Sunday, August 16, 2015


Sequels rarely live up to their predecessors, but French director Louis Leterrier's new big noisy dumb action-thriller "The Transporter 2" (***1/2 OUT OF ****) with lean, mean Jason Statham behind the wheel again, proves the exception to the rule. Mind you, the plot of the original "Transporter" about the contemporary international slave trade merely provided the framework for a number of audacious auto stunts and hyper-kinetic martial arts combat face-offs that obscured its politically correct plot. Famed Hong Kong martial arts guru Cory Yuen did double-duty on the first "Transporter" (2002) as director and action choreographer. (No, you don't have to worry about walking blindly into "Transporter 2." However, if you fork over the bucks for the new DVD 'Special Delivery' version of the original "Transporter," you'll find a free ticket inside, so you can kill two birds with one stone. The first "Transporter" ranked as a roller-coaster of a crime thriller.) This time around Yuen serves strictly as action choreographer, while art director Louis Leterrier takes over the helm on a follow-up film that surpasses its predecessor by virtue of a bigger budget for larger, more outlandish stunts and more inventive martial arts aerobatics. An equally politically correct plot about an attempt to exterminate the world's head drug enforcement honchos at an international narcotics summit provides the scaffold for these stunts. No, "Transporter 2" isn't a foil the assassination yarn. Initially, this Twentieth Century Fox film resembles director Tony Scott's slam-bang, high-octane, actioneer "Man on Fire" (2004) with Denzel Washington as a bullet-proof bodyguard determined to rescue kidnap victim Dakota Fanning. Happily, Leterrier and his scenarists, producer Luc ("Le Femme Nikita") Besson and writer Robert Mark Kamen, ditch the child-in-jeopardy plot early on for bigger game. Nevertheless, they were shrewd enough to know that it's not the game that counts so much but how you play it. The kind of audience that will relish "Transporter 2" are those who refuse to let realism dictate the bottom line. They know from the get-go that the hero can't die. Genuine connoisseurs of the genre make allowances for stunts and fights that violate the laws of gravity. In big, dumb, noisy action movies, anything visually possible is plausible no matter how implausible it ultimately is. Director Robert Rodriguez's shoot'em up sagas "Desperado" (1995) with Antonio Banderas as well as "Once Upon A Time in Mexico" (2003) exemplify the prime examples of big, dumb, noisy action thrillers. Some stunts in "Transporter 2," especially the fast-car driving, have their antecedents in older movies. At least, Leterrier and company have taken the stunts a bit farther than previous ones. Sadly, "Transporter 2" suffers from clearly obvious computer-generated style video game footage that undercuts the dramatic impact of the aerial scenes. Furthermore, the quality of the matte shots that stand in for different backgrounds is pretty awful.

Anybody that saw the original "Transporter" knows that British protagonist Frank Martin (Jason Statham of "Snatch") is more than just a top-notch driver who can get out of the worst traffic jam. Moreover, he can kick, punch, and shoot his way out of the most ominous predicament. In this latest entry in the trilogy, we learn that Frank is ex-special forces and led an elite commando unit for five years specializing in search and destroy.  According to the authorities, Frank has been in and out of Lebanon, Syria, and Sudan.  "The man is a hunter," Stappleton (Keith David) grimly informs the family of an abducted child when they arrive at his house to set up a surveillance system to track the kidnappers. The predicaments that Frank faces in "Transporter 2" make the tough times in "The Transporter" look like a cake walk. When the action opens, we find Frank newly transplanted from the south of France to sunny Miami, Florida. Rather than acting as the wheel man for crazy bank robbers or human slavers, Frank is chauffeuring a high profile politician's son, Jack Billings (newcomer Hunter Clary), back and forth to elementary school. Actually, Frank is helping out a friend by temping for him. Meanwhile, Jack's parents are U.S. Drug Enforcement Czar Billings (Matthew Modine of "Full Metal Jacket") and his neglected wife Audrey (Amber Valetta of "What Lies Beneath"). You don't have to be a genius to figure out that a kidnapping lies right around the bend, and that's part of the fun of "Transporter 2." Like the previous "Transporter," "Transporter 2" doesn't stray far from the sure-fire formula that fueled the first movie's word-of-mouth success on DVD. Of course, nobody could survive the close scrapes that Frank survives, but then nobody leads a life as charming as Frank. During an early scene, Frank nimbly thwarts a carjacking. However, Frank's sense of style makes the scene memorable. Before he tangles with a thuggish gang of ruffians backed up by a bimbo school girl armed with an automatic pistol, our hero sheds his recently dry-cleaned suit jacket, folds it neatly atop his sleek, shiny car, then demolishes the opposition without a second thought. As her compatriots in crime lay writhing in agony on the pavement of the parking garage around her, the school girl pitches her pistol and takes a powder. This amusing little incident nearly makes Frank tardy for his appointment to pick up Hunter. Punctuality guides Frank's way of thinking. During the brief time that they have known each other, Hunter and Frank have managed to bond. Yes, "Transporter 2" takes short-cuts when other more realistically-oriented movies might wallow about for twenty minutes showing the bonds as the characters forge them. Frank and Hunter grow close enough that Hunter treats Frank as the father that the youth wishes that his real-life dad were. Audrey notices this bond when she isn't quarreling with her husband, who has let his duties override his home life. Into the storyline steps tough guy Gianni Chellini (hunky Italian thesp Alessandro Gassman of "Quiet Chaos") who dispatches his henchmen to kidnap Hunter. As one of his ruthless henchmen--perhaps—henchwomen, statuesque model Kate Nauta makes an impressive as well as an intimidating killer babe called Lola. She emerges like a cross-between of a sexy Victoria's Secrets model and a trigger-happy small arms sales lady. She has a tattoo on her inside right thigh of a heavily armed rabbit that reads "Death by Rabbit." 

Aside from one drawn-out dialogue scene between Billings' lonely wife and Frank, "Transporter 2" never breaks its stride. Clocking in at Spartan 88 minutes, this adrenalin-laced, Twentieth Century Fox release features a sympathetic hero, a fiendish villain, and the kind of action that provides a sense of catharsis for audiences that love big, dumb, noisy action movies. Two major scenes stand out for their sheer implausibility. First, Frank eludes the police by crashing through the barrier at a high-rise parking garage and plunging his automobile safely into the confines of another high-rise parking garage across the street.  As if to compensate, Frank's car slides to a halt sideways at the edge of the parking garage.  Second, the villains have placed an explosive device under the chassis of Frank's car and he dislodges it by launching his car into the air so that he can knock the device off by hitting a dangling block and tackle hook hanging from a gantry.  The best parts of "Transporter 2" involve Frank's former nemesis, French Inspector Tarconi (Francois Berleand), who comes to visit Frank in Miami.  Neither man gets to see the other until Frank wraps up the kidnapping caper.  No sooner has Tarconi arrived at Frank's house than the kidnapping takes place and the U.S. Marshals descend on Frank's house in hope of catching him in residence. Instead, they find Tarconi baking madeleines.  At the police station, one of the Marshals finds it interesting that Tarconi would take the liberty of using another man's kitchen. Taken aback by such questioning, Tarconi explains simply enough that he is French.  Afterward, he appraises the terrible looking sandwich that the authorities have provided him and sets about using their kitchen to furnish them with something edible. This subplot and Frank's use of Tarconi to acquire information for him while he is at police headquarters is imaginative and offsets some of the preposterous quality of the action.

Thursday, August 13, 2015


The latest installment in the “Mission: Impossible” film franchise ranks as one of the best.  “Jack Reacher” director Christopher McQuarrie’s “Mission: Impossible--Rogue Nation” (**** OUT OF ****) rivals its superlative predecessor “Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol” with spine-tingling suspense and spectacularly staged set-pieces.  Mind you, things haven’t always been so first-rate.  The initial “Mission: Impossible” movie was arguably exciting enough in its own right, especially when Tom Cruise suspended himself Spider-man style at CIA Headquarters to hack a computer.  Nevertheless, the film portrayed one of the most beloved television series characters in such a sacrilegious light that most “Mission: Impossible” fanatics abhorred it.  I grew up watching Peter Graves play Jim Phelps from 1967 to 1973 and then again briefly from 1988 to 1990 on the weekly, hour-long, CBS-TV program, and the heretical notion that Phelps could turn traitor constituted nothing short of blasphemy.  Little did it matter that the people who produced “Mission: Impossible” gave Phelps legitimate grounds for his treachery.  Comparably, this would be tantamount to turning either Marshal Dillon of “Gunsmoke” into a homicidal hellion or indicting Andy Griffith’s Sheriff Andy Taylor for police brutality.  Never has a film franchise impugned a television character’s virtuosity with such cavalier abandon.

As the second entry in the Paramount franchise, director John Woo’s “Mission Impossible II” emerged as a vast improvement over the original and got things straightened out.  The head-butting motorcycle confrontation between Ethan Hunt and the villain is something to remember as well Woo’s choreographed gunfights.  Unfortunately, the stimulating third installment “Mission Impossible III” made an error almost as egregious as defaming Jim Phelps.  Tom Cruise and director J.J. Abrams gave Ethan Hunt a wife to worry about, and that matrimonial madness provided the motive force in its contrived melodrama.  The secret agent with a double life and a wife is the stuff of spoofs, and the marriage plot was predictable.  Perhaps if they had substituted Hunt’s parents (remember them from the 1996 original?) for his wife, the idea might have been more palatable.  As swiftly as the franchise got Ethan hitched, it got him just as quickly unhitched with ambiguous details.    “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” kept Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) separated from his wife, and he reverted to single status as he had in “Mission Impossible II.”  Happily, neither Cruise nor his latest collaborators have pulled anything as idiotic as “Mission Impossible III” with “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.”

Like the best James Bond extravaganzas, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” opens with a cliffhanger gambit.  Ethan Hunt scrambles atop the wing of a military cargo plane, an Airbus A400M, as it trundles down the runaway for take-off.  He slaloms off the wing down to the fuselage and seizes a convenient door handle.  Hunt’s cyber genius colleague Benjamin Dunn (Simon Pegg of “Shaun of the Dead”) struggles to open the door remotely while Hunt clings desperately for dear life to it as the huge plane gains altitude.  Reportedly, Cruise performed this barnstorming stunt on his own on an actual plane with a special camera attached to the fuselage to record the exploit.  Frantically, Benji opens the wrong door, but eventually he opens the right door.  Hunt gains access to the cargo hold and spots the pallet of VX-nerve gas missiles.  The villains, a band of Chechen separatist fighters, discover Hunt’s presence too late, and he deploys the chute on the pallet, so both the missiles and he plunge into the blue.  This snappy incident is peripherally related to the plot, and it gets this outlandish escapade off on the right foot.  Mind you, this tense scene reunites Hunt with not only Benji but also series regular Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames of “Pulp Fiction”) and “Ghost Protocol” addition William Brandt (Jeremy Renner of “The Bourne Legacy”). 

This time around our heroic quartet wrestles with their worst nightmare: the Syndicate, an enigmatic league of terrorists, alluded to at the end of “Ghost Protocol,” that threaten not only to destroy the IMF but also initiate global chaos.  Predictably, of course, we know that Hunt and company will preserve the status quo.  Nevertheless, writer & director Christopher McQuarrie takes everything right to the brink and lets it teeter.  Earlier “Mission Impossible” movies relied on the plot device of ‘disavowing’ Ethan Hunt so he wound up as the man in the middle between the good guys and the bad guys.  “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” raises the stakes considerably by ostracizing the entire IMF Agency, with bureaucratic, stuffed-shirt CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alex Baldwin of “The Hunt for Red October”) arguing passionately for the IMF’s dissolution after the San Francisco incident involving a Russian nuclear missile.  Unless you’ve seen “Ghost Protocol,” you won’t know about this escapade.  Meantime, IMF Representative William Brandt refuses to confirm or deny anything about the mission to which Hunley refers in his efforts to convince a Senate Committee to shut down Brandt’s group.

In London, Hunt stumbles onto the Syndicate quite by accident when he is heading for a briefing at an album shop called The Vinyl Option.  He follows the usual procedure and enters a listening room with a recording.  The big difference, however, is this briefing doesn’t originate from his own organization but instead from the opposition—The Syndicate.  This shadowy, sinister organization consists of thousands of spies who have deserted their respective outfits and have been listed officially as dead.  Think of the vintage Nick Nolte shoot’em up “Extreme Prejudice” (1987) from director Walter Hill where Nolte’s small time sheriff dealt with murderous combat veterans reported killed in action.  Syndicate honcho Solomon Kane (Sean Harris of “Prometheus”) appears outside the booth, holds a silenced automatic pistol to the record shop clerk’s head, and shoots the poor girl in the noggin while a stupefied Hunt watches in horror from the listening booth as knock-out gas obscures his vision. When Hunt recovers consciousness, he finds himself in captivity, strapped to an eight-foot tall pole, in a locked, underground room.  Pretty but pugnacious Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson of “The White Queen”), a gorgeous babe with shapely legs who follows Kane’s orders to the letter, argues with a sadistic henchman called the ‘Bone Doctor’ (Jens Hultén of “Skyfall”) who wants to do more than question Hunt for information.  The ‘Bone Doctor’ wants to carve him up, but Hunt surprises him with a head butt that knocks his adversary unconscious.  A strenuously athletic bare-knuckled fight with the ‘Bone Doctor’s’ own henchmen ensues with Hunt decimating the opposition with Faust’s help.  Essentially, this is the bulk of everything you need to know.  McQuarrie’s movie with its complex, labyrinth-like plot defies synopsis.

“Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation” delivers everything that we’ve come to expect from this intrigue-laden, stunt-oriented, gadget-encumbered franchise.  Our resourceful heroes still sport those latex masks that they peel off at dramatic moments to surprise us.  Not surprisingly, they are required to break into and out of various buildings bristling with sophisticated security safeguards that sometimes challenge them to the point of death.  The debonair 53-year old Cruise performs his own perilous stunts, virtually all of them hair-raising, acrobatic endeavors.  He careens a small car around in a maze of narrow city streets with the villains in hot pursuit and then launches himself astride a motorcycle with daredevil gusto.  Meanwhile, director Christopher McQuarrie succeeds at making everything appear doubly difficult for our protagonists, and they encounter an improbable but death-defying gauntlet of obstacles that would stymie lesser souls.  Several scenes benefit from throttling tension because one set of heroes execute tasks that prevent another hero from either being captured or killed.  Cruise and co-star Rebecca Ferguson team up in several helter-skelter, close quarters, combat scenes that surely required lots of rehearsal.  Ferguson displays dazzling dexterity when she clashes with a henchman twice her size who wields a knife far larger than her blade.  One of the best sequences has Cruise debating which villain to perforate before either assassinates a foreign dignitary during a live opera performance.  Simon Pegg supplies the incidental comic relief that seasons this largely straightforward saga, while Sean Harris is effectively malicious as the chief villain.  Everything from “Tomorrow Never Dies” lenser Robert Elswit’s widescreen cinematography to James D. Bissell’s production designs is appropriately polished to virtual perfection.  The fifth globe-trotting “Mission Impossible” foray qualifies as a rapid-fire, white-knuckled, adrenalin-laced, nail-biter with momentum that never slackens and surprises that always astonish.

Monday, August 10, 2015

FILM REVIEW OF "$" (1971)

Oscar-winner writer and director director Richard Brooks of "Elmer Gantry" was a consummate professional at making movies during his 35 year career in Hollywood. "$" (**** OUT OF ****) exemplifies his accomplished skills as both a writer and director. This nimble, adrenalin-laced, R-rated, heist thriller set in German came out during the free-wheeling 1970s when Hollywood could get away with a little gratuitous nudity and a lot of grit. Nobody in this amoral actioneer is entirely honest. Like the characters in Italian westerns, everyone wears shades of gray in various intensity with our heroic couple, played by Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn, being a more sympathetic than the utterly ruthless villains who display few qualms once they figure out that they've been duped. Mind you, some people may never get past the first fifty minutes as Brooks cross-cuts between
characters and settings like an insane samurai warrior hacking up his adversaries. Reportedly, when Goldie Hawn finally took a look at "$," she could make neither head nor tale out of it. After those first fifty minutes, the action settles down and then takes off like a fireball.

Handsome bank security expert named Joe Collins (Warren Beatty of "Shampoo") and his accomplice, goofy call girl Dawn Devine (Goldie Hawn of "Cactus Flower"), conspire to steal a fortune from three sleazy criminals. Las Vegas attorney Mr. North (Robert Webber) and his bodyguard keep their skim money in the bank. Sarge (Scott Brady of
"Marooned") and the Major (Robert Stiles of "Doctor's Wives") keep the profits from their kickbacks and bribes from black market activities in the same bank. A murderous drug smuggler, the Candy Man (Arthur Brauss of "Victory"), keeps loot likewise in the same establishment. Since the local authorities cannot legally obtain access to these safety deposit boxes, the criminals can keep their stuff safely stashed without fear of confiscation. Joe knows the bank and its vault as well as it personnel from top to bottom, and the head of the bank, Mr. Kessel (Gert Frobe of "Goldfinger") likes Joe. Joe has spent about a yearinstalling a state-of-the-art, 24 hour, seven days a week, security system in the bank. Joe has clocked the police response time to the
bank alarms at three minutes through heavy downt0wn traffic.

During the first half of this fast-paced, two-hour thriller, Brooks establishes the characters of our heroes, villains, the setting of the action, and the plot. Joe and Dawn are going to hit the villains and take their loot because the villains cannot resort to the police. During the second half, Joe locks himself into the vault and transfers the ill-gotten gains from the safe deposit boxes of the bad guys to Dawn's box. In the third part, Joe and Dawn hit the streets on the run from the evil drug dealer and the tenacious military guys who have figured out that Joe robbed them. Brooks generates considerable suspense during the vault robbery as the authorities seek to open the time lock on the vault. While he is trapped in the vault, Joe times himself so that every minute that the camera isn't aimed at him, he is emptying or filling the safe deposit boxes. The tension and suspense is incredible during
these moments. The pursuit that takes up the third part is pretty incredible. Quincy Jones' Grammy nominated music with Little Richard screaming maniacally on the soundtrack accentuates these larcenous shenanigans, and Brooks snaps up the pace with rapid-fire cutting so you are poised on the edge of your seat throughout the movie. "$" was lensed on location in Germany and the exotic setting adds to the
atmosphere. Goldie Hawn is hilarious as a former Las Vegas showgirl that worries about holding up her end of the crime. Beatty is a self-assured man who can get out of any predicament no matter how challenging it is. As the villains, Scott Brady and Arthur Brauss never let our hero get very far ahead of them.

This is a top-notch, heist thriller with in the words of one villain a lot of "God, guts, and get-up-and-go!"

Thursday, August 6, 2015


If you enjoyed the audacious “Hangover” movie trilogy and the two impudent “Horrible Bosses” epics, then you will probably hoot at the reboot of the vintage  Chevy Chase comedy “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”   Not only does the new “Vacation” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) qualify as a remake, but it also serves as a sequel to the four film “National Lampoon’s Vacation” franchise.   Ed Helms stars as Clark W. Griswold’s grown-up son Russell ‘Rusty’ Griswold.  For the record, Anthony Michael Hall played Rusty in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983) while different actors have slipped into and out of the same role in the various other “Vacation” inspired sequels.  Anyway, Helms plays Rusty as a married man, with a wife, Debbie (sexy Christina Applegate), and two sons, James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin Griswold (Steele Stebbins).   Comparatively, Clark raised a son and a daughter.  The basic premise remains similar despite the 32 year gap between the movies.   Oblivious Russell cherishes fond memories of the catastrophic cross-country road-trip that his quixotic father charted for the family and its farcical finale at Walley World.   Indeed, much of the same thing occurs again.   Co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein, who wrote both “Horrible Bosses” comedies, have ratcheted up the raunch content considerably for bigger, more brazen laughs that may either alienate or engross audiences depending on individual prudery.  Incongruity is the cornerstone of great comedy, and “Vacation” delivers laughs and gags galore that more often than not ridicule the characters with whom we are supposed to identify.  Actually, Ed Helms, who endured no end of ignominy in the depraved “Hangover” movies, emerges from “Vacation” looking reasonably respectable. “Thor’s” Chris Hemsworth has a field day poking fun at his protruberant masculinity.   Happily, as if to bestow their seal of approval on this side-splitting sequel, Chevy Chase appears in a cameo as a bed and breakfast owner with Beverly D'Angelo reprising her role as his wife Ellen.

As the action unfolds, Rusty flies passenger jets for a regional airline, Econo-Air, and the plane that he is flying nearly crashes because his elderly co-pilot Harry (David Clennon) has no business in the cockpit.  Ironically, Rusty recommended Harry for the position, so it’s Rusty’s inadvertent fault that Harry is flying.   Meantime, Rusty overhears a little boy who aspires to be an aviator.   Naturally, Rusty strolls over to speak to the child.   No sooner has Rusty started chatting with the family than Harry ascends the jet to a higher altitude.  The turbulence that the plane encounters is violent enough to send Rusty sprawling involuntarily toward the mother.   Rusty winds up groping the wife’s breasts to keep from landing in her lap.   An uneasy silence ensues before another bout of turbulence propels him face down onto the little boy while his thumb plunges into the father’s mouth.   No matter what Rusty sets out to do, well-intentioned or otherwise, his actions precipitate the worst possible consequences.  For example, like Clark, who got stuck in the original “Vacation” with the metallic pea-green "Wagon Queen Family Truckster," Rusty rents a hideous, baby-blue mini-cruiser christened the "Tartan Prancer." According to Rusty, this vehicle is the "Honda of Albania."  Idiotically enough, this outlandish car features four exterior mirrors; the outside rear view mirrors block the front mirrors.   During the excursion, Russell discovers a swivel seat control at the worst moment.   Later, the vehicle’s on-board navigation system scares them when the voice howls directions in native Japanese.   Again, like his impractical father Clark, Rusty wants to do more than just motor across America.  He wants his family to experience the scenic beauties along the way.  They stop at a crowded, Hot Springs National Park, and an unsavory yokel suggests they take advantage of a less traveled road to a private hot springs.   Little do our gullible heroes know this local is setting them up for mischief.   Moreover, the gorgeous looking hot springs that the Griswolds splash into turns out to be a raw sewage pit.   Murphy’s Law governs everything that Griswolds set out to achieve.   Nevertheless, each of these encounters is hopelessly hilarious, although you’d hate to find yourself in similar circumstances.   A Grand Canyon water-rafting guide (Charlie Day) gets a phone call from his fiancée who decides to dump him.  After the Griswolds set out on the river, their suicidal guide alters course for rougher waters that terminate in a waterfall.   At another juncture in their journey, Rusty lets Debbie visit her Memphis, Tennessee, college alma mater where he discovers she slept with 30 or more guys before they got married.  Of course, anybody who saw the original “Vacation” should remember Christie Brinkley’s cinematic debut as a blond in a red convertible Ferrari.   Writer/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein dream up a different spin involving this character.  Chris Helmsworth and Leslie Mann show up for a couple scenes.  Mann is cast as Rusty’s sister Audrey, and she is married to egotistical television weather meteorologist Stone Crandall (Chris Helmsworth) who herds cattle on a four-wheeler when he isn’t forecasting the weather.  Audrey and Stone have been far more successful than Rusty and Debbie.  Crandall loves to show off his physique, and there is a zesty scene when he barges into Rusty and Debbie’s bedroom.  One of the funniest moments takes place when Stone introduces the Griswolds to his prize steer that craves ribs.  Indeed, cannibalistic cattle are another offbeat element in this opus.

Sure, “Vacation” is both infantile and scatological, but the fearless cast maintains straight faces throughout the hokum no matter how grotesque things get.   All too often in lesser comedies, the cast behaves as if they are in on the jokes.   Admirably, neither Ed Helms nor Christine Applegate lets on that either know how hopelessly nonsensical their exploits are.   Applegate smears feces all over her face like a veritable mask and then remarks how abominable it smells until she realizes her folly.   Helms discovers that he has a severed ear attached to his own ear.  The camera pulls back to reveal a sign with the inscription: Warning Raw Sewage Pit. Furthermore, our heroes cruise for miles without realizing that pranksters have defaced one side of their Prancer with a humongous phallic symbol.   When Rusty and Debbie realize that they have a pornographic image on their car, they spit on their hands and struggle futilely to remove it with vigorous scrubbing motions, groaning emphatically with their exertions.   No, you shouldn’t take their children to see “Vacation,” but the Chevy Chase original had some objectionable scenes that weren’t fit for young eyes and delicate minds to witness, too.   Clearly, freshman directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein have designed their updated adaptation of “Vacation” for audiences that love to laugh out loud and keep on laughing out loud at blatantly vulgar antics that leave little to the imagination.  If you like to laugh hard and often and you don’t mind a little mean-spirited humor, see “Vacation.”  Incidentally, the photographs that appear during the end credits are creatively shown in halves.  For example, we see the Grand Canyon water rafting guide in one half of the panel and then the other half of the panel dissolves to show a gigantic Grizzly Bear menacing him.  The final shot of Chris Hemsworth displaying the tip of Thor’s hammer may amuse the women who sit through those end credits.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


Combine “Independence Day” with “Ghostbusters” and then insert Adam Sandler in another of his immature man-child roles as the hero, and you’ve got the premise of “Mrs. Doubtfire” director Chris Columbus’ predictable but palatable “Pixels” (** of ****), a nostalgic science-fiction fantasy about the bygone video game arcade era.  Initially, you might think Columbus and "Mr. Deeds" writer Tim Herlihy and "Just Go with It" scribe Timothy Dowling have done little more than synthesize elements of “Independence Day” and “Ghostbusters” for the former “Saturday Night Live” alumnus.  Actually, the filmmakers have adapted French director Patrick Jean’s ephemeral, two minute short “Pixels” (2010) about extraterrestrial space invaders that masquerade as vintage video game characters.  Sadly, everything about Columbus’ “Pixels” adaptation is wholesome and lukewarm rather than imaginative and mischievous.  Since he slipped into middle-age, the 48-year old Sandler hasn’t made anything as audacious as his early, lowest-common-denominator farces: “Billy Madison” (1995), “Happy Gilmore” (1996), “The Waterboy” (1998), “Big Daddy” (1999), and “Little Nicky” (2000).  Later, Sandler appeared in comedies with a slightly higher IQ such as his critically acclaimed “Punch Drunk Love” (2002), “Anger Management” (2003) with Jack Nicholson, “50 First Dates” (2004) with Drew Barrymore, “Click” (2006) with Christopher Walken, and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry” (2007) with Kevin James.  Just as he explored new facets with his image in “Punch Drunk Love,” Sandler ventured even farther afield with Judd Apatow’s heavyweight “Funny People” (2009) as a comedian stricken with cancer. Sadly, he doesn't turn any corners in "Pixels."

Sandler’s recent big screen efforts have overshadowed neither “Punch Drunk Love” nor “Funny Business.”  Indeed, “Pixels” is just as desultory as “Just Go for It” (2011), “Grown-Ups” (2010), its sequel “Grown-Ups 2” along with his two obnoxious farces “Jack and Jill” (2011) and “That’s My Boy” (2012).  Although nothing about “Pixels” is likely to affront or alienate anybody like “Jack and Jill” or “That’s My Boy,” Sandler’s shenanigans as a video gamer wronged in his youth comes off as strictly superficial.  Nevertheless, Columbus has fashioned a straightforward but humorless escapade with some amusing characters that are eclipsed by impressive CGI renderings of several 8-bit video characters, including “PAC-MAN,” “Donkey Kong,” “Galaga,” “Centipede,” and “Space Invaders.” 

“Pixels” unfolds in 1982 as 13-year old Sam Brenner (Anthony Ippolito) and his best friend Will Cooper (Jared Riley) swing astride their banana-seat bikes and spin off to the first video game arcade to open in their town.  Not only does Sam discover he possesses a knack for defeating Pac-Man and Centipede, but Cooper and he make friends with lonely 8-year-old Ludlow Lamonsoff (Jacob Shinder) whose only friend is his grandmother.  Eventually, Sam takes his gift for predicting video games patterns to a Donkey Kong Championship.  Unfortunately, he comes in second place to his chief adversary, self-centered 13-year-old Eddie (Andrew Bambridge), who dubs himself ‘The Fire Blaster.’  Interestingly enough, NASA seals up competition footage in a time capsule and blasts it off into space aboard a rocket. Optimistically, NASA wanted to establish peaceful contact with any alien civilization. Like the best laid plans, NASA's efforts prove futile. Meantime, since Eddie trounced him, Sam has turned into a perennial slacker. Basically, Sam has lived a low-profile life.  He got married, but his wife cheated on him with their pediatrician.  Now, he installs home entertainment systems for a living.  Basically, Sam is a loser who has accepted his place in society. Actually, Sandler looks clownish in his bright orange Nerds company outfit that resembles the UPS drivers' summer outfit.  Unfortunately, Sam is nowhere near as colorful as his outfit. Meantime, Sam’s obese buddy Will plunged into politics and now sits in the Oval Office at the White House as our President.  Nevertheless, Will has an appalling habit of putting his foot in his mouth whenever he ventures out into the public eye.  His latest debacle involved reprimanding a Girl Scout during a reading initiative at a kindergarten when the child corrected his pronunciation.  Their friend Ludlow (Josh Gad of “The Wedding Ringer”) has turned into a conspiracy theorist who covers his walls with crazy newspaper stories.

Suddenly, one night at a U.S. Airbase in Guam, a mysterious force attacks, leaves the base in a shambles of millions of cubes, and abducts a security guard.  The President assembles his advisors and summons Sam for his input.  One of the President’s advisors is Lieutenant Colonel Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan of “Source Code”) who has just separated from her philandering husband.  Violet’s hubby cheated on her with his 19-year old Pilates instructor.  Before they race each other to the White House, Sam and Violet meet at her house after he arrived to install a home entertainment system.  The home entertainment center is a farewell gift from Violet's husband to his son. Violet and Sam sit in her closet and swap sentimental stories so Violet’s son Matty (Matt Lintz of “The Crazies”) won’t see her grieve. Anyway, an enigmatic alien race has acquired the NASA footage, but it has misconstrued it as a challenge to fight to the death.  Miraculously, Sam’s superb video game skills once again make him a highly sought-off individual, and President Cooper assigns both Sam and Ludlow to teach Navy SEALS how to fight these aliens.  Lieutenant Colonel Van Patten has analyzed the cube debris from the Guam base and has created light-blasting ray guns that shatter the aliens.  Incredibly, this is one of the few instances where a woman is allowed to compete with men and actually help them! President Cooper refuses to act quickly enough to prevent another attack, and the aliens destroy the Taj Mahal.  Imagine a disaster movie where no architectural icons aren't obliterated. At least, "Pixels" plays for high stakes.  

Later, to heighten the suspense, the aliens abduct Matty, but his life doesn't hang in the balance.   Predictably, our heroes whip the aliens with indifferent nonchalance in this PG-13 rated hokum.  The showdowns with Pac-Man and Donkey Kong generate the greatest suspense, and the special effects look terrific.  The funniest scene occurs when the fictional creator of PAC-MAN, Professor Iwatani (Denis Akiyama of “Johnny Mnemonic”), tries to reason with a gargantuan replica of his computer-generated son and gets his forearm eaten off.  Columbus borrowed the scene from the original Howard Hawks’ chiller “The Thing from Another World.”  Not even diminutive Peter Dinklage as the adult version of Eddie can imbue any spontaneity to this attractive but anemic laffer.  Altogether, “Pixels” qualifies as one of Sandler’s least memorable movies. 


The Marvel Comics Universe keeps getting bigger and more spectacular with each appearance of “The Avengers,” “Iron Man,” “Captain America,” “Thor,” “The Fantastic Four,” “X-Men,” “Wolverine,” and “The Guardians of the Galaxy.” Consequently, it comes with a sigh of relief that the latest newcomer, “Ant-Man” (**** OUT OF ****), shrinks from such apocalyptic pretensions.  “Bring It On” director Peyton Reed, who replaced British writer & director Edgar Wright, has helmed what could possibly be the most imaginative as well as the atypical superhero saga of the summer. Miniaturization is the cornerstone of this clever little yarn.   Mind you, nobody can completely appreciate “Ant-Man” who hasn’t seen director Jack Arnold’s seminal science-fiction feature “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957) where an unfortunate fellow--through no fault of his own--found himself reduced to the size of a toothpick and tangled with predatory house cats while taking refuge in a child’s doll house.  Similarly, the next major movie to magnify shrinkage, director Richard Fleischer’s “Fantastic Voyage” (1966), scaled down scientists to microscopic dimensions and injected them into a comatose scientist’s bloodstream to save him from a lethal blood clot.  Appropriately, television capitalized on all things minuscule with Irwin Allen’s “Land of the Giants” (1968-1970) where the crew and passengers of the Spindrift, a commercial sub-orbital transport spaceship, traveled into treacherous outer space turbulence and then crashed on an unknown planet.  Everything loomed twelve times larger on this peculiar planet than anything on Earth making for 51 exciting episodes.  Of course, other honorable mentions include the Dennis Quaid comedy “Innerspace” (1987) and the Rick Moranis farce “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (1989).

“Ant-Man” opens in 1989. Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) hands Howard Stark (John Slattery of “Iron Man 2”) his resignation and leaves the espionage, law-enforcement, and counterterrorism agency SHIELD.  Naturally, Stark regrets Pym’s departure.  Pym exits because SHIELD went behind his back and endeavored to duplicate the Pym Particle with his Ant-Man shrinking-suit technology.  Pym lost his wife while during his experiments with that technology, and he deems it is far too dangerous for anybody to trifle with.  "As long as I am alive,” proclaims Pym, “nobody is ever going to get that formula." This early scene fascinates because the filmmakers have given actor Michael Douglas an incredible, computerized, makeover so he appears twenty years or younger.  For the record, Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby created Ant-man in “Tales to Astonish #27” back in January 1962.  Similarly, Hollywood altered some of the Marvel Comics canon. In the comics, Pym—not Tony Stark and Bruce Banner—originally created the villainous Ultron, who menaced our heroic quintet in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Happily, none of this matters unless you are a hardcore Marvel fanatic (nothing wrong with this kind of fanaticism) because the fun of it all lies in the variations that make everything memorable. Meanwhile, the years have not kind to Dr. Pym.  After he exited SHIELD, he formed his own company, Pym Technologies. Sadly, Pym’s evil protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll of “The Bourne Legacy”), has seized control and feverishly schemes to replicate the prized Pym Particle. Ironically enough, Hank’s estranged daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly of “Lost”), appears to be working in league with the treacherous Cross.

Meantime, idealistic thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) leaves San Quentin after serving a three-year stretch for burglary.  Actually, Scott qualifies as the most sympathetic ex-con in cinematic history. Since he divorced his wife Maggie (Judy Greer of “Jurassic World”) but hasn’t paid a penny of child support, Scott cannot visit his adorable daughter, Cassie (newcomer Abby Ryder Fortson), who misses him as much as he misses her.  Not only does Maggie stonewall Scott, so does her smarmy fiancé, Paxton (Bobby Cannavale of “Spy”), who happens to be a cop.  Reluctantly, Scott boards with his former cellmate, Luis (a scene-stealing Michael Peña of “Fury”), who lures him back into a life of crime.  Scott struggled to go straight, even landed a job at Baskin-Robbins, but his boss learned about this prison record and fired him.  Desperate to make child support money, Scott resorts to his burglary skills.  He breaks into none other than Hank Pym’s house and steals an exotic helmet and suit.  Later, he discovers the outfit enables him to shrink to ant size and enhance his fighting prowess. “Second chances don't come around all that often," Pym warns Scott. "This is your chance to earn that look in your daughter's eyes, to become the hero that she already thinks you are."  Scott joins Hank in an outlandish plan to prevent the megalomaniacal Cross from selling the Pym Particle to SHIELD’s nemesis HYDRA. Silly, superficial, and preposterous, “Ant-Man” delivers scores of hilarious, but suspenseful shenanigans.

Until Marvel/Disney released “Ant-Man,” Hollywood had ignored all things petite in pursuit of the big, the bigger, and the biggest in its blockbusters.  Meantime, the ever creative intellects at Marvel had been planning an “Ant-Man” movie since “Shaun of the Dead” director Edgar Wright had embarked on the project about a decade ago.  Creative differences forced Wright out, and Reed took over the helm. Now, “Ant-Man” has emerged as the revelation of the summer, rather like the goofy “Guardians of the Galaxy” did last summer. From concept to casting, everything about this mighty mite of a movie is nothing short of brilliant.  Consistently entertaining on all levels, “Ant-Man” plumbs new depths in the superhero genre and provides former superstar Michael Douglas with his best role since director David Fincher’s 1997 thriller “The Game.”  Romantic comedy leading man Paul Rudd of “Role Models” is the last guy you’d imagine as the diminutive Marvel hero.  Nevertheless, the self-deprecatory Rudd succeeds with a combination of panache and charisma.  He is a funny guy who doesn’t try to be funny and comes off being even funnier.  Like the eponymous creepy-crawlies that can tote ten times their body weight, “Ant-Man” delivers ten times more entertainment than most superhero sagas despite its downsized spectacle.  Not surprisingly, this origins opus covers the roughly same ground that “Iron Man” did, but it does so with greater creativity on a considerably smaller scale.  Clearly, those pests that habitually ruin your picnics have undergone a massive publicity campaign that places them as well as formulaic superheroes in an entirely different perspective.

Altogether, “Ant-Man” is antastic!