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.

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

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Release: Friday, July 6, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Chris McKenna; Erik Sommers; Paul Rudd; Andrew Barrer; Gabriel Ferrari

Directed by: Peyton Reed

You’ve read it everywhere: Ant-Man and the Wasp is a refreshingly lightweight summer adventure that offers up more laughs than big character moments. It’s more of a superhero side dish than an entrée. But that’s okay for viewers like me, whose stomachs are starting to get pretty full with all the superhero shenanigans.

Is it me, or does “quantum entanglement” sound more like the way scientists fall in love rather than an actual problem they must solve? (“Hey everyone, I’d like you to meet my Scientist Girlfriend — we just recently got quantumly entangled.”) Alas, this isn’t a joke. Getting stuck in the quantum realm is quite serious, I assure you. Granted, not as serious as what we all went through a few weeks ago when Thanos snapped his decorated little fingers and turned half the audience into a sobbing mess. Mercifully, this is a new, pre-war chapter that gets away from all of that and returns us to a time when the superhero stakes weren’t so tiresomely dramatic.

The follow-up film to the Phase 2 finale finds Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) growing restless under house arrest. On the one hand, this has provided him an opportunity to spend some quality time with his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). On the other, his careless actions at the airport two years ago (you know, when Steve Rogers blamed Tony for losing his luggage) have created a rift between him and his mentor, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and love interest Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). They’ve gone on the run in an attempt to keep their miraculous shrinking technology a secret.

Scott has only a few days left to finish out his sentence, but that’s a large enough window for him to find trouble. But the interesting thing is, he doesn’t go looking for it; it finds him. He spends his time trying not to go insane in isolation, kept on a short leash by his parole officer (Randall Park, enjoying himself immensely). When Scott experiences a vision of Hank’s wife/Hope’s mother, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) still stuck in the quantum realm, his former allies seek him out in an attempt to retrieve her from the abyss to which they believed she had been forever lost.

It’s a ridiculous leap of faith following a simple voicemail but hey, there are worse plot mechanizations out there. Solving the problem of returning safely from the microscopic world isn’t the only challenge ahead of them, however. Because Scott in effect went public with his little stunt in Captain America: Civil War, a number of competing third parties are coming out of the woodwork in an attempt to benefit in some way from Pym’s genius.

There’s the black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who sees the potential profit that can be made from getting into the quantum business. He gets into a little bit of a struggle with Hope over a parts deal that sours just as Ava Starr/”Ghost” (Hannah John-Kamen) appears out of nowhere. Ava is a young woman who seeks a cure for her gradually weakening physical state as a result of — and let’s not get too personal here — her unstable molecules. On top of that, we are introduced to a former colleague of Hank, a Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), whose life work blahdee-bloodee-blahblah. He has a few reasons to make things more difficult for Ant-Man and the gang.

If anything, Ant-Man and the Wasp is about a family coming back together. That’s kind of the perfect scope for a film following one of the most financially successful (and costly) cinematic events in history. 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 the ex-con receives from Hank and Hope. This sense of family extends to Scott’s friends over at X-Con Security, a consulting firm he and his ex-con friends — Luis (Michael Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian) and Dave (T.I. Harris) — started up in an attempt to go legitimate. Though these personalities don’t get much time to do their thing, you still feel the support system they provide for their perpetually-in-trouble pal Scott.

Of course, Ant-Man and the Wasp can’t really achieve any of these things without Rudd anchoring the movie. Never mind the fact he offers up a pretty wonderful example of fatherhood, he is just so effortlessly likable in the suit that he has quickly become a favorite of mine, in spite of how minor that role really is in the grand scheme. For my money, he’s right up there with Robert Downey Jr. and Ryan Reynolds in terms of infectious personalities. You have to squint to see him but he’s there, standing on the shoulders of giants while slowly but surely becoming one himself.

“Honey, I shrunk everything I cared about.”

Recommendation: Ant-Man and the Wasp is the beneficiary of Paul Rudd and a really likable all-around cast of characters. In a time when browsing through the back catalogue of the ever-expanding MCU feels a lot like shopping for flavors of Gatorade, it’s nice to have a superhero film that is not quite as preoccupied with furthering, deepening, expanding, extrapolating, implicating, duplicating, redacting, whatever-ing that all of the other chapters seem to be about. The more I think about the simplicity of this film the more I like it. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “Well, the ’60s were fun, but now I’m paying for it!”

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

Masterminds

masterminds-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 30, 2016 

[Theater]

Written by: Chris Bowman; Hubbel Palmer; Emily Spivey

Directed by: Jared Hess

Masterminds didn’t need to be masterfully made to be effective, but a little discipline could have gone a long way.

Directed by Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite; Nacho Libre), the film is a comedic dramatization of the October 1997 Loomis Fargo bank robbery that took place in Charlotte, North Carolina. The story made national headlines when an employee made off with $17.3 million from the bank’s vault, making it at the time the second-largest cash heist in American history, second only to a Jacksonville, Florida incident seven months prior in which the same bank lost $18.8 million to the driver of an armored vehicle transporting the cash. Not a great year for Loomis Fargo, admittedly.

The details of the heist seem ripe for the tabloids, or even a solid comedic outing. Hess adopts the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction angle by going balls-out on the zaniness and slapstick elements, employing star Zach Galifianakis‘ trademark gooberisms to often irritating effect. Masterminds is a film stuck on one setting and it never demonstrates aspirations to become something more . . . not even important, but watchable. A collaborative screenplay is only ever interested in puerile jokes, making fun of “simple Southern folk” and accommodating Galifianakis and his weirdness.

David Scott Ghantt (Galifianakis) is the focus of this southern-fried farce. He’s a loyal employee of his local bank although quite the simpleton. He has a crush on a girl he works with, a Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig) who suddenly quits her job because it sucks, basically. She falls in with a rough crowd and cozies up to the bad news Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson), who has this idea to take that branch for all it’s worth. Good thing Kelly happens to know someone on the inside that she can manipulate/seduce into pulling it all off.

Masterminds is aggressively unfunny. Having absolutely no faith that the sheer absurdity of the actual circumstances will do much of the work for them, the filmmakers overcompensate, aiming for the lowest common denominator as loud farts, sweaty redneck culture and Wiig’s cleavage become major talking points. Galifianakis tries his best to make us empathize with David but he can’t. And he doesn’t get much help from the rest of the ensemble, as Wiig looks bored, Owen Wilson is still just Owen Wilson, and Jason Sudeikis and Kate McKinnon lay two distinctly rotten eggs — the former playing the world’s worst hitman and the latter David’s psychotic country bumpkin fiancée. (If you somehow make it through the film’s opening 10 minutes or so, you might as well stay. McKinnon features prominently here and she’s the worst part of the film.)

You’d think with Wilson’s casting there’d be an element of Bottle Rocket to proceedings in this heist film, but sadly that film with made-up characters feels more authentic than this one based upon real individuals. What we have here are caricatures who shout dumb things, make weird noises and enthusiastically check off items from a master list presumably titled ‘Things Everyone Who Has Never Lived There Hates About the South.’ The movie doesn’t mean to offend but it does when the whole thing is just so inept.

Recommendation: Offensively low joke-to-laugh ratios can be found in Masterminds, an ill-advisedly goofy recreation of a bizarre real-world bank heist. If you have love for any of the actors in this movie, I have to say you should try and keep that love going by outright skipping this turkey. A deep-fried, southern turkey covered in about as many stereotypes as you can think of. Zach Galifianakis is only as good as the material he works with, so here I have to say he’s actually pretty awful.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “Katie Candy Cane . . . is she a stripper?”

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

The Magnificent Seven

the-magnificent-seven-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Richard Wenk; Nic Pizzolatto

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua

Try as they might, Antoine Fuqua continues falling well short of the benchmark set by his 2001 smash hit Training Day and Chris Pratt can’t quite make this the Guardians of the Galaxy of the ole wild west. Despite bear-dressing-like-people jokes he is merely one silly pawn in a story that doesn’t deserve them. Not even the all-star roster can lift this generic western crime thriller from the dust of its superiors. The title is The Magnificent Seven, but for me that really just refers to the number of scenes that are actually worth remembering in Fuqua’s new shoot-’em-up.

Here’s all I really remember:

Magnificent Scene #1: The ‘badass’ that is Bartholomew. Billed as a drama, the film opens promisingly with robber baron Bartholemew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) besieging the sleepy mining town of Rose Creek circa some month in the late 1800s. The film’s dramatic thread for the most part sags like a dilapidated tent between two strong points, and the dramatic opening is one of those strong points. Tension is palpable as Sarsgaard’s cold, lifeless eyes survey the room. Haley Bennett‘s Emma Cullen becomes widowed by his murderous spree (or, to be brutally honest but more accurate, her husband’s foolish actions that do nothing but further incense Bartholomew), an act that supposedly establishes the film’s emotional foundation.

Magnificent Scene #2: The Actual Badass that is Denzel. Introducing Denzel Washington is something that needs to be done sooner rather than later and his swaggering cowboy/”dually sworn peacekeeper”/bounty hunter Sam Chisolm walks in at just the right moment (i.e immediately). A fairly typical stand-off inside Rose Creek’s saloon ensues. Everyone in the scene puts on their best ‘Not To Be Fucked With’ face. Rah-rah. Guns. Liquor. Seconds later Chisolm walks out of an empty saloon leaving everyone but a semi-impressed, semi-drunk loner for dead. That loner is none other than Peter Quill Josh Faraday. Chisolm is soon approached and persuaded by a desperate Emma Cullen to gather together some men to take a stand against Bogue and his men to avenge the death of her beloved Matthew and reclaim the town.

Magnificent Scene #3: The Avengers this ain’t . . . but this is still fun. Movies in the vein of Fuqua’s adaptation, those that spend more of their bloated running time assembling rather than focusing on the ensemble itself, are really more about that journey of coming-togetherness than they are about the destination. It’s too bad The Magnificent Seven really only offers one or two strong first impressions. One is a shared introduction between Byung-hun Lee’s knife-wielding assassin Billy Rocks — a name that somewhat confusingly belies the actor’s South Korean heritage — and Ethan Hawke’s sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, with whom Chisolm shares some history. Billy and Goodnight come as a packaged item, apparently; one never goes anywhere without the other and they are swiftly drafted into the ranks without complaint.

Magnificent Scene #4: There’s always at least one crazy. Vincent D’Onofrio also qualifies as one of those memorable introductions. He plays a vaguely mentally unstable (or perhaps he’s just a simpleton) tracker named Jack Horne, a physically imposing presence who clearly hasn’t had much human contact in a long time. His soft, nervous line delivery initially gave the impression the actor wasn’t comfortable in the role and/or that he was about to deliver a career-low performance but the character really ended up growing on me. Of course it would have been nice if he had more to do but when there are seven actors competing on screen I suppose sacrifices must be made, especially when one of them is Denzel Washington.

Magnificent Scene #5: Preparations not reparations. Heeding the warnings of Chisolm and his band of misfits, Emma and her fellow townsfolk prepare for the return of Bogue and what is likely to be many more nasty men on horseback in an obligatory, if not genuinely fun, fix-it-up montage. Rose Creek becomes retrofitted with all kinds of booby traps and hideouts that are sure to give the enemy fits and a mixture of excitement and dread for the bloodbath that is to come starts to build in earnest. Granted, the end results are all but a foregone conclusion: some will survive the ordeal and others will not. We know almost for a certainty that the Magnificent Seven will be reduced in number after this fight. And we also know that ultimately this last battle is just another good excuse for directors who like to blow stuff up, to go ahead and blow a quaint little set right the fuck up.

Magnificent Scene #6: Say hello to my little friend! For all of the film’s lackadaisical pacing and story development from essentially the 20th minute onward, The Magnificent Seven seems to wake back up again at the very end with a rousing gunfight that will demand every rebel’s sharpest wit and shot. It even comes close to earning our empathy as numerous dead bodies hit the ground à la Fuqua’s goofy assault on the White House. The editing becomes frenetic but remains effective and while Fuqua shies away from excessive blood-splattering the violence is still pretty confronting as a gatling gun makes its way into the mix. Ultimately this is the same kind of joy I get out of watching Macauley Culkin outwit the nitwits in Home Alone every Christmas.

Magnificent Scene #7: The end credits. A movie that runs about 30 minutes too long and that fails to make any real emotional connection is finally over. (Though not for a lack of trying: Fuqua awkwardly asks us to pity the lone woman in the group because she has lost her husband — she’s not there because of her individual strengths and in fact many of the rebels can’t or refuse to take her seriously; likewise Hawk’s last-minute cowardly act feels cheap and fails to make us care deeper about him.) I enjoyed the famous faces in by-now-familiar roles and their natural gravitas cleaned up some of the script’s blotches but there is only so much goodwill I can show towards something that feels so well-trodden, so ordinary, so un-magnificent.

the-magnificent-seven

Recommendation: A superb cast barely manages to keep The Magnificent Seven from being a totally and utterly forgettable and disposable movie. The people who you expect to shine, shine — those on the roster you don’t recognize as much don’t turn up as much. Simple as that. Some delicious scenery to chew on, though, and the soundtrack is hilariously overcooked. So all in all, I don’t really know what to make of this movie. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “What we lost in the fire we found in the ashes.”

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

Don’t Breathe

'Dont Breathe' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 26, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Fede Álvarez; Rodo Sayagues

Directed by: Fede Álvarez

Don’t Breathe, the sophomore effort from Uruguayan director Fede Álvarez, is what you’d get if you expanded into a full-length feature that scene from The Silence of the Lambs in which Buffalo Bill stalks a terrified Clarice Starling with night vision goggles while his prey helplessly fumbles around in the pitch black. This is, of course, to say that Don’t Breathe is relentlessly intense almost start to finish, marking it as one of the most effective thrillers to hit theaters this year.

In it, a trio of burglars are scraping together enough money so they can flee the dying suburbs of Detroit by looting homes and getting cash for valuable possessions pillaged. When they discover a rundown home belonging to a war vet rumored to be sitting on $300k in settlements from an accident that claimed the life of his daughter, they assume they’ve hit the jackpot. Especially when they figure out the dude is blind. But we all know what assuming does, don’t we?

Small-time crooks turn into big-time prey as they casually waltz into a trap thinking the job is a done deal. It is in this suffocating space of decrepitness and unpredictability where we more or less remain for the duration. We’re briefly (and just barely sufficiently) introduced to the gang in the opening twenty minutes, right before Álvarez flips the switch and plunges us all into the depths of a home invasion gone horribly wrong. Front-and-center is Jane Levy’s Rocky, who’s desperate to leave behind an abusive home for the sun-kissed beaches of Califor-ny-yay with her younger sister. Then there’s her main squeeze “Money” (Daniel Zovatto), a terribly nicknamed character who doesn’t at all make for a subtle metaphor or, quite frankly, a memorable character. Dylan Minnette rounds out the crew as the slightly more likable Alex.

It isn’t really their movie, though. Don’t Breathe inarguably belongs to a man and his dog. Stephen Lang plays The Blind Man, an unsuspectingly agile old git who can navigate the interior with his other, much keener senses — sound and touch, most notably — and who keeps a Rottweiler handy in case of such emergencies. (Puppy credits go to three separate, extremely well-trained animals, each getting their moment to shine. And I’m assuming their Cujo-like presence is what earns the film its horror label; otherwise that classification is something of a misnomer. Kind of like me calling these big boys ‘puppies.’) Indeed the kids become a lot more interesting once we see them forced into action against a trained killer — better make that plural — and pressured into taking drastic measures to ensure they not only escape with their lives but with the money as well.

Don’t Breathe simmers in a stew of sociological, economical and psychological ingredients. It’s a morality play involving characters whose chance for survival is perpetually undercut by their own actions. Greed, selfishness and desperation invariably imprison characters we weren’t ever supposed to “like” in this fortress, even magnetizing them to it. And it’s Lang’s full-on committal to a relatively silent role — in fact the best bits of the film languish in the choke of dead air — that simultaneously rebuffs the invaders and causes us, the anxious voyeurs, to question just what we would do in such a situation. Utterly compelling stuff.

Stephen Lang in 'Don't Breathe'

Recommendation: Think of it less as a true horror film and more of a thriller, the likes of which made me, personally, feel like I had chugged one too many cups of coffee. I watched my hand on the steering wheel as I drove home from my local theater. My knuckles were all jittery. What the fuck man. It’s just a movie. Granted, a very, very good one. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 88 mins.

Trivia: Stephen Lang has a total of 13 lines of dialogue, the majority of which are reserved for the ending moments. 

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

The Infiltrator

'The Infiltrator' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, July 13, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ellen Brown Furman

Directed by: Brad Furman

Brad Furman wasn’t looking to infiltrate more elite groups of directors who had earlier tackled the gritty but ever fascinating subject of the drug trafficking epidemic in America when he paired up with Bryan Cranston. That much is clear just based on the relative nonchalance with which The Infiltrator plays out. Things certainly become tense, but it’s nigh on impossible believing our beloved Walter White is ever in any real danger.

That’s probably because we’ve already watched that character endure five seasons of pure adrenaline-fueled drama. Everything we watch U.S. Customs Service special agent Robert Mazur (alias ‘Bob Musella’) go through here as he gets cozy with high-ranking members within the Colombian drug cartel only to bust them in the end, is accompanied by echoes of Breaking Bad, some of which are really loud. In that way The Infiltrator does feel less threatening, and it loses even more leverage given just how strictly it adheres to formula to get the job done. Just don’t call the film uninspired because you know as well as I that Cranston would never let such a thing happen.

The actor manages to convert what ends up being by and large predictable into a fascinating study of character. Mazur enjoys his job even with the danger it brings, but he doesn’t commit to high-risk jobs as a way to escape the doldrums of his home life — he’s happily married with Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) and dearly loves his daughter Andrea (Lara Decaro). He enjoys what he does for a living because he’s also very good at it. The movie, his “last assignment,” keeps the perspective limited to his own, making all the mingling and consorting and bribery a devoted family man finds himself so naturally doing all the more unsettling.

Also adept at faking the hustle is Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), a stark contrast to Mazur’s poker-faced professionalism. He’s a loose cannon who embraces the potential thrills offered by new assignments. This one could be the mother of all thrills: a take-down of high-priority Colombian drug traffickers working for the one and only Pablo Escobar, ‘El Zar de la Cocaina.’ Their target is Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), Escobar’s main merchandise handler. Leguizamo is a nice touch as he adds a vulnerability that often veers into comedic relief but the funny is never oversold. Lest we forget, there’s little time for laughter when you’re neck-deep in people who have made careers out of making other, usually more innocent people disappear, often in horrible ways.

The story is fairly straightforward and there will be no surprises for those even moderately well-versed in crime dramas. And those who are probably know that these kinds of movies are only as good as the threat that our good guys are up against. The Infiltrator comes heavily armed with Bratt’s quietly brutal Alcaino and a whole assortment of unstable, varyingly psychotic drug-addicted personalities. Villains are more than just caricatures; the seedy side of life is depicted matter-of-factly and bloodshed isn’t shown to up the thrill count. It’s there to shock and shock it does: the “auditioning” scene is a particularly blunt and cruel microcosm of the world into which Musella has stepped.

The Infiltrator is universally well-acted. On the home front, Aubrey’s Evelyn is a fiercely strong woman who must confront the realities of her husband’s unique profession. Not knowing what kind of a person she’s going to be greeted at the door with night in and night out evolves into a narrative of great concern and Aubrey sells that anguish well. Mazur/Musella reports regularly to Special Agent Bonnie Tischler, played by a possibly never-better Amy Ryan who clearly relishes the opportunity to play the golden-gun-carrying, tough-as-nails U.S. Customs special agent who takes no bullshit from anyone. And Diane Kruger rounds out a strong ensemble playing Kathy Ertz, an agent who’s never gone undercover before and finds herself helping Mazur keep his own story straight.

Stylish, genuinely gripping and sensationally well-performed, Furman’s exploration of the American drug trafficking epidemic can’t escape familiarity but it doesn’t have to when it’s so successful proving why certain well-traveled roads are the ones to take. I loved this movie for its complete and utter lack of pretense. It never tries to be anything it’s not.

Bryan Cranston gets mean in 'The Infiltrator'

Recommendation: Fun might not be the best word to throw around when talking about the escalating drug trafficking crisis but The Infiltrator makes the experience . . . shall we say, worth the while. As if there were any doubt, the performances are what make this movie a must-see for anyone who enjoys what the former Malcolm in the Middle dad is doing with his career these days.

Rated: R

Running Time: 127 mins.

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 Purge: Election Year

'The Purge - Election Year' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: James DeMonaco

Directed by: James DeMonaco

I am convinced the French marketing for the third Purge film (see above) is the most responsible form of it we have. The Purge: Election Year manages to be as inane as it looks and here is a movie poster that pulls no punches when it comes to revealing the truth. Cheap-looking and tacky the movie may not be, but it is unconvincing. Often hilariously so.

Though there are no Donald Trump masks involved (surprising, given writer-director James DeMonaco’s affinity for being overt) there is no doubt that the third Purge is intended as his own State of the Union address as it applies to a country being torn apart from the inside by mass shootings, gang and race-related violence and other forms of 21st-Century-friendly terms like ‘terrorism.’ Election Year is now, it is eminent and it is, supposedly, urgent. And so the French movie title starts feeling apropos.

Previous installments — one which took place entirely within the confines of an upper-middle class suburban abode and the other upon the streets of Los Angeles — worked tirelessly in addressing the growing divide between the have’s (the one-percenters of this fine country) and the have-not’s (everyone else in comparison) by creatively demonstrating the rage that festers within a 12-hour period one night out of the year. We’ve come to understand that purge night, rather than being a means for the American people to cleanse themselves of any sort of violence, is just the government’s way of shedding the nation of its burdens: the weak and the poor. A third installment hypothetically could add depth to this bleak, dystopian portrait of government-sponsored terror but what eventuates are just echoes of the themes it has hastily carted out on a dolly since the first round.

Once again we’re set in the near-future and purge night is upon us. Wait, let me back up a little bit. We first witness the events that inspire a young Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) to become a Senator for good. Eighteen years after watching her entire family get murdered at the hands of a lunatic purger, she’s campaigning for the Presidency, vowing to eliminate this terrible night once and for all. Such a devastating loss drives the woman’s powerful but dangerous idealism. She has to win the election and wrestle control of the country away from the New Founding Fathers, but she also refuses to use murder as her path to victory as that wouldn’t make her any different from those who purge.

Frank Grillo returns as former police sergeant Leo Barnes. Once he’s in the picture, the film picks up in both the excitement and intensity departments. After surviving the horrendous events of Anarchy, Barnes has signed on as part of Senator Roan’s security detail and finds himself this time protecting a highly valuable asset as the New Founding Fathers have decided to take a firmer stance against opponents of the purge. They do so by revoking high-level official’s security Level 9 million-whatever clearance, a.k.a. their immunity to the lawlessness of the night. The Senator of course would prefer to wait the night out in her own home. Leo doesn’t think that’s a smart idea; it’s not. Soon we’re back out on the streets after a betrayal. Ya know, the usual.

Leo once again is surrounded by a group of citizens of indeterminate firearm-wielding skill and whose political leanings essentially boil down to “F**k whoever believes in the purge.” Meanwhile, a resistance group is forming somewhere in downtown Washington and there begins to breed a new kind of morality to the violence. But Leo’s gang ain’t like that; they’re comprised of proud deli owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson), his assistant and Mexican immigrant Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), and a tough-as-nails EMT named Laney played by a fun Betty Gabriel — she’s arguably the film’s best offering beyond Grillo.

Election Year finds the city center of Ridiculous soon enough. We’re slowly pulled into the world of anti-purgers gathering in secrecy at some undisclosed (even in this review) location, preparing to wage war against the NFFA, namely Executive Douchebag Caleb Warren (Raymond J. Barry), the ring leader whose vileness must be measured by how many nasty words he can fit into one monologue. That’s the kind of lazy writing that has become a frustrating pattern in this franchise. DeMonaco’s creation has this fascinating psycho-social science dynamic that routinely gets left behind in favor of tired genre tropes and subpar acting (and directing).

The major offense here though is that three provides entirely too much déjà vu. DeMonaco attempts to expand the scope of the narrative by including a terribly ill-advised subplot in which ‘murder tourism’ has become a thing. Apparently it’s not enough that everyone in America is out in the streets killing each other to death; now we have an influx of South Africans (sorry Zoe; Natasha . . . ) coming stateside just to kill people. Don’t laugh (it’s okay, I almost did). The fact that the purge has caught on internationally and is now being marketed as a tourist package is just silliness defined.

Come to think of it, much of this franchise has been just that. Take a look at any number of those peculiar seance scenes in which small groups of well-dressed caucasians gather and either make a sacrifice or just repeat the phrase “purge and purify” ad nauseam (actually, it’s usually both). I look to those moments for an encapsulation of everything The Purge has been: pure nonsense and half-hearted attempts at profundity. Excuse me while I go purge all of my disappointment from memory.

Frank Grillo and Elizabeth Mitchell in The Purge - Election Year

Recommendation: Gee, I wonder what the director’s stance on gun control is. The amount of mileage you get out of The Purge: Election Year (or as I prefer, American Nightmare 3: Elections) will depend on how much you enjoy just being stuck in this particularly dark universe. There’s no doubt DeMonaco and his cinematographer have crafted a unique visual identity but in terms of story they simply never even try to attain the heights their unusual, intriguing premise(s) suggest. You can always count on Frank Grillo though and paired up with Elizabeth Mitchell’s Senator he is better than ever. The rest though leaves a lot to be desired and I don’t know if I want to sit through more.

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “Good night, blue cheese!” 

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

Triple 9

'Triple 9' movie poster

Release: Friday, February 26 ,2016

[Theater]

Written by: Matt Cook

Directed by: John Hillcoat

Triple 9 could be a really great film. I’m not saying that to be facetious or hypothetical, like, “I have all these suggestions to make it better and here’s how you do it,” or “I’m seeing this tonight and I hope it’s going to be great.” I mean I’m genuinely not sure if it was any good or not. It’s such a bland, flavorless take on the crime genre that it’s difficult to remember anything about it, even days later. But the film is well-produced, so that counts for something. Right?

John Hillcoat, who has distinguished himself with gritty, typically criminal-infested features that tend to smother audiences with the hopelessness of the situation, isn’t exactly out of his element here, turning Atlanta into a bubbling cauldron of deception, corruption and a whole lot of violence. The rather convoluted plot revolves around a group of corrupt cops and legit criminals who are blackmailed by the nasty Irina Vlaslov of the Russian mafia (and of course when you mention them you naturally think of Kate Winslet) into taking on “one more job.”

Of course the mission won’t be simple; not even close. Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is in it deep as he has had a child with Irina’s sister (Gal Gadot), and Irina won’t let him see the money or his kid until he and his cronies have recovered crucial government documents regarding the status of Irina’s mafioso hubby.  (Really, there’s nothing cute or overly affectionate about any of these relationships, I just think that ridiculous word seems to fit given we’re talking about ridiculous things like Winslet as a Russian mob boss). Michael employs his thug friend Russell (Norman Reedus) and Russell’s younger brother Gabe (a much more comfortable looking Aaron Paul) to help carry out the job but they’re unsure of how to do it.

‘Triple nine’ is code for “officer down,” a call that results in any and all units in a given area to respond to the scene. Michael and his crew, which includes crooked Atlanta cops Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins, Jr.), realize they can use a triple nine call as a distraction to carry out the heist elsewhere. Marcus has just gotten a new partner, Casey Affleck’s genuine good-guy Chris Allen and Marcus nominates him as the officer who should act as the distraction (i.e. he wants to kill him). To confuse readers more (or just to make sure I have included all major names involved here), Allen has an uncle on the force, Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson) who is determined to get to the bottom of a bank heist case perpetrated by Michael and company as part of an earlier favor to the Russians.

Essentially what Triple 9 boils down to is a matter of trust. A grimy, ominous milieu established from the opening shot of the city leaves little to the imagination. This isn’t a place where we’re going to like many of the characters we come up against (the sheer quality of the ensemble cast ensures this isn’t a deal-breaker). Nor are they the people we can count on to do the right thing. In this Atlanta, you can’t trust a soul. All of that is well and good; the simmering tension underlying Ejiofor and Winslet’s interactions — I stop short of saying relationship because there’s simply not enough time in this movie for relationships to truly be established — make for some of the film’s more interesting moments. But no one has much of an identity. Everyone either starts off miserable or ends up that way, or they end up dead.

In the vein of David Ayers’ infinitely more brutal Sabotage, which saw a team of DEA agents being picked off one-by-one after their unit was compromised, Triple 9 is a no-win situation in which the characters we are introduced to drift further and further away from us. It’s next to impossible to care about these trigger-happy thugs. The mood is perpetually dour, and most of the actions our (many) characters take rarely surprise, and because they don’t, several significant double-crosses don’t register with the power they ought to.

Performances are universally good; they’re nothing special but they’re functional. (And for what it’s worth, Winslet makes that accent work!) Instead it’s more problematic with how forgettable substantial chunks of their collective effort become. The film boasts a few impressive shoot-outs, particularly one in an abandoned warehouse — why do the good ones always take place in The Warehouse? — but for whatever reason, the bulk of the film, all of the talky stuff and detective work going on in the background just never quite connects. Conventionality isn’t a crime but I think I’ve finally made up my mind on this: Triple 9 is neither a great film nor a terrible one. It’s just something that’s there.

Recommendation: Violent, dark, confronting but still somehow boring and uninspired, Triple 9 undoubtedly prefers the art of storytelling over character presentation. Despite such a strong cast it’s kind of ironic that those characters get so forgotten by the end. But hey, at least this film has Woody Harrelson in it. If you are a completionist then see it for him, but everything else there’s either MasterCard or much better movies. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

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Clinger

Release: Friday, October 23, 2015 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Michael Steves, Gabi Chennisi, Bubba Fish

Directed by: Michael Steves


This review is my third contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. I’d like to thank James for providing me the opportunity to take a look at this film.


Clinger tells a story about an obsessive young man who, after losing his life in embarrassing fashion, comes back to haunt his girlfriend by insisting that the two were destined to be together forever. And ever.

Intended to be a fresh entry into the rapidly expanding subgenre of horror-comedy, the film is decidedly more of a comedy tinged with horror elements, featuring absurd performances, brutally silly killings and psychotic teddy bears. It takes place around a fictional high school for which our heroine, Fern Petersen (Jennifer LaPorte), runs track and is hoping to get into MIT on a scholarship based on a combination of her athletic ability and impressive academics. She’s driven and has a bright future ahead of her . . . at least she did until she met Robert Klingher (Vincent Martella).

The pair’s meet-cute at the track, where Fern is attempting to shave seconds off her lap time and Robert’s playing an acoustic guitar alone in the bleachers (for reasons unknown), stems from Robert’s concern for Fern’s health after she plows headlong into a hurdle having been distracted by his John Mayer impression. It’s an odd encounter, though nothing ostentatious. Nothing compared to where Clinger decides to go a few short minutes later.

The film stumbles through the relationship-building, transforming a friendship into a romance over the course of a couple of scenes, but that’s not entirely the film’s fault. You see, something’s wrong with Robert. He likes rushing into things, obsessing over making every single moment perfect. He’s the kind to celebrate the one month, three-week anniversary. It would be a sort of sweet sentiment if it weren’t a quality that extends to his undead . . . self. After he gets killed in an entirely underwhelming scene that’s intended to be funny but just . . . isn’t . . . he begins stalking Fern from beyond the grave. He visits her often, wanting to remain by her side.

When she makes it clear she’s trying her best to move on with her life, things go from weird to downright bizarre (#undeadsex . . . . . . . . how’s that one, Mutey?), with Robert determined to do whatever’s necessary to make Fern his eternal lover. As well as marking a major tonal shift, this point is, somewhat unfortunately, where the film falls apart, collapsing under the weight of significantly amateurish writing, acting and essentially every major facet of the filmmaking process.

There are some interesting ideas at play — the juxtaposition of the living and the dead create some amusing and at times moving scenarios (what happens when the only person who can ‘see’ Robert insists that the two should stop seeing one another?) — but in terms of execution, this seems closer to a first draft than a finished product. What starts off as a fairly shaky but still inviting teen-centric narrative descends alarmingly quickly into a mess of uncoordinated, juvenile and quite frankly dumb antics, most of which aim to appease the 13-year-old in all of us but instead inspire face-palms. The acting is perhaps the most grating of all, particularly when it comes to Martella’s sweet/creepy serenades to his still-living lover.

Clinger takes a pretty cynical approach in examining young love and its obsessive tendencies, and for that it should be praised. It’s refreshing. By shoving the world of the undead and the world of the living together, Michael Steves and company hope that some elements of this bizarre pseudo-zombie comedy (zombedy?) end up sticking. It’s obviously not an exact science and this slapdash film is unfortunately proof of that.

Recommendation: Sorry to say that this one just doesn’t do enough to merit a recommendation from me. I get where they were going with this, but the execution is pretty poor. The special effects in particular is a low point. I grant the film it’s minimal budget but in this day and age, where some films have accomplished extraordinary things on low budgets, that’s just not a good enough excuse anymore.

Rated: R

Running Time: 81 mins.

Quoted: “We just don’t fit into each other’s life plans . . . or death plans, sorry.”

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Photo credits: http://www.filmaffinity.com; http://www.filmpulse.net 

Kill Me Three Times

Release: Friday, April 10, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: James McFarland

Directed by: Kriv Stenders

Simon Pegg embraces his inner baddie and Kill Me Three Times is somewhat better because of it.

‘Somewhat’ is the operative word here as Pegg, even in a killer role (e-hem), isn’t enough to make the film worth watching. Too choppily paced to be considered an intentional slow-burner, not parodic enough to warrant comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy, and not poorly acted enough to generate entertainment of a purely schlocky nature, Australian writer/director Kriv Stenders’ thriller regrettably makes precious little out of its great potential.

Unsurprisingly, Pegg’s presence affords the adventure most of its enjoyability. Opening on one of its most memorable lines, the film finds a stupefied Charlie Wolfe (Pegg) recounting how he could have possibly gotten into the situation he now finds himself. Before he can say another word — flashback! Yes, we are watching that kind of movie, where the introduction teases a history of events that are, apparently, best left in non-chronological order. Or at the very least, left until later.

We go back to where this botched crime began, like, a couple of days ago. A young woman named Alice (Alice Braga) has a dental appointment to repair a chipped tooth she received after the last altercation with her husband, but unbeknownst to her she is about to be drugged and kidnapped by the surgeon (Sullivan Stapleton) and his assistant/wife (Teresa Palmer). After becoming suspicious about his wife’s recent behavior, Jack (Callan Mulvey), a sleazy motel proprietor, hires a hit man to follow Alice around. Jack’s worst fears are realized thanks to video evidence of her sleeping with another man. Obliged to act betrayed but not really look it — I think this is just bad acting at this point — Jack finds himself requiring Charlie’s full range of services. Apparently this couple is well past resolving their differences with words.

Charlie is amused when he comes upon the dentists carrying out the act themselves, transferring her unconscious body into a different car that they light on fire and send over a cliff. However, he is not aware that their actions are being dictated by a completely different set of motivations. Of course, the sloppiness of the pair’s execution leaves a loose end. When Charlie goes back to Jack, satisfied that the job has been done and wanting to collect his payment (but not admitting that he didn’t have any involvement), Jack discovers he has been robbed.

While all this is going on the dentists, who aren’t really dentists but in fact horrible people with really nice teeth, are attempting to pull off an insurance scam by replacing the receptionist’s dental records with their most recent patient (Alice)’s, hoping to collect on the fake death that was staged with Alice in the flaming car. A corrupt local cop (Bryan Brown) catches on to the scheme-hatchery pretty quickly and demands he be paid half of the settlement. This, despite the fact Nathan is up to his neck in gambling debts and insists he can’t afford to lose a cent.

Kill Me Three Times weaves three tales of betrayal and murder that are all inextricably linked to one another, with Pegg’s contract killer coming right in the middle of it all. What the story ultimately boils down to is a simple case of infidelity and it is one you have seen countless times before. It’s a movie almost worth your while for Pegg’s atypical role playing but he’s deceptively peripheral given the amount of space he occupies on the theatrical release poster. Stenders packs the narrative with twist after twist, and endless scenes of double-crossing and back-stabbings, of both the literal and figurative sort. There is no particular point of view from which the story is told; Stenders instead relies on multiple perspectives by cutting back and forth between parties. Unfortunately very few developments are unforeseen or even very entertaining, the story bogged down in homage and triteness.

And yet, if you can spare some empathy for these underdeveloped characters — the good ones, that is — which will not only be a hell of an effort but likely one that’s more than what this film deserves, you might just be able to eke out some laughs while watching Pegg strut his stuff around the screen dressed to the nines and armed with a serious rifle. Personally, I was more inclined to review his mustache than the film he starred in. Upper lip hair is far more of a sinister characteristic than his all-black attire. For what it’s worth, Pegg pulls off the mustache and the antagonist look well enough. It’s just a little disappointing these are the kinds of cliches Kill Me Three Times is completely satisfied with justifying as its main source of entertainment.

Recommendation: A whodunnit in which we have a decent idea very early on who’s gonna do it, Kill Me Three Times also isn’t very funny. It had a huge opportunity to be something special with Simon Pegg in a different kind of role but unfortunately much of it is squandered in a boring story that does nothing with its solid cast and very little with its gorgeous Australian locales. This one boils down to a film to watch for completionists — if you have to see Pegg in everything he’s done then this should be on your list. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “This place is like a f**king open air insane asylum!”

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