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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: Vehicle 19

Paul Walker is Always Furious and Sometimes Fast in "Vehicle 19"

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: June 14/July 23, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Thriller
Running Time: 85 minutes
Director: Mukunda Michael Dewil
Writer: Mukunda Michael Dewil
Cast:  Paul Walker, Naima McLean, 
Gys de Villiers, Leyla Haidarian, 
Tshepo Maseko, Andrian Mazive, 
Welile Nzuza, Mangaliso Ngema

At first glance, the car chase shown at the beginning of "Vehicle 19" seems like nothing out of the ordinary – but only for an instant. Then you notice the strange-looking police cars and the helicopter that's flying just a little too low. Very quickly, it becomes apparent than the man behind the wheel is not in New York, Los Angeles, or even the United States. He's in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The movie then flashes back to the very beginning. We see the driver walking to his rental car. He asked for a sedan but ended up with a minivan instead. That soon becomes a much bigger problem than he could have ever anticipated.

We learn that his name is Michael Woods (Paul Walker) and he's in the country to visit his ex-wife. Things are obviously strained between them for reasons that will eventually be revealed as the film progresses.

The problems Woods faces are mundane at first – wrong car, upset ex – but Paul Walker does a superb job of expressing frustration and rage. He creates a tense environment right off the bat that infects the viewer immediately.

But this wouldn't be much of a movie if his biggest issues were dropping his snack cake and getting stuck in traffic. It builds slowly and boils, and it isn't long before he realizes that something is definitely amiss...

1. His first clue: finding a gun that doesn't belong to him.

2. After that, he receives a call from a cell phone that isn't his.

3. And then there's the South African woman – tied up in the trunk.

Her name is Rachel Shabangu (Naima McLean), and there's a reason she has been kidnapped and trapped.

"Vehicle 19" makes South Africa look like a corrupt hellhole. Whether it is or isn't, what do I care? I'm not on that country's tourism committee! All that really matters is how entertaining the movie is. After all, nobody is going to confuse this for a documentary anyway.

Paul Walker's character has been placed in an improbable situation, but he always reacts realistically and appropriately. Sometimes he does things later than you or I might, but that's understandable because he's confused and under constant stress.

Placing Walker behind the wheel of a car will inevitably invite comparisons to "The Fast and the Furious," but "Vehicle 19" is a different type of experience entirely. There is one major car chase, and a few minor ones, but this isn't necessarily the high-octane action joyride you may be expecting. Instead, it's a tense thriller.

Perhaps because of those assumptions, the "Tomatometer" score for the movie is predictably low. That's a shame. I can't help but think that if a lesser-known "artsy" international actor had been cast instead of Paul Walker, the critics would be climbing over each other to sing this film's praises. But Walker works perfectly in the role. He's a "stranger in a strange land" – an American in a foreign country he's never been to before – and that element is crucial to telling this story. 

There's nothing particularly fancy about the movie – the plot is fairly basic, no frills – but the pressure is constant, the anxiety is always mounting, and Paul Walker delivers a fantastic performance throughout it all. "Vehicle 19" is exceptionally well done – a spectacular surprise.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Review: This is the End

Big Laughs from the Beginning

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: June 12, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Comedy, Fantasy
Running Time: 107 minutes
Directors: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen        
Writers: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen
Cast: James Franco, Jonah Hill, 
Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, 
Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, 
Michael Cera, Emma Watson

"This is the End" features several notable names – James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Michael Cera, and Emma Watson, among others – all "playing themselves." They're trapped in Franco's house during the apocalypse.

Are they performing over-the-top versions of their real-life personalities, or are these – scarily enough – toned down portraits of who they actually are? Seth Rogen (who also has a starring role) and Evan Goldberg wrote and directed the film. Is this how they see their closest friends?

Of course, such probing questions are really beside the point. All that truly matters is how funny it is – and "This is the End" is genuinely hilarious. When I first heard about its premise, I thought it would be obnoxious and unbearable. What makes this movie so brilliant is that it doesn't even matter whether you like these actors or hate them; no matter how you feel going in, they play up their reputations to the hilt to create some truly hysterical moments. By the end of it, I left the theater loving them all.

But this film's brand of humor isn't for the faint of heart. Rape and masturbation are a few of the many inappropriate topics tackled by these housebound Hollywood stars as they try to get through the end of the world. It's rude, crude, and devilishly entertaining.

What else can be said? I can point out the humorous irony of a bunch of Jewish actors riffing on the Christian version of Armageddon. I found that fascinating. But this movie isn't about searching for any deeper meaning. It's all designed to make you laugh, and you likely will. I certainly did – many times.

There are some slow moments and a few things fall flat, but that's nitpicking.

"This is the End" is the rare comedy that has replay value. It's full of references and in-jokes. You won't spot them all the first time. The cast list on IMDB alone tells me that I didn't notice – or forgot – quite a few of the surprises. Of course, there is at least one memorable cameo that's impossible to miss – but I won't spoil it. I'll just say that it involves a trailer, a leash, and a wrestling mask. 

Would you want to spend your last moments with these people? Probably not. But they're certainly worth two hours of your time.

Special Bonus: In a questionable move that won't win me any "Uncle of the Year" awards, I took my impressionable teenage niece to see "This is the End." Here are her reactions...

NOTE: The following "interview" contains SPOILERS for the movie!

What did you think of "This is the End"?

Silver Screen Niece: I thought it was really funny, but overall, the plot was kind of stupid.


Silver Screen Niece: It was about the apocalypse, and then Jonah Hill got possessed, and then there was a giant seven-headed monster.

What did you like about it?

Silver Screen Niece: All the jokes they were making, the crude language, and I liked how they used their real names in the movie – that was cool.

Who was your favorite character?

Silver Screen Niece: Probably James Franco (laughs).

Why Franco?

Silver Screen Niece: Because he's cuuute (giggles). But he really needed to shave in the movie. Oh, who was that guy that everyone hated?

Do you mean Jay Baruchel?

Silver Screen Niece: No, it was Danny McBride. He was funny. And I like how they threw Channing Tatum and Emma Watson in there.

How the hell did that just appear?

As I try to figure out what happened, my niece continues talking about Emma Watson.

Silver Screen Niece: You wouldn't expect her [Watson] to be in a movie like that. She's not usually in movies like that.

What should I call this column? World's Worst Uncle?

Silver Screen Niece: Yes, because it [the movie] was highly inappropriate (laughs). But it was funny.

Were there any characters you didn't like?

Silver Screen Niece: Let me think about that. (Pause.) No, I liked all of them. They were all really funny.

Do you have anything else to add?

Silver Screen Niece: I would definitely recommend seeing this movie. Just don't take any young children – unless you want to scar them for life.

Oops! Too late (smiles).

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review: Now You See Me

Summer Movie Magic

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: May 31, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Running Time: 115 minutes
Director: Louis Leterrier       
Writers: Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, 
Edward Ricourt           
Cast:  Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, 
Woody Harrelson, Mélanie Laurent, 
Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Michael Caine, 
Morgan Freeman

"Now You See Me" is the perfect summer "popcorn" flick: light, breezy, and entertaining – and it doesn't waste any time! After briefly introducing each major player, it gets right into the action.

The four magicians at the heart of the film are trickster J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), escapist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), and young lockpick expert Jack Wilder (Dave Franco).

They each receive a card inviting them to a specified location. Daniel and Henley already know each other; the others are strangers. Before long, they are an official group: The Four Horsemen (not to be confused with this or them). Why have they all been brought together, and by whom?

Their first magic trick is to rob a bank in Paris – while they're in Vegas.

This criminal act – or is it? – earns them the immediate attention of the authorities. They're quickly captured and interrogated by an overwhelmed FBI agent, Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), and his assistant from Interpol, Alma Dray (a super-cute Mélanie Laurent).

"The first rule of magic," Daniel announces before befuddling them with trickery: "Always be the smartest guy in the room!"

As it turns out, the FBI and Interpol aren't the only ones after The Horsemen. Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a former magician who now debunks the tricks of the trade, is hot on their trail as well. But Daniel and his crew have a powerful ally: Financing them is insurance tycoon Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine).

The rest of the movie is composed of dazzling tricks and fast-paced chase sequences – both, sometimes, in the same moment.

"Now You See Me" is pure Hollywood summer escapism at its best: fast, furious, and fun! If you stop to think about what's happening, there are bound to be a few holes in logic you could poke through with a magic wand. Luckily, the action moves far too quickly to really allow any time for that – at least while you're watching. The entire script is much like a great magic show: one trick after another. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Review: Dead Man Down

Rear Window Romance

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: March 8, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama, Romance
Running Time: 118 minutes
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Writer: J.H. Wyman
Cast: Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, 
Dominic Cooper, Terrence Howard, 
Isabelle Huppert, Wade Barrett, 
F. Murray Abraham, Armand Assante

"Dead Man Down" is dark and dour, but it's also nicely shot and well-acted by its two leads, Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace.

I went into this expecting a dumb action movie; instead, it's an interesting meditation on the deep desire for revenge and what that can do to a person's soul.

Victor and Beatrice (Farrell and Rapace) have a bizarre chemistry that hooked me from the beginning. Their relationship works so well that it almost overshadows the main storyline. They're neighbors who admire each other from adjacent apartment balconies, and when they finally do meet, it doesn't go the way you might expect. He's a professional killer but tells her he sells real estate; she's disfigured from a car accident and self-conscious of her scars. They're both damaged in their own way.

Victor's partner-in-crime is Darcy (an excellent Dominic Cooper), a family man whose wife and baby have given him a newfound perspective about the world and the people in it. They work for Alphonse (Terrence Howard), a criminal kingpin who has been receiving threatening packages for the past three months. That mystery is what drives the plot forward.

F. Murray Abraham, Armand Assante, and the great French actress Isabelle Huppert all show up in small supporting roles. Huppert appears in so few American films that it's curious she'd pick this one. She plays Beatrice's mother, a hearing-impaired woman who obsesses over getting her Tupperware back. (In a particularly silly scene, she fumbles for her hearing aids while the people around her plan crimes out of earshot – yeah, that's believable!) It's always nice to see Huppert, but her only purpose in the movie, it seems, is to show that Beatrice still lives with her mom.

WWE wrestler Wade Barrett is also in the cast, but if he's the only reason you want to watch this, don't bother. He barely speaks, and he's unintelligible when he does. His thick English accent is an asset as villain in the ring, but it's a definite drawback here. Mostly, he just stands around and tries to look menacing. Unfortunately, he's ridiculously taller than his co-stars and lurches like an awkward Herman Munster. This is especially evident during the mailbox scene. The charisma and charm he showcases on Monday Night Raw is nowhere to be found in his portrayal of the henchman Kilroy. If he has any potential as an actor, it's impossible to tell based on this role; he's given precious little to work with.

Even though "Dead Man Down" is set in New York, it has a decidedly foreign feel to it. That's likely because it's directed by Niels Arden Oplev, who helmed the original Swedish version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and reunites with its star, Rapace, for this film. Almost everything – from the characters, script, and cinematography – is atypical of the usual American action movie experience. The beginning and ending are unfortunately the exceptions. It starts off like some garish rap video with loud music, fast cuts, and a vomit-tinted green and brown color scheme. I won't spoil the way it ends, but let's just say we've been down this road before. It's a shame because the rest of the movie is unique. The climax isn't bad, per se, just a bit clichéd. It also features some pretty unconvincing special effects.

Farrell and Rapace benefit from wonderful character development, but Terrence Howard remains a paper thin villain. His only function is to be a bad guy and chew up the scenery with his evil ways. He does that well, but it would have been nice if we had gotten to know him a bit better too. His motivations are never clear. Why does he do what he does? In this case, the fault lies with the script (which is fairly effective otherwise), not the actor.

"Dead Man Down" isn't a perfect movie by any means, but it is an interesting one. It's lighter on the action and heavier on the romance than you might expect, but that's okay because Farrell and Rapace make an oddly compelling couple.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Review: Parker

Jason Statham: Priest, Texan, Thief

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: January 25, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Action, Crime
Running Time: 118 minutes
Director: Taylor Hackford    
Writers: John J. McLaughlin (screenplay), 
Donald E. Westlake (novel)
Cast: Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, 
Michael Chiklis, Bobby Cannavale, 
Patti LuPone, Nick Nolte, 
Wendell Pierce, Clifton Collins Jr., 
Michah Hauptman, Daniel Bernhardt, 
Emma Booth

"Parker" features British badass Jason Statham trying out a Texas accent and serious Broadway actors Patti LuPone and Bobby Cannavale hamming it up as hysterical Hispanic Floridians who sound like they just came from the old country. It's that kind of movie.

On that note, Nick Nolte's voice is so scratchy that it seems like he inhaled a dozen cigarettes at the same time before each take. And if you're jonesing for more of Vic Mackey from "The Shield," Michael Chiklis plays the same type of role here – only this time, he's officially a criminal.

Before all of that though, Statham is a priest and Chiklis is a clown.

Of course, Parker (Statham's character) is actually none of those things. In reality, he's a thief with a British accent who operates out of Ohio. As the movie begins, he's working with a new crew. But there is, as they say, no honor among thieves – and Parker is left for dead.

After that, the action switches to Palm Beach, Florida. Parker goes there to seek revenge. The opulent beachfront buildings and lush palm trees of Florida give the movie its own style and personality. It's a welcome change from the usual New York or L.A. backdrop seen in most films. 

This is where Parker dons a cowboy hat and attempts a Texas drawl. What Statham does with the accent can hardly be called mastering it, but he tries his best – I'll give him that. He poses as Daniel Parmitt of San Antonio. He's new in town and looking for a place – or so he says. That's where real estate agent Leslie Rodgers (Jennifer Lopez) comes in. She's so desperate for a sale – and the commission that comes along with it – that she hitches her wagon to the suspicious Parmitt despite the misgivings she must have. She's certainly fooled by his Texas twang though – even if we aren't. Still, convincing or not, his "master of disguise" routine is unique and makes the movie fun to watch.

I suspect the casting of Jennifer Lopez was a turn-off to people who might have otherwise given "Parker" a chance (guilty as charged!) and that may have hindered the film's success at the box office. It doesn't help that Lopez was given top billing and promotion over the likes of Nolte and Chiklis, who are far more appealing names to an audience seeking action. J-Lo is a fine, capable actress, but she's the last person anyone would think of for something like this. Despite that, she surprisingly holds her own and delivers a realistic, credible performance in the midst of all the madness. Her presence keeps the film somewhat grounded.

One of the best – and funniest – scenes involves Statham forcing J-Lo to strip in front of him. But he isn't doing it because he's a bad guy or pervert. He just needs to make sure she isn't wearing a wire. Seems reasonable enough!

Nobody goes into a Jason Statham movie expecting great art. All anyone wants from him is a good time. "Parker" delivers that in spades. It helps that he's surrounded by great actors (Jennifer Lopez, Michael Chiklis, Nick Nolte, Clifton Collins Jr., Bobby Cannavale, and Patti LuPone) and a credible director (Taylor Hackford, "An Officer and a Gentleman"), all working from material originated by award-winning crime author Donald E. Westlake (writing as Richard Stark). These elements come together to give "Parker" a certain added pedigree that most b-movies lack. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Silver Screen Surprises Coming in July

Behind the Fireworks: This Month's More Mature Movies

By Chris Sabga

Are you looking forward to Grown Ups 2? Me neither.

Here are some of the more, ahem, grown-up options that you might otherwise overlook in the midst of the hot summer blockbuster season. As always, many of these will be limited releases, which may make tracking them down a chore fun treasure hunt.

The Way, Way Back (July 5th): Steve Carell plays a bullying jerk and Sam Rockwell is a good guy who mentors a lonely young teenager over the course of a summer. In any other movie, it would be the other way around. It's a different type of role for both actors, and that's always fascinating to see. Rockwell told Entertainment Weekly that this coming-of-age tale set in the 1980s is a mix of "Ordinary People" and "Meatballs" with a dash of "The Bad News Bears" and "Bustin' Loose." Sign me up!

Absence (July 5th): The "found footage" gimmick is beyond stale at this point, but a woman whose pregnancy disappears – well, that's a pretty intriguing hook. The end result – quality-wise – is anyone's guess, but the potential is certainly there.

Pacific Rim (July 12th): Is it cheating to list a big budget movie about giant robots doing battle in a list of potential Silver Screen Surprises for the summer? Maybe if Tom Cruise was still set to star in it, but Charlie Hunnam and Idris Elba aren't exactly household names in the U.S. As always with this type of concept, it will either be fantastic fun or a complete wreck. With Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labryinth") in the director's chair, it's easy to get excited about the potential of "Pacific Rim."

Fruitvale Station (July 12th): Set on the final day of 2008, this film is based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African-American from the San Francisco Bay Area whose encounter with police officers at a BART subway station made headline news. This is said to be a star-making role for young Michael B. Jordan. Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer ("The Help") is also in the cast.

Terms and Conditions May Apply (July 12th): Whenever we sign up for a website, how many of us blindly click "I Agree" without reading the lengthy and labyrinthine list of terms and conditions? Guilty as charged! Of course, that's exactly what these companies are banking on – for all of us to ignore the "fine print" and blindly consent to having our information shared and privacy violated. That's the concept behind this new documentary, which exposes the practice and will undoubtedly increase our paranoia in the process. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and controversial author Orson Scott Card and are among the names featured. 

Killing Season (July 12th): Stardom is a fickle thing. Ten years ago, a movie co-starring John Travolta and Robert De Niro would have been a summer event. Now it's a limited release. Is this actually any good? Travolta's goofy goatee casts some doubts, and he plays a Serbian. Oh boy! But I have to admit, I'm insanely curious.

The Conjuring (July 19th): The idea of yet another "paranormal" movie quite frankly bores me, so why is this one here? Because it's about a pair of real-life "ghostbusters" from the '70s – played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga – and there's no one better at handling this type of material than director James Wan ("Saw" and "Insidious"). Ron Livingston ("Office Space") also stars.

Only God Forgives (July 19th): Mercilessly booed at the Cannes Film Festival, the reunion between "Drive" star Ryan Gosling and director Nicolas Winding Refn has toxic buzz. That only makes me all the more curious. After all, the legendary "Taxi Driver" received a similarly chilly reaction at Cannes too, so what do they really know? Then again, Gosling is said to have only 17 lines of dialogue.

R.I.P.D. (July 19th): Even though this may not technically be considered a hidden gem, it scores points with me for originality – and it's facing stiff competition that week from "Turbo," "Red 2," and "The Conjuring." In "R.I.P.D.," Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds play cops who have to work together. If that sounds like another typical formula flick, consider this: they're from different centuries. That concept alone is enough to sell me on the movie. Do I really need to say anything else? Nope, so I won't!

Ways to Live Forever (July 19th): Just reading about it will make you cry. A 12-year-old boy wants to solve some of the mysteries of life: UFOs, ghosts, death, and – of course – girls. In other words, a typical kid – except, he has Leukemia. Where are the damn tissues?

The To Do List (July 26th): A stuffy valedictorian wants to let loose before college and makes a list of goals – sexual and otherwise – to liven up her image and experience what she missed out on in high school. All of the "teens" are played by adults, which was supposedly done on purpose for comedic effect. It remains to be seen how well that will work (I have my doubts, even if it "Beverly Hills 90210" did manage to get away with it). But with an early '90s setting and a cast that includes Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Donald Glover, and Andy Samberg, there's certainly no shortage of funny people for star Aubrey Plaza to play off of. Johnny Simmons, Rachel Bilson, Connie Britton, and Clark Gregg are among the other familiar names in the lineup.

Blockbusters: The Lone Ranger (July 3rd), Despicable Me 2 (3rd), Grown Ups 2 (July 12th), Turbo (July 17th), Red 2 (July 19th), The Wolverine (July 26th), The Smurfs 2 (July 31st)

There are few worse moviegoing experiences than watching a group of friends laugh hysterically while you sit there in a dark theater wondering what the hell is so funny. That was "Grown Ups" for me.  It wasn't a total loss though. My ticket, food, and drinks were bought for me, and I didn't have to do the driving! When those are the best things I can come up with about something I've seen, it goes without saying that I won't be turning up for the sequel. I love a good dumb comedy as much as the next person, but it actually has to make me laugh. I don't think that's too much to ask!

Out of this group, I'm most interested in "The Wolverine." I've somehow seen all of the others, despite having very little interest in the X-Men. I even enjoyed Jackman's previous solo outing as Wolverine ("X-Men: Origins"), even though its clumsy shifts in tone (it constantly flip-flopped from goofy silliness to serious drama) made for a jarring, inconsistent experience.

Which ones are you looking forward to? Comment below or discuss it on Facebook or Twitter.