“Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F” Review

While the previous Dragon Ball Z movie managed to win me over by taking a new spin on the fantastical fighting formula, Resurrection F finds the franchise going back to its old bad habits. The villain this time around is the purple-domed alien Frieza, the most powerful warlord of the series that just can’t seem to stay dead. He is once again revived by his crazy zealots and once again seeks out Goku so he can once again get his revenge. This is a character that was once fearsome for controlling the galaxy’s greatest army and more than able to handle any warrior that could be thrown at him. But with this movie marking the second time he’s come back from the dead, he has lost that edge as a worthy antagonist. Even our heroes seem to be underwhelmed by his presence since they already know the outcome.
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“San Andreas” Review

What exactly is the highest peak for disaster pictures? For what essentially amounts to a visual effects showpiece of massive destruction, it’s a genre that tends to be heavy on display and light on just about everything else. Characters and arcs? Mere dressing for a tidal wave to wipe out a city or a volcano to engulf a town. Most audiences going into these pictures are not expecting to care about whether the characters grow or develop from such a situation. They mostly just want to see them tossed into a blender of carnage and really just watch for the spectacle of who will survive. Film critic Gene Siskel, when talking about the movie Twister, stated that you know you’ll get great special effects with the right team behind such a picture. So why not actually conceive a story just as engaging as the effects? Can such a film exist?

At this point, the answer is probably no. Popcorn-chomping audiences favor the bigger disasters over the bigger scripts. It is why the disaster genre of movies is now more of a ride. You strap in for the experience and hope it doesn’t bore or make you sick. With San Andreas, I got what I paid for and was more impressed with what it did not do. There were no cartoonish characters played up for laughs amid all the violence. There were no lame jokes at the cost of toppling buildings or a shuttering Earth. There were no overly ridiculous methods to save the day. It plays to many of the common clichés, as expected, but only to the sufficient degree required – catching itself just before it tumbles over the cliff of lunacy.

Our muscle-bound protagonist running around a crumbling California is a rescue worker played by Dwayne Johnson. He’s a decent man willing to risk his life and, of course, has to save his ex-wife and daughter from the apocalyptic destruction. These characters are all familiar including the hysterical scientist played by Paul Giamatti, but never for the level of camp in that of a Roland Emmerich production. They all just fit neatly into their place for this template – especially the way Dwayne Johnson gets plenty of chances to punch looters and carry the injured to safety. No ridiculous banter or Michael Bay style plays for jokes in the setup. The actors all just seem to be along for the ride – desiring only to enjoy it just enough without appearing as fools.

But all this writing is taking away from the true stars of this picture: the disasters. The Hoover dam bursts in an amazing display of violently gushing waters. Buildings caught in the quake wiggle from side to side as they come apart with people falling out of the holes in the structures. A giant tidal wave threatens the area and the only way to avoid it is ride to the top of the wave (of course). All these special effects do a great job acting at the screen – convincingly playing the role of a decimated Los Angeles. Maybe I’m reviewing this picture the wrong way in that I favor visuals or people when it comes to this genre, but what else is there to root for in a movie such as this? As far as these type of pictures go, San Andreas is about as good as it gets. The best way to conceive a big-budget disaster picture at this point is to fill the screen with lots of detail and make the humans small enough so that they don’t intrude or annoy the spectacle. It’s a passive plot up to the big salute of the national guard that was more pleasing than forced. The disasters occur, the speakers shake and the movie ends. Please watch your step after exiting your seat.

“Tremors 5: Bloodlines” Review

Did they really make a fifth Tremors movie? Yes. Did there need to be a fifth Tremors movie? No. Is it even any good? Surprisingly, yes. For being a direct-to-video feature and the latest entry in a dead franchise, Tremors 5 manages to be a rather pleasing bit of campy monster-hunting action. Am I lowering my expectations having spent so much time in the direct-to-video soup? Perhaps, but this is still one of the more enjoyable bowls of both the genre and the series. And sometimes you just want to enjoy a crazy movie about exploding bugs.

The series staple Michael Gloss returns for the role as the mustached gunmen Burt Gummer. Now a seasoned veteran at dealing with the wormy Graboids, Burt now has his own survival television program where he showcases his monster-hunting skills. Such promotion brings with it pushy young brand manager Travis Welker (Jamie Kennedy). Taking the show abroad, Burt accepts an invitation to hunt Graboids in South Africa. But the plot grows thicker as more Graboids are discovered and a greedy black market dealer desires to have these monsters captured alive.

Naturally, Tremors 5 never takes itself seriously. It’d be hard to do so when the type of Graboid our heroes are hunting is designated as an Ass Blaster class, based on the fire it spews from its rectum to launch through the air. True to the campy spirit of Tremors, the script by the original writers maintains a certain level of fun throughout. Burt showcases his usual gung ho attitude with plenty of guns in tow. He’s such an amusing character that the movie actually has enough faith to lock him in a cage and work with very little. The addition of Jamie Kennedy to the cast is solid given that he perfectly inhabits the role of an eager young assistant. He never plays the role up too heavily by acting as a suitable counter to the crusty old Michael Gloss.

The monster hunting is heavy on the computer graphics, but the picture makes due with the best with what it has to offer. The Graboids don’t appear very cheap for such a production and actually look pretty decent in most scenes. There are some sequences that are awkwardly staged as when one unlucky soul is gobbled up by a Graboid launching out of the sand and swallowing before burrowing back. But there are also scenes that easily avoid being laughable as when an Ass Blaster flies off into the night with human prey in its claws.

Plenty of firepower is brought to the party as Burt goes hunting in South Africa. You’ll rarely find a scene where Burt isn’t armed with a trusty hunting rifle. He may not do as much shooting as I’d like, mostly just taking aim for a Graboid kills, but the picture tries to make up for it in the second act with a helicopter armed with missiles that decimates a Graboid nest. The movie at least delivers on the blood and explosions as the grand finale involves a giant burst of bug guts over an entire African town.

Despite some slow spots, Tremors 5 delivers on a genuine sense of fun for another monster romp down the direct-to-video series. There’s a surprising amount of charm in how it delivers on some capable humor for what could have been a tired change of location and smattering of computer graphics. It would be nice to see Kevin Bacon return to the series after all these years, but Michael Gloss seems to do a good job at keeping a certain level of enthusiasm after all these years. After five Tremors movies, he still has all the intensity with his cackling at victories and teeth gnashing at those who hinder his hunt. He owns this series and he knows it, despite the attempt in this movie to spur a passing of the torch. I also really dug the concept for his reality show that would fit in snugly on National Geographic or the Discovery Channel. If the series has a future, I would be more than okay with a Tremors TV series of Burt hunting Graboids around the globe. Could you imagine him running through the streets of Tokyo with a hunting rifle as monsters emerge into crowded intersections?

“Furious 7” Review

The Fast and the Furious franchise of movies are long past the era of street racing. It’s even past being called Fast and Furious. Nobody has time for that title – it’s too slow! Now boiled down to the title of Furious 7, the series has reached a level of insane action and likable charm that never fails to crack a smile or widen the eyes. We are long past pointing out that these are street racers performing feats more on par with James Bond than Bullit. The previous movie featured a tank being stopped with wires, a mid-air rescue by slamming into a car and a giant cargo plane crashing into the ground. How could the new director James Wan possibly outdo that craziness limit set by Justin Lin? Believe it or not, Wan – the man behind Saw and Insidious – found a way to keep the ridiculous thrills steady and charming.

It’s a combination of both a likable cast and insanely fun stunts that continues to make these movies so much fun. There’s just enough story and character given to the misfit group of international street racers turned special agents. For all the grit and muscle, there’s a heart to Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) in how he fears for the lives of crew. When a rogue special agent (Jason Statham) starts targeting the racers on a mission of revenge, Toretto takes the matter very seriously keeping families out of it. He’s aware of his best pal Brian (the late Paul Walker) trying to settle down with his wife and son. So before Toretto and company go blazing towards the opposition on all cylinders, they make sure everyone is safe and that those who want in on the mission realize what they’re getting into.

There’s enough for everybody to do and not a single actor in this rather large ensemble feels wasted. Even Dwayne Johnson, reduced to a hospital bed for the majority of the picture, still manages to munch on the scenery. He only appears in three scenes and still manages to steal the movie. For a good chunk of the movie, the crew gets their orders from a special agent played by Kurt Russel who gets an equally big opportunity to strut his Russel-isms. He all but winks at the camera in the way he has more fun in this movie than anyone. All the familiars fit perfectly as well with just enough moments to shine from Tyrese Gibson to Michelle Rodriguez. Even the late Paul Walker, who I expected to be downplayed or written off for his death during production, still plays a key role and is given an affectionate sendoff.

Ultimately, though, it’s the insane car stunts that keep the blood flowing in this series. And at this point the name of the game seems to be finding new ways to keep the cars off the ground as much as possible. The grandest of stunts involves our heroes being dropped from a cargo plane in parachuting cars. But if watching all the cars land safely from such a plunge isn’t crazy enough, there’s a ridiculously absurd scene where Diesel and Walker drive a car through the windows of not one, but two skyscrapers in Dubai. And just in case logic wasn’t completely thrown out the window, Diesel and Statham both smash their cars head-on into each other and walk away unscathed. All these sequences are so over-the-top where it appears as though the finale is just a blur of cars, guns, explosions, debris and fire. I swear there’s a moment in this movie where you could easily confuse it with G.I. Joe: Retaliation.

While Furious 7 is loud and dumb, it’s a playful picture that’s aware of its silly nature and lets us in on the fun once more. It’s impossible not to stare in awe at the over-the-top stunts or crack a smile at the solid cast with real chemistry. The death of Paul Walker does little to dampen the tone of the picture – especially when you consider the comradery of all the characters and tribute ending attached. His death also does little to discourage the series in how it seems to boast that there is plenty of gas left in the tank for another round. By the end of the picture, I felt both thoroughly entertained with popcorn-chomping stunts and touched by the final performance of a beloved cast member. And if a picture that features cars flying out of planes can make me feel something I wouldn’t expect that’s the sign of a strong movie considering it’s already getting by on just being crazy, stupid fun.

 

 

“Spy” (2015) Review

Despite having the most unoriginal title for a spy satire, Paul Feig’s latest action/comedy finds plenty of original humor per his fearless style of comedy. He once again uses Melissa McCarthy in a role that emphasizes her glee over girth, but doesn’t play dumb about her capabilities. You won’t see McCarthy doing daring jumps off high peaks to avoid an explosion, but you will see her get involved with smarts and instinct that are believable. But, most importantly, Spy is hilarious while still paying its respects to the genre.

It’s refreshing to finally see McCarthy back in a role that challenges her more as opposed to her just phoning it in as the bloated dunce of pictures such as Identity Theft and Tammy. She starts off as the most interesting character of the plot – a desk jockey for secret agents in the field. As Jude Law dashes around lavish locations – shooting bad guys in a tuxedo – McCarthy directs his every move from the proximity of the enemy to the ETA of backup. She’s tactful with her response, but giddy about her crush on the man she watches over.

Eventually McCarthy will have to end up in the field, but the script swiftly skips the training montage. It turns out she’s already been trained well enough and is ready to do her job. Initially assigned with working recon, she’s given secret identities the likes of cat ladies and frumpy saleswomen. Her secret weapons come in the disguise of baby wipes and a Beaches watch. As you might expect, she’s not very favored by her organization. Even Jude Law fails to read the signs of her flirting. Rather than being a series of mean-spirited jabs that could engulf the picture, McCarthy simply laughs along knowing she’ll eventually get her moment to rise above that mountain.

While we watch her climb, she’s a general riot in more ways than one. I especially dug her fight scenes the way she frantically tries to wrestle away knives and guns with a comedic grip, but capable strategy. It’s so strange to see a woman outside of ideal appearance for an action star able to hold her own in the spy game. And, unlike some ludicrous idealism that could easily make such a picture go off the rails, her determination and victories are believable. Well, for about as much reality can be solidified in a picture with guns and nukes.

But McCarthy isn’t alone as she has plenty of strong actors to play from. Miranda Hart is perfectly cast as the overly eccentric co-worker who tags along as much she can as McCarthy’s fast-talking sidekick. Rose Byrne makes for a great ambiguous villain that scowls with her royalty status among terrorists. My favorite supporting character is undoubtably Jason Statham who appears to be reprising his role from the Crank movies the way he rattles off his insane moments of action in the spy field.

While Feig does a fantastic job playing up the characters and comedy, he still brings some class to satirizing the spy genre. The soundtrack sets the perfect tone, the locations are lavishly decadent and the action is very intense. Even the opening and closing credits embody the true spirit of a spy picture with respect and cleverness. It should also be worth noting how bitingly violent the picture is featuring everything from impaled hitmen to melting throats. It could be written off as just a shock element, but there’s something just so funny about a secret agent who accidentally shoots the bad guy in the face when he sneezes.

The movie does have its small lulls as when the plot goes a bit heavy on the reveals and the camera remains on just a tad too long for improvisation. Those minor qualms aside, Spy is a well-oiled machine that delivers on Feig’s brilliant level of clever comedy and his surprising direction of action. Similar to Feig’s The Heat, McCarthy once again acts as the glue with her amazing wit and exceptional comic timing. And while it certainly has a progressive edge with its largely female cast in an R-rated action picture, it’s still a hilarious picture first. Take note of how McCarthy’s appearance acts as a part of the joke, but not THE joke. You’ll see her struggle with her self-esteem in passive-aggressive nuggets, but you won’t see her fall on her butt or break a seat with her weight. Such gags are too easy, too tired and out-of-place for a picture that succeeds as the most pleasing spy comedy since Top Secret.

“Skin Trade” Review

Skin Trade is rather unique in how it attempts to weave a real message about human trafficking into its low-rent action. It may not sound like much the way it picks an easy subject for Dolph Lundgren to become a one-man-army that blows up the bad guys, but it at least brings some attention and a little heart to a very passive action movie. And a certain respectability towards its real subject of painful loss helps make the bland dialogue and poorly edited action mean just a bit more. Sure, I may be grasping at straws here, but can you blame me? Several of these small action pictures destined for the bargain bin tend be so devoid of any type of story or meaning that it’s easy to stomp them to the bottom of the pile. Skin Trade will at least garner some real thoughts before it evaporates from your mind.

Let’s start with the clichés. Dolph Lundgren – looking as big and aged as ever – plays a cop trying to foil a human trafficking operation by Ron Perlman trying to pull off a Russian accent. When Dolph gets too deep, the goons kill his wife and kidnap his daughter in a brutal display of explosions and guns. Tired of playing by the law, Dolph goes rogue to find his daughter and take down the traffickers with his big and bloody vengeance. His travels eventually lead to Thailand (where else for a low-rent action movie?) where he finds himself teaming up with Tony Jaa as another gritty cop willing to go off the books. Jaa dangles a gangster off a balcony to give him information or else he’ll drop him to his death. After the key info is divulged, Jaa drops him anyway and remarks that “negotiations are over.” There are several ridiculous moments such as this that further magnify the shameless 80’s action vibe.

But this leaves the movie with a rather conflicting tone. I wanted to grin at the ridiculousness of its assembly, but was taken aback by the serious perspective on human trafficking. These two sides sometimes clash in scenes that are rather confusing. There’s a moment where a slave girl is forced to have sex with three men on camera by her overlord. Dressed in a schoolgirl outfit, she sits on the bed as the men and grope her body. While this continues, the soundtrack continues to play a seemingly erotic techno track which makes this forced sexual experience feel more like an actual pornography feature. It isn’t until Tony Jaa acting as her boyfriend busts into the room and sprang the trap of guns blazing that the track actually fits the scenario without seeming strange.

So the movie itself can be divided into two varying tones: campy action clichés and serious commentary on the dark world of forced prostitution. The human trafficking subject is treated with a dark and serious degree. The rape and trade scenes are not overdone and there’s a genuine sense of a plight to a very real problem. Most importantly, there’s a sense of loss in the picture that narrowly avoids a revenge movie cliché and turns it into something more powerful.

In terms of action, everything is stylized in a familiar way that is sometimes decent and sometimes laughable. There’s a gun battle a ship yard which at several points twist around into martial arts. It’s weird, but still entertaining to watch. There’s a chase between Dolph Lundgren and Tony Jaa through the Thailand streets with Lundgren on a motorcycle and Jaa on the rooftops. As Jaa pursues, he starts doing a sort of cartwheel over every second hurdle. I never thought a low-rent action picture would make me think about Gymkata again.

The good news is that most of the silliness is somewhat forgivable for a picture with an energy and a soul. For what little character is established, Skin Trade moves at a brisk pace and ends with a title card that fulfills more than the basic public service announcement requirements. When the movie finishes, you’ll have gained a little thrill and a little perspective. You’ll probably forget it days later as there isn’t a memorable shot or scene in all of this, but you probably won’t feel as bad for having watched a better-than-expected action movie stocked with the familiar tropes.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” Review

As the grand finale to Marvel’s second phase of their cinematic universe, the Avengers sequel aims to cram as much content as it can to deliver the biggest of bangs. But even at two and a half hours, it’s a picture that feels very cramped for all that it wedges into the script. There’s too many heroes, villains and murderous robots on screen that it becomes a rather complicated juggling act for writer/director Joss Whedon. The good news is that Whedon not only manages to maintain a certain level of balance, but also delivers more character development than I would expect for a superhero ensemble picture.

The Avengers have assembled once more with every returning character accounted for. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) continues to helm the tech of Iron Man, now more fearful of alien invasions from his previous Avengers mission. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as Captain America maintains his noble spirit after dealing with the corruption of SHIELD. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is just sort of there as the dimensional-traveling warrior, wielding his magic hammer and blithering on about prophecies in his poetic talk. They all carry a little something with them from their previous movies, but it’s the characters without their continuing series that take a bigger chunk of the screen time (and for good reason). Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has developed a relationship with Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), but they’re both frightened of each other and worry about their relationship. But it’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) who steals the movie this time as the slick-talking archer who gets the best lines and most unique life outside saving the world.

On their latest adventure, the group finds themselves combating the evil robot Ultron (voiced by James Spader) that wants to destroy humanity after Stark programmed him to protect it. Though relegated to just a voice, the motion capture performance of Ultron showcases him as more expressive than your usual movie robot bent on destroying planet Earth. This brings about a surprising amount of personality and charisma to a walking, talking machine that wants to kill us all. His philosophy is rather base given how often he talks about it and his method for wiping out the human race is pretty standard. All that intelligence and character ultimately leads to his master plan of chucking a rock at the Earth. Additionally, he build an army of robots to defend his project and give all our heroes something to hit.

In between this simple plot of murderous robots, several new characters and plot lines are introduced. We’re introduced to the Maximoff twins as escaped experiments of HYDRA – known from the comics as Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) – acting as ambiguous superheroes choosing sides. Though they were technically mutants (children of Magneto), there’s not mutants to turn to in this universe so they find themselves very cautious of who to trust. There’s the introduction of Vision (Paul Bettany), Stark’s computer program turned 90’s-looking superhero with the classic cape and painted face. There’s a hefty supply of Easter eggs wedged inside the script in the form of future villains (Andy Serkis as The Claw) and artifacts still on the self (the Infinity Gems to be used by Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet). And let’s not forget a seemingly endless stream of secondary characters the pop up from Nick Fury to War Machine to Falcon and so on. The only character who seems curiously absent is Loki. He wouldn’t add much of anything to the picture, but at least he would give Thor a little something more to do.

Even with a massive running time, the movie just doesn’t have a lot of time to explore all these areas in between the action. Whereas the first Avengers movie found enough in the script for every character to be involved, the expanded cast makes this picture far too crowded. There are a handful of scenes where Whedon relies far too heavily on exposition dialogue to drive the plot rather than visuals. If the Maximoff twins have a tragic past, why not show those evnets? If the people of New York are angered by the actions of the Avengers, why not give us that scene rather than hear a verbal report?

Several characters are shoved into a corner for many scenes simply because we don’t have time for them. Thankfully, the characters we do focus on the most have engaging arcs and are a thrill to follow. The complicated romance of Black Widow/Hulk and the secret life of Hawkeye are far more interesting than Captain America’s distrust of national security or Iron Man’s concerns for intergalactic insecurity. The big names have had their movies and politely step aside for most of this picture.

As expected for a $200 million picture, the action sequences are loud, detailed and gorgeous. Shot around the world, Whedon picks some great locations for a battle with Hydra or an Iron Man versus Hulk duel. And while he does go for the big moments of destroying buildings and smashing cities, there’s still a sense of heroism and consequence. While Iron Man and the Hulk end up causing a massive amount of damage to an African city, the movie doesn’t shy away from the folly of their ways. There’s still a level of distrust the public has after the events in New York City from the previous big battle. But the Avengers aim to do better with more scenes of them saving those caught in the crossfire from a family in a crumbling villain to a woman’s car toppling off a cliff. It’s a pleasant reminder that these superheroes are more than just powerful warriors that smash bad guys and blow stuff up.

While Avengers: Age of Ultron is rather overstuffed, it still manages to be a solid followup. The character chemistry is all still present and the villains have some wit and grit. Despite the laundry list of developing content to keep these Marvel movies more as serials, it doesn’t take away from being able to enjoy the movie on its own. You don’t have to know all about Thanos, the Infinity Stones, the activities of SHILED or the secret operations of HYDRA to have a great time with the picture. It certainly adds to the enjoyment, but it’s not a requirement.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” Review

The only negative criticism I’ve heard for Mad Max: Fury Road was from one grumpy old man. After he left the screening, he remarked that the movie was nothing more than a long car chase with no story. So I guess if you don’t like car chases and differentiate them from the actual plot, Fury Road just isn’t for you. For everyone else, it’s a blast of post-apocalyptic action like no other.

Even though there hasn’t been a Mad Max sequel in 30 years, the world conceived by George Miller is easy to read and become engrossed within. Enough time has passed since the fall of civilizations that a strange culture of society has been built up within the wastelands. The empirical Immortan Joe – an aged beast decorated in revealing body armor and a fearsome breathing apparatus – rules over his land and people with bountiful resources. So organized he has become that there are now entire towns devoted to the development of gas and bullets. There is no lengthy introduction given to the full-scale of his operations or the white-skinned warriors that serve him. The movie simply drops us into this land of slaves, ridiculously cool cars and glory-obsessed madmen to let our eyes take in the specifics and not entirely our ears.

Our title protagonist (Tom Hardy) is played straight as the stranger who comes to town – acting as both a vessel for the story and the audience to Joe’s world. Though Max narrates the opening, he avoids divulging his past which is slowly pieced together throughout the picture. He may, in fact, have the least amount of dialogue – resigning himself to grunts and simple phrases. His actions speak far louder than any words in how he is able to dispatch foes with smarts and grit. So when he runs across the tough-as-nails Furiosa (Charlize Theron) – a female warrior of Joe turned freedom fighter for his slave wives – he doesn’t hesitate or undermine such a determined woman. We know they’ll work together, but only in the sense that any two strangers would trust one another in the wild west of cars and guns.  It isn’t enough that Furiosa agree to free Max from his chains and drive him to safety – Max still keeps a close eye on her and disarms every weapon she has in her rig. Which, given the abundance of firearms and Furiosa’s skills, is not just a paranoid trait.

It’s the little details that make Fury Road far more than just your usual post-apocalyptic picture. Immortan Joe assembles a collective of white-skinned soldiers known as the War Boys who live to die and worship at the alter of steering wheels. Through the conflicted and ill Nux (Nicholas Holt), we learn about the ins and outs of their culture from the pleasures of being witnessed by Joe to their kamikaze signature of dousing their lips in chrome spray paint. There’s a cleverness to all the craziness on the screen the way Max is used by the society as a blood donor. Can’t store blood in extreme heat? Just take the donor with you. Driving a car? Strap him to the hood. There’s also small elements of the world that are peered at for a moment, leaving the audience to ponder. Max and his crew cross a swampy marsh of men who walk on stilts and eat crows. It’s only seen for two shots, but they’re unforgettable ones that make you all the more intrigued and interested about this strange, strange world.

Perhaps it’s the abundance of classical music cues, but there’s a grace in assembly of the continuous chase as if it were a ballet. A bard accompanies the convoy on his moving stage built for him to play his flame-throwing guitar. Daring warriors bend and lunge toward vehicles with flexible poles that swing them back and forth. Characters crawl along, on top of and below vehicles all at the same time. It’s all just a brilliantly shot sequence of action that holds both a beauty in its choreography and an intensity in its grit. The film lover in me enjoys the tactful means of storytelling via amazing cinematography, while the campy action geek in me is gushing over monster trucks fused with muscle cars.

There’s a little something for everyone in Mad Max: Fury Road to make it one of the best action pictures of 2015. It managed to reduced the usually collected film critic Mark Kermode to describing the wonders of the picture by mimicking the sounds roaring engines. I can’t exactly blame him for being so thrilled with a movie so giddy with action, visual with its storytelling, intense with its violence and engaging with characters. It’s that rare breed of action picture that reduces the most jaded critics of the medium to pumping their fists as they nearly topple off the edge of their seats. The whole is just a joyous bit of film making or, as Kermode would put it, an extreme dose of the “vrrrrrrroooommmmmmmmm!”

“’71” Review

The streets of Belfast in 1971 erupted into violence with Protestants and Catholics at each other’s throats. The British army is called in to search homes for firearms. Their presence quickly garners the attention of an agitated populace. Fights break out, bricks are thrown and guns are fired. Before he can even comprehend what has happened, soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) finds himself outnumbered and abandoned by his unit. He darts through streets and pushes through houses as young punks with guns dash after him. We follow his every desperate move and breath that could be his last as he struggles to survive behind enemy lines with no weapons and nobody to trust.

As far as action movies go, ‘71 keeps the blood flowing quite vigorously. The camera is kept close and tight as Gary fleas for his life. Down the street, behind some cars, down an alley, through a house, around a corner and back up an alley the camera leads – never taking an eye off Gary’s fast feet or the gunmen behind him. Every scene builds on the intensity and corruption for a town drowned in tribalism and guns. With such ferocity for a true series of events, the script for ‘71 is kept tight and thoughtful for all its action. Though we’re mostly following Gary – a man we want to root for getting back home to his son – we get to see several perspectives in this dark setting. A young boy helps his sister with her homework before he drops everything to go out with his friends and kill Gary. A concerned couple debate about whether or not to help Gary with his injuries at the risk of being murdered for harboring the enemy. And a concerned group of British spies become agitated with the developing situation that finds them desperately trying to cover their true motives.

While the entire cast is remarkably extraordinary, it’s Jack O’Connell who steals the show. He already proved his strength and tenacity as the lead in Unbroken (another true story of a beaten man), but now he has safely secured his place as the next big action star. He bursts through fences, straggles away from a bomb explosion and tries to remain alive long enough for help when being strangled to death. O’Connell may not have as many chances to bash skulls, but he can take a hefty amount of punches. He’s a soldier doing his best to act on orders not to assault the public despite seemingly everyone wanting to blow his brains out. It still doesn’t mean he won’t defend himself against gun-toting bad guys – if he can muster the strength after being savaged.

Even with its collection of pauses that try to weave some expected twists and emotions into the mix, ‘71 managed to keep me on the edge of my seat. Not a frame feels wasted or unnecessary. When O’Connell isn’t fleeing for his life or taking a pounding, he’s grasping for life on the floor in his blood and sweat. And at the heart of it all is a story about people losing their honesty and morality in a dire situation. All of this makes for one of the most uncompromising and compelling action films of the year.

‘71 is one of the grittiest action pictures of 2015 that refuses to let your eyes leave the screen. The action-star presence of Jack O’Connell is powerful and the direction by Tat Radcliffe is precise with tension yet respectful to the material. There’s no reason not to buy what is sure to be the sleeper action hit of the year.

“Chappie” Review

Director Neil Blomkamp seem to be stuck in a time loop. While he initially displayed fresh talent with his 2009 sci-fi hit District 9, he fumbled with Elysium in 2013. Both movies took place in South Africa though Elysium was much more heavy-handed with its blunt message of a corrupt future. I was willing to write that picture off as studio meddling given the increased budget along with bigger names in the cast. Even Blomkamp admits that film was a misfires. And now I find myself regretting such forgiveness with Blomkamp’s Chappie, yet another blunt allegory taking place in South Africa. You fooled me once, Neil.

In this version of South Africa, robot policemen have been implemented to control the crime of Johannesburg. The robots are pre-programmed thanks to the coding of Deon (Dev Patel), but frowned upon by military developer Vincent (Hugh Jackman) who would rather have the machines be controlled by human beings ala drones. While Vincent’s concerns are more than valid, he’s the bad guy in all this in that he wants bigger robots. Deon, by comparison, is a kinder soul favoring artificial intelligence over weapons. He finally creates an A.I. which he considers a big achievement while the brass won’t even humor his experiment. Deciding to proceed without them, Deon swipes one of the robot cops to upload his new creation of life. The problem is that Deon only does so under the threat of criminal Ninja and Yolandi (the South African rappers playing more-or-less themselves). They want the robot to help them commit crimes. Deon just wants him to exist.

When the artificial intelligence dubbed Chappie (Sharlto Copley) finally comes to life, he acts as a curious and frightened child. He takes his first steps, learns to recognize objects, starts to speak English and familiar himself with his new family at a progressive rate. At first, Chappie is a cute character that is lovable in the way he reacts with enthusiasm for painting a picture and fear after being damaged. But rather than bring Chappie to a unique level of intelligence and deciding what to do with the gift of life, he’s stuck on cliché route of trying to do good in a world where he doesn’t understand humans. And if the plot replication of Pinocchio wasn’t clear from the first appearance of Chappie, it’s smashed into the brain of every viewer by him reading the actual book.

What starts out with promise quickly turns into an irritating experience. Chappie is likable with childish ways of learning about life, but grates on the nerves as he continues to act cute and mimic the mannerisms of a gangster. Ninja and Yolandi have a decent dynamic and dilemma, but there was only so much I could take of Ninja’s street accent and Yolandi’s squeaky baby voice. Deon does little more than try to teach with his engineering mindset, Vincent just growls at those who despise his giant robot and Sigourney Weaver is just sort of there as the boss of the technology company.

By the time Chappie arrives at the third act, the script grows desperate with trying to turn Chappie into a real boy. Out of seemingly nowhere, Chappie somehow gains the ability to transfer the coding of the human brain into robots. That’s a rather big jump for a robot that went from giddily reading children’s book to writing advanced programming on the most mysterious human organ. And what he does with this newly acquired knowledge in the climax becomes almost laughable for how off-the-rails the story warps to fit its own narrative.

I would mention how fantastic the special effects are at displaying the title character, but does that even mean anything for being so seamless? Computer graphics have advanced to the point where we can have any creature of any texture appear on-screen as a believable character. There’s rarely a moment where you don’t believe you are watching a real robot walk, talk and interact with the human cast. But so what? It’s not like this is outside Blomkamp’s visual focus in how every film he’s done features a robot at some point. He’s perfected the art of directing a CGI robot in a live-action picture. So why not give us a story with surprise and characters that are not ripped from a cookie-cutter template?

Chappie may have some heart, but it needs a massive upgrade of ideas and originality. Neil Blomkamp borrows from the likes of Short Circuit and Robocop quite liberally that it made me wonder if he actually had a script or just a cobbling of visual ideas he wanted to see materialize. During the climax, Chappie does battle with a giant robot that looks almost exactly like ED-209 from Robocop – it even moves in the same jerky way. Throughout the picture, I was never all that interested in Chappie becoming a real boy. I was more concerned if Blomkamp will become a real director of hard science fiction.