REVIEW: “The 33”

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I can’t help myself. I’ve always had a soft spot for disaster flicks and there has never been a shortage of them. Hollywood has found a way to make a movie about any and every conceivable disaster. The good ones are fun, exciting, and inspired. But many have been shallow, formulaic, and shamelessly melodramatic. “The 33” is the latest and let’s just say it falls somewhere in between.

Based on the 2010 Chilean mining accident, the title refers to the thirty-three miners who were trapped some 200 stories down after the San José Mine near Copiapó, Chile collapsed. The story gained global attention with news agencies from around the world covering the day-by-day rescue efforts. Concerned family members stood vigilantly by pressing for action which led to the Chilean government taking over the intense rescue operation.

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The film follows most of these main story points with its own bits of drama added in. We get the obligatory introduction scene when local families are having a big shindig. The following day the miners head to work 17,000 feet below ground. A foreman (Lou Diamond Phillips) has growing concerns over the mine’s safety but the owners dismiss his suggestions. As the men start their work the mine begins to collapse driving them deeper into the mountain. The thirty-three make it to a safe room called The Refuge only to find its food and water supply understocked and the radio broken. They are trapped with few supplies and no way of communicating.

Antonio Banderas plays Mario, the face of the miners and their de facto leader. Banderas is quite good spreading inspiration and emotion like butter on toast. I always find him entertaining and any fault with him can be tracked to the script. He is often asked to lay it on really thick, something he has no trouble doing. He is also given a few corny made-for-the-movies lines. After the mine collapses he says “That is the heart of the mountain. She finally broke.” You can’t help but laugh.

The second part of the story takes place above ground. The private company who owns the mine wants to keep things quiet, but their resources for a rescue are limited. Family members led by the fiery Maria (Juliette Binoche) grow tired of the lack of information about their loved ones. The young Minister of Mining (Rodrigo Santoro) convinces Chile’s President Piñera (played by Bob Gunton in an odd bit of casting) to send him to the site to oversee the rescue attempt. Gabriel Byrne is brought in as the chief engineer and James Brolin pops up as a drill operator.

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The topside story hops back and forth between the efforts of the rescue team and the families gathered outside the mine in a makeshift camp. There are several decent dramatic threads between the two but nothing that stands out. The same could be said about the drama inside the mine. After a really good opening the miners’ story grinds to a halt. In fact the entire movie drags its feet around the midway point. A good 20 minute cut to the film’s bulky 127 minute running time would have helped a lot.

There are some good performances, an inspirational true story, a really good beginning, an emotionally satisfying ending, and one of the final scores from the great James Horner. But aside from the laggy middle, the film mainly suffers from being glaringly formulaic. Being based on a true story obviously tips its hand in many regards, but “The 33” hits nearly every disaster movie tick. I still enjoyed the film overall, but I kept waiting for it to do something unique. It never quite does.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW : “The Expendables 3”

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The entire Expendables franchise started as a nostalgic rekindling of the once prominent over-the-top action genre. It wasn’t afraid to parody itself or play with the familiar action cliches of the 1980s and early 90s. And half of the fun was just seeing these actors together hamming it up and shooting a ton of bullets. The first film was entertaining and it set the table for the second installment which I thought was funnier and more self-deprecating while clinging to the all-important nostalgia. Now we have an inevitable third film which tries to keep the ball rolling.

“The Expendables 3” is made for a PG-13 audience (at least so it says), but don’t be misled. The body count is still astronomical and bullets fly aplenty. But the blood is reined in just enough to somehow keep it from an R rating. Unfortunately its desire for a broader audience, while noble in purpose, is undermined by the fact that the movie simply isn’t as fun or nostalgic as either of the first two pictures.

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Sylvester Stallone and his action ensemble returns minus Bruce Willis who declined because he wanted more money (one of the film’s funnier jokes takes a shot at the publicized dispute). And in keeping with the franchise’s trend, several new stars are added into the mix. Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, and action star extraordinaire (sarcasm absolutely intended) Kelsey Grammer. These are some interesting names and it would be fun to see what the movie would be like if they were all that was added to it.

But in an attempt to inject some youth and potentially pass the torch, a group of new Expendables are added to the group. This is one of the film’s major blunders because none of these youngsters are the slightest bit interesting. They are cardboard cutouts and sometimes their acting makes Stallone’s look good. In case you don’t know, that is no compliment. They are walking talking cliches and they zap the movie of its fun and playful energy.

But the film’s main dish is the action and as I mentioned there is plenty of it. The problem is it lacks the pop that we’ve seen in the other flicks. What I mean is the action scenes rarely energize the movie. In the earlier films regardless of whatever narrative problems they would be having you could count on the action to liven things up. Here it often feels generic and monotonous. There are moments when they do pull off one of those great over-the-top stunts that feels right at home in the 80s. There are other moments that just feel like a boring grind.

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Thankfully some of the old action veterans do save this from being a disaster. Mel Gibson is deliciously maniacal as the head baddie. While his grand scheme and ultimate motivations are murky, Gibson has a ball with the character and I loved every minute he was on screen. Harrison Ford was also a hoot as a grumpy hard-nosed CIA officer. Arnold Schwarzenegger is also fun and every line he has seems to be poking fun at himself. Same with Wesley Snipes. But many of the cast gets lost in the shuffle and rarely get their signature moment in the film. Too many characters and not enough screen time to go around.

In the end “The Expendables 3” lacks the fun, the excitement, and the charm that the franchise built itself on. The action isn’t good enough this time around to save the film from its clunky and paper-thin plot. And while some of the old guys are a lot of fun, namely Gibson and Ford, too many characters are shortchanged thanks to the introduction of an insipid younger crew. It’s unfortunate because I have always enjoyed these movies as entertaining nostalgic escapes. “The Expendables 3” has left me wondering if this ship has run its course.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Automata”

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The year is 2044. Solar storms have turned the Earth’s surface into a radioactive desert causing 99% the world’s population to die. With only 21 million people remaining, a desperate humanity create primitive robots who build walls around their last remaining cities and atmospheres to protect them from the radioactivity and harsh elements. Millions of robots are manufactured by a corporation called ROC and safety protocols are put in place to keep the robots from harming any life form and to keep them from altering themselves. The ultimate purpose of the protocols is to protect humanity at all costs.

This is world of the 2014 science fiction film “Automata” from director Gabe Ibanez. It stars Antonio Banderas as Jacq Vaucan, an insurance investigator for ROC. Jacq is sent to investigate the claims of a cop who says a robot he shot was altering itself. In order for that to happen someone (termed the “clocksmith”) must be modifying the robots by bypassing the protocols and therefore endangering mankind. The case leads Jacq down a trail of police and corporate corruption, murder, deception, and ultimately revelation.

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Banderas is good as the burnt out and worn down Jacq. His friend and boss Robert (Robert Forster) recognizes his plight but needs him on the case. His very pregnant wife Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) is concerned with his state of mind and ability to protect them. Banderas seems to be in a perpetual state of exhaustion, but it works here mainly because he doesn’t play a standard, action movie prototype. He’s not the ex-special forces type or the bulked-up one-man army. He’s about what you would expect an ‘insurance inspector’ to be.

The movie sports some nice visuals especially when revealing its dystopian landscapes. The robots’ primitive looks and movements are nice fits for the story being told. Everything from a visual perspective works in “Automata”. But in the end it’s the storytelling that ultimately lets the movie down. There are a host of clever ideas and interesting concepts that the film plays with, but it never sees any of them through. Instead it employs several sci-fi movie and character cliches that undermine the story’s potential. In a nutshell, the film leaves you with the impression that it’s going someplace smart and possibly profound. Sadly it’s only an impression.

It could also be said that “Automata” is missing that cool creative spark we see in good science fiction. It certainly looks the part, but it never engages its audience or challenges them in any way. That’s not to say it isn’t entertaining. Banderas gives a solid performance and Ibanez shows a definite skill with his camera and in moving his story along. But it’s the story itself that lets them down. There is a strong premise at its core and there several themes begging to be expanded on. That’s why I found “Automata” to be a decent but a slightly unfulfilling experience.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

5 Phenomenal Non-Western Shootouts

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In what I think was my second ever Phenomenal 5 I looked at phenomenal western shootouts. Now, over 50 lists later, I’m going to look at 5 phenomenal non-western shootouts. I separated the two mainly because nearly every western features or ends in a big shootout. But over the years movies have found more ways to incorporate great gunplay into their storylines. And let me just say I am a sucker for a good gunfight. To narrowed the list down I stayed away from military and war movies. Like westerns they deserve a list all their own. So no more delaying. Let’s get to it. Now as you can imagine there have been tons of shootouts throughout movie history so it would be dumb to call this the definitive list. But I have no problems calling these 5 non-western shootouts absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “THE MATRIX”

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In 1999 the (then) Wachowski brothers gave us “The Matrix”, a science fiction action picture that quickly gained a huge following. While I don’t love the movie like many others do, I still recognize it for some of its incredible action sequences. The best one involves a shootout that had to make this list. In an attempt to rescue Morpheus, Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) have a showdown in a lobby with a group of heavily armed agents. But the two come prepared. With trench coats filled with pistols and sub machine guns, they shoot it out in a stylistic slow motion barrage of bullets. It’s an incredibly slick sequence chock full of gunfire, flying debris, thousands of shell casings, flying bodies. I don’t know about you but that’s right up my alley!

#4 – “THE INTERNATIONAL”

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One of the more underrated movies of the last few years is “The International”. This globetrotting thriller starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts has one of the most realistic and energetic shootouts I’ve ever seen. The two stars are hot on the trail of a corrupt international bank that’s filtering money to arms traders, terrorist groups, and an assortment of other baddies. Owen tracks down an important lead to the Guggenheim Museum. But as he moves to apprehend the lead he finds a heavily armed hit team is waiting. An intense 7 minute shootout follows that’s up there with anything else you’ll see. Lead flies, bullet holes riddle the white museum walls, and glass shatters as Owen tries to make it out alive. This shootout blows me away.

#3 – “THE KILLER” (1989)

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Director John Woo could have a list all his own. Woo made a name for himself by filming some of the most dynamic shootouts ever. This king of the Hong Kong action movie genre gave me plenty of scenes to choose from but I went with the final showdown from his 1989 film “The Killer”. Chow Yun-fat and Danny Lee find themselves at odds with a violent criminal organization known as the Triads (I won’t spoil why). While meeting in a church, the two find themselves surrounded by loads of heavily armed (isn’t that always the case) Triads thugs. An insane shootout follows as the thugs attack the church in full force. Muzzle flashes, screaming gunfire, and an insane assortment of falls are all mixed with Woo’s signature slow motion. Bravo!

#2 – “DESPERADO”

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I have a real soft spot for Robert Rodriguez’s 1995 action flick “Desperado”. It’s easily my favorite of his Mariachi films. “Desperado” has such a great mix of insane over the top action and hilarious humor. And of course Rodriguez’s style is undeniable. There are several great shootouts in the film but there’s one that stands out for me. El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) calls his two guitar case toting buddies and squares off against a drug lord’s gang. In old west style, the two sides square off on a dirt road but this is no old west gunfight. The bad guys pull up in their bulletproof limo armed with assault rifles. But our mariachis aren’t armed with plain old guitar cases. One is actually a rocket launcher and the others are fully automatic mini-guns. The result is a ridiculously wild shootout with a scorching Tito and Tarantula tune playing in the background. Perfection!

#1 – “HEAT”

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If you ask me about shootouts in the movies one will always instantly come to mind – the downtown firefight in Michael Mann’s fantastic crime thriller “Heat”. First of all the movie is spectacular and features two of our greatest actors, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Pacino is a cop, De Niro is a criminal with a muddy moral compass. De Niro and his crew (which includes Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore) are finishing their final big bank heist when they run into Pacino and a brigade of cops. An intensely realistic shootout follows in the streets of downtown Los Angeles. Few shootouts can match what Mann gives us here. The loud sounds of accentuated gunfire bouncing off of the buildings and the brilliance of how it’s shot and edited pull you into the middle of the chaos. It’s truly phenomenal!

So how those five non-western shootouts? Agree or disagree with my choices? Let me know what shootouts would have made your list.

“Ruby Sparks” – 4 STARS

ruby sparks posterThere are some movies that you know you have no interest in seeing from the first moment you hear of them. Whether you’re repelled by the story, the director, or someone in the cast, certain films can instantly turn you off. That was my initial reaction to “Ruby Sparks”. Since I’m an official Paul Dano hater, “Ruby Sparks” was immediately thrown into my ‘do not watch’ bin. But you know there are also movies that completely catch you off guard. Despite your lack of interest or minuscule expectations, some movies come out of the blue and totally surprise you. That was my reaction after finally seeing “Ruby Sparks”.

I really hadn’t given this film much consideration at all. But after reading a few recent positive reviews and desperately needing a movie for my Netflix queue, I decided to give “Ruby Sparks” a look. I’m glad I did. This is a smart and fresh romantic comedy that looks at control issues, insecurities, and the failures of people to look inward when it comes to solving a relationship problem. The film takes its unique idea and makes it work thanks to a superb script, nice direction, and yes, even a good performance from Paul Dano.

Zoe Kazan wrote and stars in this film about a struggling writer named Calvin (played by Kazan’s real life boyfriend Dano). Calvin captured lightning in a bottle at age 19 with a best selling novel that took the country by storm. But since that time he’s been unable to latch onto a good idea for a follow up. Calvin also has a poor track record when it comes to relationships. He spends the majority of his time alone with his dog Scotty dwelling on a long past breakup with a girl named Lila. Calvin’s jerky but caring brother Harry (Chris Messina) tries to help him with his depression and his therapist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) gives him various writing assignments to try and provide him with the emotional and career push he needs.

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Then something miraculous happens. Calvin has a dream where he has a lovely encounter with a girl in a park. He wakes up and immediately feels inspired to write about her. Day and night he enthusiastically writes about Ruby Sparks and falls for her more with each word he types. Then one morning Calvin is astonished to find Ruby (Kazan) in his house – a living, breathing embodiment of all he’s written. This provides several obvious complications for Calvin but it also offers some interesting possibilities for him. Could this be the one chance for him to have the girl of his dreams (yes, I actually went there)?

I don’t want to go much further into the story at risk of giving too much away. Lets just say the movie makes Calvin face a number of relationship questions and moral quandaries. With a few punches on his typewriter he’s able to change or adjust Ruby in any way he sees fit. But is that love? Is that what relationships are all about? Are our fantasies good measuring sticks for companionship? You’ll find these types of questions cleverly nestled between some good subtle humor and a touch of romance. I really responded to it and that’s mainly due to Kazan’s slick, intelligent script. This was her screenwriting debut and she shows an amazing knack for telling a good story while bucking conventional methods. The directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris keep Kazan’s story moving with energy and fluidity. At least most of the time. The film does hit a lull at the midway point but the directors quickly change directions which gets things back on track, right up to the satisfying ending.

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It would be unfair for me to finish the review without talking about Paul Dano. He gives a really good performance here. Now I still stand by my assertion that he’s only good in certain and very specific roles. In fact, Kazan wrote this part with him in mind. But this is perfect for him and he nails it. Kazan is also very good in a small but tricky role. There is also good work from Messina and Gould as well as Annette Benning as Calvin’s free-spirited mother and Antonio Banderas as her peculiar boyfriend.

Let me sum this all up by saying “Ruby Sparks” was a pleasant surprise. I never expected to enjoy this movie nearly as much as I did. It may sputter in a spot or two and some of the characters may not feel as genuine as they should. But the acting is strong and the writing is fantastic. That was more than enough to bring this unique story alive for me. While Paul Dano still isn’t an instant box office draw for me, I believe that with the right material he can be good. And “Ruby Sparks” has me really excited to see what Kazan writes next. For me, she’s the one who shines the brightest from this film.

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIE TOUGH GIRLS

There’s plenty of action pictures featuring movie tough guys. In fact, an entire action genre centered around muscle-bound movie tough guys in the 80’s and early 90’s. But we do a disservice if we fail to recognize that there have been some tough-as-nails women that can hold their own against any of the guys. So I thought it would be fun to give the ladies their due by listing 5 Phenomenal Movie Tough Girls. It may surprise you but there are a lot more tough girls to choose from than you might think. So after much deliberation here are my top five. As always, this isn’t the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 Movie Tough Girls are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – ALICE (“Resident Evil” Series)

While the movies are far from great, Milla Jovovich’s Alice has evolved into a very recognizable movie tough girl. Through several sequels she has punched, kicked, sliced, and shot her way through hordes of zombies and creatures. Jovovich has used shotguns, rocket launchers, swords, and special powers and she does it with the same sneering gravitas that many of the better male action stars used. Even though she doesn’t have the best material to work with, there’s just something too cool about watching Alice in action.

#4 – MALLORY KANE (“Haywire”)

Gina Carano blew me away with this year’s “Haywire”. She plays a government black ops agent who is double crossed and on the run. Director Steven Soderbergh puts Carano’s MMA background on display as she kicks butt from New York to Barcelona to Mexico. She has attitude to spare and her ability to fight is undeniable (just ask the likes of Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, and Antonio Banderas). If you doubt that Mallory Kane belongs on this list, check out “Haywire”. It just came out on DVD.

#3 – SARAH CONNOR (“Terminator 2: Judgement Day”)

In the first Terminator picture, Sarah Connor was your basic girl on the run from danger. Boy how things change in “Terminator 2”. Linda Hamilton bulks up and gives Sarah a harder edge and an almost militaristic personality. Knowing the war that’s coming, Sarah fights alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and more than holds her own. Whether it’s with her fists or with machine guns, she blasts away at anyone who gets in her way including the new T-1000 terminator. This new Sarah Connor certainly qualifies as a movie tough girl.

#2 – PRINCESS LEIA (“Star Wars” Series)

When watching the original “Star Wars”, it doesn’t take long to see that Princess Leia is as tough as they come. We see her open rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire and her unwillingness to compromise with them in the movie’s first scenes. It also doesn’t take Han and Luke long to see that she’s a no-nonsense woman who tells it like it is. She’s handy with the laser blaster and she doesn’t mind putting herself in danger. She plays an intricate role in saving Han’s life and it was Leia that kills Jabba the Hutt. Carrie Fisher’s Leia is as surly as any tough guy and she has the smarts to make things happen. Leia is the quintessential tough girl.

#1- ELLEN RIPLEY (“Alien” Series)

It’s been argued that Ellen Ripley is the best female movie character of all time. I don’t know about that but I do think she’s the toughest female character of all time. And regardless of what other role she may play, anytime I see Sigourney Weaver, I automatically think of Ellen Ripley. In the first Alien picture she was the only survivor of her ship’s crew and she single-handedly killed the alien. In the second film we see just how tough Ripley is. She uses grenades, flamethrowers, pulse rifles, and even a robotic crane to kill a load of aliens and even the queen. In the third film she even kills herself to keep the alien inside of her from getting out. Throughout the series Ripley encounters a variety of so-called tough guys. Isn’t it interesting that she is the one that actually survives. Sounds like she’s the one that’s truly tough.

There you have it. There were several others that I considered but these were the five that stood out the most. Do you agree or disagree with my list? Do you see someone who I left off? Who would you include on your list? Please take time to comment and share who is your favorite tough girl.