Sunday, October 4, 2015

Movie Review - The Walk 3D

Robert Zemeckis has created a love letter to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. He fawns over the buildings. He drools over them, not as just architectural wonders, but what they now represent post-September 11. No reference to the terrorist attacks in 2001 is ever made. That baggage is what we collectively bring, which works against the film in crucial moments, but whatever baggage isn't enough to overcome the great, visual spectacle with which Zemeckis concludes this film, as opposed to the great, visual spectacle with which he opened his previous film, Flight (2012).

In a sense, two Hollywood films have been made that have been love letters to those lost on September 11. One was Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, which was less about honoring the titular buildings and more about honoring the first responders. The other is Paul Greengrass' United 93, which is also about honoring the people who fought back. This film takes place nearly thirty years prior to 9/11, so it can't be about the people directly. It can only be that metaphorically, but doing so through constant shots of the Twin Towers, letting the image of them represent it all.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception and Looper) stars as Philippe Petit, a French artist who worked as a street performer doing juggling, unicycling, magic and some acrobatics. He studies under a circus performer named Papa Rudy, played by Sir Ben Kingsley (Gandhi and Schindler's List). Papa Rudy's signature act is doing the tightrope. Philippe is so enchanted that he wants to be Papa Rudy's apprentice and become a renowned, tightrope or wire-walker.

He lives in Paris in the mid-1970's, but he learns that construction is almost complete on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York. He gets the idea to stretch a thin wire between the roofs of the two buildings and walk across. The buildings are 110-stories high and he would be doing the walk without any safety gear, no harness and no net. He also wants to do it illegally without any permission and by essentially breaking into the buildings.

The middle act of this movie is in fact watching Philippe and his accomplices breaking into the World Trade Center. Because of the comedic nature, that middle act rolling all the way to end felt like Ocean's Eleven (2001), which in essence is how the documentary about Petit called Man on Wire (2008) also felt. It becomes a comical and quite entertaining, heist movie.

It of course all climaxes in a bold and thrilling sequence that regardless of your knowledge of how it ends conveys a vicarious feeling of acrophobia. The production design, the cinematography and CGI perfectly recreate being not only at the base level but also on the roof looking across the skyline from that vantage, as well as the terrifying, 100-story drop.

It's also recommended that the movie be seen in the largest format possible like IMAX and in 3D. I've never been an advocate for 3D. I've always thought it a gimmick until I saw what filmmakers like Martin Scorsese could do with it as with Hugo (2011) in which Kingsley is also featured. Zemeckis can also be added to the list of directors who effectively use 3D to convey depth and distance.

What's even better is that the movie is fun. It's highly comical and funny. In fact, the comedy in the first third of this film is probably the best of any all year. Levitt is a large part of that. He is absolutely charming and passionate, and aided by a nifty supporting cast. He's also crazy but that's why you love him.

The thing that took me out the film was the comedy made out of the fact that Philippe was able to break into the World Trade Center and set things up so easily. It demonstrated the lax in security within the Twin Towers, given the bombing, robbery and ultimately their destruction. It wasn't enough to take me out the film totally, but it was a thought that kept echoing in my head.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for perilous situations, some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 3 mins.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Movie Review - Pawn Sacrifice

The adaptation of the book Touched With Fire equates bipolar disorder or manic depressive with artistic or mental brilliance, almost as if the mental illness feeds genius in a lot, if not all notable geniuses. A lot of films have made that bargain or argument explicitly or not. This film could be put in that same category. The genius in question is Bobby Fischer, a chess prodigy who became a world champion in the game but who also reportedly suffered from mental problems.

Tobey Maguire (Pleasantville and Spider-Man) stars as Bobby Fischer at the height of his fame in the 1960's when he became a world champion after taking on the renowned, Russian chess player, Boris Spassky, played by Liev Schreiber (X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Salt). Most of the latter part of the film is the two men sitting opposite each other with a chess board between them.

It perhaps helps that one is familiar with chess because this movie really doesn't do much to make us understand how chess is played or what the moves mean. One can tell by the expressions or body language of the actors. One can also tell by the music cues. Yet, that's not necessarily enough.

Bobby became a huge star who was featured on television, which was an extremely big deal in the 60's. He was on magazines. He was always mobbed by crowds and the press anywhere he went. He was compared to Muhammad Ali, which was fair due to similarities in personality and perception.

Bobby was very cocky. He was allowed to be cocky based on his talent and ability, as well as a successful, track record, but his cockiness and arrogance were on display even as a young child. His dedication or stubbornness was also very much demonstrated. He later acted like a rock star, a demanding diva. His expressions of this both privately and publicly were akin to Ali's expressions.

However, boxing is a very different sport than chess, although arguably it isn't a sport. Despite director Edward Zwick giving us shots of a shirtless Schreiber who is big, buff, hirsute and very muscular, having bulging pectorals won't help in game play here. Boxing is easier to understand. One person with a body like Schreiber hits another until that other falls down. Chess is a bit, non-dependent on brute force and more on sheer intelligence.

Zwick, working from a screenplay by Oscar-nominated writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things), briefly makes attempts to relate chess. He in fact takes a tact from Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind with floating text, graphics and animations over the chess board to give some idea of how Bobby's mind operates, or what he sees. For those who do know chess, the shots of the chess board don't linger long enough.

Peter Sarsgaard (Shattered Glass and Kinsey) co-stars as  Father Bill Lombardy, a former chess player-turned-priest who offers not a running commentary on the chess game but an occasional one. This is helpful, but at times feels like more of a clunky device.

If this movie is recognized for anything, it will most likely be for Maguire's performance, although Schreiber who Zwick directed in Defiance is probably more engaging. Bobby's increasing paranoia and delusions are aided and accentuated more by Zwick's direction and his editing team, more than by Maguire's acting. In a sequence that mirrors are in the recent Love & Mercy, Bobby's delusions are conveyed through a montage of typically background or ambient sounds amplified. Bobby notoriously preferred absolute silence, but Paul Dano expressed more anxiety and agitation in his face than Maguire when reacting to the noises.

Maguire co-starred with his friend Leonardo DiCaprio in the adaptation The Great Gatsby, but, when it comes to portraying a genius or an ambitious man in one endeavor who is then consumed with madness, DiCaprio in The Aviator also bests Maguire here. Yet, Maguire has a revealing scene on the phone with Bobby's sister.

The film in large part pits Bobby's mental illness against how his celebrity was used to build morale for the country in light of demoralizing issues at the time, including the problems with Nixon, i.e. China, Watergate and Vietnam. Zwick infuses actual documentary footage or what looks like it to relate Bobby's importance in that regard. It's just never truly related how important chess actually was. Chess seemed like a big thing, but was it?

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexual content and historical smoking.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 56 mins.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Movie Review - The Seven Five

This is a great documentary in the vein of recent, non-fiction films like Man on Wire (2008), The Imposter (2012) and The Dog (2014). It's a story set in New York City, a relatively recent story within 30 or 40 years or so. It involves a criminal, or someone undertaking something dangerous if not illegal where the perpetrator himself tells the story first-person. He's of course great at speaking and weaving his own tale, at being charming and maybe even engaging. This movie is also somewhat topical, given all the protests post-Ferguson, Missouri, from people who are wary of certain police practices and police culture.

Director Tiller Russell makes the film about Michael F. Dowd, the police officer who worked for the 75th Precinct in Brooklyn who was himself arrested in 1992 after having been with the NYPD for ten years. He was labeled the dirtiest cop at the time and perhaps still holds that title.

Russell obtained footage from September 1993 of the Mollen Commission, established by Mayor David Dinkins of Dowd testifying to his arrest and crimes. Dowd confessed to theft, extortion, trafficking and drug use, among other things. He was connected to two, illegal, drug organizations in New York linked to millions in trade and tons of murders.

That was over 20 years ago. Dowd never murdered anyone. He has since served his prison time and now he's out of jail. Russell, therefore, supplements that 1993 footage with a present-day interview of Dowd, as he reflects on his decade-long career and criminality in the 80's.

His story as it comes from him is amazingly told. It's all very enthralling. Of course, we're given an idea of why Dowd did what he did, and how it makes sense because he was not the only one, nor the first. He may have gotten away with what he was doing longer than most, but he was not alone. That is perhaps the biggest condemnation of police culture as one can get.

It's not to say that all cops are bad. It was cops, even corrupt ones that turned on Dowd, but the fact that he got away with his crimes for ten years says something about the organization and the culture-at-large, and that something isn't good.

If one has seen the TV series The Shield (2002), what Dowd was doing was tantamount to what Vic Mackey and his Strike Team were doing. Again, Dowd never killed anybody but what he did allowed for unfettered murder.

Even if one is able to separate Dowd from those deaths, Russell does not. Russell includes news reports either through paper or TV that show the devastation that Dowd's actions created. Tons of lives were destroyed because he wasn't doing his job properly. The death of Officer Venable leads to this conclusion.

It also leads to an absolutely thrilling, final act. The well-established bromance between Dowd and his partner-in-crime, Kenny Eurell, comes to a head, as the two are taken down in unexpected ways. Russell is able to craft some twists and turns that keep the final act exciting, and in a way heartbreaking.

It's not clear if the final shot is supposed to engender sympathy. It is however a notable punctuation on what was a highly emotional ride.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for pervasive language, some grisly crime scene images, and drug content.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.

DVD Review - The 10 Year Plan

Jack Turner (left) and Michael Adam Hamilton (right)
JC Calciano has only directed two other features. This is his third and it is so far his best. He still works from a limited budget, a short schedule and not a lot of resources, but it's obvious that his skills behind the camera are certainly improving. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the writing. This is the best screenplay Calciano has turned in. It's less gimmicky than his previous films, which have all been romantic comedies.

This one is also a romantic comedy and on the DVD's special features, Calciano comments that this movie is closest to the Hollywood rom-coms that he enjoys the most. He perhaps refers to the look and production quality. He perhaps doesn't refer to creative choices, but it's clear that many of the narrative beats here mimic Hollywood rom-coms without much divergence.

Yet, the trend of many Hollywood rom-coms over the past decade or two, or even longer, is to rely and predicate the whole narrative on a gimmick. Usually the gimmick is one character lying or trying to maintain some kind of deception, whether intended or not. Calciano's first film, Is It Just Me?, is exactly that.

Other gimmicks aren't deceptions. They're merely absurd situations that characters establish, which set up silly deadlines or contrived stakes that often force those involved to make decisions about their romantic futures. The Five-Year Engagement (2012) is one similarly titled rom-com that comes to mind.

This movie is a gay or more gay version of My Best Friend's Wedding, except the comedic set-pieces aren't so over-the-top. A lot of the humor here is rather tame and subtle. There are some one-liners that are somewhat emboldened, but mainly it's about a sweet, cool and nice person trying to figure things out, making a lot of fumbles but always just being himself, and never too crazy.

Calciano also proves that you don't need raunch or vulgarity to be funny or interesting. Some might criticize that there aren't a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, and there perhaps needed to be more stupid antics. However, the characters, particularly the actors playing them, are charming, sincere and humorous enough that it was all still satisfying, even if I wasn't falling out of my chair every scene.

It might seem like I'm damning this movie with faint praise, but it is simply a nice treat. It works well as a light drama, a fluffy drama at that, one that's not bogged down with social issues. It's not about homophobia or gay rights. It's homo-normative and it makes no bones about it, nor tries to undermine or subvert conventions to be hip or edgy, but that's what actually makes it great.

Jack Turner stars as Myles, a Los Angeles lawyer who is a hopeless romantic or always a hopeful one. He continuously dates guys who dump him because of his romanticism going too far, too fast. One night after a first date goes wrong, he seeks solace, as he normally does, from his best friend.

Michael Adam Hamilton co-stars as Brody, a police officer with the LAPD who is not a hopeless romantic. Brody is more or less a horndog. He just goes from Grindr hookup to the next. For those who don't know, Grindr is an app that people can download to their mobile phones or smart-phones, which connect them specifically to gay men who mainly just want to have sex.

Yes, it's another gimmick in rom-coms that opposites attract. Two people who are different in politics or personalities make for the perfect pair. Except, the trap can be that one can be unconvinced that the two would interact for more than two seconds, let alone actually live happily ever after.

Here, I was never in doubt that Myles and Brody would be friends. Regardless of their issues, both are good guys. The two have great chemistry, a great rapport, and if nothing else, watching them be friends is simply delightful. It helps that both men are positively gorgeous.

The supporting cast here is also very strong in terms of their charm and warmth. Teri Reeves plays Diane, the best friend of Myles and fellow lawyer. She probably gets the most laughs in the back half of the film and is ever more a lovely presence. Moronai Kanekoa plays Richard, the best friend of Brody and fellow police officer. He could be seen as not much more than a sounding board for Brody, but Calciano allows him some breathing room to be his own man.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but for ages 14 and Up.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 32 mins.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

TV Review - Heroes Reborn (Premiere Week)

Heroes was a TV series that was nominated for Outstanding Drama at the 59th Emmy Awards following its introduction in 2006. That introduction or its first season was pretty fantastic. It was a dark and realistic portrayal of what people with super powers might experience. It was a great, comic-book adaptation that wasn't an actual adaptation of a comic book. Writer Tim Kring was merely inspired by comic books. The writing, directing and action were all superb. As it went along though, the quality took a sharp decline and after four seasons the show was cancelled.

Since then, several other TV shows about people with super powers or straight, comic-book adaptations have been put on and have been successful. This might have contributed to the network deciding to resurrect this series. Kring is back and like other TV series that are returning he's basically picking up where he left off. However, the main cast is not returning. Kring has made a ton of new characters. In fact, Kring has made nine, new characters who exist in four different cities, mostly in the United States but one that's abroad.

One of the new characters is Luke Collins, played by Zacharay Levi (Chuck). Luke actually has no super powers. He's a hunter of people with super powers, people also known as Evo. He and his wife, Joanne Collins, played by Judith Shekoni (EastEnders), had a son who died in a terrorist attack, orchestrated by an Evo. Therefore, they're out for revenge against all Evos. They kill a roomful of them in Chicago, except for a teenage boy who manages to get away.

Robbie Kay (Once Upon a Time) plays Tommy, the teenage boy in question who escaped Luke and Joanne. He's a skinny and awkward kid who has a crush on Emily, played by Gatlin Green. Emily works in the ice cream shop. He's bullied by Brad, played by Jake Manley. Brad isn't your typical jock. He does have his layers but Brad realizes along with Emily that Tommy has the power of teleportation.

Ryan Guzman (Step Up Revolution) plays Carlos Gutierrez, a young army veteran in East Los Angeles who is a horny drunk, but he has a brother named Oscar, played by Marco Grazzini. Oscar has secretly created an underground railroad for Evos. Oscar does so as his alter ego, El Vengador, inspired by Mexican wrestling. Carlos takes over for his brother when things get rough.

Toru Uchikado plays Ren Shimosawa, a Japanese gamer in Tokyo who visits a young girl named Miko Otomo, played by Kiki Sukezane. Miko is also an Evo. She has a katana sword  that allows her to enter video games and fight with great skill.

Those are the nine, new characters. They're arranged to exist in four story lines that intersect occasionally. There's also a fifth story-line that's probably going to bring these disparate characters together even more. That fifth story-line involves a character from the original series, Noah Bennett, played by Jack Coleman.

Noah worked for a company called Primatech that used to capture and study Evos. At the opening of this show, the headquarters of Primatech is destroyed in a 9/11-style bombing that occurs on June 13. From that point, the show really cements itself as a live-action version of The X-Men, but whereas that comic series and subsequent films tackled social issues like xenophobia, racism and even homophobia, this show skates over that.

There is a diversity of characters here, but it's odd that there hasn't yet been a gay character in Kring's roster.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-14-LSV.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Thursdays at 8PM on NBC.

Note: This show is being reviewed as part of a series of one-episode reviews during premiere week, which for the major TV networks runs from late September to early October.

TV Review - The Muppets (2015) (Premiere Week)

This series reminded me of 30 Rock, but 30 Rock as done by Jim Henson. It takes the style of mockumentaries like The Office or Modern Family, but more or less satirizes them.

Henson created The Muppet Show in 1976, and it was about these anthropomorphized animals, portrayed using cloth or felt-puppets, as the animals put on a variety-sketch show. Principally, it focused on the hijinks backstage along with the numerous, celebrity, guest stars who breezed in and out.

This series is basically the same thing, but instead of a variety-sketch show. The animals are doing a late-night talk show not unlike The Tonight Show or Live With Jimmy Kimmel. The show-within-this-show is called "Up Late With Miss Piggy," and Miss Piggy is of course the iconic, female, pig character who was the ultimate diva and demanding star.

The main character and the character most associated with Henson is Kermit the Frog. Kermit was the lead of The Muppet Show and he was the protagonist of the majority of the subsequent, Hollywood films. Here, Kermit is again the lead. He plays the executive producer or show-runner of "Up Late With Miss Piggy."

Throughout all of the incarnations of these characters, Kermit and Miss Piggy have always been love interests, the joke being that Miss Piggy is the more aggressive one and generally pursues Kermit. In this show, they play two people who were in a relationship but now are broken up. The story here follows the two of them navigating their continuing, professional relationship post their personal one.

Because Kermit was a character who appeared on PBS' Sesame Street, people consider the Muppets to be aimed at children, but it's not. The Muppet Show was always for adults. In fact, concept-wise the characters on Sesame Street are children. Big Bird, despite his size, is underage, whereas the Muppets are grown-ups. If Kermit and Miss Piggy were human, their ages would probably be in their 30's.

As such, the humor here reflects that age. Fozzy the Bear makes a joke about the gay community. Sam the Eagle makes jokes about Standards-and-Practices, and a member of Electric Mayhem makes a joke about being in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Those jokes are just one-liners that are made more under the breath of the characters. It's not as if the adult humor is in-your-face. It takes the tact of some Pixar films. Children can watch and be amused by things like Scooter getting thrown from a golf cart or references to The Hunger Games. It's also more recommendable to youngsters than Modern Family, but still it feels more apt for ages 14 and older.

However, it is funny. Writers Bill Prady and Bob Kushell do find good humor in the relationship here. Some comedy is terribly obvious, but it's actually more fun with these characters than the most recent films.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-PG.
Running Time: 30 mins.
Tuesdays at 8PM on ABC.

Note: This show is being reviewed as part of a series of one-episode reviews during premiere week, which for the major TV networks runs from late September to early October.

TV Review - Blindspot (Premiere Week)

Jaimie Alexander stars as a mysterious woman who emerges from a duffel bag in the middle of Times Square in New York City. She's totally naked, but her entire body is covered in tattoos. She also has amnesia. She doesn't know who she is or how she got there or why this is happening to her.

Most people might recognize Alexander from her appearances in the blockbuster film Thor and its sequel. However, there should be absolute deja vu for anyone who watched the series Kyle XY on ABC Family. Kyle XY was famously about a teenage boy who wakes up naked with no memory as well. Later, a teenage girl experiences the same thing and that girl is played by Alexander.

It's a wonder if writer Martin Gero saw that show and decided to craft this series specifically for her. Instead of dwelling in teenage angst though, this show feels like it will be more plot-driven with occasional dashes of adult, social issues.

Sullivan Stapleton (Strike Back) co-stars as Kurt Weller, a FBI agent who is assigned to the case of figuring out who this mysterious woman nicknamed "Jane Doe" is and what brought her to that duffel bag. He's a Jason Statham-type. He doesn't seem to be a family man. He does have a sister who has a child, but he just seems to be a lone, action figure.

The reason he's assigned is because one of the tattoos on Jane Doe is Kurt's own name. Kurt's name is engraved on her back with the designation of "FBI" just in case there's another Kurt Weller out there who isn't in law enforcement. Kurt leads a team to investigate her and what they realize is that each of her tattoos is a clue to some crime or criminal.

The entire series at first will be Kurt and Jane chasing these clues, as Jane's identity is slowly unraveled. What the first episode demonstrates is that she's an action figure too, slightly more multi-faceted than Kurt. Watching her fight and occasionally reveal abilities like excellent marksmanship and speaking Chinese will be the thrill, but likely her origin will be slightly less ridiculous than her character's provenance in Kyle XY.

What this show brought to light is an issue I hadn't realized and turned out to be incredibly topical. The show points out that until now women haven't been allowed to be Navy SEALs. Hopefully, all that will change, but it's high time that women stopped being underestimated, and this show provides a vehicle for a woman to be the action lead.

Guero and his fellow writers and directors on this series will likely embrace that and let this be an energetic ride. One sequence was reminiscent of Die Hard With a Vengeance, and if the show can continue that kind of energy, it can be a satisfying alternative to the slower crime shows.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-14-V.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Mondays at 10PM on NBC.

Note: This show is being reviewed as part of a series of one-episode reviews during premiere week, which for the major TV networks runs from late September to early October.