Review: ’71

71 movie poster one sheetYears of ceaseless tension between the Protestants and the Catholics in Ireland spawned “The Troubles”, as it was called, a name that doesn’t begin to suggest the horror of neighbor fighting neighbor in cities like Belfast, cities where an alleyway, or a courtyard between two apartment buildings served as the front lines.

Set in 1971 at the height of The Troubles, this riveting thriller follows young British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) as his squadron’s pulled out of basic training to head to Belfast as reinforcements for the troops already on the ground. He’s green and his only family back in Derbyshire is his little brother, who lives in a rather grim orphanage. Part of  the Parachute Regiment, Gary and his squad at first think Belfast is going to be an easy assignment when Catholic children ambush them with water balloons.

The tension skyrockets, however, when their next encounter with the locals is exacerbated by the civilian police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who viciously assault a woman in full view of the crowd. The RUC seek information from the woman, but they’re clearly just a bunch of jackbooted thugs enjoying their brutal work as the crowd gets increasingly restive. The situation soon explodes and after a young boy breaks the line and steals a rifle, Gary and his mate Thommo (Jack Lowden) are racing through the crowd on the shouted command of their CO. “Get that bloody gun!”

The riot continues to escalate and when the two soldiers reach the thief, they’re beaten by a half-dozen Catholic youth until a woman intervenes, saying “We’ve had enough for today, damn you!” But they haven’t, and when an IRA gunman walks up and calmly kills Thommo, Gary bolts rather than be next on the list.

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Review: The Gunman

the gunman movie poster one sheetIt’s no surprise that the blockbuster The Bourne Identity has inspired more than one subsequent tough guy action thriller. While The Gunman isn’t a complete rip-off, there are definitely a number of aspects of the story that are inspired by the exploits of Jason Bourne.

The title character of The Gunman is Jim Terrier (Sean Penn), a sniper who assassinates the Minister of Mining in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, and is then immediately whisked out of the country for his own protection. Problem is, he was in a relationship with Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a medical volunteer and part of a non-governmental relief organization and that’s a very ungraceful way to end things. He vanishes and she has no clue what’s happened, never hearing from him again. Fellow assassin Felix (Javier Bardem) has also fallen in love with Annie and it’s he who consoles her when Terrier vanishes from the DRC. Awkward.

Eight years later Terrier is back in the Congo on a relief project of his own helping drill water wells in the still impoverished nation when a hit squad targets him and violence ensues. It seems that all those years later the assassination squad is blown and Terrier’s life is at grave risk. He heads back to London, meets up with mate Stanley (Ray Winstone) and former squad leader Cox (Mark Rylance), where he learns that  Felix is now based in Barcelona and married to Annie.

The cat and mouse game begins in earnest from that point, with Felix the ambiguous, slightly off-kilter head of a global security firm and manipulative husband to Annie, who quickly accepts Terrier reappearing in her life. Is Cox clean? Can Stanley be trusted? And what of Interpol and its savvy operative DuPont (Idris Elba)?

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Review: Kumiko The Treasure Hunter

one sheet poster movie kumiko the treasure hunterIt’s hard to know where to start with a review of this extraordinary, depressing and intriguing Japanese film. At times it’s banal and trite, random and without coherence, and at other times it is a provocative essay on expectations, how our environment defines our life and the importance of having — and pursuing — our dreams, however crazy everyone else may think they are.

Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a young Office Lady who works at a soul-numbing bureaucracy somewhere in Tokyo. At 29 she’s not married, not dating, and lives in a tiny apartment where she consumes instant ramen out of a styrofoam cup and dreams of a better life. Except for when she’s so downcast and sad that it’s hard to even watch her on screen, let alone hope for her to find happiness. It’s a slice of urban Japanese life that will repel all but the most earnest fan of Japanese culture, a dismal existence that makes clear why Kumiko lives in a dreamlike state.

She sees herself as a modern day conquistador, an explorer who has a goal and will stop at nothing to find and achieve it. She finds a battered VHS tape of a film “based on a true story” that seems to suggest there’s a briefcase full of money buried somewhere in the farthest reaches of Fargo, North Dakota. In America. The film: Fargo.

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Review: Run All Night

run all night one sheet posterJimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) is a retired hitman with the colorful nickname “The Gravedigger”. Quite possibly, he’s retired from the Taken movie series, though I fear there are more of those in the pipeline. But Neeson’s basically the same character in Run All Night. The difference this time is that he’s protecting his estranged son Michael (Joel Kinnaman) rather than rescuing his kidnapped daughter or wife.

Everything goes south when Jimmy’s childhood buddy, mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) rejects an opportunity to facilitate a group of Albanians smuggling heroin into the country, brokered by his ne’er-do-well son Danny (Boyd Holbrook). Jimmy tells the Albanians to get the $#@$ out of the house, and when they show up at Danny’s apartment to collect on money they’d advanced him, everything falls apart and non-stop violence ensues.

Problem is, the Albanians hired Jimmy’s son Michael to drive their limo to Danny’s place. Wrong place, wrong time, and soon Shawn has his goons running all over New York trying to find, and kill, Michael and Jimmy, friendship be damned.

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Review: Chappie

chappie movie one sheet posterThere’s lots to like in Chappie, a gritty sci-fi crime thriller from the director of the District 9. So much, that at times it felt like this was a retelling of that film with robots instead of aliens. If you imagine a mashup of Robocop and District 9, you’d be on the right path to understanding Chappie.

Like many films in the sci-fi genre, however, this also tries too hard and wants to cover too many stories, including an exploration of the meaning of consciousness and life, an industrial intrigue about competing researchers and their willingness to undermine each other to get their own project funded, a story of bureaucratic corruption and incompetent police, and even a sort of redemption story of a gang of small time thugs who gain heart by helping raise an infant child/bot.

Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is the bright young engineer who has created the semi-autonomous Scout police robots for the Tetra Vaal Corporation, but at home he experiments with more sophisticated, self aware AI. His rival at the company is Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), who has a much larger, more aggressive robot known as the “Moose” but which looks a whole heck of a lot like the infamous ED-209 from Robocop.

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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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