REVIEW: “Exodus: Gods and Kings”

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I can’t help but wonder if it’s actually possible for a ‘by the good book’ movie to be embraced and appreciated within the arena of contemporary film criticism. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying critics have been given a lot of quality Bible-based movies to consider. I’m just curious if a receptive environment exists in criticism these days for movies like Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”? Is this why a flawed movie like “Noah”, which drastically alters the biblical account, is widely accepted among critics? Is this why Ridley Scott chose to omit some key portions of the Moses story in his new film “Exodus: Gods and Kings”?

Now make no mistake, thankfully “Exodus” is no “Noah”. Darren Aronofsky used his Noah story as a platform to promote everything from environmentalism and animal rights to redefining the God of the Bible in several unsavory ways. Ridley Scott doesn’t do that in “Exodus”. “Noah” was also utterly ridiculous and downright dumb at times. “Exodus” doesn’t have that problem either. Scott takes several dramatic liberties, but he does maintain a level of respect for the source material. Instead it’s the numerous omissions that hold the film back a bit.

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It may be an overused term, but “Exodus” is by definition an epic. Ridley Scott is definitely playing in a familiar period piece sandbox and the sheer scope of the production is jaw-dropping. Over 1,500 special effects shots and some incredible costume and set designs were used to create this vast and vivid landscape. This may be the most visually arresting movie I’ve experienced this year, and it could be said that it should be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate its accomplishments.

The sweeping story begins in 1300 B.C. with Moses (Christian Bale) serving as a general in the Egyptian army. He holds a place of prominence after being adopted into the royal family as an infant and raised with friend and Pharaoh-to-be Prince Ramesses (Joel Edgerton). The Moses of this film is a very complex character. We see him as stubborn, defiant, and conflicted. These traits really come out after God appears to him and tasks him with leading His chosen people out of Egyptian slavery. The film paints Moses as a reluctant prophet at first – one who often disapproves of God’s actions. Only over time does he finally understand that God is with them.

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Now “Exodus” could be theologically picked apart, but I felt its central focus was on target. But there were interpretive decisions that puzzled me. For example, when God speaks to Moses He does so through a messenger – a young boy. I’m sure there is some deeper meaning behind that imagery, but it’s completely lost on me. I also think Moses’ reluctance to follow God and general lack of faith carries on for too much of the film. I think it robs the story of some of its deeper meaning.

On the other hand there are some interpretations that really intrigued me. For instance, I love the way Scott presents the ten plagues. Aside from the odd way the film launches them, there is a natural connection between several of plagues that is very well realized. Some people have voiced displeasure with the use of nature, but I think it works because the plagues are still clearly supernatural. The same with the parting of the Red Sea. It’s definitely a different approach and some of the changes are unnecessary. But the entire sequence is tense and thrilling. It’s an incredible visual spectacle.

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There has also been criticism about the casting of predominately white actors playing Hebrew and Egyptian characters. Some have gone as far as to ask for a boycott. I don’t like these objections because they automatically assume a degree of racism is behind the casting even though no evidence exists to support it. I also think in this case they ignore some really good performances. Bale gives a solid performance that skillfully moves his character from prominent Egyptian royalty to tired and destitute Hebrew leader. And Joel Edgerton is very good as Ramesses. It’s an incredibly committed performance that could have gone terribly wrong in lesser hands. Both actors put all into their characters and I have nothing bad to say about their casting.

“Exodus” is an interesting Bible-inspired epic. There are a number of Bible omissions and deviations that actually hurts the plot. There are also some unfortunate narrative jolts – moments where the story leaps ahead without giving us the information we need to fill in the gap. But the movie doesn’t disrespect the Biblical account and there no hidden or secret agendas as with Aronofsky’s “Noah”. And then there is the overall presentation from director Ridley Scott. No one can visualize huge and ambitious period pieces like he does. I can’t tell you how many times I said “Wow” while sitting in the theater. It’s that visionary style that ultimately brought this amazing and beloved story to life for me. I doubt it will resonate with most critics, but I’m hoping it finds an audience.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Cold Light of Day”

Cold Light posterAbout a quarter of the way through “The Cold Light of Day” I was really wondering why everyone had been so hard on the film. I was already preparing for my defense of the movie and the ribbing I would be getting for it. But then things changed. Bruce Willis disappears, Henry Cavill takes center stage, and the bottom falls out. Now I usually don’t like to dwell too long on a movie’s bad points but sometimes you just can’t avoid it. Especially when the entire movie takes a nose dive right before your very eyes. Things definitely go bad here and the movie erases nearly every bit of promise it offers early on.

The idea of the movie is sound enough. Will Shaw (Cavill) arrives in Spain where he plans to spend the week with his vacationing family. We quickly learn that Will doesn’t have the best relationship with his father (Bruce Willis) and the tension between the two is evident. But Will doesn’t make things easy. He sulks and mopes and spends more time on his cell phone checking on his business in San Francisco. This self-centered immaturity pops up throughout the film. I mean even later, when Will is supposed to be ‘a new man’, his character reminds me of a 14-year old with some of the things he does.

The group takes a sailboat off the coast for a day, but Will and his father have a huge argument leading Will to swim into town to get supplies and cool off. When he gets back to the beach to he notices that the boat is gone. He walks the beaches searching until he finds it in a cove. Nobody is on board and it appears there was a struggle. Neither the police or American Embassy are willing to help and Will begins to find out some interesting things about his father. I don’t want to give away any of the few surprises (and I mean very few) this movie has so let’s just say he ends up with a host of people chasing him through Madrid while he tries to find a way to save his family.

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One of the biggest problems with “The Cold Light of Day” is that things get so blasted silly. The film takes so many convenient, out of the blue turns and the characters do some of the most idiotic things. Sigourney Weaver, a talented and accomplished actress, enters the picture and you would think she would be a stabilizing force. Not so! Her character is as cheesy and corny as they come and I often found myself just shaking my head at her flailing attempts at tough guy dialogue. Her character’s angle as well as several other aspects of the story are completely predictable which cuts into any of the suspense the film was hoping for. And any type of plot that happens to catch you by surprise still feels totally contrived.

None of this is helped by Henry Cavill. If I may be unapologetically blunt for a moment, Cavill is absolutely awful here. Now to be fair it doesn’t help that he’s given such boneheaded dialogue. But his performance even sinks below that. Cavill is at his best when he’s sprinting through the streets, jumping over cars, and ducking for cover (and he does a ton of that). But once he’s asked to say a line or show some emotion, well lets just say I’m suddenly a little worried about the upcoming “Man of Steel” movie.

Now this movie features some good camera work and it’s shot in some gorgeous locations. I absolutely loved seeing the sights of Madrid as the movie moves from one part of the city to another. I enjoyed the first third of the film and thought it opened itself up nicely. It also moves at a good crisp pace and at 90 minutes it doesn’t drag things out longer than it should. But the pluses don’t absolve the movie of its clear transgressions and as it moves forward things completely fall apart. I remember when I first saw the trailer for this film. I thought it had a lot of potential. It did. Unfortunately the movie wastes practically all of it.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “ALIENS” (1986)

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Personally, I don’t consider it a stretch to call Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction classic “Alien” a groundbreaking and incredibly influential film for the genre. It was a near perfect combination of horror and sci-fi which resulted in an intense and profoundly innovative thriller that still holds up today. Now when you have a movie so highly regarded, tackling a sequel is a pretty daunting task. You’re taking already great and established material and building on it while also creating a film that can stand on its own merit. Such was a the job facing James Cameron, writer and director of the 1986 sequel “Aliens”.

Cameron’s approach to the sequel centered around creating a story that captured both the horror and sci-fi elements that made the first film such a success and adding a militaristic action component to it. Much like Ridley Scott before him, Cameron is deliberate in setting up his story. “Aliens” starts with Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) being discovered by a salvage crew who come across her shuttle adrift in space. It turns out that she has been in stasis for over 50 years – since the horrible events on the Nostromo in the first film. She’s questioned by a group of executives behind the Nostromo’s mission who find her story questionable and her actions extreme.

Later she is visited by Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), a company representative who informs her that they had recently lost contact with a small colony on LV-426, the same planet where Ripley’s former crew had first came across the alien eggs. Burke asks Ripley to accompany him and a group of Colonial Marines to investigate. Ripley wants no part of going back but agrees after being reassured that the mission is to destroy the aliens and not study them. She sets out with Burke, the marines, and an android named Bishop (Lance Henriksen) to check out LV-426 and hopefully extinguish any threat they come across.

One interesting and recurring obstacle for Ripley is the constant disregard for her information and input. Planted right in the middle of a predominantly male environment, she constantly encounters skepticism and mockery. The corporate heads didn’t buy her story, Burke was skeptical of the severity of the threat, and the Marines laugh it off as a simple “bug hunt”. But Ripley not only turns out to be right, but she maintains the most calm and level-head of any of the group once the inevitable threat is realized. Through this, Cameron takes the tough survivor character from the first film and builds her into what I believe is one of the strongest female roles in cinema. Not only does Ripley adapt through physical toughness but you see a leadership that proves vital to their survival. But while she’s tough, I loved how we also see the gentleness and love she shows, especially after finding a young girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) alone in the ventilation systems of one of the colony office buildings. The two connect as Ripley takes on a mother-like role for a young girl who has seen horrors and lost everything.

The marines themselves cover all of the personality angles including the cigar-chomping Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews) the smart-aleck, wise-cracking Hudson (Bill Paxton), and the dependable, by-the-books Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn). We also get the tougher-than-all-the-guys Vazquez (Jenette Goldstein) and her heavy gunner partner Drake (Mark Rolston) and an inexperienced and sometimes incompetent Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) who was just assigned to be the squad’s field leader. We get some clichéd but fun military banter between the soldiers during the first half of the film and later see them in full combat mode, fighting for survival. For the audience it really becomes one of those “let’s see who survives” stories. But it works so well because even though these are tough and resilient soldiers, they are humbled by the realization that they are overmatched. There are no Rambos in this bunch, only desperate people trying to survive. And when everything does hit the proverbial fan, they have to rely on a lot more than just strength and firepower to stay alive. That’s one reason Ripley is such a force in the movie.

Cameron is very clever in the way he sets up the tension. Again, much like Ridley Scott, for most of the film the true horror isn’t in what you see but what you think you are seeing. You get fleeting glances of the aliens – only enough to project images into your mind. In a sense, Cameron has the audience paste these brief images together in their minds to create what these deadly creatures look like. It isn’t until the very end that we get an unhindered look at them. I still remember the first time I saw the film. The brief camera shots of the creatures in motion really created a sense of tension and suspense. Of course now all movie fans know what the aliens look like thanks to the internet, comic books, sequels, etc. But the way Cameron never fully unveiled them in the film until the end was very effective.

The Oscar-winning special effects of “Aliens” were another major reason the movie works. The skilled crew use an amazing assortment of miniatures, trick cameras and lighting, carefully designed costumes, and a large number of puppeteers that contribute to a visual world that still looks impressive even in today’s fancy CGI-driven age. So many cool details add pop to the film such as the marines futuristic armor, weapons, and vehicles as well as their technologies and sciences. The effects most certainly stand out but they always stay consistent with the movie’s gritty, dark tone. The action sequences throw the soldiers and crew right into the darkness and the unknown. Much like us, they don’t know for sure what they’re fighting. The brief glimpses of the aliens through gun flashes, shoulder mounted flashlights, and dim emergency lighting makes the combat intensely fierce. Ray Lovejoy’s editing of the action scenes is phenomenal as is James Horner’s score. As a result, “Aliens” delivers two of the most pulse-pounding battle/escape sequences you’ll see.

Another major accomplishment for “Aliens” is the recognition it received from the motion picture community. The movie received 7 Academy Award nominations, none bigger that Sigourney Weaver for Best Actress. Of course she didn’t win but the fact that a science fiction/ horror film would received such recognition was a major step forward for the genre. But Weaver was also surrounded by an excellent cast. I loved Henriksen as Bishop, the company android. He’s a cryptic character in the sense that we know from the first film that androids aren’t without, shall I say, glitches. But Henriksen is a believable “artificial person” and we, like Ripley, just aren’t sure we can trust him. I also really liked Michael Biehn’s performance. He’s a tough but open-minded soldier and when the situation goes bad he steps up. Biehn doesn’t play him as a testosterone-driven macho type. He’s at times unsure and he understands what it will cost to get his people out alive.

“Aliens” was an extremely ambitious sequel that took a pretty sacred first film and built upon it in the most satisfying way. It’s a fantastic sci-fi movie. It’s a fantastic action movie. It’s a fantastic horror movie. It blends all of these things together and creates what I consider to be one of best motion picture sequels of all time. With the exception of the stereotypical “we are soldiers” profanity, the dialogue is crisp. While some may describe the first half of the film as languid, I think the pacing is brilliantly deliberate. The special effects were astounding for its time and still hold up today. The acting from each character big or small is strong throughout the film. The direction, the score, the editing, and the sound design grab us and drag us into the unnerving world. It’s just a great movie. And while some may not respond to a handful of things that are connected to the decade the film was made in, “Aliens” is still one of my favorite movies of all time and while it is a sci-fi movie it’s also a great, great action picture.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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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.