Archive for July, 2013

R.I.P.D.: Good Chemistry Generates Some Fun—Movie

July 24, 2013

Sometimes, not often, but sometimes actors with genuine chemistry, who also seem to be having fun, translates into an enjoyable afternoon at the movies. Such is “R.I.P.D.RIPD movie

Ryan Reynolds plays Nick, a Boston police officer who is killed in the line of duty. Upon his death, he jarringly lands in the Rest in Peace Department (R.I.P.D.), at the desk of Proctor (Mary-Louise Parker). She explains that she is his boss and that R.I.P.D. is a sort of waiting station for law enforcement folk whose ultimate fate has yet to be decided—thumb’s  “up” or “down” in the truest sense (for those of you who watched the final episode of “Lost,” this scenario might make more sense to you).  The department is charged with finding and killing criminals who are dead—deados—but because they haven’t accepted their fate, still function on Earth. Complicated? It was to me and I admit that it took me a while to completely understand this concept.

Proctor partners Nick with Roy (Jeff Bridges), a lawman from the 1800s, and their assignment is to return to Earth and finish off the Boston deados. Complicating the job is that Nick primarily wants to find out who killed him and is still grieving over the fact that he never said good-bye to his wife. Oh, one more thing. When Nick and Roy come back to Earth, they won’t look like their former selves. That accounts for much of the movie’s fun. You might think this gag would grow old, but it never does. Some of that credit must go to veteran character actor, James Hong.

Kevin Bacon is very good as Nick’s former partner. So glum and serious in “The Following,” he’s anything but in R.I.P.D, and it’s highly entertaining.

Parker, Reynolds and Bridges are all terrific and really seem to be having fun with their roles and with each other. Bridges in particular looks like he just walked over from the “True Grit” set—he is every inch the former lawman and if he was any more grizzled, one wouldn’t be able to understand him.

“R.I.P.D.” does have special effects and fun weapons and they all work without overwhelming the film (but 3D is not necessary—save your money).  Nick’s “death” scene is spectacular as are some of the transformations that occur.

So what stops “R.I.P.D.” from being a better movie? Something is missing and it’s hard to put one’s finger on it. Robert Schwentke’s direction seems to lack snap or point of view. Maybe the screenplay written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, with story by David Dobkin and Manfredi, based on Peter M. Lenkov’s “Dark Horse” comic, is lacking.

So, while “R.I.P.D.” has its short-comings, it is fun…not memorable, but fun nevertheless. On a hot, summer day, that can be just the ticket.

2 nuggets out of 4

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Fruitvale Station: A Haunting Explosion—Movie

July 23, 2013

Sometimes an explosive story has more impact when told quietly. This is “Fruitvale Station,” a film that will haunt you long after you exit the theatre.Fruitvale Station

The very real, cold, hard facts of “Fruitvale Station” are that an unarmed, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot and killed, lying face down, at the Fruitvale Station platform by a Bay Area Transit police officer in the very early hours of January 1, 2009. The unprovoked shooting was captured on video by onlookers, provoking protests and discussion.

What “Fruitvale Station’s” writer and first-time director Ryan Coogler does is show us who Oscar Grant was, warts and all. He presents the man inside of those facts. Coogler accomplishes this by focusing on Oscar’s final day. We learn that Oscar was struggling to find his place in the world. We see that he had the makings of a good father and was trying to put things right with his girlfriend, the mother of his child. We watch Oscar trying to shake free of drugs and dealing. We also learn that Oscar has a prison record, has been fired from his job and, when pushed, has a temper. In short, he’s an imperfect human being.  And it’s when his act of kindness intersects with his past, his life comes to an end and we are left wondering what might have been.

“Fruitvale Station’s” acting is phenomenal. Michael B. Jordan is sheer perfection as Oscar. His is not a showy performance, but it grabs your attention. His tough love, no-nonsense mother is beautifully portrayed by Octavia Spencer.  Melonie Diaz is terrific as Oscar’s girlfriend, Sophina, who in many ways has the same personality as Oscar’s mother. Finally, there is Ariana Neal as Oscar’s daughter, Tatiana. She is precociously adorable and just right for the part.

Coogler has bookended the movie flawlessly—the film begins with showing us the genuine event and ends with the introduction of Oscar’s real family. Much of the movie is shot at the actual train station. It’s the least the Transit Authority could do.

It’s hard to believe this is Ryan Coogler’s first film. Although he is abetted by an excellent cast, the vision and execution of “Fruitvale Station” is his. As a film-goer I can’t wait to see what he does next.

4 nuggets out of 4

The Conjuring: Creepy Can Be Classy—Movie

July 21, 2013

The Conjuring” is one gigantic creep fest and I mean this the most positive way.The Conjuring

Directed by James Wan and written by Chris and Chad Hayes (brothers), “The Conjuring” is based on the real life story of the Perron family.  In 1971 the Perrons purchased an old, seemingly beautifully house in Rhode Island for their family of five girls and their dog, Sadie.  As the family moves into their new home, strange things begin to happen almost immediately. For starters, Sadie refuses to come inside the house, and it’s all downhill from there.

Desperate for answers, Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) goes to a lecture by noted experts on the subject of spirits and demonology, Ed and Lorraine Warren.  At the end of the presentation she asks the Warrens for their help. Without giving the rest of the movie away, the Warrens agree to assist and the remainder of the film deals with how they help, what procedures are put in place and the terrifying events that follow.

Part of what makes “The Conjuring” so compelling is that it is based on fact. This alone sets the audience on edge…these events actually happened. Director Wan respects the material and never goes over the top—although plenty of other odd things occur.

In addition to the terrific, understated direction, a real positive for the film is the top-notch acting. Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren is fabulous (frankly, after doing a season of “Bates Motel” and now this movie, I am not sure how she sleeps at night), as is Patrick Wilson as Ed Warren. They both do a great job at keeping it genuine, even when some truly bizarre statements come out of their mouths. Ron Livingston as Roger Perron and the aforementioned Taylor also shine, particularly Taylor who has the meatier role. The actresses who play the Perron children are also very good. Two who especially excel are Joey King (who seems to be popping up everywhere these days) as Christine, and Kyla Deaver, as the youngest daughter, April.

Everything about “The Conjuring” is handled with taste and “realness,” never dipping in to clichéd cheesiness. Truth can be stranger than fiction, and as “The Conjuring” proves, it can also be creepier.

4 nuggets out of 4

The East: Quietly Mesmerizing—Movie

July 16, 2013

The East,” directed by Zal Batmanglij with screenplay by Batmanglij and Brit Marling, is a gripping drama that seems especially relevant in today’s climate.The East movie

“The East” follows Jane/Sarah (Marling) as a young, novice intelligence operative working for a private security firm. Her first assignment calls for her to infiltrate a group of environmental anarchists who call themselves The East, which is headed by Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). The East is known for using terrorist tactics to wreak havoc on major corporations it believes are polluting the environment and maiming or killing humans. Jane’s assignment is to gain the group’s trust and learn if or what they are planning for one of her firm’s clients. As she gets to know the group members and the rationale behind their individual involvement in the East’s cause, her emotions become conflicted.  She actually comes to have compassion for what they are doing.

In some ways, “The East” is very reminiscent of the first season of the late 1980s television series, “Wise Guy.” In that series, the FBI agent who goes undercover to infiltrate the Mafia becomes very sympathetic and attracted to members of the family he’s deceiving. In “The East,” just as in that case,  the empathetic transformation is subtle. How Jane handles all of inner struggles makes for a very riveting story.

The multi-talented Marling is terrific as Jane/Sarah and is abetted by a fantastic supporting cast. As Benji, Skarsgård shows less skin, but more acting chops than called upon for his “True Blood” role. Without going over the top he makes his leadership known and reveals a sly, intimidating side. Ellen Page is exceptional as the earnest, all-in Izzie, with secrets of her own. Patricia Clarkson is wonderful as Sarah’s eerily cool boss. As one of the CEOs under fire, Jamey Sheridan shines in a conflicted role. Finally, Jason Ritter turns in a very good, understated performance as Jane’s in-the-dark boyfriend.

“The East” never lectures. The film lets the actors do the speaking for it…and admirably so.

3 nuggets out of 4

A Better Tomorrow: See It Today—Movie

July 15, 2013

Wild gunfights, almost operatic in nature, help make John Woo’s 1986 “A Better Tomorrow” so much more than your standard violent for violent’s sake movie. Shown as part of the 18th Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival (DC), “A Better Tomorrow” gives today’s audience the opportunity to view director Woo’s early work as well as that of actors Chow Yun Fat and Leslie Cheung … and see why all three became big stars.A Better Tomorrow

At its core “A Better Tomorrow” is about two sets of relationships and what happens when they intersect. The first revolves around the friendship of two criminals working for a major Hong Kong crime syndicate involved in counterfeiting–Ho (Lung Ti) and Mark (Chow Yun Fat).  The second centers on Ho and his brother, Kit (Leslie Cheung), who is beginning a career in law enforcement. Kit is unaware that his brother is a criminal and he eventually discovers Ho’s involvement under horrible circumstances.  It’s that discovery which causes an estrangement between the two and drives much of the plot forward.

Chow Yun Fat is a force of nature. He simply dominates the screen without even trying. His wicked smile lights up the room and yet he can give an empathetic turn as well. And I have to note that what he can do with a toothpick is astounding–I have never seen someone smoke with a toothpick in his mouth and, to be honest, I found that fascinating. Leslie Cheung is wonderful as the impulsive and stubborn Kit. Lung Ti’s role is the least flamboyant of the three, but his performance is the heart of the movie and he is terrific.

The supporting cast is very strong. Waise Lee’s understated performance as Shing is riveting. He is wonderful as Ho’s and Mark’s novice partner-in-crime with plans of his own. Mention must be made of Emily Chu’s portrayal of Jackie, Kit’s girlfriend. When we first meet her she is the klutz of all klutzes, but by film’s end she has morphed into someone of substance. In a movie dominated by machismo, she is a real standout.

With “A Better Tomorrow” John Woo’s career as a director took off in earnest and it’s easy to see why. He pays attention to details… from the clothing to the cigarette smoke to the pointing of the guns. His gunfight scenes are something to behold and the movie’s explosive finale merits the price of admission (if the Freer and Sackler Galleries charged admission).  I kept waiting for Mark to shout, “Yippee Ki Yay, mother f**kers!”  It would have been wholly appropriate.

Some of the film’s subtitles make no sense and cause the movie to be hard to follow at times. And, yes, a little of the movie is dated…the music…the technology. But the story itself is timeless and so is the action.

If you’re looking for one of the best in this genre, you can’t do much better that “A Better Tomorrow.”

The 18th Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival at the Freer and Sackler Galleries runs through August 4. Admission is free and the final films are a tribute to Leslie Cheung. For more information go to http://www.asia.si.edu/events.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

The Second City’s America All Better: Relapses from Laughing—Theatre

July 13, 2013

The Second City has put down stakes at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre and DC is the better for it. “America All Better” takes a look at America yesterday and today and no topic, I mean no topic is off-limits.America All Better 2

There is a certain rhythm to what the Second City troupe does. There are very short pieces followed by a longer piece. Some bits are scripted, some pieces are improvised. You might not get all of the short bits—they fly by so fast. At my performance there was a short piece about eavesdropping and it went by so quickly, most folk didn’t have time to process that the skit was about the Obama girls (Hint: it happens at the very beginning).

My showing had a very funny piece having to do with manatees per an audience suggestion. Some physical comedy was involved and it was hysterical.  Another piece was about gay marriage, and for this skit they used a member of the audience and brought him on stage. He was a very good sport and really added to the skit’s humor. A blind date piece in which one of the participants is so socially awkward that he has scripted every possible response to questions in advance was extremely funny, as was a segment near the end about what girls in the future can anticipate. Other funny short pieces were about the NRA, guns, Facebook and photography—Lincoln and Anthony Weiner…use your imagination. Are there misses? Yes…not every skit is a winner. The bit about Jesus addressing Congress was funny, but ran too long. The angry black woman piece was not especially funny or clever and could have used some editing. But in a performance with so many high notes, these are just a couple of hiccups.

The troupe—Aaron Bliden, Martin Garcia, Sayjal Joshi, Scott Morehead, Niccole Thurman and Claudia Michelle Wallace–is extremely talented. They can all sing, dance, act and of course, improvise. I found Joshi to have an especially terrific voice and personality and Martin Garcia seemed exceptionally versatile. The musical director, Jacob Shuda, also contributed mightily to the evening’s fun.

Although Second City is native to Chicago, the company had enough references to local DC life—not just national politics—to give it a real DC feel.  If you’re looking for an evening full of laughs, there’s no place better to be than at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre and The Second City’s “America All Better.”

Run extended through August 18

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

The Way, Way Back: Step to the Front—Movie

July 8, 2013

Sometimes low-key fun is just what the doctor ordered. Such is the case with “The Way, Way Back.”Way Way Back

Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, “The Way, Way Back” is the coming of age story of 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) and, to some extent, his mother, Pam, played by Toni Collette.

Duncan and his mother are spending the summer with her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and his daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), at Trent’s beachouse in New York. About one minute into the movie, we realize that Trent is the potential stepfather from hell. Full of rules for everyone but himself, it is readily apparent that he’s a brutish phony. Luckily Duncan finds refuge in the company of Owen (Sam Rockwell) and his merry band of co-workers at the Water Wizz water park. Perhaps Owen sees a kindred spirit in the younger Duncan, and in a big brother way, takes Duncan under his wing and teaches him about the kindness of the world and in so doing, provides Duncan with the summer of his life.

“The Way, Way Back” has a top-notch cast. Liam James (most recently seen as Jack Linden in “The Killing”) is absolutely perfect as the shy, unsure Duncan. Toni Collette shows, without saying a word, how terrified she is of being alone. We’re used to seeing Sam Rockwell in dopey, clownish roles, but his portrayal of Owen on the cusp of breaking out of his Peter Pan mentality is something different for him and he is terrific. Finally there is Steve Carell’s Trent. Carell does a fantastic job at making us loathe him for the entire movie.

The supporting cast is fabulous. Allison Janney, as the nosey neighbor from hell, but with a heart of gold, is terrific. In an understated performance, AnnaSophia Robb’s Susanna is spot on as the slightly older teen who catches Duncan’s eye. Maya Rudolph as Caitlin, Owen’s boss with benefits, is really good at showing how hard it is to be in love with someone who has not yet quite grown up.  Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have written great parts for themselves as Owen’s co-workers and friends.

“The Way, Way Back” proves that you don’t have to have a summer film full of noise and special effects in order to give the audience a fun day at the movies. It’s rare, but most welcome.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

Much Ado About Nothing: No, Much Ado About Something—Movie

July 8, 2013

Confession: While I am an admirer of Shakespeare, I am a huge fan of Joss Whedon. I absolutely love what Whedon has done with Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Although filmed on a shoestring in black and white in his own backyard (and what a backyard this is), Whedon’s film feels every bit as rich as Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 extravaganza.Much ado

“Much Ado” may be one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays. The plot is fairly simple. Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) are in love with one another…good thing, because they are too prickly to be good for anyone else. However, both are too proud to admit their attraction until friends and families conspire to bring them to their senses. But there is a roadblock to their happiness—Benedick’s friend, Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Beatrice’s niece, Hero (Jillian Morgese). They are about to be married until Hero’s virginity comes into question. Watching these events unfold, one has to remember that Shakespeare wrote this play in the late 1500s and even though this movie is filmed in the present day, we are in a 1500s mindset. Got it? So one does have to stifle the urge to run up to the screen and slap Claudio. In any event hilarity and romance ensue.

While not a big-name cast, “Much Ado” features actors from Whedon’s television shows, and these actors have come in full Shakespearean mode.  Alex Denisof is terrific as the full-of-himself Benedick, showing true slapstick chops never witnessed in “Buffy” or “Angel.” Amy Acker’s too smart for her own good, Beatrice, is divine, and Acker displays a real flair for comedy. Together, she and Denisof make sparks fly. Although played for laughs, as he should be, Nathan Fillion is terrific as Dogberry, careful not to go over the buffoonery top. In addition to Fran Kranz and Jillian Morgese, Reed Diamond and Clark Gregg turn in great supporting performances.

Filming in black and white really does justice to “Much Ado’s” darker moments, lending a Hitchcockian tone to some of the sinister plotting. An added bonus to the movie is the setting to music of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Whedon meshes these beautifully into the film.

Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing”  proves that sometimes less is really just right. Even Shakespeare would approve.

4 nuggets out of 4

The Lone Ranger: Hi-Ho Silver Yippee—Movie

July 7, 2013

Director Gore Verbinski’s “The Lone Ranger” is a thrill-packed and often hilarious take on how the Ranger and Tonto came to be.Lone Ranger

The entertainment value comes with the delightful pairing of Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as The Lone Ranger. The chemistry between the two as they exchange quip for quip is palpable. One could almost call this a buddy flick if it weren’t for some of the gravity behind the film. Both the Ranger and especially Tonto have serious back-stories, and in Tonto’s case, his story is fully developed.

Based on the black and white television show of the 1950s, the rebooted “Lone Ranger” is packed with shoot’em ups, explosions and some very witty dialogue. With screenplay and story by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the film’s main problem is that it can’t decide if it wants to be a full-out comedy or not. At times it veers from one extreme to the other. I’m not a screenwriter, but it seems to me that there had to be a way to make this a dramedy without the jarring shifts in tone.

We are first introduced to an old Tonto in a Wild West museum in 1933 San Francisco. The Tonto “statue” comes to life before youngster, Will, a museum visitor. Encouraged by Will, Tonto haltingly begins to tell his tale and the action shifts to 1869 Colby, Texas. Without giving too much away, the story basically revolves around the meeting of Tonto and the Ranger, some of the villainous chicanery behind the transcontinental railroad in the form of Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), the pursuit of Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) and the resolution of some personal demons.

“The Lone Ranger” boasts a terrific supporting cast, most notably the aforementioned Wilkinson and Fichtner, as well as James  Badge Dale as the Ranger’s older brother, Dan; Ruth Wilson as Dan’s wife, Rebecca; and  Barry Pepper as Captain Jay Fuller. Helena Bonham Carter is also involved in a highly unusual way.

“The Lone Ranger” is full of mind-boggling stunts. Although Depp and Hammer did many of their own stunts, if you stay through the credits you’ll see that they were assisted by an additional 300 stunt people to pull them off (I exaggerate a little, but not much). The scenes on the train are just spectacular…and the horses and rabbits are no slouches either. There are special effects, but they actually propel the story and never interfere with its telling. Hans Zimmer’s score works beautifully with the action and the familiar “Lone Ranger” theme, the William Tell Overture, is used just at the appropriate time.

As noted earlier,“The Lone Ranger” is not without its flaws. But the film is highly entertaining and never dull. Should there be a sequel, I will be at the front of the line.

3 nuggets out of 4

Cold War: Explosive to the Very End—Movie

July 3, 2013

Corruption, politics, car chases, gunfights and explosions—“Cold War” has it all.

Set in Hong Kong “Cold War” begins with a blast…literally…and never looks back. The blast leads to a terrific car chase and spectacular gunfight and that’s just in the first minute.Cold War

Written and directed by Lok Man Leung and Kim-ching Luk (both are first-time directors), “Cold War” follows an investigation into the hijacking and kidnapping of an EU vehicle with five members of the police department inside. With Hong Kong’s reputation as Asia’s safest city (although judging from the movies shown at the Made in Hong Kong Film Festival this seems hard to believe) at stake, the powers that be want this case solved quickly. Since the police commissioner is out of the country, Deputy Commissioner of Police Operations, M.B. Waise Lee (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), is appointed acting commissioner. He leads what is called the “Cold War” rescue operation and favors an aggressive approach to finding and punishing the kidnappers. However, Deputy Commissioner of Police from Management Division, Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok), wants to take a more pragmatic approach to solving the crime. Both men are in line to become the next police commissioner, so the scenes between these two as they vie for power are very intense and fun to watch. Entering the mix is Billy Cheung (Aarif Rahman), an ICAC investigator. Because the kidnapping happened despite the police department’s advanced surveillance system, he and his superiors believe that the kidnapping is either an inside job or the department has a mole. At the top of their list of suspects–Lee and Lau. Cheung’s scenes with these two are just as entertaining as the explosive beginning of the film. As a matter of fact, most of the film’s dialogue is very clever, and as corruption is discussed before the media, Watergate even comes into the conversation (this received quite a chuckle from my DC viewing audience).

Although some of the film is confusing, and that might be because certain nuances are lost in sub-titles, “Cold War” holds your interest from its very beginning through its riveting conclusion which holds the promise of a sequel.

Shown as part of the 18th Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival (DC) at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, “Cold War” is a film that should be on your viewing list.

3 nuggets out of 4


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