Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"Kill or Be Killed" is a modern graphic novel version of Death Wish

Dylan Cross is your average twenty-something guy.  He attends school in a big city, lives in a two bedroom apartment with his roommate, and lately, he's began sleeping with his roommate's girlfriend, Kira.  Oh, and when he has time to spare, Dylan dresses up as a masked vigilante and kills random dudes, but only bad dudes.  He makes sure they're bad before unloading a cartridge into their chest, therefore his plight isn't completely inhumane.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, the two creative minds from the Criminal series fame, continue their success of writing and illustrating another gripping comic (colors are by Elizabeth Breitweiser, who blends in nicely with the styles of the two men).  Kill or Be Killed TP #1 is reminiscent of a present day Death Wish, with Dylan taking the legendary Charles Bronson's burden upon himself, and thus taking the city's trash out one scoundrel, pedophile, pimp and murderer at at time.  He's just like you or me, I suppose, but with bigger balls, and less regard for his own safety.  The guy is a superhero without superpowers, his one major asset being a deep internal mantra that may as well be the philosophy of Paddy Chayefsky's Howard Beale, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore!"

Kill or Be Killed places the reader in the shoes of its complex protagonist, who may or may not have been motivated and convinced to carry out these random murders by a dark, shadowy demon.  It could, of course, also be his madness at work, presenting itself in form of a twisted evil entity.  Whatever it may have been, one thing is for sure: this new series of Brubaker and Phillips' is sure to keep you glued to its engrossing story and visually rich illustrations.

Pitt sandbags his performance in the disappointing "Allied"

Playing a "couple" who've been assigned to secretly pose as French husband and wife in 1942 Morocco in order to bring down an important German ambassador, Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) and Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) never manage to come across as characters whose emotions are authentic and whose plight is even remotely significant.  Instead, we're watching two actors who are faking their sentiments for the greater good, and the result is a drama that feels very staged rather than one that earns our confidence honestly.  Pitt looks especially bored in the role, as if he either knows the final result will be shit, or that the sophomoric script is simply beneath him and not worth his best effort.  Any sense of suspense or tension is for the most part absent, because director Robert Zemeckis never quite takes the time to develop the relationship of the two leads, therefore nullifying any potential thrills that their union may have when it's exposed that Marianne may indeed be a German spy, working undercover even after the two have gotten married and had a baby girl together.  Allied may look great, but it feels stale and redundant, like a poor man's Casablanca, unable to even muster a memorable line worth quoting later, unlike that timeless Bogart and Bergman classic.

Monday, January 30, 2017

"Lion" is reminiscent of Mira Nair's best work

As an adult tormented by his Indian upbringing in which he was separated from his birth mother, Saroo (Dev Patel) has the appearance of someone whose long, shaggy hair is in much need of a haircut (and perhaps a shampoo or two as well).  Adopted as a young boy by a couple from Australia (Tasmania, to be exact), he grows up far, far away from rural and poverty stricken India where he was originally born, only to be haunted by the image of his older brother Guddu during every waking and sleeping hour.  Garth Davis' feature directorial debut is really engrossing during its first half, when it evokes the great Salaam Bombay! (by Mira Nair), while its second half, reminiscent of The Namesake (also by Nair), is somewhat less enthralling, because the adult Saroo spends one too many moments looking very sad and nostalgic, when he could - and should - have simply stopped feeling sorry for himself and began the search for his biological family sooner rather than later.  Nevertheless, Lion is a heartfelt movie whose final act packs an emotional punch that few in the audience will be able to resist.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Affleck directs his first turkey in "Live by Night"

Ben Affleck the director has always been more skilled than Ben Affleck the actor.  In his new movie, Live by Night, Affleck miscasts himself in a story of bootleggers and gangsters and dangerous dames set during the Prohibition era where he plays a gangster who too easily falls in love with the wrong woman (Sienna Miller, doing her best Irish accent), only to have his heart - and a few of his bones - broken as a result.  His Joe Coughlin is a bland, stiff goon whose expression hardly changes, and whose bad-ass gangsta persona is not an aura he exudes; instead, he has to talk about it, and tell his enemies how mean he can really be.  Coughlin romances a Cuban beauty (Zoe Saldana), battles a bigot (Matthew Maher, playing yet another loathsome character in an Affleck movie) who keeps shooting up his club, and he faces both the Irish and the Italian mob in a pretty forgettable anti-climactic shootout.  There's also an obligatory car chase involving cops-and-robbers, and plenty of sit-downs between gangsters and police officials, and some really nice cinematography (by the great Robert Richardson).

What the movie doesn't have, however, is a story worth following, or characters that we give a damn about, because it has too much story, and not nearly enough plot.  Live by Night is a product of a very successful Hollywood actor-director who simply isn't talented enough as a writer to adapt Dennis Lehane's novel (of the same name) to the big screen successfully; it may be time for Mr. Affleck to direct someone else other than himself for a change.  This vanity project of his is as forgettable as his recent outing as Batman, but without the box office success to justify its pointless existence.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

"Silence" uses faith as weapon against oppression

If Silence had not been directed by the great American filmmaker Martin Scorsese, I likely would not have sought it out at all.  A historical movie of "epic" proportions (its running time, its historical period, and most notably, the characters' need to speak in an oddly accented broken English), it takes place in mid seventeenth century Japan, where two young Portuguese priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) have arrived to search for their mentor, Father Ferriera (Liam Neeson), and also to spread the gospel of Christ.  The fact that Christianity is forbidden in feudal Japan, and is punishable by death, adds an element of danger and intrigue to this otherwise long and rather slow moving film.  As adapted by Scorsese and Jay Cocks (from a novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo), the screenplay would have you believe that even common peasants in 1640s Japan spoke nearly perfect English, an element I have a hard time believing.  Ultimately, the movie is a hybrid of Arthur Miller's The Crucible and pretty much any Akira Kurosawa Samurai movie, where Christian persecution and forced apostasy go hand in hand with inhumane torture and murder of the faithful.  Silence is an ambitious film, and a passion project of Scorsese's for over a quarter century, but its analysis and dissection of faith vs. mercy is a bit old fashioned for today's digital age.  Had the movie been made a few hundred years ago (an impossible concept, I realize, but you get my drift), I imagine its themes would've been much more relevant.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Chastain chews & spits out D.C. politics as "Miss Sloane"

Washington politics are rarely as exciting and nerve-wracking as they are in John Madden's recent drama, Miss Sloane.  As the titular lobbyist fighting the gun industry (for wanting to stop a bill that would ensure further and detailed background checks on any new firearm buyers), Jessica Chastain exudes a certain tough-as-nails machismo not often seen in a female on a big screen Hollywood fare, and her ruthlessness is clearly a necessity in this dog-eat-dog world of our capital's ass-kissing politics (I suspect the same rules apply in Tinseltown, so being a successful actress has prepared her well for this role).

Chastain's workaholic Elizabeth Sloane eats at Asian restaurants alone in the middle of the night, she pays handsome, muscular men for sex, she even gets a new colleague (the timelessly beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to confide in her, only to use the woman's personal past in order to gain an upper hand in her political gun lobbying battle.  She's not so much your typical movie woman as she is a modern, red headed dragon in high heels whose definition of contentment is nothing more than solitude with her smart phone and the misery of her enemies.  The always captivating Mark Strong holds his own as Sloane's boss Rodolfo Schmidt, whose own ethics and morals differ greatly from Elizabeth's rule bending and throat stomping desire to win at any cost.

Miss Sloane packs more thrills than your average action movie (it does this while producing only a single gun-shot, and frankly, it could have done without it), and in today's age of over-produced and overblown Michael Bay/Guy Ritchie/Roland Emmerich blockbusters, that is no small feat.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Post apocalyptic "The Few" dazzles with unique artwork

The artwork by Hayden Sherman in Image Comics' new series, The Few, is gray, brown and green, almost semi-chromatic, and absent of life and joy.  Its post apocalyptic setting gives it a doom-and-gloom tone, reminiscent of movies such as The Road, Mad Max, and even Turbo Kid (the villains ride motorcycles and wear goggles, all the while having their faces covered).  There isn't much elation to be found in these so-called "remainder States of America".

The writing by Sean Lewis may not be mind-blowing (lines such as "... that baby needs even a piece of shit to look out for him" come across as rather sophomoric), but what he does create is a strong sense of time and place, a world stripped of humanity where danger lurks at every corner.  The heroine, Edan Hale, is a twenty-year old black haired, brown eyed tough-as-nails girl, who cares for a stranger's baby as if he were her own, despite the faceless assassins on motorcycles who chase after her through the ominous woods as if she was a helpless prey.  A father and son duo come to her aid, and despite a blood-thirsty villain named Herrod wanting to "reign in blood" all the residents of a small trailer community, Edan is forced to flee with her saviors and the baby to the outskirts of the forest they find themselves in, which is marked by a lone wind turbine, sticking out of the sea of trees like a compass out of hell.

The Few #1 is an effective intro to this rather engaging comic book series, its storyline taking off immediately with kinetic energy and imagination, without ever looking back.  There's more to Edan than meets the eye, and it remains to be seen just who and what she really is.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Portman carries "Jackie" with elegant grace

Pablo Larrain's Jackie might as well be called The Planning of John F. Kennedy's Funeral. The movie deals with the aforementioned President's death and upcoming funeral and then over-long discussion as to where he'll be buried and how his procession will proceed and... but I digress.  As Jacqueline Kennedy, Natalie Portman portrays the physical aroma and general demeanor of the first lady convincingly, capturing the woman's pride but also her long suppressed anguish.  The movie never quite captures her relationship with JFK, as we hardly see them together; instead, we're left to form who Jackie really was from her friendships with Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Saarsgard) and her priest (John Hurt) - quite an insightful scene that nicely dissects the heroine's soul searching dilemma.  There also isn't much of a story, only lots of sadness and countless tears, and the movie has a general made-for-TV feel (with the exception of few F bombs), and if not for Portman, I feel it would've ended up being one.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

"Hacksaw Ridge" manipulates through cheesiness and hypocrisy

In director Mel Gibson's bloody historical war movie, Hacksaw Ridge, Christian fanaticism blends oddly with the patriotic needs to serve one's country to the point of both ideologies contradicting themselves.  The protagonist, Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), is your typical backwoods compassionate idealist, the kind who believes in the "Thou shall not kill" commandment to such an extreme that he actually refuses to carry a fire arm as an American soldier fighting the Japanese during World War II.

Having been raised in a Christian household where both his parents abhor war but worship the Almighty, young Desmond clashes with his Army superiors to such an extreme that he comes across as a delusional peace-corps servant whose beliefs are completely misplaced in an occupation that is all about death and destruction of the so-called-enemy.

The first half of the movie is sort of like Men of Honor lite; the second half is pretty much the opening fifteen minutes of carnage in Saving Private Ryan, but multiplied tenfold: it's bloody brutal.  Gibson here clearly explores his love of God and his passion for defending one's land, but he never considers the contradictions at play.  Even though Doss chooses not to commit murder himself, he clearly doesn't object to his soldier buddies slaughtering everyone and everything in sight, a gesture of hypocrisy very much in line with the faith of the so called hero (Wouldn't his anti-murder stance have had more impact if it included boycotting the military draft and avoiding enlisting altogether???  Just sayin').

Hacksaw Ridge is manipulative cinematic propaganda of the Christian ideals and the American need to engage in war, both of which come across as full of shit as its filmmaker's "tolerance" of the Jewish faith.

Friday, January 20, 2017

"A Monster Calls" is an overly sentimental bore

The dramatic storyline in the fantasy-rich and visually stunning A Monster Calls is a bit too sentimental and sappy even for those who generally don't mind melodramatic fares.  Young Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is a troubled boy whose mother is dying from cancer, and whose life at school is burdened by a mean bully (James Melville), a cliche of a character in every imaginable way.  So in order to escape his harsh reality, Conor uses his imagination to create a large tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), a creature whose purpose is to obviously mentor and tutor the boy in all the ways of life, and it comes across as an overly obnoxious teacher whose lessons are too old fashioned and preachy.  Director J.A. Bayona - whose creepy The Orphanage (2007) is one of the most under appreciated horror movies of this century - has made a film that is, I suppose, only half decent.  As much as it succeeds with incredible visuals and impressive effects, the film's screenplay drags with one too many tear-jerk moments, trying to leave its thematic imprint on the audience's brain like a scorching hot cattle-brand iron.  Resembling a more grown-up version of Spielberg's The BFG (another ambitious failure), A Monster Calls will likely confuse young audiences with all sorts of out-of-place emotions, all the while boring the adults straight to sleep.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

"Patriots Day" is Berg's United 93

Peter Berg's Patriots Day is a taut and tense drama about the 2013 Boston Marathon terrorist attack that left numerous people dead and badly injured.  Unfolding very much like Peter Greengrass' similarly themed but superior 2006 film, United 93, it introduces us to several people early on that fateful day, then lets us follow them as each participates in the incident one way or another.  The movie wisely never preaches, but instead presents us with Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), who drops the F bomb like it's going out of style, and appears rather sympathetic as a limping officer who cares more about the victims than the FBI agent in charge of the operation, Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon, looking like he just stepped into this movie from the set of Mystic River).  The fact that the bombings in question took place rather recently, and that its coverage by the media has already made most everyone well aware of who, what, when and how may keep the sense of suspense a bit lower than expected.  And even though the additional news footage and testimonies from the real-life characters prior to the end credits is superfluous and unnecessary, Patriots Day is still a well made film for everyone looking to wave their red, white and blue flag while honoring the victims of this horrific event.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"God Country"'s ideal setting sizzles with mystique

The vast, wounded landscape in God Country is a sight to behold.  Barren and void of anything but dirt and wild mammals, with the storm of the century upon it, its mythical stature enough to inspire the unseen narrator to say, "This here story's been passed down in my family for generations now..."  Like a poem from a citizen of hell who's looking down at the decaying Earth, it sets up a scenario that is as grand as it is mystical.

God Country #1, written by Donny Cates and illustrated by Geoff Shaw, Jason Wordie and John J. Hill (alternate cover by Gerardo Zaffino), centers on Roy Quinlan, a loyal son whose wife and young daughter have finally had enough with the belligerent threats spewed by Roy's father, Emmet, whose dementia is quickly turning him into a great liability for everyone around him.  Emmet's stature is large and in charge, his appearance resembling a deity of the highest order, while his mind is another matter altogether.  When an unprecedented storms crashes on their hometown in Texas, it triggers a chain of events that will challenge an otherworldly God to pick a bone with one of the aforementioned characters.

Resembling a Cormac McCarthy novel, God Country is a folk song as much as it is a comic full of elements both fantastical and Western.  The artwork is impressive and rich, while the writing is honest and the dialogue minimal, something that actually works in its favor.  Of all the recent Image comics debuts, this one should rank somewhere near the top.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

"Queen" uses chess as tool for escaping poverty

Just like previous chess themed movies involving child prodigies (Searching for Bobby Fischer) and inspiring adults who aim to teach the game to underprivileged youths (The Dark Horse), Queen of Katwe uses a board game - which many around the globe don't know how to play - in order to inspire its audience with an uplifting story of an underdog overcoming all odds in order to succeed as a champion at a very high level.  Young Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) begins to show serious understanding of the game under the tutelage of coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), and soon her chess prowess may be her family's only ticket out of Uganda's slums and into bigger and better things.  Director Mira Nair (Salam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding) has made a satisfactory, crowd-pleasing movie that even those who don't understand the game of chess will enjoy, and even though the story is your standard Disney sports cliche, there's a quiet, admirable wisdom quality to young Nalwanga's demeanor.  That may not be enough to place Queen of Katwe among the best movies of this sub-genre, but it's certainly the only one I can think of where succeeding in chess doesn't just mean notoriety and fame, but also a better life that includes typically taken-for-granted things such as running water and roof over one's head.  Literally.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Lyrical "Moonlight" sheds poetic insight into seasons of a life

Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is a poetic and often beautiful movie that evokes the early works of David Gordon Green. Shot in lush colors by cinematographer James Laxton, with a dactylic musical score (by Nicholas Britell) that even Terrence Malick might find admirable, the film explores three different chapters in the life of a bullied, insecure young man called Chiron, whose quiet and shy demeanor he embodies early on remain, more or less, the only unchanged characteristic traits as he grows up in his south Florida community.  As he deals with his crack addicted mother (Naomi Harris), meets a kind dope dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) who shows a genuine father-like interest in him, and engages in matters of sexual curiosity with a classmate (Jharrel Jerome), Chiron boldly epitomizes a struggling teenager whose world can suddenly crash from delivering kindness to delivering blows that leave him bruised and bloodied.

The great Ali (House of Cards) is here, unfortunately, given too little screen time, and - just as he was the best thing about Netflix' Luke Cage, until he was so abruptly taken out - his departure from Moonlight's second and third acts feels even more surprising, especially given how heavily his presence can be seen in all the TV ads and promos for the film.  Also, if there is an element I could not altogether grasp, it's Chiron's transformation from a skinny, dorky teen to a muscular, body building, gold-mouthed, pistol carrying dealer; the man looks nothing like his younger on-screen alter ego - but we'll leave the petty nit picking for another time.

Moonlight doesn't have all the answers (the final scene is beautiful in its ambiguousness) but for a movie that explores the identity of a conflicted youth/teenager/adult, it goes about its business as lyrically as a piece of modern cinema can.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Supeman-like "Huck" is a hero constructed out of pure goodness

Huck is a very special superhero.  Resembling a football linebacker with a heart of gold, Huck is like Forest Gump with super speed, super strength, and an uncanny ability to find anything and anyone with little difficulty.  Having been abandoned as a baby orphan on a doorstep of small town Americana, he grows up to be a person of such compassion and consideration for others that his whole life revolves around committing good deeds for his fellow neighbors in the small Northeastern setting.  Imagine a simple minded man unable to form a single bad thought in his head, then add physical invincibility.  You'd have Huck.

Writer Mark Millar and artist Rafael Albuquerque (colors by Dave McCaig) have created an instant classic comic book that will surely be made into a big screen adaptation (at least one) some day.  The illustrations by Albuquerque resemble fine visual compositions of a Pixar animated feature (certain vignettes reminded me of The Incredibles), and Millar creates several multi-layered characters, both good and bad, and fuses the initial home-grown story with Russian spies and super-villains.  Especially exciting is the appearance of Huck's biological mom, a matriarch so tough and gifted that she makes Sigourney Weaver in Aliens look like a weakling in comparison.

Huck is basically a superhero comic for those who don't read superhero comics, a story that young and old should enjoy equally.  Its breathtaking visuals and honest portrayal of an incorruptible heart will soon elevate it to a universal fan favorite graphic novel.  Seriously: if you want to be charmed and experience some edge-of-your-seat thrills simultaneously, look no further than Millar and Albuquerque's Huck.

Monday, January 9, 2017

BBC's "Sherlock" Series 1 infuses modern technology with Doyle's cleverness

As the world's most famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate geek's role model, a dork so hell-bent on being odd and brilliant that it's hard not to be impressed with his uncanny detailed insight.  BBC's updated take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary sleuth, Sherlock Series 1, fuses stories that are over a century old with a modern setting and technology, and the result is a marvelous entertainment for the eyes and the ears (especially the ears).

In the first episode, A Study in Pink, recently acquainted Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) and his new roommate, Scotland Yard's consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch), investigate a series of murders in which the victims willingly committed suicide.  But how?  And who made them kill themselves in exactly the same way, using the same poison?  When Holmes questions the killer near the end about his employer, the man responds with, "Moriarty!", an omen of things to come.

The Blind Banker presents Holmes and Watson with a case where strange spray paintings turn out to be foreshadowings for bizarrely staged, mysterious murders.  Involved are Chinese smugglers, messages coded in ancient text, and another suggestion of the existence of the mysterious criminal, here presented only as "M".

The final episode of Series 1 places the two protagonists on a case where victims are forced to wear explosive vests and then recite the killer's words to the police over the phone from a secret location.  More than any episode so far, the climax of The Great Game finally pits our favorite detective against his arch nemesis, a super-villain known as Moriarty (Andrew Scott).  For those familiar with Doyle's original stories of Sherlock Holmes, they should know who this man is.

Creators and executive producers Mark Gatiss (who also stars as Sherlock's brother, Mycroft) and Steve Moffat have upgraded the original story some hundred and twenty five years into present day London, and the result is an engaging and intelligent detective show with very charismatic leads and clever, witty dialogue.  Also, London has rarely looked so sexy in the soft-focus/hard-focus establishing shots, playing not only a setting, but an important character in this crime-heavy universe.    And let's not forget the actors: Benedict Cumberbatch's depiction of Sherlock Holmes is this century's defining performance of a nineteenth century detective come to life, more eccentric and sarcastic than ever, in a world much more suited to his genius than the one he was originally born into.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

"Monster" one of many things hiding in this Closet

Stephen Dunn's independent feature, Closet Monster, is a visually impressive movie debut about a gay teen's struggles in life and in love.  The boy in question, Oscar (Connor Jessup), often escapes into a fantasy world, where he talks to his furry hamster, Buffy (voice of Isabella Rossellini), and engages with violent imagery involving a long metal rod and lots of blood.  He's tempted by a colleague at work, and a handsome dark haired young man at a party, and his angst and general frustration with the unfair world around him are convincingly portrayed.  Most of the characters are displayed authentically, the one exception being Oscar's douchebag dad, who acts as an annoying stereotype ("You ain't be going to no faggot costume party!") seen countless times before.  What the movie lacks in acting talent (the most gifted performer is Sofia Banzhaf, playing Oscar's friend who poses for his artistic photographs with heavy monster make-up), it more than makes up in its director's visual approach to convey such a dubious part of a teenager's imagination so vividly and originally.

"Ouija: Origin of Evil" finally elevates the possession formula

Take note, The Conjuring and Insidious movie franchises.  Ouija: Origin of Evil is how one makes a movie about possession without dumbing it down with cliches and stripping it of any possible logic.  When a charlatan ghost whisperer's (Elizabeth Reaser, whose 1960s style makes the decade look sexy again) youngest daughter Doris (Lulu Wilson) becomes possessed by an evil spirit as a result of  including the Ouija board in her "rituals", both mother and older sister (Annalise Basso) begin to suspect a presence of an otherworldly entity.  They seek the help of a trustworthy priest (Henry Thomas, aged gracefully since his breakout role in 1982's E.T.), and that's when the movie shifts into a higher gear that it never quite lets up from.  The shots of young Wilson contorting her face in order to express the demon inside her are truly frightening, and the bold ending doesn't play up to its audiences expectations as most movies of this sub-genre tend to.  The very last scene, set in a psychiatric hospital, is very imaginative and original, and hopefully is a set up for equally challenging sequels ahead.  Ouija: Origin of Evil is a product of bold writing by Jeff Howard and Mike Flanagan (the latter also directed this movie with a singular vision worthy of admiration).  If you saw the original from 2014 and - most likely - hated that movie, don't be discouraged, and check out this much superior sequel (or is it prequel?).  It will haunt you for days.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Fox's new TV comedy "The Mick" has very little substance

If you've seen the commercials and TV promos for FOX's new comedy The Mick, featuring It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Kaitlin Olson, then you've seen the hilarious shots of a little boy who's been so poorly taken care of by his aunt that he's completely broken out with an allergic reaction to ice cream she let him have (but wasn't supposed to).  You've probably also seen the riotous  scenes where her other nephew was beaten up to a bloody pulp by a school bully after she gave him the wrong advice on how to deal with such an adversary.  Funny, funny stuff.  I laughed while watching the promos, for sure.

But sadly, those laughs are where the humor in The Mick ends.  The Pilot episode gives us little in terms of character, and the heroine referred to as "The Mick" (Mackenzie "Mickey" Murphy) drinks too much and doesn't quite give a shit about anyone (not her deadbeat boyfriend, not even her sister's maid, whom she's clearly using, and definitely not her two nephews and niece). Mick walks around and behaves as selfishly and inconsiderately as a female version of Bad Santa (the problem: that guy actually got laughs).  The second episode, titled The Grandparents, presents us with a script whose humor is aimed at an audience that grew up in the 1950s and 60s (people getting tagged by lasers?  Mm, not very funny.  People getting slapped by their grandma several times until they give in?  🤔 Hmm.  Nope, definitely not funny 😞).

The writing by Dave and John Chernin is lazy and without imagination.  It's almost as if they just want to extract as many "right now" laughs that they never bother to develop a comedic situation or a character into something that can pay off eventually.  If they want to learn how to make an effective show using a scoundrel with a heart who eventually grows on us, all they have to do is watch My Name is Earl.  That show had more genuine soul, insight and humor in sixty-seconds of screen time than The Mick possesses in two full episodes.  It's a shame, because the promos for it were funny.  Really funny.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Theatrical "Fences" brings out the best from Davis and Washington

In Fences, Denzel Washington's cinematic adaptation of August Wilson's Pulitzer Winning play, the scenes play out just as they would on stage: they're long, without many close-ups, and the protagonist, Troy Maxson (Washington) talks a whole lot and uses pretty articulate vocabulary for a man who can't read or write (but we won't be getting into that).  Like a mean grand stage patriarch, Troy is a bully to his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) and wants to discourage his son from potentially attending college by making him quit the football team, because Troy had once upon a time failed as a potential MLB athlete, and clearly doesn't want his offspring to succeed where he hasn't.  The real emotional weight of burden here belongs to Troy's wife, Rose (Viola Davis), who has clearly been used and mentally abused by her two-timing, overly controlling husband over the years.  I hope that this role finally gets Davis the Oscar she so clearly deserves as one of the finest American actresses.  The movie is not as grand as it claims to be, and in a season filled with exciting sci-fi action, rebirth of Hollywood musicals and superb Disney/Pixar animation, Fences drags just a bit in its third act, which feels as if it will last forever (also, the film's dramatic energy is absent whenever Washington's Troy's Maxson isn't on screen).  Still, it's a solid ensemble piece from everyone, and a good directing effort from its superstar.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Acestroke's Top 10 Films of 2016

1.  Hell or High Water.   
An instant classic and a contemporary Western masterpiece for those who no longer remember cinema's most (in)famous bank robbers of long ago, and can now get the best of the past and present that the genre has to offer. 

2.  Zootopia.
Disney takes on social discrimination in the most original way.  Ambitious and moving.

3.  The Hunt for Wilderpeople.
A boy and his foster father become targets of a national manhunt in the New Zealand wilderness, and the result is the best coming of age story (for the child and the adult) of 2016.

4.  L'avenir.  A middle aged philosophy professor has to make adjustments to sudden changes in her life, but realizes that time of change has long passed.  Isabelle Huppert's performance is the most authentic of the year.

5. Deadpool.  Because some good/bad guys are just so bad/good that they're just ... the shit.  The most entertaining movie of the year.

6.  Eye in the Sky.  Exhilarating and nerve wrecking from opening frame to the last.  A bold take on modern warfare.  

7.  Train to Busan.  Zombies on a train.  In South Korea.  On its way to Busan.  Best Zombie movie in many years.

8.  Arrival.  A mother grieves her daughter, until new arrived visitors to Earth try to teach us that maybe death is not the end.  Beautiful and intelligent.

9.  The Witch.  A creepy-as-all hell minimalist horror movie.  What it lacks in gore and blood, it more than makes up in suspense and tension - and imagination.

10.  Graduation.  An honest doctor wants what's best for his daughter, but when her future is jeopardized, he crosses ethical lines he didn't know he was capable of.  A quiet masterpiece. 

"Graduation" looks at an honest father's moral dilemma

Christian Mungiu's Bacalaureat (Graduation) is a movie wise about both human nature and the corrupt world of bribes and favors.  When a respected Romanian Doctor's (Adrian Titieni) daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) is assaulted by a rapist the day before her final examination, which is ultimately her entry to a college in England, her dreams of escaping the mundane world her parents were subjected to growing up in begins to crumble.  The father now must visit various members of Romanian bureaucracy and ask for unusual favors, actions that aren't necessarily legal and fair, but hey, neither was the assault on his daughter the day before the most important moment of her life (the man also got his living room window and his car window broken by an unknown assailant).  Director Mungiu continues making some of the most important movies about the state of Romanian life (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), and in Graduation he presents us with a good, hard working honest everyman whose values are shaken to the core due to an already unfair system where honesty isn't necessarily rewarded.  The craftsmanship of the camerawork is at best minimal: every set-up is executed with one camera angle, and editing is only used to take us from scene to scene, but never within the same scene, a style that the director has been known for.  With Graduation, Mungiu has officially arrived on the international scene as one of the world's best filmmakers.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Zombie apocalypse in "Girl with all the Gifts" feels both old and new

The post apocalyptic, zombie infested London in The Girl with All the Gifts (written by Mike Carey, adapted from his own 2014 novel) looks very much like the one in 2007's 28 Weeks Later (not surprisingly, it sports more or less the same storyline as that Juan Carlos-Fresnadillo directed sequel to 28 Days Later).  Abandoned by human population, the quietness and silence surrounding the English capital on Thames river is like an ominous hum of dread, injecting fear and terror into anyone who happens to wander it alone.  Melanie (Senia Nanua) is an unusually intelligent girl among children who are called "hungries", or aggressive carnivores capable of devouring human flesh, at an isolated base that's run by scientists and military.  When it's discovered that Melanie has a special immunity to the virus, she is taken by Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), Sergeant Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) and her teacher Helen (Gemma Arterton) away to safety after the base is stormed by adult "hungries".  The movie's tone remains effectively suspenseful, and its characters quickly grow on us, even though some of the setups feel like cop-outs (Sleepwalking zombies who can't smell or sense humans who are near them unless they detect movement? Too easy).  Director Colm McCarthy has created one of the more entertaining zombie horror movies in a few years, and judging by how much competition this particular horror sub-genre has, that is no small feat.