“Antarctica: A Year on Ice” Review

Though this year-long documentary on working in Antarctica is one filled with many dangers and bitter temperatures, it actually feels more like a travel brochure in how appealing it displays the tundra. The empty mountains of snowy silence, the cozy comradery of the staff and the amazing sights make for a spectacular journey around Earth’s coldest destination. It’s no cake walk for sure, but even with all its faults – and there are a large number of them – I’m still drawn to this different world. And considering I live in Minnesota where it already gets snowy and cold in the winter, that’s saying something.

Documentarian Anthony Powell spends an entire year working in the Ross Island region of the continent – home to the American and New Zealand research bases. The engineers and scientists that occupy these bases have a unique culture. When not stooped in their monotonous work, they find plenty of ways to blow off steam and have some fun. Be it an outdoor festival of drinks, an indoor match of video games or just a good book, there’s no shortage of entertainment for a cold-climate environment. There are film festivals between all the various bases as a creative means of keeping in contact. They have parties outside with freezing dips and live music. All of this makes the isolated nature of the base seem as though it’s the best place to work. Their recreation sure beats the heck out of a company party at Applebee’s.

But Anthony does more than just film the people of Antarctica considering he’s here for work – shooting footage to be used for BBC’s Frozen Planet. He travels to the most desolate of areas to setup equipment for photo and videos. There is complete quiet and silence – a serene atmosphere for one of nature’s grandest displays of snow and mountains. That being said, I’m glad that Anthony doesn’t hold anything back the way he mentions the pungent aroma of penguin feces that pollutes the area. You won’t hear about that in March of the Penguins.

Aside from the temperature forcing a more indoor lifestyle and isolation from the rest of the world, living and working in Antarctica doesn’t seem all that tough. That is until the large dark winter months of February to October. This is where the true test of devotion lies for accepting such working conditions. A good chunk of the staff ends up leaving as this winter doesn’t allow for any flights coming or going out of the region. The skies grows dark and black as temperatures drop and blizzards kick up a storm. The remainder of the workers who stay behind for this period mostly have one task: maintain the bases until the winter is over. And this is by no means easy. Just ask Anthony who ventures out to one of the small bases to unfreeze pipes while a storm barrels down on the walls.

And as if the colder than cold weather wasn’t bad enough, the constant darkness and indoor lifestyle can lead to T3 Syndrome. This conditions refers to when the T3 hormones of the brain divert to keep muscles warm during winter. This causes a bad case of the cabin fever with memory loss and mood swings. Routine actions that workers go through everyday start becoming new to them. A general store cashier notes that her usual customers start believing their first-timers to the shop. Thank goodness the workers still find plenty of fun indoor activities to shake off the dark winter blues and maintain some sanity.

But Anthony keeps a chipper spirit throughout all of this and it’s easy to understand why. The majestic nature he captures on film is more than worth the trip, from the northern lights to the shifting plains of ice. And getting to experience it all with a group of unique and entertaining individuals just makes the continent seem like a little slice of heaven. It’s certainly a land of hard-working individuals that have to sacrifice much. Being cut off from the rest of the world has got to be a little depressing as one man finds himself regretting not being there for the birth of a new family member. There are even some sad protocols as when workers cannot intervene with a seal lost from ocean – doomed to die on land. But the experience is unlike anything on Earth with real struggle and joy. In another life, I would’ve jumped at such an opportunity. As it stands, I’ll settle for Powell’s documentary which let’s us come along for the ride.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” Review

With all the controversy surrounding the sexual nature of Fifty Shades of Grey, I expected something either titillating, scandalous or laughably questionable. For a movie that features bondage and domination, I found myself surprisingly bored with the experience. Is this really what all the hub-bub was about? I’ve seen teen sex comedies and dopey romantic comedies that present copulation with more explicit content and more romance. If the original book was intended as trashy smut, then this movie adaptation certainly seems to fit that genre. However, it’s only risqué in a softcore sense the way it seems to be for older women who want to see something sexual, but not really sexual. A nipple hear and a butt there is plenty of titillation for that crowd.

Spawned as fan fiction from the tween-pleasing Twilight phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey entertains the scenario of a plucky college student being wined, dined and dominated by a rich boy. Ana (Dakota Johnson) has her whole life ahead of her as a college graduate, but decides to devote it towards pursuing one single man. Filling in for a friend, she interviews the wealthy industrialist Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and is drawn to his mysterious nature. There isn’t much of any charm to his quiet personality, but that doesn’t stop Ana from glowing around the good-looking hunk. Whether she’s lost in his eyes or his skyline views, she’s impressed enough to start pursuing a relationship with mister Grey.

What pertains to their relationship? Lots of paperwork, lots of sex and lots of dry field trips in Grey’s various crafts. There’s no meaningful dialogue between the two – just more mystique about being so shy and closed off from each other. Some of their first encounters involve Grey making Ana sign a NDA and later attempts to get her to sign a contract for sexual intimacy. Is this what makes for an erotic fantasy in this new age? Paperwork over dinner about negotiating whether or not to use butt plugs? Has the art of wooing a woman over charm become a lost art form? According to this movie, you can skip all that if you have enough looks and money.

So since we can’t really rely on the characters to develop a romance, all that the movie leaves us with is an abundance of sex scenes. Their sex is of the bondage variety which involves plenty of leather, ropes, crops, feathers, etc. Based on the display of Grey’s playroom, one might expect some displays of passion that are a little intense. But director Sam Taylor-Johnson softens all the sex to a ludicrous degree. There are no explicit moments of intimacy – only laughably edited shots of nudity with a soft rendition of a pop song playing over the lovemaking. These moments are as artificial and soulless as the relationship itself.

This creates a shifting in tones for a movie that’s clearly terrible, but on different degrees of awful. At first, it’s so bad that it’s good. The dialogue is ridiculously juvenile, the characters are ludicrously flat and the sex scenes are so timid with all the sex appeal of a diamond commercial. I laughed for a while, but the laughter soon died down as the pattern set in. Ana and Grey have sex. Ana and Grey have an awkwardly dull dinner. Ana and Grey have sex. Ana and Grey go for a plane ride. Ana and Grey have sex yet again. On and on the formula continues until the movie mercifully decides to just stop dead in its tracks.

Fifty Shades of Grey is erotic junk food targeted at the women who want a smutty movie, but not too smutty. Rather than make something daring and telling of a relationship with a billionaire, the movie makes the raunchiest of teen sex comedies seem more heartfelt. There’s just nothing much to be felt by any of this – no arousal for its intimacy and no outrage over is subject. By the end of the picture, I was thoroughly bored with a mundane roller coaster relationship of Ana and Grey. And boredom is not something that should be attributed to a movie with bondage sex.

“The Babadook” Review

The real horror in The Babadook is that it doesn’t rely so heavily on its own boogieman. In doing so, it capitalizes on the one thing most horror movies seem to forget about: the characters. It’s not that the creep in the shadows that terrorizes this little family isn’t frightening (believe me, it is). But by turning this movie into more of a family drama about coping with grief, it becomes a far more personal story and less of a series of spooky boos and jump scares. Again, not that the scares are not terrifying (they really, REALLY are).

We see single mom Amelia, tired and worn, trying to raise her over-reactive and emotional son Sam. She has to check his closets for monsters, but still ends up with the frightened child in her bed. His fears, however, are more for his mother as he just doesn’t want to lose her the same way he lost his dad in a car crash before he was born. This is confirmed as the boy prepares for battle by assembling mobile catapults and homemade crossbows. He knows he is in a horror movie and is preparing for war.

But to his battered mother, she just sees it as more misbehavior. Unlike most films of this nature, however, we understand her rationale. We see her weary state from days of little sleep and constant work at an elderly care center. We see the frustration from her son’s constantly high-pitched whining and cries. We see her bitterness for an ill-equipped school to handle her son and her snippy friends who look down on her parenting. The last thing she needs is some invisible madman terrorizing her household.

The Babadook first enters into the household through the storybook Mister Babadook. Sam picks the odd book off the shelf for bedtime story. Amelia reads through the rhyming pop-up book with its black-and-white illustrations. The book grows increasingly frightening as it tells of the creepy Mister Babadook. He arrives with the sound of three knocks sounded out as baba dook-dook-dook. He lets himself into your soul and will make you wish you were dead.

After another night of nightmares, Amelia rips the book up and throws it away.
Not only does the book return to her doorstep the following day with the pages taped back together, but it now has new passages and pop-ups. The book claims that it will only get stronger and take hold of the mother. The last few pages are foreboding pop-ups of Amelia choking the family dog to death, stabbing her son and slitting her own throat. The Babadook is clearly going to use Amelia as a host for his violence, but it’s an easy vessel to inhabit. After all her complications with Sam, work, family and even social workers, it doesn’t take much to bring out the anger and fury of the woman who is fed up. Her murders could easily be dismissed as the woman who was pushed over the edge by a society that has failed her.

Amelia’s possession is seen as a fever dream for the overworked parent. Her quiet moments feel werey and passive between moments of intense bickering with her son. She starts to doze off while watching TV and starts seeing creepy visions of Mister Babadook on television as well as more premonitions about her being a murderer. As a parent, The Babadook plays on my worst fears: being the bad parent where stress overtakes your spirit. Amelia snaps viciously at Sam when he asks for something to eat, which Amelia coldly responds with “why don’t you eat sh*t.” Her hostilities grow progressively worse as she shouts and hollers at the boy causing him to wet his pants in fear (which she also blows up about).

The fresh writer/director Jennifer Kent has given commercial horror a run for its money with her sound characters and true sense of terror. Whereas other horror films struggle to make the audience jump, Kent aims to keep you in your seat and creep under your skin. This is what makes The Babadook such an effective horror picture – it stays with you long after the final frame making it much more memorable for the plot than the scares. But, again, the scares are super effective especially for the overworked parents tired of being used as two-dimensional puppets for these productions.

“Extraterrestrial” (2014) Review

Movie aliens tend to greet Earthlings with either open arms or open mouths. If they’re not trying to meet, they want to eat. Or, in the case of District 9 or E.T., gas up and go home. The purpose of the uninspired greys from indie horror Extraterrestrial appear rather confusing. It’s pretty clear from the horror leanings that these beings do indeed want to slaughter humans, but for what gain? Whereas other movie aliens seem to have a goal in mind during their visit, these creatures appear more confused about what they want to do with their human subjects. They spent all this time trying to get to Earth and must have just forgot about what they came here to do in the first place.

But this isn’t so much a sci-fi picture as it is your a-typical teens in the woods picture. It’s your standard template with the exception of an alien race written in as the creature of the feature. College kids venture to a cabin in the middle of crazy country so they can party and get stoned. Should we expect anything less? None of them are all that unique or interesting, fulfilling basic horror movie archetypes. One of them has a breakup, one of them is a party animal, one of them is crazy about discoveries and there’s the obligatory handheld camera floating about to wedge in that style as well. Michael Ironside pops up as the local weed farmer of the area, but he’s a wasted bore even as a conspiracy theory hermit.

Then our group of youngsters encounter a downed UFO they find in the woods. Of all the spaceships I’ve seen in movies over the years, Extraterrestrial has one of the least inspired designs. It’s the old-fashioned spinning saucer with too many lights and too little detail. The freaked out teens soon return to the cabin and the aliens begin to terrorize them. Keeping with the style of the UFO, the aliens are your stereotypical greys. They’re big, lanky, grey and have big eyes. The only thing about these aliens that doesn’t feel conventional is their motive in that they don’t actually have one.

The aliens are kept mostly aloof at first with a developing mystery about their presence. A cop investigates the region with claims of abducted individuals and mutilated cows. What exactly do these aliens want? At first, it seems they just want to abduct humans for some sort of experiment. But their experiment appears more like a confusing process than a calculated means of study. One unlucky victim finds himself abducted into the alien ship with half his arm as he handcuffed himself to a tree to be spared. Onboard, the victim is tortured and probed by a robot until he dies via a probe into his butt. Either there’s some intricate method to these alien plans that human just cannot fathom or these aliens are just screwing with us for the heck of it. I’m inclined to believe the latter since the aliens also perform some confusing kills in the way they grab faces and use ESP to force their victims into suicide.

Right up to the very last scene, which has one of the most nonsensical left-field endings of any horror picture, you’ll be scratching your head in confusion and anger. There is no point, plot or pleasing element to Extraterrestrial. It just wants to stage standard horror with aliens and doesn’t want to write anything interesting around that premise. Director Colin Minihan and writers The Vicious Brothers don’t want to give you anything to think about in an alien horror picture. They believe all the viewer needs to be satisfied with such an experience is a death by anal probe.

Extraterrestrial offers nothing more than typical aliens and mild terror, refusing to let either mix properly. Whatever intricate tale The Vicious Brothers were trying to weave with this film is drowned by too many tropes and nonsense kills that mean nothing. If Cabin in the Woods finally put down the college student slasher genre, Extraterrestrial just gives up and commits suicide the way it just throws random violence and spectacle at the screen. Maybe some aliens can abduct this film and use their superior minds to decipher just what director Colin Minihan was thinking when he made this mess.

“Selma” (2014) Review

How does one make a film about the crucial aspects of Martin Luther King? Do you focus more on his personal life to make him more human or do you shoot for more of his public actions for the civil rights movement? For director Ava DuVernay, it was both and neither. She doesn’t just want to singularly show King as the complete human being and hero he was, but also how he affected all those around him. From the infuriated opposition to the unlucky martyrs that followed him, DuVernay provides many angles and perspectives for one of the most important events of American history.

David Oyelowo is thankfully the centerpiece performance as Martin Luther King. He plays the iconic historical figure with the right amount of courage and doubt. When speaking before fellow African-Americans on the street and in the church, he’s an inspiring voice of civil rights. When speaking among close friends and family, he’s a simple man that has the same amount of fear as those who follow him in the marches. Oyelowo encapsulates every aspect we want to see of King in a picture such as this – not just focusing on his historic speeches and movements, but his personal struggles. Based on various accounts of his actions, we get to see how he copes at home with his family and dealing with phone assaults to the foundation of his marriage.

But Selma, as the title implies, is not just about MLK. Ava DuVernay’s best films prior were those that dealt with women trying to deal with men. From that aspect, I expected her to deliver on MLK’s wife Coretta and she does not disappoint. Carmen Ejogo gives just as strong of a performance, capitalizing on Coretta’s fears and frustrations with having such a figure as a husband. She visits him in jail and puts up a stoic front as she can for seeing him in such a place. She confronts her husband when accusations of cheating have been suggested to her and approaches the subject with cautious reasoning.

And then we branch out into other characters around MLK. Oprah Winfrey plays a determined female voter who follows King despite being subjected to the violence that came with non-violent protests. Andre Holland plays a motivated Andrew Young who encourages King to continue with a march he has doubts about. Tim Roth fills out the role of the bitter Alabama Governor George Wallace who makes his racist nature public by recommending the use of force to put a stop to these marches.

As with any historical drama, there are some artistic liberties that for many is going to make or break the film. The most prominent being the handling of President Lyndon Johnson as a more apathetic figure in the civil rights movement. Most historians, including those who worked with LBJ, can attest that he was more of a fighter for the cause than a man who had no dog in this fight. At one point LBJ calls on both King and Wallace to knock it off as if he were trying to be more of an outside moderator. DuVernay altered this presumably for a better story in which MLK really did feel like he had nobody to turn to in his hours of truth. It may have also been done to give LBJ more to do given that his performances by Tom Wilkinson is not too shabby and nowhere near the level of a cartoonishly ignorant white leader. Even when trying to distance himself from the issue, he really does appear to be on the level in the way he chews out Wallace during their meetings.

Ultimately, though, Selma succeeds at capturing the importance of rising against racism the peaceful way for what is right. It aims to portray MLK as more of a human than a figure, bringing the man and his mission to the forefront for modern audiences. If nothing else, it’s worth the price of admission just to see David Oyelowo revive MLK’s presence and voice for the words that should remain immortal.

The film, for all its liberties with history, presents a unique and important aspect of Martin Luther King more human than icon. It’s a brilliant film for the classroom to wake up students from the overused archive footage. MLK’s speech footage is still the important piece of film ever captured, but a dramatized film helps breed more empathy for a man’s dream of equality. Worth every penny for the strong performances of a biopic that succeeds strongly at capturing a powerful figure and his effect on the country.

“Taken 3” Review

The third entry in the Taken franchise is running on fumes. You can hear it in Liam Neeson’s voice the way he abridges his iconic line to “I will find you and when I do…you know the rest.” And by this point we do know the rest. Neeson runs around a city taking down bad guys with his bare fists and plenty of guns. But this time is different as nobody is initially taken from Neeson except his innocence. Now he must contend with mobsters and the FBI as he struggles to clear his name. In other words, the filmmakers just rehashed The Fugitive.

Liam Neeson reprises his role once again as retired Special Ops agent Brian Mills, too old for the service yet not too old to go on the hunt. When he meets his ex-wife in a discussion that sounds in his favor, she turns up dead with Brian accused of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now Mills is on the lam searching for the gangsters who wronged him while avoiding an FBI task force led by Forest Whitaker. I swear it seems as though Whitaker is reprising his role from 2013’s The Last Stand as he spends the majority of the movie duking it out with Neeson over the phone. The two characters never meet in their little game of cat and mouse as Neeson intimidates while Whitaker struggles to order his task force.

Whereas the previous movies took place in colorful cities of France and Turkey, Taken 3 finds itself entirely based in California. I’m not saying California is a drabber location in comparison, but it certainly seems to be shot that way. Since there are not as many alleys or roofs to scamper around, most of the action takes place is generic buildings/penthouses. Car chases through freeways and desert roads fill in the rest.

In an attempt to maintain the macho nature of Neeson’s gritty character, the movie struggles with trying to find new stunts and action scenes for the actor to flex his Charles Bronson-esque skills. This leads to some of the most laughably bad sequences for an action movie desperately trying to induce some thrill. These terrible moments mostly involve the car chases. Neeson narrowly escapes out of his car after it topples over a hillside and explodes. He swiftly avoids a truck’s cargo load that despite the size and weight is able to bounce off the freeway. And, in the most jaw-dropping was ridiculous stunts, Neeson takes out the landing gear of a plane by smashing through it with a car. Of course, the car is free of damage and Neeson doesn’t have a scratch on him. One would think that Taken 3 was in direct competition with the Fast and the Furious franchise.

When the movie isn’t trying to perform impossible stunts with cars, Neeson is performing his stock sequences of fighting, but not with less grit. There’s no memorable moment as when in the first Taken where he interrogates a goon with a car battery and cables. Both the filmmakers and Neeson are phoning it in with generic scenes of guns blazing and fists punching. It’s an old dog with no new tricks, supplanting editing and computer graphics for genuine grit and thrill.

The Taken series just needs to go to bed unless Neeson and writer Luc Besson really do want this franchise to become their Death Wish style paycheck until nothing is left. Liam Neeson initially said there wouldn’t be another Taken movie after completing the sequel. Whether he wanted to do this or not, he has certainly lost that action presence. He’s 62 years old and, as likable an actor as he is, just doesn’t seem to be all that into it. He really is getting too old for this crap and shouldn’t be wasting his time with such a lazy attempt to milk the last drops out of an action property.

“A Few Best Men” Review

A Few Best Men is an Australian bachelor party film that features a ram on the poster. Based on bachelor party movie logic, we can expect one of the following to happen to the ram:

-The ram will be kidnapped.
-The ram will be dressed up in makeup and sexy underwear.
-The ram will be given beer and weed.
-The ram will die and be revived back to life.

All four aspects are present in this film as it goes for broke with the animal comedy. Should we expect anything less from a bachelor party movie? Is it any surprise that drugs are involved in a wild night the groom and his men can’t remember? Are we supposed to be comedically creeped out by the expected off-beat drug dealer involved? And how much are we supposed to laugh at characters that exist more as joke robots than real characters?

One could blame The Hangover for this strange resurgence in the bachelor party film, but let’s not throw that film quite so far under the bus. There was at least some legitimate character and an intriguing mystery behind The Hangover’s cavalcade of gross-out humor and vulgar gags. That is what made the film so likable and it floors me that most filmmakers seem to entirely miss this point. With A Few Best Men, we’re not given real characters so much as we are given cartoon characters fashioned from the Hangover template.

We have our frustrated, straight-man groom freaking about his friends coming to Australia for his wedding. We have our pensive, awkward tagalong who ends up with all the bad luck right from the start when he makes a poor choice in mustache styles. We have our wild card who dabbles in drugs and danger with his funny lines. And there’s a fourth one who isn’t as memorable, merely existing as the fourth member so we can completely rip off the Wolf Pack from The Hangover.

You’d think having the wedding out in the rural countryside, away from the swaying vices of the big city, would be a safer location to have a bachelor party. But the foursome manage to find a way to have their bachelor party turn into a morning after disaster. They steal drugs from the local pusher of the area who has an unhealthy obsession with the pensive member of the group. They get the prized sheep of the father-in-law stoned and dressed in sexy apparel. And what bachelor party would be complete without the cliches of a gimp mask and a bare bottom with a foreign object lodged between the crack?

From there the story is just a predictable cavalcade of simple jokes for some witless blokes trying to repair the damage of their antics on a wedding day. Given that most of the film takes place on the day of the ceremony, you can expect lots of misunderstandings and slapstick where everything goes wrong with colliding forces. You can almost hear the collective sigh when a car forced into neutral makes its way toward a giant, spherical decoration which will inevitably roll down the aisle like a bowling ball. That’s a joke better suited for a Beethoven movie than some crazy bachelor party flick. The cast is decent, but they’re only doing the best job they can with a script that feels like half-thought jokes from one episode of a sitcom. Even the addition of Rebel Wilson to the cast can’t save the comedy this film is so desperate to reap. I can’t blame the film for relying on abusing the sheep at this point since a sheep in sexy clothing is at least mildly amusing. At least the film will gain some attention from PETA if nobody else.

A Few Best Men is too drunk on its own unoriginal ideas of bachelor party humor and needs to go home. It’s a bitter reminder of how much more stock needs to be taken in these productions. This is a comedy destined to fall by the wayside as the cheap, Australian version of The Hangover. I wish it could lift itself from that simple description, but it just doesn’t make much of an attempt to elevate itself out of that repetitive pit of the tired and dull.

“God’s Not Dead” Review

2014 brought with it many different types of religious films from major epics (Exodus, Noah) to soapy melodramas (Heaven is for Real, Left Behind). Most of these were forgettable, but God’s Not Dead was such a poisonous piece of propaganda for the fundamentalist Christian movement. This is a film built specifically to tell that group of people exactly the kind of reassurance they want to hear. It doesn’t matter if it’s not based in truth, logic, individual spirituality or honest characters. All that matters is that the Christians are seen as righteous victims and that everyone who isn’t a follower are slithering bullies of belief.

My first preconceptions with God’s Not Dead was that there would be a film which openly talks about religion in an educational avenue. This could be really interesting and wind up being the type of film that gets people interested and talking about the topic. Perhaps I was far too hopeful as the film dips so far down into the fallacious Christian reasoning that the debate turns into classroom melodrama fit for a Hallmark production.

Kevin Sorbo plays Radisson, an atheist philosophy professor that is so over-the-top cynical he requires his class write down ‘god is dead’ on a piece of paper to acknowledge this and move on with the course. One student, Josh, writes the exact opposite and chooses to turn the classroom into a courtroom as he defends his position that god does exist. I question why he wouldn’t just go to the Dean and report the teacher for forcing his beliefs upon the class. I know the student doesn’t do this because then there would be no debate about religion, but, honestly, a movie more about the bias of college teachers and the aftermath of being reported would be far more intriguing.

Okay, so it’s a battle of atheist beliefs versus Christian beliefs. This could still be an enthralling duel similar to how Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson squared off against each other with surprising intellect. But, since this is a drama narrative, there has to be a personal aspect to this debate. And, once again, another Christian goes on the offensive that an atheist makes their belief structure based on hatred of fate rather than a documented and informed opinion.

In the closing moments of the debate, Josh yells at his teacher “Why do you hate god?” to which Radisson screams “Because he took my wife away!” Josh looks at him with a straight face and questions how Radisson can hate someone he claims does not exist. Mic drop. Not only does the movie have the audacity to have all the students rise up in a triumphant chant forcing the teacher to retreat in defeat, but the script then kills off Radisson. After being struck in a car crash, he accepts God before dying. What a childish and gross method to illustrate a debate.

If the movie were simply working on a character level focusing on the teacher’s emotional drive, it could’ve been a passable drama from that angle. But this is a film that wants to stage the debate and fix it so the Christian believers come out on top. Well, what about the opposition that isn’t just a closeted Christian turned Atheist by unfortunate events? Or do the filmmakers honestly believe that the teacher’s stance defines every Atheist approach to the subject? This debate was a lot like watching a meek boxer square-off against a chicken with a Mike Tyson name tag. The boxer will win and claim he defeated Mike Tyson even though all he did was tenderize poultry.

For those who feel I’m banging too much on this film for personal preference in faith, turn the tables for a moment and pretend there was an atheist spin on the script. A student is forced to prove to a teacher that god is dead. The teacher screams that he hates evolution and the student questions how he can hate something he claims does not exist. The teacher later dies and comes to realize there is no god before passing away. Sounds pretty stupid, doesn’t it?

And even looking at this film from a Christian perspective, I would think think that they would be offended by something so soft. Don’t you think a true Christian who has unshaken faith and dedication to their religion would be able to stand up to a harder target than Radisson? Where is the challenge? Why create yet another strawman argument? Why not make all these characters more fully realized so that they’re more than just the cookie cutter templates of every cheap production of this nature?

But the film is not just about the debate. Similar to Crash or Babel, we follow the stories of other students in how they come to terms with their own faith. Once again, another great idea hampered by the dim outlook of Christianity. A female Muslim displays a curiosity in the Bible the winds up with her father screaming her out of the house. A left-wing blogger who pokes fun at Duck Dynasty gets his just desserts when afflicted with cancer. And just to pound one last crucifying cross into your skull about the true message of the movie, a member of Duck Dynasty makes a cameo to call upon the college campus to use social media and shout out that God is not dead.

If God isn’t dead, he certainly received a headache from this shameless strawman of a picture carried out in his name. What could have just been forgettable Christian fluff goes on the offensive for what it believes to be an attack on religion. It’s still laughably bad for how dramatic the filmmakers believe they’re being for challenging the system with ludicrous villains, but a little less so when you realize there’s a large collective taking this tripe seriously. And that’s when the ironic laughs start turning into awkward ones.

“Inherent Vice” Review

Inherent Vice is more of a ride than a story. It stages far too many characters, plot lines and events into a messy stew and dares you to keep up. The film proceeds at a stoner’s pace fitting the hippie protagonist’s mindset in 1970’s Los Angeles. The story continues to build and build, layer upon layer like a topping tower of excess. What exactly is it about? It starts off with a detective trying to stop a wife and lover from conning her husband out of her money by sending him to the nut house. Then it twists into a conspiracy involving neo-nazis. Then a drug boat is thrown into the mix. Then a crazy cult centered around an actor becomes yet another ingredient. And on it grows like an out of control kudzu in all directions.

It’s a film that’s easier to talk about for its characters than its story. Seen as more of an anthology of dialogue-driven scenes, each conversation presents some quality actors given plenty of material to play with. Joaquin Phoenix is in top form as the tripped-out private investigator Doc, stumbling around Los Angeles in his mutton chops and dirty feet. He relies on info and strange companionship from Josh Brolin as Bigfoot, a detective/Adam-12 starring character with a weird obsession for chocolate bananas and Japanese-made pancakes. Martin Short is a riot as a perverted dentist/drug dealer. And Owen Wilson plays an undercover agent with who seems just as lost and confused as Doc in this mess of a story.

But just what is this film about? Perhaps its stoner atmosphere of a stoner P.I. is a script best diagnosed by those of similar mindsets. The dialogue is kept lucidly vague and overly decadent to the point where it almost requires a hippie dictionary to translate. It’s also rattled off at a pace fast enough to just barely keep up with the ever-changing story. It felt like a slightly more grounded version of Roger Corman’s The Trip in which Peter Fonda goes on a crazy drug-induced journey through the city. But while Fonda’s trip was more random and weird for the sake of weird, there’s a strange method to the madness of Phoenix’s tracking of leads. I’m still not too sure what it was, but the original author Thomas Pynchon certainly dares us to find out what it is through some unique characters.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson does little to glue together this disassembled jigsaw puzzle of a 1970’s caper/romance/drama/whatever Pynchon intended. He merely paints the pieces with an old-fashioned 35mm finish and a stylish palette of the 70’s era. Much like films in the same presentation as The Big Lebowski, Inherent Vice is beautiful to look at, hilarious to follow, strange to witness and maddening to comprehend. At some point in the film, you’ll just give up trying to follow the multiple plot lines and just bask in the charisma of its characters. It certainly makes the film more enjoyable, but at 148 minutes, you’ll start to miss your brain being on to engage in a story.

Inherent Vice is just a wicked mess of psychedelic ramblings strange enough to make Hunter S. Thompson’s work seem mainstream. It takes perhaps too long of a drag the way it keeps the freeform plot fluctuating for a staggering 148 minutes, but there’s enough balances of weird dialogue scenes that it’s never entirely boring. This is certainly not going to be everybody’s cup of tea considering Paul Thomas Anderson might’ve slipped too much trippy into this story/ride. But I was more than content for it being so loose with its story and fresh with its characters. If you can find humor in Martin Short freaking out in a car with drugs or Josh Brolin screaming in Japanese for pancakes, you’re on safe ground with this movie.

“Top Five” Review

Top Five is the third film Chris Rock has written, directed and starred in. Now at age 40, Rock has crafted a comedy that is a rather personal story. It’s not quite his autobiography picture, but it rings with so many awkward truths and concerns for a comedian who pines for the better days. His character of Andre Allen is a comedian who no longer feels funny as he directly tells some hecklers on the street. And yet everyone seems to want him to be funny as they call him out for his highest-grossing film character which he woefully regrets playing.

There’s a definite comparison between Rock’s role as the zebra Marty in the Madagascar pictures and his Top Five persona’s notable performance as Hammy the cop bear. He probably feels the same aggravation with bystanders shouting “Afro Circus!” as they spout his Hammy catchphrase “It’s Hammy time!” in this movie. The biggest difference being that his Madagascar character doesn’t have a beer named after him (I hope). He desperately tries to distance himself with more serious roles as he plays the lead in a Django Unchained revision of history. But all any of the radio interviewers seem to want to talk about is when there will be a Hammy the Bear 4. He cares so little for these interviews he actually plays video games while delivering one over the phone.

But then New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) manages to be the most honest person he’s met. After some squabbling about their interview, they soon hit it off big with true stories of their similar paths. Both of them have been alcoholics and have some stories to tell about their experiences. The sex they’ve had has been strange and awkward which they don’t feel as embarrassed sharing with one another. These two are destined for one another, but still have a few more disclosures to get out of their system before they can make that leap. Namely, Andre has to find a way to deal with his staged marriage to a power-hungry celebrity.

Though very meta in how the story mirrors Rock’s feelings about stardom, the movie is still very funny in its own right for hitting several notes. When Andre hangs around a crowded room of his family, they crack all sorts of rips on each other about their shortcomings that they all seem to take in stride. When Andre talks with Chelsea about his past, he leaves in every nasty detail about his most awkward parties. There’s even some dropping of the curtain as when Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Whoopi Goldberg appear as themselves to give Andre some marriage advice. The best they can muster is don’t get caught cheating and have the wife sign a prenup.

Speaking of such stars, there are plenty of surprise cameos that include Kevin Hart, JB Smoove and Tracy Morgan amid many more. All of them get their moments to shine without feeling too out-of-place for the story. Though I have to admit one of the most hilarious moments was watching DMX try to sing outside his comfort zone in a horribly off-key manner. But the pleasing cap to the film is seeing Chris Rock finally get back on a stage and perform some stand-up comedy. He certainly hasn’t lost his touch as a thought-provoking and edgy comedian who pushes buttons and makes you laugh. If there were any doubt that Chris Rock is losing his true sense of humor that made him an icon of Saturday Night Life and the stand-up circuit, Top Five is proof that he is still alive and well.

Top Five is some of Chris Rock’s best work in a long time, due in part to writing what he knows best: himself. It harkens back to a sense of classic Chris with the type of comedy he should be doing more of. If you miss that version that was buried after years of Madagascar sequels and Adam Sandler romps, this is the movie to renew your faith in the comedian.