The Purge: Election Year

'The Purge - Election Year' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: James DeMonaco

Directed by: James DeMonaco

I am convinced the French marketing for the third Purge film (see above) is the most responsible form of it we have. The Purge: Election Year manages to be as inane as it looks and here is a movie poster that pulls no punches when it comes to revealing the truth. Cheap-looking and tacky the movie may not be, but it is unconvincing. Often hilariously so.

Though there are no Donald Trump masks involved (surprising, given writer-director James DeMonaco’s affinity for being overt) there is no doubt that the third Purge is intended as his own State of the Union address as it applies to a country being torn apart from the inside by mass shootings, gang and race-related violence and other forms of 21st-Century-friendly terms like ‘terrorism.’ Election Year is now, it is eminent and it is, supposedly, urgent. And so the French movie title starts feeling apropos.

Previous installments — one which took place entirely within the confines of an upper-middle class suburban abode and the other upon the streets of Los Angeles — worked tirelessly in addressing the growing divide between the have’s (the one-percenters of this fine country) and the have-not’s (everyone else in comparison) by creatively demonstrating the rage that festers within a 12-hour period one night out of the year. We’ve come to understand that purge night, rather than being a means for the American people to cleanse themselves of any sort of violence, is just the government’s way of shedding the nation of its burdens: the weak and the poor. A third installment hypothetically could add depth to this bleak, dystopian portrait of government-sponsored terror but what eventuates are just echoes of the themes it has hastily carted out on a dolly since the first round.

Once again we’re set in the near-future and purge night is upon us. Wait, let me back up a little bit. We first witness the events that inspire a young Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) to become a Senator for good. Eighteen years after watching her entire family get murdered at the hands of a lunatic purger, she’s campaigning for the Presidency, vowing to eliminate this terrible night once and for all. Such a devastating loss drives the woman’s powerful but dangerous idealism. She has to win the election and wrestle control of the country away from the New Founding Fathers, but she also refuses to use murder as her path to victory as that wouldn’t make her any different from those who purge.

Frank Grillo returns as former police sergeant Leo Barnes. Once he’s in the picture, the film picks up in both the excitement and intensity departments. After surviving the horrendous events of Anarchy, Barnes has signed on as part of Senator Roan’s security detail and finds himself this time protecting a highly valuable asset as the New Founding Fathers have decided to take a firmer stance against opponents of the purge. They do so by revoking high-level official’s security Level 9 million-whatever clearance, a.k.a. their immunity to the lawlessness of the night. The Senator of course would prefer to wait the night out in her own home. Leo doesn’t think that’s a smart idea; it’s not. Soon we’re back out on the streets after a betrayal. Ya know, the usual.

Leo once again is surrounded by a group of citizens of indeterminate firearm-wielding skill and whose political leanings essentially boil down to “F**k whoever believes in the purge.” Meanwhile, a resistance group is forming somewhere in downtown Washington and there begins to breed a new kind of morality to the violence. But Leo’s gang ain’t like that; they’re comprised of proud deli owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson), his assistant and Mexican immigrant Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), and a tough-as-nails EMT named Laney played by a fun Betty Gabriel — she’s arguably the film’s best offering beyond Grillo.

Election Year finds the city center of Ridiculous soon enough. We’re slowly pulled into the world of anti-purgers gathering in secrecy at some undisclosed (even in this review) location, preparing to wage war against the NFFA, namely Executive Douchebag Caleb Warren (Raymond J. Barry), the ring leader whose vileness must be measured by how many nasty words he can fit into one monologue. That’s the kind of lazy writing that has become a frustrating pattern in this franchise. DeMonaco’s creation has this fascinating psycho-social science dynamic that routinely gets left behind in favor of tired genre tropes and subpar acting (and directing).

The major offense here though is that three provides entirely too much déjà vu. DeMonaco attempts to expand the scope of the narrative by including a terribly ill-advised subplot in which ‘murder tourism’ has become a thing. Apparently it’s not enough that everyone in America is out in the streets killing each other to death; now we have an influx of South Africans (sorry Zoe; Natasha . . . ) coming stateside just to kill people. Don’t laugh (it’s okay, I almost did). The fact that the purge has caught on internationally and is now being marketed as a tourist package is just silliness defined.

Come to think of it, much of this franchise has been just that. Take a look at any number of those peculiar seance scenes in which small groups of well-dressed caucasians gather and either make a sacrifice or just repeat the phrase “purge and purify” ad nauseam (actually, it’s usually both). I look to those moments for an encapsulation of everything The Purge has been: pure nonsense and half-hearted attempts at profundity. Excuse me while I go purge all of my disappointment from memory.

Frank Grillo and Elizabeth Mitchell in The Purge - Election Year

Recommendation: Gee, I wonder what the director’s stance on gun control is. The amount of mileage you get out of The Purge: Election Year (or as I prefer, American Nightmare 3: Elections) will depend on how much you enjoy just being stuck in this particularly dark universe. There’s no doubt DeMonaco and his cinematographer have crafted a unique visual identity but in terms of story they simply never even try to attain the heights their unusual, intriguing premise(s) suggest. You can always count on Frank Grillo though and paired up with Elizabeth Mitchell’s Senator he is better than ever. The rest though leaves a lot to be desired and I don’t know if I want to sit through more.

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “Good night, blue cheese!” 

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

Triple 9

'Triple 9' movie poster

Release: Friday, February 26 ,2016

[Theater]

Written by: Matt Cook

Directed by: John Hillcoat

Triple 9 could be a really great film. I’m not saying that to be facetious or hypothetical, like, “I have all these suggestions to make it better and here’s how you do it,” or “I’m seeing this tonight and I hope it’s going to be great.” I mean I’m genuinely not sure if it was any good or not. It’s such a bland, flavorless take on the crime genre that it’s difficult to remember anything about it, even days later. But the film is well-produced, so that counts for something. Right?

John Hillcoat, who has distinguished himself with gritty, typically criminal-infested features that tend to smother audiences with the hopelessness of the situation, isn’t exactly out of his element here, turning Atlanta into a bubbling cauldron of deception, corruption and a whole lot of violence. The rather convoluted plot revolves around a group of corrupt cops and legit criminals who are blackmailed by the nasty Irina Vlaslov of the Russian mafia (and of course when you mention them you naturally think of Kate Winslet) into taking on “one more job.”

Of course the mission won’t be simple; not even close. Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is in it deep as he has had a child with Irina’s sister (Gal Gadot), and Irina won’t let him see the money or his kid until he and his cronies have recovered crucial government documents regarding the status of Irina’s mafioso hubby.  (Really, there’s nothing cute or overly affectionate about any of these relationships, I just think that ridiculous word seems to fit given we’re talking about ridiculous things like Winslet as a Russian mob boss). Michael employs his thug friend Russell (Norman Reedus) and Russell’s younger brother Gabe (a much more comfortable looking Aaron Paul) to help carry out the job but they’re unsure of how to do it.

‘Triple nine’ is code for “officer down,” a call that results in any and all units in a given area to respond to the scene. Michael and his crew, which includes crooked Atlanta cops Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins, Jr.), realize they can use a triple nine call as a distraction to carry out the heist elsewhere. Marcus has just gotten a new partner, Casey Affleck’s genuine good-guy Chris Allen and Marcus nominates him as the officer who should act as the distraction (i.e. he wants to kill him). To confuse readers more (or just to make sure I have included all major names involved here), Allen has an uncle on the force, Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson) who is determined to get to the bottom of a bank heist case perpetrated by Michael and company as part of an earlier favor to the Russians.

Essentially what Triple 9 boils down to is a matter of trust. A grimy, ominous milieu established from the opening shot of the city leaves little to the imagination. This isn’t a place where we’re going to like many of the characters we come up against (the sheer quality of the ensemble cast ensures this isn’t a deal-breaker). Nor are they the people we can count on to do the right thing. In this Atlanta, you can’t trust a soul. All of that is well and good; the simmering tension underlying Ejiofor and Winslet’s interactions — I stop short of saying relationship because there’s simply not enough time in this movie for relationships to truly be established — make for some of the film’s more interesting moments. But no one has much of an identity. Everyone either starts off miserable or ends up that way, or they end up dead.

In the vein of David Ayers’ infinitely more brutal Sabotage, which saw a team of DEA agents being picked off one-by-one after their unit was compromised, Triple 9 is a no-win situation in which the characters we are introduced to drift further and further away from us. It’s next to impossible to care about these trigger-happy thugs. The mood is perpetually dour, and most of the actions our (many) characters take rarely surprise, and because they don’t, several significant double-crosses don’t register with the power they ought to.

Performances are universally good; they’re nothing special but they’re functional. (And for what it’s worth, Winslet makes that accent work!) Instead it’s more problematic with how forgettable substantial chunks of their collective effort become. The film boasts a few impressive shoot-outs, particularly one in an abandoned warehouse — why do the good ones always take place in The Warehouse? — but for whatever reason, the bulk of the film, all of the talky stuff and detective work going on in the background just never quite connects. Conventionality isn’t a crime but I think I’ve finally made up my mind on this: Triple 9 is neither a great film nor a terrible one. It’s just something that’s there.

Recommendation: Violent, dark, confronting but still somehow boring and uninspired, Triple 9 undoubtedly prefers the art of storytelling over character presentation. Despite such a strong cast it’s kind of ironic that those characters get so forgotten by the end. But hey, at least this film has Woody Harrelson in it. If you are a completionist then see it for him, but everything else there’s either MasterCard or much better movies. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

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TBT: Behind Enemy Lines (2001)

. . . and just when everyone thought this thread was dead uhhhh-gain, it makes a triumphant reappearance. Well, semi-triumphant. I finally watched a war film I had been wanting to see for many a year and as it turned out, well . . . phooey on all that anticipating. It wasn’t really worth it! Oh well. It’s still a decent romp. You could do a lot worse as far as cheap-looking war movies are concerned, things that fail to succeed to even entertain on some basic level, such as what can only be presumed to be the case for the disastrous direct-to-VHS sequels to 

Today’s food for thought: Behind Enemy Lines.

Being ridiculously jingoistic since: November 30, 2001

[DVD]

Behind Enemy Lines is an awkward blend of entertainment and information. Or maybe misinformation would be a better term. Director John Moore’s fictionalized account of American involvement in the final days of the Bosnian War isn’t so much irresponsible as it is lazy. This is too easy of a film, quickly digestible and dispensable. But at least it was . . . fun?

Owen Wilson played Navy flight officer Lieutenant Chris Burnett, an intelligent but rather undisciplined young man who gets deployed on a holiday mission by Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman). Joining him in what was supposed to be a routine reconnaissance mission is pilot Lieutenant Jeremy Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht). During the flight Burnett suggests they make use of their “shiny new digital camera” — since they’re missing the Christmas dinner onboard the ship they may as well make good use of their time. They end up taking aerial photos of a site that is decidedly outside of their lawful flying route, a demilitarized zone that just so happens to contain a mass grave, an operation being conducted secretly by Bosnian-Serb paramilitary General Miroslav Lokar (Russian actor Vladimir Mashkov). Of course they are spotted and subsequently shot down.

The Americans eject and avoid death by pine tree at Mach 3, though Stackhouse suffers a leg injury and stays behind while Burnett searches for higher ground to radio back to the USS Carl Vinson for help. Unfortunately Serbian forces appear over the horizon and gasp, spoilers! are quick to interrogate and then execute the lone Stackhouse. Burnett goes on the run, but not before he accidentally exposes himself (no, not in the Lenny Kravitz in Sweden kind of way). So ensues an hour and a half of cat-and-mouse across the frozen and rugged mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina. How long can a sole American Naval officer survive behind enemy lines? If this film’s questionable historical basis (that of U.S. Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady) is anything to go by, apparently it’s six days (or as long as the running time says).

To provide the drama at least some depth, Moore injects his production with the typical political farce. Burnett’s survival hinges upon whether Hackman’s Reigart can convince the dispassionate NATO Commander — who is overseeing the peace talks between American and Serbian forces — that it will be worth his while to rescue this one guy. While the concerns of Admiral Piquet (Portuguese actor Joaquim de Almeida) are valid, there’s very little to justify how long it takes for Admiral Reigart to finally disobey orders by taking matters into his own hands.

Plot holes and predictability notwithstanding, Behind Enemy Lines is, at its best, exemplary of that ‘good-old boys’ huzzah that was clearly gunning for the viewer not as concerned with more accurate, less video-gamey war depictions in the vein of Saving Private Ryan, Enemy at the Gates and Black Hawk Down. Though its can-do spirit feels more like faded glory now as the special effects are profoundly poor, chaotic and overly dramatic. Added to which a script that has the typically excellent Gene Hackman stuck between a rock and a hard place delivering, visibly hesitant, corny lines that are intended to motivate Burnett. The blue wash of light from the ship’s command center on Hackman’s face offers some concealment of an actor in discomfort. And as refreshing as it is to see Wilson in a dramatic role — this, mind you, being in retrospect given his upcoming career — he doesn’t fare much better when his final dozen lines devolve into a festival of “goddamnit”‘s.

Behind Enemy Lines has almost innumerable issues, from the technical to the practical. Portrayals of Serbs as the obvious bad guys and Americans as the unquestionable do-gooders make the film ripe for parody. It’s not much of a surprise to learn the filmmakers were unable to hire any Serbian actors for those particular roles. That wasn’t enough to stop Moore from creating a silly, slight but still somewhat enjoyable slice of American action.

Recommendation: Behind Enemy Lines is far from the best war film you’ll see but the cast do a thorough enough job getting into character so believing in the situation isn’t as absurd as it might have been with less experienced actors. That said, the special effects and general clumsiness of the script (particularly the dialogue) leave too much to be desired to warrant anything but a shaky recommendation from me. All that said, this has got to be legions better than anything else that has proceeded it in the so-called “series.” 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 106 mins.

TBTrivia: Director John Moore was nearly killed in the scene where the tank busts through the wall. He was pulled away by a stuntman just in time.

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Blackhat

blackhat-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Morgan Davis Foehl

Directed by: Michael Mann

Even with an hilariously miscast Chris Hemsworth, Blackhat is utterly forgettable.

Something that’s less forgettable is its horrendous opening weekend performance. Set against a budget of $70 million, Michael Mann’s cybercrime would-be-thriller brought in a grand total of $1.7 million in its debut, necessarily deeming Blackhat one of the biggest box office bombs in cinematic history given its wide release status.

At best, the pairing of a Hollywood hunk with a predominantly international cast is amusing if for the opportunity to count all the ways in which the film panders to a global audience. If that wasn’t enough, the lack of chemistry between the towering Brit and his computer hacking buddies — Leehom Wang’s Chen Dawai, and Wei Tang’s Chen Lien, who are brother and sister in the film — are the glitches that bring this story to its knees.

Mr. Mann captures some compelling action sequences but the stunt work goes to waste when we’re having trouble even believing the actors in roles that have them staring at computer screens for most of the time. Hemsworth plays Nick Hathaway, a computer hacker serving prison time because he’s a real bastard behind keyboard and mouse. His direct involvement isn’t made clear right away, but two major events occur at the film’s open that we’re meant to pay attention to (but can’t because they’re somewhat trivialized by a confusing series of shots detailing the inner workings of computers): a nuclear reactor in Hong Kong experiences a catastrophic coolant malfunction, while the Mercantile Trade Exchange based in Chicago gets hacked.

Whoever’s clever enough to hack these systems is going to have to answer for the damage, or so say some stern-looking Chinese government officials. They enlist the help of the FBI, in the form of Agent Carol (Viola Davis in an ironic performance; her voice is so monotonous she sounds more of a computer hacker than anyone else) in bringing those responsible to justice. At first, everyone believes these attacks to be the work of Thor. They may as well be. Hemsworth-as-hacker is about as out of place as his demigod was on Earth.

Hathaway’s asked to help solve the crimes together with Dawai and the FBI in tow, but his condition is that his prison sentence be commuted and that he gets to have the cute girl in the end.  Though he does not make the second request, you know this is happening regardless. And how. Talk about some majorly underdeveloped character arcs. The team are soon bouncing all over the globe in an effort to track down the cyber terrorists, who are now aiming to take out more nuclear reactors in order to flood an expansive tin mine in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The terrorists’ goals aren’t exactly revelatory but they work well enough to assume a threat. But in a movie like Blackhat, where more time is spent deciphering code and, apparently, studying the inner workings of hard drives, the real world doesn’t take center stage. Or when the threat finally becomes truly palpable, any audience member not in possession of a degree in computer science has long since tuned out. An error message reads on the front of their foreheads: this does not compute. This does not compel.

The director should be credited for his commitment to getting things right. The focus on the technical aspects, even if excruciatingly boring at times, is impressive. Unfortunately computer screens and staring at endless code sequences — unless we’re in the Matrix — do not on their own make for an interesting product. Then, when we get to the action sequences they’re too short-lived to make much of an impression. I suppose I could keep going here, but the review might get a little mean-spirited. I’m no blackhat critic, out for malicious intent. Out for revenge upon the world just because.

I just happen to think this movie vastly underserves both its audience — on either side of the Atlantic — and its particularly timely themes.

This. A whole lot of this.

This. A whole lot of this. Exciting, right?

1-5Recommendation: Blackhat has grand aspirations but it squanders them in a navel-gazing screenplay that is more interested in getting underneath the keyboard instead of into the minds of some high-profile cyber-terrorists. Fans of Chris Hemsworth will also be wise to stay clear of this one, this isn’t his best effort. I’m not even sure if I can recommend this one to the geekiest of computer geeks.

Rated: R

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “You are no longer in control. . .”

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

Exodus: Gods and Kings

exodus-movie-poster

Release: Friday, December 12, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Adam Cooper; Bill Collage; Jeffrey Caine; Steven Zaillian 

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Often I feel that I am needlessly ambiguous with what I’m trying to say in past reviews, but here I have this concern I am going to be too overt. The great Ridley Scott — yes, the one of Gladiator fame — has clearly relied too much on star talent to help carry his Biblical ‘epic’ (and sorry to those who think the word is inextricably linked to prepubescent Bieber fandom) to the Promised Land. Top billed are terrible in their roles while a boring and unevenly paced script contributes to a disastrous outing for all involved.

GODS VS. KINGS 

exodus-1

Somewhere in the dust and ruin of his attempt at resurrecting temples he once had so majestically created, there’s a lesson to be learned for Sir Ridley Scott. If there were one commandment I would issue immediately, as someone who has been eagerly anticipating this supposed return to form, it would be for him to refrain from treating his selected actors as gods and kings. Forget Christian Bale’s mixed South African and Welsch ancestry. Forget Joel Edgerton’s emo eye-liner — he at least looks better in it than Bale sounds like with whatever accent he’s trying to pull off here. And you can forget all about Cecil B. De Mille’s commitment to Charlton Heston (oh, swoon!) in the 1956 classic The Ten Commandments. Indeed, the only thing that shall be remembered over the course of a whopping two-and-a-half hours, is the pain of watching one of the premier filmmakers of our time climbing out of a dank, oppressive cave with a single message inscribed on a rock tablet:

“(I’ve) let my standards go!”

In the Gladiator director’s newest venture out into the sands of Egypt Bale takes on the role of Moses, a former Egyptian General banished by his legal, but not blood, brother Prince Ramses (Edgerton) into exile after it becomes evident what Moses’ true blood lineage is. Raised in a climate of political convenience rather than one of familial love, Moses conflicts with Ramses ideologically, emotionally and eventually physically. All signs point to Ramses’ deep-seated envy of his sort-of-brother. This is a relationship dynamic we’ve known for as long as we’ve been out of grade school as well as it being a classic example of the friend-turned-foe story. It’s also the strongest bargaining chip Mr. Scott has at keeping an audience on board here. And we agree; we are too curious as to how thing will play out between these versions.

While he appreciates the relationship between Moses and Ramses, he is much less appreciative of his peripheral vision. Rather than going the Jim Caviezel route by casting someone who at least looked the part, and through coating much of his cast in a thick smathering of tanning lotion (this is actually the story of how Moses goes to the beach and gets badly sunburned), Scott surprisingly approved of everything here without what one would naturally assume to be a pressing need to fire a casting director, or even someone in make-up and wardrobe. Not that these actors aren’t talented. And we can’t pretend that it’s an alien concept for a big studio and a big director to skirt past native actors in search of bigger box-office draws. But why does everyone have to look like the Beach Boys? The likes of Edgerton, Bale, Ben Mendelsohn (who plays the creepy Viceroy Hegep with gleeful abandon) and Sigourney Weaver are caked in comical cosmetics that distract more than they contribute, but this isn’t the major issue. Visually, at least these pretty peeps eventually blend in with the dulcet environs.

Frustratingly Exodus: Gods and Kings — I’ve never been one to read into film titles too deeply, but this particular subtitle does seem superfluous — is intent on featuring caricatures rather than characters. Bale is ridiculously over-the-top as he forces vigilante machismo into a character that has decidedly much less of that built into his DNA. Edgerton acts like the spoiled brat Pharaoh Ramses apparently was. After succeeding the Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro, also ridiculous-looking when bald), Ramses becomes something of a harbinger of doom, driving the Hebrew slaves to the brink of collapse through extremely hard labor and miserable working conditions. As if life wasn’t tough enough before. During Moses’ exile, he learns of these changing conditions back home in Memphis and despite having formed a family with the beautiful Zipporah (María Valverde) he vows to return and free over 600,000 Hebrews from his brother’s oppressive, bloodthirsty rule.

WE ARE NOT ENTERTAINED!

exodus-2

It’s not the big picture Mr. Scott misses. Though Exodus hardly inspires with its languid pacing — that’s actually a compliment, as it drags for a good 75 minutes out of a grand total of 150 — there is definitive movement in the saga and the enthusiasm for Moses’ finest hour begins to build in earnest when the plagues set in. But even then, it’s a dash of visual splendor that sits a little too long in waiting and appears somewhat randomly in gradually darkening skies. Rest assured, if those in attendance are awaiting spectacle, they will still get it. But it’s too little too late.

His placement of the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea — each element elegant in their CGI rendering — ought to be considered the equivalent of audiences sitting in for Gladiator and having minimum expectations of seeing Russell Crowe in leather jockeys. Yes he dons such a garment, but this doesn’t exactly complete the character. And it says nothing about the way Mr. Scott’s masterpiece captures ancient history in all its grim and bloody frankness; says little about the defiance of a single gladiator who goes up against the Roman empire — except that maybe our fearless leader has an eye for men in skivvies.

But this sadly is no laughing matter. It’s difficult trying to rectify the substantial decrease in quality between the film that came out at the turn of the millennium and the one we’ve just been handed on a not-so-silver platter. If you factor in how much Exodus seems to mime the story arc of Gladiator the coalition for reason becomes even weaker. Formulaically speaking, this is no different from the adventures of Maximus Decimus Meridius. A man has his pride and political status stripped from him following a particularly bitter (and yes, unfair) betrayal, then must strike out on his own into the great unknown before deciding to return balance to the universe. Crowe had at it first, and Crowe comes out on top on almost all counts. But if we were judging this based on who rides a gigantic tidal wave of water better, then the odds are more in Moses’ favor.

As an undertaking, Exodus is a mightily ambitious undertaking. It’s easy to dismiss the film as a redundant journey back in time to a place where religious conflict brimmed more heatedly than any of those scenes between Bruce and Rachel. (Or Miranda Tate — that part was actually better.) Maybe we really didn’t need it. Maybe I was just foolish in expecting great things here. Though it’s hard to not get excited when the likes of Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton (and throw in Sigourney Weaver for the hell of it) are involved, when there’s a director of Mr. Scott’s stature leading the charge.

Casting controversy aside, Exodus is simply a film with few excuses for becoming as flaccid a drama as it truly becomes. It’s mired in surprisingly subpar performances, drifting narrative pacing and an unenthusiastic, although granted, educational, tone. No one on screen ever feels inspired. And to say that about this particular cast is a move that ought to make one feel the need to exile themselves to. . . . well, somewhere else. For right now anyway, it looks like the opposite case is going to hold true.

exodus-3

2-0Recommendation: If you were holding out hope that Exodus could survive the plague of criticism that has washed over it in the past week, let me drown that hope right now. It’s not a good movie. If the odd casting decisions don’t strike you (the argument being staged for racist casting is just plain nonsense by the way; the move to hire Bale and Edgerton in particular was one of financial matters, and this is clear) then the slow, awkward pacing and the sloppy dialogue surely will. I’m done talking about this movie. Two thousand words later. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 150 mins.

Quoted: “You sleep well because you are loved. I’ve never slept that well.”

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 

Brick Mansions

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Release: Friday, April 25, 2014

[Theater]

While the last film to feature a performance from Paul Walker is as dumb as a brick, there is something haunting, almost immortalizing left behind in the rubble of this, his final role.

Maybe it’s more haunting because the last major role of his is stuck in a picture as stiff and awkward as Brick Mansions, yet another failure of a script from Luc Besson. Or maybe it’s because it features Paul driving a beautiful Mustang around the ghetto of Detroit. Whatever the reason, Paul’s presence resonates very bittersweet throughout the film and gives the film at least one reason to exist. And a pretty good one, too.

But without him, it has literally none.

Camille Delamarre’s debut feature film is short, but even shorter on entertainment and logic. Apparently a remake of Luc Besson’s much-better written District B13 in which a nuclear warhead is set on destroying Paris, to be launched from the central ghetto that has been walled off by the Parisian government for years. A cop and vigilante criminal must gain access inside the dangerous ghetto and stop the threat and rescue anyone who may be trapped inside (both films make sure this is a young, attractive girl. . .because honestly, how could they not?) In 2014, Besson took that script and scrapped whatever creativity and solid writing it possessed and replaced these things with toilet paper scribblings of ideas. This version would come to be known as Brick Mansions.

In it, Paul plays good Detroit cop Damien Collier who has been supposedly Dark Knight-ing it up around the city for years, fending off escalating crime and tension stemming from the metropolis’ long-forgotten ghetto, which remains at the heart of the city. Filled with what were once beautiful brick buildings, the zone has been completely retaken by criminals, gangsters and other, shall we say, undesirables. . .and while Officer Collier is less of a vigilante than Batman, he finds himself coming face-to-face with some pretty nasty types who wish nothing but for the most harmful. . . .er, harm to befall him.

He does come across the vigilante-esque and mysterious Lino (played by David Belle, the founder of an urban free-running style known as Parkour) who, if anything, would be Robin to Paul Walker’s Batman if we really wanted to continue with this metaphor.

Lino is an ex-con who has recently been released from prison but now finds himself in a scrap with inner-city thugs who have kidnapped his girlfriend (Catalina Denis) — seriously, did Besson just copy-and-paste his old script here? Stopping at nothing to get her back apparently is going to include teaming up with Collier, who is of course initially reluctant to work with a criminal. After all, you know. . .a criminal killed his father. After an awkward stand-off the pair agree to throw themselves into the lion’s den, seeing as they both are pursuing the same man as it turns out. Collier has been tracking down the ringleader Tremaine (RZA) for many years, and Lino only recently has had cause to find him since his girl was taken.

As the presiding ‘evil’ that rules the brick mansion territory, RZA’s Tremaine is actually suitably sinister and perhaps the most intelligently spoken of any character in this film. While his worldview is not particularly original nor even really that compelling it is at the very least believable, unlike anything else the movie has to offer. Collier is a decent man but greatly lacking in personality; Walker tries his best with what he is provided, which is skimpy at best. He’s meant to be following in the shadow of his father who was killed in the line of duty, but that story is so woefully underdeveloped it barely counts as an afterthought.

David Belle is fun to watch, if only for the extensive (bordering on self-indulgent) stunt reel he puts together for the camera. His many escapades actually comprise a good portion of the running time, which truthfully saves the story from being any worse. As a character, though, Lino’s pretty asinine as well, remaining a caricature of a desperate man trying to stay out of trouble.

Brick Mansions makes great use of its grubby and grimy set — for whatever that’s worth. Filmed as though moving throughout levels in a videogame, the camera moves us in and out of intricate spaces filled with bad guys, bullets and babes pistol-whipping one another. The use of CGI is apparent but surprisingly not among the film’s failings. Despite a gritty and somewhat interesting setting, there’s far more wrong with more important components like story and character development. When it comes to actually structuring this foundation, Brick Mansions simply crumbles.

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1-5Recommendation: Admittedly a terrible last outing for Paul, it is nonetheless the last film with Paul in a completed role, and is somewhat worth seeing on that level. Brick Mansions flirts with ideas like the ideological struggle between rich and poor societal classes, something it could have sunk its teeth into more and could possibly have become an intriguing movie as a result. But this is nowhere close to being a movie with ideas, it’s perfectly content with sitting back and being a carbon copy of much better (and still generic) action flicks. Avoid this unless you are in the middle of a mission to see every Paul Walker flick (good for you, I say). Even if that’s the case, this one can probably be placed fairly low on your list.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 90 mins.

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 

The Act of Killing

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Release: Friday, July 19, 2013 (limited)

[Netflix]

Abundant are the films that, post-viewing, make you grateful for the experience, even though they took you far outside your comfort zone. There are even those that you really wish you could un-see; those that haunt your mind like a recurring nightmare. And then there’s Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, a torturous two hours you should receive an award for enduring.

Before I take my ceremonial bow, the first person to receive a big pat on the back (or hug, I’m not sure which is more appropriate at this point) should be the Danish-based director who skillfully pieces together one of the most horrifying and revealing documentaries that will perhaps ever be crafted. It’s a little difficult, in this present moment at least, to fathom a film going to the places and lengths that this monstrosity does.

A camera crew takes to the dirty streets of Medan, Indonesia where they locate a number of death squad leaders responsible for the mass slaughter of millions of fellow countrymen between 1965 and 1966. The objective? To prompt these men to talk extensively and candidly about the events that took place during the military overthrow of the Indonesian government, while also allowing them to perform re-enactments of precisely what, who and how they killed.

The staged killings would become part of a film Anwar Congo and his ‘gangster’ friends (notables include Herman Koto and Adi Zulkadry) are making in an effort to publicly boast about how they were able to eliminate so-called communists, intellectuals, ethnic Chinese and any other individuals they deemed ‘undesirable’ and threats to the stability of their nation. (The concept of stability is somewhat ironic, considering a military coup d’état became necessary in restoring the perceived balance of power in this perpetually troubled nation.) A paramilitary organization known as Pemuda Pancasila evolved out of the death squads led by Congo and Zulkadry, and has been in place ever since. In the documentary, we are forced to confront this most intimidating of groups as they continue to harass Indonesians mere feet away from the camera crew. Frightening as this organization is, its really not the focus of Oppenheimer’s/Congo’s project.

Really this film has dual purposes. On the one hand, this is an opportunity for these truly vile men to express their nostalgia for the good ole days, when they raped, tortured and murdered those who they thought deserved it. On the other, Oppenheimer is giving these individuals all the tools they need to show their true colors. One might argue that they already have done that by performing the acts that they did in the ’60s, but one would only be 50% accurate in that assumption. What is said and revealed in this documentary surpass the murders themselves.

Watch the scenes in which the fat, disgusting blob of a human being named Herman Koto. . . you know what? There’s almost no point talking about this anymore. It is just crushing my heart. I literally have no words to describe the vast majority of the content, and at the risk of me sounding like I’m writing this film off, this review in itself was next-to-impossible to write, and is causing depression of the highest degree, so I no longer have desire to analyze this as a piece of creative expression. Mainly, because it’s not. This may very well be looked at as terrifyingly effective propaganda for the opposition. I have spent days trying to pin down my feelings on it. Such a task seems now fruitless, and I don’t feel comfortable diverting any more attention to this abomination. There is genius in the construction but the subject matter is too off-putting. It’s almost offensive considering the power that The Act of Killing may add to the anti-communist sentiment found in southeastern Asia.

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0-5Recommendation: Don’t do this to yourselves. This is the cruelest thing you’ll ever watch; not to mention, it’s paced like a snail and the subject matter makes it feel even longer. The fact that a documentary was made on these people has scary implications — Oppenheimer just took a can of gasoline to a raging fire. Who knows what’s going to happen next in Indonesia. What a fool. And what a fool this reviewer is for thinking this was going to be anything other than ugly. Where’s my damn prize?

Rated: NR

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “‘War crimes’ are defined by the winners. I’m a winner.”

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

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

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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Release: Thursday, August 15, 2013

[Theater]

I think the real question here is, “Is it pretentious for the director to include his name in the title of the movie?” Or is it just pretentious to think about this being pretentious? Perhaps I’ll address that later Nick addresses this down below in comments, but in the meantime — the answer to the first is a resounding “Heck no.” Daniels’ film, featuring Forest Whitaker in a possible career-defining role, is both a heartwarming and tragic epic that unfolds similarly to Robert Zemeckis’ multiple-Oscar-winning Forrest Gump in that we visit several crucial periods in American history and see how they impact the life of a strong central character who undergoes both external and internal changes throughout.

The resultant timeline is full of emotional highs and lows. As one might imagine, there’s likely to be a lot of lows, since the material incorporates the violence from the civil rights movement along with the Vietnam conflict, just as two major examples. Despite the horrors on display however, there is a substantial amount of pleasantness to the proceedings. A lot of it stems from Cecil Gaines’ family life and the general essence of Whitaker in this role. He is absolutely fantastic — it’s clear he’s fully embraced the importance of what his character meant (his Cecil Gaines is actually based on the real-life story of Eugene Allen). Nominations should be awaiting with this one.

Even despite the movie being a rather loose adaptation, his life story is miraculous, to say the least. Growing up on the Westfall plantation, Cecil bears witness to gut-wrenching violence of the worst (most personal) kind. After it happens, the elderly Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave) tells Cecil he is to start working inside the house from now on. Though the job was offered out of pity, his general treatment doesn’t exactly improve much as the notion of being an invisible servant in whatever room was impressed upon him rigorously. As gloomy as his situation initially seems, and Cecil doesn’t know it yet, this is finally a job with transformative powers.

Similarly to Forrest Gump, The Butler is a lengthy journey and takes its time to unfold. Patience may be required, but also it is with great ease that most people should be able to adhere. Daniels’ vision may wander around a bit, but the transitions made from scene to scene are often subtle yet very powerful. From the plantation house Cecil moves on for the city life in search of his next job. The woman he used to work for is nearing her death and he sees no future staying around the plantation anymore. He soon comes across a man named Maynard (Clarence Williams III) under dire circumstances and asks him for a job doing anything at all. Maynard reluctantly agrees to temporarily help out a malnourished Cecil. However, Maynard quickly learns just how good Cecil’s skills are and he suggests the boy move on to still bigger things. He informs him of a job opening at a ritzy hotel in Washington, D.C. and that he should consider applying. From the hotel, Cecil’s gainful employment continues as he moves up to the White House after discovering an open position for a butler there.

Daniels allows each scene to speak for themselves. As each one unfolds, Gaines’ worldview widens steadily and our respect for him grows accordingly. There’s a wonderful flow to the way small villages give way to the rush of the bigger city. The audio narration, read by Mr. Gaines, explains circumstances to us so even though we don’t have many “images” of these places, the time and places are anchored efficiently with what he has to say about them. Eventually we will meet a fantastic crew of other butlers who staff the busy American landmark: some who stand out the most are Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s upbeat Carter and Lenny Kravitz’ more reserved, but respectable James.

And of course, once we’re inside the White House we also will be getting to see the current leaders of the nation at the time. One of the most effective elements in Daniels’ film is his rotating door of great actors filling in significant roles, specifically the eight different presidents under which Cecil serves throughout his 34-year career. When Cecil first enters the Oval Office, we see a very thinly-haired Robin Williams as President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He’s discussing something with members of his Cabinet while Cecil politely serves tea. The moment is just enough to give us the impression that a significant wind of change is about to start blowing  given the discussions ongoing. All those who fill in the presidential roles are terrific and similarly contribute to the scale of this story. Other famous personalities in the White House that we get to revisit include John F. Kennedy (James Marsden); Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber); Richard Nixon (John Cusack); and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman). Each actor really makes their mark on each of their respective presidential roles and it’s quite a bit of fun seeing how the attitudes and atmospheres change with each new leader.

While these sweeping changes are being examined at the top tier of the political ladder, Cecil must always mind his business and be sure to strictly stick to his job. . . . . . that old nasty adage of being seen, but not heard really applies here. By doing just that, the mild-mannered Cecil becomes one of the most entrusted employees within the building which is by no means an accidental occurrence. As he has attempted to be all his life, Cecil is simply a patient and humbled man who retains every ounce of his dignity even though things at home aren’t exactly perfect. His eldest son, Louis, isn’t particularly proud of his father and often overlooks the fact that he’s had to work extremely hard to get to where he’s at now. Louis leaves for college in Tennessee, where Cecil knows trouble is likely to find him, but Louis isn’t listening. His wife, Gloria (a beautiful and heartwarming performance from Oprah Winfrey was a terrific surprise for me) is more supportive of her husband but also more supportive of her son making up his own mind. A nail is driven between Louis and Cecil’s point of view on the issue of segregation that’s currently ravaging the nation and this becomes a major focal point of the latter half of the film.

With that said, it becomes increasingly obvious as the years pass and the story amasses more and more historical significance that Daniels’ has essentially created two movies in one. One is the story of Cecil and his evolution from the terrible cotton fields to the dignified role he plays in serving the many presidents. This is arguably the overriding narrative. The second is clearly the idealogical struggle between Cecil and his eldest son, who both obviously want policies and social status to change for blacks. Whereas Cecil is content to fight the good fight that he always has by maintaining his calm and working hard, Louis feels drawn more to the revolutionary points of view shared by the Black Panthers — and I needn’t say much more about that. We can see where that story may or may not go.

Because of the heavy emphasis on the struggle between father and son, the movie seems to take on a bit too much, perhaps more than it rightfully should have to handle in this limited run time. Had the movie lasted in excess of three hours the cumulative effect might have been more profound. Instead, the story moves back and forth between Cecil and Louis for about an hour and it can get a little confusing. Who should we have to care about more? There are definite answers to that question, but Lee Daniels doesn’t really know what to say. It’s not the worst complaint you can have for a movie with this much history tied into it, but it’s difficult to ignore the obvious transitions between the three major acts.

These moments are marked by Cecil’s entrance into the White House for the first time (thus identifying Act Two), and the start of the Vietnam War (Act Three). Although the fact that the two stories — that of Cecil and that of the relationship between him and his oldest son — don’t mesh as smoothly as they could have, this seems to be a relatively small issue with a movie carrying this much weight. Not to mention, every member in the Gaines household are represented with brilliant performances by young actors David Oyelowo (who plays Louis) and Isaac White (who plays the younger sibling, Charlie). It may be obvious when we’ve shifted gears a little, but their screen times are both equally captivating and White is absolutely hilarious as Charlie.

I really can’t say enough about the cast. Everyone involved turns in stellar performances and considering that, this movie is far better than it maybe should have been. It’s hardly a groundbreaking story that we learn of here, even despite the incredible truth behind it and when one considers the horrible political culture in America at the time. One man comes from behind to get ahead of most everyone else and of course, things go all but smoothly for him along the way. Gaines suffers terrible personal losses, as well as he experiences the pain of a nation suffering from prejudice, hatred and division. Even though we’ve journeyed through the filth and grime with other public figures in movies before, Whitaker’s performance truly makes Eugene Allen iconic — a label which he perhaps earned himself; but the actor confirms it.

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4-0Recommendation: Although it’s not perfect and at times darts between historical and familial themes of devotion, betrayal, respect and dignity, the direction by Lee Daniels affords the film a beautiful aura, a respectful tone and a richly detailed culture from start to finish. It’s both funny and extremely serious; simultaneously poetic and dispassionate. Juggling these extremes cannot have been an easy task, and if you’re willing to see how it’s handled, I highly recommend you give this one a try.

Rated: PG-13 (hard)

Running Time: 126 mins.

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

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