The Rock (1996)

The Rock

John Mason (Sean Connery) and Stanley Goodspeed (Nicholas Cage) defusing a missile.

The upcoming generation (as well as my fellow millenials) will find it hard to believe there was once a movie as entertaining as The Rock. Afterall, it is hard to find phrases these days like “quality Michael Bay movie” or “entertaining Nicholas Cage film” (the latter has had better films).

Revisiting The Rock since I first saw it multiple times as a child, I realize it does still have flaws. There are the explosions that have come to define a Michael Bay movie, but at least they are there for a reason (as opposed to something like The Transformers franchise, where the explosions are there for us to look at, not because it adds to the story). There are also some rather stereotypical characters (such as the black trolley driver) as well as a huge embrace of the military (which this movie actually does with more heart than any other movie Bay has made). Still, if there is one reason to see this film, it is because of Sean Connery.

This may have actually been the first movie I ever saw with Connery in it (leading me to his work as the best Bond ever). I remember watching him, thinking I was looking at a true myth, a legend. That is actually the aspect of his character. When a war Hero, General Hummell (Ed Harris) finds out that the government will not pay for the efforts and recognition of men who have died under his command, he steals missiles with toxic gas that he threatens to shoot at San Francisco from Alcatraz (which he is holding 81 hostages on). The best person at working with this toxic gas is a FBI chemistry specialist, Stanley Goodspeed (Nicholas Cage). Still, the FBI needs to know how to maneuver under the island, so they release the only known man to have escaped it, John Mason (Connery).

A lot of readers know how it has been a rough many years for Cage (don’t get me started on Left Behind), but there was truly a time when he was a great actor. Here, he does his normal, over the top craziness, but only when needed (he actually only swears one time). Harris’s General is a villain, but not entirely cruel (notice he makes sure the kids leave the island before he takes it over). He does not want to kill so much as just right a wrong. Still, it is Connery who steals the show,  proving his myth and legend as a movie star.

Parents, the movie is rated R mainly for swearing and violence (though it would be violence like that of a hard PG-13 movie nowadays). There is also a brief sex scene (totally not needed) without any nudity, but a lot of sound effects. Skip that scene, and I would say middle school and above.

It is hard to think of any other Michael Bay movie that is better than The Rock. Sure, it had begun with some of the negative aspects we now see too much of in his films, but it is still a blast of a movie over two decades later.

 

Overall: Three and a Half Stars *** 1/2

Baby Driver (2017)

Baby Driver

The only thing that may rival Baby’s driving skills is his playlist.

Very few things irritate me more than seeing people drive with headphones on. I am not stating I am the safest driver, and I almost always have music on when I drive. Still, headphones when you drive? So stupid, in my opinion. Possibly the worst thing about Baby Driver is that it may encourage drivers to listen to their music on headphones.

Anyway, enough on my driving opinions: you want to know my opinion on Baby Driver, and it is easily the most exhilarating heart pounding time I have had on the streets this side of Fury Road. It is another great action pick that shows that you can have all the CGI in the world (thought it actually looks like they were really all driving) but it means nothing if the script is strong and the actors are on their A game.

The film tells the story of Baby (Ansel Elgort, the male lead of The Fault of the Stars), a child delinquent whose parents died in a car crash and left him with a constant ringing in his head. After stealing the car of  Doc (Kevin Spacey), he is forced to be the getaway driver of Doc’s heists until he can pay off his dues. While Doc is obviously powerful enough to destroy Baby’s life in a heartbeat, there is no doubt he takes a liking to Baby (and it also totally helps that it is Kevin Spacey who is filled with his unbeatable charm.)

Many of the others in the groups that Baby drives (Doc does not like using the same group more than once) will question Doc if Baby is right or not. It does not take them (or us) long to see that Baby is such an elite driver it is as if he plays the Grand Theft Auto games in his spare time.

What is also so likeable (even lovable) about Baby is his heart. In one scene, the group steals a car of a mom and her child, who Baby makes sure to give to the mother. He still cares for his ailing deaf foster dad (CJ Jones).  He also starts taking a liking to the local waitress, Debora (Lily James).

All of the actors are stellar. Some of the crews that Baby works with include Griff (Jon Bernthal, who knows how to play a tough guy better than most guys in Hollywood), Buddy (Jon Hamm), his girl Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) and Bats (Jamie Foxx). Along with Spacey and James, it is one heck of a lineup of thespians. In the end, however, the movie belongs to Elgort, who holds his own against all of them. Not for one second do you see the guy who fell in love with Shailene Woodley’s Hazel in The Fault in our Stars.

Parents, the R rating is for swearing and action/violence. There is no nudity or sex in the film (though a lot of making out between Buddy and Darling). Basically, High School and above, unless you have a very mature middle schooler (I would think you would be fine taking them to see it).

As of now, my only real flaw with the film is the last five minutes or so. I will leave it at that, so as not to give anything away. Still, the action in the movie kicks the crap out of any Michael Bay movie one can think of (I am still in stunned silence from the climax of the film). I have not even talked about the amazing soundtrack.

My only other hope is that the CEO of Uber does not show the movie to potential clients.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Okja (2017)

Okja

Mija (newcomer Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her pet Okja…

Before I watched Okja, I noticed a number of negative reviews from users on Netflix. The main accusation: It is not for children. I could not agree more, but that does not mean the movie is bad. My conclusion is that those who did not like Okja just noticed the fact that it had a little girl and a (very big) pet pig, therefore thinking it would be a family friendly fare.

The movie begins in 2007, with the head of the Mirando Corporation Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) announcing the discovery of making super sized pigs in the effort to stop world hunger. She sends 26 of these pigs to different farm locations on the globe, stating that they will be ready for consumption in ten years.

Fast forward ten years, and we meet Mija (a young and talented actress named Seo-Hyun Ahn), who lives on a farm in the mountains of South Korea with her Grandfather and pet super pig, Okja. It is clear that Mija and Okja are best of friends (their scenes reminded me a little of My Neighbor Totoro).

One day, they are visited by the host of a TV show sponsored by Mirando, Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal). They announce that Okja has been selected as the winner of the competition, and will be shipped off to America. When Mija finds out that Okja will be slaughtered for meat, she rushes after him.

Along the way, we get some rather impressive action sequences (Mija is shown on top of a moving truck), witty dialogue (the truck driver hates his job), and rather stunning imagery. Mija also encounters animal rights activists called ALF (including great actors like Paul Dano and Steven Yeun), who want to put an end to the Mirando Corporation.

Legendary Acting teacher Sanford Meisner said, “Acting is fun. Don’t let that get around.” It can be clearly shown here in Okja. Tilda Swinton, an Oscar winner, is known for picking roles that are considered a little strange and unusual, and while her performance (as well as that of Paul Dano) seemed like it was written for them, I for one was very surprised at the performance of Jake Gyllenhaal. He has always been a great actor (underrated, in my opinion), but I never thought he could play the goof ball like he does here, and still make us forget it is him behind the mustache. It is rather brilliant work.

Parents, the TV-MA on Netflix is more than appropriate. Consider the film an R rating.  There is no sex in the film, but there is a lot of swearing. There is also a lot of disturbing imagery (especially at the end, knowing what happens to animals when they are killed for meat). Totally not a movie for kids. High School and above (maybe mature middle schoolers).

One thing about Okja you cannot deny is the originality. If a movie keeps you glued because you have no knowledge of what will happen next, it is because the movie has been completly void of any cliches one would think could happen. That alone is worthy of praise for any movie.

 

Overall: Three and a Half Stars *** 1/2

Ip Man (2008)

ip man

Ip Man (Donnie Yen) vs 10 opponents…

I have to confess that the older I get, the more cynical I appear when friends tell me about movies I should see.  It is not that I don’t care about other opinions or tastes. It is more that I know my knowledge and expertise at cinema is more than likely more evolved than that of a normal movie goer (or fanboy/fangirl). That being said, a lot of times when people offer me suggestions on films, I may reply that I have not seen them.

“What? I thought you were a movie guy! This movie is a classic! A great movie.”

(I often think to myself if they sometimes know what the term “classic” means, but never mind).

This leads us to Ip Man (2008), a movie that tells the story of the title character (played by Donnie Yen, who, pardon the pun, gives a near knockout performance) that, before seeing the movie, I thought was just some lame title for an asian superhero who was really good at martial arts. I was wrong. There was no way I would go into this movie knowing it was actually based on a real life person who would eventually train the legendary Bruce Lee.

The story takes place in 1930s China, where Ip Man and his wife Cheung (Lynn Hung) live in somewhat blissful harmony along with his young son. There are a number of Martial Arts schools in the village, but none can compare to Ip Man (how else to explain a guy who can knock the holster out of the revolver with one finger?) The film starts out with one master trying to fight Ip Man, but to no avail.

The one thing that Ip Man does not appear to have a love for is teaching, despite all the young men wanting to learn. Even the Northerners who rudely come in, trying to showboat their skills, are no match.

The movie eventually shows us the invasion of Japan in 1937, leading to even Ip Man having to find work shoveling coal. Eventually, the Japanese General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), a fan of martial arts, wishes to fight Ip Man after seeing him in action.

Now let us talk about the action in this film. There is no secret that Hollywood is known for making countless (and I mean countless) number of movies that rely on special effects (which is what most people want to see). While I am not saying the artists that make special effects are not talented, it is clear that fight scenes such as those in Ip Man are much more appreciated. It gave me the feeling I had when I watch legendary dance choreography from the likes of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. The scenes are so intimate that you just know those fighting are trusting the others not only with the movie, but their own lives.

Parents, the movie is rated R, but is one I think could be easily ok for kids in the PG-13 range. There is no sexual content (the only nudity is of a young man’s rear end that is played for laughs, lasting only about two seconds). The swearing is not very heavy (at least that much more than a PG-13 action flick). It is mainly the violence, which is no more so than that you would find on TV shows nowadays. Middle School and above.

Possibly the most surprising thing about Ip Man is that the makers knew not to rely heavily on the fight scenes. They use it mainly to enhance the story, which is what all good film makers do. Ip Man already has two sequels (another is in the works), and I plan on watching them right away.

Overall: Four Stars

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)

Pirates of the Caribbean DMTNT

Javier Bardem’s Captain Salazar is out for Depp’s Sparrow in the 5th Caribbean flick.

There are fewer movie characters of the 21st century more notable, original, entertaining, or recognizable than Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. It is sometimes hard to remember how impacting he was in the original film fourteen years ago (the role earned him an Oscar nomination and SAG award). Now, in the fifth film, I feel sad to say that this character has been stretched to his limit.

At some point, all film franchises are to have an end point: It is a matter of whether to end it on a solid note (as the original Star Wars Trilogy did) or on a whimper (if only The Terminator franchise did not go past the second film, and The Transformers franchise was….well, never mind). Undoubtably, it is all about making money, so sequels are going to happen one way or another.

Enter the newest film in the universe (or seas?) of the Pirates of the Caribbean films (I still have yet to see the fourth one in its entirety, but the third at least gave us a solid ending to it all). Depp is back as Sparrow (if he wasn’t, there would be no audience), and he is basically the same, nothing more or less. After a bank robbery (which I could not believe at all was plausible) goes wrong, his crew abandons him (many of the same actors since the first film). Eventually, Jack comes across Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a scientist (though accused by others for being a witch) on the search for Poseidon’s Trident. Also on the search is Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), son of Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley). Whoever gains the trident can reverse any curse (in Henry’s case, he wants to free his father from the curse he has had since the third movie). The trouble is that hot on their trail is Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), out to kill Sparrow for cursing him (curse the curses!) to be a half ghost creature along with his crew. He has asked for the help of Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush).

As I think of it, one of the nice things of the film is that the story is not that hard to follow (which can happen a lot in summer blockbusters). Each character has his/her reason for reaching Poseidon’s Macguffin (oops, I mean Trident), and none are totally completely complicated reasons.

The special effects are nice, but, again, nothing we have not actually seen before in the other movies. There are a few exceptions, and the one I wish to talk about is one of the more unrealistic action sequences I have seen in some time. A certain character is in a guillotine, about to have their head sliced off. In the chaos of being rescued, this character is having the blade inch toward his/her neck back and forth. I sat there, wondering how any of that could happen in real life.

Some of the CGI is neat, mainly of Salazar’s crew. The bodies are not skeletal remains (as was the case in the first film), but just sections of skin we might see. This does give a bit more menace to Bardem’s performance as the villain, but I kept thinking that he came into the series too late for me to take him completely seriously enough.

Parents, if your kids have seen the original film, then they should be fine. However, there are some suggestive comments made with the humor, which, for the record, I hardly smiled at all during.

Sadly, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is doing what The Hobbit trilogy did to the original Lord of the Rings Trilogy. It seems to be staying way past its welcome (and I mean WAY past, so much so that I made it in caps and everything.) In my mind, I kept thinking the title should have read “Dead movie franchises should stop telling tales”.

Throughout most of the movie, only one word came to mind.

Lame

Overall: One and a Half Stars * 1/2

Left Behind (2014)

Left Behind

Nicolas Cage as the pilot, who is also Left Behind…

Since I am not a paid movie critic (as of this writing), it is a blessing and a curse when movies go under my radar and others have to watch them. I am not just talking about missing hidden gems that deserve a wider release, but those that are butchered by the critics. It seems that the best critics can do is have fun saying how bad a film is, which is why I seek them out from time to time. Enter the movie Left Behind, clearly one of the worst, um, things, ever to be called a full length feature film. I doubt you will ever come across it, but in case you do…here is your warning.

The movie stars Nicolas Cage, and (believe it or not) that is far from the worst part of the film. I still believe that Cage is a great actor (he is even an Oscar winner). It is really just the fact that he picks some bad movies to be in. Here he plays Rayford Steele, a pilot on his way from New York to London. His daughter Chloe (Cassi Thomson) is home from college to surprise him, but learns from her mother Irene (Lea Thompson) that he won’t be home. We learn he is in fact cheating on his wife with a flight attendant. We also get Chad Michael Murray as a popular reporter named Buck Williams, who falls for Chloe.

We get scenes of characters who believe in God warning that the end will come on any day. Steele and his daughter don’t believe it, even though Irene has become a firm believer. Eventually, in the blink of an eye, people vanish. No trace except for the clothes they were wearing and their belongings. This is happening all around the world. All the kids (including Chloe’s little brother Raymie) are gone, and so is Steele’s co-pilot.

The panic scenes show one of the major flaws of this movie. While all the actors (and I mean all of them) give bad performances, none do worse more than every single extra in the film. Ok, it is understandable that extras may not have as much talent or experience as veteran actors (like Cage), but it seems like these people did not even get time or direction to know what to do and how to do it. It is like the director (Vic Armstrong) just told everyone “When I say go, PANIC!”, and nothing else.

It also takes everyone in the movie a long time to find out that God has taken those that are not left behind. After they finally do, it is a lame and bland (understatement) attempt to finally see if Cage can land his plane (he does. I doubt I am spoiling it because it is doubtful anyone else will see this movie.)

Parents, if all you care about is if a film has sex or violence in it, don’t worry. It is just thematic elements. If, however, it is quality, wit, and over all good in a movie you want, keep your kids far away.

I have stated before that I am saddened by the fact that most movies that are “Christian” movies are not always done well (let alone received well). Left Behind is on a whole level of awful by itself. How many other movies are hated by both non-believers and believers as well? They may despise the movie for different reasons, but that alone shows more of why the film sucks in general.

As for me, I am a believer, and hope to be taken in heaven with God for eternity. The alternative (hell) is by far the absolute number one worst thing that could happen. While I have not made a list of other bad things that can happen to me, watching Left Behind again may be up there.

 

Overall: 1/2 Star

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

 

Kong Skull Island

The King has returned.

Were he alive, I would think my dad would have loved this movie.

Back as a kid, he got me hooked on King Kong with the 1962 Japanese film King Kong vs. Godzilla (a movie you can never convince me is anything but great). If I remember correctly, I wanted Kong to win while my older brother was rooting for Godzilla (SPOILER: Kong wins).

Over the years, I have seen a few other monster movies, from the great King Kong remake in 2005 (a film my dad did not like) to the Godzilla films of 1998 (a let down) and 2014 (mildly good).

In Kong: Skull Island, the movie is set in the 1970s just after the Vietnam War. A researcher Bill (John Goodman) and his assistant Houston (Corey Hawkins) get the ok to explore a new island found on satellite photos. Of course, they need a military escort, which is led by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson, of course). Joining their crew is tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston, proving he can be more than Thor’s adopted brother Loki) and photographer Mason Weaver (Oscar winner Brie Larson).

What I liked about this film was that, unlike other films when we had to wait a while to see the star (and really, who else would steal the show over Kong?), director Jordan Vogt-Roberts gives us a look at him rather soon into the movie. The same can also be said about some of the other creatures in the movie (I feel I should note there are some giant ants that look like spiders, for those of you who have arachnophobia).

Parents, the movie is rated PG-13 mainly for the swearing (I counted one F bomb) and the action (the violence is there, but is not any worse than that of The Lord of the Rings movies). Middle School and up is fine.

There are some scenes that seem tacked on that make the movie go on a lot longer than it needs to, but there are plenty of action scenes that make the movie more that worth recommending. There are some scary moments, but not any that will haunt your kids for days. If anything, they are the sequences that make kids turn away, yet look back in an instant.

To see the cast and crew treat a film icon like King Kong with this much honor and respect (which is really all Kong ever wanted) is a breath of fresh air.

(Note: There is a scene after the credits, which, if it is telling the truth, will have me buying tickets in a heartbeat).

 

Overall: Three and a Half Stars ***1/2

 

The Accountant (2016)

the-accountant

Ben Affleck has more on his resume than just “Accountant”.

What made me want to see The Accountant was not if Ben Affleck could be a grade A butt-kicker (we already know he can), but if he could manage playing someone with High Functioning Autism. Both are true.

Affleck is calm, cool, and somewhat collect in the title role. His Christian Wolf has some flashbacks to when his mother left him and his little brother, leaving his father, a retired soldier (I think) to train his sons to defend themselves. It is like something almost out of Batman, or Batman 101.

In present day, Chris works for a robotics company, meeting his new co worker Dana Cummings (the always impossible to not love Anna Kendrick) as they work the numbers for CEO Lamar Black (John Lithgow). Secrets are found out, and both Wolff and Cummings are underattack by an assassin-like warrior named Brax (Jon Bernthal). Others in the movie include the always wonderful J.K Simmons as head of the Treasury Department and Jeffrey Tambor as a character of great importance in Wolff’s flashbacks.

I will stop describing the plot now for two reasons. The first is, of course, so as not to reveal any twists (including one at the end I did not see coming at all). The second is because I admit the movie’s flaw is its script. In short, it seems to be trying to be smarter than its own good. It seemed to be going too fast (screenplay wise) when it needed to slow down. Still, the action scenes and acting (mainly from Affleck and Kendrick) make the film worth seeing.

Parents, the movie is rated R, but could be easily a hard PG-13 (only some sexual dialogue, no nudity. It is mainly action/violence, and a lot of swearing that is heard in any High School hallway.) In short, I think High School and above would be fine.

Overall: Three Stars ***

Taken (2008)

taken

Liam Neeson in his now immortal scene from “Taken”

There is at least one meme I know of with Liam Neeson and a reference to his role in Taken. I am not sure 100 percent how it goes, but it is along the lines of “He saved over 1000 Jews, he helped train Batman AND Anakin Skywalker, and you dare to take his daughter?!?!” This is what I knew when I finally got around to seeing Taken, and it is far from brilliant, but it is still somewhat entertaining.

The movie would easily have been forgotten weeks after it was released if it were not for Liam Neeson. The role of Bryan Mills, a retired CIA agent whose daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) is kidnapped on her trip in Paris is one that Neeson is still being known for almost a decade later (even so that he was in a great commercial a few years back for Clash of Clans).

There are no doubt the action scenes are well done, but it is the plot that had me stroking my chin in not the most positive ways. I understand there is a problem with underground sex trafficking in the world, but what a chance that both Kim and her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) are not only kidnapped for this, but are done so barely after they even get off the plane.

I also had a little trouble with believing the friendship between Mills and his former associate (at least that is what I think he was) Jean-Claude (Olivier Rabourdin). There is a dinner scene that, while somewhat well done, is highly improbable to me.

Parents, this is a not a movie for kids. Despite the PG-13 rating, it is one that could have easily been rated R. There is obviously some violence and some swearing (though I don’t remember any F bombs dropped), but the fact that the movie talks about sex trafficking may be too much for a middle schooler. High School and above only.

Still, if you have not seen the film, it is worth watching mainly for Neeson. There were times I was remembering another movie character who was more determined than ever to get a family member back: Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers (1956), which, compared to Taken, is like comparing Disney World to a block party. Nevertheless, if Liam Neeson is reading this, I will tread lightly and say his performance is worth seeing the movie just by itself.

I would not be smart in making him mad.

Overall: Three Stars ***

Ben-Hur (2016)

BenHur2016

A movie with Morgan Freeman? What could go wrong?

Normally, I will wait until the next day before I write a review. This will not be the case with the remake of Ben-Hur. I must advise all: this is one bad film (even though you can trust the 29% approval rating the film has on rottentomatoes.com). I bought an ICEE, and spent much of the film wondering when I should throw it away (I only hesitated on the idea because the seat I was in was so comfy).

For those who have not seen the (much better) film from 1959 (which itself was a remake from a silent film from 1925), or have read the book, the story tells of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Houston). A jewish prince, he grows up with his best friend and adoptive brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). One day, Messala betrays Judah along with his wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), his mother Naomi (Ayelet Zurer), and his sister Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia). Ben-Hur is sentenced to a life of slavery before he is discovered by Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman). In all honesty, I don’t remember Morgan Freeman’s character ever being named, but it is Morgan Freeman, so does anyone really care? Apparently Freeman doesn’t, because there are sometimes where it seemed even he was bored.

It is also important to realize that the film takes place during the time of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus is probably the most difficult role to play, and Rodrigo Santoro does do a fine job at it. If only he was given more to work with.

The movie is made by the same people who did the bible miniseries a few years ago (and later made a movie about it). Basically, like all Christian movies (and it pains me to admit this), the hearts of the filmmakers are totally in the right place. It is the thought process that I am failing to discover.

Basically, the action scenes are just by the books. When we finally get to the race scene at the end, we don’t expect much (and don’t get it either).

Parents, there is no swearing or any sexual material (other than kissing). There is action/violence, but not any worse than what can be found in a comic book movie. Middle Schoolers and above would be fine.

Actually, I take that back. I would rather people see the 1959 version with Charlton Heston (one of my favorite things about that movie is you never seen the face of Christ). Sure, that film is long, but it is more engaging and a heck of a lot more entertaining. The new Ben-Hur is proof that, for the most part, remakes are not a good thing.

It is Ben-Hurrible.

Sorry, but I sat through the movie, so I can make that joke.

Overall: One Star *