Seeking Out Cinema's Hidden Gems

Reviews - All | Reviews - Silver Screen Surprises | Features | Contact

Friday, December 27, 2013

Review: Jobs

Ashton Kutcher is Surprisingly Superb as Apple Founder Steve Jobs

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: August 16, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Biography, Drama
Running Time: 128 minutes
Director: Joshua Michael Stern
Writer: Matt Whiteley
Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, 
Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, Matthew Modine, 
J.K. Simmons, James Woods, Kevin Dunn, 
Giles Matthey

Watching "Jobs" is somewhat like operating an iPod Shuffle; it rapidly shuffles through the highlights and lowlights of Steve Jobs' "insanely great" life. It races through the facts covered in biographies such as Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs, Infinite Loop, and others. "Jobs" never lingers on any one event for too long, which is both a positive and a negative: the story moves at a breakneck pace, but the film provides only a cursory, skin deep, surface treatment of its subject.

Critics and fans alike have easily dismissed Ashton Kutcher over the years, but I've always defended his talent. Here, he delivers the performance of his career as Steve Jobs, expertly channeling the Apple founder's voice, inflections, and reported facial expressions and mannerisms. It is clear that Kutcher has poured his heart and soul into his portrayal of Jobs. He, dare I say, deserves an Academy Award nomination. After all, Meryl Streep won the Oscar for her incredible acting in the otherwise unbearable Margaret Thatcher biopic, "The Iron Lady." Both films are similar in structure: they present a rushed highlight reel of people, places, and historical events. Of course, Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep, so she can get away with being rewarded for great work in a movie that isn't nearly as good as she is. Kutcher obviously does not have the same reputation or cachet. Like Streep, Kutcher is better than the film he's in, but "Jobs" is ultimately far more enjoyable and effective than "The Iron Lady."

Some might nitpick the "facts" of the film, but it never stays with anything long enough for any real controversy to arise. (Jobs' ill-fated NeXT project is briefly covered, but his years at Pixar are strangely absent.) In cases where there are disputing stories, the movie picks a side and sticks with it – for better or worse. One example: Steve "Woz" Wozniak (played here by Josh Gad) claims that Jobs cheated him on the payoff for the Atari game "Breakout," but Jobs steadfastly denied that his entire life. In this instance, Woz's version of events wins out.

Gad does a great job, playing Woz as a sweet innocent who never quite adapts to corporate life. The idealistic Woz eventually becomes a fish out of water at Apple as the company and his relationship with Jobs gradually changes.

In addition to Kutcher and Gad, several other notable actors show up: James Woods as Reed College professor and dean Jack Dudman, Lukas Haas as Apple employee Daniel Kottke, and Kevin Dunn as eventual Apple CEO Gil Amelio, but the highlights are Dermot Mulroney as entrepreneur Mike Markkula, Matthew Modine as former Pepsi head John Sculley, and J.K Simmons as investor Arthur Rock. 

It's fun to watch Rock the way J.K. Simmons portrays him – as an office terminator with scary '80s hair and '70s glasses. In anyone else's hands, it might have come across as cartoonish and excessive, but Simmons is skilled enough to make it realistic. Meanwhile, Mulroney's Markkula is depicted as a skittish stooge who will go in whichever direction the wind blows, and Modine's Sculley comes across as an uptight, buttoned-up, too-corporate, sugar water salesman who doesn't quite seem to understand what he's selling now. All three actors are top-notch, as usual.

The real Steve Jobs with the first iMac.
(Picture courtesy of
English newcomer Giles Matthey is also wonderful in a small role as Jonathan Ive, who holds a torch for what Apple used to be and wants to help restore the organization to its former glory. That's demonstrated in the film with Ive's bold, stylish design of the first iMac.

As Atari higher-up Al Alcorn (David Denman) says in the film, Jobs is an "asshole." That's probably true, but as great as Kutcher is in the role, he's limited by the script, which shoehorns him into showing mostly the negative side of computer icon. His Jobs walks around acting like a psychopath – pouting perennially like a toddler on the verge of a temper tantrum. There are only fleeting glimpses of the charismatic, charming Jobs that changed the world. That approach reminds me of Michael Mann's overrated "Ali," in which Will Smith portrays the famous boxer as an angry activist who rarely cracked a smile. The real Ali could light up a room. So could the real Jobs.

One of the bigger missed opportunity in "Jobs" is its depiction of the famous "sugar water" pitch. To lure Pespi CEO John Sculley over to Apple, Jobs baited him with an irresistible hook: "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life," he challenged, "or do you want to come with me and change the world?" Instead of showing the hypnotic meeting between Jobs and Sculley, the movie has Sculley tell the story in a joking manner while everyone around him laughs appreciatively. Perhaps that's meant to show what an ill-fit Sculley would turn out to be for the Apple culture, but I would have still preferred to hear the line from Kutcher's magnetic version of Jobs.

"Jobs" is a mixed bag overall, but I like it enough to recommend it. Ashton Kutcher may not get to bring every aspect of Steve Jobs' fascinating personality to life, but it's still far and away the best performance of his career. It's a shame that his astonishing work as Jobs will mostly go ignored because the movie – like the Lisa Computer – was a critical and commercial bust.

Full Disclosure: This review was written on a Windows PC.  

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Silver Screen Surprises Christmas Grab Bag

Jews Hate Hanukkah, Santa Kidnaps Kids, and Other Christmas Lessons

By Chris Sabga

I admit it: I am a sucker for Christmas movies. No matter how cheery or cheesy they are, I just can't get enough!

Everyone knows the classics of Christmas cinema, but here are a few you may not have heard of...

Switchmas: A young boy, Ira Finkelstein, hates being Jewish and wishes his family could celebrate Christmas instead. Well, okay, he only hates being Jewish during Christmas season. Either way, he's obsessed with Christmas trees and Jingle Bells. He dreams of a White Christmas, but he's a California kid who has never even seen snow. To make matters even worse, his parents want to ship him off to Florida – also bereft of the sticky white sludge – because they'll be too busy with work to celebrate Hanukkah. At the airport, poor Ira meets another boy who lives in a snowy climate and would love to spend Christmas in the sun. So, you guessed it, they switch places This well-worn device is actually more logical here than usual because both kids' relatives haven't seen them in years. One of the grandparents is played by the incredible Elliott Gould, who makes the most of every movie and role he's in. In this case, he's the best Jewish grandpa ever. "Switchmas" is hardly great art, and it may not ever make anyone's top ten list of Christmas movies, but it's a fun flick with a nice message. The highlight: finding out who really wrote all of those famous Christmas movies and songs. My mind was blown by the revelation!

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale: Santa Claus is a jolly fat man who climbs down chimneys, wolfs down cookies, sucks down milk, and throws down gifts for all the good little boys and girls in the world. Someone forgot to let the folks in Finland know that. There, Santa is an ancient evil who kidnaps and kills little kids. As dark and depressing as that may sound, "Rare Exports" is actually a delightful little film. It's one of the most original – and twisted – Christmas movies I've had the pleasure of celebrating the yuletide with.

The Heart of Christmas: Is there such a thing as Tragedy Porn? Because "The Heart of Christmas" is it. I honestly can't comment on the merits of the script or the quality of the performances. I just don't know. All I do know is that the true story of Dax Locke, a toddler struck by cancer, makes for one of the most gut-wrenching films I have ever seen. Your heart is made of stone if you can get through this without wiping your eyes. Is it emotional manipulation at its finest? Probably. But it works.

The Sons of Mistletoe: A small town foster home for boys has been sold by a big city executive (played by "Touched by an Angel's" Roma Downey). The man running it (portrayed by the warm George Newbern) actually grew up there himself. Featuring touching performances and a sweet story, this is one of the nicest, gentlest holiday movies you'll come across. Despite being a staple at any Walmart or K-Mart bargain bin, "The Sons of Mistletoe" is worth far more than the asking price.

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear: I hesitate to even mention this all but forgotten Christmas TV movie from 1984 because it's still not officially available on DVD, Blu-Ray, or streaming – and even VHS copies fetch a premium price. But if you were around back then, you undoubtedly remember this heartwarming holiday classic starring Mickey Rooney and Scott Grimes about a grandfather who comes back from Heaven to spend one last Christmas with his grandson in New York City. It is still my favorite Christmas movie of all time. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: The Book Thief

Markus Zusak's Bestselling Novel Comes to the Screen

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: November 27, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 131 minutes
Director: Brian Percival
Writers: Markus Zusak (novel), 
Michael Petroni (adaptation)
Cast: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, 
Emily Watson, Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer, 
Roger Allam  

Information is taken for granted today. We can choose a good book to read (or favorite movie site to surf) without giving it a second thought. But far too recently in our history, books were burned and the act of reading certain authors or ideas was considered forbidden fruit.

"The Book Thief" tells the story of a young girl, Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), who loves to read and can't stand the thought of any type of writing being censored. She rebelliously sneaks in and "borrows" several forbidden tomes from a wealthy neighbor. The title of the film becomes her eventual nickname.

As the story begins, Liesel's mother is forced to give her up to another family. They're living in Germany during the time of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Liesel's new mama, Rosa (Emily Watson), is stern and sharp with her tongue. Already cruelly torn away from everything she has ever known, Liesel now has to adjust to new parents, a new town, and a new life. Rosa's cold demeanor does very little to put the frightened child at ease. But these are harsh times, and one has to be tough just to survive. Still, Liesel's new papa, Hans (Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush), has a softer touch. He makes the girl feel welcome and comforted by referring to her as "Your Highness."

Slowly but surely, Liesel adjusts to her new life. She quickly makes a friend – a "lemon-haired" boy named Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch) who wants nothing more than to kiss her. But this is Nazi Germany, where no one can dare remain comfortable or complacent for long. Everything can change in the blink of an eye.

A teenage hideaway, Max (Ben Schnetzer), soon comes knocking on Hans and Rosa's door. Like Liesel before him, they take him in – at great potential cost to themselves.

Liesel proudly wears the uniform of a Hitler Youth without understanding what that really means. When she finds out exactly what the Fuhrer is against, she begins to have serious doubts. This, of course, coincides with her increasing love of literature. If only more of today's children could feel such reverence for the written word.

While any movie about Nazi Germany is naturally going to weave in the historical, social, and political concerns of the time period, this is – above all – a story about relationships: Liesel's bond with Hans and even Rosa, Max becoming a brother to her, and her growing affection for Rudy.

The little girl who plays Liesel takes it all in with her wide, expressive eyes. She anchors the film with a beautiful, natural performance. She's not alone. Every actor here disappears into their characters. From the acting and accents to the story and setting, everything comes together to create a completely immersive experience.

Some movies are easy to write about. The words just come tumbling out. Others take time to process. They require reflection. "The Book Thief" has stayed with me for weeks. It is beautifully haunting.

Any story that begins with a narration from Death is not going to be simple Sunday stroll. Yet, for most of the film's running time, there are only a few bumps on the road. But Death, like love, is patient – though it is rarely kind and never proud.  

Monday, December 2, 2013

Remembering Paul Walker

Beyond "The Fast and the Furious" Paul Walker Had a Rich Body of Work

By Chris Sabga

Paul Walker's untimely death on Saturday after a tragic car crash and explosion shocked everyone. He was only 40 years old.

Of course, he's best known for "The Fast and the Furious" series of films. I have to confess: I still haven't seen any of them. That's become something of a running joke among my circle of friends: Every time a new installment comes out, I have to decline an invitation to see it with them because I still have to catch up.

Despite that, Walker still managed to become one of my favorite actors. After all, he did so much more than just the "Fast" flicks. Here are five of my favorites – some you might have seen and others you may not be familiar with.

Eight Below: Anyone who dislikes this movie has a heart that's too hard and isn't someone I want to have anything to do with. Paul Walker plays a sled dog trainer who is forced to leave his canine babies behind in the unforgiving Antarctic cold but never gives up on their rescue. The bond between Walker and the animals is completely believable and heartfelt.

Noel: Christmas movies either work or they don't. "Noel" works. Surrounded by a stellar cast that includes Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz. Alan Arkin, and Chazz Palminteri, Walker is one of the highlights.

Running Scared: "Running Scared" is beloved among Paul Walker fans for good reason: it's a fun, stylish action film that never fails to entertain. But it also delves into some dark, serious territory, which makes it more memorable than most in this genre.

Into the Blue: This is just pure escapism – an absolute blast to watch. Jessica Alba looks incredible in a bikini, Paul Walker probably has the same effect, and Scott Caan and Josh Brolin come along for the ride. What's not to like?

Vehicle 19: People expecting the wild car chases found in the "Fast" franchise might have been disappointed, but this tense thriller was one of the biggest surprises of the year for me. Walker is superb at conveying a desperate mixture of anger and panic. (Full review)

Those and the "Fast" films only scratch the surface. Walker left behind a full body of work. "Joy Ride" and "The Skulls" are also much loved by his fans. I plan to eventually see his other 2013 films, "Hours" and "The Pawn Shop Chronicles," as well as slightly older ones like "Takers."

His final film appears to be the upcoming "Brick Mansions," which is scheduled for release in 2014. Assuming the cast list on IMDB is in the correct order, the other lead actors will be Robert Maillet (former WWE wrestler Kurrgan) and RZA. I'm excited!

No matter the role, Paul Walker always came across as completely genuine. That was his biggest strength as an actor.

This great article on recounts Walker's efforts as a marine biologist, racecar driver, sportsman, father, and humanitarian. He was involved in a relief effort for Typhoon Haiyan the day he died.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Review: Dallas Buyers Club

Human Lives for Sale

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: November 22, 2013 – U.S. (wide)
Rating: R
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Running Time: 117 minutes
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writers: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, 
Jared Leto, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne, 
Michael O'Neill

Matthew McConaughey has such an innate ability to charm that you can't help but like him even as his character makes vile homophobic slurs and acts like a loud, boorish redneck. He's not relying on his movie star good looks either; they have been stripped away completely. Now dozens of pounds lighter with bad brown hair and a bushy mustache, his appearance is almost skeletal.

"Dallas Buyers Club" tells the true story of Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), a good old boy from Texas who was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. Back then, HIV and AIDS were still considered "the gay cancer." But Woodroof is proudly, fiercely straight. The movie begins with him cracking jokes about Rock Hudson's homosexuality – the actor had just died from AIDS. With that mindset, Woodroof's own subsequent HIV+ diagnosis is a shock to his system. His friends certainly don't know how to handle it; they believe he must secretly be a "cocksucker." The only one who remains loyal to him is Tucker (the underrated Steve Zahn in a small role).

Experimental trials are beginning for a new HIV drug called AZT, but not everyone who needs it can get their hands on it; testing is strictly controlled. Given only 30 days to live, a desperate Woodroof approaches a sympathetic doctor, Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), and begs her to let him buy the drug. She understands his plight but cannot accept his money; her hands are tied by medical laws and the FDA.

Woodroof uses his street smarts to get AZT smuggled out of the hospital. Originally intending to use it only on himself, his plans change after he meets a savvy transgender patient, Rayon (Jared Leto). Despite Woodroof's discomfort around Rayon, they go into business together to supply other people with HIV who need meds right away.

At first, the Dallas Buyers Club is just a means to an end: a way to make money and stay alive. But it soon becomes much more than that, especially when the validity of AZT comes into question. With the help of a medical practitioner in Mexico (played by Griffin Dunne) who lost his license in the States, Woodroof begins researching alternative treatments. One such drug, Peptide T, is not approved by the FDA despite being non-toxic. Another, Interferon, can only be prescribed by Japanese doctors.

My doctor looks like him.
Should I be worried?
The Buyers Club's biggest obstacles are Dr. Sevard (Denis O'Hare) and the FDA themselves. Sevard is a strictly by-the-books doctor who is concerned with his own profit margins and won't take even one step out of regulation. The FDA, represented here by Richard Barkley (Michael O'Neill, who memorably portrayed hospital shooter Gary Clark on "Grey's Anatomy"), does everything in its power to make sure its guidelines are enforced – even at the cost of human lives. Both parties go out of their way to prevent the Dallas Buyers Club from securing and supplying crucial medication to people with HIV. Jennifer Garner's Dr. Saks is caught in the middle: beholden to her boss but beginning to see the benefit the buyers clubs are having in both Dallas and other parts of the country.

Woodroof's transformation from homophobic hick to international businessman and medical researcher is fascinating to watch. Matthew McConaughey once again delivers a mesmerizing performance – in a year filled with interesting roles from him. Along with "Mud," he is doing some of the best work of his career right now. The real revelation here, however, is Jared Leto. I've always been a fan of his work, but he takes it to another level entirely with his sweet, touching, and sometimes heartbreaking portrayal of the transgendered Rayon. I cannot imagine a scenario where he doesn't get nominated for an Academy Award. McConaughey deserves one, too.

"Dallas Buyers Club" is a captivating portrait of another time and place – Dallas, Texas, in the mid-1980s – where AIDS was misunderstood and maligned, and help was all too rare for the people who so urgently needed it. Films like this remind us of how far we've come, and that bravery, progress, and change can originate from the unlikeliest of sources. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Review: Parkland

50 Years After JFK's Assassination, The Story is Told From the Perspective of the Doctors and Nurses, FBI and Secret Service Agents, the Photographer, and the Oswald Family

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 4, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Running Time: 93 minutes
Director: Peter Landesman
Writers: Peter Landesman, 
Vincent Bugliosi (book)
Cast: James Badge Dale, Zac Efron, 
Marcia Gay Harden, Ron Livingston, 
Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver, 
Paul Giamatti

It has been 50 years since U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Countless books, movies, documentaries, news reports, and conspiracy theories have emerged since that time. "Parkland" manages to tell the same story from a different perspective. It focuses on the peripheral people who were suddenly thrust into an unimaginable situation on November 22, 1963 and in the days that followed – the hospital staff that operated on Kennedy, the Secret Service agents sworn to protect the President, the FBI agents who had Lee Harvey Oswald in their grasp, the photographer who filmed the shooting, and the Oswald family themselves.

The movie remembers a time when there was almost universal respect and reverence for the President. Whether that was ever really the case or not, it certainly isn't now. Back then, a photographer could request that the still-frame of a kill-shot remain unpublished to preserve a man's dignity; that would never happen in today's open media and society where it's a constant race to the bottom to be first with a story. 
This is a very fast-paced, frantic, gritty look at the President's assassination and its aftermath. It wastes no time. Within the first five minutes of the film, JFK is shot and killed. From there, it switches to Parkland Hospital and then cycles back and forth between the various "people on the ground" who found themselves involved in what instantly became American history.

"Parkland" pulls no punches. In one scene, the President's wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, is seen crying into her hands with her husband's blood all over them. It's a shocking, jarring moment that clashes starkly with the pretty pink outfit she was wearing that day. Famous forever for her photogenic features and elegant style, here she is presented as a mere mortal – a wilted flower withering from the loss of the love of her life.

However, Mr. and Mrs. President are mostly in the background. This particular treatment of the JFK assassination shines the spotlight on photographer Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), Dr. Charles "Jim" Carrico (Zac Efron, looking too young and scruffy), FBI agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston), Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels (a weathered Billy Bob Thornton), Lee Harvey Oswald's brother and mother (played by James Badge Dale and Jacki Weaver), and many others (Marcia Gay Harden, David Harbour, Tom Welling, Mark Duplass, Colin Hanks, and Jackie Earle Haley all pop up in smaller roles).

Despite all of the players involved, this is not a character-driven story. We never get to know much about any of these people beyond their direct or indirect involvement with Kennedy. That's okay though, because "Parkland" is simply meant to put us in the middle of the madness, similar to the way "United 93" depicted 9/11.

Two highlights: amusing archival footage of Kennedy deflecting a request to wear a cowboy hat, and Abe Zapruder's eyes growing wide with horror as he sees the moment of death replayed in the footage he shot.

(And for you folks who believe Lee Harvey Oswald didn't do it, the movie dangles a few half-bitten carrots in that direction without ever explicitly supporting or agreeing with those alternate theories: Oswald was caught rather quickly with an almost immediate rush to judgment, his mother insisted he was framed, and his previous dealings with the FBI had nothing to do with Kennedy.)

"Parkland" powerfully demonstrates what it must have been like for the doctors and nurses who operated on – and lost – Kennedy, the emotional impact it had on the photographer who filmed the President as he was being murdered, the agents who had interacted with Lee Harvey Oswald just weeks prior to the assassination, and the toll it took on Robert and Marguerite Oswald as they struggled to come to terms with what happened.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Not a Review: Captain Phillips

My Thoughts on the Movie and the Maersk Alabama Ship Hijacking

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 11, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Action, Adventure, Biography
Running Time: 134 minutes
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writers: Billy Ray (screenplay), 
Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty (book)
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, 
Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, 
Mahat M. Ali, Amr El-Bayoumi

I was extremely hesitant to see and write about "Captain Phillips" for a variety of reasons:

1. I don't usually enjoy this type of movie.

2. I am generally not a fan of its director, Paul Greengrass. The Bourne sequels with Matt Damon worked in spite of him, not because of him. (More on that later...)

3. And the big one: a relative of mine was on the boat, and he's suing the shipping company.

His name is Jimmy Sabga. He was quoted by ABC News: "Captain Phillips did not follow orders, the ship was attacked and he was responsible."

Reports indicate that the captain was warned ahead of time about the possibility of pirates and was told to stay 600 miles away from Somalia; instead, his ship – the Maersk Alabama – was only about 250 miles away.

This is already more interesting than the movie itself!

Once again, Hollywood has fictionalized a true story. But it would be hypocritical of me to hold that against the film, when so many other "biopics" do the exact same thing. For example, "A Beautiful Mind" was roundly criticized because its subject – John Forbes Nash – has a few skeletons in his closet that were nowhere to be found on-screen. It's still a great movie.

Therefore, I'll judge Phillips the film solely by what I saw in the theater and withhold any judgment of Phillips the man.

I've obviously never met Richard Phillips, but I can't pretend that I know Jimmy Sabga either – I don't. (It's a big family, and I always meet new people at our reunions. I don't know them, but they all seem to know me.) Truthfully, I'm probably more familiar with Tom Hanks. Still, I'll openly admit it: I can't help but root for good ol' Uncle J.

Now, about that movie...

I've already expressed my distaste for the directorial style of Paul Greengrass. His camerawork is usually choppy to the point of dizzying nausea. That worked wonderfully in "United 93" about the 9/11 airplane hijacking because it created a necessary sense of chaos. However, it made the action sequences in "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum" confusing and unbearable to watch. But I have to give credit where it's due: Greengrass has matured considerably as a director. Everything he does in "Captain Phillips" is subtle and serves the situation well. You can almost feel the ship swaying slightly, but he never goes too far with the effect. He doesn't show off. His camera motions are realistic and nuanced.

For a film that's being criticized for turning Phillips into a hero who can do no wrong, he's surprisingly portrayed as, well, quite an asshole.

In one scene, the crew members are chatting with each other and enjoying their coffee. Such camaraderie, I would think, would be encouraged by any half-decent captain. Not Phillips! He gruffly tells them to get back to work. The crew members as essentially depicted as lazy slackers who need the captain to get them in line. It's insulting and ridiculous.

(If this actually happened, Uncle Jimmy is obviously nicer than me, because I would have thrown the captain overboard. Hey, no one takes away my coffee time!)

Later on, the crew yells at Phillips, saying they "didn't sign up for this" – fighting pirates. They didn't. But the captain behaves like an arrogant tyrant and practically bullies them into staying on the ship. Of course, the movie never touches on what Phillips was later accused of in the lawsuit: that he placed them all in that predicament to begin with by ignoring warnings and disobeying orders.

What was hyped above all was Phillips' heroic act – leaving his own ship to go with the Somalians, thereby potentially sacrificing himself for the safety of his crew. I was under the impression beforehand that he willingly put himself in that situation, but the movie presents it as something he was forced to do. I'm not sure how it happened in real life, but the film seems to go out of its way to diminish his big moment of bravery. If the captain realized he screwed up and this was his way of making amends, he deserves credit for acting like a leader instead of following one mistake with many more like most people would. Whatever the case may be, I certainly cannot be critical of what was obviously a very difficult and dangerous situation in real life.

Perhaps they were counting on Hanks's ability to "convey a sense of old-fashioned American decency just by standing in the frame" – as The New York Times puts it – to carry things along. There is definitely no one better at being good than Hanks, but that only goes so far. As we saw in "The Da Vinci Code," even the warm and likeable star of "Forrest Gump" can't save a controversial project many people found offensive for religious reasons. I was offended by "Da Vinci" too. Bad movies offend me greatly!

Make no mistake, "Captain Phillips" isn't a bad movie; it just has issues.

I admire its efforts to present the Somali pirates fairly by examining their dire circumstances and putting a human face on their inhumane actions. But just as the film doesn't quite make Phillips as heroic as it aims to, it goes overboard in the other direction with the pirates. By the end, I found myself sympathizing more with his captors! I don't think that was quite what the filmmakers intended.

Hanks delivers a tremendous performance as the captain in peril, masterfully conveying multiple emotions – fear, anger, hatred, and even concern – sometimes all in the same scene. His four Somalian co-stars - Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali – are absolutely amazing in their own right, which is especially incredible because none of them have ever been in a movie before.

The acting and directing are both superb; any problems "Captain Phillips" has are script-related. In addition to the skewed hero-villain dynamic, the film rarely felt suspenseful to me – despite featuring many big, dramatic moments. Part of the problem, I think, is that it simply feels too long. Granted, I knew the general outcome ahead of time – but that was true of "Argo" too, and that movie kept me on the edge of my seat.

As for Uncle Jimmy, was he even in "Captain Phillips"? Yes! Well, maybe.

Amr El-Bayoumi
Several months ago, IMDB actually included the actual crew members' names for the various actors playing them. That changed somewhere along the way though – maybe because of the lawsuit? Now, they're all listed simply as "Maersk Alabama Crew." Like the idiotic coffee scene, this seems like yet another way to callously diminish their contributions and worth. If anything, the crew members were the bravest because their lives were in the hands of a captain who had already made a bad judgment call. I can't imagine a more helpless feeling.

Luckily, some sites – such as – still list the old cast information. Amr El-Bayoumi plays Jimmy "Sagba." (Yes, to add insult to injury, our damn name is misspelled. Thankfully, El-Bayoumi himself has enough respect for the person he's representing: his Spotlight page contains the correct spelling.) I only recall seeing him in a single scene – the one where the crew objected to combating pirates. He valiantly stood up to Phillips. I laughed, I cried, I clapped and cheered. It's a stunning performance that's a surefire lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. El-Bayoumi was so convincing as Uncle Jimmy that I felt I was at a family reunion instead of in the theater. Yes, I'm kidding. The actor is decades younger and looks nothing like the man he's portraying, but that's probably par for the course in Hollywood. I certainly won't object if they ever make a movie of my life and decide to have Channing Tatum, Brad Pitt (as long as he doesn't come onto the set with the stoner hairstyle he was sporting in "World War Z"), or George Clooney play me. One must make these sorts of sacrifices in the name of great art.

Overall, "Captain Phillips" is a bit of a mixed bag, but it does succeed in taking the viewer on a journey into the heart of a hijacked ship, its terrified captain and crew, and a group of desperate pirates with pressures of their own back home. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Review: The Purge

Murder Mass-Marketed

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: June 7, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Running Time: 85 minutes
Director: James DeMonaco
Writer: James DeMonaco
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, 
Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, 
Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield
Tony Oller, Arija Bareikis   

For one night, all crime – including murder – is completely legal. That's the alluring premise behind "The Purge," a horror-thriller set in the near-future – 2022, to be exact. The Purge is a law created by America's "New Founding Fathers." Before The Purge, violence and poverty were sky high. Now, crime rates are down to 1%. According to James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), "The Purge saved our country."

Sandin is a security salesman, and his house is fully locked down – with his own equipment, naturally. He's ready for the big yearly Purge.

Most Americans view the "event" with a sort of reverence. Purge Fever is so rampant that entire neighborhoods celebrate by attending "Purge Parties." On TV, psychologists fawn over the health benefits of "purging" bad thoughts from your system. Any deaths incurred on that night are viewed as "sacrifices for your country." Even James and his wife, Mary, treat the idea of "purging" casually. When their innocent son, Charlie (Max Burkholder), asks them about it, they admit they've "never felt the need" to "purge," but their tone and cadence indicate that it would obviously be no big deal to commit legal murder. In their minds, he's too young to understand and remember what the United States used to be like.

Just as we're bombarded with suggestions/warnings to "support our troops," the U.S. citizens of 2022 have been conditioned to support The Purge.

While the film starts off as a wicked satire, there is a constant layer of tension and unease lurking as the audience waits with anticipation and dread for the 12-hour Purge to begin. Two problems present themselves soon after the clock strikes:

1.  On the monitor, young Charlie sees a homeless man (played by Edwin Hodge) outside the house running for his life and begging for shelter. The sweet, naïve boy can't just sit back and do nothing.

2. His teenage sister, Zoey (Adelaide Kane), is secretly dating an older boy/man, Henry (Tony Oller), and the idiot has locked himself inside their house during The Purge because he wants to confront and convince her father to allow them to date.

As the night unfolds, a group of purgers surround the Sandin fortress. They're led by a man in a mask (Rhys Wakefield), who makes his demands known in a very calm but chilling voice.

From there, "The Purge" turns into a full-fledged horror-thriller – as expected. At only 85 minutes, the pace is brisk; there's never a slow, dull moment – or a moment to breathe.

Ethan Hawke once again shows his tremendous acting range. In the "Before" series, he's loose and easygoing. Here, he's uptight and constrained – perhaps because he continually denies himself his yearly "release" allowed by The Purge? Whatever the case may be, his scowling jowl is very reminiscent of Harrison Ford.

The movie isn't perfect though. About midway through, Hawke's character makes the kind of illogical decision that could only happen in a script. In one fell swoop, he morphs from fearful family man to horror movie Rambo. Some of the masks and mannerisms also border on the ridiculous – as if they're creepy just for the sake of it. All of that silliness aside, the "purge" concept is effective and well-executed.

From a psychological standpoint, it is interesting to see the idea of murder so thoroughly examined. For this family, it goes from an abstract positive to a terrifying reality they'll have to deal with for the rest of their lives. Class and financial status are also explored cleverly, with Hawke's rich patriarch commenting off-handedly about their "safe" neighborhood and how lucky they are to be able to afford such top-flight security.

"The Purge" has a few minor issues, but it's the rare example of a horror movie that actually has something to say.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Review: Before "The Blacklist," James Spader Walked the Line Between Good and Bad in "Bad Influence" and "Jack's Back"

Two Interesting Dual Roles Starring a Younger James Spader

By Chris Sabga

On "The Blacklist," James Spader masterfully portrays a mysterious criminal-slash-informant, the morally-ambiguous Raymond "Red" Reddington. As it turns out, he's had some practice. This is far from the first time Spader has had to tiptoe between innocence and guilt. In the spirit of the over-the-top popcorn fun of "The Blacklist," I've picked two films from Spader's large body of work that aren't afraid to be excessive and more than a little bit ridiculous.

Bad Influence (1990)

The premise: a mild-mannered young executive becomes influenced by a dangerous new friend. I went into "Bad Influence" expecting Spader to play the bad guy, with Rob Lowe portraying his pal-in-peril. Instead, the opposite occurs. Being cast against type at the time is likely what attracted both actors to the film.

Michael (Spader) is a mild-mannered executive who can't stand up for himself in any aspect of his life. He's taken advantage of at work by a jerk named Patterson, stuck in a relationship with a domineering fiancée, and bullied at bars – until Alex (Lowe) "saves" him.

You know Michael is an innocent little lamb because he wears glasses – the ultimate symbol of weakness in any respectably cheesy '80s or early-'90s flick.

Under Alex's "bad influence," it isn't long before the meek Michael becomes the swaggering Mick. At first, Alex's friendship seems like a positive development for "Mick." Of course, as the audience already knows, that honeymoon period won't last. Soon, things turn [cue dramatic music] deadly.

Michael would have cowered in the fetal position, but Mick has a slightly better handle on things – thanks, ironically, in part to what he's learned from his "mentor," Alex. It's fun watching Spader's transformation.

The editing is particularly well done. On occasion, we won't be shown certain scenes or actions we're expecting to see. What initially seems like a clumsy cut eventually reveals itself as a deliberate omission to ramp up the mystery and tension.

Still, just about everything that happens is completely illogical. The naivety of Spader's character is astounding. He almost immediately shows Lowe where he lives, even though they're still practically perfect strangers. (Folks, most of my closest friends still haven't been invited to step through my front door!) There's almost no rhyme or reason to any of Spader's increasingly bizarre actions. It's unrealistic and implausible to the nth degree. (I won't spoil any of the major details, but I will say that there's bunny mask somewhere along the way.)

And yet, despite being completely preposterous, the movie still somehow works. It has that certain feel and charm you only get from something made in the '80s and very early '90s. It's no great work of art, but it is a good time!

This formula would be tweaked and refined in the coming years by various Lifetime TV movies of the week (with Lowe himself even appearing in one or two of them).

The fun thing about revisiting the earlier portions of an actor's career is seeing which other future stars turn up. Spader's girlfriend is played by a young Marcia Cross, who seems slightly unhinged even here – a trait she would later perfect in "Melrose Place" and "Desperate Housewives."

But she has nothing on Lowe. It would not surprise me if he was legitimately on drugs like his character during the shoot. He brings a maniacal, Joker-like quality to his role.  

In "Bad Influence," Spader essentially plays a good guy with some shades of gray. For "The Blacklist," the scale seemingly tilts in the other direction. Either way, that type of duality has always been one of the actor's strengths.

Two years earlier, Spader literally played two very different people in the same film: identical twins – one nice and the other "naughty."

Jack's Back (1988)

John Westford is a nice, shy doctor who works at a free clinic. Rick Westford is a former career criminal who hasn't spoken to his brother in two years. Both are played by James Spader.

You know John is a sweet, harmless guy because – here we go again – he wears glasses. Rick has perfect eyesight and a leather jacket. That means he's bad. (Or "naughty" as John would say, because he's too nice to use a stronger word.)

Needless to say, Rick's "tough guy look" was menacing for about five seconds in the mid-1980s before the fashion world moved on and common sense took over. It's dated – but funny – by today's standards.

"Jack's Back" is definitely a product of its time, but that makes it even more enjoyable, not less.

As far as storylines go, this is a pretty good one: 100 years to the day of Jack the Ripper's famous slayings, a copycat killer is going around recreating them down to the finest detail.

The innocent, bespectacled doc is somehow accused of the crime. The only person who can clear him is his chain-smoking, leather-clad, "bad" twin brother.

This is your basic whodunit mystery thriller. There's nothing fancy about it, just good, clean '80s fun. Spader's presence is what makes this one stand out.

Not entirely unlike "The Blacklist's" Reddington, the "tough" twin in "Jack's Back" is definitely more of an anti-hero. Then again, how bad can he really be? He manages a shoe store!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Review: Death Ship

It's Better to Be in the Water

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: March 7, 1980 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Horror
Running Time: 91 minutes
Director: Alvin Rakoff
Writers: John Robins, Jack Hill, David P. Lewis
Cast: George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, 
Nick Mancuso, Sally Ann Howes, Kate Reid, 
Victoria Burgoyne, Jennifer McKinney, 
Danny Higham, Saul Rubinek  

If you go into something called "Death Ship" expecting the next "Citizen Kane," you have only yourself to blame because you're severely lacking in common sense. But there's no better way to celebrate the Halloween season than by popping in a cheap, tawdry, blood-soaked horror flick that's low in budget but high in body-count. 

Movies like this aren't about the acting (which is just good enough) or dialogue (heavy-handed and hokey), but George Kennedy and Richard Crenna make the most of it.

The film begins on a regular cruise ship, captained by Ashland (Kennedy, "The Naked Gun"). He can expertly control a vessel, but he's chilly to his crew and incapable of dealing with the passengers. It's his maiden voyage; he's about to be replaced by his assistant, Trevor Marshall (Crenna, "Rambo"). Marshall's wife and two young children are also on board.  

After a "Poseidon"-like disaster capsizes the cruise-liner, Ashland, Marshall and his family, and a few other crew members and passengers are left to fend for themselves on a rickety raft.

"Help" finally comes in the form of an ominous black ship.

They're all better off drowning right then and there, but since that isn't an option, they climb aboard. It quickly becomes obvious that something is amiss. No one else seems to be on the ship – or are they? Of course, all of this is standard horror movie fare.

It isn't long before the "death ship" reveals two important facts about itself: 1. It's German. 2. It's haunted. Needless to say, a horror movie wouldn't use Germany randomly; it would naturally focus on the darkest period in that country's history. I'll leave you to figure out the rest.

If you only know George Kennedy as the friendly, goofy second banana from the "Naked Gun" series, his role here as a cold, crazed captain is quite a departure for him – and he pulls it off fairly well. Amazingly, Richard Crenna was born less than two years after Kennedy but seems twenty years younger in this movie. Maybe it's just me, but Crenna bears a striking resemblance to Bryan Cranston. (Is the "Breaking Bad" star available for a remake?)

Is it hyperbolic to say that "Death Ship" has the most memorable shower scene since "Psycho"? Maybe, but that is the undoubted highlight of the film and the sequence everyone will walk away remembering.

Even so, "Death Ship" is hardly a great movie – but it is an effective one. It features unsettling imagery, eerie quick cuts, and a spooky soundtrack. However, at times, the editing can be a bit haphazard – as if a connecting scene was chopped out or not filmed at all. The story and action are still easy enough to follow though. This isn't Shakespeare, after all. But I knew what to expect going in – and more importantly, what not to expect.

The moviemaking masters won't be losing any sleep over this little obscure slice of '80s horror, but I can't lie: I had fun.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Review: Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon)

From Buffy to the Bard – Joss Whedon's Post-Avengers Party

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: June 7, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Comedy, Romance, Drama
Running Time: 109 minutes
Director: Joss Whedon
Writers: Joss Whedon, William Shakespeare
Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, 
Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, 
Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher, 
Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome, 
Ashley Johnson

Joss Whedon takes on William Shakespeare in one of the most fascinating adaptations of the Bard's work. If you're a seasoned "Whedonite," he has assembled a dream team of actors from his other projects: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, and Sean Maher will all be familiar to fans of "Buffy," "Angel," "Firefly," "Dollhouse," and "The Avengers." But even if you're not well-versed in the "Whedonverse," his shows are always impeccably cast.  However, going from vampire slayers and space cowboys to the immortal words of Shakespeare himself is a big leap – even for Whedon, who is one of the best writers working on television and in the movies today. How does he fare with a lady so fair?

Whedon's interpretation of "Much Ado About Nothing" is both classical and modern. It's a black and white film that takes place in the present day using Shakespeare's original Elizabethan-era language. It's a strange, exciting combination of elements. But does it actually work?

The first few minutes are admittedly distracting, as familiar faces from Whedon's troupe of actors – such as Clark Gregg and Amy Acker – speak to each other in the famous Shakespearean tongue while wearing contemporary clothing and walking around a Mediterranean-style home. It's a jarring juxtaposition. It takes time to get used to.

Then everything clicks, and you can't help but be swept away by the grand, masterful language and wonderful, endearing performances.

For the uninitiated, "Much Ado About Nothing" tells the tale of two great loves: the quarreling Beatrice and Benedick (Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof) and the young, smitten Claudio and Hero (Fran Kanz and newcomer Jillian Morgese).

Leonato (Clark Gregg) is Hero's father and Beatrice's uncle. Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) comes to visit them, along with two of his officers, Benedick and Claudio.

Don Pedro is embroiled in a feud with his brother, Don John (Sean Maher).

The wicked Don John enlists Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) and Conrade (Riki Lindhome) for some nefarious trickery.

The services of Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), a bumbling constable, are eventually needed.

Anyone who has ever read or seen Shakespeare knows that the English of 1623 bears very little resemblance to what is written and spoken today. Yet, that challenging dialogue rolls off the tongue effortlessly for all of Whedon's actors. Even more impressively, their facial expressions tell just as much of a story as their words.

Acker and Denisof are especially delightful to watch. They bring a light, playful touch to their bickering characters. One of the highlights of the film is a back-to-back sequence where the two of them sneak around to spy on each other's conversations. In the grand tradition of broad screwball comedies, they dodge, weave, and hide to avoid being seen.

All in all, Joss Whedon and his cast never take themselves too seriously. It's apparent that they're all having the time of their life, and that enthusiasm is infectious. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to find out that Whedon and several of the actors he's worked with – including Acker and Denisof – would gather around to recite Shakespeare in their spare time for fun. After the grueling "Avengers" shoot, Whedon cancelled a trip with his wife – at her urging – to turn those private readings into a reality by finally filming "Much Ado About Nothing." Shot in only 12 days, he called it the best "vacation" he's ever taken.

It's a vacation for the viewer too: a vacation from the usual clichéd drudgery that permeates so many of today's movies.

Joss Whedon's interpretation of "Much Ado About Nothing" is a magical experience that is sure to satisfy everyone from the hard-nosed queen in the balcony to all of the groundlings in the cheap seats.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Silver Screen Surprises Coming in October

Kill Your Darlings, Machete Kills, JFK Killed, Schoolkids Who Want to Kill, and a Stomach-Killing Demon – All in the Killer Month of October

By Chris Sabga

October features an interesting mix of films. There is something for every taste this month. Here are some of the more interesting or under-the-radar movies coming out in the next 30 days.

Parkland (October 4th): Originally announced for September, "Parkland" was moved to October at some point. Everyone knows the story of JFK's assassination – or thinks they do – but "Parkland" focuses on the peripheral people involved that you don't hear much about: the doctors and nurses, cameraman, and others who were there that day and in the aftermath. It's a fresh angle on an incident that has already been dramatized countless times.

Bad Milo (October 4th): A man's painful ulcer turns out to be a demon living inside his stomach. I'll just leave it at that, because no other words could possibly be necessary.

The Dirties (October 4th): Kevin Smith "presents" this movie about school bullying, which means he didn't actually have anything to do with it – he just wants to endorse it, and he has, calling it "the most important film you will see all year." It definitely seems to have a homemade feel to it, which could add to the realism. It's about two bullied high school kids who decide to make a funny film about getting revenge on their classmates – until one of them wonders if they should shoot more than just a movie.  

Machete Kills (October 11th): The first "Machete" was a crazy grindhouse-style flick, with Danny Trejo as the titular character, Steven Seagal portraying a Mexican drug lord, and Robert De Niro hamming it up with a bad Texas accent. What?! But it was an undeniably fun time. Now, Machete is back to kill again – and along for the ride this time: Carlos Estevez (better known as Charlie Sheen) and Mel Gibson.

The Fifth Estate (October 11th): It's probably too soon for any kind of serious film treatment of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, but the combined acting power of Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Anthony Mackie, Stanley Tucci, and Laura Linney is enticing.

12 Years a Slave (October 18th): I've known for years that Chiwetel Ejiofor is an amazing actor. Now it's time for the rest of the world to find that out too. I will openly admit that I'm rooting for him and his Oscar chances. He is someone who deserves the biggest opportunities possible.

Kill Your Darlings (October 18th): "Harry Potter's" Daniel Radcliffe plays beat poet Allen Ginsberg. According to "Kill Your Darlings," a murder brought him, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs together. It's certainly an enticing hook – and so is seeing the former boy wizard in a more serious, grown-up role.

In the Name Of (October 30th): Father Adam runs a center for boys in a small Polish village, where he happily plays soccer and preaches the good word. But why was he transferred from Warsaw? Is he hiding something? Accusations of homosexuality soon arise.

Blockbusters: Gravity (October 4th), Runner Runner (4th), Captain Phillips (October 11th), Carrie (October 18th), Escape Plan (18th), The Counselor (October 25th), Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (25th)

"Gravity" puts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in space. The premise almost sells itself. Meanwhile, Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck bring their starpower to "Runner Runner," a thriller about online poker.

"Captain Phillips" is based on the true story of the 2009 ship hijacking by Somali pirates. This is the kind of role Tom Hanks excels in. I just hope the movie focuses on more than just Phillips and the pirates – many other brave crew members were on that ship too.

"Carrie" is a remake, and those don't particularly excite me – especially when the original needs no improvement. But with "Hugo's" Chloë Grace Moretz in the title role and the always great Julianne Moore as her mother, the casting is certainly rock solid.

"Escape Plan" brings Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger together for the first time (not counting Arnold's minor role in the "Expendables" movies). With Sly getting top billing over Arnie, it already feels off, because that isn't ever how they were ranked in the '80s action hierarchy. These dream team pairings are exciting on paper, but I've been burned too many times. And it may be a case of "too little, too late," but I'll remain cautiously optimistic for now.

"The Counselor" is directed by Ridley Scott and written by Cormac McCarthy ("The Road," "No Country For Old Men"). That alone gives this project a boost in my mind. The fantastic cast doesn't hurt either: Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, and especially Javier Bardem.

I like the idea behind "Bad Grandpa," which features Johnny Knoxville in old-age makeup portraying a grandfather seemingly tricking unsuspecting real people in Borat-style situations. Unfortunately, the trailer isn't very funny. Worse than that, it's offensive at times (crashing a funeral and knocking over the coffin – not funny). Still, this type of setup always has potential – and we've seen bad trailers for good movies many times before.