Earthquake Bird

Release: Friday, November 15, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Wash Westmoreland 

Directed by: Wash Westmoreland 

I spun the Netflix wheel on a Saturday night and landed on this thing called Earthquake Bird. Turns out, it was the caliber movie that rewards in kind the minimal effort I put in to finding it. This slow-burn of a psychosexual thriller has reliable commodities on both sides of the camera, with Wash Westmoreland, one half of the duo behind such well-received dramas as Quinceañera (2006), Still Alice (2015) and Colette (2018) directing and Oscar winner Alicia Vikander in the lead. Unfortunately the end result is nowhere near the sum of its talented parts.

Earthquake Bird is an adaptation of a 2001 novel of the same name by Susanna Jones. I haven’t read the book but it’s not hard to imagine it’s better, even just by browsing through a couple of critical blurbs. This desultory drama revolves around Vikander’s Lucy Fly, a Swedish expat living in Japan circa the late 1980s who gets swept up into a dangerous love triangle and is named a suspect in the disappearance of the other woman, a young American named Lily Bridges (Riley Keough). Written and directed by Westmoreland, the movie incorporates thriller, crime and “romance” elements but fails to make a good, frothy stew out of any of them.

It begins with Lucy being hauled away from her cubicle where she works as a translator — currently on subtitles for Ridley Scott’s 1989 thriller Black Rain (a cute little nod to him serving as producer here) — and to the police station where she vexes the authorities with her evasive answers and soon thereafter the audience with her complete lack of personality. You get these movies all the time where the narrator is an unreliable messenger, but Earthquake Bird steps it up a notch by providing an unreliable narrator in an unreliable framing device. What begins as a focused (if not harsh) police interrogation soon gives way to an ocean of flashback. Any sense of narrative structure or cohesion gets abandoned in favor of pure mood and atmosphere, qualities emphasized by Atticus Ross’ foreboding score.

Lucy traces her steps back to the day she met the mysterious and oh-so-handsome Teiji (Japanese dancer Naoki Kobayashi in his first English-language role), a noodle shop employee who hobbies, somewhat obsessively, as a photographer. His fascination with puddles is soon replaced by a fixation on her pretty visage in black-and-white. She becomes his muse, they enter into a relationship wherein honesty and openness are valued above all else. Physical intimacy is much lower on the list. Their dynamic carries the emotional conviction of a stapler. Yet there’s a symmetry between their worlds of quietude and isolation that makes them kindred spirits. There’s logic to them being together but no feeling in the togetherness.

Enter Lily, who wastes no time ingratiating herself in the lives of these two lovely-looking and lonely people. Thank goodness for Keough, who kicks the movie into a higher gear with her energetic presence. Her character is also more interesting. She’s introduced at first as a nice but needy new acquaintance, then a romantic foe and possibly even destroyer of worlds. Lucy is in a very delicate place, her life a constant shuffle as she seems always to be outrunning something. She has this weird relationship with death, the grim reaper always trailing her. Initially the tension between the two women isn’t purely adversarial; there’s something free and uninhibited about Lily that Lucy wants and also envies. When the trio embark on a weekend getaway to the scenic Sado Island, the sexual tension builds. A strange development further destabilizes an already awkward situation.

Ever since the Swedish dancer-turned-actor blew up on the scene in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina in 2015 I don’t think I’ve seen a performance of hers I haven’t liked. Lucy Fly isn’t exactly vintage Vikander but I blame more of my apathy towards her on the writing rather than the acting. This is a very restrained performance that’s more technically impressive than emotionally resonant — her Japanese, at least to my untrained ears, sounds perfect. Her thousand-mile stare is unsettling. Still I find it pretty terrible that her most interesting, defining trait is the black eye she carries around. And her backstory, when it’s finally barfed out in a much-delayed expositional sequence toward the very end, isn’t nearly as interesting as one hopes it would be for such a protracted build-up.

As if to remind us the title means something, periodic earthquakes rumble through the story in a kind of motif. In the immediate aftermath, a shrill birdsong alerts the town the coast is clear. It very well could be my brain shorting out but I didn’t find any relevance between this and the story at hand. Undoubtedly there’s some deeper metaphorical meaning behind it but the movie doesn’t do near enough to warrant the amount of effort it takes to decode that. Never mind its human Rubik’s cube of a leading lady.

“Tell me all your secrets, like, yesterday.”

Recommendation: What starts out as a kind of Lost in Translation meditation on loneliness and isolation (d)evolves into a run-of-the-mill, Girl on the Train-type murder plot that really doesn’t go anywhere. The characters, save for Riley Keough’s, are totally uninteresting and not worth the effort it takes to understand what drives them. That’s really disappointing when you’re talking about Alicia Vikander and the very interesting-looking Naoki Kobayashi. Le sigh. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: ““If every time I took a photo it took a piece of your soul, would you still let me?”

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Photo credits: IMP Awards; Polygon 

The Meg

Release: Friday, August 10, 2018

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Written by: Dean Georgaris; Jon and Erich Hoeber

Directed by: Jon Turteltaub

More like . . . The Meh. I really couldn’t give a shark shit about this movie, but here goes this anyway.

It says something about Jason Statham‘s box office pull that I found my tingling buttocks planted in a seat on Cheap Ticket Tuesday, ready to see some hapless ocean-goers getting torn apart by a man-hunting, 70-foot prehistoric shark, despite what had been opined about his new action film. Critics by and large were not impressed. If not hatred, the overwhelming sentiment I’ve picked up on has been disappointment. And yet I went anyway, lured by the promise of the Stath vs said Meg(alodon).

Now I see why. It isn’t actually the fact that The Meg ultimately becomes the pilot fish to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (a bad analogy TBH, because there isn’t really any kind of symbiotic relationship between the two films — in fact it’s very nearly the opposite, with The Meg taking and taking and taking ideas and never shaping them into anything truly original, something you can point to and say definitively, “Oh yeah — that was The Meg!”). No, Jon Turteltaub’s latest mediocre-athon is just really uneventful. It is directionally uninspired and the pacing listless, every main character a non-entity with not enough flesh on them to entice even an eight-footer (with the rare exception of young Sophia Cai, who plays the precocious daughter of Li Bingbing in the film).

The Meg spins a tale of redemption for Statham’s deep sea diver Jonas Taylor, who doesn’t exactly have the best track record of saving everyone when shit turns sideways. In this film, the hero goes something like 2/5 in the life-saving department. At the time, a doctor (Robert Taylor, bland) declared Jonas insane, because that’s what being that far down does to you (kind of like what happens to climbers on Mt. Everest). Naturally the grizzled ex-diver, now boozing his life away in Thailand, gets coaxed back to the Marianas Trench after a disaster occurs at Mana One, an underwater research lab in the heart of the Pacific financed by billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson, decently hammy).

It’s all so mechanical, the plot developments and the execution thereof. The shark attacks the facility, trimming the crew down to its essential survivors. Then we abandon ship for . . . well, another ship. They’re gonna need a MUCH BIGGER boat though. The wealthy financier realizes his investment is no longer a tenable pursuit and attempts a cover-up by taking action on his own, but perishes (in an actually hilarious way), thus paving the way for a team-up between the fearless Stath and Bingbing’s brilliant scientist/reckless mother as they try to stop the megalodon from reaching land and wreaking havoc upon all.

But what about the shark itself? If you’re asking me, he’s the best actor in this whole water-logged rig. Give it a posthumous Fin d’Or.

Recommendation: Jason Statham takes pride in his work outs. Just check out those abs. Like, Jeezie Petes. The rest, though? Just a bucket of chum really. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: too damn long

Quoted: “He looks heroic, and he walks really fast. But he kinda has a negative attitude.”

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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?”

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

Gold

gold-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 27, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Patrick Massett; John Zinman

Directed by: Stephen Gaghan

The prospect of finding cinematic gold in a true story directed by “the guy who wrote Traffic” and starring the winsome (and also Oscar-winning) Matthew McConaughey seems a sure thing. Unfortunately their first team-up proves how elusive success really can be.

Stephen Gaghan loosely bases his film on a 1993 gold mining scandal involving the Canadian Bre-X Minerals company who claimed to have discovered a massive gold deposit in the Indonesian rainforest, the liquidated value of which was thought to be nearly immeasurable. What was found was later proven to be false gold of course, and the company subsequently found guilty of defrauding investors out of billions.

Gold changes names and dates to avoid legal trouble but it also largely avoids excavating any entertainment value out of the situation. While its star fervently takes to the task of portraying another wily, good-natured yet deeply flawed opportunist, this meandering mess of a story doesn’t do nearly enough to match the conviction of its lead character and the spirited performance of the actor.

McConaughey, channeling some of his Wolf of Wall Street charisma, plays Kenny Wells, an earnest gold prospector who finds himself way out of his depth when he steps out of the Borneo jungle and onto Wall Street, where he takes his father (Craig T. Nelson)’s company public after allegedly tapping into “the largest gold mine of the decade.” All throughout a balding, comically uglified McConaughey insists it is not about money, but rather the joy of discovering that very thing his father and his father’s father dedicated their lives to, the very resource to which Kenny and his geologist buddy Michael Acosta (Édgar Ramírez) dedicated a fun/malaria-infested summer at the equator.

The film is divided into two major slogs. The first slog is spent in the jungle as Kenny and Michael battle bad weather, brutal labor conditions (which lead to labor strikes), and increasing pressure from the outside to deliver. The second follows in the aftermath of the discovery and half-heartedly addresses the various political, social and personal implications and complications of accumulating wealth and notoriety. It also introduces a thoroughly forgettable subplot reminding us for the umpteenth time of how brutal and cold Wall Street can be.

I can’t help but feel Gaghan is operating in the wrong capacity as a director. Though the man has several directing credits on his résumé, there’s a reason most people only ever associate his name with Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning film about heroin distribution. Traffic‘s screenplay was nothing short of brilliant. And he’s probably been told that ad nauseam so I’m a little surprised he chose not to take a similar approach to a story dealing ostensibly with the way gold fever — and McConaughey gets it pretty badly — can evolve into an addiction. How it can change, corrupt, maybe even damn a person. Gold didn’t need to be so serious, but it desperately lacks weight and importance.

Gaghan’s fourth directorial outing isn’t a poorly made product, per se, but it’s painfully obvious and worse, uninvolving. The McConaughey faithful head into theaters hoping to find gold but end up leaving with nothing more than a lump of bauxite in their hands.

yayyyyyy

2-5Recommendation: Disappointing David O’Russell knock-off strands another great Matthew McConaughey performance in a sea of mediocre drama. Very little about this predictable, tired trajectory has the impact the writers and the director were no doubt looking for. For what it’s worth, McConaughey and Ramírez make for a fairly entertaining duo. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “We got a goldmine . . . ? We got a goldmine!!!” 

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

Suicide Squad

'Suicide Squad' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 5, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: David Ayer

Directed by: David Ayer

Sigh.

Suicide Squad is neither a disaster nor a revelation. It’s just really, really uneventful and in that way, crushingly disappointing.

Let me grab a calculator and get back to you, because the math really doesn’t add up. I don’t quite know how you commit the cardinal sin of moviemaking with this cast, these characters, and this competent a director. When considering the myriad ways in which this utterly routine action adventure manages to bore and underwhelm, the difference between what we might have imagined and what we ultimately get kind of becomes this scintillating mystery. What the hell happened here? What could this have actually been? (In fairness, it could have been worse.) Would Suicide Squad have been better off with a less restrictive MPAA rating?

It’s been some time since so much potential has been squandered this efficiently. This callously. Not since this 2013 debacle have I left a theater feeling so utterly deflated and unmotivated to stand in line for another event picture anytime soon. The main culprit is an exceptionally shoddy story, one seemingly cobbled together by crayon-wielding first graders. It’s shocking Ayer turns out to be that first grader. He kicks things off with brief introductions to the cadre of miscreants before randomly launching into a perfunctory doomsday plot involving Midway City and some bullshit concerning Cara Delevingne-shaped meta-humans drenched in bad CGI. From the word ‘go’ the production reeks of unpreparedness, disorganization, even chaos.

Hashtag awkward. Hashtag clumsy. Hashtag done-with-this-summer-of-movies.

In the beginning everyone’s hanging out at the famed Belle Reve Penitentiary, doing hard time for various crimes. The first two we immediately recognize to be our ringleaders: Will Smith‘s Floyd Lawton, a.k.a. Deadshot, is seen getting his punching bag on (in preparation for that big action scene later!) and Margot Robbie‘s gleefully unhinged Harley Quinn, formerly known as psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel, inhabits her super-secure steel cage like a PG-13-friendly Hannibal Lecter. We meet the others as well but for insultingly brief periods, time enough I guess to prove the film’s disinterest in the ‘Squad’ part of its title. There’s the pyrokinetic ex-gangster Chato Santano, a.k.a. El Diablo  (Jay Hernandez); a boomerang-wielding guy named . . . Boomerang (Jai Courtney); a surly man with a scaly skin condition who dwells in city sewers, appropriately called Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). They’re joined also by a mercenary named Slipknot (Adam Beach) and Japanese warrior Katana (Karen Fukuhara).

Our little ruffians are kept under the thumb of intelligence operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), an antihero of a different breed with her considerable lack of compassion and morally-dubious methods of wielding governmental power. She’s a high-ranking official who will do whatever it takes to prevent World War Three from breaking out. Or something like that. Anyway, she’s a pretty bad egg whose motives become increasingly suspect, a trend that neatly paralleled my own suspicions. Waller enlists the help of Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinneman) to keep all her disposable, criminal pee-ons in line. When Flagg reads them the riot act that’s our cue to get ready for action. Hooray — it’s the Suicide Squad and now shit is going down!

Only, nothing does. With writing that lacks inspiration or a strong reference point — or any point, period — getting excited becomes an unreasonable challenge. The bleakness of the world in which this non-drama occurs bleeds over into the experience itself, but bleakness is less of an issue. I say let this thing be dour — this isn’t Marvel. But along with that bleakness comes the joylessness. With joylessness, a sense of aimlessness. Few of the members of Suicide Squad are stoked about undertaking a mission that will very likely get them killed, and if random gunfire doesn’t do it a frustrated Waller will if they so happen to fail or step out of line. That psychology may ring true to the comics but the cast wear their broken hearts on their sleeves a bit too much while, ironically, no one outside of Robbie’s freewheeling Harley and Jared Leto’s not-half-bad Joker seem to have that same muscle invested in any of this.

As the movie shuffles begrudgingly onward, alarming amounts of material fail to materialize, leaving Ayer’s efforts to introduce this infamously savage group to the world-at-large to disintegrate like used toilet paper. Unconvincing sob stories are stapled on to a few characters who lurk in the background behind Deadshot and Harley Quinn, but this isn’t enough to justify an excess of shots designed to show why this idea should work. (Here’s a radical 21st Century concept: show, don’t tell.) All those precious moments going to waste watching the film’s most interesting character (by far) out-act her colleagues might have been better spent doing something else. Something other than trying to convince us that the movie knows what it is doing with such damaged cargo.

With all of that in mind, damages really come down to a (granted, rather large) misjudgment of plot substance, and a lack of personality to give us a reason to get over that issue. The DCEU’s Guardians of the Galaxy this is not. Even still, there are some really great performances to take away, namely those of the volatile core of Robbie, Smith, Davis and Leto. The former seem to be heating up since their days working on Focus, while the latter have some fun tossing a shitload of ham around. Davis overshoots her goal of becoming the film’s Surprisingly Evil Element while Leto lets out his inner psycho in a turn that recalls vintage Jack Nicholson while wisely skimping on Heath Ledger inflections.

The Suicide Squad Joker is actually really good. He’s a nasty son of a bitch and his twisted romantic subplot with Harley Quinn is the most compelling. Too bad Leto’s commitment is virtually all for naught. As has been widely reported, many of his scenes were cut. Leto’s response to a question concerning his lack of screen time late in the film is especially damning. Even he wants to know what the Joker was doing for so long without visual confirmation of his scheming ways. His absence is microcosmic of a larger problem. I’m not sure anyone, not even the studio, rumored to have played a hand in production delays and re-shoots, knew what kind of gem they were holding in their hands.

Suicide Squad is not a bad film but it is frustratingly mediocre and that’s enough to drive me crazy.

Jared Leto as the new Joker in 'Suicide Squad'

Recommendation: Suicide Squad suffers from a lack of plot mechanization. What is the purpose? Why are we here? Why can’t the story be about something more interesting? For the longest time, the story never seems to be going anywhere. The pacing is choppier than damn it and not much of David Ayer’s directorial touch can be found here (ya know, other than the hordes of heavily armed, well-built people parading around a war-zone). I don’t really know what to say, other than this film basically sums up the year we have had so far when it comes to big event pictures. Mostly disappointment. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “Love your perfume! What is that, Stench of Death?”

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

Free State of Jones

free-state-of-jones-movie-poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Gary Ross; Leonard Hartman

Directed by: Gary Ross

In Gary Ross’ new film, inspired by the life of Civil War medic-turned-rebel Newton Knight, the firepower has been upgraded from crossbows to muskets and bayonets, but both the fire and the power in the former Hunger Games director are absent in Free State of Jones, a comprehensive but long, bloated and surprisingly boring look at a turbulent period in the history of a rural Mississippi county.

The movie opens promisingly with a scene that puts us right in harm’s way alongside Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight. French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s unflinching camera plunges us into the nightmare that is war. Things get really nasty as we follow him back and forth between battlefield and MASH unit, carting off dozens of casualties, including young boys (represented by Jacob Lofland‘s gun-shy Daniel). We’re witnessing the Battle of Corinth, the second such violent encounter this area, a key railroad junction, has experienced following a siege earlier that year (1862).

This bloodbath is catalytic for our hero, a farmer whose idealistic extremism is matched only by the extremes of poverty he lives in, as he abandons his post and returns home to his sister Serena (Keri Russell), no longer feeling it is his duty to support a war that only the very wealthy seem to benefit from. It’s back on his farm where he meets and befriends Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave woman who has been secretly learning to read and who will introduce him to an underground society of runaway slaves and a handful of other disenchanted southerners.

The thrust of the narrative focuses on Newton’s transformation and how he becomes perceived by those he has left behind. His new duty is to inspire the downtrodden into action and to lead them in a movement that would ultimately establish south-central Mississippi as a place free from slavery and other forms of oppression and persecution. As the war continues the population in Newton’s militia increases as more Confederate soldiers desert their troops, though the disintegration of the fabric of honest American living continues.

Large crops of corn are being confiscated and sold by Confederates who have conveniently reinterpreted recent lawmaking as their entitlement to 90% of whatever they happen to find, leaving farmers with a stash that’s precisely the opposite of what the law provides for. There’s a sizable chunk of film spent on Newton trying to persuade Union forces to recognize Jones County as a free and independent entity. That comes and goes. Later still, after the war has ended, we see Newton continuing to push for racial equality as he takes up the mantle for Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), a former slave he befriended years ago in the swamps where the uprising began.

The screenplay attempts to develop Moses and Newton concurrently but that ambition also becomes its greatest downfall. Neither character is given enough perspective to seem truly changed. Ali gets a shade more attention later as we see him slowly succumbing to anger when violence is brought upon his family. Newton, seemingly the kind of individual who voluntarily shoulders more than his fair share of stress, chooses to help a dear friend in need. His dedication to the cause is consistent with many a vet who tragically struggle to leave the battlefield behind psychologically. You could consider his benevolence a symptom of some larger personal issue and it is in this regard his travails truly become compelling.

But before you start heading for the exits, we still need to finish talking plot. (I know, I’m in full-on ramble mode today.) While all of the aforementioned is being addressed on a timeline that stretches several long, grueling years — one look comparing McConaughey at the end of the film to his appearance at the beginning would be enough to confirm — there’s a bigger arc to consider: that of Newton’s great-great-great grandson, Davis (Brian Lee Franklin). In present-day Mississippi Davis is on trial for trying to marry a white woman. He himself is one-eighth black and therefore faces a five-year prison sentence for unlawfully cohabiting with a person of another race.

There are other things wrong with Free State of Jones, but among the more painful missteps is without doubt the editing, chiefly the decision to jettison the audience right out of the 1800s with a jarring flash-forward cut that jumps 85 years on the timeline out of nowhere. (Okay, so it’s not literally present-day Mississippi.) In the end the Knight case is tossed out by a Mississippi Supreme Court who think it’s better to maintain the status quo than to rewrite the rulebook. The courthouse scene, rather than tracing the legacy of Newton Knight, comes across as a superfluous and clumsy attempt at contriving a sense of epic-ness. (If you’re going to show us the significance of this story to Jones County residents of today, wouldn’t it be better to showcase the harsh realities of that court date in the closing scenes?)

When it comes to the reenactments, Free State of Jones is neither memorable nor utterly forgettable. And of course the question on everyone’s mind is how well its star fares. Well, the McConaissance hasn’t come to a grinding halt, but the party seems to be dying down. Still, this is a solid performance from an A-lister who just may be starting to experience the drawback of going on such a dramatic run in recent years, beginning with his humbled turn in Mud and “ending” with his crafty black-hole navigation skills in Interstellar.

Mbatha-Raw comes to mind next, with her quietly powerful and soothing presence as the self-educating Rachel. She’s a good fit for McConaughey on screen, even if the latter still casts larger shadows. Then there’s Mahershala Ali as the escaped slave Moses. Ali affects a stoicism that gets harder to watch as Confederate forces continue threatening (and carrying out) lynchings and dog hunts. Ali has presence here but he’s much more worth watching in Netflix’s very own House of Cards.

It’s hard to judge many of the supporting performances as the majority of them serve no greater purpose than to await their exit from the story. Death becomes the drumbeat everyone marches to. Invariably as time pushes on we say more goodbyes than hello’s and it becomes apparent towards the fraying ends of our patience that we were never meant to get to know the others. They exist simply to provide casualties. Or maybe it only seems that way since few beyond our trio of good guys have anything of significance to say or do.

In short, it becomes very difficult to care about a grassroots movement when all we see are actors standing around listening to a particularly high-profile thespian delivering his soap box speeches. Calling Free State of Jones a terrible movie is about as accurate as a bayonet, but it’s certainly forgettable and barely more than mediocre.

Free State of Jones

Recommendation: I still think Matthew McConaughey is the big draw here, and Free State of Jones‘ themes make it a fairly timely movie this July. Unfortunately the star doesn’t quite deliver like he has in recent films, though it’s hardly a turn for the worse. The story is simply all over the place and takes on too much to keep even the longest of attention spans focused on all that it has to offer. There is a lot of potential here and it’s so frustrating seeing it go to waste.

Rated: R

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “From this day forward we declare the land north of Pascagoula Swamp, south of Enterprise and east to the Pearl River to the Alabama border, to be a Free State of Jones. And as such we do hereby proclaim and affirm the following principles. Number one, no man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich. Number two, no man ought to tell another man what you got to live for or what he’s got to die for. Number three, what you put in the ground is yours to tend and harvest and there ain’t no man ought to be able to take that away from you. Number four, every man is a man. If you walk on two legs, you’re a man. It’s as simple as that.”

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

X-Men: Apocalypse

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Release: Friday, May 27, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Bryan Singer; Simon Kinberg; Michael Dougherty; Dan Harris

Directed by: Bryan Singer

In the midst of Magneto’s metal-throwing rampage, a burning hot ember of emotion buried deep underneath the rapidly cooling coals of X-Men: Apocalypse, I glance over to find my friend fast asleep, head buried into his shoulder and a small puddle of drool starting to form. All I could do was smile, really. It was the perfect summation of everything I was feeling on the inside throughout much of Bryan Singer’s fourth go-around as the helmer of this most consistently inconsistent of superhero film franchises.

For about an hour I couldn’t come to terms with the disparity in quality between Singer’s previous installment and his latest; how is it possible to be so enthralled by one entry and bored to tears with the next? Seeing as though I wasn’t someone put off by the tweaks made to X-Men history in Days of Future Past, I then had the troubling thought that I was still better off than the purists, those who had a lot more invested in these adaptations.

Apocalypse is, if nothing else, a perfectly good waste of Oscar Isaac’s talents. As the titular super-villain En Sabah Nur, Isaac couldn’t look more disinterested. Was part of the plan caking the man in make-up to the point where his disgust over the poor (and I mean really poor) script would be concealed? If it was, that plan failed. In the early going Nur rises from the dead in modern (well, 1983) Egypt after being entombed under tons of rubble resulting from a last-second violent uprising that occurred during an attempt to transfer his consciousness into another mortal body. He quickly learns of how modern society has come to be and is profoundly disturbed by it. Like Tony Stark’s ultimate fuck-up, the Ultron program, Nur/Apocalypse is big on the cleansing of mankind but very slight when it comes to personality. (It’s a little painful to be comparing an Oscar-caliber actor’s charisma here to that of a robot, but here we are.)

Nur’s extinction-level plans simply boil down to nostalgia for them good ole days. With a perpetual scowl set upon his seasick-looking face, he sets about bestowing untold amounts of power upon already powerful, albeit vulnerable, mutants the world over, enticing them to join him in his effort to restore world order. His recruits include the likes of Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp); Warren Worthington III/Angel (Ben Hardy); Elizabeth Braddock/Psylocke (Olivia Munn); and Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). While each character’s alter egos manage to jump off the page from a visual standpoint, no one other than Magneto is given anything to do. Even their action scenes register as perfunctory.

Elsewhere, mutants both new and old are . . . doing something. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is professing at the school where he professes things, teaching students to learn how to accept being gifted with powers; Magneto, prior to being wooed by the job offer from the False God, is eking out a quieter existence in Poland following the disastrous events in Washington D.C.; Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is continent-hopping as a mercenary-for-hire, rescuing fellow mutants from their current miseries all while denying her heroism. The false modesty is soooo Katniss Everdeen Gwyneth Paltrow. And we are reacquainted with sidekickers like Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult); Jean Gray/Phoenix (Sophie Turner); Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan); and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodie Smit-McPhee).

Aside from the dismal performance from Isaac, one that reminded me more than once of the kind of collapse Eddie Redmayne had in Jupiter Ascending last year, Apocalypse suffers from a total lack of enthusiasm in reintroducing its sprawling cast. The characters themselves, of course, are universally welcomed back, yet their presences aren’t so much felt as they are foisted upon audiences expecting an epic action spectacular. (More on that in a little bit.) It was during these protracted intros where my mind started to really wander, where my head started sitting heavy in the palm of my hand. ‘Why is this girl in front of me constantly reaching out towards the screen? Like, does she know someone in this thing or something?’ ‘Is she having spasms?’ ‘Do I need to call a doctor?’ Thoughts no one should be having during a film that features so many likable and unique characters, a film steeped in mythology now 15 years in the cinematic making, I was totally having, and constantly. It was as if Charles Xavier had somehow gained access to my cerebral cortex. Leave my cerebral cortex alone, Charles.

There is actually a defense against critics blasting Apocalypse for lacking originality in its ambitions to out-epic the competition. Sometimes a ‘back-to-basics’ approach can be rewarding. You can simplify the thrust of the narrative to the ultimate in superhero standoffs, wherein all roads to the end of days run through mutants brave enough to face up to Nur and his four horsemen. Unfortunately in this case there is such a lackadaisical attitude in bringing back the characters to face their toughest test. This is in some ways one of the most personal outings for the X-Men yet, but this latest installment feels cold and detached. Much of that can be traced to Isaac’s prominence, though the build-up to the climactic fight is just as off-putting.

Look no further than said capstone battle. Hasn’t Singer learned anything from the Bay’s and the Emmerich’s? Threat of annihilation by virtue of large-scale, pixelated destruction isn’t really a threat at all. In fairness, Singer tries to make up for some of the transgressions by ripping himself off and including another über-slow-mo sequence that shows off the greatness that is Quicksilver. That’s gotta count for something in the way of originality, right?

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Recommendation: If we’re talking hierarchy of awesomeness, X-Men: Apocalypse is a tier or two down from Singer’s previous output, Days of Future Past because it doesn’t express the same level of enthusiasm nor does the story work as cohesively as the ones that have come before it. The clichés are much harder to escape here as are the cheesy one-liners and there’s a sense of franchise fatigue. A poor performance from Oscar Isaac doesn’t help matters either. Still, there’s enough here to say I’m willing to see where the franchise goes from here. I’m also liking how the past is catching up to “the present.” It’s an interesting way to build a full and complete picture of the X-Men universe. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 144 mins.

Quoted: “Does it ever wake you in the middle of the night? The feeling that one day, they’ll come for you? And your children?”

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

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Release: Friday, September 18, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: T.S. Nowlin

Directed by: Wes Ball

All this running and what, no exhaustion? One would think these kids were all born Olympians but in the interest of staying alive, I suppose running is what one must do. Wouldn’t it be funny though if Thomas just suddenly stopped in his tracks and pulled a Forrest Gump . . . and not the spry, hungry-for-life Forrest Gump we most often recall, I’m talking about the generally-over-life Forrest Gump: “. . . I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.”

Actually, I’ll admit that that was something I said towards the end of this ever-plodding, aimless sequel to last year’s sci fi adventure about a group of boys who are herded together and put into a mysterious maze-like complex with little chance of escaping, and even less chance of getting laid, but I guess that’s not part of it. Where the franchise-opener benefitted from originality — a relative term seeing as though this marks yet another Young Adult film adaptation designed to entertain all those youngsters with fewer things to say to one another thanks to their nifty iPads and SnapChat customizability — The Scorch Trials retreats into the shadows of its predecessor.

Wes Ball continues feeling uninspired in his adaptation of the James Dashner series, expanding the setting from a cramped ‘maze’ to a world overrun by sand dunes and crumbling edifice, assuming bigger automatically means better. The Scorch refers to the territory that lies beyond the confines of the facility Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) have since been taken to having escaped the glade. This is a place where they can mingle with the many other maze survivors. While they have been provided comfortable beds and proper meals three times a day, Thomas is unable to shake the feeling that they’re still under the control of WCKD, a mysterious organization supposedly created to find a cure for whatever nearly wiped out the entire human race.

The compound’s leader, a thoroughly generic Aiden Gillen (through no fault of his own) as Janson, tries to ensure Thomas that nothing sinister is afoot. But because Thomas is The Chosen One, he doesn’t believe him and has to find out what’s really going on. He meets loner Aris (Jacob Lofland) who shows him a secret passageway that leads them to discovering the horrible truth: indeed this place isn’t a safe house, it’s a testing laboratory. Indeed, this is as dystopian as The Scorch Trials gets. Bodies hooked up to machines, aligned in row after row after row as far as the eye can see. A literal body farm. The scene is fairly reminiscent of Neo’s horrifying discovery when he wakes up in the Real World after taking that red pill.

Finally, enough’s enough for Thomas. He decides he’s going to flex and bust out of this facility, taking along with him his loyal followers despite their hesitation. The remainder of the film sees the group, with the addition of two newcomers in Dexter Darden’s Frypan and Alexander Flores’ Winston, venturing out into the wasteland where they face death at the hands of zombie-like creatures known as Cranks, death by brutal exposure to the sun, and death by starvation, which appears to be the last thing these hardened warriors are going to succumb to. Even with scant resources, these kids seem impervious to hunger pangs. Thomas sets his sights on locating a group of mountain-dwelling people, survivors who have banded together to form The Right Arm, a primitive army ready to strike back at WCKD for their experimentation on whatever remains of mankind.

It is with this outlying community — the sequel’s raison d’être — Thomas attempts to join forces and plot a retaliation against WCKD. It helps to think of Thomas as a diet version of Gerard Butler’s Leonidas, leading his fearless (or just speechless) men and a couple of female survivors of another maze into battle against a likely insurmountable force. I suppose this development, especially after miles of plodding through desert, generates some excitement for the next chapter, The Death Cure. The Scorch Trials does end in a rather intense gunfight that, while wholly predictable given at this point in the film anything fits into that category, by comparison feels quite thrilling.

By the time we’ve stopped running it’s unfortunately all too apparent that The Scorch Trials is a tread-water sequel, offering too many action set pieces and too few character enriching moments. O’Brien still isn’t a very engaging screen presence, though he’s far from unlikable. Save for Barry Pepper, who pops up out of nowhere as a bearded post-apocalyptic hippie named Vince and Giancarlo Esposito as the mysterious Jorge, the adult roles either aren’t worth discussing (Patricia Clarkson and Alan Tudyk apparently are in this movie) or they simply don’t exist. That’s less of an issue in the grander scheme of things though, as I’m confident there was enough adult supervision on set of this middling action adventure flick aimed at audiences still having to sneak into films with an R rating.

Recommendation: I should probably emphasize this review is written from the perspective of someone who has not read the book series, nor the prequel series. I typically do not read source material before seeing a film but in this case, I’m wondering if having prior exposure to this world might enhance at the very least the performances. Having some sort of comparison between what the director gets right and what he chooses to do away with (according to some that was actually quite a lot) might’ve added to the experience. As a newcomer, I just couldn’t find a way into this. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 132 mins.

Quoted: “I’m a Crank. I’m slowly going crazy. I keep wanting to chew off my own fingers and randomly kill people.”

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

True Story

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Release: Friday, April 17, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Rupert Goold; David Kajganich

Directed by: Rupert Goold

True story: Rupert Goold’s cinematic adaptation of the memoir penned by disgraced New York Times writer Michael Finkel elicits more yawns than being forced to sit through days’ worth of testimony in an actual courtroom would.

It ought to be a compliment that this would-be crime thriller plays out with the fastidiousness of a trial hearing, but obsession with detail and determination to present evidence in a nonlinear fashion don’t translate into a compelling narrative. Ironically the slow-burn nature of this event is what ends up turning viewers off circa the halfway point. If you are really determined, you might give the last half the courtesy of staying awake long enough to see what the judge’s ruling is.

James Franco is Christian Longo, an Oregon man accused of murdering his wife and three children and who’s apprehended while laying low in Cancún for a time. Jonah Hill portrays Finkel, whose fabrication of certain details regarding his cover story on the African slave trade leads to his dismissal from the paper and a long period of unemployment. The two become entangled when Longo claims to be Finkel upon his arrest. Finkel — and by extension, we — demand an explanation as to why he chose his name. He wants exclusive access to Longo, but he’s limited to the sessions the prison will provide. In exchange for giving the journalist the inside scoop, he wants to learn to write, as he’s been a longtime admirer of Finkel’s work. Longo also wants Finkel’s word that he won’t divulge any information to outsiders.

These discussions constitute the bulk of True Story‘s narrative, and while they offer the pair of leads a chance to bite into their most somber material thus far in their careers, they also offer viewers many an opportunity to tune out and wonder if they’ve left the sprinklers in the yard running. (It’s alright, when I get back I’ll have a nice patch of overly-watered grass to enjoy watching grow.)

When Goold isn’t spending time highlighting Hill and Franco’s remarkably restrained performances — and if there’s any real reason to go and see this film it is for them rather than the shocking case — he’s weaving back and forth between cuts of Longo’s past and shots of a superfluously cast Felicity Jones as Finkel’s wife, Jill. As little as her dramatic prowess is utilized here Goold could have cast anyone. Why he opted for an undoubtedly expensive bit of casting is almost as much of a head-scratcher as how Longo, by all accounts a seemingly normal man, could be capable of such a heinous crime. Not to mention, Hill and Jones don’t particularly make for a convincing on-screen couple. Romance doesn’t necessarily have to be depicted (don’t worry, it’s not) but chemistry never hurt a film.

If I’ve given the impression True Story is a terrible movie, I should probably rephrase my major complaint. The odd relationship between Christian Longo and Michael Finkel attracts, though ultimately this story, this investigation into what is true and what isn’t has the feel of a compelling A&E True Crime segment. That Goold never does anything outrageous, like drastically alter facts in order to derive a denouement more befitting of cinematic spectacle is a strength. But again, the irony is a killer.

We should be impressed by how much True Story disturbs us. We should feel offended by the crime. We shouldn’t feel indifferent.

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2-5Recommendation: The film completely subverts previous conceptions of James Franco and Jonah Hill. The pair give incredible performances (this might be Franco’s best work since becoming Aron Ralston) but they’re unfortunately wasted in a sluggishly paced film that doesn’t add up to much in the end. I’d recommend a rental for the performances but not the drive out to the theater.

Rated: R

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes the truth isn’t believable. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not true.”

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Deliver Us From Evil

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Release: Wednesday, July 2, 2014

[Theater]

If the word ‘evil’ here can be interchanged with ‘boredom,’ then this is the perfect title for a film as lacking in personality as Scott Derrickson’s attempt at repackaging familiar themes to produce a unique experience.

Cliches are bountiful to the point of infiltrating the project’s title. Deliver Us From Evil suggests nothing but averageness and the proceedings do everything in their power to reinforce the notion. From Eric Bana’s hackneyed character arc — a man wrestling with personal demons becomes obsessed with a particularly troubling case and subsequently even more distant from his family — to the merciless employment of jump scares, to the predictably lame conclusion that relies on nothing more than a standard exorcism to bring the horror to a crescendo, everything about this project suggests what Derrickson and company have to work with here is hand-me-down material. Material from superior films from the annals of this dark and curiously entertaining genre.

Bana plays a rather unlikable New York cop filled to the brim with machismo. Night and day he works in the slums of the city’s worst and most vile criminal trespassings, most recently discovering a series of impossibly disturbing situations involving babies being found in dumpsters, being dropped into lion’s dens at the local zoo, among other horrendous happenings. As a result he’s emotionally detached and more determined than anything to make sure his job gets done. The film we experience is apparently based on evidence and testimonials from the real NYPD Sergeant Ralph Sarchie, who, after experiencing this harrowing sequence of events, quit the force and reconnected with his spiritual side.

Derrickson’s account of the officer’s descent into demonic dealings in the filth and squalor of New York’s underground, while atmospherically appropriate, is written so as to become classroom-lecture style boring. There is not one lick of originality in any chapter in this police procedural, one partially interspersed with hard jolts of hellish blood-letting and heart-stopping loud crashing sounds as evidence of a possible evil spirit lurking in the air.

Partnered up with Joel McHale’s wisecracking Butler, who injects much-needed enthusiasm into the story — admittedly by forcing humor whenever possible, though he shouldn’t be faulted for at least trying here — the rough and gruff Sarchie is also a man running astray from his family’s religious upbringing. Wife Jen (Olivia Munn) has faith but also respect for what her husband does and the real-world hell he endures on a daily basis so she doesn’t force the issue. Or maybe she just isn’t allowed to; we don’t really know, the family dynamic is so poorly developed we aren’t afforded to know any of them other than Ralph. But even he remains a fairly static character, as his brooding skepticism slowly becomes manipulated into something akin to reluctant acceptance.

His chance encounter with an unconventional priest, a man whose effectiveness in the field of demonology and exorcism is betrayed by his Scott Stapp-esque appearance, helps to strip away that layer of doubt and disbelief. Ladies and gentleman, this is Édgar Ramírez’s Mendoza — or as Ralph likes to continually refer to him, Father Mendoza, despite his being a Catholic priest. He’s the guy who takes the baton from Ralph and Butler when events take a turn for the bizarre upon their discovery of three men who have all experienced severe behavioral disturbances and patterns of extreme violence following their deployment to Iraq in 2010 and subsequent discharge from the armed forces. The cops, even armed with their steadfast belief in being able to take on even the most amoral of mobsters, are well in over their head this time around and Mendoza offers his hand in the matter.

Deliver Us From Evil may ratchet up tension every now and then, but this is owed more to, again, the atmosphere Derrickson manages to effect through this particularly grimy and desolate space. No performance truly juts out from another, though Munn unfortunately bears the brunt of some of the worst lines and most one-dimensional character traits possible. When the violence hits close to home, fear and panic register but only barely. We only feel something because Ralph is inexplicably in wedlock to this gorgeous woman with an equally beautiful outlook on life and endless support for her family. (We don’t gather this info on our own, it’s all but handed to us on a silver platter given the way she’s dressed and her doting care for her daughter and husband, starkly contrasted to Bana’s cold personality.)

There are many frustrations created by this bland piece of cinema, yet the biggest violation has got to be the lack of emotional heft. Given this is based on a series of real events, we ought to feel genuine terror. We ought to feel dread and a desire to keep these characters out of harm’s way. What we ought not to be doing is laughing at several of the scare tactics. We ought to not be poking fun of victims who are slowly decomposing before us. But we haven’t been given much of a choice.

There is such little emotional connection with this film that it’s nice to feel something at all — our funny bones being tickled is better than being left numb to yet another misguided attempt at repackaging the familiar and giving it a new label. Deliver Us From Evil? How about deliver us from the evil that keeps delivering us things like Deliver Us From Evil?

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2-0Recommendation: It’s really difficult to give this a strong recommendation given the film’s underwhelming genericness. Despite an at-times tense atmosphere and chilling environs, there’s not enough significantly ‘different’ about anything that occurs in this uninspired horror to bear mentioning. It might also be worth noting you could do much worse for a bland horror film in 2014 but for want of saving money, sit tight and wait for some better entries that are bound to come out later on this year.

Rated: R

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “Ninja turtles and hot pockets, bruh. . .”

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