Terminator: Dark Fate

Release: Friday, November 1, 2019

→On Demand 

Written by: David Goyer; Justin Rhodes; Billy Ray

Directed by: Tim Miller

Terminator: Dark Fate is the best installment in the series since Judgment Day and it’s not even close. That said, having never been a die-hard I have gotten along pretty well with most* of the sequels, even the mind-bendingly-complex-and-not-in-a-good-way Terminator Genisys, so what do I know?

One thing I know is that this movie was fated to be poorly received. Faith in this once glorious franchise has been steadily eroding ever since we entered the 2000s. In 2019, oh how the mighty have fallen: In America Dark Fate basically flat-lined, barely recouping a quarter of its $185 million budget. Losses for the studios involved topped $130 million. That’s even more damning considering it is directed by the guy who made Deadpool. It seems this female-led retcon of one of the most convoluted storylines in franchise filmmaking history** was destined to become the next Terminator film to disappoint. The question was whether it would disappoint in the same way or if it would mix things up by being disappointing in other areas.

Dark Fate, in fact, does neither. Director Tim Miller and his writing team create a solid action movie underpinned by relevant themes and bolstered by the welcomed return of original characters plus a few memorable new ones. James Cameron also resurfaces as producer, ensuring fidelity to not just the general formula that brought tremendous fame to the doorstep of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, but specifically to  style and tonality. Bitter and violent but with a streak of humor persisting through all the hardscrabble survival shit (mostly at the expense of Arnie, but hey it’s welcomed), the story is stripped down and actually coherent. The action is visceral and the acting frequently intense.

Twenty-five years after Sarah Connor thwarted Judgment Day, and the future is repeating itself anyway. The details are almost a matter of semantics; instead of Skynet, there is now Legion. Somewhere along the line, someone screwed up. Artificial intelligence gained the upper hand. The machines have once again sent back in time a representative to crush a human uprising before it can even begin. This upgraded model of terminator called the Rev-9, besides sounding like a new line of Mazda sport car, makes the T-1000 obsolete. He is played coolly (and cold-bloodedly) by Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s Ghost Rider Gabriel Luna. His mission is to track down and eliminate the de facto new John Connor — a teenage girl named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) who lives an unassuming life as a factory worker in Mexico City.

This is of course the part where you’re expecting Arnie’s T-800 to drop out of thin air to protect the girl, kick some robot ass and maybe disappear from whence he came (or into a vat of liquid metal). But like with the androids we carry around in our pockets some updates are more significant than others. Arnie is indeed back, not with a vengeance but rather a conscience. Filling in his old shoes is a hybrid of human and terminator not-so-subtly named Grace (Mackenzie Davis). She has also been sent back to convince Dani of her role in the human resistance while also contending with unexpected roadblocks, such as Sarah Connor and her own beliefs in fate.

No, this movie does not throw heavy punches of originality. Signature one-liners, even when delivered by the legendary Linda Hamilton, feel like hand-me-downs rather than organic reactions. It’s not like this latest chapter doesn’t do anything to set itself apart. Dark Fate carries some heavy emotional baggage and the script occasionally hits some poignant notes as its leading trio of women confront loss and grief. That weight is mostly shouldered by the older and wiser Sarah Connor and her complicated relationship with the T-800 but it’s also a pain shared by all involved, whether that’s Dani receiving a brutal crash course in terminator-human relationships or Grace recounting her experiences of surviving the apocalypse through flashback.

Retreading old footsteps does not make a movie bad however. It’s when directors and producers forsake the spirit of the original in an attempt to chart a new course that often leads to trouble. Dark Fate is made with an obvious reverence for Cameron’s seminal sequel. I consider its familiarity a strength. And if indeed it is the last hurrah (and it sure looks that way) I would also consider it an homage to greatness. If given a choice between a safe and familiar package and a narrative so convoluted you don’t even care where or when you are on the timeline, I will always choose the former.

* all except salvation. nope, can’t do it. it’s bad when a movie’s best scene is that artfully edited together clip of Christian Bale going berserk on set 
** DARK FATE, in acting AS A DIRECT SEQUEL TO JUDGMENT DAY, BOLDLY — AND WISELY — ERASES EVERYTHING THAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE 1991, EXcepT THE AFOREMENTIONED and iconic meltdown 

Two headaches for the price of a not-even-wanted one

Recommendation: I think the mileage you get out of this one really depends on whether you think the homage is unwarranted or if it is kinda cool. Or, indeed, if you even view it as an homage. Genisys was, by comparison, a regrettable reboot of the series with a young Sarah Connor and it technically introduced the dad-joke-making Terminator, so you can’t go around blaming Dark Fate for that. This movie undoes all of that stuff, all the way back to Rise of the Machines. I think it is a big shame there will be no future installments as I really enjoyed this cast and seeing Hamilton back in action was really satisfying. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 128 mins.

Quoted: “Do you believe in fate, Sarah? Or do you believe we can all change the future every second by every choice that we make? You chose to change the future. You chose to destroy Skynet. You set me free. Now, I’m going to help you protect the girl, because I chose to.”

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

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

Angel Has Fallen

Release: Friday, August 23, 2019

→Netflix

Written by: Robert Mark Kamen; Matt Cook; Ric Roman Waugh

Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh

Angel Has Fallen is the third but definitely not last installment in the Fallen action movie franchise. That there are enough of these movies to justify the word ‘franchise’ seems an indictment of the American Secret Service. How many other landmarks and VIPs are going to fall on Mike Banning (Gerard Butler)’s watch before he gets fired? Before the concept itself falls into parody? Are we there already?

Angel has probably fallen out of the memory of anyone who caught it in theaters last year but it’s the one I would return to again, no arm-twisting involved. And with no driving involved either, it’s quite possible this review is going to be much sunnier than others you have read. Ric Roman Waugh is the third different director in a series that has at least three more films planned and a TV series spinoff, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how the quality goes from here. For now it seems the third time’s the charm. Angel Has Fallen is a surprisingly fun diversion that I actually had a good time with.

The tables have turned against Butler’s bulletproof Banning as he becomes Public Enemy #1. The story sees the formerly disgraced Secret Service agent due for a promotion to Director. He would be replacing Lance Reddick‘s Director David Gentry, a man who suggests some level of class might be required for the position. The time has finally come to domesticate Banning the wild animal. (The script has these very manly men actually calling each other lions.) While his body is telling him the days of saving the president over and over again are indeed over, what with the chronic back pain and migraines that he keeps secret from his wife (Piper Parebo), his ego is what keeps him in the field and wincing off to the side.

Besides, if he graduates to a big boy office job, when is he ever going to find the time to reminisce about those crazy days in the Army with his old buddy Wade Jennings (Danny Huston)? (Now the CEO of a private military outfit called Salient Global, Wade is the second of the two self-proclaimed lions.)

During a private fishing trip President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) extends Banning the offer but a drone strike rudely interrupts the day and lays waste to the rest of the security detail, ultimately leaving Mr. President in a coma and Mr. Indestructible handcuffed to his own hospital bed. Banning awakens only to find he has been named a prime suspect by what Special Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith) of the FBI is calling an attempted assassination. One rather aggressive interrogation and a couple of pretty thrilling developments later and Banning’s on the loose, on the run, in a race against the clock to clear his name and establish the identities of those responsible.

There’s no denying Angel Has Fallen is a generic action thriller. You’re never in doubt as to whether the hero will succeed, or even as to what his next move is going to be. Undoubtedly its biggest flaw is the lack of character development. It’s pretty pathetic that after three movies we still don’t know much about Mike Banning (well, we now know he’s a lion). In fairness, the filmmakers do attempt a deeper background check on the guy than their predecessors. One of the best stretches of the story takes us down the twisty backroads of West Virginia where Banning eventually makes a pit stop at his old man’s heavily fortified cabin to lay low for a while. Clay Banning (Nick Nolte) is your quintessential disillusioned war vet who no longer trusts the government and hasn’t seen his family in years. The grizzled and bearded Nolte somewhat succeeds in providing some emotional weight to the story but his character, like all the other supporters, is a walking cliché.

It’s interesting to note that series creators and original screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt are not along for the ride this time. Filling in for them are Matt Cook and Robert Mark Kamen, who have Patriots Day, Taken and The Transporter writing creds between them — all solid action thrillers if not entirely game-changing originals. More importantly they seem the right kind of background for those looking to add their own link in this chain of middling action movies. The pair collaborate with the director on a screenplay that turns out to be very formulaic. However their concept incorporates more of an adventure element into it, making this effort different enough for me to feel more comfortable recommending. That’s definitely a first for this series.

He said I was a lion. Was he lyin’??

Recommendation: Netflix has made this a win-win situation. I get to experience more of the world’s most generic action movie franchise, now at least 60% more guilt-free: I don’t have to put gas money towards a Gerry Butler movie. I’m spared the shame and possible confusion of a ticket attendant mistaking me as a fan of this series even after London Has Fallen. I can pause the show however often I need (per empty beer glass, in this case). And best of all I get to prop my feet up and yell at the screen every time a character does or says something dumb, which in this movie happens a lot. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “I’m glad it was you. Lions, Mike . . . lions.” 

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

Photo credits: IMDb

John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum

Release: Friday, May 17, 2019

→ Theater

Written by: Derek Kolstad; Shay Hatten; Chris Collins; Marc Abrams

Directed by: Chad Stahelski

Actions have consequences, as we are quite explicitly shown (and told, too!) in the ultra-violent third installment of the brawn-over-brains John Wick franchise. Literally footsteps removed from the mayhem of 2017’s Chapter 2, John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum beats the audience silly down a two-hour gauntlet of unrelenting, bloody comeuppance that sees an entire city of potential assassins descending upon the one they call Baba Yaga. It’s open season on John Wick, part-time killer, full-time puppy lover.

Rules. Order. Something called ‘fealty.’ These are boundaries and amusingly old-school — almost Feudal — principles John Wick (Keanu Reeves) ignored when he murdered a man on the consecrated grounds of the Continental Hotel (as seen in Chapter 2). Exceptions aren’t made for acts of self-defense; John acted against the established order set by the vaguely defined society known as the High Table, and now as a consequence he’s been excommunicated by hotel manager Winston (Ian McShane), leaving him without the friendly services of the Hotel and with a $14 million bounty on his head.

Director/former stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski returns with a palpable confidence, albeit he’s still sticking to the rules he himself established with 2014’s surprise hit John Wick. His latest expands the jurisdiction of the High Table to an international stage, so if you’re thinking this was just a New York problem, think again. Rest assured though, he triples down on the things you’ve come here for: exquisitely choreographed, close-quarter combat with all kinds of brutal weaponry and creative kills — you’ll never look at hardcover books the same way again — a ridiculous body count, Laurence Fishburne as The King of the Homeless People, and Keanu “Monosyllabic” Reeves dressed to the frikkin’ nines. Like previous outings it does this all while sparing you of the hassle and inconvenience of sitting through talky scenes.

John Wick has always been a one-note franchise, but I now come full circle to admit awkwardly that it’s not a dumb one. I have increasingly enjoyed each successive installment, increasingly embraced the in-joke that the guy can’t really be killed (it’s the most obvious signpost ever, there can’t be a franchise bigger cash cow without John Wick). Now, getting shot point-blank, off a rooftop, smacking two staircases and a dumpster on your way to the ground 40 feet below and not dying is just plain silly, but John Wick on the whole is at least smart enough to recognize that the killing of a grieving man’s puppy is kind of the ultimate in earning audience sympathy in a timely manner. Clearly this is about more than just a dog now, but vengeance has been the driving force behind it all. This time the writing team raises the stakes notably by not only increasing the number tenfold, but also empowering Wick’s opposition with that same passion. In reinforcing its themes of consequence and retribution Chapter 3 installs some new key pieces like Asia Kate Dillon’s Adjudicator, sent by the High Table as a reckoning for all who have aided Wick along the way, and her own loyal minions in sushi chef-by-day, butcher-of-men-by-night Zero (a memorable Mark Decascos) and his knife-wielding buddies.

Indeed Wick is a man with an increasingly large cult “following” and a shrinking list of trusted sources, much less anything in the way of friends. He turns to his last few bargaining chips in other series newcomers like The Director (Anjelica Huston), who runs a school that John attended as a boy (really, it’s a front for something darker, natch), and Sofia (Halle Berry), a former ally and a ruthless killer in her own right who now runs the Moroccan branch of the Continental, along with her equally capable and fiercely loyal dogs. I swear, more crotches get mauled in this Casablanca-set scene than have been in the entire history of film up to this point. It’s a stunning, visceral and damn savage sequence that puts the hurt on everyone, even you in the cheap seats. (Ditto that to the movie as a whole, actually. Death by horse hoof, ouch.)

If the intense crowd interaction in the Thursday night screening I attended is any indication, Chapter 3 is poised to become the standard against which all future 2019 action reels are to be judged. The film dethroned Avengers: Endgame at the box office (after three weeks of domination). It’s being described as one of the greatest action franchises of all time. I wouldn’t go anywhere near that far; John Wick is presented in his most ruthless, most capable form yet — where is the threat, exactly? Given his immunity to death I suppose I should just settle like everyone else, being entertained up to my eyeballs with all the different ways the hapless attempt to be the one to take out the Boogeyman. Still, that leaves me with the question that if those efforts require this degree of violence, what happens next? Will we be treading water in the forthcoming Chapter 4 (slated for a 2021 release)? Probably not. It’ll be more like treading blood. Call it a consequence of modern audience expectation.

Someone’s overdue . . . for an ass-whooping.

Recommendation: So here we are with a third installment that is most interested in just how much John Wick can physically withstand. It’s essentially a videogame replete even with a “Boss Level” showdown, and it’s unequivocally the most violent episode yet. And yet we take it because the devastating dance between Wick and his hungry would-be killers is the gift that just keeps on giving — at least for fans who are as loyal to the character as his pups have been.

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 130 mins.

Quoted: “After this, we are less than even.”

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

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Release: Friday, February 8, 2019

→Theater

Written by: the Lord Philip; Christopher, a distinguished member of the Miller clan

Directed by: someone of indeterminate skill (Mike Mitchell)

Cough. It’snotasgoodasthefirst. Cough.

Excuse me. The weather lately, I’m definitely under it — while also being totally over it. It was in the 60s last Friday, mere days after a cold snap introduced single digit temps, and now here we are again dealing with snow’s annoying cousins, hail and sleet. This streak of wild weather might explain the modest crowd that I experienced The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part with on opening night. Or have audiences just moved on? Remember the first one came out five years ago, and while there was more to come it took three years before those obligatory spin-offs came about (The Lego Batman Movie, another hit, and The Lego Ninjago Movie, not so much — both released in 2017). Is Lego Movie fatigue a real thing? Are we spoilt for choice? Whatever the reason, the release of Lego 2 feels much less of an event, the kind of Big Deal I would have anticipated given the success of that first film.

The classic crew return in Mike Mitchell’s space opera adventure, with Chris Pratt earnest and naive as ever as hero Emmet Brickowski, Elizabeth Banks more dark and brooding as Wyldstyle/Lucy, Will Arnett even more baritone-voiced as “The Man of Bats,” Alison Brie reliably Unikitty, Charlie Day as Spaceman Benny and Nick Offerman full-metal-bearded as the . . . pirate . . . guy. Away from them we are introduced to a handful of new personalities, some of them as memorable as any of the preexisting ones. And while the specifics of the plot are entirely different the basic shape of the story is retained, the animated characters and action foregrounded against a live-action environment where those plot developments emulate what is happening in a child’s imagination. No, the set-up isn’t as fresh a second time around but I still find it to be one of the great strengths of this franchise, and even as Lego 2 returns to the surface more often it does it to great effect.

After standing up to the all-powerful Lord Business/The Man Upstairs (Will Ferrell) in the first movie, Emmet feels quite optimistic about the future, despite present-day Bricksburg (now called Apocalypseburg) looking like a Mad Max/Blade Runner wasteland where everything is far from awesome. An inter-racial war between Legos and Duplos have ravaged the land and turned the good Bricksburgians into hardened plastic cynics. Yet amidst this abyss of humanity Emmet has gone ahead and built a little house for him and Lucy to carry out their lives in, and it has everything, including a double-decker porch swing and a Toaster Room.

When General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), the leader of the Duplo invaders and hench-woman of the “not evil” Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), pays a visit to the people of Bricksburg, now confined to a fall-out shelter á la Star Wars: The Last Jedi, she abducts Lucy and a few other unfortunates, coercing them to take part in a wedding ceremony in the far-away Systar System. Emmet, with little support from his peers — not even Lucy, who is yearning for a more mature, less naive Emmet given the times in which they live — determines it is his duty to save them. Along the way he meets a badass named Rex Dangervest (also voiced by Chris Pratt), who will help Emmett not only become “more badass” but as well prevent the impending plastic nuptials that will bring about “Our-Mom-Ageddon.”

Plot and themes suffice, but that’s really all they do. They fail to wow. We deal with familiar notions of dealing with change and staying true to one’s identity in the face of societal/peer pressure. What is new, however, is the deconstruction of action hero tropes. Is being “The Badass” all that it’s cracked up to be? Emmet, ever the underdog, is challenged both by his past actions and his present conflict. It is suggested he took a disproportionate amount of credit as “The Special,” when Lucy did as much if not more of the ass-kicking. In the present the essence of who he is becomes tested — can he become this more serious, more assertive, less frequently pushed-over Lego piece Lucy wants him to be? What happens when he succeeds at that?

The answers to those questions and a few more may well lie in the egotistic Rex Dangervest, a fun new character who showcases everything that is inherently silly about icons of machismo like Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis. In fact his very existence is a parody of Chris Pratt’s own career, whether taking aim at that stupid thing he did with the raptors in Jurassic World or poking fun of his potential casting as Indiana Jones — all of which being material more geared towards the adult chaperones in attendance.  It seems unlikely kids are going to get many of those references, never mind comprehend the time traveling twist that is rather convoluted to say the least.

Beyond that, Lego 2 makes a conscientious effort to balance the perspective, making the female characters just as integral to the emotional core of the narrative, whether that be on the macro — the real-world drama depicted as a sibling squabble, with Finn (Jadon Sand) not wanting to play nice with his younger sister Bianca (Brooklynn Prince), who’s gotten into Legos herself and wants to do her own thing with them — or the micro level, Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi presenting a shape-shifting femme fatale who turns out to be more than what meets the eye — her “Not Evil” song suggesting she may well be an aspiring Masked Singer contestant. And let us not forget who it is that has inspired Emmet to change.

The release of The Lego Movie back in 2014 was a hugely nostalgic ride for this former Lego enthusiast. I was reminded not just of my obsession with the building blocks but as well the genius of Pixar’s Toy Story. It may not be the most accurate comparison given that the characters technically have less autonomy in the Lego universe. Unlike in Toy Story where the movie happens in the absence of the humans, here the characters are wholly reliant upon human interaction and manipulation — which, incidentally, is what makes Lego 2‘s grand finale so incongruous; I won’t say anything more, but suffice to say it really doesn’t make sense. Still, the very concept of a child’s play things coming to life and given such personality struck me as kind of profound.

Lego 2 clearly aspires to be a Toy Story 2 but unfortunately it is not that movie. In fairness, what sequel is? It takes a similar tact in expanding the canvas, taking the action into outer space, but ultimately it’s unable to escape the shadow of its more successful older brother. That’s most obvious in its attempt to create another ear bug in the form of “The Catchy Song,” a tune that ironically turns out to be nowhere near as catchy as “Everything is Awesome.” It’s a poppy jingle more than an actual song, and its fleetingness tends to sum up the experience as a whole.

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss.”

Recommendation: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part delivers more of what fans should have expected but it cannot overcome a sense of been-there-done-that. That the law of diminishing returns applies even to the brilliantly quick witted Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (and the guys at Animal Logic who provide the animation) just goes to show how difficult it is to improve upon an already strong foundation. Even if Lego 2 is a step down, it once again will reward older viewers while keeping the little ones busy with the hectic action and bright colors. Despite the flaws it is still worthy of being seen in a theater. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “I ain’t Selina Kyle. I ain’t no Vicki Vale. I was never into you even when you were Christian Bale.”

“I’m more of a Keaton guy myself.”

“Oh, I loved him in Beetlejuice!”

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

Year in Review: 2018 on Thomas J! (Part 2 of 2)

In Part 2, we finish up the year (July thru December) in movie reviews, my seventh (technically sixth full-year) since first joining WordPress back in 2011. (Click here or just scroll your happy self to the bottom of this post if you missed Part 1!)

The back half of 2018 found Thomas J putting up 22 new film reviews, plus two more 30 for 30 pieces. Fair warning, this is a MUCH longer post than Part 1 (10 posts total). I probably should have taken into account the two months of NO REVIEWS that I had in the first half, and maybe restructured this whole thing. C’est la vie. Here is what the rest of my 2018 looked like:


July 

I celebrate my seventh year of blogging this month by posting a few thoughts on movies both political and comedic (and in one case, a bit of both). No celebratory post to mark the occasion, though sequels are a hit with me at this point in time apparently, with Sicario 2 and the new Ant-Man installment.

Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado: a sequel that struck me as unnecessary before I actually sat down to watch it. Soldado offers a far more traditional, action-driven film than what Denis Villeneuve supplied in Sicario, a white-knuckle thrill ride that packed a powerful sociopolitical punch. Yet its timeliness what with current border politics, in conjunction with its even more morbid, anything-goes attitude (again, timely) and the return of Josh Brolin and Benecio del Toro made this invitation impossible to decline. A lesser film absolutely, but one with its own unique thrills. I enjoyed it enough to want a third. I don’t say that often when it comes to sequels.

Ant-man and the Wasp: good things come in small packages, and the sequel to 2015’s charmingly diminutive Ant-man is further proof. Timing works in this film’s favor as well, occupying a very special place on the MCU timeline in the wake of the devastation brought on by Infinity War — it still cracks me up that that movie actually made people cry. Yet despite the calculated timing, what makes the sequel refreshing is that, just like the incredible shrinking Pym lab, the drama is very self-contained; there is almost nothing linking this film to the Avengers narrative at-large, with the exception of the constant berating Scott Lang receives from his former mentor and his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (a.k.a. The Wasp). Fun, fast-paced and . . . well, more time with Paul Rudd. Need I say more?

Sorry to Bother You: first of all, was this a dream or did this movie actually happen? Was anybody expecting this movie to be like . . . that? The Oakland, California-set directorial début of Chicago-born rapper and social justice activist Boots Riley epitomized uniqueness. From my review — “Perpetually forward-bounding with gusto and verve, with an intensely likable Lakeith Stanfield leading the charge, Sorry to Bother You is a strange but powerful experience that you really shouldn’t miss out on — even when there is a percent chance greater than fifty you walk away from it feeling something other than purely amused.”

Skyscraper: an amiable action thriller featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and the perpetually under-rated Neve Campbell that both functions as a throwback to classic action films of the ’90s (Die Hard, anyone?) and gives the former wrestler another platform for demonstrating his not-inconsiderable range. The family dynamic presented in Skyscraper is genuine, likable and creates a surprising amount of tension even as the action bits themselves stretch credulity well past the breaking point. Of the two Dwayne Johnson summer flicks that were on offer this year (Rampage being the other), the glimmering lights of Hong Kong’s impossibly lofty skyline was absolutely the place to be.

August

August is responsible for one of my favorite movies all year, actually a documentary. In stark contrast to that, I also have the misfortune of going against my better judgment and seeing the latest Jason “I act better when shirtless” Statham movie. Sports film coverage also makes a cameo appearance this month with my second (and quite accidentally, final) 30 for 30 review.

Three Identical Strangers: to put it simply, one of the best movies I have seen all year. This outrageous true story about three young boys discovering the true nature of their existence is entertaining, captivating and ultimately disturbing. Where do we draw the line between science and ethics? While there is a great deal of fun and excitement in the first half of the film, the revelations brought to light in the second are stomach-turning to say the least. You just can’t make this stuff up (even if I wish it were made up).

The Meg: yes, I saw this movie. Yes, I’ve seen worse, like Deep Blue Sea. But no, not the kind of ringing endorsement Statham et al were looking for, I can’t imagine.

 

 

Alpha: I really enjoyed this narratively simple but deliciously atmospheric survival film about a young Cro Magnon (Kodi Smit-McPhee) befriending a wolf (a Czech wolf dog named Chuck — I am actually not kidding) after he becomes separated from his tribe and father/tribal leader Tau (Game of Thrones‘ Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). The story isn’t very inventive but the filmmakers’ decision to create an entirely new language (comprised of roughly 1,500 words) really helped sell the authenticity of the period. Heartwarming without being overly sentimental.

30 for 30: Mike and the Mad Dog: a bonafide classic, especially for the New York sports fan. Details the relationship between oversized egos/sports jockeys Mike Francesa and Chris ‘Mad Dog’ Russo and their many (many!) ups and downs across a wild 19 years at WFAN 101.9 FM.

 

 

September

Things start to get kind of exciting (unless you are a Tennessee football fan). A new Spike Lee joint that had been sprayed with critical praise during its festival run finally opens to the public (granted back in August, but I wouldn’t get a review up until weeks later), while word-of-mouth about an unusual thriller about a father’s desperate search for his missing daughter starts to really pick up. (And now I see that that movie was also released the month prior. Damn it, I really have been playing catch-up this entire year!)

Searching: I could not — still cannot — believe how tense and emotional Aneesh Chaganty’s first feature film was. This was an absolutely fantastic conceit that became so much more than a gimmick. The story told of a father (an excellent John Cho) having to go to extreme lengths to track down the whereabouts of his suddenly missing daughter (Michelle La) by delving into her social media accounts in a desperate race-against-time, a seemingly hopeless search for the clues that could make the difference between miracle and tragedy.

BlacKkKlansman: this was one wild ride. Loosely based upon the 2014 memoir of the same name (minus that little ‘k’ that writer/director Spike Lee threw in there), it recounted the experiences of an undercover black police officer in the late 1970s, when he cozied up to a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to bring them down from the inside. Despite the foul regions of humanity it must poke and prod around in, BlacKkKlansman proved to be a mightily entertaining movie. It’s intermittently even beautiful, but more importantly it’s alarmingly relevant.

Operation Finale: a film that passed all too quietly, Chris Weitz’ handsomely mounted and smartly-casted Operation Finale takes audiences on a top secret mission into the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, following a group of Israeli spies as they attempt to capture a high-ranking Nazi officer who fled Europe at the end of the war to seemingly escape without consequence. While the broader historical significance of the mission objective cannot be overstated, the drama is at its most compelling when it gets personal, when it explores the emotional rather than political stakes.

White Boy Rick: a drama about a wayward Detroit teen (introducing Richie Merritt) and his equally morally bankrupt father (Matthew McConaughey) getting into the coke-‘n-guns business in the Motor City circa the mid-’80s that just fell flat dramatically and really lacked an empathetic hook. I learned in this movie you can feel bad for a person’s circumstances without actually feeling bad for the individual. Barring a few moments here and there, this turned out to be a disappointingly middling effort from Yann Demange, the director of the sensationally gripping war drama ’71 (2014).

October

Even though I am not the biggest fan of horror, I was still disappointed in my lack of horror viewing this year. Particularly in the month of October. I wasn’t interested one iota in David Gordon Green’s retooled Halloween (“Hi, I’m Michael Myers. I have enormous psychological issues and now I am going to take them out on you!”) so I ostensibly skipped the month’s biggest event. Apostle is a Netflix horror that has picked up favorable reviews yet I still haven’t gotten to it; the revamped Suspiria never even ventured into my area and the only thing scary about the Goosebumps sequel was just how silly/geared-to-children it suddenly appeared. Thus:

A Star is Born: one of the true big hits of the year, a doomed love story that’s already been told three times before! The main attraction here was the excellent chemistry between stars Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga — the latter proving she can be as captivating a performer without all that ridiculous make-up and wardrobe as she can with it. I fell in love with the performances and the music, and apparently so did the world. For romantics, this movie is a must.

 

First Man: it kills me how contentious a release this became. If you want to live in ignorance that is your prerogative. But we went to the Moon and Damien Chazelle made a pretty jaw-dropping movie about it. I will happily have people disagree with me on that point. More specifically, he made a brilliantly personal film about what it might have felt like to become the first person to have stepped foot on two different worlds. There of course have been more since Neil Armstrong’s historic lunar walk (eleven in fact, four of whom are still living), but Neil was the first. A technical masterclass besides, First Man features one of the year’s most curious and intensely internalized performances from the enigmatic Ryan Gosling. And, as an aside, now that China has successfully planted a lander on the Dark (or much-less-cool-sounding “far”) Side of the Moon, I am sure there are those out there who are going to deny that, too. Go right ahead.

mid90s: an unexpected (not in terms of quality but rather subject matter and style — and yes, okay, a little in terms of quality too!) début for Jonah Hill, the once-pudgy star of such raunchy Judd Apatow-esque (and actual Judd Apatow-produced) comedies Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and SuperbadMid90s creates a fully lived-in environment with its urban setting, natural performances, smartly chosen locations, its street-skating-video aesthetic and eclectic musical choices, simultaneously inspiring whiffs of nostalgia for an era long since passed while never really trying that hard to be about nostalgia. A small but pretty valuable gem.

November 

This month introduces me to some of the year’s best — a small sample size for sure but two films that leave a lasting impression still.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Melissa McCarthy at the top of her game, and another potential top-five candidate for this reviewer. My goodness, I loved this movie. The performances are one thing, but the milieu is just perfect. I could smell the leather-bound books in the cute little bookstores dotted around Manhattan, feel the cold harsh of winter breathing down those streets. Smelled the stink of failure (and festering cat poop) within poor old Lee Israel’s dingy apartment. I actually don’t know what it was that prevented me from giving this a perfect score. However, I am not really in the habit of retroactively adjusting my ratings.

Avery: a fun post that found this apparently uninspired writer reviewing a snowstorm FFS. Yellow journalism at its finest.

 

 

 

 

Widows: the new Steve McQueen movie that I had been anticipating for nearly a year, with some trepidation! The British auteur was, until this film, 3/3 in terms of delivering grueling, hard-to-watch dramas about people living in hell-on-earth. Widows, which tells the story about four women having to atone for their husbands’ indiscretions when they rob from the wrong guy, is no slouch either, especially with the twist at the end there, but it isn’t quite as punishing as what has come before. Still, it is a far more robust genre film than you’re likely to get from almost anyone else, packing one hell of a timely message in amongst its gritty action.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web: a far less intriguing but nevertheless worthwhile follow-up to David Fincher’s 2010 hard-hitting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Spider’s Web featured an impressive Claire Foy taking over from Rooney Mara. Heavy on style, much lighter on substance.

 

 

December

And I finish off 2018 strongly with five new reviews. No monthly wrap-up post nor any timely viewings/write-ups of seasonal releases old or new as celebrating the holiday season just, ya know, gets in the way. Again. Even with the best of intentions, I STILL have yet to see classics like It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. (I know, I know . . . ) Plus working at a liquor store during the holidays tends to take something out of you.

Assassination Nation: if the popularity of this post was anything to go by, Sam Levinson’s scathing political/social media satire was not exactly the year’s hottest item. I was glad to have been one of the few to have seen it, even if it was tonally uneven and became kinda sanctimonious at the end. Still, you can’t deny the film’s energy and chutzpah. A Salem Witch Trials for our generation, this is one righteously angry film with a lot on its mind.

 

Free Solo: a documentary of great interest to me given I devoted 10+ years to climbing both indoors and outside. I worked at rock climbing gyms for several years, where I made some long-lasting friendships with some great people. Free Solo exposed the world-at-large to one of the great risk-takers in the game, one Alex Honnold. His goal to climb the world-famous El Capitan in Yosemite Valley without a rope was captured by Jimmy Chin and a team of creative minds that, due to the death-defying nature of the undertaking, had to rethink their entire approach to filming it. Honnold’s 3,000-foot free solo is one for the history books.

Beautiful Boy: I was completely and utterly moved by Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell, and perplexed by the lukewarm reviews the movie overall received. I thought this was a brutally authentic yet sensitive portrayal of drug addiction that had a well-defined emotional component to it that I latched on to right away. I may be in a minority on this one, but I am completely fine with that. “Everything. Everything.”

 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: an incredibly eye-popping trip into the pages of the iconic comic books of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Into the Spider-Verse just has to be one of the biggest surprises of the year. Into the Spider-Verse has it all: an incredible visual spectacle, a streamlined but hardly contrived narrative with a big heart and a great sense of humor, a villain with a compelling motive, one heartbreaking reveal and an emotive soundtrack. Best of all, the multiverse doesn’t require an intimate knowledge of what is canonical and what isn’t for you to really get inside it. A rare example of a PG-rated film earning a perfect 5 rating from me (for whatever that is worth).

Mock and Roll: okay, so this was a really cool way to cap off 2018 in movies. I was fortunate to have been contacted by Mark Stewart, one of the writers of this underground film from Columbus, Ohio. I haven’t reviewed a truly independent film in some time, so having this experience was a total refresher. It lit a fire under my ass to do some more digging and find more stuff like this. Silliness and hijinks run amok in this one. Stream the film on Amazon Prime, today!

 


Happy New Year everyone! Shall we do another round?

Skyscraper

Release: Friday, July 13, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber 

There’s no ignoring the fact the star of Skyscraper, a veritable homage to one of cinema’s greatest action reels, once donned a sacrificial lion’s head as battle gear in a movie directed by Brett Ratner about the god Hercules. Earlier this summer, he also starred alongside a giant albino gorilla with an affinity for rude gesturing. These are things that happened, and yet there is this other thing called redemption and that’s what movies like Skyscraper are good at providing. Not that I’m growing increasingly concerned about The Rock’s role choices; at worst they’re palatably cheesy, not stale and rancid like Bruce Willis circa Die Hard 7000.

In Rawson Marshall Thurber’s new film Global Icon Dwayne Johnson™ plays Will Sawyer, a U.S. war vet and former FBI hostage negotiator who now assesses the security of buildings all over the globe. His latest assignment has brought him to Hong Kong, where he is to evaluate the integrity of the fire prevention and security measures of the world’s tallest superstructure, The Pearl. A bad day on the job 10 years ago prompted him to change careers and in one fell swoop introduced him to combat medic and future wife Sarah (Neve Campbell), with whom he starts up a family and tries to move beyond the days of firing heavy weaponry — much to the chagrin of his old friend Ben (Pablo Schreiber).

Falling in love on the operating table is up there with trying to use animal hide to gain style points, but if you’re experienced at all with his brand, you know you’re better off accepting these things and as soon as possible. If anything, the love-at-first-sedation scene is great practice for what this simply structured yet still ridiculous action event is going to throw at you later. (Hint: lots of on-fire things and leaps of faith.)

It actually makes sense that Thurber spends just as much if not more time establishing a building as an integral role player as he does his human actors. The film is called Skyscraper, after all. The Pearl, a 3,500-foot tall marvel of modern engineering, is undoubtedly the film’s most unique asset. And the sleek, spherical penthouse at the 240th floor is its own crowning achievement. A character unto itself, this monstrosity is the brainchild of wealthy financier Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) and is the ultimate manifestation of supreme wealth and ambition run amok. Of course one doesn’t rise to this level without making a few enemies and just before Zhao is to open the building in its entirety to the public, along come some pesky terrorists to burn his ambition down. Literally.

It makes sense because while the camera doesn’t ogle over what Zhao modestly describes as “the eighth wonder of the world” as much as I (certainly no architect) would have liked, when the building finally starts to burn it’s pretty damn cinematic. There is a sense of dizzying scale that threw me right back to the best bits of Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk and Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest. The acrophobic should be put on notice. This thing gets pretty atmospheric, and in that way the effort pays off because even as the convenient plot turns become more egregious the action feels increasingly larger than life.

Skyscraper builds just enough human drama to earn our sympathy. This time around Johnson, sporting a prosthetic leg, trades in his all-American good guy swagger for a quieter stoicism. This is a film that effectively expands the actor’s range into the dramatic, though granted this is more toes-in-the-water than a full plunge. The prop isn’t what makes the role dramatic — it’s the way he expresses concern for the well-being of his family. But it isn’t just The Rock doing the ass-kicking and name-clearing. Because his family has made the trip to Hong Kong with him, they find themselves conveniently situated within the drama. Call their problem convenient or even silly — just don’t call the Sawyers helpless victims. Sarah, in particular, proves herself when push comes to shove and she shoves the hell out of the opposition. That’s before setting about subverting other major genre clichés, too.

Moving past the adults, the children are another pleasant revelation. They aren’t given big speaking roles but these are two of the most agreeable movie kids I have met in some time. Together, these actors comprise a wholly natural family that’s easy to root for. Still, it’s a shame we are ultimately robbed of more screen time devoted to just The Rock and Neve Campbell as the two have solid chemistry. As for the villains, they’re not so impressive. They simply exist to provide generic conflict. Their motive is convoluted, but suffice it to say Kores Botha (troublemaker-turned-actor Roland Møller) is being pressured by some even worse people to put a major dent in Zhao’s soaring stock.

Skyscraper is a breezy summer escape told in an economic fashion — a sleekly designed throwback to classic action movies, and one that slots in among Johnson’s better efforts. Will Sawyer is no John McClane, but then again he doesn’t need to be. Skyscraper finds the former wrestler polishing his new craft (well, relatively new — this is his 15th film) while updating the male badass archetype. Sometimes being the badass means maybe not being able to find a way out of this mess on your own. Sometimes it means being completely vulnerable and owning up to that.

Recommendation: Skyscraper offers up another round of The Rock doing Rock things but in a decidedly more straight-faced manner. The action is fun and visually stunning at times. Don’t look to it for the best villains of 2018 or some profound statement about where technology is going or how crazy rich people are just crazy people in nice clothes or anything like that, but when it comes to picking which Dwayne Johnson you should see sooner (or at all) the choice is pretty obvious. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 102 mins.

Only in the movies: In order to make the jump from the crane to the building featured in the trailer Sawyer would have to run and leave the platform at 28.4 mph. For comparison, Olympic Champion Usain Bolt’s fastest recorded speed is 27.4 mph.

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

The Commuter

Release: Friday, January 12, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Byron Willinger; Philip de Blasi; Ryan Engle

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

The Commuter is the fourth time director Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson have teamed up to deliver you the questionable goods. Sure, it was Pierre Morel’s Taken that discovered the fountain of ass-kicking youth within the 66-year-old actor, but it’s Serra who has really taken that template and run with it, testing its flexibility by placing the aging but clearly still agile action star in a variety of gritty situations. He’s experienced identity fraud, dealt with the Irish mafia and beaten up terrorists at cruising altitude. Though he hasn’t achieved much distinction with this approach, in championing quantity over quality the barceloní is at least giving us options.

Which is why it is so difficult for me to actually recommend something as . . . . bleghhh as The Commuter. Of all the vehicles built around Neeson’s very particular set of skills, the train thus far has proven to be the least effective. Or at least its villains have. The story is also disappointingly a retread of 2014, borrowing everything but the pilots and tray tables in their upright and locked position from that year’s Non-stop. 

In this one Neeson plays an ex-cop named Michael MacCauley who has been working in life insurance for the last ten years. He has taken the train in and out of the city every single day and because he has, Michael begins the film like everyone else, as persona very grata, before invariably getting roped into a murder conspiracy that could have fatal consequences for all. Think you’ve had a bad day? Try having this shoved on your plate after being unceremoniously let go from a job you desperately need.

Moments into yet another ordinary commute home (minus the whole being fired part) Michael is joined by a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her capacity) who can’t help but dump the plot all over his lap. In an Agatha Christie way she informs Michael there is one passenger on board who “does not belong,” and that, hypothetically, if he were to locate that person he would be rewarded with $100,000. The catch is he has no idea what the person looks like, the days of profiling complete strangers are far behind him, and (again, hypothetically) he must find the individual before the train reaches the end of the line. When Michael finds a stash of Ben Franklins in a lavatory he discovers that there is nothing hypothetical about this proposal.

Rounding out cast notables are Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill. The former, who reunites with Farmiga for the first time outside the realm of The Conjuring universe, offers a confidante in ex-partner Alex Murphy (like in RoboCop!) when things go all pear-shaped for Michael. Meanwhile Neill is absolutely wasted in the vastly underwritten role of Captain Name’s Not Important. At least one of them is meant to suggest something about corrupt cops and departments, but there’s just not enough material here to get a feel for what is being said about it. Yes, crooked cops. Those are . . . those are bad.

The Commuter should be praised for its commitment to realism — insofar as ‘real’ means mundane, uneventful. Yet that same tactic tends to tip the film itself into mundanity. Despite there being an attempt to survey the moral depths of his character, Michael just isn’t interesting enough to justify the sheer randomness of his involvement. On one hand, the film’s lack of big action feels appropriate, but then it leaves you with plenty of time to ponder on the motives of the villains. Or how many trains derail every year.

Look, what mechanizes these kinds of late-career action films doesn’t have to be some sophisticated scheme nor do they need to be borne out of a sociopolitical movement, but at the very least there should be some kind of weight behind the nefariousness. And if we never do believe the threat is strong enough to actually overpower him, for the love of Qui-Gon at least make the adventure compelling. The Commuter does neither of these things, and as a result leaves fans wanting off at the nearest possible stop.

“My career is running off the rails. Pah. Says who?”

Recommendation: B-grade Serra if you ask me. When much of life is about choice, why would you choose the rather uneventful and dramatically uninspired The Commuter? For those dreaming of the day they get Non-stop set on a train, well . . . . . . . dream no more.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “What’s in the bag?”

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

Atomic Blonde

Release: Friday, July 28, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Kurt Johnstad

Directed by: David Leitch

Perhaps the only thing you really need to know about Atomic Blonde is that it bears the insignia of one David Leitch, a certifiable jack-of-all-trades whose résumé includes numerous actor, producer and assistant director credits. His directorial experience unofficially includes a joint effort with Chad Stahelski on 2014’s John Wick and will soon include (officially) Deadpool 2. Leitch’s stunt work can be found in everything from BASEketball to Blade; Seabiscuit to The Matrix: Revolutions. But it is his reputation behind the scenes as a stunt coordinator that most directly informs his gleefully violent send-up of the spy genre.

Despite the main objective being to create something that breaks from the “stuffy atmosphere” typically associated with films of its ilk, Leitch’s directorial debut isn’t a true original. This is an adaptation of the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, written by Antony Johnston with artwork by Sam Hart. With the fall of the Berlin Wall imminent, it imagines a fictional narrative involving a lethal MI6 agent named Lorraine Broughton who is dispatched to Berlin to retrieve a dossier containing the identities of suspected double-agents trying to get across the border into the West. While there she’s also to find the person responsible for the murder of a fellow agent. Even as a neutral third-party, Broughton soon discovers her trip to Germany won’t be simple when you can’t distinguish enemy from ally.

In a role that recalls her intensity and grit in Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron stars as the enigmatic blonde, a survivor of many things unexplained at the start of the film. Her curvature emerges from a tomb of ice, battered and bruised to a degree that pretty much equates her to a modern superheroine. Hair matted to her neck and shoulders, eyes bloodshot, she swigs vodka to take the edge off. It’s an absorbing and moody opening that immediately draws us into the world of a hardened spy. Enquiring minds want to know: what chain of events have unfolded to get us here?

The gory details of a mission gone bad are recounted in a flashback structured through an interrogation taking place in the present day — a scene to which we frequently cut throughout. The technique underscores the rampant paranoia associated with the era. After all, who’s to say Broughton herself can really be trusted? Her handlers, an MI6 executive (Toby Jones) and a CIA agent who looks a lot like John Goodman, seem to humor her rather than accept as gospel what she says about her experience “working with” Berlin station chief David Percival (another great loose-cannon performance from James McAvoy). When some of that testimony proves potentially embarrassing, protocol requires the suits to bring out the broom as well as the rug.

The ass-kickery of Atomic Blonde may be steeped in familiar themes, but through sheer force of style Leitch manages to hack-and-slash his own path through the crowded genre of Cold War-set spy thrillers. It’s a breathless display of close-quarters combat in which sustained sequences of bone-crunching action are the movie and everything in between is just a bonus. The scene in the stairwell is unbelievable; something that would make Jet Li proud. Think John Wick turned espionage thriller: replace its lo-carb Neo with a female version of James Bond who makes Daniel Craig look like David Niven.

Proving a crucial component to the experience is a soundtrack rife with killer ’80s tunes, some original, others covered by contemporary artists. Everything from David Bowie collaborating with Queen (‘Under Pressure’ has particularly good timing) to Depeche Mode, Led Zeppelin to German punk group AuSSchlag is sampled, with so many numbers contributing to the overall tone and pace of the film that it becomes sort of impractical to break it all down. (So here’s this as a reference — be wary of spoilers if you haven’t yet seen the film.)

Sure, Atomic Blonde has room for improvement. The direction is solid yet there’s still something nervous about it. There’s a slightly nagging pacing issue stemming from the way the chronicle is deliberately, almost self-consciously constructed. Occasionally the flashiness is a little too flashy. Other times it’s borderline pandering. Broughton’s whirlwind romance with an attractive but naïve French agent (Sofia Boutella) comes out of left field. At best the sudden blossoming of an intimate lesbian relationship identifies a certain joie de vivre in a film that otherwise lacks it. At worst, such tenderness strikes you as out of character. Very, very out of character. Still, I’m not sure what harm introducing a little warmth into a cold world, a cold movie really does, other than veer dangerously close to the very cliches its star proudly claims her latest role steers well clear of.

You don’t really come away with the impression that you’ve been educated as much as you feel like you’ve endured as many heavy blows and dodged as many bullets as the protagonist. This is a firecracker of an action thriller, though I’m left wondering if maybe the coupon would only be good for a one-time viewing. In fairness, Leitch cautions the viewer against taking things too seriously with an opening title card that suggests it might actually be better to view the movie as an “alternate reality” rather than something extracted from history.

The more I think about it, the only thing you really need to know about Atomic Blonde is just how much of a badass Charlize Theron is. She is a force of nature, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her male contemporaries. Her strong work, combined with the stylistic vision of David Leitch, is the recipe for one of the most violent female-led action films I have ever seen and one of the most purely entertaining.

Recommendation: Gritty, violent, with a female touch. More like a female frikkin’ wallop. This film festival-pleasing, pulpy genre-tweaker is a strong contender for best female-starring vehicle in all of 2017. The specifics of the narrative don’t really matter when an actor is just so in control of their craft. One of my favorite performances from Charlize Theron. If you thought she was a cold-hearted killer in Fate of the Furious, wait until you get a load of the Atomic Blonde. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Don’t shoot! I’ve got your shoe!” 

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 

Decades Blogathon — The Running Man (1987)

Welcome to Day 2 in the third annual Decades Blogathon! If you missed out on the inaugural day’s activities, be sure to check the Recent Posts list here on this blog (right hand column) and on Three Rows Back

Once again, Mark and I are running an event in which bloggers discuss a film of their choice that was released in a year ending in a ‘7,’ as we are currently in 2017. Today I would like to introduce another Mark, the one and only Mark of Movie Man Jackson. He’s back again to discuss one of those ultra-Arnie violent movies from the 1980s, in this case, The Running Man


It’s 2017, and we are only two years away from this. 2017 has seen America become a terrible place. After an economic collapse, government has stepped up to suppress all individual rights and freedoms. Civilians are placated by a TV show that showcases convicted criminals fight for their lives in exchange for potential freedom. This show, known as The Running Man, is an ultraviolent hit and brings in massive ratings, spearheaded by its energetic host Damon Killian (Richard Dawson). But, those ratings have plateaued.

Now 2019, helicopter pilot Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is wrongly painted as a mass murderer during a food riot, and promptly sent to prison. Though able to escape, he is eventually arrested. He’s given two choices: Go back into prison, presumably for life, or fight for freedom on The Running Man. Reluctant, Ben chooses to fight, where he will have to deal with gladiatorial-esque stalkers with names like “Dynamo,” “Subzero,” “Buzzsaw,” and “Fireball.” Each is hell-bent on not letting a “runner” like Ben beat them at their own game.

There are a couple of things that immediately pop into my mind as I think about the 1980’s. Big hair is one of them. The epidemics of AIDS and crack cocaine is another. Movie-wise, I think of “The Governor.” Arnold Schwarzenegger and the 80’s go together like Montana/Rice and Crockett/Tubbs, appearing in Hollywood action staples that need no listing. One less popular one that peak Arnold starred in was 1987’s The Running Man, and it is a lesser movie when held in comparison to The TerminatorCommandoConan the Barbarian, and Predator. But, as a relative 80’s popcorn actioner, it qualifies as solid entertainment, and a clear inspiration for future films like Battle RoyaleThe Condemned, and of course, The Hunger Games.

There’s a reason the word relative is used. The Running Man, loosely adapted from Richard Backman’s (aka Stephen King) novel, does touch on—maybe even foreshadowed—themes and ideas still relevant today. The oft brainless and shock reality television of 2017 isn’t all that far off from what’s depicted in director Paul Michael Glaser’s (Starsky in the famous television show) feature. An appetite for violence can be loosely paralleled to the football and MMA fighting that some fans view religiously. Perhaps the best implemented idea showcased by the movie is how editing can tell the story in a specific fashion. This isn’t a novel idea, especially in this digital day and age, but a person could see it being eye-opening during this movie’s release.

It’s nice stuff, but, The Running Man does feel like it wants to really be a film that a person truly gives deep deep thought towards when in actually it isn’t quite to that intellectual and thought provoking level. Most of these ideas are introduced in the first 30-40 minutes at a surface level, and never go beyond this. Maybe Arnie was on to something about Glaser being “…out of his depth…” Part of it is due to the presentation. Hard to be taken very seriously when villains are given names like Subzero, Fireball, Buzzsaw, and Dynamo, with the latter seemingly outfitted with dopey Lite Brite pegs and singing opera as he zaps people.

It benefits science fictions films to be sometimes looked at in a vacuum with the absence of superior effects that today’s cinema world has. However, many older sci-fi films have more or less stood the test of time. The Running Man, from a technical standpoint, isn’t one of those films, with the animations and major special effects looking on par with, if not worse than, an average 90’s cartoon. And for being set in the future, most everything lacks from a creativity perspective; the technology especially isn’t that much different from what was being used in the decade. At least Harold Faltermeyer is there to provide the 80’s signature synth sounds in the score.

So, some of The Running Man is shoddy. But, it still has the charisma of “Ahnold” to bank on. His inherent likability and action prowess is used to make Richards a person to root for, even while spouting one-liners that are hit-and-miss and super corny. To paraphrase a random elderly lady in the movie, “[Ben Richards] is one mean motherf***er.” Opposing him is none other than Richard Dawson, the original Family Feud host who parodies his old persona here, doing a complete 180 as Damon Killian. He’s a real gem throughout. Everyone else is pretty forgettable, from the two Arnold sidekicks in Marvin J. McIntyre and Yaphet Kotto, to the eye candy and obvious love interest in Maria Conchita Alonso. Brief hammy roles are present by WWE legend Jesse Ventura and NFL legend Jim Brown. They’re as 80’s as one can imagine.

On the strength of Schwarzenegger, Dawson, and a unique (for the time) if not particularly thorough story, The Running Man is cheesy fun worth catching on a rerun.


Photo credits: http://www.craveonline.com, http://www.imdb.com, http://www.joblo.com, and http://www.top10films.co.uk

Doctor Strange

doctor-strange-movie-poster

Release: Friday, November 4, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Scott Derrickson; Jon Spaihts; C. Robert Cargill 

Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Benedict Cumberbatch’s introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is far from inauspicious, but Doctor Strange falls short of being the prodigy its parents want so badly for it to be, though not for a lack of trying with shaky hands.

Strangely, what proves to be yet another underwhelming, formulaic and contrived origin story ultimately becomes an acceptable reality because inventive special effects rule the day. This is such a sumptiously visual feast the story all but becomes an afterthought. It’s The Deadpool Effect: some movies are just going to get a pass because somehow, whether through mixed tapes, sorcery or outrageous Ryan Reynoldsry, the enjoyability factor supersedes substance. Cumberbatch slips into the superhero role like he’s been here before, turning in an excellent performance that will be, if anything, the big takeaway from this particular chapter in the MCU. He’ll be the torch that will light this story through forthcoming installments.

It’s either that or the Inception-on-steroids visual gimmickry that takes our lowly three-dimensional existence and flips it, twists it, inverts it and then manipulates it back into a shape approximate to what was there before. In Doctor Strange you’ll experience a multitude of physical and even psychological paradoxes as you break the planes of multidimensional existence and pass through portals to other worlds (or just other parts of our world). Perhaps no other movie this year or in the last several have made such a conscientious effort to make the viewer feel like they’re hallucinating most of what they’re witnessing. Go ahead, rub your eyes. It’s really happening.

The story, the fall from grace of Tony Stark Md. Doctor Stephen Vincent Strange, isn’t particularly exciting but I suppose it’s one worth investigating here. An egomaniacal surgeon who regularly performs miracles on the operating table, his world is flipped upside down one night when he is involved in a bad car accident and becomes a patient in the very hospital he has stood tall in for years. A complicated emergency surgery follows, something that Strange doesn’t take altogether very well. In the ensuing fall out, he shuns emotional support provided by former lover and fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (an under-used Rachel McAdams) after attempts to receive experimental surgery fail. Too arrogant to accept there are other ways in which he can help people, Strange sets off for Kathmandu to seek the help of a mystic who lives there.

A hop, skip and jump later we’re in the slums of Nepal, sifting through an altogether unfamiliar environment. The backdrop suggests humble new beginnings, but it’ll take some time for Strange himself to become humbled. His arrogance follows him everywhere, even inside the walls of the Kamar-Taj, a secret compound that could have been lifted right out of the Matrix training program. Rather than a dojo for Neo to learn how to control his mind, it’s one in which Strange will learn to drop everything he knows to be true and to embrace the realm of sorcery and magic. Tilda Swinton, beautifully androgynous in the role as The Ancient One, is his reckoning.

The Sorcerer Supreme shows the doctor that indeed other dimensions exist — realms that Earth is shielded from thanks to the tireless efforts of sorcerers stationed at the three sanctums found in London, New York and Hong Kong. But she’s not prepared to train Strange because his cocksureness reminds her of a former Master who had gone rogue. That Master is none other than Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who became seduced with the idea of eternal life offered by Dormammu (voiced by Cumberbatch), a supreme being concealed in the bowels of the Dark Dimension. Kaecilius manifests as the film’s chief antagonist, with whom Strange finds himself interacting if not entirely too prematurely.

And that’s largely the film’s problem: it is in too much of a hurry to get to the goods. Much of this transformation, while rewarding in the sense that this is much like returning to the mindfuck Neo experienced when he took the red pill, is designed to provide the easiest, most agreeable payoffs. Like much of Marvel’s cinematic property. Here, though, the psychological, philosophical and mystical elements lend themselves to a much more high-brow kind of cerebral experience. Once more the cutting edge of creativity is blunted by writing-by-committee: witty one-liners attempt to provide levity but end up more distracting and pandering, the training montage is almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, and the villain is maddeningly mediocre, though the talented Danish actor makes him worth watching more so than he probably deserves.

Notable stand-out performances help elevate the pedestrian narrative considerably. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo is an idealist with an intense and complicated relationship with The Ancient One who is the first to accept Doctor Strange into the ranks. Then there’s the film’s second Benedict, Benedict Wong who plays . . . Wong. I’m actually not kidding. He is a source of stoicism and loyalty, acting as the full-bodied keeper of the Kamar-Taj and chief librarian, after the former librarian is, um, relieved of his duties. And Mikkelsen resonates in the role of a man hell-bent on immortality. He convincingly argues he is not out for the destruction of mankind but rather the continuation of it, albeit via some pretty questionable methods.

We’re 14 movies deep into the MCU and yet Doctor Strange never seems to work as hard as it should, overly reliant on the strength of the visual component to carry the burden. (Okay, and Cumberbatch, lest I forget to state the obvious. He’s great.) This particular film, directed by Scott Derrickson (Sinister; The Day the Earth Stood Still) is an axiom in the sense that modern cinema is trending the more visual route rather than the intellectual. Like DeadpoolDoctor Strange never succumbs to mediocrity, but it’s just barely above that threshold. The familiarity of everything we go through makes the title Doctor Not-So-Strange-Actually-He’s-Quite-Normal feel more appropriate.

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Recommendation: Don’t get me wrong, Doctor Strange is a lot of fun, but when it comes to introducing another of its obscure characters, Marvel seems far too satisfied with outfitting them with overly familiar clothes. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain . . . “

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