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John Wick: Chapter 2

Yeah, I'm thinking he's back!
"John Wick" was one of my favorite films of 2014 - a simple revenge movie with no pretensions, expertly directed and choreographed, perfectly cast, and creatively designed (from its seemingly dated and yet entirely appropriate Marilyn Manson soundtrack to its very unique usage of captions during foreign-language dialogue). It was at once a throwback to revenge-based action thrillers of the '70s and a kind of neo-noir genre piece. I loved it.

The film didn't do crazy business at the box office, but it had strong weekly holds which indicated positive word of mouth, and it was Lionsgate's third best-selling title of all time on home video (directly behind a Hunger Games movie). The growing reaction was palpable enough to inspire faith in a sequel.

And this is where it gets tricky, because "John Wick: Chapter 2" looked like a sure-fire dud on paper. Often times movies of this ilk have trouble replicating the successes of their predecessors - opting for a rushed "been there, done that" routine - but director Chad Stahelski and co. have wisely built upon some of the mythology inherent in the original film and found a way to make it work, expanding the universe in a way that feels organic. The movie's budget is twice as much as the original's, and yet it's still a fraction of most Marvel blockbusters ($40 mil as per trade reports), and so in tone it feels more grand and sleek without necessarily feeling bloated or carefree. (You'll notice there's very, very little CGI employed in the film.) This is one of those rare, beloved action films - much like the original - where you can see every punch thrown, every kick delivered, without the camera cutting so incessantly that it's unintelligible mayhem. There's a fluidity and art to the carnage here that is quite impressive.

A few qualms: I think the story of the first film, as a revenge picture, works much better. It also put us more firmly on John Wick's side, justifying his murders. This man is, after all, a legendary hit-man -- but the first movie showed Wick post-transformation, as we are led to believe that his departed wife helped rescue him from a sinister lifestyle and brought him resolution. The reason he goes on a killing rampage is because a few thugs beat him and kill his dog. The original movie was a revenge flick, and audiences love revenge - enough so that we're willing to ignore the fact that Wick killed fairly innocent henchmen in the process of exacting his retribution.

The only serious problem I had with "Chapter 2" is that Wick is brought back to the hit-man game (albeit reluctantly) and ends up quite brutally murdering well over 100 people in the process. Yes, these scenes are beautifully choreographed and at times darkly funny. I enjoyed them -- and yet it disturbed me a bit at times to think that these nameless henchmen being massacred by Wick are essentially just doing their jobs, and the scenes are framed in such a way as to suggest they deserve their brutal slaughters. Does it say more about me, as a person, that I'm OK with Wick killing people as revenge for his dog? Perhaps. But it was a bit of an issue I had with the movie, which is that it's much easier to root for the hero's killing when he's on a revenge mission versus just fulfilling a job requirement.

The other issue I had is that the film lost a bit of the original's idiosyncratic flair (e.g. the aforementioned Marilyn Manson tunes, and the kind of grungy Gothic vibe -- all that kind of early 2000s throwback stuff is gone, and the movie feels more modern and polished).

These are fairly minor qualms. Whatever the movie lost in terms of its soundtrack or tone, or its questionable murder scenes, it certainly made up for in its expansion of the Wickiverse (can we call it that?), with the Continental - briefly glimpsed in the first film - really evolving and becoming a main point of the sequel. They are doing very interesting things with this aspect of the storyline, and the movie ends in such a way as to suggest that Wick's story is far from finished.

Count me in for opening day of "John Wick: Chapter 3."

Bleed for This

Has its moments, but is miscast and desperately seeking Oscar
Vinny "Pazmanian Devil" Pazienza is a troublesome character to frame as a hero. He's been through some disconcerting things in his private life, such as assault and allegations of domestic abuse. "Bleed for This" portrays this aspect of Vinny's life as a fun, good ol' boy routine of fun romps to the strip club and passive gambling, with his beautiful girlfriend in tow. When she gives up on him halfway through the film, it's not because of his abusive behavior - but rather, because she doesn't love him enough to deal with his neck brace device and the fact that it's restricting their love life. The movie effectively portrays her as the bad person.

It is Hollywood, so of course there will be historical inaccuracies. But "Bleed for This" desperately wants to be the next "Raging Bull," yet it doesn't have the conviction or the guts to show the demons of Paz the way the latter film did for Jake LaMotta. You can't try to turn a man of questionable moral fiber into Rocky Balboa and then also try to posit your film as a hard-hitting true story when omitting important facts.

Miles Teller has received waves of bad press in the last couple years. He was great in "Whiplash," but it seemed a bit of an in the right place at the right time casting decision. In most of his other films he has been smug and detached to a disadvantage. Ostensibly, this should work in "Bleed for This," highlighting Paz's smarmy charm, but Teller just doesn't have the acting or the physical chops to really drive the performance home. The movie doesn't help this by frequently showing footage of the real Paz (e.g. at a late night TV show appearance), who was short, stocky, and menacing in stature. Teller, with his peach fuzz mustache and lanky build, never really comes across as doing anything more than posturing. Even for the film's physical transformation scenes, he's lacking - there's a before-and-after drawn during Paz's rehabilitation, not to mention a scene that highlights the fact that he has jumped up two entire weight classes... and yet Teller, often with his shirt off, consistently looks exactly the same, and never looks any more or less out of shape or any larger or smaller.

Aaron Eckhart, shaving his head back and growing a paunch, is OK but not given much more to work with than the tired cliché of the boxing trainer. You know the character. Forest Whitaker just played him in Southpaw a couple years ago. Eckhart, like everyone else involved in the film, seems convinced that he's in an awards-worthy role, but frankly the writing is never up to par, which makes his performance seem a little overzealous, like he's trying a little too hard to solidify his Oscar chances.

The best aspect of the film is its direction, by Ben Younger. The problem is that the script lets him down - after an interesting first 45 minutes which takes its time setting up the characters, the pivotal car accident happens... and the movie kind of blows past Paz's recovery. One minute doctors are telling him he might never even walk again, then he begins training...and suddenly he's back in the boxing ring again. One gets the impression that there was probably a lot of content in the middle portion of the film that was left on the cutting room floor, possibly in an effort by the studio to bring a 2.5 hour film down to just under 2 hours. It feels rushed and sloppy.

Overall this is a decent, sporadically interesting one-time viewing, but some of that interest derives from the miscalculation by so many involved (both behind the camera and in front of it). From the miscast lead role to the clunky screenplay to the questionable decision to turn Vinny into a hero figure, the movie has too much working against it to even consider itself in the same league as the great boxing movies it so desperately wants to emulate.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Bloated, boring and ugly to look at.
I'm perplexed by the glowing reviews for "Fantastic Beasts," as it seems to lack any of the wonder or warmth of the best of the "Harry Potter" movies. The titular beasts are not-so-fantastic, rather appearing as very garish, cartoonish CGI creations - instantly pulling us out of the film and its new world-building. Every set piece is just constructed with endless green screen and lazy computer effects. There's nothing exhilarating or awe-inspiring on display here - just one video game cut scene after another. (And I'm a video game fan, so I'm not belittling them; but the point is that as a movie with such an emphasis on visuals, there's nothing here that you haven't seen done much better, including on home gaming consoles.)

Eddie Redmayne, one of the most overracted actors alive, is woefully miscast as Newt. He takes scenery-chewing to Nic Cage levels, minus the fun. Every facial expression, every little tic, is so overly calculated and overly accentuated that it begins to evoke memories of Simple Jack from "Tropic Thunder."

Colin Farrell is stuck in another supporting role that doesn't play to his strengths, completely forgettable and generic. Ezra Miller seems to be in competition with Redmayne to see who can chew the most scenery - the kid is just awful. There's a not-so-secret cameo appearance that was announced before the movie hit theaters (ostensibly to counteract any potential fallout due to the actor's recent personal issues and allegations of doemstic abuse) - and this actor, who was once so talented, manages to ham it up even with just two pieces of dialogue, and leaves very little hope that he will be a menacing or charismatic villain in the (god help us) sequels to this movie.

There are numerous supporting actors who seem tonally and aesthetically wrong for the 1920s setting - the whole crew of wizards, for example, look like a bunch of Abercrombie models playing Prohibition dress-up. You know how the undercut haircuts are all the rage right now, loosely based on haircuts from that era but upgraded with the skin fading, etc. that barbers back then did not have the means to do? Well, that's pretty much how everyone looks in this movie. Even Colin Farrell is rocking a hipster undercut that just distracts.

Katherine Waterston is awesome. She looks the part, she puts Redmayne to shame as an actor, and she inspires a lot of faith for her role in "Alien: Covenant." She is the lone saving grace of this film.

It's a shame about the rest of the performances and the glaringly poor CGI special effects, because honestly, the other attention to detail paid to the city and its era is pretty impressive - there are lone shots in the movie, the ones mostly devoid of the miserable SF/X, that are quite impressive and lovely to look at. The costumes for average city folk (less so the wizards...) are lovingly fashioned. There are hints here of what a great film this might have been in the hands of a better director, someone who didn't make a film as bad as "The Legend of Tarzan," with a cast of actors who mostly aren't hamming it up and totally misfiring on every level.

Maybe the sequel will rectify these issues.

Sneaky Pete

A decent one-time binge watch, but it's like a network TV show on a premium channel.
Sneaky Pete was originally offered to CBS, who turned it down before Amazon gave it a home. This much is apparent from the show's storytelling, as it pads out what could have been a two hour film into a 10 hour series with diverting subplots and busy work to keep supporting characters spinning. There are times when you sense that it would be too quick for characters to move from A to B, so they have them tread water with narrative contrivances (eg the parole officer who has a decent amount of time committed to his presence and then abruptly disappears midway through the show).

The pilot episode, shot prior to the rest of the episodes, had some beautiful visuals but the rest of the program is aesthetically quite flat and procedural. It looks like something you would find on CBS, but with some f-bombs dropped in.

Ribisi is good, although his constant random lemon sucking facial contortions at inappropriate times are an odd choice for the character. To be a convincing con man one would think you shouldn't draw attention to yourself, but he often looks like a bad De Niro impersonator in an SNL sketch. Beyond that, he's fun to watch and brings more to the character than the script affords.

Bryan Cranston was so brilliant in Breaking Bad but one gets the sense that his producer credit on Sneaky Pete caused him to be surrounded by too many yes men that wouldn't tell him to keep things in check. His scenery-chewing gangster is tonally wrong for the show, and every time the main story randomly cuts away to his storyline it really beaks the momentum and doesn't seem to serve much of a purpose. There's a particularly awkward nine minute (!) monologue in episode 4 that you can tell Cranston thought was going to be an Emmy moment, but it simply doesn't work, because his character for whatever reason just never seems particularly threatening or intimidating. He's a bit of a cliché, and I think Cranston is an incredibly gifted actor but I believe he let his ego get the best of him here and perhaps the role should have been reduced or been cast with another actor. Some of the misfiring also comes down to the writing - the dialogue in the monologue, for example, just isn't that good.

I'm being a bit harsh on Sneaky Pete, but that's because in today's streaming era, TV is at an all-time high water mark and shows must push harder than ever before to stand out. Pete comes packaged appealingly - an Amazon original series with a strong cast and talented producers (Graham Yost and David Shore) - but it ultimately feels like a show that would have felt more at home on a basic cable network, and never quite feels like more than just a passable one-time binge.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Cruise is in fine form, but the movie is entirely forgettable and lacks the retro charm of its predecessor.
The first "Jack Reacher" film, by Christopher McQuarrie, was a pleasant surprise. It was a retro, '70s-style action thriller in the vein of "Dirty Harry" with old-fashioned stunt work, tangible special effects (the car chase is one of the best in years and more "Bullitt" than "Fast and Furious"), and a fun turn from Tom Cruise, who clearly relished being able to play an unapologetic bad ass - he's usually tasked with playing good guys who are so cookie-cutter American Hero that they would never spit dialogue such as telling their enemy that they wish to drink their blood from the bottom of their boot.

The sequel, alas, is pretty generic. McQuarrie is gone, replaced by Edward Zwick, who at one time was fairly distinct behind the camera, but the aesthetic approach of "Never Go Back" is that of a TV movie. Devoid of the sleek noir vibe of McQuarrie's film, Zwick has fumbled the ball here.

Most action films would be given props for having strong female leads. This happened in Cruise's awesome 2014 blockbuster, "Edge of Tomorrow." But Colbie Smulders isn't given much to work with here, and frankly, the entire appeal of these Reacher books (at least as far as I have been told by its avid readers) is that Reacher is the main protagonist. The movie mistakenly sidelines him in favor of a not-entirely-convincing dynamic shared by Reacher, Smulders, and a girl who may or may not be his daughter. The movie deserves credit for trying to create supporting characters, especially strong female roles; but they just aren't developed well enough for us to care, and since Cruise is so good in this role, whenever they are stealing screen time it really does become a bit frustrating.

The movie isn't bad, per se. It's pretty much textbook mediocrity -- Cruise is great, he clearly loves playing this character and I'd be down for another serving with someone like McQuarrie back behind the camera, but unfortunately it's pretty clear that Zwick either wasn't given full creative control here and the studio cut his film to shreds -- or, conversely, was given too much freedom and didn't understand what made the character/previous film appealing to audiences. The result is a movie that just exists, destined to be played on late-night rotation on TNT and generate merchandise sales for the studio, but one that will never catch on with home video audiences the way the 2012 film did.

Hacksaw Ridge

Gibson has made a superb war film. Even Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington are great in this!
Say what you will about Mel Gibson - because much can be said and much has been said - but at the end of the day, he is an undeniably talented filmmaker. Even his most flawed films, like "The Passion," are ambitious and hard to ignore. He isn't someone who rests on his laurels or takes paycheck gigs, and "Hacksaw Ridge" is imprinted with as much of his DNA as a filmmaker as any of his other movies.

Combining the visceral nature (as well as the literal viscera) of "Apocalypto" and "Passion" with the grandeur storytelling of "Braveheart," this true story is without a doubt a movie riddled with issues: the first half, though compelling and with fine performances, does at times border on the sentimentally hamstringed and predictable.

And yet it works, mostly because of the performances and the direction. I read a review stating that everyone in this film was miscast; I couldn't disagree more -- this is a fine example of how perfect a cast can be. Andrew Garfield is exceptional and deserves an Oscar nomination. Teresa Palmer does the best she can with a relatively one-note love interest; she manages to actually make the character stand out more than on paper.

Hugo Weaving gives perhaps the finest performance of his career, another award-worthy supporting turn as Desmond's father. But the real surprises here are the straight-to-video actors who usually seem devoid of charisma: Sam Worthington does career-best work here, while Luke Bracey, the nobody actor from the "Point Break" remake that no one asked for, is memorable as a stoic soldier whose skepticism of Desmond gradually evolves as the film progresses.

Finally, there is the revelation of Vince Vaughn's drill sergeant, who already ranks up there with R. Lee Ermey (if that sounds hyperbolic, it really is that fine of a performance). After his failed comeback with True Detective's miserable second season, and bomb after comedy bomb, it's nice to see him returning to his roots as a character actor. He's simply great here.

At the end of the day this is likely to be overlooked at awards season simply given Gibson's baggage and the unfortunate shadow it casts over his work, but my hope is that voters will be able to see past that and approach the film on its own terms. It features some of the most gruesome and unforgettable war scenes ever captured on film, and yet none of it seems particularly excessive or undeserved: to really appreciate the sacrifice and the heroism that the real Desmond displayed in battle, you almost have to be thrown right into the worst of it to be able to place it in a proper context. This is not "Enemy at the Gates" or "Behind Enemy Lines." Mel Gibson has made one of the best war films of all time, and he, Garfield and at least two of his supporting actors all deserve recognition for this come Oscar season.


Starts off great, then devolves into a major vanity project for the star/co-creator
I really enjoyed the first half of "Love," binging the series over the course of two days; but as it progressed, it seemed more and more like the show didn't have as much to say as I'd hoped for; furthermore, it was very negatively impacted by Paul Rust giving himself the leading man role.

Look, I know it's been mentioned here in other reviews already, but he's just wrong for the role physically. I'm not someone who's going to judge someone based on their appearances; but I've been in LA, and attractive women have so many guys to choose from, an awkward-looking guy like Rust would need to have a really fun personality to have all these attractive women fawning over him.

And early on in the show, it seemed to be heading that direction, which I thought was nice: he was kind of awkward and naive, and the female lead liked that about him, because she was used to guys who were scumbags.

But then he basically became a scumbag, and his personality changed from one episode to the next. He goes from being a very affectionate, clingy, naive, nice guy (suffocating his ex - who, by the way, it should be noted was also way out of his league!) to suddenly being really vain, narcissistic, and overly neurotic (to the point where it was no longer cute or awkward, but he seemed to be aggressively irritating). I think the turning point for me was the episode where he takes Gillian Jacobs' roommate out to dinner (oh, she's really cute, too! what a surprise!), and he is neurotic to the point where it seems like he's a major jerk. Then, after she accidentally texts him by mistake, he becomes deliberately bull-headed and arrogant to "bomb the date." For that scene to be funny, based on just a very basic understanding of comedy beats, he would have had to have been nice and pleasant early on in the date; instead, it was simply him going from the level of "neurotic a-hole" to "aggressively neurotic a-hole." And ultimately, this scene made even less sense because his character's behavior completely deviated from what had been established earlier in the show, when he was meek, awkward, and afraid of confrontation and avoided being assertive.

Nevertheless, I kept with "Love," hoping it would improve. But then we got to the episode where the drop-dead-gorgeous blonde from his fictional "Witchita" TV show (which Rust's character has a peripheral role in, as an on-set tutor for child actors, so it's not like she's pursuing him to advance her career -- which would have been perhaps a funnier and more realistic angle!) starts pursuing him and sleeps with him. And Jacobs' character turns up to his apartment during their semi-date and the two of them are basically vying for his attention...then she shows up to the set next day and stalks him across the set and gets into a fight over the other girl... I'm sorry, but it's just absolutely ridiculous.

And I forgot to even mention the threesome scene with him and the two cute girls (whom of course he has strip naked for the scene, which is totally gratuitous; I'm not at all a prude and I'm very used to casual nudity in premium TV shows these days, but the whole sequence was tonally out-of-place, out-of-character and really served no point at all).

I'm sorry, but the whole thing just reeks of a vanity project by Paul Rust. To reiterate: I'm not saying unattractive people don't deserve attractive spouses or that it doesn't happen sometimes in real life. If the show had stuck with the angle that she was a more experienced and cynical person, and she saw the good nature in him, then it would have made sense and it would have worked. But by turning him into a confident, arrogant jackass who's constantly in situations where girls far out of his league are falling all over him for no reason, the show makes a serious misstep and descends into a path of mediocrity and narcissism on Rust's behalf. If someone like Paul Rudd were in this role, someone with charisma and charm, then it would make sense. He's a fairly average-looking guy, but you can see why women would fall for him because of that charm. But Rust has none, and the fact that he's the co-creator/executive producer/etc. just makes it all too apparent why he wrote this fantasy out for himself and cast himself in the lead.

It would have made more sense to put someone like Rudd in the role, someone who may not necessarily be a walking Abercrombie model, but someone who you'd at least remotely buy in these situations and someone whose personality isn't so egregiously unlikable, aggressively neurotic and self-centered.

10/24/16 EDIT: After receiving 13 "unhelpful" votes on this review, all within the span of an hour, one would not be at fault to consider that Mr. Rust's apparent ego may extend to monitoring the IMDb reviews for his own series. ;)

Brother Nature

Starts off well, falters in its second half and is never able to recover.
"Brother Nature" is reminiscent of countless comedies, ranging from "What About Bob" to "The Great Outdoors." It's one of those classic formulas where a straight-faced, straight-laced guy (in this case, Taran Killiam, from "SNL") encounters someone who is obnoxiously wacky and has a potential mean streak that no one else ever seems to notice (Bobby Moynihan, also from "SNL").

Killiam's character becomes more and more exasperated, and there are hints at times that Moynihan's character is deliberately sabotaging him a la "The Cable Guy." The first half is quite funny -- Killiam is a weak lead, but Moynihan is hilarious, and has a number of moments that made me laugh out loud.

But they don't really go anywhere with the idea that Moynihan is subversively destroying Killiam (the film seems to hint at it, and then promptly drops it); they also opt for a safe conclusion by fundamentally changing the nature of Moynihan's character, as, in the first half, he's an obnoxious goofball who no one would ever like, but towards the end he's suddenly a calmer, more sympathetic version of the same character, as if his apparently intentional attacks on Killiam earlier in the film never happened.

Whether this is studio intervention (the ending certainly seems like something that would be tacked on after poor test screenings), who knows, but ultimately this movie goes from a 7/10 to a 5/10 simply because its second half egregiously missteps and the movie is never able to recover from it.

Those early scenes with Moynihan, though, reveal great potential for the actor.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

Surprisingly strong comedy with obvious but respectable social commentary
The original "Neighbors" was a bit of a pleasant surprise for me. It revealed Zac Efron's natural comedic talents (under-utilized in his straightforward "leading man" roles), and featured a surprisingly strong female role for Rose Byrne. Despite ostensibly being a "frat bro" comedy (especially given its subject matter), it actually had a lot to say about arrested development, maturity, and the male id. It was a nice, agreeable R-rated comedy that was sold on its novel premise but ultimately was not in any way screaming for a sequel.

But it was a hit, and hit comedies always spawn sequels, primarily because they're able to be produced on such low budgets. Sequels, more than any other genre of film, tend to see huge critical and attendance drops, but because they're so cheap, the studios can still generate profit even if they only recoup half of the original film's intake.

And that's why "Neighbors 2" exists, two years after the original, and indeed, it opened to roughly half of the dollar amount of the original film in its opening weekend. It would be standard to accept that it's an inferior piece of filmmaking, most likely regurgitating its predecessor's plot points. Most comedy sequels do this -- just look at the Hangover movies, or Ted 2 -- but Neighbors 2 deserves some credit for actually managing to spin the sequel concept on its head.

At first, things seem to be headed for a repeat: Efron's character is back in his frat (now a sorority), he's once again helping to create chaos for his ex-next-door-neighbors (Rogen and Byrne). But then the movie takes a surprising detour, by turning into something of a feminist piece, and the second half really has fun by dissecting the first film's steps while still managing to pay homage and toy with them (as such, when the airbag gag is recycled, it seems playful and refreshing rather than repetitious and predictable).

Nicholas Stoller has made a couple duds (he wrote Zoolander 2, which was one of the worst comedies of this or any recent year), but he's often very, very good at writing or presenting female characters (as seen in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Five Year Engagement, etc.). At first glance you can roll your eyes at a woman like Byrne being married to a shlub like Rogen, but as in the original film, there's a lot of time devoted to exploring their relationship and convincing you that there's more to it than just the leading man having an attractive wife -- she's just as fleshed-out a character as he is, and that's pretty rare to see in mainstream American comedies, especially those that are seemingly targeted towards guys.

To be fair, there's still tons of genital jokes and crude humor, and there's a couple stretches in the film that become just a bit ridiculous (like the whole subplot where they try to steal the sorority's drug supply at a tailgate), but overall, I was totally refreshed by how strong a sequel this was -- especially relative to other comedy sequels. The characters are well-written and well-acted, and as such, there's a sense of justification when certain things happen -- unlike Brothers Grimsby (a film I saw close to this one) where the characters seem to exist solely for disgusting bodily fluid jokes, the characters in Neighbors 2 are likable and three-dimensional and it makes a lot of the gross gags land much better when they involve characters we believe in and can relate to.

I'm not saying this is a high water mark of American cinema or anything, but at the end of the day it's way better than it had any right to be, and its commentary on feminism and sexist double- standards was way under-represented in the ad material (which may well explain why so many people who went to see it opening weekend gave it mixed reviews - I can't imagine the average male American college student going to see this and enjoying the experience of basically having their id subverted).

I'm not sure I want a Neighbors 3, but at this point I wouldn't kneejerk disregard it, if it's half as funny or intelligent as the first two films.

Knock Knock

One of the worst films of the year.
A film like Knock Knock defensively positions itself as a comedy to cushion against any criticisms. If someone is offended or disgusted by the subject matter, the film's fans can simply claim that it is in on the joke of it all, and that that's "the point."

Some "meta-bad" films earn this cushion. Last year's The Guest, starring Dan Stevens, would have been quite poor if sold earnestly, but it had a devilish sense of humour about itself, and paid homage to '80s films with a wink and a nod without just becoming a giant piece of garbage.

Knock Knock is a giant piece of garbage. A giant piece of garbage made by a man who has little to no evidence of talent. I've always felt that Eli Roth looked extremely creepy, something Tarantino capitalized upon by casting him as a sociopath in Inglourious Basterds. It's not fair to judge someone's personality or self-merit based upon their looks. However, it's fairer to judge someone based upon their art, and Roth's -- consumed with body-horror, torture porn (remember he helped jumpstart the craze with Hostel), and grimy sexual antics -- seems to paint a disturbing portrait indeed. The fact that he cast his considerably younger wife in the lead role of this film, and then put her name above the title next to Keanu Reeves, is Hollywood nepotism at its finest. As a critic, I try to remain objective, and there are truly few actors or filmmakers I just downright dislike; there are some whose personal lives may disappoint me (e.g. Polanski), but I separate the art from the artist. But Roth's art is vile, and goes hand-in-hand with my perspective of him as someone who gets off on all this filth. I don't think there's ever been any kind of true social or political commentary to his work -- which the best gross-out horror films tend to have, including the film he attempts to shamelessly rip off here, Funny Games.

No, Roth gets his kicks from getting his wife naked on camera, having Keanu Reeves -- who looks regretful in every scene, and not because he's in character -- bullied, bloodied, raped and tortured.

The dialogue is terrible, the cinematography is shoddy (it basically went straight to video, which is what you'd gather from the way it's shot), the story is stupid which would be OK if the film had something clever to say, but instead Roth presents this all in a transparent attempt to shock and outrage while being too lazy to have any commitment to the material, instead hiding behind the "irony" angle and playing it out as a borderline farce.

Reeves, who gained so much goodwill with last year's John Wick, gives one of his worst performances here; Roth's wife, whose name I do not recall and don't care to, is a coarse screen presence; and Ana de Armas just seems like she's being exploited here.

I only gave this a chance because of Reeves, but I should have known better when I saw Roth's name attached. It is a great mystery as to why this man continues to have a film career.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

Stands with "Mad Max" as one of the best action films in years.
Fast and Furious gets attention for being one of the rare series to completely reinvent itself over time (to both critical and financial success), but with Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, it has become clear that it is the latter series that has more firmly reinvented itself and finally found its footing. What started as a typically subversive and visceral Brian De Palma film, disguised as both a star vehicle for Tom Cruise and a high-budget adaptation of a television show, then transformed into a cheesy John Woo vehicle, eventually settled down into a more straightforward action picture with the underrated M:i3. To this point in time, each Mission had been drastically separate from its predecessor, every director leaving his impression on the same general premise: disavowed agents, the IMF going rogue, etc. But the negative effect of this was that the character of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), along with his ever-changing roster of IMF crewmembers, was forced to continually adapt to the drastically altered aesthetics of each installment. So while the films were serviceable and fun, there was never really a sense of character building or continuity beyond Cruise and Ving Rhames appearing on screen together.

That changed with the third film, which placed an emphasis on Hunt's home life, his marriage, and introduced the character of Benji (Simon Pegg), who was initially the M:I version of James Bond's Q, but has since transformed into a major supporting player.

And it was with Ghost Protocol in 2011 that the series truly seemed to find its footing, carrying over the story continuity and characters from M:I 3 while still allowing its director, Brad Bird, to mold the film in his own style.

With this all said, Rogue Nation, directed by Christopher McQuarrie, is closer to Ghost Protocol than any of the other films, and by now we feel as though the Ethan Hunt we are seeing on screen has become something of a fully-formed and consistent character, as much as an action film may allow him to be. At the end of the day, this isn't Cruise wildly diverting from his usual on screen persona, but there's a warmness and self-deprecation to Ethan Hunt here that we didn't have in the transition from, say, the first film to the second, where he was just a generic glorified action figure who was way too cool to show any self-awareness or wit.

Despite rumours of troubled production (McQuarrie was reportedly still working out an ending to the film when the studio decided to push it up to a summer release from its original Christmas opening), you wouldn't know it from the look of this picture. This is something it shares in common with George Miller's Mad Max Fury Road, a long-delayed picture whose negative press had many convinced it would be a dud, but which turned out to be one of the more strongly-reviewed action films of the decade.

And here's something else Rogue Nation shares with Miller's film: a strong feminine role, one that almost threatens to steal the picture away from the leading man. Paula Patton did some fine work in Ghost Protocol, but her replacement, Rebecca Ferguson, is a revelation. McQuarrie and Cruise were reportedly in search of a "Golden Age" star, someone whose look reflected a bygone era, and they found her. (It almost seems a winking nod that part of the film takes place in Casablanca.) This is a star-making turn, and it's a rare sign of humility for Cruise, 53, to allow a supporting player to potentially upstage him.

Speaking of ensemble casting, even more so than Ghost Protocol, this is a team piece. Jeremy Renner, once touted as a possible successor to Cruise, is largely relegated to sideline scenes with Alec Baldwin, but these work more effectively than I imagined they might, and when he eventually reunites with the rest of the gang, it feels a bit more poignant. And it's strangely satisfying to see Rhames back (apart from a cameo at the end, he was absent altogether from Protocol), his oft-referenced history with Ethan another example of the series' sudden turn towards stressing its continuity.

And if you're just here for the action sequences, well, there are plenty of those, too. Some of them are the best of the series: the motorcycle free-for-all in Casablanca is breathtaking, for example, and if Mad Max had not come out this year, it would be safe to say Rogue Nation had the best chase sequence in recent memory. It makes the CGI-laden Furious films look weak by comparison.

Deftly blending practical stunt work with minimal CGI, McQuarrie's film is closer in tone and spirit to a traditional spy film than any of the other movies. A sequence at the Vienna Opera isbfluid and beautiful to look at and funny (McQuarrie enjoys riffing on Cruise's stature as an action hero) that it could easily rank as one of the better Bond set pieces. And without spoiling anything, the movie sets itself up nicely for a direct sequel, something none of the other movies have ever really bothered to do.

Action films don't get much better than this, especially for a series that is almost 20 years old and has starred the same actor for every installment. This is one of those movies where you're swept up in the momentum from beginning to end, and any weaknesses are easily ignored because of how much fun you're having while you watch it unfold.

Ted 2

Not bad per se, but lacks the novelty, likability of characters, storyline, and strong female role of the original.
I'm not the biggest fan of Mila Kunis, nor am I a huge fan of Seth MacFarlane. But despite my hesitations, I liked the original Ted quite a bit, for a variety of reasons; despite its obvious crudeness, it had some character development and poignancy that the film medium was able to afford MacFarlane that a TV cartoon wasn't able to. As much of an ostensibly "bro" movie as it was, it had some subversive commentary on the male id, and Mila Kunis' character was written quite well; she didn't come across as the harping, shrill female stereotype so often seen in movies about male arrested development (see: "Saving Silverman"). For every time Wahlberg and his teddy bear seemed to have a valid reason to continue their destructive friendship, she had an equally valid reason that they shouldn't.

How disappointing, then, that Ted 2 opens with Kunis' character lazily written off, discarded by Wahlberg's character as "the wrong woman" (or something to such an effect) so that MacFarlane can introduce a new love interest in the form of Amanda Seyfried, who is a fine actress in better written roles but simply isn't given the same level of material to work with here.

The other memorable aspect of Ted was simply the novelty factor: "potty-mouthed teddy bear." This was a simple premise that appealed to everyone everywhere, which is why it was one of the rare blockbuster comedies to make a lot of money overseas.

But now we have Ted 2, and the novelty is worn off. The balance of the first film is gone, too; the crudeness there was offset with surprisingly sweet, character-driven moments; here, because we don't really believe the characters from the onset (see: Kunis' character being shrugged off), there really aren't as many tender moments. None of it really rings true, it just seems like a typical sequel going through the motions trying to replicate the original but inevitably failing to do so simply because the appeal is a one-off (it kind of reminds me of the Hangover sequels).

Like the Hangover sequels, this isn't as bad as the critics might lead you to believe. It's not a terrible film. It's safe to say that, if you liked the original Ted, you'll at least find this an entertaining enough diversion for a one-time viewing. I also dug that they brought back Giovanni Ribisi, the best part of the first film, despite the fact that his inclusion made no sense whatsoever.

But this simply isn't as clever, funny, well-written or - frankly - surprisingly tender and sweet as the first movie. It's a decent rental but I hope there's no Ted 3.

Terminator Genisys

How much did they pay James Cameron to talk this up?
I love Arnold Schwarzenegger. I love the first two "Terminator" movies. I was incredibly excited (or optimistic) when it was announced by Megan Ellison that he would be stepping back into his iconic role for what she described as a definitively R-rated, direct sequel to the original films.

Ellison is the producer heir who has recently thrown money behind lots of hard-sell films (from P.T. Anderson to Kathryn Bigelow) and has had almost all her gambles pay off. When she departed the project shortly before production and left it to her brother, the less-revered of the siblings (she produced Foxcatcher; he executive-produced GI JOE 2), I saw that as a bad sign. I'm not happy to say that I was right.

Many are upset that this is PG-13. While it doesn't bode well for the integrity of the film itself (especially when Megan Ellison boasted about it being a return to adult filmmaking after the PG-13 Terminator Salvation in 2009), I think fanboys in particular tend to be rather petty when it comes to ratings. It is what it is, and there have been many, many excellent PG-13 action films made in the last couple decades. A movie doesn't *need* gratuitous violence and language to be inherently good, and there have been plenty of films that include those elements that ended up being total garbage.

Just look at Die Hard 5. It killed John McClane, it killed the Die Hard franchise, and yet it was rated R; the PG-13 Live Free or Die Hard was not only a financially more successful film, it also scored much better with audiences and critics.

How apt, then, that the supposed co-star of Die Hard 5, Jai Courtney, is also present in Terminator: Genisys. This is a "movie star" who is so devoid of screen presence, so empty and so boring, that it's a wonder why Hollywood has decided in the last couple of years that he should be forced down our throats as the Next Big Thing. He is a poor man's Sam Worthington, and I actually feel bad for Worthington by even saying that. I generally don't ever take a strong dislike to actors, and I'm inclined to give most a chance to prove themselves. But everything I've seen from Courtney has been offensive, from his lazy performances to his arrogant comments off-camera (he had a few choice quotes during the Genisys press tour that I found rather telling of both his lack of respect for the series and his ego), and I went into Genisys hoping it would be the film to prove me wrong about it. Spoiler alert: it wasn't.

This guy is supposed to be the new Kyle Reese, previously played by Michael Biehn and Anton Yelchin in the first and fourth films respectively. Terminator Salvation has very few fans, but you know what? It had a strong cast, Yelchin made the character his own to the degree that he could while still honoring Biehn's interpretation, and the movie at least *tried* to give its own spin on the Terminator mythology.

Genisys backtracks. It plays with the mythology but doesn't really provide a unique perspective.

The movie opens with the future war, which is crammed with plenty of poor CGI sequences. (Another victory for Terminator Salation was that it had a surprisingly cool opening shot of Christian Bale in the helicopter as it crashes and is attacked by a Terminator. This movie doesn't even have that much.)

You know the drill by now: Connor sends Reese back in time to save his mother... only when he arrives, everything has changed, and Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) is now a war-ready action heroine, and they are immediately pursued by an Asian T-1000.

I won't recap the plot anymore because I will inevitably run out of my 1,000 word limit (Word says I'm getting close). What I will say is that it's here where Arnold comes "back," and yes, he is by far the best part of the film. One almost wonder whether they deliberately sabotaged the movie with two charisma-free leads in Clarke and Courtney so that Ahnuld wouldn't be upstaged.

But as much as I love the guy, I had the same issues with him here that I did in Sabotage, the film I thought was most likely to reinvigorate his career until I actually saw it. Simply put, he hasn't aged particularly well, and this shows pretty clearly in the fight scenes; in many, he seems to have been lazily digitally imposed over stunt men, and it's distracting more than anything. He has kind of a creaky, croaky screen presence (something he tried, and failed, to put to good use in Maggie), and although the filmmakers attempt to capitalize upon this by making the new Terminator a "Guardian" Father Figure for Sarah (she even refers to him kind of obnoxiously as "Pops" throughout the film), we're constantly reminded of how much more fluid and convincing he was in the first two films, both as the menacing, horrific cyborg and as the reprogrammed father figure to John.

And that's the ultimate problem with Terminator: Genisys. It has nothing new to say. Despite all its claims to the contrary, it's ultimately spinning the same tale through the prism of the older films, doing nothing other than to remind us of how superior they were. John Connor being turned into the villain (which isn't even a spoiler now since it's on the poster and in the trailer) isn't much different than the original ending to McG's film. The "Guardian" being a father to Sarah is no different than the Terminator being a father to John in T- 2. It's not a reboot so much as an homage-packed retreat, following the same beats but lacking the heart and technical ingenuity. This isn't a horrible film, but you know what? T3 was better.

Behind the Candelabra

One of Soderbergh's best films.
Supposedly no studio wanted to touch this because it was "too gay" (an aspect of film trivia that will probably be looked back upon 50 years from now with incredulity), but, like Brokeback Mountain, this is not a "Gay Movie" (if there even is such a thing). This is a tragic romance with two superb performances, stellar direction and a great script.

I am not always Matt Damon's biggest fan, I think he's quite hit or miss, but when he hits he often hits it out of the park, and that's what he does here. Whether playing a young man surprisingly well or playing the drug-addled version of the same man years later, this is one of his most honest, believable performances.

Michael Douglas is phenomenal as Liberace. Watch this movie, then go on YouTube and look up Liberace interviews. If you close your eyes you'll be hard-pressed to find any differences in the cadence of his voice. If this film had been released theatrically he would have almost definitely won an Oscar nomination.

I'm not always Soderbergh's biggest fan either, but lately he's been impressing me, as he's moved further away from the mainstream stuff that distracted him for a few years. He directs this film with pure class, and the ending is perfect.

This is one of the better films I've seen in years.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2

Vile, foul, repugnant -- a total departure from the first film.
"The Hangover" created a brief trend of similarly-themed films, from "Last Vegas" to "Bridesmaids."

"Hot Tub Time Machine" was an underdog, a film that was clearly greenlit to cash in on the success of "The Hangover," but which carried a unique spirit; it was simultaneously a Back to the Future-esque '80s time travel film, and a nostalgic riff on the era featuring one of its biggest stars. In essence, you weren't just seeing young actors transplanted into the 1980s; you were seeing one of the 1980s' biggest stars transplanted back into his prime, which afforded the comedy a kind of oddly poignant touch.

So, then, the fact that John Cusack is absent for 99.9% of Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is a big step backwards. Even Chevy Chase doesn't seem into it: gruff, with a hoarse voice and out-of-character facial hair, he looks like he showed up on set unannounced after a five-day bender in a Motel 8, staying up all night watching his SNL reruns. What the hell happened here, folks?

Here's the thing: Hot Tub Time Machine was crude, but it had a heart. The time travel device was clever because of its in-joke casting of someone like Cusack.

But the sequel just lacks cleverness. It's a lot of penis jokes, padded out with sleaziness, unnecessary nudity, and Rob Cordry run amuck.

Cordry is the type of actor who's best in supporting roles. He was perfect in HTTB1 because he wasn't the lead -- and his character was actually given a surprising amount of depth (the hotel rooftop scene was surprisingly well-scripted and-acted for an ostensibly filler sequence). But given Cusack's departure in the sequel, Cordry is given free reign, and the result is stifling: he suffocates everyone else, and comes across as loud, ugly, and profane. What worked well in the first film completely destroys the second

And I won't even get started on Adam Scott. I love this guy, but what a waste of talent.

This movie sucks.

Edge of Tomorrow

Fantastic entertainment - sleek, witty, humorous, exciting.
People really love to write off Tom Cruise in the press these days, and "Edge of Tomorrow" was getting all kinds of nasty publicity leading up to its release: rumours of re-shoots, bad screenings, etc. Whatever his personal beliefs may be, at the end of the day Cruise is just an actor on screen, and this movie is a firm reminder of what an enigmatic presence he is.

Now in his early 50s, Cruise is making some of the best action films around, and Edge of Tomorrow is no exception. Based on a manga novel published in Japan, the plot is essentially Groundhog Day by way of Starship Troopers or...something like that.

The movie's low point is when it tries to explain too heavily the process by which Cruise's character is able to relive the same day over and over again, because at the end of the day it's just a Macguffin to be able to explore the concept. But the movie's strength is that it places its human story first (as corny as that may sound), as Cruise's character undergoes an emotional and physical transformation. It also features a highly capable female lead, brought to life by the charismatic Emily Blunt. If this were a Michael Bay film, the role would have existed solely as a love interest, but this movie doesn't succumb to such banal (and frankly, sexist) tripe. She is a worthy presence alongside Cruise and is one of the strongest sci-fi heroines since Sigourney Weaver in Alien.

Speaking of which, that's the other movie this reminded me of: Aliens. Bill Paxton chewing up the scenery as a drill sergeant probably had something to do with that.

I loved this movie. I saw it three times. Despite the press writing it off as a colossal bomb upon release due to its modest opening, it had spectacular legs, and crossed $100 mil domestic. It ultimately wasn't the box office behemoth the studio may have wished for, but people using it as evidence of Cruise's 'failing career' may be wise to look at the full picture: its worldwide gross ranks it as one of his highest money- makers ever.

This movie will develop a following on home video and I wouldn't be surprised if they somehow attempt to revisit it one day, whether it's through a lower budget prequel or a spin-off or another manga. Who knows. They should probably leave well enough alone, because it's that rare sci-fi summer blockbuster that has it all: brains, wit and thrills. All the people who flocked to the latest Transformers movie would have been doing themselves a favor by seeing this instead.

Dumb and Dumber To

One of the most disappointing and unsatisfying experiences I've had at the theater
I'm going to preface this review by stating the obvious (and what no doubt some may be quick to point out in defense of the sequel): look, it's "Dumb and Dumber" we're talking about here; not "Citizen Kane". But I feel like that disclaimer only goes so far, because frankly, the original "Dumb and Dumber" is one of the funniest films I've ever seen -- endlessly quotable, thoroughly likable. The key to the movie, I think, is that there's an underlying sweetness to the humor: Lloyd and Harry (Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels) are never presented as malicious. Most of the bad stuff that happens to them is inadvertent, and often at the expense of trying to do a good deed (e.g. Lloyd trying to return the briefcase).

The new movie left me with a bad taste in my mouth, and it wasn't just the cheap, garish, ugly cinematography (the movie literally has the appearance of a Funny or Die or SNL sketch, with brightly lit, obvious set pieces; frankly, it has the aesthetics of a soap opera).

What left me reeling was the movie's cruel streak -- it turns Harry and Lloyd into deliberately mischievous cretins, and the inherent humour is drained from any potential scenarios as a result of their self- awareness. Roger Ebert used to talk about this a lot in his reviews -- it's only funny if the character isn't aware of what he's doing. So when Lloyd and Harry accidentally poison the hit-man hired to kill them in the original Dumb an Dumber, it's funny; when they deliberately sabotage a convention in "Dumb and Dumber To," screaming at a woman to show them her naked body, or gleefully discuss being responsible for a man's death in front of his parents, it's...not funny. It's immature, it's crass, and most importantly, *it goes against the very thing that made these characters funny in the first place!*

I find it hard to believe all these original cast and crew members could re-assemble for a film 20 years later and so completely misunderstand the appeal of their own movie.

Beyond the inherent lack of humor in the mean-spirited hijinks these characters get themselves into this time around, many of the film's one- liners and jokes just aren't funny either. Sorry, but no matter how many times you repeat it, using the word 'butthole' isn't really that amusing.

The film also lazily falls back on repeating some of the original film's plot points and, indeed, one-liners (e.g. Lloyd's "I like it a lawwwt" or the mannerisms he makes when mixing a drink, identical to the first film). It confuses homage for humour, recycling gags without providing them in a fresh context, which simply reminds us of how much funnier they were the first time around.

And then there are the performances. The Farrellys said Jim Carrey hadn't seen the original movie for something like 15 years before agreeing to doing the sequel, and I'm not surprised. He doesn't seem to remember the comic energy he imbued Lloyd with in the original film; instead, he turns Lloyd into an unlikable, borderline creepy manchild with overly exaggerated stupidity and mannerisms. I think the simplest way of summarizing the mistake here is that they jumped the shark from 'dumb' to 'willfully stupid.' And, again to paraphrase the late Mr Ebert, this is the difference between funny and not funny.

This movie is not funny. It's not even mildly amusing in the manner in which I expected a long-delayed sequel may be. If it had been lazy and fallen back on repeating gags from the original film, fair enough; if it contained the same sweet-natured spirit of the original movie, then maybe that would have been its saving grace. Instead, it's not only unfunny, it's egregiously nasty and vile, and when I left the theater I just immediately wanted to wash the taste out.

I remember seeing "Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd" years ago in theaters, hating it, and thinking how much better it would have been if they had convinced Jim Carrey to come back for a proper sequel. Imagine my surprise 11 years later that this movie doesn't have a single scene as funny as that one's Bob Saget cameo. What a complete and utter let- down this movie was.

The Expendables 3

Poorly edited and, most importantly, lacking fun!
I was really excited for EX3 for some reason. I didn't care much about the PG-13 rating -- based on the trailer and the inclusion of fresh talent behind the lens, I thought Stallone was trying to take the franchise toward a Fast&Furious action film route, and I didn't necessarily have a problem with that if it turned out well enough. Plus, I miss Mel Gibson (if we judged actors on their personal lives there wouldn't be many fanclubs left) so the idea of seeing him chew up scenery as a villain sounded fun.

But the movie...just sucks. The editing is bad. Patrick Hughes perhaps was overwhelmed with the $100 mil budget and didn't know how to handle the action sequences, or perhaps they were just toned down for the PG-13 rating, but they're often so quickly and chaotically chopped up that you can't even tell what's going on. The stunts have become self-parody (just witness Terry Crews flying through the air like he can fly during that car chase early on), and the movie lacks a fun narrative. It also lacks suspense.

The introductions of the actors are so poorly handled. Arnold appears just randomly standing around in the back of a shot in a hospital. Huh? His appearance in EX2 was great. The sense of build-up is similarly lacking when Mel Gibson just stumbles into frame along with a bunch of other bad guys, or when Harrison Ford just shows up to grumble some Bruce Willis disses and then disappears for the rest of the movie... or when Jet Li just randomly appears next to Arnie for a single scene before peacing out.

Wesley Snipes fares the best but that's not saying much. Gibson does the villain routine well enough but the role and the story background for his character just isn't fresh or deep enough to care too much about, so the big showdown between he and Stallone lacks even the dramatic weight of the surprisingly effective and dramatic Jean Claude Van Damme fight in EX2.

Look, ultimately none of these movies have been great. Expendables 1 looked like a straight-to-DVD movie with horrible, bleak cinematography and lighting, but it scored a couple cool moments, like the church scene and that otherwise out-of-place epic Mickey Rourke monologue. (Speaking of which, Rourke is sorely missed.)

EX2 went more for the comedy route which worked well enough, and it was a fun one-time viewing. Neither movies were particularly memorable, but they had memorable moments.

EX3 had the opportunity to take the franchise in a new direction, but instead, it comes across as totally cold, cynical and calculated. It's also just not any fun. When Kelsey Grammar shows up to start bringing in the younger 'tech-savvy' recruits, I found myself surprised by how utterly bored I was. Guys like Kellen Lutz are black holes of charisma with little acting talent, so for them to take up a good portion of the movie's runtime is a crying shame.

Ultimately, the PG-13 rating has nothing to do with the movie's faults, apart perhaps from the choppy action scene editing. Where the movie truly fails is that it is a giant moot point. The entire point of the Expendables is bringing back '80s action icons and having them go to war. By relegating them to supporting characters and bringing in younger recruits? That undermines the entire point of the franchise, and makes it seem like a very cynical attempt at moving forward with a younger cast to take over the reigns in the future. But that's not why people are paying to see these movies, as evidenced by its dwindling box office returns.


I love Schwarzenegger, but this is one of his worst movies.
"Sabotage" looked amazing on paper, and at one point early on in production, it was one of my most highly-anticipated action films. First of all, you've got David Ayer coming fresh off the critical and commercial success of "End of Watch," one of the best cop films in recent memory; then you've got a pretty good supporting cast (Worthington, Howard and Manganiello are fine enough for the kinds of roles they're playing here). But mostly you've got Arnold playing his least quintessential role -- what I mean by this is that, over the years, even in his more dramatic fare, Arnold has always enjoyed self- posturing and falling back on his reputation when he plays characters. There's nothing wrong with that, but at a certain point, the wink-wink, nudge-nudge stuff gets a bit repetitive; I thought "Last Stand" was a fun spaghetti western, but it was Arnold playing an older Arnold, complete with the "I'll be back" puns and jokey homages to older films.

What excited me about "Sabotage" was that it appeared Arnold had taken a decidedly un-Arnold role, which is to say that most any other aging, dry actor could have taken this on. From the haircut to the makeup (grizzled and riddled with tattoos), this was NOT Arnold playing Arnold. Apart from one throwaway line about a character's "48 percent body fat," this is the first time - maybe since the original Terminator - that Arnold has attempted to play someone other than himself, really, unless you count failures like End of Days, but even then he had a bit of the tongue-in-cheek stuff going on (and the film was crap to boot).

But what made it even more interesting was that, at the same time, the movie shared the whole Agatha Christie and-then-there-was-one plot device that "Predator" made use of. So it was kind of an interesting thing -- we've got a similar set up (an elite gang of mercenaries being picked off one-by-one by an unseen foe, with Arnold left trying to defend himself and his men) but a completely different approach in both tone and character.

With that in mind, I'm very sorry to say that Sabotage not only is a crushing disappointment, but ranks with some of Arnold's worst movies. I mean, I don't know how to describe it other than... this film left a really bad taste in my mouth.

As for Arnold? I love the guy, but maybe this is why it was best for him not to have attempted to play characters much beyond his own image. He tries, but his more earnest line readings are often pretty stiff and unnatural, and it must be said: he's just not really that believable in the role. Chalk it up to the accent, the mediocre line delivery, or the lack of chemistry with his cast members, but there's just something missing here, and as the film drags on you begin to realize how awkwardly cast it is with him in the lead. That pains me to say because I'm a fan of the guy and I was really excited to see him play a more unusual role, and thought it was a wise career move on his part to move beyond the wink-wink roles like Expendables and Escape Plan, but... maybe I was wrong.

But maybe it's not just Arnold. There's ultimately something very crass and callow about this film, and it's not just because it's overly violent, but rather, I think, because of how gleefully it tends to display the violence. It's not that strong violence bothers me, but compare how it was used in Predator to how it is used in Sabotage. Part of it may be the contrast between the ultra-realistic violence (think End of Days with the gritty hand-held style camera work and realistic- looking bullet wounds) and the absolutely ridiculous action sequences in the film (the movie's car chases are pretty poorly executed and unbelievable).

I don't know. I wanted to love this movie. It ended up being so distasteful to me that I couldn't even enjoy it as a guilty pleasure, and it lacks the goofy retro charm of something like Escape Plan so ultimately it just comes across as a forgettable attempt at a modern action thriller with a bungled approach both in front of and behind the camera. Given the talent involved this is definitely one of the biggest "What went wrong?" head-scratchers in recent memory. A shame, because if you look at this film on paper it reads like it could have been one of the Austrian Oak's finest rather than one of his worst.

True Detective

The McConnaissance continues and HBO has another potential all-time classic.
Matthew McConaughey has truly been on a roll lately. After scene- stealing roles in Killer Joe, Bernie and Magic Mike, he followed up with a brilliant lead performance in Jeff Nichols' Mud, another scene- stealing cameo in Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street, and a potentially Oscar-winning lead role in Dallas Buyers Club, one of the best films of 2013.

Somewhere in among all those projects he managed to film this HBO miniseries with old pal Woody Harrelson. The result is revolutionary and gripping: an eight-episode miniseries with two huge actors, with a relatively small cast and crew behind it. This is essentially a movie split up into a mini-series but with the concept that each 'season' will feature two new A-list actors. HBO continues to set the bar high for cable programming and storytelling in general.

True Detective just finished up its fourth episode, the strongest yet, which featured an epic six-minute-long one-shot camera take (they may have used some clever editing a la Children of Men but the end result is impressively seamless). This is a great mix of wonderful acting, solid script-writing, and impressive technical direction. The tone of the show is hauntingly eerie and makes good use of its southern locale.

All in all, this could easily go down as one of HBO's premier programs and two of the best performances of its lead actors' respective careers. Who would have ever thought McConaughey would have been in this position a few years ago? Talk about a career revival.


Panders almost exclusively to the die-hard fans -- which is good news if you're a die-hard fan.
I enjoyed "Pitch Black" when it came out in 2000 but admittedly never got around to seeing the higher-budgeted sequel, which was both a commercial and critical under-performer in 2004. There probably never would have been another sequel if the Fast and Furious franchise hadn't reinvigorated Vin Diesel's star power -- he is if nothing else quite a wry businessman, and, as a producer of the 'Fast' series, which has been hugely successful for Universal, part of his contract stipulation for signing on to films six, seven and eight was that the studio would fund a third Riddick movie.

Thus, after many years, we have another film featuring the character Riddick. Listening to fans who were underwhelmed by the PG-13 wannabe- franchise over-reaching of the second movie, Riddick apparently returns to the roots of Pitch Black, with plenty of foul language, ultra- violence and full-frontal female nudity within the first 20 minutes, all basically just to titillate fanboys who cried afoul of the PG-13 rated first sequel.

The beginning of the movie is quite good, as it features Riddick (Diesel) trying to survive on an alien planet. This extended sequence eventually comes to an end, which is a shame, because it's the best part of the movie.

Then we get a very fan-oriented you-won't-understand-it-if-you-are-a- casual-fan storytelling device that thrusts Riddick into a man-vs-team- of-mercenaries scenario reminiscent of the original movie. Problem is, it's never quite as thrilling or fun as the first movie, and the glaringly poor CGI (it was funded on a relatively low budget with plenty of obvious green-screening) really detracts from the experience.

Riddick is by definition a vanity project for its star, as he literally demanded the studio fund it in order to star in another one of their pictures, and it's clear that both Diesel and director/writer Twohy love Riddick and attempt to truly mythologize the character, framing him stoically and often displaying his actions in a kind of prophetic slow- motion glory. At a certain point it becomes increasingly laughable and kind of awkward and it's clear that Diesel and Twohy were both surrounded by too many yes-men (in fact, they probably were each other's yes men) and someone should have intervened to bring them down to earth a little bit.

The action isn't particularly great, the effects are atrocious, and it's never as simplistically fun as the original Pitch Black because it tries to tie in waaay too many mythologies and story lines within its own universe.

What this all means is that, for the minority of die-hard fans of the franchise/character, "Riddick" the movie will be exactly what they want. But for casual fans like myself and the majority of movie-goers -- who perhaps saw the first one or two films in the series but don't recall every minute detail of the franchise's universe -- it will prove to be a frustratingly alienating experience, akin to a non-Trekkie watching one of the lesser "Star Trek" movies from 15 - 20 years ago, when they were so self-reliant upon their own closed world that they completely failed to connect with the mainstream.

I'm not bashing Riddick for being fan-serving -- it is, after all, a vanity project made almost exclusively for fans, and I'm happy for them if this is the movie they waited 10 years for. I will say, however, that for casual filmgoers, it will prove to be a frustrating experience, and many recent sci-fi series (like the "Trek" reboot) have proved that it's possible to make great entertainment that panders to die-hard fans while still pleasing the casual movie-goer. "Riddick" may have done better financially and critically if it had attempted the latter.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

Back of the net!
Alan Partridge has been through a very interesting evolution, both as a character and in terms of the comedic format he is presented in. He began as a kind of sleazy talk-show host on radio program The Day Today, which carried over into the extremely funny (and uncomfortable) talk show parody "Knowing Me Knowing You" on TV, before transferring to a sitcom format for a 30-minute scripted series following him after the cancellation of his TV show. "I'm Alan Partridge" tweaked the character a bit, presenting him less as a young and greasy talk host and as more of an older, failed dimwit, retaining his trademark narcissism but making subtle changes to his attire. This was, for my money, the pinnacle of Partridge, as those two series -- the first in '97, the second in '02 -- were comedy masterpieces. Coogan has failed to ever create another character as unforgettable as Partridge, despite the underrated Saxondale.

But something interesting happened within the past few years: Armando Iannucci, reeling from the success of his political comedies The Thick of It and Veep, changed the format for Partridge again. Alan re-emerged in the format of an online radio podcast for Folgers beer, which was called Mid Morning Matters. Lacking the laugh track or the typical broad strokes of Alan's humour, this could have been a huge backfire -- but it actually presented a very interesting new side to Alan, a dryer, more subtle side.

The shift in tone may be jarring to some viewers who are coming to the movie fresh from the old TV show, but rest assured, Alan is still very funny. The movie is a smashing success. Hilarious from start to finish, it's framed in a way that assures -- as it parodies action film tropes - - it will be very funny even to casual audiences...but particularly more-so to longtime Alan fans (how refreshing it was to see Lynn and Michael back again!).

I hope this spawns another film or at least another series. I haven't quite gotten my fix of Alan.

For fans of the movie looking for more, check out Alan's audiobook (read by Coogan in character) which was released a year or two ago. Very funny stuff, and a great companion piece to the movie.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Shows a lot of promise - a very likable new sitcom.
I'm confused by the reviewer (whose comment was featured on the IMDb page just now) who seemingly despised this program and wrote it off, apparently, because he or she felt Andre Braugher deserved better.

I find this review odd, because "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" - if nothing else - comes across as a very likable show.

Thankfully spared of talking-head interview segments that have dominated the American comedy scene since The Office, this show also thankfully features no laugh track. Thus, it both has the feel of an old-fashioned sitcom without the dated quality of one. It's actually quite a clever premise: it's a "cop show" but set in the workplace environment. This is a clever move as the show is able to subvert some of the stereotypical police procedural elements while also keeping stuff grounded and relatable by keeping the majority of the antics constrained to the police station.

The cast is talented all across the board. One thing you might find as the show grows is that Andy Samberg will become more subdued in his approach. I say this because as of now he is clearly the "star" of the show and, as such, he's often given a lot of LOUD dialogue -- but this also happened to the Leslie Knope character in "Parks and Recreation," and she ended up organically evolving into a much smarter and more likable character. I think once Brooklyn Nine-Nine finds its own footing and more firmly establishes its characters, things will settle into place. It's still a bit shaky but it's just the freshman season flaws. Very few comedy shows are at their best in their first seasons.

I'm enjoying this quite a lot so far - it's not must-see-TV or anything of the sort, but it's likable, entertaining and shows a lot of promise. The talented cast really elevates the material and the show manages to subvert cop show clichés and workplace TV comedy tropes without seeming overly cynical or snide about it. That's really the best word I can think of summing it up with: likable.

Hello Ladies

A promising, but flawed, beginning
When I saw ads for "Hello Ladies" in a men's magazine, I was pretty excited. I have a love-hate relationship with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant: I think "The Office" is brilliant, "Extras" unfairly maligned, and am most of all a fan of their podcast series with Karl Pilkington. But they can also be off-putting: Gervais at times seems like he has transformed into his egotistical character David Brent, and Merchant has seemed suspiciously detached from their last few outings together (I'm not into rumor-mongering, but I'd be remiss to mention he was absent from the last series of An Idiot Abroad altogether, as well as the "Learn English with Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington" web series -- not to mention they haven't released any new podcasts in a few years now, all signs pointing to a desire on his part to leave the past behind).

Merchant seems like he's struggling to break free of the Gervais association, and so this HBO series (which is co-produced, incidentally, by Eisenberg and Stupinsky, the guys behind the American adaptation of The Office) finds him running solo. Merchant, like Gervais, excels at awkward situational humor. This series at times is extremely cringe-worthy, just like the greatest moments of The Office and Extras.

Here are some problems, though:

Merchant's character, as many critics have noted, is fairly unlikeable. This worked for Gervais as Brent because he was first and foremost a supporting character in the larger picture -- Tim and Dawn's relationship was what gave the series a backbone and a heart, and Brent was allowed to kind of seep into the program through the corners and find his own emotional core. But if The Office had just been about Brent being a miserable boss every episode, I do think the show wouldn't have resonated quite as strongly. Brent was also unaware of his own horrible actions, whereas Merchant's character in Hello Ladies seems happily self-aware.

The key to making a series like this is to have the main character be relatable to audiences. As a single 20-something young professional, I can relate to the single club scene and the frustrations of a bachelor lifestyle. Merchant wisely exaggerates the pathetic underbelly of the Los Angeles nightlife, with aspiring actresses and sleazy guys trying to work their way up the social ladder.

But instead of allowing his character to find himself lost in this haze, Merchant actually makes his character even more unlikeable than many of the people he's ostensibly doing social battle with.

This produces a stream of inconsistency in the character which is hard to shake. An example: in the first episode of the show, Merchant's character, creepily trying to hit on a beautiful woman way out of his league, inadvertently spends hundreds of dollars ordering drinks at a swanky nightclub. This is played for laughs, but never for a moment does he hesitate the way a normal person might: he puts the drinks on his tab and keeps trying to hit on her.

But in episode three, he takes a really cute girl out on a date (a girl many might say is out of his league, mind) who keeps trying to initiate conversation with him. But he can't focus on the conversation because he's too distracted by the high price of the wine bottle (he frequently excuses himself to privately tell the waiter that the $70 bottle is too expensive).

OK, let's consider this for a moment. Is it funny? At face value, yes, because all of us can relate to a situation where we've been casually forced into spending way more than we want to, especially during something like a first date. But it doesn't jibe with the character, because just two episodes earlier, he was willing to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on a girl who he had far less of a chance of sleeping with.

In another episode, Merchant's character is doing yoga and cockily hits on a beautiful woman next to him. But in other episodes, his ineptitude and shyness around women is played for laughs. So which is he? An arrogant jerk or a timid geek?

Merchant is so overly focused on making situations awkward that, as a result, his character doesn't ring true, and often the comedy feels quite contrived.

Having said all that, I do enjoy it, and I think there's room for improvement. The leading co-star, played by Christine Woods, really steals the show from Merchant with her easy charm. She's essentially the "straight man" from a comedy perspective and, honestly, her character and her plights are waaay more interesting (and consistent, and realistic) than Merchant's. I like Merchant, but the roles should be swapped if he's not going to develop his character further or make him more likable. I'm four episodes in, and at this point I care way more about Woods' character than Merchant's.

The show is entertaining, though. It's just not anywhere near the level of perfection of The Office or really even quite as funny as The Office. I think Merchant is simply trying too hard and needs to re-evaluate both his character, and where he wants to take the show. If it's just a sleazy, opportunistic guy trying to pick up women every episode (and being cruel and sadistic to his friends in the process), then it'll get old really fast. He needs to give his central character a more empathetic core, and a greater consistency in tone, and allow the awkward situations to evolve organically rather than force them to happen.

I could see these improvements taking place, and hopefully by the end of its first season the show will have evolved into something greater than just a reasonably entertaining program.

Dead in Tombstone

Mickey Rourke's tombstone.
Man, what happened to Rourke? After "The Wrestler," he had a second act career resurgence that appeared to be another great Hollywood comeback story. He had a string of high-profile blockbuster films -- "Expendables," "Iron Man 2" among them -- and a whole list of films on IMDb that were slated in pre-production, many with large casts and studios.

He swore in all his cover story interviews around the release of The Wrestler that he'd "learned his lesson" the hard way by bad-mouthing Hollywood in the '80s and '90s, and that he wouldn't allow his career to become ruined again, as he had resorted to straight-to-video flicks in the late '90s and early '00s when his career was in truly dire straits. (He claims a narrative that he was out of work entirely for a decade, but the truth is, he was just appearing in really crap films.)

But he didn't heed his own words of wisdom. Within a couple years, these things had happened: he publicly dissed The Expendables 2, claiming he wouldn't return unless they paid him more. He was never cast in the film, and the plot was re-written to involve a younger character in his place. After the worldwide success of EX2, which could have been another franchise for Rourke, a producer on the film was asked whether he'd be back for round three. "Maybe if he doesn't act so crazy," was the reply from the producer. As of September 29th, the third film is in production, and Rourke's name is absent from the cast.

He also publicly bad-mouthed writer/director Martin McDonaugh (In Bruges), claiming he wasn't being paid enough by the "creep" to star in the film Seven Psychopaths; he dropped out, and was replaced by Woody Harrelson. The film wasn't a big hit financially, but critics loved it, and it had a huge ensemble cast. Instead of starring in that film, he starred in a straight-to-video movie with Kellen Lutz...if you don't know who that guy is, it's because he was one of the shirtless vampires in Twilight.

Then he bad-mouthed Marvel Studios, claiming they butchered Iron Man 2. Not a huge deal since his character had no chance of coming back anyway, but it's more burnt bridges. He also annoyed the crap out of Robert Downey Jr on the set of the film (RDJ went out on a limb for him and fought to have him cast in the film after Rourke's pay demands were deemed too high by Marvel, btw); apparently his Method Acting routine was hugely obnoxious to cast and crew, as he demanded odd flourishes such as blaring Gnarls Barkley's song "Crazy" at full volume before filming every one of his scenes.

My point of this long-winded rant is that Mickey Rourke has essentially ruined what could have been a golden opportunity comeback to fulfill his early potential as one of the great actors of all time, and now he has resorted to starring in utter dreck like this film, which is an absolutely abysmal production and something that any actor should be embarrassed to list on their resume.

It's a standard revenge flick, set in a western atmosphere. It is poorly made (the low budget stands out at every turn), poorly acted (Anthony Michael Hall is the villain - enough said), and poorly shot (the lighting is atrocious at times). Danny Trejo has experienced some kind of grindhouse-type career revival thanks to Robert Rodriguez, but he's best buried as a minor character in ensemble films, and he does not have the charm or charisma to carry a full-length picture.

The only remotely interesting thing about this film? Rourke plays the devil incarnate. Which, if you've ever seen his 1987 psychological thriller "Angel Heart," is an interesting twist. Unfortunately this film isn't remotely similar to Angel Heart in any other regard, which was one of the best films of the 1980s in this humble critic's opinion; Dead in Tombstone, by contrast, is Dead On Arrival (har, har) and a truly bad film.

Rourke, you only have yourself to blame for this.

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