Saturday, May 2, 2015


Some celebrities weren't born to be leading men. Handsome but slight of stature Bobby Darin is a prime example. The "Splish Splash" songwriter and singer is miscast as a resourceful but tortured sheriff in William Hale's lackluster Universal Picture's western "Gunfight in Abilene" (** OUT OF ****) with Leslie Nielsen. Mind you, Darin had proved he could act. After all, he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the Gregory Peck movie "Captain Newman, M.D." Meantime, this thoroughly predictable law & order oater about the usual tension simmering between pugnacious cattlemen and resentful sodbusters is nothing more than an uninspired remake of director Charles F. Haas' "Showdown in Abilene" (1956) that top billed a far more formidable Jock Mahoney. Comparatively, in an early scene when the hero intervenes in
the action from hotel balcony, Darin wears his shirt open partially, while Mahoney displays his naked muscular torso. Interestingly enough, producer Howard Christie bankrolled the original sagebrusher, and he doesn't deprive this dreary horse opera of anything that a polished western requires. The streets teem with lots of extras, and the stores appear less generic than either might in the typical B-movie oater. The stock footage of cattle in long shots doesn't look like stock footage used one time too many. In other words, like its star, "Gunfight in Abilene" is a handsome looking western, but it lacks the grit of the original.

An immaculate, silver-tongued, Leslie Nielsen plays the chief villain, but he is no match for Lyle Bettger in the original "Abilene. He differs from Bettger because he sports a wooden hand rather than a stump. Nevertheless, Nielsen isn't a helpless cripple who solicits
sympathy. He uses his wealth to keep Abilene under his thumb. Nielsen is an urbane, well-dressed, cattleman and his hooligans ride the range roughshod over the passive farmers. These were the days, we're told, when you could shoot trespassers on sight because you were within your legal rights. The farmers are struggling to cast off Evers' dominance,
but they lack the courage. Darin is former Confederate officer Cal Wayne. During the American Civil War prologue, Darin makes a convincing officer, but he doesn't retain a shred of believability when he arrives in Abilene. As it turns out, Wayne accidentally shot and killed Nielsen's younger brother during a chaotic battle. Impulse more than caution prompted Cal to gun down his friend before he recognized that he wasn't the enemy. Our mentally castrated hero experiences so much guilt for killing his friend that he shuns guns. Captured while struggling to get his friend to a hospital, Wayne wound up languishing
for the remainder of the war in a Union prisoner-of-war camp.

After the South surrenders, Wayne rides back to Abilene to find Grant Evers (Leslie Nielsen of "Airplane!") making life unbearable for the farmers. For example, in an early scene, Evers' men tear down a barbed wire fence, and its owner gets entangled in the wire as it coils around him. Evers's men then stampeded their steers through the farmer's property, and the cattle trampled the crops. Later, a young farmer, Cord Decker (Michael Sarrazin of "Sometimes A Great Notion"), comes home from the war to his wife. Unlike Cal, Decker served in the Union Army. Unfortunately, he incurs the wrath of Evers' right-hand henchman Slate when he suggests Cal is better qualified to be the town sheriff. It is only a matter of time until the wicked Slate (Donnelly Rhodes of "Touched by a Killer") crosses paths with Decker and bullwhips him. This scene is probably the most violent. This is all the timid farmers need to unit them and rise up against Evers. Slade hates the way that his boss Evers has given into the farmers. First, Evers convinced Slade to resign as sheriff; Slade had bullied the farmers as Evers' bought and paid for gunman. Second, Evers showed weakness when he gave into the farmer's initial claims for his steers devastating crops. After this moment of reconciliation with the farmers, Evers persuaded his old friend Cal to pin on the sheriff's badge. It seems that Cal was responsible for Evers' missing hand. Predictably, Cal posts an ordinance that firearms are forbidden now inside the city limits, and he has to beat up one of Evers' unruly ruffians to prove that he can still defend himself.

Of course, there is the question of the woman, Amy Martin (Emily Banks) who promised herself to Cal. Everybody, including Amy, believed Cal had died during the war. She has since agreed to marry Grant Evers. When Cal shows up in Abilene, Amy regrets her decision. Slowly, the wedge between Cal and Evers deepens, but it is the evil Slate who precipitates the bloodshed when he whips Cord to death. At the same time, a gulf of discontent has been widening between Slade and his boss. Slade kills Evers after Evers tries to pay him off and send him packing. It is always a dramatic mistake to let the second-string villain kill the first-string bad guy. Inevitably, Cal musters the strength of mind to buckle on a pistol belt. Similarly, sticking to the western formula, Slade must have the first shot before our hero can vanquish him. "Journey to Shiloh" director William Hale qualifies as a thoroughly conventional craftsman until the inevitable showdown between Slade and Cal. At this point, Hale relies on Dutch tilt camera angles to depict the gunplay. Make no mistake, the gunfight looks good, but it isn't high drama. This may qualify as Donnelly Rhodes' best
performance; he is a villain you love to hate.  The title tune about Amy is the first sign of trouble that this western has.  Basically, the song is bland and doesn't conjure suspense like the typical title tune in a sturdy western. Anybody who doesn't know that Leslie Nielsen used to play straight roles instead of specialize in comedy may be alarmed at his villainous turn as Darin's adversary. Altogether, "Gunfight in Abilene" is a tolerable western,
but "Showdown in Abilene" completely overshadows it in virtually every respect.

Friday, May 1, 2015


Movies made from bestsellers by Nicholas Sparks usually require Kleenex galore if you don't want to drown in your own tears. The tenth Sparks' novel to receive the silver screen treatment, "The Longest Ride" (**1/2 OUT OF ****) isn't as hopelessly tragic as some of the author's earlier tearjerkers. Meaning, "The Longest Ride" is nowhere near as heartbreaking as "Message in a Bottle" (1999), "A Walk to Remember" (2002), "The Notebook" (2004), "Nights in Rodanthe" (2008), and "The Best of Me" (2014). Mind you, "The Longest Ride" does have more than enough lachrymose moments. Nevertheless, everything works out well enough for all the protagonists in this sappy soap opera. Each of the four primary characters and most of the supporting players are endearing souls. The villains that lurk on the periphery are far from despicable. More than anything else, they just seem suspicious, but never hateful. Like "The Notebook," "The Longest Ride" intertwines two romantic melodramas occurring in different times at different places to illuminate the message that true love involves sacrifice. "The Longest Ride" emerges as lightweight and frivolous compared with the far more serious "Notebook." "Scream 4" actress Britt Robertson and Clint Eastwood's youngest son Scott Eastwood portray the youthful lovers in the contemporary romance who negotiate an obstacle course of trials and tribulations. She is a second semester college senior studying art from the city with her entire life awaiting her, while he is a hard-luck, rodeo riding cowboy from the country playing wet nurse to snotty bulls and struggling to save the family ranch. In the romance from the past, set during the Second World War, Jack Huston plays the Jewish son of a haberdasher who falls in love with a vibrant refuge from Vienna. Jack's inamorata, Oona Chaplin, and her family have fled from the wicked Nazis and are embarking on a new life. Interestingly enough, "The Longest Ride" marks the first time that Sparks has integrated his predominantly White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant characters with Jewish characters. Despite their ethnic traditions, each couple must triumph over demoralizing medical conditions that threaten to ruin their romance more than parents concerned with class mixing.

You know tragedy is going to strike in "The Longest Ride," but you cannot be certain when it will or who it will affect the worst. The contemporary romance between the cowboy and the city slicker surpasses the experiences of the Jewish couple. Principally Britt Robertson and Scott Eastwood generate greater charisma than Jack Huston and Oona Chaplin. Nevertheless, "Soul Food" director George Tilman Jr., and "Light It Up" scenarist Craig Bolotin neatly connect the older romance with the contemporary one. Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson of "Scream 4") is the kind of college student who would rather study than goof off on campus with her sisters. Now that she's half way through his second senior semester and has earned straight A's, Sophia cuts herself some slack when a sorority sister invites her out to witness a rodeo. Love at first sight aptly describes Sophia's reaction when the bull that rodeo rider Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood of "Fury") straddles sends him sprawling into the dirt at her feet. Luke loses his Stetson, and Sophia retrieves it for him. Luke lets her keep his headgear and ambles away. Later, during the day, Luke and Sophia strike up a conversation and the inevitable date ensues. Basically, she is the sophisticated dame, while he is a rural ranch hand. Nevertheless, opposites attract in the best love stories.

Anyway, as Luke is taking Sophia back to her sorority house after their first date, they notice smashed through a bridge railing. They find an elderly man who plunged off the bridge and slammed into a tree. He lies near death in his wrecked car. Courageously, Luke pulls Ira Levinson (Alan Alda of "The Aviator"), from his automobile. Ira cries out about a box, and Sophia grabs it as Luke is toting Ira away. Since nobody knows Ira at the hospital, Sophia hangs around until he awakens from surgery. Ira, it seems, banged his head up pretty badly in the accident. As a patient, Ira is nothing but cantankerous. He complains that his nurse soaks her hands in ice water. Sophia tells him that she was one of the two good Samaritans who rescued him. Moreover, she persuades grumpy Ira to eat his objectionable hospital fare. If he'll eat his food, she promises to read some of the letters in the box of letters. Sophia knows the letters are love letters because she has perused them. Later, she reads Ira, and we find ourselves swept up in a wistful flashback love affair in the 1940s between a Jewish lad and lady from different backgrounds. As it turns out, love is no different for different people. Everybody encounters variations on the same heartache. The love of Ira's life, Ruth (Oona Chaplin of "Quantum of Solace") dreams of having a large family, but Ira cannot accommodate her owing to a war wound. Like Noah in "The Notebook," Ira tangles with the Nazis in Europe, but he comes home a different man much to Ruth's chagrin. Meantime, Luke and Sophia quarrel after a nasty bull dumps him. Luke's physician warns him his next tumble could be fatal. Sophia begs him to quit bull riding, but Luke refuses out of stubborn pride.

"The Longest Ride" is sure to make Scott Eastwood into a movie star. He looks so much like his father that you cannot believe he is his son. Director George Tillman doesn't overlook an opportunity to photograph every muscular contour of Eastwood's virile physique, and the PG-13 rating prevents him from going all out. Eastwood and co-star Britt Robertson have a shower scene together and do just about everything that is expected of a young romantic couple. Comparatively, Ruth and Ira's romance is restrained. Alan Alda spends most of his time in a hospital bed. Altogether, "The Longest Ride" serves up a lot of hankie with some panky.

Thursday, April 30, 2015


Nightmares won’t trouble you after watching the subtle but suspenseful science fiction fright flick “Ex Machina” (***1/2 out of ****) about a sentient robot with enough cunning to escape from its crafty creator.  This cautionary futuristic fable about artificial intelligence dramatizes the quintessential question pondered by all classic robot movies: can man design a robot that is not only conscious of the world around it but also has awareness of itself?  In his dazzling directorial debut, British novelist-turned-scripter Alex Garland refuses to pander to us with a spectacular “Star Wars” universe as a setting.  Instead, he relies rather on the sheer simplicity of a condo lab facility nestled in the middle of a far-flung mountain paradise.  This ultra-literate, atmosphere-laden chiller, with just enough full-frontal female nudity to earn an R-rating, occurs in the near future, not a decade down in the road but right around the corner.  Although it is a foregone conclusion that the sagacious robot will triumph over her creator and break out of captivity, Garland’s staging of the action building up to the escape is just as hypnotic as his gifted cast with Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac as the humans and Alicia Vikander and Sonoya Mizuno as the automatons.  Sci-fi aficionados should know that Garland has disposed of Isaac Asimov’s three rules of robotics for this dystopian tale.  At 107 minutes, “Ex Machina” amounts to a contemplative, indie-style, art film rather than an obnoxious Hollywood blockbuster.  Mind you, “Ex Machina” boasts a wealth of computer-generated special effects, but nobody brandishes outlandish plasma pistols or ducks into a time machine.  Watching this movie is comparable to being mesmerized by a beady-eyed rattlesnake in an immense glass jar and then wondering what will happen if you place your hand on the glass.  Clearly, Garland has seen all the seminal robot movies, such as “Metropolis,” “The Forbidden Planet,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Blade Runner,” “Short Circuit,” “I, Robot,” and “Her,” and he is familiar with the formula.  Imagine a no-frills version of Steven Spielberg’s “Artificial Intelligence” (2001) transpiring largely in a laboratory setting with two human characters, one more sinister than the other, and you’ve got the gist of “Ex-Machina.” 

Garland’s film unfolds with a brief prologue set in New York City.  Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson of “Unbroken”) is a nerdy, sandy-haired, 24-year old, Internet programmer who works for the global computer search engine company BlueBook.  Comparatively, BlueBook dwarfs Google.  Smith wins a company lottery to spend a week with his eccentric CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac of “Sucker Punch”), who lives alone in a secluded research facility.  Suffering from a hopeless God complex, Nathan seems to be channeling Dr. Frankenstein.  Indeed, he named his company after Frankenstein’s notebooks.  He flies Caleb in by helicopter because his laboratory is basically inaccessible.  One look at Nathan and you’ll know he is villainous.  He sports a bushy beard but wears his hair shorn to the scalp in a gunpowder buzz-cut.  Heavy black horn-rimmed spectacles straddle his nose, and he uses words like “cool” and “dude” to sound like a friendly, ordinary geek.  We learn during the conversations between Nathan and Caleb that Nathan is a teenage progeny who wrote computer code at age thirteen and now owns the biggest search engine company in the world.  Meantime, Nathan implores Caleb to treat him like a pal.  Essentially, Nathan has summoned Caleb to participate in a “Turing” test, named after the real-life Alan Turing, the genius whose life was chronicled recently in the World War II movie “The Imitation Game.”  Nathan has designed a truly sophisticated, female-gendered robot that he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander of “Son of a Gun”) and has even endowed her with appropriate genitalia.  Nathan wants Caleb to determine if Ava is self aware or merely simulating self-awareness.  Ava looks like no other android in cinematic history.  She possesses soft, delicately-sculpted, distaff facial features with slender human hands, while the rest of her body consists of exposed wiring housed in a see-through mesh structure.  Bits and pieces of the exposition from this epic make the story really compelling.  For example, our mad scientist billionaire has drawn on thought patterns appropriated from data generated from computer search engines.  Most search engine corporations content themselves strictly to monetize their information about what consumers want.  On the other hand, our wily villain occupies himself with how people search for their needs rather than the needs and then he exploited this information to enable his robot to behave like a human.

Inevitably, the impressionable Caleb falls in love with Ava, while Nathan is monitoring their every move.  He has surveillance cameras planted in every room so that he misses nothing.  Ava wants so desperately to get away from Nathan’s laboratory that she turns Caleb against his boss.  Eventually, Caleb learns that Ava qualifies as just another prototype in Nathan’s chain of robots.  Indeed, Nathan reveals how he plans to download Ava’s brain into another newer version and scrap her memories.  This seals Nathan’s fate as far as Caleb is concerned, and he decides to help Ava find her freedom.  Before “Ex Machina” fades out, Caleb and Nathan are no longer friends, and Ava has acquired the upper hand, farther up than even her perceptive creator has imagined.  Moreover, Ava has turned Nathan’s personal sex robot Kyoko against him; Kyoko enjoys the freedom to roam around Nathan’s research condo.  When he isn’t satisfying his sexual urges with her, Nathan uses Kyoko as a personal servant.  Most of “Ex Machina” involves apparently monotonous conversations between either Caleb and Nathan or Caleb and Ava.  Nevertheless, Garland insinuates enough fascinating dialogue into those exchanges to make them more than just loquacious chatter.  The performances are robust, with Isaac and Vikander taking top honors respectively as the villainous Nathan and the deceptive Ava.  Sonoya Mizuno deserves honorable mention as the mute robot Kyoko who surprises Nathan in the final quarter-hour.  Don’t mistake “Ex Machina” for a run-of-the-mill female robot actioneer.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


"Destry Rides Again" director George Marshall's lightweight, hilarious, comedy "Advance to the Rear" (*** OUT OF ****) takes place during the American Civil War, but it exploits the conflict more for humor than history. The critical issues of slavery and state's rights are never dealt with in the Samuel A. Peeples and William Bowers' tongue-in-cheek screenplay based on William Chamberlain's novel "Company of Cowards." Furthermore, nobody talks about why they joined up to fight the Civil War. Like most Civil War movies that occur on the frontier, Union and Confederates are fighting each other over a shipment of gold from western mines that both sides desperately want to replenish their coffers. Basically, the story follows the misadventures of a bumbling West Point Academy graduate and his company of misfits that ironically wind up saving the day. Think of "Advance to the Rear" as a predecessor for "F-Troop," and you can put it into greater perspective for film and television in the 1960s.  Peeples and Bowers do a commendable job of foreshadowing action and furnishing the leading men with interesting dialogue. Too many critics have dismissed this hilarity as hokum.  One conversation between Melvyn Douglas's stuffed shirt superior and Glenn Ford's common sense subordinate officer establishes the absurdity of war. Composer Randy Spark's provides a first-rate soundtrack bristling with jaunty music that reinforces the film's farcical qualities. The New Christy Minstrels do a splendid job of warbling the title tune "Company of Cowards," and you want to get up and dance a jig to it.  The cast is stocked with big names, not only Glenn Ford and Melvyn Douglas but also familiar faces galore such as Alan Hale, Jr, Jim Backus, Whit Bissell, Michael Pate, and James Griffith. The production values for this MGM release are reasonably polished, despite the decision to make Oscar winning Technicolor lenser Milton  Krasner shoot this widescreen laffer in black & white. Krasner's elegant pictorial compositions are a treat for the eye.

Glenn Ford maintains a straight face throughout this nonsense as Captain Jared Heath who is later demoted to lieutenant owing to an unfortunate circumstance over which he had no control but for which is culpable. Life is serene in the spring of 1862 for career officer
Colonel Claude Brackenby (Melvyn Douglas of "Ninotchka") who has his troops fire a barrage from his thirty cannon at the Confederates. The Southerners retaliate with thirty rounds from their artillery. This stalemate of sorts concludes abruptly when the overzealous Heath, Sergeant Beauregard Davis, and a couple of other men abduct three Confederate
soldiers and bring them back to their camp for interrogation. Colonel Brackenby is livid with indignation. "Who told you to go out after any prisoners," Brackenby demands. "Take them back." Brackenby constantly reminds Heath that he graduated from West Point. "And how
many times have I warned you about showing any initiative?" Heath is surprised at Brackenby's rebuke. "We've got a nice, quiet, well-regulated sector here," Brackenby explains. "Every morning at six o'clock, the Rebs fire thirty rounds of ammunition at us. Then at six thirty, we fire thirty rounds at them. Their generals are happy and it keeps our generals happy, and nobody much gets hurt. But now you have to go out and capture prisoners and upset the whole status quo. They're not going to like that. It's going to make them mad. Real mad." A confused Heath replies, "If you'll forgive me, Colonel, I thought the
purpose of this war was to have both sides mad at each other." The Confederates launch an attack on Brackenby's men. Heath has to contend with some pretty hopeless soldiers like Private Owen Selous (Andrew Prime of "The Devil's Brigade") who suffers from a perpetual case of hiccups, and Corporal Silas Geary (Jessie Pearson of "Bye, Bye, Birdie") who explains that something about him drives horses crazy. Heath orders Geary back to the rear to serve as Brackenby's courier. Later, after Geary receives orders from Brackenby, the corporal rides off, and Brackenby's horse carries the colonel off as it follows Geary. Everybody is dumbfounded by Brackenby's questionable tactics, and they believe that they must retreat and follow the example of their commanding officer.  The gimmick with the horses that cannot resist Geary is simple but effective in precipitating comedy.  Peeples, who penned an episode of virtually every western television show in the 1950s and 1960s, and Bowers--best known for Burt Kennedy's "Support Your Local Sheriff," trot out this amusing gimmick later on again toward the end.

Predictably, the Union High Command isn't happy with this turn of events. Brackenby finds himself and his regiment the subject of a court-martial. "I damn well intend to get to the bottom of his miserable fiasco and determine what or who is responsible for an entire
regiment turning tail and running before the first shot had even been fired," vows General Willoughby (Jim Backus of "Rebel Without a Cause") as he convenes a board of inquiry. "That damned horse ran away with me," Brackenby defends himself. Not even Corporal Geary can convince the fatuous Willoughby that his peculiar relationship with horses triggered the retreat. "Now, my first warm and generous impulse was to have the whole bunch of them taken out and shot at dawn," Willoughby proclaims to his staff, "but President Lincoln has a phobia about mass executions." One of Willoughby's officers suggests they send Brackenby's men somewhere where the newspapers cannot contact them. Ultimately, they send them so far west that they hope they will never be heard from again. Another officer describes this as "a dirty trick on the Indians." Willoughby recites General Sherman's quote about "War is Hell." Brackenby takes command of Company Q and heads west by river boat to relieve a detachment of the 11th Cavalry. Company Q contains the worst misfits in the Union Army. These include a kleptomaniac, an arsonist, and a compulsive fist fighter. The same time that they are embarking on their journey, they are joined by prostitutes who are being run out of town by a crowd of wives. One of the women is a Confederate spy, Martha Lou Williams (Stella Stevens of "The Poseidon Adventure"), dispatched to keep track of Brackenby's men because the Confederate High Command suspect that this handpicked force of specialists has something to do with guarding a long awaited shipment of gold. They also send in their own renegade officer, Hugo Zattig (James Griffith of "The First Texan") to steal the gold, but they aren't entirely certain of his loyalty.  As one officer points out, Zattig "combines the worse features of Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson."  The use of barrel spars to ski into the Confederate camp is imaginative. Griffith makes a sinister villain. This Civil War western is rather funny, and Marshall makes sure that nobody behaves as if they were in a comedy.

Friday, March 27, 2015


Despite its unsavory sadomasochistic subject matter, this cinematic adaptation of author E.L. James’ erotic bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey” (** OUT OF ***) qualifies as puritanical.  I can say this because I managed to get through ten chapters of the book before I saw the Universal Pictures release.  “Nowhere Boy” director Sam Taylor-Johnston and “Saving Mr. Banks” scenarist Kelly Marcel have sanitized James’ novel and turned it into an antiseptic, “Cinderella” style fairy tale about an affluent Prince Charming and a bookworm of an English Lit major.  Not that it matters, director Sam Taylor-Johnston is a woman rather than a man.  Johnston and Marcel have forged a film that features simulated sex scenes without steam and cardboard characters without souls.  Mind you, “Fifty Shades of Grey” isn’t as abysmal as the amateurish “Addicted.”  Johnston stages several sex scenes where actress Dakota Johnson bares only her breasts, while actor Jamie Dornan displays little more than his carefully sculpted abs and buttocks.  Ladies hoping for a glimpse of male genitalia are going to be sorely frustrated because “Fifty Shades” is R-rated rather than NC-17, like both “Shame” (2011) and “The Lover” (1992) where full frontal nudity was conspicuous.  Comparatively speaking, little if anything risqué occurs until the concluding scene.  You won’t see anything like the candle dripping sex in the Madonna movie “Body of Evidence” (1993); the kitchen sink sex between Michael Douglas and Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” or the infamous “Last Tango in Paris” where Marlon Brando improvised on Maria Schneider with a blob of butter.  Subsequent adaptations of James’ two novels may pass up on the prudish approach after Universal studio executives have analyzed audience tolerance.  Altogether, this soft-porn entry in the trilogy shouldn’t hoist anybody’s eyebrows.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnston of “The Five Year Engagement”) is a shy, virginal, doe-eyed brunette who majors in English Lit at Washington State University and works at a hardware store.  She shares an apartment with her best friend, blond-haired Kate Kavanagh (Eloise Mumford of “In the Blood”), who serves as the campus newspaper editor.  As the action unfolds, woebegone, pajama-clad Kate is wrestling with a cold.  Kate persuades Anastasia to pinch hit for her on a newspaper assignment.  She sends her out to interview bachelor billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan of “Marie Antoinette”) who rules a colossal corporate empire.  Basically, Christian is the Bruce Wayne of hanky-spanky.  An orphan who survived the death of his crack-addict mom, Christian has amassed a fortune, but he harbors a deep, dark secret.  When she enters ‘The House of Grey,’ Anastasia knows little about him.  Anxious about her assignment, Anastasia makes a klutz of herself when she enters Grey’s office.  No sooner has she crossed the threshold than she stumbles and crumples to her hands and knees.  Realizing she hasn’t made the best impression, Anastasia recovers her confidence and begins the interview.  Initially, Christian adopts an icy attitude toward her, but he thaws out once they start talking.  Christian finds the way Anastasia chews her lip so irrestible that he cancels his next appointment.  Some of Kate’s questions shock Anastasia, particularly when she quizzes the tycoon about his sexual orientation.  A life-long bachelor who has never been photographed in public with a woman, Christian explains that he has little use for conventional romances with hearts and flowers.  A relieved Anastasia leaves Christian behind in his phallic monolith of a building and cruises home.  As it turns out, Anastasia is just as captivated with Christian as the latter is with her.  Later, they go on a date, and eventually he deflowers her.  He wants Anastasia to join him in a sexual liaison as a ‘submissive’ to his ‘dominant.’  Christian and she negotiate terms of a contract.  For example, the open-minded Anastasia has no problems with being tied up and titillated with a peacock feather, but she draws the line at vaginal fisting and genital clamps.  Meantime, Christian does everything he can to corrupt Anastasia, buying her a Mac notebook and replacing her classic Volkswagen Beetle with a shiny red Audi.  Ultimately, Christian convinces our heroine to let him show her how bondage can be enjoyable.  Nevertheless, Anastasia isn’t as gullible as she seems.  At fade-out, she gains the upper hand in their bizarre relationship.

The casting in “Fifty Shades of Grey” creates half of its problems.  Dakota Johnson makes an ideal Anastasia.  She gives a believable performance as a naïve college student who has just graduated and treasures the kind classic 19th century British fiction that Thomas Hardy wrote.  The Austin, Texas, born actress seems wholly comfortable with her casual on-screen nudity, and it is interesting to note that “Miami Vice’s” Don Johnson is her dad and Melanie Griffith of “Something Wild” is her mom.  Dakota isn’t as goofy as her literary counterpart Anastasia.  Sadly, lean, handsome Jamie Dornan doesn’t cut the mustard.  He doesn’t behave like a ruthless cutthroat who owns a billion dollar corporation, and his performance is considerably less spontaneous.  Although he wears his apparel well and delivers his dialogue with crisp precision, Dornan looks more like a callow amateur.  In all fairness to Dornan, he impersonates a character that doesn’t seem remotely believable, and his lack of personality underlines his lightweight performance.  The other big problem is the film seems as impersonal as a bargain basement torture rack.  Basically, Johnston and Marcel have designed it as a bondage primer that cautiously advances from one elaborate interlude to another without drumming up any melodrama.  Primarily, the filmmakers rely more on winks rather than winces as our heroine navigates the dire straits of Christian’s sexual calisthenics.  Keep in mind, Anastasia doesn’t say no until she knows better.  Gradually, Christian peels back the layers of his paranoia, revealing himself as an onion that initiates our heroine’s tears and fears.  When director Sam Johnston shifts the focus from the game of sexual chess between Anastasia and Christian, the film sacrifices suspense.  Undeniably, “Fifty Shades of Grey” will keep your eyes wide open, but it dwells more on tease instead of sleaze.


Liam Neeson embarks on an after-hours artillery barrage in “Nonstop” director Jaume Collet-Serra’s “Run All Night,” (***1/2 OUT OF ****), a vigorous, but formulaic, bullet-riddled, crime thriller that keeps the NYPD busy until dawn.   No, “Run All Night” doesn’t imitate Neeson’s “Taken” trilogy.   Neeson’s “Run All Night” hero qualifies more as an anti-heroic underdog, while “Run All Night” shares more in common with Neeson’s earlier abduction opus “A Walk Among the Tombstones.”  “Tombstones” cast Neeson as an ex-NYPD cop who quit the force after one of his stray slugs killed an innocent child.   Neeson’s “Tombstones” hero lived alone and attended AA meetings when he wasn’t trolling for clients as an unlicensed private eye who preferred to work off his pay in trade.   In other words, he wasn’t too fastidious about his clients and crossed the line between good and evil without a qualm.   Conversely, Neeson plays a washed-up enforcer in “Run All Night” for a merciless Irish Godfather (Ed Harris) who keeps his lifelong pal on the payroll because they started out together.   Comparatively, “Run All Night” is pretty grim, but it isn’t as creepy as “A Walk Among the Tombstones” with its pair of villainous homosexual maniacs who abducted women and carved them up for fun and games.   Moreover, these two movies make the three “Taken” thrillers appear hopelessly whitewashed.  Nevertheless, “Run All Night” is the kind of actioneer where you still root for the hero, even though you suspect he may have to confront consequences before fadeout.  Perhaps the closest thing to “Run All Night” would be Martin Scorsese’s Italian crime movies, like “Goodfellas” where Robert De Niro portrayed a trigger-happy lunatic.  Ultimately, the chief difference is Neeson’s itchy trigger fingered hitman redeems himself for his homicidal past.  While Neeson dominates the action, Ed Harris is no slouch as his no-nonsense, tough-as-nails, Irish mob boss.  Joel Kinnaman, Boyd Holbrook, Bruce McGill, and Holt McAloney round out the seasoned cast, with African-American actor Lonnie Rashid Lynn, best known by his nickname ‘Common,” standing out as an obnoxious assassin with a grudge against the Neeson hero.

Neeson plays Jimmy “The Gravedigger” Conlon, a notorious Irish gunsel who not only has managed miraculously to stay out of jail, but who also has rubbed out opponents by double-digits.  Since his wife died, Jimmy has spent most of his time nursing a bottle while he wrestles with his conscience about all those people he executed for infamous crime chieftain Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris of “A History of Violence”) who ruled the Irish mafia in New York City with a steel fist.   Mind you, this doesn’t mean Jimmy has lost his touch.   All that booze hasn’t diluted the ice water flowing through his veins.   He hasn’t lost that lethal knack that he perfected during his dark days of killing. Lately, Shawn has relaxed and has promoted his pride and joy, Danny Maguire (Boyd Holbrook of “The Skeleton Twins”), as head of operations.   Unfortunately, paternal love has blinded Shawn to Danny’s flaws.  Moreover, Shawn doesn’t realize the mistake that he has committed by turning over his largely legitimate empire to his decadent son.   Not only has Danny foolishly convinced himself that he is invincible but also that he is bulletproof.   Furthermore, Danny feels the desperate urge to prove himself to his dad.  He brokers a million dollar deal with some unscrupulous Albanian heroin dealers that he thinks his father will applaud.   The Albanians assure Shawn he will never regret their partnership.   Shawn surprises them when he turns down their deal and sends them packing.   Predictably, Danny is livid with indignation until Shawn explains how he pulled a similar stunt with cocaine twenty years before and had to wipe out half of his friends because they had become rip-snorting junkies.   Shawn doesn’t want to repeat his earlier mistake.   An irate Danny owed the Albanians already so he has no alternative but to blast both of them into eternity.   What Danny doesn’t plan for is the witnesses who saw him ice the Albanians.

Meanwhile, Jimmy has an estranged son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman of “Robocop”), who took a swing at professional boxing but crapped out.   Mike is nothing like his father.  Mike has kept his nose clean.   He drives a limo, has two adorable little daughters, and has gotten his wife Gabriela (Genesis Rodriguez) pregnant with their third child.   Mike leads a budget-pinching, but largely happy life on a blue-collar income.   When he isn’t driving the limo, Mike mentors an orphaned African-American teenager.   He is coaching Curtis 'Legs' Banks (Aubrey Joseph of “Fading Gigolo”) in the art of boxing at the local gym.   When he isn’t boxing, ‘Legs’ fools around with his new smart phone.   Mike encounters ‘Legs’ one evening after he has taken the two Albanians to confer with Danny about their abortive heroin smuggling deal.  Danny tosses the Albanians a satchel bulging with bogus bills, laughs at them, and then perforates them.   After he caps the second Albanian, Danny discovers that Mike has been sitting nearby in the limo that delivered the two Albanians.   Naturally, Shawn is infuriated about this unforeseen turn of the events.  Things grow complicated because Danny fears that Mike witnessed one of the murders. What he doesn’t know is that Legs captured the murder on video.  Worst of all, Danny doesn’t count on Mike’s father showing up and shooting him in the back of his head before he can blast Mike.   Now, a grieving Shawn launches a full-scale war against Jimmy for bumping off his only son. 

Director Jaume Collet-Serra allows “Run All Night” to unfold in flashback, but this gimmick doesn’t sabotage the suspense.  The resourceful Neeson is about as devastating against his own bloodthirsty mob as Denzel Washington was against the Russian mafia in “The Equalizer.”  Collet-Serra orchestrates an exciting car chase through traffic congested Big Apple city streets that will keep you squirming.  He also relies on snappy Google Earth transitions to maintain spontaneity. “Run All Night” runs out of neither momentum nor surprises during its 114 minutes.

Friday, February 20, 2015


Imagine putting the James Bond movies into a cinematic blender with the Austin Powers comedies, and you’ll see what British director Matthew Vaughn does with his outlandish movie “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”  For the record, Vaughn made his first film as a director in 2004 with the murderous mobster melodrama “Layer Cake” (2004) starring Daniel Craig.  Three years later he followed up “Layer Cake” with “Stardust.”  This imaginative Neil Gaiman fantasy romance bore little resemblance to the gritty “Layer Cake.”  Vaughn didn’t come into his own until he adapted Mark Millar’s subversive graphic novel “Hit Girl” as the Nicolas Cage actioneer “Kick Ass.”  This controversial revenge thriller about a dad and daughter who dressed like comic book super-heroes to destroy a dastardly gangster spawned a sequel.  Vaughn’s biggest success came with the incomparable Marvel Comics “X-Men” prequel “X-Men: First Class” about the costume-clad mutants in their youth during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.  Vaughn has recycled many of the themes and characters from those movies for his adaptation of Mark Millar’s graphic novel “Kingsman: The Secret Service”(***1/2 OUT OF ****) that features Colin Firth, Michael Caine, and Mark Strong.  This uneven but entertaining homage to the James Bond movies provides an overdue departure from the usual formulaic, testosterone laden fare that sacrifices wit and style for realism and gore.  Mind you, Vaughn grinds his action gears during the early scenes as he sets up his improbable plot.  Happily, he has everything running smoothly for an explosive finale.  The big problem that Vaughn had to contend with in launching a new franchise was pairing relatively unknown actor Taron Egerton with veteran actor Colin Firth who rarely plays armed and deadly heroes.  Meanwhile, sympathetic heroes and treacherous villains tangle mercilessly in this larger-than-life, hyperbolic espionage escapade that could easily qualify as “50 Shades of Blood” for its sensational number of mind-blowing action scenes.  Hundreds of thousands of people perish when an evil megalomaniac plans to solve overpopulation by implanting SIM cards into their heads, controlling their thoughts, and converting their cell phones into improvised explosive devices.  “Kingsman: The Secret Service” qualifies as the kind of silly but stout, R-rated saga that might repel squeamish moviegoers. 

Matthew Vaughn and his wife Jane Golden, who has collaborated on every film her husband has helmed except “Layer Cake,” have adapted Mark Millar’s graphic novel with the same audacious abandon that they infused in “Kick Ass.”  Indeed, they have made some extreme but inspired changes to Millar’s narrative.   For example, without giving anything away, the villain in the graphic novel was Caucasian; the villain’s second-in-command was male, and Mark Hamill played himself rather than a scientist. “Kingsman” concerns an independent, international espionage agency hidden behind the façade of an elite tailor's shop on London's Savile Row that operates at the highest level of discretion like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” television series.  This private outfit makes Navy SEALs look like second-rate shrimp.  Indeed, if such an ultra-secret organization existed, world peace would be guaranteed.  Latter day British knights of the realm with appropriate code-names like Lancelot and Galahad, these dudes cut dashing figures in their globe-trotting missions to preserve peace and solidarity.  The cream of their crop, Harry Hart (Colin Firth), ranks as their top agent.  He is at his best when he has little more than an umbrella to vanquish the villains.  British actor Colin Firth, who plays the impeccably clad protagonist, has been acting since 1984, but he is known largely as a lightweight leading man in romantic comedies like “Mamma Mia!,” “Shakespeare in Love,” and “Bridget Jones’ Diary.”  In 2007, he ventured out of his comfort zone and played an armor-clad knight in the above-average medieval swashbuckler “The Last Legion.”  During one of Vaughn’s many impressively staged action set-pieces, Firth devastates a hatemongering Westboro-style church congregation in a no-holds-barred, free-for-all fracas. 

As “Kingsman” unfolds, Harry Hart’s closest comrade, Lancelot (Jack Davenport), dies during a mission but saves Harry’s life.  Predictably, Harry consoles Lancelot’s grieving widow and son.  Understandably distraught by her husband’s mysterious demise, Michelle Unwin (Samantha Womack of “Breeders”) wants nothing to do with Kingsman.  Nevertheless, Harry persuades her only son, Eggsy, to accept Lancelot’s medal inscribed with a phone number and a code word should he ever require help.  Seventeen years later, as an underprivileged teen living in the projects, Eggsy finds himself in deep trouble.  Our wild, impulsive hero steals an automobile belonging to a gang of loutish British lads who have been badgering him.  Commandeering their vehicle for a joyride, Eggsy careens through congested London traffic, driving the vehicle in reverse, with the police following him nose to nose, as he executes several complicated maneuvers.  Vaughn excels with suspenseful scenes like this careening car chase.  Later, with nobody to help him, Gary ‘Eggys’ Unwin (newcomer Taron Egerton) contacts Harry.  After Harry gets Eggsy out of the clink, he takes him for a tour of a local tailor’s shop that serves as a front for Kingsman.  Since he feels guilty about the death of Eggys’ dad, Harry helps the lad compete with other candidates for the job-of-a-lifetime as a Kingsman.  After surviving the gauntlet of an incredible obstacle course, Eggys stands poised to become a top agent who can match wits and swap fists with either James Bond or Jason Bourne.  Unfortunately, our hero commits some interesting mistakes before he can redeem himself in the eyes of the Kingsman and save the world. 

Samuel L. Jackson steals the show as goofy looking, Internet billionaire philanthropist Richmond Valentine.  Adopting with a quirky lisp, Jackson wears his baseball cap askew like a gangsta.  Clearly, Valentine represents Jackson’s best performance since “Pulp Fiction.”  Although the tongue-in-cheek Jackson overshadows handsome Harry Hart and his unusual arsenal of weapons, Valentine’s number one henchman--perhaps ‘henchm’am would be better--is a gravity-defying dame equipped with razor-sharp, 'Flex-Foot Cheetah' blade feet, who slices up her adversaries like deli meat.  Nothing can prepare you for Algerian dancer Sofia Boutella of “StreetDance 2” when she performs her breathtaking acrobatic feats in a variation on Oddjob and his razor sharp bowler hat from the Bond groundbreaker “Goldfinger.”  Altogether, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” amounts to amusing but polished nonsense.