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The Secret Life of Pets (2016)
Pet Story (Alternate Title: Underground Zootopia)
Yeah, I know, I'm certainly not the first reviewer to realize that the plot of the animated"The Secret Life of Pets (hereafter "Secret Life") closely resembles that of the "Toy Story" trilogy. Hence, the first title of this review. Nevertheless, the borrowed plot is an ideal vehicle for answering one of the baffling mysteries of our time: what do pets really act like when their owners are away (you can solve that problem with security cameras, but never mind)? The unsurprising answer is: when the cat's away the mice will play, so to speak. In other words, the cats, dogs, birds, and other assorted domesticated animals in a New York apartment building cut loose and party, stuff themselves, and basically wreck the joint.
Except for one brown-and-white Jack Russell terrier named Max (voice of Louis C.K.). Little Max is generally liked and respected by all the other apartment building animals, even by the obese, sarcastic, misbehaving tabby cat Chloe (voice of Lake Bell). In particular, the fuzzy, hyperactive, but gutsy Pomeranian Gidget (voice of Jenny Slate) harbors an unrequited crush for Max. Max is content being a kind of "top dog" and the apple of his owner Katie's (voice of Ellie Kemper) eye. The only downside is that Max suffers acute separation anxiety whenever Katie is out of the apartment, and is willing to stare at the front door all day until she returns.
Katie seems to realize that Max is lonely, so she brings home a new dog – a huge, brown, generally good-natured Newfoundland named Duke. Max is none too thrilled with his new roommate, despite Duke's efforts to make friends. In fact, Max is so eager to get rid of Duke, he breaks apartment items and tries to frame Duke. Max and Duke become bitter rivals. But before the rivalry can escalate, both dogs get lost in New York during one of their walks, lose their collars and licenses during an encounter with an army of fierce alley cats, and begin a frantic run to get away from them AND Animal Control officers and get home.
Animal Control catches Max and Duke, but they escape their cages with the help of the maniacal, bitter, abandoned (like Lotso Hugging Bear in "Toy Story 3") white rabbit named Snowball (voice of Kevin Hart), the unlikely leader of a menagerie of other abandoned animals of ALL kinds, including snakes, alligators, and lizards. Hence the second, alternate title of this review. Snowball frees Max and Duke only because they pretend to agree to help him carry out his vengeful desire to punish humanity for their abandonment. But the ruse can only last so long; Snowball figures out the dogs are domesticated "sellouts", so Max and Duke have to put their differences aside even longer to escape a third group that wants to capture/destroy them.
Meanwhile, Gidget is the first apartment pet to realize that Max and Duke have been gone an awfully long time. Therefore, the fearless Pomeranian rallies the other pets, including the energetic pug Mel (voice of Bobby Moynihan), the stretchy wiener dog Buddy (voice of Hannibal Buress), the confused guinea pig Norman (voice of Chris Renaud), and even a red-tailed hawk with almost overwhelming predatory instincts named Tiberius (voice of Albert Brooks), to mount a rescue mission. On their way to save Max and Duke, they meet an old, cantankerous, handicapped, but New York-smart basset hound named Pops (voice of Dana Carvey) who grudgingly offers to help ferret Max and Duke out. And so were off on a merry, almost exhausting, almost non-stop chase above and below New York to see who will get to Max and Duke first – Snowball and his scary "henchmen" or Gidget and her motley crew- and to see if the mismatched pooches make it home after all.
"Secret Life" is perfect for summer because it is loaded with action, gut-busting laughter, wild fantasy, and memorable characters. But the movie is not mindless because it manages to sneak in lessons about forging alliances and friendships, the sometimes cruel things humans do to animals, and the sacrifices true friends make for each other. There is even pathos, as when former pound pooch Duke tries to locate his former owner and realizes that in one sense you really can't go home again. In short, "Secret Life" is bound to please both adults and children, but it is rated PG for a reason, because some of the animals, especially the colossal, one-fanged viper that challenges Max and Duke to battle, might terrify impressionable children, and because there is at least one reference to death. Still "Secret Life", despite its derivative plot, or more likely because of it, is a fun, fitting tribute to pets that deserve human love because of the comfort and devotion they give, even if they make the occasional mess.
P.S.: Preceding "Secret Life" is an animated "Illumination" short called "Mowin' Minions" where the little yellow guys in blue overalls perform yard work to raise enough money to buy a blender. The expected, irresistibly hilarious roller coaster ride of chaos ensues.
Daddy's Home (2015)
Batty Stepdad v Super Real Dad – The Dawn of Parental Justice
On Saturday, April 9, 2016, after stuffing ourselves with seafood at the Shaking Crab in Newton, MA, my friend Mark Sterling and I went to his home to watch a movie on his 70" TV in his furnished basement. At first, we were trying to decide whether to see the Oscar- winning "Spotlight" or "Bridge of Spies". But, feeling that we had just gotten through a long, tiring, busy week (especially Mark, since he's a gastroenterologist at Tufts Medical Center), we were really in the mood for an outrageous, screwball, dumba$$ comedy. Therefore, we finally decided to rent Will Ferrell's "Daddy's Home" (hereafter "DH"), since it seemed to fill the bill.
Ferrell plays nice, domesticated, somewhat docile stepdad Brad Whitaker, basically happily married to loving, supportive Sara Whitaker (Linda Cardellini). The only downside (besides a case of impotency caused by an X-ray accident at the dentist) is that his stepchildren Megan (Scarlett Estevez) and Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) haven't quite warmed up to him yet. For example, at the beginning of "DH", we see a montage of Megan's drawings showing Brad not only separate from the rest of the family, but with poop on his head. Gamely trying to see the best in everything, Brad comments that in each picture he gets a little closer to the family. At his executive position at VERY light jazz playing radio station called The Panda (hee-hee), Brad's boss Leo Holt (Thomas Haden Church) tries to give him moral support but ends up whining in endless detail about his ex-wives.
Things get more complicated and desperate when Megan and Dylan's real, biological father Dusty Mayron (Mark Wahlberg) suddenly comes back to visit his family. Almost completely, diametrically opposite to Brad, Dusty is a rough-edged, muscular, masculine biker guy. Although Sara is not thrilled that Dusty is trying to ease his way back into the family, the kids are overjoyed. Despite the competition, Brad allows Dusty to remain in the house so he can demonstrate to the kids that he is the better parent. Boy, did Brad ever underestimate how hard this was going to be!
Not only is Dusty handsomer, more confident, and assertive than Brad, he's cooler, handier, and more fun. Brad tries to show than he can be too, but he just ends up literally running into walls and getting the shock of his life while trying to skateboard. He also inadvertently offends a repairman named Griff (Hannibal Buress) who had come to repair the hole in the bedroom wall Brad put there while driving a motorcycle. Even though Brad says that he can fix the hole himself (which set off Griff in the first place), Griff stays as an unwanted house guest and constantly criticizes Brad.
The funny thing is, Dusty does not actively compete with Brad. He is content to lie back, make vaguely sarcastic remarks about Brad's parenting philosophy and his manhood, and let Brad make a pathetic wuss of himself. Brad even goes practically broke by dressing up like Santa Claus and buying a ton of toys for his stepkids and buying $18,000 basketball tickets for courtside seats for them and his wife. This infuriates Sara and causes her to toss both Brad and Dusty out of the house. The only hope for Brad (and Dusty) to make things right is a father-daughter dance.
Make no mistake, "DH" is a crazy-dumb, out-of-its mind comedy. Nevertheless, it's a laugh riot because Will Ferrell is such a versatile comic treasure. He can handle sophisticated, rational verbal comedy, as when he's trying to explain his touchy-feely, New Age-y approach to child psychology, rearing, and discipline (e.g. use dancing instead of fighting to solve disputes). But Ferrell is also not afraid to launch into profane, crude tirades and meltdowns when things don't go his way (e.g. using his chance to sink a basket and win a Disney vacation to instead tear into Dusty and his sneaky attempts to take over the family). Finally, Ferrell fearlessly tackles physical comedy, too, even willing to dive into slapstick and personal embarrassment scenes to get his family back (e.g., besides the motorcycle/skateboard accidents, we have Farrell half-naked at a fertility clinic run by Dr. Emilio Francisco (Bobby Cannavale) and dancing shirtless at the father-daughter dance, and the "classic" basketball court scene, which made Mark and me howl).
Ferrell goes to the limit in "DH" and yet is such a fundamentally decent guy that, even as you're laughing your guts out, you're urging Brad to get his s#!t together and get his family back. Does he? Well, "DH" does prove convincingly that while any idiot can have a child, it takes a very special person to be a parent – and to drive within the cones.
P.S.: WWE wrestling superstar John Cena appears in "DH". He makes even the chiseled, buff Wahlberg look like the 90-pound weakling who gets sand kicked in his face at the beach.
Planes: Fire & Rescue (2014)
In This "Planes" Sequel, Dusty Goes Through a Literal Baptism of Fire to Become a Real Hero.
Successful professional athletes, sports figures, and racers are often considered heroes, but I'm not so sure that term strictly applies. Yes, sportspeople work hard and diligently, and risk pain, injury, and even sometimes death, to entertain us and remain at the top of their craft. However, they usually get plenty of money, perks, admiration, and adulation –not to mention the best medical care- for their troubles. I believe true heroes are unsung; that is, they put their own personal desires aside to do the hard, dangerous jobs that most other people avoid to save others and make others' lives better, with no expectation of wealth or fame. Professional wilderness firefighters certainly fit this bill, and the "Planes" sequel, "Planes – Fire and Rescue" (hereafter "Planes: F & R") is dedicated to these real heroes.
"Planes: F & R" starts with Dusty Crophopper (voice of Dane Cook) literally flying high. After his "Around the World" victory in "Planes", Dusty has been racking up the racing trophies and soaking up the fame and fortune. Of course, fate throws a monkey wrench (almost literally) into Dusty's plans when his gear box starts malfunctioning. As the movie penetrates into Dusty's metal guts, we learn that –as far as I understood it- years of high speed have chipped away at the box. From now on, in a kind of reverse of the movie "Speed", if Dusty goes too fast, he will break apart and crash. According to Dusty's faithful fuel truck Chug (voice of Brad Garrett) and dutiful forklift Dottie (voice of Teri Hatcher), no replacement gear box exists.
Now feeling useless, Dusty mopes around Propwash Junction airport, his base of operations, until a new opportunity presents itself. Attempting to reach high speed again, Dusty crash- lands and starts a fire. The resident fire truck, elderly Mayday (Hal Holbrook) tries to put out the fire but doesn't have enough water. With help from several forklifts, Mayday pulls down the water tower to put out the flames. Despite the rescue, bureaucratic transportation management truck Ryker is not amused with the lack of firefighting protocol and lack of an additional licensed fire fighter. Swallowing his shame and disappointment, and wishing to preserve Mayday's job and dignity as well as keep the airport open, Dusty volunteers to undergo training to start a new career as a firefighter.
Dusty flies to Piston Peak airport to begin training. He meets several characters just as quirky and colorful as his friends back home, like Lil' Dipper (voice of Julie Bowen), a flighty (no pun intended) water-dumping plane who develops a crush on Dusty, and the Native-American- like, mysterious, inscrutable, laconic heavy-lifting helicopter Windlifter (voice of Wes Studi). Rough-edged forklift mechanic Maru (voice of Curtis Armstrong) replaces Dusty's landing gear with pontoons for water landing plus wheels for regular landing. With morbid humor, he informs Dusty that unlike pictures of racing planes taken for winning, pictures of firefighting planes and helicopters are taken only when they crash and burn.
Dusty comes under the tutelage of Piston Peak's main firefighter, the all-business veteran helicopter Blade Runner (voice of Ed Harris). Like Skipper (voice of Stacy Keach), Dusty's former mentor, Blade Runner is gruff, disciplined, and no-nonsense. Despite his best efforts to teach Dusty how to scoop up water from lakes and rivers to dump on forest fires, Dusty's gear-box problem keeps holding him back. Since Dusty hasn't revealed his new handicap to him, Blade Runner naturally thinks Dusty is a stuck-up, selfish, goof-off.
Then a real emergency strikes. The Fusell Lodge (get it?) hotel bursts into flame from a nearby forest fire. There is not enough water to battle the blaze because the vain, sycophantic (i.e. kissa$$) park superintendent SUV Cad Spinner (voice of John Michael Higgins) incompetently diverted the water to the roof sprinklers just to impress the Secretary of the Interior (voice of Fred Willard). He also delays all the guests from fleeing the approaching blaze –again to impress the Secretary- until it's almost too late.
Blade Runner's crew, including skydiving smokejumper bulldozers, do their best to fight the fire. Blade Runner eventually gets damaged and must find shelter in a mine. He reveals to Dusty why he became a firefighter; he was once a police copter in the "CHiPs" parody "CHoPs" but lost his partner Nick "Loop'N" Lopez (voice of Erik Estrada) in an accident he couldn't prevent. In turn, Dusty finally reveals his problem. Blade Runner tells him not to quit and what it really means to be a hero. Dusty goes off to get enough water to not only save the forest but also an RV couple Harvey (voice of Jerry Stiller) and Winnie (voice of Anne Meara) stranded on a fiery bridge. Again, Dusty must pour on the speed to get enough water. Does he have the courage to do it? Can he literally keep himself together? Will Dusty get certified?
In its broad outlines, the plot and structure of "Planes: F & R" closely resembles its predecessor "Planes" in its student/master relationship, respecting elders' experience, and overcoming personal obstacles to succeed. But this time, it shows Dusty becoming a better "person" because his success is no longer selfish, but beneficial to others. As he encounters the photorealistic flames, fallen trees, and rushing river rapids, as well as the meticulous technological aspects of firefighting, we urge Dusty to complete his baptism of fire and become a real hero. "Planes: F & R" makes his journey harrowing, humorous, instructive, intelligent, suspenseful, and inspiring. Firefighters, and anyone else, in my opinion, watching this movie will feel their spirits uplifted (again, no pun intended).
The Oceans are Eternal, But Only If Mankind Does Its Part to Keep Them That Way.
Earth's oceans symbolize the eternal mysteries of life and death themselves. No examination of them could ever completely solve that mystery. Perhaps it is better just to sit silently, observe, and respectfully marvel at the countless wonders oceans have to offer. With narrator Pierce Brosnan, and co-directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, "DisneyNature's Oceans" takes exactly that simple approach.
"DisneyNature's Oceans" begins at a seashore, with a young boy silently gazing upon the water. Then, the documentary takes us on a rather comprehensive tour of the staggering variety of invertebrates (animals with no backbones), fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals that depend upon the sea for food, reproduction, communication, and even hygiene. Brosnan wisely does not talk endlessly throughout the documentary. He'll make an occasional remark about a previously unknown aspect about an animal, then largely let the classical musical score and the action speak for themselves. This reinforces the awe and respect humans really should feel for the ocean and all its creatures.
The animals run the gamut from sea slugs and crabs to colossal whales. For example, we see dolphins dash through the water and do spinning acrobatics. We witness sharks stalk and grab sea lions. We observe sea lions on land, quarreling with their neighbors and protecting their young from males sparring for breeding rights. All these animals, plus dive-bombing birds called gannets, chase a massive, whirling ball of sardines for their share of fish. We see giant humpback whales cooperate to trap sardines and herring in "bubble nets" and then scoop them up in vast mouthfuls. The largest creature in history, the blue whale, vacuums in tons of tiny, shrimp-like krill. We hear humpbacks vocalize with unique songs to communicate and attract mates. Killer whales swim perilously close to the shallows to snatch sea lion pups from the shore. Iguanas crop moss from boulders at the sea bottom. Baby sea turtles hatch and crawl frantically towards the water before they can be snatched up by a predator. A poisonous sea snake sinuously swims by. Various fish, including the largest living fish, the whale shark, allow tiny fish to swim around their face and mouth and eat the parasites and dead skin that annoy them, without ever giving into the temptation of swallowing them. A mother walrus cradles her chubby baby in the water.
The above images described in "DisneyNature's Oceans", plus many others, show the harmonious balance among different animal species and their environments. Unlike other Disney nature documentaries, none of the animals shown (not even the sea lions, walruses, and penguins) are treated as comic buffoons or people. They are wild, and often mysterious animals, and, I think, inspire curiosity and amazement. But then, "DisneyNature's Oceans" shows the main threat to this seemingly eternal harmony: us. With our noisy fishing boats and their wide nets entangling creatures besides fish, our oil refineries and hundreds of tons of pollution (one stark image shows a sea lion swimming past a shopping cart buried in the sea bed), this documentary shows that we have behaved shamefully towards the sea and that we must act soon to reverse our harmful influence before we lose the sea forever.
"DisneyNature Oceans" serves both as an educational biological and environmental documentary, and, I believe, should be shown in both middle school and high school science curricula. There are no truly graphic images of animal predation, although crabs, sardines and sea lions ARE killed and eaten; therefore, only truly sensitive people might not enjoy this documentary. However, there are also really astounding shots such as a scuba diver swimming alongside a 15-foot great white shark that make you appreciate the risks and chances these underwater photographers took to increase our oceanographic knowledge. Hopefully, that knowledge is increased enough so that people like you and me care enough to keep the eternal oceans just that – eternal. Fortunately, mankind's efforts to preserve the sea are the strongest they have ever been.
These Three Bears Don't Live a Fairy-Tale Existence
I imagine that when Disney launched their DisneyNature movie department, some people expected them to produce nature documentaries chock-full of saccharine, corny sentiment, with animals presented basically as four-footed people with fur. While DisneyNature's "Bears" doesn't completely avoid that anthropomorphic expectation, it is surprisingly largely realistic and comprehensive in its portrayal of a mother grizzly bear named Sky and her two cubs, the rambunctious, independent boy bear Scout, and the more cautious "mamma's girl" Amber. The film begins in a winter mountain den, where Sky is nursing her newborns.
As spring struggles to break forth, the cubs have developed enough to leave the den. Skye then proceeds to lead them over majestic mountain scenery to plains and coastal lowlands to find food – especially the bear mecca Golden Pond swarming with salmon that have migrated from the sea to lay their eggs and die. The three bears' goal in life is to eat enough, especially fat and protein, to put on enough weight to hibernate through another winter.
"Bears" chronicles the first year of these three bears' lives and the adventures and obstacles they encounter on their way to their promised land. They meet two male bears, the sneaky rogue Chinook and the lordly, territorial giant Magnus, both willing to make a snack of Scout and Amber. The bears also meet a solitary light-colored wolf named Tanaka, who would also like to take a bite out of the cubs. Sky has her paws full defending her cubs from these predators, even daring to tackle Magnus in a ferocious fight. She also has to make sure the mischievous Scout doesn't wander too far away and get lost. Sky, Scout, and Amber have to be careful not to be swept out to sea as they dig for clams. They have to find a safe, salmon- fishing spot along the river on the way to the pond, away from other fishing bears. Most importantly, they need to find Golden Pond to harvest the fatty salmon and pack on enough pounds to survive another winter. Clearly, these three bears' lives are no fairy tale. Will they succeed in their trek? Well, this IS a Disney movie after all.
Again, "Bears" should be commended for showing how bears really live and interact and mostly resisting the temptation to make them too human. Every so often the narrator, John C. Reilly ("Stepbrothers", "Ricky Bobby: Talladega Nights", "Wreck-It Ralph") gives in to this temptation and makes the cubs seem like little kids (e.g. "Wait for me, Mom!" "He's got his game on.") but his narration is mostly otherwise straightforward and informative. We learn about the bears' diet (including grass), their dexterous claws (used to pry open clams), their acutely sensitive noses, their fishing techniques (including grabbing salmon in mid-air), and how a mother bear protecting her cubs is the most terrifying creature in nature. Although "Bears" does show some fierce animal brawls and attacks and salmon being eaten, these scenes are muted enough to merit the "G" rating. Not least important, the natural cinematography is stunningly magnificent. During the end credits, we witness the hazards the daring cameramen endured to get close enough to the bears and other creatures to film them.
Therefore, I think "Bears" is an exciting, suitable, and accurately educational nature film for all people ages 7 and up. Even for people, like myself, who have seen more than their share of "National Geographic" wildlife documentaries, "Bears" reinforces the harshness, rawness, splendor, and grandeur of nature. It may even convince the hidden environmentalist in all of us that bears and other wild animals richly deserve our respect and protection.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens – A Winning Combination of "A New Hope" and a "Newer Hope"
The plot of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" (hereafter "SW:TFA") is as follows – a group of freedom fighters must escort a beeping 'droid containing information which may be a critical key in defeating an enemy bent on universal conquest. Golly gee, this sounds an awful lot like "Star Wars IV: A New Hope", doesn't it? Some "SW:TFA" viewers have grumbled about director J.J. Abrams pulling this "moth-eaten" plot out of the closet. I think it's a stroke of nostalgic craftiness.
Perhaps Abrams sensed that after the arguably grim, depressing, and disheartening trilogy about the descent of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vaderism, moviegoers needed a bit of reminding about why we still cherish the "Star Wars" saga/myth. As has been said countless times before, it's not really about the light saber play, spaceship dogfights, or dazzling universal vistas that make this space opera timeless – it's the flawed, complicated, empathetic characters (whether human, 'droid, or alien) who strive to be heroic and/or struggle with corrupt impulses. With this reminder, Abrams (a life-long "Star Wars" fan) and "SW:TFA" reawaken "Star Wars"'s greatness.
Abrams borrows the "A New Hope" plot, but does not slavishly copy it. He adds his own distinctive touches to move the old "A New Hope" plot into a "Newer Hope" plot. First, he immediately jumps into action by showing former Empire (now known as the First Order) Stormtroopers attacking a Rebel Alliance (now known as the Resistance) outpost on the desert Tatooine-like planet Jakku. The Stormtroopers are seeking the new 'droid" unit containing the secret information: BB-8, who looks like a beach ball with a salad bowl for a head. Ace Resistance pilot, the Hans-Solo like Poe Dameron ("Do you talk first, or do I talk first?") inserted the information disk into BB-8. Poe urges the spherical droid to flee into the desert wasteland and somehow locate former Princess (now Resistance General) Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher).
But then, another radically new development (and character) appears. One of the Stormtroopers is suddenly reluctant to continue massacring the Resistance outpost. He doesn't even have a proper name, until Poe finds him and christens him Finn (John Boyega). Poe and Finn attempt to escape in an X-Wing fighter but a New Order pilot shoots them down. They crashland back on Jakku and Poe disappears into some kind of vortex. The confused, battle-weary Finn stumbles around Jakku until he finds BB-8 with "SW:FKA"'s third original character, Rey (Daisy Ridley).
Like a Jawa, the orphaned, solitary, self-reliant Rey scavenges Jakku for scrap metal to trade for food. She is on the verge of trading in BB-8, but senses the 'droid is much too valuable. Rey, BB-8, and Finn form a hasty trio and run desperately for transport to get away from the First Order forces. They have to settle for the bucket of bolts that happens to be the Millennium Falcon (remember her?). They manage to escape, largely because of Rey's uncanny command of mechanics and technological devices. Before long, they run into the Falcon's original owner, our favorite intergalactic wiseguy, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his hirsute co-pilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).
Mostly, Han is still the devil-may-care, humorously irreverent smuggler still being chased by vengeful customers, as he is in "SW:TFA". And yet, the grizzled veteran has mellowed somewhat; he now believes in the Force more and agrees to help Rey and Finn with their mission. After deciphering BB-8's data as a portion of a map, Han and company all escape to the Endor-like forest planet Takodana to seek a wizened, wise cantina owner Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) who can connect them to the Resistance.
The First Order, nominally led by the merciless General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) but ultimately controlled by the towering Emperor-like Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), track them there and attack. General Leia and her Resistance forces also arrive and counterattack. Maz reveals that Luke Skywalker's (Mark Hamill's) light saber is hidden in the cantina and entrusts Finn with it. However, Finn wants no further part of the Resistance/First Order war and seeks asylum with other aliens. Meanwhile, Rey shows signs that she would be a more appropriate recipient of the light saber. She shows strange abilities and powers far beyond fixing things. Nevertheless, the First Order captures and imprisons her. The First Order's chief warrior, a fallen, iron-masked, Jedi Knight with anger-management issues named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) attempts to seduce Rey to The Dark Side on a new, gargantuan Death Star about 100 times the original's size. Han, Chewie, and a re-converted Finn mount a rescue. Do they succeed? Is Rey truly Jedi material? Who is she anyway, and, for that matter, who is Finn? Who are Kylo's parents? Where is the rest of the map and what does it show? Do C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) show up? Did Poe survive the vortex? Just where the hell is Luke, assuming he's still alive? Why is he missing? "SW:TFA" answers some of these myriad questions and mysteries and leaves others tantalizingly up in the air, for future sequels.
"SW:TFA" is, in my opinion, a thorough triumph. It's hyperspeed-paced yet clear and comprehensible. All the characters are serious yet funny and not trapped in self-importance. In fact, the otherwise bold, appealing, and resourceful Rey and Finn are somewhat reluctant heroes, but still game for the danger the First Order represents. Unforeseen, genuinely shocking and emotional confrontations occur. Most importantly, "SW:TFA" takes the old, seemingly rusty and time-worn elements that distinguish "Star Wars" and makes them new, fresh, exciting, and more relevant than ever. The eighth sequel can't arrive fast enough.
The Force is indeed awake and a "Newer Hope" (embodied by Rey, Finn, and BB) for the Resistance is born.
The Martian (2015)
"Space Does Not Cooperate ", but That Won't Stop "The Martian"
Beyond the spaceship duels and friendly/unfriendly human/alien encounters, outer space films like the "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" franchises (and even TV's "Futurama") draw their appeal from their confident assurance that someday humanity will not just "conquer" space, it will make it so comfortable and familiar that visiting a new planet will be as easy as taking a walk to the neighborhood grocery store. Perhaps, but that hope is at least decades away. Right now, even now, outer space is cold, dark, and above all, so vast that even visiting a relatively close planet like Mars takes an average of four years. And even when you get to Mars, it's barely more hospitable than the moon. "The Martian"'s (hereafter "Martian) protagonist, space botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is absolutely right when he states "Space Does Not Cooperate". This becomes a problem when he is stranded alone on Mars like an interplanetary "Robinson Crusoe" (somewhat reminiscent of the 1964 film).
Mark is part of the Ares III team also consisting of Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and astronauts Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). While the Ares III team explores Mars, a blinding particle storm forces them to abort their mission and board their ship. The storm violently separates Mark from the rest of the crew who are forced to leave without him, believing Mark dead. The crew is so convinced he's dead that when they communicate that fact to NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), he almost immediately arranges an honorary funeral for him.
Of course, rumors of Mark's death are premature. Buried in sand, losing oxygen, and suffering a puncture wound, Mark is nevertheless alive. He manages to struggle back to the still-standing planet base, replenish air, equalize pressure, and treat his wound as best he can. However, the obstacles to his survival are just piling up. Can Mark fight Martian weather, radiation, cold, starvation, dehydration, and boredom at least long enough to somehow contact NASA to let them know he's alive, and then stay alive even longer for NASA to mount a rescue mission? Again, given that a one-way Earth-to-Mars trip takes four years, that's a daunting challenge.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Teddy, NASA spokesperson Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), and NASA mission directors Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) have their own challenges, both urgent and mundane. Besides naturally getting Mitch home safely, Teddy and his team must negotiate the usual treacherous PR protocol to make sure that Mark's inadvertent abandonment does not embarrass, discredit, and eventually defund NASA. And meanwhile, back on Ares III heading back to Earth, the crew, especially guilt- ridden Commander Lewis, must decide, once NASA finally informs them, whether to continue home or return to rescue Mark, depending not only on whether they have enough fuel to do one or the other, but also on coordinating ship/Mars trajectory just right to get Mark.
And so "Martian" oscillates among these three scenarios and dilemmas and manages, in my opinion, to do it without boring and, if you'll excuse the expression, alienating the audience. How can a space movie without aliens (even Marvin), laser weapons, or aerial combat hope to do this? I think "Martian" succeeds in this by being more knowledgeable than its audience, but in a way that instructs the audience without talking down to them. The movie explains many astrophysical, mechanical, and chemical concepts (including a crucial "slingshot" maneuver) that help keep the movie going forward and the audience invested in the characters' fates. It certainly helps that Damon's character Mark, in his daily video journal of his ordeals, explains much of this scientific stuff in largely (and often laugh-out-loud profane) layperson's terms.
Furthermore, "Martian" reminds us that no national organization has a monopoly on knowledge. When NASA's attempt to send supplies in a booster rocket explodes into failure, they willingly ignore political tensions to contact chief scientist Guo Ming (Eddy Ko) and deputy chief scientist Zhu Tao (Chen Shu) at Chinese counterpart Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) to help stabilize the payload. Ah, science rejects borders and embraces diversity. Finally, "Martian" uses science to ratchet up the intense suspense as Ares III does decide to go back to get Mark by plotting a trajectory and spacewalk, while Mark plots a rendezvous point and prepares a lightened space capsule and "spacesuit propulsion" system to hopefully get close enough to Ares III to grab him before his oxygen runs out.
"Martian"'s intelligence also complements the convincing special effects, believably fallible but professional and determined characters (especially Mark), and the realistic depiction of the problems and triumphs of space agency bureaucracy and more importantly space exploration to make an absorbing and involving movie. Not least, "Martian" succeeds because it respects human intelligence and persistence so much, it convinces us that humanity will eventually surmount space's often deadly "uncooperativeness".
P.S.: I saw this movie in the theater in 3D? Does 3D enhance the experience? In my opinion, it does to a slight degree, in the depiction of the Martian sandstorms and the flying spaceships. Yet, I felt it was largely unnecessary. Space's grandeur and infinite mystery come through even without the extra dimension.
P.P.S.: I especially appreciated how Mark explained how planting crops (like potatoes on Mars) in a new land effectively colonizes that land, and how the distinction between international law and maritime law technically made him a "space pirate". Arrrrgh!
The Intern (2015)
An "Intern" in Life and Love
Throughout history, I imagine many members of the human race have been gerontophobic (i.e. afraid of old people or of getting old). The movies often have a similar attitude. In them, usually, elderly or older people are anachronistic, out-of-it, narrow-minded conservative fuddy-duddies that need exposure to today's young whippersnappers to discover fulfillment and purpose. I thought the movie "The Intern" (hereafter "Intern") would fall into that condescending mold.
"Intern" stars Robert De Niro as Ben Whittaker, a 70-year-old former executive at a now- defunct (of course!) telephone book manufacturing company who is getting a teensy bit weary of retirement. He decides to re-enter the workforce, but what 21st century company would take a chance on a "geezer" like him? It so happens that his old friend Patty (Linda Lavin) has a flyer from a fashion-clothing, wholly Internet-based business called "About the Fit" seeking participants in a "senior internship" program. Ben goes for it but learns he must submit a "video resume" as part of the interview process, which naturally sounds bizarre to his traditional ears. However, he submits a recording and is selected as an intern.
Ironically, "About the Fit"'s offices are located in the same brick warehouse building that Ben used to be CEO. But now the space is filled with laptops and smartphones and young casually-dressed salespeople coordinating orders and deliveries. Can "old-fashioned" Ben, whose most technologically advanced gizmo is a tiny Samsung phone, get "with it" and carve out a niche in this growing company?
"Intern"'s "surprise" answer is "Of course he can". Despite a few expected faltering starts in using the new equipment and getting along with much younger co-workers like frantic lives- with-his-parents geek Davis (Zach Pearlman), tech-savvy Jason (Adam De Vine), and polite Cameron (Andrew Rannells), Ben's experience and professional, wise demeanor soon gain their trust and respect and help him advance. Still, at least at first, he can't seem to connect with About the Fit's founder and CEO Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). Put simply, she's the latest word in workaholics and is so anxious to expand About the Fit nationally, she rides a bicycle throughout the vast building to most efficiently keep tabs on her workers and make meetings she insanely schedules so close together. Jules was not even on board with the "senior internship" program (did she even approve it? She can't remember.) and really doesn't want to deal with Ben (nothing personal) and even tries to get him re-located to another department.
Still, Ben's work ethic and commitment make an impression on Jules as he becomes not only a reliable, valuable work consultant, but also fatherly "life" consultant. This is where "Intern"'s title becomes (obviously) ironic. Ben is really not an "intern". He's already led a full life and has his priorities straight. Jules is the true "intern", but in life and love. Her business has grown exponentially, but at the expense of her stay-at-home husband Matt and former engineer (Anders Holm) and her spunkily-cute, precocious young daughter Paige (JoJo Kushner). Both Paige and Matt crave attention that Jules has no time to give, and Matt may be, shall we say, looking elsewhere to get it. Furthermore, Jules's critical, overbearing mother (always off-screen) keeps sending her snarky e-mails. The demands of work and family are causing unbelievable stress and Jules is even thinking of ceding business control to someone else. Can Ben point her in the right direction?
"Intern" is a gentle, calm, rather emotional, but life-affirming generational movie that re- assures us that older peoples' experience and wisdom never go out of style and, if presented non-judgmentally, can help younger people make informed choices on how to live a happy, balanced life. I liked De Niro's and Hathaway's tentative but adult, mutually respectful interactions and their discussions about her professional and personal future. I also liked the sprinklings of belly-laugh comedy as well, mostly involving company masseuse Fiona (Rene Russo) giving Ben an arousing massage, and a hilarious attempt by Ben, Davis, Jason, and Cameron to break into Jules's mother's home to retrieve her laptop and erase a really nasty e-mail Jules sent to her.
Yet, for 52-year-old me, I especially appreciated "Intern"s high regard for older people as personified by movie legend Robert De Niro. With his business accouterments, natty suit and tie (and ever-present handkerchief), and his quiet, rational confidence, he was a class act. We are all interns in life and love at one time or another, and it was gratifying to see Ben use what he learned from his "life internship" to help Jules deal with her own.
Black Mass (2015)
The "Black Mass" is James "Whitey" Bulger's Soul – Assuming He Has One
Although this time we have an Irish-American gangster protagonist instead of the time-worn Italian-American one, "Black Mass" (hereafter BM) follows the usual rise and fall trajectory of all organized crime movies. However, what distinguishes BM from a lot of these "Crime Really Doesn't Pay" movies is actor Johnny- Depp's career-zenith performance as that Irish-American gangster protagonist James "Whitey" Bulger. Most gangster movies manage to find a smidgen of tenderness and caring in their mob boss heroes. In BM, that humanity is just about missing. With his slicked-back white hair, cold blue eyes, and stone-faced sneer, Depp's Bulger seems to be pure, implacable, death-warmed-over evil with no soul at all, or at best a black chunk of coal for a soul.
During the mid 70's, Bulger and his "Winter Hill Gang" consisting of his lieutenant, unshaven and uncouth Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), newbie Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), and equally poker-faced and sloppy peanut-eating hit-man Johnny Martorano (W. Earl Brown) hold sway over South Boston (or South End or Southie). Bulger took care never to let the public see him rub out his enemies (advice he humorously but chillingly gives his young son, Douglas). Bulger justifies these tactics as necessary to "protect" Southie from the ambitious mafia-backed North Boston (North End) Italian-American Angiulo Brothers. Of course, it's just a turf war. In this war, Whitey seems to have the edge because he doesn't hesitate to kill not only people who mess with him or betray him, but also people he just SUSPECTS of doing the same. For example, late in the film Bulger strangles Flemmi's prostitute stepdaughter for talking to the cops, even though she swears she didn't squeal on him.
Whitey Bulger is not the only one who wants to take out the Angiulo Brothers. A Southie native son, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) returns home because he is eager to rise in the ranks and thinks that icing the elusive Angiulo Brothers is the way to do it. Thinking Bulger has the "connections" to bring them down, Connolly wants Bulger to inform on them to the FBI. Even though Bulger's twisted sense of crime and Irish ethnic loyalty makes him initially refuse Connolly's offer, Connolly craftily appeals to that same loyalty to convince Bulger that being an FBI "snitch" is the only way to get rid of the Angiulos.
Slowly and eventually, Connolly realizes that he may have made a deal with a real devil. Bulger blithely and savagely refuses to heed Connolly's warning not to commit crimes and/or kill as he keeps tabs on the Angiulos. On the contrary, Bulger coolly exploits this unholy alliance with the FBI to expand his influence not only in Southie, but even in Miami in a World Jai Alai embezzlement scheme, and as far as Ireland in an IRA (Irish Republican Army) weapons- smuggling operation. Only after Connolly's FBI boss, the demanding Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) rides him, and Connolly in turn rides Bulger does he finally get photographic evidence of the Angiulos' criminal haunts, which allows the FBI to nail the brothers through a wiretap.
Bulger seems to have it made. His main opponents are out of the picture. His senator brother William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) stays willfully ignorant about Whitey's activities. Helping capture Anguilo should keep the FBI looking the other way. But fate steps in as she always does. Bulger's fragile family life collapses as his son Douglas suffers Reye syndrome, goes into a coma and dies when his mom and Bulger's girlfriend Lindsey (Dakota Johnson) pulls the plug on him despite Whitey's raging opposition. She leave Whitey soon after. Bulger also acts irrationally and threateningly towards Connolly's FBI partner John Morris (David Harbour) in a "GoodFellas"-inspired "tell me the recipe" scene, and in an unbearably tense bedroom scene with Connolly's wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson). Even though Connolly is still in Bulger's corner, Marianne finally gets fed up with his slimy association and locks him out of the house.
The beginning of the end comes for Connolly in the form of blunt, all-business prosecutor Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll), who takes over the U.S. Attorney's Office and brusquely refuses Connolly's bribe of Red Sox tickets and basically tells him to stop his bullsh-t connection with Whitey and bring him in. When undercover agent John McIntyre (Brad Carter) blows the lid on the IRA operation, Bulger kills and buries him. Wyshak also learns the "assistance" Whitey provided to capture the Angiulo Brothers actually came second-hand from lower-rank informants. In return for immunity, Morris confesses the true relationship that Connolly and Whitey had. When The Boston Globe exposes Whitey's informant activities, the jig is up as the Winter Hill Gang abandons Whitey as a traitor, is arrested, and brings the movie full circle to their taped confessions. Connolly is arrested as well for his conspiratorial crimes. In the epilogue, Whitey becomes a 16-year fugitive, eventually captured by the FBI in 2011.
Though cruising over familiar gangster ground, BM is a smoothly-paced, never-boring, and actually unnerving portrait of an unconventional, psychopathic criminal who achieves his murderous ends not so much through flamboyant anger (though Bulger does lose it from time to time) as through inhuman, selfish, enigmatic, unadulterated evil. Even when he is being "nice", like to his son or mother, it's creepy and foreboding. Again, Depp redeems himself after five movie flops to give an Oscar-caliber performance as a soulless guy that seems to have come straight out of hell. Joel Edgerton nearly steals the spotlight from Depp as the unscrupulous agent Connolly who justifies selling HIS soul by touting his Irish-based loyalty and friendship with Bulger and the old adage "it takes a thief to catch a thief ". Despite Depp's tour-de-force performance, BM makes me wish for a movie prequel detailing Bulger's young, formative years and the events that led to his criminal career, including stints at Leavenworth and Alcatraz. After all, no one is born evil, right?
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Rap Movie Adds Sobering Dimensions to Standard "Rise and Fall" Music Biography
Country star Alan Jackson (I think) once remarked that the music genre "rap" should have a "C" in front of it. Besides that, many of us, including myself, have disregarded rap as ear- splitting, cacophonic nonsense. Although I will never become a rap fan, the movie "Straight Outta Compton" (hereafter "Compton") successfully demonstrated to me that rap is far more intricate, potent, and meaningful than its harsh, raw surface suggests, because a strong core of societal hardship and shrewd sense of injustice often powers it. Furthermore, "Compton" dazzlingly reveals that rap can give an intense, hard-to-ignore voice to an entire teenage generation of all races and ethnicities that has been fearfully silent for too long.
"Compton" chronicles the progress of five African-American friends Eric "Eazy-E" (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) as they endure life in Compton, CA's run-down suburbs. There, police tanks demolishing cocaine dens, gang leaders threatening schoolbuses full of kids just for calling out to them, and hostile cops trampling 1st Amendment and civil rights with impunity in their zeal to racially profile and harass groups of kids are just tolerated facts of life. However, instead of resorting to crime or joining/forming a gang, these high school guys decide to combine their DJing, lyric writing, and harmonizing skills to form the rap group N.W.A. (N-word With Attitude). Under N.W.A. these young musicians hope to educate the world about their pain and sufferings, especially in a way the current musical trend, R & B ballads and slow jams championed by dance hall owner Alonzo Williams (Corey Reynolds) just can't do.
N.W.A., led by Eazy-E, seems to touch a nerve with their musical audience as their song "Boyz-n-the Hood" becomes a hit. This success attracts the attention of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who, sensing a new musical trend, convinces the group to let him be their business and contract manager. Under Jerry's seemingly parental tutelage, N.W.A gets represented by Priority Records and turns out the giant hit album "Straight Outta Compton". N.W.A. surges to fame, fortune, and every pleasure money can buy.
Nevertheless, many factors conspire to impede, splinter, or stop the group. Because of obscene, militant, anti-authority lyrics, especially in their searing anthem "F-k the Police", N.W.A. runs afoul of not only their old foes the local police, but also even the F.B.I. Due to their negotiating inexperience, N.W.A. trusts Jerry to stand up for them and get them the gigs. But Jerry has a more unscrupulous side. Because Eazy-E trusts him most, Jerry immediately gets contracts signings for him while the rest of the group waits. Jerry is also less than democratic in ensuring that each N.W.A. member gets his cut of the profits while he himself embezzles more than his fair share. Disgusted, Ice Cube leaves N.W.A. to forge a solo rap career. Ice Cube and N.WA. become fierce (and humorous) rivals as they try to out-insult and "out-diss" each other in their song outputs. Seeking more artistic freedom, Dr. Dre also leaves N.W.A. and hooks up with rapper Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) to create Death Row Records. While the partnership proves productive ("The Chronic" album, mentoring up-and- coming rapper Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) and Tupac Shakur (Marc Rose)), Knight also proves to be a violent tyrant. Debt, sibling deaths, family strife, car accidents, and the specter of AIDS also hover over N.W.A. Can the group keep it together?
Without a doubt, "Compton" follows the "Musical Rags to Riches" trajectory closely and indulges in some of its excesses (e.g. scantily clad and nude party goers, hotel and studio trashings, marijuana dealings). However, the movie succeeds in not glorifying these wretched excesses and showing that N.W.A really worked strenuously for their success, especially in the scene when Dr. Dre dares to chew out Knight and his hanger-ons for partying too much and not working hard enough. "Compton" also details quite well the exploitative realities of the music business through Jerry Heller. Heller may have been a cheating sleaze, but he also convinces us that he cared for N.W.A.'s members and DID help them reach the top. Any other music agent would probably have ripped them off more, and cheated them out of more. "Compton" also manages to portray N.W.A. three-dimensionally as people who are certainly not saints and swear a lot and certainly have their vices, but who are fundamentally decent, industrious, and caring of each other. Other posters have said that "Compton" has sanitized and softened N.W.A.'s image (e.g. Dr. Dre. was a misogynist in real life), but then again no movie biography, music or otherwise, tells the whole truth. Anyway, "Compton" was close- enough-to-life raw enough for me, while vividly and entertainingly proving to me that rap is a legitimate way to "fight the power" without sacrificing your soul.
If People Valued Friendship and Loyalty Above Gold and War, What a Pleasant World It Would Be
The title of this review, of course, paraphrases probably the most important quote of either the "Hobbit" novel or movie trilogy. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) regretfully utters the important quote when he finally realizes what devastation his quest for his mountain home of Erebor has wrought. That regret gives the final movie of the Hobbit Trilogy, "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" (hereafter "Five Armies") its sad, emotional weight. "Five Armies" delivers the sword/axe/spear wielding and battling excitement of its two predecessors, but this time the mind-spinning, heart-pumping action is tempered by a sobering thought: much of the fighting and devastation was a shameful waste.
Why? Well, with Bard's slaying of the rampaging dragon Smaug (mellifluous voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) with the Black Arrow that finds his Achilles heel (an unprotected opening in his neck), Thorin, the thirteen dwarfs, and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) have cemented their claim on Erebor and the ocean of gold and other treasures within. However, Smaug's attack on Laketown and his death throes after the arrow pierces him have effectively obliterated the town. All Laketowners, including the devious, pompous Master (Stephen Fry) and his sniveling toady (i.e. brown-noser) Alfrid Lickspittle (Ryan Gage), are now homeless refugees. After the Master's shocking but funny death, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) becomes de facto town leader. Bard goes to the Erebor stronghold to not only provide food and shelter for his people, but also to claim the town's rightful share of the dwarfs' treasure.
But some insidious sickness has altered Thorin's normally sensible and noble nature. He has contracted the dragon's ailment: acute gold fever. In fact, Thorin's mad thirst and greed for gold surpasses even Smaug's. Despite the pleas of the dwarfs, and especially Bilbo, Thorin refuses to negotiate at all with either the Laketowners or the elven army led by the imperious Thranduil (Lee Pace) who have come for THEIR rightful share. Men, elves, and dwarfs settle in for a long siege. Bilbo attempts to broker a peace with all three forces by offering the priceless dwarf jewel the Arkenstone (which he DID recover from Smaug) as a bargaining chip. Of course, this infuriates Thorin and leads to Bilbo's banishment from the dwarfs. Battle becomes dangerously imminent when Thorin manages to contact the Iron Dwarf Dain (Billy Connolly) and his mighty hordes to even the odds. Before long, though, the squabble over the gold escalates to fighting for sheer survival as the brutal, relentless, Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett), Bolg (John Tui), and his deformed bunch of warriors, giants, and overall freaks catch up to Thorin and company. Needless to say, war breaks out.
As with the previous two movies, and despite purists' groans of protest, "Five Armies" largely adheres to the novel's structure. Two deviations, the turbulent confrontation of the wizards Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Saruman the White (dearly departed Christopher Lee) against the personification of darkness Sauron (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the still-baffling but tender relationship between female elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), continue from the previous movie. There are two others. One, Bard, on his own, discovers Smaug's weakness without Bilbo's help. In the previous movie, Bilbo spotted the dragon's weakness earlier. However, unlike in the novel, there is no thrush or any other messenger, human or animal, to convey that knowledge from Bilbo to Bard. Why the omission? I'm not really sure. It seems to deny Bilbo's instrumental part in getting rid of the dragon. The second deviation is the long-awaited, final showdown between Thorin and his relentless pursuer Azog, who whale on each other over a frozen river. Oh, yes, there is a third; the kryptonian fighting machine elf Legolas Greenleaf (Orlando Bloom) defies gravity to mix it up with Bolg. As with the previous two movies, the deviations mostly did not bother me, except, yes, not giving Bilbo credit for finding Smaug's crack in his scaly armor. Come to think of it, why didn't he tell Thorin and the dwarfs in the second movie about the weakness, to give them the chance to kill the dragon before he left for Laketown?
No matter; Bilbo acquits himself in other ways. Although many moviegoers felt Bilbo was marginalized, all three movies, including "Five Armies" demonstrate that he made a difference, even though in the novel, Bilbo's participation in the final battle was "rather unimportant". As already mentioned, he tried to broker a peace. Second, he does not desert his dwarf companions even after gold-mad Thorin tries to toss him off the ramparts. Third, his rock-throwing abilities, referenced in the novel, come in handy as he beans Azog's orc warriors like David slaying Goliath. Using his invisibility ring, Bilbo accompanies Legolas and Tauriel to warn the dwarfs about Bolg's army. Finally, his loyalty to and friendship with Thorin give him comfort after his recovery from gold fever and battle with Azog.
"Five Armies" paradoxically shows the cruel uselessness of war, especially for inherently useless gold. Evil beings might be vanquished, but good beings can also lose everything, including relationships and even lives, unnecessarily. However, as in the novel, "Five Armies" suggests that the only "good" war is one where evil IS vanquished or at least kept at bay. Through Bilbo's mere presence, "Five Armies" reveals that the way to a better, happier world is steadfast loyalty, friendship, and a desire for peace. Oh, good food and drink don't hurt either.
A Spectacular Blend of Bond Derring-Do, Paranoid Government Conspiracy, and "Star Wars" Aerial Acrobatics (and of course a Superhero and a (maybe) Supervillain)
"Captain America: The First Avenger" was generally a hugely satisfying, if somewhat rushed, introduction of a superhuman patriot who forthrightly fights for truth, justice, and the American way. Before we could find out how his '40s and World War II experiences shaped Cap's (Chris Evans) outlook, battles with sinister Nazi scientific/military organizations cryogenically thrust him forward into our shockingly unfamiliar world. Of course, part of the reason for this was that he had to be available for "Avengers" movies. Nevertheless, this time travel motif set up the always engrossing and recurring conflict between Cap's straight-arrow traditional beliefs and today's more obscure, ambiguous, and even cynical concepts of right and wrong. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (hereafter Cap A:WS") explores this conflict, and many others, with soul-stirring action, rousing battles, labyrinthine, twisty, secret government agendas, and the near-Kafkaesque difficulty in telling the good guys from the bad guys in today's world.
"Cap A:WS" begins in Washington, DC with Cap (aka: Steve Rogers) literally running circles around his new friend and partner Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), an aerial rescue expert whose alter ego is the high-soaring Falcon, at the Reflecting Pool. Cap is still trying to get accustomed to 21st century modern life in his own unique version of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sam works at the local VA hospital and invites Steve to hear about wounded veterans' experiences and put his own into perspective. Despite his on-going culture shock, and his suspicions about S.H.I.E.L.D.'s ultimate objectives, Steve/Cap still ably participates on missions under the watchful eye (literally) of the stern, enigmatic Colonel Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson).
On Fury's orders, Steve/Cap, along with exquisitely martial-arts trained Russian (double?) spy Natasha Romanoff (aka: Black Widow) (Scarlett Johansson), goes on what he thinks is a routine mission to save some S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel held as hostages aboard a ship by brutal mercenary Georges Batroc (Georges St. Pierre). After a bruising battle, Steve/Cap and Natasha succeed in freeing the hostages, but then notices that the mission had another purpose unknown to him, but quite known to Natasha: retrieve a flash drive disk containing important information. Steve angrily confronts Fury about this deception; Fury responds that the data pertains to the Insight Program, a type of national defense shield programmed to neutralize all hostile threats. However, S.H.I.E.L.D is unable to decipher the flash drive's data, prompting Fury to see an old acquaintance, World Security Chairman Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) to persuade him to delay implementing INSIGHT. Pierce apparently acquiesces.
Subsequently, while driving home, Fury is ambushed by mercenaries disguised as cops and led by the Winter Soldier, an unidentified masked assassin with a metallic left arm who has superhuman abilities equal to Steve's/Cap's. Despite grievous injuries, Fury escapes to the sanctuary of Steve's/Cap's apartment, gives Steve the flash drive disk, warns him to "trust no one", and expires. Now it's up to Cap, Natasha, and Sam to avoid the Winter Soldier and his hordes (and other, unexpected people) and find out what is on the disk. Eventually the trio uncover another organization with a name straight out of Greek mythology (and an apt name, too, if you know your Greek mythology) with short-term plans to seize S.H.I.E.L.D. satellites to kill millions of people, and long-term plans for world domination through promises of security. Not only do the trio have to stop this somehow without getting killed, they have to find out if S.H.I.E.L.D., the INSIGHT program and Councilman Pierce are complicit in this, AND defeat the Winter Soldier and uncover his identity (Hint: It's somebody from Steve's/Cap's past, a most unexpected somebody.)
"Cap A:WS" certainly zooms (often literally) above a typical mindless superhero brawl and even a "Star Wars"-type dogfight, and is certainly more thrilling, emotionally draining, and substantial. As my review title mentions, "Cap A:WS" is an enhanced, more muscular, more windingly complex (you have to pay attention) and even more relevant update of the Bond movies, dealing with national security and fear and the sometimes tyrannical lengths government will go to preserve one and banish the other. The movie deals with the paranoic effect corrupt agencies have on human loyalty, trust, and integrity and the psychological toll it can take; for example, even though they are effective partners, Natasha's shady, double- crossing, mendacious past makes Steve feel a wee bit distrustful of her. Ditto for Steve's testy interactions with Fury. The movie even finds time for Steve/Cap to encounter reminders and would-be lovers from his past, and the bittersweet, nostalgic feelings they produce. Not least important, "Cap A: WS" illustrates the strength of friendship, even if one person is more committed to the friendship than the other, and the sacrifices that committed person is willing to make to resurrect that friendship. You'll recognize that friendship if you see the movie.
And I most enthusiastically recommend you do see "Cap A:WS", both a critical and commercial triumph, because it is that oxymoronic rarity, the "intelligent action movie" It stimulates your adrenaline and emotions, and it challenges your reasoning and your ethics, and it reassures you that despite the lies, deceit, disillusionment, hatred, and betrayals that seemingly overwhelm our modern world, you don't have to be Captain America, Black Widow, or Falcon to have the will to defy these bad things and do the right thing (you'll recognize that scene when you see it).
Jurassic World (2015)
It Only Makes Sense for a Hybrid "Dinosaur Movie" to Have a Hybrid Dinosaur
I knew it, I just knew it – or at least partially knew it. In my IMDb review for "Jurassic Park III (which I admired very much, by the way, so there!!!) I predicted that the follow-up movie would involve some kind of dinosaur DNA manipulation and creation of new dinosaur hybrids. Lo and behold, the movie Jurassic World (hereafter "JW") introduces a hybrid, christened "Indomitus Rex (I-rex)" which is an amalgam of T-Rex and raptor DNA, plus non-dinosaur DNA such as from the tree frog and the cuttlefish (which is a type of gastropod or squid with chromatophores that allow it to camouflage itself by changing colors). That's why, in addition to its extra knife-like teeth, robust arms, and Wolverine-like claws, I-Rex has the "Predator" - like ability to blend seamlessly into its surroundings. Basically, it looks like the Spinosaurus from "JPIII" without the spines. I-Rex came into being, because, according to JW's operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the InGen-owned dinosaur theme park was suffering diminishing attendance as people were getting jaded and blasé about "ordinary" dinosaurs, (which I found hard to believe) and needed a brand-new, better dinosaur. InGen and JW succeeded beyond their wildest nightmares.
As my title suggests, originality and social commentary are not high on JW's agenda. Even as it borrows and copies scenes and concepts (sometimes almost wholesale) from all three of its Jurassic Park movie predecessors, JW doesn't bang you over the head with the ethical implications of cloning and exploiting dinosaurs for human amusement. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) are not present to poke at our consciences. No, JW borrows from yet another movie source, the "Godzilla" films, to scare both park and movie audiences with a terrifying, practically invincible monster attacking everything in its path, sometimes (as with the apatosaurs) just for the thrill of it.
Actually, there is one person who does disapprove of "JW"'s hybridization program. That would be rugged, good-looking, Navy veteran Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) who for some inexplicable reason is serving as surrogate mother and "whisperer" to a pack of raptors who imprinted on him upon hatching (as implied from the movie's beginning). But for whatever reason he attempts to "tame" and "control" his charges, he has no intention of allowing InGen security head Vic Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio) to use the raptors as military weapons a la the "Alien" franchise (I was thinking how Vic would do such a thing; despite their speed and ferocity, raptors can't fire guns and aren't bullet-proof – oh well). Therefore, besides the distracted, workaholic, ex-girlfriend Claire, Owen has to constantly butt heads with Vic.
Anyway, before long, the I-Rex uses his chameleon powers and cunning as well as brute strength to escape from his remote enclosure and make his deadly bee-line for the theme park. To complicate matters further, Claire's nephews, dinosaur geek expert Gray (Ty Simpkins) and his hormonally-charged older brother Zach (Nick Robinson) are simultaneously visiting the park. Therefore, the plot simply involves stopping the I-Rex before it destroys the park, kills off or frees the other dinosaurs, decimates the customers, including Zach and Gray, and, horror of horrors, sinks InGen's latest investment!
In some ways, besides having similarities to the movies already mentioned, JW resembles "Independence Day" in the way that it is engrossing, exciting, and involving, just so long as you don't think too deeply about it. Otherwise, you will notice the nagging inconsistencies and foolish, nonsensical behavior like - the I-Rex crashing through walls - a security guard hiding behind a car that the I-Rex can flip like a Tonka toy - Claire running in high heels (even after Owen tells her to lose them) - the raptors switching loyalties back and forth between Owen and the I-Rex - Vic sticking his hand out to pet a snarling raptor - Claire (still in high heels) going to a secret enclosure to summon guess who (no,it's not King Kong) to take on the I-Rex in a pulse-pounding, earth-shaking climactic fight, - the mosasaur (the colossal water creature) demonstrating both the deus ex machina principle and the Chekov gun principle, if you know what I mean (if you don't, you can look up those principles on Wikipedia, as I did).
But, hey, it's summer. Who thinks during the summer? "JW" is the perfect example of the Summer Dinosaur Monster movie. Send your brain to bed and let JW treat you and your emotions to an immensely rollicking good time!
Meet the New Species Same as the Old Species
Chimpanzees' and other primates' image as mischievous, comical, banana-loving cut-ups has been shattered. As recent studies have established, primates share at least 98% of our genetic code and also share humankind's penchant for killing and eating meat and violently squabbling with others for food, mates, and even territory. Add to that the fact that the average chimp is at least five times stronger than the average man, and you realize that the post-apocalyptic simian society portrayed by "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" (hereafter "Dawn") may not be an acid-trip fantasy at all. It just may be an imminent terrifying reality. Maybe those who advocate granting (or have even already granted) chimps and orangutans full-fledged protected human status should reconsider.
"Dawn" begins 10 years after the end of "Rise of The Planet of the Apes" (hereafter "Rise") after the mentally-enhanced apes led by Caesar (motion captured again by Andy Serkis) fled San Francisco to the safety of the Muir Woods (replayed in a montage at the beginning of the film). They have established a basic treetop village society, subsist largely on deer, and, though capable of speech, mostly communicate by sign language. An epidemic simian flu has eradicated the human race – or so the apes believe since they haven't seen a single human in 10 years. However, when a human hunting party stumbles upon a small group of apes and one shoots and wounds an ape named Ash (Doc Shaw), the apes investigate San Francisco's semi-decayed ruins and realize a sizable group of human still survive, led by rational, conciliatory, peace-seeking leader Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and more impulsive, belligerent, and ape-loathing leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).
The reason apes and men have mutually avoided each other is because San Francisco has had enough fuel supplies to support a quasi-civilized existence. But the fuel supply will be depleted within 3 weeks and the only source of alternative power is an electric dam situated in ape territory. Malcolm and his wife Ellie (Keri Russell) a former CDC nurse and her son by another father, the artistic Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) manage to gain an audience with the deeply distrustful Caesar to get permission to re-start the dam, which Caesar grudgingly grants, provided they finish within 3 days and bring no weapons. Malcolm complies.
Just as the sensible, "live and let live" Malcolm and Caesar complement each other, vengeful, reckless Dreyfus finds a match in Koba, a confidant to Caesar, and a fiery, bitter, aggressive human-hater because of the painful experiments to which human scientists subjected him. So, paralleling Malcolm's and Caesar's efforts at a truce and détente, and even Alex's literary relationship with the orangutan instructor Maurice (Karin Konoval), is Koba's efforts to prove to Caesar that the humans cannot be trusted. And in one of his forays into the city, Koba finds just that proof – an armory stockpiled with guns, ammunition, and war machines. Nevertheless, Caesar continues to trust Malcolm, so Koba dangerously takes control of things by first shooting and apparently killing Caesar.
He then learns to strong-arm and intimidate some followers to grab some of the guns and launch an assault at the human refuge (the former stock exchange, I think) to kill and enslave both humans and apes sympathetic to humans. Koba then ensconces himself within a tower. Fortunately, Koba only wounded Caesar; Malcolm and Ellie locate him and dress his injuries and help Caesar's wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) recover from giving birth to Milo. They even manage to free Koba's prisoners (both ape and human) and regroup at Caesar's childhood home in "Rise". Malcolm agrees to buy Caesar time to confront Koba at the tower, but Dreyfus has installed plastic explosives within the tower. Also, since the dam has successfully powered up, Dreyfus's gang has even managed to establish contact with the outside world – namely a military base up north ready to fly down and help. Can Caesar reconcile with Koba and keep the fragile peace? Or have Dreyfus's and Koba's shameful actions doomed everybody?
"Dawn", in its blatant but still sober and powerfully effective way, demonstrates the chaos that ensues when anyone (human or ape) abandons reason, harmony, brotherhood and diplomacy and gets caught up in fearful, deadly intolerance. "Dawn" magnifies this intolerance through its use by Dreyfus and Koba, whose fear and vengeance have caused indiscriminate death and brought them below the lowest human or ape. In Koba's case it is even worse because, as both "Rise" and "Dawn" argue, the primates were poised to supersede and be better than the humans because, as one of Malcolm's supporters comments, they combine human intelligence with their natural agility and strength that don't need energy sources and other human comforts. Caesar thought so, too. But with Koba's fall, Caesar grimly admits how alike humans and apes, for better and worse, really are. So when we witness the fires, explosions, attacks, shootings, and assaults both humans and apes in "Dawn" commit, we might be exhilarated, but we shouldn't. Instead, we should be sad at a mutually lost opportunity.
Signature Funny "Tom and Jerry" Hijinks that Still Respect the Classic Movie
Cartoon Network" has been playing this unlikely crossover movie for some time now. Being a "Tom and Jerry" and, of course, "Wizard of Oz" movie fan, I plopped myself into my easy chair and watched "Tom and Jerry and the Wizard of Oz" (hereafter T&J&WOOZ) one day, curious to see if it would work. To my delightful surprise, it does, and should satisfy both "Tom and Jerry" and "Wizard of Oz (1939)" fans.
The cartoon is essentially a nearly shot-for-shot duplication of "The Wizard of Oz" (including the "Over the Rainbow" singing sequence), with Tom and Jerry accidentally tagging along for the ride. The only scenes missing are Dorothy's first encounters with the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and Cowardly Lion, plus a few minor others, which was prudent because otherwise it would have inhibited T&J&WOOZ's manic pace. In this feature, the cat and mouse are mostly allies, trying to help Dorothy get back home to Kansas. However, every so often, they hilariously get their licks in against each other. Other "Tom and Jerry universe" characters appear, such as Tuffy the Munchkin Mouse, who wants the Wizard to make him taller (SPOILER: The Wizard gives him stilts), Droopy the phlegmatic head of the witch's guard, and Spike the Irish bulldog as a hapless guard trainee who always manages to hit Droopy with his pikestaff.
I think both children and adults will enjoy this lightning-paced and even harrowing and suspenseful movie, especially the climactic scene as Tom, Jerry, and Tuffy attempt to get a bucket of water to Dorothy to take care of the Wicked Witch of the West, including lassoing a little storm cloud. It has vintage Tom and Jerry cartoon violence (including lightning jolts) but nothing too upsetting except for really sensitive children. But somehow TJ&WOOZ preserves and respects "Wizard"'s classic stature with fluid, vibrant colors and movement, and even enhances it with the cat and mouse's presence. The duo are not a sideshow; they truly are integral to "Wizard"'s plot. It's kinda like an animated "Wizard of Oz: The Lost Scenes".
So please relax, "Wizard of Oz" movie purists. T&J&WOOZ is no travesty. Not at all.
A "Lost Dragon" is Just the Tip of the (Lonely) Mountain for Our Intrepid Cat-and-Mouse Duo
With successive direct-to-video releases, Tom and Jerry have convincingly proved that they can support and enhance plots that last more than five minutes. However, "Tom and Jerry: The Lost Dragon" (hereafter "Lost Dragon") really puts even our energetic duo through their paces. Seeing the DVD cover, one might conclude that Tom and Jerry only have to worry about taking care of a baby dragon that hatched from a missing pearl-like egg (and has imprinted upon Tom) until they can return it to his frantic, ferocious mother. Ah, but the plot is more involved than this.
"Lost Dragon" actually begins in a medieval elf village where the Gandalf-like wizard Kaldorf (voice of the dependable Jim Cummings) bans the sinister, threatening witch Drizelda (voice of Vicki Lewis) from the town. Drizelda tries to entice her niece Athena (voice of Kelly Stables) to follow her into exile, but the tender-hearted girl prefers to stay with Kaldorf and the elves. Of course, Drizelda vows revenge.
In spite of her good nature and love of animals (including Tom and Jerry), the elf citizens, especially the vain, shrewish Elf Elder's wife (voice of Lauraine Newman), who loves hideous hats, prejudicially distrust Athena. Therefore, with Tom and Jerry (mostly Jerry) as assistants, Athena retires to the woods and runs a sort of animal menagerie hospital/refuge. Athena tries her best to win over the townspeople, and is on the verge of doing so, but you-know-who (plus a manic warthog) keep messing things up.
Meanwhile, Drizelda has sent her henchmen (henchcats) Tin (voice of Greg Ellis), Pan (voice of Jess Harnell), and Alley (Richard McGonagle) to steal the pearl/egg from the forbidden, treasure-filled mountain lair of a fire-breathing dragon. She seeks the pearl-egg to increase her magic power. They succeed but the mother dragon gives chase and makes them lose the pearl-egg, where Tom and Jerry find it floating down the river.
So as I said before, taking care of a mischievous, flying, fire-breathing dragon that thinks the lazy, kinda-chicken Tom is his mother is just the beginning of the duo's adventures. Can Tom and Jerry put aside their eternal bickering and one-oneupmanship to get the baby (named Puffy, also voiced by Kelly Stables) safely to its mother before the angry mother torches the countryside looking for it, AND before Drizelda steals the dragons' fire to become a super- dragon herself, AND help Athena gain the village's acceptance?
"Lost Dragon" answers these burning (no pun intended) questions with a lively medieval plot that borrows from both "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" and "Dragonslayer" chock-full of thunderous action, suspenseful danger, and evil incantations. Of course, Tom and Jerry do what they do best, but they are not out of place in this energetic tale, and in their own reliable slap-sticky way try to help Athena, the village, Puffy, and his mother to their respective happy endings.
"Tom and Jerry" fans should get their quota (and more) of cat-and-mouse shenanigans and pratfalls (including the scene where Tom and Jerry are falling from a great height and Tom looks at his watch to see when they'll hit the ground), while medieval/Tolkien fans should get a pleasant homage and send-up of their obsessions. "Lost Dragon" is an eventful and ultimately satisfying animated journey.
P.S.: Despite the fire-and-brimstone aspects of the story, "Lost Dragon" shouldn't really disturb children, even sensitive ones, although what happens to baby Puffy and mama dragon after Drizelda steals their fire might be considered shocking. Otherwise, everybody should be able to enjoy this latest "Tom and Jerry" adventure without nightmares.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (2015)
Here He Comes to Save the – Whoops! Crash! Ow! Sorry! – Day Again!
During one of those Three Stooges life retrospectives that pop up now and again on TV, I remember the narrator (don't remember his name) remarking about Curly Howard: "Nobody likes him except the public." I think this observation applies to actor Kevin James as well. He may never become the darling of uppity, sophisticated, "cultured" critics, especially if he continues pursuing "Lovable Schlump" roles. But to the hoi polloi (regular folks), James perfectly embodies that endearing eternal underdog everyman determined to succeed no matter how many detractors he has, how many faults he has, and how many obstacles life puts in his way. This explains why his latest movie, "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2" (hereafter "Blart 2") is confounding those disdainful critics with an unexpected, initial, 3-week box office take that has already twice recouped its $30 million budget, which by definition makes this movie a hit.
In the first "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" movie, Blart (Kevin James) rises above his limitations to successfully defend a mall from, and eventually capture, an acrobatic band of thieves. In "Blart 2", the sequel, Blart has fashioned a noteworthy 6-year mall cop career (in spite of the headaches he receives from ungrateful customers he helps). Therefore, he feels confident that he will be chosen as the main speaker at a mall cop convention taking place in Las Vegas.
However a series of set-backs, both self-inflicted and beyond his control, gradually seems to erode his self-esteem. Checking into a Vegas hotel with his radiant, sensible, and comfortably confident daughter Maya (Raini Rodriguez), Blart makes a self-conscious, clumsy, insecure fool of himself before Divina Martinez, the hotel general manager. He both annoys, and yet fascinates, Divina by boasting about his mall cop abilities and the desire Divina MUST be feeling for him. Blart also embarrasses and frustrates Maya with his obsessive overprotectiveness and suspicion towards her love interest, Lane (David Henrie) – a product of his fear of loneliness since his divorce six years ago. Worst of all, Blart learns that he was not chosen to be the mall cop convention main speaker. Finally, adding injury and insult to injury, an exotic crane-like bird kicks the crap out of him while he tries to seek solitude and pull himself together.
Then dangerous things start to happen. While attending a party with Lance at an abandoned hotel suite, Maya accidentally opens a door to the adjoining suite, which happens to be occupied by fine art thieves led by the well-groomed, ruthless Vincent (Neal McDonough). Vincent holds both Maya and Lane hostage. Maya tries to contact her dad by cellphone, but Paul glumly ignores her calls both because of the main speaker slight and because Maya had earlier told him to leave her alone. But fate also has some good things in store for Paul. The main speaker has become drunk and incapacitated, so Paul is asked to substitute. After a faltering start, he manages to give an inspirational speech about why mall cops are needed. Maya's resourcefulness and scientific ingenuity finally manage to warn her dad about the danger she's in. As a result, Paul slowly gets his act together as he combines his own MacGyver-like scientific smarts, his killer Segway-riding ability, the help of his heroic fellow mall cop attendees Donna Ericone (Loni Love), Nick Manero (Nicholas Turturro), and Saul Gundermutt (Gary Valenture), and his fatherly determination to save his daughter to track down and confront Vincent's international, professional criminals.
You could have a field day shredding apart "Blart 2"'s improbable storyline, ludicrous coincidences, and juvenile slapstick (e.g. Vincent and his team being found out by a teenager, Blart surviving a horse's kick). However, in my opinion, even at his bullheaded, maladroit worst, and even when you are cracking up at his predicament, Kevin James's Blart keeps you rooting for him, because he is fighting a world that thinks that he's no good to prove, after all, that he has the proper stuff to be a worthwhile father, mall cop, and man. If Blart, the "underest" of underdogs, can beat the odds (and without uttering any profanity or resorting to preaching), then the rest of us can overcome our personal shortcomings and triumph.
P.S.: In the Sunday, April 12, 2015 edition of Parade magazine, Kevin James's own article "Underdogs" explains how his Paul Blart character parallels and reflects his own resolve to overcome his hard-knock life to become a noted standup comedian and TV/movie actor.
American Sniper (2014)
This War Movie is Both Straightforward and Ambiguous, Like Its Protagonist, Who Emerges as a Bit of An Unknown Soldier.
At least in the post-Vietnam era, arguably, good war movies should make poor military recruitment videos. In other words, they should make you want to stay as far the hell away from the hell of war as possible. By this standard, director Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" (hereafter "AS") is at least partially a good movie. Even though its protagonist, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), appears to be a decent, good-old-boy, patriotic Texan eager to enlist in the U.S. Navy and become a Navy SEAL after hearing of U.S. embassy bombings, his Iraqi Gulf War military experiences, I don't think, would make most people want to visit Iraq and kill terrorists. Nevertheless, "AS" also seems to retain some of the gung-ho spirit of straightforward pre-Vietnam movies to make the case that this is a "worthwhile" war in the sense that it was necessary to protect American security. Perhaps AS is both straightforward and ambiguous, both in its depiction of wartime heroics and atrocities, and its depiction of a soldier that revels in, and is damaged by, his role as a sniper.
Through the obligatory, practically-cliché montage of boot camp training and bellowing, obscene drill instructors, Chris manages to distinguish himself as a SEAL and particularly a sniper (perhaps the modern-day equivalent of a quick-draw gunslinger). Before shipping out to Iraq, post-9/11, he clumsily but earnestly woos Taya Renae (Sienna Miller) in a bar and eventually weds her. In "AS", Taya serves as the back-home, civilization counterpoint to the war, and the gauge of Chris's personality changes. Even though some may see sniping as a safe, unmanly way to fight a war, "AS" convinces us that that is not so. From strategic rooftops Kyle essentially provides a kind of reconnaissance for the other American troops by correctly identifying and picking off potential guerrillas and hidden assassins. It is intense, nerve-wracking work not only because he has to nail the killers before they blow up the troops, but also because he has only a split-second to determine IF they are killers, and not innocent bystanders. It is possible that a mother and son can be a deadly threat.
Chris proves adept at killing the "right" people and earns the name "Legend" from his grateful squad for his numerous hits. But perhaps to hedge his bets about proving Chris's bravery, Eastwood also has Chris fighting in the streets alongside his fellow soldiers and helping them hunt for the al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; during house-to-house searches in abandoned areas. After Chris's and an interpreter's intense, heated interrogation, an Iraqi father and son offer to lead Chris to al-Zarqawi. The search is thwarted by al-Zarqawi's sadistic lieutenant, "The Butcher" (Mido Hamada) who literally likes drilling soldiers and civilians alike. Chris fails to save the father and son from the "Butcher", which haunts him after he returns home from his first tour. Although, grimly and humorously, if improbably, Chris keeps in touch with Taya by cellphone during lulls in the action, including learning of his wife's impending pregnancy, he finds it hard to settle into civilian life.
After that, "AS" settles into alternating, occasionally tedious, warzone/homefront scenes as subsequent three tours makes it increasingly more difficult for Chris to adjust back to home life. Guilt at being unable to save all fellow soldier lives, Post-Traumatic-Strees Disorder, and his vengeful desire to kill not only the "savage Butcher" but a rival, equally-skilled, Olympic- level Iraqi sniper Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) compel Chris to go back to the warzone . Of course this frays his relationship with Taya. Chris generally succeeds in carrying out his vengeance, and through a blinding sandstorm, returns home to stay. It's still a struggle to get acclimated to home, as encounters with a nurse and an overactive hound saw, but Chris, especially with help by a VA hospital, finds peace counseling fellow wounded, maladjusted veterans. But in that healing, counseling process, Chris ironically and tragically meets "friendly fire".
"AS" is a quite more-than-adequate "War is Crazy Hell But Sometimes Necessary" movie that also manages to advance the old adage of "Hate the war but love the soldier." Despite his alienation from his family and his sometimes racist regard for the Iraqi's, Bradley Cooper manages to depict Chris as a fundamentally solid, good man who may have been warped by his war experiences. Whether that assessment is true for the real, departed Chris Kyle will always be open to spirited debate (hero or barbarian?), because in spite of "AS" the movie and the autobiographical novel which inspired it, he will always be something of an unknown soldier, even to his grieving, loved ones, personal and public.
What If a Disney Princess (and Queen) Were an X-Man?
Most unexpectedly, Disney's "Frozen" (hereafter "D's Frozen") subtly reconfigures and directs the seemingly tiresome tropes and conventions of their romantic "princess movies" into uncharted "Marvel comic" territory and themes. The main protagonist (AND apparently antagonist) Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel) is far more than your run-of-the-mill glamorous elder princess, then (Snow) Queen of the kingdom of Arondelle. She possesses nearly unlimited, almost magical power to control and shape ice and snow.
In a Marvel comic, she'd be considered a mutant with the combined powers of Ice-Man and Storm. Unfortunately and tragically, she lives in medieval times and does not have the guidance of a Charles Xavier-like mentor to help her harness the power for mankind's benefit. Well, there IS a (literally) stone troll king, Grand Pabbie (voice of Ciaran Hinds) who is aware of the extent of Elsa's powers. However, all he can recommend to Elsa's father (voice of Maurice LaMarche) and mother (voice of Jennifer Lee), King and Queen of Arendelle, is cruel, complete isolation from all humanity until she is mature enough to ascend the Arondelle throne.
Part of the reason Elsa is held in quarantine is because in childhood, while using her powers to create a winter playground for herself and younger sister Princess Anna (adult voice of Kristen Bell), she accidentally injured her head. Although non-superpowered and "normal", Anna heals with the Troll King's help. Having no memory of the incident, Anna is distraught and perplexed as to why Elsa cannot come out to play. Still, the coronation day comes, and Elsa seems to be in emotional control of herself and her abilities. Not for long. Elsa gets upset when beautiful but impulsive Anna immediately intends to get hitched to comely Southern Isles prince Hans (voice of Santino Fontana), a guy she met only minutes before in a boating "mishap". Already tense and anxious, Elsa unleashes an ice age on Arondelle and flees the shocked citizenry for the lonely refuge of the mountains.
Anna may be a mere mortal, and a bit clumsy, but she is unswervingly determined to locate and reconcile with her sister and convince her to thaw out the kingdom. This sounds like a straight-arrow objective, but many complications come into play. One, Elsa finally finds peace and the freedom to be herself in the mountains, which is celebrated in the ubiquitous, destined-to-be ageless ballad "Let It Go", and literally carves out an ice palace for herself. Two, although Anna teams up with loner ice-delivery man Kristoff (voice of Jonathan Groff) and his faithful, dog-like reindeer Sven, and a wacky snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), they at first don't seem to be much help. Kristoff, like Elsa, just wants to be left alone, and Olaf keeps falling apart and foolishly wishing he could move to the tropics. But, with Sven's urging, Anna's tenacity and persistence bring this odd duo around. Third, some in the coronation party, like the Duke of Weselton ('Weaselton") voice of Alan Tudyk) and others, consider Elsa a monster and want to eliminate her. Fourth, Elsa accidentally causes Anna to suffer a "heart freeze" that could prove fatal. Can Anna achieve this miracle and save both Elsa and herself? According to the Troll King, true love is the key. But what is this true love?
"D's Frozen" continues the Mouse House's rise above older cartoon sentiments and happily- ever-after resolutions and marriages (mostly) and explores more advanced, modern emotions and themes. In Marvel Comics "X-men", mutants deal with adolescent anxiety and confusion about their powers, their fear of losing control of their powers and causing death and destruction, and the prejudicial hostility of a society that can't and won't understand them. Elsa faces these same dilemmas. "D's Frozen" moves beyond superficial, helpless romantic puppy love (like that of Anna and Hans) into more substantial love and friendship like the one within a family and between sisters. It also moves beyond conventional villains (although there are a few, and at least one unanticipated one) to show that our own worst enemies are our inhibitions and fears. "D's Frozen" also continues the relatively recent Disney movement to create independent, self-assured women who do not automatically need men to face and overcome danger and obstacles. And naturally, most importantly, "D's Frozen" helps us figure out what that true love is, with, amazingly, the help of that "wise fool" Olaf. True love is captured in the phrase that begins, "No greater love hath a man (person) for another than to .".
Best of all, "D's Frozen" achieves the weighty themes mentioned above with excellent visually artistry, suspenseful and sometimes heart-thumping action, naturally funny slapstick and verbal humor, dazzling musical numbers, satisfying character development, and happiness that is not dependent upon a "deus ex machina", but hard-won. Not bad for this Disney/Marvel collaboration. Not bad at all.
P.S.: If you have the patience to wade through the end credits, you'll find a funny disclaimer addressing Kristoff's opinion about men and their noses, and the final fate of the abominable snowman Elsa creates to protect herself from attack.
21st Century, Digital Media Update of the Quintessential "Rags to Riches" Tale is a High-Spirited Delight
have a terrible confession straight out of "Ripley's Believe It Or Not". Before seeing 2014's "Annie" (hereafter "Annie 2014"), I had never seen any "Annie" movie or play, including the current 2014 musical. Of course I was familiar with the basic characters and the comic strip, "Little Orphan Annie" which inspired all these productions. Who isn't? I mention this to warn any readers that I can't compare "Annie 2014" to any previous incarnations. I leave that to other posters more knowledgeable about "Annie" lore.
OK, blah, blah, blah, on to the movie. As my title suggests, "Annie 2014" is set in modern- day, digital technology crazy New York. Quvenzhané Wallis is now Annie, a bright, spunky, creative young lady and foster child (NOT "orphan", thank you). She lives in a two-story foster home "run" by the ill-tempered shrew Miss Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). When not attending school, each day Annie, doggedly seeking her true birth parents, hangs around a local Italian restaurants based on the slight suggestion that her parents often patronize the establishment. They never show, and each time the restaurant owner consoles Annie with a cannoli.
On the other end of the class spectrum, digital phone tycoon William"Will" Stacks (Jamie Foxx, playing the Daddy Warbucks character) is running a faltering campaign for New York mayor. It's no wonder because Will is a surprisingly introverted germophobe living a lonely bachelor life in his vast, high-tech penthouse. The only people with whom he has any personal relationship are Grace Farrell (Rose Byrne), a solicitous, efficient personal assistant harboring a secret yearning for Will, and Guy (Bobby Cannavale), a PR dynamo frantically working ANY angle to boost Will's poll numbers. When, by sheer chance, Will saves Annie from being run over, Guy sees this as an opportunity to show New York that if Will is willing to be a stepparent to penniless waif Annie -at least until she finds her true parents- then Will does truly care about all New Yorkers and will represent them well as mayor. Of course, Will strenuously opposes the idea of a kid complicating his orderly life, but of course he's no match for the winsome Annie, who erodes all of Will's defenses.
The PR stunt works - for a while. Will's poll numbers surge, and Annie becomes the sweetheart of New York. Still, despite her "rags to riches" ascent, Annie cannot give up her dream of finding her birth parents. Besides, the rich man/poor girl political attraction is beginning to wear thin. So conniving Guy arranges to have those "birth" parents appear, authenticated down to their DNA. Will, for so long being a socially clumsy misanthrope, has come to care for and love Annie like a daughter and is unwilling to give her up. But something fishy is going on now, and Will and company will have to employ all the technological gadgets at his command to get Annie back.
"Annie 2014" is a well-paced visual and auditory delight. New York appears as a vibrant, ultra-modern, and inviting metropolis, especially when Will takes Annie on a helicopter tour of the city. The musical numbers are integrated naturally into and advance the plot instead of hindering it (The well-known "Hard-Knock Life" number, when Annie and her foster home sisters, at Miss Hannigan's ferocious bidding, turn into cleaning machines to tidy up the building in time for a health inspection, is a stunning example). Wallis's Annie is an uplifting character who is resourceful, feisty, and determined to overcome adversity (and a secret handicap) without being an insufferable brat. "Annie 2014" even has time for Grace's, Guy's, and Miss Hannigan's story arcs, where either they get rewarded for true loyalty, punished for unscrupulous loyalty, or get the chance for a good relationship once they soften up and repent. Foxx plays the billionaire as an aloof person not as someone you can't stand, but as a sad, isolated figure who you hope will cut back on the workaholic ways he followed since he was a kid and let the people who care for him in. Not least, "Annie 2014" celebrates the power, wonder, and utility of smartphones, Facebook, Instagram, and laptop computers as a way to bring people closer together. And yes, the pooch playing Sandy is sweet and photogenic, even when Will is feeding him Annie's awful-tasting meals.
In short, Annie is a high-spirited delight calculated to sweeten any disposition.
Latest Underdog (Underplane?) Story Is Lousy with Clichés, But It's Not Lousy
About halfway through "Disney's Planes" (hereafter "D's Planes), one of Ripslinger's (voice of Roger Smith) bumbling lackeys (Ned or Zed, I couldn't tell) admits Dusty Crophopper's (voice of Dane Cook) efforts to compete in the worldwide flying race is a "compelling Rocky tale". I think he's mostly right, except "Rocky" ends a little bit differently. But "D's Planes" has the other "Rocky" clichés in abundance.
We have the underdog, a determined but outclassed and unlikely racing contender in the form of a low-flying cropduster (Dusty) who has the added handicap of acrophobia (fear of heights, but in this case, heights over 1,000 feet!). We have the underdog's loyal buddy and moral support in the form of the Mater-like fuel truck Chug (voice of Brad Garrett). We have the grizzled, gravelly-voiced, demanding racing trainer (and Dusty's idol) in the form of heroic veteran aerial bomber Skipper Riley (voice of Stacy Keach) who harbors a shameful secret. We have the unscrupulous, sneaky current flying champion, the aforementioned Ripslinger, and his minions (not THOSE minions) Ned and Zed (voice of Gabriel Iglesias), willing to do anything to knock Dusty out of the race. Finally, we have the diverse, colorful, if stereotypical fellow racers and opponents such as the veddy British Bulldog (voice of John Cleese), the flirtatious Rochelle (voice of Julie Louis-Dryfuss), and the flamboyant Casanova El Chupacabra (voice of Carlos Alazraqui).
Yup, we have the millionth version of the underdog tale. But, in the final analysis, so what? How many films are really that original anyway? And everyone likes a well-told, inspirational underdog story, no matter how many times we've heard it, right? Right? Well, anyway, I contend that "D's Planes" has several positive qualities that make this same old tale well worth watching.
The first, most striking one is its visual artistry and photo-simulating effects. Even though like its obvious ancestors "Cars" and "Cars II" we're dealing with sentient, living machines, the backgrounds and scenery feel so meticulously real and accurate. A second quality is "D's Planes" mechanical and aviation knowledge which I guess was inaccessible to most watchers except machine experts, but didn't make you feel stupid that you didn't know it (like me). I still found that knowledge was impressive. A third one is the race from the perspective of the airplanes - the bankings, the divebombings, the barrel rolls, the acrobatics- that convince you that absolutely nothing beats flying as the single most exciting, exhilarating activity on earth.
However, the most important quality is the underdog Dusty himself, on whose wings the movie hangs. Dusty is ambitious and determined to be more than a farm worker, but he is not brash and cocky. On the contrary, he is humble, hardworking, and gracious and helpful to everybody, even to opponents like Bulldog and El Chupacabra. As a result, Dusty begins to grow on others who would never have given him a chance before, and even begin to help him. Kindness CAN pay dividends. Dusty even persuades the reclusive Skipper to not only train him, but to even overcome his own stigma to come to Dusty's aid when Ripslinger tries to sabotage him. Yes, Dusty is a fine role model.
In conclusion, even though "D's Planes" lacks the adult sophistication of Pixar movies, and is going, more or less, where you think it's going, it makes the journey worthwhile. Besides the previously mentioned qualities, it's clean and family-friendly, except for a risqué bit involving removal of Dusty's "sprayer" to reduce weight and drag ("You can reattach it, right?"). The race showcases the globe well and the geological and climate obstacles the planes face. It convincingly converts the soul classic "Love Machine" into a ballad El Chupacabra uses to serenade Rochelle. Most effectively, though "D's Planes" doesn't insist upon it, like "Rocky", it convinces us that, regardless of the outcome, those who never give up are always winners.
Out to Sea (1997)
Two Comic and Acting Legends Keep This "Love Boat" Movie Merrily Afloat
"Out to Sea" (hereafter "OTS") is basically a melding of "Grumpy Old Men" (or "The Odd Couple", take your pick) with a typical "Love Boat" episode. Before you groan and decide this is something you might want to skip, I wish to assure you that comic and acting (and sadly, now departed) legends Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon effortlessly turn on the smooth, wacky, exasperated, and cunning charm to make OTS a laugh-filled, satisfying, if somewhat predictable romp.
The frantic fun begins when Matthau's character Charlie Gordon, a shifty gambler in hock with several bookies and loan sharks, persuades his despondent, widowed brother-in-law Herb Sullivan (Lemmon) to take a cruise with him on-board the Holland America liner Westerdam presumably to cheer him up. When Herb protests that neither of them can afford a cruise, Charlie assures him that he managed to wrangle free tickets. Herb grudgingly agrees.
Of course there's a catch. Only after they board the ship does Charlie inform Herb that in exchange for the free room and board, they must serve as dancing partners and escorts for "unattached" women passengers. Though Herb is understandably agitated with Charlie for this con, he figures he and Charlie can make the best of it. After all, cruises have all sorts of amenities and benefits, and the Central America/Mexico itinerary is enticing. Besides, Herb is a good dancer. But, of course, there are other catches.
One, while Herb can trip the light fantastic, Charlie can't. In fact, Charlie has all the dancing grace of the Scarecrow from "The Wizard of Oz". Two, their boss is the despotic, brown-nosing, and smugly irritating martinet Gil Godwin (Brent Spiner, in a role as diametrically opposite to his unemotional, rational role as Data the android from "Star Trek – The Next Generation" as a role can be). Gil is the cruise director from hell with a soul of a drill instructor. He warns all the dance partners that dancing is as far as it goes with the women passengers. Any kind of relationship, even the most casual, is strictly forbidden. Naturally, Gil keeps a haughty eye on Herb and Charlie – especially Charlie, who spends much of the movie shirking his dancing duties and dodging and disobeying Gil's edicts.
And so "OTS" launches into a comedy of deception, mistaken identity, and screwball antics. Besides avoiding Gil, Charlie keeps busy by playing poker against the snobbish, wealthy card expert Cullen Carswell and doggedly wooing the apparently glamorous, well-to-do Liz LaBreche (a still stunning Dyan Cannon), traveling with her ornery, cantankerous mother Mavis (Elaine Stritch) who wants her to marry someone worthy of her social station and who instantly disapproves of Charlie. Meanwhile, the more subdued Herb finds his own romantic interaction with Vivian (Gloria DeHaven), a fetching widow traveling with her grown daughter and son-in-law. They are mutually attracted to each other. Problem is, Vivian, through Charlie's interference, believes Herb is a doctor. Herb is actually a retired Gimbel's sales clerk, but is afraid to tell Vivian the truth because he doesn't want to disappoint her. Besides, Herb still stubbornly yearns for his deceased wife of 46 years, Susie.
Again, the plot is straight out of any "Love Boat" episode, but Matthau and Lemmon are consummate, confident pros who can squeeze laughs out of the most outlandish doings. Through both physical slapstick and quick and sharp dialogue, Matthau and Lemmon seem to be having a ball in "OTS" and therefore let us have fun, too. And yet, good comedies always have a core of emotion and pathos. Both Matthau and Lemmon have it in "OTS" and so we hope that they can rise above the sticky deceptions and white lies they have built and find love and fulfillment. Do they? Well, think about any "Love Boat" episode and how it turns out that Herb and Charlie aren't the only ones harboring secrets in the movie, not least Gil and his shameless flattering of ship owner Ellen Carruthers (Rue McClanahan) in order to secure a promotion, and rest assured that poetic justice comes into play.
P.S.: Although I have been on several cruises with several cruise lines, including Holland America, I have never been on the Westerdam. OTS showcases the ship well and I'm sure Holland America was grateful for the publicity. I would love to take a trip on the Westerdam someday.
Dumb and Dumber To (2014)
Inferior Sequel, Inferior Schmequel! All I Know Is, This Movie Made Me Laugh a Lot!,
Judging from the lukewarm, mediocre Amazon ratings for "Dumb and Dumber To" (hereafter "D&D To"), the movie is a major let-down from its classic predecessor. I'm not in a position to address this opinion because, frankly, I only kinda, sorta half-saw the original "Dumb and Dumber", and that was years ago, and on TV, and it may have been censored. Yeah, I know, I should be ashamed of myself. But comedy sequels are often a dicey proposition, because the first movie is always the funniest since the humor is unexpected, and the sequels more or less have to include some of the earlier funny stuff to have some continuity. But, off course, seeing the funny stuff a second or third time is (usually) not as satisfying because you know the joke. The "Naked Gun" trilogy (which "Dumb and Dumber" strongly resembles), starring the late, lamented Leslie Nielsen, might be considered a primary example of this. So maybe the "D&D To" movie haters have a point.
Well, as I say in my review title, all I know is that "D&D To" made me (and most of the movie audience I was with) laugh. "D&D To" hits the comedy road rolling from the beginning when, at a mental institution, Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) confesses to Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) that he was only pretending to be in a coma for the last 20 years and that Harry didn't have to feed him, push him in a wheelchair, wipe his butt, etc. It was just a practical joke. Naturally, Harry has no hard feelings and even offers to pull out Lloyd's catheter. Trouble is, the catheter is a little stubborn, even with Harry and two orderlies pulling on it...
Well, anyway, Lloyd and Harry are off on a new adventure. Harry learns from funeral home director (I think) Fraida Felcher that he may have had a daughter named Fanny (Rachel Melvin) by her. From an address on an envelope returned unread to Fraida, the guys EVENTUALLY figure out where Fanny lives. After the expected road trip mishaps, Lloyd and Harry learn that Fanny has changed her name to Penny and is apparently the adopted daughter of eminent scientist Dr. Pinchelow (Steve Tom) and Adele Pinchelow (Laurie Holden). Dr. Pinchelow has an invention he claims will change the course of humanity, but he is too ill to attend the El Paso science convention to present it and get an award. Turns out, Adele and servant (I guess) Travis (Rob Riggle) have been poisoning the doctor's food in a bid to snatch the invention and make millions. But the doctor sends Penny, who proves to be as much of a scatterbrain as Lloyd and Harry, to the convention in his place. Now Adele and Travis plan to bump off Penny as well. But as expected, Lloyd and Harry arrive at the Pinchlows' place to complicate matters even more. You see, Harry wants to find his daughter not only for the usual reasons, but also because he may need a compatible kidney. On top of that, Lloyd falls obsessively in love with Penny.
Okay, enough (or maybe too much) exposition. "D&D To" at least knows that it is largely a rehash of the original, since the end credits show juxtapositions of similar scenes from each movie. Perhaps "D&D To" was confident that its material was so outrageous that it could get as much laughs the second time. Again, I don't know about that. Essentially seeing this material for the first time, I can say is I laughed a majority of the time and only somewhat winced now and then at some scenes. I thought the catheter, envelope address mix-up, and lottery ticket scenes were slyly hilarious. The over-the-top "Funnel Nuts" game Travis, who's trying to eliminate the guys as well when they decide to try to find Penny at the convention, teaches Lloyd and Harry to play, makes you laugh and wince at the same time. Ditto for the icky way Lloyd gets a hearing aid for Harry after a train accident, and the icky way Lloyd and Harry get free beers at the convention. Some scenes, like the "wine cork" dream sequence and the homeless guy with the dead rat in his mouth, were admittedly more icky than funny, but that was infrequent.
Therefore, I recommend "D&D To" for that tiny group of people who have not seen the original movie and do not mind the occasional raunchy, scatological, or gross scene with their comedy. I also recommend "D&D To" because, despite what some Amazon posters have said, Lloyd and Harry are still basically decent guys, in spite of the sometimes harsh slapstick gags they play on each other and in spite of the last scene (which I bust a gut over, so sue me). After all, each makes a sacrifice to save the other.
P.S.: For a second sequel, however, I think it might be fun for the "Dumb and Dumber" franchise to do a spoof of "Flowers for Algernon", where a retarded person becomes a genius through surgery. It's just a suggestion, to make things different and interesting.
The People That Time Forgot (1977)
Hokey But Surprisingly Competent and Well-Paced Prehistoric Rescue Mission
It's easy to pick on and ridicule the movie "The People That Time Forgot" (hereafter "PTF"), based on "Tarzan" creator Edgar Rice Burroughs's prehistoric fantasy tale. Many posters have detailed the clunky special effects and matte painting backgrounds, anachronistic features such as Hun-like barbarians with horses (!) in a secluded tropical land within frozen Antarctica (maybe it had thermal springs), buxom Narga cavewoman Ajor (Dana Gillespie) with flawless makeup and hair, and both barbarians and the primitive Narga tribe speaking fluent if stilted English (although "PTF" explains this miracle by stating that Bowen Tyler (Doug McClure) instructed both factions how to speak English.)
Tyler was the explorer in PTF's predecessor movie "The Land That Time Forgot" left behind in the savage land (called Caprona) by the rest of his team. "PTF" chronicles the efforts of a new team to locate and rescue Tyler from Caprona. The leader and pilot of the rickety bi-plane that flies the team over the icy Antarctic mountains to Caprona is Ken-Doll handsome and resolute Major Ben McBride (Patrick Wayne) with his brown Superman hair-curl. Hogan (Shane Rimmer) is the boozy gunner and mechanic who also provides physical comic relief in his attempts to repair the bi-plane after it crashes in the desolate landscape. Financing the rescue expedition is comely, somewhat haughty, but game photographer Lady Charlotte "Charlie" Cunningham (Sarah Douglas) with her aviatrix get-up and mini Princess Leia 'do. Last but certainly not least important is knowledgeable paleontologist and scholar Norfolk (Thorley Walters), eager to explore Caprona's ancient fauna. After some convincing, the suspicious Ajor agrees to lead them to Tyler. Can McBride's team locate Tyler? Even if they do, can they bring him –and themselves- back to civilization alive?
I don't completely disagree with "PTF"'s detractors and the aforementioned flaws they point out. The flaws are there. Nevertheless, I found "PTF" more than reasonably entertaining and involving because all the characters act more or less logically and rationally and yet display personal shortcomings without looking buffoonish, yes, even Hogan. The action and the prehistoric creature/human encounters are well-planned, suspenseful, tense, and meaningful, because you care about these people and their mission. The fiery human sacrifice ritual and volcanic explosion climax are also stirring. "PTF" at heart may be an improbable pulp jungle tale, but it's a surprisingly serious and well-told one.
Two other "PTF" features are especially notable. First is the positive portrayal of Norfolk. Unlike other academicians, professors, and scholars who are smart but lack physical power and courage in a dangerous situation, Norfolk is no wimp. With his sword/stick concealed within an umbrella handle, Norfolk can fight and defend himself and others with the best of them, even while still obsessed with preserving his notes. Second is the actual, if imperfect, portrayal of real prehistoric dinosaurs and reptiles. Everyone recognizes the stegosaurus, the carnivorous ceratosaurus, and perhaps the pterodactyl that attempts to sideswipe the bi-plane. However, few of us may recognize that the two giant lizards menacing our tied-up heroes sprawled on the ground are known as Megalanias, ferocious Komodo Dragon-like 20- foot lizards that lived in Australia more than 2 million years ago. Even fewer of us would know that the huge armored lizard attacking our heroes in the cave is known as a scutosaurus, a 10-foot long herbivorous reptile that actually predates the dinosaurs by hundreds of millions of years and is considered the ancestor of the turtle. I just happened to know this because I'm a prehistoric animal geek. I appreciated that "PTF" took the time to re- create these creatures fairly accurately, even though they looked a little ungainly.
In the final analysis, PTF is not a soaring work of genius. However, it's fun, serviceable entertainment which is an acceptable way to use up any idle time you have.
The LEGO Movie (2014)
Everyone Is Special
If the Academy Awards had a category for "Fastest-Paced Feature", I think "The LEGO Movie" (hereafter "LEGO") would slaughter any competition (even "Hotel Transylvania" – see my Amazon review). "LEGO" has an interlocking-brick universe to show us, so it hardly pauses for breath as it attempts to show it all – from cities to oceans to clouds to outer space to even, believe it or not, our own human world. The movie demands multiple viewings just to take all the spectacular visuals in.
At an initial, casual glance, "LEGO" just seems concerned with being a movie-length commercial for the classic, versatile construction toy. And that it effectively is, but "LEGO" is insidiously so much more. Through a nondescript, super-ordinary construction worker Emmet Brickowski's (Chris Platt's) efforts to prove worthy of his "special" destiny and thwart Lord (President) Business's (Will Ferrell) goal to not only conquer the LEGO universe but also make it permanently in his own image with the "Kragle" (which is really sticky stuff), "LEGO" reassures us that we all have individual AND cooperative talents that can and deserve to be used to create great things.
For most of "LEGO" though, we have our doubts about Emmet's "specialness". Oh, he's a pleasant and genial enough LEGO figure, but he seems to lead a severely regulated but unproductive and almost invisible life. But then by chance within the rubble of a construction site, he finds the red "Piece De Resistance", also sought after by Wyldstyle (real name: Lucy) (Elizabeth Banks), a nimble, technically adept "Master Builder" and street fighter. Because the "Piece de Resistance" is the only object that can neutralize the "Kragle", Wyldstyle thinks that Emmet is the "Special" or chosen one prophesized to defeat Lord Business. Before Emmett knows it, Wyldstyle brings him to meet other Master Builders led by the blind sage Vetruvius (Morgan Freeman) also determined to stop the egotistical tyrant. Despite Vetruvius's and Wyldstyle's encouragement and guidance, Emmett has a very tough time living up to the prophecy. He vainly protests that not only is he not "special", he's not even a Master Builder.
As Emmett and company careen through the LEGO universe, Emmet's ego takes more of a beating as he meets a vast cast of characters from practically every action picture, comic, and cartoon ever made (from Milhouse Van Houten to Superman) who are all talented and/or Master Builders. Most damaging to Emmet's self-esteem is his rival for Wyldstyle's affections, none other than Lego Batman himself (Will Arnett), pumped up with humorless (but funny) self-importance and sense of duty. And these guys are his allies! As for the villains, aided by the schizophrenic Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), Lord Business cuts an imposing figure as he uses his "Galactus" helmet, his telescoping legs, and his huge law enforcement army to cement his rule. Maybe Emmet is out of his league.
Then things start to click as Emmet sacrifices himself to save all the Master Builders, imprisoned by Business in a Think Tank. He plunges into our dimension and into a basement occupied by 8-year old Finn (Jadon Sand), whose own dilemma mirrors Emmet's and may be even controlling Emmet and the other Lego people (no wonder "LEGO" seems to be directed by a child's wild flights of storytelling fancy, because it kinda is.) Finn's defiance of his father's (Will Ferrett in real life) stifling of his own imagination gives Emmett the courage to go back to "LEGOland" and confront Business in a surprising but calm and life-affirming climax.
LEGO offers boundless, wholesome (except maybe for the pantsless guy in the situation comedy, but don't worry, he's not anatomically correct.:) ) creative fun for people for all ages. But most impressively, LEGO painstakingly convinces us that we all have special talents and skills that should never be suppressed and that can contribute to the betterment of everyone's life. Yep, everyone is special. And that's just awesome!