Thursday, November 28, 2013


Happy Thanksgiving, folks!!! I couldn't let the day pass without an appropriately themed movie, so today you get Deadfall. It's not exactly going to give you the warm and fuzzies, but...well...let's just get into the review...

Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky.
2012. Rated R, 95 minutes.
Charlie Hunnam
Treat Williams
Patrick Kerton
Allison Graham

We meet Liza (Wilde) and her brother Addison (Bana) as they are riding along a snowy road in the getaway car after a casino heist. Our movie watching experience tells us that when a movie starts inside a vehicle, something bad is about to happen. And so, it does. As they tend to, a deer runs out into the middle of the road, which the driver slams into. We won’t be seeing either of them again. As for Liza and Addison, they survive. Since the car did not, they have to find a way to the Canadian border to complete their escape. Addison decides they will split up. Liza is to hitchhike her way to someplace safe. He will have the money and call her later tonight to find out where she is and get there any way possible. As an unsuspecting police officer who happens upon the crash site learns, killing anyone in the way is certainly an option for Addison. Something else we learn about him is that his relationship with his sister is probably a lot different than yours with your siblings. They take the phrase “keep it in the family” way too literally. Anyhoo, Addison takes off through the woods, taking a chance he’ll freeze to death, while Liza manages to get a ride from Jay (Hunnam). Unbeknownst to her, Jay has not only just gotten out of prison, but he is also on the run. Of course, they discover they kind of like one another. Hmmm, wonder what Addison thinks of all this. We find out over a rather tense Thanksgiving day feast.

The movie alternates between Addison’s countryside adventure and Liza’s road trip with Jay. It also lets us get to know Jay’s parents: his loving mom June (Spacek) and his grouchy dad Chet (Kristofferson) who won’t speak to him. Local cop Hannah (Mara), who grew up with Jay and now works under her overbearing father Sherrif Becker (Williams), is also in the mix. With all of this going on, Deadfall manages not to feel cluttered. It ably bounces around the various subplots and keeps them well tethered to the larger narrative. The motivations of each person is revealed in no uncertain terms. Within each, a different aspect of family dynamics plays out. Unfortunately, this also renders them all rather flat. We get the idea we know what any of them are going to say before they actually speak.

Addison is the one person who manages to escape the trap of predictability. Sure, his ultimate goal is transparent, but he gives us surprises along the way. This makes whatever is going on with him the most interesting thing in the movie. Eric Bana has some issues with his southern accent, his character is from Alabama, but is otherwise great. We get that this is a guy with a warped sense of morals. It is certainly understood that his screws are rolling around unfastened to anything in his noggin.

The elders in the cast:  Spacek, Kristofferson, and Williams are all excellent. Spacek is particularly good. Where her male cast mates all huff and puff through much of the movie, she gives a very nuanced performance. Our pair of instant lovers doesn’t fare as well. Olivia Wilde is actually solid, giving off enough naivete to sell her roll. Unfortunately, she shares most of her scenes with Charlie Hunnam. He gives the type of performance that makes it difficult to believe he has a pulse.

What Deadfall has going most for it is the way it all comes together at the end. Leading up to the finale things are a bit uneven. It’s fun when Bana is on the screen and the dynamics betwee the various characters works. During our time with the lovebirds the movie doesn’t sizzle the way it wants. However, from the moment Bana shows up in Spacek’s kitchen, the tension is ramped up and carries us through the third act. The actual ending is on the predictable side, but it works. It takes the movie from being one we could go either way on to the one that’s not too bad.

MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

This is the End

Directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen.
2013. Rated R, 107 minutes.

You may know actor Jay Baruchel from such movies as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, She’s Out of My League, and Goon. He finally has some time off so he goes to Los Angeles where he wants nothing more than to kick back at his buddy Seth Rogen’s house while the two smoke some weed and play video games. When Seth informs him there is a party tonight at James Franco’s place, Jay very reluctantly agrees to go. The problem is Jay doesn’t like Franco or any of the other people he is told will be there. Though he’s having a miserable time, things get considerably worse for Jay and everyone else as the apocalypse seems to be upon them, literally. Some people are instantly lifted towards the heavens while the ground opens up and swallows others, including many of Franco’s famous party guests, all playing themselves. Inside the actor’s home seems to be the only safe place for our remaining players: Franco, Baruchel, Rogen, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride.

Early on, the movie gives us ridiculous thing to laugh at. We get things like the drug fueled lunacy of Michael Cera, Craig Robinson leading a group of revelers in a rendition of “Take Yo Panties Off,” and Rihanna being the target of a few sexual advances. There are also many more celebrity cameos, most of which comprise of the stars making fun of their own images. Once we transition into the survival portion of the film we explore the dynamics of the various relationships of our survivors, and of course, a number of power struggles. Weaved into all of this is the debate over whether or not what is going is biblical. With death waiting outside the door in the form of seldom seen, but very deadly creatures, it functions as a monster flick, too.

Comedy is the thread that holds it all together. If you’re familiar with any of these guys, you should know what type of humor to expect. It’s profane, over the top, completely irreverent, homoerotic, and especially when the guys get really thirsty, flat out gross. Thankfully, it works far better here than it has in any of their other recent comedic efforts. The guys settle into their roles quickly, caricatures of themselves, and play it for all it’s worth. Save possibly for Jay, none of the guys are particularly concerned with developing empathy for themselves. Each is just a portion of the joke. They all make their portion work.

Eventually, the movie gets into good vs. evil, and just what it takes to be accepted into the kingdom of Heaven. Don’t expect any deep meditation on the subject. In fact, if you’re serious about your religion you might bristle at the conclusions that are reached. Though, to be fair, it doesn’t question anyone’s beliefs as much as it pokes fun at them. More attention is given to the friendship between Jay and Seth in particular, but we also delve into each guy’s relationship with the other guys, and some of theirs with each other. This is the End becomes a amalgamation of bromances held together by outlandish humor. Therefore, if you just want something fun that’s not afraid to offend or appear stupid, yet still woks as a story, this will suit you quite nicely.

Monday, November 25, 2013


Directed by Alrick Brown.
2011. Not Rated, 100 minutes.
Cassandra Freeman
Hadidja Zaninka
Mazimpaka Kennedy
Edouard Bamporiki
Cleophas Kabasita
Hassan Kabera
Abdalla Uwimana
Marc Gwamaka
Mutsari Jean
Kena Onyenjekwe

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 has been, and continues to be, widely documented. It has even made its way to mainstream American cinema with 2004’s Hotel Rwanda which starred Don Cheadle. In case none of this rings a bell, I’ll give you a quick and oversimplified history lesson. People of the two predominant ethnicities in Rwanda, the Hutu and the Tutsi’s were engaged in a civil war. Even though the Hutu comprise a much larger portion of the country’s population, the Tutsi controlled the government for much of its history. However, in 1994, the Hutu had been in power for roughly thirty years. Rebel Tutsi’s organized in an effort to seize power, thus resulting in war. After Hutu leader Juvénal Habyarimana was assassinated, members of a powerful Hutu group known as the Akazu initiated the mass killings of Tutsi’s. Through pointed and unfiltered propaganda, they convinced many that the Tutsi’s aim was to enslave the Hutu and for this, all of them should be exterminated. They openly referred to Tutsi’s as “cockroaches.” Also targeted were any Hutu who opposed these genocidal tactics, were thought to be hiding Tutsi, and of course, those who were married to someone of Tutsi descent. They were labeled traitors. Over a period of 100 days (from early April to mid-July of ’94) men, women, and children alike, often whole families at once, were murdered in the streets, in their homes, schools, churches, and wherever else they might be by Hutu death squads. Many of these squads were part of the Hutu military, but a disturbing number of them were made up of civilians taking up arms against their neighbors. Often, these executions were carried out by machete leaving maimed those who didn’t die from their attack. When it was over, somewhere in the vicinity of one million people had perished. That is an estimated twenty percent of the country’s entire population at the time. Most of them were Tutsi’s. Imagine if one of every five people you know were violently murdered over the summer. Eventually, the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), a mostly Tutsi rebel group defeated the Hutu army and seized control of the country. This is the backdrop for our movie.

The tale of Kinyarwanda is told mostly through three intertwining plot lines. The firs involves a young girl named Jean (Zaninka). She is half-Tutsi and returns home from a day hanging out at a friend’s house to find that the rest of her family has been slaughtered. The next has us follow Father Pierre (Kennedy), a Tutsi Catholic priest who is highly sought after by the Hutu since he is viewed to be in a position of leadership. Finally, we ride along with Lt. Rose (Freeman), a female officer in the RPF, as they try to extract people from dangerous situations. Each story is well told. The danger within them is undeniably real, helping invest us in the fate of these people. Also helping is the almost constant playing of the radio. During this time, Hutu run stations blatantly advocated the mass killing of Tusti through incendiary broadcasts. Hearing the call for murder is, in itself, a scary thing. Much more frightening is then seeing ordinary citizens answering that call. It’s the worst of mob mentality on an exponentially larger than normal scale. Therefore, we realize death is almost always quite literally right around the corner.

Through jumps back and forth in time, the movie also sets up a redemption tale. Parts of the movie take place some time after the genocide with many of the Hutu perpertrators we’ve met in some sort of de-programming or re-education camp. It is run by Lt. Rose. Here, we get some heart-wrenching group counseling sessions. We worry that the mental state of at least one person is not healing so well. We try to put ourselves in the shoes of the Tutsi survivors and figure out if we could forgive such atrocities. This is no easy task.

The are some small dings in the movie’s armor. Most noticeably, the acting is not quite top notch. In fact, many of the performers are first-timers. This renders the individual stories just a bit less powerful than they should be. None of the individual actors reach out and grab us by the throat, the way this material is begging someone to. Also, the Hutu characters need to be fleshed out a little more. We only get to know anything about one of them as the they were before they took up killing as a mission. It works wonderfully, but it is a tactic not applied elsewhere. This also may have strengthened Kinyarwanda even further. However, these are somewhat minor in the grand scheme of things. It overcomes its flaws to deliver a truly harrowing tale worthy of your attention.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Pointless Lists: Virginity

On Friday, I revisited a movie from my youth where the protagonist is focused on something many boys long to accomplish: losing their virginity. That makes this as good a time as any to discuss my favorite movies on the subject. It is such a universal one that there have been many. Filmmakers in every era keep returning to the theme. I personally have seen dozens of them. These are my favorites...

10. Superbad
We follow the misadventures of high-school seniors Seth  (Jonah Hill), Evan (Michael Cera) and Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), AKA McLovin, on their quest to finally get some. Their best chance seems to be supplying alcohol for the party they're going to attend. Our heroes don't necessarily have trouble talking to girls, but often say the wrong thing which provides a good deal of humor. As in the best of teen sex-farces, parents & most adults are rarely seen except as punchlines. The acting of the three main characters carries the movie. Indeed, each of them has parlayed success here into very busy and profitable careers.

9. The Last American Virgin
Like lots of guys, the thing most preventing Gary (Lawrence Monoson) from losing his virginity is himself. He gets close often, but he also gets nervous and/or just works too slow. He also turns out to be a romantic. The first two acts of this movie are funny, raunchy, and entirely typical of movies about teenage boys. In the last act, it elevates itself by veering into some dark territory and finishing there. A very underrated film generally dismissed as just another teen sex romp.

8. Teeth
This little seen horror flick gives us a female who fully believes in abstinence until marriage. Dawn (Jess Weixler) has not only taken a vow to remain a virgin until marriage, but even to abstain from masturbation. So serious is she about this, she counsels her peers in hopes of getting them to do the same. Of course, she meets a boy that makes her rethink things. Sorta. Unfortunately for him, he finds out she has teeth where she shouldn't. Let's just say he comes up short. Not just a horror flick, this is a wonderfully dark comedy with a girl-power slant.

7. The 40 Year-Old Virgin
If you can't tell by the title, our hero Andy (Steve Carell) is a little older than most virgins. He's gotten to the point where he's not really even trying to lose it, happily receding into his own world of action figures, video games and watching "Survivor" with the elderly couple next door. When the guys at work find out, they spring into action in an effort to change his sexual status. It's funny and endlessly quotable. It still stands as some of director Judd Apatow's best work.

6. Kids
This one is much less about losing virginity than it is about taking it. Specifically, we follow Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) and Casper (Justin Pierce). Telly has taken it has his mission in life to deflower virgins. This is a dark and unsettling trek through an urban landscape overrun with carefree teenagers. We take unflinching looks at promiscuity, rape, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and sexually transmitted diseases. All of it involves youngsters ranging from possibly pre-pubescent stages to their late teens. Most of the performers are actually as young as they appear. Because of that I can safely say this is the most controversial film on this list. It's also the one you're most likely to hate. By the way, most of the actors are making their film debuts including Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson.

5. Easy A
Rather than giving us a protagonist actively trying to lose their virginity, Easy A gives us Olive (Emma Stone), one that pretends to. As news of a tryst she completely makes up gets out, she is suddenly the most notorious girl in school. This is a whip-smart comedy that doesn't just use Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic "The Scarlet Letter" for inspiration, it openly refers to it. Ditto for John Hughes movies. It also deals with the religious aspect and displays just how easily perception becomes reality.

4. American Pie
Not satisfied with giving us one guy, pun intended, this teen sex romp gives us four guys in a race to see which one will lose their virginity first. Most of our focus is on Jim (Jason Biggs), who is awkward himself, but has an even more awkward dad (Eugene Levy). The story functions well enough, but what makes it work is that it has given us so many iconic scenes that are hilarious all by themselves. Yes, this includes what happens to an innocent cherry pie. And yes, this is the movie that introduced the acronym MILF to the American lexicon.

3. Porky's
Our frustrated virgin is Pee Wee (Dan Monahan). So frustrated is he, he can think of nothing else besides getting into some girl's pants. Believe me, he and his buddies get into all sorts of situations where poor Pee Wee gets close but no cigar. To me, this is the most consistently funny of all the movies listed. Sure it's crass, irreverent and awfully juvenile, but it's downright hilarious. The scene showing why a female gym-teacher is called "Lassie" (played by a young Kim Cattrall) simply puts me in stitches every time I see it. And I would argue that behind the Hitchcock classic Psycho, and only by a very slim margin, this movie has the second best shower scene in cinematic history.

2. The Sessions
In what is pretty easily the most unique movie on this list our virgin is not only an adult, but Mark (John Hawkes) was stricken with polio at a very young age and cannot move anything below his neck. We follow him during his time with Cherryl (Helen Hunt), a sex therapist who agrees work with him. The end goal is that the two will have sex. As you might imagine, Mark is filled with anxiety and things don't always go smoothly. This is not merely about getting some, it is about figuring out how the mechanics of it will work. It is wickedly funny and both Hawkes and Hunt are absolutely amazing.

1. Fast Times at Ridgemont High
There are lots of things going on in Fast Times. Most prominent of all is the story of Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a high school sophomore looking to give someone her most precious gift. Like American Pie it has given us a number of scenes that have become indelible parts of American pop culture history. It also gives us a story that works from every angle. It's also more mature than just about any teen sex movie out there. Every part of it just sizzles. Finally, it gives us by far the best cast of any movie on this list and many others. Many of them, including Leigh, Anthony Edwards, Eric Stoltz, and Judge Reinhold, went on to lengthy and successful careers. Three of its players went on to win Oscars for Best Actor: Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker, and Nicolas Cage (billed under his birth name of Nicolas Coppola).

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Last American Virgin

Directed by Boaz Davidson.
1982. Rated R, 92 minutes.
Lawrence Monoson
Diane Franklin
Steve Antin
Joe Rubbo
Louisa Moritz
Kimmy Robertson
Tessa Richarde
Brian Peck

Way back when I myself was a virgin, I stumbled upon this movie late one summer night on HBO. In those days, I spent my break from school with my grandparents. The very first time I tried to watch it, I actually didn’t get very far. In true 1980s teen sex romp fashion, there is a good deal of nudity, particularly early on. What I didn’t know was that, upstairs, my grandfather had also come across this movie. Seconds after the first boob pops out, he appeared at the top of the steps and told me to “Turn off that X-rated show!” The Last American Virgin isn’t really X-rated, but in his eyes nudity was equivalent to hardcore porn. I’m only guessing that he continued to watch himself since I never had enough courage to ask.

As for me, all was not lost. At least in back then, if not still, whatever appeared on HBO would likely be aired at least three or four times a week throughout whichever month it happened to be. I studied the TV guide and memorized a number of the upcoming airtimes. Over the course of the next thirty days, I must have watched this movie a dozen times at all hours of the night. I also saw it a few more times over the next couple of summers. To a curious and horny young boy, it was one of the greatest films ever made. That was thirty years ago. Though I hadn’t seen it since, it was still a piece of my adolescence I could never forget. By now, I figured it was time for a rewatch to see if it really is the sacred cow I’d built it up to be in my head.

After all this time, I once again meet Gary (Monoson). Unfortunately for him, he is the title character. He may not actually be the last virgin in the entire country, but he sure feels like it. Like lots of teenage boys, his entire existence is dedicated to changing that status. Things would probably go a lot easier for him if he weren’t so awkward around the opposite sex. To help him break the seal, so to speak, he has his two bestest buds Rick (Antin) and David (Rubbo), plus the very liberal use of his boss’ car when he is not using it to deliver pizza. We join the boys on their adventures in tail-chasing which includes run-ins with a trio of girls looking to get high, a very horny Latin cougar, a prostitute, and a couple regular girls from their school. Of course, one of them is Karen (Franklin), whom our hero has a very big crush on. Rick, with the help of his boys, trying desperately to get into someone’s pants ensues.

Early on, the movie takes on a sketch-comedy quality as the boys bound from one escapade to the next. All of these are merely to drive home the point that Rick is a ladies’ man, David picks up his left-overs, and something outrageous is going to happen to prevent Gary from getting some. To its credit, these situations are generally funy in the most juvenile way. It’s just believable enough that any of these things could happen that really sells the jokes. Granted, they often happen in a manner that’s way too slapstick, but up until that point we have fun with their sexual misadventures.

Between these, our hero agonizes over Karen whom eventually starts dating Rick. This part of the movie works, but doesn’t come off quite as intended because Lawrence Monoson is not a strong enough actor to pull it off. The script helps him out as it gives us easy pointers on where the emotion should be. Overall, the writing is actually fairly courageous for the genre. It brings up the debate on pro-choice vs. pro-life, and is actually ambiguous enough that its stance is open to interpretation. Perhaps even braver, it does not end the way we expect it to. It’s actually a fairly harsh conclusion, especially for a teen sex comedy. For me, this finish elevates the movie above most of its ilk.

Often, when I go back to movies I loved during my youth I’m sadly disappointed to discover them to be not nearly as good as I thought. Watching The Last American Virgin again, I was bracing for this strong possibility. I must say I was pleasantly surprised. It still makes me laugh and it holds up pretty well. After all, the theme of a boy efforting to lose his virginity is timeless. Aside from that, it manages to include many of the type of antics the genre is known for, but also takes it in a less traveled direction.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Battlefield America

Directed by Christopher B. Stokes.
2012. Rated PG-13, 105 minutes.
Marques Houston
Mekia Cox
Christopher Michael Jones
Jojo Wright
Tristen Carter
Valarie Pettiford
Gary Anthony Sturgis
Russell Ferguson
Big Boy

Sean Lewis (Houston) is a young, hot shot exec who is climbing the ladder of success at breakneck speed. That speed gets him in trouble on the road as he has accumulated a string of traffic violations. He is so busy with his career, he merely tasks his lawyer to handle it without his presence. When informed he must appear in court for his latest discretion or risk being thrown in jail, he does, but takes a very cavalier attitude with him. Luckily for him, instead of getting sent to the slammer, his lawyer brokers a deal for him to perform community service. The catch is that it must be done for eight hours a day over the next two weeks. This is to be performed at a rec center in the hood where he is put in charge of a group of boys who want nothing more than to win the Battlefield America kiddie dance crew competition. Of course, they’re not the most disciplined or talented group. Sean trying to connect with the boys, keep his career intact, and woo Sara (Cox), the gorgeous rec center director, ensues.

Everything that happens in this movie pertaining to our hero’s relationship with the boys occurs exactly as you think it would. He forms a special bond with the tough kid, wins over the heart of the pretty girl, disappoints them when he reverts to his old selfish ways, etc. Surprisingly, this predictability is less of an issue than how we get from one overly familiar plot point to the next. Instead of flowing into one another, developing things as we go, we get a succession of disjointed scenes. As each begins we get the sense that something was left out between the beginning of the one we’re watching and the end of the one we saw before it. This renders character attitude changes jarring and events feel like they’re happening only because they are supposed to, not out of the organic growth of the story. This is worsened when there is a dance set between two dramatic scenes. The movie uses the dance sequences as excuses to jump to whatever the next item on the checklist is without actually navigating the waters to arrive there. This calls attention to other things that are so illogical they seriously stretch the idea that this is taking place in our world. For instance, after our hero is caught red-handed not performing his community service in the time mandated his punishment is not jail, as it would be for you or I. Instead, he’s merely given more community service. Matters are not helped by the fact that not one actor brings enough weight to their roles to really sell it and help us get past such things. The whole thing is not just paint-by-numbers. It is coloring with a highlighter so that all of the numbers are still visible.

Most things aside from what happens between Sean and the crew are laughable, at best. How he handles his work situation is simply ridiculous and the inevitable outcome of it is an eye-roller. The bigger problem, however, is its falling into the same trap as countless other urban dance flicks. We’re dropped into yet another underground dance culture where most dancers are evil thugs and the most thuggish ones dominate all of the competitions. Of course, many of these competitions take place at night in back alleys and change locations often as if an attempt to avoid police detection. It’s already silly in movies featuring people in their late teens and early twenties. Here, where none of the dancers have even reached puberty it’s goofy on hyperdrive.

Here’s the thing: dance movies are largely critic proof. You can slap together any story, no matter how lazy or sloppy, and people who love dance movies will enjoy it as long as the dancing is good. Why do you think they keep making sequels to  Step Up? It’s not because some great saga needs to be continued. It is because the high energy and inventive dance routines keep drawing crowds. No, they’re not raking in comic book movie dough but these are low budget affairs, relatively speaking, and bring in big returns. For instance, Step Up Revolution cost $33 million to get on the big screen and hauled in $140 million at the box office. True, Battlefield America was a commercial failure, but may earn years of returns from cable networks running it ad nauseum, like the Jessica Alba dance movie Honey. In other words, there is an audience for this. I can’t say I blame people for liking it. For all of it’s many faults, being dull is not one of them. To the point of this review, to help you figure out whether or not you should see this, I’ll say that the big selling point on the DVD cover is that this is “from the writer, director and creator of You Got Served." You decide whether that is an invitation or a warning.

MY SCORE: 3/10

Monday, November 18, 2013

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

Directed by John Hyams.
2012. Rated R, 114 minutes.
Scott Adkins
Mariah Bonner
Andrei Arlovski
Rus Blackwell
Audrey P. Scott
David Jensen
Roy Jones, Jr.

John (Adkins) is woken up in the middle of the night by his daughter who says there are monsters in the kitchen. Like a good father, he goes to investigate. When he gets there, he discovers she was right. Three men in ski masks are waiting for him and proceed to beat half to death with a crowbar. While he lies in a pool of his own blood, the men bring down his daughter and his wife and murders them right in front of him. Fast forward nine months to John waking up in the hospital. He’s told by the FBI that a man named Devereaux (Van Damme) is responsible. Our hero trying to find this man ensues. His quest is made a bit more difficult because Devereaux’s second-in-command, Scott (Lundgren), has sent the maniacal goon known as The Plumber (Arlovski) after John to kill him. If that weren't bad enough, all these bad guys are hopped up the Universal Soldier Serum which makes the stuff Captain America got seem like a B-12 shot.

Immediately, it becomes clear that our focus is on brutal and bloody violence. At this, it succeeds. The next knock-down-drag-out is never too far away. Everything in the vicinity gets smashed, blood splatters everywhere, and body parts are left among the debris. Don’t worry, they get regenerated. No, I’m not joking. Anyhoo, without overextending itself, it is enough to satisfy your average action junkie.

Between all the noisy parts, we get a story that’s simple at it’s core, a bit convoluted in execution, and holds together barely enough to get us through. A few things don’t quite make sense, but not enough to ruin the movie. However, if you’re looking for all of this feature Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, you will be sorely disappointed. Neither guy has very much screen time. It is all about this young guy, Scott Adkins. He provides a solid enough protagonist. After all, it’s not like Van Damme and Lundgren were ever accused of being great actors. Okay, maybe once. Van Damme was excellent in JCVD, but that’s it so the point remains. Besides, they do get in on the action a little bit.

In case the title and the presence of two 80s action gods didn’t clue you in, this is another entry in the Universal Soldier canon. I have no idea how many this makes, nor do I really care. The very first one is the only one I have seen. I must confess that happened so long ago I don’t remember much about it. What I’m getting at is this: familiarity with the franchise is not a must to enjoy Day of Reckoning. It works well enough as a stand-alone. For those of you that are familiar, I have no idea how well this fits or doesn’t with the series motif. In any event, it’s perfectly acceptable as a mile-a-minute, turn your brain off action flick.

MY SCORE: 6/10

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Hope Springs

Directed by David Frankel.
2012. Rated PG-13, 100 minutes.
Ben Rappaport
Marin Ireland
Brett Rice
Mimi Rogers
Ann Harada

Kay (Streep) has been married to Arnold (Jones) for thirty-one years. For at least the last four, every day has been exactly the same. They eat a quick breakfast before going off to their separate jobs, and a quick dinner when they return home. He then proceeds to fall asleep watching The Golf Channel while she cleans the dishes. When she’s done, she wakes him and he retires to the guest room. She sleeps in the master bedroom. Needless to say, the sparks are no longer flying. In an effort to change this, Kay makes reservations for the two to spend a week in Maine where they will see Dr. Feld (Carell), a famous marriage counselor. Even though he doesn't see anything wrong with their relationship, Arnold reluctantly goes along. By the way, he is also a grumpy penny-pincher whose favorite activity is complaining. A very tough week for the couple ensues.

The best thing that can be said about Hope Springs is that Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones really feel like two people who have been together for three plus decades. They each inhabit their characters fully and let us understand who these people are. We get to know them as thoroughly as they should know each other, but don’t. It helps that we have all known couple like this. They have been together so long, they don’t know anything else. Some of us are that couple. In them, we recognize our own hopes and fears of what marriage will be like once the nest empties.

Right away, Kay is established as the more sympathetic figure. It is easy to see that her frustrations are not only born of her husband’s cluelessness, but of his comfortableness with the way things are. For him, sleeping in separate beds and barely talking to his wife beyond greetings and salutations are merely facts of life. That’s simply the way it is. Of course she desires a deeper connection, both physically and emotionally. She just needs help communicating this. We feel her pain.

To the movie’s credit, it doesn't just attack the problem from one angle. Eventually, we get into why things have gotten this way from Arnold’s point of view. It’s fitting that it takes a good portion of the movie to get to this because he is not a guy given to expressing any feelings that make him appear vulnerable. He’s the proverbial turnip we’re trying to draw blood from. This works wonderfully as we begin to sympathize with him more and more as the film progresses.

Though billed as a rom-com, Hope Springs is much more “dramedy” than anything else. There is lots of angst, some hurt feelings and tears shed. The focus is really on this authentic feeling marriage and whether it can be fixed, not on a succession of jokes. We do get some laughs. Most of them come from Arnold’s incessant grumbling. He is our dad, or grand-dad, and nothing is ever quite good enough or cheap enough for him. Kay is our mother, or grandmother. She’s sweet as pie and struggles to keep it together when she’s upset. We love her to death, but she rarely makes us laugh. The only other character of consequence is Dr. Feld. Steve Carell plays the role surprisingly straight.

This is a movie that hits a lot of right notes and has two marvelous performances. In the end, it comes across as more lightweight than it actually is. Therefore, almost no one will rank this among the best from either actor. That’s a shame because while I don’t think this is a truly great movie, I think they are both great in it. I also fear there is probably a clear line of demarcation separating those who will enjoy it and those who will not. I’d set that line at about age thirty-five and having been in at least one long-term monogamous relationship. In other words, use another Meryl Streep vehicle, It’s Complicated, as a guide. If that’s not your cup of tea, don’t sip from this one, either.

MY SCORE: 7/10

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Paperboy

Directed by Lee Daniels.
2012. Rated R, 107 minutes.
Ned Bellamy
Nealla Gordon

Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack) is sitting on death row after being convicted of murdering the local sheriff. Charlotte Bless (Kidman) is a groupie for inmates who has fallen in love with Mr. Van Wetter through the letters they exchange. She has also sent some letters to big city newspaper reporter Ward Jansen (McConaughey) who happens to be from this particular small town, claiming Hillary was framed. Ward comes home, writing partner Yardley (Oyelowo) in tow, to investigate this possibly huge story and potentially save a man’s life. Also helping out is Ward’s little brother Jack (Efron) who still lives with their parents. Almost forgot, it is the nineteen sixties and we are in the south, so it is of some importance that Yardley, as well as Jansen family maid Anita (Gray), is black. Also vital to the tale is that our prisoner is certainly no angel.

What The Paperboy wants to be is a hyper-sexual, racially charged, and shocking thriller. To that end, it does things that are hyper-sexual, racially charged, and shocking. The problem is they don’t come together in a manner allowing it to be what it wants. The ones that work are undeniably memorable. I, for one, will never forget the scene of Charlotte’s first visit to Hillary in jail. The ones that don’t work merely add to the clutter.

Believe it or not, seeming to fly by the seat of its pants is not this movie’s worse offense. All of the different strands, even though they don’t congeal properly, are intriguing in their own way and could have made a really fascinating movie. The bigger issue is the mechanics it uses to tell these stories. An old adage that applies to art in any medium is that it is better to show than to tell. Lesser artists often tell, robbing their work of its power. Think of it like the punchline of a great joke. People who “get it” will probably laugh. Those you have to explain it to, will probably not. Through the use of Anita as a narrator, The Paperboy constantly explains itself. Nearly every time we hear her in voice-over, she’s either telling us what we just saw, or what we are about to see. This is a common pitfall for movies to fall into when employing a narrator. It’s one The Paperboy never even tries to avoid.

On top of being the annoying narrator, Macy Gray gives a terrible performance whenever she appears within the story. She often sounds as if she is reading. Even then, her words are garbled in a way that doesn't fit the character. She has a cameo in Tyler Perry’s most ambitious film, For Colored Girls. I am not a fan of Perry’s, but Gray combines with his direction to give us a wonderfully harrowing two minutes of film. She also has a solid, but brief turn in Training Day. Her performances in those movies versus what we get here lead me to believe she’s best in small doses. Very small.

Zac Efron as Jack, the actual focal point of all the goings on, also fails to impress. He doesn't do anything egregiously wrong. He just is not believable. He never feels as naïve and innocent as he should. I know that’s an odd thing to say about a guy best known for the High School Musical trilogy. The truth is, he’s become a sex symbol and wears the status like a second skin, giving off a confidence this character is not supposed to have.

If there is a saving grace for this movie, it’s the rest of the cast. Matthew McConaughey is his typically magnetic self. The man has undeniable presence and it is once again on full display. As the man on death row, John Cusack matches McConaughey, if not surpassing him. He completely takes over whenever he is on the screen. I fear that because this will not be noted as one of his better movies, it will be some of his most overlooked work. David Oyelowo is also very good. We’re never really sure how to take his character, but he’s awfully convincing doing all the things he does.

Outdoing all of the guys, we get our biggest kick out of, or are most disgusted by, a vamped up Nicole Kidman. She keeps the gas pedal to the floor all the way through the film. Her character is not likable and doesn't seem to be all there. She often only vaguely resembles a human being. It is just a ridiculously bad role. She couldn't possibly make it believable. Still, she plays it to the hilt, bringing an element of “so bad it’s awesome” to the proceedings. Watching her, Basic Instinct 2 came leaping to mind. About that movie, the late great Roger Ebert wrote “The Catherine Trammell role cannot be played well, but Sharon Stone can play it badly better than any other actress alive.” The same applies to Kidman, here.

As for the rest of the movie, things keep happening that appear independent of each other but the movie keeps trying to persuade us are part of a cohesive whole. Many of these seem to have been done simply for shock value. Our conclusion is fun, but doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Let me backtrack for a sec. What happens makes perfect sense. How it happens does not. We’re left with a film that has an awful lot going on and can be fun because of all the zaniness. However, it never feels like it actually works.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Directed by David Gelb.
2011. Rated PG, 81 minutes.
Jiro Ono
Yoshikazu Ono
Masuhiro Yamamoto
Takashi Ono

What if I told you one of the best restaurants in the world doesn't serve appetizers desserts, doesn't even let you decide what to eat, what you get only takes fifteen minutes to finish, and only seats ten? Sound preposterous? That’s exactly what we have in Jiro’s, s sushi restaurant in Japan. It’s named after it’s owner, Jiro Ono, a tireless eighty-five year old master chef. He is a master largely because sushi has completely consumed his life. It is the only thing he prepares and serves. It has been that way since World War II. As the title infers, he even dreams of the stuff. He tells us he sometimes wakes in the middle of the night with ideas for new sushi dishes, or how to refine his technique. It has worked tremendously. A highly respected journal published by Michelin, yes the tire company, gave Jiro’s a three star rating, their highest possible score. We’re told this means a restaurant is so good it is worth traveling to whatever country it’s in just to eat there. Apparently, people agree. They come from everywhere to partake in the product of his passion. To get one of those ten seats, you must make reservations at least a month in advance.

Jiro has no plans on retiring, but obviously he can’t go on making sushi forever. One day, his now fifty year old son Yoshikazu will take over. In reality, Yoshikazu already makes sushi as his dad’s second-in-command with no noticeable difference in quality. He also does much of the leg work. He goes to the market to pick out the fish, handles most of the training of their small group of eager apprentices, and oversees much of the preparation that must be done every day. Though we get the sense he would never say it while his father is still breathing, he’s a master in his own right. He is patiently awaiting the day he must take over completely. And I do mean patiently. We never feel like he’s chomping at the bit to put dad out to pasture. In fact, there is a hint of him dreading the inevitable day. This is understandable. Who wants to step directly into the shoes of a legend? Still, this is no point of contention. The bond between the two men is strong. This comes across beautifully as we spend a good chunk of time with Yoshikazu. He shows us all the hard work that goes into their world class sushi. The various types of fish are picked meticulously and prepared for service with near surgical precision. The staff he trains with his father are in class for the long haul. It is a ten year apprenticeship. At the end of this time, former trainees are sent out into the world to open their own restaurant. Yoshikazu himself has been by his dad’s side for over thirty years.

A documentary about a guy who loves sushi doesn't sound like it should be a long one and it isn't. However, I think it short-changes us just a bit. A little more time could be invested in the relationship between Yoshikazu and his brother Takashi. Maybe we could get some testimonies from people who have eaten there, besides the food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto. Certainly, I would like to have met his wife and gotten her two cents. We’re told she’s still alive, but nothing more than that, and she never appears. All of these could have been included with less than ten more minutes of run-time. That said, it’s a fun, lighthearted film about a guy better at one thing than most of us will ever be at anything. This leads to my biggest gripe with the movie. Oddly, this complaint is because of what is perhaps the movie's greatest quality. Throughout, we get gorgeously framed shots of the various types of sushi. We get so many of them, many have described this film as food porn. Here's the problem: I can’t taste it!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Just Go with It

Directed by Dennis Dugan.
2011. Rated PG-13, 117 minutes.
Dave Matthews
Griffin Gluck
Kevin Nealon
Ratchel Dratch
Dan Patrick
Keegan-Michael Key

Ever since he was jilted at the altar twenty some odd years ago, Danny (Sandler) has been an unrepentant womanizer. He still wears the engagement ring he bought way back when as a decoy. When the woman he’s talking to notice it, he tells them how miserable his marriage is to gain sympathy points and to get in their pants. It usually works. When he meets Palmer (Decker), he thinks his days as a ladies’ man is done because she is the one. However, she actually wants to meet his wife to verify the two are actually getting a divorce. This is where Katherine (Aniston) comes in. Danny happens to be a top notch plastic surgeon and Katherine is his assistant. She agrees to pose as his soon-to-be-ex-wife during a lunch. When it slips that she has two children, Palmer naturally assumes they are also Danny’s kids. One thing leads to another and the whole gang of them, plus Danny’s cousin Eddie (Swardson), are off to Hawaii for a week of bonding that our hero hopes will end with he and Palmer living happily ever after.

If you want to know how this is going to play out, you only have to tap into your memory banks and do a little tweaking. Let me help. If these characters were in high school, Brooklyn Decker would be playing the hot and popular cheerleader while Jennifer Aniston play’s Sandler’s platonic best friend, hiding her beauty beneath a pony tail and glasses. Aniston really does sport that look, at least in the beginning. If that doesn’t help you, I don’t know what will.

Since we don’t have to worry about where the plot will take us, we only have to decide whether or not we find it funny. It is. In a few spots. Sandler doesn't do anything terribly different than normal so he’ll make you laugh as much, or as little as usual. Swardson is his buffoonish sidekick and mostly annoying, but does have a moment or two worthy of a laugh. The two kids have their moments, as well. Aniston is funny only when her character is “in character” as the over the top ex-wife. Nicole Kidman and Dave Matthews fare best as a couple Aniston desperately competes with in Hawaii. Finally, as an actress, Brooklyn Decker is a great swimsuit model.

Therein lies the rub. Ms. Decker is both the best and worst part of Just Go with It. As implied, her performance is entirely forgettable. Nothing she does suggests she is more than just a pretty face. She’s since failed to change my mind on that with her less than stellar work in Battleship and What to Expect When You’re Expecting. On the other hand, for pigs like me, the scene of her emerging from the ocean in a yellow bikini is indelible. It’s probably one of the best bikini scenes of any movie ever made. It completely overshadows a similar, less bombastic but still impressive moment featuring Aniston. Then again, what does it say about this film that these are by far the two best scenes? Other than causing envy in lots of viewers wishing that their own sexual dilemma is having to choose between these two ladies, it doesn't speak well. The only thing I clearly heard the movie say is Adam Sandler has lots of money and will spend any amount of it for a piece of ass.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Favorite War Movies

Truth told, war movies are not my favorite genre. That said, there is nothing quite so visceral as a well done battle scene, and not much as gut-wrenching as a film that cuts to the heart of war. The simple fact of the matter is that war is, unfortunately, one of the most innately human things depicted on the screen. That said, I have to say thanks to all of my fellow vets out there. Enjoy Veteran's Day and check out one or more of my...

5 Favorite War Movies

5. Apocalypse Now
General: Francis Ford Coppola
Conflict: The Vietnam War
This is Francis Ford Coppola at a time when he could seemingly do no wrong. We follow Benjamin L. Willard, played by an amazing Martin Sheen, go on a manhunt for one of the United States' own, Col. Walter E. Kurtz. Apparently, Kurtz has gone crazy and needs to be eliminated. Marlon Brando delivers the goods as the nutso colonel. The rest of the cast also turns in stellar work. Included are Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall, and a pubescent Laurence Fishburne. They help deliver Coppola's anti-war vision to the screen. This is arguably the best movie ever made about Vietnam.

4. Glory
General: Edward Zwick
Conflict: The Civil War
An oft-neglected component of American history, both educational and cinematic, is the contribution of black soldiers to the efforts of the Union Army during the Civil War. More than any other, Glory is the film that drives home the point that African Americans were not merely spectators in the decisive battle over the legality of slavery. Cpt. Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is tasked with heading up an all black company. They are given only menial task which gives us ample time to get to know them. Boy, do we ever, thanks to stellar work from Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Andre Braugher (making his big screen debut), among others.

3. Schindler's List
General: Steven Spielberg
Conflict: World War II
Schindler's List is different from most war movies in that the focus is not on the people actively fighting. Here, our protagonist is Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson). He's a German businessman who is a member of the Nazi party. However, his life becomes saving Jews from persecution and execution while maintaining the appearance of loyalty to the Nazi's. It's an epic in every sense of the word. This includes its villain, Amon Goeth, played by Ralph Fiennes being as unlikable as is humanly possible.

2. Full Metal Jacket
General: Stanley Kubrick
Conflict: The Vietnam War
Let's just get this out of the way, now. The opening half of Full Metal Jacket is the best depiction of boot camp ever committed to film, period. What R. Lee Ermey does as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is nothing short of perfect. The same goes for Vincent D'Onofrio as Private "Pyle". I've seen both men in many things since but whenever I do, this movie immediately comes to mind. The second half, which includes neither, has been so overshadowed, people seem to forget it even exists. I'm not here to tell you it's just as good as the first half, but I will say that is excellent in its own right.

1. Saving Private Ryan
General: Steven Spielberg
Conflict: World War II
What Saving Private Ryan does better than perhaps any movie not made during the silent film era is tell its story through action. Sure there's plenty of exposition in the name of character development, but it's the battle scenes that not only thrill us, they tell us what's going on. Of course, what's going on is the seemingly impossible extraction of one soldier, Private Ryan (Matt Damon) from the front lines of World War II after it is learned that his three brothers have all been killed. Damon is good, but as his commanding officer, Tom Hanks is great. It's some of his best work, in my opinion. The rest of the cast is also great and too numerous to name. And yes, the Omaha Beach scene that opens the movie is the most tense battle scene of them all.

Some other great war movies (chronologically)...

Paths of Glory (1957)
The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Patton (1970)
Das Boot (1981)
A Soldier's Story (1984)
Platoon (1986)
Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
The Hurt Locker (2008)
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Girl Model

Directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin.
2011. Not Rated, 78 minutes.
Ashley Arbaugh
Nadya Vall
Tigran Khachatrian
Rachel Blais

The very first thing we see is a room filled with hundreds of very young, hopeful Russian girls in bikinis. Most of them are tall and frighteningly thin. There are some adults giving them the once-over. They say things like “She’s too short,” and “Her hips are too wide.” Soon, we meet Nadya. She is a thirteen year old girl from Siberia who meets the criteria better than any of the other girls. Her prize for winning the genetic lottery is a professional modeling contract. She is flown from Russia to Japan because, as Ashley puts it, she’s perfect for the Japanese market. Indeed, her facial features are quite like a female character in anime. More to Ashley’s point, she’s not only very young, she looks it. Since immigration laws in Japan require anyone wishing to stay in the country to be employed, Nadya is given a contract that guarantees her at least two modeling jobs and $8000 (USD). Her family could definitely use the money.

You may have noticed I mentioned the name Ashley. She is a scout and hand-picked Nadya. She travels all over the globe searching for models, most of which she sends to Japan. She receives a commission from Switch Modeling Agency for every girl sent. Ashley is also deeply conflicted about what she does for a living. Once a model, she understands the lifestyle is not all glitz and glamour. She knows that the modeling industry chews girls up and spits them out at an alarming rate. Now she helps feed the beast. It is a job she doesn’t seem to like. Through old footage that she took of herself back in 1999, we gather she didn’t much like being a model, either. Then why do what she does? It’s so simple, I’ve already given you the answer. That commission she is paid is a handsome one. It has enabled her to buy a large secluded house in the hills of Connecticut. There is also the allure of all that globe trotting.

We follow both Ashley and Nadya, getting to see both sides of the coin. Largely, it boils down to us watching Nadya get exploited, along with roommate and fellow Ashley recruit Madlen, then seeing Ashley speak sadly about her role in that exploitation while trying unsuccessfully to take inventory of her emotions. On the other hand, we see her smile broadly in the face of clients and models. She also gives a television interview where every word she says is a blatant lie. Occasionally, we see the heads of two agencies. The Russian guy, Tigran, at least pretends, maybe even believes that he’s doing a good thing for these girls. His Japanese counterpart, oddly named Messiah, just says things no one with even just an inkling of the way the world works would possibly think are true. It all adds up to a powerful dissertation on the corrupting power of money and the shameless mistreatment of young girls. To call what we see unethical business practices is understating it quite a bit. For instance, Nadya’s contract includes a clause that the agency can change it any time they want for any reason, with or without her knowledge or consent. Of course, this includes what they will actually pay her.

For the most part, the filmmakers stay out of the way. This works as a way to let the story tell itself. However, there are a number of occasions where I wanted them to inject themselves a bit more. For starters, let’s go back to that moment with the head of the Japanese agency. He says some damning things when they pressed him just a bit. A little more might really have been revealing. The movie also only hints at, but never really explores the overwhelming sense of pedophilia that seems to be driving things. The constant push for newer and younger girls is disturbing. It gets mentioned a few times by some interviewees, Ashley included, but they mainly shrug it off as if to say “Oh well, what can you do?” No effort is made to dive any deeper than that.

Girl Model also resists the urge to become a rant on what affect the industry has on the self-esteem of girls worldwide. That’s certainly a worthy topic, but not one that fits here. However, we do see the girls purposely rebelling against the strict standards they are kept to concerning their bodies. For example, Nadya and Madlen gorge themselves on candy in an effort to be sent home since their modeling gig is not what they thought it was. They are aware that those wonderful contracts they signed says that they can be released if they gain as little as one centimeter on any of the measurements taken of them when they first arrived in Japan.

We finish the movie with a deep dislike for just about everyone on the business side of the industry. Our strongest feelings are reserved for Ashley. She seems to know she’s part of a slimy machine, but always rationalizes her actions with her own selfish reasoning. We’re not so sure how to feel about Nadya and her family. Because of their financial situation, we struggle whether to blame them for being complicit in her exploitation. Furthermore, does it cease to even be exploitation if she is one of the few who make it big. Tough questions are raised and that’s precisely why GM deserves to be seen. However, it is not all it can be because it doesn’t really try to answer any of them.