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

Thriller

The Girl in the Spider's Web (R)

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Directed by: Fede Alvarez
Starring: Claire Foy
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!


Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) is back in The Girl in the Spider’s Web, based on the novel by David Lagercrantz and the characters created by the late Stieg Larsson.  An extension of the American franchise (predated by a Swedish trilogy based on Larsson’s Millennium series) that began with David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Spider is directed by Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe) and features a largely foreign cast, which lends the film added authenticity. The story begins with computer hacker Salander accepting a job to steal top secret information. Soon after completing the task, Salander becomes the target of several international agencies including: the Swedish police, Russian agents, the NSA and a mysterious figure from her past. What has drawn the interest of such disparate entities?  A computer program called Firefall, which can access the codes of every nuclear arsenal on the planet.  And it’s up to Salander to make sure the program doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. The stolen files become the movie’s MacGuffin—the various parties are willing to go to any length to secure it, which presupposes an action-oriented plot. And indeed, the movie is packed with full throttle, well-choreographed action sequences that feel like they were lifted right out of a Bourne or Bond film.  The motorcycle chase, culminating with Salander hurtling across an icy lake, is one of the most spectacular sequences in the movie.  The bathroom brawl, vertical-lift bridge shoot-out and gas mask melee are also finely executed fight scenes. Foy (TVs The Crown) is absolutely spellbinding as misanthropic photo journalist Salander.  Whereas Rooney Mara (from Dragon) tried to act anti-social and mad at the world, Foy just is.  Though Foy is effective throughout, she’s downright frightening in her initial sequence where she goes vengeful vigilante on a woman beater—the makeup around her eyes gives her an added layer of feral intensity and makes her look like the newest member of the Suicide Squad. Salander’s boss and confidant, Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), has a far less significant role in this movie and, disappointingly, doesn’t really factor into the story in any meaningful way. And, with apologies to Gudnason, he’s no Daniel Craig. The gorgeous locations, many of which were filmed in and around Stockholm, Sweden, add a great deal to the film and are truly mesmerizing and transporting.  The cityscape establishing shots, particularly the ones shot at dawn, dusk or night, are breathtaking.  Alvarez and his location scouts found some spectacular places to film, most notably an abandoned observatory.  Such a locale is typically used as the villain’s lair, not the hero’s hideout, so kudos to Alvarez for bucking convention. There’s far more backstory for Salander in this film than in Dragon. At the beginning of the movie, we witness a deeply disturbing flashback scene where young Salander leaves her sister alone with their father. The scene gives us the distinct impression that the girls grew up in an incestuous environment. Due to Salander’s traumatic childhood, she distrusts most people, men in particular. Since one of the movie’s main themes is the sexual exploitation of women, Salander is held up as a type of avenging angel (or demon) when she ties up and tortures the man who batters a defenseless woman. On a psychological level, taking revenge on the man is a form of catharsis for Salander; tormenting the perpetrator is like getting back at her father. The film seems to suggest that such heinous deeds are justified and that “an eye for an eye” is a perfectly acceptable method of punishment under the circumstances. It’s ironic that her vicious attack makes Salander just as bad as the abusive man. But such irony is lost on a movie bent on glorifying violence and applauding vigilantism. Sad. Whereas Dragon was a well-constructed mystery; Spider is a high-octane spy film.  Though lacking in star power, the story by Alvarez, Jay Basu and Steven Knight is a taut thriller that keeps the audience engaged all the way up to its cliffhanger ending. So, let the debate begin. Is Spider as good as Dragon?  Regardless, if you can get past the movie’s objectionable content, this is one yarn you’ll be glad you got tangled up in.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Operation Finale (PG-13)

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Directed by: Chris Weitz
Starring: Oscar Isaac
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!


Throughout film history, there have been several WW2 dramas with “Operation” in the title, including: Operation Crossbow (1965), Operation Daybreak (1975) and Operation Pacific (1951). Now there’s Operation Finale, a historical biopic from director Chris Weitz and actors Ben Kingsley and Oscar Isaac. The movie has an intriguing premise… Adolf Eichmann (Kingsley), one of the chief architects of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” disappeared after the war. Since Eichmann evaded capture, he was never brought to justice during the Nuremberg trials. Fast-forward to 1960. Mossad agent Peter Malkin (Isaac) and his team of secret agents track down Eichmann, who’s been living under an alias in Buenos Aires. After a series of narrow escapes, Eichmann is captured and delivered to Israel, where he finally stands trial for his crimes against humanity. If that synopsis makes the movie seem straightforward, predictable and inevitable, it is. Here’s a movie that could’ve been a first-rate period piece with a poignant message, but instead squandered its potential on a ponderous plot. Surprisingly, Weitz is responsible for much of the movie’s underachievement. I say “surprisingly” because Weitz has had a good deal of success contributing (as director, writer or both) to adventure driven fantasy/sci-fi movies in the past, like: The Golden Compass (2007), The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). Here, Weitz’ direction is consistently arthritic, and his stiffness of form isn’t aided by rookie scribe Matthew Orton’s sluggish script. Orton’s story is adversely uneven: the first half is terminally slow while the second half is a taut thriller with a satisfying, if haunting, resolution. The movie is just over two hours in length and a good 15 to 20 minutes could’ve been excised with negligible impact on the story. If the movie has a saving grace, it’s the superb performances of the two lead actors. The scenes with just Isaac and Kingsley are the meat of the movie; the screen chemistry between the two actors is palpable and undeniable. The mental chess match that ensues between their characters is utterly enthralling, and it’s to Isaac’s credit that he’s able to hold his own against grand master Kingsley. Isaac does a fine job of keeping his character’s emotions in check…he delivers a beautifully understated performance and is believable throughout. Kingsley, as would be expected, is the movie. His portrayal of the nefarious mastermind of the Holocaust is effectively restrained and finely measured—our utter loathing of the character gradually turns to sympathy when we learn more about the man from his back stories. It’s plain to see that Kingsley elevated the production with his very presence. Without him, the movie would’ve been a glorified indie film with a gravitas vacuum. Kingsley, no stranger to WW2 films, acted in Schindler’s List (1993) and Walking with the Enemy (2013). There’s an appreciable disparity in ages between character and actor: at the time of his capture, Eichmann was 54; at the time of filming, Kingsley was 74. The early stages of the film are inundated with a number of distasteful racist comments. One anti-Semite makes the reprehensible remark that Jews seem to “pop up everywhere, like mushrooms after the rain.” Another rabble-rouser refers to Jews as the “rot in society.” Though upsetting, these remarks are an important reminder of the ugliness of racism and how it pervaded the 60s and, sadly, still persists in the world today. At the heart of the film is the theme of loss. On an individual level, Malkin and Eichmann have each lost something—the former, his sister; the latter, his humanity. Widening the lens, the film’s mass scale loss was the deaths of 6 million European Jews during the Holocaust. One of the compelling aspects the film foregrounds is the fine line between justice and revenge. In a couple scenes, Malkin admits that putting a bullet in Eichmann’s head would be far easier than smuggling him out of Argentina. Though it’s tempting for Malkin to exact revenge for what Eichmann did to the Jewish people, he is determined to capture the Nazi so that justice can be served. Rather than torture Eichmann to obtain his signature, as his fellow agents want to do, Malkin opts for a more humane approach. Malkin’s “good cop” strategy proves successful both in securing the signature and in creating a bond between himself and Eichmann. Even though Eichmann claims that all humans are animals, he reveals that he tried to facilitate the escape of some of the imprisoned Jews and shows remorse over his past actions, which serves to redeem his character…at least a little. In the end, Finale is a mild disappointment because it’s slow-moving and overlong. Still, it showcases the talents of two superb performers; one is an Oscar winner at the top of his game, the other is named Oscar and is an emerging star. Finale touches on many universal themes, including the deceptive nature of evil and our intrinsic need for justice. It’s a worthwhile film because it memorializes the Holocaust without glorifying it. Finale reminds us of the heinous acts that were committed during one of the darkest chapters in human history…lest we forget.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

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

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

A Quiet Place (PG-13)

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Directed by: John Krasinski
Starring: Emily Blunt
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 Premise:

A family struggles to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where making the slightest noise can attract the attention of carnivorous creatures.

The Evaluation:

Normally a movie inundated with this much hype would collapse under the weight of the insurmountable expectations placed upon it. Since the trailer looked so intriguing, it comes as a great relief that
A Quiet Place delivers on its promise—it’s a thought-provoking, spine-tingling good time. John Krasinski does triple duty (actor, writer and director) on this horror/thriller/sci-fi hybrid. The linchpin to the film’s success is its premise. In a dystopian world, aliens have invaded Earth and wiped out a large percentage of the human population. The good news is that the creatures are blind. The bad news is that they have super-sensitive hearing. To safeguard against being attacked, the Abbott family learns to communicate by speaking in hushed tones or using sign language. Though the movie is disciplined at following the strictures of its self-imposed rules, the concept certainly has its fair share of nitpicks. First, how is it possible to run a farm without making any noise? Also, when approaching humans, wouldn’t the creatures hear breathing, however controlled, or a rapidly beating heart (yes, what we learn during the waterfall scene significantly weakens this argument, but the criticism holds up when the creatures are at close range)? Raising kids under such strict conditions would be a monumental task—no frolicking in the front yard or roughhousing in the living room. And, as if that wasn’t hard enough, how in the world would you bring up a baby in such an environment (a similar grievance was raised by fans of The Walking Dead over Rick’s baby, Judith, being raised during the zombie apocalypse)? As the creature closes in on Blunt and her baby, and later, Blunt and her daughter, it can’t quite locate the humans in either instance. So then, are we to believe that these blind creatures also have no sense of smell? These minor gripes are forgivable. What mars the movie most is the climactic sacrifice, which could’ve been prevented if one of the characters had been as quick on the uptake as the audience. Fortunately, this is the movie’s only instance of flaccid plotting. There are many parallels between this film and Signs (2002). Aside from both movies featuring an alien invasion storyline, cornfield encounter and farmhouse showdown, the aliens in both movies have one fatal weakness—a plot device borrowed from the original The War of the Worlds (1953). Also pilfered from Worlds is the “aliens travel in trios” concept, which is particularly relevant here since the minimum number of points required to triangulate the location of a sound is three. Though the movie’s creatures are reminiscent of the ones in Alien (1979), they do have a unique design (See: Visual FX). Despite its many similarities to other horror films, Quiet features one of the most clever and original concepts in the history of the genre. So, will this Signs meets Aliens post-apocalyptic chiller stand the test of time? Time will tell. One thing’s for certain, in Krasinski’s world, everyone can hear you scream.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Krasinski’s craft is impeccable—he channels Hitchcock and Shyamalan to great effect. Some of the moments Krasinski creates are utterly terrifying, like the baby in the basement sequence.

Acting- Emily Blunt mesmerizes in a physically demanding role—she had to stand in water for a good portion of the movie. Blunt effectively conveys a range of emotions without speaking for most of the movie. Likewise, Krasinski delivers a marvelously measured performance—the scene where he slowly raises his finger to his lips, signaling others to remain silent, will go down as an iconic image in cinema history. He’s come a long way from his days as Jim Halpert on The Office. The child actors (Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe) also do excellent work in challenging, largely non-speaking roles.

Story- A difficult screenplay to write and execute, but handled with expert skill by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck and Krasinski. With a dearth of dialog, most of the action had to be described in detail in the script or storyboarded.

Costumes/Make-up- Functional and appropriate for the world the characters live in.

Cinematography- Charlotte Bruus Christensen does a superb job of capturing the pastoral landscape and the action sequences inside and outside the farmhouse. There are many memorable scenes in the movie, particularly those involving the bridge, silos, fields and basement. The sweeping shots atop the silos help to establish the terrain and atmosphere of the agrarian world the characters have been relegated to. The rows of white or red lights also make a striking visual.

Music- The film’s eerie mood is further enhanced by Marco Beltrami’s ethereal score which, like the characters for most of the movie, goes largely unnoticed.

Visual FX- Truly astounding creature FX—the next iteration of the Alien creature is jaw-dropping, literally. The design of the creature’s malleable head is ingenious and sets up the movie’s most memorable visual during the climactic confrontation. These FX should be a shoo-in for an Oscar nod.

Production Values- Certainly not a lavish production, since most of the movie takes place in or around the farmhouse. However, the set design for the plundered general store, work station inside the basement and silos is truly exceptional.

Movie Magic- Off the charts. This is a wholly immersive experience that draws you into the movie’s terrifying reality and thoroughly enthralls you with one thrilling sequence after the next. Quiet is a high art horror flick that will be certified as an instant classic.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

The Shape of Water (R)

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Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins
December 2017


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 American and Russian agents seek to exploit a recently discovered aquatic life form for their own purposes, a lonely mute woman falls in love with the creature.

The Evaluation:

Del Toro, who brought us
Pan’s Labyrinth, two Hellboy films and Pacific Rim, has perfected his craft with The Shape of Water (easily one of the most evocative movie titles ever), a Cold War, trans-species love story told through a skewed filter and delivered with a visual brilliance nearly unparalleled in recent cinema history. So let’s dive right in…Shape has many layers. If you think you’ve figured out what’s going on in the film’s text, there’s always the subtext to consider. The movie uses symbolism, thematic echoes, unexpected reverses, inverted stereotypes and modern parallels to great advantage. One conspicuous bit of symbolism involves eggs. Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) uses an egg timer (in the shape of an egg) when boiling eggs and timing her activities in the bathtub, which also deals with reproduction (female eggs). When Eliza makes first contact with the creature, she gives it a hard-boiled egg as a gesture of friendship. Later, when she copulates with the dubiously compatible creature, Eliza consummates (literally and figuratively) the egg subplot, since having her physical needs met by another has freed Eliza from her tub prison (more symbolism). Eliza’s water habitat is the tub; the creature’s water habitats are the tube and pond. Eliza and the creature merge in three other bodies of water: her tub, her flooded bathroom and the bay of the ocean. Before we leave the egg timer metaphor, it’s worth mentioning that Eliza’s regimented existence is a reflection of our own in many respects, since daily routines and responsibilities (chores, shopping, cooking, working, paying bills, etc) can be their own special form of incarceration. Ironically, Eliza is just as much a prisoner as the creature is—freeing the creature will free her from her self-imposed prison of loneliness. There’s overt symbolism in the various reactions to the creature…when faced with the unknown, some will be filled with curiosity and others with fear (fight or flight). The conservative vs. liberal reactions to the creature are fairly transparent (and oversimplified) and reveal a clear bias against one of those political worldviews. Also clear is the movie’s pro-Russia, anti-America sentiment, which turns the Cold War on its head. American agents (particularly Michael Shannon’s Colonel Strickland) are loud, crass and aggressive, while the Russian agent (brilliantly underplayed by Michael Stuhlbarg, who, along with Shannon, was a cast member of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) is reserved, calculated and sympathetic toward the creature. Strickland’s racist, nationalist, isolationist agenda is abhorrent and is a little too on-the-nose in its portrayal of adherents of the political party in question. Strickland is an angry man who’s in a loveless marriage; contrast his angry and messy love-making with the beautiful bathroom coitus between Eliza and the creature. Strickland also makes inappropriate advances toward Eliza, racist comments about Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) and tortures the creature in his own, private Guantanamo (another political parallel). When the creature bites off Strickland’s fingers, the military man is more concerned with retrieving his severed digits than his wedding ring. His ring, and marriage by extension, isn’t precious to him (LOTR’s Gollum in reverse). All of this reveals Strickland, not the creature, as the movie’s bona fide monster. One curious side story involves Giles’ (Richard Jenkins) desire to matter in a world that’s passed him by. Giles painfully learns that he’s lived past his shelf date relationally (his attempts at wooing a young waiter implode) and occupationally (the sensibilities of his ad artwork have become outdated). This subplot touches on the ageism that exists in today’s job market and how marketing typically targets the youth of our society. As Eliza’s friend/neighbor/mentor, Giles serves a key role in the plot to extricate the creature. The message is clear; everyone has a part to play in the unfolding human drama. Though there are deeper zones to be explored in the film, this brief overview of the movie’s many layers of meaning should suffice in recommending it as an instant classic…and frontrunner for Best Picture.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Del Toro has delivered a visual masterpiece, which effectively combines a Cold War thriller with a fantasy romance. The formalism on display here is truly staggering.

Acting- The eclectic cast of top-tier performers (Shannon, Stuhlbarg, Jenkins, Spencer, David Hewlett and the brilliant Doug Jones) are completely upstaged by Hawkins’ mesmerizing, deeply-affecting portrayal of the lonely, lovelorn lead character.

Story- The script by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor is equal parts fantastical, historical, meaningful and magical. The allusions to classical Hollywood movies are a nice touch; they tangibly tap into feelings of nostalgia for that era. When taken at face value, Shape is just a fantasy film. However, the story’s many aspects contain plot points that the viewer might not even be aware of—which makes the film such an enjoyable, and immersive, experience.

Costumes/Make-up- The period appropriate costumes are well designed. The style of the creature’s costume hearkens back to the titular monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and is brilliantly realized.

Cinematography- While it’s del Toro’s vision that makes the film cohere, it’s Dan Laustsen’s brilliant framing that provides much of the movie’s visual wonder and beauty. Who will ever forget the flooded bathroom love scene?

Music- Another exceptional score by Alexandre Desplat. Many of the cues written for Eliza’s character are whimsical and sublime. The underwater passages, where several flutes combine to produce an otherworldly effect, are moody and moving.

Visual FX- Other than the underwater scenes there are very few visual effects in the movie.

Production Values- Top-notch. Real world elements (with historically accurate detail) are seamlessly juxtaposed with fantastical elements (and even flourishes of the absurd like the refrigerator filled with slices of Key lime pie) to forge a wholly original world.

Movie Magic- Immeasurable. The brilliant visuals, pitch-perfect performances, superlative directing, affecting accompaniment, multivalent story and period appropriate production elements all make for an unforgettable viewing experience.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

The Post (PG-13)

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Meryl Streep
December 2017


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
:

The Washington Post threatens to expose a government cover-up involving inaccurate reporting about the Vietnam War.

The Evaluation:

Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep as the owner of
The Washington Post, Kay Graham, and Tom Hanks as her “pirate” editor, Ben Bradlee, The Post is based on actual happenings and readily recalls such expose films as All the President’s Men (1976) (ironically, this film ends with the events of Watergate…the subject of President’s Men) and Spotlight (2015). Spielberg’s direction is nearly invisible, which is a supreme compliment. He uses a classical style of directing, which is period appropriate and places the burden on his performers to carry the film rather than on elaborate camera setups, highly stylized shots or flashy editing (all of which were staples of Spielberg’s early career). Unless you spotted Spielberg’s name in the credits, you probably wouldn’t know he directed this film. Over the years, Spielberg’s collaborations with Hanks have been legendary…and lucrative. Adding Streep to the mix almost seems like too much talent for one film—after all, how many Academy Award nods and wins are represented by this trio? The chemistry between Hanks and Streep is undeniable and inestimable. The easy exchanges between these movie maestros makes it appear as if they’ve been performing together for years. However, as unbelievable as it seems, this is the first time these two top-tier actors have appeared in a film together. The supporting cast is also impressive. Curiously, Spielberg tapped some of TVs top talent for the side characters. Matthew Rhys (The Americans), Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul), Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights), Tracy Letts (Homeland), Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), Carrie Coon (The Leftovers), Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story), Zach Woods (Silicon Valley), Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire), Dan Bucatinsky (Scandal), David Costabile (Billions), Alison Brie (Mad Men), Bruce Greenwood, (American Crime Story), Johanna Day (Madame Secretary) just to name a few. Writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer do a remarkable job of servicing the stars as well as the many ancillary characters. If the story has a weakness, it’s the lack of action. The movie’s narrative is largely composed of characters standing around and carrying on conversations about things that might not be readily apparent to audience members who weren’t alive during the period in question. In the end, this film is a sobering reminder of the pervasive and persistent nature of government corruption, a message that’s just as (if not more so) salient today as it was in the early 70s. With a timely theme and superlative acting and directing, The Post should be a strong contender for Best Picture. Maybe the headline on March 5th will read “The Post Nabs Best Picture Oscar.”

The Breakdown:

Directing- See review

Acting- See review

Story- See review

Costumes/Make-up- Authentic and period appropriate.

Cinematography- Less is definitely more in a film with such fine actors. Just roll the camera and let them do their thing.

Music- Another stellar score by John Williams, who, at age 85, is still composing vital and transcendent music. There’s an occasional hint of the main title from Lincoln (2012) here and the overall style resembles the many jaunty, jazzy refrains in Catch Me If You Can (2002). The soft piano pieces played during the restaurant scenes seamlessly blend into the action and the sprightly cues when the presses start rolling are vintage Williams.

Visual FX- NA

Production Values- Top-notch. I only wish we could’ve seen more of the world during this time period since most of the movie takes place indoors.

Movie Magic- There are a few tense scenes throughout and a rousing climax, but much of the movie is political and procedural. And dry.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Blade Runner 2049 (R)

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Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Ryan Gosling
October 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!

A sequel 35 years in the making, Blade Runner 2049 is a respectable, if not orbit-altering, follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic, Blade Runner. There are several key production aspects to discuss right up front: First, even though Scott is a producer on the film, he didn’t direct it. That honor fell to Denis Villeneuve, who helmed the visually stunning, style-over-substance Arrival last year (more on the movie later). So why didn’t Scott direct the sequel himself? Unknown. What is known is that Villeneuve does a remarkable job of marrying his visual style to the aesthetic Scott established in the first film. The latest iteration of Runner’s future shock society is both a logical extension of the original’s style and a tribute to the cosmopolitan, seedy, neon world brought to life by Scott and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth. Another keen production decision was to show a progression of design elements to reflect the sensibilities of the era—the first film was set in 2019, thirty years earlier than the sequel. If possible, things are even more dingy and rundown in the new film. Also, the showgirl sexploitation in the original has been digitized and supersized—a ten story tall nude woman interacts with oglers on the street. Just as our society has made a giant out of the porn industry since 1982 (due in large part to the internet), so too have the inhabitants of Runner’s neo-noir dystopia. Another scene depicts huge hovering trash trucks dumping garbage onto a vast plain, filled with segregated piles of trash a la the opening of WALL-E (2008). The environmental message here is clear. This setting becomes the locus of a brief, yet intense, action scene involving Ryan Gosling’s Officer K (not to be confused with Agents J and K from the Men in Black movies). Ironically, Gosling’s co-star had a memorable trash sequence of his own forty years earlier in Star Wars (1977). That co-star, of course, is Harrison Ford, who reprises his role as Rick Deckard, the central character from the first film. There’s good and bad news here. The good news is that Ford is extremely effective in his scenes, especially during the denouement (see below). The bad news is that Ford doesn’t show up until the movie’s halfway mark. Gosling and Ford appear to have good screen chemistry, but the sample size of their shared scenes is so small, it’s difficult to positively affirm that observation. Another original cast member, Edward James Olmos, appears here too. Sadly, Olmos is only in one scene and looks like Colonel Sanders with his gray mustache and pointed goatee. Other cast members shine in limited roles, such as: Dave Bautista, Jared Leto, Robin Wright and Mackenzie Davis. The production elements are finely crafted and are wholly immersive. Particularly eye-catching are the interior sets, which are lit with otherworldly hues or mesmerizing water ripple effects. If there’s one area of the movie that doesn’t succeed it’s the overlong, onerous, obtuse screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (based on the story by Philip K. Dick). In general, the “show-don’t-tell” cardinal rule of writing should be followed to the letter. Here, that maxim is taken to the extreme as characters are often shown in contemplative poses or gazes for so long, you can get your popcorn refilled and still not miss anything. True, a plot should never be spelled out, but the audience needs something to go on. A string of scenes that “show-show-show” with no dialog, exposition or contextualization, can become tedious, as exemplified by this film. Granted, the pressure to follow up the original film with another instant classic must’ve been oppressive for the writers, but the insistence on skewing so far to the art side of the spectrum, while forgetting that a broad swath of the audience was drawn to the film for its commercial elements, was a serious miscalculation. Much like Villeneuve’s Arrival, Runner 2 has sacrificed meaning and accessibility for style points. Was the tradeoff worth it? Time, and ticket stubs, will tell. The seaside struggle is an intense sequence, but certainly isn’t the nail-biting climax the film needed to drive the story home. However, the final series of scenes are the finest in the film and help to boost its rating far above that of the refuse heaps of standard movies. Villeneuve stages some symbolic and synergistic parallel action sequences between Officer K and Deckard at movie’s end. K lies back on concrete steps as snow (in L.A.) sprinkles down around him. It’s a gorgeous shot, but I half expected Gosling to make a snow angel—perhaps he did in an outtake. The scene inside the building, where Deckard meets his daughter, Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), for the first time, is much more meaningful. Deckard places his hand on the glass wall that separates him from his daughter. It’s a moving scene of connection despite the division of walls and years. Ironically, we saw this same pose in another 1982 sci-fi release, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when Kirk holds his hand against the Plexiglas wall that isolates him from a dying Spock. Now would be an appropriate time to mention that Ford is a tremendous “hand” actor. He channels enormous energy into scenes where he points an accusatory finger at someone (The Fugitive and Clear and Present Danger) and is also marvelous at grabbing and using objects around him (numerous instances in the Indiana Jones films, especially the idol scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark). Here, the simple action of placing his hand on a translucent wall carries with it tremendous power—the scene literally sent chills up my spine. It was the first time in the film I felt any kind of emotion. Sadly, it was the final shot of the movie. In the end, there can be no doubt that Runner 2 is a worthy film in its own right and that it has moved the series forward without being an embarrassment to the original. However, Runner 2, like its robotic replicants, has little emotion and heart. Still, Runner 2 is a beautiful film that bears repeat viewings to uncover all of its hidden meanings and Easter eggs. Speaking of which, Ana is creating snow with her hands when Deckard walks in to meet her. Is this the same snow that’s drifting down onto Officer K? And if so, is his character real? Or just dreaming? Of electric sheep?

Life (R)

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Directed by: Daniel Espinosa
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal
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!

It’s very tempting to call Life a cheap knockoff of Alien and just leave it at that. Actually, Life pilfers from other sci-fi movies too, like the recent Passengers. Both films open with a meteor shower wreaking havoc on a spaceship and end with one male and one female survivor who must save that ship and humanity as we know it. Granted, what lies between those narrative bookends is divergent to the extreme. The Alien comparison is more apropos since the bulk of Life’s story deals with a too strong, too fast and too smart creature that slinks about the ship picking off one cardboard character at a time. Like so many sci-fi and horror creature features these days, there’s no emotional impact when characters die because we have no personal connection to them—a failure on the part of the writers to customize personality traits and construct compelling back stories. But character development isn’t the only area of the movie where screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick were derelict. Plot holes large enough to fly a Soyuz spacecraft through bedevil a story that already has problems with pitch and yaw thanks to its derivative storyline and plot contrivances. These contrivances, designed to keep the thrills coming at a rapid pace, are so daft they make you want to throw your bucket of popcorn at the movie screen. Chief among these inanities is the poorly designed exhaust manifolds (or some other such technobabble) on the ship’s thrusters. The creature will enter the ship unless the crew engages the thrusters to flush it out of the engines, but commencing a burn will put the ship on a collision course with Earth’s atmosphere. So the lesser of two evils is to let the creature back into the ship where they hope to kill it, despite the fact that they didn’t even come close to doing so earlier. Utter tripe! The creature design and FX that brought it to life are absolutely spectacular. As such, the creature’s greatest flaw doesn’t come from the drawing board but from the script. Rhett and Wernick, along with director Daniel Espinosa, made the creature too indestructible. The fact that a Martian creature can thrive in an oxygen environment is dubious from the start, but when that squid-like blob can outsmart humans at every turn…on their own turf? C’mon! At the very least, you’d expect the stellar cast to be able to pull the story out of its tailspin, but due to the poorly drawn characterizations, such is not the case. The fact that Ryan Reynolds’ wise-cracking character (a slightly toned down version of the titular antihero in Deadpool) can never keep his mouth shut is ultimately his undoing. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson make the most of what they’re given, which isn’t much aside from running and shouting. One of the only things the film gets right is that the black guy (Ariyon Bakare) isn’t the first character to die. However, this one eschewed stereotype doesn’t make up for the virtual procession of tired thriller tropes employed by the movie. Well, there you have it—this is Life or something like it. Actually, due to its hunter/hunted plot, this movie should’ve been called Death. Unless you’re pulling for the Martian creature, in which case the current title works just fine.

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.

Split (PG-13)

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Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy
January 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!

Split is a devilishly deceptive film. It lures us into thinking it’s a standard Kiss the Girls (1997) style female abduction story and then morphs into a cognitively complex character study that delves into the darkly demented, spiritually skewed aspects of mental illness. The film wastes no time in initiating its plot as Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy in a turn for the ages) jumps into a car with three teen girls—Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula)—sprays them in the face with Mace and whisks them away to his dingy underground lair. We soon discover that Kevin has dissociative identity disorder. We also quickly discern that Casey can adapt to Kevin’s shifting personalities, an ability that distinguishes her from the other prisoners and equips her with the wherewithal to make it out of the catacombs alive. The film splits its time between Kevin and Casey, revealing insightful bits of their back stories in flashback sequences, and adroitly graduates their interactions from a war of wills to a dance of the wounded…whereas Casey’s scars are physical and emotional, Kevin’s are psychological. As such, there’s an unspoken understanding that exists between these characters since they both know what it means to be deeply hurt by a family member. Even though we can’t justify Kevin’s actions, we can have sympathy for him since his mother’s controlling nature laid the foundation for his mental illness. What we can’t excuse, however, is what Uncle John (Brad William Henke) did to young Casey (Izzie Coffey) out in the woods…I firmly believe that there’s a special place in hell for such individuals. This prompts a topical, hypothetical question: what’s worse, a heinous crime committed by someone with a mental illness or an ostensibly sane person? One of the movie’s ongoing themes, a variation of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” ideology, is revealed in its hunter/hunted subplot. Preteen Casey learns how to hunt a deer in one of her flashback sequences and Kevin/The Beast stalks his three captives during the movie’s X-Files style climax. Even more disturbing than the movie’s brief images of cannibalism, however, is its insidious intimation that “the broken are the more evolved” members of our species. That notion is fleshed out by another of the film’s unsettling lines, “What if they’re more than us?” The implication here, of course, is that people with multiple personalities are superior to those with just one—as if they possess superpowers like the mutants in the X-Men films (incidentally, McAvoy stars as Professor X in that franchise’s First Class movies). Just as the definition of gender has broadened to include a variety of mental/physical/sexual types in recent years (Facebook now offers 56 gender options to choose from when creating a profile and the January 2017 National Geographic cover article on the Gender Revolution presents its own codified gender matrix), the DSM has also expanded to include many new kinds of mental illnesses. So then, has the mainstreaming of a variety of sexual identities opened the door to the acceptance of new mental illnesses, and is there a connection between the two? In our society of broken families, fractured realities and shifting gender identities, are individuals with split personalities the wave of the future, and if so, how will we treat them and coexist with them? Not only has this seismic shift in the mental health landscape opened up a whole new classification of Civil Rights, it has also anticipated serious legal complications, i.e., can Kevin/The Beast be arrested for eviscerating his victims since that behavior is part of his nature? Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), asks a poignant question in relation to Kevin’s case: “Is there a limit to what a human being can become?” Or, to put it a different way, is there a nadir to the depths of human depravity and derangement? With so much to mull over here, it’s clear that Split isn’t your standard issue thriller. Just as Kevin’s numerous alternate personas are stratified in a dysfunctional hierarchy, the movie itself contains many layers of meaning which have far-reaching ramifications for the human condition. Despite the occasional nitpick, i.e., psychiatrists don’t make house calls, Split is a thoroughly captivating yarn and comes complete with eerie, skin-crawling direction by Shyamalan, a mesmerizing lead performance by McAvoy and (Spoiler Alert) one of the finest stunt cameos/Easter eggs in cinema history with the brief appearance of Bruce Willis, whose one line links this film with Unbreakable (2000). Split qualifies as a considerable comeback for Shyamalan, who suffered an ignominious drought during his The Village (2004) through The Last Airbender (2010) years. Due to its performances and shocking subject matter, Split is sure to be a water cooler film…whether or not it’s a box office hit remains to be seen. Well, I’d love to chat more about this film but it’s time for me to split.

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?

Arrival (PG-13)

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Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams
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!
Arrival
“We are so bound by time...by its order.” Like it or not. #Time
A sad departure at the film’s outset.
“I would need to be there.” Congratulations, you just volunteered.
The
#Sanskrit word for war? It’s all #Greek to me.
“Dazzle them with the basics.” Standard methodology.
“Maybe we should try talking to them before throwing a math problem at them.” Ha!
This gigantic obsidian spheroid puts #
2001’s #Monolith to shame. #2001ASpaceOdyssey
This gravity switch is a
#MindTrip.
The
#Kangaroo story is amusing.
“What is your purpose on Earth?” Love the way she teases out this sentence. Good
#Logic.
“Now that’s a proper introduction.” I’ll say.
#TentacleTouch #GreatLine
This smoke ring language is fascinating.
#SmokeRing
“A logogram is free of time.”
#Heptopod language.
“Are you dreaming in their language?” Conversation starter.
#Logogram
“Use weapon.” Uh-oh!
#Logogram #Heptopod
“Many become one.” The nations must unite.
“Louise sees future.”
#PlotTwist
Hannah is a
#Palindrome. So is radar. #Linguistics
“It was meeting you.” Ian scored major points with that line.
Final analysis: a thought-provoking “first contact with aliens” yarn that reveals the best and worst in humanity.
Rating:
3 out of 4. A visual marvel with solid acting. The atmospherics trump character development. Trite ending.

If a movie is only satisfactory for three-fourths of its running time, is it still a quality entertainment? Sure, but it’s also an egregious waste of potential. That last phrase perfectly describes Arrival since the first three-fourths of the film are taut, thrilling and saturated in mood and mystery, while the last quarter is an unwieldy, uninspired mess. To its credit, the movie doesn’t waste its time on drawn-out alien vessel appearances or FX fanfare sequences, like many alien assault flicks in the mold of Independence Day (1996). It’s clear from the outset that Arrival is a different kind of space invader film since it eschews the traditional action-packed opener in favor of a more moody and intimate prelude, introducing the first glimpses of the alien ship not in big budget special effects shots, but in streaky news footage airing on a living room TV. The story is infused with palpable tension as the military and scientists (never a good combination) scramble to determine if the recently arrived mother ships, which are presently stationed above a dozen random positions around our planet, are friendly or malevolent. Vital to the Save the Earth campaign is the inclusion of a communications cognoscente, but the world’s foremost authority on the subject has unceremoniously quit the project, presumably because his insurance doesn’t cover “Accidental Death by Space Aliens.” Rather than call or Skype the next qualified person on the list, Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker, who is little more than set dressing in the movie) flies out for a face to face with the possible replacement and requests, rather than demands, that individual’s participation—apparently the fact that our planet can be blown to bits at any moment has no effect on the nerves-of-steel war dog. Fortunately for us, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is available to join the global coalition of experts as her students haven’t attended her Linguistics class at the university ever since the aliens arrived (no dedication to higher education these days). Louise meets theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and the sparks immediately start flying, triggered in part by their English versus Math verbal sparring match and in part by their obvious attraction to each other. Louise and Ian are tasked with establishing communications with the aliens, a tall order since neither of them remembered to pack a universal translator. The team’s initial visit to the alien ship (a colossal, obsidian spheroid hovering vertically in midair like a supersized version of 2001’s monolith) is a mind-bending, nape-prickling affair that effectively captures what it must feel like to make first contact with a bizarre alien species—this movie features gigantic heptapods with petal-like proboscises that emit puffs of black soot which congeal into circles a la Gandalf blowing smoke rings in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). The novelty of these alien encounters wears off with successive visits (why so many?), but the intrigue heightens when our heroes learn the nature of the alien circles. So far, so good. Arrival, especially in the early goings, is reminiscent of The Day the Earth Stood Still (the original from 1951, not the schlocky remake with Keanu Reeves in 2008), which is widely regarded as one of the finest—and highly evolved—sci-fi pictures ever made. Though certainly in good company there, Arrival squanders its sure-footed setup with a standard, schmaltzy ending, particularly in how the earlier sparks between Louise and Ian are kindled into a full-fledged romance. This storyline feels rushed since the characters graduate from arguing co-workers to loving, dedicated parents in one convenient leap into the future. The jump in time is jarring and is further exacerbated by the fact that we learn very little about the star-crossed couple since the film’s otherworldly cinematography and alien atmospherics constantly overshadow what little character development can be found here (after all, the alien vessel is the star of the show). The flash-forward flubs also extend to the movie’s gimmicky resolution: side character General Shang (Tzi Ma) provides Louise with the solution to the alien riddle in a sequence so ridiculous it recalls the antics in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) where the titular twosome merely think of an action in the past that will thwart their adversary in the present. However, as awful as that story device is, the mishandled ending isn’t the only problem with the film. For instance, the aliens seem to comprehend concepts far more complex than “weapon,” so their nearly disastrous misunderstanding of the word seems more than a little contrived. Another narrative misstep is Ian’s out-of-the-blue voiceover narration midway through the film. Besides being overly expository, this narrated section is incongruous with the rest of the film and just feels odd since it shifts the POV away from the main character (Louise) and toward the secondary character (Ian). And then, to get really nitpicky, there are several story snafus, such as: how can a non-linear alien species know that humans will assist them 3,000 years into the future? Are they sure it isn’t 2,999 years from now? Or 3001? Further, why would these aliens even need our help since they’re so technologically advanced from us? Also, why do the creatures communicate with circles…seems a tad trite since we already associate (crop) circles with aliens, right? And how can Louise’s vision at the beginning of the film even occur since she doesn’t possess the capacity to look into the future at that point? Louise’s ability to gain knowledge from the future that will help us in the present which will preserve our future is a time paradox so convoluted it would give John Connor a migraine. These are niggling details, to be sure, but the sheer number of them reveals just how porous the plot is and prevents the movie from achieving maximum liftoff. Like a skilled magician, director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, 2013) has cleverly disguised his tenuous story with a style over substance sleight of hand along with an obfuscating display of temporal razzle-dazzle (in the Chicago sense of the word). In the end, Arrival’s arrival is well executed, but its departure needs some work. Good thing we have the next 3,000 years to get the sequel right.

The Girl on the Train (R)

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Directed by: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emily Blunt
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!

The Girl on the Train
Rachel drawing in a notebook is different than in the book.
I applaud the writer for maintaining the POV juggling from the book. We’ll see how well it’s executed.
Rachel’s hands shake while applying lipstick.
#Alcoholic
Powerhouse monologue in the bathroom.
#EmilyBlunt
An actual AA meeting...merely referenced in the book.
“I ride the train.” Unusual occupation.
#TicketsToNowhere
Bizarre depictions of people in the gallery paintings.
#FracturedIdentities
“Don’t make it impossible for us to work together.” Too late.
“Your wife hit me on Friday night.” That’s different from the book.
“I’m afraid of myself.” With good reason, Rachel.
“I fell asleep. I let her go.” Horrific!
“Rachel is a sad person.” Not as sad as you, Tom.
#LisaKudrow holds an important key to Rachel’s blackouts.
Megan wants to go to the woods with Tom. Bad choice.
“In a way you killed her.” Nice try, Tom.
#GuiltTrip
Anna has a heart shaped blood stain on her white sweater. Ironic.
Final analysis: a faithful adaptation that gets the broad strokes right, if not the fine details.
“There’s nothing so painful, so corrosive, as suspicion.” My favorite line from the book.
#Freebie
Rating:
3 out of 4. Solid acting and writing are squandered by middling direction. Such potential here.

Based on the popular book of the same name by Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train tells its sordid story from the perspectives of three women whose lives are intertwined in ways that could only be feasible in a novel…or Hollywood production. The movie arrives less than two years after the book was published (January of 2015) and comes courtesy of screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and director Tate Taylor. Sparing you a long litany of book-to-movie comparisons, I’ll just say that despite numerous narrative alterations (like the accelerated revelation of Rachel’s employment status), the story remains fairly faithful (unlike its characters) to the source material. Some changes work extremely well: the decision to omit the physical relationship between Rachel (Emily Blunt) and Scott (Luke Evans) is a plus since the mere implication of impropriety works wonders dramatically and since the two of them hooking up was dubious from the start. On the flip side, there are several plot breakdowns in the film, most notably the scene where we learn Megan’s (Haley Bennett) fate, which is bracketed by Rachel losing and regaining consciousness. Is this climactic moment a dream, a hallucination or some mental reconstruction of how Rachel thinks the murder occurred? Since the answer is none of the above, this deviation from the POV structure that was established from the opening moments of the movie, muddies the plot stream and creates confusion during the most crucial scene in the film. It’s precisely this sort of story inconsistency that prevents the cinematic Train from achieving what Hawkins did so masterfully in her novel, which only reinforces the long maintained sentiment that the book is always better than the movie. So then, just as the characters attempt to learn the identity of the murderer in the movie, let’s seek to discover who’s at fault for the film’s flawed execution. We certainly can’t point a finger at the acting. Blunt (though far more petite than the novelized Rachel) delivers an authentic portrayal of the low ambition alcoholic, whose frequent blackouts makes her testimony of a perceived crime dubious at best. The supporting players—Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney, Lisa Kudrow, etc—all deliver fine performances too. Wilson does an admirable job of adapting Hawkins’ novel—no small task with its large cast of central characters, multiple perspectives, jumping timelines and carefully constructed, time-released revelations—so her efforts can’t be criticized either. Although the action moves from England in the book to the northeastern U.S. in the movie, the story works well enough in either setting, so no drawback there. Ultimately, the culprit for the film’s underachievement is its directing. One wonders why such a high profile, and potentially highly lucrative, property was turned over to a virtual unknown (Taylor’s only prominent films are 2008’s The Help and 2014’s Get on Up)? Why wasn’t David Fincher (Gone Girl), Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) or another proven director tapped to helm such a multivalent, psychologically complex thriller? Taylor’s direction fails to plumb the depths of Hawkins’ nuanced characters and, instead, settles for a perfunctory, skin-deep methodology. This inability to tap into genuine human emotions and motivations is a massive missed opportunity since Hawkins’ yarn is so immediate and so rich in character…and so Hitchcockian (the story’s inciting incident is essentially Rear Window on a train). As was conveyed in many of Hitchcock’s films, all spectatorship is voyeuristic in nature. As such, we’re equally complicit in Rachel’s transgressive meddling when she peers out the train window and when she inserts herself into the lives of complete strangers. The film’s saving grace is its ability to confront us with this key concept from the book. However, in the end, Train is merely an adequate adaptation of the novel and will underwhelm its audience, especially those who’ve read the book. Well, I’d love to stay and chat some more about this film, but this is my stop.

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?

Money Monster (R)

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Directed by: Jodie Foster
Starring: George Clooney
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!

Money Monster
“You don’t have a clue where your money is.” Scary reality.
“Glitch.” Is it possible this movie is unintentionally timely, i.e. the edited #Iran video?
#ErectileCream on a news set. #Random
“We don’t do journalism period.” Does anyone anymore?
#LeeGates has some decent dance moves.
Most lax security on a set ever. #Nitpick
“It’s all rigged.” Not exactly a news flash.
“Start hosting.” Way to turn the tables.
Shoot the star of a news show live on TV? Shades of #Network.
Buy #IBS, save a life. #TripleBuy
“You believe in money, not people.” #ShallowExistence
Who needs enemies with a girlfriend like that?
“It’s not the computer’s fault.” Sure, buddy.
“We have an 80% chance of an 80% chance.” Hilarious!
Talk with the weapons up. Negotiation at gunpoint.
“What’s wrong with making a profit?” Plenty if people are made to suffer for it.
Final analysis: a message film wrapped in a thriller built on a farce. Entertaining but not earth-shattering.
Rating:
2 1/2 out 4. Nice to see Clooney and Roberts together again even though they only share one scene.

If money is the root of all evil, Lee Gates (George Clooney), a Jim Cramer style stock tip show host, is desperately wicked. As the movie opens, Gates and his producer, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), are engaging in some good-natured banter as they prep for another episode. But as filming commences, an unexpected visitor drifts onto the set and sends the plot veering in a different, unexpected, and ultimately, less interesting direction. It’s rare that such scintillating stars (Clooney and Roberts in front of the camera and Jodie Foster behind it) should be attached to such a banal, lackluster film. What starts off as a compelling The Newsroom style TV studio drama rapidly morphs into a high stakes thriller with Gates doing his finest fast-talking to avoid being blown to bits by a suicide vest on national television (a knowing riff on Sidney Lumet’s prescient 1976 film, Network). The movie’s tonal shift is jarring and really detracts from what sets up as a dramatic edutainment centered on the turbulent world of finance. This bait-and-switch narrative choice may annoy or confuse some audience members since the genre at the beginning of the film isn’t the same as when it ends. Sadly, the more the thriller storyline progresses, the daffier the movie becomes and the more we don’t care who comes out alive…or who doesn’t. It’s a shame that such tremendous talent was squandered on such mediocre material and that the movie’s intriguing premise, which contains a salient message about the current state of our economy and its effect on the scores of struggling citizens in our society, is thrown away in favor of the kind of remedial fare you can find on any run-of-the-mill TV procedural. So what did the actors see in this script that made them want to sign up? Maybe it had nothing to do with the script and everything to do with Clooney and Roberts jumping at another chance to perform together (this is their fourth big screen collaboration). Or maybe their decision was simply based on a desire to work with Foster. Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong and their true motivation for making this movie wasn’t camaraderie or artistic integrity…just the money.

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.

The Revenant (R)

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Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio
January 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 Revenant
“Keep breathing.” Beats the alternative.
Never seen a river flow through trees like this.
Phantom arrows and friendly fire...they don’t stand a chance.
“Get off the boat.” #Unwise
“I ain’t got no life.” #PeltLife
Two bear cubs. Means momma is nearby. #GetOutOfThere
That #BearAttack is one ferocious sequence.
Leo might be wounded, but at least he has a #BearBlanket.
“Save your boy with a blink.” Intense scene.
Self-cauterizing a neck wound. #Ouch
God is a squirrel. Now I’ve heard it all.
Leo eats that fish #Gollum style.
Glass goes where the buffalo roam and the skies are cloudy all day.
“Your body is rotten.” Thanks for the compliment.
Silly Leo. Horses don’t fly.
Glass does the old #Tauntaun trick with his dead horse. It doesn’t smell good, but it’ll keep him warm.
“I need a horse and a gun.” Yeah! #RunningOnRevenge
Beautiful shot of the #Avalanche.
Final analysis: a cinematic masterpiece with a wholly immersive sense of place.
#AlejandroGInarritu has done for mountain forests what #DavidLean did for deserts in #LawrenceOfArabia.
Rating:
4 out of 4. A classic tale of revenge with superb acting by #DiCaprio and jaw dropping cinematography.

Ordinarily, a movie with liabilities like a dearth of dialogue, cursory character development and a standard cause-and-effect narrative wouldn’t be considered for Oscar’s top prize.  But The Revenant isn’t an ordinary film.  A good portion of the film’s success derives from its acting, particularly from Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, who play diametrically opposed forces in a revenge yarn set during the frontier period.  While Hardy is sufficiently loathsome as the movie’s treacherous antagonist, DiCaprio steals the show with a finely nuanced and physical demanding performance as Hugh Glass, a fur trapper with a half-breed son from his deceased Pawnee wife. Considering the high degree of difficulty inherent in this role and the fact that he’s long overdue for a win (5 previous nods), DiCaprio appears to be a shoo-in to snag the Best Actor Oscar, which would be justly deserved. Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter also turn in noteworthy supporting performances and the grizzly bear, played by Glenn Ennis in a blue suit, gets props (two paws up) for a solid assist. Another key ingredient in the movie’s winning formula is Alejandro G. Inarritu’s peerless direction; the film’s tone and visual style are directly attributable to Inarritu’s exceptional skills as a film craftsman. Inarritu has evoked incredibly visceral performances from his actors and has done so with minimal takes in arduous outdoor conditions. Having already won Best Director and Best Picture last year for Birdman, Inarritu seems poised to carry away another armful of statuettes at this year’s Oscars.  Acting and directing aside, the production element that has elevated this film above the extant exemplars of woodland Westerns is the utterly mesmerizing lensing by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.  The movie’s dizzying array of POV shots, long takes and elaborate tracking shots have combined to form a type of visual poetry. The variety, complexity and audacity of these filming techniques, which effectively transport the viewer right into the middle of the action a la a FPS video game, is nearly unrivaled in cinema history (the only films that even come close are Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth trilogies, but those movies employed far more CGI).  Whereas a director envisions a shot and the cinematographer frames it, the locations create the look and mood of a film. As such, the reason this film will go down as a masterwork of visual expression is its locations and the exquisite manner in which they were captured—the avalanche scene, filmed in a real-time one take, is a jaw-dropping achievement. Since the vast majority of this movie was shot on location (almost exclusively in the Canadian Rockies), the exteriors play a crucial role in creating the illusion of reality that moors the viewer to the milieu in palpable ways, wholly immersing them in this savage chapter in American history.  The movie’s location scouts did a phenomenal job of discovering picturesque vantages and pinpointing the perfect setting for each camera setup, so kudos to them for their pioneering (sorry, couldn’t resist) work on this film.  If you can get past its occasional brutal passage, this movie is a singular experience that far transcends the highest aspirations of the quotidian film in its genre.  Which is to say, The Revenant is a cinematic marvel.  Go see it or I’ll sick the bear on you.

Spotlight (R)

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Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo
November 2015

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!

Spotlight
Goodbye cake. #Depressing
“Are you familiar with Spotlight?” That’s why I’m watching the movie.
“You wanna sue the church?” David vs. Goliath. #Ironic
“Would you consider picking this one?” A new story for Spotlight.
“Twenty grand for molesting a child?” A pittance for destroying someone’s life.
SNAP. #CrummyAcronym
“Not prayed for, preyed upon.” Utterly reprehensible.
“How do you say no to God?” #AbuseOfPower
“A recognizable, psychiatric phenomenon.” #ProtectedPredators
A break in the case. #SickLeave
“It takes a village to abuse one.” Horrifying.
“Six percent of all priests.” Absolutely frightening!
“I never got any pleasure out of it.” Just when you thought this movie couldn’t get any more shocking.
“It’s like everyone already knows the story...except for us.” #Obstruction
Story runs and the phones start ringing off the hook. The truth finally comes out.
Final analysis: An expose of corruption for the ages. Flawless acting & superb direction bolster this true tale.
Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4. Deplorable subject matter makes it hard to watch at times, but a vitally important film.

Spotlight dramatizes a watershed event from 2002 when the Boston Globe published a story that blew the lid off of the Catholic Church’s complicity in allowing known pedophile priests to continue serving in parishes. Spotlight is also the name of the small group of intrepid reporters at the Globe who exposed that pattern of corruption and dared to take on the Church. The movie is an ironic twist on the David versus Goliath tale from the Bible with the small team of reporters taking on the centuries-old religious institution. The story is told in a manner similar to that of All the President’s Men (1976), with reporters pounding the streets in order to piece together clues that will eventually aid them in confronting a social injustice. The newsroom dynamic in this film is also echoes President’s Men and other media focused movies of that period like Network (1976). The casting of the Spotlight team is pitch-perfect. Liev Schreiber, as editor Marty Baron, beautifully underplays his role in one of his finest performances. The star of the show is Michael Keaton, who plays Walter “Robby” Robinson, the ringleader of the Spotlight journalists. Each of the supporting actors are superb here, especially Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James and Stanley Tucci. Insuring that everything onscreen accurately reflects the actual events as well as the styles, attitudes and settings of the post-millennial era is director Tom McCarthy. Each aspect of the production feels period appropriate, especially the dimly lit, cluttered office spaces and claustrophobic boardrooms. Writers Josh Singer and McCarthy have done a superb job of taking the morally reprehensible subject matter and making it appropriate for a mass audience. They’ve also skillfully and artfully depicted the actual events without politicizing or bashing organized religion. Just as the Spotlight team treaded carefully as they built their case, so too have Singer and McCarthy walked the tightrope between exposing the heinous behaviors of the outed priests and remaining reverent to the Church. Many have trumpeted this film as the frontrunner for Oscar’s top prize...and it’s hard to argue with such a sentiment. If Spotlight should happen to clinch Hollywood’s highest honor, it would be two Best Picture wins in a row for Keaton.

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.

Bridge of Spies (PG-13)

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks
October 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!

Bridge of Spies
It is.

Self portrait. Add a few more wrinkles there, buddy.
Being a painter is a nice cover for a spy.

Opening the coin. Intricate work.
Interesting how a different faux coin (silver dollar) also appears later in the movie.

“Not my guy.” Splitting hairs. #LimitingLiabilities
It’s amazing how ridiculous our system has become.  We split hairs so fine that we can’t even see the truth anymore.

Jim gets roped into doing a “patriotic duty.” #IncitingIncident
Alan Alda was the perfect choice for the part of Donovan’s superior…a symbol of the old, male Caucasian leadership of the era.

“Do many foreign agents register?” Good point.
Hi, I’m a spy for an enemy country.  Oops, guess I just blew my cover.

“You don’t seem alarmed.” Ha! #ElectricChair
There’s a man resigned to his fate.  Occupational hazard.

“You cannot be shot down. You cannot be captured.” No pressure.
Your country will disavow any knowledge of you.  Sign me up!

The “duck and cover” film shown in school is horrifying.
With Iran getting nukes, we might want to bring this instructional film back for today’s schoolchildren.

Pariah on a train.
What an awful feeling it would be to have everyone’s disapproving gaze trained on you.

The “standing man” story is a nice moment.
And pays off beautifully later in the movie.

Are there any “bigger issues” than justice?
It’s frightening how often justice is waylaid by misguided ploys or knee-jerk reactions.

If there’s a threat of capture, #SpendTheDollar.
It’s the last one you’ll ever spend.

“Will we stand by our cause less resolutely then he stands by his?” #KillerLine
An elegant line delivered with exceptional precision by Hanks.

The jet explosion scene is intense.
The only bona fide action scene in the movie.  Not nearly as pulse-pounding as the action sequences in this year’s Furious Seven, but it’ll do.

“Indulge their fiction.” #PrisonerExchange
This is where the plot gets convoluted.  Everyone’s angling for something different and it’s up to Donovan to outsmart all parties involved.

Watching the wall as it’s being built is #Historic.
A strange feeling washed over me as I watched this scene—viewing such a historic divide, as it’s being built, is…weighty.

Jim trades his coat for directions...and safe passage through East Berlin.
The expensive coat might have saved his life.  Good thing his passport wasn’t in it.

Jim’s “impatient plan” is the only sensible one.
Our timetable in the US does seem to be much more accelerated than the ones in many other places around the world.

“Every person matters.”
A very positive message that’s reinforced by Donovan’s insistence that Russian spy Abel (Mark Rylance in a terrific performance) be imprisoned, not sent to the electric chair.

“We’re on. Two for one.” Hot dog!
Easier said than done.

“I can wait.” Yeah!
An amazing moment of respect and solidarity.  Most people would’ve run toward freedom.

“This is your gift.” Touching.
Grab a hanky.

“I thought daddy was fishing.” Nope, he was off being a hero.
A stand and cheer moment.

A different kind of train ride this time. #Redemption
This is telling of just how fickle people are—how quickly their opinion can change. Remember High Noon (1952).

Final analysis: a slow-boil political thriller, brimming with historical accuracy and social significance.
And touching humanity.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4. Spielberg has delivered a gorgeous film and Hanks’ performance is Oscar-worthy.

As with any Hanks/Spielberg collaboration (their first since The Terminal, 2004) Spies is sure to be a hit with critics and audiences alike.  Based on the true story of how an insurance lawyer, Jim Donovan (Hanks), got caught in the middle of a political tug-o-war during the height of the Cold War, the film is a timely reminder of our nation’s tensions with Russia in the not-too-distant past.  The age-old adage that greatness is often thrust upon ordinary individuals at unsuspecting times certainly applies here.  Donovan, the very portrait of an unassuming leader, becomes the hero of the hour when his negotiation skills are called upon to secure the release of two American prisoners who are being held in prisons on the dark side (Communist) of Berlin.  Aside from the peerless acting and directing, the high end production is really what puts it over the top for this political potboiler period piece.  Peter Piper agrees.  The attention to detail and historical accuracy evident in every frame of the film is simply awe-inspiring; look no further than the startlingly realistic bombed out sections of Berlin for an example of this. The one possible snafu I have with this movie is that Spartacus appears on the marquee of a German theater in one scene.  Spartacus was released in the US on October 7, 1960.  It’s snowing in Germany, so we can assume that it’s Nov or Dec of 1960 when this scene takes place.  Since it normally takes three or more months for a movie to be distributed overseas, the timing of Spartacus’ release here is questionable. More research is required. If the movie has a downside it’s its length (2 hours, 21 minutes) and slow pacing. It’s unclear whether or not the inclusion of the Coen Bros. on the scripting team helped or hindered in this regard, but I’m reasonably confident, judging from their past work, that they had something to do with the overall quality of the script. Incidentally, the Coens’ are also currently co-executive producing the second season of Fargo on FX. One of the stars of that show, Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights) also appears here in an ancillary, but vital, role. So where’s all of the action we’ve come to expect from the man who brought us Indiana Jones and the first two Jurassic Park movies? The entire subplot involving the shot down pilot could’ve been explained in a couple lines of dialog.  The auteur wisely chose to add this story line (and the storyboarding for the sequence is vintage Spielberg), which provides the only real action in the movie.  However, even though the cross-cutting is nothing short of brilliant, these scenes are ultimately superfluous and don’t significantly move the story forward, and, ironically, only serve to make the film that much longer.  Despite these niggling criticisms, there’s a lot to appreciate here, not the least of which is the film’s humanitarian message and fish-out-of-water tale of courage and honor.  This historical biopic will go down as one of Spielberg’s finest films and should earn a raft of Oscar nods.  Spies is educational and inspirational and will stand the test of time as a top-shelf Cold War yarn.  Parting thought: if you ever visit Germany during the winter season, be sure to pack an extra coat.

Everest (PG-13)

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Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur
Starring: Jason Clarke
September 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!

Everest
If only psychologically. Actually, most SoCal theaters are like ice boxes year-round, so watching a flick is a great way to beat the heat.

20 teams. “A scrum on the ropes.”
Unfortunately, the more people there are on the mountain, the greater the chance of casualties. The grim reality of statistical probability.

“Mailman on Everest.” Long way to deliver a letter.
The Mailman is played by indie actor, John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, 2010 and The Sessions, 2012).

Climber’s memorial. Last chance to turn back.
A graveyard for climbers whose lives were claimed by the mountain.

“The last word always belongs to the mountain.” Know who you’re competing against.
A good reminder to always pay the proper amount of respect to the mountain.

“One pound down here is like ten pounds up there.” #LightAndFast
This is a reference to shedding weight from a backpack, not personal weight. Although, that would factor in as well, one would think.

“Head down, one step at a time.” The only way to attack the mountain.
What a grueling task it would be to climb Everest. It’s not just how cold the air is, but also how thin it is.

“The mountain makes its own weather.” And it can change in an instant.
As the characters in the movie find out…the hard way.

Beautiful night view of the mountain.
There’s nothing like being on top of the world, breathing crisp, clean air and watching the moonlight glistening off of snow peaks. A spiritual experience.

No fixed ropes. You slip you die.
That’s okay. I’ll sit this one out.

Hopefully the call from home gives Rob the motivation he needs to get moving.
Wishful thinking on my part. In my defense, I was unfamiliar with this story before watching the film.

Final analysis: a heart-stopping, man vs. nature tale where respect for the mountain is paramount for survival.
And respect for fickle weather.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. What the film gains in production it loses in predictability. A true story worth watching.

This type of extreme sports movie has been done many times throughout cinema history. Mountain climbing films like K2 (1991) and Vertical Limit (2000) are presented more as thrillers than man versus nature cautionary tales. Whereas many of those mountain movies are fictional, Everest is based on the horrific events that occurred on the big mountain in 1996. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) lead a team to the top of Everest, but on the descent, conditions rapidly worsened and many climbers either slipped off the edge of a cliff or became one with the mountain…permanently. Survival thrillers, along with disaster films and murder mysteries, usually employ a thinning of the herd narrative approach, and such is the case here.  As macabre as it sounds, it almost becomes a spectator sport to guess who will live and who will die when things go south, as they always do in this brand of film.  This Darwinian winnowing of characters is much harder to guess in fictional stories, but in true events, like the one featured in this film, anyone familiar with the historical account will know who survives and who doesn’t.  However, the writing here is as taut as a climbing line and should hold the attention of everyone in the audience with its skillful recitation of the harrowing events that befell this particular group of adventurers nearly twenty years ago. Bringing the characters to life is an eclectic cast of fine actors including: Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Robin Wright and Sam Worthington.  If there’s a downside to having such a large cast it’s that screen time is at a premium, especially since personal stories are constantly upstaged by action on the mountain.  Some of the individual episodes are tragic, like when Hawkes’ mailman, Doug Hansen, sends himself express to the bottom of the mountain, while others are heroic, like the subplot focusing on Brolin’s ironically named character, Beck Weathers, who, despite losing his nose, miraculously survives two gelid nights up on the slope.  Although the death scenes aren’t overly graphic, some of them might be frightening for younger kids.  However, despite a handful of death scenes, there really isn’t anything else that’s objectionable in the film.  Indeed, one of the producers of the movie is Walden Media, which is the family friendly company that brought us the Narnia trilogy.  Aside from the decorated cast, the biggest draw here is the gorgeous scenery filmed on location in Nepal and Italy.  As the de facto star of the movie, the mountain scenes had to be spectacular, and they are, thanks in large part to director Baltasar Kormakur and cinematographer Salvatore Totino. All things considered, this movie is exactly what you’d expect from a tragic true tale set on the frozen tundra.  The movie is a humbling reminder of the awesome power of nature.  Moral of the story: don’t play games with Mother Nature.  You’ll lose.

Captive (PG-13)

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Directed by: Jerry Jameson
Starring: Kate Mara
September 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!

Captive

Yeah, a #CR meeting. Best place to go to work on life’s three “H”s.
Hurts, hang-ups and habits. “Keep coming back, it works if you work it and it won’t if you don’t!”

“I like it too much.” If you’ve ever said this, there’s a good chance you’re an addict.
Actually, it’s almost a certainty.

“A month...a few days.” #AddictsTimetable
You hear this type of revisionist history all the time on TV shows featuring real-life drug busts.

Ahh...the old pour a Coke on the battery trick. #Classic
And just think, we actually put that in our stomachs.

Brian isn’t a complete monster, he has a soft spot for his son.
His one redeeming quality.

Brian is in denial over raping a woman and Ashley is in denial over her meth habit. #DoubleDenial
Messed up people have an uncanny way of finding each other.

“My family doesn’t listen to me either.” #NoTrust
Of course, once you’ve burned enough bridges, you have no more credibility.

“You’re not my brother.” Got him!

“Lady’s first.” #CrisisMoment
If you were an addict desperately trying to quit, would you take at hit or a bullet?

Brian’s plan is to rob a bank and escape to Mexico. #RealOriginal
This is pretty much the plan every villain has in every Western book/movie script ever written.

Brian says, “I have a demon in me.” Hadn’t noticed.
He also has drugs in him. Probably doesn’t help matters any.

The car stall scene is intense.
You just knew this was going to happen since they set it up earlier in the movie.

The greatest tragedy is a “life without purpose.” #PDL #Saddleback
One of the many great lines from The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.

“Goodbye, Little Man.” Touching voice mail message.
It’s sad when you think of all the little men out there who will never get to meet their dads because they’re doing time for doing illegal things.

“You don’t have to be perfect to be used by God.” A #PowerfulMessage from @RickWarren. #Saddleback
In fact, many of the people God used in the Bible were far from perfect.

Final analysis: a powerful true story of how one woman finds redemption amid a life-changing tragedy.
And one man’s courage to do the right thing by letting the woman go and surrendering himself to the authorities.

Rating:
3 out of 4. A hope-filled story and fine performances help to overcome the movie’s budgetary constraints.

Based on the true story of how Folsom County prison inmate, Brian Nichols (David Oyelowo), escaped from his cell, killed four people (including a judge) and became the focal point of one of the most high profile manhunts in our country’s history, Captive is a tragic tale but also a story of courage, hope and forgiveness. The events portrayed in Captive take place in 2005 during a terrifying and tragic eight hour period and are adapted from the book of the same name written by Ashley Smith, the woman Brian holds captive when he tries to hole up and evade the police dragnet. Ashley, played by Kate Mara, is a meth head who is trying to get her life back on track so that she can regain custody of her daughter. Fate, or perhaps a higher power, puts these two tragic figures together and the results are, by turns, intense and inspiring. The first thing most viewers will notice about the film is that it doesn’t have a very big budget. The second thing that will register with the audience is that the producers wisely allocated a generous portion of their budget to securing A list actors, namely Golden Globe nominee Oyelowo (Selma, 2014) and Mara (House of Cards). Since the majority of the film features both actors, either together or separately, the lead performers had to be solid if the film had any chance to succeed, so money well spent on these two fine performers who fit their roles perfectly and work extremely well together. The story maintains its intensity throughout and the riveting drama is punctuated by thriller-esque moments, like when Ashley’s car breaks down at night in the pouring rain. The climactic sequence, where police close in around Nichols, is also quite suspenseful. The movie’s theme of redemption isn’t necessarily subtle, but it isn’t driven home with a jackhammer either…thankfully. Though there’s a strong religious underpinning here, the film never comes off as preachy. In fact, this movie should serve as a template for other “religious” dramas: it’s a gripping true story that has some top talent and a faith-affirming message that’s conveyed organically rather than foisted upon its audience. Some sports movies, like Facing the Giants (2006) and last year’s When the Game Stands Tall have already perfected this faith-based film formula. Granted, due to its conspicuous message and/or shoestring budget, Captive won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. At the very least, the film has given us a big screen treatment of the ripped-from-the-headlines account of Nichols’ prison break and subsequent life changing encounter with Smith. So, whether or not you find the film illuminating, hopefully you’ll find it captivating.

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.

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

Insurgent (PG-13)

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Directed by: Robert Schwentke
Starring: Shailene Woodley
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!

Insurgent
I got it from the movie poster. A nice turn of the phrase “defy gravity.”

Peace is an obligation.
Marital Law is immediate. War is imminent.

“You killed us all.” Bleak nightmare.

Tris self-sheers. She wanted to do something different.
Her new coif makes her look like the girl in The Fault in Our Stars. Correction: self-shears. Also, Twitter doesn’t have an italics feature, otherwise I would’ve italicized the word “do” to create a pun with the shortened version of hairdo. And now I’ve ruined my magic trick by explaining it.

Jeanine inspects the founder’s version of the AllSpark.
This rectangular, rune-scrawled object also reminds me of the artifact in The Fifth Element (1997).

Peter shouldn’t have insulted Tris’ parents.

The easy way...but under protest.
It’s not the same as the “easy way” in Back to the Future II (1989), though.

Why doesn’t Caleb help out Tris when she’s attached?
I only ask this because he just made his first kill. Yes, he’s probably in shock over such an action, but his sister’s life is literally hanging in the balance. Correction: attacked. The new predictive function on iPhones thinks it’s being helpful when presenting words that look similar to one another. In a darkened theater, with a darkened phone screen, it’s easy to select the wrong word. The defense rests.

Welcome to Fort Factionless.

Don’t call Four Tobias. He won’t even let his mother call him that.
It’s not wise to call Indiana Jones “Junior” either.

“I always loved watching him sleep.” #Creepy
Unless you’re a betrothed Minbari.
The dystopian landscape is really well done in this film.

Fittingly, all Candor clothing is black and white.
‘Cause that’s the way they see the world. Get it?

“May the truth set you free.” And destroy your reputation and alienate your friends.
I meant to say, “alienate you from your friends.” But I trust the point was made.

“I killed Will.” Chills!
A very well-acted scene as Tris resists the truth serum with every ounce of her strength so as to not reveal her deep, dark secret.

“Thank you for your candor.” Up yours!
Or as Scotty would say, “Up your shaft!” (ST:III)

Jeanine is searching for a “special” Divergent. Gee, I wonder who that could be.

10% Divergent equals a bullet to the head.
This story element, which doesn’t appear in the book, is very effective in ratcheting up the tension.

Four shooting Eric cheapens his death. I much prefer Tris stabbing Eric in the book.
It was too soon to knock off the arrogant henchman. The audience needed to derive a greater feeling of vindication and satisfaction from Eric’s death. As filmed, it’s just a shallow slaying.

I could’ve skipped seeing Four’s tattoos again.
I know this gratuitous scene was placed here just for the teenybopper fan girls in the audience, but seeing Four’s tattoos once was quite sufficient. Actually, I could’ve skipped such a visual altogether, but that’s just me.

“We have plenty of guards.” Now that’s cold.
Jeanine shows Peter no respect, just like Peter shows Tris no respect. Bitterly ironic.

First sim: Tris must rescue her mother from a burning, flying house.
This is a superbly crafted sequence, but it’s overlong and overblown.

“Scary boyfriend skills.” Gotcha.
This is a pretty weak “Ah-ha!” moment. In the book, Tris knows she’s in a sim because Four grabs her on the shoulder where her bullet wound is, something her caring boyfriend would never do.

Amazing FX on the building demolitions.
If you’re into large-scale destruction.

“Are you real?” Better check his tats to make sure it’s really Four.
On second thought, let’s not.

Tris confronts her dark side.
This good half/bad half conflict has been done ad nauseam throughout TV/film history. The earliest example I can recall is when the transporter splits Capt. Kirk into good/evil halves in TOS’s “The Enemy Within.”

Divergents...the true purpose of the experiment.
As the culmination of the five factions, this revelation isn’t that much of a surprise; nor is the fact that they should be looked upon differently since they’re…different.

There’s hope beyond the wall.
But is there any hope for those inside the wall? Stay tuned.

A mass exodus of Divergents.
See you later Factionistas!

Final analysis: a solid follow-up to the first film, with some significant twists from the book.
Actually, the divergences from the book are extensive. Here are just a few: Marcus has a more prominent role in the action, there’s no AllSpark artifact and the loyal Dauntless join with the factionless to march on Erudite as a retaliatory response to the wrong’s committed by Jeanine and her lot in the first film.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. Some good action scenes and some superb FX. A solid set-up for the finale.

As sequels go, Insurgent, based on the teen book series by Veronica Roth and the follow-up to last year’s Divergent, is a solid effort. The middle chapter of any trilogy typically has an identity crisis—it’s either too similar to the initial movie or it strays too far in the wrong direction so as to be virtually unrecognizable when measured against the original concept. Whereas you’ll probably be lost if you haven’t seen Divergent, Insurgent stands on its own and is a logical extension of the first film rather than a radical departure from it. The vast majority of middle films will either end with a cliffhanger (i.e., Vader’s mind-blowing revelation that he’s Luke’s father in Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back) or the continuation of a journey (i.e., The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers). With Insurgent, something strange happens for a middle chapter film…it resolves. In fact, it resolves to the degree that the saga can end right here with the characters living reasonably happily ever after. Of course, there are enough plot threads still dangling out there to justify extending the story, but the fact that it could’ve ended right here is a truly bizarre anomaly for a mid-trilogy film. Shifting gears to production, the bombed out environs are exceptionally well staged here; the rough, rubble riddled landscapes perfectly mirror the arduous psychological and spiritual journey the characters embark upon in the film. Indeed, the physical structures are soon transformed into mental ones as we get a glimpse into the architecture of the mind: Tris is subjected to a new battery of sims, just in case we didn’t get our fill of them in the last movie. Aside from the city exteriors, the only other environment worth mentioning is the Amity faction, which perfectly reflects the natural, serene vibe of its inhabitants. Since there are only a few substantive character moments in the movie, the acting won’t stand out as stellar…more like serviceable. The action sequences are mildly entertaining, but are somewhat standard issue for what we’ve come to anticipate from non-bloody, teen-centric confrontations. So, what can we expect from Allegiant, the final film in the series? Those who’ve read the books might feel like they have an inside track to what will happen, but if this movie’s deviations from book to script are any indication, we could be looking at a significantly different cinematic conclusion to what appears in Roth’s novel. To their credit, these adapted screenplays haven’t been slavish in their adherence to the source material, and the alterations have provided some interesting surprises along the way. And really, not knowing everything that will happen in a movie is part of its allure, right? Purists will probably disagree, but these Divergent screenplays have been faithful in the areas that count, but have deviated only where needed in order to make a good movie…which, at the end of the day, is what matters most. If the concluding chapter is as good as the first two, this will go down as one of the better trilogies in recent years, and second only to The Hunger Games in the YA dystopian market. Let’s hope the studio bean counters resist the urge to split the last book into two movies as was done with the Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games series. The penultimate movie in each of those franchises was disappointing and egregiously added filler just to stretch out the story in order to make more money. This brand of cinematic hucksterism, which compromises artistic integrity, subverts authorial intent and fleeces its audience, is downright despicable. The studio executives who conceived and engage in such practices should be tarred and feathered. I say that with as much candor as I can conjure.

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.

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.

The Imitation Game (PG-13)

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Directed by: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch
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!

The Imitation Game

The opening narration admonishes us to “pay attention.”
Thanks to Sherlock, I’ve been conditioned to automatically pay attention whenever Cumberbatch is onscreen.

Cumberbatch is recruited to study the “crooked hand of death.”
Otherwise known as Enigma. If you remember the movie U-571 (2000), their mission was to board a German sub and steal an Enigma device. Hey, maybe the encryption machine Cumberbatch’s team is trying to decipher is the same one from U-571?

“Should we leave the children alone with their new toy?” Ha!

Mission: check twenty million settings in twenty minutes. No problem.
If you’re Data (ST:TNG).

A machine to defeat a machine.
Sounds like a Terminator movie. This concept doesn’t sound like rocket science, but, inexplicably, it was back during WWII. The fact that Turing’s insistence on building/funding a machine was resisted by the military is simply incredible. How shortsighted and…illogical.

Crossword audition is clever.
But the chauvinistic tryout is disappointing. Apparently only men were good at crosswords back then.

Christopher is turned on for the first time.
This was the only child Alan Turing ever had, but what a brainchild. His creation (a rudimentary computer) not only single-handedly shortened the war; it’s changed the course of human evolution.

A rudimentary key word search is devised. Bloody brilliant!

“Turns out that’s the only German you need to know to break Enigma.”
The movie avers that love ended the war, but it was really Germany’s undying allegiance to Hitler that did them in—in more ways than one.

“We’ll have each other’s minds.” Uncommon bravery.
This is an astounding scene. Clarke’s (Knightley) willingness to marry Turing even after he reveals that he’s gay is mind-boggling. Turing knows that a life with him would be unfulfilling and rife with hardship so he pushes Clarke away with a vicious lie. In reality, he loves her too much to consign her to a life of unhappiness with him. It’s a bitter exchange with incisive dialog and superlative acting.

Final analysis: a staggering true story with a tremendous lead performance by Cumberbatch.
Cumberbatch continues to astound with each new part he plays…be it human or dragon.

Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4 stars. A superb period piece that should garner a great deal of Oscar attention.

As Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) voiceover narration attests, intelligence wins wars…not planes, ships or boots on the ground. Though Imitation resembles neither a traditional, action-packed war film, nor a spy thriller, it’s much more than just a true story about how the Brits subverted the German intelligence apparatus: it’s a bracing character study, a tragic tale of unrequited love, a psychological war film (with only brief glimpses of actual combat) and a true account of how Turing’s machine helped to end the war while ushering in the computer age. A non-action war movie might not sound all that exciting, but thanks to its engaging story and fascinating character interplay, interest never wanes during the two hour drama…a tribute to Graham Moore’s screenplay (based on Andrew Hodges’ book) and Morten Tyldum’s taut direction. Of course, the name and face on the poster is what will attract viewers to this low-key, slow-boil period piece. Due in large part to his work on TVs Sherlock and big screen blockbusters like Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), Cumberbatch has become a household name and is fast becoming one of the finest actors of his generation. If Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock is noticeably ADHD, his turn as Turing more closely resembles someone on the spectrum. The lunch invite scene is uproariously funny and features a spot-on Asperger-ish delivery by Cumberbatch. As for the movie’s romance, Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley are brilliant as mismatched lovers. It’s profoundly sad that the mental compatibility these characters possess doesn’t translate into physical compatibility. This failed romance begs an interesting relational question: is the meeting of minds more important than physical infatuation? Many would respond in the affirmative, and if true, Turing and Clarke had a deep, meaningful love affair in spite of its platonic status. The procedural component of the film drags at times but contains enough unexpected turns to keep the audience engaged. The team of code breakers includes some interesting characters, one of whom has extracurricular allegiances, a subplot that provides the movie with a spot of intrigue. The size, composition and specialties of the group are strikingly similar to the members of the implosion team on WGN America’s Manhattan, a WWII set TV series that chronicles the mad scramble by American scientists to discover a way to split the atom. Though on opposite sides of the pond, Manhattan and Imitation both center on groups of scientists and mathematicians working on top-secret projects to defeat the Nazis amid an oppressive military presence; and both objectives are challenged by unforeseen consequences. The burden of knowledge has rarely been as devastatingly depicted as in this film. Indeed, Enigma becomes a Pandora’s Box of sorts when the code is finally cracked but restraint must be exercised so as to not tip off the Germans that their complex cipher has been decoded. The implications of this ethical dilemma erupt in a scene where one of the young men on Turing’s team, Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), realizes that warning his brother’s ship of an impending German attack would expose their discovery and effectively nullify the years of work that went into breaking the German code. It’s a bitter twist on Star Trek’s “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one” maxim that Peter’s brother must die in order to preserve the secret that can win the war. How ironic that the team was so preoccupied with cracking the code that they failed to consider the implications and ramifications of what that knowledge would bring. Armed with substantial narrative and emotional complexity, this highly intelligent intelligence movie will go down as one of the finest non-war War movies in cinema history. There’s nothing Imitation about the film…it’s one of a kind.

Nightcrawler (R)

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Directed by: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal
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!

Nightcrawler

Gyllenhaal creates his own job as a freelancer.
After striking out with two potential employers, Gyllenhaal decides to take matters into his own hands and forge his own job description.

Gyllenhaal sees his “graphic” shooting clip on the news.
A monster is created. The chance to become famous for filming gruesome images at accident sites is like crack cocaine to Gyllenhaal’s narcissistic opportunist.

Gyllenhaal arrives late to a structure fire thanks to the ineptitude of his new intern.
Don’t worry, Gyllenhaal will get him back later in the film. And how!

Now that’s a significant upgrade in vehicles.
Though, it’s not very inconspicuous is it? In the scene where Gyllenhaal flees the scene of the shooting, wouldn’t his flashy sports car draw the attention of cops responding to the emergency? As a getaway car, his original beater would’ve been better suited for flying under the radar…plus, with the way Gyllenhaal drives, why would you risk crashing that beautiful new vehicle?

Gyllenhaal “sets the scene” at a car accident.
Clearly he never took a first aid course, because you never move an injured individual at an accident site for fear of creating or exacerbating a neck injury.

“A friend is a gift you give yourself.” Creepy!

Gyllenhaal films the accident he created. Now that’s cold.
Poor Bill Paxton didn’t know he was dealing with a nut job when he offered to partner with Gyllenhaal. Side note: Paxton played another adrenalin junkie in Twister (1996). However, the risk here is probably a little less and the pay is probably far better. It would be funny if this was an older version of the same character, who decided to settle down and get a respectable job after having his fill of chasing tornadoes.

Capturing a shooting in progress. Now that’s an exclusive.
This is a very grizzly sequence, especially in its original, non-blurred format. This sequence puts Gyllenhaal’s character on the map and also explodes the movie’s theme of ethics in media.

Gyllenhaal sets up his own exclusive. A dangerous game.
He uses cops as pawns in a scene that he’s created for his own amusement and professional advancement. Frightening!

Filming a high speed chase from right behind the pursuing cop car. Crazy!
You know this will be the next kick for those who like to live their life on the edge. Chasing tornadoes was so 90s.

Withholding information…minor detail.

Final analysis: a telling, salient story of media sensationalism gone awry.

Rating:
3 out of 4. A disturbing portrait of a troubled soul who finds his niche by capturing the shocking.

“If it bleeds, it leads,” Bill Paxton’s character says as he walks, no…swaggers, away from the scene of an accident with video camera in tow, brushing right past Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s late to the scene. Too late, it turns out, to sell his footage to a news station, because when it comes to independent footage, as with life itself, the early bird gets the worm. Conversely, I suppose the late bird gets the night crawler. Appropriately, that’s the name (nightcrawler) for these thrill-seeking freelancers who listen to police scanners and try to beat emergency vehicles to the scene of an accident in order to provide (for a price) local news affiliates with exclusive footage of the catastrophe. As if that premise wasn’t intriguing enough, the movie boasts a compelling character study and some searing commentary on the condition of our society. Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of a nightcrawler named Lou Bloom is undeniably brilliant—Bloom is a bundle of quirks and neuroses rather than just one idiosyncratic behavior, which seems to be all the rage in entertainment these days…especially on TV. To whit: Tony Shalhoub made the titular obsessive-compulsive detective famous on Monk, Claire Danes continues to astound as a bipolar CIA agent on Homeland and young Max Burkholder is masterful in his depiction of a preteen with Aspergers on Parenthood. The list goes on and on, but these clear-cut characters with easily diagnosable psychiatric conditions (even for a layman) often lead to predictable or caricatural enactments since the personality traits exhibited by such people are so distinctive and well-defined. Again, Gyllenhaal’s nuanced performance is utterly captivating because it adroitly avoids the obvious “Hey, guys, I’m playing an egomaniacal sociopath” telegraphing that frequently accompanies roles where attention is drawn to a character’s mental challenge or affliction. Acting aside, writer/director Dan Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit do a superb job of capturing the distinctive look and mood of L.A., particularly during the night scenes. In many ways, Gilroy’s framing choices remind me of those in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), another nocturnal neo-noir that featured a generous portion of pulse-pounding racing through the city’s main arteries and side streets. As in Drive, the City of Angels serves as an additional, non-corporeal character in this film. I won’t belabor the movie’s not-so-subtle treatise on the current state of the news, but its message of morality (or lack thereof) in media is poignant, especially in light of the fact that many traditional news outlets have resorted to sensationalizing stories in order to compete with social media and online news sources. Sad to say, but traditional news just can’t satiate the appetite of a society that’s incessantly and exponentially drawn to the extreme, graphic and profane (all of which are shamelessly showcased and promulgated by YouTube videos, reality/late night/political commentary TV shows, etc) more than actual vetted and sourced journalism. At the time of this writing, HBO’s superb drama, The Newsroom, will air its final episode this weekend after three abbreviated seasons. As a show about a fictitious news network, The Newsroom never found a large enough audience to sustain a lengthy run, which is a profound disappointment since Aaron Sorkin’s topical, whip-smart drama is top shelf TV and deserved a better reception and fate than what it received. The characters on the show often express frustration over the fact that true journalism is being rapidly replaced by hack-on-a-corner reporting...after all, any idiot with a cell phone can capture or create the news these days. The grim reality we now face is that experienced and informed news anchors like The Newsroom’s Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) are becoming an endangered species, thanks to the Lou Bloom’s of the world. In a very real sense, these Joe Camcorders and late night creepers are holding the medium hostage. It’s enough to make your skin crawl.

A Walk Among the Tombstones (R)

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Directed by: Scott Frank
Starring: Liam Neeson
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!

A Walk Among the Tombstones
Not quite, since this movie is significantly darker than the Taken films and since it involves absolutely no abductions.

Two shots before a shootout.
Drinking and driving is bad enough, but shooting while sauced seldom ends well.

Neeson turns down a job and gets his eight year chip.
A win/win. However, if things ended right here, we’d have a pretty short movie.

An elaborate back story for Neeson’s new case. I smell a setup.
The man who hires Neeson is played by Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey. Another DA star, Michelle Dockery, appeared with Neeson earlier this year in Non-Stop.

Neeson takes the titular walk. Meets the creepy groundskeeper.
Played by Olafur Darri Olafsson (of course it wasn’t fun to type). He looks like the destitute, mentally challenged child of Kevin Page, Bum from Dallas (2012).

Neeson tails a POI and is tailed.

No East Village Plumbing. No surprise.

The punch through the glass is awesome.
One of the coolest scenes in the movie.

The 12 steps narrated over the firefight makes for a unique sequence.
There’s definitely some art here, especially the sobering voice over and freeze frame techniques.

Final analysis: a deliberately paced thriller with an understated but effective turn by Neeson.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. A tale of redemption that’s worthwhile if only for Neeson’s performance.

The most compelling screen heroes have always been the ones beset by some kind of mental or physical flaw…the more severe or debilitating the flaw is, the greater the exultation is at the end of the movie when the protagonist overcomes his limitations, defeats the villain and saves the day. Here, Liam Neeson’s former cop/present private detective is a recovering alcoholic—his problem affected his on-the-job performance which led to his swift departure from the force. The pivotal incident in Neeson’s past serves as opening prologue and intermittent back story, delivered in a series of stylized flashbacks, and is the movie’s spine, or, more appropriately, its heart. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is standard B-grade thriller fare. The case Neeson accepts is similar (though, admittedly, more graphic) to the plethora of conventional crime plots featured on the ubiquitous network TV procedurals. Other than the movie’s star, the rest of the performers, though well-suited to their roles in most cases, fail to exhibit big screen chops. This should come as no surprise since many of the supporting players here have spent a significant portion of their careers making a name for themselves on the small screen: Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) and David Harbour (Manhattan) to name just a couple. One aspect of the film that works particularly well is the soiled and seedy NYC locations that serve as immersive backdrop and locus of action throughout the film…the foreboding cemetery, panoramic rooftop, well-appointed or ramshackle residences and even the sparsely populated municipal library are all used to great effect in making this modestly budgeted film seem a bit more prestigious. Credit director Scott Frank with adding visual variety and visceral verve to the handful of action sequences, particularly the poetic, climactic shootout (see above). All things considered, Tombstones isn’t a stellar thriller, but it’s unique in its own right and has much to recommend it. At the very least, this film should tide us over until Tak3n.

Gone Girl (R)

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Directed by: David Fincher
Starring: Ben Affleck
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!

Gone Girl

Primal questions. Yikes!
If this is really the description of a quotidian relationship, is there any wonder why 50% of all marriages end in divorce?

Villainous chin. First warning sign?
But what exactly constitutes a villainous chin? Long and pointed like Vincent Price’s? Rugged and rounded like Ray Liotta’s? Not sure Affleck’s chin qualifies as villainous by any standard.

A sugar storm and the first kiss.
This is a nice moment, but it’s robbed of any joy or elation since we’re already aware of the relationship’s trajectory.

Who let the cat out?
Ooo…ooo, ooo, ooo!

“We have our first clue.” Ha!
This is a much needed bit of levity to break up the tension. Also, the envelope clues us into the antagonist’s superior confidence in self and utter lack of respect for the abilities and intelligence of the detectives investigating the missing person’s case.

Www.findamazingamy.com. Is this a press conference or marketing blitz?
When you really stop to think about it, the true villains in the movie are Amy’s parents since they’ve gotten rich off of turning their daughter’s image and identity into a brand.

“Everything else is just background noise” works for a season...a short one.
You can only ride the waves of good intentions for so long in a relationship before the swelling emotional tsunami comes crashing down and takes you under.

Ambush at the vigil.

“Does Missouri have the death penalty?” Chilling.
Affleck’s character is a really poor chess player in the movie…he’s consistently two moves behind the person who’s framing him.

Gummy bear toss. Creating a sympathetic public image.
Make it gummy worms and I’ll commit all kinds of mistakes on purpose.

A convenient end note, but enough evidence to convict?

Miracle on the Mississippi...nice spin.
As the legal gun-for-hire, who’s amused rather than distressed by the case’s unexpected turns, Tyler Perry is exceptional in his supporting role.

Final analysis: an incisively smart & subversive missing person mystery with more twists than a roller coaster.

Affleck is convincing, but Pike is creepy good in a role that will have people talking for quite some time.
A lot of hubbub has been made about Affleck’s acting here, and while his performance is solid, it pales in comparison to Pike’s mesmerizing turn as a cold, calculating wife armed with a master plan for how to destroy her husband.

Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4 stars. Fincher’s direction is superb and the screenplay was written by Flynn herself.

There was never any doubt that the writing for Gone Girl would be top notch since the source material was adapted by its author, Gillian Flynn. Enlisting David Fincher (The Social Network) to direct was a canny choice as was tapping top talent in Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike for the movie’s two central roles. Having all of the right ingredients doesn’t always translate into a successful movie (Waterworld) but, fortunately, the law of averages worked out in this film’s favor. The story of a philandering husband being accused of killing his wife has been done countless times throughout the history of cinema, but this movie’s unique set of circumstances and frequent red herrings, left turns or U-turns keeps the audience engaged right up until the bitter end; a resolution that’s created a great deal of controversy, especially for the scores of people who’ve read the book (I, unfortunately, cannot be counted among their ranks since I chose to read The Maze Runner instead—a grievous choice). Even though the story is methodical and procedural, we never lose interest thanks to Flynn’s diligently measured dialog and finely chiseled characters; all of which are well-rounded and many of which possess modulating or murky or motivations. As a deconstruction of the modern marriage, the film has plenty to say about the problems and pressures contemporary couples face. The scheming, controlling woman paired with a weak willed, low ambition, highly emasculated man is certainly telling of a societal trend that’s been steadily, if not exponentially, escalating since the Mr. Mom 80s. As such, is the movie making commentary on how traditional relational roles have shifted, or reversed, or is it merely spotlighting an isolated—though extreme—incidence of marital dissolution? There’s plenty to process here, which is to be expected since the movie’s superlative script comes from a truly fine novel writer. So, is this film the Fatal Attraction (1987) of our generation, or just a really well told mystery/thriller centered on a troubled marriage? Let the debate begin. But if things start getting heated I’ll be going, going…

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!

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.

Transcendence (PG-13)

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Directed by: Wally Pfister
Starring: Johnny Depp
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!

Transcendence
It sounded good at the time.

Bettany in a bleak Berkley. Narration decries the downside of technology.
Meaning its ability to take control of our society. Have we learned nothing from Skynet?

Castor wants to create his own god. Hmm... Something tells me that won’t end well.
His comment that all of science is the attempt at becoming God is revealing and somewhat ironic when considering what’s to come for his character in the movie. With statements like that is there any wonder why there’s such a huge rift between religion and science? Correction: Caster.

PINN is the new KIT, but with a lot more computational power.
And not housed inside a car. Minor detail. Correction: KITT.

Now those closest of Castor play God by trying to save his life.
And nobody, not even his wife, thinks this is a bad idea? This is what happens when people stop reading science fiction. Or reading period.

Depp looks creepy in electrode curlers.
But still not as creepy as his chalk complexioned character in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005).

Why does Kate Mara always play a nut job?
Remember her turn as a psycho B on 24?

Castor tells his wife they need to get off the grid. Uh...he is the grid.

Ominous note: Run from this place.
Evelyn still doesn’t take Tagger’s hint. Maybe if he’d written, “Run for you life,” his message would’ve gotten across more clearly.

These guys heal quicker than Wolverine.

Nano rain. Now we’re drifting too close to #Revolution.
This sequence boasts some of the best FX in the movie.

Creepy townsfolk reminds me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
They’re really just zombies that look like normal people, which is exactly how zombies looked in 50s movies like the one listed above.

Final analysis: a standard cautionary tale of technology running amok.

Offers some food for thought, but it’s more like a light snack.

Rating:
2 out of 4 stars. Squanders its fine cast with farcical fare. Can you prove you’re self aware?

This movie is a profound disappointment. Longtime cinematographer for Christopher Nolan and first time director, Wally Pfister, drew the short straw on this project. Pfister frames a few nice shots in the movie (especially the rows of solar panels), but the movie’s ordinary, rundown and non-cinematic locales lend the whole proceedings a low budget look. The leaden script from Jack Paglen had no chance of becoming the edgy, poignant, mind trip the movie aspires to be…Inception it’s not. Besides being derivative of many other sci-fi works, The Terminator and ST:TNG’s “The Schizoid Man” among many possible choices, the story is so outlandish that suspending one’s disbelief still doesn’t help relegate it to the realm of reason…or reality. Depp’s performance is muted and uninspired: his slump continues and this just might prove to be his least successful movie ever. Morgan Freeman does the most he can with a cardboard character and Paul Bettany plays a scientist whose shifting motivations are contrived and disingenuous. Rebecca Hall, who turns in the movie’s most sincere and convincing performance, can’t quite sell us on her motivation behind preserving the essence of her husband. This story embodies the age-old axiom of absolute power corrupting absolutely but adds nothing new to the hackneyed formula. The movie flirts with having a message, but the execution of the anemic story line prevents any such notions from gaining traction. What’s unfortunate is that the story actually had the kernel of a compelling idea. Unfortunately, that kernel never turned into something white, fluffy and delicious. Instead, it resides at the bottom of your popcorn bucket with all the other old maids.

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.

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.

The Counselor (R)

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Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender
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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The graphic opening is tastefully and artistically shot.

24-karat conversation with the jeweler. Talk about multi-faceted.

#HaveYouBeenBad. There’s the line made popular by the trailer.

Pitt’s joke about why Jesus wasn’t born in Texas is hilarious.
A tad sacrilegious, but still very funny.

How did the cops catch up to the motorcycle if it was going 206 mph?

Desert Star Septic. “We pump it all!” Now that’s marketing at its finest.
Winston Rothschild, III (Jeff Lumby), a septic tank worker on the Canadian comedy The Red Green Show had the slogan: “We take the stink off your hands.” Just proves that toilet humor will never die.

What if another vehicle had happened by before the motorcycle arrived?
I only ask because this sort of plan never succeeded in the Roadrunner cartoons.

“Grief is worthless.” Deep philosophical terrain.

Pitt’s demise is gruesome.

Final analysis: immaculately filmed, well acted with a peerless script by Cormac McCarthy.
Who wrote the post-apocalyptic novel The Road, which became a motion picture in 2009 and starred Viggo Mortensen.

Should be renamed “Sex, drugs and cheetahs.”

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. Adult themes abound accompanied by scathing commentary on human flaws.

This is a well acted/directed “immorality play” that reveals the dark underbelly of the drug trade along the Texas/Mexico border. Nothing really shocks here—we typically associate these behaviors, lifestyles and actions with those who manufacture, transport, buy and sell drugs. Crime doesn’t pay and the comeuppance received by the characters here is consistent with the truth of that universal maxim.

The Fifth Estate (R)

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Directed by: Bill Condon
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch
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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Talk on whistleblower is intriguing.

The nucleus of a radically new approach to the dissemination of information.

I’m no Sherlock, but I’m pretty sure someone poured bleach into Cumberbatch’s shampoo bottle.

“Courage is contagious.”
Platitudinous but true.

Cumberbatch and Thewlis lock horns.
Nothing like a little professional competition to ratchet up the drama.

Two couples exited the theater during the multiple wipe montage.
The plot might be hard to follow for some. Others might be like “who cares?”

“Am I interrupting something?” The pursuit of truth has its consequences.
And some people have no boundaries…or common decency.

Alexander Siddig sighting. Any
DS9 fans out there?
Dr. Bashir, I presume.

Collateral murder...big leak.

An information war with the US government. Assange makes a deal with The Guardian.
Did he sell out?

Thewlis’ conversation about the creation of the fourth estate is exceptional.

So is Cumberbatch’s extended, edited monologue in the final scenes of the movie.

Final analysis: an important film that effectively, if not adroitly, tells the story of WikiLeaks.

Afflicted by a furiously paced narrative that requires frequent visits to Wikipedia in order to keep up.

The filming style is irksome at times and the story runs twenty minutes too long.

Still, Cumberbatch is utterly captivating and Linney and Tucci turn in solid supporting performances.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Not very exciting or entertaining, but worthwhile because of its message.

This isn’t the type of film most people would naturally gravitate toward, unless they’re C’batch fans or are interested in the subject matter, since it’s more educational than entertaining. Still, the educational component is salient since we’re all affected by media and the dissemination of information. It’s a brave new world out there and thank goodness for Assange for daring to expose corporate and political corruption both here and abroad.

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.

Captain Phillips (PG-13)

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Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks
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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Phillips runs a tight ship. Safety drills are abruptly interrupted.

Warship ruse turns back one skiff. Well played, Phillips.

Skinny stages a coup.

One pirate makes the same mistake John McClain did in the first
Die Hard...never walk around barefoot.
Unless you’re a Hobbit.

Stay put in seat 15.
I don’t think I’d move a muscle. Probably wouldn’t breathe either.

Phillips caught writing a note in class. Pays the price.

Three tangos down. Game over.

Not all of this blood is mine. Phenomenal acting by Hanks.
We’ve been waiting for this all movie. A good performance suddenly transforms into the kind of scenery-chewing extravaganza we’ve come to expect from Hanks.

Final analysis: a taut biopic that delivers just what you expect it to.
But little more.

Maintains suspense throughout, but never reaches thriller level intensity.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars. Everything works here except for the predictable “true story” plot.

Paul Greengrass’ (The Bourne Ultimatum) direction is a bit safe here. Everything about the story feels paint-by-numbers. The movie is important for its historical significance, but if the movie had any less dramatic urgency it would be a documentary. Hanks, though central to the story, seems to take a back seat to Skinny and the Glass Walkers (would make a great blues band name). As was mentioned earlier, Hanks only shines in one scene near the end of the film…an egregious waste of his talent. This story was big news in 2009. As such, what the movie gains in familiarity it looses in originality. Or to put it another way, it’s hard to build suspense when the audience already knows what’s going to happen in the end (like when viewing Titanic or The Perfect Storm). A thriller with a foregone conclusion isn’t much of a thriller.

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.

Gravity (PG-13)

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Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Sandra Bullock
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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Previews are still running...the optimal time to take a Dramamine. Gonna’ be a bumpy ride.

“Can’t beat the view.” No kidding.

Why doesn’t Bullock have a thruster pack? Not as big of a star as Clooney?
Guess NASA can only afford one…government cutbacks and all.

Marvin the Martian sighting.
A great inside gag.

Don’t know that I’d be sharing my life story with 2% oxygen remaining.
Consider this a nitpick. Although, silence wouldn’t serve the story very well, would it? I mean, Cast Away (2000) in space probably wouldn’t have sold too many tickets.

Why doesn’t Clooney climb over Bullock to safety?
You can apologize for any accidental groping once safely back inside the station.

Fetal position in zero G. Artistic shot.

Should’ve ejected the chute first.
Hindsight is 20/20. However, Bullock is a highly trained astronaut and should know better, emotions notwithstanding.

Soyuz out of gas...time to get out and push.
Princess Leah might volunteer for that job.

Brilliant use of fire extinguisher.
Bullock must’ve seen WALL-E (2008).

Final analysis: should’ve named it Oxygen since the characters and audience are gasping for air all movie.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. Visually breathtaking and intense from start to finish.

Immaculately realized by director Alfonso Cuaron and brilliantly framed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, this is a gorgeous film. Even in 2D the film is so immersive that you actually feel like you’re in outer space. Though some of the film’s science is dodgy, it’s really the film’s visual splendor that makes it an unforgettable cinematic experience. Bullock and Clooney turn in decent performances, but the real star of the film is that gigantic blue globe hovering in space. At movie’s end, when Bullock defiantly, triumphantly drags herself out of the water and stands fully erect on the beach in a low angle shot, do you get the sense that Cuaron is attempting to show the culmination, indeed evolution, of Kubrick’s chimps in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)? Or maybe it’s merely a beautifully framed shot.

Prisoners (R)

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Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Hugh Jackman
September 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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Be prepared...Jackman’s diatribe on survival is advisable but extreme. A harbinger of things to come?

Using the Chinese zodiac as a pick up line. A valiant attempt.
Wait, is this an inside joke? Jake Gyllenhaal also starred in Zodiac (2007).

Dano wraps his RV around a tree. The mystery deepens.

Instead of searching the forest shouldn’t they be canvassing the neighborhood?
Oops…spoke too soon. I just hate it when stories have to catch up to me.

A basement without stairs. You couldn’t pay me enough.

Don’t ignore the necklace on the stiff.

Dano made a big mistake in angering the Wolverine.

Jackman goes Jack Bauer on Dano. Brutal scene.
Definitely not for the faint of heart. This whole subplot has a tragic The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) quality to it.

Creeper at the wake. Are we dealing with a cult?

Creeper in the house.

Jake’s shirt is always buttoned up...hiding a necklace?

Creeper’s house has curious wall designs.

“The war we wage with God.” Frightening!
There are some real sickos out there.

As we learned in Titanic, never underestimate the power of a whistle.

Final analysis: moody atmosphere is palpable from the start. Taut yarn that’s accompanied by fine performances.
The ending could’ve gone a couple different ways, but I’m okay with the resolution they chose.

Perhaps a bit too leisurely in its pacing, but is engaging from start to finish.

Does an excellent job of challenging our notion of what constitutes a monster.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. A psychological thriller more than a physical one, but it will stand the test of time.

This is a very intelligent and emotionally supercharged thriller. It’s so good, in fact, that it was exceedingly difficult to keep from spoiling several of the story’s main plot points, which I managed to do anyway in certain instances. Amusingly, one of my “spoilers” is an unintentional red herring, so don’t always believe what you read. Some of the torture scenes are not recommended for those with a weak stomach. However, if you made it through 24 okay, you should be fine here.

Closed Circuit (R)

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Directed by: John Crowley
Starring: Eric Bana
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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Steven Knight.

Multi-camera opening reminds me of a Person of Interest episode.

“Fair and transparent.” Broadbent certainly isn’t referring to the US justice system.

Judge lays out the rules for the case...the relational ticking time bomb is set.

42191. The mystery deepens.

Cross-cutting between both sides of the investigation keeps the plot rolling along.

Broadbent warns Bana not to stray. A taut exchange.
The plot reveals its hand at this point though…Knight should’ve worked a little harder to shroud the purpose and function of this antagonist.

“Thou shalt not communicate” commandment is broken. Ramifications could be far-reaching.

Howe grills Witness X. Wow!
Hell hath no fury…and boy does she unleash it.

New plan...get him to the court on time.
They skip the whopper of a topper though.

Breakfast with Broadbent. “Let it go.”
Also Henry’s advice to his son in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

Final analysis: a decent spy yarn infused with the appropriate degree of paranoia.

Features fine performances all around and boasts deft direction.
By John Crowley.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Non-thrilling Thriller sputters down the runway but never quite takes off.

The abilities of some truly fine actors were squandered here. The story isn’t very gripping from the outset and never really goes anywhere…well, nowhere exciting anyway. Cut from the same narrative cloth as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), this film is a slow boil political yarn that fails to deliver the major climax we anticipate. And how many times must Bana be told to back off the case before he gets it…or gets it? Long after the audience is bored to tears, I suspect.

Paranoia (PG-13)

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Directed by: Robert Luketic
Starring: Liam Hemsworth
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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Opening narration: a lament over the death of the American Dream.
Which gives rise to those who want to get rich quick. The movie chronicles the fate of such individuals.

To climb the corporate ranks, Liam must loose the attitude.

“Fit in to get in.” Personality makeover coaching.

New flat and new office. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but I’d check for bugs.
As Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, “Boy, do I hate being right all the time!”

Multiple character beats. The middle is sagging.

Lunch at the club...clash of the titans.

Phones out, batteries on the table. Hi-tech disarmament.
This is how we do it in the modern era. In peaceful settlements in the Old West, gunslingers would be asked to hand over their guns as they rode into town.

“Someone is always listening.”
Not exactly a news flash.

Double-cross times two.

Final analysis: simple premise, straight-forward plot and minimal intensity. Nothing we haven’t seen before.

Rating:
2 out of 4 stars. A film that desperately tries to be on the cutting-edge but offers nothing new.

The early stages of this movie set up well, especially the opening narration, but the story is rushed through its paces in a similar fashion to how Hemsworth (Thor’s brother) is seemingly, instantaneously and miraculously transformed into a marketing genius that will act as a Trojan horse inside Harrison Ford’s company. To be sure, it’s a farfetched plot, but I wouldn’t mind such an outlandish premise so long as the story actually went somewhere…which it doesn’t. The “action” scenes have very little action and the resolution is contrived to the point of incredulity. I expected much more from this Ford vs. Oldman showdown, but the story’s impact and relevance are negligible.

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.

The East (PG-13)

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Directed by: Zal Batmanglij
Starring: Brit Marling
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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Now that we’re pulling up the stakes on many summer tentpoles, it’s time for some different fare.
Meatier fare, thank goodness.

I’ve always loved Page’s delivery and Marling was fabulous in the deeply-affecting #AnotherEarth.
A trippy, gut-wrenching film that will have you noodling for days.

Prepare to get your spy on.

After that harrowing opening narration, the movie definitely has my attention.

Marling picks a bad time to become a hobo.

This application of super glue actually works...I’ve had occasion to use it in the past.
Learned it from a master meat cutter when I was apprenticing under him in a former life. Seals the cut and heals remarkably fast.

Wearing a straight jacket to dinner...interesting attire.

Clever place to hide a cell phone.

A deadly toast...a taste of their own medicine.

Spin the bottle...enjoyed at frat parties and cult gatherings everywhere.
When a thought comes, it comes. Don’t know that I’ll ever be able to outdo this one.

Jason Ritter’s character here is virtually identical to the one he plays on #Parenthood. Does he have any range?

Group washing in the lake...weird.

Page confronts her dad...the same actor who plays the VP in
#Homeland.
Actor Jamey Sheridan.

The last jam strikes close to home.

The trash apple scene is unsettling, but is it an act?

Final analysis: a thought-provoking yarn that grapples with the nature of justice.

Should corporations be held responsible for the ecological disasters they create?

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars despite some ponderous pacing. Definitely a water cooler discussion film.

The movie has an undeniable independent feel to it, but has a surprising raft of A-list talent in its cast. There are disturbing scenes here and some challenging ones as well. The movie broaches some important questions, like: which is worse, a corporation that makes millions by ravaging our environment or homegrown terror cells bent on bringing down such companies? The film isn’t exactly popcorn entertainment, but it’s an effective counterpoint to the increasingly vapid and vulgar offerings at the Cineplex.

Now You See Me (PG-13)

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Directed by: Louis Leterrier
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg
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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Receiving tarot cards from a hooded mystery man is never a good thing.

I thought teleportation was only possible in
Star Trek.

First rule of magic. Don’t drink Diet Pepsi with something that rattles inside.
Also the first rule of common sense.

Great to see Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman together again.
Unbelievably, for the first time ever in a scene together. Although, both men appeared in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, their characters never crossed paths.

Rob the rich and give to the poor. Robin Hood would be proud.

Ruffalo tracks himself. Maybe he’ll find a better personality.

Unless you’re Gambit, thrown cards can’t do much damage.

Is the high speed chase just another misdirection?
Or just a stunt to infuse more action into the movie?

Awesome holographic projections at Five Points.

Resolution: Love trumps magic.
If it sounds oversimplified…it is.

Final analysis: Too slick for its own good. The trick was on me for shelling out a ten spot on this movie.

Harrelson and Eisenberg were phenomenal in
Zombieland, but so-so here.

Rating: 2 out of 4 stars for shallow character development and a plot that was merely a house of cards.

The movie had some decent moments and solid acting from its diverse and decorated cast, but it failed to deliver the sensational “ah-ha!” it promised from the outset. If you’re looking for a better magic movie check out The Illusionist (2006) and if you want a hipper heist flick Ocean’s Eleven (2001) should be your ticket.

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

Arbitrage (R)

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Directed by: Nicholas Jarecki
Starring: Richard Gere
September 2012

So here we have a standard movie about a workaholic male who makes bad financial decisions, has an affair, gets caught red-handed in both and ends up loosing everything (no spoiler alert here since most of this is discernible from the trailer). The basic plot of
Arbitrage has been employed a thousand times before, and has been executed far better on a number of occasions. The movie threatens to degenerate into a Lifetime movie at times, but the compelling characterizations, coupled with the typically stellar performances by Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon, hoist this film to the top third of dramatic morality plays.

Gere’s turn as corporate giant Robert Miller is a disquieting portrait of modern man. Miller is driven by success, greed, lust and the failing notion that he can be provider and protector for the women in his life. Turns out Miller’s wife, daughter and paramour all need protection from him and his calamitous choices. Like many of his real life contemporaries—the Bernie Madoff’s of the world—Miller is able to keep all of the plates spinning in the air for a time, but is ultimately doomed to fiscal failure as well as public and private humiliation. The film’s resolution is intentionally left ambiguous, but none of the possible outcomes are ideal where Miller’s future is concerned.

When all is said and done,
Arbitrage isn’t a barnburner, but isn’t a bad way to spend a couple hours either. The performances alone should keep viewers engaged in the slow boil narrative. The universal moral “you play with fire, you get burned” is worth reinforcing, I suppose, lest someone has forgotten such lessons imparted in the latest episode of Law and Order or NCIS. Though not quite an ode to modern males, the film posits some fascinating notions regarding this allegedly endangered gender. Great performances with some food for thought…who could ask for anything more?

Rating: 3

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 Hunger Games (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gary Ross
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence
March 2012

Based on Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular teen novel trilogy and directed by Gary Ross, (
Seabiscuit), The Hunger Games is one of the most highly anticipated films of the year, superheroes notwithstanding. Starring Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and bolstered by a dazzling array of supporting talent nearly as scintillating as the dress Katniss (Lawrence) wears during the opening ceremonies of the Games, the film posits a disconcerting dystopian “what if.” What if two teenage tributes from each of twelve districts competed, to the death, in order to secure glory for the victor and more importantly, a lifetime of comfort and security for the winner’s family? Oh, and most alarmingly, the events of the game are broadcast live on Panem’s version of television for the viewing pleasure of the masses. Profits are earned from ratings and/or wagers placed on contestants. Consider it a reality show taken to the most unethical and macabre extents imaginable. But not to worry, if the global economic recession continues intensifying the way it has over the last few years, our own version of the Hunger Games will be airing on network TV this upcoming fall. Check your local listings.

The narrative love child of
Lord of the Flies and The Most Dangerous Game, The Hunger Games is a highly entertaining, yet deeply disturbing, cautionary tale. The film’s most insidious and controversial attribute is its uncanny ability to coax its audience into reveling in the systematic slaughter of teens. An underlying thesis in many of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies is that all film spectatorship is inherently voyeuristic (Hitch takes this notion to its furthest extreme in his 1954 masterwork, Rear Window). If such a theory is true, then the wholesale massacre that ensues during this film’s action passages makes the audience complicit in its atrocities. To decry the teen violence in the film is one thing (which begs the question of why such protesting individuals are watching this film in the first place), but what if these scenes of imperilment and mutilation are actually enjoyable to a certain segment of the audience? Does that automatically make them psychopaths? Is it wrong to cheer when the “good” teens triumph over the “bad” teens? I mean, it’s one thing to watch adults poking holes in other adults (or aliens, robots, etc) with bullets, knives or laser beams, but it’s something entirely different to showcase teenagers slaying one another. Such is the moral minefield inherent in this seemingly straightforward survival story. But at the end of the day (or film) it’s all just entertainment, right?

The first twenty minutes of
The Hunger Games contains more complexity than the entire Twilight saga. Even though both trilogies were written for a teenage readership, Collins’ The Hunger Games deals with weighty ethical and societal issues, while Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books focus on teen angst, a love triangle and an ancient struggle between vampires and werewolves. Both movies open with a deer being stalked in the forest but the two story lines quickly and radically diverge from that point.

The dystopian mood and aesthetic is evident throughout the film, but is nowhere more apparent than in the city sequences…let’s face it, a forest is a forest, whether it’s the one just beyond District 12 or the CG forest created for the Games inside a dome,
a la Star Trek’s holodeck. The soldiers employed for crowd control in District 12 during the reaping, adorned in white uniforms with white bike helmets, recall any number of futuristic enforcers, like the ones seen in THX 1138 (1971) and Soylent Green (1973). And is it my imagination or do these peacekeepers bear more than just a passing resemblance to the white clad imperial lackeys featured in Spaceballs (1987)?

The role of the command center that controls the conditions of the Games has been expanded in the movie and looks like a mix between an Apple store and the interactive virtual displays used by Tom Cruise in
Minority Report (2002). Other than a modernized train, outlandish clothing, hair and makeup styles, some modern architecture and a nighttime cityscape, there’s little evidence to indicate that these people live in a futuristic, or post-apocalyptic, society. Credit the producers for minimizing costly exterior city shots and making extensive use of interiors and forest exteriors.

Director Ross hews closely to the source material; in fact, it could be argued that save for a few stylistic and narrative tweaks the movie has an almost slavish adherence to the book. In the majority of instances where this occurs a film will suffer greatly in the adaptation from book to screen but here, because Collins’ story is so rich and textured, the film actually benefits by sticking to what works. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” seems to be the overriding philosophy of the filmmaker. It’s hard to argue with the result.

In the book, much of the narrative is driven by Katniss’ internal musings and there are long passages where her thoughts and actions, without a single word of spoken dialog, move the story along toward its fateful climax. One of my major concerns with the adaptation from book to screenplay was that those personal thoughts and feelings would be lost unless a cheesy internal monolog was employed. Would we be able to discern, merely from actions or facial expressions, what was going on in Katniss’ mind? As it turns out, my fears were unfounded.

Much of the credit here goes to Ross, his cameraman and sound editor who brilliantly foreground Katniss’ thoughts and feelings with well considered, highly stylized shots. Case in point: after Katniss blows up a stockpile of food, the concussion from the blast knocks her into a state of disorientation. In the book, Katniss worries to herself that she may have gone deaf in one ear. In the movie, this fear is realized with muffled audio, a lens sliding in and out of focus and an extremely shaky Steadicam. These stylized shots are used with the utmost discretion so as not to overplay the effect. In less skillful hands, many of Katniss’ characterizations would’ve been lost in translation, but fortunately Ross and Co. deftly display Katniss’ thoughts onscreen.

All things considered, this is one of those rare instances where the movie is comparable in quality to the book upon which it’s based. The stage is set for a frenzied, fantastical franchise. Whether or not the sequels live up to this inaugural installment of Collins’ trilogy remains to be seen, but either way, this film has left me hungry for more.

Rating: 3

Chronicle (PG-13)

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Directed by: Josh Trank
Starring: Dane DeHaan
February 2012

So here we have
The Blair Witch Project (1999) meets Cloverfield (2008) meets TVs Heroes (2006-2010) meets every teen angst movie ever made. Shot almost entirely from the POV of the main character on his camcorder, Chronicle centers on a group of high school guys who discover an alien ship buried beneath a field. The result of their exposure to the alien technology is that they begin exhibiting superpowers which, of course, is a recipe for disaster since we’re dealing with horny, hot-headed teenage males.

One of the lads in particular, upon coming to the realization that he’s now an apex predator, starts committing random acts of mayhem…because he can. In the end, the only person who can stop him is his best friend. A city-smashing melee ensues, which recalls the climactic battle between the titular hero and his three nemeses in
Superman II (1980), and the results are predictably tragic.

No one can say that this film isn’t a valiant attempt at creating a new sensation, but it rides on the coattails of many similarly themed efforts like the ones listed above. Additionally, there are undeniable shades of Shakespeare here and even allusions to
Star Trek—the original series’ pilot saw Captain Kirk killing his megalomaniacal best friend, Gary Mitchell, in order to save his crew and the universe as we know it.

In the final analysis,
Chronicle is a unique hand-held project that tells a decent story and is mildly diverting, if not earth-shattering. Maybe Chronicle II will provide some variety by cutting shots taken by two camera-wielding students.

Rating: 2 1/2

In Time (PG-13)

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Directed by: Andrew Niccol
Starring: Justin Timberlake
October 2011

TAKING AIM:
In Time, the trippy techno-thriller from director Andrew Niccol, features futuristic twists on ripped-from-headlines issues like the global recession and the evaporation of the middle class. The film features an intriguing “what if” scenario which taps into universal anxieties, such as growing old and living in the moment amid increasing socio-economic uncertainties. Oh, and don’t look now, but Justin Timberlake is the male lead. Yep, you heard right…Timberlake has earned leading man cred, but should he abandon his day job…er other job, just yet?

TARGET PRACTICE:
In a World…: Where time is the currency, many must die so that a few might have immortality. But we weren’t meant to live forever, as Amanda Seyfried’s affluent Sylvia Weis asserts in a tone so earnest that we almost miss the line’s stilted edge. The movie’s premise, which feels like yet another Philip K. Dick adaptation, is harrowingly cautionary yet easily digestible…we learn the rules of the game quickly. Unfortunately, the metaphor of time as currency looses its novelty after the first hour, just about the time meaningful dialogue or character moments are replaced by shootouts and car chases.

An Investment in Time: Let’s face it, movies are an investment in time (and let’s not forget money…as if we could with today’s exorbitant ticket costs). For poor films we often hear people say “I wish I could get those two hours of my life back.” While the employment of such a line is oh so tempting for a film like In Time, I honestly don’t feel like it would be a fair assessment of the film’s high concept premise, however heavy-handed and unwieldy it becomes by the end.

Borrowed Plots: In the film’s mildly-dystopian future, individuals running out of time must beg, borrow or steal time in order to survive. In a similar practice, Niccol (who serves as writer and director) has liberally lifted story elements from other literary or cinematic sources. Aside from time bandits being called minutemen, the most obvious antecedent here is Aldous Huxley’s eerily prescient 1932 novel Brave New World. In Huxley’s near-future society, individuals are assigned to castes based on genetically engineered abilities or proclivities. Here, the class system is purely based on time: those who have it and those who don’t, those who use it wisely and those who waste it. The movie depicts time zones, which clearly demarcate those who have very little time left in their life, those who have an adequate amount of time left and those who are “time rich.” Another literary touchstone is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862). Cillian Murphy plays a futuristic cop (dubbed “time keeper”) hell-bent on apprehending the movie’s stars and exhibits more than just a few of the characteristics inherent in the intractable Inspector Javert. As heavily pursued fugitives, Seyfried and Timberlake are a type of Bonnie and Clyde, but these two actors are a far cry from the superlative Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, who played Bonnie and Clyde in the landmark 1967 film of the same name. A more obscure source of inspiration for the film can be traced to Nickelback’s 2007 music video for their song “Savin’ Me.” In the video, the balance of a person’s lifespan appears overhead and the main character in the video saves people from falling pianos, etc. He knows a person’s life is about to expire when he sees that their life counter is nearly depleted. A virtually identical system is employed in this film as characters can glance at the inside of their forearm to get an up-to-the-second balance of their life account.

Stepford Society: Early in the film we learn that the near-future humans are genetically engineered to stop aging at twenty-five. Most people would view that arrangement as ideal and highly desirable. On the downside, however, such altered individuals only live to age twenty-six. This plot element is obviously another thinly veiled attempt at making social commentary; this time the eternal quest to look and stay young is called into question. I suppose Botox and nip/tuck will eventually give way to genetic alterations on a grand scale, but why do members of the film’s futuristic society die at twenty-six (barring a risky venture to obtain more time)? Could it be that the plot needed an artificial deadline in order to produce urgency…especially when characters see the last few precious seconds of their life ticking away? And who says twenty-five is the ideal age? Isn’t that a bit, well…ageist? Ultimately, a world where Olivia Wilde is your mother and Amanda Seyfried is your girlfriend may seem perfect, at least on the surface, but isn’t it just a little creepy—much like the enhanced women in The Stepford Wives (1975, 2004), which serves as yet another filmic precursor to this movie?

The Need to Fix Things: In TVs Lost, Dr. Jack Shepherd (Matthew Fox) has the co-dependent compulsion to fix everyone and everything around him. Screenwriters, especially those who write sci-fi films it seems, have the same need to reconcile societal dysfunctions or imbalances by movie’s end. A recent example of this is Bruce Willis’ Surrogates (2009), which features a society where humans live out their lives through android surrogates (again, it’s a cosmetically perfect society since androids never age). The moral dilemma of whether or not to preserve such a perfect, yet shallow, culture falls to Willis, who makes the fateful choice to reset society to its original, flawed status. Here, the inference is that the two leads have determined to change the corrupted system when they resolutely march up the steps of a government building in the movie’s final scene (as if changing nationwide policies could be that simple.) The movie seems to imply that a coup will set everything right…a frightening notion for our current society, despite its pervasive governmental corruption and economic turmoil. So why do writers/producers feel the need to resolve these cautionary tales with touchy-feely endings? Do they think it will result in more butts in seats? Didn’t work out too well for Surrogates, did it? I assure you, a film can be just as compelling by depicting some dark dystopia, plopping some characters into the middle of the mess and allowing them wrestle with the exigencies of life in such a disparate landscape…and then leave them there. Ridley Scott did it successfully in a little film called Blade Runner (1982). Seems to me it’s been pretty well-received over the years. Note to Hollywood: “You don’t have to fix everything.”

PARTING SHOTS:
Tough thought-provoking, the movie’s extended metaphor is overdetermined, especially in the opulent time zone (do the “time rich” dole out their precious time to “time poor” charities?). The movie comes close to making poignant commentary, like the dangers of wasting time for example, but the message fails to penetrate the barrier of contrived story devices and heavy-handed homilies on societal ills. When the premise starts to wear thin, Niccol defaults to a series of action sequences to move the film toward its inevitable, predictable conclusion, since he really has nothing else to fall back on.
In Time is a big disappointment because it had something to say but got in its own way. It’s a shame, but in the end the movie prevented itself from having any lasting impact. Only you can determine whether or not the film is worth your time, but for my money it’s only worth about two dollars of yours.

Rating: 2 1/2

Contagion (PG-13)

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Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon
September 2011

Contagion is a film that literally has everything going for it and yet somehow ends up being a mild disappointment. The cast is beyond stellar. The old expression “more stars than you can shake a stick at” certainly holds true here…Damon, Paltrow, Winslet, Law, Fishburne, Cotillard, Cranston, Gould, ad infinitum. Director Steven Soderbergh, who’s no stranger to assembling large ensembles (Traffic and the Ocean’s trilogy), cleverly recruited the dazzling array of A-list talent by meting out bite-sized roles that only required, in most cases, a minimal time commitment on the shoot. Such a strategy to lure top-shelf talent is as insidious as…well, a population eradicating virus.

Other than acting and directing, the one area of the film that gets an A+ is the real-world science behind the nature of infectious diseases and the contingency plans or protocols set forth by media, military and other government organizations after an outbreak has occurred. The procedural factor, however, is also detrimental to the film, as some scenes play like a glorified episode of CSI (and, indeed, Fishburne’s presence at the CDC does nothing to discourage this notion), while simultaneously slowing the pacing to that of a courtroom drama.

I would refer to
Contagion as a thinking person’s disaster film, but that description would be grossly inaccurate: the film’s methodical narrative is more educational than sensational and more filling than thrilling. Still, the film isn’t devoid of merit, especially when it comes to the human equation—i.e., how do people react to the species-threatening epidemic? Do they cower in fear or off themselves? Do they cloister themselves from the rest of the world and wait it out until a cure is discovered? Do they go out of their way to help others even if their own safety is jeopardized? Or, as Law’s character does, do they attempt to make a buck off of the tragedy…the capitalism of catastrophe?

As interesting as the various displays of the human condition are, the humanity of the characters themselves is often as cold and sterile as one of the many science labs seen in the movie. Look no further than Damon for an example of how unemotional the humans are in this film. Damon’s best scene is when he insists on seeing his wife (Paltrow) even after the doctors have told him that she’s passed away. We can forgive his numbness during this scene (and, as ironic as it sounds, the sequence isn’t without an element of humor), but Damon only transitions from denial to grieving during the film’s dénouement. Granted, his thoughts have been preoccupied by the crisis, but he shows no remorse over his wife’s death until the waning moments of the film and doesn’t even mention, much less shed a tear over, his departed step-son.

Though the film achieves a praise-worthy degree of technical proficiency, with startlingly realistic direction that delivers a blow-by-blow description of how infections spread, the story, despite its best efforts to endue the audience with feelings of anxiety and panic, is strangely unmoving. Perhaps it’s that we have little to no emotional investment in or identification with any of the characters before they start keeling over…and then we’re on to a different place with different characters. Though the ping-pong plot certainly doesn’t foster character development, Soderbergh’s direction keeps the audience at arm’s length, never inviting viewers into the middle of the action. In short, the story lacks heart.

Contagion’s brilliant final sequence, which tracks the virus from its improbable creation all the way through to its transmission to patient zero, is worth the price of admission. It’s just a shame that the rest of the film didn’t capture the same degree of visual verve and visceral vitality. One thing’s for sure, whether you like Contagion or not, I bet you’ll start washing you hands more frequently after watching the film. Oh, and stop touching your face!

Rating; 2 1/2

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (PG-13)

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Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: James Franco
August 2011

TAKING AIM:
The seventh movie in the outlandish sci-fi series is more down-to-earth than its forebears, but is more commonplace and less spectacular as a result of its contemporary plot and settings. An origin story of the decades-spanning furry franchise,
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is intended as a series reboot, much like Batman Begins (2005) was for Christopher Nolan’s modern tales of the Caped Crusader. Although the film flirts with a message, something along the lines of not harming animals or how unethical scientists create monsters, it ends up as an irrelevant tale coupled with uninspired direction and largely unremarkable performances, which leads us to…

TARGET PRACTICE:
Let’s Be Frank About Franco: James Franco is serviceable in the lead role, but takes a back seat in nearly every scene he shares with Caesar, the story’s focal point and top ape. Franco’s performance is understated, which is appropriate to the role, but he doesn’t bring anything special to the part of a scientist with a conscience grappling with an ethical dilemma. As such, Franco’s presence and performance are serviceable, but not necessarily memorable. Let’s be frank, Franco has always been a fairly flat actor who works well in an ensemble but really isn’t leading man material, which this film amply proves.

Lithgow Finds Another Furry Friend: John Lithgow just can’t seem to get away from furry animals in his more fantasy themed films. It’s been an eternity (1987) since Lithgow befriended an amiable Sasquatch in Harry and the Hendersons (he had a little more hair back then too). Here, Lithgow gloms onto Ceasar who becomes a therapeutic presence in the life of his character, an Alzheimer’s sufferer. Lithgow’s performance is finely tuned and subtly executed—his swings of lucidity aren’t nearly as dramatic as many other Alzheimer’s portrayals in film, which is refreshing to see. I guess it should come as no surprise that Lithgow could so successfully pull off such a role, but it is confirmation of what we’ve known about the versatile actor for years…he’s got quite a range (I mean, compare his character here to the one he played for six years on TV in 3rd Rock from the Sun). Lithgow’s greatest contribution to the plot is his sometimes quirky, sometimes profound advice to his screen son, Franco. As a foil and voice of reason, Lithgow’s interactions with Franco help to ground a movie rife with fantastic notions. Lithgow provides a major assist to Franco, whose often uninspiring performance needed plenty of support.

Solid Support: Brian Cox walks a fine line between dictatorial overseer at an animal control center and outright villain. We dislike him because he’s deceptive and, ironically due to his choice of professions, because he doesn’t seem to care one whit about animals. But, at the end of the day, Cox’s character just does his job and goes home—presumably to avoid the wholesale destruction of the last half hour of the movie. Cox is certainly an antagonist in the film, but he fails to measure up to bona fide villain status. David Hewlett (Stargate: Atlantis) delivers a memorable turn as a set upon side character who always ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time—that is, clawed into submission by the movie’s main mammalian. To add insult to injury, Hewlett’s character contracts a virus when infected by a doctor’s bloody sneeze. We’d feel bad for him if he wasn’t such a self-important twit throughout the film. Of course, the key performance (via motion capture) belongs to Andy Serkis as Caesar the ape. Serkis continues to amaze in bringing various CG creatures to life (Gollum in LOTR and the eponymous behemoth in the 2005 version of King Kong) and has unassumingly become the monarch of mocap. The physical demands of the role were considerable and Serkis really sells it, especially the close-ups of Caesar’s face and eyes which reveal and array of emotions that, ironically, serve to humanize the advanced ape.

Plot Holes:
Animal Control—No Dogs or Cats?: One of the movie’s main interiors is a facility dedicated to sheltering simians, to the exclusion of other types of animals or pets. Just how many stray simians are there in the greater San Francisco area? Plus, isn’t this a pretty mundane and drab interior for a big budget, summer blockbuster?

Who Needs the FDA?: The black supervisor, who’s resisted using Franco’s drug the whole movie, fast tracks a new variation of the drug based on Franco’s testimony that it works on his dad. Wouldn’t there need to be a series of trials before attempting to use a drug on a living animal? Is the supervisor really that greedy?

The Second Half is Like the Drug After it Wears Off: Gets Dumber and Dumb…:
Of all of the possible population centers to terrorize in the City by the Bay, why did the apes select the Golden Gate Bridge? Wouldn’t pedestrians on city sidewalks provide better targets than people sitting in their locked cars? Or better still, shouldn’t the apes attack Gen-Sys to exact revenge for the way they’ve been treated? Could it be that the finale locale was selected by the writers since the bridge would make for an immediately identifiable and exciting set piece? If so, how contrived was that decision?

Going Ape on the Golden Gate: Besides its location, just how silly is this climactic action scene? The escaped apes pound and pounce on stalled cars and occasionally attack a person dumb enough to get out of their vehicle or cops riding on horses…‘cause that was a good idea. In King Kong (1933), the mighty ape swats attacking planes from the sky. Here an ape jumps up into a helicopter and brings it to the ground for no good reason other than the fact that it would make for a cool visual. Derivative? You bet! Dumb? It goes without saying.

Not Even a Slap on the Paw?: Even after all the destruction the ape’s caused, Franco still isn’t frightened by Caesar? I would be. What’s more, wouldn’t he chastise Caesar for instigating such a catastrophe? After all, an evolving ape should know better.

PARTING SHOTS:
If there was any hope that
Planet of the Apes could be resuscitated as a franchise, after Tim Burton’s middling effort in 2001, this latest film in the series has effectively pulled the plug. The movie is just this side of awful, and it’s only the fine performances by Serkis and Lithgow that save the film from becoming an utter laugh-fest. Rupert Wyatt’s direction is uninspired and the entire movie feels cash strapped for an ostensibly big budget blockbuster. Hopefully this lackluster effort will forestall any thoughts of producing a sequel to this prequel…there certainly isn’t anything in this film worth aping.

Rating: 2

Cowboys & Aliens (PG-13)

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Directed by: Jon Favreau
Starring: Daniel Craig
July 2011

Certainly the most original film of this summer’s panoply of big-budget blockbuster hopefuls, Western/sci-fi mash-up, Cowboys & Aliens, comes like a breath of fresh air amid the stale slate of tentpoles featuring transforming machines, wizards and superheroes. The movie’s holy trinity of director Jon Favreau and megastars Harrison Ford (Han and Indy) and Daniel Craig (Bond), pack this cinematic carbine with tremendous firepower, and boy do they deliver a rip-roaring good time.

As stellar as the two stars are, the supporting cast here is nearly as impressive. Olivia Wilde (TRON: Legacy) plays comely Ella Swenson, the film’s eye candy for teenage boys. Sam Rockwell plays the saloon owner, Keith Carradine is the town sheriff and Clancy Brown is the minister. In a similar role to the one he played in Shanghai Noon (2000), Walton Goggins (Justified) is a high-strung, trigger-happy bandit.

Other than the novelty of aliens in the Old West, there isn’t anything earth-shattering about the story. However, Cowboys & Aliens is a fanciful, farcical romp through familiar territory with a futuristic twist. The movie is a thrill-a-minute entertainment that aims at fun-filled diversion and hits the bull’s-eye.

The movie’s mash-up element might be off-putting to certain attendees—some audience members might find space aliens in their Western to be a little weird, while sci-fi fans will probably be disappointed by the paucity of the extraterrestrial element in the film. In the spirit of fairness (and because we’re in the throes of a global recession) the movie is approximately 80% Western and 20% sci-fi, so plan accordingly.

Based on a 2006 graphic novel of the same name, the movie has plenty of the prototypical conventions found in most Westerns like a solitary, rugged individual (Craig in this instance) descending a lonely hillside into a bullet-riddled town and riding off into the sunset at film’s end. The town ruffian (Paul Dano) gets in trouble with the law, requiring his cattle baron father (Ford) to bail or break him out of jail. An uneasy and unlikely partnership is forged between Craig and Ford when a common enemy threatens the town and their very existence.

But for all of the Western movie conventions utilized in the film, there are a number of unique story elements here as well. For instance, most Westerns are told in a linear fashion.
Cowboys & Aliens, however, employs a series of flashbacks to fill in Craig’s mysterious abduction. The film also turns some Western film tropes on their ear, like who the “us and them” are in the story. The old adage that maintains “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” undergoes an interesting variation in the film where we have cowboys and Indians joining forces against the alien threat. If anything, this scenario certainly breathes new life into a nearly defunct genre.

Further distinguishing
Cowboys & Aliens from traditional Westerns is its postmodern trappings. One of the more exciting scenes in the film is when Craig brings down an alien ship with his alien bracelet—surely a unique tableau in the expansive annals of the Old West. The scene is cathartic on two levels: 1. Good triumphing against evil (a cornerstone of classic Hollywood storytelling, the period when the bulk of Westerns were produced) is always reassuring, and 2. Craig using the alien’s technology against them is an echo of 9-11, but in reverse.

Perhaps the most un-Western element in the movie (other than the presence of aliens, of course) is the Zemeckis-esque flourishes of existentialism. In director Robert Zemeckis’ masterpiece,
Forrest Gump, a languid feather drifts in and out of scenes, adding a unique visual referent as well as a purportedly deeper meaning to the events in the story. In Cowboys & Aliens, the repetitive object (or totem perhaps?) is a hummingbird. It’s not to say that hummingbirds didn’t exist during the Old West period, but they’re not the usual bird you’d associate with a Western—maybe a crow or hawk. Is Favreau tampering with the genre’s well-established iconography? With the presence of aliens in the picture, why not?

So there you have it: cinema’s first high profile Western/sci-fi hybrid with postmodern sensibilities and existential embellishments. While the movie never quite eclipses the lofty expectations placed upon it by the ubiquitous media blitz and fans of either the comic book or the movie’s A-list headliners,
Cowboys & Aliens is still a wildly entertaining adventure, a quality romp that gives “popcorn movie” a good name. If nothing else, it’s just great to see Ford back in the saddle again.

Rating: 3

Source Code (PG-13)

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Directed by: Duncan Jones
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal
April 2011

Too soon on the heels of
Inception (2010) or The Adjustment Bureau (2011)? Perhaps, but director Duncan Jones’ (Moon) Source Code is more derivative of TV series than heady, mind-trip flicks.

Exhibit A: Quantum Leap (1989-1993). Scott Bakula’s Sam Beckett leapt into different people (and the occasional space chimp) on a weekly basis to rectify some past wrong. In order to identify what person he was impersonating, all Sam had to do was look in the mirror—a concept that Source Code exploits early in its narrative.

Exhibit B: Seven Days (1998-2001) a lesser known UPN sci-fi series centered on the exploits of Frank Parker (Jonathan LaPaglia), a Navy captain who is sent back in time seven days (in Source Code it’s a breezy eight minutes) before a major catastrophe in order to avert it. Source Code borrows liberally from the premise and trappings behind Seven Days, right down to the military officer as the central character, a dubious space/time apparatus and multiple jumps backwards and forwards through time.

Exhibit C: 24 (2001-2010) Counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) must thwart terrorist plots designed to cripple or nation in a perpetual race against time. Since Source Code deals with acts of terrorism in metropolitan areas, specifically a bomb on the train, we can also cite 24 as a possible antecedent to Jones’ shifty/trippy yarn.

Jones’ direction is taut, especially his stylistic flourishes to signify time travel and time compressed montages for less significant loops, and the performances are solid across the board (although Gyllenhaal and Monaghan’s foisted romance is a bit saccharine and Jeffrey Wright’s attempts at channeling a techno-babbling scientist are less than stellar). The movie fails to soar due to the myriad contrivances upon which its premise and story are based. Even the concept of learning more clues with each new perspective is reminiscent of Vantage Point (2008), which was heavily influenced by Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951).

The conceit of a time traveler stuck in a causality loop has been explored ad nauseam in the sci-fi pantheon and, unfortunately, Source Code adds very few new riffs on the formula. The only innovation here is Jones’ opaque coda, which will leave at least half the audience scratching their heads as they exit the theater (I’m pretty sure I get it, but I’m not one hundred percent sure myself). The plot was satisfactorily concluded about fifteen minutes from the end, so why did the movie overstay its welcome? Jones’ parting shot is counterintuitive in that it risks confusing a significant segment of the audience over a mind-bending “ah-ha” denouement that could’ve just as easily been left on the cutting room floor. If you get the film’s conclusion, good for you; if not, join the club.

You’ve seen it all before, but maybe
Source Code’s fresh faces and unique assemblage of standard plot devices will keep you entertained. I’ve got to admit that I had high hopes for this one, but in the end, Source Code is largely a waste of time.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Adjustment Bureau (PG-13)

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Directed by: George Nolfi
Starring: Matt Damon
March 2011

TAKING AIM:
The Adjustment Bureau presents an intriguing premise: what if agents from a secret organization aggressively enforced the rigid adherence to the master plan set forth for a person’s life? This Matt Damon vehicle is a high concept thriller that successfully synthesizes elements from an action flick and a love story, while also traversing some heady, philosophical terrain.

TARGET PRACTICE:
Novel Fact: Adjustment is the latest in the decades-spanning string of movies based upon Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi stories (Blade Runner, Minority Report, etc).

Genre Blender: Though containing elements of a romance, drama, thriller, action and sci-fi film, Adjustment stubbornly resists genre classification, and represents the best parts of each in its mash-up mélange of narrative flavors.

Pervasive Paranoia: Harking back to the widespread suspicion of men in gray flannel suits (think Gregory Peck) during the early stages of the Cold War, Adjustment keenly displaces onto its gray-suited Bureau agents the current and widespread anxieties over lost freedoms (the Patriot Act) and growing distrust of the system (corporate and political corruption). The more things change…

Chemistry: Damon, by now, is unquestionably a bona fide Hollywood leading man. Blunt has spent her career as a sidekick in supporting roles. On paper, Damon and Blunt seem mismatched. Onscreen, the chemistry between the two actors is debatable and, as such, Blunt’s casting is dubious when considering the wealth of A-tier actresses who could’ve, perhaps should’ve, taken her place. One thing’s for sure, the Damon/Blunt pairing doesn’t hold a Bic lighter to the enduring flame of classic romantic couples like Bogart/Bacall and Tracy/Hepburn.

Philosophy: The philosophical topic of fate/chance is broached with conspicuous frequency in the film. The story also grapples with the theological debate over predestination vs. free will. The cerebral lectures on fate are less intriguing here than the gut-wrenching ramifications of making the wrong decision when the future is on the line. What if your action, or inaction, holds negative outcomes for your future self (we saw this illustrated ad nauseam in the Back to the Future trilogy)? Even worse, what if your decision creates catastrophic repercussions for someone you love? Could you set aside your love for that person if it meant ensuring his/her well being, which would otherwise be jeopardized? It’s all hypothetical when couched in a two hour entertainment, but it’s still fun to noodle over.

Digging Deeper: The movie contains some breathtaking views of NYC’s skyscrapers, especially the monolithic corporate buildings, which are artfully framed in the downtown scenes. Also, the film makes effective use of expansive rooms (lobbies, libraries, etc), which, by comparison, make its inhabitants appear like a jellyfish in a gigantic ocean. And speaking of oceans, there’s a fascinating connection between this film and Titanic. In Titanic, good things generally happen at the front of the ship, while bad things usually happen at the back of the ship. Here, large rooms (e.g., empty warehouses) are bad and small rooms (e.g., bathrooms) are good. Another point to consider: the one young black man in the Bureau is characterized as open-minded, flexible and a Good Samaritan, while the numerous old Caucasian men are drawn as rigid, unimaginative enforcers of policies even they question at times. What does this say about the ethnic diversity among the leaders of the emerging global economy? Is the movie prefiguring the impending extinction of the old guard of corporate America? Also, why does the movie succumb to the prevalent “boy’s club” mentality? The Bureau consists entirely of men.

PARTING SHOTS:
Though the movie attempts to tackle some weighty aspects of our existence, are the excessive references to free will a bit overdetermined? If so, is the conclusion too preachy? Is the existential dénouement a cop out (i.e.,
Back to the Future IIIs sage advice from Dr. Brown, “Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one…”)? Even though it’s currently in fashion (especially on TV), did we really need Damon’s voiceover narration to help us interpret his character’s thoughts and feelings?

In the final analysis,
Adjustment is a cinematic double-edged sword. Those hoping to see an all-out action, or drama, or romance, or sci-fi film are sure to be disappointed. Still, since it offers something for everyone, Adjustment is sure to reach a wider audience than if it had focused on just one specific genre. Either way, if the film makes people ponder its themes and messages past the exit sign, it will have accomplished it purpose.

Rating: 3

The Ghost Writer (PG-13)

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Directed by: Roman Polanski
Starring: Ewan McGregor
March 2010

“Polanski’s Political Potboiler Stars a Superspy and a Jedi”

Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, though not as shocking as Chinatown or as haunting as The Pianist, is a fine film in its own right, a taut thriller told from the epicenter of a political earthquake. At the center of the epicenter is Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), former Prime Minister of Britain, who’s been accused of advancing American policies while he was in office. The revolving door of ghost writers commissioned to massage Lang’s memoir into printable form soon sweeps a young and ambitious scribe, simply referred to as The Ghost (Ewan McGregor), into the web of intrigue and controversy that seems to surround Lang wherever he goes: Lang ping-pongs back and forth between native England and the eastern seaboard of the US.

We enter Lang’s world as an interloper, a voyeuristic onlooker to the drama that unfolds around Lang and those in his orbit. Lang, though understandably and undeniably aristocratic in public, is much more subdued behind closed doors, especially in one-on-one interviews with The Ghost. Past the officious exterior, Lang, when finally able to lay aside the worries of the world, displays a degree of vulnerability that’s a bit unsettling at first. It’s an expertly measured performance by Brosnan, a career actor with an inestimable range (Lang is a light-year from Bond).

McGregor also turns in a fine performance that’s deceptively understated in its fly-on-the-wall subtlety. Even though Lang is sympathetic and central to the plot, the audience identifies more strongly with The Ghost since he’s brought into the political turmoil at the same time that we are. As The Ghost forms his opinions of Lang, we’re right there peeking over his shoulder, sensing, as he does, that something isn’t quite right in Lang’s world.

The Ghost’s expressions of confusion, suspicion and apprehension are mirrored on our faces: in this way, director and writers see to it that character and audience are on equal footing. Or perhaps Polanski is deluding the audience into a state of false confidence. Perhaps The Ghost is one step ahead of us and the only reason we’re clued in at all is because his writer’s eye is leading our gaze to details we would normally miss. Either way, this narrative choice allows for tangible tension to reign supreme throughout the story…and we can be grateful in our consternation since the movie’s intricate web of intrigue ensures a more satisfying viewing experience than a paint-by-numbers puzzler.

Of course, keeping the audience in the dark and methodically parsing out plot details at a pace which produces maximum suspense is a staple of the thriller genre, and few do modern-day political potboilers better than Polanski. Polanski knows how to gradually build anticipation until…bang, some major character revelation or unforeseen event causes a rupture in the story’s stasis. Even though the action never reaches the fevered pitch of a
Bourne movie, there are some nail-biting episodes like when The Ghost takes a trip on a ferry boat and discovers that he’s being shadowed.

Though the film’s intensity ebbs and flows (like the undulating ocean waves visible through the window in Lang’s office), an undercurrent of dread is ubiquitous, like apprehensions over the impending storm. The literal storm that’s been brewing since the movie’s early stages finally hits midway through, just as several character arcs are reaching their breaking points. The storm scene, of course, is symbolic of what the characters are experiencing. What would’ve come across as telegraphed by a lesser director is artistically and organically achieved by Polanski, whose expert grasp of storytelling allows for a slow boil approach to these climactic events.

The movie’s East Coast locales serve as an additional, though non-corporeal, member of the cast. The visual splendor Polanski creates, with the assistance of cinematographer Pawel Edelman, is nearly palpable. The overcast, blustery shoreline scenes along Martha’s Vineyard (surprisingly shot in Germany) are visually immersive and are the perfect accompaniment for the movie’s melancholy mood. The scene where McGregor bikes over to Eli Wallach’s house, the expanse of gray and beige creating a haunting yet beautiful tableau all around him, has more atmosphere than many movies have in their entirety.

One of the film’s many highlights is the showdown interview between The Ghost and Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson). Few actors can lace pleasantries with napalm like Wilkinson; his character’s thinly veiled disdain for The Ghost boils just beneath the surface of his composed and professional demeanor. Besides containing some tense, hair-raising dialog, the verbal sparring match between Wilkinson and McGregor sets into motion a chain reaction that ultimately leads to The Ghost’s untimely demise: if you’ve seen any of Polanski’s back catalog you can make an educated guess at the nature of the film’s down ending.

Although
The Ghost Writer fails to measure up to Polanski’s earlier masterpieces, it’s still a taut yarn with fine performances and a riveting riddle that will keep the audience guessing right up until the bitter end. And let’s face it, a lesser Polanski film is still better than the vast majority of films Hollywood is turning out these days. There’s little intrigue in that statement.

Rating: 3

Valkyrie (PG-13)

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Directed by: Bryan Singer
Starring: Tom Cruise
December 2008

“Riveting Slice of WWII History Hits Its Target”


A decorated, raven-haired soldier walks into a room filled with debating officers, surreptitiously places a handbag under the conference table and slowly backs out of the room. A few minutes later, the building explodes behind the escaping soldier. Inside the burning building are the strewn bodies of the chancellor and his top military advisors. Hitler is dead!

Sounds like a fictional story, right? Like they say, truth is often stranger than fiction. In reality, the above incident, dubbed Operation: Valkyrie, was just one of several failed assassination attempts made on the fuhrer’s life. The new movie based on this pulse-pounding chapter in World War II history is titled
Valkyrie and is directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men).

The soldier in charge of the Valkyrie mission was Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a German officer with divided loyalties, willing to risk it all in order to end the tyranny of the 3rd Reich. In the movie, Stauffenberg is played by Tom Cruise, a dubious choice at first mention but a casting coup upon further reflection (take a look at the astoundingly similar side-by-side profile photos of Stauffenberg and Cruise at this film’s wikipedia page). Cruise, known for action roles more than psychological dramas, turns in a fine performance as the conscience driven soldier who can no longer stand by and allow Hitler’s atrocities to continue unimpeded. Cruise is surrounded by a dizzying array of A-list talent that’s essentially a who’s who of accomplished British actors, including: Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard and Bernard Hill.

Although the set-up is a tad slow at times, the story starts to snowball once the assassination plot is formulated and set into motion. There’s a good deal of political intrigue and nail-biting suspense throughout, and the execution of the plan is an exercise in high anxiety. There’s bound to be a Murphy’s Law factor to any set of “best laid plans,” but the stakes here are impossibly high for Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators: failure is tantamount to death. The drama reaches edge-of-your-seat intensity when the mission starts to unravel and Stauffenberg is forced to make choices that will eventually seal his fate.

A few months before seeing this film, I watched a documentary on the subject entitled
Operation Valkyrie: The Stauffenberg Plot to Kill Hitler. With the accurate details of the actual mission fresh in mind from this presentation, I went into the movie expecting to find the usual fact fudging or creative embellishments that accompany far too many big screen adaptations of true historical stories these days. I must admit to being impressed and pleasantly surprised by Singer’s and writing duo Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander’s painstaking adherence to the recorded facts from the real-life account.

Singer’s attention to historical accuracy also extends to the movie’s finely mounted production elements, which populate every inch of the big screen in
Valkyrie. Sets, props and costumes are all period appropriate and draw the audience into Stauffenberg’s world with their authenticity; noticeable flaws or inconsistencies would similarly take the audience out of the movie’s mesmerizing action. The virtually identical reconstruction of the Wolf’s Lair sets is awe-inspiring and many of the scenes in Berlin and the German forest were shot at the exact same locations where the actual events took place.

It’s a testament to the arresting events of the factual story that it can so effectively sustain viewer interest throughout its two hour running time. Likewise, it’s a testament to Singer’s unwavering vision—which has realized the Stauffenberg plot in exacting detail while also adding the visual urgency and narrative expediency befitting a big screen adaptation of such a crucial chapter of WWII history—that the story works at all in its cinematic form. Those who go in expecting all-out action (and the casting of Cruise is certainly disingenuous on this account) will surely be disappointed by this psychologically and politically complex docu-drama, but for those who can sit through the denser intrigue in favor of its suspenseful action scenes will find a film that educates while it entertains. If only there had been more men of conviction like Stauffenberg to stamp out the evil and injustices committed in our generation. If only…

Rating: 3

Lakeview Terrace (PG-13)

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Directed by: Neil LaBute
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson
September 2008

“I’ve Got My Eye on You!”


Have we really come all that far? Are we, as a society, just as racially motivated as we were during the Rodney King riots or even the Jim Crow era? Those are the challenging, haunting questions posed in Neil LaBute’s tight, taut and terrifying thriller, Lakeview Terrace.

The movie stars Samuel L. Jackson as Abel Turner, a hot-tempered cop, who’s coping with his wife’s recent death in a tragic car accident. Abel disapproves of the interracial couple that recently moved into his diverse, titular neighborhood—Caucasian Chris (Patrick Wilson) and African American Lisa (Kerry Washington)—and determines to make their life a living hell in an effort to force them out of the community. But are such extreme acts as home invasion and slashed tires committed by morally superior Abel or by some other unseen agency?

In his most ambitious and multifaceted role to date, Jackson turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as a disturbed soul who walks the tightrope of legal and illegal activities, all the while shielded by the badge he wears. Abel often goes to extremes when teaching others a lesson. Instead of talking down a drug dealer who has a shotgun to his chin, Abel encourages the man to pull the trigger. When the hood chickens out, Abel cuffs the man, satisfied that the dealer will never again contemplate suicide.

In another jaw-dropping scene that you’ll be trying to get out of your head for days, Abel drops his britches in front of Lisa to illustrate how there are no longer any standards in our country. When Lisa threatens to call the police, Abel hands her his cell phone and says, “You want to call the cops? Here, I’ll tell you who’s on duty.” After the episode, Lisa throws up in the sink. Knowing that she can’t tell Chris, for fear of his reaction, Lisa knows she’s trapped. And therein dwells the primary dilemma at the core of this spine-tingling thriller: Who do you call when you can’t call the cops?

As the object of our identification, Chris is the most pivotal character in the film. We can feel his frustration when Abel’s outside floodlights keep him up at night. We can sense his barely contained anger when Abel embarrasses him in front of his wife and their guests at a housewarming party. Even though Abel makes for a fascinating character study, he would have come off as too cartoonish or maniacal were it not for Chris’ “can’t we all just get along” persona as a counterbalance. If Wilson’s acting had been only half as convincing, the movie would have fallen flat…his subtle performance is the key to making the film a viable reflection of reality.

Juxtaposed with the thriller narrative is the issue of racism, or in this case, reverse racism. The film takes a hard look at interracial marriage and the ramifications of such a union—the potential for a mongrel child. Writers David Loughery and Howard Korder tackle these issues in an unflinchingly intelligent manner without sermonizing or choosing sides. What’s even more frightening than the movie’s racial epithets is Abel’s acerbic statement, “Why don’t you go back to where they accept your kind of people.” Lakeview Terrace is in an L.A. suburb. L.A. is one of the largest melting pots in the world. If not in L.A., where would Chris and Lisa find acceptance as an interracial couple?

Though the pacing is slow in spots, LaBute (
The Wicker Man) has crafted a visually engrossing film. His use of close-ups reveals the deep-seated motivations of his characters; his clever framing techniques are also superb. In fact, there’s just as much subtext being conveyed through cinematography as there is through dialog, facials and body language, which makes the viewing experience a real treat.

Throughout the movie, a fire rages in the surrounding mountains and edges ever closer to the neighborhood; as the action intensifies so does the inferno, which becomes a symbol for the film’s violence and racial tensions. In spite of its recurring racial slurs and graphic language, the film possesses many redeeming qualities, not the least of which is an intelligent, nuanced and textured story.
Lakeview Terrace is an uncommonly good thriller that engages the senses with pulse-pounding showdowns and cliffhangers. As a didactic and climactic thrill ride that gradually builds suspense layer upon layer, the movie’s structure, ironically or intentionally, resembles a terrace.

Rating: 3

The Dark Knight (PG-13)

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Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale
July 2008

“Dark and Disturbing Bat-sequel Doesn’t Clown Around”


So how do you follow up a box office smash that not only rebooted a franchise but also proved beyond doubt that a comic book film could achieve high art status? Take a cue from Star Wars! George Lucas’ second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), was, in its day, the most successful sequel of all time. Empire kept audiences coming back with its bold new direction, darker tone and bitter outcomes, i.e., the bad guys occasionally win and the good guys get frozen and loose appendages.

The Dark Knight, like Empire, resisted the urge to rest on the success of its predecessor (Batman Begins) by taking a sharp left turn into the seedier and grittier regions of Gotham’s crime-infested underworld. Living up to the darkness denoted in its title, The Dark Knight is a well-crafted heist film, a highly styled noir and an elaborate Greek tragedy all wrapped up into a tangled, yet cohesive, ball of narrative yarn. Call it Batman meets The Departed.

Deuces are wild in
The Dark Knight: besides being the second film in the series, it features two villains (one is even named Two-Face). The score was arranged and conducted by two veteran composers, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard: not since Jaws has an ascending two note main theme been used with such terrifying effectiveness. There’s also enough plot for two movies here and, as such, some may consider The Dark Knight to be too long.

With a movie as finely mounted and expertly executed as
The Dark Knight, it’s nearly impossible to find fault with the film, and an objection leveled at any part of the picture is tantamount to a baseless attack; like pointing out one errant brushstroke in the Mona Lisa. Just the same, here are my gripes: Though the action is frenetic out of the starting gate, Nolan and David S. Goyer’s story is slow to unravel—the main point of the movie doesn’t coalesce until somewhere near the middle. Another minor irritant is the choose-your-own-fate gimmick which was used ad nauseam in the Spider-Man movies. Here, The Joker (Heath Ledger), who claims to be a man without a plan, sets up two separate scenarios where one person/group must be sacrificed so that the other person/group can live. Once is acceptable, twice is overkill in the same movie. Nolan’s one directorial miscue is his overuse of 360 degree tracking shots which keep spinning around until we’re all sufficiently dizzy. Oh, and is it my imagination or has Batman developed a speech impediment since the last movie?

On the flip side of the coin, the movie’s directing, acting and production values are nearly unimpeachable. The sweeping overhead cityscape shots are breathtaking as are the pulse-pounding action sequences. Nolan expertly, almost imperceptibly, alternates his action scenes between day and night. He also cleverly juxtaposes Harvey Dent, Gotham’s White Knight, with Batman, the city’s Dark Knight, and effectively turns the old “good guys wear white, bad guys wear black” Western film convention on its ear.

Most of the supporting ensemble was retained from the first film, including Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Lt. Gordon and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox; all of whom have meaty subplots here. Journeyman character actor, Eric Roberts, represents a crucial piece in the crime puzzle as mob boss, Salvatore Maroni, and Anthony Michael Hall keeps us well-informed as an earnest news reporter. The only significant casting change is that of Rachel Dawes: Maggie Gyllenhaal has replaced Katie Holmes, who received career-stalling advice from hubby Tom Cruise when he steered her toward a part in
Mad Money and away from reprising her role in the Bat-sequel. Gyllenhaal immediately hits her stride as conflicted lover Dawes; Bruce’s old flame and Harvey’s new squeeze. If anything, Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of the driven young attorney is less strident and more balanced than Holmes’ Dawes, but, even with a successful baton exchange, it’s a shame that character continuity had to be disrupted.

Much has been made of Ledger’s maniacal riff on The Joker and his shocking death a few months after wrapping this film. Clamoring fans have petitioned for a posthumous nod for the Australian actor—solely based on what they saw in the trailer, mind you—but such wish fulfillment may prove too optimistic come Oscar season despite Ledger’s career-defining performance. Ledger’s Joker is, inexplicably, less sinister and psychotic than Jack Nicholson’s version of the Clown Prince of Crime in 1989s
Batman. Still, this Joker is more accessible and less predictable which is far more entertaining to watch, especially when the mad genius outsmarts the cops and Batz at practically every turn. Whether or not Ledger gets a nod, this will go down as his most iconic role and Hollywood’s most effective villain since Hannibal Lecter.

As strange as it sounds, the focal point of the film isn’t Batman or The Joker, but Harvey “Two-Face” Dent (Aaron Eckhart, who delivers a superbly multi-faceted performance). Dent’s tragic fall from grace is the emotional and thematic vertex of the film. As an unwitting pawn, trapped between powerful agents of good and evil, Dent is forced to choose sides. His brazen statement, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” is a self-fulfilling prophecy; for in the end, The Joker outmaneuvers Batman and turns the crusading district attorney to the proverbial “dark side.” You can bet we’ll be seeing more of Two-Face in the next movie.

On the technology front, the highly advertised new Batpod is only in the movie for a few minutes before being totaled. Some may feel short-changed, but I find it refreshing, even ironic, that in a big budget action/adventure film the main attraction isn’t the FX or the newest hi-tech gizmo or machine, but rather, the hero’s courageous sacrifice, the villain’s psychotic schemes or the plot’s many twists and turns. Perhaps Batman films are helping to redefine the summer blockbuster as something other than a progression of filler scenes in between CG battles. One can only hope.

Though this wasn’t the sequel I expected, it’s hard to argue with the results. The movie’s direction is masterful, the writing is inspired, the acting is pitch-perfect and the production elements are superior in every category. This is an epic crime saga that just happens to have Batman in it…and that’s just the way Nolan wanted it.

Why so serious? Because
The Dark Knight is a seriously good film that will captivate and exhilarate fanboys and casual viewers alike. Let’s just hope that Oscar takes it seriously!

Rating: 3 1/2

The Incredible Hulk (PG-13)

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Directed by: Louis Leterrier
Starring: Edward Norton
June 2008

“A Giant Green Leap Past Lee’s Stylized Flop”


Is there a better word to describe the 2003 version of The Hulk than debacle? Director Ang Lee delivered a cerebral comic-to-movie adaptation that was so painstakingly adherent to its 2D, four-color source material it turned off a large segment of the audience with its dizzying 24-style split screen boxes, headache-inducing action sequences and an angry green giant who fluctuated in size and could leap several miles with every bound. It may have been the ultimate Valentine to the comic book and its fans, but it wasn’t great cinema—judging from its critical rejection and tepid box office.

Compared to Lee’s avant-garde wild pitch, director Louis Leterrier’s vision for the Hulk is right in the middle of the strike zone, and will appeal to fanboys as well as a mass audience.
The Incredible Hulk isn’t technically a sequel to The Hulk; more like a re-envisioning. In addition to a change at the helm, the entire cast has been overhauled: Edward Norton as Bruce Banner/Hulk, Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, William Hurt as General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross and Tim Roth at Col. Emil Blonsky/Abomination.

Norton’s performance is flawless, but the rest of the cast has a hard time fitting into their characters—ironic since, initially, Norton as a superhero seemed like the most dubious piece of casting. Hurt is serviceable but a bit stiff as Gen. Ross, a crusty old war dog who constantly demands bigger guns and more backup. Tyler is too soft-spoken in her likewise understated turn—the
Lord of the Rings actress defaults to her Elvish serenity in a role that required a wider emotional range. Roth is skilled at making bad guys believable, but here the actor is powerless to forge swaggering hothead, Blonsky, into a viable villain. The entire cast is victimized by shallow character development from writer Zak Penn. Assuming that his audience is already aware of the Hulk’s back-story, the ironically named Penn does little to expand the boundaries of the characters beyond what’s been established in the comic book. In essence, the characters kowtow to the rhythm and demands of the script. The word contrived comes to mind.

And speaking of contrived, the climactic battle between The Hulk and The Abomination—which comes complete with a Godzilla-style rampage through the streets of NYC—is a conventional resolution that caps a twenty-six minute slugfest between the mutant titans. The sequence is a surfeit of eye candy which, appropriately, comes crashing down after the sugar high of car tramplings, helicopter hurlings and Hulk smashings wears off. Strangulation as a means of vanquishing a foe is extremely banal and renders the eagerly anticipated climax that much more disappointing.

There are many other disappointing elements in the film, like Bruce’s perpetual inability to give Gen. Ross’ men the slip. The early stages of the film establish Bruce as an expert at lying low, so why can’t he simply disappear again? And then there’s the flaccid love triangle between Bruce, Betty and one of Betty’s colleagues (he’s in the movie for maybe five minutes and I don’t remember his name). As soon as Bruce resurfaces, Betty (apparently) dumps her boyfriend and returns to Bruce’s side as if nothing had happened during his absence. The whole sordid mess is quickly and conveniently set aside to make way for another action scene. There’s that word again…

Contrived as it is, there are some entertaining aspects to the film. Besides Norton’s finely attenuated performance, there are several amusing cameos: Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno reprise their brief stints from Lee’s
Hulk, and Robert Downey Jr. shows up as Tony Stark. Stark’s alter ego, in case you’ve been on an extended vacation off-planet, is Iron Man. Stark’s presence here marks the first cross-pollination of superheroes in a Marvel movie and also lays the groundwork for a much anticipated Avengers movie.

The Hulk is one of the finest examples of Man vs. Himself in modern mythology, and though angst hovers over the movie like a dark cloud, Leterrier, fortunately, doesn’t let it consume the film. The director pays fitting tribute to Bill Bixby, who played small screen Banner from 1977 to 1982, by revealing a brief glimpse of the actor on a TV in the background of Banner’s flat. Composer Craig Armstrong also pays homage to the TV series by employing a clever statement of “The Lonely Man” theme in his score.

Even though
The Incredible Hulk underachieves, it’s still a giant leap ahead of its predecessor. Rumors persist that Norton was dissatisfied with the final cut of the film, so we’ll see if he comes back to join Barry Bonds in Hulk III: Steroid Smackdown.

Rating: 2 1/2

Vantage Point (PG-13)

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Directed by: Pete Travis
Starring: Dennis Quaid
February 2008

“Do You See What I See…See…See?”


Four people standing on four corners of an intersection witness an accident. What does each one see?

I’m sure you’ve heard that hypothetical exercise in a philosophy or psychology class or perhaps in a riddle during a long road trip to help pass the time. It’s a simple illustration of a complex concept…point of view. The movie poster for
Vantage Point succinctly spells out the movie’s premise while doubling the number of individuals in our example: 8 strangers, 8 points of view, 1 truth.

Vantage Point illustrates the subjectivity of viewpoint amid real world politics in our terror-wracked world. Freshman director, Pete Travis, says this about the movie’s intricate POV plot, “…our version of the truth depends on who we are and what perspective we’re viewing it from” (Empire, Feb 08). Like at the corner of an intersection.

The movie opens at an anti-terror summit in Salamanca, Spain, where the U. S. President (William Hurt) is set to deliver a rousing speech to a capacity crowd. As he approaches the podium, the President is shot by a sniper. Pandemonium erupts in the teeming square as panicked spectators flee the vicinity en masse. Then a bomb explodes and bodies rain down all over the courtyard. By the time the dust settles, we’ve got ourselves a whopper of a whodunit with frenetic, energetic action scenes and loads of political intrigue to spare.

However, the taut plot’s Achilles Heel is that the story rewinds five times to the same moment (twenty-three minutes before the assassination) and shows the same sequence of events but from different perspectives and, if we’re lucky, different angles. Useful for filling in the back story and gradually revealing more pieces to the puzzle, the movie’s repetition may prove exhausting to some, judging from the groans I heard each time the movie’s rewind button was engaged. However, writer Barry Levy deserves credit for delivering an intense and intelligent actioner with a
Rashomon style plot device that bears up well under scrutiny while providing edge-of-your-seat exhilaration.

The movie’s A-list actors also deserve a shout out here. Sigourney Weaver, who plays a news journalist, does excellent work in a limited role—she only appears in the first act. Dennis Quaid and Matthew Fox are secret service agents. Quaid, who previously took a bullet for the president, is restive and a bit paranoid. Fox, on the other hand, is conspicuously calm during the movie’s tragic events. Forest Whitaker, in a superb turn as the innocent bystander who captures a glimpse of the assassin on his camcorder, is the emotional anchor in the movie and shines in the scenes where he tries to help a little girl find her mother among the stampeding throng.

Vantage Point is a good film, but with more experience at the helm and less redundancy in the non-linear story, it could have been great. Still, Vantage Point is an action-packed thrill ride that starts off in high gear, accelerates through the Bourne-like car chase and hits maximum velocity during the twisty, heart-stopping climax.

Final thought: If you find yourself needing a break from the repetitive storyline, don’t hesitate to get up and refill your popcorn. If you time it right, you can return to your seat at the same exact moment you left.

Rating: 3

Cloverfield (PG-13)

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Directed by: Matt Reeves
Starring: Mike Vogel
January 2008

“Standard Disaster Flick with Distracting, Nauseating Visuals”


The older I get the less I enjoy roller-coasters; these days it doesn’t take much for me to get motion sickness. As such, I seldom frequent amusement parks, but when I do, I know exactly what I’m getting myself into. With Cloverfield, the new J.J. Abrams-produced scare-fest, I went in expecting to see a movie but came out feeling like I’d just stepped off a roller-coaster, having experienced all of the side effects but none of the fun.

The easiest way to define
Cloverfield is: The Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla. The entire film is shot from the POV of a single camcorder in a very shaky, jittery and wobbly fashion. After about fifteen minutes of handy-cam hell, I found it increasingly difficult to keep my popcorn from coming back up. I ended up closing my eyes to avoid hurling on the person in front of me, and, as strange as it seems, I still could follow the narrative with little difficulty. I guess rampaging creature movies are like baby’s butts: if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

The movie opens with a going away party thrown by Jason Hawkins for his brother, Robert, whose recent promotion will require him to relocate to Japan. We’re briefly introduced to Jason’s girlfriend, Lily, and his uncouth friend, Hud, (who becomes unwitting documentary director) before the “creature” makes its bombastic entrance, instantaneously transforming the streets of Manhattan into a horrific tableau of death, destruction and panic-ridden pandemonium. Evacuees, hoping to find safe haven on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge, converge upon the structure
en masse; but anyone who’s seen a Godzilla movie or the recent I Am Legend, will know instinctually that such an exit strategy will surely meet with an untimely demise.

Leaving no
Godzilla convention untapped, the creature dispatches a platoon of youngling foot soldiers which are used like vacuum attachments—to clean up those hard-to-reach places. Oh, and speaking of plot contrivances; why is it that characters presented with a means of escape will invariably return to the danger zone to save someone or some thing? The most annoying example of this phenomenon I’ve ever seen—in any film—is when Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley leaves the safe confines of her spaceship and risks being eaten by an Alien to save her blasted cat (apologies to PETA). Here, the object of reckless abandon is a wounded woman, so I suppose the actions of the main characters are more heroic—if equally foolhardy.

Credit director Matt Reeves with delivering a highly experimental creature feature, even though the experiment is an ignominious failure of ironically gigantic proportions. Despite being financed by a major studio, Reeves’ attempt at creating the newest sensation in ultra-real entertainment comes off looking like a high-end home video…and I certainly wouldn’t have paid ten bucks to see that, had I known.

Scriptwriter, Drew Goddard, taking a cue from earlier disaster films like
Titanic, skillfully ushers his characters through the movie’s earth-shattering events; a narrative device that’s used to personalize and humanize a tragedy while setting up a powerful payoff during a catastrophic climax. Unfortunately, that kind of emotional empathy doesn’t work for Cloverfield because character development is virtually non-existent from the word go. When one of the characters is imperiled, it’s like watching a stranger’s plight on the news; you might pity them, but if you don’t know who they are, it’s difficult to feel genuine sympathy for the individual.

Cloverfield weighs in at a lean eighty-five minutes, yet still manages to overstay its welcome due to its unrelenting, dizzying mode of filming. To say that Cloverfield—the beneficiary of an ingenious marketing campaign, stratospheric expectations and Herculean hype—is a massive disappointment would be a colossal understatement. However, even if the viewing experience had been a pleasant one, the dismal and abysmal story still would have ruined a film that’s more nauseating than it is frightening.

Many questions are left unanswered, like where does the creature come from? Or why, in the sprawling metropolis of NYC, does the creature always seem to be right on top of our heroes? Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is the significance of the title. It sounds cool, but what does it mean? There’s no reference to a
Cloverfield anywhere in the movie. I suppose, however, that Cloverfield is acceptable as a euphemistic title since Herky-jerky wouldn’t have sold a single ticket.

Rating: 1 1/2

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (PG)

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Directed by: Jon Turteltaub
Starring: Nicolas Cage
December 2007

“Gates Works Harder, Gets Richer in Globetrotting Sequel”


The sequel to 2004’s National Treasure is subtitled, Book of Secrets. The titular book is a rumored collection of top-secret articles and accounts for the president’s eyes only. Ben Gates (Nicholas Cage) and his father, Patrick (Jon Voight), follow a series of clues that lead them on a frenetic steeplechase through France, London and Washington, D.C. Once discovered, the book offers additional clues that direct the Gates’ plus sidekicks, Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) and Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) along with antagonist, Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) to Mt. Rushmore where the discovery of a secret treasure will clear the Gates family name (something about Ben’s great-grandfather allegedly being a co-conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination).

I won’t go into too much detail about the cohesive yet scattershot plot, but I will say that
NT2 is every bit as good as the original and perhaps a tad better. NT2 has a broader canvas than the original; besides adding European destinations to the itinerary, the film also introduces some new characters and features a more elaborate treasure hunt.

The finest new addition to the cast is Helen Mirren as Ben’s mother, Prof. Emily Appleton. Patrick and Emily, who were separated a number of years ago, are reunited out of necessity; seeing them thrown back into the mix together is actually the most enjoyable aspect of the film. Ben and Abigail’s relationship has also hit the skids and whereas some of their vehement interactions are amusing, the relational discord just didn’t work for me as well as Ben’s bickering parents. But in light of this nation’s alarming divorce rate (and Hollywood’s even worse track record), it’s refreshing to see couples working out their differences instead of just giving up…a very positive example, especially for the younger, more impressionable, segment of the audience.

As with the first
National Treasure, viewers are required to suspend their disbelief to staggering heights and buy into conspiracy theories based on some facts with a ton of supposition and wild leaps of logic to spare. Out of all the head-scratching elements in the film, the one I just couldn’t abide is the scene where Ben abducts the president (Bruce Greenwood)…like it could possibly be that easy. However, all’s well that ends well as the prez. later exonerates Gates of any wrongdoing…I’m sure it had a lot to do with Ben finding the national treasure which will help pay off the national debt.

So, what did Ben see on page forty-seven of the Book of Secrets? If the box office is favorable for
NT2, we might only have a couple years to find out. Otherwise, that secret knowledge might end up buried in the past.

Rating: 2 1/2

I Am Legend (PG-13)

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Will Smith
December 2007

“We Have Seen the Enemy and It is Us!”


Based on Richard Matheson’s novel of the same name, published in 1954, I Am Legend is the third filmic adaptation of his dark, dystopian yarn (1964’s The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s The Omega Man). Though the film diverges from Matheson’s novel in a few key areas, most notably the resolution, this I Am Legend retains the book’s melancholy tone and macabre themes while giving the story a modern upgrade.

The movie takes place in 2012, three years after a virus (engineered to cure cancer) turns airborne and eradicates 5.4 billion people, effectively transforming NYC into a weed-infested wildlife preserve. Col. Robert Neville (Will Smith) has natural immunization to the virus and tries to unravel what went wrong with the supposed miracle cure. His day consists of pilfering supplies from abandoned apartments, hunting deer with his dog, Sam, and working in his lab to find a cure for the virus. At dusk, Robert boards up his apartment, turns off all the lights and curls up with Sam and his rifle in the bathtub. The shrieking screams of “the creatures” who roam the streets at night plague Robert’s fitful sleep as he shivers in fear and prays for the dawn.

Besides merely scaring the audience senseless (which it does with all the subtlety of an exploding bomb),
I Am Legend is also disturbing on deeper, more salient levels, not the least of which is the scientific plausibility of a designer virus, however well-intentioned in its application, actually wiping out our entire species. It’s conceivable that our scientists could do it in haste—or by accident. Jeff Goldblum’s indicting line in Jurassic Park, “…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should,” readily comes to mind here. And what about radical terrorists who would resort to germ warfare to defeat their enemies? As terrifying as the movie’s “dark seekers” are, these shocking scenarios are far more unsettling.

One of the rules for crafting any good piece of fiction is “Show, don’t tell.” Director Francis Lawrence (a former pop-video creator), expertly adheres to that maxim while forging Matheson’s brainchild and Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman’s adapted screenplay into his own frightening vision of our world gone horribly wrong. As we closely study Robert’s actions, questions naturally arise, like: Why does Robert have the alarm on his wristwatch set to go off at different times during the day? What is the significance of the various appearances of butterflies in the film? Who set the trap that snares Robert, and why does he fall for it? And, does the mannequin’s head turn or is it just a motion-created optical illusion? Or was that just my imagination?

“Because there is so little dialogue,” Smith told EW, “every moment has to be rich with human experience.” Ergo,
I Am Legend can be viewed as a kind of near-future Cast Away, with the main differences being location (distant island vs. devastated metropolis), sidekicks (blood-painted volleyball vs. intrepid German Shepherd) and stars (Hanks vs. Smith). At first glance, Smith would seem to be no match for Hanks, but Smith’s acting here is amply textured and cleverly nuanced. In his most ambitious role to date, Smith plays a man in the throes of loneliness who hangs onto sanity by a thread; a physically and psychologically demanding performance that, in its own way, rivals his career-defining turn in The Pursuit of Happyness—the gold standard for Smith films.

I Am Legend has great atmosphere during the day (thanks in large part to the keen eye of LOTR’s cinematographer, Andrew Lesnie), but the night scenes feel like a glorified zombie movie, however intense. The movie’s most riveting sequences take place during daylight hours—Robert chases Sam into an abandoned warehouse and Robert confronts mannequin, Fred, who’s moved during the night. The special effects are also a mixed bag—the CGI is quite good early on, but as the movie progresses the visuals get hokier (did they run out of F/X funds?), particularly on the dark seekers, whose half-baked appearance and movements resemble an average video game character.

Despite these niggling details,
I Am Legend is an exhilarating thrill-ride that features spine-tingling encounters, pulse-pounding pursuits and disturbing revelations about the human condition under extreme conditions. With its eerily realistic shots of nature reclaiming Times Square, engaging flashbacks, Oscar-caliber lead acting and heart-stopping action scenes; I Am Legend has set the bar for near-future outbreak films to near-unattainable heights. If the movie’s done its job, it will haunt you with its horrific “what if” scenario long after you’ve left the theater: lingering side effects may include anxiety, paranoia or excessive jumpiness. You’ve been sufficiently forewarned!

Rating: 4

The Bourne Ultimatum ( PG-13)

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Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Matt Damon
August 2007

Ultimatum is the Ultimate Bourne Adventure”


Bourne is back…with a vengeance! The Bourne Ultimatum, the third movie based on the thrill-packed trilogy by the late Robert Ludlum, brings the story full circle—back to NYC where it all started for Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), the fugitive of a top-secret governmental agency who trained him to be a no-nonsense, no compunctions assassin. The movie also brings back the fun and excitement of the first film, which was throttled back a bit in the middle chapter.

Globetrotting like Sydney Bristow in
Alias, Bourne travels to several countries as he attempts to unravel the secrets of his past, which haunt his dreams but evade his conscious awareness. The taut actioner features Bourne surviving a shootout at London’s Waterloo Station, a high-speed motorcycle pursuit in Morocco, a pulse-pounding rooftop chase which culminates in a kick butt hand-to-hand melee and a car chase in NYC that climaxes with the most jarringly realistic crash ever committed to film. But all of these scenes pale in comparison to the jaw-dropping revelation at movie’s end when Bourne learns who he really is and how he became a cold-blooded killing machine.

The screenplay, by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi, is a thoroughly enthralling yarn that boasts one of the most inventive, non-linear plot lines to come along in quite some time. Though the film is unabashedly action-packed from start to finish, director Paul Greengrass skillfully safeguards the movie’s refreshingly rich character development from being overshadowed by frenetic fistfights and explosions, a key to the film’s delicate balance between action and drama.

Though
Ultimatum is the most emotionally and physically demanding Bourne outing yet, Damon handles the part with practiced ease, proving beyond any doubt that he belongs in the upper tier of action stars. Damon anchors the film, but the fine supporting players lend the film added depth. Joan Allen and Julia Stiles reprise their roles as FBI agents and are joined by movie legends Scott Glenn, David Strathairn and Albert Finney, each of whom turn in powerhouse performances in key roles.

“This is where it started for me,” Bourne states near the climax, “this is where it ends.” So, is this the end of the series or will Damon become Bourne again?
The Bourne Legacy and The Bourne Betrayal (further Bourne adventures written by Eric Van Lustbader), could certainly provide fodder for future films, so time will tell. As things stand, the Bourne movies comprise one of the most exhilarating, and most exhausting, action trilogies in modern cinema.

Rating: 3 1/2

Live Free or Die Hard (PG-13)

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Directed by: Len Wiseman
Starring: Bruce Willis
June 2007

“Old Action Stars Never Die…They Just Do Mediocre Sequels”


Life imitating art, and vice versa, has fueled many debates on ethical standards over the years, especially since societal ills are often blamed on one or the other. Executive Decision (1996), which starred Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal, focused on terrorists who hijack a jet and threaten to release a poisonous gas over Washington D.C. if their rebel leader wasn’t immediately released. Five years later our nation watched in disbelief as two commandeered jets crashed into the World Trade Center buildings, another grazed the Pentagon and yet another, United 93, crash landed in a Pennsylvanian field after its brave passengers prevented the plane from reaching its destination…the White House. Did Al-Qaeda come up with the idea of using jets as weapons all by themselves, or were they inspired—if only in small part—by the fertile minds in Hollywood?

In Bruce Willis’ new John McClane movie,
Live Free or Die Hard, writers Mark Bomback and David Marconi set up a scenario where domestic terrorists (to keep things P.C.) hack into our government’s mainframe and create a “fire sale”—the crippling of our traffic control, financial and utility systems. As I was introduced to this new, potential threat to our country, the question that immediately popped into my head was, “Do we really need to give them any more ideas?”

In the film’s defense, the
Die Hard series, since its pulse-pounding inception in 1988, has consistently featured nefarious types (generally from overseas) and their fanatical plans to commit acts of terror on our soil. However, the earlier trilogy was released before 9-11, and it goes without saying that the rules of the game have changed since then; leaving Live Free or Die Hard with no leg to stand on should an actual fire sale ravage our nation in the near future. There’s an old saying that goes, “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.” If an attack of this magnitude were carried out in our country, we would indeed be fools for having allowed our security to be threatened by an insidious plot packaged as entertainment and disseminated, en masse, at the Cineplex.

It’s a profound irony that the movie’s strongest element is the terrorist plot; on the flip side, the biggest contributors to the movie’s fits of incompetence are the flawed screenplay and static acting. Willis’ performance is exceedingly and disappointingly wooden; he delivers his lines with a swaggering overconfidence (the unfortunate side effect of being too comfortable with the role), which devolves McClane from character to caricature. The movie’s dialogue is as expressive and variegated as a telegram, and you just had to know that “Yippee ki yay” would be uttered somewhere in the film. Willis’ onscreen sidekick, Matthew Farrell (Justin Long), is just as off-putting as Mos Def’s nasally nitwit in Willis’
16 Blocks, and the rest of the cast is largely forgettable.

The movie’s action sequences, though dynamic and frenetic, are so far-fetched they’ve actually redefined the word
absurd. Semi vs. F-35 jet…need I say more? Actually, I think I will. I know the words Die Hard appear in the title, but just how difficult is it to kill John McClane, or wound or even bruise him? Like the old Timex slogan, McClane “takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’,” but credibility is shot to blazes when McClane takes a beating and then immediately gets up—without a scratch, mind you—and rushes headlong into the next action sequence. Most action movies push the limits of believability in this area, but Live Free or Die Hard conveniently tosses physical limitations and human attrition out the window. Maybe Willis is unbreakable?

Director Len Wiseman’s (
Underworld) extensive background in various behind-the-scenes capacities clearly paid dividends in the movie’s top-notch production values, but he wasn’t nearly as effective at evincing convincing performances from the cast. As they say, you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip…you can’t produce Oscar-caliber performances from cardboard characters either. You’d have thought that after a twelve year sabbatical the fourth Die Hard film would have given us more to talk about than Bruce Willis’ bald head. So much for, “Good things come to those who wait.”

So, will John McClane return to save the world once again or will the series languish another decade and die? Hard to tell, but Stallone recently resurrected
Rocky, so you never know. Where there’s a Willis there’s a way.

Rating: 3

Ocean’s Thirteen (PG-13)

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Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: George Clooney
June 2007

“Clooney and Co. + Pacino = Lucky 13”


Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven was a rollicking riot of a good time, but the follow-up, Ocean’s Twelve, failed miserably because it tried to be too slick for its own good. Ocean’s Thirteen finds Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his criminal cronies returning to Sin City, and fortunately for us, the fun has returned as well.

When casino tycoon, Willie Bank (Al Pacino) double-crosses Reuben (Elliott Gould), Danny hatches a plan that will repay Bank with interest for his ill-conceived ill turn: 1. sabotage the opening of Bank’s new casino so that it fails to receive a 5-star rating and, 2. swipe Bank’s cache of priceless diamonds before he knows he’s been hit.

All of the regulars are back, sans the women (Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones); but even without the female headliners it still must have been a Herculean task to synchronize the schedules of so many A-list actors. Though this is primarily George, Brad and Matt’s movie, everyone is given generous screen time here…unlike the second film, which relegated secondary characters to marking time in jail until they could make a significant contribution to the story. Some of Ocean’s cohorts, like Virgil (Casey Affleck) and Turk (Scott Caan), have considerably more involvement here than in the earlier films; their side story in Mexico is uproariously funny.

Al Pacino was the perfect choice for billionaire Bank. Besides perfectly inhabiting his character and seamlessly blending in with the rest of the high-powered cast, Pacino brings legendary gravitas to the part of the nefarious antagonist. Andy Garcia played an adequate heavy in the first film, but the villain in the second movie was instantly forgettable. Pacino’s Bank is the best Ocean’s villain to date because he strikes the perfect balance of loathing and respect in the spectator; an effective combination.

The previous
Ocean’s films utilized narrative sleight-of-hand and flashback sequences to reveal the intricacies of the heist, but this film doesn’t have any tricks up its sleeve. The straightforward storyline lulls the audience into thinking they have it all figured out, and then broadsides them with one mind-blowing twist after the next. You’d think—from a creative standpoint—that this type of plot structure would be less imaginative and more constrictive, but when random deviations start to derail Ocean’s painstakingly calculated plan, the movie actually becomes more enjoyable than if writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien had regurgitated the same well-worn storytelling device employed in the earlier films.

Ocean’s Thirteen has restored the series to its former, fun-loving form. Now the question is: Will there be an Ocean’s Fourteen? Like most Hollywood films, especially sequels, it’ll be a crapshoot.

Rating: 3

Breach (PG-13)

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Directed by: Billy Ray
Starring: Chris Cooper
February 2007

“Cooper is Mesmerizing in Political Potboiler”


Based on the gripping true story of how the worst traitor in the history of U.S. Intelligence was discovered and brought to justice, Breach is a fascinating post-Cold War yarn which underlines the unsettling notion that the last person you’d suspect of being a criminal often times is.

FBI agent, Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) has projected such a sanitary image of himself throughout his distinguished career that he’s been placed in charge of a special task force to ferret out a rogue agent who’s been selling secrets to the Russians. A devout Catholic and family man, Robert never drinks (even off duty) and frequently extols the virtues of prayer. But Mr. Clean, it turns out, has some dark secrets which are eventually unearthed by Agent Burroughs (Laura Linney). Burroughs “promotes” Robert to a new post and assigns callow agent, Eric O’Neil (Ryan Phillippe), to serve as Robert’s assistant and her informant. As the high stakes chess match plays out, the questions become: is Robert guilty of treason, and if so, is anyone clever enough to beat him at his own game?

Breach, even without car chases and shootouts, is a first-rate potboiler that contains enough intrigue to fill two movies—the PDA download and car sweep scenes are especially suspenseful. Director Billy Ray does an excellent job of gradually building intensity throughout the film, and the script by Adam Mazer and William Rotko doesn’t miss a beat. The movie’s incisive dialogue is finely crafted and contains several memorable gems, like Robert’s first line to Eric, “Tell me five things about yourself and four of them true.”

Cooper turns in a spellbinding performance as Hanssen and almost single-handedly carries the movie: when it comes to chewing scenery, Cooper could give Pac Man a run for his money. Cooper’s wonderfully nuanced portrayal of straight-laced, no-nonsense, yet privately perverted Hanssen (the scene where he lusts after
Entrapment’s Catherine Zeta-Jones is downright disturbing), is utterly captivating and convincing. An Oscar nod would be the appropriate response to this powerhouse performance.

Though some have exiguous onscreen time, the supporting actors play a vital role in servicing the plot as they fall into orbit around Cooper: Linney and Phillippe are joined by Caroline Dhavernas as Eric’s wife, Kathleen Quinlan as Robert’s wife, Bruce Davison as Eric’s father, Gary Cole as Agent Garces and
24’s Dennis Haysbert as Agent Plesac.

Besides touting the acting, directing and writing, there’s little more that can be said here without spoiling the plot to this truly riveting tale; a story that’s made all the more alarming by its factual elements. As the shock and horror of 9/11 continues to fade from our collective consciousness,
Breach is a jarring reminder of the ever-increasing need for intelligence and vigilance…lest we should forget the tragedies of the past.

Rating: 3

Deja Vu (PG-13)

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Directed by: Tony Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington
November 2006

“The Feeling That You’ve Seen This Plot Before”


In 2001, the Oscar for Best Actor went to Denzel Washington for his portrayal of a crooked cop in Training Day. With an Oscar in one hand and an ever-growing list of box-office hits in the other, one wonders why Denzel settled for the diverting, yet middling love story, Déjà Vu, which co-stars Val Kilmer, Jim Caviezel and the comely Paula Patton (Hitch).

The movie opens with a domestic terrorist attack on a ferryboat in a New Orleans harbor (hasn’t the city already suffered enough?). Detail-retentive ATF agent, Doug Carlin (Washington), responds to the disaster and takes on the challenge of solving the mystery surrounding the death of Claire (Patton), a young, attractive woman who washed up onshore two hours before the bombing with burn marks and chemical traces consistent with the other ferryboat victims. A visit to Claire’s house reveals even more time incongruities: Having never met Claire, Doug is startled when he plays back a voicemail message he left on Claire’s answer machine. Doug also discovers a cryptic admonition spelled out in alphabet magnets on Claire’s refrigerator door, “U can save her.”

The story takes a sci-fi twist when Agent Pryzwarra (Kilmer) invites Doug to join his special team of techno-geeks, who employ state-of-the-art technology to play back events from the recent past. At first, Doug is awed by the hi-tech equipment, but ongoing timeline discrepancies drive him toward disturbing revelations about Claire, whom he’s rapidly falling in love with, and his Geek Squad cronies.

The main bane of most time travel stories is a flawed or confusing paradox, and Déjà Vu, unfortunately, suffers the effects of this narrative nemesis. This Jerry Bruckheimer produced, Tony Scott directed film had all the potential to be a first-rate thriller, but it suffers from scientific inconsistencies and plot holes big enough to drive an ambulance through. From a dramatic standpoint, the movie’s elegant wrap-up is effective and maybe even a tad heartwarming, but the film leaves its audience with the nagging feeling that they’ve fallen victim to cinematic prestidigitation. Even with the Temporal Mechanics for Dummies seminar at the movie’s midpoint, the convoluted plot—which plays fast and loose with the very theories it espouses—fails to deliver the stand-and-applaud climax the writers were clearly anticipating.

The only groundbreaking concept in the movie is the scene where Doug tracks the killer to his hideout with the help of a goggle rig that transmits images from four days earlier, before the bombing took place. The high-speed pursuit—where Doug keeps one eye on the past and one eye on the road—is, arguably, the most memorable sequence in the film, but it’s all so much visual Teflon…hollow thrills that are quickly forgotten once the movie fades to black.

Washington does his usual good job as the unimpeachable agent and Caviezel plays an adequate cold-blooded killer, but both characters are severely underserved, particularly Caviezel’s Oerstadt. We witness Oerstadt’s bloodletting, but we don’t know anything about him or what motivates him to commit such heinous acts. Oerstadt, a washed-out military man, does issue one spine-tingling line however, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s patriot.” As for the other actors, Kilmer is mere set dressing and Patton does solid work in a limited role.

Déjà Vu would have been a runaway success if not for the muddy cause and effect plot which bogs down a story that otherwise would have been immensely enjoyable. It’s just too bad the writers couldn’t use the movie’s technology to go back in time and fix some of their mistakes…and fix some of their mistakes.

Rating: 2 1/2

Casino Royale (PG-13)

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Directed by: Martin Campbell
Starring: Daniel Craig
November 2006

“High Stakes Bond With a Rising Star”


From the first frame of the opening sequence—a brilliant, casino-themed montage where guns shoot spades, featureless victims bleed small red hearts and a person falling to his death shatters into a pile of cards upon impact—it’s clear that this isn’t your father’s Bond movie. Incidentally, this is also the first Bond film in memory that doesn’t showcase silhouetted naked women in the opener. The firsts don’t stop there; Casino Royale, based on the novel of the same name by Ian Fleming, chronologically predates all of the previous Bond films, making it a prequel of sorts. As such, we are retrospectively introduced to some Bond’s most recognizable touchstones; we discover how Bond comes to own his Aston Martin, learn how he creates the phrase, “shaken, not stirred,” and witness his first utterance of that iconic line, “Bond, James Bond.”

When Daniel Craig (
Layer Cake) was confirmed as the new Bond, I was more than just a little skeptical; however, my misgivings were wholly unfounded. With all due respect to Connery and the rest of the gang, Craig, pound for pound, might just be the best Bond ever. He’s certainly more ripped than any former 007, judging from the scene where Bond emerges from the ocean with a premium six-pack—a tableau that parallels Halle Berry’s entrance in Die Another Day. Where Pierce Brosnan’s Bond would have quipped, finessed or negotiated his way out of a fight, Craig’s Bond bulldozes anyone who poses a threat to him. As such, the new Bond is scrappier than his predecessors and takes the quickest route to dispatching his enemies a la 24’s Jack Bauer. What’s refreshing—for an action hero archetype—is that this Bond occasionally makes mistakes (like when he gives himself up by clumsily tailing a bad guy), albeit, not fatal ones.

The stunt work, fight scenes and action sequences in
Casino Royale are some of the finest in the entire series and are certainly above par when compared to your garden variety action picture. Some of the movie’s best action scenes include an explosive car chase at Miami International Airport, an all-out, hand-to-hand slugfest in a hotel stairwell and a frenetic shootout inside a pontoon-fortified Venetian building. However, all of those scenes pale in comparison to the opening, skyscraper scaffolding sequence in Madagascar where Bond pursues a bomb-toting, free running terrorist who scales walls like Spider-Man and bounces over and around obstacles like a monkey on speed. The scene easily qualifies as the finest action sequence I’ve ever seen…if it fails to get your heart racing, you have no pulse.

For poker lovers, roughly a quarter of the movie focuses on a high stakes Texas hold ‘em tournament in Montenegro. However, even if you don’t know the difference between a straight and a flush (or a straight flush), you’ll still enjoy the psychological warfare employed by the players along with the refined trash talking that randomly bounces around the table like a pinball. Here’s the scenario: If Bond wins, he will financially cripple an international terrorist organization…if he looses, Her Majesty will have just funded said terrorist group.

For female viewers, the movie also features a friction-filled romance between Bond and hard-to-get Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), an accountant sent to keep an eye on Bond and distract the other players with her slender frame, dangerous curves and bedazzling red dress. There’s a wonderful scene where Bond and Vesper engage in a war of words on a train bound for Montenegro. Fraught with sexual tension, double entendres and some of the best repartee I’ve heard since Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint patented the lascivious train ride in Hitchcock’s classic
North by Northwest, the scene kicks the romance subplot into high gear, and sets the stage for the twisty and tragic climax.

What makes this Bond superior to its forebears is the sure-handed directing by Martin Campbell and the superlative script penned by Academy-award winning screenwriter, Paul Haggis (
Million Dollar Baby). The movie has great supporting characters including Judi Dench, who reprises her role as M and Mads Mikkelsen as a heartless villain, Le Chiffre, a man who bleeds from his blind right eye when angered.

Casino Royale is the best Bond to date, and not just because of its up-to-date FX or its new star; this is a more modern and mature Bond, unshackled by the usual silliness involving hi-tech gadgets and gizmos. With a film this superior, odds are we’ll be seeing Bond…Craig’s Bond again very soon.

Rating: 3

The Prestige (PG-13)

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Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale
October 2006

“Are You Watching Closely? You’ve Been Tricked!”


Director Christopher Nolan and actors Christian Bale and Michael Caine were driving forces behind last year’s critically acclaimed, comic book-to-big screen action thriller, Batman Begins. Add to that team X-Men’s Wolverine, Hugh Jackman, and the sultry siren, Scarlett Johansson and you have a surefire hit on your hands…right?

As would be expected, the film opens with a magic show. The magician is assisted by Cutter (Caine) backstage and Robert (Jackman) and Alfred (Bale) who are planted in the audience and selected every night as part of the performance. Robert and Alfred are aspiring magicians, but their association as friends and colleagues abruptly ends when Robert’s wife, Julia (Piper Perabo), drowns in a water tank during an illusion gone wrong. Robert casts blame on Alfred, who always tires to push a trick to the next level and takes unnecessary risks. The balance of the movie deals with Robert’s repeated attempts to avenge his wife’s death, while trying to beat Alfred at his own game.

The game of one-upmanship between the two competing magicians is engaging at first, but the point and counterpoint plot exponentially looses steam as the movie progresses. The movie’s climax is like a chess skirmish where both players trade pieces until one player takes a piece and his opponent can’t counter, producing a clear-cut victor. Trying to figure out who will outthink his rival and deal the ultimate deathblow was clearly intended to be an enjoyable experience, but the volleying storyline, in the end, is more exhausting than exhilarating.

These disparaging comments are in no way an indictment against the director, actors or anyone else involved in the movie’s creative or technical departments, all of whom did an exceptional job of transporting the viewer into this turn-of-the-century period piece. If any area of the movie bears criticism, it’s the prefab plot based on Christopher Priest’s novel. Every magic trick is based on diversion and deception, and the storyline here deals in the same kind of chicanery—the plot is a façade that appears to be an intricately woven yarn, but is simply a hollow attempt at generating Industrial-era intrigue; wowing audiences with its all-star cast, the movie only offers cheap thrills and unfulfilled promises.

At the movie’s midpoint, Robert seeks out eccentric inventor, Nikolas Tesla (David Bowie, in a brilliant piece of surprise casting), who builds Robert a machine that is way beyond today’s technology, much less that of a century ago. As egregious as that is, the final nail in the movie’s coffin is protagonist confusion. Just who are we supposed to root for here? True, the magicians demonstrate their genius over the course of the film, but both men are so riddled with foibles, ranging from self-aggrandizement to an overactive need for vengeance, so as to be flawed beyond recognition as heroes. The person I wanted to come out on top suffers ultimate defeat, but who cares? There’s nothing virtuous about either magician and in the end, it doesn’t really matter who you pull for, they’re both egomaniacs who stop a nothing to produce better illusions than their opponent and, therefore, are utterly despicable. Did screenwriters Jonathan and Christopher Nolan fail to realize that the audience would naturally want to choose sides and that every story must include at least one hero that everyone can cheer for?

I so badly wanted this film to succeed, but alas, the movie falls for its own sleight of hand. If, like me,
The Prestige left you wanting more, check out the other recent magician movie, The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton. Unlike The Prestige, The Illusionist doesn’t waste its or your time on competitive shenanigans or scientifically impossible illusions…there’s nothing hidden up its sleeve.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Illusionist (PG-13)

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Directed by: Neil Burger
Starring: Edward Norton
September 2006

“Like Lucky Charms, It’s Magically Delicious”


As I started jotting down notes at a screening of The Illusionist, my pen abruptly died. After exhausting every conceivable strategy of coaxing ink out of the depleted stylus, I settled on an alternate note-taking strategy. I wrote my observations with a firm hand and later retrieved them by rubbing pencil lead over the page, which revealed the text in reverse. When I started writing this review, it suddenly occurred to me that such basic science might be commonplace to you and me, but to a five-year old child it might appear as…magic!

The magic performed by Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton), however, is a tad more sophisticated than my pencil-rubbing trick. It is said that, as a boy, Eisenheim was inspired by a traveling magician who showed the lad a few illusions before disappearing into thin air. Magic consumed the Eisenheim during his formative years, but his focus expanded the day he encountered the beautiful duchess, Sophie. Despite their disparity in social standing, Eisenheim and Sophie were inseparable growing up; “One day we’ll run away together,” she promised.

As an adult, Eisenheim plies his trade as an illusionist in small, but packed theaters in Vienna, garnering the esteem of many prominent patrons, including the inquisitive Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). During that fateful performance, the magician asks for a volunteer, and, much to his surprise, Eisenheim is reunited with his childhood sweetheart when she glides onto the stage. After the show, Eisenheim learns that Sophie (Jessica Biel) will soon be engaged to Leopold (Rufus Sewell), the crown prince. Sensing the potential threat posed by Eisenheim, Leopold orders Uhl to “shut him down” (surely a common phrase during that period). With Uhl watching his every move and Leopold seeking his life, Eisenheim creates a new show that must confound the audience, foil Leopold’s plans and win back Sophie’s heart before it’s too late.

As the movie’s slogan suggests, “Nothing is what it seems.” This is certainly true as the movie never reveals its hand until the very last scene. Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser entitled “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” writer/director Neil Burger does an excellent job of managing this gothic tale, which certainly would have floundered in the hands of someone less visionary. The costuming, makeup and historic props and sets all exude authenticity and Burger’s use of a sepia-hued palette, aged film stock effects and old-fashioned circle wipes is extremely effective. Also, the revelation scene—where Uhl mentally deconstructs Eisenheim’s ultimate illusion in a montage of shots—is a brilliant way to illustrate the Chief Inspector’s flow of deductive reasoning.

Norton (
The Italian Job) is a bit subdued here, but plays the part of Eisenheim with deftness equal to the skilled magician. Impressively, Norton did most of his own tricks in the movie (with the assistance of magician David Blaine), and what’s more, very few of the movie’s illusions received a CG touch-up.

Biel and Sewell (
A Knight’s Tale) work fine as an improbable couple and their performances, as secondary characters, properly garnish the juicy ménage trios subplot—Biel soars here, leaving behind her 7th Heaven chrysalis. Though all of the actors shine, Giamatti’s performance stands out like a lighthouse beacon on a stormy night. Giamatti’s range is awe-inspiring; I’m thoroughly convinced that if someone put a white, fluffy wig on the actor’s head and said, “Be a Q-Tip,” he would not only pull it off but add unexpected nuance to the part. For The Illusionist, Giamatti adopts a European accent and a resonant baritone; he speaks softly, but with authority. Sporting a full beard and slicked back hair, viewers may fail to recognize Giamatti at first glance. Whereas Norton is the film’s heart and soul, Giamatti is its conscience and backbone…the versatile character actor has turned in yet another memorable performance.

Due to the constraining nature of a period piece featuring a magician, the movie, though entertaining and thought-provoking, is far from Best Picture caliber. However, the movie does boast one of the most satisfying twist endings to come along in quite some time. Anchored by a superior cast,
The Illusionist juggles character development with breathtaking cinematography and an intricate plot that contains just the right amount of romance, political intrigue and brow-furrowing mystery. Now that’s a trick!

Rating: 3

Lady in the Water (PG-13)

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Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Paul Giamatti
July 2006

“Shyamalan’s Scary Tale Succeeds by Taking Risks”


The word “narf” effortlessly plopped out of director M. Night Shyamalan’s mouth one evening as he was telling his children a bedtime story. That homespun fairytale soon became the creative fodder for Shyamalan’s latest thrill-fest, Lady in the Water. From the start, Shyamalan made it clear that the movie—an unconventional love story filled with mythological creatures—would be a radical departure from his other films.

The opening narration, conveyed in a series of petroglyphs, provides the particulars of the movie’s myth: Once every eon, an ancient race of humans send an envoy from their water world to meet with their surface-dwelling brethren in an attempt to ignite a great awakening among humans. A water nymph (narf) must find the “vessel”—a person of unique vision—that will usher in the era of peace. Despite repeated attempts throughout history, every narf ambassador has failed in her peace-fostering mission because “man doesn’t listen very well.”

As the story opens, we’re introduced to Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), a tortured soul who manages an apartment complex in Philly. Cleveland’s mundane existence as handyman, exterminator and peacekeeper brings him into contact with many of the building’s colorful tenants, including the Hispanic couple and their five daughters, the Asian college student and her controlling mother, the Indian writer (Shyamalan) and his nagging sister, the eccentric jock who only exercises the right side of his body, the African American father who excels at crossword puzzles and his insightful son, the quartet of freethinking beer buddies and the newest tenant, a haughty movie critic.

It takes a while for Shyamalan to establish all of his characters and their relationships to each other, but when Story the narf (Bryce Dallas Howard) surfaces in Cleveland’s pool, the plot kicks into high gear and a first-rate mystery begins to unfold. Story quickly identifies the “vessel,” but determining the supporting players—the guild, the guardian and the symbolist—proves more problematic. Cleveland and his tenants, now bound by a common purpose, must protect Story from an aggressive, wolf-like creature called a skrunt until the giant eagle swoops down and carries her to freedom.

It all sounds a bit hokey on paper, but Shyamalan does a masterful job of balancing character and plot with the fantastical. In an effort to mitigate the moments of stark terror (which are far fewer and less severe here than in his other movies), Shyamalan has employed more humor this time, which is just a natural byproduct of the multi-layered and multi-cultural characters that populate his story. One of the ongoing sources of amusement is the Asian mother’s reticence to share the narf’s origin tale with Cleveland. At one point, Cleveland must act like a child and have milk and cookies on the woman’s couch in order to receive a short lesson in narf mythology. The arrogant critic also provides unexpected comic relief; his jaded commentary on romance movies and his miscalculation of the danger he’s in at the movie’s climax is highly entertaining.

There’s no doubt that Shyamalan can select stars (like Willis and Gibson) for his projects, but here he’s handpicked an amazing cast, each of whom shines in his or her own way and serves a different function in the director’s visionary yarn. Howard’s fair complexion and ethereal visage lends itself perfectly to the otherworldly Story. The fact that Story doesn’t know a lot about what’s going on makes the movie that much more riveting and satisfying. Giamatti works magic in the title role; his stuttering everyman is extremely likable and accessible—there’s something in his timbre and delivery that reminds me of a younger Richard Dreyfuss. As a reluctant leader, carrying around a Santa-sized sack of guilt from his wife’s death, Cleveland finds a measure of heroism within himself when his paternal instinct kicks in and drives him to protect Story at all costs. Cleveland is captivating throughout and is an excellent character study.

Some, undoubtedly, will find Shyamalan’s avant-garde resolution unpalatable; but you can hardly fault him for breaking with the “big twist ending” motif that’s marked all of his other films. Here, he tries something different, and, for better or worse, I applaud his efforts. Though
Lady in the Water is far inferior to The Sixth Sense, it’s the most human Shyamalan tale to date—by assembling an excellent ensemble of intriguing characters, the auteur has delivered one of the most unique and refreshing movies to come along in quite some time. So, whether or not you buy into narfs and skrunts, know that Lady in the Water has inaugurated a new film genre…high-art fairytale.

Rating: 3

Poseidon (PG-13)

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Directed by: Wolfgang Petersen
Starring: Josh Lucas
May 2006

“Mayday…Our Screenplay Has Capsized!”


With some movies, you can just tell going in that it’s destined to be a disaster. When you have that premonition during an actual disaster movie, it’s like adding salt (water) to an open wound. And, when that floundering disaster movie is a remake of a mediocre original, you know it’s time to refill your popcorn, because it’s going to be a long two hours.

Poseidon, the follow-up to Irwin Allen’s 1972 thriller dubbed The Poseidon Adventure, is such a movie. The original starred Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowall and Shelley Winters. The update stars Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Jacinda Barrett and Richard Dreyfuss. Clearly the original cast edges out the new crew, but special effects honors go to the new movie. And if eye-popping FX were the only criterion on which a movie is judged, Poseidon would be up for a Best Picture Oscar this year. Fortunately, spectators are also looking for something called plot, a structure quickly jettisoned with the flotsam after the cruise ship is capsized by a rogue wave (okay!) and a handful of brave passengers embark on a dangerous journey through flooded decks and ventilation shafts (one of the only genuinely terrifying moments in the movie) to reach the top of the ship, which is now the bottom.

The exterior and interior design of the Poseidon cruise ship is radiant and elegant…it’s too bad we never have a chance to stretch our legs a little (as was masterfully accomplished in
Titanic), before the disaster occurs. The movie wastes no time on character development…the ship is upturned near the twenty minute mark, long before we learn that Robert Ramsey (Russell) was a firefighter (Backdraft flashback) and, more importantly, former mayor of NYC. Robert is overprotective of his daughter, Jen (Emmy Rossum); she and her beau are joined at the hip on the ship, but they never find the right time to inform dad that they’re engaged before their lives are turned upside down, literally. There’s a potty-mouthed poker player named Lucky Larry (Kevin Dillon), who could have been a decent antagonist. Unfortunately, he’s killed off before we really even have a chance to start loathing him…another snafu with the script’s cursory attention to character and detail.

Dreyfuss, fittingly, plays Richard, an architect who serves as set-dressing and the movie’s token gay person. Lucas’ character is a card hustler named Dylan. Dylan seems to know everything about the ship—he guides the group each step of the way and seems to have the answer for every challenge (he’s even a step ahead of Robert in detecting the effects of a flash fire). Dylan takes a leadership role even though he claims to be a lone wolf…by the end of the movie he learns some teamwork skills, but does anyone care? As the picture’s supposed hero, Dylan fails miserably—the character isn’t noteworthy in any respect and his supreme confidence is off-putting (this is just another in a long string of uninspired performances turned in by Lucas…he’s no leading man).

However, in all fairness to Lucas, his performance isn’t what ails the movie the most; after all, the story is nothing more than one imperilment after the next and the dialogue is as leaden as the ship’s hull. Case in point: Dylan has a Eureka moment and proposes that the survivors exit the ship via the propeller shaft, stating, “The only thing between us and the outside is nothing!” (Did Yoda write the screenplay?)

Spoiler Alert: What’s supposed to pass as a major twist near the movie’s end is merely a rehash of Bruce Willis’ heroic demise in
Armageddon…Robert sacrifices himself so that Jen and her new fiancé can have a chance to live. It’s ironic, but Robert’s struggle to find the emergency shutoff button, while his body spasms from the lack of oxygen, is the highlight of the movie—Russell delivers the finest underwater death scene I’ve ever witnessed in a film.

The movie’s paint-by-numbers conclusion is predictable and unsatisfactory in every way (i.e. there’s a handy raft nearby and the rescue helicopters arrive within minutes). A more interesting climax would have shown the survivors being eaten by some famished sharks…at least that would’ve provided us with some drama.
Poseidon is a listing, floundering affair that comes complete with deep water and shallow characters. It works as mindless entertainment, but fails to live up to the original and doesn’t even belong in the same category as director Wolfgang Petersen’s previous sea-faring films: Das Boot and The Perfect Storm. There’s little adventure in this Poseidon!

Rating: 2

Mission Impossible III (PG-13)

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Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Tom Cruise
May 2006

“Abrams Sets His Cruise Control on Full Throttle”


Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to determine if number three measures up to the first two Mission Impossible movies. After a six year sabbatical, Tom Cruise has finally reprised his role as uber-spy, Ethan Hunt, leaving behind him Woo’s woes and finding new direction from small-screen alchemist, J.J. Abrams.

With most movies, it’s expeditious to pick one or two key scenes and build a review around them. That practice is made virtually impossible by
M:i:III, which contains so many high-impact action sequences and jaw-dropping twists, a detailed review could easily take up ten pages. Truth is, most movies claiming to be packed with nonstop action scenes couldn’t hope to keep up with M:i:III—it’s that fast-paced.

I could go into detail about the opening rescue attempt involving a frenetic shoot-out and a thrilling helicopter pursuit through a field of hydraulic windmills, or the well-executed, Bond-like break-in of the Vatican, or Cruise’s riff on Jack Bauer when he threatens to jettison antagonist Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) from a cruising plane, or the taut action sequence on the bridge when Ethan and Co. are pinned down by rocket-launching jets or any of a half dozen other great action scenes, but I won’t. The one scene worth focusing on is the teaser, which becomes a wraparound near the movie’s climax. The face-off between Hunt and Davian succeeds on a variety of levels: 1.) it sets the tone for the rest of the movie, 2.) it introduces nefarious Davian and the serious threat he poses, and most importantly, 3.) it hooks the female audience by placing Ethan’s fiancé, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), in harm’s way—Davian threatens to kill her unless Ethan provides him with the location of the Rabbit’s Foot, the movie’s MacGuffin.

My wife isn’t a fan of action movies, by any stretch, but she was engaged the entire movie because she had to find out what happens to Julie. Let’s face it, this kind of movie is squarely aimed at the masculine set, but it was an unqualified masterstroke by writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Abrams to involve the female spectators in such a tangible and personal way…this is an action film that
even women will enjoy. Of course, many female viewers would visit the multiplex just to see Cruise in a tight, sweat-drenched T-shirt and running for his life—as he does in 90% of his roles.

Despite sofa-jumping shenanigans, Cruise’s acting has steadily improved over the years; his performance here is multi-layered, emotional and believable, thanks in large part to Hoffman, who, by his very presence, forces Cruise to bring his A game. Cruise flexes his acting muscles and musters just enough star power to pull off the part. The sheer physicality of the role glosses over any acting deficiencies, and as such, Ethan Hunt is the perfect role for Cruise…it’s demanding physically, but isn’t overly demanding dramatically.

Hoffman’s Davian is one of the finest, cold-blooded villains to grace an action movie in recent years. Unscrupulous and devoid of compunction, Davian is a driven man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants; he doesn’t even flinch when Ethan threatens to cut the solitary cord that anchors his seat to the plane. Thanks to Hoffman’s unforgettable performance, file Davian under “Delectable Villain.”

Besides the main action, the intrigue at the IMF between Hunt, Musgrave (Billy Crudup) and Brassel (Laurence Fishburne) also sustains interest throughout the movie. The writers do an excellent job of dealing out reverses until they finally reveal the mole during the movie’s harrowing climax.

M:i:III is an exhilarating, pulse-pounding thrill-ride that starts out in high-gear and refuses to slow down for stragglers. The only disappointment I have with the movie is that Cruise’s price tag—an unprecedented 200 million—will undoubtedly sink the project and cast a pall of uncertainty over future MI missions. Speculations aside, M:i:III fulfills its mission with vigor and panache, and as such, this review will self-destruct in five, four, three…

Rating: 3

The Sentinel (PG-13)

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Directed by: Clark Johnson
Starring: Michael Douglas
April 2006

“Paranoid Thriller Hits the Mark with Star Power and a Taut Plot”


The Secret Service: one of the most well-trained, well-equipped and well-informed agencies on the planet. Fiercely loyal to America and the president, Secret Service officers represent the finest our country has to offer—unswerving patriots who would gladly die to protect national security. Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas) is such a man—he took a bullet for Reagan in 1981. In today’s terror-filled world replete with blurred lines and shifting loyalties, the haunting question has become: Could such a man be bought, and if so, at what price? Could there be spies in our country or traitors among our government’s elite force, the president’s last line of defense?

As the movie opens, new intelligence suggests that an attempt will be made on the president’s life (a daily occurrence in real life) and that there’s a mole inside the Secret Service. An agency-wide mandate requires all agents to subject themselves to a lie detector test. Pete fails the test, and when a fellow agent turns up dead, suspicions, naturally, are cast in Pete’s direction. Pete’s protégé, Dave Breckenridge (Kiefer Sutherland) and his newly assigned assistant, Jill Marin (
Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria) are given the task of locating Pete and bringing him in on the charge of treason—a task Dave eagerly accepts since Pete slept with his wife years earlier (ironically, Pete is currently having an affair with the 1st Lady, played by Kim Basinger).

What ensues is a chase somewhat reminiscent of Harrison Ford’s flight from the U.S. Marshals in
The Fugitive. The pursuit ends at a shipping yard where Pete makes a convincing argument for his innocence…Dave lets Pete escape. Later, Dave becomes more convinced of Pete’s veracity when he finds Pete running tests at Langley. Dave surmises, “A guilty person wouldn’t break into a crime lab to prove his innocence.”

One of the more pulse-pounding scenes in the movie is where an agent flips a coin and unwittingly determines the president’s fate: heads, the president goes in a motorcade, tails, he takes a helicopter. In a sequence seemingly spliced in from Sutherland’s
24, a rocket sails through the air, collides with the helicopter and transforms it into a plume of smoke, flame and debris. Fortunately, fate and the coin sent the president home in the motorcade instead of the helicopter.

The other standout scene, at least for testosterone-driven viewers (let’s face it, the movie’s target audience), is the final shootout at the political summit in Toronto. An assassin casually sits in a stairwell and picks off anyone who comes around the corner—hoping to score a hit on the president. Again, fortune smiles upon the pinned-down president when one of the mole’s accomplices has a change of heart and dies protecting the commander-in-chief. Pete and Dave arrive, not a moment too soon, and take out the assassin and his cronies. A tenuous friendship forms between ex-partners in the contrived dénouement; the movie’s feeble attempt at forcing a happy ending where one isn’t required.

The Sentinel has an identity crisis of sorts—the focus keeps bouncing back and forth between Pete and Dave like a tennis ball at Wimbledon. The movie isn’t a vehicle for either Douglas or Sutherland, but is, ironically, better off for just that reason…a film spotlighting either character, exclusively, would have flopped. As it is, The Sentinel has just the right mix of action, suspense, romance, political intrigue and character dynamics to please a wide range of potential spectators. It’s a B movie that aspires to be an A tier film, and somehow manages to pull off that feat with A-list performances, deft direction by Clark Johnson and a taut screenplay written by George Nolfi, based on the novel by Gerald Petievich. The Sentinel is a good popcorn flick, no doubt, but it’s also a sober reminder of the changing face of terror.

Rating: 2 1/2

16 Blocks (PG-13)

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Directed by: Richard Donner
Starring: Bruce Willis
March 2006

“Dark and Gritty, But Not Sin City


In Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks, Bruce Willis plays Jack Mosley, a haggard, beleaguered NYPD detective who drinks on the job and hobbles around on a bum leg—in other words, the very antithesis of John McClane from Willis’ Die Hard movies. And yet, this is one of Willis’ most refreshing roles in ages; by playing against type, he may have just rejuvenated his career…at least until the release of Die Hard 4.

The movie’s premise is basic enough—Jack must transport a witness, Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), sixteen blocks to the courthouse so that Eddie can testify and bring down six bad cops—but hit men and Jack’s crooked ex-partner, Frank Nugent (David Morse), make the sixteen blocks a serpentine maze of high stakes and narrow escapes. The time constraint (Jack must get Eddie to the courthouse in less than two hours) amps up the drama and a nicely executed twist near the movie’s climax hoists the movie to a level just above the standard action/thriller.

Though the bus sequence reminded me too much of
Speed, some of the other action scenes were exceptionally well-crafted; like the hit on Jack’s car while he’s in the liquor store, or the stand-off in the bar or the shoot-out behind the restaurant, which is preceded by an intense verbal sparring match between ex-partners (Frank implores Jack to look the other way and hand over the kid).

Bullets are cheap in the movie, but between pulse-pounding action sequences a fair amount of attention is given to character analysis; such as Eddie’s perpetual death grip on his notebook. We eventually learn that the book is full of recipes—Eddie’s dream is to open a bakery where “every day is a birthday.” Eddie’s nasal delivery gets old after five minutes and his obnoxious blustering gets old even quicker; there’s only one instance in the movie where his effusive small-talk comes in handy…the rest of the time it nearly gets him and Jack killed. At times, you have to resist the urge to yell, “Shut up, already!” at the screen (a fellow spectator remarked, “The trick is to keep him from being killed without killing him.”). Perhaps Jack said it best, “Life’s too long and it’s people like you that make it longer.”

Jack is a fascinating, multi-layered protagonist: he tells Eddie, “I’m not a good guy,” yet when he tape records his last will and testament Jack claims that he’s “trying to do a good thing,” and certainly follows through with that intention at the movie’s climax. One thing I don’t like about the movie (other than Eddie’s excessive chin-wagging) is Jack’s change of heart—it’s a good twist and makes for a pseudo-happy ending, but it lifts the lid on the pressure cooker, effectively letting out any steam the movie had been building. If Jack had come to his senses and decided to change his ways earlier, Eddie would have been imperiled far less and fewer casualties would have been suffered along the way…in essence, Jack’s reformation makes all of the bullet showers and, in fact, Eddie’s very presence in the movie, utterly unnecessary.

Eddie’s parting encouragement to Jack, “People can change,” is a bit maudlin, but the point is well-taken; especially for typecast action stars desperately in search of a hit.
16 Blocks is a gritty urban drama that will satisfy hard-core action fans but will probably loose the rest of its audience somewhere between the precinct and the courthouse.

Rating: 2 1/2

Firewall (PG-13)

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Directed by: Richard Loncraine
Starring: Harrison Ford
February 2006

“High-Tech Thrill Ride with an Old Ford”


Last seen in Hollywood Homicide (or rescuing disoriented hikers with his helicopter); Harrison Ford has staged a significant comeback with Firewall, a taut cyber-thriller from writer Joe Forte and director Richard Loncraine. In my review for Hollywood Homicide, I wrote, “Unlike some naysayers, I believe there’s still gas in the old Ford, but he needs to choose better films to act in…” Firewall is definitely “better” than his last outing, and though it fails to reach the level of intensity found in Air Force One, the movie is familiar territory for Ford and is, therefore, an ideal way for him to ease back into the routines and rigors of the biz.

Jack Stanfield (Ford) is a bright, hard-working bank security system designer who also manages to find time to be a family man. Jack’s wife, Beth (Virginia Madsen), is an architect and stay-at-home mom who keeps a watchful eye on their two quarreling kids, Sarah (Carly Schroeder) and Andy (Jimmy Bennett), and loyal pooch, Rusty.

On a rainy night in Seattle (which one isn’t?), a man jumps in the back seat of Jack’s car (nitpick: most people entering a car by themselves only open their door), points a gun at Jack’s head and tells him to drive home. Meanwhile, Beth answers the door for the pizza man and is accosted by several men toting guns and high-tech equipment. When Jack arrives at his home, he finds his family tied and gagged in the kitchen and a center of operations with fully-functioning computers and monitors set up in his living room. The leader of the outfit is a man named Cox (Paul Bettany in a typecast shattering role); he and his minions have been spying on Jack and his family for months in preparation for this heist. The plan is simple; while Cox and crew make themselves at home in Jack’s sprawling, beachfront mansion, Jack will go to work like normal and devise a way to hack into the system he designed. Jack must steal a hundred million dollars (virtual money) from the bank’s wealthiest investors, or his wife and children will be killed. The balance of the movie sees Jack scrambling to keep his family safe, while devising a way to prevent cold-blooded Cox (he kills his own men when they fail him,
a la Vader) from getting even a dime.

The movie may be a tad slow out of the blocks, but once Cox initiates his plan, the movie transforms into a first-rate thriller where the hero has to stay one step ahead of the bad guys…or else. Ford enjoys solid support from Bettany and Madsen (Alan Arkin and Robert Patrick are throw-away characters, unfortunately, but
24’s Mary Lynn Rajskub plays a significant part as Jack’s secretary), but it’s his performance that really carries the movie. The character of Jack Stanfield isn’t as self-confident as Jack Ryan, nor is he as resourceful as Indy or as plucky as Han, but he’s really more interesting because he’s an “Average Joe.” The strength of this Jack is his “every day guy” appeal, which services this storyline far better than if he was one of those other guys—cut from hero’s cloth.

If the movie has a message, it’s that elaborate schemes can be quickly undone by everyday or unsuspected pieces of technology. Here are some examples: Cox puts a pen with a spy camera in Jack’s breast pocket to keep tabs on him, but Jack quickly figures out how to dump it off to a co-worker. Jack stages an escape in his house by using Andy’s remote controlled car to create static on the Cox’s security monitors. Jack uses Sarah’s iPod to download the account numbers of prominent bank lenders (to the machine, they’re just files), but Jack, wisely, takes a picture of the monitor screen with a cell phone and later returns all of the stolen money to the proper accounts from an airport bank. Jack ultimately finds Cox and his kidnapped family in an abandoned country house thanks to Rusty’s dog collar, which contains a G.P.S. sensor that can be tracked from the internet.

Despite gaping plot holes (i.e. Cox’s entire, ill-advised plan, which is made laughable when one considers the abundance of advance intel he had at his disposal),
Firewall is an edge-of-your-seat thriller that climaxes with an old-fashioned fist fight and a heart-warming family reunion. Ford’s movements may be a little stiff, especially during action sequences, but he’s still the man. Welcome back, Harrison; don’t be a stranger!

Rating: 3

Flightplan (PG-13)

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Directed by: Robert Schwentke
Starring: Jodie Foster
September 2005

“High-Flying Thriller Fulfills All of Its Plans”


Ever noticed how movies on a similar theme always end up being released in pairs? Hollywood catches wind of a hot-button topic or finds a bandwagon to jump on and at least two studios go head-to-head to be the first to capitalize on the subject. Invariably, one will gain supremacy (whether in quality, critical recognition or box-office success) over the other.

Clint Eastwood’s award-winning, paradigm-shifting western,
Unforgiven (1992), prompted Buena Vista’s Tombstone (1993) and Warner Bros.’ Wyatt Earp (1994). Scientists predicting a catastrophic event from an asteroid collision informed Paramount’s Deep Impact (1998) and Buena Vista’s Armageddon (1998), while predictions of a manned-mission to Mars within the next thirty years gave us Buena Vista’s Mission to Mars (2000) and Warner Bros.’ Red Planet (2000).

So now Hollywood’s on an aviation kick, perhaps spurred on by last years’
The Aviator, with Dreamworks’ Red Eye and Touchstone’s Flightplan, two high altitude thrillers released a month apart. With Jodie Foster onboard, an airtight script by Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray in the cargo hold and taut visioneering by director, Robert Schwentke, in the cockpit, this jumbo-jet really soars and is certainly the better of the two recent plane thrillers.

The movie opens with jet designer, Kyle Pratt (Foster), coaxing her six-year old daughter into boarding a new 474 double-decker jet headed from Berlin to N.Y.C. Also onboard, stored in the lower cargo section of the craft, is a casket containing Kyle’s recently-departed husband—he fell out of a window (uh, huh!).

Exhausted from recent events, Kyle dozes off… Three hours later, turbulence jolts Kyle from her respite and she discovers Julia is missing. At first, Kyle is merely worried when no one in her section remembers Julia boarding the plane—even the obnoxious kids sitting directly in front of them. After searching the entire plane, Kyle goes into panic mode and asks to see the captain. Captain Rich (Sean Bean) is at first sympathetic, ordering a full search of the plane, but when the stewardesses fail to turn up anything, the captain becomes cynical, even adversarial. Matters go from bad to worse when he learns that, according to the passenger manifest, there never was a Julia Pratt aboard. While the crew believes she’s hallucinating or suffering a mental breakdown from the loss of her husband, Kyle starts to wonder if she’s loosing her mind until she finds a piece of undeniable evidence that proves Julia is on the flight.

What begins as a run-of-the-mill “missing person” tale upgrades to a first-rate, edge-of-your-seat thriller, complete with terrorist activity, racial commentary and feral maternity. Foster is magnificent in her portrayal of a mother pushed to the edge—this is a brilliant, multi-layered character study, flawlessly conveyed and wholly believable. Like the gradual intensity of a sunrise or the steady temperature increase of a pot of water set to boil, Foster seamlessly morphs from concerned to alarmed, to panicked, to frenzied, to hysterical. These emotional gradients are masterfully executed by this veteran A-list actress, who is undoubtedly in her power-house prime.

The only noteworthy supporting players are Bean and Peter Sarsgaard, both of whom, ironically, have a fear of flying in real life. Bean’s Captain Rich stays just on the fringes of becoming a central character—his part is serviceable but certainly not noteworthy. Sarsgaard’s duplicitous air marshal is a more fleshed-out auxiliary player, but he falls just shy of being a memorable villain—Cillian Murphy’s antagonist in
Red Eye was much more effective.

Besides some minor plot holes (i.e., why would hijackers kidnap the daughter of a woman who designed the plane?),
Flightplan is a riveting thriller, made memorable by a solid script and Foster’s mesmerizing performance. Now, when can we book a flight on that new jet?

Rating: 3

The Brothers Grimm (PG-13)

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Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Matt Damon
August 2005

“Aptly Named Creature Feature Tells Grim Tale”


In a world where a great movie is solely determined by great special effects, The Brothers Grimm would be considered one of the finest films of the year. Unfortunately for director Terry Gilliam and scribe Ehren Kruger, we don’t live in such a world.

The Brothers Grimm is a strange conglomeration of classic fairy tales, and while this arrangement worked like a charm for Shrek, it’s a confusing and contrived wreck here—the movie isn’t entertaining nor is it funny despite it’s valiant attempts. In many ways, The Brothers Grimm is this year’s Van Helsing (as if we really needed another one of those) and comes complete with macabre trappings and the requisite werewolf.

Set in Germany against the backdrop of the French occupation of 1796, Jake (Heath Ledger) and Will (Matt Damon) Grimm are renowned witch hunters and demon slayers who are coerced—by their French captors—into entering a haunted forest and tracking down the person or creature who has kidnapped a number young girls (Gretel and Red Riding Hood among them). Their quest leads them to a gigantic tree located in the heart of the forest, which houses a glass fortress at the top. A cursed man who can transform into a werewolf has placed the kidnapped girls inside caskets encircling the base of the tree. The skeletal remains of Queen Mirror (Monica Bellucci) will be reanimated and the wolf-man’s curse will be broken if he can find one final girl. The Grimm brothers thwart the queen’s plans, of course, but not before a rousing and frenetic climax.

I have to admit that
The Brothers Grimm didn’t hold my interest much past the opening credits. The plot is frequently aimless and ultimately pointless, the dialogue is as stale as one of Gretle’s breadcrumbs and I didn’t give a flip about any of the characters. Ledger and Damon have turned in mediocre performances that perfectly match the uninspired production.

There’s been a recent regression in motion picture special effects—not in quality but in believability—and the movie’s werewolf is a perfect example: there’s no arguing that the wolf is flawless in its CG rendering, but the problem is…it’s too perfect. The fur is perfectly placed, the eyes are too clear, without the slightest degree of glazing or reddening, and the creature’s movements are too fast and jerky so as to mask the its artifice. The one effect that does work well is when Queen Mirror—as an ambulatory, two-dimensional, fractured mirror—attacks the Grimm brothers…her death scene, where the shard of her talking mouth is crushed, is absolutely brilliant.

The Brothers Grimm has an abundance of on-screen magic, but has little movie magic; it’s a visual smorgasbord of empty calories that leaves you craving a meatier plot.

Rating: 2

Red Eye (PG-13)

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Directed by: Wes Craven
Starring: Rachel McAdams
August 2005

“Craven Puts the Fright in Flight”


The crown prince of horror, Wes Craven, brings us a claustrophobic airplane thriller dubbed Red Eye, a movie that cruises at high altitude and velocity when the jet is in the air, but gets bogged down with contrivances and conventional thriller shtick when it’s grounded. As would be expected, there are several terrifying moments (the head-butt scene on the plane is quite a jolt), but the performances are executed on auto-pilot and Craven’s stiff and straight-forward direction leaves little room for artistic interpretation.

Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams), people-pleasing manager of a ritzy hotel, is returning home to Miami from a business trip on a red eye flight. While the flight is delayed, Lisa meets a nice, young man named Jackson (Cillian Murphy from
Batman Begins), who buys her a drink and engages her in small talk. As fate, and Craven, would have it, Lisa and Jackson end up seated next to each other and everything is pleasant until the plane reaches cruising altitude. Jackson reveals himself as a contract killer and Lisa is the lynchpin to his plan—all she has to do is call her hotel and arrange for a visiting politician and his family to be switched to a different room, where a rocket (launched from a nearby fishing boat) will take them out. Jackson’s leverage is a hit-man stationed outside Lisa’s father’s (Brian Cox) house. Lisa is forced to make the call, despite several failed attempts at evasion and deception, and she spends the rest of the movie running away from Jackson, while trying to save the politician, his family and her father.

Red Eye maintains its intensity throughout (except for the sluggish first act when passengers wait to board the delayed plane), but some colossal plot holes mar what otherwise could have been a first-rate, Hitchcockian thriller. For starters, why is it so important for Lisa to make the call herself…can’t they find someone who can mimic her voice or use a device that can fashion her previously-recorded words into intelligible sentences? Why is a hotel manager so crucial to terrorist plans? Further, why must they move the politician to a different room? Can’t a rocket be fired just as easily and accurately from a parked car as from an anchored boat? But here’s the kicker; wouldn’t it have been a lot easier for Jackson just to abduct Lisa on the ground and force her to call from her cell phone than to go through the expense, trouble and considerable risk of accosting her on a plane? And what about the corny, generic airline name…Fresh Air? It’s bad enough to see it emblazoned on the tail of the plane, but when the captain comes over the intercom and announces, “Thank you for flying with Fresh Air,” any intensity that had been building up to that point just evaporates in the sweltering Miami heat.

The climactic pursuit at movie’s end has been done so many times before in motion picture history, and a lot more skillfully in most cases, that the last half hour is a chore to sit through. The only unique element to the cookie-cutter, “man stalking woman” ending was when Lisa plowed the hit-man through the front door of her father’s house with a stolen S.U.V. Lisa’s father is dead weight (literally) in the climactic sequence, and, of course, the cops don’t show up until the bad guy is already dead.

Red Eye squanders Murphy’s excellent performance by defaulting to standard thriller fare that’s a lot less graphic than Craven’s typical Rated-R gore—this is horror lite. Advice to Lisa: next time take Dramamine before you board…you can’t be forced to make a life-or-death phone call if you’re out cold!

Rating; 2 1/2

War of the Worlds (PG-13)

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Cruise
June 2005

“A Soulless Remake Filmed on Cruise Control”


Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning under the stellar direction of Steven Spielberg in a remake of H.G. Wells’ classic story, The War of the Worlds, is a sure-fire winner, right? As we’ve seen in Hollywood this year (at the time of this writing, the box office is in its twentieth week of a demoralizing slump), all bets are off, especially in a summer replete with remakes.

Remaining fairly faithful to the source material while giving it a modern face-lift, this version of the timeless alien invasion tale takes place in New Jersey and focuses on a divorced dockworker and his two children. The plot is basically the same as all previous renditions: aliens invade earth with terrible, laser-spewing machines that wreak havoc on our cities and citizens until our environment gets the best of them. What’s new here, besides updated special effects, is a shift in perspective: Byron Haskin’s 1953 opus featured a global struggle with leading scientists and top military officers as the main characters. In Spielberg’s take, it’s all about the Ferrier family…Cruise’s deadbeat dad, Ray, Justin Chatwin’s loner-rebel son, Robbie, and Fanning’s doe-eyed daughter, Rachel. The earth-shattering, world-ending events are seen through their eyes, exclusively, and what this approach gains in intimacy it looses in soul and scope.

Even with it’s antiquated special effects, the original movie was far more riveting and fear inducing because it dealt with widespread panic and large-scale destruction. When the atomic bomb fails to leave so much as a scratch on the alien vessels, the viewers are filled with a dreadful realization—our best weapons can’t stop the alien advance. This new
War of the Worlds never reaches that level of frantic intensity.

Cruise hits all of his marks but does little to advance the story in any practical or emotional sense, and Fanning has more screams than actual lines in the movie—it’s an oversight of mammoth proportions that a young actress of her caliber was relegated to looks of horror and squeals of terror. The only memorable performance in the movie is Tim Robbins’ Ogilvy, the frantic man who waves Ray and Rachel into an abandoned farmhouse—a frenzied throng is fleeing the onslaught of the tripods and only these three people think to seek refuge in the weather-worn house (more discrepancies to come). Ogilvy is one creepy cuz, but he stands out as the only three-dimensional character amid the coursing sea of cardboard humans in the picture.

As promised, here are just a few of the movie’s many inconsistencies, quandaries or just plain stupid ideas: The alien machines were underground for millions of years and only now decide to attack us? What were they waiting for? In the beginning of the movie, the machines shoot people and turn them into ashes; later on, the machines harvest people, using blood for fuel. Why the change in extermination tactics? The peanut butter sandwich scene is utterly doltish—there has to be an abundance of food in the well-appointed house. Why was so much screen time dedicated to the ferryboat panic when the tripod immediately capsized it? The alien evasion in the farmhouse is reminiscent of the kitchen scene in
Jurassic Park and the aliens themselves look like cousins of the invaders in Independence Day.

One of my favorite adapted screenplay writers, David Koepp (
Jurassic Park), turned in a soulless, witless script here with some genuine clunkers like the reunion scene where Robbie exclaims, “It’s me dad. It’s me dad.” It’s a shamelessly sappy moment in a supposed action blockbuster. Instead of tugging at the audience’s heartstrings, as was clearly intended, the line sends them reaching for their keys.

Maybe it’s just that the 50’s version was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid, but this new
War of the Worlds fails to satisfy in nearly ever way, save for the terror-instilling, blood-curdling tripods (the finest element in the movie). Retaining the opening, mood-setting narration was a nice touch, and tapping Morgan Freeman to perform the voice-over was a masterstroke. Also, John William’s Jaws-inspired soundtrack stands out as one of the movie’s only highlights.

War of the Worlds is as mechanized and methodical as its tripods. It attempts to generate sympathy by focusing on the Ferrier’s, but fails to make the desired connection due to underexposed characters. Suggestion: Save your money and rent the original movie. Or better yet, just read the novel.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Interpreter (PG-13)

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Directed by: Sydney Pollack
Starring: Nicole Kidman
April 2005

“A Highly Involved Thriller That’s Hard to Interpret”


The Interpreter should have been great. With two powerhouse actors in Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman, an A-list director in Sydney Pollack and a solid yarn spun from storywriters Martin Stellman and Brian Ward, and screenplay writers Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian, The Interpreter should have been the thriller of the year. Instead, it’s simply a good movie that features fine performances and a plot that is fairly relevant in our terror-wracked world.

Silvia Broome (Kidman), a skilled U.N. interpreter, returns to work late one night to retrieve a bag and overhears a whispered conversation detailing plans to assassinate a despised foreign leader, Zuwanie, in two days hence. Enter Tobin Keller (Penn), a member of the secret service, who is commissioned to investigate Silvia’s claim and verify her veracity or verisimilitude. At first, Silvia and Tobin’s conversations play out like a series of chess moves, but they gradually develop a tenuous friendship after opening up about their painful pasts. Some of the movie’s standout events are: a bus bombing, a man in a mask standing outside Silvia’s window on the fire-escape, and, of course, the climactic assassination attempt on the foreign terrorist’s life.

The Interpreter is engaging, if not a bit plodding at times, and spins elaborate webs of political intrigue, dark motives and sordid pasts. However, there’s so much going on in the movie, that the multitude of players and situations actually becomes a deterrent to the movie’s accessibility and enjoyment. What’s more, the end is patently predictable and there’s no real emotional payoff in the film.

Penn is solid, but he certainly isn’t stellar, and we’ve seen Kidman in meatier roles (
The Hours), as well. The scene where Tobin tells Silvia that his wife died only twenty-three days earlier is the emotional core of the movie, but the meaningful interplay, like a New York minute, is over far too quickly and we’re back to muddy narrative and impotent action sequences. It’s a shame these two award-winning actors weren’t given the kind of material that would properly showcase their exceptional talents.

One gratifying aspect of the movie, however, is the extensive filming inside the U.N. building—this is the first movie to be accorded such a privilege (Hitchcock’s 1959 opus,
North By Northwest, received no such dispensation, but the genius auteur grabbed a shot of Carey Grant climbing the steps of the U.N. building from across the street).

In the end,
The Interpreter translates into an underachieving thriller that will soon blend in with all the other mediocre suspense films at Blockbuster.

Rating: 2 1/2

Ocean’s Twelve (PG-13)

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Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: George Clooney
December 2004

“A Lot Less, Even with One More”


The long-awaited follow-up to 2001’s stylish smash-hit, Ocean’s Eleven, features the same cast as the earlier film, plus Catherine Zeta-Jones, and is helmed, again, by Steven Soderbergh. The question that always arises with a sequel is: “Is it as good as the first?” Answer: Ocean’s Twelve fails to equal, much less surpass, its modern predecessor. Here’s a rare exception in scriptwriting, where too much plot is actually an impediment to the movie’s entertainment value.

Soderbergh has toned down the flashy editing style displayed in
Ocean’s Eleven (which employed a variety of wipes, quick cuts and multiple/moving frame shots), but here, the disjointed storyline has nearly the same effect. How do you take an average script and make it seem more complex? Present it in a non-linear fashion! It worked for the first film, so why not try it again? This time around the narrative sleight of hand doesn’t work, because the audience is ready for it. Also, the movie is saturated with technical jargon from the thieving handbook, which comes off as gibberish to the average viewer not educated in criminology.

Ocean’s Twelve ambles along on cruise control for most of the movie and introduces very few new characters or situations. It’s almost as if the producers thought, “Shoot the picture in some amazing European locations, have the preponderance of A-list actors pull off another mind-blowing heist and audiences will love it.” Guess again! Character development is appallingly shallow in the film; the writers just expect us to know everything about these people from the first film and only make cursory attempts at reacquainting us with or expanding our knowledge of these characters in any meaningful way.

The movie makes some significant missteps near the climax: the Tess Ocean (Julia Roberts) playing Julia Roberts sequence is inane, as is Bruce Willis’ zany cameo (let’s add one more luminary to the film, because we’re not quite sure we have enough star-power). Saul (Carl Reiner), the potential wildcard, shows up to save the day, but is promptly thrown into jail with the rest of the incarcerated cast. Vincent Cassel’s villain, Night Fox, is a worthy, if under-developed adversary, but his dance through the lasers is simply a fast forward version of the one seen in
Entrapment. And finally, the reunion between Zeta-Jones’ character and her thieving father feels contrived and lacks emotional punch.

Ocean’s Twelve is devoid of the light-hearted synergy that Ocean’s Eleven had in spades. Where’s the fun? Where’s the humor? The bottom line: Ocean’s Twelve would have been twice as enjoyable if it had been half as confusing.

Rating: 2

National Treasure (PG)

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Directed by: Jon Turteltaub
Starring: Nicholas Cage
November 2004

“One Man’s Treasure is Another Man’s Junk”


After getting past the preposterous notion that is the storyline of National Treasure, and after suspending my disbelief of the movie’s unfounded historical assertions and unrelenting contrivances, I actually found this Jerry Bruckheimer produced film to be modestly entertaining—in a “pass me the popcorn” sense. National Treasure surpassed my expectations and that’s largely due to the fact that the movie didn’t take itself too seriously, but rather, elevated the flimsy premise with fine performances and well-paced directing by Jon Turteltaub.

The first clue is discovered on an ice-entombed sailing ship in the Antarctic named “The Charlotte.” The rest of the clues involve Benjamin Franklin’s supposed secret writings and inventions and the Declaration of Independence (an invisible map inhabits the backside of the sacred document). What ensues is a present day
Raiders of the Lost Ark romp, where the characters find and assemble clues in a multi-generational effort to discover a “spectacular” treasure that’s been collected and protected for centuries by the mysterious Freemasons—the earliest pieces span back to ancient Egypt.

Nicholas Cage (who plays lead character, Benjamin Franklin Gates) is a bit stiff at times, but his makeshift team, consisting of Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) and Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), compensates for the actor’s deficiencies in compassion and comic relief. Cage cuts a confident figure as the adventurous treasure-seeker, but despite his best efforts to pull off the part of an action star, he still doesn’t hold a torch to Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones (who could?).

Sean Bean, as Gates’ former partner turned chief adversary, Ian Howe, adequately portrays the “heavy,” but he was much better as the I.R.A. hit man in
Patriot Games (another Ford connection). Playing Gates’ jaded father, Patrick, is Jon Voit, whose glorified cameo serves as the only voice of reason to his screen son’s wild leaps of logic and knee-jerk decisions. Brief appearances by Christopher Plummer and Harvey Keitel also pepper the movie; the former plays Gates’ grandfather and the later is the federal agent bent on capturing Gates and reacquiring the stolen Declaration of Independence.

National Treasure is action/adventure light: its like James Bond without any vices—no sex, no swearing and very little violence. The movie will doubtlessly seem insipid to hard-core action fans, but what the movie looses in S.W.M. viewers, it will undoubtedly more than recoup with younger viewers and whole families. Verdict: the movie’s appeal is extremely subjective—the audience will either discover a treasure trove or an empty chest.

Rating: 2 1/2

Ladder 49 (PG-13)

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Directed by: Jay Russell
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix
October 2004

“Moving Tribute to Fallen Heroes”


We’ve had our share of movies like Backdraft and Frequency, but Ladder 49 is a different breed of firefighter film. Not to take anything away from the character development or emotional impact of those other films, but Ladder 49, to an even greater degree, reveals the often gritty and grim profession that firefighting can be, while also humanizing the characters…showing them at their best and worst.

Joaquin Phoenix is fast becoming one of Hollywood’s most promising up-and-coming stars. Fresh off his turn as a hapless victim in M. Night Shyamalan’s
The Village, Phoenix has taken on a different kind of role this time around—the everyday man.

As the movie unfolds, Phoenix’s character, Jack Morrison, has fallen down several stories inside a fire-enveloped building. As he’s lying in rubble and inhaling stifling smoke, Jack begins to ruminate on his life and the events that brought him to this place. What ensues is a series of flashbacks that flesh-out Jack’s back-story: his first day as a firefighter, the day he met his future wife, the day they married, the day he learned he was going to be a father, the day he lost a friend in a fire, etc. And that’s the gist of the plot…pretty straightforward.

Even though
Ladder 49 has some TV drama qualities, the ingredient that prevents the story from degenerating into a documentary on firefighting is the relationships between the firefighters and their unique way of dealing with work-related stress. The “initiation” scenes are some of the most memorable in the movie, as are the extreme pranks they pull on each other: the goose in the locker and the “baby shower” are two prime examples. Running jokes like Lenny Richter’s (Robert Patrick) admission that he’s getting too old for the job also lighten the mood in what ends up being a pretty somber tale.

John Travolta’s presence as fire chief Mike Kennedy isn’t felt very strongly in the film, but his character’s leadership and guidance is: besides his two-hanky speech at the end of the movie, his best monologue comes when his team nearly breaks down (and nearly breaks each other’s skulls) after the death of a fellow firefighter. With great conviction, and perhaps a few too many expletives, he gives his despondent and blame-seeking team a swift kick and tells them to get back on the horse…er, engine.

Newcomer, Jacinda Barrett, turns in a touching performance as Jack’s reserved wife: the expression on her face when she sees her greatest fear through the kitchen window stands out as one of the movie’s most unforgettable scenes.

Despite a fairly predictable plot,
Ladder 49 succeeds in paying tribute to the men and women who risk their lives every day to protect the citizens of this country from life-threatening infernos. The story portrays firefighters less as heroes and more like real people who care for the welfare of others, and in this age of average Joe’s and reality shows, this aspect of the movie should really resonate with the masses.

If
Ladder 49 does have a flaw, it’s that the firefighters respond to one too may fires (we get the idea already—this line of work is dangerous). But, ultimately, the movie is about people, not fires, and how we deal with life and death, triumph and tragedy. Ladder 49 is one of those rare movies that entertains, but also inspires: the sad, yet uplifting dénouement reveals a degree of panache sadly missing from most scripts these days.

Rating: 3

The Forgotten (PG-13)

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Directed by: Joseph Ruben
Starring: Julianne Moore
September 2004

“Solid Start, Forgettable Ending”


For three quarters of the movie, I was utterly gripped by the intriguing scenario and rampant paranoia that courses through this unconventional thriller. The film is made even more powerful by believable performances from Julianne Moore, Gary Sinise, Anthony Edwards and Alfre Woodard. Unfortunately, acting is the only element that is believable in the movie, as the story takes a significant left turn near the coda, destroying any momentum established in earlier acts.

Telly Paretta (Moore) lost her pre-teen son, Sam, in a plane crash and hasn’t been able to move past said traumatic event ever since that fateful day. Her memory of her son hasn’t faded one iota since his passing, but every item (picture, articles of clothing, etc.) of Sam’s has begun vanishing…one piece at a time. She accuses her husband (Edwards) and her shrink (Sinise) of conspiring to erase all traces of Sam’s former life. According to the two men, Telly never had a son, a revelation that becomes even more disturbing when she finds no records of the plane crash at her local library. Telly confronts her neighbor, a middle-aged drunk (Dominic West) and helps him remember his daughter that was also on the same plane. Together, Telly and her newfound friend seek to uncover this sinister plot that’s wiped away all physical evidence of their children’s existence. These events set up an interesting question in the viewer’s mind: is Telly crazy, or is some outside agency seeking to discredit and/or mentally destroy her?

Such an intriguing notion should have led to a riveting climax, but instead, the balloon deflates when an otherworldly twist is introduced into the plot. The children were abducted by aliens? This was all one big experiment to test the depths of the maternal instinct?? Even by its own rules, the “alien” subplot doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. How can aliens—with the ability to abduct a plane full of children, erase people’s memories, “beam” people up to the mother-ship and, indeed, even put events back to the way they were before the incident—be hampered by a time constraint on their test? If they can manipulate time, shouldn’t they be able to run the same test on the same person indefinitely? Time is relative, after all.

Therein lays the problem with
The Forgotten. Tough hackneyed, a government conspiracy or scientific cover-up would have been a much more satisfying conclusion to such a solid foundation. Even though the special effects are few, they’re groundbreaking and breathtaking. Those scenes, combined with fine performances are the only things that keep the movie from becoming utterly forgettable.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Village (PG-13)

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Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Sigourney Weaver
July 2004

“It Takes a Village…To Scare You Senseless”


M. Night Shyamalan’s fourth chill-fest is both better and worse than his previous cinematic offerings (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs). Shyamalan should be lauded for breaking with his usual formula and milieu, while maintaining strong character vignettes and intensely frightening situations. If possible, his directing here is even tighter than in the earlier trilogy and his clout has surrounded him with a stellar cast this time around—his first ensemble piece.

Joaquin Phoenix is back from Signs, and plays Lucius Hunt, a fearless and laconic young man who has a secret love affair with Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard, Ron’s daughter). Ivy is the blind daughter of village elder, Edward Walker (William Hurt), a reserved man who speaks in nineteenth century English with interminable pauses in each line. Rounding out the cast is Lucius’ mother, played by Sigourney Weaver and the slow-witted Noah Percy (Adrien Brody), who is also secretly in love with Ivy.

The movie sets up a bit slowly, but strikes a crescendo near the midpoint. It isn’t until about three fourths of the way through that tensions mount and events escalate, paving the way for a nail-biting climax and the patented Shyamalan surprise ending.

With
The Village, it’s clear that Shyamalan has moved into the upper echelon of Hollywood directors; his craft is well honed and he evoked excellent performances from his actors, especially Phoenix, Howard and Brody—the twisted ménage a trois. It’s a lot easier to create scary scenes at night, but the lion-share of the frightening scenes in The Village are filmed during the day—right out in the open. This is just another testament to Shyamalan’s directorial prowess (I’m gonna’ film it at day and I’m still gonna’ scare the @*!/ out of ya’).

But a nagging question hovers just this side of the dread-inducing forest, is
The Village as good as its predecessors? The answer is no, but it’s still a quality thrill-o-rama. Problem: Shyamalan has painted himself into a corner now that everyone is anticipating a trick ending each outing. His big screen sleight of hand will become exponentially harder to pull off now that the audience has become wise to his styles and tactics (I figured out the twist ending halfway through the movie).

James Newton Howard’s score adds another dimension of creepiness to the movie, as well as some early American-flavored cues. The costumes and sets are exceptionally well crafted and lend the movie another degree of authenticity. So, what have we learned from
The Village? Stay away from the bad color, avoid mentioning “those we don’t speak of” and hope for a better movie the next time Shyamalan directs.

Rating: 3

The Bourne Supremacy (PG-13)

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Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Matt Damon
July 2004

“Sequel is Supremely Disappointing”


Matt Damon is back as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Supremacy, the second film based on Robert Ludlum's popular spy novels.  On the face of it, The Bourne Supremacy has just as much drama, intrigue and action as the first, but upon further reflection, the sequel falls short on several counts.

First of all, we were introduced to Bourne in the original film, so we pretty much know who he is and what he's capable of—we also know a good amount of his back-story.  That's a down shot, because most of the fun in the first film was learning about Bourne as he learned about himself (amnesia).

Another aspect missing from the sequel is the romance factor.  Bourne's girlfriend, Marie (Franka Potente), is seen in the first ten minutes and then she's conveniently killed off.  I say convenient, because Marie's death does service the plot; Bourne comes out of hiding—with a vengeance—and starts tracking down the Russian assassin (Karl Urban) responsible for killing Marie and framing him.

The cast in this movie is almost identical to the previous one with a couple of notable exceptions.  Deceased Agent Conklin (Chris Cooper) shows up in one of Bourne's retrieved memories—his first assignment when he killed the Russian president.  Brian Cox (
X-Men 2) is back as Ward Abbott, the hard-nosed, no-nonsense agent who stops at nothing to cover up top secret project Treadstone, including murdering a fellow agent, and, ultimately, committing suicide.  Julia Stiles pops up again in the C.I.A. field ops and is reduced to set dressing once again, performing in a handful of scenes and delivering an equal number of lines.  Her character serves no purpose, whatsoever, and Stiles makes such a superfluous cameo, that I don't even remember her character's name.  The new face belongs to Joan Allen, who plays the tough, yet sympathetic Agent Pamela Lundy, the most fleshed-out character in the film other than Bourne.

There's a new director this time around, Paul Greengrass, and though his style lends itself to action pictures, his big car chase at the end of the movie was too long and frenetic—the scene plays like a six minute blur.  And why another car chase, I ask?  We already had our requisite pursuit last movie. Also, we’ve already seen a mano a mano slugfest between Bourne and some well-trained assailant the last time.  The subway sequence was original, but most of the action in
The Bourne Supremacy feels like stock footage from The Bourne Identity. The Bourne Supremacy is a slightly better than average action movie that doesn't measure up to the first and falls woefully short of my supreme expectations.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Whole Ten Yards (PG-13)

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Directed by: Howard Deutch
Starring: Bruce Willis
April 2004

“A Dud by Any Measurement”


I have two confessions to make regarding The Whole Ten Yards. I never saw the original The Whole Nine Yards, although I got the gist of the plot from the trailer. Secondly, I was bored with the movie even while the opening credits were still rolling. The movie failed to engage me on any level, and to call it entertainment would be a gross overstatement.

Part of the movie’s problem is its identity crisis—is it a comedy (it’s not all that funny), is it an action flick (there are only a few, short action sequences), or is it a family film (certainly not—discussions of shooting someone in the head or killing bums for sport are all too common). Since
The Whole Ten Yards can’t be categorized by genre, it comes off as a particularly strange slice of Americana, complete with a highly-paranoid, tightly-wound dentist (Matthew Perry), a reformed hit man, Jimmy the Tulip (Bruce Willis), who now spends his time refining his culinary skills and tending to chickens, and his girlfriend (Amanda Peet), who desperately seeks to become the caliber of assassin Jimmy was in the past.

Add to that eccentric line-up Jimmy’s conniving ex-wife (Natasha Henstridge) and a larger-than-life mob boss (Kevin Pollack) who is revealed as Jimmy’s father in the movie’s climax (as if anyone didn’t see that coming), and you have a pretty bizarre cast of characters. The vast majority of acting in the movie is over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek and zany for the sake of being zany.

In fact, “zany” is really the most appropriate word to describe
The Whole Ten Yards. It’s almost as if the producer/director/writer decided to push the envelope to absurd limits just because they could. The only scene I found remotely amusing was actually a recycled gag from Weekend at Bernie’s, where lifeless limbs of the Hungarian boss’ son are manipulated to give him the appearance of being alive. But even that was a shallow laugh.

It’s hard to find any redeeming qualities in the movie and its inane and mind-numbing storyline affixes a big minus sign to this B movie.
The Whole Ten Yards may be one yard greater than the original, but it’s still a mile short of being entertaining.

Rating: 1 1/2

Paycheck (PG-13)

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Directed by: John Woo
Starring: Ben Affleck
December 2003

“Futuristic Thriller With a Twist”


Part spy thriller, part sci-fi movie, “Paycheck” is one hundred percent action flick that starts out at a fevered pitch and never slows down. Based on a short story by Phillip K. Dick (Blade Runner), “Paycheck” introduces an inventive, yet disturbing, vision of the future; a “what if” scenario. What if highly trained computer experts and bio-engineers were implanted with a marker at the beginning of a top-secret project and, when the job was completed, their memories were wiped all the way back to the point of marker insertion? What if you lost three years of your life (memories), but received remuneration for your services somewhere in the ballpark of eight figures? But what if the project you worked on was illegal, and the F.B.I. shows up and you have no memory of what you’ve been doing for the last three years?

Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) is on the run from his former employer and the feds., and all he has to aid him in his search for answers to the past is a manila envelope filled with a dozen ordinary items that he had the foresight to send himself before the memory wipe. A latent memory of a significant other leads Michael to Rachel (Uma Thurman), the one person who can help him get back into the lab and destroy the machine that he built…a device that will lead to great catastrophe in the future.

Oversimplified? Far-fetched? A bit confusing? You bet! But if “Paycheck” has any redeeming quality, it’s that it doesn’t linger in one place too long. John Woo (Mission Impossible 2) does a good job of building intensity and sprinkling in action sequences at appropriate times until the explosion-filled climax.

Ben Affleck has tried his hand at being the lead in a thriller before (The Sum of All Fears), but his low-key—almost passionless—portrayals will prevent him from becoming an action star for the foreseeable future. Uma Thurman, a fairly well respected actress in drama, comedy and action circles adds very little to the movie—her vanilla performance will be forgotten shortly after the movie vacates theaters.

Even with mediocre elements, “Paycheck” somehow, inexplicably, manages to become more than the sum of its parts. This is, undoubtedly, due in large part to the genius of the source material the movie draws upon, proving once again that a slightly above average story can bail out average performances. “Paycheck” is a good popcorn movie that works great after you’ve suspended your disbelief, and works even better when you’ve only paid the matinee price.

Rating: 2 1/2

Runaway Jury (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gary Fleder
Starring: John Cusack
October 2003

“Taut Thriller with a Good Moral”


Runaway Jury is the latest in a series of John Grisham novels adapted for the silver screen. Runaway Jury is every bit as intense as The Firm and The Pelican Brief, and, like its predecessors, boasts an all-star cast. The word that best sums up the movie is “paranoid.” Everyone in the film seems to be paranoid, and that persistent, pervading emotion soon rubs off on the viewer; you’re never quite sure who is on what side until the very end, which makes Runaway Jury a Grade A legal thriller.

The story begins with a disgruntled employee, recently terminated, returning to his workplace and opening fire on all of his former co-workers. Flash forward to the trial: Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) is the prosecutor for the plaintiff, a woman widowed by the shooting. Assisting the defense is Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), a no-nonsense, self-assured agent who is in league with the gun company that made the weapon used in the shooting. The gun company pays off Fitch to buy a verdict, so he immediately goes to work in his underground intelligence complex, where a full-time staff of highly-trained individuals utilizes high-tech equipment in order to spy on potential jurors. Based on profiles and other Intel, Fitch guides the defense attorney through the jury selection process, weeding out anyone who might be a threat to the verdict they desire. The jury is selected, but unbeknownst to Fitch, someone knows what he’s up to and has placed a wild card in the jury, someone with enough influence and charisma to swing the jury one way or the other. The wild card is Nicholas Easter (Jon Cusack), and his girlfriend, Marlee (Rachel Weisz), is the one who is throwing a monkey wrench into Fitch’s plans. She presents a deal to Rohr and Fitch—a promise to swing the jury their way for a price. Rohr has integrity and refuses the deal, but Fitch, hell-bent to win at any cost, agrees to pay Marlee. This decision sets a series of events into play that leads to a major twist and unexpected verdict.

Runaway Jury is a riveting tale that owes a lot to its rich source material. Beyond the intricate plot, the acting is nothing short of stellar and features the first big screen appearance of long-time friends, Hackman and Hoffman. The scene they share is absolutely electrifying; both men engage in a war of words that is unrivaled in recent motion picture history. Cusack is very good in his everyman role as Nicholas Easter and the rest of the supporting cast does a phenomenal job, especially Jeremy Piven as Rohr’s assistant.

There’s a great David vs. Goliath moment at the end of the film, where men and women of good conscience stand up to the greedy gun company. The movie has a good moral and a great message, but the jury is still out as to how well it will do at the box office.

Rating: 3

Out of Time (PG-13)

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Directed by: Carl Franklin
Starring: Denzel Washington
October 2003

“Thrill a Minute With a Touch of Humor”


Denzel doesn’t disappoint. Not much of a revelation, I know, but you would think that somewhere along the way, the Academy award-winning actor would trip up and select a project that would miss its target. In the early stages of the film, I thought this might be just such a time; the movie was very slow out of the starting blocks and featured Denzel, playing the chief of police in a small, shoreline town in Florida, in the throes of a divorce while messing around with another man’s wife—very uncharacteristic of the actor who’s brought us so many heroic roles in the past (Crimson Tide, The Pelican Brief, Remember the Titans and Antoine Fisher just to name a few).

Denzel’s Matt Whitlock makes one bad choice after another in the film’s prologue; he plans to steal away with his steamy paramour—who claims to be the victim of both an abusive husband and a fatal form of cancer—by using evidence money from a recent drug bust that had elevated his status to local hero. When Whitlock’s mistress and her husband are killed in an arson fire—and he’s spotted at the scene of the crime, events spiral downward at an alarming pace.

Putting out one brushfire after the next, Whitlock attempts to discover who framed him, while keeping his own police department and the feds. off balance just long enough for him to find the evidence that will exonerate him. After a series of nail-biting episodes in which Whitlock’s indicting affair is nearly revealed, and several genuine, on-the-edge-of-your-seat action sequences, Whitlock discovers the mastermind behind the elaborate trap and realizes that he may have committed one mistake too many.

As mentioned, Denzel is pitch-perfect as the protagonist, but he is surrounded by some wonderful talent, not the least of which is Dean Cain (Lois & Clark) as the rival husband, Sanaa Lathan as Whitlock’s mistress, Eva Mendes (2 Fast 2 Furious) as his estranged wife and his delightfully quirky side-kick, played by John Billingsley (Star Trek: Enterprise), who delivered the most memorable line in the movie, “A beer in hand is worth two in the fridge.”

It probably won’t go down as movie of the year in any category, but
Out of Time is a great popcorn flick that entertains and raises the blood pressure all at the same time.

Rating: 3

S.W.A.T. (PG-13)

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Directed by: Clark Johnson
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson
August 2003

“By the Book Update of 70’s Police Drama”


S.W.A.T. is an acronym that stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. S.W.A.T. is also the name of a short-lived television series that ran during the 1975-1976 season and starred Steve Forrest and Robert Urich. The new S.W.A.T. movie has barrowed many of the names and archetypes from the original show, but has wisely transported the setting forward several decades and given the story an appropriately edgier tone.

In some respects,
S.W.A.T. is little more than a glorified TV show with big-name actors, and this should come as no surprise since the movie’s director, Clark Johnson, is best known for his work on small screen hits like Homicide: Life on the Street and The Shield. Even though the movie closely resembles a standard police procedural, it’s still considerably better than it would have been had the producers committed the cinematic crime of adopting the style and milieu of the TV series: 70’s crime dramas were notorious for depicting police officers merely as caricatures of real cops, as virtual superheroes who were impervious to error, corruption or bullets.

Here, thankfully, the characters are a little more three-dimensional, if a little doughy in the middle. Samuel L. Jackson portrays hard-nosed Sgt. Dan “Hondo” Harrelson and Colin Ferrell plays debased officer, Jim Street, a man who desperately strives to earn Harrelson’s acceptance and thereby find redemption for a past mistake that has tarnished his record and reputation. In the Sydney Bristow era, it’s become a prerequisite for an action movie to feature at least one gorgeous, butt-kicking chica, and in
S.W.A.T. we have Michelle Rodriguez (The Fast and the Furious), who embodies the tough-as-nails officer, Chris Sanchez. Rounding out the cast is LL Cool J as Deacon “Deke” Kay and Olivier Martinez as French baddie, Alex Montel, a loathsome tycoon who offers a $100 million reward to anyone who breaks him out of prison.

Most of the movie’s action scenes are similar those you’d see on primetime TV with one major exception…the heart-stopping sequence where Montel’s plane crash-lands on a four lane bridge and bullets start flying like snowflakes in a blizzard. Though I had hoped to see more scenes of this caliber throughout the movie, this pulse pounding sequence is, by itself, worth the price of admission. All things considered,
S.W.A.T. is an admirable attempt at graduating a TV series to the big screen and features gritty realism, believable characters and a sobering reminder of how law enforcement officers all-too-frequently pay the price for our enduring security and freedom.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Italian Job (PG-13)

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Directed by: F. Gary Gray
Starring: Mark Wahlberg
May 2003

“An Average Job, With Very Few Surprises”


“There is no honor among thieves.” The age-old saying proves very true in The Italian Job, an action-packed heist movie where routing for the bad guys is en vogue (because the other bad guys are much worse).

The movie begins with the thieves, led by Charlie (Mark Wahlberg) and John (Donald Sutherland), stealing a safe filled with 35 million in gold bars. The score goes down without a hitch until one of the members of the team, Steve (Edward Norton), double-crosses them, shoots John, takes all of the booty and kills the rest of the team (or so he thinks).

A year later, Charlie reassembles the original team (sans the deceased John) in L.A., with John’s daughter (Charlize Theron) thrown in for good measure, and they formulate a plan to get their gold back. Steve has purchased a plush mansion and has filled it with the dream items from all of the original team members (trophies that signify his conquest over them). Steve is smart and devious, but Charlie, with the help of his colorful and technical team, proves to be more than a match for the nefarious thief; and after a series of plot twists and action sequences, Charlie and his crew get their gold back.

The word that best describes
The Italian Job is “average.” It’s not a bad movie, but it’s nothing revolutionary either; and Mark Wahlberg’s calculated under-acting only adds to the film’s mediocrity. The movie isn’t devoid of fun, however; the different members of Charlie’s team are quite entertaining, especially Lyle (Seth Green), a young man who claims to have invented Napster (he says his college roommate stole the program while he was asleep on his keyboard). Lyle fancies himself as “The Napster,” and is the technical genius of the group, deftly navigating his way through a self-made computer program that can hack into L.A.’s transportation system and re-route traffic anywhere he wants.

The team is assembled in an amusing, almost
Ocean’s 11-like manner, but the moment is short-lived and most of the characters go unnoticed for the rest of the film. Edward Norton plays the perfect weasel-eyed villain and makes you want to reach through the screen and deck him in the face (like everyone else does in the film).

It’s not a complete loss, but in the final analysis,
The Italian Job is a pretty average way to spend two hours.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Ring (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Naomi Watts
October 2002

The Ring
was a disturbing film that began with a far-fetched scenario and ended with a resounding, “Huh?” Riddled with horror gimmicks and gaping plot holes, the most frightening aspect of The Ring was that it made it to the big screen.

Rating: 2

Signs (PG-13)

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Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Mel Gibson
August 2002

From the writer/director/producer of
The Sixth Sense, Signs is a taut thriller that delivers on its promise to keep you on the edge of your seat. Hitchcock would be proud of this effort, which harkens back to V and War of the Worlds, yet maintains its own identity. Signs has a great twist ending and a faith-affirming moral.

Rating: 3

K-19 The Widowmaker (PG-13)

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Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Harrison Ford
July 2002

A Cold War sub flick with Ford and Neeson is a sure-fire winner, right? Star power couldn’t keep
K-19 afloat due to a plodding plot and static directing. This true story wasn’t all that entertaining and doesn’t hold a rudder to U-571.

Rating: 2

The Bourne Identity (PG-13)

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Directed by: Doug Liman
Starring: Matt Damon
June 2002

Intense from the word go,
The Bourne Identity has great action (fight) sequences and plot to spare. Damon is surprisingly good in the lead role and the supporting cast is equally strong. Don’t look now, but Damon may have finally caught up to (if not surpassed) Affleck.

Rating: 3

The Sum of All Fears (PG-13)

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Directed by: Phil Alden Robinson
Starring: Ben Affleck
May 2002

A taut action thriller,
The Sum of All Fears had a riveting set-up, but lost all credibility with its abrupt ending. Affleck and Freeman are good, but really aren’t given much to do in the film. I’m afraid it doesn’t measure up to the other “Clancy” movies.

Rating: 2 1/2

Clockstoppers (PG)

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Directed by: Jonathan Frakes
Starring: Jesse Bradford
March 2002

A little on the pedestrian side,
Clockstoppers succeeds at being a first-rate teen movie that never takes itself seriously and has a lot of fun—if not campy—moments along the way. There’s nothing Oscar-worthy here, just a fun, family flick.

Rating: 2

John Q (PG-13)

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Directed by: Nick Cassavetes
Starring: Denzel Washington
February 2002

An emotionally taut thriller,
John Q is held back only by a predictable plot. Denzel Washington delivers an Oscar-worthy performance and the supporting cast is exceptional as well; especially Robert Duvall, James Woods, Anne Heche, Ray Liotta and Eddie Griffin—the “Slapaho” guy.

Rating: 3

Ocean’s Eleven (PG-13)

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Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: George Clooney
December 2001

Once
Ocean's Eleven gets going, it’s an amusing, star-studded romp that depicts a daring heist in a major Vegas casino. The plot never tips its hand fully until the end, and the final series of twists is quite good.

Rating: 3

What Lies Beneath (PG-13)

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Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Harrison Ford
July 2000

Just this side of a horror film,
What Lies Beneath is a thriller wrapped in a mystery. The movie is brimming with spine-tingling scenes that make you want to jump out of your skin. Though a radical departure from the director’s staple, Robert Zemeckis does a fine job of building suspense and waiting until the perfect moment to have a door slam, a picture frame fall or a corpse appear in the bath tub (easily the freakiest transformation I’ve witnessed in a very long time). Michelle Pfeiffer delivers the most convincing performance I’ve seen this year and Harrison Ford keeps you guessing which side he’s on until the bitter, fateful end. What Lies Beneath is a finely crafted tale of dark secrets and hidden transgressions, presented with harrowing intensity.

Rating: 3