Monday, April 28, 2014

There are 23.5 Million Stories in the City of Karachi- This is One of Them: "Good Morning Karachi" (2013)

Known more for her documentaries about women in the Muslim world, film maker Sabiha Sumar presents an interesting fictional film about a young model torn between her dreams, and society's expectations.

The beautiful Rafina (Aamna Ilyas) lives in a small apartment in Karachi, Pakistan, with her widowed mother and little brother. She is having a chaste courtship with Arif (Yasir Aqueel), a supporter of Benazir Bhutto. Arif's mother is Rosie (a wonderful Beo Raana Zafar), who travels around providing beauty salon services for women. Rosie takes Rafina on as an assistant, and they go to work for Radiance, a modeling agency.

Rafina is obsessed with a large glamorous billboard outside of her apartment showing a Pakistani woman without a veil. Rafina starts to distance herself from Arif, as the family begins planning their wedding (they are scandalized that Rafina wants to work instead of keeping house for her new husband). Rafina eventually gets noticed at the modeling agency, and as her career takes off, her home life unravels.

The film's title refers to a morning radio show overheard during Sumar's shots of Karachi's endless cityscapes. The street scenes are chaotic. Set around Benazir Bhutto's attempted return to power before her death, Sumar does not preach, using her simple story to make her point. There are no "I am woman, here me roar" moments. The revelatory moments here are quieter, like when Rafina discovers an old photograph of a younger Rosie.

The story is empowering, but familiar to me. I am not saying this is a bad film, just one that I recognized from years of film watching. A lot of the cultural ingredients are interesting (one character's funeral, the class system inside the agency), and Sumar handles her story with confidence. Ilyas is both beautiful, and a natural actress. Her character is not handed instant fame right away, and her stealth-like "audition" at one point is caught onto by some other characters. These are not stupid people, the screenwriters do not make fashion an easy target to mock. Modeling is a way for Rafina to escape her assumed role in life.

"Good Morning Karachi" doesn't wear out its welcome despite its predictability, clocking in at just under an hour and a half. This is a nicely played, written, and directed film. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Legend Continues to Amuse: "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" (2013)

Much to my girlfriend's chagrin, I had the preview for this film memorized, and would repeat lines from it ("...93...93!") way too often. I waited until video to sit down and revisit the Channel 4 news team, watching the theatrical version first.

While the original "Anchorman" ground it's wheels in the finale, this film takes up where that one left off, error-wise. Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is fired from his job as his wife Veronica (Christina Applegate) takes a new job as a national anchor in New York City. Ron is approached by Freddie (Dylan Baker) to take the graveyard shift of a new cable news channel, and must reassemble his trusty news team and head to NYC. Champ (David Koechner) runs a disgusting fried chicken restaurant (they serve bat), Brian (Paul Rudd) takes photographs of kittens for inspirational posters, and Brick (Steve Carell) is thought dead. Veronica and Ron's son (Judah Nelson) are already in New York when the team finally arrives, with Veronica taking up with psychologist Gary (Greg Kinnear).

Ron butts heads with the new network's star anchor Jack Lime (James Marsden), as well as his new boss, African-American Lisa Jackson (Meagan Good). Ron and his new boss begin dating, and Ron's newscasts are ratings blockbusters because they don't deliver the news people should watch, but want to watch. Of course, as narrator Bill Kurtis tells us, Ron has an Icarus-like fall, and must claw his way back into the lives of his family, and his news team.

The first half hour of the story, with Ron and Veronica breaking up and his reassembling of the news team is amusing, but also a mess of editing. There is no rhythm to the scenes, it seems the cuts are placed precisely before the actors break into laughter. I mostly grinned through the beginning of the film, until the cast hits New York, and things get terribly funny. The new cast members are great, holding their own with Ferrell and company. Kristen Wiig's Chani matches Brick line for line in weirdness. Meagan Good is sexy and perfect. There are oddball segments (Ron's lighthouse retreat, the raising of a shark) that had me question where the film makers were going before I gave in and somehow found myself giggling hysterically all the way through. Ferrell's Burgundy is a lovable buffoon, whether making inappropriate racist comments at Lisa's parents' dinner table, or cursing in front of his angelic son. McKay and Ferrell go way off the rails at the end, in an anchor team fight that will go down in movie history for all of its cameos (save one...the hell with spoilers, what the hell is Kanye West doing in this segment? He's awful!), but the build-up to the special effects-laden silliness is both appropriate and very funny. This film is equal to the original film, but I am kind of hoping a Part 3 isn't on the horizon. It would be hard to beat the lunacy of this. On a side note, I live in Bismarck, North Dakota, where Ferrell as Burgundy anchored a local news broadcast a while back. I wish he had been able to do more, but it was nice to see my home state get some national attention!

Now that I have finally seen the theatrical version, I will eventually get around to the alternate versions. If anything, "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" has given me even more lines to repeat to my girlfriend. By Tony Danza's scrotum, I know she can't wait. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Life and Death in the Arbor: "The Arbor" (2011)

British film maker Clio Barnard takes what could have been a gimmicky film making stunt, and turns it into a stunning documentary that shakes the viewer.

Andrea Dunbar was an English teenager who penned a play entitled "The Arbor," about life in the British equivalent of American housing projects. Her play mirrored her own existence, and she was quickly vaulted into theatre literati. She had two children by the time she was out of her teen years, had a third child young (all three were by different fathers), and died of a brain hemorrhage in a pub at the age of 29, five days before Christmas in 1990.

Her children, still growing up in the housing area, are scattered to extended family members and foster homes. The oldest daughter, Lorraine, is half-Pakistani, and must deal with racism on a daily basis. She then becomes a drug addict and prostitute, and after having a few children of her own (mirroring her mother, who she came to hate), suffers a tragedy that sends her to prison.

This is not your straightforward documentary. What Barnard has done is record audio interviews with the subjects (Andrea Dunbar's children, family, and neighbors), and then has actors and actresses lip synch the lines. It is not as goofy or conceited as it sounds, I was quickly taken with the idea. Interspersed with these scenes is old news and documentary footage of the real Andrea Dunbar talking about her writing and upbringing (she comes off as a very harsh young woman), and another group of actors dramatizing Dunbar's play in the neighborhood where the play is set (the chosen scenes are well-acted but Dunbar's lines sometimes play melodramatically).

I don't know what possessed Barnard to conceive this film, but I am grateful she did. I had no clue who Dunbar was, but what happened to her and her brood is infinitely interesting. This film is not a loving look back through rose-colored glasses, and Dunbar does not come off very well (her child-raising skills were lacking thanks to her alcoholism). The story of her daughter Lorraine is tragic and maddening. Barnard never presents all the facts for the viewer, she entices the events along, giving just enough to make you want to know what happens but without teasing. The structure is incredible. The actors, having to lip synch others' words, do a great job. They must tailor their reactions to another person's voice, literally, and they do this so well you will quickly forget this was "dubbed."

This came out in the United Kingdom in 2010, and was released in the United States the following year, and I can say without a doubt "The Arbor" is one of the best documentaries of the decade. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The First Rule of Suicide Club is...: "The Game of Death" (2000)

It's a shame this film, based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, didn't do better than it did.

Victorian Henry Joyce (David Morrissey) is despondent. His wife died from consumption six months before, and he has closed himself up in his home to mourn. His friend Captain May (Neil Stuke) coaxes him out to a pub, and they meet a drunk Shaw (Paul Bettany). Shaw is broke and ruined after squandering his inheritance, and Henry feels a kinship with him. Shaw takes the duo to a private home, where he assures Henry he will find relief from his current state.

At the home, May and Henry sign oaths and gain entrance to The Suicide Club, run by Bourne (Jonathan Pryce). People who want to die, but can't do themselves in, draw cards. The cards decide who gets the honor of dying, and who will be the one to murder the person. When a person dies, their estates go to Bourne, who finds plenty of people to keep the club going. During the first meeting, May flees the home (this was all a lark anyway) and is killed by Bourne's men. Henry keeps attending meetings, but soon gets involved with the club's only female, Sarah (Catherine Siggins), who is mourning her own lost love. Henry and Sarah grow closer, and Bourne's tidy club and its morbid game, as well as Bourne's livelihood, are threatened.

The film was produced by Roger Corman, but this is not exploitation or a black comedy, although a dark comic take on the material might have been interesting. Because it is based on a short story, the film only runs 91 minutes, and often has a padded feeling to it. Screenwriter Lev L. Spiro has crafted a very dreary plot from Stevenson's story, and allows one-too-many leaps in logic (Henry and May go along with Shaw way too quickly). Director Samuels can film a parlor sequence with the best of them, turning conversations into wonderful moments. Her action sequences, on the other hand- the pursuit of May is an absolute mess, simply bad film making.

The biggest strength found here is the cinematography courtesy of Chris Manley. It is nothing short of stunning, with rich colors and beautiful shadowing. His shots remind us that Victorian England wasn't all black and gray, but without giving in to an inappropriate psychedelic color palette. Kudos to the casting team, as well, recognizing Morrissey and Bettany in early roles. The entire cast is pretty fantastic, Siggins' character's pain comes off very well, and it was nice not to have her change overnight thanks to a roll in the hay with Henry. The musical score sounded canned, and did nothing for the proceedings.

This was released in a film festival or two, then found its way to video. It is also known under three or four different titles, and I don't know who is to blame, but despite its positives the film seems to have been unceremoniously dumped. Even the DVD cover is a mess of photoshop, and features a character who is in the film for about a minute. It's not great, but "The Game of Death" should have been given a fighting chance based on its cinematography and casting. Oh, well, that's the luck of the draw. (* * *) out of five stars.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Lacks Bite, and Snipes: "Blade: House of Chthon" (2006)

The feature-length pilot episode to the short lived television series desperately misses big screen star Wesley Snipes, and leaves the viewer hanging as the end credits roll.

Our half-breed vampire hero Blade (Kirk 'Sticky' Jones) and his human sidekick Shen (Nelson Lee) are battling vampires in Detroit. More specifically, they are battling business tycoon Marcus (Neil Jackson), who is revitalizing the ailing city by bringing back old buildings to their original state. Army vet Krista (Jill Wagner) returns home and learns her twin brother has been murdered. Through some detective work of her own, she traces his killing to Marcus, and encounters Blade, who reluctantly uses her to get inside Marcus' inner sanctum. Things go awry when Krista is made, and Blade stops at nothing to get her back on the side of the good vampire.

Although co-written by David S. Goyer, this pilot suffers from its television trappings. Jones is no Snipes, who was very good in the Blade role (and I write that liking all three Blade films). Jones is given a supporting role in his own series, as we watch him from a distance. He has the look down, but all of his lines play like sound bites from the films. Wagner is slightly better as the vindictive Krista, and Jackson portrays the suave Marcus suavely. Bill Mondy comes off best as a crooked cop helping Marcus, and I should mention a surprising cameo by Randy Quaid of all people. O'Fallon's action sequences are a mess of bad camera set-ups and too-quick editing. I liked what he did with the scarier parts of the film, however. When Krista is "turned," she has a fantastic dream sequence, followed by an eerie scene waking up in a body bag in a morgue. Both scenes are creepy and effective. For future reference- the word "Chthon" is not pronounced "cha-thon" but "kuh-thon," kind of like the sound of a frying pan being dropped on a linoleum floor.

Because this is the pilot episode, the viewer is left hanging about where the story was going to end up. The series only lasted twelve episodes, but after reading some synopses, it doesn't sound very interesting. As for the pilot episode itself, "Blade: House of Chthon" is a mediocre affair. (* * *) out of five stars.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Shenanigans in the White House? Naaahhhh...: "Murder at 1600" (1997)

As political conspiracy films of 1997 go, "Murder at 1600" is no "Absolute Power," but definitely better than "Shadow Conspiracy."

Wesley Snipes is DC detective Harlan Regis, who plays by his own rules (yeah, I know). He and his cracking-wise partner Stengel (Dennis Miller...Dennis Miller?) are called to investigate a dead woman's body found in a bathroom at the White House. This list of suspects is long. Regis is stonewalled right away by evil White House security guy Spikings (Daniel Benzali, who is filmed as if possessed by Satan himself). The wimpy President Jack Neil's (Ronny Cox) hot-to-trot son Kyle (Tate Donovan) is finally the red herring Regis settles on, until brought new information from Secret Service Agent Nina Chance (Diane Lane). National Security Adviser Jordan tries to advise the president through a "international crisis" (a US military plane's crew is being held hostage in North Korea), and lead Regis and Chance through the bureaucracy surrounding the murder investigation.

This was filmed back when Snipes was a big-screen action hero, and his performance here is very good. The entire cast, in fact, is good, and Snipes keeps up with them in a performance that could have turned this into a franchise of more Harlan Regis conspiracy adventures. Dwight Little's direction is better than the terrible script, his action sequences are nicely edited and effectively shot, including a shoot-out and fistfight in a suburban home that is nothing short of excellent.

The biggest problem with the film is the script. First of all, some of the characters' names sound like they were improvised during an afternoon screenwriting seminar- Harlan Regis? Nina Chance? Nick Spikings? An assassin named John Kerry? Regis is given some nice characterization. He's a history buff, and his building is being razed to make room for a parking garage, all stuff that Snipes plays well. However, a good back story cannot make up for some incredible leaps in logic, and screenwriting conveniences for the sake of moving the plot along. One such scene has White House security seizing the personal effects of the murdered victim, yet "hiding" them in an evidence room where anyone, like our secret service agent leading lady, can get ahold of it. Also, how fortunate is it that a secret tunnel taking our heroes into the White House is guarded by exactly two padlocks and a motion sensor? The film's politics do skew a little left naturally, since this is Hollywood, with the military men pushing war while the president wants to take his time and negotiate. The final motive for the murder is also unnecessarily complicated, and you may realize that the murderer and head conspirator didn't have to stage the killing at the White House, and still could have put their evil plan into action. Then again, the title "Murder Kinda Near 1600, Like a Block Over" doesn't have the same ring to it. Watch for an uncomfortable bit involving Charles Rocket as a suicidal government worker. Rocket did eventually kill himself in real life, and the scene made me squirm.

In the end, "Murder at 1600" doesn't succeed, and after the known Washington DC security upgrades after the 9-11 attacks, turns it into a nostalgic but poor actioner. (* *) out of five stars.

Mr. Bean Cannes: "Mr. Bean's Holiday" (2007)

Rowan Atkinson breaks out his best-known character for one final hurrah.

Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson) is a British nebbish with a funny voice and mannerisms. He is hard to describe, unless you have seen Atkinson's many television incarnations of the character, and the fun "Bean" film from a few years ago. He gets in harmless trouble, and is actually kind of endearing in a sympathetic way.

Bean wins a raffle for a trip to Cannes and the beaches there, and a video camera to record his trip. Of course, the trip is far from ordinary. Through his own cluelessness, he is saddled with a young Russian boy (Max Baldry) who is also headed to Cannes to meet up with his father Emil (Karel Roden), a Cannes Film Festival jury member. Bean and the boy team up to earn money and complete the trip, and Bean falls in like-like at the first sight of struggling actress Sabine (Emma de Caunes...and Bean's ga-ga reaction is perfectly understandable). Toss in Willem Dafoe as ego-maniacal film director Carson Clay, and this bizarre G-rated adventure plows ahead full steam.

"Mr. Bean's Holiday" is not laugh-out-loud schtick. I found myself smiling through most of it. The character of Bean is so loopy, even when things finally work out for him, you await the next complication- whether it be forgetfulness, or a runaway chicken. Bean does get frustrated at what life deals him, and his rare rants and fits about something that has happened are funny to watch, but then he recovers and moves on to his goal.

Bendelack's direction is assured, and keeps up with Atkinson really well. The screenplay moves along very quickly. There are expected set-pieces where Atkinson can work his audience, but they don't drag like they sometimes did on the television series. Bendelack, and screenwriters Hamish McColl and Robin Driscoll seem to know right when to get out, and on to the next bit of business. Special mention goes to Howard Goodall's simply wonderful musical score.

In all honesty, the biggest laugh comes courtesy of Willem Dafoe. The screening of his character's incredibly boring film, with the audience falling asleep while Dafoe is transfixed, is nothing short of brilliant. Having been in the movie review game most of my life, I could associate with the snoozing audience very much.

"Mr. Bean's Holiday" is as good as it's inspiration, "Mr. Hulot's Holiday," another film centered on a character just trying to get away from it all. It is quite an appropriate swan song for Mr. Bean, unless Atkinson changes his mind. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Friday, April 11, 2014

...and Wesley Snipes as Sgt. Gloomy Gus: "The Marksman" (2005)

Once in a while, a direct-to-video release is a hidden gem of a film ripe for discovery. This is not one of those releases.

Wesley Snipes is a silent military operative known as a "painter." He gets into dangerous locations, marks a target using what looks like an old doorbell button, and then escapes so the big planes can come in and bomb whatever he has marked. His squad can't stand him because he's a loner, a rebel who plays by his own rules...blech. Anyway, former flame Amanda (Emma Samms) has a new mission- blow up an old nuclear power plant in Chechnya before it can be used as a weapon, and extract the American hostages being held there. The mission into the plant is too easy, and only Painter (as Snipes is credited) is able to figure out what is going on.

Snipes was on a bad luck streak, rivaling Steven Seagal for churning out these action films. I'm not sure it is acting, but Snipes looks really pissed throughout the shoot. He doesn't have many lines, and a stunt double is used a lot, even in safe scenes involving jogging and other activities (when you see his face turned away from the camera, it's usually a safe bet that ain't him). If your leading man is this angry at the film, how is the viewer supposed to react? The cast is full of familiar faces, including producer Andrew Stevens in a goofy-mustached small role that was probably a hoot to no one but Andrew Stevens, and everyone looks miserable.

The film's one redeeming grace is its Romanian locale. I don't know where exactly this was filmed, but it's cement, Iron Curtain-look is great. The Eastern European accents are very difficult to understand, and the DVD I watched had no subtitles. The sound recording is awful all around, so I could only assume some of the plot points based on the expressions of the supporting cast as they talked into their telephones with intensity. Some of the stuntwork is good, but aside from our heroes, no one can hit the broad side of a nuclear reactor with a machine gun.

I knew I was going to give "The Marksman" a negative review, but the clincher was in a revelatory scene involving Samms looking at some satellite footage, and all I could see was a glaring misspelled word. Someone should sneak into Sony and mark all copies of this film for destruction. (*) out of five stars.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Or, 'Marine!': "The Marine" (2006)

Imagine an action film directed by the guys who made "Airplane!" and "Top Secret!"...yes, I know it was called "Hot Shots!" but go with me on this one.

John Triton (John Cena) is booted out of the Marine Corps for disobeying an order and saving a bunch of hostages while on duty in Iraq. He comes back home to his big house and hot wife Kate (Kelly Carlson, which I misread as Kelly Clarkson and kept waiting for that American Idol chick to show up) and immediately takes a job as a security guard in an office building. That goes all sorts of wrong, he's fired, and the couple decide to take an extended vacation to get away from it all (apparently one of them has inherited a lot of money because no Marine can live like this under the rank of Brigadier General).

Kate gets kidnapped by a gang of jewel thieves headed by the very cool Rome (the very cool Robert Patrick). We see the heist in the beginning of the film in one dizzying over-directed scene. John survives A LOT of physical punishment as he pursues the gang, who try to negotiate the swamps of South Carolina.

"The Marine" is a big ugly cartoon. This was Cena's first starring role, and it shows. His physical screen presence is impressive, but then he tries delivering a line of dialogue. This film was tailor-made for his wrestling persona, and made for his fans as well. I've never watched anything WWE has put out aside from some of their films, so I have no reference point about Cena's role on the canvas.

John Bonito goes insane with his camera, and not in a good way. One shot of Rome simply getting out of a car and walking into the jewelry store is directed with quick cuts and lots of shots...but he is only walking into a jewelry store! The film is heavily padded, the ninety-one minute unrated version features endless sequences of John jogging around a swamp, and a seven minute closing credits crawl.

I liked the villains more than our hero. Robert Patrick is always good. Anthony Ray Parker steals his scenes as the unbalanced Morgan. There is one scene of dialogue in the middle of the swamp about racism that felt like it was from another movie, and had me laughing. Of course, the biggest laughs come from the action sequences. John takes more blows to the head than a professional football player, yet suffers none of the consequences. This film is infamous for having Triton survive THREE different exploding building sequences, hair and biceps intact. In one scene, Kate is handcuffed in a runaway truck as it barrels through a burning building, and I immediately thought of the sequence in "Top Secret!" with the runaway vehicle and the Pinto. EVERYTHING in this film blows up. EVERYTHING. The physics of the action sequences are astounding.

So maybe I'm being too hard on this. Maybe it's just a lark, and I should relax. I don't think so. The criminals are so sloppy and cartoonish that I think my chubby bald middle-aged self could bring them down. I don't take them as seriously as our main hero does, and "goofy action comedy" is not what the film makers had in mind. There is one scene where Rome takes a call to confirm an expanded cable television package he ordered, and I was tickled by that. Then, cut back to Triton, who should be suffering from brain damage, and the movie bogs down once again.

"The Marine" has prompted a couple of direct to video sequels, without Cena, and I think I'll skip those, too. Cena could be the next Dwayne Johnson if he played his cards right. (*) out of five stars.

Monday, April 7, 2014

'Scuse Me While I Faintly Praise This Sky: "Montana Sky" (2007)

A cable television network adaptation of a Nora Roberts novel should not be this entertaining.

Old Jack Mercy has gone and kicked the bucket. He has left his ranch to his three daughters- spoiled Hollywood screenwriter Tess (Charlotte Ross), the daughter who stayed on the ranch- Willa (Ashley Williams), and Lily (Laura Mennell), who no one around the ranch has met. Apparently, Jack was kind of a bastard, as his will indicates. In order to inherit the ranch, valued at over twenty million dollars, the three sisters must live there for one year. If either of them leaves, the land is donated to a nature conservancy.

The three women are strangers, and immediately take a disliking to each other. Willa's life revolves working with the animals, and spurning the advances of neighbor rancher Ben (John Corbett, who is achingly likable here). Lily is on the run from her ex-husband (Scott Heindl), and the shallow Tess takes a liking to the uncomplicated sheriff Nate (Aaron Pearl). Along with the familial conflict, animals are being killed around the ranch. The killer then graduates to one of the ranch hands, and the viewer has to juggle both the suspense of whether or not Willa and Ben will end up together, and the multitude of red herring suspects in the grisly deaths.

While a very average television film, I found a lot to like about "Montana Sky." The trio of women are all wonderful, and work well together. There is an edge here that I did not expect at all. The opening funeral scene is both catty and darkly funny, and the cast keeps up the snark throughout the film. Veteran director Robe does not become so enraptured with the Albertan scenery (no Montana location shoot here) that he forgets about his cast and story. Technically, there are some hiccups, especially with some funny dubbing mistakes- listen for some scenes where lines sound like they are being delivered into an empty baked beans can. While I eventually figured out who the killer was, the screenplay had me changing my mind a couple of times here and there. I did wonder about Jack's change-of-heart concerning his family, and the film never satisfyingly addresses his motives behind his odd will.

Why John Corbett is not a huge star is beyond me. He is great in this- and you can see why Willa melts when he is around. I recently watched a little movie he was in, that nobody saw, called "Bigger Than the Sky," and his portrayal of a frustrated actor was perfect.

"Montana Sky" could have served as a pilot for a television series about these three different sisters living in Montana, and the show could have worked. It's not great, but not the disaster I smugly thought it was going to be. (* * *) out of five stars.

When Captain America Throws His Mighty Shield...: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014)

The new Marvel film features plenty of action, special effects, and cinematic dazzle.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is comfortable in his role as S.H.I.E.L.D.'s go-to guy, teaming with the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to take care of missions around the globe that don't require ALL of the Avengers. He is still trying to get used to today's society, visiting old flames, and writing down everyone's suggestions for what he "must" do, see, or listen to (music wise, in a nice scene with Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon).

After rescuing some hostages from a hijacked ship in the Indian Ocean, Rogers is exposed to the political realities of working for the massive covert unit. Everyone seems to have a secret agenda, which collides with Rogers' beliefs. The unit's commander, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) answers to Secretary Pierce (Robert Redford, bringing a huge sack of gravitas to a comic book film) -pierce...shield...get it? You know Pierce is going to be a major thorn in everyone's side. Back room dealings force Rogers to face an elite assassin who resurrects an enemy Captain America assumed was long dead. Rogers quickly learns, and is told by Fury, that you cannot trust anyone.

What I liked about the film, much like last year's other good sequel "Thor: The Dark World," is that this is a stand alone story for Captain America only. Evans is a great hero, at ease in his role. Redford seems to have thrown all caution to the wind, chewing up a supporting role, as opposed to what I thought was a cameo when I saw the preview. Evans and Johansson have an easy chemistry, I wish they would do something else together not involving saving the world. The Russos' direction tends to vary. The best action sequence is a good old fashioned car chase in Washington, D.C. At worse, some of the flying sequences involving the new hero, Falcon, are blurred and confusing, much like the first "Transformers" flick. I say "the first," because the frustration forced me to not follow up the sequels. I wish some directors would find that happy medium between nailing the camera to the floor, and shaking and swooping the scene to the point where you taste your popcorn coming back up. The screenplay presents a nice paranoid puzzle, but for every surprise, there is a scene where the writers' "big revelation" is about as shocking as a sunrise. The returning veterans angle is noble, but sometimes lurches along uncomfortably before the affected subjects jump right back into combat. It's also nice to see genre favorite Jenny Agutter on the big screen in these films. She still looks fantastic. Was there a musical score? I honestly don't remember it. I would also advise boning up on the first "Captain America" film, the story is referenced a lot here.

As the public awaits the next Avengers film, these "Phase Two" superhero movies like "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" will do just fine. Now, if only they could come up with a decent Hulk flick. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Friday, April 4, 2014

IMAX, Schimax, Are We Being Quizzed On This?: "Mystery of the Maya" (1995)

This short thirty-eight minute Canadian/Mexican production was filmed in IMAX for some unfathomable reason, using a lame set-up about a boy (Nicolas Alonso) and an archaeologist (Blanca Guerra) to give a brief history of the ancient Mayan people of modern-day Mexico, who disappeared in the ninth and tenth centuries (hence the "mystery" of the title).

The film is an international production, and the DVD viewer has a choice of languages, but the dialogue is badly recorded with audio translations coming after the Spanish speaking performers says their lines. The music is too loud, almost drowning out some of the narration, as well. Most interesting is the "then and now" footage. There were many explorers of the ruins over the years, and the film makers found where early photographs and drawings were taken, and show the change (if any) between then and today. Also interesting is the decoding of the Mayans' numbering system, and their advances in astronomy. This knowledge must be gleaned from glyphs carved in stone, since a Catholic monk burned most of their codices almost five hundred years ago (only four survive). Also of interest is the discovery of a king's tomb underneath a floor and down a hidden stairway.

The sweeping helicopter shots of the ruins are breath-taking, and must have been impressive on the ginormous IMAX screen, but the documentary is strictly aimed at junior high school students. Watching the film on a regular flat-screen television gives the picture a washed-out look, and sitting close to the screen to get the IMAX experience only gave me a headache.

"Mystery of the Maya" is an average flick. (* * *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Unpardonable: "My Fellow Americans" (1996)

A "wow" cast cannot save this extended sitcom.

Former U.S. Presidents Russell Kramer (Jack Lemmon) and Matt Douglas (James Garner) are wiling away their retirement. Kramer beat Douglas in a close race, Douglas defeated Kramer four years later, and then Kramer's vice-president Haney (Dan Aykroyd) came back and defeated Douglas. Douglas (the Democrat) and Kramer (the Republican) hate each other, tossing insults when lumped together at funerals. Both men are flawed. Kramer is a cheapskate, selling out for a dollar, while Douglas is going through a divorce thanks to his womanizing.

President Haney is coasting in the White House with his idiot vice-president (John Heard) when scandal reels its predictable head. A plan is concocted to blame the scandal on Kramer, and Douglas finds himself sucked into the situation as well. Soon, the two men are on the run from a hit squad composed of a shadowy NSA agent (Everett McGill, too serious in such a lightweight comedy) and the former presidents hit the road and must deal with the real people they once led.

Lemmon and Garner have a great chemistry (Garner subbing in a role originally meant for Walter Matthau), and a quick glance at the cast is pretty impressive. However, the film's screenplay is too light, and barely any of it rings true. Sure, it's fun to see Bradley Whitford in a White House-set story before "The West Wing," and wonder why Helgenberger is uncredited, but by the time the end credits roll, you have a barely funny flick that wastes that impressive set of actors. Peter Segal's direction is certainly...there, although the funniest sequence should not be a badly-shot special effects sequence involving our leading men on horses.

I used to be a more hardcore Conservative, so it was funny to watch a "balanced" Hollywood take on flyover country. The family the presidents encounter are Republicans so they are naturally morons but the gays and illegal immigrants come off really well. The main villains are also Republicans. To rub salt in the wound, Aykroyd's President Haney is not only evil but seems to hail from Texas and his vice-president is an idiot. Garner is a ladies' man, but this character trait is charming and rascally (like how many see Bill Clinton). The "Republican" former president is cheap and a sell-out and his wife (a wasted Lauren Bacall- who has a handful of lines and little to do) gets to take a swipe at George H.W. Bush. It is very ironic that this passes as Liberal Hollywood's take on the ivory tower politicians in D.C. Maybe they shouldn't be throwing stones inside their Hollywood Hills mansions? The screenplay is also oddly misogynistic. Bacall's role is slashed, Sela Ward's character is like something out of "All the President's Men," before she vanishes, and Marg Helgenberger sexes up Garner before she disappears, too. The film's focus is obviously on Garner and Lemmon, but not even a scene of Bacall showing concern for her missing husband?

There are some funny lines, Garner and Lemmon seem to have fun, but the story is bland. I think I laughed out loud once, and mostly had a semi-grin on my face. Other than that, watching this cast of pros muddle through this level of comedy is depressing. "My Fellow Americans" has about as many laughs as "Olympus Has Fallen." For a charming comedy centered around D.C., check out "Dave." (* *) out of five stars.