Sunday, August 17, 2014


Believe it or not, I saw the original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie when it appeared in theaters back in 1990, and I enjoyed it for the harmless guilty pleasure that it provided.  The exploits of a quartet of anthropomorphic chelonian crime-fighters was as entertaining as its eponymous characters were bizarre.  Bandanna-clad vigilantes armed with an arsenal of feudal Japanese weaponry; these nimble turtles talked, walked, and displayed a predilection for pizza.  Creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird never imagined their mutated box turtles with the names of Renaissance painters would become a comic book sensation and would remain in print for 26 years from 1984 to 2010.  Eastman and Laird said they drew inspiration from the works of Frank Miller and Jack Kirby.  Specifically, Eastman and Laird sought to skewer not only “The New Mutants” and “Daredevil” at Marvel, but also the eccentric Canadian comic “Cerebus the Aardvark” as well as Frank Miller’s “Ronin” at DC Comics.  The Ninja Turtles have since metamorphosed into a social phenomenon, with three animated television series and a short-lived live-action series debuting a fifth turtle, a female called "Venus de Milo" skilled in the supernatural art of shinobi.  Four “TMNT” films followed from 1990 to 2007.  The first three movies were live-action while the fourth film “TMNT” (2007) was animated opus.  Almost 25 years after the original “Turtles” movie came out; Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon have rebooted “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” with bombastic “Transformers” director Michael Bay as producer and “Wrath of the Titans” director Jonathan Liebesman calling the shots.  No matter what you’ve heard about this latest adaptation, the new “Ninja Turtles” movie sticks pretty much to the basics.  Casey Jones, the human vigilante with a hockey stick who served as a romantic interest for news reporter April O’Neil, has been jettisoned by “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol” scenarists Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec and “Divergent” scripter Evan Daugherty.  Happily, while the characters have undergone some significant changes, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (**** OUT OF ****) emerges as a derivative but exhilarating rollercoaster of a joyride that should satisfy most of the vintage fans.  
Unlike the 1990 version, this “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” reboot revises the characters.  Channel 6 news reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox of “Jennifer’s Body”) is more than a television journalist covering a widespread crime wave engulfing New York City.  April is now the daughter of one of the scientists who toiled on Project Renaissance.  April’s father and his partner Eric Sacks (William Fichtner of “The Lone Ranger”) were conducting experiments on four turtles and a rodent to devise a new mutagen strain for its medicinal qualities.  Unfortunately, O’Neil’s father perished in a mysterious fire in their laboratory while Sacks managed to survive.  Neither April’s deceased father nor Eric Sacks knew about April’s role in rescuing the rodent Splinter and the turtles from the conflagration.  She turned them loose in the sewer.   Years later April finds herself struggling with a story about the Foot Clan, an underworld syndicate run by a notorious Asian criminal called Shredder.  Unlike the original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie, Shredder doesn’t use runaway adolescents to execute his evil designs.  Instead, he commands an army of deadly adult ninjas packing automatic weapons with orders to kill.  After Shredder discovers that the Ninja Turtles survived the fire, he orders his second-in-command, Karai (Minae Noji of “The Last Run”), to take hostages.  Shredder hopes the vigilante turtles will try to rescue the hostages and fall into his trap.  Naturally, Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Leonardo (Pete Ploszek) and Donatello (Jeremy Howard) show up to save the hostages held at gunpoint in a subway station.  Shredder explodes with rage when the Turtles not only thwart his plan but also leave his minions trussed up like turkeys for the police.  Meantime, April shadows the Turtles and tries to photograph them, but they frustrate her efforts and delete the pictures from her cell phone.  Eventually, the Turtles escort her to their lair where Master Splinter (Danny Woodburn) reveals that she alone rescued them from the fire.  When April takes her outlandish tale to her boss, Bernadette Thompson (Whoopi Goldberg of “Ghosts of Mississippi”), she loses her job.  Basically, April finds herself back at square one with nobody to help her than her father’s old partner affluent billionaire Eric Sacks.  
“Battle Los Angeles” director Jonathan Liebesman generates madcap momentum throughout the PG-rated film’s agile 101 minutes.  The new Ninja Turtles are even more differentiated than their predecessors.  Standing six feet tall, they resemble the Marvel Comics character the Hulk.  They still crave pizza, but their abilities have been ramped up far and away beyond what they could achieve before this outrageous reboot.  For example, Donatello has been transformed into a nerdy computer hacker.  Furthermore, the Turtles’ leader Splinter sports a longer tale which he deploys as if it were a bullwhip.  Shredder resembles a samurai version of Darth Vader from “Star Wars.”  He has special devices attached to his wrists that enable him to sling dozens of deadly knives. The knives behave like boomerangs so he can retrieve them if they miss their targets.  Truly, Shredder here emerges as a stronger, more contentious villain who puts the lives of our heroes in jeopardy until the last minute.  Interestingly enough, unlike most fantasy thrillers that create massive destruction but almost no collateral damage, innocent bystanders suffer from the falling debris in one scene.  Liebesman lenses the action so his cameras are constantly whirling around the various characters.  The most gripping scene occurs when our heroes are in an 18-wheeler that plunges down the snow-swept mountain.  This adrenaline-laced scene alone makes the classic chase in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” look like a spin on a tricycle!  People who suffer from motion sickness may find this scene a challenge to handle.  You don’t have to be a kid to appreciate this muscular, slam-bang, over-the-top actioneer with incomparable computer generated imagery and hilarious shenanigans to spare.


Indeed, as incredibly outlandish as fantasy thrillers go, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (*** OUT OF ****) amounts to a whole lot of far-fetched fun. The humanoid characters are pretty far out. A pet rat named Master Splinter who mimicked his Japanese master's moves and has taught himself how to be a ninja has moved to New York City where he discovers four baby turtles crawling around in a pool of radioactive slim in the sewer. Naturally, Splinter is shocked after he collects them in a coffee can, and they start talking the following day! Splinter teaches them the art of invisibility—the art of the ninja. The radioactive waste in the sewer exerts a strange, unreal effect on these turtles and they grow to ten times their size. Now, they look like over-grown midgets. Splinter names them Leonardo, Raphael, Michaelangelo, and Donatello. Of course, music video director Steve Barron and freshman film scribes Todd W. Langen and Bobby Herbeck have adapted Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's characters and unleashed them in a crime thriller about a renegade Japanese ninja who has assembled a small army of children to steal the island of Manhattan blind. Sure, recruiting kids as criminals to steal is reminiscent of Charles Dickens' second novel "Oliver Twist."

Channel 3 television anchor lady, April O'Neil (Judith Hoag of "Armageddon"), is determined to get to the bottom of the unsolved crime wave. As the film unfolds, these youthful thieves try to steal April's purse, but Raphael comes to her rescue. Raphael ties them up and leaves them for the police to haul off. Naturally, April cannot believe her eyes after she meets the Turtles and Splinter. Now, more than ever, she wants to expose the Foot Clan, but she gets no help from frustrated N.Y.P.D Chief Stearns (Raymond Serra of "Prizzi's Honor") who brings pressure down on April's boss, Charles Pennington (Jay Patterson of "Street Smart"), to take April off the story. Stearns has arrested Pennington's larcenous son Danny (Michael Turney of "Cost of Living") who has been nabbed for stealing. Indeed, Danny is a member of this secret underworld organization. Meanwhile, April is working with them to bring the heat down on Chief Stearns. Stearns compels Charles to fire April. Splinter's arch enemy, the Shredder--the Asian equivalent in looks and voice to "Star Wars" villain Darth Vader--dispatches his American ninjas to take care of the Turtles. Shredder's abduct Splinter while April and the Turtle quartet leave the city to hide out on a remote farm out in the country. The Turtles are at a loss as to what they can do until Splinter contacts them through telepathy despite being held in chains like the Count of Monte Cristo in an abandoned factory. Leonardo congregates the other three around a campfire, and and they meditate at length. This group meditation effort enables them to conjure up Splinter's spirit, and Splinter communicates momentarily with them. Our quartet of half-shell heroes hates the fact that Splinter has been captured. Indeed, Michaelangelo grows so emotional that he cannot help but cry. A hockey stick wielding vigilante, Casey Jones (Elias Koteas of "Shutter Island"), who clashed with Raphael earlier, joins them as they battle Shredder and his ninjas. Clearly, Barron and his writers needed a real human to give April a romantic relationship. Incidentally, Casey Jones doesn't reappear in the 2014 reboot, and the origins of the Turtles is tweaked.

"Muppets" mastermind Jim Henson created Splinter and the Turtles look amusing. Splinter looks more realistic than the Turtles with their variously colored bandannas that they wear like masks. Michaelangelo has an orange bandannas, Raphael prefers the color red, Leonardo adopts blue as his color, and Donatello dresses in purple. "Entertainment Weekly" reviewer Owen Gleiberman complained in his review of the original film that the Turtles lacked personality. According to Gleiberman, only Raphael had a shred of personality. Essentially, Gleiberman is correct. Indeed, our heroes lack differentiation aside from the difference in their weapons. Raphael wields the sai, a three-pronged weapon which resembles a fork. Leonardo carries the katana, a traditional Japanese sword used in feudal Japan. Michaelangelo prefers the nunchuks, and Donatello dazzles his adversaries with a staff.

Barron doesn't malinger for a moment aside from some obvious expository bits of dialogue. The action is swift and cool. The Turtles uses some profanity, usually the word damn. The humor shines through, and the scene in April's apartment above an antiques shop when the Turtles conceal themselves from Danny and his father are amusing. Henson complained about the dark nature of the film. Juvenile delinquents smoke stogies and gamble. The Turtles like to use the D-word. The sewer sets look genuine, and Judith Hoag makes a plucky damsel-in-distress. Incidentally, aside from some Big Apple landmark shots, such as the Twin Towers in the first scene, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" was lensed largely in North Carolina by Raymond Chow's Golden Harvest studio.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


“Zorro the Rebel” director Piero Pierotti’s “Tails, You Lose” qualifies as a sophisticated but bizarre Spaghetti western.  Pierotti combines social commentary with a murder mystery and does a splendid job with both themes.  Top-notch production values, exterior & interior sets, Carlo Savina’s superb orchestra score, strong performances, and Pierotti’s complex screenplay distinguish this out of the ordinary Italian oater.  Although it isn’t strictly a savage shoot’em up over real estate or livestock, this sun-baked sagebrusher features several interesting characters, and Pierotti’s dialogue is occasionally catchy.  The local undertaker observes after the hero is gunned down: “They all look the same when they’re dead, these no-good, two-bit, double-dealing cowards.”  Essentially, the hero conforms to the anti-heroic tradition of the Clint Eastwood bounty hunter, except that he is an outlaw.  Hollywood actor John Ericson establishes his felonious credentials during the pre-credit sequence.  He vanishes for almost a half-an-hour after sticking up the stagecoach. Alluring actress Spela Rozin gets to wear a variety of costumes beginning with the regalia of a dance hall girl to a babe in buckskins.  She undergoes a transformation.  The roles for women here are traditional in one respect.  Like the good ladies in John Ford’s “Stagecoach,” the good ladies in “Tails, You Lose” send the harlots packing, but they are a great deal more brutal than the “Stagecoach” ladies.

Not only does wanted desperado William Huston, alias the Black Talisman, (John Ericson of “Bad Day at Black Rock”) rob a stagecoach in Texas in 1892, but he also hijacks a sack of money and shoots the shotgun rider.  Lenser Fausto Zuccoli zooms out to reveal our hard-riding highwayman galloping away; the awesome backdrop of a prodigious mountain dwarfs him and looks spectacular.  The trouble erupts in the Arizona town of Plata in the 1890s when two gunslingers shoot each other over the affections of a dance hall warbler.  One guy seized her umbrella and another knocked him down.  They were prepared to shoot it out in the saloon but the town sheriff intervened and ordered them to take it to the streets.  Imaginatively, Pierotti confines Fausto Zuccoli’s cameras to the saloon interior while the sounds of the gunshots occur off screen.  Comparatively, he doesn't show the heroine as she is raped.  One of the duelers enters the saloon as if in triumph until we get a glimpse of his perspective and the point of view shot quivers.  The man, who we may have mistaken labeled the survivor, drops dead.  

Later, the sister of a local pastor, Miss Phillips, advocates the exile of all the saloon harpies.  “My brother—the minister--shall thunder from the pulpit: do we want Plata City to become another Sodom and Gomorrah?”  Later, this grim dame in gray and black proclaims ominously, “We cannot allow that witch from the saloon and her tarts to continue”  She pauses for dramatic emphasis, “To take our sons from us, our brothers, our husbands.”  The Christian ladies invite the sheriff to their meeting to discuss their grievances or as he says “put him on trial.”  “You know those ladies,” the lawman emphasizes, “they don’t spare you nothing.”  Burton the banker warns Shanda about the wrath of the women.  “They’re envious and they’re bored,” he explains.  “They have turned to religion for excitement.  Ever since you arrived with your girls, they say that they are losing the fervor of their husbands, and the number one bigot among those shrews is the pastor’s sister.”  The severe-looking, tight-lipped Miss Phillips leads a crowd of women to the saloon, and they trash the premises.  The saloon girls try to escape without luck.  The sadomasochistic wife of a philandering banker derives sexual gratification from watching a bare-backed prostitute, a Mexican girl (Edwige Fenech), whipped by another woman in brown.    Some of these girls are whipped, while others are tarred and feathered.  The banker’s wife, who turns out to be a sexual deviant, kills her husband and then frames the saloon girl Shanda (Spela Rozin) for his demise.  The sheriff spares Shanda and sends two of his deputies to escort her to Phoenix.  Along the way, another man of questionable character joins the two deputies. The three rape her.   

Although he held up the stage like a villain, Huston shows up and discovers Shanda after she has left for dead in the desert.  Spela Rozin presents a delectable looking specimen of feminity sprawled nearly nude except for a blanket.  Initially, Shanda mistakes Huston of one of the men.  Eventually, they grow to trust each other.  Huston makes an interesting comment about Shanda: “You know, if you’ve been wronged, you’ve got what it takes for revenge.  You’re quite a wild cat.”  The curious Huston launches his own investigation.  “Tails, You Lose” amounts to a different kind of Spaghetti western.  The lean, good-looking Ericson cuts a distinctive figure in his green denims. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014


Eighteenth century Irish author and satirist Jonathan Swift would have enjoyed writer & director James DeManaco’s violent, sanguine, urban crime thriller “The Purge: Anarchy” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) even more than its predecessor the home invasion epic “The Purge.”  The premise that our government has allocated one day annually for citizens to assuage their violent urges by committing criminal acts of any kind without fear of punishment is audacious.  Moreover, since America has been purging for 6 years, the economy has improved significant and crime has been cut to the bone.  “The Purge: Anarchy” is comparable to Swift’s immortal essay “A Modest Proposal.”  Written in 1729, “A Modest Proposal” urged destitute Irishmen to sell their children as fodder to feed the insatiable appetites of the wealthy.  In “The Purge: Anarchy,” a terminally-ill senior citizen, sells himself for $100-thousand to an affluent family so they can purge in the confines of their palatial mansion without risking their lives on the streets. Mind you, DeMonaco doesn’t advocate the idea of an annual government-sanctioned crime holiday any more than Swift expected his impoverished counterparts to cannibalize their children.  Hollywood doesn’t often attempt to be as satirical as the “Purge” movies.  Lately, “The Hunger Games” movies with their annual tournament of death is the closest that Tinsel town has come to incisive political satire for mainstream audiences.  Unlike “The Hunger Games,” the “Purge” movies occur about a decade in the future.  Nevertheless, everything looks and sounds like contemporary America as we know it.  The New Founding Fathers, who rule America, appear to be ultra-conservatives, and they place a high premium on religion, but the God that they worship bears little resemblance to the popular, mainstream religious denominations. 
“The Purge: Anarchy” opens two hours and 26 minutes before the annual purge scheduled each March.  Waitress Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo of “Absolute Beginners”) and another waitress Tanya (Justina Machado of “Torque”) are waiting on their boss to let them go home for the evening.  Things tonight are drastically different because it is purge night.  Essentially, you can do anything criminal during this twelve-hour period, but the authorities cannot prosecute you.  Eva tries to persuade her boss to raise her salary since she is finding it difficult to pay for her father’s pricey medicine.  Papa Rico (John Beasley of “The General’s Daughter”) hates this medicine and refuses to take it.  Rico’s granddaughter, Cali (Zoë Soul of “Prisoners”), convinces him to take it.  Rico warns Eva and Cali not to awake him from his slumber; all he wants to do is sleep through this terrifying holiday.  Meanwhile, Eva informs Cali that her boss balked at her pay raise request.  Later, these two women are shocked when they discover Papa Rico has sold himself to the highest bidder to be slaughtered.  He has arranged matters so Eva and Cali will receive a small monetary fortune for his sacrificial act.  Eva and Cali are sitting safely in their apartment when intruders in black combat gear with automatic weapons burst in and abduct them at gun point. 
In another part of the city, an anonymous individual known only as Sergeant (Frank Grillo of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) is arming himself to the teeth for an evening of purging.  He knows how to wield a variety of lethal firearms.  Sergeant is one tough looking dude, and he drives an evil black sedan with a trunk crammed with an arsenal of firearms.  Sergeant is set to purge until he spots the thugs-in-black dragging Eva and Cali against their will from their apartment building.  A menacing looking man in a baseball cap and a long butcher’s apron, Big Daddy (Jack Conley of “Payback”), who is standing in an 18-wheeler, wants the women.  Against his better judgment, Sergeant intervenes.  He riddles the thugs manhandling Eva and Cali, and one of his bullets creases Big Daddy’s left cheek and knocks the villain off his feet.  Sergeant escorts Eva and Cali back to his car, but he finds a surprise awaiting them.  Two more innocent bystanders whose car broke down on them have taken refuge in his back seat, and he cannot force them to get out.  Sergeant understands the old saying that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.  Big Daddy recovers in time to open fire with his machine gun that spews armor-piercing rounds.  Our heroes escape his wrath, but Sergeant’s car conks out on him because Big Daddy’s bullets have blown out the engine.  Sergeant and his quartet of refugees set out on foot through the city with Eva assuring him that he can get another car from her waitress friend Tonya at her apartment building.  More surprises ensue for Sergeant and his new friends.
Watching either “The Purge” or “The Purge: Anarchy,” you might be tempted to reprimand DeManaco for his implied advocacy of firearms and murder.  In fact, however, DeManaco deplores the overt use of gunplay.  What makes “The Purge: Anarchy” even more relevant is the class warfare theme that DeManaco has developed with even greater intensity than he did in “The Purge.”  DeManaco hammers home the theme of haves versus have-nots emphatically throughout this superior, slam-bang sequel.  Meantime, the only link between the sequel and the original is an African-American supporting character that you might have missed, even if you’ve seen the original.  He was referred to simply as the Bloody Stranger in “The Purge.”  In “The Purge: Anarchy,” he is designated strictly as the Stranger.  If you have not seen “The Purge,” you won’t appreciate the irony in actor Edwin Hodge’s encore performance.  Whereas “The Purge” occurred in a gated, elite neighborhood, “The Purge: Anarchy” expands the playing field to the city at large.  For example, obese woman roams a bridge with a bull horn and a machine gun urging citizens to test her marksmanship.  Busses set ablaze cruise through the night. DeManaco makes maximum use of his sinewy, 103 minutes to forge a palatable atmosphere of paranoia.


You'll love "Lucy."  French filmmaker Luc Besson, who helmed "Le Femme Nikita," "Angel-A," and "Colombiana," takes the feminist-oriented action thriller genre to the next level.  This outlandish but entertaining hokum chronicles the mutation of a defenseless damsel-in-distress into an invincible dame with heretofore unimagined mental powers.  Our provocative protagonist comes to rely more on her brains than her biology.  Comparably, "Lucy" reminded me a little of the 2004 foreign movie "Maria Full of Grace."  Columbian drug traffickers planted cocaine in the stomach of a teenage girl in "Maria Full of Grace" and used her to smuggle their smack into the United States. Happily, this savvy babe turned the tables on her captors!  Similarly, our heroine in "Lucy" finds a pouch of exotic synthetic drugs sew into her tummy and given a plane ticket for America.  The last thing that her savage, cold-blooded captors are prepared for is her improbable reprisal.  Lucy turns the tables on them in ways that not even she could have thought before she encountered these merciless hooligans.  Indeed, actress Scarlett Johansson would be the whole show if Morgan Freeman weren't lecturing in cutaway shots as a prestigious physician, Professor Samuel Norman, whose ranks as the foremost expert on gray matter.  When Professor Norman isn't delivering lectures to enthralled audiences about the percentage of use that humans derive from their noodles, Besson treats us to illuminating Animal Planet excerpts of jungle animals that punctuate the running battle Lucy carries on with the heavily-armed Asian drug smugglers.  Korean actor Choi Min-shik, who starred in director Chan-wook Park's first version of the revenge thriller "Oldboy" (2003), makes a memorable villain named Mr. Jang.  You will love to hate Mr. Jang.  Furthermore, Mr. Jang's immaculately tailored henchmen are as homicidal as he is until he meets our feminist heroine after she experiences a massive change in her attitude.  Interestingly enough, before she made "Lucy," Scarlett Johansson appeared in "Under the Skin," a 2013 sci-fi thriller about an alien who masquerades as a human to prey on lonely men in Scotland.  For the record, Besson had cast Angelina Jolie as Lucy, but Jolie had to drop out, so Johansson stepped into the role.

The first time we see Lucy (Scarlett Johansson of "The Avengers"), she is arguing with her scummy boyfriend, Richard (Pilou Asbæk of "The Whistleblower"), clad in a straw cowboy-hat and red sunglasses in front of a fashionable, high-rise motel in Taiwan. Richard is struggling to convince Lucy to deliver a sleek briefcase to a motel guest named Mr. Jang.  Richard insists that he cannot personally hand the briefcase over to Mr. Jang.  He says that he has seen the man too many times.  Lucy refuses to deliver the briefcase.  She asks Richard about the contents of the briefcase.  As it turns out, Richard doesn't have a clue about what is in the briefcase.  Their entire argument sounds like something that Quentin Tarantino's characters argued about in "Pulp Fiction."  Everything in the seminal crime thriller "Pulp Fiction" turned on the mysterious contents of a cryptic briefcase.  Just as Lucy is about to walk away from Richard, this reprobate of a boyfriend handcuffs the brief case to her wrist so she cannot get it off. Eventually, Lucy relents and enters the motel while Richard watches her with great anticipation.  Suffice to say, things go downhill like an avalanche for both Richard and our heroine.  The action sequences in "Lucy" are breathtaking, especially the predictable but exciting car chase through Paris with Lucy at the wheel of a police car.  Besson charts the action according to the percentage of brain power that our heroine is able to harness until fadeout when she concludes her incredible metamorphosis.  During this haywire ride, Parisian detective Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked of “Syriana”) sees things that he never thought possible.

Initially, "Lucy" unfolds as a standard-issue, dark-themed, revenge thriller in the vein of something notorious horror maestro Eli Roth of "Hostel" fame would perpetrate.  About half-way through its lean, mean 90 minutes, this nimble Universal Pictures release changes our protagonist from a Shanghaied schoolgirl into a pistol-packing mother who doesn't need a guy to save her bacon.  She becomes the equivalent of Liam Neeson in the "Taken" thrillers and then she even surpasses him!  She doesn't even have to rely on guns.  Earlier, the fiendish villains rounded up not only poor Lucy but also three other guys and sewed a kilo pouch of strange blue crystals called CPH4 into their intestines. Basically, CPH4 amounts to the equivalent of stuff that pregnant moms produce to cultivate their fetuses.  Somebody utters ominously enough about the substance: ""For a baby, it packs the power of an atomic bomb."" Our ingenious heroine manages to escape the clutches of the bad guys, and she alerts the authorities about herself as well as the other mules.  Unfortunately, the police are in no way prepared for the commitment that the criminals have for their product.  They will kill anybody who comes between them and their junk.  As the bullets fly, the bodies whether innocent bystanders or gunmen stack up in piles.  These villains are armed with more than just fully automatic weapons. Before the dust settles, however, Besson's crime thriller transforms into a mind-boggling science fiction actioneer reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey."  Literally, the heroine becomes the equivalent of the monolith in the Kubrick film.  Indeed, the ending is a mind blower in itself, but you may feel cheated by this ending.  In another sense, the ending of “Lucy” is reminiscent too of the wrap up to “Star Trek: the Motion Picture,” where a female android mated with a human to take mankind farther into the future than humanity had ever gone!  Nevertheless, nothing that you have seen this summer will prepare you for “Lucy” and its supercharged little saga.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


The soldier that Tom Cruise plays in “Edge of Tomorrow” (*** OUT OF ****) gets his butt kicked all over creation.  “Bourne Identity” director Doug Limon’s supercharged, imaginative, science fiction time-loop thriller synthesizes elements of “Starship Troopers” and “Source Code.”  Surpassing Cruise’s earlier desolation Earth outing “Oblivion,” “Edge of Tomorrow” differs chiefly in terms of story and setting.  Although “Oblivion” occurred on post-apocalyptic planet Earth, “Edge of Tomorrow” takes place before the apocalypse, with mankind desperately pitted against aggressive extraterrestrials with no compassion.  Lightning-fast, squid-like creatures called ‘Mimics’ have invaded Earth.  These invincible whirling dervishes with tentacles have been on the warpath now for the last five years, blitzing their way across the European continent, and advancing toward England without any sign of slowing down.  Predictably, Cruise lands on his feet in the middle of this catastrophic, life and death mayhem.  He doesn’t play the usual heroic character that he played in “Top Gun.”  This represents the first time Cruise has portrayed a yellow-livered skunk.  He goes from being a coward to a hero in an arc that is as entertaining as the film is exciting.  You can differentiate Tom Cruise movies by how often he gets his butt kicked.  Remember “The Last Samurai?”  Cruise had to grovel in that splendid fish-out-of-water spectacle set in Japan.  Usually Cruise doesn’t grovel.  His groveling, however, makes his subsequent acts of heroism all the more convincing.  Mind you, “Edge of Tomorrow” would still qualify as a good, solid movie even if Cruise weren’t getting kicked all over creation.  Mankind is poised on the brink of extinction as these insatiable aliens decimate populations.  The futuristic, 80-pound, exoskeleton combat suits that the soldiers wear looks as cool as the aliens are imitating.  Everything about “Edge of Tomorrow” looks great.  This isn’t a shiny, chrome-plated, sci-fi epic, but a tarnished, grungy-looking one.  Some of the performances stand out.  As Master Sergeant Farrell, Bill Paxton steals every scene that he has with his Southern-fried drawl, while Brendan Gleeson makes a curt supreme army commander and reminded me of Norman Schwarzkopf.  Last but not least, lean-muscled Emily Blunt is pretty hard-nosed and business-like as the pugnacious ‘Angel of Verdun.’  Alongside these fine performers, Cruise holds his own as a disgraced officer who redeems himself in the crucible of combat.

Oscar winning “Usual Suspects” scenarist Christopher McQuarrie and “Fair Game” co-scribes Jez and John-Henry Butterworth have adapted Japanese author Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel “All You Need is Kill,” which came out in December 2004.  As a military public relations officer for the United Defense Force, Major William Cage (Tom Cruise of “War of the Worlds”) has never fired a shot in combat, but he does a commendable job as long as he is stationed far behind the lines.  Imagine Cage’s horror when UDF General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson of “Braveheart”) decides to embed him with ground troops as they storm the French beaches in a last ditch effort to thwart the Mimics.  Cage flatly refuses Brigham’s orders to follow the troops into battle.  Not only does Brigham order Cage arrested and demoted to buck private, but he also assigns him to join a first wave combat unit.  Although “Edge of Tomorrow” is a sci-fi saga, the beachhead scenes where Cage and his unit are flown into action against the Mimics is reminiscent of Spielberg’s classic “Saving Private Ryan.”  Like “Starship Troopers,” the soldiers are flown into combat and dropped from helicopter-style planes.  Once on the ground, the troops rely on their heavily armed battle suits to shred the Mimics with fusillades of gunfire.  The Mimics are slaughtering soldiers left and right until one of them smashes headlong into Cage.  Our terrified protagonist uses a mine to kill one.  When Cage kills a large ‘Alpha’ Mimic, the slimy critter douses him with its blood.  Incredibly enough, despite dying from the Mimic’s blood, Cage discovers that he gets another chance to live and fight again!  Essentially, like the Jake Gyllenhaal character in “Source Code,” Cage relives the first day over and over until he encounters another soldier, Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt of “Loopers”), who experienced the same sensation when a large ‘Alpha’ Mimic killed her.  Before he meets Rita, Cage is killed several times in combat.  Meantime, each time that he dies, Cage awakens just as suddenly to find himself back at Camp Heathrow alive and well.  Director Doug Limon displays quite a bit of flair in handling the same scene over and over again.  Each time that Cage reawakens from his death, he devises new ways to contend with the Mimics.  Sergeant Rita explains to Cage that the same thing occurred to her at Verdun until she received a blood transfusion.  Eventually, as he relives the same day over and over again ad nauseam, Cage becomes so familiar with the turbulent events of that day that he can anticipate when and where the  Mimics will strike.  Before long, Rita trains Cage so that they become a dynamic duo, and they discover that the Mimics have a secret that makes them invincible.  When they try to convince their superiors, especially General Brigham, that they can destroy the Mimics, they are treated as deserters.
Although it boasts some fascinating as well as formidable alien adversaries, “Edge of Tomorrow” doesn’t emphasize horror so much as tension and suspense.  Meaning, you can watch it and not worry about leaving your lights on when you sleep for fear of nightmares.  Basically, it boils down to a crackerjack mission movie with Cruise and Blunt assembling up their own crew of misfits to destroy the aliens and save the day.  Director Doug Limon and his writers steer clear of romance in any way, shape, or form.  The single drawback to this otherwise atmospheric, first-rate actioneer is that the filmmakers don’t provide enough details about the invaders from space.  Nevertheless, watching Tom Cruise get killed dozens of times until he knows what to do is as stimulating as it is amusing.


The shenanigans are far more silly, and the pandemonium far more preposterous in the farcical “21 Jump Street” parody sequel “22 Jump Street” (*** OUT OF ****) co-starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.  Several actors from the original opus reprise their roles in this side-splitting sequel.  Mind you, even Rob Riggle, who played dastardly Mr. Walters, the H.F.S. drug dealer whose penis got shot off, shows up with David Franco as his cell mate in a prison scene.  Schmidt’s mother and father turn up, too.  Of course, since original TV “Jump Street” headliner Johnny Depp suffered multiple gunshot wounds in “21 Jump Street,” he doesn’t come back.  Rarely does a remake have the nerve to liquidate the leads from the show that spawned the remake.  Nevertheless, comedy is a genre that evolves with each generation.  Meantime, “21 Jump Street” co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller do their level best to bring audiences up to speed after a two-year hiatus.  They rely on the television rehash convention where a narrator informs us what ‘previously’ happened.  Audiences are treated to a condensed version of “21 Jump Street.”  When they aren’t delivering funnier jokes and staging bigger Keystone Cops action set-pieces, Lord and Miller ridicule the formulaic conventions of sequels in general as well as “22 Jump Street” in particular.   Lord and Miller also explore the bromantic relationship between the two protagonists in greater depth.   Indeed, while “22 Jump Street” adheres to the blue-print plot of its predecessors, our heroes’ new college-oriented assignment, the beefed-up, $50-million budget, and the clever end credits constitute some of the most imaginative comedy you’ll ever see.  One of the most outrageous gags features “Neighbors”comic Seth Rogen in a droll cameo near the end of this crackerjack comedy of errors.
Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) are not actually attending a traditional college when “22 Jump Street” opens.  Indeed, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube of “Friday”) told them at the end of “21 Jump Street” that they were going to college because they had grown too old to pass as teenagers in high school. Instead, they have been assigned to monitor internet communication at an on-line university.  Specifically, they must listen for either suspicious keywords or phrases that might serve as code words for potential crimes.  Our heroes learn about a meeting time and location at the docks.  Remember, Schmidt and Jenko are not brainiacs.  The professor states the location in no uncertain terms during his lecture.  Like they did in “21 Jump Street,” Schmidt and Jenko find themselves outnumbered by the opposition.  Schmidt masquerades as a laughable Mexican. The Ghost (Peter Stormare of “Armageddon”) and his henchman have a tractor-trailer load of contraband exotic animals.  Predictably, Schmidt tangles with a large pink squid.  This idiotic moment makes you want to laugh because comedian Jonah Hill is clearly doing all the work with his ersatz squid.  If you’ve seen horror icon Bela Lugosi wrestling with an obviously bogus rubber octopus in Ed Wood, Jr.’s “Bride of the Monster” (1956), you can truly appreciate what makes this scene such a howler!  Afterward, our heroes struggle to stop The Ghost,” but this wily opponent eludes them with ease.  The truck stunts in this scene get “22 Jump Street” off to an adrenaline-laced start.  Naturally, Schmidt and Jenko make big buffoons of themselves, while Ghost escapes. 
Our heroes wind up in Deputy Chief Hardy’s office to face the music.  Hardy (Nick Offerman of “We’re the Millers”) assigns them to 22 Jump Street, and they find themselves reunited with the profane Captain Dickson.  The new office is located across the street from a church with a Korean Jesus.  Schmidt and Jenko must find the villains behind a new synthetic drug called WhyPhy.  According to Dickson, WhyPhy is a mixture of Adderall and Ecstasy with something else.  You focus for the first couple of hours and then you party like never before and then you die. The only clue that they have is a photo of the student who bought the drug and later died using it.  Schmidt and Jenko start hanging out with likely suspects.  Jenko acquaints himself with two football players, Zook (Wyatt Russell of “Cowboys & Aliens”) and Rooster (Jimmy Tatro of “Grown Ups 2”), who belong to a fraternity.  Meantime, the athletically challenged Schmidt attracts the attention of an art major, Maya (Amber Stevens of “The Amazing Spider-Man”), when he performs slam poetry.  Gradually, Schmidt and Jenko fall out of touch with each other, and this creates friction between them.  Jenko has taken up big time with Zook and joins the college football team.  These two are literally wired into each other because Jenko is always where he is supposed to be to catch Zook’s passes!  Eventually, our frustrated heroes consult Mr. Walters (Rob Ripple) about the best strategy for ferreting out the WhyPhy suppliers.
Happily, “22 Jump Street” never takes itself seriously and never loses sight of its origins as a sequel.  “21 Jump Street” should be best remembered as the first buddy cop movie to address the relationship dynamics between male partners.  “22 Jump Street” pokes fun at Schmidt and Jenko, and our heroes have to endure a droll counseling session with a shrink. The African-American twins Keith & Kenny Yang (The Lucas Brothers) who live across the hall from them in the dorm will keep you in stitches with their antics.  Similarly, Mr. Walters’ prison scenes are hysterical.  Our heroes experience some changes themselves, particularly Schmidt.  Schmidt loses his virginity, and the real surprise is the identity of the girl’s father.  Jenko indulges in malapropisms. He says ‘anals’ when he means ‘annuals.’  Instead of saying carte blanche, he says “Cate Blanchett,” He also uses Parkour to shimmy up any edifice.  I didn’t laugh as often at “21 Jump Street” so “22 Jump Street” took me by surprise.  Not only does it live up to its predecessor with its goofy “Saturday Night Live” sketch-type humor, but “22 Jump Street” also surpasses the original.