful due to its star power and effective mixture of laugh-a-minute antics and mind-blowing action sequences. Sadly, that approach hasn’t been altered even one iota in the sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. It’s hard to believe that such a successful formula could become outdated so quickly, but this follow-up film suffers from a severe case of sequelitis. Though GOTG2 isn’t quite perfunctory, the story feels rushed along…it’s as if director/writer James Gunn, in his haste to return to this hugely popular and financially lucrative franchise, forgot to develop a plot and simply reheated the leftovers from the first film. Rocket (Bradley Cooper) generates a few laughs, but his shtick is predictable and almost annoying this time around. Although sapling Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is absolutely adorable, the bits where he fails to deliver what Rocket wants are also worn from repetition by now. Drax’ (David Bautista) ego is as enormous as his pecs and his superpower is his ability to simultaneously annoy Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the audience. The movie’s saving grace (aside from the brief cameo by Sylvester Stallone), is its writ large theme of reconciliation. The temporary truce between warring sisters, Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan), makes for a mildly diverting subplot. Yondu (Michael Rooker), minor antagonist in the first film, finds redemption (albeit on a false note) here as Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) surrogate father. Peter’s real father arrives on a ship that looks like a gigantic egg, introduces himself as Ego, claims to own a planet and is played by none other than Kurt Russell…how ironic that Russell’s career started with goofy Disney movies and that he’s returned to the fold now that the Mouse House owns Marvel. The circle is now complete. And speaking of Star Wars, there’s a palpable Vader/Luke vibe going on when Ego tries tempting Peter into turning his back on his friends and accompanying him on a quest to rule the universe (Russell and Pratt have excellent chemistry in these scenes). It would’ve been a clever twist to show Peter testing out his newfound abilities—reveling in the unlimited power at his disposal to create whatever his heart desired—just to make us think that he might follow his dad to the Dark Side. But this film wouldn’t know what to do with that kind of subtlety, intrigue or complexity. For better or worse, GOTG2 is a straightforward action piece. Though this sequel will be a disappointment to many, there’s enough overblown action and overstated jokes to appeal to the popcorn set. Here’s hoping the eventual sequel will bring back the thrill ride exhilaration of the first film and replace these cardboard characters with the genuine articles from the original. And where is John C. Reilly?

Logan (R)

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Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Hugh Jackman
March 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Logan is Hugh Jackman’s ninth X-Men film and his third solo outing as Wolverine. Sadly, after seventeen years of portraying feral mutant, Logan marks Jackman’s final appearance in the franchise. Just as attrition has finally set in for the 48-year-old actor, Logan can no longer heal as quickly as when he was younger and feels the sting of every bullet that impacts on his adamantium exoskeleton more acutely than in his prime. Whereas Logan’s pain is physical, Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) is mental. In fact, the usually well composed Professor X, Logan’s longtime mentor, is losing his mind to the ravages of dementia. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if Professor X got really mad and unleashed all of his mental powers into one furious barrage (like Cyclops without his shades), you’ll definitely want to keep an eye out for the movie’s psionic blast sequences…amazing FX. For two characters who started off on rough footing, Charles and Logan have become good friends; you might say they’re almost like a non-related father and son. The scenes where Logan, dutiful son, takes care of Charles, aging parent, are genuinely moving. It’s profoundly sad to see such a brilliant a mind wasting away, but Father Time eventually catches up to everyone, even mutants it would seem. The film’s family connection extends to Laura (Dafne Keen), a young girl who exhibits Logan’s ferocity while fighting and possesses his ability to rapid heal. Logan, directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line), is essentially a pursuit film with Logan attempting to outrun his past so that he can simply fade into obscurity. Although there are plenty of elaborately choreographed action sequences, the story occasionally stops to corral stray horses, which detours the through-line and delays the film’s mission. These scenes are a double-edged sword since they slow down the action in order to provide meaningful character moments, which effectively ground the story and prevent its more spectacular elements from running away with the show. Still, without episodes like the dinner at the farmer’s house, the film would have far less heart. Once the “special” bullet (similar in concept to a silver bullet for a werewolf) is introduced we have a pretty good idea of how it will be used—and, indeed, the ending is painfully obvious. Even though Wolverine’s demise is precipitated by a pulse-pounding fight sequence, he still deserved a more spectacular, more heroic sendoff. However, the scene where Logan passes the torch to the next generation of mutant heroes is heartwarming. So where does the franchise go from here? Will Marvel bestow Wolvie’s claws, laconic speech and rugged mien on a younger actor? Will Laura lead a whole new team of mutants? One thing’s for sure, the X-Men franchise will never be the same. But we can take solace in knowing that Logan/Jackman went out on top in, arguably, the first mature superhero movie ever made.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones
December 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Rogue One
The only #OpeningCrawl you’re gonna see is in my last tweet. #Spoiler
“Trust the Force.” Yes!
#TheForce
“You’re confusing peace with terror.”
#GalenErso #GreatLine
“We have a long ride ahead of us.” Don’t you mean flight?
#SawGerrera
#PlanetKiller aka #DeathStar
“Congratulations, you are being rescued.” LOL
#K2SO
#BailOrgana sighting.
“I find that answer vague and unconvincing.” Hilarious!
#K2SO
#SawGerrera needs to breathe oxygen...he’s a #LightSide version of #DarthVader.
How the
#Frack did they make that guy look just like #Tarkin?
“Hey, you just watch yourself.” Ha!
#InsideGag
“Rebellions are built on hope.”
#RebelAlliance
#Wampa sighting. They’re pretty good in a fight.
Why don’t they let the pilot steer the ship instead of K2SO?
“You’re a rebel now.”
#K2SO #RebelAlliance
“You might as well be a stormtrooper.” Ouch!
#Stormtrooper
“Be careful not to choke on your aspirations.”
#DarthVader #KillerLine #ForceChoke
“The time to fight is now.”
#JynErso Yes!
“There is no Rogue One.” There is now.
“We’ll find a way to find them.”
#JynErso #DeathStar #DeathStarPlans #StarWars
#Stormtroopers are so dull...they’re still talking about the T-15. #T15
The
#DeathStar can jump to #Hyperspace? That’s new.
#R2D2 and #C3PO sighting.
The
#ShieldCrash scene is spectacular.
This mustached
#XWing pilot is boss.
These
#TIEFighters are as thick as mosquitoes in #Alaska during summer.
The
#StarDestroyer collision is magnificent. #Hammerhead
I see a pale
#DeathStar rising.
“Hope!” A new hope.
#PrincessLeia
#StarWarsRogueOne or #TheOneWhereTheyAllDie
Final analysis: an effective “bridge” adventure leading up to
#ANewHope that succeeds by taking risks.
Though weak on character development, the
#Dune style planet-hopping & intense action scenes compensate.
2 1/2 out of 4. A unique, stand-alone chapter in the #StarWars saga that is choked by its action scenes.

In a galaxy far, far away… There was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Taking place between Star Wars Episodes III and IV, Rogue is a unique entry into the Star Wars canon. That last word was specifically selected since the film’s subtitle suggests an ancillary or non-canonical Star Wars adventure. Even though Rogue One is an official chapter in the saga, many of its components have conspired to make it seem otherwise. This notion is bolstered by the fact that most of the characters in the film are new to the Star Wars universe and that, for the first time in franchise history, the spotlight has largely shifted away from the Skywalker family. Also, the absence of the Fox Fanfare, the introductory phrase (see my first sentence), the opening crawl and the inclusion of a new title screen (which looks like a cheap knockoff of the iconic golden graphic), all earmark Rogue as an off-format, stand-alone Star Wars film. Additionally, the man calling the shots, Gareth Edwards, is also a newcomer to the series—as well as to directing in general since the only notable film he’s helmed is the God-awful Godzilla (2014). Oh, and lest we forget, an indelible part of what makes Star Wars so magical is the majestic, transcendent music of John Williams. Rogue is the very first Star Wars film to feature a score by someone other than Williams: fresh off of a stint for the other major sci-fi universe (Star Trek Beyond), Michael Giacchino has taken the baton from the maestro. I’ve been critical of Giacchino’s previous efforts, particularly his work for the new Star Trek movie series, so I listened to this score with an extremely critical ear. In my estimation, Giacchino has crushed it like a trash compactor. Giacchino’s orchestrations have captured the essence of Williams’ signature sound (on some cues you’d swear Williams had written the chart) without outright mimicking it, which is to his credit. All of the abovementioned elements have established Rogue’s distinctiveness from the trilogy films which brings us back to that thorny issue of canonicity. Aside from raising concerns over Rogue’s status as a legitimate Star Wars film, the word canon also has a religious application here. In theological terms, Rogue is an intertestamental (between the Old and New Testaments in the Bible) or apocryphal (meaning non-inspired or spurious in nature and not to be included in the canon of scripture) tale. Biblical allusions also extend to the main team of rebels in the movie (which some could argue comes too soon on the heels of that other film about a team of misfits who defended a dusty village from evildoers on a different frontier in the recent remake of The Magnificent Seven). Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) both in function (preparing the way for the rebellion) and appearance, is a type of John the Baptist, while Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), in the way she gathers disciples for a mission of mercy to save the universe from the tyranny of the Evil Galactic Empire (Spoiler: to say nothing of her ultimate sacrifice), is a type of Christ. The mesa-top community on desert planet Jedha (too similar to Jedi?) also has a religious connection since it resembles the ancient city Masada, a Jewish fortress that was recaptured by the Roman Empire in the first century. Here, Jedha, the site for an early battle in the film, is occupied by a different kind of Empire…one that dispatches its stormtroopers to patrol the streets of the city and maintain order with blasters and tanks. The image of a Star Destroyer hovering over the besieged city is a striking visual that instills a feeling of dread as the citizens below are made to live under the ever-watchful eye of their merciless overlords. The fact that Jedha was filmed in Jordan, part of the Holy Land, further adds to its spiritual mystique. Religious readings aside, the story contains many other aspects that are ripe for analysis. I’ve distilled all of my various opinions and criticisms into three categories: the good, the bad and the ugly. Just for fun, let’s work backwards. The Ugly award definitely goes to the movie’s computer animated visages of two vintage Star Wars characters—one from each side of the Force. Though shot in appropriately dim interiors (which actually helps to veil the artifice), the Dark Side character came out fairly well, despite being a shock to the system at first glance. By contrast, the Light Side character is shot in a bright room and simply looks awful—the effect is similar to dropping CG Tintin (from 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin) into a room full of live action actors. It’s so painfully obvious the character isn’t organic that it sends the audience’s suspended disbelief crashing to the ground and completely ruins the moment, which, incidentally, is the final scene in the film. CG aliens seem to hold up fairly well over time (Jar Jar Binks is annoying as poodoo, but he’s brilliantly realized), but will these CG humans look tackier than they already do as time and technological advances render them more and more obsolete, like the CG characters from the 80s? Leading off the Bad category is our old nemesis…anachronistic technology. Why is it that the creative forces (directors George Lucas, J.J. Abrams and now Edwards) behind each new Star Wars film can’t resist the urge to create new ships and technology, heedless of how that technology may cause aggravating anachronisms, like when R2-D2 suddenly sprouts leg rockets and takes flight in Episode II when no such ability exists in the later films? Here we have obsidian Death Troopers as well as a host of new ship designs, including: U-wing fighters, Hammerhead corvettes and TIE Strikers. Since the events of Episode IV occur directly after this film, where are all of these vessels in the original trilogy? Are we to believe that all of the new ships, on both sides of the conflict, are mothballed the moment the final battle ends? This conspicuous incongruity underscores the same highly criticized issue that plagued the prequels since many of the ships here look newer than the ones in the later films (Episodes IV-VII). Another anachronism involves one of the new droids, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), which is essentially C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) on steroids. Whereas Threepio is fussy and loquacious by bent and programming, K2 is a sarcastic sidekick with a malfunctioning tact subroutine. So why is K2 in the Bad category? For starters, K2 is far more advanced than any other droid ever created for the series, including those manufactured decades into the future (like BB-8). Additionally, wisecracking computers (albeit shipboard ones) have been done ad nauseam in sci-fi TV (Red Dwarf and Tripping the Rift) and books (the Star of the Guardians series by Margaret Weis), to name just a few. Shifting back to living beings, the only disappointment in the cast is Whitaker’s Gerrera (a younger version of the character first appeared in The Clone Wars animated series). Not only is Gerrera’s raspy, high-pitched voice annoying and wildly inconsistent from scene to scene, but it makes him sound like he has a thermal detonator shoved up where the sun doesn’t shine (even on Tatooine). Though clearly intended to be a colorful character, Gerrera is a campy caricature, made utterly laughable by a goofy Jamaican accent, finger-in-a-toaster coif and mock earnest dialogue (his line “What will you do when they catch you?” sounds like an alternate lyric for the main theme of the Cops TV show). Gerrera’s cartoony characterization is an egregious waste of Whitaker’s time and talents—after all, he is an Academy Award-winning actor (The Last King of Scotland). Now seems like an appropriate time to ask why so many characters in the Star Wars universe have asthma? Vader, Grievous and now Gerrera, all have respiratory issues. And while waxing nitpicky, why did Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) make his design flaw inside the Death Star so difficult to exploit (only someone strong with the Force can accomplish the task)? Instead of putting pilots through the trouble of maneuvering down a narrow trench, avoiding turret fire, evading speedy TIE fighters and launching a proton torpedo into a two meter wide exhaust vent, why didn’t Galen just program a virus that could cause a cascade failure inside the Death Star? Thanks for nothing, Galen. Rogue is replete with such plot contrivances, all of which are designed to shoehorn this film into the extant film series. In fact, the entire narrative is a Dune style planet-hopping scavenger hunt where (hypothetically speaking) the team has to pick up an item at Planet A and plug it into a device found on Planet B in order to receive a transmission from Planet C, etc. Though this intergalactic pinball game plot is tedious, it does bring back the excitement of having a good old-fashioned adventure in a wide-open universe, plus it’s a real thrill to see the origins of the MacGuffin that was so vital to the storytelling success of Episode IV. And finally, the Good (or merely acceptable). Aside from the inane portrayal of Gerrera, the movie’s performances are solid down the line. Mikkelsen is a tremendous actor known for playing heinous villains (Casino Royale, Doctor Strange and the titular cannibal in TVs Hannibal) who is cast against type here as a conflicted scientist. Much like his role in Strange, Mikkelsen delivers a memorable performance despite limited screen time. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and his loyal sidekick Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) provide plenty of comic relief in the film and are essentially flesh-and-blood versions of droids R2-D2 and C-3PO (who make a brief appearance here), which are based on the main characters in Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958), a film that greatly influenced George Lucas’ screenplay for the original Star Wars (1977). Jones (The Theory of Everything) brings the optimal mixture of vulnerability and pluck to the lead role of rebel upstart Jyn, Galen’s daughter. However, due to her cursory back story, Jyn (the second female lead in a row for the franchise, which was surely mandated by diversity-embracing Disney), is a far less effective leading lady than Rey (Daisy Ridley) from Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). For proof of this, look no further than Jyn’s Aragorn style, pre-combat speech, which fails to inspire because we barely know her and she barely knows her team. Since the plot is merely a chain of episodes where characters run around shooting things in meaningless action scenes, there’s little emotional investment on the part of the audience (indeed, the story left me largely unmoved). The movie’s dearth of significant background details on the motley team of rebels has forged an ensemble of disposable characters—they serve their function in the story and then are thrown aside in the most expeditious and contrived manner conceivable. Spoiler: Even though none of these characters show up in the original trilogy, why was it necessary for all of them to die? Couldn’t some of them have survived and continued to serve the Alliance in supporting roles during the Battle of Yavin and beyond? And speaking of the first Death Star assault, clips of some of the pilots from Episode IV are woven into this movie’s climactic space battle. Though these excerpts are clever Easter eggs for diehard fans, they do become gimmicky from overuse. One of the new faces seen during the cosmic conflict is that of General Merrick (Ben Daniels), an ace pilot who adds some panache and humor to what could’ve been just another “Stay on target” dogfight. Other familiar faces from the Episode films appear here, including: the appropriately aged Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits), the slightly younger Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and the different face, same beard General Dodonna (Ian McElhinney). Intertextual nods to the other Star Wars films abound here, like Galen’s “Help me Obi-Wan” style holographic message and the recurring gag line, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” The planet concepts in the film, especially Nordic Grange and tropical Scarif, are among the finest ever conceived for the series. After considering all of Rogue’s pros and cons, the movie’s success as an entertainment comes down to its thrill ride finale. The typical movie ending features a wrap-up after its climactic events. As an exception to practically every movie ever made, Rogue sustains its pulse-pounding action right up to the last scene since everyone who’s seen Episode IV knows exactly how this movie will end. As such, the last five minutes of this film are guaranteed to leave you gasping for air, which is ironic since one of the ongoing themes in the film is labored breathing; be it Gerrera’s reliance on a respirator or ambitious Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) finding himself on the wrong end of a Force choke. It’s fitting, then, that for all its flaws and inconsistencies, Rogue is a breathtaking film. So now it’s time to head back to the future for next year’s Episode VIII. See you in line.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (PG-13)

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Directed by: Edward Zwick
Starring: Tom Cruise
October 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Jack Reacher 2
“One guy took ‘em all out in like seconds.” #JackReacher
90 seconds until a bad cop is arrested.
#MagnificentProphecy
“I woke up one morning and the uniform didn’t fit.”
#CareerChange
“I don’t like being followed.” Yep, that’s daddy’s little girl.
“Welcome back to the Army, major. You’re under arrest.”
#PlotTwist
“It’s time we stop running, and start hunting.” Yeah!
#GameOn
“You’re very intense.”
#JackReacher
“All you contractors go to the same barber?” LOL
#GreatLine
“Never underestimate the charm of a seedy motel.” Ha!
#SeedyMotel
“I don’t like being followed.” Hmm. Seems to me I’ve heard that before.
“People talk to me. It’s a thing.” Nice tip of the hat to
#HowIMetYourMother. #ItsAThing
“Now the numbers add up.”
#PureOpium
Bad guy gets hosed by Danika.
“It means we’re dead already.” Daddy/Daughter code.
Girl’s got
#PhoneDrop skills.
Final analysis: a solid follow-up to the first film with some new characters and challenges.
Rating:
3 out of 4. Drags at times, but the action scenes are well executed. Cruise keeps cruising.

Based on Lee Child’s novel series, the first Jack Reacher (2012) movie introduced audiences to the title character, an anti-establishment, off-the-grid, ex-military drifter whose MO is cracking skulls while defending the little guy from evildoers. The follow-up film, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, is a diverting, if not life-altering, sequel that finds Reacher (Tom Cruise) on the run from the military he once served as well as from his past; one of his former conquests had a daughter and is claiming that he’s the father…fourteen years after the supposed deed. To a former Special Forces lone wolf like Reacher, outrunning the MPs is a far less daunting challenge than raising a teenager. Fortunately, he gets some significant support in dealing with his alleged daughter, Samantha Dayton (Danika Yarosh), from a falsely accused Army officer, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Together, Reacher, Turner and Dayton try to stay one step ahead of their pursuers while attempting to uncover an illegal arms racket inside the military, which will exonerate Turner. The story’s climax features a protracted chase sequence through the crowded streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras—an action set piece that’s been done to death by now but somehow still manages to entertain. The scenes where Reacher says goodbye to his new-found friends are touching without being overly schmaltzy, which is consistent with Reacher’s laconic persona. The movie closes with Reacher thumbing a ride on the side of a highway—moving on to his next adventure like an Old West cowboy heading off into the sunset. Aside from some new characters and a few new scenarios, there really isn’t anything here that wasn’t in the previous movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for fans of the first film who just wanted more of the same in the sequel, but those seeking something other than just a reheated story may find this film wanting in the creative department. On the plus side, the acting is solid across the board: Smulders’ pluck is a plus as is Yorosh’s naïve self-assuredness. Cruise is satisfactory in the title role but doesn’t bring anything extra to the part this time, he just hits his marks and delivers his lines…and runs. Running has become a staple of every Cruise film; partly because he’s good at it and partly because a certain segment of his fan base really enjoys it. Here, Cruise is joined by the svelte Smulders on a few of his mad dashes—just to provide equal opportunity for ogling spectators. Although there are a few witty one-liners in the film, like Reacher’s pre-clobber comment about a thug’s barber, the proceedings are mostly serious and could’ve used more humor to counterbalance the dramatic and action beats. The fight sequences, coordinated by director Edward Zwick, are top-notch, yet feel like a retread of the multi-assailant melees seen in the prior movie. Even though Reacher 2 is an adequate sequel, has it done enough to extend the franchise into a trilogy? And if so, will audiences even show up for a third installment, or have they already decided to Never Go Back?

Doctor Strange (PG-13)

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Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch
November 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Doctor Strange
The opening fight scene is like #Inception on speed.
“The man charted a top ten hit with a flugelhorn.” Good point.
#ChuckMangione #FeelsSoGood
The
#StrangeTechnique. Is that in #KamaSutra?
There goes his surgeon’s hands. Time for a
#CareerChange.
“This isn’t medicine anymore, it’s mania.” Listen to her,
#Strange.
#Strange’s scribbled signature is still more legible than most doctor’s.
Good news:
#Strange got his watch back. Bad news: it’s broken.
“Just how experimental is your treatment?” Don’t ask.
“Have you seen that before in a gift shop?” Ha!
#Multiverse
“Study and practice.” Something
#Strange is all too familiar with.
#SlingRing #Strange can’t even muster a sparkler.
“How’s our new recruit?” Cold.
#Everest
“They really should put a warning before the spell.” Hilarious!
#WarningLabel
“Mr. Doctor.” Ha!
#MrDoctor #MrDr
“Time is the true enemy of us all.” True that.
#Kaecilius
The
#Astral fight in the hospital is mind-blowing. A true original.
The mop falling is hilarious.
#MopFall
#MasterStrange Has a nice ring to it.
“That is hilarious!”
#StanLee sighting.
“It’s not about you.”
#TheAncientOne says. Also the opening line of #ThePurposeDrivenLife by @RickWarren.
“I’ve come to bargain.” Ad nauseam.
Final analysis: a mind-bending adventure with just as much philosophy and metaphysics as action.
#Marvel should stop making movies, because they’ll never top this.
Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4. #Cumberbatch shines in an #Inception meets #HarryPotter tale of healing and heroism.

As one of the lesser known characters in the Marvel panoply, Doctor Strange is an altogether different kind of hero since his body is broken and he possesses no superhuman abilities. In lieu of innate powers (or acquired ones like from the bite of a radioactive spider), Strange must rely on his mind, specialized physical training and amassed knowledge of the mystical world that surrounds us and penetrates us (oops, wrong movie). Strange, the forty-third (some lists say fifty-sixth, but who’s counting) Marvel movie, isn’t directly connected to the Avengers—despite the surprise cameo during one of the two ending credits bonus scenes—or any other team or stand-alone hero in the Marvel pantheon. At first glance, the movie appears to be a mélange of narrative devices and stylized shots from the extant body of sci-fi and superhero films, especially the works of Christopher Nolan. The most obvious antecedent to this film, particularly in how its characters can bend cityscapes into Escher-esque labyrinths, is Inception (2010). However, instead of merely manipulating urban architecture, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his fellow spell-casters can terraform structures at will, making floors drop downward into a pit or heave upward into a giant mound while also causing rooftop tiles to undulate like the scales of a slithering serpent. The movie appropriates Nolan’s malleable metropolis concept and kicks it up several billion notches by staging protracted, pulse-pounding action sequences in, on or atop morphing, collapsing buildings. The results are, in a word, mind-blowing. These action set pieces seem readymade for a video game, which you can bet is already in development and will arrive in stores just in time for Christmas. Another tip of the hat (or cowl) to Nolan’s films is Strange’s martial arts instruction, which mirrors Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) training in the first act of Batman Begins (2005): Liam Neeson’s immortal necromancer Ra’s al Ghul is replaced in this film by Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One. The Ancient One and her team of sorcerers control three Sanctums (New York, London and Hong Kong) which are linked by portals that open like the shimmering threshold (sans circular frame) of the titular device from the Stargate TV series and original 1994 movie. There’s also a heavy quotation of the Harry Potter films here in the way Strange learns how to conjure weapons and shields with the incantation of ancient spells. The list of comparisons between Strange and other blockbuster franchises is extensive, but suffice it to say, this film owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to its creative progenitors. That doesn’t mean that Strange is derivative though. Much more than a standard sci-fi/fantasy pastiche, Strange is an amalgamation, indeed a culmination, of the finest story and visual elements the genre has to offer, mounted with lavish detail and delivered as a bold, new vision of what a superhero film can achieve artistically. And while handing out plaudits, let’s not forget the movie’s sterling acting. Cumberbatch is unequivocally masterful at bringing Strange to life. Few actors could modulate from pompous surgeon to physically and mentally broken seeker to whole and fully-actualized hero with such deftness (the only person that even comes close is Harrison Ford, who negotiates a similar character trajectory in the 1991 drama Regarding Henry). Cumberbatch is one of the finest actors of our generation and was the optimal choice to play Strange…the fact that he looks the part only serves to enhance the role. The rest of the cast is equally effective, especially: Rachel McAdams as Strange’s long-suffering girlfriend, Swinton as his mysterious mentor, Chiwetel Ejiofor as his upperclassman trainer and Mads Mikkelsen as former Ancient One initiate turned evil (a la Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars and Lucifer from the Bible). Mikkelsen, who played the villain in Casino Royale (2006) and the eponymous cannibal in TVs Hannibal (2013-2015), is sufficiently menacing here as Kaecilius, a Sith-like henchman whose skin-crawling mystique comes complete with a thick European accent and ashen rings around his eyes. Aside from the movie’s visual splendor and fine performances, the element that elevates Strange far, far above the finest films Marvel has produced to date is its finely-crafted story. Strange is perfectly paced and contains an almost alchemic balance between character beats and action sequences. After a condensed origin story and training section, Strange encounters Kaecilius for the first time about halfway through the film. This first-rate action sequence is an edge-of-your-seat nail-biter since everyone in the audience knows full well that Strange is nowhere near ready to take on the wicked wizard all by himself. This lopsided sorcerer’s duel is basically like an alternate version of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, where Luke, not Obi-Wan, confronts Darth Vader on the Death Star. However, with his minimal training in the Force at that point, I doubt the farm boy would’ve fared as well versus the Dark Lord as Strange does here against Kaecilius. To counterbalance its many glum and globe-shattering passages, the film offers several humorous asides, like when Strange borrows books from the closely-guarded library. But these sporadic moments of levity are quickly relinquished for more pressing plot points or metaphysical musings. One such subplot foregrounds a variation of Taoism where an otherwise virtuous person requires a little dark energy in order to live long and prosper. This, and many other thought-provoking scenes, affirm Strange’s status as a master course in philosophy (as well as religion and ethics) since it makes us question everything about the world around us and, indeed, the very nature of our own existence and purpose. This is decidedly heady material for a superhero adventure, and I for one am completely sated from the four course meal (story) plus dessert (action sequences) I got for the price of admission. Strange is Marvel’s missing link: whereas all of the studio’s films boast immaculately choreographed, eye-popping action scenes (which serve as the majority of the plot in many cases) this movie actually features a story with some salience and heft. Strange tells its tale on a grand stage and envisages an even grander view of the universe and our place in it. One of the most dubious comic-to-movie adaptations ever produced is, ironically, the film that has set the bar so high that the studio may never be able to match or supersede it. So now the burning question is: will Strange ever be eclipsed by a future Marvel film? Although it seems highly unlikely at this point, stranger things have happened.

The Magnificent Seven (PG-13)

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Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Denzel Washington
September 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Magnificent Seven
“This valley is ours.” For the moment.
It takes a special kind of lowlife to tomahawk a woman.
“They’re better off without you.” Ha!
“Would you like to see another magic trick?”
#IncredibleDisappearingEar
“Maybe my grandfather killed your grandfather.”
#Bonding
“I believe that bear was wearing people clothes.” LOL
Chisolm eats a deer’s heart. Iron rich breakfast.
“Consider this a recall.” Ha!
“Statistically speaking, they should’ve hit something.”
#ChrisPratt’s comedic timing is impeccable.
The “poking and sticking” scene is hilarious.
“I’ve always been lucky with one-eyed jacks.” Yeah!
#Bogue prays inside the church he burned down. That’s rich. #SinnersPrayer
Final analysis: a decent remake of the 1960 film and its
#Kurosawa antecedent.
Rating:
3 out 4 stars. Formulaic, but still enjoyable with some great action and non-stop humor.

Based on the 1960 classic Western of the same name—which itself is based on the Japanese film Seven Samurai (1954), directed by Akira Kurosawa—The Magnificent Seven is an adequate remake of the seminal tale of a group of misfits defending a terrorized town from a land-grabbing lowlife and his posse of thugs. Barring a few minor variations, the new Magnificent tracks closely with the storyline from the 60s film and is a crowd-pleasing, yet safe, follow up. In the leading role is Denzel Washington, who plays Chisolm, the counterpart to Yul Brynner’s Chris Adams. Whereas Steve McQueen played the sidekick role with a sense of humor as dry as the original’s dusty desert setting, Chris Pratt’s cardsharp serves as a joke-a-minute funnyman in the new film. Ethan Hawke’s reluctant gunfighter mirrors Robert Vaughn’s shell-shocked sharpshooter, while Byung-hun Lee’s laconic, knife-throwing assassin resembles James Coburn’s similarly drawn character in the vintage version. Similarities between new/old members of the ragtag team diverge at this point with the diversity award going to the new film for including a black, a Mexican and a Comanche (along with an unofficial eighth member in the spirited widow, played by Haley Bennett) in the titular septet. Eli Wallach (in brownface) played the Mexican heavy, Calvera, in the 60s version, but here, Peter Sarsgaard plays the stone-cold Caucasian villain, Bartholomew Bogue. Another story deviation from the 60s movie, which was set mostly in Mexico, is that all of this film’s action takes place north of the border. The movie’s sets, props and costumes are all period appropriate, as would be expected, and the southwestern landscapes (shot in Arizona, Louisiana and New Mexico) are simply gorgeous. My one critique of Antoine Fuqua’s (who previously worked with Washington and Hawke in 2001s Training Day) direction is that he doesn’t give the establishing shots enough time to “breathe” before rushing off to the next bar fight or shootout. Okay, so I lied, I do have another issue with Fuqua’s helming, namely the blurry fight scenes. For his action sequences, Fuqua uses the same handheld camera with rapid-fire edits that you’d see in a blockbuster action film…and the results are nausea inducing. Not only is this brand of action scene anachronistic for the film’s milieu, but it may prove annoying for many non-gamers or anyone over 40. Still, the multi-vantage melees are spirited, fun and don’t overstay their welcome…much like the film itself. Although the movie’s linear, cause and effect narrative is predictable from start to finish; it delivers enough thrills and laughs to keep the audience engaged throughout. Though it fails to live up to its name, the new Magnificent isn’t a bad way to spend 90 minutes. Now it’s time for this review to ride off into the sunset. Happy trails, partner!

Jason Bourne (PG-13)

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Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Matt Damon
July 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Jason Bourne
#MattIsBack
One punch is all #Bourne needs.
Linked to Jason Bourne. A sure fire way to acquire a target on your back. Guilt by association.
A violent demonstration is the perfect place to have a top secret meeting...as long as you survive it.
The blonde hair is a dead giveaway. #RookieMove
#Bourne picks up blondie on his motorcycle. So much for splitting up.
Nikki is the latest in the long string of women who haven’t fared well while attempting to assist #Bourne.
“Privacy is freedom.” And freedom is life.
Report claims that #Bourne could be brought back into the program. I wouldn’t count on it.
#Bourne stands in front of a window. #RookieMove
A green light on #Bourne. Won’t work.
#Bourne should’ve kept his cap on to conceal his identity from the casino’s cameras. #RookieMove
A SWAT truck plows into some cop cars. What’s wrong with that picture?
Final analysis: a somewhat rote reboot for the series with dizzying action scenes and a well worn plot.
Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Damon is rock solid, but the story lets him down. Will Damon be Bourne again?

The fifth film in the Bourne franchise, based on the novels by the late Robert Ludlum, is a homecoming event since Matt Damon played the titular hero in the original trilogy: The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Though the mantle was briefly transferred to Jeremy Renner for 2012s The Bourne Legacy, Damon has returned for Jason Bourne. Unfortunately, Damon’s presence is the only thing that recommends the film since the story is a standard issue chase thriller. All of the thematic conventions from the earlier films are here, in patchwork fashion, and comprise the bulk of the story. So what tropes am I referring to? Something every Bourne film has featured (as well as every James Bond movie ever made) is a globe-trotting storyline: this outing sees Bourne visiting Greece, Berlin and Las Vegas. Admittedly, this is the least offensive of the movie’s clichés since we’re treated to some gorgeous vistas of exotic foreign locales (Vegas might not be foreign, but it’s most certainly exotic) as the story progresses from one action set piece to the next. One hackneyed story element is that every woman who tries assisting Bourne ends up dead—one of the many reasons not to date this international man-on-the-run. Conversely, the wisest thing Bourne has done since he lost the love of his life, Marie (Franka Potente), is to eschew any romantic engagements. Another derivative aspect of the Bourne movies is the inclusion of older white men who ran the various off-the-books operations that Bourne was involved with in the past. The original trilogy presented a formidable array of A-list actors to play such roles, including: Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn and Albert Finney. Carrying on that tradition in this movie is Tommy Lee Jones (incidentally, he’s very effective at playing people tasked with tracking down fugitives) who is actually much more sympathetic to Bourne than many of his predecessors—his line “You’re never going to find any peace. Not till you admit to yourself who you really are.” is a dialog highlight in the film. Bourne embarking on a quest to learn clues about his past is yet another frequently repeated contrivance in the film series. What Bourne is seeking this time is the identity of the person who was in charge of recruiting him into his first black ops program. Told in a series of grainy flashbacks and featuring Gregg Henry and Vincent Cassel, these scenes represent the heart of the film. Though critical in buttressing and expanding the plot, these back story elements are painfully predictable, although they do provide ample motivation for Bourne and serve as the impetus for the film’s final confrontation...which isn’t nearly as spectacular as the explosive climaxes in the earlier films. Indeed, the protracted, mano a mano slugfests that were the highlights of the original trilogy are nowhere to be seen here. Though the action beats are well acted and choreographed, I could’ve done without director Paul Greengrass’ blurry, shaky cam action sequences. Aside from its many story redundancies, the movie’s biggest drawback is its rather lengthy list of plot holes (reference my tweets for #RookieMove for examples of this). The anemic and uninspired writing, by Greengrass and Christopher Rouse, is the movie’s biggest drawback; indeed, it almost seems as if the movie was written as a greatest hits pastiche of the earlier films rather than a unique stand-alone chapter in the mythos. Sad to say, but the formula is so diluted at this point that it no longer has any potency. So what does Bourne have left to fight for now that all the women in his life have pushed daises and that he’s learned everything there is to know about his past and identity? It seems like the only thing Bourne has left to do is dismantle the program that turned him into a ruthless killer. As such, will the sequel be a revenge tour? We’ll see how this film performs first, I suppose. Or to put it a different way, has this film buried the franchise once and for all or will the character be Bourne again?

Star Trek Beyond (PG-13)

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Directed by: Justin Lin
Starring: Chris Pine
July 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Star Trek Beyond
Kirk needs to leave the negotiating to Picard. He kinda’ sucks at it.
Nice twist with the perspective of the aliens.
Meaningful captain’s log. Great writing.
Chekov has the good stuff.
“Snow globe in space.” Ha! #YorktownStation
#YorktownStation looks like a mixture of #
Elysium and #Tomorrowland.
“It’s easier than you think to get lost.” #LostInSpace
Thank God for impulse engines.
The Enterprise falls to the planet like a #FlyingSaucer a la #
StarTrekGenerations.
“What’s your favorite color?” Hilarious!
U.S.S. Franklin. Plot twist.
Acidic boogers. Handy but nasty.
#VulcanTears There’s something you don’t see any day.
“He likes that seat.” LOL
“Find hope in the impossible.”
Radioactive jewelry. Top seller in the 23rd century.
“This is where the frontier pushes back.” #GoodLine
“Let’s hope this doesn’t get messy.” Ha!
“They’re called starships for a reason.” True enough.
Finally, seat belts on a starship.
Nice #
StarTrekV crew shot.
“To absent friends.” Poignant line with Chekov in the shot. #RIPAnton
Final analysis: a bold adventure that’s addled by a slow start and a slack script.
Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. The first deep space venture in the series has tons of action but not much meaning.

Aliso Viejo, CA.
Star Trek Beyond starring #ChrisPine. Directed by #JustinLin. The Fast & Furious Frontier.
“I ripped my shirt again.” Happens all time.
“It’s hard to feel grounded when you’re in artificial gravity.” #GoodLine
“Perfect eyesight and a full head of hair.” Here, here.
Now that’s how the #UniversalTranslator should work.
“We are not equipped for this manner of engagement.” Oh frack!
Hang on, Scotty.
Kirk shatters the main viewer with a few phaser blasts. Is it really that easy to break?
“Fear of death is what keeps us alive.”
Giant green space hand. Reference #
WhoMournsForAdonais? #StarTrek #TOS
“Take my house and make it fly.” #USSFranklin
“Beat and shouting.” The universe is saved by #HardRock.
The time lapse construction of the #Enterprise is brilliant.
Liked it a lot more the second time. Beyond beyond.
Lingering question: How did #MontgomeryScotty climb up the cliff? I guess engineers do have strong fingers.

Aside from rubber-suited aliens, space babes in tinfoil bikinis, psychedelic planet concepts and future-cool sets, props and costumes—all presented “in living color”—what established Star Trek as a pop culture phenomenon that’s endured for 50 years is the way creator Gene Roddenberry cleverly crafted his sci-fi adventure stories as morality plays; a strategy that not only covertly conveyed serious and controversial subject matter right past censors and studio execs to its intellectually curious audience, but also enabled the show to have a message during the mid to late 60s when lowbrow fare like Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was ruling the airwaves. Whether in superlative episodes like “The Ultimate Computer” (the rise of the machine threatening our identity and humanity), mediocre fare like “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” (a goofy, yet poignant, anti-racism cautionary tale) and even abysmal efforts like “The Mark of Gideon” (an absurdist homily on the dangers of overpopulation), the original Star Trek was legendary at weaving messages into its storylines. That tradition, to a greater or lesser extent, has been maintained by the many movies and TV spinoffs, all of which have deftly reflected the zeitgeist of their respective decade while consistently challenging the notion and status of the human condition. So what does all of that have to do with the new film, Star Trek Beyond? Plenty, as you’ll see. The current Trek movie series, set in the Abrams-verse (officially known as the Kelvin Timeline), has catered to contemporary audiences by presenting largely action-driven plots with some humorous moments and a handful of meaningful character scenes thrown in for good measure. It’s a recipe that’s been successful up until now, but the dish has become more and more unsavory with each successive sequel. That assertion will only embolden Trek purists, who have looked down their noses at the new films for eschewing the series’ cerebral tradition in favor of cheap thrills and eye candy (both with respect to its attractive cast and cutting-edge FX). Beyond may be the closest of the new films to meeting the lofty requirements of those purists and will hopefully retain a large swath of the audience that came to the series for the first time due to the involvement of director J.J. Abrams and/or the fine cast of up-and-coming actors. Beyond is the first of the new films to venture into deep space, which makes it feel more like a traditional Trek movie than its predecessors. This is also the first original adventure in the series, since Star Trek (2009) was an origin story and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) was based on a “let’s bring back Khan” premise. There are many new characters (including: Idris Elba as foe Krall and Sofia Boutella as friend Jaylah) ships (USS Franklin, Krall’s ships and Yorktown space station) and filming techniques (the Enterprise cruising through warped space and the launch sequence at Yorktown where a camera is positioned in front of the ship’s neck as we see the station streaming past the accelerating ship) in the movie. Other welcome additions are seatbelts on bridge chairs and the most intelligent application of the Universal Translator (we hear the English translation over the alien’s native speech) in any Trek TV show or film. Though I haven’t been a fan of Michael Giacchino’s prior efforts for the series, his score here is very good—the cue when the Enterprise arrives at Yorktown (“Night on the Yorktown”) is equal parts majestic and euphoric. Yorktown’s sprawling landscape of sleek skyscrapers, transportation tubes, man-made lakes, grassy knolls, etc (all created with an effective blend of location filming in Dubai and CGI) is simply jaw-dropping. Indeed, its environs are an Escher-esque labyrinth of leaning buildings which tower over a well plotted and manicured surface of functional and recreational spaces; in essence, Yorktown is the architectural love child of the eponymous cities in Elysium (2013) and Tomorrowland (2015). Whereas the CG exteriors are gloriously gentrified, the interiors (both in Yorktown and on the Enterprise) are spare and dimly lit, especially in the early stages of the film. Yorktown is a true melting pot among the stars and is a grander scale version of what was attempted on Nimbus III, the so-called Planet of Galactic Peace in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), the very film that Ambassador Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy) crew photo is from (seen during the movie’s denouement). This cosmic UN is the locus for a good portion of the proceedings, including the climactic action scene. Despite a slow start, riddled by the amusing but mostly superfluous teaser (think diplomatic mission to the Gremlin home world) and the silly impetus surrounding the distressed ship (which is an obvious trap to everyone but gung-ho Kirk), the plot settles in when the Enterprise departs Yorktown. As the Enterprise approaches the mystery planet, we’re treated to the movie’s first action scene…a frenetic, bone-jarring spectacle which combines the pacing and pyrotechnics of a Star Wars movie with the kind of protracted battle on an epic scale you’d see in The Lord of the Rings. Krall’s throng of ships represents the franchise’s most lethal threat since the dreaded Borg. Enemy vessels are typically larger, faster or more powerful than the Enterprise. Beyond presents a radical paradigm shift with respect to its alien adversaries…the swarm of thousands of two-man crafts, when executing coordinated attacks, can rapidly inflict massive damage to a starship. Even more frightening is the way the tiny pods can burrow into a ship’s hull and deposit its crew, generating an instant invasion force. Insidious. This “death by a thousand cuts” attack strategy presents a challenge unlike anything the Enterprise has ever faced. The realization that the Enterprise can’t defend itself against such an onslaught makes for a nail-biting, nerve-shredding confrontation; the first of many incredible action sequences in the film. But are there too many and are they too frenzied for a Trek film? Many Trek diehards would answer yes; that the Kelvin films have embraced the same kind of raucous, razzle-dazzle that’s become synonymous with the Star Wars movies. The real issue with the surfeit of action scenes in the new Trek movies may have less to do with personal taste or even in whether or not they dishonor Roddenberry’s original vision of a peaceful future than with the financial burden associated with bringing such sequences to life. Scott Mendelson shares some informed insights on the subject in his article for Forbes entitled, “A Cheaper ‘Star Trek’ Franchise Can Live Longer And Be More Prosperous.” Although I take issue with his argument that action scenes are everyone’s (blanket statement) least favorite aspect of a Trek movie, he’s spot-on when highlighting where the franchise’s priorities should be placed. “When people rave about a Star Trek movie, they are usually talking about the winning cast, the emotional payoffs, and/or the would-be social topicality. In short, nobody ever went to a Star Trek movie primarily for the action scenes.” Be that as it may, the Swarm Attack is a heart-stopping, jaw-dropping thrill ride. The battle finally concludes with the crew being deposited on an alien planet. The painstaking world-building on Altamid (word play on ultimate?) is truly exceptional—finally a strange new world (the red forest at the beginning of Into Darkness doesn’t qualify since it was only briefly shown in the teaser and had little bearing on the rest of the film). The location work, shot in the British Columbia, Canada, adds greatly to the immersive experience of being on some far-flung alien world filled with potential dangers lurking around every jagged boulder. Jaylah’s replicating device is a brilliant invention, as are her various security measures—one of which is a type of gas that can rapidly turn into a solid. Another clever visual is when Krall’s ships dock in staggered positions on tall poles, which makes them appear as branches on bizarre mechanical trees. As Krall’s legions deploy on their attack mission, they pass through a nebula that’s the perfect amalgamation of the Mutara Nebula from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and the Briar Patch in Star Trek: Insurrection (1998). The invasion plot itself harkens back to the Borg’s assault on Earth in Star Trek: First Contact (1996) and Shinzon’s plan to attack the same target in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002). Nothing new here. The climactic showdown between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Krall is visually exciting but, sadly, is a standard issue resolution for an action picture. The revelation of Krall’s true identity is one of the movie’s nicer twists (although the lack of an explanation for his initial mutation and subsequent reversion is beyond contrived) and has the added advantage of foregrounding the only real message in the movie. It’s unclear if writers Pegg and Doug Jung, along with director Justin Lin, even planned for the movie to have such real-world relevance, but Krall’s backstory has a symbolic link to the war on terror. The potential of one of our own becoming radicalized and turning against us is a clear and present danger. With ISIS operatives entering (Trojan Horse style) the refugee populations flooding into Europe and America, this plot point has a direct bearing on current events in our terror-ravaged world. It’s unfair to say that the rest of the movie is devoid of meaning, because that simply isn’t the case. Indeed, there are many great character moments, like the spirited interchanges between Scotty (Pegg) and Jaylah and the always enjoyable good-natured ribbing between Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban)—this movie features the best banter between the pair since Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). The opening captain’s log is rife with keen observations on the rhythms of life in space and accurately depicts the ennui that sets in during a long voyage (and also contains some of the finest dialog in the film). Kirk’s confession to McCoy that he joined Starfleet on a dare is heartfelt as is the conversation between Kirk and Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo): Paris asserts that in deep space all a captain has is his ship and his crew. Since he loses both early in the film, Kirk must rely on his ingenuity, a new friend and an old ship in order to save the universe for another day. The private meeting between Spock and two of his kinsmen is also an emotional high point in the film and satisfactorily buttons up the Ambassador Spock storyline. However, aside from these finely written and well acted character scenes, where’s the overarching theme, the salient social commentary or the pulse on our progress as a species? The film does have some substance, but it’s tenuous—existing between, and in service to, the many action sequences. So here we have a head-scratching conundrum: Beyond thoroughly entertains and yet says nothing, means nothing and, in the end, amounts to nothing. Ultimately, the most meaningful moments in the movie are the two dedications during the end credits…to Nimoy and Anton Yelchin, two Trek heroes who passed away before this movie was released. Yelchin’s death has cast a pall over the possibility of a fourth film in the franchise, but should another movie receive a green light from Paramount, here’s hoping it will focus on story first and action second, since, as Mendelson rightly avers, “no one will complain if an otherwise good movie doesn’t have an extra phaser shoot-out or vehicle chase amid the drama.” Whereas Mendelson believes that “going cheaper and smaller” is the answer to ensuring series longevity, I maintain that such constancy will only be achieved by tapping into topics that resonate with the audience; narratives that challenge, inspire and instill hope for a better future. In other words, the kind of story that made Star Trek great from its inception.

Independence Day: Resurgence (PG-13)

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Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Liam Hemsworth
June 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Independence Day-Resurgence
The War of 1996. Won by a #Mac.
“You don’t get credit for cleaning up your own mess.” Touchy, isn’t he?
#JeffGoldblum uses the word “tenacious.” Reference #
JurassicPark.
“Welcome to the moon.” The scenery is kinda, eh.
The slippery floor line is amusing.
“Did we win?” #Data wakes up from a coma.
“Did the giant flag give it away?” Ha! #China
“We need to know who we just shot down.” Might’ve learned that first. #ShootFirst
“That is definitely bigger than the last one.” #ThatsWhatSheSaid
A controlled dive is still a fall.
#NewYorkCity is raptured.
“We have alien guns?” LOL
Alien within an alien. Gross.
“Why didn’t you tell me my butt was hanging out?” Hilarious!
#MakeThemPay
Amazing FX on the air strike.
“Their enemy is our ally.” Duh! And you blasted them to smithereens.
How fortunate that the environment inside the mother ship has oxygen for our heroes to breathe.
The alien queen in the bus’ side view mirror is reminiscent of the T-Rex in #
JurassicPark.
That’s it, fire your lasers up the alien queen’s bunghole. #VulnerableSpot
Final analysis: a predictable sequel with some amusing one-liners and superb visual FX.
Rating:
2 out of 4. Nice to see the original cast, especially @BrentSpiner who steals the show.

The first Independence Day (1996) was a frenetic and fun-filled alien invasion romp that won over audiences with its effective blend of action and humor along with a story that didn’t take itself too seriously (remember the scene where Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch) tells President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) where all the extra money goes for each $30,000 toilet seat purchased by the government?). In the new ID, subtitled Resurgence, the charm has worn off and we’re left with a story so predictable and derivative it gives sequels everywhere in the universe a bad name. The story begins with a “shoot first, ask questions later” sequence where reactionary earthbound commander-in-chief (Sela Ward) orders twitchy fingered moon base commander (Chin Han) to destroy an imposing ball-shaped alien craft. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and the audience are the only ones smart enough to notice the radical variation in design between the space ball and the original alien mother ship; this discrepancy sets up a “surprise” twist later in the story. Soon after the mini Death Star is destroyed, a continent sized alien ship arrives and crash lands on Earth (which would create an extinction level event, but no matter). Taking a cue from Aliens (1986), this sequel also features an alien queen. The queen proves to be far craftier than her single-minded predecessors: she plans to drill into Earth’s outer core and extract the fluid there since her planet has already depleted its store of precious core matter (raiding Earth for its resources is just one of many alien invasion movie tropes). Since the aliens in the first film were simply out to conquer our world, this shift in strategy is more than a little curious (lest we forget, that movie’s tagline was: “They only want one thing…DESTRUCTION!). The whole notion that killing the queen will send the rest of her minions scattering like mice on the lower decks of the Titanic is also a new wrinkle that, though logical when applying hive dynamics, sets up a built-in resolution that’s obvious, anti-climactic and a colossal cop out by the writers. And speaking of narrative shortcuts, what about the oxygen atmosphere inside the mother ship...why can we breathe their air and the aliens can breathe ours? Oh, and follow this logic: we can’t destroy the mother ship, but we can destroy the ball-like vessel which is the greatest threat to the mother ship. Huh? Other than its plot oddities, this movie’s greatest drawback is its similarities to the original film. The aerial attack on the mother ship, the alien assault on Area 51, a solo pilot engaging in a suicide mission and refugees befriending each other out in the middle of a desert are all conventions established in the first film. The only new element here that has any real-world relevance is how humans use alien technology against the aliens in a twist on the events of 9-11. Besides the handful of returning characters, some new faces grace the sequel, including: pilot Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), General Adams (William Fichtner) and too-young-to-drive Sam (Joey King). None of the movie’s characters are three-dimensional and most barely qualify as one-dimensional. Director Roland Emmerich’s patented “action over plot” methodology is in full force here as rapid succession conflicts curtail any meaningful moments or genuine character interactions. In fact, there isn’t a living, breathing character anywhere in the movie…the closest is Brent Spiner’s Dr. Brakish Okun who at least provides some color and humor to the proceedings. The one name conspicuously absent from the cast this time around is Will Smith (who wisely passed on this film in favor of the upcoming Suicide Squad). The indomitable swagger Smith exhibited in the first film is sorely missing in the sequel, which is replete with tepid performances. Likewise, for an end-of-the-world film, Resurgence is strangely dispassionate. Perhaps the fact that our heroes defeated the aliens once before has given them a quiet confidence that they can do it again. Be that as it may, the faced-with-extinction urgency that permeated the first film is nowhere to be found in this perfunctory plot which simply assumes that our heroes will kick the alien’s posterior regions by the two hour mark and that we’ll all live happily ever after…except for those inhabiting regions that were flattened by the mother ship, of course. This highlights another fallacy of disaster movies: who cleans up the mess, rebuilds civilization and recovers lost monuments once the dust has settled from an alien incursion? Maybe when the writers sift through the ruins of this movie they’ll find just enough original material to turn the franchise into a trilogy. If not, they should just leave the series to wallow in the heap of ashes that is this movie’s plot.

X-Men: Apocalypse (PG-13)

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Directed by: Bryan Singer
Starring: James McAvoy
May 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

X-Men Apocalypse
“A gift is often a curse.” Like #Hulk’s superpower.
Is this #
XMen or #Stargate? #AncientEgypt
Scott’s got problems with his eyes. Yeah, remember that comment about a gift being a curse? #Cyclops
Does #Magneto’s daughter have any of his powers?
#Cyclops splits #ProfessorX’s favorite tree in half. Instant enrollment.
#Magneto’s daughter recreates Hitchcock’s #TheBirds.
Thug becomes one with the wall. Amazing FX. #Apocalypse
World’s first mutant. #Apocalypse
Love the #TOS #
StarTrek scene on TV. #WhoMournsForAdonais?
Mystique the Mercenary. #Mystique
Scott gets some special glasses. #RayBan
“I’m blue.” Ha! #Nightcrawler
“My name is Magneto.” Yeah! #Magneto
“The third one’s always the worst.” Very true. #Ewoks
A rare non-comedic #StanLee cameo.
Why doesn’t Scott just fry the chopper and bad guys with his laser vision? #Cyclops
“I know what everybody feels.” What a burden. #JeanGrey
After losing his family, #Magneto breaks bad.
“Weapon X is loose.” #Wolverine
#JeanGrey #MindMelds with #Wolverine. She soothes the savage beast.
Embrace your powers.
“You’re in my house now.” Amazing mental duel. #Apocalypse #ProfessorX
“Unleash your power!” #JeanGrey
#DangerRoom Yay!
Final analysis: an entertaining yarn despite its slow pacing. Some memorable moments and cameos.
Rating:
3 out of 4. The best of the new cast #XMen movies. A more cerebral superhero film. Thank the Maker!

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, we’ve had three superhero showdowns within the last three months. First was the titular title fight in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (in late March) followed by Captain America and allies vs. Iron Man and his cohorts in Captain America: Civil War (in early May) and now we have the epic confrontation between Professor X (James McAvoy) and his mutant students vs. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) and his cadre of brainwashed fiends in X-Men: Apocalypse (in late May). The fact that all three of these heroes-fighting-heroes movies were released during an election year is telling of a country divided along ideological lines and facing its most critical challenges in its 200+ year history. This movie is a sequel to 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past and is the third featuring the young cast (McAvoy’s team rather than Patrick Stewart’s). The film is directed by Bryan Singer; this is his fourth time at the helm of an X-Men picture. The script by Simon Kinberg clearly caters to fans over non-initiates as the narrative is laden with references to the comic books. The story itself is quite dense, juggling multiple characters and storylines for nearly two and a half hours—twenty minutes too long for my taste. Despite being a cerebral film with much to say about the current state of humanity, the story is riddled with problems. First of all, the film is embarrassingly derivative. Besides evoking both Stargate (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997) in its “Aliens Visit Ancient Egypt” opener, it also pilfers story elements from earlier X-Men films, a la the climactic confrontation between Professor X’s initiates and Apocalypse’s minions, which is similar to the clash of mutants at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). Also, villains using Cerebro for their own nefarious purposes is nothing new either: reference X2 (2003). Magneto disrupting Earth’s magnetic poles to create mass destruction is just a larger scale cataclysm of the stadium drop in the previous film. Indeed, Apocalypse’s plan to remake the world to his design is similar to Lex Luthor’s (Kevin Spacey) dastardly plot to wipe out the Eastern seaboard by dropping a kryptonite-infused island into the Atlantic Ocean in Superman Returns (2006), an earlier Singer effort. Not all is lost here, as several topical storylines make this a worthwhile entertainment—apart from its mind-blowing action sequences. Since his design is to destroy the planet as we know it, Apocalypse is a type of terrorist leader. The scene where he rounds up the world’s nuclear arsenal and tosses it into space generates ambivalent feelings since we’d be safer without them so long as someone like Apocalypse doesn’t show up on our world. The destruction caused by the Apocalypse influenced Magneto also taps into 9-11 anxieties and the prevalent feeling (reflected in the rise of dystopian literature and media in our society) that an earth-shattering event is in our not too distant future. Ultimately, the two highest yield plot elements are Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) overcoming her fears and unleashing her mental fury—a girl power sequence that rivals Rey (Daisy Ridley) arming herself with the lightsaber and confronting Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)—and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) breaking bad after his family is accidentally killed. The scene where Apocalypse takes Magneto to confront his past at Auschwitz is another deeply affecting scene with some tremendous acting by Fassbender, who delivers the movie’s standout performance. This brings up an interesting question about the franchise’s decorated ensemble…how long will McAvoy, Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence stick around since their superstar status has afforded them more attractive and challenging roles than anything Marvel could hope to offer? And for that matter, how many more X-Men films will the forty-seven year old Hugh Jackman (who briefly appears here as Weapon X) make? Even though this is the finest of the new X-Men films, it still doesn’t approach the quality of the first two films in the series. Still, compared to the typical comic book film, the X-Men films are like Shakespeare by comparison. Oh, and on a side note, the next film will be the tenth in the franchise. And you know what the Roman numeral for ten is.

Captain America: Civil War (PG-13)

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Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans
May 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Captain America- Civil War
What’s in the blue packets?
Nice shield ricochet #CaptainAmerica.
Thank you, #RedWing.
#ScarletWitch needs to work on her aim.
“There’s a correlation between generosity and guilt.”
“Victory at the expense of the innocent is no victory at all.” So true.
“I’ll use the door.” Ha! #Vision
The #SokoviaAccords. Ah...now I know what they were talking about on #AgentsofSHIELD.
“Conflict breeds catastrophe.”
“The safest hands are still our own.” You’re in good hands with Avengers. #Avengers
Awesome midair motorcycle swap.
“Warmer than jail.” LOL
“Sometimes I want to punch you in your perfect teeth.” The seeds of civil war.
“I’m not the only Winter Soldier,” says Bucky. The others are Lucky, Ducky, Plucky and Klucky.
#Spiderling Ha! #SpiderMan
Let’s see, homework or a trip to #Germany? #SpiderMan
#CaptainAmerica kisses #AgentCarter’s niece. He’s a multigenerational lover.
“It’s your conscience. We don’t talk a lot these days.” Hilarious!
Nice #
TheEmpireStrikesBack reference #Spidey.
I’m missing #Hulk in this movie. It needed some #GreenRage.
“I’ll put you on hold...I like to watch the line blink.” Good one, #Stark.
#IronMan takes a shield to the heart. That round goes to #CaptainAmerica.
#TonyStank Ha! #StanLee sighting. #IronMan
Final analysis: an overlong and overstuffed actioner that actually has a lot of social relevance.
Rating:
3 out of 4. #CaptainAmerica gets upstaged in his own movie, which is really #Avengers3.

Captain America (Chris Evans) and his team of superheroes face off against Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and his super friends on an airport tarmac and maximum destruction ensues. The end. Well, there’s a little bit more to it than that, but you get the main gist of the story from that nutshell synopsis of Captain America: Civil War, the newest chapter in the Marvel movie panoply. Aside from the jaw-dropping action sequences, the movie has value in some of its character interactions, particularly Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch’s (Elizabeth Olsen) domestic scenes, and its topical subplot involving superheroes signing an agreement to refrain from using their powers a la The Incredibles (2004). Also lending the film some emotional heft is its too-real-for-comfort terror attack in Lagos, which is an echo of the Sokovia and New York City debacles in the Avengers films (and, of course, 9-11 in real life). An earlier assignment conducted by the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), which is told in a series of flashbacks, also provides some decent, intermittent intrigue and factors into the climax in a major way. The list of returning heroes is extensive (consult IMDB) but it’s really the new faces that add the most to the film, namely: William Hurt as Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross, Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther, Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter (Peggy Carter’s niece), Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Marisa Tomei as Aunt May Parker. The Spider-Man subplot works extremely well and provides hope that the impending re-reboot of the franchise will be successful (and how shrewd of Marvel to give us a preview of that movie here…they’re the undisputed masters of cross-pollinating properties). With the exception of a few amusing one-liners and the eye-popping FX, there really isn’t anything else to evaluate here…other than the fact that the movie needed Hulk and Thor, both of whom are conspicuously absent from the proceedings. If you’re a fan of these films you’ll probably enjoy this one too. Even though Captain America gets overshadowed in his own movie, Civil War has successfully moved the Marvel franchise forward to Avengers 3 and beyond. There are two bonus clips during the closing credits, so don’t leave early.

Allegiant (PG-13)

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Directed by: Robert Schwentke
Starring: Shailene Woodley
March 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Allegiant
“Are we going to do this?” Please don’t.
“Great leaders don’t seek power.” That rules out everyone running for president. #Election2016
The #RunUpTheWall sequence is exhilarating.
Why leave the beautiful forest for a radiated wasteland?
“The sky is bleeding.” #AcidRain
Hope they brought lots of drinking water. That red stream looks a bit dicey. #LiquidRadiation
I wonder if they have a spy camera inside the decontamination room. #PeepShow
“They’ve grown up watching you.” The #Voyeurism of spectatorship. Shades of #
TheTrumanShow.
#Tris is “pure.” I could’ve told you that.
“Help me save the world.” What’s the catch?
Four forays into the #Fringe. #KidCollecting
Off to #PureCity. Looks like #Coruscant.
“Chicago might forget its own name.” #MassAmnesia
Reddish gas fills the streets of #Chicago. Oh wait, it’s just smog.
Final analysis: a logical extension of the earlier films that’s quite a departure thematically.
The first truly #SciFi chapter in the saga with amazing technology and salient social commentary.
Rating:
3 out of Four stars. A satisfactory series capper that leaves us with plenty to mull over.

So it turns out this isn’t the final film in the series after all—Ascendant is slated for release next year. My bad. Guess I should’ve known that this type of popular YA book to movie series, a veritable cash cow for a studio like Lionsgate, would be milked for all it’s worth. Show business is a business, after all. For those unfamiliar with Veronica Roth’s teen novels of the same name, the main theme of the Divergent series is that a well intentioned social experiment can, and often times will, go horribly wrong. The adapted screenplays based on Roth’s works capture her cynical eye toward the future and her patented brand of cautionary tale which decries the dangers of any socialist structure similar to Adolph Hitler’s Germany in the 30s and 40s as well as predetermined societies where individuality is absorbed into a rigid caste system a la the one in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (it must’ve been in the ether that I selected two historical figures with the initials A.H.). The previous two movies in the series focused on the exigencies of life in a post-apocalyptic world rife with political corruption, social upheaval and the requisite quotient of teen angst/romance. Fortunately, in the third film, Allegiant, the series has grown up as characters are faced with bigger challenges outside the wall that surrounds bombed out Chicago (maybe one of Trump’s descendants built it). The sequence where the characters scale the wall is not only a riveting action scene it’s also the incident that kick-starts the story; everything up to that point is merely dry exposition with remedial, redundant squabbles among factions in the derelict districts of the Windy City. From the moment Tris’ (Shailene Woodley) boot touches the radiated soil beyond the wall, the movie morphs into a top rate sci-fi yarn, complete with high tech trappings and scathing social commentary. The meticulous world-building that went into crafting the photorealistic “alien” landscape known as the Fringe, a scorched wasteland where sojourners must avoid polluted streams and acid rain, is first rate. The film’s lavish metropolises, especially the sleek Pure City (think Coruscant meets Apple Store), are appropriately futuristic in design and appointments and are a stark contrast to the slagheap environs featured in the earlier films. Advanced technology, like the drones, spy rooms and cloaking shuttle, are clever, forward-thinking tech concepts that add a great deal to the reality and visual vitality of the film. The new addition to the cast is duplicitous David, played to perfection by Jeff Daniels. His portrait of an antagonist with clear-cut goals and a believable motivation is absolutely superb. Daniels’ genuine, steady-handed performance not only provides the story with necessary urgency and focus, but also raises the bar for the other performers, especially Woodley, who’s grown as an actor with each successive picture in the series. Though each of the ancillary characters is given a unique assignment in the film, none of them are granted much screen time. Even main character Four (Theo James) is relegated to back burner status for much of the movie as he frets over Tris’ safety. However, Four is present for some of the movie’s most memorable action passages including the horrific child kidnapping sequence. As for other prominent cast members: Caleb (Ansel Elgort) learns how to be a voyeur, Christina (Zoe Kravitz) struts around looking tough and Evelyn (Naomi Watts) helps Peter (Miles Teller) initiate a plan to mass brainwash the citizens of Chicago in a sequence reminiscent of Scarecrow’s fiendish plot to terrorize Gotham City (also Chicago in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy) with his fear gas in Batman Begins (2005). Even though Allegiant leaves the door wide open for a sequel, it could’ve ended right here as a trilogy. In fact, I think it would’ve been satisfactory to conclude the series right here with some questions remaining and with its moral lesson still hanging in the desert air. We’ll have to see if prolonging the series was a good decision or not…from Allegiant’s performance at the box office so far, it looks like the series might be running out of steam. And speaking of steam, what keeps those trains moving 24/7?

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (PG-13)

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Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck
March 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Batman v Superman
The slow mo descent of pearls is a nice visual.
There’s a reason why it’s called #CrimeAlley folks.
The tripod that hovers over #Metropolis is reminiscent of the alien vessels in #
WarOfTheWorlds.
#BruceWayne runs into a wall of smoke and ash. Shades of #9-11.
The #BatBrand. Similar to #Zorro‘s swashbuckling Z left on his victims.
The #MetaHumanThesis. Sounds like bracing reading.
False God. #Superman
#JesseEisenberg is uber-annoying as #LuxLuthor. This isn’t a character, it’s a caricature.
“The red capes are coming.” It used to be #Russians. Oh well, they’re red too.
“Bruce Wayne can’t break into Lex Luthor’s house.” Why not? He’s an expert detective.
#LexLuthor introduces #BruceWayne to #ClarkKent even though they’ve already met. #Narcissist
About an hour into the movie and there hasn’t been a single action scene. I’m...getting...sleee
How many times does #BruceWayne wake up from a nightmare in this movie?
That rocket launcher is bigger than the guy holding it.
“Do you bleed?” What’s with the heavy effects on #Batman‘s voice? Gimmicky.
#Superman enters the courtroom. I’m having bad flashbacks to #
TheQuestForPeace.
“Criminals are like weeds.” And #Batman and #Superman are like #Roundup.
#LexLuthor throws #Polaroids at #Superman. #JesseEisenberg‘s characterization is better suited for #Joker.
“The world only makes sense if you force it to.” Hmm.
The new #Batplane is awesome.
“I’m a friend of your son’s.” Even though I tried killing him less than an hour ago. #Batman #Superman
#Doomsday looks like the #CaveTroll in #
TheLordOfTheRings. #Superman
“I thought she was with you.” Ha! #WonderWoman #Superman #Batman
“This is my world.” Actually, you’re from #Krypton, #KalEl. #Superman
Cool lasso action #WonderWoman.
Final analysis: an overstuffed, overlong movie w/ some good moments, but fails to live up to all the hype.
Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Affleck is surprisingly good in a film that underwhelms by trying to overachieve.

I had every intention of boycotting Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice until a friend invited me to a screening and, out of respect for him and against my better judgment, I sat through the entire two and a half hours of this uneven, uninspired crossover superhero schlock-fest. Why did I want to boycott the movie? 1. Ben Affleck as Batman? When I first heard the announcement, my brain rejected the very notion as if it were mental ipecac. However, now that I’ve seen the film, Affleck is actually halfway decent as the Caped Crusader (certainly better than Kilmer and Clooney) and isn’t remotely the main problem with the film, which leads me to… 2. I had no interest in watching two heroes go at it mano a mano. Perhaps I’m experiencing mental fatigue over the Trump/Cruz and Clinton/Sanders Super PAC character assassinations, but my stance is that we should be fighting a common enemy (i.e., ISIS) rather than each other: the upcoming Marvel movie, Captain America: Civil War, further underscores the significant ideological divide that exists in our nation. Despite the fact that the movie is based on a successful comic book series of the same name, my contention is that the underlying premise here doesn’t befit an action packed blockbuster. Turning up the heat on my argument is the fact that Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer’s script has a chronic case of ADD when trying to decide which hero to focus on—and the addition of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) only exacerbates this issue. The motivation for why Batman and Superman (Henry Cavill) are at odds with each other in the first place is extremely weak, even opaque. Worse still, the heroes are back to being friends the moment the villain (Doomsday) shows up, which is egregiously contrived (the scene where Batman tells Superman’s mom that he and Superman are good friends, right after they just pounded the living daylights out of each other, is utterly laughable). Aside from my initial misgivings about this superhero slap down, other snafus arose while watching the film, most noticeably the lack of action. An hour into the movie I leaned over and asked my friend if we were ever going to see an action scene. The first half of the film, in particular, is painfully slow as the writers do double duty in establishing the characters and milieus of both franchises while also teeing up the events that lead to the inevitable clash between the titular heroes. The crosscutting between storylines becomes exhausting after a while and simply isn’t conducive to an action flick. My least favorite aspect of the film is the irresponsible and irreverent manner in which Batman is rendered. Despite the fact that this version of Batman—who actually kills people and brands his victims with a hot poker—hews fairly close to the comic book, it’s just not the way I prefer my Dark Knight. There’s a scene where a group of frightened women refuse to leave a jail cell because some evil is still lurking about the compound. The threatening presence turns out to be Batman. It’s okay, even preferred, for Batman to instill fear in his enemies, but it’s not okay for him to terrorize innocents. Likewise, and this is completely subjective, I have no issue with Zack Snyder tweaking Superman’s persona to his whim, but I take great umbrage with how the director turned Batman into an animalistic antagonist. Another askew characterization is Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor…his acting choices are, in a word, abysmal. Eisenberg’s rapid-fire speech may have worked like a charm in his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010), but his freewheeling prattle in this movie is downright annoying. Eisenberg’s quirky speech and spasmodic movements are actually a better fit for the Joker, but after the late Heath Ledger’s spellbinding performance in The Dark Knight (2010), my guess is that the Clown Prince of Crime will be kept on the sidelines for the foreseeable future in Batman movies. Not all is lost since the occasional character moment or pulse pounding action scene makes for a diverting viewing experience, but Snyder’s efforts here are far from fantastic. Bottom line: the kitchen sink plot, shifting POV narrative, Bad Batman, Boring Superman and Laughable Lex story elements have all conspired to relegate this comic book mash-up to the ranks of mediocre superhero films. It’s uncertain whether or not this movie will spawn a franchise of its own, but what is certain is that I will boycott any sequel that features Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. And this time I mean it.

London Has Fallen (R)

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Directed by: Babak Najafi
Starring: Gerard Butler
March 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

London Has Fallen
“Vengeance must always be profound...and absolute.”
#GerardButler and #AaronEckhart are in a “presidential race.” Yuk, yuk.
#KevlarMatress It’ll sell.
“40 different countries with 40 different security teams.” What could possibly go wrong?”
“Nobody knows. That’s why it’s a surprise.” The way security should be.
Amazing FX on the bridge demolition.
How many times does the president have to be told to keep his head down?
“They only have to get it right once.” Frightening reality.
“Mr. President, those better be comfortable shoes.” #PresidentialRace 2.0.
“Never criticize, always encourage.” Words to live by.
“I was wondering when you were going to come out of the closet.” Hilarious!
“They should’ve brought more men.” Yeah!
“I won’t justify your insanity to make you feel better about yourself.” #PresidentialSteel
“The worst option is to do nothing.” So true.
Final analysis: a slow start turns into a decent actioner with a frighteningly topical story.
Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Will this film perform well enough to justify a trilogy? How about #ISISHasFallen?

London Has Fallen, sequel to Olympus Has Fallen (2013), features the same lead characters from the first film: the U.S. President’s security chief Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), U.S. Vice President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) and U.S. President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart). Unfortunately, the sequel also employs the same basic plot as the original, with the only major twist being that the action takes place over the pond. The story sets up with the leaders of forty countries attending a funeral in London (and isn’t that just asking for it?) and the ensuing destruction that occurs when a well coordinated terrorist attack kills hundreds and razes several key buildings inside the city. The rest of the movie is one protracted pursuit with terrorists chasing Asher and Banning through the city in a series of action segments, including: frequent firefights and fistfights, motorcycle chases and a spectacular building demolition. Whereas the action is taut, the plot is not. Besides the characters stumbling out of a helicopter crash as if they’d just gotten off a Tilt-a-Whirl (and why don’t they have parachutes on a presidential chopper?), the fact that Asher and Banning emerge from the movie’s perpetual bullet storm without so much as a graze defies credulity. The dialog is also daffy at times, i.e., the “presidential race” and “coming out of the closet” gags which are clearly played for laughs. Beyond all of its standard action movie silliness, however, Fallen 2 is a frighteningly topical (perhaps unintentionally since the movie was filmed prior to the terror attacks in Paris) story that taps into very real fears over the growing radical elements in our modern world. The movie’s underlying, unspoken message is that our foes are clever and don’t mind playing the long game in order to secure a victory. The sad truth is that individuals dedicated to the destruction of others will find a way to accomplish their mission, regardless of how long it takes or how hard it is to execute (we saw this tragically demonstrated on 9-11). This hint of social significance is really the only thing that prevents this film from becoming yet another mindless action flick. The performances are solid but are largely dialed in (even the great Morgan Freeman plays his character exactly as you’d expect him to) and the direction by Babak Najafi is prosaic when evaluated alongside the typical film in its genre. So will we see another city fall in the future (Paris is off limits…forever)? The film’s performance at the box office will have major implications for the future of the franchise, but judging from this middling and formulaic entry, the series looks like it’s fallen and can’t get up.

Risen (PG-13)

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Directed by: Kevin Reynolds
Starring: Joseph Fiennes
February 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Risen
Rolling stones used in combat. Symbolic of the big one later in the story. #RollingStones
“Until then...” #RomanBrutality
“Order...order.” I got it the first time. #BreathMint
Unusual for a #Bible movie to begin with the crucifixion.
“Never killed a king before.” Not just a king. #KingOfKings
“It’s as if he wanted to be sacrificed.” Like a lamb to the slaughter. #NoGreaterLove
“A day without death.” Great dialog during the pool scene.
“We must find a body.” Let the investigation begin. #CSIJerusalem
“Wait ‘till you see combat.” Ha!
“Some say he has risen.”
The scene where #Clavius asks which of his men knows #MaryMagdalene is hilarious.
“This is what you missed.” #RomanNail #Crucifixion
“They’re everywhere!” #Bartholomew is a great character who provides some much needed #ComicRelief. #12Disciples
The sword slips through #Clavius’ fingers. Seeing #Yeshua is a disarming experience.
“No one dies today.” The pursuit by the #Roman soldiers is an exciting sequence.
#CliffCurtis is very good in his portrayal of #Jesus.
The healing of the leper gave me #Goosebumps.
The #Ascension is spectacular!
“I doubt we’ll ever hear from them again.” Wrong!
Final analysis: the #Resurrection story told from a unique POV. Benefits from solid acting and gorgeous locations.
Rating:
3 out of 4. An original yet reverent #Bible epic with one of the finest #Redemption stories ever told.

Some years ago, back when I had aspirations of plying my acting skills (such as they are) into a career, I had the lead part in an Easter cantata entitled Bow the Knee.  The story focuses on a Roman centurion who has a crisis of conscience regarding the teacher named Jesus.  The play presented a unique story told from the POV of an original character and echoed similar conceits in films like Ben Hur (1959) and Barabbas (1961).  Like in Bow the Knee, Risen narrates the Passion of Christ through the eyes of a Roman soldier, but the twist here is that most of the story takes place after the crucifixion (which occurs early in the film).  The action kicks into high gear when Jesus’ tomb is found empty and Roman Tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is put in charge of the investigation to find the body.  This procedural element keeps the story rolling along until Clavius has a life changing encounter with the subject of his pursuit midway through the movie.  Clavius falls in with the disciples and, by proxy, takes us on a spiritual journey which is punctuated by several key events from Jesus’ post-resurrection ministry. The 80/20 rule applies to this movie, with roughly 20% of the tale actually based on scripture and 80% extrapolated from the inspired text and presented for dramatic effect.  The end result here is seeker sensitive and palatable for those with an open mind, but will probably frustrate those fundamentalist theologians who maintain that a Biblical epic must be chapter and verse (and has there ever been such a film since none of us where there 2,000 years ago to determine the story’s authenticity?).  One of the most exciting elements in the story is how it weaves in and out of the official New Testament narrative, which provides freshness for those familiar with the actual events from the Bible. Some of those vignettes, extracted directly from the holy book, are extremely well executed, such as: the crucifixion, the fish bounty, the healing of the leper and the ascension. Other sequences, like when Roman soldiers pursue the disciples through tussocks of grass and winding canyons, are nowhere to be found in the Bible, but are visually exciting and help maintain audience interest throughout the story.  Aside from its pioneering plot, the acting is also a boon to the film.  Fiennes is superb in the lead role and plays his character’s gradual shift in loyalties to perfection.  Peter Firth is exceptional as Pontius Pilate, portraying the Roman official as a flesh and blood character rather than an egomaniacal caricature.  Tom Felton is effective as ambitious Roman soldier Lucius and Cliff Curtis (Fear the Walking Dead) delivers an understated, yet deeply affecting, performance as Jesus.  In addition to the movie’s fine production elements, the locations have greatly contributed to the visual veracity of the film.  Shot in Spain and Malta, these exteriors have helped the story come to life by accurately depicting the Holy Land during the First Century.  In the end, this is a compelling story of personal redemption that just happens to be based on the Bible, and as such, should have appeal far beyond the religious set. 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (PG-13)

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Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley
December 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Star Wars - The Force Awakens 1
Fortunately it’s the former.

There is no “balance in the Force” without the #Jedi. Great to see #MaxVonSydow.
Without the Jedi, the scales have tipped to the Dark Side. Looks like the galaxy needs a new hope. Von Sydow’s inclusion in the cast continues Star Wars’ long tradition of tapping classic Hollywood actors to play key parts: Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing in the original trilogy, Christopher Lee in the prequels.

The trooper with three blood marks has trouble following orders. I can feel the conflict in him.
These markings remind me of the various symbols and designs on clone trooper helmets in The Clone Wars TV series and the muddy handprint on the faces of Saruman’s orcs in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Bread in seconds. #Rey can really hydrate a loaf.
Reference the instant pizzas in Back to the Future Part II (1989).

“The droid’s not for sale.” I’ve heard that before somewhere.
A reverse of Obi Wan’s statement in A New Hope (1977).

The #TIE crash lands on #Jakku. Don’t worry, the scrap will be used to help feed someone.
There’s a later scene where scavengers run straight toward a TIE fighter right before it crashes into the sand. When your livelihood is based on bartering machine parts, you get it while it’s hot, I suppose.

“I am with the Resistance.” Ha!
A funny scene that reveals Finn’s ability to improvise in order to survive.

“The garbage will do.” Hey, she’s still a fast hunk of junk.
Another knowing nod to Hope and Luke’s line, “What a piece of junk!”

“Anything else?” #KyloRen needs some anger management.
At least he doesn’t kill his officers like Vader.

#BB8’s thumbs up is uproariously funny.
The droid reveals its true purpose as a mobile cigarette lighter.

“Yes I do. Every time.” Han has always been a #SmoothTalker.
Han might make a mess in a cantina or step on a gangster’s tail, but he can always talk himself out of trouble.

“Move ball.” #HanSolo has never been a fan of droids. #BB8

Remember “Shut him up or shut him down” from The Empire Strikes Back (1980)?

“It’s all true.” #HanSolo is now a believer in the #Force.
He’s come a long way from his “simple tricks and nonsense” days.

“Women always find out the truth.” The wisest thing #HanSolo ever said.
And judging by his frosty relationship with Leah, it looks like he learned this truism the hard way.

#Rey heeds the #SabersCall.
This is her “cave” scene (a la Luke in Empire).

It’s hard to conceive of a weapon on a more epic scale than the #PlanetKiller. Jaw dropping.

#HanSolo using #Chewbacca’s crossbow is a hoot.
Nitpick alert: You mean to tell me that in all of their adventures together, Han never tried out Chewie’s crossbow?

“Princesses.” Ha!
When a prissy droid thinks you’re high maintenance, you’ve got some issues.

#KyloRen initiates a #MindMeld on #Rey. #SciFiMashUp
Clearly Ren needs some tips from Spock on how to extract information from someone’s brain.

“And I’ll drop my weapon.” #JediMindTrick
A funny scene and a trivia question all wrapped into one…the actor inside the trooper suit is none other than James Bond himself, Daniel Craig.

“Sanitation?” LOL!
The string of one-liners in this movie is also reminiscent of the humor in Hope.

“Escape now, hug later.” Always good advice.
Consider this: if Rey and Finn hadn’t hugged, Han might’ve had a few more seconds to take the lightsaber out of Ren’s hand. That hug killed Han!

A passing of the baton, er, lightsaber between initiate and master.
Although if I were Luke I’d tell Rey to “point that thing someplace else.”


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The opening shot of the dark side of a #StarDestroyer is brilliantly visualized.
This shot sets the tone for the entire movie…it’s compositionally similar to many of the opening scenes in the earlier films, but is shot in a unique style with a completely different mood. It’s a symbolic change that’s emblematic of the movie’s many variations on the theme.

The frozen blaster beam is tight.
A really striking visual that also illustrates Ren’s formidable powers.

The “lived in” universe, i.e. crashed #StarDestroyers, #ATATs, etc, is startlingly realized.
These scenes have a strong sense of place and really capture the look and feel of Hope. There’s a lot of atmosphere and magic here.

“No droid could be that important.” Actually, this one is. #BB8
R2 was pretty important in his day too.

“The droid stole a freighter?” That’s one talented droid. #BB8
Well, I guess if an Ewok can ride a speeder bike…

“They’ll be pieces of us in three different systems.” Ha!
A classic Han line.

“Whatever you do, don’t stare.” Hard not to in that eclectic gin joint.
Isn’t that like trying to ignore the elephant in the room?

“I’m a Stormtrooper.” Where’s your armor? #MajorReveal
Finn takes Han’s advice and fesses up to Rey.

“I like this thing.” Who wouldn’t? #ChewiesCrossbow
It’s got quite a kick.

“That’s one animal pilot!” #PoeDameron
This line is precipitated by an incredible, writhing long take that showcases Dameron’s fancy flying.

New jacket. Same old Han. #HanSolo
It’s nice to know that some things never change.

#Rey escapes #Stormtroopers scurry.
In the Roman Empire, if a prisoner escaped under your watch your life would be forfeit.

“Is there a garbage chute? Trash compactor?” Han would know.
“What a wonderful smell you’ve discovered.”

“Come get it.” Yeah!
Although I wouldn’t be so cavalier in Finn’s place. Riling Ren isn’t a good idea…unless you’re a Jedi.

#R2D2 meet #BB8.
A mechanical meet cute where old meets new. A nice moment.

#Rey finds #LukeSkywalker. #MagicalMoment. #ChillBumps.
The scene reminds me of old martial arts movie where an initiate would have to scale a tall mountain in order to begin the training process with a Kung Fu master. A similar scene in Krull (1983) comes to mind. Also, Luke’s destiny seems to be the last hope for the Jedi order…he’s had that distinction twice now.

Final analysis: a bold new look for the franchise with a plot that mirrors #ANewHope.
And a large helping of Empire too.

Rating:
3 out of 4. Better than the prequels but still lacks the magic of the original trilogy.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…there were three good to amazing movies (Episodes 4-6) and three fair to awful films (Episodes 1-3) from creator, director, writer George Lucas. Now, after a fallow decade for the franchise, after Lucas passed the baton to Star Trek director J.J. Abrams and after Lucasfilm was sold to Disney, Episode VII, known as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, has finally been released amid much anticipation and under a cloud of secrecy that could shroud Bespin.  To bottom line it for you, Awakens is worthy of all the hype.  While Abrams’ riff on Lucas’ space epic lacks the wide-eyed wonder and sheer exhilaration of the original trilogy, it’s a Kessel Run ahead of the prequel trilogy.  In addition to moving the series forward chronologically (thirty-two years to be precise), Abrams has also made the series more palatable for contemporary audiences, just like he did for the most recent Star Trek movies.  Updating the technology, like various space ships and droids (i.e., the sleek ball-like robot BB-8), was a no-brainer. However, an even more important step in modernizing the franchise was Abrams’ sage decision to showcase more diversity in the cast, something that was largely missing from the earlier six Star Wars films (and that Lucas was widely criticized for). The two new heroes are a woman (Rey) and a black man (Finn). (Side comment: I’m really surprised there hasn’t been a racial uproar over the obvious similarity between the latter’s race and name to Huckleberry Finn). London actress Daisy Ridley, in her big screen debut, plays salvage scavenger Rey.  Rey is a distant of echo of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) since her desert home world, Jakku, is a dead ringer for Luke’s Tatooine…with the notable exception being that her planet is littered with derelict Star Destroyers and AT-AT walkers, not Krayt dragon skeletons.  Lucas’ conception of a “lived in” universe is vividly realized in Abrams’ first foray into the Star Wars saga.  The scenes involving Rey inside and outside the junked Star Destroyer are truly jaw-dropping (especially in 3D).  All of the desert scenes (shot in Abu Dhabi), particularly the scene where Rey slides down the sandy slope, are rich in atmosphere and tap into the gritty, organic feel that made A New Hope (1977) so otherworldly and magical.  One of the desert scenes depicts the crash landing of a TIE fighter with two of our heroes aboard: Finn (John Boyega), former stormtrooper turned Resistance fighter, and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), ace pilot for the Resistance.  Isaac (Ex Machina) has a scene with big screen legend Max Von Sydow, who makes a short, yet powerful, cameo at the beginning of the film.  Just as in Hope, the villain is introduced within the first five minutes of the film.  Even though Darth Vader has been replaced by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in this film, there is a rather important connection between the two antagonists which is the basis for one of the movie’s many mysteries.  Of course, the two biggest enigmas in the movie are Luke’s location and Ren’s true identity—both characters are on opposite ends of the Force spectrum and, as destiny and Hollywood writing would demand, have had dealings with each other in the past.  Despite various side stories and numerous action sequences, the whereabouts of the former Jedi master is the movie’s central through line.  Normally a movie’s MacGuffin is an object or thing, but in this case it’s a person…Luke.  And just as Luke is scarce in the movie, he’s nowhere to be seen on the movie poster, which has generated a great deal of controversy and speculation.  Wild theories abound including one that has Luke inhabiting the dark outfit of the movie’s main villain, Ren.  As for Ren, Abrams made the wise choice to not make him too much like Vader.  Admittedly, the black outfit and wheezy mask are similar, but the comparisons between the two villains diverge from there.  Vader takes out his aggressions on his subordinates while Ren manages his anger by shredding computer terminals with his three bladed lightsaber.  Vader’s voice is deep and heavy on the reverb, while Ren’s vocalizations are thin and tinny, like a poor radio transmission.  The most significant difference is that Vader is a Sith and Ren isn’t—so avers Abrams.  As such, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Vader, the Master, could kick Ren’s Learner heinie.  One of Ren’s character snafus is that, barring severe allergies, he doesn’t really need a mask. Sure, it gives his character added mystique and explains some of his back story, but it’s an utterly superfluous plot element. The scene where Ren removes his mask isn’t even half as momentous as when Vader does the same in the original trilogy. Three mo-cap characters that are worthy of mention are: Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), Unkar Plutt (Simon Pegg) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).  Abrams has created photo-real CG creatures without making them too cutesy like Lucas’ alien creations in the prequels…thank the Maker.  Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most important characters in the film—the entire cast of the first trilogy: Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Skywalker (Hamill), General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker).  It was uber-clever of Abrams to bridge the generations by integrating the original cast into this film. Ford, in particular, seemed to be having a ball this time around and turns in some of his finest acting in years.  Han’s opening line, “Chewie, we’re home” is cheer-worthy and makes for a memorable appearance for the smuggler and his rangy sidekick. In fact, each of the characters, including the droids, is given a dramatic entrance in the film (however, the reason why C-3PO has a red left arm is never explained).  It would’ve been standard, lazy Hollywood storytelling to just have the original characters show up, deliver a few lines and serve as nostalgia fodder for adult audience members.  Fortunately, Abrams, along with fellow scriptwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, wove these classic characters into the tapestry of the film in intelligent and delightful ways and gave each of them a significant role to play in the story.  Despite their heavy action and occasional frightening images, the Star Wars films have always been family friendly (and, fittingly, have focused on a family of characters), and Awakens certainly continues that tradition, as would be expected with Disney serving as owner and distributor of the film.  However, that doesn’t mean this movie is tame…nothing could be further from the truth as the film has plenty of pulse-pounding action. The film also boasts a degree of creative vision that’s nearly unparalleled in cinema history.  Even story elements that are completely unfounded scientifically, like the splintering death ray emanating from the Planet Killer, are mind-blowing in their scope, power and execution.  Abrams’ greatest contribution to the film was his Force-like ability to locate and populate the unexplored spaces within the extant Star Wars panoply. It’s almost as if Abrams and his writers listed dozens of things never attempted in the franchise and then selected a handful of them to build a plot around. The opening minutes are proof positive of this supposition since we’ve never seen the dark side (symbolic, right?) of a Star Destroyer before, nor a major ground assault at night. Most significantly, there isn’t a single space battle in the entire movie…all of the ship confrontations are staged as aerial assaults on a planet’s surface. The movie also marks the first time that enemy forces have conducted a tactical retreat…something that never would’ve happened on Vader’s watch. It’s possible to analyze this movie until the Banthas come home, but suffice it to say, this film has remained faithful to Lucas’ vision while venturing out into some bold new territory with some incredible new characters. Sure there are plot holes, inconsistencies and nitpicks here, as there are in any movie, but Awakens is a very serious attempt at doing justice to Lucas’ brainchild. Most of the early criticism of the film has centered on the story, which is ostensibly a patchwork reworking of the themes, scenes and lines from the original trilogy, particularly Hope and Empire. But the way I see it, if you’re going to borrow, why not borrow from the best? Whether you appreciate this kind of rehashed, retro-cool plot or not, I’m sure you’ll agree that this film has far, far surpassed the mediocre efforts of Episodes I-III—and how ironic that the characters in the movie are coming out of a Dark Ages (with no Jedi to ward off scum and villainy) just as we in the audience are coming out of one of our own (the prequels). Abrams’ film has resurrected the long dormant, long lackluster franchise with visual panache, an engaging story and some truly unforgettable moments. It has also effectively introduced the series to a whole new generation of fans. Once again, the Force is strong in the Star Wars universe.

Spectre (PG-13)

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Directed by: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig
November 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Spectre
After his pre-release statement: “I’d rather slash my wrists” than play Bond again, I’m guessing yes.

The dead are alive.
They’re called zombies.

Mexico City. Day of the Dead. I’m having flashbacks to #
LiveAndLetDie.
Different country, but the skeletons and other macabre images here are similar to the Mardi Gras themes/scenes in Roger Moore’s first Bond film.

A toast to death.
There’s a lot of the latter in this movie.

That’s one powerful sniper rifle.
The explosion here is kinda’ like in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) when Han Solo blew up the Imperial probe droid with his blaster…times a million.

Weird octopus opening.

#JamesBond meets #Moriarty.
Actor Andrew Scott plays Holmes’ arch nemesis, James Moriarty, in BBC’s Sherlock.

#SmartBlood Microchips are so last decade.
No more anonymity for anyone. Nor any privacy. Be very afraid.

“What a lovely view.” #MonicaBellucci is as fetching as ever.
It’s really surprising that Bellucci hasn’t been in any Bond films up until now since she seems perfectly suited to portray a Bond Girl.

Nasty eye poke.
Every Bond thug has his own shtick. Oddjob had his steel-brimmed bowler hat. Jaws had his metallic teeth. Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) has his metal plated thumbnails.

Ammunition not loaded. Q is getting lax.
This whole sequence reminded me of the opener in Star Trek: Generations. “It won’t be installed until Tuesday.”

“You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane.” Thanks for the pep talk, Crusty. #PaleKing
The Pale King certainly lives up to his name. Although Wrinkle King would be a more fitting title.

“Cut out the middle man.” Hilarious!
My vote for funniest line in the movie. Bond needs a drink in his hand, not a veggie juice.

To liars and killers.
The movie is chockfull of both.

Bond vs Bautista. Amazing fight sequence.
Kind of reminded me of Batman fighting Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

Bond arrives at the #DesertStadium.
That’s exactly what it looks like. The granite fortress also reminds me of the gigantic crater where they hid Airwolf.

“Out of horror, beauty.” Sicko!
“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Q is for Quartermaster.
Never knew that’s what Q stood for. Seems kind of obvious in retrospect.

C is for Careless.
Don’t play chess with Ralph Fiennes…you’ll loose. Oh, and M isn’t for Moron, you punk.

“I’ve got something better to do.” Classic Bond #DoubleEntendre.
And a great way to end the movie, while leaving Blofeld alive and well to haunt Bond in future movies.

Final analysis: some entertaining moments, but an unwieldy actioner that squanders its superb cast.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Good Bond, but not great Bond. James Bond will return, but who will play him?

There’s an old expression: don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Pragmatic and didactic, this saying definitely applies to Daniel Craig’s pre-release statement that he’d rather have his wrists slashed than play Bond again. While it’s unclear what prompted such a vitriolic retort, one thing we can say with absolute certainty is that Bond has been pretty good to Craig over the years. In fact, his career might still be stuck in second gear with obscure indie films like Layer Cake (2004) or commercial flops like The Golden Compass (2007) were it not for Bond. Aside from Craig’s comment, which clearly hints at a “disturbance in the Force” behind the scenes, this film’s resolution also makes his continued participation in the series dubious a best. Although Craig’s commitment to his craft cannot be questioned, it’s quite obvious that something is missing from his portrayal of Bond this time around. Something is missing from the story too…a big something. Despite a handful of rousing action scenes and some fine location work, the sum of the parts here falls far short of Skyfall (2012) (although it’s still a fair sight better than 2008’s Quantum of Solace, which, ironically, also features an industrial complex out in the middle of a desert that Bond blows up). What prevents this movie from being top shelf Bond is its scattershot story which features dangling plot threads (Monica Bellucci needed to factor into the story line somehow), a great deal of globetrotting without really accomplishing anything, a murky cautionary tale about the invasive nature of technology and decent, but certainly not earth-shattering, action sequences. Lead writer on Spectre, John Logan, has had a checkered past (Gladiator, 2000 and Star Trek: Nemesis, 2002) as a Hollywood scribe, and his efforts on this film are, likewise, a mixed bag. The movie certainly flirts with relevance in the way it addresses the increasing presence of Big Brother in our lives. The delivery system for this Patriot Act on speed—smart blood—has far-reaching implications for the future of our world, not to mention being a clever, cutting-edge concept. The shadowy, extra-governmental agency story element has been done many times before (remember the Cancer Man’s cabal in The X-Files?), especially in spy films, so these “gathering of evils” scenes, though well staged and filmed, are painfully passé. The drill scene is utterly absurd and stretches credulity to near sci-fi limits. The action sequences are vintage Bond, which is to say visually exciting but completely unrealistic, e.g., the scene where the roof collapses and Bond ends up falling right onto a couch. Yeah right! The subplot centering on the 00 program becoming defunct is eerily similar to the disbanding of the IMF in this year’s Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation (and how similar is Spectre and the Syndicate in operation and objective?). The ultimate detractor to the story is its ADHD narrative, which moves its characters from place to place but doesn’t really go anywhere. There’s no MacGuffin here (at least not in the traditional sense), no clear-cut goal and no real sense of accomplishment at the end since we all know that the villain will be back in future films. Additionally, it’s obvious to anyone in the audience that Bond’s determination to put his career as a spy behind him can’t possibly last. Ironically, even though Spectre has moved the franchise forward, it’s actually set it back. Sad. So will Craig be back as Bond? Doubtful, but that might be a blessing in disguise if the actor isn’t fully invested in the role…that would be a disservice to the franchise and the fans. If Craig does decide to move on, let’s just hope it doesn’t take the producers four years to find a replacement like the last time. After all, there is such a thing as Bond withdrawals.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (PG-13)

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Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Henry Cavill
August 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Man From UNCLE
Who better to play rival spies than Superman (Cavill) and the Lone Ranger (Hammer)?

“I just hope he doesn’t drive as fast as he moves,” Mr. Important Suit says.
In an ironic twist, Hammer proves to be faster than a speeding bullet.

“He’s trying to stop the car.” Ha!
A funny scene, especially when Cavill refuses to shoot Hammer because he’s amused by the audacity and tenacity of his foreign counterpart.

“Inside every Kraut is an American trying to come out.” #ColdWarHumor
Perhaps, but is every Kraut sour?

“America is teaming up with Russia.” And there’s our premise.
Writ large for those who can’t figure it out on their own.

“It doesn’t have to match.” These spies fight over everything, even women’s fashion.
Actually, it’s a bit frightening how much they know about women’s fashion. Does their job often require them to dress up in female disguises? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.

“Good night little chop shop girl.” All danced out, apparently.
Or in a liquor coma.

“These...are...Russian...made.” Amusing scene.
It’s scenes like this that lighten the mood and help move the story along in the movie’s early goings.

The slap upside the head scene is hilarious.
And totally unrealistic. Even a Vulcan nerve pinch seems more feasible.

Who peels a grape?
Seems like a waste of time…and food. It also seems a tad masochistic, which leads us to…

Pain and fear...life’s two masters. If you’re a masochist.
I thought love conquered all? Guess I need to keep up with the times.

“For a special agent you aren’t having a special day, are you?” #HughGrant’s comedic timing is flawless.
Though he has a few more wrinkles these days, Grant is still an effective funny man.

The scene where the 4-wheeler glides over the water is amazing.
This action sequence is arguably the finest in the movie and is aided immensely by aerial shots that zoom in on moving objects, a la documentary filmmaking.

“How’s that for entertainment?” Fun nonlinear sequence.
However, even though it’s a well executed scene, it borrows heavily from Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies.

“You’re a terrible spy, cowboy.” Back at you, Ruskie.
Amazing that, all these years later, Cold War tropes and stereotypes still find their way into modern entertainment.

Final analysis: gorgeous locations, arresting action and solid acting overcome an opaque plot.
That last point is the movie’s main drawback. The first quarter of the film is a head-scratcher until enough of the plot pieces fall into place and the story starts to make sense…sort of.

Rating:
3 out of 4. The humor, action and brilliant film style put it over the top for this spy yarn.

Based on the 60s espionage TV series of the same name, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. focuses on the exploits of one American and one Russian spy who are forced to work together for the global good during the Cold War…no easy task. Obviously, this premise had more relevance back in the 60s than it does today, although, Cold War tensions, under one guise or another, still persist in the modern world. A small screen answer to the Bond films, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was heavy on intriguing spycraft and thrilling adventure, both of which, fortunately, have been carried over into the big screen adaptation. In the TV series, Robert Vaughn played Napoleon Solo and David McCallum played Illya Kuryakin; here it’s Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, respectively. The opening scene introduces the characters and sets up a rather amusing game of cat and mouse between the two superstar spies. The real fun begins when they’re forced to work together as partners—the clash of styles and cultures instigates many humorous and spirited exchanges between the two agents. The action scenes, though few and far between, are superbly storyboarded and realized. However, they don’t contain the typical jaw-dropping visuals that you’d expect to find in a big budget summer action film, with the exception of the aerial shots captured for the high-octane chase scene. Ritchie’s use of stylistic elements—i.e., quick freeze frame shots, prismatic lens flares, etc—is really what prevents the film from becoming yet another action movie clone. An editing/narrative technique employed here, which was also used to great effect in the director’s Sherlock Holmes films, involves using flashback sequences to explain the mysteries that were planted earlier in the story. Although it’s gimmicky and trite, this storytelling device works quite well here. If there’s a downside to the movie, it’s the slowly-paced, frequently confusing story. Even though Ritchie eventually answers all of the questions posed during the movie, trying to figure out where the story’s going is often an arduous, frustrating task. If you have the appropriate degree of patience and focus, there’s a good chance the film will actually make sense to you. Otherwise, you might find this film to be an exercise in consternation. Still, in this age of shallow storylines with gaping plot holes (Transformers, Pacific Rim, etc.), having too much story is a nice change of pace over having too little. As for the acting, Cavill and Hammer are perfectly cast and have amazing screen chemistry as feuding partners forced to find common ground while fighting a common enemy. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) is also extremely effective as the duplicitous damsel in distress and provides a tantalizing wild card element to the proceedings. All things considered, this is a decent film that’s entertaining, if not earth-shattering. An U.N.C.L.E. franchise seems feasible as long as emerging stars Cavill and Hammer remain interested in the films and as long as patrons keep showing up to see them. Coming fast on the heels of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and carrying the torch for Spectre, the next James Bond film set to release this fall, U.N.C.L.E. is another 60s spy property that proves this action sub-genre is alive and well.

Southpaw (R)

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Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal
July 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Southpaw
With much respect to ring announcer Michael Buffer for his signature line.

The ritual of padding the boxer’s fists is extremely involved. Takes up a couple minutes of screen time.
Besides serving as an intro over the opening credits, this sequence demonstrates just how painstaking the preparations are for a bout and how boxing is, indeed, big business.

“Is that all you got?” Don’t taunt the guy.
Especially when you have blood streaming down your face.

“You got hit a lot, dad.” Hope’s daughter counts the boo boos on his face.
This is a really cute scene and a practical way for Hope’s daughter to gage how rough her daddy’s night was in the ring.

“You wanna go two rounds with me, champ?” Sign me up!
For Rachel McAdams I’m sure I could somehow find the strength.

“It’s not that bad.” Famous last words.

Hope head butts the referee. Where was that fight earlier in the bout?
Misplaced anger seems to be an issue for many boxers.

“Let me just give my daughter a hug.” Heartbreaking.
And when the bailiffs try to subdue Hope, you just know that things aren’t going to end well.

No wife, no house, no kid. Things have really gone south for Southpaw.
Somebody needs to play this Country song backwards so that Hope can get back everything he’s lost.

“Can’t even hit a question.” Ha!

“Stopping punches with your face is not defense.” That’s okay, Hope, Rocky was never any good at defense either.
Though not nearly as legendary as the training scenes in the Rocky films, the techniques Forrest Whitaker’s Tick Wills uses are also memorable and highly effective. I love the “strings in the ring” scene.

“Make him miss, make him pay.” Good strategy.
Fighting smarter, not harder, is the order of the day…a radical departure from Hope’s earlier, “human punching bag” style of boxing.

“Don’t let this man control you.” This is intense.
You just don’t go insulting a man’s family like that. I don’t know what the punk was thinking, but whatever it was, it backfired…in a big way.

Grab a tissue box for the final father/daughter hug.
Finally a glimmer of hope in this Murphy’s Law on steroids story.

Final analysis: a hard hitting redemption drama with a tremendous performance by Gyllenhaal.
However, as good as this performance is, it doesn’t top what Gyllenhaal achieved as the mentally deranged news cameraman in last year’s Nightcrawler.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. An often bleak look at a fallen star that thankfully offers some hope at the end.

For those not in the know regarding boxing jargon, southpaw refers to a left-handed fighter. Another aspect of the word comes to light during this film’s climactic fight when Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) switches from a right-handed to left-handed attack. It’s the reverse of Inigo Montoya’s surprise revelation in The Princess Bride (1987), “I am not left-handed.” When analyzing any boxing film, natural comparisons must be made to Rocky (1976) or even earlier films like The Set-Up (1949) or Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), both directed by Robert Wise. In these examples, and many others, something resembling a pattern has emerged and a few of those boxing film tropes include: enacted boxing sequences (of course), a middle to lower class meathead who has lots of pent up anger from a childhood trauma or other family drama, a miraculous comeback against all odds and crowd-pleasing training scenes that help the audience to identify with and cheer on the main character. Many of those ingredients are present in this pugilistic portrait as well, with one notable exception; Hope is already at the pinnacle of his profession when the movie begins. Whereas Rocky was a populist rags to riches tale, Southpaw is a reversal of fortunes faux biopic that’s just as brutal outside the ring as inside it. The movie presents a fascinating character study of a man who parlays his talents into a career that provides everything he’s ever wanted in life—the World Light Heavyweight title, a gigantic estate, a fancy sports car, a beautiful wife and a cherubic daughter. However, Hope’s performance-driven existence implodes like a house of cards when tragedy befalls his family and he’s forced to be a father for the first time and get a job outside of boxing, which is all he’s ever known. Gyllenhaal is terrific as the movie’s central, tragic figure and is thoroughly convincing as both cocky champ and down-on-his-luck chump. This part splits its screen time between the public and private lives of the boxer, and Gyllenhaal plays each of these character aspects to perfection. This physically punishing role surely took its toll on the actor, so kudos to Gyllenhaal who, literally, suffers for his art in this film. Aside from the lead performer, the supporting players are also exceptionally good here, especially Rachel McAdams as Hope’s wife and Forest Whitaker as Hope’s no BS trainer. If the movie has a drawback, it’s the merciless and unrelenting Murphy’s Law plot, which turns the film into an exercise in bleakness and futility. By way of warning, the sustained heavy-hitting drama and frequently violent fight scenes may be too intense for some viewers. As such, Southpaw is about as enjoyable as hitting your thumb with a hammer. Fortunately it isn’t as painful and is more worthwhile in the end. Though the final scene offers an avenue of redemption for the downtrodden fighter, don’t expect a triumphant celebration like the ones found in the Rocky films. A solitary ray of hope is about all this film can muster.

Final Note: This film features James Horner’s final, posthumous score. Horner was one of the great film composers of our time. May he RIP.

Fantastic Four (PG-13)

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Directed by: Josh Trank
Starring: Miles Teller
August 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Fantastic Four
Flame out. Perhaps forever.

“I’ve already built it.” Sure kid.
We saw this exact same scenario—kid with an invention that actually works rejected by a narrow-minded adult—earlier this summer in Tomorrowland (and also in last year’s Big Hero 6 and 2006’s Meet the Robinsons). Hackneyed movie opener.

Reed needs a power converter. I think Luke picked up a spare at #ToscheStation.
You might have to put up with his whiney voice, but he’s a fair trader.

“You’re paying for the backboard.” No appreciation for science.
Is this Hoosiers (1986) or a superhero movie?

“There’s patterns in everything.” Like #KateMara’s shirt, for instance.
Why can’t Sue see the pattern of destruction that’s in the offing?

“Fix what my generation broke.” Tall order.
And extremely unfair. It’s like saying, “We blew it and now it’s up to you to save the world. No pressure.”

“Us us?” Great dialog.
“Yes, yes.” Because a team of scientists would make prime candidates for exploring a new world, right?

Cool #Lego mug.
Does it come apart? Might create a minor inconvenience if it contained hot coffee.

Where are the space suits for the chimps? #AnimalCruelty
I guess because the chimps didn’t actually step out onto the alien planet they didn’t necessarily need space suits. However, as a precaution against any kind of hull breach that would allow a foreign, virulent agent into the capsule, the simians technically should’ve been inside some sort of environment suit…with a sippy straw leading to a bladder full of puréed bananas. Also, if the chimps had gotten out they might have established a true Planet of the Apes.

Reed Richards can create a teleportation device, but doesn’t know how to do a #FistBump? #Lame
Just proof positive of how little thought was put into this script by writers Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg and Josh Trank.

“I don’t think we went anywhere.” Kinda like the plot.
Indeed, the entire movie is like a roller coaster that never leaves the platform…all hype and no thrills.

Victor falls into the green lava pit. He’s doomed.
Will we ever get away from these tacky villain names taken directly from the comic books? Today’s audience is savvy enough to know who the antagonist is without naming him Von Doom.

#PlanetZero Where all plots go to die.
Planet Zero…where zeros are turned into heroes. Planet Zero…where you get zero entertainment value for your two hour and twelve buck investment. This is too easy.

Sue’s adoptive dad calls her Susan, which she dislikes. #Nitpick
Earlier, we learn that Sue dislikes being called “Susan” by Victor. So why would her adoptive father call her a name she doesn’t want to be called?

Johnny accidentally throws a fireball at Sue. #FriendlyFire
And the military is thinking about using him as an asset?

The naming of the group scene is utterly insane.
Correction: Although the scene is quite insane, I meant to type “inane.”

Final analysis: a poorly produced and paced reboot that squanders its talent on mediocre fare.
By talent, of course, I mean the central four cast members, each of whom is primed to become a major Hollywood star.

Rating:
1 1/2 out of 4. The only thing fantastic about this film is the wealth of commentary it’s generated.

I see no reason to waste my time (or yours) on a full review for this film. Actually the word “film” is too fine an appellation for this superfluous series of bland, expositional scenes which are performed on drab sets and locations and adorned with substandard production elements. It’s no overstatement that a sixth grader could’ve written a better story than what we find in this pedestrian plot, which lays out something like this: they went, they came back, they went again to fix everything they messed up the first time and then they came back home. See Dick run. The first half of the picture focuses on the “they went” part, which drags on and on with uninteresting character beats and infuriatingly prosaic dialog. The four heroes finally get their superpowers about midway through the movie, at which point we’ve become so terminally bored that we really could care less what happens to them. The action sequences are poorly conceived and executed and are accompanied by lackluster visual effects, save for the impressive scene where the trees and cars are sucked up into the singularity a la Mega Maid’s cosmic vacuum in Spaceballs (1987). As for the “major” fight scene at the end of the flick…kids staging an imaginary battle in their backyard could’ve choreographed a more creative and energetic melee than the one featured here. This is especially true of the scene where Dr. Doom quickly and easily neutralizes the powers of each member of the Fantastic Four. They aren’t so fantastic after all it would seem…much like the movie itself. Bottom line: This ill-advised release makes the original, mediocre Fantastic Four movies look like The Avengers films by comparison. This un-Fantastic flick may have singlehandedly killed the series despite the presence of some truly talented young performers in the title roles. Unless some future reboot miraculously reanimates the comatose series, this franchise is doomed.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (PG-13)

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Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise
July 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation
This review will self-destruct in five, four, three…

“I didn’t need help, I needed assistance.”
Of semantics and silliness.

“Open the door!”
If you’ve seen the trailer you know what’s coming…

“The other door.”

A turntable. How quaint.
Normally these mission dossiers are ultra high tech, so it’s nice to see something this retro as the delivery system for the message. And I absolutely loved the jazz history lesson.

“Saving the Western Hemisphere.” Ha!

“Today’s the day when the IMFs luck runs out.” Time to go rogue.
And by luck, Alec Baldwin’s character means funding….and government sanctioning. Minor speed bumps.

OMG! The way Hunt works his way up the pole is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
And the fact that Cruise did this stunt himself is uber-impressive.

“Welcome to the CIA.” No thanks.
Robert Culp’s character on The Greatest American Hero once referred to the CIA as “Creeps in Action.” Aptly put, especially in this film.

“You want drama, go to the opera?” Must I?
Although, this is certainly the liveliest opera I’ve ever seen (on the big screen). An amazing backstage brawl, debris raining down onto the set and a thwarted assassination attempt all combine to make this an unforgettable sequence. To say nothing of the obvious rifle as phallus imagery.

The bow tie’s coming off. Here we go!

Two assassins. Who to shoot?
C’mon, you know Ethan isn’t going to shoot the smokin’ hot babe.

“Change of plans. Throw her out.” Ha!
One of the funniest moments/lines in the film.

The anti-IMF. #TheSyndicate.
Bond has SPECTRE, Marvel has Hydra, etc. Same dif.

A digital safety deposit box. A clever concept as long as you don’t get hacked.
Or as long as there isn’t any data corruption, or a solar flare that knocks out the electricity, etc. In short, nothing is truly “safe.”

“That doesn’t sound impossible.” #ConserveOxygen
A throwaway line that riffs on the title. Good for a titter and a line for Twitter, but not much else.

Ethan jumps into a water singularity that looks like a giant woofer on a speaker.
Either that or a monochromatic version of the Looney Tunes opener.

“Stairs...stairs...stairs...”
The moment would’ve played far better if this was Pegg’s first film in the series. As things are, his standard shtick inspires courtesy chortles rather than uproarious guffaws.

One of the most pulse pounding motorcycle pursuits ever committed to film.
And I love that shirt Cruise is wearing. Where can I purchase one?

“There are no allies in statecraft.” No honor among thieves either.
This is one of my favorite lines in the film. It feels like it was lifted right out of a Le Carre novel.

“You sure can ride.” #ThatsWhatSheSaid
I debated over whether or not to Tweet this, due to its appropriateness, but it’s the only favorite I got for this movie so #GoodGamble.

“Come away with me.” I really like #Option3.
A woman like that wouldn’t have to ask me twice.

“That Syndicate.” There’s more than one?
I guess it is like Hydra. Cut off one head…

“Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day.”
A nice twist on the phrase and a fitting one for this actioner.

“Meet the IMF.” Yeah!
A rousing scene that’s more than a little reminiscent of the superhero team shot in The Avengers.

Final analysis: a decent addition to the series that has solid action, but little heart.
I never once felt connected to anything in the story. The tame romance isn’t the least bit compelling, nor is the standard issue IMF under siege by a secret organization with nefarious motives subplot. There’s nothing new here and even the action sequences seem predictable and passé.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. A mild disappointment, but only because 1, 3 & 4 were so superb.

The trailer for this fifth Mission Impossible movie showcases a few choice clips of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) holding on to the side of an ascending jet in a death-defying stunt. Hunt yells for his tech assistant, Benji (Simon Pegg), to open the door so that he can enter the plane before being blown clear by rapidly increasing wind shears. Benji opens the wrong door, which generates laughter from the audience, and we’re on to the next high-octane scene in the two minute promo for the film. In the actual movie, this sequence serves as the opener and is a standalone action segment that has nothing to do with the rest of the film. The nail biting, physics fudging plane-hang is there simply to grab the audience’s attention from the start and to set the pace and tone for the rest of this action packed summer blockbuster. The episodic opener is reminiscent of the M:I TV series, which would occasionally use cliffhangers as intros to episodes (Alias did this extensively as well). The problem here is that the “hanging from a jet” set piece is the finest action sequence in the film—with the underwater and motorcycle scenes coming in a close second. I contend that the opening passage should’ve been employed as the climactic action piece and integrated into the narrative. As things stand, this opener is an exciting, yet utterly meaningless, midair spectacle that’s ultimately a missed opportunity, an egregious misappropriation of energies and a self-indulgent exercise by writer/director Christopher McQuarrie. As for the rest of the action scenes, they’re well choreographed and executed, but they aren’t nearly as spectacular as the ones exhibited in the last two M:I films. Though the underwater sequence gets props for being the most ambitious and creative action beat in the film, the motorcycle chase, though pulse-pounding, isn’t all that much better than what we’ve seen in the Bourne or modern Bond movies. The story is serviceable but has some noticeable deficits: there’s very little genuine jeopardy (since we know that none of the main characters are going to die), the villain is mediocre and the so-called romance between Hunt and Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) is painfully tepid. Cruise, fittingly, coasts through the plot as if on cruise control, but doesn’t bring anything new to his character beyond what’s already been established in the earlier movies. As for the rest of the cast, Pegg is predictably comedic, Jeremy Renner hits his marks but is disappointingly perfunctory and Ving Rhames is nothing more than an ambulatory cardboard standup of his character. Of the new additions to the cast, Ferguson is far better in her action scenes than in her acting scenes and Alec Baldwin, though a bit stiff as the suit with shifting loyalties, delivers the only true standout performance in the film. Bottom line: Rogue boasts some frenetic action scenes, decent acting and a mildly diverting story. However, beyond those few elements, there’s little else to recommend the film. While Rogue is still a giant fulcrum swing better than M:I II, it doesn’t even come close to the quality of the other films in the series. Though it’s hard to put a finger on what inhibits the film the most, there’s definitely something lacking here. Let’s hope Paramount Pictures discovers that missing ingredient before approving the next mission.

Terminator Genisys (PG-13)

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Directed by: Alan Taylor
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger
July 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Terminator Genisys
His first time back to the franchise since his stint as the Governator.

“It used our own bombs against us.” Shades of 9-11.
A thinly veiled reference to that fateful day in 2001. It’s a plot device that’s grown tired from overuse, especially since it seems to be an easy way to illicit an emotional response from the audience. A highly exploitative plot contrivance.

“Use my hands for something other than killing.” #TMI
It’s hard to see Arnold whittling animal figures out of wood as a pastime.

“We take back our world.” Yeah!
And simultaneously avoid Judgment Day, which will pretty much wipe out the events from the earlier films.

The first tactical time weapon. Fascinating.

“The futuristic not set.” A central axiom of these movies.
Correction: Should read “The future is not set.” Curse you Twitter! It thinks it’s being helpful by suggesting similar words, but it just messes me up. In a darkened room with a darkened phone screen and tiny buttons, it’s easy to select the wrong word.

Genisys is Skynet. Thanks for spelling it out for us.
I really wish the writers would’ve let us figure this out on our own instead of outright announcing it several times during the movie.

“Come with me if you want to live.” Don’t have to ask me twice.
This is one of the better lines in the movie, but it seems like I’ve heard it before somewhere.

“So you’re the one I’ve been waiting for all my life.” Nice double entendre.
A funny line that reveals the movie’s underpinning predestination plot.

“I’m old, not obsolete,” says Pops. Actually, Pops was pretty obsolete when fighting his younger self.
Good thing he brought backup. Wise old android.

The doppelgänger scene with two Kyle Reese’s is daft. Reference #
StarTrek for many examples of this.
What if Sarah had guessed wrong? Kyle would have to hobble around for the rest of the movie…which is actually a pretty cool character limitation.

“Why hold onto someone when you know you’ll have to let them go?” #MeaninglessGesture
Absolutely true…from an automaton’s perspective. A prime example of how human emotions can transcend the cold, hard logic of a machine.

A #TotallyConnected life. Frightening!
This type of technological convergence is on the horizon. Its implications are exciting and frightening all at the same time.

Scarface meets his much younger mother. #Paradox

How can a school bus be armed and extremely dangerous?
Poor dialog alert.

Why do maximum destruction action sequences always seem to take place on the #GoldenGateBridge?
Reference: Fantastic Four (2005), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), etc.

Pops gets an upgrade. He’s not so obsolete after all.

Kyle Reese meets a boy version of himself. Shouldn’t the universe implode? #
BackToTheFuture
Dr. Brown would have a few choice things to say on the subject.

Final analysis: a patchwork plot from the earlier films that suffers from a lack of originality.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Some clever ideas prevent this from being a dog. Arnold’s presence is a plus.

During my formative years, my mom periodically had a Musgo night; that is, a dinner where everything in the refrigerator “Must Go” before it goes bad. Like most kids, I hated leftovers, especially when ingredients that had no business being thrown together ended up in the same dish. What does all of that have to do with the new Terminator movie? Genisys, the fifth film in the franchise, takes a Musgo approach to its story line by including characters, concepts, plot threads and action segments from each of the previous four films. The resultant thematic mélange, though clever at times, is often formulaic, oblique or flat-out uninspired. If it feels like you’ve seen this movie before, you have…several times over. In fact, amplifying the movie’s pervasive sensation of déjà vu are excised clips from The Terminator (1984) and the inclusion of the liquid metal adversary from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Since the liquid metal man does very little to advance the plot and has an early exit from the story, one wonders why it was necessary to bring him back in the first place? Perhaps director Alan Taylor just wanted to see how modern CGI could bring the morphing machine to life, but the harsh reality here is that the new FX aren’t that much better than the ones in T2, which have held up remarkably well over the decades. As such, the liquid metal villain’s presence in the film is superfluous, gratuitous and ridiculously shoehorned. Still, you have to tip your hat to the writers, who’ve served up a reheated version of the earlier movies and passed it off as a new film. It’s a writing ploy that’s just as insidious as Skynet’s systematic strategy for taking over the world. As long as people keep filling theater seats, the franchise can endure indefinitely since there are infinite insertion points available to time traveling characters. This film operates on two levels: diehard fans will appreciate the pastiche plot, which features many elements from the earlier films in unique combinations, while newcomers will just enjoy the film as the popcorn entertainment it is without getting too overwhelmed by the improbable genealogies, mind-bending paradoxes and convoluted timelines that have become staples in the Terminator series. As such, Genisys is a unique sequel that can be experienced either as an introduction to the series or as a standalone chapter in the ongoing Terminator saga. This new trend, where Hollywood studios are producing sequels with origin story elements, is an extremely clever way of introducing a whole new generation of potential fans to a franchise. Insidious indeed. Another area of the movie that bears scrutiny is the acting, which is fairly lackluster across the board. Other than Ah-nold and the barely-there support from veterans like J.K. Simmons and Courtney B. Vance, the cast is filled with fresh faces (Emilia Clarke and Jason Clarke) with insufficient star power, with the exception of Jai Courtney (Divergent). The dearth of big name actors, along with the reheated plot and average visual effects, signifies a halfhearted commitment to the project by Paramount Pictures. Sure, Genisys is a big budget summer tentpole, but nothing about its production screams “prestige.” The whole proceedings has a “let’s just throw another sequel out there and hope it makes a profit” feeling to it. Hopefully the next, inevitable, sequel will eschew this film’s Greatest Hits narrative style and actually craft an original screenplay. The fate of humanity just might depend on it.

Jurassic World (PG-13)

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Directed by: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Chris Pratt
June 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Jurassic World
That’s really why we watch these movies, right?

Nice #Psyche moment with the bird foot.
Nice setup for the attack of the birds later in the movie.

“If something chases you...run.” That goes without saying in these #
JurassicPark films.
Although, if it’s T-Rex, your best bet is to stand still since its visual acuity is based on movement.

“More teeth.” #IndominusRex #PlayingGod
So here we have the beginnings of the ethical debate over scientific responsibility vs. consumer demands for newer, better attractions at the park. The argument is broached ad nauseam throughout the movie. You might say that such fixation on the topic is like beating a dead stegosaurs.

#Mr.DNA sighting.
Remember him from the first film? A nice inside gag.

The restricted area is like half the island. #BadOmen
“What have they got in there, King Kong?”

“Accept that you are not in control.” The essence of #Chaos.
It’s also one of the steps in A.A.

“Bigger than expected.” #KingKong size? #IndominusRex

#RaptorTraining #Frightening
The very idea that raptors can be trained is hokey as heck, but it makes for an interesting section of the film…especially when the gatekeeper falls in.

“War’s part of nature.” But is it ethical to bring nature to a war?
This whole subplot with Vincent D’Onofrio is utterly inane. Using raptors as foot soldiers? What could possibly go wrong with that plan? If the raptors are hungry for human flesh, I doubt they’ll discriminate between different sides of a conflict.

The Raptor #FieldTest comes sooner than expected.
This is one of the better action sequences in the movie. Unlike the campy Godzilla vs. Rodan style final conflict, this scene actually made me slide forward in my seat a couple inches.

“Were those claw marks always there?” #DinoRuse
Guess dinosaurs enjoy a good pedicure too.

Don’t move #DonutMan.
Oops, guess the hybrid part of Indominus is a better hunter than a plain old T-Rex. My bad.

Pet a #Raptor at your own risk.
A raptor petting zoo? That’ll be the day.

#Code19. Means #RunAndScream.
If you reverse the 19 and add another 1 at the end you’ll have a number that pretty much sums up their situation.

“Evacuate the island.” Please don’t. I wanna see what happens.
Besides, the movie would be pretty short otherwise.

Bigger. Scarier. Cooler. #SuperSizedDinos
Maybe it’s just me, but weren’t those diminutive Compys from The Lost World (1997) pretty scary when they worked in concert? “Size matters not.”

#OffRoad “The full Jurassic World experience.”
Of course, the kids don’t stop to consider the size of the dinosaur required to tear a hole that large in the fence. Impetuous youth.

#DinoKickball
Bet the kids wish they’d have stayed “on road.”

To be on the safe side, jump on two.
Kicking myself for not using the hashtag #JumpOnTwo. A narrow escape and one designed with 3D in mind.

“It’s killing for sport.” And so far the #IndominusRex is pitching a shutout.

#
TheBirds, Jurassic style.
The hashtag is, of course, a reference to the terrifying Hitchcock film. This sequence is like a turkey shoot but in reverse. How convenient that all of the humans are corralled into one area so that the strafing Pterodactyls can pick them off one by one.

Nice shot, #BeardDude.

“Do not shoot my Raptors!” That’s a first.
My, how far we’ve come from “Shoot her!’

“That thing’s part Raptor.” Gee, I couldn’t have guessed that.
This is an utterly ridiculous reveal since we all knew what dinosaurs were commingled inside Indominus’ DNA back when the fierce behemoth scratched up the wall…and hid in the security blind spot.

How to tase a Raptor.
Very carefully. Avoid its teeth and claws at all costs. Oh, and watch out for the tail too.

2 Raptors and 1 Rex. Where have I seen this scenario before?
This is Exhibit A for how contrived the movie is. The storyboarding here is eerily similar to the climactic T-Rex gang up in the first Jurassic Park movie.

Guess what #IndominusRex. There’s always a bigger fish.
Thank you, Gui-Gon Jinn.

“Stick together for survival.” Memorable #SecondDate.
A decent pickup line only to be used in survival situations.

Final analysis: echoes many scenes/concepts from the earlier films, but super sizes everything.
In many respects, this film is a regurgitation of various elements from the earlier trilogy—there’s very little new thought here.

The film’s moral of humans always needing a bigger, better thrill is as subtle as a jackhammer in a library.
And the fact that the point was driven home repeatedly in the movie reveals just how stilted this topic is—prehistoric preachiness.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. If a maximum destruction #CreatureFeature is on the menu, this one’s for you.

Ever wonder what Jurassic Park (1993) would’ve been like if Nedry’s (Wayne Knight) debacle hadn’t happened and the dinosaur park had actually passed the inspection? This fourth JP installment answers that hypothetical question by picking up the action several years after the park’s opening. Miraculously, the calamitous effects of “chaos” have been averted up to this point, but that’s about to change—those disreputable InGen geneticists have concocted a brand new “hybrid” dinosaur, which was designed less out of scientific curiosity than the need to boost flagging attendance at the park. Besides subplots involving raptor training (and the daffy plan to use them as infantry in a war), the unethical choices made by scientists and shareholders who place a premium on profits over people, an insipid romance between Pratt and Howard, the latter’s inadequacy at connecting with/taking care of her teenage nephews and those same teens being imperiled at every turn, the story is dominated by its new dino on the block…the Indominus Rex. As the central crux of the movie, Indominus serves as antagonist, new park attraction, catalyst for catastrophe, emblem of its creators’ avarice and hubris, McGuffin and embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the film. The name pretty much says it all—Indominus is the incarnation of a bigger, better breed of dinosaur (the first genetically engineered dino in history), created for the sole purpose of entertaining onscreen and in theater spectators. This bifurcated function is both fascinating and bitterly ironic. In the same way that Jurassic World patrons have become bored with the same old dinosaur exhibits, so too have theater attendees grown weary of the by-now standard monster melees involving T-Rex’ and raptors. The Spinosaurus was the answer to this “supersize syndrome” in JP III (2001). Here it’s Indominus: an unnatural amalgamation of a T-Rex and some other unspecified dino, whose true identity is preserved as a “surprise” for the end of the movie. That supposed big reveal exposes a major fallacy on the part of the writers, who’ve grossly underestimated the intelligence of the audience; most people will have solved the tenuous mystery about the same time that Indominus goes all Wolverine on the habitat wall. As one of the story’s prominent through lines, the flaccid subplot involving Indominus’ shrouded origins is egregiously anemic. Equally contrived—and telegraphed from earlier events in the movie—is Indominus’ demise. It’s clear that director Colin Trevorrow intended for Indominus’ comeuppance to be an unexpected twist, but, just as with the disclosure of the creature’s actual genetic makeup, the audience is way ahead of the writers. World’s attempt at providing even more extreme dino attacks than those featured in the earlier films is undermined by action sequences that were lifted right out of the first JP, especially when the two raptors pounce on Indominus (T-Rex in the original film). Also, Howard coaxing the T-Rex with a flare, just like Jeff Goldblum did in JP, is a ridiculous retread. The Pterodactyl attack is visualized in a manner so similar to Hitchcock’s The Birds that the scene plays out like a parody of the classic thriller, only on a grander scale and with modern FX. Has the ingenuity that once flourished in this groundbreaking franchise gone extinct? Another drawback to this film is that none of the major characters from the original trilogy appear here. Since we aren’t invested in the lives of the characters, we really don’t care if they end up as dino snacks or not. Pratt cuts a heroic figure as the raptor whisperer, but we learn next to nothing about his back story. Howard is one step short of annoying as the self-important park executive who exhibits poor parenting skills and, inconceivably, even worse management skills. Ultimately, the missing ingredients here are fun, excitement and genuine suspense. The first JP possessed all of those elements in spades by building a world of wonder and terror that resulted in a one-of-a-kind cinematic thrill ride. World feels unnecessarily rushed, as if it were constructed merely to whisk us along from one dino dustup to the next. The bare bones plot is expeditious, perfunctory and agonizingly formulaic. What little story exists here (the heavy-handed sermon on the fickle fads of humans, the dangers of playing God, the reminder to never leave kids alone in a dino park, etc.) serves as filler between the links of an unending helix of action sequences. My sincerest hope is that the makers of the next JP film will invest more time and energy into character development and a compelling story. Additional suggestions: bring back the joy and awe from first film and throw a spotlight on some of the ancillary dinosaurs—the sick triceratops scene in the first JP was exhilarating and touching and added a good deal to the story without defaulting to yet another meaningless action sequence. If the sequel fails to demonstrate a higher degree of creativity than this dismal entry into the series, we’ll have to christen the next test-tube dino Ignominious Rex.

Tomorrowland (PG)

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Directed by: Brad Bird
Starring: George Clooney
May 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Tomorrowland
Whereas Country Bears (2002), The Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) and The Haunted Mansion (2003) were all based on Disney attractions, this film is named after an entire section of the park.

Nice Tomorrowland alterations to the standard Cinderella’s castle Disney opener.
The fanfare sequence gets a futuristic upgrade. A creative flourish that recalls the Paramount peak morphing in the Indiana Jones films.

“The future is scary.”
Actually, the future is the future; it’s our perception of it that colors our emotions, one way or the other. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Clooney’s foreboding statement is Dr. Brown’s encouraging affirmation in Back to the Future III (1990), “Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a great one.”

The scene where the kid tests his jet pack is reminiscent of #TheRocketeer.
Skidding to a halt in the middle of a fallow field is a common denominator between both movies, but this film’s sequence is set during the day while The Rocketeer’s (1991) was filmed at night…and involved a statue rather than a real person.

It’s a Small World After All. The ride within a ride. Very cool.
This sequence is a lot of fun. It really taps into the excitement and mystique associated with the secret passageway fantasy trope, a la the magical coat closet in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005).

A thumbs up from the fixit robot.

“It’s hard to have ideas.” #HumanLimitation
Especially in postmodern times, when there seems to be a paucity of new thought.

The Tale of Two Wolves. Which one will you feed?
This motivational anecdote has been done to death in recent films. Since the moral of the story actually factors into this film’s climax, we’ll let it slide this once.

The Tomorrowland pin is like the #OneRing.
Bilbo and Frodo could see a metaphysical dimension atop the physical one by using the One Ring in The Hobbit and LOTR. The Tomorrowland pin functions in a similar manner, with the notable exception being that its user can’t see both dimensions simultaneously—only the futuristic environs. This causes obvious problems since the traveler is completely blind to objects and boundaries in the physical world as they move through the future city, which leads us to…

Trip down the stairs. A creative way to layer the Tomorrowland world over ours. #FindAField #HolodeckTech
I’m glad Casey took my advice and found a wide open space with which to explore Tomorrowland. Less contusions and concussions that way.

#BlackHole comic book. #BlastToThePast
Of course, The Black Hole (1979) was produced by Disney. Trivia: TBH was the studio’s first PG rated film.

Time Bomb. Cool concept/visual.
Although it does have a Clockstoppers (2002) freeze-frame vibe to it.

Last pin. New wrinkle.

“We are the future.”
“We are the world, we are the children.”

Holo-dog. Clever idea.
Don’t worry; his bark is way worse than his bite.

Wonder if Disneyland will make a Bathtub Ride based on this movie.
They have a teacup ride, right? Why not a Bathtub Ride? They’d have to design it as a water ride, though. Towel not provided. You can purchase one at the line entrance for $20.

“It’s not personal, it’s programing.”
Whenever someone says it’s not personal it always is. Correction: programming. Darn Twitter didn’t underline it as being misspelled.

“Well zippity doo for you.” Ha!
Another Disney inside gag.

The Eiffel Tower splits in half to become a rocket platform. Getting a bit #FarFetched.
My suspension of disbelief was completely obliterated by this scene. Some might find this launch sequence to be a unique way of utilizing the famous Parisian building, but I thought it was exceedingly daft and contrived beyond belief. There are a million other places on the planet to hide a space rocket, and the majority of them would’ve made more sense.

Flashes of the future. Hold on to your hat.
You’d think that if she saw it coming she would put her hand on the cap to keep it firmly in place. Casey either has poor judgment or slow reaction time.

“You want to sink.” Though overly doom and gloom, this is one of the better villain monologues ever.
Remember when Syndrome catches himself monologuing during a climactic scene in The Incredibles (2004), an animated smash hit helmed by this movie’s director, Brad Bird? Since Bird was so openly critical of villain monologues in that earlier film, you just knew he’d take painstaking efforts to insure that Nix’ sermonizing speech was incredible…and it is.

Kids walk through a stargate to recruit the citizenry of the new Tomorrowland. I want one.
A pin, that is. The teens hand them out at random like Golden Tickets in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971).

Final analysis: contains imagination and creativity but never quite achieves the state of awe it strives for.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. There’s plenty of movie magic here, but the pedestrian plot is a major drawback.

Despite its apparent surfeit of creativity, Disney’s Tomorrowland is simply a smoke-and-mirrors production that’s every bit as sleek, superficial and soulless as its titular city. Though saturated with technological wonders and mind-blowing visuals that pop out at us from every square inch of the screen, the futuristic metropolis is little more than empty artifice. It’s a cold, mechanical world where a bright future is subverted by a sinister all-seeing orb…this movie’s answer to Sauron’s baleful eye in LOTR. The trouble here is that instead of taking the time to craft a world that’s genuinely groundbreaking in conception and application, the “creative” minds at Disney Studios have merely settled for a pastiche approach, and the resultant movie suffers dearly for that decision. The first story derivation involves a flashback to George Clooney’s character as a boy. Young Frank Walker excitedly demonstrates the capabilities of his homemade jet pack at a science fair and is rejected out of hand by the movie’s antagonist, Nix (Hugh Laurie). By now, this science fair opener has been done to death in Disney films (reference Meet the Robinsons (2007) and last year’s Big Hero 6). Additionally, the jet pack was used extensively in The Rocketeer (1991). The Tomorrowland pin allows a person to walk around the futuristic city, but real world boundaries still exist, which limit the extent of a person’s movements in the alternate realm. This is an extremely clever concept (and it’s executed very adeptly in the movie), but it also hearkens back to Star Trek: The Next Generation’s holodeck. During the movie’s climactic events, characters use an energy portal to travel back and forth between present reality and the future dystopia, and it functions in a similar manner to ST:TOS’ Guardian of Forever (“The City on the Edge of Forever”) and the eponymous apparatus in the three Stargate TV series’. These are just a few examples of how the movie’s writers have borrowed liberally from other sci-fi/fantasy films. And then there’s the shameful product placement in the comic book shop, which features merchandise from Disney, Marvel and Lucasfilm (all owned by Disney), to the exclusion of the many other brands and products you’d find in a real comic shop. And then there’s the Eiffel Tower as rocket launch pad sequence which, despite earning points for its ingenuity and attempt at providing a history lesson, is utterly ridiculous…one of the dopiest plot devices/set pieces I’ve witnessed on the big screen in a great while. And then there’s the dubious decision to feature George Clooney as an action hero (his Batman days are long gone). Laurie is serviceable as the movie’s brooding antagonist, but his participation would’ve been more effective had he been cast against type—his part is painfully predictable. Casey’s (Britt Robertson from TV’s Under the Dome) enthusiasm and optimism is really what saves the day, both for the characters onscreen and the movie as a whole. Unfortunately, the bulk of her dialog and the simplistic, straightforward story (free from any emotional complexity or genuine jeopardy) render the whole proceedings as a kind of lavishly produced Disney Channel movie of the week. As such, the preteen set will probably embrace the film, while the rest of the audience will more than likely feel tepid toward the final product. So, will this film inspire a sequel? Tomorrow will tell.

Furious Seven (PG-13)

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Directed by: James Wan
Starring: Vin Diesel
April 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Keith_Rowe___BackRoweReviews____Twitter
Can’t believe it’s been well over a year since his passing. How bitterly ironic that it was a car accident that took him from us.

“You can’t outrun the past.” Unless you have a really fast car.
That’s equipped with a flux capacitor.

“An open road helps you think.” Conversely, heavy traffic constricts thinking.
Or worse yet, fuels #RoadRage.

Who brings a sledgehammer to a cemetery?
And what good would it do to shatter a headstone anyway? The family would still know where the grave is and public records would have an accurate record of who’s buried in the plot. Strange motivation.

Amazing fight scene at the PD. A real backbreaker.
A friend of mine (a female mega fan of Johnson’s) says The Rock’s physique is too big now. Opinions?

“No more funerals.” In an action movie? Not likely.
Of course, we’re tricked into thinking that one of the main characters will die, but…psyche!

What happens when neither driver flinches in a game of chicken? #BahBoom #AirbagCheck
This just shows how insanely macho Diesel and Statham’s characters are. However, it’s this excess of testosterone that makes for a thrilling showdown at movie’s end.

God’s Eye. The Patriot Act on speed.
Similar to “The Machine” in TVs “Person of Interest.”

“Completely wrong thinking. And I like it.”
A quote that perfectly captures this movie’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants plot.

Backing a car out of a plane. #InsaneButterflies
If you allow yourself to get lost in this sequence, it’s quite an adrenaline rush.

“Touchdown, baby.” And we’re not talking about football.

“You might want to put on your helmet for this one.” A fitting slogan for the entire movie.
Make sure your seatbelt is snug too.

“Double alpha.” #ManCandy Ha!
Tyrese Gibson is this film’s comic relief and is quite effective in his role.

“What’s real is family.” #TrueThat
One of the only redeeming aspects of these characters is how they look out for each other as if they were a biological family.

The #Goldfinger dancers are a bit much.
However, this is an action movie, and they are in Dubai.

Game of Chicken 2.0. Just as destructive as the first.
With a twist at the end. It’s all about getting the upper hand.

“Woman, I am the cavalry.” #OneManArmy
A great line taken right out of Schwarzenegger’s playbook.

“The street always wins.” Good line.
And the street always extracts its price in blood.

Final analysis: amazing action sequences compensate for the movie’s shallow characterizations.
The touchy feely sequence at the beach doesn’t make up for the dearth of character development throughout the rest of the movie.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. The touching tribute to #PaulWalker at movie’s end puts it over the top.

Back when The Fast and the Furious was released in 2001, I’m sure no one could’ve guessed that the concept had the potential to spawn a franchise that would span fourteen years and include seven films (to date). Of course, the bigger headline here is that this is the final film to feature Paul Walker, who fatefully died in a car accident back in November of 2013. His work lives on in this movie, which contains original footage plus a few CG facial composites of the actor near the end of the film. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll be ecstatic over this movie’s soft-core plot and hardcore action sequences. Replete with stock characters and customized cars (I’d prefer the reverse), the film is chockablock with high-octane stunts that achieve a high level of success with varying degrees of believability. Judging by the action scenes alone, this film is arguably the finest in the series. The protracted adrenaline rush that begins with parachuting cars and ends with Walker sprinting for his life toward the safe end of a bus that’s rapidly plummeting off a cliff is one of the finest action sequences in film history—immaculately storyboarded and supremely executed by director James Wan. As for the movie’s acting, Vin Diesel is as wooden as your grandmother’s armoire, but somehow manages to be the glue that holds the whole works together in his starring role as gearhead ringleader, Dominic Toretto. On the other side of the law, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is sidelined for much of the movie but makes the most of his limited screen time with several Schwarzenegger style feats of machismo during the movie’s climax. Kurt Russell is a nice addition to the cast as the leader of a secret spy organization, but his character doesn’t factor into the action as much as we’d like. As for the rest of Toretto’s posse, each member of the diverse cast plays his/her part well, but none of the performances stand out as exceptional. But, this kind of movie typically doesn’t feature fine acting, so fairness demands that I refrain from criticizing the performances too harshly. In the end, this full throttle actioner fills the bill as a pulse-pounding popcorn flick. And while it’s sad to see Walker drive off into the sunset, the movie appropriately pays its respects to the actor while bringing closure to his character’s story line. Thanks for all the miles and memories, Paul. RIP

Avengers: Age of Ultron (PG-13)

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Directed by: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr.
May 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Avengers Age of Ultron

Iron Man needs to watch his language.
According to Captain America—the Avengers’ Arbiter of Appropriateness.

“Send out the twins.” Olsen or Wonder?
An inside joke since the Olsen’s sister, Elizabeth, plays the Scarlet Witch in this film.

Hulk deals with the bunker. Perfect man for the job.
The not-so-Jolly-Green-Giant runs right through it as if it was made of balsa wood, never breaking his stride. An impressive visual.

#SentryMode. Cool concept.

“You could’ve saved us.” #Nosebleed

#JarvisIsMyCoPilot
Nice inside gag.

“He’s fast and she’s weird.” Ha!
Quite a pair these wonder twins. But where’s the monkey? Oh wait, that’s from the other comic book universe.

“Will Thor be there?” Women everywhere are thinking the same thing.

A suit of armor around the world. Interesting concept...and wholly improbable.
An extremely daft idea by Stark. His motivation here strains credulity, much like the plot itself.

#StanLee sighting in a bar. #Excelsior!
That’s the name of a starship in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). It also happens to be an exclamation frequently used by Lee which, in Latin, roughly translates as “ever upward.”

Trying to lift Thor’s Hammer scene is hilarious. Echoes of #
TheSwordInTheStone.

“Peace in our time.” Peace through superior firepower. #UltronIsBorn
The latter is a quote from Star Trek: TNG’s “The Arsenal of Freedom.” The former is reminiscent of General Chang’s (Christopher Plummer) line “No peace in our time” in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). A Trek double dip. No extra charge.

“The geometry of belief.” Ultron sets himself up on a throne. Recruits two disciples.
Shades of the antichrist sitting on a throne in the rebuilt temple in the Bible’s book of Revelation.

#AndySerkis is nearly unrecognizable here. Strange to see him out of a CG guise.
A nice bit of surprise casting.

The “mind games” visions contain some fascinating character moments.
These vignettes serve as the only significant source of character development for many of the characters in the film.

Code Green turns into a Code Red.
They should’ve left someone behind to keep an eye on “angry” Banner.

“Go to sleep. Go to sleep.”
“Go to sleep little Hulkie…”

Safe house. Something tells me it won’t be for long.
In action movies, the characters can’t sit around the campfire singing “Kum Ba Yah” for too long.

Graduation then sterilization. Sad story.
This scene contains some good character background for Black Widow. It’s the first time in two movies that I actually felt like I learned something about her character and felt sympathetic toward her.

“Multiplying faster than a Catholic rabbit.” Hilarious!
Or tribbles in a grain bin.

“It’s not a loop. It’s the end of the line.”
Kinda’ like this movie’s runaway elevated train sequence, which is conceptually similar to the one in Spider-Man 2 (2004).

“How about nonce?” Ha!
Downey Jr.’s comedic timing is impeccable.

“I can choke the life out of you without changing a shade.” Great line!
My favorite line in the movie, zucchinis not withstanding. Amazing how eloquent Banner can be compared to his alter ego.

The new guy hands Thor his hammer. Woah!
Does that mean this guy (my comics buddy tells me his name is Vision) is worthy of ruling Asgard?

“It’s about whether he’s right.” Interesting point.
The story flirts with relevance here.

Ultron’s been juicing. #VibraniumSmoothie
I hear mangos are best for sweetening up vibranium’s bitter aftertaste.

“The earth will crack under the weight of your failure.” #Ultron’sMonologuing
A poetic line brilliantly delivered by Spader, who was the perfect choice to voice the titular villain.

“If you step out that door, you’re an Avenger.” Nice moment.
This scene stands out as the only instance where my emotions were engaged during the entire film.

“Ooo, do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” Way to turn the tables, Fury.

#HideTheZucchini. Hilarious line.
Again, the incisive dialog written for Downey Jr. is perfectly suited to his talents.

“There is grace in their failings.” #RedeemingQuality
An interesting story twist since one AI wants to wipe out the human race because of its flaws and another AI wants to preserve humans because of their flaws.

Banner might swim to Fiji. Just as long as it isn’t Tahiti.
Reference: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Final analysis: a decent follow up to the first film with new heroes and villain and action aplenty.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Overstuffed with action to the point that I need to see it again. Darn it.

Overstuffed is the operative word when describing these Avengers films. They’re chock-full of colorful characters (in colorful costumes) and mind-blowing action sequences. The one thing these movies aren’t overstuffed with, however, is plot. Of course, the Avengers films are exemplars of the summer blockbuster, designed to entertain a mass audience and extract a price from them so as to ensure the release of the next big blockbuster. Filling the role of cinematic roller coaster, these films are breezy, twisty thrill rides that typically place an emphasis on action before story (and just like with a coaster’s ups and downs, the only function of the brief character moments is to bring us to the top of the next peak so that we can take a plunge into yet another exhilarating, gravity defying action progression). In an effort to be fair to the film’s creative elements, I’m not even going to address the top-notch directing, acting, VFX, etc, in my assessment of the film. What ails this sequel is its “everything including the kitchen sink” story. Like its predecessor, there’s enough story in Ultron to fill two to three movies. Likewise, there are enough plot holes and leaps of logic here to fill two to three movies as well. First of all, Ultron’s transformation to the dark side is so quick it gave me a whiplash. Also, Stark’s decision to create Ultron in the first place seems rushed and foolhardy…and extremely contrived since the story sits in idle until the villain is introduced. No one can say that Stark’s heart isn’t in the right place (well, actually…) in attempting to defend the Earth from intergalactic invaders, but has he so quickly forgotten the Iron Monger tragedy in Iron Man (2008)? Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) used Stark’s technology against him in a clear evocation of the 9-11 tragedy. Here, Ultron uses our own planet against us in a unique twist on the WTC and Pentagon terror strikes. 9-11 symbolism is also evinced in the scene where Iron Man shoves Hulk downward through a building, forming a cloud of smoke and debris on the city streets below that’s eerily reminiscent to what we witnessed on that fateful day back in 2001. Whedon certainly isn’t the first superhero film director to create such visual echoes in his films: Christopher Nolan employed 9-11 imagery in each of his Batman films. Another visual motif, which has been repeated ad nauseam in recent superhero movies, is the giant landmass used as WMD set piece. In Superman Returns (2006), Lex Luthor’s (Kevin Spacey) grand scheme was to drop a gigantic, crystalline mass into the Atlantic Ocean, which would wipe out a large portion of the Eastern seaboard with the resultant tsunami. More recently, in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), villainous Magneto airlifts an entire stadium, which creates maximum destruction and mass casualties (and speaking of DOFP, that film featured Evan Peters as Quicksilver, but Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays him here, which is more than a little confusing at first). In this film, Ultron elevates a large section of an Eastern European village with the intention of dropping it like a meteor from the sky, causing an extinction level event on our planet. For the next film, let’s hope Whedon can come up with a more original threat than this tedious and tired story device. As for everyone’s favorite green giant, Hulk is completely underserved in this film. Not only is Hulk sidelined for much of the action, but he’s purposely constrained from doing what he does best—smash things. The only time Hulk really lets loose in this movie is when he goes on a rampage in a city filled with innocent bystanders. This attempt at generating character complexity falls flat and actually diverts us from the main story. Hulk’s contribution to the team during its many melees is negligible at best, which is a massive disappointment. Note to Whedon: in the next film, release the shackles and set Hulk free to fulfill his function on the team (and some character development wouldn’t hurt either). Another disappointment here is the absence of Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson (star of the hit TV show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and prominent side character in the Marvel stable of films) and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts (who is mentioned several times, but never materializes onscreen). Of the ancillary characters actually featured in this film, Stellan Skarsgard’s Erik Selvig appears in only one scene…what a waste of an incredible talent. All is not lost, however, as there are a few good character moments in the movie, like when Black Widow opens up about her tragic past and when the team seeks refuge at Hawkeye’s house. But these heartfelt, human segues are few and far between amid the onslaught of confrontations. In the end, if you liked the first film, you’ll probably like this one too. The corollary holds true for those less impressed by the franchise. As overstuffed as the plot is, it all somehow manages to cohere. When all is said and done, kudos goes to Whedon, not for his creative genius in realizing the movie’s many action scenes, but for fitting them all into a canny, wieldy tapestry. He’s a master at keeping all the plates spinning at the same time. Let’s hope they don’t all come crashing down like chunks of a European village in the next film.

Chappie (R)

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Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley
March 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Chappie

A documentary style opening that details the plight of robo-cops in Jburg.
This mockumentary style opening has become a signature of Blomkamp’s films.

Criminals seek a robot remote. Well, even Data had an off switch.
The first in a long string of silly story devices in the movie.

Robot Gangster #1. A hair braided scheme.
A robot police force that can be shut off with the click of a button? What is this, I Robot (2004)?

A retarded robot. Ha!
One of the only funny lines in the film.

A rubber chicken...Chappie’s first toy.
All of the rubber duckies were sold out at the novelty store.

Chappie learns how to shoot a gun...sort of.
Too bad some of Chappie’s previous police programming couldn’t kick in here. No latent memories or abilities when your memory is wiped, I guess. Bummer!

Nurture your creativity. Inspirational thought of the day.
Check your desk calendar and I bet you’ll find something similar in it.

Chappie is pimped out. Gangsta Bot.
This transformation into a hood is good for a few laughs but the whole concept gets dafter as the story goes along.

Which dog do you want to be?
Is this like that motivational anecdote that asks: Which wolf will you feed today?

The new firmware functions like malware.
Surprised myself on this one.

Chappie meets his big brother, Moose.
A mechanical version of Rocky and Bullwinkle?

Gearing up for the heist. Slow motion team shot is similar to the one in #
GuardiansOfTheGalaxy.
Various permutations of this scene can also be seen in Mystery Men (1999), The Right Stuff (1983) and even The Magnificent Seven (1960).

The Moose is similar to AT-STs in #
StarWars and the big bots in #RoboCop. A decades-old design.
This is such a rip-off it’s not even funny. The only thing that’s new here is the Moose’s ability to fly. Wait a minute; I thought only pigs could do that.

Jackman’s having far too much fun with his new toy.
Like a kid in an arcade with unlimited tokens.

Live rounds in the office.
The fact that Jackman is allowed to carry a gun inside the office to begin with is ridiculous. He’s an engineer not a bounty hunter, darn it.

Transferring consciousness. Yeah right.
Last year we saw two films where a person’s essence was downloaded into a computer: Transcendence and Lucy. Both movies were mediocre at best, although Lucy was far more entertaining, thanks to its butt kicking heroine.

I didn’t realize a person’s entire consciousness could fit on a flash drive.
The same daffy resolution appeared in Lucy where her consciousness was transferred into a flash drive. Here, Patel’s soul is downloaded into the CPU of a robot in a matter of minutes. It takes me longer to download a movie on iTunes!

Final analysis: an intriguing premise that didn’t even come close to living up to it’s potential.

The titular robot is completely unsympathetic and the characters are as 2D as the ones in that
He-Man cartoon.

Rating:
2 out of 4. Flirts with a message about AIs, but is banal beyond belief. Blomkamp’s first disappointment.

Neill Blomkamp’s films have seen a steady decline in quality and approval over the years. His first film, District 9 (2009), was a critical and financial success and was nominated for Best Picture—quite an honor for a sci-fi film. Blomkamp’s next project, Elysium (2013), while visually engaging and thought provoking, received a tepid response from critics and audiences alike. Now we have Chappie, the story of a repurposed police robot that achieves something akin to sentience thanks to a program created by his “maker,” Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). However, Chappie unwittingly falls in with the wrong crowd and is soon transformed into a gangsta’ bot, much to his creator’s chagrin. The story is contrived (robot police force plus a giant Mech equals RoboCop) and formulaic (the transference of a person’s consciousness into a machine is similar to Transcendence and Lucy) and has none of the ripped-from-the-headlines relevance of Blomkamp’s earlier films. Besides a paper thin subplot involving Deon’s rival engineer Vincent (Hugh Jackman), the daffy transformation during the movie’s climax is ludicrous to the extent that it completely obliterates any chance the movie had of being a success. If there’s a plus side here, it’s that this film, like the director’s earlier efforts, features extensive on location shooting in Johannesburg, South Africa, which is a huge boon to the film’s gritty visual style. Indeed, the ramshackle, seedy environs of Joburg are the perfect compliment and backdrop to the criminal activities that transpire throughout the film. Where the acting is concerned, only Patel (along with Sharlto Copley as the voice of Chappie), shines here: everyone else, including Jackman and Sigourney Weaver, is extremely wooden in their respective portrayals. Of course, the main problem with the performances is that the actors didn’t have much to work with, thanks, in large part, to Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell’s anemic script, which is riddled with pedestrian dialog, shallow characterizations and standard situations with fairly obvious solutions. All of these negative aspects could’ve been overlooked if Chappie had been rendered more like E.T. and less like Alf in the movie. Even something closer to Short Circuit’s (1986) Number 5 would’ve stood a better chance of winning over the audience. Chappie’s aping of the hoodlums is funny for about five minutes, after which the ghetto speech and swagger becomes exceedingly offensive and tiresome. It’s natural that we should want to pull for the impressionable automaton (who is the lead character, after all), but due to the Chappie’s annoying and irredeemable qualities, we simply cannot bring ourselves to cheer for the rabbit-eared robot. The fact that we’re prevented from fully identifying with the eponymous android is this film’s Achilles ’ heel. A movie featuring an unsympathetic robot is about as useful as a heap of spare parts. Though it pains me to say this, Chappie is crappy.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (R)

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Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Colin Firth
February 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Kingsman-The Secret Service
Firth won the Academy Award for Best Actor for The King’s Speech (2010). What does that have to do with this film? Nothing, other than the fact that they both have “King” in the title.

A surprise cameo from a galaxy far, far away.
He’s an over-the-pond professor who did his doctoral thesis on “The Multiplicative Capabilities of Interconnected Moisture Vaporators.” It was released in book form by Tosche Press.

#SamuelLJackson with a lisp is a hoot.
I know it’s mean-spirited to laugh at a person with a lisp, but Jackson’s delivery makes it impossible to keep a straight face.

Holo-glasses...a nifty invention.

“Manners maketh the man.” Firth teaches some thugs a lesson. An exciting fight scene.
And more than a little unbelievable. But it’s also a lot of fun, which is all that matters, I suppose. Correction: “Manners maketh man.”

Amnesia darts would come in handy.
Sometimes a self-inflicted amnesia dart would be helpful.

“Like in
My Fair Lady.” Hilarious!
This is the scene where I knew we had a runaway romp on our hands. Flawless comedic timing.

This elevator ride reminds me of the Haunted House ride at #Disneyland.
Without the silly vertical wall paintings.

The body bag initiation puts things into perspective.

There’s no name for the Chinese “thecret thervice.” I’m dying!
Easily one of the funniest scenes in the movie.

Choose a dog...but choose wisely.
At least he didn’t select a Chihuahua.

The skydiving scene is as pulse-pounding as they come.
This was an extremely well executed action sequence that makes you feel like you’re free-falling right along with the rest of the characters.

“Give me a far fetched theatrical plot any day.” Here, here.
Movies with overblown, hyper real action scenes and melodramatic villains have their own unique charm.

Jackson and Firth share a “happy” meal.
Wonder who got to keep the toy.

Fitting Room 3. Bond’s Q would be envious.
Actually, he’s probably the one who invented all of these weapons and devices.

The three J.B.s scene is amusing.
No, one of them isn’t James Brown. Or Josh Brolin. Or Justin Bieber. Gag!

Brutal, protracted fight scene in a Kentucky church.
In truth, it was too long and too bloody for my taste. And how many bullets does Firth’s gun carry anyway…50?

“This ain’t that kind of movie.” Clearly not, from what happens next.
Remember this line. It comes back around to bite Jackson in the ath.

Reconnecting the satellite link. I’m literally biting my fingernails.

OMG! The head exploding sequence is probably the funniest macabre scene I’ve ever seen.
Sometimes, when something strikes my funny bone just right, I just start laughing uncontrollably. This sequence had that effect on me; like I’d inhaled a deep lungful of laughing gas.

Final analysis: the best un-Bond movie ever, with incredible action scenes and humor to spare.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. I haven’t laughed this hard in the theater in quite some time.

I must admit that this film took me by surprise. I knew it was going to be an action packed spy flick (based on the comic book “The Secret Service”), but I had no idea it would have laugh-a-minute hilarity to go along with its thrill-a-minute intensity. Though belonging to an altogether different narrative universe, this film reminds me of last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which was a very effective mixture of humor and action. That formula works like magic here on a story that boasts a truly unique spin on the by-now hackneyed sub-genre of spy thriller. This might look like a spy movie spoof, but looks can be deceiving—like the dressing rooms inside a particular London tailor shop. This film is actually more like an alternate reality version of a MI6 mission—it’s what a Bond movie would look like if it were directed by Robert Rodriguez. As would be expected, Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson and Mark Strong are all superb in their roles, but it’s really youngster, Taron Egerton, who steals the show as Firth’s protégée and Kingsman initiate, Eggsy (no, it’s not a typo). Egerton plays Eggsy with a chip on his shoulder, but also infuses him with just enough good-natured irreverence and boyish charm to make him appealing to the audience. Kudos goes to director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class) for prohibiting his action sequences (with the exception of the church debacle) from running away with the movie. The character development is fairly shallow here, and yet we’re still fully invested in what happens to them, which is somewhat of an anomaly for a contemporary action film. The real star of the movie is the screenplay, written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman. The dialog is razor sharp and witty beyond compare. The story skillfully pokes fun at the spy genre without outright lampooning it. It’s also a well crafted yarn that includes several gobsmacking plot twists. The only caveat here is that the film might be offensive to some viewers (e.g., the pervasive foul language, inappropriate sexual references and mass killings inside a church). The parenthetical items notwithstanding (and lest we forget, this is a Rated R film), this is the most hilarious thrill ride that’s graced the silver screen in quite some time. So has this movie done enough to garner a sequel…or a franchise? In a word, yeth.

Jupiter Ascending (PG-13)

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Directed by: The Wachowskis
Starring: Channing Tatum
February 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Jupiter Ascending
Hardly.

Failure agrees with you. Ah, brotherly love.
Ok, I’m just gonna’ come right out and say it…Eddie Redmayne is creepy weird in this movie. His Botox lip job speech was probably intended to give him a tough guy, Marlon Brando in The Godfather vibe, but this character quirk just looks awkward and bizarre. In The Theory of Everything, Redmayne played a character that was in pain but doesn’t show it…here he looks like he’s in pain but isn’t.

“Urges and obligations.” The death of romance.
Yeah, talk about a gigantic buzz kill.

Tatum takes out some grays. Exciting action scene.
The first time around, anyway. Redmayne’s instant replay is redundant and anticlimactic.

Tatum and Kunis encounter trouble on the beam up.

“Sharing has never been a strong suit of your species.” Sad, but true.
No, you can’t have any of my popcorn.

Jupiter is kidnapped in a cornfield by bounty hunter scum.
This scene reminded me a lot of Signs (2002). A far superior film to this one.

Now we know where crop circles come from.
As if there was any doubt…after seeing Signs.

“Where do you get those lightbulbs?” Was that a pickup line?
Are light bulbs the new code word for melons?

“I will never complain about the DMV ever again.” No kidding. These people are as anal as the Vogons.
By comparison, this movie makes The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) look like the finest sci-fi story ever written.

Jupiter drops a vial. Way to go, you just killed 100 people.
Their essence is spilled all over the deck floor. Talk about wasting already ignominious deaths.

Dino warriors drop in for dinner.
Funny, they didn’t even touch the salad.

The elephant guy at the helm made me chuckle.
I wonder why we’ve never seen an elephant-like alien before in any other sci-fi movie. Maybe because it’s utterly ridiculous looking.

Jupiter is buried in a complex inside Jupiter’s eye. A little too on the nose?
Or tongue in cheek? Or self-indulgent, cutesy writing?

Tatum takes his jacket off. Wait a minute, I didn’t know he was Birdman.
As bizarre as Birdman is at times, at least it has a chance of winning an Oscar.

Final analysis: an ambitious project that ends up being an uninspired knockoff of
Dune.
The story galaxy trots and introduces us to many people on different planets who have little to say and even less impact on the story…a cheap imitation of Frank Herbert’s masterwork of sci-fi literature. This star tour does little to advance the plot and actually makes it bog down with predictable reactions to common situations, all held together by a string of sensory overloading action sequences.

Rating:
2 out of 4. Weak dialog and an insipid plot make this film fall flatter than a crop circle.

When I first saw the trailer for this film I was immediately impressed by the visual effects and the basic premise—a young woman discovering that she’s actually a star princess (hey, it appeals to the fanboy in me that revels in the populist fantasy of The Last Starfighter…or that other little movie about some kid named Luke joining a rebellion in a far, far off place). It did look a tad “teeny” (i.e., The Hunger Games or Divergent) to me and the inclusion of teen heartthrobs Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum did little to dissuade that notion. Normally, in order to give each movie a fair shake, I start out with a rating of 2 out of 4 stars and adjust up or down accordingly depending on the quality of the film as it progresses. In this case, the needle never budged during the entire movie. Clearly, Warner Bros. thought enough of this project to attach some top talent (and some notable supporting players like Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne) along with topnotch FX to it, but they clearly should’ve spent some more time and money on this confusing, uninspiring story. I believe it was somewhere around the half hour mark when I asked myself, “Where is this movie going?” There’s no McGuffin to drive the plot. There’s no clear-cut goal. Kunis seems completely unaffected by the fact that she’s actually an intergalactic princess and that little gray guys with fangs are chasing her around the city. Tatum’s acting is patently flat and judging from his character’s appearance, his mother was an elf and his father was a werewolf. Eddie Redmayne clearly hasn’t worked out all of the physical kinks from his turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything; his stiff gait looks like he’s had a ramrod shoved up you-know-where and his tightlipped speech hints at a Botox session gone horribly wrong. Kunis’ Jupiter is an indecisive, dimwitted ingénue who consistently makes poor decisions, requiring white knight Tatum to swoop in and rescue her. This pattern occurs ad nauseam in the film—i.e., Kunis marrying Redmayne, who she just met, and then nearly signing ownership of the Earth over to him—and is utterly ludicrous. Like the narrative equivalent of a pinball game, the story bounces from one planet to the next and the plot gets murkier with each new locale the characters visit. The bounty hunter subplot goes nowhere, the action scenes are overblown and the story doesn’t take us anywhere emotionally despite taking us on a whirlwind tour of the cosmos. The only thing I found remotely compelling in the film is the notion that the Earth is just a small cog in an expansive industrialized universe. However, this concept is briefly introduced and then quickly abandoned for one of the film’s myriad action sequences. To call this movie a disappointment is a galactic understatement, especially since it was written and directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski, masterminds behind the Matrix trilogy. If, by some fluke of fate, this movie should perform well enough to inspire a sequel, it should be called Jupiter Descending.

Taken 3 (PG-13)

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Directed by: Olivier Megaton
Starring: Liam Neeson
January 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Taken3

Nothing says “unpredictable” like a giant stuffed panda.
Or an early morning glass of wine…for a pregnant woman (of course, Neeson doesn’t know that his daughter is pregnant at this point, so we’ll let him off the hook on this particular charge).

Liam is framed, chased by cops and escapes via a sewer. Reference Harrison Ford in #
TheFugitive.
Way too many plot similarities here. But if you’re going to appropriate whole chunks of narrative, might as well steal from a great movie that’s stood the test of time.

A
Dukes of Hazard style jump over the freeway divider. Intense car chase.
Yet, it doesn’t hold a candle to the frenetic pursuits in the Bourne films.

Father/daughter reunion in a bathroom stall...sounds worse than it is.
I’m not even going to touch this one. Oops, did I just make it worse?

Liquor store shootout. Bad guy eats a bullet.
In fact, he feeds it to himself. There’s some maximum destruction going on in this scene; the rain of bullets, accompanied by glass shards flying like projectiles in myriad directions, is almost poetic. But what a squandered opportunity for an artistic shot of the Russian heavy’s blood mingling with the alcohol on the floor. Oh well, that image would’ve been too good for this movie anyway.

Liam kills a guy in his underwear and Kim is taken...again.
In fact, everyone in the Mills family is abducted in this movie: Lenore (Famke Janssen) is kidnapped by her murderers, Kim (Maggie Grace) is taken by her step-dad’s (Dougray Scott) thugs and Bryan (Neeson), for a short time, is held captive in a cop car. So, in that light, the plot does reflect the title.

Porsche vs jet. Spectacular crash.
But believable?

Warm bagels, warm heart.
This vital clue, delivered with as much sincerity as Academy Award winning Forest Whitaker can muster, is utterly ridiculous and sets up an extremely weak ending. What an unsatisfactory way to button up a largely enjoyable action trilogy.

Final analysis: an action packed series capper that could’ve used a higher octane script.

Rating:
2 out of 4. Ironically, this final Taken is as “predictable” as its stock characters and standard plot.

It was readily apparent that the Taken series was running out of gas during its mediocre second chapter. Fittingly, this final act runs on fumes the whole way through until, like the wrecked Porsche at the end of the movie, it just can’t go any further. These characters can only be abducted so many times before credulity is stretched to the breaking point, right? Instead of focusing on abductions for this latest outing, the writers decided to try a new tack by making Bryan Mills (Neeson) a fugitive for killing his wife, which he didn’t do…of course. If this plot sounds familiar, it is: namely The Fugitive (1993). Trouble is, Harrison Ford already blazed this trail, along with David Janssen who originated the role on TV in the 60s. Taking nothing away from Neeson, Ford did the innocent man on the run routine much better. However, a derivative plot is far from what ails this movie the most. The formula has lost all potency by now since we know someone will be abducted and that Neeson will find and rescue the taken family member while dispatching a host of Baltic baddies in spectacular, though unbelievable, fashion. The previous two films saw the majority of their action unfolding in European locales, but this film takes place entirely in L.A., a rather banal locus for an action picture. The movie’s directing, writing and acting are all uninspired and perfunctory—even Neeson seems to be walking (when he’s not running) through his scenes. And several parts of the plot are just plain daft, i.e.: A highly skilled ex-special forces agent buys his twenty-something daughter a giant stuffed panda for her birthday? Is anyone that clueless or inept? Sure, a couple of the action sequences get the heart racing a bit, but they’re instantly forgettable (save for the jet clipping scene) due to standard storyboarding and filming. The only aspect that even remotely works here is Neeson’s three friends getting more screen time than in the previous two films. However, the downside is that their character development is razor thin and the dialog written for them (E.g., “Okay…okay…got it.”) is pedestrian beyond belief. This entire film looks like it was shot with economy in mind—it’s a substandard action film that squanders the considerable talents of Neeson and Whitaker on material that’s better suited to a direct-to-video release. In fact, it feels like the film was rushed through its paces just to get it onto the big screen and into the inevitable Taken trilogy box set. In the first two films, it was the characters that were taken for a ride; in this film, it’s the audience. Take my word for it.

American Sniper (R)

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Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Bradley Cooper
January 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

AmericanSniper

The opening scene is the trailer. Right into the action.

Three types of people. A stern lesson.
Chris Kyle’s dad dispenses this harsh wisdom in order to toughen up his sons. Interestingly, in the early goings of Eastwood’s Jersey Boys (2014), a mentor tells Frankie Valli and his cronies that there’s only three ways out of the neighborhood. Maybe it’s just unfounded numerology, but the similarities between these scenes seemed worthy of highlighting.

She did it to get attention. Any excuse will do, I suppose.
If you’re caught red-handed, just confess. The “you weren’t supposed to be back until tomorrow” excuse is lame to the degree that it’s almost worse than the act of indiscretion.

Playing darts on a guy’s back. These SEALs are tough!
Lots of machismo in this scene. And a fateful night for Kyle, who meets his future wife at the bar.

“The space between heartbeats.” Who knew target practice could be so poetic?

He can’t hit a target, but he can tag a snake.
Reminds me of Paul Hogan’s Lightning Jack (1994), a self-styled Old West outlaw from Down Under who needed glasses to read but could hollow out a coin with a bullet from fifty feet away.

New Olympic sport...sniping.
The addition of the Syrian sniper is one of the film’s main criticisms. Apparently this nemesis is largely fictional, finding inspiration from a solitary chapter in Kyle’s book. However, the addition of a competent counterpart to Kyle ratchets up the tension and provides a de facto villain to the proceedings. The cat and mouse contest between the two top snipers reminds me of the taut action sequences between expert marksmen Jude Law and Ed Harris in Enemy at the Gates (2001).

Nitpick: Despite what the smart Alec says, it is a comic book. Graphic novels are much thicker.
A graphic novel is an expanded story or a collection of loosely related, non-continuous stories. It should be obvious, to anyone who’s ever picked up a comic book, that what the cocky character is holding in his hands is a single issue of a serialized comic book series, not a graphic novel.

“Horny preggers.” Ha!

Clear houses with the marines...takin’ it to the street.
I applaud Kyle’s assertiveness. Instead of just following orders and sitting around, Kyle was instrumental in saving the lives of many Marines while also extracting vital intel with his advanced negotiation/coercion skills.

Neighbor’s lawnmower turns on...the first signs of PTSD.
And speaking of PTSD…

The shell shocked brother scene is sad.

A direct action squad...bold new plan.

Squeaky floor, hidden cache.
So much for the hospitality. Hope the meal was good.

“You saved my life.” Goosebumps.
Cooper’s performance, as a man uncomfortable with accepting praise from others, is thoroughly convincing here.

“You can only circle the flame so long.” Sobering. And prescient?
It looks like that statement was prescient after all, although what ultimately does Kyle in completely took me by surprise.

Zales bites the bullet.
A tragic story line since it looked like he would pull through.

Tour Four: is this a vocation or addiction?
A condition we also saw in The Hurt Locker (2008) when soldiers were shown playing FPS video games on their downtime. Here, Kyle watches video recordings of some of the military operations he was a part of and, even more frighteningly, relives battles in his mind while starring at the black screen of a turned off TV.

“Don’t pick it up” scene is heart-stopping.
This is the ultimate crisis moment in the film. What an awful decision to be faced with. No wonder he had PTSD. Who wouldn’t?

Sandstorm. Visibility nil. How the heck do they know who they’re shooting at?
Talk about the fog of war! These are prime conditions for friendly fire.

“Who’s the legend now?” Ha!
Eastwood lays the “legend” status on pretty thick, especially since I’d never heard of Kyle before watching this film.

Final analysis: a haunting look at conflict in the Middle East and the toll it takes on our soldiers.
And at how little we invest in their lives after they return home.

Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4 stars. A career turn by Cooper and Eastwood’s finest film in years.
What was Eastwood’s last great movie: Invictus (2009)? Gran Torino (2008)?

For all of the active/retired members of the military reading this, thank you for your service.

How fitting that an actor/director whose name has become synonymous with bullet-riddled actioners over the last half century should helm a movie based on the incredible true story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. There can be no doubt that this is Clint Eastwood’s finest directorial effort in years and that, when his illustrious career finally comes to an end, this film may very well go down as his behind-the-camera magnum opus. Based on the book of the same name by Jason Hall and Kyle himself, American Sniper follows the exploits of this decorated soldier and his plights on the battlefield and on the home front. Bradley Cooper, in an unequivocally brilliant performance, fully inhabits the title role and imbues Kyle with genuine emotions and reactions to the most stressful, unenviable circumstances imaginable (reference the “Don’t pick it up” scene). Regardless of the location or situation, Cooper eases himself into scenes that require: decisiveness on the front lines, tenderness at home with his family, awkwardness when praised for his heroic accomplishments and startling deftness at picking off enemy combatants in the heat of battle. With appropriate kudos going to the two men who made this film an indelible, inescapable biopic, it’s time to shift focus to the elephant in the room—as you’re probably aware of by now, thanks to media saturation, this film has generated a generous amount of controversy. Other than the fact that there are just as many F bombs dropped as bullets fired in the film, it’s hard to see how anything in this movie can be construed as controversial. Some will argue that the movie glamorizes violence, but in reality it does the exact opposite by depicting the horrors of war and the devastating effects it has on our troops. With all due respect to those who maintain a dissenting viewpoint, and at the sake of fanning the flame of an already incendiary topic, those who assess this film as a pro-war endorsement are completely missing the point. War is hell and its effects on soldiers are often mentally debilitating, as evidenced by Kyle’s severe PTSD in the movie. Despite several protracted battle sequences, which detail some of the major skirmishes Kyle participated in, the film in no way glorifies war. By contrast, the film shows good people getting their faces blown off or innocents being tortured by a drill, examples that underscore the need for our continued participation in ending the reign of terror in the Middle East. Again, I vehemently oppose the notion that this is a pro-war propaganda piece…it’s a brutally honest portrait of one man’s combat experiences and the traumatic effects those four tours of duty had on his psyche and his entire family; as the movie subtly reveals, everyone suffers when the soldier returns home from active duty. It’s a shame that the well advertised controversy, which hangs over the film like an oppressive layer of cloud, has cast an unflattering light upon this superlative film. However, judging from the way this movie has engendered long lines and packed theaters (I was shut out on its opening weekend), the controversy surrounding the film has generated a buzz that’s done wonders for its bottom line. Bottom line, Eastwood and Cooper are worthy of Oscar attention and the story is a potent reminder that freedom is never free. This film will stand the test of time, and with good reason. Parting shot: the extended “moment of silence” during the end credits is sobering and haunting.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (PG-13)

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Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Christian Bale
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Exodus-Gods and Kings

Reading entrails. Eww. How barbaric.
Kind of a gross scene to start a Biblical epic with, yes? But at least an alien didn’t burst out of the dead bird’s chest!

A clash of swords...a sign of things to come.
The next time their swords clash, Moses will be banished from the kingdom.

The rain of arrows is spectacular. The rest of the battle isn’t bad either.
The confrontation definitely has a LOTR aesthetic and pace to it, but it isn’t nearly as protracted or flashy as the melees in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films.

Moses visits the viceroy...insists on looking the slaves in the eye.

Moses spares
Breaking Bad’s #AaronPaul from the whip.
Turns out that Paul’s character is named Joshua, the man who eventually succeeds Moses.

Moses learns about his true identity from #SirBenKingsley.
If Kingsley told me my dad was a hippo and my mother was a rhino I’d probably believe him. The man has gravitas.

Moses looses one horse but gets two more.
It’s almost as if someone up there is looking out for him. Of course, Moses had to slay two assassins in order to acquire the steeds. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, I suppose.

Moses answers the three questions correctly and gets to “proceed.”
Most men would die to have such an easy path to pleasure. Just my luck, but whenever I try playing that game it always ends up being twenty questions.

The burning bush sequence is very different, but very effective.
If there’s any scene in the movie that will spark controversy, this is it. Moses’ mud bath and chat with a young boy is way out in left field compared to a traditional interpretation of the burning bush event in the Bible.

Moses returns to Memphis...not the one in Tennessee.
The locals say it’s nice this time of year, but maybe they’re just in d’Nile. Yuk, yuk.

Ramesses watches his boats set ablaze by flaming arrows. A brilliant visual.
These minor acts of rebellion are but pinpricks to the mighty Pharaoh. However, where human agency ends, God’s might begins. Prepare for the twelve plagues.

Hmm...I never knew that crocodiles initiated the plagues.
However, this feeding frenzy is a spectacular feat of CG wizardry…and is also pretty gruesome.

Darkness falls over the city like an ashen shroud. Then the cries of terror ascend. Spine-tingling!
Ironically, this “angel of death” visual is far less elaborate, from an FX standpoint, than the ones in many of the earlier Moses films. Though low-tech and fairly simple to achieve, this sequence is highly effective.

The chariot pileup is awesome.
You just knew Ramesses’ hubris would lead to this end. But it’s still a spectacular cataclysm.

Tornadoes and tsunamis...oh my!
I couldn’t think of a third “T” word, but you get the point.

“They’re my people.” Goosebumps.
Actually, they’re God’s people but since it’s such a great line, and because the actor moonlights as Batman, we’ll let it slide.

Final analysis: a reverent treatment of the Biblical account with minor deviations from the text.

3 out of 4. Though more epic in scale, it still lacks the heart, and faith, of DeMille’s version.

Though not as blatantly sacrilegious as Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014), Ridley Scott’s rendition of the exodus saga takes occasional liberties with the sacred text which will, undoubtedly, create a great deal of controversy among theological fundamentalists. There doesn’t seem to be a happy medium with these big screen Bible features—they’re either poorly produced but theologically accurate or lavishly produced but brimming with questionable creative departures or outright heretical story elements. In Exodus, you can tell that Scott’s intentions were to evince the appropriate degree of reverence toward the source material while making art with some selected story elements. Unfortunately, the results are a mixed bag. The major action sequences look like they were storyboarded by Peter Jackson or Steven Spielberg, which is to say they look amazing but are better suited to a blockbuster adventure film than a historical epic. Some of the movie’s major narrative turning points are radically different from what appears in the Bible; chief among them is the head-scratching burning bush episode. Still, the plagues play out pretty much as you’d expect them to (except for the croc crock) and the “death angel” scene stands out as a prime example of how, when it comes to FX, sometimes less is more. Just like in Noah (see my review) however, the divine is often explained away by human reasoning here: the “scientific” explanation of the plagues, the receding of the sea (with the addition of tornadoes just because they look really cool), etc. The characterization of Moses has also been altered for wider appeal since listening to Bale stutter his way through two and a half hours of dialog would’ve been a major detractor to the story’s enjoyment. Bale’s Moses is decisive, confident and heroic: the real Moses struggled to exhibit any of the above attributes and, as a result, had to rely upon God for his strength…which is a major point of emphasis throughout his character arc. As flawed as the patriarch’s portrayal is, Scott’s depiction of the Almighty is downright disturbing. Scott consistently paints God as an angry tyrant. Worse still, this God is revealed as a warmonger when He expresses how pathetically ineffective Moses’ acts of sedition have been and how more aggressive, i.e., supernatural, measures are required in order to bring the evil Pharaoh to his knees. Is this really Scott’s perception of God? If so, it certainly explains the movie’s authoritarian portrait of the Big Guy (Boy?) Upstairs. The forging of the Ten Commandments was a visual extravaganza in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 masterpiece, but, for whatever reason, Scott chose to eschew FX during this dramatic passage—the low key scene sees Moses chiseling the tablets himself while the mental apparition of God stands around and bickers with him. Judging by this scene, it would appear that Scott’s God is also a micromanaging taskmaster (or is just plain lazy). In the end, this film will go down as an entertaining examination of this exilic event, but it certainly won’t be esteemed as a faithful adaptation of the Biblical account. However, Exodus is an updated cinematic spectacle with modern visual effects and big name stars, so it serves its purpose as a sensational, yet superficial, survey of this standout Sunday school story.

Big Hero 6 (PG)

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Directed by: Don Hall, Chris Williams
Starring: Ryan Potter
November 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Big Hero 6

#Feast is a truly moving animated short.
Just the latest evidence that Disney is rapidly approaching Pixar’s level of quality. Of course, executive producer John Lasseter, who oversees projects for both animation houses, has much to do with this parity.

David vs. Goliath style RC bot battle. Don’t judge a bot by its appearance, though.
Yeah, I wouldn’t dare pick a fight with R2.

“Welcome to the Nerd Lab.”
One suspects that this vibe is similar to the one you’d get in an animation studio, so these scenes are a bit self-reflexive.

Micro-bot exhibition is quite impressive. So long Lego bricks.
It’s amazing how innocent a new technology starts out…and just how quickly its altruistic vision can be perverted.

“Diagnosis: puberty.” Someone should pitch that to #abcfamily.

Fist bump scene is humorous.
This gag pays off dividends throughout the movie.

“There are no red lights in a car chase.” Ha!
This is a thinly veiled reference to Tom Hanks’ oft-quoted remark (“There’s no crying in baseball!”) in A League of Their Own (1992).

The inclusion of #StanLee in the family portrait is clever.
The first successful Marvel integration into a Disney movie. This Easter egg isn’t here by accident…but you’ll have to stick around through the end credits to learn its significance.

The flight scene is exhilarating but recalls similar ones in the #HowToTrainYourDragon movies.

Project Silent Sparrow looks an awful lot like #StargateSG1.
Besides the extra gate, the master shot looks like it was lifted right out of an episode of this long running sci-fi series.

Cool watercolor universe.
Or is it tie-dye? Or is it lava lamp? No I’m not tripping, but the animators sure were.

Nice title reveal in the last scene of the movie.

Final analysis: a high spirited, heartwarming tale of a cuddly robot, a young inventor and a group of nerds.
These nerds fulfill a vital role in the film as comic relief, especially Fred (T.J. Miller), and solid support for the hero.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars. A sequel seems all but assured. Be sure to stay through the end credits.

Based on the comic book series (from Marvel, of course) of the same name created by Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau, BH6 tells a very human tale in the midst of a protracted struggle to control a powerful new technology. The movie sets up in a similar manner to Meet the Robinsons (2007), also a Disney animated effort, in the way a science fair/expo experiment is stolen and used to devastating effect by a misguided villain. The exploited technology in this case is millions of tiny microbots, which, when controlled by a person’s thoughts via a headband (similar to the Bowler Hat Guy’s high-tech headgear in Robinsons), can construct a myriad objects, shapes, weapons, etc. Though quite a bit larger, these microbots remind me of the insidiously relentless nanites in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The way the villain uses the microbots as a mobile dais is the kind of spine-tingling image you’d expect to see in a live action superhero film intended for a much older audience. Even though the movie’s main character is young tech geek Hiro (Ryan Potter), the focal point of the film is undeniably the rotund robot, Baymax (voiced with absolutely perfect inflections by 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit). The love child of the Michelin Man and EVE from WALL-E (2008), Baymax (this is one silly name…it sounds like Betamax, a technology that didn’t fare too well) is a lovable sidekick with a central processor of gold and a unique skill set…he provides portable medical services. Upon hearing that universal sound of distress, “Ouch!,” Baymax inflates, initiates its programming and launches into triage mode (this brand of activation reminds me of the way the holographic doctor appeared when summoned in Star Trek: Voyager, “Please state the nature of the medical emergency.”). Though Baymax’ skills and enhancements are impressive, as well as a whole lot of fun to watch in action, it’s his compassion and empathy that make his character so appealing. Hiro’s journey is an emotional one and Baymax’ ministrations (mostly psychological) are a salve for the young boy’s tragic loss early in the film. The loss of loved ones lies at the heart of the film and, ironically, provides motivation for the protagonist and antagonist. Even though the film deals with some fairly heavy issues, it is, after all, a Disney movie, and that means the story must have a happy ending. To whit, the hero comes to terms with his loss and the villain is redeemed, to an extent, and they all live... In the end, the story is moving and exhilarating, and you can bet that a sequel will soon be in the works. This is definitely a movie where you feel better walking out than when you walked into the theater. So now the only question that remains is, “Are you satisfied with your care?”

Fury (R)

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Directed by: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt
October 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Fury

Pitt rides into tank hell.
This opening sequence reminds me of Sybok cantering through the desert straight toward the camera at the outset of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). Obviously the setting (and planet) is completely different here, but the shots themselves are close cousins.

Fury rolls into camp.
They’re greeted with vacant stares. Not much of a hero’s welcome.

A trope of war movies is the new guy...here his name in Norman.
The presence of Michael Pena is another war movie convention; the inclusion of at least one minority on the team.

Don’t touch Shia’s ‘stache.
I don’t begrudge him his defensiveness. After all, it probably took him a year to grow.

Why do fired bullets look like laser beams here?
Not much to add to this, but at times I thought I was watching a Star Wars movie.

Norman is faced with a “simple math” equation. Not so easy to carry out.

Norman is multi-talented: he plays piano, reads palms and is quite the ladies man.
That last one is a bit of a euphemism.

How to ruin a perfectly good egg breakfast.
Yeah, unless I was starving, I wouldn’t eat licked eggs.

Tank dogfight is intense.
Dogfight is typically used for one-on-one plane battles, though. Guess the word I should’ve used is…bullfight?

Pitt’s dogged directive: “Hold this crossroads!”
Two tweets in a row with the word “dog” in them. Woof!

Shia quotes scripture: “Here am I, send me.”
However, he also takes the Lord’s name in vain. Wonder if he knows the one about the impossibility of fresh and salt water flowing from the same fountain (James 3:11)? (Not to mention the third commandment as set forth in Exodus 20:7).

One tank versus an army. Never tell me the odds.
This battle certainly illustrates how a tank can function as a mini-fortress.

The final, high angle shot of the corpse riddled crossroads is horrific.
Although, I actually would’ve expanded the shot out even further, but the point was made, I suppose.

Final analysis: a standard issue war story that evokes a strong sense of time and place.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. A decent war tale, but even Pitt can’t lift the standard story out of the mud.

This certainly isn’t the first tank-centric WWII movie ever made—Sahara (1943), The Desert Fox (1951) and Lebanon (2009) to name three right off the top of my head), nor is it the most original. What is new here are the modern battle sequences which feature rockets and bullets whizzing by like laser beams in a sci-fi shootout. I have no way of knowing if these seemingly anachronistic visuals are accurate or not (I wasn’t there), but I’ve never seen this kind of special effect in any other war movie. As incredulous as it sounds, tanks firing laser beams is the least of this movie’s problems. Relying heavily upon war movie conventions and offering little that hasn’t been seen and done a hundred times before in WWII bloodbaths severely hobbles this film…like a tank that’s thrown a tread. Aside from a few reasonably suspenseful battle scenes and the climactic standoff, there’s really little to recommend the movie, other than the notable cast and high end production values. There’s a standout scene right in the middle of the movie when the tank officers invade the home of two German women. The reprehensible behaviors exhibited by the soldiers (Shia LaBeouf, The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal and Gracepoint’s Michael Pena) during this scene makes us loose all respect for them; so much so that when the final conflict arrives, we really don’t care if they live or die…it’s extremely difficult to emotionally invest in unsympathetic characters. In the end, Pitt, the new guy (Logan Lerman) and the tank itself are about the only things we have any kind of affinity for in the movie, and that really isn’t enough to justify shelling over a ten spot, two singles and a pair of quarters for (current ticket price in the OC). Is Fury a decent WWII flick? Sure. Is it worthy of inclusion into the War Movie Hall of Fame? Not even remotely. Let’s face it, without Pitt’s presence this movie would’ve tanked.

The Equalizer (R)

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Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Denzel Washington
September 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Equalizer
The TV show starred Edward Woodward as a 60 something British chap embroiled in Cold War intrigue. The show featured mostly average stories with standout performances by Woodward and Robert Lansing.

Profound quote by Twain opens the film.

Denzel tells Moretz the story of
The Old Man and the Sea. Then she climbs into the back seat with a whale.
A visual connection was made and I just couldn’t help myself.

Moretz beaten and in the hospital. Something tells me Denzel will soon be trading his book for a gun.
Of course, who needs a gun when you can use a book the way Denzel does?

Denzel gives thug a corkscrew tongue ring.
A gruesome visual, but this scene, along with the climactic showdown, are the finest action sequences in the movie.

“Hit it on something stupid.” Ha!

Denzel exposes two dirty cops. Introduces them to his own brand of justice.
Denzel hides out in a dark alley and quickly routs the pair of corrupt detectives. Now all he needs is a raspy, whispery Christian Bale voice and a super suit and his journey toward becoming a full-fledged vigilante will be complete.

Hooded robber holds up a register at Denzel’s store. Hammer time!
Just think, whoever purchases that hammer will inadvertently own a weapon that was used in an assault.

“We who?” Got him.
An intense stare down between protagonist and antagonist. Award the round to Denzel for doggedly persisting in asking the above question.

Parting gifts scene is hilarious.
Now that’s a severance package I can get on board with.

Great Eastern goes up in flames. Amazing pyrotechnics.

Must admit, the home and garden section offers a variety of unique weapons.
What seems like an unspectacular locus for a final showdown actually works quite well, thanks to Denzel’s clever use of the implements at hand.

You might say that Denzel nails the bad guy.

Final analysis: a decent revenge story with some incendiary action sequences.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Too slow at times, but has some clever fight scenes with unconventional weapons.

Let’s face it; this is a pretty unremarkable film. Despite bringing his Best Actor chops to the part of Robert McCall, a retired secret agent forced back into action under predictable, usual circumstances, Denzel can’t quite elevate the evanescent effort that is The Equalizer. Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to blame Denzel for this lackluster affair since he isn’t given much to work with—McCall’s characterization is paper thin and has none of the complexity or believability that Denzel’s characters possessed in Training Day (2001) and Man on Fire (2004). Although Denzel anchors the film, solid support comes from Chloe Grace Moretz, who makes the most of a limited role as an ingénue trapped in a life of prostitution, and Marton Csokas, who is serviceable as the standard issue Russian baddie. The performances aren’t stellar, but let’s leave the acting alone since it’s the one bright spot in the film. Director Antoine Fuqua (Olympus Has Fallen), like his star, makes the most of what he has to work with, but does little to spruce up the film’s bland visuals, with the one exception being McCall’s self-timed killing spree. Fuqua’s workmanlike direction certainly isn’t spectacular, but it also can’t be blamed for the movie’s middle-budget look and stuck-in-neutral narrative. The true culprit for the movie’s mediocrity is its flaccid screenplay, turned in by Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2). Apart from the early scenes between Denzel and Moretz—the subtext during The Old Man and the Sea conversation is quite good—the dialog is stiff, the pacing is slow and the locations ordinary beyond belief. In fact, you could argue that stripped-down locations (diner, home improvement store, baseball field, etc), the straightforward story and Denzel’s spare portrayal all contribute to the unified feel for the film…a gritty, no-frills crime flick. The fact that the homogenized appearance and theme isn’t very cinematic is a major drawback aesthetically, and the movie’s dark tone and subject matter makes it hard to enjoy at times. While it’s always nice to see Denzel, he’s severely underserved here: this outing will go down as a lesser entry in his filmography. It’s a shame that the script squanders his solid lead performance with standard locations and situations. In the end, the writing just wasn’t equal to the task.

The Maze Runner (PG-13)

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Directed by: Wes Ball
Starring: Dylan O’Brien
September 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Maze Runner

Not sure I’d want to be part of a world where amnesia is normal.
Although, selective amnesia would be useful for forgetting the less desirable parts of the past.

The box, the tour and three rules.
And a creeper that lurks in the forest.

Ben is banished for breaking the second rule.
Beware the Second Rule! And shouldn’t Thomas start to turn once he’s been bitten by Ben? Oh wait, this isn’t The Walking Dead.

Thomas remembers his name and carves it into the wall.
Seeing all of the scratched out names is a bit unsettling.

Griever descends on Thomas like Shelob.
However, the scene where the giant spider hovers above Frodo in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is far superior to this perspective shot.

A new Greenie arrives with an ominous note.

Markings on supplies: W.C.K.D. Wicked?
Can they make it any more obvious? And what a dumb acronym.

Monolithic walls are quite imposing.
One of the lines from the book perfectly captures the ominous dimensionality of the walls: “Twilight had fallen, and the mammoth walls looked like enormous tombstones in a weed-infested cemetery for giants.” (Chapter 17, third sentence).

Sprinting through the blades...a pulse-pounding sequence.
This is the latest in a long line of genre films where an action sequence was storyboarded as if it were a video game (perhaps with an eye toward being released as a video game). Additionally, the various sections of the maze are like the different levels of a video game.

This just became a horror movie: Night of the Grievers.
And why leave the doors open since the Grievers can climb over the walls and sneak in surreptitiously? I suppose things have to be spelled out for the audience, but wouldn’t it have been even more terrifying if the Grievers had attacked with the doors closed? Oh my God…Grievers! How did they get in?

Griever heads look like cave trolls.
Another LOTR rip-off.

Exit sign. If it looks too good to be true...

Final analysis: a suspenseful mystery that’s fairly faithful to the book with some effective alterations.

Rating:
2 1/2 out 4 stars. Let’s see what this Phase 2 is all about in the sequel.

It’s been brewing for some time now, what with the myriad similarly themed stories that have over-saturated the market in recent years, but it looks as if this movie has finally ushered in a period of dystopian teen novel fatigue...one can only hope. Coming hot on the heels of The Hunger Games and Divergent, this movie is yet another near-future survival tale that focuses on teenagers in perpetual peril. Unfortunately, the source material here doesn’t have anywhere near the socio-political relevance boasted by those other two, far superior book-to-movie franchises. The story begins with a young man named Thomas arriving at a walled in glade via a metal cargo box. Thomas is immediately greeted by a group of boys his own age and soon enough we’re launched into a Lord of the Flies meets Lost meets Labyrinth adventure yarn with heavy quotations of The Lord of the Rings and Jurassic Park. What works here is the initial mystery which places Thomas in this strange environment with no memory of what his life was like before his arrival. The strange speech, customs and rules of the realm also intrigue in the early stages of the story, but made-up words like shank and klunk soon grow tired. Likewise, constantly being reminded of the rules becomes tedious and annoying. The middle of the movie maintains interest with several frenetic chase scenes and major plot revelations. If there’s one area of the movie that grossly underperforms, it’s the standard, unimaginative, and highly improbable ending. SPOILER ALERT: So the whole plot boils down to the fact that the earth has been ravaged by solar flares and the remnant of humanity lives in a gigantic circular city with the maze inhabiting its center. So then, with limited resources, man power, etc, the maze was erected for the sole purpose of providing a training ground for these kids to run around in? This stretch of credulity reminds me of the original Star Trek episode “The Mark of Gideon,” where the Enterprise visits a planet with overpopulation problems. The inhabitants of the world build an exact duplicate of the Enterprise to lure Capt. Kirk down to the surface. Since the populace is shown living in shoulder to shoulder confinement, isn’t the presence of a 289 meter long starship an illogical misappropriation of space on their overcrowded planet? Though not quite as ridiculous, isn’t building massive, movable walls for an extensive series of mazes an egregious waste of time and money for a species on the brink of extinction (and does humanity really have three years to waste on this pubescent experiment)? And why don’t the Gladers know where the edge of the maze is if they’ve constructed a completed, circular mini-maze in the map room (and how can the model be accurate if the walls change every night)? And why is it that on his first foray into the maze, Thomas discovers a section of the maze that the lead runner has never seen on his daily ventures into the labyrinth? When you actually stop to think about it, the movie’s overarching premise is absolutely ludicrous and many of the crucial plot points are utterly laughable…just like the ones in that bottom barrel Trek episode. The intriguing setup desiccates to dust once the teens reach the control center and the less-than-original, far-from-inspired explanation for the whole mystery is revealed. Also, the project leader’s (Patricia Clarkson) staged death is unnecessary and contrived beyond belief. The teenage boys have a graduation of sorts when they find their way out of the maze, which they quickly leave behind when journeying toward their next challenge—an abandoned city where they’ll doubtlessly run into a division of Dauntless operatives itching for a fight in the sequel. So what’s the movie’s takeaway? Some mysteries are better left unsolved. Or, everything was going just fine before that shuck-face Thomas showed up.

The November Man (R)

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Directed by: Roger Donaldson
Starring: Pierce Brosnan
August 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The November Man

Taking pictures of pictures in Moscow.
Sounds easy enough, but it’s a dangerous occupation. Especially if you forget to return the key.

“42 is complete.” Now you’ve gone and made Brosnan mad.
Brosnan’s Bond always had to work really hard to dispatch bad guys, but his character here is more like 24’s Jack Bauer…casually strolling along and downing assailants as if he’d memorized enemy emplacement patterns in a FPS video game.

“Atrocities are like reality TV.” Hmm...
The film is pretty soft on social commentary, but this is one instance where ethical criticism is dispensed. And it’s a point well made.

Brosnan finishes his pupil’s training. An incisive scene.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this scene has a surprisingly sharp edge.

Brosnan extracts information by playing an old Russian game.
I don’t think I’d wait until after the second click to divulge the intel though. Either squeal from the start or hold out to the bitter end…that’s the way I see it.

Corrupt agent discovers Brosnan’s “soft underbelly” and exploits it.
This plot point is poetic injustice since having a relational liability is precisely what Brosnan warned his protégé about from the very beginning. Do as I say not as I do, apparently.

Final analysis: a decent yarn with foreign flair and some pulse pounding action scenes.
But don’t expect Bond or Bourne levels of high-octane chase/fight scenes.

Rating:
2 1/2 out 4 stars. Brosnan isn’t Bond anymore, but he’s still respectable in action roles.

Kudos to the movie’s casting department because this project was a perfect selection for the gracefully aging action star. Brosnan is in remarkably good shape, so espionage yarns with moderate action work are still on the table for the spy genre stalwart. Let’s cut right to the chase, this is a well acted/directed/written political thriller with beautiful European locations and a clutch of adroitly choreographed action sequences. If there’s a drawback to the film, it’s the story’s first twenty minutes, which play an elaborate game of hopscotch all over Europe while setting up the plot and key players in this international intrigue. The rapid globetrotting is exhausting, not to mention confusing, and needlessly muddies the premise to the point where we don’t know what the movie’s goal is or even where in the world the bulk of the action is going to take place. Or even if we’ll care once we figure these things out. Once the story finally settles in, which is right around the time Operation 42 is executed, the enjoyment factor begins to gradually increase since at least we know which direction the plot is headed in at that point. The reemergence of Brosnan’s former pupil is an engaging subplot, but one gets the sense that far more dramatic intensity could’ve been extracted from this teacher/student dynamic. The “enemy holds the hero’s loved one for ransom” followed by “hero exacts revenge on enemy and rescues his captive family member” is a standard ending for this genre…it would’ve been nice to see something a little less conventional here. My only other criticism of the story is the head-scratching explanation for why Brosnan’s nickname is the movie’s title. Even after its meaning is interpreted, the appellative doesn’t seem to have much relevance to the story, relegating this intriguing title to the expansive ranks of dumb movie names. And why release a movie with November in the title in the month of August? Since it isn’t a blockbuster action picture anyway, this film should’ve been released in the fall. Bottom line: Brosnan is no longer Bond, nor does he need to be. Brosnan can churn out movies just like this one for many years to come until he decides to hang it up in the December of his career. Now that metaphor actually makes sense!

Guardians of the Galaxy (PG-13)

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Directed by: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt
August 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Guardians of the Galaxy
It’s called sarcasm, people.

Star Lord uses a rat microphone while jamming to his “Awesome Mix” on muddy Morag.
Maybe it’s just me, but even if I were a Star Lord, I still wouldn’t be handling a rat.

The group hug weapon is highly effective.
A different kind of group hug was used with great success by another band of misfit heroes in Mystery Men (1999).

Groot drinks his fill of fountain water.
Probably a lot cleaner than what he absorbs through his roots.

“Exclusively in that order.” Ha!

Boy, Groot really knows how to pick a nose.

“Asleep for the danger, awake for the money as usual.” Hilarious!
This statement is akin to Han’s deadpan criticism in Return of the Jedi, “Great, Chewie! Great! Always thinking with your stomach.” Correction: “Asleep for the action and awake for the money, as usual.”

Rocket was kidding about the mechanical leg. I haven’t laughed this hard in a movie in a long time.
This gag is the equivalent to the long con in a heist movie. The joke is set up well in advance of the punch line, which lands when least expected. What a payoff!

From warrior to imbecile in less than fifteen seconds.

The Ranger Rick reference is priceless.
I wonder what percentage of the audience even got this gag? Google it!

“Pelvic sorcery.” The jokes just keep coming.

Quill’s “losers” speech is moving if not necessarily motivational.
A nice spin on the word in question that trades on commonality to build solidarity among the group.

The ship net is a cool concept.
Until one part of the net is breached. That’s why Rom’s idea for self-replicating mines in DS9 was so ingenious.

Groot takes out an entire platoon of enemy soldiers with one branch and then grins. Classic!
This scene is similar to Kit Fisto’s smile directly at the camera in Star Wars: Episode II.

Quill gets a second chance to take his mom’s hand.
A touching scene that resolves the nagging guilt Quill’s experienced ever since he was a boy.

Final analysis: unquestionably the funniest superhero movie ever, and also one of the most original.
After watching the trailer, I knew this was going to be a humorous movie, but it’s far, far funnier than I originally anticipated. There were moments when I was literally bellowing and paid no mind to how such loud laughter would affect those around me. Of course, they were laughing just as loud, so no harm no foul.

A little overstuffed, but an effective blend of humor and action.
By overstuffed I mean the Dune-esque epic nature of the story that sees the characters hopping from one planet to the next and encountering myriad alien species along the way, all of them bent on obtaining the movie’s mysterious artifact. As someone who’s never read the comic book, it was a bit of a challenge keeping up with the who’s who element of the story.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Let’s see what becomes of Groot’s root in the sequel.

While many sci-fi movies contain comedic elements, the genre label “sci-fi/comedy” can be attributed to very few films. Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973) certainly qualifies, as does Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs (1987) along with the book-to-big screen The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005). Often, movies that try too hard to meld comedy into a sci-fi universe end up resulting in a goof-fest like The Ice Pirates (1984). So then, Guardians negotiates some difficult terrain as a sci-fi, superhero, action/adventure and comedy hybrid. Somehow, like a skilled juggler, the film manages to keep all of these balls in the air at the same time, which is fitting since the movie’s MacGuffin, a high-tech orb, is also up in the air (and up for grabs) for much of the movie. Whereas humor and action effectively hold the audience’s attention throughout, the relationships between the motley characters is the glue that holds the whole proceedings together. Chris Pratt imbues Peter Quill/Star Lord with irresistible charm and Zoe Saldana brings a disarming vulnerability to the chip-on-the-shoulder assassin Gamora. Dave Bautista is Drax, the laconic beefcake, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is the good-natured tree creature and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is the wisecracking raccoon. Each member of the team receives ample onscreen time, but character development is pretty thin except for Star Lord’s opening back story. The sacrifices made by Star Lord and Groot are genuinely touching—these character moments help to ground the more farcical and whimsical elements of the story. The formula here (distilled from many genre sources ranging from Star Wars to X-Men) seems to be a winning one, so a sequel seems all but assured at this point. Let’s just hope that future films in the franchise retain this movie’s lighter tone. So, until the sequel arrives, grab your walkman and jam out to your own awesome mix (punting rats is optional).

Lucy (R)

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Directed by: Luc Besson
Starring: Scarlett Johansson
July 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Lucy
“Open your mind…open your mind!”

Wait, I thought this was
Lucy, not Planet of the Apes.
Or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

The crosscutting between humans and the animal kingdom is a clever conceit.
The National Geographic style nature scenes are a bit jarring at first, but they’re a unique way of depicting the primal side of humanity.

Immortality or reproduction. Why is it too much to ask for both?

Lucy dances on the ceiling.
Oh what a feeling.

Lucy mind-melds with her captor.
Why doesn’t she dispatch with him here and now? Ah, yes, because the villain needs to factor into the climactic showdown. Contrived!

The FX in the airplane bathroom are mind-blowing.

60%. The goons don’t stand a chance.
Maybe at 30% they’d stand a chance, but not at 60%.

A new generation of computer.
This one comes standard with tentacles.

Awesome retro time lapse effects...like watching “The Time Machine” in reverse.
The whole T-Rex thing was a bit staged, yes? I felt like I was in the 3D King Kong attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Lucy meets Lucy.
Shouldn’t the universe implode at this point? Let’s ask Dr. Brown. He’ll know.

Final analysis: an intriguing premise that fails to live up to its groundbreaking promise.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. A thought-provoking sci-fi yarn with some amazing visual effects.

If the average human only uses roughly 10% of her brain, what capabilities would she possess if she could access 100% of her brain? An intriguing question…and a promising premise for this near future sci-fi actioner, which comes complete with all of the highly styled action sequences and pulse pounding chases we’ve come to expect from a movie directed by Luc Besson (The Fifth Element). Unfortunately, this high-concept story takes a radical left turn during the second half of the movie when a Limitless (2011) style cautionary tale morphs into a Transcendence-esque emergence event (the movie also has a heavy quotation of the 1960 version of The Time Machine). Using the above films as the ends of a spectrum, Lucy falls somewhere between Limitless, which is considerably better, and Transcendence, which is an awful mess that makes this film look like Inception (2010) by comparison (coincidentally, Lucy is the second so-so sci-fi yarn Freeman’s done this year…he also appeared in Transcendence). Ironically, just about the time Lucy starts to evolve the story begins to devolve…by the end, we’re left with a plot that’s been reduced to the consistency of a primordial soup, an image not lost on the movie. Aside from a head-scratching denouement (is that a 1 trillion GB flash drive?), the story line involving the Asian drug lord and his minions is extremely banal. Despite the enjoyment derived from watching Lucy surgically annihilating hoards of thugs, none of the fight scenes have any dramatic tension since the end result is a foregone conclusion—the multiple melees are tantamount to a group of Secret Service agents taking on a Jedi. However, if frenetic action scenes are the main motivation behind attending this movie, Lucy will serve its purpose…I suppose. In the end, the movie is a missed opportunity since its central conceit is so easily apprehended and universally applicable and a profound disappointment since its story is so formulaic and predictable. It really chafes that this could’ve been a great movie. Instead, Lucy is just a mildly intriguing action picture with A-list actors and a B grade story that required far less brain power to watch than it did to read this pedantic review.

Godzilla (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson
May 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Godzilla

The redacted opening credits is a nice touch.
Should be “are” instead of “is.” Eh.

Not an earthquake...a pattern.
That last part is right up John Nash’s alley (reference A Beautiful Mind).

One last longing look through the circular window.

“My wife died here!” Superb acting from the man who brought Walter White to memorable life.
Unfortunately, and uncannily, the very instant Cranston exits stage right the film gets flushed down the crapper.

The old Godzilla mutated from radiation. This creature eats radiation. Consumes nuclear bombs whole.
Wouldn’t chewing on a bomb cause it to explode in the creature’s face though? Destroying it and everything else around it in an expansive circumference?

Terror in Vegas. The city will never be the same...the wages of sin.
Boy, I hope Wayne Newton got out okay.

Shine your flashlight right at the creature. Great idea.
These trained soldiers are no smarter than the kids in Jurassic Park when they shine their flashlight right into the T-Rex’ eyeball. Actually, the kids are smarter…at least Tim tries getting panicked Lex to turn off the flashlight. Trained soldiers should know better. Nitpick #1034 for this movie.

Why do action movies always pick on the Golden Gate Bridge?
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) to name just two examples.

It’s raining fighter jets.
Multimillion dollar raindrops.

“If you don’t walk out, you don’t come back at all.” Sounds like dialog I would write...in the eighth grade.

The battle of the leviathans. Why do they always have to fight in a city?
This is an elemental contrivance in this brand of disaster picture. These gargantuan beasts would probably, instinctively, battle out in some vast open space rather than mix it up in close quarters with buildings constantly toppling down on them. Of course, such a battle wouldn’t contain any visceral thrills since no humans would be imperiled by such a colossal confrontation.

Why did Godzilla wait until after it got beaten into submission to use its laser breath?
The easy answer is that the writers needed to build some tension into the scene, and the only way to do that is to make it appear as if Godzilla might be defeated. Either that, or Godzilla is just toying around with his assailants.

Final analysis: maximum destruction with minimum plot. Serves its purpose if a disaster film is on the menu.
Although, there are far, far better films in this Thriller subgenre (disaster movie) to watch than this.

Rating:
2 out of 4 stars. Edges out Pacific Rim by that much. Needed some humor. Broderick could’ve helped.

It’s been sixteen years since the last American Godzilla (1998) premiered; the Japanese produced Godzilla 2000 was released, ironically, in 1999…and was awful. Many people, myself included, felt that the Matthew Broderick version, which featured baby Godzillas thrashing about like raptors from Jurassic Park (1993), had efficiently and effectively killed off the franchise…at least in the West. Although this film is a gigantic lizard leap ahead of the last Godzilla, it’s still riddled with outlandish monsters, dunderheaded strategies for stopping the creatures and a plot that’s consistently servile to the unrelenting barrage of action sequences. There are tons of things to find fault with and poke fun at in the movie, but ultimately, this movie is a squandered opportunity to tell a topical, salient story of how climate change can bring about our doom. The movie also had the chance to deal with the loss of a loved one and the restoration of a strained relationship between a father and son. All of these attempts at foregrounding genuine human emotion are abandoned after the first twenty minutes and then it’s back to business as usual with lumbering behemoths rampaging through our major cities just for the fun of it (and because it’ll serve as fodder for a top selling video game). In place of anything substantive, the movie resorts to the silly brand of monster melee that’s become the hallmark of every Godzilla movie to date. In truth, the only thing I like about this movie, other than Cranston’s presence…however brief, was the “against type” role the titular creature serves in the movie. I only spent $2 on the movie and still feel shortchanged. Watch at your own peril.

Snowpiercer (R)

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Directed by: Joon-ho Bong
Starring: Chris Evans
June 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Snowpiercer

Those protein blocks don’t look very appetizing...or edible.
Imagine having nothing but Jell-O to eat for the rest of your life.

Take the engine, take the world.
The precise quote is: “We control the engine, we control the world.” The first thing that popped into my mind when I heard this trite line was the slogan in TVs Heroes, “Save the cheerleader, save the world.”

Beware the woman with the yellow jacket and tape measure.

Now that’s one brutal form of torture.
And the most unique one I’ve seen in quite some time. A poet might term the sequence alarming and disarming. I’ll stick with brutal.

“Bullets are extinct.” A risky theory.
Evans puts his theory to the test in a startling display of machismo/foolhardiness. The film’s ultimate inciting incident.

The protein in the protein bars is disgusting.
Revolting, in fact. Just a heads-up in case you have a weak stomach.

Night vision melee is nail-bitingly intense.
The protracted battle brilliantly morphs in response to changing circumstances.

The club car gives a whole new meaning to soul train.

A startling confession while smoking the world’s last cigarette.
I pray that things never get so bad in our country that such an option becomes a viable one.

Wow, that was the mother of all derailments.

Final analysis: a bleak, claustrophobic dystopian yarn with much to say about the human condition.
On both ends of the spectrum: the honorable and the despicable.

Chris Evans has never been better and the supporting cast is stellar.
Evans’ physicality was a natural fit for the part, but he developed some dramatic chops here, far beyond what we saw in the Captain America movies.

The world inside the train is staggeringly immersive and the production design is nothing short of brilliant.
For your consideration: Art direction, cinematography, editing, sound editing/mixing, visual effects, etc.

Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4. Amid the myriad remakes & sequels, it’s refreshing to see an original work of sci-fi.

This film is based on the French graphic novel series Le Transperceneige and is directed by South Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong (Mother) in his English-language film debut. Bong also directed The Host (2006), which was a Godzilla-style action movie starring Song Kang-ho. With that antecedent in mind, it should come as no surprise that this film boasts highly stylized camera work along with intricately choreographed, furiously filmed and splatter-tastic action sequences. What really sets this film apart, however, is the story’s keen, yet understated, observations on the human condition…especially amid extreme or desperate circumstances. So what we have here is a movie that possesses what every blockbuster/sequel/remake aspires to have but can never obtain…poignant political/social commentary, moral ambiguity, character complexity and, above all, paradigm-shattering originality. The way the characters behave in relation to their status, station or surroundings, the narrative strictures imposed by the habitat’s physical, structural confinement and the furious pacing and trajectory of the story (both train and characters are always recklessly pushing forward) all commingle to forge an unforgettable cinematic experience. We can forgive the numerous gaps in logic (where does the inexhaustible supply of “protein” come from, why do the security guards operate with obstructed vision, why hasn’t the train ever crashed before and how will the human race continue with such a tiny remnant?) for the sake of the highly evocative, innovative and controversial (don’t recall seeing any cows on the train) story. Beyond the thought-provoking story and gratuitous yet gratifying action sequences, what makes this film so mesmerizing is its mélange of visual and narrative elements. This is the epitome of a transnational film: the story originated in France, the director is from South Korea and the movie was shot in the Czech Republic. Add to that diverse foundation actors from South Korea (Kang-ho), Britain (Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton and John Hurt) and America (Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer and Ed Harris), and you truly have a melting pot of cultures, languages, styles and creative energies. You can call the film’s mood dark, dire and despondent; you can call its world bleak, bizarre and brutal; you can call the story a disturbing, cautionary, post-apocalyptic dystopia on wheels; you can even call it unsettling or confusing, but one thing you can’t call it is boring. How fitting that one of the most original movie titles that’s rolled along in quite some time is also one of the rarest cinematic visual feasts in recent memory.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (PG)

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Directed by: Dean DeBlois
Starring: Jay Baruchel
June 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Dragon race has a literal black sheep.
Doesn’t this competition remind you of a Quidditch match, only with dragons subbing in for brooms?

Free falling sequence is breathtaking.

A new page for the map, an encounter with some unsavory trappers and rumors of war.
Oh my!

“Men who kill without reason cannot be reasoned with.”
A tad platitudinous, but essentially true.

Dragon aviary is a spectacular visual.
The swarm of dragons, comprised of a myriad shapes, sizes and colors, is easily the visual highlight of the film.

Dragon traps...clever.

The alphas lock tusks...the battle of the leviathans.
Doesn’t this scene look like it belongs in Pacific Rim or a Godzilla movie, though?

Toothless flies blind. A matter of trust.
This sequence presents a nitpick, however. Is the Alpha’s mind control only effective when visual contact is established? The eye gate should be irrelevant if the Alpha is engaging in true mind control and not just some hypnotic suggestion. Too technical for a kids movie? Probably.

A new alpha and a new chief. And they all lived...

Final analysis: a logical extension of the first film with many new dragons and a new villain.
And some truly dynamic family moments that serve as the heart of the film. However, the sudden entrance of one family member and the rapid departure of another are extremely contrived narrative choices.

However, the premise takes too long to materialize and the story lacks the magic of the original.
The teen angst angle worked like a charm in the first film, but Hiccup has finally come into his own here, making him a far less compelling character in this movie.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Don’t be surprised if Toothless finds a mate in the sequel. Too obvious.

As sequels go this certainly isn’t a jeer-worthy entertainment, and yet it fails to measure up to the first film in several key areas. First of all, the writers expect us to remember all of the characters despite that fact that the original film was released four years ago. Except for the kids in the audience, who’ve seen the first film dozens of times on Blu-ray at home, a refresher as to who’s who would’ve been nice for the rest of us one-timers. The main thing I missed in the sequel is the lore and mythology that enriched the first film. The writers, mistakenly, assume that we’re all experts on Viking customs and have the dragon bestiary memorized by now, but some new cultural tidbits to draw us into the milieu would’ve further enhanced this film. Also, a large part of the fun in the first film involved the training sessions for how to fight and ride various types of dragons. Everyone’s a proficient “pilot” in this movie, and only the bumpy flight on the dragon babies adds any kind of drama to the lives of these experienced dragon riders. Lest we forget, the word “train” appears in the title, so the movie missed the mark by failing to tap into what worked in the first film. Though the CG animation is top shelf, some of the melees are staged and choreographed just like a LOTR film—the epic battle formula is getting old by now. All in all, this is a spirited animated adventure that’s sure to thrill its target audience…if only the adults were equally serviced by this sophomore, and sometimes sophomoric, effort. Final thought: now that the main character has become a man and taken his father’s mantle, can we get a name change already? One thing that should never be uttered in the next movie is Chief Hiccup.

Edge of Tomorrow (PG-13)

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Directed by: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Cruise
June 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Edge of Tomorrow
Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

A broad scale alien invasion. Didn’t we already see this in
War of the Worlds...also starring Cruise?

Gleason orders Cruise to the beach...a second D-Day in France.
The motivation here seems a bit fuzzy. There must’ve been a more inventive way of forcing Cruise into the battle than this.

Paxton is from the foreign country Kentucky. Never heard of it.
Bill Paxton turns in a swaggering, southern fried role that’s truly unforgettable. His character has some of the best lines in the movie, although they do get tired after the second or third repetition.

Bowlegged troops invade the beach. You’d think they would’ve designed the suit with better ease of use.
Especially when considering how agile their enemy is.

Several
Groundhog Day time loops and then Cruise is shown a “terrific presentation.”

Cruise wants to know if Blunt has “tried all options.” Humorous.
Actually, that would be the first option explored by any red-blooded male. Hey, the fate of the world is at stake, right?

Cruise on a motorcycle...the movie wouldn’t be complete without it.
Save for touching on the well-established Cruise trope, this scene was wholly unnecessary…and contrived.

The safety net is gone...now things are getting interesting.
In order for the story to kick into high gear this absolutely had to happen…and not a moment too soon since I was getting whiplash from repeatedly being yanked back to the beginning.

Must...swim...faster.

Final analysis: an original actioner that’s engaging despite its repetitious plot.
But hats off to the editing team. Piecing this film together must’ve required an entire pallet of Excedrin.

Not as entertaining as
Oblivion, but still a decent yarn with some jaw-dropping action scenes.

Rating:
3 out of 4. If you disagree with my rating, don’t shoot me. Unlike Cruise, I can’t come back.

On the surface, the new Tom Cruise vehicle, Edge of Tomorrow, is a sci-fi/action riff on Groundhog Day (1993), the movie where Bill Murray wakes up every morning to the same song and the same day. This film is also reminiscent of ST:TNGs “Cause and Effect” which ended each act, save for the final one…of course, with the Enterprise exploding into scientifically impossible fiery bits in space. The crew discovers that they’re trapped inside a causality loop and that they’re doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes, which they do until the albino android figures out how to spring the ship from the temporal trap. In Edge, Cruise lives the same day over and over again and, like Murray’s character in Groundhog, finds that he can adapt, learn new skills and eventually figure a way out of the redundant riddle. It’s a deceptively simple premise, but beyond the trippy plot and mind-blowing FX, there’s a narrative depth here that one can sense more than readily identify. Clearly the film is engaging in a discourse on the nature of war, and the film’s release on the 70th anniversary of D-Day is far from coincidental. However, other social commentary is subtly broached here in a manner that’s nearly undetectable until it surfaces in the most startling fashion imaginable, much like the emergence of the movie’s maniacal Mimics. The obvious interpretation of the movie is that, like Inception (2010), the film is an attempt at creating a video game experience on the big screen (with gratitude to Henry Jenkins’ brilliant article on the subject entitled “No, You Do Not Have to Be a Gamer to Like Inception!”). Inception had multiple characters and levels, but Edge has one level with multiple lives that act as a reset button each time Cruise meets with an untimely demise. Although this is certainly a valid view of the movie, and don’t be surprised if you see blogs and articles written on the topic ad nauseam, I’d like to delve deeper into the movie’s multilayered mantle of meaning. Could it be that the movie holds up a mirror to our postmodern, post-911, post-economic meltdown society and projects back the anxieties and desperate exigencies of our lives? Cruise is a major in the army, but one day he wakes up to find that he’s a lowly private. In a similar reversal of fortunes, many in our country who once had white-collar jobs now have blue-collar jobs and have had to learn an entire new skill set in order to survive. We can sympathize with Cruise’s plight because we’ve all been affected, in one way or another, by the global economic recession. Many, like Cruise’s character, have fallen pretty far down the ladder from the once-powerful positions they enjoyed during the pre-recession period. In the same way that Cruise is trapped inside his repetitious nightmare, many people today are shackled by circumstances beyond their control and are prisoners inside their own lives. The drudgery of going to work, buying groceries and gas, paying bills and taxes, etc can feel like an unending cycle of sameness; a rote reality that’s really just an undiagnosed form of insanity. The movie’s poster is emblazoned with the slogan, “Live. Die. Repeat.” For many of our nation’s citizens, their life can be summed up as, “Wake up, go to work, come home, make supper, clean up, go to sleep, repeat.” So then, Cruise’s dogged insistence on reclaiming his autonomy and identity by breaking free from the seemingly preordained pattern of our existence should serve as a cathartic release for us…a powerful reminder that it’s possible to learn from our mistakes in the attempt at forging a better future. Director Doug Liman and his writers seem to be telling us that it’s tenable, with a good deal of ingenuity, dedication and sacrifice, to navigate through the treacherous terrain of our times and that the American Dream is still out there for those willing to fight like mad to attain it. In order to succeed, however, the assistance of others is required; even Cruise’s lone wolf character enlists the help of Rita (Emily Blunt) and Bill Paxton’s squad of elite soldiers during the movie’s climactic events. Cruise’s self-determination in spite of the impossibly rigid strictures of temporal mechanics also has much to say regarding rugged individualism versus the totalitarian state. This point could open up a whole discourse on the film’s politics, which I have neither the space nor inclination to address. Suffice it to say, the film invites multiple readings of its narrative, which makes it more complex and, therefore, more mentally stimulating than the standard action picture. In fact, the story is so involved that successive screenings are advised in order to fully appreciate the multifaceted plot and furiously filmed action sequences. How ironic, or insidious, that a film about a man stuck inside a time loop should invite repeat viewings. It’s almost as if Warner Bros. planned it that way.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (PG-13)

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Directed by: Bryan Singer
Starring: Patrick Stewart
May 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

X-Men-Days of Future Past

Bleak dystopian intro presents a desolate landscape akin to the one in the #Terminator films.
The only thing missing is the metallic men with laser weapons.

Intense opening battle. Wouldn’t want to run into one of the Sentinels in a dark alley.
Speaking of metallic assailants, the Sentinels are truly fear-inspiring, not only in how they appear and move, but in their ability to assimilate mutant abilities. Are we witnessing the birth of the Borg?

Wolvie is transported back to 1973. Is transported through a lava lamp and wakes up on a waterbed.
Groovy!

School’s out, the professor’s sauced and a big, bad, blue wolf is on the loose.

That’s the mother of all JFK conspiracy theories.

“It’s cool, but it’s disgusting.” True, bone claws aren’t nearly as sleek as metal ones.

Whip...lash! Cool visual.

Quicksilver’s run around the room is reminiscent of the Hammy’s sprint in #OverTheHedge.
Although this sort of thing has been done before, especially with the alacritous red clad lad from the DC stable of heroes, this is the most creative and exciting sequence in the entire movie. However, I can see why director Bryan Singer chose to sit this mutant on a couch during the final climactic sequence: Quicksilver’s special ability would’ve swiftly undone every villainous act committed by Magneto and would’ve robbed Mystique’s fateful decision of any urgency and dramatic value.

“Looks can be deceiving.” Truer words have never been spoken...by Mystique.

Beast Hulks out and Logan is stricken by amnesia.

Trask wants Mystique for “research purposes.” Sure!

Charles mindmelds with Logan. The finger placement is a little off.
Correction: mind-meld. I should know better. Speaking of…

Nice ST:TOS episode clip from “Tomorrow is Yesterday.” Another time travel story.
It always pains me to admit when I’m incorrect on this particular subject, but the episode in question is “The Naked Time,” which I originally surmised and then second-guessed myself on. Both episodes use the shipboard chronometer located to the right of Sulu’s station, and I selected “Yesterday” because the Enterprise returns to Earth circa 1969, in a similar manner to Wolverine returning to 1973 in this movie. Based on that plot similarity, “Yesterday” actually would’ve made a stronger allusion since the ship merely skips back in time three days (seventy-one hours to be precise) in “Naked.” In my defense, there’s very little to go off of in these clips (a planet would’ve given it away in two seconds flat) and some segments seem to have been repeated. Apology and apologetics aside, it’s quite ingenious how Singer wove this ancillary, yet pertinent, tidbit into the tapestry of the film. Mise-en-scene at its finest.

Charles uses a Jedi mind trick to get through security.
Just figured I’d provide equal opportunity to the other major sci-fi universe.

Magneto turns a stadium into a mother ship.
This is the only story element in the movie that seems contrived to me. Since Magneto can pull metal from anywhere to create a barricade, absconding with an entire stadium seems a bit excessive. It’s a giant set piece that seems more appropriate for an old style Batman movie, and just seems unnecessary for the story at hand.

Wolvie attacked by rebar snakes.
A very visceral visual.

Logan wakes up to the Golden Oldies. There and back again.

Even Cyclops wears #Oakley shades.
Other than the gray in Halle Berry’s hair, it’s remarkable how little this cast has aged since their first film together back in 2000.

Final analysis: a decent time travel yarn without too many cheesy comic book clichés.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. Next up in the Marvel-verse: #GuardiansOfTheGalaxy.

Mixing older and younger versions of the same characters in one movie is an exciting premise, but also a risky one. Part of the movie’s appeal is seeing older and younger selves interact with each other, as in the case of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy). The constant threat of the Sentinels, the bracing time travel story line and the novelty of the 70s trappings all make for a unique comic-to-cinema tale. Featuring fan favorite Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as the focal point and linchpin of the plot was a wise choice—this is Jackman’s seventh appearance as Wolvie. Perhaps it has something to do with her Oscar, but Jennifer Lawrence, aka Raven/Mystique, has been given more to do in this movie than in the previous one…I don’t know many teenage boys who are disappointed by that fact. Peter Dinklage is terrific as Trask, an opportunist who misguidedly thinks he’s furnishing the world with the security it desperately needs. If the movie has a weak link, it’s a story that’s so preoccupied with the impending extinction of mutantkind that it’s really a rather joyless affair. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) adds some levity during his five minutes of screen time, but the balance of the movie is an earnest, glum exercise in entropy. The movie is thought provoking at times, pulse pounding at others, but is it truly enjoyable? In the end, it’s just nice seeing all of our old and new friends together in one film, although some are little more than set dressing. So how does this latest film measure up to earlier efforts? It’s the best X-Men film since X2 (2003). However, for the next sequel I recommend lightening it up a bit. Since Jackman and Marsden can sing, how about a few musical numbers? X-Men: The Musical. Stick a pin in it.

3 Days to Kill (PG-13)

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Directed by: McG
Starring: Kevin Costner
February 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

3 Days to Kill
The dollar sign is on the wrong side of the numeral…long day at the movies.

Why are albinos always bad guys,
a la #ThePretender?
The opening attack is pretty standard action movie fare…would’ve been nice to see a more elaborate scenario with edgier filming. And since Luc Besson is the co-writer, you’d almost expect that degree of punch and panache from the movie’s action sequences.

Costner is admonished to put his affairs in order.
A phrase no one ever wants to hear.

“Yellow is not a man’s color.”
Neither is purple, as he’s soon to find out.

Costner rides a purple bike through Paris.

“Kill or die,” says the comely woman in the hot sports car.
Well, when she puts it like that…

Costner ties up a bad guy with the handy man’s secret weapon. Reference #TheRedGreenShow.
You’ll be amazed at the myriad things you can create with the stuff.

“The spare’s loose in the trunk.” Funny scene.
Funny, but farcical. A spare tire can’t move on its own inside a parked car…unless we’ve unknowingly drifted into a horror movie.

Bike riding lessons...a sweet scene.
With a gorgeous vantage of the city in the background.

“Real football.” I love it.

Guido’s secret sauce...hilarious scene.
The funniest scene in the movie, but the trailer absolutely ruined it.

More lessons...dancing this time.
But the mom’s (Connie Nielsen) entrance at that particular moment, arranged for maximum emotional effect, is more than a little contrived.

Costner really knows how to crash a party.
Fitting, I suppose, since he was a bodyguard in a former (acting) life.

Final analysis: a unique blend of action and humor in this job vs. family themed film.

Some beautiful European locales along with a few Bourne-esque action sequences are a boon to the film.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. Another solid turn by Costner and McG’s finest directorial effort to date.

Despite its thematic tensions, something about this movie just works. It’s a serious movie about serious matters that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Thank goodness for small miracles. If played straight, the movie would’ve imploded since it falls far short of the quality seen in a Bourne or Bond Euro flavored action thriller. The film explores the lighter side of a genre where life and death stakes normally belie any modicum of levity. Tonally, the movie falls somewhere between Bourne and Red—a sizable dramatic chasm, to be sure. Some will, wrongly, view the film as a spoof, while others will be thrown by how it tries to wear two hats (or masks)—the light and the dark (reference the movie poster), the comedic and the dramatic. Such tonal shifts didn’t bother me because Costner is utterly convincing as a man with literally nothing to lose (except for the respect and admiration of his family) and because he navigates back and forth between the narrative poles with masterful ease. I can see where viewers expecting an all-out action film will be disappointed by the movie’s comedic bits and schmaltzy daddy/daughter scenes; the atypical blend of story elements will surely attract some viewers while repelling others, as any work of art will do when pushing the envelope. To me, the movie’s uniqueness is what sets it apart from a standard action picture and makes it an enjoyable entertainment. But if you disagree with my assessment, please don’t kill the messenger.

Walking with the Enemy (PG-13)

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Directed by: Mark Schmidt
Starring: Jonas Armstrong
April 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Walking With the Enemy
Mr. Kingsley, as you’ll recall, also played a protagonist opposed to the Nazis in Schindler’s List (1993).

1944. Hungary. Nazi invasion. Restrictions. Curfews. And so it begins.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Not so warm welcome at the work camp.
As would be expected…this isn’t the Ritz after all.

Kingsley, the Hungarian leader, must choose the lesser of two evils.
Some good acting here, but nothing that really makes Kingsley flex his acting muscles. Also, too many of the shots in this scene were done from one camera setup, which makes the sequence feel static and unimaginative. A prime indicator of just how time and budget constrained this film is.

American planes arrive. An exciting but short-lived action scene.
Just a guess, but this sequence probably consumed about half of the movie’s budget.

German officers take what they want. Rough scene.

You definitely don’t want to get caught with a radio.

“This piece of paper is someone’s life.” A chilling statement.
This scene has considerable dramatic heft; ironic considering how lightweight the object in question is. Items purchasing freedom for the oppressed echoes the scene at the end of Schindler’s List where Schindler is willing to offer his watch and car to save more lives; a bargain, he bitterly realizes, he’s too late to make.

The greater of two evils stages a coup.
A. Germany. B. Russia. Unless you’re a student of history you have a 50/50 chance of guessing correct.

German officers joke about their “resorts.” Detestable.

Final analysis: an OK WWII tale that’s notable more for its historical importance than its filmmaking.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Kingsley’s involvement is negligible in a film desperate for his talent.

Despite its obvious dearth of talent, time and money, the movie makes the most of what it has by featuring some impressive on location work. Also, the film’s sets, props and outfits (uniforms play a major role in the film) are all well designed and period appropriate. What holds the movie back is middling performances by a largely no-name cast, a sputtering screenplay by Kenny Golde (the first half of the film really drags and some of it could’ve been condensed or trimmed since the film runs fifteen minutes too long anyway) and standard, largely uninspired direction by Mark Schmidt. What’s sad about the end result here is that this true account is actually an inspiring tale of courage and cleverness in the face of unspeakable evil. One wonders how significant the improvement in overall quality would’ve been if the movie had had a bigger budget, a top shelf director (a la Spielberg, who tends to do well with this period of history) and some real star power. As for Kingsley, he does what he can with what little screen time he’s given, but his presence is more like a cameo than a star turn. On this count, the movie poster, which prominently features Kingsley’s visage, is more than a little disingenuous. Fans of the performer will feel shortchanged by his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part, while those who know Kingsley only by sight will wonder why this accomplished actor isn’t featured more prominently in the story. Either way, the movie needed more of Kingsley. And more money wouldn’t have hurt either.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (PG-13)

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Directed by: Marc Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield
May 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Spider-Man 2

The struggle to upload Roosevelt is quite intense and features a new slice of back story.
However, this opening feels like a teaser on a TV show like The Blacklist rather than an introductory sequence for a blockbuster.

Spidey carries a cellphone? Don’t recall seeing a pocket anywhere on his suit.
Correction: Cell phone. Strangely, Twitter didn’t underline it in red so I went with it. Guess I should’ve trusted that tingling feeling on the back of my neck instead.

Spidey’s dialog here is campy like in the comics...not sure it translates as well to the big screen.
The first fifteen minutes, in particular, are brimming with cheesy one-liners which engender more eye rolls than chuckles. Sure, Tobey Maguire’s Spidey got off his fair share of witty remarks and puns, but there was something charming about his delivery that’s absent from Garfield’s daffy deluge of doltish comments. Enough blathering on the subject, though, lest I become guilty of delivering the same kind of remedial retorts I accuse the wall-crawler of employing here.

Foxx has a Spidey psychosis.
I’m speaking of Foxx’ character, of course, Max…also known as the villain Eelman.

“Change isn’t a slogan.” Hmm. Must exclude campaigns.
I so want to get up on a soap box here, but I shall refrain.

Sparkles is this movie’s version of Syndrome.

Foxx zaps people with force lightning. He does kinda’ look like the Emperor.

How to distract four thugs with a coffee mug.
Pouring coffee on one of them is always a good start, but how clichéd is this?

Aunt Mae discovers Peter’s web of photos.
Correction: Aunt May. Guess you can tell that I don’t read the comics.

In the Special Projects lab. Did anyone else see the mechanical appendages? Sequel teaser?

Gorgeous scene atop the bridge.
Actually, this is the only scene in the entire movie where I felt Webb took a moment to create some art. Everything else is just crashing, smashing and teen angst.

Peter is a science geek. Why wouldn’t he think of the magnetism solution?

Cop car license plate is 1701.
Star Trek fans will understand the inside gag.

Gwen literally sees time pass her by.

A fist bump for tiny Spidey. Cool scene.
Though the David and Goliath scenario added to the scene’s intensity, the Rhino would have to be a real sicko to take out a little kid, so the tension doesn’t reach the apex it was intended to.

Final analysis: the story, which is a loose association of subplots, takes forever to coalesce.
In fact, I’m not sure there really is a through line here except, perhaps, for Peter’s promise to Gwen’s departed dad, and even that story thread is so intermittent it’s more of a subplot.

Everything seems off here: strange performances, insipid dialog & a weak plot are major debits here.
I’d have to go back and watch the movie again to pinpoint such occurrences, but some of the acting choices and facial expressions in the film really left me scratching my head.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. A downturn from the first film. Pining for Maguire’s Parker about now.

I would say I’m disappointed by this second Webb Spidey movie, but my expectations were so low after watching the first film that I gave this sequel wider latitude to fail…and it did. Miserably. Granted, the sequel makes a genuine attempt at providing some back story for Peter and Harry Osborn’s (Dane DeHaan) fathers, the fate of Peter’s parents and some additional insights into the life of departed Uncle Ben, but these scenes are just flour and water paste designed to hold the series of action sequences together, which, of course, is asking far too much of dramatic filler. While failing to connect emotionally, these back story elements also contain flaws in logic like that fact that only the Parker bloodline can successfully assimilate the mutant spider venom…one family among the seven billion people inhabiting our world? I’ve heard of designer viruses, but sheesh. This contrivance to produce friction between Peter and Harry, who wants a dose of Spider-Man’s blood to smooth out the blemishes on his neck (can’t Harry afford some plastic surgery?) is utterly daft, and indeed, the Goblin’s presence in the movie is completely superfluous and should’ve been saved for the sequel. Despite repeated attempts at keeping Gwen out of harm’s way, our hero, ultimately, isn’t equal to the task of protecting her. Is that his fault though? In my book Gwen asked for it by failing to heed Spidey’s many warnings and by foolishly circumventing the extreme measures taken to ensure her safety (which include webbing her hand to a car). Maybe it’s just me, but if Spider-Man told me to stay away from a particular building, I’d be three states away. So then, is Gwen’s insistence on remaining in the line of fire a death wish or just plain ignorance? Then, near the end of the film, the wall-crawler tasks Gwen with pushing a button once he gives her the signal (a virtually identical scenario to the one played out by Tony and Pepper at the end of the first Iron Man film). There’s one small problem, however; Spidey and the villain are engaged in a berserker style battle that’s destroying a good portion of the power plant. So the question is, how can Gwen re-start the power grid if the apparatus supporting it has been blasted to smithereens? I could go on nitpicking this film until the next, inevitable, sequel premiers, but I think the point has been made by now. Webb’s Spider-Man films are shaping up to be a drab, joyless, reheated version of Sam Raimi’s trilogy. Will they have any staying power or, like Lucas’ prequel trilogy, will Webb’s films simply fail to stick?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (PG-13)

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Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans
April 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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“On your left.” Ha!
That kind of speed, and endurance, would definitely come in handy at times.

Triskelion equals S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. Also a planet in the original
Star Trek.
“The Gamesters of Triskelion” is the title. A largely forgettable second season show save for Angelique Pettyjohn’s tinfoil bikini.

Capt. America argues with Fury over freedom vs. fear.
This is a very incisive, and topical, discussion…a rarity among superhero movies.

The Sundance Kid moderates the Jedi council.
I kept looking for Yoda among the holograms.

Fury’s SUV gets a police sandwich.
I want to know the make and model of Fury’s vehicle, because it sure takes a pounding…yet keeps tearing down the street.

The elevator’s getting a little full.

A honeymoon in...New Jersey?
Hopefully not Bayonne.

First kiss since 1945?

The Winter Soldier’s rifle really packs a punch.
One of the coolest visuals in the movie.

“I am so fired!” Stan Lee sighting.
His brief cameos just keep getting better with each successive Marvel movie. Eat your heart out, Hitchcock.

“Captain’s orders.” Let the civil war begin.

Final analysis: a surprisingly airtight plot...

...that doesn’t allow the action scenes to run away with the movie.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. Next up: “Bucky’s Revenge.”

A marked improvement over the first film, The Winter Soldier features a taut plot, a rather ingenious conspiracy and a terribly mysterious antagonist, who, much more than a mere caricature of a villain, actually strikes fear into the heart…there are several moments when it looks like our hero might be defeated by the shrouded assailant. However, when the villain’s secret identity is finally revealed, it’s a bit of a letdown...comic junkies (who know far more about the character’s back story than I do) will have a different opinion, I’m sure. The movie is salient in the way it wrestles with the realities of the postmodern world, such as: corporate corruption, terrorism and rampant surveillance. This film is more down-to-earth than most of the other superhero movies released over the past decade, but it looses its artistic edge by trying to be too realistic. A main contributor to this is the utter lack of anything “super” in the movie. Most of the technology on display in the film isn’t that much more advanced than what governmental agencies use today. Also, and more significantly, the entire film takes place in D.C.—no globetrotting, no exotic locales and no extraterrestrial environments in this movie. Some would argue that the everyday nature of the story is what makes it compelling, and I can’t argue with that. However, the look and feel of the movie is essentially an episode of Heroes with a blockbuster budget. Despite the solid story and serviceable performances, there isn’t much to marvel at here.

Noah (PG-13)

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Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Russell Crowe
March 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Crowe and Connelly also portrayed a married couple in A Beautiful Mind (2001).

Not too worried about spoiling plot points for this one.

The intro is eye opening...never heard of the Watchers.

Noah is quite the humanitarian...looks out for white flowers and dragon dogs.
Just a guess, but his skill at taking care of animals might come in handy someday.

Noah encounters a Watcher. I wonder if it has any vulnerable spots?

Noah sings a lullaby. Guess Crowe didn’t want those singing lessons he took for
Les Miserables to go to waste.
Not that they did much good, mind you. It’s a good thing all of the canines are sedated on the ark. Otherwise, the howling over Crowe’s singing would make our ears bleed.

A cup of tea with Methuselah. I hope the tea leaves aren’t as old as he is.
Yeah, yeah. My jokes are as stale as the tea.

Amazing time lapse montage.
But it’s used once again during story time with Noah. This occurrence should’ve been skipped in favor of the latter usage of the technique, which has more dramatic impact.

Watchers remind me of
LOTRs Ents...right down to the lumbering gait and booming, gravelly voice.

You knew they’d be coming sometime...all manner of reptiles board the ark. Why did it have to be snakes?

Question: Wouldn’t the sedation incense also effect the humans?
Correction: affect. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

“The time for mercy is past.” Fortunately God didn’t feel the same way.

Total
LOTR battle to repel the advancing throng.
The 5.1 quake hit right in the middle of this sequence…just added to the overall effect. Who needs IMAX?

Noah’s creation story is brilliantly visualized.
But looses its visual vitality due to the movie’s earlier instance of time lapse photography.

Final analysis: a beautifully crafted film, but a very strange take on the flood narrative.

The film fails as a faithful Biblical account but works extremely well as a fantasy epic.

Noah, a venerated man of faith, is characterized here as a misguided, manic Ahab.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Had higher hopes for this one. Can theological accuracy and art coexist? Remains to be seen.

Yes, the beginning of the film contains a warning that artistic license was taken with Aronofsky’s stylized rendition of the Biblical account of the global flood as told in the book of Genesis. Despite the disclaimer, does that give Aronofsky the right to forge the Biblical narrative into anything his fertile imagination conceives (I mean, introducing aliens into a film about Napoleon might seem less odd and would certainly be less controversial)? As if to remove all doubt as to how far the director will stray from the inspired source material, within minutes we’re introduced to the Watchers, which, presumably, are a variation of the Nephilim but with the potential to achieve eternal redemption (except for the one that cracks open its chest because that’s suicide, right?). With the Watchers, Aronofsky sets the tone and expectations for the film right out of the gate. You’ll either accept his fanciful riff on the story of Noah or you’ll outright reject the whole affair as high art heresy. Theological accuracy aside, the story starts floundering once the rain starts falling. Besides a needlessly protracted battle, filmed with all the visual verve of a LOTR movie, the subplot involving Ray Winstone’s devious antagonist is utterly daft. Those who’ve heard the Sunday school story will know that Noah and his family survive the deluge, so the outcome of the fight scene is a foregone conclusion. Consider this a failed attempt at generating dramatic intensity. As for the characterization of Noah as a type of tragic and tortured Ahab, there’s really no justification for it other than the fact that Aronofsky needed something to sustain viewer interest during the 40 days/nights part of the tale. There’s no doubt that Crowe pulls off the neurotic Noah but could conflict have been generated some other way so that the hero of our story stays somewhere this side of sane? Despite the many ways Aronofsky tampers with the original Biblical account, his biggest disservice to the film is his narrative choices, which consistently sideline God during key moments of the story. For instance, in our human minds it seems impossible that Noah and his family could’ve built the ark by themselves, so Aronofsky introduces the Watchers to make the task seem more feasible, effectively eliminating any supernatural agency from the equation. Also, from a man-centric perspective, it doesn’t seem probable that Noah and his family can feed and tend to all of the animals in the world for 40 full days, so Aronofsky devises a way to sedate the animals. If God could shut the mouths of hungry lions to preserve Daniel’s life, couldn’t God put all of the animals on the ark into a state of hibernation? Explaining away divine activity also occurs in subtle ways in the film, like when Noah’s sons raise the main door to seal up the ark. In the Bible, it’s God himself who shuts the door (Gen. 7:16). These instances, along with many others, reveal that the movie’s underlying problem isn’t the creative liberties taken with the story but rather the removal of the hand of providence from appearing in the movie’s broad strokes. I’m okay with whimsical story elements like the Watchers—I wasn’t alive during Noah’s time, so I can’t deny their existence—but I’m not okay with the excision of a divine agency from the heart of the story or human explanations given for miraculous events. After all, if you erase God from the story it kind of defeats the purpose, right? Bible scholars aver that 99% truth is still heresy. The many liberties taken here evince a story that’s deserving of such ignominious status. I had hoped that this movie would finally be the perfect marriage of an artistic, commercial film with a story that’s faithful to the original text. Unfortunately, this movie isn’t the consummation of those desires. Now all I’m left with is the sinking feeling that this movie was a missed opportunity of biblical proportions.

Divergent (PG-13)

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Directed by: Neil Burger
Starring: Shailene Woodley
March 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Opening narration effectively sets up the particulars of this dystopian world.
It’s a CliffsNotes version in case you haven’t read the book.

Clever use of mirrors in the choosing ceremony. A nice embellishment to the book.
Director Neil Burger maximizes the mirror motif, which is a very keen choice since such reflective surfaces are considered the height of vanity by those belonging to the Abnegation nation.

Guess I’d be factionless in this world...I could never cut my hand with a knife.
Just watching others slice into their own flesh makes me faint. Can you tell I’d never hack it in Dauntless?

Who will be the first to jump into the black hole?

“What makes you think you can talk to me?” Snap!
Tris gets off a nice retort, though.

Mosh pit initiation is fitting for Dauntless.
Crowd surfing in a cafeteria seems wholly appropriate for this faction. Can’t see it happening at Hogwarts though.

First jumper versus last jumper to fight in the ring. Short bought.

Training tips from Four followed by a brutal cliffhanger.
Jai Courtney (A Good Day to Die Hard) was the perfect casting decision for Eric, the movie’s loathsome antagonist.

Neuro stim darts. Very cool. Let the games begin.

“Pull the break!” What a rush that would be.

Attack of the crows...didn’t we already see this in a Hitchcock movie?

Entering someone else’s fear landscape...double the terror.

Four shows off his tats during his tryst with Tris.
Does a scene get any more gratuitous than this? Still, we’ve gotta’ give all the teenage girls what they paid for, right?

Let the drone war begin.
Not clone war, because we’ve already had one of those in a galaxy far, far away.

“A beauty we can’t afford.” Socialism at its finest, folks.

Nice twist with Winslet. Different than the book. Clever resolution.

Final analysis: faithful to the book with minor additions/deletions.

A twist on
Brave New World and The Hunger Games, Divergent is a cautionary tale about a society gone wrong.
However well-intentioned the formation of the factions was, none of them (except for Amity because, by golly, they just don’t know any better) are currently operating within the parameters of their proposed purpose. Dauntless have become too brutal, Erudite too manipulative, Candor too honest and Abnegation too powerful. The original intention for the expressed function of each faction has been taken to an unhealthy extreme. Just goes to prove that no matter how altruistic a societal structure or governing system is when it’s established, people will always find a way to frack it up. Pardon my Galactican.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. A decent dystopian yarn with adequate action and suspense. Next up: Insurgent.

The similarly themed The Hunger Games series was the exception to the rule that says you can’t do a point by point narrative reconstruction when adapting a book to the big screen. Adhering to the written page served those movies extremely well, with kudos going to Suzanne Collins for the strength of her source material. Divergent, to its own detriment, is the rule rather than the exception. Though there are minor alterations between book and movie, and despite the fact that the book series was written readymade for a big screen trilogy, the book didn’t translate as well to the film in this instance. Perhaps it’s that too much screen time is spent on Dauntless training and testing (and that too much time is spent in Dauntless territory). Perhaps the military overthrow and subsequent containment of the coup seems far too sudden and too cause and effect in its treatment. Perhaps the deaths of Will, mom and dad all come too quickly in succession for believability and for maximum impact. I mean, at least Luke had appropriate breathers in between the deaths of his aunt and uncle, Ben and Biggs in Star Wars. Perhaps it all boils down to the tried and true adage that the book is always better than the movie. Whatever the reason, here’s hoping the sequel will do a better job of visualizing Roth’s words onscreen. As is, the movie is a diverting tween-centric, near future thrill ride. However, it could’ve been, like its hero, a unique force of nature.

Non-Stop (PG-13)

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Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson
February 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Two vices in as many minutes.

Yay, Michelle Dockery from
Downton Abbey.
Hugh Bonneville recently appeared in The Monuments Men and Jessica Brown Findlay was the object of Colin Farrell’s affections in Winter’s Tale. It’s nice to see some of the fine Abbey cast members getting some exposure in American films.

Neeson squeezes his “good luck” ribbon.

Anson Mount from #AMC’s #HellOnWheels. Barely noticed him at first.
Clean cut, clean shaven and not a speck of dirt to be seen—quite a transformation.

Mile high melee.
It’s a whole other kind of club.

Fractured text messages and a fractured mirror.

One year free international travel. Ginsu knives included.
What makes the scene so funny, besides Neeson’s earnest delivery, is that some people would actually fall for his bluff.

“Control is an illusion.” How true.
We learned that on 9-11. Consider this movie yet another echo of that fateful day, since it also invokes terrorists hijacking an airplane.

“You should’ve just handed out pamphlets.” Ha!

Final analysis: a decent who-dunnit that’s fairly predictable all the way through.
Correction: whodunit.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars. About as entertaining as the similarly themed Flight Plan with Jodie Foster.

It wasn’t that long ago, back when he was the leading man in Schindler’s List (1993), Rob Roy (1995) and Michael Collins (1996), that Liam Neeson was considered a top shelf dramatic actor. Then his career took a sharp left turn when he played Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (1999). Now, Neeson has become firmly ensconced in a new phase of his career with B tier thrillers such as Taken (2008), Unknown (2011), Taken 2 (2012) and now this film. One can’t help but wonder if Neeson’s considerable acting talents are being wasted on such middlebrow projects. Still, I’m sure the paychecks are nothing to squawk about and Neeson certainly has commercial viability—despite the fact that he’s an aging action star. But hey, if Sly and Schwarz can do it... There isn’t anything special to the plot and the high altitude thriller concept has been done enough at this point that what the writers consider to be ingenious twists are merely egregious contrivances. Still, the movie isn’t without merit or entertainment value, especially when Neeson asserts his authority and beats up bad guys—the zero G shootout is one of the movie’s standout scenes. Worth a watch if you’re in the mood for a remedial thriller. Final thought: I wonder how many airlines will include this film as part of their in-flight entertainment package. There are a lot of idiots out there and you just don’t want to give them any ideas.

RoboCop (PG-13)

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Directed by: Jose Padilha
Starring: Joel Kinnaman
February 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Cylons patrolling the streets in Tehran. Peace through superior firepower.
An ironic, and in this instance fitting, quote from ST:TNG’s “The Arsenal of Freedom.”

Do the robots factor in collateral damage?

Robophobia. Ha!

“What do these machines feel?”

Robo’s first step...gotta’ love those mechanical servo sounds.

There’s a metal man in my rice paddy.

The pumping lungs are pretty well unsettling.
For some reason this scene is far more disturbing than the myriad people blown to bits in the movie.

Old Batman and new Commissioner Gordon argue over Robo’s effectiveness.

Cylons vs. Tin Man...who will win?

“The illusion of free will.” Hmm...
If there’s any complexity to the story, this is it. An interesting argument when applied to media’s power over the consumer.

Maybe they should’ve uploaded the criminal database after the media circus.

Reconstruction of the accident sequence is awesome.

Warehouse shooting is like a video game.
Which is already on its way to your local game store, I’m sure.

“Bad cop, RoboCop.”
Getting a bit cutesy now.

Robo vs. the AT-STs. A flurry of bullets.
You just knew this scene was coming. It’s a smoother sequence with CGI, but there’s something charming about the old, clunky stop motion FX in the original.

Final analysis: far better than I expected for a remake. Appropriately updates the story.

Oldman holds the whole thing together and Jackson’s opinion TV show is entertaining and topical.
If not heavy-handed in the way it lampoons a particular political slant.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Has some heart and a decent plot, but something’s missing here.

This is a valiant attempt at updating the 80s classic with modern technology and trappings, but it’s ultimately an effort that falls flat. Hollywood has always been sequel happy, but was remaking Robocop (1987), which hasn’t aged very well, a solid choice for a sequel? Aside from the nostalgia factor, is this story even that compelling? The movie reveals acts of terror abroad and at home and I suppose it’s cathartic to see a good guy with the power to defeat evildoers, but a superhero movie could’ve just as easily fulfilled such a need. Is this premise too silly for the more sophisticated modern viewer? Everything in its time I suppose, but hasn’t Robocop’s time already passed? Box office returns will reveal all.

Jack Ryan (PG-13)

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Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Chris Pine
January 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Flying in helicopters can be such a backbreaker.

What do you do when you need security from the security?
Better have some fighting skills, I suppose. Fortunately, Ryan is covered in that department.

Pine tells Costner his very scary scenario.

What kind of a man steals a dog?
What’s more, a dog belonging to a family living in a foreign country?

“This is geopolitics not couples therapy.” Great line.

Big splash scene is spectacular.
But seems somewhat hackneyed as a climactic event.

Final analysis: a good action/spy flick but not nearly as pulse-pounding as the
Bourne films.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Clancy would be proud of this effort. Will the Shadow Recruit return?

This Jack Ryan movie is the first in the series that isn’t based upon a novel written by the late Tom Clancy. I think Clancy would be proud that the character he created is still thriving on the big screen, and, what’s more, getting a youthful overhaul. However, I’m not sure he would be as sanguine about a story that’s sub-standard to the intricate, multi-layered work the author churned out consistently throughout his career. Pine is an effective choice for Ryan and the supporting cast of Costner, Knightley and Branagh are each well suited for their roles. Bottom line here is that the movie’s action sequences and overall narrative effectiveness fail to measure up to Clancy’s criteria. My suggestion is to return the series to the source material that made Jack Ryan a compelling character to begin with…Clancy’s novels.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (PG-13)

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence
November 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Katniss is definitely one person I wouldn’t sneak up behind...especially if her bow & arrow were in hand.
That would be a quick way to spring a leak.

It’s snowing outside with Snow inside. “Convince me,” the prez says.

Stubborn and good with a bow...an accurate characterization of Katniss.

Peeta goes off script. A touching moment.

The occupation of District 12. Dark times ahead.
I pray that things never get so bad that this happens in our country.

Hoffman proposes a “wrinkle” for the Quarter Quell, and it’s a big one.

Finnick offers Katniss a sugar cube. Maybe if he’d offered chocolate he would’ve gotten a better result.

Mags teaches Katniss how to make a fishhook. Soon after, Katniss gives a clinic in archery.
Good scenes that play out much as they did in the book.

The mockingjay dress is quite a spectacle.
Is it scientifically feasible though?

Let the games begin.
A furious commencement to the competition here, just like in the book. But this cornucopia is surrounded by a noticeably different environment than the one in the first Games.

Hoffman orders a cannon prepared for Peeta’s apparent demise.

Haymich sends a spile...a refreshing gift.

A morphling’s sacrifice. What does it portend?

Attack of the jabberjays. Hitchcock would be proud.

Funny how Katniss never runs out of arrows or that they never spill out of her quiver.

The revolution begins. On their way to District 13 in time for the next movie.

Final analysis: excellent adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ superb second novel in
The Hunger Games series.
And just like the Harry Potter and Twilight series, Collins’ final book, Mockingjay, will be adapted into two movies.

Excellent directing by Francis Lawrence (
I Am Legend), and pitch perfect acting all around.

The film maximizes on all of the major events & emotional moments in the book while adding some new twists.

Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4 stars. Deeper and darker than the first film. Has set the stage for a rousing finale.

Some have boldly averred that this sequel is The Empire Strikes Back of The Hunger Games series. Although far too loft an assertion, Catching Fire is a darker and deeper than the first film. A superb sequel that capitalizes on the solid groundwork established in the first film, the sequel lives up to its name by raising the stakes and tossing its characters into the crucible of political turmoil and civil unrest…and into yet another arena where even more slayings occur. The movie diligently follows Collins’ novel, which seemed to come readymade for the big screen, and who’s to say it wasn’t written with an eye toward a potential cinematic blockbuster. This is one instance where strict adherence to the source material was the wisest choice possible. If I were a big shot at Lionsgate, I’d rush the two remaining films into production immediately to ensure actor Lawrence’s continued involvement with the series. Something tells me that with all the Oscar attention Lawrence has been garnering lately projects like The Hunger Games will soon be a thing of the past for this emerging A-list actress.

Thor: The Dark World (PG-13)

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Directed by: Alan Taylor
Starring: Chris Hemsworth
November 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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With apologies to MC.

The dark elves...those are called goblins, right? Total
LOTR opening.

Loki wants his birthright, gets a dungeon instead.
Echoes of Jacob and Joseph’s stories in the Bible.

Thor vs. Goliath. Short fight.

Something about planet Vanaheim reminds me of the prototypical worlds seen on
Stargate SG1.

Portman enters the titular dark realm. Something tells me Amidala is no longer on Naboo.

Thor and Portman beam up. Welcome to Asgard.

Predator guy deactivates the Gungan shield protecting Odin’s fortress.
Sorry, mixed my movie metaphors on this one.

Stan Lee wants his shoe back.
Eh, he can afford a replacement.

Selvig streaks at Stonehenge. Thank God for pixel blurring.

Loki vs. four dark elves. Thor vs. Predator.
The fight schedule really fills up here…much like it did in The Avengers.

Thor hangs his hammer on a coatrack. Hilarious!

Convergence circles of the nine worlds are sweet.

Nice ending twist.
Or twist ending.

Final analysis: story took a long time to get going and wasn’t all that engaging once it did.

Certainly not the worst superhero movie ever, but far from spectacular.

The plot is a pastiche of
LOTR, Star Wars, Star Trek and even First Knight. Not much originality.
In the case of the latter film, I reference the shared scene of a launched flaming arrow igniting the pyre atop a floating raft.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Not nearly as enjoyable as the first film, but not without its merits.

This film just rolled along and at movie’s end I was kinda’ like “is that it?” Though the movie is an enjoyable entertainment, I never once felt emotionally engaged, never once felt that our hero was in any real jeopardy and felt that the story, for all its high-end FX and well choreographed fight scenes, is just ho-hum. Hopkins gives the film appropriate gravitas, as he did in the first film, and Tom Hiddleston serves as an effective wild card element in the story. Hemsworth and Portman are exceedingly cardboard in their roles…a major disappointment. One other thought: London keeps getting picked on in sci-fi/superhero movies (Star Trek: Into Darkness, Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, etc). Let’s pick on Miami or Dallas for a change. Poughkeepsie?

Ender's Game (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gavin Hood
Starring: Harrison Ford
November 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Been waiting a long time for this one. Earnestly praying that it lives up to Card’s amazing novel.
Amazing and award winning: Hugo and Nebula…the two highest honors in science fiction writing. Yes, the novel is that good! Possibly the finest example of military sci-fi ever written.

“This won’t hurt a bit.” Famous last words.

Don’t mess with Ender. The bullied becomes the bully.

Caesar, Napoleon...Ender?

Dap, the drill sergeant, is perfect.

“Your mother cheated, that’s why you look like a plumber.” Ha!
It’s been a lifelong ambition of mine to possess the ability to deliver, in the spur of the moment, a cut down this good.

Practice session in the battle room. Nice sequence.

Ender promoted to the army of misfit soldiers.

Bonzo is a bozo.
This kid is a great actor, though…Moises Arias. He played the memorable goof in The Kings of Summer earlier this year.

Lots of shots of characters peering through windows.
A visual motif that echoes John Ford’s use of doorways in The Searchers (1956).

Graduation day. The final simulation.

“Stay calm...shoot straight.” A nice T-shirt saying.

“The way we win matters.” What a line and what a scene.

Final analysis: a faithful adaptation of Card’s novel with gorgeous visuals and top-notch production values.

Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4 stars. For all of its action, the movie broaches some heavy-hitting ethical issues.

Though some will compare this movie to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (the book, not the campy 1997 movie directed by Paul Verhoeven), the connective tissue between both stories is fairly tenuous beyond a couple major themes and tropes. The acting is superb here and the training exercises and space battle sequences are utterly spellbinding. Universal themes of courage, teamwork and the meaning of honor are effectively woven into a narrative tapestry that somehow manages to cohere despite its surfeit of action sequences; certainly a breath of fresh air from most action oriented blockbusters these days, which consistently suffer from anemic screenplays. Exhilarated that Card’s superlative military sci-fi novel has been realized on the big screen at long last and relieved that director Gavin Hood didn’t mishandle such ingenious source material, I hope the author is as proud of this effort as I am.

Escape Plan (R)

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Directed by: Mikael Hafstrom
Starring: Sylvester Stallone
October 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Don’t know why, but I always spell his name wrong…should read Sly and Schwarz. With many apologies to the former Governator, who will undoubtedly hunt me down and make me pay for such a transgression.

Sly’s deconstruction of his breakout. Nifty sequence.
But is it too much like a magician revealing how he did a trick?

Chip is extracted...Houdini is on his own.

M.C. Escher must’ve designed this prison.

Sly meets the “favor man.”
A macho meet-cute.

“You hit like a vegetarian.” Ha!

A new challenge for the breakout artist. A cover story created.

The prison doctor has a familiar bearing. I think he was an archaeologist in a former life.

Lots of wipes now to speed the story along.
Very smart since there isn’t much story here to begin with.

Plan B. How long can you hold your breath?

Final analysis: far better than I thought it was going to be. Still a bit B tier, but entertaining.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. A headier brand of action movie which suits the aging stars. A decent flick.

I have to admit, this movie was far better than I thought it was going to be. A movie headlined by two aging 80s action stars is an amusing stunt from a marketing perspective, but from the vantage of a ticket-buying spectator, the film seemed less than promising. Surprisingly, the serviceable story maintains interest throughout and the actors aren’t as wooden as would be expected. Though Sly walks around with a perpetual stinger in his neck and Schwarz doesn’t look half the man he used to be, both actors have fun with their parts and it’s that good-natured ribbing between the two “manly man” leads that carries the film—their chemistry is undeniable and such synergy propels the movie through improbable plot twists to its harrowing climax. All in all, this is a satisfying popcorn action picture that will tide you over until the next Expendables movie.

Machete Kills (R)

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Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Danny Trejo
October 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Spilled is probably a better usage of the word.

70s style “prevue” is a hoot.

Three different armies in as many minutes. The bloodbath begins.
This initial bloodletting, which comes even before the first evidences of a plot have coalesced, clues us into the fact that everything else in the movie will take a back seat to the action sequences.

Mr. Machete Goes to Washington.

“Machete don’t smoke.” Ha!

Machete don’t tweet either. Fortunately I do.
However, these “Machete don’t ____” gags are getting tired at this point.

Helicopter homicide is disgusting.
And utterly unrealistic.

Mexican standoff in a Mexican restaurant ends with a bang.

OMG! Vergara’s body part weapons are...words fail.

Molecule blaster is gross, but humorous.

The
Star Wars and Star Trek allusions are becoming intolerable.
The ending gets extremely gimmicky and borrows heavily from a plethora of genre movies.

Final analysis: bloodier and more outlandish than the original, if possible.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Will this film earn enough money to justify the promised sequel? Voz knows.

This movie is a profound disappointment. The first film was also a bloodbath, but it was amusing and had more than its share of heartfelt chuckles. Here, the laughs are strained and far too many of them are accompanied by eye rolls. Rodriguez’ first Machete (2010) allowed us to experience the lighter side of a splatter-fest; the slayings were so elaborate, so frequent and so graphic that they bordered on the comedic. In this sequel, far too many of the action scenes are gross or gratuitous and lack the degree of levity that made the first film such a guilty pleasure. As for the supporting players, Sofia Vergara is way over-the-top and Mel Gibson’s villainous Voz is just strange—even by Mel’s standards. Hopefully Rodriguez will right the ship for Machete Kills Again.

The Lone Ranger (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp
July 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Not to be confused with Arm & Hammer.

Kid looses a red balloon. Don’t worry, it’ll end up in France.
With much appreciation to Lamorisse’s masterwork.

Not so still life at the museum. Guess we’ll be seeing Stiller and Wilson in a minute.

A bird in a cage...nice symbolism.
But overdetermined?

Train wreck not nearly as exciting as the one in Super 8 or as realistic as the one in The Fugitive.

Hammer’s hat is as white as the spirit horse. Nice to see that Western tropes are still alive and well.

Nothing like waking up on top of the world. Good thing the LR doesn’t sleepwalk.

Feeding the rabid rabbits...the movie’s first silly scene.
It just doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie, which works very hard to establish the “reality” of its world.

Spirits for the spirit horse.
We’ve seen this gag in a thousand Westerns and it just never seems to get old.

Do horses really eat scorpions?

Nice montage during the prayer.

Moonlit arrows raining down...an amazing visual.
…but isn’t this something you’d expect to see in a sword and sorcery film and not a Western?

Ah, The William Tell Overture. Just in time for the rousing climax.

Final analysis: far better than I thought it would be, but ran twenty minutes too long.

Gorgeous Western vistas and solid performances all around from the diverse cast.
I don’t know how Verbinski roped Tom Wilkinson into doing this project, but I’m glad for the veteran actor’s presence here.

Probably didn’t score with audiences as well as expected because it was billed as being funnier than it is.
And adding Depp to the cast certainly validated such expectations.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars. A solid effort, but will the LR ride again in a sequel?

Wow, I thought old Tonto would’ve fainted in the scorching desert by now!

Other than the above observations, it’s hard to say where this Walt Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer production went wrong. Perhaps it was a matter of timing or viewer interest in the subject itself—Westerns haven’t dominated at the box office for quite some time. Hammer doesn’t have the drawing power that Depp does, but Depp’s presence, by itself, should’ve ensured blockbuster status for this film. The movie’s soft-core action scenes and comedy-lite screenplay most likely added to the movie’s malaise and mediocre box office. Either way, Depp probably won’t be applying the face mud again any time soon. And considering what it’s composed of, that might not be such a bad thing.

Kick-Ass 2 (R)

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Directed by: Jeff Wadlow
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson
August 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Shooting her friend in the back. With friends like her...

Absent for her perfect attendance award.

Dr. Gravity to the rescue.
This is one funny sequence. You just never know when some random vigilante will appear to save your butt in this comic book world. Apparently there’s no such thing as deus ex machina in this world either.

“You’re gonna need a bigger jar.” NK. Especially with her potty mouth.

These wanna-be superheroes remind me of the misfits in
Mystery Men.
The 1999 comedy is highly recommended for those who, like me, have a warped sense of humor.

Fight moves at dance team tryouts is a really nice sequence.
Or maybe it was cheerleader tryouts…I don’t remember. Don’t care either.

Will the “date ditch” impel Hit Girl into taking up her mantle again?

Starting to turn into Mean Girls. The puke taser is gross.
No description required.

Battle royale. Great protracted battle between Hit Girl and Mother Russia.

Final analysis: as brutal and crass as the first film, but still quite entertaining.
I still miss Nicolas Cage’s Big Daddy, though. Probably my all-time favorite role of his…which still isn’t saying much.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Some good messages sandwiched between action scenes.

Compared to the first, controversial film, the sequel seems somewhat tame by comparison. With no origin story to give it context and structure, the sequel focuses on Mintz-Plasse’s 2.0 version villain and a gaggle of B and C tier “Superheroes/Super villains.” Not as clever or incisive as its forebear, this follow-up film makes a valiant attempt at superseding the first film, but in the end gets its butt kicked by the original.

The World's End (R)

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Directed by: Edgar Wright
Starring: Simon Pegg
August 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


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Hopefully this will be less offensive than the other recent apocalyptic film, This Is the End.
Though both movies share a similar title, this effort is more creative and less offensive than Rogan’s raunch-fest.

Pegg’s opening narration ends in an unexpected location.

Reunion of pals and a road trip in the Beast.
This wouldn’t officially be a buddy movie without a road trip.

Pegg’s rapid-fire speech to the motel attendant is hilarious.
Wonder how many takes it took.

First stop on the golden mile. A toast to kids wherever they may be.

Mum calling...oops.
Busted!

Fisticuffs in the bathroom. A whole new meaning to blue bloods.

Live on stage: The Marmalade Sandwich.
Truly a snicker worthy band name.

Scars and memories...the things that make us human.
In Cars 2 it was dents. Same dif.

Giant modern art statue is reminiscent of Gort.
The plaque must read: “Klaatu Barada Nikto.”

Final analysis: borrows liberally from The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Not nearly as good as
Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead. Also, what a strange ending.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. The slow start and strange finish detract from this marginally amusing tale.

Although the movie coaxes occasional chortles from its audience, classifying it as a comedy would be a bit of a stretch. The whole affair feels low budget and the otherworldly twists in these Pegg penned movies are becoming predictable and pedantic…and pedestrian. The simple premise makes for an uncomplicated movie but also a largely unconvincing one. Still the movie is just interesting enough to divert its audience for a couple hours. But maybe that kind of mindless diversion is all part of their master plan.

Elysium (R)

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Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon
August 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Space station looks like it was borrowed from Kubrick’s 2001.

Vow made by boy and girl is similar to the one made at the beginning of Pixar’s
Up.

Parole officer reminds me of
Total Recall’s Johnny Cab.

Shuttles with invalid access codes...I’m having a
Return of the Jedi flashback.
Wow, four movie references in a row. I was on a roll.

“Extraction!” Damon’s had better days at work.

Meeting with Spider—Damon gets Borgified.

Foster’s accent is more annoying than Bale’s gravelly Batman speech.
It’s painfully put on…so obviously not her normal mode of speech.

Damon uses pigs as a blanket.

“The hippo wants a friend.” A touching scene.

Facial reconstruction...like a Spielberg effect in reverse.

Final analysis: engaging dystopian yarn that falls short of
District 9 despite topical themes and stark realism.
District 9 was also directed by Neill Blomkamp and starred Sharlto Copley, who plays the antagonist here.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Mildly disappointing, but still a decent popcorn flick.

There are some gorgeous visuals in this film, especially those involving the titular space station. The Brave New World contrast between classes is pertinent as we continue to see the dissolution of the middle class in our society. The near-future world created by Blomkamp here is astounding, spring-boarding off the success of his similarly themed and styled District 9. Damon is solid, but understated in the film and everyone else is just kinda’ there…playing their parts exactly as you’d expect them to be played. For all of the unbridled, unqualified genius exhibited onscreen, the movie is largely unmoving. Sadly, there’s very little movie magic here…which is disappointing since this film appeared to have incredible potential to become a dystopian masterpiece.

The Wolverine (PG-13)

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Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Hugh Jackman
July 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Logan is in the box...River Kwai style.

How about some extra crispy Wolverine as an appetizer?

Guess it’s true what they say...a Wolverine can take down a bear.

Why does Wolvie need a sword? He already has six blades.
Ceremonial, I suppose.

A scrub in the tub, some grooming and there’s the Logan we know.

The old man’s adjustable bed is awesome! Who needs memory foam?

“Time for you to go back to your cave.” Them’s fightin’ words.

Many deaths at the funeral and an assist from the Asian Hawkeye.

Logan treats his bullet wounds on a bullet train.
Sometimes I just can’t help myself.

Fight atop the train is spectacular!

Mission to Mars it is.
Not the mediocre 2000 movie with Gary Sinise.

Beware the blonde with the acid breath.
Always good advice.

I knew the bit about the planted chopsticks.

I’d gladly chop a fallen tree for that smile.
Especially if I had Logan’s physical prowess.

Logan is a ronin--a good description of his existence.

Doing open-heart surgery on yourself...ouch.
Apparently Wolvie took an extension course in heart surgery before joining the X-Men.

“Is that all the men you brought?” Clint Eastwood would be proud.

Wolvie’s taking on more arrows than Boromir.

Did Poison Ivy cross over from the DC universe?

A giant adamantium samurai...now things are getting cartoony.
The big metal guy reminds me of the giant robot in the first Thor movie.

Final analysis: certainly not the worst superhero movie, but far from the best.

Greatly benefits from its Asian backdrop.
But does this locale work for a Wolverine film? What it gains in exotic appeal it looses in suitability for the character.

Honestly, the mid end credit bonus scene was more intriguing than the entire film.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Sets up well but has a weak ending. A soufflé with a few missing ingredients.

Although this film is unquestionably better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), it still doesn’t measure up to the quality of the X-Men films. As a standalone episode, this movie works just fine…“The One Where Wolvie Goes to Asia.” But where does this film land in Wolvie’s chronology? What major character revelations do we learn here? How many more X-Men movies will 20th Century Fox get out of Jackman since he’s not only getting older, but also more accomplished as an A-list leading man? Though a decent entry into the character’s personal back story, it’s equivalent to an average storyline in the comic books. Certainly the writers could’ve culled the comics for a more exciting, more cinematic story than this one.

R.I.P.D. (PG-13)

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Directed by: Robert Schwentke
Starring: Ryan Reynolds
July 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Reynolds is double-crossed by his A-list partner.

Mary Louise Parker as St. Peter? She’s in two new releases this week...impressive.
Parker also appears in Red 2.

Indian food sure does bring out the monster in some people.

Reynolds’ old partner can traverse realities? Color me interested.

Eternal affairs...clever.

A singularity forming over a city...didn’t we see this in last summer’s The Avengers?

“She billygoated me.” Eww!

Final analysis: a unique concept that isn’t exploited to maximum effect.
In fact, the premise is dumbed down for maximum commercial appeal.

Thematically and conceptually similar to the Men in Black films.

Bridges steals the show as the Custer-esque, chaw-mouthed veteran who shows Reynolds the ropes. A truly unique role.
The way he sits sidesaddle in the patrol car is a nice character touch.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars. A sequel is almost certainly assured.

I remember laughing out loud when seeing the trailer for this film, thinking “now here’s a clever conceit.” The germ of that conceit—the premise—is the only part of the film that works. As with most Hollywood productions today, it’s poor execution and cursory character development that render this movie a pale reflection of what it could’ve been in more skillful and creative hands. And, also like too many Hollywood films today, R.I.P.D. is far too vulgar and vapid for its own good. Though Universal Studios will work hard to find a way to resurrect this sad effort into a sequel, this DOA plot should be left six feet under. RIP R.I.P.D.

Red 2 (PG-13)

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Directed by: Dean Parisot
Starring: Bruce Willis
July 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Is Malcovich playing possum...again?

Beware Pringles in a shoot out.

Death by origami...not pretty.

Don’t look the Frog in the eye.
Especially if it’s a hypnotoad.

The un-torture scene is uproariously funny.

“I knew she’d play him like a banjo at an Ozark hoedown.” Ha!
I didn’t find Malcovich’s character all that funny in the first film, but virtually every line he delivers in the sequel is side-splitter.

It goes without saying, but Hopkins is fantastic.
The scene where he stages his own breakout is nothing short of brilliant.

Red mercury...is that the predecessor to Trek’s red matter?

Final analysis: a rip-roaring good time. At least as good as the first, perhaps a bit better.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Great action with plenty of laughs. Not a bad way to spend two hours.

Just seeing all of these A-list stars hamming it up together on the big screen is worth the price of admission, but the movie also boasts a serviceable plot populated with snappy dialog and some heart-stopping action sequences. Here’s hoping Red 3 advances the spy spoof series with the same degree of wild and witty action showcased in the first two Red films.

Pacific Rim (PG-13)

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Directed by: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Starring: Steve Carell
July 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


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…with a microscopic plot.

Despite being a fan of del Toro’s earlier films, I’m dubious about this one.

A Transformers vs. Godzilla premise seems anemic and the trailer looks too similar to last year’s
Battleship.
In the end, this film might be a hairsbreadth better than Battleship. But that still isn’t saying much.

Jäger bot appears as a giant Ironman.
Correction: Iron Man.

Face-off over a fishing boat.
Whoever wins, I’m pretty sure the boat will lose.

“Wall of Life” is one of the daftest security measures ever conceived.

Why do the creatures attack cities? The entire population of a metropolis would only make one good meal?

Scientist “drifts” with a creature. The key to our survival?

A
BSG rip-off...digital vs. analog technology.
In the pilot film of Battlestar Galactica (2003) that sold the show to Sy-fy, Cylons hack into the computers aboard the Colonial Vipers and immobilize them. To stem the tide of the invasion, the colonists must pull the old, pre-computer Vipers out of mothballs in order to repel the Cylon advance.

Didn’t we just see the mass destruction of a city in Man of Steel?

Pearlman becomes baby’s first meal.

“Today we are canceling the apocalypse.” One of the most stilted lines I’ve heard in some time.
An awful line that made me grimace even when I first heard it in the trailer.

Elba’s entire speech is a cheap imitation of Aragorn’s in The Return of the King.

Wind sound effects underwater?
Well, I guess as long as we have explosions in outer space…

Final analysis: have we finally reached the threshold for the scale of a big budget film?
My fondest wish.

FX are amazing, especially underwater, but the story and characterizations are razor thin.

Rating:
2 out of 4 stars, which is generous for this significantly flawed creature feature.
It’s hard to know where to start with this one. This movie is a profound disappointment owing largely to the fact that del Toro is such an accomplished director with a brilliant sci-fi/fantasy/horror imagination. Very little of that imagination is evident here in what amounts to a contrived action first/story last near future monster vs. technology movie. Character development is flaccid and the dialog is downright abysmal. There isn’t a single aspect of this movie that’s compelling (save for the evocative title which is wasted on this mediocre affair). The movie is just an egregious waste of money and resources…and, worst of all, the audience’s time. The story earns 1 star and the FX garners 3 stars, so a rating of 2, which still seems too high, is fair I suppose.

World War Z (PG-13)

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Directed by: Marc Forster
Starring: Brad Pitt
June 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Hopefully the movie will be more watchable than the book is readable.
Written by Max Brooks, the book is an oral history of the outbreak and subsequent war on zombies. The “narrative” consists of one character interviewing eyewitnesses to zombie activities in various regions around the globe. I struggled to get through the first fifty pages at which point I promptly shelved the book, where it now sits nestled under a blanket of dust. Maybe since I killed and buried the book it will rise up some day in a mutated form and exact its revenge upon me. Actually, that would be more exciting than the book itself.

Drafting behind a trash truck...smart move.

12 seconds to zombie time.
A very heads-up move by Pitt’s character…amazing presence of mind amid the tumult.

The last place I’d want to be stuck in a zombie apocalypse...Newark.

“Movement is life.”
As opposed to staying in one place when you’re lost.

Roof-top rescue is heart-pounding.
…but was savagely spoiled in the trailer.

Speech on the plane about “serial killer” is utterly fascinating.
One of my favorite scenes in the film. Great dialog and a way of looking at the world that really broadsided me.

You’ve heard not to run with scissors. Same is true for a gun.

A memorable cameo by David Morse.
Clearly his character’s never heard of 1-800-DENTIST.

In the history of poorly timed phone calls...
This is a spoiler, but if you’ve seen the movie you know exactly when this occurs.

The tenth man of Jerusalem. Yep, we’re globe-trotting.

Zombie ladder is absolutely frightening.

You thought snakes on a plane were dangerous, how about the undead?

B wing...into the lion’s den.

Teeth chattering is a bit much.

Final analysis: An effective blend of
Contagion and I Am Legend.

Good action and a fairly airtight plot.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars. Worth seeing if you can abide zombies.
Otherwise, there’s bound to be lighter fare in an adjoining theater.

This film will probably disappoint audience members expecting all-out action…this is a thinking person’s zombie film. The insult to injury here is that most of the movie’s action sequences are teased in the trailer, so the movie can seem familiar even while watching it for the first time (curse you movie trailers!). However, WWZ is a pleasant surprise because the plot is smart and taut and the performances are well-suited to the alternating exposition/action story line. Although classifying WWZ as a high art zombie film would be a misnomer, it will go down as a serious and scientifically feasible outbreak movie.

Check out my Twitter run for
#LearnFromMyMistake to read an amusing story of what happened to me at the theater the night I watched this movie.

Man of Steel (PG-13)

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Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill
June 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Correction: Zack Snyder.

Far more epic opening than the original.
However, the prolog is far too protracted and showy for what it needed to be. Snyder tries too hard to dazzle here and during the climactic melee.

“I will find him!” And I thought Michael Shannon was frightening on Boardwalk Empire.

Really interesting way of conveying Clark’s heightened senses in school.
One of the best character moments in the film.

New Fortress of Solitude looks like it was designed by H. R. Geiger.
Correction: H.R. Giger.

The first flight sequences are breathtaking. Love the sonic boom sound.

Origin story is parsed out judiciously.

Notice the symbolism in the stain glass window.
Superman’s messianic attributes have been well documented in film studies. Also, in the moment, I couldn't remember if it’s stain or stained glass. I chose poorly. Past tense is correct.

Don’t tug on Superman’s cape and don’t mess with his mother.
With much gratitude to the late Jim Croce.

Small town skirmish similar to the one in Superman II...but on speed.

Woah...didn’t see that resolution to the final showdown coming.

Welcome to the planet. Clever turn of phrase.

Final analysis: Starts off strong but gets hokey by the end. Borrows too heavily from first two films.
Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980).

Costner and Crowe are superb, both lend the film a great deal of dignity and humanity.

Hans Zimmer’s score is excellent.

In the end, better than the last film, but not as enjoyable as Reeves’ early movies.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4. Will MOS soar or end up as box office Kryptonite?

Writers Goyer and Nolan have attempted to update Superman in a similar manner to what they accomplished in the Batman trilogy. Although the more realistic/less cartoony approach to the material seems to have worked well for the origin story and character development phases of the story, the decision to make the story darker and edgier has squelched the optimism and patriotism that were emblematic of the superhero and his quest from his inception in comic books. It sounds so obvious when stated, but Superman is a different type of hero than Batman and the re-envisioning of the man in tights here is a mostly mediocre affair. As for the movie’s star, Cavill is too earnest and emotionless to play Clark Kent…he’s even more introspective and dour than Bruce Wayne/Batman and brings nothing special to the roll. He certainly doesn’t possess the charm Christopher Reeve endued his Kent/Superman with. The climactic showdown, as shot by Snyder and his cameraman, is nauseating. The handheld camera is jerking back/forth, up/down so much that everything is one gigantic blur…and this is supposed to be thrilling? I had no idea when Superman was hitting or being hit. I’m sure the video game set can keep up with the action just fine, but I dare say a large segment of the audience needed a Dramamine when all was said and done. All told, Snyder’s Superman film is a valiant effort that just doesn’t have the same appeal that Reeve’s films, however cheesy they were at times, had in spades.

After Earth (PG-13)

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Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Jaden Smith
May 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Use of sails in the interior decorating is a nice visual motif.

Roll up iPad is amazing! I want one. Now.
This technology is like 5-10 years away, right?

Skydive scene is a thrill ride. A literal and figurative high point for the movie so far.
Unfortunately the story follows the same trajectory and speed as Jaden’s skydive, but is never able to pull up.

Nifty flight suit. Condorman would be envious.

Jaden is cutlass-less. Not good.

Jaden’s new assignment: climb to the top of Mt. Doom.

Straightforward survival story with decent adventure & a nice father/son subplot just in time for Father’s Day.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars. Next up: Man of Steel. Stay classy!

Although this film isn’t earth-shattering, it deserved a better fate than what it received. I’m not sure if it’s because the movie came too soon on the heels of Oblivion (another dystopian yarn), or if the survival story looked too tepid (and it is in many instances), or if audiences wanted to see more of elder Smith in the movie, or if news that Shyamalan helmed the project outright tanked it, but the stars definitely didn’t line up for this film. One of the poorest performing movies of Will Smith’s career, one wonders if he sacrificed too much to establish his son as a top billed movie star.

Star Trek Into Darkness (PG-13)

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Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Chris Pine
May 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Red trees...finally an alien-looking planet!
I first saw these trees in the trailer and was blown away by the striking visual of their vermillion branches and leaves against white trunks. What captivated me most as a fan of TOS was the “new life and new civilizations” part of the opening monolog. Unfortunately, we’ve had so many Earth-like climates/habitats in Sci-fi movies and TV shows that the same old desert, arctic, water, forest, jungle, etc., environments have become commonplace and stale. This world feels appropriately otherworldly and has brought back the thrill of deep space exploration that was so palpable in TOS.

Crossing universes...Spock appears to be on Mustafar.

What would Spock do? A good revelation.
WWSD? I wouldn’t want Spock’s cold logic deciding my fate.

Nice stand-alone mission with mud-skinned aliens. Reminds me of a TOS episode.

Nice pork chops, Pike. The 70s called and they want their sideburns back.

“You don’t respect the chair.” Great line and scene with Pike.
Bruce Greenwood is the elder statesman in the new Trek films. Pike possesses a dignity and decorum sorely lacking in the impetuous Kirk, whom he’s taken under his wing. Greenwood’s performance has really grounded Abrams’ first two Trek’s in profound ways.

80s action stars never die...they become Starfleet admirals.

Section 31. Any
DS9 fans out there?

The Mudd Incident. Another
TOS reference. Sulu tough as nails.

McCoy’s metaphors...funny scene.
This tweet comes before the previous one chronologically. Couldn’t think fast enough.

Exciting firefight with marauders and mystery combatant.

Superb stare down between Kirk and Harrison.
The tension here is palpable...two really good actors in a showdown. Superb dialog in this pivotal scene.

Red alert...gratuitous underwear scene.

Awesome Gorn reference. Torpedo planet looks like it’s on loan from Ridey Scott’s
Prometheus.
Dr. McCoy is such a Southern gentleman. Not sure I’d be such a gentleman if I were all alone on a planet with Carol Marcus (Alice Eve).

Notice the shape of the scrap on Kirk’s cheek bone.
The first of many instances of Manly Thumbs vs. Tiny Keypad. Score 1 for the keypad. “Scrap” should be “scrape.”

Admiral Robo’s ship looks like it comes from TNG.

Scotty’s sprint and debris field, good stuff.
My favorite movie line of the year is when Scotty tells Kirk to give him a minute. Impeccable delivery!

Pair o Spock’s redux. Pivotal scene.
It’s always nice to see an old friend.

“Shall we begin?” Not nearly as good as “Go ahead, make my day,” but It’ll do.
Ah, that voice! Just reading the words and I can hear Cumberbatch’s rich baritone voice echoing in my head.

Finally...seatbelts on the Enterprise.
It only took what...48 years?

For film studies buffs, notice the use of plexiglass in crucial scenes throughout.
Plexiglass or transparent aluminum?

A tribble saves the day!

Ah, the fistfight we’ve been waiting for all movie.

5 year mission. Does that mean a new TV show? Wishful thinking, I’m sure.

Rating: 3 out of 4. Same as last one. Perhaps a tad better due to Cumberbatch’s performance. Next up...After Earth with Will Smith.

Final Thoughts/Parting Shots: Okay, there’s so much to say, good and bad, in an analysis of this film, but I don’t want to ramble on like I did for J.J’s first Trek. First off, it’s very sad to say goodbye to one of our heroes in this film. The admiral’s presence will be sorely missed in future Treks. Most of the FX are stellar, but the matte shot of the Klingon moon (Praxis?) is a bit dicey. Some nitpicks: Is it really that short of a warp journey to get from Kronos to Earth (the Enterprise only travels at warp speed for a few minutes before Adm. Marcus’ ship blasts the Enterprise out of warp, depositing it near the moon)? If so, such proximity to the enemy home world would be worrisome… for both galactic superpowers, one would presume. Next, is Earth’s gravitational pull so great that it could draw the Enterprise all the way from the moon into its atmosphere? Seems a bit implausible. I could go on and on regarding the movie’s inconsistencies (like the can of Regulan bloodworms that was opened up by the subplot involving Khan’s “fountain of youth” blood), but I’ll refrain. My biggest snafu is revealing Harrison as Khan. Why is it necessary? Is Harrison any less compelling a villain, as played by Cumberbatch, than Khan? Since there’s so little back story and character development for the villain wouldn’t he work as either Harrison or Khan? And if so, doesn’t that mean the decision to make the villain Khan a contrived one? A gimmick to boost ratings? Some may see this choice as a way of introducing a new generation to the colorful TOS antagonist, but others might see it as needlessly tampering with a classic villain. Speaking of Cumberbatch as Khan, I must admit that I’m not as blown away by his performance as I thought I’d be (I know, I’m probably the only person on the planet who feels this way). One needs look no further than Sherlock to see just how brilliant and commanding an actor Cumberbatch is. Here, due to limited screen time and an underdeveloped character, the actor is effective but a far cry from phenomenal. Again, I might be alone in this assertion, but I feel like Abrams could’ve gotten more out of Cumberbatch…that there was an extra gear the actor could’ve shifted into to make his performance even more memorable. Be that as it may, Into Darkness is a fine follow-up to 2009’s Star Trek, and has expanded the series and taken it into appropriately darker territory. Bring on the next film…Star Trek To the Light Side. Lens flares included.

Taken 2 (PG-13)

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Directed by: Olivier Megaton
Starring: Liam Neeson
October 2012

The follow-up to the successful thriller
Taken (2008), Taken 2 is leaner, meaner and doubles the number of kidnappings. This time around it’s a family affair as Liam Neeson, Famke Jansen and Maggie Grace, while vacationing in Istanbul, are targeted by Albanian thugs with a grudge against Neeson for his former transgressions against their family. Grace’s Kim was the one taken in the last film, but she evades capture this time, thanks in large part to a major assist from dad. Turning the tables, Neeson’s Bryan and Jansen’s Lenore are abducted by the avenging Albanians.

Admittedly, the formula is very much the same here as in the first film: foreign locale, high speed chases, high body count, etc. Other similarities to the earlier movie are flaccid character development and plot holes so large that even Kim can parallel park inside of them: case in point, Kim goes from twice failing her drivers test to zipping through the narrow, teeming streets in Istanbul as if she’s the second coming of Jason Bourne. Besides the utter silliness of the chase scene, doesn’t Kim look a little old for a high school student? Perhaps she was held back a few years. Oh, and how many times must Bryan admonish Kim to speed up, go faster, etc (you can create a drinking game with such repetitions) before she finally follows her dad’s instructions?

With a running time of ninety-two minutes this second
Taken installment is definitely lean, which is a good thing since a longer film would’ve made it even more obvious just how little story there is here. The plot’s breakneck pace further distracts the audience from realizing they’re viewing a ridiculously simple through line, heavy on action and nearly devoid of any character complexity. On the upside, the movie doesn’t overstay its welcome. On the downside, the “climactic” showdown between Bryan and the aggrieved father from Albania is akin to air escaping a balloon…the very definition of anti-climactic. We’re waiting for a rejoinder, another bigger, cooler battle like we’re used to seeing in the standard action picture. Taken 2 is the exception to that rule—the bad guys are finished off, the frazzled family is reunited and the movie ends…but not before Kim passes her driving test to the downpour of warm fuzzies. The film feels rushed and could actually use and additional ten to fifteen minutes of story; a panacea I prescribe for very, very few films.

In the end,
Taken 2 is no better or worse than its predecessor and extends the series without necessarily advancing it. Still, if popcorn entertainment is the order of the day, it’s hard to go wrong with Taken 2. Some will enjoy the film for the pulse-pounding romp that it is while others will feel like they’ve been taken for a ride.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Dark Knight Rises (PG-13)

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Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale
July 2012

So how do you improve upon a film that was a global phenomenon (one billion worldwide gross) and also featured the unforgettable, posthumous Academy Award winning performance by Heath Ledger as the maniacal Joker? Though a daunting question to grapple with, the obvious answer is that you take the sequel in a different direction. Director Christopher Nolan certainly achieved that in his darker, grittier trilogy capper, but did he choose the right direction?

The movie opens with a spectacular midair heist that introduces us to the movie’s formidable villain, Bane (Tom Hardy). A robbery at the Wayne Manor establishes the other villain/wildcard in the movie, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), a battered shell of his former self, is on hiatus from his jaunting about as Batman and is set to be voted off the board of his own company due to bad business decisions. To make matters worse, Wayne’s longstanding, long-suffering butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), leaves the Wayne Manor over a dispute with Wayne. With the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gylenhaal) in the previous film, Wayne now has little, if anything, to hold onto. And all of this occurs before the action with Bane kicks into high gear.

Kicking the hero while he’s down is okay as long as he eventually emerges as the hero we know and love. That Batman, however, never makes an appearance in this film. You’d think that with the word
rises in the title, Batman would overcome his mental and physical infirmities and avenge himself upon Bane, but his role in the film’s resolution is anything but triumphant. One of the points frequently stressed in the movie is that Bruce Wayne/Batman can’t do it all by himself, but it would be nice if he did something…other than get his butt kicked in every melee he’s a part of in the movie. As such, though brimming with gritty realism, the film gives us little to cheer about or for. By movie’s end, the whole sordid affair amounts to little more than a bleak exercise in anarchy.

As for Batman’s fighting style in the film…it’s annoying. He’s out of control and impatient, forcing punches in a berserker style that should be Bane’s method of attack. Did Batman forget all of his training? If anything, shouldn’t Batman, as an experienced fighter, be the more restrained and patient of the two combatants and use Bane’s bulk and momentum against him?

I repent of ever criticizing Batman’s (Bale’s) hushed and throaty speech, because Bane’s muffled and mechanized vocalizations are exceedingly difficult to decipher at times. I’m not sure I’m sold on Nolan’s take on Bane. I much prefer the Bane from the Venom storyline in the Batman comic books. True, Bane is more compelling if he isn’t under the influence of an illicit substance, but the Venom-enhanced Bane is far more frightening since there’s just no reasoning with him. Although I’m certainly not advocating a return to the goofy sidekick caricature of the character in
Batman & Robin (1997), a Venom-infused Bane, if handled properly, is one of the most formidable and ferocious members of Batman’s rogues gallery. Plus, by introducing Venom into the Bane storyline, how awesome would it be if Wayne also got hooked on the juice like he did in the comic, unleashing a more savage side of the Caped Crusader? The Venom storyline would seem to be tailor-made for a story about a physically battered Batman in desperate need of a physical edge against an imposing, seemingly impervious adversary.

The film has some severe highs and lows, both thematically and critically. Fittingly, the movie’s high point is when Wayne gains the courage to leave the hellish gulag by ascending the jagged walls of an ostensibly bottomless well. The sequence works on different levels: symbolically (Wayne literally rising above past fears, mistakes, etc.) and personally (as the film prefigures, Wayne must find the anger, focus and motivation to return him to his former status, if not physical condition, as Gotham’s protector).

Another aspect that works well here is Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister’s sweeping city shots, which are some of the finest in Nolan’s
Batman trilogy. The city shots featuring pyrotechnics are utterly mesmerizing, especially the double bridge explosion. The most exciting visual in the film is at the Gotham Knights football game when, during a kickoff, a sprinting player stays one step ahead of the collapsing field which falls away in sections behind him. Though only consuming a few seconds of screen time, it’s a gorgeous yet gut-wrenching visual.

Of course, bridges exploding and sections of the city crumbling beneath the surface are rife with 9-11 imagery. Just as he did in the previous
Batman films, Nolan taps into lingering anxieties over 9-11 by showing a city being ripped apart at the seams by a terrorist. As such, the film’s most obvious 9-11 allusion is Bane himself—a self-styled, self-righteous terrorist with misguided populist notions of an ideal society operating under his jackboot. Bane sees himself as a type of Robin Hood, an avenger for the people (who’s ultimately in it for himself). Bane’s men stealing Wayne’s Bat-Tanks and unleashing them on the city to wreak havoc echoes the way terrorists used our own technology against us on that fateful day in 2001. Besides blowing things up, Bane’s mission also includes bringing corrupt political leaders, tycoons, etc to justice for their decadent lifestyles. By using his antagonist as a type of avatar, Nolan exposes corporate greed and political pork by borrowing from real life headlines ranging from the Enron scandal to the financial fleecing by the city council in Bell, CA.

Getting back to the Bat-Tanks, wouldn’t engineer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) have built in an optical scanner failsafe so that only Batman could use them (with thanks to my sister for pointing this out)? Other than the Bat-Tanks, the newest toy in this movie, not to be outdone by the more heavily armored Batmobile in the previous film, is the envy inducing Bat-Bike. The way the Bat-Bike takes corners, it’s round front tire somewhat reminiscent of the swiveling ball on a Dyson vacuum, is another of the film’s visual delights…it really must be seen to be fully appreciated.

I have neither the energy nor the inclination to detail an exhaustive list of the movie’s inconsistencies or gaps in logic, but one sequence in particular is addled with numerous errors. After being convicted in Bane’s kangaroo court, Commissioner Gordon is sent out onto a river covered in thin ice. Three problems here: when Batman shows up, he’s standing right where others have already fallen through the ice. With the added weight of his suit and all of its various equipment, gadgets and weapons, wouldn’t Batman be in serious danger of falling through the cracking ice? Next, Batman lights a flare and throws it down onto that same cracking ice. Is this a good idea?

Worst of all, the flare ignites a trail of gunpowder which begins on the ice and ends up lighting up a makeshift Bat Symbol high atop a distant skyscraper. Did Batman arrange this gimmick all by himself? How long did it take him to lay that trail of gunpowder and wax artistic on the side of the building? Wouldn’t that time have been put to better use by rescuing Gordon and foiling Bane’s plans?

This flawed scene is a microcosm of the film’s lazy lapses of logic, but it’s not just story elements that miss the bull’s-eye. Everything, from the dialog to the pacing to the action scenes, just feels “off” here. Whereas the previous film was a flawless sensation, this third Batman installment is riddled with incongruent story devices and plot holes large enough to drive a Bat-Tank through with room to spare. Much like Wayne and the city he protects, the story here seems battered, fractured and beleaguered. In that regard, the narrative’s reflection of Wayne’s psyche is brilliant, but does it necessarily make for an enjoyable entertainment?

It’s hard to say if Nolan’s intention was to trigger a cathartic release in the audience over Bane’s avenging mission against corporate and political corruption, but it’s safe to say that there’s no way he could’ve predicted the film’s potential to produce anarchy in real life. I speak, of course, of the incident at the theater in Aurora, Colorado, where a young man, decked out in Bane garb, killed and wounded several patrons in a wanton slaughter. The shooting has tainted the film in profound and palpable ways—it’s not just an entertainment anymore, it’s a heinous headline. Ironically, the film’s message that evil is real and rampant is starkly validated by this opening night massacre. When entertainment inspires actions in real life and tragedy ensues, it’s hard to know where the blame should be placed. One thing’s for sure, no matter how well the film performs; the theater shooting will always stand out as an unfortunate footnote to whatever the movie achieves financially, critically or artistically. However unintentional, the movie has created its own monster…life imitating art has seldom been as bitterly realized.

It’s hard to imagine a darker, more psychologically complex film than
The Dark Knight, but Nolan has delved deeper into the sordid, corrupt and festering underbelly of Gotham while presenting us with a villain even more frightening (though not nearly as colorful) than the Joker. However, for all of its gritty realism, The Dark Knight Rises gives its audience absolutely nothing to cheer about. The movie is bleak for the sake of being bleak, and as such, is an extremely well-crafted, well-acted, well-written and well-directed movie that’s ultimately not enjoyable in the least. It’s entertaining but is nowhere close to being exhilarating. It’s hard to say where Nolan should’ve taken this film or even if a different plot would’ve produced a different result, but the direction he took is less than satisfactory, especially when one considers how well it was set up by The Dark Knight.

Perhaps that downer feeling comes from the knowledge that there’s no easy way to say goodbye to Bale, Caine, Freeman, Oldman and company. Perhaps the previous film set the bar impossibly high, bloating our expectations for a more triumphant capper to Nolan’s brilliantly dark trilogy. Perhaps the film with be looked upon more favorably as time passes? Perhaps the Dark Knight will rise again?

Rating: 3

The Amazing Spider-Man (PG-13)

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Directed by: Marc Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield
July 2012

Both films in Marvel’s
Fantastic Four franchise were mediocre affairs that failed to live up to their exceptional title. Here we have a movie with the word amazing in its title. The danger with using a superlative in a title is that if the project fails to live up to such boasting, the drubbing received from critics, audiences and the media could be unbearable. So then, does the new Spider-Man film live up to its lofty name?

Before addressing that inquiry, it’s important to answer the even bigger question looming over this film—why reboot the franchise since the last
Spider-Man movie was released in 2007? Isn’t it too soon for a new Spidey flick? With Sam Raimi’s trilogy fresh in our minds, it’s impossible to avoid a compare/contrast evaluation of the former Spider-Man (played by Tobey Maguire) and the new one (played by Andrew Garfield). While both casts, from top to bottom, are equally impressive, the edge in the director category clearly goes to Raimi, who beats Marc Webb (surely a cosmic practical joke linked director and project) handily. Raimi’s Spidey films are much more cinematic than Webb’s effort, which, save for the three or four action scenes, plays like a well-acted drama on Lifetime rather than a high-octane summer blockbuster. The action scene settings themselves are vastly different—Raimi’s take place on skyscrapers or on a high-speed train, while Webb’s take place on top of a corporate building, in a high school science lab or in the city sewer (though still contrived and predictable, this was an exciting setting for a melee).

As for the men inside the Spidey suit, Maguire infused his Peter Parker with a nerdy, angsty vibe, while Garfield is a bit more subdued and contemplative. Where Maguire’s Parker is giddy upon discovering that he has superpowers, Garfield’s Parker seems to take it all in stride, as if the enduing of superpowers was an everyday occurrence. To be fair, Garfield does show some emotion and excitement during the skateboard scene, but his response is noticeably more reserved than Maguire’s when he first learns how to climb walls and shoot webs.

In the original trilogy, Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) was written as a kind of floozy tasked with driving a wedge between Parker and his heartthrob, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Here, Gwen (Emma Stone) is the whip smart intern for Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) a.k.a. The Lizard. Stone is absolutely delightful in the film and brings an effective mixture of intelligence and compassion to the role. The one nitpick here is that she seems a bit too experienced and knowledgeable to still be in high school—the Juno Syndrome.

As for Ifans (
Pirate Radio), his character is neither as psychotic as Willem DaFoe’s Goblin nor as maniacal as Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus (we’ll leave the pathetic villains in Raimi’s third film out of it). Like Doc Ock, Connors has a redemptive act near the film’s conclusion, but his effectiveness as a villain is diminished by minimal screen time and shallow character development.

Where Peter’s aunt and uncle are concerned, you can toss a coin as to whether the original Cliff Robertson/Rosemary Harris pairing is better than the new Martin Sheen/Sally Field duo. One of the most interesting new characters is Denis Leary’s Captain Stacy. The “meet the parents” dinner where Peter insults the police force, and Stacy by extension, is quite amusing.

As for the movie’s visual effects, they’re serviceable if not remarkable—surely special effects were one of the main considerations in updating the franchise. Are these FX that much better than those employed in Raimi’s trilogy? I would argue that the cinematography, and perhaps the visual effects themselves, are more inventive and cinematic in the trilogy than in this film. Not quite the bold leap forward I was expecting.

The first
Spider-Man film was released on the heels of 9-11 and gave us a champion to cheer for—timing is everything and Spidey was the hero of the hour, the symbol of freedom we desperately needed to allay our fears and galvanize our resolve against the evil that exists, and frequently manifests itself, in our modern world. Spider-Man captured the zeitgeist like few films before or since. So then, what societal issues or ripped-from-the-headlines events does this new Spidey film broach? Well, other than ethics in genetics and the inability of law enforcers to keep us safe…nothing. This take on the wall crawler, like its predecessor, features teen angst aplenty, but we’ve seen it all before.

In the end,
The Amazing Spider-Man is an earnest film, but not necessarily an exciting film…one might even say it’s borderline boring at times. This is somewhat ironic when considering that Webb’s previous effort, (500) Days of Summer, was an indie sensation featuring fine performances, innovative direction and a narrative change-up to the typical dating movie formula.

Too soon to reboot? Time will tell, but if I’m honest with myself, I probably would’ve thought this film was pretty good if I’d never seen Raimi’s trilogy. That might not be fair to this effort, but you know what they say about life.

Rating: 2 1/2

Brave (PG)

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Directed by: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell
Starring: Kelly Macdonald
June 2012

Pixar’s thirteenth film,
Brave, is a bold departure from the studio’s last couple of releases, both of which were sequels and featured the exploits of toys and cars, respectively. Brave has pioneered a few firsts for the stalwart studio: somewhat surprisingly, this is the first period piece produced by the studio. The movie is set several centuries ago in the Scottish Highlands. Brave is also Pixar’s first fairy tale, told in a conspicuously classic Disney manner. Brenda Chapman is the first female director of a Pixar film. Most importantly for those who’ve been critical of the studio’s purportedly misogynistic or chauvinistic tendencies, the film features the first female title character in any Pixar film.

Some will argue that
Brave is Pixar’s answer to DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon (2010), but the two animated films are vastly different. For starters, there aren’t any colossal, reptilian fire-breathers in Brave. Secondly, in Dragon young lad Berk seeks approval from his father while Brave’s Merida pulls out her long, thick, red hair in defiance of her overbearing mother’s insistence on her adherence to decorum and tradition. Ultimately, Brave has more in common with early Disney animated movies than it does with DreamWorks’ foray into Medieval times, particularly any Disney classic that features an old, wart-nosed, spell-casting witch.

Less obvious is
Brave’s commonality with Disney’s Brother Bear (2003), specifically in the way the spell transforms effected characters. Another element borrowed from the Disney back catalog is the archery contest first seen in Robin Hood (1973). In that movie, archers competed for a kiss from the fair Maid Marian, but in Brave, contestants are vying for Merida’s hand in marriage (until Merida pulls out her bow and shows them all how it’s done). Of course, a young lass with a bow and arrow isn’t exactly original either…Susan was a fair shot in the Narnia films and, more recently, Katniss was deadly accurate in The Hunger Games (2012). Although Merida and her mother don’t switch bodies, the way the women eventually come around to the other’s point of view definitely has shades of Freaky Friday (1976, 2003). You could also say that firelocks and the three little bears steal the show at the end, yet another allusion to a literary antecedent.

All of this to say that
Brave certainly isn’t the most original of the Pixar films. However, the studio’s ability to weave these familiar story threads into an intricate tapestry of high-spirited, hilarious and heartfelt moments is really quite astounding…you might even say uncanny. And there can be no doubt that like the many early Disney animated features it emulates, Brave is brimming with that elusive quotient called movie magic.

Other than the witch’s spell, the most magical element in the movie is the tiny blue sprites called
wisps. Besides looking and sounding cool, wisps are like mini spirit guides that lay out a course for the characters to follow, much like breadcrumbs in the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. The tribute to Steve Jobs, as his wisp ascends heavenward, during the end credits is a class move by the studio who owes the departed visionary a huge debt, both creatively and financially.

Though
Brave probably won’t go down as essential Pixar viewing, it succeeds on its own right and has blazed new trails for the studio. Whether or not Brave is your cauldron of brew, you’re sure to find it a significant improvement over last year’s stuck-in-neutral Cars 2. The studio is back on track.

Rating: 3

The Avengers (PG-13)

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Directed by: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr.
May 2012

One of the most highly anticipated superhero movies to come along in quite some time,
The Avengers is the culmination of years of setup: Marvel executives felt that the best way to ensure the success of an Avengers film was to produce individual movies for all of the main characters so that the audience would be familiar with their origin stories and wouldn’t be jumping into this new adventure cold...an enormous financial gamble with tremendous earning potential if the gamble paid off. Although timing was a major consideration for this film, the main concern was that of plotting—would an Avengers movie collapse under the weight (considerable in the Hulk’s case) of so many superheroes and their corresponding A-list stars? Most will applaud fan favorite writer/director Joss Whedon for pulling off the balancing act of the decade, and on the face of it they’d be right for feeling that kind of fierce pride over his achievement here. However, I feel Whedon’s juggling act works on one level while failing decisively on another…and it’s a big one. To use an analogy, however skillful the actual juggling is, using flaming torches is much more impressive than using, say, tissues. Although appearances would suggest that Whedon has given us the former, he’s actually cleverly foisted the latter upon his audience. Let me explain…

The “character moments” that serve as the
ad hoc glue to hold all of the action sequences together (and from becoming one run-on melee) are extremely flimsy and don’t really tell us anything new about the characters: Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is angry all the time (not exactly a news flash), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is still having troubles with his nefarious brother, Loki (old hat) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) can shoot arrows with a degree of precision that would make LOTR’s Legolas jealous, but even after watching the film I have no idea what his character’s real name is. Captain America (Chris Evans) is adjusting to life in the 21st century, which is good for a few chortles, but his major character revelation is that back in the 40s his persona inspired a line of trading cards. A line early in the film suggests that Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) isn’t just another pretty face, but that notion is belied by her lack of involvement in the plot, scant dialog and only her Sydney Bristow kickboxing skills to recommend her.

As for Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), he verbally spars with Captain America, slugs it out with Thor, tries to rile Dr. Banner (without his suit on, which doesn’t seem very prudent) and schmoozes with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Tony and Pepper officially got together at the end of
Iron Man II (2010), but in this film, there’s the feeling that they’ve been dating for some time. In a film overstuffed with so many story lines, wouldn’t this subplot work better in the next Iron Man film, where it could be fleshed out in more detail? It’s ironic that some of the best “character” scenes in the movie are ones I feel would’ve had more impact elsewhere.

Stellan Skarsgard’s Prof. Selvig is relegated to a few lines of dialog, which is a big disappointment since a lot more could’ve been pulled out of the sensational actor. Even Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is sidelined during most of the movie’s action—it seems as if his function is to fret over the Earth’s plight while gently goading the hodgepodge of superheroes into forming a team that’s implied in the title and that the audience knows will coalesce at some point during the movie. In fact, this plot point exposes another narrative misfire: the group isn’t “officially” in place until nearly three quarters of the way through the film, which is a bit exhausting and belaboring for a story element that’s such a foregone conclusion.

One plot thread that does have some real-world relevance is Banner’s struggle to keep “the other guy” from emerging and making a mess of things. Banner’s admission that he’s angry all the time is tantamount to an individual in a recovery group admitting to being powerless over the compulsion to do the wrong thing. Instead of actively resisting his rage-a-holic tendencies, as Edward Norton’s Banner does at the end of
The Incredible Hulk (2008), Ruffalo’s Banner fully embraces the reality of his weakness…and gains strength from such knowledge. There’s a powerful irony here. Even though these moments are fleeting (and constantly upstaged by the next wham bang action scene) there is some complexity here, which probably stands out as the zenith of character development in the film.

While on the subject of Banner/Hulk, some of the best scenes in the film come from the not-so-jolly green giant, like when he smashes skyscrapers or pounds Loki into the floor. It seems like Whedon has discovered the right look, tone and temperament for the character and it well may be that the Hulk is a situational hero rather than one that can headline an entire movie (judging from Hulk’s forgettable films released during the previous decade). But for all of the memorable moments provided by the character, some of the film’s most glaring plot holes center on the Hulk’s destructive tendencies. When Banner finally transforms into the Hulk—disappointingly halfway through the film—he recklessly chases Black Widow through the cramped corridors on the hover carrier. The Hulk indiscriminately busts everything in his path and most of it (pipes, cables, etc) looks vital to the smooth operations of the vessel.

The Hulk’s rampage through the ship would seem to undermine Iron Man’s efforts to repair the plummeting craft. Miraculously, as soon as the team has been “officially” christened, the Hulk gets along with Widow and everyone else on the team, as observed in the
faux photo op of the group standing defiantly and triumphantly over vanquished Loki. Perhaps these inconsistencies explain why none of the recent Hulk solo movies have been smash hits (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Although the sheer number of action sequences (there’s enough for three movies) undermine whatever plot can be deciphered here, the match-ups themselves are a bit obvious and formulaic. This crowded bought schedule results in too many showcase fights, i.e.: Thor fights Iron Man, Thor fights Loki, Hulk fights everyone, etc. Some of these confrontations feel terribly contrived. It’s as if Whedon and company said “let’s throw Thor against Iron Man and see what happens.” Granted, these episodic brawls are endemic to comic books, but they don’t seem to have translated too well to the big screen where the action scenes seem bloated, overstuffed and unnecessary in many instances.

Again, should some of these conflicts have been saved for the next film (and is there any doubt that there will be a sequel?). The climactic conflagration in downtown NYC is immaculately storyboarded and features some mind-blowing showdowns, many of them decentralized, which sets up some wonderfully rhythmic crosscutting. If there’s a downside here, the setting seems a bit passé for a final conflict (the location looks like it was borrowed from the old Avengers arcade game). Why not pick a less hackneyed setting for the movie’s battle royal? And in deference to 9-11, why not pick on a different city for a change?

Much of the excitement (hype) over the film is tied up in the luminous stars that populate the film, but an even bigger draw, it can be argued, is the assemblage of this super group. However, we’ve seen the team approach to “comic book” films before in the
X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises. This begs the question of why this film has generated such enthusiasm from fans when the whole team thing has been done, with varying degrees of success, fairly recently? Are the characters here more powerful and more interesting than those in the other movie series’? Are the actors here better or more popular than those in the other films (well, maybe this film has an edge over the Fantastic Four films). The novelty of the team approach to superhero films has worn out by now, so the anticipation over this film must be linked to some other ineffable quotient of movie magic.

In the end,
The Avengers is a surfeit of FX and a dearth of actual story. Whedon’s “kitchen sink” approach to this movie means that the inevitable sequel will have even more action sequences and less plot which will put it right on par with Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011). The Avengers leaves its audience feeling full as they exit the theater but it’s all been eye candy, which is nothing more than empty calories for the mind. Which means most people will love it…at least until the hype wears off.

Like the movie itself, this review has become overstuffed and overlong. We’ll there’s my Hulk-like demolition of the movie. And like the Hulk admiring his handiwork at the end of a battle, I’ve done all the damage I can do.

Rating: 2 1/2

21 Jump Street (R)

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Directed by: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Starring: Jonah Hill
March 2012

Based on the 80s TV series of the same name starring a pre-Captain Jack Sparrow Johnny Depp, the new film version of
21 Jump Street revisits the “undercover cops go back to school to catch a bad guy” premise for the umpteenth time in film history. In the age of remakes, it was just a matter of time before this marginally successful TV property was exploited to its most ridiculous extents on the big screen. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, Hollywood hates leaving any potential revenue stream untapped.

The movie features Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as two rookie detectives who’ve drawn the short straw and must go back to school; but hey, it actually beats their former assignment—security guards at a public park. The fish-out-of-water role reversal, where Tatum is now a bigot and bully and Hill is the life of the party, is amusing for about five minutes, but this plot device is severely belabored. Other than brief cameos by Depp and his partner, Dustin Nguyen (which is amusing for fans of the original show and confusing for those not familiar with the show), all we’re left with here is a new type of drug that’s running rampant through an inner-city high school and non-stop crass language and sexual (particularly homo-) references to fill out the story.

From the first bawdy joke over two dogs humping in the park to the climactic scene where a handcuffed man tries to retrieve his blown off phallus with his mouth, the movie is an unrelenting deluge of obscenities and indecencies of every variety imaginable…and plenty that were unimaginable before viewing this tawdry affair. The movie frequently crosses the line of bad taste and, as a default, settles for cheap laughs deriving from dunghill humor. But most of the laughing I heard in the theater was of the nervous variety as if those in the audience were looking at each other for approval…a silent “is it okay to laugh at this?” passing between them.

The real loss here is that this could’ve been a decent film had Hill and the other writers chosen a different tack. Hill and Tatum are skilled enough at both comedy and drama that some appropriate blend of the two genres could’ve made for an engaging story with occasional moments of humor punctuating episodes of hard-hitting drama. Just as the actor’s talents were wasted, so was my time and money. And I only paid two bucks…I feel sorry for the saps who paid full price for this morally reprehensible, wholly irredeemable affair.

I could go into more detail concerning the plot, what little of it there is, but I’d just be wasting your time with a potpourri of profanities and inanities. There have only been a handful of movies where, due to the subject matter or inappropriate dialog, I’ve felt like taking a shower after leaving the theater and this was definitely one of them. Clean up your act, Hollywood. Nobody’s laughing.

Rating: 1 1/2

This Means War (PG-13)

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Directed by: McG
Starring: Reese Witherspoon
February 2012

The love triangle is one of the oldest narrative devices employed in romance movies. Here we have a
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) style spy movie where two of the top male operatives at a secret intelligence agency are in love with the same woman. The film’s relational equilateral is composed of some of today’s top talent: Chris Pine, Tom Hardy and Reece Witherspoon.

Once Pine and Hardy discover they’re in love with the same woman, the two men become instant enemies and resort to all manner of covert, underhanded or just plain infantile tactics in order to secure Reece’s affections. For the first ten minutes Pine and Hardy’s often extreme measures to sabotage each other’s chances with Reece are mildly amusing, but at the hour mark, peeling off your fingernails might seem a less painful alternative to enduring even one more minute of the pronounced and protracted silliness that runs rampant throughout the latter stages of the film. In the end, two-timing Reece must choose between her two smooth suitors. Unfortunately, her decision is predictable and stereotypical…somewhere Gloria Steinem is having a conniption.

Beyond all of the well-meaning shenanigans, some of the messages posited by the movie are utterly abhorrent—like everything that spews out of Chelsea Handler’s mouth. Besides setting the feminist movement back a couple decades (Reece is getting older, so she just has to have a man in order to find fulfillment), Reece’s character is so indecisive and so co-dependent that she goes through with Handler’s advice to sleep with both men as a tiebreaker. How in the world can Reece consider this to be good advice? I guess the main criteria for a person’s suitability as a spouse is how well they perform in the sack. Worse yet, one of the men grows a conscience and fails to consummate Reece’s experiment, thereby establishing himself as the more honorable of the two men. So naturally, Reece selects the lothario who seduced her to be her soul mate. We’re way past mild indiscretion at this point…we’re at the serious therapy stage. And the script just passes this off as normal behavior.

Reprehensible actions aside, the supposed twist ending is so contrived it might actually, and ironically, be the funniest part of the film. Though one of the characters is redeemed by way of this gimmicky ending, the denouement is far from satisfactory.

The label “run-of-the-mill rom-com” doesn’t even begin to describe the film, but for all of its inherent idiocy (and inappropriateness), the film is the kind of breezy, bawdy confection that appeals to today’s mass audience. That seems like a perfect impetus to launch into a diatribe about societal ills or ethics in media, but I think I’ll abstain. I wouldn’t want to start a war.

Rating: 2 1/2

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (PG)

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Directed by: Brad Peyton
Starring: Josh Hutcherson
February 2012

The follow-up to Brendan Fraser’s
Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008), Journey 2: The Mysterious Island extends the franchise which delves into the mythology, creatures and worlds of wonder created by early sci-fi writer Jules Verne. This time around, however, Fraser is out and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is in. Josh Hutcherson returns as young adventurer Sean Anderson. Sean’s friction with step-dad Johnson comprises most of the film’s character moments along with the handful of scenes Sean shares with his long-lost grandfather (Michael Caine), his new crush (Vanessa Hudgens) and her father, the skittish pilot (Luis Guzman). Rounding out the cast is Kristin Davis in an itty-bitty bit part as Sean’s mother.

From the title you would assume that the film would be based on Verne’s book of the same name, but you would only be 1/3 accurate. The movie’s narrative is ostensibly based on three literary classics: Verne’s
Mysterious Island, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The common denominator of each tale (besides rip-roaring, old-tyme adventure) is the prominent showcasing of an island as the central locale. Averring that the island in each of these classics is one and the same is a clever and bold conceit, one that keeps the plot wheels steadily churning along through muddy musings and soft-core familial strife in the movie’s early goings.

However, the mash-up premise is quickly jettisoned just about the time Guzman steers his wing-and-a-prayer chopper into, not away from, a violently swirling waterspout. In all fairness, we do get to see a miniature pachyderm
a la the Lilliputians as well as Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, but where does the movie borrow from Treasure Island…a gold-spewing volcano? More to the point, what if screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn (no relation to Ben I’m sure) had capitalized on the original premise by weaving a tapestry rife with allusions and events from the three books instead of merely teasing the concept?

As a quote unquote family film, the movie tries to make object lessons out of wrong choices made by the characters, particularly Guzman’s greedy, gold-luster—he’s drawn to the mountain of gold like a giant bird to a giant bee (oops, one paragraph too early to use that analogy). The story also makes occasional, most often feeble, attempts at foregrounding modern parenting. Guzman wants to send his daughter to college so he goes in search of a bolder-sized gold nugget…with the way inflation is escalating, he might need two. Johnson desperately tires to connect with Hutcherson, but the best advice he can offer the teen is to woo young hotties with Johnson’s patented “pec pop.” Consider this scene the film’s nadir.

The zenith of the film, despite its utter absurdity, is the rapturous flight of the bumblebee’s sequence. The story really takes flight when the adventurers ride giant bees like airborne steeds, and the action kicks into high gear when the bees are stalked by even bigger birds of prey. Honorable mention goes to the sequences involving the sleek (but too small?)
Nautilus, although restarting the engines with the charge from an electric eel is a bit farfetched even by this movie’s whimsical standards.

Where the acting is concerned, a more eclectic cast you’re not likely to find and they all turn in serviceable, if not award-winning, performances. Even though all of Johnson’s roles aren’t exactly the same he plays them all as such. On some future film the director will figure out that it’s more cost effective to replace Johnson with a cardboard standup of the actor with looped lines…the result would be no different than his performance here or in any of his other films.

Although the inestimable Caine never misfires, his character, as written, isn’t as enjoyable as would be expected. In fact, it’s hard to remember a Caine character that’s this unlikeable…he needlessly bickers with Johnson’s character and the constant cavalcade of condescension is off-putting. I certainly don’t fault the actor; I fault the Gunn’s for failing to give his character any redeeming characteristics.

In the end, though no better or worse than its predecessor,
Journey 2 squandered a golden opportunity to creatively integrate exciting elements from the three literary classics it references into its yarn. Instead, the story defaults to simply serving up a reheated version of last summer’s action flick. Maybe for the next film, the writers can emphasize a solid plot with fleshed-out characters over SFX and action sequences…in other words, the polar opposite of this Journey.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Adventures of Tintin (PG)

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jamie Bell
December 2011

Upon discovering a clue inside a model ship in a bottle, young reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell), Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and sidekick dog Snowy set out on a globetrotting journey to find a sunken ship named the Unicorn; one of Haddock’s ancestors was skipper of the boat. Of course, the adventurers have no interest in the actual ship…only the treasure contained inside its decomposing hull. As usually happens when treasure is involved, opposing forces are soon drawn to the search and here the villain is nefarious Sakharine (Daniel Craig). The race is on, but which group will be the first to find the Unicorn and lay claim to its bountiful riches?

Based on the series of comic books written and drawn by Belgium artist Herge in the 30s and 40s,
The Adventures of Tintin is the new CGI/motion capture extravaganza envisioned and produced by two of cinema’s finest action/adventure directors: Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) and Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park). In various interviews, both auteurs have expressed their immense affection for the source material. That profound reverence is abundantly evident in the loving detail lavished upon every frame of the film. Adapted from three Tintin stories, The Crab with the Golden Claws (1941), The Secret of the Unicorn (1943) and Red Rackham’s Treasure