Review: Black Sea

black sea jude law movie poster one sheetThe British indie film Black Sea is just as much about class relationships , corporations versus individuals and language and cultural barriers as it is a gripping, claustrophobic submarine drama. It’s also really good, with splendid performances and engaging visuals.

Robinson (Jude Law) has been a submarine captain for the last thirty years, and when his most recent employer, an underwater salvage company, lets him go with a paltry severance and no prospects, it’s a hard blow for a man who decries “I even sacrificed my family for this job”. His friends in the unnamed British port city have also fallen on hard times, and they commiserate over a round of beer at the local pub.

When a mate tells them that the company found a sunken U-Boat from WWII that’s full of gold and only 100 meters below the surface of the Black Sea, Robinson gets very interested. His friend Daniels (Scoot McNairy) sets up a meeting with a shady benefactor who agrees to fund the illegal salvage operation in return for 40% of any gold salvaged.

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Review: Outcast

outcast movie 2015 nic cage hayden christensen poster one sheetThere’s a certain style of storytelling in a Chinese historical film that requires Western viewers to adjust their perspective and expectations just a bit. A bit of the mythic, an exaggeration for moral and ethical effect, and battles that are always epic and heroes who stagger on and fight until the very end, pulling arrows out of their torso and daring their opponent to stick them with another sword because one wasn’t enough to stop their righteous fury.

Viewed through this lens, the new Chinese / Canadian / US production Outcast is a light, enjoyable Chinese tale of heirs fighting for the throne. The additional wrinkle in the film that makes it more interesting is that the Crusades are also woven into the story as an explanation for the presence of Western warriors in the kingdom.

The film opens up with the Europeans fighting the Saracen for an unnamed Middle Eastern city, with Christians Jacob (Hayden Christensen) and Gallain (Nicolas Cage) both making names for themselves through their courage and ferocity, but also being appalled by the senseless violence and death. Subsequent to these well-filmed action scenes, they each reject a return to the West and instead head to the Far East, to China.

A few years later in China, a family patriarch and king is dying. He tells his younger son, Mei (Ji Ke Jun) that it’s he that should inherit the crown and rule their lands. Problem is, older brother Shing (Andy On) has fought battles for the family for many years, and is convinced he should rule and become the new king when the father dies.

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Review: Jupiter Ascending

jupiter ascending channing tatum mila kunis one sheet movie posterAndy and Lana Wachowski haven’t been able to match the brilliance of their cultural touchstone movie The Matrix with anything else they’ve done. Not with the increasingly banal sequels to the film, and certainly not with the visual f/x abomination Speed Racer. The recent Cloud Atlas was their closest effort, a thoughtful, engaging but ultimately overreaching film based on a twisty book by David Mitchell. Into this troubled oeuvre comes their latest movie, Jupiter Ascending, a science fiction film with epic intentions. And it’s not bad.

The story revolves around Russian emigre Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), whose father is inexplicably killed by Russian mobsters before she’s even born. He was an astronomer fascinated with the wonder of the heavens, particularly the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter. As with all great dramas, Jupiter is more than she realizes and in a nod to both Harry Potter and Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy, she turns out to be a quite important person in the intergalactic world: She is an exact DNA match to the queen of the House of Abrasax. this means she’s darn important in the order of things, to the manipulative delight of the three heads of the House, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton).

The rough-around-the-edges hero of Jupiter Ascending is Caine Wise (Channing Tatum channelling his inner Wolverine), a genetically engineered hunter who is Jupiter’s defender when she’s unexpectedly assaulted by weird shape-shifting aliens, then throughout the film as the action unfolds and their relationship blooms in a rather predictable way.

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Betting on the Academy Award for Best Picture

the gamblerThe lure of gambling is strong with some people, the desire to pit your predictive skills against someone else and defy the odds to pick the proverbial dark horse and cash in. There are tons of movies about it, including the recently released remake of The Gambler.

The slate of 2015 Academy Award nominees for Best Picture don’t include any directly about gambling, but on the other hand isn’t Whiplash about musical competitions that’ll define a career? And isn’t Birdman about a self-referential comeback play that redefines an actor’s life with great drama?

Both of those, succeeding big at your career, reinventing your life because of a great win, are the real lure of gambling, cinematic or otherwise. Not the “hey, I won $20 in the Super Bowl pool!” but “I nailed the spread and turned my $500 into $7500″ or “I just won $30k at the poker tournament!”, the life changing guesses, the understanding of the odds or even just plain old good luck. The horse race, the dogs, the football pool, the Friday night poker game, the college ladder.

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Review: Predestination

predestination movie ethan hawke sci-fi time travel one sheet poster reviewTime travel movies generally try to sidestep the fundamental paradox inherent in being able to go back in time: what if you change things and as a result aren’t born? You’ve seen the films where the family portrait slowly fades as one or more children are “unborn” (think Back to the Future), but still, most sci-fi films avoid the issue because it can undermine the sappy love story or whatever else is going on narratively.

Go back and read the original time travel story, Verne’s classic The Time Machine and you’ll see how he side-stepped the issue rather neatly. Verne’s the exception, however, and most scriptwriters are just stumped by the genre’s challenges.

But just as Chris Nolan’s brilliant film Inception took a deep dive into the temporal paradoxes associated with dreams and dreaming, so does the Spierig brothers’ new indie sci-fi film Predestination leap headlong into the greatest paradox associated with time travel: meeting your parents. With its quasi-steampunk sensibilities and nimble cuts between the 1940s, 70s and 80s, Predestination also has an ambience that’s very reminiscent of yet another brilliant sci-fi film: Gattica, perhaps with a bit of Dark City mixed in for mood.

Predestination revolves around the Temporal Agent known as “The Barkeep” (Ethan Hawke) who has been sent on a complicated set of journeys through the 20th Century to prevent an urban terrorist known as “The Fizzle Bomber” from killing thousands of people. His boss is the shadowy Mr. Robertson (Noah Taylor), who shows up in the most mysterious ways and directs The Barkeep to accomplish various unsavory tasks in different time periods, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Who is he and what are his motivations?

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Review: The Interview

the interview movie poster one sheetNo film has garnered as much controversy this year than the crass, sophomoric comedy The Interview, about American interview TV show host Dave Skylark (James Franco) being invited to North Korea to interview leader Kim Jung-Un (Randall Park), just be tasked by the CIA to assassinate Jung-Un. This is the film that almost wasn’t released: Production company Sony Films was allegedly hacked by North Koreans and warned not to release the film. They capitulated and five days prior to release announced the cancellation of the film. Then the day before Christmas — its scheduled release date — Sony announced that The Interview would be released both into theaters and through various video on demand channels, including Google Play and YouTube.

Unfortunately, it’s not worth the wait or drama. In fact, The Interview is a stupid movie that could have been amusing but ends up so stuck in the sophomoric, the worst of modern American humor that trades wit for drunken banter and sexual banter, that it’s quite forgettable.

The film starts by documenting the ten year, 1000 episode Dave Skylark Show, hosted by Skylark and produced by his best friend Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen). Rapoport bumps into a former classmate who’s now senior producer on 60 Minutes and that gets him thinking about serious journalism, so when Skylark bursts into his office to share that North Korean supreme leader Kim Jung-Un loves Big Bang Theory and The Dave Skylark Show, they contact the North Koreans to request an opportunity to interview Jung-Un.

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Review: Into the Woods

into the woods movie poster one sheet - frenchIt’s tricky to translate musicals onto the big screen for a modern audience, which is why we rarely see them at the local cineplex. Les Miserables was an exception and surprised a lot of people with its strong box office performance, but it’s hard to think about another recent live action musical that was worth watching.

Following its previous hit, the Disney musical Into the Woods is unsurprisingly similar to Les Miserables with its superb sets and star-studded cast. The biggest difference is that Into the Woods has a sly, twisted sense of humor about its source material that proves a great addition, turning this into one of the most delightful films of the year.

The story revolves around a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who are desperate to have a child but cannot conceive. They learn from the neighborhood evil witch (Meryl Streep) that he’s actually cursed to remain childless, the end of his family line, but if they can collect a set of magical totems by the next full moon that the witch can lift the curse. Maybe.

Interwoven into the story is the hapless Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of beanstalk fame, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and even an amusingly vain Prince Charming (Chris Pine).

You know the stories. Jack sells a cow to get magic beans, which grow into a massive beanstalk that he climbs to find treasure. Little Red Riding Hood stops by the baker to get treats for Granny in the woods, then encounters a strange and alarming Wolf (Johnny Depp) en route. She also bumps into Cinderella running away from the castle, pursued by Prince Charming and his brother, another prince (Billy Magnussen) who only has eyes for Rapunzel, who has to let down her golden hair because she’s trapped in a tower deep in the woods.

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Review: Nightcrawler

nightcrawler review one sheet posterThere’s always been a slightly uncomfortable relationship between the voyeuristic viewer and the pandering filmmaker, whether it’s highbrow cinema, big-budget television, crass pornography or the nightly TV news. During the Vietnam War, the great debate was whether to show the bodies of soldiers killed in the conflict on television, but in our collective zeal for that which is salacious we’ve made that question quaint and dated: now the modern TV news watchword is “if it bleeds, it leads.”

In Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a drifter, loser and petty thief, and when he stumbles into the voyeuristic world of independent video news stringers, he’s hooked. It’s perfect for his skills and strengths: he’s brilliant, manipulative, and completely amoral. Los Angeles TV news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) is the real villain of the film, however, as she exploits Bloom’s newfound fascination by buying and airing his most gruesome and grisly footage. Her only question before including it in the nightly news is “will we get sued?”

Nightcrawler is a dark film about the seamy underbelly of American culture that challenges us to look in the mirror and ask if we are part of the problem, if we are drawn to blood and hooked on fear, if we are the audience who watches the footage Bloom sells to Romina.

In its cynicism, Nightcrawler is similar to the HBO series The Newsroom, with its similarly dark view of the manipulation inherent in a system that must filter hundreds of stories to determine which should “lead” the show. We’d like to think that decision is predicated on what’s most important but there’s a certain inevitability that the final decision is frequently instead made based on ratings.

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Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies movie poster one sheetI’ll start out by assuring you that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is really good, a satisfying ending to director Peter Jackson’s trilogy of Hobbit movies. Smaug is vanquished, Bilbo returns to the Shire, and the dwarves emerge victorious from the epic battle between the forces of good, the forces of evil and the greed that Smaug’s massive gold horde produces in even the least covetous.

If you’ve read the book you already know the basics of the tale, a story far simpler than The Lord of the Rings trilogy. By splitting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit into a trilogy, Jackson created lots of space for narrative discourse, for new characters (like the wonderful Tauriel), and for side stories that create an even richer and more interesting Middle Earth. All of this comes to fruition in The Battle of the Five Armies.

The second installment of The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug, ended with Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and the rest of the dwarves realizing they’ve failed to kill the monstrous dragon Smaug. He’s furious and is heading towards Laketown to wreak his terrible vengeance, even as Laketown resident Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), the man most likely to kill the dragon, is imprisoned and is forced to watch the destruction through the window of his cell.

Unlike the transition from the first film — An Unexpected Journey — to the second, the switch from #2 to The Battle of the Five Armies is remarkably seamless, picking up exactly where the second ends. Smaug must clearly be killed, but once he dies, word travels quickly through Middle Earth that his massive horde of gold and treasure is up for grabs.

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Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings

exodus gods and kings movie poster one sheetWhen it comes to back stories, there’s no work more frequently tapped than The Bible. A rich document with thousands of stories, it’s produced solid cinema, like 1956’s The Ten Commandments, 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, 1959’s terrific Ben-Hur, the silly fun of Life of Brian from 1979, and even daft reinterpretations like the recent Noah [read my review of Noah]. There’s something inherently epic about the mythic story of the origin of humanity, and the story of Exodus (from the Biblical book of the same name) has every element you’d want in a great drama.

Which is why it’s surprising how poorly director Ridley Scott did with Exodus: Gods and Kings.

In the spirit of the holidays, however, let’s start with what’s right: the look of the film is gorgeous and the visual effects are extraordinarily effective. Indeed, this is the first film where the plagues are portrayed in a horrific manner that helps propel the narrative forward and helps demonstrate how obstinate Pharaoh Rameses (Joel Edgerton) was as the God of Moses sends increasingly nasty creatures and events to the Kingdom of Egypt.

The death of the firstborn male child — a plague perhaps macabrely commemorated in the Jewish holiday of Passover — was particularly well portrayed as Rameses, a loving father to his young son, stands vigil over the boy’s bed just to fall asleep and awaken to his young corpse.

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