The Scarlett Johansson Project — #10

Unlike certain things that are going on right now, this feature is indeed finally coming to an end. Believe it or not, the idea was not to drag this feature on until forever. (If you’re curious as to how things typically work, you can check the main Actor Profile page here.) Here we are at the end of a second year, finally bidding adieu to one of the most popular movie stars of this generation.

Setting my idealism aside, I am excited to have seen this latest project through and to have had so much good feedback on the roles I have chosen to cover. Unfortunately what ended up happening as far as role selection is concerned was not what I had intended, either; the original plan was to crowdsource ideas for which roles should be covered and then work from those, perhaps providing a link to the blogger’s site (should they have one) from the post they inspired me to create. In the end I inadvertently passed on an opportunity to build community by going with my own choices. It was never my intention to ignore others’ suggestions.

Besides, I’m 100% positive this suggestion would have made its way into the mix, some way, some how. Let’s be honest, you can’t really talk about certain actors without also considering their contributions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The cinematic landscape has been changed forever with Jon Favreau’s template-setting Iron Man in 2008. The prestige casting has only intensified since Robert “Sundance” Redford decided to loosen his tie and join the fun by playing Alexander Pierce in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The end credits of Black Widow, as an even more bizarre example, features Julia Louis-Dreyfus for crying out loud. One wonders, when all is said and done, what self-respecting Hollywood actor will have actually failed to have landed an MCU gig of some kind, if not on the big screen then on the small. Of course, that’s with the presumption the MCU is a finite thing. 

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff in Cate Shortland’s Black Widow 

Role Type: Lead

Premise: Natasha Romanoff confronts the darker parts of her ledger when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises. (IMDb)

Character Background: Born in Russia in 1984, orphaned as a child and trained up to become a KGB spy through a brainwashing program targeting young women, Natasha Romanoff lived quite the complicated life. Or, as Cate Shortland’s Black Widow suggests, perhaps it was two lives, what with her being part of two adoptive families — one a little indie start-up you might know as the Avengers and the other a trio of Russian sleeper agents posing as American expats in suburban Ohio.

Making her MCU début in Iron Man 2 as a flirty undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who was clearly never going to be just a simple foil for Tony Stark (or a sex object for that matter), the enigmatic redhead quickly became a fundamental part of the MCU fabric, earning increased screen minutes in The Avengers (2012) and notably Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), evolving from a sidekick to a significant role player in the process. Natasha Romanoff may be without superhuman or godly powers but her speed and brutality in hand-to-hand combat make her a force to be reckoned with — skills that are put on full display in her long-overdue solo film (not to mention, her propensity for dramatic fight stances).

Age of Ultron provided a glimpse of her past trauma as the team collectively reeled under hallucinations brought on by an enraged Wanda Maximoff, but it wouldn’t be until 2020 2021 that the specifics of that past would be brought into the full light (or in this case, dark) of day. Black Widow is the film that acquaints us with Natasha’s original adopted family — a true highlight being the dynamic between her and “sister” Yelena — as well as the source of her torment, the hissable spymaster Dreykov, the man who turned an entire generation of women into weapons.

And although the chronology remains an annoyance there is at least a sense of evolution with the way themes of independence and control are evolved through the character’s actions here. In Black Widow Natasha makes the decision to stop retreating from and instead start running toward those who oppress her, aspiring not only to rid herself of Dreykov but free all those still under his influence. Even if the thing that she must do in order to achieve her goal feels disappointingly been-there-done-that, in becoming a leader of women and an inspiration to her “sister,” Natasha’s arc feels emotionally and psychologically complete.

What she brings to the movie: Pathos, pride and consistency. I’d wager no two actors are more inseparable from their MCU personalities than Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson. I say this in full recognition of all the fascinating roles she has made her own throughout a box office smashing career. Across an eight-film arc spanning more than a decade — nearly a third of her big screen career — Johansson has quite literally grown up with the character, one who has often been at the center of some of the most dramatic moments in the Infinity Saga. To say she knows Natasha well by the time Black Widow rolls around is some kind of understatement. 

It’s in her solo film where that comfort level is most felt, as we get to see Johansson flex more than her muscles in what has always been a physically demanding role. The weariness and cynicism in her performance feels true to where the character is at this point in time, itinerant and alone; down but hardly out. She also has this fantastic chemistry with Florence Pugh that makes this film human in ways it might not have been with different actors.  

In her own words: “When you find her in the beginning [of Black Widow] she’s just broken. By the end of the film the goal is to put her back together different than before, you know? I think Natasha has a lot of compassion and that’s not necessarily what I would have anticipated when we were filming Iron Man 2 or Avengers or whatever. You’ve seen glimpses of it and it’s developed over time, as we’ve been able to bring the character to the forefront in different instillaments, but she’s a very compassionate person and that passion is actually what drives a lot of her decision making. I mean, she’s also practical and pragmatic and I don’t think those two things have to necessarily work against each other. That part of her is what really touches me.”

Key Scene: A brutal trip down memory lane. There are so many good scenes between Johansson and Florence Pugh but one of the more poignant is this exchange between Johansson and Rachel Weisz, as the two reminisce over fake Christmases, fake traditions, fake family memories. It’s perhaps not a signature action scene but I’m always for the more grounded, human moments and this one’s a memorable one. 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):

***/*****


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: www.imdb.com; interview excerpt courtesy of Ashley Robinson/Collider 

Red Notice

Release: Friday, November 5, 2021 (limited) 

👀 Netflix

Written by: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber 

Starring: Dwayne Johnson; Ryan Reynolds; Gal Gadot; Ritu Arya; Chris Diamantopoulos 

Distributor: Netflix

 

 

**/*****

A red notice is associated with something of very high value, such as an art thief of international notoriety. It’s what INTERPOL uses to identify and/or extradite highly wanted suspects. If you haven’t heard, there’s one out for writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who is guilty of making a very expensive heist comedy featuring Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot feel cheap and lazy.

Originality is not the issue, although (and with due respect) it never has been with Thurber, who has set his sights on pure escapism and is now a three-time Dwayne Johnson collaborator. As his filmography has shown he’s a guy who likes to rub shoulders with big-name talent. But I’m not sure he’s ever rested on the laurels of his cast quite in the way he does here. Red Notice is expensive but creatively bankrupt — a two-plus-hour conveyor belt of farcical episodes that are forgotten as soon as they happen, all capped off by one of the most asinine endings you’ve seen in a while.

As the Cliff’s Notes prologue establishes, thousands of years ago some dude named Marc Antony gifted three bejeweled eggs to the war-mongering Cleopatra as a wedding gift and a symbol of his “devotion.” Don’t worry too much about brushing up on your Ptolemaic history though; this thing is mostly just jokes and good-looking actors being captured in the perfect light. In the present day, an Egyptian billionaire thinks it would be neat if he replicated the symbolic gesture for his daughter on her wedding day. Whoever can recover all three eggs and deliver them on the big day will become a very rich man or woman indeed. 

The leading trio has certainly ensured their own personal wealth, commanding $20 million a head, but we as viewers (or armchair critics) aren’t exactly enriched by watching reheated performances from other, better movies. This is the kind of pablum that tends to cool even the hottest of Hollywood celebs. Reynolds and The Rock do alright with the odd-couple dynamic but their characters are paper thin. Gadot fares better and seems like the only one who’s trying to do something more fun with her enigmatic character The Bishop, less a femme fatale as a rogue in rouge.

Thurber, who may never set the world on fire, knows how to make a good time happen but Red Notice finds him struggling to make a $200 million production come to life. Though DP Markus Förderer injects some energy with the rinse-and-repeat FPV drone shots that link us to every important place — we start in a priceless museum in Rome, make a daring prison escape in Russia, crash a masquerade ball in Valencia and dig into the rich history of Argentina’s underground, Nazi-stuff-stashing tunnels — the temperature in every room, or outside of them for that matter, remains the same. There is no tension to any of the developments, no significant stakes. But if you are looking for an obnoxious Ed Sheeran cameo, boy do I have the movie for you. 

The Bishop and her pawn

Moral of the Story: I was actually looking forward to Red Notice when it was first announced. Those expectations weren’t anything wild, but I also was not anticipating something so machine-processed. So for me it’s hard to overlook even the minor flaws. I very much doubt I’ll be wasting my time on the two sequels that are soon coming. I’ve done pretty well avoiding most of the crap that floats around on Netflix but this time their cute little algorithm got me. Looks like I’m the chump. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “Do you know who I am? I was in The Game of Thrones! I’m Ed Sheeran, bitch!” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: www.impawards.com; www.imdb.com

Greenland

Release: Friday, December 18, 2020 (VOD)

👀 Amazon Prime 

Written by: Chris Sparling

Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh

Starring: Gerard Butler; Morena Baccarin; Roger Dale Floyd; David Denman; Hope Davis; Scott Glenn; a comet named Clark

Distributor: STXfilms 

 

 

 

***/*****

Downbeat disaster movie Greenland reunites star Gerard Butler with Angel Has Fallen director Ric Roman Waugh and for the second time running they’ve delivered solid if logically shaky entertainment. There’s clearly a synergy between these two for they will collaborate again on a Greenland sequel, a prospect that seems justified beyond the profit margin. 

A comet is coming to town and a bearded Butler has to get himself and his family to safety, or whatever around here passes for safety when it turns out the threat isn’t one cohesive object but rather a large group of fragments. What was supposed to be a spectacular near-earth passing witnessed on TV now has extinction level event written all over it. Comet forecasting isn’t an exact science but boy does the situation deteriorate quickly. Florida gets obliterated, and soon enough mass panic grips society.

Waugh’s doomsday thriller has a different, more serious thrust than something the likes of Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich might concoct. More concerned with what’s going on in people’s heads rather than what’s happening in the sky, Greenland imagines a scenario where one’s employment status determines whether they are invited to the apocalyptic afterparty. When Atlanta-based engineer John Garrity (Butler), his estranged wife Alison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) are selected by the government for emergency sheltering, hope for safe passage is dashed by a pesky medical detail which prevents them from boarding a plane and thrusts them into the very chaos the patriarch’s shrewdly selected career path was about to spare them from.

As if navigating the collapse of society as a family isn’t scary enough — jet fuel, open gunfire and panicked mobs at Robbins Air Force Base make for a lethal combination — Chris Sparling’s screenplay further ratchets up the drama by scattering the Garritys across the map, splitting the time fairly evenly between the two camps. Butler in particular is impressive downplaying his action hero persona, convincing as an everyman who disgusts himself with the things he ends up doing in an attempt to reunite with his loved ones.

Meanwhile Alison hatches a plan to rendezvous back at her father (Scott Glenn)’s farmstead. Baccarin is rock-solid in the role, and if our sympathies aren’t already aligned with her — John’s presumably had an affair, something that’s only ever hinted at a couple of times throughout — they are wholly and completely when Nathan is imperiled by opportunists posing as Good Samaritans (David Denman and Hope Davis, both very good in their contributions to the Worst Of side of the humanitarian ledger).

Despite some serendipitous turns that force the plot to go where it needs to, Greenland maintains a level of gritty realism that feels rare for the genre and wrings fairly consistent tension from the often unpleasant exchanges between strangers. Even the grand finale is understated, the antithesis of Michael Bay. A select few moments of cheap-looking CGI confess to the modest ($35 million) budget, but for the most part the intimate scope creatively disguises those limitations.

Marginally worse than Black Friday at Wal-Mart

Moral of the Story: The anarchic, human angle and an atypical Gerard Butler performance make Greenland a pretty easy recommendation for fans of end-of-the-world thrillers. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “My friend Teddy says your life flashes in front of your eyes when you die. I think it would be better if it did that while you lived. That way, you could see all the good memories and be happy.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: www.impawards.com; www.imdb.com 

No Time to Die

Release: Friday, October 8, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Neal Purvis; Robert Wade; Phoebe Waller-Bridge; Cary Joji Fukanaga

Directed by: Cary Joji Fukanaga

Starring: Daniel Craig; Léa Seydoux; Rami Malek; Christoph Waltz; Ralph Fiennes; Lashana Lynch; Ana de Armas; Ben Whishaw; Naomie Harris; Jeffrey Wright; Billy Magnussen; Rory Kinnear

Distributor: Universal 

 

***/*****

The time has come for James Bond to move on to greener pastures. In an unlikely turn of events, arguably the world’s most ineligible bachelor is looking to settle down and bid cheerio to his obligation to protect Queen and country at all costs, even especially ones of a personal nature. All good things must come to an end and with endings we look for closure. Ah, but is closure always satisfying?

We saw him get close before. Tantalizingly, torturously close to leading a normal life. The departed Vesper Lynd still haunts him. In No Time to Die, we see him pay his respects at her tomb in the scenic Matera, Italy, which might feel like a deleted scene from Casino Royale if not for the staggering mark of maturity in “I miss you” — a line Daniel Craig delivers in such a way you really feel the weight of those 15 years. James Bond is all grown up now. You feel it most in the dialogue, which allows Craig to serve up his best performance yet as the iconic super-spy, the actor going beyond his era’s stiff upper lip stoicism and confessing to things you’ve never heard his or any Bond say before: “I love you;” “I’m truly sorry.”

No Time to Die is such a weird experience. Watching Bond soften like a Walls vanilla ice cream cone on a hot summer day is weird. It’s also wonderful. But for whatever reason, I just could not get into the action. Partly due to the buzz-killing aroma of Greek tragedy. Partly due to the fact that no stunt here really blows the roof off. And that ending really bothers me, so we may as well get it out of the way now. If packing Kleenexes in anticipation of the soap opera ending is what the people want in all their big franchise arcs, fine. Personally I feel there’s a way to be dramatic without going scorched earth. Is this perhaps why people lament The Dark Knight Rises so — that needling incongruity of the brooding vigilante suffering all only, ultimately, to be done a kindness?

You say tonally inconsistent; I say it’s compassionate.

Directed by Cary Joji Fukanaga, clearly a talented director capable of steering a massive ship, the overly dour, overly long story details Bond’s tango with foes both old and new as he is yanked out of retirement to save the world for one last time. There is a ton of moving parts in this movie and a daunting number of relationships to stay Onatopp of, though not all are worth the effort. The backbone of the film concerns tension between Bond and Madeleine (Léa Seydoux, reprising her role from Spectre), specifically the former’s shifting perception of the latter’s innocence/complicity. When the two are ambushed in Italy by Spectre assassins it’s déjà vu all over again with Bond unable to see Madeleine as anything but Traitor #2. More shaken than stirred, Bond buggers off to Jamaica where he is soon contacted by an old friend from the CIA in Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) who’s desperate for his help in tracking down a kidnapped scientist (David Dencik). 

For all that gets shortchanged and is made unnecessarily cluttered, the conflict presented in No Time to Die offers more bang for your buck, presenting not one but two evil forces with which Bond and MI6 must contend. The inimitable Christoph Waltz returns as arch-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, here regrettably confined to a portable holding cell as if a Hannibal Lecter knock-off and doing most of his limited damage via a removable bionic eye that enables him to call the shots from a safe distance, this time with comically epic failing results.

When it comes to new threats, No Time to Die offers an expected bit of double-agent treachery with Billy Magnussen’s disturbingly smile-happy Logan Ash, and goes old-school with Rami Malek’s soft-spoken rage: “My family got wiped out by one man, now the entire world will pay!” On the one hand, you kinda have to love the Scaramanga-like excessiveness, yet that crazy leap in logic feels regressive, underscoring how good we had it with Le Chiffre’s far more nuanced, relatable desperation. And Bond, never one to mince words, is dead right: All his opponent is is another angry man in a long line of angry men, coming up a little short in terms of the gravitas required of a figure framed as the ultimate reckoning for 007.

Where No Time to Die truly frustrates however is in its handling of internal conflict within MI6. M (Ralph Fiennes)’s judgment is called into question with the revelation of Project Heracles, code for a dangerous bioweapon that targets victims’ DNA so anyone related to them is at risk as well. Supposedly there was a morally upstanding justification for its deployment, but in the wrong hands (i.e. Safin’s) it’s going to wipe out millions, including the entirety of Spectre. Bond and M are at loggerheads, which is fun to watch, especially with Fiennes getting to go a little bigger with the role than he has before, but it’s the flippant treatment of Nomi (Lashana Lynch) as Bond’s ostensible replacement that baffles. A fun, strong performance from Lynch is severely undermined by the decision to have her character fall back in line with SOPs, her agency the equivalent of borrowing the keys to the DB-5 for a quick joy ride.

Added all up, it really sounds like I hated this movie. At first, I think I did. Like Roger Ebert after watching the movie North. But Fukanaga and his writing team don’t deserve childish vitriol. No Time to Die is a messy dish but the meat and potatoes are there at the bottom. After all, the Craig era has always been infused with pain and coldness. His final outing is an odd blend of the past and the present, where throwbacks to classic lairs and bad-skinned baddies are welcomed while the mimicking of Tony Stark martyrdom feels off-brand and, yeah, unsatisfying. 

They’re bringing Knives Out at a gunfight

Moral of the Story: I’m extremely wary of my own reaction here. I had a similarly negative response to Quantum of Solace, the direct follow-up to Casino Royale. I have since gone back and watched that movie at least twice, and despite it bearing the worst title of any Bond film — of any movie really that has nothing to do with physics — I’ve appreciated it a bit more. It’s closer to a pure action movie. So it’s certainly more simplistic than something like No Time to Die. It’s possible I warm up to what Fukanaga and his writing team have done here but as of this moment it remains a big disappointment.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 163 mins.

Quoted: “It’ll be great! I’ve had three weeks training!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Release: Friday, September 3, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Dave Callaham; Andrew Lanham; Destin Daniel Cretton

Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton

Starring: Simu Liu; Awkwafina; Tony Chiu-Wai Leung; Meng’er Zhang; Fala Chen; Michelle Yeoh

 

 

****/*****

Marvel Studios’ most recognizable batch of comic book origins stories are behind us, but given Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings‘ strong box office haul it isn’t going to be falling on hard times any time soon. And the numbers are justified. This movie is as entertaining as it is absorbing.

Following somewhat in the footsteps of Black Panther (2018), Shang-Chi immerses the viewer in a culture largely relegated to the muddy riverbanks along the Hollywood mainstream. The 25th overall film in the MCU is one of the most visually delicious, featuring spectacular sets where the mise en scène is often its own character and where — finally! — flashy CGI actually supports rather than hinders. The production design is a lavish platter sampling everything from the urban to the rural to the mythical and where the exquisite, violent dance of Kung Fu is ensconced in the sophisticated and occasionally literal scaffolding around it.

Underneath the obviously heavy budget however lies a hero’s journey that’s just as rich with human emotion and soul, qualities that Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton is no stranger to and that are most welcomed in a movie of this scale. The story tells of a deeply personal conflict between an immortal, power-obsessed patriarch Wenwu (Tony Leung — Infernal Affairs; The Grandmaster) and his children, son Shang-Chi (Simu Liu — Women is Losers; Kim’s Convenience — TV) and daughter Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Given the film’s title, the focus narrows to the father-son dynamic as Shang-Chi is forced to confront the trauma of his past and the man responsible for much of it.

As an origins story largely divorced from the Avengers era Shang-Chi feels like a breath of fresh air in a staling superhero environment, even as it honors the tradition of Marvel’s prescribed narrative formula. While Cretton and his writing team are granted the proper space to explore their own world that’s not to say they don’t have some fun tricks up their sleeve, bringing into the fold former foes from past movies who end up mercifully repurposed into something more useful. This story is only beginning but the first chapter lays a lot of emotional brickwork, almost to the point of being burdened by it. The pacing is not always ideal but the trips down nightmare lane are intriguing and rarely feel purely extraneous.

The exhaustive (maybe a little exhausting) narrative structure is most compelling when building up the villain, extensive flashbacks offering a rare opportunity to understand the man behind the monster. When Wenwu met his wife he vowed to give up his never-ending quest for power, the very quest that brought him to the clandestine village of Ta Lo where he first encountered her. Shunned by the residents the pair fled to start a family, a halcyon period that tragically wouldn’t last. As a heartbroken, tormented father Leung authors one of the best villains the MCU has yet seen, oscillating between sympathetic and menacing, coldly composed and dangerously delirious, yet passing on the histrionics a lesser actor might have pursued.

In response to loss Wenwu relapsed back into his old ways, resolving to toughen up his son to be an assassin worthy of joining the powerful Ten Rings organization, so named after the physical rings he discovered that gave him immortality. However, following in his father’s blood-stained shoes is a destiny Shang-Chi grew uncomfortable with and so he fled for sunny San Francisco, changing his name and starting up a new life parking cars for wealthy elites alongside best friend Katy (Awkwafina — The Farewell; Crazy Rich Asians), a proud underachiever whose mother lovingly prods her to jump-start her life. When the pair are attacked on a bus one afternoon, Shaun has some explaining (and traveling) to do, while Katy recognizes an opportunity to help a friend in need.

The star of the film is obviously Simu Liu, who handles the duality of his character’s emotional and physical sides with grace and finesse. He’s likable and convincing in the action scenes, particularly for playing a character famous for being proficient in multiple martial arts styles, but the film excels because of the tag-team effort. Awkwafina is the yang to Liu’s yin, her terrific camaraderie making it easy to get over the goofy stage name (real name Nora Lum) and embrace the 30-something actor/rapper as more than comic relief; she’s a genuine friend whose expressiveness also makes for a perfect audience surrogate, especially as the narrative takes leaps and bounds away from the pedestrian and into the fantastical.

Thematically the movie isn’t a radical departure, certainly when in view of this summer’s Black Widow whose central thrust was also about the futility of running from one’s past. These movies share assassins and miserable childhoods in common. But where Black Widow was cold and absolute in eliminating the architect of pain and suffering — and justifiably so — Shang-Chi is more interesting in the way it confronts those committed to similarly transgressive behavior. It knows, perhaps on the level of a Captain America: Civil War or Winter Soldier, that good guys and bad in reality come with their shades of gray. We’re told it’s always personal, but here’s a case where mourning feels more appropriate than celebration; the anguish over what must be done makes the obligatory climactic battle that much more grounded despite the high-flying theatrics.

As it turns out, Cretton’s first run with the Marvel big dogs is a beautiful movie in more ways than one, and a really exciting way to kick off a new, less familiar chapter. Ta Lo is the pinnacle at which all things conceptual come together, invariably violently. This fascinating bubble within the multiverse is where everything goes down, and yet almost every scene along the way overflows with meaning and symbolism. It’s a movie with a spectacular finishing move, but also one of measurable personal growth. The friendship dynamic refreshingly remains undisturbed by studio heads undoubtedly desirous of something more expected. At once crowd-pleasing and nuanced, Shang-Chi is a superior Marvel offering.

No one’s up in arms . . . yet

Moral of the Story: The fun factor is through the roof with Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings. It’s also got a nice message to send, it looks fantastic and, though far be it from me to say this is true for all, seems a legitimately diverse, passionate and truthful representation of Chinese culture and traditions. Me to you: I freaking loved this movie and would see it again in theaters in a heartbeat. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 132 mins.

Quoted: “Welcome to the circus.”

Feast your eyes on the Official Trailer from Marvel Studios here! 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; www.indiewire.com

The Tomorrow War

Release: Friday, July 2, 2021 (Amazon Prime)

👀 Amazon Prime

Written by: Zach Dean

Directed by: Chris McKay

Starring: Chris Pratt; Sam Richardson; Yvonne Strahovski; Betty Gilpin; J.K. Simmons; Edwin Hodge

 

 

***/*****

The creatures at the center of Chris McKay’s fast-moving and action-packed sci-fi blockbuster are microcosmic of the overall experience of The Tomorrow War. You can’t take your eyes off them despite how familiar they are, an amalgam of iconic elements and concepts from bigger, more famous genre titles of years past.

It’s not looking good for us humble humans in the year 2051. The global population reduced to something in the hundreds of thousands, we’re well on our way to losing the war against the Whitespikes, a race of vicious creatures who look like some hybrid between H.R. Giger’s beloved Xenomorphs and the chaotic Mimics from Edge of Tomorrow (2014). In a last ditch effort, future people are time-traveling back to our reality to recruit citizens into the war effort because we regular Joes are literally the last line of defense. May as well cancel the sunrise at this point.

The gregarious Chris Pratt is our ticket in to experiencing this future hellscape for ourselves, charged with leading a platoon on what essentially amounts to a suicide mission into a world overrun with beasts that move with alarming agility and aggression and have this nasty tendency to shoot spikes from tentacled appendages. Pratt again proves to be a supportable hero though this time he disconnects more from his goofball persona to slip into the fatigues of career-depressed Dan Forester, a retired Green Beret now itching to retire from the grind of teaching high school biology to disinterested students.

Too ‘average’ to fit in at the Army Research Lab, Dan is handed (more like strong-armed into) an opportunity to fulfill a destiny, if not also risk his sanity. His number gets called and despite the protestations of his wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin — redeemed) whose experience as a therapist for returning survivors gives her a good idea of the best case scenario, he’s quickly on board for a one-week tour of duty in which the survival rate hovers at a miserable 30%. Those who do survive get beamed back to the present day from wherever they happen to be at the time. While a pre-jump exchange feels shortchanged between Dan and his estranged father James (a beefed-up J.K. Simmons), whose methods of dealing with his own PTSD have never sat right with his son, leaving behind his bright daughter Muri (a wonderful Ryan Kiera Armstrong) is the tear-jerking moment Zach Dean’s pedestrian screenplay flubs the most.

This brief snapshot of an average family life discarded with, we plunge headlong into the film proper, to the part everyone is anticipating. Blasting through the most hurried boot camp you’ve ever seen — mostly a loading platform where we pick up fellow goofball Sam Richardson as the nervous chatterbox Charlie and a dead-serious Edwin Hodge as Dorian, a jaded warrior on his third tour — we’re soon dumped unceremoniously onto the terrifying field, a visually stunning combo of war-ravaged metropolis, oceanic fortress and gorgeous locales both tropical and tundral. The future-world sets are the film’s best assets, a series of battlegrounds rendered both foreign and familiar and across which we rip on a death-defying mission to find the almighty toxin that can bring down these bastards once and for all.

In reaching for Interstellar-levels of wisdom director Chris McKay, in his first live-action feature film, misses the mark with only broad gestures toward its themes of redemption and familial sacrifice. After barely surviving Miami Beach and awakening in a military compound in the Dominican Republic Dan is brought face-to-face with a challenge greater than the physical ordeal. Australian actor Yvonne Strahovski ironically puts in the most emotional performance as the hardened Colonel Forester, who gives her trusted soldier plenty to think about à la Matthew McConaughey as his lonely little self slipped, preposterously, toward the singularity-cum-bookshelf.

Yes, almost by definition even the best sci fi are inherently ridiculous. Unfortunately The Tomorrow War lacks the emotional gravity and force of personality that can distract from overthinking. This is a blockbuster designed to keep your eyes busy and your analytical mind at bay. The film editors are key, masterfully sowing together the three major movements into one kinetic, fast-moving machine whose biggest malfunction is being forgettable pablum.

The Tomorrow War is likable, lively but ultimately shallow. However you could do a lot worse for an unwitting hero and for a piece of home entertainment. As yet another casualty of the COVID disruption, this two-hour wow-fest is found exclusively on Amazon Prime and is bound to rattle walls with its unrelenting energy.

“I’m court marshaling you for your Thanos-related antics. You really could have cost us, buddy.”

Moral of the Story: The living room may not be the ideal environment in which to take in a movie of such size and scale — The Tomorrow War is Amazon’s biggest film purchase ever, priced at an eye-popping $200 mil — but the convenience factor makes this derivative sci-fi yarn more attractive. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 138 mins. 

Quoted: “If there’s one thing that the world needs right now, it’s scientists. We cannot stop innovating. That’s how you solve a problem.” 

Check out the (really long) Final Trailer from Amazon Prime here!

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Free Guy

Release: Friday, August 13, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Matt Lieberman; Zak Penn

Directed by: Shawn Levy

Starring: Ryan Reynolds; Taika Waititi; Joe Keery; Jodi Comer; Lil Rel Howery

 

 

 

***/*****

Following more the logic of the heart than the brain, Free Guy is a whacky but entertaining circus of big visual effects, videogame Easter eggs, and shameless (more like proud) product placement for parent company Disney, which now owns the world. It’s also the perfect environment for Ryan Reynolds to flourish, one in which cutting loose and just doing you is the whole point. Or was supposed to be!

The movie’s big draw is of course Ryan Reynolds doing his typical Ryan Reynolds thing, but this is also literally a love letter to gamers and coders. Being knowledgeable about technical stuff will surely elevate the experience though by no means is it a requisite. Free Guy takes a surprisingly high concept approach to a basic template. This is all about a guy (lowercase ‘g’) pursuing his dream girl, a pretty classic convention often obfuscated by all the chaos. Very little here is designed to be stored in the long-term memory. Instead director Shawn Levy and his writing team work overtime to stimulate the pleasure center of the brain as often as possible, injecting silliness, cartoonish violence and a surprising amount of heart into one hyperactive summer blockbuster.

In an open-world game called Free City, Guy (Reynolds) wakes up each morning in a Groundhog Day loop of obliviousness to what this place really is and his role in it. His best friend is Buddy (Lil Rel Howery — Get Out; Bird Box), the cheerful security guard at the bank where Guy works as a teller. Neither has a clue that their lives are a programmed simulation. One day on his way to work he passes a woman humming a Mariah Carey tune and is smitten. He pursues her but unfortunately that train goes off the rails. However something profound has changed within him.

Molotov Girl’s the name and “Leveling Up” is the game he must play if he is to impress her. So of course the eternally upbeat and decreasingly naive Blue Shirt Guy plays along, but he won’t gain experience by doing what most players do — holding NPCs (non-player characters) hostage, blowing things up, generally being lawless savages. No, he’s going to do good deeds, a strategy that earns him Molotov Girl’s respect and a cult following. In fact he fast becomes a “player” of interest for many throughout the world plugged into Free City, represented in a series of stilted cameos by real YouTube celebrities and gamers.

His increasing autonomy also attracts the attention of game developer Antwan (Taika Waititi), for whom the brilliant code writers Keys (Stranger Things‘ Joe Keery) and Millie (Jodie Comer — Killing Eve; Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker) work as dogs for their master. I mentioned before how very little is going to be remembered for long, and if you’re a fan of the Kiwi comedian that’s definitely a good thing. He’s actually pretty awful as the movie’s one-note villain whose whole deal is stealing other people’s work and being as insufferable as possible. In fairness, the character isn’t written to be anything more but his acting is of a quality where you suspect the director didn’t have the cohones to edit his Oscar-winner.

Maybe the director didn’t feel like meddling because he has so much on his plate. Free Guy is arguably over-ambitious, particularly considering a sequel has already been green-lit. What’s going to be left to tell? Yet for all that it is burdened with, the story moves pretty fluidly as it hops in and out of the game, an anarchic environment inspired by the likes of GTA, Fortnite and The Sims, with spirited input from the young Keery and Comer keeping us invested in the affairs of the real world. Concurrent to the Guy plot is a heist involving precious data which could incriminate Antwan and potentially save Free City from his future nefarious plans. To get there, Millie and Keys need to access a secret location called The Stash, and they could really use some help.

Combining the playground aesthetic of Ready Player One, the voyeurism of The Truman Show and The Matrix‘s march toward salvation, Free Guy is a Frankenstein of elements and homages that somehow ends up morphing into its own ridiculous thing. I mean, where else are you going to see Reynolds as an evil David Hasselhoff avatar whose coding is disturbingly incomplete and whose face is super-imposed on an actual bodybuilder? Okay, so I lied. That’s one thing you’re never going to forget from this movie.

Lucky Guy

Moral of the Story: Huge entertainment value trumps logical storytelling and one seriously annoying villain. Because I am a big fan of Ryan Reynolds’ comedic act Free Guy is probably my favorite blockbuster of the year. It’s far from perfect but it is really fun and super easy to get along with, even for non-gamers such as myself. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Is this what recreational drugs feel like?”

Check out the pretty sweet new music video for Mariah Carey’s Fantasy here! 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent o the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; 20th Century Studios 

The Ice Road

Release: Sunday, June 25, 2021 (Netflix)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Jonathan Hensleigh

Directed by: Jonathan Hensleigh

Starring: Liam Neeson; Laurence Fishburne; Marcus Thomas; Amber Midthunder; Benjamin Walker

 

 

 

**/*****

Though Liam Neeson’s latest thriller The Ice Road may be out of season for those of us in the northern hemisphere, it lies smack in the middle of a prolific run the 69-year-old Irish actor has been enjoying the last decade-plus, marking one of three movies he will star in this year alone. Presumably it will also be the worst.

Written and directed by Jumanji (1995) and Armageddon (1998) scribe Jonathan Hensleigh, The Ice Road just may represent the nadir of Neeson’s post-Taken routine. Action titles such as Non-Stop (2014), Run All Night (2015), The Commuter (2018) and indeed the Taken sequels have all coasted on the goodwill of a built-in audience but few as shamelessly as The Ice Road, a bare-minimum effort with original ideas as commonplace as service stations out on the Canadian Prairies. Compounding the problem is some really questionable acting from supporting parts and a villain who becomes the Terminator in ways more comical than compelling.

Neeson blends into the environment just fine but his Mike McCann, a North Dakotan big rig driver, is nothing you’ll remember when all is said and done. Recently fired from his job having stood up for his PTSD-suffering brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), he joins a highly dangerous mission to deliver crucial equipment from Winnipeg to a mine in Northern Manitoba that has collapsed after a methane explosion. The 20+ souls trapped inside are relying on this last-ditch effort before they run out of oxygen. Time is of the essence but the trek to get there is paved with hazards, many natural and others man-made.

Good old-fashioned subterfuge at the corporate level is the cliched dramatic destination to which the increasingly apathetic viewer is pulled. This is less an action thriller as it is a conspiracy snoozer involving blue-collar truckers and white-collar snakes (Benjamin Walker’s characterization as a risk assessor belies his apparent immortality). At the Katka mine, company suits (Matt McCoy and Bradley Sawatzky, both pretty bad at acting on evidence of this movie) attempt damage control through an omniscience that becomes increasingly cartoonish. 

The best stretch of The Ice Road is its first half, as we are pulled into an extreme environment that offers entertaining man-vs-nature conflict not seen in a Neeson flick since 2011’s The Grey. The physical and technical challenges are effectively communicated as the crew — Mike, Gurty, a Winnipeg trucker named Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) and the hot-headed Tantoo (Amber Midthunder) — battle variable ice conditions and all sorts of nuances the layperson would never think about. Apparently dashboard bobbleheads are more than purely decorative. However, as environmental factors take a backseat to the human treachery lying underneath, The Ice Road sacrifices its blue collar identity for woefully generic melodrama. None of it written or performed particularly convincingly. 

While it is refreshing to see Neeson take on a character who is not endowed with a mythical set of skills, one is left wishing that the guy could have at least been endowed with better lines and quite frankly, a better film overall. 

“I do not believe in chance. When I see three wellheads, three drivers, three trucks, I do not see coincidence. I see providence. I see purpose.”

Moral of the Story: Pushes the line, for me personally, in terms of what a fan should be willing to accept at a base-line level of entertainment when it comes to these kinds of slight action-thrillers. Goodwill isn’t in infinite supply. The above review may be harsh, largely a reflection of frustration over how I entered the film with low expectations and not having even those met. There’s nothing sinfully bad about it, but all added up The Ice Road is just too lazy to recommend when there are so many other, (even if slightly) better Neeson options. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 109 mins.

Check out the “slick” Official Trailer from Netflix here! 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.slashfilm.com 

Jungle Cruise

Release: Friday, July 30, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Michael Green; Glenn Ficarra; John Requa

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

Starring: Dwayne Johnson; Emily Blunt; Jesse Plemons; Jack Whitehall; Paul Giamatti; Édgar Ramírez

 

 

***/*****

The long, predictable meanders of the river are more enjoyable when you’ve got a good crew to float with. Such is the case with Jungle Cruise, a family-friendly adventure deeply indebted to the charms of Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, playing a mismatched pair on a dangerous mission deep into the heart of the Amazon circa the early 1900s.

Jungle Cruise remains rooted in classic adventure tropes even as the whole kit-and-caboodle swings wide of classic status and despite the expensive, flashy CGI ballast. There’s a map, a hidden treasure, cursed conquistadors (the film at its most unfortunate, casting a slew of Latinx actors, most notably Édgar Ramírez, and extras in thankless background roles smothered in digital Disneymagic), a bad guy after the same treasure, and even a wisp of romance, although this proves to be about the only thing Johnson and Blunt fail at as a team. Less trope-y is the characterization of the aforementioned competition, Jesse Plemons in fine bizarre form as a largely submarine-bound German memorably seen consulting a swarm of bees on navigational strategy.

On strategy, helming this old-school-feeling rig is director Jaume Collet-Serra, who sets aside his more violent filmmaking tendencies in favor of a breezy, good-natured bit of escapism where the exploration (and exploitation) of character foibles and differences outweigh more tangible narrative concerns. The plot finds Blunt’s danger-courting, pants-wearing Dr. Lily Houghton traveling to the Brazilian jungle in search of a riverboat captain willing to take her and her brother MacGregor (a third-wheeling but really fun Jack Whitehall) to the secret location of the Tears of the Moon, a mythical tree whose incandescent pink petals she believes could change the course of modern medicine and, thus, her status amongst her peers who all too happily laugh a lady out of any serious discussion. Meanwhile, Plemons’ Prince Joachim is hoping to get there first, thinking it could change Germany’s fortunes in the Great War.

Johnson’s Frank Wolff, a down-on-his-luck river guide with more puns in the bank than dollar bills, is motivated to journey down the Mighty Amazon due to his increasing debt to port manager Nilo (a haggard-looking Paul Giamatti). Naturally, personalities and philosophies clash immediately and about as comically as MacGregor’s wardrobe choices do with the climate. Along the way a mutual respect for one another is eventually gained. However, trust turns out to be more of an uphill battle for the Houghtons, who understandably tire of Frank’s penchant for pranking. As it turns out, there is more to Frank than deception and a pet jaguar.

Jungle Cruise is the latest in a line of movies “inspired by” real theme park rides. Like the actual Disney World attraction itself, for maximum enjoyment it helps to not get too curious about how the machinations work. Once you look over the sides and see the rails guiding the thing along a lot of the fun tends to get lost. Jungle Cruise is a cash grab but there are certainly more cynical ones out there.

So quiet you can’t even hear the critics chirping

Moral of the Story: I’m not sure I should be admitting this, but I actually got to experience this movie in an empty theater. Much to my surprise, it didn’t make much of a difference. Jungle Cruise, like many a Marvel movie, just seems like it would play better to a packed house. And it probably still does. Yet it speaks to the charisma of the two leads that I had a good time anyway. Plus the beer probably didn’t hurt (Señor Krunkles IPA — pretty sweet, hoppy and fruity. Made for a great pairing.)  

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 127 mins.

Quoted: “I had a girlfriend once, she was cross-eyed. Didn’t work out. We could never see eye to eye!”

Check out the creepy-crawly jungle-brawly trailer here!

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.actionra.com 

Black Widow

Release: Friday, July 9, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Eric Pearson

Directed by: Cate Shortland

Starring: Scarlett Johansson; Florence Pugh; David Harbour; Rachel Weisz

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Timing is everything. This applies, painfully so, to Black Widow, a film that feels compromised in a way few Marvel movies have.

In her first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Machine director Cate Shortland finds herself in an incredibly difficult position. Twenty-four films deep into a shared universe that has now spun off multiple streaming shows, she is tasked with compressing both origins story and swan song into one entertaining package. Black Widow‘s out-of-sequence placement burdens the filmmaker with a number of difficult creative choices, most notably how much nuance she can bring to a story that ostensibly dives into the emotional interior of one of the foundational members of the Avengers.

Hey, at least they finally got the damn thing made. Scarlett Johansson* may have had to wait 11 years, 20 films and her own character’s killing off to earn what Robert Downey Jr. got three times in five years, Chris Hemsworth three in six and Chris Evans twice in three,** but the only resentment you sense from Natasha Romanoff in her eighth and likely final MCU appearance is reserved for Dreykov (Ray Winstone — Noah; The Departed), the Russian psycho who brainwashed and tortured her and her ‘sister’ Yelena Belova (a scene-stealing Florence Pugh) as young girls, along with countless others from all over the world, into becoming an army of perfect assassins.

A bittersweet prologue sets us all up for a rude awakening: a seemingly normal American family in 1995 Ohio is suddenly compelled to make a break for Cuba after being discovered as the Russian sleeper agents they actually are. ‘Father’ Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and ‘mother’ Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) have been keeping their ‘children’ Natasha (here played by Ever Anderson) and Yelena (Violet McGraw) sheltered for as long as they can but a sad twist of fate shatters the illusion, the daughters separated and handed over to Dreykov and eventually sent to a nebulous place called the Red Room, a hovering fortress in the sky that could have been cribbed from a Pink Floyd concept album.

Cut to the present (which is still the past) and Natasha’s on the run from U.S. Secretary Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) after giving him and his Sokovia Accords the one-finger salute. Her nomadic lifestyle in Norway is short-lived with the arrival of the mysterious mercenary Taskmaster, drawn to an item our hunkering-down hero is unwittingly in possession of. After a violent showdown on a bridge, Natasha escapes to Budapest, where another David Leitch-like round of punishingly awesome fight choreography awaits. Here, reunited with her former sis, Natasha discovers the true extent of Dreykov’s control and power, along with a possible solution to the problem.

Post-Budapest and the spy thriller dynamic evolves into more of a dysfunctional family team-up as the pair resolve to get the old gang back together in order to take down the brute who irrevocably changed them and free the other Black Widows from the same violent servitude. The process of course mandates that mom and dad also confront their own separate, lived-in realities and their culpability in this whole mess, leading to the film’s signature scene (awkward family reunion, anyone?) — an emotional catharsis for all involved. Turns out, reliving the “good old days” is tricky to do when the good old days are your own Tahiti (what a magical place).

Black Widow is a Phase 4 debutante that is much better when grounded instead of going for literally atmospheric, generic spectacle, with some of the quieter moments packing as much of a punch as the intense fight sequences. However, the timing of the whole thing magnifies certain issues. Eric Pearson’s screenplay is not compelling enough for a film this late in the game. And considering the hefty themes in which it traffics and the cast of characters at its disposal there is enough content here to make two films. Instead the exploration of trauma and disillusionment feels rushed and harried by the “Make it count!” business mentality governing its singular existence.

Ultimately the performances save this from total mediocrity. Johansson has kicked ass from her Bechdel Test-failing introduction in Iron Man 2 (2010) through to this bitterly short-lived end, saving her most somber performance for last. Yet even in her own movie she is to some degree playing second fiddle. That’s less of a problem when the reason is Florence Pugh, who might well be stretching her legs for her own MCU run. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take quite as long — in real time or otherwise — to get that going. 

* I am considering reviving the Scarlett Johansson Project. I feel bad leaving that one incomplete. Would anyone be interested in seeing more of those kinds of posts? Show of hands in the comments below, please!

** I do not include Captain America: Civil War in that list considering that is more of an ensemble film than a true stand-alone entry. But, sure, go ahead and add it. Even more to my point.

Comrades in harms.

Moral of the Story: An uncharacteristic end-zone fumble for MCU President and ball-cap enthusiast Kevin Feige, Black Widow feels rather shortchanged by the finite space into which it has been forced to exist. On one hand, you might look at the movie multitasking as both origins and send-off as a unique thing. I don’t know any other MCU installment that has had to do that. On the other, you can’t help but feel Natasha Romanoff deserved more than what amounts to the cinematic equivalent of a hit single. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “Tell me, how did you keep your heart?” 

Check out the Final Trailer for Black Widow here!

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.forbes.com