HACKSAW RIDGE (2016)

November 3, 2016

hacksaw-ridge Greetings again from the darkness. Why doesn’t every high school student learn about Desmond Doss in History class? Beyond that, why isn’t Desmond Doss profiled in every Psychology and Philosophy class? It’s inexplicable that more Americans aren’t familiar with his story, much less failing to honor his legacy with a well deserved tribute. Fortunately director Mel Gibson (Braveheart) and screenwriters Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner) and Robert Schenkkan (“The Pacific”) bring us a spirited look at this underappreciated American war hero.

Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) plays Desmond Doss and perfectly embodies the conviction and dedication of this extraordinary (not hyperbole in this case) man. See, Desmond Doss was one of the first conscientious objectors in the U.S. Army. His religious beliefs (Seventh Day Adventist) prohibited him from using a weapon or killing another person … two things that don’t go over well with fellow soldiers or commanding officers. Yet, Doss was committed to serving his country as a medic and saving lives, rather than taking them.

Unbelievable may be the best description even though his story is absolutely true. Credited with saving the lives of at least 75 wounded soldiers, Doss and his fellow soldiers are depicted in the film fighting the Battle of Okinawa at Hacksaw Ridge … a topographical challenge punctuated by the need to climb a rope wall in order to scale the face of the cliff. Their reward was facing thousands of Japanese hiding in tunnels and bunkers, waiting patiently to kill in mass. There will be no spoilers here on the courageous actions of Doss … you should see for yourself.

The early part of the film features a heart-warming first love story involving Desmond Doss and Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer, The Choice). Watching young love bloom is precious and provides a stark contrast to the battle scenes. The two make a lovely couple and we can’t help but root for them. Once Doss hits basic training, we find Vince Vaughn in the role of Sergeant Howell, Sam Worthington (failing to hide his Aussie accent) as Captain Glover, and Luke Bracey (Point Break, 2015) as Smitty, one of the soldiers who initially has no interest in serving with Doss. The Army Psychologist is played by Richard Roxburgh, whom movies lovers will recognize as The Duke from Moulin Rouge! (2001).

Some of the best scenes involve Desmond’s parents played by screen vets Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths. Both are excellent in roles requiring very different and extreme emotional moments. It’s a credit to Gibson’s filmmaking expertise that he is able to add depth to all aspects – family turmoil, a classic love story, the brutality of war, and the deep religious convictions. There are a few moments of “artistic license” and some of the CGI is inconsistent and even over-produced at times, but the intensity of the battle scenes rival that of Saving Private Ryan and the landing at Omaha Beach. It’s a passionate piece of filmmaking centered on a most passionate man. You may disagree with much of what Mel Gibson has said and done in his personal life (and I hope you do), but as a film director he has earned much respect. And speaking of respect … Desmond Doss. Enough said.

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KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES (2016)

October 20, 2016

keeping-up-with-the-joneses Greetings again from the darkness. Dozens of movies through the years make up the Spy Action-Comedy segment. Most of these lean heavily on either action (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Red, Knight and Day) or comedy (Austin Powers, Get Smart, Date Night). The latest entry from director Greg Mottola and writer Michael LeSieur offers a more balanced approach while being somewhat grounded in familiar suburbia. Perfect casting certainly helps.

Comedies are the toughest genre to review because the only thing that matters … does it cause you to laugh? … depends on the sense of humor of each viewer and even their frame of mind while watching. So what I can report is that the full theatre at my screening was filled with enthusiastic laughter multiple times, along with a pretty steady stream of chuckles and giggling. This will undoubtedly vary from the accounts of uppity film critics who will discount the basic plot and obvious laughs (which is the whole point).

A James Bond-type opening credit sequence sets the tone as we abruptly shift to watching Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher) sending off their two sons to summer camp before returning home to their idealistic cul-de-sac suburban home. Things pick up when the new neighbors, Tim and Natalie Jones, arrive … a seemingly perfect couple played by Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot. They are the type of couple who are beautiful to look at, stylishly dressed, and even show up with a blown-glass sculpture as a gift for their new neighbors.

Of course, this perfect couple is really married spies seeking information from the military weapons contractor where Jeff works as a Human Resources associate. It’s Karen who senses something is off about the perfect couple, which leads to her stalking Natalie all the way to a dressing room where she is comically intimidated by Wonder Woman in black lingerie. On a side note, Ms. Fisher does have a later sequence where she proves to be anything but a homely housewife, despite how that dressing room scene is presented.

The men head off for some male bonding – at a highly unusual specialty restaurant, leading to one of the more manic sequences in the movie. The four leads are all excellent, but it’s Gal Gadot who is the real surprise … and her scenes with Ms. Fisher are the film’s best. Both are allowed to shine, while the men are a bit more one dimensional. Galifianakis is the all-trusting good guy just happy to have some excitement in his life, while Hamm is the super cool spy (who wishes he wasn’t). Both men seem to enjoy the chance to make friends, while the women are a bit more focused on tasks at hand.

Director Mottola is known for his films Adventureland and Superbad, and writer LeSieur is best known for Me, You and Dupree. The impressive thing about this latest is that the comedy mostly derives from character and situational interactions, and the expected steady stream of punchlines never materializes. There is even some insight into marriages that have become a bit too predictable, and the challenges of making new friends when all available energy is devoted to parenting and making ends meet.

In addition to the four leads, there are some funny moments for Maribeth Monroe, Matt Walsh and Kevin Dunn. The brilliant Patton Oswalt is cast as the self-nicknamed villain, and is responsible for one of the film’s biggest laughs.

Of course, this is not subtle or high-brow humor, and the story line is predictable throughout. The laughs stem from the contrast of a subdued, comfy suburban life versus the sophisticated, over-accomplished jet-setting couple … laughs clearly enhanced by the talented leads. So while this seems like the kind of movie I would usually ignore, perhaps it arrives at a time when laughing is simply preferable to the daily grind of an embarrassing and humiliating Presidential race. So go ahead and give laughter a chance … it works even better than a stress ball.

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THE NICE GUYS (2016)

May 29, 2016

nice guys Greetings again from the darkness. Shane Black sold his first screenplay at a very early age which led him to become something of a phenom with the success of that film, Lethal Weapon (1987). Later, he disappeared from Hollywood for about 10 years before resurfacing in 2005 by directing his own terrific script with the immensely entertaining Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (my favorite movie of that year), and then hitting big-budget time with his script for Iron Man 3. This time, Mr. Black (directing and co-writing with Anthony Bagarozzi) returns to the detective-farcical-comedy-mystery-action genre and even adds an element of being a 1970’s period piece.

Black’s rapid-fire wise-cracks were perfect fits for Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr, and for this project he’s working with Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe … both fine actors, though neither known for their comedic work. What’s clear from the beginning of the film is that both Gosling and Crowe are fully committed to the material and their respective characters. Gosling plays a boozy Private Detective and single dad who just can’t quite get things right, while Crowe plays a hired-hand bruise type – think of his Bud White in L.A. Confidential (1997), only with an extra 50 pounds (or did he borrow Eddie Murphy’s Norbit fat suit?) and a lot of miles. These two damaged boys play off each other very well, and with Black’s dialogue and visual gags, the film provides a good number of laugh out loud moments … more silly than the sophomoric humor that’s so pervasive at multiplexes these days.

Of course for comedy to really click, there needs to be some type of story to follow. In the opening scene a young boy (Ty Simpkins) watches as a car slams through his house, culminating with a “model/actress” named Misty Mountains meeting a not-so-pleasant ending. We then learn that Gosling’s Holland has been hired to find Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ms. Mountains – with two significant exceptions. Simultaneously, Amelia has hired Crowe’s Jackson to convince Holland to stop searching for her. Soon enough, Holland and Jackson are working together on the “case” that mixes in the Auto industry (Big 3), Porn industry, Justice Department (government conspiracies), environmental protestors, Killer Bees, LA parties, LA smog, The Waltons (John Boy), The Rockford Files, Detroit, and Richard Nixon … all hot topics in this 1977 era.

As much as the story is needed, it really doesn’t much matter. This is a movie of moments … some of them featuring funny words, while others focus on pretty astute physical comedy. Gosling (and his stunt double) provides some pretty impressive gags as he is bounced and slammed around for most of the run time. The surprising heart of the film … and moral core … is Holland’s daughter Holly played by Angourie Rice. Despite the title, she is really the only “nice guy” in the whole film, and her good-hearted nature keeps us rooting for Gosling and Crowe, despite their flaws.

Other support work comes from Matt Bomer as a “John Boy” hit man, Keith David, Lois Smith, Yaya DaCosta (quick, name another Yaya), Beau Knapp (as the toothy Blueface), Jack Kilmer (Val’s son as a “projectionalist”), and Kim Basinger (re-teaming with her LA Confidential co-star, Crowe). Also playing a significant role are the mid-to-late 1970’s vehicles, the period music and houses and décor that puts us right in the moment, and the clothes and hairstyles that are sure to inspire a chuckle or two.

Fans of Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang will surely find plenty of laughter here … despite one of the worst trailers in recent memory and even if the film is lacking the one thing it advertises – nice guys.

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DEADPOOL (2016)

February 12, 2016

deadpool Greetings again from the darkness. Superhero movies have been dominating the box office for the better part of two decades, and most tend to lean towards moody and intense … though Iron-Man and The Avengers have certainly enjoyed adding searing one-liners to the mix. As for ratings, superheroes have steadfastly claimed PG-13 as the perfect blend of massive action, massive muscles and massive audiences. So it’s a little surprising to find a movie about a relatively unknown superhero, that’s the first feature from director Tim Miller (previously a visual effects guru), crashing through the R-rated barrier in no-holds-barred fashion. It’s startling and refreshing to see a new take on what had become just a bit too familiar.

This is a movie for which you will want to actually read the opening credits and stay for the post credit scene (a 2-parter). Additionally, you will want to make sure you keep not only little kids away (remember the hard R-rating), but also any grown-ups who are offended by harsh language (on the Tarantino scale), ultra-violence (on the Kill Bill scale) or any combination of sex, sex talk or sex jokes (all at an entirely new level). To label this movie as crass or profane is like calling Chewbacca somewhat fuzzy. And while it pushes the raunch-o-meter, it’s also blazingly funny at times (especially for a cancer movie).

The previously mentioned opening credits refer to the writers as “the real heroes here”, and while the plot is pretty textbook superhero stuff, it’s the barrage of one-liners and sight gags at which those writers so excel. They even make sure those unfamiliar with the Wade Wilson backstory understand that he is a former special forces operative turned mercenary for the average Joe’s and Jane’s. In no time, it’s drilled into our heads that he is also a wiseacre, wisenheimer, wise-ass, wisecracker and any other adjective that means funny but not wise.

Ryan Reynolds stars as Wade Wilson/Deadpool and leaves no doubt that he has finally found the role that fits him as well as his red suit. If you are convulsing as you flashback to Mr. Reynolds as Green Lantern (2011), take solace in the fact that this movie fires a couple of deadly shots at that oh-so-disappointing effort. His girlfriend Vanessa is played by Morena Baccarin (“Homeland”), and his best buddy/bartender is played by TJ Miller (“Silicon Valley”). Since Reynolds had a brief appearance as Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), there are numerous nods to that franchise, including two key roles here for Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). The target of Deadpool’s revenge comes in the form of Ed Skrein (The Transporter Refueled) as Ajax and Gina Carano as Angel Dust … accompanied by her theme song “Angel of the Morning” (unfortunately it’s the Juice Newton version, and not the more powerful Merrillee Rush and the Turnabouts version). Lastly, it’s pure joy to see Leslie Uggams cast in a spunky supporting role, and Stan Lee appears in what might be his most unique cameo yet.

As for music, the range is Neil Sedaka to DMX – yep, you’re unlikely to find a more diverse soundtrack. Your kid may have a Captain America figurine on their bookshelf, but the R-rating for this one is solidified in the first 10 minutes, and is relentlessly reinforced until the movie ends – this means don’t bring your kids! We can only imagine how much fun those old enough to watch are going to have, and brace yourself for an onslaught of Deadpool comebacks over the next few weeks … only hopefully not in church, at the office, in front of grandma, etc …

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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (2016)

February 4, 2016

PPZ Greetings again from the darkness. For those high school Literature teachers struggling to get their students to embrace the classics from writers like Jane Austen, this movie won’t help much. However, chances are good that those same students will enjoy this blending of 19th century British class warfare with “The Walking Dead” – likely one of their favorite shows.  The zombie apocalypse has landed in the middle of Austen’s prim and proper story, including the repressed attraction between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.

Anyone expecting the serious undertones of Ms. Austen’s1813 novel will be disappointed … but the title should have provided a pretty solid hint. While her characters and general story line act as a structure here, it’s really based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s YA hit novel … delivering zombie battles and often zany humor. Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) directs his own adapted screenplay and seems to really be having a great time – right along with his talented cast. The sets, costumes, dialogue and fight scenes work together to create an unusual movie experience that will generate plenty of laughs while not dwelling on the zombies or violence (it is PG-13). Expect most critics to destroy this one because it’s made simply for fun, not for art.

Of course, any Pride and Prejudice spin-off (even one with zombies) must pay particular attention to Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. It turns out that Elizabeth and her four sisters are highly trained warriors raised to survive against the undead. It’s even clearer for Mr. Darcy as he is billed as a zombie hunter and protector of Mr. Bingley, the rich bachelor hooked on Jane Bennett. Things get muddled by the devious Mr. Wickham, a focused Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and especially the flamboyant fop Parson Collins. The interactions between these characters bounce between loyalty, romantic attraction, emotional turmoil and hand-to-hand combat … with enough comedic elements that most viewers will find plenty of opportunities to laugh.

The talented cast is all in. They play it mostly straight (with one major exception) to achieve the balance between somber and silly. Lily James (“Downton Abbey”) and Sam Riley (On the Road, 2012) are both fun to watch as Elizabeth and Darcy. They are the film’s best fighters … both with swords and words. Bella Heathcoate (Dark Shadows, 2012) is “the pretty one” Jane, who is wooed by Douglas Booth (Noah, 2014) as Mr. Bingley. Lena Headey (“Game of Thrones”) makes an impression in her limited screen time as an eye-patched Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Jack Huston (“Boardwalk Empire”) is well cast as Wickham. Screen veterans Charles Dance and Sally Phillips take on the role of parents to the five Bennett daughters, but it’s Matt Smith (“Dr Who”), who turns the film on its ear with his unconventional twist on the oddball Parson Collins, who pretty much steals each of his scenes. He had those in the theatre laughing out loud more than a few times.

Pity is the word that comes to mind for any young man who takes these Bennett girls to the prom … or more likely to one of the societal balls. The weapons hidden under their formal gowns offer fair warning to zombies and handsy suitors alike. It’s this element of strong women (physically and emotionally) that might even allow Ms. Austen to appreciate what’s happened to her characters … were she alive to see it.

Even though the film offers plenty of fun with laughs and action and romance, let’s hope it doesn’t kick off a new zombie-adaptation trend. Here are a few titles that we hope never see the big screen: Sense and Sensibilities and Zombies, War and Peace and Zombies, Crime and Punishment and Zombies, The Old Zombie and the Sea, Wuthering Zombies, Romeo and Juliet and Zombies, and Alice’s Adventure in Zombieland.

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THE FINEST HOURS (2015)

January 29, 2016

finest hours Greetings again from the darkness. The U.S. Coast Guard has played a role in many movies over the years, but only a few have placed this service branch directly in the heart of the story … most recently The Guardian (2006), which was little more than a cheesy, too-talkative water-based rip-off of Top Gun.  Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, 2007) takes a much different approach as he presents a look at one of the most legendary and heroic real-life rescues in Coast Guard history.

The Oscar-nominated writing team behind The Fighter (2010): Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson have collaborated on the screenplay based on the book from Casey Sherman and Michael J Touglas. It’s a worthy tribute (and clearly Disney-influenced) to what is described as the greatest Coast Guard small-boat rescue. It combines a boat-load (sorry) of tension-filled ocean-based sequences with some pretty interesting character-based sub-plots within a Massachusetts community that has become all too familiar with storm-based catastrophes.

Chris Pine stars as Bernie Webber, an awkwardly shy and obsessive rule-follower, who has lived under a cloud of doubt ever since a previous rescue mission failed, resulting in the death of a local fisherman/husband/father. We first meet Bernie as he bungles through a first date with Miriam (Holliday Grainger, a young Gretchen Mol lookalike). The film then jumps ahead to 1952 when they become engaged and Bernie is ordered into a questionable mission by his “not-from-around-here” commanding officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana). See, a huge storm has literally ripped apart not one, but two giant tankers, leaving crew members battling for survival. It should be noted that Bana the Australian, tosses out a laughable southern accent that is a joke within the movie and within the theatre (for different reasons).

Bernie and his crew: Richard Livesay (Ben Foster), Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner), and Ervin Maske (John Magaro), take off against all odds in a too-small boat against too-big waves in a desperate attempt to rescue the tanker crew that includes brilliant engineer (and quiet leader) Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) and characters played by John Ortiz and Graham McTavish. Affleck excels as what can be termed a quiet leader. Of course, we know how the story ends, but the heroic efforts against a very powerful Mother Nature show-of-force make for compelling movie watching.

The special effects are stout, though not be as spectacular as The Perfect Storm (2010) or In the Heart of the Sea (2015), and it’s the human-factor that provides more than enough thrills, excitement, and tension. In fact, the biggest issue I had was that I saw a 3-D version which is an absolute disservice to the film. Most of the story takes place at night and at sea, so the 3-D consequence of dimmed light and muted colors results in a far too dark and dull look to the film. I spent much of the movie sliding the 3-D glasses down my nose in a simple attempt to enjoy a bit more brightness. The recommendation would be to skip the higher-priced (money grabbing) 3-D version and take in the more pleasing “standard” version.

Disney makes feel-good movies. Their target market is not cynics or the overly critical among us. The romance pushes the “corny” meter, but keeps with tradition of other Disney movies based on true stories like The Rookie (2002) and Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story (2005). Keep this in mind you’ll likely find this one pretty entertaining. Stick around for the closing credits as a slew of real photographs from the actual 1952 event are displayed, as are photos of the real heroes from that night.

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13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI (2016)

January 17, 2016

13 Hours Greetings again from the darkness. Given that his last “true” story movie was Pearl Harbor (2001), and he is best known for the endless stream of Transformers movies (yes, another one is on the way), it’s understandable how we could be apprehensive (to say the least) about director Michael Bay taking on the Benghazi story. A sigh of relief is in order as the film pays tribute to those who deserve it while still providing Bay the opportunity to blow stuff up, and display his always-annoying tendencies with a camera.

The incredibly courageous soldiers, who comprised the CIA security team (GRS) of contractors that saved many lives, are the heroes of the story and heroes in real life. Bay never loses focus on their bravery and dedication, and avoids the temptation of taking an obvious political stance in telling their story. At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from making a weaslley CIA administrator type (played by David Constable) the face of bureaucratic incompetence.

The six man team is played in the movie by John Krasinski (as Jack Silva), James Badge Dale (beefed up from his “Pacific” days as Tyrone “Rone” Woods), Pablo Schreiber (as Kris “Tanto” Paronto), David Denman (as Dave “Boon” Benton), Dominic Fumusa (as John “Tig” Tiegen), and Max Martini (as Mark “Oz” Geist). All six actors are clearly proud to represent these men, and though wise-cracks abound, there is absolutely no Hollywood preening or posturing … these are gritty, well-trained, dedicated warriors.

So much as been written and debated about what happened during the 2012 siege that resulted in the tragic deaths of four Americans, including that of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. But given the reputations of those in the CIA and the State Department, it’s doubtful full disclosure will ever replace the holes of doubt that exist, so studying the action sequences makes sense … though we also get a Joseph Campbell reference. Chuck Hogan adapted Mitchell Zuckoff’s book for the film, and in between the rapid gun fire and missiles, that deafening silence you hear is Washington, D.C.

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