Category Archives: Now Playing

Films now playing in D/FW Theaters

Opening: ‘The Monkey King 3’

dfn-monkey-king-3-300The Monkey King 3 is the third in a series, based on the classic Journey to the West. The source material is well-known to Chinese audiences, which allows the filmmakers to feature their own riffs amidst the comic misadventures.

It’s a historical action fantasy, with the emphasis on fantasy, colorful costumes, and extravagant 3D action. This installment focus on “Ladyland,” a region where only women live, enabling a fresh set of stereotypes to be exploited. Aaron Kwok returns as the Monkey King, though much of the story follows his monk companion (Feng Shaofeng) and the temptations of love between the merry group of travelers and the dominant women. And yes, those extravagant fighting scenes!

Soi Cheang once again directs, and he has a good handle on the series, balancing the action with comedy and romance. The Monkey King 3 is a step down from the previous installment, but the series’ willingness to play around with well-established formulas is refreshing in itself, especially for Western audiences.

The film opens today at the Cinemark Legacy in Plano.

Review: ‘The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death,’ Tortured Souls And Stiff Upper Lips

'The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death' (Hammer Films)
‘The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death’ (Hammer Films)

Tortured souls abound in the sequel to The Woman in Black (2012).

It’s 1941, and London is under attack. Eight schoolchildren are evacuated to safety in the countryside, under the care of headmistress Jean (Helen McCrory) and teacher Eve (Phoebe Fox), a week ahead of other children who will fill up Eel Marsh House, located on a small island surrounded by marshland. Little do they know that the long-abandoned mansion is still haunted by the titular character, a vengeful soul with a special interest in children.

Picking up the story some 40 years after the events in the first film allows The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death to introduce a new cast of characters who are oblivious to what has happened before. No local residents remain to warn the teachers about the dangers that lurk within the old mansion, save for one tight-lipped gentleman who does little more than glare at them. And with the country in a state of war, the women and children understand intuitively that their problems don’t amount to a hill of beans to anyone but themselves.

In effect, the children have been abandoned by their parents, sent away from their loved ones, and so it’s no surprise that they are quiet and withdrawn. The state of war is emphasized by the headmistress, who encourages the children, in so many words, to have stiff upper lips, to put up with their hardships. This is exemplified in the case of Edward, a young boy whose home was bombed the night before the group leaves London. Evidently, his mother was killed in the attack, and he has ceased speaking altogether, writing notes to express himself, but only when pressed by his teachers.

The headmistress is the wife of an officer, with grown children she avoids talking about, so whatever trepidation she is feeling, she keeps to herself. Eve does her best to exude a positive attitude, but she has a troubled past, as suggested by her manner and then demonstrated in an early nightmare, a horrible memory that she wishes she could forget. Her spirits are lifted temporarily by a pilot named Harry (Jeremy Irvine), yet he has his own anguished memories to untangle as well.

With all of these poor souls gathered together in one place, it seems a perfect opportunity for the sequel to expand upon the ghostly legacy that has already been established. Instead, screenwriter Jon Croker, working from a story by Susan Hill, sticks to what is known, which means that The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death feels more like a remake than a sequel, offering little that’s fresh or new in the story.

To be fair, that’s more a reflection upon Hammer Films than the screenwriter. The company made a name for itself in the late 1950s by reinventing the classic movie monsters made popular by Universal Studios in the 1930s, adding distinctive spins to the characters by making them more bloody, clever, and diabolical. Now that the company has reestablished itself in the past few years and enjoyed some success, it’s once again facing the challenge of sequels.

“The Woman in Black” has a good, frightful appearance, and once again is used sparingly. It appears that the idea was to keep her the same, while introducing a new setting and group of people for her to terrify. That’s a good start, but more twists and turns are needed in a sequel for it to avoid treading the same ground, which is what has happened here.

That being said, director Tom Harper follows the subtle path to horror, making good use of the haunting atmosphere created by the decrepit mansion and surrounding, often foggy marshlands, relying as much on silence as music cues to create tension. All that good-faith effort adds up to a nicely-made picture that doesn’t match or exceed the original in suspense or quiet thrills.

The film is now playing wide in theaters throughout Dallas.

Review: ‘Fury,’ War Is Hell

Unable to steer around a cluster of plot holes, otherwise known as hoary war-movie cliches, Fury is a surprisingly clunky vehicle for Brad Pitt and his intense young crew, and a step backward for writer/director David Ayer.

Ayer has built his career around films that explore traditional masculinity under fire, focusing on characters in modern law enforcement (Training Day, Dark Blue, End of Watch, Sabotage). But he received his first writing credit for U-571 (2000), an intense World War II suspense thriller about a submarine crew.

He returns to that territory with Fury, which picks up in April 1945. A tough sergeant known as Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) leads an equally tough, if tiny, group of men inside a tank they’ve dubbed “Fury.” The crew has managed to survive multiple campaigns over several years, but have just suffered their first casualty, and thus must accept the fresh-faced Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) in the dying days of the war.

Naturally, the crew doesn’t know that the war in Europe will end the following month, although they know that German troops are surrendering left and right. What they know and what they follow are orders, and they’ve been ordered to continue pressing onward into Germany, even as they pass by masses of civilians with their hands up and see their comrades blown to bits.

The crew, formerly a tight fighting unit, suddenly divides with Norman’s arrival. Wardaddy, who starts by treating Norman as cruelly and coldly as possible, warms up to the kid, despite his inclinations toward cowardice. Norman, while still holding on to a vestige of his naive humanity, simultaneously starts down the path toward being a bloodthirsty, gun-happy warrior.

The other three members of the crew, however, become more hostile to Norman and even to Wardaddy, perhaps sensing that the middle-aged Wardaddy feels fatherly and protective toward Norman. Grady (Jon Bernthal), Gordo (Michael Peña), and ‘Bible’ (Shia LaBeouf) are not well-defined as individuals. Instead, they slot neatly into the WWII stereotypes of Nasty Dude, Mexican Dude, and Religious Dude.

This is, in itself, disappointing coming from Ayer, especially since all five men are trapped inside a war machine that is the equivalent of a police squad car. Ayer chooses to ignore the men in the back seat — effectively, “bad guys” on their way to jail — and focuses on the “good guys” in the front seat, with Wardaddy driving and Norman riding shotgun.

It’s the equivalent, then, of Ayer’s police dramas, with Wardaddy and Norman essentially partners, with the older man teaching the younger how to survive. This approach comes home in a lengthy scene on a rare “night off” in a captured village; it’s awkward and uncomfortable and filled with portents.

Those portents never really pay off, though, which is one reason why Fury fails to engage as the kind of authentic experience it aspires to be. Ayer, who so often has bucked expectations in his work, here gives into a harsh sentimentality, riffing on scenes and themes that are overly familiar. An early example comes when Norman falls apart during his first day in combat, whereupon Wardaddy forces him to confront his demons. It’s the sort of scene that has played out in countless movies about men in battle, whether during wartime or in street fights, and it’s far too tired to be effective, even with Pitt and Lerman emoting like crazy.

By keeping the action limited to what the tank crew can see and hear for themselves, Fury earns points for its fresh perspective. Yet it succumbs far too often to exhausted scenarios and pretty much plays out as might be expected, which diminishes its impact, resulting in a damp victory for the Allies.

The film opens across Dallas and Fort Worth on Friday, October 17.

Brad Pitt in 'Fury'
Brad Pitt in ‘Fury’

Review: ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,’ The Search for Peace

'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' (Fox)
‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (Fox)
No more and no less than a very good sequel, as well as an unacknowledged remake, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes asserts its own identity early.

Director Matt Reeves, who has done this sort of thing before with Let Me In, his striking remake of the Swedish ‘modern vampire’ film Let the Right One In, starts with the apes in a world of their own. Having escaped from the clutches of their human oppressors, the apes have established a close-knit community deep in the Muir Woods outside San Francisco. Caesar (Andy Serkis), an ape born in captivity whose intelligence was boosted by an experimental drug, is the leader, but he faces continual challenges. Koba (Toby Kebbell), a battle-scarred veteran, has vastly more painful memories of his human captivity than does Caesar, and recoils at any thought of reconciliation with humans. Caesar’s own son has become increasingly rebellious, and Caesar struggles to keep his community united.

Meanwhile, the potential threat of the humans remains. A worldwide epidemic has reduced them to a desperate group of survivors huddled together in the city, with deep resentment toward apes, who have been blamed for the epidemic that wiped out most of mankind. They venture into the woods in search of a dam power station, with the hope of restoring electricity to the city. But they are also stockpiling weapons, and are ready to take up arms and go to war with the apes, if need be.

If Caesar represents the best of the apes — and he does — Malcolm (Jason Clarke) represents the best of mankind. Both have suffered personal losses, both want the best for their families, friends, and comrades, and both want peace, but at what cost? The essential dilemma of the movie plays out much as one might expect. Each side has naysayers, the ones who are prophets of doom and gloom, convinced that they are acting in the best interests of their species; the protagonists must tussle with the naysayers as much as anyone else. Survival is the name of the game, but, again, what price war?

The most effective sequences are those set in the world of the apes. They coexist with nature as peacefully as they can, carving out their dwelling places in an unobtrusive manner, and communicate through sign language and rudimentary words spoken gruffly in English. It is not an easy existence, and they must remain on guard against the possibility of human intrusion, but they are reasonably content.

The broad strokes of the screenplay, credited to Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback, are borrowed from 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, in a similar fashion to how Rise of the Planet of the Apes was inspired by 1972’s Conquest of the Battle of the Apes — only more so. Having seen the fifth installment of the franchise recently, I was surprised by the large number of story beats that are recycled in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Still, there’s a vast difference between the two, mainly because of the vastly larger production budget. Every aspect of the production has been upgraded in a thoughtful, creative manner; James Chinlund’s production design especially shines (darkly) in the apes’ community, while the cinematography by Michael Seresin — who photographed most, if not all, of Alan Parker’s notable films in the 1970s and 80s — contributes mightily to the gloomy atmosphere. Michael Giacchino’s original music score once again strikes the right notes without drawing undue attention.

With all these positive elements in play, not to mention fine lead performances by Serkis and Clarke, and solid supporting work by Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, and Toby Kebbell, it’s disappointing that the film begins to lose steam right at the moment when the intensity should be ramping up. From its opening sequences, the movie itself has been pointing toward an inevitable confrontation between the apes and mankind, so the protracted conversations on the subject during the run-up become repetitive without adding any additional nuance to the discussion.

While I’ve often wished for blockbusters to be more thoughtful, this is a rare case when too much thoughtfulness actually slows the picture down, so that I was itching for action. And when that finally erupts, it’s unevenly paced, leaving the third act a bit of a mess.

Those concerns aside, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is very good for what it is: the latest installment in a beloved franchise that has been reborn with vim and vigor.

The film opens wide throughout Dallas on Friday, July 11.

Review: ‘Snowpiercer’ Cures the Summertime Blockbuster Blues

'Snowpiercer' (Radius/TWC)
‘Snowpiercer’ (Radius/TWC)
A dark, hilarious social comedy, Snowpiercer is also filled with bruising, brutal action sequences. Under the direction of Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, that adds up to a great deal of fun.

Adapted for the screen by Bong and Kelly Masteron from a 1982 French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, the premise, frankly, is ridiculous: the extremely wealthy Wilford (Ed Harris) dreamed of building a perpetual-motion engine that would power a luxury train on a private rail system circumnavigating the world. He achieved his dream before a scientific experiment goes wrong and causes another Ice Age that kills all life on Earth, except for those “lucky” enough to gain passage on the train, named Snowpiercer.

The truly “lucky” ones are those who were rich enough to secure accommodations on the front part of the train. The unlucky, i.e. the poor and unwashed, are kept in the back part of the train by armed guards, and suffer privations on an epic scale. Despite occasional rebellions, the situation has continued unabated for 17 years, and Curtis (Chris Evans) has had enough. Under the guidance of the group’s unofficial leader, the aged and disabled Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis has hatched a plan to rush the armed guards, move forward through the train, and eventually take control of the engine, so as to establish liberty and justice for all.

The anguish of the underprivileged passengers — including Curtis’ best friend Edgar (Jamie Bell), as well as an angry mother, Tanya (Octavia Spencer), whose young child has been taken away by the guards for undisclosed reasons — is dire and a unrelieved until Tilda Swinton shows up as Mason, an authority figure. She delivers a speech that, judging by its words alone, is intended to intimidate and terrorize the cowed and downtrodden: ‘Everyone must remain in their place! We in the front, and you in the back!’ Yet her buck-toothed appearance and Swinton’s out-of-touch delivery of the lines mark it as a patently comic invention, and that welcome dose of levity returns balance to the piece.

Although grim and violent action predominates, the humorous commentary continues, especially once the sleepy-eyed Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho) enters the picture. He’s a drug-addicted security expert who’s been locked up for years, and the rebels must entice him to join them. He and his partner in crime Yona (Ko Ah-sung) supply perspective as the rebels fight their way toward the engine.

Each car on the train is different, fulfilling a different function, and, if it wasn’t already crystal clear, each car allows for different aspects of societal and class norms to be criticized. Bong and his team, notably production designer Ondrej Nekvasil, create a wonderful variety of luxurious settings for the front half of the train, no matter how impractical they may appear, and their unflagging imagination, as gloriously photographed by Hong Kyung-pyo (Bong’s 2009 film Mother) reaps increased benefits as the rebels approach their ultimate goal.

Song Kang-ho has appeared in many of the best-known Korean films to have enjoyed exposure in the U.S. (J.S.A.: Joint Security Area and The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, to name two), and worked with Bong previously on 2003’s Memories of Murder and 2006’s The Host. Here he is a shaggy dog of a man, and he’s teamed well with Ko Ah-sung, who played the girl captured by the monster in The Host

Among the English-speaking cast, Chris Evans acquits himself quite well, embodying a man who has spent half his life on the train and is burned out from his suffering. Tilda Swinton’s comic turn is pure gold. John Hurt and Ed Harris lend the necessary dramatic heft to their roles.

Snowpiercer offers up an energetic sociology lesson that is sometimes glib and sometimes sincere, but always entertaining and propulsive.

The film opens Wednesday, July 2, at Angelika Film Center (both locations, in Dallas and Plano), Alamo Drafthouse, and AMC Grapevine.

Review: ‘Transformers: Age Of Extinction,’ The Best Movie Ever … If You’re 9 Years Old And Can Stay Awake

'Transformers: Age of Extinction'
‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’
Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction is not a movie in the traditional sense of the word, though “movie” will have to do until a new word is coined to describe the maximum sensory experience that Bay consistently delivers.

More so than any entertainer in the world today, Bay is intent on immersing audiences in that experience. A short promotional feature proudly advertises that the fourth installment in the Transformers franchise utilizes the new IMAX 3D Digital Camera for many of the action sequences, which comprise more than half of the 165-minute running time. That further clues in first-time Bay-watchers to his priorities: the action sequences are lengthy exercises in chase and pursuit, destruction and death, escape and trap, defeat and triumph. They are, frankly, an end unto themselves.

During one such apparently endless sequence, I wondered if it could be excised entirely without affecting the overall experience. As the closing credits finally, mercifully began to roll, I realized my idle thought was correct.

Still, I’d be a hypocrite if I denied enjoyment of individual sequences, especially those in the first half of the experience, much of it set in and around Paris, Texas (though it was actually filmed in and around Austin). The wide open spaces provide picturesque backdrops for the story to unfold, and for Bay and cinematographer Amir Mokri to indulge their love for lens flares and ‘magic hour’ photography, whether captured in-camera or in post-production. Transformers: Age of Extinction looks terrific, and the artistry involved in the extensive computer-generated imagery is top-notch.

I’d also be a hypocrite if I denied my love for action movies that skimp on the plot. Earlier this year, I very much enjoyed The Raid 2, which runs 150 minutes and is devoted almost entirely to action sequences. The difference, and it is a major difference, is that The Raid 2 features a stunning variety of action, from vehicular to martial arts to sword play to gun battles. For all that Michael Bay clearly loves action sequences, the fighting between giant CGI robots becomes routine far too quickly to sustain an experience of this length.

One of the reasons that the earlier scenes work — to the extent that they do — is the placement of humans in peril within those sequences strain, but do not break, credulity. Out of an evident desire to raise the stakes, the “human peril” element becomes ludicrously extreme, and then we’re back to watching robots bash one another.

While the experience does not lack humor, much of it is either front-loaded — in the person of the annoyingly grubby T.J. Miller — or back-loaded — in the more capable hands of Stanley Tucci. By that point of the action, however, Tucci is reduced to reaction shots, joking asides, and even he can only do so much. The rest of the picture relies on tired, ancient humor fantasizing that Mark Wahlberg is an old-fashioned father who doesn’t want his 17-year-old daughter (Nicola Peltz) dating boys. Of course, she’s been secretly dating an older Irish hunk / race driver (Jack Reynor) who is entirely too conversant with Texas statues about dating underage girls.

Transformers: Age of Extinction revolves around an upper-echelon CIA chief (Kelsey Grammer) and his determination to wipe the Transformers off the face of the earth. Of course, he has ulterior motives, and the good Transformers, led by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) must decide if they want to help mankind against the evil Decepticons. Fans will know the difference between the good robots and the bad robots; for everyone else, it’s a matter of watching pixels fighting pixels, in glorious IMAX 3D Digital Camera photography at tremendous volume.

Help yourself.

The experience opens wide in theaters throughout the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex on Friday, June 27.