Saturday, August 1, 2015
A gambler is a person who engages in an activity or venture with no knowledge of the outcome but who bets that he can guess it. This is the definition of risky behavior, except the problem arises when you walk into things blind or unprepared. The conclusion, therefore, has to be the opposite where Ethan ends up engaging in an activity where he absolutely knows the outcome because he's pulling the strings and controlling the variables.
Tom Cruise reprises his role as Ethan Hunt, an agent of the IMF organization. He's like an American James Bond but is more designed to do death-defying stunts to accomplish extremely bold missions of gathering intelligence in order to stop terrorists or other enemies of state. He's well-trained in martial arts, ballistics and acrobatics.
Simon Pegg co-stars as Benji Dunn, a member of the IMF team and now a close friend of Ethan. Benji is particularly skilled in computer technology. He's a really good analyst and has risen to become Ethan's right hand. He's also this film's comic relief.
Jeremy Renner also stars as William Brandt, a member of IMF who has been taken out of the field and is more involved with tactical support. He now hangs back and monitors missions. He's called to testify in front of a Senate panel, as the CIA director Alan Hunley, played by Alec Baldwin, insists that IMF be shut down and that Ethan be arrested.
The hunt for Ethan hunt by the CIA isn't really depicted. The majority of the film is about Ethan hunting a terrorist named Solomon Lane, played by Sean Harris. Solomon leads Ethan into a trap and instead of killing him, Solomon wants to use Ethan for some unknown reason. It's up to Ethan to exonerate himself to the CIA and stop Solomon's plan whatever it may be.
Rebecca Ferguson co-stars as Ilsa Faust, an agent with the British government whom one isn't sure is a good girl or a bad girl. In terms of training and capability, she is the equal to Ethan Hunt, but from beginning to end, Ethan is kept wondering if he can trust her or not.
Pivoting around this sole, female character, McQuarrie crafts a highly-skilled thriller and a very energetic, action film. It globe-hops as well as any other. It's paced excellently, and the set-pieces are occasionally clever and edited smartly.
It's the best action film of the year. It's elevated above the dumb and over-sentimentality of Furious 7. Its characterization, depth and relevance is brimming more than Mad Max: Fury Road. It doesn't necessarily escape the nostalgia and retread nature of Jurassic World, but its acting and writing are miles above.
If it fails in any regard, it fails in not surpassing the previous installment in this franchise. This film is not better than Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, and for no other reason than the action set-pieces here are not as impressive as in the prior Ethan Hunt adventure. The opening stunt, while demonstrating Cruise's thrill-seeking bravery, doesn't integrate into the plot. It exists only as an empty show-piece.
The Opera House sequence in Vienna, Austria, is great, and the under-water sequence at the Power Plant in Casablanca, Morocco, immediately followed by an ultra, high-octane, motorcycle chase, is one that I will probably remember for a long while if not forever. However, none of it trumps the center-piece of Ghost Protocol, and that is the Burj Khalifa.
Four Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for action and violence, and brief partial nudity.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 11 mins.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
|Kate Mulgrew (standing) as Red Reznikov|
Taylor Schilling reprises her role as Piper Chapman who's dealing with the aftermath of her ex-girlfriend Alex Vause, played by Laura Prepon, returning to Litchfield women's prison. She also embraces her hated status and villain-like treatment.
Kate Mulgrew co-stars as Red, the Russian immigrant who's dealing with the aftermath of realizing her restaurant has closed and her job of managing the prison's kitchen and being able to cook how she wants has been taken away.
Dascha Polanco plays Daya Diaz, the Latina who's dealing with the aftermath of blaming her pregnancy by a prison guard on someone who didn't actually impregnate her. She's also dealing with the loss of the love of her life, in that the father of her baby is not the man she thought he was.
Uzo Aduba co-stars as Suzanne aka Crazy Eyes, the eccentric inmate who's dealing with the aftermath of losing Vee, formerly played by Lorraine Touissant in the performance of the year. Vee gave Suzanne a purpose and support that she never had. Now, she has to find purpose and support on her own, which might come through writing or unlikely people.
Samira Wiley also co-stars as Poussey, the young black lesbian who's dealing with the aftermath of being shunned by the black girls, especially her best friend Taystee, played by Danielle Brooks. They repaired their friendship but Poussey's brief estrangement revealed an unrequited love and loneliness in her that she needs to fill, which this season she might fill with religion.
|Uzo Aduba (left) and Danielle Brooks|
The cast is so large that each episode can have a flashback on a different person. It's not like Lost, which kept returning to the same characters over and over. This show, however, doesn't really return to the same well. We move on to different person after different person in terms of the flashbacks.
One thing that's unusual this year is that a couple of the flashbacks center on people who aren't inmates, or who aren't women. This is predominantly a female cast. The only male characters are the prison guards. Yet, in Episode 2, the flashbacks are all about John Bennett, played by Matt McGorry who proves for the third or fourth time, if you count his various CollegeHumor videos, that he's good and hilarious at shirtless dancing. In Episode 11, the flashbacks are all about Joe Caputo, played by Nick Sandow whose character has a knack for getting involved with women who are already involved.
Strangely, two characters in particular are eliminated from the cast rather early. John Bennett is eliminated. Nicky Nichols, played by Natasha Lyonne, is also eliminated early. Nicky is the drug addict and drug dealer in league with Officer Joel Luschek, played by Matt Peters, a corrupt and cynical, prison guard. My feeling isn't that TV-show-creator Jenji Kohan and her team of writers tired of these two characters.
|Matt McGorry as John Bennett|
Notable flashbacks are Big Boo, played by Lea DeLaria, in Episode 4, as well as Chang, played by Lori Tan Chinn, in Episode 6 and Pennsatucky aka Tiffany Doggett, played by Taryn Manning, in Episode 10. Big Boo deals with a homophobic assault. Chang deals with assault on her looks and Pennsatucky deals with sexual assault.
This series even has the second reference to Tibetan monks and their mandala sand designs this year. It happened in Episode 9 and it was just a verbal reference. However, there was a reference to those Tibetan monks on another Netflix series, that of House of Cards.
If there are any unifying stories to this season, it's the story about the threat of Litchfield being closed down. The guards and inmates have to deal with the ramifications of that. Ironically, it puts limitations on the guards and opens up opportunities for the inmates.
|Nick Sandow as Joe Caputo|
Five Stars out of Five.
Running Time: 1 hr. / 13 eps.
Available on Netflix Watch Instant.
The title comes from a Maya Angelou quote. The meaning or the full brunt of which doesn't hit until the end of the film, the tragedy, fear and concern of it, the overall sadness of it.
The film opens with a performance from Nina Simone in the 1970's. She stands on stage alone next to her piano. She stands quiet and still. She sits down and starts to speak, and it's evident that as confident and as sure of herself as she is, there's something troubling her, frustrating or even angering her. This gets ignored when she starts to play her music and all you feel is just the sheer power of this woman.
Before sitting down, some might know that Nina Simone is regarded as one of the greatest Jazz and Blues singers and the first black, classical pianist. As you watch her life story, you get the sense of what informed the blues in her life. It's clear that when she sings the Blues, it comes from an authentic place.
It goes beyond her just being black in the United States, growing up in the 50's and 60's. It also goes beyond the demands of being a music star, the work demands and the celebrity demands, the curse or flip side of fame and fortune, namely maintaining it.
What's most shocking and devastating is Nina Simone's family life. She married Andrew Stroud, a former police sergeant-turned-manager of his wife's career. She then had their daughter Lisa. It's soon revealed that things went horribly wrong. It started with domestic abuse, both to Nina Simone and by Nina Simone. It ended with a woman suffering from manic depression.
She was a complicated woman and we see how her activism during the Civil Rights movement really hurt her career. We also see how her activism also informed her music and how she had to speak and sing her mind. She went into exile in Europe and things deteriorated, but she struggled to stay true to herself.
It's a powerful film that tells a powerful story. What's also incredible is the album that's filled with covers of Nina Simone songs that were created almost as a companion to this film. The album is Nina Revisited... A Tribute to Nina Simone. It has artists like Lauryn Hill, Mary J. Blige and Jazmine Sullivan, but listen to the songs in this movie first from the real thing. This is a great portrait.
Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 42 mins.
Available on Netflix.
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
First, I have to marvel at that. Most sitcoms today only do 22 episodes per season. Yes, the writing and direction were simpler nearly sixty years ago, but the work-ethic is still rather impressive. It's a shame because the pay was less, once you write-off the residual money those involved back then are not getting.
The show was about a family of four, a mother, father and two sons living in the fictional town of Mayfield, somewhere in the Midwest like Ohio or someplace. The show focuses on the two sons and the troubles and travails they encounter, as they attend school and hang out with friends. Most of the scenes take place in their home, the living room, dining room, kitchen and boys' bedroom.
Barbara Billingsley played June Cleaver, the wife and mother. Hugh Beaumont played Ward Cleaver, the husband and father. Tony Dow played Wally Cleaver, the older brother who started the show at age 12, and Jerry Mathers played the Beaver, aka Theodore Cleaver who began the show at age 9.
We never ever enter into the parents' bedroom, but a lot of the show is about how the parents parent. As much as the program is about the two boys making mistakes and trying to hide those mistakes from their mom and dad, the show is in many ways a critique on parenting and the mistakes and misperceptions that adults make when relating to their children.
It's funny to look back at this show nearly sixty years since it went on the air. Obviously, the show was very lily white. There were no people of color or any ethnic characters. The show never tackled any true controversial issues, even as the show persisted into the sixties and films were tackling controversial topics like To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).
The only time it came close was in the third season when the show did an episode titled "Beaver and Andy" that briefly dealt with the issue of alcoholism. That's the most edgy the series ever got. In Season 4, in the episode "Beaver's House Guest," the show dealt with Beaver meeting a child of divorce, which it effectively skirts and condemns through the effects it can have on children therein.
Some friends of Wally like Tooey or friends of Beaver like Larry Mondello disappeared after the third season or so, but Eddie Haskell is a character who kept appearing on the show up to the very end. Eddie became one of the best characters on the show, but he became one of the best characters in television history. He's better regarded than the core family.
What was great is how a bit transgressive the character was. Eddie would enter and ruffle the feathers of the parents and in subtle and sly ways and through subterfuge would challenge the perfect picture being presented here. Obviously, the perfect picture always shone brighter and was always the take-away. The show was never cynical, but his presence and his picking at the tapestry represented the potential for unraveling that is a staple of television today.
Most of the time, he would just be an agent of chaos. He would often be a source of antagonism or push the two boys into trouble. That was the formula for a lot of the show. Friends would do stuff that were wrong or not right for Wally and Beaver, and the two boys collectively or individually would succumb to peer pressure. Often, they would disobey or disregard their parents' rules, their schools' rules, or else the episodes would be about the two of them trying to navigate around or through awkward, social situations like interactions with girls.
No matter what, the show would always circle back and end each episode with a clean, wholesome message about family, honesty, forgiveness and love. Looking at it with the perspective of a person living in 2015 and having a nearly 60-year gap, an entire generation between, there were lines here or there that were a bit iffy. Yet, the show is surprisingly not as backwards, like racist or sexist, as one might think.
Yes, June Cleaver was your typical or stereotypical housewife but there were episodes like "Beaver Won't Eat" or "Substitute Father" both in the fourth season where she takes control of the household. There's also episodes like "Pet Fair" in the third season where she sings "I'll Never Smile Again" that puts the spotlight on her and shows how talented Billingsley is. In the episode, "The Dramatic Club," June reveals she played basketball in high school. In almost, each episode, she was also given comedic one-liners that poked fun at the inherent, cultural patriarchy. One such example is "Miss Landers' Fiance" where June doubts the truth of Ward's boyhood stories, which are at times overly inspirational and at times self-aggrandizing for Ward.
In the first season, episode 3, titled "The Black Eye," introduced the character of Violet Rutherford, played by Veronica Cartwright. The episode was about a little girl named Violet beating up Beaver. She was no June Cleaver-type. She was a strong and independent girl, and as Beaver said, "gressive." That episode gave two of the most memorable lines. One was "Don't get violent with me, Violet Rutherford" and "If I do get married, I'm not going to get married to a girl."
Overall, I would say the show is sweet and cute more than it is a laugh-out-loud sitcom. The laugh track doesn't always work, but the show did have some great, funny moments that I hope never to forget. It all started with the very first episode titled "Beaver Gets Spelled." First, Mathers is just an adorable, little boy who has an even more adorable, speech pattern. It's broken English, which by itself is hilarious, but, in that episode, Wally and Beaver have a great gag involving the bathtub where they pretend to take a bath in ways that's more work than actually taking a bath.
Other great comedic moments are June's reaction to Beaver's head in "The Haircut" in the first season, and Wally and Beaver chasing a constantly, rolling piece of rubber in "Tire Trouble" in the third season. It was also great to see Ryan O'Neal who became famous for Love Story (1970). Nine years prior to that classic film, the goregous O'Neal guest starred in the fifth season in the episode, "Wally Goes Steady."
The AV Club, PizzaSpotz, Knoji and Ranker.com did lists of the best episodes of the series. During my binge-watch on Netflix, I made note of which episodes were truly the best. Those websites got a lot right, but I wanted to refine their lists a bit.
Of the 235 episodes, here are the best 25:
1. "Beaver Gets Spelled" - Season 1, Episode 1
2. "The Black Eye" - Season 1, Episode 3
3. "The Haircut" - Season 1, Episode 4
4. "The Shave" - Season 2, Episode 8
5. "Happy Weekend" - Season 2, Episode 14
6. "The Grass Is Always Greener" - Season 2, Episode 15
7. "Wally's Pug Nose" - Season 2, Episode 19
8. "Wally's Haircomb" - Season 2, Episode 34
9. "Most Interesting Character" - Season 2, Episode 39
10. "Beaver Takes a Bath" - Season 3, Episode 2
11. "Wally's Election" - Season 3, Episode 19
12. "Beaver and Andy" - Season 3, Episode 20
13. "Wally's Play" - Season 3, Episode 37
14. "Beaver Won't Eat" - Season 4, Episode 1
15. "Miss Landers' Fiance" - Season 4, Episode 7
16. "Wally and Dudley" - Season 4, Episode 25
17. "Eddie Spends the Night"- Season 4, Episode 26
18. "Substitute Father" - Season 4, Episode 39
19. "Wally Goes Steady" - Season 5, Episode 1
20. "Beaver Takes a Drive" - Season 5, Episode 7
21. "Wally's Big Date" - Season 5, Episode 8
22. "Nobody Loves Me" - Season 5, Episode 20
23. "Beaver the Babysitter" - Season 5, Episode 27
24. "Box Office Attraction" - Season 6, Episode 23
25. "The Silent Treatment" - Season 6, Episode 25
Oscar-nominee Ian McKellen stars as Sherlock Holmes at the age of 82 in some time not long after World War II. He retires to a home in the English country somewhere. He has a house-keeper named Mrs. Munro, played by Oscar-nominee Laura Linney, and she has a prepubescent son named Roger, played by Milo Parker.
Sherlock seems to be there to live out his remaining days, which doesn't appear to be long. He's very old. He walks with a cane. He's certainly not as spry. A simple fall could supremely hurt or incapacitate him. His speech is slowed, and his memory is not as good as it was, and it's getting worse.
At the top of this film, Sherlock returns from a trip to Japan where he wanted to get prickly ash from Hiroshima. He thinks the prickly ash will help to improve his memory. Being that Sherlock is regarded as the greatest detective, obviously his memory is very important. His most-renown power is his ability to simply look at someone and deduce where they've been and what they've done instantaneously, which requires a sharp mind, a very sharp mind.
Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on Mitch Cullin's novel, this film is effective in showing Sherlock's debilitation physically, but his mental acuity is never really put into question or shown in jeopardy. McKellen was better-used as playing an old James Whale in Gods and Monsters in terms of the mental problems. I thought it would become the male version of Still Alice but it doesn't. Sherlock is still the greatest detective, just in a frail body now and not being used to solve the trickiest of cases.
There's an odd premise here that because of his great deductive skills and insistence on logic that it's resulted in him having a lonely life where he doesn't understand messy, human emotions. He's like Mr. Spock from Star Trek, but Roger is a total fan-boy who keeps reminding Sherlock of himself. Roger is essentially emulating Sherlock, pushing him in a narcissistic way to like the little boy, as a way of proving he's not a machine and can care for a human as a human.
Along the way, Sherlock has flashbacks to his last case, which was 35 years ago. Sherlock started writing about it but it's Roger who pushes him to keep writing about it. The case involves a woman named Ann Kelmot, played by Hattie Morahan. Her husband fears for her ever since she had several miscarriages but also believes she's up to something.
I'd hate to say it, but this case is very predictable. The way Condon telegraphs it in advance is weird, but honestly, it's a case that the little boy, Roger, could have solved. It wasn't a case worthy of Sherlock Holmes. It wasn't worthy of a movie at all.
The movie succeeds when it's about Sherlock versus Mrs. Munro who doesn't approve of his relationship with her son, Roger. McKellen and Linney have good chemistry and bounce well off each other. Their conflict however builds to a moment that is utterly ridiculous where Sherlock is distinguishing between bees and wasps, but I still liked the performances.
There's also a subplot in Japan that involves great and very handsome, Asian actors like Hiroyuki Sanada and Zak Shukor, but it does nothing with them. The film also makes the odd choice of never showing the face of Dr. John Watson. I don't understand what that's about. I would have been better served watching an episode of Agatha Christie's Poirot, or just reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Two Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
There have been a lot of great actors and movie stars to come from Australia. Some like Mel Gibson have flamed out. Others like Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman are still going strong. Hollywood loves young, good-looking or just sheer, hot, Australian actors. The rise of Chris Hemsworth is an example. His being cast as Thor in the Marvel Studios films helped, but the casting of Sam Worthington and Jai Courtney in a lot of big-budget or potential blockbusters are more examples.
Yet, many would argue that Hemsworth, Worthington and Courtney are not the best actors and probably coast more on their looks and especially their large, muscular bodies, which makes them more apt for big-budget, action flicks. Thankfully, the young Australian actor here doesn't fall into the same trappings.
Brenton Thwaites is the young Australian actor who stars here as Jesse Ryan White aka JR. Yes, he is a good-looking actor who's fit. However, he doesn't appear to be on the action film track. He did have a good year last year with his appearance or starring in four major motion pictures, including one opposite Angelina Jolie and another opposite Meryl Streep. His track though appears to be more in-line with someone like Ryan Kwanten where he goes and takes more interesting roles in independent films in his native country where he gets to really flex his acting muscle.
Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge! and Big Fish) also stars as Brendon Lynch, a convicted, bank robber who is in prison for 20 years-to-life. JR is put into prison and meets Brendon, and, being that I didn't know anything about this film, I wasn't sure if it would go the way of I Love You, Phillip Morris or A Prophet. Brendon is an intelligent man who likes to play chess, but he's got a highly fierce and aggressive side.
Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair and Anna Karenina) co-stars as Tasha, a young woman employed by a mobster. She's smart and strong, and unlike JR doesn't have a fear of swimming. As the only female character, she of course becomes the love interest. All of that is too typical, but it does help to illustrate Avery's idea of two distinctions about survival in life.
Brendon introduces this idea of the chimp versus the bonobo. Brendon believes that each can be reduced to chimps being more prosperous because they're fighters, whereas bonobos haven't been as prosperous because they're not fighters. Bonobos are lovers. Brendon's position is that bonobos are weaker as a result, but, through JR's experiences in this film, we come to see if that's actually true.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for violence, language throughout, some sexuality, nudity and drug use.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 49 mins.
|'What We Do in the Shadows' is a bloody mess.|
Honestly, I laughed more in Interview with the Vampire than I did here. I thought Tom Cruise and Antonio Banderas were funnier in that film than the two main vampires here. We saw horrible things they did, but it was always with the gaze that they were not cool, or they weren't people for whom we should root. We were either held hostage or dragged along. This movie wants us to follow like puppy dogs after these characters, and I found it difficult to abide by that.
Written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, it also stars Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi as Vladislav and Viago respectively, two vampires living in Wellington, New Zealand. They live with two other vampires. One of which is a very, very, old vampire named Petyr, played by Ben Fransham. Peytr has a knack of turning people into vampires.
We go through their day-to-day or rather night-to-night activities. We see how they live and there are jokes that are on the level of The Flintstones and The Jetsons. We also follow how they collect and kill people with the spilling of tons of blood. In the process, we get really decent special visual effects of the vampires flying or transforming into bats.
Things change when a fifth vampire is added to their household. Cori Gonzalez-Macuer co-stars as Nick, the fifth vampire and newest vampire who causes trouble for Vladislav and Viago. He's a bit of an idiot and becomes a bit braggadocious.
The heart of the film is supposed to be their friendship with a human named Stu, played by Stu Rutherford. He's an IT technician and is a bit quiet and shy. His life is threatened multiple times by others who aren't Vladislav, Viago and their roommates. How the vampires in question react to Stu's endangerment and how they defend him are meant to endear us, but it's not enough.
A better movie that does similar things to this is Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. A better TV series that's about vampires and other supernatural beings living together in a comedic sense is the British series Being Human, starring Aidan Turner and Russell Tovey who is a far better actor than the entire cast here.
One Star out of Five.
Rated R for bloody violent content, some sexual material and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 25 mins.