Zombieland: Double Tap

Release: Friday, October 18, 2019

→On Demand

Written by: Rhett Reese; Paul Wernick; Dave Callaham

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer

I’m not much of a zombie guy but I have a lot of time for Zombieland. The original, now over a decade old, was this fun little hang-out movie set at the end of the world, a nice, self-contained story that took the zombie threat about as seriously as any movie needs to in my opinion. Its energy was propelled by banter and pop culture references almost in equal measure, as a group of strangers tried to survive a particularly bad outbreak of a disease that turned cows mad and people into, well, ravenous bloodthirsty creatures.

The last time we saw the old crew, they — the rule-making Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Twinkie-loving tough-guy Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and the clever and resourceful sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) — were leaving the scene of a major zombie beat-down at an amusement park somewhere in California. It seemed to me and I think to pretty much everybody that this was a natural end to their story. Clearly director Ruben Fleischer didn’t have enough closure and in 2019 he dropped the long-not-awaited sequel, hoping to recapture at least some of the magic from the first.

As it turns out, he was on to something.

When it comes to style, Zombieland: Double Tap — the name is inspired by Rule #2 in Columbus’ handy little survival guide — definitely has it. That’s because it is pretty much the same movie, now with Homers, Hawkings and T-800s (suborders of zombie that are hilariously dumb, horrifyingly intelligent and near-impossible to kill, respectively) thrown in the mix. The flashy presentation is a carbon copy, right down to certain camera angles and motifs — scenes of Woody Harrelson briefly losing it in a fit of rage and of gnarly zombie kills choreographed sublimely to the blasting guitars of Metallica . . . oh, and the neat little thing the editors do with the on-screen text, integrating words into the environment in some really creative ways.

It’s the way Fleischer justifies all the time in between that makes Double Tap a surprisingly substantive and sentimental update. It helps to have your entire original cast return and to have the caliber actors who can easily slip back into character like no time has passed and yet still convey that it has. This is a sequel that not only benefits from consistency, but a natural sense of evolution. While most of them don’t look like they’ve aged (and Eisenberg is almost comically eternally boyish), Abigail Breslin was a mere 12 years old at the time Zombieland was filmed. The young actor has done the most growing up and shrewdly Fleischer and his writing team offer the sequel as a coming-of-age story where, effectively, every A-lister in the movie defers to her arc, even Eisenberg and Stone, whose Columbus and Wichita are dealing with their own little fall-out after the former proposes the one thing that scares the latter more than any zombie — marriage.

Through a combination of cabin fever and having tired of Tallahassee’s overly protective quasi-parenting, Little Rock desperately seeks independence, eventually crossing paths with a pacifist named Berkeley (Avan Jogia) who whisks her away to this zombie-free utopia called Babylon where guns and troublemakers are the only things unwelcome. The resulting movie becomes another cross-country adventure that, along with culturing the viewer in the diaspora of post-apocalyptic American landmarks, introduces some solid new supporting characters en route to reuniting with Little Rock.

Thomas Middleditch and Luke Wilson pop up briefly, mostly to get turned into zombies, but not before serving up a surprisingly effective and protracted doppelgänger gag, while Rosario Dawson is in as Nevada, who is pitched not just as an obvious savior for Harrelson’s lonely soul but also his intellectual/emotional equal — one of my out-and-out favorite scenes in either movie is the hostile manner in which they first meet near Graceland.

And we may have lost Bill Murray along the way, but Double Tap does counter-offer Zoey Deutch in what is easily the movie’s stand-out performance, playing this total space cadet named Madison who, relative to this narrative at least, comes from a shopping mall freezer and adds this whole other whacky dynamic to the mix. Instead of being an annoyance her dumb-blonde archetype is the movie’s revelation and I for one would recommend the movie on her contributions alone. Her Madison becomes a part of the crew’s growing pains and really inspires some good reactions from Emma Stone.

Anyone who has sat through a Zoolander 2 or a Dumb & Dumber To or — yikes! — an Independence Day: Resurgence knows not to trust the ten-year belated sequel. In fact it almost feels like Double Tap breaks the rules by actually being good, that oh so rare justified sequel that delivers both on world-expansion and character growth while never abandoning the breezy narrative formula that made the original a hit. With a cast this good, it’s easy to keep the good times rolling even when the world is falling apart around you.

I know. I know it’s a spoiler. But it’s just too good not to share.

Recommendation: I’m having serious debates with myself over which movie is better. I’m actually leaning toward the sequel. Think about it. A sequel has to do something extra just to draw even with, be as good as, its predecessor. A good original movie debuts with no standard set against it. Double Tap has to overcome familiarity and it does that really well by introducing some quality new characters and perhaps most importantly by keeping the tone light. There’s a version of these movies that could be really dark, like The Road dark; remembering back to Columbus’ narration in the original about how everyone has been made an orphan in the wake of the virus. But these are stoner comedies of equal value. The fact Double Tap outgrossed its predecessor might be the strongest testament to that.

Rated: R

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “There I was, hiding in the woods, when I thought, ‘I used to live in a freezer, so why not a freezer on wheels?”

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Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

It Comes at Night

Release: Friday, June 9, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Trey Edward Shults

Directed by: Trey Edward Shults

Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore feature It Comes at Night is a psychological horror film that traps the audience along with two families in an abandoned house in the woods that, over the course of a slow-burning 90 minutes, turns into a cauldron of fear, mistrust and paranoia as they try to survive an unnatural threat that is terrorizing the world.

In his 2014 debut, the critically-acclaimed comedy-drama Krisha, Shults kept things in the family by casting several of his own relatives, including his aunt in the lead. It was an inspired decision that rewarded Shults with both the Grand Jury and Audience Award at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival and plenty of post-festival buzz. His preoccupation with the family dynamic continues here, with the story centered firmly around a patriarch, Paul, played by Joel Edgerton, who must negotiate a tricky situation when he, his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) are discovered by another survivor.

In 2017, Shults is keeping things brutally real. It Comes at Night is a punishing, indie-esque horror/thriller hybrid that proves to err is indeed human, except during the apocalypse, where it becomes pretty much fatal. The story remains a simple and grim portrait of survivalism. Shults spares not one second in establishing a tone of solemnity as the movie opens with the euthanasia of an older family member who seems to be in the final stages of something awful. Gone are the days of hospice care; now when they get sick we simply dump our loved ones in a shallow grave and light them on fire. Forced to take part in these unpleasantries, Travis starts to have recurring nightmares.

Preexisting tensions get ratcheted up another notch when a young man named Will (Christopher Abbott) stumbles upon their remote outpost. While being interrogated by Paul, having spent the night gagged and bound to a tree, he explains he has come looking for water, that he didn’t know the house was occupied, and that he’s legitimately desperate. After some thoughtful beard-stroking Paul decides that at the very least, the newcomer doesn’t seem sick. He will travel with Will to trade for supplies as Will claims to have an abundance of food. Sarah suggests they bring Will’s wife and child back with them so they can increase their security against any future break-ins. (Plus, you know, it’d be nice having company around other than the Grim Reaper.)

Details of what caused the catastrophe remain sparse throughout the film. We don’t even know much about what it is that ails us, other than it’s contracted through physical contact. And that it’s bad. Really bad. There’s something distressing about the unknown and Shults exploits that fear to extreme effect, accumulating all of the film’s miseries and supposed lesson-learning into one spectacularly devastating finale from which you will need days to recover. It’s an admonishment for our predictable behavior, for when we, even in the most desperate of situations, just can’t help but try to fuck each other over. The nihilism on display is both tragic and refreshingly honest.

Recommendation: To be perfectly blunt: if steamy sex scenes as rewards for characters who have endured the impossible are what you seek from your movies, you’re standing in the wrong line. But for those who appreciate horror that doesn’t condescend or stoop to the lowest common denominator, and that is harsh as all hell, they’ll find much to latch onto with this beast. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 mins.

Quoted: “If they’re sick, then I am too.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

X-Men: Apocalypse

'X Men - Apocalypse' movie poster

Release: Friday, May 27, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Bryan Singer; Simon Kinberg; Michael Dougherty; Dan Harris

Directed by: Bryan Singer

In the midst of Magneto’s metal-throwing rampage, a burning hot ember of emotion buried deep underneath the rapidly cooling coals of X-Men: Apocalypse, I glance over to find my friend fast asleep, head buried into his shoulder and a small puddle of drool starting to form. All I could do was smile, really. It was the perfect summation of everything I was feeling on the inside throughout much of Bryan Singer’s fourth go-around as the helmer of this most consistently inconsistent of superhero film franchises.

For about an hour I couldn’t come to terms with the disparity in quality between Singer’s previous installment and his latest; how is it possible to be so enthralled by one entry and bored to tears with the next? Seeing as though I wasn’t someone put off by the tweaks made to X-Men history in Days of Future Past, I then had the troubling thought that I was still better off than the purists, those who had a lot more invested in these adaptations.

Apocalypse is, if nothing else, a perfectly good waste of Oscar Isaac’s talents. As the titular super-villain En Sabah Nur, Isaac couldn’t look more disinterested. Was part of the plan caking the man in make-up to the point where his disgust over the poor (and I mean really poor) script would be concealed? If it was, that plan failed. In the early going Nur rises from the dead in modern (well, 1983) Egypt after being entombed under tons of rubble resulting from a last-second violent uprising that occurred during an attempt to transfer his consciousness into another mortal body. He quickly learns of how modern society has come to be and is profoundly disturbed by it. Like Tony Stark’s ultimate fuck-up, the Ultron program, Nur/Apocalypse is big on the cleansing of mankind but very slight when it comes to personality. (It’s a little painful to be comparing an Oscar-caliber actor’s charisma here to that of a robot, but here we are.)

Nur’s extinction-level plans simply boil down to nostalgia for them good ole days. With a perpetual scowl set upon his seasick-looking face, he sets about bestowing untold amounts of power upon already powerful, albeit vulnerable, mutants the world over, enticing them to join him in his effort to restore world order. His recruits include the likes of Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp); Warren Worthington III/Angel (Ben Hardy); Elizabeth Braddock/Psylocke (Olivia Munn); and Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). While each character’s alter egos manage to jump off the page from a visual standpoint, no one other than Magneto is given anything to do. Even their action scenes register as perfunctory.

Elsewhere, mutants both new and old are . . . doing something. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is professing at the school where he professes things, teaching students to learn how to accept being gifted with powers; Magneto, prior to being wooed by the job offer from the False God, is eking out a quieter existence in Poland following the disastrous events in Washington D.C.; Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is continent-hopping as a mercenary-for-hire, rescuing fellow mutants from their current miseries all while denying her heroism. The false modesty is soooo Katniss Everdeen Gwyneth Paltrow. And we are reacquainted with sidekickers like Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult); Jean Gray/Phoenix (Sophie Turner); Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan); and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodie Smit-McPhee).

Aside from the dismal performance from Isaac, one that reminded me more than once of the kind of collapse Eddie Redmayne had in Jupiter Ascending last year, Apocalypse suffers from a total lack of enthusiasm in reintroducing its sprawling cast. The characters themselves, of course, are universally welcomed back, yet their presences aren’t so much felt as they are foisted upon audiences expecting an epic action spectacular. (More on that in a little bit.) It was during these protracted intros where my mind started to really wander, where my head started sitting heavy in the palm of my hand. ‘Why is this girl in front of me constantly reaching out towards the screen? Like, does she know someone in this thing or something?’ ‘Is she having spasms?’ ‘Do I need to call a doctor?’ Thoughts no one should be having during a film that features so many likable and unique characters, a film steeped in mythology now 15 years in the cinematic making, I was totally having, and constantly. It was as if Charles Xavier had somehow gained access to my cerebral cortex. Leave my cerebral cortex alone, Charles.

There is actually a defense against critics blasting Apocalypse for lacking originality in its ambitions to out-epic the competition. Sometimes a ‘back-to-basics’ approach can be rewarding. You can simplify the thrust of the narrative to the ultimate in superhero standoffs, wherein all roads to the end of days run through mutants brave enough to face up to Nur and his four horsemen. Unfortunately in this case there is such a lackadaisical attitude in bringing back the characters to face their toughest test. This is in some ways one of the most personal outings for the X-Men yet, but this latest installment feels cold and detached. Much of that can be traced to Isaac’s prominence, though the build-up to the climactic fight is just as off-putting.

Look no further than said capstone battle. Hasn’t Singer learned anything from the Bay’s and the Emmerich’s? Threat of annihilation by virtue of large-scale, pixelated destruction isn’t really a threat at all. In fairness, Singer tries to make up for some of the transgressions by ripping himself off and including another über-slow-mo sequence that shows off the greatness that is Quicksilver. That’s gotta count for something in the way of originality, right?

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Recommendation: If we’re talking hierarchy of awesomeness, X-Men: Apocalypse is a tier or two down from Singer’s previous output, Days of Future Past because it doesn’t express the same level of enthusiasm nor does the story work as cohesively as the ones that have come before it. The clichés are much harder to escape here as are the cheesy one-liners and there’s a sense of franchise fatigue. A poor performance from Oscar Isaac doesn’t help matters either. Still, there’s enough here to say I’m willing to see where the franchise goes from here. I’m also liking how the past is catching up to “the present.” It’s an interesting way to build a full and complete picture of the X-Men universe. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 144 mins.

Quoted: “Does it ever wake you in the middle of the night? The feeling that one day, they’ll come for you? And your children?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.cinemablend.com

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Scouts Guide movie poster

Release: Friday, October 30, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Christopher Landon; Carrie Evans; Emi Mochizuki

Directed by: Christopher Landon

Where will you be when the apocalypse happens? With any luck, within reach of your trusty Swiss Army Knife!

Yes, I saw this film and yes I chose to watch it in a theater. Now that you’re doubting my credibility, I’ll try and stage a comeback here by arguing that watching zombies getting their heads lopped off by a trio of high school-aged scouts on a big screen carries with it a certain level of satisfaction. Satisfaction of the oh-man-I’m-pretty-buzzed-right-now-and-this-movie-is-already-better-because-of-it variety. Wait, I guess you can still do that at home. But the big screen. Okay, yeah, that’s my saving grace. It’s just on a bigger screen.

The film’s title leaves little to the imagination, which isn’t much of a surprise. What’s even more clear is how time-sensitive a film it is. Clearly pumped out just in time to make a beeline for the wallets of any teen who’s grown out of the trick-or-treating phase, Scouts Guide still manages to fall short of its potential. And this was a potentially very fun movie.

Christopher Landon (who’s behind Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) settles for a nonchalant, dare I say inept, style of directing that neither allows his talented cast nor interesting premise (I’m getting ahead of myself — potential premise) to flourish. Instead of gritting its teeth and plowing headlong into the realm of the ridiculous, his film instead retreats into yet another all-too-comfortable suburban tale of a group of innocent high schoolers who end up becoming the least-likely saviors of a very small town. I take less of an issue with the scope of the outbreak as I do with how pedestrian this affair becomes.

I’m complicit in this too, though: I bought a ticket. I gambled too much on the unique title.

Long time friends Ben (Tye Sheridan), Carter (Logan Miller) and Augie (Joey Morgan) are out on a camping trip as the last of a dying breed at their high school. They’re seemingly the only ones interested in Boy Scouts, but it’s Augie who is all gung-ho about the experience. The other two have resigned themselves to simply giving Augie moral support as neither of them believe in their extracurricular activities anymore, particularly when being led by Supreme Dork Scout Leader Rogers (David Koechner). During their camp-out the three have a semi-falling out when Augie catches the others sneaking off in the middle of the night to attend a party. Because, high school.

Soon weird things start happening, weird things that have been alluded to from the film’s ridiculous opening, a scene featuring Blake Anderson in an amusing but all too brief cameo. Inexplicably the gang are caught off-guard by a hoard of zombies who were, presumably, regular, tax-paying citizens. They form an alliance with a cocktail waitress — not a stripper (played with refreshing honesty by Sarah Dumont) — and begin fending off waves of lame zombies. They retreat away from the very convenience store they were earlier trying to dupe into selling them alcohol using a random drunk to do the dirty work, seeking shelter in a neighborhood that may or may not be relevant. Who cares.

Simultaneously the film retreats into formulaic self-defense strategy quicker than you can say ‘Cloris Leachman.’ (She’s a highlight of the film, receiving a juicy zombie part where she gets to bite poor Augie in the ass.) I am fully prepared to admit this moment is worth the watch. It’s priceless. For everything else this gimmicky titled production promises, there’s MasterCard.

That doesn’t even make sense. Neither does the Britney Spears rendition in the middle of the movie, nor the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it homage to The Thing. Nor the movie as a whole. Sometimes that’s enough to be entertaining, but when the overall direction is so lackluster, a lack of logic is more apocalyptic than anything.

Recommendation: Falling well short of its limited potential, Scouts Guide is a mixture of lame acting, special effects, some boobs, and limited roles for both David Koechner and Blake Anderson. Film does feature a strong female lead in Sarah Dumont, and that is certainly worth mentioning. Everything else though is uninspired, quickly thrown together for those hungover on the day after Halloween. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 93 mins.

Quoted: “Why the f**k do you think everyone’s eating each other?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.collider.com; http://www.imdb.com

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Release: Friday, September 18, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: T.S. Nowlin

Directed by: Wes Ball

All this running and what, no exhaustion? One would think these kids were all born Olympians but in the interest of staying alive, I suppose running is what one must do. Wouldn’t it be funny though if Thomas just suddenly stopped in his tracks and pulled a Forrest Gump . . . and not the spry, hungry-for-life Forrest Gump we most often recall, I’m talking about the generally-over-life Forrest Gump: “. . . I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.”

Actually, I’ll admit that that was something I said towards the end of this ever-plodding, aimless sequel to last year’s sci fi adventure about a group of boys who are herded together and put into a mysterious maze-like complex with little chance of escaping, and even less chance of getting laid, but I guess that’s not part of it. Where the franchise-opener benefitted from originality — a relative term seeing as though this marks yet another Young Adult film adaptation designed to entertain all those youngsters with fewer things to say to one another thanks to their nifty iPads and SnapChat customizability — The Scorch Trials retreats into the shadows of its predecessor.

Wes Ball continues feeling uninspired in his adaptation of the James Dashner series, expanding the setting from a cramped ‘maze’ to a world overrun by sand dunes and crumbling edifice, assuming bigger automatically means better. The Scorch refers to the territory that lies beyond the confines of the facility Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) have since been taken to having escaped the glade. This is a place where they can mingle with the many other maze survivors. While they have been provided comfortable beds and proper meals three times a day, Thomas is unable to shake the feeling that they’re still under the control of WCKD, a mysterious organization supposedly created to find a cure for whatever nearly wiped out the entire human race.

The compound’s leader, a thoroughly generic Aiden Gillen (through no fault of his own) as Janson, tries to ensure Thomas that nothing sinister is afoot. But because Thomas is The Chosen One, he doesn’t believe him and has to find out what’s really going on. He meets loner Aris (Jacob Lofland) who shows him a secret passageway that leads them to discovering the horrible truth: indeed this place isn’t a safe house, it’s a testing laboratory. Indeed, this is as dystopian as The Scorch Trials gets. Bodies hooked up to machines, aligned in row after row after row as far as the eye can see. A literal body farm. The scene is fairly reminiscent of Neo’s horrifying discovery when he wakes up in the Real World after taking that red pill.

Finally, enough’s enough for Thomas. He decides he’s going to flex and bust out of this facility, taking along with him his loyal followers despite their hesitation. The remainder of the film sees the group, with the addition of two newcomers in Dexter Darden’s Frypan and Alexander Flores’ Winston, venturing out into the wasteland where they face death at the hands of zombie-like creatures known as Cranks, death by brutal exposure to the sun, and death by starvation, which appears to be the last thing these hardened warriors are going to succumb to. Even with scant resources, these kids seem impervious to hunger pangs. Thomas sets his sights on locating a group of mountain-dwelling people, survivors who have banded together to form The Right Arm, a primitive army ready to strike back at WCKD for their experimentation on whatever remains of mankind.

It is with this outlying community — the sequel’s raison d’être — Thomas attempts to join forces and plot a retaliation against WCKD. It helps to think of Thomas as a diet version of Gerard Butler’s Leonidas, leading his fearless (or just speechless) men and a couple of female survivors of another maze into battle against a likely insurmountable force. I suppose this development, especially after miles of plodding through desert, generates some excitement for the next chapter, The Death Cure. The Scorch Trials does end in a rather intense gunfight that, while wholly predictable given at this point in the film anything fits into that category, by comparison feels quite thrilling.

By the time we’ve stopped running it’s unfortunately all too apparent that The Scorch Trials is a tread-water sequel, offering too many action set pieces and too few character enriching moments. O’Brien still isn’t a very engaging screen presence, though he’s far from unlikable. Save for Barry Pepper, who pops up out of nowhere as a bearded post-apocalyptic hippie named Vince and Giancarlo Esposito as the mysterious Jorge, the adult roles either aren’t worth discussing (Patricia Clarkson and Alan Tudyk apparently are in this movie) or they simply don’t exist. That’s less of an issue in the grander scheme of things though, as I’m confident there was enough adult supervision on set of this middling action adventure flick aimed at audiences still having to sneak into films with an R rating.

Recommendation: I should probably emphasize this review is written from the perspective of someone who has not read the book series, nor the prequel series. I typically do not read source material before seeing a film but in this case, I’m wondering if having prior exposure to this world might enhance at the very least the performances. Having some sort of comparison between what the director gets right and what he chooses to do away with (according to some that was actually quite a lot) might’ve added to the experience. As a newcomer, I just couldn’t find a way into this. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 132 mins.

Quoted: “I’m a Crank. I’m slowly going crazy. I keep wanting to chew off my own fingers and randomly kill people.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Terminator Genisys

Release: Wednesday, July 1, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Laeta Kalogridis; Patrick Lussier

Directed by: Alan Taylor

He’s back . . . but is he better?

Of course the answer to that one is pretty easy. Arnie himself admits it, deflecting by describing himself as “old but not obsolete” in key moments where the action lulls and the characters just have to say something. Terminator Genisys is not nearly the disaster its predecessor was but doesn’t that feel more like a kick to the metallic groin than anything else? Alan Taylor’s follow-up is more complicated than any cyborg’s internal structure, it’s frenetically paced and pretty long but it does make good on reintroducing the franchise’s iconic T-800 in his (now-creaky) glory, as well as providing some unexpected comic relief that plays on both the franchise’s longevity and Genisys‘ conceptual convolution.

This film, as much as it likes to tout the return of Arnie, is primarily concerned with the prevention of Judgment Day, as John Connor (Jason Clarke) leads the final charge against the machines amid the dire apocalyptic wasteland of the present-day established in Terminator Salvation. Seemingly having just watched X-Men: Days of Future Past, Connor believes humanity’s last hope is to send someone back in time to 1984 to kill Skynet before it becomes . . . you know, all corrupt and stuff. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) volunteers for the mission, desperate to meet up with Sarah Connor (Khaleesi Emilia Clarke) who will be instrumental in the preventative attack. Naturally, all does not go according to plan as a cyborg in the “present” makes it known that no matter what kind of effort humans will put forth, Skynet will come out on top.

Genisys spends much of its time weaving together parallel timelines, one in which Kyle Reese has existed and another that is completely foreign to him. Given the narrative structure, it’d be a great idea to refresh yourself on your history. I didn’t, and my head hurt because of it. While the mission itself is relatively straightforward — prevent Genisys, a Google-esque “app” capable of syncing more than just your nifty devices, from coming into being (a countdown clock helps in pinpointing our position relative to the dreaded ultimatum) — the execution requires real brainwork. Genisys, more simply put, is the physical means through which Skynet would eventually spread globally in computer servers.

In some senses it’s refreshing to be in the company of a blockbuster that makes you think but there are so many throwbacks to the original and T-2 that sighing and giving up halfway through becomes inevitable when one too many fight sequences occur between the real T-800 and his digitized forms, not to mention a T-1000 reminiscent of Robert Patrick’s shape-shifter. There’s a distinct Jurassic World insipidness about the way in which the film can’t break free from the pre-established, and yet new twists abound, the details of which I won’t reveal in order to keep some of the confusion sacred for those wanting to stay in the dark. Needless to say . . . well, actually it isn’t needless but I’ll say it anyway: Matt Smith plays a role in Genisys‘ major deception.

What’s most impressive about Alan Taylor’s revisitation of these hallowed grounds is his ability to skirt around the events of the third and fourth installments. While it does use Salvation‘s final rally against Skynet as a launch pad for its intricate time traveling plot, Genisys feels more inspired by James Cameron’s world building. We quickly leave the present behind (the year is 2017 — I think) and join forces with a younger but less brash Sarah Connor and an aging T-800 who is trying to blend in more with society, at least according to Sarah. In Genisys everyone’s favorite Terminator is wittier, talkier, more conscious of those around him. The essence of the character remains in tact though a mainstream appeal has certainly been foisted upon him. It’s a credit to Schwarzenegger that his identity isn’t lost in the shuffle; he is still very much a good reason to see this film.

More difficult to embrace is Jai Courtney’s blank-slate Kyle Reese who is reminiscent of Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s soldier in Godzilla, for all intents and purposes an everyman slotted right in between two significant character arcs: Sarah’s relationship with the Terminator and with her son John, but ironically and unfortunately Courtney’s ill-equipped to carry the burden. His Reese won’t be any more, though probably not less, memorable than Anton Yelchin’s from 2009. And despite her best efforts Emilia Clarke doesn’t fare much better as the former-waitress-turned-gun-enthusiast. Together these steadily rising talents are meant to uphold Taylor’s vision of a world where humanity has its best chance of breaking Skynet’s brutal grip but they simply feel out of their depth in a story this large, especially when standing beside Schwarzenegger.

Of course, this is a franchise steeped in fascinating science fiction rather than award-winning performances. It’s getting old but it’s not quite obsolete. Not yet anyway. There’s plenty to enjoy for diehards. But with an emphasis on action and metal-on-metal showdowns it’ll prove challenging even for those viewers to juggle story and spectacle for two-plus hours. Taylor doesn’t have a good sense of pacing and seems far too eager to move on to the next set piece, which he’ll soon destroy for good measure. That becomes very problematic when dealing with timelines functioning in the present, past and future.

“Be quiet Arnie — Jai and I are trying to have chemistry.”

Recommendation: Alan Taylor manages to justify lengthening the Terminator saga, but barely. There’s a ton of narrative clutter in this film and it will leave a great many scratching their heads on their way out the door. But for simple pleasures, like seeing Arnie back in action, and crazy big explosions, the film delivers. There is a post-credits scene that nearly everyone in my screening missed out on by leaving too soon so be sure to stick around for that! 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “I’ve been waiting for you.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Maggie

Release: Friday, May 8, 2015

[iTunes]

Written by: John Scott III

Directed by: Henry Hobson

In defense of a very deliberately paced, melancholic film misleadingly billed as a thriller, Maggie serves as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s finest hour (and a half).

Of course, describing Arnie’s role here as the best thing he’s ever done may seem a relative compliment. There has been no shortage of instances in the past where he has invited parodical criticism without trying. Admittedly memorable, if not slightly comic phrases — most lasting no more than five words or so — have come to define the hulking Austrian and his career as an actor.

It’s just as understandable that many would automatically dismiss as fruitless any attempt he might make to go another direction; to not use his accent as a term of endearment or his muscular bulk, now slipping a bit in his older age, as a force to be reckoned with. When it comes to Henry Hobson’s directorial debut all that remains of the familiar Arnie is his larger-than-life physicality, but even that is somewhat tempered by Claire Breaux‘s suitably understated wardrobe selection.

Rather than obliging himself as some sort of perceived menace or spectacle he’s simply Wade Vogel, a father who must sit and watch as his only daughter succumbs to a deadly virus that converts the living into flesh-craving zombies. Broad shoulders slump; a tough face wrought with wrinkles brought on by wariness. A spirit broken by the knowledge that the ugliness of this apocalyptic event has hit home since Maggie was somewhere she should not have been.

Triumphing over the ubiquitousness of a zombie apocalypse is the love Wade has for his daughter (Abigail Breslin). The relationship is front-and-center, making the film steadily more challenging to endure. Maggie takes its time in tracking the virus as it takes hold of her, though the slow burn isn’t done any favors by the ‘thriller’ classification. There are as many thrills in Maggie as there are desperate pleas from Arnie for his family to get to a chopper. Still, where there isn’t much in the way of action and excitement there also isn’t really a place for it in this deeply personal examination of a family in crisis.

It almost goes without saying that Arnie’s young co-star delivers a heartrending performance as well. This isn’t quite as memorable a lead as her beauty pageant hopeful in Little Miss Sunshine, yet Maggie is a role she can be truly proud of. Breslin embraces a thoroughly challenging character arc, effecting a personality that’s easy to empathize with. Of course, she is a teenaged girl and this is the apocalypse, so who knows what she’d be like under different circumstances. That’s beside the point, though. Together, Breslin and Schwarzenegger make for a fantastic duo that instantly gives this story heft.

There is something to be said for Maggie‘s relentlessly bleak outlook. This isn’t a happy movie. A conclusion seen a mile away, there isn’t a great deal anyone (least of all Wade) can do except hope to be as prepared as possible when the illness takes over completely. A hauntingly beautiful score permeates deep, draped over many a scene like a dense fog, arguably contributing further to the sense of futility in fighting the inevitable.

Though the scene is a zombie outbreak, the allegory isn’t exactly hiding. Maggie’s torturous transition from human into something less than so — more accurately, Wade’s refusal to turn her over to the authorities, preferring to care for her as long as he can — undoubtedly reflects the strength of families afflicted by cancer and similarly devastating diseases. In that context especially, Schwarzenegger doesn’t seem to be the go-to guy. But he’s brilliant. He carries the burden of this tragedy so well it’s difficult to believe this was at one point (and soon to be again, apparently) the Terminator.

Recommendation: An emotionally devastating piece that doubles as a fascinating spin on the ever-popular zombie genre, Maggie isn’t for the casual watcher. This one takes a little determination, but the reward is watching Arnie transition from a physical to a true actor, and witnessing the chemistry he and the young and talented Abigail Breslin have together. That’s how I’d recommend the film: for great characters. I’d also recommend a couple tissues, they might come in handy. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 95 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Mad Max: Fury Road

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Release: Friday, May 15, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: George Miller; Brendan McCarthy; Nico Lathouris

Directed by: George Miller

For a lesser population, what a lovely day it is indeed, a day in which a franchise is reborn. To anyone else not attuned to what was once a legitimate excuse for Mel Gibson going crazy, Mad Max: Fury Road feels like what a Michael Bay action sequence wants to be when it grows up.

Before dealing with the flack I’m going to inevitably receive for that comparison, may I remind you that Bay, despite himself now, has a knack for building enthusiastic, explosive entertainment. Whereas the aforementioned splurges on expense, George Miller ingeniously . . . well, he splurges too actually. Except here a $150 million budget is appropriated toward some mind-blowingly technical stunt work that is liable to leave most breathless, begging for more.

Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is seen at the film’s deceptively quiet open recounting his days of hardship via a gruff narrative, briefly reflecting upon a troubled past before being snapped up by a passing horde of baddies, undoubtedly the inspiration for some of this year’s most popular Halloween costumes. Behold, the War Boys. He is taken to a strange and desperate civilization known as the Citadel, a relative oasis presided over by the tyrannical King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who keeps most of the communal water and greenery to himself and his minions.

Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, a shaven-headed, fearless amputee with a face covered in soot, finally has had enough of living in such conditions. She goes rogue, fleeing the Citadel in Joe’s ‘War Rig’ and down an indistinct but narratively significant path of sorts, bound for a better way of life. On board the Rig are Joe’s Five Wives — a collection of beauty that recalls Bay’s casting sensibilities. But Bay doesn’t go for talent, really. He just stops at ‘good-looking.’

Perhaps that’s the only thing Joe cares for as well. Enraged by the knowledge of their escape, he sicks the War Boys on the Rig, igniting a thunderous and violent chase across remote desert landscapes and into a sand storm that makes The Perfect Storm look like a gust of wind. Valleys become death gauntlets, their outer limits patrolled by bikers who are expecting a shipment of gasoline be delivered by Furiosa in exchange for her safe passage through. As sure as a Michael Bay car chase, more disaster awaits there.

Miller and Bay are both adrenaline junkies — the former addicted to cartoonish madness; the latter to closing the gap between CGI spectacle and cinema-related migraine. One of these addictions is healthier (at the very least, artsier) than the other. But the constant raucous atmosphere can be overwhelming for newcomers to this depraved world of half-dead humans clinging to life however they can. For a good portion of this ride Max is used as a blood bag to nurse Nux (Nicholas Hoult) back to . . . uh, health. And one of the Five Wives is very pregnant. This isn’t a thinking man’s movie, but if there’s one thing Fury Road is adept at other than delivering non-stop thrills, it’s showing humanity’s will to endure some crazy shit.

With Hardy replacing Gibson in the titular role, one that strangely bears less significance when put beside an iconic Charlize Theron, Fury Road threatens to abandon its cult classic status, exploding into potential box-office behemoth territory. Despite an outrageous, gothic dress code this costume design will likely remain one of the hottest topics of the summer. Maybe all year.

Apparently The Avengers: Age of Ultron is still playing in some theaters. Well, now there’s a new kid on the block and his name is Mad Max Absolutely Ridiculous. Decorated in war paint, yelling at the top of his lungs he demands you know his name. After spending two hours with him you aren’t likely to forget it. Perhaps that’s the most significant distinction between these auteurs of the action spectacular.

When you realize you left the GPS at home . . .

When you realize you left the GPS at home . . .

4-0Recommendation: Decidedly one-note when it comes to plot, Mad Max: Fury Road is still a unique experience — brutal and relentless action combined with beautiful visuals and a gung-ho spirit that fails to dwindle. Having seen the originals isn’t a necessity but I’d imagine it would help round out Max’s character more. Action junkies and fans of George Miller’s brand of filmmaking must see this movie. It’s a curious thing, too: there are two films coming out later this year (one this summer) with as much potential to deliver the goods and both indisputably appealing to larger audiences, but I wonder if these films will be as successful in recruiting new fans as Miller’s latest has been.

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “Hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.”

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Photo credits: http://www.southfloridafilmmaker.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Release: Friday, May 1, 2015

[RPX Theater]

Written by: Joss Whedon

Directed by: Joss Whedon

In the chaotic and climactic final twenty minutes a wistfulness arose within me, and though I didn’t let it fully disengage me from one of the year’s most ambitious CGI spectacles I was annoyed I let it happen. I knew it was going to, though. That feeling that, after all of this battling against the hype machine, this was it. This was all it could have been.

And of course it was; it makes sense. Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron may be the much-anticipated follow-up to that most grandiose uniting of superheroes from far-flung corners of the globe but in the end it is still just a movie. At two hours and twenty minutes it’s a lot of movie but even that kind of length ends up shortchanging those who have built this up in their heads as some kind of singular event. I honestly put the blame on Joss Whedon, though. Maybe if he hadn’t made Marvel’s The Avengers such a spectacular escape little old film fans like me wouldn’t have unfairly begun wielding our hopes and expectations like a shield of vibranium against which the man would have little hope of defending himself.

The one thing he won’t have to hope for is a solid box office presence, though. That’s perhaps the only thing that’s guaranteed about his new film.

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AGE OF JAMES SPADER

Age of Ultron arrives at a time when superhero movies have . . . okay, forget that. Instead: yay, summer! Rather than detangling the network of superhero film reel that’s enabled this one to happen, I think it’s best to cut to the chase and talk all things artificially intelligent and Hydra-related. Whedon wastes no time in appealing to our appropriately elevated adrenaline levels by introducing the gang kicking ass and taking names in the remote European nation of Sokovia, the location of a Hydra outpost. Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) has gotten a hold of Loki’s scepter and is using it to experiment on humans. His most notable creations become Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who take pleasure in being the collective thorn in the Avengers’ collective side.

Following their successful stand against some of Hydra’s henchmen, the Avengers return to headquarters and celebrate, but only briefly. Given Stark’s affinity for constantly tinkering with his creations he uses the A.I. he and Banner discover within the scepter to jumpstart his long-dormant and secretive Ultron project, a program he believes will be humanity’s best chance of living in a safer world.

Amidst one of the more memorable scenes — Thor ribbing his companions into trying to lift his hammer knowing full well none of them will succeed, only to be gobsmacked by Steve Rogers’ ability to actually influence it ever so subtly — a worst case scenario rears its ugly head as Ultron’s sentience rapidly exceeds Stark’s ability to control it. Ultron (voiced by James Spader) quickly deduces people are no good; that the only way Earth will be safe is to eradicate them. One thing I was impressed by was how my cynicism was put in perspective in the face of a vengeful, ten-foot tall robot with evil red eyes.

If there’s anything that bundles together Age of Ultron‘s dizzying number of thematic and physical ambitions it’s the notion that not everything created by a billionaire genius can be controlled. Not by him, and not even by Whedon. The arrival of a one-of-a-kind android in Spader, whose own image rather disappointingly supersedes that of his on-screen counterpart, heralds an age in which over-ambition, even born out of purely good intentions, very well might mean the downfall of everything. That’s obviously not going to be the case for the MCU. Still, this bloated sequel is not the joyride its predecessor was.

hulk-vs-the-hulkbuster

SUPERHERO FATIGUE V. SUPERHERO INDIFFERENCE

In propelling the complex mythos and relationships that have endeared millions to this lone property into the future, Whedon has incidentally obligatorily spawned an environment in which everything is expected to get more and more extreme. Unfortunately that’s kind of an issue that can be traced back to the Avengers’ cinematic birth in 2012. How the Infinity War sequels are supposed to top this is anyone’s guess, but there is no doubt Marvel will demand it from the Russo brothers. I suspect we are yet to enter the darkest days facing our fearless heroes, and if this middle film is a barometer of anything, it’s solemnity.

But like Man of Steel and The Amazing Spider-man, just because the story takes a darker turn — these properties are, after all, reflecting a reality that seems to be growing ever more hostile — this doesn’t discount Age of Ultron‘s potential to be an enjoyable summer getaway. Rather, I have found it easy to forget about that potential, and much more challenging to be as enthusiastic as Whedon’s canvas continues spreading to include lesser-known players, heroes who are admittedly cleverly worked into the picture, but who don’t mean as much if you haven’t done your Avengers homework. (And I am referring to the comics.) There’s something about the hatred Ultron directs primarily towards Tony Stark and secondarily to the human population at large that screams ‘classic movie villainy,’ yet the same can’t be said about Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch’s decision to shift loyalties.

Perhaps my detachment from the Maximoff twins, in particular, stems from my failure to be entertained by Elizabeth Olsen trying on a Russian accent. Equally distracting is Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Beach Boys hairdo. These two needed their own cinematic introduction before showing up in ostensibly pivotal roles here. The Vision means little to me, although his . . . odd genetic make-up is something to behold. If this all sounds like a personal problem, that’s because it likely is. Whereas some are experiencing the inevitable ‘superhero fatigue,’ I find I may have accidentally banished myself to the realm of superhero indifference.

What Age of Ultron ultimately assembles (and stop me when this sounds familiar) is an overstuffed extravaganza that tries, mostly succeeding, to incorporate as much of the popular Marvel legacy as a single film can handle before breaking and before turning off as many of its several hundred million viewers as possible. It’s the epitome of blockbuster in a blockbuster age. It’s a mighty compromise between getting really technical and remaining lowest-common-denominator entertainment. I feel as unique as the Avengers are, they deserve something not quite as mundane.

At the same time, what else could I have expected out of a summer movie? While I don’t feel like my expectations turned on me as drastically as Stark’s program did him, like him I am reluctant to admit it was pretty much my fault. . .

an-awkward-standoff

3-5Recommendation: Featuring Whedon’s trademark comic relief and ability to weave together multiple story lines, Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron unfortunately might signal what has been coming down the pipe for a long time. It’s a film of excess but also a film that minimizes enjoyment to pack in as much information and spectacle as possible. Diehards will no doubt lap this up. Anything less though, are sure to find things that could have been much better. A recommended watch in the large format, but unlike the first one I can’t say you need to see it twice in such a fashion. There is a mid-credits scene that you should stick around for.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “Everyone creates the thing they fear. Men of peace create engines of war. Avengers create invaders. Parents create children, that will supplant them.”

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Photo credits: http://www.moviepilot.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: End of Days (1999)

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HAPPY NEW YEAR PEEPS! My friends, get used to using the time stamp ‘2015.’ Because it is a brand new year, I think it’s definitely time for TBT to stage a comeback. I’m finally feeling refreshed on this thread, and I have quite a ridiculous number to blabber on about today. What’s tall, strong and rhymes with Fwarzenegger? That’s right, the star of

Today’s food for thought: End of Days.

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Haunting viewers half-assedly since: November 24, 1999

[DVD]

Schwarzenegger. Satan. Squaring off at the turn of the millennium.

Sounds great, right? And I mean, really, how much blame can one put on me for thinking the idea might lead to a pretty sweet movie way back when? (When was that ‘when?’ Let’s just go with whenever.) Well last night I discovered, amidst a haze of celebratory hellfire-and-brimstone smoke, that I had approximately 120 minutes’ worth of blame to assign myself for thinking that this lame supernatural thriller from Peter Hyams could cut the mustard.

Well that mustard must have been thick, or the un-cuttable kind, because that so didn’t happen. For a movie set at the height of anti-tech-based fear-mongering before the year 2000, this bloated production feels more obligatory than optional. Insipid instead of inspired. End of Days, despite a suitably ominous opening title sequence, winds up as a rather flaccid, albeit topical, film that yields very little in the way of scares and even less in terms of convincing performances. We’re surely not going to look to the big guy (for clarification, I mean Arnie) for the acting chops — he’s not exactly going to seduce the devil with a rousing performance independent of those spectacular pectorals. But if anyone else involved could have at least pretended that they looked at a script before signing on, that wouldn’t have been the worst sin committed that year.

Arnie can get away with looking more morose than he ever has because we wouldn’t want it any other way. Not when the Spawn of Satan is threatening to share potential screen time with him. The stakes have got to be high. So Arnie does. Tattered and torn by a past that still haunts him, Jericho Cane currently bides his time as an operative of a high-tech security team after throwing in the towel with the NYPD. The similarly jaded Bobby Chicago (I’m not making these names up), played by Kevin Pollak, functions more as a shadow and less of an independent character. He is plotted along a thoroughly predictable and entirely unoriginal character arc that only serves to contribute to a deep pool of genre cliches that gains great depth towards the end. Standing side-by-side with Jericho in a vast majority of scenes, he offers moral support for a man clearly in psychological peril. Jericho is a man who doesn’t believe in God anymore, but he better get his shit together quickly if he’s to save the world — more importantly, the party in Times Square — from what the title of this movie suggests.

On the last day of the first 1,000 years, it is said that the “ultimate personification of evil” shall rise and roam the Earth, searching for a lover to help create his offspring with. The consummation would in effect bring about the apocalypse. For all of this to work, the demon spirit will inhabit a human body to disguise itself until such an opportunity finally presents itself. Enter Gabriel Byrne, who has a hell of a time exercising his satanic side (though Al Pacino’s John Milton would like to have a sit-down with him as to how to properly effect unease in another without having to go full-on nutso). At least Byrne is one of a few involved who seems to be able to maintain the illusion he’s not dismayed by such an amateurish script. In End of Days, even Satan is predictable and boring.

I’m going to suggest something now that might read a little weird, but . . . shouldn’t Satan be precisely the opposite? Byrne tries mightily, but it’s to little avail. Every major moment his angry little man has recalls a much more inspired one Pacino had when interacting with Keanu Reeve’s heavily conflicted Kevin Lomax. It is a little unfair to make these comparisons but when it’s been done so much better only a couple years prior the inevitability is hard to fend off. However, where Byrne isn’t provided the story structure (and character development) required to provocatively suggest his supernatural power, he is given opportunity aplenty to graphically display his volatility.

End of Days makes sure to fulfill a certain quota. Blood and gore should garner nominations for their collective performance, attempting to cover up the film’s surfeit of shortcomings through sheer shock value. Outside of being paced like a snail, unnecessarily ambitious and poorly acted — with Robin Tunney at the center of that discussion — this is an often jarringly violent slog but at least the smatterings of bloodletting shock us into consciousness every now and again. They remind us of a story that is actually developing, but developing at such a languid pace it doesn’t really matter.

At the end of the day, Hyams’ film just isn’t very competent. I don’t mind (or much remember from the first viewing) the rehashing of elements from superior films in its genre, nor the laughably bad dialogue. Far more offensive is the fact it fails to develop any of its characters, or to even give much of a reason for anyone to do anything. I can get over the fact that Arnie haphazardly becomes the target of The Man in his apartment one evening. Hey, should you choose to spurn Satan’s advances he will become understandably pissed. I am even willing to overlook the inherent ridiculousness in early CGI rendering — with one sexually-charged scene coming to mind that seems destined to land on worst-shot scenes of the 20th Century — because, after all, this was before we knew it was ridiculous to think the world would cease to be after midnight on that night.

It’s a good thing that never happened, else I wouldn’t be able to continue enjoying my Arnie films like I have. His films haven’t really improved much but I frequently find myself enjoying them more freely than I was able to here. The lowering of one’s own standards is really put to the test in End of Days; that’s if you’re a fan of Mr. Universe butting heads with the Lord of Darkness in Times Square.

"Uh . . . Get to . . . the choppa?"

“Uh . . . Get to . . . the choppa?”

2-0Recommendation: Frustratingly End of Days squanders its promise of delivering a taut and thrilling, action-packed story by meandering into too many genre cliches in an attempt to give color to a rather colorless environment. It features a likable enough cast who surprisingly show up for work without having really read any of their parts, save for Gabriel Byrne who is quite fun. Save this film as a last-resort option if you are in the spirit for watching New Year’s Eve-centered stories. This isn’t anywhere near as good as I once had remembered it being. Whoops.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

TBTrivia: The role of Jericho is the first bit of work Mr. Schwarzenegger was able to get after receiving heart surgery following his role as Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin, two years prior. The actor had supreme difficulty finding studios willing to hire him in a “weak” state and it took a few days of shooting End of Days before insurance agents and studio execs finally backed away from the set, satisfied enough that Arnold was indeed healthy enough to shoot action sequences once again.

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Photo credits: http://www.fanart.tv; http://www.imdb.com