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Friday, February 20, 2015

FILM REVIEW OF ''KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE" (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.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

FILM REVIEW OF''SEVENTH SON" (2015)


Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges has made many memorable movies.  “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot,” “Jagged Edge,” “The Big Lebowski,” “The Fisher King,” “Fearless,” “Against All Odds,” “Men Who Stare at Goats,” “Iron Man,” “True Grit,” and “Crazy Heart” stand out among the more than 60 theatrical features that he has starred in since he started acting back in the 1970s.  Bridges’ latest outing “Seventh Son” (** OUT OF ****) proves that he can make an occasional stinker, too.  Making his English-language film debut, Oscar-nominated Russian director Sergey Bodrov, who helmed the 1997 Tolstoy tale “Prisoners of the Mountains,” has spared no expense in bringing this sprawling but predictable $95-million, medieval fantasy to the screen.  A posse of demon-possessed souls that can turn into voracious supernatural beasts tangle with our venerable hero and his naïve sidekick as the two struggle to vanquish an unforgiving witch.  Interestingly, this larger-than-life adaptation of retired English teacher Joseph Delaney’s young adult novel "The Spook's Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch," the first of fourteen books in his “Wardstone Chronicles,” has generated greater enthusiasm overseas.   Chinese and Russian audiences flocked to it.  Meantime, American audiences have shunned it, and box office analysts have branded this Universal Pictures release as a flop based on its dismal opening weekend receipts of little more than $7 million.


“Seventh Son” opens as the last of the Falcon Knights, Master John Gregory (Jeff Bridges of “TRON”), locks up the malevolent Queen of Witches, Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore of “The Big Lebowski”), in an oubliette in a remote mountain range.  Gregory and Malkin, it seems, once loved each other.  Gregory abandoned Malkin for another woman, and the jealous Malkin killed Gregory’s wife.  Gregory retaliated and imprisoned Malkin for what he thought would be an eternity.  Designated as a ‘Spook,’ Gregory earns his living as a spell-casting, witch-busting, dragon slayer equipped with a flame-throwing staff.  He has dedicated himself tirelessly to the destruction of anything supernatural that frightens common folk.  Despite Gregory’s elaborate precautions, Mother Malkin breaks out of captivity many years later as a result of a centennial lunar event termed ‘the Blood Moon.’  The Blood Moon revitalizes Malkin’s evil powers, enabling this witch to transform into a winged dragon, and flap away to her own mountain-top fortress.  Master Gregory and young apprentice William Bradley (Kit Harington of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) recapture this diabolical dame with arrows and a silver net.  Unfortunately, Malkin kills poor Bradley, and Gregory must recruit a new apprentice.  Gregory comes across another ‘seventh son of a seventh son,’ Tom Ward (Ben Barnes of “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”), a farm boy living in relative obscurity who slops his father’s swine.  Tom reminded me of Luke Skywalker when he appears initially in “Star Wars.”  Anyway, Tom takes advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to escape from a life of drudgery.  Surprisingly enough, Tom had visions of his chance encounter before Gregory actually bargained with his dad to apprentice him.  Meantime, Tom’s doting mother, Mam Ward (Olivia Williams of “Sabotage”), entrusts her son with a unique magical pedant to wear out-of-sight around his neck.  While Gregory tutors Tom about witches, Malkin assembles her own culturally diverse posse of sinister shape-shifters.  Initially, Malkin enlists the aid of her younger sister Bony Lizzie (Antje Traue of “Pandorum”) as well as Bony’s pretty niece Alice (Alicia Vikander of “Ex Machina”), who are witches, too.  Alice beguiles young Tom and keeps the lad hoodwinked for about three-fourths of the film until he wises up about her treachery.  Ultimately, Malkin and her devils lure both Gregory and Tom into her own mountain-top fortress for a fight to the death under a blood red moon.

Essentially, “Seventh Son” suffers from second-rate scripting despite its impressive scribes: “Blood Diamond’s” Charles Leavitt, “Eastern Promises’” Steven Knight and “Reign of Fire’s” Matt Greenberg.  These guys have scrapped most of Delaney’s narrative in favor of something more bombastically cinematic but at the same time hopelessly incoherent.  For example, neither Mother Malkin nor any of her witches mutate into dragons.  Our heroes never ride horses and Gregory doesn’t ride off and leave Tom with his former residence.  Alice doesn’t leave of her own accord; Tom’s mom doesn’t die; and Gregory’s only other friend Tusk works for Mother Malkin. If you loved Delaney’s novel, you will probably abhor “Seventh Son.”  Moreover, the characters in the film lack depth, dimension, and/or decadence.  If you’ve seen “Season of the Witch” with Nicolas Cage and “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” with Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, you’ll know when to yarn during the formulaic, by-the-numbers, adventures.  Mumbling as if with a mouthful of marbles, a bearded Jeff Bridges appears to be imitating not only his own cantankerous “True Grit” character Rooster Cogburn, but also he channels a combination of Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan from the original “Star Wars” and Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Grey from the “Hobbit” movies.  Whereas Obi-Wan and Gandalf emerged as flamboyant, Gregory is far from flamboyant.  His best scene takes place in a tavern where he wields a cup of ale without spilling a drop to thrash a presumptuous swordsman.  Oscar nominated actress Julianne Moore restrains herself as a despicable witch who can morph into an airborne dragon, entwine adversaries with her chain-link tail, and then skewer them without uttering a clever line.  Mind you, this description of Moore’s character sounds like she could have had a blast indulging herself, but she refuses to chew the scenery.  Comparatively, Moore’s lavishly attired, red-haired sorceress is nowhere as audacious as Charlize Theron’s wicked witch in “Snow White and the Huntsman.”  Sadly, secondary leads Ben Barnes and Alicia Vikander generate neither charisma as stock characters nor chemistry as an amorous couple.  Barnes is about as wooden as Hayden Christensen was in the second “Star Wars” trilogy.  Meanwhile, talented thespians like Olivia Williams, Kip Harrington, Djimon Hounsou, and Jason Scott Lee languish on the periphery of this synthetic sword and sorcery saga.  

Although it drums up minimal intensity between fade-in and fade-out, “Seventh Son” boasts some lively combat scenes that the 3-D visual effects enhance.  “Star Wars” visual effects specialist John Dykstra has created several outlandish CGI monsters, but few are terrifying.
The picturesque mountains of British Columbia are as scenic as “Canterbury Tales” production designer Dante Ferretti’s sets are spectacular.  Unfortunately, “Seventh Son” recycles the usual dungeons and dragon shenanigans with little to distinguish it from its prestigious predecessors.



Saturday, February 7, 2015

FILM REVIEW OF ''AMERICAN SNIPER" (2014)



In his gritty, 132 minute, R-rated, combat biography “American Sniper” (**** OUT OF ****) producer & director Clint Eastwood treats the life of real-life protagonist Chris Kyle with unmistakable reverence.  This tragic but heroic account of the deadliest sharpshooter in U.S. military history is compelling as well as propelling from fade-in to fade-out.  Similarly, “A-Team” actor Bradley Cooper delivers a career best performance as the legendary Texas native who racked up 160 confirmed kills as a sniper during four tours of duty in Iraq.  Cooper packed on nearly 40 pounds so he could impersonate the beefy Kyle, and the actor assured “Men’s Health” magazine that the 6000 calories-per-day diet that he shoveled down constituted a challenge in itself.  According to “People” magazine, real-life Navy SEAL sniper Kevin Lacz, who fought alongside Kyle, taught Cooper how to handle the sophisticated sniper weaponry.  This sober but never simple-minded saga about the Iraqi war doesn’t so much ponder the polemical politics that prompted America’s participation in the fighting as much as its use as a historical setting.  Indeed, Kyle was gung-ho about serving his country after suicide bombers had blasted the Marine barracks to rubble in Beirut in 1983.  Meantime, people who have read Kyle’s 2012 memoir may complain about some of the liberties that Eastwood and “Paranoia” scenarist Jason Hall have taken in their adaptation of the New York Times bestseller.  Nevertheless, Eastwood has fashioned a realistic but patriotic film with a wrinkle or two that has mesmerized domestic audiences. For example, Kyle believed in what he was doing in Iraq while his younger brother abhorred not only the war but also the country. Eastwood celebrates the sacrifices that these citizens made without turning “American Sniper” into a rabble-rousing, Rambo fantasy.

“American Sniper” opens in Iraq with Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) sprawled belly down on a Fallujah roof-top checking potential threats to the Marines on the street below as they rattle one door after another in search of hostiles.  Initially, Kyle spots a military-age, Iraqi native on a balcony. Chatting on a cell phone, he is watching the troops approach him.  This suspicious fellow vanishes from Kyle’s sight.  Moments later, a mother dressed like an angel of death in black emerges onto the street with her son.  The mother hands her son a grenade, and they approach a tank with troops following it.  Just as Kyle is scrutinizing these two civilians through his sniper scope, his spotter warns him that he could land in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth for shooting friendly civilians.  This issue arises more than once in “American Sniper.”  Civilians in combat zones without a good reason created a quandary because our guys couldn’t be sure who was either sympathetic or unfriendly.  Anyway, as Kyle caresses the trigger of his sniper rifle, Eastwood flashbacks to Kyle’s life as a Texas teen shooting his first deer.  Eastwood and Hall furnish us with a montage of Kyle’s life along with his God-fearing father’s philosophy.  We see Kyle rush to the rescue of his younger brother Jeff on the playground at their elementary school as an obese bully beats up Jeff.  At the dinner table, Kyle’s stern father Wayne (Ben Reed of “Scanner Cop”) categorizes humans into three types: predatory wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs.  Brandishing his rolled up belt for emphasis, Wayne warns them that they will neither be predators nor sheep, but instead sheepdogs.  Wayne promises to punish them for anything less.  During his military service, Chris behaves like a sheepdog.  Repeatedly, he risks his life to save his fellow Marines.  Occasionally, “American Sniper” lightens up and lets you laugh with Chris about his romantic conquests both good and bad.

Aside from a protracted flashback sequence early into the action, “American Sniper” adheres to a conventional, straightforward storyline, chronicling the high points of Kyle’s experiences under fire.  Comparatively, director Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” (2013), starring Mark Wahlberg, could serve as a companion piece to “American Sniper.”  The big difference is Bradley Cooper’s SEAL team hero displays no compunctions about shooting kids, whereas Mark Wahlberg’s real-life SEAL team hero Marcus Luttrell couldn’t bring himself to kill an innocent goat herder’s son.  Meanwhile, “American Sniper” alternates between our hero’s harrowing battlefield exploits and his home front activities with his wife and family.  Eastwood doesn’t immortalize Chris Kyle as an invincible, larger-than-life, titan. Actually, we watch in horror as Kyle unravels with each tour until he can no longer tolerate the traumatic pressure of combat.  In this respect, “American Sniper” doesn’t pull any punches about the caliber of warfare that our guys had to contend with in Iraq.  Mind you, it isn’t gripping in the same slam-bang sense that “Black Hawk Down” was, but “American Sniper” still qualifies as a tour-de-force, first-rate, action yarn.  I don’t think Bradley Cooper will clinch the Best Actor Oscar, but you will know that Cooper takes his craft seriously.  Aside from Cooper, the only other three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood character is Kyle’s long-suffering wife, Taya (British actress Sienna Miller of “Foxcatcher”), who goes toe-to-toe with him.

Primarily, Eastwood filters everything through Kyle’s perspective, and you don’t witness any of those standard-issue scenes with natty politicians and high-ranking officers arguing about strategy at headquarters.  Eastwood rarely shifts the focus away from either Kyle with his family or Kyle with his buddies.  Of course, Kyle and his buddies form a tightly knit group from their rigorous beachfront SEAL team training to the devastating combat in Iraq. Predictably, warfare dwindles their numbers.  Particularly shattering is Kyle’s loss of his buddy Biggles (Jake McDorman of “Aquamarine”) who survives long enough to die in surgery. The camaraderie between Kyle and Biggles is sometimes hilarious as well as distressing.  Kyle’s younger brother Jeff (Keir O'Donnell of “Wedding Crashers”) drifts into and out of the action.  Jeff accompanies Kyle on the rodeo circuit in Texas and later follows him to the battlefield in Iraq.  Altogether, “American Sniper” ranks as a memorable military actioneer with some salty dialogue.

FILM REVIEW OF ''THE BOY NEXT DOOR" (2015)




Jennifer Lopez isn’t a bad actress, but she is so miscast so miserably as a high school English teacher in “The Boy Next Door” (* OUT OF ****) that not even a seasoned Hollywood helmer like Rob Cohen can salvage this substandard stalker saga.  Although he has directed hits like “The Fast and the Furious” and “xXx” as well as above-average epics like “Daylight,” “Stealth,” and “Alex Cross,” Cohen appears appallingly out of his element with this formulaic fiasco.  Not only does the tawdry “The Boy Next Door” miscast Lopez, but also it makes Ryan Guzman, John Corbett, and Hill Harper look just as inapt.  Whatever Lopez and the other twelve producers on this picture admired about rookie writer Barbara Curry’s screenplay must have been either altered or didn’t survive the final cut.  Although she received an MFA in scriptwriting from UCLA, Curry should have kept her old day job.  She spent ten years as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles where she toiled in the Major Violent Crimes Unit and handled federal cases involving murder-for-hire, prison murder, racketeering, arson, kidnapping, and bank robbery.  Reportedly, Curry taught criminal procedure at FBI Headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, and pushed for trial advocacy at the U.S Justice Department in Washington, D.C.  In time perhaps, Curry might brush up on her storytelling skills and become a  better writer.  “The Boy Next Door” is neither suspenseful nor surprising, unless you’ve never seen a single stalker movie.  Quite often, our sexy heroine, her oblivious colleagues, and her unsuspecting kin do some really stupid moves that make this movie appear more like a comedy than a drama.  The best thing about this predictable pabulum is that it clocks in at a minimal 91 minutes.  Meanwhile, “The Boy Next Door” has sold enough tickets to qualify as a “hit.”  Produced for a paltry $ 4 million, this mediocre crime melodrama has coined more than $20 million at the box office box, an amount sufficient to pay off its budget as well as its advertising.

Lopez plays English teacher Claire Peterson who teaches classic literature, specifically “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad,” at a California state public high school.  Our heroine looks far too incendiary for her own good.  Mind you, I’m not saying high school English teachers cannot look stunning, but Lopez strains credibility with some of her wardrobe.  As the action unfolds, Claire has separated from her philandering husband, Garrett Peterson (John Corbett of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), who careens around in muscle cars and had an affair with his secretary.  Since you never get a glimpse of the other gal, you have to wonder how she compared with Claire.  Presumably, Garrett was probably taking advantage of his lowly employee because she was younger than Claire.  Meantime, Claire’s teenage son, Kevin (Ian Nelson of “The Hunger Games”), suffers from asthma and allergies when bullies aren’t badgering him.  The senior citizen next door to Claire (Jack Wallace of “Boogie Nights”) has just taken in his handsome, but orphaned, 19-year nephew, Noah Sandborn (an improbable 27-year old Ryan Guzman of “Step Up Revolution”), whose own dad died in a mysterious car crash.  Hint, hint! Claire encounters this charming Abercrombie & Fitch pin-up boy while she is wrestling with a cranky garage door.  One weekend, while Garrett and Kevin are away on a fishing trip, Claire accompanies her best friend and colleague, High School Vice Principal Vicky Lansing (Kristin Chenoweth of “Strange Magic”), on a blind date from Hell.  The well-meaning Vicky has set Claire up with a gruff anti-intellectual guy.  After she walks out on this loser, our distressed heroine finds herself face to face with charismatic Noah.  During a vulnerable moment, Claire abandons her morals as easily as Noah disposes of her lingerie.  Lopez displays little more than her shapely thighs while Guzman keeps her breasts discreetly covered with his groping paws.  The morning after when he awakens her with orange juice and coffee, Noah cannot imagine why Claire would be racked with recriminations.  Complicating matters even more, Noah is a transfer student who has enrolled in classes at the same high school where Claire teaches.  Lusting after her, Noah decides to pursue Claire, but she rebuffs his advances.  Eventually, Noah turns psychotic.  Initially, he hacks into Claire’s e-mail account and obtains permission from Principal Edward Warren (Hill Harper of CBS-TV’s “CSI: New York”) to enroll in her class with her apparent approval.  Similarly, Noah befriends Kevin, teaches him how to box, and tries to turn him against Garrett who wants desperately to patch up his marriage with Claire.  In a burst of rage, Noah pulverizes one of Kevin’s bullies, and Vicky expels Noah.  Meantime, Vicky uncovers some disturbing information about Noah, and she finds herself on the wrong end of his rage.  Ultimately, Noah horrifies Claire with news that he made a video of their sex act and threatens to expose her!  At this point, you’re liable to laugh your head hysterically off rather than gnaw your fingernails in dread.

Comparatively, “The Boy Next Door” reminded me of “Fatal Attraction,” “Single White Female,” “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” “Swimfan,” and “Basic Instinct.”  In a “Cosmopolitan” magazine interview, Curry said she drew inspiration from a real-life incident involving a high school teacher who had seduced one of her underage students.  Sadly, the relationship between Claire and Noah, especially their voyeur episodes, is so outrageous that you cannot take the drama seriously.  Cohen claims he wanted to craft the ultimate erotic thriller along the lines of those previously mentioned movies, but he embroiders clichés.  Some of the action scenes, particularly a runaway car episode, provide only a momentary relief from the Harlequin-like soap opera shenanigans.  Cohen generates a modicum of suspense in the tradition of “Rear Window” when Claire searches Noah’s man cave for the sex video.  Most of the time, however, you’ll felt insulted by the idiotic antics of these clueless cretins.  “The Boy Next Door” isn’t a third as exciting as last year’s “No Good Deed.”