Movie Review: Wild Card (2015)

March 31, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Wild-Card

Wild Card is a really unusual film starring action superstar Jason Statham, undoubtedly one of the busiest men in Hollywood. Directed by Simon West, who has some notable credits on his resume including Con Air and The Expendables 2, it’s actually a remake of the 1986 adaptation of the same name starring Burt Reynolds and based on the novel Heat by William Goldman.

Statham plays Nick Wild, a super lethal dude who earns money by doing odd jobs around Las Vegas. We learn early on that he’s a reasonable guy who doesn’t like to rip off his clients and likes to help people out in a no-nonsense way. When a good friend of his (Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Andy Garcia’s real-life daughter) is brutalized by three thugs — led by Milo Ventimiglia (remember him from the TV series Heroes?) — Nick reluctantly agrees to help seek revenge.

So far so good, except that the film then goes off on a completely unexpected tangent, where we discover that Nick is also a gambling addict who has serious trouble knowing when to call it quits. From here, Wild Card turns into a weird gambling movie for a while , which is OK, but then his actions against the thugs come back to haunt him and the film flips into something else again. In some ways, Wild Card is a — pardon the pun — a wild collection of set pieces, each of which works effectively on its own but doesn’t quite come together as a complete motion picture.

The action sequences are very good, with an impressive visual flair that utilizes slow motion and bone-crunching sound effects that almost make you feel the pain. Here is where Statham is at his absolute best, and to his credit he absolutely milks his charisma and knowledge of on-screen fighting to their fullest.

His acting is obviously not as good, which is probably why West decided to pair him with some outstanding performers. Ventimiglia, who has faded since Heroes turned to shit (though I hear it’s coming back without him), is actually excellent as a buffed up, narcissistic douche. The great Stanley Tucci makes an appearance as a crime lord of sorts, while other big names landing extended cameos include Jason “Costanza” Alexander, Hope Davis, Anne Heche and Sofia Vergara.

Wild Card is not great — it’s too all over the place to be anything close to that — but there are aspects of it I enjoyed, such as the action and some of the dialogue. I was quite stunned to discover that it was made for a budget of US$30 million, which feels excessive considering what I saw on screen, though I was even more astonished to learn that it made just US$1.6 million at the box office, which is far too low for what it deserves. While you won’t miss much by skipping this at the cinema, catching it on DVD won’t be the worst decision you could make.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: White Bird in a Blizzard (2014)

March 31, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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There was something about White Bird in a Blizzard that drew me to it right from the beginning. Perhaps it’s the typically brilliant Shailene Woodley, who plays a teenager trying to come to terms with her mother’s sudden disappearance. Perhaps it’s the sultry Eva Green, who delivers a wickedly delicious performance as Woodley’s mother in extended flashbacks and dream sequences. Or maybe it’s just the overall feel crafted by writer and director Gregg Araki, who adapted the screenplay from the novel of the same name by Laura Kasischke. Whatever it is, White Bird in a Blizzard is a strange experience — not exactly satisfying, but definitely captivating.

Part mystery-thriller, part suburban drama, part coming-of-age/sexual awakening, White Bird in a Blizzard is set in 1988, when 17-year-old Kat Connors (Woodley) returns home one day to discover that her mother Eve (Green) has disappeared without a trace, leaving her wimpy father Brock (Christopher Meloni) in a depressed daze.

Eve had been acting increasingly bizarrely leading up to her disappearance, clearly unhappy with her marriage and life, and perhaps even jealous of her daughter’s blossoming sexuality and new dim-witted boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez). Did Eve simply run off to start a new life, why did someone kill her? And why does Phil seem to be hiding something? To make things more complicated, Kat begins to develop an interest in the hot detective (Thomas Jane) investigating her mother’s case.

I’m not usually into suburban dramas per se, though this one had a quirky, slightly surreal edge to it that made it different and interesting. It reminded me a little of that dreamy 80s TV show, Twin Peaks, where everything and everyone’s just a little off, and the mood is darkly comedic but also uncomfortable.

Stories like this have been done many times before, but never quite like this. Woodley is wonderful as always, even though her character might not be entirely likable or convincing. Eva Green is so funny in this. From her snappy weirdness to the death stares she gives to Meloni, Green had me smirking and giggling despite understanding the genuine sadness she must feel from her uneventful existence.

While it’s not a superior drama, mystery- thriller, comedy or coming-of-age film, White Bird in a Blizzard is a fleetingly enjoyable experience. You might not fully believe in it or its characters, but you’ll have a hard time not feeling compelled to keep watching.

3.5 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘I Love Being the Enemy’ by Reggie Miller

March 30, 2015 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Reggie

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read the one and only book written by my favourite baller of all time, Reggie Miller.

I Love Being the Enemy is an apt title. Reggie made a name and a career out of being the villain, especially in Madison Square Garden in New York, where his play is the stuff of legend. He was the guy who poured in 25 points in the fourth quarter against the Knicks in the 1994 NBA Playoffs while jawing against Spike Lee on the sidelines, then killed them with his mind-boggling 8 points in 9 seconds the year after. He pushed off Michael Jordan for that game-winning three in 1998, and remains one of the only people in the world who ever made his Airness lose his cool (and try to scratch his eyes out). He banked in a 38-foot turnaround three in the 2002 playoffs against the Nets  to force overtime, then dunked over three defenders to force another.

No matter what anyone says about him, Reggie Miller is an inspiration. He may be a bit of a dick sometimes, but he owns up to it like a man, gives his respect where its due, and never crosses the line. That’s the kind of dick every dick should aspire to be. And let’s not forget, despite his alien-stick-figure appearance, the massive balls he has to be able to take — and hit — some of the biggest shots in NBA history. No wonder I fell in love with this man right from the get-go.

I Love Being the Enemy, just like Reggie, is somewhat unusual. Rather than the typical sports memoir with clear themes or topics for each chapter, it’s written like a journal of sorts, penned by Reggie sporadically throughout the course of the 1994-1995 NBA season. It came at a perfect time too, as some of you might recall that was the season right after Reggie became a household name with his 25-point fourth quarter at the Garden, and covers his 8-points-9-seconds heroics later in the playoffs. The Pacers were considered up-and-coming contenders, with passing maestro Mark Jackson manning the point, the Dunkin’ Dutchman Rik Smits in the post, and the Davis boys, Dale and Antonio, doing all the bruising dirty work down low. It was also the season when Michael Jordan returned to the league mid-way through the season following his baseball stint, and the very first game he played upon his return was of course in Indiana against Reggie.

Each entry is written under a specific date like a diary, though every now and then he would go back in time to talk about things in his past, his family, his teammates, his opponents and what he thought about the game in general. As a result, the book is all over the place. There is no doubt an invisible structure holding it all together, though when reading it you feel as though it’s jumping from person to person and place to place. I didn’t have a problem with this approach per se, but it does make it harder to go back and search for passages you enjoyed.

Stylistically, the book is Reggie through and through. Though it’s technically co-written with sportswriter Gene Wojciechowski, the feel is all Reggie, and you can almost hear his voice in your head as you read the lines. It’s chatty, it’s funny and it’s sincere. On the downside, this also means it’s not the most well-written book, complete with all of Reggie’s rambling and superfluous verbal habits, like “To be honest”, “Let’s face it” and so forth.

For me, the book is a confirmation of many things I already knew about Reggie, though there are some things in there that surprised me. I knew he was an unlikely sports star, having required braces on his legs until he was four. He wasn’t supposed to walk or run, let alone become the best shooter in the best basketball league on the planet. I knew he lived in the shadow of his sister Cheryl — arguably the greatest women’s player of all time — for most of his life, and wouldn’t be able to beat her one-on-one until he could literally dunk on her. Just about everyone now knows about the infamous story when Reggie was gloating about his 39-point game in high school until Cheryl casually noted that she scored 105 on the same night. I knew he was superstitious and taped two quarters under his wrist band to remind himself to always play hard because his father once told him that his play wasn’t worth 50 cents.

reg cheryl

Cheryl and Reggie at the latter’s Hall of Fame ceremony

What I didn’t realize was how ridiculous Reggie’s work ethic was. He was always the first in to practice and the game arena and the last to leave, no matter who else played on the team. It was just the way he was. I didn’t know how much respect he had for all his coaches, even if he doesn’t always agree with them. In fact, he treated everyone on his team with respect, never talking behind anyone’s back or airing grievances to the media. As his ex-coach Larry Brown said, Reggie approached the game “the right way.”

With so many airheads, problem childs and douchebags in the league, Reggie was a surprisingly reasonable guy whose on court and off court personas were completely different. Like most professional athletes, he has an ego, but for him it was all about winning and not scoring a whole bunch of points. At various times throughout the book he notes that his teammates, coaches and the media all questioned why he didn’t take more shots, though for him it was about doing whatever he could to guide the team to victory. He also never took his success for granted. I knew he wanted to win a ring very badly, but I didn’t know he had such an appreciation for how hard it is to win games and survive in the NBA. That’s why he actually said he would have retired by 35 if he had won a ring.

I have many favourite parts in this book. I loved the respect Reggie had for Michael Jordan, whom he felt sorry for because of the way he was hounded by the press. Reggie spoke with a passion and anger when it came to the way Jordan was forced to live his life in a bubble, and it was his belief that Jordan retired because he was fed up with the constant attention and drummed-up controversies. For Reggie, Jordan was the ultimate measuring stick — he would hold and push and grab and trip Jordan to beat him in a game, but the amount of respect he had for No. 23 as a player was unparalleled. I’m sure it didn’t hurt when Jordan told Reggie that he was the second-best shooting guard in the league. Oh, and I absolutely loved this story, which he recently retold on Jimmy Kimmel.

Larry Bird, who was not yet Reggie’s coach at the time, also featured in a few golden nuggets. There was of course the infamous “present” he delivered to teammate Chuck Person during a Christmas game, and I also laughed out loud when Reggie recounted how he once tried to psyche Bird out by trash-talking him at the free throw line. Michael Jordan might be the GOAT, but for me, Larry Legend will always be the man.

The young Reggie tales were also great. The battles in the backyard with Cheryl and his brothers, his “crazy” college years, and my personal fave, the street ball hustle he and Cheryl would pull on unsuspecting players. Reggie would play against bigger, stronger kids on the block, and when money got involved he’d call out his shy-looking sister from behind the bushes. They’d up the bet after looking amateurish, and then, BAM, turn on their games and smoke the poor bastards. I so wish they had footage of that.

Another aspect of the book I found interesting was all the stuff Reggie said about players and other issues at the time, which we can now reflect on 20 years into the future.   For instance, Reggie raved on about two rookies at the time, Jason Kidd and Grant Hill, calling them future superstars in the making (they’d go on to win co-Rookie of the Year and fulfill that prophecy), but he also said Kidd was great because he doesn’t get involved in politics with his coach. As some of you might know, Kidd would go on to be ushered out of Brooklyn as coach precisely because he got too involved in team politics.

reggiejordan

Reggie also spoke of the need for a rookie salary cap, noting that it was crazy and detrimental for players for rookies to come into the league earning more than the vets. He was right about that and he was also right about the greatness of Penny Hardaway, who would later eliminate the Pacers that season. The best prediction, if you can call it that, is his thoughts on former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, whom he didn’t think very highly of.

Not all his predictions were right, of course. Reggie did think JR. Rider was going to be something special, and he believed Kevin Garnett should have gone to college. He also thought OJ Simpson was innocent and that his marriage was going to last forever (oops!). Oh, and he thought he’d never make it into the Hall of Fame.

If I were being objective, I’d tell you that I Love Being the Enemy is just another sports memoir on the market that doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from its competitors. It’s not exactly a masterpiece of the genre, though it reads better today than it did 20 years ago because we now know what kind of career Reggie will be remembered for and the hindsight to reflect on the things he wrote at the time. I’d say it’s a solid read for the average basketball fan and a must for lovers and haters of Reggie alike.

4/5

Movie Review: Dragon Blade (2015)

March 12, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

dragon-blade-poster

I had prepared myself for a colossal turd, but I have to give credit where it’s due. Dragon Blade is not THAT bad.

One of the most expensive Chinese movies ever made with a budget of US$65 million, Dragon Blade is a sprawling war epic has already made nearly double that at the box office in China alone. It has plenty of CGI, tons of battle sequences — be it one-on-one or massive armies — and the biggest Chinese action star there is, Jackie Chan. What made the headlines, however, was the casting of two Hollywood A-listers, John Cusack and Adrien Brody, as two Roman soldiers. Honestly, it had all the elements of a massive flop.

Despite its questionable motives and its fair share of annoying flaws, Dragon Blade is actually one of the more acceptable Chinese action films I’ve seen in recent years. The more I think about how bad it could have been, the better I think it actually is.

If you want action, the film definitely delivers, with much of its 127-minute running time dedicated to fighting, fighting and more fighting. It’s all nicely choreographed, albeit a little repetitive, going for the more traditional approach as opposed to the modern stylized version popularized by films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Grandmaster or even Hollywood flicks such as 300.

The special effects are generally well done, but not quite on par with Hollywood productions. There are many sweeping shots of the landscape and ancient architecture that look like paintings (probably because they are), and in my opinion they look fake. If the whole movie had that type of feel (a la 300), then it wouldn’t have been as noticeable, though here it’s jarring because it doesn’t match the rest of the film’s grounded presentation.

The film also falls prey to problems that plague other ambitious Chinese films hoping to crack the international market. The plot is simple but they had to make it unnecessary convoluted. You can tell Hong Kong director Daniel Lee was trying to make the narrative more stylish by making things jump around a little when telling the Roman back story, but I think he made it more confusing instead. They also had to find some other non-Chinese Asian actors to appeal to the wider market. In this case they chose Korean-American pop star Yoo Seung-jun, who has a small token role.

The worst mistake, however, had to be the moronic and unnecessary “modern” link they forced into the plot, starting and ending the film in the present with a couple of unconvincing Asian-American archaeologists (Taiwan’s Vanness Wu and Hong Kong’s Karena Lam) looking for something pointless. It’s the typical “let’s throw some popular Asian starlets in there for no reason” idea Chinese movies love so much. Wu and Lam are cringeworthy. Both the acting and the dialogue are laughably bad.

The central characters are relatively well-developed, I suppose, for this type of film. The big signings, Cusack and Brody, really had to earn their paychecks. Cusack plays the good Roman and has to endure a lot of crap, while Brody plays the bad Roman who has use all his Oscar-winning acting to give his stock-standard villain some much-needed depth. Both guys get opportunities to wield swords, and they actually look convincing. Neither guy has been tearing up the box office as of late — Cusack’s in danger of becoming the next Nicholas Cage with some of his choices of late, and most of Brody’s roles in big films these days are of the supporting kind — so I guess they needed the money.

I find it interesting that Cusack’s role was originally said to have been for Mel Gibson. It makes me smile thinking that he would have agreed to play a Roman — you know, the guys who crucified and killed Jesus Christ — and to star alongside the Jewish Brody.

Anyway, as headline-grabbing as the Americans are, Dragon Blade is of course still Jackie Chan’s film. Unfortunately, Huo An is like every other character Chan has ever played. He’s a big hero; he’s courageous, morally upstanding; he never backs down from doing what’s right. And even though he’s now 60 years old, Jackie’s still getting 20-something actresses to play his love interests as though that’s how it’s meant to be. That said, he’s still got the charm. You can tell he’s desperately trying to show off his acting skills — Jackie has said that he really wants to win an Oscar — which is why there’s nearly half a dozen crying scenes for him in this film. Of course, he also does some singing. Because he can.

Pardon my cynicism. Growing up, Jackie Chan was my guy. Everything he did was the shit: Project A, Police Story, Armour of God. I loved it all. I’ve grown up now, but Jackie’s still the same, except a lot slower and no longer capable of the innovative kung fu acrobatics he’s known for. Oh, and now I also think he’s a bit of a Communist Party stooge.

It doesn’t help that Dragon Blade looks and smells a lot like a piece of Communist Party propaganda. Chan plays Huo An, a commander during the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) tasked with keeping peace on the Silk Road when a bunch of rowdy Romans come knocking. And guess what? Last year, Beijing announced its new “belt and road” initiative, comprising the Silk Road Economic Belt, a land-based belt connecting China to Russia to Europe via Central Asia, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, a maritime route through the Strait of Malacca to India, the Middle East and East Africa. China says the project promotes mutual interests and peace. A coincidence?

What makes it seem even more like propaganda is that the film is filled with unsubtle and unabashed corniness regularly found in Jackie’s movies. It’s a bona fide corn field out there, with an over-the-top musical score and a plethora of “f%*% yeah” moments. I like to call it “Team America-style cheering with Chinese characteristics.” Chinese people want peace! But we will fight to the death for what’s right! We are so righteous even the Romans are willing to follow us!

That’s why no one should be faulted for suspecting that Dragon Blade has a hidden political agenda. It’s a film that demonstrates China can make big blockbusters like Hollywood now, AND they can afford to get top Hollywood actors and even Academy Award winners to join them. China is depicted as a keeper of peace in a volatile world, while the film’s Chinese protagonist is depicted as incorruptible and just. Ethnic minorities are portrayed as uncivilized folk who need the Han Chinese to unify them. I doubt it was an unintentional decision to make Chan’s wife in the movie, played by Mika Wang, an ethnic Uyghur. For those who don’t know, Uyghurs — who say Beijing suppresses their cultural and religious freedoms — are a big problem for China and have been blamed for all the terrorist attacks across the country over the last few years.

The only thing in the film I can think of that really goes against China’s current political philosophies is that Huo infringes Beijing’s principle of non-interference when it comes to the internal matters of other countries — in this case, the Romans. Then again, the Romans were “making trouble” on China’s doorstep, something Chinese president Xi Jinping once said he would not tolerate (though that was in reference to North Korea).

Perhaps I’m over-analyzing. Maybe Dragon Blade is just an innocent action blockbuster after all. Whatever the case may be, it’s not a horrible effort. It is by no means great, or even very good, but at least it’s not boring and it’s not pretentious. The production value is relatively high; Cusack and Brody don’t embarrass themselves like I had anticipated, and the action is solid and occasionally spectacular. As I said, it could have been much much worse.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

March 11, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

exodus

Seriously, I don’t understand why Exodus: Gods and Kings only has a 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. OK, so it’s not Gladiator, but is Ridley Scott’s Bible epic still entertaining? Yes. Is it still engaging? At least half of it is. And is it epic? Absolutely.

For starters, you don’t need to know anything about the Bible to enjoy the film, though some knowledge won’t preclude you from having a good time either. I’ve heard the story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt heaps of times and vaguely remember that Disney moviethough most of what’s remaining in my memory is in bits and pieces. In short, Moses (Christian Bale) is an Egyptian prince from 1300 BCE who “discovers” that he is actually Hebrew and, after an encounter with the famous burning bush, decides to call upon his “brother” Ramesses II (Joel Edgerton) to “let my people go” (he doesn’t say this in the movie, but it’s the only line I remember from The Prince of Egypt).

Ridley Scott does a solid job of keeping the movie as grounded as possible given the subject matter, reminding audiences of the superstitions of the time. The problem, of course, is that it’s only possible to keep a Bible story grounded to a certain extent. While Scott leaves open the door for the theory that Moses is just imagining all his encounters with God (Bale actually said he believes Moses was schizophrenic), there are aspects of the story that cannot work without the presence of a supernatural power. He finds semi-rational reasons for the plagues and a certain Red Sea incident, but those familiar with Exodus will know that God’s fingerprints can’t be erased from the tale.

The other enviable thing Scott does is that he — along with Bale and Edgerton — makes both Moses and Ramesses very human characters. Both actors are terrific. Moses rails against God throughout the film for his barbarism and cruelty, and his faith is anything but unshakable. Ramesses, on the other hand, is not a typical villain — he grows into one almost out of necessity, but you can see that he has a softer side, and that his refusal to let the Hebrew slaves go stems from economic concerns as much as ego. The title Gods and Kings is an apt one.

The film does have its weaknesses. First of all, at 150 minutes, it is far too long and didn’t need to be. There is a lengthy chunk in the middle of the film that sags, so much so I’d probably go as far as to call it dull. People who know the story well might find it disappointing that there aren’t more surprises, as the film appears to be going through the motions at times and does little to halt the plodding. It’s not until the final hour that the pace begins to pick up with the arrival of the plagues and the actual exodus, both of which are executed very well with eye-popping special effects. The spectacle of the final hour alone makes the film worth watching.

If you ask me why the film has done so poorly with critics, my guess is that it doesn’t follow the Bible close enough for the uber-religious folk, and yet it’s also not rational enough for non-religious people looking for a “realistic” depiction of the story. As a result, the movie straddles both markets and finds itself stuck in a no-win situation. Bale’s comments about Moses being one of the “most barbaric” people he’s ever read about sure didn’t help, and neither did criticisms of the all-white casting of the main cast (which was, let’s face it, necessary for the film to be financed in the first place).

Personally, I don’t really care one way or the other. I’m just glad this is a Bible film that delivers on the spectacular visuals and doesn’t ram its self-righteous message down throats without giving audiences an opportunity to think for themselves.

3.75 stars out of 5

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