Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Top 10 Best Films of 2013

1) 12 YEARS A SLAVE – In his first two remarkable efforts Steve McQueen displayed a fearless, unflinching proficiency for gazing into the darkest depths of human suffering, and finding spiritual hope (in Hunger) and, alternately, all-consuming despair (Shame). 12 Years a Slave, his staggering dramatic recreation of Solomon Northup’s tragic true story, elegantly portrays each end of the spectrum, and the sea of turbulence in between. Diving headlong into the degrading horrors of slavery, McQueen mines every ounce of humiliation, pain and torment from this horrendous period of American history, exposing the profoundly destructive effect it had on every single soul involved. Extraordinary elevated by a trio of transcendent performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o, this unforgettably haunting picture isn’t just the crowning cinematic achievement of the year; it’s destined for prominence as one of the defining works of our era.  

2) MUD – Following up his unshakeable 2011 gothic drama Take Shelter, writer/director Jeff Nichols’ fashioned this wonderfully personal and atmospheric noir-tinged tribute to lost innocence that rightfully warrants comparison with masterworks such as E.T., The Last Picture Show and The 400 Blows. Centered around an unlikely friendship between Tye Sheridan’s confused, sensitive adolescent and Matthew McConaughey’s mysterious island-dwelling escaped convict, this enchanting gem lovingly fills its layered, lived in canvas with countless colorful characters (Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon and Joe Don Baker, to name a few) and evocative passages of youthful discovery, frustration and idealistic naiveté. Mud spins an engrossing, beautiful yarn that fulfills our desire for delightful stories that energize the soul along the way. 

3) SHORT TERM 12 – Although top-ranking directorial masters dominated  2013, there were also a handful of hungry new kids on the block demanding to be heard. Chief among them was Destin Cretton, who expanded his 2008 short into this powerfully raw, clever and poignant fly-on-the-wall look at the daily realities faced by an underfunded foster care facility. Dodging every possible saccharine cliché in the book, Cretton delivers a movie that is original, affecting and hugely uplifting. He also gives the ever-brilliant Brie Larson a much-deserved plum role as the weary chief supervisor attempting to resolve her own issues in a tornado of mentally-draining dysfunction. Short Term 12 is a sensational film and a genuinely thrilling glimpse of things to come from an audacious rising talent. 

4) GRAVITY – If Children of Men definitively established Alfonso Cuaron as one of the principal cinematic storytellers of his generation, this astonishing white knuckle spectacle was eye-popping proof that’s he’s also the coolest technical boundary-pusher working today (sorry James Cameron). A small, gripping survival tale blown up to exhilarating big screen splendor, awesomely populated by seamless effects and one very frightened Sandra Bullock, Gravity was an intensely rewarding game-changer with vision and pure wonder. In a marketplace increasingly bogged down by manufactured blockbuster “thrill rides” this was the only one worth lining up for multiple times.  

5) BEFORE MIDNIGHT – The final (?) chapter in the most authentic romance in motion picture history (yup, I said it!), Richard Linklater’s third captivating Before entry observes now long-time lovers Jesse and Celine (co-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) as they grapple with middle-age and the threat of stagnation in their relationship. Insightful, funny and often uncomfortably frank, this magnificent series continues to be a triumph like no other; an intimate, thoughtful portrait of real world love, with all of its dizzying highs and wounding lows laid utterly, recognizably bare. Midnight puts us through the emotional ringer with these two once-crazy kids, however there’s an abundance of warmth, understanding and truth waiting patiently on the other side.

6) THE WOLF OF WALL STREET – There were a lot of crazy parties thrown on the silver screen in 2013, but none more strikingly unhinged and fiendishly decadent than legendary director Martin Scorsese’s balls-to-the-wall adaptation of reformed Wall Street conman Jordan Belfort’s autobiography. With a frothing, sleaze-soaked Leonardo DiCaprio – in an all-time great performance exploding with sociopathic subtlety and Jim Carrey-esque physicality - unloading every potent weapon in his arsenal, and an enormous crackerjack supporting cast including Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey and Kyle Chandler, this sprawling epic comedy delivers scene after scene of edgy livewire genius. Orchestrating the chaos, Scorsese doesn’t just demolish the American dream, he makes us howl with amusement at the absurdity, and injustice, of it all.

7) INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS – Boy, those Coen boys are sure on one helluva roll. Another rich addition to their already incomparable filmography, Inside Llewyn Davis is a poetic, bittersweet meditation on the lonely struggles of pursuing grand artistic ambition. Chronicling a week in the life of Oscar Isaac’s water-treading 1960s folk singer, the Coens’ latest is a perfect hang out movie, allowing us the simple pleasure of spending time with a fascinating, flawed, gifted man whose only solace can be found in the freedom of musical expression. The boundlessly talented Isaac is a revelation here – both as an actor and a singer – and his weary, droll journey, scored to an array of foot-tapping tunes, is a leisurely joy to watch unfold.

8) MONSTERS UNIVERSITY – Let’s be honest: no one was chomping at the bit for a prequel to the 2001 classic Monsters, Inc. Yet Pixar, the once unassailable animation juggernaut, pulled out another minor miracle with this hilarious, big-hearted second chapter that actually manages to top the endearing original. Returning Billy Crystal and John Goodman to their iconic roles, and surrounding them with a host of memorable new additions, this zippy send up of college comedies boasts huge laughs, several exciting and inventive action set-pieces and a handful of surprisingly touching character revelations. In a year brimming with worthy, exquisitely rendered family entertainment, Monsters University stood confidently, head and beastly shoulders, at the head of the class.

9) SPRING BREAKERS – Gaudy. Ludicrous. Campy. Shameless. All of those descriptors cheerfully apply to this mesmerizing (and polarizing) Harmony Korine cult hit, a Guns, Girls and Gangstas flash bomb of satirical irreverence and synthetic style lobbed straight at Generation Y. A hilarious hyperkinetic fever reverie, Spring Breakers is positively alive and of the moment, gleefully reveling in the raucous excesses of modern youth culture while simultaneously throwing up its hands in irritated exasperation. Backed by an unforgettably insane James Franco turn, this provocative cinematic statement sure ain’t for everyone. Nonetheless, those able to surrender to its pulsing provocative beat are in for one relentlessly trippy time.

10) ONLY GOD FORGIVES – Similar to slot number nine, helmer Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling’s gonzo hallucinogenic Bangkok revenge thriller had no shortage of vocal detractors. This David Lynchian follow-up to 2011’s fantastic Drive is the ultimate anti-crowd pleaser; a moody, head-scratchingly enigmatic exercise in futility, dream logic, oedipal weirdness and brutal emasculation. Cloaked in brooding surreal symbolism and shot in vivid, suffocating primary colors, Only God Forgives is an addictively revolting and sadistic puzzle that unlocks dazzling new secrets with every revisit. 


Tuesday, November 12, 2013


A few billion dollars in box-office sure does buy a lot of confidence! When Marvel released Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 hit Thor, you could sense the awkward strain of growing pains working against it, as the studio attempted to replicate the surprise success of Iron Man and lay precious groundwork for their shared cinematic universe. Thus, ‘ol Goldilocks’s first motion picture foray often felt restrained and safe, closely following the winning formula set forth by his repulsor-propelled big brother. The result was a witty and endearingly goofy slice of poppy superhero silliness, somewhat short on splashy spectacle and fantastical vision, but rousingly big on character, charm and franchise potential.

Then The Avengers happened and changed everything.

Thankfully, Thor: The Dark World sees Marvel at last casting aside their past trepidations and diving headlong into the geeky, wonderfully weird mythology of the titular towering titan’s comic-book roots. This sequel is gloriously brimming with multi-syllabled alien locales, hordes of combating creatures straight out of a delirious Lord of the Rings/Star Wars mash-up and enough dimension-hopping to leave even the most ardent Stargate fan dizzy. It’s a film in which a gold-armored badass downs an enormous villain spacecraft with a dagger, for goodness sake! I say, that is one mighty dagger!

Alas, despite its admirable go-for-broke otherworldliness and bravado, this second Norse-tinged exploit often comes across as rushed and chaotic, sacrificing much of the bubbly, genial personality and engaging character work that won us over the first time around. All of the required elements are in place, with a heavy heaping of extravagant CG wizardry, yet the heart isn’t quite there. The Dark World feels like a perfectly serviceable one-shot tale planted between two sensational epic arcs; offering just enough to hype you up for the next issue, even if it doesn’t fully satisfy on its own.

Set shortly after the incredible events of The Avengers, The Dark World picks up with the muscle-bound Asgardian champion (Chris Hemsworth) reinstating peace among the Nine Realms, much to the pleasure of his wise father, King Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Nevertheless, a long-dormant ancient evil is brewing in the form of Malekith the Accursed (Christopher Eccleston), a sinister Dark Elf who yearns to attain the powerful Aether, a mystical force that would allow him, once the Realms are lined up during a period of time called Convergence, to spread darkness across, well, everything (them Dark Elves take their names very seriously). The antagonist’s diabolical plan hits a snag, though, when the Aether, via portal, winds up residing within the earthly form of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Thor’s scientist love interest. Relocated to Asgard for protection, the possessed astrophysicist soon becomes a much sought after player in the vicious conflict, targeted by Malekith’s army of masked, implosion-grenade-tossing soldiers. In the meantime, sitting idly in his eternal subterranean prison cell, the scheming Loki (Tom Hiddleston) waits patiently for his opportunity for escape and revenge.

Impersonally directed by HBO vet Alan Taylor, and hammered together by a team of five screenwriters, this new Thor entry isn’t exactly a model of elegant storytelling prowess. Unlike this summer’s ingenious Iron Man 3, there isn’t much going on beneath the superficial thrills and funny jokes, and little in the way of compelling character arcs. More often than not the story is dictated by slapdash convenience (a handy interdimensional portal is rarely far away), rather than logic. No doubt aware of these issues, Taylor – who has acknowledged the script was “fluid” during production – barrels through, injecting as much energy and humor as he can to distract from the deficiencies. Occasionally he stages a genuinely beautiful moment - such as a fiery Asgardian funeral or a brief bit where Bifrost guard Heimdell (Idris Elba) thoughtfully gazes into the heavens – or cool action beat, but he lacks the dynamism (and likely clout) to fashion anything truly special.

Taylor also has to contend with the Loki problem. The fan-favorite bad guy has become a huge blessing and curse on the series. Given that the brilliant Hiddleston is so utterly ideal in the role it’s become unthinkable to make a Thor film without him, despite the fact he has a nasty habit of running away with the show every time out. Certainly, the trickster god has a fair deal to do here, and he magically mines every last ounce of wicked fun from each and every scene. Unfortunately, his presence critically subtracts from Malekith’s already anemic presence – the dull Elfish evildoer is easily the weakest of the Marvel cinematic rogues gallery – and robs precious screentime from all of those around him (The Warriors Three, we hardly know thee!). Make no mistake, The Dark World provides a damn great Loki fix, however, going forward, one wonders if it may prove difficult to create compelling adversaries with the gold standard always devilishly peeking in from stage left.

 Although Hiddleston solidifies his reign as this series’ MVP, he’s surrounded by what has to be the best ensemble in the Marvel movie-verse. Hemsworth again brings the valiant movie star goods with imposing physical weight and a twinkle of the eye. He swings Mjolnir (“Mew-mew!”) like a champ, and scores huge laughs with slight, earnest turns of phrase and slightly-stilted courtly behavior, such as nobly conversing with Foster’s quippy intern Darcy (ever-droll Kat Dennings) or boarding a crowded underground train. He also has really cute chemistry with the cheerfully bright Portman. Portraying Asgard’s finest, Elba continues to command the screen with minimal movement, while Jaimie Alexander compellingly blends toughness with tenderness as the sadly underutilized Sif. And, of the legendary Anthony Hopkins, it must be said he bellows and commands with (barely) restrained majesty.

Because it’s so heavily stocked with winning performances, and so modest in its artistic aims, The Dark World manages to squeak by as passably entertaining blockbuster nonsense; an acceptable tide me over until Marvel launches their next juggernaut, Captain America: Winter Soldier, in March. That said, hopefully next time we’re treated to a trip to Asgard – which, judging from the cliffhanger, will be sooner rather than later - we'll finally get a rousing, fist-pumping adventure worth celebrating. After all, it’s high time Thor really brought the thunder, instead of merely amusing us with the odd flash and bang.  

3 out of 5

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Film Review - THE HEAT and FRANCES HA

Traditionally, the summer movie season isn’t overly generous to female-oriented films. Although hits like The Devil Wears Prada and Bridesmaids sent multi-hundred-million-dollar wake up calls to the industry, change has taken its damn time. However, standing out amongst this season’s rampant run of testosterone-fuelled blockbusters are two surprising new releases of very different pedigrees; the Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy joint The Heat and Noah Baumbach’s indie return-to-form Frances Ha. Each offers plenty of value to both the fairer sex and anyone looking for smart, funny, well-crafted entertainment.

Fresh from the uproariously brilliant triumph of Bridesmaids, director Paul Feig’s XX-chromosome buddy cop comedy The Heat is a refreshingly breezy blast of free-wheeling comic energy that manages to make a tired routine shine. Featuring Bullock as a prissy, career-oriented FBI agent who’s reluctantly paired with McCarthy’s foul-mouthed Boston police officer while hunting a mysterious drug kingpin, the film blows dust off its reliable genre tropes by exploiting the off-beat chemistry of its headliners. Beginning as insufferable misfits, the characters’ unlikely friendship and professional bond - like the picture itself - starts off kinda rough before gradually finds its footing and confidence.

Working from Katie Dippold’s (Parks and Recreation, MADtv) quirky screenplay, Feig knows the central plot isn’t that interesting or important and instead, like his last film, focusses on staging hilariously bizarre diversions for his actresses to run wild with. Chief among these highlights are extended sequences including a drunken night at a dive bar populated by senior citizens, a run-in with a restaurant choking victim and multiple volatile encounters with McCarthy’s heavily-accented white trash family. It’s these masterfully-exploited sidesplitting scenarios that really energize The Heat, and bring out the cast’s best.

It also never hurts to boast two of Hollywood’s most endearing comediennes at their most nutty and committed. Channeling her Miss Congeniality protagonist, Bullock exudes rigid crazy cat lady intensity. It’s fun to watch her torn from her comfort zone, fighting to control a cyclone of chaotic lunacy. McCarthy takes some getting used to – her early scenes are a little too gratingly obnoxious – yet once she has a partner to play off of, she hits her stride. Unequivocally courageous in her willingness to sell a gag at any cost, she’s brash and unexpectedly sweet, charming Bullock and the audience in equal measure. They’re such a winning team that, frankly, the idea of watching them solve more cases in the future isn’t an entirely unwelcome prospect.

If Bullock and McCarthy skillfully deliver the broad laughs, Greta Gerwig, in Baumbach’s remarkable Frances Ha, does something even more difficult: she makes us chuckle knowingly (and occasionally uncomfortably) at our own very human inadequacies and fears. Her Frances, an aimless down-on-her-luck New York dancer, flits through her existence with all of the direction of a Ping-Pong ball in the wind. Growing apart from her best friend/personal rock (Mickey Sumner), she leapfrogs haphazardly from one eccentric roommate to another, abandoning her lackadaisically-pursued dreams of success and devolving into an “undateable” lost cause.

Beautifully capturing the aimless frustrations of the current late-20s/early-30s generational experience, Gerwig and Baumbach’s script walks a genuinely fine line with the title character. As hopelessly loveable as she is maddening in her apathy, Frances is a character we can’t help but root for because we’ve all felt, at some point, exactly as she does. Wearing a mask of cheery, insecure fragility, the actress has never been more mesmerizing. It’s a very special performance in a very special film.

Visibly influenced by vintage Woody Allen (predominantly Manhattan) and the French new wave, Baumbach thankfully tones down the snark that overwhelmed his last two efforts, Greenberg and Margot at the Wedding. And in doing so, he allows us to relate to the unconventional characters, achieving, in the process, something richer and more truthful. Frances Ha isn’t just witty and perceptive, it’s leaves you absolutely beaming.

The Heat: 3.5 out of 5
Frances Ha: 4.5 out of 5

*Originally published in BeatRoute Magazine.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Film Review - LORE and THE FLAT (VIFF 2012)

Arguably, no historical moment in time has proven more influential in cinema than the Nazi occupation of Europe during World War II. Horrifically unfolding during the early days of Hollywood’s game-changing Golden Age, this dark era has inspired several of the medium’s most intensely profound achievements, such as Shoah, Schindler’s List and Das Boot. It also continues to attract the attention of today’s artists who continue to both explore the human experience of living under the Third Reich and valiantly attempt to make sense of the utterly senseless.

Among the most exciting entries at last year’s 31st annual Vancouver Film Festival were two extremely personal works that sought to examine the lingering wounds felt by descendants grappling with complex ancestral ties to Nazism. While both films – Cate Shortland’s coming of age drama Lore and Arnon Goldfinger’s intimate family documentary The Flat – tackle the issue from very different perspectives, each provides a compelling and moving portrait of the struggle to make peace with the sins committed by loved ones. Neither picture provides easy answers. Rather, they leave us with tough, intriguing questions to chew on as we emerge from the theatre.

Lore, named after the resourceful teenage protagonist played by commanding newcomer Saskia Rosendahl, is the more stylish of the two; a haunting narrative of discovery cloaked in ominous, vaguely mystical Herzogian atmosphere, leisurely delivered through seemingly distant flickers of long ago memories. Charged with escorting her three siblings to distant Hamburg after her Nazi parents vanish in the wake of the Fuhrer’s defeat, the tough-edged Hitler Youth soon finds herself having to brave not just the chaos of the country – where violence, hysteria and rape are widespread – but her own internal struggle with her indoctrinated teachings as well. This exhausting trip is complicated by the appearance of a slightly threatening, mysterious traveller (Kai Malina – a little too male model-ish for the role), with tightly held secrets of his own.

Working from her own adaptation of Rachel Seiffert’s novel "The Dark Room," Australian director Shortland adds an impressionistic Malick-like touch to the proceedings, capturing the serene beauty and suffocating danger of the natural world. Almost post-apocalyptic in tone – appropriate, given that Lore and her charge’s secure world has completely disintegrated around them – there’s an omnipresent sense of dread to the picture’s defeated Germany, punctuated by the occasional suicide victim corpse or encounter with a imposing stranger. It’s an uncomfortable environment, damp, suffocating and gloomy, that subtly mirrors our heroine’s journey as she slowly crawls out from underneath the manipulative fog of Nazi ideology towards a new life at her grandmother’s cozy country farm some 500 miles away.

The movie often feels as aloof and matter of fact as its lead, drained of the sentimentality and melodrama one might expect from the material. Ultimately, Lore is s a quiet film of transformation; mapping a girl’s maturation into womanhood and a brainwashed puppet of the state’s slow development towards free-thinking independence. And when the wonderful final image comes, a small angry act of defiant destruction, it explodes with symbolism and hope for a better tomorrow.

By contrast, Israeli documentary The Flat may be more modest in construction and intent, yet it is nonetheless an engrossingly funny, touching and powerful chronicle of one man’s investigation into his own intentionally buried familial history - not to mention, one of the very best pictures of 2012. The film opens with Goldfinger and his extended relations preparing his grandmother’s Tel Aviv flat for sale shortly after her passing, cheerfully reminiscing as they go about navigating the mundanities of dismantling the physical space she so lovingly created. Things take a turn for the unexpected, however, when our narrator discovers a Nazi propaganda newspaper featuring photos of his grandparents with the article’s author Baron Leopold von Mildenstein, a pro-Zionist Nazi, and his wife. Following the disconcerting trail of crumbs, Goldfinger travels to Germany to meet with von Mildenstein’s accommodating daughter Edda, who isn’t quite as interested in the potential implications of their two relatives’ relationship.

 To reveal any more of The Flat would be a disservice, as the real pleasure of the picture is watching the pieces of the puzzle gradually come together, and how each of the participants in the documentary (Goldfinger’s mother and Edda’s husband also feature prominently) deals with the information. One of the most admirable strengths of the film is how even-handed it is in portraying its participants; it likes them, regardless of their personal stance, and wholeheartedly respects their emotional stakes in the matter. And in Goldfinger’s interactions with them, there’s so much warmth, intelligence and good humour that it’s a joy merely to spend time in Edda’s comfy, cluttered suburban house or Grandma Tuchler’s refined former apartment.

Of course, there is indeed a bombshell to be dropped, and Goldfinger, to his credit, seems more troubled to be doing the deed than gleeful. He’s not a showman or a condemning judge. His sole concern is wrapping his head around why his loved one made the choices in life she did. And he raises fascinating points regarding the generational disparity in how WWII is acknowledged, with older Germans programmed to not ask questions while their modern offspring thirst for answers. Perhaps The Flat’s most resonant message, though, is that the responsibility of the individual is not necessarily to understand or forgive their ancestor’s transgressions, but rather to accept that they indeed happened.

Lore: 4 out of 5
The Flat: 5 out of 5

*Originally published in Converge Magazine.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Film Review - WORLD WAR Z

Aimless, clumsy and held loosely together by ropes of superficial flesh and weak storytelling muscle, World War Z is a disappointingly inconsequential entry in the oft-fertile zombie sub-genre. Lacking the rich socially conscious themes that fuelled the greatest undead entries – 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and George Romero’s first few Living Dead installments – this liberal cinematic adaptation of Max Brooks’ popular novel is a plodding, stitched-together patchwork of half-baked ideas, unfinished CG and frantically-shot, bloodless chaos. It plays like a run-of-the-mill zombie b-movie that’s been aggressively over-edited for network television.

Beleaguered by tumultuous production woes – including a totally reshot last act reworked by Damon Lindelof (Lost) and Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods) – director Marc Forster’s budget-busting blockbuster starts reasonably strong, with former U.N. investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt playing, more or less, himself) and his family uprooted after a sudden biological outbreak in Philadelphia. Cars slam into one another, buildings explode and infected civilians spasm on the streets like epileptic break-dancers as the clan desperately flee the city-wide pandemonium. After being taken into government safe-keeping, the suddenly invaluable Gerry is ordered to travel the globe, visiting locales such as South Korea, Jerusalem and Wales, in search of the elusive "patient zero."

There’s a kernel of an interesting movie at the heart of World War Z – how do differing cultures and religions perceive zombie invasions? – but Forster is more fixated on delivering dumb spectacle than smart commentary. The central plot – penned by Matthew Michael Carnahan (State of Play) – simply features Pitt repetitively location-hopping in order to meet nameless non-entities (David Morse and James Badge Dale among them) who spout exposition reminding us that this plague is, indeed, not so hot for humanity. He also endures clashes with the undead. Some are modestly effective, including a small-scale science lab set-piece (awkward Pepsi commercial break notwithstanding), whereas the big money moments, such as the heavily-advertised wall-climbing horde, look too phony to be scary. More troubling is the fact Forster, who notoriously butchered Bondian action in Quantum of Solace, takes a similarly fractured approach to monster attacks, fast-cutting them to the point of disorienting disarray. Add on murky 3D and you have yourself a feature-length cataract simulator!

Because we have no well-rounded characters to root for, and the story’s a shambles, the picture is drained of tension. The zombies have a nifty avian physicality, and their cooperative drone mentality is fun, yet their abilities are wildly inconsistent. One second they’re downing a helicopter, the next Pitt is trying to thwart them with a blockade of baggage. Plus, by now we’ve seen these creatures done well so many times that lazily mechanical PG-13 bedlam just doesn’t cut it.

And that’s World War Z’s major undoing; it yearns to generate unease and visceral terror, albeit subdued for mass audience consumption. Unlike, say, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds or Soderbergh’s Contagion (also both PG-13-rated), the threat never cuts to the bone or haunts us. Rather, it shuffles perfunctorily along, short on imagination and intelligence, fighting dimly in vain to generate a flicker of a pulse.     

2 out of 5

*Originally published at BeatRoute Magazine.

Thursday, June 06, 2013


What’s become of Vince Vaughn? That once great, lumbering huckster motormouth, whose inspired rat-a-tat-tat stream-of-consciousness verbal diarrhea propelled hits like The Wedding Crashers and Swingers? I sincerely miss that Vaughn, because there’s little endearing about watching him transform into a hollow corporate shill. As if the 2012 alien invader Costco commercial The Watch wasn’t bad enough, he’s back with The Internship, a weary “comic” tribute to the infinite wonders of Google. And he’s even dragged along his wedding crashing buddy Owen Wilson for company! Shameless. Just shameless.

Co-written and produced by the lanky star, The Internship is a stale trudge through the dustiest tropes in Comedy Land. Both a fish-out-of-water yarn and an Animal House-style Nerds vs. Jocks underdog story, the film casts Vaughn and Wilson as over-confident salesmen who find themselves tossed out on their asses after their small-time outfit collapses. Computer-illiterate and without job skills, the duo inexplicably snag intern spots at almighty Google after one wildly disastrous video conference interview. Assigned to a group with four other misfits — the cynical kid who hates everything (Dylan O’Brien), the hyper-anxious Asian boy with severe mommy issues (Tobit Raphael), the white nerd who acts gangsta (Josh Brener) and the sexy girl who’s more innocent than she acts (Tiya Sircar) — the guys must undergo a grueling series of team challenges (Quidditch included) with only a precious handful of jobs awaiting the champions.

The dusty screenplay for The Internship, co-written by Jared Stern, feels a decade old (neither lead understands the term “online”) and has zero surprises up its sleeves as it lazily meanders through clichés we’ve seen done better elsewhere. The cute-but-icy female romantic interest (Rose Byrne) who refuses to date Wilson? A life-changing trip to a strip club where the most introverted team-member goes drunken loco? How about a huge public comeuppance for our heroes’ cartoonishly sadistic nemesis (Max Minghella)?

In clever hands, these chestnuts might be more effective, however, under the eye of directorial gun-for-hire Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Real Steel), The Internship has no energy, no sense of urgency. It’s as safe and lethargically middle-of-the-road stupid as a Happy Madison production, only with 10 times the product placement. Incessant Google business aside – all of the company’s accomplishments is exhaustively catalogued – the film also crowbars in multiple awkward X-Men references. Why, you ask? Probably because the studio, 20th Century Fox, is releasing The Wolverine next month (Huzza for cross-promotion!).

Damned as the whole enterprise is, Vaughn and Wilson are still an engaging team and manage some amusing riffing. The picture is not devoid of very mild laughs (Wilson’s date with Byrne features some fun banter, and Vaughn’s countless Flashdance metaphors earn smiles). Yet, it’d likely be more entertaining to watch two hours of these actors improv-ing in front of a sheet than to sit through this crass, opportunistic exercise in brand-brainwashing. It’s a criminal waste of time, for the talent and the audience. In fact, The Internship is so dumbly condescending in its intentions that you may even – crazy as it sounds – find yourself debating whether to give Bing another chance.

1.5 out of 5

*Originally published at BeatRoute Magazine.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Film Review - NOW YOU SEE ME

“The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.”
 - Christian Bale, The Prestige.

In his captivating, noir-tinged 2006 dueling illusionists tale, Christopher Nolan touched upon an essential truth about both the art of magic and cinema that’s beautifully expressed in the above quote. Essentially, that film argued that, though audiences yearn to be surprised and astonished, learning the methods behind the manipulation only leaves them feeling unsatisfied. Further, the skills and technique – no matter how clever - are ultimately meaningless if the act isn’t up to snuff.

Such is the case with Now You See Me, director Louis Leterrier’s lively-but-disappointing magic-themed caper thriller, which brings boundless energy and Hollywood flash-and-dazzle to a fairly unspectacular show. You certainly can’t blame the gimmick – a quartet of illusionists pulling off impossible crimes while being pursued by the law – because it’s a damn neat hook. No, the problem here is that, for all of the convoluted cinematic sleight-of-hand hijinx, we’re never transported anywhere particularly new or awesome. And when the curtain finally falls, and all cards are revealed, we’re left a little deflated, asking ourselves “is that all?” Yes… Yes it is, folks.

At the very least, Now You See Me does start off strongly, with its team of talented tricksters – Jesse Eisenberg’s arrogant big timer, Woody Harrelson’s blackmailing mentalist, Isla Fisher’s up-and-coming escape artist and Dave Franco’s scrappy street magician – assembled for mysterious reasons and tasked with committing incredible feats of remarkable showmanship. Blowing up into a hot headlining act almost overnight, the newly dubbed Four Horsemen brashly grab the world’s attention after they inexplicably rob a Parisian bank as part of their MGM Grand performance in Las Vegas. This audacious exploit sends the FBI into action, who put tough-talking agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and his French Interpol liaison Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) on the case. Aided by notorious illusion-debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), the partners quickly find themselves running in circles, lost in a web of disorienting misdirection and mind-boggling endeavors.

Any twist-oriented picture demands a tightly written screenplay, otherwise the needlessly overcomplicated plot strands pile up like a rush hour car wreck. The narrative spine of Now You See Me, penned by Ed Solomon (Men In Black), Boaz Yakin (Prince of Persia: The Sands Of Time) and first-timer Edward Ricourt, is something of a mess, robbing interesting personalities of dimension and meandering when it should be laser-focused. Worse, it attempts to explain away its many logical gaps, utterly unrealistic (CG-aided) stage illusions and character deficiencies by waving its hand over the viewer’s eyes and declaring that nothing has to make sense because magic is involved. Which is just plain lazy.

And, yet, for all of Now You See Me’s stumblings, it’s hard not to admire the crackling, playful pulse generated by helmer Leterrier. Having proven himself capable of crafting stylish, fun B-movies (The Incredible Hulk, The Transporter and Unleashed speak to his strengths, 2010’s Clash of the Titans most certainly does not), the director’s fast-paced Ocean’s Eleven-like vibe is the film’s best weapon. This is shaggy material, but he does everything he can to jolt it to life. The second half of the picture gradually defeats him, however he still manages to go down swinging.

Leterrier has great collaborators in his attention-grabbing cast. Our avatar down this rabbit hole, Ruffalo, does cynical affability better than almost anyone, and his pithy worldliness is nicely contrasted against Laurent’s cheerful childlike sense of wonder. Freeman is a wily treat and it’s always a blast to see Michael Caine, as the criminals’ financial backer, in greedy bastard mode. The Four Horsemen – as unfortunately underdeveloped as they are – are intriguing creations, and enjoyable to watch bounce off one another. Eisenberg remixes his Mark Zuckerberg performance with an added layer of celebrity egomania to potent effect, and Harrelson delivers another of his lovable rascal turns. Fisher and Franco have less to do, although each is given an amusing moment or two (Franco’s trick-infused tussle with Ruffalo is a highlight). All that said, the group does fall short at playing convincing stage performers, lacking the storytelling brilliance and charisma exemplified by authentic superstars such as David Copperfield, Criss Angel or Penn & Teller. They behave more like hopped-up cheerleaders.

Intermittently engaging, and not without the odd burst of charm, the movie comes oh-so-close to working that its inability to do so chafes that much more. Given the concept and cast, this could have been a glossy, cool crowd-pleaser. Now You See Me, at the end of the day, is merely an empty, pretty diversion, vanishing from the recesses of the mind faster than one can even exclaim “Presto!”

2.5 out of 5

*Originally published at BeatRoute Magazine.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Film Review - FAST & FURIOUS 6

The Fast and the Furious franchise is the rarest of cinematic beasts: a series that’s miraculously improving beyond the halfway marker to double-digit sequels. 2011’s Fast Five was easily the best entry – a propulsive party movie packed with incredible stunts and larger than life performances – and handily replenished the property’s sputtering fuel tanks. This latest installment, Fast & Furious 6 (or, according to credits, Furious 6) doesn’t quite match the inspired craziness of its predecessor, though it’s still a gloriously dopey spectacle that won’t disappoint the die hards and may provoke an appreciative “WHOA!” or two.

The key to Fast’s longevity is its body snatcher-like propensity for swapping genre models with each passing film. Having already offered B-movie variations on Point Break, Miami Vice, The Karate Kid and Ocean’s Eleven, Furious 6 goes full-on Mission: Impossible/A-Team, transforming Vin Diesel’s gang of road-ripping rogues into heroic, resourceful do-gooders-for-hire. It’s an inevitable creative choice, really. Nevertheless, it works.

Picking up shortly after the last picture, Dominic Toretto (Diesel), Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) et al. are filthy rich and living it up in Spain, wanted fugitives in their homeland US of A. Enter hulking Interpol agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson); seems an international criminal named Shaw (Luke Evans) is building a super-weapon capable of knocking out military electronics (or something like that – it’s vaguely defined), and he’s employing Dom’s lost love Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), thought dead since 2009’s Fast & Furious. Offered full pardons for their voluminous past misdeeds, the gang heads to London to chase down the ruthless criminal and return their former friend to the fold.

As has classically been the case, the screenplay - by regular series scribe Chris Morgan – is mostly a nonsensical clothesline for huge action sequences and barn-door-broad humour (there’s a running gag about comic relief Tyrese Gibson’s big forehead that dies on-screen every time). However, under the stylish eye of returning helmer Justin Lin, Furious 6 hums with colorful, goofy energy and big-time rousing high speed car-nage. Although he never tops his safe-swinging Fast Five finale, Lin stages two extended set-pieces – one involving a tank, the other a huge cargo plane – that reach apex after apex, constantly offering new absurd reasons to applaud. And, while the middle section of the movie meanders a bit, the helmer does a fantastic job juggling his ensemble cast (take note Star Trek into Darkness) and making their interactions lively and light.

These are not actor’s films, yet the amiable cast is invaluable in investing us in the preposterousness. Diesel’s moody outlaw philosophizing, Johnson’s sweaty intensity and Walker’s, uh, Walkerness ground Furious 6, while endearing supporting characters like Sung Kang’s Han, Ludacris’s Tej and Gibson’s doltish Roman inject much-appreciated charisma. Rodriguez has her tough girl act down cold, and shares a killer fight scene with Haywire’s Gina Carano (a tough, sexy physical presence who looks like an awkward contest winner in dialogue scenes).

Chances are, this far into the series, you know whether this flick is for you or not. Fair enough. Furious 6 is unlikely to change opinions of the franchise, but it offers the requisite empty-calorie thrills and macho camp you’ve come to expect. And, as far as summer blockbusters go, this one guns its engines with confidence and a big dumb grin.

3 out of 5

*Originally published at BeatRoute Magazine.

Film Review - MUD

There are few sensations more exhilarating for a cinema lover than the discovery of a bold, exciting new talent. With 2011’s haunting apocalyptic supernatural thriller/character study Take Shelter, writer/director Jeff Nichols proved himself a storyteller capable of masterful subtlety, atmosphere and profoundly impactful raw human emotion. It was a dark, ominous picture that wrapped itself tightly around your brain and refused to let go, inspiring multiple interpretations and analysis. In short, it was one hell of a film!

And now, with his latest, the Southern Gothic-tinged coming-of-age tale Mud, Nichols manages to wondrously outdo himself. A poignant, powerful examination of friendship and loss of innocence, this captivating effort – which brings to mind Clint Eastwood’s criminally forgotten 1993 work A Perfect World - solidifies the helmer as one of the most promising emerging American film voices. This movie is a treasure.

Mud stars Tye Sheridan as Ellis, a curious and strong-willed adolescent Arkansas boy whose comfortable world is nearing tumultuous upheaval. His parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are on the verge of divorce, which would yank him away from both his cherished Mississippi river-situated home and scrappy best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), and he’s awkwardly on the verge of romantic involvements with the opposite sex. During a secret journey to a nearby island to visit a mysterious tree-lodged boat, he encounters the enigmatic, vaguely threatening homeless title figure, played by Matthew McConaughey, who persuades the two boys to bring him food and run letters to his troubled girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon). In this shifty stranger, the troubled Ellis sees an idealized reflection of his own naïve feelings of masculinity, chivalry and pure, simplified love, and becomes entranced by him, leading to a bond that becomes dangerously complicated – once Mud’s true secrets come to light – and forever changes both men for the better.

Nichols’ stages this tricky material with minimal stylistic fuss and a keen insight into teenage male psychology and their limited emotional intelligence, bringing a true naturalistic tone to the picture and Ellis’s arc. Buoyed by fantastic turns from Sheridan and McConaughey (who brilliantly continues his fascinating transformation from bland hunk-for-hire into top-rate character actor), Mud paints an immersive, layered world, populated by intriguing side-players, such as Sam Shephard’s ornery neighbor, Paul Sparks’ vicious bounty hunter or Michael Shannon’s wacky scuba-diving uncle. Through it all, these people feel like real people, with dreams, weaknesses and inner-strengths, and it’s a joy to merely bask in their company, leisurely taking it all in. Frankly, I would have happily watched them go about their lives for another hour or so.

Make no mistake, though, Mud is also frequently gripping and tension-filled. Mixing in recognizable thriller and film noir tropes, Nichols skillfully weaves a snake-like thread of authentic menace throughout, raising the stakes over the course of the picture. We can always sense something bad just around the corner but, because we’re so invested in the personalities involved, we anticipate the impending revelation with anxiety, not eagerness. 

 The first legitimately great picture of 2013, Mud, akin to Malick’s The Tree of Life, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows or Spielberg’s E.T. before it, implicitly understands the complications of dawning male maturity, and wraps its honest truths in a riveting tapestry of perceptive cinematic beauty. If there’s one drawback to this endlessly rewarding film, it’s that it leaves you with an irresistible urge to see what Nichols has up his sleeve for next time. One’s things for certain: coming off this picture, the sky in the limit.

5 out of 5

*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.   

Friday, May 17, 2013

Film Review - PAIN AND GAIN

Despite years spent devolving into parody, there was always a sliver of hope that, given strong material, Michael Bay was capable of proving himself more than just a shallow exploiter of explosions. Alas, that optimism dies hard with Pain and Gain, a stupid, unpleasant and tedious patchwork consisting of all the director’s most mean-spirited and gaudy fixations, including rampant misogyny and homophobia, toilet humor and distastefully-portrayed violence, blown up to hideous new heights. And the worst part? The potential was here for something genuinely clever and cool! All it needed was competent hands to guide it.

Inspired by a real-life Florida case, Pain and Gain stars Mark Wahlberg as Miami Beach local Daniel Lugo, a sociopathic personal trainer who sees his ripped physique as an embodiment of the American dream and yearns for more. After attending a seminar by an infomercial huckster, Lugo is transformed into a “doer,” and recruits two of his gym buddies – ex-con Jesus freak Paul (Dwayne Johnson) and sexually dysfunctional steroid case Adrian (Anthony Mackie) – to bilk crooked entrepreneur Tony Shalhoub out of his millions. Kidnapping and torturing him, the trio experience short-term success, but it isn’t long before ugly unexpected complications rear their unwanted heads.

The strangeness of this story is undeniably intriguing; however Bay – working from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America) – cuts the film’s legs out almost immediately by blowing its main “based on true events” conceit. There’s no believable reality in Pain and Gain; it’s a garish world populated by grotesque caricatures, where busty, slutted-up Maxim models constantly linger in the background and everything glistens with artificial music video sheen. With Fargo – the director’s oft-mentioned influence – the Coen brothers slyly inserted the “true story” tag as a dry joke to convince the viewer the not-totally-unbelievable insanity actually transpired. Here – where that promise is actually authentic! – the helmer fumbles the gimmick by creating a effort that doesn’t support it.

This tonal miscalculation wouldn’t be so bothersome if the movie entertained. Yet it doesn’t. Great black comedy requires a light touch and sophisticated edge the director doesn’t grasp. Pain and Gain is lumbering and meandering (it runs over two hours), effectively killing all comic momentum. The humor rarely transcends the Bay standard – an explosive diarrhea sight gag got the biggest laugh at my screening – and nets more misses than hits. Unlike Spring Breakers, which weaved a similar tale while skillfully ridiculing its heroes, this film’s stabs at incisive self-awareness are undercut by its dumb sledgehammer obviousness and obnoxious crassness.

The actors (futilely) do their best to right the capsizing ship. Wahlberg has actually rarely been better – there’s definitely some Diggler DNA in Lugo – and him, Johnson and Mackie make a decent touched-in-the-head team. Chasing them, Shalhoub is hyper-sleaze personified and a terse Ed Harris, as a P.I., is the only character who seems human. In a fairly thankless role, Rebel Wilson is funny and oddly sweet as Mackie’s lusty nurse girlfriend.

It’s sad to see so much visibly-engaged talent wasted on a misguided passion project this mind-numbing. Collapsing under the crushing weight of its own botched crazy ambitions, Pain and Gain leaves only a weird, visually dynamic shell devoid of emotion, tension or depth. And again we’re left wondering if Bay, an obviously gifted stylist, will ever conjure up a picture that brings as much brain to the table as brawn. On the evidence of this effort, it’s probably wise not to hold our collective breaths.

1.5 out of 5

*Originally published at BeatRoute Magazine.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


It takes balls to make a film that takes disapproving aim at an entire generation. But it takes even bigger balls to fashion one that cleverly disguises itself as an empowerment message for those it’s so visibly perturbed by. Such is the case with Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, a chaotic, pulsing napalm bomb of disdain and awe that stares curiously into the hyper-sexed, hard-partying soul of Generation Y America and finds only superficiality and apathy. This is cinema as incisive, subversive social criticism, clad in slutty exploitation clothing and scored to Skrillex.

Following a numbing near-pornographic opening credit sequence of hedonistic beach bash debauchery, Spring Breakers introduces a quartet of vacuous nubile college students – Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens and Rachel Korine - who yearn only for escape from the tedium of their existence. Financially strapped, the girls turn to armed robbery for cash and book it to Florida, where they become entrenched in the booze-soaked reverie of the annual festivities. Fate takes a turn for the weird, however, when a drug bust inadvertently draws them into the realm of Alien (James Franco), a grilled and blinged-out rapper/gangster with dreams of moving up in the underworld. Soon, the bikini babes are donning ski masks and packing shotguns, giddily intent on living the thug life, the hell with repercussions!

A provocateur from day one, when he penned Larry Clark’s Kids at the age of 19, Korine isn’t a particularly subtle filmmaker (the male gaze is cranked up to intentionally creepy extremes here), yet he is a fearless one. Trapping the audience in his female protagonists’ warped, stunted headspace, he subjects us to their banal thoughts, which are often drearily repetitive, disconnected from reality (“Pretend it’s a video game or a movie!”) or amoral. One sequence features a voice over from Gomez’s Faith – the one sorta-good-girl in the group – wherein she describes the “spiritual” experience she’s having in un-self-aware, trite drivel. Today’s entitled American youth, the director seems to argue, lack imagination and insight, and share no contemporary artistic common ground profounder than Britney Spears (whose auto-tuned anthems feature in two key scenes).

If the film is intriguing in its first half, it becomes utterly entrancing once Franco’s Alien commands center stage. Visually repulsive, slurring his words through a stoned drawl, he’s a true darkly comic original; a societal outcast with a tragic backstory (determining whether its fiction or not is part of the fun) who learned everything he knew from his black crime boss friend (Gucci Mane). Rejoicing in his cliché material possessions – including nunchuks, guns and TVs that play Scarface (of course) on a loop – he’s a clown in wolf’s clothing, unprepared for his new charges’ dangerous detachment from reality. Franco masterfully disappears into the flashy role, and Spring Breakers ignites every time he’s free to cut loose and do his thang.

Korine hasn’t created an easily digestible work here. This is a picture destined to be misinterpreted, ridiculed and dismissed by many. But those tuned into its queasy wavelength will discover likely one of 2013’s most remarkable efforts; a movie that dares you to revel in its gaudy orgy of bad behavior while slyly flipping off those who would do just that. Spring Breakers lives boldly in the moment, and mournfully shakes its head for the future.

4 out of 5

*Originally published in BeatRoute Magazine.


There’s one sequence in G.I. Joe: Retaliation that exemplifies exactly what a decent G.I. Joe movie should be. Brave ass-kicking good guys Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Jinx (Elodie Yung) have kidnapped Cobra baddie Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) from a mountain lair and, during their rapid descent, are pursued by a squadron of katana-wielding ninjas decked out in matching crimson outfits. Racing across the snowy, craggy terrain via zip-line, swords slash flesh, body parts pound into jagged rock, and casualties plummet helplessly into the ominous foggy abyss. Played entirely in tense silence, this fast and furious set-piece is pure popcorn silliness; comic-booky in the best way and filled with fun little bursts of giddy imagination.

Alas, rather than construct an energetic story around these ten cool minutes, director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 3D, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never) and Zombieland screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick use it as a crutch to prop up one of the most embarrassing examples of fan-film moviemaking in recent memory. Cutting loose most of the material established in Stephen Sommers’ campy 2009 guilty pleasure Rise of Cobra, the trio has crafted a dumb, convoluted adaptation of the 1980s animated show/toy commercial that’s short on thrills, laughs or surprise, yet brimming with pandering shout outs. Want to see a Cobra H.I.S.S. tank realized (and blown up) on screen? You’re in luck! Looking for memorable characters or crazy over-the-top combat? Best search elsewhere.
Picking up shortly after the tragic Nano-mite War depicted in Rise of Cobra, Retaliation finds Duke (Channing Tatum), Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) and co. tracking down nuclear warheads in Pakistan, at the order of counterfeit U.S. president Jonathan Pryce (who is being impersonated by sinister master of disguise Zartan). However, shortly after completing their assignment, the fighting force is ambushed by Cobra forces and almost entirely wiped out. Only Roadblock, Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (personality vacuum D.J. Cotrona) remain, forced to go underground and scout out a means of taking down their country’s imposter leader and the newly freed Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey). They’re aided in their top-secret operation by General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis), the original Real American Hero, and ninja warriors Snake Eyes and Jinx – who have their own mystery to unravel regarding the murder of the former’s beloved sensei.

Drastically scaled back from the mega-budget excesses of its predecessor, Retaliation aims for a more realistic vibe - the Joes use actual ammunition, as opposed to lasers, and real world political events are referenced - while nonetheless packing in ludicrous nonsense like explosive lightning bugs and a sci-fi-ish subterranean prison fortress that apparently houses only two convicts. The clashing tones don’t work. Just when we’re starting to chuckle – as when RZA pops up as Blind Master, spouting hilarious ninja lore jibberish – the picture retreats back to the mundane. There are an extraordinary number of scenes of characters hanging out in nondescript locations spouting mind-numbing exposition at one another. Fine, if it were well written, but the dialogue here rarely rises above wretched. Even the comedic banter (“’Prepare for extraction?’ What are we? Teeth?!”) is cringe-inducing.

While the original cartoon may not have been high art, it could be at least counted on to supply plenty of engaging larger-than-life personalities. Retaliation’s greatest failing is that no one on-screen is very charismatic or interesting. Sure, Johnson is enjoyable. However, this says more about his inherent likeability as an actor than the project (for further current evidence of this phenomenon see exhibit B: Snitch). Tatum and fan fave Snake Eyes are sadly underutilized, while newcomers Flint, Mouse (Joseph Mazzello) and Jaye - who spends most of the film in various states of undress - are woefully vanilla. And the less said about Willis’s paycheck appearance, the better. It’s highly probable defibrillator paddles were needed to jolt him to life each day on set. Even bitchy old Cobra Commander disappoints - a killer costume in search of an identity. Only an eye-poppingly possessed Pryce and Ray Stevenson (using a bizarro southern gentleman drawl as the assassin Firefly) seem to understand what kind of movie they’re in and revel in the absurdity.

All might be forgiven, had the film delivered on the action front but, aside from the aforementioned vertiginous dust-up, Chu comes up woefully short at crafting memorable battles. The shootouts are generically staged, free of excitement, and the physical clashes are a sad continuation of the current shaky-cam/spastic editing trend. It’s a sign of Retaliation’s incompetence that it even manages to make the climactic sight of Johnson decimating Cobra minions in a heavy-duty one-man tank boring.
It’s frustrating how unremarkable G.I. Joe: Retaliation truly is. The flick doesn’t even manage to suck on the amazing level of its other foul Hasbro cinematic brethren Battleship or the Transformers trilogy. No, this is a nothing movie; a soulless corporate product that aspires only to keep the brand name in the public consciousness another couple years. Mission accomplished, I guess. Hoorah.

1.5 out of 5

*Originally published at BeatRoute Magazine.  


Had Steven Seagal not collapsed so spectacularly into the parodic fat Elvis phase of his career a couple decades ago, Olympus Has Fallen might have wound up being a really kickass Under Siege threequel. For here is one of the most ludicrous, straight-faced entries in the “Die-Hard-in-a-[Insert Confined Location Here]” action subgenre in years; an absurd throwback to ’90s kill-em-all extravaganzas that honors its forebears while still being a really solid, memorable formula entry. No cheesy fourth-wall-breaking winks or sad attempts to nab the youth market (*cough* The Expendables *cough*), just two hours of skillful hard-R carnage, pyrotechnics and irresponsible ultraviolence. Thank the movie gods for minor miracles.

Beefy, hulking Gerard Butler confidently occupies the eye of Olympus’ hurricane, playing Mike Banning, a top-notch Presidential guard (“He moves mountains or dies trying!”) relocated to the Treasury Department after a tragic nighttime accident on an icy bridge. However, he abruptly proves to be the country’s only hope when President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) is taken hostage by a North Korean extremist icily played by Rick Yune. Conveniently trapped alone in the terrorist-ruled White House, Banning stealthily begins picking off adversaries, intent on protecting the President’s son (Finley Jacobsen) and liberating his former boss. He’s aided from afar by Speaker of the House Morgan Freeman, who understands the full magnitude of the arch-villain’s cataclysmic plot against America’s fair people.

Eschewing the tedious shaky-cam/rapid fire-editing aesthetic that has plagued contemporary action films, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter) goes for a more classic feel, conveying his considerable mayhem in relatively clean, comprehensible shots. Dodgy CG aside – there is a really cruddy-looking plane crash early on – the action in Olympus feels refreshingly old school, with a good handle on geography and cause and effect. It’s also exciting! And the violence is brutal and impactful (critics who fretted over Zero Dark Thirty’s portrayal of torture may have an aneurism watching Banning interrogate two bound-and-gagged goons). The script, by newcomers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, won’t win any awards for its clunky dialogue or logic, but there’s genuine rising tension; the more things go wrong, the more we’re pulled in and the climax doesn’t disappoint.

As a tough-guy hero, Butler isn’t one of our more charismatic stars. That said, his terse delivery and blunt force physicality serve him quite well here. He’s a dependable lead, with a few choice quips, who we believe is capable of stopping a small army single-handed. Offering strong support is Eckhart, as the resilient, iron-willed commander-in-chief, and Dylan McDermott, demonstrating amusingly snaky attitude as an aging Secret Service man. Freeman, Angela Bassett and Robert Forster cash paychecks with admirable gravitas as Banning’s top-rank advisors, while a gutsy, electric Melissa Leo – seemingly unaware that she’s acting in a big, dumb B-movie – compellingly endures horrific trauma as the captive Secretary of Defense. Look no further for a portrait of true professionalism, folks!

Silly and energetic, this picture should make for a great opening-weekend crowd experience, where its unironic blend of overkill, cornball flag-waving and endearing over-earnestness guarantees to produce no shortage of laughs and fist-pumping enthusiasm. It’s often easy to dismiss films like this, but Fuqua has crafted a fun shoot ‘em up and it’s worth recognizing a job done pretty damn well. Now, will someone please get started on the inevitable (and welcome) sequel, Olympus Has Fallen Harder?

3.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.